Randy Ford Author- EL CONQUISTADOR Chapter Twelve

Chapter Twelve

With dull, vacant eyes, young Carlos looked old. Noticing his master’s edginess, a slave brought him more opium. He had to have more opium. He craved opium and was addicted to it. It was a lulling and seducing ritual. It was a seducing ritual that consumed more and more of his time. Felicia couldn’t help him. No one could help him. Only with opium and other women did he find what he desired.

But what about Felicia? While her husband was revered, she saw through his pretensions … saw his flaws. She saw what he didn’t want her to see. She was honest. She knew she couldn’t help him. She was honest and faced what other people tried to ignore. She knew Carlos better than any one else did, and she didn’t like what she saw. She despised what she saw. She despised her husband. She knew first hand how he vacillated and was impaired, even impotent. He was no longer the same person she married. He drank too much, smoked too much, and Felicia wondered if other women ever told him the truth. She wondered how he satisfied other women when he was impotent. She wondered how he managed it. She knew the affects of opium. She didn’t have to wonder. She saw how it affected him.

Felicia was the stronger of the two. She had always been stronger, superior, but custom held her back. She had to bow or defer to him. She was expected to bow or defer to him. Custom dictated it. For a long time she hid her strengths especially her intelligence.

So Felicia wasn’t satisfied. She wasn’t satisfied with a box that Carlos tried to place her in. She didn’t like being controlled by him. No box would hold her. She resented him, resented it, and resented a strict division of labor he tried to impose. She may not have had education. She may not have had his experience, but she thought that she should’ve been given a kris of her own and, if necessary, been allowed to fight along side him.

She never liked his whoring or abuse. She didn’t know why she tolerated it. No, no, it wasn’t that she didn’t know why she tolerated it. It was that she didn’t know what she could do about it. So, for a while at least, she refused to get pregnant. Now who was fooling whom here? Either he couldn’t manage it, or he could. Who was fooling whom? Or had she found a way to get his goat? How she finally got pregnant, he never knew. Or maybe he wasn’t honest with himself. So his problems became narrowly focused and reduced. Blame it on opium. Opium was easy to blame. Meanwhile, why she didn’t get pregnant was argued far and wide, and speculation over the problem occupied women and amused men. This caused Carlos to have doubts about himself, but he never admitted it. Then who was fooling whom?

 But rather than praying to the Virgin, or waiting for nature to take its course, Carlos sought a remedy or a cure. After some prodding by Omar, he decided to take Felicia to a shaman. Desperate one early morning, the couple crept out of Jolo in search of a particular mediator, a shaman. According to his reputation, this shaman was connected with a cosmological world that included malevolent pany a-en and capricious but kind diwata.

Visible only to shamans, pany a-en and diwata inhabited specific trees and rocks and places. Only through intercession (and when ill people hadn’t angered spirits by, for instance, yelling at trees or throwing rocks at bees), then and only then by singing and dancing could a shaman enter into a trance and appeal to pany a-en and diwata for assistance. If successful, according to popular belief, he or she would then be cured. Carlos hoped the ritual would work for Felicia, though he was skeptical. Felicia hoped it would work for Carlos. Clearly out of his realm, Carlos hoped for a double miracle, not only to have an offending object drawn out of Felicia’s uterus but also have her obstinacy tamed. He also planned to ask Felicia’s spirit to forgive them both. His only prayer was then that this shaman had the authority and power to intercede. Felicia just prayed that something would work. When it didn’t, she ran.

Two aspects of evil now plagued Felicia: insects and leeches, both were blood sucking and pesky. Mud another impediment. Mud and water, mud and roots, ankle deep mud and sharp roots, but more fatiguing was fear, fear that increased with each step and intensified as the day drugged on.

Had she made a mistake? Had she gone berserk or simply walked off the face of the earth?

Trudging, slipping, falling, soaking wet and miserable as she climbed a volcano, hoping to find refuge inside it … visibility limited … surrounded by gigantic trees, dark eyes, branches laced together creating an impenetrable canopy. Extreme humidity and heat played a role in limiting Felicia’s energy. Though she certainly should’ve been used to it. How much farther did she have to go? Where could she find shelter? Would she reach the top before dark?

Her situation seemed desperate. Pushed to her limit: panditas say that one’s punishment consists of hell on earth. If you talk too much, your mouth will hurt. If you’re jealous, cruel, or treacherous, your heart will break. If you’re a murderer or a thief, you’ll lose your hands … a murderer both hands. She was being punished for unspecified sins. But she offered no excuse for a tarnished soul. Felicia would never offer an excuse for a tarnished soul. She would never give in. All she had to do was make the next few kilometers. All she had to do was reach the top before dark.

“Good souls wait in the air, evil ones in the mud.” Too often she fell into a bad case of funk. Apparently, she lived on an unhealthy island. Apparently, it was unhealthy because far too many people suffered from fever and had their faces and necks covered with evil brown spots, a sure sign of malarial poisoning. She had cuts on her feet, which in the tropics meant ulcers. She couldn’t keep sandals on her feet so she had cuts on them. She could’ve easily stayed where she was; but instead she moved forward. She couldn’t stop because she had to reach the top before dark. She couldn’t stop because she was searching for a rescuer. Yes, a rescuer. And she knew there was a God, one God, and believed her earthly misery was only temporary. So she had to reach the top before dark.

Surely, she knew penance would eventually end … everything ended … and she’d get to heaven. In this vain she tackled hardships of a trail. In this vain she tackled mud and roots … a balancing feat of crossing streams on a pair of bamboo poles and almost slipping off. How could anyone glorify falling into pea-green soup? Or face a boar? Or a gaiter where one surely waited for her? Or rats, ants and snakes? She expected rats, ants, and snakes. She tied all of those possibilities into being tested.

Then something profound happened. Out of nowhere came an idea. Suddenly she started thinking of how she could’ve save herself had she lived in Noah’s time and how she would’ve gotten into an ark when a flood came. Gulping, she saw herself turned into a big, beautiful bird. A Sulu hornbill, perhaps, which traveled with a mate or in a small noisy group. Yes, a Sulu hornbill. (They hadn’t been killed off then.) And as a hornbill, she could exist in the tops of trees where there was sunlight and be closer to God. Yes! Yes, closer to God! No, no one could stay up there forever. But as a hornbill, it would be a whole lot easier. Unfortunately, there were always limitations and sustaining flight at such heights takes practice.

But to have even a little relief had great value. It freed Felicia, at least momentarily. It helped her hear wind in trees. Helped her appreciate rain. Caught sight of a rare axis deer, brought to the island by man, so she saw something that few people ever saw. She remembered, as a little girl, finding two tiny fawns in a bush; fawns she caught and carried back to her village one under each arm; fawns she raised and would instantly come when she called them.

All this was shattered when she then found herself in imminent danger. Horror of horrors, what occurred next was that her odor disturbed an old boar, a tremendous and very gray sow, as gray as a badger and the biggest one Felicia ever saw. In spite of her own odor, she smelled Felicia. Then with grunts, a curled back, erect bristles, menacing tusks, and foam flying from her jaws, the sow charged. When courage then failed her, Felicia ran.

What followed dispelled Felicia’s belief that God always sided with humans. Indeed, she blamed God, when blame belonged elsewhere. She didn’t blame herself for running when a nearsighted hog only responded to her running. If she hadn’t ran the pig would’ve simply wandered off. Boars were normally wary of humans, and this boar wasn’t an exception.

Felicia couldn’t resist looking back. Could she escape? Could she run fast enough? Could she run fast enough down a narrow trail? Could she run fast enough down a narrow trail even though she ran down hill? The boar terrified her when she charged. What Felicia saw horrified her … a charging boar. Was it a mistake for her to look back? But before Felicia could scream, or implore for Divine mercy, or do anything more than run, the old sow swerved and dove into thick undergrowth.

Not too far from there, thank God, but unknown to Felicia, was a clearing by a river, where she could wait for a banca to take her back to a swamp and then to the sea and eventually to town. She had been there before and had read this river’s various moods. As such, this river was hardly a highway. But generally, a cove in which this river flowed offered opportunities for pirates and smugglers. Once Felicia reached this river, she was guaranteed a measure of safety.

Felicia was then racing with the sun, which gained speed as it fell. She entered mangrove-bushes; hills there were cones, as she skirted the volcano to reach the river. She needed to hurry. She needed to hurry to reach the river before dark. She needed to run, but running was almost impossible. Bleeding, she made a bandage by tearing a strip from one of her loose, full sleeves. Red saliva from betel nut drooled from her mouth. Betel nut took her mind off pain somewhat.

She didn’t know what to expect in mangroves after dark. She had never been in mangroves after dark. She didn’t know if she could keep going after dark. She was afraid of dark and she kept falling because of a slippery path. The path went through mangroves and roots and mud made it even more difficult. At frequent intervals logs obstructed a neglected trail. But Felicia didn’t panic. She rarely panicked and learned her lesson from her encounter with a boar. At this point, she concentrated on effort. But she hadn’t planned for emergencies. She hadn’t planned for emergencies. She hadn’t planned. She hadn’t planned to take off in this way. She hadn’t planned period, and she was soaked in rain. She was soaked and cold. She hadn’t prepared for rain. And had a close call too and recognized how close she came to being gored by a boar. And now alone and desperate, alone and desperate, there was no one to help her. And where was her God? Yes, she got to the point of asking where was her God.

Utterly fatigued and eyes burning, Felicia sought direction, a sign, something, anything. She had no protection, no weapon, no gun, no kris, nothing. She thought of building a fire and spending a night in the mangroves, but she didn’t have what she needed. All she had were memories of plagues of that day: bites, cuts, leeches, gnats and a vicious old boar. Luckily, there weren’t any tigers. Exhausted, crying, and feeling helpless, and for the first time in her life feeling contemptuous of God; yet burning deep within her was a defiant will to survive.

Stumped, disoriented, and almost out of daylight, she had gone too far to turn back. Facing slippery footing and futility of continuing she waged a personal battle. She had had enough … enough flagellation for one day, and perhaps for a lifetime, but for what purpose?

Some years later, after she miraculously bore not one but two sons, after a long life she looked back on this day with a smile, a day made more memorable by this nightmare. For as she stumbled, nasty roots continued to cut her feet. And mangroves, as travelers through them know, can be unforgiving; and even by trail, at times, can become impenetrable. Rain soaked clothes quickly turn a steamy day into a shivering night. All of this Felicia learned … learned the hard way. But her scars became trophies. She didn’t know how far she had come or how far she had to go, and darkness was soon to overtake her ..

A fruit bat dove at her face. She wasn’t sure that it was a bat. A hornbill startled her. Just as suddenly, night sounds surrounded her. Because of those sounds and a memory of a boar, she stepped up her pace.

Since it had been hours since she last saw other humans, she never expected to be rescued or that there were other people nearby. Almost hidden by mangroves and built over water and along rivers, families lived in houses built on stilts. These houses were somewhat peculiar to Felicia. In this remote area, people protected their livestock at night by herding their chickens, cows and buffaloes into cages also built on stilts. (By law swine weren’t allowed on the island, which meant Chinese had to kill pigs secretly.)

But how close were mountaineers who took every opportunity to rob them of their livestock and property? Surely, they had traps set. Surely they dug deep wells for taking prisoners, so that anyone approaching their houses had better watch out. Mountaineers were not much regarded. “Corta Cabesas,” or “decapitators,” as Spaniards called them; so Felicia had them to fear too. And besides that who would now rescue her from the pestilential fire of a volcano when it erupted, which in a zealot’s mind justified anything? Was the volcano about to erupt? There were signs.

“If you want to conquer your enemies and be restored to your realm, convert to the law of Jesus Christ by any means.” Any daredevil scheme seemed worth it. Not even St. Loyola presented such a fervent case, such a vote for Christianity, as pandita of panditas. Or having been baptized, you’ll always be a Christian, and with great courage, and dedication defy rationality. All that, but it didn’t work for Felicia, as she held her mother-of-pearl rosary. Acceptance would’ve meant victory for Franciscans, an order still trying to establish a foothold in the Philippines.

“May she be forgiven and not always be separated from God.” Would she place her faith in existence of souls or power of shamans? There wasn’t a shaman close to where she was then. And where was Felicia, who was in this mess because Moros carried her off into slavery? Captured Muslims were also chained and branded by Christians. In those days, it wasn’t unusual for priests to engage in military action. Some of this Felicia was certainly aware of, though she was sheltered from most atrocities. It was however clear that she hadn’t come to conclusions about religion that satisfied her. So she waited for inner dictamen to guide her.

It was almost dark and obviously not a good time for Te Deum. It wasn’t a good time or a good place for Te Deum. Nor was she in a good place for Vespers. Her anxiety, at this point, left her openly blaming God and herself.

Her first inkling that she could be in for more trouble came more from a feeling than anything else. Because of what she had already been through that day, she was remarkably alert, or shall we say jumpy. She was jumpy and any sound startled her. She tried to be brave. She did her best to be brave. And wasn’t this what bravery was all about? Naturally, she decided she wouldn’t sleep and that she’d keep walking for as long as she could. She couldn’t imagine herself sleeping on the ground. Walk until she dropped, if it came to it.

Now, she listened to warnings of birds, birds of various sorts, some more reliable than others. She believed that if she scared up a bird she there were enemies around. But it was then pitch dark, and there were no birds so she had no warning.

Randy Ford

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Filed under El Conquistador, Randy’s 2nd Novel

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