Randy Ford Author- EL CONQUISTADOR Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fourteen

It could’ve been transformational, if she were a young girl. But instead she came close to becoming a corpse or a very old woman at a young age. True transformation, she believed, only came from repentance, for scripture says, “those who repent, regardless of their sins, shall live.”

No, it wasn’t home. It couldn’t be home but a hut on stilts still provided a roof and a floor made of bamboo slats made a bed. For the first time in her life, Felicia slept between strangers. Still she slept well because she was exhausted. She slept well even though she ached. At least she was safe. She slept between strangers but was safe … safe from wild beast, though there were no tigers. But clearly there were other risks. As she climbed a ladder to enter the hut, she knew those risk. But taking risks liberated her. She didn’t know these people. She didn’t know what they planned to do to you. She didn’t know for sure that she was safe. Already she tasted a plain breakfast … already she had a plan and had an excuse to get back into her home.

In a clearing hidden in a mangrove swamp, a clearing so constricted that a spear could be tossed across it, surrounded by sleeping mountaineers, Felicia saw that she was strong and that her strength didn’t come from mysterious spirits or belief in God, but actually from within herself. And if she expected to ever walk down golden streets in heaven, she knew then that she would have to get herself there. She would have to weave a ladder, like Jacob’s ladder. Weave it from lupi.

like fiber of lupi

pineapple leaf placed on a board on the ground

held with her toes and scrapped with a potsherd; not with a

sharp fractured edge but with the blunt side

scraped again and scraped back,

drawing it to its full length

washed and dried in the sun; and afterwards combed with a

suitable comb, like for women’s hair

It was in this crude manner that treads for celebrated “nipis de pina” were made, and experts all agreed that it was the finest cloth in the world.

Still a fresh young face could appear at any time. Strong, hostile feelings arose, harbored sentiments, overwhelming and strong. See why Felicia developed an entrepreneurial sense and eventually became man of the house. Slowly, but surely, she got an upper hand. Clever, good at bargaining, trading and managing, with the British or anyone else, she took advantage of being neglected, and over time seized control of her husband’s business. It was the only way she survived. It was the only way she regained her husband’s attention. It was the only way. He needed her. She saved his business.

When Felicia finally woke up, she found herself feeling happy and alone in the hut. Mountaineers and Felicia weren’t found, weren’t seen unless they wanted to be. That morning she settled for plain food: red pepper paste, a bean like a lima bean but bigger, and rice.

Tan frequently quoted Confucius. “Only the Yellow Emperor and Confucius could distinguish dreams from reality, and they were unfortunately dead.”

Beautiful, certainly. Luxuriant black hair, and large dark eyes, passionate eyes, and soft long tresses. Shapely, not tall, but well built. Felicia’s beauty caught Tan’s eye, and for more than one reason, he fell for her. And it didn’t take long for Felicia to take advantage of it. By then she’d grown apt at exploiting weaknesses. And by then Carlos wasn’t in position to object. He couldn’t object. She controlled him, she controlled everything of his, and everyone spoke of Felicia when they meant him. Which raised eyebrows at his expense. Yes, everyone saw what was going on. But Carlos felt resigned. He had already turned over his abacus to her and felt resigned. Keys to his treasury followed.

Carlos despised work. This pleased Felicia. It pleased her because it made him vulnerable. It also allowed her to scheme and gain an upper hand. You can be sure that she toyed with the idea of poisoning him. She thought about getting rid of him. It would be easy and no one would blame her. She actually went as far as acquiring corrosive mercuric chloride. By then she knew she didn’t need him, and no one would blame her.

Did she anticipate Tan’s arrival? Did she have anything to do with it? She dealt with many Chinese traders. Business required it. And some were handsome and half-caste too. Then what made Tan special?

At first she didn’t intend to be disloyal to her husband. Her curiosity, of course, was interpreted as flirtatious and immodest. Now then, card playing became their chief vice. Felicia’s and Tan’s vice. Card playing. They played cards for hours on end. They played a number of different card games, spending days and nights at a card table. It seemed a good way to pass time. They enjoyed it. And time passed quickly. Time passed quickly because they enjoyed playing cards and enjoyed each other; but for a busy trader, for a busy businesswoman when competition was so keen? They clearly enjoyed each other, and smoking, everybody smoked and played cards.

As for preliminaries, if equal cards were drawn, both had to draw again. Let’s stress, had Carlos once objected, their card playing would’ve stopped. It would’ve stopped because traders depended on goodwill. It would’ve stopped because Tan’s business depended on keeping Carlos happy. Even when card playing was a pretax for spending time with Felicia, no objections were ever raised.

Playing with a Spanish deck, preferable to a French one, to draw again a Peruvian worshipping a rising sun or Bacchus dancing in a suit of “bastos,” always appealed to Tan’s sensibility more than Napolean dressed like Juluis Ceasar. Those long afternoons no doubt shortened by intensity … intensity of card games hooked Tan, hooked him before he realized it. And Felicia used card playing as bait.

But card playing had less to do with Felicia than she thought. It had more to do with challenge … challenges … like challenge of bargaining and learning from Tan … like his willingness to endure a loss for a major gain. He learned from his mother how to win by losing and learn to be pleasant … how to turn it on to win something. His mother passed on her Chinese genes and her business sense and she taught him to always be willing to the walk with a load on his shoulder-pole. Soon he was turning small profits into big ones. Necessity didn’t bring him to Felicia’s doorstep.

Tan couldn’t have been a better companion. Now Felicia was addicted to cigars, tobacco rolled into lengths of four, or five, or six inches, more or less about as thick as a thumb or slightly less. He brought her only the best tobacco. As an astute trader, and equally good at cards, he could sometimes afford to lose. In fact, he expected to lose at cards, since he often found himself distracted. She was beautiful and outgoing; but did it mean she would let him have his way?

She woke him up with, “Four.” “How much?” Tan playfully snapped, “Forty-one, or thereabouts.” And that was how things went, except were they ever equal? “Quantriene, damn French.” “Bueno.” “I almost have a tierce.” “Bacchus!” “Napolean!” “Prove it!” Which one of them suggested that they play with a mixed deck … cards from French and Spanish decks?

The Tan clan originally came from Fukien, by junk southward from trouble in that southern region of China to trouble in warmer waters. “This tropical inferno,” as described in their letters, “with nothing but poisonous snakes, forest spirits, and shoeless aborigines … jungles, swamps, and rivers,” as advertised, “belligerent and hostile.” Imagine letters filled again and again with complaints .. complaints about mosquitoes and fever … complaints about harshness of life in an alien world .. and life without company of Chinese women. Imagine enduring mistrust that came from profits, profits from exchange of Chinese silk and tea for birds nest, wax, camphor, mother of pearl, and tortoise shell. Imagine a state of tension that easily triggered violence … violence that strengthened determination and resilience. As a consequence the Tan clan was determined and resilient.

Well known for its pirates, southern Fukien province, where most Chinese traders came from, refused to accept outside rule. Each village was prepared to fight and fought with its neighbors. Trouble was endemic. Lawlessness prevailed. Therefore, all the Tans could hope for at home was feuding and fighting.

They lived in a state of anarchy. There was also a possibility of getting captured and sold overseas as coolies. To avoid it, most of the Tan clan fled Fukien but forever remained attached, at least in spirit, to their homeland. Devotion to autumn and frost covered fields and little groves of old trees with red earth all around showed an irrevocable commitment to their moorings. To respect parents and morn them properly, they sent their corpses back to China.

But overseas the clan couldn’t stay together. Economic necessity dispersed them, but interlocking loyalty between members of the same dialect group turned unrelated men into brothers. In that way the Tan clan grew.

But Tan shared characteristics of two worlds, contributing equally to good looks and industriousness. He also had a flair for hauteur, so in spite of a law that dictated dress his top hat and (in the style of the day) knee length caisa do chino shirts made him a trendsetter. He looked nobler than his grandfather, who wore a mandatory pigtail; that was until his grandfather adopted Christianity.

By then, Tan acquired a leisure house. It sat near the Chinese pier. As if in defiance of gods, it had an impressive ornamental gate and sat near the Chinese pier. After passing through an ornamental gate, one came to a lovely garden. Obviously, there was a close connection between garden and dwelling: a garden with its birds, trees, and flowers. White-eared-brown doves flew about. And second floor rooms gave him a grand view of the Sulu Sea, misty blue and green on the horizon. This setting captivated Tan as much as the red earth of Fukien held his grandfather’s affection. His imagination was as near as Tan ever got to China.

But his tentacles reached that far. By anyone’s standard he was very successful and could afford to pamper himself. On display in his house, besides an assortment of pottery, lacquer, enamels, screens and embroideries, were several hangings of calligraphy. But there were those who thought he only worshiped money; and it was an impression that gained wider acceptance as he grew wealthier.

Actually, he felt unaffected by wealth. He made money only for two reasons: power and prestige. If he simply were a Jew of the East (so called around the world and hated the same way as real Jews), and found ecstasy in a piglet skewered in the shape of a butterfly or saliva of swallows cooked in a delicately flavored soup, would he be better off? Had he stuck to a lucrative barter trade, with profit on each end, he would’ve been wealthy enough. But by also lending money, investing in boats, goods, and supplies, he grabbed even more for himself.

All this in a Muslim world, the Muslim world of Jolo: where Carlos could easily divorce Felicia. But it had to be a “Triple divorce,” according to the Koran. The Arabic word “Marratan,” meaning in English “two times,” however, confused him and seemed contradictory to him. Carlos could instigate dissolution of his marriage himself, since his honor and shame were involved. He enjoyed absolute power over his wife, but divorcing her at will was a misconception. For the Prophet warned, “Divorce shakes the throne of God.” And also cautioned, “Curse of God rests on him who repudiates his wife capriciously.” Grounds for divorce had to be solid, such as an absence of intercourse or infidelity. But this jealous husband saw what he wanted to see and found grounds in his wife’s immodest behavior, as she played cards and flirted with Tan.

So Carlos went to see a cleric; a lay person couldn’t interpret complicated laws. Was it “Marratan” (two times), or three? Could he merely say, “you’re divorced, divorced, divorced” and void his marriage? Hardly! First off, it had to be three (not two) divorces, on three separate occasions: simply repeating words only emphasized them and never constituted separate divorces. And scholars argued over various interpretations and showed no tolerance for each other’s opinion. The Prophet explained what Allah intended: that three different divorces should be given in three different periods of purity. In other words, it was wrong to divorce a woman during her menses.

 This news sent Carlos scrambling. What did he know about his wife’s cycle? What if he gave one of the divorces during her menses? They never talked about her period. And then suppose she withheld this information? Fooled him? So he consulted another cleric. Now, after showing clear intentions, he ended up pronouncing a divorce to Felicia not three times but four: the first made void by her period. A quarrel seemed required, even if the law said three divorces made the split final. But Felicia held true to her Catholic faith and wouldn’t let him divorce her.

Randy Ford

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Filed under El Conquistador, Randy’s 2nd Novel

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