Randy Ford Author- El CONQUISTADOR Chapter Eight

Chapter Eight

Some eight hours earlier, and traveling about thirteen miles per hour (there would be many accounts of this storm), Tay-Fung (typhoon), moving north and counter-clock wise, missed Mindanao but took a swipe at the Sulus. In its wake villages were leveled, leaving nipa scattered everywhere. Everything was inundated. Everything was inundated with mud and water. It was a freak storm. Islands no longer looked green and beautiful. On land survivors assembled, some in mosques (which generally withstood storms better than homes) and others in market places (which were totally destroyed) and took a head count. Like survivors everywhere, they were determined to rebuild.

Thank God! Rudderless, adrift, and with no rigging and decking Carlos and Omar clung to wreckage that finally ended up on a reef. Wreckage stayed there until it finally broke apart. Carlos and Omar faced a long, dark, wet night. They faced a long, dark, wet night as atmospheric pressure rose, and wind and sea finally subsided. Any change offered encouragement. Being alive at dawn was viewed as a good sign. They became unexpectedly close. Was it a curse?

Except for cracked lips, a swollen tongue, a bloody arm, exhaustion, hunger, and thirst, Carlos was no worse for wear. Except for some of the same things, Omar was no worse for wear. Later they acknowledge that it could’ve been far worse.

Finally, calm. Except for a few patches of cirrus and scattered showers. Welcome doldrums and, for some people, monotony, but for Mahmud a chance to rest. With his line set and baited with stingray, Mahmud used a calm peaceful sea to clear his head. Too much happened. Too much. Too much to take in all at once. An emerald-green sea, untroubled now, spoke to the sea gypsy of a deep channel where sharks waited for his foot long hooks. Finally falling asleep in waters long haunted by pirates, between islands and moorings, shallows and deep channels, a proud gypsy, with no house on shore, still fished and lived, lived now with a wife and a child, a girl, lived mostly away from everyone. Mahmud, a sea gypsy, with a wife and her rhythmic chants and songs, and their new daughter named Landing, lost nothing but time in the doldrums. He needed sleep.

Very light and variable winds made sailing again possible.

He was so poor. And a birth of a girl meant he would become poorer, generations of poor, poorer still.

He had to keep roaming the seas. To seek a house on shore would’ve been in vain; or so he thought. It would’ve been in vain because gypsies who settled in villages still lived on the sea in houses built on stilts. The sea was dirty there. They relied on a cleansing tide there, and at low tide it got muddy and sloppy. All he saw was village waste and stagnant water and in his mind it represented ruin, chaos and filth.

He blamed his wife. He blamed her for everything that went wrong. He blamed her for giving him a girl. Now appeal of blaming her grew stronger and strange. She did it to him. She was to blame, but instead of talking to her, he stewed. His anger did not stop there. To him, giving him a girl was such a bad crime that for a while he pretended that she didn’t exist. Mother didn’t exist except when he wanted sex, or until he could get her pregnant again … count on fertility, and hope next time she gave him a boy. Girl didn’t exist because he pretended she didn’t.

Normally, he had few complaints. Muhmud considered himself deserving. But would fate and opportunity ever lead them out of poverty? Quite obviously, an answer lay inside his wife’s womb. He dreamed. He dreamed of having a son. And in this dream he recognized the woman he married, married without smiles. Smiles were forbidden. Smiles would jinks everything. He didn’t look into her face, a face beautified with rice powder. To look into her face would jinks everything. And he wouldn’t smile again until she gave him a son.

After a short while convector modified air to such an extent, one might say significantly, that a resulting shower woke him. Though equatorial dampness turned everything quickly into mold, it actually was refreshing. Lying on his back, letting drops pelt his face, Mahmud laughed. Yes, he laughed but wouldn’t smile. Or he tried not to smile. He laughed and tried not to smile. He thought that he just might stay poor, because poverty gave him freedom, for sure it did.

With swollen eyes, mother cooked over a wood fire near the stern. As she sang, fish and casava simmered; fish and casava made a meal, cooked with as little wood as possible. As expected, she carried on her usual work and sang, mocking her husband’s anger. She gave birth to an infant of the wrong sex, not that it mattered to her. Weaning would be the same. Sometimes it was painful. It was sometimes so painful that when baby sucked mother resented it. Both she and her husband had work to do. They had specific jobs to do; and he couldn’t help her with cooking or breast-feeding; so mother carried tiny Landing everywhere, tucked belly to belly, in a blanket sling. Hungry and restless, infant grew to want her milk, grew to insist on milk and easily found a tit. Mother became use to it and knew the child’s survival depended on how successfully she produced milk.

When it rained, it never got cooler. With cooking, days were very hot, and an extra body, tied tightly to her, made her even hotter. So that was how it was; mother cooked as her daughter sucked, snacked before meals were prepared and sucked before there was true milk.

Very sweet was mother’s voice, finally filled with peacefulness. She sang of sea, sky, wind, and fire. She sang of sustenance. She sang for fertility. She asked for fertility as she sang. Sun bleached her hair. Wind blew it out of place. She went about her chores nursing and singing to a beat of imagined gongs, gongs gone wild, music for her child and man, trying to convince herself that he still cared. Music medicine in language of spirits. If he only looked at her. If he only showed he cared. She sang of their courtship … more tomorrow, more the day after … a ballad of love and hope for her baby. When her umbilical cord falls off, Landing’s ears would have to be pierced. Bride’s parents consented and groom promised to make their daughter happy. She wondered when Mahmud would play again, dance again, shout and clap … talk of love until he became red faced … again embrace her and make love with wild abandonment. Gradually strain resided, as she sang her songs. Singing provided relief. She wondered when he would make her happy. When would he smile again?

She sang, and as her song flowed over gentle swells, Mahmud caught a shark for Landing, her first shark. He would later tell his daughter proudly of that capture. “And I sang too. Your mother joined me in the same song.”

 Come shark, show us your kris, slice water like a brave fish.

 Come, come, I am waiting … squatting in a position you’ll come to.

 The shark came … our song answered.

“Your mother then flung her arms wide, tossed her dark hair out of her face, and howled because she knew then, I think, that you would only bring us miraculous luck.”

And what luck! Landing came out of a gypsy family, and it was a great day when she married a young Datu. Or was it more than luck?

Loss of his violin hit Carlos hard. But there was plenty of unspoiled rice wine for a joyous rescue. Their survival called for a celebration. It called for drinking and toasting, which given their situation might seem premature, but it didn’t contradict Carlos’ idea of dying well. Dying well was all that mattered then because they couldn’t see how they would be rescued. They couldn’t see the future. They didn’t see a future. Right then was no time to worry about the future or about moderation. There was always absolution. There was always forgiveness. So drink, drink, drink and get drunk. A young man, of humble origins, more then than ever before, he recognized the certainty of death. Death came to everyone. It was only a matter of timing. More than ever before he recognized the certainty of death, which made him value life more. Sing about love and sex. Sing about sin. Sing about sinning with a prostitute, and if so, what did it matter?

Omar refused to drink.

Still Carlos thought that he made progress. Yet there was little to celebrate about. So just drink to get drunk. Drink, drink, drink! Neither one understood the other. Omar only knew Spain as an enemy, nothing more. He knew nothing about how Spaniards viewed the world. And he was faced with a fair-skinned man, who spoke only Spanish. So, when Carlos started singing (in Spanish), Omar didn’t know what he was singing about … didn’t know that he was singing about love. Love of a prostitute. It was an old song. And it didn’t matter that it was about a prostitute. Omar’s own song, if he had sung one, would’ve been an epic narrative about pirate-kings and not of women.

Women to Carlos were either mothers or whores. For in his class there were apparent contradictions, contradictions that challenged ideas about honor, chastity and honor when virginity or fidelity weren’t prized. Flirting and sex before marriage were normal while marriage meant a dowry. Carlos wasn’t interested in a dowry. He wasn’t interested in marriage, or else he wouldn’t have become an adventurer.

Again, in his mind, a link between love and marriage didn’t exist. On the contrary, from the days of his youth, he preferred to dance, play his violin, and sleep with gypsy women. He was often the first to discredit mutual, tender love that unites. He rejected examples set by his parents; wanting nothing to do with love in sermons and theological tracks, or a kind of love that kept his father and mother together. He liked gypsy women because they set no value on virginity. He pictured himself a man of the world like Casanova who no longer went to confession. So naturally he frequented brothels of Madrid where women or girls were dressed to entice. Madrid in those days had its share of rebel politicians, heretics, prostitutes, syphilitics and alcoholics.

In contrast, Omar grew up with a slave girl, a slave girl who became like a sister. His mother provided him with a slave as a playmate. From an early age, a slave, this playmate-helper, cradled him when he couldn’t sleep and ran with him through narrow passages of his home. This was a case of them being thrown together. Her beauty … complimented by close fitted waistcoats of fine muslin, with skin the color of weak tea … showed why she was prized. But just as her mother grew unattractive as a captive, Omar’s slave’s desirability, like polish, lost its luster. Familiarity got in the way of love.

By then the Sultan’s interest in trading actually lessened, just as Jolo’s standing as a market place increased. Slave trade thrived there, and one could buy from the Chinese pier pepper and spices from the Moluccas, diamonds, and rubies from Ceylon. No doubt it was why the town was razed more than once. Though this was true, no outside power ruled Sulu, not even the Spanish, until the advent of the steam powered gun ship. Moro bravery in battle and their obstinate passive resistance in peace baffled the Spanish; and perhaps contempt of their Christianized neighbors stemmed from this obstinacy.

Some things European, however, were valued. Before Carlos, Omar and his slave could already dance a tolerable minuet. Critically, Carlos often watched Omar wearing heavy slippers “go down” during a country-dance. Eventually, his violin playing gave him an easy in. He never had an easy out. Before Carlos Bisayan slaves played music, however, only for the privileged.

Ultimately, Omar never repaid his slave for all she did for him. He didn’t have to repay her. In general, she submitted to his will and moods and behaved in a taciturn manner, which signified his authority. As he grew older, he noticed her breasts. They were miniature then, but still distinctive. He thought her breasts were beautiful. Blinded by her face, again color of weak tea, he found joy in the afternoon from looking at her and paying attention to new feelings. For Omar, she sang from her heart. She sang, when it should be remembered she lacked a voice of her own. She was a slave, so she didn’t have a voice of her own. As a slave, she would die without him. She grew old and ugly and died without him.

O aging jealousy! How often, in succeeding years, would she close her eyes in pain? How often would she sing, not as she once sung of joys, joy, joy of lying in her young master’s lap, but complaining in song? Of his being absent? Their years together were so short. So, so short. A curse she sung about often. She sang it with the same meter and rhyme continuously. Her curse was that she truly loved him. She truly loved him, and it was something he couldn’t comprehend. It was something he couldn’t comprehend while he juggled more than one wife. Still he used her for his most extreme lust. Might she mean more to him. Might they talk, sing, ride together, she with short stirrups, wearing her hair clubbed atop in Chinese fashion. Full of regrets or perhaps not, but knowing that they hadn’t gotten enough out of their time together. Might she be of comfort to him during days of darkness, or may they find each other at the time of Judgement: one final time.

Blue water, blue skies, and extremely calm. Laughing more than dancing and singing, with the storm finally gone; and as the sea family drifted slowly toward wreckage, or what was left of a stuck junk, Mahmud thought about mysteries of capricious spirits that filled the cosmos, spirits he counted on to protect his family. He honored elements and earth that rewarded him with a daughter. Yes, even a daughter. My how he changed his mind about it since he caught a big shark. Before holding Landing, he chanted an Arabic prayer of thanksgiving.

Randy Ford

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Filed under El Conquistador, Randy’s 2nd Novel

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