Cibola 41

This entry is part 40 of 119 in the series Cibola


Esteban (2) (cont’d)

Before he got sold to the Spanish
he used to play hare-&-jackal in
the back alleys with the other
slave-children & never lost,
whichever role he took. In Spain
they’d never heard of that. No jackals,
he supposed, meant
they only knew how
to be mean like wolves–
or dumb as sheep. At any rate
he was almost too old for games by then
& don Andrés didn’t want a hunter,
it seemed, but a personal servant
& an amanuensis. Taught him
to chase down words in four
more languages. Said
an astrologer had told him he’d someday
need an interpreter, a master of the Word.

True enough: without him, Dorantes
& the other two would still be slaves,
toiling naked for savages
in those godforsaken
mosquito-haunted saltwater swamps.

Instead, mutatis mutandis
he bears a letter
from the viceroy,
a commission to lead this brownrobe
north into lands unknown, to claim them
as a conquistador for the crown,
to plant crosses & the gospel hope
in every town & village, up to
& including (if need be)
the Seven Cities.

He’d grimaced at first when he read
through the almost impenetrable legalese,
a tangled rot of ill-begotten synonyms–
Castillian by way of Bologna
& Salamanca, great troughs for pigs
& pig Latin–but ended by folding it
into a little wedge that just fit inside
an old brass locket. Sewn into his shirt
it nearly balances the weight of the image
of the Holy Child of Atocha,
patron of all who travel on foot–
a parting gift from the ever-more-pious
don Andrés before he set sail.

These–& the gold cross & the leather
pouch of tobacco–he continues to wear
long after having handed the breastplate
over to one of the porters, because
however much they chafe, it somehow seems
they keep him safe at least
from forgetting himself,
from one day stripping naked again
& wandering into the sunset . . . or
running after some heat-addled vision
of Saint James astride his stallion
tall as a thundercloud . . . or snatching
a blade & running it through
the nearest native–be it nothing
more than a toddler–on a sudden
Moor-killing frenzy.

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