Francisco Maldonado went down to the beach to look for the ships. He did this every morning, rain or shine, as he had been doing for a year. What he saw was the sea and sky and cloud formations various and boring but never the ships that would bring de Soto. And so he spent his time kicking about in the sand, a soft white variety, fine as sugar and gleaming, venting his growing frustration. De Soto would come. He should have arrived there months ago, three at the latest, even with bad winds and hurricanes. But still, he would come. And still Francisco waited.
He removed his boots to dig his toes into the sand. It was good and warm and the wind smelled like clean brine. But what good was such beauty when de Soto was not among them? Out on the swell, dark clouds began to gather. Thunder sounded in the distance.
Natchez, his second in command, scampered up, head bared, face tanned. Anything? said the man.
Francisco shook his head.
Natchez's eyes glazed over. We are lost, he said.
He will come, said Francisco. Tonight I will explain.
Every night Francisco meant to call the men together, the hundred soldiers, and explain. Yes, they were to wait for de Soto. No, they were not to plunge into barbarism. God was watching, looking down from His holy throne and judging. But he never called the meeting. Every night at dusk it seemed too heavy a burden.
When de Soto comes, Francisco thought, he will set them straight. Marvelous, meticulous Hernando de Soto with his black curls, his oiled beard. He looked very fine in his painting—the one in Francisco's tent: sleek and powerful in his shining breastplate. Ready to command. Ready to conquer. Francisco would be there on the shore when de Soto finally arrived, down on one knee, to welcome such a man properly. They had laid up plenty of beard oil, good smells. The winter would be mild.
Together with Natchez, Francisco went up the beach toward his shelter. The Indians were back, looking bored with Maldonado and his Spaniards, picking up bits of Spanish, mostly swear words. They wore bright headdresses, feathers and gaudy beads and the bones of little animals. So too, Francisco had noticed, did some of his men. He must explain to the Indians with Natchez translating that they were not to influence his men to pagan hubris. The day de Soto stepped off a galleon, he would find a camp orderly and Christian and the savages properly in their place.
Rain began to fall and the Indians went back into the trees. Francisco had his men light the signal fires as they did every day and night. Then he bade them return to the construction of the fort, a dirt thing that half blew down in every strong gust. Francisco watched from the shade of his tent, the rain pattering down on the fabric.
He'll come, he said to no one, nothing.
Last night there had been a big fire, drinking. Spaniards and Indians drunk on palm wine, whooping about in states of brazen nudity. Francisco was approached to participate in the festivities. He abstained.
God watched. He judged.
He woke in the night to a curious scratching and discovered a possum among his articles, a ratty thing with a weasel's face. Francisco captured it and tamed it with palm liquor. A friend for all weather, a pet in cruel times. He took to stroking the creature, as he marched about during the day, supervising the construction of the fortifications. Nothing about the structure was right. The walls should be straighter, the towers taller. He sent men to chop wood and they returned without their clothes or axes, nude and painted about the body in bright red slashes the color of blood.
Christ's beard, said Francisco. Were you attacked?
No, said a soldier. We found the tree spirits, the good water.
See for yourself.
They led Francisco to the spot, a grove overflowing with various bright red flowers. In the bell of each was a liquid, clear as dew. The soldiers drank the liquid and began to whoop. They chewed the petals and spat the pulp onto their bodies, writhing like snakes. Francisco was aghast. What would de Soto say of such a display? Barbarism, vulgar and true.
Burn it, Francisco told Natchez when they returned to the beach.
The whole grove, sir?
De Soto will not stand for this. Nor shall I.
Natchez went away, leaving Francisco to stroke his drunken possum. But the Lieutenant returned later, covered in char, bleeding from his lip.
They didn't take it well, he said.
The insolence! Francisco rounded up the mutineers, nude and painted, and had them tied to stakes in the sea foam. But two days later two more of his men appeared at morning mess with traces of red paint about their cheeks. Francisco staked them as well and re-burned the grove. He was down some twenty men and work on the fort suffered. For one, all the windows gaped, vacant. They could but make glass, Francisco thought. All they needed was a kiln, a proper mold, the smallest of iron deposits.
Francisco stalked the surf among the babbling mutineers, now numbering forty. They had run out of rope and large stakes, needing all they had for the fort, and so had tied the men together to one of the ship's anchors. The men sat about in the surf, splashing and playing and looking haggard but happy. Francisco cursed their mothers.
Where is your de Soto? said one of the men.
Shut your mouth, said Francisco.
There, I see it!
Francisco's heart leapt. But there was nothing, just the sea, the sky. On the horizon lay a thin blue line darkening with the failing light. The men cackled. A joke!
The Indians came back, this time grumpy and bloated. They sat about the camp and watched Francisco and his men at work, clucking and babbling and looking decidedly unwell. Why did they have to smell so? Francisco wanted to tell them all to go in the ocean, bathe in the salt water. He tried to explain, pantomime. The Indians wanted to know why the men were in the surf, what they did. Also, they were curious as to who might have burned their special grove.
It was I, said Francisco. Me, me, me! Tell them, Natchez.
Natchez translated. The Indians responded.
They say only a man beset by spirits would do such a thing, said Natchez.
I am protected by Christ, said Francisco.
They say the grove was very sacred, very powerful.
Then they have learned nothing from our Scripture.
Francisco retrieved his Bible and read to the natives. Natchez translated in a rush. The sermon on the rock, Francisco figured. That would sway them, lodge in their dull minds. But the Indians blinked, uncomprehending. They said something about too much sun and wandered off into the woods and none of Francisco's entreaties could bring them back. He wanted order, straight clean lines, tiled roofs. His jaw ached from grinding his teeth. Doubt filled his heart.
Do you think I have bungled it? asked Francisco.
When de Soto comes, he will teach them, Natchez replied.
But Francisco heard the tone of placation in his subordinate's voice. He knew then that he had failed. The question was where, how?
Your pardon, said Natchez, but there is oil dripping from your beard.
Francisco retreated to stroke his beard, his possum. The oil had gotten in the creature's fur. He fairly shone with every caress.
At night the men created new amusement. A pit of snakes, effigies of women assembled from palm fronds. They danced with the palm ladies, taunting the snakes. Francisco watched, repulsed. But in the morning the tide rose and flooded the pit. The result was snakes everywhere, on the sleeping bodies of the men, in every tent. Francisco battled the creatures, hacking and stabbing, and when he emerged from his tent dripping with gore he beheld his men awake and screaming and running amok with serpents about their faces and limbs. A scene from Revelations. Had he offended God Himself? Perhaps the Indians were right: he shouldn't have burned the grove.
At the shore he washed his sword and hands, scrubbing at the blood.
You are like us, said a prisoner. Or will be.
Shut up, said Francisco.
You are in the place we dwell.
Francisco removed the fool's lips with his sword, the man screaming underneath him, thrashing in the foam. What were they in his hand? Fatty bunches of gore. The lips went out in an arc, a splash in the water, then nothing.
Tallies, markers. Added to the original mutineers were the men who had engineered the snake pit and a new crop of flower eaters. A new grove had been discovered, then another, and Francisco knew he would never find and burn them all. The number of men exiled to the surf required a second anchor, then a third. Twenty Christian men remained in Maldonado's command, not counting the possum whom he believed had converted. Its eyes so pious, devout. A sip of palm wine was all it required.
Just the beard was no longer enough. Francisco began to oil his body, making a serious study of his tanned skin and curly black hair in the blade of his sword. It was his new armor, the beard oil. See here. He brought the blade close and licked it. The taste of salt, of oil. How it shone. To Christ and God above and de Soto's spirit he prayed: protect him, protect his men, the God-fearing flock. He oiled the possum, a gleaming thing that clicked and scratched for its wine.
The erection of the fort stalled. Then the Indians returned, lethargic and gassy, and waged war from the trees, hurling spears that fell well short of their mark. When they emerged, sweating and pale, Francisco knew they were sick. He stood in the midst of their falling spears, without fear. Nothing would penetrate his oiled and bronze body. The Indians retreated in a cloud of stink.
A victory, Francisco told his men. He waved his sword about and went down to the shore to taunt the heathens.
I am protected, said Francisco. Reeking pigs! Do you see?
You could but see it, one of the mutineers told him.
The ships far out.
Drink the flower and know, said another mutineer.
Francisco kicked the man about the head and neck, slipping and crashing in the surf. When he tired, he waded into the surf and stared. Just to glimpse de Soto standing on the bow of his ship, to see the great man's hand rise and fall in greeting, even that would satisfy. Finally he marched into the trees. Before long he found a grove, the red flowers angled toward the sun, the dew sparkling in their bells. Among the flowers was a lone Indian, a small boy, collecting the plants into a woven basket and their liquid into a clay vase.
Tell me, Francisco said to the boy, and none of your tricks. Does the dew give special sight?
The boy looked on, uncomprehending. He gestured that Francisco should go, leave.
Get away, said Francisco. This is my penance.
He began to undress.
The boy indicated that maybe Francisco shouldn't do that.
Francisco motioned that he knew damn well this could not be the first nude and oily man the boy had ever seen. If the boy hollered Francisco planned to show him the blade. But the boy surrendered the vase of dew and departed through the trees.
Francisco raised the vase to his lips and drank. The dew was sweet and soon his stomach became conversant with things around him, chatting up the warm sun, the bobbing flowers. Francisco lifted a bell to the possum's lips and was soon privy via stomach to stomach telepathy to the great secrets of possumhood. He reveled in knowing the joy of clutching thin branches, of night hunting. All those bugs careening about in the dark, beating their tiny wings, squeaking their tiny squeaks, digging in the damp earth. All prey. What they had to understand was the rigor of possum life, the constant scramble for food, the intense desire to rub oneself against the rough bark of trees. And Francisco—what did he want, the possum seemed to ask?
Francisco was ready. All the hate and terror of the previous months evaporated.
The ships, he said. I want to see them. I want de Soto.
Even as he spoke a feeling came over him, a premonition. He would rise and walk through the trees and when he beheld the sea he would see the distant ships, sails full, flags flying. And there, on the bow of the lead galleon, he would see the glorious figure of de Soto, the man's breastplate shining in the sun, and all, every last transgression, would be forgiven.
Francisco rose and practically flung himself through the brush, so great was his excitement. De Soto, at last! He had arrived, hurrah!
What Francisco saw in dew-sharpened detail were his scraggly men, the tents, the ruined fort. He saw the mutineers anchored in the surf, the gleaming white sugar sand, the sea beyond it barren of sail, of ship, of Spanish flags on the horizon. He gazed down at his own nude body, painted red from the flowers he was yet chewing. God help me, he thought. For I dwell in Hell.
Francisco left the possum in the brush, the vase beside it. Then he made his way toward camp.
When Francisco returned to his men the dew had lost its luster. He stood among them in despair. Extinguish the signal fires, he said.
Natchez leapt to his feet. Is it de Soto? he said. Has he arrived?
Load the ships, said Francisco. Raze the fort. He is not coming.
The men obeyed, overjoyed at the prospect of leaving Pensacola. Soon the ships were loaded and the fort kicked down, a crude heap of rotting wood, brittle mud and sand. The mutineers were taken aboard and set free, given clothes and food and told to reaffirm their vows to Christ and country. This they did with enthusiasm, wasted and sunburnt and kneeling before Francisco who knew now their secret stomachs, their inner song. The man with no lips was the most humble, transformed, a penitent in ragged robes like some misbegotten friar.
Francisco laid sword to their shoulders and heard their vows. He had misjudged, every errant impulse. A man could walk in God's light. And he could step off, plunge into darkness. Francisco prayed.
The boy from the grove came to the shore with the possum in one arm, the vase in the other. The Indians came too, hunched and sickly, dark in their faces. Not a hand was raised in farewell.