The Carpenter and the Sailor

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The Carpenter and the Sailor

Post by longknife » May 11th, 2010, 12:38 pm

Here are the first 5 pages of my latest novel. If someone wishes to read and comment on the full 96k words, let me know.

El Carpintero y el Marinero
(A tale of the 18th Century New World)

1767 - Culiacán, Mexico

Fray Pedro of the Order of Saint Francis fought back the urge to sneeze - again. The dust of the road filled his nostrils as he and Fray José walked at the rear end of the sixteen friars through the foothills of the western Sierra mountains. The flat-brimmed hat of his gray habit helped abate the heat of the sun. And, even with thick-soled, leather sandals, his feet were giving him trouble.

Fray Pedro refrained from asking his companion how much further they had to walk. It was the fifteenth day of their sunrise to sunset trek and three since they departed the compound of Saint Bernardo. All except Fray Junipero Serra were tired from the climb up and the descent from the rugged Sierra Madre Ocidental. All had learned that the diminutive leader of their mission never faltered, even though his leg might be covered in ulcers that sent excruciating pain through his body. The crude road they walked along roughly followed a river called el Fuerte.

“According to the map, Brother, we are not far from our goal.” Fray José often seemed to read his companion’s thoughts.

In less than a few minutes walking, they topped a rise. A dark aquamarine sea lay several leagues ahead of them. It stretched as far as they could see. Below them, the hills gentled and a dark green area showed verdant life in an otherwise arid land.

The two gray robed men walked in the party of friars led by Fray Junipero Serra by direction of His Eminence, Bishop Diaz-Solerno of the Archdiocese of la Nueva España. The Bishop had been ordered by The Viceroy of The New World to send forth emissaries to take charge of missions currently presided over by Jesuit priests. And Fray Serra had been designated el Presidente de las Misiones en Baja California.

“Do we know anything of this place, Brother? What is its name? Culiacán?”

“I have heard that it lies along a river with fertile soil.” Julio, the muleteer just behind them, looked down at his feet, nervous about addressing the friars. He still felt unease about the sixteen in their gray robes.

Franciscans had served in New Spain since the early fifteen hundreds, mostly in the northeastern provinces. They only recently had been ordered to replace the Jesuits who had dominated the Californias for generations. So, common people like Julio and his people did not quite know what to think of the Gray Robes, as people called them.

One of the other muleteers pointed to the north and all eyes followed. A whirlwind of black birds circled over a spot to the north. Julio examined it closely before sighing. “They circle death, Honored Ones. And, as they do not descend often, the death may be of the plague.”

The soldiers looked around uneasily. Many thousands of Indios had died horribly from a variety of diseases brought by the Españoles to the land. “Stand steady,” Corporal Olvero, the leader of the first group of soldiers, ordered. “It cannot hurt us.” As he and his troops came from Spain, he was certain they would not be affected by the pox.

“There is still much daylight,” Fray Pedro said. “It will not take long to see what causes that.”

Word quickly passed up the line to Fray Serra who had already seen the sign. As he had already served nearly seventeen years in New Spain, he need not be told what the signs meant. Word was passed back that Frays José and Pedro were to pull their small party out of the column to see what was there.

Fray José was not thrilled at the thought but also felt they had a need to go to see what they could find. “Perhaps there are survivors.” He then held up his hand to stop Corporal Olvero from saying anything. “We will mask our faces and be careful.” The corporal led his men on horseback out of line and Julio, along with Hernan the other one, joined them.

As was his custom from many long years of being a missionary, Fray Serra had determined that each mission, in order to be successful, needed two friars, one for secular duties and the other vocational. He also assigned six soldiers led by a corporal, along with two packs mules so the friars would have basic supplies and some protection.

“You will catch up with us in Culiacán as soon as possible,” was the message relayed back from Fray Serra.

They followed the trail for another hundred paces before finding a faint path leading off to the north. Both friars carried staffs that helped them make their way through the brush, their thick robes fending off or catching the endless spines and sharp points from entering their flesh. Fray José thought that they perhaps should leave the mules behind but Julio told him they should take them along. “They present very great temptations to those skulking behind us.”

“We are being followed?” Fray Pedro turned and tried to see anything to indicate that was the case. “I see nothing.”

“That is because they know this land like we never can, Señor.”

Fray Pedro had to agree. He had spent eight years serving with Fray Serra and the others in the area of Sierra Gorda in the northeast third of Querétaro state in tropical jungles. Since leaving Mexico City, the land had changed drastically to an arid, often barren land.

The two mules had made their journey bearable. They not only carried those artifacts needed to perform their Catholic duties but their scant belongings, other supplies and foodstuffs. Even more important, they bore ammunition and gunpowder for the soldier’s muskets.

In another hour, the group entered a small canyon and the dim trail led them down into an arroyo, a dry riverbed. A fearsome chirrrrr told Fray José to freeze in his tracks. The light brown striped serpent sensed a possible escape and ceased its warning rattle, uncoiling and swiftly slithering into a clump of sharp-leaved yucca beneath a towering cactus. One of the soldiers had told the others it was called saguaro in the language of Yaqui Indians who lived there in the area called Sonora y Sinaloa.

With the snake safely out of their way, the group moved on, more careful as they kept to the open sandy part of the riverbed. It did not take much longer until they neared the circling birds they could now identify as condors, ravens and crows. Another trail led out of the riverbed and, as they emerged, they saw before them a gathering of crudely built structures made of woven sticks and leaves, open to breezes but clearly designed to provide shade from the burning sun.

A pack of coyotes sat on their haunches on a rise above the village and several red foxes scurried around the edges of the crude village. All creatures seemed to sense that the varied corpses were not to be feasted upon.

Madre de Dios!” Fray Pedro muttered. “The Variola has come.” The pus-filled blisters and facial scars told of the agony suffered by the dead.

While one soldier guarded the mules, the others timidly searched the huts.

“Look,” Fray Pedro told his companion, “one lives.”

A young boy sat cross-legged on the ground beside two bodies covered with roughly tanned hides. He stared straight ahead, either ignoring or simply unaware of the arrivals.

The search revealed two other survivors, a prepubescent girl and a boy just barely able to walk. The little boy sat on the ground next to the girl.

Fray José spoke to the boy, getting no reaction. Only when he bent down to take his arm did the boy react. He jumped to his feet and seemed to search for something. His eyes blazed with anger for a moment, then dimmed at remembering the deaths of all those he knew and cared about.

Julio, standing at the friar’s shoulder, said something in a language the Spaniards didn’t understand. The boy turned his gaze to his questioner and replied. “He says he is Cuauhtémoc, a warrior of the Cahita.” Julio quickly explained that the boy could not possibly be a full warrior, as he wore no eagle feather in his long black hair. “The snake on his upper arm is likely his totem. There are many serpents around here.” He guessed the eagle tattooed to his chest showed his clan.

“We are not here to hurt you, Lad. Do you understand me? Do you speak Spanish?”

The boy stared at him, awareness slowly returning to his eyes. “I speak,” he said in slurred Spanish.

The friar was not that surprised. With Spaniards in the area for more than two centuries, it was unlikely that even the natives would not understand some of the language.

The surviving youths were taken to the hobbled mules and the boy and girl were ordered to stay there. The baby refused to leave the girl’s side, tightly clutching her deer hide skirt. To stop the soldiers from staring at her bare chest, Fray Pedro wrapped a cloth around her, trying it in the small of her back where it would be difficult for her to undo it. He had been in la Nueva España long enough not to be scandalized by natives wearing little clothing.

Fray José continually prodded the soldiers to gather wood for a funeral pyre and drag the thirty-five dead bodies to place upon it. The corporal showed displeasure at his authority being usurped, but he dared not refuse. The dead were laid upon the wood in layers so the fire would consume them completely.

While the two Franciscans said the oración por los difuntos, (The Prayers for the Dead), the soldiers went from hut to hut, setting them afire with torches. Once that was accomplished, they gathered the mules and set out. The girl sullenly clutched the baby glaring at those she blamed for the deaths.

The trail climbed away from the riverbed to the top of a ridge. Julio indicated some steep cliffs ahead that blocked movement beside the river. From that height, they again viewed the plain below. Fray Pedro occasionally glanced behind them to see a cloud of smoke rising from where the village lay.

Once past the narrows, the trail descended again to an area filled with tall oaks and many bushes and grasses. All the newcomers were surprised to see cattle, sheep and horses grazing. Nobody seemed to be tending to them.

“When the villages were abandoned, Señores, the animals wandered off. They are now everywhere one looks.”

“And why were the villages abandoned?”

Julio shrugged. “Part of it came from the big uprising a couple of generations ago. No one knows for certain how many of los indios were killed.” He paused before adding, “And disease took many more. Smoke filled the sky as they burned.” He explained that had occurred within the past few years. He also added, “Many of the Encomenderos and their families were either killed or fled.”

That also was not unusual. Those with land grants from the king or viceroy treated their peones most cruelly.

The road returned to follow a river, so they continued, finally nearing the small pueblo of Culiacán. The soldiers muttered at how small and inconsequential it seemed, especially for having been there for nearly a century and a half. They also crossed themselves at the various gatherings of burned out buildings.

Fruit trees grew wild. Fields of young corn grew rife with weeds. Long-horned cattle grazed uncontrolled.

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Joined: April 30th, 2010, 6:54 pm

Re: The Carpenter and the Sailor

Post by daringnovelist » May 11th, 2010, 1:57 pm

Good! Very vivid. I was actually drawn in, although in a few cases (some noted below) I felt there were problems with timing, and with the way you implied information that should be stated outright. Here are the thoughts I jotted down as I read:

I'd like to see the line "Fray Pedro refrained from asking his companion..." closer to the line when Fray Jose answers. I think the timing would be better. I learn a lot in the sentences in between and I've moved away from that start, mentally, even if I haven't actually forgotten. (It would probably be better to move that line down, because the stuff in between seems to flow with that above.)

"The two gray robed men..." is a stutter step. We already know they are walking in a procession led by Fray Junipero Serra. (And since you told me again, and there are so many Spanish names thrown at me at once, I had to go back and see if you were talking about a different person or not.) What about this? "Fray Serra led them on this procession by direction of His Eminence....."

The "fearsome chirrrrr" was a great introduction to the snake! I didn't know that it was a snake, but I heard exactly the right sound. (I would simplify the next sentence, though, maybe take out the "sensed a possible escape" and just go straight to the action we see. Also replace "the" with "a" because even if we heard a sound, this really is the first mention of the snake.)

While I don't want to see a vivid description of the bodies, it does bother me to see important details only implied and never stated.

Julio's explanation of the abandoned villages is a little blurry and confused. The results of something that happened several generations ago would have a different feel than things that happened in the last few years. And is this really something that needs to be explained to Fray Pedro? (I'm not saying it isn't, just that it feels like it's there to tell the reader about it.)


Re: The Carpenter and the Sailor

Post by longknife » May 12th, 2010, 10:36 am

Thanks very much for the comments - just what I need for the revide-edit

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