“Jamaica,” by Frederic Edwin Church, 1855? – photoshopped to remove signs of European settlement
Caribbean Sea, AD 1502
Mazatl paddled madly for shore. The wind blowing astern toyed with him, for it gave greater aid to the vessel in pursuit– a great shell skimming the waves with white wings outspread to catch the tiniest breeze.
He saw no break in the wall of jungle ahead, no river mouth to give shelter. He veered his dugout to seek haven northwards.
The wind-blown ship cut across his path.
His dugout collided with its massive flank. Mazatl huddled amid- ships, trying to tame his fearful heart.
Faces peered down at him from the rail above, faces pale as the wings that now folded beyond them. A vessel of ghosts!
Ropes came whipping out. Ghosts slid down to land with solid thumps in the dugout. One held a silvery blade to Mazatl’s throat, though the paddler had no thought of fight. Every muscle clenched in terror.
The other figures– not ghosts after all, not the way they made the dugout wallow with their weight– they rummaged through Mazatl’s belongings. Food for the journey, waterskins, a cloak. They found his cargo.
They chattered at him then, like monkeys with deep voices, holding out the bags, demanding.
Mazatl could do nothing but shake in fear.
They went back up the ropes like spiders, taking his cargo. The last one lashed a rope around Mazatl’s chest, and the ones above hauled him aboard, banging against wooden planks all the way up.
No mistaking the chief of the ghosts, garbed in cloth of rich colors, glinting with silver. Mazatl bowed before the white-skinned personage, addressed by the others as Koh-Lum-Boh, a tall man with hair the color of maize and eyes as blue as the sea. The chief and his warriors showed no intent to devour Mazatl, as he had first feared. He dared to hope he might survive this encounter.
The chief ordered the cargo bags opened.
Mazatl’s terror subsided. Merely thieves, these ghosts were! Somehow they had known the valuable cargo he carried and meant to–
No, they looked puzzled. The chief took a handful from the bag, rolled in his fingers, sniffed, eyed the nuggets closely, then turned his gaze on his captive.
More chattering Mazatl couldn’t understand. He shrugged his bafflement.
One cacao bean dropped to the deck and rolled aside.
On impulse Mazatl grabbed for the kernel, worth a tomato or tamale in the market at Yucatan.
The chief narrowed his eyes at Mazatl’s clenched fist. He drizzled the remaining beans back into the bag and barked orders. His men hauled the bags away.
The chief regarded Mazatl a moment longer, then waved at the ship’s rail. His men hoisted the captive to his feet and dumped him overboard.
Mazatl surfaced, sputtering, and watched the vessel’s wings spread once more. The great ship surged ahead and plowed through the waves, shrinking in his sight as he hauled himself aboard his dugout.
No use going to Yucatan. The treasure he had just lost would have bought him a flock of turkeys and set him on the path to wealth. He turned and headed home with his life, one cacao bean and a tale beyond belief.
(c) 2020 Joyce Holt