Wednesday, March 24, 2010


© 2010 Apostrophe Productions, Riccardo Berra

I have not slept. Not well. Not in a fortnight. Ever since I completed the translation I’ve been plagued by dreams of death and loss. There are other even darker insinuations in these dreams—images and emotions I have no words for.  As to the manuscript itself; I am only its translator. I have no other stake in it. I wish for no other stake. I found it cleaning in the attic of my grandmother, who lived to an incredible old age. As her last surviving heir, it fell to me to settle her strange estate when she passed. It was not a task I asked for or willingly accepted, but when I first discovered the manuscript, I was excited. Now, its mere presence unsettles me in ways I cannot explain. It belongs in a museum or in the hands of a private collector. Somebody else will need to take possession and to determine its authenticity. I wouldn’t know where to begin.  I only know that the sooner it leaves my sight, the happier I’ll be. Then, perhaps I will be able to sleep again.

If you are reading this, you have come to an accursed place and I pity you. By the grace of God, Almighty, whose succor I desire but have scant hopes of obtaining in this world or the next, I deliver unto you this exhortation. Desist you investigations now, carefully rewrap this journal in the oilskin you extracted it from and secure it as you found it, as warning to the next poor soul. Then, by all you find holy, flee this accursed cave by any means you can. For surely if you do not or can not, you will come to a most unspeakable and damnable end.

My name is Juan Sancho Xavier de Silva III and I was born in the Spanish colony of La Isla Española in the Year of Our Lord 1589. My parents were coffee and cane planters whose modest plantation was worked by Taíno slaves father had purchased in Santo Domingo. Our slaves were for the largest part well-treated by me, my father Juan Sancho Xavier de Silva II and my virtuous mother, Catherina Núñez Balboa de Silva. God rest her soul.

Mother claimed direct kindred with the famed explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa and I know now that she was the only earthly woman who ever loved me, this educated gentlewoman who suckled me at her breasts and held me in her warm lap, at whose sweet knee I learned the genteel arts of scholarship, plant and animal lore and the service of the Almighty. Through mother’s line, seafaring, the exploration of new worlds is in my blood, yet I was content to be the son of a farmer until my father’s melancholia drove him to an act so despicable that it took from me everything I held dear.

Father’s decline was rumored to have sprung from a curse laid upon his head by a powerful Taíno houngan whose son expired while in service to my family’s estate. Though we beat them infrequently, fed them well and quartered them in cleanliness and relative comfort, we had much difficulty in keeping workers. Many fell ill and died of fever spells and shaking sickness, oft within days of being brought into our service. Many of our fellow planters had similar difficulty in keeping slaves due to the shaking illness the dark ones were prone to. My mother, saints preserve her and Redeemer take pity on her blameless soul, claimed it was the Almighty’s way of chastising our congress with the dusky races. Whatever the truth of the plague that culled the Taíno as we harvested the stocks of cane, whatever the truth of the witchdoctor’s dark medicine, the truth of my father’s pathologia is that it preceded the unfortunate death of the young slave by decades. Like the moon, that waxes and wanes with the passing of days, my father’s cyclic humors drove him at times to his bed where he would cower for weeks, refusing nourishment, companionship and the ministrations of my gentle mother and myself. Then like the moon, he’d spring forth in full face to run the farm and our family affairs as if Satan rode his back. As I passed into adulthood, these lunar perturbations became more pronounced and bizarre until I came to fear for my mother’s life, as well as my own. Father, when closeted thus, had a demon’s temper and we, his family, bore the full brunt of it.

Three days before my 19th birthday, having returned from Santo Domingo on the eve of Dia de los Muertos, with seed, supplies and new slaves, I approached our family house and found the entrance locked and barred from the inside. My repeated entreaties to my parents bore no response. As my panic rose, I enlisted the help of two field slaves to force the door and thus gain entrance. Seized at once by the direst premonitions, I bad the slaves return to their quarters. Calling loudly as I rushed throughout the house of my youth, where at last to my utter horror, I encountered the lifeless bodies of my mother and Tima, her cooking wench in the kitchen. My mother, a modest woman of devout ways, was naked, sprawled obscenely on the table in unquiet repose. The poor wench, similarly dispatched, was laid by her side, as if some spawn of Satan meant to return and make unholy feast of their wretched flesh. Their bodies bore unmistakable signs of violation and the mottled purple marks about their necks made evident that they’d been cruelly throttled and twisted by powerful fingers. Blinded by grief and horror, my first impulse was to kneel and pray for their souls, but a red rage seized me and sword in hand, I rushed to my father’s chamber, where aside the bed where I was sired, I encountered the wretch huddled in piss and shit, his knees about his chest, rocking and weeping, repeating my mother’s name over and over as if its mere utterance could revoke the foulness of his deed. If he was aware of my presence, he took no more note of me than he did my sword as it entered his heart and ended his wretched existence with a stroke.

It was my turn to loose a terrible cry and I must confess in my rage, that I abandoned my soul and descended into the darkest of thoughts. It was as if my father’s curse had left his body along the conduit of my blade and flowed into my soul. The house now contained three corpses, none whom had made peace with their Maker and all of whom would now find the gates of heaven forever barred against them. I am not a superstitious man, but I knew with certainty that a house with three damned souls was an abomination before the All-Seeing Eye and an accursed place. Thus with no further reservation than lighting a candle, I took a torch from the hearth and starting in my father’s chamber, spread the purifying flames from room to room, creating a conflagration that lit the night sky and took with it, the only woman I’d ever loved and the only place I’d ever called home. Though certain my father was evil and damned for his foul act, I was now seized by the most wracking remorse. I was twice guilty—of patricide and that I’d allowed him no more time to repent his sins, but had dispatched him as expeditiously to Hell as he had dispatched my beloved mother. In the eyes of the Redeemer, was I any better than him? I fear not.

Mounting my dapple mare, with only the clothes on my back and the coin in my purse, I set out for Santo Domingo and rode through the night as if pursued by Beelzebub. As I rode, the sounds of the night taunted me. Be they demons seeking purchase of my soul, brigands seeking my purse or earthly beasts of the forest—I know not which. Upon my return to town, I sought neither food, rest, nor the Confessional, but exchanged my murderous steel for the leatherskin journal you now read. Again, I bid you cease your reading as this tale only becomes more terrible in the telling. If you feel compelled to continue, I entreat you make haste, for time is more fleeting than you can ever imagine.

Never again, I resolved, would I raise a hand to a living creature, even or especially at the cost of my own execrable life. Instead, like Sisyphus with my heavy book pouched constant about my neck I would bear its weight as constant reminder of the weight of my offenses. Where’er I roamed I would fill it with confessions, prayers and entreaties to the Father of All Things. Perhaps at the end of my days, He, upon reading the earnest penance contained therein, would find in His heart the mercy I had denied my own wretch of a father.

Before nightfall I’d booked passage on the first galley I spied in the harbor, the HMS Mary Rose, a stout seaworthy clipper flying the colors of Britannia. Having questioned the master, I discovered that she was laden with stores commissioned through the philanthropy of that land’s ruler queen, Elizabeth Regina and was bound thus for the Jamestown Colony on the great northern island. I cared little for destination, but thought upon landing to secure a good horse and supplies sufficient to travel inland until I encountered no living soul but my own. In forest, field or mountain cave, I cared not which, I would pursue the ascetic path in the vastness of this new territory and perhaps … I truly don’t know. I only knew I couldn’t stay on La Isla Española to see another nightfall.

Four days fair sailing in a stout wind and we put in at Jamestown. Immediately we espied that something was dreadfully amiss. From the moment we set shore, we encountered not one living soul—neither man, nor beast, not even birdsong which had stilled as soon as we entered the compound. The smell of putrefaction and death clung like a thick smoke about the settlement and we dared not enter any of the houses, if one could even call them that. All that remained standing were scarce more than huts, many of these bore signs of burning or violent destruction. Was it my destiny that witchcraft, death and corruption should follow me where’er I roamed?  I sank to the ground, and gave vent to my despair.

Despite the blasted and unholy nature of this place, the captain made as to put me off there. Perhaps he took my lamentations as sign that I too had become possessed of the evil that permeated this place, or perhaps his reason was more parsimonious, as I’d only paid for this much of the journey and no more. He made clear his intent to maroon me as I ran along after him, weeping, begging, promising all the gold in my purse, which he took. I believed him then to be the most ungracious and parsimonious of British bastards, for he’d a done this foul deed if I hadn’t emptied my purse at his feet. He agreed, with much suspicion and reprobation to deliver me to Charles Town, where I could embark upon my self-imposed exile.

We repaired back to the ship—the captain and crew to despoil of the ship’s stores which the greedy wretch claimed under writ of maritime law were now at his disposal. The master, a pious seaman who had showed me initial kindness during our passage, counseled that we should lay anchor in the bay and mount search for survivors to distribute the Queen’s charity to, but this good man was quickly shouted down by the captain and his unsavory crew. My imputations of the captain were only enhanced by his ready willingness to convert his regent’s mercy to his own profit; but considering my tenuous hold on his graces, I held my tongue.

Providence it seems held its own answer to the captain’s avarice and ill treatment of me. For no sooner had we hoisted anchor set forth from the bay, than a great gale wind rose from the land and blew and swept the ship far from sight of land. It is easy to ascertain how the seafaring pagans lived in terror of the wrath of the gods of ocean and thunder, as for two days and nights, all evidence to our eyes was that they raged above and below us, tossing wind, water and bolts with fearsome impediment to our little speck of a vessel.

On the morn of the third day, with no land in sight, the winds died suddenly and sky and water took on a sickly greenish pallor. The captain bellowed for the crew to make fast, evident from the wild look in his eye that he’d seen this sort of sky before and it chilled him to the marrow. I confess to a perverse satisfaction in his dread and my eyes, when they met his, were as cold as my soul. His gaze in turn seemed to blame me for the plight of the Mary Rose, as if the wretch had in that moment read my conscience and divined its black stain. The orders had barely issued from his lips, when there rose such a howl and clamour that it seemed the very bowels of Hell had been pierced and the foulest legions of abomination spilled forth to torment us. Waves, like mountains, rose on all sides. Anything that wasn’t battened down – men, ropes and ships stores, rose about us in a wall of wind and water—all had been loosed from their earthly bonds and flew about our heads like demons. The Mary Rose, beleaguered thus for so long, endured no more and with an awesome groan, began to flounder. I heard a scream near my ear, but saw naught, knowing not from sight or sound, whether its source was manmade or the unnatural fury of this storm. Then I was struck upon the head and lost all sense of time and place.

Would that I had died in that moment, this story would end mercifully without the telling, but The Almighty is not so merciful and continually seeks accounting for the unexpurgated sins of men. I was revived by the chill of the ocean, clinging fast, I know not how, to the shattered timber that had been the ship’s mainmast.  A frayed length of rope trailed from the shattered wood and I used it to lash myself to the beam, fearing my fate should I faint away again. Secured as best I could, I cast about, but saw no sign of the Mary Rose. I could only presume that she’d a-slipped to her watery grave, with all hands lost. I lapsed in and out of mind, knowing not how many hours or days had transpired before I awoke beached on the sands of an island that the ships charts, as I recalled them, had no record of.

The Floridian coast is littered with many barrier islands, but I could not believe we’d been blown that far south. On the outbound journey we’d traversed the area known to sailors as The Devil’s Quim. Many whispered prayers and signs of the cross had been made even by these impious wretches during northbound passage, but we’d slipped through without incident. Had the fearsome gale hurled us so far south?  It was possible, but I possessed no sextant or maps with which to make such a determination. My sole possessions were the leatherskin pouch and the oil-skin wrapped journal which still hung about my neck and yes, the shattered beam that had delivered me here to this alien shore. I only knew my thirst and hunger and these drove me off the beach toward a high solitary crag where I knew I must gain shelter from the blazing sun, water and sustenance or perish shortly in the attempt.

Staggering, at times on hands and knees, I eventually encountered a small shaded spring, where I eagerly slaked my terrible thirst. I ate some grasses and moss I found nearby, but these were so bitter that I could scarce move them past my gullet. Following the path of the stream I found nearby, its source and above it, purchase of a ledge. After a short but painful climb, I espied the opening of a cave, whose gaping mouth presented a commanding view of the ocean and most vital, respite from the blazing sun. I collapsed on the floor near the entrance and slept fitfully until nightfall. I awoke to the sounds of forest night and the stars of the easterly sky and behind me, from the belly of the cave, came the unsettling premonition that I was not alone.

The cave entrance was wide and dry, but its depth appeared unfathomable, likely even by the light of day. My ears pricked, detected subtle rustlings and scrapings in its bowels and though my every instinct for self-preservation bid me flee, my shivering body had no endurance with which to comply and I sank back into uneasy slumber and slept thus till daybreak. My first sensation upon rising was the return of blind thirst which drove me again to the stream to refresh myself and soothe my sun and salt blistered skin. Though still wretchedly weakened by hunger and the recent travails of my ocean voyage, I found my strength somewhat restored and made my way back up the sharp rock to the mouth of the cave, half resolved to make it the site of my cloister, all apprehension of the previous nights’ fears, momentarily stilled.

It took little exploration before I encountered the first of the extraordinary sights of that day, for as I followed the cave’s first bend, there appeared to my eyes, a collection of stacked crates and barrels, puzzling enough in their own right, but when I beheld the familiar stamp of the HMS Mary Rose on them, my head reeled and I sank to my knees in terror. Was this more witchcraft, or an illusion of my famishment? My quaking hand reached out to touch the bottommost crate and sure enough, the hewn wood was entirely real enough and still wet from the sea. Again the urge to flee was overwhelming, but I, to my discredit stayed my flight. Starvation gnawed my gut with sharp fangs and overtook my reason. Rising, I pried open the topmost container. It contained within, numerous five pound sacks of millet, rice and lentils. Another crate contained salt pork and fish. There were a dozen such crates and barrels within that dark confine and in my wild imaginings I convinced myself that this was a Providence-delivered miracle. With provisions such as these, a man could live in relative comfort for many months without foraging. Perhaps the Lord had sent this miracle as a sign of forgiveness and concordance with my plan. If so, I would devote my life to prayer and writing in this solitary womb of earth in grateful capitulation that all that had driven me here was toward His ultimate and mysterious purpose.

I sank back to my knees and prayed in earnest gratitude for the first time since leaving Santo Domingo and this is when I heard the same rustlings that had so unsettled my sleep the previous night, but closer and coming yet closer. The hackles on my neck rose in a fearsome shiver and then I saw her, or more precisely, I saw her eyes.

In a rush of dank air, two gleaming amber orbs bore down on me from the cavernous heights and in that instant, my relief turned to horror and my horror deprived my mind of reason. Frail wretch that I am, I collapsed in a cold stupor.

When I regained my wits, I awoke to the most improbable of sights. A small girl of perhaps 15-years age sat cross-legged atop an unopened barrel. She regarded me with cool disdain through those inhuman golden eyes.

“It’s not your God you should thank, but me,” she proffered, as if this absurd proposition was in fact the most obvious of statements. I started away and made to run, but her movements, impossibly swift, placed her direct in my path, barring my escape. I wished, futilely, that I had not surrendered my sword for a book, for a book offers no defense against a demon, which I took this guileful apparition to be, despite her unthreatening visage.

“He who was content to let you perish, you praise. When I alone take credit for your restoration.”
“Who in the name of God, are you,” I cried circling warily, seeking some purchase of the cavern’s entrance.
“In the name of your God, I am abandoned and accursed," she replied with a high, bitter laugh, “But you may call me Circe.”

Recall now, how well my wise and gentle mother had schooled me through childhood. I had always been enamoured of the classics, in particular the epic sagas of the blind poet Greek. From him, I knew well the perfidious name Circe and its mere utterance in this place chilled me beyond recounting. For some minutes, we played this cagey sport, I edging toward the light at the cave’s entrance, and she toying, allowing all progress but that which would have secured my freedom.

With my back to the dank wall, I considered the absurdity of my situation, me a strong, strapping man, she so small and frail, why I did not simply push my way through her and retreat, but it seemed she divined my thoughts on my face for as soon as I was aware of them, she stepped closer and responded as if I had spoken aloud.

“I will not allow it.” It was then I became aware that though she spoke and I heard, her lips moved not. I simply heard her utterance in my head.

This is how I became kept of Circe, witch queen, she who seduced Ulixes son of Laërtes, though she claims that the poet embellished greatly and the Ithacan was less kingly than Homer made him to be. When I asked Circe why she should desire my companionship, her reply was cryptic. She answered my question with a question.

How came I so willing to serve my absent God in hermitic isolation, but unwilling to serve her in the comfort and companionship of her roost?

Sometimes she appears to me as a woman, full of breast and comely in all aspects save for the blue gray pallor of her skin that none upon apprehension, would confuse with the flesh of a living woman. Unsighted, to the touch, it is indistinguishable. Sometimes, Circe wears the guise of the small girl I first met, other times, she is a towering vespertilio with a furry gray breast and leathery wings thrice the length of a man. Even half-furled, her wings span the cave entrance. She says that she has lived a thousand of my lifetimes and has loved as many men, but none more than me.

Even her most tender attentions repulsed me, for they were never without menace. She’d eaten the survivors of my ship as they slipped into the green gray grip of the ocean. She’d had every intention of eating me as well, but before striking she looked into my thoughts and saw reason to pity me. It was she who dragged my rough bark to her island and rescued the undamaged stores from the wreck of the Mary Rose, all toward the express purpose of keeping me in comfort.

Circe has struck a bargain with me. If I accept her batlike manifestation and evince no recoiling then I will be allow exit from the cave to explore the island at will. The vespertilio is truest to her natural form she claims and she says that she feels closest to me thuswise, though I suspect her true guise is something altogether more terrible, unseeable and unknowable. I confess, after some initial reluctance, I have found in her soft gray bosom, comforts unearthly divine and if it be wrong, I know not right from wrong anymore.

She insists that I am free now to come and go as I please and have been for some time. I respond that she is toying with me, that with her powers of the will, I am no freer than my slaves in La Isla Española were; but Circe says that I should search my own soul and I will know she is right. I did as she suggested and it is true. I am, mother taught, a creature possessed of free will, free to sin or resist sin and embrace salvation. Circe says Juanito, you are naïve having traveled and seen so little. All throughout the Old World and this New World, the gods of earth, stone, water and fire have been usurped by my God and He is far bloodier than the worst of them. Circe loves me though, for the modesty of my suffering. To her, my torment is a purer form of piety than that of all the priests or “godly men” I have known. It is why she spared me when she looked into my thoughts, as I lay senseless, lashed to the splintered mast of the Mary Rose.

Though Circe is fearsome in aspect and I would quake a million times in first apprehension of her, I find when I am embraced by her, that I fear nothing, feel nothing, and want nothing but her. Her visage has long since ceased to drive my mind to terror, but to sensual languor. It is a sin, but I am already well beyond salvation.

God did not mean for man to lie down with the beasts, yet when the moon rises and Circe holds me prest to her furry breast and enfolds her wings about me, it is, as warm and inviting a refuge as ever I sought in the brothels of Santo Domingo. Circe croons to me, lullabies, memories of my dead mother’s songs, her touch, her voice, even her smell; all this Circe has stolen from my head to succor my soul. Her croonings have a language not of men. When I am thus calmed, she takes my unquiet sex from its sheath and her webbed digits palpate it to full mast and before I can offer protest, she slips it into her fluttering womb. Her ministrations are gentle and I have long since abandoned protest. I have abandoned all aspects of my former life.

Circe sleeps more by day and I roam the island at will. Long ago, I considered building a bark in secret and attempting to flee, but I have no opportunity or will for flight. I have walked the length and breadth of this island many times over and the ocean’s waves guard its perimeter with inviolable resolve. I fish the tidepools and hunt small game. I crush bright berries for ink. I gather fruit and sketch. I walk in aimless contemplation and observe the western sun setting o’er the New Lands. If I have not returned to the cave by nightfall, Circe finds me out and wafts me gently back to her rookery. She hunts and feeds while I sleep. On what, I know not and ask not.

On this eve, Circe returns to the cave and moves about slowly and with great care. She chooses to don her “womanly guise” to announce to me that she is with child.

As the stars wend the heavens, Circe’s silent song of love and maternal jubilance rings in my head.  She has collected all my seed within her womb and has wasted none of it. All shall bear fruit. She shall spawn, not one, but a thousand thousand children, like her Oceanid mother before her. She asks for a kiss and I give it to her. Even to a mind long inured to the horrors of this world, I find in her proclamation, a cold new dread that I can put no name to. I pray my kiss will not betray me.

I write this final entry in darkness. Soon Circe will call to me again and I will lie with her. At daybreak, while she sleeps, I will shrug off the burden of this book that I’ve carried for so long and secure it within the cave. I have resolved to climb to the precipice above the cave and hurl myself into the sea. I bury this intent deep within my bosom and cover it with random thoughts and songs. I pray she does not look within my soul and find me out. Even without my other offenses, this act will without fail deny me entrance to the gates of heaven. Had I not long since abandoned esperance of salvation? Circe has oft argued that there is no God as I understand Him. I care not. I only seek peace. Though I have not and will never reach my thirtieth year, I have twice made my mark and it is a dark and shameful one. I have created an abomination and if there is payment to be exacted, what worse punishment is there than the damnation I already anticipate?

Thus if you have come to this dark place through intent or misadventure, if you disregarded my warning and have overstayed to peruse the entirety of this sorry tale, if you now see the gleam of Circe’s yellow eyes circling o’erhead, know that it is too late. Know that I tried to warn you. Pray now, pray quickly that God may give you strength for what you must endure and that He may receive your immortal soul at the end of all endurance. As I fall, there will be a prayer on my lips. Will the Redeemer answer it? Life, if it has taught me anything on the eve of my final sacrifice, reveals that all hope is but folly.

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