Thursday, April 29, 2010

30 Days, 30 Stories: "Tides Across the Sea"

Tides Across the Sea
Lu Ann Brobst Staheli


2010 copyright by the author; author retains all rights to the story. Please do not use the story without the author's permission.

Manuela Perez couldn’t stop the perspiration pouring across her brow. The azure sky was crisp and clear above the piazza where the sun radiated from the cobblestones, making the day seem hotter, but it was more than the heat making her feel drained. The words coming from the mouth of the boy she hoped to one day marry brought her great worry.

“A New World. Just saying the words brings a fire to my belly,” Felipe Marco said, reading from one of the many signs posted in the village. Felipe’s fists rested on his hips and he pulled his shoulders back, his lean torso enhanced by the muscles emerging from sleeve above his almond-colored arms. “To travel to a new continent across the Caribbean. This—this would prove to your father that at fifteen I am a man. Old enough to own a bull and a piece of land, old enough to travel beyond the southern shores of Santiago de Cuba, and to marry his daughter.”

“Oh, Felipe,” Manuela said, sighing. Her tiny frame was almost hidden beneath the orange, yellow, and green ruffles that decorated her skirt and blouse. “What if you never return from this voyage with Cortés? Who would I marry?” She lay her head against the woven fabric of his tunic and touched her creamy palm against his dark curls. The noise of the market swirled around them, but she paid no attention.

A smile played at Felipe's lips as he embraced her. “Manuela, a child as lovely as you need not worry about marriage.” A chuckle rumbled low in his throat. He smoothed his hand across her ebony hair, tucking a loose strand behind her ear.

She pulled herself away, the hair again falling to her cheek. “Child?” Her voice was firm. “I am thirteen, old enough to marry.” The girl tossed her head, turning her back to him for a moment, before she stomped her sandaled foot and kicked Felipe in the shinbone. “I'll show you a child.” She pounded against his muscled body with her fists.

“Cesación! Cesación!” Felipe said, laughing as he fended off her blows.

He hopped on one foot, holding his throbbing leg with his right hand. Bumping into a merchant cart filled with oranges, Felipe reached too late to catch the first piece of fruit as it tumbled onto the dusty plaza. Three round oranges bounced down the street. A cascade more left the cart to follow. Felipe couldn't stop the laughter that escaped his lips.

Nor Manuela hers. Bent over, giggling at the sight of several small children toddling after the bright-colored balls of fruit, she knew she should run to help pick up the damaged wares but could not.

The merchant was not laughing. He was barreling toward her.

“Run!” Felipe called, tossing a few payment coins toward the cart, before he grabbed Manuela’s hand and pulled her along with him across the street toward a narrow opening that would lead them away from the fruit merchant, his spilled carts, and the fate they were sure to face if he caught them. Manuela tried to keep an eye toward his direction as Felipe guided their way through the children and others crowding the streets.

“Estancia!” the merchant bellowed as he chased them from the square, his belly heaving with the effort. His steps were slow and the distance between himself and Felipe or Manuela too great for him to snatch hold of either of them. Stopping at the narrow alleyway, he shook his fist at their retreating figures. Manuela saw him glance toward his cart and the children gathering up the last remains of the fruit which sent him again to the center of the piazza, his hands flying out like he was sending wayward chickens back to their roost. “Marcharse!”

Ensuring their safety, Manuela and Felipe followed a narrow cobblestone path that led farther away from the merchant and into a nearby courtyard. The stones were worn smooth, but dust scuffed around their feet as Felipe pulled Manuela close. “A kick in the shin? Isn’t that a little . . . ?”

Manuela interrupted, “Yes, it was childish, but perhaps it is you, who is too much the child to marry.” Her tone was playful, the scolding mother who teases her child. “This voyage is a way to escape and play your childish games.” Then a wave of sadness settled into her voice as she spoke. “What will I do here without you?”

His voice became soft, nearly buried in the sounds of life around them. “Manuela, you needn't worry. I haven't convinced Captain Cortés that I am one who should go.” Felipe’s brown eyes seemed deep pools, shimmering against the afternoon sun. A look of pain etched his bronze face.
“And you know I would rather die than not return to you.”

She threw her arms around his neck and nuzzled his throat. For most of his life Felipe had spoken of nothing but joining the great explorer on his next journey. The time had come. A quiver in her voice, Manuela asked, “Do you really want to go?” She already knew the answer, but she dared to hope he would change his mind.

Felipe whispered, “Yes.”

She drew her eyes to look at him, her fingers still entwined around his neck. A single tear traced her cheek, but she did not remove her gaze. “Then return home safely to me, Felipe Marco.”

“I will.” He cleared the sudden huskiness from his voice, then pulled her tighter against him. “I will.”

Her heart was breaking, but Manuela responded. “And I will wait, no matter how long.”

The noise from the busy marketplace rose like waves thundering against the shoreline. How she had missed the rising tide of people who pressed toward the open square? Children, dock workers, merchants and others pushed against the two of them as they stood together, two ships harbored at the same pier. She didn’t want to let him go.

After a moment, Felipe stepped away so he could see her face. “But first . . .I must see Cortés. All of my friends want to be chosen as much as I. The great explorer will never choose me. Never!”

She could tell he was trying to cheer her up. She too would play the game of imagining he would be selected, hoping within her soul that it would not come true. “Talk, all talk. Young boys trying to play the role of a man.” A smile played at her lips. “Can you see Eduardo leaving his mother's side for such an adventure?”

The grin on Felipe’s face displayed his answer even before he spoke. “No, I can't,” he said, as he motioned toward the stone edging that surrounded the fountain in the square. He walked toward it.

Manuela followed close behind, trying to avoid the people who were now thick around them.

“Only a week ago, he stayed with my family while his parents traveled to the south-lands to visit his father’s brother, Señor Pedro de Trujillo. Eduardo sniffled and cried all night.” Felipe guffawed at the memory. He shook his head a little before continuing. “He claimed it was the dust bothering him, but I know better.”

“Infant.” Her voice was teasing.

She lifted her skirt from the swirling dust. They had drawn close to the fountain, and she plopped onto the ledge, tucking the brightly colored fabric beneath her knees. Felipe sat next to her. He surveyed the people rushing past them and raised his hand in greeting to a lad younger than he. The boy also waved but hurried on.

“Infant,” Felipe said in agreement, then he turned serious. “But César is not an infant. Cortés might choose him.” Felipe picked up one of her hands and clasped it tightly. A frown creased his brow. “César would be a wise choice to be sure.”

Manuela knew everyone feared César Caballeria, as did she. He was the strongest of the local youth and a year older than Felipe. She could not control the feelings of weakness that overcame her soul when he was near—a tiny bee hummingbird before the giant iguana. If only César were as harmless. Once he had lost a competition against the other boys. Accidentally tripped in the last moments of the race, César had fallen, landing sprawled in the dust like a Tree Boa knocked from its perch by the great winds of a huracán, and it was Felipe’s fault. Many times since then Manuela had heard Felipe, Eduardo, and their classmate, Miguel, laugh at the memory. If César heard, he raged in response because of his embarrassment. She worried that he was capable of killing one or all of them.

“Do you think César would go?” Manuela asked, hopeful. “He is the man of his household now that his papa is dead. Won't his mother need him?” If César were not chosen, staying behind with him could be just as dangerous for her. How bold would he become without Felipe to stand in his way? She chewed the corner of her bottom lip as she considered the possibility.

“She needs him but cannot hold him,” Felipe said. “No one can stop César from what he wants to do.” He gave a heavy sigh as though accepting that César would sail with Cortés. A nervous chuckle was cut short when he looked at Manuela’s face.

“Hush.” Her eyes widened as she looked past Felipe. “Here he comes now.” Manuela stepped behind Felipe as he stood, clasping his garment top as though holding onto a ship’s line at the dock. “He scares me.”

The stocky lad swaggered toward them. His broad shoulders lifted and he puffed out his chest. His soft curly hair seemed out of character for his arrogance. He spoke as though Felipe were not there. “Ah, the lovely Manuela. How are you this beautiful morning?” César said, peering around Felipe’s thin form.

“César,” Felipe said with a sternness Manuela had never heard before.

César spoke as though Felipe had not. “Manuela, come from behind this boy and stand where I can feast upon your beauty.” The deep timbre of his voice and the way he stood indicated he did not expect to be ignored.

“No,” she said, taking her strength from Felipe. She did not like the bold way César spoke to her, and more than once recently, she had sensed his stare. It made her feel unclean.

Felipe reached a protective hand toward Manuela. “What do you want of us?”

“You? Nothing.” César gave Felipe a quick glance, but his eyes softened as he looked at the girl. “Manuela? That is another story. Don't you want something of me, my dear, sweet girl? A kiss perhaps?”

“No.” She turned away, her face pinched as though she had tasted a bitter root. “Leave me alone.” The stone seat scratched against her calf where she was backed against it, but she would not move away from either Felipe or the fountain. She became aware of the stillness of the courtyard as those near enough to witness paused to listen.

“She wants you to go,” said Felipe. “And so do I.”

She was so proud of him, the way he stood up to this bully as though he wasn’t afraid. Perhaps Felipe really had grown up. Was it possible he was no more a child, but a man as he wanted her father to believe? Manuela trusted that Felipe would be able to care for her safety, just as she knew he cared about her.

César stood at his full height. His voice deepened with seriousness. He glanced at those standing around the fountain before speaking. “It matters not to me what you want, Felipe. I'll leave for now only because I have business with Hernán Cortés. But Manuela, you can expect to see me again. Soon I will be asking for the hand of someone to be my bride. Perhaps it will be you.”

Manuela's face drained of color. “Marry you? Never!” She spat into the dust at her feet.

“Never!” Felipe said. “Someday she will marry me.”

Those from the crowd who were near enough to hear gasped as one then again fell silent.

A deep rumble of laughter escaped from César's lips, breaking the quiet. “We will see. We will see.” As he walked away, César nodded curtly to a group of boys standing nearby. They edged closer to the stone edifice of the Santo Domingo church, away from his path. The rest of the gathered crowd began to talk among themselves as they returned to their business.

Manuela stepped in front of Felipe. “I hope Cortés takes him,” she said, her voice stronger now that she had stood up to her enemy. Noticing Felipe's pained expression, she added, “Perhaps he will take many your age.”

“No,” Felipe said, resignation in his voice. “And if César decides he wants to go, then Cortés would be a fool not to take him.” He dug his great toe into the black diente de perro soil.

Never had she seen Felipe look so sad. “Captain Cortés would be a fool not to choose you, Felipe.” She ran her fingertip down his cheek, following his strong jawbone.

He reached for her hand, bringing it again to rest between his clasped palms. “Perhaps it would be better if I did not go.” His tone lightened. “I don't want to leave you here unprotected with César. It is not safe.”

She placed her other hand over his. “Nonsense. César is too smart to bother me with Papa at home.” She hoped her words soothed his concern, although she did not believe them.

Felipe glanced toward the group of boys César had passed. Their voices buzzed as Felipe pulled Manuela with him. The boys appeared to be discussing a parchment posted on the building wall.

“This must be where César was headed.” Felipe stopped before the notice, read it, pointed at the intricate markings, then said, “Captain Cortés has scheduled a meeting today for all interested in joining him.” He turned to Manuela, excitement in his voice again. “Will you come with me?”

Manuela nodded, and they walked toward the place where Cortes would speak. The group of boys also moved across the courtyard, turning into an alley finally emerging at the town’s main square.

Does every male in Santiago want to join the voyage? she wondered.

Manuela had heard her father say King Charles the Fifth, the Holy Roman Emperor, was financing Cortés. The emperor had been present when Christopher Colón returned to Spain to report his conquest to King Ferninand and Queen Isabella. Now, Charles anticipated the return to the mother country of his own ships filled with untold wealth. Would the men who accompanied his envoy also gain riches? This new expedition was to travel westward. Manuela did not know where, but she guessed Cortes would take his shipmates as far as necessary in search of gold to bring to his homeland. His king expected it.

The entire plaza was jammed with anxious applicants. More men laced the surrounding alleyways, likely hoping to glean details from the famous Hernán Cortés himself. He was here in Santiago, looking for a crew.

“Here's a place,” Manuela said, as she pulled Felipe onto a spot near the palace steps. The rough stone stairs were worn and the arched doorway was closed as she leaned against it.

Pointing across her shoulder, Felipe said, “There is César. He will not miss his chance for such an adventure as this.”

Manuela slipped her hand under Felipe’s arm and felt her heart pound.

The crowd soon began to quiet as a lone man stepped onto the raised platform and held up his hand. He stood an average height. His most outstanding feature was an aquiline nose, which seemed to fill his face—the beak of an aguila, the eagle. A thick shock of dark hair made him look young, like a lad, despite his age and fourteen years of leadership. Although he was now over thirty, the Spaniard was still youthful, especially in the world of explorers.

“I am Hernán Cortés,” he said. “I am here today to select additional men to serve on my crew and accompany me on a great voyage. Are there any among you who wish to go?” A deafening roar came from the crowd, and Cortés smiled with apparent pleasure. He raised his arms high, shaking his opened palms in an effort to bring quiet to the crowd. “Bueno, bueno,” he continued when the response had died. “Let me tell you more.”

As the crowd listened, the explorer spoke of great adventure, bringing honor to his country, and the wealth each expedition member could gain. It seemed to Manuela that every man and boy from their city was straining to absorb each word he spoke. It would mean much to Felipe if he were chosen, but she feared for his safety.

This great leader did not impress her. Despite his black beard, he was no different from a boy. Arrogant. Vain. Boasting only of his adventures with the promise of gold. “Infant,” she said, knowing Felipe could not hear her over the noise. “A child leading children.”


Yamile said...

What a fun story! It's like we agreed on a theme or something. I'm fascinated by the early settlement of America. What an incredible time to live that must have been!

Sarah said...

Blogger is being very difficult with its formating on this post. I've tried to get it to work with the tabs and spacing and when I fix one, it changes another! Gawk!

Thanks for posting, Lu Ann, and for being patient with all the difficulties.