The god had not moved in two days. Caguax and stared into the pale eyes, which in turn stared up into the black night sky, not seeing him or the light of the fires or the twinkle of the stars. Rising, Caguax put a log on the circle of fire.
A groan came from beyond the firelight. Underbrush rustled as something moved close, retreated.
It was the ancestors. They sensed the body and waited, in hopes that he would leave and the fires would die. But tonight, Caguax must keep it safe.
Resurrection of the dead usually happened within three days, leaving one more night to go. Until then, the body would lie in the salt water of the tidal pool. Sea water and the fires kept the ancestors away.
Perhaps he was not a god. Perhaps gods did not come back. The ancestors were buried and rose from the earth. Perhaps they should have buried him. But this white god, foretold in the oldest legends, who was drowned in this very pool by Caguax and three other men of his village, should have no problems coming back. The shaman, when ordering that it be left where it lay, said so. But no one knew the gods for many generations, and Caguax feared even the shamans no longer possessed knowledge of them.
It was Yuisa, their chieftainess, who ordered the killing. She wondered aloud if these Guamikena, the covered ones, newly come to the shores of their island, were the gods spoken of in the old stories. They spoke in a language that, at first, no one in the village could understand.
In spite of his divinity, the white god proved relatively easy for four men to kill. The most important thing was preventing him from using the thunder stick that belched fire and smoke, knocking down anyone or anything.
Caguax stood and checked the fire ring once more. He would have much preferred it was tomorrow night already, when all the excitement should happen. But the sun and moon always crawled on the back of a turtle when one was in a hurry.
Caguax watched the ripples at the water’s edge, worried that a small fish or other sea creature might nibble on the body. They should have built a barrier between the tidal pool and the beach to keep out sea creatures.
All night, the ancestors roamed back and forth just beyond the light of the fire. The Guamikena had already killed several of the villagers, increasing the number of ancestors. The murdered were given proper rites and burial. As expected, they rose within three days and now, they and those who were even older, grunted and groaned their hunger and frustration in the night jungle. Eventually, the sky lightened and the noises decreased, ceasing altogether just before sunrise. Sunlight wasn’t as dangerous for them as sea water, but they avoided both. The tide was out, leaving the pool surrounded by sand drying in the light of day. High tide would be coming in soon.
He stood and stretched, looking out at the water for Gueybana. In a moment, he spotted the canoe rounding the point of land to his right. Even from that distance, Gueybana appeared larger than most men, his strokes with the paddle pushing the canoe at great speed across the water. Soon, Caguax helped to pull the canoe onto the beach.
“Did anything happen?” Gueybana asked.
“No, he didn’t move at all. The ancestors came, but the fires kept them back.”
Gueybana nodded and glanced at the pool. “If he’s a god, you would think something would have happened by now,” he said.
“I know. I thought I saw his finger move once, but it was a sunfish nibbling on it from underneath.”
“Is it possible gods don’t resurrect?”
Caguax shrugged. “I don’t know. None of the old stories have ever said.”
“It would be strange if we can resurrect and become ancestors but the gods cannot.”
“We’ll know tonight, I suppose,” Caguax said. “Either way, I’m not sure what we will have proved.”
“They’re still arguing about that,” Gueybana said, motioning toward the village. “All I know is, if de Leiva finds out what we did, they might kill us all. They’ve been furiously trying to locate this one. Even took hostages to make us tell what we know.”
“They’ve done that many times.”
“But this time, they . . .” Gueybana shuddered and paused as if unable to say the words.
“What have they done?”
“They said they will not only shoot the hostages, they will burn their bodies afterward.”
Caguax, who was unloading the canoe, stopped with a basket of bananas in his hands. He turned so quickly that one of the bananas fell into the water.
“They can’t do that!” His face mirrored Gueybana’s look of horror. “If they do that, those who die cannot become ancestors.”
“I know. Everyone is in an uproar over this threat. Except your brother. He said, ‘There are enough ancestors now. How can we feed them all after the Guamikena leave?’”
Caguax snorted. “Ameyro always scoffed at the beliefs of others.
They went back to unloading the canoe as they discussed what the leaders might do. If they did anything, it would only be after tomorrow morning. However, Caguax did not think they possessed the courage to act, and said as much.
“They’re all old and too steeped in the stories of the gods,” Gueybana said. “Only Yuisa has any courage. She is younger.”
Caguax shrugged. “She might be able to move them. After all, they agreed to killing this one.”
They stacked the food baskets and water gourds and settled down on the palm mats to eat. Before too long, Caguax yawned and lay back. Gueybana was to keep watch while he slept. The others would arrive before sunset to observe the resurrection. He yawned again and squashed one of the baskets under his head.
He thought about Gueybana’s wish to become one of the watchers. Since the Guamikena came, he, Caguax, was the only one left. Trying to do it all was wearisome. He would have to talk to Yuisa about training others.
He drifted into sleep, but dreams kept him from resting well. In one, he saw the god in the pool sit up. His appearance made even Caguax tremble: the eyes eaten away by crabs, and other sea creatures falling with a plop into the water from mouth and nose. Seawater ate into his skin, leaving it red and raw.
The watcher woke with a start, glanced around at the sun, now at its zenith, and went back to sleep with fewer dreams. The sound of canoes being pulled up on the beach woke him the next time. He jumped to his feet, fearing that the fires were out, forgetting that Gueybana was there to re-light them, leaving him to enjoy a nice long sleep. The two moved to meet the new arrivals as two men helped Yuisa step out. She led the others to the tidal pool.
“Has he moved at all?” she asked Caguax.
“Not on his own.”
She nodded and contemplated the body in the water. Next to her was her brother, Orocobix. They and the other under-chiefs stood in a circle, gazing down at the body. The eyes were gone now, just as in his dream, and the lips drew back, exposing the teeth in a grotesque smile.
“They are no gods,” Orocobix said softly.
“It would seem not,” Yuisa agreed. “We must decide what course to take with them.”
The others of the chief council, two men and one woman, moved away from the pool, gathering around the isolated fire nearer the surf. The food was passed around in silence.
“Caguax, join us,” Yuisa called.
It was not often a watcher was included in Council, a sign of how desperate times were.
They sat on the mats that Gueybana had spread out. The leaders discussed alternatives. The Guamikena numbered at least one hundred twenty-five, divided among the three main villages on the island. The largest number were camped near their own village of Toa.
The sun sank into the sea and soon sounds of the ancestors provided background sounds while the councilors talked. Many glanced fearfully into the shadows. No one liked being outside of the village at night.
Feeding the ancestors usually occurred after a battle with villagers on the other islands, when the bodies of the enemy were disposed of. Or, when a person found guilty of a serious crime was throttled. Those bodies were fed to the ancestors so that he could not become one of them. The number of ancestors somehow stayed between twenty and thirty, enough to keep finding food from becoming a problem. No one knew what happened to the ones that disappeared. They were clumsy and everyone assumed that they sometimes fell off the cliffs and were crushed, or they fell into the sea. From the ancient legends, it was known that they dissolved if immersed in the salty water. Fire would destroy them, too.
As he listened, however, Caguax realized that something new was planned for the ancestors. He did not like it. Not at all.
“General de Leiva.”
The general turned to see Captain Salazar rushing toward him, his helmet in one hand, the other hand rested on the pommel of his sword. The sand slipped under his boots, making his progress awkward.
“What is it?” de Leiva asked impatiently.
He was already sick to death of this petty island and none of the irritation at being assigned this task left him in the month’s time. The island tribes followed the usual pattern, but here, things changed. At first people from all of the villages were submissive and worshipful, thinking like so many others, that the men with lighter skins were gods. However, there had been instances of resistance, and three days ago, one of his soldiers disappeared while on patrol.
“Moncado’s body is gone,” Salazar said, panting for breath.
Captain Moncado came down with a fever two days earlier and took to his bed. He grew worse each hour, and yesterday afternoon, he died. The doctor had the body wrapped in a sheet until it could be transferred to the ship for burial at sea later this morning.
“His aide went into his tent a short while ago, and the captain is gone.”
De Leiva frowned. He had seen no reason to post a special guard around the dead man’s tent as there were no predators to speak of. There was no reason to think any of the men would hide the body. No one had gone out to the ship today. That left only the natives. And there was no reason to believe . . .
“What is it, General?”
“Have there been any signs that the natives are cannibals?”
He started back into his tent, Salazar trailing slightly behind. The captain’s eyes were wide in horror, and he shook his head.
“None, sir. They eat fruit, nuts, and vegetables, and whatever fish they can catch.”
“Were there reports of noises in the jungle again last night?”
The general sat down in his camp chair. His native servant, brought from another island, removed his helmet and placed it on the table just outside the tent opening. She picked up a palm frond and began fanning, moving the hot humid air. Her eyes looked far away, possibly as far as the village where her child waited in vain.
“Yes, every night since we arrived. Some things that are quite large.”
“As large as a human being?”
“I suppose so.”
“Have the men look for footprints around Moncado’s tent. Anything that is different from our boots.”
Salazar saluted and sped off, or tried to. The sand moved under his feet and gave him little purchase.
He returned a short while later and stood waiting for his commander to acknowledge him. De Leiva looked up from the maps he was studying and nodded.
“We found nothing discernible in the footprints, sir. But we did find this.”
He handed over a tattered bit of cloth, so faded, the color could have been anything from green to black to blue. A bright color, no doubt, as the natives loved bright colors in what little clothing they wore. The general raised it closer to study the fibers, but nearly dropped it in his haste to move it away. It smelled of decay.
He thought there might be something to indicate that the natives made off with Moncado’s body. The tribal leaders were very disturbed by his taking the three hostages who were executed after no one explained the disappearance of one of the soldiers. Their bodies were burned.
“And this,” Salazar said, holding out a native sandal.
It was woven of dried palm fronds, which were usually tightly and neatly done. This, however, was dirty and tattered, similar to the piece of cloth. Tentatively, he brought it closer to his nose. The nauseating odor stopped him half way. It smelled the same as the cloth.
“Probably just some things long buried,” he said. “We exposed them when we set up camp.”
Salazar looked dubious.
“Keep looking,” the general ordered. “And double the guards tonight. Meanwhile, we will visit the Tainos and see if they have an explanation for this disappearance.”
In another hour, the party began its trek through the jungle. Salazar walked two paces behind de Leiva, with twelve soldiers behind him, kept in formation by stern looks from Sergeant Fuentes. The sergeant was in a foul mood, displeased at the disappearance of Moncado’s body, taking it as a mark of personal failure.
Their encampment was set up in the small cove for the fresh sea breeze that blew from the west. They could have taken over the village, but the natives tended to live in greater squalor than a general should have to endure. Besides, it was always helpful to have one more threat that could be made – in this case, destroying the village if the natives did not cooperate.
They walked swiftly, their armor getting heavier, their bodies wet with sweat. They swatted at flies and mosquitoes harassing every step as they walked single file along the narrow jungle trail. By the time they approached the village, the sun had moved a short distance across the sky. De Leiva raised his hand and everyone halted. He listened to the sounds coming from the Tainos, words he could not understand, but the tone of voice, the absence of laughter, even from children, told him much.
Salazar came nearer and listened, too. He joined this expedition because he was good with languages and so far, he learned much from several different natives. Although he often lost his temper with his subordinate, de Leiva considered the captain an asset. If only he was braver. More of a soldier.
“Are they saying anything we should be aware of?” the general asked.
“No, sir. They seem calm. They speak of ordinary things.”
De Leiva started off and motioned for everyone to move forward. First, he would ask again about the soldier who disappeared over three days ago. He believed that the villagers knew exactly what happened to him. Then he would inquire about the disappearance of Captain Moncado’s body. They knew every sound, every movement, for miles around. Probably to the edges of the other two villages on the island. If they told him nothing, he would have to take the steps he promised.
Ahead, voices shouted the alarm. Even without their watchers, the villagers had a decent alarm system. Nearly everyone was inside as they entered.
Yuisa, whose title in Taino was Cacique, came out to greet them. Her welcoming smile did not reach her eyes, although she began the usual welcoming speech. De Leiva interrupted.
“Tell her we are still looking for our missing soldier,” de Leiva told Salazar. “And we are getting angrier each day we do not find him.”
He watched her as his words were translated.
“She says she still has no idea where this missing soldier is. Is he not one of the gods?”
This business of being a god was tiresome, but it could be useful, so he did not disabuse them of the belief.
“Can he not make the waters part and the fire sticks roar?” Salazar continued translating.
“Tell her, as I explained before, we are not all gods. The soldiers act as our honor guard. As such, their persons are as inviolate as mine and yours.”
While Salazar translated, the general looked around. Only a few villagers were about, studying the Guamikena, as they always did, but somehow, he sensed they did not hold the visitors at quite the level of awe as before. Suspicion and fear had crept into their primitive minds. That could easily become anger. It was time to reinforce their lesson.
“She says . . .”
“It doesn’t matter,” de Leiva said, brushing his subordinate aside. “Since my soldier has not reappeared, and they will tell us nothing of his fate, we will take three more of their number and make them disappear, too. Tell her that!”
Yuisa protested and her under-chiefs appeared as they heard the threat. Other villagers left the huts, gathering behind their chieftess.
The general pulled a pistol out of his belt and fired into the air. The roar and smoke rose above his head, and the natives cowered and slunk back.
“Him, him, and her,” he said, pointing the gun at three people in different parts of the circle. “Bring them along.” He turned to look at the Cacique over his shoulder. “Tell her these three will never be seen again. And if any more of my honor guard should disappear, we will be back for more of them.”
De Leiva turned and led his men into the jungle as Salazar translated. In moments, he caught up with the troop.
“Are you going to kill them?” he asked as soon as he drew even with de Leiva.
“Of course, and get rid of the bodies in the same way so that they will never be found. That seems to put the fear of god in them.”
He smiled at his little joke, and at the thought of the woman being dragged along with them. So young and pretty. He might take his pleasure with her before killing her.
Torches flickered, the light revealing the corrupted body in the shallow pit. It fit perfectly with little or no excess room. On top of it, they lay the living soldier they captured earlier in the afternoon when he wandered into the jungle to relieve himself. His cries were muffled by a gag, his struggles limited by the braided vines that bound him. To keep him still, they drove long stakes into the sand and stretched more vine ropes across him.
Yuisa blew on the conch shell three times. Everyone withdrew to the other side of the fires that now burned low, the sea behind them. Soon, noises of awkward movement came from the trees and bushes. The ancestors had not been fed for several days and they were ravenous.
Eleven entered the clearing and neared the pit. The soldier’s struggles and muffled cries puzzled and frightened them. They milled around, circling, muttering. One drew near and tried to look under him. Their food lay under there. How could they get to it? They pondered the thing on top, writhing and moaning.
An ancestor, parts of his grey skin gone, his nose shifted against his cheek, shuffled close, leaned over, and poked at the living soldier. Without the gag, his scream would have reached to the other side of the island. So near, it could be heard too well, and some of the villagers held their hands over their ears. Caguax felt himself shaking with revulsion mixed with an excitement he never felt before. How far would they go to feed?
One female ancestor crept near the fire. Everyone behind the fire took a step backward. She held out a hand as if pleading. Most of her clothes were rotted away, exposing her grey skin. Patches were white and dry looking. Bits of skin were missing here and there, the flesh underneath black and oily. Her hair was missing in spots, and her eyes were milky white. A squeal, louder than what had gone before, made her turn, and brought the villagers’ attention back to the offering.
An ancestor sat on his heels, poking at the soldier. The man tried to lash out but could only squirm impotently. When nothing happened to him, the ancestor grabbed an arm and pulled. Another took notice and grabbed the opposite arm. The soldier struggled even harder.
Others joined the first two, grabbing legs, hair, more of them grabbing the arms, everyone pulling. With a sickening sound, an arm pulled from the socket. His screams grew louder with the pain. Blood poured onto the sand, further exciting them.
Caguax watched in horrified fascination as gradually, the shuffling ancestors pulled the man into half a dozen or more pieces. Yuisa swooned, and two of her guards caught her, steadied her until she regained her composure.
At first, several ancestors merely cleared the warm bits out of the way. Reaching down into the pit, they methodically tore out chunks of the rotted carcass. Behind them, however, Caguax noticed two licking warm blood and flesh from their fingers. Instead of joining the others in their traditional feeding, they began to investigate a warmer, fresher meal.
Caguax and Gueybana listened in darkness, broken only by the light of the fires in the camp and the stars overhead. Snores confirmed that most of the Guamikena slept. Two guards patrolled, guns in hand.
A conch shell sounded three times from the beach. The guards stopped, called to one another. Voices muttered from the tents.
Dark figures lumbered out of the jungle behind the camp. Another week had passed since the ancestors fed. There were at least twenty of them and they were hungry.
Shouts and screams rose into the darkness. Caguax and his fellow villagers lit bonfires around the edge of the jungle to keep both the Guamikena and the ancestors within the confines of the camp. Several soldiers escaped into the trees. Some of the ancestors followed, the noises of pursuit dying away in a short while. It took longer for the sounds of feeding to die within the camp.
The next morning, the remnants were buried and the camp burned. Those who escaped were never seen. Everyone was sickened by the carnage, but the Guamikena were gone, from here at least. Caguax put his arm around Gueybana’s shoulders as they walked back to the village.
Several villagers were ill and unable to help. Several bore red spots on their skin and were feverish. The shamans said it would pass.
“We should feel guilty about killing the gods,” Caguax said, scratching his arm.
“They weren’t gods,” Gueybana said. “They were too easy to kill. “
Caguax shrugged. “The priests say we will be punished. “
Guebana laughed. “How? What was left of their bodies was thrown into the sea.”
“Their shadows fell on all of us. Some of our people are ill. There are more on the other side of the island.”
“They will find us less willing to accept them as gods. We killed these. We can kill others. We now have thundersticks, too.”
“But at what price? What have we done by letting the ancestors eat live flesh?”
“We will be vigilant for a time. They will forget. It’s just the fever that makes you worry. Once it is gone, you will find your courage again.”
Caguax nodded and rubbed his hand across his forehead, wiping away the sweat that beaded there. The red spots on his arm wouldn’t stop itching.
by Cary G. Osborne