Terra Incognita (part two)

It was almost dark, the sky had a beautiful reddish hue, and through the window, and thanks to the contrast between sky and earth that always took place during the evening, it could be distinguished, very far away, the roofs of Manila, the roads and the fishing villages that abound along the long bay and, further still, the mountainous hinterland and the two huge volcanoes placed north and south, in Bataan and Cavite respectively, closing the huge natural harbor from the Indian Ocean.

terra_incognita_1(to go to the first part of the story click here)

The father sat on the left side of the bed, with his elegant but simple white and black Dominican habit, a beatific and relaxed gesture, and his hands clasped above her knees. His young friend, at the end of the bed, and next to the window, looked more serious, with his almost martial, discreet and circumspect gravity he used to behave and that, however, Father knew could suddenly change with a simple glance or a smile sudden. He wore a discreet black jerkin, dark brown pants, ocher shirt with its sleeves showing out from the arms and a simple neck of the same color. He had his sword at his side, wear brown high boots that reached to his knees, his hands holding a quill and a few bundles he had brought, which he supported together with some ink on a wooden board he had asked the owner to put aside, ready to take notes of everything that could be interesting to note.

Father Ramón began questioning with tact and delicacy, treating the patient with the same patience and sweetness that are usually given to children. He made him know that both of them were aware of his personal circumstances, and that they were very much interested on knowing what happened to him during his many months of wandering around the wide world until he was rescued by the crew of that Portuguese vessel. The patient, fortunately, wanted to talk, especially after having spent two weeks locked up in that room almost without company, and his incipient madness, though making him harder to understand, made him also more talkative. His story, completed later on with the notes the young friend of Father Ramón took from previous interviews with other members of the same expedition, began like this:

The so called Manuel had embarked as a sailor in the flagship Saints Peter and Paul, one of the three of the expedition led by the illustrious navigator Don Pedro Fernandez de Quirós, which along with another 300 sailors and soldiers departed westward from the seafaring Peruvian city of El Callao on December 21st, 1605 AD. His initial tour through the islands of the Central Pacific Ocean was quite bearable. Careful not to run aground on coral, and stocking up on food and water whenever it was possible, they explored or disembarked at a rate of one island per day, for a total of nine islands until they found the first indigenous on mid-February, a meeting soon to be followed by many others. As Manuel claimed, while he spoke about it with a relaxed tone of voice and a pleasant smile portrayed on his weathered and punished face, those islands and waters were beautiful, and their people, especially the women, charming, noble and innocent. As for descriptions of animals was concerned, however, he could hardly contribute with anything especially significant.

On February 21st, he followed, the expedition managed to reach an island already visited by Mendaña, called San Bernardo, an uninhabited rock devoid of water, which forced them to continue their journey to another island, from which they finished jumping, on March 1st, to another one, which they called Island of Beautiful People. Manuel told that its inhabitants seemed to them, in principle, superb, dressing in elaborate and beautiful gowns, looking strong and handsome, both men and women, and living in large, cozy and very solid huts. However, that name they gave to that place eventually turned out to be ironic when, a few days after their arrival, and while exploring the inland lake, were fiercely attacked, losing three men and being forced to re-embark hastily.

After such an unfortunate encounter morale went down, and crew of the flagship began to fret, so captain had to bring order, hang a sailor and dismiss the chief pilot. Nevertheless, on April 7th strong winds and the new pilot brought them to other inhabited island, called Our Lady of Socorro, where they found a village built in magnificent and huge stilts raised on the coast and on a few marshes, and from where its inhabitants came out to receive the Spanish very friendly, sailing on big boats and catamarans they filled with goods and treats. Such wonders made Quirós to agree in calling that place like Venice, and after eleven days of rest and solace all of them left for the Solomon, reaching on 21st other inhabited and friendly island from where they jumped to many other islands, all of them close to each other, until landing on the above mentioned Island of Espíritu Santo, where they finally anchored on April 30th 1606 AD. Once again, descriptions of wildlife, flora and landscapes asked patiently by the young man to Manuel did not contribute to anything new, but even though the questioner stayed at the end of the bed, listening intently and taking notes, after lighting a few candles and place them on a simple table at his side since night had finally fallen. Through the window a gentle tropical breeze blew, and a beautiful crescent moon and lots of stars could already be seen on the skies.

Until that moment the patient had narrated everything quite calmly, staring into the distance with a soft smile on his lips, as if the memories of that stage of the expedition were especially pleasing for him. However, from that point he suddenly began to shake, looking visibly agitated, though his words continued to maintain a reasonable consistency. He told then how the expedition reached the island and how dropped anchor in its largest bay, a big cove with the shape of a “U” opening to the north, protected by a tall, elongated set of hills to the west and where a small stream flowed down from the south, from the center of the island. The landscape there contrasted somewhat with the other islands, waters of the bay were dark, the sand on the beach was grey, and the thick forest stretched in and covering everything that could be seen was formed by hardwood trees leaves without a single palm in it. The place, however, was not bad as a port, and it made the captain think they finally found their desired Terra Australis, naming it Austrialia del Espíritu Santo, mixing the words “Austral” and “Austria” in honor of the reigning dynasty. In doing so, he took possession of all the lands that from that place might extend to the south pole, and ordered the construction of a colony called New Jerusalem, founded on the banks of that little river that since then was known as Jordan River.

The problem, according to what Manuel affirmed at that point, was that nobody actually wanted to stay on that island, only Quirós, and that, as a leader, the latter was a stubborn, despotic and intractable man. Frictions inside the expedition eructed then, and while some wanted to continue to the southwest, looking for some more evidence to prove the alleged existence of this new continent they had supposedly discovered, others wanted to head to Manila without extending over the journey, and others wanted to came back again to some of the cozy islands already visited, like Venice, and settle there for a while. Apparently, only Quirós liked that new land, but fate, however, was responsible for altering his plans, for while discussing among them the Spaniards seemed to forget that the island was already inhabited, and on May 14th an expedition of twelve men who had recklessly ventured south along the course of the so called Jordan River fell in a massive ambush. Manuel was part of that group.

About t
he further adventures and misadventures of the unfortunate expedition the Gipuzkoa sailor knew nothing, but they did. Quirós, not knowing what to do, had gone to sea, separated from the rest of the group during a storm, and finally arrived to Acapulco, while his second, after looking vainly for his captain for a fortnight, had set sail for New Guinea, ending in Manila almost a year later. For Manuel, however, things happened in a very different way: after fighting bravely and killing many Indians only two of his colleagues survived with him, but their fortune was disastrous, as they were executed and eaten that very same night at a banquet held in a small village somewhere at the south of the island. For him, apparently, a different destination was assigned, for after two days he was embarked on a huge canoe and transported to various islands in a kind of triumphant march of boats and catamarans. Beside him, he thought, there were about fifty warriors traveling on eight boats, all dressed in loincloths with their bodies painted in black. They always reached an island, landed in in order to exhibit their prisoner to the local population, parleyed with them and continued. He never understood the purpose of it at all, but at least he was alive, and though always tied he was carefully fed, cared for and even treated with some dignity. This strange procession, he estimated, lasted for about a week or more, after which they sailed for several days, perhaps another whole week, reaching another huge island, different than any other land they had visited before. In here, the entourage arrived at a beach where they found a group of people, did the usual parley and display, and then abandoned him and left following the same way they came.

From that point Manuel began to bewilder, and his story became bizarre and confusing. His interlocutors had a hard time following him, because he mixed and repeated things, sometimes stumbling in his speech, sometimes falling into deep silences, always telling the facts in disorder, changing the subject for no apparent reason, laughing, feeling sad and laughing again, while repeating obsessively some phrases like “they bewitched me”, “mountains were moving”, “the earth was red” or “dreams came true and reality was all but a dream.”

He claimed that, on his arrival, he found a race of men unattractive, short, weathered, cracked, with a very dark skin and curly shaggy hair, broad noses, prominent brow and serene, innocent eyes. He said they were naked, often adorned with elaborate and abstract paintings, and showing symmetrical scars all over their body. They did not domesticated animals, did not know how to fish or cultivate, they were nomadic and polygamous, used to bake their food in holes dug in the ground. They drew on the rocks all kinds of strange creatures, he said, and exhumed the dead bodies of their loved ones in order to clean and venerate them afterwards. Adults, assured, aged at once, but lived many years after becoming old, and they did not conceived their children, as they were born of the earth, like trees and plants grow, with their curly hair sticking out like leaves and the rest of their body buried as a tuber. They were docile, gentle and apathetic beings, who saw the spirits and ghosts of their ancestors floating everywhere, who got their utensils and tools from these spirits only when the latters wanted to give them, and forced their children to live in the same area all their life in order to properly honor their family ghosts. They talked to each other only when it was considered absolutely necessary and no more, played big wooden pipes whose sound resembled the moan of a big giant with hoarseness, and spent long hours daydreaming, actually dreaming awake, as they were able to travel with their minds to a world of dreams from where, as they explained him once, they claimed to come from, and from where they could return dreaming whenever they pleased.

Manuel claimed that, upon his arrival, those strange beings welcomed him as a rarity. At first all them stared at him and treated him with fear and respect, but at no time, a strange ritual was made while playing their strange tubes, and it made him invisible to everyone, everyone except children, animals and magicians. Since then he lived among them like a ghost. Nobody noticed or saw him, or at least appeared to do so, and given this he started wandering around, observing them shamelessly, watching closely, grabbing food or anything else whenever he wanted, traveling with them when they did, and sleeping beside them when everyone decided to sleep. Only magicians spoke to him from time to time, always after performing strange rituals in front of a bonfire, thanks to which he could know and understand some things, and even learn a few words of their language.

At a certain point, after countless moons were gone already, he began feeling tired, and decided to venture traveling west, trying not to go too far from the coast, considering that, in doing so, perhaps he could find some civilized settlement from where be rescued. As he feared getting lost, he made understand the magician of the tribe his intentions as best as he could. The latter appointed a man to whom he could follow, a local who, after hearing a few words from the magician, began walking, walking without seeing or paying attention to him, but whom Manuel followed because, he realized, was heading west.

They then started traveling across a very flat land of deep red color, sometimes dotted with shrubs and green trees growing stunted towards the wind. In that red, dry, hot,vast and desolate land it never rained, and in the distance rose sometimes occasional hills or mounds, which rather than standing still, as usual, used to move very little, almost imperceptibly but steadily, while changing color throughout the day, from purple to brown in the morning, and from orange to deep red in the sunset. Large pools of water evaporated or seeped into the sand and disappear in seconds, the rivers were all brown color, and its course appeared and disappeared between the cracks of the ground. The spirits had placed huge boulders, also red and strangely shaped, one above the other, suspended in bizarre positions, forming strange figures while keeping a seemingly precarious balance. And the land, always and everywhere, was red, so red that, at sunset, he could really distinguish the ground from the sky, so that it seemed as if the world had turned upside down.

Manuel and his companion went through this unusual and distant landscape on foot, day after day, sleeping outdoors at night, and always heading west. Despite the recesses and aridity of the place the guide knew exactly where to find food and water by dreaming awake to consult with his dead ancestors. He did not use plans, their maps were songs that, being sung, indicated where to go. From time to time he stopped, and with a stick who obeyed his will hunted an animal. He trow it and when it failed, the stick came back meekly to his hands, by itself. When he got a prey he just cooked it in a hole on the ground or on a bonfire and, immediately, he began to eat. If Manuel did nothing he would go without food, and if he picked up pieces of meat he could take as many as he wanted even to leave the other without eating at all, because the other never reacted to whatever he did. Then they slept, and in the morning he always had to be very careful, because the guide used to resume the journey without warning him, that because, as he knew well, nobody could really see him.

While walking that way he claimed to have met all sorts of strange creatures: a kind of docile and cuddly monkey, of paunchy and slow movements, more similar to a cub than a primate, of large ears and a strange spike, which liked to hang lazily from branches of the scarce trees. He also saw fierce huge lizards with blue tongues, enormous spiders, a kind of small deer jumping on two huge paws and carrying their offspring in a pouch placed in his belly, giant crocodiles living either in the sea and on the rivers, and huge fat birds of dense plumage and blue neck running from one side to another because they could not fly.

After a few days the guide ran into another group of men. For them Manuel was, at first, a visible rarity, but after crossing a few words a magician performed a ritual with wooden horns, turning him again into an invisible ghost. Then a man began to walk west again, and once again Manuel accompanied him for several days as he did previously with the former guide, and so they traveled until they found, soon after, another group of people, when the same thing happened again, and so again and again and again, in a process that would repeat exactly the same process countless times, always traveling slowly westward.

At this point of his story they barely understood what Manuel was saying, for his excitement and delirium increased, but they encouraged him to finish, even if it seemed to have lost all meaning. As required, Manuel continued, quite confusing though, saying that he had no idea about how long did it take to them until one day they finally reached the sea. His latest guide took him to a distant place from which it could be seen, in the distance and over the north, a huge mass of land rising beyond a wide channel of water. In those places the landscape seemed greener, although the earth was still red, and walking along white desolate beaches he was guided to another small group of strange people, to whom he became, as was always the case, invisible after performing the already known ritual with wooden pipes.

Once h
ere, and according to Manuel, one night the magician of that local community invoked the spirits of their ancestors with their wooden tubes while he was sleeping, as when they reached the village from the eternal red earth flats, they thought he was one of them, due to his long hair, the dirt covering his body, his rags, his tanned skin and his dense beard. By the time he was officially mistaken as a native the magician painted his body like everyone else, and everyone was able to see him and deal with him since then. Thanks to this, he was formally allowed to enter inside the sleep time, that strange world or state of absence in which those incredible beings spent most of their lives. One night they made him eat some herbs brought from the sky by a huge white bird, and in doing so his vision changed, because next morning absolutely everything around him had taken a darker hue, the outlines of the things had become blurred, shadows were much more pronounced, and at one point he could see himself, looking like he looked like more than a year ago, walking away from the beach, entering the sea and disappearing into the water. That event made the sky become darker, the weather worsened suddenly and a strong wind began to blow spraying foam from the crests of the waves. The spirits of time went down the rivers entering the sea,following what his ghost previously did, and from the sea they brought a boat in which the magician, two other men and himself embarked. Then those ghosts and spirits blazed trails into the water, digging deep channels in reef and corals, allowing them to sail until reaching the land that could be seen across the straits.

The final part of the story neither father Ramón nor his friend could actually understand very well, but it said, more or less, that after landing on the other side of the straits, the magician became a crocodile, while the other two men began to move, one north and one to the east, away into the distance. Manuel walked again towards the west, and the crocodile began to blow on his back to help him move forward. As he was moving Manuel was creating the world whenever he moved one of his feet following the coastline, the sea always on his left, and the mountains and valleys always on his right, the latter of an intense green color because I was already tired of so much red and wasted land. One day, when he got bored, he decided to start creating people, but did not understand them when they spoke, and another day the magician-crocodile decided it was time to stop creating new land, because that was the spirits-dream prerogative, and with the rests of the boat they used to cross the straits he made a ship full of friendly Portuguese who rescued him and eventually headed to Manila.

After finishing that last sentence Manuel fell into a deep silence, and soon fell asleep and began to snore, so Father Ramón and his friend put out the candles and left, leaving him dreaming God knew what strange worlds and fantasies. The next day the friar and his friend left their protege resting in the hostelry, as they went to Manila to meet various commitments, not knowing that there would be no more interviews with Manuel. Soon after they returned to the city they learned that Manuel´s health had suddenly fallen, and just two days later that he had died of fevers in the same bed where they heard his last words.

Henceforth no expeditions landed coming from the Pacific Islands, no shipwrecks were found in the middle of nowhere, no news came, nothing happened, and due to the lack of raw materials the young chronicler was forced to put his project aside indefinitely. However, and as he later confessed to his friend Ramón, he never felt sorry for having invested so much time listening to the fantastic stories of Manuel because, as he assure half amused and half smiling, they were well worth the trouble, first because no one could assure they did not actually represent, in fact, the true story of what could have been the first European to land on the mysterious Terra Australis Incognita, and secondly because, and apart from their dubious veracity, they also deserved to be heard and collected, even without being truthful, as he said “because of how magnificent and beautiful they turned out to be.”

(Lee el relato en Español aquí)

2 responses to “Terra Incognita (part two)

  1. Pingback: Terra Incognita (part one) | marcosmarconius·

  2. Pingback: Terra Incognita (segunda parte) | marcosmarconius·

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