Ascension of the Conquistador

by Andrew Bowen

One of Montejo's cap­tains has us drilling in the rain again. The sun hasn't shone for days and the air is sti­fling, like try­ing to breath under water. Every­thing looks gray except the palms. Each green leaf droops in the rain like a sali­vat­ing tongue hang­ing from its mouth.

I miss arid Spain.

A man gur­gles behind me. I turn to the famil­iar sound in time to see a robe-clad monk draw a cross in the air between him­self and the native on his knees. He flails against two acolytes hold­ing his head in a bar­rel. The priest bap­tizes him, but the wretched soul surely doesn't under­stand. All he knows is that he, at the hands of these con­quis­ta­dors, has nearly drowned.

He lifts his head from the bar­rel. Long black hair hangs wet over his face as the two young men pull him up by his elbows. He looks up and meets my eyes. They are dark and eter­nal. His lips trem­ble as if words might explode from his mouth. Though he knows why I haven't helped him, the pain rip­pling across his face argues that I could have cho­sen to.

His dark fea­tures remind me of Isabella.

She was a con­versa, a Jew who, in light of the Inqui­si­tion, had con­verted to Catholi­cism. But this was only wool over their eyes. She loved Spain too much to leave, but not enough to aban­don Yahweh.

In the bed­cham­ber, she liked to wake just before sun­rise and read from her secret Torah and Psalms. The parch­ment scroll crack­led as she unfurled it in her del­i­cate, spider-like hands. I propped on my elbows and watched. She sat on her knees in front of the win­dow and allowed the east­ern morn­ing glow to wash over her, as if the sun itself were brought to life by her voice, and cast a golden hue over her skin. Her linen night gown hung loose off her shoul­ders and revealed the sheen of skin that only her mother and I had ever seen. The Psalms of David trick­led off her rus­set lips. I smiled as her voice soothed any poten­tial ache my life as a sol­dier might bring that day.

She turned and caught me watch­ing with a grin. “Can't a lady have some privacy?”

“My dar­ling, if you could see what I wake to every morn…”

Some­one kicked in our front door.

I drew my sword as the sol­diers, six in all, swarmed the room and over­whelmed us before I could swing my blade. Two held my wife at sword's edge while the remain­ing four dis­armed me and held fast to my arms.

“You had bet­ter explain this, corporal.”

A priest, draped in a red robe and cap, stepped into my house with two young men, also in red robes, flank­ing him. A sil­ver cru­ci­fix shim­mered by a chain at the cen­ter of his chest. He smiled and nod­ded. “Fear not, sergeant, we do not sus­pect you.”

One of the sol­diers hold­ing my wife approached the priest with her parch­ment scrolls. The smile left his face as he looked up at me. “Your wife con­fessed alle­giance to Spain and our holy mother church, yet she car­ries this?”

She yelled in Hebrew. No one under­stood the words, but every­one felt the barbs. She spat on one of the sol­diers. He slapped her face. My mus­cles caught fire and lashed out from my cap­tors. I buried my fist into the young man's cheek and fell upon him. Isabella screamed and clawed at the oth­ers as they pulled me away from the boy. I could taste his blood on my lips.

The priest raised his hands. “See how the devil works in her? Take her away. Sergeant,” he said as she bucked in their arms. “We know that from cre­ation, women are the deceivers of men. We do not blame you for what was held in your home, but we shall free you of it.” He nod­ded to one of the sol­dier and turned out the door.

Half an hour later, the rush and crackle of flames touched my ears. I was con­fined to the bed­cham­ber as my wife cooked and screamed along with other con­ver­sos found guilty of apos­tasy. I trem­bled with hatred and blood­lust. Because of her and the pos­si­ble taint of her influ­ence, I was ordered to reestab­lish my loy­alty to God and coun­try with mil­i­tary ser­vice in the war against the Maya of the Yucatan. I told them to burn in hell. They smiled and sent me anyway.

Rain drips into my eyes and I blink. The sav­age stares at me as he's dragged away and replaced by another for baptism.


I shud­der and turn about to atten­tion. “Yes sir!”

The cap­tain glares at me. His breath is sour, like dead fish. “Have you found some­thing pret­tier than me to look at over there?”

“No sir.”

“Then keep your eyes for­ward, conquistador!”

“Yes sir!”

He steps away with his hands behind his back. Rain­drops clink against the sword at his side. “Dismissed!”

We break ranks, and make for our tents.

A young pri­vate inspects him­self in a hand mir­ror and trims his black goa­tee. Fresh from the set­tle­ment on Cuba, I almost pity him. We are bunked together, I'm sure, out of mutual pun­ish­ment and jest from our officers.

Sleep pulls on my eye­lids as the rain taps on our can­vas tent. My throat opens and the begin­nings of a snore rum­ble in my throat.


I open my eyes and sigh. “What is it?”

“Is it true that the men and women from the first expe­di­tion were cap­tured and sac­ri­ficed by the savages?”

“Per­haps. What of it?”

The crum­ple of his leather boots bother the rhythm of the rain as he takes them off. “The priest, dur­ing mass said that they cut out the hearts of their vic­tims because they believe it will cause the sun to rise.” His voice breaks as his throat strains to con­ceal fear. “Have you ever heard of such nonsense?”

I think about Isabella's Jew­ish rit­u­als. Dur­ing Passover, before the Inquisition's grip squeezed our provin­cial town out­side of Cor­doba, she would paint lamb's blood on the lentil post of our door. “The Hebrews did this to keep the angel of death away,” she would say.


I turn away in my bunk. “It's all non­sense, boy. Goodnight.”

Whis­pers and a muf­fled voice wake me. I draw my dag­ger and roll over. Sev­eral Maya, painted in black stripes, fill the room and sur­round us. The boy is stand­ing with an arm around his neck by some­one from behind. Three Maya tackle me to my bunk and stuff a ball of cloth into my mouth. The boy's eyes flare wide. A long, sil­very blade runs through him. Moon­light shim­mers on the blood that coats and drips from the steel. I cringe and glance away. When I look back, I see him; the man who had been bap­tized stares down at me with stripes of shadow over his body. They bring me to my feet and abduct me from the sleepy camp.

They drag me blind­folded through the Yucatan jun­gle. Branches and leaves flog me as I slip on the muddy path. The gag falls out of my mouth. I scream, “Free me! I beg you,” but they do not under­stand. I lift my face toward the sky and curse God instead for his destruc­tion of the Tower of Babel whose fall now makes moot my plea for life.

The soles of my feet even­tu­ally scratch against stone. They are steps. I search for foot­ing with my splayed toes as I'm tugged along. The voices are calmer now as the air cools the higher we go. My leg mus­cles burn and quiver.

We stop. The blind­fold falls from my eyes. A man with black paint over the top half of his face stares at me with the cool indif­fer­ence of a Greek bust. Red, yel­low and blue feath­ers flut­ter in the breeze from his hair. I stand atop a pyra­mid which over­looks the fog-laden for­est around us.

“Please,” I say.

He mut­ters some­thing in his native tongue. My cap­tors push me down and turn me belly-up on a large, flat table of cold, wet lime­stone. One of the men cuts my shirt open with an obsid­ian blade. I close my eyes and whim­per as the plumed priest chants over me. Thun­der rum­bles in the west. Hands flow over me as I try and remem­ber Isabella's face. My heart beat drums inside my head and dis­torts her image.

The blade cuts into my chest. My eyes burst open. I heave and flail my arms and legs as the priest cuts my flesh and cracks my ribs. There is a man hold­ing each limb. Blood squirts onto my face and gur­gles out of my mouth. It tastes like dirty coins.

My heart beat qui­ets. I feel cold and weight­less. Sun­light splits the hori­zon in the east and coats my body in warmth. The priest slowly lifts my heart above my chest. It still beats as the ris­ing sun­light bursts around it. Isabella's face emerges soft and pris­tine before my eyes. I smile and drift to sleep.