The year was 1520. It was a frenzied time. A decade earlier, Rafael Álvares Avila had set foot on a distant land at the edge of a dense forest and befriended members of a hunter-gatherer tribe whose existence was hitherto unknown in his part of the world. When word got around about the exploits of Avila and his band of intrepid men, every Grandee, no matter the pedigree, declared himself an explorer. Rumors of bountiful riches hidden in the dense forest and of bare-chested tribal women prompted all stripes of rascally men – marauders, privateers, freebooters – to line up for commission on expeditions announced by noble and not so noble men.
Brother Juan, already struggling with his spiritual formation, was having bouts of anxiety about what the future held for him. He wanted so much to be a part of Father Miguel’s mission to spread God’s word among the tribal folks in the newfound jungle. It had been several months since Father Miguel had sent his entreaties to the Pope seeking his blessings. The Pope, however, had not yet ordained the project. Brother Juan had learned from traders and venders that Prince Manuel da Lopez’s expedition was all but ready to leave. He liked the prince. Prince Manuel was honorable and respectable. Brother Juan wanted the church mission to be a part of Prince Manuel’s expedition. He wanted no part of expeditions in search of El Dorado, of which there were many. Parishioners had come to him with stories about a gilded king whose subjects tossed ornaments made of gold, silver, and emerald into a mythical river in the jungle to propitiate the gods. He had cautioned them against falling for concocted stories and legends. He had also heard horror stories about atrocities committed by Iberian mercenaries and sailors in the jungle. Priests who had been part of earlier expeditions had recorded instances of massacre, torture, rape, and slavery – sexual and otherwise. The conquering colonials had looted local treasures and made the enslaved indigenous people carry the loot to the waiting ships.
The friars eventually received the long-awaited benediction. Shortly thereafter, Prince Manuel’s fleet set sail amid much fanfare and solemn ceremonies.
The first night at sea, Brother Juan dreamed the decapitated head dream. This had been a recurring dream ever since he was eight. In the very first dream, his decapitated head was singing, laughing, and playing with his embodied friends. When he told his parents about the frightening dream, they took him to the parish priest who told him that bad dreams were the devil’s doing and that he should put his trust in the power of prayer. No matter how hard he prayed, the dream kept recurring. Sometimes the head was sad, sometimes happy, sometimes angry. That night on the ship, the head was bobbing in the middle of an ocean. Initially the head resembled his, but it slowly transformed into a ball of strings and the strings slowly turned into snakes. He shared his dream with Father Miguel who laughed and said maybe he was possessed by the spirit of Medusa. He then proceeded to tell him the story of Medusa.
Medusa was one of three daughters born to sea deities Keto and Phorcys. Since Phorcys happened to be Keto’s brother as well, he was Medusa’s father and uncle. Medusa had live serpents in place of locks of hair. It was not always like that. She once had rousing golden hair. The serpents were the result of a curse by Athena, the goddess of wisdom and warfare. Medusa had made the mistake of copulating with Poseidon, the protector of seafarers, in a temple dedicated to Athena. As a punishment, Athena turned Medusa’s golden locks into live serpents.
Unbeknownst to Medusa, a plot was hatched in a faraway land to murder her. Acrisius, the king of Argos, believing an oracle’s prophecy that he would be killed by his grandson, deposited his daughter, Danae, and her pre-teen son, Perseus, in a wooden chest and cast it out to the sea. Mother and child washed ashore on the island of Seriphos whose ruler Polydectus took a fancy to Danae. Perseus disliked Polydectus, so he plotted to kill him. He had heard of a Gorgon named Medusa whose gaze turned people to stone. Aware of Athena’s curse, he sought her help in finding and killing Medusa. With Athena’s assistance, he went in search of Medusa, found her, and beheaded her avoiding her gaze. He brought the decapitated head, which retained its ability to turn onlookers to stone, to Polydectus and declared, “Here is your gift, my Lord!” Polydectus looked at the gift and was turned into stone.
The references to sea, sea gods, and seafaring in the story were not lost on Brother Juan. He was shaken by parallels between his dream and the fable. Snakes in place of hair? He reflexively touched his head just to make sure. He asked Father Miguel if there was a moral to the story. Father Miguel told him that the myths were created by pagans a long time ago when polytheism was predominant. Enlightened humans like him and Brother Juan knew that there was but one God and by trusting Him, all humans would attain salvation. That explanation – more of a pronouncement – did nothing to settle Brother Juan’s feeling of unease.
After over a month at sea, the fleet commander announced that they would be making landfall in a couple of days. That night, a severe storm hit the ocean. Giant waves tossed the ships this way and that. Two of the ships sank taking the sailors down with them. The other ships managed to stay afloat despite hours of non-stop rain, turbulent waves, and whipping winds. However, the commander was unable to establish the coordinates and the sailors had no control over the direction of the ships’ drift. When the storm finally died, they found themselves in unchartered waters. The usually composed prince was tense and agitated. There was very little food left since food rations were in one of the ships that sank. After a few more days of delirious drifting, one of the sailors spotted seaweed. The commander knew land had to be nearby. The ships followed the floating seaweed and soon there were other promising signs: birds circling overhead, musty odor of mangrove swamps, and distant roar of surf. Finally, they saw land – more precisely, thick vegetation.
The prince picked a landing site and rode a canoe towards it along with five sailors. There was no sign of human or animal life where they landed. They marched inland, rifle at the ready. Once they reached the edge of the jungle, there was nowhere to go. The vegetation was so thick and the canopy so dense, it was hard to see where one was going. They drew their swords and cut an arduous path looking for anything that looked edible. They found some berries at the base of a tree. After taste-testing, they went looking for similar trees. As they got deeper into the jungle, they heard movements in the treetops. They could vaguely see the outlines of a creature that leapt from one branch to the next. They assumed they were monkeys which did not interest them. They were in search of more edible animals – a squirrel, a rabbit or even a snake. They came upon another berry tree and were inspecting the fruit when figures emerged from the shadows. They were surrounded by short men armed with spears. More men dropped from the trees and soon there were scores of them. The men talked among themselves and inspected the visitors. One of them touched a sailor and withdrew his hand quickly. Another leapt up to touch the face of a tall sailor. As the native men got bolder, the sailors were beginning to lose their nerve. When a native pinched the flesh of a sailor, the sailor shouted “cannibals!” and shot the offender. Within minutes, the prince and the other sailors had been speared to death.
The waiting sailors heard the shot and feared the worst. As the sailors stood on the deck watching the shore, one of the sailors dropped dead felled by a poisoned dart. The sailors moved the cannons on the ships in position to aim at the landing site. When the natives gathered on the beach to look at the ships, a cannon ball took out half of them. The natives made a hasty retreat. When there was no movement or activity for a long time, Brother Juan offered to go ashore and make a peace offering. He rode alone in a canoe. As soon as he reached the shore, he was set upon, dragged away from the beach and beheaded. The natives stuck Brother Juan’s head on a gold-painted pole and placed it on the beachfront as a warning to intruders. When Brother Juan did not return, Father Miguel went ashore looking for him. Blinded by the shiny pole on the beach, he rode the canoe in the general direction of the beach. As he was pulling the canoe out of the water, he saw Brother Juan’s decapitated head. The moment his eyes caught Brother Juan’s eyes; he was turned into stone. From that day on, Brother Juan’s head sitting on a golden pole kept all intruders and invaders away from that part of the world.
Balu Swami lives in the US. His works have appeared in Ink Pantry, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Flash Fiction North, Short Kid Stories, Twist and Twain, and Literary Veganism.
You can find more of Balu’s work here on Ink Pantry