Literary Arts | READ LOCAL First

Michael Mejia: Matanzas

READ LOCAL First boasts Utah’s most comprehensive collection of accomplished writers who practice fiction, poetry, literary nonfiction, and memoir. This month we bring you Michael Mejia, author of the novels TOKYO and Forgetfulness, both published by FC2.

Mejia’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in many journals and anthologies, including AGNI, DIAGRAM, The Collagist, and Seneca Review. Mejia is a recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation. He serves as editor-in-chief of Western Humanities Review, co-founding editor of Ninebark Press, and is a professor of creative writing at the University of Utah.

The following excerpt (from a work-in-progress) imagines a period in the life of Gonzalo Mexía, prior to his participation in Hernán Cortés’ expedition to conquer the Aztec empire in 1519.

By some accounts, including that of Bernal Díaz del Castillo (The True History of the Conquest of New Spain, 1568), while returning to Hispaniola from a failed attempt to colonize the coast of Venezuela in the early 1500s, Mexía was shipwrecked on the island of Cuba and held captive by indigenous Taíno for as long as ten years.


In the first days, you listened to the waves on the shore, through the forest—what they called arcabuco—knowing how close it was—the sea—how far you’d come—again—though not quite how far you remained from—

The absence of certainty and home—thinking of yourself as a seed on the wind—taking shallow root—loosening, surrendering your hold by your own will and moving on to richer soils—black and damp—awash in metals—

You left the catastrophe of Darien to return to Hispaniola—to start again—

Tilling their garden now—alongside other slaves—watched by guards—repeating certain sounds of theirs as your own slip away—receding into your inner silence—guagua­—they say—

Guardaguantelete—that sound—theirs—already there in your own words—your language—your pronunciation—planting the seeds of who knows what—guerra—guerrero—words you’ve known your whole life—words of that other world—and now this one—words you brought with you—not objects, but the works of your body—

A few more days, weeks, and you’re attempting to mimic their pronunciation—gua—or gua­—the name of the lizards penned at one end of the village—guahiguanaguey—the rising sun—guana—the name of some other people—real or imagined—a superstition or an explanation—living in another place—as if they’re real—and not these slaves toiling beside you—captives, like yourself—who seem like enough to your captors—your saviors—to be the same, though they have a different name—ciboney, they say—yours, your Indians, pointing—ciboney—and the others, poking seeds in the soil, take no offense—don’t lift their eyes from the task—no insult, but their name—Ciboney

Gua—there it is again in the name of their man, their lord—who is also cacique—simple enough—

Guayaba—a fruit—

Ja, they said, when they rescued you from the shipwreck—cemi­ as they touched your face, your chest and shoulders—but that talk dried up—

In a few seasons, once you’ve given up on escape—but how hard have you tried since they don’t seem inclined to slaughter you?—you’ve earned a new name: Baracutey, the same as a long, toothy fish they sometimes eat—you eat—and from whose teeth they make jewelry—

A smile or frown accompanies the term, but you’re not sure why—except that one or two others of them you’ve seen referred to the same way—either for their recent catch, you suppose—or because of their behavior—baracutey—their nature which seems somewhat consistent with yours—sullen and quiet—removed from others—

Though you have a reason—not being one of them—your skin—and no reason to change—even as they come to you now with fewer demands—with more invitations—two years have passed and perhaps you’ll die here—be buried like other men—beneath the plaza—renamed like them—renamed again: opía—a spirit they feed and water—that they celebrate—that they fear—the corruption and sickness you could bring from beneath the stones—superstitious brutes—

You work alongside them, nearly as an equal now—planting and harvesting—catching fish for your family—the ones who took you in—liand lulucaia—another people across the water—

So you take one as a wife—and she bears a child—and now you, too, are called taíno—with an ironic tone—

Guanahatabey is the name of those people to the west—you hear it all now—make the name easily with your mouth—the place where they live: guanahacabibe—and you hear even more at night, in the quiet—the breath of your family—two children—three—a fourth on the way by a third woman—the chitter and whoop of birds in the morning—something scuttling in the arcabucobayoya, his spiraling tail—aon, barking as you approach—sucking the small bones of guimomaja, the big snake—each of them distinct to your ear—a taste—an image—a sensation—you have touched everything—and your nose is full of this place—your feet cool on the damp earth—your body—

But Baracutey, it is so hard to be alone—so you climb, looking out for snakes, find a sturdy limb and sit still—how the place you were resurfaces at night, early in the morning—that name, Gonzalo, that they have shortened to Zalo, or Salo, or ignore altogether—You are BaracuteyBaraBaraBara Bara

That other place: a world of metal tools, farms, cities and roads—clothing shops and markets—wheeled vehicles and fences—ships lost at sea—one God, your parents, the bishop who wore eyeglasses—the lenses ground in Sevilla—glass—

But this world here—of hands—of fingers and toes and tongues—shark’s teeth and stone—however brutal and random—ignorant—unfortunate—you have come to embrace it—perhaps because that’s all it requires of you—like the dirt floor of your home—that simplicity that could, nonetheless, easily be upset by someone’s carelessness—by the whim of a powerful man or another tribe—even by your own family—a petulant son—a sickness—a flood—the storms they call huracán—just the same that shipwrecked you—most of the crew and passengers drowned—and those slaughtered after—murdered by these people, you used to think—later coming to accept that it was a matter of protection—what you yourself would do for them now when armed men arrive—for your family if not for your neighbors—and isn’t this, too, the possibility of this life, why you’re here?—why you crossed the ocean?

The tales told by those first men—yours—the Sp—Spanish—of the lives of these people—the people—taíno—narratives layered with disgust and pleasure—with avarice—those same men—that other tribe you listen for now, so early in the morning—knowing as your village can’t—their verminous nature—spreading and relentless—

How limited this pleasure is—a doom for which there is still no word—

These people—your people now—taíno—won’t have the same advantages as the tribes in Darien—of the invaders’ distance from supplies and reinforcements—of leaders lacking competence—of dissolute men with no furor of purpose—

You sit still and the arcabuco grows over you—a trail of insects on your arm and belly—a ticklish scurrying—a small bite—

Maybe you’ll die before they arrive—but what’s taken them so long?—and aren’t you at peace lying down exhausted, intoxicated in the dark?—the body of this or that woman pressed against you—don’t you feel the pleasures of this life as you’d never known or anticipated from the instruction of home or chapel? Wasn’t exactly this the reason you came across the ocean in the first place? This pleasure of home—those children with your eyes—

Those Indian slaves in Santo Domingo—strung up and burned for sport—




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