The Island of the Fortunate
by David Barber
Isla del Santos,
24th day of November, the year of our Lord, 1574
To His Excellency, Diego de Medellín, Bishop of Santiago,
Your Excellency, accept on my faith that this is a true history of events witnessed by myself.
It was common knowledge that Captain Miguel was writing a record of his Voyages, which he intended to publish on his return to Spain, though I believed I had persuaded him to omit certain heretical matters. However, by means I shall not detail here, I am privy to the account in his own hand, and he did not keep his word.
Our Captain was correct when he said voyaging tales were two a penny these days, but that the strange events of our story must make his book a success. In this at least, he and I are in agreement.
Sailing northwards along the coast from Patagonia towards Valparaiso, our vessel sustained storm damage. Only by the Grace of God were the pumps able to hold the rising water. On the morning of All Saints’ Day, by the Hand of Providence, an island was hailed from the masthead and we were able to beach the ship for repairs.
I have no competence to speak of Captain Miguel as a Navigator, but an anecdote will reveal his spiritual state. When I led the crew in thanking God for our deliverance, I heard him remark that an island was an island, and he doubted God dropped it in our path just to save us. “We should be thanking the man who invented bilge-pumps,” he said.
Uncharted lands are named by their discoverer, and Captain Miguel added Isla del Afortunado to his maps, though I shall continue to refer to it as Isla del Santos, in honour of God and the day it was sighted.
The island proved to be inhabited, though its entire population lived in a single village of rude huts. The natives subsisted on fish and what crops they could grow, which they were willing to barter for trinkets and iron nails. They seemed peaceable and spoke a dialect comprehensible to a native sailor in the crew, whom I took as my interpreter. They have the features and copper-coloured skin of the Mapuche peoples of the north, and the women are not unhandsome in their way.
It was in regard to the women that I advised our Captain to caution the crew, and he agreed they would be busy enough repairing their vessel without antagonising the natives. Still, he said, they had a whole barrel of nails and would not miss a few. I was later enlightened by the ship’s cook. Apparently this has proved a common price amongst the native women of this continent.
I could not find a shaman amongst the locals, nor any chief. The men began each day with a meeting to decide what communal fishing, planting or other occupation was needed, and all abided by that decision. I was told the women of the village met likewise, though I may have misunderstood.
Seeking evidence of previous contact with Mother Church, I was directed to an old man mending nets. You have doubtless heard of remote tribes recounting Bible stories, a testament to the power of the Holy Book that its words endure after the briefest of hearing.
When asked what god they worshipped, this elder was dismissive. He explained they once followed Inti, which I recognised as Apu-Punchau, the sun god of the mainland peoples, but they had learned better. The old man then related a tale which had all the trappings of a native myth.
Many years ago a fiery messenger of Inti had fallen on the island, and the old man’s father, who was the village shaman, went into the forest in fear and trembling to discover the meaning of this sky-faller. He returned a changed man. Inti was a ball of fire in the sky which they might pray to or not, since it made no difference.
Church scholars record stones falling from the heavens, and it was obvious what the shaman had found was only a nondescript rock, a blow to his heathen beliefs.
“People do not abandon superstitions overnight,” the old man told me, “but in time it became a relief and a blessing. We no longer worshipped the sun god, and the world did not end.” Instead of becoming a priest, his father’s son became an honest fisherman instead.
Whilst these people are to be commended for rejecting their idolatrous notions, I am disturbed by their reasons for doing so. The old man said that extraordinary claims required extraordinary proof, which he offered to show me. I assumed I was being taken to see the tip of the same thunderbolt, which because it was cold to the touch, had proved the falsehood of Inti.
Instead, I met a toad as big as a child; a toad that spoke!
Imagine the scene, Excellency. I held my Bible before me and cried, “In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti...”
And this devil accepted the Word of God from my hand and examined it!
“A means of recording ideas,” it said in the native tongue. “Ingenious. So there is more to this world than vegetables and fish.” The apparent novelty of turning pages absorbed its attention for a while. Then it asked if it could have the object to study, so tomorrow we might speak without an interpreter.
Excellency, how I prayed for guidance that night! I did not know if I had spoken to a devil, or to a creature like the orange man of Sumatra who simply lacked a soul. Would imps wear clothes? And surely the Holy Bible would scald their touch. But could a mere creature construct a metal shelter in the forest?
Next day, it handed back my Bible, and in a mixture of bad Spanish and schoolboy Latin, began to question me: “The Word of God, you say? The actual words of God?”
Your Excellency, see how even a Jesuit can be tempted. I confess to you to the sin of pride. I have missed the subtleties of theology, and wrangled with the fiend half the day. Whether devil or sentient beast, its ideas would have summoned the Inquisition in any civilised land. Even at the ends of the Earth, I knew a duty to the Church now rested on my shoulders.
I did not think I could lure our busy Captain from his work with complaints of a heretic in the jungle, but the mention of gold did so.
Until the very moment he met the creature, I believe Captain Miguel suspected a trick. Despite our Captain’s faults — and they are many — I was impressed by his composure. He reassured his men that he had seen stranger things in his travels, and never once stopped smiling.
After introducing himself, he asked the fiend its name, something I had neglected to do in all our debates.
“You could not pronounce it,” the fiend insisted. “But Sky-Faller is the name the people of the island use.” And yes, Your Excellency will have read accounts of devils who are reluctant to divulge their true names, else it give men power to command them.
Was I negligent in my dealings with the Captain? I argued long with my conscience. While I am certain in my faith, evil can be subtle, and even a priest may be duped. Yet as the tanner is used to the reek of his trade, our Captain was a man inured to spiritual danger.
He showed much interest in the creature’s abode, an impressive metal cylinder half-buried by vegetable growth, and he wondered aloud how anyone could afford armour on such a scale. Even when the Captain produced silver reales from his purse, the creature seemed innocent of his hints.
How curious that the fiend sounded so human. “I have wearied of my life here and wish that I might leave with you and see the world beyond this confining shore.”
“And how would you pay for your passage?” the Captain asked.
It began by admitting most of its mechanisms were broken or decayed. “Yet I still own knowledge greater than any philosopher on this world: medicines to cure ills, the means of mechanical flight, the secrets of electrum.”
It has doubtless already occurred to Your Excellency that Satan offered our Lord dominion over the world in exchange for his soul! But the sin of greed protected Captain Miguel from worse wickedness. Our Captain insisted the creature speak more plainly of its wealth, and my tale might have ended there, had not a native interrupted with offerings for his toad lord from the day’s catch.
Perhaps the man guessed the Captain’s intentions, because he began berating us. The Captain suffered this for longer than I expected before drawing his sword.
“Hold up your blade,” I protested. “The natives are not yet baptised and must forfeit their heathen souls.”
I shall not repeat the Captain’s reply, but here follows a true record of what the creature said.
First it turned to me. “Your arguments are flawed and, though I lack the language to point out your many errors, there is no need. My kind has an organ, a sensus divinitatis like a jewel, here.” The creature tapped his warty skull.
“It allows us to hear our god. Your kind lacks this organ, which is why you are mad. Sometimes I can even sense your own god weeping. It wants to be left alone. It wants you to stop making nonsense of its ideas. It wonders if you were not a mistake.”
Your Excellency, I do not even know the name of this heresy.
Captain Miguel was much amused. “What do you say to that, priest? Would this not make a fine tale?”
But the creature caught the Captain by surprise. “These villagers are the best of you,” it said. “They treated a castaway with compassion and tolerance, whereas you are a greedy and ignorant man.”
As I watched the colour rise in the Captain’s face, I saw how this must end.
Later, Captain Miguel returned to the ship and flung down his sword. Put to the question, the creature had died before revealing its treasure. There was not even a jewel in its head. I tried to caution him about the heresy, but he was in no mood to listen.
I have wondered since if the Church might have found these native people stubborn converts. For ignorant souls, they had a manner of arguing they must have copied from the devil in his metal house. But, as Providence would have it, a pestilence raged through their village, not unlike the childhood pox in Spain, but mortally afflicting their heathen flesh. It struck down old and young alike. Not one survived.
Repairs are complete and we resume our voyage. As I mentioned in my sermon to the crew, we should give thanks to God for sparing Christian men this plague.
* * *
Note added ex post facto.
The disappearance of the Captain has left this a hostile and suspicious ship. I made it clear that I would hold a burial service in absentia, as I believed it must have been an unfortunate accident and not self-destruction.
When it was mentioned that I visited the Captain the evening he vanished, I defended myself.
“I visited the Captain openly, an unarmed man of the cloth. If you have misgivings you should look for someone slipping into his cabin at night and tipping a body through the stern window. A crewman with a knife and a grudge perhaps, or an ambitious officer with a gentleman’s blade.”
Yes, a divided and suspicious ship.
On the evening of his disappearance, I spoke with Captain Miguel.
“The gossip of unlettered mariners does not concern the Church,” I told him. “But Rome would prohibit a travel book filled with heretical notions.” I asked him to reconsider and we fell to arguing.
The way the Captain grew silent as he stood at the open stern windows, savouring the coolness of the night air, I did think for a moment that my words had touched his conscience.
“Then it need not be a record of my journeys,” he announced, turning to face me, a most galling smile upon his lips. “A work of fiction would be no concern of the Church. And I would be foolish to leave out the best part of A Fantastical Voyage to the Island of the Fortunate.”
Your Excellency will understand that since I was to remain in the New World, while he would return to Spain, there was nothing to prevent him acting as he wished. And once a bottle is uncorked, the wine may not be put back in.
I thought to convince him of this, but he waved me away. “Enough of this chatter, Father, I have decided.”
I recall he rudely turned his back and leaned out the stern window to study our phosphorescent wake.
Whoever surrendered to the impulse to consign him to the waves may be guilty under Law, but God and the Church may judge differently. Had the Inquisition been here, they would have acted to save Captain Miguel’s heretic soul. But they were not. Sometimes one sin may prevent a greater evil.
In case Your Excellency is concerned, when the Captain went missing, his journal disappeared also.
God’s will be done.
Fr. Fernando de Rojas, Society of Jesus
Copyright © 2021 by David Barber