Comes was ordered into the city at night to find a dog. Fishermen’s shacks lined the beach, black against the lighter dark of the sky. In the distance, atop a rise, the long low walls of the Zamorin’s palace formed the horizon, punctuated by the leering heads of heathen gods. Comes rowed slowly, fear and dread in his heart. He concentrated on silencing the blades of the oars as they dipped into the water. He’d heard, from the men who survived the first Armada, of the four great halls inside the palace, one each for Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Jews, and the tall spikes where the Muslim traders were impaled for selling a cow. He did not wish to think about this, nor the dog, nor the high priest being held prisoner on Admiral da Gama’s ship. He longed for the shore to transform into the beach of his home outside Porto, and he to the boy he’d been there not so long ago, swimming in that familiar sea.
Sand scraped the bottom of the prow. Comes hunched forward and secured the oars in the rowlocks. The boat wobbled as he stepped out; warm seawater swamped his boots. Palm trees leaned over the sand. The air seemed thick with disease. He cursed softly and dragged the bow above the tide line, grimacing at the grating sound it made. Take heart, he told himself. Nothing had moved. No noise nor commotion disturbed the shacks. Only bats swooping silently through patches of moonlight, and a single gray thread of smoke rising from a distant temple. He tied off to the nearest trunk. Two coconuts were snugged like testicles high beneath the fronds. He adjusted his own under his tunic—perhaps they still held some luck—and crept up the beach to the end of the mud-packed road.
He thought of how to lure the dog to him. He didn't want to kill it.
All Comes wanted was to go home.
Keeping to the shadows, he carried on up the street toward the palace. The heads along the wall seemed to stare down at him, and he was seized by a brief, strange impression: What if he’d been born here in Calicut instead of Porto? An Indian, a fisherman like his own father. Would his life have been so different? Would these heathen gods have taken him in, or would they too have flung him loose on the winds of his pride, to some foreign land where he was set upon a terrible task?
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Almost immediately, he slipped and fell backward, landing hard on his ass. The dog raised its head and watched as Comes slid feet-first down to the fetid water, soaking himself in mud and shit. He thrashed upright, sopping the slime from his cuffs, nausea rising in his stomach. He cursed and then apologized to God and then cursed again. The dog, only 10 yards away, blinked and raised one ear. “It’s okay,” Comes whispered softly. “Come, boy, come here.” The dog’s ears flattened, and it turned and began to trot along the bank, swaybacked on an injured leg.
It was the deepest part of the night, two hours before dawn. Comes tasted metallic adrenaline, spurring him onward. Once as a small boy, he’d watched a mendicant cross hot coals, and noticed how the man never looked down. He’d thought at the time that this was the key—pain must only be something you could see—but now it had become his life: a race to not look down. His feet slapped the shallow water. If he had children someday, he would forbid them from ever leaving his house. His tailbone ached where he’d landed. The dog remained far ahead, but it slowed as they neared the beach.
The canal widened and in the distance Comes saw da Gama’s armada. The 15 towering ships like demons of the ocean’s depths, forming a wall across the mouth of the bay. It felt like no part of him. Like no sign of home. The masts and gunwales loomed blackly as if they’d risen from the water in the night. Comes wondered if the Indian fishermen looked to their dark silence and questioned their lives. Did they seek to repent, fall to their knees and accept the one true God? Or did they merely try to carry on in the face of another incomprehensible machination, threatening to crush them beneath its wheel? Da Gama wanted everything, an unfettered monopoly on the spice trade, and he would have it, even if it meant burning the city to the ground. Comes shook his head. What was the use of such thoughts? He was only a deckhand. Get the dog, get back to the ship.
A delta of sorts spilled across the sand. At high tide it would be swallowed by the waves, but now it stretched before him in a glimmering wash. The dog stopped at its edge and looked back. Comes stopped as well. His only hope was to trick it and awaken the trust all dogs have in men, even after years of abuse. He turned away and watched the creature out of the corner of his eye. It stared back, head down, miserable in the open. He reached into his pocket and withdrew an invisible morsel. He sniffed it. He dropped it on the ground and went down on all fours, keeping himself turned from the dog. He raised his rear and lowered his head, snuffling his nose just above the sand and clacking his teeth together, pretending to chew. He picked up fish bones and snapped them with his fingers.
The dog continued to stare at him, perhaps remembering some long-ago kindness. He was blocking its passage back to the safety of the canal. It looked out to the sea, it looked down, and then it took a tentative step toward him. Comes kept on with the fish bones, making happy crunching noises. The dog approached. Carefully and slowly, hardly daring to breathe, Comes loosened the rope from around his waist. He remained this way until the dog was only a few feet away. It stopped there, raised its nose and sniffed the air with a desperate hope. The look in its eyes was nearly enough to make Comes give up his plan. Take the dog in as a pet, flee into the jungle, build a shack, find a woman and begin again, for he too longed for a better world.
Instead he lunged, catching the dog around the shoulders and driving it to the sand. It yelped and crumpled beneath him, lashing its head from side to side. It clawed and bit his arms, but age quickly betrayed it—he felt the tired frailty beneath its skin—and it gave up, hardly struggling as Comes tied the rope around its snout and legs. When he’d finished, it stared up at him with the same imploring look as before, as if its fate were not yet sealed. “I’m sorry,” Comes whispered, touching its ears before hefting it to his chest and carrying it to the boat. “I don’t have any food. I’m sorry.”
The high priest was brought to the deck at dawn. His robes were bloodstained and his cheeks were battered. His skin was lighter than the other Indians Comes had seen, and his entire body seemed devoid of hair, from the top of his skull to the soles of his bare feet. Deep purple bruises stood out beneath his shackles. His hazel eyes were glossy and dazed. All the defiance had left him after a night in a cell below deck, with the hands and feet of his retinue, including his son, in a sack before him. Yet still he walked gracefully, with small, careful steps, as if in his sleep.
Admiral da Gama emerged from the cabin atop the stern to greet him. Tall and bareheaded, with a long, wide beard over the gold-trimmed red cloaks of royalty. He’d taken on the aspect of a king as soon as they’d set sail from Lisbon, and his ambition seemed to stretch around him, a huge, shadowy specter reaching for all those who stood in his way. He looked at Comes, still stinking and dripping in his soiled clothes. His gray beard was matched by the grayness of his eyes. Calm, almost kindly, as he descended the steps. He could have been a grandfather or a priest himself. A heavy gold crucifix swayed in the folds of his tunic. Nothing betrayed his cruelty save for the steady depth of his breath, as if the sight of the beaten man and frightened dog invigorated him, a tonic against the morning chill. The first mate Sergini stood behind the dog, with the rope Comes had used to secure it looped through his fist. The officers Berrio and Lopes flanked the priest. Comes watched, shivering, along with the rest of the crew. The dog also trembled, looking back at him as if to a friend.
You are a spy. And I will teach you your place in this world.
“You are a spy,” da Gama said to the priest. “Lower than this stray dog. And I will teach you your place in the world.” They had been negotiating for three weeks, had parried across food-laden tables, and now, finally, as da Gama had always planned, the negotiations had failed. Nothing flickered in the priest’s glassy eyes. He had retreated deep within himself, and Comes hoped that was where he would remain. Berrio kicked out his knees—“The admiral is speaking to you!”—and he slumped forward, all the way to his stomach. Lopes had to yank him upright and hold him limply, like a marionette. “Take his lips and his ears,” da Gama said. “He has no more use for them. They sow only falsehoods.” He turned to his men, speaking in the same even tone with which he ordered his nightly meal. “We will bring light to this dark country, as our forefathers did to Jerusalem. With the sword.” Berrio drew a small thin knife from his belt. Its blade was only two inches long and stropped to a razor’s edge. Comes and all the men knew of this knife. They watched him sharpen it, humming hymns to himself as he kissed the blade back and forth across the rough stone. Back and forth, back and forth, until Comes wondered how there was any blade left. It was a knife he used for close work, and there had been much close work of late. Lopes raised the priest’s head and held it firmly between his large hands. He grinned. Berrio stepped forward. The priest’s eyes flashed into recognition as the blade flicked nearer. They joggled about, and he began to speak wildly, his words rising, begging for his life perhaps, but the crew of the Esmeralda would never know, for the remains of his interpreter drifted beneath the waves. Berrio touched the knife gently to the priest’s lips, as if to shush him, and Comes turned away as the blade made its first red line beneath his nose. He heard a strangled moan, and when he turned back, he was greeted by teeth. Long and white, ringed by dripping red gums and leering forth with a crazed rage completely at odds with the terror in the priest’s eyes. The dog whined. The only other sound was the new harshness of the priest’s breath. Berrio held up the lips with his thumb and forefinger, a ragged loop of flesh, still in one piece. He offered them to da Gama, but the admiral jerked his head at the dog. Berrio shrugged and dropped the lips before it on the deck. Sergini loosened the leash. The dog looked up, unsure if it would be kicked or beaten for accepting this treat. It looked to Comes, then quickly, gratefully, it lowered its head and snapped up the bloody morsel and gulped it down.
“You will go home now, to your false king,” da Gama said. “You and what remains of your heathen men. And you will tell him one thing: This is God’s country now.”
Comes watched the small boat cross the empty bay. He felt something inside himself slip away. He flailed after it. He cannot see you here, he told himself. But it was a lie.
There was no sign of the dog now. It had sunk to the lightless depths, where fish and crabs would eat what of it remained. Perhaps wondering at its earless head, much like their own. Comes gripped the damp sides of his breeches to keep his hands from shaking. He tried to pray.
The boat’s prow zigzagged as the priest rowed jerkily, his head bowed, blood dripping from the dog’s ears to his shoulders. Sunlight all around him. Returning with his new face to a kingdom that would soon be plundered and a temple that would soon be burned. But at least he was going home.