Playboy Fiction: The Fourth Armada

A man, a dog and a monster

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.

But it did not, and nor did he. A single wavering lantern burned faintly to the north. Some wayward fisherman sneaking home through the night with his catch. Comes wished him to hurry; if they met in the street he’d have to kill him. The knife at his belt was heavy; its long curved blade rested against his hip and the center thwart. He’d never killed a man, but he’d watched them die—many now, in these past eight months of voyage—in many ways. They did not go easily. Each had clung to life far past the suffering Comes thought he could bear. 

The half-moon was shrouded by clouds, seeming to lie in the sky like a jewel in a lover’s sheets. Its paleness trembled. Before departing, full of the arrogance—and hope—of youth, Comes had thought he’d find a woman on this journey, more exotic and beautiful than any in Portugal. Instead the men buggered each other on the gun deck and raped frightened whores in port. The light shone more brightly off the water than it did above. In this country, where everything was upside down, the men dressed as women and cows were worshipped as gods. Comes tried to pray to his god, but He felt too distant, as if His eyes were hidden by the curve of the earth, His dominion halved. The peril of this blasphemy wrapped itself around Comes’s heart. Da Gama had warned they would be traveling into hell, but Comes had begun to wonder if it was hell they brought with them. 

Near the shore, fishing nets came into view, hanging like massive spiderwebs from the porches of the shacks, their glass weights luminous eggs. Comes’s fear began to turn to panic. Who knew what roamed these streets? What venomous and outsize creatures, serpents of old or scorpions as big as pigs. Once in a shop near his home, he’d seen a picture of an elephant looming above its trainer, its massive foot raised as if to crush him…. He forced the panic down his throat, thinking of a cave where he’d often hidden as a boy, listening to the waves crash outside while the other children played. He clutched the oars and guided the skiff to the south, quickening his stroke now that he was in view. It would be worse to be seen here than on land. He imagined a battalion being formed to greet him on the beach, spears and torches raised. He imagined being stripped and dragged through the streets, set down naked on the spike. But he could not return to the Esmeralda without a dog, or da Gama would dispatch him in a way worse still. 

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.
When he met the hard surface, he swayed and nearly fell. A month had passed since he’d stood on solid land. In Sofala, where all hands had been needed to load the plundered tribute aboard, the dismembered bodies of the Kilwa sultan’s retinue still dangling from the masts, their eyeless and noseless faces imploring. Comes stood still and waited for the dizziness to pass. Why had da Gama sent him on this mission, of all the 720 remaining men? Did he see something in him, some potential? Was it a test? Or was there some insolence on his face that he wanted to break? Mosquitoes whined around Comes’s neck. The dense tropical heat was like a tongue on his cheek. You will die here, it whispered. Comes unsheathed his knife and held the blade against his thigh. He kept his head low, hoping his dark hair would allay any suspicion from a distance, though once they saw his foreign garb…. He cursed again. Why had he not been given a disguise, at least? He was fodder to da Gama, they all were, to be chewed up and spat aside in pursuit of his destiny. The Admiral of the Seas of Arabia, Persia, India and all the Orients. Chosen son of Portugal, and God. 

All Comes wanted was to go home. 

The stalls of the fishmongers were shuttered, their scales and salt blocks and ice chests secured within, where the mongers themselves lay sleeping. Comes searched the shadows for dogs. He followed his nose, trying to block out the sharp smell of spices for the familiar ripeness of fish. The tailings and innards must be discarded somewhere. The poorest children of Porto often fought strays for their daily meals. Comes rounded a corner beneath a tree laden with huge, spiky fruit. A red dog lay sleeping on the porch of a larger shack. It was curled into a ball, its tail tucked beneath its chin, breathing evenly, its smooth coat shining like an ember. Comes gripped the knife. He wasn’t sure what to do. Da Gama’s order had been three words: “Find a dog.” He hadn’t said whether it should be red or black, young or old, alive or dead. Though Comes suspected it didn’t matter. He remembered the priest reeling on the deck, bloodied but defiant, while his men were executed one by one. 

A thatched palm roof overhung the shack’s woven reed walls, and a child’s doll lay among herbs in the small garden. Comes thought of the family inside, the mother and father and children, living in the particular squalor of this heathen city. He thought of how to lure the dog to him and how to get it back on the small boat. If only he’d brought a piece of fish to use as chum. He didn’t want to kill it. He stepped forward, then froze. Surely this dog, attached as it was to a home, would bark wildly if he stepped too near, waking the entire street and killing him as if it had plunged a knife into his chest. He clenched his fist. No, he backed away. It would have to be a stray, one that no one would miss, with no territory to defend, that he could befriend somehow. 

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? 

Unsettled by these questions, Comes followed his nose. The fish scent intensified. At home, and in every other harbor he’d visited, the smell was strongest on the beach—where the fish were gutted and kept and sold—but here it grew as he walked inland. The shacks around him changed as well, lengthening into warehouses which smelled so strongly his eyes began to water. How could people live in such a stench? All manner of stalls fronted them, and he wondered what the promenade looked like during the day. The bustle of men and women in brightly colored robes like those he’d seen on the priest. Dyes more vivid than any in the world, worth dying for.
Ahead, the land dropped away and a bridge crossed a canal. The slow-moving water stank horribly of fish and feces, as if the entire population ate and shat there together in unison, before tossing away the remains of their catch. Comes realized that a network of these canals connected the city, to be shat and bathed in at will. The animals. With a brief flash of pride, he remembered the aqueducts and plumbing of Porto, a separate city beneath the city, its own intestine, silently bearing the waste away. No wonder the Zamorin’s army had no artillery. No wonder da Gama would crush them beneath his heel with only 15 ships. Comes leaned over the bridge’s rail and looked down at the black banks. His eyes adjusted to the darkness and he saw a lighter shape moving along the water’s edge. Its head was down as it snuffled through the refuse. The hair along its spine was ragged and patchy and the tip of one ear had been bitten off. Its distended stomach hung nearly to the ground, slapping from side to side, a horrid excess of skin. A stray no one would miss. It might even be an act of mercy. Without letting himself hesitate or think further, Comes crept off the bridge onto the steep embankment. 

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. 

“No, no.” Comes shook himself and plunged after it, but it sped up, tucking its tail between its legs and loping with surprising speed toward the beach. 

“I won’t hurt you.” His lies were ignored. He felt around for a piece of fish or meat to offer, but encountered only things too slimy and horrible to hold. The dog followed the canal outward from the town. Comes was less afraid of being heard here. He’d be taken for another scavenger down in the muck, or a madman; surely there were plenty of those in the filthy city. He fingered the length of rope around his waist; he planned to use it to secure the dog’s muzzle and claws—all the better if he could drive it out to the beach and catch it there. He didn’t want to get mauled in the tiny boat. The canal walls were supported by stone abutments, ancient and simple architecture. The water moved slow and murky beside him. 

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.
Dawn sunlight shot gold shafts through the mouth of the bay, too bright to look upon. Sea birds wheeled between them, but no fishing boats passed through the blockade. Comes wondered where their fresh catches had come from. They must be sneaking out at night, like the man he’d seen returning home in the distance. He was duty-bound to inform the admiral, but he kept his mouth locked shut. Sailors scurried across the decks of the other ships, refixing the riggings, checking guns and anchors, while on the Esmeralda everyone was still and silent, waiting. A tentacle could have breached the sea and slammed down on the deck and they would not have moved unless told to, so great was their fear of da Gama. Survival had become their only goal, not riches nor glory, survival through obedience. Only to see their homes again. Comes forced himself to stand erect, exhausted as he was from his sleepless night, and longed to go to his bunk, strip and dry his clothes. 

“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.
The priest’s ears required only a single, hard, sawing stroke each. Berrio looked almost disappointed when he had finished, and the prisoner slumped back against Lopes’s knees, weeping, the tears running along with blood down his smooth cheeks. Lopes released him and patted the top of his head, now a perfect bald oval with a running, red beard. He grinned around at his fellow sailors, as if they should share in this joke. Comes felt sick. He had to keep himself from raising his hands protectively over his own ears, as if Berrio might continue with his knife through the crew. He imagined the ears themselves to be mufflers, and a mad roaring to now be overwhelming the priest, as all the noises of creation rushed in. 

The dog was fed the ears, chewing them while anxiously looking around, and then da Gama nodded to Sergini. For this, Comes could not look away. He had found the dog; he had brought it here. He had left his home, sailed around the horn of Africa and crossed the unmapped sea for this, and this was what would prevent him from ever finding his way back. Sergini’s knife was long and curved like his own, less sharp than Berrio’s. The dog made a horrible sound when it cut into its ear. It wrenched and snapped and tried to buck away. But Sergini pinned it with his knee and the ear was taken, and then the second, and then Sergini lifted the dog up by the rope and it looked to Comes wildly one last time, before being pitched, yowling, over the rail into the sea. 

Comes heard the splash, and then no more. 

Berrio drew forth a sewing needle and thread from the pouch at his belt. Sergini handed him the dog’s ears, and Comes realized what they had been tasked to do. Berrio knelt before the priest and with a practiced deftness, as if his face were a torn shirt, began to sew the ears above the wound where his own had been. Da Gama watched calmly, paternally, though his eyes had begun to glow, as if heated by the culmination of his edict. His power at sea was boundless, and Comes wondered if he too felt himself hidden from God on this far side of the earth. 

When the operation was completed, the priest was forced to his feet. The ragged gray ears hung to his neck. The bitten-off tip of the left revealed the tan skin above his collarbone. It would have been a comical sight on stage, this regal man in fine robes with a dog’s ears in place of his own, but here in morning sun with the sweat and tears and blood on his face, it was like spikes nailing Comes’s feet to the deck. He glanced around at his shipmates. Surely if this was not hell, they would find themselves there soon enough. 

The admiral cleared a path through the crew and led the priest to the ladder above the small boat in which Comes had recently returned. Lopes unshackled the priest’s wrists and ankles. He winked at his forced red smile and tied the sack of his men’s hands and feet around his neck, a pendant to match his bloody visage. Then he backed away, leaving only da Gama with the priest at the rail. 

The admiral held his chin high and looked across the bay to the city, as if he could already see it in ruins. He breathed in deeply the morning air. He closed his eyes. Then he leaned close to the priest’s cheek. Using a white-gloved hand, he lifted the gray, bitten ear to whisper beneath it, and the priest flinched, as if in such a short time it had become his own. 

“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.

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