See it? All of it have I seen. For good reason am I in possession of the eyes of J. Smeeks, to whom some attribute the name of Oexmelin and who, in public, not to bring attention to his person, calls himself Exquemeling, Alexander Oliver Exquemeling, even though my name is Jean Smeeks, or “Le Trépaneur” the times I was companion to J. David Nau on his expeditions, the same who was known as L”Olonnais among his own men and Lolon’s to the Spanish, the son of a small merchant of Sables d”Olonne–hence his surname. I wandered about even when a child, with such long legs and a body so nimble and fleet that sometimes I would not be seen at home for several days at a time.
Hear it? I have heard all of it, because I also have Smeeks’s ears.
Together, eyes with ears, they will begin with me to relate the stories of Smeeks in the Caribbean and also of those I shared adventures with, such as the above-mentioned Nau, L”Olonnais, of whom I heard it said that he allowed himself to become an indentured servant to a colonist from Martinique who was passing through Flanders and got him to sign a three-year contract for the West Indies, a brutal master, only good for beating him tirelessly, so that in a short while, although on Martinique by then, the youthful Nau soon found slavery unbearable. Yet it was a good thing he was there, else no other recourse would have remained during the voyage but to throw himself into the ocean headfirst. I can neither imagine what Nau did to get away from his master on Martinique, where it was quite as impossible for him to do so as on the broad sea, nor can I explain here how it was that he escaped from the island, since no one ever told me what stratagem he used (he that was so good at contriving them) for managing to take flight with some buccaneers from Saint-Domingue who were selling cattle hides on Martinique. He was attracted by the free life these men lead, loose in the forest, from what he had heard, without wives or children, for a year or sometimes two with perhaps a buccaneer or two for company. They care for one another if they get sick and they all share everything alike–sorrows, joys, whatever befalls them: a life spent in hunting and butchering the animals, drying their flesh in the sun and smoking it with green wood to sell to colonists on the neighboring islands or to Dutch ships and freebooters looking for ships’ stores. They dress in a garment, loose-fitting, down to the knees, wherein the kind of material it is made of is difficult to make out, being covered all over with clots of dried blood; it is secured by a belt which often holds four knives and a bayonet. But when Nau finds himself amongst the buccaneers, the leader prevents him from going on his own and for several months keeps him, under the threat of death, as his servant, treating him so badly that he becomes ill; for those buccaneers are extremely cruel to their servants, to such a degree that the latter would rather be rowing in the galleys or sawing Brazilian lumber in Holland’s Rasp-Huys than working for such barbarians. One day he is unable to follow his master because he is so sick, bent to the ground, nearly, under heavy bags of gunpowder and salt; a master so cruel that in a wrath he strikes Nau on the head with his musket, half killing him, and, thinking him really dead, he leaves him behind with the fireflies and three dogs for his only company. The fireflies illuminate the area around him on the dark nights, their bodies glowing with an intense light such as we have never seen emitted from any insect’s body in all of Europe; and the dogs take care of him, feeding him by hunting wild pigs until, helped on by eating raw meat, he finds his precarious health is restored and wounds are healed, the animals with their kindness having rubbed away the effects of his master’s beatings and soothed the fevers that he also owed to the vicious buccaneer’s brutal treatment. For months Nau carries on a solitary existence, which is broken off when another pair of buccaneers run into him and they feel sorry for him and appoint him a buccaneer as well, teaching him first of all to eat cooked meat and prepare it as they are used to, the way the Arawak Indians do it, in the form called boucan, which we just described; and also to manufacture their own footwear, themselves fashioning their moccasins in the following manner: just after killing a pig or a bull, having flayed it they place their foot inside the part of the skin that used to go around the animal’s leg, fitting their big toe into the area where the animal’s knee used to be, bringing it up above the ankle about four or five centimeters, and there it is tied; this done, they allow it to dry on the foot and take on its shape.
Nau was a very capable hunter, but another form of life called out to him, as it was more audacious, adventuresome, and cruel, and thus he abandoned the company of the buccaneers, yet not without first splashing his erstwhile master’s brains on the ground of his hut, employing a well-delivered and well-deserved blow of his ax as the man slept.
I was also an associate of Henry Morgan, the most famous of the English pirates in the Caribbean, who, according to what I learned from the horse’s mouth, was the son of a rich, honest farmer but was disinclined to follow in his father’s footsteps and so signed on with some ships bound for the island of Barbados, with the intention of going into service with someone who later sold him. That is what I was told, but many years after giving this out for a fact, Henry Morgan forced us–the editor and myself–to add a paragraph in the book: “Exquemeling is mistaken concerning the origins of Sir Henry Morgan,” it was necessary to incorporate into the English edition. “The latter is the son of a gentleman of ancient nobility from the County of Monmouth, and he has never been servant to anyone except His Majesty the King of England.” Well, do tell! By that time the traitor Morgan was so rich and powerful that he was able to appoint himself the son of whomever he wanted. It is quite another thing for anyone to believe him. I, with the eyes and ears of J. Smeeks, the only thing I can do in this respect is not to speak at all about the traitor Morgan in this book, and dedicate all its pages regarding our sojourn in the Caribbean to the memory of le Négre Miel and to telling about Pineau, the men from whom I learned the profession and the true Law of the Coast.
For a pair of eyes and a pair of ears to fix images and sounds in the temporal order in which they happen is no easy task; their memory enjoys making fun of the tyranny of time. But even though images may leap up pell-mell before us, like the sight of birds pecking at the crabs and devouring them on the sand of some Caribbean island (thus corrupting the flavor of their tender flesh with the crabs’ own bile that blurs the vision and darkens the minds of folk who eat them to excess), or the sound of their strong beaks, like thunder crackling, breaking up their shells, I will attempt to rein them in and start at the beginning of the story I wish to tell, with the moment Smeeks sets his two feet on the deck of one of the thirty ships of the French West Indies Company in a rendezvous at Cape Barfleur, bound for Senegal, Terranova, Nantes, La Rochelle, Saint-Martin, and the Caribbean; on a ship named the Saint Jean, with twenty-five guns, twenty sailors, and 220 passengers, headed for the island of Tortuga, whose governor in that year of 1666 must have been Bertrand d’Ogeron, who would give us more than one reason to hate him.
We weigh anchor the second of May. Many other young men like Smeeks are aboard, young fellows who have begged on the streets, worked as servants, been sold away by their families; youths whom the colonist farmers or the Company have engaged as indentured servants for a three-year stint: lured by the riches of the West Indies, the adventure, a new land both unknown and different, but above all, by the notion of getting away from Europe, so little generous to us. But the Saint Jean does not carry only sailors and youths; there are soldiers, too, signed on to defend the interests of the Company, merchants, older men who do not know exactly what they will face there, some with experience on many voyages but most of them undertaking their very first one, adventurers of various sorts, colonist farmers who have gone to bring back laborers, representatives of the King with their servants and secretaries who are making the trip in separate cabins – To be frank, Smeeks has enough to do with his own concerns without taking a close look at the Saint Jean’s 220 passengers: Smeeks does not spend time watching those who are going with him or those traveling in a different state; Smeeks uses this first stage of the trip, a time so different from that on dry land, more stretched out and monotonous, to try to catch up with himself. A few afternoons ago he was a boy of thirteen, wandering pointlessly around Flanders, sometimes as a servant if fortune smiled on him (even with unusually good luck, such as when I learned to read and write with a priest who seemed to think of me as more than a servant, and more than a boy), sometimes surviving by the skin of my teeth, carrying packages, transporting goods around the port–but always outside the house where I had grown up as a boy and which was neither my father’s house nor yet my mother’s, where I had never been treated decently or fed well enough to allow my stomach any peace, a house where I was no longer permitted to sleep, but around which I had taken to wandering. I knew it was senseless, served no purpose, as no one was waiting for me within, there was nothing for me there; nor were they disposed to continue putting up with a nuisance who was already thirteen years of age and who for the past five years now had already been scraping along on his own, tooth and nail, and who ought to continue scraping along on his own–and if he scraped up enough why should he not be bringing food home? My first job was as a servant, a servant’s servant, to be more precise, but it did not last long because I had the good fortune to run into the priest who ” But why keep going back? There in the patio behind the years is no recollection worthy of being brought into the present, nor anything that in any way helps along the story I wish to tell: the story of Smeeks in the Caribbean. So, to make headway, I will rejoin the voyage during which Exquemeling is trying to be reunited with himself, trying to get accustomed to the idea that he is the boy gazing patiently down at the grain of the wooden planks of the deck covering the hold where the youths sleep while aboard, as if in its striations he were gazing at the sea scraping at the stubborn pitch sheathing the hull below the waterline; though in reality, with his fixed stare, he is not gazing at this at all, as wood is not like the waters of the ocean.
One of those first afternoons, still somewhat disconcerted to realize I was on a voyage I had never imagined, never sought out, a voyage fallen out of nowhere on no particular day when I was drifting about without a glimmer of change in the seat of my poverty, as if the voyage were the fruit of the immeasurably deep dreams of a magician who knew how to obtain substance out of nothingness, a voyage which materialized only because I had heard about a man who was looking for hands to indenture themselves with the French West Indies Company and I’d gone to meet him–one of those first days aboard ship, as we were saying, with my vacant eyes fixed on the striations in the wood, one of the other youths with whom I share this voyage approached. He seemed like a quiet, shy youth, moving around very little, and then with hesitant, small steps, although with body erect, avoiding all the talking and joking around; who, when we went up on deck to pick up an earthenware or perhaps wooden bowl or saucer with our daily portion of hot food (which was always most foully prepared by the older sailors and cooked or boiled over an iron grate above hot coals on a bed of sand on the deck, in huge cauldrons into which they reluctantly tossed–apparently no one paid any attention to what was going in next to what–garbanzos, rice, chunks of meat, garlic, capers, anchovies, almonds, prunes, chopped quinces, mustard, dried fish, stale bacon, sardines, lentils, and not very much of any of this, quite true, but all piled in together; in fact the only things on the ship that were safe from the cauldrons were the biscuits, honey, wine, and a cow we carried on board to provide milk and cheese for the privileged passengers–among whom I was not to be found, of course. Together with water for drinking, such were the provisions the Saint Jean carried for those who belonged to the Company; but each passenger who did not was responsible for his own supplies, and this often without much sense of how it should be done, because their improperly salted meat soon spoiled, their grain and biscuits rotted, and sometimes even the skins for holding their wine or water turned sour, reason enough that, throughout the crossing, these ears heard complaints time and again about the scant pleasures of their meals, heard painful laments from those who suffered hunger and wild thirst because of their lack of experience in preparing their stores while still on land), when, as I was saying, we were on deck to get our daily ration of hot food (mornings and evenings they sent biscuits and seeds down into the hold where we slept so we would be out of the way), he would stand off to the side as if he were a person of quality, the kind who normally eats with a silver spoon, although this was not so, as his impoverished manner of dress made clear, and would stand apart from the clusters of boors and cutups who used their fingers to shove this vile, nearly inedible food into our own rankled but always famished mouths.
It was not his odd melancholy bearing alone that made this youth so noticeable. He also stood out because of his beautiful features, though, if truth be known, it may be that I had not realized this before the event I am going to tell of. Like many of us, he had not the slightest notion of any hair on his face yet, but the rosy tone of his skin, which one would have guessed to be extremely soft, was much better than that of any of us. That afternoon I certainly was not thinking of this, of course, nor was I thinking of anything else: as if–in order to get used to the idea that I was the one who was embarked on the Saint Jean and headed for the island of Tortuga, which I had heard a little about but always in some garbled fashion–I needed to slip into a sort of mental vacuum, close to boredom. And that was easy enough to manage because by this time we had left dry land behind several days back, and the greater part of the time we spent shut up in what the crew pompously called the “company cabin” but which was nothing more than the ship’s hold and from which they allowed us to emerge only to snatch a peek at the ocean during the space of time they were spoiling our appetites with their filthy stew. If not how oddly this particular youth struck me, yet must I have been plunged into thought about something, anything whatever, for the blow to have fallen so cunningly and efficiently on so unsuspecting a being: on me, poor Smeeks, who was rocked from stem to stern when what I am about to relate took place. For example, I should have thought how strange it was that he had drawn so near me, he who had seemed to reject close proximity to anyone whatsoever, at least insofar as our crowded conditions permitted; I ought to have reacted long before this event took place that later on caused me so much grief and so little profit. Yes, the youth’s closeness should have disturbed me, but I did not see him; moreover, I certainly ought to have begun to wonder when he started to address me, and even more so at the tone of his voice. I do not know what he told me at first, but when he did succeed in getting my attention, he asked my name (I did not ask for his) and went on talking to me in his soft, gentle voice about things I did not believe important but that were pleasant and soothing while surrounding me with a friendly warmth which without equivocation I could call “trustingness,” and which prevented his nearness, gradually growing, from having any negative significance for me, to the point where his body and mine seemed glued to each other at the ribs, and his unceasing, evenly placed words finally managed to impress themselves upon me only by the movement with which he expelled them from his mouth.
Suddenly, without the slightest violence but simply utilizing the rhythm of his speech, he grasped my hand and pushed it inside the clothing covering his breast, down to the skin, and at the same time, almost interrupting the sensation in the palm of my hand beflustered by the shape it was touching, he asked, looking me straight in the eye, “Have you ever touched a woman before?”
And without waiting for my reply, not even moving my perplexed, motionless hand from her breast, she added, ‘more men have touched me than everyone on this ship. But that’s finished now, I want you to know. That’s why I’m changing lands. And I would rather pass as a man, though I despise all such beings, than go on being a whore. That’s all over and done with.”
Repeating that last phrase, she now angrily removed my hand from her body and her clothing–as if I had put it there on my own in the first place!–and brusquely stepped away from my company with a glance full of an intense fury that consigned me to the category of the enemy, and joined a group who were killing time exchanging stares with one another, lacking any conversation to raise them out of the doldrums of their boredom, because there was no other place to accommodate them and they were tired of looking at the striations in the wood planks. Not for a moment did I remove my gaze from her; I did not know if she would want to trust everyone else with what she had used for wounding my hand–and up to that moment, only my hand–but which afterward would cut like a fatal illness through the rest of my body, my thoughts, my dreams, my appetite, my words ” There was no worse place to find myself smitten by love, because there was absolutely nothing I could do for distraction!
On what remained of the voyage, and that was most of it, in fair weather or foul, I tried in every way to talk to her again, that loveliest of women dressed like a boy. But with equal obstinacy she took pains to avoid and ward off my gaze, and the most I could manage was that one day, only one other day, did she aim a few words in my direction, though it was not as if she were talking to me in particular; she spoke as if she were talking to someone who was not myself, to anyone at all, to the person I used to be and not this injured being whose whole body now bore the effect of that efficient weapon which her firm, gentle breast had become within me: “In the lands we are going to, I have heard it said that there is no “yours’ and ‘mine” but that everything is “ours.” And that no one asks, “Who goes there?” and no doors are secured with locks and chains, because everyone is everyone’s brother. I have heard this said. And the only rule is that of loyalty to the brothers. To be one of them you cannot be weak, a coward, a woman. But even though I am a woman, I will see if I can fit in with that kind of life, because that is the best life.” Yet she did not look me in the eye while speaking to me; she talked so anyone could hear her, although this “anyone” happened to be me.
It was not difficult to find out how well she kept herself from confessing to anyone else that she was a woman, because from no one else did she try to keep herself apart, as she did me; while all the while Smeeks was wishing, it is true, to feel again the softness of her breast in the palm of his hand, the first breast of a woman he had ever touched, but also, or more especially, to be close to her, to be her friend and confidant once again, to be part of her, to hear her sweet voice, and–why not?–to find out what more there might be underneath her shabby, cheap, deceptive clothing, to ask her why she walked that way, so hesitant and uncertain, and if she did not want me to touch her I wouldn’t do it, I would be just the way she wanted, but I would be hers ” I imagined conversations I might have, or wished I could, with her, in one of which I heard myself saying, “I realize you are not a man, but that is not so important; I realize that, in spite of being a woman, you are just like everyone else, looking for a way to live far from cruelty and poverty,” because I wanted to show my understanding in order to remain close to her. This imaginary conversation is one I recall very well because–oh, how the joke was on me, as time went on! Smeeks had no idea what awaited him! First the voyage: neither she nor the majority of the rest of us had ever set foot on the high seas, much less considered what it meant for both feet to spend more than thirty days constantly lurching and staggering beneath us! Moreover, the nausea of someone who never touches solid ground for six hundred hours is not conceivable within the word nausea, and no one knew what to call it when it took so long to finally put us down on dry land. And later on, that awful boredom into which the passengers were plunged, shut up in the cabin that smelled ten times as bad when the squalls were unleashed, as we will relate below ”
But not for me; for throughout the entire voyage after this encounter, not a single moment of boredom touched me. Every one of those seconds, as if they were nooks and crannies in a desiccated body, was filled with the hope of having her nearby, her body, her eyes, her voice, infusing the time with the artful reality of my love through which she belonged exclusively to Smeeks, and thus avoiding the viscosity of that boredom into which everyone else seemed to be immersed. What was there about her that disturbed me so? My eyes saw nothing, my ears heard nothing that jumped out at them. The substance with which I charged every hour with another truth by using it to bombard every single one of its seconds spewed forth in a torrent from its center on the palm of this hand that I had touched her breast with, and at night, hopeless with love, I would knot my fists so forcefully that my fingernails bloodied my palms as I tried to stifle the flow of emotion that so tortured me and which I trusted had its cure in the possibility of satiety.
So many years now have I done nothing but make fun of that little boy so moved by the woman’s flesh hidden in the darkness of the blouse of coarse fabric worn by the impoverished youth. It does not need saying that my heart was prodigal in spinning out the bizarre fabric of days shot through with the desire to touch again and again and again that small bit of flesh that I imagined as white, that I knew was infinitely sweet and impregnated with a fragrance unfamiliar to me, a woman’s fragrance. And how did I know it was so gravid with that fragrance? Because in the palm of my enamored hand I had read that smell of her! Forty years would bring forth the laughter of ridicule over that boy so thrilled by a bit of flesh during an entire voyage, flesh that was for him alone, revealed and modestly held back in the same gesture–because there came a day on which I could have covered the sea encircling the globe with the skin of the flesh yielded to us in the brothels of Jamaica and Tortuga; and could have covered it twice over with the skin of the women who were taken by force, without my attaching any more value to it than that of a few coins (that always turned into nothing in our hands) and of my being a counterpart of the dream of violence that I was immersed in for thirty-seven years. And even now, something that resembles tenderness, when I see him in my mind’s eye, moves me to laughter.”
The moment she made me the accomplice/enemy of her secret, the voyage changed for me, in the midst of my uncertain fears, the stench of the vomiting, and the invincible nausea that seemed to envelop all of us like a blanket of air and water, and it turned into the frame surrounding the stimulation embodied in that tiny patch of skin, soft and firm, miraculously arrested almost horizontally, which sometimes was my delight and sometimes a feverish torture. I was unable to contain myself and found myself forced to share my confinement with dozens of drowsing youths bewildered by this confinement and battered by disillusionment; who among them had imagined this voyage would be so tedious? None at all, and even less so the fact that the dangerous storm would represent nothing but the obligation for them to remain locked up, no matter what happened, in the hold/cabin; or that when we actually did run into a pirate ship it would take flight the moment we measured off against each other.
I wanted to touch her once more, even if it were only once.” And for what purpose was I so eager to touch that piece of flesh belonging to a woman who could not be mine, since I did not know how to make any woman mine? And moreover, the crowded conditions endured by us indentured servants of the Company, bundled together like carrots in a sack in the ship’s hold close beside the supplies I already mentioned, beside the cow that never stopped moaning, made us seem more like things than persons in that place, more like ship’s stores than true believers. Despite the morning prayer, and that every time the watch changed they had our voices join in more prayer, we were as faithless as fava beans, huddled in that gloomy hold which in no way resembled the aspirations, dreams, and desires that made this unbearable voyage bearable; nor did the awful storms and the slavery that awaited us in the new lands without our being aware of it then. And under those conditions, what could a fava bean do–that is exactly what I was–with a woman? Why weren’t our prayers enough to make us more human? What else was there to say when, at daybreak, the cabin boy who announced the dawn, sang out,
Blessed be the light
And the Holy Cross
And the Lord of Truth
And the Holy Trinity;
Blessed be the soul
And the Lord who leads us.
Blessed be the day,
And the Lord who sends it.
God give us good day,
May the ship have safe passage,
A good master, and worthy crew, AMEN!
May they make this voyage safe.
God give you good morrow,
Lords of stern and prow.
Was it necessary that we repeat or add something more as we joined in his song?
When I would see her pass by with that unusual step of hers and holding her dish–which was the time when she had the greatest leeway to move around–or when she would slyly brush against me as if not realizing that this body she was touching belonged to me, her confidant, the only one who knew her secret and hence for her the only man on the whole ship, since I was the only one who knew that she was a woman and the only one who, for her, would throw himself into the ocean headfirst and let it devour me in my despair over not being able to put my two palms (I was no longer content with one) on every part of her body, the only one who would throw himself headfirst and in vain, just for her, into the deep, endless, silent sea ” In vain, because if I was the only man on the whole ship for her, then I was also the only being of whom she wished to know nothing at all (“That’s all over and done with,” she had said); her confiding had erased me completely from the map. On the other hand, the others did have some interest for her, or at least for the “him” they thought she was. Those who told her the sea stories in which we all dressed the silly, childish fears that awaken in the dark of night on the high seas made her open her eyes wide as if they might want to jump out of their accustomed place and leap completely away from her. And the ones who refused to show her the rudiments of even the simplest tasks necessary for the ship’s navigation exerted still more attraction over her, from the cabin boys who pushed her away so she was unable to see how they handled the sheets that kept the sails in trim or how they bailed out the water taken on by the ship, to the old salts who moved their thick bodies into her line of vision so she could not watch them keeping the fire alive on the sand where they warmed the grim meals with which they tortured our palates at midday.” Every one of the crew or the novice cabin boys, all those who were going in search of adventure or in hopes of making a living, those who did not yet know why they were going, those who were sorry they had come, those who had more than once crossed the ocean sea as well as those who had never voyaged before, the ones who had begged on the streets or been sold by their families–every single one of them was more interesting to her than I was because I was the repository of a secret that bound me ardently to her.”
The restless memory of this episode that made me suffer so–because the sickness of love is suffering–is making me lose all sense of order. Better that I take it up again so as to be able to relate how the voyage continued:
©1991 by Carmen Boullosa.
Translation ©1997 by Leland H. Chambers. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic Inc. All rights reserved.