December 24, 1492
Enrique Navarro Lovato shared a tiny cabin below the bow with Juan Carlos Gutierrez Romero. Each boy slept on a three-plank bunk, Enrique’s closer to the floor because he was the younger of the two, and because, according to Juan Carlos, Juan Carlos was part Basque, who were superior sailors, which is why the Admiral wanted him on the higher bunk. This was pure nonsense and Enrique taunted Juan Carlos relentlessly that he could never prove he was Basque, and why would he want to claim that heritage anyway, those arrogant heathens. Juan Carlos did little on board anyway and was a complainer, and so Enrique knew it would catch up to the other boy one day, therefore Enrique kept quiet and worked hard. He was a deck swab from Galicia, and Enrique knew this made the Admiral happy, and also the ship was sometimes called La Gallega.
The night sky was brilliant. After a dinner of salted pork and a new fruit they had collected from the natives of the island—some yellow hooked tube that you had to peel to eat the white flesh—the Admiral let everyone have some wine, even the boys. It was Christmas Eve, after all. The plan was to continue sailing the north coast into the morning to peruse for any more signs of gold or spice.
Enrique had seen a few of the first pieces brought on board. The Admiral himself held his palm open to show the crew. It shimmered on all of its rounded and angular sides, dull in some places, sparkling in others. The Admiral laughed a bit, saying how the Cipangos had taken the beads so willingly and with a childlike wonder. If they only knew it was just glass, the Admiral laughed. And how they just gave over their gold!
Enrique had heard one of the friars who could interpret their strange language say that the Cipangos considered gold to be the waste of their gods. Their excrement. How amazing, Enrique thought, that their gods might shit gold. What could their gods look like? This thought was silly. There was only one true god and everyone knew it. It would only take time for these people to learn that.
This was what Enrique was thinking—in between praying to Santa Maria herself and dozing off—when the steersman wrapped on the cabin door.
“Wake up,” he said, although he was saying it to Juan Carlos. “Wake up, you brat.”
Enrique sprang up.
“What is it, Captain? Is anything the matter?”
“Wake him up.”
“What is it? I can help.”
“I don’t care, one of you wake up, get on deck.”
Enrique quickly changed out of his dressing gown and into his trousers and tunic. He debated putting on his doublet because it was a warm night but he did it anyway because who knew what he was about to do? What if the Admiral awoke and happened to see him hard at work so late at night? He might be promoted for such good behavior.
The steersman led the boy to the helm and said, “Take it. I need to rest.”
He handed over the ship with ease to Enrique, much like the Cipangos had given their gold, like it was nothing. A trifle. But then the steersman turned back to Enrique and sneered at the boy: “Don’t do anything stupid.”
Enrique wrapped his hands around the handles and felt the gentle tilting of the ship grow into his forearms. It excited him in the way the sight of a woman did, how it was strange and foreign and forbidden. He’d held the wheel before. He’d certainly cleaned it. All the cabin boys had. He simply had never steered the ship, and absolutely not the Santa Maria.
At first it seemed to be a mistake the steersman would hand it over to him, but then it made sense with it being late and Christmas Eve and everyone relaxed, the Admiral awake for almost two days. Plus, would the steersman truly hand over command if the seas were treacherous? With that Enrique inhaled the night air and held the wheel steady, his line of sight being just over the bow. The island was a safe distance and only its silhouette signaled that it was there at all against the backdrop of starry sky.
Once they returned to Spain, they would be famous. Enrique would get asked to venture back to the Spice Islands and bring back more of everything. He could even become like the Admiral himself. Enrique loved this idea, he loved everything about what was happening in his life, how his voice had just changed and how he was growing hair all over his body, his favorite place the line just above his lip. One day he would have a beard like the men on the ship.
Enrique felt a little sorry for the Cipangos, how bare their skin was, how they had no shame to walk around almost in the nude like they did. It would be such a gift when they knew Christ, when they could understand what this blessed holiday was. Enrique drove his hand into the pocket of his doublet where he had one of the glass beads the men had given to the Cipangos. Enrique rubbed it with his thumb and forefinger and he considered asking it the way the natives might, to bless him with prosperity forever.
All of this fantasizing ended the moment the ship jerked forward as though skipping on the water. Enrique hadn’t made any adjustment at the wheel. He’d held it tight the whole time except when he dropped his hand into his pocket. But then again, how long had he been out there? The ship heaved forward, but it was gently, nothing like some of the waves they had endured crossing Mar Atlantico, when it rocked side to side, careening down walls of black crashing waters.
With another heave forward, the ship came to a hard stop, and Enrique’s blood ran cold. The island appeared to be where he last saw it, but then the shadows of the mass loomed closer and he swore he heard wind rustling through trees.
With this a stir below deck made Enrique shiver. The Admiral was awake. The voices of other men rose in both anger and disbelief. Feet banged up stairs toward the deck. Enrique tried to turn the wheel. It was locked. A set of waves came from behind and shoved the boat forward into the tidepools, ripping into the starboard hull. The Admiral rose to the deck eyes sunken and furious. He approached Enrique heavy footed and rose his hand up to strike him.
Enrique did the only thing he knew how: he prayed to the Blessed Mother asking for forgiveness, saying to the Admiral he would never do this—WHACK! The Admiral gave one blow with the back of his hand sending the boy backward onto the deck. A priest held the Admiral back from lunging again at the boy. Enrique turned himself over onto the deck and began kissing the very wood he mopped every day.
“Holy Mary, Mother of God,” he said, “Pray for me—a sinner—now and at the hour of my death.”