Today, it is our honor to publish an original story by the esteemed Chaya Bhuvaneswar in our Featured Fiction section. In “Heitor,” a sixteenth-century slave examines his life before the firing squad. This story, from her recently released collection WHITE DANCING ELEPHANTS, dives into the darkest truths of our collective history, and bright possibility of personal transcendence.
“When death came, it would be by gunshot. Heitor would not be blindfolded. But no one would prevent him from closing his eyes when pistols were raised and seeing instead vivid memories.”
One October evening in the Year of Our Blessed Lord, fifteen hundred and forty-five, a male Indian slave once advertised as being in the most robust health, skin of his young back shining like sturdy striped mahogany from pale healing scars of past whippings, stood chained in the cool courtyard of the convent in Evora, in Imperial Portugal. He was awaiting punishment.
As a mercy, one of the sisters had allowed him to continue wearing a loincloth, though, at the moment he crumpled in death, he knew that even this insignificant black rag would be forced off. The covering was for the benefit of the fifty-or-so women, some of them girls, who would live in the convent till they too died, and who, like Mariana, a sixteen-year-old novitiate, were never supposed to see any man’s genitals. Yet Mariana had contrived once to see Heitor sleeping on the ground outside the stables, had found his body beguiling, had ordered him to stand guard outside her bedroom door on several nights, though he had resisted doing more.
When death came, it would be by gunshot. Heitor would not be blindfolded. But no one would prevent him from closing his eyes when pistols were raised and seeing instead vivid memories.
As a child, Heitor was seized at the age of seven by slave traders from Lisbon, those proud descendants of da Gama. The traders had the Count of Vidiguera’s maps from a century before, when he had been the first to reach the Indian Ocean. In a village in Bengal, Heitor’s tiny mother was struck to the ground by one of the elders, who, without informing her, captured her son and, for a fat purse, surrendered him to those slave traders. Small for his age then, easily bound, Heitor was brought by ship and force, by members of large prosperous trading companies who gloried in sea routes. They were the brothers of men who had settled in Goa, the place in India where the first evidence of human life was ever found, in metavolcanics, rock art engravings. Spice traders who named kingdoms after explorers didn’t fail to notice Indian women: they married the most beautiful ones they could find, converting them to Christianity, gifting them with wedding jewels the Europeans had stolen from the women’s own ancestors.
Still mute from the sight of his mother imploring the elders, Heitor was sold for an elite price to work for the nuns of Evora, and to serve their novitiates. Indian, Chinese, Japanese slaves were bought and sold in Portuguese cities, believed to be more intelligent, and less potent as males, than African slaves, and thus allowed to work in the convents.
As a child, Heitor was striking for his quietude, forming a graceful harmony with the aggressive potential of his prematurely hard and strong limbs.
Beginning at the quick, observant, diligent age of eight, he was saved from harder labor, given to the convent’s Indian gardener and its cook.
These loving men were nowhere to be found on his last night. The men, lovers, were hiding for fear of being chained, drunk and in despair that they had not foreseen his fate. His two passionate, adoptive fathers, who knew how to grow the choicest sprigs of lavender to place on dinner plates, also knew the art of capoeira, a fighting form evolved to fend off slave traders, one of many methods of survival that Indians would learn from Afro-Brazilian men, the black crewmembers who frequented taverns and inns in the city where the cook and gardener were sent to do errands. These crewmembers, in their turn, purchased young Japanese women as slaves and bragged of how much they enjoyed them. The women had been sold by their families, so their menfolk could buy food. Or feudal lords traded these female slaves for gunpowder.
The Indian cook and gardener happened to be devoted to pleasure. Believing Heitor should have the same, they taught him capoeira, cooking, and all the other arts, believed all along he would outlast them and inherit their small trove of possessions. Those two men, slaves of the convent, suggested which girls in the village Heitor could make love with safely, in secret. Mariana, the rich virgin who desired Heitor, didn’t know about those girls.
If the oldest and most powerful of the nuns of Montemor had ever known about the welcoming village girls, each of whom were some respectable tradesman’s daughter – if the nuns, those grave authorities, had known how many lovers Heitor had before settling on one – by now the police would have torn off Heitor’s balls, then forced him to go one living and working.