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.
Less than an hour remained until Heitor would be killed for a completely different crime.
Every week, at least two policemen searched the convent’s surrounding gardens for criminals, all seeking sanctuary on holy lands, all trying to evade having their hands and feet cut off for stealing. No one dared covet the king’s gold, won back as it had been only a few centuries before from the Moors, from those stealthy, marauding dark ones-and before that, seized by the Portuguese explorers and traders, those bold, endlessly cunning ones, those Europeans unafraid to travel to the far end of the world, where behemoth, decorated elephants carried Indian princes.
Mariana was from one of Lisbon’s wealthiest slave trading families. A year away from permanent vows, she talked of running away from the convent, of how much she adored Heitor. She teased Heitor, allowed him to see her nude body, left him gifts at the slave quarters, even compelled him to stand near while she took her bath. She pled sick so she missed prayers; through cook and gardener, often she sent word asking for him, only him. Her merchant father could have bought Heitor from the nuns, at Mariana’s pleasure. Terrified of that happening, of being torn from his Sita before he could protect her, a woman who was also a slave in the village, the woman to whom he was betrothed, Heitor pretended to run away, knowing the punishment for any slave who dared try to escape was swift and public execution. Heitor knew full well his body would be left for the crows where he stood now.
Caught, again enslaved, Heitor could die knowing no one would ever learn the truth. That he, Heitor, had stolen back the conqueror’s gold, the stolen Christian gold, stolen before that from Indian temples and palaces, from statues melted down so that the features of gods and goddesses were long ago forfeit. That Heitor, despite being a slave, had touched that gold, accumulated, stacked, a pestilence to the native people, a providence to the Portuguese, and which they seized, triumphant and knowing, at their first opportunity.
The bags of gold he’d filled up with pilfered coins, only a few at a time, picked up from where they were dropped over years by drunken explorers, by careless shipmen who swayed in laughter, would pay for Sita to escape to America. It was too dangerous, Heitor knew, to try to sneak onto a ship himself, with Mariana so aware of him. All would be seized – he would be recognized, tortured. Instead, with Heitor punished and no one suspecting her, Sita would take the gold with her as stowaway. Her innkeeper master had already sold her to a seafaring stranger. She’d be a crewmember’s concubine, the pet of a man curious about the mysteries of her dark-skinned body. To gain her freedom, Sita would smother this man with a shawl she had woven, once he was drunk and asleep, and then would slip into a crowd of kitchen women, one of whom had already vowed to protect her. Once Sita freed herself from that sleeping man, that unknown man who would soon be her last master, as soon as the ship reached Manhattan Island, she would tell her descendants that it was Heitor, a man possessed of his full powers though forced to pretend otherwise, whose gold had carried them across the waves. A man who’d been a slave, yet staked the mother of his beloved child, so she and the baby she carried could hide in the New World.
Chaya Bhuvaneswar is a physician and writer with work in Narrative Magazine, Tin House, Electric Lit, The Millions, Joyland, Michigan Quarterly Review and elsewhere. Her poetry and prose juxtapose Hindu epics, other myths and histories, and the survival of sexual harassment and racialized sexual violence by diverse women of color. Her debut collection WHITE DANCING ELEPHANTS is out now, as of Oct 9 2018, by Dzanc Books and is available at amazon.com, dzancbooks.org (use coupon code GOODREADS) as well as indie booksellers. She has received a MacDowell Colony fellowship, Sewanee Writers Conference scholarship and Henfield award for her writing. Follow her on Twitter at @chayab77 including for upcoming readings and events.