(This story follows The Pirate’s Story-1. b.)
Elixir Of Life ©
The night still hung over the Atlantic. Open End suddenly shot up in his bed and eyes snapped open. If there was a scream it just trailed away in a whimper. It was a bad dream all right and Snake-Eyes his valet was at hand to get him come out of it. Snake-Eyes, the man from Memphis, was also the bo’s’n, his physician and spirit counselor all rolled in one. “ Is the ship on course?” Open End asked. Snake-Eyes nodded and said he would fix him a jug of toddy. Open End drank. It tasted unlike anything he had ever tasted which went under the heading of toddy. Sheepishly the man from Memphis said it was a new concoction. In the end he volunteered to explain it was the food of the gods.
After a pause he asked, “You don’t like it Cap’n?” The pirate said it was indeed the food of the gods and he had nothing against the drink. “Only that S.E, I just dreamt a dream, a terrible one at that.” Open End moped his forehead and his bewilderment was still obvious. “In my dream I was the food for the gods.”
Before Snake-Eyes could digest this he asked in a puzzle,” What is a pulque?” No man came more superstitious than the man from Memphis and he
knew the matter was serious. He explained, ”It is a beverage made from the sap of Maguey or century plant.” Next moment he wondered loud, ”Those plants are only found in Mexico!”
“Why on earth would I want to think of pulque?” Open End still remained amazed. He had never for once tasted the fermented drink or heard the name mentioned; and yet he was speaking of matters real. “But it is a dream. What has it got to do with the real?” Open End considered his ship as real as his treasure chests that he had buried in places Snake-Eyes would have never dreamed of.
Had the man from Memphis said the drink was the favorite drink of a Huastec god it would have made the pirate nervous; and the thought it was what a sacrificial victim got to drink before being dispatched to the underworld would certainly have made him squirm. Snake-Eyes said instead,” Pulque is grown in Mexico and it is very much part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain; and we are in that world which explains your dream however fanciful…” Open End waved him away unable to stand some abstruse nonsense that did not peel an onion, as far as he was concerned. However. He was still shaking. Only the thought his dream was vivid and he was in a fancy dress playing some game in order to please some god was revolting enough.
While Snake-Eyes had perked up with their narrow escape from death, Open End remained troubled all the way to Trinidad, Cuba. He cast anchor in the open sea and put out a skiff to land ashore. Dusk had already fallen and he concealed his boat among a mangrove. He made off towards the town.
Cuba Trinidad. Nestling below the mauve cool shadows thrown by the Sierra del Escambray he had got in time to lose himself among the festive crowd. Every night seemed an occasion for some procession of sorts, only that they did not wear any masks or elaborate dresses of sequins or flounces. Music blared from the white washed haciendas and shacks and those who had some cash wended to the bars and got some louder beats that came in an unbroken wave after wave. Either you danced or drank to senselessness or retreated to some darkened spot hoping to give the ears some rest. Open End went to a sidewalk and sat like a lord before a low slung tiled house. It had windows with wooden balconies. Cheek by jowl stood some four houses more or less of similar façade each reflecting Moorish influence on the south of Spain. It did not bother what his present surroundings had to do with some style imported from Old Spain anymore than his dream had to do with some drink of Mexico. What struck him was his awareness of the folding doors all louvered and opened. He could see flaming flambeaux inside and customers dressed in their every day clothes taking in the passing show. Open End was hungry and he looked around.
Immediately came a mulatto who said he would take the order. Even as he asked for specialty of the house a table was quickly set complete with service, cutlery and napkins. The hot steaming plate of sweet potatoes done to a crisp with dollops of chocolate which he had never had tasted (till the time the Man from Memphis had used it to spice up his toddy) put him into high spirits. “Here be the food of the gods!” he drooled at the thought it only cost him next to nothing. ‘Should I order anything on the side?’ he asked himself. It was such simple questions as to how he should wear his bandanna or what side dishes to order were the most difficult to answer. Before he could pursue it any further he saw a hand reaching from the blur of crowd towards him. As large as life. He could only watch it slowly develop. The calloused hand did not end there; and he shuddered to imagine it was on him the hand had taken a fancy. He drew back. Yet the fiendish hand sought him out. Then another, the good hand of the same faceless phantom, for all the start his other hand gave him, made its appearance.
The good hand that held on to his table was all that good and the rest as he could see was determined to make itself shown with all its sorry state. He knew the fellow was almost coming apart but for his inhuman will which somehow held it all together. He was decidedly for a chat. ‘I don’t know him. Why me?’ He felt it was unjust.
The uninvited guest was not a pretty sight.
The stranger was diseased and broken down on the wheel of life. His left hand was in splints and head was swathed in lint and was dirty as his person, which was obviously unwashed for days. Never had he seen a man so utterly abused by every day life. He would not have cared to touch even with a ten-foot barge pole. Open End winced at the figure who stood large in his line of vision and who did not fade though he pretended not to notice him.
His appetite somewhat evaporated.
His sympathy would have made a wave but the man who stood before him began shouting the foulest words of abuse once he had found his feet. Such words he had never in his own low life heard, quickly dried up what pity welled within. Having unburdened himself he said, ”You whoreson, did you not bring some cargo for me to sell last autumn?”
As the invectives streamed forth in a jet Open End was matching every blackguard from his Identity-kit of memory studying whom the beggar matched most. The only time he had sailed as far as the New World was the time he had some human cargo to sell in Jamaica. But he was in Cuba! ‘So the stranger must be someone who is connected with that sale’, he thought. That made his search narrowed down to a few. ‘Did he cut in to someone else’s deal?’ He could not think so. ‘Or did he make any enemies on that deal?’ He thought hard. ‘Those 230 grinning slaves from Benin glowing with rude health were thankful.’ he recalled. Slowly his forehead furrowed, “No it cannot be?” It came all in a flash. Suddenly his eyebrows shot up. ’Miguel, you mickle of Mickey Finn!” he exclaimed trying hard to play cool. It did not make Miguel stop his invectives, which like the deluge once opened up kept pouring down on Noah. “Fine thanks I get!” the pirate groaned.
Open End as matter of precaution drew his chair farther back. A mistake. Miguel stuck his good hand into his steaming plate. Open End could only look on. The only consolation was while he attacked his dinner he had forgotten him altogether. Open End was surprised he could watch him eat it all; and even while he gorged on chocolate in a disgustingly self-indulgent manner he realized he and Miguel could never rekindle the old magic as was in Mondego Bay.
He had on that occasion made his millions on a sale, which gave Miguel towards brokerage a tidy sum. What of him? All that he got on that deal went for so many recurring expenses, depreciation and incidentals as his steward would say, ‘enough to make minnow of a whale’. Whereas the man who called him names had no office or incidental expenses. Did he grudge that? No. After the sale he had paid for the wining and drinking. Two days of binge! He did not mind it. All because of friendship! ‘What Miguel was griping now for?’ What his brokerage firm was but his own person whereas he had to maintain a ship and an insatiable crew, for God’s sake!
He mused while Miguel said,” You palmed me off with dead meat, you scoundrel!” The pirate let out a groan knowing his dinner only gave him a fresh start. Before he could launch into another tirade he held his hands to stop him, “You, yourself said to the contrary. You don’t remember it uh?”
” Yes I was tricked at Mondego bay, you rascal!” he screamed,” Those slaves were polished to look healthy. Tricks of the trade!” Miguel explained,” Hardly had I sold them to my client who had put them in sugar cane plantations than the slaves began to show what stuff they were made of.” He gulped hard and Open End could see it was difficult for him to speak. ”The sun beat them hard and it was not sweat but lard oozing out of their pores.” He screamed hard,” What kind of slaves were you trying to palm off anyway? So well fed, what was the idea? So calculated that they would die off like flies once you got your money?” He gasped for breath and said somewhat subdued,” they were not good for working in the heat. So my client had them taken from working.”
“What became of them?”
“Carrion meat! That was what they became!” He once again keened like a banshee. Those who strolled along the street jumped like rabbits to keep out of trouble.
“My client was so wroth and wanted to give you a good whipping down,” Miguel shuddered and he spat out,” You had cleverly left the scene, and I had to face the music!”
“You made him see reason, I suppose?“
He convulsed severely in reply to the pirate’s query and his hideous face showed what he felt so tellingly. He cried. “ I was whipped, tarred and was hauled into his boat only to be keel-hauled.” He sobbed till he had the tocsin of his memory cleared off, ”Again I was in his boat for keel hauling. Why must I suffer for your sake?” Miguel began howling and tears poured out and he said, ”I wanted only brokerage and not expected to be broken down as this.”
Miguel launched into a fresh bout of weeping to which the pirate said under breath, ‘End of a beautiful friendship.’ There was still a touch of regret. They had come to the parting of ways. Open End casually asked if he could do anything to make his situation somewhat lighter. “I want to go to Havana. I heard there is a place, which dispenses the elixir of life. A swig of that fixes whatever is broken. Including hearts.”
Open End would have laughed outright had he not seen the man before. Nothing of frivolity came through when he brokered a deal last time. He was an eager beaver from his head to toe. It was now as then. Even in gutter as he found himself at the moment, he would have taken his percentage had he something of a deal.
Open End nodded to indicate Miguel spoke the truth. If a handout made it somewhat easy for one he would part with some money; If it would make one come out all right, one who looked no better than a piece of sugarcane drawn through a press one time too many, he was all for it. He caught the eye of the waiter and paid him. He had not the heart to think of eating. What with Miguel still burping over his order.
After he had his fill Miguel said he was for taking a passage in his ship bound for Havana, a piece of news which the pirate had never told any one. Miguel asked him, “Take me with you, to Havana!” he wailed, ”for sympathy sake!”
Open End felt uneasy. His sympathy did not run that deep. He flatly refused to take Miguel along. Open End feared his presence would only jinx his own future. Promising him to meet him the next day by ten in the morning at the place (where the present Casa del Obispo stands) he went into the night.
Soon he heard footfalls in the night and he stopped dead on his tracks with his cutlass ready to use. It was the mulatto who had a little while ago served him. He said he had some piece of information that could save him. “It is for sale!” he said with some trepidation. “I guessed as much,” Open End said casually.
“Just a doubloon will do.” he offered. “No deal till I hear what kind of news I am getting.” The pirate was certain. The waiter said the man who had come to his table earlier in the evening was onto voodoo magic.” It does not work then, ”Open End said with a leer,” if practicing voodoo will make me so beggarly. Obviously?”
“It was a case of displeasing some Vodon (* spirits)”the mulatto replied. Open End said “No deal as I said, no deal.” and walked off.
Next morning Miguel came for a hand out which the pirate tossed with disdain and waved him away. Miguel left.
Three months later Open End sailed into Havana and without making a fuss he had taken a villa by the Castillo de la Real Fuerza. Next morning jauntily he walked along the esplanade keeping all the time his eye on the landmark (where El Morro presently situates) at Punta Barlovento, he saw someone coming towards him with a whoop. It was a hombre on two feet all right. He was in no mood to be run over by any one with the power of a whirlwind. His hands instinctively moved to his rapier, hell bent to stop the nuisance in his tracks. There were a few enjoying the salubrious autumn sunshine and they curiously looked at the man in motion then at one who just stopped dead. Many eyebrows were raised to see the man in motion in a flash stopping short before the one with his hand on the hilt.
“Hola!” the man said.
“Ditto!” replied the man curtly. His hand was still on the hilt. A pause. His hand fell on his sides and he said, ”Is it you Miguel?”
“Yes,” Miguel said seriously,” As I told you last time I just got out after my treatment.” Open End recalled something about the elixir. He waited. Miguel put his hand with a familiar air on his sleeve and said,” The elixir of life. It cost me only five pesos!”
Miguel looked chipper and full of bounce and he invited Open End to a restaurant on King’s Street and said the treat would be to his account. Open End would not hear of it. He insisted he would pay and was in no mood to be contradicted. Thus they strolled to the assigned place. Later in the evening Open End said he would also take the cure and admitted he at first thought it was some quackery. “But Miguel, I cannot but admit my foolish reservations. You glow with rude health and not a sign of disease clings to you as far as my eyes can detect; and your bones as far as your grip goes, well, carry some punch!” Open End asked to be taken to the place where he might buy elixir of life. Only one question he still had and he was all the more perturbed for it. Many times words came and died half expressed. He did not know if there was any deal.
“What are you sounding like a tinkling cymbal?” Miguel asked exasperated,” Speak up!” Open End came to the point. “Do you think I can buy the elixir lock, stock and barrel?” Open End had sensed his Midas touch in the little tremor of his left hand. The same tremor he had felt when Bozo first came to him with human cargo. If that deal had netted him millions he was here looking at his billions. ‘Who would not pay dearly for eternal youth?’ Open End asked him again.
Miguel frowned but he gave the question his full undivided attention and said,” I could perhaps swing it in your favor. Needless to say my brokerage as usual, is assured. Is it not?” Open End suddenly pulled back. “Agreed in principle. But I shall not deal until I know what figure we are talking about.” They parleyed even as they turned to a dingy darkened alley. “Yes I will part with hard cash.”
“Is that all you can speak of?”
“In thousands of reals.”Miguel just stopped and was a bit peeved. “Don’t be vague,” he said, ”You are playing with matters of life. The elixir of life is at stake here.” He also explained the entire stock lay in barrels and if they were to run off it would run on for one full year. “Not by drips and drabs, man!” Miguel was certain, “by gallons!”
Open End had a knack for arithmetic. He calculated mentally and divulged his highest offer would be anything between one million and 1,7 million. “That is reasonable, I suppose.” Miguel clapped his hands to press home a point. Unlike the last encounter Miguel was fit as a fiddle and his clapping reverberated through the alley. “You must be precise to the last peso.”
Open End fumbled and said, ”My limit is 1,705,350 reals. I can throw in say eighty pesos by way of some change.”
Open End had already seized the prospects of all titled heads including sultans as his clientele. It was a sure-fire operation that showed nothing but profits. Whichever way one dispensed the elixir
it made money.
They stopped in front of a house, which was unusual. It had only one door a heavy door studded with nails and Miguel rapped the knocker against the wood. At last the door creaked and a colored servant in livery opened. Seeing Miguel he let them inside. Open End saw a house typical of the domestic architecture in colonial style transplanted from Old Spain. The whole house was a half moon in masonry and wood. The façade painted in old Havana blue was beginning to show its age. Doors and windows painted in pink were open to let in sea breeze. There was an imposing colonnade that defined the front verandah that curved all the way. What struck the pirate were those who lounged. They were like zombies and looked as if they were past their present circumstances. ”They are waiting for their cure.” Miguel confided,” You are lucky you get preference over them. I spoke well on your behalf.” Miguel with a short laugh slapped on his back and said,” Cheer up. I am all for you!”
Open End felt the mood oppressive. The hairs on his arms prickled and he thought those who lounged sent shivers down his spine. Instinctively he clutched his sword. Miguel showed no change in his emotion but continued as ever voluble to paint the superlative merits of the treatment the house offered. Casa Half Moon strove not only for soundness of body but soul and spirit as well. He was certain. Miguel pointed to some cluster of stones that lay strewn here and there within the compound. “So much of stones lying waste!” Open End opined. “No, they are gods my friend.” Miguel nearly laughed at his ignorance. “There a harpy eagle with eyes of bones and in obsidian; and there a reclining figure a deity named Chacmool (* a divinity favored by the people of El Tajín in Meso-American times) and here are Elegguá, Changó, Yemaya and Ochún (four divinities in the Yoruban pantheon)”. Before the pirate could digest all these Miguel was expressing his amazement how the house could keep the practice with such low fees. “Mind you, only five pesos all I had to pay!”
Miguel’s effusion suffered a hiatus as soon as a giant of a Mestizo (of the Indian and Spanish stock) ambled towards them. His head was a melon size and it sat rather awkwardly on a massive body skipping the neck altogether. His eyes were gimlet like studying the newcomer. Miguel whispered to take note how he exuded health and vigor. “They don’t make people like him these days except in Casa Half Moon!” While the pirate was lost in a reverie he also reminded he was scrawny like every one else before he came there for the treatment. “He just stayed on!” and Miguel said in wonderment, ”he is the número uno!”
Open End in hushed voice conveyed his uneasiness at the way he was looking him over. Miguel could not help laughing, ”Do not be silly. He is sizing you up. May be a regimen to get rid of all those poison from your system. You look, pardon my saying so, a little yellow around your eyes and there is a nervous tic on the left eye which is beginning to get out of line.”
Open End replied. ”I suppose it is in order if he just concentrates on my health. Something tells me he is sizing up my worth in pieces of eight.” The head of Casa Half Moon received them with a smile and said,” You can call me Vodun! I am the presiding spirit over your well being.” Without further ado he shepherded them into the cool depths of the house. Within the time taken for them to be registered before an Indian, a tall figure with a tonsured head and a wooden cross on his bare chest the director had arranged his entire personnel to the sole purpose making a new being out of Open End who they all seemed to have concluded was a disgrace to humanity. The motto “Man like unto gods!” was carved here and there. Miguel seemed to have come out with no complaint. ‘In such a case I ought not gripe about the place or the people.’ Open End tried his best to fight certain dark suspicions that welled from within. While Miguel spent quarter of an hour with Vodun he sidled up to the man who was behind the wooden table. He stopped writing and closed the thick book and laid his quill aside. Pleasantly he introduced himself, ’I am Dom Orteguilla, at your service.’
“Is this real or am I imagining things?” Open End asked. It was a long shot. The tonsured Indian glanced at Vodun and at Miguel and swung his glance towards the speaker. It was done so slowly as if it were a hint. Open End could have drawn his own conclusion. Among so many heathen gods and animistic spirits, which were installed in the Casa Half Moon, the image of a cross worn by Dom Orteguilla was somewhat familiar. Open End thought he had found an ally.
Miguel at last came out. With a laugh so broad and a cheery wave he said he would be around to pick him up after he had the elixir of Life, drinking of which signaled the end of the treatment. “Don’t forget a rooster for Elegguá!” Open End saw him race through the drive way and into the alley. The door closed behind him.
Open End within days realized what really meant with the expression of being shipshape. Keeping his mortal remains afloat after a regimen prescribed by Casa Half Moon just described it. The first day was spent in sweating out in sweltering heat, only to be thrown the next day into a box packed with ice ‘to keep a heat exchange between body and mind’ which sounded a load of nonsense to him. He did not die as much as the weekly bill which Vodun produced for his attention. There stood a figure of 40,000 reals! Open End could not believe his eyes! As much as he blinked the figure did not disappear or become any lesser. Open End would have liked to remonstrate with the número uno of the highhanded treatment that made any further attempts to pump life in him highly risky. Vodun looked at him as if he had been hurt really bad. He said with finality ”Impossible!” In somewhat subdued tone Open End asked how high would the expenses would be.
Vodun stood there as if he were lost in thought. If he called it thinking Open End knew thinking must be no more difficult than sneezing. He came up with a figure. 1,705,350 reals.
“But Miguel assured me it cost him only five pesos. I allowed myself your treatment only on the same charge.” “Five pesos for three months of cure, ”Vodun said with his saucer eyes ever widening,” and not to mention the elixir of life! AYSOS(* What planet are you from)?” Vodun laughed so hard that his assistants came to take in the hilarity of their chief. Before he strode off he said, ”We shall thank you for eighty pesos towards gratuity. Those poor fellows who serve. They deserve some consideration. No?” Open End felt small and his rage would have spiraled out of control had not he caught the eye of Orteguilla who signaled him to go easy. When they were left alone the pirate said, “At least I can carry the elixir of Life with me and make some money out of it.” “You must have been dreaming.” the Indian replied.
Open End thought perhaps he might go home. But he would have to pay still for the whole course was no option. Miguel had got his pound of flesh and it rankled. If he could at least get that robustness which Miguel rubbed on him rather heavily he would live to get his own back. Some day. He managed with great self-control to go through with motions of the cure offered to him. At the end of each week a bill was presented and he cried ’murder’ seeing he was paying a percentage to Miguel. He promised he would skewer Miguel next time he came across him.
One night Dom Orteguilla came to his cabin and chatted about various things. Slowly they established some kind of bond and got to talk of their past. Orteguilla said he had joined them purely from a scholar’s point of view. He spoke of his stay in Vera Cruz with some satisfaction. It was where he came across huachinango a la veracruzana, red chilies which were to become his life passion. At the moment he was busy examining the cult of orishas (divine beings of African animism). Suddenly he announced he was ready to go into the world to try new experiences. Open End did not take the hint. Before the day of drinking elixir of Life Orteguilla insisted Open End should empty his mind of every thing other than what positive good the elixir could ever do to a man.” Remember, Open End at what cost you have come this far. Drink it and you shall live to fight another battle.” Open End merely groaned.
Last day Vodun came to the cell where Open End was lodged and pressed him to pay up. The bill in all stood at 1,705,350 reals. “Not a real more, not a real less!” The burly Vodun declared. Open End gritted his teeth and said, ”Wrong!”
“How do you mean?” Vodun turned his eyes blazing and his nostril flared (and his milk white teeth were no less impressive and he looked threatening. Open End said, ”Wrong! You overlooked the little matter of eighty pesos. No?” Vodun relaxed and he said he would send Dom Orteguilla to him so they could discuss and arrange the bill to be paid at his earliest convenience. Shortly thereafter the Indian was sent to fetch his money from his caravel hidden below the Punta Barlovento in one of the coves. He was in a trap and if it could only be sprung by implicit trust in a total stranger who went by the name Orteguilla he had no choice. By noon he had settled the bill in full. He was so overcome with rage and dismay at being made a fool of. Even while he downed the elixir of Life all he could was to damn Miguel.
When he reached the door he accosted Orteguilla who said he was waiting for him to come. “You see a man who just blew a fortune goodbye, Orteguilla!” The pirate whined, ”So depressing”. “Buck up man,” the defrocked Indian said sternly, ”you just had the elixir of life!” But at what cost! In millions!” Open End was so upset. Dom Orteguilla gave a sweet smile and said, “ You got me instead!”
“I sincerely hope,” said he,” you are worth half as much!” The Indian jauntily closed the door shut behind him and followed the pirate who felt the effect of elixir had already begun to wear off.
Total word count: 5061