This is the most beautiful land that human eyes have ever seen.
~Christopher Columbus, Bariay, Cuba, November 27, 1492
The beats of the magueye drums increased their pace and the maracas rattled with a steady rhythm, drowning the sounds of the early summer night. Everyone had gathered in the batey, the open area surrounded by the bohíos where the population of the nameless Taíno village resided. They crouched, forming an irregular circle around Uncle. He sat on the bare ground snorting a ground tobacco drug that brought him, with each inhalation, into a deeper trance. Taking one final puff, he closed his eyes and turned his head towards his niece, who held the squirming baby in her arms with difficulty. Uncle cleared his throat of the lingering vapors of the weed and intoned the words of the ritual:
“O sacred Nonum, who circles the heavens and sees all, the past, the present, and the future that lies hidden to us! We present to you this child – grant us a glimpse of his future, whether he will grow to work the fields with strength, and fish the rivers with skill, and hunt and trap with cunning, and father many children that will increase our numbers and make us rich and powerful.”
No sooner had the words left the seer’s mouth than a dark cloud began blotting the sky where the moon had stood a moment ago. Darkness swallowed the village. Yet, before the full horror of the omen could be felt, the cloud shifted slightly, allowing a sliver of moonlight to struggle its way out, casting a dim light on the batey.
Uncle shook his head with regret. “The goddess has spoken” – he declared. “This boy’s life will be brief and end in sorrow, but some good will come out of it. Welcome, Natiao. You shall be loved by us for as long as you are in this world.”
It was the same batey, the same clearing in the forest, the same full moon casting light and shadows on the faces of the villagers. It was colder, though, late in the year, at the end of the huracan season. Uncle again sat in a trance, his half-closed eyes directed at the baby, as she rested quietly in her bibi’s arms. He recited the words of the ritual and everyone turned their eyes towards the moon, which sat huge in the heavens. Nothing happened for a while. Then, as Uncle was getting ready to announce that the goddess did not deign to speak, a small hawk darted out of the forest and circled slowly three times over the assembled crowd, all the while uttering its piercing challenge, and coming near to where the baby was being held. Then it gave out one last shriek and was gone.
Uncle got to his feet, came over to the mother, and said gravely: “This child will see many moons, and will know many cycles of pain and misfortune. But at the end she is to prevail, for she is strong and her will shall conquer adversity. Welcome, brave one, I name you Tamara and, as the butterfly whose name you bear, you will soar above the evil and good that life shall offer you.”
Between the time of Natiao’s birth and that of his sister Tamara, the world had gone through a catastrophic change, but in the Taíno village nobody knew of it. One day late in Natio’s first year, fair skinned men sailing in floating houses came ashore at a place not far from the village. Leading them was an auburn-haired giant called Cristóbal Colón who later became known as the “Guamikeni” (Lord of Land and Water) by the Taínos. Colón soon sailed away and never came back.
Later, Taínos began arriving from distant villages, some coming from as far as the island of Haytí. Some traveled overland across the steep mountains, others arrived by water in canoes, but all brought disquieting tales about those pallid men. According to their stories, the Guamikeni and his men came ashore and established their own villages, not unlike the Taíno yukayekes. Soon thereafter, though, they sought to master the land, forcing the local inhabitants to become their servants and making all males, young and old, pan the rivers in search of gold nuggets. Those that resisted were whipped or had flesh-tearing dogs unleashed on them.
At first the villagers gave no credence to these tales, and viewed them as excuses by people wishing to leave their impoverished lands for a better place to call home. But then a larger group of Taínos appeared in the village. They arrived in piraguas, war canoes, all the way from Haytí. They were led by a crazy-eyed old man who called himself Hatuey and said he was a Taíno chief. They had escaped from the hands of the Spaniards and wanted to warn all people about what to expect when the white men came.
Tamara was fourteen and had had her first blood, but was not yet paired with any of the young men in the village. She listened to Hatuey in horror as he addressed the village and exhibited a large basket full of small gold ornaments like jeweled yaris and taguaguas. “Here is the God the Spaniards worship,” he said, “for all they want is gold, and will kill us for it.” He went on to say: “We must make a common front to resist them, and throw them back into the sea from which they came!!”
The Taínos could not believe the apocalyptic message brought by Hatuey, and only a few joined him. Then Diego Velázquez, at the head of a conquering Spanish expedition, landed with about three hundred armed men and set to subdue the native population.
Hatuey led the Taíno resistance against Velázquez. His strategy was to attack, guerilla fashion, and then disperse to the hills, where the Indians would regroup for the next attack. For three months Hatuey’s tactics kept the Spaniards on the defensive, afraid to leave their fort.
With the help of a traitor, Velázquez was finally able to surround and capture Hatuey. Hatuey was tied to a stake at the Spanish camp and was burned alive. Just before lighting the fire, a priest offered him spiritual comfort, showing him the cross and asking him to accept Jesus so he could go to heaven. “Are there people like you in heaven?” he asked. “There are many like me in heaven,” answered the priest. Hatuey answered: “I want nothing to do with a God that welcomes people who inflict such cruel deeds on others.”
Natiao’s village had been at the core of Hatuey’s resistance. After his execution, the villagers sought to appease the Spaniards by holding a feast in their honor. Once the feast was over, however, the conquistadores set upon the Indians, slashing, disemboweling and slaughtering the males until their blood ran like a river. Except for those that managed to flee into the hills, the only Taíno males left alive were the old, the sick and the very young.
Natiao and three other youth escaped the massacre and hid in one of the caves on the mountains that surrounded Baracoa. They kept harassing the conquistadores, destroying their crops, killing their work animals, setting fire to their huts, and on one occasion slaying two white men who they found unarmed in the fields.
Then their luck ran out. Hunting dogs traced them to their cave and led a full armed force to their hideaway. As the barks of the dogs alerted them to their peril, Natiao told his friends: “Run to the other side of the hill, behind the waterfall, and maybe they will lose track of you. I will distract them in the meantime.” His friends resisted his command, but he shoved them out: “If you die, all resistance is lost. Live and carry on with the fight.”
The others had barely disappeared into the woods when the party of Spaniards appeared on top of the ridge: five men armed with arcabuces and three vicious black dogs that sprung at Natiao ahead of the humans.
Natiao brandished a macana, a long thick club with sharpened edges, and dispatched two of the dogs in quick succession; the third turned tail and joined the Spaniards, who raised their arcabuces and shot at Natiao.
Three of the shots fired by the arcabuces missed Natiao and he thrust a lance at one of the soldiers, impaling him against the trunk of a tree. He ran rapidly at the others, screaming Hatuey’s war cry: “Aji Aya Bombe” (“Better Dead than a Slave”), and clubbed another soldier, dropping him dead. He was reaching for a third soldier when the two remaining arcabuces were discharged at him simultaneously.
Natiao’s body was flung backwards from the impacts, and the youth fell to the ground shaking convulsively. Soon he was dead.
One of Natiao’s friends witnessed Natiao’s death and told the story to his companions and to every Taíno they met. Natiao became a hero but his fame was short-lived, for the Spaniards ultimately annihilated all the indigenous population of the island.
Tamara did not learn of her brother’s death until much later. The day of the feast, she and three other women were herded into a bohío where half a dozen drunken Spaniards gathered around them.
Like all young Taíno women, Tamara was bare breasted and wore only a thin cotton skirt that ran to mid-calf. She was bronze-colored and had black, flowing hair, and large and slightly oblique dark eyes. Her young body was beautiful and exciting to the eyes of the soldiers, who began lining up for a gang rape. The first of them, a stinking mountain of a man with a disfiguring mole on his cheek, roughly tore away Tamara’s skirt, threw her on the floor and mounted her.
Tamara shrieked and pummeled the man’s chest and scratched him, but was no match for her attacker. The violation was about to be consummated when the Spaniard was forcibly yanked away from the prostate girl.
“Leave the Indian alone!” was a peremptory shout from someone that Tamara could not see. The soldier swung back behind him in an attempt to hit the interrupter and was struck in the face with the pommel of a sword.
“Get out of here before I hit you with the front end and not the back” warned the intruder. The soldier got up slowly, muttering something incomprehensible, and tottered away.
Tamara could now get a full view of her savior. He was tall, bearded and dark, and fairly young. He wore a shirt, a doublet, breeches and leather boots and gloves; nothing that signified a high rank or position. He was handsome, in a rough sort of way.
The man picked Tamara off the ground without effort and, carrying her over his shoulder, took her to another bohío. There, he ran his hand slowly over her face and said: “Child, you are pretty. I will have you, but in a more dignified manner.”
Tamara did not understand the man’s words, but his tone was soothing and the sensations she was experiencing as he caressed her were pleasurable. He went on: “My name is Iñigo Valdés, although everyone calls me Nacho.”
Nacho laid Tamara down on a straw mat on the dirt floor and began kissing her insistently. Tamara squirmed and tried to fight him off, but not as fiercely as she had a few minutes earlier. Finally, as Nacho fondled her secret place, the one that only her bibi had touched when she was a baby, Tamara sighed and her resistance ceased.
Cuba’s conquest from the unresisting Indians was completed in 1515, the same year of the foundation of Villa de La Habana on the southern coast of the island. Nacho and Tamara were among the first settlers of the village. Tamara gave birth to a pretty girl that Nacho had baptized as Juana, in honor of the reigning Queen of Castilla. Tamara called her Guaní, humming bird, a name that presaged a restless life ahead.
By that point, Tamara had learned enough Spanish to be able to hold rudimentary conversations with her master. She mostly applied her new skills to upbraid Nacho for his failure to defend the Indians from the abuses by the Spaniards. Velázquez had instituted in Cuba the encomienda system developed in Spain upon the Christian conquest of Muslim territories. Under it, a Spaniard was issued control over several native families. The encomenderos were allowed to require labor from the Indians in exchange for their “christianization.” While the Indians were considered free subjects of the empire, the encomenderos used their Indians as slaves, and their brutal treatment caused the Indians to begin to die from forced labor, disease and suicide.
Nacho had been granted an encomienda that placed two Taíno families under his control. These became virtual slaves that performed all the work in Nacho’s holding, except cooking that was Tamara’s domain. As Nacho’s concubine, Tamara ruled the house as a Spanish wife would have.
“You should not hit them” she complained, when Nacho whipped the encomendados for some infraction.
“Shut up, wench, unless you want me to hit you too!” he replied gruffly.
“I not afraid. I Taíno. We people, not animals. You better not hit us.”
“Shut up or I will give you to my captain,” he said half-jokingly.
“I scratch his eyes out” she promised, with a hatred that lent credence to her threat.
Nacho burst into laughing and that was the end of the discussion.
Two years later, it became obvious that La Habana’s southern location was unsuitable and an alternate site was chosen for the city in the north coast. A trip to the proposed new location convinced Nacho that he could do better there. He figured that in a year he would be able to establish himself more comfortably in a suitable place.
The work in erecting his new house would be performed by the Taínos in his encomienda. On morning in early 1517 Nacho gathered the two families under his ward in front of his bohío and said that two weeks hence he would lead them to the new location he had chosen for his house in the northern coast and leave them there to work clearing the property and laying the foundations for the new home.
The news was received with consternation by the Indians. They lived in deplorable conditions; nonetheless, they were appalled at being forced to move north to start building their master’s home while at the same time finding a way to make a living.
Tamara confronted Nacho and chided him for his heartlessness. “How you treat people like animals? Taínos not cows or pigs, you no can move them around!”
Nacho gave her a hard slap on the face that sent her reeling. “They are my property, and I do with them as I damn please. I don’t give a hoot if they live or die. So, watch out, or I will send you along with them to build my house!”
Tamara had a bleeding split lip and a terrible headache from her repressed anger. She cooked dinner to avenge herself.
She made an ajiaco, a savory stew that included bits of pumpkin, sweet yuca (cassava), corn, okra, and salted pork. In this particular ajiaco, she used yuca brava instead of sweet yuca. Yuca brava, when cooked, releases nailboa, a poisonous juice that could kill a man if ingested in sufficient quantities.
Nacho had a hearty appetite and downed three bowls of ajiaco, accompanied by cups of rough wine. In no time he dropped in his hamaca and fell, groaning, into a stupor.
Tamara considered slaying the man, but he was the father of her daughter and not too terrible a person, for a Spaniard. She hoped that the nailboa would not kill but only sicken him, but that was in the hands of the gods. All she wanted was to get away.
She picked up Guaní and, with the baby in her arms, ran to a bohío and slammed her fist twice against the door. The family was already asleep but woke up with the commotion. “No time to explain” she told them. “Gather what you can carry and meet me at the batey.” She proceeded to the other bohíos and made the same demand.
Soon, the entire population of Nacho’s encomienda was gathered around Tamara. “I have put Guaoxeri Nacho to sleep, maybe for a long time. He insists on your going north to build his house. If you don’t, he’ll have you killed. Your choice is simple: Either flee or obey his demands.”
“Flee? Where?” demanded someone.
“Not far east of here is the big Southern Swamp, where the Spaniards do not go for fear of poisonous snakes, caimanes and other perils. We must settle there, at least for a few months.”
“But how is that better than going to build Guaoxeri Nacho’s new home?”
“You will have to decide that” replied Tamara curtly. It’s your choice. But you must act quickly, or miss the chance.”
There was a brief discussion, and one of the men spoke to Tamara in a voice that trembled with emotion: “Sister Tamara, better in a swamp, fighting the caimanes and the jubos, than on the hands of the Spaniards. We’ll go.”
Tamara pressed Guaní against her body and turned to the congregation. “I may be a foolish girl by doing this to my daughter. But we have little choice. Guaní will grow to be a slave. I do not wish such a life upon her.”
One of the women walked with Tamara as the group began moving eastward. “Are you sure the white caimanes won’t get us?” Tamara quickly retorted: “Our Zemís don’t make war, like the God of the Spaniards. But they have always protected me and will ensure that I make it through this, and more. And with their help I shall.”
Matias F. Travieso-Diaz is a Cuban-American engineer and attorney, retired after half a century of professional practice. Following retirement, Travieso-Diaz has taken up creative writing and authored many short stories of various lengths and genres. Travieso-Diaz’ stories have appeared or are scheduled to appear in two dozen paying magazines, including New Reader Magazine; Dual Coast Magazine; Lite Lit One Journal; Theme of Absence Magazine; Night to Dawn Magazine; Jerry Jazz Magazine; Dream of Shadows Magazine; Jitter Press; Bethlehem Writers Roundtable; Emerging Worlds; The Patchwork Raven; Czykmate Productions – How HORROR-able Anthology; Four Star Stories, and Aurelia Leo.