The Final Voyage
On his knees in the Torre de Belém, he prayed
for King and protection, gave thanks to the Holy Virgin Mary
for the riches she bestowed on a once obscure nobleman
and for the warmth of the bed he shared with his beloved Catarina.
Following familiar stars, he sailed down the Tagus
bound for the spice rich coasts of the Indies,
his nightly companions, unfurled maps of uncharted waters
where magical beasts rumbled and serpents writhed,
and he listened to sailors’ tales of giant birds
who built cliff nests from cinnamon sticks.
He sailed into Cochin port on the hot breath
of a monsoon wind, the dawn air spiked
with the scent of cinnamon and cloves,
his caravel lying low in the murky waters,
belly full of the gold, gems and velvet
he knew tempted greedy Sultans and Kings.
Arab dhows carried glass seals of spices
wrapped tightly in cloth, fear and hatred in the eyes
of fellow merchants as they watched the ship drop anchor.
They came down from the misty mountains and plantations
after the rainy season, father and son cinnamon peelers
who sat side-by-side cross-legged,
cutting and curling cinnamon bark
into the fragrant quills so prized by the Europeans
as medicine or to mask the fetid odour of spoiled meat.
They sat under a jackfruit tree, a tea wallah serving them
and licked cake crumbs from moistened fingers,
a coastal breeze carried the foreign words and shouts
of those working in a nearby storehouse
as the quills were dried and readied to join
a cargo of nutmeg, ginger, and peppercorn,
more valuable than the gold, gems and velvet
offered by the pale-skinned trader.
They watched as the sailors staggered ashore
sea legs unsteady on dry land after months
of plying the ragged coastlines and brothels of Africa.
With a cavalier swagger, the preserve of ship captains,
he passed by father and son
and the red and white stone houses of the wealthy,
set in oases of palm groves and purple bougainvillea,
oyster shell windows, shiny and translucent.
He reached the bazaar
where the colors of the world
mingled East with West,
Cathay silk of gossamer thread,
milky sweet pearls from Arabia,
amber beads, carved ivory and bone,
yellow myrrh and duck eggs laid bare,
Indian trinket sellers and African slaves
bathed in a cold sweat under a beating sun.
He was aware that the memory was raw,
that the cinnamon peelers were just two of many
who had witnessed his countryman’s ferocity
decades earlier, when Muslim merchants were
hanging from the rigging of Portuguese ships,
burned alive, the cinnamon market for an empire.
For a time, God was on his side as he searched
for a sea-route to India, for Christians and spices.
Returning as Viceroy of India,
his Catarina never far from his mind,
the cool caress of a pearl in his hand,
imagining the soft curves of her back,
the lilt of her voice on a rain-soft morning,
he thought of little else.
Malaria took him on Christmas Eve, his bones lying in wait
at St. Francis Church for the final voyage home from Cochin.
A string of luminous pearls draped his splendid tomb
and the cinnamon peelers went back to their work.
K.V. Martins was born in Sydney, Australia and now lives in New Zealand. She writes poetry, flash fiction and short stories. A keen photographer, inspiration comes from photos and observations whilst walking. With a BA (Hons) in History, her stories and poetry often have historical themes.