There's no one in this savage place to minister the Sacrament of Reconciliation, so I commit my sins to paper. Oh God, I am sorry I offended you. I write this with my true hand, as my right is devoid of feeling. It’s been forty-five years since I’ve taken confession.
Forgive me, Father, I’ve been prideful. When I was a young man, before my father disowned me, we traveled together from the coastal city of Luanda through the African interior to the limit of the Portuguese Empire. We set out at midnight, swiftly between rows of brandy barrels and through a cellar door that opened to the rear court, the abducted infant bundled against my chest. Your Divine Will alone saved me that night from arrest and execution. Our steward waited in the orchard with four slaves and an ass. I slung the child to the beast, and we quit that place forever.
My mother watched from an upstairs window as her husband and only son sloped off into the night. She was descended from Moors exiled to Luanda during the Inquisition—an infected race, according to my father. It was the last she’d lay eyes on her family in this life, may You defend us in the next.
Our steward went first to look out for soldiers. Next my father, naked cutlass in hand, slaves close by, a great trunk supported on their shoulders. I took up the rear, tugging at the rope tied round the neck of the ass, its hoofs striking the muddy cobblestones like hard-shut books, the child asleep in the sling. It had just rained, and water dripped on us from the balconies. I looked up at the lightless windows wherein men dreamed themselves back to Portugal. Or they drank alone in the dark, the bare walls unmediated by a feminine hand, while they wondered how life had brought them to this rough place. Houses gave way to smokehouses, warehouses, sawmills, the air heavy with the smell of palm oil and freshly cut timber and cocoa and cassava flour bound for Brazil, the docks littered with fish bones and glass shards and the broken staves of barrels. By what perverse criteria, I wonder, does the aged mind seize on some details, hardening their edges, while others are erased?
The damp air wilted my feather collar and cuffs. I’d come to my parent’s house direct from a masquerade, still wearing my beaked mask out of fear I might be recognized, the child bundled beneath one arm like a package. There’d been no time to change from my party clothes—a cutaway coat, the bicorne hat to which I’d affixed a rooster’s comb, crimson knee britches and matching waistcoat, yellow silk stockings. I remember I was wearing my own hair, as wigs were then out of fashion and otherwise ill-befitting a priest of the Order of Saint Bento D’Avis, though I’d not yet finished seminary. Had I carried through, things might’ve gone differently.
Strike that. To lie in confession is like chewing food and spitting it out. If I had taken vows, my trespasses would have only compounded.
We followed the dirt path between the shuttered driftwood kiosks where Muslims sold tobacco and roasted chicken, past the beached fishing boats, the darkened slat houses built on sand where hours before whores had displayed their powdered breasts in lighted windows opened to the salt night. I’d often walked among these slatterns, bringing them the burden of Your Word, a mission devised by the Holy Fathers to repair my vanity. The moon, unblocked by earth’s shadow, highlighted my father’s profile. In it, I expected to see resentment that he’d been forced to begin this expedition prematurely, fury that our house would be ransacked and defiled, shame that his son had embarked on such a journey dressed as a cock. Instead I saw fear. In those days it was insanity to enter the African interior without a hundred-soldier escort. Fifty years have passed, yet in my dreams I still travel with my father, eastward and upward, skirting inland African kingdoms, tramping countless leagues over an ever-narrowing track, across highland and through memory, on a dead bearing to some unknown destination.
Photo: Ana Cristina Alvarez
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