Pox

The stink of sickness emanating from the man made Pedro retch.

“It’s the pox,” Juan whispered.

“I can see that,” Pedro said.

Back in Spain a wave of smallpox swept through Pedro’s boyhood village. It left his brother covered in a flurry of scars. It left his sister dead. And it left Pedro untouched. He’d seen many afflicted, their bodies coated with red velvet blisters that seeped and weeped toward death. He’d never seen one as terrible as the Indian in the hut. The sweet redness had turned a blotchy black.

“You can’t do this,” Juan said. “We’ve got to leave. Now!”

Pedro glanced at the men and women crammed into the hut around him. “I believe that is no longer an option, my friend.” He peered into the sick man’s eyes. The poor Indian was barely a man, no older than sixteen. “God led us from the jaws of death time and again” he told Juan. “Don’t doubt His purpose for us now.”

There was a time when doubt was all Pedro had. He was 17 when he left Spain for the New World. He signed on to a ship full of conquistadors that left the dirty bustle of Cuba for unknown lands north of the sea. But the ship sank, and only he and Juan survived. In their first years they’d been enslaved by Indians. When they escaped, they traveled west, chasing rumors of strangers like them with white skin and light eyes. They’d found none of their kind.

But God had a purpose for them. In one village they had come across a choking boy. Pedro uttered a prayer and pressed his hand on the boy’s chest, and the boy coughed free a hunk of half-chewed meat. Word spread, and the pair became known as healers. But they had never faced smallpox.

Juan motioned to the tribe’s shaman, who stood to one side leering. “Look at how he’s watching us.”

Pedro had seen many like him, revered for their magic and mystery. But when two new men of magic and mystery wandered into their midst and succeeded where the shaman had failed, the shaman became a little more human — and dangerous. One spectacular failure could spell the end of the lost conquistadors.

“What should we do?” Juan asked.

“What I always do. Heal.”

Pedro reached inside his satchel and pulled out the carved wooden cross and the rough-hammered copper cup. Then he retrieved the plum-sized stones, each perfectly round, almost unnaturally so, and set them around the body. He’d found them in the bed of a dead river and polished them until they gleamed. It was as if God left them there just for him.

“Are you ready?” Juan whispered.

“Soon,” Pedro said.

The man on the floor thrashed. Pedro’s heart filled with pity. A few days ago this man had the world before him. Now it was slipping away. Pedro remembered his own lost world, his own secret crimes. He wondered if God could ever forgive him.

“The future is not written,” he whispered in the sick man’s ear.

Then Pedro closed his eyes. Deep in his bones he felt a tingle, which blossomed into an ecstasy that made him believe he could actually touch God. He sucked in air and grabbed Juan’s shoulder. It was time.

Juan jumped up. “Silence,” he shouted. “Our Lord has graced us with his sublime presence. Through His instrument He will restore this wretch to health.”

Pedro held the cross aloft, then lowered it to the man’s trembling frame. “I invoke you, Jesus. Intercede on behalf of this poor soul. I invoke you, Father. Come to your creation. Rescue him from this evil.” Pedro’s vocal chords scratched raw. “I invoke you, Holy Spirit. Bestow upon me your power to return this man to life.”

Pedro’s arms trembled. His sweat dripped onto the man’s blackened blisters. He took the cup filled with warm water from Juan and poured it over the body. He laid his hands on the face and felt the heat of the sickness seep into his fingers and up his arms as the Holy Spirit, hot and fierce, devoured the disease. Then a jolt travelled from Pedro into the sick man. He shook. His wet hair flopped into his eyes. Then, like a summer storm, the jolt rolled away.

Pedro’s hands sizzled like golden embers. The Indians surrounding him stared with fear and awe. Pedro imagined they could see into his stained soul. He cowered on the ground.

Suddenly the sick man began to wheeze. He gagged and grabbed at his throat. His eyes bulged with terror. He coughed and gasped for air. Then he fell limp.

“What’s happened?” Juan asked.

Pedro rested his hand on the man’s chest. There was no motion. His eyes stared nowhere. He was still as a stone. “He’s dead.”

Voices erupted. Pedro caught the gloating face of the shaman. He knew what this meant: his reputation as a healer was ruined. Their safe passage had ended.

Juan fought but the hands that gripped him were too many and too strong. Pedro let himself be taken. He’d failed. He remained unforgiven.

They were tied like beasts to a tree at the edge of the village, their arms extended from high branches, their feet barely reaching the ground. Children lashed them with switches until they tired of their game. Mosquitoes feasted on them in the beating summer sun.

Night fell. Pedro’s eyes grew heavy but he fought sleep. Suddenly he felt surrounded by evil spirits. Wispy wraiths encircled him. Caressing arms suffocated him. He struggled to scream but couldn’t. Then came a thunderclap. He lurched from his half sleep, breathed heavily and shook off the trace of evil.

When the sun rose, three men emerged from the hut where the body lay and headed toward the Spaniards. One was the chief; one was the shaman, the third, young and strong, held a knife in his hand.

“I believe our time here has ended, my friend,” Juan said.

Pedro tried to force a smile on his face but he was devastated that he would die unredeemed.

The trio approached. The third man raised the knife toward Juan. Juan didn’t blink. With one stroke the Indian slashed the ropes that restrained him. Then he cut Pedro free.

“You come,” the chief said. “See what you do.”

Juan and Pedro kept their heads bowed as they walked through the heart of the village. At the shelter the chief ushered them inside. Pedro shook his head, wishing the chief had killed him by that tree instead of forcing him to witness his failure one last time. The chief’s face hardened, and the third Indian pushed Pedro inside.

The air was sweat-heavy. Wisps of fire light fluttered against the walls. Beside the fire lay the body. Juan crept closer. Then he gasped.

“Pedro! Come here.”

Pedro didn’t want to move, but hands pushed him. He stumbled and saw the corpse’s face. The eyes were open. They blinked.

“Lord God almighty!”

Juan burst into laughter. “Isn’t he the most beautiful creature you ever saw?”

The man gazed at Pedro, then looked away.

“He was dead, surely,” Pedro said.

In an instant his world had changed. What a land, this New World! Now he was certain God led him to this place. He’d revealed to Pedro his fate. And it would be glorious.

 

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