Obscurity, The Eighteenth Chapter
In which a missionary turns up dead and drifting in a canoe.
We last read The Seventeenth Chapter, in which we learned the history of three nuns named Marie.
There’s a certain kind of tree, though we can’t remember its name, that weeps of its branches as though burdened by them. They pour into the river as willows, thinking only of their own despair. How gravity tugs at them so, begging them to return to the water’s depths, and how unable those branches are to resist their thirst.
One morning, with all the promise of a quickly warming day, a mysterious omen appeared within those reeds. A canoe without passenger or crew drew up to the promenade seemingly of its own volition. Those walking the promenade that morning watched with anticipation as it drifted down the river toward its lonesome destination, settling at times against one branch, and then leaning for a while on another.
A lingering humidity fell exasperated upon the early afternoon and the plants crinkled at the edges, brown and parched from their basking in the summer sun. The water rippled gently in the wake of that unmanned vessel and the palms lulled against it as it lazed through those still waters.
It was a slow and tedious journey, and many who watched its path grew bored in their waiting for it, continuing toward their mid-morning destinations without satisfying their curiosities. Those who stayed, however, were rewarded for their perseverance. For when the canoe finally neared the port and drew close enough that their reaching hands could touch it, they discovered the canoe not so empty as it seemed.
There, laying in the bottom, was a small bible and a leather-bound journal, and beside those personal effects, the missionary who owned them, his mission now complete as his corpse lay at rest.
As we have thus far ascertained, la Louisiane was an unusual place in an unusual predicament. Not just for the unusual characters who dwelt there, but also for how those unusual characters happened to arrive there.
We struggle with the matters of citizenship to this day, and it works out as follows: every one of us are immigrants, until at once we decide that those who are here now, however we so happened to arrive here, are the natives, and those who attempt to arrive here tomorrow, are the immigrants. It is a strange manner of reasoning, with a rather movable definition of “now,” but it appears to be the most widely adhered to rule in matters of immigration.
Ah, but then it is even more complicated than that: what of those who came before those immigrants who are now suddenly natives? What of the original natives? Well, the reasoning further contends that if no one claimed said land to begin with, the first one to do is the claimant, and therein becomes the owner and native occupier of that land. To borrow the old English adage: finders, keepers.
In la Louisiane it was no different. The native populations did not claim the land, for they found the notion of doing so absurd. Naturally, when the French arrived without such whimsical ideals about the Earth, they put their little flags upon it and claimed it for their very own. That is, until France quarreled amongst themselves across the sea, and was then forced to cede it to another quarreling party, Spain.
Both European parties brought with them the perils of slavery and created a mingled citizenship that was the first of its time. Those of French, Spanish, African, and Caribbean origin merged to create the Creole, a new native descended from so many different ones, and those cultures collided in beautiful and unusual ways.
They were intimate yet estranged, integrated yet segregated. A European foreigner visiting the territory at that time might have found it intoxicatingly eclectic, yet startlingly primitive. As though the descendants of Cain at last mingled with the descendants of Seth and were forced to wander the land of nod together, forever banished by God, yet protected from the Devil.
And yet, therein lay the struggle of that fledging little town lingering on the mouth of the Mississippi. For though the natives did not claim the Earth for themselves, they did still reside upon it, the French who had decidedly “found” the land, thought themselves the keepers of it, and yet according to treaties written on rolled-up papers, at roll-top desks, in beautiful mansions across the sea, the Spanish were the official owners of all of it.
But if Louisiane was a dangerous experiment in citizenship, it was also one the governor was uniquely suited to oversee. Born French, but orphaned at a young age, he enlisted in the Spanish military where he rose to prominence as a colonel. For his tenacity, he was married into the Spanish court and granted an assignment in the new world. A product of two worlds, and yet tasked with administering a new one, he was well equipped to navigate the intricacies of a French people living under a Spanish rule.
But in so tempestuous a country as that, the governor found himself with more than just the French and the Spanish to contend with. To the east, there was the threat of American expansion—a newly annexed country craving military power, and a port town besides. To the south there was the threat of uprising—Saint Domingue slaves still fought against their masters and its aftershocks could be felt in the hearts and minds of those who lived on the mainland.
The small colony built by their ancestors was not fortified enough to handle either eventuality, much less the native populations who grew more hostile by the day. Just a few weeks prior, a Frenchman and his pregnant wife were traveling to a neighboring fort when they were captured by a native tribe and forced to watch in horror as their unborn child was cut from her belly, roasted over a spit, and eaten before them.
If the governor had any hope of keeping his territories free of American occupation, African disruption, and Native annihilation, he would need all of them as allies. Especially as the Spanish government was not keen to invest in so small a subsidiary, rife as it was with the threat of foreign, domestic, and civil war.
So it was that the governor found himself sitting in a leather chair, made from hides that had been given to him by Indians, in the governor’s mansion that had been donated to him by Spain, smoking a pipe of tobacco that had been harvested by slaves, pondering how he might align these disparate communities to keep their territory safe from their ever-encroaching common enemy: the United States, whose lust for gold and whiskey had them thirsting for a port town of their very own.
He would not cede his territory to those ruffians, he grumbled to himself. He could not. He had enough on his plate, as it was.
Alas, a journal arrived from the port from a now-deceased missionary. Though he was fearsome to read what foes he might next face, the governor settled into his armchair, took a breath from his alabaster pipe, savored a long draw from a glass of cognac-colored liquor, then ran his hand over the leather binding, before opening it to find the following entry:
For one month now I have been living with the natives where I have discovered among them a most disturbing superstition. With the thunderstorms increasing, they seem to have developed a fear that their gods have great ire toward them, and to my great horror, they have decided to sacrifice more than 20 young girls so they might appease those vengeful spirits.
I tried to convince them otherwise—I told of the Lord’s love, that His sacrifice has already been made, and that sacrifice need be made no longer. I told how our people have lived without the blood of sacrifice for almost two thousand years, and yet have remained unscathed from that once vengeful God.
Some of the women appeared to believe my words, or at least wanted to do so for their daughters’ lives were among those in danger. On the evening before the event, their pleading gave me an audience with the elders. I read to them from the book of John. I told them of Christ’s sacrifice—that He died for our sins, that it was not sacrifice He desired but repentance. The elders were not convinced, but the women implored them. Asking for one evening during which they could repent for their sins and so appease the spirits that plagued them.
At last, the elders appeared to agree. How happy am I to have at last fulfilled that mission which Christ has entrusted me. It has been a long and vagrant voyage through which I have navigated a turbulent ocean and a wild country so that a people unknown to our Savior might, at last, come to know Him. I prepare now for their baptism and pray that they may be faithful to the Lord for his mercy. How blessed am I.....
Oh, what a horror I flee! Oh, what misery has befallen me! Woe! Woe! T’was not but an hour after so glorious a baptism than the very fires of hell rained down upon us. For at the hour during which their sacrifice went uncomplete, the most torrential storm befell us, shattering the earth with lightning and thunder. A most fearful crack fell through the sky, raining fire and brimstone on a city so primitive in design that each thatched roof caught on fire from its striking.
The natives became convinced that the gods were angry with them. The chaos that ensued still ails my spirit as families began throwing their children into the fire. Even infants were thrown into the inferno that now raged among them. My eyes still burn from the sight of those children wailing in the fire, their flesh burned away from their ribs in the heat. How I pray for those innocent souls!
When it appeared my person might be added to their fate, I made haste to depart, running through the wood and using my machete to further my advances toward the stream upon which I came. I found my canoe upon the bank and, with only my bible and my journal on my person, as well as some ink with which to write, I made quick work down the river, hoping to reach the next mission before three days’ time, at which point I will tell some priest of my tale, and hope for his forgiveness for my failings…..
I have been only one day upon the river and it appears a dark crow has been following me. First, there was one, then another, and now a whole flock attends me. They call out to me night and day, their words insufferable to my ears. What misfortune must befall me for my sins! I left children to die and I can still hear their screams upon my ears. The birds seem to know of my treachery, and they taunt me just as they did the Christ on the eve of His death. I fear I might go mad by their unrelenting words……
It is my second day upon the river, and at last, the birds have ceased their screaming. In their silence I have found an even deeper madness. For what must have frightened those foul demons away? There must be something hidden in the wild. Some other demon set to devour me. I can feel its eyes upon me, watching as I drift down a soundless river. It pursues me night and day and I can do nothing but wait for it to come to me. And pray that Divine Providence delivers me…
We next read The Nineteenth Chapter, in which we learn the secrets of the philanthropist.