The Incomplete Priest

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.

I am cursed with a curse; the days burn like an oven. I lay my sins before You, moment by moment, that I repent in the same state in which I inflicted them on the world. Forgive me, Father, I stole a child from its mother.

I have three brothers, all blessed, born of my father’s first wife, their destiny already decided: the eldest slain by Spaniards in the siege of Almeida, the middle vanished while seeking his fortune in the Brazilian interior, the last-born crushed in its crib during the earthquake that destroyed Lisbon. It must have been hard on my father, the promise of his line diminished with the loss of each son until only I remained, the infected offspring of a Moorish woman.

We left the lowlands, and my lungs labored in the weak air as we made our ascent into the mountains. Each night I lay down on a cliff-path no wider than my shoulders, arms wrapped tightly around the bundled child, hands stroking his soft hair, his forehead, his cheeks, Your tender mercies over all Your works. He’d been baptized Urbano, after Ana-Margarida’s husband. A man, my father said when he discovered the existence of his grandchild, doesn’t permit another man to raise his son.

Our steward sometimes accompanied my father when he left camp to relieve himself, and in these lengthy absences I stared into Your unsearchable heaven for meaning and order in this barbarous place, pretending not to hear the rutting noises that emanated from the darkness. Each night the cold stone seeped through my coat and blanket, and I woke to the bark of a new muscle. A man doesn’t care where he sleeps, Father told me, the words muffled in his untamed beard. You’ll be hard as these mountains, stay in them long enough.

Hard. To say the word requires one to bare one’s teeth. Say soft, and the lips protrude, as if in kiss.

I’d come direct from the masquerade, the child casually parceled beneath one arm, as though I’d brought home shirts for laundering. My father stood silhouetted in the doorway, paralyzed for the moment, before he ushered me inside and shouted for our steward. The house came to life, and I watched my father bound halfway up the staircase to where my mother waited for him to say farewell. Outside our steward cursed as he rousted the slaves from their quarters. The ass brayed as it was dragged from its sleep and into the courtyard. And still my father stood irresolute on the staircase, his boot hovering mid-riser. All was silent, save for the exhalation of slaves in the courtyard as they shouldered the great chest, its contents a mystery to me. Father looked on his closest friends and associates, even his own family, as enemies and spies.

We pushed across the mountain chain, my right shoulder braced against the stone facing that towered above the path, my left jutting out into the unbridgeable chasm. The highland wind cut through my party clothes, flapping my coattails and ruffling my feathers. A gust sailed my hat into the gorge, my gaze wheeling after it into sunlight and void. Father grasped my flailing arm, and I knew we’d stay or fall together. So we remain in memory, balanced on the edge of abyss while I stare down on an eagle that kites over a slender brown snake of a river. Better to have fallen then, his hand clasped in mine, spiraling together into nothingness.

As an adolescent, I sometimes dressed in my mother’s frocks and undergarments, and imagined myself walking the streets, all eyes drawn to my beauty. Father caught me standing thus attired before a mirror and decreed I would become a priest, since I so enjoyed wearing dresses.

Forgive my aberrance, Father.

The sun barely registered on the mountain faces, and the hours played out in shadow. I’d left the masquerade in straight-lasted slippers, their twin soles yet unformed to my feet. Blisters filled and broke, staining the red velvet and slicking the leather bottoms. Time flows for a young man, but in old age it stands perfectly still, endurant, leaving me wholly present at every moment of my existence. On the edge of sleep, I cling to that mountainside in the wind and rain and hail, my dancing shoes probing the mossy ledge for purchase, a misstep startling me full awake.

The mountain path widened, and I spotted a distant flame flickering against a sheer rock face. My father saw it too, and I followed him toward the light.

I’ll describe the troubadour as he squatted beneath a lean-to, heaping damp wood on a smoking fire while rain blew into his beautiful face. He was barefoot, and shirtless under an embroidered waistcoat, with hoop earrings and a straw bonnet with silk pansies round the crown, and he sang high-pitched notes that played across scales. The aged mind makes pairs of its memories. I can’t recall this first encounter without also conjuring the last time I saw the troubadour, forty-three years later, a king marching toward his own slavery.

Father embraced the stranger, and they pressed foreheads while our steward, sullen, looked on. The great chest was opened, and my father presented the troubadour with a kit bag made from red-dyed wool, and a jug of brandy, which they drank together while the servants dug a shallow hole in the rocky soil, the length and breadth of a grave, bobbling the chest as they lowered it into the flooding pit, spilling some of its remaining contents, chains, manacles, and shackles clanking against the side of the chest, the nature of our mission now manifest. My father was a civilizer.

We bivouacked beneath the goatskin shelter, and in the wavering light of the dung fire I saw a break in that unending wall of rock. The troubadour had marked this place with his campfire, a beacon to guide us. Our steward stoked the flames, and the raindrops turned to amber in their light, our faces sparked by the wet kindling, lightning streaking the sky. I huddled over Urbano beneath that scant lean-to, sheltering him from the clamoring wind and rain and thunder. I stared into the infant’s eyes, fascinated by the pitched battle between darkness and light reflected against his pupils, while my father, his nose full of brandy, waxed on about old Lisbon before the earthquake, its arcing cobblestones not yet thrown up into rubble, the tiled facades not yet shattered, his Christian wife and pure sons still alive. He recounted how You thrice destroyed Lisbon: by earthquake, the city overturned like the tables of the money changers on the steps of the Temple of Jerusalem; by flood, the river peeled back from the harbor to reveal lost ships, cargos, the bones of sailors and sharks; and finally by Your cleansing fire.

We rose the next morning to stand before a narrow crevasse hidden in the rock face. The troubadour had vanished. When the sun was direct overhead, sparking against the granite floor, our steward kicked one of the porters and the expedition lurched forward into the breach, the moan of the channeled wind playing on our imaginations. The ass brayed and balked as I prodded the beast along the narrowing passage. In minutes the sun traversed the sliver of sky, leaving us to tread on our own weak shadows, the universe constricted. Carrion birds stared blandly down from their stony perches. I used my hands to guide me—a woman’s hands, my father once called them—the granite cool on their palms, the damp odor of moss and bird feces coating my nostrils. The sheer walls swallowed us whole, and we stepped off the map and disappeared from the known world.

There are wicked places in the world, my father once told me, hidden from God, and he ordered the door to my room removed from its hinges to discourage self-abuse.

Forgive me, Father. I fled Your Grace like Peter when the cock crowed thrice, like Jonah taking to sea, praise You, Lord, oh my soul. Our expedition emerged at last from that cramped passage, the sun large and red and low on the plateau’s horizon, warm on my face. Urbano cried ceaselessly, though our steward nursed him from the donkey. I couldn’t look into his feverish face, for fear I’d see Ana-Margarida’s accusing eyes. We traveled ever farther from Luanda, our house, my mother, the church, all that I knew. My father let his beard grow wild, drank brandy from the same bottle as our steward, broke wind with relish, and scratched at his every bodily crevice. For the first time in my memory, he appeared altogether happy.

We came to a barren plain littered with the earthly remains of an army slaughtered in an earlier century. The scattered bones were no longer recognizable as human or horse, save the skulls. All weapons and armor had been scavenged, with only the cross of the military order of Avis topping a naked standard to identify the fallen combatants as chevaliers of our empire. I see that battlefield still, the cross, the shimmering skulls, the distant horizon.

That night I lay beneath chandeliers of galaxies, and I was at the masked ball of the Bishop’s Residence, my party clothes restored. Ana-Margarida dances with her husband, her false face turned toward me, eyes bright behind the mask from the small dose of arsenic she takes each morning to pale her skin. Urbano cries in the gallery, and I’m consumed with a desire to comfort him. Ana-Margarida’s gaze fixes me to the ballroom floor, my legs moving on their own accord, caught up in the cadence, our child’s distress manifest in a physical pain that shoots up my arm and into my spine, and I was awake, struggling to rise, but my hand was fixed to the ground. In the starlight I saw the nocked shaft of an arrow, my palm impaled.

My life with Kinfunji belongs to yesterday. Still, let me imagine again the archeress who stood over me as I struggled to consciousness. There’s no sin in that. She was broad in the chest, the muscles in her shoulders knotted, breasts small and high and altogether fascinating, so unlike Ana-Margarida’s pale, pendulous, delicately veined flesh. I’d not yet learned to appreciate her beauty; still, as I write, I feel the blood rush to this atrophied artery.

Our steward was dead, an arrow through his neck, his eyes staring skyward like a child imagining shapes in the constellations. He’d ruled over our household for a generation, yet the years crowd his name from my memory. Our porters were slaughtered like cattle, punishment for submitting to slavery. My father knelt before our captors. The donkey’s throat was sliced open, steaks cut from its flanks. I flailed about, unable to see Urbano, my hand still pinned to the ground. Kinfunji squatted beside me with her war bow. Our steward’s cutlass hung on her hip in its scabbard. Kinfunji tore her arrow from my hand and wiped the shaft on my waistcoat, smoothing the bloody fletching, and I watched my fingers curl like a dying spider. Somewhere in the deepening darkness Urbano screamed, as if giving voice to my pain, and the blackness became complete, the masked ball resumed.

A half-century ago, a seminary priest had me convinced there was no higher calling than to traffic in human souls. And how much brighter, he proclaimed, that light will shine in the savage darkness! I assisted him while he sprinkled holy water into a ship’s cargo hold, that the slaves might receive the Holy Spirit, and in the depths of that opened hatch, the coastal sun glittered on their wet cheeks and foreheads like diamonds.

Forgive me, Lord, I valued the soul above the flesh.

Kinfunji bound me to my father, the rope tautening round our necks when one of us stumbled. Her soldiers hunted game meat and ate it in front of their starving prisoners. My hand stank of infection and its palm darkened, and I imagined myself in Purgatory, condemned to walk toward an elusive horizon. In the far distance, scores of naked figures skittered away at our approach. Time makes pairs of our memories. I’d see these wretched figures again, amassed into an army of thousands.

There was no sign of Urbano. Kinfunji refused to speak of him, and I suffered, as I had made Ana-Margarida suffer. I lay awake after each day’s march, arms empty and restless, wondering if my child still lived, searching a sky uninhabited by angels, the stars uncounted and unnamed by You, a world beyond Your infinite understanding.

We followed a river, an emerald wisp through the ocher land, its bed planted with manioc, peppers, melons, and squash, its harvest a time of hunger for other Kongo peoples, the desert become garden. My father stooped to pick seedpods from a dark shrub with leaves that lobed like grasping fingers. The river had been lined with poison castor to discourage animals from grazing on the crops. He held a spiky pod beneath my nose. Its acrid smell persists even now, the trick of a guilty mind.

I asked Kinfunji where she would take us. She chewed on the dried game meat, relishing my hunger, her voice harsher than those of the coastal whores who’d taught me the lingo, yet I understood her well enough. To the queen’s court, she said, strings of flesh caught in her teeth, to be butchered.

Capture, vanquish, subdue. It comes back to me with the writing. Take all their possessions and their property. Memorized words. Put them into perpetual slavery. Seminary words from another life.

We arrived at Zimbao as the sun set. From without, there was little enough—a featureless plateau, a ditch, an impassable thorned hedge. The savages cut away our clothes and hair and marched us through their streets naked and shorn, as we do them.

From within, a vast city unfolded, as grand in its way as my father’s descriptions of Lisbon before its ruin. I need only close my eyes to resurrect it: wide boulevards watered daily to hold down the dust; a well on every corner whereat water drawers of both sexes filled leathern vessels, a strange thing, as elsewhere I’d seen only women engaged in this occupation; circular houses of skilled masonry with elaborate ironwork; circular pillars, circular roofs, circular courtyards, the city itself arranged in concentric circles, and I felt disoriented, as though I were marching into the heart of infinitude. Many of the women warriors, and more than a few of the men, gazed frankly at my exposed genitals, and for the first time since Ana-Margarida banished me from her bed I felt desirable. My father gaped into the darkened doorways, the alleys, the glassless windows, imagining the riches within. He was a degradado, brought in chains to Angola Colony in Your year 1757, a looter in the Lisbon earthquake, swept up from the city streets with the rest of the debris and sent to Luanda, where all things are possible.

We came to a palm-lined roundabout where stood a dozen stone palaces in varying states of abandonment, their roofs fallen into a termite-ridden rubble of columns and beams, save one: the banza of Queen Nzinja. Her royal lifeguards marched past us, disciplined men and women, their silent maneuvers directed by signs, the points of swords and spears glittering in the torchlight, their numbers doubled in shadow. Some wore the ancient breastplates and bladed helmets of the slaughtered cavaliers we’d seen on the forgotten battlefield, the armor passed down through generations, and the earth quaked as they stamped their bare feet in unison, shook, shook, shook, their buttered skin glistening. Next came a coffle of oddly paired animals: a muzzled hippo lumbered beside a jungle elephant no taller than my shoulders; a newborn giraffe on wobbly legs struggled to match an eland’s stride; a honey badger straddled the back of a zebra; a monkey capered like a fey jailer at the feet of a shackled buffalo. You are a witness to the end of an age, my father whispered.

Finally, the queen herself, veiled and riding atop a tamed wildebeest, the mount wild-eyed by the proximity of two leopards that strained against chains held taut in all directions by their handlers. The troubadour strode before her, singing her virtues: Ageless Kongo Queen, Immortal Goddess of All Things that Breathe. His eyes locked onto my father’s, and there seemed to pass between them some understanding. All this still happens, each moment sprung to life as I write these words.

Kinfunji brought us into the banza wherein the queen held court. Wherein. Precision in language is the sign of a practiced confession. Enormous carved pillars braced high ceilings, each depicting a woman warrior wielding an enormous bow against the cavaliers of D’Avis, would-be subduers of their barbarous nation. The queen was enthroned beneath an iron relief of the royal seal: the palm and the forge. The royal appeared to be a girl but for the loose skin at her neck. Her muscular physique had begun to run to fat, and pale battle scars puckered her arms and legs. Her hair was done up in funneled tresses, and she wore a mask of shea butter and ash. The sun flashed on an enormous rough-cut diamond at her neck, and my father’s eyes glittered at the sight of it.

Kinfunji urged the queen to kill us at once, as we’d found the pass through the mountains. The queen raised her hand as if it were a blade, and two guards lifted their axes. One cannot know the time and place when one might be snatched from this world. I felt myself propelled forward, my cheek to the ground, staring into my father’s eyes, the sand red in his beard.

The troubadour clutched the red kit bag from my father’s trunk. He’d powdered his cheeks with cerise, like the prostitutes in the sand brothels that disgraced the shores of Luanda, and stained his lips with wild berries. Most remarkably, he’d affixed cutouts of moons and stars to his face. It strikes me even now how drab the European male looks beside his African counterpart. The eternal queen grows younger with each year, he said, and she seemed pleased to hear it. The troubadour rummaged the kit bag until he produced a corset fashioned from whalebone and canvas. It’s a device that will restore a woman’s youthful figure. He held aloft one of the tins of boot polish. A cream designed to restore youth to a woman’s hair. The queen leaned forward as the troubadour rose to his feet, as if lifted by some unseen hand, his eyes rolling back in his head. I have come from the mountain to bring you a message from God, he proclaimed. These men have been sent so that you might learn the ways of your enemies. Kill them, and the river garden will run dry! The troubadour shook himself from the trance, looking as if he couldn’t remember where he was or what he had just said.

Kinfunji continued to press the queen to order our execution, but the old girl had been swayed. We were given back our clothes and told that we could roam the city freely, though if we tried to escape, we would be hunted and killed.

That night the troubadour escorted us to a banza as vast as the queen’s, though long abandoned by the look of it, hastily and without preparation. Years ago, he told us, the abandoned banza housed the immortal queen. He smiled faintly, and one of the pasted moons slid down his cheek to reveal a pockmark. The present banza will be vacated when the royal tires of it. The troubadour left us, clearly relieved to be quit of the place, and a sense of unease came over me as we stepped into a vast open court. In the moonlight, I saw calabashes sticky with evaporated beer and dust, rats holding court in the great rib cages of ostrich carcasses, dried bloodstains on the mossy stone floor. I stood at a window facing the street, but the passersby only stared at their feet and quickened their pace, as if to look upon the abandoned palace was to look upon death itself. I’d heard that some of the inland peoples practiced regicide, and I imagined that the queen would be killed once she could no longer hide her age, her palace abandoned. A new incarnation, eternally young, would appear, a new palace built.

That night, I sang a lullaby before I retired, that Urbano might somehow hear it wherever he was, on earth or in heaven, and I lay still and breathless, praying us both to sleep. I dreamed I was again at the masked ball in the Bishop’s Residence on my last night in Luanda. Whispered rumors rise and fall with the swell of the music, and I listen without understanding as Ana-Margarida tells me I am no longer welcome in her bed. She withdraws her hands from mine, their fingers like bleached bone in the light of the chandeliers, her powdered skin stretched tightly across her skull, empty sockets beneath her mask.

The Kongo peoples believe a person possesses two souls. Which of mine writes this?

As long as there had been an ageless queen of Zimbao, there’d been a troubadour to sing her psalms. Perhaps this one learned of the existence of a mountain passage and, fascinated by the world that unfolded before him, adventured ever further west until he was captured by our steward and brought before my father. Was this Your plan?

I walked the streets each morning as they were watered, hoping to see Urbano. Men gossiped and beat clothes at the wells alongside the women, and women joined men in their hunting and war parties. I wanted to view these flexible arrangements as abominations, but it made a certain sense. The vocations of men are limited, and I was ill-suited for all of them.

The queen often strolled past our abandoned palace without pomp or procession, surrounded only by children, Kinfunji at her side as she made her way to the banza. There was little crime in that prosperous kingdom, as the penalty for all offenses was banishment. I was surprised, therefore, to see a group of half-starved toughs surround the queen and her captain, and soon I found myself fighting beside Kinfunji as she loosed arrows from her war bow, the children hiding behind the queen, my sword in my undamaged hand, my natural hand. The brigand leader left two of his men and his own ear in the dirt. Even then I suspected that the troubadour was testing the queen’s defenses.

After, the queen commanded me to sit at her left while she held court, her hair unwrapped now, shiny and black with boot polish, and though girth spilled above and below the whalebone corset, she appeared slimmer. The royal tried to keep her face blank, but she seemed always on the verge of breaking into a smile. As the day wore on, I tried to keep awake through an inexhaustible line of applicants, supplicants, and mendicants, their voices rising and falling together, indistinguishable save for a noble who’d smothered his wife and now desperately pleaded his circumstances. The queen condemned him to banishment, and the lifeguards stripped and beat the man before they dragged him unconscious to the great gate to be cast out of Zimbao.

The banza finally emptied, the queen commanded Kinfunji to bring the children to her, and I watched as she gave them rides on her broad back, her eyes dancing, knees stained by the mud-brick floor. I reckon she’d no family of her own, for fear they’d share her fate. I looked for Urbano among the laughing faces, my hands unstill, and an emptiness swelled in my belly. The queen recited the story of how she saved her people generations ago. I remember it still, word by word, though I’ve long forgotten most of Your Scripture. Open your eyes! she began. These aren’t stories for sleeping children. Long ago, the Eaters came to us, their lips dry, throats swollen, tearing at the world with their teeth. They gathered our people away to a place where flesh and spirit are consumed. It is I, Nzinga, queen of the mountains, who fought the Eaters to a standstill, filling them with arrows from my great war bow, my chest smeared with shea butter for protection, their musket balls useless against me, grass seed thrown against a stone mountain. This is a story to keep you awake. Stay close to the village. Don’t go to the mountains alone. One day the Eaters will return—keep watch or they’ll catch you! Better to throw yourself into the river. And she gathered the children to her, descendents of Nzinga’s undefeated warriors who migrated west and built the kingdom of Zimbao beyond the reach of the Eaters. Our people have two souls, she said. Those who were taken away lost one of their souls to the Eaters. But the other, the more important soul, always returns to Zimbao.

Months passed and my father shaved his beard and shook off the rough ways of the bush, taking on the demeanor of a visiting royal, spending his days in the abandoned palace upon the throne of a murdered royal, while I dined with a queen whose age was a sword above her neck.

To whom do I write this confession? You know my sins better than I. Forgive me, Father, I murdered a woman in Luanda, for no fault of her own.

The night before I entered seminary, I went to the sand kiosks where a palmist reads fortunes over the pounding surf. My true hand flinched as she took it in hers, an effect of my father’s corrective beatings, and I watched as she traced the base of my thumb with her yellowed nail, following the life line to a vein that pulsed at my wrist. You have the hands of a strangler, she prophesied.

We talk round our sins in order to dwell in the time before they were committed. In an act of spite, I had stolen Urbano from the house Ana-Margarida shared with her husband, while only a short distance away they waltzed at the Bishop’s Residence, the music faint through the broken glass balcony door as I lifted the bundled baby from his cradle, the wet nurse at my feet, murdered by my strangler hands.

Memories of my life in Zimbao are calloused with time. It’s become my preoccupation to pick at them. The queen enjoyed my company, and she removed her corset and wiped away her powder mask when we went on hunts. The mask was a practice she’d adopted to look younger and to conceal her expressions from her enemies. My face mirrors my thoughts, she admitted, an unfortunate trait in a ruler. She threw coins into a stream to buy our passage across, and she splashed beer onto anthills as a politeness to the insects. Together we slew beasts and captured their young for the royal menagerie, though we often forgot this sport and wandered instead along the river garden, trading knowledge of our respective cultures. We conversed on all topics, save one; the queen forbade me to raise the subject of my son, as she said his fate had been decided by my captor, Kinfunji. But the royal did confirm that my father and I were bivouacked in the desecrated palace of her predecessor. It’s a joke the troubadour plays on you, to put you up in such a luckless place.

She made me priest to her lifeguards, a new occupation among these churchless people. Was it the troubadour who convinced her, or was it me? It was a path to redemption, the reason You’d brought me to that place. The royal blacksmith forged an iron paten, and I fashioned a holy vestment from the skin of a white goat and stood in the darkened courtyard of the abandoned palace, my robe resplendent beneath the inconstant moon.

I roamed Zimbao at night to stare into the lightless windows, certain that my son still breathed, hoping to hear his cry. One day, when Kinfunji brought children to the queen, Urbano was among them, and I wept without shame as I held him to my breast. My hands were no longer restless as they followed the contours of his face, and the emptiness in my belly subsided. Kinfunji had engaged a young man to care for Urbano when she was with her soldiers in the field, but his husband had just given birth, so the nanny was needed at home. Kinfunji asked if I would help, and I gladly took up residence in her house. If my life contained any happiness, it was in this time. I spent my days fetching water, cooking the game meat she brought me, polishing the dung floor to a dull glow, grinding cassava into flour, and caring for our child. And as the sun set on each day, we women returned from the river garden, baskets of manioc, corn, and pumpkin balanced on our heads, our children slung on our hips.

My son’s eyes were quick, and I wondered how to educate him in this bookless place. I had a blacksmith shape iron letters for Urbano to play with, that I might use them later to teach him to read. As we went to and from the well, he listened while I sang half-remembered psalms, and he sang back to me from his kaross with gurgling syllables that made no more sense than mine.

I stopped dreaming of Ana-Margarida. When Kinfunji returned home, I’d tamp and light her pipe, and she’d tilt her head back and blow clouds at the sky, and when the embers cooled, she’d lean toward me, our lips almost touching, to empty her smoky lungs into mine. Only one shadow was cast over these days; above the threshold of our house was carved the royal seal of the palm and the forge. As captain of the lifeguards, it would one day fall upon Kinfunji to die with the queen. When I asked her how she could leave Urbano and me, she threw her pipe at me and stormed from our house.

A week passed before Kinfunji returned. She undressed me, and I imagined myself a beautiful woman, my breasts highlighted in the firelight, as she placed a string of iron beads round my neck, smeared butter cross my belly, between my thighs, my skin glistening in the courtyard sun. Whereas Ana-Margarida’s hands were cold and weak from arsenic, Kinfunji’s hands were as strong as an olive press, her calluses like glass paper on my skin. She pinned my shoulders, floor stones hard against my blades, and I wondered if she’d learned about lovemaking from the other males. I prayed You’d impart strength to my limbs that I might throw her off, yet she overpowered me, straddling me beneath Your incessant gaze.

No, that’s a girlish lie. I mean to confess my sins, not amend them. If Kinfunji were yet alive and I had the strength, I’d couple with her this very night, and again every night left to me on earth until the Angel of Death came to drag me out from between her thighs and cast me naked and engorged into hell. I held her rough hands in mine, quieting them, brushing her fingertips against my neck, my lips, wondering if physical rapture is the same for a woman as for a man, and her knees braced my haunches, her powerful hands fast on my shoulders, and I imagined that she was inside me, and I felt safe and beautiful in her embrace as I became a woman, born of her rib.

I believe in a heaven I’ll never enter. This is the time of night, as the candle burns down to its guttering, when I surrender to my womanly nature and cradle my damaged hand against my heart. How does one begin to ask forgiveness for destroying a civilization? Start with a beginning, that’s what I tell my confessors. No one stands blameless before You.

When my father learned that I’d become Kinfunji’s wife, he publicly disowned me. The low sun cast his shadow over me as he drew a line in the dirt between us, spitting at my feet. I dropped my basket, its fruit spilling down the embankment of the river garden. He was the only father I knew, as you are the only God I will ever know. I asked if he would disown the sleeping infant in the kaross slung on my hip and braced myself for his answer, as I brace myself to record it on this page.

Of course not, his voice quiet, the enunciation slow and distinct, the mother is of good family, the Moorish stain erased, as if speaking to a child, our steward could have stolen him away to a harbor ship if you hadn’t cocked things up, or an idiot, yet it’s not too late, each clipped syllable a stone to seal my tomb, the boy could be sent to Lisbon, educated, given a place in civilized society, shutting out the light, what would his life be here among these savages? stilling the air, do you think I’d leave him to be raised by a mannish woman and a—I felt the pause as I feel it now, the crawl of his eyes over my goatskin vestment, my wedding beads, the admixture of white clay and butter smoothed on my face each morning to please Kinfunji, his eyes narrowing as he searched for the right word—miscreation! The truth always comes as a surprise.

Kinfunji found me at home, weeping. When she tried to comfort me, I pushed her away and called her a savage whore, unfit to raise my son. Curses streamed from my mouth as if spoken by demons, and she drew our steward’s cutlass and begged me to shut up; still I spewed hateful things, more animal sounds than recognizable words. Furious, she came at me, and I retreated to our chamber.

Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God. Men are condemned to be men, women to be women, no matter their sex. My husband threw me onto the bed, her hands those of a stranger, and I felt my spirit rise above us as I submitted to her. I looked down and saw myself for what I was, the low character in a brothel play.

Castor grows wild near the mission well. I tread on it when I draw water for my morning ablutions, the bottoms of my feet sticky with its milky sap, and I inhale the bitterness and remember the life I took.

Our most wicked acts are not committed in the heat of the moment—there might be forgiveness in that. The day after Kinfunji attacked me, I smeared ash mixed with butter round my neck to cover the bruises from her choking fingers, and I gossiped with the other women as I drew water from the well. But when I lifted the yoke, my feet refused to turn homeward to my family.

A true confession invites Your retribution, in that it details each considered step along the path of damnation. My father accepted me back, and together we built a bonfire of coconut timber in the abandoned banza. The next morning, as dark clouds gathered, I helped him heap the palmwood ash into a wooden cistern, and we waited for the rain. My father retold his stories of Lisbon for days on end as the palm ash steeped in rainwater, and when it was ready, we built a second fire under a cauldron and reduced the liquid to lye, just as we had done together in Luanda to cure our olives and clean the oil presses. We went to the river garden to catch toads and collect seed from the castor that grew along its bed, and we wrapped our hands in amphibian skin for protection while we broke open the pods and soaked the castor seeds in our lye. More days passed when I could have turned from this course, yet I strained the castor mash, dried it, ground it into flour, and shaped it into communion wafers. My father and I stood off from the oven as they baked, so as not to be overcome by poisonous fumes. I must cut my confession short this evening. The spirit is willing, but the hand is weak. May You grant me another day.

The troubadour is at the gate, always at the gate, the outcasts of Zimbao gathered together, an army of the banished amassed beyond the impassable hedge that surrounds the city, tens of thousands silhouetted in the roiled dust of the horizon, thieves, deviants, murderers, abusers, false priests, all banished from Zimbao by order of the aging queen. With each advancing step, they beat their hide shields against their chests and pound the butts of their lances into the ground in unison.

My father found me by the city gates and requested the Sacrament of Penance, as he had no other confessor, save for his infected son. We walked along the outer road by the impenetrable thorn hedge, the flat of my hand against my cheek, partitioning my father from my gaze to create the pretense of anonymity as he stood before You.

Bless me Father, I’ve sinned.

A light rain began to fall. My son, tell me your sin. He was afraid, of course; everyone confesses out of fear. Beyond the hedge the troubadour exhorted his outcast army, and they answered with a roar as they girded themselves for their assault on Zimbao.

I was unfaithful to my wife.

I spoke without thinking, shattering the illusion. With our steward? Birdsong emanated from the hedge, and I felt the weight of shadowed gazes from the glassless windows of the roundels.

No, stupid boy. What a man does with another man out in the bush has nothing to do with his marriage. I was unfaithful to my wife when I impregnated your mother.

I could hear his labored breath. What else, my son?

I killed my best child. The rain fell steady, dampening the troubadour’s incitements and the roused cries of the degradados who stamped and beat the ground beyond the hedge of thorns which had only moments earlier seemed so formidable. The house was falling round my ears, he said. I heard the sound of breaking glass above, the screams of my eldest sons as they broke their ankles on the cobblestones below. Who can think under such circumstances?

Everything comes back to Lisbon and Your earthquake. Tell it from the beginning, my son, I said. Spare no details, hold nothing back.

My third son squalled in its crib, my wife’s legs crushed beneath the collapsed roof. We listened to the chants of the exiled horde come home to claim the kingdom that had cast them out. There was no time to think. We’d just made love, the teapot bubbling over on the stove, her ankles crossed behind my neck—it’s no sin if it’s between two wedded Christians. She pleaded for me to save the boy as I pulled her from the rubble and into the street, her fingernails at my eyes—I couldn’t have done it without Your strength. He spoke to God and me both, a confession within a confession, and I saw it all unfold, as if it were happening at that moment, such is the power of the act of contrition: my father and his Christian wife naked in the street, the earth gaping before them, the house shaking off its tiled facade like scurf, laying open the interior of their existence, spilling out its contents into an eternity of blackness—their marriage bed, the hot stove and its teapot, the crib, the newborn—everything falling, swallowed up in the widening, depthless crevice, his true wife dragging herself toward the void, cursing the husband who’d saved her over their best-loved son, the pain from her broken legs adding depth and breadth to her awful stare. That stare would chase him through the broken houses of Lisbon as he combed its ruins and filled his arms with silver and brass, anything to replace his loss, which would follow him to Angola and beyond into the bush, to Zimbao.

My father awaited his penance. I looked up at the clouds, seeking direction, but Your greatness is inscrutable. I should have shown him mercy, as You show mercy to us all, and directed him to perform some act of contrition—a hundred rosaries, a church wedding for my Moorish mother, a resolution to give up the slave trade and turn his back on whatever scheme he’d hatched with the troubadour. Instead I hid behind my hand, and when I finally found the courage to lower it, my father was gone.

Confession exists outside time. I sit at my rough table, scribbling this unmanly nonsense, resurrecting the moment when I stand in my goat hair robe before a gathering of the king’s lifeguards to recite the Eucharistic prayer in their savage tongue, imparting courage against the outcasts, the shunned, the disavowed who would force their way back into paradise. I see it all through Your eyes as I move from lifeguard to lifeguard, placing the castor wafers on their tongues, hesitating when I come to my husband, who came to accept communion to make peace between us. She places Urbano in my arms and opens her mouth to receive my sacrament, and my body no longer troubles me as to the nature of its gender, as the question ceases to have any consequence.

The outcast army advances through Zimbao with war bows and guitar-shaped knives, their footfalls silent on the watered street, the troubadour striding beside four bearers shouldering the great trunk, the chains and shackles shifting audibly within, while the lifeguards smear butter on their shaved heads and chests, pile their shields, and go forth naked into a shower of arrows that strike their calves and necks, their arms already heavy and slow with castor; wracked and vomiting, blood running down their legs, still they fight full forward. One loses an arm but fights on with the other. Another’s severed head stares up from the ground to watch her body take its final step toward the enemy. The queen kicks at a wavering line of ants crossing the banza courtyard, unaware of the battle that rages above them. This is the way of these savages, I told myself. Her grand palace will be left to ruin, people turning away as if it never existed, and the immortal troubadour will build another. The aging monarch sets her jaw and slaughters all in reach, her enemies falling back before her wrath, until she slips in her own blood and falls, laughing and pounding at the ants with her fists.

Kinfunji staggers toward me, doubled over in agony and shame, and Urbano reaches out from my arms as she puts our steward’s cutlass to my throat, her hand shaking with the weight of the weapon, its point rattling my iron wedding beads, breaking the string that bound them together and spilling my bride price across the courtyard. I follow her as she crawls into a shadow, try to place Urbano into limp arms, my husband’s coiled muscles gone slack.

The animals from the queen’s menagerie spill out into the streets, the screams from the wounded and dying indistinguishable from that of the loosed monkeys: an elephant seizes a degradado in its trunk and hurls him against a mud-brick wall, breaking the man’s back; a buffalo gores a merchant; a girl shrinks into the corner of her yard, snarling at any creature that comes near; a giraffe settles to its knees, an arrow lodged in its brain; a leopard crouches on a rooftop, ready to spring; a dying woman lies in shock, panting. Where once the inhabitants sprinkled water to tamp down the dust in the street, now the people of Zimbao perform that function with their own blood, let them praise Your name, and beasts and creeping things and flying fowl sweep through the streets like a storming wind, for Your name alone is excellent, Your glory above the earth and heaven, praise You and all Your angels and hosts, the sun and moon and all the stars of light, praise You heaven of heavens, and the waters that be above the heavens.

If You ask me, the people of Lisbon asked for their own destruction by building such a city in the first place. The Portuguese king Joseph never again stood beneath a palace roof but lived out his days in a tented court erected on a hill overlooking the ruined magnificence which so terrified him. Gallows lined the horizon of Lisbon, hung with the corpses of looters. My degradado father, forced to clear the rubble, must have stared up at them, certain You’d saved him for some great purpose.

I emerged from the shadows of the empty banza, Urbano quiet in my arms. The queen lay in pieces, blood and boot polish swirling together. The outcasts combed the ruins of Zimbao, their clothes torn and soiled, hair wild, eyes and naked blades glinting as they chained the survivors in twos like Noah’s animals. What have I done? What have You allowed me to do?

This isn’t about forgiveness. I eat charred beasts to ready my Christian soul for hell. My final seasons are spent in poverty, chastity, and obedience at a mission station that overlooks the baptismal stream where I minister to a transient congregation of the damned, an endless, rattling coffle of slaves who refuse to look at me as I dispense my wrong-handed blessings. In sleep, my empty arms cradle my lost child, and in dream, the ruined banza still smolders as my father takes Urbano away from me, and the hollowness returns to my belly, where it remains.

Urbano is a sickly man, no doubt the result of an early diet of donkey’s milk. From a distance, I’ve watched him become a civilizer, bringing the Negro people away from the darkness of bestial sloth and into the light of the holy faith. He refuses to step foot on mission soil, and I refuse to come out to meet him. With my father dead, it falls on my son to supply boot polish, corsets, and trunks filled with iron bars for the blacksmiths of New Zimbao to beat into shackles. I collect rumors of survivors who escaped Zimbao to harass our slaving expeditions. Urbano travels with a regiment of degradados, outcasts from Luanda, for protection. Fourteen years have passed since the troubadour submitted himself to slavery rather than face execution for the sin of growing old. A new king now barters away the people of Zimbao—put not your trust in princes.

I’ve struck, in my own girl-handedness, an illustrated map across my belly with wine and ash. I’ll praise You while I live, I’ll sing bric-a-brac psalms to Your inflexible nature while I still have being, and when my second soul—the one un-condemned to hell—is loosed from this false body, it will follow the tattooed map back to Zimbao, where it will lie beside its husband, beyond life and its expectations.





Photo: Ana Cristina Alvarez