Excerpt from Book Two-Bold Women of the 17th Century Series
Chapter One San Juan Bautista, Puerto Rico Colony of the Spanish Empire 1680
The young woman stepped off the vessel from Lima and ran her eyes over the crowds on the wharf. Ah, yes, they were staring. Merchants, sailors, soldiers, and draymen were gaping, admiring her beauty. She knew they would be easy to dazzle in this little backwater Spanish settlement. Even the women gazed at her, running their eyes over her fine figure, her magnificently crafted gown, and the delicate lace mantilla. In a world where beauty, breeding, and gold meant everything, Mercedes Zamora y Huaman de Ortiz had it all, and she flaunted it. Suddenly, her brow furrowed, and she barked, “Constanza, back ten paces!” The serving girl dropped back, two youngsters toddling by her side. Mercedes continued on with her chin in the air, followed by a young man hauling a trunk. Señora Zamora refused to be seen in public with Mateo and Sebastian, her twin boys. Even though she was only sixteen-years-old, she believed children aged women. In truth, she had little cause for concern. She had not yet come into her bloom. With hair like black satin, dark eyes under arched brows, and high cheekbones, her features were exquisitely fresh but not yet chiseled. She was tall, slim and her carriage was dignified, but her figure was not yet that of a woman. Although she possessed many exceptional features, her most cherished characteristic was her flawless, copper complexion, a gift from her Incan mother. Most girls wanted ivory skin, but not Mercedes. “Your skin is the color of the Cuzco sunset,” her father always said, “just like your mother. Treasure it,” and she did. Mercedes was taught at an early age that she was a valuable commodity intended for a profitable marriage, so she was carefully schooled in the art of vanity and self-absorption. At these lessons, she excelled, worrying constantly about her appearance and ruminating endlessly about her figure even though it had returned to perfection after delivering twins. It was an existence of constant critique and evaluation; it was a life on display. So when she saw the looks of admiration on the shores of San Juan, she was relieved. “Ask for directions to the city gate,” she told the servant carrying her trunk. He swung the chest down from his shoulder and approached a vendor. While she waited, Mercedes stole a glance back at her twin boys. She wondered if they were hungry or fatigued. The voyage had been difficult for them, and she was concerned. Despite her preoccupation with all things superficial, Mercedes loved her children to distraction. “This way, mistress,” the servant said, and they continued along the wharf, stepping around men loading cargo, dodging goats and cattle being hoisted onto ships, and vendors with flowers, fruit, or empanadas. Stopping just inside the city gate, Mercedes searched for the family carriage, but it was nowhere to be found. “I had sincerely hoped my husband would be here,” she sighed. “The children are in need of repose.” She was anxious to get her boys away from this foul-smelling, pestilent part of town teeming with sweaty sailors, thieves, and broken-down strumpets. Just as she was reaching to adjust her mantilla, there was a massive blast, knocking her from her feet. Mercedes sprawled onto the pavement, smashing her head on the cobblestones. The air was filled with thick smoke and dust as the masonry of the city wall crumbled. Before she could stand, there was another blast, and a warehouse nearby exploded into a thousand splinters. “Kaphiri’s in the harbor!” a woman screamed, bursting through the gate. “Dios mío!” Mercedes cried, jumping up. “My babies!” She ran into the blinding smoke with arms outstretched. “Constanza! Constanza! Are you there?” “Here, Mistress!” Coughing, Mercedes stumbled forward, tripping over debris and crashing into panicked townspeople. “Where?” “We are here!” “Thank God!” and she seized the twins who were screaming in terror. “Mama’s here. Mama’s here.” “You are injured!” Constanza cried, reaching toward the gash on her mistress’s head. Mercedes jerked away, yanking her mantilla off and throwing it to the ground. “No matter. Make haste! We must flee!” she barked. Pulling Sebastian under one arm and grabbing Mateo, she dashed madly down the street. Another canon blast resounded from the harbor, this time followed by agonized screams. A man, his clothing in flames, tumbled from a balcony as a building collapsed. “Kaphiri’s blown through the wall!” someone roared. “They’re coming!” Terrified townspeople filled Calle del Crísto, many on foot, many injured and bloody. Some were carrying valuables while others drove wagons or rode horseback, lashing the animals frantically. Mercedes looked over her shoulder. Constanza had been swallowed up in the tumult. Next, a cannonball ripped through a tavern, and she hunched over the boys, rubble showering them. The doorframe collapsed with a crash along with a heavy sign. A woman standing underneath was crushed. The twins shrieked and clawed at their mother. Panting, her face stained with sweat and smoke, Mercedes looked up. It was too late to take refuge in the fort. The entrance would be secured. If only I knew where Father lived, I could go there. But there is no time. These barbarians will be flooding the town soon. Mercedes remembered seeing a green expanse rising above the settlement when the galleon sailed into the harbor. That’s it!We’ll hide there. Picking up the twins, she started running uphill. The bombardment was deafening as defensive artillery from the Castillo Felipe de Morro intensified. Fire swept through town, flames crackling and black smoke rolling toward the sky. Mercedes ran on, dragging the boys, frantic to find a safe place for them. As she approached the upper part of the city, there was musket fire. It chilled her to think this butcher Kaphiri and his men may already be here. The cobblestone pavement turned into stairs which led up to an ecclesiastical settlement. At the top of the steps, Mercedes froze. Three filthy bandits dressed in ragged slops and smocks were leaving the priory with booty in hand. One was toting a bulky canvas bag and the other two dragged a large wooden chest. Mercedes pressed the twins to her breast to muffle their cries and stepped into the trees. Squatting down, she watched the pirates cross the grounds and disappear down the hill. She wondered if there were more, so she decided to watch and wait. Suddenly, she was yanked her to her feet, and cold steel was pressed to her throat. “Keep your mouth shut,” a man growled. He smelled of rum and sweat and was panting. Mercedes didn’t move, her heart pounding wildly. The twins clung to her legs, screaming. “Quiet, you little bastards,” he snarled and kicked one of them. Mateo tumbled to the ground and rolled. Mercedes cried out but did not move. Mateo stood up, staggering. The child was frightened but unhurt. “Down on your back or I’ll kill one of them,” the man barked and gave Mercedes a push. She stumbled forward. The twins watched from a distance, trembling. “Good boys, stay there my angels and remain quiet,” she murmured dropping to the ground. Although she was terrified, she didn’t care what this brute did to her; she just wanted her children safe. Mercedes was shocked to see he was a Spanish soldier instead of a pirate. He was a large, pug-faced infantryman dressed in gold and blue striped breeches and a blue tunic. He yanked off his plumed hat and started to unbutton his pants. Walking over, he straddled Mercedes, looking down at her with a lecherous grin, but someone slammed him in the temple with a club. The soldier grunted, his head snapping to the side and toppled across Mercedes. The impact stunned her, knocking the air from her lungs. Whoever hit the man continued to bludgeon him, spattering blood and matter everywhere. Mercedes watched in horror and then looked up at the person wielding the weapon. It was a woman. At last, she stopped the thrashing and stood over the body, panting. “Are you hurt?” she asked, helping Mercedes up. “No,” she replied, hugging the twins as they ran into her arms. “We mustn’t let anyone know we’ve killed one of our own,” the woman said. “Quickly, follow me.” Throwing the heavy branch she had used as a club into the brush, she picked up her skirts and started towards the complex of the Dominican friars. Mercedes took the boy’s hands and followed. As they strode across the chamomile lawn, she looked at the woman. She was in her middle years, tall and fine-boned with light brown hair and pale skin. Her face would have been beautiful, but it was heavily scarred from smallpox. She was wearing a black cloak fastened with a thick gold chain. “We are indebted to you,” Mercedes said. The woman shrugged. “I have been privy to defilement too many times. I will not see it happen again.” Saint Aquinas was a large complex run by the Dominican Order with a prior’s house, chapter house, almonry, bakehouse, dormitory, and cloister. They turned toward the church, a large, white-washed stucco structure with an arched façade. “I just saw bandits coming from here,” Mercedes said. “If they return, they will--” “They will not find us,” was the woman’s reply as they walked up the steps and through the smashed doors into the nave. She hid Mercedes and the boys in a dark corner while she searched the building, her footsteps echoing loudly. Mercedes looked around, still trembling from the assault. It was cool and quiet inside the church. Gothic arches covered in white plaster soared overhead, and colorful paintings and frescos adorned the walls. The woman returned with a lit candle. “This way,” she murmured and led them to a carved, wooden confessional. Opening the penitent door, she reached down, grabbed a ring under the kneeler, and pulled open a trap door. Mercedes gasped. Stairs went down under the confessional. “How is it you--” “I am a special friend of the prior.” Mercedes ran her eyes over the woman, noticing at last the immodestly cut gown under the cloak and heavily rouged lips. “Come,” the woman said, starting down the stairs. Carefully guiding the boys, Mercedes followed her down the steps and along an underground passage that opened into a large stone chamber. Taking a flambeau from a bracket on the wall, the woman lit it illuminating a crypt. It was a huge cavern with several hundred recesses in the walls, a small chapel under a low brick vaulted ceiling, and an uneven dirt floor. Picks and shovels were scattered everywhere. It smelled of damp earth and decay. “You will stay secreted here until the danger is past. The brothers must remain ignorant of your presence,” the woman said. “This is a catacomb?” Mercedes asked. “Si,” she replied, gesturing to the rows and rows of loculi filled with coffins. She smiled, “Only those of great honor are here, but one in particular is of the greatest notoriety. Gobernador Ponce de Leon rests just there,” and she pointed to a loculus adorned with candles, rosaries, and tiny statues. The conquistador’s coffin was beautifully crafted, constructed of mahogany and gold. “I must go now,” the woman said. “Try to rest. I will be back soon,” and with a candle in hand, she disappeared into one of the many passages. Mercedes dropped down, gathering the boys onto her lap. They were still trembling, but in the safety of her arms, they soon fell asleep. She rested her head back on the wall and looked around. The flambeau cast flickering shadows over the cavern. It was unnerving being alone with the dead, and she eyed the coffins apprehensively. “It is the living we should fear,” she mumbled, remembering their earlier ordeal. But that was no help. The Spanish soldier’s mangled face flashed before her eyes and the violent bludgeoning he received from the woman. Mercedes looked at the recesses awaiting burials and the tiny macabre chapel with the gargantuan cross, and she shuddered. Ghost stories and childhood tales of the occult returned to her, and she felt the hair raise on her arms. She tried to think of something else but then started to worry about her husband and father. Were they safe? Had they been robbed, injured, or worse? Holy Mary, please protect them all. What is happening up above? How long must we stay buried here? Moving ever so slightly, trying not to disturb the boys as they slept sprawled across her lap, Mercedes took out her rosary and began The Apostles’ Creed. She closed her eyes concentrating on every bead and prayer but the moment she finished; she began ruminating again. She wished she had never come to this horrible island, this dangerous, filthy world of backward settlers, slaves and pirates. What sort of life could she expect? She hated her father for taking this new position, and her husband as well. They believed a fortune could be made here in the middle of nowhere. Such fools. Mercedes touched the gash on her forehead. It was tender. She hoped there would be no scar. Sighing, she rested back against the wall again. How she missed the balls, the gowns, the fresh clean air, and the mountain sunrises of Peru. She longed for leisurely baths, perfumed oils on her skin, and cups of chocolate in bed. And who would she charm here on this island of exiles? Would her only admirers be ignorant planters, or even worse cutthroats and rascals? Oh, to be back in Cusco.