By the end we were starving. Barros and me. Magellan had long since lowered the sails, so we lay on the deck in the naked sun. Sweat trickled through fresh cracks in our skin, and the acid inside our bubbling, distended stomachs sloshed with each rock of the boat onto hidden sores, and with each slow, creaking rock came a dim chorus of moans from belowdecks, where Pigafetta and the other survivors were chained. Magellan had caught them cannibalizing the boatswain. It was an atrocity he would not tolerate, and he made Barros and me, the only crewmen who had refrained, chain up the cannibals a safe distance from each other. Now they spent their days sleeping and starving and setting homemade traps for the turkeys.
Lying on the deck, I imagined the crow’s nest that teetered above me to be an obscene metronome, counting off their lives. Neither Barros nor I had the energy to check on them, and what energy we did have was spent scouring inside the great wooden pepper boxes for stray peppercorns. It had been twenty days since our last proper meal. Lately, we had been chewing on a length of rope. It lay between us. I touched it with my foot to gauge its heft and said that I thought we could chew on it some more.
Barros raised his head a few centimeters to see for himself. He shook his head no, and he was right. If the rope had been a snake, what lay at our feet was its skeleton. The edges of my eyeteeth were jagged from sucking on it.
Both of us pretended not to hear the word. Barros was Jewish. As soon as Magellan learned this, he had fixated upon it. “Every man has his weakness,” he said to Barros, echoing his famous proclamation to the Lapula Indians. He whispered to me right after, “Yours is that you’re a slave and a Malay cannibal. You want to take a big bite out of my ass, don’t you, you hungry cannibal?” He was always whispering things like that to me. Secretly, I was thankful when he found out about Barros being Jewish.
Barros raised his shallow buttocks from the deck and rolled onto his belly. He pressed his mouth and forehead against the bleached, buckling wood.
“Don’t cut your face on the deck,” I said. “We haven’t swabbed it for quite some time.” This was a joke, based on Magellan’s utter abandonment of traditional seafaring.
The door to Magellan’s cabin was slightly ajar, framed in the forecastle by two dark, circular windows like expressionless eyes. Wheezing confirmed that Magellan was standing in the narrow shaft of darkness. Was he staring at us? Was his mouth hanging open? I could almost smell the turkey meat.
The sea was as gray as dishwater, complete with scummy froth. A shiny dolphin breached the surface, and I turned to watch a thin tower of water shoot from its blowhole. When I turned back, Magellan was standing in the doorway, his pink and purple robes flapping in the breeze. He held a turkey leg. He said, “Get over here, you Jew.” His voice was slurred. “Your shiny head is like,” he said, then thought for a moment. His insults had become strange and abstract. “Your shiny head is like a disgusting moon.”
Barros sighed. I could tell he was preparing to stand up and go to Magellan. Barros was the navigator of the Trinidad and at one time had wanted very much to help Magellan. I pressed my foot against Barros’s leg, and he looked at me. I hoped my face said, “Don’t go talk to Magellan,” but it was so wrinkled and blistered, who knows what it said? Barros mumbled something and began to sit up. Then Magellan withdrew. The cabin door closed. Barros lay down beside me again, a little closer than before. Relieved, we reminisced about how, in the land of the giants, Magellan had lashed his legs to the torsos of José and Pigafetta and worn his longest robe in order to look like a giant himself. The natives had discovered this stupid trick immediately, but instead of running, Magellan had pulled out his penis and swung it around. Either because of its absurd length or its many fleshy colors, the natives had been fascinated by it. They served us fruit the consistency of sand.
Laughter came from the cabin, as if Magellan were listening to our story. His laughter was like a series of short, monotone yells. It was hysterical and lasted for minutes.
Barros covered his ears. He was cracking up from it, I could tell. I took a rag out of my pocket and put it on his head because the sun was directly above us, and Barros, though young, was quite bald. He mumbled thanks. Soon the laughter stopped.
Before the boatswain incident, we used to gather belowdecks during the hottest hours to play cards and tell lies about exotic sexual positions we had learned from native women. For a while after the incident, after chaining up the others, Barros and I still went below and attempted conversation. But the men resented us for chaining them up. The last time, Pigafetta read from his journal that I was a slave and a criminal and easily the most poorly trained seaman with whom he had ever voyaged. I explained that I was not a trained seaman and had been purchased by Magellan ten years before, but Pigafetta pretended he hadn’t been there when Magellan showed up pulling me, his new translator, by a rope tied around my waist. Pigafetta waved the open journal at me. He believed that after all of us died, the journal would be discovered, and the truth of my villainy would be known. I asked him, isn’t the real enemy Magellan? But he was unwilling or unable to admit this. Now, he and the others had languished so badly that their knobby elbows and knees made me gag. I worried, too, that after I climbed the ladder down to the cavernous hold, I would not have the strength to climb back up. And, of course, there were the turkeys: a gift from the Coha Baloa Indians. Once, there had been thirty of the strange creatures, mostly female. The few males had made such awful noises—yelping like dogs, purring like cats, cackling like maniacs—that Magellan ate them first. He ordered us to kill them, and they faced us down like sexual rivals, puffing out their chests, worming their penis-like necks back and forth to show the reds and blues in them, spreading their dark tails in semicircles that shone green in the sun until finally, with a girlish scream, they leapt at us with their feet out like claws, and we stuck them.
“Get over here, you Jew.”
I didn’t dare turn my head to look at the source of the slurred, wheezing voice. Neither did Barros, who closed his eyes in horror.
“You are like two skinny wolves from Muscovy, trembling and horribly shaved. One is black and one is white. I wonder if you can have puppies together!” Magellan laughed raucously. With luck, he would stand in the doorsill flinging curses at us until he grew bored and retired again. But when the deck began to creak under his prodigious weight, I knew we were in for more substantive indignity.
Barros worried the tattered edge of his shirt. A drop of sweat rolled from his bristly chin into his ear. I patted his hand and considered how to deflect Magellan’s tirade away from Barros and toward me. But secretly I did not want to do this at all. I did not want Magellan looking at me with his hungry, desperate eyes.
The smell of barely cooked turkey was overpowering, and from it I knew he was standing beside us. It was too late to hope that by ignoring him he would go away. Now it was time for appeasement. I sat up.
Magellan was holding a turkey leg, wiping it back and forth across his chapped lips. Pieces of skin clung to his strange beard, which grew exclusively from beneath his jaw like a ragged, putrid bib. He had the pelt of an exotic animal thrown over his shoulder and wore, as always, several layers of filthy and colorful robes, the bottommost cinched with a rope, barely concealing his pendulous scrotum and penis.
Magellan carefully placed his toes over Barros’s, who had not raised his head to look at him. “Your penis is like,” he said, then thought for a moment. “Your penis is tiny, like a seahorse smoking a cigarette.” Laughter erupted like a fusillade from which, instead of smoke, rose a cloud of turkey smells and particles. “Eh?” he said. He slowly rocked toward Barros, shifting his weight onto Barros’s foot. Barros sat up but kept his eyes down, away from Magellan. “Eh, Jew?” Magellan repeated.
With all my courage, I said, “I believe that Barros has lost his voice from dehydration.”
“If I’m talking to a Malay cannibal slave interpreter named Henrique, he will know it from the bowl of human fingers I use to make him do my bidding.”
I mustered a quiet laugh, knowing that this was not an insult but a joke. Weeks before, I would have raised my hands like claws and made a snarling face, which Magellan loved. But I no longer had the energy or will to please him. Also, Henrique was not my name. Henrique. How had he decided on it? It sounded nothing like my real name. This is Henrique, he had said to the others after he dragged me by a rope up the plank onto the Trinidad. Though it was cold, he had insisted I remove my shirt to look more like a slave. Henrique is our new interpreter, he said, then laughed outrageously as the others poked my chest and pinched my trembling arms.
Now Magellan reached into his robe and withdrew the corroded metal pieces of an astrolabe. He dumped them into Barros’s lap, where they lay like the bones of a rodent picked over by birds. “Where are we?” he asked. “Where is land? Where is land, Barros the navigational Jew?”
Barros ran his hands over the pieces of astrolabe, inspecting each one. As he did this, Magellan turned the phrase “Barros the navigational Jew” into a tuneless, manically lighthearted song: “Barros the navigational Jew! Barros, Barros! Barros the navigational Jew!” The addition of song to his usual nonsense was nearly impossible to stand, so I concentrated on Barros’s careful movements over the astrolabe. He fit some pieces together, tried to fit others, raked through those pieces for other pieces that surely were missing.
Please, I thought, just fix the astrolabe and tell him where we are. At least pretend to fix it and tell him we’re somewhere, even if it’s wrong. But Barros was like the badger who, instead of knocking, scratches at a door until a badger-sized hole appears. In his lap were half an astrolabe and a handful of pieces that may not have been in the astrolabe to begin with.
“Yes?” asked Magellan. “Yes, speak up?”
“What did you do to this astrolabe?” The question hung in the air for a moment. Barros seemed on the verge of tears. “Did you destroy it on purpose?”
“That is none of your concern!”
“Here,” I said, and I took the astrolabe from Barros’s lap, gathered a handful of the remaining pieces, and made a show of arranging them on the half-astrolabe, like a house of playing cards. Magellan watched this, nodding with interest. Then I held the device aloft and pretended to orient it according to the position of the sun. (I had never seen one used and did not know they were used at night on the stars.) I put my face to the edge of the circle and squinted. The sun glinted on the brass. I chose a mark at random and slowly turned the device until the sun hit that mark.
“That is the way,” I said, pointing more or less in the direction we were headed.
Magellan followed my finger and squinted into the distance. In profile, backlit by the sun, he looked every bit the hawkish captain. “What is that way?” he asked.
“The island,” I said. “The island with food and water.”
“Hmm,” he said. He raked some turkey out of his beard and stared into the blue and gray distance where my finger had been pointing. “I believe you’re right. What about you, Barros? Do you agree?”
Barros looked at me, at the pieces of astrolabe in my hand. I wonder still why he did not say “yes, yes, of course” and let Magellan retire to his cabin. Instead he said, “I don’t know.”
Magellan blinked. His mouth hung slightly open. It was the look of a wolf caught napping after a large meal, with stupid eyes that tricked you into forgetting that it could be, at a whiff of blood or weakness, electrified into terrible violence.
Barros continued, “We should wait for a nighttime reading.”
“But don’t you believe Henrique?” Magellan asked. It was impossible to tell if he was joking or serious, asking for a second opinion or about to wrench out Barros’s beating heart. He leaned down to put his face near Barros’s face. I wondered if Barros’s eyes stung from the moist cloud of Magellan’s breath, which filled the short distance between them. Magellan whispered, as if to a lover, “I hereby appoint Henrique navigator of the Trinidad. Henrique, chain him up with the other turkeys.”
Barros did not look up or turn his head as Magellan shuffled across the deck toward his cabin. One of Magellan’s hips was bad, so the foot beneath it made a hissing sound as it dragged across the planks. The door opened and shut, leaving us in silence. A seagull cawed.
“If you go belowdecks, he won’t know if you’re chained up or not,” I said. “He never goes down there.” Barros knew this as well as I did.
“It’s only a matter of time before he kills me or I starve to death.” He reached his hand into my lap and petted the brass pieces of astrolabe. “Why?” he said, more wondering aloud than asking.
My answer—that Magellan was as cruel and as arbitrary as nature, as life itself—was as yet half-formed, so I shrugged. Barros’s stubby fingers ran the length of the great circle and up a skinny part that looked like a sundial. Other parts were so oxidized that they looked like patches of moss. I should have said, “Why anything? Never ask why.” But I didn’t understand yet that silence was my secret; that “why” was the question that would have driven me insane when the old men sold me to him for gold and mirrors, when my sword first passed through a smooth-skinned native, when my fellows began nibbling the meat off their little fingers, when Magellan put a turkey bone in my nostril and tried to lift me by it, screaming that my penis was like a shaved baby panther and my face like a starfish’s penis.
Barros took the loose pieces of astrolabe off my lap and stuffed them into the pockets of his ragged trousers until all that was left was the great circle, the heaviest piece. I thought about pitching it into the ocean before Barros could take it, but he peeled my fingers off it and slid the heavy ring under his shirt. Holding it in place against what remained of his belly, he used his free hand to squeeze mine. I did not look at him.
“Henrique,” he said, “is that even your name?”
“Yes,” I lied. I raised my free hand and stoically patted his. The three hands clasped together in my lap looked like a brown and pink octopus.
“I have a favor to ask you,” he said, “because of my religion.” He stood up, and I followed him to the railing. He sat down facing me, then pulled my hand onto the great circle of the astrolabe, which was hard and bumpy beneath his shirt. He closed his eyes. His lips were slightly parted, as if he were expecting a kiss. Was he going to say something? I wondered. How would I know when to do it? When he squeezed my hand I stepped forward just a little. His eyes opened as he tipped backwards. The back of one of his shoes caught on the railing, popped off, and twirled in the air before crashing into the sea with a small splash, an echo of the big splash of Barros’s body. The sailors had told me that, after the panic, drowning was not an unpleasant way to die. Some had come very close to drowning before being rescued, usually by Magellan, who dove like a spear and swam like a stingray. It was hard to imagine a time when Magellan saved people instead of teasing out their deaths.
I sat down on the opposite railing. The sun was behind some clouds and didn’t sting my neck. The door to Magellan’s cabin was open. Of course, I thought. It had been open the whole time, for his twisted pleasure. I pictured him staring, smiling, pleased at the entire episode and its strong effect on me. I closed my eyes before the footsteps began, the creaking of the sun-bleached planks beneath the massive, calloused feet, the smell of turkey, the deep, phlegm-cracked breaths.
“Where’s the Jew?”
His voice was close. The smell of turkey was strong. Something poked my cheek, and my mouth began to water. I opened my eyes and saw a turkey leg, now no more than a bone.
“I was going to make you two fight for it,” said Magellan. He passed the bone under my nose. The smell of marrow released a hidden cache of stinging juices in my tender stomach. “You would have killed him for it, yes?”
I grabbed the bone from his hand and began to suck it. Later, I broke it into pieces with my teeth and sucked on each piece one by one for hours, like hard candy. Then I fell asleep.
When I woke the next morning at dawn, he was back in his cabin. The door was closed, bathed in red by the giant sun on the rippling horizon. The black windows on either side stared at me, unblinking. With the door, they formed the face of a high-mouthed insect, red and monstrous as the devil that sailors say creeps behind every corner of the city and in every island cave. Beside the cabin, off the edge of the Trinidad, a strip of gray crowned the horizon like an answer to the sun’s red challenge.
“Land,” I whispered. Could it be? I did not trust my eyes, but the strip of gray was so steady, so dull—it had to be real. “Land,” I shouted. “Land!”