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A Selection From Book Four of Set All Afire: A Novel about Saint Francis Xavier | Louis de Wohl | Ignatius Insight

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A ship, a small merchantman, built at Goa, and serving the coastal route. The pepper ship, they called it, because it brought pepper from Cochin to Goa, pepper, that most precious article. The whole of the Portuguese Empire of the Indies was built on pepper. There were other spices, of course, and there was silk from the faraway, unapproachable land called China—unapproachable because every foreigner trying to land there was instantly killed, ac­cording to the standing orders of the Emperor. But pepper was the main thing.

Francis and his three Tamil students were the only passengers. He almost wept as Goa vanished in the mists of the morning sun. Somehow the rumor of his departure had got around and a huge crowd had come to see him off, Father Almeida and Father Campo and other priests, Violante Ferreira with her nice young daughter, both in tears, Father Diogo de Borba of course, with all his students, and hundreds and hundreds of others; they upset the entire traffic near the port. And as the ship left, they had sung the Credo, rhymed as he had taught it to the children. How they loved singing, these joyful people. They sang when they plowed their fields, sang when they worked on the wharves. And there were the children, his children, tossing hibiscus flowers at the ship, bobbing up and down ....

Leaving them was a kind of dying. And now started the voyage to purgatory.

Father de Borba had told him a good deal about the Paravas, and no one could have given him better information. Eight years ago Father de Borba had been there himself, in the course of the War of the Ear.

Every girl child on the Pearl Fisher Coast had the lobes of her tiny ears pierced. Little leaden weights were inserted into the ears and these weights were gradually increased, till at last they were large enough for the enormous earrings that would be put in on the day of the girl's marriage. They were the sign of the married state and a Parava woman's pride and badge of rank and dignity.

An uncouth, greedy Moslem trader—one of the many who cheated the poor pearl fishers out of their goods, won by so much effort and under constant danger from sharks and stin­grays—tore such a ring off the ear of a young Parava woman, tearing her earlobe at the same time. Outraged, the Paravas killed him and everyone of his kind they could lay their hands on. Then came the armed feluccas to burn down the Parava villages and the pearl fishers asked for Portuguese protection.

And Dom Martini de Sousa, Gran Capitan of the Seas, arrived with his fleet. Francis had heard the story from Marcello, but Father de Borba had a few things to add. He and a few Franciscans had gone ashore with the troops, and the priests—numbering no more than six— had baptized twenty thousand natives. They tried to instruct them, too, but the fleet had to go on and priests were needed on board ....

Since then the Paravas had had to be left to themselves, except for a few priests going over at Easter, from Cochin.

And now it was eight years since the War of the Ear.

The little ship, the pepper ship, was careful not to sail too far out into the dangerous waters of the Indian Ocean. Hugging the coast, it stopped for a day at Mangalore, for two days at Calicut, for another two at Cochin. Then it sailed along the Travancore Coast and round Cape Comorin to Manapad.

There Francis and his three students went ashore.

"Flat country", said Coelho, the oldest of the students, and the only one who had received major Orders and was a deacon. "Good for us, because there won't be so many wild animals. Bad—because there is little shade." He opened his parasol.

They found a little grotto, where Francis said Mass.

Far away, to the north, a few catamarans stood out in the ocean.

"Pearl fisher boats", explained Coelho. "One of the men is diving now. Can you see, Father?"

"Yes—he's holding something in his mouth, something shimmery….”

"His knife. For sharks."

Francis made his bundle ready and swung it over his shoulder. "You said you know the way to Tuticorin", he said.

"I know it, Father. I—I hope I do."

Rice paddies. A few laborers working in a millet field, with a number of completely naked boys jumping around and throwing stones at something, Francis could not see what it was.

"They're chasing parrots away", explained Coelho.

Coconut palms and banyan trees and limes and mangoes. With those and the fish they can get from the ocean, at least they have enough to eat, thought Francis. Of course, fish had to be eaten at once; they putrefied at almost the moment they were taken from the water.

A cow appeared suddenly, seemingly from nowhere, and the workers in the field turned towards her and bowed their heads.

"They hope for the droppings", said Coelho. "It is a sacred animal, you know, and the droppings are a certain cure for a great many diseases, when mixed with the food of a man. That is what Hindus believe", he added hastily, as he saw Francis look at him with horror.

"But these people are supposed to be Christians!"

"Some of them, yes, Father. Many of them. Not all. And there is no priest. Things get mixed up..."

" .. with the dung of cows", said Francis grimly.

He had to restrain himself from walking up to the men and tackling them then and there. It would have been foolish. The thing to do was to go to the heart of the country and to work from there towards the periphery. That was what Father Ignatius would do, he thought.

They closed their parasols, as they entered a forest—if the maze of trees of all kinds and sizes, of high grass and strange plants could be called a forest.

"Look out for snakes, Father", warned Coelho. "Most of them will not attack—except when they believe that they have been attacked. You must be careful not to tread on them. They will never believe that you didn't do it deliberately."

Mansilhas might have said that. Mansilhas. Perhaps he and Father Paul had arrived by now. They should have arrived long ago.

Suddenly he stopped. From a tree something was hanging upside down, an animal, not unlike a huge bat. But surely there could be no bats of that size! It had a horrible head, black or dark brown, with large, pointed ears. It looked like a devil.

One of the younger students jumped up and clubbed it to earth with his parasol. A few more strokes and it was dead.

"What did you do that for?" asked Francis with disgust.

"Verrie good to eat", the student grinned. "Flying fox, Father. Wonderful, when cooked."

A country where they held cows sacred and cooked devils. He gave awry smile. "Let's go through the Credo in Tamil again, Coelho", he said. "I must learn it. Visuvasa manthiram— paralogath iyum—pulogathiyum—sarvesar—anai athiokia—bhaktiyaga..."

"Visuvasikirain"; Coelho helped out.

Francis sighed. "Why must every word in Tamil have at least six syllables", he com­plained. "Avarudya—yega—suthanagya—namudaya..."

"Nathar Yesu", said Coelho, beaming. "Christuvayum..."

"Ah yes, now I know: athikiya—bhakthiyaga visuvasikirain—ivar ispirithu santhuvinalai karpomai urpavithu archayasishta kanni Mariyaiyidathilai nindru piranthu".

"Wonderful, Father", said Coelho. "You are making great progress."

"I know the Ten Commandments", said Francis, "and the Pater and the Ave, but I'm hopelessly lost with the exposition of the Faith and the story of the Gospels. Tell me, Coelho, I know there are those who speak Hindi and Konkani and Tamil, but tell me, quite honestly and frankly how many other languages are there in India?"

"Oh, quite a few", said Coelho, looking away. "There is Pushtu and Urdu and Gujarati, and Telugu and Kanarese and Bengali and Singhalese and Gondi and Malayan and... ."

"That will do", said Francis. They went on silently for a little while. Then Francis said, "Let's get on with the Credo where we left off. Ponchu—pilathinkizhai—padupattu— siluvaiylaiaraiyundu—marith—adakappattar. .."

* * * * *

Continue reading this selection from Book Four of Set All Afire


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