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


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. .."

The names of the villages they passed were of the same ilk. Alantalai, Periytalai, Tiruchendur, Talambuli, Virapandianpatnam, Punaikayal, Palayakayal, Kayalpamam and Kombuturé.

He did not stick to his original idea, to start working only when he had reached Tuticorin. He could not wait. It was bitter to see the shrines and temples on the way, with obscene gods of stone performing obscene actions on temple friezes, with phallic symbols abounding; bitter to see trembling villagers watching overfed cows eating all their food without daring to disturb the sacred animals; bitter to hear that the pearl fishers paid a good percentage of their catch to sorcerers for spells and talismans against the bite of sharks, and paid still more for mantrams against any other kind of danger, trouble and illness.

At Kombuturé they told him about a woman who had been three days in labor and was dying, although her husband had paid the sorcerer for all the aid he could give and the house was full of mantrams of all kinds.

Coelho shook his head sadly. "The demons are more powerful than the sorcerer and the mantrams", he murmured.

Francis exploded. "Where is that house?" he asked.

Coelho and the other two students tried to hold him back, but they might as well have tried to stop the monsoon with their hands.

Francis stalked into the house.

The sorcerer, with two apprentices, was squatting on the floor; all three of them were drumming on some kind of musical instruments and chanting invocations at the top of their voices. They had put a kettle on the floor, filled with some burning substance that sent up clouds of stinking smoke. In a corner of the room the husband and at least half a dozen youngsters of all ages were crouching, moaning and rolling their eyes in abject fear.

A grotesque figure of clay and half a dozen mantrams were tied to the body of the suffer­ing woman.

Francis took one look. Then he seized the kettle and swung it at the sorcerer and his helpers. They did not wait for what might happen next, but jumped up and raced out. Francis threw the kettle after them, untied the idol and the mantrams and threw them out as well.

A midwife, sitting at the feet of the woman, looked up at him as if she were seeing a demon. The woman herself kept her eyes closed. Now that the noise had subsided, Francis could hear her moaning softly.

He knew nothing of childbirth. The hospitals in which he had nursed his patients in Paris, Venice, Lisbon and Goa were only for men. He thought the woman was dying, as he had been told that she was. She certainly looked as if she were dying. And into a dying woman's room he brought his Lord. It was all he could do and all he set out to do.

"Coelho— translate. Tell her that I am coming in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth..."

Coelho's lips were trembling a little. Perhaps Father Francis was not quite aware of the risk they were taking. Now if the woman died, as surely she would, the sorcerer would say that it was all the fault of these interfering strangers...

"Translate", ordered Francis. "I command you."

Coelho translated. The woman opened her eyes. She fastened her gaze not on Coelho but on the strange face of the white man with its complete absence of fear, with its tranquil smile. Being a woman, she recognized love when she saw it.

"Tell her, Our Blessed Lord wants her to live with him forever. Tell her what he wants her to believe. Visuvasa manthiram—paralogathiyum ...."

She stared at Francis. Her lips moved a little and then she echoed his smile.

"Are you ready to accept what you have heard?" asked Francis gently, when Coelho had finished translating the last part of the Creed. "Can you believe it?"

Oh yes, she could. She could.

He took the New Testament out of his pocket and read out the story of the birth of the Christ Child. Coelho translated again. From time to time he looked towards the entrance of the house. The crowd outside was growing larger and larger. They would never get away alive. He was sweating. But he went on translating.

"Water", said Francis. When they brought it to him, he baptized the woman.

Coelho, looking on, prayed for all he was worth. In a state of utter confusion he implored God to save their lives, to save the woman, to prevent the sorcerer from making the villagers storm the hut, to have mercy on him, on Father Francis—on everybody.

A sudden tremor went through the body of the woman, she threw back her head and gave a loud cry. Instantly the midwife sprang up.

Francis took a step backwards.

At first he did not know that labor had started again after hours of interruption. But he knew it soon enough.

Minutes later the child was there, and a few seconds later yelling lustily.

Outside the villagers broke into a howl of enthusiasm that shook the hut.

Two hours later Francis had baptized the husband, three sons, four daughters and the newly born infant, another son.

Coelho was grinning from ear to ear.

But for Francis this was no more than the beginning. He stepped outside, where the villagers were still howling their joy to heaven and asked for the headman. Coelho had to tell him that Father Francis wanted the entire village to accept Jesus Christ as their God and Lord.

The headman scratched himself thoughtfully. They would do so gladly, but they could not—not without the permission of the Rajah.

"Where is that Rajah?" asked Francis curtly.

Coelho passed on the question. The Rajah was far away, very far away, but there was an official here, who represented him. He had come to collect the taxes for his master.

Francis went to see him at once.

The tax collector was at first a little suspicious. If these people accepted this new belief, would they still be willing to pay their taxes to the Rajah? They would? Well...

Francis began to explain the tenets of Christianity to the man who listened politely. In the end he gave permission in the name of his master. He himself? No, no. This new thing seemed very good, but he himself could not accept it. He was the Rajah's man. The Rajah would have to give the order to him personally.

"It is a pitee—a great pitee", said Coelho, when the man withdrew, rather hastily. "We could have called him Matthew."

It took all next day to baptize every man, woman and child of the village and two days more to tell them at least the rudiments of what they must know.

As they left, they saw the woman with her newborn babe in her arms standing in the door of the hut, smiling at them and making the sign of the Cross.