THE NIGHT WATCH
“Why don’t they come to relieve us? Did they forget that we are here?” asked the worried sentry.
“Maybe they’ve thought it over and are planning to let us take all the blame,” replied his companion.
“Don’t jump to conclusions. It’s still early and the moon is still high in the sky,” the third sentry assured the other two. But the first sentry was not convinced.
“Are you blind? Haven’t you noticed that there are no signs of rain and yet the sky is filled with clouds? I don’t like this. The moon is hiding behind those clouds as if it were ashamed of what it sees down here.”
“It’s true; the night is very dark,” agreed the third sentry, and then added: “…and overly peaceful.”
Actually, they had not noticed it, or rather they had done nothing else but notice it during the long hours of the watch, but no one had dared to say it until then. However, they could no longer deny it; the branches were strangely motionless in spite of the breeze, and a sepulchral silence had fallen over the night. “It’s very cold,” said the first sentry.
“That’s because we’re near the water,” added his companion. moving closer to the fire. Then they both became very silent.
After a while, the first sentry spoke again, timidly. “Let’s leave this place. Let’s go where we are sheltered from the wind blowing from the river,” he proposed hopefully, but his words crashed against the other’s stern look.
The third sentry merely raised an arm vaguely waving toward the riverbank and replied; “That is impossible; we can’t let it out of our sight even for a moment.”
The three men remained near the campfire watching the breeze play with the flames, rocking them to the rhythm of a slow and cadenced tune. They felt confused, besieged by a thousand doubts, and they would have liked to ask the fire for answers, but they preferred to keep quiet, while around them strange shadows projected by the fire danced among the ceiba and mohogany trees.
“It’s time to look at it again,” said the third sentry after a while, and his companions trembled at the thought of once again having to face that which they had been trying to forget since sundown. They immediately protested.
“It’s too soon.” argued the first.
“Let’s wait until our replacements arrive,” suggested the second, but the third
sentry rejected all their arguments and made them get up and walk toward the other side of the fire, toward the dark region where they knew his body lay.
When they reached it, the black mass stretched out on the mud seemed to glow in the dark, but on coming closer, the three men noticed that the strange effect was due to the moon’s rays falling obliquely on the metal parts of his clothing. Buttons, buckle and sword, all seemed to attract what little moonlight there was and reflected it onto the puddle that was starting to form around the corpse.
Seeing him so peaceful, as if he had just stretched out after a dip in the river, the sentries approached and leaned over to examine him, but they immediately pulled back in horror when they saw the contorted face, the wide-open eyes staring at the sky, and the lips drawn into a horrible rictus of death.
After their hurried examination, the sentries retreated back to the fire feeling so upset, so ashamed of what they had done, that they kept to themselves in absolute silence. Perhaps that was why they were so surprised when the first sentry spoke again.
“They say that Yocahú gave every man a spirit that lives on after the body dies. Those spirits are called jupias and they dwell in the heavenly Coabey where they lead a pleasant existence; they rest in the daytime while men are working, and at night, they
come down to earth to forage for food among the fruits and wild plants, to stroll through green fields or amuse themselves by playing with the timid little tree frogs we call coquís. They are our allies, and at night, when everyone 1s asleep, they enter our huts to give us advise or to announce what is to happen in the future. However, not all creatures of the night are good, since the legend has it that the death of a body also frees the evil spirits known as maboyas.”
“And why should we now talk of such things?” interrupted one of his companions, but the sentry did not reply.
“The maboyas play tricks on us in a thousand different ways. Sometimes they put a lot of spicy ají in our food and we are unable to eat it; at other times, they tie the tails of our mascots together with vines or hide the balls we use to play bato. Without warning, rocks rain down on our huts, our canoes sink in the middle of the water or the offerings intended for the dead disappear. It is the work of the evil spirits, the maboyas. who are to be feared because their pranks are not always inoffensive; when their master, the terrible Juracán, orders it, they whisper terrible things in our ears, filling our minds with evil thoughts and inciting us to acts which we later regret.”
“But it was not we who decided to… drown him,” protested the second sentry, pausing before pronouncing the last two words which described the nightmare that had taken place that afternoon. “It was Uroyoan. We merely followed his orders. If anyone was ill-advised by the maboya,. it was he.”
“And he will pay the consequences of his act,” decreed the first sentry, adding: “although perhaps we will also.”
The third sentry, who had remained silent while the other two spoke, seemed to wake from a long dream when he heard those words, and he looked at his companions in disbelief. Then he exploded angrily.
“Pay the consequences? Have you gone mad or lost your memories? What worse consequences can there be than those we have been suffering these last two years? Could there be anything worse than seeing how the foreigners take away what is rightfully ours? Can there be a worse existence than having to work in the fields and the royal hacienda, having to suffer in the mines and in the rivers panning for gold, having to serve in the homes of the invaders and having to watch as they destroy what our forefathers left us? Pay the consequences, indeed! Why, we are already paying the worst possible consequences!”
The third sentry’s accusations broke down the wall of silence dividing the three men, and they opened a breach through which all their doubts and unanswered questions escaped.
“What you say is true,” agreed the second sentry. “But how can we be sure that what we have done was right?”
“By taking risks, that’s how,” replied the third sentry.
“Life is full of unfathomable mysteries which go unsolved unless someone takes a risk. Take, for example, this very fire which gives us light, cooks our food and keeps us warm on cold nights. It is possible for a someone to go through life believing that such a faithful servant would be incapable of doing anyone harm, but that person would never know the true nature of fire until someone took a chance and touched it. When you doubt something, there are just two alternatives: either you keep quiet and accept what you are told, or you take a chance and look for an answer. In order to learn the truth, one must often risk getting burned.”
“Ah!” exclaimed the first sentry. “Wanting to know is one thing, but rebelling against the divine order of things and going against the wishes of the gods is another.”
“The gods! The gods!” cried the third sentry, clenching his fists and threatening the sky. “The gods are our allies, not our enemies! They would never send us a plague such as this. Why should Yocahú wish to destroy us? No, I tell you; Guaybaná was right in telling his brother that those beings who came from the sea are not gods. They are men of flesh and blood, like us; men who have taken away our joy, leaving nothing but sadness and desolation in its place. They are men, I tell you; men who have tricked us by passing themselves off as gods. Beneath their greed and their might lie human beings capable of dying like any Taíno. There’s the proof,” he concluded, pointing at the corpse.
In view of his companion’s steadfast position, the first sentry remained silent. He did not agree, but he said nothing. However, the second sentry felt compelled to explain the doubts he had expressed.
“At first, when Uroyoán revealed his plan, it seemed too risky, but as he enumerated the abuses carried out by the Whites, I became convinced of the need to do something and agreed to take part in this experiment. That is why I am here. But now, this conversation and the long hours we have spent on this watch are beginning to cloud my understanding. Over and over again, I have considered what we have done, and the more I consider it, the more confused I become. Why have these men come from the sea to disturb our peace of mind? Could Yocahú have planned this? And if it were so, what have we done to deserve such cruel and unjust punishment? I don’t understand any of it.”
“But I already told you…” interrupted the third sentry, but the other man stopped him with a gesture.
“Let me finish. If Yocahú has sent the Whites to punish us, then they are gods and what we have done is a monstrous deed for which we shall pay dearly, since the gods are immortal and they punish those who attack them. On the other hand, if what Guaybaná and Uroyoán say is true, then they are men, evil perverse men, who rob us of what is ours, and as such they deserve to die. But where does the truth lie? And how are we to know if that corpse lying there will decompose and be eaten by the maggots, or if it is going to rise up and make us pay for our temerity?”
The third sentry was about to answer, but he decided against it when he noticed that the first sentry had grown rigid and was trying to decide whether he had just heard a strange noise.
“Did you hear something?” he asked.
“It seemed to come from over there, from where…” The sentry’s voice quivered and he didn’t finish his sentence. Then he added: “Shh, there it is again!”
All three men remained absolutely still for several seconds, and then they heard the noise again. It was dry and sharp, like the sound of someone walking on fallen branches.
A thousand frightening visions, a thousand nameless terrors flashed through their minds, and all they could think of was fleeing, but the indescribable fear provoked by the footsteps in the dark kept them rooted to the spot until it was too late, until whatever produced the noise was upon them. Then, and only then, were they able to make out the familiar silhouettes of the guards who had come to relieve them, who asked “Have you anything to report?”
For indeed, there had been nothing to report, the sentry recalled, as he entered his hut and lay down on his hammock. The fears he had experienced back in the forest, the inquisitive stares of the people who watched his return and the incantation droned all night long by the bohique who kept his own mysterious watch, everything seemed oddly absurd now that the sun had come out and the sentry’s body yearned for sleep… a deep, sound sleep that would take him far away from everything.
But suddenly, he found himself back in the forest, engulfed by an impenetrable darkness, and the campfire was nowhere to be seen. He was alone, looking down at the horribly bloated mass that seemed to grow with every passing minute. It grew and stretched along the riverbank, trying to encompass the whole forest and embrace it in its muddied, wet bosom.
Horrified, the sentry tried to turn away, but everywhere he looked he saw those sunken eyes, two glowing, diabolical embers deeply set in worm-filled cavities, carbuncles glowing in pitch black pits, creeping with spiders, centipedes and salamanders. Then suddenly, a hurricane-like wind began blowing through the trees, raining snails, rotten fish and slimy aquatic plants on him, and from the dead man’s chest there rose a deafening noise, a piteous groan which rattled the inert mass. The sentry wanted to escape, to flee the tentacles that tried to strangle him, but his feet sank into the soft mud and vines curled around his legs holding him fast… and he had no choice but to scream, to pierce the night with the cry that attracted women, children
and old men to the entrance of his hut where they stood in silence as he struggled to cast off the demons of the night.
Fortunately, the nightmare did not return. Not that night nor the following when the corpse began to decompose and his companions, the sentries who had kept watch with him before, failed to show up, forcing him to stand guard with two strangers. Neither did the nightmare return on the third day, when the bloated belly exploded, scattering foul-smelling debris to the four winds. No, the nightmare did not return; not even when Uroyoán, observing the results of his experiment with satisfaction, ordered the body buried. Fortunately, the nightmare ceased for the sentry, but for the Taíno people, it had just begun.