The Interior

Those green-gold coasts—we spent our time reeling them in until they loomed close. This was the beginning of a year of tasting land after a long land-absence.

They kept talking about it: the interior. It will be this, they said, it will be that. The places defined on the map are mostly named after saints to protect the god-fearing traveller.

But I will never forget our first glimpse of that particular coast. It was a ragged green line, suggestive as a signature. The Conquistadors muttered amongst themselves. This was the promised land for someone who dreamt of gold.

We moored one tentative night a mile out from the shore. I watched the dark landmass from the deck, swigging wine. The First Mate got drunk, and then furious: the coasts were nothing special after all, apparently. He spat on the deck, but I sensed fear behind his outrage.

The next few weeks were half-downed in my mind by a blood-thick sweat. I’d never worked so hard in my life, nor walked so far. Once ashore, it seemed we had to cut a path through a place where no paths had existed before. Each step forward was a wrestling match with some green devil of the forest.

Very soon, we realised our mistake. We’d started in the wrong place, misread the charts. We fell out one day onto a road, and followed it. Soon, we were marching on a town, a whole ship-worth of mercenaries.

There was some loose species of trade established in this particular town already. I forget its name. It didn’t matter: there was not a little deflation, disappointment. But, thirsty for something besides the belly-turning forest streams, the men drank away their sorrows and sought out gambling dens. And when they didn’t find them, they contented themselves with introducing the locals to whatever lay readily to hand, whether it be the spin of a coin or a die.

This time, we stayed in town for some time, catching our breath away from the fetid forest for a while. It was a mostly Portuguese settlement, with some Spaniards coasting round the edges. Girls from the forest hung about, evolved from forest wives to campaign mistresses in an opportunist moment.

It was clearly a taken town, a done deal, and so much the soldiers’ gold lust fell away. No point fretting over it when you’re beaten, or at least you’d think as much. The Conquistadors watched the townspeople with a held brutality—it was akin to the difference in attitude you might see in a hunter in the company of farm chattel—the fine distinction between the wild and the tame.

But there was talk of moving on all through the time we stayed there. No one quite knew where the talk originated from, but it focused on a town further down the river. This new place had the glamour of virgin forest to the Conquistadors. There were no absolute maps to this place anymore, and so no definite names. We heard it called many things by locals—St Julian, Black Maria’s Place, Further Out, but most often, people called it the River Town.

The town we’d settled in was, by all accounts, spoken for, but this other place, the River Town, was waiting to be courted if approached from the right direction. Or so the Conquistadors reckoned. Rough maps were drawn up to steer our path along this side of the river; the marsh on the other side would lose an army as soon as fog.

Cursing my endless bad luck, I moved out with them the next day, just as soon as the first maps had dried. The Conquistadors were tough bastards. Their armour might creak with rust from forest damp, or scar with dents from getting bashed about in rocky streams, but they, driven at the helm by the pious Gaspar de Pareja, were as undaunted a group of men in fact as they were by reputation.

We set off in an early morning’s forest gloom in the midst of the rainy season. It was hard to see much at that hour, but fighting through the green mist of sullen tiredness we found ourselves helped along by the rough grass-track that led to the cleared space of the River Town. Rough road or not, we were glad of it. Someone might slip occasionally, or get tangled up in roots or creepers, but we were glad not to have to fight through every living inch of the forest to find our way.

The road to the River Town took us through wild country all the same. There seemed to be more snakes in the grass, on account, Senor de Pareja said, of the place being a fallen Paradise. And the heat was wetter, and the red earth seemed to emanate steam, and some soldiers muttered it was because we had come too far, and reached the gateway to hell.

But we discovered the River Town soon enough, dog-tired, as we crept up alongside its native stream. I stood on a rise in the land on the evening of the eight day and gazed down upon a rough marsh settlement on the other side of the river, a whole looping swathe of haze-swamped forest surrounding it on every side.

That night, the troop of bedraggled men I had been travelling with transformed into an army. It seemed to matter to Senor de Pareja that first contact was achieved in as pristine a state as circumstances allowed. The whole camp worked into the early hours of the night—taking it in turns to bathe, keeping a low fire burning, polishing and mending armour and weapons, brushing the coats of the few horses that remained.

I slept not more than an hour that night, maybe two. I had begun to realise that this was the eve of the purpose we had come here to fulfil: occupation. According to Senor de Pareja, the next day would bring glory, vocation, fortune, all in one venture. And I would witness the interior, that long-spoken-of-wonder that seemed to recede with each step we had taken up to this point in our quest.

I remember when first conscripted to the voyage, the talk had all been of the marvel of the interior, that never-seen place, the frontier of whatever came next in our voyage towards unholy lands. It was also, by all accounts, the sort of place where an enterprising man could make some money to take home to his family. Whatever it was, it had always seemed to be too many things to be quite real, just as the River Town had already acquired too many names to seem one singular place. But the morrow would tell at last: the interior would reveal itself at last in the moment a righteous man walked across its threshold, christening it with the touch of his blade.

I was woken by a stirring in the undergrowth, and for a moment I was back in the open country of my youth, hunting for snipe in the rain-slicked thickets of some marshland. When I looked around the whole camp was alive around me, dressing bodies and horses, all with minimal grunts of speech, or the head-tossing self-compression of bridled stallions. Along with all other camp followers and retainers, I would take the flank behind the arrow point of Senor de Pareja and his personal guard.

We walked down a slope into what seemed much like the outer fields of River Town. Light was still waking in the corners of things, light was still opening shapes like a flower unfurling everywhere I looked. I could already see people working in the fields, or stirring in the streets, and they could already see us. Old men were sitting outside their peculiar-shaped, slant-roofed houses, smoking pipes; a little girl ran down a rain-puddle track to find her mother; some women hovered in a garden behind a screen of leaves, shy and curious all at the same time.

Even now, I remember what came next.

At first, I was too much in wonder to notice the change. My wonder was not the wonder you feel when you encounter the strange. No, this was the wonder of a peculiar realisation: the realisation that came from witnessing how what was named the interior seemed much like the world I had come from, although it existed in the most far-flung, unlikely place.

In a moment, I saw the village I had grown up in, and in the next moment I remembered the time the people stood in the central square and stoned the gypsies, or killed the bull that ran loose with a gouge in its neck, or the time I was whipped by my father for swimming in the stream, or when Mad Antonia was taken by all the boys because she would not know how to tell.

And very soon, after Senor de Pareja’s guard rode down the green slope that fell into River Town, and took the town in the manner in which towns are frequently taken, and laid claim to its remaining inhabitants and their animals and lands, and christened the town San Francesco with a blood-stained sword, I saw that the interior was not so different from anywhere else that dares to be a point upon the map.  

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