Here's the story I submitted to the Rota das Letras competition this year. Almost all accounts of the attempted invasion of Macau by the Dutch in 1622 talk about how the invaders were defeated primarily by African slaves and Jesuit priests manning the cannon atop the Fortaleza do Monte (which is now the Museu de Macau). I find this episode compelling, so I wrote a story about it. Enjoy.
As the Dutch beat drums and blew horns aboard their ships all night long, the Chinese slipped away, so quietly that nobody in the Christian city noticed they were gone until daybreak.
—Where'd they all go? Paulina asked.
—Where do you think? They left soon as the heretics' ships arrived and everyone started shooting. Like sensible folk.
—So why are we here?
I laughed. On a normal day the laugh would've been swallowed up by the noise of all the people who came here to draw water and buy fish and vegetables, but now it merely echoed off the brick walls of the temple where they burned incense and asked their gods for money and good luck.
—Must be because São João wants us to stay, Paulina decided.
—Sure, if you listen to what the priests tell you.
—This is no day for blasphemy, boy.
Maybe, but I still couldn't believe we were sent out here to the Chinese village just to fetch food and water. I felt like bait in a trap.
—You smell joss sticks?
I found the Chinese and their idols intriguing, so I was always happy to leave the Christian city and come here, no matter how many bad looks or nasty words were thrown my way. Since I was brought here three years ago, I'd watched the Portuguese spend more time getting rich than convincing the Chinese to exchange their gods for one nailed to a cross. The Chinese mostly ignored the Portuguese. I liked them for that, and for the smell of their incense, too, even if the priests said they were going to Hell for worshiping false gods.
—Let's go. Nobody selling nothing here. Fill the buckets and move it. My kids are waiting.
I dipped a bucket into the spring and looked around. The water here was no better than what could be drawn from Lilau, but the senhora was feuding about some petty thing with one of the ladies who lived there, and refused to let even us slaves go there for water. She was mad, our mistress, probably because her husband was a miserable old man who ignored her when he wasn't out to sea.
—Step lively! How you think the heretics will treat you if they catch you here pretending you can read Chinese scrawl?
I hung the buckets on my shoulder pole and got moving. I only spilled a little when the Jesuits fired another cannon off up on the Monte and, a moment later, there was a loud, muffled explosion behind me.
Meu Deus, that boy thinks he's clever, with his jibes about the whites and the padres. He thinks the Chinese like him, too. He's lucky they know he's a slave, and that the whites keep his ass in line. If they didn't, he'd run off and end up rotting in some hole in Canton, surviving on moldy rice and cold tea and begging God to forgive his stupidity.
The Portuguese knew the heretics were coming, which must have been why they had us go out to the village, hoping we'd find something out, or at least make the Dutch waste bullets on blacks instead of whites. While Henrique stood around congratulating the Chinese for running off like cowards, I did what needed doing. I spoke up for São João, whose day it was, against the boy's lazy blasphemy, and used the faculties God gave me. The boy was right that there was no smell of joss sticks, but his nose missed the stink of gunpowder drifting from the northeast. His eyes, fixed on the empty village, missed the faint pall of smoke hanging over the horizon in the same direction. His ears—meu Deus, the boy was too busy listening to how quiet the village was to hear the faraway shouting in the heretics' ugly, foreign language.
—You still here when the Dutchmen show their red hair, even São João won't save you, I said.
—You think he's going to save you?
God knows the boy needed slapping harder than any of my children, but I had no time for that. As the padres up the Monte touched match to powder and opened fire on the heretics, I stepped lively and didn't look back until I reached the pile of stone and crushed shells they called the city wall.
—Hold up there!
I looked up and saw some half-breed with a sword in one hand and a musket in the other, looking at me like I was some Chinese trying to sneak in after hours.
—What? Senhora is waiting on me. Open the gate.
—Only Portuguese allowed inside the gate now.
—My blood's more Portuguese than yours, you left-behind bastard.
—Prove it, then!
Was he serious? The heretics were about to storm the City of the Name of God in China while São João was up in Heaven, spending his feast day trying to intercede on our behalf, and this puffed-up Malacca boy decided this was the time to prove he was a man? I squatted, eased the carry pole off my shoulders, and picked up a rock. I squinted at him long enough for him to consider dropping his sword and pointing his musket at me, but the rock was out of my hand before he did anything.
—Filho da puta!
I missed, but it didn't matter. He shrieked and ducked out of sight. A moment later, the gate opened just enough to let me and Henrique through. Once we were inside, someone slammed it shut and barred it.
Nobody, white, black, Chinese, or halfbreed, said a word to me until I reached the house, where the senhora was leaning out her bedchamber window, her veil partially drawn back, puffing on the pipe she thought her husband didn't know about.
—Paulina! What took so long?
—We came as fast as we could, senhora.
—Get in here right now and find Padre António. He wants to talk to all of you.
—May I see my children first, senhora?
—Is that really necessary? This is a matter of life and death. The Dutch are upon us, and there is nobody to defend us but boys and Jesuits. Did you hear what the heretics threatened to do?
—Suffice to say you and I both would be better off dead by our own hand, sinful as it is to even think that, let alone say it aloud. What are you waiting for, girl? Hurry!
Even in the face of death, the woman was insufferable. I went to my children, Duarte, Madalena, and Catarina, who by the grace of God were still asleep. After kissing them goodbye, I went looking for the priest.
—Do you know what day it is, Henrique?
—Of course, Padre. São João's feast day.
—That it is, the priest said, smiling at me like I was simple, or a child. And to celebrate this holy day, I have something for all of you.
I looked at Paulina, Zé, Carlinho, Inácia, and the others from our household who'd been told to meet Padre António out by the pile of stone being used to build the Jesuits' fortress. Everyone knew we weren't here to celebrate the feast day, no matter how much Padre António, cursed by his youth and recent arrival in Macau to minister to black slaves instead of rich whites, tried to pretend otherwise.
—What about the Dutch? asked Zé. Shouldn't we be preparing for them?
—That is why you are here. You all love God and the Church, don't you?
We all said yes.
—And you know that your masters are here in this foreign land to share God's love and His truth.
—Very good. We must defend this city from the Dutch. Do you know why?
—Because they're heretics! Carlinho shouted. That fool went to church even more than Paulina, who went three times a week even though she had to sit behind the Chinese.
—Precisely, Carlinho, Padre António said. He turned and nodded to the novice waiting nearby, who dragged over a giant basket. The boy removed the lid, revealing bottles of Portuguese brandy and gourds of Chinese wine.
—This is a gift to you on this holy day, the priest said. There's another one, too.
All of us crowded around the basket, and anyone who says they weren't thinking about how to share twelve bottles between fifteen slaves is lying. We got wine at Mass and sometimes on feast days, but only a little. I had a suspicion about why the priest was being so generous, and he proved me right.
—Your other gift is the chance to defend God, His church, and His missionaries, your masters, from the Dutch pestilence. Accept that gift now, and God will smile upon you for eternity.
—How can we do that? It was Inácia, the senhora's personal attendant. She looked tired, but I could tell she was glad to be away from that crazy old woman. You going to give us swords?
—Swords, spears, and muskets.
That was all it took for people to start grabbing for bottles. Paulina, pulling the stopper from a gourd, looked at me and shook her head.
—Don't you dare open your mouth, she said. Don't you dare.
—I'll take their wine, but it's their fault this place was left undefended, not mine.
—You heard Padre António, said Carlinho. It's a gift to fight for God.
—If the Dutch don't kill you, they'll make you a slave, Zé reasoned, wiping brandy from his lips.
—I'm already a slave, fool. So are you.
—Better Portuguese slave than heretic slave.
I was about to punch Zé in his ugly face when Padre António intervened. No, he said. Save your anger for the Dutch.
—What if I don't want to fight?
The priest said nothing.
—That's what I thought. I spat and snatched the gourd from Paulina, who just looked at me sadly.
—I cannot force you to fight, Henrique, but I will not allow you to speak rebelliously to the others. And you know Zé is right. You may think it cruel that God has made you a slave, but at least you are not a heretic's slave. The Portuguese have seen to your salvation.
I listened to the boom of cannon as I gulped down Chinese wine. I wanted to hit the padre even more than I'd wanted to hit Zé, but if I did that, I was as good as dead.
—Don't be stupid, Paulina snapped at me, her eyes blazing. You're fighting against yourself when you should be fighting for yourself. She took back the gourd and took a pull.
—Those muskets got shot and powder? I asked Padre António. He nodded. Good. We'll need more wine, too.
Everybody but me was drunk when Padre António led us to the city gate and started handing out weapons. I had a few mouthfuls of Chinese wine to put fire in my belly, even though the day was already hot. All I wanted was to see my children again. Liquor wouldn't help me do that, but it would drown my fear.
—This is a stupid idea, Henrique said. He wasn't sober, but he wasn't already falling down drunk like Inácia and that boy Ferrinho.
—Maybe, I said. But maybe God will look out for us, and it'll be over soon.
—Oh, it'll be over soon, no doubt.
A few scared boys trying to pass for soldiers watched us as we armed ourselves. Maybe they were jealous because here we were, slaves, drinking all the wine we could. Or maybe they pitied us, since we were the ones going out to meet the Dutch. Padre António and another priest showed us how to load and fire muskets, then prayed for victory over the heretics.
—I want to give my confession, Padre.
—There's no time, Paulina. We have to go now.
The priest nodded. His hands were shaking. It is my duty too, he said.
—You said it was a gift.
—To serve is another kind of gift. He took a deep breath and wiped the sweat from his broad forehead. God be with you, Paulina.
—And with you, Padre.
At least fifty slaves rushed out when the soldiers opened the gate. The priests insisted we stay in smaller groups, though, and Padre Antonio led ours. I saw Henrique turn and look back at the city wall and spit. I don't know how that boy could live with such pride and anger. I expected him to run away as soon as we weren't looking.
—Why didn't you take a musket? Inácia asked me. She looked ready to throw up, and nearly dropped her gun.
—I'll take yours if I need one. Don't think I will, though. I looked at the pike I'd been given, half again as tall as me.
—You really think São João will help us?
—I know he will.
—Be quiet, girl, and pay attention. Follow Zé and the padre.
I could hear gunfire and see smoke rising from around Guia Hill. As we made our way through the Chinese fields, Padre António prayed and kept his musket at the ready. A ways behind us came more defenders of the city, mostly slaves, but also some real soldiers, Portuguese and mestiços.
Zé started singing, and when Padre António didn't stop him, all of us followed suit. I took a bottle of brandy someone passed me and drank deep. As the sound of battle grew louder, my fear melted away and a new feeling, wild and hot, came over me. Had I not been fighting for São João, I'd have thought I'd been possessed by the Devil himself. I gripped the pike so hard my knuckles hurt and started up the hill after Padre António, wondering what I would do when I saw the Dutch with my own eyes.
I squinted down the length of my musket at the Dutchmen who'd stopped at the bottom of the hill, not far from a grove of bamboo creaking in the feeble breeze. They were red-faced and sweaty, dressed in leather and wool. They were the most pathetic white men I'd ever seen, and I wondered at the Portuguese fear of them. Zé had been right, though: who would want to serve those wretches?
A black slave I didn't know, who'd been one of the few men holding the hill during the first Dutch advance, sat against a nearby rock, mindlessly polishing an old, rust-pitted sword. He was younger than me, and had blood on his tunic.
—What are you waiting for? he asked.
—A better shot, unless you want to run down there and get their attention.
—That's easy enough.
He tripped on a root as soon as he got to his feet. He almost fell headfirst down the hill, but I grabbed his arm and hauled him back.
—How stupid are you, bobinho? I was joking! Those Dutchmen will cut you to pieces.
—God's looking out for me. I already killed three white men.
—Well, you go down there now and you ruin everything. You go when I say you go, or Padre António says so.
—Why should I listen to you? I've been fighting all morning. You just got here.
I wished, not for the first time, that I'd run away and hid until this was all over. But even if I'd done so, Paulina, Zé, Inácia, this man I didn't like and whose name I didn't know, and all the rest would still have to fight, and their lives—our lives—were already miserable enough without me making things worse.
I made sure my match was still lit and took aim at the nearest, most haggard Dutchman. Just before I squeezed the trigger, everything went as silent as the Chinese village had been that morning.
I thought of my children as I waited for Padre António to give the signal to attack. Inácia and Ferrinho were shooting at the heretics as quickly as they could, which wasn't very quickly at all, and their drunkenness didn't help their aim. As the sun beat down on me and I sweated out the wine I'd drunk, I didn't know which was worse: the fear which told me I'd never see Duarte and Madalena and Catarina again, or the urge to fight that filled my chest and made it hard to breathe. All I could do was put my soul in God's hands, just as I always had.
Somewhere to my left, further downhill, I heard a volley of musket fire, followed by a cry in Portuguese.
—Santiago, and at them! Charge!
―Now! shouted Padre António, pointing with his sword at the Dutchmen, who looked tired and confused, perhaps even afraid, but maintained their ranks. Now! God is with us!
Later, I could barely remember my feet carrying me swiftly down the hill, the high-pitched screams that erupted from my throat, and seeing that boy Henrique use his musket like a club. Yet I would clearly recall the sun catching the blade of my weapon just before I buried it in the neck of a sunburned soldier, the smell of blood hot from the vein, and running through and hacking at that soldier's brothers in arms as if they were fresh blocks of the bean curd the Chinese are so fond of. I allowed the Devil to take me so I could do what needed doing for São João, the City of the Name of God in China, and my children.
I didn't pray for forgiveness or give thanks to God until I got home. It was only then, my children held tight against my ruined blouse, that I had something to pray for and someone to be thankful for, even knowing the Devil would never leave me.
―Where are your trophies, Henrique?
I turned and looked at Zé, who was carrying a bag full of coins and had two severed heads tied to the rope he used as a belt. I spat at him and kept walking, wondering if the smell of joss sticks would ever penetrate the stink of gunpowder lodged in my nose.
—I saw you, Henrique. You killed at least two. Why didn't—
—Shut up, Zé.
—But we won! We won! Aren't you proud?
—Proud of what, idiota?
—Proud of what we did, Paulina cut in. She sounded, even looked, like a different woman. Us. Not what the Portuguese or priests did, but what we did.
—Who's us? Carlinho's dead. Inácia's dead. Ferrinho lost three fingers. Even Padre António might be blind in one eye.
—The padre said that the senhor and senhora will free us for what we did.
I said nothing. Neither did Paulina, for a while. She spoke when we reached the city wall, where the sound of church bells ringing in victory was almost deafening.
—Do you hate God so much that you won't admit that he sent São João to help us today?
—I don't hate God, Paulina. I hate his slaves.
—You're a slave, Zé pointed out.
I was more tired than I'd ever been, and I wanted to turn around and go back to the Chinese village before the Chinese returned. I wanted silence and the smell of incense.