The Witch Hunter’s Amulet, a historical novel by Marco Lobo
Winner of 2012 contest ’50 Great Writers You Should Be Reading’
For details, please visit Christopher Matthews Publishing.
Portugal’s violent occupation of India in the sixteenth century was much more than a plunder of the country’s great material wealth. The Portuguese also sought to stamp out the ancient traditions of Hinduism and Islam throughout their Asian territories— everyone living in Portuguese India, centred in Goa, was forced to convert to Catholicism.
The Witch Hunter got wealthy from arresting women accused of being the consorts of Satan. As an official, but very much the showman, the young Portuguese is sent to Goa to work for the Office of the Inquisition. There his life is thrown into turmoil when he is convinced that he needs to possess a navaratna, a jewelled amulet.
In this historical novel, we follow the Witch Hunter on a Quixotic journey through colonial India. Oblivious of the true conditions of the world which he has entered, he clings to his old ways as he tries to create his own reality. He is poisoned – sick and half-crazed, he goes in search of the jewels that he believes will restore his health. He blunders through a tiger hunt, goes to war, does his work in the torture chambers of the Grand Inquisitor and presides over a farcical witch-trial gone wrong. Eventually, he too is thrown into the inquisitors’ dungeons to face trial for heresy.
You are welcome to read the prologue of this 348 page novel below, or to look inside.
Grit pressed into his cheek. It caught in the tight curls of his beard; the skin beneath it was covered in an earthy-yellow crust. Vaguely aware of the discomfort, Bartolomeu didn’t want to shift, not yet.
He kept his eyes closed, clinging to the vision of his wife. Hovering above her, he looked down at the nape of her lightly powdered neck. A river of silver swirls covered the back of Yone’s kimono. Purple and white wisteria cascaded over the wide sleeves.
Yone lifted her face to him. He saw tears welling up in her eyes. In one eye a single teardrop formed – a glossy pearl. It swelled and tangled in her lower lashes before escaping. A shining boulder, propelled over the edge by its own weight, it ran down her cheek leaving a trail over white face-powder. The teardrop stopped at the corner of her mouth. Her lips had a touch of pink − color extracted from crushed petals of safflowers.
He pulled further away. Grey clouds folded over the image until only a spark remained. And then the scene changed to infinite blackness. He kept his eyes closed, hoping for another glimpse of her. It didn’t come.
Bartolomeu opened his eyes to dim light. He was back in his cell, thankful that the tedium of another day had passed. With his face against the stony floor, he watched the spiky legs of one of his cellmates scamper over the dirt. Its limbs were like the bristles of a boar, he mused. He laughed at himself for such a foolish thought, continuing nonetheless, to savor the small distraction.
He pushed himself up stiffly and leaned against the wall. He groaned as he put a hand over his aching belly. More than anything else, it was fear that stewed his worm-filled innards. Bartolomeu brushed away some of the dirt that stuck to his face.
A cockroach ran by, scuttling out of his soiled blanket. He wondered why they always looked slimy − he handled them often enough to know they weren’t. He flicked a finger, spinning it onto its back. It fluttered its wings, rustling, making a sound like the scrape of dry leaves blowing across the ground. Turning upright, it resumed its march over the uneven floor. Yes, a cockroach resembled a dry leaf, until you squashed one − then the ooze that squirted out always seemed too much to have come from its flattened carcass. His face pinched at the thought of squashed bug-entrails.
Two months ago, when first thrown into the dungeon, he found them repulsive. He chased them, stamping and crushing. It did no good. There were too many. The remains attracted more of them. The smashed body-parts provided the cannibalistic survivors with easy meals. Though they sickened him, he had grown accustomed to sharing his accommodation with cockroaches and other pests. Now he thought it better to ignore them, to conserve his energy with the hope he might survive this torment.
Bartolomeu tipped his head at one of the cockroaches and said, “Bartolomeu Vaz Landeiro, at your service: purveyor of fine goods…and caterer to vermin.” He laughed. More of a cough, really, that became a wheeze and then a moan. The strain of it released a torrent of pain that flowed in waves, first into his hollow belly and then up into his ribcage.
This cell, though barely long enough for him to lie down in, had a small barred window. The opening was too high to see out of, but he thought he might have gone mad if not for it. Some of the other prisoners did not have one. He didn’t believe he’d be able to survive like that, having to illuminate his world entirely by flashes from within. The window faced west and though the sunshine baked the prison wall for most of the day, he was grateful for the rays shining through the bars, staying with him until the sun dropped completely over the horizon.
Until he was brought back and thrown into prison, he hadn’t returned to India for sixteen years, but remembered enough about this island of Goa to know that on the other side of the wall was a plaza, and at the f end of it, the Cathedral of St. Catherine. The Catholic icon towered over the spot where the old city gates once were, from a time not so long ago, when Muslims occupied Goa.
The market was a few steps away. Every sound he heard of the outside brought him joy. Though he had forgotten much of his understanding of the local language, he recognized the calls made by merchants as they proffered their wares. He imagined the scenes in vibrant color. Each sound added detail to his pictures: the shrill call of the mango seller, the woman with the funny laugh, the whack of coconuts being split.
Then there were the smells wafting into his cell: burning cow dung, the sweet scents of many kinds of fruit, the occasional whiff of a flower garland, and the succulence of animal fat carried in the smoke of kitchen fires. Bartolomeu came to appreciate the aromas from different meats and styles of cooking. Sometimes he imagined a greasy flank turning over a spit, sizzling and dripping fat onto the flames. The initial whiff was like the first link of a chain − as he sniffed, more links would be drawn in, pulling along the memories associated with the smells. Oily pork crackling reminded him of meals he shared with his Chinese friends in Macau. Roast lamb would retell of his travels, of sitting around a campfire, tearing big chunks of fatty flesh with his bare hands. Once in a while he even caught the scent of beef, though the slaughter of cows was a rarity given the large Hindu population living here.
The setting sun painted an orangey-gold smear overhead. His mind’s eye reached through the barrier of thick rock and there hung the orb, sinking slowly into the ocean, a molten pool. The sunlight overhead shrank into a blurry slit and then disappeared altogether.
The plaza was quiet now. Scent of burning incense wafted into his cell. He closed his eyes, savoring the spiciness of it, imagining a pageant of priests and their altar boys in the cathedral. One of the boys swung a thurible; its chains clinked while he moved up the red-carpeted aisle, leaving a fragrant trail of smoke.
Deeply immersed in the image of the procession, the first ring of the church bell startled him. It marked the start of evening Mass. His eyes opened to complete darkness. Crossing himself, he got into position to pray. A cockroach scurried out of the way of his dropping knee.
After his prayers, Bartolomeu hung his head in meditation. He relived the scene of his arrest over and over again, trying to see something different this time − groping for anything he’d missed. Something that would allow him to come to terms with why he rotted in here, accused of heresy and awaiting trial by the Inquisition Court.
The moment of his arrest was clear in his mind. He had just sat down to enjoy a meal with Yone. There was the dining room: the Japanese screen, gilded and painted with scenes of fishing boats and water birds. On a sideboard, the fine Chinese porcelain that so delighted his wife. She had prepared the sumptuous meal laid out on their dining table.
The memory of the food made his mouth water. Here in the Santa Casa, his meager prison diet always consisted of the same thing. Twice a day, thin rice gruel on a tin plate would be pushed through a slot in the door. Bartolomeu would slurp it down quickly and lick the plate before the cockroaches could get to it.
He relived the terror: the look on Yone’s face, the change from bliss to shock in the space of a single heartbeat. The sound of hammering on the door of his home, still so clear–and a moment later two soldiers barged in trailed by a notary. They dragged him away fighting and cursing. That had been the last time he had seen Yone.
There were said to be two hundred rooms in the Santa Casa. “Sacred House,” Bartolomeu scoffed, “there is absolutely nothing holy or sacred about this place.”
He knew that after saying Mass, the priests would spend a few hours at the Santa Casa in their roles as inquisitors. Then the screams of torture would reverberate through the building.
When will they come for me again?
* * *
The jangle of keys and creak of the door opening brought Bartolomeu back into the cell. Still on his knees, his head tilted towards the sound. He squinted at the flame carried by the figure in the doorway. The oil lamp illuminated a gaunt face under a cowl − Delgado. The Dominican priest wore a black robe, a silver crucifix on a chain dangled over his chest.
“I have interrupted your prayers, Senhor.”
Bartolomeu got to his feet unsteadily, wincing at the pain in his gut. His once fine clothes were filthy and hung off his shrunken frame. They were the same things he wore at the time of his arrest, a cotton shirt and simple hose which were now shredded at the knees. His beard had grown out and his hair hung in matted tufts. One could have mistaken the wealthy merchant for a street beggar.
“Which deity were you worshipping, Senhor Bartolomeu?” Delgado asked.
Bartolomeu straightened his posture and looked into Delgado’s face defiantly. “There is only one true God.”
The Dominican sniggered at Bartolomeu’s reply. “You haven’t answered the question.”
Bartolomeu could see no point in responding, in wasting his precious, waning strength. His words would be twisted to suit whatever the inquisitor wanted to hear. He had already suffered their method of questioning. Any reply could be twisted, taken as self-incriminating.
“It’s time for us to chat again. We have found new evidence against you,” Delgado said. The priest’s tongue skimmed across his lips – a serpent sensing prey.
“No evidence exists. There has been no crime.”
“A search of your home yielded your secret. What we found suggests heresy.”
“Bring the sinner,” Delgado said. He stepped aside, allowing two jailers to squeeze past him into the cell.
“This is madness. Listen to me…” Bartolomeu said.
“Listening to you speak the truth is what I have planned for tonight. I once told you that the Inquisition has the ability to reach a long way. Do you recall that?”
Bartolomeu did, but said nothing.
“No? Then your memory may be refreshed when I show you who we have in the next cell. The two of you make a fine pair of heretics.”
The guards grabbed Bartolomeu by the arms and dragged him out into the corridor. Delgado unlocked the door of the adjoining cell and entered. They pushed Bartolomeu in after him.
Bartolomeu recoiled at the stink in the airless room. A wretch cowered in the corner, shielding his eyes from the lamplight with a forearm. Bartolomeu didn’t recognize him, yet there was something familiar about the thin white-haired prisoner.
Delgado spoke to the cringing man. “Are you not going to greet your old friend?”
The prisoner slowly lowered his arm and Bartolomeu saw his face.
Delgado laughed at Bartolomeu’s shocked expression. “That’s right. It’s your former houseguest, Manuel Andrade, the Witch Hunter. Now do you remember?”