8FOLD/CONTEST: Journey Into... # 9: Bitter Beans

Tom Russell milos_parker at yahoo.com
Thu Jan 21 23:14:43 PST 2010

   Jimeno brought the earthen cup to his lips and drank.  Almost
immediately he sputtered and spat, desperate to get the taste out of
his mouth.  The others laughed, as they always do.
   "This is it?" he said.  "This is what we're so desperate to keep a
secret from the English?"
   Pedro smirked.  "This is just the way the savages drink it, I
suppose because they don't know any better.  We keep the bean and
throw out the pepper, make it sweeter, more delectable to a refined
   "Well," said Jimeno, "I'll probably never get a chance to taste the
difference.  Not on my wages."
   "Nor mine.  But this xocolatl will surely make Guillermo a rich

Today. 1580.
   Jimeno lies on his back in the mud, breathing quickly and heavily
out of his mouth.  He tries to slow it down, to close his mouth, to
draw the air in and expel it out through his nose, but he can't.  He
knows that his life depends upon it.  If he can't keep still and
quiet, he, too, will end up like Pedro, Guillermo, and the others--
butchered by those terrible pagan things that rained down from the
   They walk like men, but they were easily six yards tall; they were
naked and obscene, save for their strange crowns of metal and jewels.
The crowns do not rest on their head, but are a part of them, jutting
out of their skin, with thin cords burrowing into their heathen
brains, sparkling with hideous lightning.

   The slaves had seemed overjoyed at first.  As the rained-down
dismembered the bodies of Jimeno's fellow Spaniards, as insensitive to
their screams as they were methodical in their murder, the slaves
called them deliverers.  But then their deliverers began, in turn, to
slaughter the natives, doing so with the same terrifying combination
of utter mindlessness (as if there was nothing inside them, nothing
truly alive) and focus (each one killed in precisely the same way, the
same muscles torn and bones cracked).

   They are all dead.
   All except Jimeno.  And he'll be joining them if he can't stop


   Jimeno's eyes flutter open and gradually adapt to the darkness.
Was he asleep?  When did he fall asleep?  He's still in the mud.  And
he can still hear the awful crowing of the rained-down giants.  He's
still in danger.  Why did he fall asleep?
   If he was a brave man or a strong man, it might not matter as
much.  Sleeping in the mud a few feet from his would-be killers, that
was the kind of exploit Guillermo would brag about over a few glasses
of wine.  Guillermo should be the sole survivor, the one who wreaks
vengeance upon these ungodly beasts and escapes with his life to
civilization.  Guillermo would thrive if he hadn't been among the
first to die.
   Jimeno is no vengeance-wreaker, no hero, no braggart, no
conquistador.  Jimeno isn't alive because of his wits or his bravery.
Jimeno is alive only because of sheer dumb luck, an accident of fate,
one that the Lord might correct at any second.  Whatever time he has
left on this earth is his only because it has been misplaced or
   He thinks about continuing to lie there, in the mud, in the dark,
prolonging his life by a few more minutes, squeezing out every last
moment that he can.  Maybe he can go back to sleep, so that when they
find him and kill him, he might not notice it, might not feel the same
agonies that the others did.  That's exactly what would be expected of
him, Jimeno the malingerer, always rising late from bed, Jimeno the
coward, always afraid of pain.  Guillermo died an unheroic death, so
who could expect more from Jimeno?
   But it is dark, isn't it?  So dark that he can hardly see.  So
dark, he posits, that the rained-downs can't see either.  He's not
running in broad daylight; he's not fighting them; he's just sneaking
in the darkness, maybe sneaking back to the ship...
   He could do that, he realizes.  If he takes it slow and quiet, and
if his idiotic luck holds, he just might escape with his life.  He
just might live to meet his son who waits across the ocean.  Just
   Jimeno lifts his head from the mud, looks out towards the remains
of the camp.  He can make out the sparkling crowns of his enemies in
the distance-- not the enemies and not really the crowns, but rather
the sparkle, the faint light of the jewels.  Jewels that glisten even
in the darkness, as if they contained within them a tiny sun or moon
or star.
   He bends his head backwards again, straining his neck, dipping his
hair deeper into the mud, looking behind him while keeping the rest of
his body still.  His upside-down view does not reveal any sparkling,
any glistening, any crowns.  Hard to tell with the trees, in the thick
of the forest.  But the coast looks clear for now.  Let's go...
   He isn't moving.  He tells himself to move, but he remains
motionless, paralyzed, frightened.  Come on, come on... that's
right... lift yourself out.  Slowly now.  Slowly.  Quietly.
   He flips onto his belly; he doesn't stand, but remains hunched
over.  He crawls into the forest.  Every time he thinks he's moving
too fast or making too much noise, his head and neck whip backwards,
to see if the sparkling has taken notice and followed.  It hasn't.  In
fact, it's getting dimmer and slighter all the time, farther away,
farther away, until he can't see it at all, until he finds himself
stumbling in the dark woods, alone.
   Alone and relieved, alone and afraid, back-and-forth: relieved
because there aren't any of the monsters in sight, afraid because they
could pop out at any moment, relieved because they haven't, afraid
because they will.  He feels his heart speeding and his lungs aching;
he's overbreathing again.  He stops by a tree, closes his eyes, tries
to control it.  He's sniveling, crying, begging himself to be quiet.
You're going to bring them upon you, they're going to hear you.
Stop.  Stop.
   He begins moving again, and doesn't take three steps before he
cleanly, loudly, obscenely snaps a twig in half.  They must have heard
that.  They must have.  You're doomed, Jimeno, you've doomed
   No, no, don't start crying.  Don't break down.
   He's on his knees, he's holding his head in his hands, he doesn't
care anymore, let them kill him, this was stupid anyway, so stupid.
He should have went back to sleep in the mud.
   He wipes his eyes with the mud-crusted side of his hand.  None of
this, now.  Got to keep moving.
   Back on his feet.  Still overbreathing, but there's not much he can
do about that.  Almost there.  Come on.
   The utter darkness gives way, slowly, subtly, to moonlight.  Be out
in the open, soon.  Then at the beach.  No trees to hide behind, no
mud to sink in.  Open air and moonlight bouncing off the waves.
They'll see him for sure, if they're there.  But if they're not...
   If they're not, then he'll live.  There's some relief to that.  He
might feel safer somehow on the beach than in the woods, for while he
can hide behind the trees, so, he reasons, can the beasts.  Yes,
Jimeno thinks that he'll be much happier on the beach.
   But he's not; he's just as worried, just as fearful, just as
exasperating to himself, flinging from womanly sobbing to something
loosely approximating manhood and back again seemingly at random.
   Be that as it may, just as suddenly as he found himself awakening
in the mud, Jimeno finds himself standing at the edge of the water,
looking at the ship.
   He's not sure how he's going to get it back to Spain; it's not a
vessel for a one-man crew.  Perhaps he can lower one of the small
boats, and then happen across another ship that can bear him home?
He's unsure at the moment.  But he has to decide quickly, if he wants
to see his wife, his son, and his homeland again.  He's never been
good at quick decisions.  Never been good at much of anything.
   And what awaits him in Spain?  He came here in the first place to
escape his debts and the knives that sought to collect on them.  He
hoped that his meager wages would pay most of them off when he came
home.  But now there would be no wages.  Returning to Europe would
prolong his life, but for how long?
   More than the knives, he fears his wife.  He fears the sadness in
her eyes, the way she smiles at him as if he was a child.  Her
disappointment cut him sharper than any blade.
   It's too bad, he thinks to himself, too bad I didn't have any of
the beans for the xocolatl on me when they attacked.  They'd fetch a
pretty penny.  They...
   They would, at that.
   The beans, the beans, those bitter beans, those small ugly beans
more valuable than gold doubloons.  A bag of them would pay his
debts.  Two bags would feed his family for a year.  Three bags, four,
five: they would give his wife and son whatever they wanted.  They
would make his fortune.
   All he has to do is go back to the camp, sneak into Guillermo's
tent, load himself up with the beans, and sneak back out without
getting murdered.  He realizes, of course, that it's completely
insane.  This queer luck that has kept him alive so far would surely
break under the strain of his greed.  He should just swim towards the
   It's completely insane, but that doesn't stop him from making his
way back into the woods and towards the camp.

   Jimeno finds himself back where he started, standing before the
mudhole where he slumbered, peering out towards the camp in search of
the sparkling crowns.  Only he doesn't see any.
   Are they gone?  Have they died?  Are they asleep?  Are they looking
for him?  Are they in the woods?  Are they waiting for him, hiding, do
they know that he's still alive?
   They are, in fact, one question, asked without thinking in one
skipped heartbeat.  He had expected to see the light of their jewels,
expected them to be where he left them.  He wasn't sure exactly what
he was going to do once he got here and saw them, besides perhaps
panic, but their absence is unsettling.
   There is an urge, a definite urge, to slink back into the mud and
go back asleep.  Maybe this is why he came here in the first place, to
crawl back into his hole and wait to die.

   He's moving across the camp, bleary-eyed, searching the inky
darkness for familiar landmarks, trying to get his bearings from the
splintered structures and piles of people.  The smell is noxious, far
worse than the people who died on the way over.  He feels the urge to
vomit and resists it as best he can.
   He thinks he's made out Guillermo's tent.  He moves towards it, his
hand over his mouth, and he almost immediately falls forward, tripping
on someone's arm and landing in a pile of guts and flesh and bone.
   It's a reflex, he can't help it: he retches sudden and deep, burns
his throat, brings blistering tears to his eyes.  He struggles to
swallow, to soothe his throat with his own saliva, and wipes the vomit
from his mouth.  His head pounds, as it usually does after he throws
   He starts to right himself, and that's when he hears the crowing.
He turns towards the sound.  He sees the sparkling in the distance.
First one crown, then another, and another, and...
   He immediately starts overbreathing, and he knows he's going to
   Jimeno dashes into the tent.  He immediately collapses, stammering
to himself to calm down, cradling his pounding head in his claw-like
hands.  Suddenly, the crying and the overbreathing stops; he feels his
stomach flexing, he feels it coming up.  He's going to throw up
again.  He can't.  He can't.
   He clasps his hands over his gaping maw and forces himself to
swallow it, to drink it.  Tastes almost as bad as the xocolatl, he
muses darkly, and he finds that this helps calm him down.
  If this is the tent, he thinks, if this is the right one, then the
damn beans are right...
  They're right here.
   It's too bad the rained-down things are outside, that they know
he's here, that they're going to kill him.  Came all this way just to
   He can hear them cawing at each other; he can see the light of
their jewels through the folds of the tent.
   Maybe-- and this maybe, he convinces himself, is no more insane
than the rest of this idiotic plan-- maybe at the moment that they
open the tent, he can slip by them.  Maybe for the first time in his
life he can sprint more than a few yards before clutching his sides in
   His left arm is shaking; the hand is quivering.  He tries to steady
it, but cannot.  Of course he can't.  He's been a mess this whole
   Never taking his eye off the light on the tent flaps, he ties the
first bag to his shoulder; it takes a few attempts to secure the
knot.  He was always lousy with knots.
   Jimeno ties the second bag to his other shoulder.  It's too heavy
already.  There's no way he's going to run with all that on him.
Let's not be greedy.  He takes on a third anyway.
   Four bags.
   Five.  He's straining under the weight.  He's tempting fate, is
what he's doing.  God's let him live this long, but he won't suffer
him much longer.
   Six.  Six bags of beans.  If he ever makes it back to Spain, he's
going to be a rich man...
   Somewhere between the third bag and the sixth, he realizes, he took
his eye off the flap.  He looks up; the light is gone.
   Are they surrounding the tent?  Fanning out?  Lying in wait?
   He feels dizzy.  He puts his hand on the bench, and it rests on
Guillermo's musket.  He leaves it there.  Jimeno had seen the others.
Their aim had been perfect, but the balls fell harmlessly to the
ground.  Whatever these unholy things were, they could not be felled
by muskets or swords.
   Jimeno crouches down.  It's a bad idea; he wonders if he's going to
be able to get back up again under the strain.  He takes a deep breath
and opens the flap.
   The light's gone, but the source remains; he can count about a half
dozen of the creatures, standing before the tent, their arms limp,
lilting to one side.  He doesn't understand these things, doesn't
understand what this means.  Does he have an advantage now?  Should he
be pressing it?  He closes the flap.
   Jimeno struggles to stand up again; the bags start to carry him
backwards, but he adjusts his balance in time to prevent a fall.  He
takes another deep breath and peeks outside the tent again.
   With his finger tips, he pushes one of the flaps open just a
smidgen, just enough for him to pass through.  And, fully aware that
he could fall apart again at any moment, he does just that.
   He's outside the tent.  The things aren't dead, that's for sure;
they're breathing heavily, even more than he is, the breath steaming
out of their thick nostrils.  He looks up at them, at these huge gawky
instruments of death, and he finds himself closing his eyes.
   No, no, open them.  Keep them open.  Start moving.
   He takes his first step forward and stops; he's not being slashed
to pieces.  He takes another; he's still alive.
   Jimeno takes another deep breath and holds it.  He resolves to walk
around the group, and moves in that direction.
   He manages a few yards before one of them shambles in front of him,
stepping sideways like a lazy Italian puppet.  Jimeno gasps, lurching
backwards; he throws his weight forward to prevent himself from
falling.  Trembling, he rights himself, and gazes up at the creature.
Its crown is still dormant, its eyes are closed.
   He stares at it for a long moment, wondering if it will strike him,
when it will strike him.  Perhaps a full minute passes.  He knows he
should keep moving, but he can't bring himself to do it.
   Then the crown begins to faintly grow again, like the starting
embers of a fire, and the small lightning begins to flow into the
creature's brain.  If it was asleep, it's awakening now.  No more
   He starts moving again, quickly circling around the beast.
Briskly, he makes his way across the camp, back towards the woods.
   He's falling; no; he's sinking; sinking into the mud, he stepped
right into it.  Overbreathing again, faster and harder than before, he
pulls his legs out of the mud.  He hears their terrible cawing once
   He turns his head and sees them, sees their light, glowing brighter
than ever, though they're not moving yet.  Maybe... maybe they still
haven't seen them, maybe they've forgotten him...?

   He gets lost in the woods.  He thought the second time through
would be easier, but his memory of the path he took is clouded by the
adrenaline splitting his brain in two.
   He gazes back, looking for the crowns, neither seeing them nor
being relieved by their absence.  He tells himself to stop looking
back, tells himself that he's wasting time, that he's making it worse.
   But if Jimeno had listened to himself, he wouldn't have went back.
If he had listened to himself, he wouldn't have come here, he wouldn't
have been in debt in the first place.  He almost always knows what is
the most sensible thing to do, but he so seldom does it.  "Oh Lord, oh
Jesus my saviour, why did you make me such a weak man...?"
   The words burn in his mouth.  He keeps moving.
   He reaches the beach, and as soon as he does, the cawing resumes.
He can't tell if they're near or far.  He's not even sure if they're
   There is the ship.  Time to swim.
   He's never been a good swimmer (no surprise there), and whatever
rudimentary skill he has is compromised by the six heavy bags of beans
tied to his body.  Perhaps this after all was the most foolish part of
his plan, he realizes as he fights to keep his head above the water.
His chin remains submerged and he only occasionally manages to keep
the water out of his mouth as he struggles for air, air to keep
himself moving, air to keep his arms struggling.
   He considers dumping the beans but dismisses it; came this far
already.  You're almost there.
   The sounds are louder now, and with a start, he sees their hideous
lights on the beach.  They see him for sure now.  Got to keep
swimming.  Maybe you'll make it... maybe...
   He goes under.
   No, no...
   He pops back up, he gasps for air.  More light, more cawing, more
of the rained-downs.  They're stepping into the water.  My God, my
   Jimeno pulls himself up into one of tiny lifeboats.  No time to
climb up into the ship (he doubts he could do it anyway).  He cuts the
   He leans forward, and begins to paddle madly with his hands.
   He looks back; the beach is dark and quiet.  As before, this
doesn't bring him any peace.
   What now?  He doesn't know what now.  He doesn't even know if there
will be a what now; he'll probably be dead from the heat and
starvation soon.
   But maybe not.  Maybe this crazy luck will carry him back to
Spain.  Maybe he will see his wife again.  Maybe she will drink
xocolatl and she will smile despite its bitter taste.



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