“Balboa” a short story by Sabina Murray
AS YOU READ Pay special attention to descriptions of Balboa's relations with the Indians and the Spaniards. Write down any questions you generate during reading.
Vasco Núñez de Balboa ascends the mountain alone. His one thousand Indians and two hundred Spaniards wait at the foot of the mountain, as if they are the Israelites and Balboa alone is off to speak with God. Balboa knows that from this peak he will be able to see the western water, what he has already decided to name the South Sea. He takes a musket with him. The Spaniards have been warned that if they follow, he will use it, because discovery is a tricky matter and he wants no ...view middle of the document...
In this moment of stillness, he looks around. He sees no other serpents, but that does not mean they are not there. Only in this momentary quiet does he hear his breath, rasping with effort. He hears his heart beating in the arced fingers of his ribs as if it is an Indian’s drum. He does not remember what it is to be civilized, or if he ever was. If ever a man was alone, it is he. But even in this painful solitude, he cannot help but laugh. Along with Cristóbal Colón, backed by Isabel I herself, along with Vespucci the scholar, along with the noble Pizarro brotherson their way to claim Inca gold, his name will live—Balboa. Balboa! Balboa the Valiant. Balboa the Fearsome. Balboa the Brave.
Balboa the gambling pig farmer, who, in an effort to escape his and tastes like dirt, which is a relief after what he has been drinking— water so green that the very act of ingesting it seems unnatural, as though it is as alive as he, and sure enough, given a few hours, it will get you back, eager to find its way out. He has been climbing since early morning and it is now noon. The sun shines in the sky unblinking, white-hot. Balboa wonders if it’s the same sun that shines in Spain. The sun seemed so much smaller there. Even in Hispaniola,the sun was Spanish. Even as he prodded his pigs in the heat, there was Spain all around, men with dice, men training roosters, pitting their dogs against each other. But here…then he hears a twig snap and the sound of something brushing up against the bushes. Balboa stands.
“I give you this one chance to turn back,” he says, raising his musket as he turns. And then he freezes. It is not one of the Spaniards hoping to share the glory. Instead, he finds himself face-to-face with a great spotted cat. On this mountain, he's thought he might find his god, the god of Moses, sitting in the cloud cover near the peaks, running his fingers through his beard. But no. Instead he finds himself face-to-face with a jaguar, the god of the Indians. He knows why these primitives have chosen it for their deity. It is hard to fear one’s maker when he looks like one’s grandfather, but this great cat can make a people fear god. He hears the growling of the cat and the grating, high-pitched thunder sounds like nothing he has ever heard. The cat twitches its nose and two great incisors show at the corners of its mouth. Balboa raises his musket, ignites the flint, and nothing happens. He tries again and the weapon explodes, shattering the silence, sending up a big puff of stinking smoke. The cat is gone for now, but Balboa knows he hasn’t even injured it.
And now it will be tailing him silently.
There is nothing he can do about it. He should have brought an Indian with him. The Indians have all seen the South Sea before, so why did he leave them at the foot of the mountain? They have no more in claiming the South Sea than they do rowing off to Europe in their dug-out canoes and claiming Spain. But Balboa’s hindsight is always...