by Michael Priv

           “Gran’pa Baltazar, tell us a story! Gran’pa Baltazar, tell us a story-y-y!” the little ones nagged shrilly, tugging on the old man’s tunic.
           “Well, alright, my little pigeons, gather ‘round!” Old Baltazar eyed the small fry affectionately. His four grand children, all daughter’s stock, nestled excitedly at his feet by the fire in the Great Hall.
           “What story would you like to hear, my little fishes?”
           “Virgin Mary!” yelled Augustine, eyes ablaze.
           “Oh, I don’t know. Do you really want to hear that old sailor’s story again?” Baltazar shook his head in mock disbelief.
           “Yes! Yes! Sailors!” the children shrieked ecstatically.
           “Alright, alright. Ready, my little flowers? Well, okay then. This story began a long, long...”
           “Time ago!” Little Freda’s squeak was immediately drowned out by the other children’s menacing “Shhh!”
           “Time ago.” Baltazar agreed amiably. “I was still young then, and your beautiful mother had not even been born. It was that long ago.”
           “Like ten years ago?” Augustine asked.
           “No, Augustine, more like forty years ago. Maybe more.”
           “Wow, that is very long. You're very old, Gran’pa.”
           “Yes, I sure am. In those days, I was a hand on a ship, the Santa Maria, a carrack exploring the Atlantic Ocean. Me and a good, sturdy bunch of homeboys from Andalusia, we were experienced sea hands, held in check by Bartolome, the boatswain, and our captain, Cristobal Colon, a wily businessman, a scoundrel and a mean drunk, like all Portuguese. But the pay was good. We were looking for the faraway land of India. But that’s not what the story is about. This story is about our master-at-arms, a fellow by the name Diego de Arana. I remember him well, a handsome fellow, fair in demeanor, always smiling and good at keeping the place ship-shape. Diego was invincible, as if under the divine spell. Nothing could kill him. Nothing could harm him. Nothing!”
          “Not even sharks, Gran’pa?”
          “But why?” The kids had heard the story before, but held their collective breath now, awaiting the revelation.
          “Because he owned a magic statuette of the Virgin Mary. It was protecting him from all harm.”
          “Yes, it was! That statuette, an ancient alabaster figurine of exquisite beauty, was blessed by the great Saint Thomas Aquinas himself, and the rumors had it, it possessed powers of true magic.”
          “What did it do, Gran’pa?”
          “Magic and the examples abound. But it had to be kept hidden from the human eye as much as possible—hidden in a small velvet sack with a silk rope. It was of God and so it was only God’s to see.”
          “Was that little velvet bag like yours, Gran’pa?”
          “Yes, kind of like mine. But mine’s black and his was red velvet. As the master-at-arms, Diego kept it under guard with the arsenal in the guns locker. Not even the captain was allowed to see or touch it by the Royal Decree.”
          “A Royal Decree?!” The children eyes were big in surprise.
          “Yes, my little sparrows, by the order of His Majesty, the King. Before we sailed, Queen Isabella came aboard accompanying His Majesty. We all mustered on the deck amid-ship after an all morning cleaning, wearing Sunday shirts, all brass shining and some of us even shaven, spurred into virtue by the sternest of warnings from the captain himself. The harbor had a high chop rolling in that morning. Imagine our horror when the wind blew Queen’s silk shawl off her royal shoulder! Up and around the shawl went, flying gracefully through the air, carried by the wind...”
          “Did the Queen loose her shawl?”
          “No, of course not. It got caught on the mizzen rail. Without a word, Diego climbed the mizzen webbing like a monkey, stepped on the rail and walked four meters on a skinny rail, unassisted, despite the rolling seas and high winds, to retrieve the royal shawl. He bent down there, high up in the air over the frothing chop, freed the shawl, turned around and strolled back to the webbing. Queen Isabella fainted. She was known for that.
          “The King ordered Diego flogged for his audacity, but the Queen, when she came around, immediately changed King’s mind for him—she was known for that, too—and summoned Diego. She questioned him closely and he explained with his usual smile, staring boldly into the regal face, that nothing bad could ever befall him, for he had in his possession the magic statue of the Virgin Mary. The Queen asked more about the figurine and then told the King to order the safe keeping of Virgin Mary for our success and safe voyage across the Great Ocean.                
           “And so our little flotilla sailed off into the rough August seas. Many a time were we saved by Diego’s statuette—close calls with heavy objects crushing down, dysentery and storms. I held many a guard duty at the Guns Locker where Virgin Mary rested, watching over us.
          “One time, after two months of endless seas, the sailors started a mutiny, aiming to bully the Captain into turning back. Diego confronted them calmly and told them to disperse. A big bully Domingo, the cooper, queried with amazement that the Captain sent only one man to quench their riot.
          “Well, you only have one riot,” Diego replied with a grin.
          “Domingo laughed heartily and so did his bullies and dispersed smirking, shaking their heads and slapping Diego on the back.
          “We finally reached solid ground, found the mysterious and wonderful land of India, or so we all thought, and then we returned home safely—blessed be the Virgin.
          Diego later went on to leading expeditions of his own, traveled the Atlantic to map the coasts of Cuba and the Caribbean. He lost ships to pirates and storms, walked the plank and was even abducted by cannibals once, as the rumors had it. He was married more times than he could count and now dozens of good people all around the world could proudly call him “Papa.” Nothing, but absolutely nothing, could ever harm him. Until the day he discovered that his precious statue was stolen. The story goes that he caught cold and died not even a week later—a rich man, with his boots off, surrounded by his weeping wives, retainers and concubines.”
          “Somebody stole his statue?!”
          “Yes, somebody did. That killed poor Diego but that was many years later.”
          “His statue was stolen later?”
          “No, no, it had been stolen many years earlier—before he discovered the theft. Unbeknownst to him, somebody switched the statue in his velvet sack with a rock, but he was always certain that it was still there.”
          “How do you know, Gran’pa? How do you know it was stolen much earlier and he didn’t know for a long time?”
          “That’s just how I heard it. Okay, little grasshoppers, time to sleep!”
          “No! No, Gran’pa! Explain!”
          “Off you go, kiddies. Inez, come get the kids!” old Baltazar yelled to his daughter.
          His lovely daughter, surrounded by maids and nannies, made her entrance, illuminating the great hall with her smile and gracing all with her presence.
          With the kids gone, old Baltazar stretched closer to the fire comfortably, reminiscing. He did well, very well, indeed. He certainly had come a long way from the deck hand he once was on Santa Maria. Those days were long gone. He had put together quite some capital in the Caribbean. The golden days of honest piracy. He had lost several ships to the various Navies and to other pirates. He fought shoulder to shoulder with the best of the best! All died young. None survived. But he... Nothing could ever harm him, as he was under the protection of the divine eye. Then he settled down, invested quite heavily in gold and spices. Things went well.
          It was getting late. Time for some untroubled rest for the old bones. Baltazar, still smiling, got up heavily and shuffled to his chambers for his nightly retiring ceremony. His Bed Master, Dress and Stool servants as well as the Chamber Boy were immediately at hand, as if magically brought in by the puff of fresh air through the stained glass window, slightly ajar. The sweet smell of orange blossoms filled the air. What a wonderful, magical night! Baltazar was old but still strong, probably had good ten years of this paradise left in him.
          The servants undressed and changed Baltazar into a silk sleeping robe, served the chamber pot, prepared his bed, tucked him in and departed with reverent bows.
          “Braulio!” old Baltazar called after the Bed Master. “Give me my bolsa de terciopelo!” 
          The velvet bag. It had been some years since he beheld the divine and exquisite beauty of the sacred Virgin Mary. They had been good years of great health and prosperity.
          Baltazar's hand lingered as he fondled the soft velvet bag. Then, deliberately, he reached inside and pulled out not the smooth alabaster masterpiece, but a roughly molded chunk of dry clay.
          Gone! Stolen!
Baltazar bellowed “Sound General Quarters! All hands on deck!” as in his old pirate days, jumping out of bed and half-expecting to see his brutes mustering all about him, muskets and pistols ready, sabers ablaze, ready to board or repel boarders, kill or die on his command. Alas, no. They were all dead, all taken by a battle or a drunken brawl, tucked deep into the Old Man Sea’s locker or hung by the neck in the cold faraway land of the Brits.
          Alas, no. He was alone.
          Baltazar staggered from sudden sharp pain in his heart, clutching his chest with his right hand as his left was suddenly paralyzed by terrible pain.                       The Chamber Boy discovered the dead body of old Baltazar only a minute later, alarmed by the screams. Baltazar was lying on the floor, vomit on his face, dead eyes staring blankly at the broken pieces of dry clay, where they had fallen from his dying hand.   
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     © 2010 Michael Priv. All Rights Reserved.