April 22, 2010

By Michael Priv

“Gran’pa Baltazar, tell us a story! Gran’pa Baltazar tell us a story!” the little ones nagged shrilly, tugging on the old man’s tunic.

“Well, alright, my little pigeons, gather around” old Baltazar eyed the small fry affectionately as his four little grand children, all daughter’s stock, were nestling excitedly at his feet by the fire in the Great Hall.

“What story would you like to hear, my little fishes?”

“The story of Virgin Mary!” yelled Augustine, his eyes ablaze with excitement.

“Well, I don’t know. Do you really want to hear that old story again?” Baltazar shook his head in mock disbelief.

“Yes! Yes! Virgin Mary!” children shrieked ecstatically.

“Alright, alright! Ready, my little flowers? Well okay then. This story started a long, long. . .”

“. . . time ago!” little Freda’s squeak immediately drowned in menacing “Shhhhhh!” and was gone as if it never happened.

“. . . time ago.” Baltazar nodded amiably. “I was still young then and your beautiful mother has not even been born. It was that long ago!”

“Ten years ago?!” Augustine was five and he just started learning numbers. In his worldview, ten years was about the longest conceivable period of time indeed.

“No, Augustine, more like forty years ago, maybe even more!”

“Wow, that is very long!” Augustine did not really accept that as the truth but being a good boy he did not want to upset his grandfather.

“In those days I was a hand on a ship, a carrack Santa Maria, exploring the Atlantic Ocean. We were a good, sturdy bunch, all homeboys from Andalusia, experienced sea hands, held in check by Bartolome, the boatswain or, as they now say it, the “bossun”. Our Captain Cristobal Colon was a wily businessman and a mean drunk, all Portuguese are scoundrels, you know. But the pay was good. We were looking for a faraway land of India but that is 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 wiry fellow, fair in demeanor, always smiling and good at keeping the place ship-shape. Diego was invincible as if under divine spell. Nothing could kill him, nothing could harm him. Nothing!”

“Not even sharks, gran’pa?!”


“But why?!” the kids knew the story already but were holding their breath now awaiting the revelation.

“Because he had a magic statuette of Virgin Mary! It was protecting him from all harm.”


“Yes, it was! The statuette was an ancient alabaster figurine of exquisite beauty. The rumors had it that it was blessed by the great Saint Thomas Aquinas himself and it possessed powers of true magic.”

“What did it do, gran’pa?”

“Oh, pure magic and the examples abound! But it had to be kept hidden from the stranger’s eye, always hidden in a velvet sack with a silk rope.”

“Like yours, gran’pa?”

“Yes, kind of like mine. But much better. His was red! Being 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?!”

“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 Poop Deck after an all morning Clean-Ship, 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 pretty high chop rolling in that morning, it was rather fresh. 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, no. 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 ten-centimeter wide rail, unassisted by any hand purchase, in the rolling seas and high winds to retrieve the Royal shawl. He bent down there, some twenty meters up in the air over the rough sea, 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 well known for that too—and ordered to have Diego brought in. She questioned him closely and he explained with his usual smile, staring boldly right into the regal face, that nothing bad could ever happen to him because he had in his possession the magic statue of Virgin Mary. Queen asked to see the figurine and then told the King to order the safe keeping of Virgin Mary to insure 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 Virgin Mary. We had close calls with heavy objects falling down, dysentery and storms. I held many a guard duty at the Guns Locker where Virgin Mary resided, watching over us.

“One time, after some months of endless seas, some of the sailors started a mutiny, trying 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. We 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 four ships to pirates and storms, walked the plank twice and was abducted by cannibals. He was married more times than he could count and now dozens of good people all around the world can 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.”

“What was later, it was stolen later?!”

“No, no, it was stolen many years before he discovered the theft. Somebody switched the statue in his velvet sack but he never suspected it and was always certain that it was still there.”

“How do you know, gran’pa?! How do you know it was stolen long before and he did not know for many years?!”

“Okay, little grasshoppers, it is time to sleep!”

“No! No, gran’pa! Tell another story!”

“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 in it with her presence.

With the kids gone, old Baltazar stretched closer to the fire comfortably, reminiscing. He did well, very well, indeed. He certainly came a long way from the deck hand 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 to get some untroubled rest for the old bones. Baltazar, still smiling, got up heavily and shuffled tiredly to his chambers for the nightly retiring procedure. 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 slightly open stain glass window. The sweet smell of orange blossoms filled the air. What a wonderful night! Baltazar was old but he still felt 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 has been some years since he beheld the divine and exquisite beauty of the sacred Virgin Mary statuette, several good years of great health and prosperity.

Baltazar fondled the soft bag lovingly, reached inside and pulled out not the smooth alabaster masterpiece but a roughly molded chunk of dry clay.

Gone! His Virgin Mary was gone! Stolen! Baltazar bellowed “All hands on deck! Sound General Quarters!” as in his old pirate days, jumping out of bed and half-expecting to see his brutes mustering all about him, muskets and pistols on the 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 lockers or hung by the neck in the faraway land of the Brits. He was alone. He was old. His Virgin Mary was gone. Sudden sharp pain in his chest made Baltazar stagger, he clutched his chest with his right hand because his left was suddenly paralyzed by terrible pain.

He knew now that his Virgin Mary was gone.

The Chamber Boy found the dead body of old Baltazar when he entered the chambers just a minute later, summoned by the screams. Baltazar was lying on the floor, vomit on his face, dead eyes staring blankly at the broken pieces of dry clay on the floor in front of him.


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