Last week I posted the Prologue to my new novel, Amara’s Prayer, which will be released in August by Bad Moon Books. It will be available in trade paperback and e-book formats, plus a limited edition signed hardcover that will be available IF there are enough pre-orders for it. Time is running out very fast on the limited edition.
In an effort to further pique your interest, I’m posting a sample chapter this week. It took me a bit to decide which chapter. The first one was an obvious choice, but I wanted to go deeper into the book, so I went with Chapter 6. I hope you enjoy it … and will part with some money. haha
I found Amara at the prow of the ship, facing a man who was crouching near a mooring post on the ship’s deck. The ship, I should mention, was about seventy-five feet long and Vargas used it primarily, he said, to transport vegetable oil from the upper Amazon to the Atlantic coast. I know on that voyage there were dozens of fifty-five gallon drums stored in the hold of the River Lily. Whether they held vegetable oil, a legitimate and common commodity in Brazil, I do not know.
The man facing Amara was crouching as if trying to put the metal, spool-looking post of the ship between himself and a dangerous jungle animal. His weathered face was drawn tight, his dark eyes large and round. He clung to the post, but his posture said he was ready to spring away and flee at the slightest provocation.
“What’s wrong with him?” I asked Amara in English.
She didn’t take her eyes from the wiry little man. “I do not know,” she said.
I turned to the sailor and spoke in Portuguese, “What is wrong with you? Why are you acting like that?”
“She is a demon,” he hissed at me in a sharp whisper, turning his head in my direction but keeping his eyes fixed on Amara. “Throw her off the ship or we will all be damned.”
“That’s nonsense,” I told him. “There’s no need to fear her pale skin and red hair. Such things are not uncommon in other parts of the world. She is not a demon.”
“She is the demon-spirit of the jungle,” the man said. “She wears her flesh like you wear your shirt. She is – ”
“Belo! Go below.” I looked up to find Vargas standing a few feet behind the crouching man.
Without looking away from Amara, the man backed away from the post. When he was even with Vargas, he spat on the deck in Amara’s direction, then fled toward the hatch leading below the deck.
“Belo’s father was a shaman among the natives,” Vargas said. “Belo left his village, or was driven away, several years ago when his wife became unfaithful.” Vargas laughed. “From what I can put together, she got lost in the jungle one night. When she came back, she became the village whore. Belo says she was possessed by a demon in the jungle. I think he just finally got suspicious when she didn’t come back to their hut that night and he claimed the demon got her.
“No matter. I will see to it he does not bother you again,” Vargas said. He cast another lingering look at Amara, then went back to the pilot house of the ship.
“Superstitious natives,” I said, walking up to Amara. “Did he scare you?”
“No. Like you say, such people are silly.”
“Yes. I have our stuff stowed on deck,” I said. “We’ll sleep on the deck tonight. I think I can put up some mosquito net to keep the bugs off us. There’s no way we’re staying down in the dark cargo area with these men.”
Amara only nodded her agreement, or acceptance.
“I hope you’ll stay close to me. Don’t wander off. Vargas may or may not keep his word, I don’t know. I don’t know how much control he has over his crew. He – ”
“Are you going to fight to protect my honor?” she asked. “Would you kill these men for trying to force themselves on me?”
“I … I pray it doesn’t come to any kind of confrontation,” I said.
“If these men came to take me, would your God stop them?”
“Probably not,” I answered.
“And you would not fight them.”
“I don’t have any weapons and I haven’t been in a fistfight since junior high, but if I had to fight to protect you, I’d do it,” I said.
She chuckled at my promise of defense. “How long will it be until we get to Manuas?”
“Tomorrow, probably in mid-afternoon,” I said.
“I’m not sure. When I was there last week, a friend of mine was in the city. He’s an archeologist. He’s a Texan, too, and a fun-loving heathen, but a good man who knows … things. I hope he’s still there and I can find him again.”
“Yes. He looks for artifacts – things from old civilizations – and brings them back to sell to museums. Usually he gets everything out of the country without any trouble. But I know there have been times he’s had to persuade people to help him. He has the money to do that kind of thing.”
“You do not have much money?”
“Not much. What I have was given by the church to help the mission in whatever way I saw fit. Using it to smuggle you out of the country might not be what they had in mind. But … you’re all that’s left of the mission and this is the way I’ve decided to help you.”
We went back to where I’d put our supplies. I have to admit I was a little surprised that it looked like no one had touched our things. Looking back, maybe I judged the crew of the River Lily too harshly. They gave us less trouble than we gave them.
Several of the sailors were fishing from the sides of the boat. As the sun sank behind the trees of the forest, a fire was made in a metal barrel on the deck and the various fish that had been caught during the day were cooked on spits over the flames. Vargas ordered his men to share with me and Amara. I felt obliged to distribute a portion of the food items I’d brought, so I gave each man of the crew one of my hard biscuits and some dried fruit.
My fish was charred on the outside and nearly raw close to the bones. I ate what was warm and gnawed on beef jerky to supplement the meal. Amara ate what was given to her without comment. Scraps were thrown overboard.
With Amara’s help, I spread our tent on the deck, held it down with ship parts that were laying around, and rolled the canvas sides up so that we would be protected by the mosquito netting but still able to see anyone approaching the tent. Vargas watched us with great interest and a broad smile, but no offer of help. I moved all our packs into the tent, unrolled the sleeping bags and watched Amara slip into hers. Kneeling, I hurried through my nightly prayer, then got into my sleeping bag, pulling the top over me but not zipping it.
I tried very hard not to sleep. I was afraid I would wake up to find Amara dragged away by the lustful crew, or at the least to find one of the greedy sailors rifling our supplies or picking my pockets. Despite my fears, I did sleep.
I awoke to screaming. Of course, I turned to Amara first. She was a dark shape within her sleeping bag, her back turned to me, her long red hair a glistening fountain in the moonlight. The scream came again, from beneath the deck, and I rushed out of the tent.
Vargas shoved me aside at the hatch leading below the deck. He was stopped from running down the steep stairs by his crew rushing up from the hold.
“What is it? What’s going on?” Vargas roared at them as they came on deck, many of them stripped down to their underwear. All of them appeared to be afraid of something.
“Is the ship sinking?” I asked.
“There’s something down there,” one of the men said.
“Yes, something that is not human,” another added. “A ghost. An evil spirit.”
Vargas cursed at them. “You are all as bad as Belo with your talk of ghosts and vampires. There is nothing down there but cowards and vegeta —”
“Where is Belo?” someone asked.
“He is still there, in his hammock. He did not move.”
“Go get him,” Vargas ordered. “He started this, I think.”
None of the men moved to obey their captain. Finally, Vargas grabbed the closest man to him and threw him bodily at the opening in the deck. The man stumbled, cast fearful eyes back at his captain, then slowly moved into the dimness below.
I sensed that the men around me were truly afraid. I was sure this was not an elaborate trap to separate me from Amara. And, I was curious. I had heard the stories about missionaries who battled devils in the jungles. I admit the idea of doing such a notable thing was not unappealing.
“I’ll go with him,” I said, and followed the sailor into the hold.
Battery-powered lamps hung from beams beneath the deck. Stacks of blue metal drums lined the sides of the hold. A line of hammocks was suspended between the center support beams. Most of them were empty. The one holding a man was near the back of the hold. The sailor who had descended ahead of me turned his head back to look at me.
“You are a priest?”
“A minister,” I said. “There’s nothing to be afraid of down here.”
“No? You do not feel the cold? You do not know that it is supposed to be very hot down here?”
It was cold. There was no doubt about that. Now that he’d mentioned it, I couldn’t help but compare the cool air of the hold to the sticky heat on the deck. It was peculiar, but I was not deterred.
“Yes, it’s cooler here than above,” I said. “Is that Belo back there?”
“Let’s go see what’s wrong with him.”
As God is my witness, the air of the cargo hold of the River Lily got colder as we approached the man in the hammock. By the time we stood beside him, our breath was leaving our body in a frosty cloud. The sailor was trembling and I knew it was less from the cold than from fear.
Belo’s back was to us. His right hand was across his body and entwined in the mesh of his hammock as if he’d turned away from something and had been clawing at his bed. My companion wouldn’t touch him. I reached out to untangle Belo’s fingers. I knew the man was dead as soon as I touched his flesh – he was as cold as a cadaver saved in a science lab. I pulled his fingers from the mesh and rolled his face toward us.
The sailor shrieked and ran. My first impulse was to follow, but reason won out and I remained. Belo’s face was frozen in what could at first be considered a look of abject horror. His mouth and eyes were open wide, a trickle of saliva sticking to his cheek. I tried to close the mouth but the man’s jaw was stiff.
The air moved around me, as if stirred by the motion of someone passing by. I looked around, expecting to see Vargas coming up behind me, but there was no one there. I heard a sound and turned back to the corpse. His left hand, which had been closed, was now open, the skin blistered and scorched. A burning stick of wood rolled from beneath his hammock toward my bare foot.
I jumped out of the way, then thought of the barrels of cooking oil and stamped on the small fire. The flames burned my bare flesh and the force of my effort bruised me. I pulled my foot away and looked down at the thing.
It was easy to tell the bit of wood was some sort of native charm. I recognized some of the symbols carved around the face, symbols that were supposed to ward off evil. The face carved onto the charm was familiar. I bent down to get a better look, then picked the thing up and held it close to one of the lamps.
The face was that of Coadidop – the same face that was on the totem of the villagers who had been the subject of my mission.
I should say something about this Coadidop. Legends vary, some saying she is a beautiful goddess who created the earth from her own milk, created a companion for herself named Enu and that other companions created by herself and Enu mated to create the first humans. It also is believed Coadidop brings the rain, looks after women in childbirth and protects children in the forest. Other legends say she is a short, hideous creature that feeds on blood. Legends among the villagers I had known said Coadidop was benevolent unless crossed, that she oversaw the welfare of all within the forest, but her payment was blood. It is said she preys primarily on the most beautiful of women and that, after a visit from Coadidop, her victims become nymphomaniacs. Such women are usually stoned to death.
All this was going through my mind as I studied the little idol Belo had dropped from his dead hand. Suddenly, the air swirled around me once more, again as if some figure was passing. The idol was knocked from my hand and burst into flame again – a flame so intense it was nearly white. By the time the wooden object hit the floor of the ship’s hold it was nothing but smoking ash that shattered upon contact with the floor.
“What was that?” Vargas shouted from the bottom of the stairs leading to the deck. His voice, booming and echoing in the frigid air of the hold, caused me to jump. My heart began hammering in my chest and my mouth was so dry it took me several tries to answer.
“I don’t know what it was,” I finally managed. “Belo is dead. It looks like he had a heart attack in his sleep.”
“Yes, Fernando said he was dead,” Vargas said as he came toward me. The cold was suddenly gone. The hold was filled with close, oppressing heat, just as it should have been all along. “Fernando said Belo’s devils got him.”
Vargas stopped beside the hammock and looked at the dead man. “It is a fright,” he commented. “Who knows what devils he saw in his dreams before he died. Probably just his wife.” Vargas laughed softly and pulled Belo’s blanket up to cover his dead face.
I bowed my head and whispered a prayer for the deceased, asking that God forgive the man his paganism. My prayer was interrupted by Vargas.
“Save your words, padre,” he said. “Belo would not want them. I’ll see to it he gets a burial he’d like in Manuas.
“Where is your concubine?” he asked.
“Amara.” I hurried away from Vargas, back up the steep wooden stairs into the night air of the deck. It felt good to be out of that cargo hold, to breathe the fresh air, even if it was still warm and filled with the smell of scared, sweaty men huddled around the opening leading below. I pushed through them and went to our tent.
Amara was still asleep. I bent over her, then paused. I could not detect her breathing. One slender arm was exposed. I gently took it in my hand and felt for a pulse. At first I didn’t feel anything.
“Amara!” I shook her shoulder with my free hand. She jerked and her eyes slowly opened. The movement of her arm had put her pulse beneath my searching fingers. I sagged with relief. “I’m sorry,” I said. “You’ve slept through quite an adventure.”
“Belo is dead,” she said.
“How – ”
“I heard the men talking. I had just gotten back to sleep.”
“Oh. Yes, he’s dead. It was very strange. I guess it was a heart attack. But …”
“Well, it was very cold below deck. For a while. And it felt … Oh, you’ll think I’m being as silly as Belo. It just felt like there was something moving down there … something I couldn’t see.”
“Milton Agnew, there may be things in this world that you do not understand. You should open your mind and give up some of your inhibitions.”
“You believe in ghosts?” I asked.
“I do not disbelieve in anything,” she answered. She snuggled deeper into her sleeping bag and closed her eyes.
More bewildered than I’d been since I met her, I returned to my own sleeping bag. This time, I did not sleep. It was many hours before dawn finally brightened the sky.