By Muriel Redifer
Illustration by Danielle Taylor
Southwest Coast of Florida, August 6, 1516
Alejandro stood on the creaking deck of the galleon a day after they rounded the scabbard of Florida and the ship had ventured northward again into the Gulf. In the darkness, islands followed the coast like beads on a necklace. Moonlight illuminated their billowing sails and waves frothing to white sand. Seeking a protected bay, they eased closer to land until they heard clouds of egrets wing up, crying in alarm at their approach. Sea turtles rose from the water, dozens of them, creeping to shore so slowly that Alejandro had to stare to be sure that what he saw was moving. But his eyes were young and keen. Bit by bit, the great turtles dragged themselves to lay their eggs by the dunes.
He leaned on the guardrail, his lantern suspended above the water. Over one hundred silvery fins teemed beneath the light. This land was rich with life, the young man thought. As he made a futile effort at counting them, someone clapped Alejandro on the back so hard it cracked the air. He nearly dropped the lantern.
The sailor said, “You’ve lost the soft look about your face. In the dark someone might mistake you for a man.” His breath reeked like rotting fish.
Alejandro smirked. At seventeen he was a head taller than the bandy-legged sailor. Until the tempest he would have outweighed him as well. But after a week in the hold groaning from seasickness, Alejandro’s face had hard angles. “I’ll lob you over this guardrail with one arm, and then we’ll see who’s the man.”
The sailor snorted and spit into the water. This type of bantering between the crew went on without stop in both stormy seas and mild.
One of the more battle-hardened explorers had been listening to the two. He now grabbed Alejandro’s shoulder. “Better to be sharp than boastful. The Calusas are a fierce people,” he told the young man. “They can shoot an arrow into a man from the shadows and then disappear like a specter.” The older man’s eyes and teeth seemed to glow in the dim light. His voice held an edge of both taunting and truth.
Alejandro laughed, but a shiver ran up his back. “It’s best we find water, some meat, and move on then.” …undetected he hoped. He’d seen many a festering wound already on this voyage. A nick could cost a man his arm. With luck he’d return to Madrid whole.
“I can fight any sort of man, any sort that I can spot,” the explorer said, his face turned towards the nearing tree line.
At the fingertip of dawn, the crew prepared to drop anchor. The sails were furled and secured. Boots were yanked off rank feet so that the men could push tenders through the shallows. The explorers were awed by water so warm and clear that they thought of bathing tubs at home, not the strangeness of a foreign beach. Eager to make camp and start cook fires, they shoved the boats onto the sand. Then Alejandro saw her between the trees, a distant figure on the shore. Perhaps he noticed her because he was so grateful. Only an angel could have assured his landfall after the roiling voyage from Spain. But even at such distance he was sure the native was lovely. So lovely that when the other men loped to hoist armor, muskets and crates inland to camp, he slipped into the tree cover.
Barefoot still, he could track the beach line silently, in shadow. Having learned to hunt deer at his family’s lodge in Andalucía, he crept with bright eyes on his quarry. At last growing close he crouched in a thicket. It smelled of salt and sulphur. Clouds of insects bit into him, but he remained immobile.
Her skin shone in the rising sun. Slim and lithe, she moved with ease, pulling a mesh sack of conchs from where she’d left it secured with a wooden pike beneath the water. Her hair cascaded down her bronze back, a silky waterfall as dark as ink. She bent to grasp another conch, and slip it into her bulging sack. Saltwater dripped from her elbow. Taking the pike in her fist, she seemed to stare through the water. Alejandro watched fascinated as a moment passed, and then another. Hovering, ready to pounce, she thrust the pike into the sea, pulled up a writhing fish, and threaded it through her reed rope. Again she hovered. A small swaying preceded the stab, her legs taut, then her entire body acted in one swift motion. She did not miss. When she had strung several fish together, she gathered the mesh bag.
Just then Alejandro cringed when a palm frond crashed down from the tree beside him. In an instant she spun and gasped. And he in turn saw the baby bound tight to her chest. Its fingers clasped the mother’s bead necklace. The woman’s eyes were dark and furious. And then her pike was hurtling towards him. He jerked left. Suddenly his right ear stung. Fleeing, the woman dropped her bag. Live conch shells bounced and clattered down. Wet clumps of sand flew up to coat her legs. She knew to run where it was hard-packed. He felt hot blood trickle down his neck. Chasing, the young explorer was hampered by the dunes and sea legs that were rocking still. The baby’s fist then rose above her shoulder. A jerk, a snap, and her cord necklace broke. Six clay beads scattered on the crystalline sand and she was gone.
How stupid of me, the young man thought. Did he expect for her to tell him in perfect Spanish where to find gold, and while she was at it, the “fountain of youth” that none of the men believed in for an instant? Alejandro gathered up all but one of the beads, which was pulled away by the tide. Fired clay, slightly irregular, they felt warm in his hand. Surely this was a sign of good fortune, a sign of all the men would bring back to Spain from this new and bountiful world. He pressed his hand against his ear, and saw his palm was smeared with red. A near miss, he smiled at his good luck.
Madrid, Spain May 1, 1803
Demetrio kicked at the cobbles of the Calle Mayor in frustration. Finally 7, he was old enough to walk without holding his sister’s hand, but not old enough to escape parading behind his mother’s skirts on the way to mass. His sixteen-year-old brother was leaving in the morning for Florence, accompanied by their merchant father. Demetrio would remain behind trying to hide from his jittery tutor with the hawkish eyes.
In the great church, the boy lit a candle for Felipe. What more could he do for his only brother? There were cutthroats and plagues along the way. And he’d overheard his brother tell a friend that Napoleon craved war with Great Britain. What talisman could protect Filipe on his journey? The boy had no money, and nothing of value.
“This small flame is hardly enough,” he told his sister. If Filipe died in war, Demetrio would be desolate and his mother would never stop grieving. If his brother died, Demetrio, the only remaining male heir, would never be allowed out of the house, much less go into battle as he dreamed. Felipe must return.
“Give him your sword,” she said, laughing. It was a child’s sword, purely decorative and barely large enough to dispatch a rat.
In the wooden pew, Demetrio squirmed. His sister pinched his arm. He loved the booming of the organ, but once the talking started he strained to remember even a few words of Latin. Looking beneath the seats in front of them, he noticed a rosary on the stone floor. Scooping it up, he pocketed the loop of beads. Surely anything that had come to him in such a way after so much wishing would be overflowing with good fortune.
At dawn the next morning, Demetrio crept downstairs and out the front door. Filipe looked like a man on his mount, erect and determined, his riding boots firmly in the stirrups. Filipe’s horse danced, nostrils flaring, impatient to head out. Demetrio held his hand up to his brother.
“What’s this?” Filipe asked.
Demetrio’s face felt hot with embarrassment. “To hang on the bridle. For luck.” He’d stayed up late braiding the four brown beads onto leather cording, his fingers cramping with the effort. In the lantern light the beads seemed plain and inelegant to Demetrio, but Filipe was already knotting them onto his bridle.
“If I meet a beautiful Florentine girl, may I give it to her?”
Filipe tousled Demetrio’s hair. “You’re in charge till we get back.”
After the men had left on their journey, Demetrio trudged up the stairs of their house passing his sister.
“They’ve already gone?” she asked in a strained voice. “But you promised to fetch me first.”
He scratched at his neck. “Oh.” His sister would have said something to ruin his gift.
She narrowed her eyes. “Have you seen Grandmother? She’s in the chapel wringing her hands, looking everywhere for her rosary.”
“The one with the blue porcelain beads?”
“No, her lucky one, the one she uses for critical occasions. It’s brown and ordinary, but she found it in a very old chest in the attic near some peculiar seashells. With such simple beads, she thinks it must have come from a convent. You sure you haven’t seen it?”
He shook his head. “No idea.” When Grandmother found out she was going to tweak his ears, and probably kill him. She always found out.
Just then he saw his tutor at the door. Demetrio scuttled up the stairs and hid in the pantry behind a sack of flour.
Tuscany October 1, 1914
“A hike to the castle ruin,” the innkeeper said, “would be perfect for a young couple like you. It’s a pleasant day for it, a day to make us forget our worries, no? My wife has already made up your picnic.” His bushy eyebrows drooped in commiseration.
Kostas had told the innkeeper the night before how sad Josette was to leave France. She hadn’t smiled in weeks, but then the whole continent was skittish. She should be glad her husband had a safe homeland to bring her to. In time she would understand. Taking a few days in Tuscany on their way to Greece, he thought, might soften her misery. He didn’t want her to hate their new home.
Josette took the basket of food from the innkeeper and peeked inside. To Kostas she whispered, “I’d trade anything for Brie and a French baguette from home right now. I might never taste another loaf as light as my mother’s.” She sighed, blinking back tears. “I know, I should just pretend we’re on holiday.”
Kostas squeezed her hand. He knew the truth was too horrible for her to think of.
The innkeeper sketched a crude map onto a scrap of paper. “The castle has a name, at least the tower does. For as long as I can remember it’s been The Torre del Castello of the…how do you say in French…Promise-Gift? There’s this legend about the fairest daughter of an Italian Duke, named Sofia, and...Oh dear...” He scratched his beard. “My wife might know it better.”
After they walked towards the fields, Josette turned to her husband and handed him the basket. “Tower of the Promise-Gift.” Finally, he saw a whisper of a smile cross her face. “I like that, but what do you suppose it means?”
Not waiting for his answer, she ran ahead of Kostas through the rows of grape vines to the olive grove.
“Slow down, before you make yourself ill.”
“I’m pregnant, not infirm.”
“We should stop in the shade to rest.”
“You rest. I’m going all the way to the ruin. Tomorrow we have to start for Athens and then I’ll be sewing the layette instead of picnicking.”
The castle ruin had once been a sturdy fortress built in the 1200’s. It now lacked roofs, doors, or a gate to the courtyard. The well was dry. They spread a blanket on the thick grass. Josette took out focaccia bread and cheese, red grapes, Prosciutto, and a canteen. They passed the canteen back and forth, cool water slipping down their chins and sprinkling on their shirts. The grapes were sweet. Yellow moths fluttered nearby. After eating, Josette took off her slippers and stretched out in the sun, as content as a sheep. Her red hair fanned out around her head like a crown.
Kostas rubbed gentle circles on her mounded belly. “You’ll like Greece. Maybe when the war is over you won’t want to go back to France.”
“I should have stayed with my family,” she muttered.
“And the shelling?” Not to mention a few bombs and the certain occupation. Watching the North Tower of the Cathedral of Reims burning was enough of a warning for Kostas. He’d tried to help put out the fire, but it spread to the wood superstructure. Finally the lead of the roofs melted until lead poured through the stone gargoyles like out of the mouth of hell, puddling on the ground. They could only back away in defeat. “It was no place to have a baby.”
Josette sighed. Closing her eyes, she said, “Maybe I will sleep.”
“You nap while I poke around the castle.” She looked so vulnerable, so innocent. When she’d locked the door to their home for the last time she didn’t realize that everything of value inside would be robbed once Reims was overtaken, unless of course it burned.
Kostas rose and brushed the crumbs from his pants. There was a winding stone stair leading to a nonexistent second floor and a crenellated tower. Several stones dislodged as he ascended. From two dozen steps up he could look out on the olive groves and grazing sheep. It was a fertile peaceful land, so far. But how long would it remain untouched? He’d thought of settling her in Cannes or Antibes in southern France, but in Greece his family could help them, and he hadn’t been back in too many years. Leaning on the sill, his elbow dislodged a stone. Clattering, it bounced down the side of the tower. Nested in the hollow were three brown beads.
“Kostas, where’d you go?” Josette called. Her voice was loud enough to corral a dozen children.
Kostas ran down the stairs, rubble flying. He tossed the beads to her.
She caught two. “Royal treasures?”
She clicked the beads together in her hands. Irregular, they looked handmade of simple hard-fired clay. “Then I’m fortunate indeed, a bead for each.”
“Twin,” she said with a wry smile. “And they better not come early.”
Southwest Coast of Florida April 6, 1941
Sophia stood on the deck of the freighter, holding the hand of her child. The journey from Athens to the Florida straits had taken over two weeks, two weeks of uncertainty and fear. They had been instructed to remain below deck, but after she heard of the invasion of her Greek homeland, she was sure she’d scream if she couldn’t escape the confines of the hold. Her husband Alex, an American, had joined the U.S. Armed Forces, her twin brother the Greek Army. Her parents would suffer the invasion alone, and her father, Kostas, would surely join the Resistance. 5,000 men were lost from her country during the last war, and they had started out as neutral. What might happen to her people now?
Back in January Sophia and Alex had stayed up late over the dinner table too worried to eat or rest. The Athenian home of her family had always felt warm and safe, with its thick plastered stone walls and cozy rooms. But that night cold air slipped under the door and she shivered, unable to keep her lips from shaking. There were no good choices.
“Come with me,” her husband had insisted. “You can live with my parents in New Orleans while I go to officer’s training. Surely the U.S. will enter the war before long, and you’ll be stuck here.”
“But I was born in Athens. I’d hardly be stuck.” And what about the voyage? One torpedo and they would all be drowned. From the window she could see the narrow cobbled street winding past neighbors she’d known by voice since she was small. “My English is terrible.”
“Not as bad as my Greek.”
Sophia’s throat felt constricted. “Zoe is too young to go.” She was only four.
“But old enough to survive an invasion?”
Chills ran down Sophia’s arms. Zoe’s name meant “life” in Greek, but how could Sophia be sure Greece was as safe as her father insisted? Alex’s words haunted her for months, until at last she packed up a trunk with their things and bought a freighter ticket. The day before the ship sailed, she paced back and forth in the home she shared with her parents. Her father Kostas felt she belonged with her family. But her mother, a refugee from the first Great War, believed the risk of sea travel was less than the risk of remaining so close to the conflagration. Zoe would have to grow up fast.
The freighter drove on into the night. Now it looked as though they would survive the passage. A strong wind behind them helped push the freighter towards their new home, a hopeful sign. Once they passed about half of Florida’s west coast, they would cross the Gulf towards New Orleans. Alex would be there to greet them, if only she could keep herself together a little longer. Salt spray misted her face. Zoe’s braids whipped in a gust.
Sophia took both her daughter’s hands in hers. “You’re old enough now to have this. My mother gave it to me when I was about your age, and a matching one to your uncle.” She had threaded the brown bead to a blue ribbon so that it wasn’t easily lost. “Take special care of it.”
The child held out her arm. Sophia tied the ribbon to her daughter’s wrist, knotting it with shaking hands. “It’s for luck.” Zoe had helped her mother stay brave, never knowing the dangers they had faced in the crossing. Sophia pulled her daughter close, Zoe’s back against her, her arms encircling. They looked forward past the steady waves towards their sanctuary.
But the rhythm of the sea, though it seems constant, can change with no notice. As Sophia at last allowed herself to believe that they were safe, a great wave was building. Suddenly it rose up over the bow of the ship. Water hit them so hard air was pounded from her lungs. She tried to lock her arms around Zoe, but the child slipped out of her grasp. Screaming, she felt the steel deck sliding beneath her so fast it was like being ground on a mill wheel. Then came the impact as her shoulder hit the wheelhouse. Pain exploded. Blanking out, there was only white, and then horrifying consciousness. And then the water receded, leaving her gasping, choking and calling for Zoe, too horrified to weep.
Sophia heard an anguished wail coming from the opposite side of the deck. A sodden bundle of cloth tangled in a ship line unfolded and became her daughter. Her head bowed, Zoe sat coughing, half drowned. Forgetting her shoulder, Sophia ran to her.
“Are you injured?”
Zoe could barely speak, holding one arm as though it hurt. “No, no, no. But I lost hold.”
Sophia turned her daughter’s face to her, kissing her brow. “It wasn’t your fault. I lost hold of you.”
“No, Momma,” Zoe said, holding up her perfect arm. “The bracelet’s gone.”
Southwest Florida Coast, August 6, 2014
Cirrus clouds in a fearless blue sky, for Luis and Dawn it was a perfect day for exploring. Over the summer the two often paddled to small islands like this with just his waterproof camera, sandwiches, and a thermos of water. A strong sun shone on the crystalline sand, making the two stand-up paddleboards look like they were resting on snow, Luis’s orange racer close to her cobalt hybrid.
As they walked together along the shore, Dawn lifted something glistening and twisted from a clump of seaweed, over a foot long. Gazing at it with reverence, she could have been admiring fine jewelry, but Luis knew better.
“You have to admit this is beautiful,” she said, her dark ponytail swinging over her tan shoulder. “The Whelk Egg Casing, what an awesome helix.” Dangling it from her hand, the casing dripped seawater onto his foot. She looked lovely with sand on her cheek and dark eyelashes. “Look at these tiny capsules, probably 100 eggs in each, all strung together.”
He waited for the Latin name, but not for long.
“Busycon contrarium,” she said.
He grinned. “And I thought it was called a ‘Mermaid’s Necklace.’” Luis put on his mask and snorkel. “You poke around some more while I swim.” A marine biology major, she would stay all day if she could.
The Gulf was as warm as his skin. Kicking just past the surf, some sheepshead and a needlefish darted by. Luis got some good photos of several rays undulating past, and a flounder. Perfectly camouflaged in the sand and shells, it stirred up a cloud and headed off. Standing waist deep, he used his feet to feel for sand dollars. Lifting one up he waved it at Dawn. Taking a picture, he replaced it. Eventually he unearthed two more large ones, and a calico scallop. Then he found something that felt like a small moon snail under his toes. When he lifted it out of the water, he was surprised, a brown bead. Putting it in the pocket of his board shorts, he waded to shore with his prize.
“I found something,” Luis said, trying to sound mysterious.
She was holding a sea urchin, which was creeping on its spines across her palm. “Show me.”
“Later, I have to fix it first. ”
“Fix it?” She returned the urchin to the water. Suddenly she snatched a giant horse conch out of the surf. “Triplofusus giganteus, look at the size of this beauty.” Its shell a rough gray with at least ten whorls, it was almost as long as her forearm. Its soft orange body moved lazily. How she’d spotted it in the sea foam and kicked up sand he couldn’t say.
He snapped off several pieces of saltgrass and began to interlace them. After he had a sturdy 6” braid he slipped the bead onto it. She gasped when he showed her. Luis tied the necklace around Dawn’s neck, then stood back admiring her. Strong and lean-limbed, her eyes sparkled in the sun and fresh air. He’d finally impressed the woman.
She patted the bead. “You realize what this is?” she asked, her voice lifting.
He nodded. “Considering the shell mounds all around here. It could have washed out of one.”
They sat together on his paddleboard and shared a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
He passed Dawn the thermos. “You’re part Native American. Don’t you ever wonder if just a few Calusa Indians survived? Maybe they slipped into the Everglades, or somehow joined up with another tribe.”
“It would have been hard. They weren’t treated very nicely, and the diseases…”
“But perhaps.” He wanted it to be true enough to believe it. “You might even have a gene or two…” He lifted a strand of hair from her face.
Dawn tilted her head, thoughtfully rubbing the bead between her fingers. “Maybe.”