They stand at the water’s edge staring at us. Thirty people barely clothed, but unembarrassed. An animal skin circles each hip, and a long plait of grass holds it in place. The wind plays with the pelts that they’ve tied to the belt. The man wearing a garland of crimson feathers holds a spear out to this side, a signal to the children behind him.
Our ship, La Dauphine, would be one of many in the harbors of London or Lisbon, but here it towers over the ghostly white-barked trees that surround the savages’ village. A shadow in a bright pool. My shipmates and I are ordinary Frenchmen, a few Portuguese. The more experienced men assured me that the work on caravels headed to the New World was no different than those headed for Africa or Cathay, which proved to be true. But our reception in this place is silent and fragile.
Captain Verrazzano points to a group of men on the port side, me included. We are to go ashore. The others scatter to prepare the smaller boat and fetch vessels to collect fresh water, but I am singled out and told to fetch a box of gewgaws. I try not to think about my fear as I pad down the stairs to the hold. Tempted by the boxes of salt cod, I consider staying here until the boat leaves—no one would notice a missing dockhand—but I remembered my goal: to collect stories. These are the days I will tell my village about for years to come. I have already practiced the story of how the captain brought a few of us ashore, let us explore the land with its strange trees and birds. He picked a few red berries and told us to eat. Each man laughed as they made our cheeks pucker.
I trudge back upstairs and load the small wooden box into the boat.
Some of the natives walk back to their village after seeing our approach. The captain’s second-in-command, a man named Leclercq, gestures to the ones who stay. He holds his hands out, then brings them to his chest. He means it to look friendly. A few of the men sitting near me tell a story about the rogue waves that lash this shore. Like a blacksmith pounding iron, they say. Funneling my strength into rowing, I think only of the relief I will feel when I am paddling back to La Dauphine, back across the sea, back to my family. Then I feel a tap on my shoulder.
“Boy, swim to shore. Offer them the box,” Leclercq shouts from the front of the boat.
I hesitate only a second, then scoop the box up and dive. The cool water washes months of dirt and sweat from my body. I feel a wave lift me up as I kick and chop the sea. The little box stays tucked in my breeches. Eventually, I can stand on the ocean floor, just my head poking above the surface. Dark eyes watch me. I throw the box toward them, see the small mirrors and bells scatter onto the sand, and turn back toward the boat.
Moments later, a large wave catches me off guard. I swallow seawater. I swim up, only to be pushed sideways and thrown onto sand, sputtering.
I feel hands grab my limbs and drag me onto the beach. A woman tears my shirt and a man pulls my shoes and my breeches off. I am soon naked, still coughing. I hear the whooping of my shipmates some four fathoms off, but I cannot stand, cannot run. I hear stones scraping together; a flame ignites near my head. I hear myself yelp, believing I’m about to be roasted alive, but the woman is talking to me in her strange language. Her words are smooth. The native woman shifts me toward the fire and hugs me to her side. I am shivering; she is warm.
After a while, I stand and wave to the men in the boat. Leclercq no longer stands at the front. They have not paddled closer to save me. The native woman shows me six red berries in her palm. She slips one in her mouth, makes a face. I bow as I put one in my mouth. I am familiar with their bitter taste. I smile back at her.
This story is based on the letters of the explorer, Giovanni da Verrazzano.