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  April 2017
volume 14 number 1
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Jan Steckel April 2017
   

 

bio


photo by tess. lotta

    Jan Steckel was a pediatrician who took care of Spanish-speaking children until chronic pain persuaded her to change professions to writer, poet and medical editor. She is an activist for bisexual and disability rights. Her poetry book The Horizontal Poet (Zeitgeist Press, 2011) won a 2012 Lambda Literary Award. Her fiction chapbook Mixing Tracks (Gertrude Press, 2009) and poetry chapbook The Underwater Hospital (Zeitgeist Press, 2006) also won awards. Her creative writing has appeared in Scholastic Magazine, Yale Medicine, Bellevue Literary Review, and elsewhere. Her work won the Goodreads Newsletter Poetry Contest, a Zeiser Grant for Women Artists, the Jewel by the Bay Poetry Competition, Triplopia's Best of the Best competition, and three Pushcart nominations. She grew up in West Los Angeles and lives in Oakland, California.

   

 

What the Santa María Carried

    A two-hundred-sixty-pound rock flamed out of the sky, hurtled into the town of Ensisheim in what is now Alsace. The year was 1492. The local church displayed the meteorite as a sacred relic. Jewish venture capitalists sent Cristobal Colon in search of the Indies just as el Rey Fernando y la Reina Isabel expelled the Jews from Spain.
    The Crown offered amnesty to criminals who shipped out with Colon. Alonso Clavijo, Pedro Southpaw, and their friend Juan of Moguer were on the lam, sentenced to death in absentia for stealing an alderman's goose. Bartolome of Torres, caught plucking said goose, languished in prison. His father, a recent convert from Judaism, had disowned him by then. His co-criminals bribed Pedro's second cousin once removed, the prison's only guard, with a sack of lead-sweetened Jerez wine. Pedro's cousin let them knock the door in to rescue Bartolome, who didn't much want to be rescued because at least the jailer was feeding him, fattening him like a goose for his hanging. His friends dragged him out anyway to sign with them to sail on the Santa Maria.
    Maestro Bernal of Tortosa, a Jewish barber and circumciser, removed the foreskins of eight-day-old boys. Having heard plenty of babies screaming when he sliced them, he converted to Christianity after merely being shown the instruments of torture. His wife, stronger than he, resisted his pleas to save her life and raise their toddler daughter. The Inquisitors forced him, newly baptized, to watch her burn at the stake. They sent his daughter to a convent orphanage.
    Two months later she died of measles. Bernal signed up as the Santa Maria's surgeon. He drank all the brandy and tincture of opium before they reached the shores of Hispaniola.
    Bartolome de Torres heard they were looking for an interpreter. He told the ship's mate about his cousin Luis the rabbinical student who read and wrote Ladino, Spanish, Hebrew, Chaldean, Arabic, and was quickly learning Dutch in anticipation of escaping Spain for Holland with a crowd of other Jewish refugees. Colon signed Luis and had him baptized three days before the ship sailed, figuring the Asiatics might be descended from a lost tribe of Israel.
    Everyone was drunk on board on Christmas Eve. Only the cabin boy was at the wheel when the ship ran aground on a coral reef the admiral named Christmas Shoals. The Nina's and Pinta's crews saved most of the Santa Maria's men, but Cristobal had to maroon thirty-nine of them while he sailed back to Spain for supplies. When he came back the following year, all the sailors left behind were dead. They had kidnapped and raped local women, so the Caribs wiped them out. The Indians told the second voyage's priest that one man among those left behind cursed his shipmates Catholic faith and told the natives they'd be idiots to convert.
    Recently a marine adventurer and explorer found the remains of the Santa Maria exactly where Colon's log placed it at Navidad Shoals. Other looters removed the great Lombard gun in the first photograph of the wreck, leaving not much more visible than a roughly ship-shaped field of round ballast stones. In the coming months, divers will find among the stones an astrolabe, compass, lead and line, quadrant, divider, bone saw, probe, forceps, surgical scissors, retractor, cautery, bloodletting knife, folding circumcision knife, gold and silver coins stamped with Fernando and Isabel's profiles, carved ivory Hand of Miriam amulet for warding off the evil eye, bronze mezuzah with the lion of Judah rampant, bone dice, silver-plated pewter kiddush cup, and the coral-and barnacle-encrusted marble Purim rattle that once shook noisily in the small hand of Maestro Bernal's daughter.

copyright 2017 Jan Steckel