by Tapan Mozumdar
The port city of Lisboa in the March of 1498 was no different from the most of its type. As the sun set, the craftsmen, artisans, and slaves, who were building and feeding the city, travelled back to their tenements in its periphery. Sweated out of every ounce of human goodness by the Mediterranean summer, with the occasional blood that the supervisor’s whip might draw, they wouldn’t trade sleep even for their mother!
The city centre would, however, light up to its brightest and chirpiest after the sunset. Traders, brokers, artists, builders, and the ubiquitous travellers to this gateway to the mighty Europa, would be fresh from their siesta. They would be ready to visit the fine dining places, underground fight pits or the brothels – wherever their tastes took them.
Vasco was waiting in the dining area of Lidia’s inn for her to come downstairs. Of mixed parentage and lost lineage, it was hard for anyone to guess the origins of Lidia, or her age, or her means that sustained this three-storey dine house.
Of course, its identity as an inn was for the tax collectors. The registered members and their invitees knew what pursuits of pleasure to ask from the mistress of the inn and the costs those services entailed. Confidentiality was worn as a badge of honour. Those found violating did not live long to tell the tale.
As Vasco waited, he heard a pompous Arab trader talking about his recent trips to Hindostan, to an increasing audience.
“These cinnamon sticks, my friends, come to those who have the courage to risk their lives fighting a giant Garuda deep in the forests of Hindostan.” He opened a bundle of muslin, finest that Vasco had ever seen. It had an ivory hue and an aroma of perhaps a thousand spices.
Vasco could see some people in the crowd breathing in deeply. It was enough for them to carry as much traces of the spices as possible in their nostrils as their coins could never buy even a few ounces of such aromatic panacea.
Such stories were common to come from the Arab traders. They knew the route to the land afar of Hindostan and ensured that it remained an elusive horizon for the others, with its intriguing dreams and horrid realities coexisting.
From the vines of Burgundy, Tuscany and Umbria, the wines of Lidia’s inn were exquisite. These, clubbed with the heady smell of the spices being traded, lent to a daze for the revellers.
Vasco saw Lidia descending through the stairway. Her sunburnt ivory skin was complemented by the blue of the sky she wore. She saw Vasco, alone at a table near a column away from the entrance, and smiled.
“Where had you been, my crown?” She settled on a chair next to him and held his palms with the tenderness that one would use to hold water for offering to the Gods. She gestured her attendants, a towering Niger and a lissom Egyptian, to stay away from this table.
“To the coast of Damascus; the vessels were full and the prices just.” Vasco swapped his palms with hers and pressed them hard. “I could see your face at the horizons we sailed and get the smell of you…” and he looked down where her dress parted as she sat cross-legged, “…in the saline breeze of the seas.”
Lidia smiled. She had tutored for years several lads of the nobility in the art of becoming men, and gentlemen at that. Vasco had turned out to be her finest student. Towards him, she felt more than just a professional connect.
“Your eyes, and that Adam’s apple bobbing up and down as you speak, remind me of my brother,” she had told Vasco once during a careless moment after lovemaking. “He is an honourable man. He doesn’t see me here as he feels ashamed.” Such fraternal affections had further ignited Vasco’s passions. They had soon resumed another gleeful spell.
“Can we go up?” Vasco whispered, “I can tell you there all about my quests.”
Lidia was not merciful. “These are the peak hours. I have some accounts to keep, some trades to honour. You may go up and expect me two bells later.”
Vasco was the youngest in the family of merchants. If he had spent his time in the pursuit of music, which he so liked at twelve, or perfumery, that he had a real talent for, no one would have opposed. Instead, he chose to embrace the dangers of sailing.
Vasco’s uncle Lucas was amongst the feted seafarers of Lisboa, having sailed to the southern tip of the African land and come back alive. Vasco had passed the tests of the navy under his tutelage at the early age of nineteen and accompanied him fairly often during the short hauls.
His dreams were big. He would mention those only to Lidia after their intense sessions of passion were through. He would sail far and away, to Abidjan, Accra, Lagos and if his family could convince the king for the naval support, around the Cape tipping the African lands to Hindostan.
Vasco waited in her room for some time, playing the lyre Lidia had bought for his amusement. When Lidia came, the moon was about to set. The night was still dark enough to take some fun out of it.
Vasco sat near her lap and put his hands close to her breasts. “I have some great news.” She looked at his beaming face, brows arched, eyes querying. “I have managed to convince Uncle to take me around the Cape this spring. This will be a very long trip.” His eyes shone of the hopes of the far, “May Jesus be with us; we shall try to outwit those Arab maggots this time and reach Hindostan.” He bent on his knees in front of her, his hands brushing the warmth of her feminine core, “Would you sail with me?”
Lidia ran her fingers through his dark, dense hair, used to Vasco’s indulgent, innocuous blabber. “And who will take care of my inn here? My trades, rentals, umm?”
Vasco rose up, sat next to her on the swing at the balcony and embraced her tight, “Oh, I can ask our men to take care till we are back.” He kissed her fragrant nape, fresh from a bath, fingers busy untangling the strings of her dress.
“Is it not said that a woman brings bad luck at the sea?” Lidia kissed his dreamy eyes, “What if the crew start fighting over me, hmm?” She chuckled.
Vasco sat apart, looking at her silhouette in the fading moonlight. “No one will survive a sword fight with me.” He stood up and walked to the railings, his voice coarse, “Do you take me for a man who can’t defend the honour of his woman?”
Her instincts told Lidia not to bridge the distance at which he was standing. “No, absolutely not! You are a brave man, Vasco. Travelling much and far at this young age, you have made quite a few fables of your own.”
“Then? Don’t you love me enough to take chances?” Vasco’s voice had the irritation of a confused child whose doll was about to be snatched away.
She looked at the skyline of Lisboa. The moon and the city lights had all set. Only the beacon shone on the lighthouse. “This inn makes me who I am. I have built it with the bricks life threw at me. How can I leave this, my crown?”
The moonless night hid his tears. “When I was coming here today, my father said that I still have to mature to the age of your wines!” Irritated, an owl on a neighbouring Jacaranda screeched. Vasco’s words added to that, “I was a fool to think that a whore could return my love!”
Lidia’s younger days had seen whiplashes. Vasco’s choice of words cracked open the sophisticated façade she so carefully cultivated. “Whore? That’s what you call your mother, eh?”
After that, the language of the street filled the night.
Vasco used to relish the spicy delicacies served by Lidia’s cooks. Lidia often fed him with her own hands, an elaborate foreplay to their long carnal hours. That night, the aroma of the spices used abundantly in the soups, steaks and even in the wines, suffocated Vasco.
The night waited long for them to stop. The daybreak saw their attendants separating them to reason.
Two years and many deaths later, Vasco returned from Hindostan. He and his men had mastered the Spice Route. He could possess at his wish any part of the vain Lisboa.
He sent his men to ensure that Lidia’s inn was his first possession there. He planned to retain Lidia, sans all her respectable front-end trades, and use her feminine skills after dark to provide nourishment to the senses of his exhausted crew.