Matuu and the Sail
by Jon Forceton
My name is Antonio. I am the scribe and historian for the expedition of Ferdinand Magellan. One month into our voyage west-northwest out of Patagonia, on January 4, 1521, I was sure I was going to die.
The sail I saw that day was the color of the sullen sky, gray-blue, not white or tan. In the distance I could see what appeared to be a glistening triangle rise up from the sea. It was nearer than the horizon. I thought it must be a small lateen-rigged sailboat, perhaps a third the length of our ship. It was sailing in our direction, but much closer to the wind than our square-rigged carrack, Victoria, and it was moving too fast. Sailing into the slowly approaching storm, the Victoria was making four or five knots under reduced sail.
It was difficult to see details at this distance, and yet the sail was not as expected. The mast and sail seemed one, and what should have been the mast tilted back ten to fifteen degrees.
Before I could say anything, Juan Sebastian, hunched over the helm, wheezed “Whales,” pointing well abaft our stern slightly to starboard. I turned, and there, perhaps a quarter league away, a large cow and a calf had surfaced.
The sail, now less then a league away and directly off our beam, bore off the wind, and came toward us. It was on a reach, sailing across the wind, heading directly for the whales. Its speed was incredible; white spray was clearly exploding off the unseen hull as it hurtled through the choppy seas. I estimated that it traveled half the distance to the whales in less than a minute, 40 knots, faster than the fastest horse I had ever seen. I questioned my assumptions, and fear touched my mind.
It was closer, still a vague vision, but I could now see the hull. My mind froze as the top of the sail began to lean away from me and into the wind, not off the wind, as it should have. As it was about to touch the waves, a second sail appeared on the side closest to me. The hull was the same stormy color of the sail, and longer than I had first thought, nearly the length of the Victoria.
I had only seconds to think about this, as the hull, now a birdlike vision, left the water, barely skimming the surface and sailed, or flew, directly into the calf from directly ahead of it. There was a spout of blood in the air as it hit behind the calf’s head. The calf thrashed violently. Suddenly the whales, hull, and sails were gone.
Because of the early hour, no one was on the deck except for Juan Sebastian and myself. Unfortunately, just after sighting the whales, he had lashed the wheel and, weak with scurvy, gone to lie down. He never saw my sailing apparition.
We no longer had food. Men were dying. Had the leather belt I had been chewing for four days made me delusional? I was not certain about what I had just seen. I told no one.
* * *
I survived, and it was weeks later, January 24, 1521, on the island of Fatuehi, that I met the ancient and celebrated native, Matuu.
As a boy, he had been fishing a bit too far offshore when a typhoon had struck suddenly and carried him out to sea. After three weeks at sea, nearly dead, he landed on an uninhabited island. What made him legend was that two years later he returned to Fatuehi, alive.
Late one night at a fire on the beach, Matuu and I had a great deal of drink. We were alone, and with stick pictures in the sand, and few words, I explained to him what I had seen.
When he understood he closed his eyes and started to sway with the ocean breeze. He stood up and walked back into his hut at the edge of the jungle. He returned with a fish in his hand. Putting the fish in front of me, he spread the right pectoral fin, or wing, of this small flying fish. He then pointed at the fin, and made a line in the sand. He walked thirty paces down the beach, and put another line in the sand. Returning, he pointed to the body, and put another line in the sand. This time he walked fifteen paces towards the jungle, and scratched the sand again. It was as I had thought but feared. I had seen this creature.
We drank late into the night, nearly to dawn. Our communication improved.
He had been on the ocean, dying when he woke one morning in a heavy breeze, and heard what he first thought was the sound of large breaking surf. It was a sail, taller than a palm tree, moving toward him at high speed, the sound of shredding water was deafening. He was nearly drowned by the wake as it passed him, and then he too saw the sail lean into the wind and a second sail emerge as a wing, and the monster left the water.
As with mine it collided with a bull whale a short distance away. Matuu spread his hands as though he were flying then suddenly brought them together in a thunderous clap and shrieked, explaining the massive collision of the two huge beasts and the high-pitched screech, a scream, that immediately followed. The water was frothing as the monster and whale thrashed and then he saw a white underside of the fluke as the whale dove.
The sails lay limp across the water. Something had gone wrong, there was only the sound of the wind now. He paddled to the head of the body and saw that the long spiked, sharp-toothed jaw had been ripped from the skull, and blood flowed into the water. It was nearly dead and would soon attract sharks. The meat he was able to tear from the carcass saved his life.
Pinching his belly he showed me it was not a whale: no fat, and it was not a fish; it had no scales as on the fish lying at our feet. The bones were hollow like a bird’s, and the feathers were small and fine.
It sank and he never saw another.
We parted that night bound to each other by the mystery. Never since, have I been able to find any reference to anything like this.
If this letter is ever found, please believe this story is true. My, Vela-pájaro, my sail-bird, did exist, may exist today.
Antonio Pigafetta, this day the 19th of June 1535
Copyright © 2011 by Jon Forceton