Publication Date: March 3, 2015
Yucca Publishing/Skyhorse Publishing
Formats: Hardcover, Ebook
ISBN: 978-1631580420Genre: Historical Fiction/Young Adult/Fantasy
From the bestselling author of An Obsession with Butterflies comes a magical story of America in the time of the conquistadors.
In 1528, the real-life conquistador Cabeza de Vaca shipwrecked in the New World where he lived for eight years as a slave, trader, and shaman. In this lyrical weaving of history and myth, the adventurer takes his young daughter Teresa from her home in Texas to walk westward into the setting sun, their travels accompanied by miracles–visions and prophecies. But when Teresa reaches the outposts of New Spain, life is not what her father had promised.
As a kitchen servant in the household of a Spanish official, Teresa grows up estranged from the magic she knew as a child, when she could speak to the earth and listen to animals. When a new epidemic of measles devastates the area, the sixteen-year-old sets off on her own journey, befriending a Mayan were-jaguar who cannot control his shape-shifting and a warhorse abandoned by his Spanish owner. Now Teresa moves through a land stalked by Plague: smallpox as well as measles, typhus, and scarlet fever.
Soon it becomes clear that Teresa and her friends are being manipulated and driven by forces they do not understand. To save herself and others, Teresa will find herself listening again to the earth, sinking underground, swimming through limestone and fossil, opening to the power of root and stone. As she searches for her place in the New World, she will travel farther and deeper than she had ever imagined.
Rich in historical detail and scope, Teresa of the New World takes you into the dreamscape of the sixteenth-century American Southwest.
Praise for Teresa of the New World“Wow! The magical elements were a total thrill-ride, and what a satisfying ending. After finishing it I had that wonderful sensation I get from a great read—the mysterious feeling of having been somewhere, of dreams having risen up and carried me along on a wild journey.” – Sarah Johnson, Editor
Praise for Sharman RussellRussell has written twelve previous books with numerous starred reviews in Publishers Weekly and Booklist. The San Francisco Chronicle has said “Russell’s writing is luminous” and Kirkus Reviews wrote, “A deep reverence for nature shines throughout Russell’s rich, enjoyable text.” The Seattle Times described her An Obsession with Butterflies as a “masterpiece of story-telling” and the San Diego Union Tribune called it “A singular work of art, with its smooth, ethereal prose and series after cascading series of astonishing lore.” The New York Times and Discover Magazine both described her book on hunger as “elegant.”
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Sharman Apt Russell has lived in Southwestern deserts almost all her life and continues to be refreshed and amazed by the magic and beauty of this landscape. She has published over a dozen books translated into a dozen languages, including fiction and nonfiction. She teaches graduate writing classes at Western New Mexico University in Silver City, New Mexico and Antioch University in Los Angeles, California and has thrice served as the PEN West judge for their annual children’s literature award. Her own awards include a Rockefeller Fellowship, the Mountains and Plains Booksellers Award, a Pushcart Prize, and the Henry Joseph Jackson Award.
For more information visit Sharman Russell’s website. You can also find her on Facebook and Goodreads.
In 1528, Spanish ships landed near what is now Tampa Bay, Florida. Three hundred men and forty horses marched inland to explore the New World. Eight years later, the remaining four survivors of that expedition met up with Spanish slavers in northern Mexico. One of these four, the renowned Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, would eventually write and publish a report of his adventures for the King of Spain—the true-life story of a conquistador who became a trader for the coastal tribes of Texas, then a slave of those tribes, then a shaman, then a conquistador again.
This story, however, is about the girl who never appeared in that report to the King of Spain—a girl who could listen to plants and stone and deer. This story is one of those hidden things, rising from the earth and kept hidden in the earth. This is a story remembered by a few, reimagined, remade, returned. In this story, animals and people know each other. Words are alive, and power runs through our veins, through everything, everyone, like water rushing to sea, each day bringing its own amazement.
Later, Teresa remembered.
When she was a child, the earth whispered to her as she lay on her stomach, her stomach pressed to the earth. Often this happened when she was hungry, and she was hungry often, for her people lived in a difficult, swampy area along a mosquito-filled bay where they ate fish and roots and not much else.
One day she woke to find her cheek pushed hard into prickly grass. She didn’t know how she had gotten here. The last memory she had was of her mother nursing the new baby. Although Teresa had lived four winters she had just recently stopped nursing, when the new baby came, and that had been sad—for her mother to feed someone else and not her. She must have left her mother then and fallen to the ground and gone to sleep. Now she felt dazed, her stomach empty, a distant ache. The earth beneath her also felt distant, far away and cold. Her naked body was cold. She wished someone would cover her with an animal skin.
In a hollow voice, her empty stomach complained to the earth. Her stomach told the earth she was about to die of hunger. Her stomach said it was glad because it was tired of being so empty and unhappy.
The earth rippled with a kind of amusement. Teresa listened, a skill she had learned because of her father. No, the earth said, she is not going to die. She is only a little hungry. She should eat some dirt now, mixed with water. She should look around for some roots or grubs.
She can’t, her stomach complained. She can’t move.
The amusement in the earth swelled. Go find some leaves, the earth whispered. A grasshopper, an animal skin to chew.
The ground under Teresa seemed warmer, and Teresa tried to burrow into that warmth. I love you, the earth whispered, not to her stomach but to her throat and mouth. I love humans. I love watching you. I love watching and wondering what you will do next.
Her stomach grumbled. Teresa spoke out loud, “Tell me a story.”
The earth said, I will tell you about a girl with long black hair who could swim through rivers of stone. She moved through stone as wind moves through the branches of a tree. Once she followed a vein of fire to a lake of fire, and she swam there smiling at all the bright fish, yellow and orange and red and blue. She had never seen anything so beautiful, and when she swam back up and rested on the ground, as you are resting here now, she held one of those glowing fish in her hand. Of course, it burned her. She dropped the fish with a scream, and the fish fell on the grass and burned the grass and died. She was sorry then, with her hand on fire. She is not from your tribe. She lives in the mountains.
Teresa didn’t much like this story, which had ended badly for the girl. What are mountains? Teresa asked drowsily.
Oh, I love mountains, the earth said with a thrill that prickled across Teresa’s skin. Sometimes I rise into the sky until I am high above myself looking down on myself, and I can see so much and so far and the mystery of what I am is almost clear to me . . .
“Teresa!” Someone else was speaking, a human voice. “Teresa!” Not very gently, her father shook her arm. “Wake up! Eat this.” Something in Teresa’s mouth felt too big against her tongue, and slowly she began to chew. A baked prickly pear pad. He must have gotten this from her aunt, who Teresa had seen gathering prickly pear that morning.
“Come,” her father said. “The men are fishing on the shore. Let’s build a fire and watch them.”
Her father was not a good fisherman. He was not a good hunter of rabbits or peccary or a trapper of mice. He did not seem to know what plants to gather or how to prepare them. In truth, he rarely found his own food. Yet he ate as well as anyone and usually had something to give to Teresa. All this was because her father was a good trader, taking seashells and oyster knives from her tribe to the tribes inland and bringing back deer tassels dyed red and a special paste for making arrows. Her father could do this because he was a stranger and no one’s enemy and because the tribes in this area considered him lucky. They thought themselves lucky to have such an interesting creature live among them, a man so absurdly incompetent, with a ridiculous long nose, blue eyes, and hair flowing down his face and chest. They were not sure if this creature was human—not even Teresa’s mother was entirely sure—but they treated him with kindness and gave him food.
“They are a generous people,” Teresa’s father told her more than once, and she agreed. Her people were generous. They fed new babies, and they fed her father.
Years ago, her father had come to this bay of salty water, shipwrecked in a small barge with other men like him. One by one, the other men died or left until her father was, as he often said, “Alone in the wilderness! Like Christ, Our Lord!”
It was her father who had named her Teresa and who spoke to her in the Spanish of Seville in southern Spain where he had been born. It was her father who told the best stories, wrapping her in his arms and language, whispering about a life she did not understand, although understanding seemed to form just beyond the swampy bay, waiting there for her to grow older. Kings. Cloth. Books. Writing desks. Teresa delighted in the images that distracted her from the mosquitoes or hunger in her stomach. Even when the story confused her, she caught certain words or phrases, ideas like fish, bold and surprising, tasting of her father’s mind. She had learned quickly to nod at her father then and speak back to him in the Spanish of Seville because he needed her to do this, because his need surrounded her like the sea and sand.
“Buenas tardes, Papá,” she could say by the time she walked on uncertain legs. Only a few months later, she spoke in sentences. “Yes, Father, it is so hot!”
Dramatically then, her father would stretch out his arms and lift his face to the hazy white sky. “Thank you, Heavenly Father, for giving me this young child, this comfort in my exile in a heathen land. With all my poor bleeding heart, I praise Your name. Yea, although I have been abandoned and forsaken, still I praise You!”
More often than not, this kind of performance made Teresa laugh. “You are my queen!” Her father would grab her under the shoulders and swing her through the air until they were both dizzy. “My precious queen!”
“Tell me a story,” Teresa would beg when she could breathe again.
And often—as he did now, as they watched the men fishing with spears and nets—her father told her the story, how he had left his home in Spain in the year 1527 as the Royal Treasurer of the Pánfilo de Narváez expedition, how he had come to be shipwrecked here in this mosquito-filled bay to live with Teresa’s grandfather and mother and aunts and uncles.
There had been prophecies. Before the ships sailed, a woman warned the Spanish crew that they would never leave the New World. Or rather, most would never leave. But God would work miracles, extravagant miracles, for the few who did.
There had been magic. On the island of Santo Domingo, in a storm that killed sixty men, her father had heard silver flutes and bells. The howling wind stopped his breath and thumped his head like a furious parent, yet the wind also held the sound of tambourines. “And this was strange,” her father said, “not the usual instrument of angels.”
Later, when they landed in La Florida--named for Easter, the season of flowers--the men marched away from their ships and began to die from disease and hunger, from the arrows of the powerful Apalachee. Desperate, the Spanish killed their horses and used the flesh to make leather thongs and water bottles. They built barges to sail west along the unknown shoreline. Lost at sea, more of them died of thirst, and some went mad and jumped into the water to drown.
That was when their leader abandoned them. Her father still spoke bitterly of his captain, Pánfilo de Narváez, that greedy man who took the best boat and rowers and disappeared over the horizon, shouting, “Save yourself! I cannot help you!”
Finally, in another storm, a huge wave took her father’s barge and threw it onto the sandy shore, juego de herradura, as far as a horseshoe can be tossed. On this beach, years ago, Teresa’s tribe had come to feed the strangers. Her people had brought fish and fresh water, and the Spanish had given them glass beads and copper bells. “Your mother helped carry wood to the beach,” her father said. “We were naked and cold and would have died without that fire. Even then, half-dead, even then I marveled.”
Teresa struggled out of her father’s arms and ran not far from the smoking fire they had built of green wood. Almost immediately, the mosquitoes found her. She urinated and brushed at the insects. Her mother said the winds were coming soon to blow the pests away. In the night, too, there would be some relief. Quickly, Teresa returned to the smoke and her father’s body, where she fitted against the curve of his chest.
“Go on,” she commanded. Next he would tell her about the men who stayed with her people only a short while before they walked west into the setting sun, seeking Spanish outposts in New Spain. Her father had been too sick to go with them. Soon Teresa’s relatives had also become sick, and some of them died. They defecated dirty water. Their skin burned. They shook as though the Bad Spirit were shaking them from the inside. Many people in the tribe had blamed the Spanish and wanted to strangle her father, but her grandfather argued against it.
Teresa hummed a song she had made up about mosquitoes being carried off by the wind. She leaned into her father’s hairy chest, and he grunted. Recently he had allowed his wife’s brother to pierce one of his nipples and insert in the hole a reed two palms long and one finger thick. The wound was still tender.
“Then I was born,” Teresa said with satisfaction. “After you went to eat blackberries with my mother.”
“You are the daughter of a nobleman,” her father murmured. “My paternal grandfather was Pedro de Vera, the conqueror of the Grand Canary.”
“But I am not noble,” Teresa reminded him, for she knew this part, too.
“No, you are a bastard,” her father said as he stroked her hair.
She was full of blackberries and lay relaxed on her back on the ground, her stomach rising up nicely rounded. Her mother and aunts picked nearby, half the berries in a woven basket, half into their juice-smeared mouths. Directly above Teresa, the narrow leaves of a tree began to move, rustling and jumping like one of the little dogs they kept for food who played on the beach running back and forth barking at a wave. The wind was the wave. The rustling leaves were the excited little dog.
Under Teresa, the earth whispered that it had a secret. Do you want to know my secret? the earth asked. Of course, yes, Teresa answered. Then you have to tell me a secret of your own, the earth whispered. Tell me what you dream about at night. Tell me why you like blackberries. Tell me the name of your baby sister.
That’s more than one secret, Teresa pointed out, but she smiled as she said this. None of these things was really a secret. This was just a game the earth liked to play.
Tell me the secret your grandfather tells about me, the earth demanded.
The soft ground seemed to shift and flow around Teresa, and she molded her body to fit the movement. She began the story, which also was not a secret: my grandfather says you are a large turtle walking through the sky. You move your arms and legs slowly, and you travel beside your sister, another turtle, who is also walking through the sky. You go so slowly and so carefully that all the tribes can stay on your back like the babies of an opossum.
I am traveling through the sky? the earth asked, pleased.
And we travel with you, Teresa said.
“Ter-e-sa!” Again a human voice interrupted their conversation. This time, the voice belonged to Teresa’s mother, bending down and close. Her mother’s eyes were brown, highlighted with gold around each iris. Her berry-smeared lips curved up, for she was almost always happy. Now she was happy at Teresa so full of blackberries. “Ter-e-sa,” she repeated, sounding as she often did a little confused by the foreign name. It was not one she could pronounce easily. “Run to your father and take him to your uncle’s house. Your aunt says there is something for him there.”
She spoke in the language of their tribe, and Teresa answered back in the same language. “Where is my father?”
“In his bed, of course!” Her mother showed her white teeth. The new baby hung on her chest in a sling of rabbit fur, a piece of wood strapped to the back of the baby’s head. A flat head would let everyone know to whom this child belonged. Opening her eyes, the baby began to cry. Automatically, Teresa’s mother put a nipple into the tiny mouth.
“But first, let me squeeze you,” Teresa’s mother bent closer to her older daughter. “Oh, you smell good. Come back quickly and you can help us.”
This didn’t sound so wonderful to Teresa.
“I’ll teach you a song,” her mother promised.
As predicted, her father was sleeping in his hut on a bed of crushed oyster shells. From the walls of the house, Teresa took a straw and poked his callused feet, so that he jerked to throw the insect off. “Pest!” he said in Spanish when he saw her. She straddled his stomach and sat down. Inside the round house, the dark air was cool. A small door let in the sun that slanted on her father’s legs. The rest of his body was hidden in shadow.
“My mother wants you at my uncle’s house.”
“She has a knife to trade.”
“You are going away!” Teresa realized with surprise that she had not realized this before. When people started giving things to her father, it meant he would be leaving the tribe soon.
Her father jiggled her on his ribs and sang a song about a mule—an animal, he explained, like a horse. Fiercely he tickled her rounded stomach so that she had to laugh, although the movement combined with so many blackberries was making her sick. Finally he stopped and cupped his rough hands around her face. “Ask your mother to comb your hair,” he ordered.
“I will,” Teresa said to please him. She didn’t think her mother had time to comb hair. This was the time to gather berries, and the women worked all day long.
“Take me with you, Papá. I’m ready now.”
“You are a baby. You would still drink from your mother if you could.”
“Take my mother, too.”
“Like the Italians with their feuds and labyrinthine strategies for war, your people are enemies of the inland tribes.” Her father spoke now in a deep ringing voice that Teresa loved. “Your mother would be killed,” he said sonorously. “But I am a trader and a curiosity, belonging to no one and not a slave. As a stranger, I am fed and welcomed.”
“Take me with you,” Teresa entreated again in Spanish in the cool dark house of grass. Her father shut his eyes. He seemed close to tears.
“When you talk to me and I close my eyes,” he said, “I could be home and you are running toward me, my little daughter dressed in your finest clothes, begging your Papá to take you to a fiesta.”
Pobrecito, pobrecito! Teresa thought. Her poor father missed his home in Spain so much! He missed his Charles the Fifth so much! Teresa pretended to feel sad.
“The Capoques are also a generous people,” her father murmured to himself and to her. Later she would remember every word—she, the blank page on which he wrote. “The Mariames sometimes kill their female children at birth. The tribes inland can be cruel but often have great love for each other. It is noteworthy that these people take only one wife, except for medicine men, who may have more.”
Teresa played with the long gray hairs on her father’s chest. The wound around the reed had closed over, and she hoped the charm would bring him fortune as her uncle had promised. More hair grew from his chin and cheeks, although he tried to keep his beard trimmed with an oyster knife. The hair on his head was also gray, mixed with red and brown, an extraordinary color.
“Giddy-up,” her father crooned, his eyes still closed. “Imagine yourself, Teresa, on a beautiful horse, a horse you would have if you were a boy and not a girl, a beautiful bay mare.”
Teresa bounced cheerfully. “Papá, Papá, Papá,” she chanted. “Take me with you.”
Her father left the tribe early the next morning. In the dark round house, he picked Teresa up from the crushed oyster shell bed. “Wrap your legs around my waist,” he whispered, and she did, clinging to him in front while his rabbit skin pack dangled behind. Beside them, her mother stirred. Her father told his wife to sleep. Hmm, hmmm, Teresa’s mother sighed, and the baby sighed, too.
Teresa didn’t ask why her father had changed his mind. She didn’t think to say good-bye to her mother or sister or grandparents or aunts and uncles, also sleeping in grass houses nearby. A silver mist shrouded the northern hills, the colors of the earth gray and silver, the white water in the bay barely emerging from a pale sky.
“I must tell you something, Teresa,” her father spoke seriously. “You must understand that this is no ordinary trading trip. By now, on my travels, I have heard of more survivors from the Pánfilo de Narváez expedition, good men all, who sailed away in the other barges. They live as slaves with the coastal tribes to the south, and they are treated very badly by these people. My own good friends, the ones who left me to walk to Mexico City—those men are all dead, captured and killed by these same bad tribes. Now I know for certain no ship is coming.”
Her father paused for breath. He walked slowly, burdened as he was with her and all his goods for trading. Behind them, Teresa saw a peccary emerge from the scrub brush. The animal stood as high as her waist, its body covered with coarse black and white hair, its flat nostrils wet and twitching. Something reached out to Teresa, and she heard the peccary say . . . what? The animal was speaking to her. But the images—pictures like words—wavered, unclear. She didn’t understand.
“What?” she said out loud.
“Someone,” her father was saying, “has to walk west again.”
He murmured a Spanish song, a sailor’s song, as he carried Teresa into the gray breaking light. She could feel the good fortune burning in his chest, in the reed two palms long and one finger thick. She could feel the excitement running through her veins, and she could see crackles of magic shoot from her father’s body into clumps of prickly pear, saltbush, and locust trees. She gripped her father’s waist tightly with her legs. He was the one for whom God would work miracles. He was the one who would walk back to Spain, all the way home.