On this island of a million birds and twice that many fish and ten times that many insects, all those who had survived this far to make landfall, from the captain himself to the young stowaway from Almada, gave thanks. The sailors’ legs were a bit wobbly from the long voyage as they knelt on the rocky shore, but they tried to stand again with assurance, in case they were being watched from the foliage, more impenetrable than the captain’s beard. The stowaway ran ahead without heed, and the captain, cursing, called him back, threatening him with tortures, both common and invented, on the spot: dashed against the rocks, fed to the hairy monster named Coco (though the boy was probably too old to believe in such tales meant to make children behave), left on the island without food, shelter, or water, planted upside down in a field of onions, or fried and served to the crew with a piece of cheese. The men, standing about as though they had ballast for brains, laughed at the captain’s toothless curses. He let them have their fun. Laughter had been in short supply of late. Soon enough, the last of them were roaming the island. The boy came trotting back eventually with what looked like three brown heads in his arms. “Look,” the boy told the captain and Duarte, the purser, the only two on the beach not off hunting. “It’s the face of Coco.” The heads were the size of a cannonball, each and hairy and brown, with three indentations like a face. Duarte tugged at his mustache and curled his lips. “I’ve never seen anything like them. Throw them away, boy. They’re disgusting.” But the captain, who had more experience with the world’s oddities, motioned the boy to give him one of the heads. The captain shook it and rapped it with his knuckles. “I believe it’s hollow.” He threw it with all his strength against the rocks and it burst open. The three gathered around and examined the bright white flesh inside, at first poking it with stones but then growing bolder and picking up pieces. The boy, who was stripped to the waist, red with the sun, and covered by insect bites, took a nibble and smiled. Duarte turned and nearly vomited, as though the boy had taken a bite from someone’s brains. “Don’t be such a child,” the captain said. “They’re clearly nuts of some kind. But I wouldn’t eat anything that looked so fearsome. It’s
bound to kill you.” Holding the shard of nut from which he’d bitten, his hand shook. “I feel fine,” the boy said. “Feeling fine is the first sign,” the captain said, smiling secretly at Duarte, who looked as frightened as the boy. At sea again, the boy took ill four days later. During the worst of it, he screamed that Coco was pursuing him, his cries filling the holds from port to stern and putting the men in a fearful mood. The captain, a man of deliberation, doubted Coco’s nuts had given the boy the fever, but he ordered them thrown overboard anyway (the men had collected dozens), to calm the crew and soothe the boy, whose hand he held as he took his last breath. With ballast attached, the boy’s body dove to the bottom of sea, as though playing one last daring game, while all those who had grown fond of him in their short time together prayed, mostly in silence, until Duarte shouted, “Look.” The small head of Coco bobbed alone, not far from the ship, a green branch floating beside it like a fallen flag or an offering of peace from the world of monsters.