The Secret of Bimini (Flash Fiction Contest with Kimberly Mitchell)

This week's post features another GH flash fiction entry! If you've been reading for long, you know the rules: Each author does a flash fiction piece, 2500 words, using five key words chosen for them by Carrie. When all the authors have been posted, we will have a reader poll to see whose was best. (Mary, George, Linda, and R.K. Brainerd have already posted in earlier blogs.) This week, Kimberly Mitchell enthralls us with an original story set in the New World. Remember that once all the authors have posted, we'll be holding a vote about which story was best, so if this one fits the bill, mark it down!

The Secret of Bimini
by Kimberly Mitchell

Photo by Natalie Mourton
Diego scrambled across the slippery deck of the Santa Teresa. One of the deck hands swatted at him with a wet mop, but Diego dodged the blow and only a few drops of salt water spattered his tunic. He reached the foremast and scampered up the shrouds until he clung to the side of the crow's nest. Antonio smiled and scooted over in the narrow perch so Diego could get one foot on the platform.
"Just there," Antonio said, and handed Diego a spyglass.
Diego pressed his eye to the eyepiece and peered through the tube. The sea jumped forward in the glass. Beyond the white-capped waves and azure water, a dark green strip lay like a snake on the water.
"Land ho!" Diego shouted, even though Antonio had already raised the alarm. "Land ho! Land ho!"
"Aye, boy, we know," Old Ben called from the deck. "You don't have to let the entire sea and all that's in it know we're here."
Diego clamped his mouth shut. Captain Marquez warned them frequently to be on the lookout for the pirates who roamed the waters between the islands and ransacked ships running rum, sugar, and gold from the new land to the mother country. Of course, if they were to capture the Santa Teresa, they would find little besides men and supplies, for theirs wasn't a merchant mission.
It was a secret one, commissioned by the king himself.
"How long 'til we reach land?" Diego asked. This wasn't his first sailing journey. He'd sailed proudly for two years by Captain Marquez' side, but those had been short runs to Italy or up the coastline to France or England.  
"Two days, maybe three if the wind doesn't favor," Antonio replied. "Plenty of time to finish your studies, yet." He grinned at Diego. Most of the deckhands found it funny that he still had to complete lessons on board the ship. He’d begged Captain Marquez to let him out of the grueling lessons, but the captain refused.
"I gave your father my word," he always said. And the captain was not known for yielding in anything. Once he'd made a decision or a promise, he kept it.
Diego slipped back down the ropes and let his bare feet thud onto the sun-warmed deck. Two days until they reached the island of Bimini. It was a land known only to the native islanders of Hispaniola and Cuba, and even they hardly ventured onto it, for it was considered a sacred land, full of mystery, danger and unknown gods.
The rowboat whooshed into the sandy beach and Diego leaped out and helped drag it farther up the shore before the strong tide could pull it back to the sea. His arms ached from rowing. A strange undercurrent circled the island, making it impossible for the Santa Teresa to anchor near by. They'd had to row most of the morning to reach land.
"Make her fast," the captain ordered as he stepped out of the boat. "I don't want to return to find we have no way back to the ship." Diego noted the ominous tone behind his warning. They'd all heard the rumors when they stopped in Hispaniola to restock their supplies. The natives had warned them away from the island, some going so far as to curse them.
"You'll disturb the spirits," one old man warned Diego when he went dockside to help load fresh fruit onto the boat. "And we'll all pay for it, boy. Warn your captain."
Diego had repeated the words to Captain Marquez, but the captain had merely laughed. He wasn't a religious man, though he wouldn't admit that to the king. He'd even turned down the king's offer to supply the Santa Teresa with a priest.
"Stories meant to scare small children and weak men," he said. "Pay no heed to them, Diego. If the natives are warning us away, it means the island is worthy of our attention. We will see what they are hiding on those shores. What if Bimini is the most opulent of all the islands Spain possesses in the New World?"
His green eyes sparkled like emeralds at the thought. Diego opened his mouth to ask another question, the one on his mind the entire turbulent crossing from the old world to the new. What if they had come all this way to find the island didn't hide the elixir? What if the stories about spirits were true?
"Away with your dalliance," the Captain said. "Back to the lesson at hand, boy."
Everyone was jumpy as they headed into the mass of vegetation that crowded the beach. Soon thick vines impeded their progress, and the men hacked at the brush with their machetes and slapped at mosquitos buzzing around their heads. Diego blew on a stinging red welt that appeared on his arm. A shiny beetle flitted overhead and sunlight tried to push through the trees. Suddenly one of the men yelped and jumped two feet in the air. Diego heard the rasp of rough snakeskin as a large black snake slithered away from them.
"Now we know why the islanders stay away from this place," Old Ben muttered to Diego. "It's not holy at all. Just infested with vermin." He slapped his neck and rubbed away a mosquito for emphasis.
They walked and hacked at trees for hours. The men began to grumble and sneak surreptitious glances at Captain Marquez. He would have to have been deafer than Old Ben not to hear them, but ignored it all. The path hacked into the brush was only wide enough for one person and leaves and thorns kept dragging across Diego's face. After weeks at sea, the closeness of the forest felt threatening.
The sailor in front of Diego halted, and Diego smacked into his back. "Watch it," the man growled at Diego. He glanced around uneasily. "Do you feel eyes on you? Watching you?"
Diego followed the man's gaze. He couldn't see more than a foot into the dense brush, but he knew what the man meant. The hair on the back of his neck prickled and he shivered all the way down to his toes.
"Diego, where are you, boy?" Captain Marquez called. "Send the boy up front."
Getting to the captain wasn't easy. Diego had to slip around each man in front of him. He finally made it to the front of the line, sweaty and scratched on his arms and legs from the thorny bushes along the path.
"Yes, Captain?"
Captain Marquez didn't even look at Diego. His eyes were fixed on a dark hole ahead of them. It looked like it hung three feet from the ground. Diego stared, mesmerized. Green vines surrounded the hole and climbed all the way up to the trees on either side, a living wall. The captain used his machete to lift a few vines away to reveal stone. Someone had built this wall.
The hole yawned like a mouth in an otherwise eyeless face. Diego started shaking his head before the captain even asked.
"We'll light you a torch and you'll climb in and see what's in there," Captain Marquez said.
"No," Diego said. He hastily added. "No, sir, I mean." Diego wasn't afraid of the dark. He'd climbed down into the hold of the ship many times to ferret out supplies, and he'd spent his share of time on the topmast during the dark watches of the night with only the stars for company. This was different. Anything could lie in wait for him inside that dark pit.
The captain turned to him for the first time. "No? You beg me to be included on the landing crew and you dare to say no?" The captain's eyes narrowed to small black pupils.
Diego shrank back and swallowed. Captain Marquez had proven himself a fair man, only whipping soldiers who drank too much and shirked their duty. He'd kept his word and schooled Diego as well, and Diego thought they'd reached a nice rapport.
Mayhap he'd misjudged.
"You'll go down the hole," the captain said. "You're the only one small enough. We'll give you a torch and a knife."
"I have a knife," Diego said. It'd been a parting gift from his father.
"So you have," the captain said. "We'll tie a rope around your waist, too." He didn't say why he felt this was necessary.
"He may have my pistol," Old Ben said behind them.
"Good man," cried the captain. He smiled down at Ben, his teeth yellow and crooked. "See, boy? Nothing to worry about."
Diego swallowed. He didn't have a choice. The coxswain pulled a small torch from his knapsack and struck flint to it. Finally a spark caught and the torch ignited, a bright yellow flame amidst the dark green forest.
Diego tucked Old Ben's pistol into his waistband. He took the torch and held it up to the hole. It illuminated a round tunnel carved into the stone.  
"If you need help, just call out and tug on the rope," the captain said. "We'll pull you back."
Diego thrust the torch in front of him and climbed into the tunnel. It was awkward holding the torch and trying to crawl, but he dared not drop it. He inched his way down the tunnel, which wasn't even wide enough for him to turn his head and look back. The voices of the captain and sailors quickly faded into muted murmurs … and then nothing.
Diego ran his hand down one side of the tunnel. No moisture, no dirt, simply smooth stone. What had carved a tunnel so straight and smooth? Did he want to know?
He wasn't sure how long he scooted down the tight space. It didn't climb or descend. Time seemed to stop. Diego felt hungry and wished for the biscuits he'd packed into Old Ben's bag. He wondered what his father would say if he knew Captain Marquez had sent him into this tunnel. He should be safe on ship, but Diego had insisted he accompany the landing party. If the elixir of life existed, he wanted to find it. It was the only way his mother might live.
Suddenly his torch flickered, and he stopped and held his breath. A faint, cool breeze fluttered past him from deeper in the tunnel. A draft like that had to come from somewhere. He continued down the tunnel, one hand and two knees at a time. His torch flickered again, and Diego prayed it wouldn't go out. Finally he saw the tunnel open into something larger. When he reached the end, he shoved his torch ahead of him.
The flames threw leaping shadows onto the walls of a large rock chamber. The ceiling couldn't be seen. Diego stood upright and put his back against one solid wall while he examined the room. A stone ledge had been carved out of one wall, with two round indentations on either side of the ledge. Other than that, the room was empty. Diego approached the ledge. It could almost be a table or a bed made out of rock, but the indentations confused him. He put his hand into one and realized it was painted a dark color. In fact, the table also held the same paint running across it in dark lines. Puzzled, Diego traced a line. He lifted his finger up and realized the paint had transferred to him, dark red and dry. His mind tried to put things together. Why would there be a stone table in this room hidden inside a rock cliff on an island nobody wanted to visit?
He held the torch closer to the table and saw that the paint ran from the table to the floor and pooled into large, dark stains. Instinctively, he stepped back. He'd seen this same thing on the deck once when the captain had whipped a sailor for dereliction and drunkenness. The blood had run from the sailor's back down his legs, and pooled onto the deck before he and Old Ben swabbed it away.
It wasn't paint. It was blood.
Diego turned to run back to the tunnel and screamed. A beast stood before him. It held the form of a man wearing only a loincloth. Smears of red streaked its chest, but it was the face that filled Diego with terror, for it was a golden mask carved into the likeness of a snarling jaguar, its eyes a deep green that glittered in the torch light. He held a knife much longer than the one at Diego's side.
"I am the guardian. Who permits you to visit the island of life?" the beast growled.
Diego's mouth was open, but no sound would come out. He gasped and backed up to the wall. The torch shook in his hand. He grabbed Old Ben's pistol from his waistband. Could he cock it with one hand? He dared not drop the torch. His thumb pulled at the heavy hammer, but he couldn't get it to stay cocked.
"Who permits you to enter?" the beast repeated, his voice low and raspy.
"I- I don't know," gasped Diego. "I came with Captain Marquez."
"From across the sea," the beast said. It wasn't a question. "And what do you seek?" He took a step closer. Diego squeaked. The mask had four golden fangs, two on top, two on bottom. Was it just a mask, or real?
"Gold?" the beast asked. "Our stones?" He gestured to the two green jewels set as eyes in the mask.
"Captain Marquez does," Diego whispered. "I don't. I don't want gold or jewels or anything else."
"Liar," the beast said. "All who come to the island of life seek something." He stepped even closer. The hideous head was only an arm's length away. Diego could see its bare chest rise and fall and hear the rattle of breath in its throat.
He would have to drop the torch to cock the gun and shoot.
"What do you seek?” the beast growled. "Tell me now or sacrifice to the guardian of the island of life."
"Life," Diego said. "I seek life."
The jaguar guardian paused and a low growl emanated from him and filled the chamber. "You seek the elixir."
Diego caught his breath. The elixir. Yes. It was the whole reason he was here, the reason he'd begged Captain Marquez to take him across the ocean to the New World.  
"Yes," Diego said shakily. "I seek the elixir."
The jaguar guardian straightened until it towered over Diego. "The elixir is the ineffable drink of those who prove worthy." He stared at Diego a long time.
"You," he hissed. "Are not worthy."
The beast lunged forward with an inhuman howl. Diego dropped the torch. It hit the floor and snuffed out as he cocked Old Ben's gun.
As the fangs reached his arm, Diego pulled the trigger of the ancient pistol and fired.
Author, Kimberly Mitchell (photo credit: Natalie Mourton)

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