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Stories and Poetry
Seaman

 

SEAMAN

 

by Rolando Sifuentes

I

 

     Last night I received a surprising and, to tell the truth, unwanted long distance phone call from a former sea mate.  He said he would come to see me in few days.  At first, I was almost happy to hear from him and looked forward to seeing him, to talk a while about our young days.  Then he said, "We must complete our conversation of twenty-five years ago. I have not forgotten it, dear captain.  I think this is the best opportunity...

     That disturbed me. He made me remember things I had buried in the bottom of my mind and now it emerged as a cork released beneath the water.  The thing is not so simple. It can not be explained in few words so I will tell the story from the beginning.

II

     It was another hot afternoon in Paita Port, where I had lived since my birth.  The sun, I remember, scorched my back, as I stood upon the old jetty.  Myself and almost a dozen other workmen, were observing the wooden trawler, Chieftain, that had appeared at the mole end, about six hundred feet away.  She slowly glided toward us, along the glaring basin of the port.  I was sure it was the Chieftain because I had heard one of the men say so.  At that time, my eyes were not yet trained to recognize a boat at such a long distance.

     Each day after school, I was loved to watch the bustling scene.  There were dozens of small craft on our left, rattling around their own pier, and another dozen wood and steel trawlers, at the central wharf where I was at that moment.  On our right side, at the other end of the cove, there were two large vessels loading and unloading merchandise at the international pier. Neither these large freighters nor the small craft could hold my attention though.  My only interest was in the trawlers.

     That day I was nervous and yet excited, because I was going to bring important information to Captain Alarcon, who currently was in the Chieftain's cabin, skilfully manning the wheel. As the boat slowly approached, he could be seen more clearly through the window.  He was wearing his white captain's cap low over his brow, to shield his eyes from the sun's rays, which at that hour, fell directly onto his tanned face.  He rotated the steering wheel to port and to starboard, dodging six boats which were already unloaded and anchored in the middle of the basin.  Then he deftly guided the boat to the tire-protected wall of the esplanade just below us, on the lower level of the jetty.

     Four men were waiting there to begin unloading the boat.  When it was tied to the jetty, they hastily began to draw full hampers of fish out of the hold and carried them to the upper part, where a team of three counted the fish and loaded them on a handcart, ready for the refrigerated truck.  I tried to take advantage of the confusion and sneak down the stairs, to get to the boats stern, but one of the men caught me before I could reach the gunwale.

     "Wait upstairs until the tuna is unloaded, "he ordered, as he pushed me back.  I obeyed him.  I always obeyed the elders, so I returned quickly to the upper esplanade and squatted down.  The diesel engine of the boat continued to hum hoarsely as stevedores unloaded the fish.  I knew the minimum speed of the boat's engine was nine hundred RPM.  I also knew many other things about the boat and the sea, all of which Captain Alarcon had taught me. Each time I visited him on board or at his home, I would bombard him with questions about the sea and he would kindly explain many of his marine tricks to me.

     He taught me how to tie knots, how to guide a boat when in high seas, how to navigate without a compass, and how to find the North in daylight or at night, without a compass.  I was quite a curious boy, you see.  He also gave me a lesson on the stars, which is very important when navigating at night.  However, I did not fully absorb this lesson, because I had not yet had an opportunity to go out with him at night.  Captain Alarcon had promised to hire me as an apprentice when I turned sixteen years old.  That's why I was a daily visitor at the wharf - trying to learn more marine lore, because in just six months I would be sixteen.  As I sat there, thinking happily about that soon to come day, suddenly a hoarse voice broke into my thoughts.

     "Hey, Santos!"

     It was Captain Alarcon, on the stern.  He waved his right hand to me, pointing at the stairs, urging me to come down to the boat.  So I ran merrily down the stairway, avoiding the men with their hampers, and stepped onto the stern.

     "What happen, future seafarer?" he asked me gaily, in the mocking way he had of joking with me.

     "I bring you my notebook, "I told him proudly, handing him my mid-year report card.  He sat down on a great roll of rope and opened the report card.  He read, making exaggerated gestures of approval, then looked up and extended his right arm to pat my back warmly.

     "Very good... very good, chap," he said. "It's good... not any lower than a 14.  Good.  You are truly fit to study a career."

     "Yes!  I'll be a fisherman."

     "Wouldn't want to follow engineering or medicine, perhaps?"

     "I'll be seafarer.  Fisherman!  That is what I want to be," I affirmed.

                            III

     By years end, I no longer wanted to attend school.  My father never was able to earn enough money to support our large family, so he didn't object at all, to my idea of quitting school for a job.  And the Captain kept his promise and hired me.  I was then five feet, eight inches tall and rather slender for a seaman, but he assured me that a few months of hard work would turn me into as strong a man as any of the other sailors.

Finally, he told me about the commitment an apprentice had to promise, regarding the work on board.  I agreed to all, and that's how I started.

     One friend of mine, who had worked with Captain Alarcon in the past, advised me that this captain had two personalities; one on land and another on the sea.  I found this to be true, the first day we shoved off.  As the coastal fringe was disappearing from sight, the Captain started to forget his cheerful, good-guy character.  And, just like Mr. Hyde, he started to change his from the sympathetic man I had always known, into an ogre.  And not in a day-to-night way like Mr. Hyde, but land-to-water, just as my friend had said.  He issued orders loudly, with a sharp voice, when sometimes it was not necessary to be so severe. His plump body seemed to grow taller than usual, when strolling at the stern, watching the men at work.  He became especially quirky when pulling up the net full of fish.  It was a coordinated and rhythmic task performed by all the men in the stern, under his metered shouting, "Heave ho! Heave ho!"

     If he would happen to find out someone not going at the pace of the others, he would curse him devilishly.  And, if out of temper for some reason, his short and fat arms would beat the air and he would kick the deck's floor to emphasize his orders.  His bad temper made, sometimes, the older men get edgy with newbie. At the beginning, I was quite afraid of my immediate chief, whom we called master.  One of those masters, whom I don't like very much to mention his name, would snarl at me continuously and the captain said nothing about it.     

     "Keep the rope tight like a man! This task isn't for lasses," he would yell in contempt. 

     One of those first days, when I was untangling some number 3/0 hooks for sharks, I received my portion of the Captain's darts.  I had punctured one of my fingers carelessly and it caused me to scream out.  The Captain, who was standing with his back to me, turned round and blurted out, "Wanted to be a fisherman, eh? Well, now you are one.  Enjoy it...ha, ha, ha!"

     For some time after that, my mates made fun of me, imitating his gruff voice.  "Enjoy it, enjoy it," theyd yell, and then laugh.          

     The popular saying, "A barking dog doesn't bite," referring to those bullying ones who yell to frighten people, but are harmless at the end, was not applicable for Captain Alarcon.  I realized that, when we caught a big white shark, the most dangerous animal in the sea.  The shark had to be killed before hauling him on board, and this task was assigned to Ulysses, a chap a little older and more experienced than me.  Ulysses bent down from the skiff and struck his dummy club on the already moribund shark's head.  Then the shark was lifted on board and laid down across the stern.  Its sixteen-foot length extended almost from the port gunwale to starboard.  The Captain, who was attentively observing our action, pointed with his right hand, to the quiet-lying shark and growled, "This animal is not dead."

     Ulysses stopped rolling a rope at hearing him, and sprung up from his bench, took the dummy club over to finish off the shark. As the shark's head was inclined to his left side and not in a good position to smack him on the very brain, he pushed the animal body with his right foot, but just then...Heaven sakes! ...the shark jumped briskly upward about one foot in the air. 

     Poor Ulysses and his dummy club ended up near the Captain's legs.  When the shark started falling down, he intuitively opened his terrific snout, well-decorated by two lines of eye-teeth, and bit off a chunk of the hard wood of the starboard gunwale as if it were a cheese!  The Captain quivered and jumped up ridiculously, as if he had felt the shark's bite on his fatty leg and yelled, "You bunch of jerks!"

     Then he grabbed the club himself and gave a furious blow to the shark's head, killing him instantly.  I knew his fury was against Ulysses, and not for the shark.  The incident, however, didn't stop there.  When we were ashore, Ulysses was fired immediately.  That was recorded in my head for ever, because it made me to learn one important lesson: blundering under the Captain's eyes and before a white shark, is deadly mortal for an apprentice.       

IV

     My first years at sea under Captain Alarcon's patronage brought me great experience.  I learned a great deal of sea work. We caught tuna, sword fish and sharks.  Sharks were something special for me. I liked very much to watch them go by so smoothly, with their fins cutting the water, searching for easy prey - only to find themselves trapped in our hooks or nets.  There were many shark varieties, but I was able to only recognize five or six of them. Some were dangerous to men, like the "Tiger" and the "White" ones.  We had to be cautious with them.  Also, I liked very much to watch the "fox" type.  It was called "fox" for its tail, which was waved pompously like a fox, while they happily glided around us in the sea.  I regretted that most of the time we had to kill them.

     We used every bit of the shark's body, especially its liver oil, which was exported.  We salted and dried its meat, and even the fins were processed as they were highly prized in the international market, called by the commercial name of cartilage.  At times we harpooned the marlin, but it was not our specialty.  We preferred to catch tuna with our nets.  Captain Alarcon was the one who decided which fish to pursue and what method to use.  He rarely failed at choosing the best fish and how to catch them whether with hooks or nets.  And I was doing pretty well, if I could believe what a friend told me.  He said he had overheard the captain comment enthusiastically about me in the bar.  I was kind of proud.  I tried hard to do my work properly.  For example, when the net got entangled with the propeller, I was the one called to untangle it, as nobody in the boat and few in the port were able to match my ability to dive.

     The over-exploitation of sharks almost extinguished them in our zone, so we had to move more to the North.  In Mancora Port we used a deep chain trawler loaded with tuna bait, but the catch was poor.  We had to abandon that zone for a time and come back home.  During the course of those years, some of Chieftain's personnel resigned or were fired and replaced by new, younger men, and it made me the oldest crewman for a while... that is to say, in time of service not in age. 

     On our next long range voyage, we were also bound for the north, always to the north.  We arrived at the famous port Cabo Blanco, where American tourists used to come to relax and enjoy sport fishing.  By then, the resort had won world recognition for big time sport fishing.  The world record for the largest swordfish ever caught by sportsmen was awarded to Cabo Blanco.

     Sportsmen did it on luxurious sport boats, with poles... seated on a twirling chair at the poop, and not as we did, with harpoons.  They equipped their fishing poles with hooks baited with a mirror fish, to lure the marlin or swordfish.  Many Hollywood stars came to fish in Cabo Blanco by the 50s.  Among them were John Wayne, Ava Gardner and also Ernest Hemingway.  The boat used by those artists and other sport fishermen, was a 30-feet one named Miss Texas. 

Hemingway came from Hollywood accompanied by a great Warner Brothers filming team and they shot some takes there for the movie based on his novel, The Old and the Sea. 

     We had no such good fortune in Cabo Blanco.  We harpooned only one eight hundred pound swordfish and then we continued on our way to northern waters.  We passed Sechura and Mancora and sailed on until we arrived to the Ecuadorian border.  And there, we at last, had better luck.  We found sharks in good quantities. There were so many sharks, that we had to build up a camp in a Cruz de Pizarro cove.  We couldn't waste any time taking them to our home port.  With almost half a dozen boats, the murdering of those animals was so easy, that we practically annihilated them. But as a divine punishment, liver oil prices came down, and so ended our adventures in those far away waters.                          

V

     The time came when I had to quit Captain Alarcon and the Chieftain.  It was very sad for me to leave the boat after more than four years of hard work on her.  My body was no longer as skinny as at the starting, when Captain Alarcon and my mates used to make fun of me.  Fortunately, I had developed an athletic body and by then was considered a first class crewman.  With the added merit of being an ex-pupil of Captain Alarcon, I was called to work in the Gloria, a wooden boat equipped with a double prow and a boom jib for two harpoon men. 

     We did catch tuna with nets, but at times, when the marlin appeared, we turned to the harpoon.  This was the most amusing activity at sea.  As soon as a marlin was sighted, we went after him. It was necessary to approach him with the boat at the correct angle, so that the man on the boom jib could be able to shoot his deadly dart right into his back.  It was a profitable sport for us, though many times the fish became scarce, and as a consequence, our work had to come to a halt all of a sudden.  It was always very sad for us.  We knew nothing was steady in the sea business.

                            VI

     One of the most skilled skippers I had the opportunity to work with was Eliseo Quereval.  He was a paternal, humble man who seemed more like a priest than a seaman.  In addition to his great ability as skipper, he was also a man full of humanity-- kind of a philosopher and storyteller.  And, in spite of the fact that he never passed the sixth grade, he was considered in town to be a knowledgeable person.  Some of his contemporaries called him "Doctor" in a mocking way and Eliseo smiled at it in a half-satisfied way.  He showed no airs of greatness, despite knowing that we, the greenest roots, admired him so tremendously.  He was intelligent enough to understand that such airs wouldnt suit a man like him. 

     Sometimes at midnight, in the midst of the sea, we sat in a circle about him and listened to his halting, grave voice telling us one of his appalling stories.  Or he would amuse us with funny stories at the bar, around a table with a dozen beer bottles scattered on the table.  It is good to say, however, that he drank only a single glass of pisco, the traditional Peruvian brandy, which he made last until he left. 

     One of his more pleasing stories that I happened to hear from him, was the Stone Soup story.  He told us that some time ago, when he and a friend were hiking in the highlands, they became lost in the wilderness.  They were hungry, but the mountain people refused to sell them anything to eat.  Tired of wandering, Eliseo tried to coax a local woman into selling him some food.  She lived in one of the few cabins to be found for miles, so our friend had to exert his best ability of persuasion and much wittiness to convince her.  Eliseo told her, If you lend us your range, a pot, and only a little water, we'll teach you how to cook stone soup. 

     She couldn't help her curiosity, and had to know about that stone soup, so she allowed them to come in.  When the water, with a very clean stone in it, started to boil right before the distrustful seņora's eyes, Eliseo asked her for a pinch of salt and she provided it happily.  Then, he asked for an onion to give the soup some flavour and she drew it from her larder and even chopped it up for him.  A little while afterwards, he suggested to her that two little potatoes might be nice, and she brought to him not only two, but four.  Then she, herself, realized that the soup would be even better with a bit of meat, so she brought a hen's breast to add to the bubbling pot.  And that was how Eliseo obtained the most delicious soup he had ever eaten in his life.

     It would be useless to recount here all of his other stories, because they were told by the dozens.  Years later, somebody broke the news to me that Eliseo had, at times, imagined those stories and told them as if part of his own life.  And, also, he often used to adapt the stories of others that had come to him and re-created them sauced to his own taste, to make them appear new.  True or false, I didnt mind.  I loved him for his authenticity as a storyteller and I think it was a regrettable loss for the national literature that this man should be a sailor, and not a writer.

     We respected him a lot.  He had much knowledge and power of intuition to look for fish.  At times when tuna and swordfish were scarce, we never had to worry about ithe'd just take us to the rocks for angling.  That way, we wouldn't be idling around and at the same time we'd earn some money.

     "Idling is the mother of all our illnesses," he would assert wisely.

     Sometimes we took with us three or four trawls with ten or more hooks attached to each cord and we anchored them mid-way down, and continued on our way out.  After several hours, on our way backmany times without having caught anythingwe pulled up the trawls and would find enough small fish to fill four sacks.  We were always very happy with Eliseo.                       

                            VII

     The opposite happened some months later, in my next job.

I was the second chief in the Yolanda, whose skipper was Ronny Villegas, a young man of my age28though he was not so experienced.  I had started at sixteen, while he did not go to sea until the old age of twenty-four.  I was appointed his second, because the owner insisted he employ me, and Ronny had no other chance but to accept what the boss ordered.  He was a good-looking, tall and blondish man, very popular in the province.  He was also single, and his fame came more for his rumoured liaison stories, than for his ability in the sea work.  The man was lucky from birth.  His family was highly respected.  They owned the oldest custom house agency and also, some of his relatives had occupied important posts in the regional political scene.  That is why he was very close to the owner their families dined at each other's houses.  Digging a little deeper in their backgrounds, we could find some of the same names in both family trees. 

     Our task on his boat was to catch anchovy at night, to supply the others who used it as bait for the tuna.  The boats were to go more and more far out, because the tuna was getting scarce.  One of those days, very early in the morning, after we had finished unloading our fish out of the hold, Ronny ordered us to meet on deck in a few minutes.  Although he had not previously let me know his brilliant idea in order to give my own opinion about it, I attended the meeting and stood at his right side as usual.

     "Would you like to earn some extra money?" he asked us, with his eyes brightening full of greed.  I noticed that the men looked bewildered.  Their displeasure was not expressed in words, but was on their faces.  I recognized it because I knew them all very well.  However, Ronny seemed not to notice it.  One of the youngest men, Valladolid, seemed to have something to say, but he hesitated and couldnt get his words out.  I knew the men didnt like the idea of coming back to the sea again not because they were tired or sleepy.  No.  The northern fishermen are very resistant; well-suited to work day and night in any circumstances.  Now, however, their task had already been finished and they wanted only one thing: to go home, nothing else.

     But Ronny continued, "The swordfish are there, just waiting for us.  I saw them pass last night, and not one or two.  Many.  There were perhaps one dozen.  It will be quite easy to catch a pair of them, I'm sure."           

     Still, there was no response.  Instead, the men looked at each other, clearly in doubt.  I was moved to open my mouth to oppose him but I restrained myself.  Being the second chief I was obliged to support him, so I kept my mouth shut.  It was Victor Ponce, the oldest and most experienced sailor, but also the most pressed for money, who nodded his head slightly and that was enough for the others to assume that he was with the skipper.  The boys smiled at last and Ronny took it as an acceptance and immediately ordered me to load foodstuff and fuel.  We shoved off at 9:00 a.m.

     We navigated four hours out, until we sighted two other boats catching tuna.  The presence of these boats made me feel well relieved.  We were not alone.  We quickly harpooned one medium-size swordfish.  Ronny beamed at his apparently successful idea, but just a few minutes after the capture, when looking for the second fish, the weather started to change.  The wind raged, and the water turned dangerously rough, making the boat shake alarmingly.  I was on the steering wheel and Ronny and the other crew men kept searching the surface, as if on a normal day.  He seemed not to give much importance to the weather, in spite of the fact that our old wooden boat was being beaten severely by the rough sea.  It didn't affect his plans.  The word fear, for him, didn't exist.  On the other hand, the boys looked at me through the cabin's window glass, with drawn faces.

     I tried to keep calm.  Ronny didnt care to hear my opinion on the situation and his responsibility for the boat and men. Moreover, he seemed to avoid my eyes on purpose.  Bad premonitions I had had that morning, came back to me.  And it made me quite uneasy, because the normal thing for a competent skipper to do was to head for port immediately, at the first sign of bad weather.  As time passed, and the weather worsened, I started to feel unwell.  Ronny's unawareness of the danger we were in was sickening me.  The course we were on was to the west, just the opposite of the direction toward land.

     One hour later, with Ronny still anxious for his big catch, I got quite discouraged by his senseless attitude regarding the risk, and I felt even worse, because there were no more boats on the horizon.  I supposed they had returned to our port to save themselves.  At that moment, we were the only crazy men looking for fish in middle of that raging sea.  Suddenly, Victor Ponce burst into the cabin wearing only a navy blue swimsuit.  He was wet from head to feet.  He stood at my side speechless, his lips tightened as if restraining great anger.  The way he stared at me, I realized he was almost near to exploding.

     "What's up?" I asked him, trying not to show my uncertainty and at the same time, be firm in my stand.

     "Do you approve this?" he grumbled.

     "He's the chief," I replied.

     "You know this little boat is not fitted for these waters."

     "Youre right.  But I can't make him change."

     "Try it! He is getting crazy.  Tell him we don't want any money.  We want to go back at once!  Do you hear me?"

     "Calm down," I told him coolly, "I'll speak to him."

     He clenched his teeth, as the boat started to pitch on a wave.  The water flushed the prow and it made Reuben, the harpoon man standing on the boom jib, turned his head, scared, as if asking for the signal to abandon his dangerous position.  But Ronny, instead of giving new instructions, turned round and just looked at us through the wind and spray-washed glass, and Ponce frowned at him in distaste.  Ronny didn't speak.  He looked at each of the other men as if to give them courage.

     Then Ponce continued, "See it? See it?  What if Reuben would have fallen into the water, eh?" 

     "I'll speak to him.  I promise."

     "If you can't persuade him, throw him overboard tied to a cannonball!"

     I pretended as if I hadnt heard his last words and patted his shoulder to soothe him and, at the same time, trying to get rid of him.  I knew he was not a simple crewman.  He was a well experienced one as he had served in a navy destroyer when young; his boat had participated in an antisubmarine manoeuvre with an American Task Force.   

     "Go, tell him to come here.  I said. He assented and when he opened the door with his left hand to go out, I added, And don't worry anymore."

     Ponce went out at last and I felt relieved because he was a very sensitive man.  I distasted Ronny but not as much as to throw him overboard.  In ten minutes, Ronny came to me grinning cynically.  He put one of his hands gently on my shoulder and shook me amiably.  I knew I had to be cautious with him.

     "Are you scared?" he asked me frankly.

     "Yes!" I replied, just as frankly. "This course is getting us away from port.  I think it's quite dangerous... we must take care of the men."

     "Keep her steady!" He ordered me sternly, as to cut off any further questions.  He pointed with his left forefinger and added, "That sword is dizzy..."  But I didn't see his imagined swordfish at our front horizon.

     "I don't like this," I cut in. He took his hand off of my shoulder and turned serious.

     "This storm is dwindling.  In few minutes, the water will be as smooth as our beach, believe me.  Don't listen to Ponce's cackling.  I'll fire him when we go ashore."

     "He's an efficient man.  You'll not get another man like him in months."

     "I don't mind.  Let me handle this move.  You shouldn't bother with him.  I'll not give in."

     Then, the idea of killing him flashed into my head.  I could easily unsheathe my razor-edged knife I kept tied to my waist, and swing it right to his throat...but I quailed.  My right hand, accustomed to quartering away sharks and marlins, trembled on the steering wheel.  My restrained anger was affecting my whole being.  I loosened my grip on the wheel and kept mum.

     He smiled charmingly and went on, "Only this one."

     He put his hand again on my shoulder and shook me gently, then he walked out smiling and I felt being myself sullenly stupid.  I had to maintain the course after that marlin which I had not seen yet.  I recognized, however, Ronny had the ability to get things and people to act as he wished.  It was his best talent, I had to admit. 

     Minutes after, the man at the top yelled, "Sword at starboard," and I made the old wooden boat veer three grades to starboard outrageously, impulsively, without much caring.  And I saw at last, that damn sword appearing and disappearing under the moving water.  Reuben climbed again onto his boom jib, taking with him the harpoon.  He levelled it to his shoulder, and stood in a position ready to throw his dart.  I, in turn, managed to get our prow to some 90 foot nearer the swordfish, just at his arms' reach. I let the engine run on low speed at the pace of the fish.  Reuben stood firmly on the boom jib with his powerful legs, and when at a suitable angle, he threw his harpoon with all of his power.  The harpoon went to stab the fish's back, just at the heart level.  The entire crew celebrated it, shouting as when the crowd roars for a goal in a soccer match.

     "Viva Reuben... hurrah!

     The wounded swordfish dived and pulled all the cord until it ran out, and there went the orange cylinder, attached to the cord's end.  In few minutes the cylinder disappeared from sight. After that, we only had to wait for him to die and all was done. After thirty minutes, the orange cylinder popped up and behind it came the dead fish.  We lifted him to our deck and at last we were ready to go back.  Ronny, full of happiness came to me again.

     "I told you," he said triumphantly. "You'll see the biggest swordfish in your life.  Go to poop and see it for yourself." 

     He took the steering wheel and veered toward our port and I left the cabin in silence.  At the poop Reuben, our hero, Ponce, now wearing a dirty white shirt and Peter, our old mechanic, were standing around the recently captured fish.  They couldnt believe what their eyes were seeing.  This one was much bigger than the first, which was lying at its side.  The three men were talking over things I couldnt hear well, because the seas roar swept away their words.  At seeing me, they fell silent.  Peter turned away to his engine pit and I stared at Ronnys trophy without commenting.  I sat on the floor.  Ponce and Reuben followed suit.  Then the cook and his assistant came out of the galley.  They shuffled along the sloping deck to us, grabbing onto ropes and the firm gunwale to avoid sliding down.  

     "1,200 pounds," the cook pronounced, at the side of the larger fish.

     "No less than 1200," added his assistant, nodding and staring at us.  But there was no response to his remark.  Our thoughts were bound up in the boat's security more than to any other thing in the world.  They both returned to their galley half happy about the catching and half afraid at seeing the great waves slapping the boats keel.

     The weather didn't give in, as Ronny had predicted not so long ago.  The wind kept blowing strongly, and the water got rougher, making the boat creak.  We suffered in silence.  The two cooks and the two machinists were the only men not on deck, because they were down in their cabins.  Ponce tried to stretch out on the deck, near the two fish, but the boats movement made him sit.

     He looked even more afraid than he had earlier, when I was on the wheel.  None of us were hungry or thirsty but we all looked overtired and grim.  Any other time, having on our deck two large fish would have been a reason for the men to be very, very happy and lively.  Instead, the only proud man on board was Ronny.  Then, Valladolid, Peters young assistant, showed up. He said Peter had sent him to rest with us after so many hours struggling with the engine.  Valladolid, at seeing our gloomy countenances, tried to add a bit of humour.  He recounted one of his best jokes, but none of us were interested in jokes at that moment.  It was as if we were sleeping, but with one eye shut and the other on the boat.  Suddenly, the boat jolted strongly to port and then to starboard.  It kept doing that repeatedly, as we had dropped onto a trough, something I had never experienced. Valladolid shut his mouth, Ponce and Reuben straightened up in despair, and I shouted, "The skiff!" 

     But it was too late.  All of a sudden, the world turned upside down and the boat heeled over to starboard and started to sink.  We had no time to untie the skiff and it sunk quickly, along with our boat.  Ronny was able to untie the 20-inch ring buoy that was perched on the cabin, and jumped down with it.  I started to swim towards him.  He seemed to be our natural centered point, since he was the only one with a flotation device.  One by one the men started to appear, popping up from the sea as if the sinking boat had spit them out on her way down. Valladolid was floating far away.  He didn't know much about swimming, but he had got a small wood scrap and clung to it.  He drifted with the wayward water and I knew that was dangerous for him.  I noticed there was another larger splinter floating close to him, and decided to get it for him.  He was a good boy - the only sailor in his family - I knew it was a worthwhile effort for me to spend some of my energy in saving him

     I started to get rid of my cloth shoes, in order to be able to swim better, when suddenly the cook popped up at my side with his mouth wide open in a desperate attempt to get some needed oxygen.  He shook his head to cough up the water and howled in pain.  Ten seconds after him, his assistant emerged, too, also choking.  I supposed they had been locked into the galley and sunk with the boat.  The cook started to scream and cry like a child, then began swimming awkwardly towards the skipper, leaving a crimson streak behind him.  I guessed he had sliced a leg on broken glass, as he escaped through the window.  The cook was being helped by Ponce to reach the ring buoy.  I freed myself from my entanglement and swam to Valladolid.  I hauled the larger piece of wood over to him, but the problem was to get him onto it, as he was getting pretty crazy.

     "Get control of yourself!" I shouted angrily, when he tried desperately to grab my shirt tails.  I had some previous experience saving drowning people, so I took him by the armpit and heaved him up on the larger piece of wood.  He quivered for a long while and coughed up the water he had swallowed in those few minutes.  When he felt pretty secured, he calmed down and looked at me with no expression at all in his eyes.  What a difference from the joyful chap telling jokes such a short time ago.  He was learning his first lesson on the importance of respecting the sea: Ronny had broken one of her laws and for that crime we were paying dearly.  

Valladolid finally caught his breath and I ordered him to row with his hands.  But he only looked at the overwhelming mass of water with stunned eyes, as if looking on a fictional movie scene.  I don't know if he had grasped my order, he shook his head as if his ears were full of water, but didn't start rowing.

     He begged dolefully, "Don't leave me, please. Don't leave me. Don't!"

But my self protective instinct told me that I had to stay near the other men.  Helping each other was crucial in such cases.  I took my hands off of the driftwood and it started to bounce up and down at the sea's whim.  It caused me a great sorrow to have to leave him, but I turned and paddled away to join the others. Each of us had to fight himself for his life.  I knew I had already spent too much of my little energy on him, and that relieved me of moral responsibility for his life.  I reached the other men, who were floating around the wounded cook.  He was lying over the ring buoy, with his right leg hanging down.  Wrapped with rags torn from his bloody shirt, it was a provocative invitation for sharks.

     Ronny, who had given the ring buoy to the cook, was clinging to the edge of it, which helped him stay afloat.  At that time, seven men, including Valladolid, were alive.  Ponce informed me that the only wounded ones were Peter, the engineer, and the cook.  Peter was hanging onto Reuben's shoulder.  I could see Peter's face was drawn by pain.  I got closer, to see what had happened.

     Reuben said, "He was thrown against the engine, but he's okay, just a pain in the shoulder.  It seems there are no broken bones."

     "What about Valladolid?" the engineer asked faintly.

     "He's safe," I answered.

     Then, he shut his eyes, to rest.  After a moment, another man in good condition took turns with Reuben to help him.  I don't know how many hours had passed since we capsized, perhaps two or three.  We were in shock and all sense of time had been lost.  And then, the weather at last started to abate, which was good for the rescue operation.  It was very important that rescue boats be able to leave the port, and was a life or death question for them to arrive before night would fall over us.  Night was not at all welcome.  It was considered our enemy because we knew that some of us could not withstand too many more hours of floating.  All of us might not last to see the light of the next day if the tiger and white sharks would happen to come.  I preferred to die drowned, than being torn apart by them. 

     And then, miraculously, the wind blew away the heavy clouds to the east and unveiled the fading sun.  Although only a weak light, it was spread over us as if a blessing from God... as if He would be protecting us.  This light of hope arrived just when I was getting sick in my soul, because of my pessimistic thoughts.  I calculated that we'd have approximately two hours more of daylight, but in spite of that tiny ray of hope, I could feel how sad was the solitude in that immense ocean and the infinite, grey sky above us.  To understand this state of mind, one must be there, with the water up to the neck, counting the minutes for fearing it could be the last.  It is when our entire life comes to our mind: the good and the evil weighed on the scale of our conscience, the uncountable line of people parading by our mind: the wife and children first, then the friends, other relatives and very especially, some of the ones we underestimated in the past.  Like my dead grandmother, whom some time ago, when she was alive, I refused to visit, for wanting to spend time with my friends.  In that moment I was so wanting to have her alive, to hug her, and take care of her for all her life... but it was too late.

     However, in spite of my past, miserable behaviour, I felt sure that she was our protector.  She herself, converted to an angel, was looking down from heaven and stretching out her hand to push away that dark cloud.  I made a promise to myself, if I should be saved.  I would never abandon any of my relatives.  They all were very loyal to me and I had to be more considerate. So I pledged my life to all of them.  Perhaps, I thought, they are now flocking to the cove, watching the blurred horizon for the Yolanda to appear, and urging the bosses and officials to continue the search for us.  I surmised that they'd be very, very sad if I should die.

     My pervasive, black thinking was mining my spirit.  I couldn't help considering the possibility of my perishing.  It was certain that it could happen at any moment.  I was not afraid, but I feared God, and I was still not prepared to pass away at twenty eight.  Fates were there, calling for alms, I knew.  Perhaps my time would come at midnight, with my stomach full of brine.  Too tired, and with my cramping legs useless to maintain my 160 pounds afloat, surely I'd plummet to the bottom of the sea.  There were only two with a chance to survive: the cook, over in the ring buoy and Ronny who was clinging to it.

     Ronny was getting along very easily.  He, the very son of a bitch who caused the tragedy, was at my hand's reach.  My razor-edged knife was still dangling from my waist, and in few hours, under the dark of the night, I'd get close to him, grasping the knife below water, and my expert hands would do the work silently... 

     The plan was good, but I needed a partner, just in case the first stroke would fail.  The best for that nasty work was no other than Ponce.  Ponce hated him and surely he would go along with me.  The plan was perfect, so perfect that it frightened me. The best thing was to speak to Ponce, I thought.  It was very important at this stage to sound him out on the idea, so I reached him in four large strokes.  He was half asleep, and at seeing me, he livened up quickly.  Ronny, thirty feet away, flung a mean look at us and I knew he was offended.

     "Hey," Ponce said. "I was thinking of you."

     "I know it. Something pulled me over to you."

     "You couldnt help me before.  Now it is late, late.  We'll die here."

     "You're a strong man.  Aren't you?

     "Yes, but I need a cup of coffee."

     "And I a glass of..."

     "frothy beer."

     "Yes.  Well, this is not time for jokes.  We mustnt speak too much."

     "Yes, no more jokes. I can't laugh with this water all around.  I'll laugh when that asshole," he cocked his head towards Ronny, "gets me out of this situation."

     "That's right. We. We...the skipper and his second...me, are the only ones to be blamed, I know."

     "The damn fool is looking at us all the time."

     "Forget him. I think he is to pay for this some day."

     "Shit. I want to smack him right now."

     "Stay calm. I'll call on you later."

     "If you want me to kill him just ask.  You know I've killed a man before.  It doesnt bother me."

     "Oh, no...It is not a good idea.  I'll speak to you just after dusk.  Well do an evaluation."

     "It's okay after dusk.  The son of a bitch is smirking at us.  He smirks like a hot fox, but I don't mind it.  I'm strong enough to kill him in a wink...

I felt quite afraid at hearing it.  We both were thinking the same thing: murder the chief.  And it got me even more frightened.  I knew very well this man was not bullying, nor joking so it was in me to continue the scheme.  The electric current that stung through my dorsal spine, made me to recover my good sense and decided to not let myself meander into his extremist ways.  It was known that he had killed a man before, when he was in the navy and had already gained his corporal stripes.  He had been detached to a land garrison and was posted to guard a sailors jail.  The lieutenant ordered him personally, to ...not permit anyone to enter, not even the admiral!  The officer had meant this only to be very by the book in his duty, and nothing more, as everybody knew the Admiral never visited that little garrison.  But Ponce, a simple man, not accustomed to those intellectual nuances, took it literally.

He guarded the entrance so strictly, that not even a fly could gain admittance.  It happened, however, that another simple man, a sergeant, showed up to see a friend in the same jail.  He swore that the man he came to visit had not a thing to do with the other jailed men, who were accused of plotting against the Government.  Ponce denied him entrance, explained he was simply obeying of the lieutenants orders.  The other, a grade above Ponce, and his attempts at browbeating having failed, didnt care to waste any more time with a subordinate and started to enter the building.  But Ponce didnt give in and called, Halt!

The other man didnt stop. So Ponce shouted, Ill shoot! And, since the sergeant, who was very sure of himself, continued on, Ponce levelled his rifle as the sergeant was about to cross the doorstep and centered the miscreant get lost to his rifles sight.  Ponce then pulled the trigger and brought the sergeant down, just across the threshold.  That unfortunate action made Ponce lose two of his best young years, in the very jail he had done his best to protect.

So, if he said that he could dispatch our hatred skipper in a wink, it was best to believe him.  His cruel lips writhed, he spat out salt water and ordered, You! Lend me your knife."

     I hesitated for a moment, looking at his black eyes and trying to find some escape from the barbarous deed in them, but he was very hard.  I reacted finally and said, "Crazy!  You are crazy. His blood would bring a dozen sharks."

     "Then, I'll drown him."

     "Alone? Impossible."

     "He's a wimp. Anyway, you could lend a hand..."

     "Forget it!"

     "What do you want to do? Take him to court?  Or maybe ask God to punish him in hell, eh?"

     I tightened my lips in anger to avoid more arguing and turned round.  "See you later. Keep cold."

     Then I swam to the ring buoy where Ronny and the cook were and asked them, "How are you boys?"

     "Okay," Ronny answered bleakly.

     The cook cocked his head at me and added, "We are happy to be still alive."

     "All right, I'll see the other boys."

     Then I turned away from them.  There was not much to speak with them.  I went to see the engineer.  This man had not gotten any better since the last time I saw him.  He was swallowing water now and two men were helping him to stay afloat.  I changed places with the cooks assistant and helped him for half an hour. It made me forget my bad premonitions for a few minutes, until another man took my place.  I moved away from them a few feet, to stay in a good position to look at the horizon, and besides, I preferred to stay alone.  Our personal situation was getting quite tense.    

     "And that's all.  No more black thinking!  No more black thinking!" I whimpered it like a mantra, to kick away all the gloomy ideas in my head.

I remembered it was good to pray when one is in a predicament.  I was surely in one, but still in a lucid state of mind.  In spite of the fact that I hadn't prayed for long time, I started to mumble, "Our Father that is in the heaven, may you let me get out alive from this not for myself, but for my two children.  I shall be a new man, I promise it.  But, if I'm going to die right here... if that is your will, my God, forgive all my sins, of deed and thought. Receive me in your arms, My Lord."  Suddenly my praying was interrupted by a gruff voice yelling behind me.

     "There. Over there!"

     It was Ponce.  He was pointing out towards the horizon.  I looked at it and saw a small sailboat, similar to my toy sailboat I used to play with on the pond at eight years old.  I gazed at it incredulously, fearing it was not a real one, but as the little sailboat approached and the other men wildly waved their hands, I realized it was a real one, not a toy.

     "A sailboat.  A real sailboat!" I muttered, to convince myself of that.  And, what a surprise, I was expecting a large, motor-powered boat to come and instead, here came one of the most fragile boats in the port.  There were only three sailboats like it in our port.  One of them was the Triumph, skippered by my dearest friend, Captain Pipo, and I hoped it will be him.

     The sailboat started to manoeuvre to approach us not as a motored one would do, advancing in a straight line, but making concentric circles around us.  The boat's hull was heeled to starboard, its main sail swelling out with the wind making the boat slide beautifully by in the serene water.  The craft circled closer and closer to us until I could recognize its battered, colourless wooden hull, painted with a faded green stripe along it.  No doubt then... it was the Triumph.  Tears dropped from my eyes and I screamed like mad and muttered at the same time, "God bless you and your brave sailors, Captain Pipo."

     It was no more than three days earlier that I had shared a keg of beer with him and there he was, coming to save me on this so ghastly a day.  Captain Pipo and his crew were demonstrating what the good sailor does, risking his own life to save others. When the first emotion of seeing the blessed boat died down, and we started to get calm, Ronny reminded us that he was still the skipper and loudly reassumed his position.

     "Valladolid! Where is Valladolid?" he shouted,

     It was true.  We had forgotten the boy on the driftwood.  All the others then regained interest in Valladolid and also yelled for him.

     "Valladolid, Valladolid!"

     But Valladolid and his little splinter of wood had vanished. He was no longer floating, or perhaps he was still on the surface but away from our sight.                     

                                VIII

     Later, when the spouse and brothers of the missing Valladolid questioned, my mates pointed me out as the man who tried to save him.  I explained all about the capsizing and what a good boy he used to be at work and also as a comrade, the moment previous to the shipwreck when he tried to make a joke, then the wave trough and the capsizing.  But I avoided telling them the part when I abandoned him on the small piece of wood, and didnt mention his last speech, Don't leave me!

It was shameful of me, I know, so I kept it to myself.  I was afraid nobody would understand it.  Even though I was not able to get them thoroughly satisfied with my account of the deeds, they thanked me anyway, for my efforts, and afterwards they never attempted to find out any more about it.  When the investigation ended and I returned to the sea, I would always stare at the sea, looking for him.  Valladolids corpse never appeared and I can never forget his eyes, how he looked at me, his words...

IX

By the end of the year the Yolanda capsized, I skippered my first boat.  All went nicely at the start.  I caught tuna and had a nice short season with shark.  That was the first time I broke one of the promises Id made when I was drowning: to never kill a shark again.  It was not entirely my fault, however.  My boss ordered the fleet to go for them, as the price had risen several points and so, it was simply my job.

The zone started to decline then, because tuna became more cunning.  They outwitted our curtain nets so, for a time, we used hooks without much success.  The big fishing (sharks and marlins) also dropped to its lowest point because we had almost annihilated them.  To complete the disaster, international prices for our products started to go down, so much as to make fish canners lose money.  As a consequence, many of the canners had to close their factories.  This, naturally, affected the fleet. That's when northern fishermen started to migrate to the south and I too, had to.

X   

Now, I'm established in Supe Port, in central Peru, with my wife, who is still charming, I am happy to say.  My five children are grown and, gracias a Dios, they are good.  So, my family life is going normal.  As to my job, I am respected as a skipper, the master of an all-steel, 150-ton boat.  But in my personal life, when I am already close to fifty, sadly I can't say the same of me as a man.

In fact, there are many things that I was accustomed to do and now I can't: drinking, for example.  My life here is quite different from what it used to be, in the hot ports of the North. I have no friends here, only acquaintances and work mates.  And, to say the truth, I am not the same man since the capsizing, twenty-five years ago.  I can not forget old friends and am always reminded of them.  Sometimes, when Im alone, I think about every one of my old mates: Captain Alarcon, especially.  He is now near eighty and I know that he used to walk by the beach with his dog very early in the morning.  I wonder if he still is able to and worry, knowing how sad he would be if not.

Captain Pipo died some ten years ago.  Eliseo Reategui also died, and took all of his stories with him to heaven.  Others are still working.  Some of them, the eldest, are retired, but, ironically, the only one that I can see every now and then, is Ronny Villegas.  He is now an important boss.  He owns three modern steel boats in the anchovy extraction industry.  He lives in Chimbote, but he comes to Supe Port twice a month on business to do with his boats.  Though, crafty as he is, it is not a shade of oddness if I tell you that his coming here is not only for business.  He never does a thing without a second idea hidden behind.  And now he is taking advantage of the current situation to escape from his nagging wife, and have the opportunity to empty the cup, as we say.

He often spends a whole night in the whorehouse.  Everybody in this town knows a certain sensual brunette he cant resist.  He drinks the best whiskey until intoxicated and in that drunken state, he recognizes everybody and invites them to join him.  He has an open account, naturally.  Some time ago, when sober, he asked me if I would like to work for him.  I politely promised him to think about it, knowing all the while, I'll never accept his offer.  I couldnt work for a man I once contrived against.

Now then, the last news is about Ponce.  He is presently in Lima, the capitol, 180 miles down.  He is the man who phoned me last night.  The call with which I began this story, you remember?  We talked for almost half an hour.  He told me that he had been working on an American tuna clipper, but his contract had ended.  He said that one of his daughters had invited him to stay in Lima, but he doesnt like Lima, and moreover, he hates big cities and will go back to Paita in few days, and that he was going to make a stop here for one or two days to speak with me personally.

He mentioned something like an unfinished conversation we have had in the past, and that it was not only to be continued, but that we have to carry out that plan.  I responded that he was welcome, but that I had forgotten all things of the past, except my good friends.  Also, I told him that I am happy with my new chaps I am training, and that they flatter me and I care for them, although at times I'm hard on them.  I've seen some of the boys cry, trying to cope with the rude work of the sea and yes, I admitted, I am inflexible in my orders, although not so much as was Captain Alarcon in his time.

Ponce listened attentively, but he was not much interested in the sea work.  He did not even make a single comment on my work.  Instead, he only reassured me in a cold voice, that he would visit me anyway.  That voice, cold and stern, was like the voice of an embittered, defeated man who is looking for revenge revenge from a life in which he felt a victim.  I could see his determined eyes in my mind, and I shuddered at it.  My right hand trembled, and I had to hang up.  That was last night.  Now, I have sent my wife early in the morning on a long time awaited trip to see her relatives, and I am alone waiting for him, because I know he will come anyways.

THE END