Part Three: The New World
And to think that I, who had never learned to swim, could have stayed afloat for that necessary, frantic moment until, with sinewy arms, he hauled me, free by now from the ocean's implacable assault, onto the raft.
But for all my relief, I was struck by the wave of certainty that before noon of the following day, bereft of water that was fit to drink and scorched by the sun's remorseless heat, and notwithstanding all the fresh fish that we could find to feed us, we would surely be dead.
Or perhaps, as we slept at night on that mere plank of wood, in such a shark-ridden vastness, we would be torn to shreds, our entrails a banquet for saw-like teeth.
As a boy, in that northern Spanish town pummeled by rain, I had walked along the shore and, looking towards the horizon, had thought of those hardy souls who, lured by gold, had ventured to distant lands.
When older, I longed to be a great conquistador like Cortés or Pizarro, and not only the conqueror of empires, but the victor of human hearts, as I held sway over strange men got up in heathen masks and peacock feathers, and who would stare at me blankly as, in a tongue alien to them, I sang the praises of the righteous doctrine of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
And safe in the mercy of His divine grace, I knew that no danger would befall me, whether on land from impalement by a savage bow and arrow, or at sea, sucked into the vortex of the deep in the pent-up fury of a storm, but rather walking once again down the familiar path to our home where, sitting by the window, my mother had been waiting, month after month, for my return.
And seeing me, she would rush to the door and, her face's age-encrusted creases of worry fading away, she would hold me, as if she would never again let me go, and we would dance to the beat of exultation that resounded within us.
Admiring my heavy silk doublet and starched ruff, she would be incredulous as I removed from my pockets one handful after another of precious jewelery, bearing the images of condors, pumas, and serpents, and fashioned in gold and rose-red rhodochrosite. And then, as if to restore her balance, she would slump into a chair, her body racked by sobs in her awareness that her days as a seamstress, her fingers working away into the early hours of the morning, were finally over, and that she would move with her son to some manor or other where, reclining by the fireside, she would count the beads of her rosary or, warmed by the smoldering embers, would drift off into sleep.
The day, with its resplendent orb in an azure sky, was not to be denied to us, and soon we, fifty young men in our twenties and thirties, were drawing away from the coast in our small galleon, a fully-rigged boat, heading towards the high seas and exotic realms that would beggar even our feverish imaginations.
Under a black canopy lustrous with stars, we took turns to navigate a smooth course for our vessel, with those who were not on duty doing their best to will away their cramped quarters, infested with vermin, by playing a seemingly endless succession of card games, or telling tall tales of unlikely past exploits with women.
Joining in the seedy mirth, so that my constant gazing at Santiago, a handsome sailor from Cádiz, would be taken lightly, I knew that only at my peril could I breathe a word about the love that I felt for other men, a passion that I had failed to divulge during confession with the local priest, mindful that my secret, an abomination in Holy Writ could, if revealed to the Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, have led to my being burnt at the stake.
But was it my own wishful thinking, or was Santiago, far from being a potential informer, an all-too-willing accomplice as every day, and more and more, his eyes sought out mine in silent entreaty?
And there were many times when, in the darkness, I could barely restrain myself from rolling over from my mat onto his, and if he had bemused me with some studied reproach, I would have blamed my displacement on a turbulent sea.
Wondering if we would ever again acquire our land legs, it seemed that we had signed a pact with that interminable stretch of water, engaging in comradely banter, wolfing down our salt beef, cheese, and ship's biscuits, and quaffing our ale, but one night the storm appeared from nowhere.
Come to think of it, the evening having been so uncannily calm, we should not have been so complacent, but how could we have foretold, as thunder and lightning ravaged heaven, and giant waves leapt upwards to engulf us, that we would have gone down so fast?
And sinking, I am pulled up and carried away by Santiago, who lifts me, in one fell swoop, onto the raft.
Once I have coughed the water up from my lungs, he plants a kiss on my forehead, and then another on my lips and, as we lie locked in an embrace that will make our deaths much easier to bear, I ask only that I will not expire too long before him, or too long after.
But now, having survived the shipwreck, no end of men clamber onto the raft and, knowing as we do that we do not have too long, and that even if we ward off all other ills, we will in hours be singed by a sun more merciless than any bonfire, we are in no time a heap of writhing flesh, desperate to wrest pleasure from the prospect of the void.
Part Four: The Cricket
Part One: Plummeting Like Lead
Part Two: The Tree
Part Five: Love, Hate
"The Power of Prose"