The first thing they saw when they rounded the cape were the still and silent cormorants on the rocky cliff, their black and green plumage opaque through the mist, with their beaks pointed at the sky, like solitary sculptures flanking the entrance to the island, and behind them, at the far end of the bay, there appeared the harbor, withdrawn into itself, like a vague strip of light between the shining sea and the parched, copper-toned earth. The rocky mass discharged its incandescence over it and, at water level, the shimmer of the hanging air trembled, overcome by the power of the sun, diluted in the heat, blurring lines and colors. The suffocating heat disfigured the atmosphere and the landscape, refracted by the midsummer heat, lay squashed and distorted like a fuzzy backdrop.
A few months later, when not even a memory, other than one preserved in a photograph, would be left of the summer and the heat, when everything that began in that motionless moment would have been diluted, transformed and almost forgotten, during the rare reminiscences that would suddenly show up through the cracks of his memory Martín Ures would wonder, on more than occasion, if everything had not happened because the place was bewitched. Because, for no apparent reason, the sails flapped, the Albatross lost power, and, unable to overcome the leaden resistance of the inanimate morning, she pitched slightly and then remained inert on the crystalline water as though in that range there were no room for inertia. And at the same moment all the sails collapsed onto the deck.
Because of the sudden motionlessness or perhaps because of the same thick consistency of the suffocating air, all four poked their heads through the hatchway, startled by a sudden malaise. And, blinded by the light and the heat, they contemplated the harbor and the hillsides without understanding what happened or, as yet, making out the contours of the hills. Little by little they adapted to the steely, tremulous light. There then appeared remains of debris, rusty like the stone from which they were made, almost hidden behind some vegetation that was straggly, sunburned and parched, that was born and kept making its way among them, first one shadow, then another and yet another, spread out over the hills, until the huge ruin, rising above the sea like a mountain of rubble that time, erosion and growth had leveled, revealed itself.
“How awful!” said Chiqui, suffocated by this sudden and unexpected temperature rise, the total lack of air and the moonlike landscape that silently bemoaned the immobility of its own collapse. “Why aren’t we going?”
No one answered.
Andrea wiped her forehead, which had become filled with tiny drops of sweat, like her neck, her upper lip, her back and her legs.
“I won’t be able to take it,” she said.
Leonardus advanced slowly toward the helm, his ever-spotless white caftan now soaked, and said, almost not daring to raise his voice, “What are we doing now?”
Tom shrugged his shoulders and continued to turn the rudder, more in order to test how useless it was to try than in any belief that he could straighten the sails and move the Albatross.
“Maybe the current will take us to the pier,” said Leonardus.
“There is no current,” said Tom.
In the estuary, the mosque trembled behind the iridescent air like the image of a faraway oasis in the desert. A lone figure, a woman leaning against the whitewashed wall, her head covered by a broad-brimmed hat, stood out against the misty background of that incandescent landscape, as though emerging from some forgotten time. She had taken shelter in the narrow shade of some eaves and remained motionless facing the trail leading up to the promontory, flanked by a couple of large houses that had either survived the destruction or been rebuilt.
He had not known a feeling of helplessness like that of that June morning when he took the flight to New York, not so much in search of new horizons as in order to break off the relationship he had begun with Andrea a little more than a year before. The plane had taken off on time and until that moment he had felt sure that she would come to see him off if only to wave good-bye. He was the last one through customs, and from the bus that took them to the plane he kept scanning the airport terrace to see if he could find her, but she didn’t show up. And with that unshakable obstinacy of deep desire mixed with despair and of not understanding how one could be otherwise, when the plane began its course over the secondary runways and the takeoff strip, he still kept his gaze fixed on the terminal building. Only when he saw the sea from on high and the gridiron geography of the city appeared under the wing, when they went through the thick fog that had covered it since morning and he found himself in the sunlit space over a layer of whitish clouds, did he feel the full helplessness of his solitude. He was blinded by warm tears but could still keep his cheeks immobile. He made an effort to contain himself, and in a last attempt to control the trembling of his lips he noisily blew his nose out of shame before himself, perhaps, or the others, and when he believed to have his crying under control, suddenly the tears flowed and forced him to open his mouth and to breathe as best he could through his nose and the corners of his mouth in an unstoppable grimace that did not manage to stifle a groan so deep that his neighbor looked at him stupefied. Then he cast all reserve aside and wept silently.
Contrary to their agreement, once in New York he sent her letters to her office, brief message that only she could understand, an eyeglass band decorated with tassels and colored stones that a Somali was selling at the corner of his apartment house, and a red maple leaf that he picked up from the ground on one of his rare, melancholy walks through the park. He sent her newspaper clippings and short sentences in his rudimentary English in order to show her his progress, not noticing, or not wanting to notice, that no replies were coming. Only once in a great while, during the nights of longing and loneliness when he couldn’t even get a hold of his memories because they meant nothing compared to his desire, did he realize that her determination was unyielding. But even so he kept hope alive and though he knew from the outset that he would get nowhere languishing of love, he could only see the city through the eyes of both of them, struggle relentlessly with a language that fought back, and working as third assistant in a television series, a job that Andrea had found for him through Leonardus.
After some months, around January, when the first snows began to fall on New York, he enrolled in a directing class at the University, and when, at the end of April, he finished his first short subject he sent her a copy. He waited impatiently for the mailman and the telephone but not even when Pedro Bali, a friend from the class, came back and told him that he had delivered the short personally to Andrea in her office, nor after giving her enough time to find a projector and a screening room – for which had included precise instructions – and no response was coming, not even then did he stop telling her, in his secret heart, everything he saw and experienced just as he had done since his arrival, with the innermost conviction that, by means of a strange connection even more efficient than coded messages or the telephone that he never dared use, she had to hear him. He kept seeing her astonished or skeptical face, he heard her voice, and her presence remained so alive that at night he would be dying of impatience over having her so close and not being able to touch her. He knew her well enough to know that nothing prevented her from answering a letter, and this being the case he had no reason to suppose that she had changed her mind about not wanting to have anything to do with him. But even so he lived with the conviction that such a sharp break necessarily had to respond to a deeper purpose, or that her yearning to be with him was so strong that it could be counteracted only with that drastic decision; otherwise, what harm could be done by her writing him a letter, even a simple note? He then understood, with a knowledge different from the one that had made him keep his hope alive, that for half a year he had been talking to himself, and, without stopping to think if what was driving him was spite, pain, or a survival instinct, he decided to call a truce and rebuild the stage of his own life so that he could attack with all the more force when the occasion arose, as he was sure that it would unfailingly arise. Although, as he was to discover later, will alone is not enough as a weapon in the struggle, nor does it work to overcome the phantoms of the past, nor does it make us invulnerable to melancholy and suffering, nor, least of all, can it change the course of events that is written into their nature.
When his contract with the production company ran out he decided to stay in New York and took on any job that was offered him, from driving the production truck through streets he did not know to sweeping the sets when there was no one left. And he did those jobs with such devotion that many times, as he was aware, those around him regarded him not with admiration but with pity. But he went on, immersed in whatever they gave him, because he wanted to recover the time he had lost and was convinced that he had to follow the road he had traced for himself step by step.
He was pitiless with himself. He subjected himself to a discipline that forced him to rise at dawn, and before going to work he would sit down to work on a screenplay that he had begun the preceding winter, and would continue in the evening, on his return from night school, shutting out the world around him, not hearing his clarinet-playing neighbor or the street noises that had kept him from sleeping during the first few weeks. He was groping his way along a path that nonetheless appeared to him as well-beaten, because, without realizing it at the time, he was writing his own life story, and he was not wrong: he knew that every obsession is but a substitute for passion.
He used the same discipline against imagination and habit. When they made him see an explicit vision of Andrea smiling, or emptying her purse in order to find her glasses, or entering a theatre or movie house as if only her presence was necessary for the show to begin, or seated facing him at a café table, he realized that the pain was unremitting, but before reveling in the memory he would zealously file it away inside him and continued working with the avidity of one amassing treasures that he would some day offer her.
As though it were true that a hidden hand rewards boundless effort, as though indeed there existed an inflexible and rational justice that does not flinch until the scales return to his side, after three or four months he found himself recompensed. He finished the screenplay of his first film, which Leonardus was to produce years later; that first short subject that he had completed in film school with the help of classmates and on a rock-bottom budget won third prize in a competition at NYU and later was selected for the Philadelphia Festival; and when a kind of peace finally came upon him he convinced himself that he was driven only by the intense desire to do his best and it seemed to him that he had gotten back on the track he had abandoned in order to follow Andrea.
The days now grew longer. The scent of wisteria floated in the air, the trees began to be covered with leaves and around noon the heat was as oppressive as on a summer day. The streets smelled of spring and Martín thought of the fields of Sigüenza, of the meadows of Ures, of the linden tree in the plaza that he had not seen since long before coming to New York, since the spring of the preceding year when he managed to pull Andrea away for short trip inland, to his home, getting deep into the Monegros – a moonlike landscape that previously she had only vaguely contemplated from the plane, the way one looks from afar at something that has hardly anything to do with us – until reaching Guadalajara province at the zenith of the radiant spring, with scant sunlight on the ground that had for months been hardened by cold and ice. The air, still bearing reminiscences of winter, iridescent in its clarity and transparency, gently rocked the scarce, tiny leaves of the poplars. So tender was the newborn green of the fields, so short were the stalks in the wheatfields that the traces of the ditches and the paths could be seen among them. Martín knew that in a couple of months the sun would blur the boundaries that were now so clear, making the earth brown and uniform, and the air would remain static and dazed by the sun that would rule and would equalize colors and shadows.
June came again and the intense, humid heat of the street became hard to bear. There was no way of relieving the suffocating ambience of his apartment, because no air came in through the only window of the study, even when the one in the kitchen was open, and in the little bit of sky that he saw, clipped and framed by the neighboring buildings, the fuzzy blue of haze and humidity was barely seen. But he kept on, day and night, uncovering the nooks and crannies of his life story in terms that no one but he would have recognized. And in his enthusiasm it seemed to him that he was getting to know himself. Memory is feeble when it deals with pain, love and obsessions. How can one live, he would ask himself then, without a half-written script? What are the yearnings that make us go on made of?
It was around that time that he came to know Katas. For months they had met in the elevator. She would always get off on the fourteenth floor and even though she, like everyone else, kept her eyes fixed on the lights that marked the floors, he realized that she was seeing him, perhaps by the almost imperceptible uneasiness with which she moved her books from one arm to the other or by the way their glances fleetingly met when she was ready to leave the elevator. Her hair was long and straight, pulled back in a ponytail, and she always wore flowery skirts and monk’s sandals. She was always laden with books and folders and on that day, in addition, a paper bag stuffed with groceries. When the elevator got to the fourteenth floor she was about to get off and, trying to avoid bumping into another neighbor’s guitar, she stumbled and all her books fell to the floor. The young man with the guitar stoically held the door open while Martín helped her pick them up, and he did not notice that at the moment when he followed her to give them to her the door had shut and the elevator went on without him. With a slight foreign accent that he did not recognize she said, “Thanks, my name is Katas,” and she stretched out a hand underneath the packages. He left her at the door of Apartment 147 and, though he did not accept her invitation to come in, that evening he was on the verge of retracing his steps in order to tell her that he had changed his mind.
The next day he found out more about her from the night porter, a Hispanic that he would sometimes run into when the heat would chase him from his apartment. She was Greek, he told him, she had come to New York a few years before to study medicine and at the end of the quarter, that is at Christmas, she would be going back to Greece. Osiris, the Hispanic, whom he had asked about her after overcoming his aversion to starting conversations, knew about it because the girl had already informed the building manager. And, with his nasal twang, he added, “Every afternoon she is in the local library, here across the street. I am telling you in case you want to meet her.”
For several weeks he wanted to go the library but couldn’t. He worked until quite late and when he got home it was already closed.
One day, coming back from work, he left the elevator on the 15th floor and rounded the hallway without looking ahead, busy looking for his apartment key at the bottom of his bag. When he was about to put into the lock, driven by a presence he had not been aware of, he lifted his eyes and there was Andrea, leaning against a wall, barely a foot and a half away, smiling in amusement and emotion over the surprise she had prepared.
“You haven’t changed, you haven’t changed at all,” he was saying to her, so close to her face that, had his gaze not been fixed on that almost invisible little blemish that he had discovered next to her eyebrow, her face would have seemed blurred as though in a dream. “You haven’t changed at all,” he repeated and made his finger glide over her forehead, her eyelids and her cheeks, concentrating on the contact, almost not seeing her, the way a blind man’s fingertips slide over contours and surfaces, uncovering secrets that are denied to the seeing. He could hardly speak of anything else until dawn, his thoughts too obsessed by the avidity for a presence that he desired for months, and when he did so he paid no attention to the reasons she was giving him – – because it seemed to him that she and her coming belied the truth of her words and her arguments, and, refusing to listen to her, he insisted on once again offering her, even more intensely, his life, his time, his body and soul, and he even spent time telling her how their life together in New York could be, so sure was he of infecting her with his enthusiasm and vehemence. Because, now that he had her so close to him, in the right, the perfect place, the place that had always been meant for him, he could not imagine how it could be otherwise.
Around ten in the morning, however, she began to gather her clothes because in a couple of hours she would be leaving for Mexico with Leonardus and two of his partners on a prospecting trip, she said; things are changing in Spain, she added, now that democracy has come, and one has to be prepared. She was in a hurry, but she had enough time to remind him that this New York stopover should not make him get any hopes up, hopes that, she insisted, had no foundation whatsoever.
“But you love me nonetheless.”
“You know that’s true,” she replied, “but there’s no way out for us. Life is like that, don’t ask it for more than it can give you,” and she smiled as she had done then, on that day, a year before when she had shown up in the house on Plaza de Tetuán where he was living with a sister of his father’s, in order to resolve the long argument they had had the night before and let him know of a verdict whose urgency and brutality he could not understand.
“But why do I have to go away? What are you trying to tell me?” he asked her then.
“Federico has disappeared, you know that. The police are looking for him. Without him the production company is not working. In New York you have an opportunity with this contract that they’re offering you through Leonardus. Or would you rather stay in Barcelona without a job, waiting for the police to find you? You know they’re looking for you.”
It was true that for a week the door of the production company was sealed shut by court order, that no one had been paid for months and that Federico had not been heard from, but it had never occurred to him to relate these facts to politics.
“Why would they be looking for me?” he asked. “If they did they would have found me by now, it would have been a cinch.”
“I know what I’m talking about,” replied Andrea, who by all appearances was in a hurry, and from her purse she took out a billfold with the ticket, a list of addresses in New York, and a lease on the apartment that she had rented for him for a whole year on 14th Street at Second Avenue. “And there is no future for us,” she added sweetly.
But he almost didn’t hear her because she was not disposed to give him the only thing that interested him at that moment.
They went down together in the elevator and went out into the street.
“I’ll always be waiting for you,” he swore at the last moment, not fully aware that she was fast disappearing as her taxi was becoming lost in traffic, until, realizing that he had gone out only with the key, he returned home. The apartment smelled different now and was emptier than it had been during all those months, and his work, his life in New York and he himself suddenly seemed meaningless.
He called the set and made up the excuse of a fall, the way she had done so many times during that first year in Barcelona, and plopped onto the unmade bed. His mind went around and around every one of her gestures, the words that she repeated tirelessly until they were exhausted and wasted and meaningless, and by three in the afternoon neither the aroma that her body had left wafting in the air nor the diminishing trembling of her hands were anything more than another fleeting vision to add to the baggage that his memory was dragging along since he got on the plane on that June morning in Barcelona.
He went out again, to the Japanese restaurant on 16th Street. He ate as he had not eaten in two weeks and had two bloody marys. And when, upon leaving, he looked at his watch and saw that it was five-thirty he decided to go to the library.
He saw her immediately, her head bent over her books, playing distractedly with a tuft of her bangs. He took a magazine and sat down almost directly opposite her. She did not see him until much later, when she lifted her eyes, perhaps attracted by the insistence of his gaze; she smiled at him shyly but not surprised, and went back to her book. When she arose to leave he followed her and in the doorway he asked her out for a cup of coffee. She accepted. He did not have coffee but a beer and then another, and as the afternoon was dozing over the skyscrapers and the pink of twilight colored the hazy and thick sky of the city, he told her the same version of his life that a couple of years before he had wanted to tell Andrea, with no hurry because no one was waiting for them now and possibly because he was not so impatient as on the day that he met her on the beach, nor so anxious as at each of the instants that he spent with her that summer and the following winter until he left, and even later. And also because he was sure that, in that world of cement, noise and excesses, talking calmly about his childhood in that village hidden among wheatfields would at the very least turn out to be a much more exotic story. He began almost in the same way, as we all do when we avow the official version of our own lives, that version that we end up believing and on the basis of which we form a judgment of ourselves that we want the others to accept at all costs.
“My name is Martín Ures,” he told her in his English, which, though improving, was still rudimentary, “and I am Spanish.” She nodded as though she already knew that. “I am from Ures, province of Guadalajara, in the center of Spain, and I am very proud to carry the name of my village.”
That night they dined in a restaurant in the Village and they walked until dawn. The next day, as they had agreed, Katas came to his apartment to pick up his bag in order to take it to the laundry together with hers. In the afternoon Martín picked her up at the library and asked her to come with him to the shooting on the other side of the Brooklyn Bridge and three days later he helped her paint her apartment, which, she said, needed a coat of paint. They spoke on the phone at least once a day and if he came home early he would prepare a salad and an omelet that he would share with her. They went to the movies, to Central Park and to the gym on Second Avenue, and they ended up telling time by the hours till they would meet again. But not even when, after three months, he borrowed from Dickinson – the first cameraman – the fifty dollars he needed to take her out to the New Orleans, a restaurant with checkered tablecloths and candles in glasses on the tables, where he had decided to order a bottle of wine and then present her with the long jet earrings that she had discovered in a shop window on Second Avenue very near their building, not even that night, convinced as he was that neither of them would push the button for the 14th floor, did he acknowledge that he had pushed Andrea aside. What is more, as he was getting ready to go out and putting on the white shirt that he had ironed himself, he stubbornly clung to the memory of her blue-eyed gaze, as we cling to the memory of the dead so that the part of our lives that left with them does not disappear and so that we remain who we are.
The vision remained, not like a delving into the past but deep inside him.
From behind, her moist hands on his arms, Andrea said: “What are you thinking about?”
He did not respond.
“Look,” she said, “they’re going to take us in.” And she rested her chin on his shoulder, as if by looking in the same direction she could discern what he was seeing.
On the starboard side there appeared a boat with a raised bow, the timber worn away by use, of the same pale blue, washed out by the light, as the rebuilt houses by the harbor. No one had seen it come near nor heard the rumble of the primitive two-stroke engine.
The boatman shouted an order that could barely be made out against the syncopated rhythm of the sharp crackling of the engine, and, standing, with one hand on the rudder bar, without waiting for a reply he grabbed a rope that was meticulously rolled up in the cabin and without letting go of the bar he cast it with his free hand onto the deck of the Albatross. He was so commanding that Tom tied up the rope without looking at Leonardus, as if from that moment on authority had been transferred, and then took over the helm to help it obey as well. After a few uncontrolled lurches the Albatross adjusted to the speed of the rudimentary engine whose screeching bespoke its great effort, and made it into the waters of the harbor, towed by the boat and its boatman like the dead body of a beetle dragged over the dust by an ant. They moved slowly, with the sails still spread out on the deck like useless tatters under a sky without a breath of air. The man turned around every so often, raised his head toward them and shouted in Greek to make them hear what he was showing with gestures to make himself understood. The still air smelled of sage and lavender but as they passed by the other shore, full of seaweed, a flock of seagulls took flight and the uproar brought them, in waves, the pestilential stench of a garbage dump, a compact mound of detritus where clouds of insects buzzed.
“What are you thinking about?” Andrea repeated, pressing Martín’s shoulder as he kept his gaze fixed on the little square by the mosque. The woman under the eaves, tall like a distant shadow, disappeared, like a chimera, behind a projection of the pier.
“What are you thinking about?” she insisted.
“Those are ruins,” he said vaguely. He wiped his sweat with his hand and he turned toward her because he knew that only in this way he would clear the worry from her face.
“What were you looking at?”
“Nothing,” he said and passed his hand over her forehead.
She was perspiring too, she who had never tired of proclaiming at all times, with an air of superiority in her voice and her gestures, that she didn’t perspire even in a sauna, implying thereby that though she might have wished to perspire like everyone else, nature, her own nature, had not granted her that plebeian gift. At that moment the drops that formed on the surface of her skin and burst into minuscule shining dots over all of her body made her look exhausted and dehydrated.
The sun had reached its zenith and as they were nearing land, the shadow of the rock, like a monumental and magical filter, tinted a narrow strip of the harbor with color and gave form and definition to the first row of houses, their walls painted blue and ochre. And then the little square, which had made a place for itself among them with its two rows of squalid and dusty mulberry trees, barely covered with parched and sunburnt leaves, came into view, as did the two empty tables beside the café, which was still closed and deserted, like the whole village, which, despite having been partly immersed in the shadow, was still boiling from the sun. There was no one on the pier except two motionless men standing beside the water, seemingly waiting for the arrival of the boat and its trophy. All doors and windows were shut, no air was moving, no voices were heard, no cats or dogs or children were out, there was almost no noise, no seagulls flew in the suffocating midday air. Time had come to a standstill, and the world with it; only the silent caravan was moving in that lost place.
“Rikhno agira, agira,” the boatman shrieked.
Tom looked at Leonardus.
“What’s he saying?”
“He wants you to drop anchor.”
In a leap, Tom moved from stern to bow and cast the anchor when they were barely twenty meters from the pier. The sudden splash against the water and the metallic hammering the followed it drowned out for a moment the humming of the engine, and the seagulls on the dump flew up, crazily flapping their wings. The boatman threw the rope again onto the deck of the Albatross, which was already losing the scant velocity it had attained while being dragged, and once his boat was free he went around and around, his look fixed on the sailboat’s inertia, as if the exactness of the tying-up depended only on him and his shouts. And when the stern was already falling onto the pier he started a loud dialogue with the two men, and with much moving around of ropes and boat hooks they managed between them to tie up the Albatross almost without paying attention to her, the way one would make a sick person’s bed. The two men tied the ropes to the eyebolts on the pier and meticulously rolled up the remaining one, and at a command from the boatman they disappeared down a narrow alley that led from the square.
The boatman cut the engine and tied up his boat as well, and with the agility of a monkey, out of keeping with his wrinkle-beset face and his old man’s skinny calves that showed beneath the rolled-up legs of his pants, climbed up on the projections of the seawall and jumped to land. Without waiting for Tom to put up the gangway he grabbed the Albatross’s stern rope and leaped across, standing up in the pool where the five had sat down without quite knowing what to do. Tom brought cold water, ice and lemons.
He was a tireless talker. Several times he took of his cap and put it back on, smoothing his thin, flimsy hair. He next lit a cigarette and left it resting on the wood until Tom saw it and gave it back to him, and he then put it in his mouth without moving it again, and at last he launched into a long speech accompanied by gestures and grimaces.
His name was Pepone, he almost bellowed, and in order to calm Leonardus, who was loudly asking for a mechanic, told him that he himself had sent the two men to get him and that they would soon be back. Then, like a minstrel who might be impatiently waiting for his audience, he began to tell his story, perhaps told a thousand times already. He spoke in Italian, mixed with the Spanish that he had learned in Argentina, he said, where he had gone with his family when his father was a boatswain on the Messimeri and the disaster had not yet befallen them. “For, though it might be hard to believe, this island had been the richest in the whole Mediterranean. On the streets, which were paved with stones from Cappadocia, stood mansions built with Carrara marble, perfumed woods of the East and Venetian glass, and at the edges of the harbor storehouses and sheds stood one after another, and fishing-tackle plants and workshops that made the strongest and biggest sails in all the Levant. Ah, the time of the sailing ships! Ships with life and vibrancy, shy or submissive ships, happy ones, heavy, lazy, not like the mastodons of smoke and chimneys that came after them. I still remember this bay, so full of sailing ships that from here the hillsides would be hidden by a forest of masts.” And he looked melancholically at the ruins where myrtle and thyme now grew, innocent and silent. “In the entrance to the bay and sometimes almost in the open sea the anchored sailing ships were lined up, waiting for a free berth so they could dock and unload their freight. They brought damasks and precious stones, or grains and spices that they traded for weapons, big studded crates that disappeared in the bilges of the boats and went off to the wars. Peddlers would be shouting by the customs houses and in front of the market,” and he pointed to a building on the other side of the square, now empty and half-ruined, “and fortunetellers would be singing the sailors’ fortunes, and beautiful stately women would come to the port to say goodbye to those who were leaving for distant places. And on the other side, where the beach is, down to the water there were fruit and vegetable gardens that were embroidered like flower gardens and were shaded by fig, cherry, apricot and medlar trees, and there were roads lined by almond trees and green vines leading to the sea; and fishermen would come back at dusk loaded with fish that they placed on baskets as in a picture; and from the hillsides there would come down flocks of sheep whose sour milk the women would wrap with aromatic herbs and strain in linen cloths until they turned it into big cheeses that they carried, wrapped in white cloth, on their heads to the market. Do you see that?” And he pointed at a cement pylon in the other corner of the square, next to a half-destroyed column. “In that place there was a fountain with seven jets, and big sculptures of wisdom, grace and power, with fish and sirens and acanthus leaves.”
“That man is unstoppable,” said Chiqui with a snort, and as she was going to get up Martín stopped her.
“There were always parties and celebrations,” continued the boatman without letting on, “because there was money,” and he moved his index finger and thumb under Chiqui’s eyes, “lots of money. There were twenty thousand inhabitants on this island, more than twenty thousand, not counting foreigners who could be another two or three thousand. But then came the steamships and little by little they passed us by, and we remained abandoned at this end of the Mediterranean. That was the beginning. Then came a war, and then another. Now there are barely two hundred of us left. Everybody left, they took us all away when the bombings began. The Italians invaded us, the English bombed them out of here, they stayed on the island and turned it into an arsenal. And when it all ended, there wasn’t anything or anyone left here.”
Suddenly he fell silent. A tall, somber figure was crossing the square, flanked by two powerful brown mastiffs with fallen ears, blunt noses and short hair, who were walking at his uncertain pace. The man wore a tall biretta of the same fly’s-wing color as his well-worn cassock, and his long beard was almost down to his waist. Though he was walking straight and looking only in front, it was obvious that he was trying to keep his balance. But even so, the three formed a stately group.
“That’s the priest with his dogs; he’s going to ring the afternoon bell.”
He found a place between Andrea and Chiqui and, crouching as if were about to tell a humorous secret, or perhaps fearful that the priest might hear him, he covered his mouth with his hand and added:
“He’s always drunk. That’s why he’s here, because he’s a drunkard. They say he was kicked out many years ago but now he’s the one who’s in charge here.” And, recovering the ample gestures that he had used to sing of the island’s glorious times, he pronounced: “Like a dethroned king who makes himself into a kinglet.”
“Why does he have those dogs?” Chiqui asked Leonardus.
“Because he likes to,” Pepone answered, “because he’s crazy. Everybody on this island is crazy. Look at her,” and he pointed at the pier, “Arkadia the visionary.”
She was a tall, slim old woman, her bones narrow and elongated like shadows, her body wrapped in one continuous rag which she dragged like a cloak that was too long, of the same sunburnt color as her cheekless face. She was walking along the pier ... and after a few steps she vanished in a doorway or in an alleyway; it was hard to tell from there.
“She’s looking for her house. She was coming back from the village when the bombing caught her by surprise and she couldn’t find it. There was just a huge hole, and ever since she digs around in the ruins looking for her children.” And he laughed. “She never eats or sleeps, she has no home, she doesn’t talk to anyone, old Arkadia, all she does is hum to herself and walk from early in the morning to late at night, constantly searching, for over forty years.”
“Well, this is some island we’ve come to,” said Chiqui.
At that moment the two men came back with the mechanic that Pepone had sent for. The three of them jumped on board and homed in on the engine, talking to one another as if the problem did not concern anyone else. Then Pepone, taking on once again his role as intermediary, turned to Leonardus and, after demanding payment for the towing, informed with a certainty not devoid of a certain joy that they would not be able to set sail at least until the next day, because the spare part they needed was not to be found on the island. He added that they were in luck, though his tone seemed to indicate that they did not deserve it, because the steamer that made the weekly round trip to and from Rhodes came on Wednesdays, that is, tomorrow. Dimitropoulos, the mechanic, was going to call right then and there, provided the phone was working, and in the meantime they could visit the town, and he gestured broadly with his arm in order to make it clear that there were things worth seeing in those empty streets and on those desolate hillsides. He, of course, would be at their disposal to take them in his boat wherever they wanted to go. Would they, for example, like to visit the Blue Cave, the most beautiful of all the caves in the Dodecanese islands? Today was just the right day, because with the still water it would be easy to get inside. Or would they rather go tomorrow morning, when the sunlight – and he pointed to the faraway segment of horizon among the estuaries of the harbor – would be coming in through the slot and become polarized in iridescent blue hues? They had but to call him and he would gladly attend to them.
The immobility, or perhaps the certainty of having to stay on the island for at least a day, intensified the heat that had condensed after midday, and though the shadow line of the rock was moving and gaining ground on the bay, even on deck there was not enough air. Leonardus had taken off his caftan and turned on the fan in his cabin, and, stretched out on his bunk, with the door wide open in order to create a nonexistent draft, perspired and snorted like a whale.
The two times that Martín had gone up on deck in the course of the afternoon he did not see a soul on the pier. Chiqui had put on Tom’s head phones and followed the beat of the music with her sweating body while the two men talked softly as if they didn’t want to wake the napping village. Pepone and his boat had disappeared.
“We’ll end up dehydrated,” Chiqui shouted at Martín when she saw him get some water out of the refrigerator.
Around six o’clock two women with washtubs on their heads crossed the square, like extras hired to dress up a stage that had until then been empty and to show the public that the show was about to go on. Shortly after the clatter of the iron blinds of the café broke the afternoon silence. A man with a white apron over his huge paunch brought out a few more pedestal tables and several chairs that he placed under the mulberry trees, and a little later three old men leaning on their canes moved toward the center of the square, sat down, took a pile of bone dominoes out of a bag and dropped them onto the table. The bar owner brought them some beers. They moved slowly but no one spoke as yet, perhaps waiting for the stifling heat to let up. The balcony of the house facing the Albatross opened and a man and a woman took up two seats facing each other, separated by a wooden table; silently, hardly looking at each other, they began to contemplate what would happen with that boat’s unaccustomed arrival in port. He was wearing a pajama top and she, far more corpulent and wrapped in a flowered robe, wore a yellow kerchief on her head and fanned herself with a piece of cardboard.
Between the drowsy mists and his sweat, Martín looked at his watch again and again in order to make sure that the hands were moving, but time seemed to have no impulse to move on.
A knock on the door startled him.
“What’s going on?”
“I’m going to take a walk in this damned town,” said Chiqui in an edgy voice. “Does anyone want to come? If I stay on this boat another minute I’m going to burn up.”
“It won’t be much better outside.”
“It doesn’t matter, I’m going.”
“Not me! I’m staying!” Leonardus shouted from his cabin.
The shadow of the rock had already merged with the horizon. Nonetheless the blinding daylight remained, sustained by a viscous humidity that refused to come off from skins and floors. The seagulls on the dump squawked and, like a spring tapped by mistake, the rhythmic beat of the power plant started up.