Read In the Beginning Was the Sea Online
Authors: Tomás Gonzáles
Translated from the Spanish
by Frank Wynne
In the beginning was the sea. All was in darkness.
There was neither sun nor moon; no people, no animals, no plants. The sea was everywhere and everything.
The sea was the Mother.
The Mother was neither woman, nor thing, nor nothingness.
She was the spirit of that which was to come and she was thought and memory.
was transported on the roof of the bus. Two leather suitcases containing their clothes, a trunk containing his books, and her sewing machine. Their belongings were surrounded by bunches of plantains, sacks of rice, blocks of unrefined sugar cane wrapped in dried banana leaves, and other suitcases.
Elena and J. were heading for the sea.
There were stops in dusty villages. Elena and J. got out of the bus, numb, drank coffee in bars that smelt like urinals where pot-bellied men sat steeping their endless entrails in the golden glow of beer. There were stops in dismal, dirty service stations littered with discarded engine filters and empty oil cans where the bus would fill up with petrol before setting off again. By day, the bus picked up passengers carrying bewildered chickens; at night, empty-handed individuals boarded the bus in dark, desolate places only to get off in equally dark and desolate places twenty or thirty kilometres further on. Silent men with machetes slung from their belts and dirty, battered hats on their heads.
When, finally, the bus arrived at the port, the sea was not magnificent and blue. The harbour was built on a narrow inlet that looked more like a canal—a filthy canal three kilometres long that spilt into the sea. At 4 p.m. the bus pulled in to the main plaza. There was no sign of the sea, though the air smelt of salt and the fetid stench of open drains. The tall almond trees in the middle of the plaza were wheeled about by flights of swallows. Amid the trees, perched on the backs of granite benches, people sat chatting. The undersides of the granite benches seemed eroded. In the shade of the trees were kiosks selling fruit juice; split papayas, their exposed bellies gorged with seeds and teeming with flies; large glass jars filled with cubes of mango ready to be liquidized.
Parked all around the plaza were lines of Jeeps. Some looked new, but most were rusty broken-down Willys half eaten by rust or clapped-out Gaz or Carpatis. The newer models had metal driver’s cabs with small red or blue fans mounted on the dashboard while older models sported grubby statues of a saint next to the steering wheel and faded, patched tarpaulin roofs.
The dusty streets around the plaza would become quagmires in the rainy season. Traffic was heavy: trucks full with packages arrived as the jeeps teeming with passengers left. Garishly painted buses pulled up, their roofs piled high with live chickens, multi-coloured tin trunks and bunches of plantains.
The squat buildings of concrete and brick—mostly grain stores and seedy bars—were roofed with corrugated iron or asbestos tiles. There was no attempt at elegance or style; the walls themselves were grimy. The people teeming on the plaza were ugly: the white men were garrulous, potbellied traders with a yellowish tinge to their skin; the blacks, raised far from the sea and cheap fish, had prematurely rotting teeth.
“You get the bags unloaded and I’ll go see about a boat.”
“OK,” said Elena, then yelled up to the boy, “Hey! Careful with our luggage,
Her sewing machine—the one thing that she had kept from her first marriage—had spent almost twenty hours riding on the roof of the bus. The wooden case that housed the mechanism was wrapped with cardboard boxes held in place with packing tape and twine; the feet and the pedal were exposed.
It tumbled to the ground with a dull clatter.
Elena unleashed a torrent of hurried, confused abuse before composing herself and calmly swearing at the boy, choosing her insults with silky venom.
“It ain’t my fault,
,” the boy said simply.
EAVING THE PLAZA
, J. threaded his way through the dusty streets. After a few blocks, the brick and concrete buildings gave way to wooden shacks mounted on short piles and the crawlspace underneath the houses teemed with chickens, pigs and children. He arrived at the docks. Here, finally, he could see the water, but this was stagnant water, rippled only by a slow, oily swell. There was not a single gull, not a single gannet, nothing that evoked the sea. Motorboats were moored next to short, worm-eaten wooden wharfs swollen with damp. The supporting posts were green with slime where they had been lapped by water and warped where they were covered at high tide while, above, the jetties were dry and splintered. The long, narrow boats that were—or had once been—painted in bright colours seemed weighed down by their huge outboard motors. On some, sweaty black men in cut-off jeans, their expressions solemn and grave, delved into the entrails of the engines.
“Do you own this boat?” J. asked one of them.
“She’s mine, but she’s not working,” the black man said without looking up.
“Who can we talk to about getting to Severá?”
The boatman did not answer immediately but went on rummaging in the belly of the engine.
“How many passengers?” he asked finally.
“How many bags?”
“One heavy trunk, two suitcases and a sewing machine.”
Three boatmen wandered over.
“Where you headed?”
“To a big estate, a
“How many bags?”
“A trunk and a few other bits and pieces,” said J., wearily, knowing they had already overheard his conversation with the man tinkering with the engine.
When yet another boatman appeared and asked how many were travelling, J. became irritated. Just then, the man with the malfunctioning engine leapt nimbly onto the jetty and came towards him.
“Julito can take them,” he said.
“Julito!” chorused the other men.
“Let’s go,” the first man said curtly.
J. watched as he strode ahead through the dusty streets. After three blocks, they came to the covered market, an imposing building tiled with asbestos cement. To one side of the plaza, men were loading a truck with cured fish while the driver, leaning against a wall, idly watched the proceedings. The windows of the truck were
plastered with colourful decals of women in swimsuits and Stetson hats.
“How much would it cost us to take an express boat?” J. asked as they arrived on the market square, walking across gangplanks laid on the ground.
This timber corridor was lined on either side by grain stalls and J. constantly had to stand as men passed with heavy sacks balanced on their shoulders, their shirts protected by red flannel
“Depends on what?” asked J.
“On Julito,” said the black man.
Having passed the grain stalls they came to the
—the fried food stalls—where sweaty, plump women dropped thick pieces of fish into enormous frying pans. Laid out on the wooden trays that served as counters, the fillets of fried fish immediately cooled to take on an almost mineral appearance while thick slices of fried plantain—
—were heaped around them. J. hungrily began to imagine the slap-up feed of
pescado y patacón
they would have once he had made arrangements for the boat.
As they came to the end of the walkway, the black man disappeared through a door into one of the
. When J. caught up, he saw the boatman sitting at the back. At the counter, a fat, sullen woman with a huge knife was chopping green plantains. Behind her were five large tables surrounded by long wooden benches, everything painted
a pale green. The black boatman was sitting at one of the tables chatting to a short man who was also black. Aside from the boatman and the short black man—Julito, probably—the only customer was an old man slowly eating chicken and potato soup.
And indeed it turned out to be Julito, because the little man got to his feet with great solemnity as J. approached the table and introduced himself.
“Julio Alberto Gutiérrez,” he said, offering his hand, “your humble servant and friend.”
He was a thin, wiry man of about forty, with pale eyes. From his tone of voice as he asked the fat woman for another glass, J. realized that he probably owned the stall and that the woman chopping plantain was his wife or maybe his lover. Julito poured a large glass of
, which J. accepted.
“My friend Jesús here tells me you need a boat,” he said.
“If you’ll excuse me,
,” said Jesús, getting up to leave. As he passed, he stopped to ask the woman at the counter about the health of some relative and she said there was no improvement. “Not good, not good,” said Jesús.
“We’re trying to get to a
in Severá,” said J.
“How many are you?”
J. said there were two of them and told him about the trunk, the suitcases and the sewing machine.
” said Julito knocking back his glass of
J. drained half of his.
Julito was drunk. With pompous pride, he explained at great length that, in addition to the
, he owned three motorboats and that, aside from the fat woman who was now mashing the plantain slices with a flat stone, he had three other “wives”; though he was drunk, he insisted, he was also a gentleman and J., likewise, was a gentleman. Without waiting for J. to drink what remained from their last toast, he poured more
, raised a full glass and with a quick “
” downed it in one. Then he went back to telling J. his life story: six years ago, he boasted, he had been living in a hovel without a peso to his name whereas now he had three boats, a house, four “wives” and this
“How much is it likely to cost, the trip?” asked J., wary now as Julito was beginning to repeat himself.
“When d’you want to go?”
“The day before yesterday…”
“Too late to set off today. We can leave first thing tomorrow if you like.”
“That would be fine,” said J.
Julito initially quoted a price of three hundred pesos, but after a little bargaining J. managed to get him to agree to two hundred and fifty. They settled on a time and then drank another toast. When J. got up to leave, Julito staggered to his feet and hugged him.
HE SEWING MACHINE
was damaged. After ranting at the porter, Elena headed off to the shipping office to complain, where she was roundly greeted by a slob who insisted this was just one of those things that could have happened to anyone. Elena flew into a rage and curtly informed him that his company was shit. The man—who was not so much rude as insignificant—immediately agreed:
“You’re right, the company is shit.”
Elena threatened to complain to the head office in Medellín.
“They’re even more shit there than we are,
,” said the man.
“Those bastards will regret crossing me,” said Elena as she left.
By the time J. arrived back at the plaza, his bones were liquefied by the
. On his way back, he had stopped by a seedy bar and ordered a double which he washed down with soda water.
Elena, petite, bronzed and wearing a white miniskirt, was standing next to their luggage.
“What happened?” he asked.
Her eyes narrowed. Without looking at him, she explained about the Singer being dropped. Her sharp white teeth glittered. “If the thing is broken, then toss it out,” he said.
Eyes shining from the
, J. took Elena’s chin between thumb and forefinger, bent down and, brushing his bearded cheek against hers, whispered soothing words and kissed her ear.
Elena choked back her anger and asked about the boat; the incident with the sewing machine was a personal matter that she would deal with later.
“It’s all arranged,” he said, “We leave at six tomorrow morning.”
Needing to find a hotel, they approached one of the numerous men with handcarts milling around the buses and asked for a recommendation.
“The best,” Elena insisted.
“Well, now… best, best… there is no best really. If you like, I can take you to the
Stripped to the waist, a red
knotted round his head and his chocolate-coloured torso slick with sweat, the man began to load their luggage onto his cart.
“And be careful with the sewing machine,
,” said Elena.
The hotel was muggy and dimly lit. At the reception
desk, they were greeted by a tall, overweight woman who had rolls of flab hanging from her arms and wore a low-cut dress that revealed a deep cleft between her breasts. On the desk were a tiny bell and the hotel register. The large ceiling fan turned slowly. The hotel reeked of cat piss, though there was no sign of a cat. In front of the woman was a small plastic fan aimed directly at her sallow pendulous breasts.
“How many nights?”
“We leave tomorrow morning.”
“Sign here. I’ll need your ID cards. Amanda!”
She dabbed at the folds of her neck with a small blue handkerchief.
The creature known as Amanda appeared dressed in a man’s sleeveless vest and a pair of tight white trousers. Though not particularly broad, Amanda’s tanned shoulders were taut and powerfully muscular; the twin curves of a bra looked like two rocks beneath the vest, and a pronounced bulge squeezed into the tight trousers—clearly the genitals—protruded from this slim, strange body.
“Room eight!” yelled the fat woman.
Somewhere out on a patio, a parrot cackled. The luggage was next to the reception desk.
“They’ll be safe there,” said the woman.
Room eight was at the far end of a long corridor. As they passed, they saw the patio where a parrot with tattered tail feathers prowled up and down a perch embedded in the wall, racing from one side to the other in what seemed like panic.
Room eight comprised two clean, rudimentary beds with headboards painted with flowers and a nightstand with a water jug. A ceiling fan dangled from two pieces of wire. Amanda flicked the switch and the fan began to sway slowly, bathing the room in warm, stale air. Sweat trickled down the back of J.’s neck.
“This fucking heat.”
At 4 a.m. they were woken by a loud racket from the kitchen: taps turned on and off, saucepans dropped, the fat woman yelling at Amanda, the static drone of a radio being tuned and the parrot cackling.
They showered in a large bathroom with mildewed walls and discarded slivers of soap in every corner.
At a quarter to six, Julito arrived at the jetty. He gave a perfunctory greeting that had none of the obsequiousness of the previous day and then he and his assistant set to work preparing for the trip.
The air was cool, the sky cloudless; small rainbows formed in the oily ripples around the outboard motors; a smell of petrol mingled with sewage drifted up from the water; there was not a breath of wind.
The two men worked quickly and surely, loading the luggage onto the boat, lashing it securely and covering everything with a thick sheet of transparent plastic. They worked in silence. When Elena worried aloud that the sewing machine might get wet, Julito did not answer.
Once the luggage was safely stowed, the assistant
standing in the stern held a hand out to Elena, “Climb aboard,
.” She sat down on the pier and let herself drop into the boat, which pitched violently, making her lose her balance. The assistant had to grab her around the waist to stop her toppling into the water. He was swift and agile; in a single movement he managed to catch her, set her upright and peek into her blouse. “Fuck,” he thought, “she’s not wearing a bra.” Once Elena had regained her balance, he slipped his arm from around her waist and took her by the elbow.
“Sit up front,” he said.
Elena scrabbled towards the bow of the boat. Even once she was safely sitting down, she clung to the sides of the boat.
J. sat next to her, took a bottle from his backpack and proffered it to her.
“I’m having trouble keeping breakfast down,” she said gesturing to her sternum.
“This would be good for your digestion.”
Elena took a long swig that burned her throat.
“Fancy a quick tipple?” J. asked the boatmen.
“Sure,” Julito said taking the bottle and looking at J. with laughing eyes.
Solemnly, the boat pulled away from the quay. The twin Evinrude engines purred softly. As the boat picked up speed, the wind whipped at their faces. Fifteen minutes later, as they chugged out of the harbour—or rather the filthy
canal—and emerged onto the open sea, J. felt a brightness blossom in his belly.
The trip took four and a half hours. The sea was calm during the crossing and only occasionally were they splashed as the boat braved the waves.