The Ship

Magdalena slipped out the front door, slapping her sandals against the dusty lane. Dressed in a tight blue tee-shirt and jeans just as snug, narrow-heeled bright pink sandals and toenails painted dark, she headed straight for the water.

She was sixteen or thereabouts, but lacking a birth certificate, her age could not be precisely determined. The Indian blood coursing through her veins was evident in her high cheekbones, wide dark eyes, prominent nose and brown skin brushed with copper. Of course, Magdalena also had Spanish roots and something unexpected that appeared in her face’s most surprising trait -- a most unforgettable pair of pale gray-green eyes.

The broken concrete path Magdalena hurried along after stepping off the dirt lane had split apart in a massive earthquake two decades before she was born. That walkway led to a set of  rotting wooden steps. At the bottom, Magdalena slid her pink sandals off and felt the loose dry sand sink under her toes.

Magdalena strode across the wide beach and stopped, at the point where waves left small shells in quiet arcs. The breeze coming in from the sea was warm. She gazed out toward the horizon but nothing broke the flat monotony of that blue line.

Whispering to herself, Magdalena let out the first hint of what was on her mind.

“It will come,” she said, the words carried on her breath.

Magdalena wasn’t sure what the ship would look like. If asked, she would have shrugged.

Unbeknownst to Magdalena, people in barrios throughout the capitol were heading toward the beach to join her. At about the same time, without anyone coordinating or leading or trying to convince them to act, they let out a collective sigh. Like Magdalena, some hadn’t been born when the young guerrillas with their long hair and beards marched into the capitol, promising the sort of life few dared to dream of – enough food to eat, doctors to treat them when they were sick, and the ability to read and write. But they had been brought up hearing stories about the time when hope sprouted like the bright red coffee beans that appeared each spring on the volcanic hillsides where guerrillas trained and fought.

For most, the walk to the beach meant missing work or failing to make breakfast for their children. Each in their separate ways, experienced feelings they only had in church or while making love. Or sadly, after downing one too many shots of the local rum.

Several minutes after reaching the beach, Magdalena turned her gaze away from the horizon. She watched as Alejandro Sanchez inched his way across the soft sand. The old man moved like a seesaw, the cane in his left hand acting as a lever pushing him up, while a few seconds later his shoulders and torso seesawed back down.

Buenos dias,” Sanchez said when he reached Magdalena’s side. He was out of breath.

“Are you here for . . . . “  Sanchez hesitated, not sure whether to go on.

“Yes,” Magdalena said, as if she knew exactly what Sanchez intended.

“That is good,” he assured her. “Then we will wait together.”

Up until today, the old guerrilla commander had barely left the house, since the morning two years before when a stroke caused his right cheek to drop, his pistol arm to hang useless at his side and his foot to feel too heavy to lift and set down. Thirty years ago to the day, Sanchez, a young man then, had marched into the capitol at the front of a column of victorious rebels. It had been years now since the government or the people had celebrated that day, when the brutal dictator was overthrown, and few could recall the hope they had felt or the dreams they’d had for a better life.

Sanchez had no uniform to put on, except for a faded black beret tacked to his bedroom wall and a pin bearing the letters FRL for Revolutionary Front for Liberation. Using his good left hand, Sanchez pulled the tack out from the beret’s soft center, letting it drop to the floor, as he grasped the hat’s edges in his palm.

After setting the beret atop his head, a fringe of white hair peaking out, Commander Sanchez slowly opened a wooden door in the center of the purple bougainvillea-draped wall at the front of his house. Using his cane, he stepped cautiously down the lane, the bottom tip of his cane picking up dust as he walked.

A few minutes passed before Sanchez and Magdalena were joined on the beach by Alicia Mendoza. As Alicia made her way to the water’s edge, she recognized Sanchez, even though she hadn’t seen him for nearly a decade. She looked out toward the horizon, assuring herself that she hadn’t arrived too late. There wasn’t a single vessel or anything breaking the water’s aquamarine monotony.

Alicia Mendoza had once been in love with Commander Sanchez. Or in lust might have been a better way to say how her cheeks flushed, whenever Alejandro Sanchez came near.

Alicia hadn’t known the dangers of what she was about to take on – carrying notes from guerrillas to their urban supporters – after meeting and falling in love with the guerrilla commander. Somehow, she managed to not get caught. Friends weren’t so lucky. Picked up by the dictator’s thugs, they’d been tortured, their bodies dumped at the outskirts of the city as a warning to others.

“All for love,” Alicia whispered moments before she left the house, as she recalled the risks she’d taken to meet Sanchez in the mountains. Not long after the guerrillas seized power, Sanchez got involved with someone else. In less than three months’ time, that woman became Sanchez’s wife.

At nearly fifty, Alicia Mendoza was still a beauty. One of the country’s most respected poets, she had also become known for her scandalous love life. Some said Mendoza was the country’s first truly liberated woman, not bothering to marry her lovers – some, in fact, were already married – and having three children out of wedlock.

Maybe it was the anniversary that drew her out of the house and toward the water. Whatever the reason, Alicia Mendoza slipped on a white cap-sleeved cotton dress in the old peasant style with large red and yellow embroidered flowers. She slid her feet into a pair of backless silver sandals and stepped out the front door into the damp heat of another exhausted morning.

As soon as Alejandro, Alicia and Magdalena were in their places, others from barrios throughout the city began moving closer to the beach. No one could explain how this sentiment traveled so quickly, except that hope which had fueled the country’s revolution had lain dormant for years in that lush humid place. Some incorrectly assumed hope had drowned in the afternoon downpours that turned the dusty roads and lanes into rushing rivers of mud. Others feared that during the war which followed the guerrillas’ triumph, when the dictator’s thugs fought to regain power, every ounce of hope had been left to bleed on the ground, the dust soaked red and mothers sobbing. There were even suggestions that what hope remained had been swallowed up in alcohol and drugs, in prostitution, gangs and, of course, in husbands beating children and wives.

But, miraculously, hope had survived. And in each one of those tiny tin-roofed  houses that crowded the capitol, a man, woman or child was managing to find a shred of it.

The morning appeared as ordinary as any other. By ten o’clock, the sun pelted the dust, creating a nearly white reflection that was blinding. You could see women walking, dressed in short, brightly colored polyester sundresses and cheap rubber thongs. A few carried babies.

A handful of men walked as well. The older ones wore wide-brimmed straw hats that hid their faces from the burning sun.

With so many children in that city, the young practically swarmed toward the shore. It looked like the old days before the brutal crackdown, when students massed in the central part of the city and demonstrated, calling for the dictator to go.

Having been the first person to arrive, Magdalena voiced the intentions of everyone, even while some people were still arriving.

“I think it’s going to be a big white ship,” she said and turned toward Commander Sanchez and smiled. “Like one of those cruise ships on the billboards alongside the boulevard.”

The old commander had imagined something more unassuming.

“I was thinking,” he said, turning toward Magdalena but gazing out toward the water, “it will be a very small fishing boat. People always expect something big and flashy. But I have learned in my life that the thing or person of real substance is quite modest.”

“You sound almost religious,” Alicia said to him now.

“Faith is not restricted to religion,” he said, flashing her a wry smile, though the right side of his lip drooped some. “Faith is what fueled the revolution. Without faith, dreams are impossible.”

“Yes,” she said and lifted her fingers to her chest, quickly making the sign of the cross. People who knew Alicia’s past would have been surprised.

“I am thinking that it will be a yacht,” she said. “The crew members will be young and very handsome.”

By now, the crowd gathered along the water’s edge had grown to several hundred and people were still arriving. Magdalena alternated between gazing out toward the horizon and keeping an eye on the crowd. She did not want to lose her place up front. When the ship sailed in, the girl wanted to be first to get on board.

For such a large crowd, the beach was surprisingly silent. And that distinguished this gathering from the demonstrations that led to the guerrilla war, which toppled the dictator. Those gatherings were noisy affairs, with several organizers leading chants. Musicians played and sang songs written for the struggle. Participants used large spoons to bang the bottoms of aluminum pans.

This warm morning on the beach, though, each person was lost in his or her own thoughts. Though the crowd had gathered in the same place and at the very same time, the individuals came for their own selfish reasons.

Magdalena noticed the ship when it was almost too far away to be spotted. As she stared at the place along the edge of the horizon, the outlines of the white vessel waved, like air often does when the temperature is stifling. Tears formed in her eyes and that made it hard to see. Would the ship turn and head toward the beach or keep going, until the outline eventually disappeared?

About this time, the old commander saw what he’d been waiting for -- a small trawler. The thin metal arms for holding nets formed a dark skeletal outline, like raised triangles, against the bright blue-white horizon. He recalled the feeling of happiness and pride, when he’d led the column of guerrillas into the capitol. Though the people on the beach were still silent, he could now hear shouts and applause from the crowds that lined the route that day, along the city’s main boulevards.

So too did Alicia spot her yacht. The sleek white vessel still sailed a ways out. Nonetheless, Alicia managed to glimpse those handsome guys working on the deck, muscles visible, as the heat forced them to strip their shirts off.

Alicia was surprised to feel a desire rise up, a sensation she hadn’t experienced in a long time. She turned to her left, where Alejandro Sanchez, an old man now, had his gaze planted toward the horizon. For some reason difficult to explain, Alicia recalled the way Alejandro looked in the days when she met him in the mountains. His thick hair, now white, was the blackest shade of black, almost blue. She could feel its thickness on her fingers now, without reaching out her hand.

One by one, the other people on the beach began to notice the particular type of ship each of them had expected. Like those of Magdalena, Alejandro and Alicia, the ships of the people in the crowd hovered along the magical line that blurred the separation between sea and sky. Whether the ship came into shore or not, each man and woman experienced a feeling as if it had. A woman named Berta, who made a meager living cleaning rich people’s houses, realized this feeling was better than the one she had each week when she bought a ticket for the lottery. A very religious woman named Elena thought it came close to praying in the cathedral, where she went alone to ask God’s help.

The sun climbed higher as the crowd hung out on the beach and waited. On a normal day, no one would have lingered, letting the sun beat down on them, with the humidity so thick, the air felt damp enough to shower. But hope is a surprising thing and it can make even the most cynical person into a believer. A woman in the crowd named Marta Guttierrez was known by her neighbors as a non-stop complainer. That Marta, her closest neighbor Alma Martinez liked to say, will complain even after she’s dead. Yet standing on that sizzling sand, the sweat running in two separate streams down the sides of her chubby face, Marta didn’t have a bad word to say.

Normally at this time of day, Marta would have been in the hot kitchen of her employer’s house cooking the afternoon meal. Having arrived to work just after dawn, Marta would have been muttering to herself about the pain in her feet and calves, her ankles swollen from the heat, and wishing for a break when she could finally sit down. Out there on the beach Marta saw that the view was endless, and something beautiful existed beyond the small cramped box of a kitchen where she had wasted her life.

Though the people on the sand did not speak to those on their left and right, there appeared to be an understanding that they had all come for the same reason. Even after several hours, people stayed, though they had no leader, clear agenda or plan.

Juan Pedro Calderón, the country’s vice-president, rode past the gathering in a black air-conditioned Mercedes. When he reached the office, he made a call.

“Any idea what this is about?” VP Calderón asked Manuel Fernandez, the parliamentary representative from the poorest section of the capitol.

“No idea,” Fernandez responded. “I’ve been trying to find out myself.”

Like Calderón and many members of parliament, Fernandez had been a guerrilla fighter before the revolutionary government seized power. Even now, he considered himself a man of the people, though he lived in a large air-conditioned house surrounded by eighteen-foot high stucco walls.

Fernandez’s once lean physique had grown flabby. He still wore short-sleeved white cotton peasant shirts, wrinkled linen trousers and sandals. But the shirts that once hung loosely over his slender frame stretched taut against his substantial belly now.

As he walked down the wide main boulevard from his office, Fernandez couldn’t help but recall that day thirty years before. What struck him thinking about it was how friendly the crowd seemed and how he felt a part of each man, woman and child. They were brothers and sisters, having fought together and triumphed for this beautiful cause.

Earlier that day, he had stood with the other fighters watching the dictator’s plane leave the country. Like so many others, Fernandez believed the terror and cruelty, the poverty and childhood diarrhea, the illiteracy and hunger would be vanishing, along with that plane.

It was much harder than we thought, he said to some imaginary listeners, suddenly feeling the need to explain.

The heat was oppressive. Fernandez couldn’t recall the last time he had walked this far. And when was the last time he’d stepped onto the beach? Why, it had to have been when he was still a child.

Even after every person on the sand had seen the outlines of the vessel he or she had come for, no one felt inclined to go. It was one thing to hope but quite another to take faith a step further. Magdalena, along with the others, sensed this but wasn’t sure yet what else she ought to do.

“The ship,” Magdalena said, turning to look at the old commander as her right hand gestured toward the water. “I saw it.”

“I know,” Sanchez replied, nodding his head. “I saw it too.”

At that moment, Alicia on Sanchez’s right added, “I saw it myself.”

Magdalena knew what she wanted to say but wasn’t ready to send those words out into the humid air. She had seen the ship. There could be no argument about that. And these two older people who’d lived through so much hardship and also joy and who understood things about life the teenage girl couldn’t possibly imagine had seen ships as well. But the fact remained. Not a single vessel had turned toward the beach where that anxious and hungry group of people still waited.

Since Magdalena had been the first to arrive, she also needed to be the one to express what needed to said.

“They’re not coming for us.”

The words were uttered barely above a whisper. As soon as she’d said them, Magdalena wanted to take the words back, swallow each syllable whole and forget she’d even considered the individual letters. But it was too late.

“No,” Sanchez agreed. “They are not.”

Not wanting to be excluded from the conversation, Alicia Mendoza piped up.

“Not even one,” Alicia added.

Now, Magdalena considered stepping into the water. She was a fair swimmer and thought perhaps she might be able to power her way out to the horizon. Without thinking more, she stepped one foot forward and then another.

The girl might have kept going if she hadn’t looked up. When she did, her eyes were drawn immediately out toward the horizon. What she saw was exactly what she had seen for most of her short life. The ship she had hoped for and even glimpsed momentarily was gone.

At this same instant, Fernandez arrived at the spot where a few half-rotted wooden steps led down to the sand. The beach was so crowded with people, the sand was barely visible. It occurred to Fernandez as he took one step down and then another that those practically broken stairs might not hold his weight. And as he often did, Fernandez chided himself to start eating less.

Normally in a crowd of his constituents as this group appeared to be, many people would approach to inform him of some particular need. Nothing of the sort occurred today. Fernandez noticed immediately that everyone on the beach stood facing the water. Fernandez looked in that direction as well.

“They must be waiting for something,” Fernandez mumbled to himself. “What could it be?”

As soon as he stepped down the last of the stairs, Fernandez tapped a middle-aged woman in a red polyester dress on the shoulder.

Señora,” he said. “What is going on here?”

Without taking her gaze away from the horizon, the woman said, “We are waiting.”

“Yes, I can see that,” Fernandez said. “But what exactly are you waiting for?”

“A ship,” the woman answered simply.

Fernandez thought for a moment. Like many in the region, his government had tried to entice the lucrative cruise lines to add the capitol and a few coastal villages to their stops. But the country’s poverty and crime had discouraged them from agreeing thus far.

“What kind of ship?” Fernandez asked. “And when is it scheduled to arrive?”

“The ship has already come,” she told him. “Now I am waiting to see if it will return.”

Fernandez pushed his way through the crowd, trying to get closer to the water.

“Excuse me,” he said, lightly touching arms to his right and left, while swiveling his pudgy torso sideways to make the narrow spaces between people wider.

It was slow going, the crowd barely shifting, everyone so intent on the view out past the shoreline.

After a good twenty minutes, Fernandez was in sight of the water’s edge. That’s when he spotted the old commander, Alejandro Sanchez. And next to him, the poet Alicia Mendoza. What in the world, he wondered, could have possibly brought them there?

Fernandez wrestled himself next to Sanchez on the left, shoving Magdalena to the side.

Comandante,” Fernandez said, his hand resting gingerly on Sanchez’s shoulder.

Unlike the others, the old commander took his gaze away from the horizon to look at the legislator.

“Happy Anniversary,” Sanchez said, a slow grin stretching across his lips. “Thirty years, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Fernandez said. “In some ways, it seems like yesterday. In other ways, that time feels like another life.”

“Another life, yes,” Sanchez agreed with the last statement. “And here we are, after all the lives lost, back where we started.”

“What do you mean, Comandante? The dictator is gone.”

“Yes, but there was more to the revolution than just getting rid of the dictator. We had dreams. And so many plans. Have you forgotten?”

Fernandez shuffled his feet against the sand, creating a smooth deep hole. Then he watched as the water seeped in, filling the narrow space, and cooling his toes.

Ignoring Sanchez’s question, Fernandez went on to ask his own.

“What are you doing here, Comandante?”

“I am waiting.”

Sanchez lifted his one good arm and hand, trying to take in the crowd behind him.

“I am waiting like everybody else.”

“But what are you and all these people waiting for, sir?”

“We are simply waiting,” Sanchez said, giving Fernandez another coy smile.

Then he added, “We are waiting to see if the ship will come in.”

“I don’t understand. I don’t understand what you mean,” Fernandez said.

“I know you don’t. That’s why we’re all here.”

Fernandez thought about the commander’s response and then did what seemed to make the most sense. He turned and planted his gaze out toward the horizon like everybody else.

If asked, Fernandez couldn’t have said what he was looking for. But suddenly, that wasn’t important.

Because Fernandez had suddenly found himself with a terrible yearning. A yearning to see a ship. It will be red, he would have said, if anyone asked for details. Bright red and shiny.

Fernandez was sure of that.  


Patty Somlo has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize three times and was a finalist in the Tom Howard Short Story Contest.  Her first collection, From Here to There and Other Stories, was published in 2010.  Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review, the Santa Clara Review, the Jackson Hole Review, WomenArts Quarterly, Guernica, Slow Trains, Shaking Magazine and Fringe Magazine, among others, and in six anthologies, including most recently, Solace in So Many Words (with T.C. Boyle and last U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine)which just won the Next Generation Indie Book Award for Anthology.  

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