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Señor Capitán

The lawyer beside me shrugs in silence. His body language seems to suggest that some stories can’t be captured in words. He tries nonetheless. To make his narrative more palatable, he loosens his necktie and speaks slowly, as if rationing out his words . . .. He’s a middle-aged man, tired and earnest. We’ve been talking for a while in the hotel bar. Drink in hand, he braces himself to tell of an episode he lived through, back when he was still in the Dominican Republic, his homeland.

At that time, he was beginning a career as a criminal lawyer. He would often visit Santo Domingo’s central prison, to interview clients and unearth new causes. He liked the old colonial pavilion, with its generous proportions and yellowish tones, its six floors overlooking an interior courtyard, its halls constantly echoing sounds and voices. The cells were filled with all types: criminals and drunks, union leaders and pimps. He used to hunker down beside the cell bars and talk to his clients for hours on end, pen and pad in his lap. A journalist at heart, he hoped someday to write books.

On one of these visits, he heard a bloodcurdling scream that seemed to come from an adjacent cell. A little while later, word got around: a prisoner had just been killed by his fellow inmates. It wasn’t the first time. But the crime had been brutal.

The victim was the captain of a fishing boat, involved in trafficking immigrants along the Florida route. There had been a malaria outbreak in the prison, and during the night the captain had shouted: “Señor capitán! Señor capitán!” in tones ranging from pleading to utter indignation. By morning, in the throes of delirium, he had embarked on a long monologue. After listening with undivided attention and making him repeat details more than once, the prisoners had split into two groups. One had backed up against the cell bars, the other had surrounded his bed in shadows. The captain then had his tongue ripped out and his eyes gouged.

Although the violence of the crime bordered on the unusual, the reasons behind it remained unclear. But since the prisoners kept quiet, the press had forgotten the case before long. The lawyer hadn’t pushed either: he knew the subject would come up, slowly, like the remains of a shipwreck that, sooner or later, wash up on shore. As in fact it did.

The fishing boat could hold thirty passengers out on the deck. Sometimes more—if they were children or elderly. They were people of humble origins, usually from inland. Some had relatives in Florida, others took their chances on what they hoped would be a one-way trip. Before the port lights had even faded from view, bowls of fish soup were passed around. The children, who usually complained about the strong and bitter taste, were given slices of cake.

An hour later, far from shore, the food did its job and the travelers became sluggish. The lights would then go out. The men barely put up a fight: one by one, they were thrown overboard. The women were next. Sobbing and pleading, they were easily dragged and tossed into the waves. Once in the water, the bodies struggled briefly, like dolls waking from a dream—but their cries were soon drowned by the surf. Moonlit nights brought out the blood red of the water when sharks attacked.

The children were last—the sailors pitched them into the dark with their eyes closed. At this point of his story, the captain had shifted tone and, as if warning the little ones of grave danger, he’d raised a finger in the air, a cross between a grandfather and a witch: “Watch out for the sharks, dearies!” he’d cackled, already half out of his mind.

Poor captain . . .. On the last trip, a young girl had refused the soup and hadn’t touched the cake. Hidden in the dark, hands over her ears, a look of terror in her eyes, she’d watched her family being thrown overboard, father, mother, sister. Once the commotion was over, however, she’d been found amid the silence, clinging to the mast. Such evident horror had intimidated the crew—and they’d hesitated, waiting for a sign from their boss. “Perdóname niña . . .,” he’d said, leaning over her as if fulfilling a duty. And the girl, suspended over the water, had summed up the indignation of the universe with a single cry: “Señor capitán!”

The lawyer tosses back his cognac and I my vodka. With a wave, he dismisses the approaching waiter. We need to be quite alone, he and I—time for the Caribbean waters to lap up against Florida and come back to us with the evening breeze. Time for five centuries of absurdity and misery to flicker and die. The way stars die.

In his final moment, the captain had begged forgiveness. Not from the men who surrounded him with breath stinking of vomit—much less from the gods who had forsaken him. He’d asked forgiveness from the girl who danced before his eyes, taking up what little remained of his life.

The lawyer had given up on becoming a writer. “What’s there to write about?” he’d asked. I believe he’d even given up on happiness. “Tell this story,” he asked of me. And, with his hand on my arm, he added, “But not to your children. Much less mine.”

"Señor capitán!" from O livro das pequenas infidelidades (Companhia das letras, 1994; Editora Record, 2004.) © Edgard Telles Ribeiro. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2013 by Kim M. Hastings. All rights reserved.