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Captain Seymour Sea
by Norberto Luis Romero

for Adriana and Eduardo

It was intensely cold the night that Seymour Sea lost an eye during the storm. The boom broke loose, whirled around, dragging several ropes, and the torn end of one of them gave him a violent lash full in the face.

Fighting the furious winds, the captain felt only the blow, which left him bewildered since the cold prevented his feeling the pain. After a while he noted an intense heat in his cheek. Without abandoning his struggle, he touched the painful area and, examining his hand, he found it stained with blood. The icy wind soon congealed the blood, and he felt a quick sharp pain run through that side of his face as the unusual cold penetrated his right eye. He gently felt the flaccid lid, startled at the inside of the now empty socket. Instinctively he looked down as if he expected to find his eye contemplating him from the deck, believing that at any moment he would see his own image, as if looking at himself without a mirror. There the water was swirling furiously, whipping his legs. Immediately he gathered that his eye was being devoured by fish at that very moment and that he had lost it forever. Nonetheless, and despite his enormous suffering, he did not cease giving orders to his men or stop struggling valiantly against the tempest until he managed to control the ship by fastening the cables and keeping the ship from veering and sinking with the entire crew.

The ship's doctor, an old sailor who had never finished his internship but who had great experience in curing all sorts of exotic fevers and convulsions and in staunching wounds, disinfected the dark socket with some brownish powders and gave him six or seven stitches, which ran like a tiny rope ladder from the lower lid to the middle of his cheek.

When the storm let up that night, the groom, whose skill with thread and scissors was renowned, working under insufficient light from the oil lamp, fashioned a patch from a piece of black cloth.

This accident was the end of the career of Captain Sea, who took advantage of his age, the prescribed convalescence, and his wife's continuous pleading to retire definitively. He felt a pain like that from the rope lash when he had to sell his ship to a stranger. He turned his back on the sea and swore loud and clear that he would never look at it again. Since then, he spent most of his time on the first floor of his house, avoiding the windows which looked out on the harbor.

Captain Sea's wife, a very fine woman though too given to mundane things and appearances, made him take the patch off and wear a glass eye which she herself selected in a store in the capital during a long trip made exclusively for that purpose. It in no way resembled her husband's good eye-his was brown and this artificial eye was a deep green. But she had liked it the instant she had seen it; astonished, she murmured, It's as beautiful as a jewel. And she had turned to her husband with a smile of satisfaction, adding, Seymour, it will be like wearing emerald between your lids. So satisfied was she with her purchase that she jealously put it in her purse.

It was hard for Captain Sea to adjust to that cold, dead object which was heavy in its socket, and motionless, as little his own as a cuckoo's egg; which made him feel like a helpless, ridiculous cyclops. Behind his wife's back he hid the patch in a box in his closet, where he kept keepsakes of his journeys: rusty fishhooks, cork buoys, bits of rigging, and curiously shaped seashells.

But the captain's reclusion was not only owing to his retirement; that emerald eye, insensitive and hostile beside the real one, lively and dark, was a kind of lure to people curiosity, especially women's but above all children's-they did not hesitate to mock him, calling him Captain Emerald behind his back and starting the rumor that the gem had belonged to a pirate treasure found on a desert island.

It was a very beautiful limpid eye, but inexpert and with no memory.

One night, on going to bed and putting the fake eye in a glass of water, the captain felt a slight dizziness but he did not tell his wife so as not to alarm her. The dizziness over, a blurry image began to cloud his vision. Little by little it cleared, exposing an extensive beach of fine sand and a calm, deep lapis lazuli sea reflecting a reddish moon. He was hours trying to sleep because the beauty of that shore fascinated him. Waking the next day, breaking his promise by looking out his bedroom window, he saw the docks crowded with moored ships, sailors, moving nervously about the decks, and heard all the usual noise from the harbor. Over this now flat image which his only eye offered him were superimposed the beach of fine sand and the lapis lazuli sea inundated with sun. He went back beside the bed where his wife was still peacefully sleeping. Her once firm breasts rose and fell in rhythm with her breathing, and over them blue waves came and went, flowing over her bodice in a confusion of foam and whitecaps as sea gulls flew about her neck. The captain, disturbed by that vision, took the crystal eye from the glass and put it in. Instantly the virtual beach vanished; it no longer lay superimposed over his wife's body, her white blue-filigreed breast becoming what it always was.

His discovery he kept secret, even from his wife, but every time he could, when no one was around, the captain removed his glass eye, closed his healthy one, and let himself be carried over those gentle waves until he fell asleep. One morning, taking advantage of his wife's prolonged sleep, while the glass eye was dozing at the bottom of the glass, he saw some people lazily wandering along that secret beach, and a child dressed as a sailor hunting shells and storing them in a small basket. A very beautiful woman appeared, carrying a lace parasol to protect her from the sun, and took the child by the hand and led him off. One night, sleepless he saw a pile of crabs crawling rapidly, opening and closing their menacing claws, and feared for his eye, but when they came near they turned to one side and disappeared. On another occasion, a flock of seagulls dangerously approached, picked at the ground-he could make out their hungry yellow beaks-and took flight until they were lost in the distance.

Day by day Captain Sea's character was becoming more irritable. The noises from the harbor and the impudent cries of the seagulls upset him because, though he had not turned his gaze on the coast since that long-ago morning, the breeze or the wind brought him those familiar sounds which easily invaded his house despite the closed windows. Always stealthily, he resorted to his secret sea to console himself.

Whether from adversity or fate, his wife became ill and the doctors prescribed healthy mountain air. This was his chance to flee the place definitively. They moved to a valley far from the coast, to a small quiet town with few inhabitants, ordinary bored laborers with restless, fat wives given to gossip. There he recovered his good humor, but his wife, far from improving, spit blood one morning.

At once he became known for his emerald eye, and despite curiosity no one asked uncomfortable questions. The busybodies at the market fostered the naive legend that the gem came from a pirate treasure. That old captain, who spent his days in the company of his thin, pale wife, sitting for hours in the porch swing, looking toward the infinite with his only eye, soon became respected and loved.

Observing his wife's wish, he never took his glass eye out in her presence except at bedtime. The dead days went by, and always with a certain bitterness and fear he longed for his past life, the smell of salt and iodine, the unceasing sound of the waves, his ship. And he did not stop thinking of that unlucky day when the sea's savage fury snatched an eye from him. At nightfall he looked at the moon, which was like the immaculate, concave reverse of his prosthetic crystal, and he shed a tear-that miniscule, inoffensive moon incapable of conversing with the waves usurped his face-which he immediately wiped away.

One night while his wife was sleeping, in his rocker he gave himself up to the enchantment of his intimate sea. Startled, he watched how the waters began to churn and how leaden clouds covered the sky until they unleashed a tempest like that one long ago. He had the unpleasant sensation of receiving another lash in the face, and he saw lifeless, shipwrecked bodies dragged by the waves among wooden wreckage. Close by he saw the grimace of panic on the face of a dead woman staring at him with eyes opened very wide. He was sweating. Terrified by the vision, he leaped up and rushed into the bedroom but not before putting in his false eye. A quick glance was enough to confirm what had been communicated to him: his wife had stopped breathing. Her breast, irreversibly calm, was white under the light of the full moon. He comforted himself with the realization that she had not suffered, that she had died in her sleep.

Captain Sea felt weak. He covered his wife's face with the edge of the sheet and sat beside her for several hours, reflecting on divine justice. At dawn, when the candles had for some time been consumed and the first rays of the sun entered, creating a shroud of golden dust, he rose from his chair, went to the fireplace, where embers still burned, and, tearing out the emerald eye, he hurled it violently into the ashes. The sphere burst into infinite fragments which leaped and scattered over the floor. His impotence broken, with a small hand-broom he swept up the fragments, which made glitters like sarcastic winks, and dumped them into the wastebasket. Calm now, he went back to his seat by the bed and cried bitterly over the lapis lazuli sea and the beach of fine sand.

He attended the funeral, his sunken, wrinkled lid bared unashamedly like a trophy to his life, all the while seeing a gray sea superimposed over the tomb and the valley. Back at the house, after thanking the neighbors for their condolences, he took his old patch from a box in the closet and covered his healthy eye for good. Immediately the sea recovered its blue, saturated by the vibrant sunlight; the gentle waves undulated with pure white foam, depositing shells on the sand. The woman with the lace parasol once again walked the beach barefooted, and the boy in the sailor suit built enormous sand castles.

The townspeople gossip. They say Captain Seymour Sea went crazy after the death of his beloved wife. They say so because he wears the black patch over the wrong eye, but above all because he sits eternally on the porch, entranced, with his black, empty socket emitting an invisible glance at an imagined horizon somewhere beyond the mountains-and because, when they go by and ask What are you doing, Captain Sea?, from that rocker which reminds him of the motion of his old ship, very satisfied, he shouts back, Looking at the sea, the shore, the waves . . .

And he grows silent, and smiles unceasingly.

-- Translated by H. E. Francis


Another Seized House

That Friday, as on every Friday, the Rosales couple returned at quarter to twelve after their habitual frugal meal at an expensive restaurant, followed that night by a movie. A taxi left them at their door. By twelve-thirty they were in bed. Before going to sleep, they discussed the film.

"He's always magnificent."

"But the end was a little sad," she said.

"You always cry."

They kissed and went to sleep.

It was two o'clock sharp when he awoke, thinking he'd heard a noise below, in the living room. He sat up and strained to hear. Beside him, she was sleeping as peacefully as a tired little animal.

He clearly made out a light, quick, metallic sound and, after a short interval, murmurs. Thieves, he thought, and his heart quickened. His first alternative was whether to wake his wife or not; the second, whether to remain silent or make a noise warning the thieves of his presence in the house. During those seconds of doubt, time seemed endless. He thought, The thieves were watching us, they saw us leave but not come back and believed we were still out. He decided to wake his wife, trying not to alarm her.

He murmured her name. She opened her eyes as if emerging from a deep haze, her mind clouded.

"I think there are thieves downstairs," he whispered.

Either unknown causes or deep fears kept the Rosales sitting in bed in the dark, in a profound silence, alert but not lifting a finger. From there they heard voices, laughter, and the usual sounds: the television, the sound of dishes and glasses, bits of conversation among several men and women. This lasted until four in the morning. At that hour they heard the street door open and close, and the voices and sounds disappeared in the darkness. The house returned to its habitual silence.

After letting some cautious minutes pass, they decided to go down. Without putting the lights on, timidly, like the blind descending an unknown staircase with each step a different size and height, they reached bottom and, crossing the hall, entered the living room. They stood there in the most absolute silence until he decided to put the lights on. There was smoke in the air and a heavy odor of food and satisfied humans. On the low table they saw an ashtray filled with butts, and a worn book, which they did not recognize as theirs, with a subway ticket marking a page.

He opened it: page 19.

"What does it say?" She was interested.

"I don't know. I don't have my glasses. . . . They look like sketches." And he left it as he found it.

They noticed nothing else out of place. Without another word, they kept glancing at each other, flustered.

In the kitchen there were clearer, even striking, traces which showed the visitors had been cooking: bread crumbs on the sideboard, oil still warm in the iron frying pan, a dirty fork, several wine-stained glasses, and leftovers in the garbage.

"It's our wine."

She shrugged.

They went back to bed, but they couldn't sleep.

The following day, they meticulously examined the first floor to see if anything were missing-only some food and drinks. They sat on the sofa. He put on his glasses and browsed the book left behind.

"You shouldn't look at it," he said, setting it back on the table.

She sloughed it off. She was concentrating on the crumbs on the carpet.

The thieves had taken nothing, no object of value, nothing trivial either; they had only eaten, watched television, and there on the table left that obscene book, which, from some respect, the Rosales dared not throw into the garbage. They decided to avoid complications and useless explanations, and did not call the police. They did not phone their children either. They kept the event secret, since it was their possession. That night they talked a long time-and every once in a while grew silent, thinking they heard a noise-before going to sleep.

But the following Friday, when they were already in bed, although awake, without being able to induce sleep, the same thing happened at the same hour. This time the visitors turned the television up louder; the noises, voices, and laughter were clearer, unrestrained, openly natural and spontaneous. And at four, again they went off, this time leaving more mess, a shambles, since they did not even throw the garbage in the can but left the plates dirty and scattered. The book was marked, but instead of a subway ticket, there was a toothpick at page 45. Again food was missing, nothing else; and again they said nothing.

What most bothered Señora Rosales was their lack of care and hygiene and good manners.

"They could have been a little more considerate," she said as she took a bit of cheese by the tips of her fingers and held it to her nose.

"It's stale and dry."

For months, every Friday at 2 a.m. sharp, the Rosales had these visitors, whose noises they had become accustomed to, to the point of not losing sleep, and who only ate, watched television, read that book, and left at four, leaving the refrigerator and the pantry empty, everything slovenly and dirty. What really bothered Señora Rosales was having to spend part of Saturday cleaning and ordering the place while her husband went to the nearest supermarket to replenish their larder.

As she was dusting, she couldn't resist the temptation to flip the book open to the marked page. She closed it immediately, without blushing.

As time went on the visitors kept extending the space of their parties to include the rest of the first floor, using, besides the living room and kitchen, the bathroom, the small den, and what was once a servant's room. They also prolonged their visits and became more and more careless and messy. They left at eight or nine, but always before the Rosales got up.

At the end of nearly two years, one morning they did not arrive. Señora Rosales was the first to awaken, startled at not hearing anything. At once she woke her husband. The silence offended their ears. They looked at each other and said nothing.

That night they couldn't sleep a wink. On the following morning they found everything in order, and clean. For hours they wandered futilely throughout the first floor in search of signs.

The Rosales have not slept one Friday night since the visitors ceased coming. They spend the night downstairs, eating and drinking, dirtying everything, watching television turned up to full volume, and reading that obscene book, then marking their place with a dirty toothpick.

-- Translated by H. E. Francis

Originally published in the April/ May 1998 issue of Boston Review



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