Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

S H O R T   S T O R Y
b y   j a n   s t e c k e l   ~   o a k l a n d ,   c a l i f o r n i a

In March of 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella ordered the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and the expedition of Christopher Columbus to the Indies. All of Spain’s 200,000 Jews were driven out or killed, except for those who converted to Christianity, many of whom continued to practice Judaism in secret. The converted ones were called Conversos, or less politely Marranos, which means “pigs” in Spanish. “Marrano” can also be interpreted as a form of the verb “marrar,” which means to err, or to deviate from what is true or right. It is thought that several of the men who sailed on the ships of Columbus in August of 1492 were Conversos. On the last day of December of that year, one of those three ships was wrecked off the northwest coast of Haiti. The following is dedicated to Ilan Ramon, the Israeli astronaut who was killed in the wreck of the space shuttle Columbia.—J.S.

THE SANTA Maria sailed over meadows of sea-grass, over mountains and depths her crew could not see but only fathomed. They mapped uncharted seas to rename the Tainos’ island of Ayiti “La Isla Española,” the Spanish Isle, later written “Hispaniola.” The Marrano navigator, Alonso (who alone had fully appreciated the fantastical quality of the maps in the Admiral’s quarters) was the only one who didn’t cross himself at the wonders that they found. He had just been baptized the day before they sailed in a ceremony that had all the religious sentiment of a shotgun wedding, but instead of a groom, Alonso had become the fifteenth-century equivalent of an astronaut. He dropped the surname “ben Abraham” and styled himself “de la Calle,” Alonso of the Street, like a picaresque hero.

Alonso’s shipmates and the sailors who followed them traded for spices but sucked sweet mangos, mined for gold but brought up black coral, hunted for Indian elephants but rode humpback whales home instead. Alonso sharpened a quill from a gull’s wing and wrote a letter to his sweetheart that he never sent: "I set sail to find you gold, mi tesoro, mi vida, my treasure and my life, but brought you back guanábana seeds and chocolate." The New World’s cloth of gold dressed the imagination, not just costuming but creating the siglo de oro or Golden Age of Spain in the century that followed. How many mariners sank in the deep green sea dreaming of the Spanish Isle?

Little did Alonso know that the landfall he sighted was no true land at all. The topsoil concealed a cemetery of shell and coral, collapsed into a calcareous mass with subterranean inland seas. Marine caves, tunnels and underground rivers honeycombed the island’s limestone base. Hispaniola breathed water. The island lived like a giant sponge that sucked in Spaniards and spit their bones onto the ocean floor. Coral would transform the bones of men of Castile and Aragon to castles of aragonite, which would add to the reef, constructing caverns from which someday stalactites would drip calcite drops, one, two, three, a century, a millennium.

Five hundred years after Alonso guided the Santa Maria here, the north coast of Hispaniola is a graveyard for ships. Steep pinnacles and sheer drop-offs, underwater cliffs and spines, Navidad Banks and Silver Shoals, all wait to scrape barnacles off the hulls that glide above. In Samaná Bay, whales lift tails that mirror the flukes of the anchors buried on the bottom. The sharks still sing of the mighty feasts their great-great-great-great-grandfathers had when a caravel sank or a man-of-war foundered. The blood we smelled, the thrashing we felt, the flesh we tore on that day! Catholics tasted a little richer than Protestants, and Portuguese were particularly piquant.

Five centuries after Alonso’s voyage, you can’t see ships on the bottom. Pelicans gliding like graceful pterodactyls descry shapes below the surface of the water that harbor more fish. At first you might think you see a sunken ship, but you soon realize it is only a bale of giant turtles heading for Turks and Caicos Islands. Jellyfish are spectroscopically different just over the wrecks; they refract the water-filtered sunlight with a slightly higher index there. Conch shells that grew near sunken galleons trumpet with a characteristic tone.

On Christmas Eve the cabin boy was at the wheel. Some of the sailors were playing Tarot, and some were throwing dice. The ship’s carpenter was teaching Alonso a new game called Primero when the timbers cracked and the reef intruded between the berths. The cursing carpenter sank to his knees with his hand over his St. Christopher medal as the tepid Caribbean water rushed in. Alonso, still not crossing himself, murmured “Yitga’dal v’yit’kadash—”. Soon, translucent shrimp would drift through his ribcage and in and out the sockets that had housed his eyes. Bone dice would nestle in his pelvis. Mating lampreys would twine around his spine, and his clavicles would hang across the shank of the eleven-foot anchor.

If you dive today, you might think you see a Spanish Doña’s fan, but it is only a fan of coral. Most likely you will not find a wreck. You will not see the squid playing slalom in and out a line of portholes. You will not see encrusted pieces of eight on the bottom, or a corroded astrolabe. You will not find the glass beads and hawks’ bells the Spaniards traded for gold rings from Taino noses. Morays will not retreat into cannon-mouths, or the bioluminescent jellyfish into the captain’s Ming pitcher. Instead, the doctor-fish, the cobbler-fish and the king-fish will decoy you away from the broken hull and the fallen masts, where Alonso walks the streets of his underwater city.

Jan Steckel has served as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic.

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