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Los buques suicidantes

A work ("The suicide ships") by this Uruguayan man of letters.  You can read the original here.

There are, as it were, few things more terrible than finding an abandoned ship at sea.  If in daytime the danger is minor, during the night the boat cannot be seen, nor can there be any possible forewarning, and the shock affects one vessel just as much as the other.

These boats abandoned by A or by B continue their voyage obstinately with the backing of currents or the wind; that is, if they have their sails open.  In this way, capriciously changing course, they travel the seven seas.

Not a few of the steamships which, one fine day, do not arrive at port, will have stumbled in their paths across one of these silent boats sailing off on their own.  The probability of finding them always exists, at every minute.  As chance would have it, the currents tend to entangle the boats in the Sargasso seas, and here or there, the boats finally stop, forever immobile amidst a desert of seaweed.  And thus they remain until, little by little, they disintegrate.  Others, new boats, arrive every day and take up their places in silence, so that this tranquil and lugubrious port remains ever frequented.

The principle cause of these abandoned vessels is doubtless the storm or fire which leaves in its drift stray black skeletons.  Yet there are other, more singular causes, among which we may count the occurrence involving the María Margarita, which weighed anchor from New York on the 24th of August in the year 1903.  On the 26th it communicated with a corvette without any news.  Four hours later, not receiving an answer, some numskull dispatched a launch which boarded the María Margarita.  There was no one on the boat.  The sailors' shirts were drying on the prow.  The stove was still on.  A sewing machine had its needle suspended above the seam, as if it had been forsaken but a moment ago.  Not even the slightest indication of a struggle or panic could be found; everything was in perfect order.  And yet everyone was gone.  What could have happened?

On the night I learned of this, we were assembled on the bridge.  Europe was our destination, and the captain was regaling us with seaman's tales.  Perfectly true ones, however.

Our female audience, won over by the suggestion of whispering waves, listened with a shudder.  Against their own will, the girls lent an ear to the hoarse cacophony of sailors on the prow.  A very young, recently married woman ventured a comment:

"Could it have been eagles?"

The captain smiled a kind-hearted smile.

"What, ma'am?  A crew carried away by eagles?"

Everyone, including the young woman, laughed, although her laugh was a bit shy.

Luckily enough, one of our passengers knew something about the matter.  We gazed at him with great curiosity.  During the voyage he had been an excellent companion, traveling at his own expense and risk, and speaking little.

"Ah, sir!" said the young eagle theorist.  "If you could tell us all about it!"

"I have no objection," assented the discreet fellow.  "In a word: once upon a time in the seas of the north we, like our captain's María Margarita, came upon a sailing ship.  Its singular air of abandonment, unmistakeable in a ship, caught our attention and we slowed our pace as we observed it more closely.  At length we dispatched a launch.  There was no one to be found on board and everything was in perfect order; yet the last entry in the captain's log was four days old.  Nevertheless, it provided us no better impression of what had happened.  Still, we laughed a bit about those famous sudden disappearances.

"Eight of our men stayed on board to steer and manage the new boat.  We were traveling in convoy.  At nightfall, the newcomer put some distance between our ships.  Come the day, we had caught up to it again but could see no one at all on the bridge.  Another launch was dispatched and those on it scoured the boat in vain: everyone had disappeared.  Not a single object was out of place.  The sea was absolutely smooth to every corner of its horizon.  In the kitchen a pan with potatoes was still aboil.

"As you will surely understand, the superstitious terror of our crew now reached its zenith.  Eventually, six men stepped forth to fill the empty ship and I was with them.  Hardly had we boarded when my new companions decided to drink so as to banish all other preoccupations.  They were seated in a circle and soon enough most of them were singing.

"Noon came and then siesta time; at four o'clock the breeze died down and the sails fell; a sailor approached the edge of the vessel and gazed upon the oily sea.  Everyone was already awake and walking about without, as yet, any desire to make conversation.  One of them sat down on a rolled-up cable coil, removed his shirt, and set to mending it.  He sewed for a while in silence.  Suddenly he got up and gave off a long whistle.  His companions turned around.  He looked at them vaguely, in equal surprise, and then sat down again.  A moment later he left his shirt atop the coil, walked up to the boat's edge, and threw himself in the water.  Upon hearing the noise the others turned their heads, their brows somewhat furrowed.  But almost immediately they seemed to forget the incident and returned to their collective apathy.

"Some time thereafter another of them, rubbing his eyes as he walked, was seized with despair and threw himself in the water.  A half-hour passed; the sun was sinking.  I suddenly felt someone touching my shoulder: 

"'What time is it?'

"'Five o'clock,' I answered.  The old sailor who had asked me the question looked mistrustful, and kept his hands in his pockets.  For a long while he studied, with a distracted air, my trousers.  Finally, he threw himself in the water.

"The three remaining quickly approached one another and looked at the eddy.  They sat down on the edge of the vessel, whistling slowly, their gazes lost in the distance.  One of them descended and, tired, lay down on the bridge.  The others disappeared one by one.  At six o'clock, the last one of them all got up, straightened his clothes, pushed his hair to the side of his forehead, and, still walking sleepily, threw himself in the water.

"And thus I was left alone to gaze like an idiot upon a deserted sea.  All of them, without knowing what they were doing, had hurled themselves into the sea, swaddled in that morose somnambulism that haunted the boat.  When one would throw himself in the water, the others would turn, momentarily preoccupied as if they remembered something, only to forget it all almost immediately.  This is how they had all disappeared, and I suppose that the same thing had happened to those of the day before, and those others on all those other boats.  That is my tale."

Out of justifiable curiosity, our gaze did not quit this strange man.

"And you, you felt nothing?" asked my cabin mate. 

"I did, I did: both a great indifference, and the obstinacy of these same ideas, but nothing more.  I do not know why I did not feel anything more.  I assume that the reason is this: instead of becoming parched in anxious self-defense, and at all costs against what I felt (as everyone ought to have felt; even sailors do not realize it), I simply accepted this hypnotic death as if I had already been destroyed.  Something very similar must undoubtedly have happened to the sentinels of that celebrated guard who hanged themselves night after night."

Because such a statement was sufficiently complicated, no one responded.  After a little while our narrator retired to his cabin.  The captain followed him out of the corner of his eye.

"Charlatan!" he mumbled.

"On the contrary," said a sick passenger, headed to die in his native land.  "If he were a charlatan, he wouldn't have stopped thinking about it, and would likewise have thrown himself into the water."

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