This story is confused because I am confused, or rather the sailor who told me the story, in the brig, the whole week he seemed to be in a daze, barely stirring, and eating nothing but soup and bread, and when he seemed more like himself he would stare incredulously at my questions and would change the story or simply claim he did not remember, which may be the truth of the matter.
I was actually with him when that evening began, on shore leave to attend El Festival de los Reyes Magos, the patron festival of the Epiphany, on Vieques that is actually how they celebrate Christmas, belatedly in January, and a group of us were eagerly anticipating a night away from the base. This would have been my third time out but for some others their first and we warned them that the local drink was strong on purpose so as to make things easier for them to part with their hard earned money. Soon we had attracted a few local ladies in the verbena and were full on our way in acquiring shots of pique rum and other sundry goods at every kiosko and grill at the fair, each spaced apart every five feet. Let me tell you about this plate, mofongo from heaven, mashed green plantains with pork and bacon and bits of crab, fried together in a chicken broth of garlic and olive oil, the most mouth watering delicious dish that can be found in the Caribbean. Top that with a cold beer and maybe a spoonful of Italian ice and your night is set.
I last saw him that night with a little bottle blonde lithe thing eagerly leading him by the hand. These young seaman recruits always attract the good looking ones. An old seadog like me can only hope for a swarthy brunette and I had a cockeyed one pestering me and feeding me all night. When she would laugh her big bosom would have an epileptic fit; when she would dance she would bend over, put her hands on her knees, and swing her backside wide to one side, wide to the other. Then she would pump her fist up in the air as if she just won the perfecta at Pimlico, her hair wild and getting wilder. And she would crush me in a bear hug and bite my ear. Made me want to cry and sit down on the cobblestone street, out of gratefulness. I followed her everywhere.
That is not to say that I didn’t follow my own advice. I drank sparingly and kept my hand firmly on my wallet when she brushed close to me. I still had my wits about me when we ended up on the beach of the bioluminescent bay. The sight took my breath away. I saw her wade in and leave a colorful trail and I’ve never seen such beautiful glittering cobalt and ultramarine blue. The superstitious Spaniards grew afraid when they first encountered this spectacle, thinking the radiant effulgence was the work of the devil, naming this bay Punta Diablo. They tried to block the channel by dropping huge boulders into place. All they managed to do was add to the dazzling luminescence. I should have heeded their warning.
After a quick naked swim and some tussling in the sand where I felt her rough callous hands and noticed for the first time her Adam’s apple, her rank breath, I grew lax and threw her off me. She disappeared into the red mangrove trees, I thought to relieve herself. She came back offering me an unopened coconut and before I could make sense of that she struck me hard enough to stun me. Then I guess she followed up with a few more swings of the coconut. The Lieutenant who X-rayed me in the med-ship confirmed a hairline fracture above my right eye, so she tagged me pretty good. This fact did not prevent me from spending a week in the brig or suffering disciplinary action. She also tried to drag my unconscious body into the treeline, which proved to be too arduous, then she simply covered me up with palm leaves. To this day I can only speculate as to why she actually did that. She took my wallet, my hat, and my insignia but at least left me my clothes, folded.
So almost every year, more often than not, one or two or more midshipmen and sailors don’t return from leave and are considered AWOL, absent without leave. Discipline varies. In unintentional cases, they throw you in the brig for an indeterminate amount of time, which translates to “as long as possible”, then they write you up for misconduct and more importantly dock your pay. If you get a suspension that really hurts. One week in the brig with a two week suspension means that you basically get don’t get paid that month, a real humdinger. And then you have to live with the guilt of your stupidity. So while I had good reason to miss the ferry that would take us back to the base, our young confused friend with what I think has the more interesting story was simply late. Yes, he drank too much that night, I guess kissed his fake fair maiden once too many times, looked at his watch, realized he had minutes to spare, and sprang for the docks. He tells me that the wake of the ferry was still swirling when he called out to the departing lights of the boat to no avail. He thought he heard laughter before the foreboding honk of a horn. So he was stranded.
Here is where the story starts getting tricky. He says that he turned around and that the town was completely dark and empty where a few moments before the place was festive and jubilant, full of people. I say the Bumboo rum, which is no better than grog, distorts your sense of time and that by the time he stumbled back into town the carnaval was long over. He remembers the streets as uneven. The blue cobblestones of Isabel, the main town of Vieques, are indeed uneven and unkempt and treacherous, all the way to the ancient Mirasol Fort. The paved roads and side streets are not much better. I am certain he was just aimlessly wandering around with no clear distinct direction. He claims he was trying to find a hotel or a rooming house or anywhere that was open so that he could just sit down. He was not ready to lie down like a drunk on the street, regardless of the fact that he had undoubtedly reached just such a state.
Music, he said he heard music, and a faraway singing, like an Angel, he said, at times faint, at times stronger, carried in the salt breeze and stinging. He wandered the back streets and alleys for a long time. He walked forever, until he was completely exhausted, searching. And when he thought he could no longer put one foot down in front of the other, he saw a light, an open doorway in a corner building, he no longer had any idea where or in what part of town. I tried to retrace his steps later and couldn’t find the café as described. I did find one similar in the next village over, a half-abandoned barrio, no thanks to the United States Navy. We had purchased much of the agricultural land on the island and evicted all the residents during World War II and converted the land for military use and weapons testing exercises. Many of the nearby villages became deserted since the sugar and coffee industries vanished. Slowly those small towns became repopulated with squatters and other destitute islanders. A great many of the existing houses and structures are patchwork, aluminum and cardboard, many don’t have the basic amenities.
Apparently this café had both water and electricity. He recounts a jukebox against one wall, a tiny bar against the other, a rattling refrigerator, ceiling fans, a half-dozen tables with chairs, a large neon sign. He said that the place became completely silent when he entered, including the jukebox, and that he felt frozen in time. Then a record turned over and a moth flickered against a light and the fan blades cast flickering shadows against the wall. He took the first empty chair in the closest table and sat heavy and nauseated. He said maybe there was one or two people in the back, maybe playing cards, or drinking. He said what looked like a bartender stood or sat behind the bar. He has described this man as wrinkly with tufts of grey hair. He has said that the man smoked a cigar or maybe not and that he read a newspaper or a magazine or maybe not. He can’t rightfully remember. He does recall that all ignored him and spoke nary a word, including the woman standing next to the jukebox against the wall.
He didn’t notice her at first. In fact, he says, that when he first glanced in her direction he thought a huge fish had been hung mouth first against the wall or maybe left there leaning. How can you lean a fish against a wall, I asked him, a woman-sized fish leaning against the wall, how can that happen? I don’t know, he said defensively, maybe the fish was stuffed or glazed or coated or preserved like those wall mounted swordfish by a taxidermist. He thought she was a fish until she moved. And then she suddenly transformed, through his sodden eyes, from a bloated fish into the curvature of a woman. She was gently swaying to the music. An acrid smell hung in the air, a fulsome smell, he said, ineffable, although he tried to relate this smell as something sour between acetone or ammonia or cat piss poured over rotten fruit, he couldn’t be sure, but between sour and sickly-sweet.
And she wore a tattered dress. And she cast a green light or maybe reflected the flashing neon sign or the changing hue of the jukebox. She had ribbons hanging or tangled up in her hair, like seaweed maybe algae. And when she looked at him intensely the room turned blue and when she turned away he felt as if he was outside again forgotten beneath the expansiveness of the stars. He felt repulsed and horrified and soothed simultaneously, insignificant, mortal, guilty, exposed, naked, as if he could never win or get anything he wanted, ever, as if God did not exist, as if he were the only thing she ever desired and he had to give himself completely over to her. He used all these words and expressions to describe his feelings in her presence, after my repeated questioning, until he grew annoyed at me and retreated into his cell. At any rate, her whole body trembled as she swayed and she would close her eyes in ecstasy. He thought she was resplendent and alluring like a classic movie star, Betty Davis, he said, Lauren Bacall or Veronica Lake, so much for good taste.
But the most interesting part about her, as told, was her voice or lack thereof for he never actually saw her sing. He is not even sure if the music emanated from the jukebox or her body. But he thought he heard a choir or an operatic diva softly singing Aida or Ave Maria or some faint familiar song, with a salsa beat or a jazz background. The music was transcendent. He felt flush. He felt weak. He felt a burning pain in his liver and his penis retract into his body. At the same time he never felt more aroused or frightened or scared at being excited, tired as he was. He could not tell if she hummed or exuded the harmony but enough false notes clanged and at times her voice croaked that he kept transfixed to his chair. I was transfixed by his story. He could not abide to go to her although his resolve was crumbling. He was drawn to her rhythm.
Then the fighting couple burst in like a whirlwind from a door in the back or maybe materialized into the room. The upset woman was a screeching hellcat and the man was a gesticulating idiot waving his arms about like a crazed marionette. The couple immediately made my friend’s eyes hurt and his ears bleed, all reverie was broken. The woman slapped the man in the face at least once, maybe thrice, and the man shook her by the shoulders. Our inebriated witness was sure the woman had been spurned and thought that infidelity was involved but they were yelling in a foreign language he did not recognize but that he was certain was not Spanish. This woman wore a scarlet dress and the man wore a matching red cap, a ridiculous cap, he thought, that flopped up and down like a stocking on his head. They both looked like characters from a costumed drama as did the truly exaggerated scene and the histrionics. Finally she succumbed to tears and grabbed a glass from the bar, which she attempted to throw at him but which sailed wide and bounced harmlessly off a wall. He laughed heartily at her and then stomped out. She took a moment to compose herself, shake her hair, and then followed.
All this took maybe a moment or maybe longer or maybe didn’t happen at all. He was suddenly alone in the bar with a silent jukebox. The men drinking or playing cards in the back corner were gone. The barkeep smoking or reading was gone. The swaying dancing woman or fish or apparition or whatever was also thankfully gone. Weariness took over and he capitulated to fatigue. He laid his head down on the table and that is the last he remembers of that night. The next morning he was awakened by the MP’s, who were obviously called by the round of new faces in the café. He left a tiny pool of slobber on the table and the lingering odor of crusted mustard on dead fish.
Here is where I insert myself back into the story for I also awoke abashed that morning, albeit naked, with a cracked head, in the rutted sand, underneath a pile of dried palm leaves, with my clothes folded neatly beside me. I was nudged awake by a wild pony and the animal seemed as startled as me before galloping away. And the morning only got weirder because as I walked back to the pier, along the beach, nursing a nagging headache, I came upon an unfolding curiosity. A group of local fishermen had hauled in a drowned man in their fishnets. Or they thought he had drowned and then been eviscerated by hungry sea turtles; they could not figure out what kind of fish could leave bloodless striated gashes diagonally along his mutilated body. The wounds reminded me more of a bear attack and I was also perplexed at what in the ocean could create such lacerations save claws of some kind, the beaks of multiple turtles or a giant squid in a feeding frenzy abruptly interrupted. Or the explanation could be as simple as the propeller of a motor boat gutted him, several times. The corpse was exsanguinated, so a determination of death by drowning could only be made after an autopsy, to which I would have no access nor did I really care at the time. The dead man was a passing happenstance curiosity on a morning when I had more personal pressing matters. I had no extra thoughts for the hungry red tide of Vieques.
I also noticed that the man on the beach died wearing a red Phrygian cap. I did not know this type of cap at the time nor did I know this detail would be important or even of interest to me, at least not until after my fantastic series of dialogues the following week with my fellow brig mate. I came across a hand drawing of Marianne, the French lady liberty national emblem wearing this same exact type of cap, and cut the drawing out of the military magazine and kept it on my person until I ran into our friend again. This happened on the deck of a frigate docked at Roosevelt Roads about a year later. He was standing watch and acted uncomfortable when I approached him. He confirmed the Phrygian cap but was adamant that the couple was not fighting in French. He could recognize the French language, he claimed, and anyways he was feeling harassed that a Petty Officer kept badgering him about a drunken night all the time, a night he’d rather forget.
I guess this is where I should sound off. But I’m an imbecile, the type of muttonhead that obsesses over trivialities. I returned to Vieques and Isabel and the surrounding municipalities as much as I could before being transferred to the Navy Repair Yard in San Diego. I drank with the natives, socialized with them, and tried to engage them in the local myths and superstitions, of which there are plenty on the small island. I never did run again into the femme fatale that left a scar on my forehead, nor did I ever find the mysterious café, which must have existed since one of the arresting MP’s validated the place but could not recall the exact location. I did find an infamous Ceiba tree, purported to be over 500 years old. And I learned about the feral horses that roam free all over the island and are descended from Spanish stock. The bioluminescence in the bay is created by an overabundance of dinoflagellates, tiny microorganisms that leave a glowing trail of lustrous blue whenever the water is disturbed.
I also learnt that the cancer rate in Vieques is 30% higher than the rest of the Caribbean. The place is completely contaminated. We have saturated the eastern part of the island with bombs and ordnance and all kinds of toxic elements. We’ve tested and fired napalm, depleted uranium, cadmium, and utilized the scuttled wreckage of the USS Killen, a struck nuclear class destroyer, as a target ship. I’ve heard a range of unbelievable stories, from the fearsome Chupacabra to air breathing octopi that can climb up on land to various other mutated animals and creatures that terrorize the populace. I’ve heard that the frequent Naval sonic booms are enough to drive sane men crazy and that egregious acts of violence and bloodshed have been committed after a prolonged barrage of military exercises. I’ve heard claims that many of the residents suffer from vibroacoustic disease, the wind turbine disease related to low frequency noise that is similar in nature to mad cow disease with an added thickening of the arteries of the heart.
So why not believe that classic sea monsters of old could be attracted to such a chaotic place on earth? Mermaids that can entice you with a song and a glance. Benign females that display an unexpected desire for bloodshed. Rifts in time that can transport people from the past or the future, whether they realize such or not. A pod of killer sea turtles or the deadly kraken known to render mariners limb from limb. The red tide is held in general ominous awe, this when the flourishing algal bloom is considered a portent of the trickster himself walking among us and causing mischief, even on the night of the Epiphany. Perhaps the Spanish colonizers did know something after all when they tried to choke off the bay from the ranging ocean.
I met a nice enlisted lady during my tour in San Diego. She was a computer specialist, a data analyst. One night I told her part of the story and I wondered aloud what may have become of our flustered friend. She called me the next day with startling news. A dirty secret that the Navy definitely keeps under wraps is the number of annual suicides in the active-duty fleet, which hovers around 10 per 100,000 sailors or roughly about forty a year. Of those about a third are men lost during maneuvers in the open sea. I guess that maybe the call of the siren was too much for him to bear. We lost him somewhere between Bermuda and the wide Sargasso Sea.