Without a Compass

Shortly after leaving the dock he’d realized the compass wasn’t working and was tempted to turn back. But the gravity of the situation stopped him. As they left, Franco’s troops were advancing on the edge of town. He couldn’t go back. He couldn’t return this anxious cargo to the union men who’d trusted him. Very slowly he continued on, hoping in vain that through the overcast sky the starry paths would open up to guide him.

With the first light of dawn he could see they were still near the port. They had been on the water all night without even leaving behind the coastline. The women’s fears were justified. Yet it wasn’t the old sailor’s skill they doubted, but his loyalty to the town. That’s what hurt.

He knew he had no words to assure those poor women, so he chose to remain silent. He couldn’t tell them the truth. He couldn’t tell them he was navigating without a compass.

Sometime that morning they finally lost sight of the Spanish coast. The old sailor no longer felt the daggers in his back. As the distance between the boat and Spain grew, the women’s fear seemed to abate. Some nursed babies. Others looked among their things for a little food to divide among their children, carefully reserving some for later, for another moment during this trip of unknown duration. Mothers attempted to tidy up young ones. Those without combs licked their fingers to smooth down hair.

The first day they were talkative. When extremities began to go numb, they would walk in the narrow open spaces among the bodies. They discussed how long it would take to get from Santander to the coast of France, in which port they might end up, and what would be waiting for them there.

Sometimes they would be surprised to find that a traveling companion lived on their same street, two buildings up, or that she frequented the same shops. After twenty years in the same city, strangers were now united in the middle of the sea because of the war, on a journey whose end no one could predict.

As they talked, no one dared mention what was on everyone’s mind: the men who had stayed to defend Santander. Is it possible the women thought they might find them waiting on the other side? Like they had only gone for a long walk? When they arrived safely in France, would the drama of the fascist uprising be over? Had they even completed the first part of their journey as refugees? Before them and behind them they were surrounded by the unending sea. Which way was France? Where was Spain?

As afternoon faded, tongues fell silent. The boat continued skimming over the water, stars now appearing above. Blankets were wrapped around bodies. Mothers and children melded into one. Some women tried to sleep, convinced it would help shorten the journey. Others talked within their own circles in low voices, confiding fears they hadn’t dared speak of in the light of day.

No one had looked at the sailor again. They never considered whether he had any food. No thought was given to who would pilot the vessel when his old limbs grew stiff from fatigue. They left him to pilot the boat, oblivious to anything other than their own desire to get far away from their home. For them, the old sailor was nothing more than a blue-striped shirt that disappeared at dusk and reappeared at dawn.


On the second day the old sailor addressed the women nearest him: “This boy is sick and he’s all alone.”

He was pointing to Benny, shivering under his scarf.

The moon was shining, yet the women who approached the pilot and the small bundle huddled at his feet could see only a dark, shapeless, and featureless form.

Someone touched his forehead and exclaimed: “He’s burning up!”

Another woman kneeling next to the little boy looked up and announced: “It’s diphtheria. I know that rasp all too well: it took one of my sons.”

The women who had approached with children in their arms, drew back in terror.

The one kneeling by his side asked, “What do we do? We can’t just let him die like some animal.”

“All I have is bicarbonate,” one of the passengers said.

The other women had retreated, the space between them and the sick boy growing wider.

“Isn’t there an extra blanket somewhere?” asked the old man.

Hands quickly draped a blue quilt over the boy.

The mothers moved with their children to the back of the boat, their eyes never leaving the small heap, black in the moonlight, from which came the sick boy’s death rattle. They moved as far away as possible, pressed up against the only barrier between them and the sea. They held their children tightly, eyes darting from the boy to the pilot.

One of them cried out: “Can’t we go faster?”

As if the cry aroused fear in all of them, several women joined her:

“Are we ever going to get there?”

“I have no food left for my children.”

“I’ve only got half a loaf.”

“If it weren’t bad enough already, now this . . .”

Once the old sailor was seen stepping away from his post for a moment to raise a shallow bowl of milk to the sick boy’s lips—no one knew where he had gotten it. He immediately returned to his place, hands gripping the helm, his eyes fixed on the horizon.

He was surrounded by mothers, tender-hearted mothers who embraced their children and lavished sweet words over them. He saw soft, maternal hands caressing little ones, peeling fruit, providing a piece of bread. But Benny was alone among so many mothers. The pained rasping that came from his open mouth and the heat emanating from his little body terrified them. The space between them and the sick boy had grown. Everyone tried to remove their children from the danger little Benny presented. They were fleeing war and hunger and now death stalked them in the form of this tiny frame covered by a blue quilt. The contagion threatened the little refugees. It frightened the mothers, making them more tender with their own little ones, but turning them hard against anyone they hadn’t given birth to, and especially against that stranger who threatened their offspring with the death he carried inside. Because there was no way out. Death had come to the boat without a compass and now it was Benny’s turn. All alone and listless, Benny slowly yielded to his misfortune.

The women, too, seemed to have given up in the face of this new affliction. Clutching their children, they searched the horizon anxiously for any smudge of color that would indicate the French coast. But in the distance, the sea and sky blended together, indifferent to their anguish.


Food supplies diminished. Mothers rationed out increasingly smaller portions, and children cried for more food. Hunger dug into their small stomachs and kept them awake at night. In the dim moonlight their features were mostly invisible, but their eyes shone brighter and blacker.

The single women ate sparingly and in secret, as if consuming something that didn’t belong to them. They seemed to feel the shame of not having to share while mothers divided up scraps of bread for their children. Some avoided eye contact while eating. They tucked pieces of cheese or meat into their dresses and concealed their bites from the children who looked at them so piteously.

Some of the women became suspicious and hateful. Need began to sow mistrust. Fear that the journey would be prolonged, that they would be overcome by hunger, made them selfish. They pretended not to have food, then hid in the toilet to wolf it down alone.

But even hunger couldn’t push the sick boy out of their minds. The little pile of rags continued trembling before them, threatening them with his labored breathing.

“Why don’t you put an end to it, Lord? Why doesn’t it end?”

The evil desire consumed everyone’s thoughts. You could see it in the glances directed toward the sick boy, the impatience in their faces as they looked at him.

“Why doesn’t it just end?”

They all tried to forget he existed. But the little rag heap was still there, the focus of everyone’s attention.

Including the old sailor’s. He had almost forgotten about the broken compass as he navigated by the stars. His thoughts remained centered on the boy. Benny, whom no one paid any attention to a few hours ago, now united all the women in one anxious mass. Every one of those maternal hearts was pierced by the same terror. The old pilot knew these women well. He had had enough of seeing them sewing and nursing their babies by their front doors, bosoms covered with a handkerchief. He knew their hands, hardened from domestic work, softened when spreading a sheet over a bed and became softer still when stroking downy heads. But all of them, whose hearts overflowed with tenderness, now harbored murderous thoughts. They all wanted Benny to die soon. As long as the boy lived, with his breathing louder than the roar of the sea, he threatened the life of their own children. There was nothing to be done for him. If he wasn’t going to live, the least he could do was die now, and allow the others to live. They didn’t say it, but they thought it. You could see it in their eyes, in their movements, in the way they held their children. They resented each shallow breath he labored for, as if he were stealing it from the other children, as if there weren’t enough oxygen for everyone.

It had been some time since the old man offered his bowl of milk to the boy. The boy’s little throat had closed up completely, his lungs barely allowing him a breath of life.

The man in the striped shirt had lived many years and he had fought countless battles with the sea. But never had human nature been laid so bare as on this voyage toward hope. In moments of danger, he saw men help each other, sharing water when it was scarce, sometimes risking their lives for each other. But none of these women overflowing with love for their children lifted a single finger to help Benny, the boy dying alone. None of those women who nursed their children offered the warmth of her bosom to the dying refugee. Over the last several hours, the boy’s dry lips had not been wetted by anything other than the clay bowl offered by the old sailor.


So he was surprised by the woman’s gesture. She must have been one of the single women who furtively ate her dry crust of bread with her back turned to the others or in the cramped toilet. Suddenly detaching herself from the group, in which weariness and desperation had erased all appearance of humanity, she approached Benny.

The five prolonged days at sea were apparent from her clothes, limp hair, and overall drab appearance.

No longer was anyone asking when the boat would arrive at its destination nor when the sick boy’s rasping would cease.

The vessel continued floating along with no indication that the old pilot was making any attempt to guide it to port. A tenuous light again brought forth the faded flock from the shadows and revealed the striped shirt of the old man shepherding them.

It was then that the woman approached Benny; no one attempted to stop her.

The old man saw her sit next to the boy and draw him into her lap.

The sun shone upon the scene: the woman and the boy.

Had her body ever been ripped apart giving life to another? Did she see in Benny the son she had perhaps always longed for? She was a lone woman for a lone boy. The woman without children for the boy without a mother. She didn’t know his name. What she knew was that he was alone. And that to die alone is to die two times over.

The sun fully illuminated the scene of the woman and the boy. The woman’s heart beating next to the boy’s, now still.

A little later the coast of France appeared on the horizon.

They had been on the water for five days.

The eyes of the old man in the striped shirt remained fixed on the image of the single woman and the dead boy.

Their image grew larger, they had become as immense as the sea, as damp and salty as tears, as bitter as Spain’s tragedy, blocking out the murderous looks of the tender-hearted mothers.

translator’s note: On July 17, 1936 Spanish General Francisco Franco led a military coup against the democratically elected government. Failing to overthrow the Republic, the revolt stretched into a three-year civil war that proved to be a precursor and testing ground for the world war to come. The Spanish Republic was backed by the Soviet Union and the anti-fascist International Brigades, while Nazi Germany and fascist Italy provided the military support Franco needed, eventually resulting in his almost forty-year dictatorship.

The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) triggered one of the largest refugee crises of the last century, with nearly half a million Spaniards fleeing to France, thousands of whom subsequently were forced into internment camps. “Without a Compass” (1956), by Spanish author Luisa Carnés (1905-1964), evokes the experience of refugees on the northern front, crossing the Bay of Biscay from Santander and Cantabria to ports in France in 1937. That year, an estimated 30,000 refugees, most of them women and children, passed through Santander.1 In total, more than 100,000 Basques fled the region as the Fascist troops advanced on the Basque Country.

In 1939, Carnés, a fresh voice in Spanish literature and prolific journalist for the Communist cause during the war, was among the 500,000 refugees who fled to France, and she was later one of the small number of intellectuals who was granted political asylum in Mexico. Among her possessions as she fled Spain was her writing portfolio, containing her unpublished stories. Four of these stories are included in the collection Thirteen Stories (Hoja de Lata, 2017).

In exile, Carnés remained committed to the Republican cause, as evidenced through her literary production and political activism. In 1959, marking the 20th anniversary of the conclusion of the civil war, Carnés was a signatory on a public statement demanding that persecution under Franco end and that Republican exiles be allowed to return to Spain,2 a hope that she and other exiles continued to hold. Between 1940-1963, Carnés published ten stories dealing with the Spanish Civil War and its effects, some scenes from the war, all an indictment against war and call to action and peace. She collected these stories under the title “Where the Laurel Tree Sprouted,”3 which now serves as the title to the second volume of her Complete Stories (Espuela de Plata, 2018). “Without a Compass” was first published January 8, 1956 in Mexican culture magazine El Nacional, where she also worked as a journalist. Characteristic of Carnés’s work, the experience of women and children takes center stage. An example of her social realism, this gripping study of tragedies and hardships facing civilians chips away at the maternal veneer associated with the trope of “mothers and children.” Although inextricably tied to her experience of 1930s Spain, Carnés’s work transcends time and place. Her stories speak to us in our own time of political extremism, war, and displaced populations and are a warning against the dehumanization of suffering. Her language is by turns realistic, lyrical, grim, tough, and tender as she exposes another face of the consequences of war.



LUISA CARNÉS (1905-1964) rose to prominence in the literary circles of 1930s Madrid that were dominated by the male voices of the Generation of ’27. She has been referred to by many as the best writer of her time. Now, eighty years after her exile from Francoist Spain, Carnés is again a figure of interest in Spanish literature. A militant feminist who supported the communist movement, she produced markedly autobiographical work that focused on freedom, equality, and the precarious economic position of women.

CATHERINE NELSON is Professor of Spanish at Nebraska Wesleyan University and a literary translator specializing in contemporary Spanish narrative. She is the translator of Lights on the Sea (2018) by Miquel Reina and her work has appeared in a variety of journals, including Indiana Review and InTranslation. She was awarded a 2019 PEN/Heim Translation grant for her translation of Tea Rooms: Working Women (1934) by Luisa Carnés.


  1. Carballés, Jesús J. Alonso. “El primer exilio de los vascos, 1936-1939.” Historia contemporánea, vol. 62, 2020. https://www.ehu.eus/ojs/index.php/HC
  2. Plaza Plaza, Antonio. “Introducción,” Rojo y Gris: Cuentos completos Vol. I by Lusia Carnés (38).
  3. Plaza Plaza 47.