Without a Compass

by Luisa Carnés
translated from the Spanish by Catherine Nelson
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For those women, huddled in the small boat leaving the docks of Santander, the sea was life.

They couldn’t see it, but they sensed it beneath the rotten boards, they smelled its familiar breath.

They had boarded as night fell around them. Not a single star illuminated the sad farewell; the darkness was absolute. Muffled voices, as if prematurely drowned. The water felt rougher than usual, and the boat struggled over the waves. Without moonlight, lantern, or the twin shafts of light glimmering from the distant lighthouse, the ship and its cargo were a shadow on the back of the inhospitable sea.

To the untrained eye, nothing was visible. One would need the piercing gaze of the old sailor piloting the boat to make out anything. Only his eyes saw through the blackness of the sea and could make out the dark shapes of the women and children who had been entrusted to him only hours before. There were more than twenty, piled on top of each other in the cargo ship where he normally had a crew. But now, the ship was running without its oil lamps, and there were no masculine voices carried on the wind. The muted goodbyes and whispers had died out, and only the crying of a child accompanied the hoarse breath of the motor helmed by the old man.

He was the oldest in the union. His beard was white and long and had gone years without shaving. Not one of the women had even noticed him. Not one of the refugees knew what boat they were on, what name was emblazoned on its side, nor who was behind the helm as it sliced through the black waves. Husbands and fathers had brought them hours before, a bundle of clothes clutched in their hands, a word—perhaps the last—on their lips, and choked-back sighs.

As night fell, the old man had watched them arrive at the harbor.

Women and children boarded; the men remained on land.

A woman cried out: “Papa! Come with us! . . . You’re too old to fight!”

The old sailor’s orders from his comrades were clear: deliver the cargo to a French port.

The other sailors chose him because he was the oldest. They gave him a small cargo boat, powered by a decrepit engine that shuddered with an ominous, deathly rattle. And that very night, the ship left the coast of Spain with its load, leaving Santander behind, shrouded in darkness.

For those women, the sea was life. Yet leaving their city, even with its promise only of death, filled them with pain. They were not only thinking of a strip of land and houses. They were remembering their homes, their school, their father’s or husband’s shop, the fresh water in the well, the old armoire that had been in the family for generations, the bed in which lives had been brought forth, and in which others had been brought to an end. It wasn’t just the barricades where the living took their stand, or the cemetery that protected the dead. It was something much deeper and more visceral that remained behind and that they now searched for in the shadows, eyes opened wide, glassy from tears.

Children had fallen asleep on mothers’ skirts and atop soft bundles.

Yet there was one boy whose eyes remained open. About eight years old, he was the only one who hadn’t joined in the chorus of tears. He was also the only one who noticed the old man piloting the vessel. As the boat headed out to sea, the boy moved toward him, picking his way through the bodies of strangers crammed into the small space. He was alone. Like the others, a refugee, no different than the rest. But at that moment, no one paid him any attention. The wind buffeted his small frame, and he had to wrap his arms tightly around his little bundle of clothes to protect it from its attacks.

Like the women, he once had a world of his own. It was a world made up of a small, one-door house that smelled of bleach when the cleaning woman scrubbed the wooden table once a week. There was always bread and cheese in the cupboard, and sometimes apples. In the winter, the woman lit the brazier under the table, and at night his father scattered lavender over the embers. His mother had died before his second birthday and his father had not remarried. They had no relatives. His father clothed him and didn’t scold him when he lost a schoolbook or when a toe poked out of a worn shoe—which for some reason was always the right one. Now his father remained at the union headquarters, but he had promised his son they would soon see each other again, somewhere. He had wrapped his son’s clothes and textbooks in a towel, taken him to the dock, and spoken to one of the women getting on the boat: “Keep an eye on him, please. He’s all alone.” The woman had said yes, she would take care of him, but later the boy didn’t know which woman his father had entrusted him to. They all looked the same. Few could contain their tears. But this did not prevent them from securing a place on the deck to make their children and themselves as comfortable as possible. They were nothing more than dark shapes tripping over each other in the blackness. It took a long time for some of the shapes to stop weeping.

His father didn’t cry, he gave his son a big kiss and clapped him on the back of his neck, saying: “That’s it, little man, be brave!” Later, as the ship moved away from the dock, among the chorus of voices, he heard his father’s: “Take care of yourself, Benny!”

In addition to the little one-door house in the world he was leaving behind, there was an orchard where Benny played every afternoon with his friends. It had a waterwheel turned by a donkey. It made him sad to see the little donkey go round and round in circles all day long, his eyes covered, to the sound of water filling the metal buckets. Poor little donkey. Once Benny took the rag off his eyes. The animal spooked and the owner chased him out of the orchard, launching rocks at him with a slingshot he always carried in his belt. But the rocks never hit their target, and Benny kept going to the orchard with his friends. What would happen to the poor animal if the war reached Santander?

When the shapes finally settled down Benny felt even more alone. There was no place for him in this little world. The women and their children had filled the cramped space, one next to the other, packed on top of each other like sardines. There was no room for his little body, trembling from cold and shock. He no longer thought about the donkey, the orchard, or its owner. He was now keenly aware of his abandonment. Not knowing what prompted him, he turned toward the prow, headed toward the old sailor—whom no one else paid any attention to either—and huddled next to his feet. There, the smell of tar and dried salt emanating from the deck was powerful. He stared for a long time at the starless sky.

No one noticed the little lump that Benny formed at the feet of the old man, whose presence was also ignored. The boy had fallen asleep, his arms wrapped around himself, perhaps to protect himself from the cold or from loneliness.

The refugees’ sighs had been replaced by tears, their hearts melded with those they held closest, and they dozed, rocked by pain.

Among those fleeing the war, the old sailor was the only one awake. Alert, his sensitive hands gripped the wheel.

Even without moon or stars to aid him, the old man could see. He was made for seeing through the darkness and now he was looking at the small lump at his feet. That trembling bundle of clothing whom no one knew. He could see Benny fighting against the damp cold that invaded the boat.

Keeping his right hand on the helm, with his left he unwound the scarf from his neck and spread it over the boy.


The early morning light turned the odd collection of passengers an ashen gray. The shapes within the dark palette began to stir. Sometimes arms shifted, or heads flopped to one side, then returned to their original position, or leaned on shoulders pressed against theirs. After hours of anguish, each one had sunk into her own little space, brooding over her hardships or surrendering to sleep. Those who weren’t sleeping watched the black water slowly turn gray under the leaden sky. Their eyes passed indifferently over their travelling companions. That picture of abandonment with heads slumped on shoulders and bodies propped on bodies, rocking on the sea, had no effect on them.

The water took on a purple hue, sparkling as it came to life.

Some women opened their eyes to the light. They pulled their coats tighter around them and adjusted blankets around their sleeping children. Others tamed unruly hair, searched in their sacks for food, and ate in silence, without looking at their neighbor.

The light began to outline shapes in that indistinct mass of humanity, revealing eyes and mouths in the washed-out flesh. From the shapeless pile, worried glances turned toward the horizon. For some, eyelids drooped and closed again, as they stubbornly returned to the obliviousness of sleep. Others stared at the still water, as if they were far removed from the drama of the small ship and its cargo.

Suddenly one of the women bolted upright. Flinging her right arm out and pointing, she cried: “We’re heading back! We’re going back to Santander!”

Her shout caused the pile of bodies to stir.

“We’re still in the bay!” another exclaimed.

“All night on board and we haven’t even left Santander . . .” said a third.

They were frightened. The strangers looked at each other’s faces, without seeing a single one.

“That can’t be!”

“How are we still in the bay?”

Some shook sleeping children and stood up. Every eye turned toward the prow, to the back of the man at the helm, the only man on board. The faint light prevented them from seeing him, but it was the pilot. It had to be him.

One of the women stood up and addressed the others, shouting: “They handed us over to a fascist! He’s taking us back!”

“Are we going to let him take us back to Spain?”

“It can’t be true!”

Other women joined in.

“After all we sacrificed to leave!”

Now several women had risen and advanced toward the helm.

“Where are you taking us?”

“Why did you turn back?”

“Why are we still here? Answer us!”

For the first time they saw the age of the man they were rebuking. Up close they could see his small frame and weather-beaten face. White locks escaped from under his beret.

“Why are we still here?”

“Calm down, please . . .”

“Why are we going so slowly? Answer us!”

“The motor is tired, that’s all. Go back to your places.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Me neither.”

“What do you mean ‘The motor is tired!’ . . . What kind of explanation is that?”

“I said, go back to your places. On this boat I’m in charge.”

Some women toward the back moved away, grumbling. Those congregated in front turned and followed them.

Benny, now awake, asked the old man: “Is it true, Abuelo? Are we going back to Santander?”

“Going back? . . . Don’t listen to those gossipy women. You and I are the only men on this boat. We’ll have to take charge of them, won’t we?”


The old sailor had a secret. A secret that, if discovered by the mass of bodies piled up in the vessel, would have caused them to burst out in shouts and prayers. They were sailing without a compass. That was his secret. The boat was adrift with its load of refugees and there was little the pilot could do to direct it toward a French port as he had been ordered. The sea was in charge, and the keel cut restless paths through the water.

The old sailor had been around boats from a very early age. In his childhood home, which had smelled as much like pitch as any old felucca in the harbor, there was a little green sailboat boasting the name of his maternal grandmother that, from its place on the wall over the kitchen table, presided over family life. Since that time, he had always known the smell of engine fuel and salt. His life as a sailor began on a fishing boat, the Theresa, and then moved to maritime transport, carrying goods from Santander to southern Spain. He always enjoyed taking the helm, making his way gently toward the horizon, guided by the ship’s compass, a sailor’s best friend. Never before had the compass been his enemy, with its needles paralyzed and dead. And just when it wasn’t crates of machinery being carried in this small tub of wood and iron.

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