The White Lady
By Michael C. Boxall
Freighted with tapas and Concha y Toro and trailing ghosts in her glittering wake, the White Lady glides toward the quay, where a sparse crowd — ten? a dozen at most — raises a long yellow banner with black writing. From Peter’s daysailer Luca hears faint shouts across the water, too ragged for a chant, too far off to be intelligible. But she knows they are in Spanish.
“Beautiful!” He works the tiller and ducks as the boom swings over to point at the barquentine, its masts as tall as the cranes of the shipyard. Spray hisses under the daysailer’s bow and sparkles in the September sun. She watches him feast his eyes on whiteness, white hull, white superstructure, sailors in white dress uniform lined up along the side. “She’s come up from the south Atlantic,” he says. “See that red and blue flag? Chilean.”
He’s handsome, in a Richard Gere-ish sort of way. Older than in the photo she’d tracked down. But she knew immediately it was him. When she lingered on the jetty and struck up a conversation about the beautiful ship and how she’d love a closer look he eyed her bare legs and handed her a lifejacket. He’s a confident sailor and as they chase the White Lady along the inlet he tacks over to one of the waiting container ships so she can reach out and touch the hull, dwarfed by its looming immensity. “Smell it,” he says. Rust. With undertones of salt.
They approach the quay and the shouts become clearer. As he loosens a rope and prepares to take down the sail his phone rings. He fishes it from his pocket and wedges it
between shoulder and ear. From the way he turns aside and murmurs she can tell it’s his wife, and when he turns back she smiles, sowing a seed of complicity. The sail collapses with a rush. He nods toward the White Lady, now mooring. “Like to go aboard?” Her surprise and girlish excitement are not entirely feigned. She’d thought she’d have to ask.
Justicia! Justicia! A dwarf in a Tyrolean hat capers and beats a bass drum, BOOM BOOM BOOM … BOOM BOOM BOOM … Faces tell of generations of emigration, immigration, miscegenation and re-migration, Donegal peat-cutter crossed with Mapuche weaver, Silesian swineherd with Andalusian Picunche. A woman with braids the color of tarnished pewter grips a poster-sized photo of a bruised and bloodied man who is missing an eye. She waves it higher as Luca and Peter pass. Justicia!
At the top of the gangplank he produces a business card. Two sailors posted to keep unwelcome visitors away stare at it with mute incomprehension. An officer with bushy eyebrows appears, frowning. Peter thrusts out a hand and after a moment’s hesitation the officer takes it. “Peter LaPierre. Novus Communications. We worked with the consul to organize the reception. Make sure the right people come.” He glances down at the quay. Drum bouncing on his chest, the dwarf is dancing hiphop, BOOM BOOM BOOM. The officer looks at Luca. “And this is my companion, Luca …” She doesn’t help him by filling in the blank, just offers her hand, palm down. The officer bends to kiss it.
Emotion overwhelms her when she sets foot on the deck. Incredulity, at first. It all seems so clean. Was this really where it happened, on this same burnished planking that gleams in the autumn sun? Where are the ghosts? Then she feels them, imprinted into the wood the way light imprints itself into silver halides. Anguish trumps disbelief.
Word spreads of the girl in the short yellow dress — tits as firm as melones, estar buena — and she feels the hunger in men’s eyes as they watch her. Do they know what happened here, these grinning youths in their sailor suits? The interrogators used vaseline to attach electrodes to the skin. For months after Aunt Javiera told her this she avoided vaseline in the drugstore the way herpetophobes avoid pictures of snakes.
Peter drapes an arm over her shoulder and gazes upward. “Just under fifty metres. Second tallest sailing ship in the world. Twenty-one sails, total area twenty-eight hundred and seventy square metres. Top speed seventeen and a half knots.”
“You know a lot. Do you know why these people are protesting?”
“Oh, just some old grievance left over from the last regime. All happened a long time ago.” He smiles. “Before you were even born, I’d guess.”
BOOM BOOM BOOM … BA-BOOM BOOM BOOM … BA-BOOM BOOM BA-BOOM …
She takes an iPhone from her pocket and shoots video of the mast, so thick her arms could not encompass it. The officer returns, a step behind an older man with skin the color of mahogany and gold trim edging the peak of his cap. Peter produces another card.
“Captain Guiterez, it is an honor to meet you, sir. May I present my companion …” He turns to Luca, expecting her to introduce herself. But again, she just extends a hand. The mariner-diplomat is unfazed. Like his subordinate, he bows to kiss it.
“Señorita, the honor is mine.” An expansive gesture takes in his kingdom, one hundred and thirteen metres from bowsprit to stern. “Lieutenant Alvarez will be happy to show you around the vessel and answer any questions you might have.”
“Thank you, captain, but my question is for you.”
A stillness comes over his face, one mask dropped, another taking its place.
“My uncle was on this ship.” As she speaks she pirouettes slowly, the camera taking in the sailors setting up tables on the deck and panning back to the mast again. “But he wasn’t a sailor. He was a baker.”
“Luca, I don’t think this is the time …”
She ignores him. “He left school at twelve and spent his life kneading dough. But he was always interested in the world around him. He read books and decided the best thing he could do for his children was to help build a democratic society. That’s why they arrested him.”
“What happened in the past is no concern of mine.” Guiterez fixes Peter with a basilisk glare. “Alvarez will escort you ashore.” He turns on his heel, but Luca grabs his sleeve. Her other hand holds the phone, recording video.
“Captain Guiterez, why has the Chilean navy never acknowledged this ship was used as a torture centre?”
“I have no comment.” Mahogany features rigid.
“But you do know what went on here, don’t you?”
“Luca …” Peter tries to snatch the phone. She kicks him hard and he howls, both hands squeezed between his thighs. Aie! Una fierabrás!
“Do you deny that political prisoners were tied to these masts and given electric shocks?”
Guiterez glances at Alvarez, who seizes her arm. She sinks her teeth into his hand and doesn’t let go. The ghosts won’t let her. Uncle Eduardo won’t let her. Alvarez bellows. The guards come running from the top of the gangplank.
BA-BA-BA-BOOM! The dwarf sheds his drum like a stripper’s bra as he jinks and dodges across the deck, careening into an open-mouthed cadet who drops a case of cabernet, feinting this way and that as he heads for a mast, veers away, makes for another one, doubles back, runs right at it, jumps, and swarms with simian dexterity up the rigging. High above the upturned faces he perches on the crosstree and swings his legs. Hola! Sin manos!
Luca zooms in on a muscle twitching in Guiterez’s cheek, pans up to the dwarf unfurling a banner in the sky. She downloads the video to YouTube, posts it on FaceBook and tweets her followers, CNN, the Global Post, El Mercurio, the United Nations, Aunt Javiera dying in Santiago.
@Guerillajournalista. Come everybody and join our campaign. Justice for the tortured ones! We will never forget.
The drum rests beside a white-clothed table which holds the prawn ceviche. She picks it up. Against the clouds the dwarf waves his hat.
BA–BOOM BOOM BA-BOOM!
She starts to dance.
©2012 by Michael C. Boxall
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