The old man was sitting comfortably a few yards from the hammock hanging across his dilapidated front porch, napping, after drinking some warm whiskey with the West Indian morning. He was numb and filled with imagination, as only a drunken slumber can induce. Having never seen the Pacific Ocean (outside of his dreams) he could suddenly envision it perfect and crystal-clear with his son living in Acapulco, as the boy always stated was his ambition: “To cliff dive with the best in the world.”
“I’m gonna make it,” the emaciated adolescent would say at breakfast every dawn. “With God as my witness, I will bring glory to this island and give us enough money to live with dignity.” Charles Goodfellow was the boy’s name, and he was genuinely a fantastic fellow. He was now on his way to Mexico to live out his dreams of becoming one of the famous La Quebrada Cliff Divers.
“You can do whatever you set your mind to son,” the old man promised, “this island is flying on your shoulders.”
Charles Sr. had a habit of dozing off during the hottest hours of the day, and here he was again: slouched with his back against a Palm tree and his rear end pouring proportionately over the circular wooden edges of an overturned bucket of ice–empty and melted–like the yellow stare of his left eye–which never quite shut right. Charles Sr. had always been stricken with poor vision, but his eyesight had deteriorated much faster after the disaster.
“I’m as blind as a bat,” He advised the birds; who were not listening–but busily pecking away at the apricots which he positioned perfectly on the enormous upturned brim of his straw hat.
He lost his pregnant wife in the middle of a moonlit Christmas night when the tsunami pounded his tiny unmapped island. Some survivors swore they saw her wave as she floated out to sea. Fortunately Charles Jr. was strong and held onto a mango tree, with his baby sister clinging to his shoulders for hours, like a spider monkey. He could hardly hold her any longer, when finally, the raging waters subsided and they managed to climb up the mountain, making it safely to higher ground–where Charles Sr. weekly set up camp so he could look down at the Caribbean Sea and pray.
Charles had found god; or rather: god had found Charles. It all happened after that frantic encounter with the merciless wave which left the island seven times less populated. Only a couple dozen residents remain, and they all sleep on the summit. Everyone agreed it’s the safest spot on the island.
“From the peak we can see it all,” Charles Sr. mumbled.
Charles Sr., or Mr. Goodfellow, as his friends call him, was just waking from his afternoon slumber. The old man stood up, took a sip of water from his clay cup, stumbled over to the edge of the cliff, dropped to his knees, and peered over the edge. His daughter started to cry, pulling on those loose threads hanging in exclamation points from the muddy hem of his pants. Charles turned around and smiled at the child, naked and tearing denim–clenching one of the ends in her palm as if she discovered a buried treasure. The old man wept into the girl’s sweaty elbow, intermittently resting his head against her heart, like a blanket, covering the child’s face with innocent streaks of black sodden earth.
“Cry for the rains and the pains of your mother,” Charles Sr. said. He crossed his legs Indian-style and began to sing an innocuous drinking song a tourist taught his father long ago: “Oh this sand is bright, oh the waves are fair, oh the sun is holy, oh the wine is rare.” The adventurous tourists and prosperous yachters had long since given up and stopped sailing to this tiny island in the West Indies in favor of the bigger ones with modern conveniences: marinas, alcohol, electricity, women, and casinos.
The cliff where Charles Sr. and the rest of the island now resided stood one hundred and fifty feet above the Caribbean Sea. Charles Jr. had practiced his diving on this perch to prepare for the Acapulco high dive–a couple feet beneath this elevation. It was here on this jagged grassless precipice where the old man stared into the shallow depths of the turquoise sea below; wondering how his son didn’t break his neck, or even scrape his hands against the sands, or collide violently with the corral only a couple feet from the spot where he needed to land safely. Others had tried–none of them made it.
The boy had jumped first as a suicide attempt, flipping in midair and hitting the waters with the wickedest will to live. He broke a few ribs on impact, resurfaced and managed to swim to shore with what little breath remained in his lungs. He made a promise to the Sea that saved him–to make something of his life and live for his family’s future, something better than this life: immersed in beautiful poverty and ruthless squalor as all indigenous islands usually are.
After a few months recovering from the brutal impact of his initial fall, against his parents’ advice, during the late summer hurricane season, Charles Jr. began diving again. He dove every day. The water was his only way out and after seven years he discovered that he was as talented as any diver on earth. People took two-day boat rides from the mainland: an island inhabited by little more than seven hundred majestic and isolated natives. The residents came every week to watch Charles make magic; and as it happened, the provisions provided for the island, bestowing Charles a significant stature for a teenager–almost as a hero or a God.
Charles claimed he was neither God nor male mermaid, and often got embarrassed when barely-literate strangers wrote him lengthy letters and knelt down before him to pray after his dives, as he dried naked in the sun and smoked European tobacco. The spectators paid with foods and fresh water to watch Charles dive. As night approached he did so with torches in his hand, like he heard they do at La Quebrada. A rich tourist on a yacht had brought this story to the larger island where most of Charles’s fans resided. The affluent yachter was confided in, and even gave pictures to the islanders to prove what he had seen on the Pacific coast of Mexico. People were always asking him the most absurd and innapropriate questions, and that’s how it was for Charles when word of his daily dive became more interesting and intimate than gossip of who got pregnant. In Charles’s company people were always confessing their deepest sins and searching for the ineffable meaning of island life, fueled by the deepest burning desires of their beaten, neglected souls.
Charles couldn’t take it anymore: women were showing him the inside of their souls and men were crying in his arms and asking him to walk on water. Even the man from the yacht heard rumor of the diving saint and sailed from the larger island in less than twelve hours, along with nearly three dozen small children; four old ladies; and two tons of provisions wrapped in lobster netting. The yacht stayed for a week, and left with Charles in tow, on the promise to cruise him out to Acapulco as fast as possible. The man loved Charles–not in the worship sense–but the true love boat sense of how one appreciates another for what they’ve brought to the world.
They sailed alone, except for the staff of a dozen who were needed to maintain such an enormous vessel. Charles knew the luxurious yacht was worth more than his soul, and so did everybody else–especially the Columbian pirates who boarded the vessel in the middle of the night while Charles was sleeping on deck beneath the stars. He heard them toss an anchor onto the edge of the yacht, pulling themselves up to the front deck. It was here where Charles left his blanket and pillow, having hidden inside the bucket where they kept the bloody marlins from the past few days’ fishing. Though most were dead from the cold water and ice cubes, a couple from the morning were still very much alive: they pierced their bills into Charles’s legs and arms as he dove deep, holding his limbs pressed against the sides of the most expensive fish tank on earth, trying to pin the monsters as best he could. Charles poked his head up to the top to breathe when he needed to, wrestling the marlins by their bills, getting smacked in the face and body with their fins.
Charles battled the bastards for about an hour before he worked up the courage to peek out from beneath his putrid aquatic entrapment. He found one pirate on deck, another drinking wine with the captain, and the rest presumably down below; where the mellifluous chorus of their voices bubbled upward, pouring lavishly into the silent evening like the steady flow of fine champagne in their glasses. Charles could hear the owner of the yacht talking earnestly to his servants, telling them in Italian what the pirates requested: lobsters, fresh fish, wine, brandy, cigars, and steaks.
Charles had no time to get out of his freezing, bloody bathtub before one of the gourmet chefs led two pirates toward the lobster and fish containers. The lobsters were still alive and fresh from St. Maarten. The pirates emptied the lobster tank across the deck, draining the water with a smash of an anchor and grabbing them off the floorboards like little Peruvian puppies or something out of a demented Christmas fantasy. Their eyes were like wild owls. With their backs turned toward him, Charles jumped out of his tomb and scampered across the deck, careful not to crush any lobsters beneath his bloody toes.
“Squash the lobsters, and squash the pumpkins,” he said, as he jumped past his fellow sea creatures onto the mast and climbed it to the top like a baboon.
The pirates threw bananas, apples, and oranges at him–but it was the lemons that hurt the most when they pelted them into Charles’s face and head. They were surprisingly accurate with the apples and lemons; rising to such wicked precision and ambition they soon creating a game of it by gambling lobster and rare oddities from the yacht, laughing for hours like idiots in the middle of the ocean.
“The fruit of our lives, the fruit of our loins,” Charles cried out every few minutes. He was sitting on the sail and listening to the winds of his heart. When they realized it might be wiser to lower the sail, Charles stood up on the mast and balanced himself with one toe like an angel for a few seconds, before launching himself outward into the air and downward into the sea–missing the deck by mere inches and chipping his front tooth on the way down with one last wicked orange to the mouth.
Charles had seen an island and by the time the pirates ordered the yacht to stop and turn around–the dolphin who had swam with the marlins was already scaling the corral finger which shimmered beneath the sun–brighter than a dozen sunken treasures. The pirates endeavored to unearth Charles on the island, but the boy hid well: digging a hole and covering himself with white sand. Charles breathed through the hollow palm branch of a fallen leaf curled comfortably into the bottom of the beach. When the moonlit sands began to grow cold and dark he rose from his shallow grave and watched the yacht fade away like raindrops into the crescent horizon.
Surviving on fruits and his own urine, Charles practiced diving every day from a precipitous rock formation hedged over the sea. It was not nearly as high as the one he had grown to love but he made the most of it and the short distance from the beach made it possible to dive multiple times with ease, which filled his daily boredom with majestic monotony and paradisiacal sensations of flying.
One morning a few months later the yacht returned and Charles climbed his perch to dive into the water as it approached the golden shores of his destiny. This time there were soldiers on board, or rather rugged fishermen with guns, and they pulled Charles aboard so he could hug his savior: the old man who believed in a boy and his dream of the sea.
The feast and festivities were spectacular and after three years as a cliff diver in Mexico–two years of which were spent at La Quebrada–Charles earned enough money for an extended vacation and was awarded a lucrative cash advance to return in twelve months; an agreement so nice that nobody on his tiny island would ever have to worry about food or water again.
This made the boy very happy, and hungry, and Charles slept on deck beneath the stars and watched the world through the eyes of a fish. The sea was his. The tanks were full of seafood and the orange claws of the lobsters glimmered beneath the bulging moon like a beacon of interminable hope. The evening was alive, its invisible black eyes were palpable. It dawned on Charles that neither pirate on earth nor full moon in heaven was going to prevent him from eating like a monster.
MATTHEW DEXTER is a certifiable American anomaly living in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. This lunatic gringo writes novels, memoirs, poetry, journalism articles, short stories of literary fiction and short stories of narrative nonfiction. When Matthew is not writing he enjoys life by the ocean; beautiful beaches, breathtaking views, reading, and being inspired. But never candlelit dinners on the beach. He’s afraid of Pirates.