The Smuggler of the Exumas
 
 
 
The harbormaster is a very large black man. He is so big that he barely fits behind his desk or inside his uniform. Every time he breathes, with a little sigh, the buttons threaten to pop off his shirt.
     'If I understand it all correctly,' he says, 'you have come from Florida because you are looking for a friend of yours, a certain Frank Blackwell?'
     'That's right.'
     'And you believe that this Blackwell is currently in Bimini?'
     'No,' Gramm says, 'but I think he has been here. He was on his way to Santo Domingo, in his boat, and he was supposed to return before the storm season.'
     'So?'
     'He has not come back.'
     'In other words, this friend of yours, this Blackwell, is missing.'
     'Yes, that's right.'
     'I am a harbormaster, captain. Missing persons are properly a police job.'
     'Of course,' Gramm says quickly. 'I talked to the Coast Guard and to our consul in New Providence and the consul called the authorities.'
     'And?'
     'The authorities started a file.'
    'Naturally.'
    'The consul says he cannot do much else, unless somebody comes up with something tangible.'
    'A wreck.'
    'Something like that.'
     'So you started your own search.'
     'Yes, I guess that's the long and the short of it.'
     'I wish you luck. I am afraid I cannot help you.'
     'Bimini is the first and most logical port of entry when you come from Florida in a boat. I think Blackwell has been here. Perhaps you remember him. He must have cleared in.'
     'When is this supposed to have happened?'
     'About a year ago.'
     'A whole year ago? My memory doesn't go back that far.'
     'I understand,' Gramm says and he puts a twenty-dollar bill on the desk.
     The harbormaster takes a ledger and opens it on top of the money.
     'What is the name of the vessel of this Blackwell?'
     'The
Galant Lady,' Gramm says. 'It is a wooden powerboat, a converted old trawler, really.'
    'Crew?'
    'Just Blackwell and a Cuban engineer. It's a small ship.'
     The harbormaster sighs, checks a few pages in the ledger, and sighs again.
     'I am sorry, captain,' he says. 'I have no record of the
Galant Lady.'
     He looks at Gramm.
     'Now I would like to see your papers, please.'
     Gramm hands over his passport, the customs form and his boat's documentation from the U.S. Coast Guard.
     'Where is your crew list?' the harbormaster asks.
     'I don't have crew,' Gramm says.
     'You're sailing alone? How big is your boat?'
     'Six tons.'
     'Six tons? You must have had a rough ride across the Gulf Stream.'
    The harbormaster leafs through Gramm's passport. Then he briefly lifts up the other papers.
     'I am terribly sorry, captain,' he says. 'I cannot give you a cruising permit.'
     'Why not?' Gramm asks.
     'Your papers are not in order,' the harbormaster says.
     He pushes everything away across his desk.
     'Is something missing?' Gramm asks.
     The harbormaster nods. Gramm folds a twenty-dollar bill inside his passport and pushes the papers back.
The harbormaster's office is a small building with pink stucco walls. It is quiet on the wharf. Only two ships are lying alongside. The bigger one is a mail boat with a green hull and a bright yellow wheelhouse. A load of rusty bicycles, tied together like bundles of sticks, is stowed on deck. Gramm's boat lies astern. It is an old sailing yacht with a wooden cabin and a small diesel engine. The name on the bow reads Mola mola.
     Standing on the wharf Gramm looks out on a boundless reach of shallow, light blue water. In the Gulf Stream he faced steep waves and foam crests, but here, on the east side of the island, the sea is as still as the sky. The water is so clear that it is almost invisible. It resembles thick glass through which you can look straight down at the white sandy bottom and dozens of large, bright red starfish.
     A seaplane with silver wings is anchored in the bay. Close by, the wrecks of two wooden fishing boats are exposed at low tide. A number of empty and dilapidated houses, some without a roof, line the shore. In the distance stand the ruins of a small hotel with black holes instead of windows and a collapsed balcony. On the beach, between tall casuarina trees, lies a dead dog.
     A path of crushed shell leads towards the village. The island looks as if it was recently hit by a hurricane. Downed palm trees lie among the houses, pieces of corrugated iron and tar paper have been ripped from the roofs, doors, shutters and gutters are torn loose and hang down at odd angles. There is trash and debris everywhere. Chickens and dogs stray about, and children who run off as soon as they see Gramm. All houses seem empty. A store is locked with a chain. Gramm passes a bar in a low wooden shed. The bar does not have a door. A man in a dark suit holds up a piece of plywood in front of the entrance and tries to nail it down with one hand.
     'You want a drink, cop'm?' he asks.
     'It looks like you're closing,' Gramm says.
     'If you keep an eye on the place, we're open.'
     'Where is everybody?'
     'To the parade,' the man says. 'I got to get to the parade, too. On the double.'
     He drops the plywood and points inside.
     'Help yourself, cop'm,' he says. 'There is beer, and whisky, too, but I don't have ice. You're from Florida?'
     'Yeah,' says Gramm.
     The man nods.
     'I thought so. We got people from Florida before. See you later.'
     He runs off and leaves Gramm at the entrance. The bar does not have a floor, and only three walls. The ground is covered with the same crushed shell as the road outside. The back of the place is completely open and looks out over the flat, light blue water of the bay.
     Gramm opens a cooler underneath the bar and takes out a bottle of beer. Suddenly he hears, in the distance, the music of a brass band. He looks out and sees a group of black musicians approaching through the village. They walk very slowly, without bending their knees, and they play a funeral march. They shuffle through the dust on the road and in front goes a man with a standard.
BUBAS it reads, and in small gold letters Bimini United Burial and Assistance Society. Eight women in long white dresses with purple sashes follow behind the brass band. Next come the pallbearers, eight men with top hats and black frock coats. They walk in two rows of four, close together, but they don't carry a coffin. They don't carry anything. They are followed at some distance by the other inhabitants of the village, who are all carrying flowers of straw, silk or colored plastic. The owner of the bar walks at the end of the parade. He looks as grave as the others, but he briefly waves at Gramm.
     Gramm can still hear the funeral march long after the parade has passed. It is very quiet on the island. The wind is calm and there is no surf on the east side. Three pelicans fly in formation above the bay. They fly constantly back and forth, very low above the water, and they don't make any sound at all. Gramm takes another bottle of beer. Then the owner of the bar returns. He is out of breath. He takes off his black jacket, quickly arranges a long row of glasses on the bar, and starts to wipe off the tables.
     'Curious parade,' Gramm says.
     'It's an island tradition, cop'm,' says the owner. 'This time of year we all get together one afternoon and make a trip to the graveyard.'
     'Why?'
     'Visiting.'
     'The dead?'
     'Yes. Otherwise they would get lonely.'
     He takes his place behind the bar, with a clean rag over his shoulder and his hands on his hips. Then the pallbearers and the musicians come in. The pallbearers hold their top hats under their arms like troublesome children. They are surprised to see Gramm.
     'The cop'm here is from Florida,' the owner of the bar says as he fills the glasses.
     The pallbearers nod.
     'Is that your boat, down at the wharf?' one of them asks.
     'Yes,' Gramm says.
     'Nice boat. How long is she?'
     'Twenty eight feet.'
     'That's what you crossed the Gulf Stream in?'
     Gramm nods. The pallbearers raise their glasses. They still look very grave, even though the parade is over.
     'Oh well,' they say. 'Welcome to Bimini. How long are you staying?'
     'I am sailing on tomorrow morning.'
    'Eastward?''
     'Yes.'
     'Oh well,' the pallbearers say. 'Welcome and farewell, then. Where is your crew? Asleep?'
     'I sail alone.'
     'You don't have crew?'
     'No. I always sail alone.'
     The pallbearers shake their heads.
     'You cannot sail eastward without a crew, mon,' one of them says. 'You got to have somebody in the bow at all times. You cannot cross the Great Bahama Bank without a look out. You're going to hit the reef. Guaranteed. Didn't you see the wreck of the
Carnation when you came in? Or the wreck of the Pieternella? Or the Sea Wolf on North Beach? Mon, we have more wrecks here than graves in the churchyard.'
     The other pallbearers agree.
     'The
Sapona, at Cat island. The Lilly-Ann, at Great Isaac Light. And an old schooner, the Surprise, behind Pigeon Cay. And the Pride of Annapolis.'
     'It adds up, mon.'
     'Only a fool sails to the Exumas without crew, mon. Even the fishermen from around here, who have been sailing these waters since before they were born, always take a boy along.'
     'The
Lucky Jim, from Jacksonville. And the Liberté, a tramp from Haiti.'
     'It adds up, mon, all the wrecks we have around here.'
     'More wrecks than graves, mon.'
     'What about the
Galant Lady?' Gramm asks. 'Do you guys know of a wreck of a trawler named Galant Lady?'
     The pallbearers shake their heads.
     'That name doesn't ring a bell at all.'
There is nobody on the wharf and the sun is setting. The office of the harbormaster is closed and there are no lights in the wheelhouse of the mail boat. It is so quiet that Gramm can hear the rush of the rising tide along the sea wall. The bay and the sky above it are very clear and smooth and solid purple. He climbs aboard his boat and in the cabin he lights a small kerosene lamp. The lamp is gimbaled in a bracket that has the shape of a jumping dolphin. The light is soft and yellow and shines on the wooden bulkhead between the cabin and the forward, on the starboard bunk and on the floorboards. Gramm sits down at the table, unfolds his charts and opens the pilot book.
 
Eastbound vessels crossing the Great Bahama Bank must use the cut between Conch Cay and Comfort Cay. A course of 110° when the north point of Conch Cay is abeam must be maintained to avoid the shoals that obstruct the cut. Caution is advised, because the shoals frequently change their shape and location under the influence of the wind and a strong tidal current. About one hundred yards off the shore of Comfort Cay lies a black reef that the local fishermen call Uncle Henry. No buoys or beacons mark the passage through the cut. There are but few aids to navigation in The Bahamas, and they are all unreliable. Mariners must ­
Gramm lies down in his bunk and listens to the water softly streaming past the hull of the boat. When he falls asleep he dreams about a very large dog. In the dream he walks on a beach. On one side is the sea, on the other side a bare, mountainous landscape. The dog suddenly jumps from behind a rock and approaches him. Gramm tries to chase him away. He yells and waves his arms. Then he tries to run, but all his muscles are stiff and his legs seem heavy as lead. He can barely move. When the dog catches up with him, the dream breaks off and another one begins, although Gramm doesn't immediately realize that it is a dream. He is lying in his bunk. His wife, whom he hasn't seen for years and whose face he has forgotten, enters the cabin. Gramm wants to get up, but he is unable to move. His wife does not say anything. She bends over and lays a piece of gold, a coin or a medal, on his tongue.
Early in the morning, when the tide has turned and Gramm is on the wharf adjusting his dock lines, a black boy walks up.
     'Hello, cop'm,' he says. 'Mister Berry says you looking for crew.'
    'Who is Mr. Berry?'
     'Mister Berry lives in North Point, cop'm, but he has a friend who works on the wharf and he is Margaret's brother and Margaret is my uncle's wife until she left him because he's always drunk, and he says you looking for crew. Mister Berry says you is.'
     'Mr. Berry is mistaken. And you are too young to work on a boat. You ought to be in school learning your ABC's.'
     'I am strong for my age, cop'm. And I was cop'm Edmond's first mate. I always sailed with cop'm Edmond, sir, until his boat got stolen. Sir.'
     'Is cop'm Edmond a fisherman?'
     'Yes, sir. We fished for conch and lobster. Here in the bay and at Cat island.'
     'I'm not here to go fishing,' Gramm says. 'I'm crossing the Great Bahama Bank.'
     'That doesn't matter, cop'm.'
     'Does your mother feel the same way?'
     'My mother lives in Freeport, sir. I live with my uncle and my uncle doesn't care what I do because Margaret went away. Sir.'
     Gramm looks at the boy.
     'I could use you as a look-out,' he says, 'just to cross the Bank. After that I won't need you anymore.'
     'That doesn't matter, cop'm. I can always go back in the mail boat. Mister Berry's friend knows the cop'm of the mail boat and he is Margaret's brother who lived with my uncle until she left.'
     The boy wears a dirty shirt, and shorts. He is barefoot.
     'What's your name?' Gramm asks.
     'Rolle, cop'm.'
     'Where is your bag?'
     'I don't have a bag, cop'm. Sorry.'
    'In that case you can start work right away. Do you know where the telegraph office is?'
    'Yes, cop'm, of course.'
    Gramm sits down at the cabin table and writes on the back of an envelop.
    'This has to be sent immediately,' he says.
    He gives the boy money and the text of the telegram:
MACHADO SHIPPING COMPANY FORT LAUDERDALE FLORIDA
BIMINI NO TRACE GALANT LADY STOP PROCEED TO EXUMAS STOP GRAMM
 
 
This is the first chapter of my novel The Smuggler of the Exumas. The book, though inspired by my sailing cruise to The Bahamas, is a work of fiction. I made the translation from the original Dutch myself. I am not a professional translator. The English text may not be perfectly smooth. On the other hand, you can be fairly certain that the translator understood the author's intentions.