News of a Girl Lost at Sea

Betina González

Illustration by Monika Grubizna

for Rosalía Farrugio of Palma di Montechiaro

Despite living on an island, she has always been frightened of the sea. First it swallowed up her sandals, that summer she went down to the beach with her cousin Luigi and Alessandra. Then it carried off two fishermen, and the Virgin had to be submerged and flowers scattered, which the waves gulped with delinquent indolence. Finally it took her brothers, all of them aboard a boat she never saw but imagined as a giant walnut shell sailing from some northern port toward the black nothing of the water.

America is a black nothing too. More black than yellow, like the bananas Uncle Filippo sometimes brings to the house on Sundays. "A very special feast," he explains; he has paid dearly for them and now he takes a knife and splits them into little wafers, one for each nephew and niece. Rosalía eats her slice and buries her nose deep in the plate where only the peels remain. It smells of rot, of beach, of boats full of pirates and bad intentions. Black pirates like the ones who kidnapped Santa Oliva, who was her age when she got off the boat on foreign soil and preached until they chopped her head off. Did Santa Oliva think about bananas in Tunisia while she prayed—abandoned to the wild beasts and the Muslims who nevertheless ate from her lovely, noble-blooded hand?

Every time they climb the hill, her grandmother points to the horizon and tells her how that lump at the end of the water is Africa. From there, she says, Santa Oliva protects all those who leave their homelands in search of a better life. Although surely the irony in her grandmother's consolation is unintended, the child is old enough to understand. What better life was that? Hadn't the little girl Oliva been happy and contented living in Palermo with her high-born family?

Now that it is up to her, Rosalía doesn't think about the sea, or about her parents' promises, or about the irony of Santa Oliva. She doesn't even think about bananas. She is training in the basement that smells of dried tomatoes, of vinegar, of fish. She counts the days until Sara will come to get her, clutching her suitcases and even more afraid than Rosalía (because Sara is old and has married a man she's never seen). Rosalía remembers the wedding day, all their relatives gathered in the tiny vestibule of the church. After the signing of the papers, they took a photo of her aunt with some other man so the family could have a memory of the ceremony. Sara was pretty enough in her white dress, even though her smile in the photo came out crooked, sour. The man looked better. Maybe because he wasn't the groom and had no real obligation. He stood straight, like a heartthrob of the silver screen, even though his suit—like the woman in white beside him—was borrowed and had to be returned in a few hours.

Rosalía wonders whether her aunt Sara is a saint yet, with her twenty-eight-year-old virginity and her peaceful face. Because not all saints are beautiful like Santa Oliva. Sara has the same face as Santa Ágata at the church: a straight, ugly nose and too-small eyes. She even has a flat chest, as if they'd already lopped off her breasts and she were secretly carrying them in the suitcase she packed months in advance. Rosalía thinks about her own flat chest and smiles, imagining the painful amputation that would save her from aristocratic marriage.

Maybe Sara really does keep her blood-stained breasts among the lacy doilies of her trousseau. She's barely spoken since her marriage was arranged, as if she's already taken a vow of silence. All she needs now is her martyrdom and a couple miracles. Rosalía thinks how unfair it is that some man across the ocean will ruin her aunt's beatification, how because of him Sara will never have a statue or a shrine. Because Sara is as docile as a goat and—even though she has no tits—she will board the boat, surrendering her chance to protest or be tortured, forever giving up all hope of entering the martyrology with a festino all her own printed in the almanacs.

Rosalía thinks about all these things so as not to think about the voyage. Confined to her grandmother's basement, she fasts, training herself in contemplation, elaborating her meticulous plan. In a few hours, when the nuns open the convent doors to feed the poor children, she will get in line. She'll wear the cream-colored dress grandmother already demoted to a dishtowel and the shoes Papá didn't finish patching before he left. No one will recognize her in this orphan's outfit, with her little pot for begging lentils.

Each time she's gone with her father to deliver an order of boots, Sister Beatrice has given her a marzipan Baby Jesus. She's sure the nuns will not refuse her their protection. She'll invoke Santa Rosalía and, after consecrating her virginity to God, will live in contemplation, confined forever while her brothers slave away in Buenos Aires and boats run aground in every sea. She always knew having the same name as the patron of the island would come in handy (never mind that hundreds of other girls have this name and it hasn't saved them from the Americas or matrimony). The plan is so perfect it makes her want to go down to the beach and poke fun at the waves, to stick her tongue right out at them and promise she will never ever in her life learn how to swim.


But the hermit saint can't hear her, maybe because she's busy contemplating in her grotto or lost in the memories running through her plaster head, behind the glass forever protecting her from Prince Baldwin and his military prowess. The nuns recognize Rosalía right away and the girl, who has fasted for hours, polishes off three plates of lentils almost without breathing. Sister Beatrice, rather touched by her story, sends her home with another marzipan Jesus and a book of the Italian saints "to bring her courage on her journey."

Her grandmother is mad at her when she gets home; Rosalía has embarrassed her in front of the whole town by getting in line with all the orphans. She doesn't even know about the girl's plan to flee. For the rest of the day, granddaughter and grandmother do not speak. Later that night, as the two of them eat their escarole soup, the grandmother tells her the story of old Lorenza.

Lorenza was a little slow; she couldn't read or write or commit her prayers to memory. So before bedtime she would kneel beside her bed and say, "Little basket up, little basket down," the only words she could be certain to remember every night (she had a basket with ruffles on it for collecting the hens' eggs each morning). And because God doesn't care about the quality of the prayers themselves, just about the will behind them and (above all else) their quantity and frequency, Lorenza died of old age and went straight to Heaven. With this parable, her grandmother hopes to convince Rosalía that the road to saintliness isn't necessarily the one she knows by rote: virgin, torture, death, and prayer card.

The child goes to sleep fairly disgruntled. Before she says her prayers, she meditates a while on the old lady Lorenza. There's something about the story that bothers her (besides the fact that the protagonist is an ignorant old peasant woman). How could her grandmother be so sure Lorenza really went to Heaven? Rosalía decides some story about a peasant woman who dies a peasant woman is not enough to alter anybody's fate and, by that same token, serves as a warning that the private fruits of prayer are ultimately reaped too late, and surely must get bitter and rotten with the years. Only then does she discover another possibility. She remembers the magazine cover with that Argentine woman—looking as radiant as an actress or a saint in her mink coat and halo of yellow hair, on her knees before the Pope. Happily, Rosalía concludes that South America, if inevitable, could at least count as successful martyrdom for a girl of twelve.


The sunrise, rounded over the surface of the water, seems to her a special kind of red. The light shines through purple and yellow before deciding to reinvent the world and leave her sleepless. They've spent several days at sea already, and she's still a bit afraid of it. Hands pressed against the porthole, Rosalía thinks she sees a flying fish—not one, but several flying fishes that look like winged monsters with swords for noses and shiny green scales—leaping into the uncertainty of dawn.

Oblivious to the wonders of the natural world, Aunt Sara snores away in the next bed. The child dresses in silence, preparing for another excursion on this floating paradise provided for her by the efforts of her father in his suburban Buenos Aires workshop. The Julius Caesar doesn't look a thing like the walnut shell her brothers took two years ago. It is the pride of the Italian navigation company, a transatlantic luxury liner carrying more than seven hundred passengers, all ready to start their new lives in South America. None of them are thinking about Santa Oliva and, this being a topic already more or less exhausted, we're going to put aside their hopes and dreams to follow Rosalía, who is at this moment entering the Tea Room. Invaded by the sudden red of dawn, the room looks like a theatre on fire, ablaze with curtains and organdies. The child sits at the table by the window, imitating her aunt's pretentious gestures and giving orders to a make-believe waiter bearing a silver salver. She sucks on a Hollywood cigarette holder, takes a sip from a porcelain teacup. When she gets up, she smoothes her skirt and continues down the wooden staircase to the dining room, not without noticing the tempting detours leading off toward the first-class cabins, the dance hall, the cinema, and the pool.

Throughout the journey the sea is an abiding presence, like a halo that pursues her. It's not like her Aunt Sara's seasickness, but like a delicate oppression in her ears, as if the hollow of her hand were cupped between her and every sound. This makes conversation with the other children difficult. Or is it that they are speaking to her in another language?

But now everybody is still asleep and Rosalía gets to the dining room just as the staff is finishing up the sweeping and straightening cups upon the wooden tables that stretch from wall to wall accompanied by stools bolted to the floor. While she waits for the breakfast service to begin, she sits in one of the banquettes on the covered deck. Unlike on the upper decks, there is no line of armchairs here for stretching out and sunbathing. Here the benches are arranged with their backs facing the sea, so one can feel the prick of water and the pervasive salt at one's neck or in one's hair. It is also hard to see the sky. But on the upper deck, Rosalía once spent hours watching the clouds change form, while a lady with a giant ring asked her questions about the book she carried with her everywhere. It was the same lady they encountered later leaving the cinema. That night they watched Tarzan, but Aunt Sara forbade Rosalía to tell anyone they knew. Apparently the man's loincloth uniform and naked torso had the power to scandalize their entire family tree, especially the unknown husband who would fetch them in the port of Buenos Aires.

Trying not to look at the water, Rosalía lies down on her back upon the bench. Every so often, a splash reaches her cheek. She thinks how much nicer it would be to travel with the first-class lady who told her all about Santa Rosa de Lima, the lone American lady saint. The story itself did not impress her much—what good is there in self-inflicted martyrdom, a solitary indulgence of thorns and wood that doesn't involve a man or any other real danger? And what about the sudden twist of fate that's supposed to come just in time to save her from an ordinary life? Even the ending, with all those roses raining on the bishop, strikes her as a total lack of modesty. Though it interests her very much to hear that America numbers only one woman in its entire calendar of saints. Besides, the lady with the ring has a soft voice and perfect teeth and reads magazines full of distinguished, very red-lipped women whose half-open mouths don't look a thing like the pursed lips of saints. Rosalía asks herself if she'll ever see her again once they go ashore and, in that moment, coinciding with the smell of coffee, she hears the sound of a guitar.

A decrepit old man has sat down on the bench beside her. He strums a mandolin as if, instead of playing a song, he were composing one, a little unsteadily, his thick fingers tangling in the strings. He bends over the instrument, but when Rosalía stands, he straightens up and calls her by her name. Startled, the child asks him how they know each other.

"I am your fate," the old man answers.

Rosalía, who knows too many Sicilian tales to be fooled by such an old and ugly man, immediately retorts:

"Everybody knows the Fates are women."

"Yours isn't." The old man sighs and scratches his neck a little sadly. "I'm sorry. You can see that I am also fairly poor." He points eloquently to his torn brown suit. "I can't even play this very well. The truth is I would have preferred a flute, but . . . well, one makes do with what one's given, eh?" He props the mandolin up on the railing, sticks his hands into his pants pockets, and holds his left out in a fist. "I just have this. I'm supposed to give it to you now."

Rosalía comes closer and the old man deposits a few coins, inscribed in an unfamiliar language, into her open hand.

"It isn't much," he clarifies. "But it's enough." He stares at her for a moment. He has the most celestial eyes she has ever seen. "You could at least give me a hug or a kiss. What do you think?"

Rosalía hasn't read The Legend of Saint-Julian by Flaubert, but she has heard a lot about the old perverts that chase little girls in schoolyards, so she stows the foreign money in her pocket and darts into the dining room. When she turns to peek behind her out the window, the old man and his guitar have disappeared and dawn's light is breaking through the gallery.


As always, when the ship arrives in port, the news is greeted with applause. The usual commotion follows: shoving, jostling, hundreds of elbows at the railing. "Look! Sugarloaf Mountain!" some folks shout, pointing to the horizon. Rosalía thinks they are referring to yesterday's stale bread that the sailors are tossing to the poor folk crowded on the quay; bread that would miraculously have acquired a sweet flavor overnight. Either in her eagerness to taste it, or because she suddenly notices the mountain with the open arms of Christ, she hears a signal, unmistakable, in her heart. She descends the gangplank with the other passengers who've arrived at their destination and the onlookers who'll take advantage of the stop to reestablish contact with solid ground.

It's already midday and the harbor is full of people; stevedores, fishermen, and passengers melt into the side streets leading into town. Rosalía wanders for a while, disoriented, not listening for the warning bell. She's off smelling flowers and fresh fish when she turns a corner and happens upon a fruit stand where a fat black woman cleans bananas.

The child selects a bunch of six, digs her hand into her pocket, and pays using the old man's money. It is the exact amount. The woman smiles and thanks her in the same language as the coins. Rosalía sits atop a fruit crate and, as she bites into her first banana, listening to the woman's tender voice, she finally resolves her sainthood dilemma. For starters, she should change her name. It won't do her any good to be "the other Santa Rosalía." "Rosa" is also out of the question, thanks to the one in Lima. But "Lía" is unique among the names of saints and she adopts it instantly. She's got everything all planned: her brothers will work in Buenos Aires, the boats will keep on docking in unknown ports around the world, but she'll no longer fear the sea—or anyone. "Little basket up, little basket down," she thinks, while the banana lady takes her onto her lap and ties her shoelaces and speaks to her in full, round words, among which the child recognizes, certain and shining, the sound of her new name.

translated from the Spanish by Meghan Flaherty