The Nautical Chart

By: Arturo Perez-Reverte

Let us not lose sight of him, because we are going to tell his story. As we look over the port with him, we can make out the lights of a ship moving slowly away from the dock. The sound of her engines is muffled by distance and the sounds of the city, along with the throb of propellers churning the black water as the crew hauls in the final length of mooring line. And as he watches from the wall, the man feels two different types of pain. In the pit of his stomach is a pain born of the sadness evident in the grimace that resembles—soon we will understand that it merely resembles—a smile. But there is a second pain, sharper and more precise, that comes and goes on his right side, there where a cold moistness makes his shirt stick to his body as blood seeps down toward his hip, soaking the inside of his trousers with each beat of his heart and each pulse of his veins.

Fortunately, the man thinks, my heart is beating very slowly tonight.

Lot 307

I have swum through oceans and sailed through libraries. HERMAN MELVILLE, Moby Dick

We could call him Ishmael, but in truth his name is Coy. I met him in the next-to-last act of this story, when he was on the verge of becoming just one more shipwrecked sailor floating on his coffin as the whaler Rachel looked for lost sons. By then he had already been drifting some, including the afternoon when he came to the Claymore auction gallery in Barcelona with the intention of killing time. He had a small sum of money in his pocket and, in a room in a boarding-house near the Ramblas, a few books, a sextant, and a pilot's license that four months earlier the head office of the Merchant Marine had suspended for two years, after the Isla Negra, a forty-thousand-ton container ship, had run aground in the Indian Ocean at 04:20 hours... on his watch.

Coy liked auctions of naval objects, although in his present situation he was in no position to bid. But Claymore's, located on a first floor on calle Consell de Cent, was air-conditioned and served drinks at the end of the auction, and besides, the young woman at the reception desk had long legs and a pretty smile. As for the items to be sold, he enjoyed looking at them and imagining the stranded sailors who had been carrying them here and there until they were washed up on this final beach. All through the session, sitting with his hands in the pockets of his dark-blue wool jacket, he kept track of the buyers who carried off his favorites. Often this pastime was disillusioning. A magnificent diving suit, whose dented and gloriously scarred copper helmet made him think of shipwrecks, banks of sponges and Negulesco's films with giant squid and Sophia Loren emerging from the water with her wet blouse plastered to her body, was acquired by an antique dealer whose pulse never missed a beat as he raised his numbered paddle. And a very old Browne & Son hand-bearing compass, in good condition and in its original box, for which Coy would have given his soul during his days as an apprentice, was awarded, without any change in the opening price, to an individual who looked as if he knew absolutely nothing about the sea; that piece would sell for ten times its value if it were displayed in the window of any maritime sporting-goods shop.

The fact is, that afternoon the auctioneer hammered down lot 306—a Ulysse Nardin chronometer used in the Italian Royal Navy—at the opening price, consulting his notes as he pushed up his glasses with his index finger. He was suave, and was wearing a salmon-colored shirt and a rather dashing necktie. Between bids he took small sips of a glass of water.

"Next lot: Atlas Maritimo de las Costas de Espana, the work of Urrutia Salcedo. Number three oh seven."

He accompanied the announcement with a discreet smile saved for pieces whose importance he meant to highlight. An eighteenth-century jewel of cartography, he added after a significant pause, emphasizing the word "jewel" as if it pained him to release it. His assistant, a young man in blue overalls, held up the large folio volume so it could be seen from the floor, and Coy looked at it with a stab of sadness. According to the Claymore catalogue, it was rare to find this edition for sale, since most of the copies were in libraries and museums. This one was in perfect condition. Most likely it had never been on a ship, where humidity, penciled notations, and natural wear and tear left their irreparable traces on navigational charts.

The auctioneer was opening the bidding at a price that would have allowed Coy to live for half a year in relative comfort. A man with broad shoulders, a clear brow, and long gray hair pulled back into a ponytail, who was sitting in the first row and whose cell phone had rung three times, to the irritation of others in the room, held up his paddle, number n. Other hands went up as the auctioneer, small wooden gavel in hand, turned his attention from one to another, his modulated voice repeating each offer and suggesting the next with professional monotony The opening price was about to be doubled, and prospective buyers of lot 307 began dropping by the wayside. Joining the corpulent individual with the gray ponytail in the battle was another man, lean and bearded, a woman—of whom Coy could see only the back of a head of short blond hair and the hand raising her paddle—and a very well-dressed bald man. When the woman doubled the initial price, gray ponytail half-turned to send a miffed glance in her direction, and Coy glimpsed green eyes, an aggressive profile, a large nose, and an arrogant expression. The hand holding his paddle bore several gold rings. The man gave the appearance of not being accustomed to competition, and he turned to his right brusquely, where a dark-haired, heavily made-up young woman who had been murmuring into the phone every time it rang was now suffering the consequences of his bad humor. He rebuked her harshly in a low voice.