Situations of extreme isolation may cause such anguish and fear in certain fragile people that their minds exhibit an intensity bordering on true madness. What’s strangest is that these sensitive individuals may never before have shown the slightest symptom of insanity. But the simple fact of finding themselves far from their usual surroundings or social networks can have a druglike effect on their spirits and make them commit desperate acts. A story of this kind was told to me one night by an old sailor in the parlor of a brothel in the city of Punta Arenas.
The mariner had a sturdy build, was dressed in working clothes, and his enormous hands testified to a lifetime of rugged toil. His long white beard moved about oddly as his face changed expression, accentuating his countenance as he told his eerie tale. He spoke slowly, punctuating the narrative by taking long pauses for a swallow from his glass of pisco. I had the impression that he was one of those born storytellers, without much education but with an immense capacity for imagination and observation. The prostitutes in the place referred to him tenderly as “El Abuelo”—“Grandpa”—and the madam seemed to hold him in almost loving respect. He was a regular customer of the place, not because of the girls, but in order to cadge drinks from the clients in exchange for extraordinary tales that he knew how to deliver in a deep voice and with perfect timing. I found his story especially enthralling because that very morning I’d witnessed the departure of the supply ship that carried the relief crews of sailors out to the seven manned lighthouses of Region XII, known as the Magellan, in the extreme south of Chile.
The Evangelista Lighthouse, the most distant of all of them, is almost mythical for its location and difficult access. It is situated on the southwest isle of the group of four Evangelista Islands, thirteen nautical miles off the coast, north of the western end of the Strait of Magellan in the Pacific Ocean. This region, northwest of Desolation Island, suffers from terrible weather in all seasons of the year. Water-gorged winds from the Antarctic, which can reach speeds of a hundred and fifty knots, drop eighty to a hundred and twenty inches of rain a year. The waves that continually break on the craggy islet are strong enough to spray the base of the lighthouse, a hundred and sixty feet above the sea. The vertical cliffs along the shore prevent ships from docking, and men and supplies must be brought ashore in launches and inflatable craft when conditions at sea permit. A crane installed on top of the rock works the cables of a cart on rails that moves up and down the slope. In spite of these difficulties, a crew of four Chilean sailors assigned to the lighthouse is permanently stationed there and is only relieved every four months. During this time, they have one radio communication per week with the naval base at Punta Arenas in which to exchange technical and meteorological information. In case of absolute emergency, they may receive assistance by helicopter. However, in the past—the Evangelista Lighthouse entered service in 1896—it was better not to find oneself in such a situation.
The men who make up these crews, called fareros, are chosen above all for their mental stability. The tension that arises among them from the forced intimacy of confinement can sometimes have dangerous results. Both the long daylight of summer and dark days of winter in these extreme latitudes can set their nerves on edge. The maintenance work on the lighthouses is not onerous, even though the most important turns on watch are at night. The rest of the time, they have to combat boredom and depression as best they can. The habitable surface of the rock is too small to allow for physical exercise other than gymnastics and weightlifting. Fishing from the sea-battered cliffs is dangerous enough to be prohibited. There is, of course, a shortwave radio to listen to the news, music, or soccer games. However, since sailors are not much given to reading and chess, they have to endure long periods of gloom between their meals. In fact, their only real pleasure is food, at least during the first weeks of their stay; afterward, it also becomes repetitive and dull. Most of the time, they must make do with vitamin-enriched field rations that they warm up on a gas stove. Nowadays, they’re resupplied more often with fresh food and magazines, though these provisions are often infrequent, especially during the long winter storms. During the 1950s, according to the mariner, crews of fareros could spend up to four months at a time at a lighthouse without a single visit from a passing ship. The human tragedies that occurred during these isolated tours of duty were kept under wraps by the Chilean navy. Maintaining this key lighthouse in continual operation was more important than anything else.
I don’t know whether the stories of the old sailor at the brothel in Punta Arenas were true, as he claimed, or if he embellished or even invented them simply so clients would buy him drinks. For myself, as a writer and someone who enjoys human drama, it didn’t make a bit of difference. His words transported me to the Evangelista Lighthouse, at the edge of the Southern Ocean, where I would otherwise never have been able to set foot. Yet I’m convinced that he must have stayed there in his youth, and I’d later be able to verify, through documents and photos, many of the details that he mentioned that night. As far as I was concerned, a man who had spent a four-month stint at the Evangelista Lighthouse had no need to lie in order to tell an extraordinary story.
* * *
The three of them, Pablito, Fortunato and Salvador—all of them barely a day past twenty—were great friends. If they feared the four months of isolation that awaited them on the rock, they didn’t show it. The commander of the group, Corporal Liberio, thirty-five years old, was an experienced noncommissioned officer who had lived in Punta Arenas for years. It was his second tour of duty at the Evangelista Lighthouse; though he wasn’t too happy with his posting, at least he could count on the isolation bonus to buy himself a small boat.
The ship that brought them out took a long time getting there. First it had to drop off the crews for the other lighthouses, and the sea was too rough around the Félix and San Pedro lights. It was the month of May: the winter storms had set in early that year and swirled furiously, making the sailors doubt they’d be able to relieve the fareros on Evangelista on time. Waves over twelve feet high shook the corvette and made even unbelievers resort to prayer. The voyage out to the islands took over a week; the men aboard were exhausted by the continual rolling of the ship, which kept them from sleeping and made them seasick. The cold rain and fog banks, along with the penetrating humidity, made them shiver even under their blankets in the hold.
As they approached the Evangelista islets, the sea became oddly calm, as if by miracle or some premonition of the diabolic events to come. The wind suddenly died down and gave place to a thick mist, accompanied by a sinister silence. The ship’s captain had to depend solely on its radar to find his way and decided to stand off far from the lighthouse and wait for the visibility to improve. The wailing of the lighthouse’s foghorns sounded like the cries of a huge elephant seal that had been harpooned. They waited there for three days, in the wan light of the sun and moon that seeped through the haze. Those on board became increasingly worried when they heard on the radio that the sailors at the lighthouse were running out of food. Luckily, at the end of their third night of waiting, a light breeze cleared away the fog and the ship could approach the cliff. Viewed from the sea, the formidable rock rose up threateningly like a black giant; its summit, lit by the moon, seemed to be covered by a vast head of silver hair. The rotating beams of the lighthouse, which carried for thirty nautical miles, looked like the eye of a cyclops, whipping the shadows in its anger. The sight was at once spectacular and terrifying, imprinting itself indelibly on the spirits of the three young sailors of the relief crew.
The next day, with the help of the crew in place, they brought ashore food, water, gas canisters, and barrels of fuel for the lighthouse’s machinery: enough provisions for the next four months—the winter ones, the hardest of all. The sailors they were replacing, thin and bearded, had a strange gleam in their eyes, despite their obvious joy at having survived their turn of duty. They had the look of hunted prey. It took an entire exhausting day to off-load everything. The crane to hoist up the cart along the rails wouldn’t work on its own, so the men had to put their shoulders to it. A frigid rain came in during the early afternoon, complicating the work. By evening, when the corvette left for Punta Arenas, it had become a full-blown storm, with enormous seas and a shrieking wind.
The four relief sailors, soaked and shivering, spent a good part of the evening putting away the supplies and fuel in the storage area. After establishing radio contact with the naval base and signaling that everything was under control, Corporal Liberio spent the first night tending to the lights himself. He was relieved toward six in the morning by Fortunato and went down to have breakfast with Salvador and Pablito before he went to bed.
Liberio slept soundly for eight hours straight, as if he’d drunk too much pisco. He was simply tired, though, and was used to waking up easily for his turns on duty. Fortunato, who had been relieved by Salvador at noon, slept and snored on the bed next to his. But Pablito, who was supposed to have woken up the corporal two hours before, wasn’t there. The tempest howled outside.
Surprised and annoyed by this break in discipline, Corporal Liberio went in search of the guilty sailor. He found Salvador at his post in the machine room of the lighthouse, oiling the gears.
“Where’s Pablo?” he asked the sailor.
“Pablito?” replied Salvador, surprised. “I don’t know. It’s not yet time for his watch.”
“He was supposed to wake me up and forgot. That’s intolerable on the very first day!”
The corporal continued looking in the other rooms, in the storage area and even at the top of the tower, but Pablito wasn’t there. He woke up Fortunato and they went out together in the rain to try to find the missing sailor, but in vain. The day was already drawing to a close and it would be impossible to inspect the foot of the cliffs to see if he’d fallen into the sea. In any case, the immense waves that broke against the base of the rock would have torn him apart if he’d slipped on top of the bluff.
They went back inside and searched again in every corner, even moving the canisters and barrels aside in hopes of finding him, but there was nothing.
“He was there sitting in front of the radio when I went down to bed,” repeated Fortunato in a hesitant voice.
Since there wasn’t anyplace that Pablito could hide, they had to face the fact that he was dead, doubtless from falling into the sea. It was a serious event, which would have to be reported immediately to the naval base in Punta Arenas. But the corporal preferred to put off the radio message, in the hope of at least clearing up the circumstances surrounding the young sailor’s disappearance. He reorganized the watches to compensate for Pablito’s absence and got busy cooking supper in order to boost the morale of the two other sailors.
The atmosphere was heavy, as each of the three men tried silently to imagine what had happened to Pablito or why he had gone outside in a rainstorm and headed toward the edge of the cliff. The hypothesis that the young sailor had wanted to put an end to his life, though seemingly absurd, could not be completely ruled out, especially since the corporal had warned them not to go outside till they had familiarized themselves with the terrain in the daylight. Yet they remembered Pablito as being a cheerful fellow who had never shown a sign of despair. True, he was afraid of the posting, but that was a long way from suicide. Moreover, even if someone longed for death, disappearing into the black gulf, lashed by raging waves, seemed horrible beyond measure.
The corporal took the first watch that night. Salvador and Fortunato, holed up in the sleeping quarters, were unable to sleep. The mysterious disappearance of their crewmate was too frightening, and they kept an eye on the door outside as if they were still waiting for Pablo to come back—either him or the ghost of his drowned body.
At midnight, Fortunato went to relieve the corporal and in the morning Salvador took his place. As soon as it was light, Liberio and Fortunato went out to take another turn around the island, without finding a single sign of Pablito. They looked uselessly through his knapsack, searching for some element that would explain his absence. The corporal finally decided to call in to Punta Arenas to report the disappearance. He was devastated, because all he could think of to say was that a young sailor under his command had vanished on his first day at the lighthouse. The officers at the naval base simply responded that it was impossible to send a replacement till the following month and that the crew should be capable of getting by with three men till then. A formal inquest would take place when they returned to the base in four months’ time.
The following days went by without incident, even though Pablito’s specter was always present in each of their minds. They ate and then stayed on in the kitchen, smoking in silence, afraid of being alone but unable to express their fear. It was as if they were waiting for other unexpected events, other deaths by drowning, and they superstitiously refrained from speaking about it.
Corporal Liberio himself disappeared a week later, during the night he was on duty. When Fortunato reported to take over from him in the radio room, the corporal was no longer there. Nor was he in the tower or anywhere else. Fortunato and Salvador went out with their oil lamps and searched meticulously over every part of the island. There was nothing, not a single trace of Liberio. The rain had died down, the wind wasn’t as strong anymore, and the corporal knew the place well; he couldn’t have lost his way. Their searches in the storage area were equally fruitless. Like Pablito before him, Corporal Liberio had simply vanished during the night, without leaving a trace other than the cigarette butts in the ashtray and a sheet of paper on which he’d drawn some repeated geometric figures in the form of friezes, probably out of boredom. Had he killed himself in a fit of depression after Pablito’s disappearance, out of fear of being blamed by his superiors? That was difficult to believe, especially since the corporal was a cold type of fellow, a career military man who knew full well that his fellow officers wouldn’t punish him for the death of a simple conscript.
The two men regarded each other seriously, each with the same sinister thought in mind. Taking hold of a heavy wrench, Fortunato spoke first, with a menacing look:
“Salvador . . . Was it you who . . . ?”
Salvador seized a hammer before answering.
“No, Fortunato! I didn’t do anything. And I know perfectly well that I’ve done nothing to the corporal. But you . . .”
They stared hard at one another for a time, overcome with fear and doubt, unable to decide if it was better to trust the other or knock him senseless before he could react. There was no way out of the situation, other than believing that a supernatural cause lay behind the disappearances.
“Either it’s you or it’s me,” Fortunato finally said. “We’re alone out here. One of us killed both Pablito and the corporal—and it wasn’t me! Do you realize what you’ve done?”
“It wasn’t me either, Fortunato. I’m not crazy! I’m just as scared as you are, my friend. If it’s not you who killed them, then there’s an evil spell out here. That’s all I can imagine. We’ve got to warn the naval base right away and barricade the front door. I don’t want to be the next one to go. Think it over before waving that wrench around. I’m going to defend myself and we’ll probably both lose our skins. If the two of us are wounded, we won’t stand a chance of getting out of here alive. Consider it for a moment. Maybe that’s what the spell, the demon of this island, really wants. You know me well enough to know I’m neither out of my mind or a murderer. I was as fond of Pablito as you were—and I didn’t kill the corporal.”
“Me either, Salvador: I’m not crazy. So what is it?”
“I have no idea. But if we each keep watch over the other, we might be able to protect ourselves. The important thing now is not to get separated. We’re both in the same fix, buddy. If it’s true you’re not crazy, Fortunato, you have to believe me. First of all, we barricade the door; then we contact the base.”
“Why should I trust you?” asked Fortunato hesitatingly.
“It’s simple, my friend. What interest do we have in killing one another? The survivor would have to commit suicide or else account for the deaths at a court-martial. If you want to kill yourself, go ahead—I won’t stop you. I want to stay alive. There you have it. Let me remind you that we’ve also been friends for a long time, friends of Pablo, too. It’s absurd to distrust each other.”
“It’s also absurd to believe in ghosts.”
“Yes . . . I said an evil spell, not ghosts. There’s something diabolical here, you can’t deny it. Pablito and the corporal may have killed themselves because of some sudden insanity that emanates from this place, or from tainted food. Or from other deaths in this damned lighthouse . . . The best thing to do is to protect each other. If one of us is seized by this madness, the other will just have to tie him up and wait to be rescued. Now that we’re alone, they’ve got to send us help right away. If there are two of us, we’ve got a chance to get out of this—but only if there’s two of us!”
“You think so?”
“Yes, Fortunato, it’s our only chance. I’m suspicious of you: that’s normal. But you’re my only lifeline, and I’m all you can count on. Drop that wrench and I’ll drop the hammer. There are more important things to do, and fast.”
“All right,” Fortunato replied, trying to smile. “You’re probably right: it is an evil spell, one that even makes me doubt a friend like you, Salvador. Forgive me.”
Things were far from over. They still suspected each other, but they were now more afraid of being alone than they were of one another. They barricaded the front door and contacted the naval base. The officers in Punta Arenas plainly didn’t believe their story about the corporal’s disappearance after that of Pablo. However, Salvador and Fortunato asked for immediate help, nothing less, and said their situation was critical. The two of them, especially if they’d gone mad, wouldn’t be able to maintain the lights and foghorns at the lighthouse. The officers at the base had no choice but to intervene.
Messages were sent out immediately to the various bases in the region, and even to naval headquarters in Valparaíso, to see if there were any ships along the coast that were close enough to help. As long as the bad weather lasted, it would be impossible to send in a relief crew by helicopter. And that could be the case for most of the winter.
Salvador and Fortunato maintained radio contact with the base and took turns on watch to make sure the lighthouse kept working. It was hard to stay awake for such long periods of time. Their greatest fear now was of falling asleep. A diffuse terror, closer to an overwhelming anguish, took hold of them because they didn’t know where the danger was coming from. Their fatigue increased, coupled with a gradual weakness due to their loss of appetite. Even though they forced themselves to eat a little, they didn’t have the energy or spirit to make a meal. And since the food might be tainted, they made do with dry biscuits and coffee. On this diet, their ability to remain awake decreased day by day.
“The officers aren’t going to believe us,” Fortunato said at one point. “They’ll accuse us of killing them. As long as it was just Pablito, they couldn’t care less. But the corporal . . . They’ll never believe that he threw himself into the sea.”
“Too bad,” Salvador answered. “What counts is that they get us out of here as soon as possible. This place is cursed: there isn’t any other explanation. Who knows whether other things like this have taken place in the past at this lighthouse? Other mysterious suicides.”
“Do you really think they took their own lives? Just like that, for no reason at all?”
“Of course! They committed suicide, Fortunato. What else could it be? We’re alone out here and I don’t believe in ghosts—at least not in ones that make people jump into the sea. But I’ll tell you one thing, buddy: even if I disappear, too, don’t ever believe it was suicide. I’d never kill myself willingly. Even if they court-martial us and send us to prison, I’d rather be in jail than dead.”
“Me either: I’ll never commit suicide, Salvador. I’m Catholic and I know that those who take their own lives go straight to hell.”
“It’s not that I’m afraid of hell. It’s just that I love life too much to kill myself.”
As the days wore on, they could no longer stay awake. The two crewmates decided to tie themselves together by the wrists with a cord. If one of them went crazy and wanted to escape, the other would keep him from doing it. They already knew that a corvette had been sent out to rescue them and their spirits began to revive.
One morning, though, Salvador awoke alone. The cord that bound him to his companion had been cut; the door was open and Fortunato had disappeared. No matter where he searched, Salvador couldn’t find him. Fortunato had joined Pablito and Corporal Liberio in the mystery of the sea.
A few days later, the corvette neared the Evangelista Lighthouse. It was mid-afternoon, but the revolving lights were still shining instead of being turned off. The rescue crew had difficulty landing without the aid of the crane and cables. Everything seemed peaceful up above. But the sailors had to break open the door, which was barricaded from the inside, in order to enter the compound. They found Salvador collapsed in a corner, emaciated and in a stupor, unable to respond to their questions.
A crew of sailors and an officer stayed in place to wait for the relief crew to be sent out from Punta Arenas. Salvador was taken to the base in Puerto Montt, where he was hospitalized in the psychiatric wing. It was several weeks before he recovered enough to be able to respond to the questions of the investigating officers of the Chilean navy. But they still weren’t satisfied with his answers, which seemed to be those of deranged mind. Salvador claimed that, one after the other, his crewmates had been driven to suicide by the curse of the lighthouse. He was incapable, though, of elaborating any further on what this curse actually was. After months of treatments he became less confused, and was discharged as unfit for service due to insanity. The tragic events that had taken place at the lighthouse were filed away among many other mysteries under the heading “Diverse Incidents at the Evangelista Lighthouse.”
* * *
The old man had finished his story. It was getting late, and several of the girls in the brothel had already gone to bed. The other customer, who listened as I did to his tale, insisted on offering him a last glass of pisco, which the man accepted with a smile—a smile that, if not sad, betrayed a certain melancholy.
“And Salvador? What became of him?” asked the client.
“Salvador . . .” said the old man, as if searching for the rest of the story in the depths of his memory. “Nothing happened to him. He came back here to Punta Arenas to live out his life in peace, drinking in good company and rejoicing in being alive. Above all, he sought to escape from solitude and never again stray far from the reassuring shores of the Strait of Magellan. But he’s never been able to forget what happened out there, long ago, when he was scarcely twenty years old.”
© Sergio Kokis. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Hugh Hazelton. All rights reserved.