Fermín Calderón accepted that his actions caused his brother-in-law Tavito to die. Accepting responsibility was the first step toward being forgiven. As a child in a village outside of Acapulco, Fermín heard the priest explain repentance and forgiveness. “First you must admit what you have done. Confess your sins. Only then may you ask to be forgiven.” He buried the words in his heart. As he grew into a young man, he used his easy smile and a tender voice to draw out any forgiveness he might need from women – the only forgiveness a man needs.
Fermín crossed the border into the United States as a young adult. One of his sisters lived in Nebraska which was all the permission he felt he needed. Short and thin, with long hair and a silver-capped tooth, Fermín’s charm remained his most rewarding feature. But living in the U.S. took more money than an illiterate campesino could earn. When a pretty mexicana danced with him and asked if he might help her brother in return, Fermín agreed. “Americanos want drugs, but they do not want to dirty their hands,” she said. For many months, Fermín sinned with his sweetheart’s brother, smuggling drugs into Nebraska. Most of the money he earned he sent to his old mother and his diabetic sister in Acapulco.
Fermín’s sweetheart begged him to accept responsibility for all the charges. “Mi hermano cannot survive in American prison. He has made too many enemies.” Fermín agreed for a kiss and the touch of a soft hand. Fermín was sentenced to twelve years in prison. At the end of his sentence, he would be immediately deported as an undocumented convicted felon. From where might he seek forgiveness?
The Prison Chaplain said, “Fermín, join the Bible study. Learn to read. Make yourself a better man.”
He wanted to please the Chaplain and to earn any privileges that might come from repentance. He attended the Bible study, surrendered his heart to Jesus, and learned to read. When he was released from prison after only ten years, the Chaplain prayed with him and said, “Fermín, use what you have learned and help your family.” He was returned to his family in Acapulco that same day.
In his village outside of Acapulco, Fermín repaired the steps of his mother’s house. He helped his sister harvest tomatoes and squash. His brother-in-law Octavio, Tavito, was a fisherman. Sometimes Fermín went out on Tavito’s lancha and helped with the nets. After a few weeks, Fermín felt his penance was complete. Jesus said, “Go and sin no more.”
One day, he was fishing with his brother-in-law when he saw a long, narrow boat sinking. He shouted to Tavito, “That boat is sinking. We should help them. I’ll start the engine.”
Tavito told him, “No. It is not sinking. That is a Go-Fast boat. It sits low in the water. Stay out of the wake when it takes off.”
“It is not a fishing lancha,” Fermín said.
“The narcotráficos use them. They are difficult to detect. Their wake is tremendous. Be careful.”
Life was good for the family that summer. The fishing was abundant. Fermín’s sister in the U.S. sent him large boxes of jeans bought at discount stores. He sold them from the trunk of an old car in parking lots on the fringes of the city. His sister and her husband sent money to the family. His mother was happy that Fermín was home to stay.
In September Tavito said, “Fermín, you have worked hard all summer. On Sundays, you go with Mother-in-Law to mass. You pray for all of the family. But tonight, you are going with me to sit in the cool ocean breeze and drink tequila with new friends.”
“I don’t drink tequila anymore. I am born again.”
“The American God is strict like an old teacher. Here the priests understand a man needs rest to keep his strength. Did not Jesus turn the water into wine?”
An old fisherman and his wife sold drinks in their front yard. There were small tables for playing dominos. The hard packed dirt was fine for dancing. There was a stereo with tremendous speakers. Tavito said, “Did I tell a lie? You are with friends here. Relax and enjoy the rewards of all your hard work.” The customers greeted Fermín and bought him drinks. “You are a good son to your mother,” they told him. “She is old, but you are still a young gallo. You should find a woman and make your own family. It’s not too late.”
“He’s right,” said another at the table. “Enjoy yourself while you are young.”
“I am born again,” said Fermín.
Tavito laughed and slapped his brother-in-law on the back. “You need something to say in confession, no?”
As the evening passed into night, the men sang corridos. They sang verses they learned as boys sung nearly two hundred years ago during the Guerra de Independencia. They also sang modern narcocorridos, sung in praise of famous smugglers who escaped the law.
One Friday evening, Fermín and his new friend Mario walked to the beach. The breeze was so fresh. They looked at the stars. Out on the water, they heard the roar of a powerful engine.
“Do you hear that roar?” Mario asked. “It is one of those Go-Fast boats. We used to call them botas de cigarillos in the old days. Long, narrow boats with powerful engines. They meet lanchas up the Guerrero coast and buy small cargos. The money is good. It is impossible to catch a Go-Fast boat. The sales are made in a few minutes and the boats disappear.”
“Who supplies the drogas?” Fermín asked.
“Farmers from the mountains. They come to the fish markets. A kilo at a time, or two. The narcos with the big boats take all the risks.”
“Interesante,” said Fermín.
That night, Fermín stayed late at the cantina. He returned home long after the moon started to sink into the sea. His mother was lying on the ground under a mango tree behind her house. She was crying softly.
“M’hijo, I have fallen. So clumsy of me. I wanted a mango for my dinner,” she said.
“I told you to always ask me to pick the mangos for you, Mami. You should not be stretching yourself on your toes. Where does it hurt?”
“My ankle. It is twisted, I think,” she said.
Fermín reached down and gently lifted his mother under her arms. He walked behind her, supporting her, into the house. When she was seated in her chair, Fermín emptied the small table beside it, placed a pillow on the table, and gently lifted her leg. Her ankle was swollen, and the skin pulled tight.
The next day, Fermín used the old car to take his mother to the doctor.
“You will need a surgery to set your ankle back in place. Without it, your bones will heal but not be unaligned,” the doctor said.
“How much will it cost?” she asked.
Fermín interrupted the doctor’s calculations. “It will all be taken care of, doctor. I am working and we have family in the United States. They can send a giro postal.”
“Do not wait too long,” the doctor said. “You should rent a wheelchair for her to use.”
“Yes, doctor. Anything she needs.”
In this way, Fermín became worried about money for the first time since returning to Mexico. He prayed, asking God to show him a way to help his mother. The next Friday evening, he went to the cantina to talk to his new friends. Mario approached him and asked why he looked so worried. Tavito said that his mother-in-law needed an operation, and Fermín had the responsibility to find a way to pay for it.
“Is that all?” Mario said. “For this you have friends.”
So began the partnership of Mario and Tavito and Fermín. Using Tavito’s boat, Fermín and his brother-in-law began selling cocaína to friends of Mario’s friends. Mario brought boxes of jeans to Fermín to sell from the trunk of his old car. Among the clothing were packages of drugs. Fermín hid the packages in his old car and sold the jeans as he always did.
When other friends of Mario were ready to pick up the drugs, Fermín drove to Tavito’s boat, loaded the packages with the nets and other fishing supplies. Out on the ocean, a Go-Fast boat would find the lancha with a GPS device. The sale took place in a few minutes. Fermín and Tavito filled their nets with fish and returned home with fish to sell and money to spend.
With the money Mario paid for the first two trips, and the giro postal from the family in the U.S., Fermín’s mother had her operation. She healed slowly because she was old, but her bones were in perfect alignment. He thanked God for finding a way to help his mother.
On the third outing, the Go-Fast boat arrived as before. The men on the deck of the Go-Fast boat carried American M82s, as before. But this time the men refused to pay for the packages. One man jumped into the lancha. Fermín and Tavito stood together, with their hands covering their heads. The man shot the Yamaha 250 hp outboard to pieces with the M82. He kicked what was left of the motor into the sea.
“What are you doing?” Tavito cried. “Se nos chingó. We cannot return home.”
Fermín said, “You have killed us.”
The man laughed and said, “If you wish.” He raised a revolver and fired twice at Tavito. The boat rose as he fired. Tavito was hit in the chest. Fermín’s arm was grazed. He grabbed the back of his brother-in-law’s pants and pulled him into the water. The narcotráfico jumped back onto the Go-Fast boat. As it turned, he fired more bullets at the bodies, but swift movement of the boat cost him his aim. Fermín and his brother-in-law were left floating in the Pacific, but only Tavito was dead.
Fermín floated with his wounded arm outstretched. He lifted his head an inch and took quick breaths. His arm and the wake of the Go-Fast boat hid his movements. When he no longer heard the boat, Fermín swam to Tavito. In the water swirled the blood of his sister’s husband, his friend. The lancha had been washed away by the wake, but it was still in sight. Fermín swam to it and climbed aboard. He checked the deck for leakage. The boat was still seaworthy. Fermín was not concerned about being abandoned in the Pacific. La Santa Virgen had saved his life and she would provide. Of that, he was as certain as the sun, moon, and stars.
For the first few days, Fermín rationed the few snacks stashed on the boat. A few botellas of water had escaped the bullets. In the box that made one of the boat seats, Tavito kept a bottle of tequila. He believed he was not far from the coast and Mario’s friends would rescue him. Fermín’s faith was strong. He passed the time creating verses of a corrido about his adventure at sea. The first verse was a tribute to himself and how he was never betrayed by women.
A Fermín no podía engañarle
Las tigres con talons bien pintados
Ellas daban el amor devotado
El las dejó triste y bien chingado
Fermín squinted at the sinking sun. The lancha was drifting to the east, back to the Guerrero coast. He wrapped the fishing nets around the steering wheel mount in the middle of the lancha. The layers of net kept him warm at night and provided shade during the days.
One day, Fermín saw what looked like a garden floating on the water. Soon he was floating among a hectare of trash washed to sea in the Japanese tsunami of March 2018. Most were useless, broken household items. Most things he could not identify. Fermín retrieved a few useful items. A piece of fence made a good paddle. A large plastic bucket with a lid still intact made a freshwater collection unit.
Fermín picked up a silk umbrella as a joke. He liked to sit in his lancha under the open umbrella and give orders to the dolphins to jump or birds to dive. Later, it became a funnel for catching rain when he turned it upside down over the bucket and pierced the silk with his large toenail put to good use as a small machete. Fermín composed a new verse for his personal corrido about the useful Japanese trash.
Me entregó Dios Santo de Piedad
Basura japonesa muy útil
Agarro lluvia clara en botellas
El vino más rico de nunguno.
Fermín sang the new verse many times to remember it. Every evening, under his tent made of fishing nets, Fermín prayed twenty Ave Marías. He counted each prayer on his fingers and toes. Then he counted twenty Padre Nuestros.
Days passed. The fun of sitting under his silk umbrella was lost without a companion to see it and laugh. Thirst dried his throat so that his songs and prayers were lost in the rumble of the waves. He believed that the sun moved more slowly across the water than across the land. Days lasted beyond measure. At night, the stars refused to answer him.
“The sea is like a woman,” Fermín said aloud. “Always extremes. Angry storms or calm perfection.” He sang sweet seductive songs to his Pacífica when she was calm. She turned angry if he neglected to praise her or dreamed of women he had loved, even for only one night. She pushed the boat in every direction, even nearly upright on its bow. Then he confessed the litany of his sins, loudly and tearfully.
Hunger, thirst, and boredom are three ingredients for despair. Fermín believed that God himself, despite the pleading of Jesus and La Santa Madre on his behalf, had decided not to forgive him. When the sun rose over the stern, he knew that the lancha had changed directions. It was being pulled by a strong current to the west. He was drifting westward, away from the coast of Mexico.
Fermín ate every scrap of remotely edible substance on the lancha. He chewed glue from the deck boards. He soaked pieces of wood from the seats in seawater and pounded them with a heavy can of engine oil until they were thin enough to bite through. He added verses to his corrido about his loneliness.
De noche canto corridos a la luna.
Cuento todas las estrellas otra vez.
Por cariño de mujer solo sueños
Triste marinero sin timón ni amor.
Life in the deep water is abundant. Few creatures come close enough to the surface to be seen. Catching the wet, slippery wigglers with the ripped dip net exhausted and frustrated him. Fermín watched for the saragazo, the bunches of seaweed that floated on the water. Delicious little shrimp and tiny squid lived in the grass. He called the floating grass xochimilco, after the floating gardens in Ciudad México. When Fermín spotted a floating buffet, he swam out to the grass and stuffed himself with the little proteins. He filled the pockets of his pants with as much as he could and swam back to the lancha.
Eating raw fish or squid was dangerous. Many days, food poisoning left Fermín lying in crusty globs of vomit. He developed the habit of eating very slowly and masticating the meat into a bloody puree. By breaking the morsels down with saliva, Fermín’s stomach acid had a better chance of accepting the food. Fermín made a squid the size of his thumb last half the day. Fish eggs were a treat, no cooking required. The eggs’ gelatin nest was a source of hydration.
Watching birds and dolphins was the only diversion during the long days. Fermín searched for them with binoculares from the small toolbox. The albatross was the flyer Fermín admired most.
The albatross carries a heavy stigma of superstition, but they are admirable flyers. Fermín admired how they let their exceedingly long wings carry them easily on the air currents. An albatross spends most of its life in flight. At night Fermín looked across the water for an albatross roosting on the surface. He admired their acceptance of a life between heaven and earth. He laughed at the bird’s awkward taxi before committing to the air. “¡Ándale! ¡Arriba!” Fermín encouraged them.
One evening, an albatross landed on a broken motor bracket. She stared at Fermín. The dark feathers around her eyes reminded him of the heavy mascara some women wore on the streets. The bird carried a small squid in her beak. She dropped it on the deck in front of her. Fermín moved his hand forward a few centimeters and then stopped. The albatross waited. Fermín pulled the squid to his mouth and bit off one small tentacle.
Bird and man watched each other while eating their shared meal. Fermín ate only a tentacle at a time, returning the squid to its place in front of the albatross so she could take her next bite. It was their first meal together and Fermín wanted to make a good impression. He valued a companion who brought her own food.
After the meal, Fermín told the albatross the reason for his sad situation. He explained about his weakness for requests from beautiful women. He described the lovely sister of the narcotráfico in faraway Nebraska. He told of his mother’s fall and her expensive operation. He confessed that his sin had caused Tavito’s death. The bird ruffled the feathers on her breast and Fermín accepted it as her absolution for his sins. He sang a few verses of his corrido and invited her to join him any time for a visit.
The albatross finally departed to retire on the surface of the water not far from the boat. Fermín spent the rest of the night composing a new verse dedicated to the bird.
Ave blanca, creatura de Dios
Del Cielo miraba mi tragedia
Compartimos cena rica de la mar
De una a otro pura Amistad.
The storm appeared first as a shadow on the horizon. The clouds rose as fat, grey balloons. The blanket of darkness had been pulled so high it nearly covered the daylight. Fermín set up his umbrella over the bucket to collect precious rainwater. Perhaps he had been forgiven at last.
The wind swelled and blew until it loosened some of the knots holding the net tent together. The freed corners of netting flapped wildly. Still, Fermín was joyful. Blessed rain was coming, maybe enough to fill the bucket. The winds would stir the water, bringing tasty creatures to the surface.
The rains came, blown by gale winds that lashed the air and rolled up the sea into hills that flooded the tiny lancha. Threatened with capsizing, Fermín drank the few gulps of sweet water in his collection bucket. He tied the ends of his net to his ankle and bailed the rising seawater in the lancha with his bucket. The umbrella funnel flew across the water’s surface until the silk was ripped away in strips.
Through the night, Fermín struggled to hold his fishing nets and bailed the lancha. When the storm collapsed, just before the rising of the sun, he succumbed to exhaustion. When he woke in a calm dawn, the steering wheel mount was broken. His limbs were tangled in the nets.
Fermín stretched himself out in the few inches of seawater at the bottom of the lancha. He cried. He licked the tears and snot from his lip and thanked Santo Niño Jesus for the droplets. “Sigo viviendo,” he thought. “I still live.” As the sun rose, he searched the sky for a friend who did not come. He repeated the words, this time in a question: “¿Sigo viviendo?”
The sea gloated with calm. The flat water, undisturbed by even small swells, expanded in every direction. Did the sea grow larger or was Fermín diminishing? He had no fresh water. What was left of the fishing nets provided little shade. He lacked the strength to catch sea creatures only inches beneath the surface of the water. Trapped under a broken seat board, he found a plastic bottle. With it, Fermín collected what there was to drink, his own urine.
The plane over Fermín’s boat was silent, yet it flew low in the sky. Long, narrow wings dipped slightly downward at the tips. “A new design?” Fermín wondered. The plane glided in looping circles, ascending, and descending and leaving no vapor trail.
“They are looking for me,” Fermín decided. “The pilot is following some circular search path, covering each foot of the water carefully, missing nothing.” He filled his lungs with salty air. He could survive a little longer without food or fresh water, but he needed oxygen to keep his heart beating. He rubbed his eyes to force half a drop of moisture up from some hidden reserve in his body.
It was not a plane overhead but a bird. Fermín’s albatross. He lifted his head so the bird might not miss him. He gestured with a hand only inches above the deck, inviting the bird to land. Fermín did not expect her to be carrying food in her beak. Early evening was her preferred dinner hour and the sun had only cleared the horizon.
The albatross settled herself on the port side of the lancha. What had she brought? Squid or shrimp from floating saragazo weed stirred up by the storm? Fermín was too weak to reach for any morsel she might bring. He lay back, his mouth open as he gasped for each breath.
The miracle happened just as Fermín accepted inevitable death. The albatross dropped onto the deck. She stepped toward Fermín’s head, lowered her hooked beak into his open mouth and regurgitated a dollop of her own dinner. The gesture was accepted as naturally as it was offered. Fermín slept through the day and the night. He had no preocupaciones to keeping him awake or alive.
The noise of helicopter rotors woke Fermín. The water around the boat was pushed out in a circular wake. A man stood next to Fermín’s body. He held a metal basket suspended from the sky. “He’s alive,” the man called out. “He’s coming up.”
The man flipped Fermín’s body into the basket in one roll. He could have picked Fermín up just as easily with one arm. In the chopper, a uniformed young man applied cool, damp cloths to Fermín’s skin. He started to shiver from the coolness of cloths. Fermín tried to talk, to ask a dozen questions. His eyes scanned the chopper for the albatross he expected to see looking at him.
“Just lie back,” the young man said. “You will be in a hospital very soon. We are close enough to Hawaii that we can fly you there directly.”
“¿Qué día es?” Fermín gasped.
“The date? It’s nearly Christmas,” said the young man.
Fermín let the young man put needles in his arms, a hissing mask over his face, and patches with wires on his chest. He felt something cold enter his body. The cold sensation traveled from his arm upward to his neck and then slid down to fill his torso. The young man covered him with a heavy blanket. He placed his hand on Fermín’s chest. “Easy now. We got a report of your boat two days ago, but the storm came in and we could not fly. The cyclones pushed your boat a long way. You weren’t where we expected you to be. But we found you, and not a moment too soon. Relax now. We’ll be at the hospital in an hour or so.”
Fermín heard none of what the medic said. He wanted to write the final verse to his corrido, but he could not catch the words, and he lost consciousness. He awoke to a bright light over his head. He turned his head and saw darkness on the other side of a large window. He heard the voices of women in the distance. Surely, he had been transported to heaven, forgiven, and surrounded by angels.
When he awoke much later, Fermín was handcuffed to a railing of a hospital bed. A beautiful doctor held his wrist. Her copper hair was pulled back and shined in the bright hospital lights. She noticed Fermín’s open eyes and smiled. “Americana,” he thought. “They have such beautiful teeth.”
Fermín tried to smile through cracked lips. “¿Donde estoy?” he asked.
“You are in Hawaii. The United States.”
“I am told you are a convicted felon. When you are well enough, you will be deported back to Mexico,” said the doctora.
“Señorita, do you know the Spanish word for handcuffs,” he asked. He shook his restrained arm. The handcuffs rattled against the bed rail.
“No, I don’t,” the doctor said.
“Esposas,” said Fermín.
“The plural of esposa? Wives?”
The beautiful doctor chuckled. “When you feel stronger, you can teach me some more words.” She patted Fermín’s hand. Her touch was as warm as fresh tortilla. When she walked away, he watched her backside roll like a gentle Pacific wave.
Before falling back to sleep, Fermín prayed, “Thank you, Jesus, for sending one more beautiful woman to me. ¡Que nalgas! Please, say nothing to your Blessed Mother.”
While Fermín grew stronger in the hospital, he wrote the final verse to his corrido.
La vida marina no me sirve bien
El sol, la sed me casi mataron
Rescatado en alas tan fuertes.
Mi dulce doctora te sueño en tí.1
1The life of a sailor doesn’t suit me
The sun, the thirst, they very nearly killed me
To be rescued at last by powerful wings.
My delectable doctor, I dream of you.