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Historical Fiction Friendship

The old man sat in shade, under the rustle of windy palms and looked out over the ocean through white, milky eyes. 

Behind him, the early morning traffic on Ocean Avenue hummed, and in the distance he could hear kids bursting out of the housing projects, hurtling headlong into the cool morning sun. It amused him that his blindness had extended his vision.

The ocean crashed and receded.

He was thinking about the ocean. Contemplating its immensity - its steadfastness, its long memory, its reach. Nostalgia came over him, and he felt grateful that the ocean also connected him to his homeland, and his youth. 

A flurry of booming waves crashed on the beach, a gust of wind tussled his white hair, and pressed his blousy shirt to his chest. He smiled, and said “thank you.”

The rumbling waves receded as if in response, while overhead gulls chattered and played on the currents. The old man listened, and could see.

Shuffling footsteps approached on the sandy pathway. He knew them.

“Compadre,” he said aloud.

“Mi hermano,” Flaco answered, and sat down beside Guillermo. 


Flaco handed his old friend a paper cup of steaming espresso, and grumbled a greeting. 

The old men sipped their sweet cafesitos in silence, each in his own revery.

“The ocean is speaking today,” Guillermo said.

“Oh yes? What is it saying?”

Guillermo took a long moment.

“It is saying hello.”

***


Flaco and Guillermo were born on the same day, February 1st, 1910, at 12:01 in the afternoon, or so it was registered at City Hall. Neither man knew for sure the actual date of his birth. 

They were both mid-wifed by Old Maria, a large, caring and illiterate woman who had for the last forty years overseen many of the births in Ponce, and in neighboring Juana Diaz. 

The registrar’s office had moved from Ponce to San Juan after the invasion and occupation by U.S. troops in 1897, and as she got older, the long trip north and across the island to San Juan became harder and harder. She began to keep the birth notices in a box under her bed, until she had brought enough babies into the world to make the trip worth while. Sometimes she held the notices for months, and occasionally would straddle the year, which explained the confusion of many birth dates through out the region. 

Flaco and Guillermo were born hours apart on opposite sides of town. First Guillermo then Flaco eight hours later. Old Maria had a busy day that day.

Flaco (born Henry) was the only child of American Missionaries, and though he spent his childhood traveling from village to village, Ponce was always home. 

Guillermo's family were fishermen and lived close to the water. When he was 10, his father drowned on a fishing trip, and he was sent to live with his father’s half-sister, Dona Mercedes, and her family. They lived less than a mile from Flaco's house. 

Their families attended the same churches, the same schools, attended the same theaters on Saturday mornings to watch the latest installment of their favorite silent film adventure serial, and yet Guillermo and Flaco never met. 

They lived their lives unaware of the other. 

Flaco (he was still Henry then) married his childhood sweetheart, Carolina, when they were 16. They had two children, twin boys, who drowned together at a church outing when they were 9 years-old. Their bodies were never recovered. The magnitude of such a tragedy can kill the light in any heart, but Flaco and Carolina remained devoted to each other all their lives, and would often travel to the ocean to be with their sons.

Guillermo had many loves, but never married and became a fisherman like his father. He helped provide for his adopted family of cousins, and helped care for his aging aunt as her health declined. He lived an uncomplicated life and was a happy man.


In 1937, Puerto Rico was in turmoil. The heavy hand of the U.S. colonial government had the populace speaking up for their national identity, and independence. Sympathetic politicians who spoke out in support of a sovereign identity, were jailed and charged with sedition. 

In late March, the nationalist party organized a peaceful demonstration in Ponce to celebrate the 64th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Puerto Rico, but also to show their national pride and colors. It turned into a bloody affair when soldiers and National Police opened fire on the unarmed marchers. 

When the shooting stopped 19 demonstrators were dead, over 200 badly wounded - and Flaco met Guillermo.


Guillermo was not part of the march that day though his heart was with his countrymen. He was in town to pick up medicine for Dona Mercedes. Her health had recently taken a downward turn and the family was very concerned. 

On his way in, he noticed more soldiers than usual, and was hoping to collect her prescription and get out as quickly as possible. 

Although the organizers billed the event as a parade of celebration, the colonial government saw it as a demonstration against their rule. Add to that the army’s infamous lack of proportion, and things could turn badly at any moment.

Guillermo hurried through the crowds. He darted around families dressed in their Sunday clothes, buying syrupy ice-cones for their children from Piraguas ice-wagons. Somewhere up ahead a small brass band was playing Sousa marches. The whole mood was jarringly festive.

The parade was to be led by several columns of young, unarmed military cadets, followed by nurses from the National Nurse Corp. Then followed by a small group of black-shirted members of the independence movement, flying the forbidden Puerto Rican national flag. And finally by people who came from all over the island to march, and let their voices be heard. Many hundreds gathered. 

It was a sunny Caribbean morning, Palm Sunday, 1937, when the order was given to open fire. 

Soldiers, police and snipers, who had secretly positioned themselves around the marchers, began to fire. At first they targeted the black-shirted nationalists, but as they scattered into the crowd, they continued shooting. Even cutting down some of their own people in the free-for-all. The terrified crowd stampeded as bullets rained down on them from all directions.

Guillermo was caught between the surging mass of men, women and children running for their lives, and a line of soldiers that had suddenly materialized behind him. 

He heard the pop-pop-pop of rifle fire and quickly ducked into an alley. He ran through to the end, but found no outlet. He was trapped. Guillermo spun around and looked out at the chaos unfolding in the street. A bullet came zipping in, splintering wood and ricocheting into the dirt beside him. 

He jumped for cover behind a pile of stacked wood and empty crates, and settled down to wait it out. He suddenly worried how Dona Mercedes would react if anything were to happen to him.

A moment later a woman staggered into the alley clutching her side, blood seeped through her fingers. A man carrying a large black revolver appeared at the entrance of the alley, raised his weapon and fired. 

She cried out and pitched forward, and fell heavily to the ground beside Guillermo’s hiding place. She looked back at the shooter. 

"Carlos, why are you doing this?”

Carlos marched into the alley and raised his pistol. 

Guillermo jumped up and smashed him across the face with a cord of wood. Carlos staggered backwards, the sudden release of blood from his broken nose soaked his white guayabera. Guillermo hit him again, and grabbed for the pistol, but Carlos recovered quickly and snatched it back. 

He wiped his nose with the back of his hand, and pointed the gun at Guillermo. 

“Hijo de puta,” Carlos spat out. 

Then his eyes rolled back in his head, and he crumpled to the ground like his strings had been suddenly cut. A new pulpy stain soaked the front of his shirt.

Guillermo never heard the gunshot. He looked up and saw Flaco standing at the mouth of the alley, pointing a smoking pistol at him. 

“Henry,” Carolina cried out weakly.

Flaco hurried to her, his gun leveled on Guillermo.

"No, mi amor, no.” Carolina whispered, “He was trying to help me.”

He knelt and took her in his arms, “We have to go, querida.” 

She moaned as he lifted her and carried her deeper into the alley. Guillermo broke into an empty storage shed, but Carolina died before Flaco could lay her down. He sank to the floor clutching her to himself, and wept.

Guillermo left them alone.

He went out and hid the shooter’s body behind the wood pile and quickly rearranged the crates around it. His old life was over. It changed the moment Carlos followed Carolina into the alley. He had helped kill a member of the National Police. There was no way to undo that, though given the circumstances he wouldn’t have wanted to. Guillermo would have done the same thing again.

Out in the street, the chaos had changed gears. The shooting was replaced with the shouting of soldiers and police, and the cries for help from the injured and dying. To his dismay, the soldiers appeared to be staging at the mouth of the alley. They were pinned down.

He ran back to the shed, and found Flaco still sitting, rocking Carolina in his arms. Flaco looked up, surprised to see him standing there, and offered an earnest explanation.

“We were going to the ocean today, to visit our…” and the words dried in his throat, and his face froze in raw, open-hearted anguish.

In that moment, Guillermo saw into the chasm of Flaco’s loss, and understood the depth of his grief, came from the profundity of his love. A great compassion awakened in him. A bond was formed.

He placed a brotherly hand on Flaco’s shoulder, and sat down to wait until they could all escape together.

After a few hours the skirmishes ended, and by early evening the police and the army began to go home. Guillermo snuck out and retrieved Dona Mercedes medication, while Flaco snuck out and stole a small wagon.

Flaco wanted to bury Carolina with his family in Las Marias, but he’d been friendly with a few of the organizers, and didn’t know what would be waiting for him when he got there. Carolina had no family of her own.

Guillermo convinced him to take her body to his house, until it was safe for him to go back home. It was after dark when they put Carolina in the wagon and slipped out of town.


When they arrived at Guillermo's house, Dona Mercedes had heard of the massacre and had not taken it well. Neighbors who’d been with her that day, and into the night were relieved to see Guillermo return alive. 

Dona Mercedes was overcome with joy, and though her health was fragile, got out of bed for the first time in many days. She was introduced to Flaco, and was sad to hear of his loss. She offered her home until he could bury his wife. 

But the next morning, Flaco was anxious to get Carolina home, and prepared to leave. Dona Mercedes came out to say good bye. 

Why she decided to lift the blanket, and look upon Carolina's face, no one will ever know. But when she did, she let out a scream of recognition and fell dead. Carolina was her late sister's only surviving daughter. 

They buried them together in the small garden at the back of the house.

That evening Flaco left, then Guillermo a few days later. They headed in different directions and agreed to never cross paths again, and so it was.


Decades later, on a cool Sunday morning in Miami, Flaco was walking on a sandy path along the beach. He was missing his family - Carolina, the boys, and felt drawn to the ocean to be with them.

The path was lined with benches, and up ahead he saw a man with short white hair, sitting motionlessly, gazing out at the ocean. Something was familiar about him. As he got closer he noticed the man was younger than he appeared from a distance, closer to his own age, he thought. As he crossed in front of the white-haired man he noticed his blinded eyes, and looked squarely into his face. He knew who it was.

“Guillermo,” Flaco said.

Guillermo didn’t react at first, then slowly a broad smile. 

“Compadre,” he answered.

The two men have met at the ocean every Sunday, ever since.

March 11, 2022 18:54

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6 comments

Felice Noelle
15:54 Mar 19, 2022

Luis: I count it a privilege to welcome you to Reedsy and give you your first like. I hope it will be the first of many and that there will be more great, touching stories to follow. My husband is an old man of the sea so I was drawn in by your first paragraphs. The rest of the story was human, heartfelt, and so authentic. History is full of such great stories. I felt that the ending was very satisfying and almost poetic. Thanks for a great read! Maureen

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Luis Cruz
16:04 Mar 19, 2022

Thank you, Maureen. I'm touched and inspired by your kind words.

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Mark Linsky
21:07 Mar 26, 2022

Luis: You display a lot of talent and heart here. And you integrate some of the colorful and sad history of Puerto Rico during a difficult time. I like that sort of writing, a melding of the real and the invented. A couple physical details I found confusing...'Carlos' is recognized as a killer, but he was not previously introduced though clearly knows Carolina. And the alley where the shooting takes place is described in a way that made it seem Flaco was huddled at the very back but somehow there was still more room. Minor things. Pls...

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Luis Cruz
15:22 Mar 27, 2022

Thanks Mark, I'm glad you liked it. And thanks for taking the time to comment, your observations are very helpful. This is my first short story, and I'm still learning the ropes. Lou.

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Hen Neralany
05:34 Mar 21, 2022

A beautiful story that I could comprehend. I live in a tropical country with a long history of colonization and oppression, in fact, I live by a lake and I am a descendant of my grandfather who, among thousands died, survived from what is famously called the "Death March". Also a march but this one is quite more different! Feel free to search this up. :D The seas continue to dazzle me (Visit the Philippines sometime!) and when I first heard the story from my father I was completely in awe, I still am, without the wits and bravery of my g...

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Luis Cruz
18:22 Mar 21, 2022

Thank you, Hen, I'm glad my story resonated with you, and reminded you of your grandfather's heroic story.

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