The hawksbill turtle

Pampatar, Isla de Margarita, Venezuela – 1995

Everything is vivid in my memory, just like that night.
We had finished a long day of work at the beach kiosk, that’s how we used to call a beautiful little house made of mud and mangrove sticks, a churuata – a rural home – we named Ananás Caribeans Beach Bar.
That night it was just the three of us: Ernesto Antinucci, my business partner and friend, a young man named Roger who was our assistant and myself, Lilia.
We hadn’t closed the kiosk yet: we were still cleaning because it was high season. We used to work long hours with an early opening at 6 am, never knowing when the work would eventually end.
It was already dark, we hadn’t had dinner and the small local restaurants in town had already closed.
We decided I would make a small fire to roast some fish that we would catch immediately: the kiosk was just 10 steps from the seashore.
The boys helped me with the fire. We dug a hole in the sand and the fire started. We prepared a simple fishing equipment, I went with Ernesto; we took a garter harpoon, the flaps, and snorkel masks. I have never fished with oxygen cylinders.

I do not remember exactly who carried the lantern. The sea was dark, only the light of the moon illuminated us; the sky was dressed with stars which helped us a little. Those beautiful stars.
We were very excited and very hungry.
When we entered the water I suddenly remembered how afraid I am of the dark. Terrified.
Yet, we began to swim, not venturing far. The water was warm, a balm on the skin. Near a huge rock that emerged in the dark with each wave, there was an artisanal fishing basket about two meters deep, a trap that fishermen usually place for the catch of the day. It has a kind of funnel so that once the fish enter, they cannot exit.
We shone with the flashlight and saw that only a small lobster had entered. Had it been filled with fish, I am sure Ernesto would not have left there claiming that in the course of the night it would fill up again.
We continued swimming, did not see any fish of good size around us, just some, as small as our hand.

The sea was beautiful, enigmatic, a universe apart. However, I kept telling myself I was in the middle of all that immenseness: an intruder in the dark. I tried to control my panic, and every time I resurfaced to breathe, I looked into the distance at the light from the campfire on the beach, and then the sky and its vastness. Every element handed me calmness to rely on.

The sea seemed endless, immense, incredible, indescribable.

I submerged again and we went a little further.
At last we sighted a fish that was of acceptable size to feed the three of us. We tried to catch it with the harpoon, we failed.

I turned to my partner and spotted a huge and majestic hawksbill turtle skirting us. It passed by us again, seemed to say hello. I’m not good with measurements but it must have been about 80 centimetres long. Seeing the size of the animal reminded me that this was not my place, that I was in a foreign territory. I did not belong there, I felt panic again.

I beckoned to my partner and decided to return to the beach. Fear had invaded me.

I returned alone to the shore, swimming guided by the light of the campfire burning in the sand. Having reached shore exhausted. I lay down on the sand to rest looking at the starry sky.

I asked the boy who was in charge of keeping the fire burning, to enter the sea to be withErnesto who was alone in the water.

I remember being on the beach looking at the stars.
What a sight the sky gave us that night. I thought of my family: I had not seen them in three years, trying to find my way through life. I missed them, especially my grandfather Roberto, my best friend.

I must have fallen asleep, I ignore for how long. I was awakened by the screams from the shore: it was the guys. Ernesto was asking me for help as they were dragging something huge, like a big sack.

I ran to them in the darkness until, with horror, I realised what the loot was: it was that majestic and magical hawksbill turtle that now was dead on the beach.

I didn’t understand immediately, the men were fighting to drag her away and I was paralyzed, I couldn’t move. Is it dead? …I managed to say. I knew the answer.
It was the largest turtle I had seen in all my years of diving in the vast ocean.

I was confused:  had they really killed it? I could not understand, was too shocked to.

Ernesto went to the kiosk and returned with a machete.
I rushed away from the shore because I could not bear what I knew was about to happen. Ernesto was a fisherman; he was born in the city, the son of an Italian, but he was deeply rooted in the local culture. I tried to convince him, but the machete and everything which was about to happen was natural for him.

Looking back now I tell myself: My crime? Not insisting enough.

I went to the campfire. The beach was the sole witness of the horror which was about to happen. I hid behind the flames of the fire, in the dark of night.

The time that elapsed seemed like hours, long hours, maybe it was only minutes:  I was suffering everywhere.

Did I try to change the course of the events? Yes hell, yes, I did. Without succeeding… perhaps I should have insisted more… I will never know.
I only know that when by the time the turtle reached the shore, its fate was sealed.
A huge amount of meat was chopped off and the shell displayed as a trophy on the roof of the kiosk.

Ernesto insisted that we cook a part of that meat. I obeyed.  I did it with horror. Maybe at that time I didn’t have the willpower to say no to a man’s command, that’s how they raised me, I guess. Within an hour the innocent victim’s stew was ready.

What happened? There was no way to eat that meat that tasted bitter, so bitter that not even the hungry hunters could swallow a single piece.

Maybe I didn’t know how to prepare it, maybe I had no cooking technique that only local women mastered. Maybe it was my energy and my sadness. Ernesto was a native of the island: he directed the phases of the stew.

 We ended up arguing until we reached the sad conclusion no one should have ever killed the turtle, it should never have been uprooted from its habitat. Ours was a heinous sin, a shameful crime. Whatever it was that failed us that night, it mattered no longer. It was too late.
We just felt a deep sadness: we had been submerged by a deep silence.

What happened, the course of events, the taste of the meat will always be a dark mystery to the three of us, pure criminals.
We never spoke of the subject again.
Never.

Many years later, light years away, when my oldest son graduated from high school he asked me for permission to get a tattoo and I told him that yes, of course, it was his body and he was already of legal age. He is not a very communicative boy and I did not ask him what he was planning to have drawn.
The day he returnt from the tattooist, all the memories flooded into my mind and I started crying: on my son’s chest, on the side of the heart, was the hawksbill turtle submerged in watercolour. Beautiful and free like the first time I saw it.
I have never told anyone about that night and I do not even recall having spoken to my son about turtles in general.
Was the tattoo just a coincidence? I doubt.
Now the turtle swims on my son’s chest, right there, close to his heart.

Lilia Josefina Guanipa Cordero is a Venezuelan mother of three, a story teller, a fighter, a feminist and a compassionate soul. Not necessarily in that order, abosolutely not only this.
She is a friend who received me. And that will always come first.

photo: Hawksbill Turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata)” by Kevin Bryant, Creative Commons