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 boardinghouse 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 handheld 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 Regia Marina-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 Marítimo de las Costas de España, 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 a blue smock, 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 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 11. 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.
"Do I hear a bid?"
Gray ponytail raised his hand, and the blonde woman immediately counterattacked, lifting her paddle, number 74. That caused a stir in the room. The lean bearded man decided to withdraw, and after two new raises the bald, well-dressed man began to waver. Gray ponytail raised the bidding, and caused new frowns in his vicinity when his phone rang once again. He took it from the hand of his secretary and clamped it between his shoulder and his ear; at the same time his free hand shot up to respond to the bid the blonde had just made. At this point in the contest, the entire room was clearly on the side of the blonde, hoping that ponytail would run out of either money or phone batteries. The Urrutia was now at triple the opening price, and Coy exchanged an amused glance with the man in the next seat, a small dark-haired man with a thick mustache and hair slicked back with gel. His neighbor returned the look with a courteous smile, placidly crossing his hands in his lap and twirling his thumbs. He was small and fastidious, almost prissy, and had melancholy, appealing, slightly bulging eyes, like frogs in fairy tales. He wore a red polka-dot bow tie and a hybrid, half Prince of Wales, half Scots tartan jacket that gave him the outlandishly British air of a Turk dressed by Burberry.
"Do I have a higher bid?"
The auctioneer held his gavel high, his inquisitive eyes focused on gray ponytail, who had handed the cell phone back to his secretary and was staring at him with annoyance. His latest bid, exactly three times the original price, had been covered by the blonde, whose face Coy, more and more curious, could not see no matter how hard he tried to peer between the heads in front of him. It was difficult to guess whether it was the bump in the bidding that was perturbing ponytail or the woman's brassy competitiveness.
"Ladies and gentlemen, is this the last bid?" asked the auctioneer, with great equanimity.
He was looking at ponytail, without eliciting a response. Everyone in the room was looking expectantly in the same direction. Including Coy.
"Then at the current price, going once....At this price, going twice...."
Gray ponytail thrust up his paddle in a violent gesture, as if he were brandishing a weapon. As a murmur spread through the room, Coy again looked to the blonde. Her paddle was already up, topping his bid. Once again the tension built, and for the next two minutes everyone in the room followed the rapid duel's intense pace as if watching a fight to the death. Paddle number 11 was no sooner down than 74 was up. Not even the auctioneer could keep up; he had to pause a couple of times to sip from the glass of water sitting on the lectern.
"Do I have a further bid?"
Urrutia's Atlas was at five times its opening price when number 11 committed an error. Perhaps his nerve faltered, although the