The Legend of Caleuche

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El Caleuche
by Carlos Ducci Claro

It was not a town, it could not be one, it was only few houses huddled together at the edge of the sea, as if they wanted to protect themselves from the stormy climate, the constant rain, from the natural disasters that could come upon them from the land or from the sea.
For the men who lived there, the Big Island, Chiloé, was an almost unknown continent; even the smaller islands of Queilén and Chonchi remained far away, and were only seen when they had to sail to them from time to time to sell the products of their fishing; Castro seemed like a remote city; the hope of the young was to go there and stay there or to leave for other more distant places, but all of this seemed like a dream, like a chimerical illusion.
There were crops in the fields beyond the houses, mostly potatoes, oats and vegetables. Some cattle and plenty of sheep were seen in rustic corrals, but mainly people's activities, the rhythm of their lives, were determined by the sea.
The women spun their own wool and wove blankets and ponchos, throws and mats. From time to time the pieces that were not needed by the people of the town were sold in Chonchi or to the boats that passed by to buy fish. This was easy, for they were exquisite weavings beautifully crafted.
But this was a job for their free time. On the other hand, almost every day, especially when the tide was low, the women went out with their children to gather shellfish on the coast.
Carrying round wicker baskets, both women and children walked along the beaches and the rocky tide pools looking for mussels, clams, sea urchins and also crabs. Unfortunately there were no oysters like in other parts of the island. With their baskets full they returned hours later walking slowly toward their homes.

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In the great room of Don Pedro's house almost all the men of the village were gathered. There were men of all ages, two very young and one very old, conversing slowly and from time to time drinking a glass of chicha or fermented apple cider. Although the sea was not particularly nearby, it could be heard, like background music, the constant and rhythmic sound of breaking waves.
The subject of their talk was their next task. They would be going out to fish at nightfall and it would a long and risky job; they were planning to go far, perhaps to the island of Chulin, in search of yellow jack, sea bass, and corbina. Not all of them would be going fishing, others would go out along the coast looking for shellfish. The important thing was to have a large enough stock when, in two or three days, as expected, the boat from the north would pass by looking for their products.
They wanted to go out because the fishing would be good. During the previous night they were sure they had seen the beautiful Pincoya, who, arising from the waters in her marvelous gown of algae, had danced frantically on the beach looking out toward the sea. The following morning they had found shellfish that she had left behind on the sand. All of this was a good omen indicating that there would be an abundant catch, and the men were happy.
Not everyone would go because, as always, Don Segundo, the old man, would stay on land. He would go out to gather firewood. He liked going into the forest to cut trees, for he had no fear of the terrible little trauco, the little unfriendly being who always went armed like a toqui (an Araucanian or indigenous Chilean warrior chief), had enormous strength and could break a man from a distance just by looking at him. In any case he wouldn't come near the plants that would attract the trauco. He preferred to go himself, because if a woman or child went something might happen; because they were irresistible to the trauco.
Not only that, he would tenaciously and patiently clean up or fix the damaged boats or destroyed nets, he would help the women with their work in the fields or care for the animals, but never would he go out to sea.
One of the young people asked him: "Don Segundo, why won't you go out to sea? You know more than anyone about the changes of weather, the rhythm of the tides, the changes of the wind and still you always stay on land and never go out onto the sea." There was a silence, everyone looked at the young man, surprised at his insolence, and the youth, ashamed at his boldness, shook his head silently without explaining why he had dared to ask.
Don Segundo, however, seemed lost in a dream and answered almost automatically: "Because I have seen El Caleuche."
Having said this he seemed to come out of his dream and, before the questioning looks of everyone, he exclaimed: "Some day I'll tell you".

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13th crossing Months later they were all together in the same room. It was night, and no one had been able to go out fishing; It was raining ferociously, as if all the water in the world fell on that house. The hurricane-like wind seemed to want to tear the shingles from the roof and the walls, and the sea was not a distant and harmonious noise but a deafening and menacing howl.
The burning stove gave heat to the men, but it didn't help them forget the sound of the rain and the whistling of the storm, nor did it dissipate that magical sensation that on that night all manner of supernatural beings would be loosed.
In the distance there was the prolonged sound of the bleating of a herd of goats and an uproar on the coast like a cliff tumbling into the sea, and someone exclaimed: "It must be a Camahueto reaching the sea." Everyone thought immediately about the great monster like a calf, with only one horn in the middle of its forehead, from which scrapings are taken to make a potion that gives one exceptional strength. The Camahueto grows in the lakes and swamps and, after many years of growing to adulthood, one night heads for the sea with irrepressible drive.
It was not a calm night, the pulsating light of the burner projected constantly changing shadows and the men remained silent.
Don Segundo spoke up unexpectedly and said: "Now I will tell you ..." His story, kept to himself for so many years, became a magical reality to those who listened curiously and fearfully.
A long time ago he had gone out sailing from Ancud with the intention of going to Quellón. This voyage would not be in a small craft, but in a large boat with a deep draft and therefore easy to pilot, with two sails that made it possible to take maximum advantage of the favorable wind. It was a good seafaring ship and had successfully weathered many storms.
She was crewed by five men besides Don Segundo, and the captain was a stout Chilote, a man from the island of Chiloé, short and muscular, who knew all of the islands and channels in the archipelago, and of whom it was said that he had sailed to the southern straits and had crossed the Indian Pass and the Messier Channel.
On the second night of the voyage the fury of the sea was unleashed. "Worse than this one now," said Don Segundo. It was a dark night in which you could not tell the sky from the sea and in which the hurricane wind raised the sea and in which the terrified sailors were using the oars to try to steer the boat and assail the furious waves.
The sea, which is the sustenance and source of adventure for the Chilote, which makes up part of his life and is his friend, had been transformed into an alien and hostile being who knew no pity and who wanted to destroy those who dared to cut a path through her.
They had lost all sense of space and time and, soaked and exhausted, they were entrusting their souls to God, sure of death.
At that moment, however, the storm seemed to abate and they made out a distant light that advanced toward them over the waves. As it got closer to them the light was transformed into a ship, a great and beautiful sailing ship, curiously illuminated, from which came chants and voices. The ship gave off a strange light for that hour of the night, such that the hull and the dark sails were outlined. If it were not for its canvas, if it were not for the chants, it might be said to be a giant sea monster.
Upon seeing it approaching them the sailors shouted jubilantly, since, despite its unreal appearance, it seemed to be a tangible refuge in face of the certain and constant menace of the sea.
The captain didn't join them in their happiness. They saw him cross himself and with a deadly pallor exclaim: "It is not salvation, it is the Ghost Ship, El Caleuche! Tonight our bones, like all who have seen it, will be at the bottom of the sea."
El Caleuche was already almost on top of the boat when it suddenly disappeared. The light was gone and the dense shadow returned in which the line between the sky and the sea was lost.
At the same time the storm returned, with perhaps more force, and the weariness of the men prevented them from steering the boat in the enraged sea, until a giant wave capsized it. Something must have hit Don Segundo, because his last memory was the huge black wave in the dark of the night.
He awoke tossed onto the beach where kindly and unfamiliar people were trying to revive him. He said that he had been shipwrecked and recounted every detail of the voyage and the storm, except the circumstances of the shipwreck and the vision of El Caleuche. Of his shipmates he knew no more, and this was the first time that the whole story had passed his lips.
"That is why I never go out on the sea. El Caleuche will not forgive having lost its prey, that a living man exists who has seen it. If I go out into the sea, I will again see the vision of that beautiful and dark illuminated sailing ship from which will come happy voices, but will cause my death."
Everyone remained silent and it seemed that between the noise of the rain and the wind, the bellow of the waves was more sharply heard.

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Despite the belief of Don Segundo that the vision of El Caleuche means a certain death, there are people on the Great Island who affirm that they have seen or known someone who has seen the Ghost Ship. Perhaps seeing it from the coast and not while sailing.
In any case, those who sail the islands of the archipelago during the night, do it with deep fear of catching sight of a beautiful dark illuminated ship. It can appear at any moment, since it sails on the surface or beneath the water; from it arise music and songs. Then death will be very near and shipwreck will be unavoidable.
Those who don't perish will go on to become part of the crew of the Ghost Ship, El Caleuche.



Caleuche - Travels In Four Hemispheres