He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and
he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. In the first
forty days a boy had been with him. But after forty days without a fish
the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and
finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone
at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first
week. It made the boy sad to see the old man come in each day with his
skiff empty and he always went down to help him carry either the coiled
lines or the gaff and harpoon and the sail that was furled around the
mast. The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled, it looked like
the flag of permanent defeat.
The old man was thin and gaunt with deep wrinkles in the back of his
neck. The brown blotches of the benevolent skin cancer the sun brings
from its reflection on the tropic sea were on his cheeks. The blotches
ran well down the sides of his face and his hands had the deep-creased
scars from handling heavy fish on the cords. But none of these scars
were fresh. They were as old as erosions in a fishless desert.
Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same
colour as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated.
‘Santiago,’ the boy paid to him as they climbed the bank from where
the skiff was hauled up. ‘I could go with you again. We’ve made some
The old man had taught the boy to fish and the boy loved him.
‘No,’ the old man said. ‘You’re with a lucky boat. Stay with them.’
‘But remember how you went eighty-seven days without fish and
then we caught big ones every day for three weeks.’
‘I remember,’ the old man said. ‘I know you did not leave me because
‘It was papa made me leave. I am a boy and I must obey him.’
‘I know,’ the old man said. ‘It is quite normal.’
‘He hasn’t much faith.’
‘No,’ the old man said. ‘But we have. Haven’t we?’
‘Yes,’ the boy said. ‘Can I offer you a beer on the Terrace and then
we’ll take the stuff home.’
‘Why not?’ the old man said. ‘Between fishermen.’
They sat on the Terrace and many of the fishermen made fun of the
old man and he was not angry. Others, of the older fishermen, looked at
him and were sad. But they did not show it and they spoke politely
about the current and the depths they had drifted their lines at and the
steady good weather and of what they had seen. The successful fishermen
of that day were already in and had butchered their marlin out and
carried them laid full length across two planks, with two men staggering
at the end of each plank, to the fish house where they waited for the
ice truck to carry them to the market in Havana. Those who had caught
sharks had taken them to the shark factory on the other side of the cove
where they were hoisted on a block and tackle, their livers removed,
their fins cut off and their hides skinned out and their flesh cut into
strips for salting.
When the wind was in the east a smell came across the harbour from
the shark factory; but today there was only the faint edge of the odour
because the wind had backed into the north and then dropped off and it
was pleasant and sunny on the Terrace.
‘Santiago,’ the boy said.
‘Yes,’ the old man said. He was holding his glass and thinking of
many years ago.
‘Can I go out and get sardines for you for tomorrow?’
‘No. Go and play baseball, I can still row and Rogelio will throw the
‘I would like to go. If I cannot fish with you, I would like to serve in
‘You bought me a beer,’ the old man said. ‘You are already a man.’
‘How old was I when you first took me in a boat?’
‘Five and you nearly were killed when I brought the fish in too green
and he nearly tore the boat to pieces. Can you remember?’
‘I can remember the tail slapping and banging and the thwart breaking
and the noise of the clubbing. I can remember you throwing me into
the bow where the wet coiled lines were and feeling the whole boat
shiver and the noise of you clubbing him like chopping a tree down and
the sweet blood smell all over me.’
‘Can you really remember that or did I just tell it to you?’
‘I remember everything from when we first went together.’
The old man looked at him with his sunburned, confident loving eyes.
‘If you were my boy I’d take you out and gamble,’ he said. ‘But you
are your father’s and your mothers and you are in a lucky boat.’
‘May I get the sardines? I know where I can get four baits too.’
‘I have mine left from today. I put them in salt in the box.’
‘Let me get four fresh ones.’
‘One,’ the old man said. His hope and his confidence had never gone.
But now they were freshening as when the breeze rises.
‘Two,’ the boy said.
‘Two,’ the old man agreed. ‘You didn’t steal them?’
‘I would,’ the boy said. ‘But I bought these.’
‘Thank you,’ the old man said. He was too simple to wonder when he
had attained humility. But he knew he had attained it and he knew it
was not disgraceful and it carried no loss of true pride.
‘Tomorrow is going to be a good day with this current,’ he said.
‘Where are you going?’ the boy asked.
‘Far out to come in when the wind shifts. I want to be out before it is
‘I’ll try to get him to work far out,’ the boy said. ‘Then if you hook
something truly big we can come to your aid.’
‘He does not like to work too far out.’
‘No,’ the boy said. ‘But I will see something that he cannot see such
as a bird working and get him to come out after dolphin.’
‘Are his eyes that bade?’
‘He is almost blind.’
‘It is strange,’ the old man said. ‘He never went turtle-ing. That is
what kills the eyes.’
‘But you went turtle-ing for years off the Mosquito Coast and your
eyes are good.’
‘I am a strange old man.’
‘But are you strong enough now for a truly big’ fish?’
‘I think so. And there are many tricks.’
‘Let us take the stuff home,’ the boy said. ‘So I can get the cast net
and go after the sardines.’
They picked up the gear from the boat. The old man carried the mast
on his shoulder and the boy carried the wooden box with the coiled,
hardbraided brown lines, the gaff and the harpoon with its shaft. The
box with the baits was under the stern of the skiff along with the club
that was used to subdue the big fish when they were brought alongside.
No one would steal from the old man but it was better to take the sail
and the heavy lines home as the dew was bad for them and, though he
was quite sure no local people would steal from him, the old man thought
that a gaff and a harpoon were needless temptations to leave in a boat.
They walked up the road together to the old man’s shack and went in
through its open door. The old man leaned the mast with its wrapped
sail against the wall and the boy put the box and the other gear beside it.
The mast was nearly as long as the one room of the shack. The shack
was made of the tough bud-shields of the royal palm’’ which are called
guano and in it there was a bed, a table, one chair, and a place on the
dirt floor to cook with charcoal. On the brown walls of the flattened,
overlapping leaves of the sturdy fibred guano there was a picture in
colour of the Sacred Heart of Jesus’ and another of the Virgin of Cobre.
These were relics of his wife. Once there had been a tinted photograph
of his wife on the wall but he had taken it down because it made him
too lonely to see it and it was on the shelf in the corner under his clean
‘What do you have to eat?’ the boy asked.
‘A pot of yellow rice with fish. Do you want some?’
‘No. I will eat at home. Do you want me to make the fire?’
‘No. I will make it later on. Or I may eat the rice cold.’
‘May I take the cast net?’
There was no cast net and the boy remembered when they had sold it.
But they went through this fiction every day. There was no pot of yellow
rice and fish and the boy knew this too.
‘Eighty-five is a lucky number,’ the old man said. ‘How would you
like to see me bring one in that dressed out over a thousand pounds?’
‘I’ll get the cast net and go for sardines. Will you sit in the sun in the
‘Yes. I have yesterday’s paper and I will read the baseball.’
The boy did not know whether yesterday’s paper was a fiction too.
But the old man brought it out from under the bed.
‘Perico gave it to me at the bodega,’ he explained.
‘I’ll be back when I have the sardines. I’ll keep yours and mine together
on ice and we can share them in the morning. When I come back
you can tell me about the baseball.’
‘The Yankees cannot lose.’
‘But I fear the Indians of Cleveland.’
‘Have faith in the Yankees my son. Think of the great DiMaggio.’
‘I fear both the Tigers of Detroit and the Indians of Cleveland.’
‘Be careful or you will fear even the Reds of Cincinnati and the White
Sox of Chicago.’
‘You study it and tell me when I come back.’
‘Do you think we should buy a terminal of the lottery with an eightyfive?
Tomorrow is the eighty-fifth day.’
‘We can do that,’ the boy said. ‘But what about the eighty-seven of
your great record?’
‘It could not happen twice. Do you think you can find an eightyfive?’
‘I can order one.’
‘One sheet. That’s two dollars and a half. Who can we borrow that
‘That’s easy. I can always borrow two dollars and a half.’
‘I think perhaps I can too. But I try not to borrow. First you borrow.
‘Keep warm old man,’ the boy said. ‘Remember we are in Septem-
‘The month when the great fish come,’ the old man said. ‘Anyone
Then you beg.’
can be a fisherman in May.’
‘I go now for the sardines,’ the boy said.
When the boy came back the old man was asleep in the chair and the
sun was down. The boy took the old army blanket~~ off the bed and
spread it over the back of the chair and over the old man’s shoulders.
They were strange shoulders, still powerful although very old, and the
neck was still strong too and the creases did not show so much when
the old man was asleep and his head fallen forward. His shirt had been
patched so many times that it was like the sail and the patches were
faded to many different shades by the sun. The old man’s head was
very old though and with his eyes closed there was no life in his face.
The newspaper lay across his knees and the weight of his arm held it
there in the evening breeze. He was barefooted.
The boy left him there and when he came back the old man was still
‘Wake up old man,’ the boy said and put his hand on one of the old
The old man opened his eyes and for a moment he was coming back
from a long way away. Then he smiled.
‘What have you got?’ he asked.
‘Supper,’ said the boy. ‘We’re going to have supper.’
‘I’m not very hungry.’
‘Come on and eat. You can’t fish and not eat.’
‘I have,’ the old man said getting up and taking the newspaper and
folding it. Then he started to fold the blanket.
‘Keep the blanket around you,’ the boy said. ‘You’ll not fish without
eating while I’m alive.’
‘Then live a long time and take care of yourself,’ the old man said.
‘What are we eating?’
‘Black beans and rice, fried bananas, and some stew.’
The boy had brought them in a two-decker metal container’ from the
Terrace. The two sets of knives and forks and spoons were in his pocket
with a paper napkin wrapped around each set.
‘Who gave this to you?’
‘Martin. The owner.’
‘I must thank him.’
‘I thanked him already,’ the boy said. ‘You don’t need to thank him.’
‘I’ll give him the belly meat of a big fish,’ the old man said. ‘Has he
done this for us more than once?’
‘I think so.’
‘I must give him something more than the belly meat then. He is very
thoughtful for us.’
‘He sent two beers.’
‘I like the beer in cans best.’
‘I know. But this is in bottles. Hatuey beer, and I take back the bottles.’
‘That’s very kind of you,’ the old man said. ‘Should we eat?’
‘I’ve been asking you to,’ the boy told him gently. ‘I have not wished
to open the container until you were ready.’
‘I’m ready now,’ the old man said. ‘I only needed time to wash.’