Swan Island Secrets
Day 5, take 3. Today’s story highlights the climax of our Patagonian Journey in search of Swan Island Secrets. And though I’m the author, the plot twist is: Even I’m not sure how it’s all going to turn out.
“The best stories are the ones with the unexpected plot twists that no one would have guessed, not even the writer.”
―Shannon L. Alder
To start with, after lunch my research assistant—Hubby—basically bails on me ?. I suspect the rainy day has made him sleepy, but he claims traipsing around the town of Puerto Cisnes in pouring rain while I take photos doesn’t appeal. Imagine that.
One of my remaining questions about the story setting of Swan Island Secrets: Is everything really within walking distance? I have the perfect opportunity to find out, don’t I? My husband offers to drive me from block to block, but I decline. A shame to interrupt his nap.
I dress heavily to keep dry, though it isn’t that cold. What a relief to have those knee-high boots on when I plunge into a deep puddle at almost my first step. Later, I glimpse the fur edging of my parka’s hood tipped with slick white…frost? Frozen rain?
Beside the Sea
First, I trek along the Costanera, the town’s waterfront street. A central section of it boasts concrete tiles, a stone-mosaic swan, some wet wooden benches, and fewer potholes. The far ends, north and south, look pretty grim.
Where is the fisherman’s union and what’s it like? According to the guidebook, it’s supposed to be on the south side of the Río Cisnes (Swan River), but I never do find the site where Marcos Serrano holds a Bible study in Swan Island Secrets. I guess it’s a secret meeting place ?.
We’ve already driven up and down this area several times. Mostly it’s populated with artesanal fishing boats and tidal scum. I’ve always pictured this as the jump-off spot for Swan Island, but maybe I need to focus north of the river. Across the Piloto Pardo Bridge, a string of solar-powered lighthouses mark the waterfront and a long high commercial pier.
Next, we loop back up through the main part of the town, which as I’ve noted is more developed than I anticipated. What about the school—what’s it like? For starters, there are several, not just one. I wake up to the fact that I’ve hardly given much thought to the place where Coni Belmar, my main character, reluctantly fulfills her internship requirements. A school is a school, I figured.
So I choose one that “looks” like Doña Lucía, the headmistress in my story. The huge, two-story structure grabs and startles me with its pristine white paint and bright blue trim in an otherwise drab town. Swan Island Secrets, for sure.
“You know you’re a writer when you talk about your characters as if they were real people.” –Buffy Andrews
Is there actually a hospital or only a small medical post? Once again, I’m impressed with the good-sized and well-kept hospital and its distinctive red tower. I learn they even have a real doctor or two, so can tend to all but the most serious cases. For the size of the town, that’s an amazing blessing.
Do I find the students’ boarding house? Nope, struck out on that too. What the map shows as an “internado” (internal housing) next to the church is, I realize, most likely connected to the hospital behind it. In Chiloé, these dormitories are reserved for connection-less out-of-towners—mothers waiting to give birth, discharged patients still unable to travel home, families of sick children.
However, this doesn’t mean student housing in Puerto Cisnes doesn’t exist. I just didn’t locate it, possibly because the kids board in private homes. In this pivot point of a district encompassing so much rural terrain, even the poorest students have to be billeted locally during the school year.
Home Sweet Home
After that, we move on to the—ahem—”downtown” area. My husband parks along one side of a modest plaza, and I step out into the drizzle again for my last but longest expedition. I can reach everything else I want to explore from here.
Is the police station visible while you’re filling up with gas? Another wrong guess, since I don’t see any nearby pumps, but still I’m fascinated by the town’s police compound. The large glass-front comisaría (term for a main police headquarters) designates this one as the “second,” but I never notice any other here. Perhaps it’s a provincial “sub”-station of Puerto Aysén.
But for story purposes, I’m staggered. Of course, it wears the ubiquitous uniform of forest green, but rather than the relaxed tenencia (headed by a lieutenant) I expected, I find a substantial complex instead. A monkey puzzle tree brushes the roof and canopies a bank of flags. Across the fenced yard looms a large avocado-green concrete building which just may be the only “mansion” in town. Experience tells me it probably holds housing for police personnel.
So where’s the mansion I call Fiorucci House in my story? I trudge on down the same street, to the foot of the gentle hill, hoping to discover the palatial home I have in mind for Doña Lucía and her granddaughter, Coni.
Similarly, the joke’s on me. My grand “Fiorucci House” huddles in the far corner of an overgrown-jungle lot. A shack cloaked behind a chicken-wire lattice of chilco, Magellanic fuchsia. The oceanfront view looks out on a sidewalk as crackled as a salt flat.
This has to be the most disappointing moment of my journey.
Then I wade across the river-like street, and my spirits lift. Though no Tuscan villa by any stretch, this place offers more potential, “more scope for imagination,” as Anne Shirley (of Green Gables fame) said. It’s hedged with puffy hydrangeas the sky blue color of Coni’s eyes.
After loping back up the hill, I check out the environs of the plaza, starting on the north side. Is the main church similar to Chiloé’s national-monument mammoths? I hate to say it, but yes and no.
The Chiloé Islands’ iconic churches used to be clad in damp-blackened shingles like this one, though thanks to restoration efforts a few years ago, they’re now decorated like Easter eggs. And even the smaller Chilote chapels look cathedral-like in comparison to Puerto Cisnes’ lone church.
Maintenance seems lacking here, but what would I know? I can’t peek inside nor even get close, since a fiendish dog snaps and chases me off. Okay, fine, I say. Mongrels have bullied me since kindergarten.
The plaza itself also has the makings of an attractive town square, but a rundown building in the center, quartering a local crafts cooperative and some municipal offices (including the dubious tourism bureau), leaks like the proverbial sieve. Plastic buckets line the halls. Shaking my head, I duck back outside.
There, I’m cheered by the clumps of calla lilies snuggled against the black picket fence. And then, on the plaza’s west side, I see the gymnasium…and the Library.
What can a storyteller create from a library, especially a beautiful new (2018) library with a carved-wood pediment displaying a parade of Grecian figures? A golden library in a dead-lead town? Even I didn’t imagine this Swan Island Secret. A carefully orchestrated climax melds into a plot twist of major magnitude.
What a Character
I’m still wondering what to do with this unexpected jewel when I notice the town hall beyond it. Except for Frosty and Santa waving from the storybook balcony, it qualifies as a dignified municipal building. A bust of the founding alcaldesa (mayoress) has been placed near the front walkway by grateful people of the town. The prototype of my Doña Lucía, complete with her strung-seed necklaces.
Later I google the great lady and discover that half my imaginary details of her life in Swan Island Secrets edge spine-tinglingly close to the truth. A cultured Italian, her countess mother and diplomat father served in the court of King Victor Emmanuel III. After World War II, she married a Chilean she met in Spain and emigrated to Chile…and died in Patagonia, a friend to both presidents and peasants.
A few decades of her life are uncounted for. Some specifics I wonder at… A soothsayer, say whaaat? Often fact beats fiction, but what’s a story for? To fit those puzzle pieces of our multifaceted lives together into a comprehensive work of art that makes sense.
The what-if’s we write for fun, the what-for’s we read for meaning. In our stories, we don’t have to stop at the end of a chapter. We can go on to the end of the book and learn, to our satisfaction, how the author ties up each loose thread. The triumph of each twist, the good in each catastrophe.
In our real stories, only God holds all the pieces–for now. We can’t yet see the finished masterpiece, so perhaps that’s part of the value of books.
“When something goes wrong in your life, just yell “Plot Twist!” and move on.” –Unknown
Back Across the River
Again in the car, I review my notebook. Anything else outstanding here? Any other surprises? It pains me to admit I envisioned Puerto Cisnes as a friendlier place. But we’ve felt alone, barely spoken to anyone. In fact, we’ve hardly seen a soul. The only living creatures out and about are gulls—and dogs.
So, even though it’s almost summer, I guess everyone’s home by the fire drinking mate and eating sopaipillas (hot biscuits popular in inclement weather). We decide that’s what we need to do too—indulge in a teatime snack.
We stop at a bakery just south of the bridge. While I run over to take a quick glance at the town’s single gas station, diagonal across the street, my husband orders lattes and tasty pastries.
The shop’s café area isn’t classy. Rather, it’s tight spaces and splashes of red paint. But the pleasant service and warm food comforts and relaxes me before we head back over the mountain pass to our cabin in Puyuhuapi.
It’s an uneventful drive. We snack on chocolate and settle our bill this evening, since we’ll leave by 7 a.m. tomorrow. Our last day to discover Swan Island Secrets—the resolution of our Patagonian Journey–starts early.
Between truth and imagination, the story of our trip can become whatever we make it.