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The story begins with a group of children playing on the beach. They spot a "dark and slinky bulge" in the ocean.
At first they think it's a ship, then a whale, and finally, when it washes up on shore, they realize it is a drowned man.
The children do what we might expect children to do with a dead body: play with it.
Finally, an adult spots the new toy and spreads word to the rest of the village.
The men of the town carry the body to the nearest house and note how heavy it is. They suspect that maybe, since it floated around for so long, water got into his bones.
The village in question is a small fishing community, twenty houses on a desert-like, flowerless cape bordered with cliffs to the ocean below.
There is such little space that dead bodies are thrown over the cliffs and into the ocean, rather than buried.
Because of the village's size, the men look around, see that none of them is missing, and easily know that the dead man is a stranger.
That night, rather than going out to sea as usual, the men head to the neighboring towns to see if anyone is missing a large guy.
The women stay behind to clean the body, which is covered in seaweed, stones, crab, and other sea paraphernalia.
As they clean him off, the women notice that the junk he's covered in is foreign to their part of the world – he comes from somewhere far away.
This drowned man seems proud, too, unlike other drowned men they've seen in their time.
When the drowned man is finally cleaned off, the women are left breathless: "not only [is] he the tallest, strongest, most virile, and best built man they [have] ever seen, but even though they were looking at him there was no room for him in their imagination" (3).
He's so big, in fact, that the women can't find a bed large enough for him.
None of their husband's clothes will fit him. So the women, still fascinated by this amazing man, sew him some clothes from a sail. As they work, they feel as though their world has changed because of his arrival.
If this man had lived here, they surmise, his house would have been the biggest, his floor the strongest, his wife the happiest. "They secretly compare him to their own men, thinking that for all their lives theirs were incapable of doing what he could do in one night, and they ended up dismissing them deep in their hearts as the weakest, meanest, and most useless creatures on earth" (4).
The oldest woman among them finally looks down at the drowned man and says that he has the face of someone called Esteban.
All the women immediately agree.
Though some of the younger women hope he is called Lautaro, they realize that no, he is definitely Esteban. (Check out "Shout Outs" and the "Character Analyses" for more information about these names.)
After midnight, "the sea [falls] into its Wednesday drowsiness" (7).
As the women watch the body being dragged along the ground, they "shudder" with "pity."
They realize that being so massive and manly must have been a burden to the drowned man. "They could see him in life, condemned to going through doors sideways, cracking his head on crossbeams" (7), always a nuisance for the hostesses of houses he visited, who couldn't find a chair sturdy enough for him to sit on. He must have been embarrassed all the time at being a "big boob," a "handsome fool" (7).
When the men return and announce that none of the nearby villages can claim Esteban, the women rejoice that he is now theirs.
The men think their women are being foolish. They're tired and want to get this burial done as quickly as possible. They tie together a sort of stretcher to carry him to the cliffs. They want to tie an anchor to his body so that he will sink to the deepest part of the water.
But while the men hurry, the women try to waste time, adorning the body with more and more trinkets.
The men grumble and complain until finally the women remove the handkerchief from the drowned man's face.
Then the men, too, are in awe with how handsome he is, are left breathless, and see that he is "Esteban." They, too, believe that he would be ashamed of his big, burdensome body and the trouble he is causing the villagers.
So the villagers hold a splendid, elaborate funeral for the drowned man.
They go to neighboring villages to get flowers, and they choose for him honorary family members from their village, "so that through him all the inhabitants of the village bec[ome] kinsmen" (12).
The women weep so loudly that sailors going by hear them and steer off course, and one man, thinking of the story of Odysseus, ties himself to the main mast.
As they carry his body to the cliff, the women are aware for the first time of "the desolation of their streets, the dryness of their courtyards, the narrowness of their dreams as they fac[e] the splendor and beauty of their drowned man" (12).
When they finally let the body go off the cliff, they do not anchor it, so that he can come back if he wishes.
The villagers realize that from now on, everything will be different.
They will make their houses bigger and stronger and better, and dig for springs in their courtyards, and paint their houses bright colors "to make Esteban's memory eternal" (12), and plant flowers on their cliffs so that years from now, sailors going by will see the colors and smell the scents and know that there, on those cliffs, is Esteban's village.