Leland Strong’s quest for a moment of genuine prayer leads him to reflections on Hemingway’s fisherman Santiago, A somber story of an old man’s search for the meaning of his life.

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Santiagos’ Bones

Bob Gillen

Eighty-two year-old Leland Strong sat in the last row of the empty church. A church he did not know. The afternoon sun sprayed stained glass color over the middle of the interior. The color did not reach Leland’s row. That was fine with him. He was not there for beauty or inspiration. He sought solitude, a respite from the noise in his heart. He yearned for the few moments of silent prayer that had eluded him till now.

Leland jumped as outside on the street a motorcycle screamed through its gears moving past the church. He settled back in his seat.

Leland’s thoughts wandered. An avid reader, he sometimes compared himself to a protagonist in the stories. He smiled as his mind now ran to the opening line in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. He paraphrased silently. ‘He was an old man who lived alone in the stream of life and he had gone eighty-four days now without a prayer.’

Running with the comparison, Leland pictured himself as Hemingway’s fisherman Santiago. A man who knew only one thing. Fishing. And he showed up for that every day. Even after eighty-four days without a fish. In his own lifetime Leland had known more than one thing. He was now long retired, living alone, most of his family and friends gone. And he showed up every day, searching for true solitude, for meaning. 

Leland scowled as he heard the backup beeping of a truck. More noise. In the parking lot the driver slammed trash bins as he emptied them into the truck’s maw. 

Quiet descended on the building. The day Santiago caught his great fish, Leland told himself, he had gone out far beyond his usual fishing waters. He had gone deep into the sea, beyond the other fishermen, beyond his own familiar locations. And in the deep he had found his great fish. Now, sitting alone in the depth of this church, Leland hoped he had moved beyond his usual routine as he sought his personal deep waters. Going beyond the usual places where he sought peace. A dark hollow had inched its way into Leland’s heart. A hollow he yearned to fill with prayer.

Leland cocked his head at the sound of shuffling footsteps. A man entered Leland’s pew from the far end, moved closer to him. He carried a plastic bag stuffed with what looked like clothing. He wore baggy, soiled jeans, a dirty white tee shirt, sandals on his feet. Long unkempt hair. A homeless man.

“You’re in my seat,” the homeless man said.

“The entire church is empty.”

“I have a deal with them.” He gestured to the front of the church with his thumb. “I sleep here every afternoon till they close up.” He waved an arm at Leland. “You have to move.”

“Whatever.” Leland shrugged, moved across the aisle to the other last row.

The homeless man stretched out on the pew. He tucked the bag of clothing under his head for a pillow. In moments he was asleep, breathing softly.

Leland stared across at the homeless man. It’s hopeless trying to find a quiet place. The homeless man began to snore. Loud enough to distract.

Leland continued to stare at the homeless man. He took in the man’s gaunt frame, highlighted by clothes that were much too big for him. The bones in his arms stood out, stretched over his sun-darkened skin. Leland looked down at his own frame. He too wore a tee shirt a size too big for himself. He held out his arm. Do people see me as gaunt, thin? 

A thought niggled at Leland’s mind. As he gazed at his arm, he began to realize…he was no Santiago. The metaphor was all off. No, he was Santiago’s fish. To make the metaphor more precise, he was the skeleton of Santiago’s fish. He was a reflection of what was left of Santiago’s quest. The remains of his own lifelong quest. Nature had chewed at Santiago’s fish. Bitten off chunks of flesh, down to the bones. Was he no different? A lifetime of living had chipped away at Leland’s ego, leaving him feeling empty, desolate, without depth.

That was it. Only Leland’s bones remained. Bones that told a story. Bones that pointed to a once full body. His hope was that the bones would reveal the fullness of what he had been and done in his lifetime.

Leland thought, I may have been a great fish at one time. Moving through my seas freely. I have lived a good life. I have cared, given, loved, been loved. Now, at my age, life has chewed away at my greatness, bitten chunks off my ego, until I am simply a skeleton of my earlier self. My bones are now what people see. A withered old man. Age spots, a shaky walk, hesitant at times, uncertain of much. But the image tells a story.

Leland grinned. In the dim light of the church, a homeless man snoring nearby, he saw himself as the skeleton that, like Santiago’s great fish, revealed its earlier glory. When Santiago had rowed back to his village, his fellow fishermen stared in awe at the bones of what was once a great fish. Leland realized he cannot control what people see of him. Even what he sees of himself. His hope – in his meager exterior, in his bones, they see what brought him to this moment in life.

Leland stood, leaned on the back of the pew in front of him. Alone in the church, except for the homeless man, he extended his arms forward. “I am a man of bones,” he whispered, “standing as a testament to a life well lived. I have swum freely in the sea of life. I have been hooked, lashed to life’s boat. Picked apart.” 

Leland found his moment of prayer.