The Whale That Swallowed a Spaniard
Marco Neves
The Whale That Swallowed a Spaniard
Marco Neves
A skeleton at dawn
I must confess: I didn’t invent this story.
It’s true that I had always wanted to write an old-fashioned adventure novel, with dead people, swords in the night, century-old secrets and delirious love stories — but never had the time or the excuse or a plot, to tell you the truth.
Now, it was the story itself that found me, ready to be told, begging to be turned into one of those over-the-top books with treasures and maps and people hiding around corners (and a whale chewing a Spaniard, for some reason).
Well, stories are meant to be told. Let’s start. I shall leave you with a New Year’s Eve skeleton and what it told me about what Julius Caesar, Francis Drake, British pilots, and Nazi agents — among many others — were getting up to around a certain town in Portugal many years ago.

Marco Neves

A phone call at midnight
“10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 — Happy New Year!”
By the beach, in a hotel in the Algarve, we all shouted, happy for a few seconds, glass in hand, stars simmering and a new year in our lives.
With fireworks reflected in our eyes, Rita and I kissed, trying to arrange those twelve raisins in our mouths, in a confusion of tongues, noses and laughter.
I felt a vibration in my pocket, but didn't pay any attention to it. Instead, I closed my eyes for a second and when I opened them again, I saw light reflected in my girlfriend's eyes, in the bubbles of the champagne she was drinking and in the sea beyond us. This year would be wonderful, I was certain.
I felt my phone vibrating again. I knew it was my mother trying to wish me a happy new year. I took it out of my pocket to take the call, but it was an unknown number.
I answered and heard a slurred voice, with traces of my hometown’s accent:
“Duarte Contreiras?”
“That's me.”
“You can't imagine how hard it was to find your number…”
Rita looked at me, trying to guess what the conversation was about. I had to make an effort to understand the man’s voice amidst the noisy cheer of the first minutes of the year.
“Who is this?”
“My name is Pedro Garcia. I am a childhood friend of your grandfather Mário Contreiras.”
This caught me off-guard. My grandfather died almost twenty years ago, but I still miss hearing him tell me stories. The man’s voice continued:
“I have been waiting for this moment for twenty-five years. Your grandfather made me keep an envelope that should be delivered by hand to you, but only in 2017.”
He was silent for a moment. He was short of breath.
“I couldn't wait more than a few seconds. I've been wanting to find out what's in this envelope for decades.”
I stood there open-mouthed. Was this some kind of joke? I remembered the old stories my grandfather would tell me and the last conversation we had before he died.
Pedro Garcia continued:
“Come and see me as soon as you can. When I run my fingers over it, it seems there’s a key inside the envelope... I've always wanted to know where the treasure is and I'm pretty sure your grandfather found it..."
Meanwhile, the fireworks had ended. I looked at Rita, who was mouthing to me: “Who is it?”
I gestured for her to wait.
Had this happened to anyone else, I think they would have hung up the phone, convinced it was a sick joke. But the truth was that my grandfather had spent his life telling me stories about a treasure. So I eventually said:
“Can I come and see you now?
Rita opened her mouth in astonishment, shook her head and said loudly and quite angry:
“We still have two more days booked! We can't leave like this...”
I signalled for her to wait. On the phone, the man was telling me:
“I live in Baleal. Come as quickly as you can.”
“In Baleal?” I looked at the watch on my wrist and said, to Rita’s despair: “We’ll be there in about four hours. Can you tell me the exact address?”
I asked Rita for her phone and she gave it to me with a frown, not understanding what reason I could have for arranging anything at 4AM on January 1st.
I wrote down the address:
“Well, see you soon!”
“See you soon!”
And we hung up.
“What the hell is going on? Where do you want to go? Don't you know we have the room until the 3rd?”
“Rita, trust me: you will want to come with me. It's not every day you receive a treasure as an inheritance!”
“A treasure? What treasure?”
“Do you remember I told you about my grandfather and all those stories about a hidden treasure in Peniche?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Well, I guess I’m going to find out where the treasure is.”
She laughed, still a bit angry:
“So, you’re finally taking me to your hometown?”
Yes, it's true: I had never taken my girlfriend to Peniche. Unforgivable, I know. But this was the day — the very first day of the year. Little did she know what awaited her in this town where she had never been before.


Telling the story of an adventure is not difficult — but describing a motorway journey from the Algarve to Peniche? In the middle of the night? What can I tell you? Perhaps report on the slow progression of the car on the GPS map? Inform the reader that we arrived and leave it at that?
Around about the time we were passing Grândola, still very far from Peniche, I turned to Rita:
“I’m sorry we couldn't stay for the rest of the days...”
She shrugged:
“It's okay, as long as we find that treasure.” And she laughed incredulously at what she had just said.
I, on the other hand, felt a chill run down my spine. Surely, I wasn't going to find any treasure. I'm not one to believe in crazy adventures — but on the other hand, I was pretty sure that my grandfather had left me something and I was itching to open the envelope and read his words.
Perhaps it was the adrenaline of the unexpected journey or the anticipation of the treasure that awaited us, but we passed the rest of the journey in good spirits. We talked about my grandfather's stories, imagining plots and practically bursting with excitement — and so the time passed in one of those rare conversations between lovers, in which anything goes and life itself feels like an adventure.
Even so, the night is long and a journey takes its toll, no matter how many treasures await us. By the time we reached the Peniche exit, we were silent. The car sounds seemed to mark our tiredness and anticipation.
We got off at Serra d'El-Rei, in the direction of Baleal.
As Peniche appeared on the horizon, Rita raised her eyes in admiration. We could see a haze of lights hanging over the sea.
“What city is that?”
“Peniche. If you look carefully, you can see the Berlengas lighthouse in the distance...”
Minutes later, we arrived at Baleal, parked and walked across the stretch of sand that connects the old island to the mainland.
“You never told me this was so...”
“So what?”
“I don't know. So… Interesting? I can’t find the word. Are those fishermen's houses?”
“No, no. These are houses of people from elsewhere, who come here on holiday.”
On the sand, young people were hanging around, calmly chatting after a night’s drinking. A couple was lying down, looking at the stars, holding hands. Further down, two men arrived ashore from an inaugural swim which I could only imagine they must have regretted — I mean, it was so cold we could see our breath.


Pedro Garcia's house was hidden in one of the small alleys that cross the tightly packed houses of Baleal. As if he had been waiting behind the door, the man appeared to us at the first ring of the bell.
He was an old man in his nineties, but still had a cheerful air and an enthusiastic gleam in his eyes. He didn't need to ask anything to know it was me and gave me a fumbled hug. He was almost in tears.
“I was one of your grandfather's best friends... He never mentioned me?”
I made an ambiguous gesture. The truth is I had never heard his name — but I also knew that many of my grandfather's stories went untold.
“This is my girlfriend, Rita.”
We went inside and accompanied the old man to a small office overlooking the sea. I would need a lot more talent to be able to describe the smell of that room. It was the smell of burnt wood, with a hint of books and also the perfume of the tea that Pedro Garcia had prepared minutes before, accurately calculating the duration of the trip between the Algarve and Baleal.
We sat on a sofa while the man kindly served us tea.
“When we have time, I must tell you your grandfather's stories!”
I smiled as I sipped my tea and peered at the book-lined walls.
“We will have time. Now I'd like to see that envelope... I came all the way from the Algarve...”
“Yes, of course. I have been waiting for this moment for years.”
Solemnly, he handed me the brown envelope, which had my name written in an old-fashioned style. “Ever since your grandfather gave me this mission, I have wondered what is inside.”
We remained silent. The old man was wiping his tears with a cloth handkerchief.
“Your grandfather Mário trusted me to give you this. It is an honour to fulfil the promise I made to my best friend.”
I ran my hand over the envelope, trying to feel the decades that separated me from the moment my grandfather had closed it. I looked at the heavy, solemn books that surrounded us. I looked at the old man's anxious face. I looked at Rita, who was as curious as I was.
Less carefully than the age of the paper would advise, I opened the envelope.
I found a key and a yellowed photograph that left my heart pounding.
What was this?
What had my grandfather done?
A gagged man
I didn't know what to think of the photo.
I stared at it for a few minutes and then handed it to Rita, who was as confused as I was. Shyly, she passed the photo to the old man, who opened his mouth and turned pale.
All the enthusiasm he had felt upon seeing us had vanished. He sat down with difficulty and put his hands on his head, dropping the photo. I picked it up off the floor and looked at it more closely.
It was a photograph of three men at the entrance to a cave. Two were standing. One of them, my grandfather, seemed unperturbed, neither sad nor happy. The other, very tall, was smiling, happy, like a hunter showing off his prey.
The third, dressed as a Nazi, was on his knees.
He had a gag in his mouth and his hands were tied.
You could see the terror in his face.
I turned the photo over and saw that on the back someone had drawn a small map with an arrow pointing to a forest south of Atouguia da Baleia. Underneath, there was a message:
“Duarte, I want to tell you another of my stories and confess a secret to you. It was my greatest sin and perhaps my proudest moment. Look for the chest in the cave marked on the map. There you will find out where the treasure I have always told you about is. A treasure that this Nazi you see here tried to steal. We couldn't let him."
Then, in a different font, in inverted commas, there was another sentence: “I kept the secret in my head and the map in my hand.”
I looked at Pedro Garcia, who was still sitting with his head in his hands.
“What’s this?”
Slowly, he revealed the tears in his eyes and pointed at the photo:
“That...” And he went quiet again.
With my nerves on edge and adrenaline in my veins, I couldn't help myself and I shouted:
“Tell me who they are!”
The old man tried to get up.
“Sorry, I'm not feeling well.”
His hands were shaking and he dropped the cane he was trying to hold on to. Rita couldn't stop him from falling to his knees, crying.
“I never thought your grandfather would do such a thing. We swore we would never tell anyone! I made him promise to burn the photo... I don't even know why we took it... It was that damned Englishman...”
He sat back down on the sofa. I held the photo in front of him and, like a ruthless interrogator in some cop movie, I fired:
“Who are they?”
“Well, this one,” said the old man slowly, pointing to one of the men surrounding the Nazi, “I think you know quite well.”
“Yes, that's my grandfather. And this one?”
The old man shook his head slowly and said nothing. I continued:
“And the Nazi?”
He didn’t answer, but said, a bit calmer:
“I can tell you who the fourth person in this picture is, if you want...”
“The fourth person?” asked Rita.
“Yes. The one behind the camera. I was the one who took the photo. I have never regretted anything more than taking this photo. And to have taken part in all that.”
“What are you talking about? What happened?”
He fell silent again.
“Ask the Englishman. It's his fault.”
“The Englishman? What Englishman?”
We stood silently listening to the man's sobs until he decided to answer:
“John Clarke. He ruined my sleep for the rest of my life.”
I looked out the window at the lights of my hometown, where I hadn't lived for so long... His name reminded me of old stories my grandfather had told me a long time ago.
I didn't know what to think. The photograph disturbed me. I had always associated my Grandfather Mário with children's stories. Some of them were violent, no doubt, but in that abstract violence of swordsmen's duels, where no one is hurt and no one dies — and no one is gagged and looking terrified at the feet of two men who look like they are enjoying cruelty.
There was something else disturbing me: in the photo, my grandfather had a gun pointed at the Nazi's head.
I had to get the whole story straight — not least because I also wanted to know if there was a treasure or not...
I turned the photo over and pointed to the X.
“Where would this be?”
Pedro Garcia looked at the photograph with the air of someone who no longer cared about anything...
“It's the Cesaredas plains... That's where we killed the Nazi.”
“And that's where my grandfather hid the treasure?”
“I don't know.”


Pedro Garcia stayed at home, alone, drinking tea and pondering his sins, while Rita and I went to the Cesaredas in silence.
It was not easy to find the cave: the map wasn’t very accurate and only when the sun was already peeking through the leaves did we find the entrance, next to trees still very similar to the ones in the photo.
If we looked west, we could see Peniche emerging from the darkness of the ocean — and it was while the first morning of the year was dawning that I entered a cave with my girlfriend to find a treasure.
In the dim light of a phone, we saw the splendid cave with stalactites and stalagmites.
We slipped on the moss on the rocks and Rita had to hold on to my arm.
“I can’t see any treasure...”
We heard the sound of something crawling.
“What was that?”
“I don't know," she said, "but there's something there.”
We saw a diamond drawn on a rock.
The rock was different from the others, as if it had been put there by someone.
With some effort we pushed it away and found three half-damaged old planks, which we broke with our feet in a cloud of dust. We were breathing nervously.
In movies, these scenes look easier — and are much less dirty. It took a lot of work, but finally we had the chest in front of us, barely lit by the phone.
While wiping away sweat, Rita smeared dirt on her face and I laughed.
“What is it?”
“You look very adventurous.”
My adventurer then pointed to the chest and asked:
“So, let's find out what this treasure is?
I was sure we wouldn’t find a treasure when we opened the lid.
I put the key in the lock while Rita pointed the light at it. I could hear the blood pumping in my ears.
When I finally lifted the lid, we let out a scream that echoed through the cave walls.
The treasure was a human skeleton.


After the initial shock, Rita approached the skeleton while I pointed the phone's torch to get a better look at the most macabre treasure of all time.
The light shone through the skull, which was perfectly intact and fixed in eternal laughter. Then the light went off immediately afterwards, giving us another fright.
The battery had died. Rita reached for her phone, hands trembling.
“We’ll use this one now.”
We approached the dead man once more:
“Look, there are some clothes on it...”
I dared to touch the remnants of fabric and realised that it was an old German uniform from World War II.
My grandfather's treasure was, apparently, a dead Nazi.
“Look, the skeleton has something in his hand...”
The Nazi was holding a small leather bag. I tried to remove it carefully from between the white phalanges, but it was difficult. I ended up breaking one of the dead man's fingers, and we heard an echo of rattling bones through the cave.
Rita squeezed my arm.
Inside the small bag was an old map.
“Another map?”
On a white sheet of paper, someone had drawn a group of islands. At one end of the largest of the islands, there was a drawing of a house with a caption, in small letters: Casa Encarnada (Red House). Next to the house there was an aeroplane.
At the top of the page, there was a huge sun, with ten rays cutting across the page in several diagonals, crossing the three islands.
“What islands are these?”
“Well, the biggest one is Peniche.”
“Peniche is an island?”
“Not anymore, but it used to be one.”
It was then that we heard a water droplet fall and we jumped again. I dropped my phone, which switched off — and so we were left in the dark, in a cave, with a dead nazi.
What a way to start a new year.

The Red House
We left the cave, grubby and tired, and got into the car. We looked more closely at the map we had found in the skeleton's hand.
“The Red House... I know where it is! I lived nearby for years.”
We set off, tyres screeching.
A few minutes later, we parked next to the Red House, above the south cliffs of Peniche.
We got out of the car. We approached the house. It looked shut, with the windows painted white and the paint peeling off near the roof. The red of the walls, however, was still as bright as I remembered from the times I would pass by there, on my bicycle, as a child.
We rang the bell. We heard footsteps approaching and when the door opened, I was certain it was the mythical Englishman from my grandfather's stories.
“John Clarke?”
“Yes, that's me.”
“My name is Duarte, I'm Mário Contreiras' grandson. I always thought ‘John Clarke’ was a made-up name.”
The Englishman smiled and opened his arms to hug me:
“I've been waiting for you to visit for a long time... Mário had told me that you would knock on my door one day. And, yes, my name really is John Clarke.”


Not even three hours had passed since we had found the Nazi. We were now in the sun, away from the cave, with no dirt on our faces — and much more relaxed.
We had breakfast together on the balcony of the Red House, from which you could see the bay south of Peniche, the road that follows the cliffs to Cape Carvoeiro – and, looking straight ahead, the coast up to Ericeira.
Rita was seeing the whole thing for the first time, while I listened to the man speaking in Portuguese with an English accent. He was talking about the man we had met in Baleal a few hours before.
“Pedro... He never forgave me. But he should be proud of what he did. Of course we killed the German... What do you expect? We were at war... Well, at least I was at war. Portuguese people thought they were safe…”
And he laughed, cheerfully.
“But why did you kill him?”
The Englishman looked at me:
“That’s a story for your grandfather to tell...”
I frowned.
“Is that some kind of sick joke?”
“No, no, I'll explain in a moment. Let's just finish eating calmly.”
Calm was something I couldn’t manage to feel.


Shortly afterwards, John Clarke took us to the attic of the house, where I found, to my amazement, Grandfather's missing library. Feeling a wave of emotion, I bit my lip and Rita gave me her hand.
I then approached the window overlooking the inner courtyard of the house and opened my mouth in astonishment.
There I saw the plane — the plane my Grandfather had seen crash many years ago in a pine forest near the beach.
John Clarke smiled:
“These books are yours. And this too...” He gave me a thick envelope, which I opened quickly. Inside, I found an old VHS tape.
“What’s this?”
“Your grandfather's last story. You’ll hear from him why we killed that Nazi. If you’re lucky, he’ll also tell you where that treasure is...” And he winked at me with a grin.
I put the tape in the video player that was there waiting for me and started listening to my grandfather telling the last story of the Treasure of Saturn.
My grandfather's last story. I can't quite remember what the first story he told me was — perhaps the one about the whale that swallowed a Spaniard; or, more likely, the strange tale he told me many, many years ago about Nazis and Englishmen lost in a forest.
The forest, I later found out, was nothing more than a pine forest in the Cesaredas plains — but, for my imagination as a child, this pine forest where the Nazis and the English hid among the trees in a death chase, was a mythical forest.
That story began with my grandfather walking along Consolação beach and seeing a British warplane approaching until it passed right over his head, with the metallic sound of the engines working hard.
Grandfather told me that story in a hushed voice, after dinner, with me sitting at his feet while the rest of the family watched TV. My mother, when she heard him mention guns and Nazis, became worried and asked what the story was.
He laughed, stroked my hair and said:
“I'm telling Duarte ‘the Three Little Pigs’.”
My mother frowned and he continued, quietly telling me how he had entered the war, many years ago...
I would have been about five years old: I can hardly remember anything. I know it was the first time I heard about the treasure. Years later, when I was a spotty teenager, Grandfather told me the story again. But as I could no longer or didn’t want to sit at his feet listening to him whisper a story to me, what Grandfather told me, at the dinner table, was a censored version, where no one died and no one was chased. The story was now almost an anecdote, about the day when two English pilots were taken by people from Atouguia to a café in Peniche after their plane had crashed. In that café, everyone tried to help... But it was the madman of the town who, in passing, guessed what the Englishmen wanted, as if madness helps in understanding all the languages of the world.
I'll get to that story about Nazis and Englishmen in a forest. But now that I'm trying to remember all the stories my grandfather told me, perhaps it's better to start at the beginning. It all started a long time ago, when Rome still had Emperors…

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