Rodrigo woke up abruptly when someone knocked insistently on his door. He dressed quickly, worried by the unexpected visit. When he opened the door, he saw the familiar face of Fernando, one of his men. He seemed to have run all the way from the station to Rodrigo’s house. When interrogated with a puzzled look, Fernando caught his breath and said,
“Alcaide, there is a ship near our shore”.
Rodrigo exhaled: no imminent danger to his soldiers or to the civilians. The matter was bizarre though, and he understood why the men wanted him to come and see. The little fortified town was on the sea but wasn't a port. Some small fishing boats, sure, were a familiar view, but a proper ship, no, that wasn't right.
Following Fernando to the shore, Rodrigo started to make out the silhouette of the ship, and any lingering annoyance was replaced by curiosity. It looked elegant and well balanced. A bit small for its class, but still much bigger than anything they were used to seeing in these waters. Rodrigo squinted into the sun, looking for the flag, but couldn’t see any. “Good they are not pirates,” he said to himself, “but it would be safer to know where are they from, anyway."
"Fernando, what crown do these people serve? I can't see any flag."
"That's the thing I was about to say, sir. There is no one on the ship."
Rodrigo looked at Fernando interrogatively, but then decided that going and finding out by himself was quicker and more efficient than deciphering his man’s nonsense.
The ship was rolling calmly on the water. Some of the sails up, covering the sun. All around it, in a loose semicircle, there were the people from the village, looking bemused. Rodrigo could sense something vaguely hostile, but decided to deal with that later.
Sergio, his deputy, was there and seemed in control. Rodrigo looked at him relieved, and went straight to ask for more information from someone he trusted. As Rodrigo would have expected, Sergio had already set up a small boat to reach the ship, and was waiting for his captain to go. From so close, the ship looked almost majestic. Definitely beautiful. Rodrigo couldn’t help feeling fascinated by the smooth, warm-coloured wood, the golden figurehead in the shape of a curvy mermaid. He was now able to read the name of the ship, written on a lead plate: “Europa”.
“It's unusual, isn't it?” asked Rodrigo
“The name, Europa, is a bit unusual for a ship.”
Sergio sighed. “Alcaide, I think we might find far more unusual things there.”
When the two men set foot on the deck of the ship, Rodrigo was struck by the eerie feeling. Maybe because everything looked so pristine. He was never in the navy, but he had been on ships. That one was definitely remarkably tidy and clean. It could have even looked new, but signs of usage where unmistakable.
“I told you, sir, that there was something strange.”
Rodrigo agreed, but didn't want to seem irrational.
“What do you mean by strange?” asked the alcaide with an excessive harshness in his voice, which he immediately regretted.
“I'll show you the kitchen, sir,” said Sergio apparently untouched by his commander’s unfair behaviour. “Do you see? Someone was here. Some of the barrels are still full of fresh water. Also, did you notice how everything is so clean?”
Rodrigo nodded silently.
“At the beginning we thought of an epidemic of some sort. But there is no foul smell. The place looks completely empty. And clean. I want to show you the dormitory,” said Sergio, walking confidently across a space he had explored before.
“Don't touch anything!” Rodrigo couldn't help shouting, realising immediately how patronising and superfluous his advice was.
“Of course I won't,” replied Sergio calmly.
He stepped aside to let Rodrigo have a better view of the narrow space. The beds were all made. Some more neatly than others. But no personal belongings of any sort could be seen.
“What is your take on this? What do you think?” asked Rodrigo after a silent inspection.
“I am not sure what to think,” replied Sergio hesitantly.
“Well, surely this ship came here from somewhere. And someone must have noticed there is a fine ship missing. What was the wind last night?”
“Mistral, I think.”
“Then check what is the first port in that direction, run there and inquire. I don't want this to became a diplomatic incident. Someone is bound to be looking for this beauty,” said Rodrigo, trying to smile.
Having a practical task seemed to make Sergio feel better. Rodrigo gave a last look around, then the two men went back to the rope they had used to climb the ship.
“I'm going to tell people to go home, that there is nothing to see.”
“Be careful when you talk with the locals, sir”
“Why?” asked the alcaide, surprised.
“They believe the ship is cursed.”
“That is nonsense!”
Sergio looked slightly embarrassed, as he wanted to make clear that he was only reporting what he heard. “The ship came from nowhere. It’s empty…”
“Enough, you go,” Rodrigo cut him short.
“Yes sir. But, whatever you decide to do with the ship, I suggest you do it quickly.”
“Then you should hurry,” teased Rodrigo, and Sergio started descending the rope.
Once on the land again, Rodrigo dismissed the people congregating around the ship. He didn't give much explanation, he didn't think he had to. The story about the curse had annoyed him, so he was sharp. He felt that the leader of the village, the woman managing the mill, wanted to reply something, but bit her tongue.
He spent the day waiting for Sergio to come back, but he knew it was unlikely the man would return so quickly. He went to bed, exhausted, and dreamt of the golden figurehead.
He woke up at dawn, again, but this time naturally. He put on his coat and headed to the sea. He wanted to check on the ship, to have a better look, maybe. While walking, he realised that there was something strange. He expected the top of the trees of the ship to appear at his horizon, but they never did. He arrived on the shore and the ship wasn't there. Europa was gone. He looked around, shocked and upset. There was a small group of people on the beach.
“What happened?” he asked angrily.
“What do you mean, sir?” replied the woman from the mill.
“To the ship. Where is the ship?”
“I have no idea, sir. You said yesterday you were going to deal with it, so we didn't worry about it anymore. But it wasn't here this morning.”
“You’re saying it just disappeared?”
“The same way it came, sir,” the woman said.
He had no reply. He couldn't understand if they were lying or not. He looked for signs of destruction, but couldn't find anything, at a quick glance. Was it possible that they had been so good at getting rid of everything? Or had the ship really just disappeared? Had the tide taken it away? He kept looking, alternately, at the people and the sea. He scoured the horizon, hoping to spot her silhouette against the sun. But there was nothing.