“The Fifth Diver” is a freestanding short story included in Salidas de emergencia (Emergency Exits), the first novel published by faculty member Alexis Romay. The book was published in Spanish and Italian editions in 2007. His novel, La Apertura Cubana, was published in 2013. To read the “The Fifth Diver” in its original Spanish, click here: “El quinto clavadista”
The Fifth Diver
Two hundred spectators had gathered in the municipal stadium. Four hundred eyes followed each step of the fifth diver as he made his way to the twenty-foot diving board, which had the distinction of being the highest point in the Sports Compound. At the beginning of the Contest, the pool was an ocean-blue that magnified its scarce twelve feet of depth. With the unusual configuration of an equilateral triangle, the pool clarified the moment of entry, since the focus of attention shifted from a man —spinning in the air, theatrically, audaciously, until he plunged into a micro-universe— to a triangle that received him prior to a consistent and euphoric flood of applause.
Sports Compound was a euphemism to define a space of circular structure, poorly roofed and crowded to its limits. Its diameter was sixty-five feet and, hanging from the four cardinal points, were low-intensity reflectors that looked anachronistic tied to the guano leaves that shaped the primitive cupola of the Stadium. The electricity depended on a series of extension chords that, a week before the event, were run from the nearest house and woven through the endless holes in the roof, becoming, thus, the most impressive electrical installation of the Third, Fourth and most obsolete of all Worlds.
The same as for the rest of the houses in town, waterproof here was an unknown concept, and this circumstance justified the dead-set date for the event: El Presidente’s birthday, the Thirteenth of August, which always, almost prophetically, fell in the midst of a drought.
Since the ventilation had to be natural, the inhabitants took pride in having located the Stadium in a clearing, taking full advantage of the breezes that filtered through the walls. The afternoon heat, the flies and the rest of the insects also entered the Stadium, but during the most important social event of Las Palmas, amid the excitement of the competitors and the public, these minor obstacles were easily ignored.
The pool had only three sides due to an innovation in the building process. The idea was to save money on the construction materials, which were sent by the Government with a letter to the inhabitants of Las Palmas. The letter officially authorized them to build a modest stadium, as long as the residents took care of its design and construction.
The district of Las Palmas was comprised of about sixty houses with the same number of families tightly spread among them, to the point that sometimes there were four generations living under the same roof – two of which (the middle ones) had actively contributed to the execution of the Stadium, the only place in the community where all the Palmeros could fit, piled up in eight rows of benches distributed in a spiral shape.
This is the information that the inhabitants of Las Palmas were given regarding Diving: “An Olympic Sport that consists of a diver who jumps from a diving board or another high platform to a pool and executes all sorts of graceful and intricate turns on his way down.”
A whole decade had passed since the sixty families living in Las Palmas ventured to build their own stadium. Subsequently, they spent years training their native athletes. The Annual Competition, now in its third year, had a few constants, the most notable being the public itself, presided over by the founders of the region who were accompanied by their proud offspring, forming a friendly and enthusiastic audience. Not a soul was allowed to sneak in alcoholic beverages or any kind of blade. And, on the belt of the President of the community, a revolver, which had acquired a symbolic and ornamental character, became rustier by the minute.
The Routine had been dictated by the President and was enforced with methodical religiosity: in the morning they celebrated a fair for the youngsters in the Town Park, and the diving competitions took place that afternoon. The rest of the year the Sports Compound remained closed.
The President of the community based the success of this tournament and his entire political career on a theory that he had inherited with the position of Eternal Leader of Las Palmas: “Regardless of its size, cultural level or aspirations, the only thing necessary to rule any social group is the distribution of Bread and Circus. It is crucial to provide the crowd with something to eat, along with a little entertainment.”
In fact, since the President established a holiday for that hot day in the eighth month so that the neighbors could enjoy the Sports event, the impact on the dissident groups in the population had been palpable. They organized fewer street riots and painted less politically incorrect graffiti on the walls of the sad supermarket in town. Subversive gossip and social commentary had dramatically decreased and, at last, his opponents had allowed themselves to be pulled under by the euphoria. They joined the rest of the locals to share poorly fermented, homemade beer, and make bets that catapulted along with the divers, ranging up to three chickens and two bushels of rice.
The fifth diver proceeded towards the diving board, fully convinced that he was close to reaching (literally) the heights of his career. The theatricality with which he walked prompted the spectators to burst into shouts, whistles… pure excitement.
He was the last competitor and on his shoulders was the responsibility of closing the municipal championship. Although his severe training had prepared him for this moment, his nerves were betraying him publicly. He made a personal drama out of each step he took on the staircase to the diving board.
The fifth diver avoided looking inside the pool. At that moment, he was suffering from monumental vertigo; a vertigo that he had always interpreted as a symbol of dangerously approaching Success. When he reached the end of his journey, a tear emerged from one of his eyes. (Luckily, the public didn’t notice this.) His body was rigid and his muscles were prominently featured, shining thanks to an unguent especially prepared from the fat of a Santa María snake (a reptile common in the creeks near Las Palmas). His bathing suit, a pair of dark brown shorts, still bore the stains from his recent work as a farm laborer.
What was he thinking at that moment, the closest he’d ever been to his most elemental idea of Glory?
The Palmeros had been in full throttle – jumping, cheering and shouting hurrahs – as the previous competitors had walked through the Stadium to end standing at the pinnacle of their lives. But they quickly reduced their clamor to a respectful silence to allow the athletes to concentrate and climb above their own fears.
When the fifth diver prepared to execute his audacious flying maneuvers, the faces of the residents of Las Palmas looked petrified – as if they might stop breathing altogether.
Of the dives of the first four competitors, the most remarkable moment was when the second diver came one inch away from touching the ceiling with his feet: his limbs created a vertical human arrow at the peak of his parabola. The first diver, as well as the fourth, attempted a double front flip in which he turned in the tuck-position and entered the pool feet first. The third diver executed the infamous “one and a half,” which was a complicated exercise that demanded one full somersault, after which the athlete had to stretch himself perpendicular to the pool and finish the dive head first.
The fifth diver tightened his arms next to his body, held his breath, and let himself fall.
The hush in the Stadium was disturbed by the impact. Upon witnessing how he broke into pieces, and joined the smashed bodies of the four previous competitors, the public burst into euphoric applause, shouting their joy.
The pool had always been empty. Nobody from the Government dared to tell the President that Diving was a water sport.