Significantly, “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” begins with the children of the seaside fishing village. They see the drowned man floating ashore; at first they think he is an enemy ship, then a whale. The discovery that he is a drowned man does not dampen their sense of play at all: They proceed, in the beach sand, to bury and dig him up repeatedly. Responsible adults see the drowned man and take over. The village men carry the body to the village, noting that the drowned man is enormously heavy, tall, and encrusted with ocean debris. Even though his face is covered, they know he is a stranger because no man in the village is missing. Instead of going fishing that night, the men leave the body with the women and visit neighboring villages to check if the drowned man belongs to one of them.
The women prepare the body for burial. As they clean off the encrusted vegetation, they observe that the material comes from faraway places. The man’s shredded clothes also indicate a long ocean voyage. The most astounding thing about him, however, once the crust is removed, is his handsome appearance: “Not only was he the tallest, strongest, most virile, and best built man they had ever seen, but even though they were looking at him there was no room for him in their imagination.”
As they sit through the evening sewing new clothes for him and admiring his body, the village women fantasize about the drowned man. They imagine the disturbed sea outside roaring in his honor. They imagine him as the village’s leading man, who has the best house, who makes fish leap out of the sea, and who digs springs and makes the barren cliffs bloom. Most of all, they fantasize about the happiness of his wife, and in their secret thoughts they compare the drowned man with their own men, who seem like “the weakest, meanest, and most useless creatures on earth.”
Their thoughts are redirected by the oldest woman, who feels “more compassion than passion” for the drowned man and who announces around midnight that his name must be Esteban. Another school of thought among the youngest women is that his name is Lautaro. This romantic notion is dispelled by the ill-fitting new clothes, however, which make it clear that he is Esteban. Once his name is settled, the women launch into compassionate fantasies, imagining Esteban suffering through life with his huge body, so ill-suited for parlor visits. When dawn breaks and they cover his face with a handkerchief, the women begin identifying Esteban with their own men, and finally they break into an orgy of weeping.
The village men find the women thus when they return from the neighboring villages. The women’s weeping turns to delight, though, when they learn that the drowned man does not belong to the other villages: He is theirs. They start making a fuss about him, adorning him for burial. The men cannot understand the women’s behavior until the handkerchief is taken off the drowned man’s face. Then the men, stunned, also see that he is Esteban, the handsomest drowned man in the world. They give the drowned man a fabulous funeral. The women go to the neighboring villages for flowers, and other women return with them. Soon the village is overrun with flowers and people. Rather than let Esteban remain “an orphan,” the villagers choose relatives for him from among themselves, “so that through him all the inhabitants of the village became kinsmen.” Bearing his handsome corpse to the cliffs to toss it back to the sea, the grief-stricken villagers become “aware for the first time of the desolation of their streets, the dryness of their courtyards, the narrowness of their dreams.” However, from now on, things are going to be “different”: Through their hard work, they are going to make the barren village prosper and bloom. It will become so famous that passing ocean travelers, overcome by the waiting fragrance, will point to “the promontory of roses on the horizon” and say “yes . . . that’s Esteban’s village.’