"The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World" is a short story about the body of a dead man that washed ashore in a town that desperately needed something to believe in. Through the literary effect of magical realism, the drowned man comes to symbolize all the beauty of life.
The children first saw the body that washed upon the shore. When they initially spotted it, the children thought it was an enemy ship or a whale, but when they removed the seaweed and other ocean debris that had become attached during its journey, there was no mistaking the fact that the large object was indeed a human body.
The children played with the body all afternoon and were stopped only when a passing adult happened to see them. Word that there was a body on the beach spread quickly throughout the village and, before long, the dead man was taken to the nearest house. The men who moved the man noticed that he was heavier than any body they had carried before, which caused them to assume that he had been floating in the sea for a long time. Because he was very tall, the villagers wondered if some people had the ability to continue growing even in death.
The village was quite small, about twenty houses in all. Because of this, all the residents knew each other and it did not take long for the residents to know that the dead man was not one of their own. The village was situated on a small cape with little land and no flowers. Because there was little spare land, villagers that died were buried at sea.
When night came, the men did not go out to work at sea as they normally did. Instead, they went to the neighboring villages to see if there was anyone missing. Meanwhile, the women of the village remained behind to clean the drowned man's body. As they removed the vegetation that had attached to him during his journey, they noticed that the plants and grasses were from faraway oceans. They also noticed that not only did he have a peaceful look on his face, but also that he was quite possibly the strongest and best built man they had ever seen.
Because the man was so big, the villagers had trouble finding a suitable manner in which to hold his wake. There was no bed big enough in the entire village, nor were there clothes that would fit him. As a result, the women decided to make him clothes from a piece of sail and some bridal linen. As they sewed his clothes, each woman wondered in silence what it would have been like to have the man live among them; they supposed his home would have been the biggest in the village and that his wife would have been the happiest woman in the entire village. They also imagined that he would have had the ability to draw water from the barren ground and that their village would be adorned with flowers. As the woman imagined all the great deeds this dead man could have accomplished, they dismissed their own husbands as weak, incapable men.
The women's thoughts were eventually interrupted by the oldest among them who pronounced that the man should be called "Esteban." While most of the women agreed with this decision, there were some who imagined him to be "Lautaro;" nonetheless, they conceded to the old woman's wishes and began to refer to the dead man as "Esteban."
After the women were finished dressing the man, they began to dread the thought of dragging him along the ground when the time came to give him his at-sea burial. As they contemplated this, they began to imagine how the man's size must have affected his life: having to duck his head through doorways, and always opting to stand during visits rather than risk breaking a chair. They imagined how people must have pitied him for his size.
The women's despair became even more pronounced when they covered the man's face with a handkerchief. With his face covered, there was no mistaking the fact that the man was dead and this brought many of the women to tears. Their tears turned to jubilation when the men of the village returned with the news that the drowned man was not known in any of the neighboring villages.
The men were puzzled by this reaction; for to them, the drowned man was just another thing to be dealt with. Anxious to dispose of him before the heat of the day bore down on them, the men began the task of constructing a device on which to carry the man to the cliff. They pondered whether they should tie a ship's anchor to him so that there would be no chance of his returning to their shore. Yet, as anxious as the men were to complete their task, the women found ways to delay the burial. They spent so much time decorating the drowned man's body with relics and other items that the men began to voice their impatience. In response to this, one of the women lifted the handkerchief from the dead man's face, an act that left the men as awestruck as the women by the drowned man's presence.
Now that they are united in their purpose, the men and women set out to hold the most spectacular funeral that the village had ever experienced. One woman went to a neighboring village for flowers and returned with another woman who had come to see the drowned man. This set off a steady stream of visitors and curiosity-seekers, all of whom came bearing flowers. Soon, there were so many flowers in the tiny village that it was difficult to walk.
Wanting to ensure that the drowned man had a family, the villagers selected a mother and father for him as well as aunts, uncles and cousins from among the village's remaining residents. When the time came to return the man to the sea, many fought for the privilege of carrying him to the cliff. As they walked with the drowned man through the village they became aware, perhaps for the first time, of how desolate and barren their streets really were.
Despite their earlier insistence that they would tie the heaviest anchor they could find to the drowned man, they reconsidered so that the man could come back whenever he wished. As they threw the drowned man back into the sea, they did so with the realization that he would forever be a part of them and that from this moment on, their village would no longer be complete. They also knew that Esteban's memory would forever remain with them. They would ensure this by painting their homes bright colors, digging for springs to irrigate their barren land so that they could adorn the village with more flowers than one could possibly imagine. They would do this all in the hope that, in years to come, their little village would become known as the place where Esteban lived.