Visiting Hemingway's Islands in the Stream
Credit: The Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection / John F. Kennedy Presidential Library

Jesus and a grizzled old fisherman paddle us in. Antonin and I break through the mangroves and find two abandoned foundations in a small clearing. Then I follow the gray coral shore around to the opposite side of the island. I'm not sure what I'm searching for: a shell casing, an ammo box, something to shed light on Hemingway's last great war story and the connection between him and Hudson.

Near a small spring I find a half-buried trash pile with antique glass fragments in it. One appears to be the top of a liquor bottle, another is embossed with the word "Dietz," a German name. I put both in my pocket and make my way back to the dinghy. We cast off and Jesus fires up the engines. The trip is over; we've reached the final page. Even Antonin is subdued in reflection at the site of Papa's last stand.

What we've found, we aren't exactly sure. Which might be the point, because neither was Hemingway. His time in the Jardines – always seeking, never quite finding – was more about conjuring a story than anything else. For Hemingway the ensuing tale was both the greatest and most devastating of his life, and it was the one that outlived him. As it did Thomas Hudson, felled by machine-gun fire off the shores of Contrabandos in the last paragraph of the novel.

"He felt the ship gathering her speed and the lovely throb of her engines against his shoulder blades, which rested hard against the boards. He looked up and there was the sky that he had always loved and he looked across the great lagoon that he was quite sure, now, he would never paint and he eased his position a little to lessen the pain. The engines were around three thousand now, he thought, and they came through the deck and into him.

"‘I think I understand, Willie,' he said.

"‘Oh shit,' Willie said. ‘You never understand anybody who loves you.'"