by Attila Zønn
With voracity he rowed from the pier, from the village, from Agrippina to the peace among the waves where his buoyancy above the great depths made him feel immortal. Row . . . row . . . rowing away in the darkness of early morning before the cacophony of an awoken village disturbed his thoughts, before he had to reciprocate good mornings, before Agrippina awoke and burdened him with all her disappointments. Quietly with the stealth mastered over the years, he fled from his home to the freedom of the waves, to the soothing lapping waters against the hull. Away . . . away . . .
It didn’t matter if he caught anything today. It was Sunday and to be out here—feel the breeze, smell the brine, bask in the sun. This is where God was. Though Antonio believed in the god the nuns from school had slapped into him, he was not one to observe all the religious obligations. A church? God was not in a house. He was here—in the clarity of the water, the frolicking porpoises, in the squawk of the gulls, in that heart-thumping majesty that was the sea.
But as God puts the fear in men, he must admit, there are people who fear the sea. Why should anyone fear the sea? The sea is a beautiful woman — her roiling waves sensuous, her bounty nourishing, her depths nurturing. Yet, her ire — her ire unforgiving in that tempest, or the stormy cold waves that chilled you to your core.
Agrippina had married for love. Her father had said that love was not practical in the long term. Character was more important because a good soul never stands still and can be relied upon. But Antonio was a catch and of all the girls in the village, his eyes had found her. “He is handsome but lacks substance,” her father had said and warned, “Antonio is a dreamer and full of excuses.” But Agrippina was so in love. Her love would change Antonio. “You will never have children with him,” her father said. And that had come to pass.
Antonio the dreamer, whose beauty was so mesmerizing she believed every word out of his mouth, and his promises. He had never broken his promises because a promise can never be broken if it continues to be promised.
She could have followed her sister Assunta to a new life.
Assunta and her husband Pasquale had been morte di fame here. Barely surviving after the mountain closed to forestry and Pasquale was out of an income. They borrowed from friends and family and left for America with only two suitcases and what they carried in their pockets. It took great courage to venture into the unknown. She could have gone too. The opportunity was there but Antonio was here. He wouldn’t go. Leave the sea? Never.
Sometimes Agrippina felt like the shunned wife to Antonio’s watery mistress.
Pasquale and Assunta returned on vacation, fifteen years later, as Pat and Suzy, grown fat off their good fortune and rattling their gold. But they were aliens. The metamorphosis from their slender bodies to the puffed pride they now carried was disheartening. Is this what America did to you? So it was a good thing that she and Antonio had never followed her sister to America where the streets were paved in gold and money grew on trees. To be fat and arrogant from America was not an appealing trait. How Suzy looked down her nose at the village she had called home for twenty-five years. How she had disrespected it, calling it a slum, saying it was backward. Of course, it was not the fat and shining America. But in fairness, how could she compare the two? And Agrippina never thought living in this village a terrible life, just a simple one.
The sun had not risen yet and it had been a moonless night, and facing the stern at his kerosene lamp, Antonio rowed, surrounded by darkness.
Misfortune had reduced him to this small boat. Misfortune had plagued Antonio all his life. Tano, the watchman at the pier, says misfortune follows if you refuse to turn around and slap it in the face. Every time Antonio has tried to face misfortune he has only seen it step back and grin.
He still misses his grandfather, the man who taught him everything he knows about the sea, the man who gave him what he was most proud of, the Celestina. Her powder blue hull. Her perfume—fish and the salty sea, and the pungent scent of diesel and the way she awoke, the rumble and the black smoke that signaled she was ready to go, ready to slice her way across the water as he stood in her cabin on their way to cast his nets.
Now he rowed a craft with no name.
That morning . . . the sky had dawned red.
Men milled about the pier, smoking cigarettes or puffing on pipes. But there would be no venturing out today. The red sky had spoken. So they consoled themselves for an idle day in the company of like minded men, this fraternity of fishermen, and shared their tall tales.
All hailed Antonio with a, “Buon Giorno.” But stepped forward with concern when he boarded the Celestina and started the engine. They rushed towards him and shouted, “Antonio! Look!” And pointed at the black ribbon on the western horizon.
He laughed at them. “That’s still far away,” he said. “I’m only going to fetch my nets from Isca.”
“But Antonio…” they said and pointed to the west.
“I’ll be back in an hour,” he told them.
How calm the water had been that morning. How peaceful he had felt as he poured coffee from the thermos, sipped and savored and listened to the putter putter of the motor.
Gaspare Isca stood watching the western sky when he heard the Celestina approach from behind. And as Antonio came up the steps from the dock Gaspare Isca pulled the pipe from his mouth and pointed it at the black ribbon on the horizon.
“That is from the west, but the wind is light from the east,” Antonio said.
But as soon as those words left his lips, a powerful gust struck them from the west.
“Your words have jinxed you, Tonio,” Gaspare Isca said. Then straightened and with an inflection of respect said, “That west wind, the worst wind. The wind is wet.” He put his hand on Antonio’s shoulder. “Come Antonio. Let it pass. My wife has baked bread and I have a fresh wheel of cheese from the shepherd.”
“I can outrun it,” Antonio said, and hurriedly grabbed his net. “How much for the mend?”
“Next time,” Gaspare said. “Get going then. No time to settle an account.”
He could make it. He will make it.
It’s not so bad, thought Antonio as he headed back across the channel. White capped waves nudged the Celestina.
The first fat drops splattered the windshield as a gray shroud suddenly cloaked him from overhead. The white caps became claws and the Celestina was knocked about, but determined, her engine pushed her through. The channel crossing never took more than half an hour, but now it felt an eternity as though he had struck an immovable barrier as the Celestina strained against the waves, and it wasn’t until he saw Tano’s beacon piercing through the storm that he could relax his grip on the steering wheel.
There were no more men standing at the pier but there was a figure — a woman and as he approached, he saw it was Agrippina, her face ghostly, her black hair wet and blown to the side, her long gown clinging to her.
He moored the Celestina, tightened her ropes soundly and was ready to console his wife. “You see? Nothing to worry about. I’m safe. I’m home.” But she turned away from him and walked back to the house. He followed.
There were no words from her that afternoon and into the night, and though he tried to justify why he had risked venturing out, he was only met with Agrippina’s back.
They went to bed that night and lay with a cold wall between them.
He awoke and found Agrippina standing by the bed, looking down on him. “What’s the matter?” he said, and in the same moment heard the shouting outside and pounding at his door. “Fire! Fire! Fire at the pier!”
He ran with the others.
The Celestina burned. She burned.
Despite the hosing, the shouts, the curses, no efforts could save her. She was too far gone. They nudged her out and the current glided her into the channel where the flames devoured her before she sank.
Antonio cried . . .
Copyright©Attila Zønn 2021