“The Fisherman” by Monica Strina

Each morning he is thankful for the heron. His feet sink into the sand as he walks towards the sea, fishing rod slung over his shoulder, bait box held in his right hand. His footprints unmake the star shapes of pigeons’ feet and the palmed imprints of seagulls’ feet, yet respect the marks the heron has made.

The first cast decides of the day. If the line whistles in the air, forms a perfect arch over his head, then lands on the spot at which he has been aiming, he will have sole or even sea bass for lunch; perhaps mullet for dinner. If it flops, lands in the water at the wrong angle and loses the sinker or, as it happened once, catches in his fishing hat, no fish will bite. He will go hungry; the heron will be disappointed in him.

There are days, when his back hurts and his knees cry in the humid air of the morning, and memories torment him, in which he wishes he owned the heron – he did own something as beautiful, a long time ago. The heron is regal, his neck slender, his cinereous plumage on display. On some mornings, he flies to the rock that breaks the surface of the sea near the shore and, if the water is still, admires himself in it; pushes his beak near the water to kiss his own image.

The fisherman’s fingers ache more every day as he ties the sinker and hook onto the line, but he blames the weather; tells himself that, when the sun begins warming the sand, his knuckles will also thaw. More and more, they resemble the knots on a fishing net, all frayed and bulbous, but he does fret over them. Perhaps, when he can no longer fish, the heron will fly to his hut in the pinewood and bring him his catch.

The hut is cold and damp at night, but he drifts to sleep to the sound of waves, which crosses Viale Poetto and reaches him through the wood. Sometimes it reminds him of Teresa’s voice as she sang to his boy, and then he cries with his face in the mattress. Yet most nights he finds comfort in those whispers.

As a young man, he used to stand proud, like the heron, and tall, with hair black as the feathers that border the heron’s wings and a candid uniform that made women smile at him. He did not smell of salt and seaweed as he does now, but of cologne, and his hands were nimble when he worked on a ship or twirled a girl in a dance hall. He could see his own face reflected in his shoes, an oval with a kiss curl falling over it. He did not take the trouble to go fishing, then: he had many friends, and little patience to wait for a tug on the line. When he was on leave, he slept late into the morning.

But these days he rises at four, for he cannot lie in bed longer: not with the cold clamping his joints, nor with the sultriness of summer. The inflatable mattress he found at sea deflates during the night, and in the mornings his body is halfway through it, his knees and elbows stabbing the plastic. He makes coffee in a caffettiera on a camp stove, and, as he waits for it to boil out of the holes underneath the lid, he holds his hands close to the stainless steel to warm them. When he hears the coffee gurgle and smells its aroma of wet black earth, he bends at the waist and tries to touch the tips of his bare feet. By the time he straightens his body – acknowledging the increasing distance between his fingers and his toes – the coffee is ready. He takes it black, sitting at the folding table with metal feet he found in the skips and rubbed clean. He thinks one should always sit at a table when having breakfast.

When he leaves the hut, it is dark, but the stars are shedding their sequinned dresses; one by one, they are closing their eyes, falling asleep. The smell of salt is so intense he could be breathing fine white grains. At first, he turns towards Viale Colombo to watch the flamingos stir in the salt pits, to bid them good morning as they tiptoe in the water in search of shrimps that will make their wings a more vivid pink. Then he follows a trail through the trees, stepping on pine needles and plastic bags and packets of cigarettes and cracked earth, until he finds himself on the edge of the road. It is silent, at this hour, and deserted, and he fancies that the sea has reclaimed it and that no more cars will come speeding past. There are many crosses decorated with flowers on the sides of Viale Poetto: all of them bear dates of birth and death far too close to each other.

He crosses the road; pulls his woollen hat down to his eyes if, like now, it is winter. In the public bathrooms he washes his face and hands and teeth. He does not bother with shaving any more, and now his beard resembles one of those bushes that grow on the beach, dry and brushy and discoloured by the sun. He walks to the shore, holding his breath until he sees the heron waiting for him still, and in the light of the lampposts that line the road he finds that he is being mocked for arriving second – again.

The sand is crunchy near the water; the water itself startlingly cold, the colour of mercury. Wavelets play with the shells, caressing them, shattering them, rocking them with fingers of foam. Mullets perform acrobatics in the air, and in the silver flashes of their scales he reads the promise of a heavy line and a fruitful day. He says his prayers in silence, moving his lips, as he prepares for the first cast.

For many years, he would not pray. When he came home from work and found Teresa crying over Francesco’s bed, which waited for him, as they did, every night, he left again, and hid in the barrelhouse, and drank so much red wine that, by the end of the night, it tasted like blood. When he lay beside his wife, she wanted to pull him close, to sleep in his arms as she had done since their wedding in the Church of Sant’Antonio, but his limbs had lost their strength. And he lay in bed longer and longer, until it was too late to go to work, too late for Teresa to hope.

At sunrise, the murmur of the sea is harsher. He thinks sometimes of the old man in that novel he found, with many others, in a plastic bag left for him near his hut – the old man hanging on to his marlin at sea while sharks take it away from him, bite after bite – and imagines he is him. He wishes that he, like the old man, had fought to protect what was his. The heron opens his beak as though to sing along with the sea, but deems it undignified before of an old man, and spreads his wings instead, and settles on the rock from where he can admire his own reflection.

When the mistral blows and slaps and blinds with jagged grains of sand, no longer can the fisherman win against it. He gathers his bait box, rod, beach chair and the bucket with the fish he has caught – or with seawater and sand – and retreats to his hut to read. If an east wind comes, however, he can linger all day, and he does, unless it is summer. In summer, he seeks isolated places, though he does not like it, for the heron is not there. In summer, he cannot bear to look at the children who might drawn, or step on a shard of glass, or become lost in the crowds.

Francesco loved the sea, the way most Sardinian children do. He never cried when they put him into the water, not even as a baby. He could swim from the age of four, and he held on to his father’s back when they swam to the buoy. The fisherman keeps a memory, clear as the water in the Poetto, of his son catching his first fish. It was a scorpion fish, and as its vermilion body swung towards them at the end of the line, they ducked so its stings would not hit them. He was jumping, his boy, and smiling as the fisherman unhooked his first catch and dumped it into the bucket, where it swam in angry circles. That night, Teresa made a pot of fish soup, and they told Francesco that all the soup had been made out of the one fish he had caught.

He never kills a fish before he has to, unless it has swallowed the hook, for then the only way to recover the hook is to pull the line out of the fish, tearing its insides while it is alive. He will not do that. And so he holds the line between his fingers and hits the fish against a rock, shuddering at the hopeless smacking sound its body makes, until its tail stops flailing. But if the hook has only gone through its lip, or caught in its gills, then he eases it out and puts the fish in the bucket. When it is very small and the hook has not done damage, he frees it. He puts it in the water and keeps both hands along its sides. If it swims away from him, it will live. Yet there are times when he is too hungry to let it go.

When he fries the fish on the camp stove and sprinkles salt on it, when he puts it onto his plate and eats every bit except the bones, he is thankful for each mouthful. He has not forgotten that there was a time, when the drinking had come to an end and both Teresa and his job were long gone, when he could not provide for himself. And that there was also a time when he thought not even the sea could rescue him, and so he stole a length of rope from the port. He used to touch it at night; it reassured him that there was an alternative to his grief. This was before he found the hut, and the heron.

Now, he only wishes he could share that little he has with someone whom he loves. He has learned to appreciate the flaky, greyish flesh of the mullet; the sweet flavour of the sole, of which he never tires. Teresa too would appreciate them, he is sure, and they would be tastier if she cooked them. When on a branch that peers out of a garden he finds a lemon to squeeze on the fish, he is content. When he does not, he is not sad.

He does not always catch fish. There are days that pass without the line bending the rod, days when he sits in his chair and becomes lost in the books people leave for him, or sees things past between the sea and the purple horizon. He does not often fall sick, and even then he does not need doctors, only rest and the woollen blanket an old woman gave him last winter. He has seen too many doctors, and will die in his hut rather than laying his eyes on one more. They used to walk past Francesco as if they could not see him, and yet he was a tall boy at six. When they paid him attention, it was to drive needles into his wrists, to suck his blood into clear tubes from which it would not return. When he lost his hair, his eyes looked wider and darker, like those of the hungry. He cried only when he saw them cry, and so they smiled. Teresa walked into his room singing every morning, and hers were the saddest cheerful notes ever sung. At night, they sat beside their sleeping boy, holding hands that had become brittle as seashells. The sound of Francesco’s breathing was lower than the whisper of the sea on a quiet night; the veins under his skin like dead seaweed growing underwater, and on those eternal nights the fisherman asked himself what he had done wrong.

He used to dream of Teresa after she left, and of Francesco impaled by all those needles, but now his dreams are filled with the colours of the waves and the cries of the heron. Were he alive now, his boy would be married to a beautiful girl and have children of his own. A grandfather, he could take them to the beach, teach them to fish. He would never have met the heron, yet he would not miss him.

This morning he awoke to the thought of Francesco’s last night. It has been a long time since he last allowed himself to remember, but today it would have been his boy’s thirty-fifth birthday and, though he knows he should not keep count, he still does. He has nothing to celebrate it, not a cake with candles nor a gift wrapped in colourful paper. On the beach, he wants to tell the heron, but he fears it would frighten him away. As he prepares the line and pushes the hook through a worm, he sees that night again. The nurses had asked both him and Teresa to stay. His knees had melted. Teresa’s face was a precious painting ruined by a flood. They held Francesco’s hands, one on each side of the bed, and told him about Heaven. But Francesco was no longer the boy who had started swimming at four: he was a larva lost in humid sheets. Before sunrise, he opened his eyes. He could not turn his head so they both leaned forward and smiled at him. It hurt to do it. Through the exhaustion of a sleepless night they told him that they loved him and he just stared ahead and then, for one moment, his eyes focused and they knew that he could see them. But he was too tired and his lids fell and they were left calling his name.

That was the last time the fisherman prayed for many years. The last time, before he saw the heron on that rock, and his oath never to care about anything, or anyone, again, melted as a jellyfish would in the sun.

But this morning the heron is flapping his wings, dancing on his rock, restless. Perhaps the fisherman is stealing the fish with his rod; the heron is going hungry. And so he places the rod on the sand with care, and sits, slowly, with his hands on his knees; sits admiring the heron until the sun falls into the water and again and again; until the moon washes his face to the colour of clean bone. He sits, and does not catch fish, but still one morning the heron spreads his wings, looks at him one last time, and flies away.

As he turns, he feels the wind dry his face, and sees, through the semi-light of a bruised sunrise, a boy kneeling with a plastic spade in his hand. The sand is damp and compact this morning, the kind that makes perfect sandcastles. The boy is tanned and strong, eager to swim. He runs over smiling, takes the fisherman’s hand and, together, they walk into the sea.

Biographical Note:
Monica Strina was born in Cagliari, Sardinia, in 1978. She wrote in Italian until she moved to Ireland in 2000, when she won an Erasmus scholarship for UCD. She holds a Degree in Foreign Languages and Literature and completed a Master of Philosophy in Creative Writing in Trinity College Dublin. Her first novel, Quattro Volte Sette Lune, was published in Italy in 2004; she also published a short story in Ireland, and one in the US. Monica is currently working at a novel, and at a collection of stories set in Sardinia.

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1 Comment

  1. Paolo

     /  January 19, 2012

    Fantastic, this writer is a really revelation

    Reply

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