(short story)


October 1943, in the morning. The war had just stopped tormenting Sicily and  there was in the air the general wish to begin again, to return back to life.

Tonnarella, few houses washed by the sea foam, placed on a sandy beach like a segment of desert, between the windy rocks of Tindaris and the promontory of Milazzo. That day  Tonnarella woke up under a clear sky, after long days of a storm which had left on the coastline several seaweeds and fragment of flotsam and jetsam, so avoiding fishers to go to the sea, namely to live.

Gaetano as always woke up very early. Since childood, when his father woke him up at daybreak to bring him fishing, he was used to getting up early. With the passing of time, now he was almost sixty, this habit was accentuated.

After years spent as sailor in other boats, making sacrifices that sea-going people know very well, Gaetano had succeeded in becoming the “owner” of a boat with a crew made up of young people, partly by sons and relatives.

Gaetano went down to the beach, leaving some clear footprints on the sand wet with dew, fragrant with orange flower and saltiness. He lit a cigarette that he had made with his nicotine-stained fingers, wrapping up carefully – as if he carried out a ritual – in a thin cigarette paper, a very bad tobacco plant, found with some problems at the black market. A subtle melancholy could be seen on his marked face, giving sometimes the impression that he was distant, as if he followed his thoughts run away somewhere.

He stared at the sea: there wasn’t a breath of wind, the water seemed immobile and of an indefinite colour, a kind of dark green crossed by shaded brown streaks which blended with winding torrents, as happens after rainy days.

He coughed, he went near his boat, he touched it as if he caressed it, he controlled with care the oars, the cordage, the nets, and waited staring at the clean horizon line on which the Aeolian islands stood out clearly, similar to mythical entities risen again from the past as by magic.

His sailors arrived a few at a time, the eyes still puffy with sleep but the smile of light that only young people can give. ‹‹ Good morning Mr. Gaetano ›› few words as always, and they started working.

The boat was soon launched, and pulling at the oars it headed for the open sea.

In that period of the year before the long winter break, the sailors practised sailing by day, the surface fishing which consisted in the sighting of sections of board, logs or other floating things.

Under their shade, at few metres of depth, numbers of species of young fishes sometimes grouped together to protect themselves from the sun beans, having a rest during their long trip from the coast towards the open sea

So the sailors used to let down the net which was then lifted from the two sides of the boat. All this should happen quickly and without any noises, a thing which would have caused the sinking of the fishes and the failure of the hard-working operation.

The prow glided quickly, pushed by six oars which crossed gently the calm surface of the water with a movement perfectly synchronous, combined with the sound of a low splash. Gaetano stood in the middle of the boat, scanning carefully the vast green space, shading his eyes against the glare of the sun.

A simple nod was sufficient and the course was soon changed. A few words on board, just the necessary, the reason was that the fishers are taciturn by nature, and also because they had to save their breath to row, since it was useless to unfold the sails because of the absence of wind.

After several hours of uncertain wander Gaetano had not seen anything yet, it seemed that every sign of life had disappeared from the surface of the sea. Suddenly however, his attention was drawn by some gulls circling slowly above an indefinite thing which hardly appeared on the surface, now moved by a gust of wind.

Gaetano could not exactly understand what it was about, it could be a part of a sunk boat still afloat, or a dying dolphin or even the dead body of an unlucky survivor, since in those years of pain the sea – as having pity – sometimes gave back the poor remains of it. It was useless to make questions, he needed to get a closer look, a sign and a few words: ‹‹ There, straight on, hurry up!››

As they came near, the “thing” slowly took shape. It seemed a round object, quite dark, moved by a soft sway, with the surface made irregular by strange protrusions. Like a spiteful rascal in a thoughtless game, it showed itself and then disappeared hiding itself into some crack among the hampered waves.

They arrived there about after a quarter of an hour of fast rowing, and as soon as they reached the distance of twenty metres, the skipper cried sharply: ‹‹ Halt, it is a mine!››

A chorus of violent curses rose from the crew tired because of the effort just made, the gulls flew away, light as puffs of white smoke, disappearing in the clear space.

‹‹ Let’s come near ››, whistled Gaetano with resolution. An imperceptible movement, almost a low buzz around the mine attracted him.

As they reached the distance of eight – nine metres, they sow the bomb perfectly: a black big sphere surrounded by fuses, similar to a monstrous sea urchin. Tenacious cirripeds, clung to the metal because of the long stay in the water, formed strange motifs above the smooth surface, as if they were uneven lunar craters. They could hardly see the big chain which anchored the bomb to the depth from which the stormy sea of the previous days had certainly torn it. It probably came from the near harbour of Milazzo where many of them had been put there, or perhaps from who knows where, but now it was there and under its wide cone of shade, the sailors noticed the biggest concentration of fishes they had ever seen in this kind of fishing. They were especially small tunas which quietly swam together with a substantial number of multicoloured fishes.

The fishermen looked at each other, someone murmured: ‹‹Let’s go away››, another one cursed spitting. Gaetano did not speak, the experience had taught him that we have to try before giving up, he seemed to listen his father’s words: ‹‹ Nobody will give us something, we have to fight to live, be careful but also be courageous, do not forget that it depends on you ››. He saw the eyes of his parents reflected in the black abyss of the eyes and he said without hesitation: ‹‹ Let  the nets down!››

The small buoy indicating the beginning of the net was launched in the water, so the ship started describing a big circle in order to tighten the fishes into a mortal embrace. The floating object is usually put at the centre of the net, so to allow the capture of a great quantity of preys. But this time, as the mine would have exploded if it had been touched, they had to lower the nets the nearest possible to the device so not to loose the cone of shade with its ignorant guests, and also trying to keep it out the circumference circled by the cork small pieces of the net. The tension was palpable, oppressive, a difficult breathing, the muscles were contracted to the pang, tiny beads of sweat dropped mixing together on the sun-tanned face. An unreal silence shrouded the scene, even their hearts beat slower, so not to make noise.Gaetano looked serene, only the wrinkles seemed more marked; he guided his companions with brief movements of the hands and of the head, widening or half-closing his eyes, indicating the time and giving them support.

Abaft, the two more expert let down the net which dragged down by the leads, it placed itself into the water with a light movement, almost a lovely dance of jellyfish, charming but inexorable.

The trickiest moment was when they passed at less than a metre from the mine, a rebellious wave or a wrong movement would have been enough to blow up. The metal ball watched them with stupid malice, like a wild beast which lies in wait, the fuses similar to claws ready to tear the one who had dared to disturb its rest.

The operation was completed at last and they began to pull up the net quickly, two at the bow, three abaft. A fisherman stayed at the oars to hold the boat steady, while Gaetano supervised everything mumbling few words and helping now one now the other companion, without however loosing sight of that strange thing which he was destined to meet in that warm autumnal day.

As soon as the space where first they reigned free decreased, the prisoners, foreseeing  the end, tried to escape in a wild way with darts of panic, entangling themselves in a large quantity of foam.

The fishing was extraordinary, they captured over two quintals of them. Pulled up from the boiling fund of the net, the victims struggled on the boat with dull steel reflections.

Mr. Gaetano looked at that eyes of glass and remembering the old dismay in seeing them gasping, the shade of a smile quickly crossed his face of stone.

The excitement of the crew was so great, finally, after long days of wait, an abundant fishing. While they were arranging with care in the wood boxes the result of their efforts,  the youngest planned moments of joy, instead the others already thought of the amount they would have earned.

The nervousness that first held them in a vice-like grip of anguish, was replaced by an uncontrollable happiness.

They ate a frugal meal, seasoned with smiles and witty remarks. They also consumed some red wine coming from the hills of Furnari which they directly drank from the bottle, passing it from one to another.

It was late afternoon when they made their way home.They had some reference points on the coast in order to remember where the mine was situated, the current was slow and therefore it would have moved of little. The youngest of the group hazarded:‹‹

Many of them have still remained under there, we don’t tell anybody, tomorrow we return back to pick them up ››.

Someone thought it was a brilliant idea, the others gave an interrogative look to their “head”, who was now at the helm. The elderly fisherman thought only that it was late and the night would have hidden everything with its mantle of mystery, any boat could have hit the mine and so some brothers would be dead, because we are all brothers on the sea.

Keeping on following the course, he simply answered: ‹‹ No! ››

Nobody spoke anymore up to the arrival on earth.

The coastguard of Milazzo, informed by telegraph, reached the place almost to the twilight and she set the mine off. On the beach, the fishermen and so many curious persons, observed the explosion which bloomed in the sea like a flower of light, while a deep noise like a distant thunder, crossed the air in a long shiver with cold.

A woman in mourning made the sign of the cross.

Gaetano, leaned against his boat, looked for the last time at that death tool which had brought life to his people, and he understood that the war was ended indeed.

And all this seemed to him a blessing in disguise.