The boy looked down over the splintered deck where his toes dangled and drew a deep breath. The long waves, in one slow-motion salute, lapped and clapped on the side of the boat and the boy suddenly felt very small. He braced his shoulders and looked south. All he had to do was jump.
He felt a fresh gust of energy, strange for this late in the day, after a whole week’s work in the elements, with only a thin and worn hammock for rest.
He felt his knees bend, his feet leave the ground and head-first he met the water.
When an animal is faced with imminent death, it generally either fights or flees. Glowing from adrenalin, raw and pumped, the crab did what many animals and many humans do too. From downright fright, it froze.
In the space of a single heartbeat, an animal with four limbs, stretched out before and behind its colossal torso, skimmed past. It had no gills, nor fins, and the crab watched the figure spray bubbles as it cut through the surface and plunged towards the seabed. The beast’s hair spiralled, a mass of sprawling tentacles. It speared downwards, like a pernicious harpoon, feet pointed.
And the crab followed fast on its tail.
Even back when Amphitrite was goddess of the sea and emperors and pharaohs ruled the new cities on land, people loved beautiful things.
They would adorn themselves with jewels, stones and precious metals. The rarer the better.
Shells too were a luxury.
Tiny mother-of pearls would lace a head-dress or bodice or a long flowing gown and would be the envy of all.
But someone had to find them.
Someone had to seek out these treasures, with their bare hands and bring them back, where they became prized and priceless.
That someone, today, had been sent to the bottom of the ocean to make himself a living and others, rich men.
The boy’s eyes quickly surveyed the sand and he grimaced, his mouth tightly shut and his lungs quivering. Not wasting any time, the boy’s fingers scrimmaged in the sand and began filling the small drawstring bag attached to his wrist. He never stopped to look at the tiny homes he pocketed. Simply grabbed and shoved, sand and all and moved on with a powerful stroke of his arms. He flicked his feet quickly downwards, followed his gaze in the shadow of the boat when something caught his eye. In front of him stood a large crab, a sponge-crab he guessed by its size, although in the place of a sponge lay the exo-skeleton of a lobster. But it wasn’t the clever decomposing disguise that surprised the boy most. In its battered pincers, it held a large, round operculum and it shone.
A gush of something rose up within the crab, mingling the senses and triggering colours rather than meanings. When it felt the familiar surge of water against its shell, a flood of pink light raced through its crust and filled every fibre with liquid joy in a rush of bubbles. Rather than see the surge of water, the crab felt it as the boy reached upwards, began kicking hard and swam swiftly towards the surface and was gone. The diver had caused a virtual sandstorm on the seabed and the crab scrambled through the cloudy water, across the wide sand bank to where a large rock offered many crevices, where it could hide better.
The crab sensed what it had experienced wasn’t the usual sea creature as it purveyed his dark surroundings. It looked at the little orange and spiralling shell door it held in its pincers and dropped it onto a pile next to the wall of the cave. Now the crab could rest a little.
When the boy resurfaced and saw the last pink remnants of the sun that stained the sky, he knew this had been his last dive of the day and now they must head back to land.
He looked up from the inky waves and saw the sky split in two. Large folds of grey velvet cloud draped themselves over the purple glow of the old day and in the distance, snaps of silver thread like haphazard embroidery lit up the sky over the port.
The boy sprang his weary legs up high where his foot caught the last rung of the ladder.
“Here!” he called to the boat’s captain, who was sitting and smoking with his feet up over the side.
“Take the sack!” Antonio, (this was the boy’s name), saw only the feet, all cracked skin and filth. With a groan, he threw the hessian sack over the side of the boat, hoping he had aimed right.
“Ai-o!” yelled the man.
Yes, he had aimed perfectly! He felt lighter as he wrenched himself up the ladder and clung on to the splintered wood.
“About time!” croaked the captain, a squat little man with a mouth void of teeth, and skin, wrinkled and tough like the soles of leather boots. “You’re lucky I didn’t leave you down there! Can’t you see there’s a storm on its way?”
Antonio swung his legs over the wind-battered wood of the boat and landed with a half-smile. “Better get moving then!” he answered and reached for a cloth to dry himself.
The boy’s boss shook the bag with one hand while the other struck an accusing and dubious shrug. “Is this it?” he scowled, and one crooked tooth stuck out through his crotchety lips.
“You sure you haven’t got any more hidden in your breeches?”
Antonio was dripping, exhausted and really, this was the last thing he wanted to hear coming from the mean little man’s mouth.
He flinched. He was no thief.
“It was hard work today. I thought there would be more, and at times there were many. But it was like...every time I went back down, they’d gone.” He rubbed his dripping hair with the rough cloth and signalled with his head to the sack. “But at least look. I’m pretty sure I got some sea-sponges.”
As he began to pull on a pair of old trousers, his mind’s eye dived back to the sponge crab without a sponge he had seen watching him, the animal itself clinging to one of their most prized catches. It made him laugh to think they had competition down there. Animals holding onto their kingdom, literally. And his boss, totally oblivious. He tied the drawstring and turned over the waistband to keep up his pants. A week away at sea and he could see his ribs. He couldn’t afford to buy a new pair. These would have to do. They were once a colour of some kind but were now so washed-out and streaked with tidemarks of dried salt, they looked like they could stand up on their own and walk away.
“I need a day off.”
The older man sniggered and shuffled to the cabin where he emptied the sack into a wooden crate. He closed it and sat on top.
“You’ll be lucky,” the man rasped, his red, watery eyes dead of life and strangers to laughter. He threw the emptied sack at Antonio’s head and not bothering to see where it landed, snapped, “Now get the anchor up and stop complaining!”
Antonio shook his head and pulled on his tunic top. The wind bristled in short gusts but for summer, they were chilling. He laughed again as he stuffed his old pigskin sandals into his bag.
Sometimes that’s all you can do.
At the stern, Antonio pulled on the anchor line and felt a heavy tug of stubborn rock.
But he was sure the anchor had been wedged in sand!
He gave another tug.
Nothing. Just a dead weight and a strained muscle. Antonio glanced back over his shoulder to where the boat driver was slouched over the crate, ripping opercula from the turbos with a knife and counting how much he would earn from Antonio’s hard work.
The boy had to decide.
Cut the thick rope, abandoning the anchor to sea, but save both their skins by escaping the storm?
Or dive back down into the water to free the anchor and risk being marooned at sea by his cruel overseer?
Antonio couldn’t trust this man with his life, however much he needed this job.
He pulled out his knife and began sawing at the rope.
“What are you doing back there?” hollered the cantankerous tyrant, his mouth half-stuffed with stale tobacco. “Get a move on, will you!” It wasn’t a question.
“It’s coming!” Antonio bawled back, hacking as hurriedly as he could at the strong twisted fibres that scratched deep into his tired hands.
The man lost whatever patience he never had.
“What the hell?” he gripped at the anchor line and yanked upwards. He swung round just in time to see Antonio whip his hands behind his back to stash the knife in his trousers. The boy froze.
“What’s this? You cut the anchor line? Are you out of your mind?” The frayed end of the broken rope hung limp like a failed noose. The man’s red eyes spat sparks of fire as he looked overboard to where his precious anchor sat on the seabed and slobbered, “You owe me a new anchor!”
Antonio felt his skin jolt as a flash of being left at sea forever reverberated in his head. He leapt out of the path of the boss’s spittle and lunged for the rope on the mast to lift the sail, but the older man got there first.
“Leave it!” he fumed, “I’ll do it myself!” he jerked the rope hard, and the canvas sail unfolded and lifted half-mast where it flapped violently in the growing gale. “You’ll dive for free until you’ve paid for a new one!”
“But it was the only thing to do!” Antonio shouted back. He had to shout, the wind whistled its worst threats, and the noise was building.
“I’ll give you the only thing to do!” seethed the man, and in a whiplash of wind he reached for Antonio’s neck. “Steal this one too, eh?” he bawled in the boy’s face, hot, acrid breath. He tugged so hard at the leather cord round the boy’s neck they both swung left-ways, crashing hard into the star-board side of the boat and the man dropped to the deck in a pile. Humiliated and ready to erupt, he grabbed the sack lying by the boy’s feet and threw it high into the air towards the stern and overboard, where the anchor had disappeared.
Antonio pulled himself up, clinging to the side of the boat and watched as the hessian sack for a moment floated, but then, with the weight of the sandals dragging it down, vanished in the pounding waves.
His stomach wrestled and his teeth bit hard. His instinct was to dive in after it and bring it back. But the boat was already on its path back to port, however precariously, and from the way his boss was still muttering under his breath in the cabin he knew he would never wait for him.
Antonio slumped on the stern. Sour images swilled in his belly.
What was worse? Losing his bag and his shoes or losing his life?
So now he would have to save his earnings for a new pair, and he would have to make himself a new sack. It would take him weeks to pay for an anchor, maybe more, but there was no doubt. He couldn’t save for a new life.
The black waves behind the boat gashed at the wood. Their savageness screamed at him. The sky grumbled, and bitter blades of rain slashed his face and soused his tired body. In a few seconds, he was submerged on the deck. He felt his neck.
It was still there.
An enemy might rip his lucky pendant from him, but no man could break into his soul. Nobody could ever take that away.
He gripped the operculum and breathed hard.
What was the story his mother always told him?
Of Santa Lucia?
It was a popular tale in these parts and many people prayed to the beloved saint during hard times.
A tale of a girl, devoted to Christ, who gives up wealth, time, and the love of a man to help the poor. Different versions tell of her punishment for her faith; her throat slit, her eyes plucked out by her accusers, even by her own hand. A precious guide today for the blind and a symbol of light and warmth in the long, cold days of winter.
Now he shivered.
And the boat wallowed in the angry waves.
Antonio turned to face the bow and saw in the distance an ember of light.
Tomorrow he would go to the beach, earlier than anybody, and he would find all the opercula washed up on the shore and he would polish them and take them to market and find a good price. He would pay the mean boat driver. He would buy two anchors if he had to! And he would walk barefoot on the sand and in the street! Who wanted a pair of rotting pigskins on their feet anyway?
He wrapped one arm closer around him, clutched the talisman at his neck and willed himself to remember warmer times.
He recalled the many hours he had spent with his mother on the beach near their home. He saw her running in the shallow water and he felt that scintillating first splash of cool water on sunburnt skin and he heard his squeals. He lived again the long hours spent searching for perfect miniscule versions of shells and for the rare opercula. The endless evenings in scratchy candlelight, while she worked, and he helped, as only a small boy can, she would tell him stories, of the sea, of Santa Lucia and of the seasnails in the rough turbo shells with the secret doors. Tucked in the warm embrace of the fire, while his mother threaded shells and retold legends, he had dreamt.
Small, insignificant moments in the life of a poor household were buried safely, deep in his heart. Often hungry, sometimes thirsty, but never starved of truth, his mother had taught him the meaning of love.
Antonio watched the waves erupt and felt the aftershock as the boat smashed down into the angry brew. Thrown like a rag doll towards the cabin, he looked at the man at the helm and shuddered. Though at the man’s mercy, with his life dangling at the end of a flimsy hook, Antonio felt etched in his veins that nothing could beat him, not even a storm. He had himself, the strength in his arms and legs and he had his courage.
He trusted himself. What else did he need?
He was missing nothing.
Antonio studied the older man hunched, nursing his bruises and he cringed. The man swigged from a bottle, and it wasn’t the first of the day. Can he even swim? He wondered to himself, all that tripe and lazy lard?
Antonio didn’t care.
He knew the secret word.
Only a few washed up onto the shore, true, but you had to know where to look. You had to know how to swim and dive and you had to know what to call.
How many people could say they knew all that?
It still made him smile, after all these years.
Everybody believed the opercula were rare, but Antonio knew differently.
As a boy his mother had protected him.
Now as a man, he would protect himself.
And the operculum would help.
He repeated it, just under his breath.
Just one word.
One secret, spellbound word.
For a moment a silence severed the fury of nature.
Maestra Lucia closes the book and looks up at her class.
“Well, that’s the end of that story. What do you think?”
She notices one boy looks like he’s just woken up from a long sleep.
“Tonio! Did you even hear any of that?”
She sighs inside.
“Does anybody want to say anything about it? Did you like it?”
There is some murmuring, some vacant stares and a general rustling of books and bags. It is last thing on a Friday afternoon.
“Well, have a think over the weekend and write me a short paragraph for Monday morning.”
She doesn’t expect much reply. The bell has rung, and half the class is already out of the door.
She’s weary, but she hopes something has rubbed off on them. Maybe in time. Personally, she loves the character of the sponge crab without a sponge, who never gives up his search and the beautiful, protective opercula. The idea of sharing for mutual benefit.
She pats her purse. Inside a secret compartment she keeps one herself, not wanting to hang it round her neck. Sometimes she even recounts her own version of a prayer to the little lucky charm of the legendary saint. Her namesake.
“Have a good weekend!” she adds for the stragglers. She’s so looking forward to the long summer holidays and next year, her last ‘cycle’. How many times has she been round the school? How many classes, five-year cycles, has she seen and attempted to impart some curiosity in?
She leaves the room, closes the door and on her way down the school steps she smiles at the glistening blue Adriatic beyond, what she can see of it between the blocks of flats, terraces and garages. She knows it’s there, as it always has been, and always will be. And that’s enough. No doubt some boats dot the horizon, ending or beginning their journeys, perhaps both.
May they travel far, she thinks.
Tonio looks down over the splintered deck where his toes dangle and draws a deep breath. He braces his shoulders and looks south. All he has to do is jump.