I sit on the dock until I start shivering with cold. First it is kind of pleasant. I have no wish to come back, especially not to dinner… but I have to, or they won’t be able to start.
They’d sit, rigid, trying to keep nervousness under control: the impulse of doing something tensing their muscles. The soup cooling in the bowls, jelling up, becoming slimier. Then Father, of course, would burst, crying something like: “Where the hell is he? I’ll kill him as soon as I see him.” The idea makes me laugh. I mean, smile. Am I cruel? I don’t think so.
And, in fact, I’m gathering my backpack. I’ll be just a bit late. I will make it, perhaps, before father screams. I will just have caused an ache, a few stomach spasms. Nothing grave: the soup will be gulped more rapidly, to appease the cramps. Then we’ll leave the table and vanish: some outside, mom at the sink, moaning. Dad, of course, at the bar. I might return to the docks, although the dampness, at night, is kind of thick.
I am too thin – my bones sticking out – and it worries me: I don’t want to look frail. I cover with long pants and long sleeves. I also cover because of the cold that, of course, reaches inside my chest. The wind blows all the time, here: sometimes from the sea, sometimes from the mountains. All the time, and I like the wind.
Grandpa has left for the island on the ferryboat. He will not come back till next winter, if he does – for though he’s fit like an oak tree, he is old. I’ve watched the boat sliding farther. I wanted to see it disappear, but I’d be late for dinner. As I said, I don’t care, but watching the boat wasn’t vital. In fact, it irritated me. Sort of sentimental, was it? That I am not and don’t want to be. It would be as inconvenient as being thin. I’m not looking forward to thin, emaciated, sentimental. Well, the opposite.
I am looking forward to going with Grandfather – to the island, on the boat, with the fishing crew. Make money. Even better, join the Navy as he did when he was young. Possibly don’t come back.
The sea has the dark thickness of petroleum, and its color: a greenish black, almost vicious. Water in the harbor is scary: a glue that gets hold of you, swallows you, makes you disappear. Stinky and soiled – still kind of pure, if that makes sense... Pure, no matter what you toss inside, be it all garbage of the world. Water eats it, devours it, and remains pure: don’t ask me how. The ocean is like god, see what I’m saying? I mean, like a confessional… you throw evil in it, and it gulps it, and it returns it clean.
Where the boat cuts, the waves change of color. In the ship’s trail there’s a turquoise wound: bleeding blue instead of red… a scatter of gems, with frayed, foamy edges. Seagulls peck, as if it was whipped cream. Where does the turquoise come from? Where did it hide? How does it squirt out of the petroleum mass? It’s a mystery, of course. The sea has many.
I stare at the scar of bright, stretching towards the horizon. As it lengthens, it self-erases. I mean, the surface gradually seals itself. The waves sew it in a rush, then they feign indifference… Loss of memory, oblivion. It’s magic, again, how all get smoothed as if nothing happened.
There is much to learn, here, though I couldn’t say what. I watch the wound open, stretch forwards, then patch itself. Seagulls (crazed and drunk) peck at the pluming edges – paparazzi running after royalty. They are nobody, those birds: just crowd. In a bit, the dolphins will join them. I like them better… though they fit into the same category: loud, inanely jocular. Dolphins are good for nothing, but to tear nets apart, ruin the fishing.
I remember the fan falling on the pavement. I heard the sound: it was embarrassing. How it resonated, how it echoed, probably for the silence was thick. Gluey and tightly woven, compressed… because of the incense. Incense tightens your throat, fogs the air, makes the silence so dense it breaks, then, like an explosion.
The fan fell during a moment of stillness, the priest almost transfixed in one of those crucial poses: hands up, calix held high, host on top of it, squeezed between his index and thumb. You see what I’m saying? The priest holding the calix (it looks like a face) – and the host like a halo… a hat…
That could be ridiculous, but isn’t, thanks to the priest’s stillness and to the silence. It is scary, in fact. In that fragile expectancy, in that tremor, I heard the noise. A gunshot: it could have come from one of those tiny pistols ladies carry in their purse. Those abalone toys, carved with cute little flowers as if they were harmonicas, or combs. As if they didn’t carry bullets, small as you like.
The fan fell from a purse, indeed, and the noise echoed through the nave. The girl stood (we all did, it was consecration time) in the last pew of the genteel enclave. I stood in the first row of the non-genteel zone. Too close. The fan slid under the pew, towards me. Not far, those things do not roll: they don't have much of a life.
The fan, so to speak, tried to escape but had nowhere to go. It lay, half hidden, on the pavement. I bent without thinking, picked it up, gave it back to the owner. While I lifted my head, my eyes met with the brocade of the gown she wore… was it silk? It was turquoise, shiny, and it almost blinded me.
I haven’t been in church since when I turned twelve. Only women and children go, plus the rich men. Lower class males with common sense grow out of that stuff. I did. The above is just an old memory. I don’t know why it came back.
Let me tell you, instead, about Grandfather’s birds. He has three of them, on the island. I haven’t seen them for a while... I remember them since when I was a kid – I guess they live old, like people. They looked wrinkled and scrawny as far as memory goes. Still they haven’t died.
Two parrots, quite large: one more than the other, also louder. Well, they are both loud. They scream intermittently. Unpredictably: you never know when. They scream when the whim takes them: not for food, not for any reason. Inspiration comes suddenly and they yell… at the wall, the ceiling, nobody. They yell very convincingly: the same things they’ve learned I’m not sure how. Did Grandfather teach them? The same stupid things: “you rascal,” “you old drunk,” and “the hell with you!”
The huge one - larger and redder – has a thing with hell. Sometimes it goes on forever, as if reciting a rosary bead by bead: “hell, hell, hell, hell, hell, hell…” With a song singing cadence, as if lulling itself to sleep. When it goes on and on, the smaller and greener intervenes, as if it couldn’t help commenting such amazing news. It does sharp coughing sounds, sort of “yes, yes.” Then it reiterates: “yes, yes, yes,” from the very back of the kitchen, where it usually hides, shier than his companion. More modest.
Grandpa lets them loose in the house, all day long, but at night it locks them to their perch. A chain goes from the bar to one of the bird’s feet. They allow themselves to be caught, then shackled, with a little ruffling of wings – only formal. They let themselves fettered, as if putting on their pajamas. I don’t know why Grandpa does it… maybe it is just a ritual, reassuring.
Then Grandpa has a raven: younger and more recently acquired. Huge. It doesn’t talk: it barks like a dog. And, in fact, it lives in a kennel Grandpa built in the backyard. Alone: like a Montecristo, a rebel of sorts. Grandpa feeds it generous chunks of raw beef. That crow eats more meat a day than we do in a week, minced and soaked into Mom’s ineffable soup.
Grandma died long ago. Grandpa lives alone. I mean, with the birds.
Let me tell you about Venice. It is far. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to see it. You have to get on a train. Maybe several trains, I am not sure. Anyway: it is a town by the sea, like this one, with docks and a harbor – though, truly, I have no clue. All I saw is a framed postcard Mother keeps in her bedroom, face down over the closet. Black and white, yet you see stones shining. Buildings pierced like lace, sparkling, foaming.
There’s a square. The buildings, I mean, make a square: full of pigeons. Wouldn't you expect seagulls? They are pigeons – same kind of guys: followers. A sea of pigeons fills the square, punctuating those sheer, lacey palaces. If I close my eyes, I see color... silver, gold and green. Pink, maybe. I don’t know why Mother keeps the card in a frame, why she has it turned down.
Grandpa says he was in Venice. He was everywhere, with the Navy: it is probably true. The ships went throughout the Mediterranean, past Gibraltar, around the tip of Africa. Dock after dock: Marseilles, Barcelona, then Tunisia, then Greece… Grandpa’s memories are vague. He’s fond of details, but they kind of hang lose, in the air.
He insists he has been to Venice more than once. I have asked if it was beautiful. He was hazy... he mentioned islands, a lagoon. Each time I bring up the subject, he tunes into the same song: the lagoon, he says, was spooky… eerie… magic. It was dawn and the island came out of nowhere. The fog was very dangerous. Aren’t those islands creepy? They are. I’ve asked about the square, other things I heard mentioned: bridges, gondolas and carnivals. He repeated his non-sense about dawn, fog, the lagoon, the island.
The deck’s pavement is slimy. Dirty. Foamy. I have cleaned it over and over. I hate this rag and this bucket. I’m on my fours and I don’t like this posture. True: there’s some kind of comfort in looking down, eyes fixed on this little portion of landscape, those boards that – close up – become almost beautiful. Not irrelevant, as they look from high up. I mean: the most you look at something, anything, the most…
I hate this position. I hate losing control of who might loom over me, impending like a bird of prey. On the side, or behind me: I’m aware of the presence, but I’m not allowed to stop and look up. For the fellow is checking on me, of course. On my job – that is cleaning. I don’t like my job.
Mother had that beaten dog look at the sink, after we finished eating. She might have had the same at the stove, in fact, before eating – when she warmed up the soup, and those morsels she tossed in, at the last moment. Only, before eating I didn’t notice – hunger might have excited me, or maybe I was late.
Afterwards, when she washed the bowls and the spoons, I could see the glare of her sadness, like sweat. Can you tell people’s feelings, when they turn the other way? ’Course you can. You can see things from their reverse. I wonder what my back says when I’m folded over, rag in hands, rasping off this filth. I hope nothing. I hope my back stays sealed.
You should keep at the job, Grandpa said; and I will, at least for a season. Although I already feel it has been forever. The posture: kind of wipes time away. Kneel down, bury your face, and you’ll figure: as soon as you start it becomes forever. I swear.
He was right. Grandfather, I mean.
The island loomed out of nowhere. My heart jumped in my chest. We had not seen it… I hadn’t – though I was leaning against the rail, getting washed by the prickly night air. I had lost track of time. Dawn was close, but fog blurs you. It makes you lose touch with the world.
There’s a lot of fog here. You need expertise to dare venturing among these waters. Obviously our captain, here, is a pro. And the crew. I’m the new kid, and I don’t count anyway. I am just cleaning: deck, cabins, and stove. Home, I never cleaned a thing: Mother did. Now I feel I’m becoming her, and I don’t like the feeling. But it’s needed, I think. I’ll keep the job for the moment.
After I cleaned the kitchen – last thing – I didn’t go to my cabin: I came here for a smoke. Nothing, nothing was visible. How can they keep the route in this fog? But the air was cool, rich, invigorating. I let it wash over me. Clean me, for a change. Then tiredness won me. I was so tired, I couldn’t get to my cot. So swamped, I couldn’t move.
Now the island materializes, while the fog shreds away. So flat it seems fake: a cloth laid on top of the waters. A few houses, a church in the middle, a steeple – so high it doesn’t make sense – piercing through the sky like a needle. The bells ring with unbearable fracas. We have docked in what must be the harbor, I guess.
We will stay a few hours… what for I don’t know, but we are allowed on land. There’s a bar, where most head for beer. Someone has already come out: no beer and no wine, they say. Only a clear alcohol, brewed here, on close islands. Strong as mighty hell.
I will pass, thank you. I haven’t slept and I’m already light headed. I need to take a walk.
My feet bring me to the only target in view. There are steps to the church entrance, and the door is open. The bells call for an early mass. I get in: it is cool and dark.
A small person in black – a woman – lights candles. I like watching the flames. A rosary will be said before mass: it’s the usual routine. Only, who will attend? How many souls are around, besides us, the bartender, this old gal, the priest?
I was fooled. A hamlet hides behind the church. The island might be larger than it seemed on arrival. What do they live off of? Fishing, probably. We are delivering stuff to these folks: that’s why we have stopped here.
A few women file in: clad in black and non-descript, like the candle lighter. Then two taller figures, erect, richly dressed. They wear boots and are veiled (they all are, of course, but these have their faces screened… dark tulle, sheer enough for a stolen glance; I see eyes, shiny and furtive).
Some rich people live on the island, and need praying. Something might have gone wrong: an illness? Did someone die? Rosaries are often said for the dead. Did someone die? When?
Get out of this church: it’s the wrong place. I will head to the bar and taste their aquavit. It will do me good.
I hear we won’t stop in Venice. There won’t be time for a visit. I will fake it. I’ll say I have seen it, when I’ll return home.
Grandpa has passed away. Father told me as soon as I landed my bags on the kitchen table, empty and relatively clean. It was mid-afternoon: we had arrived in the morning, but I had lingered, for a bit. Not eager to make it home – not for lunch. I had money enough to buy food and drink at a bar.
Father said Grandpa passed while I was away. Fuck, then. I don’t feel sadness, right now, but a burning disappointment. I’ve been out at sea, doing the freaking job, for he told me so. I came back – I feel – to report about it. About Venice, though I haven’t seen it. The lagoon, how weird it felt, and that creepy island with the church.
Of course it doesn’t matter. It isn’t the point. Grandpa’s passed, father said, and as he said it he looked older, wasting under my eyes. “And the birds?” I almost yelled. He didn’t know and didn’t care. I will go to the island. I’ll look for those birds. “What about Grandpa’s house?” Dad didn’t know and didn’t care. He is just a drunk. I don’t know how Mother bears it.
On the ferry I was on deck all the time, pressed against the rail, distracted by the silly rumpus of seagulls and dolphins (they were following me, fins bouncing, bodies submerged, silent and secretive like widows).
Grandpa’s door is closed, but unlocked. The house is next to the beach, where his boat should be, but I see none. Maybe he sold it before he fell sick. The house consists of a kitchen, a bedroom, an outhouse, and the kennel Grandpa built for the raven. All is empty and all smells old, funny, slimy.
There’s no bird, but two perches crammed against the wall, plus a spread of seeds I am tramping. Mostly sunflower seeds, nibbled, broken, sad, dusty. I am tempted to grab a broom, but I don’t. From the perches, two long chains are dangling.
I get into the minuscule bedroom that, of course, he shared with Grandmother when she was alive. I have seen her, but memory is blurred: another bag of dark clothes, turned towards the sink.
Here’s the bed, surprisingly in order. Where did Grandpa die? On the bed stand there’s an empty glass. A bulb hangs from the ceiling. Here’s the narrow closet. With a rush of incongruous rage – what am I mad at? – I slam it open. Inside, a single jacket – dark grey, kind of disintegrating. I frantically search the pockets. What for? There’s a rosary, black, and a piece of paper, with unreadable traces of ink. For no reason, I reach over the closet: my hand meets a frame. Overturned. That makes me laugh; I mean, smile. It’s a postcard of Venice, quite similar to the one Mother has. The same one? It isn’t. But there’s a lacey palace, and pigeons. An obsession.
Last night, I dreamed. I was back home, though not for long. Back in my small bed, pushed against the wall, where pious images are pinned for decoration. My bed is even smaller, I notice, than the cabin’s cot on the ship. I can’t wait to board again. Do the cleaning, little as I like it, and get paid.
The point is, I’ve grown muscles. I’m not that thin anymore, and my bed feels narrower. Anyway I’ve dreamed, and in color. Gold, silver, pink, orange, and turquoise. I dreamed, and it was glamorous. I can’t pinpoint what… feathers, probably. A huge flight of feathers. Were they clouds? Something light, immaterial. Bells were sounding: brash, clattering – they woke me up.
On my way out, I saw Mother at the stove. I almost startled her, kissing her close to the shoulder, from behind. I don’t recall ever doing it. I don’t know why, today... She dropped the wooden spoon, rubbed her palms over her apron, as if about to do something. Hug me? Hold my head, my face? Caress me?
I looked at her hands. At her apron – stained, unclean. She hesitated, doing nothing, saying nothing. I kissed her again, on her forehead: where her hair begins, showing for an inch or so under the kerchief. She kept her gaze down. I heard her breathe. Her breath was like a wave, dense and oily.
How small she did look. Did she become so?
I have grown so much taller.
Toti O’Brien’s work has appeared in The Fem, Conclave, Icarus Down and Intrinsick, among other journals and anthologies.