The Burden of Grace
By Vasilis Afxentiou
Alicia Novapovic, neophyte stuffer of fish, one-time assistant to her marine-taxidermist father in a coastal city of Yugoslavia that in better days enjoyed a booming trade with the entire globe, lowered her thoroughly blue eyes and tossed her worldly possessions onboard the skiff. When Alexi Novapovic was killed--a stray bullet tinkling through the iced window pane one flurrying March morning--and left her with nothing more than the proprietorship of a well-kept shop that was doing no business at all in that war-ravaged country, Alicia was forced to take her courage into her own thirteen-year-old hands and forge it into her destiny.
A zephyr tousled her solemn young thoughts and tufted straw hair as she lifted the oars into their tholes.
Swallows once flew here instead of incendiary shells. Back then her father and she turned dead, empty-eyed fish into handsome, lifelike trophies for customers to hang on their walls for friends to admire, and eventually ignore. She had mulled over the many other things grown-ups neglected, failed to learn from the dull stares of their angled prizes, and refused to entrust her young life into their wardship.
She gave a hefty shove to the deserted wooden quay and rowed till she was well offshore. Then she turned and looked back, savouring the crisp outstretched splendour surrounding her aunt's slumped and patched red roof. She would never see that house again--just like the mother who vanished one day on her way to her teaching job at the municipal orphans' school. The pristine break of day was balmy and bright and promised a good voyage, so she put everything else behind her. She undid the gaskets and unfurled the mainsail, drew it up the wooden mast, pulled the halyard taut and lashed it to a cleat.
"Now, the proof of the pudding," she said. She took a hefty whiff of iodine, her boyish bust bulging.
The canvas fluttered a bit and she pushed the tiller out to trim it. The bag swelled in the salty breeze. The skiff leaped forward, hissing as it skimmed the gentle brew like a gull's wing through the air. She secured the tiller, walked the starboard side to the foredeck and rigged the jib. The boat cleaved the sleek bay in two, tacking into the draft. Bit by bit the cove receded and melded into the checkerboard of golden-brown fields in the distance. The prospect ahead spanned forty kilometers of sparkling Adriatic, its conclusion lapping the sandy shores of northern Greece.
The small boat pranced onward, banging on the ripening crests, lifting the coruscating spray into dozens of little morning rainbows.
But Alicia's lack of maritime seasoning soon began to tell. One minute she was lowering the sail--the next beating the waves.
She craned her neck and blinked the streamers off her eyes, only to catch glimpses of her boat floating away, one sail ballooned out with the force of the gale behind it. She drew her lanky legs in, hoping to escape a subterfuge of currents below. She pivoted to face north, away from the lash of the wind. Before her churned sky and sea, fusing into a cobalt unity. "What happened to--?"
Then the world flashed and crackled just a few meters away.
In due time she understood that she was underwater, tumbling, her mouth full of brine, unable to tell which way was up. She flayed, semaphoring haphazardly. Squeeze your nose, Alicia, and blow... Her father had been so vexed with himself that day for not having told her sooner.
Ears popped and orientation returned. The depths receded and a turbulent, platinum twilight took their place. Surfacing, she retched and drew in oxygen through clenched, smarting jaws. She wanted to cry, but the tall battering waves would not allow her the luxury. She needed her father to counsel her, her mother to impart her woman's strength...and her life to live, seize it and shake it and tap it dry.
Raindrops fell. Just a few fat ripe ones at first. Then torrents. She lapped the rain from her lips and nose, slurping it down.
Around her fish, countless, surfaced to drink from the shower, brushing and tickling the soles of her feet.
I must get away, she thought as something like a giant cake of soap bumped against her. Behind her, splattering fins moiled and lathered the waters. "It takes several minutes to die, and it is a lingering death," her father once told her. "A manifold of deaths, being eaten alive." Better a quick bullet, amply more merciful.
She released the air from her lungs and allowed herself to sink. God, please, the next breath...let it be the last.
But then her understudy broke the surface with her and began to mimic her silly paddling. Two jasper eyes studied her own as she scanned the sea around her.
"No sharks!" Not with him--her--around. For the mammary glands quavered in full bloom.
"Yes, I love you too."
It sniffed and nibbled her, fascinated by the soaked strands of her hair.
"Lost my permanent."
She timidly scratched the velvety epidermis behind its nape around the breathing orifice. Her companion cuddled closer.
"Just like Alicia, the back always itches."
It watched her, intently listening to the sounds she made. But only mournful calls emerged when it tried to imitate her. She laid her lightning-singed cheek against its smooth flank and listened to its heartbeat. But when she dipped her head into the cool water, it raised a blustery protest.
"Aren't we the den mother! Do you know that you're a cetacean?" She needed to talk, and the dolphin was keen on listening. "You are intelligent and kind..."
As she prattled she drew her hand over the powerful back and grasped the dorsal fin. "When you were born all the adults helped to lift you upward to the surface to whiff your first scent of life. It was gracious of you to do the same for me. Thank you...Grace."
She was grateful for the day's end. The sun's glare and the hours of being dragged through the sea were killing. Her parched throat was almost closed. And water was everywhere.
She dipped her tongue into the stream and swallowed. Then she managed to pull herself to a half-prone straddle of the mammal. To her wonderment, the dolphin shimmied and flexed its muscles to distribute the weight evenly. Alicia nestled closer to its warm body, her exposed backside still taking the brunt of the frosty waves.
Hours passed like winters. Grace jolted her to wakefulness several times to keep her from sliding off. The stars were all out now, the North Star flickering high ahead. Alicia blinked back at it, fighting drowsiness.
"You're travelling into the current, heading for--"
She swallowed with difficulty.
"Why aren't you minding your young ones?" she tried to say, but it came out like a neigh. "You left them behind, chased away those sharks, to save--who? A runaway."
She felt a great bitterness but also a greater love than her years should have allowed.
"Why, Sea Mother, why?"
Then something familiar came suddenly back to her.
"Mother's not running away! She's hiding the orphans, and no one must know. To protect them from the land sharks." Her light-headedness bubbled up into a croaking titter. "And fish now will feast themselves on Alicia?"
"Dear heart, I can't make it. Too weak...dehydrated. I'm dead weight, Grace. I can't see for thirst, I can't hold on without--"
She let go her grip. As she slipped off, the dolphin came to a dead stop. This time it did not protest but remained solemnly still.
And drank. Sank and drank. The dolphin rolled over. they broke the surface together, and now Alicia could drink and breathe as well and even make out a spray of twinkling lights, and bobbing close by the half-draped skiff she thought she'd never see again. Her nose and eyes ran together, but the dolphin remained serenely supine as she hauled her charge hungrily to the other tit.
Alicia suckled, sobbed, suckled and cried some more. And to her amazement, the sounds she made sounded exactly like the dolphin's own.
(Vasilis Afxentiou has worked as an engineer, technical specifications writer and, for the past fourteen years, English as a Second Language teacher. His writing has appeared in Greek Accent, National Herald (Proini), CrossCurrents, 30-Days, Key Travel News, Greece's Weekly, Athena Magazine, and online in The Domain, Ibn Quirtaiba, Cosmic Visions, Aphelion, Dark Planet, Basket Case BORNmagazine, Aspiring Writer, ThinkB, Appalachians, Newwords, and Zine in Time. He has also written a weekend travel column for The Athens Star.)