Fiction

A boat called Brotherly Love

ON THE DAY they launched Brotherly Love, the whole village accom­panied them on the long descent to the bay. At the head of the procession, a step ahead of his two sons, walked Andonis. Behind them swayed Brotherly Love, balanced on a horse drawn cart. Roosters crowed, donkeys bleated, goats watched from the mountain sides, a band of children tagged along, and villagers waved from the balconies of homes that lined the way.

The brothers had built the boat in the katoi, the cellar beneath the patriar­chal house. Manoli was 17 years old, Andreas 15. They cut the cypress on full-moon nights, for this, according to their mentors, was when the sap was most alive. They watched the boat builders of Vathy and Lefkada, and returned to the katoi to emulate what they had seen.

They sawed and planed the logs into submission, and laid the keel, six metres in length, for they harboured visions of freighting cargo to distant ports. They carved the ribs and beams with tools that had been used by generations past. They crafted the masts from cypress beams and cut the sails from hand­woven cloth. They clad the hull and deck with planks of pine and caulked the gaps between them. And when the work was done, as if awakening from a dream, they saw that the boat was wider than the entrance to the katoi.

The men of the village laughed at their folly. The boys gritted their teeth and cut the entrance until it was wide enough to release their prize. So it was a caesarean birth that enabled the boat to emerge into the light of day; and it was the priest who christened it Brotherly Love, for he had observed the close bond between the two boys and the ease with which they worked together.

The brothers were inseparable. While the villagers tended their vines and olive groves and went about their daily work, the two boys hovered on the periphery, among the cypresses or on the rock-strewn heights, locked in con­versation.

"What are they talking about?" the villagers asked.

"What schemes are they hatching?"

"How can two boys have so much to say to each other?"

"How can brothers remain so close?"

 

THE YEAR WAS 1930. The men of the island were disappearing, lured by tales of riches in distant lands. They dreamt of returning to their impoverished villages, their trunks laden with spoils. As it turned out, many did not return and many disappeared without trace.

But Andonis had returned, at long last, from the great Southern Land. He reappeared suddenly, six months earlier, as if cast back onto dry land by the same sea that had claimed him one long decade before. He unloaded trunks crowded with books: encyclopedias of animal husbandry, dictionaries of medicine, illustrated discourses on the maritime arts, a seven-year collection of National Geographic, navigators' manuals charting the currents of the seven oceans and the memoirs of mariners recounting epic journeys long past.

"These volumes are worth more than gold," he declared, as he ran his fingers lovingly over the pages. "Just to smell them is an education." He studied them late at night at the living-room table under the light of oil-fuelled wicks, while his boys lay asleep in the next room, content, at long last, now that their patera had finally returned.

But he had grown remote. His hair was a thinning white. His ample moustache bristled with age and his eyebrows had knitted into the perma­nent frown of a preoccupied man. He walked the village paths with an abstract air. There were secrets he withheld, so it seemed; and knowledge that had been gained at the expense of lonely nights in bare-boned rooms in the boarding houses of far-flung lands.

Within months of his return he became the most sought-after man in the village. Whenever a problem arose, medical, domestic or maritime, it was Andonis who was consulted. He, in turn, would consult his precious books, and from them he drew remedies for common ailments, plans for more effec­tive cisterns, designs for better goat houses and diagrams pinpointing the location of ancient dwellings buried deep in the earth. He became part physi­cian, part counsellor, part master mariner and world-weary sage.

Or was he merely a dilettante? This is what plagued him. This is why a frown remained permanently creased upon his brow. He saw himself as a fraud. He lay awake for hours, tormented by the thought that he had, after all, wasted his life. He had never fully applied himself; he had abandoned too many ventures on the verge of success. He had become a shadow of his youth­ful self, and his sons had been raised in his absence. And this pained him. He saw how free-spirited they had grown, except when they were in his presence. He saw that instead of love, he seemed to inspire in them a wariness. They kept their distance. Or regarded him, at best, with grudging respect.

Nevertheless, he walked proudly at the head of the procession that autumn morning. The path curved beneath the Marmakas range. Or, it seemed, the ranges curved above the path, so that at one point they rose behind them, and at another, reappeared in front. This is how it is on the island. Mountain, valley and sea stand in close proximity, so that by the time the procession unwound itself on the cusp of the bay, the hills were behind them and all that could be seen was the waterfront and the caiques that lined the quay.

The crowd toasted the fledgling seamen, the priest raised his arms in blessing and Brotherly Love was away, accompanied by a fleet of caiques. Andonis watched until the boat was out of sight; and at that moment he knew that his sons would forsake him, as he had forsaken them. The sea coursed through their veins. Thalassa. Thalassa, it whispered. This was their ancestral calling. Thalassa. Thalassa, it hummed. This was their siren's song. Thalassa. Thalassa, it demanded, for this was their reality, and their living myth, inscribed in the verses of blind Homer and embedded in the tales of seamen long past. This was, after all, Ithaca, the island of seamen and absences, home to wayfarers and abandoned wives.

Andonis was an Ithacan, skilled in the arts of the sea, a stoic, able to ride out any storm. And able now to conceal his feelings as he turned, proud in bearing in his wide-lapelled jacket and matching trousers, and trudged back to the white stone house in the Village of the Forty Saints.

As for the boys, their journeying had just begun. The boat had been blessed and launched. They had been let loose upon the sea. At that moment, as they moved beyond the causeway, they knew why they had laboured so hard to make the boat. And they knew why they were making the journey, and why it was to be the first of many. It was the moment of both their lib­eration and imprisonment. They were now condemned to live for such moments: of casting off and moving out. They were cursed with a craving for departures and arrivals, for the sight of islands receding, of horizons beck­oning. It was an affliction, a form of madness. Or, as the older brother came to call it in his ageing, an incurable addiction.

 

IT WAS THE night-sea that sealed the brothers' addiction. At night they could sense a solitude that would outlive them. From this solitude there drifted sounds not known by day: the sigh of driftwood, the groan of pres­sured beams, the whispered dialects of lapping waters, the murmur of restrained talk.

The brothers would court this solitude. They would leave the house at night and set out for the bay. They walked the familiar route, beyond the last shadows of the village, past the cottage that housed the olive press, past silent donkeys asleep on their feet and homes that stood like petrified ghosts on the lower slopes.

They knew each cypress on the way. The cypress was a tree of the night, a reflector of the phases of the moon. They knew each occupant of each village home, and envisioned them stirring in their sleep. They approached the outskirts of a hamlet and looked up at the emptied balconies that cast forlorn shadows over their path. The ground resounded with the crunch of their boots. The final windmill, perched on an outcrop of rock, pointed the way, and just beyond it, past one last gauntlet of silent homes, the road petered out at the bay.

The boat awaited them like a faithful mule straining at its ropes. Manoli and Andreas loaded their supplies and readied the nets. They untied the ropes, lifted anchor, cast off and moved out past the breakwater onto the open sea. As soon as the winds allowed it, they cut the engine and hoisted sail. They drifted with the prevailing winds. At the fishing grounds, they dropped anchor and laid the nets. The contours of the island remained within sight. The Marmakas pierced the skies with the black outlines of their serrated peaks.

As the nets settled, Manoli and Andreas lay back, flat on the boards, their heads tilted against their arms, and looked up at a whirling sky. Just the bare planks separated them from the water. Take away those planks and all that remained was sea and sky, and two brothers in between. Here and there they glimpsed the lamps of other caiques bobbing in the darkness. The boats were joined together as if in a circular dance. They drifted towards manhood in silence. To talk now was a desecration, a scar upon the night.

The brothers returned before dawn. They left the nets to dry and set out with their catch on the path back home. As they ascended, the sea ascended with them. They retained its presence in their skin and clothes. The air around them smelt faintly of smoke, the residue of discarded olive branches fired in the heat of day. The mountains remained cast in black against an eastern sky. Solitary windmills stood mute upon the heights.

It was their unspoken secret, this love of the night, of movement through the dark. It was their joint venture, a passion that bound them together and sealed their fate. They loved both the casting off and the return, the sight of the village receding and reappearing hours later still covered in night. And decades later, when out at sea, alone, at opposite ends of the earth, each brother would feel the absence of his silent partner as acutely as a missing limb.

 

EVEN THOUGH THE brothers were self-proclaimed atheists, they could not completely abandon the old ways. They nailed an icon of Saint Nicholas, patron saint of harbours and fishermen, to a cabin wall. Call it Nicholas, wild Poseidon, or Aeolus, god of the winds, the impulse to call on a higher power would rear with the rising winds of an imminent storm.

The brothers came to know the winds because their lives depended upon them. They came to know the winds because they had been taught to know them by an uncle, a village fisherman, a passing seaman, a family friend. Each wind was a living force, identifiable, capable of being understood. There was a west wind that brought rains, and a west wind that blew under cloudless skies. There were hot winds that brought storms and moist winds that trailed rainbows in their wakes.

Every point of the compass was accounted for, and each breeze possessed its personal name. Pounentes was a summer wind that blew from the west. Levantes, the east wind, bore the echoes of the Ottoman past. From the north-west, the winter Maistros stirred savage seas upon its flanks. The Sirocco blew with desert sands from the African south. Garbi was a fickle south-west wind that brought sun, rain and squalls. Below them all surged the Ionian, besieged by tempests and erratic swells, occasionally pacified by deceptive calms.

For days on end the calms would persist, until broken by an abrupt descent of chaos. "White squalls," the seamen called them. They swooped down from the mountain summits, spurred on by winds that swept away the sun. Within minutes, clouds blanketed the mountain slopes and encir­cling seas. The brothers would turn back and motor out to the deep where they remained to ride out the storm. Or, if close enough to land, they would lower the sails, spark the engine and make for the safety of the nearest shore.

Ithaca was the epicentre of their Ionian world. A map of the island was glued to the cabin wall. Its two elongated halves were joined by the narrow isthmus of Aetos, 600 metres wide. From desolate cape to cape, from Agios Iannis in the north, to Andri in the south, the island measured barely 30 kilo­metres. The boys did not need the map to navigate its shores. They knew each inlet and harbour, the coast's treacherous rocks and stretches of pebbled sand. They came to know the Ionian as well as the mule paths of the Mar­makas. They knew its channels and undercurrents, its fishing grounds and remote coves.

Manoli and Andreas ferried passengers and freight to more distant ports. They sailed where boats confined by timetables could not. They crisscrossed the narrow strait to Kefalonia where they loaded shipments ofrobola wines that had been lowered down steep goat paths. They sailed south to the island of Zakynthos, where they exchanged the robola for virgin olive oils and grains. They journeyed east to the mainland towns of Zeverda and Preveza and returned with contraband tobacco, ice-packed beef and prospective brides. They voyaged further east to the mainland port of Patras where Brotherly Love berthed between giant freighters that lounged against the wharves like stranded whales.

They moved as far north as Corfu and passed within a breath of the mountains of Albania and the Adriatic coast. It was always the first approach to an unknown port that most quickened the heart. Silver rays poured into the sea through gaps in the clouds on an autumn afternoon. Corfu lay upon the horizon like an ageing dowager beneath a halo of grey light. The caique rounded the old citadel into the harbour and eased towards the wharf. The stucco-clad buildings were darkening into crimson facades. It was a glimpse of perfection, a moment of stillness before the onset of inevitable storms.

 

TWICE A YEAR, in October and August, on the feast days of Gerasimos, patron saint of Kefalonia, Manoli and Andreas were called upon to ferry the insane and possessed. Their loved ones were at their wits' end. Perhaps the dead saint would effect a miraculous cure. They would set out in the pre­dawn darkness with their hapless kin for the journey across the strait. Those who resisted were forcefully restrained as the caique made its way to Sami Bay.

Manoli and Andreas observed their restless cargo, bemused. They were ferrymen. Detached. But for want of something better to do, they accompa­nied the possessed and their kin from Sami to the Omala Valley. A continuous stream of pilgrims descended into the valley. The crowds lined the ceremonial avenue that extended from the plane tree that the saint had planted, to the church.

The procession moved from the church grounds led by three boys dressed in white. Behind them, a file of priests accompanied the bier bearing their mummified saint. Mothers clutching sick babies, teenage daughters supporting their crippled elders, the possessed and the pious, the lame and the troubled, surged towards the oncoming bier and flung themselves upon the road. The brothers helped lay out the insane, as the four-centuries-old remains of Gerasimos passed over them. And, as if in defiance of the rational logic the brothers worshipped, hours later, when the boat cast off for the return journey, the change was palpable.

Madness had been subdued into temporary tranquillity, animal groans into muted euphoria. The insane stood on the deck and gazed at the reced­ing island with the awe of infants. Their carers looked back at harbour lanterns sprinkled behind the waterfront. Their anxiety had given way to a meditative stillness. It rarely lasted, of course. Within days, perhaps hours, their burden returned. But this interlude of gliding homewards was reward enough for their efforts.

 

FOR SEVEN YEARS the brothers plied the Ionian together and there came a time when the movement of the sea took hold. It was a spiralling motion, a curving from isle to isle, a circular movement of casting off and return. The brothers came to know the veil that falls at the point where one island recedes and another is about to come into view. In calmer weather they would sur­render to the drift, and savour their moment of respite. The labour of departure was now well behind them and the labour of arrival yet to come.

At night, they sailed through a protean world. Shadows took fleeting form, before giving way to darkness. Chapels and monasteries on deserted heights abruptly appeared, and then vanished like pallid ghosts. Phantom­like figures could be seen making their way on remote roads. Villages twinkled above inlets and coves, and sang with the promise of shelter and warm hearths.

It was Andreas, the younger brother, who began to long for other worlds. He scanned the horizon with a gnawing restlessness. He was drawn to oceans bigger than the confined seas on which he sailed. He envied those islanders who set out on one-way voyages to the Americas and Africa, Asia and Australia, the great Southern Land.

Like his father before him, Andreas reasoned he would be gone for just a few years. He would return with suitcases fat with gifts and pockets stuffed with cash. He would return with enough wealth to place the finest marble stone on his mother's grave. He would shower his largesse on the village, extend the family house and build a villa overlooking Afales Bay.

He would construct bigger and better boats with which to ply the Ionian. He would acquire a fleet of caiques and run them from Frikes to the Black Sea, and upstream along Danube River ports. He would re-establish trading routes from the Ionian to the Adriatic and the fabled lagoons of Venice. Andreas pictured the day of his return, his arrival back in the village, the children chasing him, chanting: "Andreas is back! Andreas is back!"

No matter how hard Manoli tried to dissuade him, his younger brother clung to his plans. With a heavy heart Manoli finally ferried him, as he and Andreas had ferried so many others, on the first leg of their journeys towards new lives. For the final time the brothers descended together, pre-dawn, from the Village of the Forty Saints. They remained silent as they walked. They maintained their silence as they moved away from Frikes Bay; and they sailed south, in silence, within sight of the east coast.

Andreas did not allow himself to dwell on the passing landscape. He did not register the familiar landmarks, the three windmills dormant at the mouth of Kioni Bay, Mount Neriton looming as they spiralled into the Gulf of Molos. He remained detached as they bent their way into the labyrinth that conveyed them into Vathy Bay. He avoided eye contact, as Manoli helped him deposit his suitcases on the waterfront, and he did not linger over farewells. Without a word, Manoli untied the ropes and guided Broth­erly Love from Vathy, past Aetos, the eagle mount on the return journey and, for the first time, he sailed the caique alone.

 

THE SUN WAS barely on its ascent as andreas stood on the deck of the larger boat, bound for Patras. His mind teemed with grandiose plans. He wanted to leap the oceans and immediately walk the streets of the new land. He looked distractedly back at the island. He barely noticed its reced­ing presence. The first to wane were the sharper colours, the mountain greens on the upper slopes. He lost sight of the windmills and the Kathara monastery, perched upon the heights. The peaks sank into the horizon. The island was completely shrouded within itself.

Only then did he feel the shock of separation. Only then did it strike him that even though he had left Ithaca countless times, this was the first time he had cast off without the prospect of his return. He had not counted on this sensation. No matter how hard he tried he was seized by a sense of panic, the first intimations of a nagging doubt.

In the ensuing days his doubt grew. Perhaps, after all, nothing would become of him. He tossed in his bunk at night. He paced the decks consumed by conflicting thoughts. All remained a blur as he sailed south. There was no going back. There were no familiar harbours within reach, no sheltering coves to ride out the storm or familiar seas to take him home.

No matter how much he tried to ignore them, he was plagued by images of Brotherly Love, the caique moving homewards, huddled against winds and rains, or set alight by ascendant suns. In the cabin, the map of the Ionian, a pot of basil, the shards of a ceramic vase they had pulled out of the sea, the smell of tobacco and brine.

Then, the familiar sequence of the homecoming ritual – the dropping of the anchor, the flinging of the ropes, the unloading of the cargo, the stepping ashore to the greetings of friends. Gutting and cleaning their catch by the boat. Laying out the nets to dry. And always, Stathis, the village madmen, limping towards them, chanting his habitual refrain: "Ah. You are back from the sea. Did you bring any fish?"

Weeks later, as the ship sailed across the equator, Andreas's doubts sharp­ened. He had breached the gap between the hemispheres. The lines were drawn. He had not expected this. Like a mantra one thought, above others, repeated itself. It grew more incessant with each kilometre closer to the great Southern Land. It swelled as he first glimpsed the deserted white beaches of the West Coast. It resounded as he moved towards Fremantle port. Would he ever return to his beloved Ionian Sea? Would he ever see his Ithaca again?

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