In the mornings, it is just me and the heron. He watches my feet sink into the sand as I walk towards the sea holding my fishing rod in one hand and my bait box in the other. My footprints unmake the tiny star shapes of pigeons’ feet and the palmed imprints of seagulls’ feet, and perhaps he wonders whether I will ruin the marks he has made when he, too, is gone.
My first cast decides the rest of the day. If the line whistles in the air, forming a perfect arch over my head, and then hits the spot at which I have been aiming, then I will have sole or even sea bass for lunch, and perhaps mullet for dinner. If it flops, lands in the water at the wrong angle and loses the sinker or, as it happened once, catches in my fishing hat, no fish will bite. I will go hungry, and the heron will be disappointed in me. Superstition is as much part of a fisherman’s life as fish is.
There are days, when my back hurts and my knees complain in the humid air of the morning, and memories torment me, in which I wish I owned the heron – I did own something as beautiful as him, a long time ago. He is regal, his neck slender, his cinereous plumage on display. On some mornings he flies to the rock that breaks the surface of the sea near the shore and, if the water is still, he admires himself in it. I have seen him push his beak near the water, I swear, like Narcissus trying to kiss his own image.
My fingers hurt more every day as I tie the sinker and hook onto the line and reel in the line to recast, but I blame the weather and tell myself that, as soon as the sun starts warming the sand, my knuckles will also thaw. They are looking more and more like the knots on a fishing net, all frayed and bulbous, but I do not pay them much attention. Perhaps, when I can no longer fish, the heron will fly to my hut in the pinewood and bring me his catch.
The hut is cold and damp at night, but I drift to sleep to the sound of the waves, which crosses Viale Poetto and penetrates the wood to reach me. Sometimes it reminds me of Teresa’s voice as she sang to our son, and then I cry with my face in the mattress. But most nights I find comfort in their whispers.
When I was a young man I was considered handsome. I stood proud, like the heron, and tall, with hair black as the feathers that border his wings and a white uniform that made young women smile at me. I did not smell of salt and seaweed as I do now, but of cologne, and my hands were nimble when I worked on a ship or twirled a girl in a dance hall. I could see my face reflected in my shoes, and it was a nice oval with a kiss curl falling over it. I did not take the trouble to go fishing, then: I had many friends, and little patience to wait hours for a tug on the line. When I was on leave, I slept late and shaved just before lunchtime.
But these days I rise at four. I cannot stay in my bed longer, not with the cold that clamps down on my joints in winter or the impending threat of sultriness in summer. The inflatable mattress I found in the sea deflates during the night, and in the mornings I find that my body is halfway through it, my knees and elbows stabbing the plastic. I make coffee in a caffettiera I heat up on a camp stove, and, as I wait for it to boil out of the little holes under the lid, I hold my hands close to the stainless steel to warm them, for they are often cold. When I hear the coffee gurgle and smell its dark aroma, I bend at the waist and try to touch the tips of my bare feet. Usually, by the time I straighten my body – having taken a mental note of the increasing distance that separates my fingers from my toes – the coffee is ready. I drink it black, sitting at the folding table with metal feet I found in the skips and rubbed clean. I think you should always sit at a table when you have your breakfast, no matter how much in a hurry you are.
When I leave the hut, it is dark, but the stars are shedding their sequinned dresses and, one by one, they are falling asleep. The smell of salt is so intense I could be breathing fine white grains. I turn towards Viale Colombo first, to see if the flamingos are stirring in the salt pits, to bid them good morning as they tiptoe in the water searching for shrimps and insects that will make their wings a more vivid pink.
Then I follow a trail through the trees, stepping on pine needles and plastic bags and packets of cigarettes and cracked earth, until I find myself on the edge of the road. It is silent, at this hour, and deserted, and I can almost imagine that the sea has reclaimed it and that no more cars will come speeding past. There are many crosses decorated with flowers on the sides of Viale Poetto, and all of them bear dates of birth and death far too close to each other.
I cross the road, pulling my woollen hat down to my eyes if it is winter, like now. In the public showers, I wash my face and hands and teeth. I do not bother with shaving any more, and now my beard is like one of those bushes that grow on the beach, dry and brushy and discoloured by the sun. I walk to the shore and the heron is there, waiting for me, and in the light cast by the lampposts that line the road I can see that he is mocking me for rising after him – again. But I am relieved, for I fear the day when he will no longer come.
The sand is crunchy near the water, and the water itself is startlingly cold and the colour of mercury. Its wavelets play with the shells, caressing them, breaking them, rocking them with their foam fingers. A few mullets perform acrobatics in the air, and in the silver flashes of their scales I see the promise of a heavy line and a fruitful day. I do not speak, not even to the heron, for fear of scaring the fish. Or perhaps it is the heron I am afraid of scaring away. I say my prayers in silence, moving my lips, as I prepare for the first cast.
For many years after Francesco went away – or, as I thought for a long time, was taken away – I would not pray. I would not pray, and I would not talk, and I barely ate. When I came home from work and I found Teresa crying in front of his bed, which waited for him, as we did, every night, I left again, and hid in the barrelhouse, and drank so much red wine that, by the end of the night, it tasted like blood. When I lay beside my wife, she wanted to pull me close to her, to sleep in my arms as she had done since the day we had been married in the Church of Sant’Antonio, but my arms had lost their strength. And I lay in bed longer and longer, until it was too late to go to work, too late for Teresa to hope.
At sunrise, the murmur of the sea is different, harsher. I think sometimes of the old man in Hemingway’s story, the old man hanging on to his marlin at sea while sharks take it away from him, and I imagine I am him. I imagine I, like him, fought to protect what was mine. The heron opens his beak as if to sing along with the sea, but he deems it undignified in the presence of an old man, and spreads his wings instead, and settles on the rock from where he can see his own reflection.
When the mistral blows and slaps and blinds me with jagged grains of sand, I cannot win against it. Not any more. Defeated, I gather my bait box, my rod, my beach chair and the bucket with the fish I have caught – or with sea water and nothing else – and retreat to my hut to read. If the wind is milder, however, I can stay all day, and I do, unless it is summer. In summer, I look for more isolated places, but I do not like it, because the heron is not there. In summer, I cannot bear to look at all the children, for I am afraid they might drown, or step on a shard of glass, or become lost in the crowd. I am terrified that I might see Francesco’s face in one of them and lose him again.
Francesco loved the sea, the way most Sardinian children do. He never cried when I put him in the water, not even as a baby. He could swim by the time he was four, and he came with me, holding on to my back, when I swam to the buoy. I have an image, clear like the water in the Poetto, of my son catching his first fish. It was a scorpion fish, and as its red body swung towards us at the end of the line, we ducked so its stings would not hit us in the face. He was jumping, my boy, and smiling as I unhooked his first catch and dumped it into the bucket, where it took to swim in angry circles. That night, Teresa made a pot of fish soup, and we told Francesco that all the soup had been made out of the one fish he had caught.
I never kill the fish before I have to, unless they have swallowed the hook. If they have, the only way to recover it is to pull the line out of them, letting it tear everything in its way while they are alive. I do not like that. And so I hold the line between my fingers and hit the fish against a rock, fighting to ignore the hopeless smacking sound their bodies make, until their tails stop flailing. But if the hook has only gone through their lip, or caught in their gills, then I ease it out and put the fish in the bucket. When they are very small and the hook has not done damage, I free them. I put them in the water and keep both hands along their sides. If they swim away from me, it means that they are healthy. I free them unless I am too hungry to let them go.
When Francesco was five, I told him about going hungry. During the war, I said, I had been his age, or only a little older than him. I did not own toys, robots, or tapes. All I had was a rusty bicycle that had been passed down through generations, and a pair of too-large boots I wore in winter. In summer, I went barefoot. It was difficult to buy food, especially for six hungry boys. The bread was so hard some days that my mother had to push the knife into it with the help of a tenderiser, but my father, whose limp had spared him from conscription, said we should thank the Lord that we had some, and that we were not dying like those boys in the trenches. When, in the Forties, the Americans sprayed DDT all over Sardinia to exterminate the Anopheles mosquito, the one that caused malaria, then, too, he said we should be thankful. But the year he died from cancer I could not help thinking of that, of all those chemicals released into the air. My mother had preceded him, in the attempt to give me a younger brother or sister, and every time I looked at Teresa lifting Francesco in her arms I wished they had held on to life at least until they met my new family.
Now, when I fry the fish on the camp stove and sprinkle salt on them, when I put them onto my plate and eat every bit except the bones, I am thankful for each mouthful. I have not forgotten that there was a time, when the drinking had come to an end and both Teresa and my job were long gone, when I did not know how to provide for myself. And that there was also a time when I thought not even the sea – my first love – could rescue me, and so I stole a packet of razor blades and carried it in my pocket. I used to touch them at night and their presence reassured me that there was an alternative to my sorrow. This was before I found the hut, and the heron.
What I have lost I cannot regain, and now I only wish I could share that little I have with someone whom I love. All fish taste different: some of them have bland greyish flesh, other, like the sole, are white and have a sweet taste of which you never tire. Teresa would appreciate them, I am sure, and they would taste nicer if she cooked them. But if my grief had not driven her away, perhaps I would not be a fisherman, now. When on a branch that peers out of a garden I find a lemon to squeeze on the fish, I am content. When I do not, I am not sad.
I do not always catch fish. There are days that pass without the line bending the rod, days when I sit on my chair reading one of the books people leave for me in plastic bags near my hut, or looking at the sea and thinking of things past. But I know now that a real fisherman does not sit by the water only to catch fish. A real fisherman sits by the water because there is nowhere else to be, because that rod sunk in the sand is all he has to hold on to.
I do not often fall sick, and even then I do not need doctors, only rest and my woollen blanket that an old woman gave me last winter. I have seen enough doctors, I have decided, and will die in my hut rather than laying my eyes on one more. They used to walk past Francesco as if they could not see him, and yet he was a tall boy at six. When they paid him any attention, it was to poke him with needles, to suck his blood into transparent tubes from which it would not return. When he lost his hair, his eyes looked bigger and darker, like those of the hungry, and the delicate frame of his face reminded me of my father’s when he, too, had fallen sick. Francesco only cried when he saw us cry, and so we stopped doing it in front of him. Teresa walked into his room singing every morning, and hers were the saddest cheerful notes I ever heard. At night, I told her to go home and sat beside my sleeping boy, holding a hand that had become brittle as a seashell. The sound of his breath was lower than the whisper of the sea on a quiet night. The blue veins under his skin reminded me of dead seaweed growing underwater, and every minute of those nights I asked myself what I had done wrong.
I used to dream of Teresa after she left, and of Francesco tormented by all those needles, but now, most nights, my dreams are filled with the colour of the waves and the cries of the heron. Were he alive now, I am sure my boy would be married to a beautiful girl and have children as smart and brave as he was. I could take them to the beach, teach them to fish. I would never have met the heron, but he would not miss me.
This morning I awoke thinking of Francesco’s last night. It has been a long time since I have allowed myself to do so, but today it would have been his thirty-fifth birthday and, although I tell myself that I should not keep count, I still know what day it is. I have nothing to celebrate it with, not a cake with candles nor a gift wrapped in colourful paper. On the beach, I want to tell the heron, but I am afraid that he would ignore me: the things you care about are always the ones over which you are most easily hurt. As I prepare the line and push a worm through the hook, I see that night again. The nurses had told me and Teresa that we should both stay. My knees had gone soft. Teresa’s face was like a beautiful painting ruined by a flood. We held his hands, one on each side of the bed, and told him about how he was going to Heaven. Francesco was no longer the boy who had started swimming at four: he was a larva lost in white, sweaty sheets. As I smothered his cold hand, I thought that there must be something I could do, but I did not know what. I was his father: I was supposed to protect him, to save him from dangers, and instead I had given him the genes that were doing this to him. My father’s genes. It was me who was killing him.
Before sunrise he opened his eyes. He could not turn his head so we both leaned forward and smiled at him. It hurt to do it and our smiles were grimaces, but we did all the same. And through the exhaustion of a sleepless night we told him that we loved him and he just stared and then, for one second, his eyes focused and I knew that he could see us. But he was too tired and his lids fell and we were left calling his name.
That, I remember, was the last time I prayed for many years. The last time, before I saw the heron on that rock and words of gratitude I believed I had forgotten came to my lips. My oath never to care about anything, or anyone, again, dissolved like a jellyfish melted by the sun.
The sand is damp and compact this morning, the kind that makes perfect sandcastles. An image forms in my mind, the outline of a child sitting with a plastic spade in his hand. His body is tanned and strong and he is eager to swim. I want to stay here with him, to help him build a fort and go into the water holding him, but a movement in the corner of my eye tears me away from his thin ghost. The wind sings words I had buried deep down, my father’s words, back to me: ‘Beautiful things do not last. They are not for us.’ I know what awaits me and now, only now do I understand that, should I fight with all my strength, I could not avoid it. And I could not avoid loving it, even though – and perhaps because – it is going to hurt me.
As I turn, I feel the wind dry my face, and, through the semi-light of a bruised sunrise, I see the heron spread his wings, look at me one last time, and fly away.