On Lampedusa, a fisherman once asked me: “You know what fish has come back? Sea bass.” Then he’d lit a cigarette and smoked the whole thing down to the butt in silence.
“And you know why sea bass have come back to this stretch of sea? You know what they eat? That’s right.”
And he’d stubbed out his cigarette and turned to go. There was nothing more, truly, to be said.
What had stuck with me about Lampedusa were the calluses on the hands of the fishermen; the stories they told of constantly finding dead bodies when they hauled in their nets (“What do you mean, ‘constantly’?” and they’d say, “Do you know what ‘constantly’ means? Constantly”); scattered refugee boats rusting in the sunlight, perhaps nowadays the only honest form of testimony left to us—corrosion, grime, rust—of what’s happening in this period of history; the islanders’ doubts about the meaning of it all; the word “landing,” misused for years, because by now these were all genuine rescues, with the refugee boats escorted into port and the poor devils led off to the Temporary Settlement Center; and the Lampedusans who dressed them with their own clothing in a merciful response that sought neither spotlights nor publicity, but just because it was cold out and those were bodies in need of warmth.
Haze blurred our line of sight.
The horizon shimmered.
I noticed for what must have been the thousandth time how astonished I was to see how Lampedusa could unsettle its guests, creating in them an overwhelming sense of estrangement. The sky so close that it almost seemed about to collapse on top of us. The ever-present voice of the wind. The light that hits you from all directions. And before your eyes, always, the sea, the eternal crown of joy and thorns that surrounds everything. It’s an island on which the elements hammer at you with nothing able to stop them. There are no shelters. You’re pierced by the environment, riven by the light and the wind. No defense is possible.
It had been a long, long day.
I heard my father’s voice calling my name, while the sirocco tossed and tangled my thoughts.
I happened to meet the scuba diver at a friend’s house.
It was just the two of us.
The first, persistent sensation was this: He was huge. His first words were these: “No tape recorders.”
He went over and sat down on the other side of the table from me and crossed his arms.
He kept them folded across his chest the whole time. “I’m not talking about October third,” he added, his mouth snapping shut after these words in a way that defied argument.
His tone of voice was consistently low and measured, in sharp contrast with that imposing bulk. Sometimes, in his phrases, uttered with the sounds of his homeland—he was born in the mountains of the deepest north of Italy, where the sea is, more than anything else, an abstraction—there also surfaced words from my dialect, Sicilian. The ten years he’d spent in Sicily for work had left traces upon him. For an instant, the sounds of the south took possession of that gigantic body, dominating him. Then the moment would come to an end and he’d run out of things to say and just stare at me, in all his majesty, like a mountain of the north.
He’d become a diver practically by sheer chance, a shot at a job that he’d jumped at immediately after completing his military service.
“We divers are used to dealing with death, from day one they told us it would be something we’d encounter. They tell us over and over, starting on the first day of training: People die at sea. And it’s true. All it takes is a single mistake during a dive and you die. Miscalculate and you die. Just expect too much of yourself and you die. Underwater, death is your constant companion, always.”
He’d been called to Lampedusa as a rescue swimmer, one of those men on the patrol boats who wear bright orange wetsuits and dive in during rescue operations.
He told me just how tough the scuba diving course had been, lingering on the mysterious beauty of being underwater, when the sea is so deep that sunlight can’t filter down that far and everything is dark and silent. The whole time he’d been on the island, he’d been doing special training to make sure he could perform his new job at an outstanding level.
He said: “I’m not a leftist. If anything, the complete opposite.”
His family, originally monarchists, had become Fascists. He, too, was in tune with those political ideas.
He added: “What we’re doing here is saving lives. At sea, every life is sacred. If someone needs help, we rescue them. There are no colors, no ethnic groups, no religions. That’s the law of the sea.”
Then, suddenly, he stared at me.
He was enormous even when he was sitting down. “When you rescue a child in the open sea and you hold him in your arms . . .”
And he started to cry, silently.
His arms were still folded across his chest.
I wondered what he could have seen, what he’d lived through, just how much death this giant across the table had faced off with.
After more than a minute of silence, words resurfaced in the room. He said that these people should never have set out for Italy in the first place, and that in Italy the government was doing a bad job of taking them in, wastefully and with a demented approach to issues of management. Then he reiterated the concept one more time: “At sea, you can’t even think about an alternative, every life is sacred, and you have to help anyone who is in need, period.” That phrase was more than a mantra. It was a full-fledged act of devotion.
He unfolded his words slowly, as if they were careful steps down the steep side of a mountain.
“The most dangerous situation is when there are many vessels close together. You have to take care not to get caught between them because, if the seas are rough, you could easily be crushed if there’s a collision. I was really in danger only once: There was a force-eight gale, I was in the water with my back to a refugee boat loaded down with people, and I saw the hull of our vessel coming straight at me, shoved along by a twenty-five-foot wave. I moved sideways with a furious lunge that I never would have believed I could pull off. The two hulls crashed together. People fell into the water. I started swimming to pick them up. When I returned from that mission, I still had the picture of that hull coming to crush me before my eyes. I sat there on the edge of the dock, alone, for several minutes, until I could get that sensation of narrowly averted death out of my mind.”
He explained that when you’re out on the open water, the minute you reach the point from where the call for help was launched, you invariably find some new and unfamiliar situation.
“Sometimes, everything purrs along smoothly, they’re calm and quiet, the sea isn’t choppy, it doesn’t take us long to get them all aboard our vessels. Sometimes, they get so worked up that there’s a good chance of the refugee boat overturning during the rescue operations. You always need to manage to calm them down. Always. That’s a top priority. Sometimes, when we show up on the scene, the refugee boat has just overturned, and there are bodies scattered everywhere. Africans, for some physical reason, maybe because they lack significant amounts of body fat, tend to sink much faster. So, you have to work as quickly as you can. There is no standard protocol. You just decide what to do there and then. You can swim in a circle around groups of people, pulling a line to tie them together and reel them in, all at once. Sometimes, the sea is choppy and they’ll all sink beneath the waves right before your eyes. In those cases, all you can do is try to rescue as many as you can.”
There followed a long pause, a pause that went on and on. His gaze no longer came to rest on the wall behind me. It went on, out to some spot on the Mediterranean Sea that he would never forget.
“If you’re face-to-face with three people going under and twenty-five feet farther on a mother is drowning with her child, what do you do? Where do you head? Who do you save first? The three guys who are closer to you, or the mother and her newborn who are farther away?”
It was a vast, boundless question. It was as if time and space had curved back upon themselves, bringing him face-to-face with that cruel scene all over again.
The screams of the past still resonated. He was enormous, that diver.
He looked invulnerable.
And yet, inside, he had to have been a latter-day Saint Sebastian, riddled with a quiverful of agonizing choices.
“The little boy is tiny, the mother extremely young. There they are, twenty-five feet away from me. And then, right here, in front of me, three other people are drowning. So, who should I save, then, if they’re all going under at the same instant? Who should I strike out for? What should I do? Calculate. It’s all you can do in certain situations. Mathematics. Three is bigger than two. Three lives are one more life than two lives.”
And he stopped talking.
Outside the sky was cloudy, there was a wind blowing out of the southwest, the sea was choppy. I thought to myself: Every time, every single time, I have the distinct sensation that I’m face-to-face with human beings who carry an entire graveyard inside them.