The sea was sleeping, motionless, but soon it would be woken by a slight breeze. The breeze that began before daybreak eased the pain in the fisherman’s legs, which had been aching for hours from the damp night air. It was time to get up; the dark blue of the sea was taking on a strange whiteness. The sky was different every day; you looked and it was purple, then it was pink, then milk white, then it would turn a host of colors that would glisten as they were reflected on the mirror surface of the sea.
The fisherman hadn’t missed the waking of the sea in thirty years. He got up every day before sunrise, drank a small glass of olive oil, then set out for the fishing harbor. He’d learned about drinking olive oil on an empty stomach from the healthy elders of the village who’d lived past a hundred. The elders who pressed the olives from the centuries-old trees whose trunks were as gnarled as their own bodies.
When he reached the harbor it was already light, but the dirt road was deserted. No one went out as early as he did. This suited the fisherman, who didn’t talk much and preferred solitude. He was a tall, thin man. His sunken cheeks, grayish hazel eyes, and tousled, sandy hair gave his face a handsomeness that no one noticed, envied, or thought about. He had the body of a man who worked for a living; he didn’t look at all like the city dwellers, whose bodies grow round from inactivity and overeating. He had an air that would seem wild to them, a bit too masculine, indeed even tough. These people had so many things swirling through their minds, their intuition was overdeveloped and they struggled constantly to understand their anxieties. They would have trouble living in a village like this. Life was hard here, it was difficult, you couldn’t stay on your feet without struggling to the point of exhaustion. Men, women, and even children had to adopt an attitude of resignation.
Mustafa never asked anything of anyone. And he would get angry at those who asked for bait, hooks, and lines when they went out fishing. If I can do my job well, he thought, so can everyone else. When Captain Tahsin, the master he’d worked with as a child, went into decline and retired, he’d made a down payment on his beautiful old motorboat, and he’d worked hard to make his payments. It bore the traces of thirty years of work: worn-out oars with blackened handles, the tiller and gunwales scored by fishing lines, and a hatch cover that rattled wildly when the motor was running. Traces of his master’s hands and his own hands. His tanned and leathery hands looked like two powerful sea creatures that were independent of him. As he did every morning, he untied the boat, jumped in, and said In the name of God aloud. The motor that had served him well over the years started at once; it never gave him any trouble. As always, the sound of the motor ringing out across the bay invigorated him. The sea was calm, and the boat glided out of the harbor. Of course it was always like that at this hour, but soon there would be slight turbulence; as the sun rose the sea would grow irritable and waves would begin to form. In the afternoon it would swell with the harsh wind like a jealous lover.
He turned on the little radio he always kept in the boat, and a poignant Aegean folk song began to play: The masts of the ships are tall / The “efe’s” heart is stout. The music from the radio, Aegean folk songs, mournful tunes, and lively dances, kept him company until he finished work and returned to the village. To his surprise, his father’s favorite song came on. You never became a bride and I never became a groom / That’s why I always stare off into the distance.
His father had been a poor fisherman who was consumed by the sea. In those days there were no tourists yet, and fish was both plentiful and cheap, but the fish they caught didn’t provide enough for them to live on. Fish was dirt cheap. Fish was more expensive now—squid, octopus, mussels, and shrimp sold for high prices, but the sea provided less than it used to. Their trawl lines brought in less than they once did. Large, sonar-equipped ships from far away, from other seas, scraped the bottom of the sea. Expensive restaurants had opened along the shore, and they competed for the freshest fish. The people who caught the fish would never step foot in those places. The prices were just too high. People from Istanbul came and spent in a single evening what the villagers earned in a month, that’s what they said. There were also those who said they spend that much for a drink in a luxury hotel. In any event, the villagers couldn’t even contemplate eating fish in a restaurant. It seemed like a strange idea. The restaurants were good customers, but the fishermen still barely got by.
Mustafa always remembered his father’s hands. Huge, shapeless, hard, ludicrous, almost inhuman. Touching his hand was like touching a tree. Now his hands had become like his father’s. His late father had been a hard man, a chain smoker, and lung cancer brought him an early death. He’d sold his old boat to pay off his debts.
The sound of the motor reached the sleeping houses on the bay, then spread toward the far shore. For three days a storm had whipped up the sea. It had battered the shore, but now it was tranquil. There was no trace of it, except for the flotsam that swirled lazily along the shore. The sea would slowly sweep it all away. But this flotsam was only of concern to the tourists; the fishermen wouldn’t swim unless they had to.
The years had made him part of the sea, as if he were seaweed, a fish, a rock, sand, or pebbles. He breathed in unison with the sea: if the sea was rough he was rough, if it was still he was still, if it was tranquil he was tranquil. He was generally a quiet man; he didn’t talk unless he needed to. He always had a cigarette behind his ear as he repaired his nets, washed his boat, or stared into the depths. He didn’t go to the coffeehouse like the other fishermen, he wouldn’t play cards, and in the evening he wouldn’t drink anywhere except home. The old fishermen who’d known him since childhood said he’d always been a calm man, that when his seven-year-old son Deniz drowned he’d retreated further into himself. He’d gone out to sea with his son one day, and after he returned without him he was a broken man. He no longer even spoke to his wife, who sobbed and beat her chest all day.
One night he turned and said to his wife, “Deniz was taken by the sea, perhaps he knows something.” Did she blame him? Did she ever wonder why he hadn’t saved her son? She never said anything about this to him. It was as if even the young woman’s color changed after losing her son. Her face, her expression, the light in her green eyes, everything about her had faded. When she wasn’t crying she looked like a flower that hadn’t been watered. Her head was bowed, and she looked as if she’d fall apart if you touched her. For a long time after this terrible loss, they didn’t even look at each other. There was no longer even the slightest expression of emotion. They no longer reminded each other about what had to be done or thought about, they blamed each other for even existing, and they only spoke about the most essential aspects of daily life. The house became a minefield, and even the smallest mistake inevitably led to an explosion. If it went any further, there would be no return.
The boy’s body was never found. The idea of not thinking about that stormy day, of forgetting, seemed like betrayal to him. Every night when he lay his head on his pillow he relived even the most painful details. He kept scratching at the scab and reopening the wound. It seemed shameful to continue to live after his son had died. His regret was as fresh as it had been on the first day. If he didn’t know that it was the greatest sin, he would have drowned himself in those wild waters.
Again and again he remembered waking early that morning with his son, who was so fond of the sea. The delight in the seven-year-old’s eyes as the boat moved out to sea, watching him lean over the side and trail his tiny fingers in the water, the way he shouted “Father, look, look,” how the boy looked up in gratitude when he told him to be careful, then dark clouds covering the sky, that cool wind, the storm that blew up on the open sea, the boat being tossed about like a walnut shell, then capsizing when a wave struck from the side, clinging to the overturned boat, looking around for his son but not being able to see him, diving again and again into the raging sea. He looked for him for hours in that stormy sea, checking the nets in the water in case he’d been caught in them, beseeching God for help all the while. Afterward he searched for days in the hope of at least finding the body, but he found not even a trace. He searched every patch of seaweed, every rock, every trench, every mysterious cave; he saw every kind of fish and octopus, sea creatures great and small; he swam with them but he couldn’t find his son.
Since then no one had heard him speak of what had happened. He’d always been a taciturn man, but it seemed as if he felt that any word he uttered would be disrespectful to his son, and he retreated into himself. He was like a tortoise. He didn’t even speak to his wife; after eating in silence he would go to bed early. What they did some nights couldn’t be called “making love.” Their young bodies sought what they needed in the same manner they ate dinner in silence. In the morning, he would get up and go to his boat while his wife was still sleeping. His friends liked him; they were accustomed to his disposition. They said cigarettes were his closest friend, then knocked on wood and prayed to be spared the pain of losing a child themselves.