We were born in a village by the sea, squeezed on three sides by the slopes of a mountain and two hills. It was a godforsaken place, save for the summer months, when it brimmed with tourists from the inland and beyond. With the onset of September, they left, shepherding their children back to school, while motorists on the north-south beach road went out of their way to avoid driving through. The windswept main square lay empty, and the lonely café on the overhang was deserted, except for a handful of old sailors, waiting unhurriedly for another day.
Yunus and I grew up together, as inseparable as Siamese twins. While the other kids were locked up in school, we often skipped class, by climbing over the wall. Once on the outside, we ran to an outcrop, that was only his and mine. We harvested mussels, and then grilled them on flattened tin cans over a small fire. Later in the afternoon, when raw hunger clenched our stomachs in its grip, we baited fish with a batter of dried poison leaves and dough, which we gingerly hurled toward the shallows. In the time it took us to share a cigarette, the queasy fish floated on their sides and swam in circles. They opened and closed their mouths and gills, staring at the sky above with their one eye, before our whittled sticks whipped through the air, and turned them into corpses.
We were a couple of teenage boys, working hard to stay afloat, scrubbing and painting boats and dinghies for cigarettes and cash, and helping our families to make ends meet. Once a week, on Wednesday night, we mopped the terrace floor in front of Uncle Ismail’s café. He paid fairly, and rewarded us with the privilege of using his rowboat. So it was on a morning in early October, that Yunus and I jumped aboard, and put out on a day trip. We handled the oars in turns, ten to fifteen minutes each, and while Yunus rowed and rowed, I sat on the bow munching on a loaf of bread.
A light breeze blew from the north, puckering the water with white caps, and filling our lungs with a tang of salt. I lay on my back, watching a herd of clouds scudding hastily to somewhere else.
“Do you like this place?” Yunus suddenly asked.
“I hardly know any other.” I replied. “I’ve only been to Balanea and Laodicea, and they ain't much better.”
“But do you wanna spend the rest of your life here, I mean?”
“Uh, I never thought about that. I guess when we’re older, we’ll travel the sea for a few years, like everybody else.”
“No! It's not what I want.” Yunus interrupted. “I wanna go away, and never come back, just keep rowing west, day and night, for weeks and months, till I make landfall on the other side. Will you go with me?”
“But we don’t have enough food and water, not even a tarp over our heads. We can’t make it in this boat.” I was as serious as he sounded.
“If not today, then tomorrow, or next week, but what do you say? You'll go with me, won’t you?”
The math teacher drew triangles and bisectors. Yunus and I stared at the blackboard blankly, while twenty-four kids furiously scribbled in their notebooks. At the end of class, we all filed out for recess, and once in the schoolyard, the others went berserk with the taste of false freedom. Yunus and I paced the confined space back and forth, like a pair of caged animals.
“I scrounged enough canned foods to last us for two weeks.” He said. “How about you? What did you get?”
“Four plastic containers for fresh water, twenty-liter each. I think we should get one more. Canned food, namely sardines and spam. I found one smock in good condition, and Simo promised to get me another. We already have rain boots and sweaters. We need fishermen pants...”
“OK fine! We should have it all stashed in the cavern by next Monday. Ropes, gear and everything else. We leave by dawn on Tuesday.”
I hesitated for an instant, feeling the import of his words. “Why Tuesday? Why not any other day?”
“It’ll be full moon on Tuesday. For the first few nights, we need all the help we can get.”
“What about the weather?” I cleared my throat. “What if we run into bad weather?”
“We might! The next forty-five days are our best chance, however. If we keep a constant westerly heading, we’ll make it somewhere long before then.”
A dream of being lost at sea woke me up shaking. My brother snored loudly in the dark. I slept on and off, and by dawn, I was so afraid, I stayed in bed, burying my head under the pillow. When mother came in to wake me up at seven, I told her I felt sick. She touched my forehead, checking for fever, and although there was none, I shivered violently. An hour later, she walked into the room again. “Yunus is here to see you.” She brought him in, and left us alone. I averted my eyes. I couldn’t look at his face.
Yunus took the rowboat the next morning and melted into the sea. By Friday, all the fishing boats went out looking for him. A few bigger ones from the nearby village, and a coastguard launch joined the search. A week later, Ismail’s boat was spotted by a tanker, drifting eighty miles offshore. Yunus was unconscious from fatigue and sunstroke. He didn’t fully recover until mid January, but he never went back to school afterward. In the spring of that year, his father died, leaving him with an ill mother and two younger sisters. For the first time since I abandoned Yunus, I walked into his house to pay my final respects with the other villagers. Before I reached him, he stood up, and walked out of the room.
At eighteen, I traveled the sea to the far reaches of the world. Once in America, I jumped ship and stayed there, eventually making a family and a good life. I lost all ties with my birthplace, when my brother moved to Australia, and was soon followed by my parents. Yunus, moored to the village, worked as a fisherman on somebody else’s boat. I didn't hear a word of him for sixteen years, until one day, my family and I boarded a plane for a summer vacation in the old country. We rented a car at the airport, and after spending a week showing my wife and kids the splendor of my native land, we drove to the village by the sea. It had grown bigger and more desolate. Metal roofs replaced bamboo awnings, stifling the sea breeze behind mortar walls. Where Uncle Ismail’s café once stood, we sat in a restaurant that served frozen seafood, along with chewy mutton and bland chicken. Cathy, my wife, and Michael and Brenda, my kids, didn’t like the food, and hardly put any effort into hiding their displeasure and boredom. I gulped the stale beer down, and signaled for the waiter to bring the check. He hurried toward the table, smiling timidly, hoping for a big tip from this American dude.
“Who owns this place?” I asked.
“It belongs to Mr. Adan from the inland. He owns most of the village.”
“It used to be a café”, I said, “Do you know what happened to the previous owner, the old man, Ismail?”
“Ismail? He was my father’s uncle.” He replied, with a kind of pride, that was tinged with shame.
The waiter followed us out, offering advice on a resort, where we can rent a chalet. While he and I stood talking, Cathy and the kids waited impatiently in the car.
“Say, do you know Yunus, the fisherman, he’s about my age?” I ventured, my heart pounding in my throat.
“I sure did. He passed away last year. A stick of dynamite blew up in his face, while he was out fishing alone. May God Almighty rest his soul in peace.”
“What about his mother and sisters?” I had to know.
“His mother died a long time ago. He took good care of his sisters, though. They got married, and have children. Are you related to him by any chance?”
I closed the car door, fastened my seatbelt and rolled the window down. “No, but he was my friend.” I said, putting the engine in gear. Behind the dark shades, my eyes flooded with tears, but luckily for everyone, my wife and kids were already immersed in their own worlds. At the edge of the village, I took the exit out, and sped away on the north-south beach road.