A Dog Called Leka, Chapter One



The dog was the third stray to have badgered Ben Edgeworth that day.

He wasn't much more than a pup, a bastard German shepherd, Ben judged. Not that Ben was an expert where dogs were concerned; he liked them well enough and, as a child, had once had an Airedale, only to lose her to a speeding car, a sad and shocking experience that left him wary of ever becoming attached to another animal again.

Ben shooed the pup away. The dog, used to rejection, didn't react. Ben looked at him and shook his head at the pathetic sight the pup presented, with his skinny legs, bony face and filthy tail. He was mostly black all over, with patches of contrasting tan fur, and he smelled bad.

The boatyard was full of dogs like this one, scraggly, ill and underfed creatures that no one wanted. They could find refuge here because the yard, owned by a man named Petros, was unfenced and crowded with boats. They could find food, too, thanks to the scraps of garbage left behind by the workers and sailors. Otherwise uncared for, the dogs prowled the oil-stained grounds all day long, looking not only for food and water but a kind word or even an occasional caress.

Ordinarily Ben would have befriended the dog in some small way, but today he just couldn't be bothered. He had too much work to do on the boat he was building with the help of a ship's carpenter named Lukas. The boat was a twin-hulled sailboat called a catamaran. Compared to other sailboats, a catamaran was a simple thing, a kind of glorified raft on pontoons, though it did have two masts and ample space below deck for sleeping and eating. "Cats" were easy to handle at sea and relatively inexpensive to build.

Ben and Lukas had been working together on the boat for the past five months. They had started work on the day after Ben had received the insurance money coming to him from the accident which had taken his parents' lives. They had been hired to sail a rich man's yacht from Gibraltar to a Caribbean island, where the man had just bought a home.

Ben had wanted to accompany his parents on the three-month journey, but because he was due soon to finish high school, they felt it would be better if he stayed put and concentrated on his studies.

"I know you'd rather be with us," his father had said, "but since you're so close to graduating, you might as well stick things out."

So Ben remained on Rhodes while his parents sailed off halfway around the world in a big, luxurious power boat. It wasn't the kind of boat his father and mother liked--they called them "bloats"--but they took the job because it paid well: enough money to enable them to start building their own sailboat when they returned to Greece. It had always been their dream to one day own a sleek, trim, twin-masted craft which would fly with the wind if handled right, making them feel happy and free. They would live on the boat and charter it out in summer, sailing it from one end of the Aegean Sea to the other with four or five paying guests on board, combining business with pleasure.

For years they had been saving money toward that end, money they earned by minding and crewing other people's boats. It was a long, slow haul, though. The dollars you earned as employees didn't go that far, not when you were living outside the United States and had to pay private school fees to educate your only child.

That's why Ben had been eager to be done with school; it would help free his parents from a financial burden and allow them to start working on their own boat. Ben's parents had given up a whole other way of life when they first traded the USA for Greece. They had both been high-school teachers, but their abiding love of the sea had prompted them to resign their jobs in favor of going to work for a German industrialist who had advertised in a sailing magazine for a family to look after a yacht he owned, the Kormoran.

The German kept his yacht on the Greek island of Rhodes, which was located in the eastern corner of the Aegean, not far from the Turkish coast. Since working for the German meant being able to sail the fabled Greek islands in summer, Ben's parents decided to accept his offer. They gave up their apartment on Long Island, sold their car and most of their possessions, and moved to Rhodes. Ben was ten at the time; it was hard for him to break away from his friends and schoolmates and move to another part of the world, one which did not speak English as a first language. But over the years, he had come to love Greece. Living on the Kormoran and cruising on it in summer was a wonderful experience. He found it easy to learn Greek and make friends. Life was good, really; he counted himself happy and content--until the accident happened.

His parents were extremely skilled sailors who knew the sea well, having sailed up and down America's East Coast all their lives; but even they could not handle the freak storm that blew up as they were en route to Bermuda. It wasn't the hurricane season, but a hurricane struck nonetheless, almost without warning. They had tried to escape it by changing course and racing at full speed toward the nearest sheltering island, but the storm was too powerful, too savage and tricky. Forty-foot waves and sixty-knot, rain-filled winds had done them in. The boat capsized and eventually sank, taking Ben's parents down with it.

"You must come home now," said Ben's uncle James at the memorial service for his parents. "You are too young to stay on in Greece by yourself. You should come back and apply to college and get yourself some more education."

But Ben would not bend to his uncle's wishes. With the money coming to him, he could now do what his parents had only dreamed of doing: construct his own boat. Not just start on it, either, and build it little by little over the years. He could afford to put it together all at once. Not anything fancy like the 40-foot sloop his parents had dreamed of; it would have to be a much smaller, simpler vessel, like a catamaran. But it would be sea-worthy, roomy enough to live on and charter out to hardy sailors.

"That's an even more ridiculous idea," his uncle said, his voice rising with anger and disapproval. "Where do you get off thinking you could run such a boat as a business?"

"I'm a good sailor," Ben pointed out. "I learned from my parents and helped them on many a charter over the years. And I know the Greek islands well."

"I won't hear of it!" his uncle barked. "I won't allow you to toss your money away on some damn fool idea!"

But Ben had just turned eighteen and was, in the eyes of the law, an adult. He could do what he wanted with the insurance money; neither his uncle James nor anyone else could stop him. Still, he knew he was taking a big chance with his life. He was completely on his own now, and even though he'd had to grow up fast when he was orphaned, he knew he was still a kid, not too wise in the ways of the world. Sometimes when he thought about the future, it seemed scary and threatening. But he resolved not to show his fear.

He owed it to his parents to be brave, to finish the catamaran and sail it around Greece, the way they would have done if they were alive. That's what they had wanted out of life: to be captains of their own boat, masters of their own fate. They hadn't been able to achieve that dream, but he could achieve it for them.

Finishing the catamaran was the only thing that mattered to him now. It took precedence over everything else, which is why Ben shooed the dog away by saying "Fige" to it, Greek for "go away."

Lukas, who was standing nearby, sawing a piece of wood in two, smiled and said, "How do you know he understands Greek? Maybe he belongs to one of the foreign boats in the yard."

"He doesn't belong to any kind of boat," Ben said. "He's too dirty and scared to be a seagoing dog."

Lukas, a tall, stocky, white-haired man with an equally white, curved moustache, put down his saw and studied the dog intently. "You're right about that," he said finally, "he's a scrawny little thing, but there's something special about him. Just look at those eyes."

Sure enough, in those soft, brown eyes was something more than just the usual fear and desperation shown by the local strays. There was an intelligence and sensitivity as unmistakable as it was unexpected. The dog's erect, wide-set ears added to the impression of alertness.

Ben climbed the catamaran's ladder and went below to the galley where he had stored a few provisions. He searched among the cans and cartons for something that might make a meal for the pup, settling finally on a can of macaroni.

The dog smelled the food even before Ben came down off the ladder, whipping his tail from side to side with near-delirious anticipation. But when Ben put the can down and stepped back to watch the dog attack it, he was surprised to see hesitation on the mutt's part. He approached the food, all right, and put his face down toward it, but he would --or could--not eat, making whimpering noises in his throat instead.

"Maybe he hates macaroni," Ben joked.

The old man kept studying the dog. "He wants to eat," he said, "but he can't. Something is wrong with his digestion, worms maybe."

"What should we do?"

The old man thought about it for a while. Then he made up his mind:

"Give him olive oil."

"Olive oil?" Ben started to laugh. "Olive oil is for salads."

The old man's face darkened. "You know nothing," he spat contemptuously. "Olive oil is like a medicine. It's good for a hundred different things. You can put it on skin that's been burned by the sun, or rub it in your scalp to prevent baldness. But it's especially good for ailments of the stomach."

As proof, Lukas put his saw down and crossed to the shed where he kept his personal belongings, returning with a bottle filled with a thick, dark-yellow liquid. "From my own trees," he said proudly. "A first pressing, pure and rich as gold."

Lukas poured half a bottle of oil into a plate and set it down before the dog, who sniffed at it tentatively; it was an unfamiliar smell to him. He looked up questioningly at Lukas, who reassured him with a nod and urged him in Greek, "Try it, it's good for you."

The dog took a lick. The taste went down easily and he looked up at Lukas again, this time gratefully and trustingly. Returning his attention to the plate, he began to lap up its contents, not stopping until the plate was empty. Then he turned and, licking his chops, trotted off.

"We'll never see him again," Ben said.

"You're wrong," Lukas replied. "He's just cleaning himself out."

They resumed work on the catamaran, which, after all these months of hard labor, was nearing completion. So absorbed were they in their chores that they hardly noticed the dog's return an hour or so later. This time the pup went right to the macaroni and began to wolf it down. It was almost comic, the speedy way he ate, jaws chomping away non-stop, concentrating so hard that Ben and Lukas were completely forgotten. In a matter of minutes, the dog devoured his meal in huge, noisy gulps punctuated by the excited whacking of his tail.

He kept going too, licking away at the insides of the can, cleaning it so thoroughly and brightly that it shone like burnished silver in the morning sunlight.

It was only then that the dog looked up, with such gratitude and love that Ben, against his will, felt his heart go out to him.