The Greek Way

Short Story by Willard Manus

A Greek island village is anything but romantic in winter. Goodbye warm, bright days, pellucid blue seas, long boozy dinners under trellises sagging with grapes. Hello grey, chilly weather, winds that rattle the shutters, rains that pour down in torrents and go slashing through the narrow streets and roaring down the hillsides.

This winter in Lindos was a typically unpleasant one. All work ceased, with the fishermen and farmers piling into the coffee houses and killing time by playing cards and backgammon. The damp penetrated into houses and left mildew everywhere. It wasn’t until Christmas that the black clouds finally dissipated and the sun edged out, cheering everyone up–-except the Michaelson family.

Foreigners, they had lived in Lindos for two years, renting a house in the center of the village, one with a large interior courtyard dominated by a Ficus tree. The house had six rooms, the largest of which dated back to medieval times when the Knights of St. John had turned Lindos into a fortress from which they could launch attacks on Ottoman Turkey. The house had history and character, and the Michaelsons loved it, almost as much as they loved Lindos itself. The village had been kind to them; their kids, aged nine and seven, had been allowed to attend the local grammar school; and Martin and his wife had been made to feel welcome by most of the locals. Life was good, Martin thought–-until he was summoned to the police station on Christmas Day and was told by Sgt. Tito that his residence permit would not be renewed.

“You’ve been here long enough,” Tito said with a little smirk. A squat man with a gold tooth and a pointy fingernail to signify that he disdained manual labor, he had always made it clear that he disliked foreigners and didn’t see why they should be allowed to live permanently in Greece.

“But I’m a journalist and have written many articles about Lindos that have brought tourists to the village,” Martin pointed out, struggling to hide his annoyance and anger. If Tito meant what he said, his family would have to pack everything up and say farewell to Lindos. Where in hell would they go and how would they live?

“You’ve done a few good things for the village,” Tito had to admit, “but that doesn’t mean you can stay here forever.”

The argument continued between them, but it was one Martin knew he couldn’t win, if only because Tito, like the little dictator he was, had all the power. The best he could get out of the sergeant was a grudging agreement to let the matter rest for a few days.

Martin went home in a distressed mood, knowing his only hope was to petition his Greek friends for help. He’d seek a few of them out tonight, but in the meantime what was he supposed to do for the rest of the day? His wife and kids were in Rhodes city for a dental appointment, leaving him all alone in the house. Working on his new novel was out of the question; he couldn’t face sitting down at the typewriter and trying to string a bunch of words together.

Fishing! That was the best–-no, the only--way to forget his problems.
So down the hillside he went, heading to the beach house where he stored his diving equipment. Then, after having slipped into his wet suit and weight belt, he trudged across the beach to the quay which jutted out into the main bay. The only person in sight was Yiorgas, a Lindian fisherman.

Yiorgas came to the quay after each winter storm to fish for the whitebait which had sought shelter here. He caught these tiny fish by dipping a sieve-shaped net into the sea and tossing out a handful of bread crumbs. Then, when the fish came close to nibble on the crumbs, he’d snare them with a quick, hard, upwards pull on his net.

Before WW II, Yiorgas, a lean, crusty man in his seventies, had captained a two-masted schooner, transporting goods from Lindos to some of the other Dodecanese islands, as well as Turkey, Cyprus, Syria and Lebanon. But when the Nazis invaded the island in 1943 life changed for him. The Nazis not only impounded his schooner but, right before they decamped from Rhodes two years later, set fire to it. This spiteful act had impoverished Yiorgas, turned him into a subsistence fisherman.

“The sea is cold and dark today,” he told Martin. “You won’t have an easy time of it out there.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Martin replied. “I’m only going diving for the hell of it.”

Martin kept thinking about Yiorgas as he slipped into the water and began paddling with his flippered feet, peering down into the sea through his face-mask. “The harbor used to be full of fish,” the old man had once told him. “You didn’t have to leave it to catch bream and mullet. But when the war broke out and the Germans arrived, they ordered us to start fishing with dynamite. That eventually killed all the fish but the Germans didn’t care. They had managed to feed their soldiers, you see.”

Owing to stories like that, Martin had always avoided diving in the main bay. Also, the bottom was a long way down, a dive of some forty or fifty feet, deeper than he liked to go. But here he was, heading to the middle of the bay, gun at the ready. Visibility was poor, though, just as Yiorgas had said it would be.
He made his first dive about ten minutes later, kicking down through the murky water. About twenty feet down, though, the consistency of the sea suddenly changed and became clear. Not as clear and blue as it was in summer, but transparent enough to be able to see what the bottom looked like. There was a string of flat rocks, some patches of seaweed, and lots of junk: broken ceramic jugs, bits and pieces of a wooden boat, an assortment of empty, rusting tin cans, an old broken anchor.

Not a promising vista, to be sure, but as Martin kept diving and looking around, his hunting instinct suddenly kicked in. Something told him that there was a big fish lurking around in the vicinity.

He kept diving, looking this way and that for a sign that he was right. An hour went by and as the winter sun began to slide down behind the surrounding hills, the sea became darker and more swift-running. Still, Martin persisted and kept pushing down, even though he was beginning to shiver with cold and feel short of breath.

Then it happened. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a grouper–-a whopping big one!–-slowly working his way in and out of the rocks, stopping occasionally to attack a school of small fish. Martin stopped paddling and lay spreadeagled on the surface, staring down at the brown, yellow-mottled grouper. The fish sensed him and also ceased moving, just lay on the sand and stared back up at him, his purplish eyes gleaming. Martin fully expected him to become spooked and suddenly take off. But instead he just turned and slid slowly and languidly under the nearest rock...and stayed put.

The rock was a good forty feet down, but Martin made the dive steadily and swiftly, his body tingling with excitement as he realized he had a good chance of spearing the biggest fish of his life.

He decided not to dive on the front side of the rock, fearing that the grouper might spot him and flee for his life. Instead Martin swam round back where, with the aid of his flashlight, he could peer through a narrow opening and pick out the grouper. Lying on its belly, head facing the other way, tail moving around slowly and stirring up the sand, the fish was not an easy target. Martin slid his spear-gun into the opening and aimed it carefully, hoping to land a killing shot.

The spear didn’t hit where he wanted it to, but its impact stunned the grouper for a moment. Then he recovered and darted out from under the rock. Fortunately the line that was tied to Martin’s spear held fast, the spear-tip as well. Unable to go any further, the grouper now lay outside his lair, writhing around in pain as it struggled to get free.

Martin returned to the surface, gulping down air through his snorkel, and swam to his float. There he untied his back-up spear-gun and cocked it. Then he made another long, deep dive which ended in a position right above the grouper. From there he fired a second shot which hit right behind the fish’s big, bony head; a killing shot that put it out of its misery. Then, with his heart pounding in his chest, Martin cut the line on the first gun and hauled the grouper up to the surface. Once it was tied securely to his float, he was able to relax and make one last triumphant dive to retrieve gun number one.

That night, Martin and his family feasted on grouper baked in olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, oregano and thyme. Ordinarily, Brigette, Martin’s French wife, would have made a soup out of the grouper’s head, but this was a special occasion. Martin put the fish head in a plastic bag, carried it up to the police station and presented it to Sgt. Tito, who gasped when he saw it and cried out happily, deliriously, “You can stay in Lindos for as long as you like! You can stay here for the rest of your life!”