Fish Story


January 29, 1991|By N.E. GLYPHIS

On a cool, rainy Monday evening I stopped by an outdoor poolat the National Aquarium and I saw a brown object gliding along the bottom, slowly growing larger as it neared the surface. Without causing a ripple, a sleek, lovely face appeared with large, blinking brown eyes looking straight at me, through me, into my heart. I stood transfixed and remembered an event some 17 years in my past.

I was on the small, sparsely populated island in the Aegean Sea where my family came from. It was idyllic. The island was green with cypress trees, with acres of olive groves and carefully tended grapevines. Jasmine and wildflowers grew everywhere.

There were no cars, factories or pollution.

The stone homes were built into cliffs rising out of the sea. They were painted a bright white that dazzled the eye, with blue trim around the windows to protect against the ''evil eye.'' The men worked either the land or the sea; the women cooked over wood fires. They were a rugged, intelligent people whose warm hospitality showed in many parties and feasts. I was accepted immediately because I was blood. I felt I had stopped back 100 years into the past.

One night as I sat at an outdoor cafe a cousin of mine came in and announced he needed someone to help him fish. The men stared, then went back to what they were doing, ignoring him.

Everyone, including me, knew what he did. He caught more fish than anyone, caught only the best, most sought-after fish which he sold to restaurants under contract. He was always the first in port with a full load and he never spent hours sewing at his nets as the others had to do. He was grudgingly respected and slightly feared. He looked at me and I nodded, and soon I was providing my aunts and uncles with enough fish for everyone. I had become a dynamiter.

We would be in position over the fishing grounds at dawn. Antonis in the bow scanned under the sea with a glass-bottom bucket, while I in the stern held the throttle. We both chain-smoked cigarettes, which we used to light the fuses of the precut sticks of dynamite.

If Antonis saw a school of fish swimming deep, he'd reach into a wooden box and out would come a stick, with a long fuse and a heavy rock lashed to the end. He would touch the fuse to his cigarette and toss the charge into the center of the fish. A few seconds later would come a muffled explosion, and a spray of water would wet us.

It is a myth that dynamited fish float to the surface; nearly all sank to the bottom. In shallow water we tied long poles together with a trident spear lashed to the end to gather the stunned fish. In deep water, I'd dive over the side in scuba gear to retrieve the fish.

Back on the boat, we sorted and stored the fish, watching the horizon for any boat that might have heard the blast, quickly washing the excrement from the blown fish while packing them in crates to be iced and shipped upon returning to port.

Clap! Clap! Clap!

Antonis was frozen like a statue. Only his eyes moved, hunting the sea for the source of the noise. He tensed and hissed, ''Do you see him? There! There under the large rock. Oh, Blessed Virgin! Thank you for sending him. Cut the engine, use the oars.'' He began clapping his hands in response. I was looking into a wall of sunlight, trying to penetrate, wondering what could make such a human sound.

''Haven't you seen him yet? It's a focca,'' he said as he reached for the dynamite. He lighted the fuse and threw -- and then I saw it. A beautiful, friendly, innocent face. My mind recoiled.

It was a seal -- in these waters? I yelled and watched the seal disappear beneath the surface. A few seconds later the charge went off. Antonis scanned the bottom with the looking glass but found no trace of the seal. I like to think it got away but I can never be sure.

A violent argument followed. Antonis screamed that I had taken food from his children, that the seal was worth a lot of money. I yelled back that I would not kill a baby seal for anyone. He smiled thinly and said, ''Poor little Nicky. What do you think you were doing these past two months, playing some sort of game? Do you know what would happen if we're caught by the Coast Guard? The military junta has decreed the possession of explosives a major crime. At the very least we would taste beatings and torture.''

He went on, the sarcasm heavy. ''What about all the fish we killed and left to rot on the bottom. How about the coral reefs and the kelp fields we destroyed to catch the prime fish? Where was your conscience then, my naive American cousin?''

His words hit me like fists. I picked up the box of dynamite and heaved it into the deep. Not a word was said as I started the engine and steered toward the harbor.

L N.E. Glyphis is a security guard at the Walters Art Gallery.

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