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:: The Burden of Grace by Vasilis Afxentiou ::

Alicia Novapovic, neophyte stuffer of fish, once assistant to her marine taxidermist father on a coastal city of old Yugoslavia--that in better days had seen booming trade with the entire globe--lowered her thorough-blue eyes and tossed her worldly possessions aboard. When Alexi Novapovic was killed--a stray bullet tinkling through the iced windowpane one flurrying morning in February--and left her no more than the proprietorship of a well-kept shop that had no business in a war-ravaged country, Alicia was forced to take her courage into her own thirteen-year-old hands and forge it into fate. A Zephyr tousled her solemn young thoughts and tufted straw hair as she lifted the oars into their holes. Swallows once flew instead of incendiary shells. Back then her father and she would turn dead, empty-eyed fish into handsome, live-looking trophies that customers hung on their walls, for friends to admire, and eventually neglected. Alicia now mulled over the many things grown-ups neglected, had not learned from the aberrant stares of their angled "prizes," and refused to relinquish her life into their wardship. She gave a hefty shove to the deserted, wooden quay and rowed till she was well away. Alicia then turned and looked back. She savored the crisp, stretching splendor around her aunt's seaside home with the slumped, patched red roof. She would never see it again--like a mother that vanished a year ago on her way to the municipal orphans' school to teach. The pristine break of day was balmy and bright and promised good voyaging. So Alicia put all behind but the job at hand. She undid the gaskets and unfurled the mainsail, drew it up the wooden mast, pulled the halyard taught and lashed it to a cleat.

"Now, the proof of the pudding," she said, teetering. She took a hefty whiff of iodine, and her boyish bust bulged. The canvas fluttered a bit and she pushed the tiller out to trim it. The bag swelled with salty breeze. The skiff leaped forward hissing as it skimmed the gentle brew like a gull's wing through air. She secured the tiller, walked the starboard side to the foredeck, and rigged the jib. The boat cleaved the sleek bay in two, tacking into the draught. Bit by bit the cove receded and soon melded into the checkerboard of gold-brown fields in the backdrop. Ahead spanned forty kilometers of sparkling Adriatic. Its end lapped the sandy shores of northern Italy. The small boat pranced onward, banging on the ripening crests, lifting a coruscating spray and dozens of little morning rainbows.

Alicia's lack of seasoning soon became apparent. One minute she was lowering the sail--the next beating the waves. She craned her neck and blinked the streamers off her eyes, only to catch glimpses of her boat fleeting away. A sail partly ballooned out with the force of the gale behind it. She drew her lanky legs in, hoping to escape a subterfuge of currents underneath. Alicia struggled to keep on top. She pivoted to face north, opposite from the lash of the wind. Before her churned sky and sea, fusing into a cobalt oneness.

"What happened to--" The world flashed and crackled a mere few meters away. In due time she grasped that she was underwater, tumbling, with a mouthful of brine, unable to tell which way was up. She flayed, semaphoring haphazardly. Squeeze your nose, Alicia, and blow some.... Alexi had been so vexed with himself that day for not having told her sooner. Ears popped and spatial orientation returned. The depths receded and turbulent, platinum twilight took their place. Surfacing, she retched and drew in endless oxygen through clenched, smarting jaws. She wanted to cry, but her batter by tall walls of waves would not allow it. She needed her father to counsel her...her mother to impart to her the strength of a woman...and her life to live it, seize it and jolt it and tap it dry, exhaust it. Drops fell. Few, fat, ripe ones at first. Then in torrents. She slurped and lapped the rain from her lips and nose, sipping it down.

Around her fish, countless fish, surfaced to drink from the shower. They brushed and tickled the soles of her feet as they flurried by. I must get far away, she thought with urgency. At that same moment something bulky and soapy bumped her, and she squeezed her eyes shut. Trodding noiselessly, Alicia began a prayer. She knew what sharks did. Dead behind her, splattering fins moiled and lathered the waters. She wished that all had ended with the storm. Once on her scent..."it takes minutes to die and it is a lingering death," Alexi had once said, "it is manifold deaths, that of being eaten alive." A quick bullet, amply more merciful, she thought. Alicia released the air from her lungs then, and allowed herself to sink. God, the next breath...let it be the last, she appealed.

Her understudy floated erect and mimicked her paddling. Two jasper eyes perused her vast-blue while she automatically scanned the rest of the sea.

"No sharks!" Not with him--her around. For the mammary glands quavered in full bloom.

"Jjaaarh! Jjaaarh!"

"I love you, too." The other sniffed her and nibbled, fascinated, at the soaked strands of her hair.

"Lost the permanent." Timidly she scratched the velvety epidermis behind the nape and around the breathing orifice. Her company cuddled closer.

"Just like Alicia," she sniffled, "the back always itches." It watched her, intently listening to the sounds she made. But only mournful calls emerged when it seemed to try to imitate her. She laid her lightning-singed cheek against its smooth side, and heard its heart beat. But when Alicia dipped her head in the cool water, jarring outbursts rose from her patron.

Alicia's eyebrows made lofty arches. "Aren't we the den mother!"

"Do you know that you're a cetacean?" She needed to talk, and the dolphin was keen on listening. "You are intelligent and kind..." While she prattled she reached her hand over the powerful back and grasped the dorsal fin.

"...When you were born, the other adults helped to lift you upward and upward to break surface, and whiff your first scent of life. It was gracious of you to do the same." She considered.

"Thank you, Grace." She scooped from the passing stream a palatefull of salty water and spilled it out again. Thirst began to haunt Alicia.

She was grateful for the evening. The August blare and hours of drag through the sea were decimating her. Her dry throat gagged. And water was everywhere. She dipped her tongue into the flowing stream and swallowed. The taste was liquid and refreshing. Sluggishly, she managed to tow herself to a half-lying, half-straddling station over the mammal. The dolphin, to her wonderment, shimmied and rippled its muscles distributing her weight evenly. She nestled closer to the warmth of the body, but her exposed backside still took the brunt of the frosty jabs. Hours passed like winters. Grace jolted her to wakefulness several times, twisting to keep her from sliding off. The stars were all out now. The North Star flickered high ahead. Alicia blinked at it, fighting drowsiness.

"You're traveling into the current, heading for--"


"Nobody'll believe--" Alicia rasped. She swallowed, and grimaced with pain.

"Why aren't you minding your young ones?" she finally cried out, but it came out like a neigh.

"You left them behind, chased away sharks, to save--who? A runaway." Alicia felt great bitterness then, and greater love than her years could have permitted.

"Oh, sea mother, why?" she asked. Something familiar at that moment burst in her awareness.

"Mother's not running away!" It cast over Alicia like a warm blanket on a brassy night.

"She's hiding the orphans, and no one must know. To protect them from the sharks of the land." Her light-headedness expelled in a croaking, raw titter.

"And fish now will stuff themselves with Alicia--?"

"Jjaaarh, jjeeer."

Delirious levity given vent, "Dear heart, I won't make it, too weak... thirsty, dehydrating. I'm dead weight, Grace. I can't see from thirst, I can't hold on without--" She relaxed her arms. Grace stopped as Alicia slipped off. The dolphin did not protest this time, but remained solemnly still. Alicia could barely paddle, and sank. And drank. She drank...and drank...until she ran out of breath she drank. By that time, the dolphin had rolled over. She broke surface too, and she could breathe and drink and breathe and make out a spray of twinkles in the near distance, and languidly bobbing in the foreground a half-draped vessel she thought she'd never see again. Her nose ran, then her eyes, but the dolphin remained serenely supine as she hauled hungrily to the other tit.

"Jjiiih, jjiiih." She suckled, sobbed, suckled, cried, and to her surprise her crying sounds resembled infinitely more the calls of Grace.

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