Fiction By Djordje Negovanovic

The sea was quiet and empty, save for a lone fishing boat smaller than a merchant’s stable.

The hull, having been painted a color of vague maroon, was held together by peeling planks and benevolent barnacles. On its humble deck rested an ancient, contemplative man, tugging at his pale hat that kept trying to fly with the faint sea breeze. His long, silver beard and mustache hid a silent mouth; his thick eyebrows arched over deep-set eyes that gazed out through the thin mist on the open water, searching for something lost long ago.

The man, tired, sat on the pointed bow of the old ship. He hung his head low, not in destitution, but in relief. The sailor, his wrinkled hands hugging his old knees, was free. Free from the world, from the land, from his past.

The man thought for a moment as the sea listened. Surely if his past was behind him, it would not hurt to spend a second reminiscing.

He’d met a beautiful woman once. His clothes had been slick and sodden with sea water, his face caked in sweat. The man, young back then, cursed under his breath; it had been an unsuccessful fishing trip.

“Well, I’ve heard the phrase ‘swear like a sailor’, but it seems you need a little more vigor in it.”

The young fisherman spun around, away from the gray waters and dilapidated docks. Behind him, a woman with auburn hair and glowing skin stood in front of the setting sun. Her hands folded in front of her, she looked at the man with sparkling eyes. She was beautiful.

“I don’t take much pleasure in cursing,” he explained. “But when there’s a need…”

The young woman smiled. “A rare occurrence, then,” she mused. “And what has disgraced you on this disgustingly humid day, on these awful docks?”

The man smirked for a moment. “The fish seem to have not taken a liking to me.” He held up the empty bucket in his sweaty hand.

“Oh, what a disastrous calamity!” she mocked, stepping closer to him. “Ah, the end of the world! Those aquatic monsters will rue the day they ever ignored your magnificent line!”

He smiled, but his disappointment was deep-set in his chest. “This was important to me.”

“You know what I find more important than a few bashful halibut?” she asked, slowly stealing the bucket from his hand. He felt the weight of the thing abandon him, lightening his load. “Happiness.”

“That’s quite the cliché.”

“Maybe so,” she said. “But it’s true. My mother always told me, ‘Dream big, little sheep’. And so I shall.”

The young man felt an orange ball of warmth fill his body, reaching with nerve-like branches throughout his chest. He’d never felt this emotion before. Was it joy? Desperation? Excitement? “And what do you dream of?” he asked her. In that moment, her answer mattered more than anything.

She opened her mouth to speak, but instead smiled and grabbed his wrist, turning toward the rose-colored hues of the sunset. “Come,” she implored, “let me show you.”

With flowing hair and a smile that shook the earth beneath his feet, she swept him from the ugly grays of the world. With her, he was immune to the plagues that wrought despair in the lands around him, and instead joined her in hers, a land of vibrant wonders and laughter. Their wedding day, the man remembered, was filled with white tulips and swaying trees, but he could only envision having looked into his wife’s beautiful face, cheeks apple-red with soft love. Whisking her away to the wonders of the sparkling countryside, the man built a cottage of cedar wood; though quaint and modest, the house managed to contain all of the love it harbored inside. And once, too, it held a baby girl, rich with adoration. And the family was happy.

The man reached up, plucked the sapphire memory from inside his head, and cast it into the hungry waters.

He was wrong. This was not a time for such memories.

Looking upon the stars in the dark sky, the man sighed. They shone a humble light down to the earth alongside a timid moon. In their silent glory they glimmered from the sleepless heavens, watching the old man and his fishing boat drift lazily along. He wondered who would look away first. The wind whistled and sang, causing slight ripples in the waters below and coating the man in cold air. He tugged his dull fishing coat around him, feeling the warmth radiating from his body become trapped beneath it.

His daughter would have loved such a night.

Beneath her white covers, the man remembered, she had looked so small. Her sickly, translucent skin mimicking her thin blankets, she gazed up at her father with small, wise, innocent eyes. Her long lashes blinked slowly. She was going to die. But no one would admit it.

“Father,” she said in a meek voice, “I’m hungry.”

“I know,” her father smiled, still strong even as his age began to show. He presented to her her dinner and sat her up in her small bed.

“Fish again?” she whined quietly.

“What do you expect me to do? Your father is a fisherman.”

“Yes, but can you catch nothing but fish?”

He thought for a moment. “I could attempt to hunt.”

“Then what are you waiting for?” his daughter squealed excitedly, her sickness not allowing her much movement. “Will you catch a doe? Or a hog? Ooh! I’ve always wanted to try buffalo.”

The man smiled. “Dream big, little sheep,” he said as he cupped her cheek. “I will be back before long.” He looked over to his wife, her beauty only growing with age, embraced her smiling figure, and left the cabin.

The man spent the whole evening hunting. Inexperienced yet determined, he stalked through the surrounding woods and searched for something that would satisfy his daughter’s wish. Though he spotted a buck, larger than a boulder and sauntering between the trees, his arrow shot missed by a margin and sent it sprinting off into the deep woods. Before long, night fell, and the stars his daughter loved filled the purple sky. Beneath such a view, though, was a small white rabbit, feasting quietly below on a cluster of yellow flowers. The man aimed, fired, and finally secured the game he was searching for the whole night.

By time he returned, he found his beautiful wife sobbing wildly over the still body of their little girl, her eyes casting a blank gaze. Quiet.

Before morning the white rabbit was left rotting at the bottom of the bay.

The man, reaching once more into his head, took this memory and sent it, too, into the waiting waters.

These memories were of no importance anymore. His life, his past… was over. It was gone and behind him, invisible through the thick fog that laid atop the waters. He was going to sail far; he was going to see the world. Surely there was more to life, more ahead of him.

The man stood from his perch at the front of the boat and walked around the sodden deck. His footsteps on the creaking wooden floor were the only sounds that echoed through the night. His rubber boots, step by step, carried him over to the overused fishing rod, resting on the side of the ship. He picked it up speculatively, examining the thinning line. He was surprised he'd gotten so much use out of it. Gripping his fingers tight around the rusting handle, he realized the grime he was bringing onto his hands. The man quickly dropped the line and rubbed the dirt away.

His wife had been coming home often with dirt on her hands too.

Ever since their child had died and been buried in a small grave near their home, his wife entered the house with dirty hands.

“Why are your hands covered in soil?” the man asked his wife.

“I’ve taken up the art of foraging,” she said simply. Though wrinkles outlined her graying face, she was still beautiful.

“And what have we got today?”

The woman smiled, proud. “Wild onions!” she said, holding up her prizes of long, green stalks.

The man mirrored her smile. “I love green onions.”

“Oh! What a coincidence! I love you.” She kissed the man on his cheek, his beard thick with streaks of gray, and began chopping.

And the days continued like so. The man, now old, fished for the both of them in the open sea while his wife roamed through the delicate forest for nuts and vegetables. Every evening the husband and his wife would share their day’s work. Sometimes feasts of tuna and bass and wildberries and herbs transpired within the humble cottage, filling their stomachs and broken hearts; some nights they had to make do with small minnow and a few wild almonds. Nevertheless, the couple was happy, as happy as they could have been.

One day the man’s wife never returned from the forest.

After a day of fishing on the shoreside, the man returned to a hollow home. He became worried; it was always his wife who had been there to smile at him as he returned from his modest fishing boat. The man waited, offering his wife time to come back from the forest. He grew restless as night approached without her. She would not come back.

Racing through the forest as fast as his ancient legs could carry him, the man tore through the brush in search of his love. Weaving through the thick trees and lush bushes, he sought her, envisioning her bright face on their wedding day, the soft curves of her small mouth wearing a smile. It was that same face that he found on the ground, hosting that same small mouth now covered in the juice of poisonous berries, drawing no breath. Even in death she was beautiful.

And so the man returned to their home, now cold and empty, and buried his wife next to their daughter.

“You know what I find more important than a few bashful halibut?” she had said all those years ago. But… what was it that came after? “Life”? No. “Comfort”? No, it was not that either. The man could not remember anymore.

Looking upon the house once more, he struck a match and set it ablaze. Upon his fishing boat he sailed away, sparing one more glance at the life he’d had.

He ripped this memory too from his head and fed the sea.

The old man was hopeless. With no sense of direction and no land in sight, he resorted to sitting on the lip of the boat, resting his tired legs. He breathed the saline air and sought out no more memories, for what memories did he have left? He stared out into the white mist and waited. Perhaps for another boat, perhaps for sleep, but waiting nevertheless. He was going to see the world, explore the vast seas. Right?

Dream big, little sheep. But his mind was empty, and his heart hollow. Was there truly a life ahead of him?

Before long, his sapphire memories began to swim up from the bottom of the endless sea. Reaching up with clawed hands and angry fangs, they tore away the weak planks of wood that bound the boat together, roaring and screeching. Soon, gaping maws opened on the sides of the hull, inviting water into the small ship. With the boat sinking deeper and deeper, the violent hands from the water found purchase on the top edges of the deck and pulled downward with all their might.

The old fisherman did not move. “Dream big, little sheep.” But whatever that meant anymore was lost to him.

Wrenching the tiny fishing boat deeper and deeper down into the ravenous waters, the memories heaved downward with wild abandon. The water quaked and the sea air was filled with their mournful moans. As the top of the ship disappeared beneath the surface of the water, the screeching claws pulled the man and his boat to the very bottom.

The sea was quiet and empty