and Odo married when they were sixteen years old in the small Italian village
known as il villaggio di Ombri.
was a childish romantic who dreamed of love, one of seven children who wanted
to be swept away to a castle on the sea. Odo was an only child who had come
late to his parents—strong, confident, mature for his age, eager to start his
own family and prove himself capable in the world.
like his father, like many of the other men in the village, grew up fishing on
the Mediterranean at his father's side. Now that he was married, he needed to
borrow money from the bank to buy his first dory, one of the small fishing
boats the locals called le pescherecce. So one day Odo and his father walked
into the bank while the other fishermen in town gathered outside on the
sidewalk and waited.
the two men emerged, Odo's loan secured, the men patted him on the back and led
him to the tavern for his first official tankard of birra as a man. It was a ritual all the young fishermen went
through. They cared little for the sports and games, music, dancing, parties,
and fast cars that seemed to captivate the young people in other towns. It was
dories they wanted—le pescherecce. In il villaggio di Ombri, it was not the signorine who turned boys into men, but rather the bankers who gave
them the loans for their first boats. So it was with Odo.
young couple moved into Odo’s grandfather’s house, which had been empty since
the old man died. Although it was little more than a shack, to Mara it was the
castle she’d always dreamed of, and Odo saw it as the foundation of his new
life. They did what they could to make the house their own. Mara and her mother
fashioned new drapes and curtains, and coverings for the musty old furniture,
while Odo and his father repaired shutters, loose boards, and replaced the
sagging shingles on the roof.
was an excellent seamstress. Her mother had begun teaching her to sew from the
moment Mara could hold a needle and thread in her tiny fingers. Now she would
be expected to make money and contribute a small amount to the household income
as Odo struggled to earn a wage from his daily catch.
afternoon while working, Odo and his father found Grandfather’s old fishing net
in the ramshackle shed behind the house. Odo was excited to discover it and
promised to begin patching and knotting the ancient nettle-hemp rope. “Nonno would be proud of you,” Odo’s father
said. “As I am.”
might think that the life of fishing families was the same for everyone,
wrought with the daily demands of a fishing economy, up before dawn, catching
fish at sea in the morning and selling their catch at the market in the
afternoon, and then cleaning and maintaining boats and equipment until nightfall.
But the families that shared these lives filled them with small rituals that
made their days unique, personal, and special unto themselves.
and Odo woke together each morning and dressed in the darkness of their small
bedroom, the smell of brine and ancient wood in the air. Mara prepared
breakfast while Odo made coffee on the stove. After breakfast they went out
together to launch the dory. Mara carried an old fishing rod she’d found among
Odo’s grandfather’s belongings, and Odo carried the gear he would need for the
they reached the dock, Mara baited the hook and cast the line in a graceful,
sweeping arc into the sea. If she caught two fish in the morning for their
supper, Odo wouldn’t need to take two fish out of his nets before he went to
fishing,” Odo said to Mara.
fishing,” Mara answered.
they kissed lightly on the lips and separated.
here, too, is where their hearts divided—Mara the romantic and Odo the
conqueror. Mara’s lips trembled for fear that she might never see him again. This kiss, on this morning, she couldn’t
help thinking, might be the last. A storm
or some other horror at sea could steal my Odo away forever.
worry,” Odo said, tasting her fear. “There’s no danger for a good fisherman on
the sea. No matter what happens out there,” he motioned vaguely at the line
where the sea met the horizon, “I will always come home to you. I promise.”
Then he took her hand and placed it over his chest where she could feel the
steady, reassuring beat of his heart.
kiss shared, the promise delivered, their ritual complete, Odo climbed aboard
his dory and shoved off.
the last part of the ritual belonged to Mara alone. She held Odo’s heartbeat in
her hand long after they waved goodbye. She squeezed it down so far into the
palm of her hand that she would be able to hold it there all day, feel it
beating gently under her skin, until Odo returned safely home. This was how she
knew he was alive and well even when they were apart, separated by the sea.
day a storm blew in while the men were out fishing. As soon as the sky darkened
and the rain began to fall, the women ran to shore to wait for their husbands
to return home. They clutched each other’s hands and shivered as thunder sounded
and lightning struck, as gusts of wind blew back their hair in swirling strands
and snapped their skirts like flags.
the dories returned, one by one, bobbing like drunken buoys on the chopping
waters. One by one the wives broke the chain of hands, ran to their husbands,
hugged them and wept with relief as the men stepped out of their boats. All the
other couples walked away until only Mara and her mother-in-law remained gazing
out at the crashing waves.
another dot appeared on the water, laboring its way to shore, listing
drunkenly. By the time the dory reached the dock, Mara could see there was only
one man aboard.
and drenched, her father-in-law stumbled forward. His wife ran to him and
helped him walk up the shore while Mara, wringing her hands, stood and watched.
The old man came to her and stood unsteadily in the wind. He was a broken mast,
his face grim and sad, longer and older than she’d ever seen it.
he said. “I’m so sorry. I don’t know how to tell you. Odo. The fishing was bad
in the harbor. He went farther out than anyone else hoping to fill his nets. He
knew better, but he was fearless. My Odo. I tried to hail him when the sky
darkened, but he was too far out. I went after him, but the storm blew me back
in. I couldn’t reach him. I’m sorry.”
allowed herself to be led back to her house, where her in-laws wanted to stay
with her and comfort her in her grief, and perhaps be comforted themselves, but
she asked them to leave after a time.
worry,” Mara said, hoping to reassure them. “My Odo is not dead.”
must face the truth,” the old man said. “It will be easier for you if you do.”
you see his boat go down?” she asked. “Did you see him drown?”
shook his head sadly. “No, but I’m no stranger to storms on the Mediterranean.
The sea has taken him. We take what we want from the sea, and then there comes
a time when the sea takes what it wants from us. This is the way of things. You’re
not the first wife to suffer such a loss, and you won’t be the last.”
sorry you feel that way,” she said. Mara knew what her in-laws could not have
known, what she could not begin to explain to them. She still felt the soft
beat of Odo’s heart in the palm of her hand. Odo was alive. “Odo promised me he’d
always come home no matter what happened at sea. I believe him. He’ll be back.”
night, Mara slept the deep and dreamless sleep of the dead, il sonno dei morti, and woke before dawn
with the thump of Odo’s heart still in her hand. She decided to keep their
rituals as much as she could and carried the grandfather’s fishing rod to
shore. She baited her hook and cast the line out to sea. The storm had passed.
The sky was clear. She could see for miles. She watched the fishermen launch
their dories one at a time into the soft blue waves. There was no sign of Odo,
but Mara was not worried.
three mornings it went like this. She woke with Odo’s heartbeat in her hand,
set out before dawn to cast her line, watched the boats come and go, and caught
nothing. Her mother visited bearing food and more sewing work than usual to
help Mara keep her mind off the tragedy. But there was no tragedy in Mara’s
mind, and she was happy for the extra work. Odo would be pleased when he
returned to find that she’d earned some money for the household while he was
away. She looked forward to showing him her full purse.
in-laws came to check on her, their eyes red with strain, their faces lined
with grief, urging her to leave the house on the seashore and return to her
parents’ home where she could get on with her life. The rescuers had found no
sign of Odo or his dory and had given up the search.
over,” her father-in-law said. For the first time Mara noticed how the sea and
the wind had hardened his face, how thin and tough was his brow, the roughly
tanned neck and ears, the deep crows’ nests at the corners of his eyes, his
hard, dry lips and tawny complexion. The fisherman’s life had made him so
handsome! Odo will look like this someday,
she thought, hiding her smile.
the third day, Mara caught three fish. This was a good omen. If the fish were
returning to the harbor, Odo might be, too. She went back to the house to clean
the fish and prepare a meal just in case Odo was home in time for dinner. But
when she gutted the belly of the first fish, a human toe fell out.
recoiled from it. The toe looked like Odo’s big left toe, large-knuckled and
bent slightly inward. No. It couldn’t be. Could it? She looked down at her
palm, felt Odo’s heartbeat there, thumping gently just under the surface of her
skin. Alive. He was still alive. He must be!
wiped her brow and went to work on the second fish. And an ear fell out. That could be anyone’s ear, she thought,
although the lobe was long, like Odo’s. When she gutted the third fish, a human
finger fell out. It was Odo’s finger. His wedding ring was still wrapped around
hands trembled. She dropped the knife. How does one make sense of a thing like
this? The mind begins to construct scenarios. Mara’s mind went swiftly to work.
Perhaps things were not as bad as they seemed. Odo had told her that he would
return to her no matter what happened at sea. Maybe he was trying to come home
inside the fish.
ran to shore with the rod, cast the line again, and in a short time caught more
fish. She brought them inside and cut them open and found Odo’s ear and kidney.
She ran out again, cast her line, but no more fish would bite.
began to fear that the fish with Odo inside would escape her—she would never be
able to catch them all with a single line—so she went to the grandfather’s shed
and dragged out his tattered old fishing net. There were gaping holes in it,
but Odo had begun repairing it using the clove-hitch and sheet-bend knots his
father had taught him, and she was sure she could catch many fish in it.
hauled the heavy net out to the dock and cast it into the sea. Its stone
sinkers and thick ropes weighed it down. It took all her strength to throw it
out and tow it back in. But she was determined.
caught dozens of fish this way. Frantically cut them open. Found pieces of her
husband’s arms and legs and torso. Found his lips and nose and elbows. All day
long she sliced open fish after fish and ran out to catch more. She set the
pieces of Odo out on her worktable like a puzzle waiting to be assembled.
dragged in as many fish as she could, worked tirelessly through the night,
searching for more of her husband, finding his eyes and neck and ankles and
feet, finding bits of flesh and bone. While she worked, tiny fish bones pricked
her fingers, turning her hands into crimson pincushions. By the end of the
night, she reeked of fish and was sodden with blood and guts and scales.
her adrenaline spent, she collapsed from exhaustion and slept for a long time.
then, when she woke, she began stitching.
would be no hiding the stitches, of course. There were so many pieces of Odo,
and none of his parts fit as well as they had before, the fish having taken so
much and returned so little. In many places, Mara’s seams were deep and wide
and, for lack of a better word, grisly. But when Mara finished her work, there
was no doubt it was Odo. The round cheeks. The sunken, serious eyes. The thin
lips and strong chin. His chest and back and legs were mostly ragged thread,
although she’d done her best to weave in his flesh and bones where she could.
The legs were uneven (she’d caught only one knee). He would walk with a limp,
was sorry about the stitches in his head, which made his face look a bit like a
patchwork quilt, but there was no helping it considering what she’d had to work
with. Anyone who knew good sewing would understand what a difficult job it had
been and how well she’d done putting Odo back together.
how to make him rise? He lay on her worktable no more animated than a slab of
meat. She hadn’t caught his heart, but she could still feel his heartbeat in
her palm, so she knew he was alive. How was she to get Odo’s heart from her
hand into his body?
lifted her husband’s hand and squeezed it. “Odo, please, tell me what to do!”
was when he moved. His eyes blinked, his legs twitched, and his muscles rippled
Mara cried. “You’re alive! I knew you
when she let go of his hand to hug him, he fell dead again. She snatched up his
hand once more and watched the life flow back into his body. She had to hold
his hand, press his heart into his palm, to make him come alive. That was the
secret! That was the key! Each morning Odo had handed his heart to her for
safekeeping, so she could hand it back to him if he ever needed it again. Now
that time had come. Hand to hand. Heart to heart. Amore a amore.
helped Odo sit up, and then stand, and then walk. He seemed to understand her
when she spoke, although there was no expression on his face, no sparkle in his
cold, steady eyes, and he could not answer her. All he could do was move his
jaw slowly, uselessly mimicking her.
matter. Odo was alive. And Mara had given him life. He’d tried so hard to come
home to her, just as he’d promised, and now they were reunited. Surely he would
get better in time. She couldn’t wait for her mother to see him, and Odo’s
parents, and the people in the village.
dressed Odo in his finest clothes. She wanted him to look his best when they
walked together hand-in-hand into il
villaggio di Ombri. She could not wash the stink of rotting fish from his
body, but she didn’t think that anyone would care about that once they saw him.
Wasn’t it more important that he’d returned? A little stink would be nothing to
the people of the village, who were accustomed to the smell of fish and rot.
they made their way down Main Street, windows and doors flew open, people
gawked, parents gasped and hid their children, shopkeepers talked in hushed, urgent
tones. Word spread quickly through the village.
Mara went about her shopping in the market, she smiled and talked to her
husband as she bought squash and potatoes and flour, handing bags to Odo to
carry, failing to notice the horror etched in the eyes of others, all the while
holding her husband’s hand to keep his heart beating.
with his cold, dead gaze and lifeless motions, looked no more alive than a
marionette. The stall-keepers turned their noses at his horrible stench. The
same people who spent all day with the smell of decapitated fish filling their
nostrils, with overflowing buckets of viscera spilling from their carrettini into the gutters at their
feet, their aprons soaked in blood, how could they turn up their noses at Odo?
parents had heard the news and arrived at the market just as Mara finished
filling her bags. They rushed over to her.
Odo’s father said, grabbing her shoulders. “What have you done?”
it wonderful? Odo lives!”
God,” Odo’s mother said. “That’s not Odo. Whatever it is, it’s not alive. It’s
a monster. Can’t you see that?”
shook her head. What’s wrong with these
people? “I thought you would be pleased. This is your son. My husband. Don’t
you recognize him? You should be grateful he’s come back from the sea.”
hasn’t come back from the sea,” her father-in-law said, tears clouding his
eyes. “He’s come back from the dead.
It’s not natural. It’s not right. I don’t know how you’ve done it, but
this...this...thing is not our son.
Can’t you smell it? You must return it to the sea.”
How can you say that?” She jerked away, tugging Odo along with her. “Come, Odo.”
other people began to scold her. “You blind fool!” they shouted. “He belongs to
the dead! Give him back!”
started to run. Odo stumbled. His legs were stiff and uneven, and he didn’t
seem to understand her urgency. “Hurry!” she cried. Odo dropped the bags. The
potatoes rolled out onto the street. The flour bag broke into a mound of snow.
people shouted after her: “Wicked girl! Ragazza
malvagia! Stop them! Don’t let them get away!”
villagers rushed her and yanked her husband’s hand out of her grip. Odo fell
limp, as boneless as an eel. She screamed, but they held her down as the men
carried Odo to the docks, laid him in a dory, and sailed him out to sea. The
same men who once congratulated him when he’d secured the loan for his dory.
The same men who once patted him on the back and bought him his first tankard
of birra. Now they took him out to bury
him at sea.
in-laws tried to calm her, but she was hysterical until a doctor arrived with a
syringe and gave her a shot. Then the world spun out from under her in a dark,
shadowy wave, and pulled her down into unconsciousness.
woke in her old bed at her parents’ house, in the room she once shared with her
two younger sisters. Her mother was watching over her, a look of kind concern
on her face. She might have been crying. It was hard to tell. People who lived
by the sea always looked as if their eyes were damp.
brushed back Mara’s hair and forced a weak smile. “Welcome home, mia figlia. You’ll live with us now. We’ve
moved your sisters upstairs so you can have this room to yourself.”
didn’t answer. The house was too crowded before she’d married Odo. Giving her a
room of her own was a burden to the family. But she didn’t care. It wouldn’t be
for long. Her life was over. Odo’s heartbeat was gone from her hand. It was the
first thing she’d noticed upon waking. There was no chance of his coming back
to her again. It was too late. He was dead.
a young girl,” her mother went on. “You have a long life ahead of you. Odo
would have wanted you to be strong and carry on.”
true. Odo would have wanted her to be with him, or he would never have tried so
hard to come back to her. It was the outside world that had kept them apart.
What was left for her now? She would be no more than a stray dog in this
village, shunned and pitied. Mara had no intention of living in a world where
Odo’s heart no longer beat for her.
night, she waited until everyone fell asleep, and then she slipped out of the
house and returned to her castle by the seashore. She put on her wedding dress,
went to the ramshackle shed, and hauled the grandfather’s old fishing net onto
the dock. There she wrapped the net around her shoulders and gazed up at the
luminous moon glow that set the water unnaturally afire. She looked down at her
hand one last time. Squeezed it into a fist. Closed her eyes. Waited to feel
the beat of Odo’s heart.
was no more for her to do, then, but go to her husband.
jumped into the sea. The stone sinkers and heavy ropes dragged her down to the
bottom and trapped her under the net. Mara felt much like she did when she’d
been drugged at the market, only this time it was the shadow of the
Mediterranean that closed in over her head, and she would not be waking in her
old bedroom ever again.
next day, a freighter picked up Odo out in the shipping channel. He clung,
barely breathing, to a buoy as the sea captain hauled him aboard. It was a
miracle he’d been found at all let alone found alive. His head was badly cut,
his body bleeding from horrible gashes, and he fell in and out of consciousness
as the ship’s doctor tended his wounds.
rescue was, at first, joyous news to everyone in il villaggio di Ombri, but when Mara’s body was discovered under
the dock, it quickly became an impossible tragedy to bear. By mutual and silent
consent, the villagers chose not to speak of the day Mara brought Odo’s ghoul
to the market, thinking it would be better for Odo never to hear such a story,
and, no doubt, frightened at how much the stitches in Odo’s head resembled
those Mara had given him.
he was well enough, Odo returned to fishing. Because he no longer had a dory of
his own, he’d go out each morning with his father. They’d sell their catch in
the afternoon, and work together until nightfall. Life must go on. Life did go
on. Odo was a practical man by nature. Soon, when his father was ready to
retire, he purchased the dory and married Mara’s sister, Mina.
was a year younger and looked very much like Mara. But the differences soon
became apparent to Odo. Mina was a size smaller than Mara in all aspects—eyes,
nose, ears, mouth, body, and spirit. She was neither as quick-witted nor as
interested in the personal rituals that had been so important to Mara. Although
Mina was a good cook, and adept with a broom, she had no facility with needle
missed Mara’s childlike attachment to romance, which Mina did not possess. He
yearned for the taste of fear on Mara’s trembling lips. Mina had neither the
imagination nor inspiration to fear. It was Mara, he realized, who’d possessed
the secrets in her heart that made him want to rise out of bed every morning
and fight for their lives together rather than just live another day of it.
the days and months and years marched on, Odo began to wonder if he was somehow
living a diminished copy of his life, just as he’d acquired a diminished copy
of Mara. Each morning during the first few seconds of wakefulness, he felt as
if he were on the cusp of rising into a new reality. This new reality was a
kind of enlightenment waiting for him, an explanation that would reveal the
grand delusion he’d been laboring under for so long. In these moments, he was
sure he was about to wake not from sleep, but from death itself into the truth
of all existence. But the moments always passed quickly, a mere whisper away.
flashes continued to haunt him as the children grew, as he walked his son to
the bank to secure the loan for his first dory, and as he married off his
daughters one by one. The moments continued to haunt him as the grandchildren
visited and scrabbled about the house like stone crabs, and Mina grew stooped
and round of shoulder, and Odo became too old to fish on the sea. For whatever
reason, he was living a shadow of his life, and the people in it were
silhouettes, while his true life waited just out of reach.
Odo took to sitting for long hours on the dock, his grandfather’s fishing rod
perched beside him, waiting for the fish to bite. As time went on he’d sit
longer and longer into the night, hypnotized by the constellations and the
sound of the sea sloshing dark circles around him, convincing him to fall
asleep until morning. During his darkest moments, Odo could feel the barest
hint of a heartbeat in the palm of his hand, and he often wondered if it was Mara
somehow calling to him.
one lonely night, as the sun fell into the Mediterranean, as the moon climbed
high above it, as the fog rolled in, Odo heard a soft creaking sound echo
across the water. He knew the sound of a dory better than any other sound in
the world, but it was unusual for a fisherman to be out so late at night,
especially without a lamp. He peered into the darkness for a while but could
see nothing through the fog, so he finally stood and walked to the edge of the
man never forgets his first dory, no more than he forgets his first love. The
curve of its spine, the way the prow breaks the waves, the flaking patches of
paint on the hull, even the sound it makes in the water. Each dory speaks its
own language. There was no doubt in Odo’s mind. This was his first beloved il peschereccio.
dory crept closer, seeming to move of its own will. There was no motor
propelling it, no oars lapping in the waves. But he saw someone sitting tall,
still as a ghost, draped in the chill night fog. Odo stared at the figure
through the gloom until he was sure his vision hadn’t betrayed him. Then the
strength drained from his legs, and he dropped to his knees. The dory slid
gently, silently to the dock and stopped in front of him.
is that you?” Odo asked, his voice trembling. “Dear God, is it really you? How
can it be?”
stood and stared into his eyes. She was as young and beautiful as the day they’d
married. In fact, she was wearing her wedding dress. But there was something
different about her, too. Her face was expressionless. She seemed little more
than a body, a fluid statuette, and her eyes were cold, dark, deep, and empty,
like the sea itself. And she carried the faint but unmistakable odor of death.
reached out and took Odo’s hand in hers. Her touch chilled him to the bone and
sent him shivering, and then Odo felt the heartbeat in his palm come alive and
throb wildly under his skin.
with me, Odo,” she said in her
“It’s time for us to be together again.”
My love, Odo thought, my true life has come for me at last.
il villaggio di Ombri, it’s said that
when the people take what they want from the sea, there comes a time when the
sea takes what it wants from the people. So no one was surprised when, one
morning after the fog lifted from the shores of the Mediterranean, Odo was gone
from the dock, never to be seen again.