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The Oarsmen of Crete

by Mike Florian

Harel looked at the shoreline as the little reed boat made its way out to sea. All four men in the boat had the same thoughts of excitement, of fear and uncertainty. They dipped their roughly hewn oars in unison and pulled to Harel’s metronomic grunts.

By the time the sun was overhead, the outline of the trees on the land disappeared. Only the bluish coast lay on the horizon. The men stopped and rested in the heat.

Harel took off his fur coverings and looked down at the leather-wrapped copper ingots lying on the bottom of the vessel. The Mediterranean water sloshed over their feet as the boat lolled in the waves. Soon the land would be out of sight and the men would be the furthest they had ever been at sea and away from their village.

Harel wanted to be out here. The others followed. When they finished their rest and drank their water, the foursome continued to row, their hands calloused from years of pulling. They plied their trade from village to village, exchanging their copper for leather and furs. Now, after twenty years, they suddenly wanted to see what lay away towards the sunrise. They pulled at the oars and moved the boat forward, the setting sun outlining the bearded faces of the four men. Harel’s grunts continued into the night.

It was during the fourth day that Harel’s courage faltered. They had brought enough food and water and knew how to take care of themselves; that wasn’t the problem. It was just that the wind shifted from offshore. Now they were rowing into the white-capped waves. They couldn’t hide from the weather as they did back home. They couldn’t duck behind one of the islands at the mouth of the river and wait out a storm.

Harel worried about the strength of the reed boat, about breaking oars, about the will of the others and about his own fears. The reeds were holding, but the copper ingots were well under water. Harel had brought them to trade, and he was reluctant to throw them overboard to ease the load.

The four men continued to row towards the east. Their callouses cracked and their blisters began to bleed. They crossed oars occasionally and barked at each other when frustration and fear grew with the wind.

Harel rested more often and the men drank their water to low levels. They rowed through the fourth night and into the morning. With the sun shining on the men’s fur-covered backs and the wind whipping up the seas, Harel turned the boat and stopped the expedition. The sea was alive and the small river boat with its load of men and copper was not built to withstand a pounding.

When he turned away from the wind Harel couldn’t know that one more day would have brought him into the lee of an island, a large crescent-shaped land where the villagers ate well and lived longer. He wouldn’t know that they, too, had copper ingots. He wouldn’t know that their copper was mixed with a tinge of tin that made the metal harder and more useful.

He didn’t know that the people living on that island had abandoned their obsidian and were starting to use the bronze metal for their weapons and utensils. Harel lost his nerve and wanted to go home. The men had drinking water, and the effort now would be easier as they turned away from the wind and rowed with the following seas.

* * *

Harry Kontos was a little anxious when he flew into Logan airport. He had trained hard these last few months. There was an outside chance he might reach the finals. The Head of the Charles regatta was the biggest in the world, and at age sixty he had entered a new age group. The elite in this category consisted of aging Olympians, and he was one of them.

As the plane circled, he thought of his family waiting for him in Greece. He promised to fly there immediately after the races and start their vacation. His wife and two daughters had left a week earlier and were counting on it. At work, the more junior members of his company would do well being on their own for a few weeks. His customers were in capable hands. As he landed on this October evening, the trees in the Boston Common were in full-coloured splendour.

His Hudson rowing shell had been flown into Boston prior to his arrival. Harry made arrangements for the team at Harvard, his alma mater, to pick it up and bring the boat to the starting area, adjacent to the Charles River.

He took a cab from the hotel that Saturday morning and in no time was on the water. The various heats started at eight o’clock. If he hugged the shore along with the dozens of other boats, he would have a chance to warm up and get used to the slow current of the river.

Callouses on his palms belied the fact that most of his working days were spent in front of computer screens. The hands were powerful and well used. As he gripped the oars comfortably he gently slid his seat to the rhythm of his stroke. The pencil-thin craft glided easily against the current, moving under the stone bridges, marking the way upstream towards Cambridge and Harvard University.

He stroked by his old school and just before he turned he glimpsed Baker Hall in the distance. The rowing club at Radcliffe was bustling, as was every club along the river. Harry turned and eased his way down the river taking in the Boston smells and sights. He noticed the many picnickers along the route starting their barbecue fires with smoke curling vertically into the sky.

Over the years, Harry had rowed every morning or evening until the Toronto winters froze the water. Those dark mornings were spent pulling the ergs, the confounding machines used by all of these athletes when water wasn’t available. Today he was fit and ready to race.

Harry’s draw put him into a later heat, and at the sound of the starter’s horn he pulled and pushed at a frenetic pace to clear himself of the other boats. His legs pushed the boat to the head of the heat. His rhythm settled into a tolerable stroke rate. He was well positioned to watch the other racers and sprint with them should they choose to do so.

He was caught, however, when the outside boat took off. Harry followed and as he pulled hard to match the sprint, he felt something slip inside his palm. He knew he had torn off the main callous and immediately felt the ooze and blood in his hand. He tried to continue but the bloody, new skin could not withstand the pace.

He slowed the boat and took it off the course. With his good hand he turned the shell and let the river ease him back to the starting area. He realized tomorrow’s Head of the Charles finals were finished for him.

* * *

Harel’s hunch of turning back and away from the wind was a good one. Although all four of the men were naturally disappointed, they did not wish to break the rhythm of the work to get back home. At this late stage of their life they could not imagine being out at sea this far, ever again.

Each morning, with their backs to the sun they would turn and strain to see what lay ahead. The horizon was compelling and mysterious. One more day, they would say to each other. “One more day” was the driving force until Harel stopped the process.

He was correct to stop. The skin of his hands was broken and bleeding as were the hands of his companions. Rowing now, with the wind, was almost comfortable. The salt water kept washing over their feet. With the weather pushing them homeward, they thought of the land they came from, of the animals they hunted, the elephants and rhinos who would soon disappear southward on their vast continent. They thought of the big freshwater river that flowed to this sea, of their village and the many other villages along the coast where they traded their copper. Their life was there, not out here on this barren body of salt water.

The little reed boat moved with the waves. Its flexibility was its strength. On this eighth day, the afternoon sun turned into dusk and then the dark. Harel heard the waves breaking behind the boat. They threw off some spray from their tops as the night winds picked up before the calm of the morning.

Harel stopped rowing, as did the three others. The boat slipped sideways after cresting. Harel unlashed his oar from the gunnel and retied it at the stern, the long blade in the water. He stood beside it, his feet braced against the motion of the sea. The long, strong oar kept the reed boat from broaching. Harel grunted at the other three and motioned them to rest. He would steady the boat alone while they slept and rested.

He stared calmly ahead at the breaking seas. Dragging one oar off the stern was new to him, but it did bring some comfort, and the reed boat was moving forward. He sat and rested, the long oar handle tucked tightly under his arm. He experimented with steering and the little vessel responded sluggishly. He steered it back to where the force of the waves brought some predictability. Harel looked up and saw familiar stars twinkling above and on the clear horizon. He took a sip of water.

When the sky in the east behind him showed an almost imperceptible glow of blue, Harel looked forward and noticed the three familiar bright stars and the faint, cloudy patch just below one of them. He had seen this grouping many times in his life. A little distance towards the right would bring them home.

The boat continued to slide slowly down the crests of the waves. His eyes turned towards the bow of the boat, past the sleeping forms of his three companions. He stared and stared at the bow.

Suddenly the adrenalin shot through him and he jumped to shake awake his sleeping companions. Raise the oars, he motioned, one on each side of the bow. Harel made his crew lash the oars to the sides of the boat so they stood upright in the fading night. He made them take the copper ingots out of their wrapping and told the men to tie the wet piece of leather, stretched out between the oars.

The men turned to question Harel when they felt a slight surge in the heavy boat. The leather sail filled with air and dried in no time. The wind began to push the vessel. The men looked at the makeshift sail. One of them put his hand in the water. They were moving as fast as when they rowed.

They turned back to Harel who was smiling, his old, yellowing teeth showing brightly in the morning. The whoops and hollers started and lasted well into the dawn. Harel looked up to see the last of the three stars fade.

* * *

Harry landed in Athens and took a local flight over to Crete. This crescent-shaped island was his home away from home. His family had lived there for years, and he looked forward to reuniting with his wife and two daughters. The bandaged hand was an inconvenience and would heal quickly if he took care of it and kept it dry.

The family sailboat, the Rubicon, currently moored on the island, was ready to take them on their long-planned adventure. The Kontos family had made arrangements to make landfall in Alexandria and spend time showing the girls that beautiful city by the sea. They would then return home and leave the boat tied up for the winter. With provisions on board, and with fuel and water topped up, they motored out of the harbour and veered to port. Once Chania was in the distance and a light breeze was blowing, they turned fully and headed towards the north coast of Africa.

The Head of the Charles was a long way away for Harry. His hand was healing well and the family looked forward to their vacation. The Rubicon, a fifty-foot sailboat, was modern, safe and comfortable. The centre cockpit had kept them dry over the years.

Harry put the boat on automatic pilot. His daughters made themselves comfortable on the two corner seats at the stern of the boat, just ahead of the hanging dinghy. His wife was down below. Harry hid under the bimini from the midday sun. They continued to motor until Crete was a bluish slash just above the horizon. The wind began to freshen.

The early evening brought the family together. Harry’s wife and daughters sat in the cockpit and enjoyed the sea and the movement of the boat. He let go the line to the roller furling and wrapped it around the inside winch. He pushed the electric button beside the winch and the line began to wrap itself through the self-tailing machine.

Harry sat and watched as the large jib unfurled and bellowed out with the breeze. He looked up and thought that maybe he should set out the main but decided to wait. He cut the engine and the folding prop set itself. The Rubicon began to sail.

The four people sat back and, in the quiet of the moment, watched the time go by. To the southeast, Jupiter reflected the sun. Hours later, after dinner was served and the dishes placed in the dishwasher, everyone turned in to their respective bunks.

Harry stayed on watch. After all the hustle of Toronto and Boston, this piece of heaven was his to taste. The sunset pulled the curtain to the stars and showed them to the solitary sailor. He looked up at the Milky Way and wondered how many others had seen what he saw. A few inches above the horizon he noticed the brightening of Orion’s belt. Later, during the black of night he saw the three stars and the faint, cloudy nebula below.

He adjusted the automatic pilot with his fingertip and made sure the Rubicon maintained her course. His feet were up on the opposite seat of the cockpit. At that moment, life was good. He almost let out a whoop.

Copyright © 2013 by Mike Florian

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