Fourni and the dream

It’s the end of the year so it’s time to stop quarreling and snapping and sighing and huffing. It’s time to stop struggling and snarling and being terribly clever and writing mean comments to each other. I don’t want to think any further about this iron wheel of a world and the problems of the year past or the next year waiting; I want to tell you about a mysterious island and a Christmas miracle.

There is an island in the north Aegean that I don’t think you’ve visited. It lies off the coast of Ikaria in the direction of Patmos, and it rolls in the sea like the dark humped back of an enormous misty whale. At night you might see a small speck of light on the headland, and sometimes the light will move, as though it is a lantern being carried by an old fellow with a spade and an empty hessian sack. You can’t see the lights of the small harbour because they are concealed behind folds in the hills and the indented coastline – the town is invisible to passing ships and traffic, and for centuries that was its appeal.

For weeks I’d been looking at the island across the strait, so one day I took a small boat across the blue water for a closer look, and right away I noticed something peculiar.

It’s a small place of goat farmers and fisherfolk and there’s no obvious way to make a living there. Like the other small island of the north Aegean they receive no help from the government in Athens, so where does all the money come from?

There are no conspicuous signs of wealth – no super-yachts in the harbour, no depressing Camps Bay mansions, no expensive new cars. You have to look very hard to see the money, but once you see it, you see it everywhere. It’s all in the spicness and general spanfulness of the public areas: the trimmed trees and new-cobbled alleys and resurfaced roads, the pristine harbour wall and fresh-painted homes, the gleaming whitewashed stairs leading back from the promenade beneath warm yellow streetlights. There’s a brand-new medi-clinic with a brand-new ambulance parked outside.

The main church has recently been renovated and its murals restored. It blazes with candles and light. A newly laid processional street leads from the church doors over chevron patterns in black and white stone. When townsfolk marry or die they walk down this street or are carried while the village lines up to kiss their cheeks or pay respects. The bright, brassy, brand-new church bell tolls fast or slow, happy or sad.

The cats in the village are sleek and well-fed; the dogs are wet-nosed and friendly. No one looks poor and no one looks rich and everyone lives well. There’s something very strange going on.

I tried asking about it, and the locals didn’t blink and their smiles never faded but they were as impenetrable and impassive as statues hauled up from the sea.

I met one guy at a fish taverna. We discussed the beard I was growing and he laughed and told me I would be Greek one day, I must just keep trying. Over retsina he told me that until five years ago the island had been poor. There was no medical clinic and no school. What happened five years ago? I asked. He just smiled and waved for a platter of shrimp to share.

I did some research into the island. It’s famous for the high concentration of shipwrecks just off the coast. 53 ships have so far been found in 40 square kilometres of seabed – the largest concentration of sunken vessels in the whole Mediterranean, a graveyard of ships spanning several centuries, surrounded by great sunken middens of empty amphorae.

Now it’s possible that all these ships were sunk by storms and squalls – this corner of the Aegean is legendary for its sporty weather . In the Iliad, Homer describes a crowd listening to Agamemnon as surging “to and fro like the terrible waves of the Icarian Sea when the east and south winds break from heaven’s clouds to lash them”. But it’s as likely they were scuttled by pirates.

The corsaires of Malta used this island as an outpost then later a headquarters, slipping out from the concealed harbour to catch trading ships unaware. At the sight of naval vessels they could slip away among the shoals and sandy keys, or withdraw to their mountain fastnesses. The great Ottoman pirate Barbarossa plied these waters before dying in stately retirement in Istanbul, and the last local pirate, Mitikas, was executed in town in the 1860s. His great-grandson is a freediver on the island with an almost supernatural instinct for where to lead archeological expeditions in search of fresh finds.

But there’s a whisper that Mitikas’ grandson is so helpful with the archeologists because he knows that there’s nothing to find down there besides old artifacts and empty amphorae, that all the real finds are buried on dry land.

There’s a whisper that even to this day the men of the island, young and old, go out at night with their shovels on what the locals call fishing trips. They take wine and coffee and baskets of fried shrimp and instead of dropping their lines in the sea they choose a likely spot and drop a speculative shovel into the fine sandy soil.

No one would tell me anything, you understand, no one would confirm any rumours, but the friend I made in the tavern told me that there’s not much to do on the island in winter, so the locals spend a lot of time telling each other what English people would call fairy stories or tall tales. They call them fishing stories. He offered to tell me one.

Imagine, he said, if there was a very poor, small harbour town on a very poor, small island. Imagine if on a cold and windy Christmas Eve, late at night when the rain has stopped and there are dim stars and the dark sea slaps and coughs on the black rocks, a man goes out with some friends on a fishing trip. And imagine if they are just fishing the way men on the island have always gone fishing – with no serious expectation of catching anything, just for fun, just to be together, the way their fathers always fished in winter: with a shovel instead of a net.

And imagine if on this fishing trip, on this glorious Christmas Eve, they catch a fish. Imagine if they catch the biggest fish any of them has ever imagined, a fish big enough to last for years and years and years. What do they do with that fish? Do they share it among themselves so that their own families will eat very well forever, much better than everyone else on the island? Do they tell the government about the enormous fish they have caught, so that the government will come and take away their fish and carry it back to the mainland? Or do they carry their fish under cover of darkness to the town, and call together the mayor and the council and the men and women of the community, and do they decide to keep the fish a secret, and sell it off in bits and pieces now and then and only ever use the money for the good of the community, to help those who need it, to lift everyone up together. Do they do it quietly, with love, everyone in it together?

He asked me if I would be there on the island this Christmas, and I said no, I would be back in South Africa. It’s a pity, he said. Every Christmas they have a big feast and everyone on the island is invited. They eat lamb and they sing and they drink amphorae of Pramnian wine saved from the summer. All the food is provided and every family receives a gift. Everyone is welcome.

Times, 13 December 2018