by Athena Andreadis
The island was beautiful but stark. What it had been given in loveliness it lacked in means of livelihood. It could only sustain scraggly vines, fava beans, the occasional goat. Even the wells were few. So the islanders ventured onto the beguiling, the unpredictable sea…
Unlike the mainlanders, the islanders counted many women among their seafarers. In fact, they encouraged bondmates to be together on voyages. They felt that long separations were too bitter, and that companions back-to-back were a boon during gales or becalmings. It was best, too, for the young people to see something of the wide world, before cold and lack of nourishing food crippled them and confined them to the land. Those left in the hearths took care of the young and transmitted their wisdom in long tales when storms besieged the ports or when they were seagazing, waiting for returning sails to rise on the horizon.
One spring, when the islanders were repairing and readying the ships for launching, a young mainlander came to the island, a representative of a powerful coalition that was slowly extending its influence over the archipelago. He had been sent to broach the idea of a federation. The islanders, however, having lived so long on bare rock, preferred frugal independence to pampered servitude. But the youth himself was honest, enthusiastic and winsome and so a welcome guest in many hearths.
Soon he started to frequent one hearth that was nurturing a young woman who promised to become an outstanding navigator. Her people were reluctant to encourage the courtship, but the maid, too, had caught fire and would not be gainsaid.
For a brief time, all was as honeyed almonds. Then word came recalling him from his fruitless task and he naturally assumed she would accompany him. But customs in the mainland were different. Women did not go on ships — and she could not imagine her life landlocked. He explained, first tenderly, then with growing irritation, that her dreams had to stop sailing and grow roots. He pointed out that management of his large household would suit her temperament and abilities admirably. She, hearing in his voice tones that were new to her, refused to go. And so, in anger, he departed.
To stave off brooding over her loss, the maid embarked with the first ship to leave, although it was too early in the spring and the winds still treacherous. A moon after her departure, the youth returned, consumed with longing for her. Her hearth took him in and he now eagerly awaited her return, often joining the rest in their seagazing.
High summer came and her ship had not returned. Only fragmented rumors started gathering, of a wreck, of a crew found swaying among seaweed and black coral. Finally, a few survivors, found clinging on spars and oars, told how their navigator, though gifted, did not steer them clear of looming shoals in time…
When the news was confirmed, he initially said nothing. Then he squared his shoulders and stated that he, at least, would never believe she was lost, and that he would go down to the coast and wait for her as long as necessary.
He kept himself separate from the others, since in his land shows of grief were not considered seemly. The islanders, respecting his sorrow, stayed away. Winter herded the ships to harbor and they seagazed no more — whoever had not returned was safe in another port or in the arms of the sea. But he would not take shelter or sustenance. He remained facing north, looking at the sea hurling itself against the rocks, and the salty mist dried on his cheeks. They took to leaving food on the stone against which he was leaning, but they gradually realized that it was touched only by the wind.
Finally, the maid’s mother, controlling her own grief and invoking the privilege of kinship, went down to claim him and comfort him. When she touched his shoulder, she discovered he had turned to stone.
And there he remained, forever seagazing. The islanders kept the custom of leaving small offerings — wild flowers, wax candles, seashells. The pelagic gales eroded the fragile nose and carved runnels on the face. But no matter how hard they blew, they could never extinguish the yearning in the eyes and the lines around the mouth, which kept bravely smiling.
Athena Andreadis was born in Greece and lured to the US at age 18 by a full scholarship to Harvard. She does basic research in molecular neurobiology, focusing on mental retardation and dementia. She is an avid reader in four languages across genres, the author of To Seek Out New Life: The Biology of Star Trek and writes speculative fiction and non-fiction on a wide swath of topics. Her work can be found in Strange Horizons, Crossed Genres, Science in My Fiction, H+ Magazine, io9, The Huffington Post, and her own site, Starship Reckless.