Whenever I need to come up with a childhood memory, I end up in a Modigliani painting—a landscape of blind faces and distended shapes.
“Breathe, breathe deeper. You won’t be sick.” I’m sick in every mode of transport. The bus lurches around a turn on the outskirts of the city. It smells of diesel fuel. “Here, have a barbariska,” says Grandma. Barbariska is for berberis. The red glossy berries from a picture book and the dried red specks in the boiling rice. It is also a sweet. The hard, sour candy bounces in my mouth, against cheek and tooth. There and back again. I’m not sick.
We get off at the edge of the gulf. The city has become sparse, transparent, unfamiliar—it falls into the land swell without any extra effort. The large, two-level boat is packed, and I’m wedged between Grandma and our bags. Grandad is across from me in his white ‘boatman’ cap. He dreamed of the sea, even bought a small boat. It was the first thing Grandma sold after he died.
There is a fly, the color of rust, tracking across the glass of the porthole, there and back, tick-tock, tick-tock. “That’s an elk fly, a deer ked,” says Grandad. “They burrow into the elk’s fur looking for blood. They will bite a human by mistake.”
The sky is so pale it’s almost white and the gulf is a flat expanse of greenish gray and we sail past the ancient keep on a deserted island and somewhere later we switch to a regional train and the backs of the seats are hard, narrow wooden planks and Grandad is telling a story, but I cannot hear his voice and the forest outside is dark. It is the forest of Baba Yaga, a rush of vertical lines, the boughs of fir trees scratching at the train windows.
We board another boat, wide and flat, to sail down the canal an Emperor has cut through the land two hundred years ago to ship timber to his new capital. The banks are crudely carved, and the roots hang out like faulty wiring. They still send timber floating down the stream. Logs with patches of reddish pine bark drift like oversized rafts. “Don’t you go swimming near the logs. One knocks you over the head and you drown,” says Grandma. “Don’t swim near the motor boats. The current pulls you under and the rotors cuts you in half.” I can’t swim. Water makes me dizzy. I splash near the shore. Once I see a skeleton of a frog float by and it looks human.
The motor coughs, stops, turns silent, and the boat drifts a few feet away from the makeshift wooden dock. Grandad says, “The engine is dead. We’d have to alight like this.” He rolls up his pants, takes me into his arms—I fit in the crook of his elbow—and jumps into the water. We wade towards the shore and the memory fades to black.
Laila Amado spends her days teaching, writing, never quite catching up on her own research agenda, and trying to get a teenage kid through a global pandemic. In her free time, she can be found staring at the Mediterranean Sea. Occasionally, the sea stares back. She is on Twitter @onbonbon7