The sun was high, insistent, and brought with it the hazy gauze that garlands these lakes in summer. Last night’s stubborn winds had pushed off some time after sleep, leaving a strandline scribbled with lost wood and ribbons of wracked weeds. The pelicans had woken me at first light. They were fitfully feeding alongside cormorants in the lagoon. Each morning I had witnessed the same frenetic ritual of thrashing and churned water, a gossipy chattering and clapping of bills. The pelicans would flare out, like a billowing white sail, then circle in clamoring numbers to trap shoals of small fish in the shallows where they are scooped in the birds’ inflated pouches as easily as handfuls of sand. I had spent the morning photographing them, taking notes regarding their behavior, numbers and feeding patterns, occasionally being interrupted by footsteps sloshing at the water’s edge.
He was closer now, closer than he’d been all week. I decided to speak to him.
“Kalimera.” He turned on the last drawn-out breath of the greeting, having offered a momentary glance. His eyes were deep, buried beneath thick lashes like awnings lowered against the light. He neither challenged nor questioned, simply noting my presence as he turned and walked away, receding along the quiet shore.
I had watched him as, I suppose, he had watched me. Each day he’d wandered along the dog- and otter-paw pocked sands, shuffling weeds and bleached shells with his feet, fumbling in the pockets of his loose trousers for a cigarette to draw on before settling on the shore to strike a hand-sheltered match. At times he would perch like a heron on the upturned hull of an unused fishing boat, a study in poise. He was probably in his late sixties and he moved sparingly, with gentle precision. Occasionally I saw him sitting cross-legged or crouched on the small rise of dunes pitched away from the beach, with his back to the dense reed bed that swayed and cracked with the slightest provocation of breeze. Mostly though, he stared. He would look out over the limpid waters of the lake as though assigned a watch, tracking the stillness as if through a periscope, memorizing the empty spaces like they contained an invisible design, something necessary.
I’d studied marine sciences at the University of Toronto. After completing my degree I’d read an article about the plight of the Louisiana brown pelican; how the widespread use of DDT as an agricultural pesticide in the 1950s and 60s had completely wiped out the coastal population. The toxic chemical didn’t affect the pelicans immediately but killed them off slowly and indirectly. It was absorbed into the food chain by small fish as it drained off the agricultural plains of the American heartland and into the Mississippi River. From there it traveled downstream, carried in the tissues of the fish upon which the pelicans fed in the coastal waters. As the chemical accumulated over the course of years in the pelicans’ systems, its effect was to dramatically reduce the thickness and rigidity of their eggshells. Ultimately, the Louisiana brown pelican was extirpated by its nurturing instincts, crushing its own eggs as it sat protectively over them. In the late 1960s there was a concerted restocking program that has, in conjunction with the banning of DDT in 1972 and a continued conservation presence, returned the brown pelican to the shores and barrier islands of Louisiana in healthy numbers.
I was so taken with this heraldic story of the resurrection of a community that I applied for a research post out of Baton Rouge. As part of my work there I was sent for a week or so each year to a different pelican colony in another part of the world; an exchange aimed at sharing conservation methods and techniques. It allowed me to gain a better understanding of local program dynamics and how they potentially affect preservation schemes.
The Prespa Lakes, where I had spent the last week, are shared by three Balkan countries. The larger of the lakes, Megali Prespa, is divided between Greece, Albania, and the Republic of Macedonia, and in certain lights resembles the sea. The smaller lake, Mikri Prespa, lies almost entirely within the borders of Greece, and is separated from its larger neighbor by a flat and scrubby strip of land. These lakes are the summer home of over a thousand pairs of Dalmatian and great white pelicans, and are one of the most important European breeding grounds of the birds. They nest on small islands set in open water amongst the reeds of Mikri Prespa, though they tend to feed from the clearer, deeper waters of the larger lake. Throughout the day the pelicans cross back and forth between the two, appearing as suddenly as apparitions above the road that splits the isthmus.
I looked up from my notes and refocused the telescope on a small group of Dalmatian pelicans idly preening themselves in the shallows. In the still, heat-leavened silence his voice came like a gunshot.
“Where are you from?” He’d approached silently, as I do when studying animals, and had startled me. He’d asked in English, good but accented, which didn’t surprise me as I’d met many people in this far corner of Greece who’d emigrated and returned.
“Toronto, originally. But I’ve been working in the States.”
“I don’t know much about the States but I know Toronto pretty well.” He stood slightly hunched as though the best part of his life had been spent in the sitting position. “I’ve spent the last twenty years there. Born here though. You like the pelicans?”
“I’m here to study them.”
He watched me carefully, with a hint of a smile. “Fine. But do you like them?”
In the few seconds that hung between question and answer, his eyes, under cover of their generous lashes, had left my own, had betrayed an independence of view and drifted ever so slightly to a space to the right of me and beyond. I turned and looked in the same direction to see seven or eight Dalmatian pelicans gliding toward us, hugging the coast. It was like watching a dream pass, hazy and hypnotic.
“Would you like to look at them through the telescope?” His eyes suddenly left the pelicans, flickered briefly and refocused. He stood motionless, staring at me through a watery glaze as the pelicans passed alongside us, skimming along only inches above the surface of the lake, nicking the water with their wingtips like rows of skipping stones.
“I used to hate them. All of us fishermen around here did. We thought they ate all the fish. Some people here still think so. Used to curse them from the moment we put the boat in.” There was a hesitancy in his speech, a slight tremor, like the rumble of a far-off train.
“There was a time when we got paid for them. Like a pest. We took them to a government office in the nearest town and got fifty drachmas a bird or five for an egg.” He laughed suddenly and nodded towards the peaks that climbed away from the lake. “The first time we went we actually strapped the dead birds to donkeys and walked them over the mountains till we got to the city. You should have seen their faces in the office when we carried these huge dead birds in through the front door. They told us we only needed to bring them the beaks as proof. Now we watch them fly over the same mountains.” He was still smiling, but shook his head in disbelief—though whether for the past or the present I couldn’t tell.
“After this place became a national park they stopped paying us. We still smashed up the nests, though. We’d scare up all the adults by smacking our oars against the water.” Thwack. He brought his palm down hard against his thigh. “Then we’d bash the hell out of the eggs and the small ones as they lay there in their nests. Some guys would just hold the baby birds under the water for a few minutes. Said it was easier. When we rowed away they just floated there limply.”
He sat on the sand among my books and I joined him. I’d encountered these or similar stories before, and the people who told them. They were difficult to listen to, but I’d come to accept them as important and necessary, a basic way of understanding why humans persecute certain species. He offered me a cigarette before lighting one for himself. There was a hush over the entire lake basin. Only a drowsy insect hum escaped the filter of mid-afternoon. The last desultory croaks of the marsh frogs had ceased. Dragonflies flitted in their silent and incessant way, as if they were tethered to lengths of taut, invisible string. Water snakes screwed themselves through the sand to bask.
“Do you come back every summer?” I asked him.
He shook his head slowly. “No. It’s been many years since I was last here.”
“How does it feel to be back?”
“Strange.” He reached for a small stone, rubbed it a few times against his fingers and then threw it into the lake. “But it’s always strange to go back. Except for these birds. They’re forever coming and going. It’s part of their nature. Not ours though.”
“Why did you come back this year?”
Lifting a single eyebrow he studied me for a few long seconds before finding another stone and casting it into the lake.
A lazy silence ensnared us, but neither of us seemed uncomfortable or bothered. We watched the lake instead. As small groups of pelicans began to gather, to shoulder up together on a narrow spur of sand that reaches like a consoling arm around the shallow lagoon, I thought of my time with these birds over the past week. How I’d watched them, mesmerized, as they drifted over the blue lake or climbed in staggered spirals on high thermals. I felt privileged to have shared their pacific space as they set down on the water, barely parting its clear and glassy skin as they slowed to a float. To have woken each morning to see them shoaled before me in a coronation of light.
“It was a day like this, early August.” He breached the silence as suddenly as his greeting had. “It had been hot for weeks and the fish were staying deep. Eleni and I put the boat in from just over there.” He pointed to a smooth section of beach to the east of us. “It was one of the old wooden boats. Real heavy and low in the water. We’d proofed it with tar a few days before so it was even heavier. We were out far when we first felt the wind, really cold. Then the clouds came in from over there.”
He drew his arm toward the mountains that towered over the western shore of the lake, the craggy beginning of Albania.
“It was tough getting gas around here so none of us bothered buying motors. I started rowing us back in but this wind was hard against us and we were going nowhere. Suddenly it was getting dark, like the sun had gone out, and waves started rocking our boat. The clouds were over the lake now and there was thunder and lightning everywhere.”
He looked up from the sand for the first time since he’d begun talking and turned towards me. “The rain came hard. It was hitting the boat like a hammer. Clouds and fog were all around us and I couldn’t see anything. The waves rose up, way up, out of nowhere. Back and forth they rocked us. Back and forth.”
His voice had faltered and trailed off. The lake was like glass today, shimmering beneath a balmy glaze. A kingfisher broke the humid stillness, a tracer of blue light that skimmed the water’s edge. We watched it hug the graceful curve of the shore, like the reeds that curled in a sickle of sunlit tassels.
“The water was coming in plenty. We lost our balance in the wind and she tipped.” It was said as calmly as a news announcement, but there was a vague resignation in his voice, like the sound of a slowly deflating balloon. He paused for a few moments as though re-stitching a loose thread of memory. “We went under. To this day I don’t know for how long. A few seconds, a minute. Who knows? I only remember coming up. There was this noise in my ears, like a drill, and my chest was on fire. I was scared as hell.”
The kingfisher returned along the coast and sped past us like a lit arrow. “You know what, though?” he asked as we gave up trying to follow its flight. “It was the shock of not being above the water, that’s what did it for me. All those years of being on the lake, of looking in instead of out.”
He looked away again, picked up a handful of sand and let it fall slowly. The air was thick with silence, stifling and close, and the languid waters lapped out of obligation on the shore. He looked out on the lake as if hypnotized.
“I couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of me. The rain was so heavy and the clouds were on the lake. And then there she was, floating in fog.” The sand had run out, but he slowly opened his hand to be sure. He turned abruptly and asked me, “Are you married?”
I fumbled for a moment, looking for lost words. “No. I was engaged a few years ago. When I was still at university.”
“I had a choice. To get married or take up a job as a biologist studying pelicans in Louisiana. She wouldn’t leave her family so I went south on my own.”
“Do you regret it?”
“How about today?”
“No.” I spread my arms towards the lake like a preacher welcoming his congregation. “Not in places like this. But we haven’t spoken since the day I left. Sometimes I wonder what my life would be like if I’d chosen to stay.”
“Sure. But then you would have wondered about the other life. This one.” He pointed repeatedly at the sand with a bony finger.
“We were married in spring, Eleni and me. People came from all the villages around here. For three days and nights it went on. Dancing, eating, drinking. I don’t know how many lambs we roasted. We were all poor but everyone pitched in. It was a hell of a time. Eleni was dancing with her father and looking over his shoulder at me, winking. Then she’d blow me a kiss.”
As we sat together on the sand in the burning light a group of pelicans floated near. Others circled high above us in the impossibly blue sky on a ladder of warm air, or slid so low to the water that they seemed inseparable from it, like a jockey hugging a horse’s flanks near the finish line. They passed just above the willow tops on their way to the other lake and their nests, drumming their wings like a deep, measured breath. On other days I had watched them drifting out beyond the swimmers, a few kids screeching and splashing in the lucent waters whose brown sun-turned bodies were as smooth as polished stone.
“She was face down next to the boat when I reached her. I was screaming her name over and over: Eleni. Eleni. Eleni.” He repeated the name like an incantation, whispered as slowly as prayer. “But she just stayed there, like one of those dead baby pelicans.”
I drew my knees instinctively toward my chest and held them there, keeping as quiet as I could.
“What could I do?” He slumped further into himself, suddenly appearing as small and frail as an injured bird. “I turned her face towards me and there was blood all over her forehead. It kept coming and going with the waves.” He shook his head as slowly as a pendulum, revisiting an image that threatened to crack. “She must have come up under the boat after it flipped and smacked her head on the edge. She was unconscious but still breathing. I tried to keep her mouth out of the water by pushing her up against the hull. There was no way I could turn the boat.”
Mid-afternoon and a fierce light enclosed us. It was like swimming in a bubble. From the corner of my eye I could make out a hazy group of white pelicans rising through the air like little steps of clouds. To see them like that, at the edge of vision, was like watching them through a telescope when the sun draws vapors off the lake that ripple through the lens. The pelicans, and the world around them, flickered and folded in shimmering waves as though a mirage, distorted and unlikely, but as achingly persuasive as a slowly dissolving dream.
“The rain was awful. I couldn’t see through it. I just held Eleni against the boat and wiped the blood from her face. And prayed. At some point I started swimming with her under my arm. Just headed out into the clouds and rain. Then I stopped, and thought, maybe it’s the wrong way, and I turned back.”
He lifted his eyes from the sand where he’d been absently drawing circles with his finger and stared straight at me with an intensity equal to the slow burn of the afternoon.
“I was blind on my own lake,” he continued slowly, “a lake I’d known since a boy. I was frightened and confused. Couldn’t think straight after finding Eleni. And everything I knew about this place had vanished.” An anger had appeared in his voice, but it was tempered by helplessness. “You see that shore? It’s where we tied up our boat each day. And the little white church of St. John, on the hill over there. And that’s Golem Grad, that big island in the Yugoslavian part of the lake. At least that’s where it was back then.” He pointed out each landmark, pale against the vast light, by stabbing at the air around him. “They’d all disappeared in the clouds and rain. There was nothing. I knew in my memory where each of them were, but without somewhere to start I was like a stranger. In my panic I was lost. Didn’t know a thing about this place.”
He rose slowly and stood before me, but seemed distant now, pale and tired, worn down by the heat. He turned away as though addressing the lake itself, the way summer can drown a day in silence.
“Then I heard something in the storm. Something else. It was faint.” He edged a few tentative steps toward the lake. “Somewhere out there.” I watched him lean forward slightly, as if in a wind, listening. “It sounded like the church bell in our village. They’ll ring it for us when we’re pulled from the lake, I thought. A single chime, over and over. The bell of the dead.” He exhaled deeply, surrendering to the memory. “I imagined our families and neighbors gathering outside our house, our coffin lids at either side of the door. I’m dressed in my only suit and Eleni is wearing the pale green dress that we bought for our trip to Salonica. She’s got wildflowers on her head to hide the cut and our little boy and girl are holding hands, staring at us.”
He was silent now, lost in the listening. The kingfisher blurred before him but he remained as still as the reeds in the breathless afternoon.
“The bell was getting louder, closer. And then there they were.” He suddenly spun in the sand and faced me excitedly. “Pelicans!” Color had found its way to his face again, which lit up with a grin. “That’s what it was. Pelicans. Seven or eight of them passed by like ghosts through the rain and mist. They were so close I could hear their wings, over and over, like a bell. I could feel them even. They were really struggling in the storm and then they were gone. Just like a dream. I put my arm around Eleni’s shoulder and started kicking my legs. I followed the pelicans as best I could, just stared at the spot where I thought they’d disappeared and kept going, following them home.”
He smiled as he said the word home, like it was the elusive answer to a long-forgotten riddle. He lit a cigarette and brushed the sand from his trousers, and with a pointing nod of his head we began walking along the shore.
“They’re better at finding their way in the world than we are. I knew they would pass over our beach. They were trying to get back to the small lake and their nests with the little ones. We finally landed not far from where we started. My brother was there, waiting. He knew we’d gone out in the boat and came down in the middle of the storm, praying we’d make it in. He rushed us up to the village and carried Eleni into the house. She was in bed for a week, but she made it.”
We walked the last stretch of the beach in silence, lost in our own quiet worlds. We found his pick-up truck in the shade of a large willow. He leaned against the door and spoke with lowered eyes fastened on some unmappable place.
“I buried my Eleni this last winter, a long way from here. In a Greek cemetery just outside of Toronto. We always said that we should come back here one more time, to pay our respects. So here I am. We wouldn’t have had our life together if it weren’t for those birds.”
He opened the door to his truck, slid in over the dusty seat, and started the engine. Through the open window he looked up at me and said, “You know what I think sometimes? What if they’d flown over just a little to the left or right of us?”
He was laughing to himself as he pulled the truck off the beach and disappeared up the track, dust and sand clouding behind him.
Evening settled slowly, like pond water disturbed by a fallen branch. I realized long after he’d driven off that I hadn’t even learned his name. I started a small fire with driftwood and willow limbs, and leaned back against the dunes. I glimpsed pelicans and cormorants heading home, saw the stars come blinking into night as the sky folded in on itself, and watched the last snatches of gathered light vanish like ghosts over the summer-quiet lake. As I covered the few remaining embers of the fire with sand I heard a bell somewhere in the distance.
Julian Hoffman is a writer and market gardener. He and his partner left the United Kingdom in 2000 and moved to a mountain village in northern Greece, where they started an organic smallholding. Recent work has appeared in Beloit Fiction Journal. He is currently working on a collection of short stories set in the Balkans.