To the Aegean by Lori Sambol:
Osman guides Tina over rickety bridges made of planks laid down across the trout ponds. She teeters in the stilettos she wears only because he likes how she walks in them. Deep in the murky water, trout curve into question marks. Tina imagines she is a mermaid suspended in a pool. In fairy tales, men captured mermaids in nets, by spells, by theft of tails as mermaids danced on land. One night, alone in the office Osman and Tina shared with four other grad students, he bewitched her with a kiss, pressing her against his metal desk. His hands paused on her waistband; he waited to peel down her Levi’s until she breathed “please” into his mouth.
Tina trips, and Osman grabs her elbow to steady her. At his touch, she thinks of his lips on the inside of her wrist where blood pulses from her heart. His profile resembles the miniatures of Ottoman warriors in the Istanbul museum, with trim beards and aquiline noses. She imagines these are his ancestors. She is the daughter of an Iowan cattle rancher. She wants him to wear her like the evil eye charm resting in the hollow of his throat.
The fish farm’s bunkhouse is built of rough wood. When they’d visited Osman’s family, the women, in floral headscarves and long tunics, warned her the fish farm was rustic, suggested hiking boots. She didn’t pay attention; she was learning to brew Turkish coffee. Although she carefully hovered the copper coffee pot over the gas flame, the coffee bubbled over with the caramel scent of sugar. The women handed her a cup and she knew she was to serve Osman as he drank raki and played okey with his brothers in the courtyard. He took the cup without looking. She waited. For a word. For a glance.
He just rolled the dice.
Although the coffee she made tasted burnt, the women told her Turkish coffee is “as sweet as love.” They read her fortune in the sludge at the bottom of her coffee cup and praised her future with Osman.
She’d watched him through the kitchen window, his coffee cup untouched.
The mountains surrounding the fish farm shadow the narrow canyon. Smoke spiraling from an outdoor grill burns Tina’s eyes with the smell of singed flesh. The caretaker serves grilled trout and olives on mismatched plates. The fish has been cooked whole, its skin ochre and charred. “You’ve never tasted fresher trout,” Osman says. A fish leaps out of a pool and then in again, threading the same spot.
Tina slips the blade of her knife into flesh, cannot remember if Osman removes the head first when deboning fish. Her knife does not strike bone. It’s supposed to.
“Give it here,” Osman says, “You’ll make a mess of it.” He deftly beheads the trout, butterflies the fish and peels the backbone and the ribs out with the tip of his knife.
Tina stares down at the fish; one eye glares back at her from the detached head. The eye is clear, not cloudy: the trout’s been freshly killed.
On Osman’s plate, a pile of wrinkled fish skin, and the skeleton picked clean of all meat but the head. Even his olive pits have been sucked of fruit.
Tina sees her life unfurl like a ribbon shaken loose from its spool: Osman taking the cup of coffee without a glance. Her waiting. Waiting.
Osman says, “Before I went to UCLA, we came here every summer.”
“Sounds great.” Tina dislodges a fishbone, as fragile and thin as an eyelash, from her teeth. The bone’s damp and sticks to her finger. She can’t see such small bones. She’s ready to give up.
“Imagine our children playing here,” Osman says. He takes Tina’s hand. She tenses. She does not look in his eyes. He says, “I have big plans for this place.” Tina doesn’t know she’s holding her breath until she breathes again.
Osman releases Tina’s fingers. “We’ll take care of that after I finish school,” he says.
“What about my degree?”
“You’ll finish before me.”
Earlier, he’d told her they feed the trout pink dye in pellets, so the trout’s meat resembles salmon. Dye spreading slowly through pale flesh to make it more desirable. Words rise in her throat. She will never belong here, never wants to belong.
She imagines the trout pool she’ll swim in tonight when she turns into a mermaid. If Osman opens the weirs, she’ll swim to the river, down the mouth of the canyon, and to the Aeg