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of Benny and Tina.


1.

Beyond the city, past the countryside, and over rolling hills sat a clear, blue lake. And under the lake’s lapping waters, lived a water serpent named Martina. Her scales glowed green under the sun’s happy rays and when she glided through her watery home, they reflected onto the shore like glittering gold.

On this day, Martina bobbed her head in lazy spirals, waiting for the inevitable crunching of shore pebbles that would signal her friend’s upcoming arrival. Little fish, the color of copper coins she’d find at the lake’s bottom, darted along in their schools. She reached out her long, scaley neck and snapped her jaw shut just to scare them. It worked, and they swam away as quickly as when they came. “Not nice, Tina!” a brown crab tutted at her as he scuttled along the lake floor. He clacked his claws at her to punctuate his point. Her gravelly voice boomed, “You’re no fun!” Martina blew rings of spinning water at the crab, which knocked him off of his little legs. “Tina!” She chuckled in her hoarse way and zoomed closer to the surface. Autumn was turning to winter. Martina felt sorry for the fishermen who would soon take to the lake for a day of work on their demure rowboats. Early morning fog, caused by still-warm days and cold nights, lay dense throughout the valley. Martina cautiously raised her eyes above the water. The thick humidity in the air made it feel like she hadn’t even lifted them above the lake. No humans, yet. For this one moment, she was free. Martina stretched in earnest. Her long neck extended, up, up, up. She could feel cartilage shifting and making space for each vertebrae to lock into place. Her spine also lifted, stretching skin and scales to form a sail above her torso. Martina crooned. It felt good to take up space. Using her tail to steer, the water monster kicked her six webbed feet and began to swim as fast as she could. Racing further from the shore, she dove deep below the surface only to glide back up and leap from the water. She felt her tail just barely make it out before she crashed back down into the lake. Even after living many years, Martina was happy playing in the water all day. She breached again. Trills of joy echoed across the lake’s glassy crown. They were answered by a series of loud slaps; water hitting wood. The water serpent gasped, pushing herself deep below toward the lake’s rocky floor. She retracted her massive spinal fin and pulled her neck closer to her oblong torso as she sped through the body of water that was her home. “BENNY!” Martina’s shout sounded like a sonar’s boom. “Tiiiiiinnnnnaaaa,” an exaggerated whisper echoed from the surface into the lake’s depths. Martina trilled again, a sound not unlike a stone skipping across water. Benedetta was on the lake, carrying Abramo to his usual fishing spot. Which meant that the two friends would have plenty of time to catch up. In her eagerness, Martina almost swallowed a fish as she zoomed by another school. She spat it out, just in time, and almost gagged at the taste. Benedetta’s laughter, like the creak of wood at the step of a boot, carried from above. “Still trying vegetarian, Tina?” “The forefathers would be upset to see it, I know.” “At least you’re keeping with the new trends,” Benedetta sighed, her shadow finally settling directly on top of Martina’s long body, “Abramo can’t even bother to give me a fresh coat of paint.” Martina carefully allowed herself to drift closer to her friend’s hull, making sure that her own sparkling scales stayed covered by Benedetta’s shadow. “How long has it been since the last refresh?” “30 years since he took over from his father,” Benedetta creaked. Martina could make out Abramo’s thinning black hair, peppered gray, as he stood up in the boat and cast his line. “Ah, yes, dear Marco,” Martina wove her way further from the floating bobbin, “He was a good man.” “I miss him.” Martina allowed herself to extend her neck and touch Benedetta’s weathered hull lightly with her nose. Just as she did, the boat dipped, hitting Martina hard. “OUCH!” she exclaimed, causing a ripple to ghost through the water. “Nonno!” an excited voice cried from the surface, “I saw a big fish!” Martina dove down, deep, as an unfamiliar face peeked over Benedetta’s side. She caught a glimpse whilst hiding behind a pile of large boulders, still in her friend’s shadow. He was young, a mere tadpole in the eyes of someone as old as Martina, and had a head full of curly black hair that was just like Abramo’s had been when he was a child. Abramo’s wrinkled hand appeared, grabbing the boy by the scruff of his polo shirt, “Luca! Be careful, eh!? How many times do I tell you?” “Look! Look! Do you see the giant fish?” Luca stuck his hand in the water to point at Martina, only to snatch it back and stick it under his armpit. His grandfather chuckled, “Ah, little one, the water is cold, no? Soon it will be too cold to fish.” Martina agreed. She could feel the cold coming, creeping through her shield of scales and into her old bones. Not that it bothered her. The old man, however, brought out a puffy jacket and made Luca put it on. The two settled back into the boat and Martina gently swam up closer to them. “I like it when they bring the whelps,” she circled below the wooden rowboat, trying to catch another look at Luca. Benedetta squeaked raspily, “This one is gentle and good. He cares about the lake and its creatures. Abramo has been teaching him to fish in the old way.” “Always the traditionalist,” Martina chuckled, “Remember when his son wanted to buy you an engine?” “Bah! Don’t you mention that man to me again. Good riddance. I am glad that Abramo prefers the oars. Now get to work, my friend, I am growing tired from this lack of excitement” Martina rolled her eyes before chasing a few fish, herding them closer to the boat and to the bait. One of them caught on the hook and thrashed about. She closed her eyes at the sight. Fishing was a way for the humans to eat, as Benedetta constantly reminded her, and Martina understood. But that didn’t mean it didn’t hurt to watch her brethren struggle. It wasn’t their fault they didn’t have fearsome teeth and hard scales like she did. “I got one!” Luca exclaimed and clambered up to his sitting fishing rod, “Nonno!” “Pull him in! Quick! Very good, bello!” Luca reached out, grabbing the flailing fish and unhooked it from the rod. He disappeared for a moment, no doubt dropping his catch into a bucket, before returning with new bait for his hook. And so the morning became the afternoon, with Martina herding fish to provide Benedetta some entertainment and Luca moments of delight. Abramo congratulated his grandson for his patience and newfound fishing skills. “What do you say? Would you like to visit in the spring, Luca?” the old fisherman asked. The boy clapped his hands together, “Yes, Nonno! Please! And maybe I can swim in the lake when it is warm? With the big fish?” “Yes, dear one,” Abramo laughed from his belly, “Maybe you’ll even catch it someday! But now we have to get you back to your Mama.” “Will Nonna cook the fish?” “She will. But first we must let one go. You can choose which one.” Martina sighed with relief, glad that Abramo was still a believer. It wasn’t that long ago that all men who fished on the lake would respect it enough to let back some of their catch. It was only in recent times that they had begun to turn greedy. She eyed the bass that was thrown back in. He looked her in the eyes, scared and disoriented, before beginning to swim away. “Winter will be difficult for them,” Martina watched him go. Benedetta agreed, “There’s less fish now. We will see what spring will bring! Fret not, my old friend. All is well.” “Mmmm. I am ready for my big sleep,” Martina was beginning to grow excited at the thought of her deep rest that would outlast the cold months. “Ciao, Tina! I will see you when the ice turns warm again!” Benedetta’s soft voice faded as she carried the two fishermen back to shore. Martina, desperate to keep an eye on her friend for as long as possible, swam below them until the lake’s floor began to slope upwards. Feeling risky, she dug her claws into the rocky sand and pushed as hard as she could, racing to the surface. She extended her neck, letting her eyes pop out of the water to watch them go. Luca turned around at the sound of her breaching the surface and gasped quietly, eyes filling with wonder and excitement. Martina giggled and blew bubbles in the water. He’s just a child, she thought to herself, he won’t remember. Luca laughed, covering his mouth and looking back at his grandfather, who paid no attention. Abramo was focused on paddling and counting fish. As Luca turned to face Martina again, she winked. Then, just to give him a little show, she arched her neck and dove down into the water once more, allowing her whole body to stretch and bend above the gentle waves. “He’ll have nightmares!” admonished Benedetta. “Let him dream,” answered Martina, who was suddenly filled with the unique joy that comes from playing games with children, “He is young. Nightmares are reserved for the old.”

2.

Martina swiped at the water in front of her, trying to clear it of dirt. The past ten springs had led to a filthier lake filled with trash, oil pollution, and a build-up of phosphorus. The serpent knew that each time she woke from her big sleep, she would find her home that much more different. It felt like looking at the world with colored glasses instead of clear. She sighed and looked back up at Benedetta’s outline. “My, he has grown tall,” Martina made sure to stay deep below the lake’s surface as she watched Luca stand to adjust two of his fishing rods. Abramo stayed sitting, covered in a blanket though the sun shone down on the world with a bright ambivalence that wrapped around spring’s fresh breath. “And heavy,” Benedetta groaned as Luca hopped over the center seat, “The kid needs to lay off the tortellini.” “A kid no more, Benny. I can see his beard from here.” Martina was not new to the aging of human men. In the centuries she’d spent observing them, playing with them, and helping them, she hadn’t noticed much change in the cycle. First the cracks in their voices, then the stretch in height, then laugh lines turning into lines of worry once their own children came along, then the graying of hair, then the wrinkling of bodies like grapes in the sun. Until they no longer could sit on the boat, withered as they were. The serpent was struck by a moment of wistful nostalgia, remembering the day she met Luca when he barely stood at Abramo’s chest. The roles were reversed now. Luca bundled his grandfather in another layer of blankets and passed him a thermos of something hot. Martina watched him begin to pack up their supplies, taking his time to make sure everything was in place before settling next to Abramo. “Ready to go, Nonno?” he smiled at his grandfather. The latter nodded, smiling back. Luca bent over to grab a pair of heavy oars and squared his shoulders before beginning to push and pull the boat over the lake’s gentle waves. “He is marrying Louisa this weekend,” Benedetta informed Martina as the two glided through the water, “Abramo told him that he would like to see his great-grandchildren while he still can.” Martina chuckled, “We will take care of them when he is gone. Did you tell him?” “Aye,” Benedetta responded with a laugh like a crackling log fire, “I straightened my boards and made sure I was sturdy as can be when he came aboard.” “That’s my girl,” Martina smiled, letting her fangs gleam under the setting sun. “Ciao, Tina!” Benedetta called as the deep lake floor began to become shallow. Martina was close to the surface, ready to say good-bye to the man-who-once-was-boy. She huffed, letting out bubbles of air. Luca frowned when he saw them burst at the surface and leaned over the boat’s side to stare into the deep. Martina was glad, then, for the bad clarity in the water. Things had changed, indeed.

3.

Benedetta’s oars rowed at a different pace. Slower, pained, heavy. Martina knew, before she greeted her friend, that Abramo would not be on board today. Luca flung his anchor into the lake with a big splash and waited, watching it sink to the bottom. Martina saw his eyes filling with tears. “I wish I could help him,” she hung her head low and didn’t meet Benedetta at the surface. The boat sighed, “It is the way it goes, Tina. But I do wonder: how much longer must we do this?” “Until there are no men left, Benny; only fish.”

4.

Martina growled with impatience. Benedetta was late and the sun was already beginning to rise over the valley’s crest. She popped her fin open and closed and gnashed her fangs together. She was not a serpent who liked to be kept waiting. The longer the day dragged on, the less annoyed and the more worried Martina became. It was unlike her old friend to stray from a fisherman’s schedule. For a moment, Martina began imagining the worst: her friend being torn open for parts or retired completely. Until a familiar sound reached her ears. She listened closely. There was something strange in Benedetta’s gait, as if the oars were missing their beat, but it was Benny after all. Luca was standing up, pointing just ahead of the boat’s current direction. Just as Martina heard him cry out, she saw an oar fall into the water. A pair of hands, tiny and bumbling, reached over the boat to try to grab it. Another hand, stronger and hairy, pulled back a tiny child before he could fall into the lake. “Basta! What did I tell you? How will we get back to the shore now, huh?” Luca’s shout echoed across the glass roof of Martina’s home. A little boy’s voice responded tearily, “I’m sorry, Papa! Maybe the lake monster will help us get it back!” “There is no lake monster, Lucien, that is just a story for bedtime. It looks like we will row back to shore with one oar. This is alright. It will give us big, strong muscles, son, no more crying.” Before long, the boy’s sniffles were replaced with shrieks of delight as Luca opened up the box holding the fishermen’s bait. Martina and Benedetta watched as father showed his son how to adjust his fishing rod, how to cast a line, and how to pull it back when it was time. Lucien was clumsy, but eager. Martina smiled big, fangs shining like seashells, “I like him.” “He reminds me of Marco,” Benedetta responded fondly. Martina eyed the oar as it slowly sank to the bottom of the lake, making a mental note of where it dropped. She stretched her neck and got ready to chase around some fish, as always. It was a miracle that she had not yet tired of this routine, having repeated the same thing daily for nearly two hundred years. The water serpent and the wooden rowboat chatted as the day grew longer. They observed the similarities between Lucien, Luca, and their fathers before them. Talked about how the fish had repopulated and the water quality had gotten better in the past few years, thanks to men like Luca. What a joy it is, Martina thought to herself, to know that life will go on and that Lucien will have somewhere to fish. Several hours after the sun had reached its zenith, Luca pulled back his rods and packed away the small lunch his wife had packed. Lucien did his best to help, but got tangled in some extra line. Martina laughed, enjoying the sight of this little tadpole trying to right himself on such a wobbly surface. Benedetta grunted, attempting to stay balanced so as to not throw Lucien and his father overboard. Martina resisted the urge to push them all in the lake, just for the laugh. Instead, she swam over to the forgotten oar and gently picked it up in her long, green talons. She did not draw attention to herself as she slowly made her way closer to the boat. “Put it on your nose,” Benedetta encouraged, “They won’t see you if you just keep pushing it up to the surface.” Martina did as she was told, balancing the heavy wooden oar on the tip of her nose. Concentrating hard, she brought it close enough to the boat that she could duck underneath Benedetta’s hull if needed. Luca, finished with helping his son out of his tangled troubles, noticed the oar immediately. “Look, Lucien!” he exclaimed as he snatched the oar from the water, “The oar came back to us! We are saved!” “It was the lake monster, Papa!” the curly-headed boy put one of his little hands on the oar. Luca’s brows knitted together as he looked back at the water. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe its a good monster.” “Thank you, good lake monster! Now I don’t need to have big muscles. Ciao!” Lucien sat beside Luca on the center seat and the latter began to row. The steady, strong pulls of a man who had dedicated his life to the water and to the trade. He’s come a long way, Martina thought, So much like Abramo at his age. “Tina, aren’t you going to say good-bye to Luca?” Benedetta’s voice was fading. “No,” Martina replied, “I don’t want him to have nightmares.” The water serpent stretched her weary limbs and settled under a patch of lake kelp. She listened to the familiar sound of Benedetta’s oars rowing the father and son further away. The thought of Luca keeping tradition alive warmed her three hearts as Martina drifted to sleep. She wondered whether Lucien would someday try to replace Benny’s oars with an engine. Only time would tell.

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