There was a sharp rap on the bedroom door, startling Misha from his slumber.
“Misha! It is Thursday morning!”
“Yes, Grandfather,” Misha said, though the sleep left in his mouth made the words unintelligible. He rolled out of bed and threw on his clothes.
Mother and father were still asleep–they wouldn’t wake for another half-hour–and Grandfather had set out his usual Thursday morning fare. Two cups of strong coffee and a bowl of porridge, runny enough that it had left a trail from the stove to the table.
“I thought you had forgotten,” Grandfather said. “You may be young, Mischa, but when I was your age I would have been working for an hour by now, with nothing but a little bread to go on!”
“I’m sorry, Grandfather,” said Misha, still bleary. “I slept through my alarm.”
Grandfather laughed. “Yes, say what you will about we Kostrikovs, but we are strong sleepers! Come, you should be glad your mother was able to talk me down to fishing only one day a week. More sleep for you!”
After the meal was finished, Misha and his grandfather took to the streets of Beloaralsk, headed toward the pier. They were alone, and only the occasional wisp of smoke betrayed anyone else awake.
“Bah,” Grandfather snorted, “in my day, the city was up and alive by five in the morning. Have I ever told you that?”
“Many times, Grandfather.”
“My father and I, and later your uncles and I, we would go out every morning to fish,” Grandfather continued. “Fishing is the best job in the world. Makes a man strong. A fisherman never needs to worry about feeding his family! Have I ever told you that?”
“Yes, Grandfather,” Misha sighed. “Many times.”
“I say it so it will stick.”
At the pier, Grandfather thrust a rotting gangplank over to his boat, the Molot. He boarded the craft nimbly while Misha scuttled across like a crab, always afraid that the brittle old thing would snap. Grandfather threw off the moorings and pushed the throttle forward.
“Take in that sea air, my boy!” he cried. “I ask you, what could be more glorious than a morning on the sea?”
“A morning in bed,” Misha muttered. He scanned the pier anxiously, hoping that nobody he knew was walking by. He shuddered at the thought of Alexandra–or, God forbid, Sofiya Alekseeva, seeing him.
Grandfather laughed. “What did I tell you about us Kostrikovs? We are great sleepers, yes, but even greater fishermen! It warms my heart to see a Kostrikov with his hands ’round a net even if I have to drag him out of bed to do it! Cast out the net, my boy!”
Misha obliged, cringing as his hands brushed against the rusty metal at the stern. “It’s out, Grandfather,” he said.
His grandfather turned the wheel hard to port. “We’ll come around and see what we get. Would there was time to do things properly, Misha, but you have school and your mother will give me an earful if you smell too much like bait when you return, eh?”
“Then again, a strong stink means a good working man. Your grandmother never minded that–the perfume of the sea, she called it.”
Half an hour quickly slipped by as Grandfather twisted and turned the wheel about, shouting directions to Misha all the while. Soon, he called for his grandson to haul the nets in to examine the catch.
Misha strained at the stern winch, pulling back the heavy ratchet until the net flopped over the side, dripping with salty dust. It was empty.
“Ah, that’s too bad, my boy, too bad,” said Grandfather. “The Aral, she is being stingy today. But one of these days I’ll get a fine catch and show you how to gut them the fast way.”
Misha shuddered at the thought of sliding into the classroom smelling of freshly gutted fish–and at the expression of disgust on Sofiya’s face.
“I see that look on your face, Misha,” Grandfather sighed. “I know, fishing is not what the children today think about. Even in the old days, the Soviet days, the children never dreamed about fishing.”
“You did, Grandfather,” said Misha. “You still do.”
Grandfather didn’t seem to hear. “Do you resent it, Misha? Coming out here with me at the ass-crack of every Thursday dawn?”
“I…” Misha licked his lips. “A little, Grandfather, a little.”
“You would rather sleep in, then?” Grandfather seemed suddenly very old, very tired.
“I would,” Misha said. “But then I wouldn’t be with you. I resent it a little, Grandfather, but I do enjoy being with you.”
“I wouldn’t come if I didn’t. You yourself are always saying that children today don’t care about respecting their elders.”
“Most don’t. Most,” said Grandfather, smiling. “I enjoy fishing more than anything, Misha, and it pleases me to share it with you, even for a little while.”
“It is a good thing you don’t like mucking out the sewers, then,” said Misha. “Doing that every Thursday, it would be hard to clean up in time for school.”
Grandfather roared with laughter. “That’s the spirit! Here, throw me that mooring line, and I’ll tie us to the dock.”
Out came the gangplank again; Grandfather crossed it in a short hop. Whistling, he walked toward the landward side of the pier, trusting Misha to tidy up his ship.
Misha tied the mooring line with the knot Grandfather had shown him, though it hardly mattered. The Molot wasn’t going anywhere; its rusted hulk had been embedded in the dust for years. The Aral Sea had receded twenty kilometers from Beloaralsk and would recede still further as it shriveled and died.
“Yes, Grandfather,” Misha said. “I wouldn’t come out and throw nets at the dust from a rusty wreck if I resented it all that much. Maybe one day I’ll tell my children about great-grandfather Sergei, who fished the Aral for twenty years after it died.”
Alex Watson is a former English teacher, aspiring librarian, and wannabe writer from Michigan. He’s written professionally for newspapers and in academic settings, with an impressive collection of honorable mention and third-place finishes in minor literary contests.