I never go to the beach anymore. These days the thin line of sand holding back the endless sea is littered with piles of life jackets, discarded rafts and weeping women. Not that I need to go that far to see how the island has changed. Greek flags have popped up ominously—scrawled in graffiti and waving from balconies — even in the window of the cafe where I work. Every morning I pass the mutant swastika of the Golden Dawn party scratched into the sidewalk.
At the cafe, the Spanish, Dutch and Belgian visitors used to sip coffee in linen trousers while watching the sunrise over terracotta roofs. Now they come in with reflective yellow vests and slurp down mugs before catching the buses north. The newest arrivals still gush about the sights, which used to mean the castle or Saint Therapon Church, but now means a Syrian mother crying in thanks when they hand her a bottle of water or a family, freshly ashore, kneeling down to praise Allah in unison. But the ones who have been here a little longer are quieter. Like me, they’ve seen too much. They aren’t sure what they can do when every day brings news of another boat capsizing, more EU stalling and greater overflow at the two refugee camps outside the city.
This morning fat snowflakes are falling as I unlock the door in the pre-dawn light. I begin to make my own coffee, as I do first thing every morning. After I put the water on the stove, I ring myself up and carefully count out the change in my purse to add to the till. There are no employment perks at this cafe. In this economy we take what we can get.
Before the water is boiling, a family pushes through the door. Two men first, bearded, in their late twenties. One wears an Adidas jacket too thin for the Lesbos winter. The other, a little heavier set, wears a fisherman’s sweater with a hole below the arm, exposing naked skin. Both men have windburned cheeks and dark circles below their eyes. They probably were unable to find shelter last night and spent the dark hours wandering the city, waiting for warm shops to open. Despite this, one comments to the other in Arabic, and they both smile. They are brothers, maybe, or in-laws.
A woman holding a baby lags behind them. Her body swims in a man’s parka, and her hands, wrapped around her child, are hidden inside the sleeves. The little boy, who must be nearing three, is sleeping with his face buried in his mother’s shoulder. Lines of fatigue crease her face, but her eyes are still bright.
The man in the Adidas jacket reaches for the boy, and the mother exhales when the weight is lifted from her. The boy stirs awake as he is placed in a chair at the table. The mother takes the chair beside him, folds her arms on the table and rests her head.
The two men approach me. The man in the sweater puts his palms down on the counter and leans in. He still smells of salt water and sea-muck. The other man rests his elbows on the edge of the counter, hunching his broad shoulders forward. His bleary eyes are level with mine, but he stares absently into the corner.
“Khabaz,” the man in the sweater says. The word sounds heavy and rough in his mouth, almost like a command. “Khabaz,” he demands again.
The young mother’s head is still lying on her arms, and suddenly I’m aware that I’m a woman, alone, surrounded by strangers at an unholy hour of the morning when the streets are vacant and cold.
“Khabaz,” he repeats, this time he jabs his finger in the air, and he draws a circle, just before my nose.
The water is boiling. I want to turn towards it, but I feel locked by his waving hand.
The other man speaks now, slowly with great uncertainty. “Le… le pain? Le pain?” He too draws a circle, but on his palm. He opens and closes his mouth, searching for words. Finally he says in English, “Bread?” At last, one that I know.
He looks at his brother. “Bread?” He pats his pockets down and finds 20 cents to put on the counter.
“No bread, no food. Only coffee here,” I say in Greek, then carefully in English.
“Ka-fee, ka-fee!” It is one word that they both understand. The woman too lifts her head when she hears their exclamations.
I glance down at that meek 20 cents gleaming on the counter. As sensible people, they have more money than that tucked away, money they’ll need to move on to Germany or Sweden, but no matter how much they have, it is almost certainly not enough. I push the coin back.
“It’s okay,” I tell them. I prepare three cups of coffee and pour a glass of milk for the little one.
I wait until they leave to open the register. They must have been too new to understand the Greek flag plastered in our window. My boss doesn’t believe in gifts for refugees. I take out my purse and give the last of what I have.
Valerie Lute is a writer whose short stories and poetry have appeared in Every Day Fiction, The Good Men Project, Prime Number Magazine, and the Rusty Nail, among others. She lives in Massachusetts where she reads like a fiend, listens to vintage punk rock, and occasionally goes outside.