Read time: 22 mins

The Fisherwoman

by Eva Koursoumba
4 August 2023

Translated from Greek to English by Lina Protopapa


The summer home of Elina’s friends, where she’d been invited that Sunday, was in an old apartment block, facing the sea. It was late afternoon, and from the balcony of the flat she saw three men standing in a row, down at the waterfront, fishing with their rods. But her attention was turned to the only woman there, fishing a little further away, close to an opening made by the rocks. Dressed in colourful floral clothes – a long skirt down to her ankles and a long-sleeved blouse – the woman stood absolutely still, never turning to look at the other fishermen nor participating in their conversations. Elina asked her friends about this strange lady. They told her that, for many years now, this mystery woman had been fishing at that very same spot, every single day of the year, in both summer and winter. What they knew about her they had found out from Tassos, the owner of a small taverna in a back street nearby, which served delicious seafood. They told Elina that everyone in town knew the woman only by her nickname, the Fisherwoman.

A little later, the group of friends walked down to the pier to go swimming. They wore their swimsuits and their hats, their sunscreen and their jovial summer mood. Heading toward the opening in the rocks, through which they could go into the water with ease, they had to walk past the Fisherwoman. When they reached that narrow spot, they walked in single file, carefully throwing swift glances her way. One of the ladies in the group, Lygia, greeted the woman with a soft voiced ‘Hello; how are you?’ The Fisherwoman turned around and looked at them with murky eyes, which had the colour of the mud on the seabed and the desperation of those who have nothing good to look forward to anymore. Without removing the cigarette she was smoking from her mouth, she uttered an indifferent ‘Hi’ and turned her head again in the direction of the sea. They felt an intense curiosity about this woman as well as an inexplicable fear, mixed with awkwardness. Perhaps because they felt guilty for trespassing her space and her blackened aura, if only for a few seconds. Or perhaps because they had smelled the deep pain and the fishy odour that emanated from her as they passed her by.

The Fisherwoman held the fishing rod in one hand and was fishing in a pensive mood. When she got tired, she’d switch hands with an imperceptible movement which even the fish did not notice.  She was a well-built woman of indefinable age. A cigarette burned permanently between her fleshy lips, the contours of which were covered in little vertical wrinkles. The tip of the cigarette would burn red every time she inhaled, and the ash would grow longer every time she exhaled, dropping flakes of grey dust on her clothes and her feet, which protruded, thick and brash, from her cheap plastic flip flops. The huge bunions on her big toes poked out like pebbles, forcing the rest of her toes to bend outwards. Her swollen ankles were adorned with dilated blood vessels and varicose veins like miniature strikes of lightning.

A little visor cap with the commercial slogan of a soft drink seemed merely decorative atop her head since it did not provide any real shade. The rough skin on her face and neck had deep wrinkles, like furrows carved by long exposure to the elements, perhaps also by the maliciousness of heartless passersby who often mocked and derided the Fisherwoman. Her hair was tied back at the nape of her neck, and it had three different colours: the roots, where the dye had worn off, were white; the ends were a dried blond, and in between the two, an undefinable chestnut colour with lots of white strands. She had no sunglasses on to protect her eyes, her gaze or her soul.

Still as a statue, the mystery woman was gazing at the open sea, waiting for the fish to bite. Along the seafront avenue, behind her, chaos ruled: cars honking, buses buzzing, cars and motorbikes and trucks in constant motion. This was the heart of the tourist area, where motor vehicles were constantly moving to supply restaurants, tavernas, shops and corner stores, to transport tourists or to deliver iced coffees and hot meals. Consistent in her stillness, the Fisherwoman, rod in one hand and a cigarette burning between her lips, seemed engrossed to oblivion. Coldly indifferent to the demonic noise of the traffic behind her, she looked equally apathetic towards the angelic beauty of the open sea in front of her. It was a strange, inexplicable attitude that seemed to scorn the pointless hustle and bustle of everyday life, of people passing by, of the other fishermen on the pier.

One after the other, the swimmers dived into the sea, letting out shrieks of joy. They had agreed to remain in the water until the sunset, to admire the changing colours of the sky at that magic hour when the sun headed towards the opposite side of the island, setting behind mountains and apartment blocks. When they found themselves at a safe distance, where the fishermen standing on the rocks couldn’t hear them, Elina’s friends started narrating stories they had heard about the Fisherwoman. They described how she would suddenly come alive when she felt even the slightest nibble on her rod. How swiftly she’d reel the line in and remove the fish she had caught. She would look at it with respect as it squirmed on her hook, recognise it, and whisper its name: ‘sea bream’, ‘smelt’, ‘scup’, ‘sea bass’, ‘saddled sea bream’. And without a second thought, she would throw it into the plastic bucket next to her. Then she’d put some new bait on the hook, usually a piece of dough that she brought from home or worms that she dug out from landfills. She would then cast her line back into the water, with that characteristic, spectacular movement of her arm, and return to her familiar posture of indifferent stillness.

Whenever she caught a pandora, a seabass, a grouper fish or a mullet, she would let out an inarticulate shriek of enthusiasm, which made the other fishermen turn toward her for a moment. She’d get excited because these were the kinds of fish which she could sell easily, and at a good price, to the owners of expensive seafood restaurants across the street. But whenever she caught a silver-cheeked toadfish or a sunfish or some other kind of toxic species unfit for human consumption, she’d be overcome by a quiet hysteria. She’d violently rip the toxic fish off the hook, lay it on the rocks and smash its head with a stone until it stopped squirming. She would kill the harmful fish without uttering a single word, then wrap the dead fish in old newspapers and take them with her when she left.

Local gossips used to say that she would fry and eat the toxic fish she caught without getting sick because she was a witch. The most malicious among them went as far as to say that she removed the poison from the fish and used it to concoct powerful magic potions, which she would then sell to those who wanted to wipe out their enemies or their neighbour’s cats. On the contrary, a few others insisted that the Fisherwoman respected marine life, and that was why she didn’t dump the toxic fish she caught back into the sea since they could poison the waters. Just like toxic words can poison human souls.

Sylvia, another lady in the friends’ group, said that the Fisherwoman, being an experienced sea veteran, had acquired a lot of practical knowledge about the marine world. She had told them, for example, that the fish know the weather is going to worsen as early as 72 hours ahead, so they disappear long before meteorologists predict thunderstorms on the news. She could recognise the wind’s direction according to the way the smoke of her cigarette would blow, and she had discovered that when a northerly wind blows, fish don’t bite. On most days, she would go fishing early in the morning, before sunrise, or late in the afternoon, just before sunset. Those are the times when the fish are hungry, she’d say, and, in the dim light, they can’t make out the fishing line and hook. She even knew that in order to catch red mullets and white grouper, one had to wait for the sun to rise high up in the sky, whereas when it came to sea bass and white sea bream, one had to fish either before the crack of dawn or after sunset.

The happy group of friends were swimming in the deep and were the only ones still in the water; they were watching the fishermen standing in a row on the pier and the Fisherwoman at the very edge, her floral skirt moving with the wind like a parachute around her robust, tanned legs. Elina’s friends told her that the Fisherwoman’s post on the pier was respected by all the other fishermen, and nobody ever stood there to fish. Not that they had a choice since the Fisherwoman became quite aggressive when she had to defend her spot. That’s how they came to recount the dramatic episode with the German tourist, which had happened a few years back. Tassos, the taverna owner and one of the woman’s few friends in town, had told them the story. He had said that a tourist – probably German – arrived excitedly at the pier one morning with his brand-new fishing equipment. Unaware of the situation with the Fisherwoman, the tourist went to her spot since she happened to be late that day. Nobody warned the stranger about the Fisherwoman’s disturbed psychological state or about the manic possessiveness she exhibited toward that specific spot on the pier. Perhaps they wished to be entertained by the woman’s outburst when she found a stranger fishing in her usual spot. In any case, nobody told the German anything. When the woman arrived at the pier and saw the man at her spot, she almost suffered a heart attack. Her murky eyes glared in anger. She hurled down her equipment and her bucket and charged furiously at the man, grunting like an animal, trying to get him to move away with punches and kicks, without uttering a single word in Greek – which the foreigner would not have been able to understand anyway.

Even then, none of the people present so much as lifted a finger to protect the German from the woman’s manic attack. They all froze to their spots and watched the fight unfold, without saying anything. In shock, the tourist reacted by pushing the Fisherwoman with his hands, calling her ‘verrueckt’, which means ‘crazy’, and threatening to call the police on her. The poor man kept shouting ‘Polizei! Polizei!’, but nobody did anything about it. If just one of the witnesses had tried to remove the man from that specific spot or had tried to explain the situation to him, perhaps nothing bad would have happened. But the bystanders probably found the sad spectacle quite entertaining. In fact, they made matters worse by shouting at the tourist in Greek: ‘The woman is right! It’s her spot, man; go find some other place to fish from; can’t you see how you’ve upset her?’

Their words were intended to provoke the Fisherwoman further, by applauding her behaviour. They continued to watch the fight from their own spots until the man, in his attempt to throw a punch at the woman, tripped and fell on the rocks. He tore his trousers and grazed the skin on his knee. When he saw blood gushing from the scratch, the man panicked and started to cry. The Fisherwoman then grabbed all of the intruder’s equipment and threw it in the water. Unmoved and expressionless, she watched the fishermen’s attempts to help the injured man out of the sea. As they were trying to pull him out of the water, a massive wave suddenly appeared out of nowhere and threw him, with great force, back against the rocks again. He remained lying there unconscious. Terrified at this point, the fishermen jumped into the water and managed to pull the man out of the water and onto the pier, placing his body gently on the grey concrete pavement.

Shocked and speechless, the fishermen gathered around the body of the German tourist, waiting for the ambulance to arrive so that they could hand the injured man over to the care of doctors and paramedics. Meanwhile, they exchanged opinions about whether the man was still breathing, whether moving him from the rocks was a good idea, given he had a head injury, and how on earth he had appeared at that particular area of the sea front which only the locals knew had an abundance of fish. Meanwhile, curious passersby, restaurant owners and waiters from the tavernas in the area, mini market employees, even people who lived in nearby apartment blocks had gathered around to see what had happened. When they heard the siren of the ambulance, they widened the circle around the wounded man and continued to watch from a distance the paramedics placing the German tourist on the gurney and carrying him inside the ambulance.

Only the Fisherwoman remained in her place, quietly gazing at the horizon. With her fishing rod in hand and a cigarette in her mouth, its tip burning red every time she inhaled and the ash growing longer every time she exhaled. When she finished smoking her cigarettes to the very end, down to the filter, she would then place her rod on the railing, grab a new cigarette from the pack in her pocket and light it up by touching it to the tip of the old one before it went out, drawing in a deep drag. She would then spit out the old cigarette stub sideways, onto her little mountain of stubs, which she wouldn’t let anyone remove. Even the street sweepers of the municipality knew the Fisherwoman’s quirks. And they would pick up about a third of her cigarette butts every time, pushing the rest deep inside a protected niche in the rock, to stop the wind blowing them into the sea.

When the police found her, the Fisherwoman was still standing in her spot with a cigarette in her mouth and the fishing rod in her hand, gazing at the open sea. They had come to arrest her. They had witness testimony regarding the incident and a warrant for her arrest. The woman looked at the police officers without speaking. Perhaps she didn’t even understand what they were explaining to her. Or what exactly had happened. None of the people present approached the Fisherwoman to give her a word of encouragement. When she saw her friend Tassos running toward her, his white apron blowing in the wind, the woman broke down. Tassos regularly bought the Fisherwoman’s fish, even when she didn’t have the best catch, because he felt sorry for her. He would fry all the small fish together and serve it as accompaniment to the ouzo and beers that he served customers in his taverna. He was one of the very few people the Fisherwoman knew well and trusted.

As soon as he arrived at the scene, panting still, a white apron in his hands and tears in his eyes, Tassos shouted to her: ‘Don’t you worry, Sophia!’ With her murky eyes, the Fisherwoman looked at the only friendly person standing by her side in that difficult moment. She took her bucket with the day’s catch and her fishing equipment and put everything in his hands. Visibly moved, Tassos caressed the rough skin on her hands, wiped a little tear that had peeked out from the corner of her left eye and whispered softly to her: ‘Everything’s going to be ok; don’t be afraid Sophia; you didn’t kill him; it was the wave that killed him, smashed him against the rock. Don’t be afraid; I’ll come to see you as soon as I find out where they will keep you. I’ll come; you hear me? And I’ll bring witnesses too, people who really saw what happened, to testify in court! You’re innocent, so don’t be afraid! You hear me?’

The Fisherwoman turned to throw one final glance at the sea. Then she lowered her head, and silent sobs started to shake her hefty body. She abandoned herself to the hands of the police officers, who led her to their vehicle. As they were helping her into the car, she turned her face to Tassos with her eyes full of tears but her gaze clear. He waved goodbye with his hand and shouted to her: ‘Don’t you worry, Sophia; I’ll help you; I told you! I’ll come find you, and I’ll bring you cigarettes and whatever else you need. I’ll arrange for a lawyer too. You did nothing wrong, my girl. Don’t you be afraid! You just stay calm and be patient; you hear me, Sophia? Calm and patient. All will be well; I’m sure of it!’ And he stood still in that same position, holding his folded white apron, while waving goodbye to the woman who had been arrested for a crime she hadn’t committed and who was unable to fathom what was happening around her. Tassos kept crying and waving his apron until the police vehicle disappeared from his sight.

Five years would go by before the Fisherwoman made her appearance again at the pier. In all of those years, nobody ever stood on her spot. And from the first day of her reappearance, the other fishermen treated her with respect and discretion. They felt that none of them had the strength or resilience necessary to go through everything that the Fisherwoman had suffered in her life, even though they didn’t know even half of her life story. Most of them believed that she had spent all the years she was absent in prison and didn’t want to mess with a person who had been through such an ordeal. Only Tassos knew the truth. He had told Lygia and Sylvia, who often went to his place for some ouzo and fish and would ask him about the Fisherwoman.  From Tassos, the women found out that Sophia had been acquitted in court of the charges made against her of attacking the German and of ‘causing grievous bodily harm with intent because the tourist had survived and had been released from hospital without any permanent damage and with a few thousand extra euros of insurance money in his pocket as compensation for the ‘accident’ he had on the island. Sophia had to undergo an obligatory psychiatric evaluation and had to be hospitalised in a psychiatric institution for as long as was deemed necessary.

Tassos had also told Lygia and Sylvia something that very few people in their town knew: that Sophia had raised, all by herself, an extremely bright young son who was the fruit of her illicit affair with a married shop owner.  The father had four older children and never recognised the fifth child he’d had out of wedlock. But Sophia’s son, whom she named Orestes, was an amazing, hard-working child who overcame all hardships and challenges he faced, from poverty to bullying, with his mother’s support and infinite love. He made the top list of students accepted to the medical school of Athens University, and he chose to specialise in psychiatry. For obvious reasons. After completing his studies and his specialisation, Orestes remained in Athens, living permanently there and working successfully as a psychiatrist and psychotherapist of famous people, including politicians, actors and shipping magnates with massive fortunes. With the fish she caught at the pier, the Fisherwoman had managed to support her son through his studies, and he, in turn, had made her proud. Tassos had known Orestes since he was a child, so he immediately got in touch to inform him of his mother’s troubles. The young psychiatrist travelled to the island and took over his mother’s custody until the treatment imposed by the court – which could take place in the luxurious psychiatric institutions with which Orestes worked in Athens – was completed.

With the support and love of her son, in combination with the proper medical treatment and rigorous psychotherapy, Sophia turned into a whole new person in Athens. Her gaze cleared up and her thinking too; her calmness was restored, as were her laughter and joy. She became more sociable, more talkative. She could finally concentrate long enough to read a book, watch a TV debate, a film at the cinema or a music concert. Her son also took care of her appearance. He took her to hair salons and beauty parlours; he bought her new clothes, new shoes, new accessories and treated her like a queen.

Every Sunday lunchtime, they would go together to the best seafood restaurants in Mikrolimano where Sophia would insist on personally selecting the fish they would order, carefully examining all the fish that were laid over ice on special refrigerated display stands. Mother and son would enjoy their meal and then sit by the sea for hours, breathing in the air which was full of iodine and the smell of fish while enjoying coffee and sticky syrupy desserts. Yet, no matter how beautiful her life in Athens was, how happy she was to be living close to her beloved only son, the feeling of nostalgia for her island felt like a thorn in Sophia’s soul.

When Tassos went to Athens on holiday one summer with his wife and kids, he called Sophia and they arranged to meet. The man almost didn’t recognise her: that’s how much the Fisherwoman had changed, inside and out. But she told him that she was sad, despite the fact she had finally found her inner balance. She missed her humble home, with its two little rooms, fifty square metres in all, which was just steps away from the seafront. She missed the waves greeting her every morning, the vastness of the ocean and the intense changes in the seascape every season of the year. She said that a fervent wish was burning insider her: to find herself once again at her spot on the pier, with seawater spraying in her face and the sea air filling up her lungs. She missed the endless hours of silent contemplation on the waterfront. She didn’t want to live in her son’s luxurious apartment anymore, with its enormous veranda facing the woods, where every other day a cleaning lady would come to clean the already cleaned rooms. Her son was away all day and night, Sophia told Tassos, and when he did take her along to social gatherings of Athens high society, to which he now belonged, she’d be in a state of constant anxiety, worried that she may say something which would insult her beloved son, something foolish or uncouth, thus revealing, unwittingly, her lack of education and her shady past.

Tassos told her over and over again not to reject the great opportunity she’d been given to have everything she could ask for, living close to her only child, this worthy and successful son who treated her like the apple of his eye. But Sophia begged him to convince Orestes to let her return to the island. She had often talked to her son about this, but he was opposed to the idea and understandably so. Orestes was worried that his mother would relapse, maybe fall into depression again or involve herself in difficult situations. Tassos finally managed to convince Orestes, promising that he would personally make sure Sophia took her medication as prescribed by calling her on the cell phone that her son had bought her at the exact time when she needed to take it. He also promised that he would try to dissuade her from taking up smoking again, and that if she did, (something that both men considered inevitable), she wouldn’t smoke more than five cigarettes a day. Tassos assured Orestes that either he or his wife would go to Sophia’s house every day to check how she was doing and to remind her to avoid challenging situations which could place her emotional balance at risk.

Nobody talked about Sophia again at the pier until, suddenly and unexpectedly, she appeared one morning, five years after she’d left. She walked to her corner without a word, carrying her equipment, her plastic bucket and her cigarettes. The fishermen watched her in awe; they hadn’t recognised this elegant lady who rushed to the Fisherwoman’s spot without any hesitation. Only when they saw that characteristic movement of her arm, when she cast her line, did they realise who the woman was. Because this Sophia who stood before them was an entirely different person. She was slimmer, calmer, lighter in her movements. She wore new, elegant, clothes: light blue trousers that reached down to the middle of her calves, a light blue short-sleeved blouse and an elegant straw hat over her beautiful blond hair which provided shade to her face and her upper body. When one of the fishermen greeted her, saying, ‘Hello; welcome back to your fishing spot!’ Sophia replied with a rare smile: ‘Hello. You can’t imagine how much I’ve missed this place.’ With the rest of the men, who hadn’t addressed her, she maintained her silence, which made her feel more comfortable anyway.

Of course, her new, elegant clothes were entirely inappropriate for fishing, so she quickly abandoned the fashionable ensembles with which her son had filled her suitcases before she left Athens and went back to her wide skirts and long-sleeved blouses which protected her from the sun and let her move freely. She threw away her beautiful straw hat after it caught fire one windy morning as she was trying to light the first cigarette of the day. She returned to her little visor caps which did not extend beyond her head’s circumference. She never dyed her hair again. And thus, the Fisherwoman’s reintegration into the microcosm of the pier was completed, simply and smoothly.

Sylvia called the swimmers to turn to look at the magical sunset. The last rays of the sun were colouring the sky and the water with myriad hues of pink, purple and crimson. The waters around them sparkled dazzlingly. Elina was so moved by the beauty that surrounded them, perhaps also by the Fisherwoman’s story that Lygia had just recounted to them, that she felt a knot in her throat. ‘Α moment of awe and invocation’, she thought. She prayed silently, asking Him to give His love to the whole world and to offer greater understanding to humans so that they can be more accepting of those who lose themselves, temporarily or permanently, and more patient with those who sink in the pool of their passions and weaknesses, serving the needs and desires of their vulnerable nature. Elina prayed with her head turned toward the sun setting in the distance until her eyes were filled with tears from the bright light and the salty water.

Decades went by after that blessed moment, and whenever Elina drove by that specific part of the seafront avenue, she would turn her head toward the sea, searching with her eyes for the lonely figure of the Fisherwoman standing at her post. Even though she knew, from her friends who would ask about the woman whenever they visited Tassos’s taverna, that Sophia had become gravely ill with metastatic breast cancer a few years after her return to the island. And that the illness had killed her within a few months.

When the doctors told him that his mum didn’t have much time left, Orestes informed his clients that he had to be abroad for a few months, for personal reasons, and their meetings could only take place online. Most of his clients accepted this new arrangement without any comment. And thus Sophia, who was very ill by then, would lie in her bed, listening to the muffled conversations behind her son’s closed door, thanking the Virgin for Her help in raising her son right and for allowing her to see him excel in his profession.

On sunny days, when Orestes didn’t have meetings scheduled, he’d take his mum out in her wheelchair. They would go to the pier and fish together, for as long as her frail body allowed. Then, they would return home and call Tassos’ wife to come over and fry the fish they had caught or bring them some food from the taverna. Mother and son chatted endlessly about everything under the sun. Sophia even talked to Orestes about his father and encouraged him to start talking to him because she sensed that she was nearing the end and didn’t want her son to be left all alone in the world. But Orestes had no wish to seek a relationship with an old man who was suffering from dementia by then and who had never taken any interest in, or shown the slightest responsibility towards, his youngest son and the woman who gave birth to him.

Orestes held his mother in his arms during her final moments and received her blessing as her eyes dimmed out. He bought a beautiful large grave in the town’s new cemetery and had his mother buried there, together with her fishing equipment. The fishermen of the pier, a couple of neighbours and Tassos’ family attended the funeral. The following day, Orestes returned to Athens; he had clients to take care of. He regularly sent money to Tassos to care for his mother’s grave, light the wick of the oil lamp and water the flowerpots. He also asked him to oversee the construction of the marble tombstone, which was designed by an artist friend of Orestes in Athens. It was a minimalist design, using only pure white marble; on the vertical part of the tombstone, Orestes asked the artist to place his favourite photo of Sophia, from when she was living with him in Athens. It was the photo of a beautiful, well-dressed, smiling woman.

Every day, Tassos would send his wife or one of his children to the cemetery to care for Sophia’s grave, but on Saturdays he would go there himself. He would light the lamp, burn olive leaves and incense over the tombstone and then whisper to Sophia to enjoy drawing in a little drag of the smoke herself! He would then sit on the ledge of the tomb and chat with his old friend. He never stopped reminding her how much her only child had loved her, Orestes, who was her pride and joy, the greatest achievement and the greatest blessing of her life!

About the Author

Eva Koursoumba

Eva Koursoumba was born in Cyprus, and went to the University of Westminster in London, (B.A. Hons in Media Studies) and to the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, (Diploma in TV and Cinema Studies). After working in Cyprus TV and at an advertising agency as Creative Director, she is now working in Communications. […]