It Was the Medlars
The vender was again passing Xavier's café on the Toulon wharf with a basket of medlars on his head, a tuneful cry in his throat. The season being advanced, the fruit was dark-gold, pulpy, deliciously overripe.
"On this voyage to Genoa, Jean-Marie," the master of the Piccolo was saying, as he filled my glass, "you will be first officer. Bene?"
It was high rank for a youth just turned eighteen. The master was a Sicilian, gravely kind, with the petrel's luck in a hurricane, and he had taught me to navigate by thumb, eye, and quadrant. No longer was I a cabin boy. I could now tread the deck of the Piccolo with a franc's worth of gilt on my cap. There she was at her berth, rocking and jouncing in the tail end of a mistral, trim in the bright sunlight, and reeking of oil, wine barrels, and the woodsy smell of cork.
The vender sang out his wares. The wind came laden with the odor of them, and I thought of the medlar tree in my uncle's garden, and fell a-longing.
"For a day or two I should like to be home." I pointed. "That fruit-"
The master turned his head. "Medlars! And it is April already!" With elbows on the table he cupped his stubbled blue jowl in his hands and sighed dreamily, staring at the basket. "And at Palermo the old Suora Micaela goes crying her medlars. 'Nespole! Che belle nespole!' Ah, the indigo sea of the Concha d'Oro, and the sherbet we bought at the carts to eat with the Suora's fruit!"
The next minute we were eating medlars, which is an art when done properly. You pinch off the bud, gouge down to the seeds, then tear away the peel, and pop the medlar into your mouth. The three lucent seeds drop out easily like bullets. And you wash the pulp down with a gulp of Muscatel that bears the Tuscan mark on a black label.
By the time we had finished, the wharf and the Piccolo were wrapped in blackness, and fat Xavier in his cave back of the shop was fusing oil and wine in a great burst of flames. The incense of saffron was as magisterial as a fugue played on brass sirens. Xavier waddled over to us with the dish. Since it included young lobsters from the Porquerolles, and a good-sized rascasse, we prolonged our dinner until midnight.
"The next voyage, then," said the master when he saw me off on the autobus for the mountains above Nice.
"To the next!"
The vast Ajax-like arm that had conquered storms on the Mediterranean sketched a wobbly farewell in the obscurity of the arch. And Xavier, like a wine tun swathed in a sheet, waved a farewell like a benediction, as well he might, for I had spent a month's wages.
I never returned to the sea, nor ever saw the Piccolo again. It was the medlars.
Excerpted from High Bonnet by Idwal Jones. Copyright © 2001 by Idwal Jones. Excerpted by permission of Modern Library, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.