'The Gift of Oneself' is mostly the story of three people, who have returned to the Island of Plani in the Aegean each looking to recapture the most significant find in their lives.
The Gift of Oneself
There is a prodigious selfishness in dreams:
they live perfectly deaf and invulnerable
amid the cries of the real world.
-- George Santayana
Let us give birth to an illusion. Let us halt time, suspend it, and create a place like the Land of Oz or the Wonderland of Alice.
Strong and sweet are childhood yearnings! Can it be that we are committed to a worrisome adulthood? Are we destined to live beneath a cloud? Why must we struggle to survive if all comes to an end one day?
I have good news, dreams never die.
Wrap yourself in a dream then and become immortal. Make it as cozy and dear to you as you like. Dip your toes into fantasy, into the adult dream that follows. Dive in, if you prefer. Shed your cares for a moment, an hour, a lifetime…and become one, two or all the caricatures that you read about in this parody of masques.
Enough! Let us be off, off to the land of Aesop and Homer.
There...ahead, an island in sight; or is it a speck of dream dust? Let us explore and see. And hear this, dear reader, just between us, Alice never had it quite like this.
There is a deep-black and far down blaze in some people's look that appears to declare, 'Watch out, I am no flatterer soothsayer, I could prove dangerous. What I have given you, I know; that which you have received, I do not.' Nick Sekletis' air had this. A grave uneasiness in the eyes or an intense direct gaze is the most obvious expression of it. Even if Nick Sekletis proclaimed from the housetops to be a civic-minded and protective man, a thinking but cautious man, few would be those that would want to believe him. With those hawkish eyes and that Cassandran stare no one could take his words simply on trust.
Wisdom may yield capacity for common sense, but attainment grants favor and resplendence, and a great deal fewer people weigh sense before the privilege and glory of splendor. Nick Sekletis was not devoid of this knowledge. But, everyone must row with the oars he has. His, were those eyes. A history of eyes was in them. Into them went a world of winds and waves; but it is adeptness and facility, not force and might, that directs and guides a ship. And Nick knew this as well.
To look into those eyes took an effort: A Euripidian Medea that said, ‘There is no benefit in the gifts of a bad man’. Their coolness conveyed a handed-down stoicism of conceivably millennia of disciplined self-restraint ingrained in genes. ‘We do not quite forgive a giver,’ the Emersonian in him now proclaimed, ‘The hand that feeds us is in some danger of being bitten’ nevertheless, something in Nick’s self countered, ‘The only gift is a portion of thyself’ it uttered. There was an undeviating presence of mind there, too. Nick's look acknowledged loud and clear what his belief was with regards to himself and those around him. Those eyes spoke of an awareness of a dateless arena of human challenge and clash. That look in Nick Sekletis sensed that a person's rooted integrity could be more of a peril to him than all the ill will and bad faith of others. He could not stress enough within himself his strong caution of others and his unwavering care for Markeza, and Fondou -- the two most important people in his travailed life.
The edges of Nick's mouth came to a severe, tight knot trailing the fine lips. Nick could not avoid a certain amount of cultural shock on account of his long and frequent absences on ship journeys from his native Greek island that he would have to deal with sooner or later. The world has changed a lot in the past fifteen years, he realized. His personal wisdom convinced him that people, more often than not, decline to see good will in anyone at all, indicting thus any expression of wholesome and true humanity in themselves and all those near them. Because of this decline, although inconspicuousness epitomized for him an emancipating even more than an intimidating circumstance, it had become Nick's noteworthy, and odd, goal in life -- a zealous and vital part -- to carry out any act or transaction needed to lend joy to his body of customers. In his mind this act would compensate and counterbalance the villainous focal point of Markeza's and his childhood afflictions.
He believed in this idea, that his goal would set down a prevalent and unrivaled precedent. An idea based on an introspective resolution about life as a result of his personal experience that would substantiate his life's struggles and commit example, meaning and victory to the task of and perseverance through those wounding years as a child. It would soften and maybe dulcify the pain, the grief his sister and he had to survive through, alone, in their young lives. Seal it. Nevertheless, to refrain from grief at all cost can be accomplished only at the expense of utter indifference and intemperance, which rules out the ability to be aware of happiness.
For the time being he had much to prepare for the immediate future. But the idea was solid, always there, never wavering, perpetually engendering his intent. He re-thought about the sum and substance of all that reading he had done on all those open seas with his friend and mentor the cook, and while under the learned cook's perceptive charge. Many books had been introduced to him as well by his literati patrons at the Club like Orestes and that ‘unconnected’ poet spouse of his Sappho. But on his journeys he witnessed, live not simply from books, that social upheavals staggered and trundled the world throughout. He had long ago eschewed such picturesque power-structure decorums as 'politically correct', 'the work ethic' and 'compassionate conservatism'; and other of the sort convenient prudery that jockeyed the low man on the totem pole in his place: under the heel of the heavyweight mogul, under another brand of tyranny. Nick now looked back. Dead behind that deep-rooted and far-within smoldering in his gaze, inhabited a creature -- the cause of Nick's visible but devised, well-forged facade, of callousness -- Aris Sekletis, their stepfather.
Aris had been a long-limbed, angular islander with thinning gray hair and whose thick mustache had faded to a lackluster yellow from the splash of too much retsina over it. His eyes had been bloodshot slits with a round brown blur in their centers. He avoided daylight because it hurt his eyes and never took off the thick dark glasses he wore. His complexion was rough and dry, leathery-brown from the constant, raw, salt spray of the sea his favorite tavern by the wharf caught. He was sluggish in utterance and in manner, which lured people into surmising that Aris couldn't maltreat a fly. They had been wrong.
There was another reason why Nick sought to impart joy and felicity to his cluster of patrons and clientele at Plani Club. He wanted to prove that not every person is an Aris. He wanted to demonstrate that his stepfather had not sucked him dry of basic humanity. Before all else, he had to affirm with all honesty to himself what his feeling was concerning his goal, and he had to be able to achieve it mostly by himself, for in these things of business and administration he was utterly and expendably alone. This canon extended right down into the guts of a worthy and workable, a justifiable claim. A proprietor’s perspective in relation to his plan needed to be solid and rooted with no room for doubt or hesitation. It was imperative that it remain constant throughout the job at hand and not shift or sap. He could not emphasize enough the importance that his resolve to go into business independantly be strong and unwavering because this temper would decide the scale of his achievement. There are those who could achieve to turn one's actions to their own advantage, discouraging one's good intentions and perhaps leading one to wickedness. Nick fought with all his might this degradation of his character. He wished to affirm that a worthy and prudent person can successfully develop his character in a motherless home and not lead himself to disintegration. This is why he had built the club, to give to others all that Markeza and he had been deprived of, and not to use human beings as prey.
Just as he had done when he was a child hiding from his stepfather's rage, Nick Sekletis stepped down the last step of the spiral staircase that led into the mouth of the cave beneath the lip of the shrub-covered hillock. The hillock was no more than a crude recess in the foothill that hid this secondary opening, but from that shrouded spot Nick could view the seaside village intact and all the bright azure coastline on this side of the island. As a boy he would consume dreamy hours here, sitting on the green, watching the outbound ships as they sailed the straits between Plani and Esperia and indulge in conjectures of the day he himself would be on one of them weighing anchor, beginning a voyage of the world over. Taking a pack from his shirt pocket, he withdrew an unfiltered cigarette and placed it between his teeth. He struck a match, lit it, and inhaled deeply.
According to the master-cook's well-laid plans, Nick's friend would be reunited with his family for good after that last stint at sea and spend the rest of his days on beautiful Folegandros, some ways off the western coast of Thera, fishing his beloved waters, which he knew by heart, and caring for the vineyards that brought in Autumn a most sweet-scented wine. The best in that part of the Aegean archipelago. Nick smiled across the blackness of the cavern ahead and at the silence that encompassed him and nodded a salutation to the absent cook. He knew that he had triumphed his prize away from hardened adversaries that wanted to glean this Aegean paradise, this Mediterranean Shangri-La, of its wealth. Like that fellow, Sam, who didn't miss a season to cull … what? His smile turned more haunted now, no longer optimistic. Was it the colorful quartz and bright crystals that grew in some of the island grottos? Or something else? He'd find out 'what', the next time around.
On the boat, the master-cook had assured him that all Nick would have to do, after seeing that he put part of his hard-earned pay aside, would be to go straight ahead and open up the bar-disco club on his own longed-for island of Plani and never have to sail off again.
"Don't listen to anybody. Just do it," the cook had told him, patting Nick's shoulder paternally. Stelianos Papadopoulos was stocky and muscular, the top of his head came level to Nick's chin. Dense, curly white hair reached almost to his shoulders over the stiff collar of his immaculate chef's linen shirt. His face was a geographical topography, all rugged hills and crags with a patch over one eye. The good eye was friendly, round and quick. His eyebrows were dense and crow-black with a scar crossing the missing eye. "You can't earn what's yours without pertinacity -- that's determination, Nick. 'Perseverance furthers' -- I Ching once said. The sea is a hard mistress to live a whole life with."
But Nick distrusted the islanders, his life maxim being 'Do-it-yourself'. Nick, too, had his course in life all mapped out. His first resolution was to go into business alone, to have to answer only to himself and, of course, look after Markeza. All else, he had decided early in his life, only presented obstacles, or, fields to plow through.
His mind flitted back to their old home, he lying on the kitchen floor, Markeza leaning over him, horror in her innocent cinnamon eyes, speaking in a timid whisper, "Get up, Niko. Your head, it's bleeding." And when he heard the young soft voice of his little sister, he could almost ignore the throbbing pain of his head. She was whispering something more in his ear, but an obnoxious gong was pealing behind his eyes and he could not follow. He extended his hand to her to help pull him up … his hand was holding the burning match.
With the match still lit, Nick found the ivory wall plate of the light switch and flipped it on. A row of lamps flooded a white brilliance into the long tunnel in front of this tall, sinewy man with the long, lean, virile face and that perusal that showed more disdain than concern. The strong chin moved as the lips now strained into a grin. The large eyes below the high forehead remained relaxed, calculating. His hands opened and closed. They were large and solid, with rugged, notched knuckles and long firm fingers. If it weren't for those penetrating bright eyes and his confident, careful movements, he could easily have been confused for a construction worker or a livestock breeder not an ex-merchant seaman. Nick ran his fingers through straight brown hair, collecting remnants of webs picked up during his entrance into the cave. The small cart in front of him had five crates on it, all labeled in red bold letters, DANGER DYNAMITE. Reaching to the right he pulled down on the handle fastened on the cave's damp wall.
He was now lying next to Fondou on the spread towel under the soft shadow of pines a few steps from the roll of soft-blue surf, free, released in an unfamiliar surrender he had not believed in before. Just then, he was immune to worry and pains, liberated in a body with a soul that affirmed and accepted care, passion and comfort. At that moment, all his expectations seemed achieved, or stashed away where they could not interfere or pester. Fondou lay still next to him, breathing shallow, but she was not asleep. He heard her inhaling and exhaling, at times in gentle sniffles, at other times in drawn-out, listless sighs.
"I love you," he had said.
She had caressed him with both arms and drawn her body over his. "At times I wonder where you are … "
"I'm with you."
" … but not today."
"I can't help it."
"Thinking about that cave business?"
"No," he had said. "Thinking about you. You're my business, Fondou."
And it was real. For the first time in his fifteen years of travel, here in the bucolic peace of his home island, he felt whole, at haven. Haven was a few paces, midway, from distress and delight. Haven was an interval just beyond any conjurer and enchanter, or, only a breath away from Scylla and Charybdis.
"I love you," Fondou had said, smiling happily. "But you're hard to find … sometimes."
"I'm not finished. Not yet. Be patient with me."
He had gripped her to him. The moment was passing quickly and he had coveted to seize it. But could not. Short-lived, fragile moment, he thought. But not yet finished. Patience. Ah, that Alexi. When in hell is he going to push those construction permits through! he thought. Himself impatient. The cave is waiting.
The damn island people, he returned to the now and here, can't mind their own business. Always sticking their noses in other people's concerns, always snooping. Why can't they be like him?
They were jealous of him, he knew that; they also played up to him now that they realized his worth. But previous to this, he had to fight and quarrel with practically all on the island to get the business running smoothly. They stole from his orders coming to the island from Athens and Esperia. They harassed him and lied to him at the beginning when he first opened the little seaside club. And they robbed, again and again, from his rare stock of foreign liquors again and again. They did all in their power to sap his ambition of going into business on the island. But Nick could see other things besides want, envy and resentment to the people around him on the island and all those in far off lands and shores -- throughout the world -- he had traveled to, the ports he had visited.
Nick's face now took on a morose look.
He saw ailing wretched societies, bombed and ravished countries, people groping to survive, casting about in search of a few morsels, crumbs, of dignity to live their lives by and make sense of it all. Nick saw it all, listened to every word those people had to say. He set down, no, forged in his memory every vestige, evidence and timbre of their utterance and vociferation, reflected on and pondered over their adversity and misfortune, the manifestations on the faces of the men and women, the tear-streaked faces of families ripped from their homes by the uncompassionate furor of carnage and genocide, the covetousness and voracity, self-importance and self-centered madness of men and women in posts and berths of high stewardship. How can we come through? Nick reflected. How can humankind persevere, day after day, year after year, with all this heft of pain and ill will overwhelming it, swamping it down? He witnessed horrendous growth in aggression and oppression, vice and crookedness that would not let the ruined and the dispossessed see the light of day. He observed an increasing breakdown in human values. Nick beheld the viciousness of hard crime and the venom this collapse let loose, steadily growing everywhere, blasting chiefly through Western societies, nourishing all manner of savagery in such 'open and enlightened' societies. He had watched the spread of indigenous and foreign coercion and 'egalitarian' terrorism become ever-present, especially to those nations of the third world -- what a clement payoff, this trademark of railroading Western foreign policies, he thought. Maybe this was the reason why Alexi’s oddball friends did their thing; and why weirdo Sappho wrote her wacko poetry.
More people than ever went to church, but fewer than ever before believed in religion and in the crux of religious conscience. A mindless, yet often manipulated, crass pragmatism -- yes, a Machiavellian practicality -- was leveling and replacing what little faith and worship groped in people to surface and survive. An economic pragmatism that annihilated and flattened all not oriented to good ol' Western values of 'freedom and justice for all' -- for all who could afford them -- sacrificed any sense of reason, good turn and traits of quality on the altar of lust for more megabucks. Profit, possessions and gains elbowed aside each and every sacred liberty and decent merit. Nick did not think of himself a saint, by any means. But what was his, he had to sweat and work unsparingly, but sincerely for. Surpass spirit-breaking obstacles. Leave behind him dearth-ridden circumstances that had begged his collapse and utter ruin.
It is not overpopulation that causes poverty, Nick called to mind somebody saying, but poverty that causes overpopulation -- the power of the powerless. Still, the world was a wealthy realm, there was food enough to feed everyone despite the famines and hostilities. Humanity was extracting natural wealth from Africa, mining Siberia and smelting down its rich in precious metals vast territories. Yet there was starvation in the world, still there were wars. Persisted still was the unbridled ire that drove to slaying and mass genocide. It wasn't that Nick, himself, wanted to bend -- assault -- the rules on occasion. It was this civic unfeeling attitude and civil hypocrisy enclosing him and others like him that he wanted to home in on and strike out at. He had discovered that survival had, somehow, somewhere along the way, become a privilege and not a right. 'Be yourself and think for yourself;' a fellow by the name of Elbert Hubbard had said once, 'and while your conclusions may not be infallible they will be nearer right than the conclusions forced upon you by those who have a personal interest in keeping you in ignorance.'
Now, Nick's deep down look registered words of another. ‘He is the best sailor,’ Thoreau said, ‘who can steer within fewest points of the wind, and exact a motive power out of the greatest obstacles.’ And this utterance rendered the closest portrait of Nick's own life in totem.
Alicia Novapovic was a neophyte stuffer of fish and, once, an assistant to her marine taxidermist father on a coastal city of Yugoslavia. In better days her country had seen booming trade with the entire globe, but this day Alicia lowered her thorough-blue eyes and tossed her worldly possessions aboard.
“Feeling must think, we must not let the heart die. Defect of sensitiveness dims sensibility in people and the mind recognizes this. So we have really no truant friends,” her father had once told her. “Our spells with a true friend are like full sails. But in the lack of their presence like empty ones.” Her father had been such a true friend, and today she believed even more in the greater things he spoke to her about. It’s curious, she thought now, how little time it took to mold his reliable nature in her brain, to take on a firmer outline and cease to change any further.
In the second half of the twentieth century an industrial surge, inspirited largely during its final steps by global response to the end of the war, came to a rapid bloom in her country. But there came a change with the abrupt dissolution of the Soviet Union, quickly becoming apparent in the stir of the people. Alicia peered about her at the fruit-bearing trees, the level grassland around her aunt’s farmland, the brow of the trickling streamlet that emptied into the small cove before her. All this is going to change, she said inside. Restless ethnicities have precious little time for the simple wonders of nature -- and even less for life.
Her nausea and vertigo returned with a rush. She was forced to grip the thin metal rails of the small sailboat, and she swallowed, fighting for control of her own body. It was difficult to convey the impact this simple change in her surroundings would have on her aunt, and herself if she were to stay. She was shocked by the sheer audacity of the great powers involved in the expulsion of accord and amity in her country, stirring the different ethnic groups into dissension and reciprocal plethora of regional wars. She tried to envisage how this might have been brought about and why. What did these distinguished nations of the world want with her country? What measures could her people have taken to avert the bloodshed? Perhaps, she speculated, some immense strategic, but tragic, gain is the issue here, which has manipulated and floundered her people’s reason, their love for peace.
When Marko Novapovic was killed -- a stray bullet tinkling through the iced window pane one flurrying morning in March -- he left her no more than the proprietorship of a well-kept shop that had no business in a war-ravaged country. Alicia was forced then to take her courage into her own fourteen-year-old hands and forge it into fate.
A Zephyr tousled her solemn young thoughts and tufted straw hair as she lifted the oars into their tholes.
Swallows once flew here instead of incendiary shells. Back then her father and she would turn dead, empty-eyed fish into handsome, live-looking, trophies that customers would hang on their walls, for friends to admire, and eventually neglect.
Alicia now mulled over the many things grown-ups ignored and had not learned from the aberrant stares of their angled 'prizes'. She refused to relinquish her life into their wardship.
She gave a hefty shove to the deserted, wooden quay and rowed till she was well beyond. Alicia then turned and looked back. She savored the crisp, stretching splendor around her aunt's sea side home with the slumped, patched red roof. She would never see it again -- like a mother that vanished one day on her way to the municipal orphans' school to teach.
The pristine break of day was balmy and bright and promised good voyaging. So Alicia put all behind, but the job at hand.
She undid the gaskets and unfurled the mainsail, drew it up the wooden mast, pulled the halyard taut and lashed it to a cleat.
"Now, the proof of the pudding," she said, teetering a bit. She took a hefty whiff of iodine from the sea air, and her boyish bust bulged.
The canvas fluttered some and she pushed the tiller out to trim it. The bag swelled with salty breeze. The skiff leaped forward hissing as it skimmed the gentle brew like a gull's wing through water. She secured the tiller, walked the starboard side to the foredeck, and rigged the jib.
The boat cleaved the sleek bay in two, tacking into the draught. Bit-by-bit the cove receded and soon melded into the checkerboard of gold-brown fields in the backdrop.
Ahead spanned six- maybe seven-hundred kilometers of sparkling Adriatic. Its end lapped the sandy shores of Greece.
The small boat pranced onward banging on the ripening crests, lifting a coruscating spray and dozens of little morning rainbows.
Alicia's lack of seasoning soon became apparent. One minute she was lowering the sail -- the next beating the waves.
She craned her neck and blinked the streamers off her eyes, only to catch glimpses of her boat fleeting away. A sail partly ballooned out with the force of the gale behind it.
She drew her lanky legs in hoping to escape a subterfuge of currents underneath. Alicia struggled to keep on top. She pivoted to face north, opposite from the lash of the wind. Before her churned sky and sea, fusing into a cobalt oneness.
"What happened to -- "
The world flashed and burst a mere few meters away.
In due time she grasped that she was underwater, tumbling, with a mouthful of brine, unable to tell which way was up. She flayed, semaphoring haphazardly.
Squeeze your nose, Alicia, and blow some ... Marko had been so vexed with himself that day for not having told her sooner.
Ears popped and spatial orientation returned. The depths receded and turbulent, platinum twilight took their place. Surfacing, she retched and drew in endless oxygen through clenched, smarting jaws. She wanted to cry, but her batter by tall walls of waves would not allow it. She needed her father to counsel her ... her mother to impart to her the strength of a woman ... and her life to live it, seize it and jolt it and tap it dry, exhaust it.
Few, fat, ripe ones at first. Then in torrents.
She slurped and lapped the rain from her lips and nose, sipping it down.
Around her fish, countless fish, surfaced to drink from the rain. They brushed and tickled the soles of her feet as they flurried by. Alicia shuddered.
I must get far away, she thought with urgency. At that same moment something bulky and soapy bumped her, and she squeezed her eyes shut.
Trotting noiselessly, Alicia began a prayer.
She knew what sharks do.
Dead behind her, splattering fins moiled and lathered the waters.
She wished that all had ended with the storm. Once on her scent ... "it takes minutes to die and it is a lingering death," Marko had once said, "it is manifold deaths that of being eaten alive." A quick bullet, amply more merciful, she thought.
Alicia released the air from her lungs then, and allowed herself to sink.
God, the next breath ... let it be the last, she appealed.
Her understudy floated erect and mimicked her paddling. Two jasper eyes perused her vast-blue while she automatically scanned the rest of the sea.
"No sharks!" Not with him -- her around. For the mammary glands quavered in full bloom.
"I love you, too."
The other sniffed her and nibbled, fascinated, at the soaked strands of her hair.
"Lost the permanent."
Timidly she scratched the velvety epidermis behind the nape and around the breathing orifice. Her company cuddled closer.
"Just like Alicia," she sniffled, "the back always itches."
It watched her, intently listening to the sounds she made. But only mournful calls emerged when it seemed to try to imitate her. She laid her lightning-singed cheek against its smooth side, and heard its heart beat.
But when Alicia dipped her head in the cool water, jarring outbursts rose from her patron.
Alicia's eyebrows made lofty arches. "Aren't we the den mother!
"Do you know that you're a cetacean?" She needed to talk, and the dolphin was keen on listening. "You are intelligent and kind ... "
While she prattled she reached her hand over the powerful back and grasped the dorsal fin.
" ... When you were born, the other adults helped to lift you upward and upward to break surface, and whiff your first scent of life. It was gracious of you to do the same." She considered. "Thank you, Grace."
She scooped from the passing stream a mouthful of salty water and spilled it out again.
Thirst began to haunt Alicia.
She was grateful for the evening.
The sun's blare and hours of drag through the sea were decimating her. Her dry throat gagged. And water was everywhere.
She dipped her tongue into the flowing stream and swallowed. The taste was liquid and refreshing.
Sluggishly, she managed to tow herself to a half-lying, half-straddling station over the mammal. The dolphin, to her wonderment, shimmied and rippled its muscles distributing her weight evenly.
She nestled closer to the warmth of the body, but her exposed backside still took the brunt of the frosty jabs.
Hours passed like winters.
Grace jolted her to wakefulness several times, twisting to keep her from sliding off.
The stars were all out now. The North Star flickered high ahead. Alicia blinked at it, fighting drowsiness.
"You're traveling into the current, heading for -- "
"Nobody'll believe -- " Alicia rasped.
She swallowed, and grimaced with pain.
"Why aren't you minding your young ones?" she finally cried out, but it came out like a neigh. "You left them behind, chased away sharks, to save -- who? A runaway."
Alicia felt great bitterness then, and greater love than her years could have permitted.
"Oh, sea mother, why?" she asked.
Something familiar at that moment burst in her awareness.
"Mother's not running away!" Alicia exclaimed.
It cast over Alicia like a warm blanket on a brassy night.
"She's hiding the orphans, and no one must know. To protect them from the sharks of the land."
Her light-headedness expelled in a croaking, raw titter. "And fish now will stuff themselves with Alicia -- "
Delirious levity given vent: "Dear heart, I won't make it, too weak ... thirsty, dehydrating. I'm dead weight, Grace. I can't see from thirst, I can't hold on without -- "
She relaxed her arms. Grace stopped as Alicia slipped off. The dolphin did not protest this time, but remained solemnly still.
Alicia could barely paddle, and sank.
She drank ... and drank ... until she ran out of breath she drank.
By that time, the dolphin had rolled over. She broke surface too, and she could breathe and drink and breathe and make out a spray of twinkles in the near distance, and languidly bobbing in the foreground a half-draped vessel she thought she'd never see again. Her nose ran, then her eyes, but the dolphin remained serenely supine as she hauled hungrily to the other teat.
She suckled, sobbed, suckled, cried, and to her surprise her crying sounds resembled infinitely more the calls of Grace.
It had been either children or starve. The place had been Athens, the time an autumn Friday, the first year married to Sappho, his stratagem short, like the attention span of the youngsters they had been teaching. Children change ruthlessly quick, he had thought at that time. But memory was indelible with him. It toyed cruelly with things, perhaps, best slighted.
Sappho was the case here, and the pranks these same children had been playing on her blind colleague (and the school's music teacher), Daphne MacTass, and of which he took a very dim view.
"I'll have no part of it," Sappho had said, with that voice of hers, that morning about ten, to his proposed practical experiment. Sappho was a sin -- throaty sexy voice and all. Curly raven hair rippled to her narrow shoulders and spilled over a deep forehead, around Mycenaean-almond eyes.
"Terrible thing to do. They're a wily generation granted. Kids with compounded problems. But then, you don't know what it's like." Sappho had shifted in her chair uneasy. The teacher's lounge had been deserted, but for the slight, old and rickety cleaning woman dusting off the old shelves filled with antiquated English-learning texts and audiovisual apparatus they used.
"But I," he said, "could teach them. One day forfeited, to see for the rest of their lives."
"It'll be like tying their hands behind their backs, and educating them to use feet and toes in their place. What's the sense ... "
He was considering Sappho's eloquent disagreements when the bell fractured their fruitless sortie.
It was Saturday, noon probably. He dithered nonplus through once familiar thoroughfares. A good Samaritan volunteered, grabbing his elbow and with encouraging snippets whisked him across Amalias Avenue and up the curb, said good-bye, abandoning him quickly to his fate as though sightlessness was a fresh strain of AIDS virus.
The notion did not abandon him.
He heard familiar traffic growling by and felt the cool drifts upon him from the National Garden to his left. He identified as he teetered along wafts of sharp pines and the pungent pass of oaks and a swirl of minty eucalyptus.
In his dead reckoning, twice he was snatched curtly from harm's way. The first, a speeding bicycle. The second, a procession of police cars frenziedly climbing onto the sidewalk heading, he was told, most likely for the Zappeion building where (as he had read in the previous day's paper) the EU metro-extension delegation was to meet that day for further subsidy allocations.
He was neatly deposited on a park bench -- foreboding whispers ebbed and flowed all about him. His orientation had been decimated. He reached up to the dark pair of glasses -- "No!" he tarried. "It has to last over the whole weekend." Instead, he pressed the gauze pads taped on to his eyes more firmly against their sockets. "To the ancient knoll," he whispered, defying a bark of instinct from inside.
Tap, tap! Tap, tap!
It was a comforting sound that of the white walking stick ahead of him. One got the illusion that one could actually hear compressions and expansions in space. That an obstacle in one's path of way would alter their expected cadence to alert one.
Yes, he thought, it's a different world. You see sounds. Fertile in smells and lip-licking dusty flavors, Sappho.
Ah, metal. I know this exact spot of the road, he thought more relaxed. Two days ago I passed it. All dug up, replacing old sewage pipes. Solid metal sheets had been laid over the deep trenches for pedestrians and automobiles to get across. The knoll is ahead and to my right, he counseled himself.
Sappho, Sappho, you and Daphne love them too much. Why so much devotion to strangers' children? Is dedication, along with your poetry, your seeing organ? Do you find your way in that infinity of conundrum of yours by it? The little cuspids will rip your dusky world into dimmer slits, Daphne. Show them a glimpse of it, if nothing else, and they'll gasp to be rid of it. And marvel at your courage.
I already do.
And half a day has only gone by. Two for me. A full school day for them. Attention span will swell like a sail, I guaranty you that. They will not forget it. And they will love you for it. They will give accounts of it down to their grandchildren.
And I to mine --
Ah, firm pavement, good. Do it, and Daphne MacTass will earn their respect in no time.
"But the idea is monstrous," she had kept insisting.
"Children can be monsters, if you allow it," he had warned them both. "There's that little spear chucking hunter, Jack, in all of them. He'll stick you unmercifully come the chance. The restless imp is biding its time. Tie its eyes, one day only, and it will see for the rest of its lifetime."
"I'll have no part of it," Sappho said.
Daphne MacTass simply chuckled a little at his wit.
But I will, his thoughts reassured him, will provide them with indisputable facts of non-damage. The analogy of this test should prove enough. An adult survives the perils of the city's core, unaided by his most vital of senses. You are too giving to them.
"It's simply the unordinariness of my situation. Open curiosity of children. That's all," Daphne had simply said.
More. You are the voice of midnight, Daphne, that is a dear heart -- if I ever heard one -- speaking. The face and body of a ripe woman, that's never been -- that which is bread and water to all women since times out of mind -- vain.
Tick, tick! Orestes brows rose.
Dirt? Dirt where there should be pavement? And this queer silence, the musk in the air, he listened to his thoughts. A tomb vault is less inert. There at least one would hear the rasp of a centipede, or the scratch of a beetle. The hub of a city should gallop with noise!
Sappho, your universe of clemency begins to undo this man's wit. Am I being cursed for my manner of boldness? To end all of it should be simple. Ah, Daphne, but you have suffered through it since birth, and I to give up in a bit more than half a day's progress?
I ... I cannot, he concluded. What may lie beyond these two covers of my eyes ties my arms to my sides. At least, what abides behind them is what I make it to be. I can forge a hundred explanations with my brain for the event taking place right now. Each one a grown man's reasonable explication. A dream even. But if I were to strip the pads off, the hundred conjectures would collapse into one certitude. I will be shorn of the freedoms you possess, brave Daphne. Be poor, almost naked, with just a single one.
What have we here? A puddle? A lake? The Bering Straits?
A voice amid the -- ! "Ye-e-es!"
"You are a tourist?"
"A tourist, my good man?"
"You are crazy -- oh, I am sorry. Wait there! I will help you."
"Who might you be, sir?"
"Senior Inspector Engineer, Manos Gotsis. Ehh! I have told them that these new metro shafts will become a trap, if not guarded twenty-four-hours. They do not listen."
"Shafts, Senior Inspector Gotsis?"
"I am almost there. Phew! Give me your hand."
"I don't understand -- "
"You are, sir, thirty meters under Omonia Square."
"Beg your pardon?"
"On your left are two-thousand-volt cables. On the right scaffolding around a well ten meters deep."
"In front of you, the city's main sewage network -- another four or five meters of a river of wastes -- that empties a kilometer off the coast of Piraeus into the sewage treatment plant."
"And you have a guardian angel."
"Sappho, or is it Daphne!"
"Gotsis, sir. Manos Gotsis."
"Oh, course, Mr. Gotsis. Merely referring to someone that's also a guardian angel of a sorts ... words and children are our specialty ... "
"Watch you head."
" ... and bafoons that think they know what seeing is all about ... and try to change the world by proposing that each and every one of us should experience at least once that night of nights ... "
"Ah, it must be sad not seeing."
"Sadder things, Mr. Gotsis -- seeing, yet blundering around blinder than a odd bat."
He was not much of a teacher, particularly on Mondays.
Orestes had taken to the ends of this Earth every so often because children were in a way invariant: under a constant fixed shadow of growing pains. Autumn in Athens, some winters in Crete and Cyprus, a spring and summer here and there in Lefkas, Samos and Kythera -- they were all the same. Day to children came always after night. A night that is simply vast and petrifyingly menacing to a tot alone in a room evil-thick with darkness.
"Enough of darktime (plenty of it, too, in their checkerboard teens)," Sappho had told him later on that evening. "Who in God's name would want the babes all to be righteous Ralphs? How many do you know of whom would want love hatching from an unforgettable day that starts off with darkfall!"
"Just one won't be an agreeable number then?"
At the time -- and Sappho hadn't known why -- she had alarmingly poised at his soft-spoken so-silly query.
"Just one?" he had insisted.
Could she, she would have ventured for this man into raw blind darkness, a whole existence of nights -- dawn to dusk -- were he to behold for one eye blink the woman in her in love. However, she had only and plainly nodded a simple 'yes' that day, it seemed to her ages ago.
"You do not know how to give," Orestes had said to her last night. "You try, but do not know how. And you must learn what you want in return."
Sappho lifted the sheet off herself and sat up on the edge of the bed. With effort she got up, slipped her jeans on, and went to write.
She didn't wake him up, but brought with her a mug of Nescafe and settled in the chair. The pungency of the black brew briefly dispersed the sleepiness in her head.
She had heard the poem one night in her dream in the past. But her mind today felt thick, clumsy, undisciplined. The peaks of her responsiveness were blistered on one hand and on the other her emotions cramped from fatigue.
"How are your poems proceeding?" Androkles had asked her at the publishing house the other day, giving her a pat as she stretched the knotted muscles of her back.
He had looked at her with those knowing eyes, weighing and regarding, as he stood in front of her, twice attempting to say something that he did not.
She enjoyed watching his curiously delicate manner. He used his large hazel eyes to tell more than his tongue -- but that morning she pretended to busy herself with a thin folder of new poems, not looking at him for long, for she knew he was probing her. She had even evaded their usual patter.
"You're not well?" he had finally acquiesced.
"Not very. It'll pass."
He put one leg over the other, shifted in high spirits with brisk, spirited movement. And he paused a little. He did not speak immediately, but delayed this moment of focus. He relinquished himself to it as thoroughly as to his deliveries. He was never hurried at this particular stage; he never rushed at this point. It was, she thought, a kind of liturgy in him, just as when he was reciting, he was undividedly surrendering.
Yet Androkles could be as utterly grave or severe. His reproaches were the bleakest she had ever seen. He administered inspiration as a evangelist man preached repentance. It was for this thoroughness, she imagined, that she felt esteem for him.
Sappho now raised the keyboard off her lap and laid it next to a desk scattered with sheets, a copy of Chosen Country by J. dos Passos, and Mary Magdalene portrayed weeping.
She heard Orestes get up and she shut her eyes. The apartment closed in on her and a sudden vortex made her slump to one side. She caught herself from falling and sprung her slight, lean torso up straight on the uncomfortable chair.
Two years, Androkles had said. Two hard years for the Florilegium -- the anthology -- to finish. "Don't give up," was his favorite infamous statement, "you come to me with a perfect sense of aesthetics."
She whiffed the heavy blue smoke meandering into her cubby-hole study from the Amphora Orestes was smoking in the kitchen. Her throat tightened and her nostrils pinched. He was making Greek coffee. Its rich fragrance mingled, somewhere along the way, with the silty wafts from his pipe and made her head whirl. Oblivious to her discomfort she could hear him murmuring/singing, " Take my hand/Take my whole life too ... " to himself -- the King was The King for him.
She sat there listening and listlessly stared at the only two paintings in the apartment, one was an Andrew Wyeth and the other a Norton Simon. They represented her wealth and had been sent by her mother, who had brought them from Astoria, Long Island, six months after Sappho had departed from her home.
Sappho had been raised in the ancient neighborhood of Plaka in a house of post-classical architecture that vaunted better days right after the war. Her family was moderately wealthy and an old Athenian family, endorsing the old ways, trying hard not to be assimilated by the onrush of world changes fostered by satellite television and her media-nurtured generation. From childhood she had known that her future was already planned out. She would be sent to college, earn her degree, and marry a man with a solid profession, perhaps even a shipowner. But all that had changed when one morning she left her home with rucksack bearing down on her thin shoulders and trust in a calling.
And I will love thee still, my dear,
Till a' the seas gang dry:
Till a' the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi' the sun;
came the Burns' hyperbole in the form of a TV commercial for scotch whisky from the kitchen where Orestes sat.
They had been together for a lifetime it seemed. She had been nineteen then and he twenty-three both attending university. He had been like nobody she had ever met before. He didn't worry any more about the years ahead than did cattle in green pastures. There was a primal manner in his air and a puerile spontaneity that uninhibited her. He had a careering way about him, like a twentieth century gladiator, all was intense sport, love-making, teaching, drinking, writing, prancing his shiny second-hand Harley as if he were Marlon Brando and she the counter waitress.
His parents had divorced when he was four. He had been on his own since he was twelve, when he had done away with the source of his obstacles by hurtling over the estate's glass-strewn wall. The opportunity had come, just before Christmas dawn, he had scaled the shard-sowed barrier to freedom, bloodied and frost-bitten. Nightmares of that night persisted to this day.
A garage owner had offered him a job and Orestes had taken his courage in both hands. Though he was still a boy then, he grew up fast to become a man. Yet the strong arms transformed to comforting wings at night. She could have let her life surrender into his and part with all that tortured her, walk away from her own honeyed trial, into the tangy freedom his world promised ...
The keyboard lay waiting. Elegant, shiny, painful, it ignored her musings and the fever her incapacity brought. Two years had passed four months ago, and still the verse moved slowly, sluggishly, producing a cacophony. There were days when she wrote adeptly, but few. She could not account for it; if she could only do that.
Orestes' deep, Greek eyes were upon her from where he sat, this minute. She could feel their moot, fixed look. It had been a bad night, last night. A bad night for love. There had been depression in the dark of the room, a tiredness she felt more often than not. He had finally left her and gone to the other end of the bed, and she had lain alone and silent, and sirocco-warm tears ebbed out of her scouring the hours by.
The night faded once more whence it came. She massaged the thumb muscle to lessen the stiffness. Shadowy crescents weighed the light-cyan eyes below her heavy lids. Veins stood out like winding blue worms on her forearm and the back of her hand. Fatigue from the repeated rewriting of the work maintained the pains in her body fresh and visible. All were the credits of the craft. All the visible signs of hard, diligent work were there. Texture was not.
Orestes brushed by her on his way out. She smelled the tobacco on his clothes. He stood by the door not speaking, then closed it behind him.
"Poetry is like a man," had been Androkles' first words that decisive March noon. Sappho's first lesson had begun. "He will want and want some more. You will hate and love him. Give yourself to him and he will give everything to you; as someone once said, 'Love is, above all…”
Androkles had then embraced a slender volume and began to read Mystique. Sappho's last minute doubts dissolved with certainty. Each undulating lull charged a want that had so long been left yearning for its mate. The words mingled and blended, entwined and braided, melded and plexed and fused weaving a dulcet onomatopoeia of counterpoint plenishing her every pore, progressing so ever softly turning, spinning sheer summer air into a gossamer completion that longingly never came. The tinkling of the verse echoed, ignoring, conquering time.
"The moan of doves in immemorial elms/And murmuring of innumerable bees -- do you hear him, do you hear Maestro Tennyson's sigh in the pluckings? You are in love, no?" Androkles had remarked, putting the volume down.
But the keyboard before her seemed unconcerned, aloof, like Orestes. Both promised ecstasy, both wanted her soul. But she had not the strength to serve two masters.
When she had awaken it was a comfort to know that the entire day would belong to her to be alone. But by the time she got through a few words of the poem, even the light burden of the keyboard was too much for her on her lap. She had not slept much during the night, she realized, for her eyelids drooped more often than not. She had a drifty feeling that made her dreamlike and lose herself.
"Rest if you must,/but don't you quit." came Cushing's words from the poem Androkles had drilled into her memory two years before.
Finally, she put the keyboard down. The noon sun rays dabbed the wall next to her with a craggy segment of column from the Parthenon beyond. She found herself glide into oblivion on the chair. She dozed. She was overwhelmed by her dreaming of her father and felt happiness.
She was seldom like this, not ever since they had met. But now, like a torrent, the cumulated snags in their relationship suddenly all deluged upon her, and she was surprised that she did nothing to stop the onset. She recollected afresh the quarrel the night before, recalled the options remaining -- put to her; about the poetry, she could not remember what had been said to be wrong with it; possibly it was not the poetry; she did not know. She retained only the oppressive, mostly mute, suffocation of Orestes' demands.
At the recollection she began to tremble for an instant, uncontrollably, and gasp for more air to enter her lungs. It had been a turbulent episode, the worst; like an Aegean August gale, with only a hint of warning, that drowns one unsuspectingly. She was sinking, she told herself. She was feeble against his wants -- whatever these were. And perhaps the giving on her part would never quench the needing on his.
Her head and stomach felt better. She pushed her hair back once more and waited for the words to come. Instead, a feeling came again, this time urging and stronger than before. She picked up the keyboard and gave, yielding herself to it. There was a knock on the door that she did not hear.
She was solely aware that the soft rhythmical whispers of the keys did not come from the keyboard but from her. Like heartbeats, they were as much hers as her heart's. A presence was there, completing a metamorphosis. Unlike before, she knew, the threshold now was scaled, the union of her and her dream realized. She wrote, all of her, and did not stop her care because now she could not. Like the pulsing in her chest, her will no longer participated in its existence. A being had been freed, and free it reigned over a kingdom of two. The knocking stopped, the footsteps died softly away behind the closed door, and the room glowed in the summer afternoon with Sappho and her very own sublime 'Mystique'.
I woke up that morning, Orestes, and knew that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with Evangelos. But because of my indecision I was swiftly loosing him.
"Arthur, there is another -- " No, no, it's too blunt.
"This has to come to light sooner or later -- "
"Why not sooner than this?" he'll ask.
"I'm leaving, Arthur -- "
"Where to this time, Victoria?" no good.
It had been a soft June morning, a little after the Marshall Plan had been implemented. When Arthur had gone to the office, I paced the floor like a caged lynx, my third cup of Maxwell-House in hand -- coffee and cigarettes were the most bounteous among the staples the embassy rationed to its TOD personnel and their dependents.
A few minutes later I locked up, got in the battered Ford Town-Wagon I used on my digs and drove for Piraeus.
"Step on it," I said to myself.
Glimpsing in the rear-view mirror I caught site of a white sliver of a sun emerging from behind a summer puff of a cloud, and two blue pits staring back at me. I fussed with a crow curl on my forehead, but gave up when a gust of hot breeze tumbled more down. Suddenly, ahead, dozens of windows burst their glare, dazzling my way.
Victoria Hall, Orestes, wanted to break loose from her second marriage as well. She was an archaeologist, resilient in stamina but restless in her moods. She resided in a house near the University of Athens where she taught when she was not away digging up relics. She was in her late-twenties then, had a six year old son, Theodore, from her previous marriage, who lived with his father in Oregon. Her daughter, Sara, seven, lived with Arthur and her.
Victoria was tallish for her sex and her expeditions kept her well lean. A speck of a mole spotted her above the left brow. Snugly-fitting dresses, she had discovered young, did wonders for her shapely, exercised figure. She carried herself with an air of confidence; when sitting she could always attract male glances by crossing her long, shapely legs.
It was due to Arthur that she had been in Greece -- this never-never land -- for those two unforgettable years.
The little ship had been ready to leave when I had reached it. I had to run to board. The boy there had taken my hand and helped me up the ribbed plank. Once on deck I drew in a breath.
I climbed a narrow set of stairs to the kaique's upper deck.
The roar of the engine smothered conversations, singing, and galloping children calling to their mothers. The passengers scuttled to sort their belongings near by and take seats for the two-hour journey over Argosaronicos.
I leaned on the side rail and watched the seagulls snatch, break and swallow sardines when a sheet of sea drizzled on me, choking off their obscure squawks. My arms and shoulders shuddered at the wet slap.
'Dear Arthur,' I had begun the note, just before I had left the house that summer morning. 'I must act soon or my mind will crumple. I ask of you to understand and not question my state, accept only that I can no longer continue our lives together. It is of no oversight of your own, simply it is how things sometimes come about. Victoria.'
Orestes, I had been petrified at the time. Amazing, the torment ministered over the mind by anxiety and fright. What if -- ?
The seagulls had casually drifted off, protesting to the termination of their regale, and as their cries had ebbed in the distance I fell back into the shadow cast by the boat's canvas above. I egressed deeper into the shadow. I had backed all the way to the bulwark, and thrusted to retreat still further.
On further examination of the times, remembering finally who I was and what had happened to me, thinking of the paths I had walked in my life, remembering all the promises I had made to myself and to others, I had then resolutely pledged to journey to the land of sanctuaries, where my labor would confront with its meaning.
The 'sanctuaries', such anachronism when atomic bombs governed the world. But my mind had healed enough since my first wedding to recall that the place of refuge that would accept my new wedding and life would be one where simple people had established for themselves a simple way of living founded on a history of axiomatic and universal wisdom, in an open horizon with a sea strewn with isles echoing an exalted past, introducing it to an ambivalent future. One conceivably of a nuclear and ecological day of reckoning.
Still, the land I sought to practice my profession in, a nation ravaged by the dementia of war, could boast of unmolested shrines and temples that even the enemy honored, pastoral fields of rolling plains, proud mountains and grassy meadows time had not spoiled or touched. The vast annals of its antiquities, the ancientness of this place, its aim and dare that reason and thought shall prevail and thus one day soon govern again all Hellenes, had made me abandon, for those two years back then, the New World where I had been born: the Nova America with its Nova Bombs; and voyage to this place of serenity in hope of finding common sense and the source of peace in my own impatient self.
It hadn't been difficult to equip my digs with staff and tools. Rooms for short or long- term occupation by my people and myself at archeological sites were no problem since the near-by villagers were in dreadful need of extra earnings. The sites had always been sealed off from easy access for guardianship reasons. It was no problem to make the sites safe against any sort of spoliation by the roaming goat and sheep-herds the townsfolk grazed in the area, or curious tourists who might be attracted by the excavations.
But in order to find the truth these sanctums kept undestroyed through the millennia, one first had to find out what truth meant at those far off times, as well as what truth was conceived to be in our times of 'civility and enlightenment'. I had been wandering randomly in a dismal stupor for most of my years, perhaps more. But, more dismal was my inability to recognize proximate truths that stared me in the eye. Truth could be tyrannical and anywhere, but we have to look for it without flinching and with eyes wide open.
In the early morning hours that day I had found my way out of the city, almost by fate, treading into the modern world of an ancient nation that refused to die, unexpectedly into what had once been a neatly laid out plan. I assumed myself to be deserted now, in frightening disarray, with omens piled up every which way in my choice of decision, where their heir had left them trusting that they no longer were capable of effecting anything more than a second misadventure, that of yet another separation. Driving to Piraeus from Athens that presumably resolvedful day of long past, the annulling of the whole thing had had no validity in the determination that impelled me on. There was no sign that anyone was to be done more detriment than I to myself. I proceeded up a winding road to a hilltop cul-de-sac of spacious, imposing dwellings, every one of them a monument to days of old, of more rendering romance and of less restrained adventure.
Victoria had first heard Evangelos' music over the portable radio. It was like nothing she had ever experienced before. There was in it the power of a Beethoven, a dab of the grace of a Vivaldy, and the urgency of a Wagner. She would listen while she dusted off and pasted together pot shards at Santorini, or when dry grit from day-long excavations at Milos parched her throat bringing tears to her eyes. She would conjure up in her imagination the physiognomy that had the reserves of sensitivity capable to compose such hymns to the restoration of a war-maimed Greece. What was the man like? she had wondered.
Nann Elly Walker, the Ambassador's burly Texan wife, accommodated. "Why don't you come and see, dear," she had popped out, during happy hour at her place. "He'll be here on Ed's birthday and, just maybe, he'll play that yawning grand piano we forgot in our living room."
Victoria of those times rose and rose and rose, Orestes, into the light.
Out of the dark had come daybreak. She was today in a place nearly forgotten by her over the years, at a venue of tingling thrill from her young and carelessly carefree adulthood days of her past.
I had spent a long morning that day driving along suburban roads lined by bitter-orange trees, without recognizing a single familiar and obvious landmark, so preoccupied with my decision was I that day. At such times, as my wits relegated into reason what would have failed deplorably the test of common sense, I entered a numb state of being through no rational effort of my own. Its open access helped my angst to whatever level it needed to precipitate to allow clear thinking. No threats to myself came out of the usual conscious tap somewhere inside me. After a quick search, I found the flat silver flask, in the glove compartment, of seven star Metaxa and drank as much of it as I could. I wanted to flood myself with it ...
("Victoria, why do you at times speak of yourself -- and your family -- in the third person?" Orestes asked.
"I feel I had been another person then, a different Victoria. A wild, but somehow a finer person then than that of today. In those days I feared making mistakes, but made them anyway.")
… The hours had seemed like eons, Orestes, when Fanaras Express had finally advanced to the breakwater of Esperia, maneuvered and docked by its stern to the quay.
I gripped the richly painted balustrade and followed the queue to shore.
We had used the hospice often enough as it was next to the water and afforded practical and private amenities for our escapes near the sea. Evangelos' cottage was a half hour's steep climb by foot, isolated within mountain pine and thistle.
The hospice room had contained three straw chairs, a double bed drooping in the middle, and two square night-tables on either side with a storm lamp on each.
Victoria's lover Evangelos was talented and accomplished. It thrilled and mystified her that although one day she could boast of having had uncovered all the hews of his soul, the next he would be shrouded again, be the quintessence of a new enigma. Prosaic apparel, casual poise and an aloof stride contested a stylite discipline and a questionless fidelity to his muse. Evangelos was a slight taller, but thinner with drawn, Byzantine eyes. His slender, fine fingers vaunted versatility upon the keyboard, the strings, and her sensitivities. His being wrought noise into the symmetry of music. It bestirred and fermented, glorified her, awakened and ennobled her by simple flicks of his delicate wrist. He was grace and force, surge and surrender, and, she believed, the timber she awaited for in her gray existence. He had elevated Victoria's life to karma, Orestes.
My face had burned with the drying salt still on it.
I had been nursing paranoia since that morning when I had written the note, how all of the Apocalypse would threaten me.
How years of marriage could be epitomized by a few snippety couches.
I could not anticipate Arthur's full regard to the laconic vein. But could predict trying muscles on either side of the mouth, pressed lips, furrows creasing the eyes.
Evangelos had been quite the opposite.
Theodore had had Victoria's sapphire eyes and his father's nose, mouth and strong chin. When he had come to Greece to spend that summer with them she observed that her son had no problem picking up modern Greek, or mingling with the boys in the war-shorn neighborhoods. He had proven to be quick at soccer and an ace swimmer as he had escorted her at the dig sites on the islands those hot days. He had made friends easily enough, Orestes, all of whom he wrote to well past summer and would send Christmas and Easter cards.
It had been Arthur's dark blue uniform (and uniforms Evangelos could not understand) that flattered and flirted his blush that first attracted me. I had been reeling with passion those days, drunk with my gentleman and officer, and these priorities did not leave time enough for love, Orestes. I would search for it later, I had promised myself, when the spell had abated some.
Sara unlike Theodore would spend her free time improvising variations of her wardrobe. She would try on combination after combination of apparel, and rummage through Victoria's bijoutery to find and hang on her gangly self matching earrings, necklaces, and assortments of bracelets, rings and brooches. She would often talk to her room as though entertaining a melange of Dukes and Duchesses, Earls and Counts. An empty room that to her had been bursting with spangling royalty.
The creaking door had started me. I went to it towel in hand. It was the breeze and no-one else. Still, I nourished hope that Evangelos would be standing there.
On occasion Evangelos tripped to Athens for his concerts or rehearsals with the orchestra. Whereas Athens, depleted and exhausted, fostered nostalgia of how things once were, the island of Esperia personated creation undiluted, manifest. He composed brilliantly of a war-weary city on an island overwhelmed by light.
He strove to save that which men in boots had covered, trampled and cast aside. 'Anastasis' he called it. 'Resurrection'.
Arthur, on the other hand, as naval attache, had become engrossed in the finesse of diplomacy and absorbed in the details of his charge. He charmed me by his evolvement. I observed him unfold, elicit skillfully, educe assertiveness and carping that only evoked more admiration.
I too could boast devotion to my craft. The city was my citadel, the Academy facilities my turrets, and the ancient land of the Hellenes my realm of reign. The artifacts I unearthed, timeworn and hoary, thrummed of a phoenix, a rebirth that struggled tumultuously not to be passed over, Orestes. Alongside Arthur opportunities had emerged to dig and salve.
By certain media Victoria and her colleague, Professor Dunning, had ensued the legal paper to engage in maiden digs bringing to light precious treasures at Samothrace, Plani, Thera, and Orchomenos. Out of convivial companies at the University, happy-hours at the Walkers and cocktail evenings amid the upper crust, her exposure grew and ripened into influential purviews.
Evangelos would composed upon her prizes, transposing his music to the splendor of her findings. Corroboration in A sharp, and she cheered along side of him.
She listened to the music chant of renown and magnificence, in major and minor modes, and found no intimidation there. She could not compass any discord that alarmed her of usurpation. The flute had reigned, the oboe complied and the tympanies and orchestra had filled and coalesced inflecting a dithyrambic cadence. The motifs were tense but pastoral, sensitive, interlaced with sensibility, point and counterpoint.
Arthur, Evangelos, Professor Dunning and our archaeology had instituted the quartet of my haven. For two years this foursome had prescribed and routed my future. I, Victoria, had been the node, the juncture, of their convergence. I had been the exigency of our intrigue.
Professor Dunning presided over it all by some intrinsic prerogative availing him to grasp and control, barter and negotiate liabilities and 'benedictions'. He ushered clout and pull to expedite my excavation permits and licenses. There was, back then, the time I aggrandized him as the cornerstone in the ascendancy, the mother wit that unfastened, released, revealed, and dispensed all in its proportion and rank.
But Evangelos with his exotic Victor Mature eyes was the afflatus.
He complemented and augmented me.
His music chaperoned the digs and accompanied the troves I expositioned. It was a natural marriage.
Arthur took delight in my delectation, and I could tell the magnitude of his joy through my own. The laughter in the eyes, the patent glow on his face, and his inherent shyness, so naively puerile, incarcerated me, Orestes.
The gulls had plummeted indolently into the calm water. A few had just skidded their wingtips sketching on the sea's even surface. Some simply had floated on the air currents behind the boat.
Esperia's evening shadow had cast upon the boat, a kind of giant whose hunched back had emerged from the plane of the sea eclipsing a quadrant of sky. A Zephyr blew and comforted me in its coolness. The scent of sea iodine not spice was pervasive now. While the kaique cleaved through the inert span of sea, I looked at a solitary figure that went and sat at the edge of the receding wharf. Little-by-little the form thawed and blended into the grain of the landscape. And I, bit-by-bit, sifted once more the tesserae of my life.
I had waited in the hospice turning Evangelos' words in my mind. The small room shrank compelling me to push on. I had lain down instead parched and fevered and sapped.
Lest being wrong I had let half hour more pass. Then gathered my things, and despite my affliction, had boarded the boat back to Athens.
Next, the sun had crept over the rim of summits of a single broad mountain that was the island. From this vantage point I clearly had seen Esperia's and Plani's full profiles amidst other isles, till a while later they had all melded into the craggy fringe of the Peloponnese.
"Arthur -- " Victoria had speculated on the possibilities that coming night could have had.
He would be stirring the martinis. There would be guests, the Walkers, perhaps even Sara and Theodore from camp. He would ask what she had prepared in the order of snacks slighting her adjurations.
"Arthur -- " she had imagined still another scenario.
He would turn and look, in his navy blue uniform, and she would see the emotions tangle on his face, lines from weariness, tired green eyes. In his hand her terse note.
I had retrieved the sunglasses hanging down my neckline and put them on.
That Friday night 'Anastasis' had inundated throughout the outer lobby of Concert Hall. Latecomers had queued at the box office. The motif had been intimately familiar to me.
"I will not be absent from my own premier," Evangelos had insisted perturbed, a week before. "We can go together, Victoria -- or go alone."
My attempt to shift his priorities for this one occasion had failed. I must have seemed to him to be nourishing a threat to his Muse. I had not persuaded him to let another conduct his music nor spend that last weekend together on the island before the new digs at Delos took me away.
"Victoria -- "
The happy hour regulars waived from the ticket booth with tickets in hand. Among them Arthur. His uniform was a bit creased. He had come directly from the office, or gone to see how the kids were doing at their first day at camp.
They were all happy I had made it.
I fabricated the excuse of really being too exhausted from driving to the Thermopilae site and back to stay on.
"I'll go home, freshen up, and wait for you all there."
Arthur offered to go with me.
"I'll manage," I said.
I went up to him, gave him a kiss and exited.
As I drove home the radio continued Evangelos' 'Resurrection' broadcasting it live from Concert Hall. It said much to me. So subtle an ally. One that completely eluded me, one that Evangelos and Arthur do not know about to this day.
I crumpled the note that had been in my pocket and tossed it out the car window.
I know now where Evangelos' loyalties had lain, but a spark of vanity I call hope had compelled me to trip to the island that June morning.
So it came that I had chosen.
Once, in the solstice of my life, Orestes, Victoria had promised me to search for love. In this pursuit, among the resurrection of a city and a country and amidst a score of treasure troves unearthed, the young restless Victoria -- and the old more-settled Victoria -- discover today, four decades later, that perhaps Arthur, Evangelos and she have somehow managed to endure, have remained the ones true to each other, scathed only just by the test of time.
While this emotional collision was in growth, Alicia learned that her childless aunt was not a loveless aunt. But that she was very cautious about whom her love was turned over to. She once had whispered in her ear:
"All that is dear to us, Alicia, is all that we love, and we must protect it from love's worst enemy: indifference. Everybody knows about and wants regard and kindness, but it's a two way street."
"I wish father hadn't been so kind to everyone," protested Alicia. "I'm not sure that this 'regard' is all that innocent."
"There is a ruthless war ravaging, my Alicia, and people on all sides are frightened by it. It's the war that is unkind, not the people in it. Mark my words, when this is all over you'll be saying just the opposite. Won't that be worth the ending of this catastrophe?"
"Never!" released Alicia. "There will be no end to it. Ten years of it. I grew up in it. I remember, know nothing of peace, of gaining instead of losing. There is no price for peace. The Balkans will never have reconciliation -- have never known the true existence of liberty and harmony. We were meant to become extinct. Then will peace come -- without us present. I am sorry, aunt Lina," she said taking a deep breath. "I've caused you apprehension. I will not do it again. Sometimes we do everything for the first time, and I felt the moment had come for a child to speak like a grownup. War and violence will be a valuable part of my education," and will make me more equipped to carry out my obligation. "Goodnight."