Alexis gives an overview of the book:
MOTHER ASHby Alexis Stamatistranslated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich
They said some day you’ll find, All who love are blind, When your heart’s on fire, you must realize, Smoke gets in your eyes. THE PLATTERS, 1959
PART I The burn’t child dreads the fire.—Ben Johnson, The Devil is an Ass
Wednesday Alkis “Got a light?” Alkis was descending the cobbled stairs toward the village’s central square. He wasn’t dressed warmly enough for the chill in the air, and he hugged his thin jacket tightly to his chest. It was the Wednesday before Easter, and he was walking home, oblivious to the fact that everything he had experienced in his twenty-eight years would pale in comparison to what he was about to undergo in the ten terrible days to come. Overwhelming things, not easy for a mortal mind to comprehend. “Got a light?” The man was a stranger, and his accent pegged him as a foreigner. Short, with a jutting brow, thinning hair and a salt-and-pepper beard. He was wearing a brown overcoat, a white shirt and a rather worn dark blue tie with diagonal red stripes. He had come near enough that a corner of his overcoat brushed lightly against Alkis’s leg. He was holding a hand-rolled cigarette in his right hand. “I don’t smoke,” Alkis answered quickly, and crossed the square almost at a run. He was in a hurry to get home to bed. It was late, and early the next morning he’d be taking the train to Athens, then a taxi from the station to the airport in order to catch the three p.m. flight to Santorini. He hurried down another flight of stairs, then turned onto a cobblestone path; the water in the gutter at the side of the walkway flowed with a soft, gurgling sound. A few minutes later Alkis was in his room. It was his last night in the village, and the villagers had arranged a farewell dinner for him at the taverna—a simple meal of fasting foods, since it was the last week of Lent. He had been doing his rural medical service there for a year, long enough for the whole village to come to love him. At some point that evening a little boy—Nontas, the son of Garefis—had come up to him. Two or three months before the boy had developed a bad fever. Alkis had suspected it might be infectious mononucleosis, and had sent the boy down to Volos for tests. The diagnosis turned out to be correct, and by acting early they had managed to avoid the worst. Now the little boy handed him something and left, embarrassed. It was a drawing of a face, done in red and black crayons. There was a circle around the face that seemed to have been squashed slightly to the left. Underneath it was a caption: Our dakter Mistir Alkis. The little boy had drawn Alkis’s head with exquisite abstraction, showing it from the back and the front at the same time: there were two dark pencil lines that represented Alkis’s thick eyebrows and two patches of red for his cheeks, but also a cluster of lines for his ponytail. He set his alarm clock for five a.m. and thought about how the next night he would be sleeping in his old room in his family’s house in Oia, a small village on the northern tip of Santorini. He hadn’t been there since the previous year, and hadn’t been there at the same time as one of his siblings since the summer after his second year in medical school, when he was twenty. That was when Minas, the oldest, had left. After the fight. He remembered the sight of them, the two men—father and son—shouting at one another in the living room. It was the first time his brother had raised his voice like that. His father’s face had turned bright red, the little blood vessels in his eyes had swelled, and his voice rose to such a pitch of fury that Alkis had thought all the glass in the house would shatter. His father, Ilias, had been drinking, it was late afternoon, and Oia was full of people; everyone in the village could hear Minas and Ilias, as far as the central road where swarms of tourists carrying cameras and binoculars passed every evening on their way to see the sunset from the castle. He went into the bathroom, splashed some water on his face and reached for a towel. When his hand touched the metal of the towel rack, he felt something almost like an electric current running through his body. He jumped back, and for some reason his thoughts turned to the stranger with the salt-and-pepper beard. Got a light? It was strange—in all these years, no one had ever asked him for a light. Light, lighter, fire… He suddenly remembered his grandmother, Kadio, telling him: “Don’t play with fire, child.” Kadio was his father’s mother. His beloved grandmother. She had lived her whole life on the island. When he was little, she used to tell him stories about when the volcano on Santorini had erupted in ’25, ’39, and ’50. Alkis had found an old book about the volcano in the house and had devoured it, though he didn’t really understand all the words. It had pictures of steam coming from the earth, and Alkis used to see those pictures in his dreams. He often sat at the very edge of the caldera, where the dark cliffs plunged into the sea, and would stare across at the dormant volcano and imagine what it would be like if the volcano were ever to erupt again. At night, when his father would make a fire in the fireplace, he would try to get as close to it as he could. When a moth came in the window and fluttered around the fire, he’d imagine how it would feel to be a pilot flying above a volcano at the very moment the lava began to flow. One day he asked his father if he could light the fire. He almost got a beating just for having asked. That same year his grandmother took him with her to the grape harvest, just outside the village, in some vineyards that had belonged to his grandfather. His grandmother went off to help the others, and he found two dry sticks and started to rub them together—he’d read somewhere that that was how man had made fire for the first time. After about fifteen minutes his arms were so tired they were almost numb, and he gave up. The next day he stole a box of matches from the house. The harvesting began very early each morning—it must have been about six when he left his grandmother bent over the vines cutting bunches of grapes and dropping them into her basket. He went to the far side of the vineyard, gathered together some dry branches and threw a burning match onto the pile. The fire flared up right away, growing stronger and spreading into the vineyard. A frightened bird flew from the underbrush into the sky. Then his grandmother ran over, screaming, with three or four burly villagers following behind with buckets of water, which they emptied onto the pile of sticks, snuffing out the fire. When he got home, his father gave him the worst beating of his life. And from then on, he never went anywhere near matches or lighters. He never smoked. The only thing he would do, when there was some food on his plate he didn’t like, was to throw the scraps into the fireplace, saying, “Eat, fire, eat.” It was half-past twelve. Alkis turned off the light and got into bed. He thought of his grandmother, then his mother. The one thing that made his heart catch was the fact that he had left her alone on the island for so many years. Then he thought of his brother and sister. The three of them had scattered to the four winds. And now, after all these years, Ilias had invited the three of them back to spend Easter in Oia, in their old home. But why? It wasn’t a topic that would lead to a peaceful night’s sleep. Rinio Her clothes were shredded. It looked as if someone had torn them trying to strip her naked. The buttons of her dress had been ripped off and were lying on the floor beside her, along with scraps of her stockings and scarf. Her pocketbook—pink with a gold clasp—was tossed on the floor to her right, also torn. Her hair—peroxide blond—was mussed, as if someone had been pulling it violently. There were no wounds on her body. But her eyes, round and unmoving, had an expression of finality. Her half-open lips were a too-bright red, her brows were bow-shaped, her nostrils flared. Her skin glowed in the half-light, strangely soft and delicate. Her posture was odd: she was lying face-down with her neck arched back as if she were pleading with someone. Beneath her lay a pile of gold and bronze leaves, which created an interesting combination with the blond of her hair. Her arms, twisted at an unnatural angle, formed a peculiar shape with her body, almost like a swastika. To the left of her waist, a black shoe with a broken heel lay partly hidden beneath a thin metal T-square. “Ursula,” she said, “a little more light on the right.” A slender woman in her forties with a pale face and an eye-catching tattoo—an ivy vine that started from her heel and climbed up her calf—followed the order. Rinio inched her camera forward until she was a foot and a half from where the doll lay splayed on the floor. She shot two whole rolls of film.
When she was done, the two women sat down on the couch in the studio. Ursula, in a black t-shirt with a golden sun, drank black tea while Rinio smoked. Rinio had taken off her glasses, and her eyes—grayish brown with metallic glints—were red with fatigue. Her pants were rolled up to her knees and her slender calves were resting on the coffee table. Her face was long and thin and her dark skin contrasted nicely with the red of her hair, which, stylishly cut, fell in bangs over her forehead. Her nails were painted bright pink—an unfortunate choice, perhaps, since it drew attention to her fingers, which were yellow with nicotine stains. Her thumb rested gently on her index finger, while her middle finger supported the burning cigarette. She tapped the ash gently into an ashtray and took another drag. The smoke made its cyclical journey once more, first in, then out. Smoke, the traveler, her shaman.
“What time’s your flight?” Ursula asked.
“From Munich to Athens, tonight at seven. I’ll be down on Santorini by Thursday morning.” “Will the Russian be there?” “Yes.” “He’s still working on the dig?” “Yes.” “Have you told him you’re coming?” “No, I figured I’d surprise him.” Ursula got up, came over and stroked her hair. Rinio closed her eyes and stretched like a cat, taking a deep drag on her cigarette. “Do you love him?” “Don’t be stupid.” “More than me?” “Enough already! We’ve been through this before.” “Okay, okay…” Ursula bent even closer, rested her hands on Rinio’s neck and began a gentle massage. “And your father?” “What about him?” “Don’t you remember what happened last year?” Ursula said. “I have to go sometime. It’ll be the first time I’ve been back for that long of a visit since I moved to Munich. How long has it been, fifteen years?” “Yes, and back then you were a chubby girl with split ends, pimples and the most hideous glasses, who had run away from her family with nothing but a backpack. A little girl who left her country a little butterball and went back skin and—” “Can we please not go through this again?” “Why don’t you want to talk about it? After the clinic, it’s supposedly all over, right?” “It’s over, Ursula. I told you, I don’t like the way you’re always checking up on me.” “I’m not checking up—” “Yes you are, you glue your ear to the door every time I go to the bathroom after a meal.” “I just care about you, that’s all.” “If you really care about me, try to have a little faith.” “I just hope you don’t slip again, while you’re back at home.” Ursula stopped her massage and pulled back a little. “After everything that happened last year, didn’t you swear you’d never go again? Didn’t they tell you at the clinic to avoid damaging environments?” “I’ve worked it out, Ursula. I’ve been working on it for a year.” “You just don’t need to punish yourself anymore. You have so many things to keep you well—things you’ve earned, things you’ve worked hard for.” “Lucky, huh?” Rinio said, pointing at the scene with the doll. “I’m amazed they don’t throw me in jail for what I do in here.” “I think you’re going because of the Russian.” Rinio threw her a stern glance. “I’m going because my father invited us. His three children.” “Why?” “I don’t know, it’s the first time he’s done something like this.” “How long has it been since you saw them?” “I saw Alkis two years ago in Thessaloniki, and Minas last year in Athens.” Ursula’s expression grew even more serious. “And your mother?” Rinio didn’t answer. She put out her cigarette, picked up a slide from the table and handed it to Ursula. “What do you think of this one?” Ursula held it up to the light. “A family photograph. Nice. But blurry.” “Blurry on purpose. I found an old box of photographs at the flea market, over by Maximilianstrasse. From the ’50s. Just snapshots—the kid’s party, a trip to the country. I re-photographed them blurry. I wanted them to be disembodied, somehow. The blurry photos are going to be my next project.” “Why don’t you use photos of your own family? It’s a good opportunity, you could take some while you’re on Santorini.” “Everything there is blurry already. We each see what we want.” “And what do you see?” “I never see anything. It’s always as if someone’s thrown ashes in my eyes.” Minas The woman stretched back in her chair on the veranda. She was wearing a short skirt, and her calves gleamed in the sun. She was looking out to sea. In the distance, two or three sailboats were sailing toward the Saronic gulf. “This time I’m going to settle things once and for all with the old man,” she heard him say from inside. “Butter him up a little. Otherwise he’ll never give you the money for the extension.” “I’m not going just for the money, I want to talk about the hotel, too. But mostly I just want to settle things once and for all.” “If you don’t play it cool, the two of you will end up eating one another alive. Just like last time. Why don’t you let me come with you?” “It’s not a vacation, Katia. I’m going for business.” “Okay, fine, Lena and I will have a great time on Pylio.” “It’s just five or six days. And if everything goes well, I see us lounging on a cruise ship this summer…” “You’ve been saying that for the past two years. Besides, if he does give you the hotel, won’t you have to go down there to take care of it?” “I’ve got a guy I trust on the island. Of course I’ll go down every once in a while, but I’ll be based here, with the restaurant.” “Rinio’s going to be there too, right?” “Yes.” “She’s not a huge fan of mine. I can tell from the way she looks at me.” “Rinio’s an odd one. You know how those artsy-fartsy types are.” “Come on, you admire her so much.” “I don’t always understand Rinio, but she thinks a lot, and I like that in a woman.” “Are you trying to tell me something?” Katia asked, a note of irony in her voice. “No, honey, there’s no beating your little brain…” Apart from being his wife, Katia was also Minas’s strategic consultant. They had been married for three years. He’d met her on his return from Italy, where he had lived for two years while taking a special course in business management. Katia was working as a secretary for a friend of his, though that hadn’t been her only role. The three of them had started hanging out together, and when the friend’s business started to go under, she turned to Minas. It had been a wise move on her part, and involved some pretty good prospects, given the inheritance Minas expected from his father. The whole deal involved a generous dose of forbearance on her part—Minas had already inherited his father’s drive, at least with regard to the opposite sex—but Katia was, above all, a realistic woman. Inside, in the living room, Manolis went and stood in front of the big mirror, gazing at his reflection. He was naked from the waist up. His body was fairly muscular; he spent two hours at the gym every other day. He sucked in his stomach a little to make his chest muscles swell, and closed his mouth so as not to see the little gap between his two front teeth, a feature that added an undesired note of boyish innocence to an otherwise rugged face. “There’s my Narcissus,” Katia commented ironically, coming into the room. “If you want to improve your looks, let your hair grow.” Minas kept his hair short, to emphasize the sharp lines of his face. Katia poured out a shot of vodka for each of them. Minas drank his down in a single swallow. “That burns,” he said. They watched the news for a while, and had another few drinks. Then they went to the bedroom, where they made love quickly, almost mechanically.
Holy Thursday The Eucharist The lily tattoo Alkis was one of the first to board the plane. His seat, 4D, was a window seat, as always. He buckled his seat belt and started to read the paper. Next to him sat a slender girl around 25, with an expressive face, brown hair—shoulder-length and straight—bright, calm eyes, a well-defined mouth whose lips that were naturally red, and breasts that were rather large for her frame. She was wearing a pair of wide-legged pants, with a short red top that left her midriff bare. Out the corner of his eye Alkis noticed a little wine-colored tattoo in the shape of a lily right above her belly-button. Shortly before the plane took off, the girl looked over at him and smiled. Alkis smiled back, slightly awkwardly. “The plane’s packed, huh?” the girl said, completely naturally, as if they were old friends. “Lots of people must be headed down for Easter,” he answered. “Yeah, the island will be groaning under their weight. Nothing too unusual in that, though.” The girl turned toward him, and he got a better look at her features, which were angular and fine. “Are you going down on vacation?” “No, I work on Santorini.” “Where, in Fira?” Alkis asked. “God, no! I hate it there. I work on the dig, at Akrotiri. I’m an archeologist. My name is Fenia.” They talked all the way to Santorini. Mostly she talked. Alkis tried to conceal his nervousness by asking her all kinds of questions about her work. How had she gotten a job at such an important site, and at such a young age? Fenia smiled—she seemed to like talking about herself. During her last year at the university, she had met the professor in charge of the site, and he had let her join the excavation the following summer. The next year she had entered the group as a regular worker, while also preparing to write her dissertation. This was her third year working on the island. She lived in the dorms on the site, with the other archeologists and preservationists. Without ever having looked into it in any detail, as a native of Santorini, Alkis knew the basics about the prehistoric town at Akrotiri, with its remarkable buildings and extraordinary layout. The town had seen its peak four thousand years before, and had later been buried beneath volcanic ash and preserved almost in its entirety. Alkis also knew that the city had been unearthed by Spiros Marinatos sometime in the 1960s. Fenia let him talk; she seemed impressed by her fellow traveler’s knowledge. “It was a great civilization, wasn’t it? And then the eruption came and destroyed it all,” Alkis concluded. “Yes, but the inhabitants managed to get out in time.” “Not like Pompeii, huh?” “No, they’d been warned by the earthquakes and decided to abandon the settlement. Here’s something really strange, though: the thing that destroyed it was also the thing that saved it.” “What do you mean?” “The ash is what gave the city a kind of rebirth—it served as a second mother for the island. ‘Mother Ash,’ that’s what we call it. That’s how all those great works survived.” “I remember hearing that the women in the wall paintings are wearing clothes that even contemporary designers are jealous of,” Alkis said. Fenia laughed. “At the workshop there’s one woman we call ‘The Goddess’.” “I’d love to see her sometime…” “We’ll see, maybe I can arrange a tour. But why are you going down to the island?” she suddenly asked. “I’m from Oia. My father has some hotels in the village. He’s invited all of us down for Easter—me and my brother and sister.” “What kind of work do you do?” “I’m a doctor, I just finished my rural service. I’ll start my specialization in September.” “What are you going to specialize in?” “Pathology.” “Really? Why’d you choose that?” “Because pathology deals with the whole organism, with the body as a whole.” The airplane was nearing Santorini. The pilot had dipped the plane down low, and Alkis looked out the window at Oia, which was built in a line right around the lip of the caldera, overlooking the sea. He looked at the sheer red rocks that defined the boundary of the village. Their color heightened by the spring sun, they seemed to be stretched out like the string of a bow, building on one another in parallelograms, cylinders, domes, cubes, arcs, near-straight lines tempered by almost imperceptible curves. The arrangement was suffused with such burning intensity that it seemed to stay poised there only thanks to some miracle. “Look,” he said, gesturing at the view. As Fenia bent over his shoulder, her hair brushed his face. Together they gazed at Oia, stretched out on the edge of the rock like an elongated plant. Alkis felt a tightening in his chest, a feeling he felt whenever he experienced something that was both beautiful and sad. The airplane swung to one side, passing over the neighboring villages. The lines of the buildings changed; they were wilder, and didn’t have the unhurried peacefulness of Oia. As if the buildings had begun to fill with fear. The Child and the Father of the Child
His cab dropped him off at the bus station; he would have to go the rest of the way on foot, through the narrow cobbled streets. He wandered for while among the abandoned houses in the old ironworkers’ neighborhood—they were just as he’d left them, with the palm trees, the pediments, the crumbling doorways, broken pieces of marble and scattered red volcanic rocks. Then he headed down the main road toward the village center.
His family’s house was a refurbished two-story dug-out, built directly into the rock. An extra floor had been added to it, and the incline of the village was so steep that there were two separate entrances, one about seven or eight meters above the other. The upper entrance was on the “added” floor; the middle floor, the upper of the two dug-out floors, opened onto a large veranda in front; while the bottom floor, which dug deeper into the rock, ended in a paved yard that let out onto the lower road. Alkis decided to go in through the lower entrance, through the sala, a large open room that had a table for family meals as well as sofas and chairs. The gate to the yard was ajar. He passed through quietly, almost on tiptoe. The air smelled nice and slanted rays of sun were falling on the flowers and against the whitewashed walls. A gray cat slowly crossed the yard, stepping languidly on the tiles laid in front of the outdoor bathroom. He watched it climb the little staircase that led from the yard to the large veranda, and as his eye traveled upwards he saw one leg of a tripod jutting into his field of vision—Rinio had arrived. Beneath the protected arch created by the hollow of the staircase nestled a little flowerbed full of periwinkles, jasmine, mint and basil. The sala, the all-purpose family room, was on the lower level. The door opened into the middle of the room, with a window to the right and one to the left. Over your head as you entered was a skylight with a metal grating over it, in the shape of the sun as it might be drawn by a child’s hand. Alkis rang the bell. No answer. He pushed gently on the door. It swung open, and he found himself in that familiar, large open space with its floor of bleached planks. Everything was where it belonged: the two brown couches, the long curtains, the china cabinets with the glassware and plates, the long table that looked like something you might find in a monastery refectory, the oval mirror, the pictures on the walls, the fireplace and the two old crimson velvet armchairs, his father’s two old carbines crossed on the wall, his mother’s shrine of icons in the corner. Everything was just as he had left it, as if not a day had passed since the last time he’d been back. The only jarring note was a glaring home entertainment center that presided over one corner of the room. He looked toward the rear of the room. Carved into the volcanic rock was the little bedroom, the sotokamari, the door of which was built into a natural opening in the rock. That was where his parents had slept before the extension had been built. In order to allow air to circulate into the room, they had carved out a special window, which looked onto an air shaft they had created by digging down through the rock. For the past several years, his mother, Epifania, had slept there alone. Just then he heard a strong, gruff voice coming from the yard. “Alkis!” He turned and saw a slim, good-looking, strong-featured woman in her forties walking toward him. Larissa was Polish, and had worked in the house for the past ten years, mostly taking care of his grandmother, Kadio. “Welcome home,” she said in her heavily accented Greek. “It’s good to be home. How are you?” “I good.” “Where are the others?” “Others?” Larissa wasn’t known for her penetrating intelligence. “The family, Larissa.” “Oh, not home. Your father is hotel, Epifania went to church light candle, grandma resting and Rinio—” “—is right here!” he heard a voice behind him. Rinio ran down the stairs and fell into her brother’s arms. They stayed like that for a while, then she drew back and looked at him, examining him from head to toe. “Look at you, all grown up!” “I’ll be thirty in a couple of years, you know. And you, you’re skinnier than ever.” “It’s a critical age—you can’t be too careful. Man, I haven’t seen you in forever!” “Two years. But I guess we haven’t been back home since you… left.” Brother and sister sat for a while in the sala, catching up on their news, discussing family affairs; neither one seemed to want to be the first to broach the question of why their father had invited all of his children back home. Then they climbed up to the next level, where their father’s old office was—though these days he used it as his bedroom—as well as their grandmother’s room. “Quiet, she’s sleeping,” Rinio whispered as they passed by Kadio’s room. In contrast to the lower floor, which had the air of a typical, traditional Santorini house, the middle floor had been furnished in a completely modern style, with a generous sprinkling of nouveau riche touches. The large veranda that stretched out before them was the most beautiful part of the house. Alkis walked to the very edge and stood for a while looking out at the breathtaking view. The whole sea was at their feet, and across the way, the jutting rock of Thirasia, an islet that formed a partially-submerged circle with the island of Santorini. But his gaze drifted elsewhere, to the two little islands in the center of the circle, Nea Kameni and Palea Kameni. To the volcano, the only active volcano in Greece, which had been sleeping peacefully for the past fifty years. They went up to the third floor, which opened out onto the upper street. That was where the three children’s rooms were. “We’re all in our own rooms,” Rinio said. “Just like the old days.” She opened a door and they went into a small space packed with a bed, a big dresser and two or three open suitcases full of cameras and lenses. “So did you come for business or pleasure?” Alkis asked. “Didn’t we all come for some sort of business?” she replied in a low voice, lighting a cigarette. They sat for a while, reminiscing about old times. Soon the conversation turned to the burning question that was on both of their minds. At some point Rinio got up, went over to the wall by the dresser, and took down the icon of the Crucifixion that was hanging there. On the wall where it had been was a little depression in the whitewash. “You’re the first one who’s ever seen this.” “What is it?” Alkis asked, surprised. “I made it, that night when he hit me. I scratched at the wall for a long time, with a rock. I can still remember his face, when—” “Let it go, Rinio, it’s all dead now, over and done with.” “Dead, living—it’s not always so easy to differentiate between the two. This hole in the whitewash might look dead, but to me it’s as alive as you are.” “Let’s not talk about it anymore. Let’s just try to have a good time together.” “Sometimes I just can’t believe you. He could kill you and you’d still forgive him.” Alkis’s face clouded over. “He never killed anyone, Rinio.” His sister was still looking at the depression in the wall. “He killed, and continues to kill.” “Whom?” Rinio didn’t answer. She just stood there smoking for a while, silently. “I was always right about you. Alkis, the utter mystery. It’s like you’re the child and the father of the child, both at the same time.” Alkis went over and grabbed her hand. “We came here for Easter, Rinio, for the Resurrection…” “You think there’s any way I could ever believe in God?” she asked with an ironic smile. Alkis picked up the icon and put it back in its place. “Have you seen him?” he asked. “Not yet. But I managed to learn the latest from Larissa…” “What latest?” “He brought her here, set her up in Oia’s Dream. He comes home in the morning and sleeps until afternoon.” “Who? That actress?” “Actress my foot. All she did was one lousy daytime drama, years ago. Anyhow, she’s been in Oia for over a week.” Rinio lit another cigarette. “How’s Mom? Have you seen her?” Alkis asked. “Yes, I’ve seen her. But Mom’s as she always is: blind.” “Don’t say that…” “Dumb and blind. Blinder than Grandma.” Just then a loud voice came booming in from the yard. Rinio and Alkis went down onto the veranda. Minas was standing at the gate, suitcase in hand. “Anyone home?” he shouted. The fading afternoon light made his skin look almost sickly, contrasting sharply with his strong silhouette. Alkis and Rinio went down to welcome their older brother. Minas hugged and kissed them enthusiastically. They were all moved—it had been a long time since the three of them had been together. Then they sat in the sala, and Minas kept talking about Ilias—“Why do you think he brought us all here together?”—and about Epifania, too—“If I go for a while without seeing her, I even forget what she looks like, she’s been a ghost in this house for so long.” After he’d put his things in his room, they all went for a drink together at the castle. It wasn’t yet time for the sunset-gazers to come swarming into the village, so the bar was practically empty. Rinio had brought her camera with her. “Look at the volcano. Remember how much you liked it when you were a kid?” Minas said to Alkis, pointing to the two little islands to the left of Thirasia. “I’m going to go there again, tomorrow or the next day.” “I want to go too, to take pictures,” Rinio said. Alkis glanced at the two little scraps of earth laid out before him. They weren’t really islands, they were the results of a volcanic eruption. The innards of the earth, lying there, motionless, stabilized. They had risen above the surface of the water for all to see, to remind people of the mysterious workings of the earth’s inner core. “I want to tell you guys something,” Minas suddenly said, in a serious tone of voice. “I know,” Rinio commented, “it’s about Dad.” “You both know that he made a promise he still hasn’t kept.” “That was before the fight,” his sister reminded him. “A promise is a promise. You should both know that I came here to claim what’s rightfully mine.” “Oh, Minas, always the same—money, money, money…” Minas and Rinio continued squabbling. Alkis felt uncomfortable, seeing precisely what he’d been afraid of actually unfolding in front of him, and much earlier than he had expected. He made some excuse and headed back toward the house. As he entered he saw her, from behind. She had put a painting on the table and was polishing the frame. It was a reproduction of Raphael’s Sistine Madonna. In the background, the door to the sotokamari was open. Epifania “Mother…” Epifania turned around. Despite the tired expression on her rather fleshy face—the wrinkled forehead, the pale lips, the bags under her eyes—her old beauty still shone through. It was all in her eyes. Calm and large, with long eyelashes, they burned with a kind of inner light, the kind of light that some people, despite disappointments, unfavorable circumstances, trials and tribulations, are somehow able to sustain, as if their souls were keeping that flame unquenched. This woman’s gaze lived up to the cliché: her soul was reflected in her eyes. Because it was Holy Week she was wearing a black skirt and black blouse, and her hair, its brownish-black color still unfaded, was tied back in a bun, leaving her face free. Epifania put the painting down and embraced her son. Alkis felt a warmth permeate his body, as if the temperature in each of its cells was increasing at the same time. He recalled a scene from long ago that had taken place in this very room. One morning, going out into the yard to play, he had seen his mother alone in front of the shrine, praying. There was such peace in the room, and he was so full of energy and in such a lively, playful mood, that it was as if the silence itself, the nearly physical presence of silence, was slowing him down. Stopping at the door, he felt a light inside of him. The room had its own light, so light answered light, and for an instant everything froze, unchanging, motionless. His mother turned toward him. The slanted rays of the sun fell on her through the window, and her face was glowing, so beautiful. Then his mother came up to him, took one of his hands, brought it up to her face, and, pressing it gently, touching it to each of her cheeks in turn. Then she hugged him, stroking his head. A strange warmth had spread through Alkis’s entire body. It was a scene he had remembered vividly ever since. “My son… How are you?” “I’m fine.” “You’ve lost weight. Aren’t you eating?” “I’m fine, Mom. Have you been to church?” “I went to service this morning, I’ll go again soon for the twelve Gospels. “Are you okay, Mom?” “I’m fine…” Alkis made a comment about her coloring, told her she looked a little pale. “It must be the fasting,” she replied. They talked for a while about his brother and sister, about the house, then about how things were going in his life. “Ask your father to help you open a practice in Athens,” she said, and Alkis jumped on the opportunity. “How’s he doing?” “I’m getting older, he stays the same. But his liver isn’t too good.” “Does he still drink a lot?” Epifania didn’t answer, but Alkis understood that the answer was yes. “How are the two of you getting along?” “How do you think?” “You tell me.” “Fine…” “The truth?” Epifania raised her gaze to the ceiling and stayed silent. “Why don’t you want to talk about it?” “I’m not talking?” “I don’t hear anything.” “Talking that way is my specialty, it seems.” “Talking by staying silent?” Again, Epifania didn’t answer. She picked up the frame with the reproduction and went over to the wall by the china cabinet. She took a hammer, hammered in a nail and hung the picture. Then she stepped back and examined it carefully. “Look at the apostle on the left. Doesn’t he have six fingers?” Alkis went up to the painting. “I see five.” “No, there are six, six…” They fell silent for a moment. “Why did he invite us? Why all three of us together?” Alkis asked. “I don’t know, you’ll have to ask him. He gets these things in his head, you know how he is.” Epifania went up to the painting again and shifted it slightly so that it hung straight. Just then a metallic melody rang out in the room. It was Alkis’s cell phone. He pulled it out of his pocket and walked over to the window. Larissa was hanging up laundry in the yard. It was Fenia, asking if he wanted her to give him a tour of the dig the next day—she’d secured him a special pass. “I’d like that very much,” he answered. Then, hanging up, he turned back towards his mother. She was gone. The door of the sotokamari was closed. A ladybug was crawling through the crack under the door, half in light, half in darkness. Visitation Epifania was alone in the sotokamari. She sat down in her favorite armchair in front of the dresser with the large mirror and crossed her arms over her chest. As always at such times, she had lit a candle and placed it before her, very close, on a little table. Its weak, dim light helped her enter her reverie, which was the only thing that granted her any peace—it was her secret drug. Three quarters of the room was in darkness, with the lighted part bathed in shades of brown. The play of light, as its caressing rays fell on the everyday objects in the room—the mirror, the table, the glass of water—suffused them with a magical quality. The gentle passage from light into dark filled her with a feeling of calm, like a chiaroscuro of the soul. You’re sad, she heard a sound say inside of her. Talk to me. By now she knew him well. He had been visiting her in her room for decades, since before her marriage, rarely but regularly—usually when she concentrated on the candle. As the years passed she started to seek him out. There were times when she stayed awake all night waiting in vain for him to come. She could feel him, but she’d never seen him. Nor had she ever heard his voice out loud; these weren’t words formed by a mouth, they were simply meaningful sounds. Epifania had never told anyone about these exeperiences. Ever. When she entered her reverie, Epifania felt her whole being slowing down, acquiring an almost lace-like delicacy. She would leave herself bit by bit and go somewhere else, where something else awaited her, but something that was still somehow the same. Whenever she went there, she felt convinced that what she was seeing was real, that this place—naked and empty, almost free—was reality, an untilled field, silent, deep, even deeper than a dream. Just as every creature on earth has the right not to exist, Epifania had found a way of giving existence—a little piece of her existence, the shadow of her existence—to her own non-existence. “I’m afraid,” she said. “I’m afraid of those moments when everything goes black. I’m afraid because at those times I feel something very clean, a kind of harmony, something I shouldn’t be feeling.” As she spoke, each time she exhaled the flame of the candle flickered. But when she inhaled, the flame would right itself again and pursue its vertical fate, like a stream flowing uphill, toward higher ground. The flame’s core was straight and sensitive, like a flower. A burning blossom, a vine with such a strong will to climb that each of her breaths reaffirmed its glory anew. You shouldn’t love pain, the sound said. “It’s not pain, it’s something else.” What? “It’s that... it’s that my blood is boiling.” Your children are your blood. “But they’re his blood, too... He raised them. I owe him that.” You don’t owe anything. “I do. I brought them into this world.” And what about him? “He can’t manage on his own. He doesn’t know how. They took his soul when he was very small. He hasn’t given himself to the light.” No one has. The light came into the world and the world pushed it back out. They spoke some more, until the glass of the mirror clouded and a little fly started to trace circles amid the specks of dust in the air. Epifania lowered her gaze. “There’s something I’ve been wanting to ask of you for a long time. I want proof... about you.” With your eyes closed, open your eyes, and everything will be different, the voice said, then faded away just as it had come. Epifania shut her eyes. She felt a glow in the darkness, and saw the bottom corner of the mirror cracking. Then suddenly the glass shattered and the shards fell clattering to the floor. Epifania’s eyes flew open again. The mirror stood before her, shiny and whole. There was no one else in the room. She got up, undressed entirely and gazed at her reflection in the mirror for a long time. In one endless instant, she saw her entire life, wrinkled in the corner. Ilias tells a story Rinio left to take some photographs and Minas stayed on the patio of the bar looking out at Nea Kameni. Back when he was still living in Oia, he had gone there several times, usually with tourists who later ended up in his bed. His mind turned to Katia. He was glad he hadn’t let her come with him. It was strange, but he didn’t like for Katia to see him with his family. Particularly with his father. He finished his drink, paid, and headed home. On the way, passing by one of the dug-out houses his father rented out to tourists, he heard his father’s familiar voice. He stopped by the gate and looked into the yard, where he saw Ilias talking to a tall German man. Their contrasting body types suggested certain differences between the two men’s personalities. The tall, blond foreigner looked mercurial and temperamental, as if his massive body wasn’t capable of sustaining an internal flame. A structure like that breaks up any strong emotion or passion and lets it flow—and since anything fragmented or diffused can’t stay strong, this man’s emotional states could never be intense or lasting. In contrast, Ilias’s compressed, almost condensed silhouette practically sparked with energy. He was a thin, nervous man in his fifties, of medium height, with a medium-sized head and graying brown hair. His face seemed like a physical record of his various exploits: it resembled a limestone landscape worn away by the elements, with deep wrinkles like furrows across his forehead, bulging veins at his temples, a slightly curved nose. The spattering of brownish-red spots around his eyes—a result of his drinking—his crooked, nicotine-stained teeth, and his wide, sensuous mouth, as full as a woman’s, all bore witness to the kind of life he had lived. But the portrait wouldn’t have been complete without the eyes. Ilias Karamolegos had the heartless eyes of a man who had been loved a great deal, without ever having thought much about it. When Ilias saw Minas, he excused himself from the German and came over to him. They kissed one another on both cheeks. “Let’s go next door and catch up for a minute. Then I need another quarter of an hour here with Frank before I head home.” “Sure, Dad.” They headed next door to the old lookout, where centuries before, the inhabitants of the village had kept watch over the open sea so as to avoid surprise attacks by pirates. They sat on a little stone bench. “You look good,” Ilias said, grabbing his son’s upper arm. “You work out, huh?” “Yeah, a little…” “Muscles, that’s what the girls want. They’re starting to bulge out these days, too. Biceps, abs… Down in Kamari I’ve seen—” “We’re all here,” Minas interrupted. “We’ll be waiting for you at the house.” His father opened a pack of unfiltered Karelias, took out a cigarette and lit it. “Stay for a while first. I have something important I want to say to you.” “What?” “Want one?” Ilias said, offering him a cigarette. “No thanks.” “An athlete like you, no need for cigarettes. I’ve been cutting back, too, my doctor’s finally putting his foot down.” “What did you want to tell me?” “Well, it’s a very important subject, I’ve been thinking it over for days.” “I’m listening.” Ilias took a deep drag on his cigarette. “One morning while he’s shaving, a man sees a little bump on his forehead. He’s a little worried, but he figures he must have banged into something and not noticed. The next day the bump is bigger. He makes an appointment with his doctor. The doctor takes some x-rays, does some tests and says to him, ‘Sir, you seem to be growing a second penis.’ ‘On my forehead?’ the man asks. ‘It doesn’t decide where to come out. You should see where it comes out on others.’ ” Minas sighed, expressing his displeasure. “What’s wrong, are you making fun of your father?” Ilias said, with mock severity. “What’s all this crap you’re spouting?” “So the guy is terrified and decides to go to a different doctor. He puts a kerchief on his head to hide the spot and says, ‘Doctor, what should I do?’ ” This time Minas laughed, but ironically. “Is this what you brought us all here for?” Ilias flicked the ash from his cigarette onto the pavement and continued. “ ‘Take trips,’ the doctor says, ‘lots of trips.’ ” “Is this some kind of joke?” Ilias looked his son in the eyes with mock seriousness, then suddenly broke out in a resounding laugh. “Okay, okay, no more jokes, all you Athenians are so serious. Tell me about yourself, how are things at the restaurant?” “Just fine.” “Got a good chef?” “Yep.” “That’s the most important thing, to have a good chef. The guts of the place have to be good, or the game’s up.” They sat talking for a few minutes more, then got up to go, saying they would see one another back at the house. “I have something important to tell you, too,” Minas said as he left his father at the gate of the dug-out house. His father smiled widely, his eyes glinting in the afternoon sun. “Got anything on your forehead? Trips, my boy, lots of trips—because if the balls sprout, too, you’ll be as good as blind!” Ilias said, and burst out laughing. He may not have had morals, but his sense of humor wasn’t bad. On the veranda “I’ve been wanting this for a long time, to have you all gathered here together. And now that you’re actually here, there are a few things I want to say to you. I’m a simple man and I say things as they come to me, no frills, just good, simple peasant language. That’s how I got on in life, too—straight, against the wave, all on my own. It may not always have been the best thing for me, I may have gotten myself into some tough spots along the way, but that’s who I am. You all remember how we used to live, and you see how we live now. I’m the only one here who really knows what it took to make that change happen; it’s not your concern. Besides, I’ve been judged for that—particularly by the two of you,” Ilias said, pointing to Minas and Rinio. “This one here,” he went on, pointing to Alkis, “either he just doesn’t say it to my face, or he’s the finest person on earth—and it’s no accident that he decided to become a doctor, to involve himself with the problems of your average man on the street. This rascal here is the wisest of all of you—sometimes he really scares me,” he said, taking a step back. “So let me take a good look at you. The three of you together are like… like… a tree, each of you a different part. Minas is the trunk, Alkis is the roots and Rinio is… the leaves… Yeah, that’s nice… So then… then your mother is the earth, and I… I…” Ilias said and stopped, as if deep in thought. He tried to light his cigarette, but his lighter was out of fluid. Rinio leaned over and lit it with her own. “I guess I’m the sky. Hmmm… Anyhow, I invited you here because this is our home, our base, our natural environment, on Santorini, this dry little island, a place where if you dig down deep enough, you’ll find the guts of the sea, shit and fire and who knows what else. But this is the land that nurtured us, and we’ve gone through all kinds of things here, some good, some bad. We’ve had some tough times, sure, but that’s how life is. Like what Nomikos used to say to me, when I was working at the tomato cannery: ‘You can’t make an omelet without breaking the eggs.’ We worked sixteen hours a day down there and were glad to have a job. Sixteen hours a day. I spat blood down there. Not to mention the accident—you’ve all seen what that did to me. Not a scar you can forget once you’ve seen it, huh? Anyhow, if we had stayed here then, we might have built ourselves a calmer kind of life with the money from those sixteen hours—but you know your old man, it’s not in his bones to stay put, something’s always been burning inside of him, and that fire… it doesn’t want scrub pines, it wants forests, whole mountains. Now I know you’re all wondering one thing: why I brought you here, why I invited all three of you to come down here together. Isn’t that right? ‘What does the old man want, bringing us together like this after all these years?’ Isn’t that what you’re all wondering? And you’re trying to figure out whether or not there’s something afoot, some secret, right? Minas wants to settle our finances—he says he has ‘something important’ to tell me, and I can guess what that is. Rinio is wondering how we can get past everything that happened last year—which, as far as I’m concerned, is all old history. And Alkis?” Ilias said, turning toward his younger son. “I never have the faintest idea what you’re thinking. You’re the mystery here and that’s why I love you, because I don’t understand you at all. As for your mother—where is she, still at church? Your mother isn’t doing well. She sits in her room all day lighting candles and staring at them for hours on end. She’s crazy, masochistic, like all believers. They were born in fear. You all know how different your mother and I are—you know I’ve never lit a candle in my life. But here we are, about to celebrate our thirty-eighth anniversary. Do you have any idea what that means, to be dealing with one another’s crap for thirty-eight years? But what do you know about human relationships? Okay, fine, Minas, you’ve settled down—which reminds me, why didn’t Katia come?” he asked, then went on, without waiting for an answer, “Rinio, watch out for those Germans, they’ve really got balls. And as for our sweet little innocent child here, what could he possibly know about women?” Ilias took a deep breath and continued. “Thirty-eight years. You have to make sacrifices to live with a person for that long, you have to grit your teeth and bear it. Well, somehow your mother and I have managed. It’s true, I had to be harsh sometimes, and maybe there were times when I upset her and you too. I won’t deny that I’ve got my faults, but for better or worse, that’s the kind of man your father is. I grew up with a crumb of bread, at a time when this place was still completely wild. That’s how I was taught, and this is what I became. So why did I invite you back? If you’re expecting some mystery, some secret, I’m afraid I’m going to disappoint you. No, what I wanted to say is very simple: I invited you because I missed you, for fuck’s sake, because I’m getting old, because I wanted to see you all together, because I want my children to accept me for who I am. You know what my good qualities are, and as for my bad ones there will always be someone to pray for me, and if there’s anyone up there I’ll be forgiven, and if not, well that’s fine, too. The game is all down here, not up in the clouds. I was wrong before when I said that I’m the sky. I’m a turd, the turd that feeds the tree. So to hell with all the old stuff, let’s just have a good time together for these few days!” With this, Ilias raised his tumbler of whisky to make a toast, before Minas could get a word in—all during his father’s speech he had looked ready to break in at the slightest opportunity. The three siblings raised their glasses. “To…” Ilias said, then paused for a moment with his glass in the air. “To Santorini!” he finally said, hoisting his glass in the direction of the sea. Ilias and his three children were all gathered on the veranda, while across the water the sky had begun to grow pink, as if a hand were dusting it with pastel. Just as they lowered their glasses, an old woman came out onto the veranda, limping slightly, Larissa supporting her. She was dressed entirely in black, and the dark kerchief on her head made her face look almost like a mask. Her pale eyes glowed like two cracks of light in the gathering darkness and her sun-beaten face was covered in deep wrinkles. Her pupils were almost motionless, as if their only job was to stay put in the middle of her irises. Three wrinkled sacks of skin hung from her neck, and her eyebrows were thick and cutting, like scythes. She carried herself in a haughty, almost despotic manner that contrasted sharply with her body, which was shrunken with age. “And to Mom!” Ilias said, raising his glass again. They sat her down in the best seat. Rinio offered her a glass of wine, which Kadio drank almost in a single gulp. As soon as she had gotten comfortable in her chair, she started to examine her three grandchildren closely, moving her gaze from one to the next in a slow, almost ritualistic way. “The dew this morning bothered me, I slept until noon. Now I’m rested and said I’d come down here to see you all. I was watching the road this afternoon in case you came, but I don’t see well anymore, just shadows. Now you’ve come, and the spark is there again.” The three siblings went up to their grandmother and each kissed her in turn. Despite her bad vision, she could still recognize them, and had something to say to each: to Minas, how strong he had gotten; to Rinio—even though she was wearing a pair of jeans and a light top—that she was still young and should dress more cheerfully; and to Alkis, that his hair was too long, and he needed a haircut. Sunset was approaching, and the swarms of sunset-gazers were making an incessant din in the narrow streets. Just when the sky had filled with what seemed like thousands of colors, Epifania arrived, carrying a basket of red eggs for Easter. As soon as she saw Minas, the last of her children to arrive that day, she fell into his arms. Then she pulled him inside to the kitchen, where they sat and talked. “Where have you been, my child? If I didn’t call you, I’d never hear from you at all.” “I’ve been working, Mom…” “Work has devoured all three of you… Then again, even when you were still living with us, Minas, you were always on the run. Should I make you a coffee?” “I’m drinking whisky,” Minas said, pointing to his glass. “I hope he hasn’t passed that on to you…” “Dad? He could drink us all under the table.” “As for that…” “Mom…” “What?” “Why did he invite the three of us here together?” “He wanted to see you all together again. Didn’t he tell you?” “He told us, but you know how he is. I don’t believe a word he says. There’s got to be something else.” “I don’t know, dear. He doesn’t tell me anything anymore.” “Did he ever?” Minas said, looking around uneasily. “I missed you all so much. The three of you are all I have, you know that, Minas.” “I missed you too. I used to miss you even when I was living here.” “Really?” “Yes. I’ve never told you this, but… I was always losing you, Mom, I never knew where you were.” “But I was right here, Minas. Right beside you.” “I don’t know, maybe it was my fault. You were here, but it was as if I couldn’t see you.” They spoke a while longer, then Minas went outside again. Epifania stayed alone in the kitchen, until Rinio appeared in the doorway with a cigarette between her lips. “Do you need some help?” “No, dear, I’m just tidying up.” “It’s nice being together, isn’t it?” “Yes.” “Remember when we used to make tomato meatballs together?” “We call them fake meatballs, you’ve forgotten…” “Yeah, fake meatballs. Well, it’s been a while, I wish that were all I’d forgotten…” “Don’t worry, I remember for you. I’ve got it all stored up here in my head. You smoke too much, dear. You should quit. I’ll wash you a pear.” “What good will a pear do?” “What good does that cigarette do?” “It does me good.” “It’s a curse. Fire in your guts.” “No, it’s company.” Rinio took a deep drag and looked at her mother questioningly. “What is it?” Epifania asked. “What have we done?” “What do you mean?” “What have we done, Mom?” Rinio repeated. “What should we have done?” “Have we moved forward at all?” “We’re here, we’re still here.” “What do you mean, ‘still’?” “Nothing. Just that we’re here, all of us. Isn’t that enough?” “Is it enough? Oh, Mom, there’s been something burning you up all these years and you never say a thing. But why should you? We all know what it is…” Ilias’s voice rang out from the veranda. “Rinio!” “Your father wants you,” Epifania said. Rinio laughed. “You think?” she said and went out onto the veranda, where the rest of the family was waiting to hear one of Ilias’s stories—cleaner this time, of course. Nadia
By now the red disk of the sun had started to sink towards the horizon. Ilias was sitting at the edge of the veranda. His high forehead and the bridge of his nose were lit by the slanting rays, while the rest of his face was cast in darkening shadows. When the light blue rings of his irises could no longer be distinguished in the dark, he slowly stood up, stretched, drank a last swallow from his drink and said in a sharp, almost cutting tone of voice:
“You’ll have to excuse me, I’ve got an errand to run. I might be late getting home tonight, but I’ll see you all tomorrow afternoon for lunch, I’ve reserved a table at the taverna in Vlihada.” The three siblings exchanged glances, while Larissa buried her face in a magazine. Only Kadio remained as she had been, looking out at the sky as if she were attempting to unlock the secret of the blood-red sun. At the same time, crowded together on the Castle, hundreds of tourists snapped the shutters of their cameras almost simultaneously. The sky was slowly fading into darkness, while on the Karamolegos veranda everything seemed to be blazing in utter silence. Ilias walked through the narrow streets of the village. On his way he greeted all kinds of people: everyone in Oia knew him. The oldest of the villagers could still remember the poor kid who had left for Piraeus in ’68 with his wife, then only eighteen years old, in order to escape the poverty of the island. The same kid had come back a man in the mid-70s, when Epifania was pregnant with their third child. Property in Oia had started to acquire value, and Ilias Karamolegos had suddenly remembered the four houses he owned in the village: his own dug-out house, and also the two dug-outs and the captain’s house from his wife’s dowry; the whole family had lived in the larger of the two dugouts before leaving Santorini. Back then the island hadn’t yet begun to experience the kind of dizzying development that was to come. But eventually the time came when some of the inhabitants decided to sell (and by no means cheaply) the “magical sunset, volcanic landscape, Aegean Sea” that appeared everywhere in tourist brochures, and life in Oia, as elsewhere on the island, changed dramatically. There was suddenly a lot of money to be made on the island. And a man like Karamolegos couldn’t help but jump at the chance. And he sucked that chance to the marrow: extensive renovations to the family home made it one of the village’s most impressive dwellings; the captain’s house was sold; and he turned the two other dug-outs into small hotels. With the proceeds, Ilias built Oia’s Dream, a luxurious jewel of a hotel with an amazing view and a pool. In the course of a single decade, Ilias Karamolegos—the son of the town drunk and madman, the street urchin who used to roll around in the dirt, the man who’d spat blood at the tomato cannery, and later as a construction worker in Piraeus—had become a powerful presence on the island. By the time he reached Oia’s Dream, the sun had set entirely. As soon as he saw his boss coming through the door, the manager jumped to attention, saying, “Mr. Karamolegos, we weren’t expecting you,” but Ilias cut him off with a hurried gesture that showed he wasn’t in the mood for chitchat. He headed straight for the pool, but didn’t find what he was looking for. Then he went by the bar, poured out two glasses of whisky and climbed the stairs toward the rooms. He stood for a while in front of Room 24, then knocked lightly. “Come in, it’s open,” a woman’s husky voice called from inside. He opened the door and went in. Nadia was sitting in front of the mirror in a white silk dress, fixing her makeup. She was a woman of generous proportions, around forty or forty-five. She was tall, with broad shoulders, onto which cascaded a mass of straight blond hair—her natural color was black, and that’s how viewers had known her fifteen years ago when she’d had a role in a TV drama. Though somewhat plump now, her body was rich, shapely, all curves. Her face was beautiful, Mediterranean, with strong cheekbones, while her lips, which she had just outlined with a dark red lip pencil, gave her an air of innate sensuousness: the upper lip was thin, the lower twice as full, as if swollen. This voluptuousness was counterbalanced, though, by the peaceful expression of her eyes—green, under dark, painted eyebrows and eyelashes elongated by mascara—which, with a slow, perhaps premeditated motion, turned toward Ilias and batted open and closed with joy. “You’re late, dear,” she said. Her voice was suggestive, with a nice timbre to it. Over the years she had managed to erase her provincial accent, though a careful listener could still detect an almost imperceptible drawl. “I’m here now, and that’s what matters. You look lovely,” Ilias said, resting his hands against her neck. “I got all made up for you,” Nadia said. “So where are you taking me?” “I say we spend the evening here, darling…” “You mean I did all this for nothing?” she said in coquettish tones that echoed the look on her face. “Don’t worry, it’s not wasted effort, it’ll all pay off in the end,” Ilias whispered, as he bent over and kissed her behind her ear. “But when, Ilias?” “I’ve told you before… Just wait. Everything will work out.” “When, when you’re eighty?” “Be patient. Now the kids are here…” Nadia put another layer of lipstick on her lips. “Your manager asked me how long I plan on staying.” “You can tell him you’ll stay as long as the boss wants you to,” Ilias replied, laughing, and stroked her breast through her thin dress. “So they’re here?” Nadia asked, arching her neck towards him. “Yes.” “Minas is a good-looking kid.” “How do you know? Have you seen him?” “Yes, at a reception in Athens. We were introduced.” “He’s not a kid anymore, he’s a full-grown man.” She turned and looked him in the eye. Her face wore an intense expression. She was a passionate woman who could easily become violent, even pitiless. Nadia was one of those women whose unprotected beauty is defiled even before it’s fully ripened, and who, by the time they’ve gained a degree of self-awareness, turn the wound into a weapon. The enemy was man and the method was fairly simple: remain aloof, allow the other to put you on a pedestal; give in, demystify; take back. “You think he fucks better than his father?” Ilias laughed. “For a man to really fuck well, baby, he’s got to be at least forty,” he said, looking at her breasts, which, the way he was kneading them, were almost bursting out of her thin dress. She was so much more sensual than Larissa, with her small, almost boyish breasts and flat behind. Not that he didn’t like screwing Larissa, too. Once a week, regularly. “You’ll have to keep proving that to me,” Nadia said and, standing up, let her dress fall to the floor. She stood in front of him, completely naked, entirely at his disposal. My heart on fire “Such quiet, it sets my heart afire, harms a man’s mind,” Kadio suddenly said. “Yeah, come over here, guys, let’s all do something together,” Rinio said. “Take my picture, so you’ll all have something to remember your grandmother by.” “I’ll take one tomorrow morning, when it’s light.” “Take one now, so it can have the crashing of the sea. That’s where my heart is.” “But you can’t hear the sea in a photograph, grandmother.” “Images show it all, my child.” Rinio had great difficulty taking a close-up of Kadio, who sat with her mouth shut tightly, almost as if holding her breath. The old woman had told her granddaughter to “take her image” only when she gave the order. The episode lightened the atmosphere somewhat, though soon the heavy silence fell once more over the veranda. No one dared begin a new conversation. Minas, who had started drinking early in the day, was knocking back his third whiskey, Alkis played nervously with a paper napkin, and Rinio was smoking one cigarette after another. At some point Epifania appeared with the basket of red eggs and two sheets of tiny colored stickers. She sat down in a chair and started to affix a sticker to each of the eggs. The family sat on the veranda for an hour more, then one by one the children went up to their rooms. The two women remained, mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, both in black, motionless in the harsh silence, gazing out at the sea. The moonlight made their faces seem carved from stone. Then, as time passed and the moon shifted in the sky, the two women became one with the night of Oia.
Nadia held onto the chair firmly. Each movement of her body made her bracelets clatter. She watched her reflection in the mirror making love, registering almost every change in her expression, every spasm of her mouth, the way the veins in her neck swelled. Out of the corner of her eye she watched Ilias, too, in the upper right corner of the mirror, breathing heavily, bathed in sweat, despite the coolness of the air-conditioned room. Ilias avoided looking at their reflection—or, more accurately, he avoided looking at his own, with the large cross-shaped scar on his stomach, a result of his accident at the factory. His gaze was focused on what was immediately before him: Nadia’s buttocks. At some point Nadia arched her back, stretched her neck and pretended to come with a cry—which to a particularly perceptive listener would have sounded more like a sigh of relief. Almost immediately, Karamolegos came inside of her, with words only a woman like her could have endured.
At that precise moment, back at the house, Epifania—the only one left on the veranda, still putting stickers on the eggs—made a sudden move and her basket fell to the ground. Dozens of red hard-boiled eggs rolled out of the basket, their shells breaking on the blue tiles. And it wasn’t even Good Friday yet. Her children had been in bed for a while, each one sunk in his or her own thoughts, while Kadio, in her own room, sleepless in the dark, silently spoke to herself. “There’s a disaster brewing. My heart’s on fire, my heart’s on fire,” she kept saying. And she was right.
Good FridayThe Passion The meal
“I don’t like to see long faces… Wake up, guys, didn’t you sleep last night? Halfie, bring us a plate of fava for starters and some fake meatballs. And wine, okay? From your batch. Let’s see if I can make you sweat all over this time!”
Ilias was in high spirits. Epifania was sitting beside him, and his three children were on the other side of the table. They had brought the table outside and set it down in the sand next to the sea. Vlihada beach with its black sand and volcanic rock formations stretched out to their right. At the edge of the beach was a snack bar, where an American woman in her mid-thirties was drinking a frappe and casting sidelong glances at their party. Yiorgos, or “Halfie,” ran back and forth from the table to the restaurant, bringing out their food and wine. He was in his mid-forties, short and fat, with a buzz cut. His nickname was particularly apt, though the basis for it appeared only at times of intense physical exertion, when one half of his body would be bathed in sweat while the other remained entirely dry. This was the result of a complication during surgery, when his parasympathetic system had accidentally been affected. Tasia, the woman who owned the restaurant, was sitting at the cash register. She was a shrewd woman in her sixties who knew what was going on under every rock on the island. “Seems like Karamolegos is already drunk, and it’s only noon,” Halfie said, coming inside. “That man’s a real character. Ever since he was a teenager. Remember when we used to call him Cunt Hunter?” Nicknames on Santorini were utterly shameless. “Back when he was working over there, right?” Halfie said, pointing in the direction of the old Nomikos factory, known for the tomatoes it had canned in the ’70s. Though the factory was now closed and had fallen into disrepair, the high stone chimney was still there to remind people of the old days. “He’d chase anything in a skirt. A real player, with a one-track mind. Always thinking about money, full of schemes. There wasn’t a palm in town he hadn’t greased. I pity his wife, though. A saintly woman.” “And that older son, he’s a chip off the old block, if you ask me. See that blond tourist over at the snack bar? He passed me a slip of paper with his cell phone number to give to her.” “Did you?” “Yeah, and she seemed pretty receptive, too.” “It’s a canker in the house. The daughter is just the same. Last year she was going around with the Russian who works on the dig. Like father like daughter. But the younger son with the ponytail seems to be a good kid.” “Halfie! Where’s that wine?” Ilias’s voice came ringing in from outside. Yiorgos ran to the fridge, half of his shirt soaked with sweat. “There’s something I want to say,” Minas said after the appetizers had arrived, and he and his father had each knocked back a few glasses of wine. “Right here, in front of everyone.” Ilias shot him a mocking glance. “Say what you like, just don’t ruin our family gathering.” Minas stood up from his chair, ignoring his father’s remark. A bee buzzed around him. He shooed it away with an abrupt gesture and it settled on the rim of Epifania’s glass. She paid it no attention. Minas took a deep breath and said, “I’ll be brief and to the point. Father, we’re a family. Each of us has rights and obligations, and there are certain rules that need to be observed. As for me, I’ve been very patient. But I’m still waiting for you to fulfill your promise to me.” Ilias shot up like a spring. Father and son were both standing, now, and looking at one another intensely. “I was sure you’d start in on that sooner or later. Just listen to him! I’ll tell you something, once and for all. I don’t want to talk business here. Did you come back just to start all that up again?” “But you promised…” “You promised, you promised,” Ilias parroted in a thin voice. “You haven’t changed a bit. Always the same shit, ever since you were a kid!” “But he’s been working hard, Ilias, for so many years,” Epifania unexpectedly spoke up. Karamolegos replied without even turning to look at her. “Working? On what? I almost left my bones over there,” he said, pointing to the factory across the way. “I didn’t have my dad to toss me a handful of hotels! Just look over there, where I passed the best years of my life. Do you think I brought you here for nothing?” “Father, you’re overdoing it,” Rinio said, a strange calmness in her voice. “You can all do what you like! What did I promise you? And how many years did I raise you? Ingrate! Whatever I give, I’ll give when I feel like it. And if I feel like it, you hear? If I feel like it!” “You’re… you’re…” Minas said, almost shaking with fury, then stopped. “Ilias, please,” Epifania said.
“You keep quiet!” her husband answered, throwing her a sideways glance. “I listened to you for years and we raised ourselves an ingrate, a show-off and a religious crazy… You all turned out lemons, bad lotto tickets. I bought three and didn’t win a dime.”
Minas started to reply, but stopped himself. With an abrupt gesture he tossed two bills onto the table, ostentatiously turned on his heel and left. The blond tourist watched him climbing the hill. Rinio got up, too, saying, “It’s so nice here, the ‘show-off’ is going to look at the view.” As soon as she’d gotten away from the taverna, she circled back around and headed toward a pizzeria about three hundred yards away. She sat down and ordered a four-cheese pizza. She ate it quickly, washing it down with two bottles of beer. Then she paid, got up and asked where the bathroom was. There wasn’t anyone else in the women’s room. She locked the door to her stall, stood in front of the toilet, pulled her hair back, bent over, and with the ease of someone doing something entirely natural, even everyday, she emptied the contents of her stomach. Ilias sat back down in his chair. His face had grown red. He poured some wine into his glass and drank it down. Then, abruptly changing his tone, he turned to Alkis. “Don’t be mad at me, Alkis, I called you that for your own good. You understand.” “What do I understand, Dad?” “What I’m like. I can see it in your eyes. You accept me. Your brother, that ingrate, all he thinks about is money, money, money,” Ilias said, looking toward the snack bar, where the American tourist was writing a text message on her cell phone. “As for me, there isn’t a deceitful bone in my body, your mother here can tell you that.” Alkis looked over at Epifania, who stood up from the table, averting her gaze. “I don’t want to hear all that again. You two talk it over, I’ll be back in a little while,” she said and headed toward the beach. The American tourist had gathered up her things, and was starting to climb the hill in the direction Minas had gone in. “Why, Dad?” Alkis said laconically once his mother was gone. “Why what?” “Today with Minas, and last night when you left… We all know where you went, you know.” “Alkis, my dear, innocent little child, what can you know of human relationships? You think I don’t love your mother? You have no idea what the two of us… I’d be nothing without her. Thirty-eight years is a long time. It doesn’t matter where I went, it doesn’t matter at all.” He leaned over toward his son and said to him, in a confiding tone, “Alkis, my boy, women are insatiable. You give them a finger and they take your whole hand. It’s a struggle. I’ve fought them tooth and nail.” Just then Yiorgos came up. “Just wait and see what I’m going to do to him now,” Ilias said conspiratorially to his son. “Do you want anything else, Mr. Karamolegos?” the waiter asked. “No, just the bill. And Halfie, come here, I want to whisper something in your ear.” The waiter bent over, half his face shining. Ilias whispered something, then broke into a loud guffaw. Halfie, without reacting, straightened back up and went to get the bill, wiping the right half of his face with his palm. “That guy’s a loser,” he said to Tasia as she handed him the bill. “A real loser.” At the dig “Now we’re walking along the road of the Telchines. Look, here’s where Spyros Marinatos fell. You know, the first excavator of the site, he died here,” Fenia said. “He died by falling from such a slight height?” Alkis asked. “They say he had a heart attack.” “Just think, to die that way, in the place where you discovered an ancient town. What a fate, huh?” “Yeah, pretty fantastic,” Fenia said. Then, pointing before them, she continued, “So now we’re passing through the pylon, the gate, and entering the Triangular square.” Fenia was giving Alkis a tour of the site. Unlike the other visitors, he had the privilege of following her into the roped-off parts to get a close look at the open wells, which went down several meters. The site was lit by special lamps and covered by an ultra-modern bioclimatic shelter, which, Fenia explained to him, was the only one of its kind in the world. “It’s an amazing feeling, just like a real city.” “Well, it is real.” “Just imagine being here alone at night. Terrifying, huh?” “I’ve done it before. I felt completely outside of time, like I didn’t even exist. It was an experience almost… I don’t know, mystical… erotic… but there was a kind of terror to it, too.” “Just like all erotic experiences,” Alkis noted, smiling. Fenia smiled back. “And now I’m going to take you to a place very few people have access to.” The sign on the door read “Wall-painting Workshop.” “You’re very lucky to be coming in here,” Fenia said, opening the door. It was an L-shaped space, with large tables covered in rows of tiny little fragments of wall-paintings. There was ethnic music playing on the radio. Five or six girls were shuffling through the fragments, trying to piece them together. It was as if each of them was trying to solve an enormous puzzle—only this particular puzzle was made of priceless fragments that were thousands of years old. “Can you believe that this place is full of masterpieces of prehistoric Greek wall-painting that the archaeological museum in Fira won’t take because they don’t have room? Come over here, I want to show you the piece,” Fenia said, heading toward a wall that was partly covered with a white cloth. By pulling on a chain, she started to raise the cloth slowly, revealing an amazing wall-painting underneath. Alkis was surprised at the vividness of the colors. An incredibly elegant woman was reclining on a couch, while a blue ape offered her a bunch of crocuses. Behind the ape, a girl was waiting to make her offering, too. “This could very well be the most important image from the prehistoric Aegean. It’s the ‘Goddess’ I was telling you about.” Alkis stood there, dumbfounded, staring at the image before him. Fenia turned to look at him, smiling, her gaze full of pride. The little lines to either side of her mouth looked like quick little brushstrokes. For a moment she seemed to Alkis like part of the painting. As they were leaving the workshop and heading out towards the exit, a tall, thin man came towards them from the other direction. He had long, frizzy hair and an angular face, and was naked from the waist up. He was around thirty-five and looked foreign. His body was well-chiseled, and perfectly proportioned. As he passed them, he smiled at Fenia, and threw a curious glance at Alkis. “Who was that?” he asked Fenia when the man was far enough away not to hear. “Anatoli, a Russian who works on the dig. Strange guy. He has a girl, too. I guess she’s his daughter; she’s around fifteen or sixteen. An amazingly beautiful creature.” As they were parting, Alkis kissed her on either cheek. “I had a great time. Thanks. If you want, I can play guide for you tomorrow.” “Tomorrow, Good Saturday?” “Sure, we’ll be back in time for the Resurrection. I assume you’ve already been to the volcano.” “No, oddly enough, it just hasn’t happened yet…” “We keep an inflatable raft down at Ammoudi. It’s pretty big and has a strong motor. We can go in the afternoon, after the tourists have left.” Fenia’s face lit up. “I’d like that very much,” she said. Epitaphios
The chanter—a thin man with beautiful posture and a clear voice with a rare, byzantine air—started the chant. He was an actor in the National Theater and came down to Santorini every year to sing the Epitaphios service on Good Friday. He led the procession out of the church, followed by the girls from the chorus, who were dressed in white, each holding a sheet of paper with the hymns on it. The strong spotlights from the TV cameras and vans to the right of the courtyard spoiled the tone somewhat. But the beautiful voices, the natural setting of the rock, the location of the church, high up with the whole valley at its feet and a view of half the island, the hundreds of visitors—locals, Athenians, foreigners—all sunk in devout silence, the full moon, even the gentle breeze that rustled the leaves of the trees—everything conspired to create an intoxicating atmosphere.
They were at the church at the center of the Venetian castle in Pyrgos, a village in the highlands of Santorini. Epifania had started a family tradition of attending the Epitaphios service at this church each year. It was one of the few instances in which Ilias gave in to her, but then again he didn’t have much interest in religion. The fame of this particular liturgy had gone beyond the limits of the island itself. Hence the TV cameras: the event was being covered by one of the major private channels.
Shortly before the Epitaphios—a portable shrine containing an icon of Christ laid out for burial, covered in flowers—emerged from the church to be processed through the streets, the main reason this particular service in Pyrgos was so famous presented itself in all its glory. On every balcony and rooftop, in every narrow side street, the kids from the village dunked torches in containers of kerosene and lit them on fire. The rows of torches created a unique sight which, for someone observing the event from outside the village, must have looked like a fiery snake twining itself around the village, squeezing it within its burning coil.
When the Epitaphios emerged from the castle, an enormous procession formed behind it and started to wind through the village, while those who had stayed in their homes sprinkled the passing line of worshippers with perfumed waters. The Karamolegos family was somewhere in the middle of the procession. Rinio and her mother were walking side by side, with Minas to the right, Alkis somewhat behind, and Ilias in front of them all, looking around with a vacant gaze. He had taken a long siesta that afternoon and was much calmer. Besides, he knew he needed to reserve all his strength for his rendezvous with Nadia later that night.
They had left Kadio back in Oia with Larissa—it would have been too much trouble to bring her. Epifania, whose candle had gone out, bent over her daughter to light it from hers.
“These flames… They remind me of the fireworks at my wedding,” Epifania said.
“They still throw fireworks at the brides?”
“Don’t you remember? I’m sure I’ve told you before, how one landed on the ground by my feet and my dress caught fire, and we almost didn’t put it out in time.”
“Sounds like your marriage caught fire from the very start,” Minas said sarcastically from beside them.
The procession had stopped in front of a little chapel in the village’s central square, and the girls continued to chant the encomiums. The chanter held one syllable so long on the refrain of “My sweet spring” that he seemed to be tossing out the next syllable. Rinio moved closer to her mother and took her arm, Ilias took out his worry beads—even he understood that it would’ve been unseemly to light a cigarette—while Minas stood behind Alkis and whispered over his shoulder.
“Whatever happens is going to happen tomorrow.”
“What’s going to happen?”
When the procession started moving again, someone from the crowd came up to talk to Minas. Alkis turned to his sister.
“You seem uneasy.”
“Me? I’m just trying to keep that madman under control.”
“And you, are you okay?”
“Fine. And tomorrow I’ll be even better.”
“Can you keep a secret? Though I guess word has already gotten out…”
“I met someone here. When I came last year.”
Rinio told him about Anatoli, and Alkis made the connection to the man he’d seen earlier that day at the dig.
“I’m going to see him tomorrow. That man has something, something I can’t quite put my finger on, and it drives me crazy.”
“If he’s the guy I saw today, he has a kid, right?”
“The girl? She’s his niece.”
A young man stopped them to light his candle, which had gone out. When he’d left, Alkis said, “You saw what happened this afternoon at the taverna, right?”
“Whatever will be will be, Alkis. We came down here, so we deserve whatever we get. What did you think, that we were going to pass our Easter with colored eggs and some friendly family bickering?”
“I’m afraid for them.”
“The two of them are so much alike. We might as well just let them eat one another alive. Look at him, walking there all by himself. I’m going over to talk to him.”
“Don’t do anything—” Alkis started, but Rinio had already increased her pace to catch up to Ilias. The crowd continued its winding course through the narrow village streets, as if it were ritually crossing a river, on the banks of which burned small consecutive sources of fire.
“What are you thinking about?” Rinio asked her father, who was walking with his head bent, his gaze low.
“Don’t tell me you’re thinking about the liturgy.”
“Why, you don’t think I think about things like this? You don’t consider me a philosophical kind of guy, huh? Well listen up, here’s something not many people have thought of. There’s something that makes God one of a kind.”
“God can’t do anything to save a person from death. Only a person can save another person, even from certain death. It’s happened before. It’s been proven. But not God. And that’s what makes Him unique.”
Rinio pointed at the Epitaphios.
“But He saved him, didn’t He?”
“Saved him? Then where is he?”
“They say he’s everywhere.
“Have you ever seen him?”
Rinio didn’t answer.
“At any rate, the only thing I like about this whole religion business is this, the Epitaphios. There’s a truth to it. And for me, Rinio, truth is the most important thing.”
“So that must be why we all learned to tell the truth in this family, huh?” Rinio said sarcastically.
“Don’t start with me again…”
The service had ended and Ilias and Rinio were standing in front of the gate to the church, continuing their conversation. They were interrupted by the shouts of some little kids who had started to play soccer in the street, kicking a half-empty can of kerosene that was still burning. In the tumult, Minas left his mother and brother, snuck up behind his father, and blew over his shoulder, snuffing his candle.
“Sia ammazzato il Signore Padre!” he said, half smiling.
Ilias turned around, surprised.
“What’s that you’re saying?”
Minas gave him a strange look and then started to laugh.
“May you live, father. It’s Italian,” Rinio said, mistranslating on purpose. “It’s what kids say during Carnival in Italy.”
“You think this is Carnival here?” Ilias said to his son severely—then, softening his tone, he added, “Well, I guess it might as well be…”
The crowd had begun to disperse, the technicians had started to take down the lights and cameras, and the Karamolegos family headed for the car. The three children were talking amongst themselves, while the parents walked ahead of them in silence. At some point Ilias turned to his wife and said something to her. She stopped, stood as still as a statue, then covered her eyes with her hands. Behind them the children froze, and Karamolegos made a motion for them to leave. Alkis, Rinio, and Minas scattered in three different directions. From afar, Pyrgos—with hundreds of lighted cans still burning on every rooftop and terrace, and in every narrow road—looked as if it were on fire.
Descent into Hell Nea Kameni
The family had gathered on the veranda for breakfast. The atmosphere was somewhat improved. Minas was calm and looked as if he were preparing something, Rinio was telling Ilias about her latest show, though her father didn’t really understand much of what she was saying; Kadio had her eyes closed and her face turned toward the sea; while Epifania and Larissa were preparing the Easter meal. As for Alkis, he had gone down early to Ammoudi, Oia’s little port, where he stayed until early afternoon, swimming and getting the raft ready. Around two he started the motor and went to pick Fenia up from Yialo, the little port below Fira.
The short journey to the two volcanic islands in the middle of the caldera passed quickly and pleasantly. Alkis steered and Fenia sat next to him in khaki cargo pants, her large breasts barely held in by her blue bikini top. As they talked, Alkis looked her directly in the eye, as if ashamed to look any lower.
When they arrived at Nea Kameni, he tied up the raft at the cove of Erminia and helped Fenia out. They started to walk over the shiny black volcanic rock, talking as they went. The water gently lapped the black sand of the beach, giving it a rhythmical massage. The organized tours were over, the tourists had all left and there didn’t seem to be another soul on the island.
“Daphne’s lava,” he said, pointing to the ground. As they climbed he explained the origin of the huge networks of lava that covered the terrain. The eruption had sent liquid magma spurting high into the air, where it solidified, and as it fell it acquired a sleek, spider-like shape. They reached the top of a small hill and then took the footpath leading down, which eventually split into two, following the lip of a crater. They took the path to the right, which climbed steeply up along the western edge of the crater. On the way they passed some petrified lava and Alkis commented on its color, which varied from a milky dark green to a clear honey color to black. By the time they reached the lip of the deepest crater, which had been created by the eruptions of 1866-70, the air had become almost damp, and smelled of sulfur.
Suddenly, as he was bending over to point something out to Fenia, Alkis slipped. For a second he lost his balance, and he would have tumbled right into the heart of the crater if Fenia hadn’t grabbed him around the waist and steadied him.
“Sure was a close call that time,” he said after they sat down in a safer spot.
“You mean it’s happened before?”
“The very first time my mother brought me here, when I was very little. I was so excited by all the new things I was seeing that I somehow lost sight of her while I was playing and slipped into a much smaller crater a little ways from here. I didn’t get hurt or anything, just some scratches, but it was the first time I’d ever seen my mother like that. She came running down and found me all scratched up, with blood running down my leg. She grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me, shouting: ‘Don’t you ever do that again, you hear? Never!’ And she forbid me to ever come here again. It wasn’t until much later that I came to understand my mother’s relationship with the volcano. She was born on January 10, 1950, the day of the last eruption. That day her uncle, my grandmother’s brother, happened to be close by here, fishing from his boat. One of the rocks that was tossed out by the eruption landed on his boat and destroyed it. Luckily it didn’t hit him, but my uncle fell into the sea and was there for hours, fighting the waves, while around him all hell had broken loose. Finally a rescue boat came and picked him up, but he was so shaken by what had happened to him that morning that he almost went crazy, and became a complete recluse. He left Oia and went to live on the other side of the island. He died a few years later, alone, with no one to help him. And my mother associated my fall with all of that. ‘The volcano gives life, and takes life away.’ That’s what she used to say to me.”
“Ash—birth and death, huh?” Fenia said, gazing down into the crater.
Alkis smiled and took her hand. They started to walk back down toward the boat. As they passed in front of a very large mound of petrified lava, they heard a faint flapping of wings, and saw a colorful butterfly fluttering around them. When it landed, quivering, on Fenia’s shoulder, she and Alkis looked at one another and laughed.
The long black sand beach was completely deserted. It was past six and the sun was painting the sea a shade of purple so deep it seemed to belong in the very heart of a flower. They put their things down next to a broken straw umbrella and ran right away to the water. Fenia took off her bikini top before diving in. She swam out into the water with strong strokes and Alkis followed her. The water was cold and clear, and he felt his body waking up. When they had gone out a hundred yards or so they stopped and turned to look back, treading water, gazing at the rocks that reflected the purple caress of the sun. The landscape looked almost like a moonscape, crowned by the sheer pumicestone cliffs that looked carved into different shapes.
“Look over there,” Fenia said, pointing to a spot where the soft rock had been worn away by the waves, creating a small cave.
“It looks nice.”
Fenia stretched out her arms and legs and floated on her back. Her body made an X in the water. Alkis swam around her. At some point, looking up at the sky, she said to him:
“Can I ask you something?”
“Whatever you want.”
“Are you always so accepting of people?”
Fenia pulled her hands back in, dove under the surface of the water and came back up in a vertical position.
“Nothing, you just have something about you that’s both mature and childlike. It’s nice, how you’re so open to things.”
“I’m not sure that I am.”
“What do you mean?”
“Sometimes I feel as if there’s something inside me, trapped.”
“I don’t know… Something that’s trying to get out, but…”
“You shouldn’t just let that stuff slide, you know.”
“It’s like there’s something I owe…”
“Strong feelings of guilt! Session’s over, seventy euros, please,” Fenia said, laughing, and started to swim back to shore.
When they reached the shore, they sat half in, half out of the water. He told her more or less the story of his family and all that had transpired in the past few days. Fenia listened attentively, not missing a word.
“Now it seems even stranger to me that you’re the way you are,” she said when he’d finished.
Then it was her turn to talk. First about her job, then about her longest relationship, which had lasted three years, before she’d decided to end it.
“Why’d you break up with him?” Alkis asked.
“There just wasn’t that special something anymore…”
“And what is that special something?”
“I don’t really know… These days I want everything to be open and free. No strings attached.”
“No relationships, you mean?”
“No relationships as they’re usually understood. I want a different kind. And what about you—don’t you have any kind of past, besides your family, I mean?”
So he told her about Thalia. They had met when he was a first-year medical student in Thessaloniki. When they’d been together for two years, he had wanted them to move in together, but she didn’t want to. They stayed together until they graduated. Then she left him for a rich forty-year-old civil engineer from Kalamaria whom she had married six months later.
“That must’ve been tough for you.”
“I’ve gotten over it by now.”
As they were standing up, Fenia suddenly let out a cry of pain.
“My foot! I stepped on something sharp.”
Alkis picked her up and carried her out of the water, her right breast pressing against his wrist. Her heel had been cut slightly and a little blood was trickling from the wound. He got the first aid kit from the boat and started to dress the wound. It wasn’t anything too bad, and soon Fenia was feeling better. They lay down on the sand. Alkis undid his ponytail and shook his hair to his shoulders. They stayed like that awhile, quietly listening to the gentle lapping of the waves.
“You see that?” Fenia said and pointed to a plant with lush foliage that had sprouted at the edge of the beach. “We had one of those where I used to live.”
“At your parents’ house?”
“No, at the house where I lived with that guy I was telling you about.”
“Strange that it decided to sprout here, in the sand.”
“Though it might still be there, in which case there’s no reason for me to talk about it as if it were something that belonged to the past,” Fenia continued, still speaking of “her” plant.
“There are some things that still exist, but seem somehow to belong to the past.”
“You’re right. But I seem to have some kind of weird relationship with time. Maybe that’s why I became an archaeologist. Why’d you become a doctor, anyway?” she suddenly asked.
Alkis plunged his fingers into the warm, black sand. He and Fenia were lying on their backs beside one another, their legs lightly touching.
“I wanted to understand.”
He didn’t answer. He just turned toward her and looked her in the eye.
“To understand what?” Fenia insisted. “Pain?”
“Perhaps,” Alkis said in a low voice.
Fenia grabbed some sand in her cupped palm, raised her hand and let the sand trickle onto Alkis’s stomach.
The sand felt warm and friendly. Just then a gentle breeze blew, sending the grains of sand slightly lower on his body. They looked at one another. Then, with a sudden move—out of nervousness, or perhaps impatience—Alkis bent over her and brought his lips to within a hair’s breadth of hers. He stopped there, as if waiting for permission. Fenia closed her eyes and arched her neck backwards. He kissed her slowly, almost with relief, and when her breath started to quicken, in one strong, decisive motion, he slipped his arm under her waist and lifted her into his arms. He carried her as far as the cave, and there, as if he were depositing something very precious, gently laid her down in the sand that covered the floor of the cave.
It was a small space, completely sheltered. Looking out, all you could see was three successive bands of color: sand, sea, and sky. He felt an utter sense of security, as if someone had closed the opening in the rock with an invisible door.
He entered her slowly, calmly, as if he knew the way. They explored one another for a long time, silent, not letting even sounds of pleasure interrupt what was taking place. Only the sound of their bodies moving on one another echoed from the walls of the cave. At some point Alkis felt something burning inside of him, a flame that slowly grew in intensity until it enveloped him in a current that shook his entire body. The flame spread, until he felt it reaching the surface of his body, and then, with a quick movement, he pulled out and came on her chest with an enormous spasm, like an eruption. Fenia stayed motionless, feeling the hot fluid trickling from her nipple to the edge of her breast.
When the sun sank beyond the horizon, they were lying arm in arm, complete.
Anatoli and Tatiana
Alkis suggested that before heading back they get a drink from the snack bar at the other end of the beach. A burly, dark-haired man made them coffee—they were expecting to be up late for the Resurrection service—while his girlfriend, a young blond with a pleasant face, played with a nervous brown dog. Suddenly, he saw a familiar image appear across the road: his father’s silver Fiat. The car stopped almost exactly in front of him and Rinio opened the driver’s side door and stepped out. Next came the Russian he had seen at the site, and then an ethereal, angelic creature, a girl of about sixteen with long blond hair, green eyes and skin so fair it was almost translucent. As the girl approached, Alkis observed with surprise that beneath the natural glow of her skin, there was a kind of tenseness in her expression that looked almost like fear. She kept her gaze trained on the ground, and when she did raise her eyes, they shifted about nervously as if they didn’t know where to rest. A large white dog loped along behind the newcomers, its tail wagging.
After everyone had been introduced they all sat down for a drink. Almost the whole time they were there, Rinio was discreetly studying Fenia, while Alkis observed Anatoli, who seemed interested primarily in the ouzo in front of him. Every so often he seemed to be staring at something in the environment, but without really concentrating on whatever he was looking at. He was lost in his own, completely personal space—a fact that was reflected in his face, which for long stretches looked like a mask made of wax. The only information they managed to drag out of him was that he was from St. Petersburg and had lived in Greece for years, the last five of which he’d spent on Santorini.
The girl, Tatiana, stood at a slight distance from the table, petting the dog. At some point she took an object out of her backpack and started to play with it, twirling it with her hand. It was a chain, about a meter long, with two brown balls attached to it, one in the middle and one at the end. Tatiana held it by two leather handles that went over the middle and index fingers of both hands, and as she swung it around in the air, almost dancing, the chain created ever-changing figures whose constant flow was captivating. It was a beautiful sight; Tatiana was extraordinarily graceful, and handled the chain with such elegance that it seemed almost like an extension of her body. The girl seemed to be enjoying herself— her manner had changed, and a sweet smile had spread over her face.
Alkis asked Anatoli about the chain and he answered laconically that a few months ago Tatiana had met a professional juggler, Roxani, who performed in town squares all over the island. The girl had been so impressed that she’d started to take lessons, and was learning to juggle pins, balls, cords and, most recently, this chain.
“We Russians have the circus in our blood,” he finished, then sank back into his own thoughts.
Tatiana stopped the performance after about five minutes. The little group clapped and Alkis went over to her. She looked scared again, as if the game with the chain had been a little sunny break in a cloudy day.
“Bravo, you’re very good.”
“Thanks,” she said shyly.
“It’s beautiful, what you do. Have you been practicing long?”
“Would you want to do it professionally?”
Tatiana’s face lit up.
“Yes. As soon as I learn to do it with fire.”
“The balls for that are made out of a special substance that doesn’t burn. You dip it in paraffin, light it, and dance with fire.”
“Isn’t that dangerous?”
“Roxani says I can manage it,” Tatiana said, reddening.
“Your Greek is very good.”
“I go to a Greek school.”
Just then the dog got up and loped toward the water. It jumped in and started to swim, seemingly at home in the element. Tatiana ran after it, while the rest of the group prepared to leave. Rinio and Anatoli offered to take Fenia back to the site. Before they left, Alkis pulled her aside.
“Where are you going for the Resurrection service?”
“To a church in Akrotiri with the guys from the dig. I’ve promised.”
They kissed, and Fenia closed his hand around something soft. Anatoli called Tatiana back and all four of them piled into the car, together with the dripping dog.
“I’ll see you at the church in Oia,” Rinio told her brother as they left, winking at him to show her approval of Fenia. He returned the wink, primarily out of obligation. As soon as they’d left, Alkis opened his fist and smiled, as a trickle of black sand slipped from his hand. Another visitation
Ilias had been drinking all day on the veranda. He’d invited two or three villagers over, and they were knocking back one beer after another. Minas, unable to secure a moment alone with his father, had gone for a walk. Epifania, after finishing up the housework, went to the church, and when she came back she found Ilias alone, half drunk on the chaise lounge. She fixed him a strong coffee and gave him some Lenten food to eat, but Karamolegos wouldn’t touch it. When he had come around a bit, the first thing he did was call Nadia on her cell phone. She didn’t want to see him until the next day. She was tired, she told him, and was planning on going to the Resurrection service at a small church in Finikia with a friend, and then straight to bed. Ilias murmured a curse through his teeth and then went up to his room for a siesta, exhausted.
Epifania went to her room, sat down in her armchair, lit a new candle and switched off the light. Her pulse was fast and sharp, her hands almost trembling. She pulled open the drawer of the nightstand and took a little blue pill from a bottle hidden under some kerchiefs and skeins of yarn. Her pills helped a lot in these circumstances.
Her gaze fell on the candle. Staring at it, she saw two separate flames. The lower one, which started out red, was linked to the substance it burned, while the other, higher flame, was white with a blue tip and rose to a peak, emitting light. The lower flame was unstable, its color varying from yellow to grayish-blue to pale purple to deep blue as it struggled in vain to achieve the whiteness of the flame that extended upwards from it. It was an unfair fight, with the upper flame trying to destroy its seed, the untreated, raw source that fed it. It didn’t take Epifania long to enter her reverie. And then she heard him again.
Your son. Watch over him.
The older one.
“What’s going to happen?” she gasped.
“Tell me what I should do.”
Just then, across from her, right where the mirror hung, a shape started to form, an outline that was bright against the dark. Epifania brought her hands to her face. This time the voice wasn’t coming from within her; it’s source was standing directly in front of her.
Goodbye, Epifania, the voice said.
Terrified, she got up and turned on the light, blinking her eyes. The room around her was empty. She saw nothing but her beloved room. She made the sign of the cross three times, whispering, “Something must have tricked my eyes. You’re a glow, a shimmer that fades away.”
At that precise moment the wick of the candle bent over and the flame devoured the shadow that had been embracing it all this time, dying a beautiful death, like a man slipping peacefully away in his sleep. A drop of wax fell onto the little table, and then—perhaps from stress, perhaps from the haziness caused by the pill—Epifania saw something awful in her mind’s eye, and was terrified at the thought that she was living other people’s lives. Anatoli’s living room
Anatoli lived in a little house in Emborio, a village northeast of Akrotiri. Tatiana’s teacher Roxani lived in the same village. She was a tall, thin woman with curly red hair. She looked exotic as she opened the door in a gypsy blouse and short shorts that revealed a birthmark in the shape of an eagle on her inner thigh. Anatoli and Rinio dropped Tatiana off for her juggling lesson—she would come back around eleven, in time for the midnight Resurrection service—then continued on to Anatoli’s house.
It was a small, one-bedroom house; Tatiana slept in the bedroom, and Anatoli in the living room. Everything was just as Rinio remembered it: the low ceiling, the unbelievably kitschy, permanently dusty blue upholstery with the ocean design, and the countless pieces of furniture all jumbled together—several chairs, wooden and plastic, two tables covered in books, a large iron chest with embossed representations of weapons, and a huge wine-colored sofa all struggled for space in the few square yards of the living room. To the right of an oval mirror that rested on nails in the wall hung an old rifle, a family heirloom. Next to it was a big red kerchief with a gold border, with a large gothic “M” in the middle, the seal of his family: Miousof. It looked as if Anatoli were trying to squeeze every moment of his life, all of his memories, into a single room. There was an old kerosene lamp sitting on one of the two tables. Anatoli lit it and turned out the overhead light.
“This was my father’s. Reminds me of my family. It was always in the center of our house. A good lamp, good wick, a little good kerosene—doesn’t take much to make a man happy.”
Rinio remembered what he had told her last year, on the very last day before she left for Munich. After a fair amount of vodka he had told her about his life. His mother had died when he was young, his father had spent years in the gulag, and when he came back he was skin and bones, and half crazy. He had a brother, too, who had gotten involved in the mafia after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Shortly afterwards he was killed in some settling of accounts, but before he died he’d had a child with one of his passing lovers, who had subsequently abandoned both father and child. Anatoli had taken the girl in, and when he’d left for Greece, had brought her with him.
“Tatiana’s changed since last year. I remember her being much happier,” Rinio said as she fixed him a drink.
Anatoli didn’t answer.
“Did something happen?” she asked.
The look he gave her suggested that he didn’t really want to talk about it, but would as a favor.
“Eight months ago, she came home late—it was August 31st, my birthday—and went straight into the bathroom. She was crying. She came out an hour later. I asked her what was wrong, she said nothing, a bad dream. Since then she’s changed a lot. Her juggling is the only thing that makes her happy.”
“Maybe it’s just puberty…”
He pronounced the word with an idleness that reminded Rinio of the first time she had seen him. Alone, on a beach, walking with the dog beside him. He had seemed so self-possessed, so outside of the rhythm of the world, so magical. She had run after him, caught up to him and asked if she could take his photograph. He gestured with his hand, a gesture that didn’t mean yes or no, just seemed to indicate the limits of his personal space. That very night they had made love, and she felt like someone visiting a strange country. A country she couldn’t describe, and certainly couldn’t photograph. A country she didn’t know the least thing about. He was nothing at all like Ursula, nothing like the other women she’d known, or the other men. And that drove her crazy.
Now, they lay down on the couch beside one another, face to face, and she saw his grayish eyes again from up close, that wolfish gaze looking at her with desire. And she gave in again to a happiness she knew didn’t really exist.
The fireworks burst noisily, thrilling the children, while most of the tourists, unfamiliar with the custom, ran to take shelter in the narrow streets. The Karamolegos family had dispersed in the tumult of the celebrations. Ilias was walking with his mother, who was having great difficulty staying on her feet; Epifania had been in the church since early on, coming out only after midnight, for the announcement of the Resurrection; Alkis was with Rinio, who was taking photographs; and Minas was wandering around on his own, a strange look on his face.
A short while later they all gathered back at the house, on the veranda. Epifania had made Easter soup and meat. In the yard were two lambs wrapped in plastic that Ilias had ordered to roast on the spit the following day. At the start of the meal, while the fireworks were still bursting in the sky, Ilias was the only one who spoke. Alkis’s cell phone rang at around one. It was Fenia. They arranged to meet the next afternoon, again in Vlihada.
Ilias and Minas had started to drink heavily. Their faces had grown red, though this time the son’s was more flushed. The celebratory fireworks had died down by the time Ilias’s voice rang out, loudly.
“Come on, everyone, let’s break eggs!”
Each of them chose a red egg from the basket—Epifania had made a new batch—and they followed the custom of smashing the tips of their eggs together to see whose would last longest. Soon only Ilias and Minas were left, each with one end of his egg unbroken.
“Let’s see what you’ve got, kid,” Ilias said, holding his egg firmly and waiting.
Minas threw his father a poisonous glance and hit his egg with the pointed end. Both eggs broke.
“It’s a tie!” Rinio shouted.
“And I thought yours was wooden,” Minas said.
“I never cheat,” his father retorted.
“Are you sure?”
Ilias’s face darkened.
“Watch what you say,” he warned.
Minas suddenly grew serious.
“I’ve got more to say before the night is up. Someone has to smoke the snake out of its hole.”
“Are you both mad?” they heard Kadio saying behind them. “Isn’t one in the family enough? He tormented me all those years and now that I’m finally at peace you two want to come along and do the same?”
But Minas continued, undeterred. He was stuttering slightly.
“It wasn’t grandfather’s fault, the drink ruined his mind. Dad’s much worse: he has his wits about him and still goes around destroying everything on purpose.”
Ilias drained his glass with a single swallow.
“What do you want, son? What do you really want, anyhow?”
His eyes had gone the color of blood.
“What do I want? Let me tell you what I want. You say you’re so utterly in tune with yourself, completely irreproachable—well then, stand up right here and account for yourself in front of us all. Why did you treat us the way you did for years? Why did you make me work like a dog, cursing me and humiliating me and then mocking me with all the promises you’ve made? Why did you force Rinio to leave? Why do you act this way to the one woman in the world who stood by you?” he said, pointing to Epifania. “Why do you have a mistress all set up in the hotel, even now when you’ve invited us here for Easter? Why didn’t you ever love us? Why didn’t you ever love anyone?”
Alkis started to say something, but Rinio grabbed his hand, as if warning him not to interfere. Larissa stepped back discretely into the interior of the house and Epifania covered her eyes with her hands.
“You should be ashamed of yourself! Who do you think you’re talking to?” Ilias said.
Minas shot up out of his chair like a spring. He had drunk enough that he wasn’t completely balanced on his feet.
“That’s it, there’s no saving yourself now,” he said.
“You’re all mad! Stop!” Kadio cried feebly.
“Let’s see what you’ve got, Let’s see what kind of balls you’ve got,” Ilias said, rising from his chair and standing next to his son.
Minas brought his face close to his father’s. His jaw was trembling, but his gaze was even. He looked Ilias intensely in the eye. Ilias’s gaze was mocking, and his mouth twisted in a sardonic smile. The son suddenly raised his fist, but then stayed that way, his arm in the air, his elbow bent. Ilias’s smile widened.
“Come on, you little shit, you always were a scaredy-cat, your whole life.”
Minas’s face reddened even more. He clenched his teeth almost imperceptibly, and then with a sudden motion landed his fist on Ilias’s jaw, sending his father flying three feet in the air before he fell to the ground, blood running from his mouth. Minas, now completely enraged, went over to the fallen body and was about to kick it when he felt Alkis’s arms grabbing him around the waist and pulling him backwards, which was strange, since the younger brother was clearly less strong than the older.
“My heart’s on fire, my heart’s on fire,” Kadio cried, and started to run—in a manner of speaking, since she wasn’t too steady on her feet—toward the house. Larissa, who had been peering through the window all this time, came out, took her arm and led her to her room. Rinio and Epifania ran over to Ilias, who was lying motionless on the ground.
“Go get a wet towel,” Alkis told his sister.
Rinio returned right away and Alkis cleaned Ilias’s wound. He seemed to be coming around, though his gaze seemed lost, somewhere else. Minas had sat down at the edge of the veranda and was drinking, his jaw trembling even more than before.
Epifania and Rinio half-carried Ilias to his room, which was on the same level as the veranda, and laid him on the bed. Shortly afterwards Alkis came and put antiseptic on the wound. By then Ilias had fully revived.
“That madman will kill me,” he said. “My very own child.”
“I warned you all…” Rinio said.
“Where is he? Bring the bastard here.”
Rinio went out onto the veranda.
“He wants to see you,” she told Minas. “I don’t think you should go. Let’s all just sleep on it and see what happens tomorrow.”
Minas gave his sister an enigmatic look.
“You never know what might happen before tomorrow,” he said, and then, making a circle in the air with his raised right hand, a classic gesture denoting hyperbole of all sorts, he burst into a frantic laugh.
“Listen to me, Minas, enough is enough! You can fight one another to the death if you want! But I’m not going to stick around to see it!”
Minas didn’t answer. He stood up, straightened his clothes and staggered into the house. For a moment Rinio thought he was headed for Ilias’s room, but instead he went upstairs and shut himself in his own room, slamming the door behind him so hard that she could hear it from where she was.
Rinio pulled Alkis aside and they spoke for a few minutes in low tones. Then she went up to her room, grabbed a few items of clothing and left. Alkis sat for a while on the veranda. On his way up to his room he stopped in to check on his father. The door was half open. Ilias was alone, drinking from a little bottle of whiskey on the night table beside him.
Just as he was resting his foot on the first step of the staircase, heading upstairs to his room, he heard a noise behind him. It was his mother. She had a strangely calm look on her face. She gestured for him to draw near, then embraced him and kissed him on both cheeks. They stood there silently for a while. Before they parted, she looked him deep in the eyes.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“What for? Why should you be to blame?”
“He doesn’t know what he’s doing.”
“Both of them. Alkis?”
“Only I what?”
Epifania lowered her gaze.
“God forgive us,” she said, and turning around, she went down the stairs and into the sotokamari, closing the door behind her.
Alkis tossed and turned in bed for a long time. He was wound up, and couldn’t sleep. He looked at the time on his cell phone. It was 3:55. He got up, put a shirt on and left his room. He could hear Minas gently snoring in the next room. He went down to the middle floor. The door of his father’s room was open. He looked inside. The sheets were mussed, but the bed was empty. He went out onto the veranda. Oia was completely silent. The moonlight fell straight down onto the sea, creating a lighted pathway, and a gentle breeze rustled the leaves of the periwinkle in the yard. Just when he was wondering if his father might have gone out to Oia’s Dream—was he capable of going to his mistress even on a night like this?—he heard a loud noise from below like something breaking. He went back inside and downstairs, where he stood at the far end of the sala. Now he could hear voices, too, and quiet sobbing. The sounds were coming from the sotokamari. He recognized the voice as his father’s, but he couldn’t make out the words. The sounds lasted a few more seconds. Then there was silence. He waited a little bit longer, but didn’t hear anything else. Just when he was about to head back upstairs, he suddenly heard the door creak open. He heard footsteps on the stairs and saw the silhouette of someone climbing up. It was Ilias, moving quickly and nervously. When he reached the level of the veranda he muttered something to himself and then went into his room, closing the door behind him. A thick silence descended once again over the house. Alkis stood there for another few minutes, then went up and lay down again in his bed. It was past dawn by the time he finally fell asleep.
The scream was so loud it made the pane of Alkis’s window rattle. He jumped out of bed. The clock on his cell phone read 9:38. Then he heard another cry. Inarticulate, terrified, even louder and more piercing than the first. He was running down the stairs when he heard the third, which lasted longer than the other two, and then the sound of a door slamming shut.
Reaching the second floor, he saw Larissa standing at the head of the stairs. Her face wore an expression of horror. Her features were distorted, her eyes seemed to have jumped out of their sockets, her lips were trembling.
“What is it?” Alkis asked.
Larissa tried to answer, but all that came from her mouth was a jumble of vowels and stifled sobs. Alkis went over and grabbed her by the shoulders.
“What happened?” he asked again, louder, practically shaking her.
Her face had turned waxen. She raised her right hand and pointed down the stairs. Alkis left her and rushed down the stairs like a tornado. When he got down to the living room he felt choked by a strange smell. He ran to the sotokamari and opened the door, then froze in place. What he saw before him was hell itself.
Alexis Stamatis is a well known Greek novelist, and poet born in Athens, Greece. He studied Architecture at the National Technical University of Athens and took postgraduate degrees in Architecture and Cinematography in London. He has published eleven novels. His second novel...