Reed Stirling

Shell Game

SHELL GAME

 

 

The Taverna Paphos lay wedged in an old Venetian block up from the Chania harbour, more grotto than cave, for on a wall in the hollow of intersecting arches stood an ikon of the Virgin holding her man-child, Byzantine style. In one corner grandmother, mother, and daughter busied themselves with preparations, a pan of potatoes their present concern. In another corner the father, the son, and the shadowy host of the Athens Television News in his evening descent upon Crete —universal issues in black and white, love, hate, reprisals.

          At the large table close by, three young women, one wearing a white tam, and two young men sat full of savvy and lamb chops from the spit. I opened up to heroism and human interest, half tuned to the television, half to their lilting banter, their round-the-table affability and democratic good cheer. All were so intricately and amicably together.

          The father sent over the son, his little winter waiter in a large spotless apron, no more than eight and very proud, learning the lingo of serving, from whom I ordered lamb stew and bottled water. Service was good.

          The young woman in the tam had sparkling, clear blue eyes.

        After watching images of rough seas shot from the deck of a naval ship and of anti-NATO demonstrations somewhere on the Peloponese, I tried to determine which of the women was unattached, the one with freckles on the back of her neck, the one with the infectious laugh, or the one wearing the tam.

          Then came pictures of sand dunes, black robes, and camels, followed by scenes of the North African Coast, maybe Libya, maybe Morocco. At the table: an outburst of opinion, a giddy laugh, and then a call for another bottle of retsina.

          My interest in the next table must have become obvious, for after a friendly nod, a glass raised in salute, I was asked if I liked retsina, and if I would be pleased to join them.

          “Join you, sure.”

        “We all together come from Sweden. We know English, but speak by the book. As with Greek. In the meantime, please, I am called Mats.”

          “Steven Spire. Skol. Volvo. ABBA. IKEA. That’s it for my Swedish, Mats. And my Greek, well, it’s all finger pointing and parakalo. Very mechanical. Your English is fine.”

          “Come, Steven, please, sit yourself down,” Mats said, continuing his role as voice for the group. He placed me between Elsa, the laugh, and Ingrid, the tam and bright blue eyes.

          “Good evening, Steven, I am called Birgit.”

          “A pleasure to make your acquaintance, sir, I am called Gunnar.”

          “How are you? They call me Elsa. Thank you very much.”

          “Hello, Steven, my name is Ingrid.”

          “Ingrid is my little cousin,” Mats pointed out. “Her English is not so good. But now with us she argues, debates, yes, what is called the white slave trade. Gunnar takes her side. Do you know it? Do you believe it?”

          “Well, I don’t know that it doesn’t exist.”

          My saying this sparked an extension to their debate, in Swedish, full of words that bent brows.

          “We do not all together understand what you mean,” Mats said.

          “Okay, yes, I believe the white slave trade exists.”

          “Sure, I tell you,” Mats exclaimed to the table, Ingrid specifically, and to the taverna as a whole. He then filled a glass with retsina, lifted it in the general direction of the ikon of the Virgin, said Skol with unrestrained exuberance, and handed the glass to me.

          They all watched as I drank. Then they drank.

          “You come from America?”

          “From New York City is more like it.”

          “Is the same, no?” And when Gunnar said that, Elsa nodded her head, Birgit shook hers, Ingrid smiled, and Mats looked out the window.

          “There are more than subtle differences, Gunnar, although a camel driver in the Sahara might not know of them.”

          “Skol!

          On this their last night in Chania, Mats went on to explain, they were out “to raise a little hell.” He invited me, they all invited me, to come along to the early showing of Women Of Sparta playing at a local cinema.

          I hesitated.

          Birgit said she had seen it before and in so many words assured me that it was not a cult film, avant-garde, or anything like that, just a simply told story of love.

          I, too, had seen it before, in Piraeus while waiting with Patti Lockhart for the night sailing to Crete. Women Of Sparta — heroics, and the hegemony of the hearth: a rather simplistic Italian fantasy on a bit of ancient Hellenic lore, dubbed in English with Greek subtitles, the most memorable parts being littoral sunsets and leggy slit skirts.

          “Sure, I’m game.”

          And so, I got to know Ingrid. I also got to know Elsa, Birgit, Gunnar, and Mats, but mostly I got to know Ingrid.

Filmed in Tunisia, Gunnar said after it was all over, when we sat down in a cozy spot for coffee and critique. Elsa agreed with him.

Birgit thought it looked like coastal Morocco. Near Casablanca.  

          In Spain, Mats said, because two school friends of his hitchhiking about the Iberian Peninsula had been paid in US currency to be part of the large-crowd-panicking-in-the-streets scene, and part of the slave-drive-down-to-the-ships scene that opened the action where the Spartan heroines were subjected to the sarcasm of their captors.

          As a story of liberated women in a fascist state, very good, according to Elsa.

          Anti-feminist, argued Mats, and not so good, because the women were depicted as fanatically pro state and just as dedicated to fascist principles.

          Anti-Aristotle, countered Birgit.

          Pornographic, in the best European tradition, Gunnar suggested. Nudity in exercising, nudity in choral song and dance, nudity in athletic competitions, nudity in battle, loves scenes in the dark.

          Excellent costuming, Elsa added as an after-thought, and got agreement from all but Ingrid who insisted that there had not been enough costuming in evidence to adequately judge.

          After this debate concluded, Mats with a strong second from Gunnar wanted to continue their “hell raising” at the Pan Pub & Bacchus Bar. We ambled back in pairs along the sea walk, gaining access to the east basin of the Old Port near the Venetian arsenals.

          Ingrid and I gradually fell behind the others. I explained to her that I did not have the energy to “boogie up” as Mats had put it, having had a hell of night the night before, and suggested we continue strolling, out along the mole to Faros. She agreed, and this we did.

          With a change of pace came a change of mood. We dallied on the brink, linked by desires we had no words for, unable in our groping to transcend the lingua franca of sighs. Totally new and yet familiar, these foam-borne feelings that scroll out of the sea.

          Upon our return, we counted steps along the mole, then fishing boats, then people wearing hats. No sign of Mats and the others in the crowded Pan Pub & Bacchus Bar. Ingrid figured they had moved on to Disco Aphrodite. The Socratic Bar sounded lively as we passed. I decided against taking Ingrid in lest matters got too complicated to explain away. Who was I kidding? What could I possibly explain? Again.

          When we neared the Taverna Trident, Kostas, the waiter, descended upon us. No menu thrust at us, just a handshake, a slap on the back, and ambiguous smiling. I could not determine if such apparent popularity impressed Ingrid; it certainly amused her. Last night’s excesses might have been behind it all. Repeating Skol in little rhythmic patterns as we walked on proved adequate explanation. She pulled on my sleeve and then leaned into the night, laughing.

          We entered a small cellar bar called The Stone and Thread. I had learned previously that the name reflected elements of the Theseus myth. The Pension Ariadne, not surprisingly, was a few paces up the lane.

          We sipped Metaxa Seven Star brandy while listening to the songs of Leonard Cohen. Not surprisingly, Ingrid knew all the tunes, all the words. Perfectly within character, or as much of it that circumstances allowed me to know, exclusive of our being one with the flame that burns atop the candle dripping wax tears down the neck of the rustic Chianti bottle on a rococo induced dark night of the soul in a second year university kitchen. The right sensibility, perhaps. A European phenomenon as well, a cultural thing, part sophisticated appreciation of the aesthetics of torment, part popular appeal of troubadour wit. The language the poet had developed for lovers exceeded our needs for that night, but not by very much.  

          Ingrid: she escaped becoming one of Cohen’s heroines even in this light. What living mortal could be so beautifully drawn and quartered by love, and never miss a beat? Ingrid was beautiful, but she was not damned, just a little bit wistful when not smiling or pulling my leg.

Ingrid: the tam like something Byzantine aslant her head, hearth light playing lyrically on her cheek, her lips parted in the name of perfect but impossible tomorrows. She was absolute in my mind, creating with golden edges, and past all concern, the mythology of her own here and now. And then across the tableau, the amusement in her eyes when she reached for the blue bowl of pistachios.

          The absurd idea grew that you could easily be tempted to whisk her away, to steal her the way people make off with works of art, the way religions abduct virgins and enshrine them in private Botticelli grottos.

            When I spoke of these things, Ingrid took my hand in hers, and finger by finger in lilting exaggeration gave me the Nordic version of the Three Little Pigs.

 

Under the central clock of the Chania Market next morning, Ingrid stood for a moment with tears in her eyes. When I asked what troubled her, she could not tell me. In a shop she bought a scarf to match her tam. In another shop, I got her an Aphrodite shell and statuette. A memento, I suppose. By noon we reached her hotel.

          A note at the desk from Mats contained some scribbled lines that made her laugh, and an address on Eolou Street in Athens.

          But that same somebody still waited faithfully, and she collected all her things.

          We took the bus out to Souda, where we connected with the group and enjoyed a slow, gregarious meal at the Port Taverna. Mats referred to his note, and joked: “We think you might capture Ingrid and take her to a disco in Alexandria.”

          “Casablanca.”

          In the camera eye of memory: on the one side Mats and Birgit, on the other Elsa and Gunnar, and in the middle, her tam and scarf perfectly so, Ingrid. All wave madly. On the funnel of the ferry behind them, the map of Crete, like a piece of broken shell.

 

In front of the little ouzo joint I frequented, old Mitsos fanned the charcoals in his smoking brazier. Behind him, fishing boats returned one by one around the lighthouse, drawn in by a red magnetism pulsing on the frail edge of human understanding. Impressions of Ingrid scrolled out of the obdurate northern sky like prow lamps weaving through dark waters, safe now, but less absolute, in the private harbour of memory. Yet proof enough that something spiritual in our nature served in the name of all tomorrows, something more significant than the here and now of how well ouzo tastes with olives, tomatoes, and small cheese pies. Ingrid, tam and all, gone.

          I found certain things hard to let go of some nights, and one of those nights had obviously come over me. I headed back over to The Stone And Thread. The mood picked up when a group of ebullient students tumbled in; it picked up even more when the Cohen song they wanted blasted out of the corner.

          Before going home, I skipped into The Socratic Bar. Patti Lockhart had gone. But then, by that time, so had most of the guilt.

Naiad of the Lefka Ori

Under a Minoan Café umbrella I watch the afternoon unfold around Chania’s Old Port, cahier reading put aside for the moment, a frappé before me in imitation of Magalee, wondering if I will ever really know her as David Montgomery did. She continues as muse, ever beautiful, ever inspiring, but strict in matters of discipline. Perhaps it is the game she has engaged me in: identify Persephone, challenge Montgomery, win her heart. She may very well be the Persephone figure that he refers to in the cahier, I cannot tell for certain, and she has provided no clues. Nonetheless, I dress her in varied mythical robes while she insists on revealing only flesh. Up to this point, just not enough of it.

We have discussed hiking in the foothills of the Lefka Ori, the White Mountains of Crete, where sky and earth overlap. On-the-ground research, she terms it, an adventure before she visits France.

The hour runs late, perhaps two a.m. I put away my paper pursuit of Montgomery. A mellifluous and hauntingly beautiful voice now enters through an open window and fills the room, wafting up like strains of night-blooming jasmine, pure and evocative, singing the song of a tamed siren escaping from the vinyl at Erato’s Music Bar down below. She is returning to her home island. Or maybe it is Persephone from the land of the dead. I have no idea what the words mean, no idea where one phrase ends and another begins, all but a lyrical uplifting of the spirit as the heart searches for understanding beneath a paraselena sky. While the music envelops me, my eyes are drawn to the Rossetti print on the far wall: Proserpine, the pomegranate bitten. Then I take the mother’s point of view. The unknown song I name The Hopeful Lament of Demeter. My own hope tells me that Magalee has arranged this as a prelude to her arrival here at the Pension

Ariadne. But she has not.

I reopen Montgomery’s cahier, and read entries for the month of December. I lie down again listening, and I cannot believe it, my eyes fill with tears. Montgomery and Magalee are in my brain and in this bed again.

*

The human imagination grasps at the effortless flight of hawks as they survey what belongs to them, and what belongs to them rises into endless heights and drops away over waves of airiness. Verdant undulations below their wings run northward to the sea. Above them, the towering peaks of the Lefka Ori blaze with white light as they reflect the pounding strokes of the sun moving toward the meridian on this day of the summer solstice.

Magalee has been here before. I have not. We stand together on the terrace looking up and down into space. A vapor trail rolls lazily through the sky overhead smudging the canopy of blue with a streak of smoky white.

Lakki is a crowning achievement. Tight to the fall line and held in place by force of will at odds with gravity and the aims of invaders, this peaceful village appears to have been carved out of blocks of mountain, congealed now in whitewashed concrete like an ice castle buttressed by sun beams.

Meskla, below us, gives the appearance of having fallen through time into specks of habitation, beyond which lies a valley of rivers and streams, and fertile tracts of orchard land. Here the caprice of engendering deities seems less evident.

“What’s the dome?”

“The Church of the Metamorphosis. Like an Easter egg, no?”

The bus full of early season hikers heading towards Omalos all but a receding echo, we begin. I take in the déjà vu of timeless Crete wafting down from mountain retreats. The scent of wild flowers, of pines, of distant upland herds. A dog barking. A donkey braying. Oblique sounds. Fluting light. Our footfalls signal caution against the sundries of descent.

We recline, half way down through groves, against the gnarled, twisted trunk of an olive tree, its leaves overhead shimmering like silver. A cool and welcoming place after the arduous trek through reaches with jagged edges and slopes where stones are shaped like bones. Surrounding us in the domed light rings the chirring song of cicadas, those relentless witnesses to our passing.

I feel a heightened sensitivity now in Magalee’s presence. Her scent captures all, even the dust. Locked in the moment, we are as immediate as the invisible cicadas and the heat of the earth under the searing eye of the sun. Only some benign and elemental design could have conspired to bring us together this way. We cannot, I feel certain, escape our own inevitability.

My mind arranges suitable images for her — playful Erato of the muses, Psyche of my heart’s lament. Endless potential. Since early this morning, the day mirrors her dressing up. Ever beautiful, even in jeans, t-shirt and canvas runners. Beads of perspiration glisten on her forehead like gold, and above her lips, a filament of light. And thus longing recreates itself.

“And so, mon cher Stephen Spire,” she says, giving me wedges of the orange she has peeled with long, delicate fingernails, “of Persephone’s identity what have you concluded? You have finally got beyond me, non?”

“Not entirely. But now I think Ramona. Her past is the stuff of legend. She also was involved in the underground during the Nazi occupation.

“As Rumora, yes.”

“She suffered at the hands of the Nazis. A young Heinrich Trüger was somehow involved.”

“I believe so.”

“There is the archaeological connection. She is a constant, fixed in Chania, and as archetypal mother, would more fittingly be depicted as Demeter, who is most usually identified as Persephone’s mother. However, if—”

“Your imagination works with effort.”

“Yeah, right. The details describing her in Montgomery’s cahier are very interesting.”

“It is true, David admired her greatly. ‘Like a goddess recently returned from the world of shades…’ I do not remember from exactly where this comes, but somewhere in it he describes her so.”

“It’s Ramona, then, right?”

“I do not think so.”

“Well, how about old Aphrodite Meirakis? She’s a dark figure. And mysterious in her crone-like movements. Montgomery had constant contact with her at the Pension Ariadne. She was aware of his being on the qui vive.

“A possibility, but—”

“Brought me his abandoned cahier.”

“Do you so easily forget that it was I who sent it to you?”

“No, I’m quite aware of that. Unlike Persephone, she was, I suppose, beyond being abducted and ravaged at this point in her life, that is if Montgomery was following the script.”

“This might have happened when she was a girl.”

“Really?”

“Ramona’s mother was abducted from her Safkia home by Ramona’s father.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“Cretan courtship rituals.”

“Odd. However, in spite of this fascinating possibility, I do not care to make such personal inquiries of Aphrodite, presuming that I could. I leave her free of Persephone. Along with Ramona.”

“And now you know, mon cher Steven, why I wanted to bring you on this venture, to make sure you do not take a wrong turn, or if you do, to make it seem alluring or at least worthy of your error. To take your lies and bend them into truths.”

“Your sense of direction is flawless, Magalee, all downhill.”

Voyons, voyons!” she says, and collects our things.

But true, I had no idea of the ease and grace with which she can move about these slopes. I resist getting up, for it means leaving a hallowed grove where, given the heat of the day, shade provides evidence that a presence continues to play hide and seek with us.

The bark of a village dog arrests our attention, then of another, much closer, in response. The latter assumes the shape of a Cerberus to which Magalee points. I stare with saucer eyes. In the fork of an olive tree, black netting used in olive collection has given form to imagination.

Magalee laughs, and when I turn to our descent, I see that she has disappeared. I feel a little the way Orpheus must have felt when he lost sight of Eurydice. I recall the lilt in Montgomery’s voice when his expression turned lyrical; and I wonder if in any way his kind of music ever charmed someone like Heinrich Trüger.

At the conjunction of goat tracks, one winding up parallel to the road to Zouvra, the other two linking Lakki and Meskla, lies the site we intend to explore.

“Little remains, it seems,” Magalee says as we approach.

“Just being here is significant.”

“For what reason?”

The imprint of an elaborate sketch of a Minoan burial cone in Montgomery’s cahier, dated Maleme, December, slides over the scene before me, an abstraction, now concrete. It may not be Knossos, but the site assumes a reality for me, with its own kind of historical claims.

“That’s what I’m trying to piece together. Montgomery again. The Trüger connection possibly.”

We enter a small shadowy recess, fashioned out of the side of a hill in the shape of a beehive, in what I, with my limited understanding, assume to be Minoan style. A long entranceway leads under a lintel stone; the cracked top of the cone exposes the interior to the corrupting and the resuscitating elements of nature. The building blocks retain the original shape, but living things eat away at the spaces in between, and rains have had their run of the place. Flowers abound.

“According to what Montgomery says in his cahier, twelfth century inhabitants of Kydonia — today, Chania — took to the mountains with all their belongings.” I ramble on, remembering other details he recorded in a catalogue typical of exploration notes.

Magalee listens patiently, and when I finish, she sits on a stone and opens our pack again, amused at my excitement.

“Why?” I exit and climb about.

“Why what?” she asks.

“Why did the Minoans of ancient Chania come up here?”

“Invasions,” she answers. “Marauders from Mycene, I believe.”

“I thought the Dorians were the marauders.”

Yes, one and the same. But no more than our beloved Napoleon, the British, and the Germans in 1941.”

Rejoining her, I take a pull on the bottle of water she unwraps from a towel and places in my hands. I touch the rough sandstone blocks to get a feel for the place, then go out once more to gain perspective. Magalee appears, framed by the lintel stone and the inclined walls of the entrance from which, on exiting, she plucks a flower. She smiles now as she hands it to me to smell. Then it suddenly hits home.

“This is an entrance to the land of the dead. The Secret of Crete! Montgomery made mention of the book innumerable times. Grave thieves, ancient and, as you suggest, modern. You, Magalee, really are Montgomery’s Persephone. I’ve changed back”

“And your reasons at this point?”

“It all makes sense, now that I’m here kicking up dust. And you, right there flower in hand, emerging out of the myth to guide me. Besides, many allusions to Persephone in the cahier are juxtaposed to your name.”

“It is true, David’s eclectic and imaginative mind could make such associations, and could lead you to this conclusion. Always, he was your mentor. But —”

“— but what?”

Mon cher Steven, I am not one to play the now-you-see-me, now-you-don’t game. You have made of Montgomery’s memory more than is warranted. You have made him, in fact, more of a foe than even Heinrich Trüger did. Believe me when I tell you, not once did David Montgomery call me Persephone.”

I have no reason to disbelieve Magalee, especially in matters concerning Montgomery. I am disappointed at how the theory begins to lose light again. Then Magalee asks the essential question when we finally head down the slope away from the Minoan gravesite, a question I cannot realistically answer.

“How could I, who was also deceived by him, have led you to David Montgomery?”

Three mountain streams work their way out from the recesses of the Lefka Ori, merge at different points, and at this time of the year rush riotously at full measure through the foothills, orchards, and villages towards Platanias west of Chania. Magalee and I come to rest at the second of these points.

“Immortality can be found in the mountains. In the waters of a certain spring. So say shepherds who go up there with their herds to the stone huts. Among them the relatives of Ramona who have come to The Minoan Café. This is something that your guide book does not tell you.”

“With you around, Magalee, who needs a guide book! But I read something to that effect in the one Montgomery left at the Pension Ariadne. A note, in his own hand.”

“It was I who told him,” she says, slipping out of her jeans. “Perhaps some of that water flows here.”

Barefoot, all leg and supple thigh, Magalee slowly enters the stream, and with cupped hands curls out water over her head. She screams with delight. Cicadas cease chirring, only to break out immediately in heightened frenzy.

She is quickly soaked, her t-shirt but a veil, her raven hair glistening with silvery tongues, her body therefore like a statue carved out of white mountain water and defined as graphically as desire itself. And then, with a laugh that deceives as readily as the willing mind believes, she splashes me repeatedly with cool liquid light.

Forever Magalee! Mischievous nymph. Naiad, naked in the dappled light. In the seething of this moment, the water is a caress.

“Take me,” I hear her say, but I know the words are my own, Pan proposed, long sublimated, still unvoiced. She becomes Medusa the Beautiful, mortal, but she who empowers stones with being, capable at any time of turning my thoughts into words. In the cup of her molded hands, hands that have touched the matrix, hands as delicate as immortality, she offers me water to drink.

Meskla.

At the café under nature’s canopy, where the cicadas have consorted with the song of the river rushing over rocks to entertain us, the tall Cretan with a moustache as wide and imposing as his smile, goes in to fix the frappés that Magalee has ordered.

“No, not like this,” he says firmly upon his return, and tells me how the Greek equivalent of Metamorphosis is really pronounced. I give it every effort before he retires, laughing, to his chair.

“Cretans have a word for everything Greek!”

Carrying a blue plastic bag, a young woman dressed in black approaches the café and sits at a table under an overhanging branch. She does not return our smiles. She will have only cold water.

Drawing in with straws the cool, dark coffee, we watch a shepherd drive his mindless flock up the road. An old woman bent at an angle of forty-five degrees carries a bundle of clippings down the road. Men with grizzled faces sit over empty cups moderating the heat of the day. That alone should keep them busy. They watch the old woman, the young woman, us, nothing in particular. They smoke, swat flies, share an occasional comment with each other and with the owner.

“So, who Persephone is remains a mystery. I believe, however, she was a pawn in the war between Trüger and Montgomery. A real person with a real identity that changes when the season requires.”

“But who is definitely not Ramona, and not Aphrodite Meirakis.”

“And not me.”

“You would have made a lovely Persephone, able to take me places I’ve never been before.”

“Mon cher Steven Spire, as with the myth, all is not lost. The summer months lie before us, non?”

A red, well-worked Toyota pick-up, primer spots highlighting the socialist decals on its fenders and hood, lurches up the incline and stops before us. The driver, a relative of Ramona’s that Magalee recognizes and greets warmly in Greek, is dressed from head to foot in black. His moustache rivals that of the café owner with whom he has coffee and a few minutes of debate.

The horn sounds. In the cab of the pick-up, we see a little goat gamboling about.

“Our ride back to Chania has been arranged,” Magalee states as a matter of course.

“How did they know?”

“Here they know everything. News travels on the wind.”

No argument, no discussion at all. We are connected to Ramona. Besides, in Crete generosity seeks you out.

The young woman, who is in mourning, we find out, for the loss of a child, rides in the cab with the goat on her lap, Magalee and I in the back, packs for pillows, our bodies cushioned by our lack of concern. What subtlety remains of Magalee’s fragrant scent gets whisked away with the wind. The scents of hay and dried goat droppings that linger in the box of the pick-up, these do not get whisked away.

While Meskla fades quickly from view, Lakki remains for longer as we catch winks of it on high through overhanging eucalyptus branches that fan out over us careening towards Chania. Between the two points, Risinia, where stones and bones point to openings that lead to dead ends.

“However,” I say to Magalee out of the blue, “I understand why some divinities assume the shape of birds.”

“But look,” she says, pointing back towards the golden white domes of the Lefka Ori. Two streaking fighter jets thunder northward across the sky like flashes of light. I lose sight of them in her smile.

*

The night runs late once again. The window opened wide, I lie awake, ears and heart primed,

seeking a reprise of that haunting voice from Erato’s Music Bar down below.

Nocturnal tom wailing in the night rises to the occasion: the aggressive challenge of the attacker, loud and dominant, at odds with the warnings of the attacked. Feline persistence. Endless. Then the spit and spat of tooth and claw. Or maybe it is the bite of love. Retreat, repeat.

I hear the thud of a stone, and then footfalls heavy along the corridor. I fear Montgomery has returned, but he has not. This is my room now. However, not entirely. I have yet to win her heart.

Ikons, No Halos: An Interlude

Fay Devine and Tina Martin were on a six-month romp around the Mediterranean or, as I heard frequently in the Pan Pub & Bacchus Bar where I met them, for as long as the money lasted. Both were nurses, and both could drink, one better than the other perhaps and both wore glasses, one light, one dark, but all the better to see you with, to borrow a phrase from the wolf.

“I’ve come to Greece to learn about deities,” Tina declared and looked at me with bright eyes full of challenge, owl-like behind large, round, wire-rimmed lenses.

I knew she would have a learning experience in Greece, especially around the Old Port of Chania where many contemporary Greek gods in tight jeans and leather jackets hung out in dense bar and discotheque scenes, each with a tale of the miraculous to unfold to her. She knew about kamaki men, for she understood completely the effects of her well-contained charms, she in her busty little mauve suede vest. Her moves were efficient, designed for effect, and she measured her words knowingly. Typical was “fabulous” or “bull” or “he was an arrogant prick.” Tina projected a no-nonsense approach to things; she’d be the nurse you wanted on the ward overseeing your recovery, knowing that if you followed her directives, you would recover because disease and death would be browbeaten back.

Fay Devine, on the other hand, you wanted to lean over you, enfold you to her bosom, and cure you with love, or guide you with morphine and gentle mystery into the arms of forgetfulness and afterwards, perhaps, heaven. She was your pudgy cousin at fourteen who at twenty-two has developed voluptuous beauty. You see beyond her attempts to conceal it. You also wish then that she were not your cousin. But I did not feel quite that way when I first laid eyes on her.

Fay Devine: such an old fashioned name, I thought, as she sat there in faded blue denim overalls with one of the bronze bib buckles about to work loose, listening to her friend hold forth in that getting-close-to-drunk state of being, more tacit, perhaps, but just as complicit, and a little looser, Raggedy Ann with hair in braids on tour in Medusa’s playground. She had full, sensuous lips that broke into a smile whenever she caught me studying her. Symmetry played about her face, her complexion the olive gold of Greek girls, but I could not then tell absolutely about her eyes. She wore shades: large dark blocks that revealed nothing about what she might be thinking, blocks that gave back only the image of my own puzzled face. The sunglasses did not bother me as much as the occasional kick she gave me under the table whenever I said something clever.

I met them the evening after some expatriate poet in this same Pan Pub had assumed for me the role of chorus. Surrounded by cronies, he sang out the name Magalee in goat-like fashion as I passed his table, at which point every one with him erupted into laughter. I grasped immediately his satiric intent. Tina and Fay had a table near the door by the statue of the satyr whose leer was a wide as his erection was long, supporting the point ever so graphically that certain forms of art tend to hype, ridicule, and humiliate.

I looked at Fay, then at Tina, then at the satyr.

“Pathetic phallusy,” Tina said, and they both giggled like naughty schoolgirls.

“Shall I spell it out for you?” she added, and they both giggled again.

“I get it.”

“Not yet, you don’t!”

The Pan Pub and its intimate congestion gave you a sense of the palpable, of limb entangled with limb, of flesh potentially rubbing against flesh. I crowded in between them. I ordered beer. Tina ordered a couple of ouzos. Introductions followed.

They were staying in a new hotel with private bathroom and shower. Tina had had it with the conditions she termed “rank” on the ferries and in certain spots they had rented, with closet sized two-stepper toilets she did not know which way to face in.

“Fay accuses me of not knowing my ass from a hole in the ground!”

I looked at Fay. Her mouth creased mischievously.

The beer came and the ouzo. When they asked about me, my orphan persona presented himself but not very convincingly and not for very long. Growing mellow together, we talked of common travel experiences like a boat trip up the Bosporus, of Mediterranean light, and winter in Chania.

At one point I looked out toward the breakwater. An old blue Citroen with four pink fenders happened to be passing along the quay and temporarily blocked my view.

Into the space it vacated came Montgomery and Magalee arm in arm.

“Something wrong, Steven?”

I shook my head and looked away. Then I looked back at Fay. A smile broke around her lips, which she licked away with the tip of her tongue.

“It’s long story, originating deep in the heart of the Old Port.”

Tina disappeared with the waiter at some point. She wanted to throw plates. I knew of no place where she might, but apparently the waiter did. This left me sitting with Fay in a bar where pandemonium could break out at any time. Take off the shades, I wanted to say, but didn’t. Fay may have looked Greek, but a stand-in for Medusa with eyes that could turn me into a statue she was not, or not quite, or at least not yet.

“Let us take us, you and I, to a disco,” she suggested suddenly, and smiled. I thought she spoke whimsically; but no, she was serious.

“Sure. Why not?”

Fay smiled again, and I could already taste the cure for love in the parting of her full and sensuous lips.

Along the quays we ambled, Fay clutching a parcel to her breast in one arm, her other around me for support, making our slow way towards Circe’s. Fay kept repeating how cool it was to be walking just so in the oldest city in Europe, wondering if any of it were true. I wondered if she wore her shades to bed as a kind of protection.

When we met the blasts of syncopated rhythms on the threshold of the disco, Fay disengaged me, and in a series of quick breaths where she seemed to be biting at the night, informed me in so many words that we weren’t going to make it, not tonight.

Two flights up, half pull, half push, and sitting stupidly at every turn, we managed to get up to my place. Her ordeal lasted only a few minutes. Expectations’ perfect parody.

I talked quietly to her, soothing her with mummers of understanding. I washed her face and hands, the bib of her overalls, and her sweatshirt. I laid her down in a shirt of mine on the sofa where, in a pseudo conscious blubbering of apology, she crashed, exhausted, into a long and enduring coma. Then I washed the parcel that she had in her paroxysms heaved across the floor.

As for the sunglasses, they remained miraculously unsoiled, and I left them on her, the least I could do to respect her privacy.

I cleaned up the floor, rinsed the sink, soaked the sweatshirt and the bib, in my own dim witted way seeking a connection between excess and catharsis. This was Greece. I went out on the balcony for a last cigarette, wondering where the old Citroen with pink fenders had got to by this time in the oldest city in Europe.

Fay Devine: not the first girl I didn’t get to sleep with the first night.

 

 

I was reading when Fay awoke, her shades angled, half on, half off. Slowly she righted them. On my table I had orange juice, a liter of water, apples, bread, and honey.

“I feel ugly,” she said, inadvertently knocking the table.

“Something to drink? Coffee? The WC’s out back. A two-stepper. Sorry! Your things are over there, drying. Take your time, Fay.”

I felt responsible for her and wanted her whole again. I wandered out on the balcony for a while. Streaks of sunlight pulled at the sky, and small waves broke across the harbor. A wind was up. Venizelou Square appeared normal, with lots of people on the go. When it seemed as though all stopped what they were doing, and looked up to see what I was doing, I retreated inside, drawing the shutters after me. I lit a candle.

“We didn’t dance, did we?” Fay said when I sat down. She was drinking water and chewing on some bread. She had changed into her clothes, but still wore her shades. She made no reference to them.

“We tangoed up the stairs, and did a bit of a twist on this floor, but, no, we didn’t make it to Circe’s.”

“I’m trying to lose a little weight,” she said as though that explained what had

happened.

“Why?”

“Look at Tina.”

“Tina isn’t here. Besides, she’s tiny. And bumptious.”

Fay laughed, and that made me happy. She took a chunk of bread, spread honey on it and handed it to me.

“I’ll make it up to you,” she said, and bit into an apple.

 

 

Fay and Tina’s hotel room overlooked Plateia 1866. Twin beds took up most of the space. Reading material on the nightstand: a travel guide and a book of myths. An open commode in the corner revealed sundry articles of clothing and now the contents of Fay’s parcel, a long dress, much like something I’d seen Magalee wear, like something stripped from a marble statue and reworked with wonder and love into vibrant blue.

I lay down on a bed. Bemused yet somehow excited, I wondered if Fay showered with her shades on. I dozed off.

When I awoke, Fay stood before me wearing the dress. Her hair cascaded down in furls in some contemporary style, like that worn by Greek girls I had watched at the cafés, or Magalee wherever and whenever. She donned a pose for a moment, then broke it with a smile. Fay Devine—immaculate, beautiful, statuesque. Hers was not the face that had launched a thousand ships. She was not the fairy tale princess that awakens from the comma with a kiss. If it had not been for the shades, however, I might have believed she was both. I soon understood what she had meant by making it up to me. And in the heat of it all, her shades hardly moved.

When darkness fell, we went out to eat. She had a limited appetite, but what she ate she savored, giving me the impression that this might be her last meal. I caught glimpses of myself in her dark glasses studying her. She took golden crusts of bread and teased out curls of taramousalada, placing one first in my mouth and then one in her own.

“Bread,” I explained, “it comes with every meal here. Can’t resist.”

“So take this bread and eat me,” she said and put a sloppy piece into my mouth.

 

 

The most intriguing thing about Fay was her mad desire to dance. Music unleashed in her a divine fury, a primitive outpouring of energy where nothing seemed to matter but rhythmic movement, as though she were the only instrument for the heartbeat of the earth. At Circe’s that night, she drew me in with an irresistible magnetism, and I succumbed willingly. I had no place to go but where she led me, nothing to see but what she showed me, a mop-headed Madonna in bouncing bibbed overalls under madding strobe lights.

We were the only couple there, which made this scene of frenetic engagement all the more absurd, especially with the disc jockey at the bar chain smoking cigarettes and yawning. Mirrors made it seem as though the two of us filled the place. Only once did Fay, her forehead beaming with perspiration, remove her glasses, but she gave nothing away. Her eyelids were portals shut before the uninitiated, her long lashes, veils. All part of the game, and I played along most agreeably. I had developed theories about why she kept the shades on, the most disturbing being that she had a glass eye that saw deep into my future. All I knew for certain, along with Fay’s palpable imminence, was that I needed to change my shirt. Fay Devine—the essence of opulent female energy that seduced from the ankle up.

 

 

Fay asked me to leave the lights off when we got to my place, so I lit a single candle. Her mood had altered. Shadows flickered, playing out like private thoughts against the coming dawn. For her it must have been doubly dark.

“You could’ve been with Tina,” she said, sitting down next to me, her voice low, almost a whisper. “She liked you. I could tell. She said there’d be guys like you.”

I did not know how to take what Fay said, but I had the impression that she was holding back tears, and that vulnerability would assume some melodramatic form and ruin what had been up till then a perfect day. She reached for my pack of Papastratos and with the flame of the candle lit one. I watched her almost fighting the cigarette, blowing out smoke like so many phrases that would not work.

“Yeah right, guys like me,” I said, getting up. “We’re all kamaki when it comes down to it.”

“That would make it easier. No, you’re different. And I don’t just mean you’re a dreamer. I like you, and I like being with you. And you don’t ask dumb questions about why I do the things I do. Last night and today have meant everything to me. I love the bread thing, want more of it, can’t get enough, but—” She twisted out what remained of her cigarette.

“But?”

“But maybe you think I’m just using you. Or does a guy not think that’s possible? I’m confusing you, Steven Spire.”

“It wouldn’t be the first time a female has confused me.”

“You seemed so, well, depressed when you first walked into the Pan Pub, before you let loose a little. Vulnerable, even. Like you had just lost your best friend.”

“Right now, you’re my best friend,” I said, not wanting to get into details about either Montgomery or Magalee. “Right now, what’s here in this room is all that matters. So let what there is of that candle burn.”

“But certain things are implicit, aren’t they? We have only so much time, I think that’s what I’m trying to say.”

“Yes, but it’s Greek time. Go ahead, use me. I won’t object.”

“Even to wearing sunglasses in bed? You never questioned them, not even once.”

“Yes, I did, Fay, right from the moment I sat down and you kind of kicked me. At the Pan Pub & Bacchus Bar. So—”

“So why the shades? Well, it started out as a joke when Tina and I were with two

Israeli soldiers on leave in Tel Aviv. Tina’s idea. This whole trip was Tina’s idea, but I’ll get to that. To see how long I could wear shades before some guy asked me to take them off. Then it was how many days I could go.”

“Like a challenge?”

“Exactly. Then it became an education. Tina made the connection, when the ‘wasn’t he an arrogant prick’ started in earnest. Mediterranean men. Tina loves puns. She called the game pathetic phallusy—nature mocking the size of the male ego. The more I went along with it, the more her ridiculous theory, a control thing she said, proved to be true. I really began to enjoy the role. Woman of mystery! But I’m not mysterious, and it’s all more of a joke than anything else.”

“Oh, but you are mysterious, Fay Devine.”

“Not very. I’m rather obvious.”

“Not when you can make me feel like a character in a Ray Bradbury tromp l’oeil.”

I wanted at that moment to tell Montgomery about Fay. “Beat this story, beat this little bit of your mythic in the quotidian!” But then, I reminded myself, he already had. I preferred to stay with the here and now; and taking her hand, I asked: “Are you fey?”

“That’s what Frank says.”

“Frank? Who’s Frank?”

“I’m engaged to Frank.”

“Lucky Frank!”

“Well, sort of. Doubt comes over me, you know, premonitions. We’re supposed to get married next June. He’s interning now. Hates dancing. Loves Barbershop. Tina says he’s wrong for me. She’s known a lot of men, Tina.”

“Tina’s something else.”

“Gives as good as she gets. Got us into trouble a couple of nights, but managed to escape unsavory, wolfish characters with big smiles and bad teeth. We’ve been friends since high school, though travel with her has had its moments. I’m sorry for putting you through all of this when we could be breaking bread.”

As dawn light began to filter into the room and diminish the power of a single candle, Fay removed her sunglasses. She looked at me with dark, laughing eyes, full of assurance and contentment.

She kicked something under my chair, then stooped to pick it up. A gift from Montgomery before the rift.

“Neat owl. One eye is broken.”

“It’s kind of like a blink, Fay.”

She kissed my eyes shut, and in so doing allowed me to hold on to my illusions. Fay moved like the sea outside my window, and I moved with her, our bodies on creaking springs of ecstasy. We were joined at the hips and joined at the lips, unable to part. In flushes of erotic sweetness she worked a mystical enchantment that rendered me just about senseless. Then the paradox of physical separation, our tremulous and shivering nakedness touched by January whispers sweeping under doors and through cracks in a building centuries old where love and hate and life and death were memories and replays of memories, making us mindful of what passes for immortality during these ever so human moments in time. Then Venus on the rise again, her form the whole horizon. And had I been able to consume Fay entirely like so many luscious loaves of bread, it would not have been enough. Too much was never enough. Or did I flatter? Not her, my perceptions of her and the mystery that cloaked her there standing naked before me.

Montgomery had not lied; he had only told part of the truth.

 

 

Tina led us into Skridlof Street. Tina looked at everything, but had nothing in particular she wanted to buy. I contented myself just watching her try on earrings, necklaces and rings. She was pert and pretty and decided.

Fay had sandals in mind, and I loved to watch her model different pairs, and purses too small for her, and satchels too awkward, and lace up boots she had no intention of owning. But mostly I was happy just to listen to her murmurs, and fondle her with my eyes in wistful glances across the heaps of woven things or between the stacks of pungent leather. I prized her most among the copper pots and brass scales and candleholders in the shops of the tinkers. At times when fingers of golden light caught her on the brow, I wanted to cast her in bronze. She was so beautiful. Only art could hold that beauty forever.

“In here,” Tina directed, “I love this stuff. It’s fabulous.”

Faces of saints looked out to us from behind the golden mists of the beatific vision. They followed our progress in the aisles of the living through the candelabras, the censers, the lamps.

“These things fascinate me,” Tina said, picking up an ikon of John the Baptist.

“This makes me want to examine my values. Consider redemption as a real possibility.”

“Feeling guilty again?”

“Oh, Fay, you’re such a pagan! Where’s your sense of beyond the flesh? Everything here’s so orderly. It’s all about resurrection, isn’t it?”

“Too artificial. Too austere.”

“Steven?”

“Too challenging for me, Tina. The complexity of Byzantine metaphysics. I agree with Fay.”

“Besides,” added Fay, “I prefer Steven’s resurrections of the flesh.”

“Fay, you really are a pagan!”

“No halos here.”

I had not paid too much attention previously to these religious shops full of dusty ikons. I had always seen faces of the apocalypse, previews of the Second Coming looking from windows out into a street like Halidon and its passing traffic, narrow heads with wide eyes full of longing.

“All right, Fay, forget the philosophy. I like them as art. Figures contemplating the future through veils of gold. Nothing more.”

“Well, that settles it then,” Tina decided, leading us out.

On the shelves of the store next door, a different kind of dust had settled. Sitting behind his desk, a man with a leer for a face looked Fay and Tina up and down and then all over. His generous arms welcomed us in to view his extensive pantheon.

Helmeted, owls attending, wise Athena observed from on high as we moved about. In the likeness of Botticelli’s Venus, a naked white Leda glanced sideways at the long, up-thrust neck of the swan at her feet. The Bull of Minos stared above the heads of Minoan figurines.

“That racked-up snake goddess, very interesting,” said Fay.

“Oh, Fay, you’re so—”

“Special winter price!” said the man from a few feet away.

Demeter, next, a sheaf to hand. And near her, but not that near, Persephone.

“I like her the most,” said Fay, touching Persephone.

“For such a sweet little goddess,” said Tina, “she can be such a bitch. From what I’ve read, that is.”

“No, it’s the lost then found thing that I like.”

“Like what this trip is all about, Fay? Here today, gone tomorrow? I’m just kidding, Steve.”

“I still like her, Tina, like the idea of her.”

“For you I make special price,” offered the man as we made our way to the door.

We kept a leisurely pace along the lane. In one of the leather goods shop, I bought for Fay the sandals she finally settled on. In another shop, she and Tina tried on belts, some two and three and four inches in width, and the shape of time was redefined. She flirted at length with the young salesman, while the older woman at the counter rolled her eyes in a variety of telling ways. Time with Tina had to be measured in seconds and minutes and be full of quips and lover’s fallacies, a twist on Greenwich time. With Fay, and regardless of what was implicit, seconds, minutes, days, nights, all flowed out of Greek time.

“Get a load of that!” Tina broke out, pointing into the display window of a men’s underwear shop. “What a joke!”

An eight-inch marble statue of Zeus in classical pose: his little bearded face all frown and determination, he was throwing a thunderbolt, decked out in a miniature pair of double stitched, form fitting blue briefs.

“That’s pathetic,” I said.

“Yeah, pathetic phallusy,” Tina said

“No, I really mean it’s pathetic.”

“Steven, you’re such a purist!”

Tina left us at the end of the row, saying that she would catch up with us later.

 

 

The fantastic little Citroen with the pink paint job was parked near the entrance to the market.

“How about an apple?”

“Touch only what you intend to buy, Fay. Otherwise—”

We poked along eating apples, like innocents with an allowance to spend and everything at our fingertips, but we were spending with our senses, taken with the aesthetics of arrangement designed to lure and seduce. We sat down for coffee at one of the booths in the east sector near a kiosk. Display racks within easy reach revealed cat calendars and cleavages, smiling Cretan mountain men leaning on crooks, sandy bare bottoms of the summer time beaches, and various other scenic views, including many of the Old Port. Fay bought a postcard depicting the laughing countenance of a goatherd

“For Frank,” she said, and began writing. I picked up a postcard of the market and penned a few impressions as a memento for Fay. She kicked me under the table after I read her the line about the two of us poking along like innocents through the sawdust and the blood.

 

 

Tina left a note saying said that she would be at Erato’s, that we should join her and her beau (a Gallic euphemism for Greek kamaki, the note explained) to enjoy a program of Bach advertised for that night. We went to The Stygian Cave instead. That become the pattern for our nights together: we always had the opportunity to hook up with Tina, but managed to do so only once, the night a waiter from the Pan Pub got into a shouting match with a waiter from Circe’s that Tina dubbed the wolf. Other than for a few hours here and there, Fay and I were inseparable, and we played out the same themes with unplanned variations: different cafés, different walks, different tavernas, different positions, but the same imminent lips, the golden brow, the deep, dark eyes, and my same eager willingness to transcend time.

During those few hours here and there, when Fay returned to her hotel, I returned to my room and my intermittent journal scratching where I recorded impressions of her and detailed the places she took me to, places I thought possible only in the arms of Magalee. I cursed the words that failed to hold the realities and I remembered how Montgomery once complained about the impotence of language. I tried to get beyond images of Fay in a blue dress dancing barefoot with anklets on. Fay with gold dust on her brow. Fay like Raggedy Ann in faded overalls, hair coifed by Medusa. I strove desperately for other awakenings, tried to recapture the experience of how, whether in darkness or in light, fingers, knees, tongue serve to open up interior spaces, to rediscover the already known, the already known many times over that nonetheless begs to be rediscovered.

“How can every pore be an erogenous zone?” Fay asked, shivering, licking what had to be morning dew from above her lips.

“Because in spite of what you might believe about yourself, Fay, you are so beautiful.”

An illogical answer, perhaps, but true.

I wrestled with logic and language, making every effort to deal with Fay’s question truthfully. To understand what motivated her to say I was a satyr with angelic appetites. Or why her quivering eyelids moved me to tears. Or why her face, such a beautiful face, could furrow as though in agony and foreshadow darker things. Her heartbeats, the heaving of her breast, her cries of pleasure made me fearful. Fearful because I could not possess her completely.

I ripped out many journal pages.

And when efforts proved futile, and when eyes opened at dawn to see the arrangement of exhausted passion, ripped out pages passed for truth.

“Do Botticelli’s Venus,” I said as she rose to stand naked and trembling. “Or something classical.”

I wanted to work imprints of eternal beauty into what had blossomed between us,the better to capture her and it beyond the forms of time. And when I remembered the ikons and what Tina had said about them, I realized I had been developing my own sense of veneration, ethereal perhaps, but also of this world, tracing lines of former deities, human figures shaped by perfection, carved in marble or cast in bronze.

She stood contemplating the moment, then draped the sheet about her artfully and holding over her right shoulder the plastic water bottle she had taken from the table, assumed the appropriate form. She closed her eyes and became rigid. I held her thus in my mind, statuesque as always, but removed and unmoving, idealized, like bronze, like marble, like stone. Half willing her to remain that way forever, half afraid that she would, I held out open arms to her. She broke the spell completely when she jokingly asked for her shades.

“Your turn,” she said after I had enfolded her in my pea jacket. “Do me the satyr from the Pan Pub!”

Then time resumed its old resolve.

“If I write, you’ll write back?”

“Postcards. But if I don’t write to you, I’ll write about you and how you used me.”

Implicit things. I knew, however, that I was letting her go because she was not a real goddess. And I could not capture her in stone.

A Gypsy family and its little trained bear were entertaining travelers amidst the noise and confusion of the Chania bus station. People with bags and boxes and bony elbows pushed their way through the seams, and shouted over the sound of horns and the squawking of the PA. Buses were everywhere they could be, taxis and automobiles just about everywhere else.

Having secured the seats that she wanted, Tina waved, blew me a kiss, then plunked herself down out of sight. Framed by their window, Fay raised her shades, smiled, pressed her lips to the glass, pulled back and then dropped the shades back on her nose. I held up the candle she had given me just before boarding the bus. In response, she bit off the end of a loaf of bread.

A Gypsy boy stood before me, his tambourine extended top down for collection.

He grinned as I searched my pockets for change. And then, as quickly as diesel fumes can make eyes water, Fay Devine was gone.

 

The old blue Citroen with flying pink fenders turned right off Gianari. I followed it down Halidon back into the heart of the Old Port.