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.”
“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.
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.