In the Old Places
The cloud-shrouded peaks of the Lefka Ori loomed above us as Alexa drove the small rented car along the twisting road through the mountain pass. We were on our way to Chora Sfakion to take the twice-weekly ferry to Kyanos, and I had noticed Alex's mood darkening all day. She had snapped at me for forgetting to buy water, yelled at her boyfriend Trevor for telling her to slow down, then subsided into a sullen silence.
Alexandra pulled over at the summit and pointed to a tiny speck on the horizon. "There it is. Kyanos."
The three of us stepped out of the car, shivering in the thin air. Below us the slope dropped steeply to the narrow coastal plain and the indigo sea. A barely discernible speck of land floated on the horizon. Alexandra leaned her head on Trevor's shoulder for a second and sighed. "I almost wish we could just stay here on Crete."
"Oh, come on," Trevor said. "You're always telling me how beautiful your birthplace is."
"It's beautiful, but...." Alex shook her head as we got back in the car.
Just past the summit we stopped in the village of Kastelli to pick up Alex's cousin. While we waited for him at the bottom of the driveway of his vacation home Alex turned around and said to me, "Don't let George hit on you, Melissa. He's too gorgeous for his own good, and he's a bit of an ass."
George sauntered down the steep driveway, a duffel bag over his shoulder, and except for the small goat he led by a piece of frayed rope, he looked every bit the part of the romantic lead he played on a popular soap opera. I thought the goat must be a pet, the way George joked around, petting the little black head as they squeezed into the back seat with me.
"Why are you taking a goat all the way to Kyanos?" Trevor asked, once introductions had been made.
"For the Paschal Feast," he said.
"Did you forget they're vegetarian on Kyanos?" Alexis scowled at her cousin over her shoulder, swerving the car a bit.
"Who ever heard of a whole island of Greek vegetarians?" said Trevor.
"Don't ask me. They just are. I'm surprised you forgot, George" Alex said.
"I haven't been back in fifteen years. Even longer than you, Alexi-mou," George said. "Besides," he said, "My father says some people eat meat there now. Those old superstitions are dying out."
The goat curled up next to me on the seat. It was the size of a border collie, with surprisingly silky black hair and short horns that jutted into my hip whenever we took a curve. As we descended into the port the car turned sharply causing George to lean into me, the goat squished between us. It bleated, sounding like a baby, and turned cunning yellow eyes towards me. I tried to remember why in old Greek lore men were supposed to be like sheep and women like goats. I would have thought the men would have rather been goats than sheep, who always looked so stupid, but it had something to do with flocks and following Christ or something. I wasn't always clear on the symbolism, having grown up in a suburb of Baltimore with only the obligatory rites of passage and Easter Sunday services at the Greek Orthodox Church and occasional foray into Greektown to refresh my roots.
We left the car in the parking lot at the port, since vehicles aren't allowed on Kyanos, and boarded the small blue and white boat, crowded with people returning to the island for Easter. The island is too undeveloped to be a holiday destination, and most of the people had come from Athens to visit their ancestral homes, laden with plastic shopping bags filled with groceries.
The boat bounced straight across the waves and after an hour of cresting and falling half the passengers stood vomiting over the back railing, including George. I took charge of the goat, holding onto his rope as the small boat pitched and rolled, admiring his sure-footedness. Finally Kyanos came into view, a greenish-gray pyramid jutting out of the dark water. Alex, standing next to me, gave a small shiver.
"What is it?" I asked.
"I always feel strange when I come here. I grew up with the stories they tell here. I don't believe them anymore, of course...." She laughed, but it sounded hollow, and I realized the normal din present whenever there are more than two Greeks together had dwindled as passengers crowded the front rail, gazing out at the densely-forested island. The scents of sun-baked pine, wild thyme and mint wafted across the water to us.
George still looked pale as we walked off the plank onto the dock. I reluctantly gave him the goat's rope and followed Alex and Trevor to the three-wheeled truck waiting at the edge of the port, which consisted of a cement pier and a wooden building which served as a taverna, ferry building, and post office.
"Someone will bring our bags up later. We have to walk," Alexandra said, pointing to a dirt road snaking up the hill from the harbor to the sprinkling of white stucco houses. "My mother took over the doctor's house, next to the clinic. She keeps the generator going, and has a satellite phone for emergencies. I'm going to open the clinic while we're here. Maybe you can help."
I looked at her, surprised. We were only second year students. "You mean see patients?"
"They haven't had a doctor in three years. Can't keep one here."
"Why not? The place is beautiful," I said, looking around. A crescent of white sand hugged the coast under pine-covered hillsides, and the sea stretched from here to Africa under a brilliant sky.
"It may be beautiful but no doctor wants to come here to live. Years ago we had a doctor from the mainland. He jumped off the cliff on the other side of the island. Since then the army is supposed to provide a doctor, but our last one hasn't been replaced. There's more to Kyanos than its beauty, Mel. There's a darkness here."
"Well I don't suppose I'll discover the dark heart of Kyanos in five days," said Trevor. He gave Alex a kiss, then twisted his long dreads into a knot at the back of his neck and picked up his camera bag. "See you on Tuesday, love. Ciao, Melissa."
"That's the day we leave," I said as he walked in the opposite direction of the tiny settlement. I hadn't expected this. I thought the three of us were going to spend our spring break exploring the island together.
"I know. I'm not ready for my mother to meet him. Living here, she's still pretty old-fashioned."
We walked up the dusty road, the sun hot on our backs. The only sounds were the wind in the trees and the chorus of cicadas. When we passed a small marble temple in a glade of green willows and ferns, I stopped, savoring the cool shade.
Alex pointed to a clump of papyrus in a pool of water. "See how they're growing there? There's a spring. They built this temple to Artemis more than two thousand years ago."
"Really? I didn't know the island was settled that long ago."
"Kyanos has always been settled. Archaeologists found Neolithic tools in a cave. Even the Romans had an outpost here, a thousand soldiers, believe it or not. It's said they used this temple for sacrifice." She knelt by the pool, letting the water trickle through her fingers. "So much blood spilt here. Cretan rebels hid on Kyanos during the Revolution against the Ottomans, but they were found, captured and killed. Some jumped off the cliff to avoid capture. During the Second World War the men from this island joined the Cretan Andartes, the resistance fighters, but they paid a heavy price. The Nazis came to the island looking for the Andartes, and when they didn't find them they killed fifty islanders."
We were quiet the rest of the walk. Alex seemed to have shrunk into herself, her steps slowing as we approached the house next to the clinic where her mother lived. Her mother, Irini, stood at the gate with two children, a five year old nephew named Euripides and Alex's much younger sister, Nyssa, who didn't say anything, but watched us with huge dark eyes.
"I heard you kissed a man," Irini said after she served us cups of Greek coffee and a plate of anise-flavored cookies. "Is he coming for dinner? Is he Greek?"
"Oh, my god. How could the gossip have gotten here faster than us? I swear it's in the wind. He's a friend from school, he came to do some photography."
"I also heard George brought a goat. To eat."
"I reminded him you're all vegetarians here."
"Not everyone. There are newcomers here, they don't keep to the old ways."
"The teacher, for one."
"Oh my god, Kyrie Anastis has been here for twenty years. What other newcomers?"
"The new police officer."
"He got killed by the bull," said Euripides, his voice high and surprisingly loud.
"What bull? There aren't any cows on Kyanos." Alex stood up abruptly, almost knocking her chair over.
"He's talking about the last policeman, Loukas Giannokos," said Irini. She leaned forward and whispered, "He killed himself in August."
I followed Alex and her mother into the kitchen, where Irini told the story in a low voice. "Kyrie Loukas was making his rounds one day, took the path along the west cliffs. He came running back, said he saw a bull coming up out of the water."
"Probably had a bit too much ouzo, if he stopped to visit with old Yiannis," said Alex.
"Maybe. But he kept talking about it, saying it had reared up out of the sea below him. He got more and more afraid of walking the paths, especially on the west side, but when he got a radio call from the Kavoulakis farm he had to check it out. They found his body the next morning on the rocks below the cliff. Just like the doctor."
I've heard that beneath the urbanity of Modern Greece, the heart of the ancient Greece of gods and nymphs and monsters still beats. But Alex bristled at her mother's implication. "So, he fell," she said, her voice flat.
"Maybe," said Irini, as she emptied the shopping bags Alex had brought from Crete, setting the raisins, capers, pearl onions, and chocolate on the table like rare treasures. "Now we don't have our own police officer, just someone on loan from Crete. Came with his wife. They don't respect our ways either. Eat meat. So did Kyrie Loukas. It only brings disaster, going against the old ways."
"I'll talk to George. He seems to think since it's for Easter it will be alright."
When the sun dipped below the western side of the island, darkness descended, sudden and absolute. The Milky Way swept across the sky like a shroud in the moonless sky, and there were only a few pinpricks of light from the scattering of houses. Out to sea, lights on a few fishing boats flickered, making the island seem like just another small boat on an immense sea of dark water.
After sitting in the velvety darkness for a while I crawled into the sofa bed next to Alex, where I tossed and turned until she finally retreated to the chaise lounge on the patio. I felt a sense of something pressing on my chest, a premonition of disaster.
When I told Alex the next morning, she laughed at me. "Sorry, Melissa, I shouldn't have said anything. But this place really gets to me. It makes you see truths you'd rather not confront."
I wondered why she had invited me. This wasn't turning out to be the beach vacation she'd described. We spent the morning with her mother, making bread and dying Easter eggs red, to symbolize rebirth. While we worked she and Alex made plans for the weekend, starting with dinner the next night at Irini's uncle's farm on the west side of the island and culminating in the Easter feast on Sunday.
After lunch I went with Alexis to the small cinder-block clinic. "Help me out, alright? It would be easier with two of us," she said as she swept the waiting room, which smelled musty with disuse.
"We aren't doctors. What if we overlook something important and keep someone from getting treatment?"
"They aren't going to seek help anyway. To these people a trip to Crete is a major undertaking; a trip to Athens is a once in a life-time, if ever, event. Luckily these people are some of the healthiest in the world."
"Still, I don't think it's right."
She shook her head at me. "Things are different here. I thought you'd understand. It's about helping, being a healer, not having a degree. I guess you really are more American than Greek."
Since when had that ever been an issue between us? We were both medical students at Johns Hopkins and had been friends since our undergraduate days. We had our Greek heritage in common, but it had never seemed particularly important. I watched from the doorway while she set up the clinic. Stethoscope. Blood pressure cuff. A basic lab for testing urine.
In the end I did help. The waiting room filled up quickly with elderly people and a few women with babies and toddlers. Alex gave bottles of vitamins to two pregnant women, lectured about smoking to most of the men, and listened to a man with a heart murmur, urging him to see a specialist on Crete. He laughed at her. "I'm ninety-two years old, child. I don't need to go to some foreign doctor."
Some of the older patients patted my hand or smiled, but no one said a word to me. After the last patient left Nyssa appeared in the doorway with a small tray with cheese pastries and Greek coffee, then disappeared silently.
As we sat on the clinic's steps I asked, "Why doesn't Nyssa talk?"
"She's on the autistic spectrum. She does talk, just not much, especially to strangers."
"I'm surprised your mother lives here with her." I knew Alex's parents had lived in the U.S for several years, and when they divorced Irini returned with Nyssa to Kyanos. "Wouldn't she get better care on the mainland? Or in the states?"
"She's not sick, Mel, she's autistic. You can't fix everything with modern medicine."
I felt like asking her why she was studying medicine at Johns Hopkins if she felt that way, but I didn't say anything. She was already in a bad enough mood.
At sunset we set out with Irini and the two children for her brother's farm, carrying baskets packed with bread and wine. Kyanos, only five miles along and two miles wide, was basically a single mountain rising out of the sea. While the east side sloped up gradually, the west side dropped straight down to the crashing surf. The farm lay at the northwestern tip of the island, inaccessible to vehicles. Soon we were walking along a rocky path that followed the cliff, at times with only a few feet of wild grass between us and a five hundred foot drop.
"We'll take the inland route, over the hills, on the way back," Irini reassured me as we walked along the precarious trail.
Irini and I carried the heavy baskets. Nyssa walked silently between us, while Alex kept Euripides in a firm grip. The afternoon turned golden as the sun sank into the sea, turning the water into a pool of red. I don't know why I thought of blood. Alex's mood was getting to me.
"This is where the bull comes out," said Euripides, pointing to the glimmering horizon.
Alex gave him a little tug. "You know there's no bull in the sea. That's just a story."
"Then why did Kyrie Loukas get so scared he jumped in?"
"If a bull really did come out of the sea, why would Kyrie Loukas jump in? He'd turn and run the other way. It doesn't make any sense. He fell. It's just very sad."
"The bull told him to," Euripides said, yanking his hand free. Alex and her mother exchanged looks over his head. We stood for a minute to watch the sun flatten, then disappear with a dazzling flash. As we started down the steep trail to the farm something flew up from the side of the cliff, so close I felt the breath of wings. An owl, huge and white, already out for the hunt. We hurried the rest of the way, arriving at the farm as the sky turned purple.
The farm consisted of a half dozen low-lying buildings spread across a point of land above the ocean. I could hear the waves thudding against the rocks even when we were inside the main house, where a few lanterns provided the only light. A group of men dressed in traditional Cretan costume sat around the table drinking and smoking. Irini introduced me to the men: her uncle Petros, who was also George's great-uncle, and his son and three of his grandsons.
Petros, in a departure from Greek hospitality and friendliness, barely acknowledged me when we were introduced. He nodded curtly, not even taking his cigarette out of his mouth. His wife, Angeliki, a wizened old woman wearing a long black dress and fuzzy slippers, kissed the children and embraced Irini and Alex. When Alex introduced me she reached up and rubbed my red hair between her fingers, then retreated into a tiny kitchen across the courtyard.
George appeared in the doorway, stopping for a minute under the lantern so we could admire him. I have to say he looked movie-star handsome, his baggy black trousers tucked into knee high leather boots, Cretan style, a red sash tied around his waist, and a black sariki tied over his head. I didn't mind sitting next to him at all, even though, as Alex had said, he thought pretty highly of himself.
The food was simple but good. Tomatoes and feta drizzled with green olive oil, crusty barley rusks, boiled wild greens, and white beans in tomato sauce, all served by Angeliki, who shuffled back and forth from the kitchen and the main building, carrying plates of food. Bottles of ouzo followed the wine, and I worried Alex was drinking more than she should, considering the long walk back.
The men knew I understood Greek but they appeared to forget as the night went by, their stories getting darker and more ribald as the night went by: stories of the Cyclops who lived in the cliff caves, of nymphs and sirens who lured men to their deaths in the sea. While most Greek islands claim to be one of Odysseus's stopping places, I'd never heard people tell the ancient stories with such fervor. Maybe it was the lack of television and internet.
I leaned back on the cushions, my head suddenly spinning. I must have drunk more wine than I'd realized. When I reached down to pet the head of one of the dogs that had come in with George, my hand landed on something hard and sharp. A horn.
I jumped, startled, and screamed, "A devil dog," as it clattered away on four hooves.
The men had a good laugh at me, the foolish Amerikani, and George got up and stumbled out. After a few minutes he brought the creature back to me and put it on my lap. "Here's your devil dog, Melissa." The goat looked at me with sly yellow eyes and gave a little shake, making his bell clang.
"So you changed your mind about eating it?" I asked when he sat back down.
"No, Petros, my father's uncle, will kill him tonight. After you leave. We didn't want you all to see it."
"Oh," I said, feeling like a hypocrite because I felt sorry for the goat yet I had chowed down on lamb kebabs our last night in Crete.
The next morning Alex went to visit a few elderly islanders, and Irini and I were in her kitchen making egg-lemon soup to eat after the midnight service when George staggered through the door. He looked horrible, his eyes swollen and red, as he told us what had happened. Petros had gone to kill the goat, which somehow got loose, and while chasing the goat along the cliff-side path, he slipped and fell to his death on the rocks below. Irini, her face blank, stood up and wrapped her arms around George. His body sagged as he dissolved into hiccupping sobs, and I realized he'd been drinking.
I offered to walk back with him to the farm, leaving Irini to come later when Alex returned. I walked slowly in the late afternoon heat, worried about George, who had insisted on the shorter cliff route.
"This never would have happened if I hadn't brought the goat," he said when we stopped for a minute to drink out of my water bottle. "Because there is always a sacrifice. If we eat meat then we have to give a sacrifice," he said.
I shook my head. "You're getting your myths mixed up I think." As far as I knew none of the ancient myths or tragedies told a story like that.
He shook his head. "It has always been like that in the old places."
"George, I'm sorry about Petros, but you can't blame yourself. We all had too much to drink, and it wasn't a good idea to be butchering a goat after so much ouzo."
"Here. Here is where it happened." He pointed to the same spot where the policeman had died. "When the bull comes out of the sea someone has to go to it. I'm going to go find that fucking goat, and I'm going to kill it. It killed my uncle."
"Go home and get some sleep. I'll wait here for Alex and her mother." I walked George to where the trail turned into a narrow valley, away from the cliff, and descended towards the farm. I watched him until he reached the gate, then returned to the spot where Petros had fallen, to a jumble of rocks that provided shade and a place to sit.
As the sun dipped towards the horizon the pool of red appeared, spreading from the horizon, getting narrower as it approached the island, and I heard pan pipes in the distance, an eerie sound that made me think of centaurs and Pan.
Then I saw it. The head of a beast rising from the red water with a loud splash. A huge black head with deadly curving horns. It plunged its head into the blood red water and reared up again, shaking off water that looked like drops of blood.
As I scrambled to my feet and climbed up off the path a loud shout disturbed the quiet. Two men ran towards me from the farm, chasing the small goat up the trail. George and his two cousins had almost reached me when one of them stopped to aim a rifle at the goat, which had stopped to munch on some grass at the side of the path, unaware of the danger.
"No!" I screamed, slipping as I slid back down towards the trail. "Don't shoot it."
"Get out of the way!" yelled one of the men.
"Do you want to get shot, Melissa? What do you think you are doing?" George asked when he got closer.
"Leave the goat alone. You don't want more death here. Look out there." I pointed to the water where the only the bull's horns showed as it slipped back into the red water.
"I don't see anything," said George, staring at the water. There was nothing there now, only the spreading rings where the bull had disturbed the water.
The goat had disappeared into the rocks above us, its little bell ringing merrily. The men stared at me and shook their heads. George muttered under his breath, and joined the men as they walked back towards the farm. I went back to my seat on the rocks above the trail, wishing I could leave, knowing the ferry wouldn't come until Tuesday.
The sun sank into the water, which still glistened like blood, rippling occasionally as if something moved deep beneath the surface. I closed my eyes against the thought. The herb-scented air hung heavy with tragedy.
"Someone has to go in." Startled, I opened my eyes and jumped up. Alex stood just below me on the trail, facing the sea. The bull's horn appeared and she took a step forward. I scrambled down the rocks and grabbed her arm. She jerked her arm away. A hand, as light as a feather, touched my waist. Nyssa, stood silently staring at us with dark eyes. She patted Alex's arm a few times, then pointed to Irini, who hurried towards us along the trail. Alex looked out over the water for a moment, then sat down abruptly on a rock.
"Alex, what's going on with you?" I asked.
She gave me a blank look. "Nothing is going on."
"I'm worried about you."
"I should have known better than to bring you here." Alex wore a black shawl over her short hair. She looked more like a Greek peasant woman than my witty, opinionated, fun-loving friend. "You don't understand anything Mel. You go through life like an observer. Know what? I think you should go stay with Trevor."
"I'm not going to leave you and your family now," I said, wishing I could.
"Fine," she said, "But don't do it for me."
Irini caught up with us, red-faced and out of breath. "This shouldn't have happened," she said. "I tried to explain it to George and his uncle the other night. This is one of the old places. The animals are the guardians here."
I started to say something, but a ripple in the water caught my eye. What did I really know about these things?
We paid our respects at the farm and a heated discussion ensued about how to proceed. The visiting priest had come on his own boat for Easter and would leave Monday morning. George and his cousins decided the men would bring Petros up to the clinic that night. They would attend the midnight mass, then have the priest bless the body the next day for the burial rites.
"What about the Easter feast?" asked Alex, who had not taken part in the discussion.
"How can you talk about the feast?" asked George.
"Well, the food has already been made," said Alex. "And Melissa came all this way to eat the Paschal feast with us. We can't let her down." Like that was the whole reason I came.
"We'll celebrate Easter, as always," said Irini. "Then, afterwards, we will begin the funeral rites. We won't begin mourning until then. We're lucky the priest is here for Easter. He can do the blessing."
Only a Greek would think it was lucky someone died on Holy Saturday so the body could get blessed on Easter. Tuesday couldn't come quickly enough.
"Now we need to get back," Irini said. "I have more cooking to do and I need to find more raisins for the funeral bread."
I sat on the roof and watched Petros' family bring his body down the mountain trail, accompanied by a crowd of people carrying candles and lanterns. They carried the linen-shrouded body inside the clinic and we all proceeded to the Easter midnight service. Afterwards, we ate the egg-lemon soup Irini and I had made, seemingly in a different lifetime. People fell asleep wherever they could, crowding into the small house and patio.
I escaped to the roof and watched the immense starlit sky turn above me. A quiet sobbing sound reached me from the patio, then a woman murmuring softly. Alex was right, I drifted alone, an observer of the drama of life without being a participant. Even on this trip I had tagged along, basking in the affection between Trevor and Alex, hoping to find a little authentic feeling in Alex's traditions.
Irini woke up at dawn to finish the Easter preparations and make the funeral bread in the beehive-shaped oven. At midday we brought tables out to the patio and sat down to our feast. It was delicious. Eggplant moussaka with a custardy topping. Bread baked with red eggs symbolizing resurrection. Grape leaves stuffed with rice and onions, fragrant with cinnamon. No one mentioned Petros, and George, shaved and sober, displayed no grief as he entertained us with stories of his life in television. He wasn't a bad actor after all.
We had just finished eating when the church bells began their steady tolling to begin the burial rites, time for the long mourning to start. Petros' widow, Angeliki, clapped her hand to her chest and began to wail. I helped clear the table, then stepped out of the shaded patio into the full blast of sunshine. When the church bells finally stopped I heard the tinkling of goats' bells. Scampering up the hillside behind the church, the little black goat leaped across the rocks to join the local goats as they grazed in the tall grass.
Peri Fletcher writes: I am an anthropologist and writer. My work has taken me to Dominica, Guadeloupe, Mexico and Greece, where the following story takes place. I live in Northern California with my family. I have previously published short stories in Electric Spec and Liquid Imagination.