J. N. Pratley
J. N. Pratley
J. N. Pratley (jnpratley.com) is a research cell biologist turned fiction writer. Besides numerous scientific papers he has published two novels: Leto's Journey and The Green Helix. (A third novel, Janine of Hydra, is seeking publication.) He also writes and publishes short stories. He is associated with the Aegean Circle of Arts of Andros, Greece. He travels frequently to Greece and most of his fiction has settings on Greek islands. A common theme in his fiction is the application of ancient Greek history and philosophy to contemporary life.
Nick's spoon, sloshing in the steamy bowl of mayaritsa, wafted pungent herb and slaughter house smells up his pinched nose and made him reach for a bottle of vinegar and garlic cloves. He sprinkled it around the slurry of lamb innards—liver, kidney, heart, intestine—then broke off the corner of a coarse brown bread, held his breath, and lifted a spoonful to his mouth.
"Good, eh?" said the waiter, patting down a dirty white towel.
What could he say? Grateful to have the soup this time of the year? Back home in Chicago, he drank it at Easter time, when the innards of young lambs were boiled up into a soup whose purpose was to break the forty-day fast.
He faked a nod of approval at the waiter and ordered a large FIX beer. Then he stirred the bowl, gently dipped the bread into the slurry, hesitated, and stared around the empty dining room, hoping to spot a filching Greek cat. Instead, his dead wife, Kati, entered his consciousness and said, "Nick, it's like that mess Momma and Aunt Toula made. Remember them plopping bloody organs into a boiling pot? We were starved to death for forty days, then Jesus resurrected and flew off to heaven, leaving lamb guts behind. We had to drink his blood all year from the communion chalice. Wasn't that enough?"
Dear, dear Kati. How he missed her irreverence. Their lives had meshed from their childhood, like the twining dough twists of a Greek koulouraki almond cookie. Still, she always had a way to make them forge ahead, and he boldly gulped a spoonful and a swig of cold beer. It wasn't so bad, after all. And with darkness outside and a cold wind, every spoonful of soup and each gulp of the beer began to fortify him. Yes, he would have told Kati, that's what the soup was supposed to do: fortify and resurrect.
Outside the taverna, to calm a belly burbling with beer and mayaritsa, he lit a cigarette, a strong Papastrato, which he had recently taken up again after thirty years. Kati couldn't nag him now about his blood pressure. He ambled down a narrow street and spied a burly man in a shop pounding brass and copper by a kerosene lamp. He seemed angry, his mallet tapping syncopated rhythms that sometimes broke into loud clangs. His wife sat stoically knitting in a far corner.
Kati tolerated him that way, too, whenever Nick went into a rage over school administrators.
He window-gazed the streets of Ioanina and stopped at a shop selling woodcrafts from the mountains of the Zagoria. He wanted to say, "Kati, don't look at that stuff. We don't need any more goddamn souvenirs. The camphor jewelry box from Srinigar is the only thing we've kept. We're simplifying our lives now, okay?" She'd have agreed, but tears would form. It worked every time with him. What could he do but lead her to another shop and let her rummage through trays of letter openers, worry beads, small Byzantine triptychs. "For Christmas presents," she'd have said. "Yes, good thinking," he'd have answered.
He continued his walk and reached a point on the fortress wall surrounding the city, realizing that he had made almost a complete circle around the old town. Kati chirped, "How do we get back to the hotel? I'm tired." Women have no sense of direction. He would have tried to explain his simple deduction by showing her in the sky the reflections of lights from the kentron, the center of the town, now in the same quadrant as at the beginning of their stroll. She'd have shrugged. He felt smug—a teacher of physics. "Ah, Kati, you're so sweet and so untrusting."
"I don't like the buildings around here," she'd have said. "The shutters are all closed. Too many minarets. Istanbul without Turks. Whew. At least clean. Let's get back to the hotel."
He didn't argue. The desk clerk addressed him in Greek. He liked that, his not trying to talk English, respecting his Greekness. Kati and he thought Greeks seemed smarter when they talked their native language.
He mumbled to himself, "We'll have a nightcap, chrysomo mou, (dear one) at the bar." And as he sniffed the Metaxa brandy, he recalled what a fulfilling day it had been. A long bus ride from Athens, scenic green countryside, the Gulf of Corinth and the Ionian Pelagos sparkling blue. But now, puffing away and sipping half of the brandy, he felt a bone-deep weariness. Kati's pervading spirit comforted him, however. When they had stopped for a few hours in Messolonghi, it had evoked ecstatic thoughts of Lord Byron and Greece's War of Independence. Oh, Kati had such a spirit, such a way to soothe the agonies of life.
He cracked the windows in his hotel room, turned down the bed, and let zephyrs from the lake billow out the sheer drapes. He could smell the rustling eucalyptus trees and cedar smoke from the neighborhood's tzakis. Then he made the sign of the cross around his Adam's apple and tried to sleep.
The next morning, reading his Michelin, he decided on a boat trip to the island on the lake before heading farther north toward the Albanian border and the Zagoria uplands and the magnificent gorge. It was the way they traveled, spur-of-the-moment kind of things, kicking cans around the world on their teachers' summer vacations.
The glassed-in launch to the lake plowed through choppy waters, smearing the view of the island like an abstract watercolor. Fellow passengers talked of the previous day's funeral and crewmen talked soccer. They ignored him and he was glad because too often Greeks asked nosey questions—like, "Where is your wife?" or "Why don't you have children?"
He thought of words to describe the looming island. It was a little game he and Kati played whenever they visited exotic sites. "Something like an island in the Vale of Kashmir, overgrown with vegetation, hummocks with hidden villages and monasteries, snow-capped mountains in the distance. But different. It doesn't seem to belong to the lake's vastness, as if someone had towed a giant green clod out to the middle of the lake and forgotten it, letting it float around aimlessly. And the strange illusion, filtering though diesel fumes and bumps of the launch's hull, of the very tall mountains in the background receding while the island is being blown toward us. It's so mysterious. How's that, teacher?"
"I'll give you a B. To me, it looks like a misplaced Alcatraz," she'd have said.
They moored on the backside of the island and from the quay he made out a street of stores and restaurants, one with a sign: ΚΑΡΑΒΙΔΕΣ, ΒΑΤΡΑΧΙΑ, ΠΕΣΤΡΟΦΕΣ, ΧΕΛΙ (crawfish, frog legs, trout, eels). Bizarre gustations again. Kati would freak.
He picked a table outdoors and ordered a Naoussa wine while pulling up the hood of his parka. Because of the brisk cool wind, he should have worn heavier pants, not the Levi's, heavier shoes than the canvas ones. (Kati always criticized his dress.) The only other patrons were four bare-legged Germans sitting at a table laden with large bottles of beer. Beside him was a tank of live eels with crayfish crawling on the bottom and a tub of frogs jerking out their rear legs as if their spinal cords had been pithed. The eel he ordered, squirmy and slimy, floating in a puddle of olive oil and lemon wedges, came on a large platter, which he buried with fried potatoes and slabs of feta cheese. Kati would say, "Disgusting," but he didn't care. The white wine was delicious, and the view toward the mountain range and the minarets of Ioanina town where he had dined just the previous night on mayaritsa impressed him. Algae and duckweed colored the lake a glossy green, and the racing white clouds stirred his corpuscles. "Let's get my circulation going—it would be good for my heart—take a hike around the island. What do you say, Kati?"
"But not too fast now, Nick. Remember what the doctor said." Good ole Kati was always looking after him.
A pebbly path edged the shore, passing along giant sycamore and plane trees. A girl squealed watching her little brother chase a frog. Each time, just before he grasped it, it hopped away and she squealed again. At last, he trapped it in the hollow of a tree trunk and triumphantly brought it to her, holding it by one leg. But it slipped out of his hand again and hopped away to the lake. The girl began to cry. Nick knew what Kati would have said: "Well, just isn't that the way life is, so full of disappointments."
He jumped across a brook and found a bird's nest washed up. All the eggs were broken except one. If he broke it open, it would probably stink. Life is full of calamities too, he thought, as he brushed back his heavy gray eyebrows from his smudged eyeglasses.
Farther along, as mentioned in the Michelin, he found the small house of the notorious Ali Pasha. A museum guide, a woman with loose teeth and a weak voice, told him that it was the very place where he was executed by the Turks in the early part of the nineteenth century. A mannequin to resemble his Greek wife stood in a dusty silk dress in the parlor where the Pasha was allegedly hung from ceiling beams. "While she stood by in her silk dress?" Nick asked. The guide gave him a sour look, and he thought he felt a pinch on his butt by Kati. But the story made no sense. The beams were too thin and rotten, and outside there were plenty of sturdy oak limbs from which to swing the conniving bastard.
The whole island began to oppress him—squirmy, slimy things in shadows and swirling winds. And something began to press in his chest like a steel vest. He found a bench to rest beneath another giant tree, this time a fig, and he listened to ducks and frogs and the wind thrashing the high marsh grass and reeds.
From the forest, there emerged suddenly a young couple, crunching the pebbles of his path. They saw him, clutched each other as if embarrassed, and retreated back into the forest. He rose from his bench, thinking of the elusiveness of young love.
He trudged on and then from the reeds, a Belgian Tervuren jumped him. He was alarmed at first, almost lost his balance, but then when the animal began to lick his face, he realized it was only an adolescent pup wanting to play. His master appeared, a golden-haired young Greek, a Dorian type, and apologized. His name was Yiorgi (George), friendly and typically Greek with personal questions—"You are visiting Epirus? How do you speak Greek so well? Where are you from in America?" He was a teacher too and had graduated from the University in Ioanina. "You haven't visited the archeological sites outside Ioanina at Dodona, the home of the ancient Oracle? You must. Are you a Socialist? We students have suffered with PASOK. Do you support conservative causes, like what we have here—the ND party? I hear of your demonstrations in America against the Vietnam war. Where do you stand on these issues? Would you like me to give you a tour of the island?"
The boy's verve and invasiveness annoyed Nick. He'd had thirty-five years of that stuff from his students. No, he wasn't to retread that ground, certainly not with this Greek firebrand. "Run off with your dog, young man; go slay your dragon, George. I can manage okay."
He walked on, melancholia sinking in again, a heaviness in his chest, a vice squeezing his breath. On a small wooden pier, he passed an elderly man hunched over a fishing pole who yelled at him: "How are you this morning?" Nick, politely, went out to him, asked if he was catching anything. "It doesn't matter whether I do or not. You understand. Fishing gives me relief. What else is there to do with our lives? Do you know?"
But Nick noticed a fish in his pail trying to jump out. "Eh, so what?" said the man. "The question is where will he go? Does it matter?"
Plunk. Nick knew this type of Greek. It could be an invitation to some kind of Socratic dialogue—philosophy, abstruse subjects of chance, goodness, wisdom, truth, beauty, meaning, blah, blah. Or—it could be just an old fisherman's desire to chew the fat. Whichever, chitchat didn't appeal to him at the moment. He needed a spot to rest.
Slowly he walked into biting gusts on the windward side of the island. Leaves of plane trees chattered, pine trees whistled, and lapping wavelets on the shore began to mingle with a high-pitched sound. Was it his tinnitus coming back? Then, somewhere in the underbrush he heard a tinkling sound. He cocked his ears and soon came more tinkling sounds—bells on a flock of sheep advancing toward him. One came right up to him, and he began to pet the creature (he and Kati had never touched a sheep before).
The shepherd appeared, a middle-aged man dressed in dirty gray pants and a heavy wool sweater. He carried a tall olive wood cane like the shepherd's crook in the Bethlehem manger. He shouted, "Opa! Gree! Gree!"
Nick spoke out to him: "A fine flock." But he ignored him, urged on his flock.
Nick felt rejected, so different than his reaction to the fisherman. There are people, he thought, who simply go through life ignoring others, herding and minding their own business.
Farther on, he found an old man working on fishing nets. Perhaps because of the shepherd's rejection, he felt a need to make human contact. "You live in a paradise, here on the island," he said. The old man shook out a net, knelt, and began to knot again. But soon he began to complain—of the winter, the poor fishing, the drachma's inflation, the haves and the have-nots. Nick took pity on him and told him, laughingly, that he was one of those rich Greek-Americans who could help him. (As soon as he said that, he realized that Kati would call him down for being so gross.) But the old man ignored the offer and said: "Oh, Holy Mary, why do I go on so? It doesn't matter. We all end up in the same place, way down deep in the ground." He said it gleefully, however, his gnarled hand making a rotating motion of the air as if beseeching a higher power. The old man seemed to glow in a hidden wisdom, a secret view of eternity.
Nick stumbled on a few hundred meters and stopped.
"What am I digging up here, Kati? It's beginning to sound like the summaries of a Greek chorus."
"Loneliness perhaps heightens sensitivities," he'd tell her. Retired people get that way, become squirrelly. Still, the whole morning had been odd. The diversity of people he had met were a summary of those he had known, like stages of his own life. The kids with the frogs like his and Kati's childhood, the romantic period of their marriage like the fleeing young couple, the idealism of Yiorgi, the authority figures of Ali Pasha and the guide who had to be cut to size, the fisherman and his realism, the shepherd and his isolation, and the old man with the nets portending something beyond.
It was like the guts of life. A mayaritsa, a synecdoche, he'd tell Kati. She'd tell him to button up.
He reached the leeward side of the island, the air stilled, the sun lingered, and his spirits started to lift a little. Soon, however, the arthritis flared and once again weariness squashed him and begged a respite. As if a prayer had been met, he looked up to a knoll to see a green expanse tilting toward the Monasteries of Philanthropini and Stratigopoulos. He checked the Michelin Guide. Two stars, "worth a detour," and he felt saved.
Climbing up that green knoll brought him to the verge of collapse, however. His vision blurred, yet as he entered a chapel of one of the monasteries, his eyes popped to see the eleventh-century frescos, glowing, even in darkness, with deep dark shiny pigments. Their beauty was incredible; how he wished Kati could see them. That they were so well-preserved in that dank atmosphere, in the middle of a lake simmering with putrefaction, eluding the rampages of the Romans, Albanians, Serbs, Turks, Venetians, Franks, Italians, and Nazis—it was a miracle.
He turned round and round to see them high up in the walls, his vertiginous focus giving them a third dimension. Like dangling beautiful puppets, they enacted Christian folklore, they dazzled Nick, they made him squat on a broken pillar to stare in wonderment.
There was Christ on the Cross, disemboweled and impaled like a splayed eel, a rabble of grief-stricken figures below him, Mary sorrowful and gushing with love for her son. All the saints and martyrs. Oh, so glorious, Kati. And look, there at the bottom, there are Aristotle and Plato, witness to the drama. It's what we learned in college, how Classical philosophy formed the roots of Christianity.
He sat entranced, almost asleep, when he felt a presence beside him, a tall lean black figure in a shawl with fine embroidered golden thread—a plain woman with a gaunt, yet beautiful face. "Good day, sir," she said in an alto voice, her eyes deep-set, her hair raven, and her hands elongated like the wings of an egret. "May I escort you?" She pointed around the narthrex of the chapel with hands that seemed to flap, her lips parting in ivory symmetry, her head slightly bent in penitence. "They are truly beautiful, are they not?"
There was the Dormition, Lazarus, the Annunciation. He lit a candle, made an offering, and followed her around the chapel and to the monastery grounds where she offered him a coffee from a briki. Then she took him to a garden and showed him her vegetables. She worked it all herself, she said, but how could she with those fragile long fingers? Every squash, tomato, bean, or basil leaf she picked up looked like holy objects she was sanctifying with her touch. She asked him to smell them, to look at their color. How could they be so perfect? Her lips barely moved, her lifted chin seemed in prayer, her hands clasped to her throat in contrition. The tone of her voice washed over him, cleansing him, resting him in peace and contentment. As if his whole being had been purged by mayaritsa, as if an ordeal had finally ended.
A helium lightness now filled his being—the vertigo, heart palpitations, and arthritis floating away and baring his soul. Silence. Peace.
How much time had passed, he couldn't know. He did hear her say, "Sir, you must prepare now to leave. It's the last boat."
Something rattled inside him and he blurted, "They told me at the harbor this morning that boats leave every hour. And the weather is improving."
She placed her feathery hand on his shoulder and said, "You will have time to see the frescos one more time before departure."
He followed her back into the chapel, but now, coming from bright sunlight into the dark chapel, the frescos did not radiate color. Waiting for their reappearance, he saw her lighting a candle and bringing over a small brass censer. Shadows appeared, smoky, drifting figures emerged up in the vault. She made the sign of the cross and approached closer. Figures on the walls began to move about, and before his very eyes, he saw the blackness of her dress turn a gauzy gray. She slithered around like a lost bird, her candle flickered, and she meandered past St. Demetrios' entrails being spilled by Roman spears, past St. Thomas poking his finger into abdominal fissures, and past gushing pools of dragon blood. She landed ultimately in the space being made for her, high up the vault beside Mary and the others grieving beneath the disemboweled Christ on the Cross.
He heard the boat horn blast. What was he to do? Where was Kati?
But his body seemed to melt like a candle; he fell to his knees, looked up to her luminous eyes, heard the chapel door creak closed, and saw finally her egret hands flapping him upward.