Story by Anthony Diesso
Illustration by Chlo’e Camonayan
Somewhere in Patras, Greece; sometime in the early 1930s
A beat-up Studebaker rolled to the curb in front of a white and blue-trimmed home. The car bumped as tires hit the concrete, then came to a stop. There was the crunch of a parking brake. Inside, Don was waving his hands to emphasize a point, although he spoke in whispers. “Aw, Vicky, you know I’m not just jumping after ghosts. I’m just—wait, what’s that?” It was a silhouetted tree branch shaken by a breeze. He sighed. “You see? There’s nothing, nothing at all.”
“But that’s my point.” Vicky hurried through her mental catalog to come up with a convincing parable. “Uh…Have you ever seen a dog chasing a wind-blown bag up a street?”
“I suppose I have.”
“Well, anyway, he doesn’t stop to think; he chases and chases, and what does he get when he catches it?”
“Aw, I don’t know—exercise?” Don lifted his eyebrows. “Is that the answer?”
She looked out the window and counted to ten. A nearby streetlamp flooded a tree on the sidewalk and filled the gutter with light. “Yes dear, sorry to distract you with pop quizzes on dogs and flying bags.” She turned her attention to the building they’d parked in front of. It was tall, with exterior stairs and arches, blue doors, and a roof tiled with what looked like braids off the head of an archaic statue. The moon hung over it, like a reddish-orange bowl.
“You’re sure about this, then?” she asked him as he got up to exit the car. His hand pressed down on the seat and lifted slowly to minimize the creak.
“Sure?” He smiled while closing the driver’s door three-quarters of the way shut. He glanced at the drowsy-eyed house, the lamplight flickering at the windows. “As sure as death and taxes.”
“That’s a lovely way of putting it.” She rolled her eyes. “Your confidence is overwhelming.”
“I don’t doubt it,” he agreed while leaning his head and shoulders through the open window. “Anyway, you just stay here.” He gave her a quick kiss on the nose. “I’ll get up to the balcony, go in through the windows, grab the piece off the mantel, and come back down. Just be ready to go we need to meet up with Demitrios at 11:30 sharp. And don’t open that bag of dates—we’ll have them later as a sort of celebratory snack.”
She gripped his forearm, leaned out, and gave him a kiss on the nose. “Death and taxes, huh?”
He nodded. “Yup—death and taxes.”
— ♦♦♦ —
Smashed glass—the shattered side window splashed shards against the driver’s seat, the steering wheel, and Don’s left cheek. He leaned to the right, knocked shoulders with Vicky, though his eyes kept to his driving and the road ahead. “Was that a mailbox sticking out?”
“Uh, yeah,” she said. “I’m pretty sure.”
“Phew! I thought someone put an arm out! That’s how you end up with a stump!”
Bump—they both bounced up from their car seats, came down, though Don had knocked his head against the ceiling.
“Aw hell!” He rubbed his head. “I swear I’ll never take this road again! “
“It might be the last time for all of us!” Vicky turned to see the car following just behind them. “Looks like the damn thing’s bobbling through an earthquake!” Facing the back seat, she tried to pluck a date out of the bag.
Don frowned. “Stop eating those! We’re saving them for the picnic, right?”
“I can’t help it—this is making me nervous!”
“But, sheesh, you’re gonna eat ‘em all! They don’t just grow on trees, you know!”
She shook her head, counted quietly to ten, then groaned, “Oh, hang it all.”
Bang—Don glanced behind his shoulder. “Was that us, or are they firing?”
“Us, I think! But let ‘em shoot: they’ll aim, take a bump, and blow their little piggies off!”
“You’re right, the chumps! “
Bump, they both bounced up, and Don knocked his head against the roof again. “Damn!” The road veered to the left, appeared to head into somebody’s front door, only to swing right at the last few feet.
“This is no good!” Don shook his head. “The street keeps chucking houses at me!”
“Yeah, I just hate it when buildings jump right into traffic!”
The road curved downward and slanted to the left, where a flock of sheep was about to cross. Without a side window, Don caught a whiff of the animals in the cold night air. He sped by before they created an impassable, woolen fence, and the sudden burst of speed caused the car to shake. With one hand on the wheel, he loosened his collar.
“Death and taxes, huh?” Vicky asked in a reproachful voice.
Don shrugged. A bronze god loomed over their heads to the right: green, mottled Poseidon with his trident. He took aim, and then was gone. “Phew.” Don wiped his brow as a column on the left went by, close enough to knock off the side mirror if it hadn’t already been torn away.
“Always the reckless optimist!” Vicky continued, still hollering to be heard above the car horns, shouts, and animal noises.
“Me?” Don gave her an astonished glance. “You married a reckless optimist, which makes you an even bigger one!”
Swerving off the road, Don ran into a gang of olive trees. They jumped at him, stretched out their gnarled hands, trying to grab the car. Don swerved out of their reach, knocked off a few wooden fingers. “Serves you right, you dumb Malaka!”
“Don, stop it! You’ve got how many people after you—don’t antagonize the scenery! “
Like trying to press the wrinkles out of a bedsheet, Don struggled to keep down a silly grin. “Yes, ma’am.” He jerked the wheel, bumped the car through a dirt fog, then back on the road. The impact felt like four simultaneous flats.
“There, uh, we made it out—now what the— “
Flashofrunningskirtlegsarunninglittlegirl—Don veered to miss the child, slammed the side of the car into a gazebo column, caused a screech, crunch, a rain of outdoor fairy lights. He stepped out of the vehicle seeing double. “Are you two alright?” he asked.
With a hand on her brow, Vicky nodded tightly, as if worried about her head falling off. Don leaned into the back seats to retrieve four sacks. He handed two to Vicky. “Take these. Head over to the boat.”
“Not likely. Come on—let’s stay together.”
“You’re staying together just fine.” He held the other two sacks beneath his arm, plucked two strings of gazebo lights from the windshields. “Here, I’ll let you have a couple of dates before you go.”
“I’m not hungry anymore.”
“Now come on.” He looked like he was playing airplane in the hangar before he finally got a date into her mouths. “There. Now take a walk.”
She shook her head. “This is worse than when that kid ran off with your hat.”
“No, not at all.”
“Nope: that one was just chock fulla heartbreak.”
“Yeah, and you’re chock full of— “
“Okay, thank you. See you in a bit.” And as the two of her hurried down separate alleys, Vicky finally came together and became one person again.
“Too bad,” Don said, trying to find his mouth to put a date in it. “We could’ve used the extra help.”
I looked back at Don, who was looking back at me, trying to pick me out of a crowd, though I was the only one there. He wanted to show me that “I’m sorry about all of this” expression he’d wear when he’d gotten us into some sort of trouble. He was so sweet: you couldn’t help but be touched by his boyish regret each time he’d almost blown us up. He’d feel bad about food poisoning, too.
Anyway, I left him to make my way up the street, trying to move as quickly as possible without looking like I was trying to. It was a sort of casual rush, which probably made me look even more suspicious, and it wasn’t long before a boy of about eight came up to me and pointed to the bag.
“What’s in there, lady?”
“Nothing you’d really be interested in.”
“Can I guess?”
“I told you, it’s nothing interesting.”
“I’m interested in guessing.”
I glanced around impatiently. “Alright. Three guesses but make ‘em while we’re walking.”
“Mmmm, uh, well…how about…
“How about a roast chicken?”
“That’s wishful thinking. Come on, try again.”
“Is it somebody’s head?”
“Eww, that’s disgusting. Why would I be walking around with somebody’s head?”
“I guess you’re right.” The kid looked disappointed, but he tried again. “Then it must be the devil.”
“You think I have the devil in a bag?”
“Sure smells like it.”
He was right about that: the thing had an old, stony odor about it. Suddenly one of my most ridiculous habits kicked in, and I found myself arguing despite being occupied with bigger things. “So, if you think it smells like the devil, why did you ask if it was a chicken?”
“You could’ve cooked it like hell.”
“Stop it!” I shouted, not caring if I did make a scene. “I leave one Don Fedora and run smack-dab into another one!”
We passed pockets of laughter and clarinet and bouzouki music. I would have liked to stop to see the dancers with their outstretched arms and nimble steps. As the next best thing, I set my gait to the rhythm, making my way up the street like a wobbly rag-and-bone cart. I began to smell the sea, the salty wash beginning to fill my nose. I thought for a moment about how something unpleasant like the ocean stink could arouse such lovely memories.
While I was walking, I squeezed the bag tightly and poked a finger against the object inside. After the initial pain, I seemed to stop moving, and my mind was filled with thoughts of underwater temples, green, blocky ruins becoming visible from the surface. The impression might have lasted a second, but it seemed like hours. I glanced at the boy to see if I could read my face in his expression. He didn’t respond like I was crazy, but said, “You look hungry.”
“You think hungry. Alright: show me the quickest way to the pier without running and I’ll give you money for that roast chicken.”
“And Feta cheese?”
“And a bowl of olives?”
“Not likely—at your age?”
“Awww.” He took my hand and sped me into a side alley. He was moving me so quickly I felt I was back in the car. Considering the condition of that four-wheeled coffin, though, the kid was probably moving even faster.
“What’s the hurry?” I asked, afraid we were about to crash into another wall.
“Fine. Just wondering if you had a good reason.”
We sped through darks and lights. Still, I could tell we were getting closer to the water because the language around us grew increasingly more foul. I don’t know why it’s like that, but it’s a rule no matter where you go. The boy finally pulled me through a pair of floating curtains: they were gauzy, and a window’s view of the stars behind them made it look like it was full of lightning bugs.
Almost tripping over some sort of fishing gear, I found myself in an unlit boathouse. The shack seemed to creak with every step we took, and each strong breeze I thought capable of blowing the entire shingle-mansion to the moon. The boy stopped and pointed to an open door on the other side. Like a framed painting, the view was milky blue and glistening, with stars at the top and water below. In the middle, extending outward, was a crooked-looking pier.
“Here you go, American Lady.”
“Alright, then,” I replied, and handed him the money. He hurried toward the front entrance, though I stopped him. “Hey—don’t you want to know what’s in the bag?”
Without looking back, he shouted, “You already said—it’s not a chicken!”
I walked to the rear entrance. There were chimes hung overhead, and stirred by the ocean winds, they made a shimmery little music as I passed.
So, after parking the car, I give Vicky the bag and suggest she sightsee her way through Antheia, towards the dock. She races up the street anyway as if I don’t know what I’m doing. Can you believe that? Oh, you can, huh? Listen, I always plan out what I’m doing to the inch. I’m like a writer, and just because the reader doesn’t know what a writer’s going to do next doesn’t mean that the writer doesn’t…ehh… well, you know.
Anyway, once she’s safely out of sight, I turn my attention back to the car that’d been following us. Three thugs stagger out—and believe me, the road hasn’t been kind to any of them. A swell also gets out, almost falling over, but he catches himself. He looks over at his thugs, then at me, to see if any of us has seen him almost bounce his face off the pavement. The thugs wouldn’t have noticed him dancing the Charleston, though: they swerve around like wind-up toys while the swell brushes himself off and walks over to me. He’s got on a nice white suit and under his knuckles there’s a walking stick without a handle. The top’s been broken off, and considering how spiffy the guy looks, I think that’s strange. It’s a night just made for strange, though.
So, the swell brings out a case of smokes, and with his skinny fingers, he spiders one out. He offers me one and says, “Not a very good parking job, is it?”
“Huh?” I only sort of hear what he’s saying. He’s taken off his grease-stained hat, and I can see his hair’s all lubed with brilliantine. He’s got an awful lot of it on, and the smell of it, that flowery odor, brings back memories. My mind starts hurrying forward and backward at once: staring up the street, I remember Pop showing me how to put pomade on my hair and Ma telling us to save the butter for the toast, and all three of us laughing ‘til we almost choke. Then the memory flies off like it’s a page of newsprint caught in the wind…
The swell points to my still-smoking Studebaker. “Your parking job—it isn’t very good, is it?”
“Ehhh, oh that? I enjoy crashing ugly cars.”
He laughs like his lips are sewn shut. Then he snaps his fingers and a thug comes over with two shot glasses and a bottle of ouzo. A second thug grabs a table from the sidewalk in front of a restaurant. He picks the surprised diner up out of his chair, sets him down on the curb, and puts his dinner plate in his lap. The thug brings the chair over, while a third mug brings over another chair. Can you imagine? They set the whole thing up in the middle of the street, and this swell and I sit down while the first thug pours the drinks.
“You do seem to be in a hurry most of the time,” says Mr. Swell with a nod, “just heading towards God-knows-what.”
“Think so?” I brace myself, ready to hit him with the bottle if he says anything about a dog running after an empty bag.
“Could be…By the way, there’s a piece of glass sticking into your cheek, right there.”
“Oh, thanks.” I pluck it carefully from my face, study it for a moment, then flip it toward the curb.
Mr. Swell continues, “You know, you have to slow down, savor life.” He takes a drag from the cigarette. “Or at least take the time to crash it properly.” Thug number two comes by and pours a little water into the drink. It makes the ouzo turn a cloudy white.
“Is that why you chased me—you were hoping for a proper crash?”
“No. Not this time,” he says while waving his cigarette. “That’s not why I’m here. You’re one of the Americans who never found his way back home after the war, home to his American life, his American friends, his American mother…”
“I was too proud to ask for directions.”
“Directions?” He shuts his smoke-filled eyes, pinches the bridge of his nose. “Well, no one had a map: we didn’t, the Turks didn’t, either. We just learned to keep our socks white and make skirting death a way of life.”
A car swerves to miss us. I shrug my shoulders and knock back the ouzo. It goes down like grumpy anisette. The thug fills up my glass again, and as I grow impatient, Mr. Swell’s conversation becomes even harder to enjoy. “Anyway, I’m not angry with you, you understand? I’m impressed by your attempt to run away with something that doesn’t belong to you.”
“Oh, yeah?” I knock back the second drink and wonder what time it is. I’d seen a clock on the mantle that said 10:50. Making it out of the house, getting chased, all took about ten minutes. I think of having to meet Demitrios at 11:30. I don’t like sitting tight and go back to tapping my fingers on the table. At the corner of my eye, I see a man walk by with a lit chimney lamp like a spirit in a jar.
Mr. Swell goes on. “And, well, it’s gotten me to think, blah, blah, since I was thinking, blah, while we were following you in the car, blah, blah, in spite of all the bumps, blah.”
Another car swerves. Another drink. Fingers tap. 11:01 At the corner of my eye, I see two men walk by carrying a huge joint of lamb, like mutton on a stick.
“And like I said, I’m not particularly mad, blah, blah, although some people might blah, blah, blah, and they’d want to blah, blah, smoke, fog, blah…”
Swerve. Tap. 11:02. At the corner of my eye, I see a man walk by playing the clarinet. “Does your mother know you’re out?” I ask him, figuring it was about time to say something stupid.
He stops playing, takes the instrument from his lips. “Does yours?” He brings the instrument back to his lips and starts to play again without waiting for an answer. I give him one anyway.
“Yeah, my mother knows you’re out: that tune’s enough to wake the dead.”
And having said this, that special mix of ouzo, mutton, and Mama finally inspires me to sing.” Ohh, we’re poor little lambs who’ve lost our way…”
“As I was saying,” continues Mr. Swell, “I would very much like to— “
“Blah, blah, blah!”
I hear a dog bark. Mr. Swell looks down at the table while waving his hand. “Go.”
“Go…go on.” He sticks his tongue out and pokes it with the lit end of his cigarette—tsst. He throws the smoke away, lifts his eyes, and stares at me. “The worst thing I could do to you is to let you keep it, try to use it.”
“You chased me over a bumpy road to tell me that?”
“Pretty much, yes…Go on.”
Grateful either for his vast stupidity or my own, I stand up, nod, and walk away while giving him a quick, “Ya.”
“Καληνύχτα,” he answers back. “Ο Θεός να είναι μαζί σας, μαλάκα.“ Translated, it comes out as: “Good night. May God be with you—jackass.”
So, I keep walking, but faster as if to make up for lost time. And even though no one follows me, I just break into a run, not because I don’t trust in my own plans, but I enjoy working with the adrenaline. Anyway, I almost bump into a kid who’s hurrying in the opposite direction. He pauses long enough to give me a dirty look. “Who do you think you are, getting between me and my chicken?”
“Who, me? I’m Barnacle Bill the Sailor!” Having no idea of what he’s talking about, I figure that’s as good a reply as any. I continue running toward the boathouse, through the boathouse, toward the pier, the pearly sea, the stars, and Vicky. She’s sitting at the end of the pier, dangling her feet over the water. I sit down beside her as quietly as possible and begin dangling my feet, too.
“Whachya doin?” I ask.
“Wondering whether or not I’m going to kill you.”
I’m silent, actually thinking for a moment. Then I ask, “It’s because of the dates, isn’t it?”
“Those dates? Don, you can take those turdy-looking dates and— “well, you get the idea. And after all I’ve done to keep her safe and get her right where she needs to be, can you believe that? Oh, you can, huh? Fine, no dates for you, either. So, here’s what happens next…
Ripples spread across the water; they sparkled under the moon. They flattened out, and in their wake, a boat slid like a woodblock across a polished marble floor.
Vicky’s thoughts spread with the water and sparkled with the view. To her, the night felt still, while the flopping noise against the prow seemed only to intensify the mood. Looking back, she saw the starlit hills, bobbing and unmoving; ahead, she saw an island littered with blocky, Grecian monuments, with hedges, vines, and spired cypress-trees.
Don’s thoughts sped across the ocean as he rowed. His breath was tight, the air salty in his nostrils, and kept with the short, brisk tempo of his strokes.
The island grew larger, its bobbing blocks, the pits, and cracks more visible. Checking the boat’s draft, Don glanced over the side into the shallows. At first, seeing the outline of a head, he thought he saw his reflection. A closer look, however, showed it to be a sunken marble statue. Completely submerged, the face looked up, wide-eyed beneath the water, its lips parted as if trying to speak. An elegantly sculpted but broken-fingered hand extended towards but failed to break, the surface. Don put a finger in the water and crossed the plane as if measuring something.
They sailed through a fissure in the rock, which led them to a sea cave, where moonlit water floated light across its ragged dome, its ceiling like the inside of a hollow skull. There were echoes from the swish of the oar, and with them, whispers that seemed to Vicky the voices of ancient Greeks, spoken twenty-five hundred years before and still rebounding off the rocks. A chorus, she thought, singing about how ridiculous we are…
“What is that—that?” she asked Don finally, her words echoing through the grotto, joining the chorus. “That—it sounds like voices—voices.”
“Voices? No, not likely. No, likely it’s just cave sounds, sounds of water hitting rock, rock—water—rock…”
At the far end of the cave, Don brought the boat onto a patch of sand. He got out with Vicky and pressed through a slit in the cavern that served as the entrance to the island necropolis.
— ♦♦♦ —
“Oooo,” went the wind; it made scratch-sounds with the fallen leaves that slid across the stone. Under withers, there were faces in the marble, men and women incompletely shaped, as if the features of actual people pressed under sheets, with white eyes, flattened lips, and noses, open mouths.
“All that trouble,” Vicky whispered, “and it leads us here.” She looked up at a seemingly unreal sky, a painted ceiling, the stars like flecks of white paint.
“Stop reading epitaphs—it’s depressing,” Don replied.
Vicky saw the shadow of a hand on the stone. She turned around to talk to Don but found him nowhere near. She finally discovered him behind a bush, picking through pieces of marble.
“Yeah?” he asked without looking up.
“Uh…nothing. The shadows of branches look like fingers, that’s all.”
“They’re tricks of the night,” Don said while pointing to the sky and the momentary darkness from a passing cloud. “See that? The wind just blew the moon away.”
“Alright, tricks of the night” she sighed while studying the heaps of leprous stone. “So, we’ve been racing to an isle of graves. Now what’s supposed to happen?”
Before he could reply, a figure like a hunched statue, clothed in black, and holding the handle of a broom, then leaped from off its pedestal. Vicky yelped, while Don turned around to face the apparition.
“Hi, all!” called out the figure. “I’m surprised you’re here so soon.”
“So, you’re surprised,” said Vicky, ready to punch him in the mouth.
“I am. I thought a little trouble might have slowed you down.”
“No, not at all,” Don answered friskily. “It sped us up.” He turned to Vicky. “Dear, this is
Demitrios of Athens.”
The figure grinned. He walked out of the shadow of an overhanging bough so that his features shone by moonlight. “How do you do?” he asked with a puff of brandy on his breath. His face was narrow, and though he tended to lower it, his eyes were agitated and sharp, like those of a cat beneath a hedge. “It’s nice to have your wife along,” he said to Don, though his attention was fixed entirely on Vicky.
“Uh huh. We’ve traveled together on the bumpy road of Love—and Patras.”
Demitrios brought fingers to his lips and made a “mwah” noise. “Here,” he said and handed Don a flask. Afterward, he pointed to the sack. “I knew you’d be able to…to get it.”
Don took a drink, then handed back the flask. “You knew more than we did.”
“Yes, well…come with me.” Demitrios nodded to Vicky while extending a hand. “Please.” He lit a lantern, then walked down a set of stairs and out of the moonlight.
She leaned into Don and whispered, “Don’t trust him—he’s crazy.”
“I know. That’s what makes him interesting.”
“That’s not interesting—that’s crazy,” she whispered.
“Hmm, that’s interesting.”
Vicky rolled her eyes and followed the two men down the steps. Once inside, she was surprised to hear the sound of running water.
“The echoes of Archeron,” said Demitrios. “These caves are located near katabasis.”
“So, we’re heading to the underworld?” Don grinned, not taking any of it very seriously.
“No, this time we’re only knocking on the door.”
To keep her balance, Vicky leaned a hand against the wall. The cracks in the stone appeared to travel miles deep. While crossing what appeared to be a stone bridge, she looked under to find a dry trench cut into the rock, accompanied by an echo of rushing water.
Demitrios stopped in front of a low archway. Over it, carved in relief, were two lion-bodied, human-headed sphinxes. Despite their near-ruin, they stared at each other, bookending empty space. Demitrios spoke to Don and Vicky in a clear though lowered voice. “The bag, please.” Don nodded to Vicky who handed it to Demitrios. “Fine, yes, fine,” he said while giving Don a folded stack of bills, along with the flask. “Finish it.”
“Now what are you going to do?” asked Vicky.
“Now?” Demitrios half-shut his eyes and smiled. “Well, once we’re both a bit tanked, Don and I are going to talk a little shop, tell jokes, and have a conversation with the dead.” He put a pinky into his left nostril and gave a wiggle. “You’re welcome to join us, of course.”
“No, thanks. I don’t believe in waking anyone just to chat.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Oh? Haven’t you ever wanted to speak with the ancient dead? I don’t mean the table-thumping, bell-ringing business that charlatans do to fool a grieving spouse: I mean to go down into the vaults, hear the breath again from lifeless lips, hear it speak of things, things they’ve done and seen?”
“No, not so much,” Don interposed, trying mostly to convince himself. He thought of his mother, and of the soldiers he’d made friends with during the war. “I’d just as soon not pester anybody.” Saying this, he still crouched to follow Demitrios through the archway. Vicky went in after him, still shaking her head.
“We won’t be a bother,” Demitrios declared, his voice echoing through the cramped chamber. “Anyway, I have things needing to be said—and heard.” He put his hand in the sack and removed what at first appeared to Vicky to be a pointy lump of lead. He returned the sack to Don; and as he began to twist the lump onto the broom handle, Vicky could see it was a very old-looking bident, its two prongs dulled but nasty-looking.
Vicky’s mouth opened and looked ready to slide off the bottom of her face. “We risked our lives for a garden tool?”
“You did.” Demitrios grinned while squeezing the piece onto the end of the pole. “A tool for gardening underground, for keeping the dead in place. This, my dear, belonged to Hades.”
“You don’t say.”
“I do.” With his shoe, he shifted a collection of charred bones, animal bones along with a human femur. “The dead, they can be very unpredictable. It’s good to have something to keep them at a distance…just in case.” He turned his attention back to Vicky. “Bringing them to you is simple enough but keeping them in order requires a bit of skill. Otherwise, they might swarm us like the Turks did at Aydin— ow, what a mess that was.”
Don didn’t say anything. There was another memory coming back.
“Why do it?” Vicky asked.
“Have you never lost anyone?” asked Demitrios in turn. He studied the completed staff, tapped it against the ground, and poked at the fork points with his thumb.
Vicky didn’t answer. The bits and piece of sculpture became more abstract, humanish-animalish faces, snouts, snaky hair; claws on broken, human arms; open mouths with fangs.
“I lost,” Demetrios went on with a big smile in contrast to what he described. “She died when the Turks invaded Smyrna when it burned…My wife: how young she was, and how bright her eyes…Can you imagine someone you love, who could look at you like that… to know those eyes are fixed with the indifferent look of death?” He considered this for a moment and laughed.
The scattered pieces of art receded: the structure of ancient vaults gradually gave way to a more natural and cavernous appearance. The ground beneath their feet was gravelly, and the sound their shoes made echoed ahead, behind, and over them.
“And here we are,” Demitrios said cheerfully, laying the lantern on the ground. In a pile of refuse, he found the bowl-shaped shoulder blade of an ox. He picked it up and placed it several feet from the lantern. Then removing a vial from his shirt pocket, he poured into it what appeared to be blood. Still leaning over, he looked at Vicky. “Manners, you know it’s only right we bring a dish.”
She didn’t answer. He backed away from the offering, turned his attention to an old brass dinner gong lying on the ground. He struck it with the bident, sending out waves of rusty sound. “Now pay attention to the end of the chamber—there, you see?” The shadows seemed to shift, like dust disturbed by a vibration. They soon began to flit as if the silhouettes of moth wings, then converted into larger and more human shapes. At first, Vicky dismissed it as a mental trick, conceiving faces, figures out of blurs. While stepping back, she leaned her head forward and saw features in the shadows, eyes without luster, lips dried-up. The more she stared, the more precise the people became: women, old women, young mothers, children dressed in tatters. She looked away, rubbed her eyes, and again saw only moving shadows.
Demitrios’ stare was wide and unblinking. His hand trembled, causing the staff to shake as he lowered it. From his shirt pocket, he removed a piece of floral fabric and began to stroke it with his thumb. He watched figures pour out of the shadows: stretched faces, twisting mouths and goggle eyes. With one hand he lifted the staff, then lowered it; with the other, he continued to stroke the tattered, flowery material.
Images appeared before and behind Don’s eyes. He let out a nervous laugh at the sensation. He saw faces from the war: a soldier with his nose gone; another with eyes and nose, but jawless; another legless, armless—Don slapped fingers over his eyes to block the soundless horrors. And in the quiet, he lowered his hands to see a different face, one far from the battlefield. His breath snagged as if he were surprised by the sudden hurt. “Mama?” he whispered in a broken voice.
“No/” From behind, Vicky put a hand around his arm. “Stay here with me.” She stared at the wall, which flickered like an out-of-focus, silent film. The rocks seemed to warp and melt with the gradually assembled crowd.
“Helen,” Demitrios began while stepping forward. “Helen, μάτια μου, my little eyes.” He lifted, then lowered the staff from a defensive position. “I couldn’t keep still. I had to tell you that I’m tired of it all! Helen! How could I know? When I left for Aydin, you were in tears, but safe. So how can you accuse me? I did nothing! Nothing! Not one, single thing!” He threw the staff to the ground; he coughed and shook his head.
Don leaned forward, but Vicky held him by the arm. “Stay put this is a family argument.”
“Yes, you’re right, I left you.” Demitrios chuckled bitterly. “I left you to be beaten, to be…to be burned…” He saw a woman’s head, its hair singed off, as she crawled forward to the bone and blood bowl, her gray fingernails scraping and splintering against the rock. She lifted her face to him, displayed two burned-out sockets beneath the brow, emitting smoke. “Helen, I can’t, I just can’t anymore! The stillness screams, the dying never stops…” His eyes fixed on the phantasmagoria; his vision flooding, he stepped into a fracture in the rotten stone and dropped without a sound.
Don took another step forward, then back. He was about to run to the hole when Vicky took him by the hand and squeezed. The contact seemed to bring him back. “Alright,” he said. “I’m fine—mostly.” She let him go and he stepped toward the pit, glanced in, then returned shaking his head. “Let’s go.” He took a final look at the crawling, lunging shadows, then taking Vicky’s hand, he followed her out. The cavern became a corridor, the bones grew into marble limbs, the monstrous bodies more intact, more logical and human. The couple passed the gate of sphinxes, then headed for the moonlight.
Cool night air reached them and scents of the sea, of trees, and unseen flowers. They stepped out of the vault and inhaled greedily as if they’d been holding their breath the entire time. The moonlight lit the marble blocks, the carved leaves and vines, and funereal faces.
Don tried to speak but coughed instead. He took out a cigarette, put it into his mouth with the filter end sticking out. “Eh, this whole night’s just been backward. “He let the cigarette drop from his lips, chuckled through his nostrils, then coughed. “Ma…Mama would have liked you; you know…very much.”
Vicky’s eyebrows lifted. “Think so?” She gave him a kiss on the cheek. “Thanks.”
“Don’t mention it.” He put his arms around her, and with his head on her shoulder, he stared down into the empty bag. He relaxed his fingers, let the bag go so that it trailed off with the wind.
— ♦♦♦ —
A Fond Farewell…
Be sure to check us out later in the year. We’re taking some time off