Lining the quay are stalls selling sponges. Beneath them the water, still clear and blue, although it is nearly autumn, laps at the stone pier. In the late afternoon light the sponges seem to take on the luminous gold of sun-dappled water, much, I think, as they would have looked under the sea. Tourists finger them expectantly, as if half wanting to find them alive, soft, their thousand open-mouthed pores sucking in and out the golden air like liquid.
I, too, walk slowly along the pier, caressing the upturned bellies of the sponges. The stall-holders line the quay in a disorderly row, each under a brightly striped canvas awning. I pick on of the smaller sponges up, turning it over in my hand. I hold it up above the heads of the crowd, trying to catch the stall-holders attention and ask for a price. But I am at the very outskirts of the group.
Bloody day-trippers, I mutter loud enough for some of them to hear; for I already share the islanders low opinion of tourists who arrive in the morning, pass like a cyclone through the town, and leave with the last boat at sunset. It is my third day here, and as yet I am still uncertain of myself, walking the streets with the slow unfolding of a map, joining the winding streets with fingers across the page. It is only here on the waterfront that I am fully at ease, where I had first disembarked, and where my room is, with its painted stone balcony thrusting out over the sea.
A skinny sun-dark urchin runs and brushes past me between the fat legs of the tourists, arms akimbo, mouth open, in one long silent cry. He clutches at my waist to keep from falling. Skids and slyly takes the particularly large sponge dangling from my hand. He doesn’t need to use any force, he doesn’t snatch it, my fingers uncurl as though I am offering it to him with a slow smile. Amid an excited murmur from the crowd he waves it in the air, screaming at the stall owner something I can’t catch. It sounds like an insult, or else a cry of exultation. The owner of the sponge doesn’t answer, doesn’t call after him or run, merely turns his head away from the crowd, away from the glare of the sea, as if in wry, indifferent humour.
I am standing in front of the stall, still holding my arm upraised, empty-handed, still poised to ask the price. The crowd presses against me, muttering indignant in German and English. I wait, and like a grumbling tide, the bodies around me recede. They move on, leaving us alone. Instead of smiling at the sponge-seller, and also moving on, I venture to ask what the little boy had said. My voice feels ineffectual above the grunts and exhaling breaths in the distance. The smell of sweat is still acrid in my mouth, and I feel the breasts of one insistent, remaining woman flat against my back. I shove with my elbow.
The stall owner smiles at me and his copper face creases into glistening folds in the sunset light. He is young, I think, but his face has been aged by the sun and the salt. He is tall for a Greek, and lean, too, with narrow hips and a flexible waist, a fluidity in his movement, no, even in his way of standing there, motionless. I stare, unsmiling. He is young, I said, maybe thirty. He comments on my Greek, laughing softly under his breath.
– That was my little half-brother. He likes to come and torment me. At night when he is asleep I go and find the sponges underneath his bed.
I smile then, unsteadily, and wonder whether to walk on with a wave of the hand, dismissive. But I stop. And slowly, as I hesitate, he offers me a tiny sponge, not big and graceless and golden yellow like the others, but delicate, pinkly curved like a shell, with elaborate traces and pathways in its hidden folds. He has to lean forward over the other sponges to do so, and his tiny gold cross rests among them, glistening. I lean forward too, and yet it is still a struggle for us to join hands. His hand is rough, with furrows in it where he has scarred himself somehow.
– You are alone? Come to my uncle’s taverna tonight; the one on top of the hill. I will be there, playing the baglama.
He doesn’t ask any of the typical questions: are you English, what is your name, how old are you, you look so young, only sixteen, so fresh, so pretty, I can make you happy.
That evening I take a longer time than usual in the cold outdoor shower of my pensione. I dress slowly in a long dress I found in Crete; a narrow shift of raw unbleached linen with a low neck and sleeveless, banded at the neck and at the bottom of the skirt with the strips of lapis blue and saffron. In the tiny mirror my arms gleam with oil, my hair falls unbrushed, freely down my back.
I walk out into the perfumed early evening, with its sea tang wafting into my nostrils and lifting my hair. My high heeled sandals click on the raised cobblestones as I walk. And the gangs of louts, standing at the corner, call things in the island patois I do not understand. The village was built on steep terraces on the side of a cliff overhanging the sea. Each of these is joined by a series of narrow lanes that pass right outside houses and lighted windows and open doors. From within I can hear the sounds of children of the radio blaring out dance music. And I am on eye-level with kerchiefed grandmothers cooking near their windows. I hear the sizzle of olive oil as onions are lowered into it, and the feverish gestures of their hands are outlined clear as frescoes, bold painted friezes against the drawn paper blinds, as they throw in oregano and turn, showing a stark ancient profile, as they yell at their husbands get off the sofa it is time to eat.
Most people are out on their doorsteps with their sewing, or they sit picking beans and feeling the first refreshing coolness of evening. The end of summer. They seize these few last warm days with a feverish enthusiasm, staying outside till the early hours before dawn, eating, drinking, speaking in loud accents. Now and then someone calls out a greeting to me, or offers me a glass of water to aid me in my climb. This I gratefully accept, as I do a handful of small blood plums or some olives, clutching them in my hand as I sit, as we huddle against the careening mopeds that inevitable come past, with no room for a careless elbow or foot.
His uncle’s taverna is right up high on the top of the hill. Walking through the hanging grape-vines dangling down among the tables, I am panting. Parting the leaves, I catch his eye as he sits on a raised podium in a corner of the room. He seems me right away, his eyes trained to the entrance of the building. I sit at one of the scratched outdoor tables where I can watch relatively unseen. Screened by the leaves, I can only just see him through the pearly haze of smoke in my room. Somebody puts a glass of ouzo on my table. I take it, nodding to him, the short ironic waiter, glad to have something to hold. It is undiluted, so strong the tears come to my eyes. In its translucency, this thimbleful of ouzo, I fancy that I see my own face, and the moon, liquid blue, behind me, tangled in the leaves. I don’t see it. I just amuse myself with the thought. He is singing. Singing with his head bowed down to his instrument, like a lover. Something soft and brooding, I can’t catch the words. He slurs them, like a drunk, high on rough wine and hashish, like a munga. In the affected melancholy of the Piraeus dandy, a pimp of the twenties who dances with an empty ouzo glass balanced on the crown of his head. Then quickly the song changes moving outwards, faster, crowding among the tables and chairs and into the courtyard where I sit, into the recesses of my skull till it pound like blood in the temples and stops. He stops singing. I finish my ouzo in a gulp.
Before I am aware of it, he is standing before me, crouching down a little among the hanging vines. His navel is directly in front of me, I see it through a pin-prick of a hole in his shirt, otherwise crisp with starch and freshly-laundered, probably by his mother. His hair is damp with sweat, curling around his ears. But his hand, as he gives it to me, is cool. When he sits opposite I see the droplets of sweat in the hair on his chest. He notices, and rubs them in, unselfconsciously. We don’t really talk. We hum to the music now soft from an old speaker in the corner of the taverna, we sip our spirits, in small mouthfuls, eyes cast down. He orders marinated octopus and bread for me, and leaves. I watch him sing again, and this time he sits upright and watches each movement of my hand as I soak up the juices of the octopus with bread and bring it up to my mouth, dripping. He sees each movement of my mouth as I swallow a morsel, and as I rinse my mouth with more ouzo. By now my mouth is furry with drink, my lips feel so large I cannot press them together. I have a bright haze around my head, blurring my perception, glazing my eyes. So there I sit, lips parted, breathing with difficulty in the air so thick although I am actually outside the room where the men chain-smoke and stamp their feet in time to the music. The music is becoming more frenzied, their voices raucous. One barefoot old man gets up to dance, parodying the slow-wheeling dance of the male bucks, and is met by a rain of splintering plates. They aim low and only hit his feet. One fragment cuts the exposed sinew in his ankle and the blood trickles down as he smiles gap-toothed, clicking his fingers up high over his head. I am surprised nobody has tried to molest me. then I realise that by dint of the sponge-seller sitting with me earlier in the evening I am out of bounds to the rest of the men. Another ouzo is placed on my table, and I nurse it close to my breasts. It is icy against the heat of my skin. I don’t know what time it is. I put out my arm to stop the waiter, and he halts uncertainly, a smile flickering at the corners of his eyes.
He answers one o’clock. I ask for the bill, suddenly lucid, sick of waiting, of watching. Waiting for what? I don’t know. I had thought that maybe he and I; the sponge-seller, would eat together, would linger over the wine, that I would not be alone tonight.
I leave the table, placing the money down on the printed slip of paper and carefully weighting it down with my empty glass. As I totter out, the proprietor, the sponge-sellers uncle, presses the money firmly into my hands, and gestures towards his nephew. His nephew does not look up from his playing.
The wind is suddenly high in the rooftops, sweeping down to the sea. I walk with the excessive slowness of the drunk, and part the vine-leaves gently as though they were human hands.
I don’t look back at him, up on the podium. The cobblestones now seem slippery and treacherous. They are made of marble, polished to a high sheen after centuries of sandals and donkeys hooves and wheeling moped. I crouch down and take off my sandals, knotting the laces together and swinging them over my neck the way they do in French films. I laugh to myself at that. Crouching down like that, almost on my hands and knees, I feel a wave of fatigue seize me, and a certain sadness, too.
But I get up, and rasp my bare feet on the cobbles to accustom them to the texture of the stone. I can hear a clattering of feet in the narrow streets behind me. The quiet night makes each noise reverberate and the only light is the moon shrouded behind clouds like wisps of cigarette smoke. I start walking, waiting for the detaining hand on my shoulder. It doesn’t come. And I am strangely disappointed. Instead the sound stops and I hear someone calling, as if from a huge distance. The high stone walls give the illusion that a labyrinth does ¬ another world around the next corner. It is the sponge-seller’s voice. He is singing. He is singing in very bad English.
He sings to me, in a Greek tune with stumbling, badly-improvised English words.
– Come back, baby, come back, why, oh why have you gone away?
He turns the corner a I swing around towards the direction of his voice. He covers his mouth with one hand, giggling furiously, and babbles in Greek.
– Oh my God, I’ve woken the whole village come on, let’s go before we cop a bucket of water on our heads!
He is drunk, not as drunk as I am, but enough to have the retsina-fire coursing through his veins, a hero, a bard, not the melancholy and self-analysis of my ouzo drunkenness. He grabs my arm and leads me down a street even I, with my abysmal sense of direction, know I have never seen before. Here the houses are all derelict, broken shells, with faded paint in iridescent oyster hues, reflecting the faintly splashing water. They would have been grand once, these houses, two-storied with wrought-iron balconies and Venetian grace, with embracing cupids and two-headed griffins moulded above the doors. Now among them grow ancient thistles with their great purple flowers and wild fig trees throw rotting fruit at their peeling walls. The sea laps in perfect rivulets at their foundations, and salt etches the walls in figures writing and fantastic, echoing the fat angel-boys and demons peering out in the gloom. He throws his arms wide open embracing the trembling sky, the buildings hemming us in, scanning the sea stretched out before us like a sheet.
– Where do you live? I say in English. Here? But he still understands, and leads me up the steps of the house nearest the water. The steps are carved in stone, and intact, but slippery with moss or some fungus.
There is no door, but a heavy hanging curtain where the door should have been, like the hand-made blankets, woven from the hair of goats, I have seen for sale in the village. It is stiff with salt.
He lights a candle and holds it up high so that I can see everything. There is no roof, above us the moon shines palely down. There are no stars. On the floor are scattered more of the same blankets, dyed green and blue and red, and a particularly large bundle in the corner I take to be his bed. Meanwhile he is lighting more candles and fixing them into random holes in the cracked plaster walls.
They cast strands of light, like fluid threads, over everything. I feel as though I can touch the strands of light and throw them about the room, illuminating some spots, and obscuring others. There is a large mirror on one wall, and on the other a gilt-framed oil painting, so destroyed I can’t make the picture our at all. It looks faintly like a mermaid coiled around a man.
– What do you do in winter when it gets cold?
– Oh no, I don’t live here, this is the place I only show certain people at certain times
Here he trails off. He opens the French doors in the centre of the sea-facing wall, and stands on the balcony, his hands resting lightly on the rails. Then I do a very stupid thing. Well, I don’t know if you would call it stupid, or just reckless. But there is something hot and coursing, something not cerebral, that gets into your brain after you’ve been travelling for a few months. You cease to care. You feel inconspicuous, so much so that you begin to harbour an intense desire to assert your identity, to convince yourself that you are, that you do continue to exist as yourself, you haven’t been annihilated into the panorama of sky and sun and sea around you.
And anyway I knew why it was that we had come here.
I stand behind him and put my arms around his waist, without pressure, almost not touching him. He doesn’t turn around, just stands there. I wriggle my body around so that I wedge myself in between him and the railing, imprisoning myself in between both his arms. Then, with the unabashed gesture of my drunkenness I turn my head up and kiss his mouth.
His lips are cold. Mine are warm, I can feel the contrast. His tongue when it insinuates itself into my mouth is dry and hard, rough as a cat’s. But cold. The chill of his mouth and tongue and his hand on my buttocks and in the small of my back begins to infect me. Somehow we fall into the room and onto the pile of rugs. They are so itchy that our love-making, having been so lingering and slow in its first moments, becomes frenzied and insistent. I almost long for it to finish so that I can scratch myself all over. Every once in a while he cranes his head up to ask me what’s wrong. He says it in English, trying to be polite, I suppose … I don’t answer.
On top of him with all my hair all over his face, in his mouth, choking him ¬ this is when I begin to reach a climax that eludes me, beckoning me on, then receding before I can grasp it. My string of beads hits him with each thrust of my hips in the face, my breasts swing before his eyes. He looks terrified, his eyes wide open, his face blanched, his mouth is still full of hair. I scream until the crumbling buildings around us echo. The sea seems silent in the wake of my screaming. So is he. He is lying back on the rugs with his eyes closed while I jump up with trembling knees to scratch myself till I leave long straggling welts all up and down my body. It is not until he opens his eyes that he sees the blood smeared on his rugs, he looks down to see his own loins and legs sticky with it, and me, standing before him, swaying with blood on my inner things and my breasts, that he speaks.
– Why didn’t you tell me before?
We wake up together at midday. The sun has been burning our faces for hours. We swim and drink retsina he’d hidden in the shallows to keep cold. He walks me back to the hotel at sunset. The sea aglow at our backs, the sun just about to sink. Pale-blue faded shutters and cream coloured walls crumbling and golden in the late light. Archways we pass under, our laughter echoing, and winding white alleyways, blinding our already sun-dazzled eyes. He swings on fences, gold-wrought elaborate fences, like a boy, fences from which lush gardens peep. Jasmine and gardenias and bay-trees, calm and watchful. A black shining casket leaning up against a wall. Someone has died, he says, as we hear the bell ring in the cavernous church of Saint Christoforos. We pass by the church and I crane my neck to see inside the darkness. Incense escapes from the swinging doors and wreathes its odour, not of sanctity, but fleshy, Byzantine, in coils about us. He crosses himself three times and bows his head reverently. It seems incongruous, this swarthy god, like a small Pan, a pagan, setting his lips in thin pious line, hiding his horns under his solemnity.
The fluid light, like water, rains over trees and fences and on taverna tables, half-set with glasses and forks. We sit at one of them and he orders an ouzo. And I watch him, unaware of what my hands are doing, the expression on my face. He sits opposite me and all I see is a skinny man, with a two-day’s growth of beard, shadowed eyes, the burnt staring eyes of an icon.
He holds no fascination for me any longer. And abruptly, I turn and walk away. He doesn’t call after me.