Not quite a palindrome: In order to return, return in order to
When I’m nervous, I go down the road to the goats, just weaned, and let them suck my fingers. It’s soothing, I settle. Then, wiping my fingers on the back of my pants, I walk until I have a view of the sea.
Have you ever wondered: Why is the part where the water crashes against rocks the most compelling? Why do your eyes go there—that moment in space and time—and linger?
It’s the crisis of impact with its possibility of destruction and swift resolution.
Then it begins again.
Rinio began speaking toward the iPhone I held in front of her, talking to my older son, the one she had witnessed as he entered the world 31 years before and then, still facing the phone, still looking toward an imagined young man (she had not seen him in 20 years), she began to cry.
I held the phone until it seemed a little obscene.
Before going back, a friend had asked: What are you excited about and what are you afraid of?
I’d said: It’s like looking into the grave: I’m dying to peek and I’m afraid that peeking, I may die.
On our way, we stopped at the Acropolis Museum, a place we hadn’t yet been.
Set down amidst space and light, the ancient, partial statues seem to enunciate both.
That’s where he said, thirty-six years later: It was love at first sight!
(The moment jumps out.)
And then I cried, not exactly a marble statue.
Rinio was dressed in black—I’ve never seen her in anything but. Her mother had died just before we met and she’d never taken it off.
That day, I realized that I, too, was wearing it.
When, after a separation of ten years, I stepped out of the taxi and saw her moving down the path, I dropped the things I was carrying and walked into her arms.
We cried, sobbing.
My husband and I walked the same narrow, twisted streets we’d walked years before in all manner of emotional twistedness—not purely a function of the narrowness of our hearts. As everyone who’s gone back to a place has experienced, things looked smaller. Does distance grow things large?
The town sits between two granite cliffs, a narrow valley of houses that defies any pretense of a grid. Small children and old people, pregnant women and sea captains as well as all the less colorful others, climb steep whitewashed stairways between neighborhoods, and descend.
My only conversation with Rinio who had been, after all, present when my oldest son was born, was stark as the black of those clothes, which were less stark than I’m letting on. That she had been cooking was obvious–a bit of raw egg here, something that might have been milk there.
That first cool, late February morning in the high-ceilinged entry hall of a bed-and-breakfast that had formerly been the home of one of the island’s noble families, we were seated near a table messy with overflowing ashtrays (she still smokes) and white cups of coffee sipped so slowly that the liquid’s descent could be traced in brown rings. A pile of newspapers, folded and refolded, was stacked—not neatly. The round table was covered in a sticky flowered cloth.
She examined me and said: You look thin. You’ve lost weight.
She kept looking, then said: You’re tired.
Finally, she remembered: Your mother died.
Then added: She was a beautiful woman.
And went on: So was your mother-in-law. She had such beautiful white skin!
My mother-in-law’s white skin and blue eyes were beautiful indeed but Rinio, in those days, thirty years before, had taken the place of my mother, not my husband’s.
It’s where our hearts became one.
(Our two hearts came together there, joined, then sprouted children.)
Capitain Skevos’s face had once seemed carved from granite. He was already seated when we arrived at the ouzeri after our swim.
The night before, we’d learned that Themelina, his roly-poly and very astute wife, considers twenty grandchildren hardly any, in view of the eight children the two of them brought into the world.
Knowing their names once seemed to confer almost familial status: Anastasia, Maria, Rinio, Evdokia, Elefteria, Anna, Lefteris, Pandelis. At birth, Eleftheria, whose name means freedom, had been given to one of Skevos’ eleven sisters, a woman who couldn’t bear children.
On the wall to the side of the metal-framed bed was a small altar of photographs dedicated to one of their daughters. As I received the news of this grown child’s death, it seemed that for her mother, having given birth to eight children and being grandmother to nearly three times that seemed not to count.
At the ouzeri on the main street opposite the harbor where wooden fishing boats moved with the tide, Skevos was drinking lemonade. A bloody piece of cotton hung from his left nostril.
The day before, Rinio had said: He’s got new gadgets all over—steel cables and pipes, a pacemaker and more. In another era, he would have been dead many times over.
They had been lovers since her adolescence, though she’d said she hadn’t seen him in a year or two.
In those days, when she was always sneaking off to the field where we sometimes grazed our Easter lambs, the passion was the source of frustration as well as an enticement.
Rinio’s father had considered Skevos a bad match, so she was married to Yiannis, bore three children, and that early love—passion—eventually faded.
His face, once chiselled granite, had gone feeble and while the wit, which can’t be translated, was still there, he mentioned at least twice that his long-dead father pays regular visits to him in his dreams.
I think I’ll be joining the old man soon, he said, then laughed, a quick guffaw, the way he always did, almost dispelling comment’s tone.
Kalliopi had been the same age as my mother, the grandmother who’d lived across an ocean.
I calculate now and realize that when she cared for our younger son , she was my age, carrying him between our house and hers, half a mile, and partly on a grade.
Though we hadn’t called, she was there in the cold entrance hall the next morning. In a lilt I’d forgotten, she made a litany of all the falls she’d taken and the various operations to mend broken bones: both arms, both legs. The metal, she said, would be removed in a future surgery.
Before she’d had a chance to conceive, Kalliopi’s husband IKA had returned from his first season diving for sponge with the bends and that was that. He’d been dead a while but for years, she’d sworn he had nine lives, like a cat.
Anna, the beautiful, quiet niece Kalliopi had looked after when she was a child, now looks after her. Married to a carpenter, they’ve got three children. Anna washes her aunt’s clothes, brings food, and makes her bed.
As a teenager, engaged to a different man, she’d given birth alone, and put the dead baby in a drawer.
At a certain time, the shadow of the daily plane from Athens darkens the water as you swim beneath.
Your skin will come upon warm spots in the midst of the cold.
As we sat with Captain Skevos, Popi came out of a small back street onto the main harbor road. We hugged and kissed, again.
We’d embraced just the day before, upon arriving, but if not these people, who? And if not now, when?
It’s where our hearts came together. Since then, we’ve grown souls.
(A soul grows alone. A heart grows in tandem with others, or another.)
Popi gave me a gift of lavender mixed into apricot oil.
Then she said: No one looks at your wrinkles. People look at your eyes.
As a heart, you move on the earth.
As a body, you move in the water.
And as a soul, you move through the air?
I dreamt a cheap cardboard coffin with my (dead) body inside. I watched from afar, proud and curious, as its top came off, forced by the swift decomposition of my flesh.
The beautiful point: where you don’t know until you do.
You watch your life balance in a space larger than itself, possibly right in the nick of time.
In dance (Popi is a dancer and a singer), the body holds itself against the sound, beats rhythm onto the beat, accepting it, too, at the foot, along the leg, through the back and the neck. The arms!
Popi is fat. I’ve never known her thin.
Her son is 38 and lives at home.
Strong mothers sometimes wreak weak sons.
She’s never listened much to me, either, but then she’s got the more beautiful voice.
Popi was driving us over mountains we’d only walked across in the past–a new road makes things small.
She’d stopped the car to let us breathe the cold mountain air when a shepherd’s wife ambled our way.
Popi, she called, don’t you know me?
Popi said something polite and friendly.
The woman called out again: You don’t recognize me, do you?
We got out of the car, walked to the edge, looked out beyond the broken granite at our feet toward cliffs beyond. The woman’s sheeps’ bells sounded on the wind.
She came right up to Popi. Her face was burnt by the winter sun, partially covered by a bandana. Her shoes, men’s boots, were loose and untied.
Once more she tried: You don’t know me, do you?
Now face to face, Popi could see.
Ah, you’re Antonis’ mother-in-law!!
I couldn’t see you from so far away. I know you—of course!
Then we got back inside and as Popi put the car into first, she broke into song. She pulled the song along as if spinning silk. Silking it along.
Six notes in, the three of us were in tears.
She sang through them, we let ours fall.
The daily plane flies overhead, its propellers beat against the air.
If you take wet rocks from the beach, you’ll be disappointed later on.
Take dry ones and be surprised.
(Hold your losses close, they’ll increase that margin: solitude.)
It’s not a wound, but disturbing time like that by going, you expose thin skin.
Fresh blood runs, a stream.
Board the plane, spin the props, take off before the wind shifts.
The last morning, sun hitting the houses to the west, the texture of the stone, the arrangement of color on wood and plaster—mostly shades of yellow and blue, but grey, white and green as well as salmon and tan—was skin. Wrenched, I turned away.
It’s not exactly throwing yourself on the grave, but there’s some resemblance.
Come around the curve and there before you…
Once home, I eventually made my way back to the baby goats. Again, I offered my fingers. But they’d forgotten how to suckle. One kid began, then bit. I bled!
A goat has no understanding of numbers, a heart dwells in their absence.
A mind, though, requires their usefulness, a way to climb into then out from the past.
Anne Germanacos’ work has appeared in close to one hundred literary journals and anthologies. Her collection of short stories, In the Time of the Girls, was published by BOA Editions. She and her husband live in San Francisco and on Crete. For more information, visit www.annegermanacos.com.