By Christine Smith, USA
“It’s time to move the bones,” Lea said on the phone, a continent away.
The infinite darkness of the sky obscured the infinite darkness of the sea. There was no way to decipher where one ended and the other began. I could only be aware of my suspension between them like a dream between midnight and dawn.
I had the luxury of three seats to myself thanks to the off-season consideration the airlines sometimes gave to older women traveling overseas alone. Once the cabin lights snapped off, I stretched my legs out across the space and covered myself in the warm wrap knitted for me decades ago. The soft yarn wove over and into itself, tight in places, loose in others. I looped my fingers through the weave and felt as though we were holding hands.
We'd stayed warm in the yarn through the winters, repeating the stitches into patterns we had learned. I’d liked the quiet of the time, the way we could be there together and not say much. Mary was content as long as she was with someone nearby, and I was that someone for the years we were girls. We were cousins, the daughters of sisters. Our lives had been knitted together into a sanctuary, and our fingers worked steadily, moving the needles in and out of the loops, creating warmth from the filament of creatures raised and shorn down the way. When our wraps were finished, we gifted our handiwork to each other. Mine was as soft and light as her laugh, and where I knew to look closely, strands of her hair were trapped inside the weave.
The blanket had been packed away in a plastic bin I’d kept in the basement with other artifacts from that time, my mother’s handwritten diary, a first edition Kazantzakis, in Greek, the cloth apron I’d worn every day in the house, recipes my aunt had written out for me, the few letters I’d received from my father, and, the golden apple that I had worn on a chain around my neck, a gift from Theo in his misplaced belief that I was his Penelope. Each of the items felt warm in my hands, charging me with the affection I chose to keep. I had wrapped the blanket around my shoulders and tucked the diary into my bag, before re-tightening the lid to entomb what remained.
Everything I needed would be waiting for me there. Lea had kept the house alive while I was gone. When I’d handed her the keys, I hadn’t believed that I would ever return to live in it again. Lea and I knew how to look out for each other, offering what was needed before the other had to ask. It had always been that way between us, since the day we met at school. She’d needed her own space then, a place to flourish, and I had needed a different kind of space, one that only came with distance. Thirty years had passed since I had left.
I avoided thinking about the bones. They had been heaped together for generations, as tradition dictated, in the family crypt, high on a hill overlooking the Aegean Sea. The view was spectacular, peaceful, a place of calm for the grieving visitor. I had often walked there, sat on the marble of the crypt, run my fingers along the names carved deep into the stone, wondering if the dead were anything like me. Was there a trace of the woman I was named for in my eyes? Were their hands like mine? How did my grandfather feel about being buried in so many women? Things I would never know.
What I did know was that deep beneath the marble, the twisted genes that had crippled my family gathered in the soil, rooting themselves in darkness. When the time had come to bury Mary there, I couldn’t do it, and had chosen a grave further away, where she might be felt again in the cool grass and budding trees. Mary had wanted to be with her mother and grandmother in the crypt. I’d known that, but had needed time to resolve the conflict within myself, to concede my loss.
But the time had come.
“You can tell a lot about a culture by how they tend to their dead,” Theo had said to me that crisp fall day as I watched him brush the earth away from the remains at the excavation site where the hotel was about to be built. “The more care they take, the more traditional the people, the better tied they are to their past and the legacies of their ancestors. Greeks are famous for this quality!” he boasted.
“It’s not always a good thing,” I had argued. “There hasn’t been much progress here for thousands of years.”
“Yes, but if you want to really know what the past was like, it is here, all around you.”
“Yes,” I said. “What was is more present than what is.”
Theo had looked at me then with a wary smile, maybe attributing my attitude to my American born mind set, my hunger for progress and change. My mind tugged me away, and my guilt kept me there, a keeper at the gates. If I’d had the luxury of choice, I would have lived where I was born, Denver, in the wisp of memory that was left of it, clean, open, blue, green and brown. I would have grown up in a small house on a quiet street, trying to conform to the ways of my parents while I learned the ways of my country. I had begun there. It belonged to me.
“You are longing for something that is past,” Theo said, “over something that is present. We are the same, in this way, you and me.”
I had first seen Theo from a long distance as I walked the spine of the island, taking in the views of both sides of the shores at different peaks along the way. He had been surveying, measuring his scope of interest on the flat land just below a hill. I sat and watched him as he walked in perfectly straight lines across a square patch of earth lined in string, stooping every hundred yards to dig a small hole in the soil. His pant cuffs were rolled up above his ankles and he had tied his shirt around his head to pad it from the sun. He lifted a canteen to his lips and shook it down towards his mouth, but then threw it aside as an empty. The soil was dry enough to raise the dust from the hills when the air stirred. I walked down to where he was and offered him a drink from the bottle I always carried with me. Up close, I could see the scalped patches in the ground and the arcs of the smooth rounded objects that hid inside. He offered me a bit of cheese and bread under a wild olive tree nearby, and explained his craft to me. He was studying the ancients, the lost commoners that had worked the land in centuries past. He was interested in longevity, which islanders had established patterns that prolonged their lives, and what the elements were that sustained them.
Those were the days when my camera was always roped around my shoulder. I have a photograph of Theo then, his dark locks and brown stubble framed around his fluid eyes. It almost hurt to look at it when it came to life in my darkroom. It triggered an ache in me that made me restless and energetic. For days, I paced the rooms of the big, empty house, rearranging the furniture and cleaning out drawers. I opened all the windows and let the sea breeze in, wiped down all the surfaces, mopped the floors, shopped for fresh produce and spices in case he remembered where I’d said I lived. The days passed. He was consumed by the relics and bones in the earth and didn’t come to find me for some time.
The light on the wing of the plane blinked blue like a pulse. I slowed my breathing to match it, to savor the time I had to collect myself as the past stirred again.
When my mother was a child during the Second World War, she’d found work washing bones. Drought, famine, bombs and bullets had made it necessary to empty forgotten graves and use them once more. Bones were stacked on tarps in long neat rows. Sometimes, families came to fetch them. My mother scrubbed bones clean, wrapped them together with string and dropped them into bags, copying the name from the headstone to a tag in the tie. It was the beginning of what made her mad, one of the things she had survived, but couldn’t let rest, like the stillborn blue lipped sister her mother had handed off to her to be buried in the field. She couldn’t do it, begged someone else to dig the hole, only to return years later and lift out the bones. They now lay in the crypt, with the others.
I had been told things no one should know as a child, but they weren’t the things that shattered me. I was more broken by the things I’d kept buried inside, and later, the things that slithered out, just when the skin of innocence had shed into the grass.
My first encounter with madness came before I knew my age. A glass window separated me from my mother, sitting, when I saw her, at a long table, her quilted bathrobe tied around her tiny waist as her fingers worked the paper she was folding into tight, sharp edges.
“Please, take me to her,” I’d asked my father.
“No, we can’t talk to her or touch her,” my father whispered into my ear. “We can only see her from here and she can’t see us.”
“But, there’s a window.”
“It only works from one side,” he said. “She can only see herself from her side.” He took my small hand in his big one and let me watch for a few minutes longer before lifting me away.
We had left her there like an old gold chain tossed haphazardly into a box. She might have pulled herself free from the tangle she’d been twisted into, had any of the staff spoken Greek. To them, she was just an immigrant, someone damaged in the war.
I was too young then to be aware of the impact my birth had had on her collision with promise.
In Denver, we had been the odd family on the street, our voices rising in a language foreign to the American neighbors that waved only from a distance. Our household wasn’t like theirs. My mother, father, aunt, grandmother and I lived together in the small rooms that crowded even the standard families of two parents and one child on the block. The fences were low between houses, and sometimes the neighbors would meet there to talk about their cars or to complain about the noise from the airplanes that dipped down over our block before landing at the airport nearby. Sometimes, my father would nod his head in greeting towards the neighbors as he worked to fashion grape vines upwards onto a pergola roof, building walls surrounding the space as they grew. My grandmother had established a vegetable garden in the back behind the fruit trees my father had planted to keep us cool in summer.
I have a photograph of that time, taken by my father, of my Aunt Anastasia, youngest of my grandmother’s daughters, plum of her mother’s heart and not yet ripe enough to let fall from the tree. Aunt Anastasia was sitting on the porch drinking lemonade, wearing a pink dress with cherries in the print. She was laughing, her head pulled back and eyes lit bright, looking up at the camera with abandoned glee.
Initially, my father had approached my grandmother to ask for Anastasia as his bride, but my grandmother wouldn’t hear of it, and offered her older daughter, Georgia, instead. Anastasia had been his server at the diner where he had his dinner every night, and he’d been caught by her beauty and her wit. My mother was nothing like Anastasia, wounded and fearful from the war, but my father didn’t know that. He assumed that any sibling of Anastasia’s had to carry the gem of her charms. His realization of the difference between the sisters was a shadow that covered him as the sun passed behind a cloud, chilling the air he stood in, his wife rigid by his side.
It was by the chatter of the house that I pieced together the net that held the sadness.
“You traded me, like a goat,” my mother said, “for less than I was worth,”
“This again,” Yiayia said. “If you were such a prize at 32, where was the line of men I could barter with?”
“You kept me hidden in that house.”
“Your brother brought us here to watch his boys. Someone had to do it.”
“Then why didn’t you?” my mother asked.
“I was cleaning, ironing, cooking. We all had a part to play.”
“Mine was the hardest,” Mama said.
“Pete is a good man, Georgia. He is kind to you.”
“He’s good to us all.”
“Goodness is the mask of love, not the face of it.”
I was born too soon, the nail that fastened my mother to the arrangement. She had been the sacrifice for her family’s survival, cast out of the home of the brother that had first brought them to America when his new paramour had moved in. My mother, her sister and their mother had little time to find a landing. My father’s offer to take them in had come like a boon, saving Georgia from spinsterhood, providing shelter for Anastasia and support for their mother. My grandmother had been smug in her guile.
My father worked six days a week and most evenings in his barbershop downtown, grooming the loyal Hellenic stream of patrons that he had befriended over many years, as well as the sampling of walk-ins who worked in the offices from the towering buildings around the shop. A blue and red barber pole spun in eternity at the front double glass doors beneath a sign that read, “Full Service Barbers, Straight Razor Shaves, Hot Steam Towels, Shoe Shines, Periodicals.” The large mirrored room that held four antique barbers’ chairs always smelled clean and good. The glass front windows looked out onto the white columned post office building directly across the street. My father arrived home at night, his arms filled with groceries, magazines, small appliances, or anything else requested by my mother, her sister or mother. I could always find a hard candy tucked in his pocket for me.
My mother spent most days burrowed like a rabbit in a hole beneath the covers of her bed. Her room was kept dark and always smelled of lavender. Sometimes she would let me sit on her lap to smell the sweet milky smell that came from her neck while she talked about being a girl before the war at a private school for the culinary and fiber arts, and how she was the only student that cold mend silk stockings with a tatting needle because her eyes were so sharp and her fingers so precise. She had won prizes for her sweater designs. Her vasilopita was the best tasting, and had the most beautifully designed crust of all, adorned with slivered almonds, sugar beads, and glazed slightly with egg yolk. Her avyolemono was the perfect blend of tart and salty, her yalatobouriko was the creamiest with a hint of orange. Though her five sisters embroidered beautifully, she said her skills were more practical and useful in life, and she said she had taught Anastasia everything she knew when they were the only two remaining unmarried sisters left behind in Greece.
“Will you teach me too, Mama, how to do those things?” I had asked.
“Maybe, someday,” she had said, her gaze moving to look outside the window, her mind swooped away from me in a gust of woe.
At bedtime, it wasn’t unusual to be told the story of Medea boiling her children alive in a stew to horrify her philandering husband, or of Iphigenia, climbing a mountain out of love for her father, only to be slaughtered by him at the summit, forcing the Ionian winds to blow. Regularly, in my mother’s tales, children bore the blows of their unstable elders, and though my mother presented these stories as matters of fact, I never would believe that children were destined to suffer in these strange and ugly ways. Once my mother had switched off the light and walked away, I made heroes of my own, Spartans in silver armor that guarded my door, or Centaurs in the yard, ready to gallop me away.
I had tried to imagine my ancestors, could only guess about them from the pictures I’d seen in books of Ancient Greece. I saw women warriors looking out to sea, armed with shields and swords, their eyes trained on the horizon without fear. Other times, the women were softer, wrapped in fabric, their hair styled high on their heads, carrying urns of fine wines to their tables. I wondered what had happened to transform those women of grace to the women in my family. Did the Gods divide them into clans, some to know joy and others sorrow, or did the sadness enter their uncovered ears while they slept, as children do, huddled closely together, their chests moving in rhythm towards dawn.
The rain made a trickling sound as it poured off the roof of the house the day my mother called me to the bathroom to wash my hair. Usually, Aunt Anastasia bathed me, but she and my grandmother had gone to my uncle’s diner on the bus, leaving me with my mother for the day. Aunt Anastasia still worked at the diner, preparing the day’s specials and waiting tables. My grandmother liked to visit her son away from his new wife, so she tagged along every once in a while. My mother never went there, her cheeks flushing red whenever the place was mentioned, though I never knew why.
I had pulled my shirt over my head and stepped into the tub. The water was warm and it was filled very high, higher than I had ever had before. I waited for my mother to squeeze the shampoo onto my head after I had wet my hair, but she just stood over me, looking down into the water. I waited. I looked up at her to see if she was ready, and she was smiling, smiling! Like she was happy, like she was thinking of something good. She got on her knees to be closer to me and I smiled at her when she reached around my shoulders towards the soap. It felt nice that she was so near. She was smiling and happy and I felt happy too, and I started to turn to smile at her again but I couldn’t turn my head because she had taken hold of my neck from the back underneath my hair. I started to say I could hold my head still by myself, but by then, my body was underneath the water. I couldn’t get up. I moved and pushed, but there was something on my back, and I couldn’t get up. I opened my eyes and saw the white edge of the mat against the white shine of the tub and I pushed away, but I couldn’t lift up. “Mama,” I tried to say, but the water filled my mouth. “Help,” I tried again. I waited for her to calm, but it went dark before she did.
When I opened my eyes, there were firemen all around, one pinching my nose, filling me with air, his mouth covering mine. I saw my father’s face, grey and far away. The rain was still tapping on the windows. It tingled in my ears.
“There we go,” someone said. “Let’s see those eyes.”
“Good going,” a fireman said, slapping the back of the man bent over to save me. My father, crouching behind him, began to cry. I saw his hand weave through the men to touch my hair. I closed my eyes and listened to the rain that blew against the glass. I felt it turning the ground damp, the house cold. I saw myself caught in the rain, running, running away from a shadow, my hair dripping a trail behind me, one that no one would ever see because it was erased in the downpour around it.
I sat up in time to see Dr. Poulos, who always had lollipops in his office after a vaccination, with his arm wrapped around my mother’s shoulders saying, “Let’s pack a few things and get you to a place where you can rest. You must be so tired now.” My mother nodded, looking at me before she turned her head, her eyes lost as she let him lead.
“Some cold water?” the stewardess asked, holding a pitcher and cup in her hand.
“No, thank you, but some tea would be nice.” I turned my body forward and unlocked the tray so she could place the cup down. I drank the whole of it in short, quick sips.
My father had tried to care for me in my mother’s absence, but the responsibilities of his shop made it difficult. When Anastasia got the call from Gus, the brother they’d lost track of, her favorite, she was ecstatic. He was the one who had left for America before the war had ended, and served in the US Army. He had finally settled and established a restaurant in the French Quarter in New Orleans. He said he could use her skill as a chef. My grandmother decided it would be best for her and Anastasia to go south and be of service in the new enterprise.
“Please, don’t go,” my father had said. “I need your help with Sophia. How can I work and be here for her in the day?” but my grandmother was determined to move on. For lack of a better solution, they agreed that I would go with them, ‘just,” my father said, “until your Mama’s back home to take care of you again.”
I gripped onto his shirt, shaking my head, “No.” I was going to hold tight to him and stay. After a while, I thought everyone had forgotten the idea, but the day came. My father handed me to Aunt Anastasia at the station, peeling my hands off of him.
“Be good,” he said. “Be my angel. I will miss you every day.”
I didn’t believe him, and turned my face away.
We boarded the train. The loss stuck to my skin like a film. Aunt Anastasia sat across from me and Yiayia made me sit next to her by the window. I saw my father standing on the platform as we pulled away. He waved with his hat for a long time. I tried to catch my tears and swallow them, but they slipped away.
We passed towns and farms. Sometimes boys ran after the train in the tall grass, waving their hands high over their heads. We slept sitting up in our seats when it got dark. We ate sandwiches Yiayia had packed for us.
When we arrived in New Orleans, a small man with a big smile waved his hat in the air over and over, shouting, “Mama! Anastasia!” They both ran to him and hugged him for a long time. When he saw me, he lifted me up in his arms and kissed my cheek. “Yooz gonna love it here, Sugar! I know you will. Come on, now, let’s ride.” We climbed into his big shiny car with red leather seats.
Uncle Gus talked in a loud voice, his words pulled long until they snapped out of his mouth as we drove through the town. The grass was so green and the air felt heavy. It made me stick to the seat. There were trees and flowers everywhere, strange flowers, big and white, and the air smelled like perfume.
“Y’all come up and get situated!” he ordered as he unlocked a heavy door and walked us over to a staircase. “I made out a little apartment for us up there. It’s rough, but it’ll do. I got to put the money in the business for now.”
It was empty upstairs. There was a big room with a couch and TV. There was a kitchen with a table. A single bed was propped against a wall in a small room in the back. I walked over to the couch and fell asleep without taking off my shoes.
We settled in. Gus and Anastasia worked day and night. Yiayia and I washed okra, scrubbed floorboards, made curtains. I hammered cockroaches dead with an old shoe, wiping them up with a rag that I shook out over the trash. I snuck down to the LaFamille and got to know the waitresses and the prep chefs and even some of the customers whenever I could, until Yiayia came down to haul me back upstairs.
I lay awake sometimes at night, still frightened by the strangeness of the big room I slept in alone. There was a steady stream of sound that filtered up from the restaurant below me, dishes falling onto dishes, the echo from the jukebox that shook the floorboards under my bed, the hum of people together, all talking at once, coughing, beer bottles clanking as Mr. Joe carried them out to the trash. I knew my family was down there, cooking, serving, mingling. I knew I wasn’t really all alone, and I knew I really was. I asked the goddess Artemis, the protectress of young girls, to keep an eye on me, to keep her bow and arrow by her side and to check on me at night. I waited until I believed she had heard me before letting go to sleep.
The whir of the plane’s engines seemed loud when I opened my eyes. It was still dark. I checked the flight update on the airline screen. Four hours left to Athens.
The circumstances that had planted me on an island in the Aegean were as unlikely as they were strange. When I had begun to relay the facts to people I’d come to trust, they mostly shook their heads, and fell silent. I stopped talking about it, peeled back the skins of memories instead, to find the seed.
Reaching into my bag, the leather binding of my mother’s diary was smooth against my fingers. I pulled out. It had arrived long ago as a gift for my twenty first birthday when I had lived with Mary and Yiayia in Greece. I had read it once then, and stored it away, unable to absorb the despair. It was written on tissue thin paper in my mother’s delicate hand. I had learned to read Greek in school on the island, but I still had to pause occasionally to make out a phrase, to really understand. Over time, it was the way I had come to know my mother, to hear her voice and climb into the cusp of her mind. She had begun it at the asylum, it’s preface reading:
“I have begun this diary as a record of my thoughts, as suggested by my husband, for a time when someone skilled can read it and help me, February 17, 1958.”
The paper was so transparent, that to read it at night under a light, I needed a plane sheet of white paper placed between the pages to pop out the script. I had placed several of these in the back of the diary, and fitted one behind the beginning as I turned on the overhead light. I didn’t want to read about the war years. That was too difficult and draining to attempt in the time I had. I skipped the part about her journey as a stowaway on the American cargo ship to New York, too. She had been sick and quarantined the entire voyage, leaving Aunt Anastasia alone to interact with the crew. My mother was twenty-nine then, Anastasia only fourteen. They had the courage the journey required, and the stamina they needed afterwards, to make their way west to Denver on the Greyhound line. Anastasia was the leader between them, looking out for her frightened, skittish older sister at all times. I didn’t want to read about that either, or about the abuse they suffered in their brother’s house in Denver, Anastasia fed amphetamines to endure fourteen hour shifts cooking and serving at his diner, my mother left home to care for his boys after the loss of his first wife in childbirth. I didn’t want to revisit the panic they felt to be turned out by their brother or the absolute authority of my grandmother over her daughters, or the frustration they all came to feel time and time again.
Instead, I carefully turned the pages to the place where my mother seemed to have forgotten that she was writing for another set of eyes. It was there that I felt her weight like a vest harnessed to my chest. It had the power to explode, to shatter me, if I tripped the switch at the junction of her fate and mine.
September 22, 1954
“Mama said he was old and sick and that he would be grateful every minute of every day for my company and care. She told me he would treat me like a royal, watch for my every desire and provide it without a plea. She said he would cherish me in a way very few women ever knew or could imagine, without a word or look his way. I would be the envy of all the younger, struggling wives of the time, for my needs would all be met without sacrifice. I would reign in absolute authority and luxury for all the rest of my days.
But my Mama did not imagine, or if she did, she did not tell me, of the nights when his old sagging body and ravenous mouth would seek me out in the dark. She did not say how his hands, rough from yard work and cologne, would feel against my skin, and how no matter how far I turned my face, he would turn even further to catch my gaze and clamp his fattened lips against my trembling frown as this thick tongue and stagnant breath pried my teeth apart and gagged me as it ravaged my mouth. She never said how harsh the tear of skin and push of muscle would feel, how long the anguish of his thrusting would last, how endless and empty those minutes would feel, save for the dread. His thinning head would bob beside me, exposing the smooth, naked contours of his skull sliding against my freshly washed hair until every follicle was saturated in the odor of that cologne, and the grunt of that sound he made towards the end. Only I felt the tears that drained along my temples, though his skin was there to catch them, same as mine. He never turned his face my way to register the pain; this was just the way it had to be, for him, and for me.
I covered myself in the sheet I still wore. I drew it tightly around my body, covering my face and my feet, shrouding myself from his gaze and the ogling of the world that has surely thought, “Look, loot at what that young girl did because of greed.” They cannot understand that desperation is a different thing altogether from greed.
My sister and mother sang in the kitchen, gutting tomatoes from the garden in preparation for the spiced meat and cheese stuffing they’d prepared. They scraped the pulp and seeds out with a spoon and placed the remains in a bowl. If only I could have done the same, to scrape the seeds and pulp out of me and place it somewhere else. I could feel it festering in me, even then, attaching itself to me, growing like a cancer, seeping into the space that once was a holy vessel for life. This thing, born of this man, was not of me. It had nothing to do with who I am.
My Mama kneaded the beef with the tomato and spices over and over again, adding just a bit of cheese, a little more pepper. With the large spoon, she filled each squash, pepper and tomato up above the rim, then placed the cap atop with a small skewer holding it in place. She sprinkled them lightly with olive oil, the good can we brought ourselves from Patras, and placed the pan into the oven, turning up the gas.
Mama made lemon water and carried two glasses out to the pergola in the back yard under the grape vine canopy. They did not call for me. I went to the kitchen and took the spoon from the sink, washed it and dried it and carried it to my bedroom underneath the sheet where no one else could see. I waited until I heard them laughing before I inserted it and began the scraping, pulling out the pulp, tearing out the seeds.”
Yet, I was born. I am mournful, still. I search my face in my compact mirror, wiping the night from my eyes. I can see my father’s brown eyes, assuring me that he was not a monster, just a lonely old man seeking solace with his wife. My sad mother’s lips are still thirsting for love, deep love, love in the delight of two minds wrapped together. My features carry both parents sculpted into peace, awkward and still, but no longer strained. Their secrets are behind them. Just the bones remain.