The Language of the Windows
By Hava Pinhas-Cohen
Translated from Hebrew by Gershon Geron and Gwen Ackerman,
and edited by Gwen Ackerman
The cicadas are everywhere; in the grass, between the houses, along the pathways and under the garbage cans, but mostly in the trees. The trees are on an island, the island is inundated with the cicadas’ song and surrounded by the sea. And from the branches of the trees comes the incessant voice of the cicadas.
At home, along the Mediterranean’s eastern rib where the Canaanites once dwelt, there are no cicadas. In the branches of the Casuarinas there are only crickets and frogs. “And the ship made its way all that night and morning” – these words from Odysseus stayed with me the entire time I was on the island.
But my story is only about two nights, sunset to sunup, then sunset to sunup again.
The first night, we walked along the narrow streets on a summer evening, and people were thronging to the beach from all over town. The town’s buildings were low, the windows came up only to our waists, and behind the muslin blinds one could make out a dishevelled bed or an obese man at his computer dressed in a white undershirt. The window I liked best was in a low door, and at night, when the house was lit, I could make out a thin-lipped woman with glasses sitting at a small table, knitting with her eyes glued to a TV set beyond my gaze, probably on an outer wall. To her left was a large bed, on which an elderly man was lying. All these details I saw hurriedly as I walked beside Jan, hoping he would not be offended by my curiosity and manners.
We walked through the alleyways with Turkish names, mostly of cities from where the Greek immigrants had arrived: Ephesus, Izmir. Then, we turned off the horizontal alleys to the vertical ones that led down to the beach and continued north away from the bay and the musical tavern to a small hidden beach where the moon rose late beyond the mountains. The lights of a yacht twinkled as it sailed the bay, music pouring from its deck, filling the night. We saw but were unseen. My body was heavy, weighted down by an aching soul. My last conversation with Shaul, held through the window of a computer screen, still poisoned my blood. His departure had left an empty space the size of his body on the mattress, yet he wasn’t absent at all.
He and I continued to meet, on computer windows filled with long lines of text. Our last chat left me distressed, my body heavy and eyes wet. My body filled with bitter liquids, my eyes burned and poured tears out into the salty sea. Jan did not say a thing. But his silence wasn’t a void. It was a silence hiding a smile. An otherworldly silence.
As I wondered at the profusion of light emanating from the cruise ship across the bay, Jan began to swim into the sea, then turned, waiting for me to join him. I entered, swimming to free myself of the burden of distress. My body thrilled at the water on my skin, but a rope bound to a stone of frustration and sadness pulled me down into an abyss. The water covered my head like a blanket as if telling me: Night has fallen, lie down, sleep, kiss the stillness of the warm, undulating water. My body relaxed, surrendered the burdens on its shoulders, between its breasts, and slowly submerged, my arms spread wide and my eyes shut. Darkness touching darkness. As the silence enveloped me, thickened, I began to relinquish my body. My head alone remained a bubble of concentration while between my lungs lingered a balloon of pain. The slow submersion felt good, eliminating all responsibility or will. I began to crave the water and its weight, the feeling of it pulling me down. I wondered when my body would touch bottom. My hands no longer moved. Perhaps I saw myself as if through an underwater camera. If so, it would be a movie about my death in a beloved salinity. I felt a ripple, a slight movement rubbing against my chest, perhaps a fish passing by, taking no note of a stranger.
Then I heard a voice penetrating through the many layers of water above me and remembered Jan. I started to kick. I kicked and kicked, trying to ascend, and it seemed like I had gone too far under and there would be no way out. My lungs began to hurt, and I felt light, very light. My head was heavy, pulling me under, but my legs continued to kick with great effort, and I began to move my arms. Finally, I could see the stars, and the silence of the bay enveloped me in its terrifying heat.
I filled my lungs and began swimming away from the lights, swimming towards the darker shore. I saw Jan’s silhouette, the contour of his head anointed by light, swimming not far from me, to my right. Treading water, I called his name and he answered simply:
I kept silent for a moment, salty words stuck to the roof of my mouth. Then I said: “I wanted to tell you something. Please forgive me.”
“What? Go on.”
“I feel very lonely tonight.”
“Don’t. I am here with you. All day and all night.”
It had been a long time since I’d heard such warm and simple words. Something
in his voice filled the huge void inside, the brimming anxiety. I knew that with him I would make it through this treacherous night.
He swam faster than me and reached the shore before I did. He was looking at the sea, a towel wrapped around his waist, his feet spread, his hands on his waist, his eyes searching the darkness.
I spread my flowery Turkish shawl on the sand mixed with pebbles, pulled two peaches and two prunes out of my bag. We sat, side by side, facing the night and the sea. Every once in a while, he caressed my shoulders, flipping an inner switch, and tears flowed from my eyes, shielded by the blackness of the night. Small tears, not the big boiling ones that may rouse a storm; these were tears of shame. They were the tears of a little girl, abandoned, who wakes up to claim her place in a grown woman’s life. And I wondered how I might tell Jan in that darkness about the grey, sticky liquid overflowing within me? How might I tell him: Do not leave me alone; you are the only thing saving me from the demon lurking inside me.
We sat imbibing the sweet fruit, its juice dribbling into our mouths. Slowly, we began to look at the stars, naming them in different languages, and as we did, I silently hoped that we would be able to name stars forever and I would not have to return to my room.Spending the night alone would be intolerable. We hardly moved. The fruit juice dripped down my body, oozed into my swimsuit. Finally, we sat in silence.
I realized that Jan knew the woman by his side was inside as tumultuous as a sea, enclosed and endless. Something from my world had infiltrated this special place. Something had crept in, changed the color of the faces, smiles and laughter. He took my rucksack and we began climbing through the alleyways to the rooms, to the apartment, ascending slowly from the lower city, from the bay to the upper ancient section with its alleys, towards St. Antony church. The route was new to me and Jan provided me with clues to find my way.
“Behold, just after the bakery, turn left until you reach a small square, in the middle of which thousands of cicadas cry out from within a Platanus tree. To the right is a small supermarket where a big, blue-eyed woman sits behind the cash register like a queen, sweating in the Mediterranean July heat. From there the road climbs.”
Here Jan stops, points and speaks:
“There is the brown Ottoman balcony with wooden and milky glass windows protruding into the street; the alley climbs from there. On the right is a long brick wall where fig and lemon branches intertwine. And here’s the forked corner where you might get mixed up. Take the right, narrower road to the left of the brown house. There is a house further on, rather new, with wide verandas shaded with blinds from which flowers pour into the street, flowers that are constantly watered by a woman who always has a funnel in her hands as she leans over the banister, watching people go by. In the evenings you might hear her speak, her voice the husky alto of a heavy smoker.”
As we climbed, we did hear her speak to an unseen man, his intermittent bass interlaced with her alto. The alley grew steeper and a scooter climbed at our backs, rasping until it halted near a red door. A long-legged girl in a yellow tank top with golden hair falling to her shoulders came out and took a seat behind the driver, hugging him. They climbed noisily, disappearing among the alleys.
“Remember that woman, she is always here,” Jan said, smiling. It was as if he were planting a line in my memory. We continued to the narrower, older alleyways, and Jan said that according to the books, most of these were built in the seventeenth century, some were even late medieval.
“Then there’s that green house on the right. After that, turn left near the house that has two chairs waiting outside the door near a large bougainvillea pot. Just a little further, turn left after the pink house. Sometimes a house’s color seems it may have been chosen because it was on sale the day it was painted,” Jan said, smiling.
I replied that I liked the freedom of the colors, the unexpected and lively combinations typical of Balkan homes. “In this way they are different than grey Europe,” I said.
The alley we were walking along split into three, a junction I was to mix up a few times until I remembered that I should turn left and upwards at the wooden door formerly painted blue and now closed like a blind eye – probably hiding a room or two, crumbling and full of dust and plaster. Along the last thirty meters of the hard, exhausting climb were homes whose paint was peeling, mainly around the doors and windows. They were made of local limestone and white clay, or perhaps mud. I wanted to stop and stick my fingers between the wooden boards of the windows, pull them out covered in clay. In the coming days, I took many pictures of those buildings – to me they portrayed the same patina and old age frailty of a Moshe Kupferman painting.
Further to the left, by the church, was an entrance to an inner courtyard that hosted a laurel and fig tree. That was our destination. A window overlooking the yard had its shutters open to the yard, inviting you to look inside and listen to a story.
Neither of us wished to go to our rooms. Especially I did not want to be alone that night. A huge expanse of time awaited me, like a sea for a sailing ship, and I knew I would have to stand guard like a sailor and hold on to the rudder that would return me to the morning shore. Sleep would not come. Something that had drowned would float up and be present, saying: I am here. Let go and immerse yourself in the darkness.
In the kitchen, Jan lit candles as I prepared tea and a plate of cheese and tomatoes. Neither of us knew the time.
Suddenly, he rose and left for his apartment and I heard his steps on the blue wooden stairs. I sat quietly, reclining on the chair. Jan came back with a bottle of wine, a dry red. He poured two glasses and toasted me. We raised our glasses and toasted in Greek, in Swedish, and Hebrew. I drank one glass, then another, felt the wine slide down my throat, through my body. We spoke for hours, and each passing minute was a lifeline. I wanted him to hold me, to make love to me in place of the man who had slammed down the telephone and closed the window. The man who I knew did not miss me. I wanted to rise out of the water into which I had submerged, drowning. The candles flickered between us; the wine sank into me like a medicine but gave no solace. Jan sat in front of me on a chair, his legs spread wide, smiling tenderly.
As the breeze of the coming dawn began to pick up in the yard, Jan stopped talking and there was a silence after which he said politely that he wanted to sleep. I felt the world begin to close in on me, choking me. I was afraid of the door closing behind him, of being left alone with my fears, humiliation, thoughts. I tried invoking all the difficult moments I had already survived. Tried to convince myself that I could overcome this moment as well. But I could not, this was one moment too much. I felt the tension in me gathering cosmic energies, crossing sea and land, touching, then choking, me. It was a kind of tension that has no name. If I called it love, I would betray the beauty and heartbeats of a lover. If I called it expectation, it would be a truncated one, and if I called it betrayal then all possible powers of revenge would have roared from my mouth. I could have done something, but this man and this woman (she being myself) were dancing on the brink of an abyss.
I sat on the stairs, a tide rising within me. I told Jan that I could not sleep alone. That perhaps I might take a sleeping pill.
“Are you afraid?”
The question was like a rickety board over a dark hole. How could I tell him that I was afraid of the night, afraid of being left with my demons that would tell me the story I did not wish to hear? Perhaps before the demons came, I could evade the anxiety by translating a Swedish poem? Their poems are full of landscapes and quiet. I could look for a word for a steep slope, sit on the stairs where we were and name this place “a wooded cliff .” And how would I call a dry wadi, that which Jan metaphorically calls a bed, or perhaps a bedding? But I said something else. I said I was terrified. I sent those words out into the kitchen space, not believing they had actually come out of my mouth.
The kitchen remained quiet. Nothing moved. Jan responded with silence, looked agitated, walked back and forth, then suddenly disappeared. I thought he’d gone to his room, to his apartment, put an end to the evening, gone to sleep. Then I heard his footsteps, confident ones that caused the wooden floor to groan.
I told myself to take a sleeping pill from the first aid kit. But before I’d risen, he was at the door, carrying something. He said nothing and began to climb the stairs to my room, and I wondered if he’d understood what I’d said as an invitation. When we arrived, he pulled out a folding bed from the corner and spread out the bedding that was under his armpit.
“I’m here,” he said calmly, in his deep voice. “You will not be afraid. You will not sleep alone.”
There were verses from the Odyssey that I wanted to quote but could not translate them for Jan, not from the lilting Hebrew into basic English that would be so far from the ancient Greek. But I thought how we were in the land of the Greeks, where the returning Odysseus tried to convince Penelope, already accustomed to sleeplessness, to accompany him to bed.
Jan, in one movement, took off his light-coloured pants, folded them, then took off his turquoise shirt I loved so much, and put them both near his shoes beside the bed. In his green boxers, his torso was somewhat hairy along his ribs, there was something boyish about him. Before I had the opportunity to look further, he lay down. I saw the long body, too long for the bed, spread itself along its entire length, his big feet and long toes protruding from the edge. When my mother wanted to tell me how tall my father had been, she would tell me how he had to build himself a bed, because those of the Jewish Agency were too short for him. She would say how the iron beds were too short and tell me how his toes would stick out from their edges. And the father who had vanished was now there, with me in that room.
Somehow I undressed, put on white pajamas and lay down, wondering if Jan was watching me as I had watched him. For a long time, I gazed at the ceiling, listening to the noise of the cicadas through the open window and the sounds of night touching those of the day. Then, when I heard his light breathing, I closed my eyes. I thought that, in a movie from the 1950s where such things are expected, I would have directed the actress to get out of bed, lift the summer blanket to expose Jan’s body, then lie down on the narrow bed beside him. There was not enough space to lie at his feet like Ruth the Moabite, but I would have liked my actress to expose the length of his legs and lightly touch his shin. Perhaps I would have directed her to grab his hand and lay it on her left breast, the one that was more sensitive. This would be the typical scene, but for me, nothing is typical.
I would have told her to somehow bring her body closer to his, just as her soul already had. At that moment, I became aware again of how difficult it is for the body, well-bred as it might be, to catch up with the soul, and thought about all those occasions when the body did precede the soul. When a woman in love says, “I sleep, but my heart is away,” which part of her soul sleeps and which is awake?
Once, in an intimate moment, a friend told me with a sparkle in his eye – as if entrusting me with an old secret – the story of his betrayal on his wedding night, relating it as if it was a trifle. On that night, he went with his wife, a student, on their honeymoon to a small guest house on the beach. When they entered the wedding chamber, his young wife complained of a headache and went to bed. He waited for her to fall asleep before driving off to see his secret lover: a married woman, a woman loathed by her husband, but whom my friend desired. Their secret love was the elixir of her life. He told me about the joy they shared, which unexpectedly brought them love.
This man, already a grandfather, told me that rather than reading in the library where she worked as a librarian, he had made love to her. His favourite shelf in the library held the Holy Scriptures and was the widest of them all. All this he told me as if to say: If a man leaves his warm bed, ready to forgo his vows for a woman waiting outside, then love, too, can reside outside a warm bed.
I asked him if that night was his last betrayal of his new wife. No, he said, from under his white Mediterranean moustache as we drank Turkish arak.
“I am an unfaithful man,” he said.
“Why?’’ I asked, and smiled, but it was a smile more painful than happy.
“It’s simple,” he replied. “It all started with my mother in Izmir. She was an unfaithful woman.”
“It sounds genetic,” I laughed, now curious. “Please explain.”
“My mother was widowed at a very young age. She was a really beautiful woman, left with two young children. I was four years old, perhaps five, and she used to send me to her sister’s, my aunt’s, a few streets from our home, with a note in my hand, telling me to ask my aunt to read it and give me whatever was written there. This aunt would babysit me. One day, I returned home and saw my mother with a man I didn’t know, probably a Muslim neighbor. I stood at the door while they tried to cover their nakedness under the blanket. From then on, I couldn’t stand her or her lies. I did not love my mother until the day she died.”
I cannot forget that man, or the twinkle in his eyes. He ended our conversation by saying: “I haven’t trusted any woman since and cannot stand any woman who is unfaithful. But for me, as a man, unfaithfulness is permitted.”
Jan slept on the narrow folding bed, filling it with his body, keeping a physical distance even as I felt his soul grew closer. The narrow bed seemed to me a shelf of holiness. I listened to his breath and it calmed my soul and aroused my body. I thought of the man sleeping near me, not about the one far away who made me lovesick, and how a call from him might have calmed my body but not my soul. In my tormented imagination, I saw that man drinking wine with another woman, taking her by the hand, leading her to his room. My exhausted eyes hurt and I concentrated on the rhythmical breathing in the room, soothing like light music, like a mirror within a mirror, or a traditional circle dance where the inner ring circles to the right and the outer to the left, as each dancer moves endlessly from hand to hand. The secret of movement. I felt a great hunger for motion ending in a curtsey and an embrace like that of a mother to a son, or of a father to his daughter just returning from a trek in the Himalayas.
I promised myself to change my life so that no man would ever hurt me so much that I would again wish for the water to quench my love and suck me under. In the morning, I told myself, I would find a map of the island, distance myself from the voices that didn’t taste of salty water or feel the warmth of the local sunshine. I would look at the map and see vastness. As though on a sea voyage, I would navigate the wind, the wind would blow my sails and I would relinquish the words which could not set a ship in motion. The wind would touch my skin, and it would be real.
I have no doubt that the Odyssey was written by sailors who knew how to install a mast and sail and set into the wind, who knew how to observe the shore from the sea. Homer contributed only the words.
With my eyes still open, time went by as I began to let go of the night when he and I faced each other through the windows of our computer screens – the distance an intimacy, the intimacy a distance. Now he is absent, but the words crawl back to me, become entities unto themselves, scuttle along my limbs, swim into the bay and listen to me. Who can tell when those words will become a sentence in a story about pain, announcing its presence as a symptom but without revealing its source?
And I somehow knew that within the warm, salty water, I had entered Jan’s body as well.
You are lonely my friend because you are…
We, with our words or our gestures
Gradually make the world our own,
Though perhaps at its weakest, most precarious.
The next morning, after drinking black coffee, I put on my walking shoes and took my camera, still feeling the extra weight in my body, heavy with the turbid water of pain. I turned west down an unknown alley, seeking to become acquainted with my surroundings, to create a map for my eyes, for my heart.
I went out into a day lit by a pinkish oblique morning light, hoping to fill the emptiness, the aching void within me. The town woke lazily. A woman came out to sweep the stairs descending from her house to the street, sweeping away the leaves that the wind had brought in and the dirt left from the night.
Down a winding alley, the voices of a mother and son rose from a home several stories above the ground. The mother kissed her son, cooing like a suitor, and he answered with a gurgle and a growl. I stood in the shadow of the buildings, listening to the voices scattering, voices I couldn’t photograph but could hear. I tried, but failed, to figure out from which window the voices of the mother and son came, and was filled with longing for that kind of boundless love.
The alley filled with human voices pushing their way out of the windows and down to the foreign woman passing nearby. It was language swallowed up by the objects as it swept by, swallowed like a kiss to a baby’s bellybutton.
And I remembered a Saturday morning when I was climbing down a mountain that rose above the Pirin on the Adriatic coast. The path was empty. There was just me and my camera walking a trail wide enough only for two beasts of burden side-by-side. Climbing down the steep path toward the plain, I heard voices, groans. Unsure whether the sounds were of distress of pleasure, I stood listening, trying figure out where the voices came from, from which window. I knew others were listening as well, in other alleys, in other rooms under that window or above it. And finally, out of the man burst a sigh of relief, and the words, “Bozhe Moi” (Oh my God). I smiled, photographed the alley, and continued walking. For a second I had been a hidden partner in that man’s version of the morning prayer, turning to God from between his lover’s thighs. My camera separated sight from sound just as I separate the egg’s yolk from its white, a separation only memory can reunite.
The following night I didn’t sleep well. Whenever I shut my eyes, they opened again. I blamed the mosquitoes, the cicadas, the roosters. The entire night passed by. The next morning Jan and I had planned to climb up to the Church of the Prophet Elias. Jan had announced that he would wake me at six o’clock. But by then I was already up, waiting with my rucksack filled with fruit, sandwiches and water.
“There is no need,” he said. “There will be food there.” I didn’t understand what he meant by “there” or why the prophet Elijah was on Greek island and not on Mount Carmel where he belonged. But myths have the habit of crossing borders, and Elijah deserved to visit as many countries as he wished. I put on my walking shoes and my hat and followed Jan, thinking of the Prophet Elijah and the window of Zarephath, of a zealous man burning with the fire of ideology, a man of fire who went up in a whirlwind to heaven.
Jan led us out of the village to a lane of ancient intertwined cobblestones set between coarser curbstones, grooved in the middle to let the rainwater flow. The ancient lane was surrounded by vegetation, running along an old, dry stream covered with typical wadi foliage: Platanus trees and mulberries. When the wadi curved, Jan faced me and asked: “Do you recognize this?”
I wanted to say, yes it feels like walking along a wadi in the mountains of Jerusalem, perhaps in Ein Mata. Instead, I waited for him to speak, which he did with a huge smile: “This is the Manolis Donkey Track, the one in my story you translated for me yesterday.”
Suddenly everything became clear. “So this is the mulberry tree,” I cried. “And this is the stream,” I added, somewhat disappointed. “But it is not a river, it is more like a dry wadi.”
“A wadi in Arabic, you mean?”
“Yes,” I answered, pulling some white mulberries off of a branch. They were the first of the season and still tasted dry. I was breathing heavily, and the wadi was filled with words, like the written notes left for us by Batia, my friend Dvora’s mother from Kibbutz Degania in the Jordan Valley, who we went to stay with during my first pregnancy. I had gone in through the yard, lit by the Jordan Valley’s huge and glittering light, then entered the first room, next to the small kitchen and living room. There had been a bathroom on the left. Some of the furniture had been covered with small and large tablecloths as if to protect them from dust and vermin. This small apartment had suited us. A note on one electric switch said: balcony, another kitchen, and on a third, bathroom. Yet a fourth said: bedroom. A note on the fridge, three lines in large handwriting said:
When you leave, do not forget
To turn off the light
And the air conditioner
On the bathroom wall, she had taped a handwritten note: Right hot, left cold. All the plugs were disconnected, and near each one a word was written in slanted, ornate handwriting: Toaster, air conditioner, kettle (Please close the lid), night light. In the fridge there were two identical glass bottles. Milk was written on one; water on the other. Otherwise, we would not have been able to tell the difference.
Now there were words between me and Jan,words that covered the landscape. Suddenly, the tale of old Manolis’ progress on his way from the village to the mountain made sense. Manolis had left the village behind him as he climbed the donkey track along the creek. When the donkey was thirsty, he stopped and drank, the proximity of the water keeping the animal calm. The sound of the water was comforting. But the creek had now been dry for many years. The authorities now pumped the water into underground pipes. The story about the track, the water, and the old man walking no longer mattered.
Jan kept walking, his long body taking the incline easily. He occasionally looked back to make sure I was keeping pace. Soon the track would end and we would reach the square, the street, the village. At the edge of the village, at the junction where the road met the footpath leading up the mountain to Elijah’s church, cars were parking and the people getting out were dressed in their best clothes but in flat shoes. Most were elderly, some were in their fifties. A mother and her three young children joined what was certain to be a grandparent. I felt like I belonged.
Standing near a Platanus tree was the owner of the grocery store and the old postman who bicycled among the anonymous lanes, knowing exactly who slept behind each door. Also there was the baker from the bread and sweets bakery who was in her fifties. She stood blue-eyed and ruffle-faced, flat-chested in a childish undershirt appropriate for the hot climate with no air conditioning.
Somebody had cleared the footpath, removing some rocks and whitewashing others. Benches had been built along the path for people to rest on, and they too were brightly whitewashed.
Maria and her father, the village apothecary, joined us, and as we walked, she entertained us with stories. Maria said that it was St. Elijah’s day, when people climbed to the small church to pray.
“How did the Prophet Elijah get from Mount Carmel to a mountain on the Greek island of Samos?” I asked.
Maria’s father sat down on a bench, stared at me, and said: “He went up to heaven in a chariot of fire. No one knows where he came from.”
And I was ashamed. Why had I appropriated Elijah to Mount Carmel and the Hebrew language?
My eyes wandered among the trees and I was happy to find species close to my heart and soul; pine trees and arbutus, Pistacia palaestina and burnets. There were jujube trees as well, and I rubbed the leaves of the purple sage tree, offering Jan a whiff of their perfume, telling him of its wonders. To my joy, he opened his eyes like a curious child and I wrote down for him the names of all the trees in Greek. Here they were not my trees, nor my plants. Here they must be called by their local names, separating herefrom there.
I stopped by a carob tree and asked what it was called in Greek name. Maria replied, “Harupia.”
“Carob,” I said. “And the Pistacia?”
“Komeria,” she answered.
I felt like the biblical Adam, bestowing names, forgetting the names I knew to make room for the new ones.
As we walked, Maria kept us busy, telling us that she had studied archaeology and philosophy, and that life in Athens was hard. We kept climbing, breathing heavily, and I saw Maria gazing at Jan.
At the mountaintop, at the end of the whitewashed path, was the small chapel, dressed up in white and blue like a bride. Even the flagstones were painted white for the festivities marking Elijah’s ascent to heaven. In the chapel’s small yard were our fellow climbers, listening to the chanting coming out of the house of prayer. Jan took a seat on the fence, listening intently.
Maria walked among us, serving water and cookies and explaining what was happening inside. A broad-brimmed hat covered her face and neck, and her lips were painted red. There was something careless, girlish in the way she was dressed. I asked why her mother hadn’t joined us and she answered that she wasn’t interested.
I left the churchyard for the surrounding wood, thinking about Maria’s lips and her shy eyes.I followed the footpath into the mountains, to the all-surrounding sea which, like blue brush strokes, always felt like it was opening and closing at the same time. Flocks of swallows flew around, circling and chirping. I stood in a clearing under a lone oak tree, looking at the Carmelite, Mediterranean scenery and felt quite small. There was not a house, town, or cruise ship in sight.
Behind me, I heard branches breaking. I turned my head as Jan came up, put his arm around my shoulder, and turned his eyes to where I was looking. “What do you think of my island?” he asked.
“Thanks for inviting me,” I said.
“This is a magical place, where things happen. Do you want to hear a story?”
“Yes,” I replied. There was no other answer possible.
“There is a very old woman on the island, over ninety years old perhaps, who once was the most beautiful woman on the island. Her name is La Belle Helene. Her husband was a goatherd who loved his goats, giving them each a name, such as Good Spirit, The She-Goat of Sweet Milk, Good Luck, or The She-Goat Whose Milk Is Good For Love. The only problem was, he was unable to slaughter them. He used to bring the poor she-goats to Helene, who would butcher them, skin them, sell them in the market, and bring the money home. Her husband loved her very much. One day he arrived home from the tavern where he drank and smoked with his friends every morning just as his wife had finished killing a goat. The blood was still in the bowl on the floor, and the dead goat, minus its skin, still tied up with ropes. Helene was getting ready to go to the market. He watched her dress and harness the donkey to the cart, then he took the knife from the kitchen table and slit his own throat.
“This is one of the island stories, the story of La Belle Helene and her husband,” he said, smiling.
“And what is Maria’s story?” I asked. Yesterday, in the street leading down to the beach, I had met her mother at the apothecary’s shop, a bronze-skinned woman with red lips and a tight black dress standing behind a counter selling shampoo and prescription medicine.
“Maria is a plant that grew in the wrong bed,” said Jan. “She grew up here on the island, and everybody wants her to be like everybody else, get married, have children, inherit the pharmacy. But she studied archaeology, wanted to be writer, and her soul sought to fly away. She fell in love with a famous editor and poet, much older than she. As his writing student and translator, she did what she could to make him happy, but didn’t get the love she deserved.
“An old story,” I replied. He smiled at me and I said, “Within every woman there is a little of Maria. Sometimes she grows up to become Maria’s mother, until there is no room for both Marias.”
The story must end before I leave the island; otherwise I may be left with stories that fill my computer and refuse to end. The winding path will have passed by, but the story will remain. Two people will have walked for a while along the road, or the beach, sometimes along an ancient donkey path. They will have talked, words passing from mouth to mouth, discovering different tastes. They will have discovered that by omitting the mysterious letter Aleph from the word Emet, meaning truth, they are left with Met which means death, crumbling into ashes. And so they must speak, exchange words and feel the cold taste of the mountain submerged in the Swedish sea, and the taste of another on the Aegean Sea that spreads the smell of herbs and essential oil.