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By Carol Burnham
The Permanent PressCopyright © 1997 Carol Burnham
All rights reserved.
PART ONE LIGHT
What is this momentum—this nameless rhythm moving me forward? Is it accentual-syllabic, dithyrambic, a music of the ears, the spheres? the lubb and dupp of the heart? Forward and down into the sticky stuff of memory. Surfacing with words, sentences, paragraphs—giving the unthinkable form. Getting it down, getting it over (particularly the beginning). From time to time leaping up and out of the viscous stuff, like a flying fish—offering an aside, a footnote from the present. But where to begin? Greece. A place of beginnings. The taxi barreling down the boulevard toward Athens, a plastic saint swinging madly from the rearview mirror, two people braced in the backseat as the driver darts in and out of lanes. Or the night before in the taverna. Our eyes meeting—across a crowded room (the unwanted melody charges in). But "met" is too cordial, even from the perspective of that night. "Caught" is more like it. His eyes seemed to catch on mine, like cotton on barbed wire. And not a stranger as the song goes. I recognized him, knew I'd seen him somewhere.
He looked so satisfied, his long body canted against the hind legs of the small wooden chair, smug even, blotting the olive oil from his mouth, throwing his head back for a last swallow of retsina. I guessed he was staying at the Phoenix, the hotel across the square that was always packed with travelers. I was staying right there in the taverna, in a small room upstairs, more "local" for my article, I thought, and cheaper. But I'd crossed the square from time to time to have a drink from the hotel bar and watch the colorful melange of people—Indian women in rainbow saris floating through the lobby, bronzed Scandinavians cavorting by the pool, American servicemen with strong rural accents, goggle-eyed at the strangeness of the small, echoey hotel that smelled of cigarettes and damp cement.
He sat up, scrutinized his bill, and, as if aware for the first time of other diners, glanced around the room. It was then he spotted me. I blushed and retreated into my notebook, hoping he hadn't recognized me, and was relieved when he passed my table on his way out, neutrally, without a word. I wasn't in the mood for conversation—for any complications. Besides, there was Henry.
Then, the second coincidence (if that's what it was) when, the next afternoon, wanting to go to the top of Lycabettus, I hailed a taxi only to find him sitting in the backseat of the cab. He offered to give it up if, with a note of sarcasm, I still wanted to be alone. He knew he had me trapped, and somehow I knew he had no intention of inconveniencing himself. He was gambling that I would be too polite to usurp the taxi, would insist on sharing it, and he was right.
The car sped north along Singrou Avenue, separating as it went the lustrous glare of the harbor and its countless white yachts from the dull chain of apartment blocks, hotels, and discos, recently built and running down, some crumbling in a state of half-completion, and in the distance, the Piraeus was vanishing and reappearing in a confusion of sea mist and smog. But my impressions of the scene outside the cab were mingled with those of the man beside me—kaleidoscopic at first, loose bits of him swirling about in my head.
Fragments of a Greek-American archaeologist friend-of-a-friend at whose party we'd once met—sunlight glancing off a shoe, a stitched-on khaki patch, an earlobe, the seductive little hollow behind it, hands, mouth. I fell in love. Shards of Nick Rigas, not clues to a new discovery but evidence, proof of something I already knew. As if there had been etched in my mind a line drawing the shape of him that only needed filling in. He got out first at Syntagma Square, paid the driver, and walked away. Then he stopped as though he'd forgotten something, returned to the taxi, and ducked his head into the open window. "Meet me here later," he said, naming a time and motioning to the rows of metal tables and chairs under a large blue awning.
We sat at a table on the hard dirt and dead grass just outside the awning. The rays of the late afternoon sun were warm on my neck and arms, tranquilizing in spite of the fact we were on a crowded island in a cacophonic sea of blaring horns, screeching brakes, and shrieking motorcycles. I felt the trancelike serenity I often had in cities, particularly strange ones, the sense of being lost and not caring. I ordered beer, and Nick, an iced coffee. Then we looked at each other, this time with diffidence, and, I thought, a recognition that went beyond the fact of having met before. I went into my bag for a cigarette and asked him about his work.
"You really want to hear about that?" He patted his pockets for his lighter and, not finding it, picked up a used matchbook lying on the table. I nodded emphatically and leaned in to meet the match he held for me. He reached over to a nearby table for an ashtray and lit his own cigarette. "I enjoy my work," he said, slowly exhaling a plume of smoke and tapping the matchbook lightly against the table. "It's the immersion, I guess ... into another time, another place—its remnants anyway. The 'gorgeous rubble' I call it." He smiled and looked toward the taxi line forming haphazardly at the edge of the square, but his eyes were not focused. They were blue and pale, I observed, almost alarmingly pale. I remembered the blank eyes I'd seen on the statuary at the National Museum and decided he looked like those statues, less like a modern Greek than the old ideal. How fine he was, I thought. He had the face of a god. "It tends to blot out my own life," he continued. "You know, the historical perspective."
"Yes, there are the two perspectives, the one from up there," I nodded in the direction of towering Lycabettus, "and the other from down here." Nick looked puzzled. "So to speak," I added hastily. I wondered then why Nick preferred the first and just what it was he wanted to "blot out." "Contentment, I think, lies in striking a balance. The middle distance is best—just about there, I think." I smiled and pointed to the Acropolis.
Nick's eyes had again left mine and were gazing across the busy street to the entrance of the King George Hotel. "Uh, sorry," he said, turning back to me and answering the tacit question. "I thought I saw someone I knew." My eyes had followed his over to the anonymous group of people in front of the hotel, entering and exiting the grand old building, guarding luggage, hailing taxis. Who would he know here? A taxi driver was standing with one leg outside his cab, shouting and shaking his fist at one of the bellhops. I asked Nick about his current project on the island near Crete. He shifted in his chair and called to the waiter for two ouzos and a bottle of water.
"When you hear the word 'Philistine,' you think barbarian, right? Well, it seems that they might not have been so backward after all. If my hunch is correct, we're going to prove that they traveled much farther than has been supposed. We're actually finding pieces of pottery that match some found in Ekron."
"A Philistine city in southern Israel. Or its ruins, rather." He paused and lit another cigarette. "Umm, where was I?"
"Yes. Well, so we're not only finding wonderful things, we may be changing history a bit." Nick poured water into his ouzo and began to describe some of the objects he'd found. His voice widened with pleasure as he spoke of their beauty and the consolation he found piecing together fragments to make whole things. I had taken another pistachio and was trying with my tongue to find the little crack that would release the nut.
"Wholeness." I said the word aloud, luxuriating in it, thinking that it described what I had been feeling, sitting in a foreign city with this man I barely knew. I took a sip of ouzo and let it stay a while in my mouth before swallowing, enjoying the tingle of its sharp licorice flavor. I was suddenly greedy for sensation. "A poet I like had a theory about that— wholeness. He believed that certain individuals, 'antithetical' he called them, need to embrace all that is their opposite. A way to psychic completeness, I guess, just as sex is ... well, a way to physical completeness, when we incorporate the male into the female or...."
"'Incorporate!'" Nick laughed derisively. "You mean 'fuck!'" I blushed. I saw how my words had sounded stiff and pedantic. "You know, you remind me of an English teacher I had once, the way you use words and, well, sort of distance yourself from what you're saying." He smiled then and put his hand over mine, wanting to erase the criticism. A breeze had come up, strong enough to blow the ashes from the ashtray over the table and onto our clothes. I looked down at the now-empty receptacle with the word "Metaxa" in red around its rim and wondered briefly what an archaeologist a thousand years later might make of it.
"But it also seems a kind of negation, doesn't it? A kind of void?" I continued, brushing ash from my blouse, choosing to ignore his rebuke. (For, you see, I'm fascinated with the fabric of ideas, the way they cross over and under one another. And isn't it the faith of physical attraction that the minds will necessarily follow?) Nick seemed abstracted again. "What do you think?" I ventured.
"Sorry?" He turned back to me. "Yes. Uh, the void. Hard to think about that, isn't it? In this crowd?" He leaned into me. Our faces now were very close. "Let's find a bed, shall we?"
"Yes." I felt a loosening, a spreading warmth in my belly.
"In Greek, 'yes.'"
"I thought 'yes' was 'ne.'"
"Malista. Einai 'ne' kai 'malista.' Both. Yes, yes."
I still like to remember that afternoon in the square. Even now, in spite of what came of it. The end is always there anyway, isn't it? programmed into the beginning? Leda and the swan, Helen, Troy—all that? I think a lot about Athens, where the broken and unfinished blend and the myths are more real than life, an upside-down city with the skeletons of its origins above it, not beneath it and buried as beginnings usually are. And about my own beginnings, the cultivated, stubborn innocence—or ignorance (when does it stop being one and become the other?), which saw in Nick the avatar of an old old dream.
I had come into a new and more sentient existence, an eternal present infused with the look, feel, and smell of Nick. I breathed him in like oxygen, only now oxygen was a mere alloy to him, to his scent of strong foreign soap, tobacco, and something else, as deep and rich as Kansas soil after a rain. That first week we rented a car and drove down to the Peloponnese. At Nauplion, unable to find a better room, we checked into a busy taverna on the bay and ate barbounia in the twilight.
"The fish is good, only too many bones," I said after pulling a small one from the top of my tongue. "What's the Greek word for fish?"
"Psari when it's dead. Alive, ichthys. Using the Greek letters, it's an acronym for Christ."
"Speaking of fish, aren't those repulsive?" I pointed across the road where I'd just noticed a thin rope stretched between two pepper trees, on which the suckered slimy flesh of octopus was drying.
"Tomorrow night's calamari." Nick opened a fresh package of Papastratos and offered one to me. I inhaled the strong sweet smoke and put my feet up on the cement ledge that divided the patio from the street. I poured myself another glass of the turpentine-flavored retsina, for which I was determined to acquire a taste. The locals were just beginning to think about dinner, and more people were now in the street, increasing in numbers and vivacity as the darkness set in.
"Nocturnal animals, the Greeks," Nick observed, "like all Mediterraneans." I agreed and wondered if that might account, in part, for their seeming contentment. Perhaps spending more waking hours in darkness, which nourished the imagination and fantasy, added richness to their lives. The taverna's string-lights came on. A group of fisherman who had been patiently untangling their nets on the beach drifted in, smelling of fuel and sweat. They took a table, ordered beer, and began a game of dominoes. The automatic grace of their movements suggested this was a nightly ritual.
We climbed the stairs to our room and made love to the recorded bouzouki music and clatter of dishes from the kitchen below, on an old red-rose patterned mattress, inadequately covered with a thin yellow sheet. Nick kneeled between my legs and, blinded with sex, felt his way, preceding himself, groping with his beautiful fingers over my increasingly insistent thighs and down into the wet warm place that would ecstatically swallow him whole. The lumpy red roses, the smell of disinfectant from the inconvenient bath down the hall, the noise—none of it mattered.
The next afternoon we explored the ancient spa at Epidaurus. We strolled the needle-soft grounds in the shade of tall dark pines and ran our hands over the ruins of temples, temples where the sick had slept to be cured by dreams. We crossed the weed-covered remains of a stadium and came upon the circular stage of an immense and empty amphitheater. We whispered at first, intimidated by the bowl's vastness, and then, more courageous, strutted about, in and out of the doors of the skene, raising our voices, gesturing broadly—players in our own little drama. We climbed to the top, took seats on the highest tier, and gazed breathlessly around us. It was sunset, and the pink-toned limestone of the parabola was turning a deep resplendent rose. I thought of Asclepius, for whom all of this had been built, of his raising the dead and offending the Fates. And of Zeus' reducing him to ashes, limiting forever the power of mortal healers. He punished us all, I thought sadly, remembering the helplessness of my father's doctors. Nick emptied our backpacks of the bread, feta, olives, and wine, and we ate while we waited for the crowd to gather and the play to begin.
The chorus of Argive seniors filed in, their white togas glowing in the dusky light, followed by the watchman, the betrayed queen, and finally the "king of men," arriving home from the war in glory, in a chariot with his mistress beside him. His feet did not touch the ground. A crimson carpet had been laid by handmaidens from chariot to palace door. The royal couple were elevated and masked, magnificent as they strode across the stage, stiff and exalted as priests at a sacrifice, as dried blood on cotton. I smile. (Yes, I can still do that. Call it the "historical perspective," from the mountaintop, the afterlife—ha! from Chowchilla.) Perhaps I should have paid more attention, sitting there with Nick, bigger than life, high on the stone curve of seating. For wasn't there a message in those rhythmic words, pulsating through the soft dark air like rays of light from a star long cold? In the swaying tidelike dance of the chorus, in the song—an exhortation, a warning?
We saw other ruins as well, at Delphi, Mycenae, and back in Athens. At Sounion, Nick proposed we spend more time together, that I call my editor and request more time in Greece or, better, quit my job. We were standing by the fluted shaft on which Byron had carved his name. "Maybe he had a premonition of his early death," I suggested. We talked about beauty—was it an absolute, was it good, could it turn and be a source of evil? It seemed, in that setting, as if our words would not be lost into measureless space but would reside there long after we had gone, would be as permanent, in fact, as the poet's name inscribed in stone. "I've often thought that the beautiful is at odds with the good," Nick said, making a philosophic generalization uncharacteristic of him.
"Hmm. They're practically synonymous, I think—or, maybe, two parts of the same thing." Nick looked up, beyond the capitals of the Doric colonnade, into the misty blue, and then down at me. I was startled again by the paleness of his eyes, which now seemed to be mask-holes through which I could see the sky. He framed my face with his hands.
"You are both, you know—together, beautiful and good." I don't know what Nick meant by the word, but, at that point, "good" meant something to me that was outside the realm of behavior. It had teamed up with emotions that had more claim on my psyche. The goodness of Henry seemed slight, overshadowed as it was by the beautiful and mysterious, by what I deemed, then, to be divine.
Excerpted from Attic Light by Carol Burnham. Copyright © 1997 Carol Burnham. Excerpted by permission of The Permanent Press.
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