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Monday, July 01, 2002

Travel

Departures


The following is part of a work in progress entitled Freefall.

Kula Bitsikou, aged 82, died on a Sunday this past December. We buried her the next day.

She and her husband, Stamatis, who was 87 years old, until a month before Kula’s death had lived all their lives in Myloi, this agrarian village in southern Evia where I, too, now reside. At that time their sons, Yiannis and Kosta, removed them to Athens, into what the sons euphemistically called an idryma (an institution). Their leaving was made sadder by the fact that neither Stamatis nor Kula knew they were going to be put into an elder hospice – Yiannis and Kostas, after all, have homes in Athens – though we, the neighbors, had been informed and sworn to secrecy. For two days and both nights before Stamatis and Kula’s departure, their house had been a place of comings and goings, for those of us who had lived near them – especially Paraskevi, who at 80 had known them all her life and was their closest friend – could not stay away, afraid that we would never see them alive again. Stamatis was uncharacteristically dour and somewhat perplexed by this sudden turn of events, though resigned; he did not want to leave his home, but Kula was ill and their children were now making decisions for them. And Dora the Bulgarian, who had been tending to Stamatis and Kula for more than a year as their live-in housekeeper, had been let go and was gone.

Dora had been notorious among us. She was sloppy; she was loud; she swore like a sailor. Aside from a vicious tongue and terrible manners, she was a busybody as well as a mean tattler, attributes that endeared her to a total of two fat female neighbors (as the also-notorious Panayis always noted with great satisfaction given his fat-women-are-natural-blabbermouths theory) and kept her at arm’s length from the rest of the village women. Anna and Chrissoula, her two gossipy friends, always referred to her as Dora, but all the other women called her i voulgara (the Bulgarian woman). The year she first came to Myloi and into the Bitsikos household, I once watched her sway toward Panayis, who was perched on the stone wall above the garden I was hoeing one late autumn afternoon, pulling her already tight cardigan about her even more tightly; and I’d had to duck my head and dig into the soil so as not to burst out laughing when she in no uncertain terms announced to him: I want a man. Even he, the old married sinner – village lore has it that his former mule was named after a woman in Karystos, the town below us – was taken aback, at least momentarily, for he was speechless. When Dora called out a greeting to me, I looked up with as straight a face as I could manage and returned it in the polite form: in Myloi, no one ever uses the polite form except to keep someone else at bay, and I always made it a point never to speak to Dora in the familiar. Panayis, recovered, grinned at me then and turned to Dora: So, you want a man? he queried earnestly. You want a man, really? The gauntlet she had tossed had been taken up, though I wonder even now whether she’d understood that her plaintive grumble (if this is what it was) signified nothing less than a sexual challenge, one no village man of Panayis’s age – then 74 – and reputation could let pass. I want a man, she bleated loudly in response, paying no mind to the two women who had drawn near and were passing by on their way to the cemetery.

Oh Lord, I thought. And sure enough, by the next day the word had spread: everyone knew that the Bulgarian woman had told Panayis, of all people, that she needed a man. Achristi, worthless – about the worst the village women ever say of anyone – became the most frequent term used whenever Dora was mentioned thereafter. People were not unkind to her, but she was never accepted as part of village life despite her fluent if heavily accented Greek. And Stamatis and Kula, despite her care, were pitied on her account.

And so it was with relief that the village women viewed Dora’s departure. She had, according to her own complaints, tired of her work, but when she was given two weeks’ notice she lost no time in badmouthing the Bitsikos family when the sons refused her request to live on in the house alone until she made arrangements to go elsewhere. Consequently, she did not stay to see Kula and Stamatis off, nor did she visit them before they departed. At the time they left, Kula was terribly weak and sadly suffering from senility as well; Stamatis, on the other hand, told me the night before their departure that his only problem was old age. He had been born in the house they lived in, and he fully expected to die in it. I have a very lucid memory of him dressed in a fine, handwoven sweater, his shirtcollar buttoned, leaning on the corner edge of a stone wall, cane in hand, paying his respects to the funeral procession that passed last year when the village buried Anthoula’s ancient mother, Stamatis’s relation by marriage. He couldn’t manage the walk to the cemetery, but he removed his cap as the coffin went by, and everyone stopped and spoke with him, for the dead can always wait. And Stamatis was much respected and beloved: as a former and longtime mayor of the village, as a fine neighbor, as a mild-spoken man of great logic, a man proud to be from a village and proud to be part of a village, someone whose principled sense of community – everyone agrees – was unmatched, and whose polite kindness to all was as renowned as his passion for southern Evia’s rugged beauty. It was Stamatis who first brought hikers to this part of Greece (in the early 1960s), Stamatis who singlehandedly built a hikers’ refuge (which still functions) beneath Mt. Ohi, Evia’s second-highest peak; it was Stamatis who knew more than anyone about the care and trimming of fruit and olive trees in Myloi, and who maintained these; and it was Stamatis who, once upon a time, had seen to it that all the drystone walls rimming the village paths were constantly repaired and whitewashed, and the now long-overgrown paths kept clear. His leaving, in a way, marked the end of an era that had already disappeared before his going, and in this rapidly diminishing community was cause for a profound sadness: which is why, I think, that hardly anyone could bear to watch his and Kula’s actual departure.

Indeed, the village seemed deserted but for a few of us when Kula and Stamatis finally left that one late afternoon, Stamatis with great dignity and without protest because his wife needed care. He managed to get into the passenger seat of Kostas’s car by himself, and then sat there, staring straight ahead, expressionless, not looking at me or at Paraskevi or at Chrissoula or even at his sons, while Kula was carried to the bedding that had been placed for her in the brothers’ van. He did not once turn his head to look at his house. It was the last time any of us here saw him. When Kula died, Kostas and Yiannis did not tell their father: they told him instead that she’d had to be hospitalized. Perhaps they feared he would not survive the shock of the news or the journey back here for her funeral; but we believed they were afraid Stamatis would refuse to leave his home in Myloi if he ever returned.

And so Stamatis Bitsikos did not bury his wife. He did not attend the funeral of the woman he had lived with for some sixty years. He did not even know she was gone. The old women here cried, more because of this than for Kula – or, to be fair, as much for this as for Kula; and some of them cried because of their anguish, their fear of suffering a similar fate, of being taken from here, of dying somewhere that is not their home, of not being present when their partners die. Of the unthinkable.

Kula’s body is brought back to the village from Athens on the day she dies. It is night by then. The unimaginably narrow, flimsy coffin seems no larger than that for a tall child. The coffin’s insubstantiality is customary, a necessity: it is meant to fall apart, to rot, for Kula is meant to decay, to become dust. Her grave, like most in Myloi’s small cemetery, will someday be reused, as graves yet are throughout the hardscrabble terrain of much of rural Greece, where arable land has always been scarce. Five or six or seven years from now we will exhume what is left of her – her skull, femurs, the thicker, tougher bones – and with a priest wash these with wine, place them in a box and the box in the ossuary; we will drink bitter coffee and cognac thereafter.

Kula’s coffin is placed in the livingroom of the house, and when its lid is removed a white towel is placed over her face, and flowers – mostly white – strewn over her. The many chairs around the coffin are filled by the villagers and people from Karystos who have heard the news, and everyone brings more flowers and places these on those already piled upon her, until all that can be seen of Kula are her folded hands, and then even these are covered. There is nothing to do but partake of cognac and coffee, and to sit with one another. Death rituals in rural Greece seem to have become the province of Western anthropologists who, I more than suspect, exploit their calling by seeking out the arcane and imbuing peasants with an Otherness their audience would find curious at best, or worse, exotic. But in this agrarian village of about 120 souls there is nothing – no special washing and dressing of Kula’s body, no professional mourners (women outside the family brought in to keen and wail), no songs of departure, no ritualistic grieving at all – of what anthropologists write for readers who, at least in the States, have long been distanced from the dead and death by a complicated, commercial system of removal and disposal, in which total strangers whisk the body away and house it elsewhere. After draining the corpse and refilling it with chemicals, after waxing, after sewing and orifice plugging, after altering with makeup any resemblance to the actual person, the dead person is then put on display during appointed hours (and in between bouts of refrigeration) over the course of what can be several days at a funeral parlor where people gather in a cocktail-party-without-drinks atmosphere (unless there happens to be a drive-in, drive-by viewing). Until, that is, the dead person – usually in a massive casket, one built not to decay – is removed for permanent burial. All of which, I’m quite sure, the people of Myloi would consider Other.

We here simply gather about Kula to spend this last night, on the day of her death, with her. She will not be alone; no one will close the lights and abandon her to the darkness we know as we cannot know the darkness that has claimed her. No strange hands have touched her, her body has not been drained or plugged or otherwise defiled, she now lies in her home. The smell of death is not yet noticeable, the flowers are redolent. From time to time, someone cries. Paraskevi sits at the foot of Kula’s coffin and with great dignity wipes tears from her cheeks: she takes this death the hardest but for the family. Ah, she says to me as I enter, patting the empty seat beside her, ah, we all said, where’s our neighbor? Where? Her use of the word neighbor, yitonisa, is humbling: it is a word not spoken lightly in Myloi, for the villagers use it to denote someone who is part of the community, someone who belongs to all. I sit and tell her I only just learned of Kula’s death at Stella’s taverna, where I had gone to ask for whom the bells at dusk had tolled. Look, our Kula, she says sadly, and I look and at the same time put my arm about Paraskevi’s shoulders, a very un-Greek gesture but one I refuse to relinquish: I love hugging these women, enveloping them, wrapping myself about them; I love their hard bodies, their woodsmoke-and-lemon, lanolin-and-sweat smell. It’s good you’re here, she tells me, leaning into me. There is little tenderness and few chances for an embrace in widowhood, and Paraskevi has been widowed for a long time.

The room is simple, a peasant livingroom, now with chairs set side by side along two walls. Against another wall stands a long wooden bureau so polished that its shine astounds. On it rests a lifetime of meager, decorative accumulations: a few candleholders with candles and a few framed photographs. One is of Stamatis at perhaps 20 in army uniform, mounted on a fine, lanky gelding; two each are of Yiannis and Kostas in their youth. But the largest photograph is of Kula, and from the cut of the fine suit she is wearing, I assume it was taken in the late 1930s or early 1940s, sometime after her marriage. She was very beautiful in a cold, haughty way, for she is not looking directly at the camera: such were the poses of women in that era. Her mouth is very red, for the photograph is hand-tinted, and its shape reminds me of Ingrid Bergman’s. In front of this photograph, and also on the other side of a small basket of plastic flowers (beloved by all villagers, whose often magnificent gardens are never culled for interior bouquets), are two identical ceramic curios, ashtrays, actually, with two very garish – one red, one blue – full-breasted, naked women wearing leis. Each rests on a hip sprouting from the curve of the small basin, with knees folded at a slant and with ankles and feet resting at least somewhat modestly before them. A woman from Karystos I don’t know at one point leaves the room and returns with a plastic bag and takes both ashtrays from the bureau top. Where she goes with them I’ve no idea.

Paraskevi, like everyone who stays, does not sleep the entire night; she will not sleep until after Kula is brought to the cemetery and separated from us, until after we have eaten a funereal meal. At 1:30 in the afternoon – a late hour for a village burial in Myloi, but the family awaited the arrival of grandchildren, friends, cousins from Athens – Kula’s coffin is closed, carried from her house, and brought to the church. After the short service for the dead is chanted, the coffin is taken out of the church and driven slowly to the cemetery on the village outskirts. We, all of us mourning, follow it on foot, and when we arrive at the gravesite the coffin is lowered into the shallow grave and unlidded. One of the gravediggers gently, delicately, rolls back the white shroud that has been placed over Kula, and for the first time her face is uncovered. Only for a moment, and then the shroud is pulled back.

Yiasou, mana, Yiannis says, his voice gruff: Goodbye, mother. And then he gently tosses a handful of dirt onto her breast, a dark stain on white. Kostas does the same. And then the coffin’s cover is put in place, and the gravediggers left to their work.

We go to the village’s middle tavern – there are three in Myloi – and drink more coffee and cognac. There are perhaps 80 of us, though not everyone is from the village: here, word spreads quickly by mouth and anyone who knew Stamatis or Kula, even remotely, would be welcome to eat with the grieving family. And then we eat, fish soup, and we drink resinated wine. We eat and drink for the living, for food is life: Zoi se mas, Life to us. The dead, and now Kula, are beyond us.

In 40 days, a memorial service was to have been held for Kula, but it was delayed because Stamatis, too, died (of a broken heart, having been torn from his home, some of the village women murmured, of understanding without knowing that Kula was forever gone). Almost 40 days after his death, the memorial service was held for both of them. After it, we drank coffee and cognac, and then ate meat and drank retsina. The first meal in commemoration of the dead is always bloodless (hence, fish); the second, hearty. In six months, another memorial service will be held in which we will again feast, and then six months later – marking the passage of a year – another memorial service will be held, one of closure, and then we will merely drink bitter coffee and cognac and set about waiting for the time, some years hence, when we will exhume their bones.

Paraskevi – in the stead of Yiannis and Kostas Bitsikos, who will return to their lives in Athens – will light the oil lamp at the head of Stamatis and Kula’s side-by-side graves before each and every nightfall. I do the same for Vangelio’s dead sister and Sofia’s dead husband, for Vangelio and Sofia live in the upper village and, at their age and at least during this winter season, the trip to the cemetery is difficult for them. Others do the same for their dead, and the cemetery glows in the evenings. I like to think that we light the way for the departed through each night’s darkness, though I know otherwise: and I like the fact that our dead are not forgotten, that their presence at the village’s edge is part of our lives, though we cannot be a part of theirs. Their graves are tended until the marble slabs are broken, until what is left of them is gathered and put into a box and the box into the ossuary. One day, we will lie in those same graves.

Perhaps it is a comfort to know where you will be buried. Perhaps it is a comfort to know that someone will try to light your way through the great dark, which cannot be lit.

It is good to know you will be remembered. Good to think you will be missed.

At Kula’s funeral, as at the funerals of all the others I have attended here, I looked about at the villagers’ aged faces, bent bodies, gnarled hands; and those people to whom these belonged looked at one another and then back at the coffin. About two-thirds of Myloi’s residents are over 70, with quite a few in their eighties and several over 90; and these have spent their lifetimes here, together, and now are the remains of their generation. We are all going to die, Vangelio tells me sadly at Kula’s funeral service, patting my hand, just look at us, we greet each other by saying yerasame, we’ve grown old. And then she voices that which gnaws at everyone: But who can say who will be the next, the last? Who can say who will be left to bury us? And then the funeral service is over; we file outside, say no more. Another Stamatis, a rail-thin elder whose speech defect – inherited from his father – endears him to all but kept him from marrying, stands apart and leans on his shepherd’s staff and watches Kula’s coffin go by, eating his sorrow, and for a moment I fear his death as I have feared no other. I think oh no, but I know otherwise. I live in a village of the dying: these are the years of the end, there is nothing left to us but the inevitable. And the inevitable, for this place, is tragic.

What will happen when all the old people die? asks my sister upon visiting for the first time here; she has noted the age of my neighbors and friends, and seen the locked schoolhouse unused for almost a generation, she knows this has become a village in which dying is commonplace, a village of multiplying empty houses, of deepening silence.

The fields will become fallow, I tell her. There will be fewer chickens, fewer sheep, fewer goats, fewer mules and horses and donkeys, until perhaps there are none, for at one point there will be no one to tend these, to work with these. Perhaps the olives will be harvested by the villagers’ children and grandchildren who live in Athens, who spend their August vacations here; perhaps not. Of these children and grandchildren, perhaps some will one day retire here, and perhaps others will keep what they inherit as second homes. But other homes will be sold, and some will simply rot; already there are dwellings whose walls and roofs are caving in. Some fields, too, will be sold, and perhaps their centuries-old stone terracing will be razed to level places for new houses to be built in the wretched architectural style that has come to dominate the southern Mediterranean from Spain’s Costa del Sol to Italy’s Marina del Pisa to Voula in the far eastern reach of Athens – an architecture of nouveau riche dreams, of dreadful, ostentatious, concrete villas that are already sprouting on hillsides above Karystos and that have begun to sprout here as well. Some of the older homes may be bought by foreigners – for who else will restore them? – or by Greeks returned from afar. But they will not be peasants, they will not till the land, they will not raise animals, they will probably not even live here year-round, they might not even speak Greek.

What indeed will happen when all the old people die here is this: The village I chose, the village I love, will cease to exist as I once knew it.

It snows the day after we bury Kula, an uncharacteristic and hard snowfall that presages the harshest winter Greece experiences in 40 years, and the coldest in more than a century. By late afternoon, it’s impossible to know whether the storm is still raging or whether the world is simply masked by spindrift, for the winds blow at 8 Beaufort and all cloudcover is obscured. There is no electricity, and shoveling is useless. I haul wood into the house in grainsacks; I burn wood at an astonishing rate in spite of reducing my living space to two rooms instead of four because of the small size of the woodburning stove and the aberrant, below-freezing temperatures. The next day I awake to eight inches of improbably heavy snow. The lemon trees in the yard are bowed, the hibiscus tree by the wall is doubled over, the kitchen ceiling drips, the electricity has not been restored; the wind, which died during the night, is again so fierce that the Frankish castle that crests Myloi’s western edge can barely be seen through the whiteout. I spend hours freeing the lemon branches from the snow’s weight; I shovel off the house’s flat roof despite the blow, I shovel paths to the woodpile and to the detached – by 20-odd feet – and unheated bathroom, I shovel the stairs to the street, and then I go and shovel out Baolina, my 84-year-old neighbor who can shovel nothing, and knock the snow from her trees.

Maggie, the only other foreigner in Myloi who lives here year-round and who has been here for more than 20 years, says the snow makes people hibernate, that it slows their body rhythms and drops their blood temperature and dulls them into something akin to narcolepsy. Maggie hails from Wales, where snow may or may not induce torpor; in Athens, according to the news I listen to on a battery-powered radio, it has provoked an alarm bordering on hysteria; in Myloi, it inspires absence. Everyone stays inside. I find myself nonplussed by Maggie’s theories, by Athenian panic, by the fact there’s hardly a soul to be seen in the village. For I’m from New Hampshire, where snow – which usually then, during the 1950s, fell heavily and constantly between November and March – neither stupefied nor panicked people, though it did fortify their tendency to an innate, laconic terseness and an unsympathetic bent for viewing life as something not to be enjoyed but as something mean everyone was pitted against, and something to be met, usually unpleasantly, head on.

***

Indeed, if someone were to say, Tell me about your childhood, these would be my first words: There was snow. It is snow that covers the landscape of all memory from those years, in myriad patterns of drift and fall, blanketing yards and woods, ghosting the silkgray silhouettes of slender and spectral birches, clinging its contrast onto the branches of dark maple and the bark of beech, freezing the crinkled auburn leaves of oak clinging stubbornly to frozen branch tips, mounding round and full the hollow in the waterless cement birdbaths that stood like squat gothic sculptures behind our house. It bent the boughs of spindled hyacinth and weighed the leafless lilacs that hedged a boundary between us and our neighbor, obliterated until shoveled the skating pool my father created each year with hosed water between the sidewalk and the driveway, buried the garden sometimes in waves and at other times in rippled patterns and always deeply. Snow in those years seemingly always came with Thanksgiving, like a stealthy and unwanted guest who could not be turned away, for there it was, on the doorstep, and we folded our hands and said grace not at its appearance but because we were supposed to give thanks on that day of ritual and think of those pilgrims, who were not our ancestors, feasting in gratitude for the harvest of plenty, the snow about them. And then they were forgotten, as though buried within the luminosity of the season. Winter.

In my snowbound memories reside frozen moments, freeze-frame splices for a jumpcut jumble of wordless images. Of our black dog streaking through a phantasmal dusk, a dark bounding of muscle and sinew, the snowcrust giving beneath her weight and her belly-deep and racing. Of nuns crossing the parish parking lot after early mass, thick flakes whirling about them like spirits in dance, the wind puffing their ankle-length black skirts but unruffling their snow-white, wafer-shaped collar pieces that sat their chests unblemished but for black beads and crosses. Of fires blazing on the edges of ice-fishing ponds, the smell of fresh pine boughs burning and the snap of wet wood hissing, the snow beneath melting into a pool of blackening water rimmed with charcoal flotsam, the men (my father among them) standing with their bare hands outstretched toward the wavering heat of the flames, silent. The frozen sandwiches in their fishing baskets made our mouths water, for we knew that at one moment the men would sit these on the shallow ice skimmers to toast and then toss them to us; and the sandwiches would burn our fingers and palates and taste of mustard and bologna and scorched bread and smoke scent. (Two score and more years later, when my father loses his mind, I will sit – unrecognized by him – in his hospital room for days, watching his hands busy above some hallucinated ice-fishing trap, his calloused fingers with their yellowed nails deftly threading the unseen fishing line through the trap’s eyes, then cupping his almost close-fingered palm to hold the invisible minnow he then hooks, pressing the point gently into the back of the fish just below its fin before leaning over the chair into which he is strapped and opening his hand, dropping the nonexistent minnow into the nonexistent fishing hole, watching the delusional streak of silver disappear into the depths before he wipes his hands on what he thinks is his shirtfront and then blows into the cup he makes of them to warm them.)

There are other recollections too: of our abandoned ranch wagon on the impassable road to our camp – Camp No Rest, my father named it, and nailed a board with those words burned onto it on a tree at the last turn of the last road that led to it, seven miles of dirt-and-rock going before that point – of the catgut snowshoes strapped onto my feet being unwieldy and heavy with the thick of wet snowcling, of my father disappeared around the bend on his snowshoes and my younger brother straggling before me and bawling, the snow-draped forest about us eerie and too still, the falling snow beading and freezing my hair and biting into my face like salt; and when my brother undoes his snowshoes he sinks thigh-deep into the softness and bawls the louder. Of splinters biting into my palms from the wooden-handled shovel, of the metal clang and scrape of its scoop against the roof of the camp, against our home driveway in the dark but for a pool of light cast round onto the street an interminable stretch away, my belly sore for the bend and heave, bend and heave, my arms tired from the weight of snow and wood and metal, the snow petals sinking earthward reluctantly, thick as feathers. Of heavy wood sleds with handles that steered clumsily and iron runners we waxed with candlebutts, of the slick embankment two houses away whose descent led to a curve on Overland Street, of the metal pipe buried beneath a snowbank cast by plow trucks, of my brother’s bloodied, split face after he hit it.

There was, it seemed, always blood against the white of that world. There were my younger sister’s unaccountable and countless nosebleeds crimsoning splotchy drops on snowcrust. There was the time I skated backward into my youngest brother’s face as he lay prone on the ice, opening a hole beneath his cheekbone, the puncture spurting and smearing a stain onto the smooth, frozen surface. There were the shot deer hung in our yard, their eyes like withered olives and their gutted insides red, their bloodied mouths and nostrils. Rabbits, later served tasting of buckshot at the table, were skinned by the dogpen in the yard, where fish bellies were likewise slit open, their bluish-crimson insides slipping to the snow about my father’s feet in knotted patterns resembling hieroglyphics. Our cat killed squirrels and dragged them by their punctured throats into the snowfort we always built at the street’s edge, or onto our doorstep, my father toeing their carcasses before picking them up by their tails to hurl them into the tin garbage cans he would later roll out of the garage on the day the pickup men came.

My mother is, curiously – and on reflection perhaps not so curiously – absent. Within the winters of my memory she does not figure except framed within the doorway of the house we lived in on Gold Street, unhappy at our soaked snowsuits or with the slowness with which we shoveled or with our brawls and flying fists and our enraged screams, or with my sister’s impossible and unstoppable and aberrant nosebleeds, or with the fact that we have unpenned the black dog, for she has no use for dogs and now this one sits slouched on the top step against the door, hunching against the cold, yearning for warmth. My mother found winter and its snows interminable, and our childhood much the same. And as her dread of both permeated all, she sent us out into the winter and into the snow and washed her hands of that time of year and of her children, for we were, like that season, imperfect.

***

I witnessed my first snowfall in Greece in 1992 on the afternoon of Christmas eve, in Pelion, a long and mountainous peninsula that hooks into the Aegean far beyond and to the north of Evia and way below Thessaloniki. Peter and I had taken a morning bus from Athens to Volos, Pelion’s largest town, where we had a four-hour wait for another bus that would take us to a small, slate-roofed village called Argalasti, where friends an hour’s drive from there were to meet us. We were going to spend Christmas with them where they lived, at the very end of Pelion’s fingertip, in a village of about a dozen houses called Katiyiorgis. I have the impression now that Peter was not at all thrilled with the idea of going to what seemed to him the end of the world for Christmas, but perhaps I misremember any enthusiasm he might have had because of his reaction to the decrepitude of the Volos bus station. It has since closed, and a new one opened; but, at that time, the old unheated station was a combination waiting space and smoke-filled cafe inhabited both by people in transit and by people who had nowhere to go. There were a few ticket counters and a baggage storage area and, if I recall correctly, a large blackboard on which were written destinations and schedules, the latter defying logic, for all connections seemed to demand hours of waiting. No one cleared the tables, and it looked to be about a century since anyone had last thought of wiping them down; there were cigarette burns around the edges, and ancient coffee stains so thick they had quite solidified. It wouldn’t have surprised either of us if we’d found that some stranded passers-through had carved their initials into these substantial stains with a date that read, say, 1953. The mud-tracked floor was littered with cigarette ash and butts and torn lotto tickets. The interior bathrooms, which were no longer functioning or perhaps had never existed, might have been located beyond one of several chainlocked doors; the actual bathrooms were a series of freezing, stench-filled portables that stood at the edge of the rainwet concrete yard outside. These were of what is in Greece called the Turkish design, with a hole in the floor between two barely raised steps for foot placement; none had been flushed with water for what I could only imagine must have been years.

Bangladesh, is all Peter said, his face ashen after the experience of inhaling far too much smoke and then using one of the outside portables. We walked through the cold, gray drizzle falling onto Volos; we made the most of wandering about the old cart-and-saddle shops, decrepit (and, I tried to argue, charming) buildings where grain and horseshoes and plowing yokes and wood-barrel saddles and reins and liniment were sold; we walked the town’s foul-smelling port with its oil-slicked, leaden sea upon which there was not a ripple and studied the awful architecture of the cement-block hotels that rose before it; we returned to the bus station to freeze. By the time we boarded for Argalasti, light snow had begun to fall. The bus driver, whose leather briefcase was adorned with the words “Mr. Bob,” turned on the heat as well as the radio, then opened his window and lit a cigarette. This is truly hellish, Peter said.

We climbed above Volos. We watched the now-diffuse light reflect dully on the sea below us, then climbed higher and lost the view of the water. Snow fell onto olive groves, a ghostly white upon silver leaves. The bus warmed, despite Mr. Bob’s open window. The radio defied anyone to speak. Cheap scent wafted through the air, as did the smell of drying wool; everyone was dressed and pomaded, for it was Christmas eve, after all; men wore woolen caps pulled aslant over their brows, women in dress coats wore high heels, everyone had plastic bags full of wrapped gifts. Everyone, that is, but me: I had traveled far too often on buses in Greece, and so I wore knee-high rubber mucking boots over riding leggings, and I carried a backpack whose sole contents were a change of clothes, two bottles of champagne, an extra sweater, and as much black-market caviar as we’d been able to afford.

Peter was wearing sneakers, but he had a shoulder bag of clothes that included a pair of paddock boots. Our friends had horses: we’d ride, I’d promised him – a lovely way to spend Christmas day, I’d intimated, just the two of us cantering above the Aegean.

Some five miles from Argalasti, with about four inches of snow on the road, Mr. Bob suddenly halted the bus and turned off the radio and stood up from his seat, his face much the same ashen hue as my husband’s had been in Volos. He faced his passengers – us – and announced, without fanfare, that this was the end of the line. We had all felt the slight skid some moments previously, when Mr. Bob braked to let someone off in the middle of what seemed to be nowhere. This had bothered none of the passengers, but Mr. Bob was quite obviously rattled. No one moved at his announcement. No one said anything. He could have been speaking to the dead for our impassivity.

Did you hear me? Mr. Bob shouted at us. I’m not going any farther! Those of you who want to go to Argalasti can go on foot. Anyone who wants can come back to Volos with me. I’m turning the bus around, right now, right here. He waits out the silence again, and finally there is some grumbling, a few calls of dissent. This is what Mr. Bob expects, this is what is needed: a contest of wills, a screaming match – only this can justify the unjustifiable, a hierarchy must be established, lines of power drawn in which logic plays no part for Mr. Bob to stand in for the captain of a marooned ship whose passengers now have a choice (or none) to scuttle or not, for Mr. Bob will veer the bus from its course and guide it back to its port of departure: it is his ship and none other’s. I watch the snow fall, thicker now, think: five miles is not so far, the snow is just a few inches deep, the overcast and gray light is striking, the stilled beauty of the mountainous countryside breathtaking. Protests erupt, the screaming match begins. It’s my bus, Mr. Bob yells over the din, and that is that: he opens the door and outside opens the bays and then some of the defeated passengers leave their seats, clutching their Christmas presents, and outside take their luggage from the hold and walk off, disappearing into the snow. One youngish woman in red high heels becomes a blur of gray but for her feet, and then the blanket of white obscures her and she is no more.

We are the last passengers among those who choose to descend the bus because Peter tries to appeal to reason. You’ve a responsibility to see your passengers to their destination, no journey can be cancelled between two points, everyone has paid, he tells Mr. Bob: none of this holds any water with him. It’s Christmas eve, Peter finally pleads emotionally, people are dressed for this and not for hiking, they have gifts with them, they want to reach their homes. My home is in Volos, Mr. Bob says.

Peter refuses to change into his paddock boots. If misery is to be his fate, he will succumb to it wholeheartedly. He hates snow, hates buses, hates the countryside. We walk in silence but for the crunch beneath our feet. The world seems suspended, fragile; there is no sky above us, only the fall of thick snowflakes and the hush of silence broken only once when a pickup truck drones toward us, ignores our waves, passes. Peter curses and we press on, he walking in its tread. About us, fields and forests fall away into whiteness.

When a van approaches, Peter and I turn to flag it down, and – improbably – it stops. The three men in the cab are drunk, they seem as though they’ve been drunk for days, and they laugh riotously when we tell them the bus stranded many of its passengers, that there are more of us walking to Argalasti. A plastic cup is passed hand to hand, they share it bleary-eyed before the man on the passenger side hops out and opens the side door to the van’s hold and yells Come on! as though we are deaf, then reaches out a hand for me as though we are footman and lady. When I step up, I realize the van has almost no room, that there is no place to sit but on the bloodied hubs that rise over the back wheels, for the biggest, deadest pig I have ever seen lies gutted on the floor, its eyes already withered and puckering, its guts pooled in a massive plastic pail to one side. I hear Peter’s gasp behind me and I don’t look at him because I’m afraid I’ll laugh. In Greece, our friend Aris always says, the same things that make you laugh make you cry.

The door closes, and then opens and closes as we pick up stragglers along the road. The woman with the red high heels looks a pity by the time we get to her; her shoes are ruined, the presents in her clear plastic bag are wet, her uncovered hair is stringy with snowfall. We all stand hunched, our palms against the ceiling, balancing ourselves unsteadily about the pig. Somewhere near Argalasti the van slides to a halt, and more drunken men, these in uniform, fling open the back doors of the van and the pig is hauled out, its pailed entrails carted away, as we step in blood to rearrange ourselves. At Argalasti, we are left at the bus stop, where there is no one to meet us: word was mysteriously telephoned from somewhere that the bus was cancelled, and our friends had departed. The others disappear into the village streets, bedraggled all. Never again, is all Peter says.

***

By late afternoon, the day after Myloi’s first snowfall of the year, the snow becomes sodden at its base and then freezes. The uncleared roads are pure treachery, the footpaths cannot be navigated, not even the few four-wheel-drive trucks in the village can circulate. There is still no electricity. Myloi, like Maggie, has gone into hibernation.

Shoveling the roof once again, swearing this will be the last time, I pause and in the encroaching dusk watch Paraskevi plod a careful path through the freezing slush toward me, her thin form bulked because it is clad only in layers of black wool, skirt over skirt, sweater upon sweater. She has no coat on: none of the women here wear coats except to church. Where are you coming from? I call down to her, though I know the answer; there is nothing beyond her but the cemetery, where the raised marble graves lie beneath the snow. I had to light Kula’s lamp, she tells me.

Melanie Wallace is a novelist and frequent contributor to greekworks.com. Her latest novel, The Housekeeper, was published by MacAdam/Cage in April.
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