Life must go on:
I forget just why.
On a dull, damp Hallowe’en, Emily Moon-Bourne celebrated her thirty-eighth birthday and formally bid farewell to her thirteen-year marriage by acquiring a half a million dollars from the husband who had run off with another woman.
Emily, unaccustomed to noticing contrasts not directly related to her sculpting, would have been hard put to describe her own emotions. As it happened, there was no one left to question her. At this tricky point in her life, she was unwilling to identify the hurts too closely, especially to herself. Still, what reactions there were, were valid.
Anger, well hidden behind a mask of irony, was certainly present; having your dull and unimaginative husband run off with a cuddly armful twenty years his junior is hardly flattering. Nor could Emily deny a mixture of relief and disbelief at the sheer size of the settlement; Gareth Bourne had paid dearly for the privilege of indulging his midlife aberration. But there were other things, some of them uncomplimentary and some of them actively bruising, that she was unprepared to admit even to herself. Spite, for instance. She couldn’t remember the last time she had so enjoyed being spiteful.
Two things were definitely absent from this ill-defined emotional stew: grief and surprise. Within three years of marrying a rising corporate lawyer, Emily had been idly wondering why in hell they’d ever got married. For the past ten years, she’d been wondering with increasing intensity why in hell they bothered to stay married.
Now, with the memory of her marriage rapidly fading and the pains and petty humiliations of the divorce fresh in her mind, she sat across the desk from a very respectful bank manager, listening with only half her mind to his explanation as to why five separate accounts would insure her money more completely than a single account could do. She had noticed that the bank, as befitted a public place on Hallowe’en, was bedecked in black and orange crepe paper; peering myopically at her from a corner of the bank manager’s desk was a jack-o’-lantern, carved with ragged teeth and holding an unlit candle in its scooped-out depths. The manager himself bore an uncanny resemblance to his vegetable companion, being short, round, and possessed of disturbingly uneven teeth.
“…up to one hundred thousand dollars,” the living pumpkin face told her earnestly. “That’s per account, of course. You see, the law is designed…”
He droned on, his tone hovering between instructional and ingratiating. Emily smiled and nodded, keeping her hands folded in her lap. She disliked her hands, finding them even uglier and more ungainly than the rest of her nearly six-foot frame. That they were spectacularly able translators of her talent did nothing to mitigate the fact that she privately considered them the hands of a large ape. They were strong and thick-boned, with hard knuckles and wide white crescents where nail met skin. Emily kept the thick nails short, as much to downplay them as because her work as a sculptor required it.
“…could draw on whatever funds you needed…”
“Yes.” Emily twitched her shoulders; the heavy black sweater she wore was in direct and uncomfortable conflict with the bank’s central heating. The room seemed overly warm to her, and she felt a damp chilly sweat break out on her brow and beneath her breasts. “Yes, yes.”
Claustrophobia swept over her and she pushed it resolutely away. She longed passionately for a cigarette, but smoking, as a habit, had been the social equivalent of leprosy for a good long time now. She breathed deeply, willing the clammy chill away. “I see, yes, thank you. I understand about FDIC insurance. Tell me, do you have banking partners in Europe?”
“Partners?” The little man stared at her, his lips closing momentarily over the nightmare teeth. “I’m not sure I understand, Ms. Moon-Bourne.”
“Well, correspondents, affiliates. I don’t know the right word. Associates, maybe? Banks you do business with in other countries. I mean, if I wanted to arrange a transfer of funds to myself in, say, Rome or Athens or London, are there banks there where you could wire me my money, or open temporary accounts for me? Because I do know that you can only bring so much currency into a foreign country at one time.”
His face relaxed. “Ah, I see. You’re considering travel. Yes, we have correspondent banking organizations in every major city in Europe. Barclays Bank in England and the Credit Lyonnaise in France. We deal with Asia, too, modern relations with the East being what they are. Our foreign exchange section would be glad to arrange one-off wire transfers, or we could open accounts in any city you’d like.”
Pompous little geek, isn’t he?
She unfolded her hands, ignoring the voice in her head. The inner voice, her constant companion for as long as she could remember, was usually right. It was small and hard and usually without passion, but it had the uncomfortable habit of speaking at bad times. Shut up, she told it firmly. Pompous he may be, but he’s doing his job and doing it well. Besides, I want the information.
When she gratefully escaped an hour later, she had opened four new accounts and been handed a certificate designating her sole owner of a hundred-thousand-dollar CD account, tax free until maturity, whatever that meant. She also had five thousand dollars’ worth of traveller’s checks in Euros.
As she left the bank, hesitating about what to do next, she felt a tap on her shoulder from behind. Stepping out of the way, murmuring an awkward apology, she found herself staring at a beautiful female body, immaculate in a tailored white linen suit and a pair of black pumps. From one perfectly manicured hand dangled a leather briefcase. Surmounting this classic ensemble was the large head of a pig, tusked and bristling with tufts of stiff hair.
For a frozen moment, Emily stared into the hideous leering face. There was something about this encounter that was actively insulting; it was as if all the miseries of marriage and divorce had materialized before her, taunting and ugly. Bosch, she thought dizzily, and knew that she was an instant away from screaming. Bosch, or Dali. Surrealism. Nightmare time.
“I beg your pardon,” the pig’s head said politely, and strode off into the street, her briefcase swinging at her side. The little voice in Emily’s mind spoke again, scathing but reassuring.
A mask, idiot. Only a mask. Now, isn’t that a nice friendly way to start out on your magical mystery tour?
Emily remembered that today was Hallowe’en. She let her breath out, lighting the longed-for cigarette with fingers that shook. Well, she thought concretely, well. Happy birthday, Emily dearest. You need coffee. At the very least, you need coffee. After all, who deserves it more than you do?
* * *
How do you know when a marriage is in trouble?
There are any number of ways, for any number of people: a gnawing discontent suddenly ripening into virulence, a fad that becomes an obsession, finding your spouse in bed with someone or something else. For Emily, the first major indication had come not with a cataclysm, but with a simple realization, a tiny warning of shoals to come.
Emily’s studio was a small, one-roomed cottage at the foot of the Bournes’ garden. It was light, and airy, and just large enough for the soaring creatures she carved. Emily was not particularly tidy—a young college boy came in twice weekly and cleaned the house for her—but every so often, if her mood permitted, she would notice that the studio was knee-deep in wood chips, making it hard to breathe. At that point, her usual response was to drag the vacuum cleaner away from the house and begin a methodical tidying up.
Cleaning out her studio one bleak winter day, she had come across a two-year-old woman’s magazine, probably left there by her agent or one of her rare guests. Taking a cigarette break from her virtuous tidying, she had skimmed over the magazine, snorting at the clothes, raising her eyebrows at the inane articles (“Is your man anal compulsive?” “What to do when the honey in your life is a chaser!”).
About halfway through the magazine, she’d come across a quiz. It was a common enough thing, found in every magazine of the genre. “Is the magic gone? Are you really meant for one another? Test your compatibility and see.” She scanned it idly at first, then with an increasing curiosity to know how Gary would do on this bit of fluff. The Lord only knew, the questions were puerile enough to appeal to him. When she had finished vacuuming up dust and splinters and carefully rearranging her tools, she wandered up the garden path to the house with the magazine in her jacket pocket.
After dinner, as Gary was settling in for a long evening’s work on a legal brief in his study, Emily followed him. This in itself was unusual; she rarely entered his study, disliking the dry masculine feel of it, uncomfortable with the shelves of legal tomes and the hunting prints. She had the magazine with her.
“Look at this thing, will you? I didn’t know people actually got paid to write this stuff.”
“Oh, my God.” He glanced at the quiz, his mouth tightening in a way that had become habitual with him. Gary was handsome enough in a rather pedestrian way, with clean features that, as he grudgingly climbed past his mid-forties, had begun their inevitable smudge into middle-aged puffiness.
“You want me to take a quiz? Out of a woman’s magazine? Emily, you’re joking.”
Well, at least he’d brought it up. “I’m curious, Gary. Let’s take it. The results could be amusing.”
“Are you out of your mind? I’ve got to be in court with Dodie–Sue Dodieri–at one thirty tomorrow on the diet-food case, and I told her I’d have the brief ready. I’ve got a good twelve pages to do on it, and I don’t have time for this childish crap.”
“Then make time.” She rarely spoke sharply; the cunning and energy necessary for argument with a lawyer were husbanded for times when she really wanted something from him. She didn’t stop to question herself as to why she had reacted so strongly; perhaps it was that casual “Dodie” he had thrown out, or his even quicker correction of the name, from casual to formal.
Her tone had its effect; Gary sighed, and laid down his casebook. “All right, all right, anything for peace in the valley. How does the damned thing work?”
Restraining a sudden, inexplicable desire to hit him, she explained it patiently. “We each take a piece of paper and a pencil. I read the questions, and we both put down an honest answer. Some of the questions are multiple choice, some aren’t.
There’s a little summing-up thing that scores your compatibility factor when you’ve finished. Ready?”
They took the test, Gary with scarcely concealed impatience, Emily with a determination worthy of a greater endeavour. The questions rolled on, thirty of them. Are you afraid of showing your feelings? Are you a thinking or a feeling type? Is your attitude toward infidelity best described as a) tolerant b) intolerant, or c) indifferent? Name the three traits you value most in a relationship.
They came to question nineteen, Gary by this time frankly hankering after his legal pad and only too obviously in a mounting rage. Emily looked down at the magazine and read the question aloud.
“Nineteen,” she said, “Write down a single word that best describes your partner’s personality, emotional capacity, or salient emotional characteristics.”
For a moment, completely appalled, Emily thought she had spoken aloud. Her pale pink-toned skin, legacy of her Swedish mother, flushed into vivid heat; the black eyes that had come from her Cherokee father widened into bottomless pits, olives with ebony centers.
Gary stared at her. “What in hell’s the matter with you, Emily? You see a ghost or something?”
It was true. There was no better word to describe him. She looked down at him, at the physique so carefully preserved by racquetball and saunas; it was showing the first signs of droop around the middle, and he spent half his time sucking in his gut to hide it. She looked at the manicured nails that were so much more shiny than her own. She looked at the stiff set of his shoulders, at his handsome empty face, at the tiny bald spot over which his hair was so carefully brushed. The strength and simplicity of the revelation was breathtaking.
She did not, this time, tell the little voice in her head to shut up. The little voice had answered the question with economy and brutal honesty, just as the magazine asked.
“Emily?” The pendulous, articulated lawyer’s voice held an edge of sarcasm. “Did you want to finish this idiocy, or can I get back to the real world?”
Tight-assed, tight-assed, tight-assed.
Without a word, she dropped the magazine in his lacquered wood wastebasket, picked up her pad and walked out of the room. When she had let herself out of the house and gained the safety of her studio, she sat down and tried to decide whether she wanted to laugh or cry. After that, the end was inevitable. Emily, standing in court and acutely aware of her own humiliation, convinced herself that Gary had taken the first action only because she had been too lazy to do it herself.
It had not come at once, of course; such things never do. They had gone on, the handsome lawyer and the raw-boned sculptress, for another six months. Gary spent most of his waking hours doing what he had always done, which involved practicing law, driving his BMW and playing racquetball with others of his kind. The only apparent change came with the longer working hours, coming home from the office long after midnight.
Emily, during that static half-year, avoided thinking about the real world by immersing herself in her own work. She completed three carved and colour-washed statuettes, an amazing output in so short a time for a sculptor who’d made her name hand-carving every piece from large blocks of wood. Two of them were birds in flight, a crow and an owl. These, done to commission from a state university, were technically perfect. While they pleased the customer, they were too harmless to please their creator.
The third statue was far less benign, and had been done purely to feed an inner need of her own. It was a wasp, feral and evil, carved to the edge of parody from a single piece of glossy koa wood. Its powerful wings arched upward for a kill; it bore a jutting stinger that was thick and brutal as a rapist’s erection. It spoke to the senses, almost too powerfully, and Emily wondered what dark corner of her spirit had birthed it. Showing at a local gallery, the hideous creature had sold immediately to an anonymous buyer, despite its steep price.
On the fourth of July, when the placid neighbourhood was hideous with the shrieks of children and riddled with exploding fireworks, Gareth Bourne laid his barbecue tools down with a sudden air of decision and dropped his bomb.
Sitting in a Financial District coffee shop so many months later, Emily stared down at the menu and realized she’d been doodling on it, a lifelong habit of hers. She had not carved, or even sketched, a human face since her seventeenth year; pictures of the human face brought back pain. But she had sketched one now. Gary’s face stared back at her from under her pencil, suspicious and self-satisfied. His body was a familiar wasp’s body, complete with stinger.
Christ, she thought bleakly, my Freudian slip is showing with a vengeance. With that thought, the Independence Day barbecue came flooding back to her, in all its sickness and imbecility. It had been a perfect setting for the end of a marriage: silly, ritualistic, as ultimately American as the distorting mirrors at a carnival fun house.
“Emily, I want to talk about something.”
“Sure.” He wore an apron that told the observer to kiss the cook, and two hamburger patties sizzled on the grill. In the next yard, the yuppies Emily had studiously avoided since their arrival were talking about boats. “What’s up?”
“I want to start a family.”
She stared at him. She had been wearing loose cotton pants and espadrilles, she remembered. In the long silence following Gary’s announcement, several small things had declared themselves; a roman candle, contraband in Northern California, going off a few backyards away, the hiss and smell of the cooking meat, the whining conversation of the yuppies next door.
“You’re joking.” She found her voice. “Aren’t you?”
“I am not joking. I’m perfectly serious.”
“Serious?” Emily unclenched her fists. “Gary, get real. I know that’s a lot to ask of a lawyer, but give it a shot, just this one time. The facts, Perry Mason, are these. You’re in your mid-forties. I’m in my late thirties. When we got married, two or three life sentences ago, we agreed that neither of us wanted to be parents, period, finis, end of discussion. Remember?”
“Of course I remember.” There was a strange look on his face, a compound of obstinacy and something else that was less familiar. Emily, incredulous through her detachment, took a good hard look and identified it as fear. Gary? The great lawyer, frightened of something? What in hell was going on here? “I’ve changed my mind.”
The voices floated in from the next yard, an ironic counterpoint. “And so I told the guy, if that cheap anchor can’t be replaced, I’m demanding my money back under the lemon law…”
The conversation touched Emily’s ears and died, ignored. She was staring at her husband in disbelief. “Gary, what in hell’s gotten into you? Do you really think I’m going to have a first child at nearly forty because you’re on some macho ego thing and you want to see the famous Bourne birthmark genetically imprinted on a baby’s ass?”
She almost, but not quite, regretted that taunting remark; Gary was highly touchy on the subject of the red birthmark that adorned his left buttock. For a split second, she thought he was going to take a swing at her. His breathing shortened, his fists clenched,even his thinning hair seemed to bristle. She held her ground, watchful and amazed, feeling completely unreal. Anything was possible, she had to remember that. If he had gone so totally around the bend that he wanted to change diapers at his age, anything was possible.
As she watched, he got control of himself; it was apparently not done without difficulty. And the struggle for self-discipline unleashed something, the naked rage on his face transmuting into something even more unpleasant. His mouth pursed into a vicious grin of triumph.
“And who said, my dear, that I was considering having a family with you?”
(“I would have preferred a bigger engine, I mean it’s a big boat, but the spars…”)
There it was, as simple as that. She looked back over the past months, to the occasional casual mention of the young associate he worked with and his increased absences at night. Absurdly calm, she wondered at her own blindness.
You dumb bitch. Don’t act surprised. All those late nights. You must have known something was up.
Stuff it, she told the little voice. Just stuff it. If you’re so damned helpful, why didn’t you pipe in with the info months ago?
“Ah. Sue Dodieri, I presume?”
“How did you know that?” His voice was a whiplash. “Have you been spying on me, on us? Did you–did you hire a detective?”
“Oh, Gary. Really. Why the hell should I tell you anything, you bastard?” The world was moving under her now, but her voice was calm, acidic, even amused. She felt as though it came from anywhere but inside her, so false a reality did it reflect. “Sue Dodieri. The woman, so-called, who actually prefers to be known as Dodie. Small and blond and cute as a button. Well, well. So she wants to have little Garys with you, does she, Daddy? She wants to see you taking Birthmark Junior to Little League games at age fifty-eight. Now, isn’t that just too sweet? God, you’re a moron, Gary. I mean, I always suspected it, but—”
“Stop it.” He was breathing heavily. “Just stop it, Emily.”
“How old is the little idiot, anyway? Nineteen, twenty maybe?”
“She’s twenty-six. And don’t call her an idiot. She’s twice the woman you are, even if she is half your age.”
“Not half my age, Gary,” she said immediately, and was reminded of a fencing match she had watched in college; parry, riposte, and lunge. “Half your age.”
(“…and now the damned harbor master is being a jerk about me bringing the dog down there. He claims poor old Towser is crapping on the pier. I mean, just who pays for the dockage, anyway…”)
“Emily.” He was clutching the sides of the barbecue now, his hands wrapped tight around the wooden handles. Kiss the cook, kiss the cook, kiss the cook. “If you don’t contest it, let it go right through, I’ll give you whatever you want, within reason. You can have the house, the car, I don’t give a damn. But if you fight it…” His voice trailed off, understanding that he had betrayed himself.
“She’s pregnant, isn’t she?” The answer was plain on Gary’s panic-stricken face, and Emily was very close to nausea now. “Already has an itty-bitty bun baking in the oven, does she? Well, she may not be too bright, but she’s fertile, apparently. Or maybe she’s brighter than I gave her credit for.”
She shook her head, amazed as much by her own rage as by her capacity for distant enjoyment of it. The rage was hot, and real, and it came from someplace valid. “My God. A spiritual bankrupt in his forties and a female who calls herself Dodie. Two people less fit to reproduce, I can hardly begin to imagine. This ought to be one spectacular little mutant you two end up with. Where did you do it, Gary, you and Snow White? On your desk? In the judge’s chambers? Or was it in my lady’s chamber, no doubt complete with a canopy bed trimmed with lace and pictures of Bambi and dolls all over the room? Come on, honey, clue me in. Call it voyeurism, or just plain academic curiosity.”
“You gold-plated bitch!” He took a step towards her, but she flung a hand out and he stopped. There was a smile on her face, a smile that had never before sat there and of which she was unaware. He was immobile before its darkness and strength.
“I’m not gold-plated yet, but I will be when I’m done with you. Trust me for that, sweetie. And by the way, Daddy, your hamburger’s burning. Maybe you ought to seriously think about flipping your damned meat.”
He turned the barbecue over, sending mesquite-flavoured charcoal and hamburger patties flying; they hit the flagstones with dull sounds and lay there. Over the high fence, the conversation about boats ceased abruptly. Emily, still smiling, turned on her heel and walked down the garden path to her studio.
* * *
“Can I get you some more coffee?”
The past receded, taking the barbecue and the bank and the memory of Dodie and the smelly blue bundle of noise in her arms as they left the final hearing with it. Reality was a coffee shop with a fancy espresso machine behind the counter and a pile of fresh pastries under a plastic dome.
“Yes, please.” Emily glanced up at the waitress, and from somewhere managed a smile. “A café au lait this time, I’m splurging. Could you sprinkle some chocolate on it?”
“Cinnamon too, if you’d like. How about something to eat with that?”
“No, thank you.” It had been weeks, Emily suddenly realized, since she had really tasted anything. Food had become a distasteful necessity that she avoided whenever possible; all of her clothes had become loose, and her big-boned frame seemed larger and more ungainly than ever. “I’m not hungry.”
“Well, if you’re sure.” The waitress hesitated, looking down at her. Emily, forcing her fingers to relinquish the pencil in her hands, became aware that the girl had something to say to her. She lifted her head, actually noticing the girl’s face, and was surprised by its liveliness; the child was barely twenty, but she had an odd air of self-containment that was pleasing and oddly comforting.
“Excuse me, but you look awfully familiar. Aren’t you Emily Moon-Bourne? The woman who’s famous for only carving things that fly?”
As a balm to the ego, nature could scarcely have delivered up anything better. Emily, who had never before been publicly recognized, felt a sting of tears behind her eyes. She stared up at the waitress, bemused and touched. “Well, I don’t know about famous, but I’m definitely Emily Moon-Bourne. How on earth…?”
“It was that article,” the girl said eagerly. “The one in Western Arts magazine about five months ago. I’m an art student, drawing and painting. I love sculpture, but I can’t do it. I’ve got this weird sense of line, and I seem to see everything in colour. I went to your showing at the Carlson Gallery after I read the article. Amazing stuff. I loved the hummingbird and the hawks. I don’t know about that wasp thing, though. To tell you the truth, it gave me the creeps.” Apparently feeling that Emily might find this less than flattering, she added hastily, “Not that it wasn’t amazing, it was just…”
Emily laughed. “I know what you mean. It gave me the creeps, too. In fact, it was supposed to give you the creeps. That’s its job.”
The waitress glanced down at the menu, catching sight of Emily’s doodling, and her face changed. “Oh, wow. Would you be an absolute sweetie and autograph this for me? I mean, if you didn’t want to take it with you.”
“Not at all.” Gary glared up at her, his wasp’s stinger seeming to quiver. Take it with her? Having just got rid of Gary for good, the last thing she wanted was to take it with her. “This is just a spiteful little doodle, anyway. Are you sure you’d really like it?”
“You bet I would.” The waitress watched her sign her name to the menu, and then seemed to fully see what Emily had drawn. “Jesus!”
“I warned you it was spiteful, didn’t I? Definite shades of the wasp thing.” The cold constricting band around Emily’s heart had eased; there is nothing like honest adulation to soothe the spirit. “In fact, it’s almost as spiteful as it is ugly. Are you sure you want this much concentrated malice flapping around your apartment at night?”
The girl, still staring at Gary with horrified fascination, gave a nervous giggle and began to move away. “My God, isn’t he nasty! And what a smug, self-satisfied little face he’s got! He must have really pissed you off, whoever he is. Malice is the word, all right. But don’t worry, he won’t be doing any flapping. He’ll be safely under glass, because as soon as I get out of here, I’m taking him off to be framed.”
Emily grinned at her, the first untainted grin she had managed to produce since the meat patties hit the flagstones. She thought of Gary, imprisoned like a tiny homunculus and beating wildly against glass for eternity, his voice high and shrill and piping: help me! “Well, that’s appropriate. I framed the original to the tune of half a million dollars. Maybe you ought to take this to the cleaners. Now, that would really match what I did.”
The girl, clutching the precious menu under one arm, turned back and gave Emily a brief look; it was amused and conspiratorial, and completely female in the depths of its awareness. “If the son of a bitch was half the creep he looks here, he had it coming. The coffee’s on the house, by the way, I wouldn’t dream of charging you.” She hesitated, then added rather shyly. “Can I ask … are you working on anything new right now?”
“Yes,” Emily said immediately. Five minutes ago, wrestling with memory, she’d had no idea of what happened next. But, with the girl’s question, the pictures came strongly into her mind; an emptied-out studio, a house waiting to be sold to strangers, Euros in the zippered compartment of her bag. She had procured that foreign currency with no clear idea in mind, no plan, no special desire. But the encounter with the waitress had pulled a trigger somewhere, leaving clarity in its wake. Gary was gone; what pitiful human essence he possessed had been excised, and was about to end up imprisoned under glass in a student’s apartment. He was out of Emily’s life, reduced to a drawing on a menu, and Emily, for perhaps the first time in her life, was free.
“To tell you the truth, I’m working on spending that half-million I just mentioned.” She spoke incisively. “I think I’ll start in Greece; after all, everything else seems to have started there. It’s been really nice talking with you, you’ve done me a lot of good. And, by the way, I’ve changed my mind. I think I’m hungry after all. Could I have a cheese Danish and an egg-salad sandwich with that?”
Clutching at the wrist of Venture with a cold
Hand, aiming to fall in with him, companion
Of the old as of the new.
(from “Few Come This Way”)
After all the petty annoyances that accompany extended travel had been dealt with, it occurred to Emily that she had, after all, chosen Greece for a sensible reason. That the reason was subconscious made no odds; where else, after all, would a sculptor who had broken her life go but to the cradle, the womb, of art?
She arrived at Athens airport in a weeping downpour that suited her mood to perfection. The flight had been long, bumpy and boring, an uneasy mixture of mannerless small children complaining over enforced inactivity, and strange, indigestible plates of airline food.
The longer journeys of Emily’s life had always been by way of American highways. Her sense of travel was firmly rooted in memories of buses that slid easily past endless farms, cars that could be pulled into motel parking lots, legs that could be stretched and moved while cheerful waitresses prepared bacon and eggs. She had never before flown for so many hours, and this first attempt came close to turning her off flying forever. The experience, one of claustrophobic misery and indigestion, left her senses confused and battered. The steady rain fit her mood— a sunny day would have seemed in bad taste at best and a personal affront at worst.
But Nikos, the proprietor of her taverna, was friendly and expansive. The poor lady, so tired from her journey, must have something to revive her. He rounded on his wife, who was tiny and silent, and burst into a sharp-sounding command. He then showed Emily to her room, which was bright and comfortable. As she lay stretched out on her bed, breathing deeply and wiggling her toes, Nikos’ wife brought her a cup of hot tea, depositing on the night stand with lowered eyes and a soft murmur. By sunset of that first night, the Athenian sky had cleared to supernatural radiance.
Cautiously, grudgingly, Emily began to believe that enjoyment might be possible. Coffee was available, good coffee, the kind that puts heart into whoever drinks it, and the food of Greece was a new joy. After stretching her neck upwards to see the Acropolis flaunting a corona of red-gold light, she decided that travel was broadening, and that planes were a necessary evil endurable for the sake of wonder. Greece would take her to its bosom, after all.
For the first week, Emily simply wallowed. She went to museums and to the Parthenon; she discovered feta cheese and souvlaki and rolled pastries that were meat and onions wrapped in flaky filo dough. She browsed in the shops and markets. Although Nikos assured her that the sun was a weak shadow of what it would be in summer, her pale face took what there was and darkened to a less fishlike tint.
And she saw things, things about which she had read and wondered since first laying hands to wood. She saw marble that had been given tendon and flesh, cold white smiles imprinted against the face of an eternity that could not touch them, carved feet that rose from blocks of dappled stone. Everything, from the classical poses to the painted urns, had an odd familiarity.
All of this she saw, but little else. Sometimes the men in the streets, taxi drivers and workmen, would whistle or ogle at her; these episodes, and her lack of interest was so clear, even to those stallions of a warm climate, that the whistles would die half-way through in a kind of uneasy annoyance.
The weather was less brightly edged than she had expected of Greece, and colder as well. She had brought few clothes with her, sensibly planning to buy the bulk of them as she went along; what she had brought was designed for spring and summer. She was completely unprepared for cold weather, suffering from the delusion of all sedentary North Americans, that the islands where burning Sappho sang never dropped below eighty degrees. For a few days she dodged moving vehicles and took pictures of statuary with a streaming headcold. In the end, vaguely resentful, she bought a sheepskin jacket and some vitamins.
By the time her cold had subsided into a residual stuffy head, Emily had decided that she was tired of the endless bustle and energy that was such a hallmark of Athens. She rented a car and drove out of Athens, north-east towards Delphi and Helikon.
She took the drive at a leisurely pace, revelling in it, taking frequent breaks to get out, stretch her legs, and let her mind relax. The mental space granted her some emotional space, as well; she came out of her self-enforced abstraction long enough to admit something to herself. She had met with nothing but kindness, the people were helpful and hospitable and remarkably vital, but she was uneasy. As she dawdled along the roads, marvelling at the contrasts between the modern and ancient worlds, her mind picked at the question: something about the so-called cradle of democracy was worrying her, and she had no idea what it was. It took a long walk and a small incident in the hills above Delphi to give her that answer.
She had gone out early, with bottled water and some goat cheese wrapped in muslin to eat. She had already eaten an amazing amount of fresh bread, pressed upon her by the wife of the hotel keeper, a weather-beaten woman who rarely raised her eyes. The morning was blue and gold, heartbreakingly clear, with the promise of glory to come. The paths were empty, and the hills were slightly speckled with rime.
Twenty minutes walk up a steep path had left her understanding that she’d made a very bad choice in footwear, a pair of slick-soled Italian leathers with a small heel. This was confirmed when she put her foot down on a small rock, twisted her ankle, and felt the jerk of the heel parting company with the rest of the shoe. She sat down hard, feeling the dew soak with relentless immediacy into her skin.
“Damn.” The hills took her voice and echoed it back at her. Even distracted and discomfited, something about this endless repetition fascinated her; despite the sense of dislocation which had been her constant companion since the barbecue, she had already noticed that something in the Grecian air inclined people toward performance. Well, she thought, why not? I’m human, aren’t I, and this is Greece, isn’t it, even if I can’t speak Greek? Encouraged by her complete solitude and the unlikelihood of anyone overhearing, she raised her voice to a strong, theatrical pitch. “I said, damn!”
This time she was answered, not only by the echo but by the bleating of goats. Startled, she struggled to her feet; the idea of being found sitting in the damp grass made her uncomfortable. She felt, obscurely, that staying where she was would somehow put her at a disadvantage.
The goats came first, six of them; they were small and, to Emily’s inexperienced eye, looked unnervingly frisky. Christ, she thought, as she balanced precariously on her one good shoe, just what I need. Please don’t let them frisk all over me.
“Kyria? You have hurt yourself?”
The man who followed the goats was of that particular Greek variety, all dark eyes and crisp curling hair that seemed to stay black forever; he might have been anything from twenty to seventy. Oh well, she thought grimly, at least he speaks some English. Feeling like an idiot, she gestured with her damaged shoe.
“Not hurt myself, exactly.” She heard the apologetic note in her own voice. “I wore the wrong shoes for a mountain walk, and my shoe has … has…”
“Expired.” He gave her a broad smile, following it immediately with a sympathetic clucking. “It is a shame about your shoe. But you have not hurt yourself? Your ankle, maybe?
“Oh, no, I think my ankle’s all right.” She flexed it gingerly. “It’s a bit sore, that’s all, and I don’t really think I want to put my weight on it just yet. I think it’ll be all right. But I don’t know how I’m going to walk half a mile down the hill in these shoes.”
“It is a mountain, not a hill.” The dazzling smile flashed again; it was genuine and beautiful, and for some reason almost unbearably annoying. Maybe it’s because he’s so blatantly virile, she thought. “As for walking down, nothing could be easier. My wife makes shoes for the tourists, little cloth shoes with hemp bottoms. They sell them at the shops, in the town. She can provide you with a pair, and you will be able to walk wherever you choose.”
“Espadrilles?” Her mood lightened. “Oh, perfect. Would she sell me a pair? Are they expensive? I’m–I’m afraid I didn’t bring much money with me, but I could bring it up to you later.”
But this, it seemed, was unacceptable; he was genuinely appalled by the idea. The lady was in trouble, a visitor to their country, and what decent person would think of taking her money at such a time? And she must come back to his home and have a glass of lemon peppermint drink, while his wife found shoes that were of the correct size. It was very close by, and if she would just lean on his arm…
Emily did, not without another stab of irritation at his easy strength and a fleeting apprehension that she had, with her customary lousy luck, fallen lame and wounded into the clutches of the Boston Strangler of the Delphic oracle. But her fears were groundless; he had spoken true on all counts. The cottage was there, small and bright and immaculately clean. His wife opened the door, standing wordlessly aside so that Emily might enter. And Emily, easing into a wooden chair and accepting a cold glass of something that tasted of the gods, looked into the woman’s eyes and, with a pristine clarity of mind completely alien to her, understood what had been worrying her about Greece.
It’s your mother. Dear God in heaven, it’s Mom.
It was simple, and true. Her mother’s eyes peered back at her, set deeply into a tired face lined with premature age. The eyes were Mediterranean dark rather than Swedish blue, it was true, and without any sign of the killing alcoholic haze that had put the milky blankness into her mother’s once-bright irises. But everything else that had marked her mother as a stereotypical wreck of a woman was there. There was defeat, and resignation, and a deep-rooted well of something that Emily, who had seen that look for too many years, immediately identified as the subservience of one too tired, too internally broken by life and by the vagaries of simple physical survival, to give battle.
Nikos’ wife, Emily thought, the woman back at the hotel in Delphi. This one. The same cloth, the same pattern, eyes that drop and fall and die away from you. Like my mother, my mother, my mother…
She rose abruptly from her chair.
“The shoes,” she said strongly, too loudly, forcing a smile that sat badly on her face. Her heart was beating strongly, irregularly; surely they must hear it pounding, these people.
“Really, it’s so kind of you, but I would feel better if you would let me buy them. I was going to buy a few pairs in the town today, and they’d probably be ones you made anyway…”
The man opened his mouth to protest. Astonishingly, his wife interrupted him.
“Of course, Kyria.” She was staring into Emily’s face with complete comprehension, understanding the revulsion if not the cause. She named a price only slightly less than what was being charged by the shops. Her husband said something in Greek, his expressive face dark and angry, and the woman rounded on him.
“No,” she said coldly. “Let her pay. The shoes will fit her better if she does what seems right to her.”
The espadrilles were well made and comfortable. Emily shook hands with the woman and said goodbye, aware that she was trembling and consumed by a desire to run. She heard her own thanks, and knew that her voice was unnaturally loud and her words effusive. The man, his hospitality spurned, stood in the centre of the room, averting his face from the women. His wife accompanied Emily to the door.
“Goodbye, Kyria,” she said and added, in a voice so soft that Emily had to strain to catch the words, “Do not mind so much. It cannot touch you after all. We must live with what we are, good or bad. Our lives are as they have been since the sun first rose.”
Then the door was quickly shut and the cottage had swallowed her. Emily went quickly back to the path, followed by birdsong and the bleating of the goats and nightmarish sensation of complete helplessness in the face of a tradition that had become an ultimate reality. The hills towered above her, watchful and immortal, and if the walking gods saw her tears of memory they made no sign. Two hours later, she had checked out of her hotel and was driving, too quickly for safety, back towards Athens.
The next afternoon, after a mad scramble for tickets, she landed in Rome.