Christie B. Cochrell’s work has been published by Tin House, The Wild Word, Catamaran, and Belle Ombre, among others, and has won several awards including the Literal Latté Short Short Contest. She grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, live by the ocean in Santa Cruz, California, and travel as often as possible—especially to the Mediterranean. Christie B. Cochrell is currently at work on a series of mystery novellas set in Mallorca.
Please visit: writingwithlight-bonnard3.blogspot.com
Toby, the owner of her longtime favorite bookshop in Philadelphia, with readings by authors on Thursday nights and the little moppy dog Roo who slept always with one eye open on a needlework cushion of York Cathedral behind the rattan chairs in the British Mystery section, had been telling her ever since she’d started looking at Greek guidebooks that she really ought to go to Naxos, so she was ready to be charmed. (Though Nikos had said she really ought to go to Chaniá, too, once; and he had known her better than Toby ever would. And of course in the biblical sense, though biblical was scarcely the way she’d describe those days of damnation and bliss.)
But the charm was holding so far. She had been feeling positively “beamish”— her favorite word from Jabberwocky—when she left Rhodes, and even chortled as she came. The niece, Irenie, had been a delight. A painter of seahorses, by inclination, with a shop off Seahorse Square, and of medieval coats of arms, by trade, which went over well too with the tourists, coats of arms of the various “Tongues” of the order of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, copied from the tombstones. She did genealogical research on the side, on the Grape I-Mac which sat on the antique olive wood escritoire in her cool white and purple sitting room, and kept turtles in a courtyard pool with Egyptian reeds, a green silk canopy for shade. She had been married to a diplomat; her house was very civilized, in that intriguingly hybrid sort of way, and very, very comfortable. Such a difference from Anna’s own Greco-Gothic horror back in Chaniá. The one she was avoiding like the plague.
They’d played Canasta long into the night with Irenie’s long-time beau, a widowed silversmith whose children thought he ought not to marry again. They’d eaten good things, most memorably a lovely leg of lamb and potatoes roasted in their skins, with sweet butter, followed by an old-fashioned pound cake dusted lightly with powdered sugar and decorated with candied violets. The wine cellar (yes!) had mellow old reds; and there was even a bottle of good French calvados. There was a good deal to be said for gracious living, Anna thought. They’d kept her busy—the three of them played blackjack for a lark in the Casino Grand Hotel, and cutthroat Canasta at home on subsequent nights; went to the folk dance theatre and to the cinema, riveted by The Talented Mr. Ripley with Greek subtitles. On the penultimate day Irenie had left the running of the shop to her assistant and taken her to gawk at the clouds of butterflies at Petaloudes, their red undersides like the red petticoats of a troupe of can-can dancers.
When not painting or sightseeing she’d been reading The Odyssey again in the original Greek, a nice leather-bound copy she’d found used (but lovingly) at a bookshop, saving up the pithy epithets for appropriate occasions. She had forgotten how satisfying it was, how the language carried you. Back, on lusty swells or lilting, like poor Odysseus longed to be carried.
So it was no wonder that she was for the time being feeling happy with Greece, delighted to have come, bright as her Matisse headscarf. If only it were all like this. If only it didn’t feel as if it were just biding its time, waiting to again confound her. Or was it only Crete that threw her? There was a malicious kind of humor to Crete . . . much like her own. Maybe that was the trouble. Everything had seemed to fight her, back in Chaniá, where she was meant to be—and demonstrably wasn’t. Digging her stubborn old heels in, for Pete’s sake. (She’d always been fond of Pete, handy to blame things on. Unlike the pesky Hermes—god of little patterned bags.) Okay, so this was not so much avoidance as sheer cowardice. She was queen of that. Queen Mother. Queen of the May.
Mar, in her scarlet one-piece bathing suit, folded down next to her in the shade of the Metaxa umbrella.
“Hello, child. What have you been up to?”
“I got up early to photograph the pier, while the light was right.”
“What’s troubling you?” The girl seemed sad, not like the night before when they’d traded stories of their respective weeks. She got so absorbed in whatever she was doing: soaked up its attributes body and soul, almost, like one of the Greek sponges Anna so admired and had to remember to buy herself a couple of.
“Just thinking,” Mar said. “About abandonment. Ariadne left behind here, for no reason. I loved Theseus; I admired his moral certainty—he was brave and heroic and terribly in love; but then to do that. Why? It lessens him.”
“How does the myth have it?” Anna wondered.
“There are conflicting versions. Theseus is more or less guilty, depending on which you pick. Male brutality; feckless cold-heartedness; cultural imperative—which even begins to justify?”
“Didn’t Dionysus marry Ariadne?”
“After Theseus left her, yes. That’s one of the least damning explanations. That the god demanded he give her up.”
“Why not believe that, then?”
“I think I do—the way Mary Renault proposes. Theseus found Ariadne still drunk and bloodied after some unspeakable Dionysian revels she had participated in during their night on the island—as if the god had claimed her, no? The upright Athenian was morally sickened to learn what she would do, the half-sister of the Minotaur he’d bound himself to.”
“So, a fatal flaw?”
“Maybe . . .”
Mar watched another boat leave the harbor, a fishing boat making for the open water, not able to stop thinking about her own fatal flaw which made people leave her. This morning on the pier, the light and mood had both been what she’d wanted. Subdued, haunted. She’d shot her photographs thinking of Ariadne, King Minos’s daughter, standing there bereft, not knowing why she’d been abandoned by the man who had been mad for her and ready to marry. No longer having any home, having gone from her parents, and then somehow having forfeited her love beyond all that. Waking at dawn to find it gone. To find herself alone on a strange island. Mar had made mournful pictures: a lonesome sail, a wake. Silvered by the remaining traces of dawn, evaporating as it went, as the boat which drew it (needle, thread) found the vanishing point. The wake was perfect, the connotations of mourning too that it would carry. And the unwinding of it on the water, like the thread the king’s daughter had given him, to buy his life.
“Or was it her salvation?” Anna was questioning the tragic flaw. “Which would you rather—life with the son of a king, heroic but judgmental, or with an indulgent god?”
“Yeh, right—as if I’ve ever had that choice.”
“Have you never had a serious relationship?”
“Serious on my part, only. Seriously deluded. An archaeologist—the one who convinced me I needed to see Phaestos . . .”
“The ‘not-awful person,’ do I remember, who you were avoiding Knossos because of? What happened with him?”
“Oh, in the end he met a Turkish woman when he was there doing fieldwork. I didn’t know about her until I met Abel at Knossos, where I’d gone to be with him—thinking we might finally have something. But I learned that day I’d wasted seven years. He didn’t love me, never had. He never pretended to, of course; but I was sure he had to, one day, if I just kept wanting hard enough.”
She’d raged at him, after way too much retsina that night back in Heraklion (and halfway through the meal spilled tomatoes and oil on the beautiful dress she’d bought in Athens—she’d thrown the dress away that night, not wanting to be reminded of the fatal harm she’d done herself with that emotional outburst before she’d fled back to her hateful small room in the pension at the other end of the hall from his to cry herself to sleep). “What’s wrong with me?”
“Nothing’s wrong with you. We’re just two different people.” She saw the distaste in his face, having to hear this.
“But I love the same things as you. You make me better than I’ve ever been— help me see things I wouldn’t otherwise—“
“We’re too different. You’ve never been willing to see that.” Quietly as ever.
Willing, yes—but not Abel.
Anna looked at her over the easel. “You found that out when you’d come all this way, hoping? That must have been tough.”
“Oh it got worse. I fled back home to my family—which Ariadne couldn’t; but I got there to find my mother gone; my father retreated into silent gloom. I had no place I recognized to give me my bearings again. Abel had been that for me, for so long.”
“Why had your mother gone?”
“I don’t know. There are conflicting versions—just like Theseus.”
“The demands of a god?”
“Not Dionysus!” She thought. “Yes, God maybe. My grandparents were scary fundamentalists. But we never went to church or anything.”
“She must have told you, later.”
“She hasn’t, no.”
“Haven’t you asked?” A snort of astonishment.
“It’s not as easy as that. It’s not something we do, in my family,” Mar said defensively. “Except my little sister Cassie, who’s shameless.”
“I’m flummoxed. It’s not as if this is an old myth, child, which you have to interpret as best you can. This is real life—just out and ask her.”
“No,” helplessly, “you don’t understand.” It wasn’t normal, she agreed. She’d always known that, seeing how open her friend Holly’s family was, the huge cheerful family of her college boyfriend José Mondragon who’d given a big party as a send-off to their work-study year in Guatemala. But hers—well, it was something else. She stung still from the countless times she’d been punished for blurting things out, showing her emotions.
Anna painted on before saying anything. “What did you do, then?”
“I stayed on in Chimayo for a few months. I didn’t know what else to do. Nothing and no place was mine. As the winter dragged on I decided I might as well be back in Tucson as anywhere; at least it was warm there. I love the desert in February, March. I applied for several jobs and was turned down for all of them, until I finally got an entry-level position at the Center for Creative Photography which Ansel Adams started at the university.”
“I’ve heard of it.”
“It was perfect for me. I’d decided that photography was what I’d like to do. After a couple of months I moved up, took over graphic design—designing catalogues and fundraising brochures, and got to work with people. I was responsible for artists’ talks, symposia, and lectures. That was great. I got to meet a bunch of wonderful photographers. Looking at their work, I started thinking about how you might make pictures of those things that make us what we are. The absences, beyond all else. How do you capture what’s no longer there? I wanted to learn how to make those pictures—double-exposures or time-lapse or whatever it would take to show the histories of loss. So I took classes. I learned the techniques; was surprised to be good at it. But it wasn’t any use. I’d gone on hoping, thinking what I did would make me worthy, in the end. But in spite of everything, however good I got, three years ago I learned that Abel and his Turkish violinist were to be married.” And then, injury upon injury, she’d lost her perfect job as well.
“I was gobsmacked by the marriage of a lover myself, once,” Anna admitted, sounding surprised.
“Did he not love you, then, either?” The man she’d talked about loving so terribly and wrongly, Mar guessed.
“No, he did love me. But circumstances were beyond us.”
She felt Mar waiting, asking to be convinced. That there was somewhere a love you could be sure of, or such a thing as love at all. And surely she could give her that modicum of assurance? Didn’t she owe it to the two dead lovers? (One of whom she’d killed herself, after the letter came, buried her deep away in the darkest back corner of the linen chest, under the conjugal sheets and downy baby blankies, god forgive her, taking a cue from all the rehearsals of Arsenic and Old Lace she’d seen by then—just as bad during pregnancy as smoking or drinking martinis though they didn’t warn you about that.)
“There is, after all, the house,” she offered unconvincingly.
“But is that love? You’ve been avoiding it. You hate it.”
“I’ve been avoiding it,” Anna conceded. It wasn’t what she’d had in mind, what her dear old friend Ginnie had promised her. (A house on Crete—what fun!) But Ginnie was gone too, beyond promises, like all the others.
“But why, then? If that’s what you’ve come back for?”
“Maybe to see.”
“And you have seen?”
“And I have seen.” They were beginning to speak as maddeningly elliptically as characters in a Henry James novel, Anna thought crossly.
“But have you, really?” The girl suddenly unexpectedly insistent as Anna herself—the older woman recognized the steel in her and grew wary. She kept silent, painting. Taking refuge in her familiar disguises. But tired, suddenly, of them. Ready to throw her hand in. You are old, Father William. Get over it.
“I think I have,” she said decidedly. “As much as I am able. It’s beyond me, that house. I think I’m going to sell it, go home. Having seen.”
The girl looked oddly stricken, as if it hurt her personally somehow. Thinking how little, always, love is worth?
“You can’t sell it.” Sounding distressed. “You should give it another chance.”
“Would you?” Shrewdly, she thought.
“Would I? Oh, me, I’m always giving up when things don’t work. But you—you’re different. You’re amazing. It wouldn’t be like you to let that house defeat you.”
“That’s where you’re wrong,” Anna said quietly. “It would be just like me.” She looked at the red pool of paint on her palette, which might have been the red of the poppies, in the spring, which she might even now have seen. Less in harmony than ever, sand be damned, she jabbed her brush into the paint, and ran a thick wet jagged line of poppy red across her almost-finished painting of the boats.
On Delos Mar took pictures of the Sacred Lake, Apollo’s birthplace, feeling somehow cleansed by her visit to that holiest of sanctuaries, walking on the Sacred Way. She could feel, in the pure air, the quiet advancement of autumn, a kind of absence or changed tone, like a bell fading in the inner ear. It felt poignant, feeling the seasons and the gods both immense behind her and in her, the lengthening shadow of her life. Apollo had never particularly spoken to her, except for being the god who pursued Daphne. Of course he hadn’t—he was the god of clarity, of balance. She’d do well to make friends with him now. So she took her pictures respectfully, and let herself be emptied of the accompanying voices of complaint and blame and constant criticism. They still returned from time to time, but mostly let her be. She was grateful, glad to feel them go.
She and Anna met for dinner, pleasantly enough, and talked only of their days. Anna had been to see the “rather hideous” temple of Apollo, and after a leisurely lunch of barbequed red snapper with oil and lemon had made a new painting of the boats. They discussed how best to see Apollonas, at the other end of the island, and consulted with the hotelkeeper.
“Is it possible to stay in Chalki?” Mar had read good things about the village, with its olives, lemon trees, and oleanders.
“I think there may be rooms to let,” he said reluctantly, but urged that they instead let him call for them to make a reservation at a new hotel on the pebble beach in Apollonas, run by a friend of his. He became enthusiastic on their behalf. They would be most comfortable there. His son, Louko, would be happy to drive them there; he was courting the oldest daughter of the friend.
They travelled to Apollonas through high mountains with isolated villages and vineyards in the valleys between, and put up in the friend’s hotel on the far north coast. In the morning they made the walk up from the port to the famously uncompleted kouros in the abandoned marble quarry above town, the place where gods were quarried. The god emerging and eroding; always new and always already ruined. An image powerful and haunting.
And maybe one of her last. Mar again, more urgently, felt time beginning to run out, that tinge of autumn in the September air. As she walked with her camera around the marble figure, trying to find the best angles for pictures, she thought about the incomplete god (Dionysus, demonstrably mortal, with a cracked nose) in light of all her own incompletions, the litany she’d repeated for Anna. How she’d moved from one thing to another, never finishing anything. It scared her that she might be able to make nothing of all these photos, in the end, that they might prove beyond her the way the house had defeated Anna. Could she possibly hope to make something worthwhile? They were so ancient and full of significance; she so young, so persistently—American. She made a frustrated noise.
Anna, coming up with her twisted walking stick from a “reconnoiter,” looked at her inquiringly. “He who the gods wants to ruin—?”
Mar tried to tell her. “It’s easy enough here, under their spell. But when I have to start writing, when I have to go home—wherever that is—when my money runs out, too soon, and try to recreate the feeling of this place while drinking watery Starbuck’s coffee and listening to mindless CNN . . . I don’t think I can do it.”
“Dear child, how can you doubt yourself? Haven’t you been ‘doing it’ your whole life, beautifully? What of those stories you told yourself there in the wilds of New Mexico, without even having been here to see?”
“I’m so afraid it’s all going to seem stupid and unworthy, after I’ve ‘seen.’” (Echoing their earlier conversation, Anna’s words.) “Having compared the reality with my imagined version, I’m utterly humbled.”
“You shouldn’t be.”
“Ah, but there’s my other fatal flaw—more serious, since half the time I think passion a fine thing. Away from here, I’ll lose the impetus, lose heart. I may well just give up on it.”
Anna thought how sad it was that the girl had so little faith in her obvious abilities, let alone that terrific passion. Why hadn’t anyone encouraged her? It’s not as if you’ve set her any example, old rag of woman that you are, she scolded herself, paraphrasing Odysseus. You, who can’t even face that poor damned house without quaking like an aspic. What help are you?
Wait a minute, she thought slowly, sinking down on a squared marble block so she didn’t have to think this out on her feet. The house, poor and damned as it might be. What about that? Might it help Marcella if she were to offer her the house for a few months? She could stay there and finish her project, if leaving Greece was what she was worried about. I know she doesn’t have money; I’ll let her stay for nothing. Though the gift isn’t something that’s done me any good, it might be good as gold for someone young enough to make use of it. I’d hate to have her give up her might-have-beens in Greece, the way I did mine. An alternate outcome—interesting. Isn’t there some attraction to that young man she went on about, the one on Skyros with the difficult brother? I sense more between them than she told me, or told herself most likely. Maybe she’s my own second chance at . . . what? Love, even? Oh go away Cupid, you gruesome overgrown baby; spare me the corny sentiment. A second chance at completion, she decided, seeing the kouros.
On impulse, then (trying for redemption at the last), she said to Mar “Why don’t you take my house? You can stay on as long as you need to. I don’t need money; just do your stuff.”
An awed look, stunned motionlessness for a moment; then Mar touched her arm with wonder, and threw her arms around the older woman.
“That’s an amazing offer. Maybe the nicest I’ve ever had.” She looked as if she’d never been given anything before. When she found her voice, she demanded “But what about you?”
“I’ll be fine in Philadelphia,” Anna said firmly. “I don’t have the same horror of Starbucks you do.”
“Oh, no—you have to stay too. I can’t do it without you.”
“To crack the whip?”
“Because I haven’t heard your stories yet. I haven’t had nearly enough of your acerbic wit.”
“I mean it. And because I’m afraid . . . well, the stories and wit might not thrive, back in Philadelphia.” The dear soul flushed.
“Oh, child. They’ve thrived these eighty years. What do you think has given me my cutting edge?”
Mar suddenly brightened, as if she’d had an inspiration. “I tell you what. I’ll stay on, if I can pay you—“ she waved off Anna’s intended interruption—“by cleaning out the house for you. Fixing it up so you don’t hate it anymore. And if I’m to do it right, of course, you’ll need to supervise.” Grinning impishly.
Anna shook her head wordlessly. She was curious to see what this generous-hearted young woman would make of them all. Curiosity is dangerous, old woman, she told herself sharply. And not just to cats—think of Pandora.
But maybe the gods hadn’t come because they hadn’t been able? They had meant to, but something prevented it. True tragedy, she’d always thought, lay in the poignant space between intention and accomplishment, yearning and completion. Or maybe, she proposed, taking a final picture of the kouros lying half in shadow, it was the gods who’d been forsaken first, like this Dionysus left uncompleted? Mortals had lost interest in them, or—wait—had themselves been prevented from returning. The great palaces of the Minoans all abandoned at the same time. What did happen, in that vast blind spot of not-knowing?
Mar was reminded for some reason of her mother. Of how she didn’t know her, hadn’t—as Anna suggested—really tried. She would, she suddenly thought, see which of the pictures of the god emerging and eroding turned out, and get one matted, as soon as she could find a shop to do it, to send to Audrey. She’d had among her few possessions, Mar remembered noticing the one time she had visited during the intervening years, a figure strangely like this, carved partially out of a piece of pinkish translucent stone; her sculptor friend Leah had made it for her, she said.
And then (arriving a month into her stay), a little carving Leah made for her out of a piece of rose quartz—the figure of a woman, incipient, emerging but not yet distinct, still more stone than woman, a suggestion of woman. Around her unarticulated middle, as a kind of girdle, was wrapped the thread, the tiny arrow point and two smaller chips of turquoise and coral, that made it a fetish, one of the Indian fetishes that are thought to heal, to cure, to protect. The quartz was scarred inside, cloudy, a bafflement in the otherwise lucid stone, but in the summer caught the half-hour of morning light that came cautious as any wild creature through the aspen grove into the cabin window before Audrey went up to the main lodge to start cleaning rooms. Something like the famous Cycladic figures, but not yet ready to come out of the clouded quartz—as if an earlier stage of maturation. Quietly luminous, perfectly fitting her hand. Into which she rubbed endless lotion, those days, against the harsh drying cleaners; soothed by the cool smooth stone.
Mar hadn’t known what to say to the room, to the horse stables, the trout pond they circled counterclockwise, any of it really. It was so impersonal. They’d had nothing to say to one another that could be said, any more in person than in their perfunctory telephone calls, and after that awkward couple-hour tour of the place and iced tea by the swimming pool Mar had gotten back in her car for the drive back to Chimayo, relief on both sides.
“My mother,” was all she said to Anna, her eyes inexplicably full of tears.
Text in this post: © Christie B. Cochrell
Published with the permission of Christie B. Cochrell