Reed Stirling lives in Cowichan Bay, BC, and writes when not painting landscapes, or travelling, or taking coffee at The Drumroaster, a local café where physics and metaphysics clash daily. His Shades Of Persephone, published in 2019, is a literary mystery set in Greece. Lighting The Lamp, a fictional memoir, was published in March 2020. Set in Montreal, Séjour Saint-Louis (2021), dramatizes family conflicts. His shorter work has appeared over the years in a variety of publications including Hackwriters Magazine, Dis(s)ent, The Danforth Review, Fickle Muses, The Fieldstone Review, Humanist Perspectives, and StepAway Magazine.
When I revealed the travel plans that would interrupt our therapy sessions, Doctor Sophia explained that no matter the “imagined” reason, the would-be cleansing of the “soiled ground,” and the aspirational nature of my designs, getting to Crete would get me out of the interior morass my obsession with Silas Flower had drawn me into. Also, revisiting a place of youthful discovery amounted figuratively to a promise kept. In therapy jargon, a kind of reset, a chosen and determined rewind in the scheme of cognitive reframing. I was okay with seeing it that way.
How on the occasion of out last hour together before my departure had the good doctor put it? “Naturally, you’ll truck out to Villa Akra, Mick, and do your thing as I know you must. Let’s call it the abstract goodness of your intents. Otherwise explore and free associate. Be in the moment. Enjoy your endorphin highs. Sleep well, Mick, and dance in your dreams.”
I thanked her profusely for the understanding and forbearance she had shown me, and acknowledged that I’d be returning home with bells on, notes in hand, and probably tanned.
Barely into our twenties at the time, Lenny Ballantyne and I, rucksacks on our backs, sauntered through Chania’s Old Port in search of cheap fare and invariably we found it. The year was 1980. We stayed on in a very reasonably priced pension near the cathedral. Like with many of the young people we met either in hostels or on the road, our venturing around the Mediterrean entailed seeing how far and how long you could go before the money ran out, and that depended on the resources you had to begin with and what temporary jobs like working in vineyards could add into the kitty. As was typical of most travellers, I kept a journal where I would express ideas like the sense of liberation that being constantly on the move gave you or the sensation of warm winds on your face as you anticipated a new island while standing on the deck of a ferry in the Aegean.
Sometimes I’d include what Lenny said about a place we’d visited, the Acropolis, for example, and sometimes Lenny would write jokes in the margins of my journal, a less than respectful scribble, for instance, about Botticelli’s Birth of Venus hanging in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence. Lenny kept me grounded. For him the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul was a place to buy puzzle rings or have suede jackets made to measure. He made no pretence about being a Byron or Shelley. Eventually, we reached Crete, the big island. And the old Venetian harbour of Chania. And exploration of archaeological sites of interest. Knossos eventually. The Minoans. Even Matala on the south coast of the island and the celebrated caves, the hippy haven that was no more. A Lenny must see. No problem, but we got there more than a decade too late.
And so, I reached Crete again. Alone. Alone with a new notebook.
I found suitable accommodation in Casa Veneta on Theotokopoulou, a back lane situated in behind the main attractions of the Old Port. A studio on the top floor with a balcony and view. Several framed Tourist Bureau posters fanned out along the side wall of the main living area and on the wall opposite an artistic rendering of Theseus, the hero who came to Crete to release the captive women and who confronted and killed the Minotaur. Reading material placed on the nightstand included a travel guide, well used, and a book of myths also in English and also well used. The view from the balcony was expansive, from overlooking the run of small businesses on Theotokopoulou to the Lefka Ori peaks, the White Mountains, seemingly palpable beyond the wrought iron grillwork, the domes, and the spires. An immense clarity defined everything my eyes fell upon.
We knew very little about Chania, Lenny and I. It was a magnificent old city that the Venetians built up and it appealed to us most dramatically. It had a beautiful harbour where fishing boats of every description wove in and around a very distinctive breakwater, Faros the lighthouse standing erect at the opening to the sea. In a moment of awed inspiration, Lenny called it Venice of the East. A teacher on a leave of absence that we met at the Socratic Bar described the city as “a place of intrigue and seduction verging on the mythical.” Something like that. Ethereal light, exotic flavours, searing sunsets, and plentiful cheap ouzo surrounded by snacks presented an enticing palate of attractions to a couple of young bucks. It would be university for both of us in the fall.
What struck me most about having returned to Chania and having wandered around retracing former steps in the various historical quarters were the changes. It was as though a metamorphosis on the grand scale had happened. I had to remind myself that decades had passed since I was here with Lenny. The vaulted lanes of Topanas district, where established families lived for generations, were largely commercial by this time and a little more meretricious in their appearances and come-ons. Terracotta, ochre, rust, sepia, and sea blue, a phoenix had definitely risen out of the ashes and rubble of Nazi bomb sites. I consumed my first giro at the souvlaki joint on Halidon and followed it up with a beer in Venizelou Square where I toasted Lenny.
Venizelou Square. Endless rows of tables spilling out onto the flagstones from cafés and tavernas. As to changes, maybe a few differences in the commercial signage here and there, but much of it still reflected the services offered by ancient Olympian deities having escaped their twilight. And of course, the insistent welcome of the waiters bounding in and out and all around in time to plucky bouzouki music. Cacophonous, really. People everywhere, coming and going, sauntering along the quays.
Having come down Halidon to the square, a trio of young women stopped to stand in awe of the view that greeted them. Extended hands traced the sweep of the harbour and the building facades that defined it. Swedes, according to the flags on their backpacks. Exuberance exhausted, they settled on a table just down from mine, welcomed with an expansive gesture by the waiter — Dimitri, I heard someone call him. Their drinks arrived, one of the gals pulled out her journal and began to write while the other two consulted a travel guide. I watched. I mused. I listened. Then I grew miffed. “Potential victims” was the dark thought that crossed my mind. Just like Margo Sylvester and Barbara Carter. And other unsuspecting innocents.
I was still suffering from jetlag, and despite intentions to stay with the light, I headed back around the harbour to my digs and took a siesta that lasted more than a couple of hours. Early retirement followed an evening meal at the Taverna Trident.
Like a disoriented Orpheus climbing out of Hades, I fought my way towards a high promontory, climbing, struggling to gain a purchase, to see into the blue light that hung there. Overhead a murder of crows scattered. Losing balance, I slipped precipitously into a crevice, sharp edges to either side readied to draw blood. I rolled down unscathed towards the sea below. Before being sucked into the depths of the roiling waters, I broke through the surface to the conscious awareness that all was just a dream. It dawned on me that such nocturnal revelling, so to say, was two-fold in purpose; one, to awaken me to go empty my bladder in the john while, two, entertaining me with images to decipher as to who I was and why I was in Crete again.
But how did my dreaming me get to the base of the cliff? From what I managed to recall and note down, it started with riffs of Bouzouki music. How can you really be that precise when remembering what passes for sound in dreams? For instance, a helmeted stand-in for Lenny Ballantyne calling out over the music, “Don’t release the Kraken!” What occurs in my dreams was mostly visual but the music in this one continued. It managed to turn suddenly appearing tables and chairs into dancing couples, and even trees were swaying in time, and rocks rhythmically rolling around. Celebrating our nuptials, my wife and I were dancing, dancing until a serpent struck and she receded into the darkness down below, where I followed. I failed to bring her back up to the light.
Over coffee and notebook on a sun-drenched table at a café near the Maritime Museum, I thanked Doctor Sophia in absentia for her fervent wish that I dance in my dreams, and put all the details of last night’s wacky excursion into the context of Delores’ death and the pure malevolence of things. Added into my simple interpretation, human stupidity and the foolhardy antics of Silas Flower operating in my world, both day and night, like a phantom of the waterways.
At that time of the day, the view across the inner waters of the Old Port was spellbinding, from the Venetian lighthouse and the Mosque of the Janissaries to Venizelou Square. Facades and awnings and umbrellas fluttered with shades of aurelian yellow. Aqua blue, the morning sky. The harbour had become a pool of sparkling light. Technicolour fishing boats carved arteries of silver through the chop the sea was rolling in, their bows slapping at the water in regular rhythms. Then the tolling of cathedral bells. I remembered how the bells always sounded out of tune. Lenny would joke about them, claiming the unholy sound could wake the dead, especially on Saturday nights and Sunday mornings.
With thoughts of Silas Flower temporarily out of mind in a setting as uplifting as that, and with more of the Chania of past times to revisit, I decided to leave my intended foray into his Villa Akra a few days grace. I really needed to adjust to the beauty that surrounded me here in the Old Port before I faced the fastness of his ugly promiscuity out on the Akrotiri peninsula. Keeping in mind Doctor Sophia’s exhortation to be in the moment and enjoy the endorphin highs, that second day of exploring Chania I did a lot of freewheeling and free associating and when I sat down to collect myself I scribbled in my notebook bits and pieces of aide-memoire.
Motivated by revived curiosity and mindful of the psychological good that Doctor Sophia described, I did walk that first full day until it was time to stop. Retracing previous footfalls, I got around Mandraki, the inner harbour, past the Arsenals and Venetian clearinghouse, all converted to contemporary use, ending on the steps of Faros at the end of the mole. I observed fishermen at their nets and their rainbow coloured boats. Exchanges of “Kalimera.”
Once a lane of cobblers and leather goods and assorted artisan workshops, Odos Skridlof was now a manifestation of chic shops selling all manner of stuff from who knew where. And yet holy, Byzantine faces still looked out longingly to the passing tourists from the crowded walls of Orthodoxy’s business stalls, two of them on Odos Skridlof. In another religiously inspired shop on the strip, the Bull of Minos stared with a sophisticated knowing above the heads of Minoan figurine goddesses while wise Athena, owls attending, looked down from on high. Plus ça change. Attracted by colourful practicality, I bought a daypack from a very convincing vendor. And I wondered, had Barbara Carter and Margo Sylvester sauntered along this busy thoroughfare looking at this and that?
Back in Venizelou Square I ordered a beer from Dimitri who recognised me and immediately led me to a table. Close by, an Australian couple were discussing plans for the evening. On their table surrounded by two empty pint jars, a wine glass, also empty, and a bowl of pistachios lay a copy of Shades of Persephone. Check out the mythological meaning of Persephone I told myself.
Before heading back to Casa Veneta, I exchanged more than a few words with Dimitri as I guzzled the mug of beer. Yes, I was from Canada. I had been in Crete as a young man. I asked him to drop the Mister and just call me Mick.
Endaxi, he said, okay.
I asked Dimitri if he knew of Silas Flower. He had heard the name tossed around in the local media and in the bars and cafés. His name was associated with the “not so good” doings at Villa Akra.
“What do you think, Dimitri, about the not so good doings at Villa Akra?”
“Po po po!” he replied not surprisingly. From what I recalled, the expression meant “wow” or “Wow, man!” I might have remembered incorrectly.
“Do you know anyone there?”
A long shot on my part that netted a negative reply from Dimitri who with eyes closed and chin up expressed his silent no, that he knew no one there.
“Any young women? Girls? Students? Tourists who might have got taken there?”
“I tell you this, Mick. Many young girls suffer from this place. We call it gamó kèntro. But no Greek girls. No Cretan women. They know better. Fucking malakes! Wankers, nea! Pardon my — ” Dimitri did not finish the apology, he just smiled, a hint of ironic intent passing between us.
To which I replied, “Right. Right.”
“Mick, why you ask? To go there?” Here Dimitri made the suggestive finger-in-hand gesture that only the blind would not comprehend unless they heard the friction. This he followed with another quick movement — hand raised and fingers open and a twist of the wrist. What gives? At least I took that to be the meaning of his action.
“No, nothing like that, Dimitri,” I said immediately and with emphasis, not wanting to give the wrong impression about my inquisitiveness. I gave Dimitri an edited version of how Silas Flower had caused the death of my wife and, with emotions retroactively angering up, I finished with the sudden declaration that “some careless bastard charges by and in one fell swoop fucks up your life forever. Who is this particular bastard? Silas Flower, that’s who. The boss of Villa Akra.”
“A sad story, this. Like Greek tragedy. The suffering. The gods, you understand.”
“Silas Flower will suffer in turn before he cashes out. I’m sure of it, Dimitri. It can be no other way.”
“As you say. Also this, a good friend to me is artist. He makes statues, bronze, like in museum. He gets no money, not one evró from out there work. They are fucking malakes. They say statue no good, but keep it.”
I shake my head knowingly and then ask him to bring me another beer. “Thanks for the info,” I add. Efharisto poli.”
Evening saw me rested sufficiently to take on the Old Port for a meal. The Amphora looked attractive. Blue everywhere, and bluesy bouzouki music as well. It was a busy taverna but you had no pressure from waiters waving menus in your face and hustling you in off the pavement. A coroner table was perfect as was the ouzo-on-ice I ordered and sipped slowly in memory of Margo Sylvester and her story of Villa Akra. The fiery flavoured aperitif ushered in thoughts about the strange day that I figured lay before me. An episode of fractured thinking that did not last long. Thankfully. I began watching with increased fascination the evening volta unfold along the quays in all its fashionable razzle-dazzle, waves of walkers from this way and that, wavelets of reflected night light in the darkened waters as backdrop. On my menu mousaka and a bottle of retsina to seal the bargain.
Dessert and a small carafe of liquor suddenly appeared on my table next to the change I was leaving. “Tsikoudia, from the house,” the waiter said and wished me a heartfelt “Yassou!” So, I gratefully kept on at the Amphora, thinking about things like decisions and choices while watching the pedestrian parade. Tomorrow was closing in from a lifetime away.
The traffic through and out of Chania was manageable — just follow the bilingual road signs. The map from the auto rental office helped orient me although I’d used the computer at home many times in planning a route to Flower’s fortress on Akrotiri. I was amazed at all the marks of modernity evident along the way, posh homes, villas, resorts, tavernas, tourist apartments. Crete was indeed a vacationer’s paradise. The road to Villa Akra was a strait run-in past the turn-off to Stavros and gradually narrowed as you neared the gates. Before getting out of the car, I swigged from my water bottle and gave myself a moment to consider how getting turned around might be negotiated. My rental was a small Peugeot, a stick shift with plenty of get-up-and-go that I enjoyed driving. I foresaw no problem leaving.
So what was I doing there? The question had to be answered before I stepped out into the heat of the day. What did I really expect would result from my roaming around the site? Find proof positive that the place really existed? Establish hands-on that photographs and video clips were not just media-hyped manipulations? Confirm in all my imaginings that what the story claimed could really have happened in such a secluded place?
The gates were closed and padlocked. That made sense. A large, ornate sign on the concrete wall read Villa Akra. Right place, alright. A notice in Greek read kliestòs, which I figured meant closed, shut down. Other official notifications were affixed to the wall as well, all in Greek. Strips of torn yellow tape blew indifferently from vertical bars in the gates, which were large and elaborate and more than sufficient to keep me out. I looked through the wrought-iron work for I don’t know how long, undecided as to how to proceed. There was a paved driveway inside with palm trees to either side curving round towards a series of buildings the size of which I could determine only by the length and orientation of the terra cotta roofs. From what I could actually make out, a grand structure appeared to dominate the centre of the compound. I pivoted at the sound of a clunky bell.
“Ochi,” said a goatherd who hesitated briefly in moving his bleating buddies across the road near the Peugeot. Again the closed eyes, raised brows, and lifted chin. No access. Having with his single word stated the obvious, he gave me a sly grin, and then carried on herding his flock. How could I have missed his jangling approach across the rugged terrain? This I did not fail to take into account: the juxtaposition of time-honoured simplicity and luxurious self-consciousness built on power and position. Universal.
The gates. I definitely could not slide under them the way Margo Sylvester and Barb Carter did in their escape. Nor could I climb over them as there were no good footholds that would support me. Margo had described the place as extensive and elaborate and surrounded by a high ochre wall and copious palm trees. All that checked out, especially the insurmountable wall. I decided to walk the perimeter and eventually made my way up to an outcropping of rock towards the outermost part of the promontory from where I had a view of the stairway she mentioned that led down to a completely isolated sandy bay and the blue waters of the Med. Totally inaccessible from where I stood. However, I did have a partial view of the interior of the compound, pool, overturned deck chairs, and above, an upper deck of blue doors facing the sea. Jumping up, I caught sight of a bit of the terrazzo deck and a long table. I let surmise place the barbeque and the bar with its high back wicker stools. No surprise, of course, the marble statues — I counted twelve heads and allowed imagination to depict the attached bodies the way Margo had described them. As to the grandiose inside, I had to go on what she had revealed. I speculated about the various locations of sauna, massage facilities, kitchen, and dining room displaying the art. At no time in all my reconnoitring did I see or hear young women either sun tanning or dancing around dressed in tiny white skirts. “Kliestòs,” as the sign at the gates declared with authority, closed, defunct, for which I was grateful. I offered thanks to the gods who kept things on the up and up. Satisfied that no more could be achieved, I nimbly worked my way back to the car, from rock to jagged rock.
So, why had I come? What had motivated me? Resolute determination? Purity of intention? Sure, prompts enough, but I needed to know that more than highly charged emotional drive brought me to this spot. Something like proving Margo Sylvester accurate in her architectural assessment? I thought not. What then? To apprehend Silas Flower in the company of other dirty old men exorcising the demons that hung between their hairy legs. Hear the giggling or moaning of strung-out young women? In the wildest of fanciful scenarios, to see satyrs cavorting with teenage nymphs? Not at all likely! To justify yet again my enduring hatred of the bastard? Yes. In my estimation he was as loathsome here for his dirty deeds as he was back home. Condemn him vicariously to perpetual ignominy? Yet again? To witness by the shutting down of his villa that some sort of legal redress was being exacted? All that, sure. Or was I deceiving myself after all this time and effort in believing that justice could be served not just for me and others he’d ripped off in one way or another, but for all those unsuspecting debutantes who fell victim to his seductive enticements. In a weird turn of thought, I wondered if Flower’s twin sister Eris were part of the seduction process. Did her company provide the garments the victims donned in the foreplay of each unfolding drama?
In a species of ironic reversal regarding incentive, it occurred to me, sitting in the car swigging water and studying the craggy landscape, that in the long run no resolution was really possible, that all was futile, that justice was fatuous, ephemeral. Just as when authorities brought a drug lord to justice, there always rose out of the underworld ranks some ambitious bastard ready to replace the incarcerated king pin. By the same token, there were many aspiring wannabes out there ready to carry on were Flower to leave off, antsy to come up with a new and improved version of Pamper Paradise.
The foray out to Silas Flower’ gamó kèntro, I decided before starting up the Peugeot, was not totally in vain. In light of Doctor Sophia’s cognitive readjustment theory, where chapters in a life have a larger and more hopeful context, I determined that by driving out to the site of obscene exploitation of young women and putting it all in perspective, another chapter was being written to fit in with the longer and as yet unresolved narrative I was living. I’d just been composing a specific passage that I hoped would lead before too long to a satisfying last chapter with conflict resolution confirmed. Would the details of the days’ outing be justified by the dénouement? When all was said and done, would I experience a soul-saving catharsis as the good doctor predicted? I had a way to go before any of that could be decided.
So what did I actually achieved scouting about Villa Akra more than a bit of physical exercise that tested my middle-aged agility, bouncing from rock to rock? A sense of balance. That was it. That was all. Balance.
Oddly, I pictured myself outside of myself bounding about the domain of bleating goats. Out of the corner of my mind’s eye, I saw the goatherd watching.
In Stavros town I enjoyed a late lunch under the vines at Zorba’s Taverna. I appreciated but did not accept the offer of tsikoudia from the house, but I stayed on for awhile writing up my notes.
Jetlag abating, I would get into a Mick-appropriate rhythm as days folded into nights. I made a habit of passing the evening after a meal walking about and then sitting over a drink observing, but never at the same café twice. Venizelou Square swelled with people at this hour, volta folk of all descriptions entering the scene from all angles imaginable, among the great variety proud young mothers pushing prams that were flanked and fussed over by granddames. And children in tow with eyes full of distraction. And restaurants filled to overflowing, and preening young bucks on the make. The whole of the Old Port pulsed with festive life with harbour front facades growing pink with promise of another day of the same immense light now passing.
The night of my visit to Villa Akra, I came to halt at a point along the Akti Tombazi quay to watch the sunset that seems to burst forth from the top of a lamp standard standing tall at the water’s edge — like a cresset set ablaze. Behind me was the perfect spot to stop and sit. The table that appealed to me faced the breakwater, the sea beyond, and the sun streaking the sky with intense configurations of colour, scarlet, predominantly, fusing with copper and violet. Iced ouzo, of course, and notes for activities of the day. Again, so many changes to keep track of including what was overtly political. In circling around all quarters within the Venetian walls, I came across no high profile green socialist sunrises vying with red hammer and sickles.
I was disappointed to realize that Manolis’ Socratic Bar on the narrow lane behind the mosque was a mere shell of its former stature as a cool place to hang out in, which Lenny and I did quite often.
Elsewhere around the Old Port, I had difficulty identifying the Pan Pub & Bacchus Bar. No longer the raucous cavernous joints I remembered, they had been transformed into sedate establishments appealing more to sophisticated and moneyed tourists than the young bargain travellers Lenny and I were at the time. Same applied to places like Calypso’s Cave and the Maenad Club, all housed in edifices centuries old located in quayside Venetian structures.
Just prior to my leaving for the Casa Veneta, two young women, American from the sound of their accents, sat down at a table behind me and ordered wine. They continued discussing a topic evidently begun earlier, how the gods and goddess of ancient Greece were simply metaphorical representations of human behaviour. Students, I presumed, informed and articulate. One got into the meaning of Nemesis and how she was the prototype of Justice with sword and scales of balance. Potential victims at one time for the likes of Silas Flower? Not bloody likely.
Intriguing, the Greek myths and their meanings even for a guy like me. Oddly, the Narcissus story refused to lie dormant. Little Echo faded away into the mythological landscape, victim of unrequited love for the arrogant and conceited Narcissus. I got that. As for him, what an undeniably self-centered prick! The gods, Nemesis probably, arranged events so he’d be stricken with the same malady he inflicted on others. Unrequited, he died young in a torment of self-love as he gazed longingly at his own reflection in a pool of clear, liquid light. Very ironic.
I dreamed in the subjunctive mood of the contemptuous and egotistical Silas Flower enduring a fate similar to the one Narcissus suffered but having first lost his ill-gotten social status, all his worldly possessions including Villa Akra, and, most of all, his ability to get it up.
The aphorism that claims time passes quickly if you’re having a good time never struck me as being more than a cheap cliché. That was especially so over the years since Delores died. Not a good time and not quickly passed. My days in Crete passed faster that I would have imagined which by the logic of my discontent must have meant I had a good time.
Text in this post: © Reed Stirling
Published with the permission of Reed Stirling