by Wendy Coyle
The hematologist’s Stanford diplomas on the wall reflect the Transamerica pyramid and part of the Bay Bridge. Tan, with tennis wrinkles around his eyes, he says in an assured voice, “A year, maybe less.”
And you, looking like Ulysses in the storm, ask, “Ess der anyting to do about it?” This third opinion is the same as the others.
“No. Nothing. Myelofibrosis. Scarring in the marrow that produces the deformed blasts that can’t turn into regular cells, can’t make blood.” A year to oblivion. A time bomb in your bones. He continues, “Were you ever exposed to radiation growing up? We’re going to see a lot of people with this when the Chernobyl people get old. X-rays, asbestos, or…?”
You interrupt, regaining your authority. The man who owned restaurants, financed housing developments, employed Americans. “That’s not it!” you say. You stare ahead. Growing up, there was only the island, Andros in the Cyclades. Only sea and earth and air.
The doctor says, “Toxins? When I was in high school, shop class, they gave us this old paint and then solvents to wash our hands. Very bad stuff.”
But you don’t want to talk about the cause. It’s your appointment. “I have these headaches, and my hands are cold and numb. Sometimes my ears ring and ring.”
On the way home, even now, you think of food. Your business for years, your mother’s skill and love, your constant hunger during the German occupation. “I’ve got a freezer full of roasts and chickens and lamb chops. I’ll never eat all that food.” All the years in California, you never thought or talked much about the island. Even when your American daughters asked, you’d stir the air with your palm and say, “I forget. Leave it back there.”
Now, you can’t stop remembering as if the past, those memories of life, will keep your companion, Death, away. “My father made me go every morning to sell fruits and vegetables from our garden. Before I could go home, I had to sell the whole box. There was a lot of competition from grown men and women needing money like us. I’d call out and knock on doors and I went early, a curly-haired little boy, so the women liked me. Before I left the house, he’d weigh and count the tomatoes or the pomegranates or the eggplants, whatever was in season. When I returned home, he’d make me give him the exact money for each item. I couldn’t take anything for my own pocket.”
“Chocolate. I was crazy for chocolate, so even when I was small, I figured out how to get money for it. At night, when my father was sitting at the side of the house with his friends and his wine, I would go to the garden and take extra tomatoes or potatoes from the cellar and hide them by the road. In the morning, I’d pick them up and sell them too. At the store, I’d buy long thick chunks of chocolate and I’d sit out by myself and eat it all. Make myself sick. Sometimes I’d steal eggs from my mother’s hens and go sell them to buy chocolate!”
The plane moves electronically across the flight monitor over Germany toward Athens. Your hair has thinned and has a green cast from the chemotherapy, your eyes are lost deep in the sockets. You sleep head in hand, the heavy gold-link bracelet hangs loosely from your wrist. When breakfast arrives, you are like a hungry child, taking off lids, sniffing, unwrapping, sampling the yogurt, tasting the omelet. You force yourself to chew, to swallow.
“Next year, I’ll feel better, have more energy,” you say in a hoarse voice. Your blue eyes are faded, dull like weathered marbles left out in the sun and rain. You know there won’t be more energy, another year. You lean back, breathing heavily. A large sharp nose, cleft chin, high forehead, and I see how your profile will look in the coffin.
“I don’t want to,” you say.
I nod. I know you don’t want to die.
“Back then, New Year’s was the great opportunity. I was the priest’s assistant on his visits to bless the homes. He was fat and his hat was too small for his head. Women made honey cakes and walnut cookies, almond paste kaltsounia. They put out dishes of loukoumi and rose water delight and baklava and sugar korabeides. The mistress of the house offers us sweets and Greek coffee, and we eat, but the priest has many houses ahead, so swiftly we get to work. He motions me to stay behind, and he and the mistress disappear into the rooms. While he drones prayers and sprinkles holy water, I take as many sweets from the plates as I can and rearrange the gaps. I drop them into the sack I carry over my shoulder. The priest likes these special sweets even more than I do, and he doesn’t share them with anyone but me. There are many houses left to visit, so we hurry on. The priest and I are a good team. We raid the houses.”
From the ferryboat, Andros stretches in front of us; two rounded mountains come closer like soft breasts. Reversing into Gavrio port, the Penelope churns the water like an earthquake under the deck. You sling the black bag over your shoulder. Feet angled out, sailor-style, you take the metal steps fast down to the lowest deck. Shifting from foot to foot, you look around, waiting for someone to recognize. You are disappointed and say, “Once the islanders going to and from Athens all knew each other.”
“When I left Andros the first time, my mother was like a wilted leaf left to dry up in sorrow. Boys had to leave the island, there were too many children, not enough land or food. No jobs. My grandmother had four sons born in the 1880s. They all left for America, left when they were twelve or fourteen years old, and no one ever heard from them again. Were they dead or alive? No one ever knew. They went on the ships, they went to big places—New York, Chicago, New Orleans—and got swallowed. She was bitter, old, and sorrowed. Sometimes people would bring news. ‘I saw Petros four years ago,’ or ‘I heard Nick was in Chicago,’ and so on. But in those times, so far away, who knew what happened to those lost children who had to leave to survive? No one wants to go to sea. Who wants to live on a boat and be a slave? The bad weather, the same sea and sky for months, the same faces, the same work. Three boys in our family went. My mother lit candles every night for my older brothers. They were just kids. Stamatis was thirteen when he went on the Liberty ships that crossed the Atlantic to America during World War II, during the German blockade. The mines, the U-boats, so many Greeks waiting to die. Those were all Greek crews blown up, sank, and never heard from again. Do you think they wanted to go to sea?”
Thistles grow from hills of slate, and through the layers of rock caper, bushes cling to the soil. From the bus window, you look down the cliff to the Aegean and the old harbor now too shallow for boats where the breakwater, three and a half thousand years old, hooks a sheltering arm around the bay. You are home. Delicate against the harsh rocky hillside, back from the road, there is a tall whitewashed tower. Around the top, fancy filigree stonework forms angles and latticed openings. The dovecote entices doves to lay their eggs and raise their fledglings there. When you were a boy, you’d crawl inside the tiny opening at the base and climb up inside the narrow ledges to get eggs from the nests. It takes a lot to make an omelet, but doves will lay more when they see an empty nest. You sometimes went for the unfledged birds; your mother needed ten or fifteen to make dove stew, pitsunia. She would take off the feathers and heads and clean the insides of the tiny creatures. Then she’d wash, flour, and sauté them in hot olive oil. After adding a cup of red wine, she’d grind up several fresh tomatoes and put them in with the rest to simmer. Tender, sweet, the bones tasting like walnuts, you claim there is nothing more delicious.
“The war came when I was fourteen, left when I was eighteen. By then I was tall, over six feet, and I don’t ever remember my stomach being full. Our bellies ached all the time. My mother did all she could, but there wasn’t any food. The Italians had orders to take the food to send away, but they left us enough to survive. But in the middle of the war, a German commander arrived and sent soldiers to each house and took all the supplies, robbed each kitchen and cellar. They took the hams, the sausages, honey, all the oil, onions, potatoes, flour, and beans. Everything. They loaded it onto boats to send to their troops in the Balkans or Russia. Then they counted every chicken, how many eggs it laid, every pig, goat, and lamb each family owned, and wrote it in a book. They saw the crops and fruit and terraces and came back later to take the harvest and count again. We were forbidden to eat our own food, and if they found out we did, or we hid food, they would shoot us. If a goat or pig died, we couldn’t eat it. We had to tell the Germans so they could inspect it, verify it died naturally and nothing used. Sometimes it took a week until they came, and that food would rot in front of our eyes, but we were afraid. One neighbor buried a pig that died, and when the Germans came back and found it missing, they shot the father. A lesson. They were ruthless. What they didn’t send away, they took for themselves and the collaborators. It got worse, so that by the end, the island was bare, just lemons left. My mother made soup chopping and boiling lemons, mashing them up to fill our bellies so we could sleep at night. The Germans didn’t count the lemons.”
Lying on the couch at your nephew’s house in Korthion, you tap your fingers on the wooden frame and begin to sing an old song, “I was going to come last night but it started raining / She said, you should have come. I have dry clothes and a big blanket / And my body to keep you warm. / Even if it was sloppy wet, I had everything for you.”
You laugh and slap your thigh, remembering. “Last night I saw Treffonis and Michaelis in my dream. They were all dressed up, and I said, ‘I’ll go put on my good suit and join you.’ My old friends, dead now. We had iron knees in those days. We’d dance the missirlou, the zembekiko. All night we’d spin and turn and leap. In Ethonia village, up the winding steps between the walls, almost at the top they had good dances. Their plaka was the size of a dance floor with a huge tree in the center with branches spread out over the top like a roof and a big kerosene lamp. They played bouzouki and guitar and maybe accordion. All the girls wore soft dresses with high heels. One time our friend Barbonia, a huge fellow like three men, got into it. Some little guy got jealous and wanted to show off so while we were dancing, this guy attacks him with a knife, and Barbounia picks him up by the throat and holds him in the air, but the guy keeps swinging and stabbing at him. A girl jumps on and starts pounding but we pull her off. Barbounia holds him down on the rocks and pulls out the hairs of his mustache and stuffs them in his mouth. He was like a bulldog. We got into all kinds of fights at dances, but nobody got killed. We’d come home the next morning with our shirts in rags, arms out of the sockets, bloody. I will never forget those nights with the big lamps and the music and the dancing.”
“In the 1950s there was no work, and work on the ships wouldn’t go to me. My brother had been an organizer for the unions, arrested once. They knew our name and they didn’t want unions on the ships. I was desperate, and every day I went to the hiring but there was nothing. She saw me on the street in Piraeus port, I don’t know how she recognized me. I was skinny and hungry. All I could afford was a twenty-five-cent plate of spaghetti once a day. She was a big woman, each arm like a leg of lamb, and when she tucked my arm under hers, I was like a child. She took me to her house, a nice one up on the hill where you could see the bay. She cooked a big roast with potatoes and a moussaka. And she had skordalia creamed garlic sauce and stuffed green peppers. She loved to eat, and we took that roast and ate until just the bones remained, not even enough left over to feed the pigs! Then she took me down to the harbor to her husband’s office. He was a big shot in charge of loading and unloading the ships. Right there in front of everyone, she told him to find me a job. She told all the men sitting around to be ashamed that a strong young man, a son of Andros, couldn’t find work on a ship. I’ll never forget her, those arms, that roast. She made them give me a job, the job that took me to America.”
Roped to the deck or hanging over the side, you have to control the rust and corrosion on the converted WWII destroyer. You chip the deck and sides with a hammer and chisel to flake off the old layers of paint. Then you sweep up the tailings and try to avoid the powder and residue that blows into your face and mouth and eyes. With a strong-smelling solvent that burns your hands, you scrub the area day after day. You say the boredom cracks your brain, and you understand how animals in a cage feel. In the hold is British Columbian timber bound for Japan, and ceramics and furniture for California. “Jump ship,” you repeat to yourself, the only English you know.
When no one is around, the sailors say it aloud. “Jump ship. When the ship owes you money, so they don’t expect it.”
At the port of Los Angeles, you check the creased brown paper in your wallet with the phone number of a third cousin in America, and you walk away from the pier. Fresno is 120 degrees in the summer, and the cheap room upstairs in the old couple’s house smells of tar paper. On Sunday, when you are not working in the restaurant, they call upstairs: “George, Gunsmoke’s on.”
You think the heat is why you can’t sleep, why you are very very tired, and you can’t eat. All the food you could want, and you have no appetite. There’s a strange metallic taste in your mouth, and your ears ring. Your clothes hang on you. You punch new holes in your belt with a nail to hold them up. When you carry the trays from the dishwasher, your arms tremble. The waitresses say, “George, you’re young. You need to go out and have some fun.”
You told me your only real love was the girl in Greece, a true and innocent love, like it was back then. She loved you too, but how could a poor boy on a poor island get enough money to marry? How could her parents let her marry you? In California, you worked two jobs, you sent money back home, you saved. But you need more than dishwashing in greasy restaurants. You need to become legal, to get papers so you could have your own business and own property in order to go home the right way: rich. She came to the malt shop on Fourth Street every day and smiled at you. They told you she was a good Greek-American girl, Orthodox. They said you would learn to love her.
In seven years, you made a lot of money. You went to Greece in your Roos-Atkins suit, Bally shoes, and Bulova watch, and met your first love in a restaurant in Athens. She had a husband and son by then, and you had a wife and two daughters. You told her that in order to get what you loved, you had to do things that made you lose that love.
Today the sun is warm, and in the hillside cemetery above the bay, there is no wind. Your nephew Anthonis has to open the grave, dig up the body and wash the bones, his father’s bones. And it’s your brother’s corpse, so it’s your duty to go too. You’ve never done the ektafi disinterment before, you were always in America when the three years after your parents’ deaths was up. You think it’s a barbaric custom, but in Greece, where soil is so scarce and needed and so rocky, to dig a grave is to hew a tomb. You can’t make graves everywhere. The space has to be reused.
The priest watches Anthonis and the grave digger remove the grave-top picture and oil lamp and go to work lifting the heavy marble slab, then the thick cement slabs with the iron handles. Using a shovel, they crack open the wooden coffin and Anthonis kneels at the rock-hewn pit to pry off the waterlogged and disintegrating lid with a crowbar. The corpse is exposed, a skeleton dressed in a suit. Except for the tie you remember, it could be anyone.
The grave digger removes the skull, which separates easily with a twist, and hands it to Anthonis, who washes the brown matter left on it with Coca-Cola from a tall bottle. When they lift the disintegrating suit, the rest of the bones come out easily. An arm bone, the chest cavity, a hand, a thigh, and each bone are washed. The priest reminds them not to leave a single one, that every part must go into the small reliquary chest. You can’t help but think these bones were once your brother Dimitri, with the thick black hair and round stocky body who drank ouzo and danced the zembetiko at his eightieth name-day celebration. It brings back what you know: life is brief. Disease, old age, and death. This is not Dimitri any more, and in a year, it will not be you any more either. After the prayers and incense, the box with your brother’s name on it takes its place on the ossuary’s shelves alongside friends and neighbors and family.
People have to eat, and back at the house where you grew up, they serve ouzo and meze platters of stuffed grape leaves, fried cheese, and olives. The women and your brother’s widow bustle in and out of the kitchen preparing the food. You sit in the warm December sun and watch the mountain turn gold beyond the tall bamboo windbreak. The lapis waters of Korthion Bay are checkered with whitecaps. Restless, you take the familiar steps down to the yard. A goat is being roasted, and you baste it with olive oil and turn the spit, savoring the smell of meat over the grapewood charcoal. Several large pomegranates remain on the tree, and you pick them and sit at your father’s weathered slate table. You smile. You could still sell them for a few drachmas in town. You crack open the fruit; red seeds and juice spill onto the table like blood, and you begin to eat.
Adventurer, world traveler, writer Wendy Coyle has traveled 5 continents and lived many years abroad. She holds a doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley, has managed language schools for the American government, been an interpreter (Persian/English) for the U.S. State Department, owned a bookstore/restaurant and raised a family. Author of “Iridescent Iran”, she is a contributor to the Tehran Post and “Daftar Honar”, curator and translator of the NYC Iranian Theater Festival lauded in the New York Times. Wendy has just completed a historical novel, “Siemorq”, the story of a California girl who lives in Iran through the events leading to the fiery Islamic Revolution of 1979.