Birgit Lennertz Sarrimanolis
During the night, the wind picked up. By early morning, spume-covered waves churned the steely, grey sea. Near the island of Skopelos, the waves and the wind had gained enough strength to divert the ferry to the Agnontas port on the western side of the island, sheltered from the open Aegean, where the cove tended to be much calmer on such days. There were few passengers on the ferry. The loading of a handful of passenger cars and motorcycles, along with a truck delivering fruit and vegetables to the island, had not taken very long. The passengers, mostly locals returning from the mainland after a day in Volos, sat huddled inside near the snack bar, sipping strong coffee out of miniature cups. Although the ship heaved and rolled on the angry waves, causing the cups to slide on the bolted down tables, the passengers did not comment on the redirection of the ferry as an inconvenience. The unpredictability of the sea was something the Greek people had, timelessly, come to terms with.
Elizabeth stood outside holding onto the railing as the wind whipped her hair back. She fought to shut the deck doors behind her and found herself alone save for two deckhands who were at work scrubbing the last of the winter grime off the deck with hard bristled brooms and pails. Black rain clouds raced overhead. Elizabeth leaned over the railing, bracing herself against the force of the wind, and felt an odd satisfaction at the seawater spray hitting her face. She welcomed the fact that the biting wind had sent the other ferry passengers indoors. She wanted the howl and the thrashing waves to herself.
Elizabeth’s friend, Anne, had suggested she return to Skopelos. Anne had been gently persuasive, in the manner of a big sister taking charge.
“It might be therapeutic. You cannot run away from it.”
Elizabeth conceded, awash again suddenly with ache and damage. Anne booked a flight and ferry passage before Elizabeth could change her mind. It was February, too late for the Christmas festivities and too early for the Easter tourists. Neither the time of year nor Elizabeth’s state of mind welcomed her present endeavor. Elizabeth acquiesced, however. Returning to the island might provide her a relief that was more than temporary.
The ferry approached the island, undulating on the sea swells. Skopelos was thickly covered with Aleppo pines that exuded a heady scent onto the wind gusts. The pines grew down the steep hillsides to the myriad coves and rocky sea pockets in the white cliffs. The grey water swirled and splashed up against the rocks violently. On calm days during the summer, Elizabeth knew, the water lay clear and turquoise in the bright sun. On another day so, too, would have lain her soul. Today it was in as much turmoil as the waves that crashed against the craggy cliffs.
Elizabeth clambered down the ferry’s narrow staircase with her small suitcase. She stood among the Hellenic Seaways employees who were directing the transfer of vehicles by means of shrill whistles, hand signals, and shouts of “ela, ela, piso, piso.” Passengers on foot walked off the ferry ramp, dodging the vehicular traffic, toting bags and small children.
In the past Kostas had been with her. She stood waiting for him to extract their small rental car out of the boat’s diesel smelling interior. He waved for her to get into the car, smiling, eager to drive up the steep, narrow road towards the house on the cliff.
They had come several times to the house Kostas had inherited. Leaving behind their work in England and depositing the children with Elizabeth’s mother, they came to the island to renovate the dilapidated villa. Together they repaired broken shutters, whitewashed walls, and they filled cracks in the flagstones of the terrace. In the evenings after a long day of physical labor, they stood with paint-splattered arms entwined, gratified with the results of their toil. The house’s unfinished, ramshackle state was slowly being supplanted by something exquisite.
On her own now, Elizabeth stood at the familiar port and felt unmoored.
Two taxi drivers stood by their cars on the quay, collars turned up against the wind, smoking. Elizabeth made her way towards one and asked whether he would drive her to the town of Skopelos, the main port on the other side of the island. He grunted and crushed out his cigarette beneath his foot.
The driver chose the narrow coast road that hugged the mountainside to avoid the gusts on the higher mountain road. The wind increased among the pines, swishing the tight branches. The island, along with the neighboring islands, was often referred to as the gates of the wind, oriented as they were towards the open Aegean. In the winter months, Zorbas often descended, a neighbor woman had once earnestly explained to Elizabeth. While he howled and thrashed, the villagers sequestered themselves behind bolted shutters. Superstition held firm among the islanders.
The town of Skopelos lay against the mountain. On the beach along the bay, stormy rollers thundered in. The white-washed houses were stacked closely together, tiered steeply up the hillside, as though collectively bracing themselves against the onslaught of wind and waves. Blue window shutters rattled in the wind. Narrow alleys climbed steeply up between the houses, abandoned today by the town’s inhabitants. Elizabeth saw only a delivery boy fighting the wind on his moped.
At the end of narrow harbor road, the taxi driver pulled up in front of Hotel Aphroditi. It looked desolate. Elizabeth paid the driver and hauled out her small suitcase. Stale tobacco smoke lingered in the air of the lobby even though there was no one around. When Elizabeth jingled the bell on the reception counter, a middle-aged woman emerged from an adjacent door. The woman spoke only Greek and pushed an old-fashioned ledger towards Elizabeth while she sorted laboriously through a drawer for a room key. She then gestured for Elizabeth to make herself comfortable in an armchair by the window overlooking the bay and left the room. Moments later she reappeared, holding a mop and bucket, readying herself for a quick room service.
When Elizabeth looked around the tiny hotel room a half hour later, the smell of stale cigarette smoke still hung in the air and the drain in the bathroom gave off a pungent odor. The room was simply furnished: a wooden bed, a doily-covered dresser, a TV set with rabbit ear antennas. Elizabeth welcomed its detachment and neutrality. She looked through the balcony door at the pounding waves that crashed up and over the natural overwater reef in the bay, the skopelos from which the island took its name.
For the first time that long day, Elizabeth felt like she could exhale.
Elizabeth sought out a taverna at a much earlier hour than the Greeks were accustomed to eating. It was empty save for two men drinking milky ouzo. Their attention was focused on the scarce activity on the port road. Elizabeth sat down at a small table, her toes clammy and cold in her sneakers. The wind battered against a plastic awning that had been pulled down to shield the tables and their patrons. A waiter approached, eyeing Elizabeth with some curiosity since not many xenoi, foreigners, came to the island during the cold season. He bent his head respectfully and suggested the kalamari or the xtapodi, fried squid or octopus, both of which were gleaned fresh from the ocean that morning.
Elizabeth thought of the nights when Kostas extravagantly ordered seafood, pairing it with cold retsina wine that tasted of pine resin. They sat on summer nights, enveloped in the thick, sweet scent of honey suckle that grew in ceramic pots on the terrace. Tonight, she felt that she could not stomach seafood. She asked for something simple. The waiter brought her a traditional Skopelos pie. Elizabeth pushed the cheese stuffed phyllo spiral around on her plate and ate only small bites.
Elizabeth heard Elpida before she saw her. Shrieks resounded from the kitchen behind the counter, making Elizabeth look up. Elpida appeared to be in her twenties, with long, dark hair, black eyes and lustrous olive skin. Her youth, however, was disfigured by a physical deformity. The curvature of her limbs rendered her movements awkward and spasmodic. She had been given the task of washing spinach leaves and squealed at the feel of the cold sink water. She was hushed, curtly, by a female voice in the kitchen. When Elpida retorted something in Greek, her words were sluggish and halting. Elizabeth did not understand the words, but she grasped the effort that it cost Elpida to formulate them as they caught on her tongue. Catching Elizabeth’s eye, Elpida hastily lowered her gaze, as though belatedly understanding that her squeals might have disturbed the taverna customer. Elizabeth ached for her deference. She smiled, but Elpida had already retreated.
In the night, Elizabeth woke with a start. Sweat plastered her hair to her forehead. The shapes of the dresser, the balcony door and the curtains at the window solidified slowly in the pre-dawn dimness. Elizabeth tried to remember the dream. It had extinguished itself. Morning brought more blustery wind, but the rattling of the rain against the windowpanes had relented a little. Elizabeth looked out over the deserted cobblestoned harbor road. The anchored fishing boats still rocked wildly in the port below. In the last summer here with Kostas, tourists and locals filled the tavernas and cafes. They shopped for brightly colored ceramic ware along the twisting alleys. Now, the tavernas and shops were shuttered. The café umbrellas were clasped down. The restaurant tables sported neither blue and white checkered tablecloths nor hovering waiters. The great platano trees that grew along the harbor road extended their stark, leafless branches towards the darkening sky.
Elizabeth mustered a thimble of bravery and pulled on her anorak. She walked up the steeply inclined alleys of the town, passing underneath stiff, flapping laundry strung up between balconies. Elizabeth encountered few people as she climbed further up from the port road. Before long she felt out-of-breath, but the pathways continued their ascent, around white-washed building corners, along a maze of tight alleys, small courtyards and flag-stoned steps. Wooden balconies almost met midair overhead. Doorway stoops were crammed with pots of clambering vines and fragrant basil.
The township road at the top of the town led up and over the cliffs. The wind continued its vendetta and the waves on the bay, far below, were white capped. Elizabeth followed the narrowly winding road as it followed the contours of the land, high above the sea. She could hear the plaintive tinkling of goat bells from the terraced fields below.
When she came to the junction in the road, Elizabeth paused. The sign to Glisteri pointed to a narrow road that descended steeply and quickly out of view. In her mind, Elizabeth could see the cove, the white cliffs, the deserted pebble beach at the end of the road. She looked down the other road, towards Agios Constantinos, which followed the spine of the mountain inland, along orchards of olive, fig and orange trees. Suddenly Elizabeth felt like a compass without bearing, spinning out of control. She was unable to place another step in either direction, weighed down abruptly with a pain that had no location or cure. She turned and ran the entire way back to the town.
The waiter in the taverna pulled a chair out for Elizabeth near the plastic awning. He placed a minced meat pie, spiced with cinnamon, on the table in front of her. Behind him, Elpida shuffled as she carried a tin carafe of olive oil. When Elizabeth smiled at her Elpida spilled the olive oil, flustered by the attention given her. The waiter mopped up the soggy paper tablecloth, a vexed expression on his face while Elpida shrank away into the kitchen.
“My daughter wants to help,” he explained, “but it is difficult for her, with her condition.”
Elizabeth, not wanting to intrude, said “Yes, of course.”
“I have seen you on the island before?” the waiter asked.
Elizabeth sighed, then nodded. No one stayed unnoticed on the small island. “My husband and I were here three years ago.”
She was relieved when he did not pursue the topic.
In the evening, Elizabeth called her friend Anne.
“I am not sure I can do this alone,” she told her in an unprotected moment[MO1] . Anne, on the telephone, buoyed her quietly. Elizabeth, drawing in her breath slowly, finally promised that she would return to the house on the cliff.
When she saw it the next day, the old villa had the effect, not of disarray and neglect, but of time abruptly stopped. The house stood as they had left it, nestled against the mountain. The balcony overlooked the tops of the olive trees, a sea of blue-green leaves. The sunbaked terrace with its clay vessels had once been a colorful outburst of bougainvillea and hibiscus. The rope swing, on which the children had pushed each other, still stirred in the breeze. The scent of lavender and thyme hung in the air. The trees they had planted – pomegranate, lemon, walnut – had matured, as Kostas had predicted, alongside their children. The gnarled grape vine that he had trained to climb a trellis, for shade and for fulfillment, had twisted up its support. He wanted to sit beneath the vine canopy one day, Kostas had told her, to watch his grandchildren play.
Inside, the villa was filled with reminders of the interrupted day three years before. The tavli board was still on the living room table, awaiting the next move, as though its players had momentarily left from their game. In the bedroom closet, clothes still hung, summer dresses and sandals, ready to be worn for an evening stroll along the port road. The children’s toys lay in their bedroom, puzzles and stuffed animals they would have no interest in anymore, now that they had grown.
Elizabeth’s breath caught on her emotion.
That summer had been hot and lethargic. All morning Kostas and Elizabeth painted the peeling, rusting spots of the metal balcony railings. They sought relief from the heat in the house at midday but tossed on their bed, too hot to sleep. It was late in the afternoon when Elizabeth persuaded Kostas to go down to the Glisteri cove for a swim to cool off. Kostas had been unwilling at first, complaining of a headache, but in the end had followed her down the monopati to the cove. Tucked away, the cove was deserted of tourists and locals. The water, clear and sparkling, felt deliciously cool. They spread their towels on the sun-warmed pebbles to dry off. Tired from their activities of the day Elizabeth dozed off.
When she awoke the sun was setting, casting its golden light onto the water. There was no sign of Kostas. Elizabeth sought out the contours of the cove. The beach was unoccupied, the water in the cove tranquil and undisturbed. Elizabeth’s eyes followed the steep monopati leading up the cliff to the house but could not see a figure making his way up the path. Elizabeth thought it strange that he would not have woken her if he had intended to return to the house. Elizabeth stood, filled with unease, and hurried up the incline. The house slumbered in the warm evening air. Kostas was nowhere to be seen.
By nightfall, Elizabeth’s frightened heart thudded. She ran along the cliff road to the neighbor’s house, stammered out that she could not find her husband, that they had been swimming in the Glisteri cove and he had not returned home. The neighbors were soothing and gave her a cup of mountain tea. The woman sat by her while the man drove down to the town for help.
Elizabeth felt legless. She sat awake through the black, sinister night. The men from the town had gone down to the cove again, searched the small beach and rocky outcroppings to no avail. They drove back down into the town to search the tavernas, the alleyways, the kafeneio, where often Greek men gathered. By dawn, Elizabeth felt ashen. She could not keep her hands from trembling.
Around noon the men of the town came to the house, their features etched with distress. They found Kostas in the cove, lifeless, washed up upon the pebbles. Elizabeth’s thoughts clamored in her mind, disjointed, unbelieving. It had been a perfectly calm day. There had been no ripple in the sea. He was a strong swimmer, having grown up on the island. She would have heard a cry for help.
The rest of that ghastly day was a blur of images as a flurry of activity ensued. Paramedics arrived from the Skopelos health center, bringing a gurney and a pick-up truck to transport Kostas’ body from the cove. Telephone calls were made, organizing a ferry passage to Volos, where the body was to be examined in the morgue. A police officer came, taking lengthy notes on a clipboard. The neighbor’s wife handed Elizabeth the telephone, telling her to call the children in England. Tea was brewed. Elizabeth sat, stunned. The earth had fallen out beneath her.
Elizabeth, throat tight, walked slowly through the rooms of the villa, touching the rustic furniture that Kostas had meant to sand and stain to a luster again. The underlying yellow of aged paint was visible on the outside walls where their whitewashing efforts had not yet been completed. Kostas had wanted to paint the interior trim of the doors and windows lime green, the color of the underside of an olive leaf. The villa was a work in progress, its promise still fragile and tenuous.
Elizabeth sat down on a wicker chair and breathed in the scent of the pines. She felt the stone walls of the villa sturdy against her back and Kostas’ presence. When darkness encroached and settled between the twisted branches of the ancient olive trees, Elizabeth finally got up. The wind, she noticed, had finally died down.
In the taverna that evening, Elizabeth was surprised to see locals, laughing and boisterous, occupying most of the tables. In a corner sat a bouzouki group. The twang of their stringed instruments filled the room. Women trailed by children carried plates piled high with food: lamb, lemon potatoes, tzatziki, amber wine carafes, sticky sweets.
Elizabeth stood, shifting and uneasy, until the waiter spotted her and smiled a beckon of welcome. “This is my friend Elizabeth,” he said to the assembled group. “Einai inglesa.” She is English.
Elizabeth was promptly seated next to a buxom woman. A plate of food was placed before her. The encouraging smiles of the Greeks urged her to partake in their celebration.
“Today is February 25,” the waiter explained to her, filling her glass with white wine. “It is feast day for Skopelos to honor St. Riginos. He is the patron saint of the island.”
He sat down next to her. “Do you know the story of St. Riginos?”
Elizabeth shook her head.
“A ferocious dragon lived on the island in ancient days,” the waiter explained, his eyes dark, voice low. The dragon tormented and killed the islanders. Riginos, brave and strong, brandished his sword. He set out to slay the dragon every day but could not conquer the dragon. One day, he pursued the dragon to a cliff not far from the bays of Staphylosand Agnontas. With his sword he created a crevasse in the earth into which the dragon fell, perishing in the abyss.
“To this day you can see the cliff near Staphylos bay and the Drakondoschima, the schism of the dragon.” The waiter’s expression was so earnest that Elizabeth had to wonder when the interweaving of myth and reality had taken place in his heart.
“Often the islanders name their boys Riginos and their girls Rigina in honor of the saint. Strong like the olive trees, rooted in the family for generations to come.”
Elizabeth felt a hint of warmth creep up inside her after the long, wind-battered day. It all came together for her then: the villa, Kostas, the waiter with his tale about conquered demons. It made sense in this place of tradition and togetherness.
Elizabeth’s gaze fell upon Elpida. She had joined the dancers in the middle of the taverna and started to sway, awkwardly, to the notes of the bouzouki player. When she stumbled, she was quickly steadied by various hands near her.
“And Elpida?” Elizabeth asked the waiter. “Who was she named after?”
The waiter looked over to Elpida and gentleness creased his features.
“Elpida?” he smiled. “Elpida means hope in Greek.”
Birgit Lennertz Sarrimanolis has been published in Cirque Journal, Five on the Fifth, and 49 Writers. Her story “April Supermoon” aired on Juneau KTOO’s Community Connections series. She was a finalist in the 2020 Pacific Northwest Writers Association literary contest and won second place in the 2021 Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition. Her memoir, Transplanted, is forthcoming from Cirque Press Books. She regularly attends several writing conferences, including the Pacific Northwest Writers Conference, the Seattle Writing Workshop, and the Kachemak Bay Writers Conference. Birgit holds a B.A. in art history and German studies, an M.A. in art history, and a Ph.D. in art education. She has lived in Indonesia, India, Chile, Argentina, Egypt, Germany, and Greece, but now calls Alaska home, where she writes overlooking the Tanana Valley. You can read her blog and learn more about Birgit at her website: www.birgitsarrimanolis.com.