Sepia coastline

He sat by the bed all night and watched his father dying. The silence between breaths grew longer — sometimes so long the son rose from his seat, uncertain what to do. Each breath became a decision, whether to go on with the labour of living.

At two-thirty in the morning the death struggles began. These, too, came at irregular intervals. The old man fought, pitching on his narrow raft at sea. Rattling in his chest that was hands dragging chains. Thin arms flailing at the air. All night and into the early-morning hours the son in the chair, alert, watchful.

Dawn kissed the window with pale lips and Mount Taygetos rose up against the sky. Remote, distant, severe. The father seemed at rest, breaths shallow.

The son put down his notebook and went to the well for a cup of water. When he returned his father was dead. He had missed it.

He entered the time in his notebook. The fact of Taygetos appearing through the west-facing window. The well, the cup of water.

There was no one else. So the son sold the house and their few possessions, and his cousin George, in Canada, sponsored his emigration.

On the voyage across, in the belly of the ship, a group of fellow passengers took pity on him and invited him for a glass. One of them had a guitar, and they sang. They tried to draw out the shy young man, asked about his village, near Sparti. He told them about the gorge that gives his village a kind of fame. How this pitiless gash on Mount Taygetos has swallowed up the weak and infirm, outcasts and criminals, since ancient times. He’d never known his mother, who died giving him life, and his father, God forgive him, had been a tyrant. But the village priest noticed him at school and invited him home to meet his family and lent him books.

He may have talked for too long, because a tall man with fierce moustaches gently mocked the young man’s accent. Called him a Maniáti. Dino Petrakos, the young man, accepted this good naturedly, as he accepted the clap on his back and the third glass of retsina.

Later, though, back in his narrow bunk, he brooded about the incident and a black cloud settled over his thoughts. After that he mostly stayed in his bunk, by turns sleeping and absorbed with his papers.

His fellow passengers noted the young man’s withdrawal and chose to ascribe it to his recent loss. They spoke about him, for his curly black hair and sensitive lips marked him out. Such a shame, a beautiful boy with a clubfoot. To be sure, the boy tried to disguise it but the fellow passengers knew and they pitied him. Especially the women, who are by nature more kind-hearted.

But even the women’s thoughts eventually drifted to other things, as they had their own cares and were frightened by the shadowed future that lay ahead, across the ocean.

At night, in their bunks, they all sensed the cold churning sea on the other side of the iron hull, and trembled in their sleep.

Seventy-two hours after he disembarked at Pier 21 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Dino was washing dishes at Ben’s delicatessen, at the corner of Peel and de Maisonneuve, in downtown Montreal.

That first morning, walking to the bus stop with his cousin George. His cousin George slowing the pace, in deference to the new arrival’s stuttered gait. Dino in a borrowed coat, thin shoes soaked through with slush. George saying they’d have to buy him a pair of boots.

He had never seen more than a sprinkling of snow, except as a patch of white on the high slopes of Taygetos. Even on scorching August days, the clean white was a stern reminder. The face of God.

In the priest’s home, he’d found magazine pictures of snowmen and red-cheeked children throwing snowballs. But what he saw in Montreal was different. People hunched and hurrying to work. Roaring machines pushing grimy banks against buildings, mounds taller than a man heaped at every corner and lining the roads. Windows shaking at night as iron monsters swallowed the city.

In the evening he wrote some of these things in his notebook. Measured them against his experience, his limited years, the fact of his never having left his village before, and found himself lost.

I was born in the shadow of Mount Taygetos, he wrote. Its shadow was my constant companion at school and in the stony fields where we worked, tending the olives and cherries, loading our donkeys with branches we pruned from the trees and found by the roadside. On winter evenings, we sat by the fireplace and burned the wood, and the old people told stories of hardship, and behind every story the mountain seemed like the thing we struggled against in order to go on living.

One summer, the villagers hired a truck to take some of us to the beach, far away on the coast. They persuaded my family to let me go, and so we rose early, before first light, and bounced along the rutted road for hours. Along the way we stopped at a village to eat our bread and cheese, but few of us could keep down any food. By the time we arrived we were thirsty and covered with dust, but as we came over a rise and saw the sea for the first time, our fatigue dropped away and we stared open-mouthed.

I had never seen the sea before, sparkling in the sun, never seen its God-created waves or tasted its salt. I stood and gazed for many minutes, marvelling at the unbroken horizon, the constant movement as of a breathing form.

None of us had bathing suits, but the men walked some distance down the beach and stripped to their underwear. The women stayed beside the truck and went into the sea with their dresses on, the dresses clinging to their thighs and breasts.

 I didn’t get undressed but instead sat in the shade beneath a rocky outcrop and let my fingers run through the hot sand. Dragonflies darted and hovered near my head and the air was filled with the smell of the sea.

Afterward, while everyone rested, a man came by with a donkey pulling a wagon piled high with watermelons. We sat in the sand and passed around the dripping wedges, spitting out seeds and sighing with contentment, as the sea itself sighed and the afternoon shadows approached, and the villagers rested their heads on their poor bundles and dozed.

 I walked down the beach as they all slept and found a small track hidden between the rocks, leading away from the sea and, glancing over my shoulder to make sure my fellow villagers weren’t leaving without me, walked up the track. I soon came upon a hut in which lived an old woman who greeted me at the door, gave me to eat and showed me to a bed by the window, where I lay down and slept to the sound of the sighing waves.  

When I awoke, I knew the villagers had left for Mount Taygetos without me, and I was glad and for the first time happy. Through the open window a million winking stars and, low on the horizon, the rising moon…

During the breakfast and lunch rush, he dragged his foot between the tables, gathering crockery smeared with fat and mustard. The customers ignored him, pushed back their hats and unbuttoned their coats. Ate with a focused greed that was new to him. He avoided their eyes and kept moving as best he could.

In the kitchen, the other Greeks sometimes snapped at him impatiently. Always too slow and in the way. But as with all things, the work gradually became easier. He learned how to make fewer trips to the sink and how to stack the plates. Which coworkers to listen to and which to ignore.

After a year of this work, one of the smoked meat cutters, another Maniáti named Pete Kontakos, took him under his wing. Dino watched the older man’s deft movements, the skilled way he used the flashing knife and fork. Eventually Dino was given a chance after the lunchtime rush and his hands learned quickly enough.

Pete Kontakos had a daughter, Matina, and soon enough he invited Dino for Sunday dinner. But when Dino arrived, bringing a tray of baklava still warm from the bakery, he saw that his host hadn’t prepared his daughter. She drew back when she saw his gleaming boot. And as she helped to bring in dishes and later to clear the table, she threw her father angry looks.

Dino held his own in the conversation with his hosts. They spoke about their own region of Mani, about the ocean crossing and whether they would ever return home. Dino praised Mrs. Kontakos’s artichoke dish, with its egg-and-lemon dill sauce, and said it was better than his mother’s, even though he had never known his mother.

He left as early as it was polite to do so.

The next day at work, nothing was said about the matter. But some weeks later Dino asked Pete for a recommendation to another restaurant, which the older man was happy to give.

The new job paid well and Dino could afford his own apartment. But he preferred staying with his cousin, content to watch George smoke one cigarette after another in the evening, the television on, while he, Dino, sat at the kitchen table with his papers. They hardly spoke, but Dino was glad of the company, and in this way two years passed.

One day at work, Dino fell into conversation with a customer at the counter, who turned out to be Dutch.

“Ah, Taygetos,” the Dutchman said, surprised. “My father took me when I was a boy and we hiked to Prophet Ilias. We were there in July, when they light the bonfire. They say it’s visible all the way to the sea. Is this true? But you must have been to this chapel many times, of course.”

Dino was silent. From his side of the counter, the Dutchman couldn’t see the boot.

Some of the villagers had indeed climbed to the chapel, but only those who prayed to Prophet Ilias to intervene in a family illness or to reverse a run of bad luck. He had seen foreigners arrive by bus or car, unloading piles of heavy boots and canvas rucksacks. At first light they would start walking toward the distant peaks. Once they had gained some distance, the villagers would laugh at the foreigners and return to their work.

“There is another place my father took me to,” said the Dutchman. “Have you heard of it? A gorge where the Spartans threw anyone unfit to live.”

That evening, while George watched television and smoked, Dino wrote, I stayed with the old woman three years and in that time became like a son to her, for her own two sons and daughter had left for America. Although they sent letters and money twice a year, they never returned to visit their widowed mother.

Soon after I went to live with her, the old woman related a story she’d heard from a neighbour, about a boy who drowned nearby. The boy was among a group of visitors, none of whom could swim, she said. The body had been recovered and sent to Taygetos to be buried by the boy’s grieving parents. We crossed ourselves after this story and went back to our work. 

In our time together, I tended old woman’s olives and garden, and she milked the goats and made fresh cheese and trahana, as well as pies filled with squash and eggplants from the garden. Sometimes she slaughtered a young goat, slicing the animal’s throat with her sharp knife, and pointing to the branch on the olive tree from which to hang the carcass. Then we had fresh meat, curing the rest with salt the old woman gathered from rocks near the sea.

She showed me where her late husband kept a small boat and some nets, and taught me the rudiments of fishing, even though I couldn’t swim. After that we ate fried fish and wild greens, and neighbours sometimes came by with baskets of figs and lemons, as well as bitter oranges the old lady made into sweets.

In time I forgot about my old life and was content. But when I went into town on errands for the old woman, I sometimes caught a glimpse of a shadowed form in the distance, purple as a bruise and wreathed in clouds, and the sight troubled me. One summer evening, coming home late from town, I saw a flickering light high on Taygetos, and thought of a life that was already a dream…

In August, Dino phoned Mr. Kontakos to wish him a happy name day, as he did every year. The two had stayed in touch, for Dino was grateful for the older man’s help and discretion.

“You’ve been away too long. Come see us on Sunday,” said Mr. Kontakos. “We’re receiving visitors for my name day and the house will be full. Mrs. Kontakos would be delighted to see you again, and I’ll have a houseful of new arrivals from Greece. Bring your cousin.”

Dino hesitated.

“By the way,” said Mr. Kontakos, as if changing the subject. “You’ll also want to congratulate me for becoming a grandfather. Matina is married and already expecting. Not a word more. See you on Sunday.”

The stereo and television were both on at maximum volume, and the living room was filled with shouting people and the intermittent sound of the doorbell.

Mr. and Mrs. Kontakos sat on either ends of a long couch, like bookends. Between them a trio of nephews recently arrived from Kalamata. These brothers, jet-lagged, all but dozed but somehow managed to remain upright. And at the side, George in an easy chair, watching the game and doggedly filling an ashtray with butts.

Meanwhile a thin, moon-faced girl passed among the guests and ignored the bedlam, serving saucers of her homemade quince jam, Greek coffee and glasses of water. No one helped her because, Dino saw plainly enough, her skills were on display. On a sideboard her schoolbooks were carefully stacked, a notebook open to show her penmanship. Ah, she can read and write too.

She served Dino and George last, and he noted the trembling hand, the faintly chattering cup and saucer, audible even here. She glanced at his heavy boot. Met his eyes. All but wept in embarrassment. George, misunderstanding, glanced at Dino and winked.

These details, the intersecting glances and misunderstandings. These were all interesting to Dino. He noted them for later, when he would be alone in his room.

Apparently he was expected to talk to this girl. Perhaps marry her. He could do worse, he reflected. She was not pretty, but he had a clubfoot.

He took a sip of water and allowed his mind to drift through the open window and into the warm summer day beyond.

He thought of the gorge near his village, and how its rocky depth was strewn with rocks like broken teeth. He remembered the crossing on the ship. He had stayed in his room, for in the dying light of evening the sea was the colour of stone. The one time he had gone on deck, he had thought of throwing himself over the side.

But then this girl, this fearful moon-faced girl whose name he didn’t quite catch the first time returns from the kitchen bearing her tray.

“Another coffee?” she says. Calm, now. No longer afraid. Taking a long, appraising look at his boot.

“No, thank you,” he says. “But would you sit with me for a moment?”

“I really shouldn’t,” she says, taking the seat beside him anyway. She surveys the room. George, still smoking. Mr. and Mrs. Kontakos no longer on the couch. The chorus of brothers, unsupported and dozing, leaning to the left, dreaming in unison.

“Where are your people from?” she asks.

He takes a long time before answering.

“My people are from the sea,” he says. “I had a brother who drowned, and when my mother died also, I had no one left. So I packed what few things I had and came to this place.”

That same evening he sat down and wrote, I returned from my work in the field and found the old woman in her bed, even though it was only mid-afternoon. I knew then she would soon die. The old woman said I must fill a cloth with some cheese, olives and bread, and take my leave. And remember to take the money from the coffee tin, she added. You have been with an old woman long enough. Now you must find another to be with.

But I disobeyed the old woman. I stayed by her side as she weakened over the following days and thin clouds gathered in her eyes. I made a broth with some bones and beat an egg into it, and she ate some of this with bread soaked in the broth. But as the days passed she lost more of her appetite and could barely move her lips. I chewed ripe tomatoes and bread and took this pulp from my mouth and put it into hers, and she opened her eyes and looked at me and some of this food she swallowed.

The old woman died and I buried her near the garden, making a cross from a pair of broken paddles. I untied the remaining goats, filled a bag with food and took money from the coffee tin, as she had instructed. I then set out, walking east along the shoreline…

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