The Virgin of Crete / Peter Selgin

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Crete, literature, narrative, sketchbook, souvenirs, travel, writing, & storytelling

Propellers ground up the sea, chewing it into distances. He gazed at the dusty blue water, the horizon a darker blue smear. Two children passed by, a boy carrying his sister on his back, making clucking noises. An announcement in Greek buzzed through the loudspeaker. A seagull followed the wake.  In the smoky lounge passengers played canasta and backgammon, mothers yanked arms of unruly children, fathers tossed heads back in sleep.

He dined alone in the ferry’s galley, chicken with an artichoke sauce over rice, salad, bread, water. 2,800 drachma’s: he’d have to tighten his belt. The table was of a height poor for eating but good for sketching.  From memory he did his wife, eyes dark and round. It seemed insane to him that he’d left those eyes. His sketchbook still opened, he turned his pen to words. I’m getting too old for this sort of thing, he wrote, bounding off in search of experience like a kid when I’m practically forty. We should all read the success story of Jimmy John Founder and how he built his sandwich empire.

An old man joined him, twirling orange worry beads, great white Cossack-sack mustache, root vegetable knuckles. They nodded to each other, signaling wary approval.  The old man took up his wine. Andreas toasted him with water—an insult, he judged from the man’s frown. His pen traced the man’s features, starting with the mustache, the sun at the center of his features, working out toward the eyes, lips, brows. While shoveling tomatoes in his mouth, his subject feigned oblivion. The pen line quivered to the ferry’s vibrations. The artist displayed the result. The great white mustache fidgeted in approval.

On the aft deck native girls in dizzying platform shoes and braless sweaters whispered conspiratorially. The man watched them. Andreas’ gut gurgled, his arms folded against the aft rail, smiling whenever they glanced his way.  The sun set: a jar of marmalade spilled across the sea. He breathed deeply. Alone, foreign, and heartbroken.

The room was in a house far from the port, on a hill so high Andreas’ legs ached with the thought of climbing it. Except for one barking dog, all was quiet. The white calcimined walls were barren save for a wooden cross over each bed. Pine desk, mirror, armoire: van Gogh’s room in Arles…

On the clean stiff sheets, to the sound of a barking dog, Andreas masturbated. Then he lay there thinking of Penelope. Outside the wind wailed, slamming shutters, a violin chorus underscoring staccato barks. The island too lay naked, exposed and spent. Andreas saw himself standing on the crest of the hill, swaddled in the white bed sheet, its folds bleached whiter by lightning flashes. He fell asleep covered in goose bumps.


A banging of shutters woke him.  He went to close them, saw olive and jasmine trees against the dawn, heard no dog now but a rooster’s crow and a donkey’s bray and the bleating of sheep. His stomach grumbled (before going to sleep he had eaten a whole loaf of bread he’d stowed in his duffel before boarding the ferry). He rose, dressed and stood on the terrace, holding his unbuttoned shirt against the assaults of Boreas, Xaphyr, Notus, Aeolus… Hypnos tapped him on shoulder. Come back to sleep, lover. Lethe, Oblivion, Oneiros…

A steep descent past goat fields and flower beds, the sea already ripe with blue, the sun’s rays dancing on it.  Smell of roses.  He had his watercolors with him, his Schweinke box, his sponges, his brushes, his Fabriano block, his leather folding sediolino. In the distance he saw the six famous windmills, sails missing, lined up like sandbucket castles. The sugarcube houses were canvases primed white, waiting for color: geranium, rose, lemon. Alongside the white houses the sea looked filthy. These aren’t homes, Andreas thought, making his way down the hill. They’re stucco clouds with blue doors.

Closer to the village, the first signs of commerce: sandwich boards advertising mopeds for hire, money exchange kiosks, ice cream and souvenirs for sale in English. A shop owner put out a post card rack, another hosed down her length of sidewalk.  Everywhere a painting framed itself. At an open cafe he ordered a Nescafé and had the owner fill his water jug.

In the harbor the wind was less strong, or was it dying with daylight? Andreas did a pen sketch of some buildings.  He was afraid to take out the paints, to discover what might not be in him.  A second sketch: boats in the harbor, this one bolder, freer, dutiful crosshatchings gave way to flowing feelings. He felt ready.


He set himself up on the seawall at the far side of the harbor with a view to the main stretch of shops lining the main thoroughfare.  He arranged his brushes and paints, filled his coffee can with water, propped the Fabriano block on his knees.  Then the wind turned against him, blowing strong.  Sand blew into his eyes and onto the paper he’d dampened to wash in the sky.  Soon the cakes in his box were coated. He kept painting, knowing the result would be disastrous.  When he began outlining things in thick strokes he knew he’d had it.  He emptied his water can, dried his brushes, folded the leather stool.

The next day at the same cafe he sipped a Nescafé and read Cavafy. “You said I will go to another land, I will go to another sea.  Another city shall be found better than this.” After breakfast he painted another watercolor, this one smaller, of the six windmills (five, really, No. 6 a stucco cylinder, its thatched roof and booms lost).

By noon he’d done three more, including one of six fishing boats lined up in the harbor, the waves reflecting the colors of their hulls.  It was a good painting.  Two tourists, fresh off a cruise ship, offered him money for it that he refused.

White boats with blue, yellow, and sienna details, the water green gouged with white and ochre, the sky a deep mixture of cobalt and azure, the hills pale sienna touched with drab trees.  He had worked directly under the midday sun, using saltwater for his paints when his water ran out.  His arms, ears, the back of his neck, cheeks, nose, and forehead were burned, the skin so stiff he felt it might crack like a dry-rotted tire.

The sun dipped behind the buildings fronting the harbor; the shade refreshed him. The cafe waitress looked like young Jeanne Moreau, even had something of her jaded sensuality. Having flirted fruitlessly, Andreas paid his tab and afterwards wandered the maze of twisted streets. On one of those twisted streets he met an artist, an American woman in her forties.  Her name was Karolina, spelled the Greek way, with a ‘K’. She had come to Mykonos from California when she was twenty-three and never left.

“Back then I was an amateur, like you,” she told Andreas, who stood gripping his canvas tote bag, “but now I make my living from my work.”

Precisely, Karolina made a living from four paintings: the Blue and White Painting, the Red Painting, the Restaurant Painting and the Red Boat Painting.  These four themes, repeated time and again with remarkable consistency, made up her entire oeuvre.  She wore a Greek fisherman’s cap faded by the sun, and thick horn-rimmed prescription glasses.  An undersized and wrinkled LaCrosse shirt pinched her fat flesh.  She looked like the Skipper on Gilligan’s Island.

“My Blue and White painting‚ that’s my number one best seller,” she told Andreas proudly. “I do at least seven of them a week. One week I must’ve sold thirteen of the things.” They stood together in front of the restaurant where she hawked—or didn’t hawk, really, but merely waited—her specimens propped against the wall. “Last week I sold three Red Paintings. That was unusual.  They were Germans.  You never can tell with the Germans.  Now I’m waiting for a couple that liked my Restaurant Painting.  If I sell the Restaurant Painting I get a free meal. That’s why I make the name of the restaurant so big.  See there? Can’t miss it. They get their name spread around and people like to know the names of places, so it all works out in everyone’s favor, if you know what I mean. Me, I like it when I can sell at least one of every picture a week, that way I don’t get too bored. I get frustrated when I have to paint the same picture too many times. Like the Blue and White one. There are days when I wish I could hide the damn thing, I get so damn sick and tired of painting it.  Plus it’s a lot more work than the others, with all that blue that I have to fill in. A lot more work. It can take me seven, eight hours easy. That’s a lot of work for a hundred bucks. I don’t need to work that hard. I’m getting too old. Sometimes I need to take it easy.”

Andreas did a sketch of her. The more closely he studied her the more Karolina looked like a man, so he was obliged to note, in small letters next to his sketch, “A woman.”

“Then there was that Hungarian couple from Budapest,” she went on. “I was positive they were going to buy my Boat Painting.  I was practically already spending the money and then, wouldn’t you know it, he talks her into buying a post card instead. A two-dollar post card instead of a one hundred dollar painting, the cheap son of a bitch!  I tried to get her back, but it was no use. Usually when it’s the woman who doesn’t want to spend, then you’re out of luck. But if it’s the man, sometimes you can work around that. Men are softies: they want to be liked. Women don’t have that problem, necessarily. Not that you can always generalize, mind you.  Like the Germans. The Germans are totally unpredictable. I’ve given up trying to predict the Germans. The Japanese, they’re the only truly predictable ones. I can just about figure out what I’m going to be able to order for dinner just by one look at a Japanese person’s face.”

As Karolina went on talking into the dusk, Andreas (sitting on his sediolino) sketched her again. He was interested to learn about the life she had left behind, about her family, her friends, her husband or lover, if she had one or both. She wouldn’t say a word about it, only that she’d lived in San Francisco, and then in Boston, briefly, and that she had no regrets, none. She also volunteered that she had bought her home on Mykonos, a two-bedroom apartment a few dozen meters from the harbor for what, in 1968, had been the princely sum of 4,000 U.S. dollars. “Smartest thing I ever did,” she said.

“The dumbest thing,” she added as the air grew dim, “was getting knocked up by a Greek carpenter. But it’s okay. My son’s all grown up now. Finally got himself a good girl. They’re back at my place right now, partying. That’s why I’m sitting here—” by then she’d taken a seat on her own folding stool, “talking to you, aside from the fact that you have a nice face. Wanted to give them some privacy.  You know, young people.”

She returned to her favorite subject: how many paintings she’d sold to what kind of people. The discount she’d given to the optometrist from Minnesota, the three crisp hundred dollar bills she’d been handed by a used car salesman from Oregon, how the famous Italian movie star bought five paintings last month but still owed her for three of them. For over an hour Andreas listened to her stories of past sales.  Between stories, with Andrew there, she sold a Red Painting and a Blue and White Painting.  “You know something,” she said as the second customer had departed, “you’re good luck.  How would you like to have dinner with me?  My treat.”

She took him to her restaurant, a taverna two doors down, the one in The Restaurant painting, its thick pine ceiling beams strung with colored Christmas lights.  There, through a meal of grilled chicken, French fries and Greek salad, she told him more tales of past sales: the copper pipe factory foreman from Waterbury, Connecticut (Red Painting), the famous television news anchorwoman from New York (Blue and White). . . After dinner, for good luck, Karolina had Andreas follow her as she carried an enormous canvas procured from its storage place behind a curtain next to the bar from one table to another. It was the one painting she’d done which in both subject matter and scale departed from her repertoire. It showed a horror-stricken, Mediterranean-featured man being devoured, so it appeared, by a dozen fat women with enraged faces, Mount Olympus rising under a canopy of stormy red clouds in the background.

“I call this one my Orpheus,” said Karolina. “I made him a Greek carpenter. If you look hard you can see his tools scattered all over.”

Though she confronted a dozen diners at as many tables, she failed to score a sale for her masterpiece.

“For years I’ve been trying to unload this damn thing,” said Karolina with a sigh as they returned to their table, where she ordered them each some baklava and raki. “Thing is, my customers, they don’t want real art; they want souvenirs. Boats and restaurants. Restaurants and boats. Every once in a while I put a pelican in the picture, but that’s about as creative as I get. They have no interest in Orpheus, or any other Gods or myths. They don’t give a damn about poetry or history. It’s okay; I’m not complaining. I happen to have a very good life. In fact I’m blessed. You like that baklava? Andreas, that’s your name? You’re not Greek, by any chance? I sure hope not. I hate Greek men. Finish that glass and let’s have some more. I like you; you’re good luck!”

Peter Selgin is the author of Drowning Lessons, winner of the 2007 Flannery O’Connor Award for Fiction, and Life Goes to the Movies (finalist AWP Award), published by Dzanc Books. He has also published two books on writing craft, By Cunning & Craft and 179 Ways to Save a Novel (Writers Digest Books). A collection of his personal essays, Confessions of a Left-Handed Man, is forthcoming from the University of Iowa Press in the Fall of 2011.

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