Blue Crete

Share on

Bullets, gardenias, Nazis, the Battle of Crete, napping men, yellow melon, ancient palaces, exotic caps, Turks, Knossos & a necklace of German ears. 

The sitting room of the Hotel Contessa. My first breakfast in Crete. A sixteenth-century Venetian house, perfect little rooms, hand-embroidered linens. On a ledge around the ceiling I notice different kinds of bullets and brass shell casings. The hotel owner tells me he picked them up after the Battle of Crete and left them to serve as a reminder.

The Battle of Crete means nothing to me and when I go outside it’s hard to imagine the glittering blue harbor marred by the rubble of war.

On the second floor of the Historical Archive of Chania, I stand riveted in front of a case that holds a simple, gnarled walking stick. The faded card states that Emmanuel G. Marinakis, age sixty-nine, had killed a young Nazi parachutist with the stick. That is all. The glittering harbor and palm trees disappear. I do not hear the cars outside, the birds. It is just me and the stick. I am pulled onto a field somewhere, on an early morning in May 1941, as an elderly Cretan, having eaten little more than snails and boiled grass, beats out the brains of a robust Nazi paratrooper with a pocket full of protein tablets and a twenty-year-old body. How could it be that one day the old man sat around and drank coffee with his friends and the next day murdered with a stick?

I am pulled in by the war, by a mother who walked all night to find the body of her dead son. She carried it home draped across her shoulders for a secret burial beneath their almond tree. I am curious about the Jews of Chania, their twenty-three-year-old community erased in no time as they were rounded up and shipped off the island, destined for Auschwitz, while German soldiers at harbor-side cafés watched them sail away. I am intrigued by the legendary monk who spooked a whole firing squad by refusing a blindfold, staring into the eyes of his executioners, singing the Greek national anthem at the top of his lungs.

The faded card states that Emmanuel G. Marinakis, age sixty-nine, had killed a young Nazi parachutist with the stick.

Eugenia Nickouloozaki owns the pension, the Hotel Nana. She likes writers and gives me the room with the grape-arbored balcony, the one the Danish screenwriter and the British journalist stay in too. She speaks no English and through others asks me questions: What is the exact formula I use to get that shade of blonde? One day I ask Eugenia a question: “Were you in Crete during the war?” Her blonde Gabor fluff turns to steel. “The night before they executed my baby brother Nikos, I had a peculiar dream that is indelibly branded into my memory. I was in a church attending prayers for those out fighting the Nazis. No matter how I tried to write my brother’s name on a piece of paper, it couldn’t be written. As I turned to leave the church, the doors closed and I was approached by a German officer. He walked towards me very slowly. Terrified, I whispered the name ‘Nikos.’ The officer was smug, went through a list and said, ‘Your brother Nikos who was wearing a red shirt…resisted us…’”

Eugenia tells me:

“My mother suffered a nervous breakdown from the death and bombing. Her entire head went numb and there was no help for her. Once, I half carried her as we ran away from a terrible shelling of our house. A German soldier ripped her from my arms, beat me with a stick and threw me into the wheels of an oncoming truck. It stopped, but I could feel the pressure of the tires against my skull. The night before, I had had a dream that my dead brother, Nikos, was beckoning me, urging me to go to a wedding with him. I kept refusing because I didn’t want to leave our mother alone.”

Christos and I start out for the southern coast in the early morning, when it is still cool, but the crushing heat of midday lurks at the edge of every shadow. We are dressed in our lightest clothes, sunglasses and visored hats. I sit in the pickup truck and he gives me a bunch of gardenias and a kiss through the open window. He goes around to the other side, slams the door and we take off.

On our way to swim in an ocean that borders Africa on the other side, we stop at a village and buy a yellow melon, pastries filled with cream and a tank of gas. I turn the radio to a local station that plays Cretan folk music, put my bare feet up on the dashboard, eat a cream cake, watch Christo’s powerful hand on the steering wheel and, past his profile, through his open window, see an expanse of blue water, sky.

It is these mornings that I hold onto in winter, when I am on line at the bank, waking from a short sleep or getting trouble from the voice on the other end of the line. It is these trips with Christos that I remember. These mornings in a far place. Alone except for him. No one else can reach me. No one else knows where I am.

I stick the gardenias at the edge of the sun visor and that touch, along with the music, lends an air of a gypsy van to our vehicle. The roads are narrow and wind and wind around huge mountains. I sense danger all around. I see ancient palaces more glorious than Knossos lying undiscovered and sense the terror of beautiful virgins in the era of human sacrifice. I smell the blood of slaughtered Turks pooling in exotic caps. I know the fevered chills of dying resistance fighters alone in damp little caves. I feel the thrill of our wheels too close to the edge as chunks of road catapult down two thousand feet and splash into the Libyan Sea.

Eugenia remembers:

“An Australian soldier came to the door of our house wearing a necklace of German ears. Hundreds of villagers were slaughtered as payment for his jewelry.”

I come back from the beach, climb the four flights of narrow stairs to my hotel room. It is blocked from the light and as dark as night even in the afternoon. I feel my way, step by step, with my hands. I put down my beach bag and make my way across the room, guided by the suggestion of light at the edge of the shutter. I feel for the bolt, pull it back and with both hands over my head push the heavy boards forward. I am blasted by light, blinded for a moment. It is too fast, the change from the black silence to this—this dazzling harbor in front of me, the blue water lifting itself over and over, violet-hazed mountains, small black birds shrieking as they follow each other in wide circles over Renaissance buildings, pastels wedged next to each other, beige with blue shutters, walls the color of butter or peaches stacked on hills surrounding the water. My eyes focus on terraces packed with plants and flowering trees, dogs and cats like puddles of fur, sleeping in doorways. Diaphanous curtains that hold back interior rooms, images of bearded men napping on low couches kept cool by their close proximity to shadowed walls and marble floors. Women knitting and slim children lying beside grandmothers with teeth out, tight white braids undone.

But it is the Turkish mosque across the harbor that catches my eye. A perfect white curve, as if grown out of the earth as a bubble when the world began, so modern it could whirl in outer space in perfect harmony with the rings of Saturn. Cafés that surround the mosque and tourists in pink shorts licking melting ice cream cones disappear. Docked in front of the mosque are narrow golden boats festooned with red-silk flags whipping in the wind as Turks in fur hats, round and flat as wheels, walk their fine, high leather boots inside to pray a prayer to a god they imported to this conquered island, along with the music of the oud and puddings made from milk and roses.

Eugenia recalls:

“A man, part of a slave-labor team, asked to go home in order to help his wife with the birth of their fourth child. He explained that she was alone and needed him. The Germans crucified him on an olive tree at the entrance to his village.”

Turks in fur hats, round and flat as wheels, walk their fine, high leather boots inside to pray a prayer to a god they imported to this conquered island, along with the music of the oud and puddings made from milk and roses.

Eugenia says:

“My husband, Pantelis, and I hadn’t been married long. I was young and amazingly beautiful. One morning an extremely handsome German officer knocked on the door. Nikos, my brother, had just been killed and I feared they were after Pantelis. The officer saw how afraid I was and put his hand on my shoulder, gave me a lily. I relaxed a bit and he asked me if I had married my husband for love. If not, the officer wanted me to run away with him. Pantelis could by no means be considered even good-looking. He was skinny, had a crooked nose. But, I said, I loved my husband and was three months pregnant. The officer looked down sad and then lighted up and asked to be the baby’s godfather.”

Eugenia’s granddaughter knocks on my door holding a plate draped with a linen napkin and says, “From my yia-yia.”

Most mornings I sit at my balcony table writing. As I get up to answer the door, rivulets of sweat trickle down between my breasts and along my groin.

My first impulse is to put the food aside, shower, put on a fresh dress and have a proper lunch at the table with a napkin. As I hold the plate I feel its warmth, greater than the temperature of the room. I lift the napkin. Confident food casually offered on a big white plate, fresh, warm, plentiful. On top of it all, a piece of dense and crusty bread placed arrogantly. I take the plate to my writing table and push the books and papers to the side, sit down in my sweaty dress on a hot chair and feel sudden hunger, always. Her fasoulia beans are starchy and tender, surrounded by odd mirrors of olive oil floating on the tomato sauce; chunks of deep brown lamb nestled with potatoes fried crisp; tiny zucchinis stuffed with meat; a portion of moussaka so high its layers of eggplant, meat and fluffy cheese tremble as I move it. A feeling of great peace overtakes me and I let myself feel the heat, feel the irresistible urge to sleep. The world around me grows quieter as the midday heat soars. Children stop playing behind their houses. Chickens and dogs rest in shady places and old women bring their needlework onto their balconies and sit barefoot in flowered housecoats.

I take a quick shower, spray my face with the handheld hose and wrap myself in a huge white towel. I lay on my bed, let the sheets absorb the water from my shoulders and legs, stare at the high ceiling, turn and look at the motionless grape leaves past the open balcony door and, as if overtaken by a drug, begin to rest. Place the contents of my brain on the warm air. Fear and anxiety, ideas and plans, hopeless against the pull of the heat. I shake off the towel and, naked, baby-like, sleep in the total safety of Eugenia’s house.

Former director of events and publicity for PEN American Center, Pamela Manché Pearce’s essays, short stories and poetry have been published in a variety of magazines and anthologies. “Blue Crete” is part of a book-length memoir in progress, Blue Crete: Four Summers of Love and Remembrance. A version of the story appeared in MondoGreco Magazine.

Lead image: Harits Mustya Pratama

Share on