Learning to Live on Rock

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Stilted diction, cellophane’d kreatopita, fretful dark-haired babies, sweet blind moments, purple lobelia, detached windlasses, offstage burials, sleep-shut eyes & Milos.


On the dark voyage from Piraeus to Adamas, the late-September sea is calm. Except for an Italian couple with a fretful dark-haired baby, and three chittering German girls—too young to be abroad without their mothers—the ferry is passengered by Greeks. I am the only American. I am the only sailor on watch, wired to wakefulness by a nervously pumping insomnia that even the colicky babe in arms can’t rival. The Greeks sleep in the innocent nonchalance of safe passage on the floor of the dirty ferry, their arms flung out, gaping mouths uncovered, beating hearts unsheathed. In the cast of dim light from the snack counter, the shadowed mounds of their slumber resemble the grave swells of a cemetery plotted in error. No neat parallel lines. They lie unevenly distanced in freeform sprawl or catty-cornered head to head. Her knees drawn up to spoon a small boy against her breast, a woman lifts her arm and wraps it around the child. He shifts and touches her face with his hand, tucks his thumb into his mouth. I want to tidy them up, slide their prone shapes equidistant shoulder and toe, fold the arms of the German girls and press their dear faces with a mother’s goodnight kiss. I want, as I always have, for things to be right.

Ribbed cliffs of pale limestone rise from the sea, shaggy monoliths to sunken Atlantis.

The daughter’s memorial was right. The narcissus and daffodils, even the pink-hearted ones, which tend to blossom late, came up in splendor in the week after the death. Gracefully, the plum tree showered white petals across the freshly cut lawn. The climbing yellow roses draping the pergola held weighty buds to the April sky. Holly and Joy, the best friends, dressed in flowered cotton and wound tiny chains of purple lobelia through their plaited hair. They clasped hands when they sang, a cappela, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” from The Lion King, the daughter’s favorite song at the moment of death. The grandparents, Poppa and Grandma, were alternately bewildered and assertive, keening the loss and testifying to the deceased’s singular character. Having selected the soft dark over the dappled light of the fertile yard, the father sat mute in the leather chair in his study. He spun the detached windlass of a fishing rod—the daughter’s, on which she had learned to cast at the age of six—in his cold hands. The mother was enviably poised, solicitous of the guests, most of whom were so young that they combatted the notion of premature death with a wide-eyed disbelief, leaving them vulnerable to the quick appreciative clasps of the bereaved family. Surprisingly for everyone who knew the family well, the mother was not embittered by the circumstances of death: the drunken contractor sideswiping the daughter’s light Toyota, brushing it into the gully off Davis Road where it rolled and rolled and rolled. The mother—remarkably, considering the age of the child, sixteen and three weeks at the time of death in the gully on Davis Road—bore no rancor, and, in fact, refrained from mentioning the accident at all. The daughter had been, after all, her only child. There would be no second chance, no repeat performance of the memorial. On the loamy earth in the yard of the tasteful middle-class home, all behaved with due decorum, and the daughter was buried offstage by the closest of family members.

One of the German girls laughs in her sleep, a hoot halfway between guffaw and wail. I let out my breath. I make my way to the door and push through to the deck, where no one sleeps in disarray, tempting me with limbs akimbo. The sea air is warm and easy to breathe. I inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. There is no longer anything to wait or wish for, yet I must will myself to stop holding my breath. The ferry chugs through the sea toward Milos and the rising sun. To the north, the lights in the harbor of Kithnos twinkle, but the ferry does not stop until Sifnos, where the Italian couple disembarks just before dawn. The babe is sleeping at last, cradled against the chest of its father, who unwraps the cellophane from kreatopita and eats it as he waits for the ferry to tie up. I stay on deck as the ferry backs from the pier. The Italian couple sits at a table at the kafeneon on the narrow seafront, ordering Turkish coffees. They can’t know me or how I have safe-kept them during their voyage, but I raise my hand and wave.

The ferry shifts south, and I move inside to gather up my bags. The German girls are nowhere to be seen—performing toilettes in the soiled restroom of the ferry?—but the Greek travelers are upright, rubbing sleep-shut eyes and smoking cigarettes they pull from crumpled packages. I shoulder my duffle and return to the deck. The sun is rising sharply behind the silhouette of Milos, so I slide the dark glasses over my forehead and study my destination.

The Milians will offer hoarse coughs of ridicule at the American fool who will not stay on their barren island where nothing grows but lava dust.

The Cyclades are a chain of volcanic crests, the lava and limestone detritus of the same plate shifts that are believed to have destroyed Minoan civilization fifteen hundred years before the birth of Christ. At O’Hare, I learned this by reading Fodor’s, which warned me that cisterns collect the water on Milos, that the island’s primary product is not basil or feta, as I’d foolishly imagined, but perlite, sulfur and pumice. Milian obsidian, rich cousin to the porous perlite, made its way through trading channels to southwestern Europe as early as 7000 BC, but the obsidian mines are now asides on tourist maps, plundered bare for centuries. There is virtually no irrigation water or arable land; farm plots are few, but the stilted diction of the guidebook promises local tomatoes and melons “reputed for their taste” because of the ash-rich soil that collects in the swaybacked dips of the volcanic landfalls.

I look for traces of green as I squint into the sun. Ribbed cliffs of pale limestone rise from the sea, shaggy monoliths to sunken Atlantis. The cliffs fall back to second-rate hills, terraced by dull shrubs that resemble California chaparral. Milos looks, as the ferry chugs closer and closer, utterly devoid of charm. I can shove on to Santorini, I tell myself. I can spend three weeks alone, but I won’t spend three weeks alone on rock. It’s the off-season; rooms are bound to be open on every island. On Santorini I will find that villagers grow oranges and lemons, that grapevines color the hillsides with turning autumn leaves. I have made a mistake, but I can make it right.

My disappointment saps me. The duffle hangs heavy on my shoulder, so I trudge inside the ferry and slump onto a bench next to the door that will gangplank to the pier for exit. I plan to be the first off the boat, the first to the ticket line for an extension to Santorini. The Milians will offer hoarse coughs of ridicule at the American fool who will not stay on their barren island where nothing grows but lava dust. For a sweet blind moment, sitting upright between my duffle and a tiny toothless woman cloaked in black, I am suspended in the surprise of sleep—a rush of exhaustion so powerful that I am returned to life only when the harpy touches my shoulder and nods her head toward the open door.

In the cast of dim light from the snack counter, the shadowed mounds of their slumber resemble the grave swells of a cemetery plotted in error.

Adamas is framed by the outline of the dark portal. A shelf of whitewashed storefronts glistens in the sun, square boxes that stairstep abruptly to the base of a church spire, behind which rises a round hill capped by a perfect oval: the roofline of the Agios in Plaka. The harpy steps into the sunlight and beckons. Trailing her quick small steps up the sunbaked stairs rising from the sea seems easier than searching for the ticket stand, and I follow. We climb the powdery stairs past doors coated garish colors: fire-engine red, Big Bird yellow, a synthetic neon green—all of which would fail in California. Here, in the absence of natural color against the whitewashed pallor, they please the startled eye. Doors stand open to reveal early morning secrets. On a sagging mattress, a toddler squeals as her mother changes a diaper. A collection of empty jars on top of an ancient refrigerator bottles the sunlight. A bristling man wearing suspenders instead of a shirt shouts “Yassas, kalimera” to my guide and stares hard at me. The harpy stops several steps above me at a twist in the stair path; when I reach her, she takes my Jansport and hoists it over her shoulder, turning herself into a two-legged beast of burden. For me she does this, and I cannot think of miming no to her, of clutching my backpack and fleeing down the steep steps. She has broken my resolve. For the first time in five months, I am breathing jagged inhalations so deep that I am lightheaded. The Aegean behind me reflects in the sheen of the harpy’s eyes. She smiles at me, just a brief upturn of her mummied lips before she raises a hand to cover her mouth.

From the stairs, we turn left and pass through a maze of six-foot walls. Then, as if the earth has tilted on its axis and gently spilled me onto another planet, I am standing on a terrace where color stills my pulse. Pink geraniums the size of a man’s fist cascade from oilcans painted pale blue. Purple bougainvillea, more blossom than leaf, winds up the ironworked trellis of a balcony window. Beyond the seaward wall of the terrace, the shadowed Aegean is as dark and perfect as a sheet of obsidian. Three flat platters of blood-red tomatoes are stewing in the sun. I can smell them: acid and oregano. The harpy slides my duffle from her shoulder to the terrace floor. “Nescafé?” she asks me. “Galaktoboureko?” Then she disappears into the dark room that must be her kitchen.

They can’t know me or how I have safe-kept them during their voyage, but I raise my hand and wave.

On the seafront below the garden terrace, a woman is slapping a squid against a smooth swell of white rock. She beats it twice on one side, twice on the other. She pulls up a bucket of seawater and washes the ink stain from the rock surface and begins to beat again. A baby cries somewhere on the hillside above the terrace; a motorbike engine turns and catches. The familiar wake of the ferry dissolves in the sheltered bay, and I realize that I’ve missed the connection to Santorini. I will have to live on Milos for a week at least. I am not sorry. I am breathing.

People can learn to live on rock.

People do.

Anna Villegas is a retired college English professor living in Nevada City, California. Her published work includes many short stories, essays, poems and newspaper columns, and three novels (Synergistic Press, William Morrow, St. Martin’s Press). The histories of her grandmother, a mail-order bride from Crete, and of her grandfather, who was raised by the monks on Mount Athos, inspired “Learning to Live on Rock.” The piece was originally published in Kalliope, Vol. XXVI, No. 2, in 2004.

Lead image: Angela Pham

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