Elaine had never been so happy. The blue Aegean remained in her eyes when she closed them to kiss her husband or when she stood still and listened to the sound of the waves as she sat on a pale rock below the white village where she and Ernest had rented a little cottage known locally as a katoika. Late at night as she sat on the patio of their katoikia she could hear someone playing a bouzouki coming from the taverna on the winding passageway to the harbour below them.
“He’s not very good,” Ernest chuckled as the couple waited for the player to get a portion of the melody correct. Yet every time he made a mistake the player kept trying again and again until he got it right. “That’s Mediterranean endurance and focus for you. I marvel at how the people here and even at the other end of this sea can fixate on things and not lose faith in what they are doing. In Lisbon, did you know, they make the sidewalks out of thousands of cubes of white marble? Each is perfectly cut in little inch square blocks. When I was there on business I wanted to pry one up from the street and bring it home with me to show people just what diligence is, but I never worked up the nerve. It would have seemed wrong.”
Eventually the bouzouki player got the chords right and continued as someone with an old and raspy voice hollered “Opa!” as if the musician were serving saganaki or had broken a tray of dishes. Elaine relished the Mediterranean sense of celebration in the face of catastrophe. They always managed to find their equilibrium. Though catastrophe was often met with shrieking and the tearing of clothes and sometimes a self-inflicted blinding with a brooch, they learned to wear their grief and keep going despite their pain and terror.
“Do you think we could learn to take life’s wreckage with the same sense of relish they possess?” Elaine asked.
Ernest did not look up from his book.
Elaine continued her soliloquy. “We are taught, from our first day in kindergarten, that to be British is to keep a stiff upper lip, to say nothing when we are wounded deeply, and to face emptiness by setting aside our fear of it. For us, saying nothing is how we say everything – no histrionics, no wild dances around the lip of an open grave. In lieu of flowers, donations to the SPCA. Cremation at St. Morgan’s or whatever saint happens to be in the incendiary business that day.”
“My, but you are morbid when you want to be. Cheer up sweetie, we’re on our honeymoon.”
“That’s very British of you, Ern,” she replied.
“Well, I think we finally understood ourselves and did death properly with all the deadly dark grey wooliness when Tennyson wrote ‘In Memoriam.’ You know, Sweet, ‘T’is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.’”
“And what did Tennyson do about his grief? He grew a long, tangled, dark-grey beard. Have you see the painting by Jasper Johns in one of the American museums? It is titled “Tennyson” and all it is is a tangle of matted dark-grey beard. Rather funny, I think, and it explains a lot about our national cultural psyche. And if it fails to give us respite at least it catches soup.”
“Well,” Ernest said, “you’re in Greece, and as the Romans declared, when in Greece steal everything you can from their culture and rebuild it in Rome,” he said, smiling at his bride. He was always enamoured, in a bad novel kind of way, with Elaine’s morbidity.
The island was still in the off-season. A local woman in a black dress who came in each day to tend to the rental and sweep the floors with an old fashioned stick broom told them, in broken English, it would be bedlam in a few weeks, though bedlam was a word Elaine taught her. Elaine tried to explain the word to her in pantomime.
“You know, crazy house, lots of Harpy shrieking and Herculean slaughter.”
The woman put her hand over her mouth and laughed as she hid her teeth. Elaine had made a circling motion around her right temple and crossed her eyes as she enunciated the word ‘bedlam.’
Whenever one of the newly-weds asked the woman her name she simply smiled and told them her name meant ‘fireplace’ after looking around the room and pointing at the object she thought came closest to expressing her meaning.
The next day the woman came with a bowl of pomegranates.
“Aren’t those supposed to be the fruit of the underworld, the dessert of the dead?” Ernest inquired. “I believe Demeter ate one during a visit to Hades and had to stay there. Or maybe it was her daughter, Persephone, who had to return there part of each year. Or maybe it was Orpheus who couldn’t eat them or he’d lose his gift of poetry. I remember reading something in Robert Graves’ book, Greek Mythology. The Greeks loved to tell people what time of year it was to do this or that,” Ernest said as he stared at the sunburnt orbs. “It was a long time ago. I used to be interested in that kind of thing, but it’s all in the past now.”
Elaine showed him how to cut the fruit in such a way as to insure none of the tiny globules of seed and taste were harmed. “Think of each one as a soul. You don’t want to start chopping souls in halves if you can help it. It takes long enough for people to meet the other half of their soul so they can fall in love and you don’t need some careless housewife with a sharp knife undoing the work of centuries. It just wouldn’t do. I read that book, too. We are eating the fruit of the dead, but, as you say, it’s all in the past now.”
“And that is where we shall leave it,” he replied. “Did I tell you I’m going fishing tomorrow? There’s a chap I met down at the dock. Nikos. He has a rather classic boat, white, with blue gunnels, and eyes painted on the prow like a boat straight out of the Iliad. He’s invited me out with him. He’s going to teach me how to fish Greek-style. None of that tedious standing beside a trout brook for forty years hoping to catch something like we do at home. I rather fancy myself with a spear or a harpoon than a fly rod and a lure. I mean, where’s the fun in a fly rod and a lure when you know there hasn’t been a fish in the river for the last hundred years? I want to beat my chest like a king, shout my name, maybe dive in after the fish, and spear some red snapper. Call me Ishmael sort of thing. We’ll be leaving after ten and back by four. Can’t you picture me out on the bounding main, hauling in the catch and brining it home to you?”
“And who is going to clean it and cook it? Don’t look at me,” Elaine said. “And be sure and wear a life jacket.”
“My dear, life jackets are for less manly men. It is not a small boat, by most standards. It has a motor, and a sail, and rigging lines, and there’s a submersible lifeboat like the kind they used in the last war, though it is rather grey.”
In the morning, Elaine took her Turkish coffee out to the patio and was lying down in a sun cot, her skin oiled and large sunglasses perched on her nose. She had started reading a novel set in Victorian times about a wealthy captain of industry who pursued a young woman from one of his factories, a woman no more than a girl just past the age of maturity who changed the bobbins in his cotton mill near Bradford. He yearned for her. The plot got sticky, then unbelievable when, in an attempt to rip her bodice, she turned into a laurel tree and the poor man became infatuated with a tree he had to plant in the middle of his garden. His wife was terribly jealous of the tree and was about to take an axe to it when Elaine became bored with the story and fell asleep. She didn’t hear Ernest leave although the woman in black told her, as she was pointlessly sweeping the terrace that Elaine’s husband had called goodbye and punctuated the point by blowing a kiss to her. Elaine came inside and set her book down on the table and laid an array of vegetables in front of her while she decided what to make for dinner when her sailor would come home from the sea. She wanted to surprise him. What went well with sea-bass?
Just as the woman was leaving, Elaine asked if storms were common at that time of the year. The woman in the black dress did not understand. Elaine mimed clouds in the sky, made a thunder sound with her voice, and made her fingers flickers as they descended to the tabletop. The woman understood. The sky was growing darker on the eastern horizon where the blue sea faded into a grey-green line and the line met a black sky. She stood and stared out the east-facing window onto the terrace. The woman in the black dress joined her so that the reflections of the two women were framed by the panes of glass.
“Oh-hee, oh-hee!” the woman screamed and then grabbed Elaine by the shoulders and looked into her eyes. The woman’s dark eyes became grey as the sea and Elaine wanted to recoil from her but was held fast in the other’s grip.
“Let go of me!” she shouted, but the woman broke into tears and began to tear at the collar of her dress as if she were overcome by a fit of madness. She turned and flung the bowl of pomegranates to the floor. Elaine pushed her away.
“What has gotten into you?”
The woman picked up her broom and fled the katoika. Elaine grabbed a beach wrap and ran after her.
“Wait! Wait! Where are you going?” but the woman in black would not stop until she had run the length of the winding passageways that descended to the town’s harbour.
A crowd was gathering on the sand where some of the more prudent fishermen had already beached their boats for the day and secured the moorings with tattered ropes draped in seaweed.
By the time Elaine reached the gathering, the woman in black was already on her knees, screaming and tearing her black dress to shreds.
One of the locals explained to Elaine in broken English that her son had sailed east that morning to fish. His boat, a white boat with blue gunnels and painted eyes was last seen sailing into the front of the storm that had now reached the harbour.
“What was the name of the owner of that boat?” Elaine said, grabbing the man by his shirt.
“Nikos! Nikos! Everyone know Nikos. He take tourist out to fish in old ways.”
The crowd lifted the woman in black from her knees. She was Nikos’ mother. “All the men in her family, a woman said, died at sea. She had stayed at home to tend the hearth, like Hecate of the old gods, because a woman should not be on a boat.”
Elaine sank to her knees as well, but no one came to her.
The rain fell. It blew as if some powerful force out of the sea had welled up the water and commanded it to sting the faces of those on the shore.
Alone, drenched, Elaine could do nothing but stare into the grey storm until alone, chilled to the bone by the cold wind and the heavy downpour, she picked herself up from the ground and without saying anything to a man with a goat she passed in the street, wandered back up the incline to her cottage.
She waited all night at the kitchen table.
A candle she had saved and stuck into the top of an empty wine bottle burned down to its final note of wax, then sputtered, then went blind.
The sun was coming up. Ernest had not returned.
The old woman had known what happened to her son. She could see it. Perhaps she was a seer. Elaine remembered stories told to her by her elderly aunts of their husbands who fell in one of the World Wars and how the aunts had heard the men calling out to them in their moment of passing between this world and the next as the door between the temporal and the eternal swung open briefly and then closed.
The weather was calm the morning after the storm and after her candle, her small sign of faith that her husband would return, burned down and then burned out.
She was still in her swimsuit when she found herself standing on a rock at the water’s edge.
The sea was dead calm. The air was warm and still.
Ernest was out there, somewhere, alive possibly but most probably dead.
Without forethought, Elaine dove into the water. She did not want to surface. Her heart told her she must stay submerged until every last ounce of breath and strength and hope had left her being, and if she surfaced she must swim as far out as possible. If Ernest was dead, she had nothing to live for. If he was alive, they might find each other.
As if an enormous hand reached into the water and pulled her out, Elaine found herself on the surface, stroking harder and harder to put the shore behind her, compelling her to swim beyond safety to a place where there would be no return, only reunification with the man she loved. Exhausted, and unable to raise her arms, she was ready to commit herself to the deep, and she began to sink, limp, numb, her thoughts racing in all directions. And that is when she saw him. She was certain he was floating toward her, waving her off, telling her she must do everything in her power not to join him in a watery death.
When she came to the surface again, she surmised that she had come back up for air the way drowning people often resurface for one, last, hopeless breath before sinking below the surface with the lungs filled with water.
As she broke into the air, a submersible was floating directly in front of her, its grey canvas skin saturated, and the hold ropes on its sides woven with seaweed and barnacles. An ounce of hope told her to grasp it, and as she looked over the side into the submersible’s bed, she saw Ernest.
His face had been gnawed away by hungry fish. One hand was bloated and swollen as if it had been underwater for a month. His other hand, still bearing the wedding band she had placed on his ring finger was eaten to the bone with strands of flesh hanging from it though it still wore the ring. His eyes had disappeared and been replaced, one by a seashell and one by a large pearl. She wanted to shriek with fright but she had not the strength the utter a sound. He turned to her.
“Elaine, my darling, my sweet, I am sorry you had to find me in this state, but here I sit, in my floating nest, stretched upon these waters after the storm. You shall always be my queen, and someday, someday, my love, I will return for you and we shall have a family. You will return to our home in England. You will want for nothing all of your days. I have left you a nest egg. But when you see me again, you will see me not as I am but as your king, proud, a fire-breasted, master of the seas. You will not die today or tomorrow. You will have a long life and you will do many great things. And then we shall be together. Go now. Go. And remember our love is more than the sea can break.”
Elaine opened her eyes. She was standing on the patio of their katoika. A man in a black suit touched her shoulder.
“Ma’am, I’m from the Consulate and I’m here to help you get back to Athens and from there to London. Your family is waiting for you at the other end.”
“I saw him,” she said. “I saw my husband. I saw him torn and haggard by the sea. He said I will come back to him.”
“You need your rest,” the man in the black suit said. “These things are a shock. I wish you strength and prayers.”
Elaine closed her eyes and when she opened them she was standing in an Eleventh century church in Lincolnshire. Her mother was beside her, clutching her arm, and Ernest’s parents were across the aisle, his mother veiled in black, her tears evident through the transparent mask.
She closed her eyes again and the years had passed. She had not remarried. She lived alone in her country house, was surrounded in the lounge by plaques thanking her for her service to the local hospital, to the women’s guild, to the town’s foreign mission. In the center of the notes of achievement was a letter from the Queen saying she had been made an MBE for her services to her community.
Had it all been a dream? She stood and looked out the window.
The daffodils were almost over. Spring had touched the English countryside and awakened it from its chilled and sightless sleep.
“Greece,” she whispered under her breath. “I ought to go to Greece before the tourists arrive and the calm is spoiled by their boisterous carryings on. But not Greece. I need somewhere quiet.”
She pictured the crowded streets of Athens, could hear the din of screeching brakes, could smell the diesel exhaust or buses and lorries, the noise until all hours, the ruckus of drunks arguing in a language she could not understand outside her window. No. She would return to that island in the Aegean. She could not remember its name, but she had kept the two postcards she had mailed her mother when, as a newlywed, she had arrived in motor launch on a tiny island where time appeared to stand still, and from the franking on the stamp would be able to recall its name.
She closed her eyes and when she opened them again she was back on the island. As luck would have it, her travel agent had found her a similar katoika to the one in which she had honeymooned. Or was it the same one?
As she entered she saw that the French doors onto the patio had blown open sometime during the winter and leaves scattered on the tiled floor. She went to the fireplace and beside it was a stick broom exactly like the one the woman in black had used to sweep out the place each day years ago, though all her effort never seemed to make much of a difference.
Poor woman. She had lost her husband and all her sons to the sea. And now she would be gone.
The next morning, just after sunrise, the sea was smooth as glass and Elaine decided to venture a swim, just as she had done years before. Her heart medication made it hard for her to be out in the sun anymore, and lying on the patio, oiled like a sardine, was completely out of the question. She made her way down the winding passageways to the beachfront. A few old boats, now rotting as if they had landed on the shores of Troy for a long war, had been hauled to their final resting places on the sand.
She sat for a few minutes on a large rock and remembered diving off it on that morning long ago when, overcome with despair, she did not want to live without her beloved Ernest.
If she had indeed met him as he floated, sea-mangled, in his grey and leaky submersible, his prophecies had come true. She had led as much life as she possibly could, and although she had never remarried, it had been a good life.
She stood, slipped out of her beach coat and was about to dive in when she caught sight of a woman on the boat landing. The woman was dressed in black and carried a stick broom and catching sight of Elaine in a diving pose about to enter the water waved to her. Was the woman waving goodbye? Was it the same woman? That would be impossible. Elaine straightened for a moment and then returned the salute and dove in.
A new power coursed through Elaine’s arms and legs, a force she had forgotten could be in her body, the energy of youth. She did the Australian crawl for about twelve minutes and was surprised at how her stamina held up. She surfaced, turned, and glanced over her shoulder at the island that was now very small in the distance. Had she gone out too far? And just as she was about to try and make a swim of it back to the safety of shore, she heard a voice calling to her.
“Elaine, my love. I am here. We have come to the end of our story and now a whole new story begins.”
A bird’s nest, round and woven from seaweed and jetsam twigs, was drifting on the calm water. It floated toward her. A bird with blue wings and a red chest and red crest was riding on the lip of the nest.
“Welcome aboard, my love, my queen.”
Elaine looked at her hands. They had become blue wings. She was no longer treading water. She was floating like a hen on the waveless surface and before she hopped into the nest she caught her reflection in the water and she was a kingfisher.
“Everything changes, doesn’t it Ernest?”
“Elaine, the only thing that changes is us. We were mortal once and we knew the pangs of mortal change. But the world is as it has always been. There is a beauty and constancy to nature, and a terror, too, but if we live through the horror that being changed can bring the world is full of wonders, full of marvelous things that cannot be explained and because we cannot explain them they are all the more beautiful. All creatures, in their own way and their own time, find ways to overcome those changes. And now, as legend has it, I have built you a nest in which we can raise our young. I will fish and bring you the catch to eat, and if you are willing to clean it we shall feast, and together we will drift away until nothing stands between us and the calm of our lives’ best days.
Bruce Meyer is author of sixty-three books of poetry, short fiction, flash fiction, and non-fiction with seven more books forthcoming in the next three years. His stories have won or been short-listed for numerous international prizes. He lives in Barrie, Ontario.