فصل 08کتاب: و کوه طنين انداخت / فصل 8
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Eight Fall 2010
This evening, I come home from the clinic and find a message from Thalia on the landline phone in my bedroom. I play it as I slip off my shoes and sit at my desk. She tells me she has a cold, one she is sure she picked up from Mam?, then she asks after me, asks how work is going in Kabul. At the end, just before she hangs up, she says, Odie goes on and on about how you don’t call. Of course she won’t tell you. So I will. Markos. For the love of Christ. Call your mother. You ass.
I keep a picture of her on my desk, the one I took all those years ago at the beach on Tinos—Thalia sitting on a rock with her back to the camera. I have framed the photo, though if you look closely you can still see a patch of dark brown at the left lower corner courtesy of a crazed Italian girl who tried to set fire to it many years ago.
I turn on my laptop and start typing up the previous day’s op notes. My room is upstairs—one of three bedrooms on the second floor of this house where I have lived since my arrival in Kabul back in 2002—and my desk sits at the window overlooking the garden below. I have a view of the loquat trees my old landlord, Nabi, and I planted a few years ago. I can see Nabi’s onetime quarters along the back wall too, now repainted. After he passed away, I offered them to a young Dutch fellow who helps local high schools with their IT. And, off to the right, there is Suleiman Wahdati’s 1940s Chevrolet, unmoved for decades, shrouded in rust like a rock by moss, currently covered by a light film of yesterday’s surprisingly early snowfall, the first of the year thus far. After Nabi died, I thought briefly of having the car hauled to one of Kabul’s junkyards, but I didn’t have the heart. It seemed to me too essential a part of the house’s past, its history.
I finish the notes and check my watch. It’s already 9:30 P.M. Seven o’clock in the evening back in Greece.
Call your mother. You ass.
If I am going to call Mam? tonight, I can’t delay it any longer. I remember Thalia wrote in one of her e-mails that Mam? was going to bed earlier and earlier. I take a breath and steel myself. I pick up the receiver and dial.
I met Thalia in the summer of 1967, when I was twelve years old. She and her mother, Madaline, came to Tinos to visit Mam? and me. Mam?, whose name is Odelia, said it had been years—fifteen, to be exact—since she and her friend Madaline had last seen each other. Madaline had left the island at seventeen and gone off to Athens to become, for a brief time at least, an actress of some modest renown.
“I wasn’t surprised,” Mam? said, “when I heard of her acting. Because of her looks. Everyone was always taken with Madaline. You’ll see for yourself when you meet her.”
I asked Mam? why she’d never mentioned her.
“Haven’t I? Are you sure?”
“I could have sworn.” Then she said, “The daughter. Thalia. You must be considerate with her because she had an accident. A dog bit her. She has a scar.”
Mam? wouldn’t say more, and I knew better than to lean on her about it. But this revelation intrigued me far more than Madaline’s past in film and stage had, my curiosity fueled by the suspicion that the scar must be both significant and visible for the girl to deserve special consideration. With morbid eagerness, I looked forward to seeing this scar for myself.
“Madaline and I met at mass, when we were little,” Mam? said. Right off, she said, they had become inseparable friends. They had held hands under their desks in class, or at recess, at church, or strolling past the barley fields. They had sworn to remain sisters for life. They promised they would live close to each other, even after they’d married. They would live as neighbors, and if one or the other’s husband insisted on moving away, then they would demand a divorce. I remember that Mam? grinned a little when she told me all this self-mockingly, as if to distance herself from this youthful exuberance and foolishness, all those headlong, breathless vows. But I saw on her face a tinge of unspoken hurt as well, a shade of disappointment that Mam? was far too proud to admit to.
Madaline was married now to a wealthy and much older man, a Mr. Andreas Gianakos, who years before had produced her second and, as it turned out, last film. He was in the construction business now and owned a big firm in Athens. They had had a falling-out recently, a row, Madaline and Mr. Gianakos. Mam? didn’t tell me any of this information; I knew it from a clandestine, hasty, partial read of the letter Madaline had sent Mam? informing her of her intent to visit.
It grows so tiresome, I tell you, to be around Andreas and his right-wing friends and their martial music. I keep tight-lipped all the time. I say nothing when they exalt these military thugs who have made a mockery of our democracy. Should I utter so much as a word of dissent, I am confident they would label me a communist anarchist, and then even Andreas’s influence would not save me from the dungeons. Perhaps he would not bother exerting it, meaning his influence. Sometimes I believe it is precisely his intent to provoke me into impugning myself. Ah, how I miss you, my dear Odie. How I miss your company …
The day our guests were due to arrive, Mam? awoke early to tidy up. We lived in a small house built into a hillside. Like many houses on Tinos, it was made of whitewashed stone, and the roof was flat, with diamond-shaped red tiles. The small upstairs bedroom Mam? and I shared didn’t have a door—the narrow stairwell led right into it—but it did have a fanlight window and a narrow terrace with a waist-high wrought-iron balustrade from which you could look out on the roofs of other houses, on the olive trees and the goats and winding stone alleys and arches below, and, of course, the Aegean, blue and calm in the summer morning, white-capped in the afternoon when the meltemi winds blew in from the north.
When she was done cleaning up, Mam? put on what passed for her one fancy outfit, the one she wore every August fifteenth, the Feast of the Dormition at the Panagia Evangelistria Church, when pilgrims descended on Tinos from everywhere in the Mediterranean to pray before the church’s famed icon. There is a photo of my mother in that outfit—the long, drab rusty gold dress with a rounded neckline, the shrunken white sweater, the stockings, the clunky black shoes. Mam? looking every bit the forbidding widow, with her severe face, her tufted eyebrows, and her snub nose, standing stiffly, looking sullenly pious, like she’s a pilgrim herself. I’m in the picture too, standing rigidly at my mother’s hip. I am wearing a white shirt, white shorts, and white kneesocks rolled up. You can tell by my scowl that I’ve been ordered to stand straight, to not smile, that my face has been scrubbed and my hair combed down with water, against my will and with a great deal of fuss. You can sense a current of dissatisfaction between us. You see it in how rigidly we stand, how our bodies barely make contact.
Or maybe you can’t. But I do every time I see that picture, the last time being two years ago. I can’t help but see the wariness, the effort, the impatience. I can’t help but see two people together out of a sense of genetic duty, doomed already to bewilder and disappoint each other, each honor-bound to defy the other.
From the bedroom window upstairs, I watched Mam? leave for the ferry port in the town of Tinos. A scarf tied under the chin, Mam? rammed into the sunny blue day headfirst. She was a slight, small-boned woman with the body of a child, but when you saw her coming you did well to let her pass. I remember her walking me to school every morning—my mother is retired now, but she was a schoolteacher. As we walked, Mam? never held my hand. The other mothers did with their own kids, but not Mam?. She said she had to treat me like any other student. She marched ahead, a fist closed at the neck of her sweater, and I tried to keep up, lunch box in hand, tottering along behind in her footsteps. In the classroom, I always sat at the back. I remember my mother at the blackboard and how she could nail a misbehaving pupil with a single, scalding glance, like a rock from a slingshot, the aim surgically true. And she could cleave you in half with nothing but a dark look or a sudden beat of silence.
Mam? believed in loyalty above all, even at the cost of self-denial. Especially at the cost of self-denial. She also believed it was always best to tell the truth, to tell it plainly, without fanfare, and the more disagreeable the truth, the sooner you had to tell it. She had no patience for soft spines. She was—is—a woman of enormous will, a woman without apology, and not a woman with whom you want to have a dispute—though I have never really understood, even now, whether her temperament was God-given or one she adopted out of necessity, what with her husband dying barely a year into their marriage and leaving her to raise me all on her own.
I fell asleep upstairs a short while after Mam? left. I jolted awake later to a woman’s high, ringing voice. I sat up and there she was, all lipstick, powder, perfume, and slender curves, an airline ad smiling down at me through the thin veil of a pillbox hat. She stood in the middle of the room in a neon green minidress, leather valise at her feet, with her auburn hair and long limbs, grinning down at me, a shine on her face, and talking, the seams of her voice bursting with aplomb and cheer.
“So you’re Odie’s little Markos! She didn’t tell me you were this handsome! Oh, and I see her in you, around the eyes—yes, you have the same eyes, I think, I’m sure you’ve been told. I’ve been so eager to meet you. Your mother and I—we—oh, no doubt Odie has told you, so you can imagine, you can picture, what a thrill this is for me, to see the two of you, to meet you, Markos. Markos Varvaris! Well, I am Madaline Gianakos, and, may I say, I am delighted.”
She took off a cream-colored, elbow-length satin glove, the kind I’d seen worn only in magazines by elegant ladies out at a soiree, smoking on the wide steps of the opera house or being helped out of a shiny black car, their faces lit up by popping flashbulbs. She had to yank on each fingertip a bunch of times before the glove came off, and then she stooped slightly at the waist and offered me her hand.
“Charmed,” she said. Her hand was soft and cool, despite the glove. “And this is my daughter, Thalia. Darling, say hello to Markos Varvaris.”
She stood at the entrance of the room beside my mother, looking at me blankly, a lanky, pale-skinned girl with limp curls. Other than that, I can’t tell you a single thing. I can’t tell you the color of the dress she wore that day—that is, if she wore a dress—or the style of her shoes, or whether she had socks on, or whether she wore a watch, or a necklace, or a ring, or a pair of earrings. I can’t tell you because if you were at a restaurant and someone suddenly stripped, hopped atop a table, and started juggling dessert spoons, you would not only look, it would be the only thing you could look at. The mask draped over the lower half of the girl’s face was like that. It obliterated the possibility of any other observation.
“Thalia, say hello, darling. Don’t be rude.”
I thought I saw a faint nod of the head.
“Hello,” I replied with a sandpaper tongue. There was a ripple in the air. A current. I felt charged with something that was half thrill, half dread, something that burst upward inside of me and coiled itself up. I was staring and I knew it and I couldn’t stop, couldn’t peel my gaze away from the sky blue cloth of the mask, the two sets of bands tying it to the back of her head, the narrow horizontal slit over the mouth. I knew right then that I couldn’t bear to see it, whatever the mask was hiding. And that I couldn’t wait to see it. Nothing in my life could resume its natural course and rhythm and order until I saw for myself what was so terrible, so dreadful, that I and others had to be protected from it.
The alternate possibility, that the mask was perhaps designed to shield Thalia from us, eluded me. At least it did in the dizzying throes of that first meeting.
Madaline and Thalia stayed upstairs to unpack while Mam? battered up cuts of sole for supper in the kitchen. She asked me to make Madaline a cup of ellinik?s kafés, which I did, and she asked me to take it up to her, which I did as well, on a tray, with a little plate of pastelli.
All these decades later and shame still washes over me like some warm, sticky liquid at the memory of what happened next. To this day I can picture the scene like a photograph, frozen. Madaline smoking, standing at the bedroom window, looking at the sea through a set of teashade glasses with yellow lenses, one hand on her hip, ankles crossed. Her pillbox hat sits on the dresser. Above the dresser is a mirror and in the mirror is Thalia, sitting on the edge of the bed, her back to me. She is stooped down, doing something, maybe undoing her shoelaces, and I can see that she has removed her mask. It’s sitting next to her on the bed. A thread of cold marches down my spine and I try to stop it, but my hands tremble, which makes the porcelain cup clink on the saucer, which makes Madaline turn her head from the window to me, which makes Thalia look up. I catch her reflection in the mirror.
The tray slipped from my hands. Porcelain shattered. Hot liquid spilled and the tray went clanking down the steps. It was sudden mayhem, me on all fours, retching all over shards of broken porcelain, Madaline saying, “Oh dear. Oh dear,” and Mam? running upstairs, yelling, “What happened? What did you do, Markos?”
A dog bit her, Mam? had told me by way of a warning. She has a scar. The dog hadn’t bitten Thalia’s face; it had eaten it. And perhaps there were words to describe what I saw in the mirror that day, but scar wasn’t one of them.
I remember Mam?’s hands grabbing my shoulders, her pulling me up and whirling me around, saying, “What is with you? What is wrong with you?” And I remember her gaze lifting over my head. It froze there. The words died in her mouth. She went blank in the face. Her hands dropped from my shoulders. And then I witnessed the most extraordinary thing, something I thought I’d no sooner see than King Constantine himself turning up at our door dressed in a clown suit: a single tear, swelling at the edge of my mother’s right eye.
“So what was she like?” Mam? asks.
“Who? The French woman. Your landlord’s niece, the professor from Paris.”
I switch the receiver to my other ear. It surprises me that she remembers. All my life, I have had the feeling that the words I say to Mam? vanish unheard in space, as if there is static between us, a bad connection. Sometimes when I call her from Kabul, as I have now, I feel as though she has quietly lowered the receiver and stepped away, that I am speaking into a void across the continents—though I can feel my mother’s presence on the line and hear her breathing in my ear. Other times, I am telling her about something I saw at the clinic—some bloodied boy carried by his father, for instance, shrapnel embedded deep in his cheeks, ear torn clean off, another victim of playing on the wrong street at the wrong time of the wrong day—and then, without warning, a loud clunk, and Mam?’s voice suddenly distant and muffled, rising and falling, the echo of footsteps, of something being dragged across the floor, and I clam up, wait until she comes back on, which she does eventually, always a bit out of breath, explaining, I told her I was fine standing up. I said it clearly. I said, “Thalia, I would like to stand at the window and look down on the water as I’m talking to Markos.” But she says, “You’ll tire yourself out, Odie, you need to sit.” Next thing I know, she’s dragging the armchair—this big leather thing she bought me last year—she’s dragging it to the window. My God, she’s strong. You haven’t seen the armchair, of course. Well, of course. She then sighs with mock exasperation and asks that I go on with my story, but by then I am too unbalanced to. The net effect is that she has made me feel vaguely reprimanded and, what’s more, deserving of it, guilty of wrongs unspoken, offenses I’ve never been formally charged with. Even if I do go on with my story, it sounds diminished to my own ears. It does not measure up to Mam?’s armchair drama with Thalia.
“What was her name again?” Mam? says now. “Pari something, no?”
I have told Mam? about Nabi, who was a dear friend to me. She knows the general outline of his life only. She knows that in his will he left the Kabul house to his niece, Pari, who was raised in France. But I have not told Mam? about Nila Wahdati, her escape to Paris after her husband’s stroke, the decades Nabi spent caring for Suleiman. That history. Too many boomeranging parallels. Like reading aloud your own indictment.
“Pari. Yes. She was nice,” I say. “And warm. Especially for an academic.”
“What is she again, a chemist?”
“Mathematician,” I say, closing the lid of the laptop. It has started snowing again, lightly, tiny flakes twisting in the dark, flinging themselves at my window.
I tell Mam? about Pari Wahdati’s visit late this past summer. She really was quite lovely. Gentle, slim, gray hair, long neck with a full blue vein crawling up each side, warm gap-toothed smile. She seemed a bit brittle, older than her age. Bad rheumatoid arthritis. The knobby hands, especially, still functional, but the day is coming and she knew it. It made me think of Mam? and the coming of her day.
Pari Wahdati stayed a week with me at the house in Kabul. I gave her a tour of it when she arrived from Paris. She had last seen the house back in 1955 and seemed quite surprised at the vividness of her own memory of the place, its general layout, the two steps between the living room and dining room, for instance, where she said she would sit in a band of sunlight midmornings and read her books. She was struck by how much smaller the house really was compared to the version of it in her memory. When I took her upstairs, she knew which had been her bedroom, though it’s currently taken up by a German colleague of mine who works for the World Food Program. I remember her breath catching when she spotted the short little armoire in the corner of the bedroom—one of the few surviving relics of her childhood. I remembered it from the note that Nabi had left me prior to his death. She squatted next to it and ran her fingertips over the chipped yellow paint and over the fading giraffes and long-tailed monkeys on its doors. When she looked up at me, I saw that her eyes had teared a little, and she asked, very shyly and apologetically, if it would be possible to have it shipped to Paris. She offered to pay for a replacement. It was the only thing she wanted from the house. I told her it would be my pleasure to do it.
In the end, other than the armoire, which I had shipped a few days after her departure, Pari Wahdati returned to France with nothing but Suleiman Wahdati’s sketch pads, Nabi’s letter, and a few of her mother Nila’s poems, which Nabi had saved. The only other thing she asked of me during her stay was to arrange a ride to take her to Shadbagh so she could see the village where she had been born and where she hoped to find her half brother, Iqbal.
“I assume she’ll sell the house,” Mam? says, “now that it’s hers.”
“She said I could stay on as long as I liked, actually,” I say. “Rent-free.”
I can all but see Mam?’s lips tighten skeptically. She’s an islander. She suspects the motives of all mainlanders, looks askance at their apparent acts of goodwill. This was one of the reasons I knew, when I was a boy, that I would leave Tinos one day when I had the chance. A kind of despair used to get hold of me whenever I heard people talking this way.
“How is the dovecote coming along?” I ask to change the subject.
“I had to give it a rest. It tired me out.”
Mam? was diagnosed in Athens six months ago by a neurologist I had insisted she see after Thalia told me Mam? was twitching and dropping things all the time. It was Thalia who took her. Since the trip to the neurologist, Mam? has been on a tear. I know this through the e-mails Thalia sends me. Repainting the house, fixing water leaks, coaxing Thalia into helping her build a whole new closet upstairs, even replacing cracked shingles on the roof, though thankfully Thalia put an end to that. Now the dovecote. I picture Mam? with her sleeves rolled high, hammer in hand, sweat staining her back, pounding nails and sanding planks of wood. Racing against her own failing neurons. Wringing every last drop of use from them while there is still time.
“When are you coming home?” Mam? says.
“Soon,” I say. Soon was what I said the year before too when she asked the same question. It has been two years since my last visit to Tinos.
A brief pause. “Don’t wait too long. I want to see you before they strap me in the iron lung.” She laughs. This is an old habit, this joke making and clowning in the face of bad luck, this disdain of hers for the slightest show of self-pity. It has the paradoxical—and I know calculated—effect of both shrinking and augmenting the misfortune.
“Come for Christmas if you can,” she says. “Before the fourth of January, at any rate. Thalia says there is going to be a solar eclipse over Greece that day. She read it on the Internet. We could watch it together.”
“I’ll try, Mam?,” I say.
It was like waking up one morning and finding that a wild animal has wandered into your house. No place felt safe to me. She was there at every corner and turn, prowling, stalking, forever dabbing at her cheek with a handkerchief to dry the dribble that constantly flowed from her mouth. The small dimensions of our house rendered escape from her impossible. I especially dreaded mealtime when I had to endure the spectacle of Thalia lifting the bottom of the mask to deliver spoonfuls of food to her mouth. My stomach turned at the sight and at the sound. She ate noisily, bits of half-chewed food always falling with a wet splat onto her plate, or the table, or even the floor. She was forced to take all liquids, even soup, through a straw, of which her mother kept a stash in her purse. She slurped and gurgled when she sucked broth up the straw, and it always stained the mask and dripped down the side of her jaw onto her neck. The first time, I asked to be excused from the table, and Mam? shot me a hard look. And so I trained myself to avert my gaze and not hear, but it wasn’t easy. I would walk into the kitchen and there she would be, sitting still while Madaline rubbed ointment onto her cheek to prevent chafing. I began keeping a calendar, a mental countdown, of the four weeks Mam? had said Madaline and Thalia were staying.
I wished Madaline had come by herself. I liked Madaline just fine. We sat, the four of us, in the small square-shaped courtyard outside our front door, and she sipped coffee and smoked cigarettes one after the other, the angles of her face shaded by our olive tree and a gold straw cloche that should have looked absurd on her, would have on anyone else—like Mam?, for instance. But Madaline was one of those people to whom elegance came effortlessly as though it were a genetic skill, like the ability to curl your tongue into the shape of a tube. With Madaline, there was never a lull in the conversation; stories just trilled out of her. One morning she told us about her travels—to Ankara, for instance, where she had strolled the banks of the Enguri Su and sipped green tea laced with raki, or the time she and Mr. Gianakos had gone to Kenya and ridden the backs of elephants among thorny acacias and even sat down to eat cornmeal mush and coconut rice with the local villagers.
Madaline’s stories stirred up an old restlessness in me, an urge I’d always had to strike out headlong into the world, to be dauntless. By comparison, my own life on Tinos seemed crushingly ordinary. I foresaw my life unfolding as an interminable stretch of nothingness and so I spent most of my childhood years on Tinos floundering, feeling like a stand-in for myself, a proxy, as though my real self resided elsewhere, waiting to unite someday with this dimmer, more hollow self. I felt marooned. An exile in my own home.
Madaline said that in Ankara she had gone to a place called Ku?ulu Park and watched swans gliding in the water. She said the water was dazzling.
“I’m rhapsodizing,” she said, laughing.
“You’re not,” Mam? said.
“It’s an old habit. I talk too much. I always did. You remember how much grief I’d bring us, chattering in class? You were never at fault, Odie. You were so responsible and studious.”
“They’re interesting, your stories. You have an interesting life.”
Madaline rolled her eyes. “Well, you know the Chinese curse.”
“Did you like Africa?” Mam? asked Thalia.
Thalia pressed the handkerchief to her cheek and didn’t answer. I was glad. She had the oddest speech. There was a wet quality to it, a strange mix of lisp and gargle.
“Oh, Thalia doesn’t like to travel,” Madaline said, crushing her cigarette. She said this like it was the unassailable truth. There was no looking to Thalia for confirmation or protest. “She hasn’t got a taste for it.”
“Well, neither do I,” Mam? said, again to Thalia. “I like being home. I guess I’ve just never found a compelling reason to leave Tinos.”
“And I one to stay,” Madaline said. “Other than you, naturally.” She touched Mam?’s wrist. “You know my worst fear when I left? My biggest worry? How am I going to get on without Odie? I swear, I was petrified at the thought.”
“You’ve managed fine, it seems,” Mam? said slowly, dragging her gaze from Thalia.
“You don’t understand,” Madaline said, and I realized I was the one who didn’t understand because she was looking directly at me. “I wouldn’t have kept it together without your mother. She saved me.”
“Now you’re rhapsodizing,” Mam? said.
Thalia upturned her face. She was squinting. A jet, up in the blue, silently marking its trajectory with a long, single vapor trail.
“It was my father,” Madaline said, “that Odie saved me from.” I wasn’t sure if she was still addressing me. “He was one of those people who are born mean. He had bulging eyes, and this thick, short neck with a dark mole on the back of it. And fists. Fists like bricks. He’d come home and he didn’t even have to do a thing, just the sound of his boots in the hallway, the jingle of his keys, his humming, that was enough for me. When he was mad, he always sighed through the nose and pinched his eyes shut, like he was deep in thought, and then he’d rub his face and say, All right, girlie, all right, and you knew it was coming—the storm, it was coming—and it could not be stopped. No one could help you. Sometimes, just him rubbing his face, or the sigh whooshing through his mustache, and I’d see gray.
“I’ve crossed paths since with men like him. I wish I could say differently. But I have. And what I’ve learned is that you dig a little and you find they’re all the same, give or take. Some are more polished, granted. They may come with a bit of charm—or a lot—and that can fool you. But really they’re all unhappy little boys sloshing around in their own rage. They feel wronged. They haven’t been given their due. No one loved them enough. Of course they expect you to love them. They want to be held, rocked, reassured. But it’s a mistake to give it to them. They can’t accept it. They can’t accept the very thing they’re needing. They end up hating you for it. And it never ends because they can’t hate you enough. It never ends—the misery, the apologies, the promises, the reneging, the wretchedness of it all. My first husband was like that.”
I was stunned. No one had ever spoken this plainly in my presence before, certainly not Mam?. No one I knew laid bare their hard luck this way. I felt both embarrassed for Madaline and admiring of her candor.
When she mentioned the first husband, I noticed that, for the first time since I had met her, a shadow had settled on her face, a momentary intimation of something dark and chastening, wounding, at odds with the energetic laughs and the teasing and the loose pumpkin floral dress she was wearing. I remember thinking at the time what a good actress she must be to camouflage disappointment and hurt with a veneer of cheerfulness. Like a mask, I thought, and was privately pleased with myself for the clever connection.
Later, when I was older, it wasn’t as clear to me. Thinking back on it, there was something affected about the way she paused when she mentioned the first husband, the casting down of the gaze, the catch in the throat, the slight quiver of lips, just as there was about the walloping energy and the joking, the lively, heavy-footed charm, the way even her slights landed softly, parachuted by a reassuring wink and laugh. Perhaps they were both trumped-up affectations or perhaps neither was. It became a blur for me what was performance and what real—which at least made me think of her as an infinitely more interesting actress.
“How many times did I come running to this house, Odie?” Madaline said. Now the smiling again, the swell of laughter. “Your poor parents. But this house was my haven. My sanctuary. It was. A little island within the greater one.”
Mam? said, “You were always welcomed here.”
“It was your mother who put an end to the beatings, Markos. Did she ever tell you?”
I said she hadn’t.
“Hardly surprises me. That’s Odelia Varvaris for you.”
Mam? was unfurling the edge of the apron in her lap and flattening it again with a daydreamy look on her face.
“I came here one night, bleeding from the tongue, a patch of hair ripped from the temple, my ear still ringing from a blow. He’d really gotten his hooks into me that time. What a state I was in. What a state!” The way Madaline was telling it, you might have thought she was describing a lavish meal or a good novel. “Your mother doesn’t ask because she knows. Of course she knows. She just looks at me for a long time—at me standing there, trembling—and she says, I still remember it, Odie, she said, Well, that’s about enough of this business. She says, We’re going to pay your father a visit, Maddie. And I start begging. I worried he was going to kill us both. But you know how she can be, your mother.”
I said I did, and Mam? tossed me a sidelong glance.
“She wouldn’t listen. She had this look. I’m sure you know the look. She heads out, but not before she picks up her father’s hunting rifle. The whole time we’re walking to my house, I’m trying to stop her, telling her he hadn’t hurt me that bad. But she won’t hear it. We walk right up to the door and there’s my father, in the doorway, and Odie raises the barrel and shoves it against his chin and says, Do it again and I will come back and shoot you in the face with this rifle.
“My father blinks, and for a moment he’s tongue-tied. He can’t say a word. And you want to know the best part, Markos? I look down and see a little circle, a circle of—well, I think you can guess—a little circle quietly expanding on the floor between his bare feet.”
Madaline brushed back her hair and said, to another flick of the lighter, “And that, my dear, is a true story.”
She didn’t have to say it, I knew it was true. I recognized in it Mam?’s uncomplicated, fierce loyalty, her mountainous resolve. Her impulse, her need, to be the corrector of injustices, warden of the downtrodden flock. And I could tell it was true from the closemouthed groan Mam? gave at the mention of that last detail. She disapproved. She probably found it distasteful, and not only for the obvious reason. In her view, people, even if they had behaved deplorably in life, deserved a modicum of dignity in death. Especially family.
Mam? shifted in her seat and said, “So if you don’t like to travel, Thalia, what do you like to do?”
All our eyes turned to Thalia. Madaline had been speaking for a while, and I recall thinking, as we sat in the courtyard with the sunlight falling in patches all around us, that it was a measure of her capacity to absorb attention, to pull everything into her vortex so thoroughly that Thalia had gone forgotten. I also left room for the possibility that they had adapted to this dynamic out of necessity, the quiet daughter eclipsed by the attention-diverting self-absorbed mother routine, that Madaline’s narcissism was perhaps an act of kindness, of maternal protectiveness.
Thalia mumbled something.
“A little louder, darling,” came the suggestion from Madaline.
Thalia cleared her throat, a rumbling, phlegmy sound. “Science.”
I noticed for the first time the color of her eyes, green like ungrazed pasture, the deep, coarse dark of her hair, and that she had unblemished skin like her mother. I wondered if she’d been pretty once, maybe even beautiful like Madaline.
“Tell them about the sundial, darling,” Madaline said.
“She built a sundial,” Madaline said. “Right in our backyard. Last summer. She had no help. Not from Andreas. And certainly not from me.” She chortled.
“Equatorial or horizontal?” Mam? asked.
There was a flash of surprise in Thalia’s eyes. A kind of double take. Like a person walking down a crowded street in a foreign city catching within earshot a snippet of her native tongue. “Horizontal,” she said in that strange wet voice of hers.
“What did you use for a gnomon?”
Thalia’s eyes rested on Mam?. “I cut a postcard.”
That was the first time I saw how it could be between those two.
“She used to take apart her toys when she was little,” Madaline said. “She liked mechanical toys, things with inner contraptions. Not that she played with them, did you, darling? No, she’d break them up, all those expensive toys, open them up as soon as we gave them to her. I used to get into such a state over it. But Andreas—I have to give him credit here—Andreas said to let her, that it was a sign of a curious mind.”
“If you like, we can build one together,” Mam? said. “A sundial, I mean.”
“I already know how.”
“Mind your manners, darling,” Madaline said, extending, then bending, one leg, as though she were stretching for a dance routine. “Aunt Odie is trying to be helpful.”
“Maybe something else, then,” Mam? said. “We could build some other thing.”
“Oh! Oh!” Madaline said, hurriedly blowing smoke, wheezing. “I can’t believe I haven’t told you yet, Odie. I have news. Take a guess.”
“I’m going back to acting! In films! I’ve been offered a role, the lead, in a major production. Can you believe it?”
“Congratulations,” Mam? said flaccidly.
“I have the script with me. I’d let you read it, Odie, but I worry you won’t like it. Is that bad? I’d be crushed, I don’t mind telling you. I wouldn’t get over it. We start shooting in the fall.”
The next morning, after breakfast, Mam? pulled me aside. “All right, what is it? What’s wrong with you?”
I said I didn’t know what she was talking about.
“You best drop it. The stupid act. It doesn’t suit you,” she said. She had a way of narrowing her eyes and tilting her head just a shade. To this day it has a grip on me.
“I can’t do it, Mam?. Don’t make me.”
“And why not, exactly?”
It came out before I could do a thing about it. “She’s a monster.”
Mam?’s mouth became small. She regarded me not with anger but with a disheartened look, as though I’d drawn all the sap out of her. There was a finality to this look. Resignation. Like a sculptor finally dropping mallet and chisel, giving up on a recalcitrant block that will never take the shape he’d pictured.
“She’s a person who has had a terrible thing happen to her. Call her that name again, I’d like to see you. Say it and see what happens.”
A little bit later there we were, Thalia and I, walking down a cobblestone path flanked by stone walls on each side. I made sure to walk a few steps ahead so passersby—or, God forbid, one of the boys from school—wouldn’t think we were together, which, of course, they would anyway. Anyone could see. At the least, I hoped the distance between us would signal my displeasure and reluctance. To my relief, she didn’t make an effort to keep up. We passed sunburned, weary-looking farmers coming home from the market. Their donkeys labored under wicker baskets containing unsold produce, their hooves clip-clopping on the footpath. I knew most of the farmers, but I kept my head down and averted my eyes.
I led Thalia to the beach. I chose a rocky one I sometimes went to, knowing it would not be as crowded as some of the other beaches, like Agios Romanos. I rolled up my pants and hopped from one craggy rock to the next, choosing one close to where the waves crashed and retracted. I took off my shoes and lowered my feet into a shallow little pool that had formed between a cluster of stones. A hermit crab scurried away from my toes. I saw Thalia to my right, settling atop a rock close by.
We sat for a long while without talking and watched the ocean rumbling against the rocks. A nippy gust whipped around my ears, spraying the scent of salt on my face. A pelican hovered over the blue-green water, its wings spread. Two ladies stood side by side, knee-deep in the water, their skirts held up high. To the west, I had a view of the island, the dominant white of the homes and windmills, the green of the barley fields, the dull brown of the jagged mountains from which springs flowed every year. My father died on one of those mountains. He worked for a green-marble quarry and one day, when Mam? was six months pregnant with me, he slipped off a cliff and fell a hundred feet. Mam? said he’d forgotten to secure his safety harness.
“You should stop,” Thalia said.
I was tossing pebbles into an old galvanized-tin pail nearby and she startled me. I missed. “What’s it to you?”
“I mean, flattering yourself. I don’t want this any more than you do.”
The wind was making her hair flap, and she was holding down the mask against her face. I wondered if she lived with this fear daily, that a gust of wind would rip it from her face and she would have to chase after it, exposed. I didn’t say anything. I tossed another pebble and missed again.
“You’re an ass,” she said.
After a while she got up, and I pretended to stay. Then I looked over my shoulder and saw her heading up the beach, back toward the road, and so I put my shoes back on and followed her home.
When we returned, Mam? was mincing okra in the kitchen, and Madaline was sitting nearby, doing her nails and smoking, tapping the ash into a saucer. I cringed with some horror when I saw that the saucer belonged to the china set Mam? had inherited from her grandmother. It was the only thing of any real value that Mam? owned, the china set, and she hardly ever took it down from the shelf up near the ceiling where she kept it.
Madaline was blowing on her nails in between drags and talking about Pattakos, Papadopoulos, and Makarezos, the three colonels who had staged a military coup—the Generals’ Coup, as it was known then—earlier that year in Athens. She was saying she knew a playwright—a “dear, dear man,” as she described him—who had been imprisoned under the charge of being a communist subversive.
“Which is absurd, of course! Just absurd. You know what they do to people, the ESA, to make them talk?” She was saying this in a low voice as if the military police were hiding somewhere in the house. “They put a hose in your behind and turn on the water full blast. It’s true, Odie. I swear to you. They soak rags in the filthiest things—human filth, you understand—and shove them in people’s mouths.”
“That’s awful,” Mam? said flatly.
I wondered if she was already tiring of Madaline. The stream of puffed-up political opinions, the tales of parties Madaline had attended with her husband, the poets and intellectuals and musicians she’d clinked champagne flutes with, the list of needless, senseless trips she had taken to foreign cities. Trotting out her views on nuclear disaster and overpopulation and pollution. Mam? indulged Madaline, smiling through her stories with a look of wry bemusement, but I knew she thought unkindly of her. She probably thought Madaline was flaunting. She probably felt embarrassed for her.
This is what rankles, what pollutes Mam?’s kindness, her rescues and her acts of courage. The indebtedness that shadows them. The demands, the obligations she saddles you with. The way she uses these acts as currency, with which she barters for loyalty and allegiance. I understand now why Madaline left all those years ago. The rope that pulls you from the flood can become a noose around your neck. People always disappoint Mam? in the end, me included. They can’t make good on what they owe, not the way Mam? expects them to. Mam?’s consolation prize is the grim satisfaction of holding the upper hand, free to pass verdicts from the perch of strategic advantage, since she is always the one who has been wronged.
It saddens me because of what it reveals to me about Mam?’s own neediness, her own anxiety, her fear of loneliness, her dread of being stranded, abandoned. And what does it say about me that I know this about my mother, that I know precisely what she needs and yet how deliberately and unswervingly I have denied her, taking care to keep an ocean, a continent—or, preferably, both—between us for the better part of three decades?
“They have no sense of irony, the junta,” Madaline was saying, “crushing people as they do. In Greece! The birthplace of democracy … Ah, there you are! Well, how was it? What did you two get up to?”
“We played at the beach,” Thalia said.
“Was it fun? Did you have fun?”
“We had a grand time,” Thalia said.
Mam?’s eyes jumped skeptically from me to Thalia and back, but Madaline beamed and applauded silently. “Good! Now that I don’t have to worry about you two getting along, Odie and I can spend some time of our own together. What do you say, Odie? We have so much catching up to do still!”
Mam? smiled gamely and reached for a head of cabbage.
From then on, Thalia and I were left to our own devices. We were to explore the island, play games at the beach, amuse ourselves the way children are expected to. Mam? would pack us a sandwich each, and we would set off together after breakfast.
Once out of sight, we often drifted apart. At the beach, I took a swim or lay on a rock with my shirt off while Thalia went off to collect shells or skip rocks on the water, which was no good because the waves were too big. We went walking along the footpaths that snaked through vineyards and barley fields, looking down at our own shadows, each preoccupied with our own thoughts. Mostly we wandered. There wasn’t much in the way of a tourist industry on Tinos in those days. It was a farming island, really, people living off their cows and goats and olive trees and wheat. We would end up bored, eating lunch somewhere, quietly, in the shade of a tree or a windmill, looking between bites at the ravines, the fields of thorny bushes, the mountains, the sea.
One day, I wandered off toward town. We lived on the southwestern shore of the island, and Tinos town was only a few miles’ walk south. There was a little knickknack shop there run by a heavy-faced widower named Mr. Roussos. On any given day, you were apt to find in the window of his shop anything from a 1940s typewriter to a pair of leather work boots, or a weathervane, an old plant stand, giant wax candles, a cross, or, of course, copies of the Panagia Evangelistria icon. Or maybe even a brass gorilla. He was also an amateur photographer and had a makeshift darkroom in the back of the shop. When the pilgrims came to Tinos every August to visit the icon, Mr. Roussos sold rolls of film to them and developed their photos in his darkroom for a fee.
About a month back, I had spotted a camera in his display window, sitting on its worn rust-colored leather case. Every few days, I strolled over to the shop, stared at this camera, and imagined myself in India, the leather case hanging by the strap over my shoulder, taking photos of the paddies and tea estates I had seen in National Geographic. I would shoot the Inca Trail. On camelback, in some dust-choked old truck, or on foot, I would brave the heat until I stood gazing up at the Sphinx and the Pyramids, and I would shoot them too and see my photos published in magazines with glossy pages. This was what drew me to Mr. Roussos’s window that morning—though the shop was closed for the day—to stand outside, my forehead pressed to the glass, and daydream.
“What kind is it?”
I pulled back a bit, caught Thalia’s reflection in the window. She dabbed at her left cheek with the handkerchief.
“Looks like a C3 Argus,” she said.
“How would you know?”
“It’s only the best-selling thirty-five millimeter in the world for the last thirty years,” she said a little chidingly. “Not much to look at, though. It’s ugly. It looks like a brick. So you want to be a photographer? You know, when you’re all grown up? Your mother says you do.”
I turned around. “Mam? told you that?”
I shrugged. I was embarrassed that Mam? had discussed this with Thalia. I wondered how she’d said it. She could unsheathe from her arsenal a mockingly grave way of talking about things she found either portentous or frivolous. She could shrink your aspirations before your very eyes. Markos wants to walk the earth and capture it with his lens.
Thalia sat on the sidewalk and pulled her skirt over her knees. It was a hot day, the sun biting the skin like it had teeth. Hardly anyone was out and about except for an elderly couple trudging stiffly up the street. The husband—Demis something—wore a gray flat cap and a brown tweed jacket that looked too heavy for the season. He had a frozen, wide-eyed look to his face, I remember, the way some old people do, like they are perpetually startled by the monstrous surprise that is old age—it wasn’t until years later, in medical school, that I suspected he had Parkinson’s. They waved as they passed and I waved back. I saw them take notice of Thalia, a momentary pause in their stride, and then they moved on.
“Do you have a camera?” Thalia said.
“Have you ever taken a picture?”
“And you want to be a photographer?”
“You find that strange?”
“So if I said I wanted to be a policeman, you’d think that was strange too? Because I’ve never slapped handcuffs on anyone?”
I could tell from the softening in her eyes that, if she could, she would be smiling. “So you’re a clever ass,” she said. “Word of advice: Don’t mention the camera in my mother’s presence or she’ll buy it for you. She’s very eager to please.” The handkerchief went to the cheek and back. “But I doubt that Odelia would approve. I guess you already know that.”
I was both impressed and a little unsettled by how much she seemed to have grasped in so little time. Maybe it was the mask, I thought, the advantage of cover, the freedom to be watchful, to observe and scrutinize.
“She’d probably make you give it back.”
I sighed. It was true. Mam? would not allow such easy amends, and most certainly not if it involved money.
Thalia rose to her feet and beat the dust from her behind. “Let me ask you, do you have a box at home?”
Madaline was sipping wine with Mam? in the kitchen, and Thalia and I were upstairs, using black markers on a shoe box. The shoe box belonged to Madaline and contained a new pair of lime green leather pumps with high heels, still wrapped in tissue paper.
“Where was she planning on wearing those?” I asked.
I could hear Madaline downstairs, talking about an acting class she had once taken where the instructor had asked her, as an exercise, to pretend she was a lizard sitting motionless on a rock. A swell of laughter—hers—followed.
We finished the second coat, and Thalia said we should put on a third, to make sure we hadn’t missed any spots. The black had to be uniform and flawless.
“That’s all a camera is,” she said, “a black box with a hole to let in the light and something to absorb the light. Give me the needle.”
I passed her a sewing needle of Mam?’s. I was skeptical, to say the least, about the prospects of this homemade camera, of it doing anything at all—a shoe box and a needle? But Thalia had attacked the project with such faith and self-assured confidence that I had to leave room for the unlikely possibility that it just might work. She made me think she knew things I did not.
“I’ve made some calculations,” she said, carefully piercing the box with the needle. “Without a lens, we can’t set the pinhole on the small face, the box is too long. But the width is just about right. The key is to make the correct-sized pinhole. I figure point-six millimeter, roughly. There. Now we need a shutter.”
Downstairs, Madaline’s voice had dropped to a low, urgent murmur. I couldn’t hear what she was saying but I could tell that she was speaking more slowly than before, enunciating well, and I pictured her leaning forward, elbows on knees, making eye contact, not blinking. Over the years, I have come to know this tone of voice intimately. When people speak this way, they’re likely disclosing, revealing, confessing some catastrophe, beseeching the listener. It’s a staple of the military’s casualty notification teams knocking on doors, lawyers touting the merits of plea deals to clients, policemen stopping cars at 3 A.M., cheating husbands. How many times have I used it myself at hospitals here in Kabul? How many times have I guided entire families into a quiet room, asked them to sit, pulled a chair up for myself, gathering the will to give them news, dreading the coming conversation?
“She’s talking about Andreas,” Thalia said evenly. “I bet she is. They had a big fight. Pass me the tape and those scissors.”
“What is he like? Besides being rich, I mean?”
“Who, Andreas? He’s all right. He travels a lot. When he’s home, he always has people over. Important people—ministers, generals, that kind. They have drinks by the fireplace and they talk all night, mostly business and politics. I can hear them from my room. I’m supposed to stay upstairs when Andreas has company. I’m not supposed to come down. But he buys me things. He pays for a tutor to come to the house. And he speaks to me nicely enough.”
She taped a rectangular piece of cardboard, which we’d also colored black, over the pinhole.
Things were quiet downstairs. I choreographed the scene in my head. Madaline weeping without a sound, absently fiddling with a handkerchief like it was a clump of Play-Doh, Mam? not much help, looking on stiffly with a pinch-faced little smile like she’s got something sour melting under her tongue. Mam? can’t stand it when people cry in her presence. She can barely look at their puffy eyes, their open, pleading faces. She sees crying as a sign of weakness, a garish appeal for attention, and she won’t indulge it. She can’t bring herself to console. Growing up, I learned that it was not one of her strong suits. Sorrow ought to be private, she thinks, not flaunted. Once, when I was little, I asked her if she’d cried when my father had fallen to his death.
At the funeral? I mean, the burial?
No, I did not.
Because you weren’t sad?
Because it was nobody’s business if I was.
Would you cry if I died, Mam??
Let’s hope we never have to find out, she said.
Thalia picked up the box of photographic paper and said, “Get the flashlight.”
We moved into Mam?’s closet, taking care to shut the door and snuff out daylight with towels we stuffed under it. Once we were in pitch-darkness, Thalia asked me to turn on the flashlight, which we had covered with several layers of red cellophane. All I could see of Thalia in the dim glow was her slender fingers as she cut a sheet of photographic paper and taped it to the inside of the shoe box opposite the pinhole. We had bought the paper from Mr. Roussos’s shop the day before. When we walked up to the counter, Mr. Roussos peered at Thalia over his spectacles and said, Is this a robbery? Thalia pointed an index finger at him and cocked her thumb like pulling back the hammer.
Thalia closed the lid on the shoe box, covered the pinhole with the shutter. In the dark she said, “Tomorrow, you shoot the first photo of your career.” I couldn’t tell if she was making fun or not.
We chose the beach. We set the shoe box on a flat rock and secured it firmly with rope—Thalia said we couldn’t have any movement at all when we opened the shutter. She moved in next to me and took a peek over the box as if through a viewfinder.
“It’s a perfect shot,” she said.
“Almost. We need a subject.”
She looked at me, saw what I meant, and said, “No. I won’t do it.”
We argued back and forth and she finally agreed, but on the condition that her face didn’t show. She took off her shoes, walked atop a row of rocks a few feet in front of the camera, using her arms like a tightrope walker on a cable. She lowered herself on one of the rocks facing west in the direction of Syros and Kythnos. She flipped her hair so it covered the bands at the back of her head that held the mask in place. She looked at me over her shoulder.
“Remember,” she shouted, “count to one twenty.”
She turned back to face the sea.
I stooped and peered over the box, looking at Thalia’s back, the constellation of rocks around her, the whips of seaweed entangled between them like dead snakes, a little tugboat bobbing in the distance, the tide rising, mashing the craggy shore and withdrawing. I lifted the shutter from the pinhole and began to count.
One … two … three … four … five …
We’re lying in bed. On the TV screen a pair of accordion players are dueling, but Gianna has turned off the sound. Midday sunlight scissors through the blinds, falling in stripes on the remains of the Margherita pizza we’d ordered for lunch from room service. It was delivered to us by a tall, slim man with impeccable slicked-back hair and a white coat with black tie. On the table he rolled into the room was a flute vase with a red rose in it. He lifted the domed plate cover off the pizza with great flourish, making a sweeping motion with his hand like a magician to his audience after the rabbit has materialized from the top hat.
Scattered around us, among the mussed sheets, are the pictures I have shown Gianna, photos of my trips over the past year and a half. Belfast, Montevideo, Tangier, Marseille, Lima, Tehran. I show her photos of the commune I had joined briefly in Copenhagen, living alongside ripped-T-shirt-and-beanie-hat-wearing Danish beatniks who had built a self-governing community on a former military base.
Where are you? Gianna asks. You are not in the photographs.
I like being behind the lens better, I say. It’s true. I have taken hundreds of pictures, and you won’t find me in any. I always order two sets of prints when I drop off the film. I keep one set, mail the other to Thalia back home.
Gianna asks how I finance my trips and I explain I pay for them with inheritance money. This is partially true, because the inheritance is Thalia’s, not mine. Unlike Madaline, who for obvious reasons was never mentioned in Andreas’s will, Thalia was. She gave me half her money. I am supposed to be putting myself through university with it.
Eight … nine … ten …
Gianna props herself up on her elbows and leans across the bed, over me, her small breasts brushing my skin. She fetches her pack, lights a cigarette. I’d met her the day before at Piazza di Spagna. I was sitting on the stone steps that connect the square below to the church on the hill. She walked up and said something to me in Italian. She looked like so many of the pretty, seemingly aimless girls I’d seen slinking around Rome’s churches and piazzas. They smoked and talked loudly and laughed a lot. I shook my head and said, Sorry? She smiled, went Ah, and then, in heavily accented English, said, Lighter? Cigarette. I shook my head and told her in my own heavily accented English that I didn’t smoke. She grinned. Her eyes were bright and jumping. The late-morning sun made a nimbus around her diamond-shaped face.
I doze off briefly and wake up to her poking my ribs.
La tua ragazza? she says. She has found the picture of Thalia on the beach, the one I had taken years before with our homemade pinhole camera. Your girlfriend?
No, I say.
La tua cugina? Your cousin, si?
I shake my head.
She studies the photo some more, taking quick drags off her cigarette. No, she says sharply, to my surprise, even angrily. Questa è la tua ragazza! Your girlfriend. I think yes, you are liar! And then, to my disbelief, she flicks her lighter and sets the picture on fire.
Fourteen … fifteen … sixteen … seventeen …
About midway through our trek back to the bus stop, I realize I’ve lost the photo. I tell them I need to go back. There is no choice, I have to go back. Alfonso, a wiry, tight-lipped huaso who is tagging along as our informal Chilean guide, looks questioningly at Gary. Gary is an American. He is the alpha male in our trio. He has dirty-blond hair and acne pits on his cheeks. It’s a face that hints at habitual hard living. Gary is in a foul mood, made worse by hunger, the absence of alcohol, and the nasty rash on his right calf, which he contracted brushing up against a litre shrub the day before. I’d met them both at a crowded bar in Santiago, where, after half a dozen rounds of piscolas, Alfonso had suggested a hike to the waterfall at Salto del Apoquindo, where his father used to take him when he was a boy. We’d made the hike the next day and had camped out at the waterfall for the night. We’d smoked dope, the water roaring in our ears, a wide-open sky crammed with stars above us. We were trudging back now toward San Carlos de Apoquindo to catch the bus.
Gary pushes back the wide rim of his Cordoban hat and wipes his brow with a handkerchief. It’s a three-hour walk back, Markos, he says.
?Tres horas, h?gale comprende? Alfonso echoes.
And you’re still going?
?Para una foto? Alfonso says.
I nod. I keep quiet because they would not understand. I am not sure I understand it myself.
You know you’re going to get lost, Gary says.
Then good luck, amigo, Gary says, offering his hand.
Es un griego loco, Alfonso says.
I laugh. It is not the first time I have been called a crazy Greek. We shake hands. Gary adjusts the straps of his knapsack, and the two of them head back up the trail along the folds of the mountain, Gary waving once without looking as they take a hairpin turn. I walk back the way we had come. It takes me four hours, actually, because I do get lost as Gary had predicted. I am exhausted by the time I reach the campsite. I search all over, kicking bushes, looking between rocks, dread building as I rummage in vain. Then, just as I try to resign myself to the worst, I spot a flash of white in a batch of shrubs up a shallow slope. I find the photo wedged between a tangle of brambles. I pluck it free, beat dust from it, my eyes brimming with tears of relief.
Twenty-three … twenty-four … twenty-five …
In Caracas I sleep under a bridge. A youth hostel in Brussels. Sometimes I splurge and rent a room in a nice hotel, take long hot showers, shave, eat meals in a bathrobe. I watch color TV. The cities, the roads, the countryside, the people I meet—they all begin to blur. I tell myself I am searching for something. But more and more, it feels like I am wandering, waiting for something to happen to me, something that will change everything, something that my whole life has been leading up to.
Thirty-four … thirty-five … thirty-six …
My fourth day in India. I totter down a dirt road among stray cattle, the world tilting under my feet. I have been vomiting all day. My skin is the yellow of a sari, and it feels like invisible hands are peeling it raw. When I can’t walk anymore, I lie down on the side of the road. An old man across the road stirs something in a big steel pot. Beside him is a cage, inside the cage a blue-and-red parrot. A dark-skinned vendor pushing a cartful of empty green bottles passes me by. That’s the last thing I remember.
Forty-one … forty-two …
I wake up in a big room. The air is thick with heat and something like rotting cantaloupe. I am lying on a twin-sized steel-frame bed, cushioned from the hard, springless platform by a mattress no thicker than a paperback book. The room is filled with beds like mine. I see emaciated arms dangling over the sides, dark matchstick legs protruding from stained sheets, scant-toothed mouths open. Idle ceiling fans. Walls marked by patches of mold. The window beside me lets in hot, sticky air and sunlight that stabs the eyeballs. The nurse—a burly, glowering Muslim man named Gul—tells me I may die of hepatitis.
Fifty-five … fifty-six … fifty-seven …
I ask for my backpack. What backpack? Gul says with indifference. All my things are gone—my clothes, my cash, my books, my camera. That’s all the thief left you, Gul says in his rolling English, pointing to the windowsill beside me. It’s the picture. I pick it up. Thalia, her hair flapping in the breeze, the water bubbling with froth around her, her bare feet on the rocks, the leaping Aegean flung out before her. A lump rises to my throat. I don’t want to die here, among these strangers, so far away from her. I tuck the photo in the wedge between the glass and the window frame.
Sixty-six … sixty-seven … sixty-eight …
The boy in the bed next to mine has an old man’s face, haggard, sunken, carved. His lower belly is swollen with a tumor the size of a bowling ball. Whenever a nurse touches him there, his eyes squeeze shut and his mouth springs open in a silent, agonized wail. This morning, one of the nurses, not Gul, is trying to feed him pills, but the boy turns his head side to side, his throat making a sound like a scraping against wood. Finally, the nurse pries his mouth open, forces the pills inside. When he leaves, the boy rolls his head slowly toward me. We eye each other across the space between our beds. A small tear squeezes out and rolls down his cheek.
Seventy-five … seventy-six … seventy-seven …
The suffering, the despair in this place, is like a wave. It rolls out from every bed, smashes against the moldy walls, and swoops back toward you. You can drown in it. I sleep a lot. When I don’t, I itch. I take the pills they give me and the pills make me sleep again. Otherwise, I look down at the bustling street outside the dormitory, at the sunlight skidding over tent bazaars and back-alley tea shops. I watch the kids shooting marbles on sidewalks that melt into muddy gutters, the old women sitting in doorways, the street vendors in dhotis squatting on their mats, scraping coconuts, hawking marigold garlands. Someone lets out an earsplitting shriek from across the room. I doze off.
Eighty-three … eighty-four … eighty-five …
I learn that the boy’s name is Manaar. It means “guiding light.” His mother was a prostitute, his father a thief. He lived with his aunt and uncle, who beat him. No one knows exactly what is killing him, only that it is. No one visits him, and when he dies, a week from now—a month, two at the outside—no one will come to claim him. No one will grieve. No one will remember. He will die where he lived, in the cracks. When he sleeps, I find myself looking at him, at his cratered temples, the head that’s too big for his shoulders, the pigmented scar on his lower lip where, Gul informed me, his mother’s pimp had the habit of putting out his cigarette. I try speaking to him in English, then in the few Urdu words I know, but he only blinks tiredly. Sometimes I put my hands together and make shadow animals on the wall to win a smile from him.
Eighty-seven … eighty-eight … eighty-nine …
One day Manaar points to something outside my window. I follow his finger, raise my head, but I see nothing but the blue wisp of sky through the clouds, children below playing with water gushing from a street pump, a bus spewing exhaust. Then I realize he is pointing at the photo of Thalia. I pluck it from the window and hand it to him. He holds it close to his face, by the burnt corner, and stares at it for a long time. I wonder if it is the ocean that draws him. I wonder if he’s ever tasted salt water or got dizzy watching the tide pull away from his feet. Or perhaps, though he can’t see her face, he senses a kin in Thalia, someone who knows what pain feels like. He goes to hand the photo back to me. I shake my head. Hold on to it, I say. A shadow of mistrust crosses his face. I smile. And, I cannot be sure, but I think he smiles back.
Ninety-two … ninety-three … ninety-four …
I beat the hepatitis. Strange how I can’t tell if Gul is pleased or disappointed at my having proved him wrong. But I know I’ve caught him by surprise when I ask if I can stay on as a volunteer. He cocks his head, frowns. I end up having to talk to one of the head nurses.
Ninety-seven … ninety-eight … ninety-nine …
The shower room smells like urine and sulfur. Every morning I carry Manaar into it, holding his naked body in my arms, careful not to bounce him—I’d watched one of the volunteers carry him before over the shoulder as if he were a bag of rice. I gently lower him onto the bench and wait for him to catch his breath. I rinse his small, frail body with warm water. Manaar always sits quietly, patiently, palms on his knees, head hung low. He is like a fearful, bony old man. I run the soapy sponge over his rib cage, the knobs of his spine, over shoulder blades that jut out like shark fins. I carry him back to his bed, feed him his pills. It soothes him to have his feet and calves massaged, so I do that for him, taking my time. When he sleeps, it is always with the picture of Thalia half tucked under his pillow.
One hundred one … one hundred two …
I go for long, aimless walks around the city, if only to get away from the hospital, the collective breaths of the sick and dying. I walk in dusty sunsets through streets lined with graffiti-stained walls, past tin-shed stalls packed tightly against one another, crossing paths with little girls carrying basketfuls of raw dung on their head, women covered in black soot boiling rags in huge aluminum vats. I think a lot about Manaar as I meander down a cat’s cradle of narrow alleyways, Manaar waiting to die in that room full of broken figures like him. I think a lot about Thalia, sitting on the rock, looking out at the sea. I sense something deep inside me drawing me in, tugging at me like an undertow. I want to give in to it, be seized by it. I want to give up my bearings, slip out of who I am, shed everything, the way a snake discards old skin.
I am not saying Manaar changed everything. He didn’t. I stumble around the world for still another year before I finally find myself at a corner desk in an Athens library, looking down at a medical school application. In between Manaar and the application are the two weeks I spent in Damascus, of which I have virtually no memory other than the grinning faces of two women with heavily lined eyes and a gold tooth each. Or the three months in Cairo in the basement of a ramshackle tenement run by a hashish-addicted landlord. I spend Thalia’s money riding buses in Iceland, tagging along with a punk band in Munich. In 1977, I break an elbow at an antinuclear protest in Bilbao.
But in my quiet moments, in those long rides in the back of a bus or the bed of a truck, my mind always circles back to Manaar. Thinking of him, of the anguish of his final days, and my own helplessness in the face of it, makes everything I have done, everything I want to do, seem as unsubstantial as the little vows you make yourself as you’re going to sleep, the ones you’ve already forgotten by the time you wake up.
One hundred nineteen … one hundred twenty.
I drop the shutter.
One night at the end of that summer, I learned that Madaline was leaving for Athens and leaving Thalia with us, at least for a short while.
“Just for a few weeks,” she said.
We were having dinner, the four of us, a dish of white bean soup that Mam? and Madaline had prepared together. I glanced across the table at Thalia to see if I was the only one on whom Madaline had sprung the news. It appeared I was. Thalia was calmly feeding spoonfuls into her mouth, lifting her mask just a bit with each trip of the spoon. By then, her speech and eating didn’t bother me anymore, or at least no more than watching an old person eat through ill-fitting dentures, like Mam? would years later.
Madaline said she would send for Thalia after she had shot her film, which she said should wrap well before Christmas.
“Actually, I will bring you all to Athens,” she said, her face rinsed with the customary cheer. “And we will go to the opening together! Wouldn’t that be marvelous, Markos? The four of us, dressed up, waltzing into the theater in style?”
I said it would be, though I had trouble picturing Mam? in a fancy gown or waltzing into anything.
Madaline explained how it would work out just fine, how Thalia could resume her studies when school opened in a couple of weeks—at home, of course—with Mam?. She said she would send us postcards and letters, and pictures of the film set. She said more, but I didn’t hear much of it. What I was feeling was enormous relief and outright giddiness. My dread of the coming end of summer was like a knot in my belly, winding tighter with each passing day as I steeled myself against the approaching farewell. I woke every morning now eager to see Thalia at the breakfast table, to hear the bizarre sound of her voice. We barely ate before we were out climbing trees, chasing each other through the barley fields, plowing through the stalks and letting out war cries, lizards scattering away from our feet. We stashed make-believe treasures in caves, found spots on the island with the best and loudest echoes. We shot photos of windmills and dovecotes with our pinhole camera and took them to Mr. Roussos, who developed them for us. He even let us into his darkroom and taught us about different developers, fixers, and stop baths.
The night of Madaline’s announcement, she and Mam? shared a bottle of wine in the kitchen, Madaline doing most of the drinking, while Thalia and I were upstairs, playing a game of tavli. Thalia had the mana position and had already moved half her checkers onto her home board.
“She has a lover,” Thalia said, rolling the dice.
I jumped. “Who?”
“ ‘Who?’ he says. Who do you think?”
I had learned, over the course of the summer, to read Thalia’s expressions through her eyes, and she was looking at me now like I was standing on the beach asking where the water was. I tried to recover quickly. “I know who,” I said, my cheeks burning. “I mean, who’s the … you know …” I was a twelve-year-old boy. My vocabulary didn’t include words like lover.
“Can’t you guess? The director.”
“I was going to say that.”
“Elias. He’s something. He plasters his hair down like it’s the 1920s. He has a thin little mustache too. I guess he thinks it makes him look rakish. He’s ridiculous. He thinks he’s a great artist, of course. Mother does too. You should see her with him, all timid and submissive, like she needs to bow to him and pamper him because of his genius. I can’t understand how she doesn’t see it.”
“Is Aunt Madaline going to marry him?”
Thalia shrugged. “She has the worst taste in men. The worst.” She shook the dice in her hands, seemed to reconsider. “Except for Andreas, I suppose. He’s nice. Nice enough. But, of course, she’s leaving him. It’s always the bastards she falls for.”
“You mean, like your father?”
She frowned a little. “My father was a stranger she met on her way to Amsterdam. At a train station during a rainstorm. They spent one afternoon together. I have no idea who he is. And neither does she.”
“Oh. I remember she said something about her first husband. She said he drank. I just assumed …”
“Well, that would be Dorian,” Thalia said. “He was something too.” She moved another checker onto her home board. “He used to beat her. He could go from nice and pleasant to furious in a blink. Like the weather, how it can change suddenly? He was like that. He drank most of the day, didn’t do much but lie around the house. He got real forgetful when he drank. He’d leave the water running, for instance, and flood the house. I remember he forgot to turn off the stove once and almost burned everything down.”
She made a little tower with a stack of chips. Worked quietly for a while straightening it.
“The only thing Dorian really loved was Apollo. All the neighborhood kids were scared of him—of Apollo, I mean. And hardly any of them had even seen him; they’d only heard his bark. That was enough for them. Dorian kept him chained in the back of the yard. Fed him big slabs of lamb.”
Thalia didn’t tell me any more. I pictured it easily enough, though. Dorian passed out, the dog forgotten, roaming the yard unchained. An open screen door.
“How old were you?” I asked in a low voice.
Then I asked the question that had been on my mind since the beginning of summer. “Isn’t there something that … I mean, can’t they do—”
Thalia snagged her gaze away. “Please don’t ask,” she said heavily with what I sensed to be a deep ache. “It tires me out.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“I’ll tell you someday.”
And she did tell me, later. The botched surgery, the catastrophic post-op wound infection that turned septic, shut down her kidneys, threw her into liver failure, ate through the new surgical flap and forced the surgeons to slice off not only the flap but yet more of what remained of her left cheek and part of her jawbone as well. The complications had kept her in the hospital for nearly three months. She’d almost died, should have died. After that, she wouldn’t let them touch her again.
“Thalia,” I said, “I’m sorry too for what happened when we met.”
She tipped her eyes up at me. The old playful shine was back. “You should be sorry. But I knew even before you hurled all over the floor.”
“That you were an ass.”
Madaline left two days before school started. She wore a tight butter yellow sleeveless dress that clung to her slim frame, horn-rimmed sunglasses, and a firmly knotted white silk scarf to hold down her hair. She was dressed as though she worried parts of her might come loose—like she was, literally, holding herself together. At the ferry port in Tinos town, she embraced us all. She held Thalia the tightest, and the longest, her lips on the crown of Thalia’s head in an extended, unbroken kiss. She didn’t take off her sunglasses.
“Hug me back,” I heard her whisper.
Rigidly, Thalia obliged.
When the ferry groaned and lurched away, leaving behind a trail of churned-up water, I thought Madaline would stand at the stern and wave and blow us kisses. But she quickly moved toward the bow and took a seat. She didn’t look our way.
When we got home, Mam? told us to sit down. She stood before us and said, “Thalia, I want you to know that you don’t have to wear that thing in this house anymore. Not on my account. Nor his. Do it only if it suits you. I have no more to say about this business.”
It was then that, with sudden clarity, I understood what Mam? already had seen. That the mask had been for Madaline’s benefit. To save her embarrassment and shame.
For a long time Thalia didn’t make a move or say a word. Then, slowly, her hands rose, and she untied the bands at the back of her head. She lowered the mask. I looked at her directly in the face. I felt an involuntary urge to recoil, the way you would at a sudden loud noise. But I didn’t. I held my gaze. And I made it a point to not blink.
Mam? said she would homeschool me until Madaline came back so Thalia wouldn’t have to stay home by herself. She gave us our lessons in the evening, after dinner, and assigned us homework to do in the morning while she went off to school. It sounded workable, at least in theory.
But doing our studies, especially with Mam? away, proved nearly impossible. News of Thalia’s disfigurement had spread all over the island, and people kept knocking on the door, fueled by curiosity. You would have thought the island was suddenly running out of flour, garlic, even salt, and our house was the only place you could find it. They barely made an effort to disguise their intent. At the door, their eyes always flew over my shoulder. They craned their necks, stood on tiptoes. Most of them weren’t even neighbors. They’d walked miles for a cup of sugar. Of course I never let them in. It gave me some satisfaction to close the door on their faces. But I also felt gloomy, dispirited, aware that if I stayed my life would be too deeply touched by these people. I would, in the end, become one of them.
The kids were worse and far bolder. Every day I caught one prowling outside, climbing our wall. We would be working, and Thalia would tap my shoulder with her pencil, tip her chin, and I would turn to find a face, sometimes more than one, pressed to the window. It got so bad, we had to go upstairs and pull all the curtains. One day I opened the door to a boy I knew from school, Petros, and three of his friends. He offered me a handful of coins for a peek. I said no, where did he think he was, a circus?
In the end, I had to tell Mam?. A deep red flush marched up her face when she heard. She clenched her teeth.
The next morning she had our books and two sandwiches ready on the table. Thalia understood before I did and she curled up like a leaf. Her protests started when it came time to leave.
“Aunt Odie, no.”
“Give me your hand.”
“Go on. Give it to me.”
“I don’t want to go.”
“We’re going to be late.”
“Don’t make me, Aunt Odie.”
Mam? pulled Thalia up from the seat by the hands, leaned in, and fixed her with a gaze I knew well. Not a thing on this earth could deter her now. “Thalia,” she said, managing to sound both soft and firm, “I am not ashamed of you.”
We set out, the three of us—Mam?, with her lips pursed, pushing forth like she was plowing against a fierce wind, her feet working quick, mincing little steps. I imagined Mam? walking in this same determined manner to Madaline’s father’s house all those years ago, rifle in hand.
People gawked and gasped as we blew past them along the winding footpaths. They stopped to stare. Some of them pointed. I tried not to look. They were a blur of pale faces and open mouths in the corners of my vision.
In the school yard, children parted to let us pass. I heard some girl scream. Mam? rolled through them like a bowling ball through pins, all but dragging Thalia behind her. She shoved and pushed her way to the corner of the yard, where there was a bench. She climbed the bench, helped Thalia up, and then blew her whistle three times. A hush fell over the yard.
“This is Thalia Gianakos,” Mam? cried. “As of today …” She paused. “Whoever is crying, shut your mouth before I give you reason to. Now, as of today, Thalia is a student at this school. I expect all of you to treat her with decency and good manners. If I hear rumors of taunting, I will find you and I will make you sorry. You know I will. I have no more to say about this business.”
She climbed down from the bench and, holding Thalia’s hand, headed toward the classroom.
From that day forth, Thalia never again wore the mask, either in public or at home.
A couple of weeks before Christmas that year, we received a letter from Madaline. The shoot had run into unexpected delays. First, the director of photography—Madaline wrote DOP and Thalia had to explain it to me and Mam?—had fallen off a scaffold on the set and broken his arm in three places. Then the weather had complicated all the location shoots.
So we are in a bit of a “holding pattern,” as they say. It would not be an entirely bad thing, since it gives us time to work out some wrinkles in the script, if it did not also mean that we won’t be reunited as I had hoped. I am crushed, my darlings. I miss you all so dearly, especially you, Thalia, my love. I can only count the days until later this spring when this shoot has wrapped and we can be together again. I carry all three of you in my heart every minute of every day.
“She’s not coming back,” Thalia said flatly, handing the letter back to Mam?.
“Of course she is!” I said, dumbfounded. I turned to Mam?, waiting for her to say something, at least pipe a word of encouragement. But Mam? folded the letter, put it on the table, and quietly went to boil water for coffee. And I remember thinking how thoughtless it was of her to not comfort Thalia even if she agreed that Madaline wasn’t coming back. But I didn’t know—not yet—that they already understood each other, perhaps better than I did either of them. Mam? respected Thalia too much to coddle her. She would not insult Thalia with false assurances.
Spring came, in all of its flush green glory, and went. We received from Madaline one postcard and what felt like a hastily written letter, in which she informed us of more troubles on the set, this time having to do with financiers who were threatening to balk because of all the delays. In this letter, unlike the last, she did not set a time line as to when she would come back.
One warm afternoon early in the summer—that would be 1968—Thalia and I went to the beach with a girl named Dori. By then, Thalia had lived with us on Tinos for a year and her disfigurement no longer drew whispers and lingering stares. She was still, and always would be, girded by an orb of curiosity, but even that was waning. She had friends of her own now—Dori among them—who were no longer spooked by her appearance, friends with whom she ate lunch, gossiped, played after school, did her studies. She had become, improbably enough, almost ordinary, and I had to admit to a degree of admiration for the way the islanders had accepted her as one of their own.
That afternoon, the three of us had planned to swim, but the water was still too cold and we had ended up lying on the rocks, dozing off. When Thalia and I came home, we found Mam? in the kitchen, peeling carrots. Another letter sat unopened on the table.
“It’s from your stepfather,” Mam? said.
Thalia picked up the letter and went upstairs. It was a long time before she came down. She dropped the sheet of paper on the table, sat down, picked up a knife and a carrot.
“He wants me to come home.”
“I see,” Mam? said. I thought I heard the faintest flutter in her voice.
“Not home, exactly. He says he has contacted a private school in England. I could enroll in the fall. He’d pay for it, he said.”
“What about Aunt Madaline?” I asked.
“She’s gone. With Elias. They’ve eloped.”
“What about the film?”
Mam? and Thalia exchanged a glance and simultaneously tipped their gaze up toward me, and I saw what they knew all along.
One morning in 2002, more than thirty years later, around the time I am preparing to move from Athens to Kabul, I stumble upon Madaline’s obituary in the newspaper. Her last name is listed now as Kouris, but I recognize in the old woman’s face a familiar bright-eyed grin, and more than detritus of her youthful beauty. The small paragraph below says that she had briefly been an actress in her youth prior to founding her own theater company in the early 1980s. Her company had received critical praise for several productions, most notably for extended runs of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night in the mid-1990s, Chekhov’s The Seagull, and Dimitrios Mpogris’s Engagements. The obituary says she was well known among Athens’s artistic community for her charity work, her wit, her sense of style, her lavish parties, and her willingness to take chances on unheralded playwrights. The piece says she died after a lengthy battle with emphysema but makes no mention of a surviving spouse or children. I am further stunned to learn that she lived in Athens for more than two decades, at a house barely six blocks from my own place on Kolonaki.
I put down the paper. To my surprise, I feel a tinge of impatience with this dead woman I have not seen for over thirty years. A surge of resistance to this story of how she had turned out. I had always pictured her living a tumultuous, wayward life, hard years of bad luck—fits and starts, collapse, regret—and ill-advised, desperate love affairs. I had always imagined that she’d self-destructed, likely drank herself to the kind of early death that people always call tragic. Part of me had even credited her with the possibility that she had known this, that she had brought Thalia to Tinos to spare her, rescue her from the disasters Madaline knew she was helpless from visiting upon her daughter. But now I picture Madaline the way Mam? always must have: Madaline, the cartographer, sitting down, calmly drawing the map of her future and neatly excluding her burdensome daughter from its borders. And she’d succeeded spectacularly, at least according to this obituary and its clipped account of a mannered life, a life rich with achievement, grace, respect.
I find I cannot accept it. The success, the getting away with it. It is preposterous. Where was the toll, the exacting comeuppance?
And yet, as I fold the newspaper, a nagging doubt begins to set in. A faint intimation that I have judged Madaline harshly, that we weren’t even that different, she and I. Hadn’t we both yearned for escape, reinvention, new identities? Hadn’t we each, in the end, unmoored ourselves by cutting loose the anchors that weighed us down? I scoff at this, tell myself we are nothing alike, even as I sense that the anger I feel toward her may really be a mask for my envy over her succeeding at it all better than I had.
I toss the newspaper. If Thalia is going to find out, it won’t be from me.
Mam? pushed the carrot shavings off the table with a knife and collected them in a bowl. She loathed it when people wasted food. She would make a jar of marmalade with the shavings.
“Well, you have a big decision to make, Thalia,” she said.
Thalia surprised me by turning to me and saying, “What would you do, Markos?”
“Oh, I know what he would do,” Mam? said quickly.
“I would go,” I said, answering Thalia, looking at Mam?, taking satisfaction in playing the insurrectionist that Mam? thought I was. Of course I meant it too. I couldn’t believe Thalia would even hesitate. I would have leapt at the chance. A private education. In London.
“You should think about it,” Mam? said.
“I already have,” Thalia said hesitantly. Then, even more hesitant, as she raised her eyes to meet Mam?’s, “But I don’t want to assume.”
Mam? put down the knife. I heard a faint expulsion of breath. Had she been holding it? If so, her stoic face betrayed no sign of relief. “The answer is yes. Of course it’s yes.”
Thalia reached across the table and touched Mam?’s wrist. “Thank you, Aunt Odie.”
“I’ll only say this once,” I said. “I think this is a mistake. You’re both making a mistake.”
They turned to look at me.
“Do you want me to go, Markos?” Thalia said.
“Yes,” I said. “I’d miss you, a lot, and you know that. But you can’t pass up a private school education. You’d go to university afterward. You could become a researcher, a scientist, a professor, an inventor. Isn’t that what you want? You’re the smartest person I know. You could be anything you want.”
I broke off.
“No, Markos,” Thalia said heavily. “No I couldn’t.”
She said this with a thudding finality that sealed off all channels of rebuttal.
Many years later, when I began training as a plastic surgeon, I understood something that I had not that day in the kitchen arguing for Thalia to leave Tinos for the boarding school. I learned that the world didn’t see the inside of you, that it didn’t care a whit about the hopes and dreams, and sorrows, that lay masked by skin and bone. It was as simple, as absurd, and as cruel as that. My patients knew this. They saw that much of what they were, would be, or could be hinged on the symmetry of their bone structure, the space between their eyes, their chin length, the tip projection of their nose, whether they had an ideal nasofrontal angle or not.
Beauty is an enormous, unmerited gift given randomly, stupidly.
And so I chose my specialty to even out the odds for people like Thalia, to rectify, with each slice of my scalpel, an arbitrary injustice, to make a small stand against a world order I found disgraceful, one in which a dog bite could rob a little girl of her future, make her an outcast, an object of scorn.
At least this is what I tell myself. I suppose there were other reasons I chose plastic surgery. Money, for instance, prestige, social standing. To say I chose it solely because of Thalia is too simple—lovely as the idea may be—a bit too orderly and balanced. If I’ve learned anything in Kabul, it is that human behavior is messy and unpredictable and unconcerned with convenient symmetries. But I find comfort in it, in the idea of a pattern, of a narrative of my life taking shape, like a photograph in a darkroom, a story that slowly emerges and affirms the good I have always wanted to see in myself. It sustains me, this story.
I spent half of my practice in Athens, erasing wrinkles, lifting eyebrows, stretching jowls, reshaping misbegotten noses. I spent the other half doing what I really wanted to, which was to fly around the world—to Central America, to sub-Saharan Africa, to South Asia, and to the Far East—and work on children, repairing cleft lips and palates, removing facial tumors, repairing injuries to their faces. The work in Athens was not nearly as gratifying, but the pay was good, and it afforded me the luxury of taking weeks and months off at a time for my volunteer work.
Then, early in 2002, I took a phone call in my office from a woman I knew. Her name was Amra Ademovic. She was a nurse from Bosnia. She and I had met at a conference in London a few years back and had had a pleasant, weekend-long thing that we’d mutually kept inconsequential, though we had remained in touch and seen each other socially on occasion. She said she was working for a nonprofit in Kabul now and that they were searching for a plastic surgeon to work on children—cleft lips, facial injuries inflicted by shrapnel and bullets, that sort of thing. I agreed on the spot. I intended to stay for three months. I went late in the spring of 2002. I never came back.
Thalia picks me up from the ferry port. She has on a green wool scarf and a thick dull-rose-colored coat over a cardigan sweater and jeans. She wears her hair long these days, loose over the shoulders and parted in the center. Her hair is white, and it is this feature—not the mutilated lower face—that jars me and takes me aback when I see her. Not that it surprises me; Thalia started going gray in her mid-thirties and had cotton-white hair by the end of the following decade. I know I have changed too, the stubbornly growing paunch, the just-as-determined retreat of the hairline, but the decline of one’s own body is incremental, as nearly imperceptible as it is insidious. Seeing Thalia white-haired presents jolting evidence of her steady, inevitable march toward old age—and, by association, my own.
“You’re going to be cold,” she says, tightening the scarf around her neck. It’s January, late morning, the sky overcast and gray. A cool breeze makes the shriveled-up leaves clatter in the trees.
“You want cold, come to Kabul,” I say. I pick up my suitcase.
“Suit yourself, Doctor. Bus or walk? Your choice.”
“Let’s walk,” I say.
We head north. We pass through Tinos town. The sailboats and yachts moored in the inner harbor. The kiosks selling postcards and T-shirts. People sipping coffee at little round tables outside cafés, reading newspapers, playing chess. Waiters setting out silverware for lunch. Another hour or two and the smell of cooking fish will waft from kitchens.
Thalia launches energetically into a story about a new set of whitewashed bungalows that developers are building south of Tinos town, with views of Mykonos and the Aegean. Primarily, they will be filled by either tourists or the wealthy summer residents who have been coming to Tinos since the 1990s. She says the bungalows will have an outdoor pool and a fitness center.
She has been e-mailing me for years, chronicling for me these changes that are reshaping Tinos. The beachside hotels with the satellite dishes and dial-up access, the nightclubs and bars and taverns, the restaurants and shops that cater to tourists, the cabs, the buses, the crowds, the foreign women who lie topless at the beaches. The farmers ride pickup trucks now instead of donkeys—at least the farmers who stayed. Most of them left long ago, though some are coming back now to live out their retirement on the island.
“Odie is none too pleased,” Thalia says, meaning with the transformation. She has written me about this too—the older islanders’ suspicion of the newcomers and the changes they are importing.
“You don’t seem to mind the change,” I say.
“No point in griping about the inevitable,” she says. Then adds, “Odie says, ‘Well, it figures you’d say that, Thalia. You weren’t born here.’” She lets out a loud, hearty laugh. “You’d think after forty-four years on Tinos I would have earned the right. But there you have it.”
Thalia has changed too. Even with the winter coat on, I can tell she has thickened in the hips, become plumper—not soft plump, sturdy plump. There is a cordial defiance to her now, a slyly teasing way she has of commenting on things I do that I suspect she finds slightly foolish. The brightness in her eyes, this new hearty laugh, the perpetual flush of the cheeks—the overall impression is, a farmer’s wife. A salt-of-the-earth kind of woman whose robust friendliness hints at a bracing authority and hardness you might be unwise to question.
“How is business?” I ask. “Are you still working?”
“Here and there,” Thalia says. “You know the times.” We both shake our heads. In Kabul, I had followed news about the rounds of austerity measures. I had watched on CNN masked young Greeks stoning police outside the parliament, cops in riot gear firing tear gas, swinging their batons.
Thalia doesn’t run a business in the real sense. Before the digital age, she was essentially a handywoman. She went to people’s homes and soldered power transistors in their TVs, replaced signal capacitors in old tube-model radios. She was called in to fix faulty refrigerator thermostats, seal leaky plumbing. People paid her what they could. And if they couldn’t afford to pay, she did the work anyway. I don’t really need the money, she told me. I do it for the game of it. There’s still a thrill for me in opening things up and seeing how they work inside. These days, she is like a freelance one-woman IT department. Everything she knows is self-taught. She charges nominal fees to troubleshoot people’s PCs, change IP settings, fix their application-file freeze-ups, their slowdowns, their upgrade and boot-up failures. More than once I have called her from Kabul, desperate for help with my frozen IBM.
When we arrive at my mother’s house, we stand outside for a moment in the courtyard beside the old olive tree. I see evidence of Mam?’s recent frenzy of work—the repainted walls, the half-finished dovecote, a hammer and an open box of nails resting on a slab of wood.
“How is she?” I ask.
“Oh, thorny as ever. That’s why I had that thing installed.” She points to a satellite dish perched on the roof. “We watch foreign soaps. The Arabic ones are the best, or the worst, which comes down to the same thing. We try to figure out the plots. It keeps her claws off me.” She charges through the front door. “Welcome home. I’ll fix you something to eat.”
It’s strange being back in this house. I see a few unfamiliar things, like the gray leather armchair in the living room and a white wicker end table beside the TV. But everything else is more or less where it used to be. The kitchen table, now covered by a vinyl top with an alternating pattern of eggplants and pears; the straight-backed bamboo chairs; the old oil lamp with the wicker holder, the scalloped chimney stained black with smoke; the picture of me and Mam?—me in the white shirt, Mam? in her good dress—still hanging above the mantel in the living room; Mam?’s set of china still on the high shelf.
And yet, as I drop my suitcase, it feels as though there is a gaping hole in the middle of everything. The decades of my mother’s life here with Thalia, they are dark, vast spaces to me. I have been absent. Absent for all the meals Thalia and Mam? have shared at this table, the laughs, the quarrels, the stretches of boredom, the illnesses, the long string of simple rituals that make up a lifetime. Entering my childhood home is a little disorienting, like reading the end of a novel that I’d started, then abandoned, long ago.
“How about some eggs?” Thalia says, already donning a print bib apron, pouring oil in a skillet. She moves about the kitchen with command, in a proprietary way.
“Sure. Where is Mam??”
“Asleep. She had a rough night.”
“I’ll take a quick look.”
Thalia fishes a whisk from the drawer. “You wake her up, you’ll answer to me, Doctor.”
I tiptoe up the steps to the bedroom. The room is dark. A single long narrow slab of light shoots through the pulled curtains, slashes across Mam?’s bed. The air is heavy with sickness. It’s not quite a smell; rather, it’s like a physical presence. Every doctor knows this. Sickness permeates a room like steam. I stand at the entrance for a moment and allow my eyes to adjust. The darkness is broken by a rectangle of shifting colored light on the dresser on what I take to be Thalia’s side of the bed, my old side. It’s one of those digital picture frames. A field of rice paddies and wooden houses with gray-tiled roofs fade to a crowded bazaar with skinned goats hanging from hooks, then to a dark-skinned man squatting by a muddy river, finger-brushing his teeth.
I pull up a chair and sit at Mam?’s bedside. Looking at her now that my eyes have adjusted, I feel something in me drop. I am startled by how much my mother has shrunk. Already. The floral-print pajamas appear loose around her small shoulders, over the flattened chest. I don’t care for the way she is sleeping, with her mouth open and turned down, as though she is having a sour dream. I don’t like seeing that her dentures have slid out of place in her sleep. Her eyelids flutter slightly. I sit there awhile. I ask myself, What did you expect? and I listen to the clock ticking on the wall, the clanging of Thalia’s spatula against the frying pan from downstairs. I take inventory of the banal details of Mam?’s life in this room. The flat-screen TV fastened to the wall; the PC in the corner; the unfinished game of Sudoku on the nightstand, the page marked by a pair of reading glasses; the TV remote; the vial of artificial tears; a tube of steroid cream; a tube of denture glue; a small bottle of pills; and, on the floor, an oyster-colored pair of fuzzy slippers. She would have never worn those before. Beside the slippers, an open bag of pull-on diapers. I cannot reconcile these things with my mother. I resist them. They look to me like the belongings of a stranger. Someone indolent, harmless. Someone with whom you could never be angry.
Across the bed, the image on the digital picture frame shifts again. I track a few. Then it comes to me. I know these photos. I shot them. Back when I was … What? Walking the earth, I suppose. I’d always made sure to get double prints and mail one set to Thalia. And she’d kept them. All these years. Thalia. Affection seeps through me sweet as honey. She has been my true sister, my true Manaar, all along.
She calls my name from downstairs.
I get up quietly. As I leave the room, something catches my eye. Something framed, mounted on the wall beneath the clock. I can’t quite make it out in the dark. I open my cell phone and take a look in its silver glow. It’s an AP story about the nonprofit I work with in Kabul. I remember the interview. The journalist was a pleasant Korean-American fellow with a mild stutter. We had shared a plate of qabuli—Afghan pilaf, with brown rice, raisins, lamb. There is in the center of the story a group photo. Me, some of the children, Nabi in the back, standing rigidly, hands behind his back, looking simultaneously foreboding, shy, and dignified, as Afghans often manage to in pictures. Amra is there too with her adopted daughter, Roshi. All the children are smiling.
I flip the mobile closed and make my way downstairs.
Thalia puts before me a glass of milk and a steaming plate of eggs on a bed of tomatoes. “Don’t worry, I already sugared the milk.”
She takes a seat, not bothering to remove the apron. She rests her elbows on the table and watches me eat, dabbing now and then at her left cheek with a handkerchief.
I remember all the times I tried to convince her to let me work on her face. I told her that surgical techniques had come a long way since the 1960s, and that I was certain I could, if not fix, then at least significantly improve her disfigurement. Thalia refused, to enormous bewilderment on my part. This is who I am, she said to me. An insipid, unsatisfactory answer, I thought at the time. What did that even mean? I didn’t understand it. I had uncharitable thoughts of prison inmates, lifers, afraid to get out, terrified of being paroled, terrified of change, terrified of facing a new life outside barbed wire and guard towers.
My offer to Thalia still stands to this day. I know she won’t take it. But I understand now. Because she was right—this is who she is. I cannot pretend to know what it must have been like to gaze at that face in the mirror each day, to take stock of its ghastly ruin, and to summon the will to accept it. The mountainous strain of it, the effort, the patience. Her acceptance taking shape slowly, over years, like rocks of a beachside cliff sculpted by the pounding tides. It took the dog minutes to give Thalia her face, and a lifetime for her to mold it into an identity. She would not let me undo it all with my scalpel. It would be like inflicting a fresh wound over the old one.
I dig into the eggs, knowing it will please her, even though I am not really hungry. “This is good, Thalia.”
“So, are you excited?”
“What do you mean?”
She reaches behind her and pulls open a kitchen-counter drawer. She retrieves a pair of sunglasses with rectangular lenses. It takes me a moment. Then I remember. The eclipse.
“Ah, of course.”
“At first,” she says, “I thought we’d just watch it through a pinhole. But then Odie said you were coming. And I said, ‘Well, then, let’s do it in style.’ ”
We talk a bit about the eclipse that is supposed to happen the next day. Thalia says it will start in the morning and be complete by noon or so. She has been checking the weather updates and is relieved that the island is not due for a cloudy day. She asks if I want more eggs and I say yes, and she tells me about a new Internet café that has gone up where Mr. Roussos’s old pawnshop used to sit.
“I saw the pictures,” I say. “Upstairs. The article too.”
She wipes my bread crumbs off the table with her palm, tosses them over her shoulder into the kitchen sink without looking. “Ah, that was easy. Well, scanning and uploading them was. The hard part was organizing them into countries. I had to sit and figure it out because you never sent notes, just the pictures. She was very specific about that, the having it organized into countries. She had to have it that way. She insisted on it.”
She issues a sigh. “ ‘Who?’ he says. Odie. Who else?”
“That was her idea?”
“The article too. She was the one who found it on the web.”
“Mam? looked me up?” I say.
“I should have never taught her. Now she won’t stop.” She gives a chuckle. “She checks on you every day. It’s true. You have yourself a cyberspace stalker, Markos Varvaris.”
Mam? comes downstairs early in the afternoon. She is wearing a dark blue bathrobe and the fuzzy slippers that I have already come to loathe. It looks like she has brushed her hair. I am relieved to see that she appears to be moving normally as she walks down the steps, as she opens her arms to me, smiling sleepily.
We sit at the table for coffee.
“Where is Thalia?” she asks, blowing into her cup.
“Out to get some treats. For tomorrow. Is that yours, Mam??” I point to a cane leaning against the wall behind the new armchair. I hadn’t noticed it when I had first come in.
“Oh, I hardly use it. Just on bad days. And for long walks. Even then, mostly for peace of mind,” she says too dismissively, which is how I know she relies on it far more than she lets on. “It’s you I worry for. The news from that awful country. Thalia doesn’t want me listening to it. She says it will agitate me.”
“We do have our incidents,” I say, “but mostly it’s just people going about their lives. And I’m always careful, Mam?.” Of course I neglect to tell her about the shooting at the guesthouse across the street or the recent surge in attacks on foreign-aid workers, or that by careful I mean I have taken to carrying a 9mm when I am out driving around the city, which I probably shouldn’t be doing in the first place.
Mam? takes a sip of coffee, winces a bit. She doesn’t push me. I am not sure whether this is a good thing. Not sure whether she has drifted off, descended into herself as old people do, or whether it is a tactic to not corner me into lying or disclosing things that would only upset her.
“We missed you at Christmas,” she says.
“I couldn’t get away, Mam?.”
She nods. “You’re here now. That’s what matters.”
I take a sip of my coffee. I remember when I was little Mam? and me eating breakfast at this table every morning, quietly, almost solemnly, before we walked to school together. We said so little to each other.
“You know, Mam?, I worry for you too.”
“No need to. I take care of myself all right.” A flash of the old defiant pride, like a dim glint in the fog.
“But for how long?”
“As long as I can.”
“And when you can’t, then what?” I am not challenging her. I ask because I don’t know. I don’t know what my own role will be or whether I will even play one.
She levels her gaze at me evenly. Then she adds a teaspoon of sugar to her cup, slowly stirs it in. “It’s a funny thing, Markos, but people mostly have it backward. They think they live by what they want. But really what guides them is what they’re afraid of. What they don’t want.”
“I don’t follow, Mam?.”
“Well, take you, for instance. Leaving here. The life you’ve made for yourself. You were afraid of being confined here. With me. You were afraid I would hold you back. Or, take Thalia. She stayed because she didn’t want to be stared at anymore.”
I watch her taste her coffee, pour in another spoonful of sugar. I remember how out of my depth I’d always felt as a boy trying to argue with her. She spoke in a way that left no room for retort, steamrolling over me with the truth, told right at the outset, plainly, directly. I was always defeated before I’d so much as said a word. It always seemed unfair.
“What about you, Mam??” I ask. “What are you scared of? What don’t you want?”
“To be a burden.”
“You won’t be.”
“Oh, you’re right about that, Markos.”
Disquiet spreads through me at this cryptic remark. My mind flashes to the letter Nabi had given me in Kabul, his posthumous confession. The pact Suleiman Wahdati had made with him. I can’t help but wonder if Mam? has forged a similar pact with Thalia, if she has chosen Thalia to rescue her when the time comes. I know Thalia could do it. She is strong now. She would save Mam?.
Mam? is studying my face. “You have your life and your work, Markos,” she says, more softly now, redirecting the course of the conversation, as if she has peeked into my mind, spotted my worry. The dentures, the diapers, the fuzzy slippers—they have made me underestimate her. She still has the upper hand. She always will. “I don’t want to weigh you down.”
At last, a lie—this last thing she says—but it’s a kind lie. It isn’t me she would weigh down. She knows this as well as I do. I am absent, thousands of miles away. The unpleasantness, the work, the drudgery, it would fall on Thalia. But Mam? is including me, granting me something I have not earned, nor tried to.
“It wouldn’t be like that,” I say weakly.
Mam? smiles. “Speaking of your work, I guess you know that I didn’t exactly approve when you decided to go to that country.”
“I had my suspicions, yes.”
“I didn’t understand why you would go. Why would you give everything up—the practice, the money, the house in Athens—all you’d worked for—and hole up in that violent place?”
“I had my reasons.”
“I know.” She raises the cup to her lips, lowers it without sipping. “I’m no damn good at this,” she says slowly, almost shyly, “but what I’m getting around to telling you is, you’ve turned out good. You’ve made me proud, Markos.”
I look down at my hands. I feel her words landing deep within me. She has startled me. Caught me unprepared. For what she said. Or for the soft light in her eyes when she said it. I am at a loss as to what I am expected to say in response.
“Thank you, Mam?,” I manage to mutter.
I can’t say any more, and we sit quietly for a while, the air between us thick with awkwardness and our awareness of all the time lost, the opportunities frittered away.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you something,” Mam? says.
“What is it?”
“James Parkinson. George Huntington. Robert Graves. John Down. Now this Lou Gehrig fellow of mine. How did men come to monopolize disease names too?”
I blink and my mother blinks back, and then she is laughing and so am I. Even as I crumple inside.
The next morning, we lie outside on lounge chairs. Mam? wears a thick scarf and a gray parka, her legs warmed against the sharp chill by a fleece blanket. We sip coffee and nibble on bits of the cinnamon-flavored baked quince Thalia has bought for the occasion. We are wearing our eclipse glasses, looking up at the sky. The sun has a small bite taken from its northern rim, looking somewhat like the logo on the Apple laptop Thalia periodically opens to post remarks on an online forum. Up and down the street, people have settled on the sidewalks and rooftops to watch the spectacle. Some have taken their families to the other end of the island, where the Hellenic Astronomical Society has set up telescopes.
“What time is it supposed to peak?” I ask.
“Close to ten-thirty,” Thalia says. She lifts her glasses, checks her watch. “Another hour or so.” She rubs her hands with excitement, taps something on the keyboard.
I watch the two of them, Mam? with her dark glasses, blue-veined hands laced on her chest, Thalia furiously pounding the keys, white hair spilling from under her beanie cap.
You’ve turned out good.
I lay on the couch the night before, thinking about what Mam? had said, and my thoughts had wandered to Madaline. I remembered how, as a boy, I would stew over all the things Mam? wouldn’t do, things other mothers did. Hold my hand when we walked. Sit me up on her lap, read bedtime stories, kiss my face good night. Those things were true enough. But, all those years, I’d been blind to a greater truth, which lay unacknowledged and unappreciated, buried deep beneath my grievances. It was this: that my mother would never leave me. This was her gift to me, the ironclad knowledge that she would never do to me what Madaline had done to Thalia. She was my mother and she would not leave me. This I had simply accepted and expected. I had no more thanked her for it than I did the sun for shining on me.
“Look!” Thalia exclaims.
Suddenly, all around us—on the ground, on the walls, on our clothing—little shining sickles of light have materialized, the crescent-shaped sun beaming through the leaves of our olive tree. I find a crescent shimmering on the coffee inside my mug, another dancing on my shoelaces.
“Show me your hands, Odie,” Thalia says. “Quick!”
Mam? opens her hands, palms up. Thalia fetches from her pocket a square of cut glass. She holds it over Mam?’s hands. Suddenly, little crescent rainbows quiver on the wrinkled skin of my mother’s hands. She gasps.
“Look at that, Markos!” Mam? says, grinning unabashedly with delight like a schoolgirl. I have never before seen her smile this purely, this guilelessly.
We sit, the three of us, watching the trembling little rainbows on my mother’s hands, and I feel sadness and an old ache, each like a claw at my throat.
You’ve turned out good.
You’ve made me proud, Markos.
I am fifty-five years old. I have waited all my life to hear those words. Is it too late now for this? For us? Have we squandered too much for too long, Mam? and I? Part of me thinks it is better to go on as we have, to act as though we don’t know how ill suited we have been for each other. Less painful that way. Perhaps better than this belated offering. This fragile, trembling little glimpse of how it could have been between us. All it will beget is regret, I tell myself, and what good is regret? It brings back nothing. What we have lost is irretrievable.
And yet when my mother says, “Isn’t it beautiful, Markos?” I say to her, “It is, Mam?. It is beautiful,” and as something begins to break wide open inside me I reach over and take my mother’s hand in mine.
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