We are not told anywhere, are we, that winters in the Garden of Eden were not cold? The olive and the lemon ripen in winter and it could not be Paradise without them. Lemon and olive, sour and bitter, my mother would say: they suit you, Manya. Mama misjudges me.
I think as winter comes, why huddle here in three warm rooms? Why not go to Athens, say, and see Aunt Sophia? My dear old Aunt Sophia. Walk up to the Acropolis again. Order coffee and sit and watch the hollow city brim with a violet glow, and then lights and stars shine out. Sit on the cold stones of the theatre, high above its golden statuary, where I saw Euripides performed, Aeschylus. Or even go to Crete. It’s sunny there. But I feel anxious away from here now.
Three years ago I went away. Mama and I went to the village in Macedonia when her sister Vasso died. As always when the ferry casts off in the crescent harbour of Mytilene I felt lost, speechless with dread. The Thessaloniki ferry passes between Turkey and Molyvo in the strait. I see Molyvo in the distance, its blue citadel. I never rest—those weeks in the frozen village, my God!—until we pass it again. So I might stay and see my olives through the press instead.
Aunt Vasso’s own sons hadn’t come down from Germany. Uncle Manoli, a dour man at any time, hardly spoke. After the funeral we were snowbound for silent weeks. I remember the full cheesecloths hung high on black branches of the grapevine over his front door, their icicles of whey pointed down like teats. A wolf off the mountains howled at night. We cooked what we found: macaroni, rice, icy potatoes and onions, eggs, my aunt’s tomato paste and preserved pig from a crock deep in snow on the window sill. There was milk. We made cheese day by day and stored it in its crock in brine, weighed down with flat river stones. At night—from three o’clock, I remember, it was night—Mama and I huddled by the sooty somba roaring with apple wood until we succumbed in the stuffy dim yellow room to stupor and sleep. My uncle kept a horse and goats in the barn. An Arctic winter of darkness they lived through, shivering and crusted with excrement. He came home to milk the goats—we boiled the milk—and then sat in the kafeneion, glowing with ouzo, silent. The river froze. I had been there before, but in summer. Thank God I need never go again.
I keep busy all day in the garden, and at night I read. I paint a little and my work sells in town. It is not dull, just peaceful, in Paradise. And our green Lesbos is not like other islands. Lesbos was rich in art and poetry when Athens was a village and Thessaloniki still under the sea. They are as natural to Lesbos as her olive trees are, and we who love them are not thought eccentric here.
Still, I am thought eccentric. I am over forty and have never married. Mama has stopped her wailing over me and her tireless matchmaking. No man would have me now. Even Mitso the Idiot, who tried to rape me at a wedding once, would scowl and snarl at the thought now. As a girl I had no money, only beauty. That has gone. My dowry was my olive trees and the garden. Lemon trees grow here, pear and quince and apricot, peach and almond. We have red hens and a vegetable patch. This little house too would have become mine on my marriage, though my mother was left nothing else, as that is the custom here. Then my daughter’s in her turn. I think Mama would be upset if I did marry. Not because of the house—she would stay here, of course—but because we make a good couple, she and I, whatever she says. We get on.
The first few times we saw Louka and my cousin Dimitra in company Mama worried, sighed, watched to see how I was taking it. I have never told her the whole story. She guesses that, perhaps. Perhaps she even forgets now that I was engaged to Louka. She forgets my daughter. She fusses over them when they visit. She spoils their boys with sweets. It gives me no pleasure to see Louka. No pain either.
I was twenty when Louka came back from his army service to work in his father’s restaurant in Molyvo. I was staying with my cousins there—Dimitra was still a schoolgirl—in their stone house at the base of the Genoese fortress, the citadel on the hilltop. In the whitewashed sun of the chapel next door striped cats lay sleeping. We could see from three windows the stone arm of the port curled round its fishing boats.
Louka had always flirted. Now he came to the house so often, and singled me out so persistently and so respectfully, that we knew he was serious. His mother called on my aunt to discuss the match. My cousins were thrilled. My aunt asked me what I thought. Yes, I said. The priest in his gold brocade came. We exchanged rings and were engaged.
It’s hard to believe now what a passion I had for Louka.
He was beautiful, though, I remember, his hair so heavy and black when he let it grow, and his athlete’s body dark brown and golden. After the rush in the restaurant he would sit with the tourists joking in scraps of their languages and put on music to teach them to dance the sirto, the tsamiko. The zeimbekiko he danced by himself, his head sunk between his shoulders like a sated tomcat. He glanced at the women. Enthralled with Louka, they all clapped in time. There was ouzo, but most drank wine, yellow retsina from the barrel with its faint rankness of urine, of salt: as if the men treading it, unwilling to stop, let urine and sweat slip down their thighs into the must . . .
On still nights I could hear the bouzoukia. I lay awake. When the music stopped, the restaurant was closed, Louka could come and whisper at my shutters. Shutters in Molyvo are solid, not slatted. I was a good girl, and shy. I wouldn’t open them. ‘Den m’agapas?’ he would growl, his voice thick.
‘You know I love you.’
‘Then let me see you.’
‘I mustn’t. I can’t.’
‘Come on, Manya, open the shutters, I just want to see you, just for a moment. Manyai’
‘No. Go home, please. Louka, please. They’ll hear.’
Some of those nights—or mornings, by then—he must have had Valerie with him.
She was not a typical tourist. Not one of the Europeans who descend in hordes to loll on the pebble beach oiling their bones or hire donkeys to ride giggling across the headland to bathe naked at the sandy beach and the hot spring. She was staying with some Australians who lived all the year round in Molyvo. But she looked like them. She smoked and drank and slept with men. She was tall and brown with lank yellow hair and a cat’s pale eyes. Her nose and shoulders were thin, red under the freckles. What would a man like Louka want with her? So when friends warned me, I scoffed. Laughing, I accused Louka, but in fun. He tried to laugh.
‘Don’t look so guilty,’ I teased.
Shifting and shuffling, he lit another cigarette and pleaded not guilty. I said I would call witnesses. I laughed as I scored this point but Louka leapt up.
‘All right then’, he said. ‘So it’s true. So what?’
He was obviously telling the truth. Of course he was very young at the time.
‘You’re in love with her?’
‘Valerie? Don’t be stupid.’
‘Look.’ He would not look. He breathed smoke in and coughed. ‘I’m in love with you. You know I am. These others, they’re whores.’ These? How many? ‘They won’t leave you alone. I’m only flesh and blood, Manya, for God’s sake!’
‘But, if you loved me, you couldn’t —’
‘Don’t be such a baby!’ He thrust his face close. To kiss me, I thought, and drew back. But no, it was twisted with feelings I could not read, of hatred, of desperation.
‘Afti me gamaei.’ She—makes love to me (so to speak). He bared his teeth to say it. Then he walked out.
I found Valerie sipping her morning coffee alone by the balustrade of a kafeneion, her eyes half-closed against the dazzle of the strait. She had no idea who I was. I sat at her table. ‘Manya’, I said, pointing at myself.
‘Ego Valerie’, she smiled.
‘Louka’, I said, showing my gold ring and not smiling. She frowned. Her nose had peeled and her brows and lashes were white like cat’s whiskers. She had a pocket dictionary. She looked in it and asked in broken Greek if I was Louka’s wife. Not yet, I said, we were engaged, and found the word for her. She looked wise.
‘Hmmm. To paliopaido‘, she grinned. The bad boy. She shivered and picked up her towel. ‘Thalassa, Manya?’ she said. ‘Ela, pame?‘ She really thought I’d go to the beach with her. She shrugged, grinned and flapped away down the steps. I was too amazed at the cheek of her to smack her face. I had expected to.
Louka, grown fat and bald, deceives Dimitra with tourists in summer—more deftly now, I hope— and with other men’s wives in winter. Everyone knows. She will never leave him, though, nor he her. There are children, two boys: the elder a solemn bookworm, the younger a darling, a sparkling boy, and the children I do envy Dimitra. Nothing else. Sour grapes. Mama would say. No. Dimitra, each time she catches Louka out, attacks the woman. I, with my small experience, had more sense. She sobs and shrieks. She spat at one in the restaurant, pulled another one’s hair. Louka takes her home and humbly swears that she’s his one true love. He’s lucky he married Dimitra.
At the theatre once I saw Agamemnon. He had led grown men to the slaughter for another man’s whore and for gold. So he was returning a hero to Clytemnestra, with his slave girl in tow. I have often dreamt since of her net and axe in the stone bath and Agamemnon quietly like a great fish pumping his blood through the water. She had a right to do it. He deserved death. Never for infidelity; she was unfaithful too. Death for their daughter’s death. He led her into the trap at Aulis. I would strike the blow too, in Clytemnestra’s place.
But not in Medea’s. One summer night at a stone theatre cut into a hill among pines, the sky clear, the sea like milk, Medea writhed and growled for us and stabbed her little boys. For this she was raised in a God’s gilt chariot and sat, the moon rising behind her, and gloated. Dimitra was there. It’s whispered in the family that she holds this threat over Louka’s head, should he dare to leave her . . .
When my Sophoula died Louka, I suspect, was relieved. He had never seen her. ‘Who says I’m its father, anyway?’ I’m told that he said. I prayed for Louka’s death. I screamed to God for justice, of all things. I was mad for some time. I’m sane now and no longer pray or believe. I keep the fasts. I go to church with Mama. I eat the bread sopped in wine from the priest’s chalice. God doesn’t lift a finger.
Lesbos is close to Turkey. I have seen from the ferry people walking in the streets of Baba in Turkey as we passed between Baba and Molyvo in the strait. Our barracks and theirs are crowded with troops. The beaches arc mined. We live in dread of another war. They do too. They love children, as we do. I believe that there is one thing that might save the world from destruction; our love of children. This is stronger than hate, or nothing is. This hope, or no hope.
Louka, when I next saw him after our quarrel, was at his most easy and charming, full of anecdotes about life in the army that convulsed my aunt and cousins. I was on edge, I remember. I had come to my decision. After the preserves and the coffee I stood and announced that Louka and I had arranged to meet friends at the restaurant. He looked stunned. Outside he asked me where we were going. ‘Don’t ask me yet’, I said. It was a sultry afternoon, the whole town sleeping. I led him to the gullies past the olive grove where couples went. We lay on the dry grass.
‘Now look. Manya, darling —’
‘Take me’, I said quickly. ‘Make me yours.’
‘Do you mean it?’
‘Yes. I want you. Take me now.’
He put his arms round me.
‘Manya, not here. Not now.’
‘Why not?’ I cried despairingly. ‘What’s wrong with you?’
I didn’t mean it the way he took it.
He pulled his shirt off, only his shirt. In the heat his body was rank and shone like varnished wood. The hair had stuck in curls round his dark nipples. He grasped me. Our teeth clashed and I shut my eyes. Tugging under my skirt, he lay on me and forced in hard and split my legs open. The pain, my God! I clung as he thudded on me. When he rolled away there was a sucking noise. He found a drop of blood and flicked it off.
‘Louka?’ I was close to tears.
‘I hurt you. I’m sorry.’
‘It’s all right. I love you.’ S’agapo. S’agapo.
Sighing, he lit a cigarette. Then abruptly he was on his feet. ‘Cover yourself, he hissed, and four boys, local children I think, burst on us there. They exploded into joyful whinnies and ran jostling and prodding to the beach.
‘Gamo to‘, Louka swore.
That was the first and the last time in my life, let the gossips say what they like. It was two whole days after it before I saw Louka. I spent them in bed pretending to be ill, but really ill, in a torment of shame and bewilderment. There was no one I could tell it to.
When he came at dawn and whispered at my window I—well, wasn’t I his now?—I flung open the shutters. Appalled, Louka gazed up, swaying on the blue cobbles, Valerie clutched to him with one arm. She struggled free when she saw me, hissed furious words at him and clattered down the steps. I slammed the shutters. For a while Louka pleaded—those hoarse endearments of his—as if nothing had happened. Finally he stumbled away.
I didn’t see Louka again for years. I left Molyvo abruptly to come home here. I went for long walks alone and brooded. A broken engagement was shame enough to account for my misery, and Mama didn’t pry. By autumn I knew I had to tell her. She wanted to hide me away with relatives— ‘For your sake, Manya’—but I couldn’t have borne to leave here.
I saw Valerie again that winter (winter, but the morning heat was heavy, very still and dusty, more like summer) at an umbrella-shaded table on the water-front, reading. Drops of sweat glazed her red nose, her forehead and the sun-bleached hairs of her upper lip. She looked up.
‘Hey! Hey, Manya!’
I swung away, but she ran up behind me.
‘Manya! Tha piies kafe, kale?‘
Why not? I would have coffee. Her Greek sounded better. I nodded my ironic approval and she grinned, leading me back. The coffee ordered, we were silent, facing a sea that heaved and glittered at us. We made laborious small talk, what little we could. When the coffees and iced water came, she flicked through the little dictionary she still had and asked when the wedding was to be. ‘Wedding?’ I was as red as she was. Did she think me such a fool?
‘Louka s’agapo’, she said. Louka I love you? She saw my face and tried again, pointing at me. ‘Louka s’agapo Manya.’ She meant that Louka loved me.
‘Agapaei‘, I corrected. ‘Yes? How nice.’
The coffee was strong and sweet and I drank the whole glass of water. In that thick sunlight her brown legs glistened with white hairs. Many Greek women are as brown as Valerie—I am white all over like cream cheese—but our body hair is dark. Some try to be rid of it; I never have. Those white-furred legs of hers Louka had opened. Did he still? I wondered, but only dully. I was weary.
‘Manya agapaei Louka?’ she was persisting. I showed her my hand with its gold ring gone. ‘Ah’, and she gazed with real regret. The Athens ferry had docked further along the quay and crowds with bags and boxes were hurrying there. She tipped small change on the table, picked up her bags— on one, I remember, swimming flippers flapped like an upturned seal—and jumped up.
‘Manya, I must go, forgive me.’ We say that when we go: she meant nothing more by it. ‘Addio.‘ Kissing me on both cheeks, wishing me luck. I felt too dazed and ill to speak. She looked back once in the surge of people to wave. I thought she gaped: perhaps she had just seen my swollen belly.
I had my baby in Athens and would not give her up. Aunt Sophia, our old Communist warhorse, was godmother and gave her own name when my mother refused. When I was well enough I brought Sophoula back here. For the evening volta, when families parade, I wheeled her along the quay in front of everyone. I suckled her a whole year. She walked at the age of one and swam at two. Before she had all her baby teeth she died of leukemia. I never saw a child to match Sophoula. Dying, she said ‘Mama, where are you?’ I was there holding her. I have worn black since that day.
It was God’s judgment on my sin, people nodded. So may their sins be judged.
In this room my child and I slept: here I laid her out and waited with her for her burial. I often sit, as I sat then, at the south window and watch the sun, the moon, then the sun again. Having lived here all my life, I need its smell of paint, its floor of striped rugs, its dark points where at night the lamp will lay a gold hand on a cracked water jug, three red stripes, a window sill.
Here in this room I painted Sophoula naked in her coffin, among pears and apples and grapes, a bunch of blue grapes in her hand. I drew in every detail of her: the ringed nipples, each crease and nail of her fingers and toes, the lips folded between her legs, her curled ears, her eyebrows with the mole under the left one. Had I been roasting the body on a spit my mother’s horror could hardly have been greater, although, afraid of her mad daughter, she let me have my way.
‘The pears are rotting’, was all she said. So they were, even before Sophoula was. ‘Let the poor child have flowers.’
‘It’s not flowers that matter’, I seem to recall saying. ‘It’s the fruit that matters—’
‘Is this what you will do to me as well?’
‘—and death is the seed inside it!’
‘What will become of us, Manya?’ And she refused to sit up with me. I left her to receive the few mourners who came. My mother loves her visitors. I let no one in to see the child: my mother placated them. I sat alone with the candles and kept watch as Sophoula stiffened and then was limp again and her face changed. At first I talked to her. Then I brushed and plaited her hair. In daylight I painted her as she had become. Then I dressed and covered her for the last time.
I have nearly all the paintings that I did when I was mad: all interiors with figures, as these were. Mostly they were self-portraits, mostly nude. The rooms in them are full of the whiteness that snow reflects, or moonlight; and so are the bodies. I have never shown or sold these. I can only look at them myself from time to time. I know they are here against the wall, as the dead are in the earth. I know without looking.
I still paint myself nude. I have one on the easel now. It shows the blue branchings of my veins, the shadow of bones within, the slackness of my throat and breasts and swinging thighs—all my white meat run to fat, its tufts and wrinkles and moles. It shows everything. Still, it lacks what those had. My best work is in landscapes these days: watercolours done in precise detail. The parapets, yellow and violet-grey, of the fortress. Hills and their trees. The leaning figures in black of old women who mind goats. Children with shaved heads of brown and black velvet. Birds and insects and snakes. Old men lapped in shadow at the tables of kafeneia, sea light wandering on them as they drowse, these long afternoons.
Dimitra came to see me before she married Louka. I was fond of her when she was little, though I had not seen her since. I would never have tolerated such questions otherwise.
‘I know you were engaged to Louka once. My mother —’
‘What would your mother know?’
‘I don’t know.’ She had trouble finding words. ‘She doesn’t know I’m here. She won’t talk about you.’
‘I’ve always thought of you as my big sister, Manya.’
‘Have you? Why? We never see each other.’
‘I always have. I wanted to be like you. Were you—in love with Louka?’ Her jaw was trembling. ‘Did he—why did you go away?’
‘Pride. Ask my mother.’
‘It’s just that I—am I making a mistake? Should I really marry him?’ At this point she hid her face in my shoulder. She was warm to hold. I stroked her plait of hair.
‘Well, but you love him, don’t you? You want to.’
‘But will we be happy?’
‘Sometimes. Why not?’ She gazed with wet eyes. ‘1 hope you will’, I said. This was my pride speaking. ‘Look’, I said then, and turned one of the nude self-portraits that I never show around to show her. ‘What do you think?’
‘It’s beautiful.’ She blushed and looked away. ‘But you should have asked me first.’
‘It’s not you, Dimitroula.’ She looked amazed. In fact it was exactly like her but for the eyes. Hers were, and are, like brown glass; mine, like green. ‘Look at the eyes,’ I said.
‘Yes. But, Manya, even so—’ She was white now.
‘I did it years ago. How strange life is! If I painted the eyes brown I could give this to you. As an engagement present.’
‘No.’ She shuddered. ‘Oh, don’t. No.’
At a friend’s wedding once, when Louka and Dimitra were showing off their first baby, Louka clinked his glass on mine, leaned over and wondered in a hoarse whisper how I had stayed so beautiful. He said I was his one true love. He was, as usual, drunk. ‘Darling,’ he mumbled. ‘Do you still love me a little?’
‘To our child’, I said, and clinked his glass with mine, smiling even more sweetly. ‘She should have been ten this year.’
He went back to his seat next to Dimitra.
Our garden is a few kilometres out along the flat coast on a lagoon full of seaweed and sandbanks. I hardly ever leave it now except to shop in Mytilene once a week. I love the crammed old shops that smell of roasting coffee, anchovies and cumin and olive oil. Skeins of late grapes glow there, withering, fermenting. At a waterfront table I sip my coffee, knee-deep in shopping bags. At twilight the harbour water is still. Darkness frills the images of boats at anchor and of sharp-winged gulls. Boys lolling on the edge fish among lights and stars.
I visit my old art teacher shivering in her frayed villa, its tiles all tufts and nests, its windows cracked by a giant magnolia that is her pride. Excrement from empty swallows’ nests trails down her walls inside and out. She is sitting for me. Children jeer at her gate and scramble to safety. ‘Mad old Maria’, they shrill. Her eyes water. She turns off the table lamp to hide the tears. Maria is my name, of course; Manya, Maria. Is this how I will end, I wonder? A palsied crone mocked by children—I, who love children?
My mother fears arthritis and angina. She fears death. Last year the village secretary wrote that they had found Uncle Manoli, her sister’s widower, dead in the snow one morning. Mama was full of such grief, so many tears! ‘Well, you have a hard heart, Manya’, she said. ‘You won’t even shed tears for me.’ But what was old Manoli to Mama? No. It was just—Death.
Our life is calm. My companion, apart from Mama, is a cat patterned in black and white like a penguin. He lies breathing on a velvet sofa with his pink paws in the air. He is a shining seal; an owl when his black eyes shrink to gold plate with one black split from top to bottom and his blink is stern; a fanged snake when he yawns. He is everything in one, but his name is Fidaki, Little Snake. As a girl I once tried, from a sense of duty, to kill a snake I found writhing on my path. I threw rocks and silently the snake dodged, jerking and scraping, its gold eyes wild. All my rocks missed. Ashamed, I stood back and let it slide into a field of maize, its tongue touching ahead of it bronze clods of clay.
Maybe snakes hunt in our own garden, but if so I’ve never seen one. Fidaki himself hunts, but he is belled, the birds tease him. Mama said that Little Snake was no name for a cat. I said that the Garden could do without Adam and Eve, but must have its snake.
‘Well, so it has. You are its snake’, she smiled. ‘Yes, you are, Manya! Its fallen angel.’ Smiling, but I could see she meant it.