“I was graduated from Wesleyan in 1956 in English,” writes II. L. MOUNTZOURES, “even though I spent three and a half years living out a myth as a premedical student.” In 1961 he spent six months in Greece, the scene of the following story. Mr. Mountzoures lives in New London, Connecticut, where he is at work on a novel.
NIKOS and I sat at the café on the edge of the beach at Previsa, under a pavilion of softly moving eucalypti. We were drinking FIX, the national beer of Greece. Talking in Greek, we argued, as usual, about Communism versus capitalism, but not really. We both had gone through too much for that. We were hanging the life of the heart on a quasi-political skeleton, and I think he knew it as well as I, even though he had more reason for being political than I.
“Your freedom,” Nikos said, his normally red face even redder. “Bah. You would have an empty stomach and freedom?”
“Yes,” I said, “exactly.”
Nikos’ teeth flashed, and so did his black hair and eyes, as he moved his head in mock laughter. He was handsome, intelligent, and, aside from political prepossessions, to me he was like a brother.
“You have never been hungry and had your so-called freedom, too, so you do not know. I do.”
“I don’t?” I said. “Are you so sure? Did you ever hear of the Depression? When I was a little boy, oh, about five years old, the same age as you were, in the late thirties, I ate bread with mustard on it, if I was lucky, but in the streets of our town I ran to my heart’s content. Life was undernourished, but it was free.”
“And in Athens the people were eating cats during the war,” he said. “The people were falling in the streets from starvation by the thousands, trying to preserve their freedom while the Germans held siege.”
With a starving whisper, the long skinny leaves of the eucalypti seemed to intensify what he said.
“Why do we compare and compare?” I said, tiring. We had been talking for a couple of hours, since noon. “It’s all the same fabric of suffering; we’re just looking at different parts of the cloth. And it’s all absurd and meaningless anyway. You said so yourself not an hour ago. Come on. Let’s go for a swim.”
Nikos jumped up, glad at the suggestion, and headed toward the beach.
The beach at Previsa is something like one I once visited in the Florida Keys — a long, murderously hot strip of white sand with thick vegetation springing up suddenly on one side and the water sucking at the other, stretching away in a miraculous aquamarine reverie. But the comparison ends there, for the land of Greece is burdened with hills and mountains that are ironic with age and agelessness, old hags stooping and at the same time young brown nubile bodies lying very still.
We stood on the edge of the shore with our feet in the tepid water. Children were plopping out sand castles, fat women were panting under umbrellas, adolescents were horsing around and necking when they could —just as they did at our town beach in Connecticut five thousand miles away. In fact, the lapping water and beach shouts and transistor radios interlacing the Greek romantic ballads with American rock ‘n’ roll music made me nostalgic.
We advanced, looking down. Whereas at home the water is frigid and green and opaque, this water was therapeutically warm and transparent: we could see the gray and green and purple weeds among spongy rocks swaying as in a rock garden fantasy.
“Don’t go over there,” said Nikos, pointing to our right, where there was a sign in Greek I could not make out nailed up on a tall stick. “There are huge holes there where the Nazis bombed ships and supply movements.”
At our own beach, I thought, no holes except by nature: innocent treachery, not by man’s premeditations of hate and victory. I am hungry, bread and mustard, bodies curling in the horrible ecstasy of starvation in Omonoia Square. My body. My mother’s — Come off it, too many novels.
We slid easily into the water, without the shock of the dash and flip necessary to enter the Atlantic. And then we were children. Cavorting. Spitting water in a fountain overhead into the stone blood yellow of the Mediterranean sun. Water dripped salt into my eyes and mouth: same salt, same water, same origin. I shouted to Nikos in English, “You old sonofabitch, you, I love Greece and America and life!” Nikos looked puzzled, made a little fast circle next to his temple with an index finger: one is universally crazy, no doubt. He spit a good gush of water into my eyes, and I tackled him. We were a tangle of wiry muscle and hair and limbs, and we came up gasping and laughing, splashing like two dolphins. We walked toward shore until the water was only up to our knees. We were not talking, each in his own world. Nikos grew serious a little, and stood apart, dripping. He was looking at the sign above the bomb holes. I knew what he was thinking. And I thought, too, of the night a month before at Ioannina when he had told me about it.
IOANNINA is perhaps sixty winding mountain-road miles north of Previsa, thirty miles inland, and is the capital of the state of Epirus, where my parents were born. It is a town at the same time beautiful and ugly, situated by a giant green lake, mountains, crude farms. You can see the Turkish influence in life and architecture: minarets and painted yellow stone houses with red tile roofs, poverty, donkeys with loads of twigs, people drinking ponies of ouzo and tiny cups of strong, sweet Turkish coffee under the pines at the open tavernas on the square. You walk up and down the square in the early evening, with all of the townsfolk lolling, taking their evening voltes; there is no television, little money, contentment, laziness, the mountains tenaciously cupping all of the town in a valley of ancient malaise and peace.
Such was a large portion of my heritage. And as Nikos and I strolled up and down the square arm in arm (there is no awkward American shame, but a warm feeling of friendship and humanity), he said, “Why are you here? All right, as a tourist, but you stay so long, living with your cousin. You are content to stay here and live as we do and give up your American luxuries?”
“I give up those for these other, more natural luxuries. And I am here to see what I came from, my origin; I want to go back to what was the beginning of me before New England and Pilgrims and the Revolution and the Civil War and Monroe Doctrine and war bonds — no, I am not clear to you. I mean before my American history; what about the mystery, the icon in our dining room with the Virgin staring at me with huge dolorous eyes, telling me all the times I stared at her since I was a little boy that kick-the-can and Franklin Roosevelt and central heating and ‘Oh Beautiful For Spacious Skies’ are not entirely mine, nor I theirs. You frown. I don’t blame you, with my awkward mixture of Greek and English. I want to see my other ethos, the other ethnic part of me. You do understand.”
And so we walked and talked, originally intending to go to one of the outdoor-chair movies and watch a foreign film (Greeks generally loathe Greek movies for their dullness and contrivance) under the stars, with the cool night air moving through the poplars against the bordering fences. But we continued to talk and gesture, and the people thinned out.
He said, “I bet I have a past more tragic than yours.”
“I bet you don’t. Tell me about it.”
We had come to that point where he was losing the reticence that is behind the beginning of many relationships in the Mediterranean. He was opening up because he knew that I was not making fun of him, or being an American Braggart slumming. We were gradually trusting each other.
He spoke straight and simply. “When I was eight years old. my father was killed by the Germans in our public square along with five others as an example for someone’s sabotage. I saw him brought home dead, ripped and bleeding. He was a wonderful, strong man, handsome, powerful, omnipotent, and I was his sun, he often said. I have had dreams of him, so many times, helping me, holding me, rubbing my head as I fall asleep in his lap. And he goes away: I wake up reaching for him, reaching out, calling, Father, come back! — and they killed him. They said his last word was freedom. Ha.
“My mother suffered and sacrificed bringing up my sister and brother and me all through the war. I am actually from Arta, and there we had a farm and a big orange grove. Both were taken away from us, first by the Germans, then by the Greek government, and now we own only a small piece of each. But it was mine, all of it. It was my father’s, and it is my birthright, goddamnit.”
“Where is your communal farm code?” I said. We both laughed, he more slyly than I.
“Anyway, that is my life,” he said, too coldly, “no father, hunger, and dispossession. Can you beat that?”
I said, nearly blurted, “My parents came to New England before I was born. My father has worked hard seven days a week all his life. My mother has been dead since I was three years old, and my brothers and sisters, five of us, have always lived home.”
“Oh,” he said, not wanting me to continue, holding his hand up to stop me. His soft black eyes looked deeply into mine and then at the cobblestones in a kind of embarrassment. “The mother. You win then, yes. You win.”
For, in Greece a boy loves his mother very much without the necessity of proclaiming a Mother’s Day. She is an integral part of his life always, even after he marries.
I wanted to go on, to tell him about the torment and emptiness. I wanted to flood the square with sad tidings of no joy, of the paradox and irony in the freedom of no discipline and no mother love forever, ineradicable, a constant which is in itself a painfully negative abstraction. But I knew that Nikos understood. Instead of wallowing, I laughed — but what a false, pathetic laugh!
WE WALKED, sat at a little iron table painted blue, and ate bits of fried pepper, feta and olives and bread as hors d’oeuvres, and drank the exquisite bittersweet, anise-tasting ouzo. We got up dizzy and meandered up and down the plateía some more, talking in a vague, unreal, and, I suppose, shallow way about Dostoevsky and comparing our army experiences. I said, finally, “If you are an orange grower and still have your farm in Arta, then why are you in Ioannina?”
It was hard for him, but now we had a bond of mutual sorrow and self-pity, we believed in each other, and he said: “Two years ago, in Arta, a dumb girl who was not so dumb seduced me and then told her father that I had deflowered her against her will, and I was forced to marry her. I hated her. I still do hate her. Everyone in the village knew that she was an easy mark from way back, but none of my friends who had had her could or would go against the word of her father, who is a petty government official. And I had no father to stand up for me.
“After we were married, she tormented me. She wanted me to love her, to accept her as my wife with a real place in our home. My mother put her out in the barn, and she slept with the goats. She still does. She tried continually to seduce me again, because if she became pregnant, it would be all over for me. But I wouldn’t. I told her to keep away from me, and I threatened her. She continued to bother me, and one day I bought a gun. I don’t think I really would have killed her, but I’m not sure. I felt like a madman, or like someone who is about to crack up.
“One blinding hot afternoon, she came to me and said I want you, and started to undress before me right there under the trees. She is a beautiful girl and has a body that curiously makes me melt now with passion even as it fills me with utter hate. I don’t know now whether it was the heat or desire or hate, but I took out the pistol and said I’m going to kill you, I fired twice above my head. She ran away screaming.
“The police arrested me, and I was sentenced to jail here in Ioannina for two years for shooting a weapon with intent to kill. I have been out for five months, working as a plasterer, living with my cousins, who are, you know, friends of your cousin’s.”
He stopped and put his hands over his eyes. “I don’t know,” he said, “whether I wanted to kill her or not. I may be evil. That’s what haunts me, whether or not I’m evil, and what I’m living for.”
“No, you’re good, or you would have done it,” I said, putting my hand on his shoulder. But what could I tell him? He really wanted to hear no judgment. He had made up his mind about his afflictions.
I asked him why he didn’t go back and divorce her. She wouldn’t give him a divorce. He was staying here purposely. He had a couple of friends spying on her for him, and she would break down soon, she was that sexual, and he would have proof of adultery, go back, divorce her, and live his life on his bit of farm.
We finished the night sitting in the deserted new upper plateía, where a small fountain has been built that has colored lights flashing on the dancing spray of water at night: a rather discordant and absurd bit of modernia. Now we sat on the cold stone benches, I shivering, for I am considerably thinner than Nikos, and the water had long since stopped in the fountain. The petunias and zinnias were lurid under the weak lamppost lights, and the nocturnal dampness had fallen down from the mountains.
Looking at the new tiles on the square, I said, “You mean to tell me that a man who lays these squares should get as much money as a skilled surgeon?”
“To each his share as he labors,” said Nikos.
“Then a popular whore should make millions.” We laughed.
The cold stars were falling thick in clusters around us. I said, “Why do we argue anyway, when all of it, the whole thing, is pointless?” And the stars fell, cracked like quartz, sprinkled all over the man-made, Marxist-capitalist tiles.
I STOOD staring down at the water, at the ferns and polyps, weeds and rocks, and I saw fragmented stars on the tiles of the square at Ioannina stretching out into oblivion. I felt again the cold of the night and shivered violently under the sun of the Previsa afternoon.
“Are you chilled?” asked Nikos, flipping his head.
“No, not at all,” I said, and surely, I was sweating.
“Do you feel very strong?”
“What do you say we swim out to that bell buoy?” He pointed out into the bay.
It did not seem far away. My thoughts had left me torpid, introspective. But Nikos was eager, full of energy.
“But I’m a little hungry,” I said.
“Eat when we come in. Otherwise, you’ll get cramps. Besides, you can be hungry, you have your freedom.” He poked me.
“ Touché. OK then. Páme.”
“Pamé,” he said, laughing. These are the initials of the Communist Party in Greece, and a kind of slogan-pun, since páme means Let’s go.
We swam strongly at first, then more leisurely, and as we got further out, we kept changing our pace: crawl, backstroke, sidestroke. The sun was benevolent to us in water that was becoming cooler as we progressed.
Miles to go before I sleep. Casual. Lolling swim. No pressure. Nikos and I alternated the lead, and we stopped now and then to exchange a few comments, and I told him, the last one to the bell buoy is a rotten egg, and explained that to him, and he spoke of a donkey’s tail.
Nikos said, more seriously, “Have you ever been afraid of drowning?”
“Nor have I.”
“I grew up on the shore. The water is the dominant force of my life. Even my zodiac says so.”
“Do you believe that garbage?”
“No, but the stars. I look at them, at their distance, their mystery and beauty, and I believe in them. I even long for them.”
“You should become an astronaut, or a saint, then.”
At one point we tested the water for depth: neither of us could touch bottom no matter how hard we tried. As I plunged downward, the water became a block of impenetrable ice, and with bursting lungs, I pumped to the surface. I had swallowed water, and gagged at its salinity.
Relaxing, we continued, flipped along as two fishes might on a wooden dock.
At last the bell buoy was looming up, huge, painted red and yellow metal, conical, ponderous, bobbing in a friendly way, not really a bell buoy at all, but something like a nun buoy with a light at the top of its cone. We kept moving toward it, intending to hang on to it for a while, rest, then head back into shore.
It would not be long now. It certainly would be a relief. I was tired, felt a stitch in my side develop and subside. It seemed hours since we had sat drinking beer and arguing. Was that this very day? Nikos had guts. But so did I. If he was willing to swim out here, then so was I. And what was there to lose?
While thinking in rhythmic sections of sentences as I stroked, I struggled ahead. I kept looking at the buoy intensely. I swam, stopped, looked at it. I swam some more, mechanically, mesmerized, watching it as it swelled, rolled, barely moved, rolled again, glistened, and then dulled. I knew its thick bottom, slender rise, all of its cutout squares, niches, graceful narrowing at the top like a wimple. And in this constant staring, my neck was stiffening from being in a continuous arch, from looking at the buoy, from not being able to take my eyes off it.
Something insidious began, illusory, slow, and almost with a frightening majesty. Abstractly, rhythmically, pointing like a magnet to the core of my soul, the buoy was drawing me, luring me, possessing me. All other elements were ebbing, and reaching the buoy seemed the only goal of my life. Incredibly, even to myself in the moments it was happening, the buoy became the only reason I was alive. And it seemed, in a hypnotic way, perfectly logical, rational. I forgot my family, home, my friends, my trip, or where I was; I forgot even how not long before, playing with Nikos near the shore, I had thought myself madly in love with life. And as I stared at the buoy, I was thinking how it would be when I reached it, what it would feel like: rough and hard and chipped, and it might even scrape my skin, bruise me. As I embraced it, I would not mind the hurt. I would be so grateful for having got to it.
To get to it faster and with the most power, I swam the crawl until my arms ached, always trying to keep the buoy directly before me, and ending up forty or fifty feet to the east of it, drifting strongly toward the bay’s mouth far away. And in this frustration, my logic returned and said to me, You will never reach that buoy.
“The current,” said Nikos. “It’s too strong.”
“We can make it,” I said, slightly braggadocio, slightly delirious. “It’s not too far now.”
It was then that I looked back to land for the first time with any real comprehension. What I saw alarmed me: the shore was at least two miles away. The people on the beach were a mass of tiny colored dots, the trees a thick and menacing jungle closing out the world of land, fencing in the whole shore and sea. My sympathetic nervous system tried to set up a condition of panic in me, panic about the distance and being out of earshot, about drowning and cramps and sharks and death. But by waiting cautiously in a kind of desperation for it to pass, I did not let the panic eat me alive. I waited, treaded water, then shouted to Nikos, who was even farther out toward the hungry mouth of the bay, “We can do it, still. I think.”
Nikos shook his head, with a serious look clouding his face, a particularly Greek look of uncertainty akin to impossibility. I struggled with all I had, flailing, kicking, feeling the heat of sweat flush in my face, and in my mind I was swearing, goddammit, I will do it.
The water, once so romantic and caressing and warm, was a monster, a cold harpy with amorphous hands clutching at me. I kept my eyes fixed on the buoy as on a miracle about to occur — the friendly buoy nodding and bowing to me, a priest saying, Why, yes, my son, come right into die basilica. Suddenly it became a hideous priest smirking at me, an evil old priest with gaps in his teeth where the open metal ribbing was, and he took me into the church. And then, where two large bolts had been on the face of the buoy, right there were the tragic eyes of the Virgin in the icon, yes, that was she, I saw her — the gold Virgin with her red veil, bowing her head regally, tears in her heart, withholding always a lament, a sorrowful mystery from me, Love, keeping love inside her, love from my longgone past, unable to give me that love and the answer to her mystery. I was ineffably hypnotized, treading water, wondering at the death of her, of her coaxing me toward her, knowing always that I ought never to reach her, that she must never take me, yet trying desperately to get to her.
“No,” I shouted in English, “I don’t want you!”
“What, what is it?” said Nikos. “What’s wrong with you?”
“It is the Panaghía,” I said in Greek.
“No,” he said laughing. “It looks like a stupid cop.” Then he looked bemused. “But no, no. Wait. I know.” His face brightened. “Look. It’s God himself!”
Neither of us believed in God, and the relief of his comment at once had us laughing hysterically in the water two or three miles from land, not far from the brown reclining mountains, two lost children floundering and not lost, united in aloneness, love, and the unspoken possibility of death.
We must have laughed at God the Buoy for a full two minutes, gushing up out of the water, two tan strong boys laughing at God, at themselves, the water, the universe, I pointing my finger and saying in English, “Go on home, ya dirty old man, g’wan home — ”
Sometimes the buoy tried to become again for me the Virgin and for him the policeman; but no, Nikos was right, first through humor and then through delirium and horror, it was God, it was the Unknown and Uncaring God in His Unknown and Uncaring holy water, with the priestesses lying around brown and splendid, and far away His ant people crawling and sunning on the white strip.
We were drifting out fast. “Gome on,” said Nikos, “let’s go. He doesn’t want me, that bastard, and I don’t want Him either. I tried, but He doesn’t care. Let’s go.”
We began sidestroking, backstroking, dogpaddling back. The shore was perhaps two hundred and fifty thousand miles away. We swam for at least five hundred hours.
“We won’t make it,” I said to Nikos. He did not answer.
We will, we won’t, I thought, what difference does it make. “Good-bye, God,” I shouted.
After more swimming that was becoming more and more pointless, Nikos said, “I feel a cramp starting in my leg.” His teeth were clenched, blue lips pulled, stretched apart.
“I’ll help you,” I said. But I couldn’t have done a thing.
“No, it will go away.”
We swam as relaxed as we could, flopping our water-wrinkled hands before us methodically.
We are not going to make it. Surely, we’re drifting into the ultimate, I thought. I won’t shout for help. Perhaps someone on the shore has seen us and sent a boat out to save us. Perhaps not. So what.
I did not fully believe in my insouciance, and I felt somehow guilty about it. Nevertheless, it was within this guilt that I felt peacefully isolated: the people on shore were such a long way off that my mind shut them out. They’re so far away, I thought osmotically, my thoughts moving freely between me and the water as though we were one organic thing. They’re so far away that they won’t help me if I shout. They can’t help. And even if they can, I don’t care. I don’t want to shout for help. I don’t have the urge to shout for help, to shout, to help.
Then there was no one, nothing: no Nikos, not even a bird, nor the possibility of a boat, nor a mountain, nor ocean, nor sun — only a peaceful state of limbo, a feeling of floating on my back, floating nowhere within nothing.
There was no time nor noise nor reality until the sun came back to me. It had moved down through the tremulous sky what seemed a half foot, and then I knew that something called time had passed and acted on me.
I heard the water slopping around me. I looked: Nikos was fifteen feet away, floating on his back. He glanced at me, and his face was like a statue’s — passionless, with blue lips, full of the sun.
Something of the nature of an agreement passed between us. Brave Nikos, I thought. He hasn’t panicked, even in pain.
WE DRIFTED rapidly and felt the current getting stronger, pulling us greedily, the sun beating down like a long yellow stick clubbing at our heads. The land was live or six miles away, hazy, a mirage.
Go ahead and panic, I said to myself, see if I care.
“Are you all right, Nikos?” I said, somewhat the whistler in the dark.
He was wincing. His leg must have been killing him.
And then, rather foolishly, I asked, “Do you care?”
He looked at me for a long time, and then said, “Of course I care, or I wouldn’t be doing it.” It was as though he were delivering the punch line of a shaggy-dog story. “But why are you so grim, so dramatic?” He broke into a childish, sly smirk.
“Because I don’t believe in this,” I said. “But I don’t believe in the other, either.”
“Believe and believe,” said Nikos. “Have fun. Make a joyful noise unto the Lord!” And with that he let out a cry that had more agony, more loneliness and pain and anguish in it than any other human noise I ever heard, before or since. It made me animal-frightened, it made me want to weep, it made me crave and detest humanity.
Then there was a long eerie silence, broken by Nikos chuckling grotesquely, saying, “Listen. I hear them — the seraphim and the devils coming for us.”
The noise was a hum, as of a beating of wings, and I believed him. It became a fierce buzz, then a bursting whine.
I squinted and shielded my eyes: a small crimson and gold caïque with her sails drawn and with a big outboard motor seemed phantasmagorically on top of us. I did not shout for joy. Perhaps I had always known that this boat was going to come. Perhaps not. I really didn’t give a damn, or so it seemed then, once the boat was already there.
“We are saved,” said Nikos, with absolutely no emotion in his voice, his eyes, his face.
The boat suddenly slowed down its motor.
“Please, into shore will you take us?” I shouted in broken Greek syntax that made me laugh.
There were two men, and the one in the stern cut the motor even more. Neither offered a hand. I climbed up, then struggled to get Nikos aboard. He could hardly move his right leg.
The boat contained a big net of dripping, glistening fishes; the great stink of life, of the life ol the sea, made me shudder convulsively.
The skinny man on the outboard said, “What the hell were you doing way out here?” I turned to Nikos, who shrugged his shoulders.
“We were looking for girls,” I said in English.
The man frowned. “Foreigner?” he said to Nikos, who nodded, said, “From Lapland.”
The man raised his eyebrows, gawked for a second, then revved it up. The boat moved slowly under its cargo. In about ten minutes we were gliding by our tall buoy twenty feet away.
Neither of us spoke. Shivering, we watched it as we passed.
I tried to see it genuflecting, bowing, sloughing off its outer robes of blue water, sighing. But no, the Panaghía was gone, and I was glad of it. The buoy was now merely that — a buoy, painted red and yellow, indifferent, marking the current, moving rhythmically with the water’s indifferent movement.
As we churned through thicker and thicker weeds, the man standing before me in the bow, tall and tanned oily black, with fat handlebar mustaches, wearing a sticky cap and torn trousers, in bare feet, looked first at Nikos, then at me, and muttered, “Foolish, stupid brats.” He spat on the deck and said no more. He was heroic in stature, beautiful, superhumanly serene with his gargantuan muscles and authoritarian mustaches.
Exhausted, trailing a hand in the fast-warming water, I looked at Nikos. His face was blazing. His head was a mass of shining clusters of wet curls. His eyes were immense and utterly black and on fire. He was smiling at me with the thin, sad smile of the saints in Byzantine icons.
I turned to the shore, watched the people come up out of a variegated blur as though someone had focused them under a huge microscope.