Writers Abroad I
A Dish Best Served Cold
“An eye for an eye leaves the world blind.” Paint-sprayed in florid letters on one of his walls: words to condemn this latest war. Just another cliché in this land of T-shirt proclamations: women boasting or begging for sex; men stating their power or tribe – all in bright letters on soft soft cotton while his son lay coated in the harshest soil. And though Manolis had always worn the heaviest black: now it was darker and weighed like a leaden shroud.
Manolis slowed down his chugging, smoky trikiklo and read the English words again. “What was left to see now?” he asked himself. He decided to leave the message for others to read and make their own judgements. Anyway, his eyes were focussed on other cleansings.
He carried on as he did every morning – during this long, and getting longer every year, tourist season – making his way to the cluster of tavernas gathered around the small curve of beach. On his truck were the ingredients for today’s Greek salads, piles of fried potatoes, some herbs and horta for the more adventurous: all produced and gathered by him ready for the droves of tourists that would arrive later on coaches and the boat excursions: pretend pirate galleons chugging sailess across only becalmed seas from Rethimnon. Also, a few other choice ingredients for the owners and his friends: the freshest zucchini flowers, sweet snails, and the special Askolimbri, rare and delicious: some to eat, the rest to pickle. And last night conditions were perfect, so his cousin Yannis would have had good fishing with a delicacy for his lunch. The fleeting pleasure that thought gave Manolis was, as usual, quickly tainted by the bile of a memory,
“Listen,” he’d once said to Haris, his only son: “to those fools ordering fresh fish. For three days the meltemi has whipped the sea into a malstrom: the ferries can’t sail, cargo vessels are anchored in the lee of Agii Theodori for them all to see. So what do they think : the little fishing boats are going out in this? Or that fresh fish drop from the sky?” His deep laughter and that of his friends had been silenced by Haris: “Perhaps if some of you were honest enough to explain they might understand. Or if you took the trouble to learn a little English or German you may even learn something.”
So now he’d learnt some language. And was trying to understand something of their lives, or had been. Tourist trash, he used to call them. And it had not mattered what wealth they brought. Or the fact that now a small piece of his, many large pieces of land – a plot not big enough to graze ten goats or produce enough olive oil for a small family’s yearly needs – was now worth more than he could earn in half a decade. A man’s needs were simple, he believed, his thoughts and soul should be complicated and rich. Whenever Manolis expounded this to his son – back from studying at Oxford and then Harvard – and making a visit from his practise in Athens, he’d just laugh and quickly give up his tutored arguments: “You just want to stay the Sfakion mountain man, but you have more brains than most of my professors and you do not fool me.”
Manolis shook his head to clear the voices and images. He would not be seen weak, or grieving like a woman. He delivered all of his produce to the aready busy kitchens. The sea was a blue gem sparkling and polished by the gentlest breeze. It would be a perfect day, again. He joined the five or six of his friends gathered at his table. They had all grown beards: for forty days: the wilderness time: from the burial of his son to the ceremony, Ta Saranta. That had long passed but none of them, they claimed, would shave them off until after the trial. Manolis’ beard had always been one of his prides – even long before the hair on his head evaporated in the sun. Now, as always, he unconsciously took the wooden comb from his shirt pocket and gave it a gently, luxurious stroking. He heard the many greetings of, “Kali mera Kapetanios.” And nodded his huge head in return, in tune to the deeper connotations being implied behind that title.
Manolis made Hemmingway look like an anorexic bank manager. He was larger than life – any life he’d believed once, foolishly. An antique plate was brought out, a fork of purest silver and a crystal glass of red wine drawn straight from the barrel. He was a very superstitious man and knew that it was bad luck to eat or drink from anything plastic or synthetic. It was his wine made by him from his grapes. This one, he judged, by its browning and taste, some twenty years old. Haris would have been seven: running around and around the edge of the grape press as the liquid ran blood red and young. He swallowed the first glass quickly, as soon as everyone had toasted everyone else.
The talk was the normal, quickly blending now the war against terrorists with the more important state of the olives and the coming need for rain. Then, of course with the younger men football. Haris had told him: they are learning to speak ‘football English’. Some link to connect them to this latest invasion: “Where are you from?” “Norfolk.” “Where?” “Norwich.” “Ah, we know now they played blah blah blah.” “Birmingham.” “Oh Aston Villa” Liverpool, Manchester: all patches of green with spotlights burning four shadows of every hero into their minds.
The food arrived: Salad, bread, olives, some eggs with peppers, and small sweet mullet. Then, as they all began to eat, his usual ‘Welsh rabbit’.
Haris had ordered it one day. And told the table he’d lived on it while at university. “A little beer into the melted cheese and it’s perfect.”
“A waste of good cheese and beer if you ask me,” he’d said: “and where the hell is the rabbit.”
Then Manolis had grown to love it. But today it tasted of ash and seemed to have the texture of flaccid, waxy flesh. As the tourists began to be herded along the quay toward the tavernas Manolis drifted away to a time when he’d taken Haris out to shoot some real rabbits.
They’d walked past the monastery, paid their respects to some of the brothers and he’d drank a little too much tsikoudia. Manolis took his son down to the cave where St. John the Hermit struggled alone with God. A dark and gloomy way for a man to hide from reality and life, Haris stated. His voice deafening in that place of silence. Manolis hurried him on down toward the sea. He stopped to show him the ruins of a vast bridge that led to nothing. Everyone knew about it. But his son knew better,
“It can’t have been built to lead nowhere,” he’d reasoned. And then went on at long length offering his usual calm, logical explanations. And manolis had grown angry :
“Don’t you even believe in failure, boy? Or dreams that do not come true. In folly, vanity, madness? What do you suppose the Tower of Babel was all about?
“Another myth to sop what the uneducated can’t accept; to contain where the more enlightened might go.”
They’d stomped on in silence until Manolis softened and wanted to make the day graceful again. “Come on,” he offered, “and I’ll show you something that very few people know about.” He led Haris to the ruins of an old stone house. “I will tell you the true story about that place. Once, two brothers lived there, shepherds and farmers. A hard, austere life that slowly bends a person until they can see only the ground. Isolated as any monk they were except for each other. But these brothers rowed and split the house in half. Properly in half: dividing each room with walls: cutting even doors and the marble sink in half. Everything calculated to the most accurate fraction their disagreement so intense. For years they lived in this half house of silence and hatred. Then, on a cold night of high winds, one of the brothers fell ill and knew he needed help or would die. So he called through the wall: ‘Brother, my brother I am dying. Come in and help me, please, I beg of you.’ ‘Oh, I’ll come in,” he shouted back. ‘I’ll come in alright.’
“And he took up a great hammer and began smashing down the dividing walls. ‘It’s all mine now,’ he bellowed into the wind. ‘At last, everything mine.’ But the house must have grown happy with its new walls because it suddenly collapsed burying them both. And so there they lay now, together, side by side for eternity.”
Manolis could recall how quiet that had kept his son for the rest of the walk. But, by the time they’d thrown their dusty colthes off and lowered themselves from the rocks into the clear, emerald-green sea, he was at it again,
“I wonder what the dispute was over?” the future lawyer and fighter of hopeless causes wanted to know.
“Sheep or a woman – what else would they have to fight over.”
And a hundred buts as the boy struggled to travel back and act as arbitrator and peacemaker. His son ignoring the refreshing embrace of the water and wanting to go back and see the house again. And always it would be the same. Never gods or nations he could stand to see dividing people. He’d been one of the first Greeks to go to Turkey to help dig bodies from the rubble of the earthquake.
His son and hope. Dead. Not for a great cause or risk to win freedom for some repressed person, but because three young men drank too much, then drove too fast and ploughed him sdown as he walked back from visiting his fiancée. Then, because they were either cowards or evil, left him by the side of a dark road to bleed slowly to death.
Now they were waiting trial, charged with manslaughter. The judge, their lawyer assured them, would throw away the key. Most of his family and friends thought, and had heard, differently. The boys’ parents were wealthy. They’d hired the best lawyers and were already claiming that Haris was drunk and had staggered out into the road. Manolis knew he must be patient and calm for his son’s sake and what he would have wanted. His law to take rightful retribution. The justice he’d believed in to be done. But his rage burnt hotter than the Cretan sun. And then there was the other law, with words of its own. Ones like, ‘Revenge: a dish best served cold’. Ones that stated, ‘Cretans did not know how to forget or forgive. A father’s duty to his child. And worse, those of his friends. ‘Kapetanios knows what is right, just as his father, great and great grandfathers did’. Even his wife talking to that blind, toothless hag of a mother-in-law as she weaved her own unseeing tapestry of life. ‘My man will do what is to be done. There is no doubt’. Stitch after stitch in shapes, colors and symbols forgotten by most, but still alive and full of demands.
Another glass of wine arrived and Manolis glared through its sepia lens at the tourists: topless Scandinavian girls in G strings, English and Germans as red as lobsters, and his own people from babies to yiayias carrying style and respect to the sands – but everywhere the same laughter and fun as the sensual, slow rhythm of the sea gave its blessing to life and living. A year ago, by now, Manolis would have taken off his own shirt and sprawled. He would have enjoyed the stares and requests for photographs. “Poseidon or Neptune,” people might gasp. And with his massive chest, shoulders and arms all coated in tight curled hair, his beard, a deep tan and eyes that burnt with blue fire he fitted the role perfectly. As he’d mellowed because of his son’s views he’d liked to pick the best groups: those showing some courtesy to the waiters, or trying something a bit more adventurous, and send them over a jug of his wine,
“From Manolis, the big man,” the waiter would say. And they would raise their glasses to toast him and he’d liked it. And to return the gesture and see them smile.
Now the shirt stayed buttoned, there would be no more photographs or wine.
Manolis got to his feet and tossed some money on the table. He threw the rest of the Welsh rabbit over the heads of the cats to the marching patrol of geese and let them squabble over its remains. It would be worse at his house than here. And yet that might feel better.
Roula, Manolis’ wife stood at the ornate Venetian gate to his avli, her black shadow darkening the last of the light as he sat under the shade of his vine. She had her hands placed angrily on her broad hips and was waiting to chide their daughter, Maria, on her appearance before she left. It had become a nightly ritual. One he’d left alone hoping it would fade. Instead, it was getting worse and, now he understood, had nothing to do with showing any respect for the dead.
When his daughter had first started wearing the latest fashions and appearing identical to so many of the other girls in Chania he’d been furious and was about to forbid it,
“Everything on display: trousers so tight they look as if she’s been poured into them cold and then left to boil before venturing out: her hair dyed red – ashamed of the glorious black she was born with: heels like daggers: eyes staring out of some pharaoh’s tomb.” Haris had listend to his ranting then opened his eyes.
“For years after the tourists started coming, the young men could only see them with their sexy clothes and freedom. While our girls – some of the most beautiful in the world – were chained: by poverty sometimes; by repression always. Now they are liberating themselves. Even more than that, they make the foreign women look plain and cheap. The men burn for them, but mostly can’t reach. This display is not what is on offer; it is what is unattainable without a great effort. A battle won. You of all men ought to appreciate that.”
And definitely his wife had. She’d loved to go out with Maria when she was on one of her many shopping sprees, been delighted to help her choose a new outfit. Now she was spitting venom and wanted the girl in black, veiled as if it were her in the grave.
Manolis eased his favourite cat from his lap. He’d never raised his hand to his wife. Never cheated on her. Or consciously done anything that could bring disgrace to her,
“Roula,” he called: “come and sit with me for a while.”
She gave him a look as if he’d made an indecent suggestion to her.
“Roula!” he demanded, and even the cicadas went momentarily silent.
Roula skulked over and accepted the chair he offered her,
“Maria loved her brother as much as he loved her,” he said softly. “She is grieving in her own way. I want you to leave her alone to do so.”
The door opened and Maria came out. Her skirt shorter than ever, boots higher, make-up more fierce: she was definitely his daughter when it came to a fight. She glanced over at her parents sat together and smiled. He closed his hand tightly on his wife’s so that she could not escape and said something he’d never said to any woman in his life before: “Maria, you are very beautiful tonight.”
A look of shock, the joy followed by pain and sadness filled the space between them. She almost fell through the gate and he heard her car roar off through the olive groves faster than usual.
Roula snatched her hand away: “What sort of man are you?” she spat. “Sat in the shade sipping wine, strumming on your lyra and singing out love songs to your daughter while our son lies unavenged in the clay.”
She rushed back into the house and once again the wailing began.
Manolis brought out his guns and cleaned them slowly. The oldest first – an ancestor’s – used to slay Turks in the Great Rebellion, then again in the War of Independence, and after that failed, taken to the mountains for guerilla warfare. Another two guns – his grandfather’s – which saw action in the Battle of Crete, first killing Italians, then Germans, and again afterwards in the hills with the resistance. Finally, his father’s pistol which he’d learnt to shoot with: only rumors and innuendoes surrounding this one: but big ones easy to believe in. Vendetta was once as common and bloody on Crete as on Sicily. They had carried on until relatively recently in Sfakia. Justice was still likely – and expected for certain crimes – to be dealt with by the family. Most Cretans kept guns, illegally like Manolis. It was an act of independence and pride to be able to let one off at special celebrations; a duty to take a child at the right age and wave the gun in their face – let them be aware of what waited in a house or property for any crime.
Haris had refused to learn to shoot from the start. He’d announced that no gun would ever be hidden in his home. And more recently told his father to leave them to a museum or, better still, hand them over to the police now before Europe gave its strict rules along with the Euro to Crete and he found himself the criminal. Manolis closed his hand around the revolver’s worn grip at that memory. It had been their last conversation. A disagreement to part on. Haris had phoned after the news finished,
“Father, did you see what was allowed to happen on Crete today?”
Manolis had known exactly what his son was talking about. A man accused of raping an eleven year old girl had been handcuffed and virtually paraded along the street to and from the court hearing: led through the angry mob of family and villagers. As all criminals were: let them hear the anger and feel the spit burning on their shamed faces. On this news broadcast – repeated over and over so all may witness and learn – an old woman in black – maybe the girl’s mother, aunt or yiayia – came out fro the crowd and smashed him over the head with a large hunk of timber: again and again as the police made a token effort to protect him.
“Do you understand what sort of message that sends out about Crete to a modern generation, to any tourists or business people watching such barbarism?”
“Yes,” Manolis had replied: “the right one. It is why there is virtually no violent crime on our island; hardly any crime at all; why big shot lawyers like you go to Athens or America to earn money. Hit on the head! Twenty years ago if you’d gone into that village and asked a girl to dance, and she’d not been introduced to you: the next morning vultures would have been hovering over a gorge. Rape! An eleven year old girl in Crete. If I’d got close to him you’d have seen something to remember. I’d have shown you how a watermelon bursts open after it’s been dropped into an ice cold stream for half-an-hour. And I’ll tell you something else, if he’s found guilty, he’ll wish she’d hit him harder.”
“If father, if? I thought it was decided, the case over. You, or some peasant: the great law givers. A quick bullet or blow: the verdict without trial. Do you know the new game in the US and most of Europe? Cry rape. Your date refuses to pay the bill or marry you after sex: rape. The teacher doesn’t give you an A: rape. Fathers, brothers, doctors, priests: all rapists. The pendulum swung too far and being abused.”
“Not on Crete: she’s a Cretan. If she says she was raped, by God she was raped.” He’d heard his son’s soft, patient sigh for the final time.
“Listen, you old mountain man, wake up to the unstoppable advance of the world. And get rid of those guns before this big shot lawyer has to defend you.”
“The only way these guns ever go anywhere is over my dead body. The police will have to come and try and take them if they want them.”
“Listen to my father, ‘the Sundance Kid of Sfakia’.”
His last words echoed in Manolis’ head as he placed a 45 bullet in one of the well-oiled chambers and gave it a quick spin: it slowed and stopped. Manolis put the gun to his temple and squeezed the trigger. The hammer clicked on the empty hole. He knew that it always should: the weight of the bullet following gravity. Another law that could be broken though, if fate or circumstance deemed it right.
Manolis had no time for books. Music and dance he’d once loved. To slip into that trance-like state as he danced with other men free of constraint to the swirling sound of the lyra: his soul free to drift through mountains and over the sea: to shake off everything and touch bliss. What book, he asked, could get close? Once though, Haris had read him a passage from another of the endless pile of books he carried the way some carry worry beads. A great old Kapetanios, with all of his family gathered around him is dying. He is taken out and placed under a lemon tree. The lyra player is summoned and plays as the old warrior drifts into the only peace he can have ever known.
So Manolis sat and listened in silence – not to his own death song, strummed on the mulberry, three-stringed instrument as the gnarled, five fingers of an olive held its silver fan cool, until sunset turned it black, with the goat bells sounding a gentle, harmonic knell – to a jet plane flying like Ulysses’ arrow: desperate to leave these skies on time: but appearing to him to be held for a moment, frozen in its flight.
Tomorrow, the court case began. All of Manolis’ family, village and friends would be there to listen and wait. The daughter-in-law he would never have, and his son’s chosen best man who would have joined and expanded his family. All there: to witness. And, as the plane was released from the island’s great power, his decision was made. He understood clearly what he must do and for whom.
It was his first time in court and as terrible as he’d imagined. “As bloody as any battlefield,” Haris used to try and convince him. But he saw no honour or bravery in this place. Just golden-tongued eels who were playing their own game. A club divided into sides for the duration of the game only, who, afterwards would forget the pieces they’d used and close this backgammon board until someone payed them enough to play again.
It carried on for over two weeks. An endless bending and stretching of truth and lies until they melded together into some babble of meaningless, unharmonic sound. Manolis watched his son’s killers. He searched for any real sign of regret: something beyond the feigned tears and mouthed, rehearsed regrets. He waited for their families to offer some kind, sympathetic gesture toward his, instead of their looks of contempt and hatred as if they were the guilty ones trying to deprive them of their children. Manolis found nothing and tried instead to see his son in this place. He wanted to believe desperately in the worth of his life. Would he have been admired for this? he asked himself over and over. Loved by those he defended; hated by those he foiled? Did he always defend the innocent? And was his great love of truth and justice able to survive in this world? He wanted to be able to believe and see but could not.
Then it was over. Guilty. All of his people cheered and clapped while the young men and their families collapsed in sobs. Manolis did feel his heart begin to fill with pride at imagining Haris winning such a victory. But before it could grow and flower into anything more the judge began to speak and wither it with words: circumstances and good characters, youth and consideration: weighing them against his son’s death to sentence fairly.
The driver would get five years, the other two men three. The sigh was a gasp of disbelief from his family. He watched the faces of the young men and their parents beam and heard the words of their counsel scream into his head: “Don’t worry, with good behavior we’ll have them all out in less than eighteen months at the most.”
And, for the first time in any public place Manolis slipped his hand under his wife’s dress. And she relaxed, not tensed, for him as he pulled the revolver free. As he got to his feet and took the first of his strides he shot the youngest of them between the eyes. One more stride and the second, wildly spinning away, was shot behind the ear. He closed on the dock and saw the driver cowering like some innocent caught in a car’s headlight. Manolis shot him through his trembling spine so the bullet could tear his cold heart out. He turned and saw his wife and family smiling in pride as the first of the policemen flew like a doll from his sweeping left hand blow. The barrel touched his tongue for a briefness of cold before the bullet burned its way in. A taste as bland as any dish you did not truly wish to serve or devour.