< back to One Room in a Castle

This story has an epigraph 

There are stories we like to tell and stories we tell reluctantly, in low voices. There are stories we never tell, because we barely know them ourselves. Then there are the stories we are breathing, our lives, which make so little sense in the moment.

I am beginning, finally, to learn a hard lesson. We can never know the truth of our days. The truth is always behind us, already accomplished, already there, but we have eyes for the horizon only. Years later we turn around and find the truth following us like a patient stray dog. Years later we see it: the clear vision of our lives now, what we truly need, who we really are.

From The Five Nations , a dusty book I discovered in the basement of my childhood. I was eleven years old. Only now do I understand. It was the book where everything began: 

  Who holds the rein upon you?
     The latest gale let free.
  What meat is in your mangers?
     The glut of all the sea...

  Who come they for your calling?
     No wit of man may save.
  They hear the loosed white horses
     above their father's grave...

 'Twixt tide and tides returning
     Great store of newly dead
The bones of those that faced us
     The hearts of those that fled...

   --from "The White Horses" 
                  by Rudyard Kipling

an excerpt from the story , If you do not have a map  

A woman came to this place once, and disappeared. 

How easy it is to get lost in the streets of these foreign cities. 

You can go missing if you arrive in the dark during a thunderstorm.  

If you fall out of the train exhausted by hunger.  

If you do not have a map.  

And she did not have a map, my sister. The geometry of directions, even of simple left and right, was difficult for her. It doesn't surprise me that these streets of dark buildings and black-mouthed churches swallowed her whole.  

Northern Spain, the Basque country. Las siete calles de Galea. The seven streets of the city intersect seven other streets, and those streets spawn cramped passageways and damp paths that run along the convent walls, around la plaza mayor, over the brown river, into el barrio called Lobero, where some of the lost people may be encountered, if not found. The streets spread like a spider's web spun in shadow, endlessly linked, half-invisible, a marvellous, dangerous architecture.

Though her last postcard, dated the sixteenth of June, says nothing of danger:

How to name the colour of light on the sea? Not silver, not gold, 
not green. How does the wind feel on my shoulders at night, after
screwing on the beach? (Then we fell asleep in the sand--have you
ever fallen asleep in the sand? You wake cold and heavy, like a
stone with eyes.) It's so beautiful here, almost obscene-- that it
could be this way--I don't understand it. I think things could
change for me here. I've seen white horses running on the cliffs
above the ocean. Please don't be angry--could you send
me some money? Even $100. Please. Love you, Eva

What did you do with the money? It wasn't enough to buy a white horse, or to pay a month's rent, or even to indulge in a decadent weekend, pleasure nights with friends, bottles of wine and the best seafood on the Cantabrian coast. But you could have bought a map. Several maps, an atlas, a compass for your journeys against the dark. I sent you two hundred dollars, poste restante, an international money order with calligraphy in twelve languages around its border. I remember the envelope, I remember the stamp, I remember the bracelet I wore on my wrist that day.

This is what love comes to, Eva. 

It comes at midnight to a city of labyrinths, years later, still crying your name.

A black stray and its smaller yellow companion cross the plaza at a slow, purposeful trot. Clearly they know where they're going, in this silence of late afternoon siesta. Their long nails click and lift off the cobblestones. No wind. Beggars curl like sleeping snails in the cathedral archway, filthy jackets pulled over their heads. Even the resonant bronze clang of the church bell fails to rouse them. The chimes ring out above the buildings, waking the bells of other churches in other streets, until all of them are tolling, lifting and shaking the hot silence. The bells are inescapable here. They sound the quarter-hour, the half-hour, the many, many hours late at night.

I've been here long enough to know my way, like the dogs, who don't even look up at me as our paths intersect in the centre of the plaza. Across the main thoroughfare, under the high green arches of plane trees, across the bridge--don't look at the filthy water--up the narrow street on the north side, not quite in the Lobero quarter but beside it, close enough to smell it. Pass through invisible clouds of vapour: boiled cauliflower, cat spray, snapping olive oil, dog excrement, and, under a constricted stone archway, human urine. I breathe through my mouth until the end of the street, where I turn left, sharply--and a police officer coming from the opposite direction startles a gasp out of me. He inclines his head but doesn't speak or smile. Located halfway down this new, wider deadend lane are the Guardia Civil offices. 

The inspector has the photographs. The vital statistics. Such distastefully clinical words, but how perfect they are, really, in their irony. From the Latin, vita, for life, the Spanish vida. Of course the French, c'est la vie. They are so vital, these statistics, the colour of the eyes, the hair, the irreplaceable contour of the chin, the height and the weight.

I brought the dental records, too, those frightening x-rays of the lower skull. Without flesh, our jaws are frozen in perpetual, macabre laughter. I brought at least two dozen papers in three dull brown file folders. I had to explain and argue to get these documents, as if anyone else cared about the life they recorded. The inspector has buried all of this evidence in his own brown file folders. The only thing I refused to give him were the postcards: one from London, one from Amsterdam, two from Paris, the last one from this place. 

Imagine, Inspector Hernandez. She was not always invisible. Her feet left footprints when she walked on wet earth, even when she weighed less than one hundred pounds. Something to know her by: the white scars on the backs of her thighs, like the score-marks on uncooked loaves of bread. She was taller than I am. She measured five feet, six and three quarter inches. Centimetros? No lo se. Long dark hair, with auburn brightness, naturally curly; brown eyes; pale complexion, a scar through her left eyebrow. A childhood accident? On a bicycle, or was it the stairs, or was it a slamming door? 

I hear the questions you don't ask, Inspector. Your eyes are the questions, each angle of your motionless face has the bony immovable weight of a question. Yet you never ask with words. I told you, "She was never well, she was never happy," and you nodded. But I hear what you must be thinking. It's what I think myself. 

Six years. Why did you leave it so long? 

Surely you see that I am fairly young; I was at school. I didn't have much money. 

But six years. Your parents, what about your mother, your father? 

You won't understand, Inspector Hernandez. My whole life, I've never understood. They washed their hands of her like you wash your hands after gutting a fish, a grimace on your face. 

Six years. Do you know how long that is?

I told you the truth, I was busy. A scholarship at a university on the other side of the country, in Montreal. Then a fellowship, so I stayed on, continued studying. I was far enough away. You can't imagine how big Canada is, Quebec is almost a different country. The Quebecois are like the Basques. 

But there are no political terrorists in Canada, are there? 

No. No political terrorists. 

The Quebecois simply want to separate from the rest of the dominion. That's what I love about Quebec; that's why I went there. Eva fled to Europe; I went to McGill. 

Canada is a beautiful country, isn't it? 

Yes, Inspector, very beautiful, but don't be fooled. You might think it's mountains and forests and rivers named by noble savages but the savages who live there now wear business suits and look so clean, so clean you know it can't be real. Europe may be dirty, but in North America we're just good at hiding our garbage. We have more room.

How easy it is to get lost in the streets of these foreign cities. How much easier, though, to lose yourself in the beige maze of a suburb. You can't imagine them, Inspector, the houses gulping down the earth, gulping down the hills, swallowing ground squirrels, young trees, children. 

Don't you miss your home? 

Oh, I love that sky blue and tall as mountains, I love those mountains wider and stronger than all the hands of men, but I've never lived in the sky. I've never lived on a mountain.

Six years. Didn't you think of her? Six years.

Yes, I thought of her. I waited for her. I wrote letters telling her to come home. And I thought she would. I waited for her to appear carrying a suitcase and a grocery bag full of apples and bread. I'm still waiting, Inspector. Here I am. 


From the Greek section

Names for the land

Sounds embedded in silence like snails whorled in stone. Sounds that ancient: shepherds' voices rising behind the sheep, the sheep's bells ringing, ringing their passage, the donkeys' brays, the whir of wasps and bees in blossoming oregano. And silence around the din as solid as rock, born in the horseshoe of low mountains beyond the house. Spiti. And, for this house, the diminutive form, spitaki. The spitakiis a one-room structure the size of a child's bedroom, a shepherd's day dwelling. A hut with a new pine roof and three small windows. The walls are made of stones carried from the low mountains I mentioned, just as the fences around here and the whitewashed bench I sit on were also born in those rocky hills. They look like temples, faces, enormous broken shells thrust from the sea before them. 

The metaphors of poetry promise that everything is connected, everywhere. That is why this place begins with poetry. Because here, on the island, the bonds between objects and land-scape, between people and history, are visible and overwhelming. I am the blind woman who wakes one morning and sees, for the first time, her naked feet; then realizes in astonishment that the curved, delicate prints appearing behind her in the dust are linked to her own bony toes. So I wade, amazed, through the union between trees and stones and their shadows, between air and sun-fire. I inhale air that contains twenty different scents. From the high places, and even from this whitewashed bench, I raise my head and gaze past the parched trees and wounded field of poppies, observe the silver-green hills of olive and apricot orchards, the stone huts almost identical to the one at my back. They say Sappho was born on the slope of rock and thistle that rises above the smaller hills. Both slack and tight around the edges of land loop an indigo ribbon of Aegean water, an open-ended azure length of Aegean sky. 

One thought occurs to me repeatedly. I walk through the field bleating at sheep, scrutinizing red-shelled carrion beetles, laughing at nervous lizards. One fact makes me pick up handfuls of dry, gray soil to rub and rub between my hands. Despite the shimmer of sea, sun, and beauty, this is not a postcard. This has never been a postcard. This is a day, and I am alive. 

Sixteen hooves and a shirtless man

Morning lifts up out of the hills like a woman rising from a bath, so much clean air and coolness on skin. I am tying the clothesline tighter between two trees when I hear a bell, clank-jingle. A man has appeared on the road as if by magic. He swears a few times in Greek, pulls on the rope that stretches taut from a goat's halter. He: a quick, spare man of medium height, shirtless, a shepherd's yellow cloth wrapped around his gray and white-haired head. Goat: clean white, bell-jingling, slow-walking, reluctant to follow, clearly superior. Occasionally she halts, cries her discontent, attempts to turn back. The growling man heaves forward. She lurches behind.

One goat. He hurries away, returns ten minutes later with another, who is less stubborn. Then two together. Over the course of the morning, sixteen cleft hooves clack on the flat rocks and scallop dust out of the road. The last two goats come much more easily than the first, no doubt lonely for their two companions. The man tethers them all in the field across from mine, each close enough to an olive tree to benefit from its shade but not close enough to eat its leaves. A house like mine, a shepherd's hut, also stands in this field, but it is far too dilapidated for a human inhabitant. The man couldn't possibly live there. He checks each goat, making sure that the tether spike is set deep enough into the ground. Then he disappears the way he has come, swinging his bare arms long and loose, like a boy.

The Greek Bedouin

Afternoon. I am washing clothes in a small blue basin, fifty paces away from the small house, up the road, where a faucet sticks out of the stones like a clawed hand. Land of miracles: the faucet spills clean, earth-chilled water, even on the hot days. I carry my drinking water in an earthen jug and leave it in the stone house. In the morning or late evening, after the shepherds pass by, I take a bucket and bathe in the road, scooping water over my head, speedily lathering soap through my bathing suit, rinsing it off, towel close by in case anyone--any man--appears without warning. 
He appears without warning. Again. Above the sound of the water splashing stone, I suddenly distinguish the clatter of heavy hooves on rock. And the man is there, a short distance down the path. This time, he balances on top of a red table like a misplaced sultan. The table is ingeniously roped to a big black horse's back. In fact, the table is bound to a heavy saddle, but I don't see this until I turn off the water, back slowly away from my wash basin, walk down the road to get a better look. Variously hooked and hung from the saddle and the table and their complex tangle of knots are a red chair, a small trunk, two empty rabbit hutches, a burlap sack of animal feed, two rolled-up rugs, and a basket brimming blackened pots and pans.

From the top of the red table on top of the tall black horse, the shirtless man with the shepherd's cloth around his head becomes a stunning cross between Lawrence of Arabia going to battle and Genghis Khan going to bathe. When the goats smell him
and the horse, hear the rattle of pots, they begin to bleat and bellyache and cry out in joy. They've been alone all afternoon. "How we've missed you!" they proclaim. I go through my gate and step back even farther, watching him pass. 

A curious potion of fear and fascination works in my blood. What is he doing, this Greek Bedouin, in the small field across the road, why is he disturbing my solitude? I peer over the tops of my underwear and t-shirts as I pin them on the line, I watch him unload the giant black horse. Several times, absorbed in the knots of wet laundry, I glance up, thinking his voice calls me. But no. He talks aloud to the horse, who has laid his surly thick ears against his surly thick head. The man shouts greetings to the goats, then he whistles.

Two dogs appear at the base of the road, one gray fur-ball and one white snowflake. They grow larger and larger, running toward us, until finally I see their heads and their dog-grins trained on the whistler. "Skeera! Faleetcha!" he calls in a high, playful voice meant to excite and please them. They hurl their small bodies up the short bank into the field across from mine, and he bends to greet them, repeating their names. "Skeera! Faleetcha-mou!" So I learn the names of the man’s dogs before I learn the name of the man.

< back to One Room in a Castle