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The phone rang just as I was about to leave home and trudge through the raw Cretan winter to my tutoring job. The school where I worked was half a mile away, housed in a gray concrete building in the modern part of Rethymnon, along the highway just outside the old city gates. It was a private establishment, a cluster of shabby rooms on the building's second floor, where my Greek colleagues and I would spend each late afternoon and evening teaching English as a Foreign Language. Our pupils were mostly listless civil servants looking to move up the pay scale and high school students hoping for careers as guides, bank clerks, and tourist police. The pay was minimal, and the blackboards sprayed with so many layers of pale green paint that writing on them was often like trying to use chalk on the side of a cargo ship.
My wife, Danielle, answered the phone and called me in out of the rain. When I walked into the living room, she was holding the receiver in one hand and a delicate, shimmering sheet of gold leaf in the other. The gold leaf was for a Byzantine icon she was painting, one of a line of copies she hoped to sell to local tourist shops. Eight-and-a-half years before, when we met on the island of Patmos, she had been doing the same thing, a temporary measure on the way to realizing her dream of creating her own work. Now that we had two children to support, she was back at it again, just as I was learning to teach instead of working on a new novel. She had seemed able to easily accept this, shrugging it off with typical French stoicism. American that I was, I was still struggling, even at forty-two, to believe that downsizing my dreams and taking on a steady job again was a good thing.
She pressed the mouthpiece against her upper arm. "It's Theológos."
In a corner of the living room our two towheaded children Sara, six, and Matt, going on two were playing with the cat, sitting next to the cast-iron stove we huddled around in the afternoons and evenings while waiting for heat to drift down to us from the distant mildewed ceiling. When we had rented this apartment in the old city four cavernous rooms on the second floor of a crumbling, marble-porticoed, seventeenth-century Venetian mansion we thought it was a steal. Now, in our second winter in Rethymnon, we knew who had done the stealing, and that it was the landlord, not us.
"Theológos?" I asked.
"From Patmos. Livádi."
I looked at her with surprise. Although we had lived in the Patmos farming valley of Livádi winter and summer for more than seven years, buying and restoring a house there, the last people we ever expected to hear from again were its inhabitants. Even more insular than other Patmians, they referred to the people from its port, five miles away, as xéni, foreigners. They also regarded the telephone as a useful but dangerously extravagant device and rarely used it, particularly long distance.
"O Ladós?" I said, using his nickname a necessity on Patmos, where it seemed that half the men were named either Theológos or Ioánnis (for short, "Yánnis") in honor of St. John the Theologian, Ághios Ioánnis O Theológos. It was on Patmos that John had received the visions that were set down in the Book of Revelations, in Greek, ee Apokálypsi the Apocalypse. Theh-ós means God, and lógos word or reason; thus, theológos theologian or God's word.
Theológos owned a ramshackle but thriving restaurant on Livádi Beach. Not really a restaurant, but what the Greeks call a tavérna smaller and less expensive than a regular restaurant (estiatórion) and usually family-run. When I first arrived on the island, it had been called Ee Oráya Eléni (The Beautiful Helen), but a year later, Eléni, his wife, left him, taking their daughter with her, and Theológos cut down the tree outside and changed the name to Ee Oráya Théa The Beautiful View which it certainly had. Sitting on the road that ran parallel to the sea, it looked through a cluster of tamarisk trees to a sand-and-pebble beach and a wide, curving bay where brightly painted fishing boats caïques bobbed upon the shifting, glittering waters. In the distance rose the graceful slopes of Hiliomódi, a small offshore island used by goatherders. Beyond that could be seen the shadowy shapes of other islands in the Dodecanese and, in the sharp light of winter, even the amaranthine undulations of the Turkish coast forty miles away.
Danielle handed me the phone and went back to her table, delicately applying the gold leaf to the surface of the icon she was working on. She was thirty-two and her body, even in a bulky winter sweater and after two children, was as slim as a twenty-year-old's. As she bent over the icon, her auburn hair fell across her face, and her fine French cheekbones, sloe eyes, and slightly aquiline nose were taut with concentration. The children had inherited their blond hair from the Scandinavian side of my family, but the beautiful delicacy of their features was entirely their mother's.
"Theológo!" I said into the telephone, using the Greek form of address in which the final "s" is cut off. "How are you?!"
Theológos wasn't much for small talk. An ex-merchant seaman, a capitánios, he claimed, who had meandered all over the world, he now liked to get straight to the point. Particularly long distance. So as soon as he heard my voice, he weighed anchor and set sail, hardly giving me a chance to say hello.
"Thomá!" he shouted, trumpeting the Greek version of my name all the way from Patmos. "Listen! You want to rent my tavérna this summer?"
Theológos. God's word.
The Beautiful Helen
"Thomá, are you there?" He was still on the line, waiting for me to answer, his voice crackling and faint. In bad winter weather, there was a constant possibility of being cut off, particularly when calling from one island to another. "Thomá, listen! The man from Athens the one who rented it two years ago? wants it again, but I thought of you. Always you told me, if you had my tavérna. Remember?"
I remembered. His offer had instantly conjured up visions of The Beautiful Helen (I was unable to imagine it with any other name), which now beguilingly arose in my mind's eye like glittering Aphrodite shining from the sea. I remembered those early summer mornings seated at a table by the beach sipping a Greek coffee, breathing in the smell of the tamarisk trees and listening to the soft slap of waves against the side of a caïque; the lazy oregano-scented lunches, after which Danielle and I would go back to our house to take a nap within the wonderful coolness of our thick-walled farmhouse and, with the children asleep, perhaps make love; and those evenings when the outside world narrowed down to the few yards illuminated by the tavérna's lights and that mad exhilaration, which the Greeks call kéfi, descended upon the gathering like a tongue of fire...
The Beautiful Helen was one of those restaurants you come across in Greece and sit in and absolutely know that you can do a better job of running than its present owner. Put some bamboo here and there, soft lighting for the evening, install better toilets, get yourself a couple of waiters who care about what they're doing, whip up some interesting recipes, and most of all, serve the food hot. The location will take care of the rest.
So, a few years before, when Theológos had begun leasing out his place for the season rather than suffer through what was becoming an increasing crush of tourists, I started saying, "You should rent it to me!"
This had been an idle request. Though I was a dedicated amateur cook and had worked in a restaurant once before, my offer was often also fueled by an excess of retsina and kéfi. Theológos himself had known this, and laughed along with me. Now, however, he was taking me seriously.
I looked at my watch. I could afford perhaps another five minutes before my trudge to the tutoring school would have to become a dash.
Out of curiosity, I asked, "How much?"
This immediately got Danielle's attention.
There was a pause before Theológos answered. "The man from Athens offered three hundred fifty thousand," he said. "For you, I can make it three hundred thousand drachmas, but no less."
About seven thousand dollars.
"Theológo, even if I wanted to, I don't have that kind of money."
Danielle stared at me.
"I thought you sold your house," said Theológos.
This caught me off guard. "Where did you hear that?"
"Eémay Patmiótis! I'm a Patmian! Everybody knows everybody else's business here. You sold your house, yes? To the Dutch doctor whose daughter wants it for her dowry?"
"Yes," I replied. "But," I lied, "we still haven't been paid. And we're planning to put the money away for the children. For their future. College..."
Now even the kids were listening. At least Sara was, while Matt just sat there happily trying to pull the fur off the cat's back.
"Ah! Well, then..." Theológos answered, raking in his chips.
Friends of mine who owned restaurants on the island of Mykonos had told me they made enough money in one summer to last them the entire year. And at that moment, they were probably spending the winter in Paris or New York, seeing the shows, eating at the best restaurants, while I...
"Theológo, wait. Let me think it over."
Danielle now began to look more than a little alarmed. I couldn't blame her. She knew I had a genetic predisposition, inherited from my late father, an architect and real estate developer in Washington, D.C., for formulating grandiose projects. While this tendency had brought me to Greece in the first place and had eventually gotten us our farmhouse on Patmos, she also knew that when my father died, he had been seventy thousand dollars in debt, mostly to his bookie.
"Thomá!" Theológos was shouting over the phone, "élla! Come! Everybody misses you! You're one of us Patmiótis!"
The line went dead.
One of the first things people want to know is how you do it how you can just pull up stakes on your career (I had been a Broadway stage manager and fledgling director) and go off and live on a Greek island. The thing is, you don't really plan to. Practically all the foreigners I know who have ended up living in Greece for any extended period of time say the same thing: "I just went for a few weeks [days/hours]. But then..."
But then, something happens. Like love.
All I had wanted was to spend the summer there, four or five months at the most, and live out a long-held dream I'd cherished of going away somewhere and writing a novel. My mother had recently died of a stroke and had left me a small legacy. I put ten thousand dollars of it away in a desultory stock market, and took the rest, about two thousand, and left for Greece, where I had a painter friend, Dick Evans, also a former Broadway stage manager, who would help me get acclimated. I was thirty-three and figured I should get this out of my system before it was too late, before I married and had children "The full catastrophe!" as Zorba says.
"I'll be back at the end of the summer," I told my friends.
I arrived in Greece on a bright, windswept day in March. After short stays in Athens and on the island of Mykonos, where I learned more about the hasápiko (Zorba's dance) than I did about my writing talents, I decided that if I were to get any work done at all, I would have to find some place far away from the siren calls that await you along the beaten tourist track.
I chose Patmos as the designated island by simply closing my eyes and dropping my finger on a map of the Aegean, fully confident that now that I was in Greece, I was in the hands of a benevolent Fate who would see to it that all would be well, no matter where my finger landed. "But Patmos?!" I asked. Dick hadn't heard of it either.
An old Fodor's Guide to Greece that I had found in the Athens flea market had little to say about the island. Seven miles long and three wide, it was a speck at the edge of the eastern Aegean, one of a scattering of islands along the Turkish coast known as the Dodecanese, ten hours by ship from Athens's port of Piraeus in the northwest and exactly the same from the island of Rhodes to the south. Ships rarely went there, however, because of the lack of a pier large enough for them to dock at. The guide also had some cursory information on St. John and the Book of Revelations, and a grainy black-and-white photograph of the harbor showing a few grayish-white houses and gray rocks merging into a gray sea under a cloudless gray sky. Well, I thought, I'll try it out. If it doesn't work, I can always go on to the next one.
So, at 6 A.M. on a clear morning at the beginning of May, I stumbled out onto the deck of a battered old ferryboat, the now immortal Miméka, for my first view of Patmos, completely unprepared for the revelation awaiting me. Gone were the gray skies, gray rocks, and gray sea. Instead, the rising sun was turning the high, jagged sandstone rocks of its coastline into a rich amber, and the slopes of its hills and valleys were covered with a glowing patina of green from the winter rains. In the distance, tiny caïques were making their way toward us from harbor, cutting through the sparkling blue water. Most of the passengers were looking in that direction and at the dark, brooding, crenellated mass of the Monastery of St. John on a hill to the south of the harbor, but something drew my attention to the north, where I could see a sprinkling of whitewashed farmhouses nestled in a distant emerald valley. "There!" said a little voice inside me. "You want to go there!" "There," I would later learn, was Livádi.
The dock that we disembarked on from our caïque was little more than the stone-buttressed side of a dirt road that ran along the harbor, a step above the water's edge. Skála, the name of the port town, was the same as the Greek word for "step," and this was probably the reason why it had been called simply that. In fact, the docking facilities looked as if they hadn't changed all that much since St. John first stepped off his caïque on that journey from Ephesus almost two thousand years before.
Except, that is, for the huge concrete blocks that lay jumbled at one end of the harbor. Recently, the government in Athens had decided to show Turkey how possessive it was of the Dodecanese and had begun constructing not only a new pier on Patmos but, later, an army encampment and seaside pillboxes as well.
In the harbor, a rusted dredging barge sat dormant in the water, waiting for a more seemly hour to begin its clangorous day-long operations preparing the sea bottom for the concrete blocks.
Near the middle of the harbor a bright red buoy bobbed upon the waters, about fifty yards from the western shoreline. This, I would later learn, marked the spot where a dangerously jagged rock capable of ripping open the hull of a large ship lay just beneath the surface. It was and is believed to be the petrified form of Yénoupas, an evil mágus turned to stone by St. John in a battle for the hearts, minds, and souls of the island's inhabitants.
This battle is not yet over as I was reminded again and again during my stay on the island and the story of the encounter between John and Yénoupas, a purely local legend, tells so much about Patmos that it is worth recounting here and now.
Copyright © 2002 by Tom Stone