The island was small and solitary, and the Aegean Sea surrounded it with an intense blue that exalted the curl of a dazzling and kind of petrified white, which down below would be foam breaking against the reefs and coves.
— Cortazar, The Island at Noon
Heading backalong the beach with Klaios’ arm around his shoulder, Marini thought of Felisa, her tanned face in profile as she leaned down to distribute lunch trays on the plane before it plunged. Her screams would have ended in a thud of silence. Kalimera, kalimera, he repeated, as if the incantation would somehow reach her and the Algerian radio operator and all the others from Flight 203 now drifting in the depths of the Aegean.
He felt dizzy, and leaned against Klaios; the plane’s free-fallcould well have been a hallucination, if not for his having towed to shorethe shirtless stranger with the fatal gash in his throat.
Back in his room at Klaios’ house, Marini lay on the bare floor and closed his eyes, trying to keep his mind off the plane. He had arrived on the island the previous evening, exulting in his new-found freedom after chucking the job with Alitalia and everything that came with it. That morning, awakened by theshrill cheer of cicadasand fragments of unfamiliar birdsong, he had stepped into his bathing trunks and headed to the cove, where he swam and then lazed on the beach. At eleven, he began climbing a steep hill to take pictures from the cliffs.Along the trail lay thickets of thyme and sage, and rocks where lizards were sunning themselves, their long tongues licking moisture from the air.
He dozed off listening to the calls of falcons —kek-kek-kek — and slept until evening, when he went and sat with the men in the kafeneion drinking retsina. The men spoke only Greek, except for Simo, who also knew French along with a smattering of Somali from the camp. The women across the street sat on their haunches sorting through bales of fish. Simo explained that there was little work in the village other than catching scorpion fish and octopus; as for the females,they were mainly old women or minors.
The sunset yielded to aflurry of bats and a faint moon floating above the iodine-tinted water. In the church of Saint Sophia, the blue and gold icon stand was lit up by candles mounted along the old stone walls. The stranger lay in a plain casket with his throat covered. He was middle-aged, his skin the color of cinnamon. A dozen men and women shuffled in with their heads bowed. The priest, sporting a long beard and an enormous cross on his black robe, began an incantation in which Marini could make out only the word eleison. Simo, clad in a ragged shawl,placed a spray of roses on the stranger’s chest, while Klaios’ son Ionas arranged marigolds at his feet. The cloying odor of incense reminded Marini of the church at Trastevere, where he and his brother Tazio had once sang as choirboys among the stone sarcophagi with their swaying musicians and dancers. Marini had last seen Tazio, still unemployed, waving goodbye in Rome in the rain, the day after Marini arrived on Flight 203 from Tuniswhen he had spent the entire noonday hourlooking out for the tortoise-shaped island from the tail of the plane, leaving Felisa to fend with the passengers.At theCaffè Greco he had promised Felisa that he would make it up to her. He had been alternating between Felisa in Rome and Lucia on the stopovers in Tehran, and occasionally Tania in Beirut, but Felisa was the only one who understood him a little, even though she had cried that night, saying she wanted to have his baby.
Simo said the stranger might have been artistically inclined, judging by his long, tapering fingers; Simo himself had played piano in a jazz bar in his days in Toulouse. In the camp, of course, things had been different. Marini had never mastered an instrument, and could no longer sing the high notes after his voice broke.
The stranger’s hair was wavy, his head in profile like that on an ancient coin. His forearm had several blisters and an olive tattoo with squiggles in an unfamiliar script. Simo said it was probably Sanskrit or Bengali. Marini wondered for a moment whether the stranger had spoken to Felisa. In the water he had been difficult to handle and had almost pulled Marini under.
Kalimera, Marini said to himself as the priest sprinkled holy water. He closed his eyes and thought of Felisa’s long brown hair falling on his face. She would have been amused at his planning to become a fisherman; his agreement with Klaios was that he would share in the proceeds from the day’s catch, which would mean not only learning to trap octopus but also to set out over the phosphorescent sea to spear them. Standing barefoot in the boat with strong-legged Ionas, lifting up the velvet cephalopod with its clutching tentacles and carefully avoiding the beak, he would have to bite into the patch of rubbery flesh right between the eyes, tasting blue blood and black ink until the creature shuddered and became still.
A breeze came in, causing the candles to flicker, and casting giant shadows on the walls. The faces of the icons seemed gaunt, like those of wizened animals.
Simo said the stranger may have wanted to be cremated. Simo had lived among Hindus in the camp, and they preferred pyres on the banks of the Ganges. The priest approached just then, and Klaios motioned to them to be quiet. The others in the church kept their heads hung low, as if the stranger was one of their own.
The priest brought the candle closer. The stranger’s skin gave off a waxen glow, even though no embalmer’s needles had done any work on him. According to Simo, it was Klaios himself who had washed the body, after which his wife had rubbed it down with olive oil.
“Open his mouth,” the priest whispered. Marini pried apart the stranger’s leathery lips, exposing a set of fine white teeth. His mouth smelled of olives and the characteristic fruity odor of the recently dead. The priest deftly inserted a coin under the tongue, and Simo helped him to try and close the mouth. But the jaw was stiff and hung open with the tongue protruding, like a drawer stuck in its hinge. The priest shrugged, and returned to the altar. Simo pointed out that the casket would be safely interred before the fluids started to seep out.
In the mornings when Felisa had not yet woken up and Marini was already dressed in his uniform, he would lean down and examine her carefully to see if she was still breathing; he had that habit since childhood, when Tazio had violent attacks of asthma and Marini would worry whether anything terrible had happened during the night. Sooner or later, of course, it would be Tazio’s turn; Felisa had been unlucky enough to be on the flight on the precise day it happened to go down. Like other such disasters, the loss of the plane had resulted in only a minimal disruption of nature, with the ocean swiftly smothering the roar of the twin Rolls-Royce engines tumbling from the sky while Simo was mending his nets on the beach and Klaios’ snotty-nosed grandchild was sucking greedily at his mother’s teat.
The stranger had offered a brief and valiant resistance, but that too had ebbed, and now here he was lying rigidly in the candle-light, a grandee with an elaborate white scarf around his throat. Marini could not have admitted it earlier, but he realized now that he was glad the stranger was dead. He hated the man’s smugness, the way he simply lay prone while people who knew nothing about him were expected to show due deference; and yet it was fitting that a modicum of respect be accorded to the corpse, even though everyone on the island was aware that given their economic situation it was not dying but surviving that constituted an extraordinary achievement.
For Marini, the rest of his existence depended on faith that time would continue its inexorable progress; thus, it would be entirely natural to hear the clunking of earth on the stranger’s coffin, and to see the pallid asphodels send their shoots out over the grave, and to smell the clean scents of autumn leaves blanketing it; and it would be natural, too, for Marini to accumulate additional sediments of Greek culture and for his skin to eventually wrinkle like a prune.
By then, the lack of privacy on the island would have annoyed him, for while he could wander with his cane across its beaches and venture up into the uninhabited mountains to the south, he still had to earn his keep with Klaios, and in the village he would not even be able to shave without one of the children peering up at him, let alone stroll along the harbor arm-in-arm with the widow he had taken a shine to, for not only did the residents of Xiros mind everyone else’s business but the rules were very strict and until recently, people committing offences had been punished by stoning. The regulations would have been similarly harsh in the stranger’s land, where by the banks of the Ganges the guilty were often eviscerated before being committed to the flames.
Further news of the stranger and his world was hard to come by except via the boat from Rynos that visited monthly during the spring and summer, on which Marini himself had first arrived. When it glided into the small harbor, tooting its foghorn, Simo would make himself scarce, in case the guards from the camp were still looking for him.
“They say a plane disappeared around here,” the bare-chested captain said. “Seen any trash wash up?”
Ionas bit his lip and stared at the captain, while Klaios, half-blind, looked away.
“There was an Italian on board,” the captain went on, sipping his tsipouro. “A flight steward. His brother is still searching for the body.”
The captain probed more, but finding no purchase, turned to the developments of the day, which included a revolt by a group of disgruntled students at a university and their subsequent slaughter. The islanders nodded, but said little; politics was not their thing, though they were well-versed in matters pertaining to fish and knowledgeable about topics such as preparing tzatziki and the sudden appearance of whooping-cough on the island. The captain became quiet, and after consuming several more glasses, loaded up the ice-chests of octopus and the packets of cheese and, clamping down on his pipe, set off on his trip back. Though the natives believed the journey to and from the land of their ancestors took days, Marini had reckoned eleven hours for his own voyage to the island in an earlier era when things went faster and his watch still functioned; his once-trusty Omega had been ruined during the rescue attempt and had stopped for good at noon.
Inderjeet is a scientist and scholar who retired early from Silicon Valley to Thailand, where he volunteers with tribal communities. He studied creative writing with Carlos Fuentes at Penn and with Paul Harding at Harvard. He has published six scholarly books, including The Imagined Moment, a book on time and narrative theory. His short stories have been published in Eclectica, BLIP Magazine (now called New World Writing), 3:AM Magazine, Apple Valley Review, Drunken Boat (Finalist for the Pan Literary Award, also one of Story South’s Million Writers Award Notable Stories of 2007), Slow Trains, Nimrod (Finalist for Katherine Anne Porter Prize), WIND (2003 Short Fiction Award), Word Riot, Asia Writes, Kimera, Plum Ruby Review, and other venues.
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