by Brian Kiteley
This is from the novel I’m working on, which is set in Crete in 1988. It’s about love, sun, sex, and the CIA, with cameos by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
We took a taxi to the ferry in Kissamos, on the island of Crete, at four-thirty in the morning. We lay down on the deck of the ferry in a spot Jack said would be in shade when the sun came up. I fell asleep. I awoke to Jack’s voice in conversation with someone other than me. My head was on his lap. He had my shoulder in his gentle grip, perhaps to keep me from rolling out of position and falling. He was talking to a woman I did not recognize. I thought I might be dreaming. I lay my head down on Jack’s lap again. He’d put a pillow on it for me. I did not want to talk with strangers. When I awoke a third time Jack was gathering our bags. We were, it seemed, going camping. I am not an outdoor girl. The boat had docked. The island’s whole population of sixty met us. Antikythera is a very small island halfway between Crete and Kythera, which is a larger island off the southern coast of the Peloponnese Peninsula.
Antikythera’s ferry landing was surrounded by ten small whitewashed buildings that climbed the hill. Jack confabulated with our landlord, who had a house here in Potamos, and a small cabin on the other side of the six-mile-long island. We were borrowing a mule to convey supplies and a few more things the landlord had sold us—mostly water and hard tack. Jack would feed the mule while we stayed in our paradise. This was a beautiful desolate place—granite, scrub pine, artemisia, and goats and sheep.
We traveled across the island, maybe a mile and a half. We walked and laughed and the mule was surprisingly sweet. We arrived at the stone cottage. I have camped out three times in my life. This was serious camping. The bedding hung in a mesh bag from the ceiling. “To keep the mice out,” Jack said. I made the small comfortable bed, using several layers of bottom sheets to keep us separated from the mouse-shit-strewn mattress. I would not brush the mouse shit off the mattress. I fell asleep as soon as I’d made the bed. It may have been eleven in the morning. I awoke very groggy, that milky feeling of having slept too long during daylight. It was still warm. I stripped off all of my clothes, except my underwear. I smelled smoke and fish. I went outside to survey the situation. We were on a ridge over the ocean. I believe we were facing Libya.
There was a steep path down to a beach. I looked around to see if we were alone. I could not see another human, except for Jack, who was tending the fire. Jack had said there would be no one on this end of the island. It was still light but getting late, maybe eight in the evening. This was a gorgeous and sweet-smelling place.
Jack looked up and his hungry look compensated for the pain of walking barefoot toward him. I watched some kind of large filleted fish slip across the butter in the cast iron pan on the fire. Jack used his tee shirt wadded up as a potholder. He slid the fish onto one metal plate, which he’d been heating on the flame to disinfect it. There was no running water and therefore no toilet and no way to wash dishes. I should have asked more questions before this trip. I was glad Jack had thought to bring along toilet paper, one reason our packs were so bulky. Jack took a forkful of fish riddled with bright green bones and offered me a bite. I ate carefully. The meal was very good.
We laughed but we said nothing to each other all night. I was worried about mice in the bed. Jack brought out pillows to the rock bench he’d fashioned by the fire. There was a small amount of firewood, but I could also see pellets of sheep shit and tightly wrapped coils of some sort of brush in the fire. Jack had clearly been working very hard while I slept all day.
• • •
I was off by myself a few hundred yards from the stone home we’d made for ourselves. I was happy. Jack poked the fire. It was our second night. We’d gone swimming off the pebbly beach all morning. We’d slept in the afternoon. Jack said, “My parents died in a car crash when I was seventeen, my first week of college.” I had not heard anything of this story yet. We had known each other for fifteen days. He said his twin sisters were three years ahead of him in college. His parents were on a sort of empty nest second honeymoon. Another car veered out of its lane and hit them head-on. Jack liked that they died in the middle of a second bloom of the marriage. It wasn’t a perfect marriage, but it was generally a happy union. He said he still missed them, twelve years later, but it was a good thing to have been formed by a happy marriage. Had they lived past forty-two, who knows. They might have tired of each other.
I did not comment. This was very different than my parents’ unkind and unhappy story. I was pleased to know this lay behind Jack’s history, even though he already had one failed marriage that he had not yet ended.
The moon was full. We went down to the beach for a swim. We brought pillows and blankets along, in case we decided to sleep on the beach. Our happy mule was our only companion, but he could not scale the steep path to the beach. We fed him before we left. The descent was dangerous, and it made Jack decide that we should not risk going back up later, when the moon went down. We undressed and stepped into the warm still water. Some kind of plankton lit up as we swam through the water. We swam around each other like dolphins. He said, “Swimming behind you, it’s one of the prettiest and most erotic things I’ve ever seen.”
We staggered ashore and lay down on one blanket that we’d put on the only strip of sand on the beach—about ten feet by five feet of it.
We asked each other if we were too happy. Was this only a chemical rush? Was it just good sex? Jack said he had never felt this way before. He put his hands over my ears and said, “I’ve thought I was in love before, but I realize that wasn’t true. There was always some big problem under the surface I saw but couldn’t articulate.”
I said, “You don’t really know me yet. Maybe I’ll disappoint you.” Jack hushed me. Later he said, “You don’t know what a coward I can be.” I disputed this, based on the evidence I had at hand so far, but I really did not know how he’d behave under stress. I knew for sure that I was a coward, about confrontations with people I loved. With people I did not love, I could be very tough and brutally honest.
We were kept awake by a biting insect we couldn’t see. We discovered that going for a swim every hour or two reduced the biting, but it kept us wide awake.
It was beginning to get light. In this tiny harbor next to us, with a twenty-foot tall wall of stone and boulders to the right and another rounded wall a few dozen feet to the left, and only a narrow opening of sea water into this small circular harbor, a sail boat sat at anchor. It was fifty feet away. Jack was fast asleep. I disentangled our bodies as gently as I could, and I stood. I walked toward the water. I slipped into the water and swam toward the boat. A head popped up above the edge of the sailboat, a little girl with bright blond hair. The girl stood upright. She was in a darling little nightgown. She looked to be maybe three years old. I said, “Be careful.” She was puzzled, as if she did not understand English. She fell sideways off the boat and dropped into the water like a dead weight. I screamed and dove down after her. She floated to the bottom, staring angelically up at me. I took her in my arms and struggled to pull her to the surface. She was far heavier than she should have been. I finally did surface with her, and a man and a woman were crouching at the boat’s side, the man reaching out to take his daughter into his arms. She was asleep, I realized. She’d been sleepwalking. I treaded water next to the boat, and I heard and then saw Jack dive into the water.
The couple did not thank us. They weighed anchor and sailed away without a word to us. How had they arrived in our little inlet without our noticing or hearing them? Did they exist? Was I awake yet?
• • •
We could not sleep and it was light enough to hike back up to the plateau. We ate crackers and canned octopus and the wild herbs Jack gathered. In civilian life I would have rejected this octopus, but here it was not only good but deeply satisfying. We fed Hero, our mule. It was a cool cloudy day, so we explored the plateau near us, toward the northern end of the island. Jack said all he knew about Antikythera was a famous mechanism found in a 2,000-year-old boat wreck off the shore at the end of the nineteenth century. The mechanism was a sophisticated clock or guidance system, far more advanced than anything else being made at that time, a mystery to archeologists and historians.
The terrain was rocky and scattered with low shrubs. “The brush is phrygana or maquis, and the tiny trees are Juniper,” Jack said. We gathered the dead parts of the brush and tied them together with hardy grasses for our fire starters. The landlord had left fire wood, and we had used up only five or six pieces, but Jack did not want us to run out or use up too much of the landlord’s storehouse. We could see ocean from everywhere on our walk, and then we came upon a dramatic headland. Here we were about 100 feet above the Mediterranean and it felt like we were in the middle of the ocean, rather than on an island. At the base of the cliff another rock rose up to exactly our level on the headland, and the top of this rock was flat and grassy, a little island in the air. I wanted to climb this rock, but Jack said it was a stupid idea. The word “stupid” rang in my mind for a while, until Jack said, a few minutes later, “We haven’t got the right shoes, or ropes, or even clothes. We’d need jeans and thick denim shirts to protect us from the rocks and outcroppings and bushes.” He did not touch me while he said anything of this. He walked ahead and pointed out beautiful purple flowering thyme. I was not mollified and I watched Jack with much greater intensity, now that I (briefly, I hoped) hated him.
We saw birds, hawks, owl, rabbits, and skinks. The sheep Jack had seen when the ferry passed the southern end of the island were not on this part of the island, but their droppings were everywhere and also useful for the fire. We returned to our shelter. I was getting bored. We had not made love for ten hours, a record for us. I joked, “You don’t love me anymore. You won’t fuck me.” I no longer hated him. Jack looked genuinely stricken, and I wrapped my arms around him. I told him I was kidding. He said, “I don’t want this period to end—our animal coupling.”
But it had ended. The little girl falling into the sea had done something to me. I was hesitant to ask, but I asked, “Did I dream that sailboat and the girl?” Jack said no, he’d experienced it too, but it did feel dreamlike. “How did they anchor in that rocky harbor without our knowing it?” I said. “We would have heard the sails flapping and the anchor line clanking against the boat. How did they maneuver into the inlet in the first place? It’s completely implausible, even with the motor and the sails tied down.”
“Because you see,” I said, “it feels like a recurring dream. I rescue a little girl, always a little girl, from some improbable situation. I want desperately to save her, and I usually do. I’ve told you I’m not sure I want children.”
“No,” Jack said. “You said you definitely did not want children. You may remember that I did not agree to those conditions.” I said I didn’t recall that disagreement. We pondered this. I told Jack for the first time what sort of birth control I was using. It was surprising to both of us that we had not talked about this big thing. I used a diaphragm with my previous boyfriend Hank, but I’d lost it in the move away from Cyprus. Jack said, “Do you want to try to have a little girl?” I was stunned by the question. I stood up and undressed and pulled on my black swimsuit. I ran to the path down to the beach. Jack followed. He asked, “Was that the wrong thing to say?” I could not respond. I began to trot downhill, not a wise decision. Jack told me to slow down, but I was far enough ahead that he could not catch up. I reached the rocky beach and dove into the water and swam out past the two large peninsular rocks that stood guard of the inlet. Jack dove in. I kept swimming. I was a better swimmer than he was. I’d been on the swim team in high school, won state meets.
Jack called out to me in the open ocean, “Please come back.”
I turned back toward our little safe harbor. I helped Jack to the beach.
I told Jack I had deliberately thrown my diaphragm into the sea the day before I met him. This did not mean I was trying to get pregnant or wanted to rope him into something he might not have desired. I said I was caught up in the excitement and momentum of the affair. “It was pretty fun,” I said.
“It is fun, though things are suddenly a bit more serious.” Jack kissed me. We rolled around in the sand.
• • •
We took one last swim. We were gathering our things, and two sailboats motored into the harbor and dropped anchor—it wasn’t so difficult to do. I wanted to wave hello and retreat uphill to our loaded mule without speaking to them. Jack said no. We had to be polite. Six Americans swam ashore. They were tanned and fit—three handsome young couples. I guessed they’d finished college in June and were doing Europe for the summer before real life on Wall Street. I felt old, at twenty-nine. Jack talked with the men. The women liked my bathing suit and my figure. Jack said, “We have to be back to Potamos on the other side of the island to catch our ferry to Crete.” The women begged us to come along with them. They were going to Crete next. We thanked them but said no.
We set out for Potamos. We did not talk the entire walk back. I was scratching bites in embarrassing places, feeling salt-covered and crinkly from no showers, despite all the swimming. We weren’t cranky exactly, but we were subdued.
• • •
We huddled together on the boat, which left the island at four in the afternoon. I cried when I saw the last tip of the place we’d been for just five days. I had my arm around Jack’s waist and my head on his shoulder. The air was hot and the sea cobalt blue.
posted by Brian KiteleyBrian Kiteley has published three novels, The River Gods, I Know Many Songs, But I Cannot Sing, and Still Life with Insects. He has also written two books of fiction exercises, The 3 A.M. Epiphany and The 4 A.M. Breakthrough. Kiteley has received Guggenheim, Whiting, and NEA fellowships. He teaches at the University of Denver’s PhD program in creative writing.
June 4, 2013:
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