In Gavdos there is a sort of collective protest against the past. Not against history and the stubborn patterns we mistake for certainty, but against all evidence of time beyond the beach.
Image from Flickr user weidegruen.
I’m drawing water from the well, which—as Adonis promised—I’d found after a forty-minute scramble round the coast. A hole in the sand just steps from the sea. Hauling up heavy buckets to fill plastic bottles that reek of booze, I’m startled by a woman who comes running out of the bush. “Stop!” she screams. “You’re doing it all wrong.”
Naked, sun-wrinkled, but with fine flowing blond hair, she takes the bucket from my hands. “Like this,” she scolds. “Otherwise the others will be angry.”
But I don’t know what others she could be talking about. Hot, rock-studded sands give way on one side to water and on the other to gnarled growth.
This woman, who when I ask her name replies that she is “beyond such restrictions,” struggles with speech, as though her mouth is at odds with the shapes required. Her voice is deep and graveled, her irises have the same milky quality found sometimes in the blind. “Oh, there are others here, all right,” she says, “but we don’t disturb them.” As if on cue, a rustling in the shrub announces another beach dweller, and a man walks right past us to urinate in the water, giving no indication that he’s seen us at all.
She arrived years ago on a holiday, she tells me, and when she decided to stay on thought it would only be for a spell, until the idea of returning to her home in Paris, her job, her husband grew more and more remote. “It fell away,” she says. “Everything just disappeared, like it had never existed in the first place.” Standing before me, expertly tugging at the well, her brisk movements reveal white half-moons sheltered beneath her darkened breasts. “There’s the dead world, or this one. There couldn’t be both. Most of us here have come to that.”
I have a hard time wrapping my head around the size of this ephemeral collective, the we, the us, the others who surface in reference but are otherwise scarcely seen. I walk up and down the sparse beaches, and yet the ground is covered in a thousand steps. Minoli, the self-appointed mayor of the sands, tells me his own census includes only the elect, those who have committed years to this life and know what it means to have been touched by the spirit. How many are here, I ask him, and receive answers that range from dozens to hundreds. “There may be many,” Minoli says, “but who really knows.”
What I do gather, however, is that most of those here are men, most are Greek, most have abandoned former lives of wives and work, and most spend at least a few months back on civilized soil each year to earn the scant means to live again on the beach.
“To live on the beach.” This sentence, so deceptively simple, beckons scrutiny, as here my most common assumptions about what it is to live are totally inadequate. The dwellings may well have been extracted from a Lost Boys daydream. Composed of driftwood and rock, built in, of, and around the trees, these abodes—called kavagias—would seem straight out of a fairy tale were it not for the fact that they are inhabited by middle-aged men.
“To live on the beach.” Do these days count as living? They unfold like an experiment in oblivion. There is some cooking, yes. And much drinking. There is a shuffle from one kavagia to another, depending on which has the ready meal or fullest bottle. But otherwise there is nothing. Heat. Hours sliding. The daily submission to light. “Let the spirit enter you” is the order of the day. But what is it that transpires when people are released completely from their customary tethers? There are no laws or leaders or codes of conduct here. There are no prescriptions for what constitutes normal or strange. There is complete license to be, say, or do anything that you might care to be, say, or do, and I ask, Is this living? Because here what emerges is a driftless anarchy, an elaboration of nothingness, wherein nothing is taken as god.
I came to Greece because of George. George of The Strong Handshake, a nascent commune in southern Crete. On and off for some years I had been chronicling utopian endeavors, projects built up by people who had surveyed the offerings of “normal” life—like waged employment, mortgaged homes, single-partner partnerships—and finding these options lacking, had quite deliberately opted to create something else. Taking to heart my anthropological credo that all knowledge must be gained in situ, I have lived, in no particular order, with a shaman in Bolivia, a witch in Ireland, a cult in Argentina, and a band of scavengers in Ibiza. But these were all mature efforts, which by the time I’d shown up were thoroughly settled into their respective routines and convictions. I was drawn to George’s vision because it seemed like a way to get in on the work of spinning culture from the ground.
I can’t say I knew much of what he was up to, apart from what I’d gleaned from our scattered correspondence. But I was intrigued—in spite of myself, excited—by his vision of artists living together in the lands he had purchased by the sea. A village of artisans. He wrote to me of fruit-bearing trees, studios in sturdy canvas tents. At night, he said, we would gather round bonfires on the beach and revel in creativity and self-reliance.
Looking back I don’t believe that George intended to deceive me. We believe what we want, irrespective of reality, and see in circumstance only as much as we need to sustain our passing faith. I was as seduced by his proposition—make art! be free!—as I was by my sheer desire to be in motion and take flight.
In Crete, the particular configuration of land and light is at once awesome and utterly human, brutal and soft. The sun comes slanting in hard and catches blindingly in my lashes. The gusts of the meltemi, tearing down from the Aegean, can pick plates right off the table. Its roar is low but constant in my ears. In the town of Paleochora, where George’s camp is based, there is a particular type of tree that binds with its neighbor and thus grows in circles. It seems impossible, but I’ve stood between them: roots married below the earth, branches aching wide to meet.
Perspective here tends toward disorder. Dimensions shift in the blinking light.
It is growing late when I set out in the direction of George’s plot, along the stone road that leads to the mountains. People say these rocks look like a crocodile, and I envision a beast sliding into its bath. Perspective here tends toward disorder. Dimensions shift in the blinking light. The sea is a pond, the peaks merely reptilian. And what am I but a speck in this landscape: a bird hopping along a scaly spine.
I give myself over to one full moment of excitement as George strides from the canvas tent, just as he had promised. I am confronted with clear, clean features and a taut bare chest. Even if given a run of only seconds, the imagination bounds into action: the slanting light, the lapping sea, the sinewed strength of his arms. But George’s eyes narrow when they find me standing on his land, and even after I repeat my name, he seems to have trouble placing who I am. “Just surprised to see you is all”—his accent betrays no mother tongue. Later, when I ask where he is from originally, he’ll give me a queer, suspicious look. Up close his skin is flecked with colored paint, and when he finally extends his hands, I touch their calloused surface.
We sit down to beers on his beach of perfect, egg-like stones that chatter as the waters roll back and forth. George he tells me he is an artist who’s “grown too big for canvas.” He wants to create now on a human scale, to make life and relationships his works of art. He is a wanderer, too, and I try to travel with him along the routes that led him here—the broken marriage, the professional frustrations, the dawning understanding that all are one, vibrating with the divine. A narrative refined through retrospect, where suddenly every chance and misstep has become enshrined as fate.
It is when he begins to lament his unrecognized genius that I realize he is drunk. And it is as he expounds on how his ideas are shared by only the smallest and most privileged fraction of mankind that I realize I know this man. In fact, I’ve met him many times before. A man of singular vision, courage, talent, whose assured greatness has been stymied by the haphazard cruelty of the world. I begin to breath more deeply of an inebriated stink that’s many, many days old. All of a sudden the late light gives and George’s handsome shape deflates, the muscles grow weak and slack, and the blue of evening reveals the ravaged lines of his face. He starts to sigh about lacking the energy, the time, the money, the resolve “for all this,” he gestures to the flapping tent, the only structure on his plot. Little piles of rocks rise like lowly monuments to abandoned tools: here a hammer, here a clutch of nails. There is a rake meant for leaves, though all I see is stone.
He says he’s decided he needs to take a journey. “You know, mountains, sky.”
But you told me to come.
“Yesterday,” he shrugs, and drains the contents of his bottle. When he suggests that I travel with him, I think of how physical beauty can all but sink in the murk of personality. He offers to lead me across the mountains. “I know all the holy places in Creta. We’ll walk and camp and meditate. And then we’ll take the boat to Gavdos.”
“One of the last places where you can sit with the soul of the universe.”
The sky has darkened, a warm and velvet dome, and the moon is rising from the sea. Dripping electric orange against the night, so big, so close, so strong it might haul the world right up with it. “Gavdos,” George points to the floating distance, and I decide I need to travel, alone, to that faint outline taking shape beneath the moon.
The following dawn, I’m sitting in a café near the dock, waiting for the ferry. The moon still hangs in the pale sky, looking slight now and far away, a different body entirely from what had filled the night. But it will linger on long after the sun has made its morning conquest: there is no order to the hours here, no clear distinctions of dark and light.
Unasked, a waiter brings me a glass of passion fruit juice and sits down across from me. “You’re going to Gavdos,” he says. It is not a question. “Do you know where to stay?”
When I start to mention finding a hotel, the waiter flashes an impatient look. He reaches for my notebook and sketches a crude map. “Agios Ioannis. That’s where you’ll go.” He taps the page with his finger. “A few hours past the port. You’ll stay for a while.” Again, this is not a question. “Beautiful place, I know it well. But be careful,” he locks eyes with mine. “For some people it’s easy to get lost.”
The boat had not been scheduled to run that day, but like the hours there is little regularity in passage. Winds, storms, waves, and these days, more and more, labor strikes affect the crossings. Happily, however, we set out. Three long hours of hugging the coast, steep cliffs crashing into luminous waters. The boat is largely empty, and what there is of passengers is an uninspiring mix of thick-soled shoes and fanny packs, until we reached the port of Sfakia. The tourist set disembarks, and a half-clad circus scrambles aboard amid a great confusion of backpacks and musical instruments, dreadlocks, tattoos, beaded hairpieces, billowing dresses, boxes of fruit, totem poles, easels, tents, stoves, scrolls, sacks of sandwiches, crates full of booze, hammocks, tobacco leaves, bricks of hash, basil plants, and slapping feet. A young woman blows me kisses and a man gives me a banana. “Gavdos! Gavdos!” The name becomes a sort of common greeting, a collective chant. A weathered man takes up the bouzouki, and his dry, aching voice carries us into the swaying waters, a slow, rocking pitch, seventy kilometers to the southernmost landmass in the clutches of Europe. A fleck of Crete chipped off and tossed into the Libyan Sea.
I must have fallen to sleep, because I open my eyes to a stretch of floating nowhere and the smile of this man. A smile that emerges from the craggy depths of his cheeks, all but lost to the scars and folds that compose his face.
He rolls a cigarette and passes it to me. I decline, but as with so many Greek gestures, to refuse is impossible, and so I sit beside him, with an unlit cigarette in my hands, as he tells me that he is an artist, he like to makes jewelry. This is his second trip to the island. “I only left to gather more supplies, I was going to return, but life…four years,” he gives a baleful shrug and smiles. “I’m here now.” I try not to laugh when he tells me that his name is Adonis, thinking of Fowles with his make-believe Greek island peopled with feeble-minded Socrates, and sagging crones called Aphrodite. The Adonis beside me is a singularly unattractive man. His fifty-two years have exacted a weighty toll in the form of rotted teeth and lost hair. But the smile banishes these imperfections to inconsequence.
Gavdos. The heat collapses on us when we disembark. A lifeless coast rolls between low-lying mountains, a dusty palette of yellow, broken only by patches of scrub and scree. The hillsides barely touched by roads. Up and down the shoreline, I look for human signs, but with the exception of the port, itself little more than a dock, the terminus of a steep, dusty path, there’s hardly a house in sight. I had come expecting the continuation of Greece as I knew it, with its whitewashed homes and bougainvillea. But here, miles and miles: bleak, barren, scarcely inhabited.
The circus that had clamored aboard in Sfakia conducts its procession in reverse, spilling onto the dock, where a small but bustling crowd is waiting. Dreadlocked men on motorcycles stream down the cliffs, and groups clink frothing beer bottles. I stand motionless, like I’ve stumbled into a ritual in which I know no part. Hot, hungry, saddled with too many belongings that I quickly realize would here serve no purpose: my laptop, a pair of high and delicate heels, my clothes neatly folded with lavender sachets. I am equipped with little other than the map the waiter scratched out in stick-like lines. I smile and wait, self-consciously, for my cue to join.
“Katarina! Katarina!” Someone takes my hand. “This way.” And suddenly I’m gathered up into the throng. My pack is eased from my shoulders and placed into the trunk of a car, which then speeds off without me over the mountain. Adonis appears and hands me a beer and then guides me round a makeshift bar. Minoli, Hermes, Thanassis, Marcos, Nikos, Iorgos. Nearly everyone is a man. In Greece, it is mostly men who claim the streets. Men and foreigners. (On another occasion, I had been told that the public sphere was the province of “men and whores,” but I try to not think too much of that spatial designation.)
“Katarina! We walk.” Adonis steers me by the elbow. The cars, the bikes and buses and mopeds, are winding up and over the hill. “We walk to Iannis so we know the distance we travel to get there. Is better, ne?” And so, under the crushing anvil of midday, I follow Adonis up the steep, winding path. He is excited, talking ceaselessly, with each step seeming to shed the years of his troubled life. His open mouth exhales words and constantly intakes: beer, water, raki, fistfuls of herbs seized from the road. He stuffs little clumps merrily into his mouth and chews loudly while speaking, occasionally shrieking and spitting violently when some unsavory bit passes his lips.
Through the dust and beating sun, we reach the peak and arrive upon a miracle. Towering across the sea, there lies the entirety of Crete. Like a painting too grand for any frame, the vast and purple mountains rise outsized through a day of uncustomary clarity. “Katarina! This is the best day of my life!” Adonis cries over and again, reaching out to stroke the furrowed trees, seizing lumps of reddened earth between his fingers. “This is the best day of my life, because I have been brought back to Gavdos!”
“Wonderful,” I smile.
“And,” he bounces slightly up and down, “and Gavdos has brought you to me.”
A jolt of apprehension: such enthusiasms make me nervous. So I speak; I try to join his conversation.
“No, no Katarina. I don’t want your stories.”
We walk on.
I am sitting with Adonis under a flapping purple sheet suspended between a crumbling stone wall and a tree that grows just feet from the sea. He is intent on this spot, not just for his kavagia, but for “a little shop,” and ever since our arrival has spent his days scrambling beneath the relentless sun. Hauling stone slabs for seats, and grinding limestone for mortar. It is grueling work; I know, since I’ve been recruited to his aid. He plans to build an atelier for his jewelry. “I paint the beach pebbles, and make holes to wear as bracelets.” I have just witnessed an unpleasant exchange between Adonis and another beach dweller, Minoli, who was accused of being a spoiler of dreams for asking, “Who in the world would ever come to Gavdos to buy jewelry?” I hold my tongue.
“That Minoli,” Adonis grumbles, “thinks that he’s the governor of the beach or something.” But Adonis, like everyone, recognizes Minoli as the de facto leader, living as he does in the largest kavagia smack in the center of the beach, nestled in an enviable clump of cedar. Minoli likes to dole out small wisdoms, and talks of Gavdos as “a university.” At dawn, he fishes from a rocky promontory, and throughout the day passes from one dwelling to the next, like a doctor making house calls, inquiring into everyone’s state of mind. From the look of his face and lean brown body, huddled over a gnarled walking stick, Minoli appears impossibly ancient, a Zarathustra of the sands. When I ask him how old he is, he curtly replies, “A lady never asks a gentleman his age,” all the while perched on a tree and scratching at his bare testicles.
Adonis’s face, deprived of its usual smile, is red and dripping sweat. He rolls a cigarette while drinking red wine from a large plastic bottle. “See, Katarina, I am good today. No smoke until the afternoon. Is better. Here, in the new world, I don’t need smoke all the time. But that Minoli makes me feel stress all over again, like being in Athens. He say this kavagia no good, it’s too close to the water. But he doesn’t have my vision,” he taps his head. “And I’ll tell you secret. You see this wall?” He gestures to the pile of rocks spilling out from under the tree. “This is old wall. Ancient. The Romans used to come here for vacation, long, long time ago, and this was a café.”
There are theories of meteors crashing into the sea and colliding tectonic plates. Some say the land was summoned from the deep by the gods.
Talk abounds with these gestures to history. And the record, sparse as it is, does indeed support claims that this barren hunk was once tread by Roman feet, and has perhaps even supported human life since Neolithic times. Gavdos was a passageway between the Minoan Empire and Egypt, and a few of its now unpeopled beaches are said to have once been bustling ports. Archaeological expeditions have found the remains of aqueducts and caches of wine; apparently the oil from the cedar trees was a liquid favored in mummification. During the first Byzantine era, the local population surged to 8,000, but in the centuries following dwindled on account of pirates, Venetians, and Turks, not to mention the inhospitable climate, scorched, dry, and prone to erosion. In the 1930s, Gavdos held communists exiled from Crete, and though political prisoners are no longer kept on the island, you can still find cell blocks crumbling on the hillsides.
And while Adonis’s insistence that his planned kavagia rests on ancient foundations is spurious at best, it is thoroughly in keeping with the flourishing local lore. Nearly all of the beach’s longtime dwellers are certain that the stones that shape their homes or the sea fossils that form their personal museums are really the fragments of history. And just as each man espouses a personal connection to the past, so too does each have a particular myth for how Gavdos came into being. There are theories of meteors crashing into the sea and colliding tectonic plates. Some say the land was summoned from the deep by the gods. I am fond of Minoli’s version, in which Gavdos was formed by a sub-aquatic mating of Europe and Africa. “Worlds merging,” he says. “That’s what makes it so special.”
“Katarina,” Adonis’s mood is buoyed by the wine. “My precious Katarina. It feels good to make something, no? To not just be here like some people, drinking all the time, smoking drugs, lost in the head. It is better to create, to make something of meaning.” He stretches long across the stone bench he has newly built, covered in seawater and sand. To protect his feet from the scorching ground, he walks on the over-long hems of his pants, and now their bottoms are soaked and frayed to tatters. “Katarina, I thinking. I thinking why you want to be here, what you doing here, really? You want to be like the rest, just lost, doing nothing? Or maybe you want to create, too. Maybe you be my business partner.”
“This way you make some money. We don’t ask people for much, but they come here, and see that we make beautiful work, and then they want to give a little. Just enough so that we can be comfortable. Buy a little more wine, more raki, more to share with the others. You make a little money and you stay the whole summer. You stay for the fall.”
I say I cannot stay. I do not say that I do not know what I am doing here, apart from wanting, just a little, to be lost.
But Adonis is swept up in his plans. “Katarina, my life I do many things, but nothing never through to the finish, where I feel proud, a little success, and people they respect me, katalaves? My wife, she always say I have no worth, and maybe was hard for me make money, but that doesn’t mean I’m not a good person, not a real man. Here in Gavdos, we start over, everything else doesn’t matter anymore.”
There is a man who looks to me to be a saint. His face sculpted in a beatific beam, he walks like a dance on the balls of his feet, palms upward as though in offering. Matted dreadlocks sway like pendulums at his waist as his darkened face narrows against the sun. I’m drawn to him, I find his beauty is like a call to join the feast. I watch as he reaches into the little leather pouch that houses his tobacco, I listen to the deep gravel of his voice as he laughs and sings and makes pronouncements inarticulate in any language. I think that I am quite invisible to him, until one afternoon, when, swaying about the taverna, he pauses before me and speaks in a rush.
Hermes translates: “He wants to know your name.”
“Katarinho!” the saint bellows.
“Iorgos,” I murmur in reply.
This exchange of names comprises the bulk of our dialogue. And yet we manage to speak for hours, for days, a babble of gestures and contented incomprehension. He draws me pictures on scraps of wood, he writes poems in the sand. He summons the names of mystics—Rumi, Gibran—and recites long passages in Greek. Some of the others have endeavored to feed me a diet of three words a day, “but only good words, beautiful words, so that when you think in Greek, it is only beautiful thoughts.” So Iorgos takes it upon himself to teach me phases like mou hara, my joy, my sweet, my delight.
Iorgos is no saint, but rather, as Marcos tells me, “the most traditional Gavdos man.” He has lived here for the past eighteen years, returning occasionally to Crete for financial assistance, but surviving largely off the good will of those who find him charming. His kavagia is high in the dunes, and I never would have found it had he not guided me across the midnight landscape. Scrambling up and down the sandy hills, through clusters of cedar and needle pine, he hops across a bridge of rope and plank and delivers me into a clearing. He lives in what could only be described as a pirate’s lair. Composed of driftwood walls and great quantities of sailcloth, his home has a kitchen built into the branches, and a living area where battered chests serve as seats. The sky is the ceiling, the sand is the floor, and hanging, dangling, secreted all around, are specimens from the sea, scraps of poems, and hides from wild goats. The light of the candles catches in the branches and seems to bring the night a little closer.
“Iorgos,” I say, “hungry,” and rub my belly.
He points to the sky, “star,” and looks in my eyes for understanding. “Star favorite icon.”
“Food?” I ask, aware that I have not eaten all day.
“Salt,” he growls, running a tongue across my sea-washed shoulder. “Love taste salt.”
In Gavdos there is a sort of collective protest against the past. Not against history and the stubborn patterns we mistake for certainty, but against all evidence of time beyond the beach. It is permissible to ask where someone comes from, but to press further and inquire about families or jobs, education or experience, is generally regarded as a serious breach of conduct. As yet ignorant of this taboo, I chatter with Marcos, who, as usual, has assumed charge of preparing the evening meal for the far end of the beach. Marcos is a man whom some other twist of fate would surely have made into a soap-opera heartthrob or an underwear model, but who this lifetime has been relegated to a low-slung hammock by the sea. During the day, he struts about before the kitchen kavagia, wearing only a t-shirt that flutters above his naval and leaves his netherparts free to one hand’s absent scratching, while the other holds aloft a work by Cormac McCarthy. He reads aloud as he walks, pacing between the stone wall and the shoreline, and rarely puts his book down, even when he wades into the water to pee. But whenever someone wanders over to the kitchen, he instantly assumes the role of gracious host, boiling water for coffee or preparing little snacks. He lives nearly the whole of the year on the beach, wrapping his tall, muscled frame in sheets of plastic when the winter winds rise and sand assaults the skin, and acts as an unofficial welcoming committee for island initiates, happy to serve, to explain, to elaborate on myth. He is the author of a great number of culinary feats, having built an oven into the sand and a chimney-topped fireplace by the enormous tedra whose roots form the boundaries of the kitchen. He dons an apron to protect his bare skin from the fire, a gingham artifact left by a girlfriend from a summer past, and I can’t help but think of a caveman reincarnated as Martha Stewart.
“So Marcos,” I say, pretending to sip from the bottle of raki that I have learned is impossible to refuse and unwise to consume on an empty stomach. “Cormac McCarthy. I hear that you studied English literature…” I intend the question as a polite piece of conversation; I can talk the language of books. But Marcos only arches a brow, while the few other men who understand English turn to look at me coolly. I’d invoked the specter of somewhere else, I’d made reference to the past. A few pointed looks and then the other threads of conversation resume, continuing as though I’d never spoken.
If Minoli plays the part of local sage, it is Marcos who steers beach social life. It is to his kitchen that everyone stumbles late in the morning when the hour for coffee gratefully yields to raki consumption, and it is round his fire that everyone comes to sit at dusk, to cook together, eating hash smeared crudely on honey-soaked crackers, singing the same songs to the moaning bouzouki. Marcos doesn’t leave the island, and there are weeks, he says, when he is all but alone. “Why would I live anywhere else?” he asks me. “I worked once three years in Germany and for what. Work, work, work. Money, money, money. Make every day the work. More car, more house, more clothes. I make lots of money. Sure. This is easy. But I have no life.”
Today the mood is festive. The wind has stopped, the sun is peaceful. To mark the occasion, Marcos is preparing lasagna. The pots are scrubbed clean with sand and saltwater, the smell of feta and garlic waft from the earthen oven.
Everyone eats and is happy, and then sings and drinks racomolo—a drink that likely exists only in Gavdos, a potent mix of raki, honey, and mashed tedra berries.
“Katarina,” Adonis smiles at me. “You are like a beautiful flower. Gentle person. I feel I wait my whole life to find you—you have been brought here to teach me about myself.” He begins picking at the strings of his worn instrument, a cigarette smoldering between his fingers. “Here, I write a song about what you make me learn.”
He sings with his sobbing voice, and when he stops to drink again and roll another cigarette, he translates: “I sing a song about a boy, very scared. Lost in the labyrinth. He buys a big knife to protect him against everything he don’t understand. But even with his knife, bad things happen. Because of his knife, bad things happen. It does not protect, and he gets more and more lost. And then one day, he destroys the knife and suddenly he realize that the labyrinth, it never exist.”
The other men nod. This makes sense. There are, they tell me, only two paths in life. One of security and certain death, and the other the aimless drift of freedom.
I’m not sure how long I’ve been in Gavdos, whether it’s been only days or entire weeks. Like the others who have wound up here, I find I’m losing track of time. I tend to follow the light, and this late afternoon finds me at the taverna, taking shelter from the climax of the heat. These days I wear a shredded-up sarong tied around my head, to keep my mind from boiling. The taverna is really no more than a shack and shaded terrace on the bluff. It’s runs by an enterprising couple who set up shop here for the busy months, and make a small fortune selling provisions to the beach dwellers, as there is hardly anywhere else on the island to buy food or fresh water, and certainly nowhere else that stocks raki by the gallon. I’m at a table bearing several half-empty bottles of gin, in the company of several men, most of whom are speaking at once, and thus, it appears, to no one.
Thanassis, a blond and bearded man in his forties, wiggles in his chair to free the long dreadlocks that have again managed to get caught beneath his seat. I would count him as one of my scant friends here, meaning that he is not so besotted by alcohol or hash that he appears to remember who I am from one day to the next. He is one of a small few who make an effort to include me—in the unstructured meals, in the drinks, in the midnight prowls along the beach—and he defers to English from time to time to ask me how I’m doing. Take care, he cautions, this place can get to your head.
I am told that just before my arrival, three women held hands and walked straight out into the water and never returned.
Sometimes, he takes my notebook and wanders off, returning it to me several hours later, its pages newly filled with verse. Much of it is in Greek, but sometimes he reverts to English: I’m doing it tonight, the moon will be my witness/ Please come, come take me/ Hide me inside you so that I can have a life/ And forget about tomorrow. Today we have been trading lines back and forth, to write a poem together. Maybe, he says, we can create a monster. But it’s slow going, because he drifts away a lot, traipsing between the other tables, where other groups of men are also taking shelter from the last blaze of the sun. He’s had the notebook open before him for some time, unmoving, when I realize he’s begun to cry.
Ludwig, an artist who comes from Stockholm every year to live among the dunes, sees the tears catching in the snarl of Thanassis’s sun-bleached beard and asks, “Are you OK?” In Gavdos, where there are only fluid states, this question carries weight.
“Three women, dressed in black, walked into the sea…” As Thanassis begins to weep more forcefully, the other men turn their attention to him. “Three women, dressed in black, walked into the sea,” he says again, before another man continues: “They were young and they were beautiful and they never looked back as they stepped across the sunset and through the clear waters that spread on and on toward Crete.”
“Angels of the beach!” Hermes raises his glass.
Thanassis, his hands now shaking, pours out another round of drinks. Others have gathered round. There are many myths in circulation here. The men claim Gavdos was the site of the Ogygia, where the nymph Calypso held wandering Ulysses, promising him his freedom if only he would abandon all thought of and longing for his past. But this particular tale of women disappeared into the sunset gets more airtime than the rest. I am told that just before my arrival, three women held hands and walked straight out into the water and never returned. The men tell me they watched it happen from the shore.
You didn’t do anything? I ask.
“It was too beautiful,” says Thanassis. “Their hair swirling just beneath the surface, their dresses billowing like clouds.”
Minoli interjects. “It would have been wrong to interfere. If they want to die, let them die. But you can’t presume to know it was death they were going to.”
“They could have been mentally ill,” says Ludwig. “Too much isolation. Strange ideas get into your head.”
And you just sat there and watched? Minoli shrugs and I shudder.
“They were gods,” Thanassis rumbles, his blue eyes running liquid. “It takes tremendous willpower to overcome the instinct for life.” He grabs my hands and drags my fingertips across his face. “Why don’t they wait?” His body shakes. “Why don’t they fucking wait for us?” His fingers tremble as he squeezes lemon into the glasses of gin.
The moon is out and the men run like children along the sea’s edge, kicking up small waves of shimmering plankton. I lie on the beach too distracted by the brilliance of the night to respond to Thanassis as he goes on about our place within the cosmos.
I find myself starting to succumb to the drift that carries the men living on the beach. I rummage for my familiar narrative, a city girl, an academic, with friends and family and partners elsewhere, and I feel these lines begin to splinter. Beneath the booming sky, I think about how absurdly small we are, how vulnerable to time. I realize how easy it could be to start anew, which is to say, how easy it could be to vanish.
The thought thrills as much as it terrifies. I lie on the beach and watch my memories dissolve. What could it be to start over completely? What if? What if? And then what follows?
Thanassis murmurs, “We’re soaring round and round through space.” A cold and distant brilliance. I would love to find a way to surrender to this awesome beauty, but understand: the miracle ends just as we learn to name it.
It is not time that passes in Gavdos, but rather the changing light that gives the impression of ceaseless movement. The sun makes and remakes the landscape. Some days find the group in soaring spirits: boisterous, expansive, eager to socialize. Other afternoons settle like a shroud, and the men grow edgy and tense, submitting to silence.
It is such a day. There is something amiss.
For the past hour, I’ve been with Nikos, a boy among the men on the beach. Twenty-two, with patchy facial scruff, he owns one set of threadbare pants whose large holes leave his bottom on full display. Like me, he tends to smile rather than speak, and while the older men drink and rant and cycle through their catalog of folk songs, he plays games by himself, like a neglected sibling left to fill the hours. I have been playing with Nikos. First we pitch stones into a bucket, then do cartwheels in the sand. He swims out into the water and counts how long he can hold his breath. He is a photographer by training, “But jobs are shit, you understand?” His voice is soft and high, and there is little tonal difference between his comments and his questions, which makes it sound as though there is nothing certain.
We walk down the beach and when we see Adonis we wave and walk toward him. I smile at him and he smiles back. But coming closer, I see a hollow in his eyes; his grin floats unmoored on his face, like an iceberg drifting in the sea.
Nearby, a young British man, Jules, sits beneath a tree, rocking jerkily back and forth. His face is twitching furiously, and he seems incapable of stilling the agitated scramble of his hands. He tries sitting on his fingertips, but within moments they’re flying around before his face, picking at invisible bits in the air. Every so often his features are seized by a look of horror, and he stares wide-eyed at something no one else can see.
The other men look at him and shrug their shoulders. They recall many other instances where the heat, isolation, anarchy, and timelessness conspired to bring on episodes of flagrant psychosis.
“The spirit can be too strong for some people.”
Nikos offers Jules a smile, and tries to engage him in one of his little games. He tosses pebbles toward the sick man, but they just strike his skin and fall to the ground. Jules convulses, and lets out a series of short, explosive breaths. I notice that his sunburn has worsened considerably, and so I bring him one of the bottles of water that Adonis and I have been sharing. Jules accepts the bottle but looks at me without comprehending. His face passes through a round of strange contortions. He shakes the bottle vigorously, and then unscrews the cap and patiently pours the water into the sand.
Adonis suddenly knocks the pot from the fire. “Why you like this, Katarina!”
He begins to scream. “Why you like this!”
I don’t know what’s going on. The light has changed again and I’m not sure where I am.
“What you want! What you doing here?”
It is on the day that I first attempt to leave that the shaking begins. And it is when I find that I can’t—no boats, and no boats coming—that a panic starts to take shape in my chest. I consult my carefully written notes about when the boat crosses the seas and stare at the empty blue horizon. Everyone assures me that no boats are coming. The strikes raging on in Athens have upset travel across the country, and besides, the unseasonably strong winds have made it too hazardous for the little crew to make the crossing. The panic rattling my ribs is also nurtured by the loss of all cellphone service on the island. Every so often my phone rings and I rush to answer, but then the caller is gone, like a phantom reminder of connections to the world beyond and little more. Save for George, there is no one in the world who knows where I am.
I had set up my own little makeshift camp near Adonis, on a steep sand hill beneath a round of trees. High above the water, I can see the entire beach, and in the mornings I like to run down straight into the sea and swim out to the rocky promontory, where I can watch the sunrise. The clarity of the light when the sun cuts through the dawn is so powerful that I sometimes find myself cheering, wishing I could find a way to toss my body right into the fire.
I took Adonis to be a grandfatherly figure at first. Lost and sad, but kind. But these past few days, I have seen his rages. He’s been enraged by my quest for a phone. He ignores me when I talk at length to the others. On the nights after I’ve supped with Iorgos and Thanassis, he won’t respond or catch my eye when I try to speak with him. But these bouts of anger are promptly followed by gestures of reconciliation: he’ll bring me a coffee, a cup of raki, a particularly lovely bit of stone, and then follows his repentance. I must be gentle with him, he explains, I must be lenient. He’s recovering from so much hurt that sometimes he forgets his own heart. He had tried to kill himself, with a knife. Not once, but three times. The last time, he woke up in the hospital, whereupon his wife slapped him across the face and told him he had never been a man.
He tells me these stories as we lie awake at night, our sleeping bags separated by a yard. Sometimes I fall asleep to the sound of his aching voice, lost in time. But one night he begins to moan:
“Katarina, my penis…”
Oh no, no no no!
“But I will be better man, good man.”
I grab my things. I move my bedding down the beach.
“Katarina, you’re not safe. In your thoughts you’re not safe. You look to other people to give you shelter, to make you home, but you need to find a home in yourself.”
“Katarina, come look me the moon!”
And the plankton, the minuscule motions of iridescence. The men run like children, splashing through waves of silver.
“Katarina, Katarina, where you go? I sit and I think, why Katarina no come.”
In Greece I am beautiful. The caverns beneath my eyes are cherished, my unruly hair gives cause for delight. My features that rebel so loudly against the sterility of American ideals are here embraced. Everywhere: beautiful, beautiful, and it is more a burden than an honor to have so many men declaring brief but fierce devotion. In New York everything, even sex, is taken so casually; here, the slightest gesture acquires significance, and I don’t know how to move between expansiveness and caution, I don’t quite know how to respond to the utterances of devotion, or absorb the warnings I am offered: don’t go, watch out, don’t die, don’t drown . . .
Everything is glaring, there is no place where the light is not in your eyes. The wind screams. My hands tremble, my thoughts lag as though caught in the branches of the trees. I get lost walking the path. There is only the one length of trail along the sea, and still I cannot find my way. All I can think is that I must find a phone, I must get on a boat. I’ve been dreaming at night of women wading out into the water. They were gods, I am told, and I wake uncertain of whether they were after transcendence or escape.
“Are you OK?”
I’ve been wandering through the makeshift streets of Lavrakas, a hot and dismal town around the coast, no more than a small collection of houses, largely emptied of people. There is a little store here, a dank space filled with cats, where I try and offer the old man behind the counter money if he’ll let me use his cell. But he shakes his head, as though disgusted, and I spend what I have left on clean water and bananas. Like the men, I had been forgetting to eat, and I hope food might help to quell this shaking. Ludwig has appeared from somewhere and seems to be asking me some questions. “Are you OK?” I try to answer, but cannot find my voice. It’s been dislocated. “This wind,” I mutter, and offer my trembling hands. “I can’t stop shaking. If the wind would just stop…” My voice sounds removed, tinny in my own ears.
“Yes,” his rough fingers clamp down on mine. “Some people can be highly affected, it plays too much on the nerves.”
It takes hours, but Ludwig manages to guide me back to the beach. Asking questions that I know, rationally, are intended to help me preserve my bearings. “Tell me stories of New York.” How absurd! I understand, then, the reticence belonging to so many of the men. The distance between here and everywhere else is just too great. I sift through my shards: my cement-covered city, an incomplete dissertation, George’s notes prompting my flight… Ludwig ambles on, pointing out places where we might take a break from the hike, find some relief from the sun, and we chat amicably, but I cannot tell if he is making any sense either. Perhaps we’re simply trading noises back and forth, maybe we’re not even speaking at all; my thoughts are booming but diffuse, my mouth hangs clumsily, like making do with some tangled marionette.
I can’t understand why his arm is shaking so much until I see that he’s absorbing the violence of my own tremors.
Gradually, little pieces of information carry through the screaming wind. I gather that Ludwig is an artist, from Stockholm. For the past several years he has been coming to live in Gavdos as an antidote to creative block. Rather than accost his canvasses, he forces himself to take a break from all artistic work, to allow the spirit to regenerate his imagination. “To see better, to let myself be guided,” he says. He comes to Gavdos, leaving behind a wife and a girlfriend, to live alone in a tent among the tedras, removed from the more densely populated parts of the beach. “These other guys are completely crazy, they’ve really lost it,” his words sift through the swelter of my mind. “I wouldn’t get too close to them, you know. Don’t listen too closely to their stories. Take care. You don’t have to let them talk to you. You don’t have to let them touch you.”
It is the beginning of June and the day is stretched to Olympic dimensions.
“This place scares me, too,” he says. “But that’s why I come—to be overwhelmed. I end up with my best work when I conquer this fear. You come right to the very edge of going crazy, but not past that edge.” I realize that he is still holding my hands, and I can’t understand why his arm is shaking so much until I see that he’s absorbing the violence of my own tremors. “Before I leave I make a schedule for getting in touch with my friends, so I can check back in on my life, and they can remind me who I am. Because here I’m nothing. Just flesh and my thoughts passing through the hours. I have to keep this calendar, because in a few weeks I’ll fly back to Stockholm and I don’t want to miss my plane. But then even with the calendar I lose track of time, so I have this one here to mark the days, and then this backup so that I can keep track of whether I have actually marked off the day. It can get very confusing.”
He lapses into long silences, and as though summoned, we return to the solitude of ourselves.
I wake in the middle of the night. The embers of the giant fire smolder, the air is still pungent with the goat stew that Thanassis had prepared. Overhead, the stars loom impossibly close, impossibly huge, and the sound of the sea curling travels to the peak of the soft, sandy mountain where we had all dined, and exhausted and full, had fallen asleep. Dreamless, and yet somehow still dreaming, I realize that the others have woken as well. Bathed in a faint red glow, they are woven around me like a circle of snakes. Legs entwined, torsos twisting, they undulate to a cadence of steady sighs and moans.
A few hours later, consciousness comes creeping back with the lightening sky, and I open my eyes to startled movement.
The boat has appeared on the horizon.
Thanassis and Iorgos drink to the sun.
I scramble to ready my over-stuffed pack, and wind my sarong round my head in preparation for the long, hot march toward the harbor. It will take over two hours, and sometimes I’ll jog, spurred on by the dread that the boat might leave me behind. The men are all drinking, and I stand before them, trying to find the right words for farewell. Adonis doesn’t look at me. Minoli purses his lips in disapproval. I move to embrace Iorgos, but his eyes are lost to something else and he doesn’t speak or respond to my gesture.
On the boat ride back to Paleochora, we stop once more in Sfakia. The gradual reemergence of the civilized world. Big bellies and kneesocks; camcorders and crossword puzzles; the light, feckless air grown suddenly thick with talk of what to eat for supper.
“Do you think, darling, that Greece is a rich country simply suffering from a bout with poverty or is it a poor country now recovering from a spell of artificial wealth?”
I lean against the railings of the upper deck and watch the passengers come aboard. I am not quite ready. I’ve a turban round my head and seashells woven into my hair. My toes resist the thought of a sneakered prison. I’ve cut my pants into shorts—designer slacks now frayed and stained, held in place by an old silk scarf, itself a distant memory of another world, the tie from a bridesmaid’s dress, as I had lost my button to the sand.
On shore, a tall, attractive man stands shirtless on top of a boulder with arms outspread, shouting as the boat blows its horn. He’s singing, he’s calling out to nobody. As he staggers toward the ferry, I realize that it’s George. George, of The Strong Handshake, likely returning from his solitary trek across the mountains. There’s a bottle in his hand. Almost empty. On deck, I see that he’s covered in paint, red paint splattered everywhere: his face, his hands, his naked chest—brutal marks of color. He sits down on a bench a few feet away and talks to no one, shaking his bottle in his fist and howling. The other passengers move. Even the winds that rip about the deck fail to carry the stink of raki. German, English, Spanish, Greek, he carries on conversations with a dozen unpresent bodies. And then turns and stares at me: maddened eyes, unseeing, howling his garbled Esperanto to the winds, until he takes a swig and shakes his fist. “What. The. Fuck. Happened to your shoes?” And limply, he casts his emptied bottle at my bare feet.
Katherine Rowland is senior nonfiction editor at Guernica. Her reporting has appeared in Nature, the Financial Times, OnEarth, and Green Futures, among other publications. She lives in Brooklyn.
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