creative ramblings & reverie

Friday, January 29, 2010

Reading the Stones

It had been eight months into Anna’s first pregnancy, in late September 1948, that the letter from the Greek lawyers came, informing her that Nikos had been killed in a road accident somewhere outside of Kavousi, along the Bay of Mirabello, and had (madly) left her a house—his godson’s house in Chaniá under the White Mountains, which had somehow survived the Battle of Crete when the godson and his young family hadn’t. She shook the starchy legal envelope, thinking there had to be a letter from Nikos, explaining, but there hadn’t been. (None since that last. “Forgive me. I am married.”) But the final shake brought out the little fragile watercolor she had made for him, copied from his snapshot, Nikos and the baby inside the crenellated walls of a wind-sanded Venetian fortress somewhere on the Libyan Sea before she knew him, dead to her then too at the other end of his life. That other loss of him which had seemed unbearable to the girl she was: the dreamer, the girl fortunate in love who would go to Greece with him and paint the flowering Greek plants that clambered over lissome ruins, the oregano that grew wild up the stones of interrupted stairs.

“This is rather Inconvenient,” was all she could think—capital and all, like some fusty Victorian novelist. She was a woman encumbered. Encumbered. This fleshly burden was enough already (trying unsuccessfully the first time to bend far enough to pick up the envelope with its foreign postmark which had fallen on the dear distant floor, her bulk between them, insurmountable bulwark), but a house? She envisioned the scene in The Wizard of Oz when the house came down and obliterated the wicked witch entirely, all save ruby slippers. And she had none of those, unless her shocking pink mules with the pom-poms counted. She managed on the second try, scooped letter, watercolor, envelope together out of sight into her open bag, as if that way to make them not exist again. It is impossible, she thought more plainly, ordering her thoughts and vaguely pinning up the perennial fallen strand of hair. I don’t have time for this just now.

Remembering the time, which felt out of its proper rhythm, slowed and irregular somehow like a clock needing to be wound, she launched herself, one of the more ponderous ships of the fleet bound for Troy in Homer’s catalogue, slowly out of the house and off the pristine wooden dock of the front porch, towards their good Sadie. It was her afternoon to do the altar flowers. She’d noticed earlier that her dress had brown paint the color of hard burnished hazelnuts across the front of its skirt, in two or three places, from the murderous old sisters’ window seat she’d been slopping the stuff around on (uninspired props for Arsenic and Old Lace), but she didn’t have time to change. She was meeting Ginnie after the flowers, to settle on—Ginnie told her; no more excuses—The Crib. Definitely all caps, when she’d put it off so long.

Sadie the matronly black Chrysler lolled on the driveway in the shade of mature elms. The dogs came racing down their run when they saw Anna, as far as ever they could, the sound of their eager scrambling like a handful of pebbles against the white slats of the fence. She smelled a cake baking somewhere in the neighborhood, full of good butter and yellow-hearted eggs and sifted cocoa powder, rising to a gentle swell on the middle rack of a 350-degree oven. For no reason, it made her sad. That there were around her sweet, housewifely women in clean frocks who were not left houses. She felt again like a sham. Like I am playing at all this, she thought. Rather well at times, I admit; I am getting better at it. Some days when I get into character, I almost believe in her myself. But still unconvincing overall.

Gerald, dutiful man, had taken the buckets of water from the garden shed and left them in the back room of St. Bede’s for her, with the glads she’d cut that morning while it was still cool. Sheaths of red gladioli leaning almost upright in the water in the cool sanctity of the vestry. They were like ballet dancers tall and statuesque and nonchalantly out of place in an old folk’s home, coming straight from rehearsal to visit a failing father without having stopped to change out of their brilliant tulle skirts which hung with a beautiful willful unevenness to mid-calf or so.

Each stalk was long, straight, sure. Perfect. She took one, shaking water off of it onto the sheets of butcher paper she’d brought to work on. She cut the end of it on the diagonal again, an inch higher than the morning’s cut, and pressed it down onto the frog in the bottom of one of the heavy brass vases. The pithy green stalk resisted a little as it went down onto the sharp points that would hold it upright in the vase. The gladiolus flowers were opened, sweetly ruffled, two-thirds of the way up the long stem; and the last third, those at the top, still mostly closed in on themselves. A sword sheathed. They would open one by one, always upward, in exact order, when they were ready. A calm unfolding. Not tomorrow or even the next day. After they had brought them home again on Sunday after the last service, sometime then; when she came downstairs for breakfast during the week she’d see they had begun to open while those at the bottom had started already to wilt. She cut another stem on the diagonal, shaking off water, and another and another. For now they were just right. She placed the tall stalks one by one into the vases, staggering the slightly different lengths so that the tallest glad was in the middle, like flame rising, cool flame, vestal, all its heat mysteriously burned into something chaste, lithe, free of pain.

The gladioli were insouciant red, ecstatic Hall of Mysteries red, the joyful unnecessary red of Vermeer’s woman’s red hat. Glad red. Vermilion, made from Spanish cinnabar ground to a fine powder, more costly than saffron. They were the red of wild Greek poppies, the spring poppies she never got to see, but these were late summer flowers, rather, and domesticated, obedient, American—gladioli from her garden, the regular beds she had carefully planted and tended for three years according to the seasons of dormancy and new growth, the unstated old traditions and expectations, in a decent American city, the house her husband’s good parents had helped them to buy and furnish, a legitimate house, a house she was fond of though she was having to clear the brushes and paints out of her studio to be a nursery with The Crib in place of honor because it did not, after all, have quite enough rooms.

She finished with the flowers, wrapped her shears back in the striped flour-sacking tea towel and put them in her bag (touching the guilty foreign letter which she’d stashed there not knowing where else it would be safe). She carried the heavy vases one at a time carefully with both hands into the church. The stained glass windows were empty of light at that hour of day, the colors muddy. The sun had gone around the corner of the building half an hour since. The red of the gladioli burned into the hushed air, the hymns and sacred anthems suspended in it as particles in liquid, the vast world dissolved into a momentary abeyance and held there just beyond seeing. The gold-ribbed arches of the great cathedrals whose windows were drenchings of jewels, the ancient god-trodden stones of that other land.

She placed the last vase on the thin smooth-textured cloth of the altar, which muffled the voice of brass against stone, and stood for a moment there with her eyes shut, smelling the flowers and the candle wax, feeling the gravity of everything that wasn’t visible—the worlds that were, that could, elsewhere, be; the psalms hung like dust motes in a shaft of oblique autumn light, arrow still quivering; a dust-moted dust-obscured road over the sea. And of the ordinary motions, small and precise, that continued accumulating in the face of it, as if in perfect oblivion. The seconds of a second-hand, in which the moment was nothing. “I will measure out my life in coffee spoons.” She felt her swollen belly pressed against the cool hard stone of the altar, not her own, stranger than anything. That is what is, she thought. This life for that other.

She walked with stately dignity, the firm high-headed progress of a queen, across the empty church to the little side door into the vestry, to collect her things. She was late to meet Ginnie. At the door she turned back slightly, the bulk of her hard to shift even a degree or two; let herself see the jubilant red, singing in the dimness; and went out into the ordinary afternoon to buy a baby crib.

And then, another fifty years as if nothing.

Anna looked at the wall of the hotel on Chaniá’s Venetian harbor, reflecting light from the water, as she lay old and defeated on the big bed in this place she was a lifetime late in coming to. What was the point of it now? What was it to do with her, this unanswerable light?

—Christie, excerpt from my long, first novel.

Like the richly-layered Cretan countryside where it is set, Reading the Stones interweaves the Greek myths and Minoan archaeology with the stories of modern women struggling to rewrite their own stories and make themselves whole.

image: Christie B. Cochrell, Above Kavousi

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