The Last Minoan
Three millennia ago an earthquake triggered a volcanic explosion on the island of Santorini, and the legend of Atlantis was born. My archeology credentials plus passable Greek landed me a job on the Bronze Age Akrotiri excavation. Between digs, I guided a tour of the city buried by the eruption, and the museum that stored its treasures.
It was killing hot, even for early July, and I’d soaked through my shirt when I met a busload of tourists who got off in a cloud of diesel fumes. I did a double take at a woman, about twenty. Her black hair was in a ponytail looped atop her head. She wore large hoop amber earrings, and a blousy, white, half-sleeve top. I introduced myself to everyone, I’m Nathan, and we entered the site. I couldn’t help shooting glances at the woman as I extolled the indoor bathrooms, hot and cold water pipes, and the three story buildings that impress tourists. In the museum, the tour groups’ mouths dropped open when they saw the frescos. Our companion was a double of the Minoan woman on the wall.
At the end of the tour, I walked up to her and extended my hand. “Herro poli — pleased to meet you.”
“I’m Irini. Herro poli.”
I said, “You dressed for the occasion.”
“Yes, in honor of my ancestors.”
“I know that the Minoans got off Santorini before the explosion, but how are you related to them?”
“They sailed to Crete when the first earthquakes struck. I’m Cretan, and we are descended from Minoans.”
“You need to tell me more. May I buy you lunch?”
She smiled and said, “Yes.”
Bleached white, stucco buildings dotted with azure-domed churches crawled up to the edge of the steep, gouged out, gray and red-ochre caldera that plunged down to a sparkling blue sea. We grabbed a table in the taverna with the best view and ordered hortiatiki salad and toasted with glasses of cloudy ouzo on ice. When I sat close to Irini, I caught the scent of blood orange and jasmine, and I wanted to dive into her brown eyes.
She said, “Is something the matter?”
“Oh, I shouldn’t gawk.”
She laughed. “Don’t you meet girls on this island?”
“Not like you.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Is that a line?”
“It just popped out.”
“Drink your ouzo.”
I took a gulp and changed the subject. “So, when did you develop this sense of connection with Atlantis?”
“Ah, you know the legend. I’m an Art History major, and we studied the period at university. When I saw images of the Minoan women on the frescos, I felt one with them. Sound silly?”
“Not to me. You radiate classic Greece.”
She tilted her head at me.
My face reddened. “Please continue.”
She said, “Homer called the Minoans true Cretans. Women were equal to men in Minoan society, and they worshipped the Earth Mother.”
“Fascinating.” I took another sip of ouzo. “How long will you be here?”
“For the summer. I stay with a family and teach English to their children. I arrived yesterday.”
“Wonderful. Why don’t we go to the beach after lunch? I know one you’ll love.”
I was in a pension, and Irini’s host family’s house was close by. We changed, and I picked her up on my motorbike. She wore a white tank top and jeans shorts over her bathing suit. Roads on the island were narrow and ran along cliffs. Trucks and buses took curves like Formula One cars, and respected motorbikes as much as the insects that smacked into their windshields. After the first close call, Irini’s arms tightened around me, and she laid her chin on my shoulder so she could see better. I warmed to the press of her body, so I played chicken with the traffic, and was rewarded with reflexive hugs.
At the beach, Irini got off the bike and hit me a straight shot to the shoulder. She said, “enjoy the ride, did you?”
“Well, not the punch so much.”
The ancient eruption had turned the island’s ground like a giant shovel and created beaches of red, black, and gray. I took Irini to a deserted red-sand spot, and unrolled a blanket. She pulled off her top and stepped out of her shorts. Irini’s bikini was dark blue with tiny white polka dots. My eyes lingered on the white skin of her cleavage over the red border of the bra and the faint outline of her raised nipples. Her arms and legs were slim, and she had delicate feet. I’d been with plenty of girls. The island drew attractive women like hummingbirds to nectar; they flitted with me and moved on. Even so, my mouth went dry, and I swallowed.
Irini looked at me. She said, “Did I tell you about my father? Big, black mustache, knife on his belt, and a shotgun at the ready. Guys are so gentlemanly after they meet him.” She smiled.
“Okay,” I said, “He’s macho-city. But, does he know how to dig a proper excavation trench?”
She jumped. “Oh, I want to learn. Can you take me on the dig?”
“I’m not sure. Mr. Ioannidis is very protective of his site.”
Irini put her hands on her hips. “Can-do men are so much sexier than those who come up with long lists of excuses.”
“Okay, tha thoume — we’ll see.”
She said, “Terrific. Let’s go for a swim. Race you.”
I watched her shoot toward the rippling waves and smiled.
The sky was cloudless and so blue you felt it in your throat. The water was crystal; we could see the sandy bottom as we swam. Irini paddled up to me, put her arms around my neck and planted a soft, salty kiss on my lips. I never tasted better.
As we got back to town, a dog with half its front leg gone ran after the bike. I was amazed how well he could keep up, but Irini went “ooh,” and “aw,” so I slowed down, and he followed us to my pension. He had huge brown eyes, was black with gold around his belly and he rolled on his back when Irini went to pet him. His coat was loaded with fleas; one bit me. I ran out for some medicinal shampoo while Irini put a leftover lamb chop from my fridge on a newspaper and gave him a bowl of water. I lathered him up in the shower; a hundred dead black specks dotted the tile. She dried him, he crawled into her arms, and that was that.
I said, “I don’t suppose the family you’re with wants a dog.”
They both raised their eyes to me.
I said, “What shall we call him?”
She said, “Not tripod. He’s sensitive about his injury. I can tell.”
“Okay, how about Ares, the god of war? That should help with his self-esteem. Also, Ares was always after Aphrodite.”
I swear the dog smiled.
Irini said, “Perfect.”
Normally, Mr. Ioannidis’s face was frozen in a frown. He had a gray speckled beard and a shiny bald head he hid with a black, tattered Zorba cap. When I introduced Irini to him, he whisked his hat off like an English gentleman. His back straightened, and he sucked in his gut. He said, “What a beautiful smile, such white teeth. Please, allow me to walk you around.”
She took his extended arm.
He said, “We welcome eager Greek students interested in their history.” He took his first notice of me. “Nathan, get Irini a trowel. She and I will work together.”
Irini said, “Eufaristo para polli — thank you very much. I’ll be here all summer.”
I figured he’d give her my job.
Ioannidis said, “Ah, we will grant you a stipend. You must have money to enjoy our wonderful island.”
As I turned to fetch a tool for her, Irini gave me a wink, and my lungs expanded like a balloon.
I watched Irini as she scraped the earth. She was serious, careful, and I could tell Ioannidis was impressed with how quickly she caught on. Some of my coworkers said my work improved after Irini arrived. I can’t say why.
Irini put the large shrimp on my hook and said, “It’s a Greek expression. ‘Use an expensive bait to land a big fish.’”
My landlord had a boat and rods he let me use. I didn’t know squat about fishing, but Irini insisted fresh fish were too expensive, and we needed to catch our own. We brought a cooler to keep them away from Ares. He’d eat the rubber soles off shoes, as my old pair of sneakers would attest. I had to remember to put my new ones atop the bookshelf whenever they were off my feet. Maybe the fish know who’s the slacker, because I didn’t get a nibble, but Irini landed a sizeable bass.
She liked the red beach best. She scooped out sand and filled the hole with driftwood she’d gathered at the shoreline.
She looked at me with hands on hips. “You’re like a male lion. Laze around all day. I catch the fish. I grill the fish. What do you do?”
Ares’ ears flopped in approval of her rebuke.
I didn’t take the bait. I said, “I’m terrific company?”
She laughed and headed for the water to clean the bass. Ares padded after her. I saw a large eagle in the sky that floated on a thermal current. I called out to Irini that she should keep Ares close.
We drank wine through a sunset of gray-blue and pink, and as the golden glow faded, a million stars sparkled in the night sky. Darkness brought out my inner lion. Ares did his best to cram himself between us, but he didn’t succeed.
July melted into August. My single bed was suitable for one to sleep or two to elbow and knee each other through the night. But we didn’t complain. We worked at Akrotiri every day. We’d talk history and art over a meze, and didn’t miss a sunset in each other’s arms. One night in late August, Irini rose from bed feeling nauseous. I figured she had anxiety because summer was nearly over. The thought we’d part bothered me too.
I was in a chair near a ceramic lamp. I said, “Ares, quiet.”
The dog continued to howl.
Irini was on the bed. She said, “What’s the matter?”
“I don’t know.”
Ares shied away from me, and howled again.
“Shit. The neighbors will complain. Shush. It’s okay, Ares, good boy.”
I felt an odd movement under the soles of my feet. A low rumble grew louder like an oncoming subway train. The wooden shutters started to rattle. The floor under me seemed to rise, and I widened my feet for balance.
“Oh my God,” Irini said, “It’s an earthquake.”
Cold gripped my heart. The sound had become the whine of a jet engine.
I said, “Sweet Jesus.”
The roof cracked with the sound of a tree snap, and a piece of concrete fell like the blade of a guillotine. The lights went out, and we were thrust into blackness.
“Irini, are you okay? Irini?”
I stumbled to the bed. The roof chunk had hit her. Her head was wet. Ares jumped onto the bed. His cry was pathetic. The odor of vinegar-scented sweat sprung from my face and body.
“Irini, wake up. Dear God. We need to get out of here.”
Irini was dead weight. I took her in my arms and swayed to the door like a drunk.
The lamp had been thrown to the floor, its base shattered. I stepped on a shard and it sliced my foot. I leaned against the wall to steady myself. I got hold of the handle and threw the door open. Ares’ nails scratched the marble floor as he sped outside. The shaking and the roar of the quake had stopped. There were moans and screams from nearby buildings. I had to get Irini to a hospital. I carried her to the bike and leaned on the handlebars as I edged my leg over the seat. I held her on my thighs with her back against the bars. Debris was everywhere. It was almost impossible to steer and keep her weight steady. The front tire hit something and we fell, Irini on top of me.
I got us back on the bike and held her with one arm as we rode. There were power lines down, and I had to change my route to the hospital. We fell again. The blood in her hair was matted. I smelled its copper scent, and my stomach sickened. We fell. Her body was cold. I wiped my tears with a sleeve. My heart pounded. I struggled and got us back onto the bike. The muscles in my arms burned. My legs and arms were scraped raw.
The entrance to the hospital was clogged with ambulances and other vehicles, most with doors flung open. I weaved a few dozen meters closer, abandoned the bike and carried Irini in a half trot into the emergency room. The hospital’s generators had kicked in, but the lights were dim. Gurneys overflowed, injured people lined the walls; there were cries, moans and screams that sounded like a circle of hell. Nurses and doctors scurried through some sort of triage. Terror was on every face. I carried Irini to a young doctor with black hair in blue scrubs. He leaned over a patient.
I said, “Help her. Help her please.”
He didn’t look at me, “You need to wait.”
“She can’t wait. She has a serious head injury. Please help her.”
The doctor puffed out a breath, but didn’t respond.
“Help her, or I swear to Christ I’ll kill you.”
The doctor’s face snapped toward me. He blinked his eyes. He straightened and said, “Head trauma is a priority. Bring her here.”
I followed him behind a curtain to a bed that had just been cleared, and put Irini down. My arms felt like rubber. Sweat poured off me like rain.
The doctor felt for a pulse. He said to a nurse, “She’s not breathing. Get me the paddles.”
A nurse shot forward with the equipment.
A charge went into Irini’s body and she spasmed.
After a moment, “Clear.”
Irini’s body lurched.
The doctor checked for a pulse. He ran his hand over her abdomen and turned to me. “I’m sorry, she’s gone.”
I brought bloodstained hands to my face.
The doctor moved close to me. “She was about seven weeks pregnant? The baby wouldn’t have survived.”
The doctor’s eyes went down. “Look, we need to move her.”
The doctor called to an attendant.
I leapt forward. “No.”
I scooped Irini from the bed and backed up to a wall as the attendant came forward.
The doctor said, “Leave him be.”
I slumped to the floor with Irini in my arms.
I went back to the pension in the morning. Ares was gone. I walked the streets and called to him, but he didn’t come. I couldn’t stop sobbing. I came upon an empty parking lot and collapsed on the asphalt. I awoke and trembled with every aftershock.
There was a big clean up on the island. The Akrotiri dig closed. The roof on the site collapsed and museum’s walls were cracked. I took the bloodied sheets and pillow from our bed. They retained Irini’s scent.
I biked to the red beach, and sat while tears ran down my face. I rose, walked toward the water, and stripped off clothes as I went. I swam past the point where Irini kissed me, and let my head lean back until the water filled my ears. As I floated, the swells blotted out my sight of shore. The shadow of an eagle overhead crossed my face, and I opened my eyes. I spit out water, shook my head and turned and swam for shore. I had to find Ares.
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