Johnny America


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.

Filed under Fiction on October 30th, 2012

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