And the Mountains Echoed

Page 40

“Equatorial or horizontal?” Mamá asked.

There was a flash of surprise in Thalia’s eyes. A kind of double take. Like a person walking down a crowded street in a foreign city catching within earshot a snippet of her native tongue. “Horizontal,” she said in that strange wet voice of hers.

“What did you use for a gnomon?”

Thalia’s eyes rested on Mamá. “I cut a postcard.”

That was the first time I saw how it could be between those two.

“She used to take apart her toys when she was little,” Madaline said. “She liked mechanical toys, things with inner contraptions. Not that she played with them, did you, darling? No, she’d break them up, all those expensive toys, open them up as soon as we gave them to her. I used to get into such a state over it. But Andreas—I have to give him credit here—Andreas said to let her, that it was a sign of a curious mind.”

“If you like, we can build one together,” Mamá said. “A sundial, I mean.”

“I already know how.”

“Mind your manners, darling,” Madaline said, extending, then bending, one leg, as though she were stretching for a dance routine. “Aunt Odie is trying to be helpful.”

“Maybe something else, then,” Mamá said. “We could build some other thing.”

“Oh! Oh!” Madaline said, hurriedly blowing smoke, wheezing. “I can’t believe I haven’t told you yet, Odie. I have news. Take a guess.”

Mamá shrugged.

“I’m going back to acting! In films! I’ve been offered a role, the lead, in a major production. Can you believe it?”

“Congratulations,” Mamá said flaccidly.

“I have the script with me. I’d let you read it, Odie, but I worry you won’t like it. Is that bad? I’d be crushed, I don’t mind telling you. I wouldn’t get over it. We start shooting in the fall.”

The next morning, after breakfast, Mamá pulled me aside. “All right, what is it? What’s wrong with you?”

I said I didn’t know what she was talking about.

“You best drop it. The stupid act. It doesn’t suit you,” she said. She had a way of narrowing her eyes and tilting her head just a shade. To this day it has a grip on me.

“I can’t do it, Mamá. Don’t make me.”

“And why not, exactly?”

It came out before I could do a thing about it. “She’s a monster.”

Mamá’s mouth became small. She regarded me not with anger but with a disheartened look, as though I’d drawn all the sap out of her. There was a finality to this look. Resignation. Like a sculptor finally dropping mallet and chisel, giving up on a recalcitrant block that will never take the shape he’d pictured.

“She’s a person who has had a terrible thing happen to her. Call her that name again, I’d like to see you. Say it and see what happens.”

A little bit later there we were, Thalia and I, walking down a cobblestone path flanked by stone walls on each side. I made sure to walk a few steps ahead so passersby—or, God forbid, one of the boys from school—wouldn’t think we were together, which, of course, they would anyway. Anyone could see. At the least, I hoped the distance between us would signal my displeasure and reluctance. To my relief, she didn’t make an effort to keep up. We passed sunburned, weary-looking farmers coming home from the market. Their donkeys labored under wicker baskets containing unsold produce, their hooves clip-clopping on the footpath. I knew most of the farmers, but I kept my head down and averted my eyes.

I led Thalia to the beach. I chose a rocky one I sometimes went to, knowing it would not be as crowded as some of the other beaches, like Agios Romanos. I rolled up my pants and hopped from one craggy rock to the next, choosing one close to where the waves crashed and retracted. I took off my shoes and lowered my feet into a shallow little pool that had formed between a cluster of stones. A hermit crab scurried away from my toes. I saw Thalia to my right, settling atop a rock close by.

We sat for a long while without talking and watched the ocean rumbling against the rocks. A nippy gust whipped around my ears, spraying the scent of salt on my face. A pelican hovered over the blue-green water, its wings spread. Two ladies stood side by side, knee-deep in the water, their skirts held up high. To the west, I had a view of the island, the dominant white of the homes and windmills, the green of the barley fields, the dull brown of the jagged mountains from which springs flowed every year. My father died on one of those mountains. He worked for a green-marble quarry and one day, when Mamá was six months pregnant with me, he slipped off a cliff and fell a hundred feet. Mamá said he’d forgotten to secure his safety harness.

“You should stop,” Thalia said.

I was tossing pebbles into an old galvanized-tin pail nearby and she startled me. I missed. “What’s it to you?”

“I mean, flattering yourself. I don’t want this any more than you do.”

The wind was making her hair flap, and she was holding down the mask against her face. I wondered if she lived with this fear daily, that a gust of wind would rip it from her face and she would have to chase after it, exposed. I didn’t say anything. I tossed another pebble and missed again.

“You’re an ass,” she said.

After a while she got up, and I pretended to stay. Then I looked over my shoulder and saw her heading up the beach, back toward the road, and so I put my shoes back on and followed her home.

When we returned, Mamá was mincing okra in the kitchen, and Madaline was sitting nearby, doing her nails and smoking, tapping the ash into a saucer. I cringed with some horror when I saw that the saucer belonged to the china set Mamá had inherited from her grandmother. It was the only thing of any real value that Mamá owned, the china set, and she hardly ever took it down from the shelf up near the ceiling where she kept it.

Madaline was blowing on her nails in between drags and talking about Pattakos, Papadopoulos, and Makarezos, the three colonels who had staged a military coup—the Generals’ Coup, as it was known then—earlier that year in Athens. She was saying she knew a playwright—a “dear, dear man,” as she described him—who had been imprisoned under the charge of being a communist subversive.

“Which is absurd, of course! Just absurd. You know what they do to people, the ESA, to make them talk?” She was saying this in a low voice as if the military police were hiding somewhere in the house. “They put a hose in your behind and turn on the water full blast. It’s true, Odie. I swear to you. They soak rags in the filthiest things—human filth, you understand—and shove them in people’s mouths.”

“That’s awful,” Mamá said flatly.

I wondered if she was already tiring of Madaline. The stream of puffed-up political opinions, the tales of parties Madaline had attended with her husband, the poets and intellectuals and musicians she’d clinked champagne flutes with, the list of needless, senseless trips she had taken to foreign cities. Trotting out her views on nuclear disaster and overpopulation and pollution. Mamá indulged Madaline, smiling through her stories with a look of wry bemusement, but I knew she thought unkindly of her. She probably thought Madaline was flaunting. She probably felt embarrassed for her.

This is what rankles, what pollutes Mamá’s kindness, her rescues and her acts of courage. The indebtedness that shadows them. The demands, the obligations she saddles you with. The way she uses these acts as currency, with which she barters for loyalty and allegiance. I understand now why Madaline left all those years ago. The rope that pulls you from the flood can become a noose around your neck. People always disappoint Mamá in the end, me included. They can’t make good on what they owe, not the way Mamá expects them to. Mamá’s consolation prize is the grim satisfaction of holding the upper hand, free to pass verdicts from the perch of strategic advantage, since she is always the one who has been wronged.

It saddens me because of what it reveals to me about Mamá’s own neediness, her own anxiety, her fear of loneliness, her dread of being stranded, abandoned. And what does it say about me that I know this about my mother, that I know precisely what she needs and yet how deliberately and unswervingly I have denied her, taking care to keep an ocean, a continent—or, preferably, both—between us for the better part of three decades?

“They have no sense of irony, the junta,” Madaline was saying, “crushing people as they do. In Greece! The birthplace of democracy … Ah, there you are! Well, how was it? What did you two get up to?”

“We played at the beach,” Thalia said.

“Was it fun? Did you have fun?”

“We had a grand time,” Thalia said.

Mamá’s eyes jumped skeptically from me to Thalia and back, but Madaline beamed and applauded silently. “Good! Now that I don’t have to worry about you two getting along, Odie and I can spend some time of our own together. What do you say, Odie? We have so much catching up to do still!”

Mamá smiled gamely and reached for a head of cabbage.

From then on, Thalia and I were left to our own devices. We were to explore the island, play games at the beach, amuse ourselves the way children are expected to. Mamá would pack us a sandwich each, and we would set off together after breakfast.

Once out of sight, we often drifted apart. At the beach, I took a swim or lay on a rock with my shirt off while Thalia went off to collect shells or skip rocks on the water, which was no good because the waves were too big. We went walking along the footpaths that snaked through vineyards and barley fields, looking down at our own shadows, each preoccupied with our own thoughts. Mostly we wandered. There wasn’t much in the way of a tourist industry on Tinos in those days. It was a farming island, really, people living off their cows and goats and olive trees and wheat. We would end up bored, eating lunch somewhere, quietly, in the shade of a tree or a windmill, looking between bites at the ravines, the fields of thorny bushes, the mountains, the sea.

One day, I wandered off toward town. We lived on the southwestern shore of the island, and Tinos town was only a few miles’ walk south. There was a little knickknack shop there run by a heavy-faced widower named Mr. Roussos. On any given day, you were apt to find in the window of his shop anything from a 1940s typewriter to a pair of leather work boots, or a weathervane, an old plant stand, giant wax candles, a cross, or, of course, copies of the Panagia Evangelistria icon. Or maybe even a brass gorilla. He was also an amateur photographer and had a makeshift darkroom in the back of the shop. When the pilgrims came to Tinos every August to visit the icon, Mr. Roussos sold rolls of film to them and developed their photos in his darkroom for a fee.

About a month back, I had spotted a camera in his display window, sitting on its worn rust-colored leather case. Every few days, I strolled over to the shop, stared at this camera, and imagined myself in India, the leather case hanging by the strap over my shoulder, taking photos of the paddies and tea estates I had seen in National Geographic. I would shoot the Inca Trail. On camelback, in some dust-choked old truck, or on foot, I would brave the heat until I stood gazing up at the Sphinx and the Pyramids, and I would shoot them too and see my photos published in magazines with glossy pages. This was what drew me to Mr. Roussos’s window that morning—though the shop was closed for the day—to stand outside, my forehead pressed to the glass, and daydream.

“What kind is it?”

I pulled back a bit, caught Thalia’s reflection in the window. She dabbed at her left cheek with the handkerchief.

“The camera.”

I shrugged.

“Looks like a C3 Argus,” she said.

“How would you know?”

“It’s only the best-selling thirty-five millimeter in the world for the last thirty years,” she said a little chidingly. “Not much to look at, though. It’s ugly. It looks like a brick. So you want to be a photographer? You know, when you’re all grown up? Your mother says you do.”

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