The night of Madaline’s announcement, she and Mamá shared a bottle of wine in the kitchen, Madaline doing most of the drinking, while Thalia and I were upstairs, playing a game of tavli. Thalia had the mana position and had already moved half her checkers onto her home board.
“She has a lover,” Thalia said, rolling the dice.
I jumped. “Who?”
“ ‘Who?’ he says. Who do you think?”
I had learned, over the course of the summer, to read Thalia’s expressions through her eyes, and she was looking at me now like I was standing on the beach asking where the water was. I tried to recover quickly. “I know who,” I said, my cheeks burning. “I mean, who’s the … you know …” I was a twelve-year-old boy. My vocabulary didn’t include words like lover.
“Can’t you guess? The director.”
“I was going to say that.”
“Elias. He’s something. He plasters his hair down like it’s the 1920s. He has a thin little mustache too. I guess he thinks it makes him look rakish. He’s ridiculous. He thinks he’s a great artist, of course. Mother does too. You should see her with him, all timid and submissive, like she needs to bow to him and pamper him because of his genius. I can’t understand how she doesn’t see it.”
“Is Aunt Madaline going to marry him?”
Thalia shrugged. “She has the worst taste in men. The worst.” She shook the dice in her hands, seemed to reconsider. “Except for Andreas, I suppose. He’s nice. Nice enough. But, of course, she’s leaving him. It’s always the bastards she falls for.”
“You mean, like your father?”
She frowned a little. “My father was a stranger she met on her way to Amsterdam. At a train station during a rainstorm. They spent one afternoon together. I have no idea who he is. And neither does she.”
“Oh. I remember she said something about her first husband. She said he drank. I just assumed …”
“Well, that would be Dorian,” Thalia said. “He was something too.” She moved another checker onto her home board. “He used to beat her. He could go from nice and pleasant to furious in a blink. Like the weather, how it can change suddenly? He was like that. He drank most of the day, didn’t do much but lie around the house. He got real forgetful when he drank. He’d leave the water running, for instance, and flood the house. I remember he forgot to turn off the stove once and almost burned everything down.”
She made a little tower with a stack of chips. Worked quietly for a while straightening it.
“The only thing Dorian really loved was Apollo. All the neighborhood kids were scared of him—of Apollo, I mean. And hardly any of them had even seen him; they’d only heard his bark. That was enough for them. Dorian kept him chained in the back of the yard. Fed him big slabs of lamb.”
Thalia didn’t tell me any more. I pictured it easily enough, though. Dorian passed out, the dog forgotten, roaming the yard unchained. An open screen door.
“How old were you?” I asked in a low voice.
Then I asked the question that had been on my mind since the beginning of summer. “Isn’t there something that … I mean, can’t they do—”
Thalia snagged her gaze away. “Please don’t ask,” she said heavily with what I sensed to be a deep ache. “It tires me out.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“I’ll tell you someday.”
And she did tell me, later. The botched surgery, the catastrophic post-op wound infection that turned septic, shut down her kidneys, threw her into liver failure, ate through the new surgical flap and forced the surgeons to slice off not only the flap but yet more of what remained of her left cheek and part of her jawbone as well. The complications had kept her in the hospital for nearly three months. She’d almost died, should have died. After that, she wouldn’t let them touch her again.
“Thalia,” I said, “I’m sorry too for what happened when we met.”
She tipped her eyes up at me. The old playful shine was back. “You should be sorry. But I knew even before you hurled all over the floor.”
“That you were an ass.”
Madaline left two days before school started. She wore a tight butter yellow sleeveless dress that clung to her slim frame, horn-rimmed sunglasses, and a firmly knotted white silk scarf to hold down her hair. She was dressed as though she worried parts of her might come loose—like she was, literally, holding herself together. At the ferry port in Tinos town, she embraced us all. She held Thalia the tightest, and the longest, her lips on the crown of Thalia’s head in an extended, unbroken kiss. She didn’t take off her sunglasses.
“Hug me back,” I heard her whisper.
Rigidly, Thalia obliged.
When the ferry groaned and lurched away, leaving behind a trail of churned-up water, I thought Madaline would stand at the stern and wave and blow us kisses. But she quickly moved toward the bow and took a seat. She didn’t look our way.
When we got home, Mamá told us to sit down. She stood before us and said, “Thalia, I want you to know that you don’t have to wear that thing in this house anymore. Not on my account. Nor his. Do it only if it suits you. I have no more to say about this business.”
It was then that, with sudden clarity, I understood what Mamá already had seen. That the mask had been for Madaline’s benefit. To save her embarrassment and shame.
For a long time Thalia didn’t make a move or say a word. Then, slowly, her hands rose, and she untied the bands at the back of her head. She lowered the mask. I looked at her directly in the face. I felt an involuntary urge to recoil, the way you would at a sudden loud noise. But I didn’t. I held my gaze. And I made it a point to not blink.
Mamá said she would homeschool me until Madaline came back so Thalia wouldn’t have to stay home by herself. She gave us our lessons in the evening, after dinner, and assigned us homework to do in the morning while she went off to school. It sounded workable, at least in theory.
But doing our studies, especially with Mamá away, proved nearly impossible. News of Thalia’s disfigurement had spread all over the island, and people kept knocking on the door, fueled by curiosity. You would have thought the island was suddenly running out of flour, garlic, even salt, and our house was the only place you could find it. They barely made an effort to disguise their intent. At the door, their eyes always flew over my shoulder. They craned their necks, stood on tiptoes. Most of them weren’t even neighbors. They’d walked miles for a cup of sugar. Of course I never let them in. It gave me some satisfaction to close the door on their faces. But I also felt gloomy, dispirited, aware that if I stayed my life would be too deeply touched by these people. I would, in the end, become one of them.
The kids were worse and far bolder. Every day I caught one prowling outside, climbing our wall. We would be working, and Thalia would tap my shoulder with her pencil, tip her chin, and I would turn to find a face, sometimes more than one, pressed to the window. It got so bad, we had to go upstairs and pull all the curtains. One day I opened the door to a boy I knew from school, Petros, and three of his friends. He offered me a handful of coins for a peek. I said no, where did he think he was, a circus?
In the end, I had to tell Mamá. A deep red flush marched up her face when she heard. She clenched her teeth.
The next morning she had our books and two sandwiches ready on the table. Thalia understood before I did and she curled up like a leaf. Her protests started when it came time to leave.
“Aunt Odie, no.”
“Give me your hand.”
“Go on. Give it to me.”
“I don’t want to go.”
“We’re going to be late.”
“Don’t make me, Aunt Odie.”
Mamá pulled Thalia up from the seat by the hands, leaned in, and fixed her with a gaze I knew well. Not a thing on this earth could deter her now. “Thalia,” she said, managing to sound both soft and firm, “I am not ashamed of you.”
We set out, the three of us—Mamá, with her lips pursed, pushing forth like she was plowing against a fierce wind, her feet working quick, mincing little steps. I imagined Mamá walking in this same determined manner to Madaline’s father’s house all those years ago, rifle in hand.
People gawked and gasped as we blew past them along the winding footpaths. They stopped to stare. Some of them pointed. I tried not to look. They were a blur of pale faces and open mouths in the corners of my vision.
In the school yard, children parted to let us pass. I heard some girl scream. Mamá rolled through them like a bowling ball through pins, all but dragging Thalia behind her. She shoved and pushed her way to the corner of the yard, where there was a bench. She climbed the bench, helped Thalia up, and then blew her whistle three times. A hush fell over the yard.
“This is Thalia Gianakos,” Mamá cried. “As of today …” She paused. “Whoever is crying, shut your mouth before I give you reason to. Now, as of today, Thalia is a student at this school. I expect all of you to treat her with decency and good manners. If I hear rumors of taunting, I will find you and I will make you sorry. You know I will. I have no more to say about this business.”
She climbed down from the bench and, holding Thalia’s hand, headed toward the classroom.
From that day forth, Thalia never again wore the mask, either in public or at home.
A couple of weeks before Christmas that year, we received a letter from Madaline. The shoot had run into unexpected delays. First, the director of photography—Madaline wrote DOP and Thalia had to explain it to me and Mamá—had fallen off a scaffold on the set and broken his arm in three places. Then the weather had complicated all the location shoots.
So we are in a bit of a “holding pattern,” as they say. It would not be an entirely bad thing, since it gives us time to work out some wrinkles in the script, if it did not also mean that we won’t be reunited as I had hoped. I am crushed, my darlings. I miss you all so dearly, especially you, Thalia, my love. I can only count the days until later this spring when this shoot has wrapped and we can be together again. I carry all three of you in my heart every minute of every day.
“She’s not coming back,” Thalia said flatly, handing the letter back to Mamá.
“Of course she is!” I said, dumbfounded. I turned to Mamá, waiting for her to say something, at least pipe a word of encouragement. But Mamá folded the letter, put it on the table, and quietly went to boil water for coffee. And I remember thinking how thoughtless it was of her to not comfort Thalia even if she agreed that Madaline wasn’t coming back. But I didn’t know—not yet—that they already understood each other, perhaps better than I did either of them. Mamá respected Thalia too much to coddle her. She would not insult Thalia with false assurances.
Spring came, in all of its flush green glory, and went. We received from Madaline one postcard and what felt like a hastily written letter, in which she informed us of more troubles on the set, this time having to do with financiers who were threatening to balk because of all the delays. In this letter, unlike the last, she did not set a time line as to when she would come back.
One warm afternoon early in the summer—that would be 1968—Thalia and I went to the beach with a girl named Dori. By then, Thalia had lived with us on Tinos for a year and her disfigurement no longer drew whispers and lingering stares. She was still, and always would be, girded by an orb of curiosity, but even that was waning. She had friends of her own now—Dori among them—who were no longer spooked by her appearance, friends with whom she ate lunch, gossiped, played after school, did her studies. She had become, improbably enough, almost ordinary, and I had to admit to a degree of admiration for the way the islanders had accepted her as one of their own.