It was one of those nights when our Athens was stewing in its own juice, a mixture of exhaust fumes, burnt plastic, teargas, despair. We struggled to seal off all the cracks; the air slipped through the air-conditioning units and stung our nostrils. Our eyes were watering and we were scared, yet the worst of it was that we did not know what to do with the baby. We’d taken her for three days to Ioanna’s parents in Kallithea, yet it wasn’t long before things came to a head there as well. At midday on Sunday we returned to our base in Metz in the hope that the situation in the city centre would calm down. A few hours later, we were watching the flames –now on TV and now through the window—as they swallowed up Ciné Atticon and Ciné Apollo, the cinemas where we had spent the last months of the pregnancy and several afternoons since our baby girl was born. For all the challenges, we refused to accept that the city would be slipping through our fingers and we had no intention of scattering like frightened little sparrows in the suburbs. We would dress in comfortable clothes and trainers, surgical face masks and Maalox in our bags, then we would stroll down towards Syntagma Square. We lingered in the Square, hang out to hear the talks or join the chat huddles, abandoning ourselves to the thrill and the excitement. And when it was time, or when it began to smell of gunpowder, we would duck into Karagiorgi Servias Street, take Voulis Street towards Kolokotronis Street, and from there come out into Christos Ladas Street, popping out for a few metres on Stadiou Avenue, just long enough to wave our free passes from afar at the cashier and hole up in the screening rooms. Often, the noise of explosions, of things being smashed or battle cries would adulterate the soundtrack; we would exchange anxious looks with the few other spectators around, weighing the messages reaching us from the world outside. And only this evening, as we watched the city becoming engulfed in flames, did we understand how much we had underestimated the reality invading through the TV screens, dissolving the illusion that, despite everything, life could still go on as normal.
Ioanna had retired to bed with our baby girl in her arms, while I was struggling to fight away sleep so I could finish the piece on The Grey, the film I had watched the day before. The newspaper where I had been working until recently had closed down, yet I had begun an unpaid collaboration with a website, just so that I could stay in the game. I still enjoyed the privilege of invitations to press nights and special previews and still had my free pass thanks to my membership of the Press Association. In reality, however, nothing was the same any more: I was essentially unemployed, soon to be uninsured, my income reduced to 45€ a week, which I received as payment for the three hours I taught history of the cinema at a school of graphic design. Ioanna had a similar story to tell: a general interest magazine which had closed down due to the bankruptcy of the Group then reopened under new direction, but with only half its collaborators; yet there was a difference –she had just renewed a two-year contract as a translator with the European Commission.
I was stuck. Pursued by a wolf pack, Liam Neeson and his comrades were reaching their physical and psychological limits. The situation was somewhat schematic, but the screenwriter and the director had guts. It’s just that, how can I say this: the film was completely irrelevant to the red-hot atmosphere of these past few days. What sort of review could I write, when the screening rooms of cinemas were turning into ashes? I was considering sending a message to the editor-in-chief explaining that I intended to write something about the event, instead of a conventional review. And yet something still didn’t feel right. What I really wanted at that very moment was not to write, but to take to the streets; leave Ioanna asleep with the baby and go and see the events with my own eyes. Be there, damn it. On the other hand, what I ought to do was to wake up Ioanna, put the baby and all its paraphernalia in the car, and while the roads were still open, eat humble pie and go back to her parents in Kallithea. It’s not every night that Ciné Atticon is on fire, I muttered behind clenched teeth, without being clear myself as to which action was advocated by this exceptional event. Involvement or escape? I got up from the computer and approached the balcony door. The sky above the city was black from the smoke, whereas in several places monstrous fires were still burning. Sharp bangs and the sirens of fire engines and ambulances, mixed with cries and the sound of things being smashed, reached my ears through the double-glazing as though from very far away. I was in Purgatory and my punishment was not to know where Heaven was, where Hell.
The shrill sound so startled me that I leapt up bewildered from the sofa and began to look for some old telephone set. Soon, though, I remembered that we had no landline, so the second, even more long-drawn ring, found me whirling around like a dazed chicken. What the hell! In the whole year we had been in this flat this was the first time I heard this horrid sound resembling a drill. The few friends who visited us had been duly trained: we do not ring bells in the baby’s realm. What are mobiles for? The third ring was so persistent, that it made me furious. Without thinking, I opened the balcony door, rushed out, and looked down the veranda overlooking the garage. It was chilly, but the stifling air burnt my throat. In front of the main entrance, someone had parked a big car in a devil-may-care way. I did not even have time to protest, when a male figure moved towards the photocell sensor and the automatic garage lights fell on it. It was Isidore. He was looking up towards the balcony displaying his hands. Seeing that I was still not responding, he beckoned me to go down. Wait, I whispered, wait. In the background, Athens had sunk in its greyness. Smoke was still rising up from some of the rooftops, and an otherworldly silence reigned as far as my senses could reach. In the avenue below, the cars were few and scarce.
How long had I been sleeping on the sofa?
As I went in, I locked the door shut behind me. The living room smelt of cinders, yet it could also be that the stench was stuck in my nostrils. Our baby girl was awake, it was her time, and you could hear Ioanna’s murmuring, soft and reassuring. In a few seconds, she would be hanging from her breast –she would be “on the charger” as we used to joke. At least she knew what she wanted.
I went down the steps two at a time, pushed open the main door of the building, and stood facing Isidore. I felt my body twisting, stretching, becoming one enormous question mark. None of the usual questions came naturally to me. Was there anything natural tonight? Given my present state of mind, I could have easily growled, roared, howled. Isidore stretched out his hands again, as though asking me to dance.
“What is it? What’s the matter?”
Instead of an answer, he took one more step towards me. The photocell was activated; the garage lights showered him bodily. He showed me again his hands. They were bloody.
“You must help me, he said.”
I went close to him. My heart was pounding like a hammer.
He muttered something incoherent and headed for the back of his car. I followed him with uncertain steps. This was beyond any doubt a strange night. He pressed the button of the car boot then took off his hand somewhat theatrically, letting the door rise automatically. There was something big in there, but I couldn’t see clearly. I backed away instinctively. With a swift movement, he grabbed a torchlight and shed the luminous beam inside the car. I froze. An enormous dog, a Great Dane, lay there, covering the entire space from corner to corner. The fine white fur around his neck was covered with dark-coloured blood; his long, thick tongue hung out of his half-open mouth. I felt tears welling up impulsively in my eyes. I took a deep breath, yet before I could say anything, Isidore lowered the boot lid forcefully. He looked at me, eyes glistening in the dark.
“Let’s go, I’ll tell you about it on the way.”
“Are we going to leave him like that?”
I shrugged my shoulders. I had Ioanna upstairs, we had the baby… Ciné Atticon had burnt down… I was overcome with sleep… What’s more… What the hell did he want from me?
When I opened my eyes I found myself in a dream; or a David Lynch film. And to judge by the first image I saw –fluorescent dividing lines showered by floodlights at the heart of absolute darkness—I had woken up right in the middle of the nightmarish atmosphere of The Lost Highway. To the right and left the relics of tall trees formed great bulks transpierced by the moonlight, while further up rose mountainsides like vast undulations drawn in charcoal. Beside me, Isidore was driving with his gaze transfixed on the ascending road, changing gears so softly that you almost never sensed it. How long had I been sleeping? To judge by where we were, at least half an hour. We had spent the night before in the guest room in Kallithea, a blind room where we had all three of us lain together on the sofa-bed. Our baby girl had been ravenously hungry; she would wake up every two hours. At about four, we had no choice but to sterilise the bottle so that we could give her a double dose of formula, on the off chance that we could sleep almost like normal human beings until seven thirty, when Ioanna’s parents would get up. Wishful thinking…
“It’s been nearly five years, and it still hasn’t recovered.”
Isidore’s voice sounded calm and deep. By association, I thought of the gruesome cargo in the car boot. My stomach turned.
“Who? I said.”
He was referring to Parnitha; to the great fire that had wiped out half of the forest five years ago. The charred remains of deer on the front pages had become the emblems of the disaster. For Isidore, of course, trees and plants did not belong to a lower tier in the pyramid of life in comparison to animals, a conviction which could be partly attributed to his job. At 16 he had inherited a small flower shop in Nea Smyrni, after his father died by falling from the fourth floor down the uncovered light well of their building block. His mother had had a nervous breakdown and he, as an only child, had had to shoulder up burdens disproportionate to his age. Isidore Konidaris –intelligence squared, according to Sakaloglou, our mathematician, who had been coaching him for the Maths Olympiad—did not even sit the university entrance exams. Instead, he resolved to track down the debts that his father had left right and left, even those to loan sharks. And against all odds, in a few years’ time, with work and prudence, the accounts were set to order; what is more, Isidore and his mother, who had recovered in the meantime, opened a small garden nursery a couple of blocks away, growing rare species of plants and flowers. By then Isidore had become a revered figure among gardening aficionados, who would come to his shop to consult him and be taught his techniques in person, people from every corner of Greece. Among other things, he would guide you as to which type of music your azaleas might prefer, and if he took a liking to you, he would make you a CD with his selections specifically for Bonsai trees.
Over time, he began to associate with groups of environmentalists and activists, developing initiatives for the protection and enrichment of the mountains of Attica. Quite a few were vegetarians, some hard-core, he had even introduced me to a couple who were fruitarians. Most of them were also his clients, so that from a certain point onwards, business and philosophical discussions had become one and the same. For all of them, and above all for Isidore, the fire in Parnitha constituted a turning point –a point of no return, as we say in films.
“And where did you say you hit him?”
“I didn’t say.”
I had not failed to notice the vagueness of his report. Isidore was a pedant; any gaps or omissions in his accounts were not accidental. His speech, a mirror to his thought, reminded you of Lego blocks; a universe of solid rational interconnections.
The events, as he had narrated them, were as follows: a little before midnight he had decided to get into his car and tootle towards the sea. At some point, this monster sprang out in front of him. He did not have the time to break and he hit it. He put it into the car boot, and naturally he came to me.
I obviously did not expect any clarifications. I knew, as well as he did, that in this whole narrative the only thing certain was the conclusion, namely that naturally he would come to me. There was no way I would remain unmoved at the sight of a wounded dog. As an only child myself, I had found in them from early on in my life the company of the brother or sister I had not been given. As the years went by, and as the problems between my parents became more acute, my dog gradually became something more than company, he was a kind of alternative family. The death of Thales, when I was fifteen, had shaken me but had not discouraged me. His replacement, a lively golden retriever, followed soon after. We lived three happy years with Menas, until a sudden liver failure took him for ever away from me. On the contrary, with Polynikes (Poly in dog-talk), a half-breed German Shepherd who took Menas’ place three months later, we lived together sixteen whole years, three of which also together with Ioanna. We lost him just two years ago, at which point I decided –we decided to be precise—to come to terms once and for all with my grief. Our pregnancy, a few months later, also gave a symbolic closure to my dog-affairs, and ushered me into the era when I was duty bound to show more trust in bipeds.
Isidore, on the other hand, saw my dog-loving as an expression of an infuriatingly selective sensitivity towards non-human creatures. He wasn’t altogether wrong: I was sceptical about cats, and, as for mice, if it were within my power I would exterminate them all.
The car winded its way up the snaky road. We had crossed the first pass, the city behind us had vanished; the darkness deepened and spread. Having travelled through a great slope of what was left of the pine forest, we were now going into scorched land. Under the moonlight, the black trunks on the deforested hills reminded you of the patchy beard on an old man’s face. At regular intervals, piles of trunks formed anti-erosion barriers; some had been carried away by the downpours and lay scattered haphazardly across the slope.
I felt as though I were inside a riddle. The Great Dane in the car boot was the only certainty. Everything else felt rather stale. Beginning with the night drive to the sea. Isidore believed that the three big mountains of Attica formed a continuous and undifferentiated energy field with Penteli at its centre, flowing down towards the peninsula and from there towards the sea along the beds of rivers and gullies. Therefore, if you wanted to focus your powers or clear your mind you only had to climb one of the mountains, preferably, by now, Hymettus or Parnitha. Penteli was depleted of its strength, the first blow against the area’s equilibrium of energy. Going to the sea was a pure waste of time, a silly habit of modern Greeks. Can you imagine the ancient Athenians wallowing on the beach all day? Second point: on the way, a dog sprang out of nowhere, which dog he wounded mortally, because, he says, he did not have the time to break. Which also sounds pretty slim. Isidore had been driving his father’s Toyota Carina since he was a child. Even if a dog or whatever had jumped out in front of his wheels, there is no way his reaction would have been so slow. Third point: there are no stray Great Danes. Who would abandon in the streets a Great Dane, the Apollo of dogs? Finally, even the choice of the time when the accident is supposed to have happened –bang on midnight, so that he could be ringing my bell half an hour later—had in it something exaggeratedly sketchy, staged.
What was the purpose behind all this?
The tune of Für Elise shook me out of my thoughts and brought me back to the reality I had left behind. Before I could say or do anything, Isidore stopped dead in the middle of the road. I opened the co-driver’s door and leapt out, interrupting at the same time Beethoven’s trills by caressing the screen of my mobile. The stinging cold of February together with Ioanna’s flustered voice made me shiver. As I muttered explanations mixed up with excuses (the situation, bizarre in itself, sounded completely absurd as I was reporting it, especially after all that had happened recently with Isidore), at the back of mind I was thinking of checking one more point: a collision with such a dog must have caused damage to the bonnet of the car. Moreover, the dog was covered in blood, therefore at the point of collision there had to be traces as well. Elementary, my dear Watson. As I talked on the mobile, I had walked several steps ahead of the car. The headlights were blinding me, and I was forced to move to the right, dead in the middle of the road. As I was reassuring Ioanna that this nocturnal adventure would soon come to an end, I began to walk back towards the car, taking care to maintain the same angle in relation to the headlights, so that not only would they not blind me, but they would also illuminate the bonnet around them. At about ten metres away, and as I had lowered the phone from my ear, Isidore turned the lights off, leaving the engine on. Everything around me went dark. I shuddered. What sort of game is he playing with me? I approached the car, my gaze fixed on the driver’s seat. We had known each other since we were children and if anyone had asked me up until two hours ago who was my best friend, I would have instinctively answered that it was Isidore, even though we had not been speaking to one another lately, even if there were invisible walls rising up between us. And yet, at that very moment, in the middle of the night, with the few remnants of woodland around us shedding their shadow upon us, and as the slender trees shrieked, bending under the wind, I felt an awful foreboding. Not only because of the mountain and its dark shades, the unknown lurking around us; I was frightened of him, my friend. What had brought us up there? What had happened to that miserable creature that lay in the car boot? Why were all these things happening tonight, when hours earlier Athens had been burning like a torch? I was almost in front of the car, when all of a sudden, as though he had guessed my thoughts, the fog lamps lit up the bonnet of the old Carina. I looked at Isidore. His face remained expressionless, his gaze on the steering wheel. My own gaze dropped instinctively down to the bonnet, which now, thanks to the small lights left and right, was sufficiently illuminated. Precisely at the centre there was a pronounced dent. I went closer, bent down and passed my hand over the icy metal. A dark liquid dyed my hand. This time the shudder was accompanied by a sharp stab in the stomach. What the devil was going on?
I got hurriedly into the car and settled in the co-driver’s seat. Isidore turned on the headlights once more and was ready to put the car into first gear.
“Stop,” I cried, grabbing at the same time the gear stick. “First of all we are going to straighten things out. Otherwise we are not going anywhere.”
He pulled his hand away from the gear stick and placed it back on the steering wheel. He let out a heavy sigh.
“I was counting on this moment coming a little later,” he said, and with his left hand he fumbled in the door pocket. He pulled out a metal flask, unscrewed the cap, brought it to his mouth and drank a long sip. The smell of rum filled the car. He held out the flask towards me.
“What’s this all about? Since when have you taken up drinking?”
“I have a whole bottle at the back. It will be enough.”
“Stop trying to be funny. What happened? What did you do to the dog?”
He brought the flask to his mouth and took a second swig. He put the cap on and returned it to the door pocket.
“Is it all right if I drive while you ask questions, Mr Interrogator? Driving, as you know, relaxes me. And we still have a long way ahead of us, don’t we?”
We did. Since the moment we had tacitly decided together that this dog would be buried with as much ceremony as our dog, the location to which we were heading had been a given. It hosted four dogs already in its soil –three of mine and Gandalf, the one and only dog Isidore had ever had. Gandalf had died about a year after his father. No matter how much I had insisted, he had refused to replace him.
He put the car into first gear; the Carina let out a soft growl and started off. We had reached a point where the road started to turn downhill, the moon was disappearing behind the mountaintop; we were sinking into the mountain’s cavities.
“Do you remember what I told you last year, at my mother’s funeral? Back home late that night, when there were just the two of us?”
I nodded affirmatively. I did remember. That he was free at last. And that every man’s purpose is fulfilled only after they have lost their progenitors. While our parents are alive, he had said, we remain trapped in their gaze. We are captive to their love, no matter how that love is expressed.
He turned towards me.
“You yourself know that feeling of freedom: you experienced it first.”
Both my parents had died of cancer within a year of one another, leaving me alone with Poly. I wouldn’t describe what I had felt after my father had also died as liberation, but rather as the introduction to the Great Fear. While they lived, I felt invincible. When they departed from life, I felt that I was taking my turn in the queue. Moreover, now that I had no one else in the world except some distant aunts, the pain of loss was accompanied by a feeling of desolation. As though the planet had been emptied of people. Until Ioanna came into my life and everything lit up again.
“Your own purpose has a name and a face,” he said as though he had read my thoughts. “Two names and two faces by now, to be exact.”
His mention of Ioanna and our baby girl made me realise how far away I was from them at that precise moment; how much I had strayed from my purpose.
“If you think about it, your whole life was nothing but an apprenticeship to what you were going to become. Loyal husband, devoted father.”
I felt the irony in his words. My cynophilia was merely the symptom; my need for commitment and companionship, the deeper ailment. I had heard all this before, in harsher terms. Yet had I not been who I was, our friendship would not have lasted all these years either.
“By the way, I apologise for the other day. I went too far.”
Just went too far? He was a certified imbecile, unacceptable, no matter which way you looked at it! Ioanna was furious with him, never wanted to set eyes on his face again. I felt just about the same. To cut a long story short, although he had supposedly come to visit us so that he could finally see our baby (already six months old!), he had thrown into our face that having a child was an utterly selfish, purely mechanical act, which did not take into account any of the great problems of humanity. I had warned her that Isidore was likely to drop a clanger or two, yet even I had not been prepared for the gross inanities he had uttered. He had gone on to say that the world was overflowing with millions of children spawned by people who did not want them or who had been killed, imprisoned, and so on and so forth, therefore if we felt such a great urge to raise a child, we only had to choose one of those unfortunate creatures. In this way, not only would we be soothing the world’s misery, but we would also not be adding one more blood-sucking tick (this is how he described our baby girl) to the planet’s hump. But then again, he had concluded, you couldn’t expect moral integrity from everyone…
Two months had passed since that disastrous evening. Both times he called, I did not answer. Something inside me had frozen. I felt that he had questioned my fundamental choices, who I am. He had offended us; he had humiliated us. What sort of friendship could there be after that?
“And what is your own purpose?” I asked, wishing to bring the conversation back to its original tracks.
I felt that the answer to this question would somehow undo all the accumulated knots. Without taking his eyes off the road, Isidore pronounced the words slowly and distinctly:
“To solve the riddle,” he said.
I thought that had been my own purpose tonight…
“What riddle?” I murmured.
“My father’s suicide. Every man who takes his own life bequeaths to the others a curse and a wish.”
The conversation engendered yet more riddles instead of solving them. Silence followed.
After a few heavy seconds, he went on.
“For as long as you live, you are condemned to wonder why the person you love put an end to their life. Why you were not a sufficient reason for them not to do so.
Eighteen years had passed since his father’s death and Isidore never spoke about it. Why now? Why tonight?
“And the wish?”
“That you should be lucky enough for an answer to be there. If there is one, then sooner or later you will find it. And when you do, the act itself changes signs. It ceases to be an act of negation…”
I knew this moment would come. The moment when he would speak and I would not understand. This time however I was not going to remain silent.
“And so? What answer have you found to your riddle? Another riddle? Pythia’s little trick?”
“Don’t be hasty.”
I raised my voice:
“It is two o’clock past midnight, we have been driving for an hour in the middle of a burnt forest with a dead Great Dane in the car boot, and you haven’t said yet a single word that makes sense. Of course I am hasty!”
Isidore sighed. With his left hand he picked up again the flask, unscrewed the cap and brought it to his mouth.
“Sure you don’t want some?” he said and offered it to me.
I snatched it from his hand. I drank a big gulp.
He slowed down. After a long while, we crossed paths for the first time with another car. We blinked the headlights by way of greeting.
“Every story reveals its meaning only if you tell it in a certain order. In my story, everything began with my father’s death. Which I am convinced was intentional.”
It was the first time he was telling me this with such certainty. While his mother was alive, they had cultivated the version of an accident. It was socially more convenient and easier to deal with from an emotional perspective.
“And why didn’t he leave a note of some sort, something that would reveal it was no accident? Didn’t he care?”
“Perhaps it was because he cared that he didn’t leave one. Notes, just like all easy answers, move you away from the mystery; they don’t help you solve it. It’s like substituting the question with an answer.”
I drank one more gulp of rum. The flask had remained in my hand. I still could not understand.
“As you know, my father was led to a dead-end. The shop was not the problem. He was addicted to gambling. The problem was inside him. Every step he took led to disaster. We were going to lose the shop, he would have been forced to sell the house, my mother’s already fragile health would have been shaken and I, who knows where I would have ended up…”
Now it was his turn to snatch the flask and drink a swig. I profited from the pause to check my mobile. Fortunately there was no reception signal where we were.
“Do you remember that film you took me to see some years ago? Where the story only becomes clear if you look at the scenes in reverse order? From the present to the past?”
“Exactly. A reminder. This is how my own riddle is solved. By playing the movie of my life backwords. From this day back to the moment of my father’s suicide. I realised that what in other people’s eyes looked like an ending, in reality was a new beginning.
“So, if you look at things from that perspective, namely if you judge the act not based on social stereotypes and entrenched views, but based on the effects it had on our life, then its meaning changes.”
His voice, clear and stable before, at this point sounded broken.
“It is revealed as what it was: an act of sacrifice. A sacrifice in the religious, primeval sense of the word. Only in this case, the one who performs the rites, the sacrificer, is also at the very same time the sacrificial object, the gift to the gods.”
He was choosing his words with precision, as though he had rehearsed them. Solid phrases, one on top of the other.
“So you are claiming that it was all deliberate? That he knew that by putting an end to his life, he would be liberating all this… what shall we call it, positive energy?”
“I cannot be sure. But I ask you: what determines the meaning of an act?”
He turned and looked at me as though expecting an answer. I shrugged my shoulders.
“The possible answers are not infinite, he said. In fact, there are only three. Either the actor determines the meaning of the act, or the recipients of the act determine it, that is to say the others, or again the meaning is determined by the outcome of the act, its effect on reality.”
Is this how it was? I wasn’t sure. Someone else, somewhere else, would have expressed the same issues differently. My faith in words remained diminished. A web of vague ideas that we spin around us along the years. For Isidore, on the contrary, words were hard currency.
“Philosophy is not my forte,” I said. “But I can also imagine several other combinations. For example, what is reality? Isn’t it what most of us agree is happening?”
He faltered for a moment –no more than two seconds.
“Every act carries its own burden. Even when it is not conscious.”
I pictured acts being like little Sisyphuses, each carrying on its back its particular meaning, like little round rocks. Just before they reach the top, just before they hand over to us humans their precious cargo, the acts slip and fall, the meaning rolls back down to the foot of the slope. And it’s back to square one again.
“On the other hand,” Isidore went on, if the one who acts possesses himself the meaning of his act, he endows it with multiple energy. Therefore its impact on reality operates as a multiplier. In which case, we can even speak of miracles.
The car windows were fogged by our breaths, in front of me I could only see the beam of light shed by the headlights on the tarmac. The shred of reality that kept us within life.
“This fits well with the platitude we’ve inherited from Chaos Theory, that the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings in Japan can cause a hurricane in America. Only in my own example it would be more helpful to imagine a butterfly that consciously decides to sneak inside a nuclear reactor.”
I had difficulty understanding who or what would benefit from one more nuclear accident, no matter what Isidore’s butterfly wished to believe. The link between all these dark thoughts about sacrifice and the situation we were in right now was not very clear to me. Yet when I brought to mind the image of the Great Dane soaked in blood, my stomach, which with the passage of time was proving to be a more sensitive receptor than my perception, began again to turn, the knots inside me to tighten. There was something ominous in these words, the spectrum of a menace.
“And the dog?” I said, in an attempt to surprise him. “Why did you hit him?”
He smiled bitterly.
“The only thing that interests you is the dog, eh?”
“That’s not true.”
“You are quite prepared to launch campaigns for the rescue of some creatures provided they have a cute face and they bring back your tennis ball.”
“You oversimplify, you know.”
“The extraordinary ingenuity and craftsmanship of the blackbird, the termite or a humble field tortoise do not evoke your compassion. Because they do not concern you. And they do not concern you because they do not resemble you.”
“Goddammit, Isidore, is this the time for this sort of talk?”
He tapped rhythmically on the steering wheel with his hand, underlining his sentences.
“Now is the time. Precisely now.”
But we’d already talked about all this. We’d talked a thousand times. I can’t feel sad for the ants I step on, or for the microbes I inhale, and I don’t intend to denounce the mass spraying of mosquitoes as genocide. That doesn’t mean that I don’t care for any other creature.
“I do care, Isidore. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be up here at this hour with you.”
“Dogs for you are an idea.”
“No. This is our difference. The idea of the dog leaves me indifferent. Yet the particular dog, the one that for some reason or another crossed my path, that dog interests me, I care about it.”
Once again there was silence. For a few minutes now a fine drizzle, interspersed with gusts of wind, splattered the car windows; the moon had vanished behind the clouds, the place around us, as much as I could see, had grown dark. Yet there was something else I was trying to say. There was something I couldn’t grasp in this conversation. The problem wasn’t the dog, or the cat, or the mice. It had nothing to do with what rights or properties I acknowledged to the various life forms. I knew this conversation. All these years with Isidore and his friends I had become well-familiar with it. It led with mathematical precision to whether cabbages and beetroot feel pain when we slice them. Whether they had sentiments or memory. Yet this wasn’t it…
“Perhaps,” I added, “our disagreement is deeper. Perhaps it is a matter of faith. Perhaps I do not believe in life as much as you do.”
“I respect life, but for me life is not sacred. I would not give up my life for life’s sake.”
What about for the sake of someone else’s life? Something stung me inside, something like an ancient, Aristophanic wasp. Not even for the sake of Ioanna’s life? Not even for my little girl’s? Was my life then whatever most precious I had in the world?
Isidore, who sometimes gave me the impression of having the ability to follow the secret chain of my thoughts, grinned. In his smile I could discern bitterness commingled with satisfaction. I had been led to the place where he wanted me to be. I had made the admission he was asking of me and which illuminated whatever it was that separated us. I waited for the words for which he had been preparing all evening to come any moment now; the sentences that would summarise me. Your life, my friend… Your puny insignificant life is worth as much as the life of a field tortoise, no more. What value is there in a life if there is nothing in the world for which it’s worth sacrificing it?
He lowered gears, we were climbing uphill again. It was two years since I had been to the shelter, since we’d said farewell to Poly –it was safe to assume that not much would have changed. It wouldn’t be long before we got there.
When he spoke at last, his voice had no hint of an ultimatum or a menace. Nor did he answer any of the ponderous things I had uttered. A tone lower than before, it had now the hoarseness of a confession.
“I believed that I could ensure a calm and useful life for myself by staying away from all that unsettled me. By living in microcosms. By fashioning, if you would like, microcosms made to order. Bonsai lives. That was the meaning behind the creation of the garden nursery. This was also the meaning behind my love for the mountain. If each of us, I thought, could concentrate on something good, if each of us were to do something useful and beautiful on a small scale, then all this added positive energy could change the world. Or at least make it more bearable.
He was speaking calmly, yet his right hand kept tapping the gear stick nervously.
“We had teamed up with several agronomists, planting species completely new to this forest in untrodden locations. We knew that they would act beneficially on the wider ecosystem; aromatic plants which in large populations can counter the development of diseases afflicting fir trees or willows. Bees, properly disseminated, can multiply in just a few years the forest’s wealth and diversity of bloom. In two decades, thanks to the efforts of many, Parnitha had become a vast biochemical experiment, an admirable example of what could be derived from the felicitous collaboration between man and nature.
He was pointing outside to the blackness of the burnt pine forest, as though everything he was talking about was there right now before our eyes.
“Per square kilometre, there were more animals, insects and plants living around here than in any other forest in Europe. On Parnitha alone, there were more plant species than in the whole of Scandinavia. One hundred of these were endemic, not to be found anywhere else in the world. Thirty two species of mammals, martens, jackals, squirrels, foxes, but also one hundred and twenty different species of birds. More than five hundred red deer lived and bred a few kilometres away from the city, and most Athenians had no idea.
He turned around and looked at me. His eyes were red.
“They had no idea, but that does not mean that they could not feel it. Because this is how the good works, Ilias. It spreads around it small imperceptible waves, vibrations of gentleness and compassion. Have you ever stood next to a deer? Just stood silently beside it, as the sun sets behind the mountain?”
He shut his eyes for a few seconds as though reliving such a moment. I was afraid he might fall asleep on the wheel. He opened his eyes and continued in a mournful, yet clear voice.
“Until the fire happened and I realised something I knew already but refused to admit. That the power of evil is infinitely greater than the power of good. It only took one lunatic and a bit of oakum to cancel years of effort; it only took a farmer’s negligence to destroy the countless good actions of thousands of people. As for the trees, the plants and the animals that were lost during those days, I still hear their howling in my ears.”
I tried to imagine what the howl from the loss of so many disparate organisms would sound like. The white howl.
“You thought that what came after in this city was irrelevant to what came before? Do you think that events of such magnitude, that shake an entire ecosystem to its foundations, would not also affect people’s souls? And especially the souls of children and young people?”
I had never made that connection. There had been of course many protests and displays of grief after the great fire, many had felt distressed, had wanted to react. Much had been written, more had been said. About people’s soul, however, I couldn’t tell. The word “soul” had always made me feel a little ill at ease.
I looked at him. His eyes remained fixed on the road.
“We have placed on science the responsibility to interpret our world. We have forsaken our right to judge with our heart. Our truth is now the preserve of a few laboratories; they have put it under the microscope, they carve it up and serve it to us in doses. Yet none of these small truths renders our world more comprehensible, more bearable to live in.”
They serve it to us in doses because the whole truth perhaps does not exist. True, the price is a cold, alien world. But the benefit, my friend, is also specific, quantifiable.
“And yet,” he went on, “deep in our soul, the material we are made of remains unaltered. Primitive man survives in civilised man just as the child survives in the adult. In moments of crisis he comes up to the surface and claims his portion of the truth. And he is hurting when the forest next to his home burns down. Just like the child inside us is hurting when it sees the slaughtered animal in the supermarket or the dead carcass at the edge of the motorway, abandoned, desecrated. Only this pain, this scream, does not come to the surface by the familiar route, the mouth. It demands a high degree of consciousness and sensitivity to drag it up from the pits of the mind all the way to the tongue and make it words and tears. It becomes more easily a fist, a kick in another’s face.”
Did I sympathise with all this? Probably not. The following day, when I would be thinking about it more coolly, this would all seem sketchy, the obsessions of a few loons. So why was I moved?
“That July,” he went on, many young people gathered at Syntagma Square for an overnight candlelight vigil, they were mourning. With them were several adults who could sense how great was the evil that had befallen us. Most, however, merely clenched their teeth and kept their rage inside them. They knew that regardless of what they were told every night on television, about the bad moment and the strong winds, the truth was that they had been deceived. The mighty were depriving them of their world; piece by piece; all that belonged by right to them and to the next generations. Everything that followed since was only the wake of this engulfment. The tears that were not shed then are shed as blood later, under different pretexts.”
He made a short pause, as though hesitating.
“The arson attacks in Athens today were something I have been expecting for a long time. A sign…”
This last phrase of his suddenly blazed up inside me like a super nova. So this something that had brought us here was related to the events of this afternoon? Almost five years had passed since the fire in Parnitha. In the meantime, the city centre had been destroyed time and time again, young blood had dyed the pavements, and rage soared and re-soared in waves. Why tonight? Why hadn’t he received this “sign” earlier? Did the delayed reaction have anything to do with the loss of his mother a year ago, at which time he had felt at last free to “fulfil his purpose”? On the other hand, Athens may have suffered repeated damages in previous years, but never before had it been enveloped in flames with the intensity and on the scale it had happened this evening. The parallel –if one were looking for parallels—was obvious.
The few lights of the shelter could be seen through the fir trees as we took the last turn. The area had fortunately remained untouched by the fire.
We came out into the clearing and approached the big building. There was one more car stationed outside. We parked next to it.
And the Great Dane? Where did he fit in all this?
“Shall we do it now?” I said as soon as he had turned off the engine. “The soil is soft, we will finish quickly.”
“Let’s go inside first for a bit,” he said and opened his door.
We left the car and advanced towards the entrance. The rucksack on his back ought to have made an impression on me, yet Isidore was in the habit of carrying all sorts of things around, even at the strangest moments. As though he were ever at the ready for a military campaign.
I took a look at my mobile: I had three missed calls, all from Ioanna. I made a sign to him that I would stay outside to talk on the phone and left him to walk ahead. It was stinging cold. It was drizzling and there was a thin mist. The mountain spread around me unapproachable, obscure. The world of the past, I thought. The world of the beast. All deep emotions spring from it, yet most of us would not hesitate to sacrifice them in order to root out the beast in us.
I let the phone ring three times and then I hang up. She must have fallen asleep, exhausted as she was from breastfeeding. So much the better. Except for anxiety, I was incapable of conveying to her anything else. I typed quickly a text message and sent it. I am well. Won’t be long. I turned off the mobile and entered the shelter.
Isidore was crouching in front of the fireplace staring at the half-extinguished log. He had thrown down his rucksack a little further away and in front of him he had placed the bottle of rum and two half-filled glasses. As soon as I entered, he picked up one of them in his hand. I sat beside him. We had said a lot tonight. More than we realised. In all of this, there were confessions and innuendos about things that had happened and about others that were going to happen. His life and mine had taken diverging courses, without us even realising it. And we were left staring at the ever deepening ditch between us, embittered and embarrassed. And yet… At that moment the only thing I felt for this man was tenderness. Tenderness and love. I looked at his thick wavy hair and his rugged face and saw in them the boy I had known many years ago. The children we had once been sat there, by the fireplace, and stared at a flame that was almost extinguished. Its glow however still flushed our cheeks.
“Come on, said Isidore, and raised his glass. Let’s drink to miracles…”
To miracles? How strange this timeworn word sounded here, on the mountain, as we drank black rum by a flickering fireplace.
I raised my glass, held it high, and clinked it with his.
“To miracles,” I repeated.
The dark-coloured drink burnt my throat at first, then my stomach. Isidore pushed a pack of crackers towards me; I munched one mechanically – it tasted like cardboard. I leant to my side and settled my head on my elbow. My eyes were becoming heavy. The log sizzled, the sounds it emitted seemed to me complex but somehow organised, as though there were a whole orchestra playing. It had been a very strange evening followed by an even stranger night. Ciné Atticon has burnt down, I muttered, testing on the tip of my tongue the veracity of the phrase. Attica has burnt down, I hear the Antiphonist inside me. Language was on Isidore’s side.
Don’t do it, my friend, I said, and immediately after I thought that I wasn’t sure whether I had really uttered these words or had just mumbled them inwardly. I felt my limbs becoming paralysed and everything around me transforming into a warm dense sea sucking me in. Liam Neeson’s image appeared before me. With a scar on his cheek, and light-coloured eyes, like those of wolves. His comrades have all disappeared one by one. Alone and surrounded, he is preparing for the final battle, the battle that is not fought to be won but because the struggle for life is the only noble struggle. He looks at the black wolf, the biggest one, the leader of the pack, straight in the eyes. And charges.
When I opened my eyes the sunrays were coming through the window. I tried to get up but a sharp pain threw me back on the floor. I felt my brain thrusting against the walls of my skull. I stood with difficulty on my feet, dragged myself to the small kitchen and drank two glasses of water. I began to recover. Isidore and his rucksack were gone. I looked over at the table where I could still see our glasses and the half-empty bottle of rum, in case he had left me a note. Nothing. Instead, there was the key of the Carina, placed on my mobile. I grabbed it and went out.
The car was where we had left it, Isidore however was nowhere to be found. The white morning sun shone on the forest of fir trees; the world looked brand new. The bright rays passed through the foliage and formed flickering patterns on the slopes. I got into the car and turned on the engine. If he were still nearby, I knew exactly where to find him.
I drove two hundred metres to the small plateau that stretched from the shelter to the roots of a gentle mountain slope. The soil was wet and the wheels skidded every now and then, but the thin layer of moss prevented them from getting stuck in the mud. I stopped at the edge, a little before the incline started, and got off. I crossed some copses of fir trees, and about a hundred metres worth of dense forest. A little later I came out into a small clearing. Four great slabs of stone were planted at the centre, each a different size and form. It was our little dog cemetery. I had inaugurated it with my father nineteen years ago and thought to have finally said goodbye to it two years ago, with Ioanna. The biggest stone was Poly’s, then followed Gandalf’s with a marginal difference. Under the smallest lay poor Menas, who had died prematurely. The names of the dogs and the dates of their deaths were engraved on the stones in very small letters, which could be read only if you knew to look for them. The four of them together formed a square, each side of which was roughly three metres long. Thales’ stone was in the top right corner of the square, as I was looking at it; there was still space between it and the nearest tree trunk. Almost twenty years had gone by, there would be very little left by now of the burly creature of old. This is where we would dig. I approached, prodded the soil with my finger: it was as soft as butter, the job would not be particularly hard for the both of us. Provided he had remembered to chuck a shovel or two into the car. But where had Isidore gone? For even if I dag the ditch on my own, which was no mean feat, since it had to be at least one and a half metres deep, it would be impossible for me to carry the huge animal all the way here on my own.
I followed the path and came out into the open space once again, hoping to see Isidore coming back from a morning walk to the nearby slopes. There wasn’t a soul around. I was approaching the car when a strange noise reached my ears, something resembling the whimpering of a dog. I looked about, there was no one in sight, neither man nor beast. The single car that had been parked outside the shelter during the night was still in its place. There was a thump after that, and then another, coming from the direction of the Carina. I approached cautiously, as though the familiar car had all of a sudden transformed into a mysterious creature with unpredictable reactions. One more whimpering was heard, only this time I had no doubt as to its source. My heart began to pound so hard I thought I would drop dead on the spot. I inserted the key into the car boot lock, turned it and pressed the button to open it. As the door sprang forcefully upwards, I leapt two metres back. Placing his heavy paws on the boot floor, the Great Dane slid with difficulty out of the car, letting out a growl that expressed complaint and joy all at once. The dog took some uncertain steps, as though he couldn’t quite find his balance yet, and then he began to run clumsily towards the other end of the small plateau. His enormous legs would not coordinate; every now and then one of them would fold under him, making him lose his balance. He was the biggest dog I had ever seen in my life. There was a fairy-tale beauty in this image of the massive yet lithe creature running in nature at a relaxed pace, finding little by little the harmony and grace of its movements after so many hours of unconsciousness. The sun divided the plateau into two –and as the animal ran, it passed every now and then from the light to the dark side, as though playing a game. And after he had drawn a few elliptical circles, he made one final dash and stood panting and whimpering in front of me, with his tail thrashing the air, his fat tongue dangling sideways. Every now and then he would sniff the ground, make two small revolutions around himself and stop once more in front of me, emitting sounds somewhat incongruous with his size. He was hungry. I went up to the open boot and looked inside. It was completely empty. I opened the back door and checked in front of the seats. Indeed: someone had foreseen this time might come and had left there two big tins of dogfood.
I opened them and set them down before him. Yet again I found myself engulfed by waves of emotion at the sight of a hungry dog enjoying heartily the food you had offered him. This particular dog, a majestic example of the species, magnified these sentiments. I examined carefully the area around the head and the neck, in case I could spot the traces of a blow or scar, but I could find nothing serious on the body of this admirable animal. On the contrary, in the light of day the red blotches around the white fur that was peppered with black dots had faded and looked a lot less like blood than they had done during the night. Much as I was surprised, bewildered, frightened, the fact that the dog was alive filled me with joy as though I had delivered it myself from the jaws of death.
Once again I remembered Isidore. I took out my mobile, activated it and dialled his number. There was no connection. Or perhaps he had switched off his phone. I waited for the dog to finish his meal, got back into the car and drove to the shelter. The Great Dane followed, running left and right.
I went inside in the hope that I would find him in the great hall or find at least a sign of his presence. Nothing had changed since the time I had woken up. I put the bottle of rum in a bag, tidied up a bit and drank one more glass of icy water. I was wondering what I should do. Call for help? Isidore would never forgive me for the humiliation I would be subjecting him to: people searching for him on his very own mountain. On the other hand, what if something had happened to him? After how long was I supposed to act? The best thing perhaps would be to go to the nearest Fire & Rescue post and talk to the firefighters. They quite possibly knew him and perhaps they would be able to reassure me. They didn’t know of course anything about the previous night, and therefore reassurance was probably not exactly what we needed at that point. Damn you, Isidore!
I rushed outside, chucked the bottled into the car, my eyes searching for the dog. I couldn’t see him. I took two steps towards the plateau so that I could have a full-range view. No sign of the dog. Then, from my left, from the side of the descending slope, I heard a deep bark and then another. Immediately after, I saw the Great Dane approaching, pausing every now and then to check behind him. I ran towards the dog and then saw Isidore emerging from the fir trees with slow tired steps. His clothes were soiled as though he had crawled on the ground; his sports jacket was torn is several places, his rucksack was missing, and there were leaves and thorns stuck to his thick hair. Yet worst of all was his face: it were as though a whole decade had gone by on it; he looked overwhelmed, prematurely aged. His eyes had narrowed from the sudden exit into the light (who knows whether he had slept at all that night), dark slits at the centre of a mask.
He passed me by without looking at me and headed for the car. Once outside the Carina he halted. The Great Dane made a great oval at a fast gallop and went and stood beside him. He stretched out his hand and touched him lightly on the head like a grandfather caressing a naughty grandchild. He opened the door, settled in the co-driver’s seat and shut the door again. I approached as well, opened the back door and whistled to the Great Dane. He made one big leap and settled on the seat, covering it completely with his long body, as naturally as though we had been doing this all our lives. I got into the driver’s seat, started the engine and took the downhill road. Whatever had taken place that night this was not the time to discuss it.
The day had fully broken by then, yet the sun remained hidden behind the thick, billowing clouds. In the daylight I could see again clearly the magnitude of the destruction left behind by the great fire. But I also saw the vegetation that had begun to spring up from under the chars. The old forest would never perhaps be the same, yet life was finding once more a way of sorts – beyond and above any ideas we might have about it.
As we descended the mountain, Attica emerged before us as though from behind a white veil; sleet sprinkled the windscreen. Isidore beside me kept his eyes shut. Perhaps he was asleep, perhaps he was thinking, or perhaps he was simply avoiding conversation. His face was motionless, as though turned to stone; you’d think he had difficulty breathing.
When we were outside my house, I nudged him.
“This is me, my friend,” I said, and I prepared to get off.
He opened his eyes, turned around and looked at me.
“Do you feel up to it?” I added.
He nodded in assent. I got off, he went around the car, got in and sat in the driver’s seat. In the back seat the Great Dane lifted one eyelid then shut it straight back, abandoning himself to his canine slumber. After all that had happened, I couldn’t help reading this wink as the sign of a male comradeship. The Great Dane and I now had a past, we had shared a morning as strange as it was unique.
It’s been six months now since that night in February. I sent him a text message, but I never got an answer. I decided not to insist. Perhaps our paths would meet again later. You can’t force these things. Once in a while, though, if I am coming back from Kallithea and I am on my own, I cross over to the other side and follow the road that passes in front of the garden nursery. The plants in the showroom have decreased, reflecting a similar decline in clients, I imagine. Once in a while I see him. He has grown a beard and looks even thinner. Once, about a month ago, I had an unexpected encounter. I saw our Great Dane sauntering proudly in the square in Nea Smyrni. Here, in the midst of civilisation, his size seemed to me even more imposing than it had done on the mountain. A dainty, pretty young woman in a grey tracksuit and orange trainers walked behind him, leading him by a heavy chain. It was most probably the time of his afternoon walk. I double-parked as best I could and ran up to her. Although it was unlikely he would have remembered me, the dog came up to me wagging his tail, which almost brushed against the girl’s face.
“What’s his name?” I said.
She fixed me with her smiling eyes. With a dog like that, she was probably used to wise-guys.
“His name is Ben.”
Her voice was melodious and cheerful.
“Ben?” I said, but my voice came out wrong, as though I were choking.
I looked at her startled. It was impossible to estimate her age, she could be anything between twenty-five and thirty-five.
“Ben?” I repeated, my voice now stentorian. “Ben what? Is it from Benjamin?”
“It’s just Ben,” she said.
She threw me a sudden astonished gaze, as though measuring me up.
“You are the second person to ask me that.”
I chose not to ask who had been the first.
“That’s a fine dog,” I said, and headed towards the car. “You should take it to the mountain,” I cried after her. “They like it a lot.”
Some nights, when sleep won’t come, I let the agony of darkness overwhelm me and I try to get under his skin; understand what he could have possibly seen and felt that night. Whatever it was, I am certain that the best time to get close to it is right before slumber seizes you. I imagine myself all alone in the dense forest; it’s February, I am crawling on the wet leaves. All around me the darkness is so thick that regardless of how much my eye becomes accustomed to it, I can only discern outlines and shadows. The world reaches me through my other senses, smell, hearing, touch. Branches slash my cheeks, my elbows bleed as I crawl on the rocky soil. I feel the damp piercing me, my limbs freeze; I have to move, stay warm. A night-owl croaks, something is creeping a few metres away. There is a small scuffle, a sudden slithering sound, and then again silence. Two yellow eyes nail mine in the darkness, two, twenty metres away, I cannot gage the distance. Something wild is happening here, something that cannot contain me, something I cannot contain. A hunt perhaps is over.
I open my eyes. I cannot see any further. I have minor variations, but further I cannot proceed. At some point, exactly as I am thinking about this failing of mine, sleep vanquishes me.
What had really happened? Perhaps I will never know. Perhaps he does not know himself.
When I recounted to her the events in detail, Ioanna took two days to speak to me again. On the third, she came and told me her own version. Isidore had wanted to terminate his own life, repeat his father’s act. According to the statistics, the children of suicides have a high probability of committing suicide themselves. Yet when he came face to face with the Great Fear (with naked reality, was what Ioanna said, word for word), he backed away. He woke up from the intoxication of greatness and saw things as they really were. This adventure might even perhaps prove beneficial for him, added Ioanna.
“And the Great Dane?” I asked. How can a dog be dead at midnight and fit as a fiddle in the morning?
“And how do you know he was dead? Did you examine him?”
“I saw him.”
“OK, this is where this conversation ends, as far as I am concerned. Follow your own sense.”
What did my own sense tell me? I don’t know. Yet whatever it was that Isidore had experienced that night, it hadn’t left us untouched. Something inside me has been moving constantly since that time, trying to find its place. I no longer wonder. When I sit and look at them, Ioanna with our baby girl in her arms, plugged to her “charger”, eyes shut and fingers kneading the flesh of the breast and the base of the neck, their breathing perfectly attuned, then I know I am exactly where I ought to be; I know that for me this is the right place. Sometimes I get carried away, and I allow myself to be overcome by this feeling of plenitude, overflowing and diffusing everywhere; slipping through the sealed windows into our city’s bitter air and further still, covering the planet like a second atmosphere. And I think that perhaps it wouldn’t take much, just a handful of well-tempered souls, and the world might reveal itself to us just as Isidore longed it to be: a cohesive universe showered with meaning, just as in epic myths and fairy-tales; a world flooded with love, where love would circulate like blood among living creatures, animals and plants, so that even the slightest scuff on the bark of an insignificant tree would spread around it vibrations of gentleness and compassion, like those he had felt when he had stood motionless and mute beside the deer of Parnitha.
*Featured image: Mikko Lagerstedt