I was a maiden when he gathered me. My broken legs were muddy from the shore of Pergusa, my fingertips red from clinging to stones. I tore beneath him then, my husband. He dusted our marriage bed with lilies and the pale buds of asters.
In the first year, I took twelve seeds of pomegranate from his open hand. I knew their purpose, the weight of each divided kernel. Each broken seed would be a strand that held me to my husband. I dropped eight into the stinking froth of Styx, one by one. But their brightness made me ache—the latent spark beneath the skin. The ninth, tenth, eleventh, twelfth—I held each in the bowl of my tongue, tested its blind skin with the rim of my teeth before breaking through.
I became accustomed to my husband’s raw-clay scent, the copper taste of his skin, his weight pressing down into my ribs. I loved him, almost, in the rare seconds when his touch made me weightless and bleach-bright. But after, I would curl my bruised body away from him, ashamed of my gratitude, and feign sleep as he nested his dark fingertips in the coils of my hair.
Above our bed, my mother wrought destruction in my name. Fields turned to powder and ash, bodies whittled to bones. Souls crossed the river with her message on their withered mouths. Restore her, or all will be dust.
For the sake of Men, I was returned. But my mother did not reach for me. She touched her hands to her harvest-breast.
My sin. Four bittersweet ghosts of sunlight I had tasted on the black shores of Styx. Four strands of my soul, gathered into the curl of my husband’s fist.
You are stained.
Four parts condemned to cloying smell of Lethe, to the grinding rasp of the three judges forever parting the endless sea of souls, to the oil-smooth surface of bones.
Spring draws me up through the cracks of stones, and I am eyeless in the first sting of sunlight. My unfamiliar lungs sting with sea salt. I am two hundred kilometers from Athens, but I feel its thrum in the ground, smell its ancient, sooty blood. Here, in this birthplace I have chosen, it is quiet except for the restless pulse of the ocean and the gentle infant-cry of goats. I lie in the grass, exhausted, and watch through gauzy eyes as a doe comes near. There is a brass bell on her neck and a white rope linking her left legs—front joined with back. She watches me with her strange eye and I reach out to touch her warm side, the soft, heavy bag of milk between her legs. I touch, instead, the burred rope.
I am dressed in the clothes I wore the spring before—a thin white dress threaded with pale blue, leather sandals that feel strange on the hard soles of my feet. In six months, the cradle of them will be familiar again, but for now I carry them on the hooks of my fingers and let them leave dusty trails against my skirt. I walk bare-legged and newborn down the goat path and find a road. When a motorbike buzzes past, I press out of its way, dirtying my skirt against the low stone wall.
I take a tall bottle of water from the first shop I reach. I drain it completely, taking greedy swallows half-hidden behind rows of boxes. I tuck the empty shell behind a bright-papered line of corn cereal.
I touch pillowed plastic bags I walk down the aisle, fingertips leaving creases hovering above the surface of hard, old rolls and salted crackers. I linger near the produce, cupping my hands around cool, swollen oranges. I choose one for its weight and trace it down my sun-warm arms, roll it against the back of my neck. I hold it to my nose, but I can barely smell the shadow of myself on its pricked skin. I set it down.
The shopkeeper argues with his father, and I walk outside, returning to the damp, drowsy weight of the sun with another bottle of water held along the line of my thigh.
I drink this water in careful sips, crowded into the last patch of shade outside a church. I watch a mourning-grey grandmother pass, cocooned in black—stockings, sweater, heavy leather shoes. I wonder at the heat of her sorrow, the hollow oven of her ribcage, the baked clay of her limbs. I think of her husband, and mine. She does not look at me, but I want her to. I want to memorize her face so I can remember her when I see her again. So I can tell her, before she dips her hands into Lethe, “Outside the shop. I was wearing white,” and see the recognition in her eyes.
The old core of the town is a few hundred meters away, stacked against a hill. I find refuge in the half-shadows offered by the lime-white buildings. It is too early in the year for the tourists to rake the walls with their thousand voices. The sound that gathers in the narrow alleyways is rounded and rolling.
I turn. A teenaged girl wraps her arms around an older woman from behind, and the woman turns in surprise and delight. The girl has returned from the mainland. She has cut her hair, which is dark and thick and straightens when the woman tugs on the ends of it. This is not her mother, but a friend, or aunt, or former employer. I look away, studying the window display of gold jewelry pinned against the overlay of my reflection.
I move across the alley to look at another display—charms with bright, holy eyes set against mother of pearl. I slip around the corner. It is a delicate dissection from the women’s happiness, their strange familiarity.
Here, an old man is sitting on the stoop of a bakery. His shoulders are rounded, but his head is lifted. There is a pipe in his left hand, resting on his knee, tobacco still smoldering in the caldera. I look across the street as I near him, curious to see what he is watching—an empty doorway and the dark windows of a shop that is still waiting for the tourists to come. In his right hand, he is holding a string of clattering amber beads. He swings them and lets them wind around his hard-boiled fingers, yellowed with nicotine and octopus ink. I let myself linger, making shades of my hands to better see through the windows. There are only dim shapes. My eyes are already becoming hard, accustomed to the sunlight.
I move ten steps and sit down outside an empty taverna. I rub my hands down the slope of my aching thighs, and the muscles beneath my hands tic like cooling metal. The old man lifts his pipe to his lips.
A grandfather sits at the table beside me and I turn to him. I do not want what he is selling. I am prepared to tell him, but there is nothing in his hands except for a bottle of beer. For a moment the innocence of it disorients me.
He is cream-haired, blue-eyed. His cheeks and lower lids are slouched, and he is smiling. He smells warm and brown, like honeyed beer.
“How do you find our island?”
He speaks in loud, accented English, because I look out of place and my skin is still tender. I answer him in the same language.
“It’s beautiful. I like the quiet here.”
“Yes, yes. Very quiet here. I like the quiet, too. It is good for thinking, is it?”
He takes a drink of his beer; I drink from my bottle of water.
“Do you like this ring?” He holds his brown hand out to me and shows me the gold band inlaid with red enamel. “I have been married four times, do you know that? Four times, but this is my first ring. I bought it today.”
I do not like the ring, the rough swipes of red winding through the gold. But I tell him that it is beautiful. When I look up at him, he is smiling his grandfather-smile again. He is so young. I see that the iris of one of his eyes is smaller than the other, and more brilliantly blue. A holy eye. I want to reach up and touch it, feel the warmth of his body that has seeped into the smooth glass.
“My wife, she is still in Athens. That is how we stay in love. She lives there, I live here, and sometimes we meet and are very happy together. Your news says that Greece is poor, yes?” He pouches his lips and shakes his head. “Do not believe it.” I smile at the grind of his voice and he shows me his gold teeth again and winks his blind eye. “Every Athenian is born with two houses.”
He tells me where I should eat dinner and suggests what I should order when I am there. He tells me where I should visit. He offers to buy me a drink and to make me his fifth wife, and he touches his heart and sighs when I refuse both.
When I get up to leave, he touches my wrist and I let him kiss my cheek.
In the evening I follow the line of the setting sun, follow the heat of bodies and the smell of wine. For eighteen Euro, I am allowed into a tiny, ancient courtyard half-filled with hinged plastic chairs. There are a handful of tourists sitting there, and one seat remaining in the front row—a courteous breath of space between a fair-haired woman and a man holding a plastic cup of wine. I settle between, my elbow a needle’s breadth from a soft lump of excess flesh at the man’s waist. He shifts away from me and tips his body toward the woman on his other side. The ring on his hand is not new. I look at him until his eyes flick to mine. I smile.
He drinks from his plastic cup.
Together, we hear four thousand years of shepherd songs—hymns to my father, my uncle, my red-mouthed brother. I watch young men dance and turn and slowly bring the old stones to life. The drum is the heartbeat—the bagpipe, the wild rush of blood. I sway and my fingers turn pale, tightly curled around clusters of my white skirt. I long to reach out to the dancers and catch them in my cupped palms. Want to hold them to my lips and whisper, “Yes, I am still here.” I want to hold them on my tongue and taste their bittersweet skin.
A dark-eyed dancer holds his hands out to me and pulls me out onto the uneven stones. I am a pretty tourist, and he puts his arm around my waist as he teaches me the simplest steps he knows. I pretend to learn, pretend that my bare feet did not dance on these stones before they were pulled from the ground. I spin, palm-to-palm with this child-stranger. I forget to stumble. My body thrums with the pulse and sweep, the ice-hot bray of the pipes. When he murmurs against my ear in warm, broken English, I press my fingers into the valley between his.
His home smells of lamb and lemon rinds. His parents are asleep, he tells me in a whisper. As he unfastens his heavy leather belt I imagine the cream-haired man lying in the next room, his holy eye restless at the bottom of a glass of water.
The shutters above the bed are open. I push his arms away when he reaches to close them.
His hands are nothing like my husband’s. I can feel the tenderness barely hidden under young calluses, kept warm with new blood. His saline skin washes away the final traces of clay and bone dust.
Our rhythm follows the thrum of drums still lingering in my belly. I press his shoulders to the uneven bed and frame his hips with my knees. He cries out when my teeth to score his lip—a pluck that leaves a welt the size of a seed. I drink the bittersweet, animal sound and my skin becomes thin, soft. The pointed tips of the thousand stars break through, turning my flesh to silvered lace.
In the brilliant dark, in the spidersilk strands of my hair caught between my lips, I can taste nothing of Hell.
I will not remember how I leave him—my beautiful boy. I will spill out of his room, overflowing the windowsill and dripping in streams to the chalky ground. In a valley far from him, I will find my temple, my sacred ground.
My dress will lie in the starry grass, a pale pool white as goat’s milk. I will sink to my knees beside it, press my palms to the dry, brittle ground. And there, I will feel the Earth. I will feel seeds stirring, rippling, breathing. I will feel them calling to me, and I will give myself to them. I will feed them with my starlight, with the water in my bones. I will give my mouth to the mousey dust of hemlock and hellebore and my wrists to the spirit-scent of violets. My thighs will breed poppies and almond blossoms, my toes the buds of mimosa. The sun will set between my shoulder blades and rise young from my burning belly.
And when I am used up, even then I will feel the seeds beneath my skin, writhing, rooting. I will think of nothing but scraping away my brittle husk, hear nothing but the sound of dry flesh rattling against my bones. And I will beg for darkness, for the comfort found on the undersides of stones.
Marie Johnson Parrish
Marie Johnson Parrish is a writer with roots all over the United States, most recently the Mountain West. She holds an MFA from Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
Artwork: Anna Dittmann, “Dawn”