Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Never Knowing



Editor's note: I wrote the following short story around 1997 in Prague. I came across it recently and thought it still had a certain something. Not great, by any stretch, but not a bad effort, all in all. While the story is fiction, the photos are real, taken by me on a trip to Santorini around the same time.


By Grant Podelco

The villa was on the east side of the island and overlooked the vast, flooded caldera of an ancient volcano, flooded with the bright blue water of the Mediterranean, flooded with light, flooded, it seemed to him now, looking back, with the possibility of happiness.

Certainly, the village streets and the dark blue ocean and the rust-colored cliffs all were beautiful, and the food was simple and delicious.

The villa perched on the edge of a cliff that was a thousand feet high. There was a small terrace with a table and four chairs and an umbrella to shade the table from the hot sun. There was mint and bougainvillea growing in large pots on the terrace. The couple snapped off sprigs of the mint and let them float in their iced tea. They enjoyed the sharp smell of the mint in their noses when they drank.

The view from the terrace was breathtaking and they never tired of it. They often sat on the terrace and looked out into the flooded volcano and across to its far rim, silhouetted in black, surrounded by sea. They watched the large cruise ships, swollen with tourists, sailing into a larger village farther down the island. The water sparkled.

It had been worth the long, angry trip, he thought, if only for this view.

The couple made love in the big bed in the back room of the villa they had rented in the whitewashed Greek village. It was one thing they were good at and that they enjoyed equally. It was dark and cool where the bed was, set back far into the face of the cliff.

The sheets were white and crisp and felt clean on their damp skin.

It was the middle of the afternoon and there was only the sound of their breathing and their lovemaking. The village was quiet.




Her bronzed skin looked even darker against the white of the sheets. Her hair had been streaked blonde by the sun and the sea. He ran his fingers through it as they rested.

"It's better this way," she said.

"What way?"

"When we're happy and we're not like we were. I hated us in Athens."

"It can't always be like this."

"Like what?"

"Like you want it."

"I only want you to be the man that ..."

"I'm not that man anymore, and you're not that woman," he said softly, resigned to the fact, no longer angry at her or at himself. "That was a long time ago. We've both changed. Not for the good or for the bad but we've just changed. It's not right or wrong and I don't know what to do about it. I don't know if there's anything that should be done about it."

"I only want us to be happy again."

She got up from the bed and walked to the bathroom. She shut the door.

He laid back on the rumpled sheets.

"Goddamnit," he thought. "I have changed and I don't remember doing it. Is it possible to change, to go back? Do I want to go back? Is it bad to have changed? Maybe I changed for a reason. When I fell in love with her, I wasn't the same person I was before I knew her. Which one of me is the one that is true?"

She came out of the bathroom, still naked. She looked pretty in the half light. He could tell she had been crying.

"Let's just try to do the things that make us happy together and not do the other things that we know we shouldn't," she said, sliding beneath the cool sheet.

They made love again and were happy and then they were hungry and it was time for food.

On the terrace, they drank the clean white wine made on the island and ate strong black olives and a large loaf of crusty bread dusted with flour. They stared out at the sea, saying nothing. The late afternoon sun was golden and bathed the cliff side in a honeyed wash.

They could see the island they had sailed to the day before and where they had gone swimming in the hot springs.

They could see the tiny silhouettes of the people gathered on the point to watch the sunset.

They could see the island ferries leaving the caldera, for Athens or Crete or Cyprus.

He wondered if it was possible to be happy just by looking at beautiful things, by being surrounded by beauty.

They sat and drank and ate and he wrote and she read a book and they only grew hungrier by their small eating. They dressed for dinner in their best linen clothes.


************



The two dogs appeared to the couple as they walked along the dark, narrow road on their way to dinner at the Finikia. The Finikia was a small taverna they had discovered after speaking with an old man who swept the floor of a cafe where they had been drinking one night. He told them -- confidentially, he said -- that the Finikia served the best food on the island and that it had not been discovered by tourists because it was too far out on the road that led from the village into the mountains.

They had eaten dinner there three times now, and they had become friends with the waitress. The waitress knew much about the food and the ingredients and how each dish was prepared. She also knew about the local wines and was eager to share her knowledge with the couple.

They had eaten many wonderful dishes at the Finikia, but they especially enjoyed the eggplant salad that was made with lots of garlic and speckled with the large capers grown on the island.

The couple was alone on the road as they walked to the Finikia until they saw the two dogs resting in the bushes under a streetlight a short distance ahead.

"Looks like we've got company," he said.

The dogs looked up at them as they approached.

"Don't pay any attention to them. Maybe they'll go away."

They did not know if the dogs were dangerous, although they did not believe they were. There were many stray dogs and cats on the island and they never bothered anyone, except to beg for scraps at the outdoor cafes. The couple simply did not want the dogs following them along the road. Cars sometimes drove by very fast.

The two dogs slowly rose from the dust where they had been resting and began walking toward the couple. The heads of the dogs hung low and their tails were tucked behind them. One dog was white with small black patches. The other dog was buff in color and walked with a limp. The dogs were medium-sized and thin. Their ribs were showing through their fur.

The couple walked by the dogs, not acknowledging their presence, and continued up the darkened road. It was warm in the evening and the man began to perspire from the walking. They did not look back to see if the dogs were following them.

Finally, they did look back and saw the dogs behind them, following at a small trot.

"Shit," he said.

"Go on home," he told the dogs, but he knew they had no home other than the road and the bushes and the dark places beside the road.

The couple could see the headlights of a car approaching far ahead. The headlights got larger and they could hear the noise of the car's engine. The road was narrow, and it was dark, and they moved over as far as they could to the side of the road. They worried about the dogs, but the dogs seemed to be used to passing cars, and they, too, moved in a pack to the side of the road. The heads of the dogs hung low when the car whooshed past a few feet away.

A few more cars passed by them on the road. Each time the dogs moved slowly to the roadside and waited safely.

"They remind me of us," she said, unexpectedly.

"What?"

"Those dogs remind me of us. They don't know where they're going. They're together but ... They're just following a road. They don't know where it goes. Things are moving quickly by them and they stand to the side and let them pass by and try not to get hurt."

She continued.

"So I'm going to name that one Steven and the other one Ariel. Steven's the one with the limp."

She laughed softly. He did not say anything.

They could see the lights of the Finikia ahead, the bare white bulbs strung around the outdoor courtyard, candles flickering on tables. The dogs followed them closely, quietly, all the way to the entrance. No more cars drove past.

During dinner, the couple did not think again about the dogs.

They talked about the good food they had been eating on this trip and how awfully the other tourists behaved. They were glad to be away from them.

They talked about how much fun it had been to rent the motor scooters and buzz around the narrow twisting roads on the island, to park their scooters and walk along the black sand beach with the nude sunbathers, dark brown and oblivious to their passing.

They talked about sailing across the caldera to the small volcanic island in its center, the cone, and swimming in the hot springs there, watched by a small herd of goats clinging to the black rocks overreaching the natural pool.

They talked of eating lunch of grilled fish and squid and vegetables and fresh-smelling tzatziki at a sunny table near the gentle beach.

They talked of walking up the long, steep stairs cut into the cliff side from the seaside to their hotel, not wanting to burden the donkeys who had made the arduous climb hundreds of times before but who always looked like the next climb would kill them.

It was late when Steven finally paid the bill, leaving a generous tip for the waitress whom they liked. They walked through the Finikia's front door and into a warm night breeze and stepped again onto the road in front of the taverna.

Only then did the couple remember the dogs.

"Do you think they're still around?" Steven asked.

"I think they are always here," Ariel said.

It took a few minutes for the two dogs to show themselves to the couple.

"Here we go again," he said.

"Hello, Steven. Hello, Ariel," she said brightly, as if greeting small children. "It's nice to see you again. Have you been well? You haven't been fighting, I hope."

They all walked down the dark road that led into the village.

The man and the woman cringed each time a car sped by, but the dogs, each time, hugged the thin strip of roadside.

The couple held hands and walked slowly.

"That was a nice dinner," she said. "And we had nice things to talk about."

"For a change," he said.

"There's hope for us yet, you know."

"I don't know what to think anymore," he said.

He squeezed her hand. She squeezed back and smiled.

Another car hissed in the distance and grew closer, quickly. The couple stepped off the road and onto a path that led to their hotel. For him, it was time for a glass of grappa and a good cigar on the terrace in the dark. She would take her bath while he sat by himself in the quiet.

As he stepped onto the path, Steven turned to watch the last car pass and he saw one of the dogs standing in the middle of the road, confused.

The car hit the dog.

Steven saw it happen as if he was watching a sad play, a tragedy, the road a stage illuminated by the car's headlights. He was immediately sickened, not only by the sight but by the sound, a bad sound forced from deep in the animal's lungs.

The car passed over the dog, who now lay on the road, unmoving. Steven thought it was one of the worst things he had ever seen.

Ariel heard the car and the collision and she turned to see the dog in the road, still. She started to cry. She was crying hard and she tried to run toward the dog before Steven grabbed her arm.

"There's nothing we can do," he said.

He saw that the car had stopped and the driver was kneeling next to the dog. Another car had also stopped and the dog lay in their crisscrossed headlights.

"Oh, god," she said between sobs. "Oh, god."

She was crying harder now. He turned her from the scene and led her away, up the path. She didn't want to go. He did not want to stay. He felt like throwing up.

"What can we do?" he said. "There's nothing. It's over."

They walked farther up the path. He put his arm around her and gave her a red kerchief from the pocket of his trousers.

They came to the top of the path and turned onto a tiny walkway that led down to their villa. They both heard a rustling behind them and turned together to see two dogs behind them. One of the dogs was the dog that had been hit by the car. He appeared unhurt. It all seemed unreal. A ghost dog.

"Are you OK, boy?" the man said, kneeling down to gently pet the dog's head. He could see no blood. The dog was limping but he had been limping before. The dog did not mind being touched.

Neither Steven nor Ariel could understand what had happened, what was happening. It didn't make sense.

Ariel was smiling now and crying, and the dog that had been struck was pacing around and it jumped on top of a rock wall and then down again and it showed no visible signs of hurt.

No persons from the cars had followed them. They heard no sound from where they knew the road was.

"He looks OK," Steven said. "He doesn't look hurt. I can't believe it. It's really quite something. How is that possible?"

The man and the woman walked back to their villa. They passed no one else on the path.

The man did not know what to think. He had seen the car strike the dog and pass over the animal. He had seen the dog on the road, dead.

He told his wife that he would take some food to the dogs if he could find them again and put both of their minds at rest that the dog that had been hit really was unhurt.

He retraced his steps up the path to where the dogs had last been. He carried cheese and bread for the dogs.

He looked everywhere for the dogs in the darkness. He could not find them. He guessed that the two dogs would be all right, but without seeing them, he did not know for sure.

He really wanted to know they would be all right.


Photographs by Grant Podelco

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