The First Place Where the End of the World Began

by L. Shapley Bassen

     I looked up from my drawing into the blinding sunlight but could not see more than the silhouettes of the bodies speaking above me. Among the dark, deep voices speaking rapid Greek was a familiar woman’s voice also speaking in that strange language, all oo’s and k’s and plosive p’s.  Beside me in the trench dug ten feet into this archeological earth was another member of the Brit team, a girl in her twenties named Juliet. She and I got on only civilly because she was a London type and I was a Scot she nicknamed ‘Burr,’ more I think for my temperament than my thick accent. I was sketching Juliet’s dig, out of which were emerging large decorated jars and something which at this stage look like a shelf. Juliet could speak Greek.

     Juliet translated, “You are raising the dead. We go to pick tomatoes and see the bright light before the sun rises over – solid bodies – carrying shields above their heads.”

     “Who are they?” I asked Juliet.

     She shushed me, threatening me with the brush. An official-sounding voice spoke above us then.

     “The police,” Juliet said. “Agreement with Athens not to disturb the quality of life on Santorini – “

     “Tell that to the dogs who own this island – “

      Then again came the voice that could silence me. The American professor who was the director of the expedition, Irene Demas. She had my left upper incisor in her shorts pocket.

     “We will of course do all we can,” Juliet translated, “to stop – to eliminate – this disturbance.”

     A peasant’s deep voice interrupted.

     “What? You must stop the digging! My vines will not grow under ghost – under the feet of ghosts!”

     Irene’s voice replied, drifting down out of the murderous sunlight like a cool breeze. Juliet translated:

     “We will watch. Then we will try to understand and –” Juliet turned to me, at a loss for words. “It’s like ‘make amends’, I think, but I don’t know the expression. There are lambs in it.”

     The police official spoke in English. “You will stop the excavation?”

     “I will watch, myself, tonight,” Irene repeated. “This is your island. We are guests in your home.”

     The official spoke in Greek too guttural and rapid for Juliet to translate. But she had no trouble with the farmer’s thanks, “Efkaristo, sas efkaristo poli.”

     I climbed out of the trench, letting Irene see I was there, but keeping a distance as the group leaders joined her. These were my Brit boss and a professor from Athens, assistant to the big shot whose idea Irene had been able to marshal the American money to realize. Because what we were all doing in the 1960’s on the Cycladic island of Santorini/Thera, in the best and hottest summer of my life, was excavating Atlantis.

     In the Timaeus, Plato told the story about a divinely circular island in the western ocean. ‘But afterwards there occurred violent earthquakes and floods; and in a single day and night of misfortune…the island of Atlantis…disappeared in the depths of the sea.’ The big shot from Athens was a seismologist who had reported his findings of a 16th century b.c.e. volcanic eruption on an island sixty miles north of Crete. The tidal wave from the Atlantis eruption had been anywhere from 200 to 750 feet high when it hit land all around the eastern Mediterranean. The Athenian also theorized that the Atlantis explosion explained the lowering and rising of coastal water described in Exodus. In other words, the eruption at Atlantis (five times stronger than Krakatoa) was the apocalyptic event of the ancient world, remembered in the fundamental stories of Western civilization. When Atlantis exploded, drowning surrounding islands and most of Crete, it became the first place where the end of the world began.

     Greece was in the midst of a coup d’etat, and the big shot in Athens hadn’t been able to get funding to prove his theories. Enter Professor Irene Demas, now with my incisor in her pocket. The States were having their own imperial problems in Southeast Asia at the time, but from what I understood, the war only made the country richer. As a most junior assistant professor in scientific illustration at Cambridge, I was ignorant of all these matters until impressed into service (tempted by a fantastic summer salary) to join the Cambridge part of the archeological expedition. There were land folk from the States and Britain and Athens, and American sea folk with astonishing tech equipment from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Labs, ships and seismologists, scientists, archeologists, mythologists, photographers, and lucky me, the one with the colored pens and pencils and expensive paper all paid for by the Americans.

     In the afternoon, when work had been called off, Professor Demas located me deep within one of the cliff caves where I daily went during lunch-siesta, pretending to sketch though actually sipping bottled water and sleeping on a colorful woolen throw rug.

     Irene said, “I need a bodyguard for tonight.”

     She was nearly fifty then; I was twenty-seven. She was five feet tall and thin as a boy except for the curve of her hips and braless breasts. She wore her brown hair braided and coiled like a crown, grey at the temples like her eyes. I had seen Irene Demas calm wild dogs with words in their language, which only possibly was Greek. She had seen me with the three Athens toughs who’d tried to mug her on our first night in Greece before the expedition had flown over to Thera.

    Then, I only knew her by sight from the plane trip from London. We arrived at Athens midday and had spent most of the afternoon getting to our hotel and reaffirming arrangements for the flight to the island. I was glad to let the grownups take care of all of it and try my luck with Juliet, the result of which was I slept alone the rest of that afternoon into evening and was nudged awake by my roommate, John, an overeducated fellow from Cornwall eager for companionship for dinner in a strange city. The July night felt as hot as noon in Britain. The crowded, noisy, modern streets were a great disappointment. Like any first-time tourist to Athens, I imagined I would be traveling back in time as well as space. John and I ate oily food and drank mentholated wine. I abandoned John to his own devices, which convinced him I was a stereotypically antisocial Scot.

     I became lost in trying to regain the hotel. Thankfully, some American college kids approached me with their instant coffee camaraderie and correctly directed me. I remember alleys of whitewashed stone, stinks of strange foods and organic fluids, and above all the nauseating sounds of an alien language closing in on me. People leaned out of windows. Everywhere there were second story balconies like those unearthed on Thera.

     I saw a tiny woman in a long khaki skirt and white blouse walking ahead of me. I recognized her as the American professor. She had a sweater or shawl tied around her shoulders. Self-possessed, holding her sack close to her body. I heard footsteps behind me. Three boys ran past me, waving me off with threats I didn’t need to translate. They blocked her path. She spoke to them in cool-toned Greek, and maybe she would have handled them as ably as she did the dogs on Thera, but I saw one of them lean in for her sack.

     I expected to fight. So, fists and some feet, and a whistle! that was Irene, blowing a piercing whistle – I got two of the three down quickly. I was sweating, and it was so hot, I drank the blood in my mouth like water. I faced the third teddy boy. I hit him easily; his hands were up in protest, not in fists, “Parakalo, parakalo,” he kept crying. The three of them lay on the stone street. People were above, calling out, some curses, some cheers (Irene translated later), and there was Irene, holding a small shiny revolver in her left hand. She knelt and picked up a bloody tooth from the ground. My incisor. She wrapped it in a tissue from her sack and placed my tooth in her skirt pocket. Shortly after, at a hospital emergency clinic, she offered it to a dental surgeon. She told me she had retrieved it for this reason, but I already knew better about that woman. She had an eye for bones.

     At noon in the grey Theran cave, I said, “You don’t need a bodyguard against Minoan ghosts or anything else.”

     “The report of a woman alone would not be believed. The men chose you to accompany me.”

     “Should I believe you?”

     For the first time, Irene looked surprised by something I said. 

     “There are fifty underlings you could have sent on this errand,” I added.

     “I’m what they call in the States a micromanager. My husband, of course, called it something else.”

     She wore no ring. And noticed my glance.

     “Where, tonight?” I said.

     From her shorts pocket she took a hand-drawn – my work – map of the site and pointed to a group of huge, flat blocks believed to have been part of a palace wall or, possibly, temple altar stones. I nodded in compliance. At the cave entrance, which was a natural opening in the rock cliff that over centuries had been bricked into formal arches appropriate to the religious rituals inside the caves, the professor paused, almost as if she could see herself from my perspective, doubly framed by archway and the sunshine outside. Her face was completely hidden in shadow, her form haloed in white light. Only her voice reached me.

     “I was disappointed in Athens,” she said. Her American accent sounded sheared, like a sheep. “I was disappointed,” she repeated, “to find your violence erotic. But it was the men who chose you because you act more like a bodyguard than an academic.”

     Her unease managed to make it sound like an insult as much as a compliment. Then the space she had darkly filled was empty and became a brilliant doorway.

Minoan Snake Goddess

from Knossos, Crete
c. 1600 BCE
faïence
height 131/2
 inches (34.3 cm)

(Archeological Museum, Herakleion)

     That cadmium white light stirs in my memory into the matte black spinel of that Theran night. It felt different from other nights when I had swum in the caldera and lain on a quay, cooled by the meltami, the summer wind that never stopped blowing. But I had been with others and scorned their romantic tales of history and myth. That night, I climbed alone to the Akrotiri ruins. I carried a large torch, but it hardly penetrated a darkness that seemed to go back in time as well as space. So I gave up and turned out the light, laying down my sleep rug on one of the wide stones. I had never seen the stars so close. Then I heard the Professor approach before I saw the beam of light from her torch.

      I had resolved not to make conversation. Apparently, Irene had made the same decision, so we sat or walked about mutely, separately, for several hours. I watched the zodiac slowly move across the sky. I won. Irene broke the silence. She sounded like an oracle.

     “Kalliste — most beautiful — was its first name, this island. Jason interpreted the dream of one of his Argonauts on their return with the Golden Fleece. Jason told Euphemus to throw a handful of earth into the sea. Kalliste grew up out of the water from that toss. Euphemus’s descendants settled on Lemnos and then Sparta, and finally Theras came here. The island is named Thera for him.”

    “Where did Santorini come from?”

    “For Saint Irene of Thessalonika. Patron saint of the island.”

    Irene moved into the crossed beams of our torches which lighted her from below.

    “How did you learn to fight like that?” she said.

    “Until a month ago, I was illustrating pig dissections and teaching a class frequented as often by anatomy students from the med school as by art students. I learned to fight by being hit. Which is why I left.”

     Silence. She won. I said, “You believe the Athenian’s theory that Deukalion’s flood was the tsunami of the Atlantis eruption?”

     “We’re trying to excavate the truth.”

     “I don’t understand the archeological quest.”

     In the torchlight all I could see was her lower torso and the blunted outline of the stones. The sky was close, the ground still gave off heat, and the wind never stopped blowing.

     “Neither did my husband. He was more interested in holding on to the future than the past. He married one of his students. Your age, I should guess. The dentist in Athens was amazed by your eyes.”

     “Did he think I was a Nea Kameni vampire?”

     Irene laughed. 

     “That’s a yes,” I said. “Do you have children?”

     “They’re teenagers at camp in their father’s custody for the summer. I wondered if your eyes were like a cat’s and would reflect light in the dark.”

     My eyes were a hazel so pale they looked yellow, rimmed by remnant RNA for dark brown pigment in three rings. My mutant iris looked like Plato’s map of Atlantis before the eruption.

     I returned to steadier ground. “There was the Flood. A dove and land. Deukalion went ashore to pray for the restoration of humanity. ‘Throw the bones of your mother behind you,’ the oracle said. Deukalion–”

     “—and his wife, Pyrrha,” Irene added.

     “—and his wife, Pyrrha, decoded that it meant to throw stones over their shoulders. Where the stones landed, men and women sprang up.”

     At that moment, at Irene’s ankles I saw two black snakes appear. She felt them and looked down.

     “These are harmless,” she said, and to my horror, she bent over and took one up in each hand. The crescent moon had risen high enough so that it looked like a crown on her coiled hair, her bare neck as white as the moon. Untrustworthy, re-created memory! The torchlight stayed on the ground, but that is how I remember it, Irene standing like a Minoan goddess, snakes in hand, winding around her bare arms.

     We must have slept. I know this: we came awake in the dark with the sense of dawn near. The stars were occluded by cloud. The cow horns of the moon must have passed overhead to the other side of the mountaintop. I was lying on the rug and Irene was close beside me. I turned. I couldn’t see her face.

     I said, “Parakalo. Please.”

     “Ne,” she whispered, “yes.”

     Euripides wrote: “And in the very surge and breaking of the flood, / the wave threw up a bull, a fierce and monstrous thing, / and with his bellowing the land was wholly filled.” The bellowing noise was the earthquake. It was the dogs barking that night on Thera. It was my blood pounding in my ears. I saw lightning like no lightning I had seen before, many-branched like a giant tree. It lasted too long, on and on for seconds, for minutes. This lightning was the same that lighted Jason the way through the volcanic cloud’s darkness to neighboring Anaphe. The eruption ejected ten cubic miles of island up into the sky so far it was seen and recorded in China. The exhausted island sank 1300 hundred feet into the sea, forming the beautiful caldera bay where now varcas bobbed in the light. Which too came. A brief shower, like a mist, cooled us. Cloud rose off the water, rolling like waves above the waves. It rose up the mountainside over the sleeping white houses tucked into the cliff face, and it floated in the fields which our mountaintop view spread below us. She was small, peaceful on my chest.

     “This is where the end of the world began,” she said, quiet for more heartbeats, and then she sat up, startled. “Look!”

     I followed the line of her snake-bare arm. In a distant field, the cloud-like mists assumed human shapes, and the sky was lighted from beneath the rim of the wine dark sea. Silver light was turning gold. Then in a trumpet-like silence, out of the bronzing Mediterranean the sun rose, huge and whole and round, pink, then as if reddening with arousal.

     “It’s the mist!” Irene was laughing. “It’s the mist!”

     The climbing sun rayed down and through the earthclouds, making the uppermost layer gleam like blinding metal shields. Irene stood up, her back to me, watching the quickening meltami move the mist like a battalion. I found her long skirt on the altar stone. I dug out my lost tooth from her pocket and threw it away behind me.

     The mist explanation satisfied the locals. It was the professor’s deference to them that mollified the peasants; I doubt anyone in authority had ever treated them with respect before, back to the time before the Minoans had escaped the Flood. Where had they all gone, the 30,000 or more Kallisteans whose skeletons were never found but one? One human skeleton and one piglet left alone on all Thera before the end of the world. Who warned them? How did they know? Where did they go? The researchers debated these questions endlessly throughout August as the frantic excavating continued against a deadline and daily threat of the mercurial moods of Greek generals and xenophobes.

     I knew. The high priestess had saved her people, directing them to sail to their ports in Phoenicia and Spain, to outposts as far north as England. And millennia later, when the Romans finally came, we fled again farther north and west. Those snakes St. Patrick banished from Eire? Those standing stones in the Orkneys where I summered as a boy?  Not the first end of the world at all, the beautiful island thrown into the ancient sea had generated immortal waves.