Day of Rock

By Mark Halpern

I take the 4.5 centimetre green-stripe candle from my pocket and squish it into the 110-gram wagyu steak on my friend Derek’s plate. Right into the tenderest part near the middle. Lighting the candle, I sing, “Happy Meat Day to you. Happy Meat Day to you …” I’m wearing my dark blue Brioni suit, with an Egyptian cotton shirt, silk pocket handkerchief and pastel-striped Armani necktie, all tastefully coordinated by an obliging shop clerk.

Approaching the climax, I execute a tight, crisp two-finger drum roll on the tablecloth, crescendo-ing to mezzo piano. The well-cultured-looking bunch one table over takes notice. Finally, “Happy Meat Day to youuuuu,” rallentando, appassionato, still pretty much in key. The next table watches keenly as if I were the most cleverly sophisticated foreigner they’ve ever seen.

In this, they are wrong. But at least they get the joke, as does Derek. Though his birthday isn’t until the following week, today is indeed Meat Day. February ninth. Niku, “meat”. Ni, “two,” for the second month, and ku, “nine,” for the ninth day. The real, once-a-year Meat Day – not just the 29th of some indiscriminate month, when your local supermarket promotes sukiyaki and shabu-shabu. Derek blew out the candle and proclaimed a wish for world peace and a worldwide 37.5% tariff reduction on beef, pork and poultry.

We choose our friends, even casual ones, from among the people we gravitate to naturally, and until high school it didn’t occur to me that not everyone loves numbers. As for words, well, they are, by nature, compellingly fascinating for us humans. Surely. And if you delight in words and numbers you can earn a good living – at least if you write cleverly about numbers other people don’t understand for an investment bank that transfers you to Tokyo. Okay, so the job didn’t much call for music – my other passion – but two out of three ain’t bad. And thus, until a couple of years ago, my life, day to day, was mostly not unpleasant. Although I lacked a sense of purpose, and of connectedness, I had the freedom to buy a Brioni suit in Ginza at full retail price and keep on spending with recklessness.

Now I’m on my own. I’m responsible to no one except the overseas-based clients – I like to call them “partners” – whom I help to assess the Japanese market potential for their miscellaneous goods and services. My connection is direct and my purpose relatively clear, though so is its frequent absence. It all depends on whether my “partners” value me enough to pay me money, which, lately, they mostly do not. I’d picked out that particular suit for a meeting with a much-needed potential new client scheduled for 15:00 in the impressive conference room, with its dark-stained mahogany table surrounded by twelve tall leather-backed chairs, that I’m entitled to utilize 5.25 hours per month within the basic charge of the shared office facilities I inhabit weekday daytimes. My preliminary goal was to not spill food on my clothing. The considerable challenge that even this posed likely went unnoticed by the next table, so distracted were they by my panache and faux joie de vivre.

There’d be no such distraction for my father, should he ever visit. He’d zero in on how I really live and see only that. Then he’d call my career move an irresponsible prioritization of amusement over earnings – in my mind his grey, monotone voice already utters those very words. He’s previously heard my rehearsed speech about desiring a personal connection with my work-product and also a less-cluttered life, which is all true so far as it goes. I’d be unable to conceal my other motivation. To wit, a primal desire to work shorter hours. 

But my father will never pull himself away from his own words-and-numbers career long enough to visit me. In fact, nobody ever tries to discern what I actually do all day. This further privacy – I already had lots, since the few people who know me well live continents away – was self-employment’s big unexpected reward. Also, in Japan you can even be truthful about lacking sufficient work. If you say you do nothing all day, everyone assumes that saying this merely reveals a humble attitude and, if you’re an educated and properly-dressed Westerner, that you must doubtless be successful – not least because of an admirable humility thought to be much too rare among Westerners. So, openness coexisting with privacy. But the B-side of privacy is loneliness.

I’d hoped to use my newly-fabricated non-work hours to find a woman to marry. Someone with at least overlapping interests, someone to be with and to count on. A life partner. But I’m no closer than before. On the one hand, many Japanese women are of a type that seems to like Western guys, and I have an accumulation of expensive clothing and an impressive job title. On the other hand, that’s not necessarily the sort of woman I’m looking for. Also, I lack confidence, am not good looking – weakish chin, baldish head, roundish shoulders etc. etc. – and am apparently incapable of hiding my nerdiness, especially around women. So it’s hard to find someone who will both understand me and also love me, and whom I can love back.

Since I arrived in Japan, a small number of women have come and quickly gone – I believe all were, fundamentally, good people. Always, though, there was an absence of genuine intimacy, and of deep communication, and I’ve never known whether the problem was individual or cultural or both. I suppose this may just be due to my inadequacy at one of life’s central tasks: figuring out how people are the same, and not the same, and why. I like to call this the “other-people problem.” Perhaps I don’t understand other people at all, and that’s why they don’t understand me. Whether that last statement really makes sense, I don’t know, but it has a nice symmetry – and when I apply it to my life so far, it reveals a pattern of predictably-repetitive failure that has a different sort of symmetry, algebraically speaking, but which too is nice.

Anyway, zero-point-zero progress on romance – just more hours for feeling lonely.

Also, I’ve come to learn that when no one else is around and you don’t push yourself forward, you can drift to a standstill. Thus, into worry, ineffectiveness, self-doubt and cash constraint. And more intense loneliness. Which is why I’d invited Derek for lunch – a lunch whose ending was now forcing me to march back and face another expected failure. Then a most pleasant thing happened.

Lingering behind at the next table was the petite woman with large, round eyes who’d smiled at me directly and knowingly. Her smile had been as if to approve my musical efforts – my putting up a good front – while suggesting she knew I wasn’t what I seemed. She looked upper thirties, around my age, but her longish black, undyed hair already had crinkles of grey that somehow made me feel trusting. When she finally stood up, her pleated navy skirt temporarily stopped short enough to reveal skinny legs that were a little sexy and highly adorable. We spoke a few words and – I couldn’t help it – I awkwardly proffered my business card, identifying me as president and representative director of a company whose name conveys no hint that it lacks other employees. She studied the card very carefully, both the English and Japanese sides. Then she said she liked my “playfulness,” all the while smiling in her knowing way. And then she looked into my eyes so deeply I felt the floor vanish from beneath my feet. But after a few seconds she said a quick goodbye and rushed to catch up with her friends.

Week after week passed and I still kept thinking about Fumie – that was her name. I wasn’t optimistic I’d ever see her again, but she did exist and, I believed, she sensed who I truly was and even so found something in me attractive. This – just merely this – was a spark. It gave me impetus. Though my mood still fluctuated up and down, my trend line shifted distinctly to positive. I started celebrating more special days. Most of these I invented – which isn’t hard, given the variety of Japanese syllables associated with each different number.

In terms of concepts, not all these special days were intrinsically uplifting, but I was, in my admittedly idiosyncratic way, lifting myself up. My creativity had returned by February 19th, which I deemed the Day of Absence-of-Gym-Class (fu-taiiku – futa-ii-ku – 2-1-9), though I treated it merely an excuse to veg out. But on Thank You Day (3-9 – san-kyū), I determined to be thankful right through the morning. Then, on April first (4-1 – yo-i – good), I was good – reasonably good – nearly all day. And on May third (5-3 – go-mi – garbage), I systematically threw out all the accumulated refuse in my apartment. These are, of course, just examples.

But Garbage Day was a high point, after which I spent a month drifting downward. My billable work was still thin and I was becoming depressed. Though nearly two years had passed since I’d fled a work environment where self-worth seemed everywhere measured by salaries, bonuses and perks, I hadn’t quite broken the irritating link between money and the meaning of life, which I like to call the “real-world problem.” I still lived in the real world.

In the worst case, I could float along for a while on accumulated savings. I would survive modestly, without pain or drama or achievement. But it would be humiliating if my business failed and, once again, I had to do what some boss told me, all day and frequently into late evening. Especially after my high-minded proclamations, to my father and others, justifying my career restructuring.

My life seemed pointless. I sank to my lowest yet, foreseeing loneliness ahead forever. But then an email came from Fumie.

She politely inquired after my well-being and apologized, without explanation, for her delay in writing. The email, though quite brief, included Japanese phrases rich with connotation, and a few that were disarmingly delicate. As I reread her email again and again, its words – they must have been chosen with great care – increasingly conveyed to me a longing for affection. A longing, it seemed, she’d tried to partly reveal and partly conceal. Like step one in a multi-stage sequence for opening up her true self. It was as if Fumie knew exactly what I needed to hear.

I replied instantly – uncontrollably over-eager, yes, but also seeing no point in playing games. I invited Fumie to dinner the following Monday, June ninth, 6-9, ro-ku, rokku, Rock Day, which I explained, truthfully, was the most special of all my special days. A day to celebrate rock and roll music – even more than we should celebrate it the rest of the year. Though many Japanese seem ignorant of the Day of Rock, I did not invent it. It existed before I got here and will exist even if I someday return home. The Day of Rock. Is Japan cool or what. Our high school rock bands may die, but the music lives on forever. I mean, rock on, man. Rock on!

I did not conceal my nerdy excitement.

Writing in English, I said “I want to celebrate such a special day with someone who herself is special.” Trite and corny that may sound, I was confident that Fumie, being Japanese, had never heard anything like it. Anyway, those words said how I felt.

Fumie wrote back that she loved rock music and wanted to celebrate with me. She said she couldn’t stay out late and suggested meeting at 17:45 at a quiet little bistro not far from where we both worked. I agreed and, during the intervening days, kept rereading her short emails.

On the morning of the Day of Rock I put on another of my expensive suits and its pre-coordinated accompaniments, and began calculating what to say first when we met. I wanted words that indicated my thoroughgoing commitment to honesty, yet didn’t sound goofy or otherwise off-putting. But that day my work was relentlessly – and encouragingly – busy, and I needed to finish on time. So when Fumie appeared precisely at 17:45 wearing subdued-sparkly eyeshadow, all I could think of was, “You look beautiful. I’m so happy to see you.”

Fumie said she too was happy and complimented my necktie. She again looked directly into my eyes, but this time smiled differently, more simply, artlessly, without a grain of pretension, maybe because we were completely alone – it was early and there were no other customers. I wondered if, like me, she felt vulnerable. I tingled all over, like the one time as a teenager I’d got up the nerve to ask out a girl I really liked who then said yes.

I remembered to get Fumie to do the talking and so right off asked what she thought of the background music. She said only that she liked “all music,” so I knew she was shy. It was John Coltrane playing “Too Young to Go Steady” and every sensitive, intelligent person must surely have an opinion.

After scanning the menu, I ordered two glasses of Champagne for celebrating the special day, and also some French wine, because that’s what the man is supposed to do. As I can’t tolerate alcohol well, I was glad Fumie drank most of the bottle – in principle I’m against wasting food. We talked mostly about our jobs, and she agreed right away that we’d afterwards go back to my office to watch rock videos together on YouTube. Actually, I’d already booked the conference room until 22:30 – I could carry in my portable computer, Ekotech pre-amp and McIver XJ speakers from my exclusive work space, which is really just a crowded cubby hole with a door. Since Fumie ate lightly and didn’t want dessert or coffee, we finished dinner at 18:50. I stayed calm the whole time, even after learning she was a tax accountant and liked numbers. All in all, everything went nearly perfectly.

Once outdoors, Fumie was more distant, more reticent, but I supposed this was just because strangers were around. That became clear once we reached the conference room, where she touched my arm and then sat so close her body sometimes brushed against mine. Her modesty in public was so nice. Shyness in a woman is so comforting.

I suggested we take turns deciding videos, but at first Fumie kept insisting that I choose. Her letting me pick tunes helped me relax, especially as I took this as concrete evidence of the compassionate and sympathetic personality I’d sensed in her during our brief meeting months before. On my side, it was important to pick thoughtfully to make a good impression. I told Fumie my selections would be chronological – I’d already decided against choosing thematically or geographically or based on the musical development of particular artists or their chains of stylistic influence on other artists etc. – and started with “School Days” (Chuck Berry) and “Glad All Over” (Dave Clark Five). Then I was brave and picked Smokey Robinson and the Miracles doing “Ooo Baby Baby,” a very romantic number, and as we watched I talked about the difficulty in drawing a clear line between rock and R&B, which I like to call the “rock-versus-soul problem.”  Whenever I sang along, Fumie would move closer to me. She said I had a good voice and then, suddenly, pressed the back of her hand upward along my leg.

I’m not the kind of guy who recounts his sexual exploits, so I’ll just say this. My selections included “Eight Miles High” (the Byrds), “If You Don’t Know Me by Now” (Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes), “Blinded by the Light” (Manfred Mann) and “With or Without You” (U2). All Fumie picked from the classic rock era were the Beatles doing “Yesterday” and two tunes by the Ventures. Otherwise she chose bland J-Pop hits and a few 1980s British heavy metal bands. But everyone is entitled to their own taste in music – and perhaps I myself need to further develop my appreciation. Regardless, it was undeniably my best ever Day of Rock. Around 21:30 Fumie went home, as I did, but I lay awake very late thinking about her.

That same week came the Day That Is Meaningless (muimi – mu-i-mi – 6-1-3) and I rejoiced in the irony, as Fumie was bringing meaning to my life. Unfortunately, her work became busier and it was a month before I could next see her. Again, it was very early on a weeknight.

We met at the same restaurant and our dinner was much like the first, but this time I invited Fumie to come afterwards to my apartment. Though it was somewhat far, we’d have more comfort and she’d be able to see my vinyl collection. But she was concerned about the time, so by 19:10 we were back watching YouTube videos in the conference room, which, fortunately, was still unbooked. As to our act of physical intimacy that evening, I’ll just say that it was beautiful and moving and touching, and that I felt connected to her. Later, as we watched Cat Stevens singing “The First Cut is the Deepest” and then the Temptations and Supremes together singing “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” I felt tears forming and had to turn my face away. It was July ninth, 7-9, na-ku, naku, “cry,” but that was a mere coincidence.

Fumie remained terribly busy and weeks kept stumbling by without our meeting. My own work at last picked up too, which I used as an excuse for not visiting my parents – my first summer skipping a trip home – but, really, I didn’t want to miss a chance to see Fumie. Having her in my life brought optimism and a sense of all-round well-being, making me confident at work and, even, giving me strength to discipline my communications with her. I sent only one long email per week, which I proofread carefully to ensure it didn’t push too much. Thus, even when asking about her favourite flowers (hana, ha-na, 8-7) on August seventh, I merely said I’d bring a bouquet next time we met, whenever she was free, without pressuring her on the timing. It was enough that I’d let her know, on that special day, that she was in my mind.

The day we finally did meet, I went to the florist beforehand to pick out each flower to be joined into an expression of my affection. This time Fumie had suggested that instead of a restaurant, we get take-away food, so I purchased elaborate o-bento boxes in the basement of Mitsukoshi Ginza and a bottle of very fine sake that I hoped she’d enjoy, and reserved the conference room for 17:15. Then I could lay out everything in advance and set up the computer and sound system. As always, Fumie was precisely on time, and beautiful. Seeing her face after all these weeks brought sharp pangs of joy.

      On impulse I selected “Don’t Let Me be Misunderstood” (The Animals) and then immediately “Say a Little Prayer” (Aretha Franklin version), which, inevitably, did nothing to lessen the intensity of my feelings. Still, when I felt the urge to say “I love you,” I could find the strength to stay silent – I thought Fumie might not yet be ready to hear these words out loud, though she must surely have seen them when she stared piercingly into my eyes. During our remaining 85 minutes together that evening she didn’t smile – I believed she was experiencing an emotion that could not, due to her modesty, be expressed in a smile.

     From that day on I floated with happiness. I lost restraint and kept pressing Fumie to see me again, which happened about two weeks later. This time it was midafternoon. The night before I’d stayed up late, planning words that would be utterly truthful, but delivered in a calm and measured way. I even practiced out loud.

Fumie had suggested an ordinary coffee shop and when I arrived, I felt ready. I steeled myself and remembered my purpose.

“My heart is full,” I said. “Let me—”

“No. I will go first.” And for the next five minutes Fumie did the talking.

From the start, she said, she’d assumed I was in my mid-forties, married and sought nothing more than a short fling. This she’d believed true of all middle-aged Western men. When I invited her to my apartment, she figured it must be a place I kept to take women, which wealthy guys like me could afford.

“But I’m—”

Fumie lifted her hand and continued. She herself was forty-five. She was married. She had two teenage children. She had no intention of jeopardizing the stability of her family. She was sorry if she’d done anything that caused me pain.

I asked why she’d looked so deeply into my eyes again and again – somehow that was all I could say. Fumie replied that I had “attractive blue eyes.” I guess this was a kindness, her way of letting me down lightly. It was September ninth, 9-9, ki-ki, kiki, “crisis,” but that was mere coincidence. Fumie doesn’t care about such things.

From her perspective, no doubt, everything made sense. As always, the “other-people problem” strikes me down. So again – or, rather, still – I am alone. Also, I’m humiliated at my foolishness, though my life’s built-in privacy lets me keep that private. On the plus side, during the brief period I felt connected to Fumie I was able to put my business on a better footing. And, though I apparently didn’t know her at all, I now possess further evidence of my potential attractiveness to women. But the pain has grossly outweighed the pleasure, and I’ve crossed February third (2-3, fu-mi) off my list of special days. Whether I’ve learned something that generates a net positive return over the long run, I cannot yet say. For the time being I shall call this the “Fumie Problem,” for want of better words.

Mark Halpern has lived since 1993 in Tokyo, where he runs his own law firm and writes stories about foreigners in Japan.  He was born in America, grew up mostly in Canada, and has also spent much time in the UK and France.  As for Japan, Mark has, like some of his stories’ characters, found a way to be both an outsider and an insider.

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.