“How well you speak my language!” Antigone said. Mike flushed slightly at the exaggeration. They sat at right angles to one another at the table outside the café, with the harbor in front of them.
“Anipsote ta podia sas.” Lift up your feet. He was too slow, and the water from a wave that had broken over the promenade swirled around his shoes. She laughed. She had a small straight nose, mobile lips, brown hair partially thrown over one shoulder. The eyes were green, large, and very slightly asymmetrical, like the Charioteer of Delphi. It was she who had motioned them to the café table after the tour, when he said he had some questions.
Water was seeping through the holes in his shoes. “May I ask you a question?” he said.
“Of course. Ask ten!”
He asked about the influence of Venetian architecture in Crete, but found himself stopped for want of the word for arch.
“Apsida,” she offered, and began an explanation. Was she married? He could not see her ring finger, but perhaps that meant something different in Crete. Or engaged? Or did she have brothers who lived in the mountains and kept knives in their boots?
“How did you learn English?” he asked. During the tour she had answered questions in at least four languages.
She answered in English. “I learned it from my bloodybastard cousin who lives in London. I am six months live in England. But I speak only street English, so I prefer to guide the French tourists. You are from America, Michaelis?”
“Ah, I see. I had to guide some Americans the other day, from a cruise ship. I had a mister in the group, he asked me where was the Cathedral of St. John. He thought he was in Malta!”
They had both finished their coffee. “It would be good to talk again,” he said.
“What are you doing this weekend?”
“On Saturday I’m going to the south coast.”
“And Loutro.” Then, before caution could make him reconsider, he said, “Would you like to come?”
“You don’t have a tour?”
“Not until Sunday.”
They exchanged phone numbers and arranged a rendezvous. He walked back to his apartment experiencing a serious case of astonishment. She was half his age. Well, perhaps two thirds. There was gray in his hair and his heart was not all it should be. He had more or less even features, true. But he was an impecunious teacher of English, who still had not decided what to do with his life.
He’d planned to travel by bus, but he rented a car, a little Fiat. She was waiting for him by the harbor, wearing jeans and a denim jacket and carrying a backpack.
“Is this your car?” she asked, as he negotiated the narrow streets out of Hania.
“No. I don’t own one. I’m trying to simplify my life. Like Diogenes.”
“Diogenes Laertes, the philosopher who lived in a barrel.”
“Ah, Thioyennis. And will you also give up wearing clothes?”
The thought of himself naked immediately led to the thought of her naked. “I haven’t thought that far ahead,” he said. “Tell me about that castle.”
She explained that the castle high on a hilltop on their right was built by the Turks in the 18th century as part of the defenses of the harbor at Souda Bay. The sea now appeared far down to their left. Two large gray navy vessels were anchored off-shore.
They turned south on the highway that crossed the island, and the road began to climb into the White Mountains. There was still snow on the peaks. Antigone told him this was the route followed by the British and New Zealand soldiers in their desperate retreat in 1941. She seemed to know every meter of the island. “Were you born in Crete?” he asked.
“No, I was born in Athens. My father worked in the Foreign Ministry. But all of my ancestors are from Crete. My grand-grand-grandparents lived in the village of Zeranokefala, in my beloved mountains, and they died there of poverty and suffering. My grand-grandparents lived in Hania, and were slaughtered in a Turkish massacre.”
In less than two hours, the Fiat topped a rise and the road snaked down a series of hairpin bends to the sea a thousand meters below. From the rocky hillside, goats looked down at them, or clambered among ruins of houses.
“What happened to the people who lived here?” he asked.
“It was the feuds. All the time here they have the bloodybastard feuds. You kill my cousin, I kill your brother. Many people have left just to be safe. Last year a man was shot in wide daylight in Sfakia. His two brothers came to the house of the killer at night with fire and the axe. The man was not there, but they slayed his father and his uncle.”
Sfakia itself was still populated, white houses clustered around the steep sides of the bay. They had an hour before the noon ferry arrived. They walked through the town and had a coffee before going on board.
It was mid-May, not yet high season, and there were few passengers. The sun was brilliant but not oppressive, and there was a light breeze. They sat opposite one another. As the ferry glided along the rocky, arid coast, he talked about his job. They spoke in English.
“What gets my students is the tenses,” he said. “The past continuous conditional, for God’s sake! ‘I would have been going.’ Who can learn a language like that?”
“But English is easier than Greek, I think. Greek has the most words of any language. Because each verb has two hundred forms. In English, only four or five.”
“In the language I’m inventing each verb has only one form. It’s a completely phonetic language. Everyone in the world could learn it in a few days.”
“But that was already tried, Michaelis. Esperanto.”
“Esperanto was a hugely missed opportunity!” he exclaimed. “Its alphabet has only five vowels. That’s absurd! You need five letters just for the “a” vowels: as in the words cat, father, make, above, and wall. And Zamenhoff was such a Latinist, he gave Esperanto an accusative. Even the adjectives have numbers and cases. If he’d done it right, we’d have an international language now, which would be the second language of everybody. The history of the world would have been different for the last century!”
She smiled. “I like it when you are passioned. Tell me about the language you want to make.”
“I’d take a lot of extant words from the main European languages. No cases, no genders, no capital letters, no apostrophes, no diphthongs, no diacritics. All tenses formed by adjunct verbs. All plurals formed by adding an s. All common words would be one syllable.”
“What will you call your language?” How elegant she was! Very slim, very poised, but apparently devoid of vanity.
He hadn’t given it a name. “Agapika,” he said.
She laughed. “The language of love. But that’s four syllables. Say something in agapika.”
He improvised. “Me am tu. I like you.”
“I like you too, Michaelis. And how would you say, ‘I love you.’”
Her eyes were on him lightly. “Um, I haven’t done that verb yet.”
The loudspeakers blared an announcement of their imminent arrival in Loutro. The boat moved in toward the row of square white buildings at the bottom of the cliffs. Instead of heading for the dock, it pulled right up to the beach, and the big landing ramp came down on the sand.
They walked along the waterfront in the narrow strip of shade cast by the buildings. At the last taverna, they picked a table under a eucalyptus tree, close to the water’s edge. Just below them, an old fisherman stood in his boat folding a big net. Antigone got into an animated conversation with him, as if he were a relative. Mike couldn’t follow it. He took out his notebook and began to write down the vowels that Agapika would need. He was up to twenty when a waiter appeared with menus. She ordered a salad. He asked for moussaka and a half litre of wine. When it was finished, Antigone ordered another half litre.
Toward the end of the meal, she asked, “What time is your first class tomorrow?”
“My tour tomorrow is in the evening also. We could get the ferry back in the morning. Do you mind to stay here?”
The wine had made his head buzz, but he managed to say casually, “I think that’s a great idea. Let’s go and find rooms.”
There was a hotel a few steps away. He asked for two rooms. He chose the lower, with a view of the harbor. “Siesta time,” he said. “Shall we meet downstairs in a couple of hours?”
He showered and lay down on the bed. Was he really here in Loutro with an attractive woman? Not just attractive, beautiful. And she was intelligent, spoke five languages, interested in his ideas. An international language. The consonants would be as much of a challenge as the vowels. Need one character for the ch as in loch, which the English couldn’t do, and another for ch as in church, which the Greeks couldn’t do.
His alarm woke him in the middle of a dream. He was dreaming that Antigone was looking at him expectantly. All he had to do was to find the words in Agapika for “I love you.” But try as he might, he could not remember them.
He had sweated a lot, and the sheets were damp. He took another shower, and went down to the terrace. Antigone was not there. He ordered a coffee. He opened his book, Mayerhoff’s The Uses of Language. But his gaze wandered to the fishing boats, and the afternoon ferry gliding into the bay. Then she was beside him. They walked back along the waterfront, talking comfortably. From time to time she would get into conversation with fishermen or housewives, the dialog too rapid for him to follow. To a woman carrying a baby, Antigone said, “Oh, that ugly face! That monkey face!” and spat three times, while the mother smiled approvingly. “You understand that?” she asked as they walked on.
“Yes. The evil eye.” Later, he could remember only a little of their conversation, which continued unabated through dinner. She did not like leading tours of Germans, because, she said, they were so unpolite. “You remember Hansel and Gretel, the terribles, they push the old lady in the oven, and after that what did the Germans do, they put millions in the oven. I don’t want any more to talk about that.”
They walked upstairs together. At his door, he said simply, “Come in.” He closed the door behind them, put his arms around her, and they kissed deeply. She stood back, unzipped her dress, and let it slip from her shoulders. She was wearing nothing else. He gasped. Then he could not stop gasping. He clapped a hand over his heart, staggered to the bed and sat down, at the same time searching his pocket for the small box of nitro. Her eyes wide, she took it from his shaking hand, opened it and handed him one of the black pills. He put it under his tongue and immediately his heart returned to its normal rhythm. She was crying silently now. “That was so frighteny,” she said. “We are hours away from a doctor here.”
“Nothing but a bit of tachycardia,” he said. “Nitro always works. I wonder what we’d call that in Agapika. Pills is too English. Meds perhaps.”
They were lying close together on the bed. Antigone had put her dress on. “Give me your hand,” she said. “I need your hand. I need your shoulder. I need to cry with you.” They were silent for a minute. “I have wanted to make love with you since I first saw you,” she said.
“It was when that English lady on the tour was saying a question. I had to ask her to repeat it again, because I was looking at you and thinking you had such a nice ass. Now I think you need someone to take care of you.”
He moved in with her a week later. Her place was the top floor of an old house in Hania overlooking the harbor. Previously, he’d lived in his studio apartment for eighteen months, and he had a lot of stuff to throw away. All the books he’d read, and some he hadn’t, he sold to the second hand store on Daskoianni Street. In the end, everything fitted in his big pack and two bags.
Summer had arrived. Her apartment had no air conditioning. Often a salty breeze blew from the sea, but when the days were still it felt impossible to do anything but lie on the bed and sweat, and sometimes make love. Antigone called him agori mou, my boy. He called her kuria mou, my lady. “Why are you so good to me?” he asked.
“That is a very Protestant question. Because it’s you. Because it’s me.”
She usually did one tour in the morning and another late in the afternoon. He taught ten hours a week at each of two frontisteria, private English-language schools. They shared the cooking and housework. Laughter and tears both came readily to Antigone. They talked for hours, often in bed. He loved to listen to her.
She lay with her elbow on the pillow, resting her cheek on her hand.
“How can I explain you?” she said. “To feel what is Greece, it is completely silence. To understand, you have—I am missing the word—you have to be passioned. Sometimes we go to church in Holy Week just in order to cry. Because of the singing! Because of the smells! The sad is for a moment. Then the laughter comes and takes the sad away. To be in the moment of complete satisfaction, mind, body, and soul, for the ancient Greeks was the time to die.”
“But the early Greek saints forgot about the body. Anthony, Athanasios, John Chrysostom.”
“Yes, the saints and the ancient gods too you might say they were extreme. But things are not so simple to answer like that, it is too much different, a long talk, it takes years. We have icons to keep the saints, our beloveds, close to us. Some people also keep snakes in their houses—“
“To keep down the rats?”
“Ela, bullshit, don’t be so Nordic. That is your western rationality. That is the wisdom of Athena. I am speaking of the wisdom of Apollo, the power of light, of being yourself, of being free and beautiful and having the god inside. I don’t want to complicate you any more. Don’t try to analyze all this out, you will get crazy. You come from a different country, there is a bigger difference, bigger than the Gorge of Samaria.”
She laid her head on the pillow, stretched out her hand, and caressed his face. She switched to Greek. “I feel you in my head and my hair. I feel you in my skin, and in my heart, and in my breasts, and in my mouni. I could die at this moment because I am so happy. Let us sleep now.”
He spent as much time as he could on his invented language. “I have found my mission in life,” he told her. He had completed the alphabet: 26 vowels and 25 consonants. This made possible over 10,000 one-syllable words. Antigone took an interest in the vocabulary. Soon, they could hold simple conversations in Agapika, inventing new words as needed.
She sat with a book in the armchair by the window one evening as he worked at the table. He asked what she was reading. She answered in Greek.
“Elytis. Listen. This is in his poem, ‘The Autopsy.’ ‘As for those particles of fire on his groin, they show that he moved time hours ahead whenever he embraced a woman.’”
He started to translate the sentence from Greek to Agapika, but she interrupted him. “No, please, Michaelis, you can’t. You could not translate it even into English or French.”
“One day poets will write in Agapika,” he said.
“I don’t see how.”
“Well, since the language uses all possible one-syllable words, there will always be lots of rhymes.”
He could not interpret the long look she gave him. She said nothing, returned to her book, but then got up and made coffee.
He began to dream in Agapika. Once, he lapsed into the language during his evening class, becoming aware of it only from the bemused expressions of those students sufficiently awake to notice. He spoke it a lot at home. Antigone understood him, but now she usually replied in Greek or English.
“I’m going to quit one of my schools,” he told her. “We don’t need the income, and I want to spend more time on my language.”
They were eating dinner, one evening in late September. Antigone looked down at the wine glass in her hand. He thought she must be distressed about his taking this decision without consulting her. “When I met you, you spoke Greek,” she said. “Not perfect, but as if you liked it. You spoke my beloved language. The language of my home, my family, my people. It was one of the things I liked about you.”
“Your affection is linguistic?” He had to use the Greek word glossiki.
“My language is the language of my heart!” Tears began. “It is the language of my history, of my memory, of my life, of my gods. How can I love you in a language that no one ever has loved in before? Your language is very interesting, Michaelis, but it has not cried the lamentations and hymns of the human soul, it is not born of suffering and joy. Why do you think the word for language is the word for tongue also? I can love you in English or French, that is true, but Greek is the language of my skin, and of my hands, and of my breasts, and of my heart.”
They tried for another week. He spoke Greek, and she was gentle and affectionate. But there was a distance between them that he knew he could bridge only by depreciating what he had now come to see as his vocation.
He threw out everything that would not fit in his pack, and moved out, this time to a single room in an old house, with a bathroom down the hall. He figured that it would take him another nine months to produce a dictionary and grammar of Agapika. His savings should last a year. He quit teaching altogether.
Antigone would see him occasionally on the street, carrying a bag of potatoes or a pile of library books. His clothes were increasingly shabby; when they wore out completely, he replaced them from the second-hand store. He let his beard grow and cut his own hair. His only luxury was dictionaries, of which he owned a dozen. He had widened the base of Agapika to include Swedish and Turkish.
He wrote each word in the Agapika vocabulary on a separate index card, and filed them by first letter, in packs of one hundred. After each thousand, he celebrated in some modest way, by buying a bottle of wine, or eating at a café. By January, he was up to 8000 words, and the omelette, fries, and glass of wine he was enjoying in a café two streets from the harbor felt like a just reward. There were no tourists in Hania at this season; the only foreigners were sailors from the ships harbored at Souda Bay. A British ship was in port. Judging by their accents, most of the sailors were from the Celtic fringe: Welsh, Scottish, Geordie. A group sat at the table next to Mike’s.
“Going t’order some of that ‘ard stuff we ‘ud the other night?” a sailor said. “What’s it called? Raki?”
Mike looked over and told the sailors that Manouli always brought raki at the end of the meal, on the house. But save some room for coffee. Unfortunately, he slipped into Agapika. For is fo, and coffee is cof.
“Fock off?” one of the sailors said in astonishment. He was a thickset young man with a shaved head. “Bogger’s takint’ piss.” He began to rise, but his neighbor put a restraining hand on his arm.
The sailors left a few minutes later. As they passed Mike’s table, two of them quickly lifted his chair and placed it on the table. For a moment, Mike was stunned, all eyes in the café on him, still seated in his chair on top of the table. He was too mortified to wait for help. The table was small and round, and it crashed over as soon as he moved. He wasn’t hurt, and was relieved that his heart didn’t start acting up.
He had decided that he would publish his grammar and dictionary when he had ten thousand main entries and had narrowed the grammar rules to ten. He was particularly proud of the one-syllable words. Each of the 26 vowels was a one-letter word. There were over 1000 two-letter words. All of the other words in the basic vocabulary could have been one syllable, but as adjectives were formed by adding an a, they had to have at least two syllables. So bel was beauty, bela beautiful. What about beautician? Never mind, that didn’t need to go in the basic vocabulary.
He wrote down the ten thousandth word, bol, pocket, based on the Spanish bolsa, on a rainy day in February. A big box on his table held the 10,000 index cards. In recent months he’d been saving money by cutting them from cardboard he’d fished out of garbage skips.
He went to an internet café and typed letters to five major publishers of dictionaries in the US, Britain, and France. He waited a month, and then sent follow-up letters. He wrote to the executors of Bernard Shaw’s estate, and to the Esperanto Society. His money was running low, and he cut down on food. He wrote to the Presidents of France and the United States, to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, and to several Prime Ministers. The only response he received was one from the US President thanking him for his support in the recent election campaign.
He wrote letters to newspapers about Agapika. At least one was published, because a few weeks later he received a response from Britain, on letterhead embossed with the address “Laburnum House,” in Somerset. The letter was a closely-reasoned three-page demolition of Esperanto and praise for Mike’s efforts to formulate a new language. It was the first affirmation he had received for a long time, and he wrote back to express his thanks. The next time he was at the Internet Café, he looked up Laburnum House and found it was an “Institute for the Treatment of Nervous Diseases.”
His rent was 110 Euros a month, and when he paid it in April, he had 83 Euros left. There would be no point in asking for credit. Mrs. Papadakou had become increasingly distant as he became more shaggy. When he wished her Gud jor, she would merely nod and give him a formal Kalimera.
He found a cave. It was above an olive grove about ten kilometers from the town. It was quite dry, and it would be cool through the summer and probably comfortable into November. On the last day of April, almost a year after he had first met Antigone, he carried his big pack there. It was a day so springlike that he imagined he could see the tendrils of grape vines extending and the leaves of mulberry trees opening. He had few clothes, but his pack was heavy on account of the eight big dictionaries—he had reluctantly sold four others. He took a bus half way, but the rest of the walk exhausted him. The months of study and lack of exercise had not been helpful. He went back to town to get the box of index cards.
It was heavier than he had realized. He had to take a break half-way to the bus stop. He put the box down on a low wall and rested a few moments. As he picked it up, he saw Antigone. She was emerging from a bookstore half a block away on the far side of the street. She was wearing the same outfit as on the day they had gone to Loutro, a year ago.
He stepped into the street. The box gave him some protection as the motorbike struck. It went flying, index cards scattering in the breeze. He was knocked back onto the sidewalk. He was conscious, and he knew just what was happening as his heart lurched and then began to fibrillate. He tried to reach for the nitro in his pocket, but his arm would not move. A crowd had gathered around him, dark faces against the sun.
“Meds, mi meds, en gosh bol,” he gasped. Pills, my pills, in left pocket.
“What is he saying?” the bystanders asked one another.
“French. Talking about Metz.”
“No, he’s the foreigner who lives at Kuria Papadakou’s. A crazy man.”
“Pla. Mi meds. Vit.” Please, my pills, quickly. Then everything went black.
A man in a suit crouched down and held two fingers to Mike’s neck, then shook his head.
A block down the street, Antigone had seen nothing. She walked on, carrying under her arm the book she’d just bought, John Douglas’s Obsession..
David Pratt’s poetry and short fiction have been published in over 100 journals in the United States, Canada, Britain, and Australia, including Antigonish Review, California Quarterly, Dalhousie Review, Indiana Review, Nashwaak Review, Prairie Journal, etc. His op-eds have appeared in national newspapers in Canada and the United States. He is the author of Apprehensions of van Gogh (Hidden Brook Press, 2015), and Nobel Laureates: The Secret of Their Success (Branden Books, 2016).