Excerpt: The Last Island

From Chapter 1

“Where you stayin’?” Martin asked me the next day at the taverna.

I told him about the tiny widow.

“She with Giannopoulos or Papakakis?”

“Don’t know.”

“Hope she’s not with Papakakis.”

“Why’s that?”

“You’re with Giannopoulos.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“Doesn’t matter, you are.”

I looked about the taverna and saw the fishermen as the intrepid, doomed warriors they were.  Grown where planted, they were the opposite of me, with circumstances so alike that it seemed they could swap lives with one another – one boat, one house, one wife for another – and nothing much would change for anyone.  I envied their rootedness and figured if they were Giannopoulos, whoever he was, that was good enough for me.

“Tell me about this Giannopoulos,” I said to Martin.

“He’s tryin’ to preserve the Reserve, but don’t be soddin’ your American brain with that now.  Be findin’ about all that soon enough.  Thing to be thinkin’ about is where you’re stayin’.  Your flat doesn’t sound like much fun, ‘less there’s somethin’ about that little widow I’m missin’.”

“She gives me cookies,” I said, and noticing Martin’s sly smile, added.  “The kind you eat.”

“Yeah, sure.  But what about a sunny villa on the leeward side, replete with ocean views, full amenities, convenient to recreation and public transportation?  Cheap, too, and with a subject of interest.”

“What’s a subject of interest?”

“Woman about your age.  Australian and kind of pretty too, if you go for that kind of thing.”

“What kind?”

“The kind-of-pretty kind of thing.”

“Not interested.”

“Yeah, sure.  I do know where you be gettin’ your cookies.”

“Martin –”

“– The land is owned by an Animal Society, or some group that was here a few years ago.  They want to rent it out, make some money out of it, and that’s where you’d be comin’ in.”

I didn’t know what to make of this offer and thought it might be a joke.  There seemed to be a trace of insincerity in everything Martin said, though that may have been nothing more that the Greek intonation he’d picked up, the slight upward inflection at the end of every sentence.

“Harry over there is the local real estate agent,” he said, “Far as I know, he’s listed every house that’s ever been for sale here, something which happens every couple decades or so.  I’ll go talk to him.”

Harry was the fat fisherman who had been playing cards against Martin and Mr. Giorgos that first day.  When he screamed at the one-armed man that first day, I’d figured him as impulsive and hot-tempered, and subsequently avoided him as best I could.  But now as I watched him, it looked as if I might’ve gotten it wrong.  He talked calmly with Martin, nodding his head and smiling with dingy, crooked teeth.  They called the one-armed man over.  The one-armed man also nodded his head as they talked to him, and then Martin returned to me.

“You’re in,” he said.  “They just wanted to know what crime you’d committed, figurin’ you had to be on the run from somethin’.”

“What’d you tell them?”

“You’re CIA.”

“If I was CIA, why would I come here?”

“Wrong question.”

“And the right one is?”

“Why wouldn’t you?”

As with so much else that Martin said, I found there was no real response.  Martin was pleased with himself and squinted into the bright sun for a long time.  “See the place?” he said eventually.

“Duty calls.”  I said, gesturing to the fishermen, who were drinking and playing backgammon.

Martin looked about the taverna.  “No duty here.  They’ll take care of the place.  What would they steal anyway?  Where would they go?  And what would they do when they got there?  Besides, you work for me, and I order you to leave this taverna and go see the villa, or I’ll dock your wages.”

“I don’t make enough for it to matter.”

“Put a bottle of ouzo out and I’ll pay for it.”

When I opened the ouzo, Martin asked the fishermen to keep track of who drank how much and they laughed.  Seconds later, I left the taverna with Martin and the two fishermen.

“Met these guys?” Martin asked as we walked down the dusty road.

I shook hands with both of them.  Harry, the fat one, smiled at me with brown teeth, and Ari, the one armed man, twisted his left hand over to shake with my right.  Then the four of us squeezed into a tiny, rusted Fiat.  Martin and I stuffed ourselves into the back, our knees wedged against the front seats in such a way that our feet didn’t hit the floor.  Martin winced as he pulled his scarred left knee into position but made no sound.  Ari sat in the driver’s side and put the key into the ignition by looping his left arm through the wheel.

En-ah,” Ari said.

From the passenger side, Harry shifted into first gear with his left hand.  There was a pause before the car pulled away.  As we started moving, a warm, dusty draft rose up from in the floor.  I looked down between my feet and could see the road speeding by through the rusted, golf-ball sized holes in the floorboard.

Thee-oh,” Ari said looking straight ahead.  Harry pulled the stick shift back into second gear, and we followed the dusty road out of the village.  The road thinned, and we headed through the flattened area to the other side of the village, the mountain hovering majestically to our right.

Tree-ah,” Ari said.

Harry pushed the stick up, but the gears ground resistance.  Harry looked wryly at Ari and pushed hard again.  The gears screeched frightfully.

Tree-ah, TREE-AH!” Ari screamed along with a stream of unintelligible words.

Harry took his hand off the gearshift and abruptly smacked Ari in the head.  Ari screamed at him, reached his arm clear across his body and smacked Harry right back.  But Harry was fast; he grabbed Ari’s arm and wouldn’t let go.  Miraculously, Ari managed to stop the car just as Harry took his other free hand and slapped the defenseless Ari twice on the forehead.  Ari tugged his arm back and got out of the car.  Harry got out the other side.  The fishermen yelled from opposite sides of the car.  After a minute or two of rapid-fire Greek they got back in the car.

En-ah,” Ari said quietly, “Thee-oh . . . Tree-ah . . . ”

We headed down the road, winding now, and then turned down a rocky, unpaved path lined by trees on both sides.  The path thinned as we went.  We stopped when the trees scraped the car on both sides simultaneously.  About twenty yards ahead, the trees wrapped themselves into a dark tunnel with a single beam of light emerging through the small opening.  Martin, Harry and I got out of the car.  Ari waited behind.

Knocking the branches aside, we proceeded through the tunnel.

On the other side was a small cove that looked out at the open sea.  In a semi-circle facing the water were two weather-beaten shacks.  The cove was pretty and raw, a seemingly primitive and untamed place in spite of the two shacks.  But the overall effect was neutral, neither inviting nor uninviting, with a shore that was more dirt than sand and stringy green weeds sprouting randomly.  A wooden dock extended about thirty feet from the shore, and there was a ladder at the end of it which descended into water that was perfectly still and as blue as the cloudless sky.  On the ladder rested a faded red towel, fluttering lightly in the breeze.

We walked to the shack on the left.  Harry pushed open the front door to reveal a musty room with a bare bed frame and, against the wall, a stained mattress.  There was a small window at eye level against one wall and a single fire-lit stove.  It took me all of thirty seconds to see it.  It seemed most suited for a monk, a place for prayer and seclusion, which might be just what I needed.  But I played stoic and unimpressed.

“You call this a villa?” I said to Martin.

He smiled.  “One man’s castle… as you Americans say.”

There was no running water, and the entire shack had the look as if somebody once considered living there, but thought better of it.  Walking around, I listened as Martin and Harry talked.  My Greek was better than they thought, and I understood most of what they were saying.  I heard Harry ask if I could pay in dollars, and Martin replied that I could, though there was no way he could know that.

“Hundred dollars US, every month, in advance,” Martin said when we got back outside.

In Greek, I asked Harry about who lived in the other shack, to check if Martin had been truthful about this neighbor of mine.

A woman, Harry told me.  He thought she was from Ireland.

“For feck’s  sake, Harry, I’m from Ireland,” Martin said. “She’s from Australia.”  Harry merely shrugged, one foreign country being the same as any other to him.

I walked out on the loose planks of the dock and fingered the red towel.  A distant tanker glided by on the horizon, barely visible in the midday haze.  I looked down past my feet at my reflection in the blue-green water beneath the dock and for a moment didn’t know it was me.  My black hair was long and wild.  Around my blue eyes, my skin had already turned a few shades darker.  My hand ran up to my chin and lingered on the hardened stubble, not something I was used to.  It ushered me back to smoother-cheeked days, and in a symptom of longing or arrested development, I strolled through the museum of my youth, gazing at the exhibit of an eager and mystified boy, barely recognizable as me…


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