The taxicab that picks me up from the hotel is a Mercedes, its air conditioning turned up full blast. The heat never bothered me growing up, but I’m more American now. The weather reminds me of the summer of 1987 when Philip and I brought the children to visit. God, we nearly died in the heat. That was such a long time ago. I sit back in the cool interior of the taxi and stare out the window at the shops on Vasileas Sophias Avenue. Without traffic the ride to the Zografou Cemetery should take twenty minutes.
My children don’t have any relation to Athens or the world I left behind, but I wish they were here. I asked Zoe to come, but she said no; she’s trying to make partner in her law firm and can’t take time off. Jason I haven’t been close to in years, not since his college days. I didn’t ask him to join me. I regret that now.
My eyes are dry with travel. This morning I couldn’t find my sunglasses in the hotel room, so I squinted into the sun as I made my way to the new Acropolis Museum. I’m only here for Koula’s funeral, but everyone I spoke to said I must see the new museum. It is beautiful. Worth all the money, I suppose. It reminds me of the new airport in Spata, which I saw yesterday for the first time. The old airport, the one in Elliniko, was disgusting. I never saw it that way until I came from the States with my family, and Jason, who was seven at the time, couldn’t get over the fat stray dogs, their bellies riddled with ticks, cooling themselves on the mosaic floor under the waiting room chairs.
Philip had never been to Greece before, neither he nor our children spoke the language, and they relied on me to introduce them to the world I had come from. None of them found anything to like in Athens. What they noticed was litter trapped in dry weeds, the soft taste of tap water served without ice, and garbage rotting in the streets because the trash collectors were on strike again. They found no charm in the fish markets, the ice melting in cold rivers across the cement floor. The bouzouki songs played on cheap radios did not move them. I stopped pointing out these things, surrendered them to their own experience. Athens is a cesspit, I heard them whisper to one another.
We had lunch with my sister, Koula, and her family. She and I had barely spoken since I emigrated in the early 70s, just a phone call on each other’s name day. Xronia polla, we’d say. How are the children? How is Yiannis? How is Philip? The same bland questions, year after year.
Koula lived in Kolonaki, a fashionable neighborhood at the foot of Lykavitos. After visiting the museum this morning, I walked through the streets of downtown Athens for an hour until I found myself there again. Some need to be where Koula had lived drove me. A neighborhood of pricey apartments, Kolonaki feels like a memory of itself, now that most of the boutiques have closed. But in 1987, when I marched my family up the steep streets to her apartment building, Kolonaki was the height of chic. Koula was a doctor, a microbiologist, and her husband, Yiannis, was a reporter for the leftwing paper Rizospastis. They had a daughter, Marina, the same age as Jason.
Zoe and her brother were irritable the day we went to Koula’s for lunch. It was a Sunday, we’d been in Greece two days, and I’d subjected them without mercy to the sites of Athens. The heat wave was just beginning and Zoe sat in front of the fan with her eyes closed, the hair near her temples wet with sweat.
Koula had cooked a feast: keftedakia, dolmadakia, a baked macaroni oozing butter and cheese. In our nervousness we ate more than we wanted and afterwards felt sick, sitting together on the overstuffed chairs in the living room, fanning ourselves with folded sheets of the Rizospastis.
Yiannis clacked his worry beads and scowled at the children spread on the floor. He was a handsome, arrogant man, many years older than Koula. He sat in his armchair like royalty enthroned and fired questions at Philip about Ronald Reagan and the Middle East, Cyprus, and what he thought of Jews. It was an awkward, distasteful conversation. Philip did his best, though of course he had no idea where the landmines lay. Koula tried to enter the discussion, smooth the rough spots when she saw Philip blush and stammer. Yiannis told her not to interrupt.
My sister had become the sort of Greek woman she despised, subservient in every degree to her husband. It was not how Koula had been, how I remembered her in 1973 when we lived together in Athens, shared a fourth floor apartment in a building near Omonia Square.
The taxi is barely moving, there is more traffic than I had thought. We are going slow enough that I notice a woman about my age sorting through the garbage outside a Goody’s fast food restaurant. She is putting everything edible into a white paper bag at her feet.
Koula had been a brilliant student, excelling in math and science. In the small city of Halkida where we grew up, she was known for her gifted intellect. She wanted to be a doctor, and she earned a place at the University.
With no such talents as Koula, I earned my pass to the city as my sister’s companion. My parents would never send Koula alone, so I went too. I left before completing my final year of high school, and my family expected me to keep house for Koula, iron her clothes and prepare her meals. In retrospect, it was a poor bargain, but at the time I was as excited as any young girl starting her life’s adventure.
Our arrangement worked well the first year; the city was still new and exciting, and Koula and I had only each other in Athens. But by the end of her second year in medical school Koula had found a new circle of friends. I was not included. She stayed out late at night, listened to Rebetika in bars, met in the apartments of friends to discuss politics. More and more, Koula treated me like her servant: Vasso, do this, Vasso, do that. She was speechless with fury when I took a job at an import/export company and refused to do her bidding any longer.
The one subject I had shown aptitude for in school was English, and my language skills were put to good use at Farmalex. The company would later send me overseas because of my fluent English; it was the key to my fate, though I didn’t know it at the time. The job paid poorly, but it opened the world to me. Most important, it allowed me to be independent of Koula, who had rejected me in all the ways that mattered.
We come to a stop. The taxi driver is cursing under his breath, intermittently adding to the chorus of honking horns. “What is it?” I ask him. “What is going on?”
“Amerikaniki Presvia” he says, his voice glum and resigned. Of course. Our route to the cemetery passes in front of the American embassy, a flashpoint for riots. We are still several blocks away, but I can hear sirens, and there is brown smoke rising behind buildings a few blocks north. I sit back and sigh; this may take a while. There is always something to protest in Athens. Who to blame, though, is forever the question.
Koula and I had fallen into our own Cold War by the autumn of 1973. The politics of our crazy world – the Americans, the Russians, the military dictatorship in Greece – were only an echo of the strife in our home. We barely spoke, and when we did, it required our utmost effort to be civil. I still cooked for two, but only because I enjoyed cooking. I did not wash my sister’s laundry, did not iron her skirts and lab coats that lay rumpled in the basket. Koula left them there, always hopeful I might press a piece of her clothing while I took care of my own, but I would not.
Koula found a way to get back at me. One afternoon in early October she came home with a large cardboard box. It was dusty and smelled of mildew, as if it had been long in storage.
She opened it and pulled out a mottled skull. “I have the whole skeleton here,” she said. “I’m going to wire the bones together, one by one until it’s fully assembled. Then I’m going to use that lamp over there” – she nodded toward a tall floor lamp in the corner – “and I’m going to hang it from the pole so I can study the bones.”
“You are not,” I said.
I was convinced this was a joke, something Koula dreamed up to drive me crazy, but she was serious. The anatomy course at her school was famously hard, and many students took home bones from the cemetery. It was common practice. In Athens, bodies were interned only for a few years, long enough for the flesh to decay. Then the grave was emptied and rented to a new occupant, and the bones of the dead were placed in a bone crypt, a long box in a wall of drawers that resembled the card filing system once used in libraries. These tall, marble bureaus lined the avenues of the cemetery, and the bones stayed as long as the annual fees were paid. When a person’s place was no longer paid for, the bones were removed to make room. There were always boxes of bones, complete sets, available for the medical students to take.
How I hated what Koula did next, though I watched in sick fascination. She removed the large bones from the box – the skull, the femurs, tibias, ulnas – and began sorting the small ones like pieces in a puzzle. First she linked the vertebrae of the spine together, bound them with wire from neck to coccyx. She tied them tight, so the long s-curve of the spine held its form, and then she added the scapulae and the pelvis, the long bones of the arms and legs. The skeleton grew, laid out for weeks on our living room floor. Slowly, meticulously, Koula assembled the hands and feet, gluing the tiniest bones to the wire with some awful adhesive that made the room stink.
At last she was ready to hang him. It was a he, after all, the assembled skeleton nearly two meters tall. Koula named it Panagioti. He had crooked, brown teeth, nearly half of them missing. Koula cut a broom handle with a saw she borrowed from a neighbor and tied that across Panagioti’s shoulders. She took the shade from the lamp and removed the light bulb and wired the broom handle to the pole. Panagioti stood erect in the corner of our living room, now dark and shadowy without the lamp.
Weeks passed while she put together the skeleton. It was November before Panagioti was fully assembled on his lamp post. I thought when she finished, when human bones no longer littered my living room floor, the skeleton would be easier to live with. It was not.
The taxi has inched forward, closer to the chaos. “Keep the window rolled up,” the taxi driver warns me, “there might be tear gas.” His warning is unnecessary; I’ve seen all this before. I knew what Athens would be like when I bought my ticket. They show it on television during the evening news – riot police and Molotov cocktails make good footage. When I told my colleagues I was headed to Greece for a funeral, their eyes went wide. Be careful, they said.
I’d budgeted time for riot-induced traffic jams when I hailed the taxi. Still, we’ve been trapped for almost an hour, and the service will begin in thirty minutes. Perhaps it would be a fitting gesture if I failed to arrive, a reminder of how things ended between Koula and me. Even with the windows up I can taste the metallic tint of whatever chemicals people are throwing at one another. I’ve tasted it before.
In 1973, Greece had been under a military dictatorship for six years. Growing up in Halkida, politics rarely touched our lives. Athens was different. An undercurrent of political disease ran through all circles of the city. No one openly criticized General Papadopoulos; if a neighbor or a family member reported you to the police, you’d be taken away and tortured. Everyone knew someone that had happened to.
In mid November, the students at the Polytechnic locked themselves behind the gates of their school and began a rebellion. Psomi, paidea, elephtheria – bread, education, freedom – was their chant. They built a radio station and all the country heard what they had to say. Rioters joined them in the streets, and the police fought back. Living as close as we did, I saw the casualties first hand: a boy running by in a white tee-shirt marked by fading starbursts of blood soaking into the sleeves, an old man on the pavement, struck down when the police tore past after someone else, a woman keening by the curb, clutching a silver cross to her chest, begging the Holy Mother to save the Greeks. This lasted a week; each day the crowds and the violence grew worse than before.
On the radio, students advised us how to cope with the tear gas, which had permeated the neighborhood for several blocks. They recommended placing a saucer of lemon juice on each window sill and swiping a dab of olive oil under the nostrils and below each eye to counteract the chemicals. You could tell by the glisten of oil on people’s faces that everyone was tuned in to the students’ broadcasts.
Young as I was, these events swept me up in their wake. It was a frightening time but exciting too, and I longed for someone to share it with. Like me, Koula was agitated by the events happening around us. She spent more and more time out of the house. They were her comrades, her fellow students, the young men and women risking their lives at the Polytechnic School, and she felt involved at the heart of things. I missed her and worried for her, despite myself.
While Koula responded to the drama by staying out of the house, no doubt talking politics at clandestine meetings, I spent more and more time locked in our apartment, listening to the radio. Farmalex had offices close to the riots, and they had temporarily closed. The streets were chaos – police stood on corners with machine guns. Sirens and shouts rumbled down avenues and burst in cacophony. There was no predicting what would happen.
The windows remained shut, with the lemon juice on the sills to counteract any chemicals that seeped in. The air grew stuffy, but with a sweet, citrus scent. In the corner, Panagioti kept me company. The longer Koula remained away, the more he occupied the room.
As Friday evening dragged into darkness, I could not ignore the skeleton any longer. Panagioti had become my sister’s proxy, and I loathed him and loved him. I did not know the names of any but the most basic bones, and my ignorance brought tears to my eyes. His anonymity threatened to overwhelm me, and I took a cloth napkin and dipped it in the lemon juice, rubbed it gently on a brown-stained rib. The acid in the lemon might clean him, I thought, and if the bones were a bleached white instead of the organic tones of internment, I might find a little peace. The lemon had no effect.
Koula did not come home that night. I fell asleep on the sofa and woke stiffly in the hour before dawn. What little light found its way in the room from the window reflected on Panagioti, and he stood in dappled shadow. I could feel from the stillness that Koula was not home, but I looked in her room to be sure. The covers of the bed were hastily pulled up, just as she had left them the day before.
At first I was irritated rather than worried. Koula had never stayed out all night before, but it did not surprise me. An hour later, though, I was drinking tea and standing at the window, looking down at the street as dawn light made the world take shape. I heard it before I saw it, but I did not understand the sound. An engine that reminded me of the ships in Pireas was rumbling in the street. In the changing light I made out the shape of a tank, headed slowly in the wrong direction up Socratous Street.
Hours passed slowly after that. My panic would swell and recede, wondering where Koula had gone and then shaking my head in irritation at her lack of consideration. At last, midmorning, I heard her key turn the lock in the door.
“Where have you been?” I cried.
“You’re not my mother, Vasso,” she said. Koula looked exhausted, dark rings under her eyes. The energy of excitement, the thrill that had been upon her all week, was gone.
Koula went to her room to change, then sat down at the kitchen table, dunking bread in a cup of warm milk for breakfast. She stared into the empty air before her.
I wanted to know what had happened, where she had been. I said, “I saw a tank this morning, on Socratous.”
Koula shrugged her shoulders, wiped crumbs into her hand and stood up. “They killed a boy, a high school student. Did you hear? His name was Diomedes Komnenos.
“Everything is changing, isn’t it?” I said, staring at Panagiotis and thinking of the boy, Diomedes. “Everything is going to be different.” I wanted Koula to talk to me, to include me, to make me part of her world. I couldn’t stand for things go on as they were.
Koula picked up her bag and headed for the door. “Nothing is going to change, Vasso. Not for you and me, anyway.”
At last we arrive at the cemetery. I am late. In the chapel near the florist shop a group of mourners has gathered by a casket. There is an attendant at the door, a man of practiced somberness, and I ask him about the service for my sister, Kyriakoula Basilyiadis. He murmurs an apology and tells me the location of her grave, where the final prayers are being offered. I buy a flower for my sister, a red geranium, and as I walk toward Koula’s grave, the clay pot warms my hands.
Before the raised marble lid of her tomb, a black robed priest swings an incense burner. A young woman in a blue sleeveless dress stands beside him; I assume this is my niece — she is the only person present under the age of sixty. The priest continues his liturgical drone, and I nod toward Marina. Beside her, an old man in a wheel chair is plucking at loose threads on the cuff of his shirt. He toys with a button, the smooth roundness slipping through his fingers. The purpose of our gathering is lost to him, and I wonder why he is here. I realize this must be Yiannis, my sister’s husband.
Yiannis’s wheelchair is next to the grave, and beside him is a framed, black and white picture of Koula. In the photo, Koula is perhaps forty years old, smiling and confident. She is wearing a white lab coat, and her hand rests on the eye piece of a microscope. Every grave in the cemetery has a photo of the deceased. Some of the photos, despite the special frames, have leaked water, and the images are blurred beyond recognition.
The priest finishes with his recitation and the crowd begins to stir. An old woman among the mourners passes out small paper cups of koliva, a pleasant mixture of nuts and seeds eaten only in the presence of the dead. I take a cup as she passes it to me, and now my hands are full, with the koliva¸ the geranium, my heavy purse hanging from my arm. My niece chooses this moment to acknowledge me. She tilts her head quizzically, implying that she doesn’t know who I am, why I am here.
“Marina?” I say. “It’s me, Vasso.”
She smiles and leans to greet me by placing her cheek next to mine – the gesture of a kiss. “I’m so glad you could come,” she says.
She shut the door and I held myself back until I heard the shuddering clank of the elevator and was certain Koula had begun her descent. Listening as the pulleys drew the box down, a wail escaped me, a long deep shudder. I still remember that sound, as if it were someone else’s pain I heard.
I had slept poorly, the events of the week had been exhausting, Koula’s rejection had pushed me over the edge: there were many reasons for my despair. What I did next still amazes me; it was as if I were in a dream.
The wire binding the broom handle to the lamp was wound in a simple figure eight, easy to undo. For some reason I had thought the skeleton would be light, like feathers. Koula had done good work, and as I held the bones in my arms, cradled like a child or an old crone too weak to walk, they remained attached to one another, and none fell to the floor, though they clattered like shells.
In our building, the stairs were a marble spiral. The rattle of the bones echoed as I descended the steps sideways, careful not to touch the walls. I found myself wishing, as I descended flight by flight, that I did not have to end this twisted path, that I could look down at Panagioti’s feet, hanging like a veil of birds in the empty space of the stairwell, and it could go on forever.
I followed the stairs past the ground floor into the basement. The only place to go from here was into the akalyptos, the uncovered common space between the jammed, concrete apartment blocks of our neighborhood. I shoved with my shoulder, and the door opened on a neglected, whitewashed space the size of our living room. Pigeons cooed from windowsills where potted plants left to wither and die sat on narrow ledges.
Dish towels hung from wires in the still air. I laid the skeleton down gently in the middle of the akalyptos, the only space not littered with the purple-black spatter of birds. I couldn’t look at the bones any longer. Panagiotis – it wasn’t even his name. He was of no consequence to anybody. I stood facing the narrow square of sky and thought of Diomedes Komnenos, whispering his name to myself so I wouldn’t forget. The dizziness of the view stopped my tears and I went back upstairs.
When I returned to the apartment I turned on the radio. The students’ station had gone white, a flat static filling the room. By evening I knew what all Athens knew; the government had broken the gates of the school with its tank and reasserted martial law.
The koliva eaten, the priest departs with a twenty euro note tucked in his robes. I watch as Marina takes her place behind her father’s wheelchair. The mourners will now process to a café near the cemetery, one that specializes in funerary service. It is a simple affair; we will be offered Greek coffee, water, and small bottles of Metaxa brandy, should anyone need a bracing drink.
The group moves ahead of me down the avenue; I watch them turn right at the wall of bone crypts. In my hands I hold the geranium I bought for Koula, its full, red blossom upright above the ruffled leaves. I set it down beside her picture, arranging it just so, as if this offering matters.