Donkey, Dead, Imagine
We are sitting in a kafeneion - a traditional Greek cafe where only men
are allowed and where card playing and gossip are the pastimes and tiny
Greek coffees served hot and sweet and with an exact amount of froth
are the order . . . . .
There are 3 old men at the table next to us: if we glance to our right we
can see them in profile. They are sitting at the back of the kafeneion in
a corner: this way nobody can enter or leave without them seeing. They
are all old. They are probably in their eighties and a life in the open air
has ravaged their skins which are tawny and wrinkled - more like some
form of leather than human skin. Their leathery faces are punctuated
with wrinkles around the mouths and eyes and they look like laughter
lines although all three have mildly disapproving countenances.
One old man is smoking a cigarette - untipped and in front of him on
the zinc topped table lies a packet of Sante, not one of the new fangled
flip-top packet but something more akin to an open box- timeless like
the old man himself with his white hair and moustaches. There is tinge
of tobacco yellow at the margin of his handsome handlebar moustache
but he is otherwise spotless. His clothes are old and have faded in the
punishing sun but they are spotless as is he. Doubtless a handsome fellow
in his youth. he still has the erect posture of a man of some importance.
He has the penetrating light blue eyes of a man whose family hail from
Sfakia. The Sante box lies open on the table, its lid propped against his
water glass. Red and gaping, there is a picture of a blonde Greek woman
sporting a marcel wave and a red slash for a mouth on it lid. The
cigarettes are untipped and a small amount of dark brown tobacco dust
lies in the bed of the open box dislodged in its constant travels to and
from his shirt pocket that clearly bears the faded silhouette of the box.
A cheap blue Bic lighter advertising some bar or other in Xania sits
beside the cigarette box nestling between it and the battered aluminium
ashtray, its own advertising slogan long ago washed away, in which he is
accumulating a pile of short, dangerously short butts and a separate pile
of ash. In places the metal of the ashtray has worn thin with years of
wear. He has clearly been here since dawn for it is still very early and
the sun is yet low in the sky to their left. The sky is cloudless and
threatens an intense heat later. The road that passes by the kafeneion
leads from the village on their right up to the mountain pasture to their
left where the sun has recently risen. They can sit here all day and
watch everything that happens.Nothing can escape these Cretans' gaze.
The road is white with dust and away in the distance up where the village
ends, there is a small cloud just forming in the dust. It is small and far
enough away that it is impossible to make out what it is. The man with
the pale blue eyes looks at us and motions with an upward tilt of his
head toward the growing cloud - "Pavlos einai!" The man opposite him
nods, his grey beard crumbed with rusk, "Ne, kai Dimitri!". The third man
laughs and looks up from his komboloi for the first time. He has been
playing with these beads since we first entered the kafeneion in an
intricate one handed dance routine, their amber clacking gently in the
background with only the occasional loud click as his wrist describes an
exaggerated arc and he executes a backhand manoeuvre. He nods to the
smoker, who has since lit another cigarette while his last one expires
busily in the aluminium ashtray. "Dimitri defteros!".
The pair slowly work their way closer until: the smoker coughs and
declaims in a strong baritone voice : "Gia sas kyrie Pavlos". The man with
the donkey now looks up from his feet and we can see that he is a small
man with a pronounced hump on his back. He is as old as any of our
three cronies but in his dark eyes there is an intelligent and knowing
glint that speaks of a life well lived and a life that continues. This man is
of the land. As resolute and unbending as the stones that pock the
landscape. As prickly and dangerous as the thorny bushes that cover the
lower slopes of this mountain until they peter out far above the village
where the olives stop and the final stand of cypresses announce
wilderness. he wears the heavy twill breeches of old Crete, greyed and
scuffed and dusty, tucked into the high leather boots that he has owned
since before he married 50 years ago. His wife is in the cemetery that he
will passin 2 or 3 kilometres on the left, laid there years ago leaving him
to carry on alone. Leaving him to carry the burden of life in the
mountain village where both of them were born all those years ago.
When first she died he felt betrayed but over the intervening years he
has learned again the pleasures of a solitary life - a life like a hermit of
old. His health is good and his back is strong - he can think of no good
reason to join her lying in the sun baked sod of the family plot. The
boots are black with a high shine showing through the layers of dust. he
polishes these boots every night last thing before bed just as he learned
to do in the army all those years ago. His shirt, which is denim, would
fetch a tidy sum in the boutiques of London where faded and pre-worn
clothes command a premium. His sleeves are rolled roughly back behind
his gnarled elbows and the tendons and muscles of his forearms remind
one of the Popeye of childhood cartoons. "Gia sas" he shouts back. His
head drops again and he pulls gently on the rope in his left hand to
encourage the donkey's awkward gait on past the kafeneion and up the
slope that rises before them. And now we can only see the back of this
strong, proud man and the parting buttocks of his weary old donkey
swaying. In the time it took them to pass the time of day the dust has
settled and the cicadas have started their daily festival of noise behind
the kafeneion. Their incessant, rasping chattering will continue until well
after the sun has departed the day and often it will be the only noise. .
The owner of the kafeneion has joined us and sits with her back to the
three old men. She is a small old lady, frail like a bird and pale. There
are liver spots on her forearms and what might be a melanoma on her
cheek just below her right eye. She is dressed in black with a black
headscarf that is clearly of a newer vintage than the shapeless dress she
wears pulled tightly in at the waist covering her wispy white hair. She has
brought another pair of Greek coffees and a small plate with a bunch of
grapes. She puts the thin tin tray down on the chair beside us and sits
herself down. Silence ensues. Astonishingly, she begins to speak in
English, faltering at first but slowly gaining confidence and clarity.
Barely a whisper it is clear that she does not want to be overheard. "That
fine old man who just went by? That was Pavlo. And DImitri, his donkey.
But it was Dimitri the old - not Dimitri the second. Pavlo has always had
a donkey called Dimitri - ever since he was old enough to care for one.
At school he had a donkey called Dimitri. Sometimes he would ride me
home from school when we were young. Before he got mixed up with
Anna. Now he has two donkeys called Dimitri and that's what those
clowns were talking about. Laughing at him, and them not fit to clean
his boots. Did you see his boots? Shining like new. Better than new. My
husband Georgo asked him if could he have those boots when he dies,
but Georgos died first, god rest his soul. Last year it was, around Pascha
- the cancer you know. And now he's lying up there in the cemetery not 5
metres from Pavlo's Anna. Pavlo has two donkeys now because the old
donkey, Dimitri the first, is ... well, old. He's not long for this mortal
coil. The donkey that is, not Pavlo, he'll go on forever I think. He's gone
up there to talk to Anna and then he'll go on and collect some xorta and
he'll sit up there and just look around. A man that old has so many
memories he doesn't need anyone anymore. Just him and his donkey -
donkeys." She levers herself up out of the chair, picks up her tray and
shuffles back behind the counter where she stands, elbows on the
counter and her head rested in her hands, staring out through the
peeling doors. Craning a little to the right she can just make out the
departing forms of Pavlos and Dimitri to the left. One could almost fancy
that she has been carrying a torch for this man since they were at school
together and he rode her home on his beloved donkey.
We are looking at the front of the kafeneion from the bank opposite.
Slightly elevated, we look down on and across the dusty road that has no
pavements but just leaks into the front doors of the kafeneion which
were once dark green, for Pasok, but are now sun blistered and peeling.
One of the panes in the left hand door is cracked all the way across
about a third of the way up. The glass is reflecting our own images back
at us it is so covered with dust. Our bottom halves are offset a little by
the crack and the image we can see is a duotone. The sun is directly
behind us and its glare hurts the eyes even in reflection. There is a heat
haze rising from the dusty road in front of us and just to our left on the
other side of the road the owner is desultorily pushing an old fashioned
broom back and forth in front of two old olive oil tins each of which
contains a fine yucca plant behind her is a small shrine.
The light is so bright that everything looks washed out, almost hazy.
Our mouths are dry and full of dust: our tongues leathery and harsh on
the inside of our cheeks. Our noses are caked inside with the same dust
that lies everywhere, covering everything with its pale shroud. Inside,
only the smoker remains. We hear footfalls to our right and glance up to
see Pavlo striding this way like a young man, head held high, back
straight. He raises a small cloud as he passes, looking neither to the left
nor to the right. From behind, for he has passed in a trice, he could be
taken for a thirty year old. As he passed, we noticed that his breeches
were held up by a green webbing belt with a dingy brass buckle. The
breeches have no belt loops and so the belt is just cinched in under the
waistband. We must have been looking at his boots last time not to have
noticed the belt.
We cross the road and sit down at one of the outside tables where
there is a little shade from a mulberry tree on the bank across the road
that has been shaped over the years into an elaborate fan. A little
respite from the punishing sun. The possibly lovesick proprietress takes
our order for gazoza and disappears inside where she disappears once
more into a vast, pale green American fridge almost twice her height
where she keeps the gazoza good and cold. gazoza from Vrysses. She
brings the gazoza and two frosted glasses, setting them down in front of
us before whispering, almost stage whispering, "Something is not right.
Mark my words." And she is gone. Our table has a copy of the battered
aluminium ashtray that the smoker is trying to fill inside and we decide
to give it a try. The heat is overpowering and the dryness is harsh. The
urge to close one's eyes is strong and we submit for a while drifting in
the shimmer between waking and sleep. The gazoza is warm now and
rings of condensation dribble away from the bases of or thick, pebble
like glasses spilling from the galvanized table top into puddles in the
dust. Dust settles onto the puddles, iridescent. More footfalls, this time
to the right.
Another cloud of dust, and in less than half the time it took him this
morning Pavlo is past again. Striding back up the incline and carrying
what looks like an axe and a saw at his belt and a mattock over his
shoulder. We smoke some more, finish our warm gazozas, and head
home for a siesta.
It is evening, the sun has sunk behind the mountains at the back of the
village but the cicadas continue their maddening racket. The air has
barely cooled. It is hot and dry and there is, once more no breeze. Dust
coats all four tables outside the kafeneion where we sit. Looking across
at the mulberry we notice that its glossy leaves are coated in the same
dust, the dark green foliage beginning to mirror the dusty, peeling paint
of this kafeneion. The sky is purple and heavy, a bank of cloud above the
village showing fringeings of pink where sun has set behind it. The heat is
remorseless and draining, seeming to rise from the road and just hang
there taunting. "I told you there was something not right." It is the
owner. Somehow she has crept up on us without us being aware of her.
"Katsei, sit, please". She does. Tell us what happened. In a single
movement she is up and moving. She shuffles off inside and brings a
bottle and three small shot glasses. Sikourthia. "We need a little raki for
this" she says and settles herself back down amazingly elegantly for an
old lady. I pour three glasses and we wait. "Si gia" she says throwing the
raki back in one bite and pouring three more. "I told you. Didn't I?". This
must be serious. Cretan ladies seldom drink raki and less seldom still do
they swig it back. "Yes you did. So, what was it?"
She drank another raki, banging the glass down with a "Gia mas" before
drinking it off in one swallow again.
"So there was Pavlo, all alone up in the gorge with a dead donkey and
nobody likely to come by for days and the buzzards circling and his dear
dear donkey still warm. Well, he dragged him up onto the bank and
talked to him a while while he was working out what to do. You know,
what a good friend he'd been to him and how he'd see that the buzzards
didn't get him. And all the time Pavlo was wondering what to do.
Around midday he had decided, but first he had to come back to the
village to get some things...."
"And that's when we saw him"
"Exactly - he covered poor Dimitri as best he could with some scrub
and came back here ass fat as he could. He said that he owed that
Dimitri after all they had been through together."
"The mattock I can understand but the axe? And the pruning saw?"
"You're not familiar with the gorge then. The gorge is rock formation.
Most places up there the soil is no more than 10 centimetres deep. There
are gaps between the rocks but no real earth."
We watch until the sun has started to slide below the crest and Pavlo
has finished his task. Bathed in sweat and covered in blood he casts the
axe and the saw into the final hole before filling it in and stamping it
down. He stands and says a silent prayer, looking up at the gerakia all
the while. Finally, he stumbles to the edge of the stream and kneels to
wash his hands and face in the trickle of mountain water that dribbles
past. He washes the mattock, head and shaft, and hefts it onto his
shoulder. Weary now and crying, we know not whether from sadness,
exhaustion or exultation at his job completed he wanders across to a
spot we haven't spied before - this must be where the head is buried. He
kneels and closes his eyes, the tears still coursing down his battered,
weather beaten cheeks and thus he stays in contemplation, who knows,
in communication, for some several minutes. He walks, his head bowed,
past us and out of the gorge. The mattock is across his shoulders now,
his arms hooked over its shaft. He walks away from us into the gathering