Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Call of the Water Pig

During the February  we spent on   Hydra  pretending to be writers,  all we heard   at night were    donkey calls  and a beeping like the  warning  from a radio tower;  but there WAS no radio tower …  the island wasn't even electrified back then. 
 We told ourselves the beeping was the call of the Water Pig: a creature named by either Eric or John, which was   the nexus or Plexis, or mascot, or totem animal of the shared intestinal affliction we   called"Water Pig Fever".

    Morning light on Hydra came with  soft voices,  more donkeys,  roosters crowing and Maria's  "Ta Paraneo Ena Etimo," echoing up the stair well.  Her husband, Jimmy the Egyptian, had purchased Maria from  her family after a year long tour of the islands,  looking over fishermen's widows, which  were plentiful and inexpensive.   Jimmy  had tried and failed to teach Maria " Breakfast is Ready " in English, so instead he taught us the Greek       Jimmy - short, broad, and sixtyish, was a Matre'D  at   two harbor-front restaurants during the tourist season.  His English was very  good, and he spoke all major tourist languages.  He confided to us that he had worked for the C.I.A. during WW2.
            There were only the three chairs and Jimmy's steamer trunk there in the front room where we took breakfast.  Maria …  maybe thirty five years old … grave, silent, and beautiful,  brought out a single burner  stove that was little more than a Bunsen Burner on the flooor. She boiled Greek coffee  in a little pot, served thick as gruels , then she took the stove and retired to the back room. 
 We ate  the coffee with spoons, using  Jimmy's  trunk for a table.
    Afterwards he clapped his hands, and Maria emerged to clear the dishes away so Jimmy could open the trunk from which, over the course of several days, he produced clippings and a few novels in which he was mentioned.     While on Hydra would see few other local women  other than Maria, but Jimmy told us he could arrange for the four of us to have a party with some young women from another island, for money of course, but we did't take him up on it, and anyway I would not be untrue to Maria.
           It was  too cold for pretending to write in our unheated room, so  after breakfast we went to the harbor front;  John  toting his typewriter.
    We sat  at tables  in the sun,  but if an elbow was overtaken by the shade,  the arm knew it and one moved the chair a notch. We drank the instant Nescafe which was favored at the cafes (I longing for Maria's wine dark gurel) and we ate  the Biff Stake, which I am pretty sure was  the thrice cooked mutton kept on display in the store windows.
   In this way time passed and was marked.  Not much writing got done at the waterfront, but the typewriter made friends.
             A "lawyer" from Atlanta    decompressing on his way back home from  Viet Nam …"Veit WHAT? "which he   had left because lately everyone there was carrying a gun.     
  Fred, an ex G.I. gone bohemian after Service in peace time Germany, now renting a village house cheap, sleeping in a arched nook  in the wall ( intended I suspect as an alter for the icons ) and writing  experimental poems, which he sprinkled with various spices and food products , then baked in a slow oven.  Fred and George the Cop and Bob George the lawyer posed with us for the street photographer, who didn't have much work then.   Fred pointed out the Great Novelist X, with half a dozen people bubbling around him .
      Somewhere along there a certain  Russian Dancer   happened  along, but she made no impression on me …   attached to Maria as I was. 
    We spent an evening in a taverna where we actually danced with fishermen,  like in Zorba the Greek …. although the movie hadn't been made yet … holding onto their hankerchiefs.
   One old man,  after not dancing at all but drinking a lot,  crawled across the floor in front of the bar (where the keeper couldn't see him ) and all the way  down to the wine casks in the back of the room,  where he opened a spout and lay mouth agape under it until the tavern keeper  shut it off and dragged him out, to crawl home
    Maybe it was there then or another night, but somewhere John met the Russian Dancer who I never heard about when we were on the island, but whose existence   casts some doubt on his story to us about how he had been invited by one of the dancing fishermen   to go out squid spearing by lantern light. 

The steel blue  sea was  still too cold for swimming, but the rocks along the shore beyond the harbor were warm  on the surface.  
   While John was off "spearing squid" somewhere, one day , or several days,   Eric and I  walked out along and out of the harbor,  around the  point to take off our shirts and stretch out on the rocks .

       I rose up on my elbows the day I remember when I heard the outboard motor of a small  boat puttering along a fifty  yards or less off shore.
     A man in a suit was at the stern, hand on the controls,  while a white haired man in  f  whites stood at the bow scanning over the waves, like  the Captain of all he surveyed. 
      Surveying  us …then using dramatic gestures understandable at a great distance, the Captain  directed his stern man to steer the boat to shore.

      Without introductions or mention of any particular destination,  The Captain directed  us  to ride along.  
   We were boys, we were good sports,  and we climbed aboard.

      First stop was at a   near-shore island about the size of a house,  with a small white-washed chapel on top of it.  I read that there a lot of these on small islands off Greek shores: memorials to fishermen lost at sea.  Disembarked, the Captain pried a limpet off the shore rocks and ate it out of the shell with his front teeth, and told us to do the same.  Fruit of the Sea, he said.
     He told us he had come here, to light a candle and pray for his dead mother.
        We followed him up the the chapel, but   the door to the chapel was locked.  
         The Captian directed us to pick up a nearby log and batter the door in.  We did what we were told.  He was  crazy, but he was the captain.  My  apologies to all the dead fishermen and their widows.      

      The Captain lit a candle.   We lurked  uneasily outside while he prayed loud and long for his mother and also sang a few songs for his mother.
     After a while, the Captain led us back down the rocks to where the stern man waited, holding the boat off the rocks.
      Next stop was another village, smaller and more stretched out  than Hydra.  We stopped and tied up at a long dock extending from a house with a lot of grape arbor shade out front. There was as party going on.
       A wedding party.  The stern man stayed with the boat.  The Captain led us to the gathering, sat us down, and brought a serving girl to uswith her tray of many different olives.
  Then he grabbed the bride - still in her wedding dress -  and danced her around some.  
      A fellow in jodpurs appeard, carrying a shotgun which he left leaning against a wall.  He was returning from a short bird hunt and I think we learned that he was the groom, which may be some kind of tradition.
    Whoever the hunter was,  our fun loving guide picked up the shotgun and fired it through the arbor overhead.  This may be fairly common behavior in the more eastern mediteranian countries, but the other wedding guests soon disarmed him, and  our boatman suddenly appeared.   All insisted that the Captain   needed to leave.
       He refused to get back in the  boat, but proposed we walk back to Hydra harbor while the boatman returned along shore with the boat.    Eric chose toride back in the boat, but I agreed to walk with the Captain,  more so as not to offend him than out of a thirst for any more   adventure.
       It was a  long, winding walk  just about dinner time all over the island.  The Captain stopped us at several kitchen doors,  introduced me to the family sitting inside, then lifted food off the  grill and handed it to me.

    Finally, at the harbor front,   the Captian ducked  into a trinket shop,  and just as quickly  reappeared with a silver colored skull ring which handed to me . 
      Then he asked me to marry him.

   I turned him down, but he insisted that I keep the trinket.
       I had that thing for years, but then misplaced or lost it, and since I lost it,  I can no longer remember what it  really was ,  as if out of mind was out of being … so I had to make up the skull detail.
     I saw the  Captain once more.
       As we were about to board the boat leaving Hydra.      
        He came riding along the harbor on the back of a donkey that he seriously outweighed, surrounded and persued by  a dozen or so kids.  Had he known we were leaving.
         Stopping where we waited to go up the ramp, he reached into his lumpily bulging shirt, and pulled out an orange, which he handed to me.  I don't recall if Eric or John got one too. 
       While in Athens waiting for a train, we met someone who recognized the old man from our descriptions.
        The Captain WAS a captain: a retired sea captain  who lived half the time there in Hydra , and half the time at his apartment in Athens where he would go to the taverns evenings with a wheel barrow,  so that someone he met there could wheel him home when he was drunk, often staying on for a few days or weeks.  He had several people living in the apartment at a time.  Sometimes they would wheelbarrow him TO the taverna.
     The half the time that he spent on Hydra, the Captain lived with his mother, who  was NOT dead, though she must have been old as as the olive trees.  The steersman in the suit was his lawyer. 

   In Spring ofthe year  before we were there, the Americans or the French were filming  the blessing of the boats scene from the movie Phaedra,  in which the bishop throws a cross into the harbor and the  Hydra village boys dive into the harbor to recover it, as the tradition there.  The Captian  was there, and he too dove, or jumped in.  He had to be rescued.   I am not sure he would even float.  Not a glorious way for a Captain to  die at sea

    I have never been back, and I am sure Hydra is no longer the place it was, but  I have  recently learned that the mysterious beeping on Hydra, assuredly not a radio tower,  was and is actually the call of the Scops Owl.  
     The important thing about the Scops, is that i  hasn't always been an Owl .
   The Scops USED to be one of two   sons of a fisherman who was lost at sea …  leaving the older brother in charge of the family sheep and the younger   in charge of the horses.  I am not inventing this.
  One day there was an especially dangerous and frightening thunderstorm, such may have drowned their father at sea, so the younger boy herded the horses  back home.
       But the older brother, counting the horses  as they came in and coming up one short,   sent the  younger brother  racing back through the storm to get the missing horse.
   While searching for the horse, the younger brother was struck by lightning and killed.

   Only when the horse came back without the younger brother,  did the older  realized that he had forgotten  to count that one - the horse his brother had been riding … and that, as a result, the young one had died.  Let that be a lesson to me, and to anyone who can figure out its relevance to the story here.  Anyway, I am not inventing it.
         Long ago, and long since my month on Hydra, an underwater cable was  laid from shore to Hydra.  This I know, because Googling tells me so.  Googling also reveals that the name of the island Hydra  (from the root word meaning "water",   originally referred to the springs that made the island habitable … until the earth quaked a few centuries ago, the rocks fractured, and the normal chanels and cisterns dried up.   Much of the water comes by taknker now days , and they write that a deasalinization plant is going to happen.
        But stop the story  here,  go back , dig a little deeper in the Net,  and  you will see that THE Hydra  you are more likely to know about even if you have never heard of the island, is the many headed monster which guards the Underworld.    THE WATER PIG,  you might say, and I DO say.
       You can enter the Underworld either when you slay the critter, or when it slays you.  Easy enough to get IN by  the cheap trick of dying, but you don't get in alive or get out at all, unless you  cut off every one of its piggy heads.  This Hercules and every boy and artist must do, AFTER shoveling out the stables, and a few other things.
    For an artist or a curious young person, the Underworld WOULD be a fascinating place to visit … if you knew you could get back out.     And Hydra  the island, at the gates of hell or not,  would be a paradise to live and stay on if  you only  have  a donkey, a garden, and a well.   
      I know my Hydra/Hydra conflation is  naked ambiguation  …  but ALL things are related,  if you just do the hard work of relating them, as I have here, or better..
  Did the young Irving (whom Eric reminds me we used to call "Old Irving")   visit the Underworld when he was unconscious those three days.?  Did young Old Irving slay the piggy headed monster?    Well, I wouldn't go to far with that kind of myth making.  
        All I know is that  he came out of his coma raring to go  Russian dancing and "squid spearing,"  that he never  said anything to me about a visit to the underworld,  and also, that he never did submit the story he had promised to the student magazine … where as Eric did; so did I,  and this was it  again, with improvements and corrections ... but I didn't consciously make any of it up except as noted.     


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