Moon Over Ammoudi
Isa and The Professor
Originally appeared in Mediterranean Poetry
In the early pink of morning, Isa strolls the cobblestone roads above Atlantis, the city that was lost below the sea centuries ago. “That is at least what we would like to believe about this magical place,” Christos, the professor of archaeology, told Isa late last night across the candlelit table. “And why should it not be true. Factually, it stands to reason.”
In a handmade white cotton dress, more whimsical than her usual formal black, Isa meets shop owners who greet her with open hands and offer to ship artifacts across the globe.
“The Greeks in the village are mostly Athenians,” Christos was said to her. “By the time fall hits the island, they all retreat to the mainland and leave this place mostly deserted.”
Isa has a hard time picturing this heavily populated end of Thira deserted. Even early in the morning, crowds flash by her in a mass of bright colors. All the hotels are completely booked. And every night, every restaurant is packed, except for those few the professor knows, the ones tucked away from the buzz and traffic of sightseers.
“If you want to know our culture,” Christos hesitated then moved closer to whisper,“—stay and live among us. Enjoy life as we do—not as a vacationer. You will learn to love our people, Isa. Then you will know the secret to living right. And you will have a story.”
Isa thinks of her dwindling bank account. After leaving Adam on such bad terms, does she even have a home back in California? She may only have the small carry-on bag left to her name. Inside are a few summer outfits, nightshirts, toiletries, her notebooks and computer, and some letters Sabine wrote before she disappeared.
She needs to convince the magazine to fund the story about Sabine. There really isn’t another plan.
Isa steps onto a bus and finds her way to a seat as it starts to roll toward that far agricultural corner of Santorini.
On the way, Isa looks out at the women, dark-haired and serious. They focus in the hot sun and craft artisanal cheese. Beyond them, brightly dressed donkeys carry panniers of purple and pale green grapes on their backs.
At the bus stop, locals motion for Isa to hop out and ride a mule the rest of the way. Isa studies the rows of mules and donkeys, overheated and struggling to carry dozens of noisy tourists up the steep cliffs.
It is still morning.
She steps out to the dirt road and hands the men enough euros for two rides up the cliff. Then she steps away, and gestures them to give the mule a rest in the shade instead.
The bus rolls away, and she starts to walk up the steep cliff road in the hot sun, toward the Odos Ipapantis, the “Gold Street” the professor told her about. “You will hear these craftsmen as you approach them. They craft jewels that are sought after throughout the Mediterranean.”
She thinks again of the professor’s voice and his words, the sophisticated manners, and the stories he told her about the isles late into the night. Does he have someone back in Athens? Why has he invited her out to meet two evenings in a row?
Day rolls toward evening, and Isa closes her notebook to start back for the hotel.
Her feet, now coated in a layer of dust, are sore from the sandals she bought at a sidewalk shop this morning. The busses have stopped running. And she is determined not to ride a mule.
The fiery sun dips into the glasslike surface of water. Isa thinks only of her missing piece for the assignment, the one that scares her most:
“Get the wisdom on the ancients, the myths,” Scott told her as she drove to LAX. “We want the world that sits beneath Oia, the one that sunk centuries ago, when the volcano exploded.”
Easy for the boss to say, she tells herself. She needs to get on a boat in the morning to learn about this. And still she is terrified of the water.
Just two days ago, she watched a man drown at the Athenian docks, his eyes rolling back in his head as the fishermen shouted past him in Greek and struggled to lift the man from the water.
She is still caught up in these thoughts on the way to Ammoudi with Christos. “What would happen if someone foreign drowned here?” She studies his profile in the light of dusk.
Christos weaves his black Audi through the other cars in the hot summer evening, and focuses on the steep cliff roads. He looks deep in thought.
“What if you couldn’t find them? How would you identify them—or even what country they were from?” She looks out at the water. Part of her hopes he won’t answer.
At the café, the professor’s friends guide them toward a simple wood table near the docks.
“Why are you so caught up with missing people, Isa?” Christos is pouring a deep ruby wine, Agiorgitiko, into two short glasses. He stops and adds, “You look different this evening. You are enjoying your time here. A sign you must stay.”
“If only—” Isa looks at him from across the table and waves the thought away. “I need to get back. I have to find this missing woman before it’s too late.”
“So this mystery of Sabine was never solved?” Christos hands one of the glasses to Isa. “Is this your next assignment?”
“My hope,” Isa says. “They need to love this story before they will send me out again.” After the Greek wine in the heat of the Friday evening, her attention wanders to the musicians several feet away. She wants to laugh suddenly with the locals and join in their dance.
But she stops and reminds herself of Scott’s warning: “Focus on the topic, Ise. Don’t get personal. Get the complete story down.”
She looks at the professor then down at the moon-drenched table decorated with candles, wine, and grilled figs in local honey.
“You might consider combining the two stories,” the professor is saying, “so that you can stay longer, and arouse some interest.
“Consider it this way. Lots of women—lots of people, Isa—have travelled to even this island the very same way: to get away from something, or…even in search of something. Some never make it home…for various reasons. Some fall in love. Others find jobs. And some of them die. Others yet, we don’t even know about…the authorities are still searching to find a handful of them.”
Out on the water, the Aegean still seems wide awake. The mischievous moon spreads over the water as if to reveal treasures that wait deep inside the sea’s cradle.
“Sabine was never found after that night in Baja.” Isa stares back. “She did call her husband for help—she wanted to get home a different way. You know, I’m not even sure why she went on that trip in the first place.”
“What is your guess?” The professor lifts his glass.
“She was getting away from someone. But I also believe she didn’t want the mundane. Sabine didn’t want an average life.”
He stares at her and sips his wine.
“She was an artist.”
“Aaaah.” Christos nods. “And what does this have to do with you, Isa? With your life? Why does this matter so much to you?”
Isa looks out to the water and hesitates. She doesn’t normally talk about this. But the past two nights, with the moon, the talk of myths, and the dancing all around her, she doesn’t feel even remotely close to work. “When I was ten, I dreamt my parents died in a plane.” She looks back at the professor. “Two days later, after they left for New York on an important business trip, even after I begged with them not to go, I learned their plane went down. Planes have terrified me since.”
“Isa—” The professor shifts and leans toward her. “I’m sorry—I didn’t realize—”
“When I got the news, I stayed outside all night that night, watching the sky for their plane to come flying back to San Jose, or for them to step out of a Yellow Checker cab, my dad in his fine suit and hat—my mother in her red cashmere coat, so I could prove them all wrong—because someone, the authorities, the Fates, I don’t know, must have messed up. I still haven’t stopped searching.” Isa leans back and looks away, at the water. “Wondering what makes people like my parents, or women like Sabine—and Amelia Earhart—so daring. What makes them willing to risk everything—including their own lives.”
Several kilometers away on the beach, a man chases a woman. Both cry out into the night as he catches her in his arms. She shrieks with laughter.
Isa looks at the sign posted just past the two of them: “No lifeguard. Swim at your own risk; there may not be strong swimmers around to help.” She shudders to imagine what must be hidden beneath that water’s surface. She thinks of the world that collapsed with the volcano. How many people have drowned in this water, never to be dredged out, like that man at the docks. What if they hadn’t seen him and he had washed away? She pictures the man clearly now, personal items falling out of his pockets, important artifacts of a life set adrift on the water.
Christos sits quietly and studies Isa.
“Maybe Sabine was something like my father,” Isa says. “She needed to go out into the world and find something, whatever that took, whatever it was. I don’t even know what that could be.”
“And did others not see her this way?”
“Some say Sabine was looking for a getaway. You know: a wealthy bachelor with his own catamaran. Own plane. Then one night that plane disappeared. And she was on it.”
“How much do they know?” He offers Isa a small plate with a honey-coated fig. “Wasn’t there an investigation?”
“Not a real one. Insurance wants the family to give up, to settle the case. I need to solve this mystery before it’s too late.”
“What do you believe, Isa?”
“I know there has to be more to Sabine. She might have somehow felt called. Maybe she felt she was meant for greater things.” Isa shifts into her habit of talking when others are quiet. “Of course, the family is ready to move on. They need the money. Bur I need to keep my job. I need to force an investigation before they close this case.”
“And at the end of Sabine’s journey—” the professor stares out at the water then at Isa, “—what did she find?”
“There it is. That’s my assignment—it’s what I need to know.”
“Life is a great adventure, Isa.” Christos looks to the moon. “We must make every moment of it count.”
“To understand Sabine—or Amelia Earhart—and make sense of them, and even perhaps yourself”—Christos holds out his hands as if describing Greek theater—“to search for the reasons we set out on these journeys, you might draw back into our mythology. You might revisit the story of Icarus, the son of Daedalus: a man who gave his son the wings to fly.”
“How?” After so much wine, listening to the professor talk, Isa thinks of slipping off her shoe and touching that water to discover the mysteries within for herself. Then she imagines the faces of the professor’s mythical characters rising up out of the water—those tragic faces, the faces of temptation and loss, the faces that no longer have voices. “Sabine was an unwilling passenger.”
“Perhaps she wasn’t.” Christos watches Isa quietly, as if to see through her. “You might like to hear the story again. Then you can decide for yourself.
“You see, the first member of a society who breaks away, or even who tries something new, faces a difficult struggle. The world starts to view that person as uniquely powerful, set apart from the masses. And sometimes—” Christos tips his head and raises his eyebrow, “—they are believed to rise above all that. To somehow even transcend the ordinary.
“When this happens, people sometimes lose sight of what binds us to this earth, and to one another—their basic humanness. But as humans, you know,” Christos raises his eyebrows, lifts his glass then whispers, “we never can lose sight of our limitations.
“We are not gods. We are fallible. And we cannot become so caught up in our pride.”
“So you say pride led to Sabine’s undoing?”
“Listen to the story. And you can tell me.” Christos leans forward. “Now, Daedalus, a famous Athenian inventor and his son Icarus, are exiled to a Labyrinth on the island of Crete. This is where our tale begins.”
The professor sips his wine. “Since there is no way to escape King Minos and Crete if travelling by boat, Daedalus sits in the hidden cave and realizes the only way to truly elude Crete would be by way of the skies.” Christos looks with a sly, cautious smile.
“So Daedalus gets to work inventing wings for himself and his son. By the time moonlight falls, Daedalus has gathered enough feathers to replicate the wings of a large, powerful bird.
“Before Daedalus hands the wings to his son, he takes Icarus’ face into his hands. ‘My son, you must know these wings are bound together by wax. With them, you are powerful, but you are also fragile. You must keep your eye fixed on your destination, and you must never, under any condition, fly too close to the sun. It will melt your wings and send you into the seas below.’” Christos, caught up in the story he’s taught many times at the university, continues as if he were Daedalus. “’If your wings drift too close to that water, they are certain to turn damp. It will become almost impossible for you to fly.’
“Does this remind you yet of your Amelia?”
Isa watches, not certain yet what to say.
Christos uses his hands and the table to describe his myth. He smiles gravely. “As the early sun rises over the great green seas surrounding Crete, Daedalus rises on his own wings to fly with the current of the morning wind. He encourages Icarus to follow.
“And as the pair flies with the breeze of the placid morning air, the ploughman stops his work and starts to watch. The shepherd leans on his staff to see the pair. He imagines the two must be gods who can cleave the air.
“Icarus grows whimsical seeing the world below him, capricious as he rises above its cares. His arms fill with great power and longing at his life that’s been renewed. And also a life,” explains Christos, “this man had never known. That no man had ever known. Flying at that time was only for birds and gods with wings. Not for men. So Icarus finds himself bathing in that warmth, and envisioning his own new likeness to the sun god Helios.
“Icarus feels the great rush of the wind behind him. He feels the forces from the heavens all around him. He imagines them saying, ‘Go. Go on ahead. You are much greater than your father.’ And in fact, in these skies,” Christos waves toward the great Grecian sky above him, “Icarus starts to believe he actually has become a king or a god.”
“The same as your Amelia must have felt. You see, most of the things she did,” Christos makes a diagram on the table with his hands. “A woman flying across the Atlantic alone, from continent to continent—they say this had not ever been done before. And even if these had been done in some form, not in the way that she did them.” Christos pauses with his right hand flat on the table. “There is an elation that comes with what she did. And with what Icarus did. That separates one from the world as we know it. And this woman Sabine: would you say in her own small way, she was surrounded by admirers who couldn’t do all that she did?”
“It certainly appears that way.” Isa brushes the hair from her face, deep in thought. “To this day, everyone in her life seems to wait without purpose—they seem lost without her.”
“In her own sphere of influence, she was very unique. Yes, fallible. But also remarkable in some way. And in her remarkability, she might have lost sight of her limits.”
Christos raises his hand slightly. “You see, just as Icarus starts to believe he can reach the heavens, the nearness of the heat and light of the sun starts to melt the wax that holds his wings together. As Icarus makes his way toward the sun god Helios, the wings break loose and fall away from Icarus’ frame.
“Still, elated and unaware, Icarus continues to flutter his human arms. But with no feathers, the arms turn back into those of a mortal man, unable to sustain his body in flight.
“See, this is quite similar to Amelia running out of gas, is it not? When she flies too high, too long, or too far off course, the gas dissolves into fumes. She is separated from the power of her plane. And she comes into contact again with her own humanness. From what exactly did Sabine separate? And from what did your parents separate? This, you will need to discover yourself. The answers to these questions will help you solve the mystery of Sabine’s life. And of course your own.
Christos reveals a face of concern. “You see, when Helios melted Icarus’ wings, Icarus plummeted to the waters. On the way down, he cried out to his father. But those cries quickly became submerged in the waters of the sea.” Christos sets down his glass. “When Daedalus saw the feathers floating on the water’s surface, he bitterly lamented the arts he himself had brought into form.”
“Like Amelia’s husband, who created her image…”
They sit quietly in the heat of the late evening. A few couples talk several tables away under the string of romantic lights, enjoying Greek wine and laughing. Most of the tables now sit empty.
Isa turns to the professor. “So both women were swept away by the same passion?”
“Did others warn them not to take these trips?”
“Both were warned.” Isa pictures Sabine running out the door in her stilettos, barely listening to the words.
“And why did they not listen?”
“Truman Capote joked once about Marilyn Monroe.” Isa sits forward. “Marilyn’s famous words to Capote were: ‘Better sorry than safe.’”
“And yes, Monroe as well.”
“So the myth could apply to all three.”
“I’m not saying so much. But if you look at it this way: you see, so much worked so well for these women—up until a certain point. There is a complacency that surrounds this level of success. And then what can we say, Isa, about your own situation?”
“My situation?” Isa sits back, suddenly exposed.
“Aren’t you following some quest of your own?” Christos watches her with a pointed expression.
She thinks back to the days before she left Los Angeles, to leaving Adam, to the call she still hasn’t returned. She starts to feel dizzy and tries to count back through the days of the month. It must be stress. I’m only late because of the stress.
“What are you hoping for?” Christos studies Isa. “In coming here I mean. To the isles. In leaving your life behind?”
Isa looks out to the water. “I always wanted to be daring. Like Amelia Earhart.” She shifts in her chair. “And now Sabine.
“I’ve always let fear stop me.”
Christos stares back with charmed eyes. “You are on your own quest of some kind.”
“A quest?” She shakes her head.
“Then why are you searching for these lost heroes?”
“I’ve had many dreams about Amelia,” Isa looks at the water again. “Haunting dreams. About Amelia and other missing women. Not pleasant ones. These women bring a wisdom I don’t always understand. But in the end, they all make sense.
“Lately though, the dreams are more like dares. I don’t want the dreams anymore. I need to make them go away. For some reason, I can’t.”
Christos watches Isa then leans forward. “But don’t you see, Isa? When someone focuses on a hero—the hero that they most admire—they aren’t so much looking at the hero but at themselves—at the person they could become if they dare.”
“I don’t live adventures—” Isa shakes her head. “I write about them.”
“I have to confess,” Christos looks up from the table, “Isa—when I heard you were coming all the way from the United States and staying only a couple of days to write about our island, I expected a different person.”
“I certainly wasn’t expecting all I found here.” She looks up. “Or how your world could affect me—”
“A person can’t possibly learn about our complex civilization within one hour, sitting as complete strangers in a meeting room, without getting to know us first as people, as a culture—without seeing the ancient philosophical and mythic structures that make up our world.
“You see, most people in the US—and there certainly are exceptions, I know this—see us a tourist destination, a one-day stop on their seven-day trip through half a dozen islands. They take no time to recognize our ancient myths, to see our spiritual practices, or to connect the ways these serve as a foundation for the civilized world we exist in and take for granted today—throughout Europe, and even for you in America.”
“That’s just what I need to write about, Christos. The secrets of your ancient world—the tragedy, the divine myths—a unique insight of your culture. This is why I came to meet you.”
“Isa, you came for a reason.” He lowers his voice. “You have a confidence and a wisdom about you. One most women don’t possess. A need to conquer something. You have this amazing glow. A daring look in your eyes—”
“Me—no.” Isa starts to rise. “I couldn’t be more opposite.”
“Let us walk.” Christos rises from his chair, bows slightly then reaches for Isa’s arm. “And continue our conversation.”
When they start toward his car, Christos surprises Isa by keeping her arm in his. They step through the darkness toward the steep embankment. Isa holds on to the professor’s arm and imagines him steering his boat. She thinks of what it must be like out on that water, having no fear, even on a dark night like this. When she looks up, Christos is looking into her eyes.
She starts to let go of his arm.
He reaches for hers, tries to pull her closer. “Let us get back.” Christos motions her toward the steep cliff.
They start to walk.
“Keep in mind.” Christos looks ahead. “A person like Sabine did not need to be heroic, not in the worldly sense. Or even be aware she was on any heroic quest. A hero leaves their life and faces a journey into foreign territory. And over the course of that journey, by overcoming fears and challenges, they secure some sort of reward. This could be a special knowledge. Or even something different—perhaps some unique healing power, which is then brought back and shared with the tribe.
“So in that woman’s world, in her place at that time, she dared to reach out to her own form of heroicness.” Christos guides Isa through the dark, up the rocky path and into more complete darkness. “And she may very well have died on that path.”
“How can you see where we are?” Isa now looks into complete blackness, grips the professor’s arm tighter, and follows him, step by step, convinced her feet are about to slip off the damp cliff rocks.
“I have traveled this path many times.” Christos continues with ease. “Even as a boy.”
Isa pulls closer to him. She thinks of her fear again. In this faraway country with this foreign professor, she is finally starting to face that fear.
From the professor’s car, the winding cliff roads look even darker. But Christos speeds through the night, taking unseen curves with a craftsman’s ease as if the roads don’t concern him. “Many aspiring heroes have perished on their journeys.” He turns to Isa. “You see, it’s the risk that sets them apart.
“Sabine dared to reach out in search of her greatness. That alone means something.”
At the steps of the hotel, three lazy cats stare up at Isa and Christos as if they are interrupting the moon bask.
Christos bows slightly. “And now, Isa, ‘great woman of promise,’ I need to plan my very early morning at Akrotiri.” He pauses then looks into Isa’s eyes before he adds, “You ought to pay us a visit before you leave. You might find something more for yourself. For your own search.”
Isa watches the professor under the moonlight and reaches to shake his hand. At this, Christos takes Isa’s hand in both of his, and kisses her palm. He looks at her pointedly. “So tell me. What exactly are you hoping to find here, Isa, on your search?”
“I don’t know—” Isa looks to the water then back to him. “Exactly.”
“I have the feeling you do know.” Christos bows politely. He holds onto Isa’s hands and blushes with a clever smile. “You know the answer very well.”
And then in the odd silence of the cats that stare up them, he adds, “When someone sets out to solve a mystery, what they are doing is holding up a large reflective glass.
“You, my dear, have set out on a long and difficult path to find Isa.” The professor looks down at Isa and whispers, “Now Good Night,” before he steps away and disappears into the darkness, only the sounds of the water beyond him.
Join Isa for this and more adventures in Anne’s upcoming novel series: Searching for Sabine