Moonrise Over Oia
Originally appeared in Mediterranean Poetry
As the late-day light shifts, Isa waits at the rooftop Pelekanos Café, sipping wine from island caves and watching for the professor. The Athenian archaeologist chose the Pelekanos as a meeting spot because, “if you like the moon,” he said on the phone, “this is the best moon rise you will hope to witness.”
Noticing the professor is late, the writer glances down at her reflection in the glass. How different she looks in this colorful Thira backdrop, far from Los Angeles and the world she knows. In the volcanic heat, her eyes seem bright blue, her skin bronze from the island sun, her cheeks flushed from the jetlag.
Hearing the hum of foreign voices, Isa looks to the west. She lifts her face to the breeze to take in the range of hues. From the terrace high on the Oia cliff, the colors streaking the sky shift from lilac to deep plum before the sun burns scarlet over the surrounding isles. And in the evening wind, the rows of whitewashed cave dwellings and cliffs start to resemble a surreal blend of watercolors. Looking out toward the Aegean, Isa shudders and remembers her flight over this same water just last night. The colors continue to shift and Isa things of how she took the assignment last minute—anything to get away. Then she remembers Lise’s warning. “Greece is a long ways away if you don’t know anyone, Isa. What if something happens to you while you’re there?”
Startled by the hum at the taverna, Isa stands on her toes to look past the crowd gathered at the eastern ledge of the open-air bar. As if preparing for a ritual, a local band is opening the evening with an expressive liquid jazz tune. The crowd at the ledge falls silent and stares toward the east.
In a seemingly ancient dance, the early summer moon is beginning her ascent from deep in the endless sea that surrounds the hot white-painted isle. An abundant glowing sphere, the new moon starts to dance out of the mysterious Aegean, staring back at the dreamers with a knowing, playful smile. Like a mischievous woman, the moon transcends the earth slowly, filling the sky as she seeks more attention. The altering hues around her reflect on the whitewashed facades, transforming some from pure white to pale yellow, others from melon to bluish pink, the last from orange to deep crimson.
Just as the moon completes her rise, the tall professor turns in from the cobblestone path with a rhythmic stride. “Delighted to meet you.” He approaches Isa, bowing slightly as he begins, “Christos Nikolopoulos, professor of mythology and archaeology,” then holds out both hands to greet her. “They say Isa means ‘promise.’ More specifically, ‘God’s promise.’”
“Please don’t remind me,” Isa tries to smile and reaches for his hand.
He stares back puzzling with dark eyes as if the language hasn’t translated properly.
“It’s just that I’ve come from far away to forget my promises.” Isa stares out toward the scattered pattern of isles then turns back to him. “But what about you? I mean, I came to write about your research.”
Christos continues under the full dancing moon, his frame creating a large yet elegant silhouette. “Yes. As for me, I travelled here on my boat and am for the week visiting Akrotiri, our local excavation site. I’m sure you have heard of it, no? Some refer to it as the Greek Pompeii. Next week I sail to Venice for an important project. Such is my life.”
Isa studies the mysteriously attractive man a moment, forgetting to disguise her eyes as they cross over him. Christos is a quiet man in his early fifties who carries the air of a reflective intellect. Tall, with dark bangs that fall on a well-defined brow, the professor smiles thoughtfully and a bit sadly as he stands with poise uncommon to most American men. His dark pants and loose white cotton shirt hang elegantly from his frame.
The moon erupts with a clever shy smile. “Now that you’ve had a chance to enjoy the moon,” he moves closer to be heard, then with the crisp scent of a clean evening asks, “would you like to talk at length in Ammoudi? It might be more suitable than this.” He waves his hand and smiles amused at the dense crowd of tourists shouting past overflowing shots of Ouzo.
On the drive to Ammoudi, weaving through winding cliff sides and poorly maintained roads, Christos explains his job. “It takes more than sixty people to carry out the research for one of my expeditions. We explore an archeological site to discover how our myths might apply to the evidence of what transpired in the region at that particular time.”
“And what do you do with this evidence?”
“You might say that we align classical myths with modern archaeological findings to explain the mysteries of the past to the future.” His dark hair blows in the breeze of the open window with the view of the Cyclades behind him. “And you would be amazed at all we find. Next winter, I visit three new discovery sites.”
At the west end of Oia, Christos parks his black Audi on an embankment high above the water, motioning to lead Isa down a steep and winding path. “And this, you will find a most magical site. If you come to Santorini, and certainly if you’re going to write about the island, you must see it at least once.”
Ammoudi is a small, powdery-skied row of hotels and restaurants built into the side of an unusually steep cliff. As they walk past the bright stone cafes that reach just to the water’s edge, hypnotic Greek music rises above the tables where locals sit sharing dinner and laughter in a chorus of sophisticated European voices.
They stop at a quiet caféneio near the boats, a spot where patrons and owners know the professor well, the bartenders gracefully lighting small candles to greet his arrival.
“Santorini was once a round island,” Christos explains as he settles into a weathered wood chair opposite Isa. “During a volcano eruption in the fifteenth century BC, the entire middle of it actually sank, leaving us the unique shape we enjoy today.”
“And what is left is the caldera: an underwater volcano surrounded by several small islands.” He waves dramatically toward the water, lowering his voice as if to share a secret. “This is one of the reasons many believe Santorini could be the lost Atlantis.”
From their table, the water draws so close that if you remove your shoe, Isa realizes, you can even touch it with your toe. As the professor speaks in Greek with the smartly-dressed waiter, she silently slips her foot out from the tight gold sandal and secretly extends her toe toward those darkening swells, feeling a rush of warmth then an underlying force she wasn’t expecting. Looking down into the surface currents that splash her foot, Isa begins to imagine the faces of the professor’s mythical characters rising up to meet them with tortured expressions.
What an odd life he must live, she thinks, making these myths real. In the unsteady wooden chair, she pulls her foot back with a shiver and continues to look down, wondering what happened to those who’d fled Akrotiri before the volcano. Did they make it to safety or perish in these very waters?
As she slips her dampened toes back into the sandal, Isa catches sight of the professor’s simple leather boat shoes. She imagines him sailing endless weeks out on that open Aegean Sea in the sun, stopping at faraway isles to follow mysterious passageways in search of forgotten ruins. Is he lonely, she wonders, leaving humanity for months at a time to locate signs that his mythological gods exist?
“Have you heard of the Bridge of Sighs?” Christos interrupts her thoughts.
Isa looks up at him, startled out of her daydream, and attempts to right herself in her chair. “I visited once. Mostly, I’ve read about it in books.”
“Aah. Le Ponte dei Sospiri. Well, let me tell you.” He lifts his eyebrows, offering her a plate of grilled figs with fresh oregano and local honey. “It was planned that the view from the Bridge of Sighs was to be the last convicts would see before they were imprisoned. In fact, Lord Byron gave the bridge its name, suggesting that the prisoners when they passed to face their execution might sigh at their final view of Venice.
“But in reality, by the time the bridge was completed, those days of inquisitions and executions had passed. The cells under the palace roof were occupied by small-time criminals. And ironically,” he shakes his head then continues, “because of the stone grills that cover the windows, they could barely see any view from inside. So since then,” he explains with a charmed smile, “a local legend says that lovers who kiss under the bridge at sunset enjoy everlasting love.” He gives a playful side-glance then lifts a meze of grilled eggplant, pomegranate seeds and saffron to take in the marriage of bouquets.
“And you believe this?” Isa smiles back quizzically, feeling the grooves of the worn wood on the edge of her chair.
“Me?” Christos shakes his head gently, glancing at the darkening swells then meeting her eyes. “I’ve made a life study of exploring ancient myths. As for the new legends: all for tourism. It’s the income that keeps these communities alive,” he confides almost in a whisper, sipping his water.
A seemingly endless trail of gold lights crosses above the row of tables. With the sky growing dim, the glow of candles with the moon and lights creates a luminous pattern that dances elegantly above the water.
Christos speaks melodically with the owner who has come to greet them with wide-open hands. After talking over the local fishing boat’s deliveries, the professor chooses a fresh sea bass grilled with rosemary stalks, thin-sliced lemons and sel de mer. And as the men continue to speak in their native tongue, Isa realizes she feels drawn to this man whose dark hair falls on his well-defined brow, whose hands are so expressive they look like an artist’s. She continues to watch them as the owner walks away.
Christos lifts a carafe of white wine from the caves and turns to Isa again. “Have you tried Assyrtiko?”
“Only the wine at the Pelekanos.” Oceans from home, Isa no longer feels foreign in this faraway land. With the professor’s voice humming like music to explain the mysteries of the ancient terrain and its myths, she starts to imagine who she wants to become in this caldera—daring like the exotic women who stroll the stone streets in bright sheath dresses, enchanting like the colors that shift hypnotically in the sky above them…vibrant like the fiery-spirited women who’ve chosen to slip away from mundane lives without concern for consequences.
Maybe it is the volcanic island heat, the ever-hypnotic Aegean, the way the people on this island pace their time to uncover the mystery of all they are to one another. As she breathes in the breeze that lifts off the water, Isa finds herself wishing she could stay a couple weeks or even the summer. Always one to watch for warning signs, she is beginning to enjoy the danger of living a little bit. Not wanting it to end, Isa realizes that once this night is over, she will spend only two more nights on Oia.
Christos begins pouring gently from the hand-painted glass carafe. “You must try this one. I insist.” He holds out his hand for emphasis. “Assyrtiko is a rare beauty. You certainly cannot experience Ammoudi without enjoying a glass.”
He continues with his Grecian accent. “The grapes we use to make this wine are white. The vintners grow them in a design that resembles a basket. The shape, you see, protects them from the beating sun and even more so the meltemi—the forceful northerly winds that cross the island from spring to harvest. Drink it slowly,” he continues filling her glass then adds, “and take in the bouquet of honey, white peaches, tropical fruits, even spices. All found on this island.”
He holds the carafe carefully with the moon shining behind him, the wine itself a pale green like the sea that surrounds them. “The terrain here is different from that of Knossos on Crete, where we have been day and night exploring the palace of Minos. But enough of me and my projects. You have been much too quiet about yourself.”
Isa looks to the water, wishing for more talk of meltemi and island myths, anything but the life that sits waiting for her in Beverly Hills.
“So tell me Isa, about you.” He motions politely as they share the first sip, leaning forward. “Why is it you are here? Of course, I mean outside of your job.
“What about these promises you are escaping?”
Copyright Anne Tammel 2010
First published by Mediterranean Poetry, this short work of fiction titled, Moonrise Over Oia, introduces Isa, a Los Angeles-based writer haunted by recurring dreams about missing women. After signing up for a series of life-or-death adventures in faraway locales, Isa must now face her own worst fears, and risk everything in order to expose the women's unsolved mysteries and stop the dreams.