The reason why – dedicated to Sharmistha Mohanty
They left. And I’m here, at 7.30 am, sitting on the white marble stairs, which are cold under my bottom. The cypresses look at me as they parade in the centre of the little square. This is the lateral ingress of the Oia cemetery of Santorini, in Greece. There is a narrow gate on the left of the main entrance, quite hidden between a dark climbing plant that I don’t recognise—maybe it is a bygone vine, fossilised, which has become a bas-relief of the stones—and another cypress, tortuous and clumsy, one of the sparse number born outside the grey walls as if it were necessary to indicate the hill of the cemetery to the people of Santorini.
Just inside the gate, the inner square is luminous, ordered, and the sun warms the four rectangular flowerbeds that encompass the serious trees. The grass is green, tall and soft, made wet by a circular movement of sprays that anticlockwise pick out the two lateral colonnades and the view, in front, of a maze of paths and tombs and, over there, like a blue framework, blurred by the distance, the indigo of the sea. The net wind follows strange paths to arrive here, swirling and designing small rainbows, and now, at this precise moment, my soul finally reaches me, brought by some blow. The view of these slender cypresses, still, definitive, anchors my spirit to me: I have landed.
Only now can I talk with my father again. I’m back.
“How was your flight?” he whispers. He is strangely shy with me—I see his expression in the picture engraved in the marble wall. Under a black cross there is the picture of my grandparents and, below, the photos of my uncles and my cousin. On the third line, on the right of my aunt’s picture, my father seems to smile, but you can see that his look is timid and reserved. Only after his death, only long years after his death, did I understand that in a certain way he was intimidated by me, by that son who was a manager, lived abroad and spoke our dialect as well as other languages.
My father wasn’t afraid of anything. He had a strong personality and everybody knew him, his opinions and his generosity. However, he didn’t know how to handle his son, who was not like him—he thought that I was not like him.
I fought with him, of course; I contested his role and rules. And I never expressed my gratitude to him, with a drop of mercy, and a smile of charity when he was ill. I was intimidated too, and dead scared because that fragile man, finally slim and not longer imposing, was not my father any longer. My father couldn’t be an alarmed sparrow, a silent and pathetic wren in a wheelchair.
“My flight? Ten days ago, you know…”
“I know…” He pauses, and I feel guilty again, painfully. Then he asks: “Have they been satisfied at least?”
“Very much, I think.” A gardener now is directing the water from a hosepipe to the corners of the flowerbeds, with stubborn precision, very close to my feet. I pretend that I don’t understand the reason for my father’s question: “Why is this important to you? How can you…?”
He doesn’t answer but asks: “Did they comprehend… all this?”
I pause. I don’t know what ‘all this’ is. Oia cemetery? This view from the hill, this air?
I shrug my shoulder: “It was the first time here for them… They are businessmen and came from other lands…”
“Did you see… her, Helene?” He interrupts me. He has had to wait for a long time, since my previous visit. And he looks to his left, with sorrow.
“Yes.” I pause for a long while. “At the beginning, I didn’t recognise her…”
“It was the illness.” He states.
“A bad death,” he replies, and I understand that the only issue that matters here is just this choice between a bad or a good death, death itself being unquestionable.
I nod, and for the first time I feel cold. She was my classmate. And now she rests in the grave next to my father’s. She was so beautiful, and blonde too, a strange feature here. The first time I met her she was wearing a black elegant dress, at the entrance to the school. How many lives ago? How many myselves, tortured, disaggregated, and reassembled as if I were a Frankenstein-like monster?
“I told you,” my father says after long moments of estrangement.
“This is our home eventually.”
I look around, at the rugged cypresses and the colonnade in front that was being hit by the morning sun, at the golden crosses, the plants, the names and the dates. The sky is perfectly blue. And sporadic people are walking about, busy with flowers and small vases, while others use brushes or their clothes to clean the graves, with the same movements and attention as if they were washing their cars, and they say hello to each other in dialect, asking for news of relatives and friends.
I understand you, dad. You always wanted to live in Santorini, surrounded by people who knew you. And still you stay here, in this sad garden that is made of layers of generations: one date opens the passage and another closes the story. Everyone comes back to Oia: Santorini is here.
But I cannot stand, dad, this aching and perennial nostalgia, which pierces my soul. Seeing the slow changing of the seasons. Waiting for the visit of an ungrateful son, once or twice a year. Whispering at these cypresses, which I hate—now I’m aware of that—always immobile and severe as if they were judicial and prosecutorial bodies. And dying again each time a hawk passes high in the sky, free, going towards the mountains.
I don’t want to belong to this closed infinitude. I’m only your son, and my identity, if any, emerged solely from the antagonism with you. Now, what is the purpose of my stay here? Is there a meaning? I’m nothing but your reflection, one of your expressions, and surely not the best.
I want to be burnt, dusted and dispersed. I want to disappear and be forgotten.
He disagrees, I see, and says, in a low tone: “The process must be one of subtraction, but during our life, my son. Never of addition. Think what identity is possible here.”
“You have to undress. At a certain point of your existence, you must disrobe and remove all that is not necessary. Your ultimate suit won’t have pockets…”
You have already told me that phrase. I was young back then, and death, back then, was not a concept that concerned me. I wanted to be rich, brave and famous, to demonstrate that I existed.
“Identity is a false and selfish problem. People add stuff, thoughts and time to create their own identity. When only the act of donating is valuable,” he asserts.
And again I argue with him, because he is my father and because he left. “Why didn’t you dedicate your generosity, your love to me?”
There is a long pause. He sighs. “I was not able to do that, or not in the right way. This is my regret. I was born to be a patriarch of some past time rather than a father of the present, and this is my purgatory. But you are good with your children, I know. Maybe, at the end I transmitted something good to you… This is my hope. You are my hope.”
I shake my head, not persuaded, not condescending. What hope is possible in a cemetery?
No, it doesn’t make sense. There must be a better philosophy. Based only on paying attention to the core of the family, to its wealth, focusing on them and forgetting the others. Fighting against the others, when necessary… Maybe selfishness is less painful than sensitivity, which you instilled into me.
“We are different,” you would say, digging a ditch between the others and me. And between you and me, because I understood that we were different too.
Yes, you always had an intense form of widespread Christian charity, a strong ability to understand the others, the stupid people and enemies too. In contrast, I was selective and diffident, little used to charity and comprehension.
You brought to light human aspects that I didn’t perceive. One time, in a miserable circus in the suburbs, while the entire audience was joyfully shouting its disappointment with the poor performance of the artists, you stood up and loudly asked for respect. “They are doing their best,” you told me. “Think about their indigent condition, about their hunger. They are men as we are.” I was ashamed of you. People from Santorini were never tender.
You had a religious sense of justice. So much so you dared step on to a soccer pitch during a hard game to slap one of the players of our team, who was guilty of hitting an opponent without reason, while the latter was lying on the ground. The people from Santorini roared, utterly disconcerted, and I was shocked again. You welcomed strange friends who were distressed or confused, or mad too, forcing your family, us, to tolerate some uncomfortable situations. I didn’t agree, never, siding with my mother and her silent displeasure. You were always generous, and true friends and people in need mixed with unpleasant saprophytes, who we considered our unfair competitors. You thought of Santorini as if it was a new Athens, open to literature and arts, a romantic dream born by your love. I wanted that Santorini should become a new Sparta, hungry for vengeance, an historical and bloody nemesis for our past and present colonisers.
And when we had our dead, you stopped any speech seeking retaliation, or any such idea, any possibility. It was not for our family to think other than of remission and a superior justice. Our family was different. My grandfather would have agreed with you—he, who acted many times to solve and terminate bloody conflicts and feuds; he, who smiles so sweetly from the picture at the top of the family tree, while looking at me as an accomplice. He looks at my eyes, directly, and seems to tell me: “Do you understand, eventually?” He is not shy and under his sweetness I bet there is a strong determination, an incorruptible will.
So, our family stood sorrowful over the graves of our dead, deaf to the insinuating voices. Some dirty hands, the doctors in the hospital and the priests too, who knew everything and refused to tell the truth, remained in an indistinct and misty background. Even though one of the priests is imprinted in my memory: he declined to answer, escaping like a malicious thief or rather like an eel into the door of the bishop’s house.
I felt defeated, annihilated.
Afterwards, however, the stay in Santorini lost any meaning altogether. Santorini lost its sense, if any.
“It was the right decision, also for you,” my father reiterates. And again, I feel that I have only an inadequate self, or a schizophrenic fragmentation between what I have done and what I would have done, between acquiescence and will. What is an identity eventually if you cannot decide, if you have to cede to a superior commandment? Even though, your lead, dad, was so comfortable that I could have lived together with my cowardice, for many years.
I ask: “How can you bear the closeness of…?”
“Fate is stronger,” my father cuts in. And then carries on: “And now all the things have been fixed. Oia doesn’t fail, ever.”
“It is not a solace.”
He doesn’t comment. Once again, I see that he is somehow uncertain. Or worried now, as if his hope were fading.
My grandfather, anyway, keeps smiling at me and I understand the meaning of being a part of a family. They have waited for me, it is clear, conspiring in silence, and their power is huge, insinuating like a flood.
My grandfather was a great man, wise and good in a world of violence. In every corner, when I was a kid, unknown people cheered me, touched my head and pampered my hair saying: “God bless you! May you be as your grandfather was!” I was surely amazed, but each meeting represented another brick of my future alienation: who was I eventually? Why that responsibility? Why I had to be good and not an outlaw?
And now, just when a sudden cloud curbs all the colours, the gardener stares at me in doubt and says: “I’m Back off. I was the goalkeeper of the Santorini soccer team. Don’t you remember me?” He hugs me strongly, as usual among survivors. And looking at him, I see my old age, an entire existence that passed away in a blink. “I don’t want to disturb you.” He is intimidated too. “Keep praying: your father, over there, is certainly proud of you.”
“Yes, I am,” my father restarts his talk, always looking around as if he could open a window and lean out. “In the end you returned here… this is important. And you are undressing, I see. You have been generous also this time; you brought the foreign delegation here, among our people; you privileged the human aspects of the plan, good; you welcomed strange and unworthy friends too, and considered our island a hub of culture, as it really is. How couldn’t I be satisfied and proud?”
“Why do we need the consensus of the others?” I ask, feeling that their ambush, my father’s and my grandfather’s, is working like the grip of a pair of pincers. “Isn’t this but a sign of weakness eventually?”
He finally looks at me, intensely. “I didn’t want to die,” he says, whispering. “I was tired of my illness, and desperate. In the last period of my life I couldn’t speak, but I didn’t want to die. I needed you, but you were not in Santorini. In the last hours they told me that you were arriving, then that you had missed the plane…oh…” and he stops talking.
You stop talking because now only solitude matters, only this impenetrable isolation, and nothing else. My guilt, my absence sculpted this slice of white marble, made its angles, and polished its surface until it became shining and slippery, and eventually put it on your tomb, perfectly, definitely. My guilt designed this corner of the graveyard, the white colonnade and these mute stairs that go nowhere.
I burst into tears: how much I hate these cypresses, this white remoteness. And this air that is thin and scented, incoherent with my desperation. I couldn’t bear your death; this is the truth. And while you wanted to show me how a man dies, I escaped from you without a direction, a sense. I didn’t stay close to you, talking with you and comforting you. You wanted to teach me how to undress, thus to become invincible. If you have donated everything to the others—you told me—if you are utterly naked, death cannot touch you, doesn’t concern you: you are unbeatable, indestructible.
But I wasn’t.
My grandfather looks at my eyes, again. He doesn’t speak to me, but his eyes repeat, “Do you understand, eventually?” again.
And my father doesn’t talk too. I’m alone, now, far from my securities, the routine of my life, so barely conquered, the superficial friendships, my job and ambition, my useless flight.
My father is suddenly distant. His lack of attention wants to tell me that it isn’t a matter of consensus indeed: we need the others, not their consent. It is saying me that my presence would have been a sign of passion, of understanding what life is, what pain is, how you can win or lose and anyway survive and restart and go on.
My presence would have been a sign of hope for him— the only sign of hope he needed back then.
Now he has only a short time to talk to me, to convince me— and this is a different process, a long path as uncertain as my visits are, as faint as time is here. He can wait for me, certainly, but now the space necessary to persuade me is so narrow, so limited, that only a form of fatalism—I imagine—makes sense: the law of Oia, the pendulum that rules here, right in the centre of this little square.
For this reason I want to disappear and they want that I understand.
Back off comes back and sits on the steps close to me, looking pensively at the panorama on the right, the endless Western sea. His hands are spades of dark leather. His face is an old face that was young, once. His eyes are calm and spirited at the same time. After an entire silent minute, he says: “Excuse me, but I understood that you and your father weren’t talking any longer…” He pauses and then anticipates my question: “I work here and I know whether someone is communicating or not.”
“How is your job… here?” I ask. In fact, I don’t understand how it is possible to mix the contemplation and the remembrance in Oia with a common job.
“I understand you,” he answers, “but there is nothing weird, believe me… After a while… well, the gardens and the paths become familiar, full of voices and presences. Real or imagined, I don’t know. You have a white beard now and you are like your father, exactly… Maybe you are he, who knows? Yes, maybe you are he. But it doesn’t matter. The dead don’t revolt and don’t assault. They need us: we are their daily suffrage, their intercessory prayers.”
I’m absorbed and at the same time detached, as after a physical trauma. The colours are not net now; or rather it is me who starts confounding the details. The will to escape is powerful, total.
I’m alone. The circular movement of sprays is mechanical, monotonous. No gardener anywhere in sight.
There is a conspiracy, I feel, and strangely enough, this idea comforts me. There is a plan, sure: the foreign business delegation here, the calm of this morning after their departure, my father and my grandfather, Back off’s strange appearance and his even weirder disappearance… Not everything is entirely coincidental.
But, in the end, however, everything is a sign of love.
Sharmistha Mohanty is the author of three works of fiction – Book One, New Life and Five Movements in Praise. She has also translated a selection of Tagore’s fictional work. Mohanty is founder-editor of the online journal Almost Island and the initiator of the Almost Island Dialogues, an annual international writers meet held in New Delhi. She is on the International Faculty of the Creative Writing MFA programme at the City University of Hong Kong.