by Daniel Gould Levine
"So what now?" I asked. Silence. "How's your leg?"
Marlin just sat there, scowling, snapping his lighter. I glanced around the small bar, then looked at Adam from across the table. He was making a conscious effort not to look at Marlin. His big shoulders were turned away so as not to even brush with Marlin's. Adam was handling the whole thing rather well. I was a bit unsettled, too, I suppose, but I never like to show it. Traveling brings out the worst or the best in people. I like to say that it brings out my best, and it was needed here. The two young men sitting at my table were calm now, but on the boat there had been problems.
We had only met Marlin last week. Adam and I were traveling through London and found him in a bar. Marlin was the best dart thrower we'd ever seen. He was taunting the local Brits, chucking darts with his left hand, behind his back, with his eyes closed. He had a special between-the-legs shot that drove the Brits crazy. The Brits had never seen an American shoot such darts. They were all starting to crack their knuckles when Adam and I pulled him away and bought him a beer.
"London sucks," Marlin said. "The girls are ugly and the food is crap. It's expensive and nothing exciting ever happens. I'm going to Greece. You two should come with me."
"You think things happen in Greece?" Adam said.
"Look, don't come if you don't want to," Marlin told him.
Eventually I convinced Adam to go. The two of us had been backpacking through Europe for the past month, and I thought some new company would do us good. Besides, a young man with a dart talent so great had to have some decent qualities. Two days later we were all on a flight together.
In Athens, Marlin liked to throw coins at stray cats from our hotel balcony. "Look at all these cats," he said. "This city is crawling with them. What a dump."
After one day together, Adam wanted to pack our bags and then ditch the hotel when Marlin was in the shower. I suggested we wait until we got to the island, and see how it went from there.
We took a ferry to the island. The boat had a large cement sundeck for the passengers, and rows of seats inside the cabin. But it smelled like vomit inside, and we were sitting on one of the benches on the deck enjoying the sun. The sea was deep blue with crisp white breakers, and the mainland was a purple rise in the distance.
A girl stood at the railings, and all three of us secretly watched her. She wore white linen pants that showed her lean hard ankles. Her shoulders were slender and brown. Then Marlin stood and slowly walked to the railing. He was shorter than her by several inches.
"Hi," he said. It had been rather quiet on the deck until he spoke. Several passengers looked up.
The girl paused. "Hello," she said.
"How ya doing?" Marlin said.
The girl stiffened, and glanced away. "I am fine," she said.
"What'sa matter?" Marlin said. "You don't like me?"
She stretched a long, brown arm on the rail and drummed the metal with her fingers.
"You don't like me?" Marlin said, louder. "You don't like Americans? Is that it? Don't like Americans? Not hairy enough for you?"
I don't know if the girl understood, but she turned and walked quickly across the deck, keeping her face down. Marlin bent over the railing. Then he turned toward us and leaned back against it. "Bitch." He shrugged.
I smoked a cigarette in silence. Beside me, Adam shook his head. "This isn't London, Marlin."
"What'd you say?" Marlin asked.
"I said, this isn't London. You can't do that stuff here."
"Do what stuff?"
"It's different here, dude. You can't do things like that."
It was Marlin's turn to stiffen. "I suppose you're the expert, then. Huh? You're the expert now, all of the sudden. You're reading that stupid guidebook and now you're an expert."
Adam didn't respond. Marlin's face was quite red. "Just what the hell are you saying?" Marlin continued. "Tell me, Mr. Expert, what the hell are you talking about?"
Adam sighed and leaned back. "Forget it," he said.
I began to feel a bit nervous, wanting to interject but hoping it would run its course. Instead, I chuckled.
"No, tell me "
"I said forget it," Adam said. "Just forget it, dude. This conversation aside, you're really starting to piss me off."
His voice was sharp. I turned my head, not wanting Marlin to think I was ganging up on him, too.
Marlin gripped the rail, the knuckles yellow-white. His green eyes looked glassy, and he blinked several times, looking away. Then he exploded. "You, you goddamn fairy! You little dirty fairy, with your book! You know what you can do with your book, asshole? Who the hell are you? Huh? Who in the hell are you?" He stopped, and swallowed. He glanced down, and suddenly the red was drained from his face. Shaking his head, he walked past us and went inside.
On the deck there were a few women with shawls on their heads, and some old men in black, baggy coats smoking cigars. Some of the passengers were looking at us, their faces screwed. A woman glared at me for a while. When I smiled awkwardly, she turned back to the sea.
"How's your leg?" I asked Marlin again, looking at his scowling face across the table. The flame of his lighter spurted on and off in the dim corner of the bar. Adam and I were leaning against a thin, smoky cushion that ran along the wall. In the corner shadows dark men crouched, tiny candles danced, and the waitress' face thinly glowed when she leaned in to take their orders. Adam watched her as she bent. She was a little big, but the only girl there, and we had been drinking since early afternoon. Besides, she had a nice smile and smooth, brown skin. The men in the shadows whispered to her, but I could hear nothing.
"How's your leg?"
"Hurts," he mumbled. "Whatever."
Earlier that day, we convinced a taxi driver to take us to the beach. The taxis on the island were cleaner than in the city, in fitting with the cream-white houses and blue doors. We were standing on a high road slashed into the scrubby hills, looking down over the town, the buildings jutting up like even rows of teeth running to the Mediterranean. Our light jackets were tied around our waists, and my t-shirt stuck to my back as I hailed the cab.
I leaned my head near the Mercedes, smiling at the woman inside. "Can you take us to the beach?"
"Yes, of course, my friend, but there is no one there." The islanders spoke excellent English. They had to, with the throngs of tourists in the summer months. "Beach is empty, now."
"Yes, I know. We'd still like you to take us there, if you could."
She shrugged, and we hopped in. We drove out of the town, past tidy, scattered houses planted the rocky, bushy hills, sheep and cows munching on the scruffy earth.
I turned to the driver. "Why are all the houses white?"
"It is a law," she replied."
"Excuse me? It's what?"
"The law. Every house must be two levels high and must be white. So it will be nice. So more people will come." She faced the road in front, and I couldn't see her expression. "There are five-thousand-thirty four people on this island, and I know every one," she said.
"Really? Five thousand."
"Every one," she said.
"Wow, that's very many."
"Yes," she said. "You like the island?"
"It's very pretty," I said. "But a little empty."
"Empty, yes. You like excitement."
"Excitement, sure. Everyone wants excitement. It's very nice, though."
"We are here," she said.
I paid her through the window, and smiled. "Efcharisto," I said.
She smiled back, and drove away into the hills.
Adam and I sat in the sand, stripped to our shorts, watching Marlin splash in the icy water. The salt dried on our bodies, and I could feel the skin around my eyes and nose begin to pull tight as it burned. I sat up, hugging my knees, and gazed down the length of empty sand where slanted wicker huts ran in a line down to where beach met with the rocky crags. I looked at the abandoned, dry bars, thinking of the drunken frenzy that would come later with the summer. Right now the beach was ours.
"He's not really a bad guy, I suppose." I nodded toward Marlin.
"I don't know, dude. I guess." Adam was twirling his finger in the sand.
Fifteen minutes before, we had been sitting with our shoes and shirts off when Marlin had turned to Adam.
"I don't know what happened on the boat. I'm sure you think I'm crazy, and you might be right, but I'm really sorry. I get frustrated sometimes and don't know what to do with it...you know? It's no excuse, I just feel really awful." He let out a funny laugh, and he watched the waves. I felt a touch sorry for him. He looked alone.
Adam gave him a light pat on his bony shoulder and told him it was all right. Don't worry about it, it's all right. Good politics. We were going to be together for a while. It's always better to keep peace. Easier, at least.
I was watching Marlin splash when I noticed something strange in the water.
Against the deep blue, it was pale, shapeless, like a plastic bag tossed into the sea. I stared hard, watching it bob with the waves, melting, flowing and pulsing like wax, soft pale pink wax. And then I saw more of them. There were four or five, roughly the same size, except for one nearly two feet across, like large ghosts in the waves trailing thin, wispy tails. And I knew what they were.
"Marlin!" I shouted. "Marlin! Look behind you!"
He seemed to hear me, but he was far out, and I could tell he only recognized his name. I ran to the water's edge, the sharp stones biting my feet. "Look behind you!" I waved my arms. "Behind you! Jellyfish!"
He turned when the largest one reached him and recoiled in the water. He was staring into a phantom, an empty, transparent face with a silky twine of intestines in the center, its long tails tangled about, searching.
He began to thrash, throwing his arms in a panicked windmill, kicking high off the surface. He screamed before he could move. The jellyfish nestled by his stomach, the others circling in. His voice was high with pain. Another moved by his arm. He moaned, starting to swim this time, furious splashing strokes. I could hear him spluttering and wheezing. He needed help, but the water looked bitter cold, and those pale, blank faces terrified me.
I glanced at Adam, his scruffy face pinched, his brown eyes clouded. He started up, and we both looked to the water. Marlin's scream wavered, shrill, like a small child.
"Let's go," Adam said, and we dove into the sea.
Marlin had managed to move away from the fish, but one still bobbed near his foot. "Yah!" I yelled, and threw an armful of water in its direction. The wave carried it back several feet, and I splashed it again, then grabbed Marlin by the arm. Adam hooked under his other armpit, splashing at the fish. We dragged the panting Marlin to the shore.
I had never seen a jellyfish sting before, and I didn't know what to expect. Marlin lay on the beach, the sand sticking to his wet shoulders, gripping his leg, moaning and cursing. I pried his fingers from the wound, and held my breath. It really didn't look that bad. The wound was circular, perhaps the size of my fist, peppered with red tiny dots, raw, bleeding slightly, but not the gash I expected. I dabbed it with my shirt, and told him to look.
"It's not that bad, see. It's not even bleeding." I tried to comfort, but he snapped me off.
"Well it hurts like hell...they have poison on their stingers, don't you know that? That's why it hurts so damn much, because they have poison, you idiot!"
I slumped back on the sand, panting from the swim, and stared as he returned to examining the wound. I didn't press him any more. He'd had quite a scare.
We sat there for a while, drying our wet bodies. Then Adam stood, brushing the sand from his shorts.
"Let's go get a drink."
I pulled on my Greek beer, which smelled mildly of skunk and tasted worse. I called the waitress over and ordered whiskey, licking my lips as she walked away. They were salty again, this time from the bar nuts. Adam was doing the same.
"This place is dead." Marlin flicked his eyes around the bar. He had grown bored of snapping his lighter, and had been trying to light a nut on fire for the past five minutes. He'd finally succeeded, and the tiny nut flamed slowly on the table. He got considerable pleasure from the spectacle at first, but soon grew bored with this, too.
"This place is dead," he repeated. "I thought this was a party island. We need to do something."
It was the early spring months, and the streets were quiet, the restaurants and clubs boarded and dark, the outdoor chairs and tables stacked among the dry leaves in the tight alleys. The alleys that were small and white, and all looked the same.
When we arrived the previous night it had been very dark, and we didn't know our way to the hotel. We stood by the midnight water, and a man had pointed us toward the shadowed, tight streets. "That way," he said, grinning. As we approached the dark alleyway, I reached into my bag and gripped the switchblade I kept in the side pocket. We picked our way through the winding maze of narrow paths and low arches, and I turned the knife in my hand, rubbing the polished handle. Twenty minutes later, safely in our room, I showed the knife to my companions. They'd been impressed.
"Bad-ass!" Adam said.
Now the bar, with the exception of us, the waitress, and a few scattered locals nursing their drinks, was empty. I was about to respond to Marlin when the waitress came with our drinks. She leaned over me, her perfume musky and cool. My blood thickened. A wisp of her hair caught on my lip, and I slowly pulled it free. She saw the movement, and smiled shyly.
"The men over there," she said, pointing to three shadows to the side. "The men over there said this round is on them." She smiled again, perhaps apologetically, and placed three small shot glasses on the table, each brimming with clear liquid. Her eyes fell on mine again, and she left the table quickly.
We looked at each other, remembering the words of our small, flat-faced desk clerk in Athens. "Remember, my friends," he said, smiling with straight, white teeth, "if people offer you drink, you don't take it. First it is, 'I will buy you a drink,' very nice at first, but then you buy them a drink, and they buy you a drink, and then when bill comes, they have no money. They will try to trick you: 'Yes, my friend, very good place I know, very nice girls, come, come,' and then they leave you with the bill, or worse. Remember." We stared at the small glasses, trying not to look at the men in the corner.
"What should we do?" I asked out of the edge of my mouth.
"What the hell is this stuff?" Marlin said, peering down into the clear drink. It looked like water, but it could have been anything. We had drunk nearly an entire bottle of ouzo back at the room, a clear Greek drink that tasted of licorice—sickeningly strong licorice—and it could have been that. It could have been vodka, or rum, or gin. Any of those would have been fine. But there was something else we were worried about. Kiraki.
The smiling desk clerk had told us of that, too, and at the time we had listened with doubtful but morbid fascination. "My friends, there is something else I tell you." There was a large, yellow crust lodged in the corner of his eye that he had failed to wipe away when he'd awoke. I caught myself involuntarily scratching my own eye in the same place. "My friends, sometime somebody might offer you a drink, it will be clear liquid, look like ouzo. It is not, Never, never drink this. It is kiraki. This means 'sleep cloud.' You will drink it, and think you will die. It burn your throat as it goes down. You cough, cough blood, but first you will sleep long, black. You will dream that you are dead and there is no one there. And you will hear voices, little scratchy voices in black, coming to take you away. Terrible thing happen when you are in black sleep, terrible. If you are alone with men or even in bar, then they take you away, take you somewhere. They stick you." With this, he slammed two of his fingers into his own hand, and winked. "They stick you, never drink. Never. Take—it—easy, my friends." The American expression was funny from his mouth, and we smiled at the time.
Adam and I glanced at each other. By now we didn't have much time to decide, because the men were coming over.
"Shit," I mumbled, and they were standing beside us. The one in the center was small, lean, dark. His eyes were narrow and brown, and close together over his thin nose. The eyebrow was a black, unbroken smear across his forehead. His skin was covered with a hairy shadow. The other two were taller, broad, almost handsome, with fine black hair and kind, open faces.
"My friends, what is the matter?" the small one said. His English was smooth, almost perfect, and his voice was quiet and soft. "Is there something wrong with our drinks, perhaps?"
I cleared my throat and smiled at them peacefully. "No, and thank you. We've just had enough to drink already, as it is. I think we might be sick." I grinned again and held my belly in a sick gesture.
"Ah, I see." The little one grinned again, and I saw something spinning in the center of his eyes. I suddenly noticed that his eyes were clearly green, not brown as I had thought. And his face wasn't hairy at all. His skin was clear and hairless as a child's. His voice was deliberately soft and quiet. "I see, so you think our drink will make you sick. I see."
Adam piped up, "Yeah, but thank you, we really appreciate it. We've just drunk too much already. We're Americans. We can't really drink." His mild laughter died flat.
"Yes, Americans...you are afraid that you might be sick if you drink this."
He laid a small, brown hand on the table.
My stomach began to roll, my throat was tight, and my bowels suddenly felt cold and loose. There was something in his voice that made me very nervous, but it was so calming and soft that I couldn't place it. It reminded me of the dark stillness when you wake in the middle of the night, waking in a strange hotel room in a small bed, and the room is very silent.
Marlin broke my thoughts, speaking loudly and slowly, as if to a child. "Yes, we've been drinking a lot. We don't want to drink anymore. OK, thanks."
I took in a breath, and saw something silver spin in the small brown hand. It was so quick and sharp. I didn't even time to see it move. The man reached for Marlin's hand, closed over it with his smaller brown one, and at the same time slid down in the seat next to him. It was over before I could breath out, the tiny man's motions blending together in a smooth dark streak. Then he was still, and I could see what silver thing he had in his hand, and how it was clamped over Marlin's finger. It was a wickedly sharp scissors, the kind men use for cutting cigars.
Marlin, too, took a minute to realize what had happened, but then he felt the bite in his skin, and he yelped.
"So," the small man said. "So, you think the drink will make you sick."
"What the hell?" I was on my feet. "What the hell is going on?"
"Sit down, my friend," he cooed, "sit down." On seeing my hesitation, his eyes flickered and his black pupils drowned the green. "SIT DOWN!" he said, and my knees gave. The two other men stood by Adam and me, hands dangling by their hips. I tried to calm my voice.
"Hold on a second," I put my hands out, soothing the air. "Now wait, now just hold on a second." I noticed a thin, trickle of sweat running down the little man's smooth face. "Please wait."
"Yes, is there a problem?" he asked. "Is there a problem? You don't want to drink, yes?" He squeezed down with the scissors, and Marlin's flesh pinched white under the sharp blades, his eyes wide and glassy, his mouth open. A string of drool was running from his chin.
"Wait, man, please no, please no, don't!" Marlin mumbled.
I tried to catch the glance of my waitress, but she was busying herself with the glasses on the bar. The bartender's back was turned as he fiddled with the bottles. "Hold on, OK, you want me to drink this?" I tried to be calm. "Is that it, you just want me to drink this?"
"You don't want to drink. You do want to drink. You can never make up your mind. What do you want? You come here, grinning, loud, 'look at me, I am special, look, look!' You drink in our bars, walk in our streets, lie on our beach, but the sun only burns your skin." He paused, and looked at my eyes and the redness underneath, his face open, young. "Don't you trust me?" He grinned, and his gums were very pink and clean. He looked just like a child, grinning.
"No, I'll drink. Just tell me what it is. Tell me what it is I'm drinking. Ok?"
"No, you will drink it anyway, my friend. You will trust me, Ok?" He was clearly mocking now, and I saw a thin trickle of red dance along Marlin's wrist. Marlin gasped, once, very high, and searched me with pale eyes.
"Please. Please." Then he whispered, "Don't let him cut me anymore."
I looked at the liquid in the glass, clear as water, and I thought for a moment that I might pass out. The dim bar grayed around the edges, but I pulled myself back. My heart pulsed in my throat. I doubted I could even swallow. I fingered the glass, rolled it between my fingers, licked my lips, wondered how it would burn down my throat, how I would dream, where they would take me, and if I'd remember. The glass looked very deep, and the bottom was far, and sheltered, and quiet. I looked to Adam. His large, brown eyes were wet, and I realized mine were, too. We were scared, not like with the jellyfish, but scared of the dark, winding streets that didn't end but circled back on themselves, leaving you in the quiet center, empty-handed.
"I'll drink," I almost whispered. "I'll drink."
I closed my eyes, heart ragged, and brought the glass to my lips. It was seconds before I could recognize the familiar licorice taste—the sickeningly strong familiar licorice of ouzo. I breathed out, tasting bile fire, but not feeling much of anything at all.
When I finally opened my eyes, the small, dark man and his friends were gone.
Copyright©2003 Daniel Gould Levine