The market, Salonica

The market, Salonica
The market, Salonica

Sunday, 13 September 2015

An X through the middle

The boat to Mount Athos.  A breeze pushed up little waves, white-crested, like tips of rock.  Monks sat by the railing, motionless.  They didn’t watch the coast.  When the spray forced itself above the railing, and burst like diamonds on their black robes, they still didn’t move.

There was a barrel of brown eels on the deck, live ones, squirming in the sun; baskets of silver fish just taken from the water; rope in heavy piles, and other things I can’t remember, things you find on real boats, on a real ocean. 

A crowd of seagulls followed the boat, each beating off the others’ wings, and shrieking, as if a bird could drown in the air.  One gull came very low across the deck.  A monk reached out for it, languidly, copying the motion of the bird.  If he’d caught it, he would have been surprised.  The gull would have been surprised too.

We docked at Dionysíou.  I landed with the monk, the one who moved his arm.  He was Dutch, studying the form and intricacy of prayer.  That’s what he said.  The monastery had a reputation.  For a gang of men, and monks especially, there are worse things than cleverness with prayer.

He took me through a courtyard, up some stairs, and rang a bell.  A monk brought sweets and ouzo, and tiny cups of black coffee.  The Dutchman had lived there for three months.  His eyes were still darting about.  I mentioned the woman who’d been caught on Athos, masquerading as a man.  She was Dutch too.

“In my country,” he replied, “anyone can pass for a man.”

He knew a place on the mountain; not going far, but I wouldn’t find it alone.  A path runs up, more stair than path, by the monastery garden.  The land is so steep, the garden lies in tiers, each with a stone wall, like pools of soil.  There were vegetables at that time of year, fruit trees in blossom, and tanks of mountain water.  You can climb it from the bottom, but step back, and you'll wonder how. 

The Dutchman walked ahead, breathing heavily.  His hands and the back of his neck shone with sweat.  He stopped several times, although – he was right – it wasn’t far. 

There’s a ledge above the monastery, with flowers in spring, just coloured spots, really, and a bench to rest on.  When you get here, all you do is stare: the slate rooves, the courtyard, the church inside – a stone bird in a stone nest – and, beyond that, the sea. 

Some photographs I’ve never taken.

We sat down.  He pulled a cigarette from his robe.  

“You’re not Orthodox, perhaps not even religious.  Here the Greeks will tell you of the true faith.  They may even convert you.  The mountain needs new blood.”

He didn’t use the past tense.  While he smoked, he left the matchbox on his knee.  There was a woman on the label in an old-fashioned dress.  Someone had circled her with thick, red pencil, and put an X through the middle.

“We must go,” he said, abruptly.  “They’ll be eating soon.  Today is a saint’s day, and a special meal is planned.”

He reached down and stubbed the cigarette on a flat stone, then lifted the edge, revealing a stash of butts.  He added the new butt, replaced the stone, and stood up.  A gull fluttered from the slope above us, and made a white arc across the water, right around the monastery.

 “I have a book about the saint.  You might like to look at it later.”

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