There is a path high above the sea on the Mediterranean island of Iphiphantur, proceeding toward the sheer rocky northern coast. It winds for some miles through the forest of oak, wild olive and mastic, caressing the sinuous curves of the mountain, passing serpentine amidst the trees, until, at a certain point, it broadens and sets out with a mysterious straightness, as if intentioned directly for the edge of the world. And though for a thousand years its original purposes seem to have fallen into desuetude, the path is strangely intact, as if other feet than these human continue to beat it down and clear the way.
It was once kept by the Ancient Phanturi, though they themselves used it rarely, and only in times of crisis. Perhaps ten years, twenty, an entire generation would pass, the path lying undisturbed by any human step but that of the silent, pious caretakers who, after due purifications, would periodically clean it of brush and grass, and pack ash and stone fragments into its earthy face. Then, their work done, they would disperse from it, murmuring incantations, and dissolve into the forest like phantasms, and the path would be once more abandoned, avoided by man and beast alike, until, by the inevitability of this fallen world, war, famine, or plague would come to the Phanturi. Then they would rise, selecting the oldest man of their tribe and pressing him before them, to set off in terrible somberness down the path.
In what spirit did he go, this old one, walking in their midst, his hands and feet maybe bound, his eyes maybe fixed, or transfixed, calm or troubled, upon the long way ahead? Was there pride in his heart, or horror? What manner of men were they that lived before us, and in what light did they see the world? And if it is true, as some have claimed, that there was no blue to color their sky or their sea, what other colors did they lack, and in what hues did they actually paint this world?
Idle queries. Still they walk, those Ancients, down the path, and still the elder walks with them, beside the granite hills, amidst the shady bosks, they perhaps murmuring to one another, until the way levels and straightens, and a strange silence seizes them. See how they slow now; see how they glance about now, fear in their eyes. Already at the end of that long tunnel of hoary russet pines a glimpse of infinite sky can be seen — the vast uninterrupted endlessness which presages the sea. Forth, down the long march, surrounded by the gnarled trunks of those great trees and the overcast arc of their great branches, until the forest all at once ceases, and the world opens on a small landing of mustard-colored dust crowning a dead plummet to the rock-mangled waters below.
Was there an altar there, a block of stone, an idol, a flame? Were incantations muttered, did enthusiastic frantic chants fill the air? In what did that final rite consist, before they seized the old man they had brought with them, and hurled him past the edge of the world, sacrifice to bloodlusting gods? And did their eyes follow his body as it glided down the long decline, until its small life was crushed on the breakers, the blood in it insufficient even to pinken the spume? Or did they glance away in terrified modesty so soon as he gyrated past the edge, and turn back at once in a kind of holy shame, and flee whence they had come? And in what way did they reckon the wrath and pleasure of the gods who demanded this terrible covenant of them, and how did they measure success or failure in these pious homicides?
Who can say, who can say! But this much is certain: this Path of the Elders was never sanctified nor hallowed by holier rites, but remains in the spirit that first burned it into the forest floor. Nor has it been forgotten by the people of the nearby town of Kálèpsòs, but rather lives with and amidst them like a collective recollection, a sort of unspoken presence, a daimon of the wood. It is considered to this day bad luck to so much as cross that path, particularly its final tract. And while reckless boys will always dare one another to go there in a spirit of desecration and challenge, or to pass a night alone on the sandy extremity, or to cross the path fifteen times with one’s left fist raised, it is the counsel of the wise and the sensible to leave well enough alone.
It was by pure accident that Travis Gilmore found and followed the path. What did he, an American, so much as suspect of such things? His mother Keíra, though Phantur herself, had done what she could to forget her heritage, and if he knew how to muddle his way through the Phantur tongue, it was not from any effort she had ever made to teach him. When she unexpectedly suggested he get away on a vacation to Iphiphantur to visit the relatives she herself had remorselessly abandoned thirty years prior, nothing could have so eloquently expressed her despair. She was perhaps the only one to divine the extremity of her son’s condition.
Yet he had been shocked when she had suggested it. “Travis, why don’t you visit your uncle Hríndros?” she had asked him quite suddenly one day, when he had stopped by to pick up his six-year-old boy. “In Ipiphantur, I mean. He is my eldest brother, you know. I am sure he would love you to stay with him, and it might do you some good to travel a bit.”
He had stared at her a moment in blank incomprehension, before laughing softly and shaking his head. “What…?” he queried vaguely, as if beginning some thought he would never finish. Then, “I mean, I can’t just go running off to the ends of the world like that… How would Michelle get by?”
His little boy, James (the name had been Michelle’s choice), was grappling with his leg. He set a hand thoughtlessly on the child’s soft, fine hair, trying to maintain his equilibrium against the giggling child’s thrashing, and smiled down at the boy with a distracted affection. (He loved the child dearly, even though the boy seemed at times hyper-active and willfully ungovernable, excessively so for his age.) His mother was ever spontaneous and unpredictable, but even so, this was truly unexpected.
“Michelle would be fine,” she insisted, setting her hands on her hips — a gesture of stubbornness and authority that Travis knew only too well. That hint of accent she always carried with her, somewhere between Greek and Arab, seemed to grow a touch stronger as she continued. “I would help her. She has her own parents as well. She could survive without you for a few weeks. Is she not an independent woman?”
Travis flinched. “Yeah, of course she is, Mom, but that’s not what I mean. You know how much we have to get done right now.”
She shook her head angrily. “You will always have much to get done! That is life — having much to get done! And so, what? You will never travel again, because there is much to get done?” She bit her lip and looked down a moment. Age and loss had wrinkled her and shrunken her, and brutalized the delicacy of her features, and grayed her once-sable hair, but her eyes were as fiery and brilliant as they had ever been when she looked back up. “Travey,” she began firmly, using her old pet name for her son, which he had not heard since he was a boy, “I know you are suffering. It would do you good to go away a while. Will you please at least consider it?”
He was evidently startled. He looked at her a long moment, seemed to want to ask something. “Yeah…” he murmured at last. “Yeah, alright. I’ll consider it.”
And consider it he had. At first the thought had seemed outrageous and improbable, but it had grown on him with time. It had taken him three full months to come to any kind of decision, and several weeks more to broach the issue to Michelle. He had worried how she would take the news, and had brought it up awkwardly and nervously one day while she was sitting on the couch staring at her phone. She looked up distractedly, her lovely, cold dark eyes and too sharp features turning toward him as though she had only just now noticed his presence there. “Ipiphantur?” she asked blankly.
“It was Mom’s idea, actually,” he blurted hastily. Michelle nodded slowly, and after a moment’s consideration, said, “I dunno. Maybe it’s a good idea. You haven’t really been anywhere in a while.” And she turned back to her phone — that phone which absorbed her so constantly, so constantly.
So the matter had been settled. By the time he had gotten his plans together and found a plane route that was not egregiously expensive, winter had long since mended in snowmelt and fragrant blossoms and spring was well underway. The trip was set for early summer, and was to last three weeks.
He had not known what to expect from Ipiphantur. He had of course asked his mother many questions about it over the course of his life — for her part, she seldom mentioned it, and only in fleet passing — but her answers had been dry and matter-of-fact, as if she did not care to elaborate the subject and would do her best not to exacerbate his curiosity. From her replies, such as they were, he had developed the idea of a far away island in the Mediterranean, exotic in the way of Greece or Crete or Malta, but somehow still in deep connection with a mysterious antiquity. From his early childhood, the name conjured up absurd images of togas, golden crowns, bronze swords, altars to strange gods, Egyptic patterns on stone walls. He himself knew how ridiculous this was, but the connotations vaguely remained, and even informed his deliberations when he was yet deciding on whether to go.
He also knew that his mother had not seen the island in some decades, and it was impossible to say how much had changed in that time. She kept inconstant contact with several people there — including her brother, Hríndros, with whom Travis was to stay — but certainly not enough to maintain any kind of clear perspective on what the isle had become in the course of that time. A new king had taken power, and Travis had once read a brief article in some mainstream economic journal suggesting this ascension might be harbinger of an opening to modernity. He did not know precisely what that would entail, but it somehow colored his vision of the island with shades of poverty, simplicity, and rural agricultural lifestyles.
He said farewell to Michelle and James at the airport with some trepidation — both for the coming journey, with its complicated itinerary, and for the family he was leaving for such a length of time, and finally for the acrimony his wife might secretly be incubating. James unexpectedly burst into tears and raced to his father, and Travis, surprised and touched, sank down on a knee and took the child up into his embrace. “It’s alright, Jamesy, it’s alright!” he murmured, patting the child’s heaving shoulders. “I’ll be back before you know it. And I’ll bring you something special from Ipiphantur, ok?”
The child drew back and looked at his father as he fisted the tears out of his eyes. “Promise?”
He nodded. “Promise,” he said. He hugged the boy again, and rose, patting his head and turning to Michelle.
As he moved to embrace his wife (he was not sure she would have so much as approached him if he had not acted first), she smiled at him with a smile he could not read. “Travel safe,” she said.
“Thanks. I will.”
“See you in a few weeks, then.”
“Yeah. A few weeks.”
He smiled at his boy, and turned from them. And he found himself hoping that the old saw was true — that distance would make the heart the fonder.
His first stop was in Atlanta, but he remembered little of that passage. The flight across the Atlantic was agonizingly longer than he had imagined. He would check the time frequently, finding that only half an hour had passed since last he had looked at his clock. How endless the time was!
He spent a portion of journey poring over the worn, dog-eared Phantur Atlas his mother had gifted him, acquainting himself with the geography of his uncle’s town and the nearby area. He had known they would be near to the sea, but he was amazed to see just how close. A decent trek, and he could get there on foot.
These pleasant anticipations, however, were dulled by the grind of the actual traveling. By the time he touched down in Zurich, he was already almost regretting his decision to go. The excitement of travel was subdued by the sudden fear of it, the long discomfort. “What am I doing here?” he wondered, half in panic, when he found himself surrounded by a mass of people from every corner of the globe, speaking a hundred different languages, and none that he could understand. He stood in the spacious, bright airport, engulfed by these streams of foreigners, all so certain about their destinations, all so set in their courses. He alone knew not where he was passing. He seemed at times to glimpse faces known to him, to recognize friends and acquaintances in that crowd, so nervous was his heart at being displaced. He shook the impression off, as his eyes followed in bewilderment the colors of their clothes, the colors of their skin, the alienness of their manners and tongue. He felt himself somehow fundamentally adrift and uncertain.
From Zurich to Athens, and from Athens finally in a startlingly small aircraft with external propellers (did such passenger planes even exist any more!) to the little Vhandír airport, outside the eponymous capitol of the island. The last leg of the journey seemed unusually rough as they began the journey over the Mediterranean, perhaps because of the diminutive size of the plane, perhaps because of the transition from land to sea; but the remainder was smooth enough, and after the endlessness of the trans-Atlantic flight, it seemed but a moment before the island came into view, a long strip of bright-on-dark coast embedded in the turquoise sea like a rough stone in an immense jewel. He gazed with some curiosity out the window, following the dark chine of the mountains, the pale splotches of human settlement. He did not know it, but even then he was flying over Kálèpsòs, was flying over the path. He was suddenly siezed a bizarre and disjointed sense of how high above the world he was, and for no reason he could fathom began vividly to imagine plummeting from that plane downward, unstoppably, inevitably, toward the impregnable face of the earth.
Not ten minutes on and the plane had already come to a jolting landing.
He was somehow disappointed when he disembarked. Apart from the airport’s unusually small dimensions and its evident newness (it had indeed been finished only in recent years, by order of the new king), it seemed an airport in any country anywhere in the world. The area surrounding was painfully drab and commonplace — concrete, asphalt, and bus stations; cars (albeit older than he was used to, and small and squarish and foreign-looking); and so many tourists. What? Had he traveled so far, so long, only to find himself where he had begun?
But when he caught his bus and it pulled away from the airport, he began at once to feel the difference. The newer construction works gave way and opened upon the suggestive rubble of what seemed to have once been palaces and castles, reddened walls rising hauntingly against the sky, their ceilings long since collapsed, their windows but lugubrious apertures on eternity. These ruined buildings in turn soon receded, and he glimpsed beyond the window the long countryside, interrupted by towns, dotted with homesteads and gardens and herds of sheep or goats and small tracts of farmland. Compared to the endless, empty American farms, the properties here seemed fragmentary, minute. This lent something bucolic and charming to the atmosphere, something fit to human dimensions. He saw beside the road a herd of maybe a hundred sheep grazing a patch of verdant earth, hemmed in by blackberry bushes and clumps of mastic, and standing between the road and the animals, a lone shepherd, upright and solemn, his back to the bus, his hands perched on a tall staff. The summer light cast a hard yellow glow upon the scene, and the wind caught strands of the shepherd’s long hair.
Travis sighed in a tangle of emotions. He was indeed far from home.
His uncle Hríndros was already waiting for him at the stop when the bus pulled up to a run-down concrete building that seemed to be crumbling at the edges. He recognized the man by the photograph Hríndos’ youngest son had sent by email. (It was indeed through that young man that all the arrangements had been made, for Hríndos possessed neither computer nor phone. It was by the same means that Keíra had learned of her father’s death some seven years ago. She had not returned for the Phantur death rites.) Travis knew the older man by his balding head, his thin gray beard, his prominent brow and wide-set eyes, and above all his air of looking for someone. He approached his uncle awkwardly, holding out a hand; but Hríndros, seeing him and realizing who he must be, broke into boisterous laughter and, gripping him by the shoulders, brought his forehead against Travis’ own in the traditional Phantur greeting. “Welcome!” he cried loudly in Phantur, drawing back and looking full into Travis’ face, his hands still clenching Travis’ shoulders. “Well met, nephew! Well met, well met!” and launched thereupon into a stream of Phantur that was so dense and so swift that Travis could understand only scraps of it. He believed the man was expressing his joy at his nephew’s arrival, and his disappointment that his sister had not come, too, and he warded off this sudden attack of a foreign language with awkward smiles and crude attempts to express his pleasure at having arrived.
“Your trip was very long, yes?” asked the older man, throwing an arm jovially about his nephew’s shoulder as they moved toward the parking lot.
“Yes, very long,” he replied, nodding, and somewhat uncomfortable with this show of physical closeness.
“Was the ride a smooth one?”
“You will be very tired!”
“Yes, a little.”
“Ah! Ah! Well! Here, my nephew, in Ipiphantur, you can finally rest.” And Hríndros struck him hard on the back.
Hríndros’ car was a small, faded, boxy automobile of European make; despite its age, it was kept however in pristine condition, almost as if the man took pride in the tired old machine. The drive to his uncle’s house at the periphery of Kálèpsòs was a flurry of images and phrases which Travis struggled to follow. Out the window, the tree-bounds perimeters of open fields on rolling hills; ancient walls built of stacked stones, that had ceded here and there in the pressure of time; sheep and goats moiling in the grasslands while great black sheepdogs played or lolled beneath enormous oak trees in the late afternoon light. Hríndos was meanwhile greatly animated, and gestured expressively even as he drove, now and then taking both hands off the wheel to gesticulate more comprehensively. It seemed he was speaking broadly about the family, attempting, perhaps, to catch Travis up on a lifetime of unknown persons and their vicissitudes. Travis nodded continually, though he understood almost nothing, and laughed obligingly when Hríndos laughed, and several times failed altogether to understand when the man was posing him questions about himself. Yet Hríndos seemed only delighted that his nephew was trying to get any use at all out of that tongue, and encouraged him with excessive compliments.
“How well you speak Phantur, nephew! I am happy your mother did not leave you mute.”
His uncle’s house was a large two-story country home (Hríndos was a farmer, and had had many children) made of stone and mud bricks, but recently renovated with lime plaster. They were greeted at the door by his aunt, Sránda, a sweet, fat old woman who pulled Travis into her enfolding embrace and from there into the house as though this were the happiest visitation of her entire life, and insisted at once on preparing him a coffee and feeding him some spicy, delectable cookies she herself had baked from the produce of their farm. The three of them sat around the old wooden table, the two elders beaming at the younger, and speaking incessantly and incoherently of everything that came to their minds, in so confused and random a series of subjects that he swiftly lost track of the conversation altogether. His aunt was a bright and effervescent woman with a broad, frog-like, kind face who laughed constantly and loudly, but when he tried brokenly to thank her for making him feel so much at home, she frowned suddenly and shook her head and waved his thanks away with one of her plump arms as though he had called a curse down on that table. “You are family!” she cried indignantly, looking at him severely from under her brows.
Then Hríndros rose and gestured to Travis to follow, the which he did with alacrity. His uncle took him on a grand tour of the place, from the large living-room-cum-kitchen to the various bedrooms, to the bathroom that had only recently been appended to the house itself. (Previously, the bathroom had been located some distance from the house, in the back courtyard; but Hríndos was “modernizing,” as he proudly put it.) The house was modestly decorated, with rough competent furniture and a few aging photographs, most of which were in black and white. The kitchen walls were covered in copper cookware, and the only electronic object to be found in it was a tiny ancient blue refrigerator that hummed loudly in one of the corners. There was no television, no computer. There was a little shrine near the hearth and little statuettes at it, and oil lamps that burned continually, though it seemed that Sránda was the only one in their home to pay it any mind. Travis looked at it from a distance (he was curious, but felt it somehow inappropriate to approach); he saw the branches of some kind of plant lying beneath the lamps, and saw that the statue crudely represented a woman with four arms who carried, among other things, a lute-like instrument and a sword.
He wanted to ask after the statue, but had no time; Hríndros was rushing away to the courtyard then, and Travis stumbled after him. He found his uncle walking there callously among fat red hens that raced away from his brusque oncoming steps with nervous squawks. He showed Travis the towering walnut tree and the ancient lemon tree that grew on opposite sides of the paving-stone-covered earth. The lemon tree was full of lemons, and his uncle plucked a lemon and began to eat it like an apple, skin and all, gesturing to Travis to try as well; the which the younger man did somewhat hesitantly, biting into the acrid yellow, chewing slowly as the tartness flooded his mouth, only to find a strange and unexpected sweetness emerging from the white of the rind. He smiled, and complimented the fruit (it was indeed the tastiest lemon he had ever eaten), and Hríndros nodded vigorously and laughed contentedly, tossing off his half eaten fruit carelessly and almost striking a chicken with it.
His uncle then showed him the immaculate tool shed, filled with old hand tools Travis had never before seen — long scythes and little curved sickles and hoes with long narrow blades, and pruning sheers wrought of single pieces of steel folded over against themselves — and showed him the barn out back with its three donkeys and a pair of oxen, enormous and gorgeous, snorting in their stalls and throwing their magnificent horned heads to and fro.
“Do you work your farm with these animals?” he asked his uncle in amazement.
The old man laughed and shook his head. “Oh, no, no, no!” he said, waving his arms. “Those days are gone, thank Lìniáiòs! The oxen here are for festivals and banquets. Our tractors and mechanical tools are stored in a building not far from here.” Travis nodded, surprised to find himself somewhat disappointed, as though this touch of technology were in some way detrimental to the quainter image he wanted to form of this place.
They ascended then to a balcony on the roof by a heavy, white external staircase, and from their vantage there, looking out over the countryside that lay honey-covered and thriving in the evening light, Hríndros indicated to Travis the extent of the family’s domain — the emerald lines of the vineyard, the teal olive trees glimmering in the darkling breeze, the fields of recently harvested grain that lay now golden and bare, barren for having given so much, naked for the fertility they held. “Ah, Travis!” Hríndros suddenly exclaimed loudly. “My sister — that is, your mother and I would sleep up here when we were little and try and count the stars. Impossible! But we would try in any case, again and again, every time…” He shook his bald head slowly and chuckled to himself, leaning on the balustrade and gazing out over the evening fields, lost in memories. “I wish she had come!” he sighed. “Will you tell her she must come? She cannot stay away forever!” Travis agreed, though he knew it would be useless, and the man turned back to the view. His nephew stood beside him, looking uneasily over the rickety balustrade and down side of the building, the long fall to the paving stones below; and nervously stepped back.
Travis thought about all this even now, as he proceeded alone, slowly and as if indifferently, down the path he had found. The woods, darkly scented in the humid summer heat, seemed so different from those of the Northwest United States; they were spacious and airy somehow, and bright. He looked around himself at the blond forest floor and the wrinkled trunks of the cork trees, the oak leaves with their glossy green tops and their pale soft underbellies twitching in the breeze. Great stones rose up here and there like monsters breaking the surface of some viscous golden lake, their faces covered in teal and orange lichens. He saw birds flitting through the canopy, and once caught sight of some animal moving sleek and silent through the tall yellow grasses in a dried-up gulch some distance away — a fox? A boar? One of the Phantur wildcats? Whatever it was, it scented or spotted him, and vanished like a ghost to the wood.
It was a beautiful and strange place, so different from anywhere he had seen. He had tried to explain all of this to his wife when they had spoken on the phone, but as usual, she had interrupted him and begun to speak of something totally unrelated, and he had been afraid of forcibly reintroducing the point. She had indulged a kind of tirade about her work, complaining about a complicated situation with a colleague whose incompetency had been bothering her for weeks, before asking him, a bit in bored afterthought, if he was having a good time. “Well, I guess I’m —” he managed to put in, when James evidently tipped over a flower pot in the living room and Michelle angrily hung up with so little warning that he found himself standing in his bedroom, staring down at the screen where just moments prior the distorted, ghostly face of his wife had been hovering before him.
What had he wanted to tell her? There was too much to relate. The Phanturi were warm and welcoming in a way he had not expected, ministering to his every need, insistent that he eat his fill and suffer no discomfort. The food was excellent, most of it taken from the labors of the farming family itself, and as fresh as could be wished. Acrid goat cheeses dripping with delicate asphodel honey, green olives soaked in vinegar, fresh warm flatbread, mutton from a sheep slain that very morning. He received, somewhat nervously, a piece of a long braid made of the interior organs of the animal and layers of fat; but he was amazed to find it succulent and delicious. (“We waste nothing here, nephew!” exclaimed his uncle, delighted that he should be enjoying it.) The special dishes (as for instance a certain kind of pasta made of tiny round grains of flour and dressed with a sort of creamy tomato sauce) had about it something exotic and piquant. His uncle and aunt were amazed to learn that he knew nothing of the Phantur cuisine, and he was obliged to explain that his mother did not know how to cook, but could be counted on at best to thaw frozen pre-cooked meals. (“Ah, Keíra!” cried his uncle at this, shaking his head and clucking his tongue angrily. “Have you forgotten everything about your people!”) They ate late lunches and late dinners, and sat at table all together long after the meal was finished, drinking wine and laughing and arguing and conversing discursively about the stuff of daily life, or the events of the nation, or the gossip of the town. He met several of his uncles and aunts and cousins and their families at these meals, and relatives still more remote; it seemed that his uncle’s household was kaleidoscopic in its contents, with ever new members coming in to pass an afternoon or dine with them at table or take a morning coffee, and only Hríndros and Sránda at the center, unmoving constants in these ever-shifting arrangements.
He made swift friends with two cousins in particular, a man some five or six years his elder, named (or perhaps only nicknamed?) Kurínri, and his wife Líllà, a graceful, slender woman of dark hair and green eyes, dressed perennially in long flowing dresses and fine-spun tops that revealed the elegant curves of her neck and clavicle. She wore a necklace with what seemed to be some kind of rune carved out of a red stone, which she once told him was a ward against the evil eye. (“It means ‘down,’” she told him with a definitive nod.) Kurínri and Líllà had three well-behaved and lovely children, ranging from seven to twelve; and these were manifestly much beloved of Hríndros and Sránda. Sránda would spend hours in the kitchen with the middle daughter, a dark energetic girl, teaching her how to make cookies and cakes, and spoiling her on the sly with sweets and dried fruit; and Hríndros loved to take the two boys into the countryside, where he would play the clown with them and tease them endlessly, or teach them to trap little animals, or recount adventures half invented from his youth.
Kurínri and Líllà both spoke fair English (they were the only ones in the entire family who could), and often acted as interpreters between Travis and the various members of his Phantur family. For their part, they were both extremely curious about his life in America, and spoke of that country with a kind of awed deference that surprised him. They regarded it as a land where anything was possible, where money flowed freely and work was never wanting, and people were free to speak and act as they would. Travis attempted to curb some of their odder misconceptions (no, not everyone had two houses and two cars; no, in reality Americans knew very little about the rest of the world, on average, and seldom traveled beyond US borders; no, not everyone was wealthy, nor even had a job). But his cousins were intelligent and curious, and listened as well as they spoke, and the three enjoyed each other’s company immensely.
What struck him most about his cousins, however, was their marriage. How different it was from the marriages he was accustomed to! Kurínri commanded unambiguously in his household, and, though he carefully considered his wife’s views, seemed to make all the final decisions on important matters. His word passed as law, and whatever he requested of his wife, she did without complaint or rejoinder. Travis did once see them bickering — he couldn’t be sure what about, for they were speaking with a remarkable rapidity. He was sitting in the living room reading while his cousins were cooking in the kitchen when suddenly he heard their voices raising and turned in startlement to watch them. They became quite heated, Kurínri folding his arms before him and standing still as a stone, and Líllà curved somehow and lilting rapidly around the kitchen in a nervous, irate energy. But then the little tempest broke as upon the breakers of that man’s immobile posture, and, several minutes on, Travis (who had retired to his bedroom in embarrassment) heard them laughing together like children.
When Kurínri learned that American wives often spent more time out of their homes than in them, between work and other activities, he reacted with amazement and something approaching indignation. When he learned of the habit of young lovers to live together, sometimes for years, before getting married, his response was simply, “And these things are regarded normal?” accompanied by a perplexed furrowing of his wide brow. When Travis told him about the divorce rates in America, and painted a picture of the confusion and complications characteristic of American family life, he asked, “Does your Christian faith not forbid such things? They do here, the few Christians there are!” And Travis was obliged to explain that the old faith was on the wane, and held little power any longer over the order of men’s societies or the state of their souls. “I mean, I grew up a Catholic, because of my father,” he said, by way of explanation, “but whatever the Church teaches — well, it doesn’t really change the way most people act, or what they decide.”
Kurínri shook his head slowly, frowning and staring intently at his cousin. “Then what purpose does it serve, this religion of yours?”
Travis laughed nervously, and did not know what to say.
“And the wives — all of them work?” Líllà put in.
“Well, yes, most of them,” he allowed. “It’s impossible for most people to get by on a single income nowadays.”
“What works do they do?” she asked.
“It depends… Whatever they want to… My wife, for instance, works as a lawyer.”
“Yes… I don’t know the word in Phantur. She works with accusants in the courthouse. The archìnti.”
“Ah, I see…! She is often out of the house?”
“Yes, quite a lot,” he said, pausing, then added, “She works unpredictable hours. I often don’t know when she’ll be back.”
Her brow scrunched up and she looked at him, nibbling on the corner of her lower lip in a habit peculiar to her, which lent her youthful face something childish and winsome. “How are the houses cared for, the children?” she wondered.
Travis shrugged. “It’s not always easy,” he said. “A lot gets done when everyone is home after work.”
“There are… how do you say… house-cleaners? And people who care for the children?”
“Well, not usually… Most people can’t afford that kind of thing.”
“I do not understand. How can they live this way?”
He shrugged again, feeling strangely helpless. “Honestly, I don’t know myself. And I’m one of them!”
She looked at him with a sudden widening of her eyes. “What a strange country!” she murmured after a moment, a touch of empathy in her voice. And Travis, looking on the two of them there, side by side, staring at him in bemusement, linked together so visibly in the integrity of their bond, could understand why she might think so.
He would watch them on the sly, when they were distracted with one another, as if he might gain some precious occult intelligence thereby that he could carry back with him and nurture somehow in his own small life. He would pretend to be reading, or to be speaking with someone else, or even to be drowsing off, all the while sneaking glances at them as they spoke, as they jested, as they kissed. He felt a vicious stab in his heart each time they touched — the naturalness of it, the ease! — but could not look away. Despite Kurínri’s unabashedly patriarchal role, Líllà gave every sign of happiness, and reacted to husband with an affection that was in all ways unfeigned, hanging on his arm, kissing him and laughing with him and gazing at him, after these thirteen years of their marriage, with love in her eyes. Their children clearly respected them, and obeyed them almost without rejoinder, and Kurínri held his center with a natural confidence that filled Travis, almost against what he considered his better judgment, with admiration and envy. A sort of chill crept into his heart the more he saw these things, a cold grip that grew only the colder for how tenderly happy he was for his cousins’ happy estate.
He sighed sadly now at the memory of these things, and glanced at the trees that hemmed him in all sides — the rise on his right, the gentle downward slope on his left. He pictured the two of them, Kurínri, broad of shoulder and dark of beard, dressed in his half-open dress-shirts, smiling his strong white teeth down at his lithesome, lovely wife, who was in turn gazing up at him as she laughed, leaning into him with a kind of free abandon. They were there frozen in Travis’ mind just so, like some ominous Grecian statue. He felt the all-too-familiar pain returning, an angry knotting in his midsection, as though someone had punched him. He clenched his jaw and picked up his pace.
The path was straightening, he noticed. It had for some time now wound loosely haphazard through the forest, at times threatening even to disappear, as if it had been so long in disuse that it had at last given up the ghost; but now it was becoming distinct and purposeful and unambiguous. Looking ahead, he found himself gazing down a long corridor of mighty pine trees, built like a great hallway for some mighty mountain king. At the distant end, it seemed almost as if the world ended at a crop of stone, and only the empty sky hung beyond, lurid and vast. At once intrigued and distracted, he moved toward that light.
The trees above him were strangely silent, fact which he failed to notice. He hardly paid them any heed at all, despite their magnificent and bizarre forms, the great red trunks that rose up monolithic before bursting into radial networks of pale branches, as though they had sent down vast roots into the sky itself. They stood solemnly about him as the pillars of the world itself. These were the great cinnabar pines of Ipiphantur, mahogany of bark, their sap red like blood, and they threw their weird flat canopies overhead to the exclusion of the sun, and he walked beneath them as though in a trance, transfixed by the gleam ahead. A strange torpor had fallen over him and seized his soul; he was lingering in a daze, a dream, and moved slowly on.
But he caught his breath sharply when he stepped out from the shade of that long hall and the world opened before him — the brilliance of the noonday sun on the malachite sea, the bright cliffs of ocher stone cascading down beneath him in an exhilarating fall into the crashing white waves. Tiny gray-green bushes had nestled into the niches in the cliffsides, and stood out precariously over the drop, agitating in the wind as though trembling for the heights at which they had dared to plant themselves. To his left and his right, the long stony coast of the island extended like a gargantuan fortress wall, only now and again pooling brilliantly in pristine and inaccessible beaches of golden sand far below. Seagulls were wheeling against the backdrop of ivory clouds, their guttural screams like cries of desperation filling the breezy air. The air was full of the brine of the sea, the spice of the Mediterranean marquis, the dull scent of the dust roused at his passage. He stepped to the very edge of the island and looked over, a kind of dizzy panic filling his soul; below him, the earth dropped mercilessly some fifty yards, vivid empty space that shattered on sharp breakers and greedy frothing waves.
He stepped back, his head spinning, and sat hard upon a stone; and all at once, his heart grew empty and desolate. What was this place? What manner of world was it he himself lived in, that was so vast and mysterious to him? Why? Why? Oh God, why? Almost forty years of age, and he knew so little of life… He threw his head back, misery coming down on him like a sheet of rain, and he stared up into the open sky as if to appeal to the heavens themselves. “God, God help me,” he murmured, uttering words that had not passed his tongue since his childhood.
Who could say why, but his boss floated suddenly through his mind — that small, balding, crabby man who stalked frowning and hasty amidst the cubicles. He suddenly remembered his recent, humiliating attempt to ask for a raise, which had been greeted with such chill superciliousness. Would another man have succeeded where he had failed? What was wrong with him? Would his cousin have let such an opportunity slip — Kurínri, with his assertiveness, his manly intensity? If only he, Travis, could be more like that…! Ah! Almost forty years of age, and still pining to be someone else…!
Worst of all had been having to admit this defeat to Michelle. And now it was his wife’s countenance that rose before him, an expression of contempt and disappointment marring her beauty — that expression he knew too well, which appeared whenever he took the least misstep, made the smallest mistake. How cold she was with him! How rarely she even touched him, though he loved her and craved her, after all these years! Why? What had he done? He was not an ugly man — was he? Surely, he was a bit skinny; but was he so repulsive as that? Did he not do enough for her, not care enough for their joint household duties? He pandered to her every whim and every need, and treated her as a princess, while his cousin lorded it shamelessly over a doting wife… He complimented her constantly, he showered her with gifts. His job, though workaday and unexciting, brought in all the money they could desire. He never argued with her, he let her have her way in all things. He withdrew entirely, he gave her all the space she could desire, he annihilated himself in her presence. He remembered with a wretched pang the love in her, the fire, when they had first met. It had been like that for two whole years, and then — Where had she gone? Where had his wife gone? Was it not enough for her, the man he was, the love he tried constantly to bestow on her? Did it cost her so much to touch him, to kiss him?
And then another image, this time of himself, here and now, sitting there on that very outcropping, scrawny and dithering in this foreign place where he had ridiculously strayed for who could say what reason. What finally had brought him here? What had possessed him to take his mother’s advice? Surely it had all been a terrible mistake… And his wife, even now — what was she thinking about it all? Was she angry, resentful, scornful? Was she thinking of him at all? Or was she thinking of — Anger came over him, a sense of stifling voicelessness and impotence. The old terrible doubts assailed him. Had this flight of his not been, in the last analysis, an attempt of last resort to salvage everything? Ah! How he had hoped she might warm to him in his absence! But she had been so aloof when they had spoken… Was it too late — too late to start again, to make right? It is too late, a mocking voice echoed in his head…
He rose against the anger, the pain, the memories. He stood and wheeled the great weight of his suffering toward the broad horizon. He had lived with this actual physical ache, worse than a real corporeal wound, for months now, maybe years, struggling silently against it in the merciless nights and the lonely, bereft days. Here he was now, on this distant, foreign island, in a place where no one knew to find him, and all his fate and all his suffering depended on nothing but himself and himself alone. He pictured himself again, skeletal and small and alone, ludicrous, weak, standing there on the insanely high promontory, a mere accident on the face of an indifferent world. He looked at the edge of the earth, and a strange thought came to him, a terrible notion: he could cast it off now, this torment, this whole farce, and uncouple his own burden from the world, and let it fall back down to those depths, that sea —
Truly, why could he not merely surrender? Just drop it — the war, the struggle, the pain. Force a stop to it all. An agonizing relief flooded him. His body felt profoundly heavy, his eyes were burning sweetly in the noonday sun. A flame was on him and in him, burning him without and within. Voices it seemed were speaking to him, urging him. He could release them all — his mother, his wife, the men he could not be, the man he was; his wasted past, his pointless present, his hopeless tomorrow. By a single act, a last negating thrust of will: a sacrifice, to bring all these miserable horrors to a close. He moved toward the edge as if borne there by so many alien hands; he moved like a sleepwalker to the thrilling commencement of space. Nothing, nothing below him — and he could merge with it, that nothingness, could himself become and be nothing —
He gazed down, and vertigo gripped him, and with it a stream of images as though summoned from those awful depths. His wife before she was his wife, her beauty and her desire, and she smiling up at him, all promise, as he stood in front of her with a reality and concreteness he had somehow forfeited along the way; an image of himself as he was not, the man he might have been, that reality, that concreteness come back to him, standing upright like his cousin; the stretch of the green and gold earth extending into hazy twilight depths, a long ray of final light vertically cutting the horizon, as he stood on the high wall of his uncle’s house — and the face of his son, his beautiful son James, tearful and staring up into his eyes with such hope — and it seemed then that something descended on him in a rush from above, winged as it were in silver and azure and bronze —
He stood a long moment like that; and released a shuddering breath.
He is floating over that limpid Mediterranean water, gazing down into the sapphire-transparent depths. Five, six, seven yards of sea beneath him, and still he can clearly perceive the bottom below him, the sandy depth dotted with dark stones, and the shadow of his body patched over it. His shadow — but disconnected from him, detached, down there at the bottom of the sea, as though it were a thing of a marine life all its own that had made its way down there and settled flounder-like on the seabed. His shadow, somehow so intimate to him, but divorced from him and independent, far below him, or he far above it. He sees it there, and all at once he knows: A man makes his impress in this world merely by being; he cannot exempt his will from decision, from choice, even if he tries. There is no retiring from act, there is no becoming a man that does not become, there is no way down for this bizarre animal man. And the attempt to withdraw, to sink, to disperse, to disconnect, to fall, to hide, to not-be, is only a war to tear oneself from nature and soul, a turning inward and contra, a battle against one’s own essence, bound to futility, self-refutation, lurid disasters, horrid tragedies. A man must struggle, and, struggling, must live; else he will be lived, and not himself — mere shadow, and no longer his own.