This is the story of how my marriage almost broke up, but it is also a story about goats and fish soup and hippies and a woman named Zambeea, not to mention a mystical vision involving a yellow brocade chair.
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The events I am about to recount occurred three years ago; let me assure you that all principals and all goats are still thriving, though my father has retired and my mother-in-law now walks with a cane. Three years ago October and there I was sitting against a dilapidated stone house, a long piece of grass between my teeth, wrists resting on bent knees, my goats spread out on the sloping hillside before me.
The sun had risen three hours before, but it had barely penetrated the heavy gray sky; I was sitting against the stone house for warmth as well as support. I had innumerable grazing spots, but the stone house was my favorite. It was at least two hundred years old, roofless with thick walls of heavy gray rock, bare of ownership and human artifacts.
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Several dozen of these abandoned houses dotted the mountainsides around our village, and there were quite a few in the village proper. Once deep in a mountain gorge I found one that was positively palatial: it had six rooms, an arched doorway, and a commanding view of the surrounding countryside. I asked my husband Vasilis about the house, and he said it belonged to his great-grandfather.
I have always thought that if hostile forces once again occupied Crete, Vasilis and his mother and I could take olives and bags of hard bread and hide in that ruined palace. My father-in-law kept them tied up all day in a hillside depression covered with a tin roof, but I decided they needed a change of scenery and started bringing them out in the open so they could graze. This was work, and more than work it was the time and patience needed twice a day to lead three goats of varying degrees of obstinacy to a field, wait in that field for several hours, then convince them of the need to return home.
A little refrigeration was desirable, for it took the uriny edge off the milk and made it more palatable; later I would pour the milk into bottles and ride back into the village to sell it.
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Three goats produced only about nine liters of milk a day, but it was a nice little business, and I enjoyed being—as the villagers called me— ee geeneka too galaka, the milk woman. And the goats were fun. The worst part was taking away their kids and selling them to the butcher, but the best part was caring for them, getting to know their personalities, watching them watch me. After I took their babies away they were distinctly and understandably frosty, but other times they were sweet and nuzzly. Popi, the all black one, was queen. I got only the occasional affectionate nudge from her, for she was too busy being dignified, but Aphrodite and Spike always bleated when they saw me and—the ultimate sign of affection—tried to eat my clothes.
Aphrodite was tan with a white belly, Spike was the child of Popi so she was also black, but with patches of white that made her look more like a cow than a goat. They ate leisurely, and I sat leisurely watching them, the mountains, the sea, and the sky. A large white cloud shifted in front of the sun, throwing the morning into deeper shade. Winter light had richness, and a gray sky in Greece was unlike anywhere else, sometimes deep and strong and layers thick, other times fragile as an eggshell.
That day the sky was sturdy gray with sweeps of white cloud; underneath it the sea was blue and slightly choppy, and the field before me tan and green and gently undulating. Space, and so much silence. Or at least there was until Spike raised her head and started bleating.
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Spike suffered from a mysterious mouth ailment that I tried to treat without success. I rose and walked over to her, kneeled and stroked her neck cooing Shh, shh. She looked at me, her dark golden eyes always startling with their black horizontal pupils. I massaged the top of her head, and in response to my sympathy she bared her big yellow teeth and snorted.
If my mother-in-law had seen me she would have thought I was crazy. But for me the goats were friends, and I genuinely enjoyed their company. Their non-verbal world was so peaceful, their reality simple as the grass they ate, and I can say without hesitation that they gave much more than milk. Spike stopped bleating so I went back to my sentry. I let the goats graze awhile longer, then stood and called Na, na, ela moree, na! My authority over them had always been minimal; they completely ignored me, and only a few prods of my stick convinced them I meant business.
Finally they began to mosey toward the road, udders swaying as they stepped small and ladylike. I walked just behind them, clicking my tongue and coaxing, my stick slipping into the soft ground. To say that my mother-in-law was the most formidable five-foot-one woman in Crete was only to begin to describe her. In the village and environs she was known and beloved for her perpetual hospitality and fresh produce, but various incidents propelled her into legend.
My husband remembered little of his hospital stay except lying in a large crowded room and watching his mother sitting on the end of his bed plucking a chicken. Whether the soup or her extraordinary effort saved him was a moot point—the fact is he survived. And then there was the time in World War II, the nightmare years of Italian and German occupation, when an Italian soldier grabbed Maria into an abandoned house and tried to rape her. She fought him off, and that evening marched into the Italian command center and demanded an apology and a guarantee that the attack would not be repeated.
So here you had a twenty-year-old woman standing before a room of armed soldiers—and the astonishing fact was that the soldier was fetched, the apology given, and from then on the Italians called Maria La leonessa, the lioness. She looked more grandmotherly than leonine, but I was not fooled. I glanced at my bicycle and noticed she had filled the milk bottles and put them in the wooden box attached to the rear frame.
I stepped onto the porch, which was an affectionate disarray of potted plants, empty bottles, and a little of everything else—a deck of cards strewn on a crate, a huge gray cat asleep on a sack of potatoes, a headless doll reclining in a brazier. On a long table was a mug of milk, several pieces of cinnamon toast, a spoon, and a napkin. I sat down and crumpled the toast into the mug, then spooned out milk and soaked bread. When I was almost done Maria went inside and reappeared with a small glass of milk, which she swiftly emptied into my cup.
She had a tendency to give her food to other people, an old habit from the war. She sat down and resumed her peeling. I glanced at her over my mug—was she beautiful when she was young? In fact in all the years I knew her I never saw her ears.
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Her skin was wrinkled but surprisingly rosy; her eyes were small and sharp and she was still able to thread a needle, something she proudly demonstrated whenever the subject of eyesight arose. She was cute, actually: it was from being so little, plus the way she took small steps, the fluency of her hands, and definitely her legs, which were thin and taut and for some reason absolutely hairless.
She raised her head. She shook her hands. So much money! How much did it cost? There was no use lying or saying it was none of her business, for in a small village privacy was just a dream. One thousand drachmas, I confessed. Vasilis had a beer, and we shared fried potatoes.
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Mama, I explained patiently, we like to eat there. This she could not understand.
She liked to cook, or perhaps after doing so every day for sixty years cooking was as routine as dressing. Such discussions always ended with her heaving a sigh, the air thick with the unsaid thought: Foreigners. But it was only a little sigh, for it was not her nature to be bitter.
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She asked if Vasilis had gone fishing. I said he had, and was probably back in the village by now. Maria crossed herself. It was common knowledge that Platon and Eleni had problems, and in Greece the breakup of a family was considered—and rightly so I suppose—the greatest tragedy of all. Maria murmured a prayer and then asked me, as she did about once a week, whether I was moving back to America. She nodded, placated for another week at least. I edited carefully, removing a picture of myself displaying a new bra as well as a picture of an old boyfriend unbuttoning his pants; nonetheless it was a dire mistake, for the images I considered normal scenes of American life led Maria to believe I was involved with a multitude of men.
My Greek was so poor then; I tried to explain that the men were only friends, or if they had been boyfriends it was long since over, but the more I spoke the more her face grew long and solemn. The pictures sparked a doubt that took months to extinguish; it seemed every time I saw Maria she would grab my hands and ask, Is Vasilis your only man?
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I always answered in the most emphatic affirmative, but this never satisfied her; she had to list the exact location and number of his olive trees, then tell me about his grapevines and little house in the mountains. Gradually this litany ceased, but the America question remained constant. She disappeared into the back of the house, a mysterious netherworld that weekly provided clothes and household items. She returned bearing a dark brown coat.