By Joshua Barley
Artemis came into my thoughts today as I was walking through the National Gardens. Somewhere near the heart of this Athenian oasis I noticed a tree with yellow flowers on it. Unusual flowers, exotic intrusions, like furry yellow baubles. A sickly smell was emanating from them. The god who makes things change, makes things spend their beauty and decay, is having his way with the flowers now, and the once fleshy globes are becoming wrinkled as raisins. Artemis wouldn’t like it, I think; she doesn’t like change. (Sour grapes, you’ll say).
The smell prompted a memory, bittersweet but insistent: an afternoon in March, Artemis arriving at my apartment, where I’m ill in bed. In her hand she holds one of these yellow flowers – then in its spotless prime, like her. She calls it a ‘moonflower’.
‘It takes me straight back to the island,’ she says as she breathes it in, with her customary nostalgia for Crete, which was once her home and always seemed to break into her present, like the ghost of a former lover.
‘Well, you’re here now, with me,’ I say.
I didn’t need to be so selfish.
Another memory intrudes, superimposed upon the last: the two of us walking in the gardens, near this very tree, with Artemis continuing a tirade about the decline of the National Gardens in recent years. The setting, like the flower, seems to fertilise her nostalgia, and the picture she creates of the gardens in her childhood is of an Eden or a Noah’s ark; a dazzling array of colour and beasts.
‘What is this pathetic puddle?!’ she exclaims as the sad-looking pond comes into view, dotted with a couple of dishevelled ducks. I can still hear her saying that now, in her fragile English accent (she always refused to speak Greek to me) where the clunking ‘-dl-’ of ‘puddle’ became the patter of a drop of rain. Her sharp teeth flash in a half-smile of exasperation that says, ‘Can you imagine anything so utterly absurd?’
The picture wasn’t drawn then, but the colours were mixed: nostalgia mingling with disdain for her native city, a longing for an island, the unease of spring.
Let me go back to the beginning. Her beginning.
Her descent was from a village in Arcadia, where a redoubtable grandmother still lived. Her mother, the only parent in sight, and a pagan to the end, had given her that lovely, if burdensome name, fitting of an Arcadian girl – not to say one possessed of the kind of unblemished beauty that was hers.
Her mother had wanted to be a film director, and now worked in a Greek taverna in Paris. Artemis was the love child of a fleeting romance with an actor, an Athenian thunderbolt, who was quick to leave. Born and raised by her mother in Athens, she escaped to Crete after a failed attempt to join the School of Decorative Arts in Paris. Like many of her plans, she missed it ‘by a whisker’. She was always missing things by a whisker, particularly trains or buses, and she was fond of the phrase.
She had escaped not merely to Crete but to an island some way off Crete, which has a winter population of about thirty people and is often cut off entirely by weather conditions from the rest of the world. She lived there for four years, between the sand and the palms, looking after herself, arranging everything exactly as she wanted, keeping company only with those whose passions had left them behind in that deserted place: the old, the resigned, the hippies. No one made demands on her there – and there were so many who would want to make demands on her – and there was nothing to shake her routine or her tidiness. These were things that Artemis prized highly.
Now, drawn back to Athens by some awakening notion of duty, every sense was assaulted in a way she couldn’t bear, like a deaf person suddenly restored of hearing. She confined herself to her apartment, because everything about Athens struck her as loud and brutish. She constantly remembered Crete.
‘When I am trying to fall asleep,’ she told me, ‘I hear the cars outside my window and imagine it’s the wind of the island. The African wind, you know, that blows so hard through the palms…’
At other times, asleep in the hanging concrete island of her flat, she would dream she was actually there again, on the beach, with the sea pounding. A monstrous, deafening wave would jolt her awake, only, with a groan, to hear the car or motorbike disappearing down the street outside, its unnatural light filtering in through the blinds.
Artemis, then, was lost in the jungle of the city when I met her. She was busily and desperately applying for jobs, not wanting any of them. An air hostess, a waitress, a museum attendant – none seemed to fit the expectations of the Arcadian girl. Dreams of Paris floated before her. Life in Athens was hanging by a thread.
I tried to tighten the thread. I picked her the year’s first anemones one day in February. The poor things wilted before they had even reached her door.
Spring arrives in Athens with the quickness of a twig catching fire. Over a few days in mid-March, a sudden warmth came into the air and the city, startled, blinked and shook off its dew.
My own body reacted in sympathy, and it too was startled into a mild fever. I had been lying in bed for a couple of days when Artemis took pity and decided to emerge from the nest of her apartment. It makes me sad, in retrospect, that her kindness arrived only when I was prone and lifeless – but that situation, I see now, made her more comfortable.
I remember her arrival so well. I had dragged myself onto the balcony in preparation and, through my hazy, sickened vision, I saw her approaching from the hill. She was wearing white trousers and a white T-shirt with the blue stripes of French fisherman chic. Sunglasses hung neatly around her neck. She was statuesque and spotless, an apparition of cleanliness, as if the whole of her – body, clothes and all – had been put through the washing machine.
She clashed with the environment. At that time, the roads of my neighbourhood were being churned up to install a new sewage system. The old pipes, it seemed, weren’t capacious enough for modern needs, and sewage was frequently gurgling up into the courtyards of the ground-floor houses.
I watched Artemis’ pristine plimsolls tiptoe gingerly, like a young deer, around the strewn piles of earth. Her shudders were palpable from a distance. They brought a smile to my face.
‘What a terrible place you live in!’ she said when she caught sight of me looking down on her. ‘How long has it been like this?’
‘Months now, I’m afraid.’
‘It makes me want to be sick,’ she said as she wiped her feet disgustedly.
‘Have you not seen the wisteria?’ I deflected. It was just coming out, snaking and fanning over the trellis.
‘What’s the delay?’ she asked, her eyes still fixated on the horror below.
She grimaced. Archaeologists are always holding everything up here.
‘I can’t stand that sort of thing. Haven’t they dug up enough?’
‘I find it quite exciting actually.’
‘I’m sure you do. It’s just your sort of thing…’ She turned on me, but softened when she realised I was still in my pyjamas.
‘Oh, mon cher!’ she said, making to embrace me. But she shied away at the last moment and ended up with her head awkwardly pressed against my chest and her hands on my shoulders, as if performing a medical examination. It was not an unusual gesture for Artemis: somewhere between her cleanliness and her disenchantment with her life, the normal physical instinct for physical affection had been lost.
She rubbed my cheek gently instead, and it was then that I noticed the yellow flower in her hand.
‘What is that?’ I said.
‘It’s a moonflower. I found it in the Gardens. It takes me straight back to the island.’
You know what I said next.
Then she rummaged in her bag and took out an apple, a thermometer and a pink pill. She bid me unbutton my shirt, in a manner all too clinical.
She tucked the thermometer under my arm, folded my arm back over my chest, lay me down and pulled a blanket over me. She touched my forehead with tenderness. I did not remember anyone ever having done this to me so exquisitely, and I felt like a pampered baby.
When she removed the thermometer, the mercury had risen a mere millimetre or two above its correct position.
‘You’re not really ill, are you,’ she smiled.
‘I am very ill.’
‘Well, you can take this.’ And she handed me the pink pill. ‘Now I’m going.’
‘So soon? This is the first time you have ever been here.’
‘I’m going to the gym.’
I resented the gym.
‘Your body could not be improved in any way.’
‘Don’t try that now. I want it to be perfect.’
‘Bodies are not perfect.’
‘I’ll come back.’
‘Don’t you fear the evil eye?’ (In fact, at all other times she did).
‘The gods…?’ but she was gone.
I took the pink pill and soon felt a weariness seep into my body. As Sleep, brother of Death, was closing my eyes, my indignation evaporated: she would be coming back; elusive, sylvan Artemis would be coming back to me. We would have dinner, we would go to bed, we would make love, we would wake up in each other’s arms…we would… we would… the line continued into the distant future, ballooning at every new possibility. Something caught in my throat. A sob of excitement.
‘You’re back from the dead,’ said Artemis upon her return, not without sarcasm.
‘I’m remarkably better,’ I agreed.
She opened her bag and took out something that was green and fresh. She boiled it on the stove, poured oil over it and rubbed some dried herb between her palms.
‘You’re a witch, aren’t you? I’m sure of it,’ I said. I was trying to make her laugh.
She cackled obligingly but looked away.
‘This is the first time we’ve eaten here,’ she observed.
‘Well, I hope it’s the first of many.’
The phrase sounded hollow and stupid. Something changed. Between us the dining table became a chess board, for a game where the future, which just before had seemed unshakeable, was now staked on a fragmented conversation.
She didn’t respond. I poured her some wine, which she didn’t drink. A sense of unease or unreality overcame us. My head began to spin. Our conversation stopped and started, threads were lost or cut, suggestions led nowhere. We could not sit there any longer.
‘Let’s go to bed,’ I said, by way of escape.
She said something about calling her mother.
I went to bed, therefore, alone.
After a while I heard the sounds of her undressing, and then felt the sheet lifted up and a warm body beside me. I turned to hold her but she had raised her knees and it was all but impossible.
‘I sleep better like this, like a foetus.’
So I slipped into sleep, stop-start like on a rickety train, hitting against the angles of her limbs as if they were made of marble. I dreamed of statues.
In the morning the unease remained. But it was Saturday and the sun was insistent. We decided to walk to Keramikos, the cemetery of ancient Athens – a choice that at the time seemed natural, but now, considering the events of the afternoon, is cracked with the fissures of fate.
The sun had driven many others onto the streets, all sallying out to meet the day. Artemis slipped her skinny arm through mine, as she always did. A feeling of security, of bravely facing the world together, passed fleetingly through me. Up on the great citadel, tourists were teetering on the brink like ants. On Ermou Street, buskers were performing at even intervals, playing set-pieces that were moderately impressive to the passersby, but required low technical accomplishment.
‘Can you believe them?’ said Artemis, looking at their faces, grotesque with a staged emotion.
The bottom had fallen out of her faith – and underneath was nothing.
We descended to the cemetery, which lies significantly lower than the city around it, and felt like we had entered a different world. The whole place oozed the ripe smell of cut grass. The last olives had fallen and besmirched the tombstones with their purple juice. Great banks of orange marigolds stretched along the borders, through which tortoises made their steady, purposeful paths, and, in the cracks of tombs, lizards playfully prised open the warm air.
All through the place were the stirrings of spring. I bent down to a small marshy area and dropped a pebble into the water. With a splash, two little green legs slipped beneath the surface. A wind blew and from the orange trees of the courtyard of a church beyond – to the Transfiguration, I think – came the whiff of their blossom: a smell, even I felt it, of immense sadness.
‘I hate the spring,’ Artemis said suddenly.
We read the signs. The low rise before us – a pretty hill covered in cypresses and bushes of rosemary – had been a burial mound. The landscape was shaped by dead bodies. On top of the hillock was a bench, shaded by a Scots pine: a good spot from which to sit and view the whole site.
We tried to shut out death. We found shade against the noonday sun of March under an olive tree. Artemis sat on a stained piece of marble, brushing it down, and I sat on the earth at her feet, resting my arm on her knees. We would have made a good statue there, I think – something like Daphnis and Chloe (or do I mean Apollo and Daphne?) – or anyway, one of those statues where the characters are about to be transformed into something radically different. We tried to take a photo but the sun cast us into deep shadow.
In the museum we saw the finds from the site: marble effigies carried down the centuries with their memorials and dedications. The occasional speck of colour could be discerned upon the stele of a young athlete. Poor man, his ashes were displayed in the next room like a special offer in a shop window.
Hands were important: on one monument, for example, the deceased woman was sitting down with her hand stretched out in departure. Fondly looking at the family she is leaving, their hands touch in a goodbye – a never-ending goodbye cast in stone. Our hands touched it too, brushed together.
Outside the sun had waned and the colours, stirred up by the change in season, were being tamed again by the approaching evening.
As we rounded the hill of my neighbourhood and came among the low houses again, the unease we had been feeling all day became more palpable. The sky started collecting clouds and the air became closer.
In the street where I live, the bulldozers and diggers had been at work again, heaving up great quantities of earth. Piles of the brainy substance were lying along the road, flecked with fragments of pottery or cement. The faeces of the ancient world, I thought with a smile, now making way for our own. In one corner lay a pile of orange pipes like toppled columns – ready, upon immersion, to carry out their filthy duty.
But it was not the earth or the pipes that preoccupied us.
Outside a house, right there on the verge, a pit had been opened, several feet deep. Around it was a group of gawping onlookers. The owner of the house, whose name was Christos, was standing by proprietorially, holding a plastic cup of coffee with a green straw protruding, wearing his wellington boots. He had been shaken from his boredom. Next to him the supervisor of the works had uncrossed her legs and stood up from her film-director chair. Another neighbour, returning from the supermarket with two plastic bags in hand had also approached the edge, the busy look in her eyes replaced by something akin to confusion – aporia, as the Greek says, which I suppose literally means ‘having no flow.’
An archaeologist – ever-present when the ground is opened – was in front of them all, edging her nose over the lip of the pit, clipboard hanging at her side.
In the pit itself, one of the workmen was squatting over something, his blue overalls smudged with red clay. A bead of sweat dropped from his forehead onto the earth. We moved closer. His mouth was open. He brushed a final speck of earth off whatever was beneath him. We edged closer still. He leaned up slightly, removing his shadow.
There, now brought to light after all the years, stretching across the pit, was an entire human skeleton, dust-stained and still only half-emerged from the earth, but complete. The workman bent down to touch its hand. The fingertip crumbled and merged with the earth.
‘MI’ shrieked the archaeologist. ‘No!’ The workman stood up and looked at us blankly, wiping his sweat away with his sleeve. I turned to Artemis, whose mouth was slightly parted. Her eyes, like the others’, were glued on the scattering of bones before us. Individually they were no more remarkable than dead wood on a beach, but together, purely by the pattern in which we saw them, they became impossible to ignore, touching a nerve in each one of us.
The archaeologist lowered herself cautiously into the pit. Something had caught her eye. She was examining a metal object beside the skeleton’s right hand – a strigil. Lying there, corroded next to the skeleton, it looked as though it were the implement that, beyond the sweat and grime of life, had stripped the skeleton of its very flesh and left just the bones.
‘A young man,’ I conjectured.
She touched the forehead of the dead athlete to remove a granule of earth. As she did so it gave way slightly, lolling onto its side. We gasped collectively. For as the skull rotated, its pristine forehead and cheekbone were replaced by something horrific. The back of the head was broken: not merely broken but smashed, the bones crushed inwards as if the pneumatic drills above had reached the back of the skull. But we all knew that the savage blow must hide another, more terrible story.
‘Poor thing,’ said Christos with tenderness, as if the man they had dug up in his garden were an old relative.
We all looked at the man-object, lying there like a patient on a bed, but incurable, unknowable, expressionless.
‘How strange to think this was underneath us all the time,’ said someone, with bathos.
The archaeologist had already started taking detailed notes. The skeleton must be preserved exactly.
I felt slightly sick and I sensed Artemis did too. She took my hand in hers. It was cold.
Back at my dinner table we sat and looked at each other for a while.
‘Why do they have to keep these things intact?’ she said.
There was nothing I could think of to say.
‘You don’t seem yourself,’ I said at last. A strange phrase.
‘Let’s go to bed,’ she said, with unusual conviction.
She threw me onto my bed and fell on my lap. Her arms, which were clinging to my waist, now rose up and started to hit me gently, playfully, on the shoulders. Then she held them, too, and felt the run of the bones for the first time, as if exploring a new terrain. She smiled a little and began to strike my chest, pummelling it like in a play fight. Her nails scraped down my chest and fumbled among my ribs. Then her face drew close to mine and she pecked at my cheek like a hen on flint. Little stony kisses dotted all over my face. My mouth sought hers, but her lips found only my teeth, pecked my teeth, then my cheek again and down to my neck. And when we fiddled to take off each other’s clothes her kisses became bites, as if she wanted to take off my skin, too. We fought and became entangled and became red, but our kisses remained like pebbles on a dry river bed. Not a drop of sweat touched our bodies – nothing for a strigil to take off
After some time, when even the desire for desire had left, Artemis stood up, dressed abruptly and left too. I lay there still and did not follow, legs stretched out, resting on my elbows as I watched her disappear at a deer-trot outside the window, past the skeleton.
I made no attempt to follow. Had I leaped out of the door after her (the thought still comes and goes) things might have been different. But as it was, I stayed on the bed and she carried on walking. And between us, bone by bone, the skeleton was being lifted out of the red earth.
When she was gone the thought gaped open inside me – deep as an open tomb – that there was nothing, absolutely nothing, to hold us together.
I have not seen Artemis again. She never called me and I never called her.
I have not called her, but here I am thinking of her again, sitting on this bench in the Gardens, knocking at the black door of memory. We sat here together once and read to each other in that pure way that two people do who think that they might have something more to say to each other than that which their way of life, the place they live in, or even the time of year dictates.
There is a scattering of crushed sunflower seeds under my feet, dropped by the tourists. A few metres away a guide is drawling on to lackadaisical listeners about the habit that people have these days of doing pilates in the gardens. How Artemis would have mocked her, I think, and am tinged with regret again. I walk away from the tourists, assuring myself I am not one of them. I come face to face with the monument to the Unknown God, the stone slab that commemorates St. Paul’s visit to Athens and his speech on the Areopagus. I came here too with Artemis, I remember, and we puzzled over its significance.
Now I try to pray.
I’m not used to praying.
Unknown one, when we are alive, at least, if it is you that gives us life – if it is you that makes these bodies more than a collection of minerals – and if it is you that can make two joining bodies more than two joining bodies – at least, let us live it…
A magpie laughs with cunning. A tourist holds up his phone. A shadow moves. Artemis? I see her all the time these days, through the branches of the trees. Her image disappears like a photograph swiped away. But the thought does not disappear. It still comes and goes, like the breath of a dying animal. Something beckons, something recoils.
I exhale. With relief I decide not to make for her apartment. She’s probably in Paris by now. Anyway, summer is here, the moonflowers almost over. We’ll all be going away in the summer. And what about the autumn? Autumn will bring us back changed. We’ve all been fooled, God help us. It’s hopeless, utterly hopeless. I laugh, at last.
Oil on canvas 204 x 223 cm
National Gallery, Athens