Heraklion at dawn. Boxes of silver fish set out like jewelry along the port, and a couple of early fishermen having their Nescafé. It felt something like homecoming, though Kanti Deschene had no idea where or what home was anymore. Her work back in Boston (and so in Greece) about to be taken from her, her people being displaced and erased back in New Mexico on Navajo homelands, her son Jossie somewhere unreachable in California, having set down roots in the land of his father’s people. Kanti divorced, estranged, displaced—much of what she loved out of bounds now. Travel regulated. Losses mounting terribly, on every hand. The past and the future both under threat; only this moment and the remnants of the night crossing still essentially hers.
After the long rigmarole of docking, the ferry began unloading, and Kanti stepped off as if after long weeks and not just ten hours onto the foreign but familiar land. There was no one to meet her, the waterfront and streets hauntingly empty, silent at that hour before daybreak, no life apparent . . . calling to mind the end of the Bronze Age, when all the Minoan cities and palaces had been abandoned, the peaceful, prosperous civilization gone abruptly from the whole island, the vast Aegean world, with no evident cause.
Yet Kanti came into her own again, stepping ashore. Having expected to feel nothing but absence this time, the absence spreading everywhere, she found herself surprised by the enduring solidity of the Cretan port, its potent quiddity, surprised a moment later by tears in her tired eyes. Even before she got in line for strong Greek coffee and a “toast,” she felt as if she’d wakened from a long sleep, instead of none. She felt a quickening of excitement, eager to see Zakaria and start her work—suddenly sure she’d find what she’d come looking for, that she’d be lucky despite everything.
From Heraklion she set out east in the rented Fiat 500, Aegean blue, for the house in Mochlos, and Zak. He’d left a voicemail saying he’d be working at ISTAP this week, the archaeological center. She counted back. This would be her sixth summer with the big Afro-Greek who had become her colleague, mentor, source of necessary information . . . and often unnecessary whimsy.
“And inshallah, husband-to-be,” he told her blithely every morning they awoke together, wrapping her in his gentle, muscled arms—argue with him and his quixotic fancies though she might. And absolutely did. Their arguments always quickened her, like walking in a good brisk wind. The ability to see what wasn’t there—that was his gift, or curse. The ability to see what was there, in minute detail, was hers. To see its isotopes, its colors as wavelengths measured in nanometers, its phosphate concentrations, the ratios of rubidium and strontium that pinpointed its source.
Her field, pollen analysis, asked: was an area forested? Did building the Greek fleet of ships deforest it? What happened to crop production after the colossal eruption of Thera? But Zak with his cultural anthropology bias wanted to know, instead: what were the shipbuilders wondering while they fitted planks together, the ancient millers dreaming while grinding their corn? What did the shape or silk or mystery of the inner kernels of the corn suggest to them, the swarming bees that made the honey that left traces in the pots, the beekeeper who sailed with Jason and the other Argonauts, the oracle which bees revealed? Why had they felt the need to tell stories with bees as if with honeyed vowels? His muzzy speculations, those of poets and romancers, only exasperated her.
Kanti was nonetheless longing to see him, after the many months away. Since he was working she would stop at Knossos first, while she was still nearby—confirm her permit to use the library at the Research Centre, pay another visit to the ancient palace complex where she’d first become immersed in the strata of loss, the gradations of oblivion. The layers of consecutive rising and falling, razing and building again on top of the cumulative ruins.
That’s how human progress went too. Not knowing, then knowing something, elated. Knowing more every year, until everything known is proven wrong, knowledge itself taken away. The Classics program being discontinued in the fall, her expertise not valued anymore. The college closing where she’d studied as an undergraduate. Science discredited, under attack, the owl of Athena (representing wisdom, truth) endangered like all other birds, the birds going extinct at terrifying rates.
She rubbed her face, brought herself back to Crete. The short time left.
Without the usual onslaught of tour busses, Knossos was as unpeopled as Kanti had ever seen it. The ancient valley aching with abandonment, humming with heat, dust, olives, pine, the shade of cypresses. How long ago it seemed, the work she’d done collecting samples from an unassuming cultivated field in the surrounding valley, near the well-known palace or temple site. Familiar but strange again. The excavated walls looking like all the others, even back in her native Chaco, Pecos, Puye; yet every site distinct through the patterns found in the soil samplings. The valley’s tholos tombs not unlike the southwestern kivas either—round womblike chambers, protective enclosures of fitted stone. Womb not far from tomb. Death on everyone’s mind these days, early spring 2020 an important historical threshold now too.
She knew that even gypsum burned in the final destruction of the palace at Knossos, the third and last great fall. She’d seen black gypsum slabs, blackened by burning oil when the building complex was destroyed. The burn marks showed which way the wind had been blowing that day.
But stone and bones and cultural remains were the domain of other archaeologists. Kanti’s was pollen, which by nature carried in it hope. Continuation. More than Zak’s stories of the ancient gods and heroes did; the tellers of stories were after all as mortal as everyone else.
Recently—towards the end of the Anthropocene destruction—Kanti had begun to look for signs of what had happened after the final Minoan destruction. That last, utter abandonment, when even the old gods were left behind. She’d examined the traces of pollen and spores in the dark ages that came after that conclusive end. Wanting to know how it was you could go on after that, from there.
She’d always wanted, above everything, to know. Felt incomplete not knowing. Was certain that belief like Zak’s wasn’t enough. Belief was flawed, frail, inexact. It could only fail you.
Lingering longer than she’d intended at Knossos, she got to Mochlos late that afternoon. The fishing village on the harbor where some of the fleeing Minoans had come, before being driven from here, also. Possessions hidden against their eventual return—which never came. All of them gone for good. As I will be, Kanti told herself. In just a few short months she’d be on her way back to Athens, back to the States (Boston, to pack her things) and quarantine and the unknown the changed forever the unfathomable what-next.
For now, though, she was home. Zak’s house was simple, in the village, near the sea. Its sky blue doors and balcony offset the sail white walls, awning, and bed draped with gauzy mosquito nets. And Bear, the deaf old Labrador, white as a polar bear, who rose wagging to meet her from her worn Flokati rug. Of wildly different moods when younger, Zak had called her a “bi-polar bear.”
Downstairs the tiny kitchen resembled a kind of shrine, spice jars like votive candles in a mission church clustered around a clay goddess with arms uplifted, cracks part of her being, her essence. A replica of the famous Minoan goddesses. The jars holding the spices Zak collected. Not just the native sage, oregano, and thyme; Greek mountain tea, mythical dittany, and saffron whose harvest was captured in the famous Minoan fresco; but za’atar, ras al hanout, Aleppo pepper, Indian curries, and turmeric. Dried red chile pods Kanti had brought him from New Mexico. Cumin and juniper berries. Another difference between them; Kanti could hardly be bothered to cook.
Upstairs in front was what distinguished Mochlos from landlocked New Mexico—expansive views of Mirabello Bay. She settled in, hung her few clothes on Zak’s goofily sturdy wooden hangers—so unlike his aerial spirit, then back downstairs sat on the floor with Bear’s head on her knee. She rubbed the Labrador’s flannel-soft ears before fetching her leash from the deep windowsill near the front door to take the old dog for a walk.
They walked along the sea, and she admired it while being reminded again of the deep past that drew her so persistently. On the island just offshore, the ruins of the ancient walls stood open to the sky. Archaeologists still had an active dig there. When the sea wasn’t too rough, the winds too strong, they’d swim across, but otherwise there was a little boat that ferried visitors as well. She’d go take samplings there tomorrow maybe, one day soon.
Land solidified out of the darkening water, a sure straight stroke across the horizon between water and sky, one dark and another, like a fresh-drawn ink line—like the tribal tattoos on her African lover’s skin from the rites of passage he had once undergone, boy become man. Then Libyan become Greek. What rites of passage did any of them have now, to mark the blind crossings and crisscrossings?
The end of the Bronze Age was Kanti’s specialty, the mystery she wanted more than anything to solve. She kept revisiting that moment in the depths of time when everything accomplished until then was lost not just in Greece but in all of Mediterranean Europe, the Near East, and North Africa, and a new era of unknowing silently began. Some three and a half thousand years ago civilizations fell, writing systems vanished, everything went dark. But why?
The cataclysmic volcanic eruption on Thera (the ancient name of Santorini) did cause sherds of ash in the icecaps of Greenland, an indelible record in the tree rings of California’s bristlecone pines, crop failures in China, the legendary plagues of Egypt. It rewrote geography—left an enormous hole in Thera and the bottom of the sea, drowned settlements and reconfigured harbors along Crete’s north coast, cut promontories off into islands, and threw great waves thirty miles inland into Turkey, carving channels almost to Mount Ararat.
But it was still unclear what happened next, after the devastation by the eruption and consequent tsunamis, earthquakes, fires, ash. All those together might well have extinguished life on Crete and neighboring islands. But evidently life had gone on after the catastrophe for no less than a hundred years. With every system fatally weakened, those hanging on would have been crippled, dispossessed of defenses—naval, spiritual, medical—and hope, and prey for invaders from the mainland. The warlike Mycenaeans, the phantom “Sea Peoples” . . . nobody really knew what came after, though theories abounded. Kanti had searched for clues in the soil, for theories that fit what she and others found.
After the great eruption, anyway, the last decline began. The palaces and sanctuaries were abandoned one by one, the centers of religion were snuffed out, rebuilding stopped, ruins left to the scouring wind, until the whole island was silent, dark, the ninety Cretan cities sung by Homer lost as surely as the graceful Minoan ships had been, gone without trace into the lightless sea.
First came cataclysm. And then, silence.
But Kanti had a new theory; she was so close. This summer—maybe the only summer left her to figure it out—she had to take more samples at the last of the Minoan sites, and comb through the archives and database at INSTAP, down the coast, the library and stratigraphical museum at the Knossos Research Centre of the British School of Athens, where she’d been today.
Then, she thought with a quick thrill of anticipation, she might well know for sure.
Kanti and Zak settled into their old easy companionship, love that was playful (his) and steady (hers), as if she hadn’t been away, as if the world hadn’t changed drastically that spring. He deftly assembled a lamb and eggplant moussaka with cinnamon and mint and allspice, and a feta layer on top. They walked just before midnight to the sea, to sit on the steps of the jetty and regard the skies. She breathed him in, wonderingly. Zak—storyteller, mythteller. Student of Comparative Religion, from Libya via one of the British universities and emigration with rich parents to Athens, then on his own to Crete. Enchanted by the early myths, the early religions, which transcended cultures. He always coaxed her eyes up to the skies, cajoling her despite herself to look for stories in the stars, all of the ancient myths fixed in a star-map like a fishing net that gathered up into it all humanity, all gods, all time. His faith resided there, greatheartedly.
But hers was in the earth, in the glass of her microscope, in organisms much closer at hand. And yes, through those things, you could come back from extinction.
“I read that researchers in Israel have actually germinated seeds of extinct Judean date palms—from Masada, the Qumran Caves—and resurrected ancient DNA.”
“Preserving life—almost as well as do the stories in the stars,” Zak teased the stubborn disbeliever.
“You’d like that they’ve named the seedlings after Biblical characters.”
“I like that very much.”
“But can I wait as long as that, to be resurrected?” She told him then about the Classics Department being shut down, her job ending after this summer’s work. She hadn’t wanted to spoil their reunion, earlier.
“Of course it’s ironic that Science is under attack, when I always belittle your beloved Humanities.”
“Ironic, yes, but isn’t that beside the point? The question is how we can make it possible for you to stay.”
Kanti growled into the darkness and the old gods in the Cretan stars, knowing it made no difference what she wanted, what she said. “Of course I want to stay. I want that with all that I am. But that’s beside the point, too, don’t you see?”
“If we were married . . .” Zak began, not deterred by the fierce look she shot him, easy enough to see in the reflected light. Her standard reaction. Why did he just keep on? “You could get your residency permit, be hired by the conservation lab, teach classes in the summer . . .”
She was unfairly negative on the subject, she knew, but his entreaties only made her more stubborn—though stubborn with a new sadness. Because he couldn’t see how unlikely and crazy all that had become.
As if in response, like a smoke alarm, her cellphone rang in the side pocket of her cargo pants. She didn’t usually carry her phone, but was waiting to hear back from a colleague in Athens. She got up, climbed the steps of the jetty and walked along the beach a ways for privacy.
She hadn’t expected the combative voice that jumped feet-first into her head. It was her brother back in Gallup, making sure she knew just how bad things were getting there while she was here messing about with other people’s history. Dishing out even more than his usual incendiary criticism and recriminations. Eli, her angry and unsympathetic twin. A devotee of all the old traditions and rituals, he couldn’t understand how she could conscionably live outside the clan.
He reported angrily that Covid-related deaths were soaring on the Navajo (the Diné) Nation, with its shamefully inadequate provisions—no wonder, with so many family members, of all generations, living by tradition in each home.
“Mostly our elders. Our parents. Haven’t you heard? Isn’t there news there? Or is it just that you, as usual, don’t give a damn?”
And when they died, as they were doing already, in tragic unsung droves, language and cultural identity (their ceremonies, prayers and songs, healing) would disappear with them, no longer being passed along from person to person, to those now being born.
Knowledge again, Kanti thought, chilled. Disappearing wholesale, along with the people she loved. Loved fiercely, yes, no matter what Eli believed.
She shook her head when Zak wondered who she’d been talking to, said just
“I need to sleep on this.” Or toss and turn on it, as on a bed of nails. She took his hand, holding on for dear life.
Kanti startled awake early the next morning, not many hours after being loaded down with guilt, and slipped out of the sheets without disturbing Zak.
She had no idea what she would do. Her powerful family obligations warred with her need to be here in Crete, while this precious fugitive snatch of time was left for her to salvage what she could out of the void. It had come down to now or never—despite Zak’s hopeful castles in the air, the chimeras that hared ahead of them.
She saw the sea was rough; a wind had come up in the night, banging the shutters, making sleep even harder. She wondered if it was too choppy for swimming, but decided to risk it. She felt the pull of the Minoans strong as waves or wind. But no less insistent, the pull of her family back in New Mexico—her soft-spoken father, Ruben, a full blood Navajo, a public-safety manager at risk in his job out in the community; her quick-witted mother, Rosalia, half-Hispanic half-Navajo, an artist illustrating children’s books that handed down folktales and legends, also active in tribal affairs. Angry Eli, yet quick to defend the many he cared about.
She left her towel on the stretch of white sand beach. She didn’t like swimming usually, choosing to keep her feet on solid ground and not trust herself to the shapeshifting water, though Zak loved swimming almost more than anything—more even than magicking his spices, than reading Mary Renault, Robert Graves, Joseph Campbell. She only had a suit because he’d bought her one without asking. So this venture into the Aegean was strangely unlike her. But these were strange, unlikely times.
She didn’t swim as far as the island, the fallen walls of the Minoan settlement across the steel blue strip of sea from the village (and once a part of it), though she could picture in her mind’s eye from previous visits the streets and storerooms, pillar crypts with pillars broken by an earthquake. She felt the water buoy and carry her, the swells and currents strong but not alarming. She felt enlivened by them as if they were a part of her, alive in the moment, able—for the time being—to block out whatever lay ahead.
When she came out, dripping and gasping from the unaccustomed exercise, she found Zak waiting with Bear at a table with a blue and white cloth on the terrace of the taverna by the jetty, where a number of fishing boats were tied. Bear’s tail beat audibly on the pavement. Their friend Marios the tavern keeper greeted Kanti with similar enthusiasm, brought French-press coffee, strong and rich and wonderful, and then yogurt and forest honey with ripe apricots, and some of the delicious small cheese pies, kalitsounia.
She could see whitewashed walls awash with flowers. Tamarisk or salt cedar grew at water’s edge beyond the row of tavernas; a fleet of little boats bobbed offshore like silvery sardines (“summer people,” Marios liked to comment, dripping scorn); and beyond them was the dramatic view up the coast—tremendous vistas all around, in fact—successive layers of mountains encircling the bay.
Kanti tried to read her heart, after the call, the restless night, regarding the intense blue of the sea beyond the terrace of the taverna, where a few other people had now come for breakfast. She considered her inner landscape as well as the fishing village on the northern coast of Crete where they sat by the wind-roughed sea, not yet speaking. The summer people would come to Mochlos in a month or so, collect their boats for the summer, and visit all the Cyclades, the coasts of Turkey, Cypress. Follow the old trade routes. But what about this year? And she—would she be gone by then? Would she accede to her twin’s severe expectations? Her time was shorter than she’d known, and much more fraught.
Then there was Zak. As always his reasonable coaxing made her dig into her position like a stubborn mule. But this time it was different. Possibly life or death, with no second chances.
“I ought to get back to my family, however I can.”
“You won’t be able to get to them, anyway, from what I hear.”
“After ten days—two weeks—of quarantine . . . ” It would make a difference knowing she was closer, anyway, keeping an eye on them. Caring. Not off on some baffling foreign island, vast stretches of distance and time away.
“I need you here, aghapi mou,” Zak said softly. “If you go now, will you ever get back to me? And I know how much this year’s research means to you. How can you walk away from that?”
She couldn’t, Kanti thought. Not yet. But she continued to protest, feebly, owing them that.
“My place is there.” Or, to tear herself into a few more pieces, in California, where her son would on June 12th be marrying his Anglo sweetheart on a different beach, a different sea.
“Our places have all mostly been erased.”
And cold inside, despite the building heat, she knew that that was true. She loved her work, but now it felt just too close to the bone, dealing as it did with the extinction of a whole world, and yet too nebulous to hang onto.
Later that day she tried to make a plan, to deal with a possibly shortened timetable. Weighed duty against her defiant desire to know, to unravel the mysteries. Her love of Zak, which had no viable solution anymore. Bear moving to lie on her feet, she sat down with her notes, her easier, once-removed questions. The truths that held her steady.
The world was now almost entirely in flux, except pollens—that was their beauty. They were always exactly the same. Identifiable. Unique.
In the middle of May, after endless hours in the archives at the archaeology center not finding anything useful, feeling restless and increasingly panicked, inadequate for the enormous task she’d set herself, Kanti decided that since time was so chancy she needed sooner rather than later to get the soil samples she wanted before life interfered. She’d go first to Vronda, the site above Kavousi on the mountainside where the goddesses had been found.
Zak insisted he’d go along too, anxious to be with her all he could, keep her in sight the way Bear did him when he was making signs of leaving.
So they set out together in the blue Fiat for one of the last fastnesses of the small remnant of the once-great civilization which had survived beyond the general fall—soon to be gone as well.
She felt the urgency especially there, in that liminal place so near the end. The end of the Minoans, the end of the Bronze Age. She felt in her own bones the aching traces of the dying culture she had followed with curious concern. At Vronda (and still higher up, at Karphi, the highest of all the peak sanctuaries) the very last hold-outs had defied the forces of natural destruction, the unidentified invaders, fate writ large. They’d been cut off from everything, hung on precariously in the haunts of gods who’d chosen not to save them. They died unmarked on mountains they had held sacred. The shrines that they had tended in the end became their graves.
It was beautiful and silent above Kavousi, Crete at its most elemental. The hillside was thick with sage and thyme, oregano and dittany, which other summers they had picked for tea. They crushed herbs as they walked, releasing the fragrance with every step, and then sank down into its numinal essence, Kanti needing to catch her breath, reclaim her equilibrium, feel Zak’s skin along hers, heart drumming under his t-shirt, boundaries erased.
Lying, breathing, she was aware of how alone they were on this remote mountain, far from the village down below. The silence extended on every side; the only other living creature was a bearded vulture hanging on an updraft high above. The sheer crags climbed imperviously up to the vast realms of the Greek gods, also impervious. She knew they couldn’t be summoned, wouldn’t bother to help two strangers any more than they had helped the worshipful Minoans those thousands of years ago. Zak held Kanti; the earth and sky held them together without comfort or mercy. Far, far below, on the horizon, was the sea, distant Agios Nikolaos glinting in the sun due west of Mochlos across the blue half circle of bay.
They waded through a sea of wild carrot to reach the stones that formed the ancient shrine, the site first excavated by another American archaeologist, Harriet Boyd. There she had found the fragments of thirty-some goddesses with upraised hands, the goddesses which Zak had studied for over ten years. When he’d first started working on the fragments of the goddesses from this place above Kavousi, Kanti had wondered what it meant to have a goddess that was all sherds and restorer’s glue. Now that seemed the normal way of things. The gods were broken too, no help would be forthcoming anymore. Kanti’s mother and father, twin and son, the clan, the people of the world who she knew and didn’t—salvation was in them, as in a weightless float of pollen, or nowhere.
On their way down the mountain they stopped at a stone chapel which they’d spotted from above, Zak wanting to show her its medieval icons, timeworn but touched with gold still, lit by new candles. And it was there, as they were trying to make out the features of some evanescing saint, that Kanti’s phone sounded its insistent alarm again.
It was too late already; she was out of time. She understood that from the ring tone, from her brother’s voice.
“My wife Lou’s in the hospital. And Dad’s running a fever this morning—no wonder, out among people the way he is. Ernie’s loaned us his camp trailer, parked it out back so Dad can quarantine and keep apart from us, Grandma Lucy, the kids, Lou’s Auntie Vi. The health service is talking about building little shelters where they’re needed . . . but that’s not happening yet.”
The separation, fragmentation, had begun. The loss of connective tissue. The other losses she was loath to contemplate.
Zak watched Kanti’s growing despair, was—before he could draw a breath to speak, protest—without reprieve across a deep divide. She needed to go to her family right away, if that was even possible with travel bans, lockdown.
“And now I’ll never know,” she said simply, before all else, feeling the dark ages close in, obscure the light even out in the blinding afternoon sunlight.
“In the end,” Zak said, voice rough, feeling the looming darkness too, seeing the seas and land masses gaping between them, and a host of grasping hands like in Hieronymus Bosch’s The Harrowing of Hell which he had seen in Istanbul, “I think that we can know only our heart.”
But Kanti’s heart was unsure, untried, full of fear. Not even that, she thought, for some of us. Was it really those dead worlds she had cared about, when the living might yet with true effort be saved? Did anybody know enough to pull that off? She clung ferociously to Zak, mourning the swaths of wasted time, the effort spent knowing the wrong things, the colossally unhelpful things.
They had most of the day left between them before she started for Athens and the airport; flights everywhere were being cancelled, tickets hard to come by, tests required if you were to board. She’d catch the ferry that evening for the reverse crossing. Zak insisted he’d drive her there, with Bear in the back seat, return the rented car another time.
“Come back,” he said, nose pressed against Kanti’s forehead at the port in Heraklion. “Later this year . . . next year . . . someday before we’re old.”
“I don’t guess I could marry you by Zoom,” she said softly into his shirt collar, voice unsteady. There wasn’t even time to say no, anymore. The rigorous boundaries she’d drawn were no longer in her. “But let’s take heart from pollen and date palm seeds.”
She sat on the top deck of the ferry trying to situate herself among the stars. It was strangely important on that crossing back to Piraeus from Heraklion, maybe the last ever, to sit on the top deck out in the open air, watching the island growing small behind her. Looking as she and Zak had done so many times for Ursus Major—the Big Dipper or Big Bear (dear Bear)—the nymph Callisto felled by an arrow; and then Cassiopeia, the ill-fated queen, the constellation with its missing star, the ache in its middle. Or to the Navajo, Revolving Male and Revolving Female, never too far from the Home Fire, as they called the North Star.
Kanti was headed home, tearing herself away from home. She felt her disorientation keenly, streaming through the darkness, nowhere. A train of smoke streamed like a veil behind the ship’s funnel. Other ships’ lights accompanied them indistinctly, far behind. Forming another constellation between them; like all human endeavors now, asymptotic—not touching, never quite arriving.
Christie Cochrell’s work has been published by Catamaran, Orca, Lowestoft Chronicle, Cumberland River Review, Tin House, and a variety of others, and has won several awards and been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize. Chosen as New Mexico Young Poet of the Year while growing up in Santa Fe, she’s recently published a volume of collected poems, Contagious Magic. She lives by the ocean in Santa Cruz, California—too often lured away from her writing by otters, pelicans, and seaside walks.
© 2022, Christie Cochrell