The last mountain village on the old road to Chania becomes the scene of an incident that could illustrate any number of points, but two in particular will do. One, that Cretan mountain roads are the most adventurous in all Europe, as evidenced by the ubiquitous ikonshrines marking fatalities; within each, mementoes, candles and offerings of olive oil. Two, that mythic potential lies in the quotidian, as in, say, Persephone’s wanton play.
It happens where three roads meet, specifically, in the Plateia Mere, the tiny central thoroughfare of that village which is the result of ancient goat tracks converging near a mountain stream, of ad hocarchitecture in rugged terrain, and of the exigencies of modern transportation all coinciding at one point with too little time and too little space.
At one corner, a café: before it, men in high boots and black caps, sitting outside with chair backs to the wall, filtering ouzo through large moustaches. Two play cards.
Opposite stands a nondescript shop, dusty and untouristed, a weather-worn advertisement for the Communist Party of Greece in red paint on one wall, the building itself serving only to offer obstruction to through traffic, large vehicles in particular.
On the third side, a simple stone dwelling roofed in cracked and faded tile, with an adjacent farmyard, a rock wall enclosing all, including chickens and sheep. Add a goat. Here, too, stands a donkey, two great panniers heaped with fleece criss-crossed on his back. By the doorway to this dwelling three old village women labour, each performing her necessary function. All work as one. I have a vague idea of what they are about, as does the donkey that blinks, and periodically shifts hind legs as though affecting poses. The goat is typically curious.
Now situate the bus I have travelled on since Rethymno between the two larger establishments, allowing me a full view of the little square and the farm and its inhabitants. Call the driver Captain, for he is commander supreme of his ship, he who navigates the tortuous roads now with daring, now with caution, now with klaxon blaring. Captain exchanges words with some aged villager leaning on a long, crooked stick.
At the rear of the bus three travellers eat cheese and break bread; they have Union Jacks on their backpacks. They embarked at Episkopi, and have measured the curves and terrors of the mountain road with oohs and aahs, and that’s a one-, a two-, or a three-ikoncorner.
Captain’s assistant, the second mate, functions as ticket taker, baggage handler, window wiper, cigarette lighter, traffic controller. He now leans out the front door of the bus, yelling, “Elas! Elas!”at the driver of a three-wheeled Zundaar, a much-maligned little vehicle, packed with gravity-defying logic: its cargo box, a mass of red plastic crates containing empty wine bottles, the whole looking as though it recently escaped from Pandora’s amphora to plague contemporary travellers. A sense of excess exists here, a sense of going beyond reasonable limits, necessity notwithstanding. At any other time it might have been oranges, or pomegranates, or containers of olive oil, or terracotta contrivances. The cab of the Zundaar is green and gritty, looking like a tired little bug. Inside sits a woman. She, with her small child, gets out to stand by a man cursing his fate, the condition of the road, the mechanical failings of his means, and indeed his own ineptitude. Blocked at this juncture by the Zundaar is the main road to Chania.
To the left on the third approach to the square looms a weary Volvo diesel, the first in a line of military vehicles, a convoy returning to Souda. As it rolls ahead slowly, its klaxon having sounded its inexorable approach, a soldier in grey-green fatigues jumps down from among those who sit crouched under the tarpaulin smoking cigarettes; he waves both his arms out before him like a matador without a cape. A collective cheer arises from the back of the lorry. A heated exchange ensues.
The donkey, all ears, ears as responsive as radar, lets out a forlorn wail. The old women, momentarily distracted, return to their task.
A black Mercedes with tinted windows and dented right front fender glides up behind the Zundaar. Within, an impatient driver, and one other. The horn registers a higher pitch and quality, but even its elegance inspires no movement.
Up behind the bus runs a big, beautiful motorbike, and on it two riders, like one, a leather pack between them. The one-, two-, three-ikongirls wave excitedly. There is recognition. There is an audience.
Captain sounds the klaxon. From out of the café tumble two young men. One is a lanky youth with long blond locks; the other is dressed in denim, and in his struggles manages to purchase tickets. They appear to be inebriated. High on the events unfolding, one of them brays. It is the one with long blond locks; it is a convincing exhibition; and it is laughable.
“Elas! Elas!” calls the driver, tossing out a cigarette impatiently, and revving up the engine.
“Get two more ikonsready,” says one of the girls when a billow of black diesel exhaust envelops the bikers.
The captain looks at me in the rear-view mirror as though I am the culpable one here. I look out the window past my own reflection across the narrow gap to focus on the three crones, who are huddled together now, watching.
The bus edges out, inches forward into the narrowest of spaces, shaking and shimmying. The Zundaar, pushed forward in desperation, lurches into a pothole filled with water, challenges the vertical, flips over to an angle of about forty-five degrees, cases catapulting into the road: crash, splash and chaos. The Mercedes lets out a last blast of impatience. Curses echo.
It is all so inevitable, this cacophony of confusion.
The motorbike pulls out from under the poisonous black cloud, wheels past the bus, slaloms awkwardly through the crates, bottles, glass and water, glances off the rock wall, and hurls its riders into the farmyard, one in the prone position, the other prostrate before the goat. The chickens scatter, squawking, the sheep skipping about in pursuit of the chickens. The goat dances delightedly. The donkey brays. The old women cross themselves three times and spit.
There is no death in this drama, only more delay, but somewhere in a neighbouring village, or perhaps here, flowers grow to be picked, another candle begins to taper, more olive oil is being pressed and soon to be blessed, an artisan fits together the sections of a portable roadside shrine, and another ikonartist in Chania paints golden halos around the heads of Saint Nicholas and Agia Paraskevi. In the green room of inevitability, Persephone arranges her hair.