THOSE OTHER SELVES
‘I will find you,’ she says. I wonder what she is thinking as I hold her hand. Carole, the love of my life lies, pale and emaciated with her head lost in the pillows, black hair just beginning to grow again after the chemo. I moisten her cracked lips.
She whispers again, ‘I will find you,’ takes one deep breath and is still, her spirit gone, only a resonance is left. I kiss her eyes closed and keep hold of her hand. All around there are reminders. A framed photo with her dark hair and blue eyes, torments me. I turn it face down and stuff her oval hair grip with the silver arrows into my pocket.
For weeks, I scarcely venture out except for take-aways or another bottle of wine. The anguish of Carole’s death drives me, even more, to shun other people’s company and, as I am by nature a bit of a loner, I resolve to take a long, unaccompanied sabbatical and travel to weird places, far from the thrusting crowd.
It is cool and misty this April morning. I am high in the desolate mountains of northern Greece. The sun tries but fails to break through the haze and wispy clouds writhe mysteriously through the packed cedars in the valley. It is the day before Easter, when Greeks roast whole lambs and the spits are being set up in the centre of the village. The smell of fresh charcoal reminds me of summer in my parents’ home in England.
My father is tending the glowing barbecue, carefully arranging the coals. My mother is yelling for him to clean up the mess he made preparing the skewers in the kitchen. He goes without a murmur. His sycophancy infuriates me. I query how he stands the harassment. ‘I love her,’ he said.
My own memories of Carole overflow again as locals in the Marketplace gather to talk, to sip tiny cups of strong coffee and to drink Retsina, that fishy mountain brew with a hint of rotting pines that here and only here tastes right. The barber is at work and fish and vegetable stalls are busy as I wander through the chatting groups returning friendly greetings of Yassus or Kalimera. Under a tree at the far end of the square I spot a small tent covered with mystic symbols. Over the canvas doorway a name, Arocel, and, below it, a word I guess means Clairvoyant. Is it curiosity or anticipation that makes me stroll over, raise the flap and walk in, hoping she will speak a little English?
A large woman dressed in bright colours sits in the gloom lit by a smelly oil-lamp, hanging from the ridge pole. The lamp flares and smokes as the draught catches it.
‘Ne,’ she says in Greek, then, ‘Yes, I can help you?’
On a rickety table in front of her stands a globe of crystal glass reflecting the sparkle of her bracelets and the thin shards of light filtered through frayed stitching in the canvas. I feel a frisson of discomfort as she leans forward.
I swallow and come out, lamely with, ‘You tell my future?’
‘Sit,’ she commands and with shaky knees I collapse onto a creaky chair. ‘That is why I am here.’ The piercing black eyes in her dark and deeply lined face gaze at me from under her multi coloured head-scarf. ‘I know you will come, Michael,’ pronouncing it Mickel. ‘You have journeyed far and looked for answers in many lands.’
I start. How does she know my name?
‘What else do you know?’ I ask.
She stares deep into the crystal. ‘I can see you have travelled much in your search. You have slept on the red strands of the desert and watched the sun rise, gold and black at dawn. You have seen a train of shadow camels walking tirelessly across the sand waves. You have climbed in the High Andes and fallen sick of the mountain fever.’ She gazes at the globe more closely and pauses, studying me. ‘You have lost someone you loved.’
How does she know this? My hands are restless and I wipe my sweaty face.
‘Be not afraid,’ she soothes, ‘you are on a journey.’ She puts her palms together. ‘I can help you.’
Leaning forward, her eyes gaze into the sphere now pulsing with a numinous radiance. Behind her I sense a dark shadow of Carole as a deep voice intones the words...
‘You will go from here to the ancient Monastery, Pankatorus. To find your other self, you must enter the lowest chamber and consult the Oracle who will guide you...’
My mind is full, recalling times when I imagine I have seen Carole. In the Sahara, was she with a friend, three camels ahead in the train edging into the desert; was she bending over me when I was lying in a bivouac in the Andes, feverish with altitude sickness? Had I glimpsed and heard her again standing behind the seer?
I come to, sitting on the damp ground, propped against a tree trunk in the square. Solicitous villagers have gathered round to see what is wrong. There is no sign of the tent and the locals, are puzzled and shake their heads when I try to explain about the Clairvoyant. Someone hands me a glass of Ouzo, which I gulp down, teeth chattering.
The spirit is liquid fire but does nothing to drown my disorientation. Was the session with the mystic, hallucination – mightily detailed if so? ‘…to find your other self,’ were her words. What did she mean – a different me?
I repair to the taverna and treat myself to a bottle of the local red. It dawns on me that my life recently has been pretty aimless and hedonistic. What happened to all those high ideals about non - materialism and being better than my parents if Carole and I had children of our own – the beliefs for which we might have lived? I choke on the grief, I have tried to bury these last two years.
Enough! At least the villagers know about the derelict monastery so, standing up, I punch the air and swear. I will pull myself together, seek a purpose in life and stop whingeing. Yes, I will go to Pankatorus. I am determined find the Oracle and hear her portent for the future.
Two days later, the weekly bus rolls into the square. I climb aboard and grab a seat to make the most of the scenery. We are headed for Meteora, the centre of a unique cluster of monasteries which I visited in my gap year, built at the summits of rock pinnacles and until recently, inaccessible except by rope ladders. A few of them remain, upholding the Orthodox faith. Pankatorus, was of the group but is now an abandoned ruin.
The bus pants and wheezes up the steep inclines and clings to the narrow roadway, scraping the rocky walls on one side. I am acutely aware of the sheer drops on the other.
At a village halt a slim Greek girl climbs aboard. She has waist length black hair, and she smiles briefly in my direction, lifts her backpack into the shelf and sits near the driver. Another Carole apparition? This time I am determined to get close enough to speak, so, after a toilet stop half an hour later I let her climb back first and follow to look at the space next to her, enquiringly.
‘Ne,’ she says, then in English, ‘please join me,’
I stuff my jacket onto the rack. Our thighs barely touch as I drop into the seat but it is like a long-lost caress and I gasp as she makes herself comfortable.
‘You are English?’ she enquires and I nod. ‘That is good.’ Her voice is deep and assured. ‘I am Lorcea,’ she says formally shaking my hand. Hers is freezing but I find myself holding it for too long.
‘How do you do, Mickel.’
We soon get chatting as though we’d known each other for years. It is some time since I had a one to one conversation, especially with a girl and my recent experiences pour out. I tell her about my hallucination and the Clairvoyant.
‘It is pre, how you say it, ordained,’ she says matter-of-factly. ‘Of course, you must go find the Oracle. I have not visit Pankatorus myself, but I have hear that it is dangerous. It has been abandoned for many years. On the second of thoughts you should perhaps look for your other self, somewhere safer,’ she intones in a deep voice.
She pauses, looking at me with concern and then laughs at the irony and my heart gives a lurch at her words as I try to smile back. At the next village, while the bus driver has a break, over strong coffees and a bite to eat, we talk. Surprising myself, I tell her about Carole and her dying promise to find me, of my decision to embark on this sabbatical and that, despite adventures in the Sahara and Peru, I still have yet to discover a new road to take.
Lorcea, too, is living a rather solitary life having split up with a long-term partner who sought to break her. Now she had rid herself of him she feels she can breathe again.
We climb back into the bus, for the last stage of the journey to Meteora. I am reminded of my visit as a young man, in my gap year, and I tell her about the Canadian Nun I met there who had visited the Monastery as a tourist. Grateful for the order and simplicity of daily life, she made the decision to stay on and live for the faith; a friendly charming girl, who loved the calm and was loved by the Nuns.’
‘And by you?’ She says, her eyebrows raised. The way she looks at me is like a familiar memory which will not quite surface.
‘Not a bit of it,’ but I think, I could love a girl like you.
She falls asleep and her head rests weightlessly on my shoulder. I haven’t felt an ache like this for ages and I give myself a mental rap over the knuckles for being so adolescent but the wrong feelings strengthen and only three hours later, the bus reaches the village a few miles from my goal.
‘Will you come with me on my journey, please?’
‘I cannot, Mickel, I’m here to take a group of sixth formers climbing in the Tzoumerka National Park.’
So, we agree to meet up again in five days’ time at the same village after her school expedition. I kiss her olive cheek below the dark hair. She turns her head and our lips touch. She twists away and grips my arm fiercely, ‘Promise me you will not go to Pankatorus.’
‘But...’ I protest as she climbs back onto the bus, ‘I have a mission.’
‘Do not say I not warn you,’ she shouts from the window as it roars off in a froth of noisy exhaust fumes.
At the village store next morning, with the touch of her lips still burning and her anxiety still ringing in my head, I buy an electric torch and a lined leather jacket, (I must have left mine on the bus) and pack spanakopita, that tasty spinach and feta pie, with a large bottle of water (and for emergencies, a small one of Ouzo) in my knapsack.
With a twinge of unease, I set off on the long hike to the Monastery and, after a couple of hours walking, through the mist on the rough track I can see high above me the ruined buildings atop their jagged pinnacle of rock. The slope grows ever steeper and the mist thickens as I approach the summit. As there is no recognisable path, I force on roughly through the thorny shrubs, which draw blood and tear at my clothes. Why am I doing this? Will my whole search be a fiasco? I climb on.
The final fifty feet are near vertical. I have to scramble from one precarious rocky outcrop to the next. It seems to take an eternity until, at last, breathing heavily, I slump exhausted onto the cold stone flags in a decaying portico. I look up at the gloom shrouding the ancient stonework and shiver.
Well, I ponder, the voice in the tent spoke of descending to the lowest chamber. Let’s go find this Oracle of hers.
The gloomy interior is festooned with huge wet cobwebs, which stick to my head and arms. The decaying walls still have strength but the only roofs that endure are stone and vaulted; the remainder must have disappeared years ago. As I venture further inside, the darker it gets. I cannot see the ground beneath my feet. A breath of wind disturbs the webs and a whiff of fear catches the hairs on my neck.
I move forward again and without warning the floor gives way under me. I reach out despairingly but there is nothing to grab and I slide into the depths in a cascade of rotten timbers and rattling stones.
In the darkness, I lie shaken for some minutes. When I haul myself cautiously to my feet, I find that my ankle is painfully twisted and my arm and ribs are sore but I am in one piece at the bottom of a deep shaft smelling of decay. The damp walls glisten and the dim glow of any remaining daylight is ten feet above my head. I massage my damaged leg and my eyes adjust to the gloom as I look for a way back to the top. A clatter of stones and debris falls near me breaking the silence. Even with torchlight, the walls appear to be sheer with no obvious foot or hand holds. In one wall, but there is a small opening, which might lead somewhere. The mortar is crumbling and I have soon enlarged the hole enough to climb through into a lower chamber looking for a way out.
I see a vast cavern and my torch illuminates rocky walls covered with ancient mosaics. One is of strange lilac flowers ten feet tall with yellow stamens writhing upwards from their vortex of lily-like leaves. Just below the vaulted ceiling, snakes a deep frieze of earthy red and dark blue tiles. The roof is carved from the solid rock and impregnable. There is a spatter of stones in the outer chamber and I crawl back shouting for help. There is no response.
Over the next days, the gravity of my predicament overwhelms me and although I will repeat this journey, many times when I hear noises, there is never anyone there. I return to the great cavern desperately looking for an escape route but it is hopeless. I try to sleep but the fear of dying down here gnaws away at me. My rations have gone and there is little water left in my bottle.
My torch glows on another mosaic which features a creature with a cockerel’s head on the body of a lion relaxing in a flowing stream of clouds and waves; blue spirals wind round its neck. Above the apparition, the unremitting frieze of red and blue, red and blue tightens its grip.
Two pale dolphins chase across one more recess and, always the red and blue frieze bores into my mind. The dim piece of sky in the shaft next door has blacked out several times now and I once catch a glimpse of a shooting star.
My water bottle is empty. How many days I have been trapped down here? Hungry as hell, my throat is dry and my lips cracked, I try licking the slimy wet walls in the outer grotto but the taste is foul. I have nothing left to throw up and have a last swig at the Ouzo in disgust. My head spins. My torch flickers. Above me a figure begins to form.
In the feeble glow, a swirling circle of iridescent streamers surround her head and shoulders. She floats, staring at me with sad blue eyes and leans forward. A small silver loop with three pointed arrows binds her long black hair. My torch stutters again and goes out, but I can still see her and hear her words.
‘At last you have come, Mickel. Go now from here to value the love you have found on your journey. Go, re-unite your other selves.
’My head cracks against a wall as I stumble in the dark. Are my days to end here; no new love; as I stumble in the dark. Are my days to end here; no new love; no children playing on a lawn with the smell of charcoal and the touch of happiness?
I curse, trying to fend off the cockerel pecking at my lips. The lion is a dead weight clawing at my chest and the evil flowers turn their faces towards me and spit their stinging juices at my eyes. The red and blue frieze circles faster and tighter… can’t breathe...
I am dimly aware of a clatter of stones falling and hear a distant call. I struggle to regain consciousness as the voice comes again.
‘Is there anyone there? Mickel, are you there? Please God, shout, shout.’
I croak. ’Here. Can’t move.’
‘Wait,’ says the voice, ‘I have brought help. Be brave, my dear.’
A rope falls into the outer chamber and a lithe figure crawls through the opening.
‘The Gods be thanked,’ she says. ‘Lie still.’
‘How… did you… know I... was here?’
‘When you don’t come yesterday I know that you are in trouble. No one sees you since you set off for Pankatorus.’
She gently sits me up and tilts a bottle against my cracked lips, cradling my head against her. I sip the scalding cold water. The lamplight reflects in her blue eyes and glitters on the small oval with three silver arrows in her long black hair.
From the outer chamber, the thunder of falling masonry reaches us and the dim natural light fades. A shiver of musty air spreads into the haunted cavern.
‘We found you,’ she whispers as her arms enfold me, never to let go.