SHE WAS STANDING next to the site entrance, the Greek woman, and I only spotted her as I made my way back into the main courtyard of the palace after I saw the royal chambers – the megara. She was standing in the shadow, with two companions – man and woman, I seem to remember, although I cannot say for sure, because my eyes went immediately toward her; I couldn’t look at anyone else. Her black eyebrows were furrowed slightly upwards, her round cheeks and double chin trembling slightly as she shook her head, and these little gestures made it more evident to me that it was bad form to stare at her, because I had travelled to Phaistós to look at ruins and not at the anger, of a fellow visitor.
If she ever noticed my little foray into voyeurism, however, she may have felt a bit relieved to know that most of her words were impenetrable to me – I wasn’t eavesdropping for words or meaning, but for rhythm, accent, drama. The rhythm had been sped up, each syllable hammering the air with perfect regularity. I found it comfortably familiar: we Southern Europeans tend to accelerate in the presence of strong emotions – anger, pressure, excitement – in a way that Central Europeans don’t. The accent was familiar too – very similar to my own Spanish accent, funnily enough, but with more ups and downs, some vowels abnormally elongated and broken into two pitches a sixth or a seventh apart from each other.
As for drama – who could not picture the Greek woman standing on stage in the amphitheatre a few yards south of us? She moved her hands and eyes animatedly, but her main asset was – as is the case, I would argue, with all great actors – her voice; the rhythm and accent alone sending my imagination running wild as I tried to figure out what kind of story she was telling. Had the ruins of Phaistós disappointed her, five euros too excessive a price for what she had seen? Had she just taken a call from her husband only to discover he wanted to leave her for his younger secretary?
No, she couldn’t be someone as prosaic as a frustrated tourist or an abandoned wife. The woman, black hair tied at the back of her neck, hips protruding proudly under her nude Capri pants – as they tend to do in Southern European women as we leave our youth behind – couldn’t be anything other than an Andromache, an Alcestis, maybe a young Hecuba.
I had been in Crete for five days when I visited Phaistós. I had already visited another two palaces the Minoans built in the interior regions of the island, their backs turned away from the sea – although a cynical observer may conclude that their caution had been in vain, if we are to believe the archaeological studies that claim that it was a maritime earthquake that swept the palaces away. Nevertheless, my moments of lucidity during those three visits had been few and far between- the moments in which the ruins ceased to be ruins and became something else: a glimpse into the lives into other human beings; into that of an actress, for example, hired by the majordomo of the palace to entertain the King and Queen four millenia ago.
My incapacity was made worse by the fact that I had a past, fifteen years earlier, as a Classics student: surely, conjuring kings and queens, actors and dancers, slaves and scribes, should have come easily to me. It didn’t. By the second visit to the palaces, I started to suspect that this was because during my university years I had happily neglected history, art, archaeology, everything which had to do with real, tangible achievements, and had instead devoted all my attention to literature, rhetoric, linguistics. At eighteen, I thought that Greek and Latin were perfect languages – probably the result of having charismatic ancient languages teachers at an impressionable age – from there it followed that whoever could understand that perfection would understand every minor detail of the civilizations that nurtured it. In Crete, I thought, my arrogance – my hybris – came back with a revenge. Hybris: another word I learned in my high school Ancient Greek class that seemed to cement the illusion of perfection: it was a word we human beings need, but I didn’t know of any language other than Greek that had an equivalent.
But language, I discovered, is not enough sometimes. I remember coming back to my single-occupancy double bedroom in Heraklio after visiting the palace of Knossós, on my second day in Crete. I remember thinking that, as far as I was concerned, Knossos could have been built as ruins, cicadas and tourists their only dwellers ever.
At least with Knossos, I could blame my disappointment on the numbers of tourists, as misanthropes sometimes do – about two thousand people visit the best-known of the Cretan palaces every day. I hopped off the bus and walked into the site; the cicadas were singing. I soon discovered I couldn’t walk on the squared-shaped courtyard without being distracted by red. It was everywhere – on the columns, on the walls mixed with other colours, like a whip among the stones. Every time I took my eyes away from my guide book or the remains of a room to look at the red, to my mind came invariably the thought that it was not authentic, but a modern addition. How else could any sort of red pigment resist thousands of years of rain and heat and stay so vivid, like a whip? What was more: the columns and walls must have repainted several times since Sir Arthur Evans – I presume – first came up with the idea.
I came up with a mantra. There is nothing inherently authentic about stones. I repeated it to myself over and over again, and, to make it more effective, I conjured images of all the buildings which I have only ever known as bare stone, but I know were covered in colour in their days of splendor. The Parthenon in Athens, the Pórtico da Gloria in Compostela. To my mind also came the moments in which I had learned about them: the Pórtico during a Literature class at high school in which I also learned that there were still some remains of colour on the stone in the 1860s that were sucked away when an Englishman called J.C. Robinson, from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London made a plaster cast of the Pórtico. The Parthenon during an Art History lecture at university, the instructor’s voice monotonous, his face inexpressive as we all looked at each other in amazement: he had already played that trick before; he liked to pretend nothing moved or surprised him. There is nothing inherently authentic about stones. It didn’t help.
In my attempt at fleeing the red, I joined the queue for the throne room, which still stands to the north of the courtyard. I soon became impatient under the sun. Slow, slow, push, push, only to discover, when I arrived in front of the throne room itself, that it was protected by a glass; I couldn’t hardly see anything behind the reflection. Those behind started to push me back towards the sun-bathed court, and I tried to focus on the narrowness of the corridor, the slight humidness of the stones on my arms.
Back in the courtyard, I sat in the shade as I tried to catch my breath. It occurred to me that maybe numbers would be more useful than painted stones and opened my guidebook looking for figures. The first palace was built in 2000 BC – 4000 years ago. A word – I needed a word to help me translate numbers into meaning and for a moment I thought I had found it with generations: one hundred and thirty or so generations, each of them with their births, their comings of age, their marriages, their deaths. Under the pine trees, I remembered my Greek class in the last year of high school – one of the least popular of the curriculum, with two students – and the time devoted to translating and discussing metaphors in Homer. Such as the metaphor of the leaves, which now came in useful: like the generations of leaves, the lives of mortal men. The cicadas were still singing.
That passing moment of understanding was enough to persuade me to try again with Malliá two days later. Malliá is known among tourists, but not for the same reasons as Knossós: I confirmed it when I hopped of the bus in the town centre and found myself surrounded by the English- and German-language signs of shops and restaurants, no trace of any form of public transport to the palace. I decided to walk – three miles, it said in my guidebook – along a road flanked by bushes bearing white and fuchsia flowers. My dress was white and fuchsia too (I only realize it now, as I write this) and pathetically inadequate at protecting me from the sun. One year later, there is still, to the left side of my neck, a strip of dull brown skin where it burnt the most.
The start was promising: a refreshingly non-interactive museum – indeed, it didn’t seem to have changed much since the 1960s. I caught a glimpse of the site from one of the museum’s grilled windows, and I realized that the magazines were better preserved than at Knossós.
That was my next stop after I recovered from the sun in the museum: a labyrinth of one-feet high walls, west of the central court. At Knossós, visitors were only allowed to contemplate the magazines from above – five elongated rooms, connected by a corridor on the North Side. In the more modest Malliá, no barriers stop visitors from walking among the magazines, or what remains of them, like I did.
I found a small room with walls all around, no sign of a door. I considered the possibilities: maybe a prison, the door bricked up after the prisoner was thrown inside, a rule of torture and terror imposed by a local minotaur or similar monster. Or maybe the result of a poorly thought out restoration by the French archaeologists in charge of excavating the site (when the Minoan palaces were first discovered, the western European archaeologists divided them up: Knossós for the British, Malliá for the French, Phaistós for the Italians). My imagination, though, didn’t take me further than that: the Malliá minotaur, the French archaeologists kept popping up in my head when I took shelter under a tree and read a few pages of Tormento. But the people who I knew had really inhabited the magazines didn’t: at most I could, with some effort, reconstruct fragments of the conversations they would have been having.
But even that didn’t stick. Two or three months after my Cretan trip, what came to mind when I tried to reminisce my visit to Malliá were my long stints sitting in the sun reading Tormento, the prostitute-turned-model servant of Galdós’s realist but extremely compassionate and slightly ironic novel more real in my mind than any slave who might have kept herself busy with wine and sheep. I couldn’t remember any of the objects I had seen behind glass in the museum, just the minimalist and slightly lacklustre feeling of the space. The French archaeologists who excavated Malliá didn’t captivate me with their story-telling in the same way as Galdós did. Instead, them and the other archaeologists gave me brief moments of lucidity, only to take them away before I could put them together with others. I came back from Crete without a story without a text in its literal sense – meaning the interweaving of threads into a rich, dense surface. Instead, I came back with disjointed threads only and a vague disillusionment in my pockets.
But those threads are beautiful and colourful, and I like looking at them. I like to think of the Greek woman – whether she is still as angry and vociferous as I remember her. I like to think of the splash of red at Knossós – whether it has been repainted over the last year. And there is one last thing I like to think about – one last thread, one last moment. One I got, I believed, because I persevered and went for a final round of Phaistós after I had seen everything there was to see.
Like the carcass of an animal hunted to death, then abandoned at the foot of the hill, weeds growing around and through: the Neolithic village was not easy to spot, particularly from where I was standing, and the first time round I had utterly missed it. An animal – not big and proud, king of the jungle, like the palace behind me, but small and pragmatic, its claws, fur and senses perfectly adapted to the milieu in which it lived: constantly forced to sneak off its sheltered hillock to hunt for food and water in the open plain below.
But all species eventually meet their end, and so did the small, pragmatic beast living at the foot of the hill, its executor coming from behind without being seen. Big and proud and armed with infallible weapons – history, progress, inevitability. (In the last few years I’ve doubted that these weapons exist or, if they do, they are made of nickel silver and not of steel, but people believe that they exist, and that’s what makes them infallible).
It occurred to me that, like the small beast, I never saw the large animal either. It too had been hunted to death, its carcass abandoned, not at the foot, but at the peak of the hill.
EVA FERRY originates from Galicia, Spain and resides in Glasgow, Scotland. Her fiction and non-fiction work has been published or is forthcoming in Salome Lit, The Public Domain Review, The Cold Creek Review, Foliate Oak, Adjacent Pineapple and Novelty Magazine, among others.