|Runner-up 2015 Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize|
Ask anyone in Greece and they will tell you the same: our snails are best. From all over they come to our village in Crete to pluck the mollusks from their swirling shells and feel the soft dissolve against their tongues. My yia-yia says other restaurants are all the time with noise at dinner, but Artemidoros is quiet, a hum. Look around and it’s eyes closed, moans no bigger than whispers. When the people leave, stuffed, they look at my yia-yia and ask, “What is the secret? Tell us.” In the trembling spots of sweat on their foreheads you can see how much they want to know; they think if they too could make the snails at home, life would be better, maybe easier, which shows you what people know. But my yia-yia only smiles, her mouth twisted up on the left side. If the compliment is too strong—if she suspects envy—you can see on her brow the fear of the evil eye, so she mutters garlic under her breath for protection and hides in the kitchen to avoid a curse. And that is the end of that.
Back on my sixteenth Name Day, the whole village pulsed through our house. I’d hoped we might have my party in Heraklion, a real city an hour north that we haven’t once visited, a place where scooters whip down paved roads and people lounge at cafés that play music from this decade, but I might as well have wished for a party at the bottom of the sea. Everyone here says, “Old way is best way,” so not much changes. The guests came, their hands stuffed with raki and plates of snails and envelopes with money and wishes of many more years for me. I’d also asked for fondue—had dropped the word into every conversation I could and imagined pots bubbling over, those long, strange forks—but I should’ve known better. Thanks to my family, I am forever tethered to the snail.
As the sun went down, the village glowing pink like a candle, the band took up its instruments, and everyone locked hands, the circle large and spiraling as we danced foot over foot, hopping and kicking, until in a cloud of orange earth I collapsed into a chair to catch my breath. My favorite cousin, Maria, saw her chance to escape the grip of family and sat next to me. Clapping, we watched as one by one so many people took their turns at the head of the circle to show off their moves, but when my mother took charge of the dance she was graceful as a breeze. Her single, black braid—the one way she wears it—swung down over her white dress to the shallow of her lower back, and she lifted her head as though hovering in the air above everyone was a mystery that only she could read. In her face, a truth held long kept me waiting for some grand reveal, but on my shoulder a hand squeezed gently, and then in my ear, the quiet voice of my yia-yia: “It is time. Come.”
I should’ve known it’d be her. I grabbed Maria’s hand, but my yia-yia tsk-tsk’d, so Maria flopped back in her rocker. She’s the cousin that makes people’s voices go quiet when she’s near. Thirty-four years old, no husband, no children. Lesvía they say when she’s not around, but I’ve never seen her with another woman. She’s left the village—traveled to places outside of Greece (you should hear a fat gasp there)—and has the stories to prove it. Plus, she’s figured out a way to have nothing to do with the snails. I don’t think I’ve even seen her eat one.
Maybe I ate too much kataifi, but I swear I could have run the whole village and back six times before my yia-yia was to the end of our street.
“Siga, siga,” she said. A reminder of our village motto: slowly, slowly.
We walked beyond the center of town through a landscape no one bothers to look at: patches of olive trees, the ones closest to the road thin, a little twisted and small, but as we made our way deeper into the forest, the moon brightening our path, their trunks swelled in size and swirled, these old Minoan trees, and even had I tried, I couldn’t have wrapped my arms around one. I started to wonder what kind of animals might live in their trunks, how many adders could slip from the cracks at any moment, when my yia-yia stopped and sat on the shelf of a branch that had grown low to the ground.
Her breath was spotty, deep heaves followed by moments of stillness. For most in the village, my yia-yia inspires fear, which seems crazy to me since she’s no taller than a 10-year-old and, when stuffed with food, 43 kilograms. And she’s not small simply because she’s aged—no one knows how old and she won’t answer. When I was younger, I’d sit on her lap, facing her smooth cheeks, and drop coins into the triangle of her neck while she combed my hair. But like all the women in my family she is something of a mystery; maybe that’s where the fear sneaks in. I was so busy watching her that I jumped when I noticed my mother next to me. She put her hand on my chin and steadied my face towards her.
“My child,” she said and smiled without showing her teeth. There was no mistaking whose daughter she was; even in the poor light, I could see her face was a copy of my yia-yia’s—nose straight as a bone and two sharp peaks on her top lip. “What do you hear?”
Everywhere the steady buzz of bugs vibrating their bodies. “The leaf hoppers?” I asked.
My mother said, “Listen beyond that. Deeper. You can hear it. I know you can. Here,” she said and squatted, fanning her fingers in the dirt.
I looked at my yia-yia, who nodded, so I knelt and spread my fingers against the hard earth, the dirt more like a thin layer of dust, and the warmth of the day’s sun seeped into my palms. I heard only the hoppers again, but I closed my eyes—it seemed the right thing to do—and at first I felt it, a vibration light as a cloud, then the sound, a low shhhhhh like the ocean waves ten kilometers away. When I opened my eyes, my mother was sitting next to my yia-yia, watching.
“What do you hear?” she asked again.
I didn’t have the right words—a stomach in need of food, a rumble. But before I said it wrong, my yia-yia spoke.
“The sound is the snails. Our snails. Is Artemidoros. You know already what this means, yes?”
Of course I knew. I’d heard them say it a thousand times. “A gift from Artemis.”
My mother ticked her head to her right, an instruction to sit next to her.
“This is yours, you know,” my mother said. Not really a question.
I stared into the woods.
“This is your legacy. Listen to the snails, and the restaurant will be great success for you after we’re gone.”
I nodded, forced a half smile in that moonlight, but my guts felt like someone kneaded them for tsoureki.
At first, I was the harvester. Sixteen years old and one task: find the snails. I was awake then all the time with the sun to wait for rain—so often it threatened but didn’t deliver. But if I was lucky enough to hear Zeus clap, I made my way to the fields that surround our village with my plastic bags and rooted through the green, the snails easy to spot, the fields moving like slow rivers of shell. When it was dry, the work was tougher. Listening hard, my fingers in the dirt, I followed the shhhhhh and kicked over every rock in the shade, climbed into forgotten drain pipes, jammed my arms into the prickly juniper shrubs where I held my breath to avoid their biting stink; one whiff and I could smell nothing else for the day.
Now, two years later, I am the fattener, which is a nice way of saying I am up to my shoulders in slime. It is no secret that whatever the snail eats, you eat, so my job is to make sure they are fat on the outside, clean on the inside. For a week I feed them pasta to help them grow strong, then nothing but flour until their kaka runs white. Then no food and soon enough, they pull their lip over their shell’s opening, and I hand them over to my yia-yia.
I’m no breeder—my mother handles the matchmaking—so I fatten. I also scrape clean the cages and swat away the birds that come for a free lunch. The foulest work is mine, but the snails are never juicier than when they are under my care. Every other day from March to September, the high season, I take to our snail crates—wooden vegetable boxes and netting—and carefully transfer the snails, one-by-one, a process that takes most of the day, so I can wash clean their trail. While I’m there, I listen hard and search for the dead—a tricky feat for most when snails are so slow to show enthusiasm—but now it takes just a few seconds of the shell to my ear; if there is no sound, I toss it into the sack of the dead. Later, when the crates are like new, I take the sack into the street and stomp it until the shells feel like crumbs beneath my foot. Personally, I’d like to skip this step, but my yia-yia she always checks. Poking her head into the backyard before walking to Artemidoros she asks, “The Turks won’t get their satisfaction, right?” and what she means is if the shells are tossed back into the field whole, the soil will seep into them and stay there trapped for 400 years, the same length of time the Ottomans ruled us. Symbols. Everything is symbols and nonsense superstitions.
I was taught in school that to be humble is a woman’s work, but I am fast at my tasks—faster than my mother was when this was her job. If my family has it their way I might do this for another ten, twenty, even thirty years. I don’t care how good I am; if in thirty years I am still peering into old vegetable crates to measure the color of snail shit, may I be eaten by a Cyclops.
The only work I enjoy is the books. One night after the customers had gone and we sat in the office sipping rakomelo, letting the honeyed spirits fill us with some last-minute energy, I watched my mother empty the register into a burlap bag.
“So how’d we do?” I asked. My family never talked money.
“Good, good” she said, not lifting her eyes from the task of tying the string of the bag.
“I mean, how good? I need to know these things for when I run it on my own.” If you want to get them talking, mention the future of business.
My mother wiped her hands on the lap of her dress and looked at me. Sometimes, like in that moment, she seemed to me old as my yia-yia, the same traditions for a hundred years draining out of her every pore.
“We had tonight a better dinner than last night,” she said.
My yia-yia looked to the Panagia icon—the Virgin Mary who hangs everywhere in the village—and crossed herself three times for our success.
“Okay. But how much money did we make?”
“This is hard to say. We pay some people today for linens and wine.”
I tilted my head and tried my best not to sound like a know-it-all. “Right,” I said slowly. “But how much did you start with?”
My mother laughed. “Who counts such things every day?” she asked.
And that’s when I became the bookkeeper, too.
So there it is: all spring and summer long, days of feeding and cleaning and plucking the dead, and at night, when the restaurant is alive with customers, I am there waiting tables and balancing the books. Sometimes I am rich with luck and there is a slow night, a dragging Monday, and I sneak off to Maria’s and demand stories. Her home is three little rooms—a bedroom, kitchen/sitting room, and bathroom—all of it on a cool, concrete slab that’s turned green as algae with time. She’s dressed most of it with rugs brought back from her trips, and on nearly every bit of wall hangs what I call “arty things:” mosaic mirrors, postcards yellowed at their edges, a thin scroll of a five-year-old calendar that, at its corners, shows yawning tigers, the animals poised to eat 1984.
We drink and laugh until the knives appear in our ribs, trading tales, mine of the restaurant world, hers of the real one. By the end of most nights, I press her for the one story I haven’t heard. “Tell me about Paris,” I say, and she says, “Stamata” her voice firm, so I sink further into the embroidered pillows on her small sofa. Maria is a woman for whom everything is a mission, like she feels some invisible audience nagging her to complete her task, no matter how small the thing is. But she avoids talk of Paris other than to call it a defeat, so she tells me anything else. Two months ago she talked about Istanbul and its Grand Bazaar, how she walked through the walled city, lost in the maze, in search of one thing: a çini with a Pegasus on it. Normally, those plates are covered in blue and orange flowers, all borne of the same imagination, and at the Bazaar, there were thousands that looked identical. But she was sure if she could find one with a Pegasus that she’d have some proof that the Greeks and Turks hadn’t always been enemies; and if the piece were new, it would show the old bigots in the village that times had really changed.
Last month I said it again: “Paris.”
“How about the food at fešta in Dubrovnik? The ćevapi was the best meat I’ve had.” And then on and on about the dancing, how close it seemed to Greece, how she felt the pull of the horses there from both ends—drawn at once toward her family and traveling further away from them.
I love food, but I didn’t much care and she could tell.
It’s been weeks since I’ve seen her and this time, I’m not going to let her dodge. Before we get the cork out of the bottle, I ask.
And instead of bringing up, I don’t know, the size of the beers at Hofbräuhaus, she asks, “Why are you drawn to a story of failure?”
I smile big, cross my eyes, and through gritted teeth whimper, “Because I love you,” knowing that my silliness always wins her.
“Fine,” she says and sighs. “Just this once.” She pauses to take some wine and clears her throat, a move that signals a quality story. “At The Louvre—everyone must go there, no?—I searched and searched for a sculpture I’d seen once.” She pauses here and helps herself to a big sip of wine before continuing. “In a friend’s book. The Bather, it was called, a marble piece almost as big as David. I don’t know. Something about the curves of her hip, the loose parted hair, her smooth foot held out to test her invisible bath water.” Maria held her own bare foot out before her, and I bumped her arch with my big toe. “I’ve never gotten her out of my head. I looked for hours, my feet burned from the walk, my stomach angry. It took me the whole day—I barely saw anything in the museum—and I found nothing.” She looks away from me, and her wild, dark curls reach into the air like snakes. “Either way, The Bather is lost to me.”
I lean forward, pour us more wine, top it with Coca-Cola, and ask, “Why didn’t you ask someone where it was?” It seems like a question of reason, but Maria’s eyebrows dig into her face.
“I couldn’t remember the name of the piece, and I never knew the name of the artist. I just had the girl in my mind. I would know her when I saw her. How do you explain this to someone else?”
The story clearly seems sadder to her than me, but I know to be quiet, to sit still in her loss. That goes on long enough, so I finally ask, “What else happened?”
“What do you mean ‘what else’? This is the whole story.”
“But you were in Paris for what, three weeks?”
She nods and says, “Yes, but this is the thing that matters.”
I really don’t know, so I ask: “Why?”
For a moment, I think she’s going to tell me, and I want badly to understand how a sculpture could mean so much, but I should know better. Instead she stands, fills a shallow dish with nuts, and says with her back to me, “Have I told you about the otters at the Isle of Skye?”
July is the busiest time in the village for tourists. The rest of us know better than to travel when the heat is so thick it suffocates, but the rest of the world—the Germans, the Brits, the Aussies—they eat it right up. It’s a strange thing to peer inside Artemidoros and see so many pasty faces, their blue eyes nearly popping from their sockets. Tonight we’ve had our busiest Friday of the season and the cleanup will stink. Snails cooked our way—with the olive oil and herb blend—are slippery, and you can always tell when the tourists have been in; walking through the restaurant, the shells lost to the floor break and the shards dig into the soles of our shoes, all of us making big noise as we walk.
The person who named it “waiting tables” had the mind of a mouse. The last thing I have is patience for waiting, especially when it’s down to the last two or three customers that I want badly to shove out the door. One table waves every time I am near to ask for more. I do not know how two men can consume so much, but they have eaten five plates and mostly I’m hoping they don’t find themselves sick. When they are the last ones, they call me over, I hope, for the bill.
“You are ready to pay?” I ask and place the complimentary raki in front of them. One good thing about tourists is that they never know to sip it and instead drink it back in one motion—a speedy process that I am in full support of tonight.
“We are,” says the man in khaki pants and a too-clean white shirt. Bleached. He looks totally bleached: his white hair is loose and large like some old sea captain, and beneath oversized white eyebrows his eyes, light blue, are narrow as string beans. Even the hairs that rest on his lip are white as a marten’s belly. On the empty chair closest to him hangs a round, tan hat with a leather string. I almost laugh imagining him on safari in Crete; perhaps he does not know we have no lions. His companion looks the same in the face, maybe a younger brother, but he is slicker in a fitted blue suit, a costume that looks as out of place in our old, stone restaurant as a bow tie on a donkey.
I add up their platters and tuck the check into the black book. The Suit asks, “Is this your place?”
I cannot locate his accent. Looking over my shoulder at the empty dining room, I know that my yia-yia and mother are in the back, rakomelo in hand, swollen feet hoisted onto chairs.
“Sure,” I say.
The Suit smiles, and he’s got sparkle in his eyes, a mischief that draws me in. “Where do your snails come from?”
It’s an odd question; normally, people are after recipes. My response gives away my suspicion: “Why do you care?” It comes out with more fire than I mean for, but both men smile and Captain Safari begins to dig into his wallet.
“We mean no offense,” says The Suit. “But these really are the best we’ve had, which means someone here knows what they’re doing.”
I shouldn’t be flattered. I should say garlic just in case, but compliments around here rarely come my way, so I blurt it out: “I am the fattener!”
The men look at me, and for a moment, I feel like a fool, but they both start to nod and smile and then without trying I, too, am nodding and smiling.
“So what’s your secret?” The Suit asks, and in those four words I hear only the possibility of betrayal, the thing I can’t do, so I press my lips together tight.
Captain Safari hands me a business card, the paper thick and custard-colored with fine lines carved into it. In the bottom corner there’s a phone number, and in thin black letters over three lines in the center it reads:
I can decode the first four words, but I’ve never seen the last.
“We are in the snail business,” says Captain Safari. “And we’re not here to threaten, I promise.” He holds up his right hand and looks to the ceiling. “We help the small farmer set up a system that makes the best snails with the fewest hours of labor.”
“But you just said our snails are best. Everyone says this.”
“They are,” says Captain Safari. “But how many hours do you spend each day harvesting and cleaning? Three? Four?”
All of them, I want to say but don’t.
The Suit stands and stretches his arms over his head, looks around for a moment, and says, “Small place like this, I bet you’re using plastic buckets with air holes. Easy to move, easy to clean. Am I right?”
I have no interest in answering, which works out because before I have a chance Captain Safari says, “Nah. They’ve been at this game a long time. Plastic is too new. I bet they’ve got net sacks hanging in the yard.”
His string-bean eyes drift first toward the window, and I silently pray that he can’t spot the old vegetable crates even though they’re three blocks away. When he looks back at me, his gaze locks on my hands, and all at once I see myself, my family, through these men’s eyes: we are primitive women, and our hands are the ancient link to a way of doing things that belongs in the history books.
But The Suit says, “Don’t worry. We’re not here to disturb a thing.” He’s got lines at the edges of his mouth earned from years of grinning that make me believe him. “Keep the card. If you want to modernize, we can put in the snail-proof fences that take away half of your work. Like a dream.” He pauses to stuff some money into the check holder. “And if you’re interested, you can visit our place in Bordeaux, see how everything works.”
Bordeaux. The word is still circling the air before me like an oversized, French firefly when Captain Safari adds, “We could even fly you up.”
Once I hear their car start, I check: 5,000 drachmas tip. And that’s when I know they’re big time.
Maria says go, go, go. “Don’t be one of these Greeks who dies without leaving the country.” We’re on a walk, the evening full of surprising wind, my shift not yet started. We keep our voices low: on this kind of night—when it’s cool in summer—the village is out: pulling laundry from the lines, plucking grapes from the trellises, waiting and listening for anything of interest they might repeat over dinner.
“It feels mean to use someone for a free trip,” I say and drag my palm over the soft blossom of a bougainvillea. It would feel mean, but I’d get over that part. There’s different trouble. “Plus, what would I tell the family? It’s not like I can take a week off.”
“C’mon: the season will be over in two months. You have time.”
I tug on her sleeve, the linen light and thin between my fingers. “That’s not really what I mean.” We stop there on the road, next to the Panagia monastery, an abandoned space like so many others here, most of it crumbling back toward the earth—except for the arcosolium. I’m staring at that arch and wondering about the people who knelt there so many centuries ago, lighting candles and speaking to God, when Maria tells me to knock it off.
“Tell them whatever you need to,” she says. “Listen, what this family doesn’t know about me could fill a book. A long, funny, maybe sad book.”
We aren’t raised to ask what we want of this world. I have understood so clearly what I don’t want for so long that I haven’t given much thought to what I do. When I try, when I stare out at the sky and its low-hanging clouds and ask myself, I feel only a hoof pressing down on my chest.
And then in September the letter comes.
I am lucky that I’m doing the books before Artemidoros opens so I meet the mailman. The return address is a sticker printed in a long, thin script that I recognize instantly. Captain Safari and The Suit turn out to be Jean and Jacques, brothers like I suspected, and they want to know if I’ve given their offer thought. Aloud to no one I say, “Pssssh.” I keep reading until I hit the line that makes my knees shake: We understand if you distrust changing your system and wish to preserve the old methods. I slump and press my cheek to the desk and feel the coolness of the wood work its way into my body. And here I am, head down and defeated, when my yia-yia enters, crosses herself three times before Panagia, and begins with arthritic hands to fumble with the strings of her apron. My mother comes in behind her, says hello, and begins talking about the night’s business as she takes over tying her mother’s apron. My breath catches in my throat.
When they leave the room, I begin writing my response, my English letters stacked like difficult blocks, the alphabet of a child. After addressing them, I keep it short: I’m in. Please tell how to proceed. I end it with a request for them to send future letters to Maria’s.
That night we are slow enough to have time to talk, and I’ve never hoped for customers more. Every time my mother is near I bury myself in the already-done books, nose to the spine. Later I escape to Maria’s to plan and drink. To drink a lot.
Even with the restaurant closing for the season, it’s not as though I can simply tell them where I’m going. And forget going alone. No one will understand, so Maria does the kindest thing I can think of: she agrees to come with me, a trip between cousins.
“It’s only for a few days,” I tell my mother the next day while studying her black shoes.
“Look at me,” she says, and I do. Her face looks for a moment like stone in the sunlight, something carved and immoveable, but then it softens, the lines in her forehead gone slack, and she says, “Mmhmm. I understand.”
I don’t know what she means, but I’m too scared to ask, so I hug her instead.
When my ticket arrives, I run my thumb over it, the coating at once waxy and smooth. And then I see the date: Tuesday, October 13th. What bad luck.
Maria shakes her head at me. “Stamata. You don’t believe that old shit, do you?”
I say no, of course not, but just in case, I plan to pack one of the evil-eye charms.
You’d think I was moving to the moon. But around here leaving town for three days means eighteen people show up for a goodbye dinner. Of course there are snails and the other usual plates—spanakopita and moussaka and horta—but when my mother comes out of the kitchen into the warm night with a skillet of bubbling saganaki in her hands, I let out a squeal.
“Is not fondue but maybe is close,” she says.“ Fondue, Greek-style!” Everyone laughs at this—even Maria who is caught in a shadow from the house, her smile the only part of her face I can see. I wonder how much of this show has to do with Maria. Are they worried she’ll change me? That we’ll get out of the village together and never look back?
The next morning, my mother and yia-yia and enough cousins to start Greece’s second futbol team walk Maria and me to the bus stop; the bus, of course, was late. It should be loud, but the silence of waiting is on us, and when I hear the bus rumble into existence, I’m on my feet. My pulse throbs in my ears—some excitement—and as it pulls in, my yia-yia tugs at my hand, forces me to face her. The top of her head reaches my chin, a perfect fit for a hug, and I step toward her to do that when she stops me. She bows her head, and with quaking hands removes her chain and crucifix from her neck and lets it fall limp like rope into my palm. I try to refuse but she says, “Take, take. For protection.” And I know I’m only leaving for three days but here I am, crying like I’ve sprung a leak when I get on the bus to Heraklion.
The ride there is what I’m used to: squares of dry land, knotty olive trees, and sloping mountainsides punctuated with white monasteries so high up the buildings look impossible. I know we’re pulling into Heraklion when the traffic tightens—so many people, and not one inch of land seems unoccupied by business. Every corner is held down by kiosks and sweaty men guarding their cigarettes and newspapers and rainbow wrappers. But I never expected palm trees, the long cable of them flanking the road as if to say, “Yes, we are a great place to vacation.”
We don’t have to fetch bags from the bus’s belly, our backpacks small enough to stay with us, so we are first in the queue for a taxi. The ride to the airport runs us along the sea, the old Venetian fort surrounded by boats, some for fishing, others for sailing, and I am surprised when I look the other way and see we are next to a stone wall I can’t see the top of, nearly every bit of it covered in graffiti.
“How can they do this?” I ask Maria. “It’s so pretty and then they destroy it with paint.”
Maria opens her mouth, but shuts it again without speaking and pats me on the head.
The airport is an exercise in lines, and each of them looks identical. Maria’s a professional—she knows every right move—and mostly kind about my stupidity, though she barks at me to pay attention a couple of times. In line, I can’t look away from the guards, one man in particular, his mustache thick as his brow, all of it bent in disapproval. When it is my turn to walk through the metal detector, I must move too slow because he claps and yells, “Come on, come on, little girl!” An airplane seems against nature to me, like an oversized and dangerous toy, but I’ll be thrilled to get out of the airport, to cast off the crowds and guards and confusion.
On the plane, Maria sleeps with her mouth open before we are in the air. With my right hand I squeeze tight the armrest and with the left I shuffle my thumb over the painted, glass eye in my pocket every time there is a bump, a shift, a noise. I wish I could sleep, but my body feels heavy with motion, as though I am being held against my seat by a giant, invisible hand. By the time we land at Charles de Gaulle, I feel like I am swimming through the world. I don’t know that I’ve ever been as thankful for anyone as I am for Maria in the airport; it is worse than Heraklion, a bigger maze of people and geometry and no clear exits.
Our tickets give us three days and Bordeaux is close, Maria says maybe three hours by train, so even though it’s late afternoon, we squeeze onto the Metro and get off in a neighborhood called Saint-Germain where we sit at Les Deux Magots. My heart is thick with beats, everything around us is noise and busy and just so fast that it startles me over and over. Maria starts naming artists who once sat here, too: Picasso. Léger. She’s onto something she calls The Surrealists when I forget for a moment my pulse and am reminded of the Louvre. I mention this and Maria looks as though I have tossed my espresso in her face.
“Why not?” I ask, and Maria is quiet, though the café is so loud that it doesn’t translate as much of anything.
“Look: you help me to leave the village,” I say. “Something I might never do. Now let me help you find The Bather.” I crush the brown lump of sugar on my saucer with the back of my thumbnail. Looking at Maria, I worry for a moment that I’ve upset her, my guide to this strange city, but she lets go of a smile, curls one side of her mouth like my yia-yia does, and says, “When we get back from Bordeaux, if there is time, yes. We can go. For now, let’s go see the Tower they all talk so much about.” I know that she doesn’t mean for us to step into the museum. In an hour, we’re on our way to Bordeaux.
The further we get from Paris, the better I feel, and by the time we are pulling into Bordeaux, so many trees and vineyards and stone buildings later, I am something like my old self. Jean meets us at the train station, and I am relieved to see that he looks less like he is on safari. Kisses on both cheeks and into his car we go deeper into the country, the sky burned pink and orange, the land so green—such a brighter green than in Crete—that I can’t look away from the fields that fly by. Jean asks how I liked Paris, and I tell him it was too loud, which makes him laugh and say, “You will do well in Bordeaux.”
I guess it was the serious business card that made me anticipate something looming, a cold monster of a building, but we arrive at an aged, two-story house that is triple the size of my own. Behind it sits a clean, one-story building with an orange roof that I assume is an office, but around us are nothing but rows: long, wide rows filled tall and leafy, each of those overgrown segments outlined by thinner bands of upturned earth. As far as I can see, the landscape alternates green and brown. In front of the office, a field of the brightest grass I’ve seen, every inch of it cut so precisely it looks something like surgery. Stepping out of the car, I am slapped with quiet.
“What do you think of our snail farm?” Jean asks and waves one arm at the rows.
I smile but say nothing. I hadn’t realized we were on one.
In the house, we find Jacques wearing a red apron and cooking—you guessed it—snails. He’s out of his suit and in jeans, the hems spotted with dirt, and it almost makes me laugh to see a man cooking in an apron like a lady, but I am careful not to insult.
Jean clicks on music, and we sit for drinks at a long white table right outside of the kitchen. It turns out the French don’t top their wine with Coca-Cola. I’m sure lots of people think it’s better that way but for me it is too strong, bitter, so I sip slowly and look around. From the outside, the house looked old, a worn stone face with wooden shutters for eyes, the paint peeling back and flaking off, but inside everything is new, shiny. The counter in the middle of the room where Jacques stands looks to be marble, and I can’t stop staring at the refrigerator, a silver whale that takes up most of one wall.
“Okay!” Jacques says and places a dish of snails before us on the table. “These are French-style, not Greek, but I think you will be able to taste the quality. Meet Helix Pomatia, a different breed than what you are used to. Of course we raise your Aspersa, too. Bon Appetit.”
I didn’t know there were other breeds or the fancy name for ours, and that missing knowledge makes me feel dumb as a bird. I reach for one and putting it on my plate notice all the differences: their shells are twice the size of ours, the stripes almost red, so rich they look drawn on. Stuffed into the opening is a swamp of green, and I can’t see the snail at all. My confusion must look obvious because Jacques says, “Parsley and butter—the Bourguignonne way.” I don’t know how to use the shrunken fork before me—we bend one leg of our normal forks to work for us—so I wait to see someone else do it first and am surprised when it’s Maria. But the thing I notice most is the tightness returned to my chest and the clear voice inside of me wishing for hate. I want so badly to hate this beautiful, French snail, though I’m not sure why. But damn it if it isn’t—I won’t say the best—but it’s really, really, really good.
Jean and Jacques are good hosts—they fill our glasses, offer us cigarettes and more food—and this is the most I’ve seen Maria smile maybe ever. Some warbled French song comes on, one that sounds like Greek rembetika, those old blues songs from the war, and Maria stands and sings and twitches her finger along her throat to make her voice uneven. The guys gasp with laughter, and I’m watching her—I think I’m smiling—in awe of her knowing French, but Maria says, “What? You don’t like Edith Piaf?” She clearly has slipped into her travel self, a person who isn’t judged by the smallness of the village or her lack of children. Here, she is a woman who knows things.
For hours we eat and trade stories, though I am careful when the topic of Artemidoros comes up, not wanting to divulge too much of our secrets. The three of them talk and talk and mostly, I run my fingernail in the grooves of the white table and wonder why anyone would paint a piece of wood. After we are stuffed with breads and cheeses and those delicious snails, Maria and I are led to our separate bedrooms—they have enough space to give us each our own, and Jean says, “Tomorrow we will take the big tour. Rest well.” But for a long while, I lie there on top of the covers listening to the creaks and burps of this big house, wondering what Maria thinks about a bedroom that’s bigger than her whole flat.
By daylight, the kitchen is almost too bright to look at—everywhere white and silver bouncing the sun back at me. Someone has laid out breakfast—bread, jam, yogurt, and sliced apples—but no one is there, so I touch nothing. When Jean comes in with Jacques trailing, they both have on jeans and long-sleeved shirts and hats, outfits that say cowboy.
“Mange, mange,” Jacques says and shoves a long loaf of bread at me. I picture my yia-yia giving me bread to soak up the olive oil her eggs swim in, and thinking of her reminds me to be polite but clever on the tour.
It’s a perfect day: 13 °C, cloudless and blue and open as a flower. Jean and Jacques walk on either side of me, Maria trailing, and I wish she would catch up so I can pass some of the attention to her. Last night the men were easy, but now they are business, their backs stiff as rakes. At first I find it difficult to make like I care, nods and polite ahhhhs seeming like the only ways to show this, but they are clearly good at what they do. Sometimes it’s like one is searching for a word and the other plucks it from the air for him. Jean says, “The thing about our fences is they protect from…” and he looks to the sky while Jacques says, “Birds, toads, snakes—everything. They are predator-proof.” I think of my crates at home, the twelve of them clogging our backyard and the birds that spy when I am cleaning. They talk of their fences for much of the walk, and I try to picture our land looking like theirs: fences over a meter tall making the neat, neat rows. I’d barely be able to see my yia-yia’s head above it all.
Jacques talks for a long time about the plants they use—much of it boring since I don’t know all the words—but my ears burn at the words “self-feeding.”
“They fatten themselves! I spend a week just feeding them pasta!” I say and instantly regret it. Only wine and children are supposed to tell the truth.
“Pasta is the old way,” Jacques says, and he claps my back. “Think of all the time you’ll have.” My head feels light when he says this. I try to imagine what I would do with so much free time but find my basket of ideas is empty as the sky.
This is the big point they circle back to again and again: cuts labor by two-thirds. They must say this fifteen times, and the more they say it, the more I like it. I have trouble holding the rest of it, the names of so many plants and the materials things are made of. I try to memorize as we walk—chicory and beet and cole, non-toxic polyethylene and PVC—but when Jean says 400 hours, those other words fall from my mind and I interrupt him.
“400 hours for what?” I ask.
“For plant activation,” he says. “It takes work to get it all started, but if you’re working an eight-hour day now, 400 hours is less than two months. It’s not so much for the reward.”
“It is worth the cost,” Jacques says, and I realize that they haven’t mentioned money yet.
I stop walking and ask, “How much?” Maria is no longer in sight, and I’m not sure when we lost her.
“Well,” Jean says, “different things cost different. The external enclosure materials can be from 12,500 to 16,000 francs, the internal quite a bit more—almost 33,000 francs. Then there is disinfestation materials—”
“How much total?” I ask. “In drachmas.”
“We looked into this before you came,” Jean says. “The cost would average around half a million in drachmas, give or take a bit,” and I imagine trying to tell my mother and yia-yia that anything is worth so much. I’ve seen my yia-yia laugh only once when a neighborhood cat got its head stuck in a box. This would bring the second time. And then I remember that mostly I’m there for the free trip, and the fist holding my chest loosens.
“I will have to think about it,” I say.
“Of course, of course,” Jacques says and lights a cigarette. “This is a big decision, a bigger commitment.” And the three of us stand there in silence for a while, so I study the row in front of us, the snails hidden at first behind the leaves, then dozens visible at once, as though I simply had to focus to see them.
“Let’s get you a contract just in case,” Jean says.
The office is cleaner than anyplace I’ve been—like what a hospital looks like on television. Handing it to me, he suggests I have my lawyer look at it before signing, and I let loose the laugh I’ve been keeping in for two days. Sure, I think. I’ll call my lawyer right away.
Back at the house, Maria has her head in a book and her hand on a coffee, feet tossed up on the sofa. “I hope you don’t mind,” she says when we come in, and they say that of course they don’t and head right for the kitchen to prepare more food. I don’t move for some reason, not really sure where to put myself, and I can’t stop looking at Maria, at her comfort, my whole body some how caught on her ease. She tilts her head, her puzzled look, but says nothing.
“Make yourself at home, Apollonia,” Jean says from the kitchen, but I keep standing there like I’m rooted.
“You’re strange,” she says and drops her eyes back to her book.
Later, as we’re walking to Jean’s car to return to the train, I ask for a moment to look again at the fences, and with money in his eyes, Jean says yes, so I walk out deep into the farm and bend at the waist every few meters to see what’s living in there. Over and over I find the wrong ones, and I start to doubt what I’ve been told, but then I see them, so many of them: our snails. Leaning my face toward the fence, I take a deep breath and my head fills with nothing but the plants—not even a little stink on these snails. On the tips of my toes, I reach into the pen and rest my palm on a wide leaf and wait. One is eyeing me, I can see that, and it starts to work its way onto my finger, the pulse of its muscular body like a large cat tongue that warms and scratches as it moves. I raise it to my face, its eyes moving quickly as though maybe it’s afraid, so I say, “Shhhhh.” You wouldn’t believe it: the brown shell spotted with yellow half moons, the stripes a perfect clockwise spiral, his body light green as spring, dotted with the smallest drops of white. A real beauty. I can’t wait to hear it, but when I raise it to my ear and listen for its secret, there is nothing. I don’t know how long I’m there, but it’s plenty. I wait and wait and silence: a quiet I feel in my bones.
I start to head back to the car but stop. No. This can’t be it, and all at once my Name Day feels like yesterday so I drop to my knees. The earth that separates the rows is soft, and I hesitate for a second before falling forward and spreading my fingers in the cool, smooth dirt. Closing my eyes, I hear nothing, but I tell myself I will kneel there until these damned snails talk to me, so I stay, the dampness of the earth seeping through my jeans, my knees growing cold, my yia-yia’s cross swinging from my neck like it’s keeping time against my chin, and I listen and listen and not a single sound until the car horn beeps and Maria yells, “Ella! Do you want to stay here or go home?”
Five hours before our flight and we are back at Les Deux Magots like it’s the only café in Paris, and my head feels heavy, full of the sound of the city and my yia-yia and my mother and my old vegetable crates and miles and miles of silent snail pens. I haven’t said much because I can’t think clearly, so when the waiter comes by I am surprised when Maria asks him how far the Louvre is. Turns out, it’s fifteen minutes.
Maria is happy that the pyramid entrance is finally finished—it had been under construction when she was here before—but mostly, this time, she knows the name of the piece, so our mission is clear: ask someone, look at The Bather, back to Charles de Gaulle. The line is long, so we have time to talk, though neither of us says much for most of it.
Finally, I ask, “Are you excited?” It’s starting to spit a little outside, and the tiny drops get caught in her curls.
“Of course I am,” she says, but she does not look at me.
Once inside, the sweat comes; in the warmth we shave off our jackets and get in a new line. The woman at the desk tries to send us to a painting called Bather, but Maria is firm and we get our directions to the Richelieu wing, which is so close to where we are that both of us laugh.
I’m not sure why we split up because I don’t really know what I’m looking for, but this is Maria’s plan. I hear her words: Big as David, loose parted hair, her foot held out, but I am shocked by how many of the statues stick out one foot—how many are actually bathing. I read their names: Diana, naked and gripping a washcloth, stands hunched, her weight so firmly planted on both feet that I know she is not the one. Venus towers at nearly two meters—a piece actually called Bather that at first gives me the eureka—but then I notice her hair, the braids pilled on her head without part. It cannot be her. I spin in and out of the rooms finding nothing that seems right, so when a woman wearing a name tag walks by, I ask and she says, “Oh, yes,” and takes me right to it: stuffed in a case with half a dozen other pieces, the whole beautiful woman, her shoulders round, eyes turned down, the sneakiest smile. I don’t know many things about sculpture, but she is somehow perfect. And she is not even one meter tall.
Right there in front of so many tourists sneaking pictures I begin to cry. At first, I can’t take my eyes from The Bather, from the disappointing size of her, but then I can’t stand to look at her anymore either, so I back out of the room, take a seat in the courtyard at the feet of Diana, and remove the contract from my backpack. At the top, to Jean and Jacques I write, Yes. Let’s make the work less, and I flip to the last page and sign my long last name on the firm, black line. When I finish, I fold it square, shove it into my pocket, and take a deep breath, feel the muscles in my shoulders stiffen before releasing. I know what my family thinks about change, but I am not like them. I am thinking this, twisting it over in my head, when I look at the description of Diana, not trying to learn so much as needing to focus on something, and there I see in parenthesis the forgotten word that makes me choke: Artemis.
When Maria finds me, I am still sitting there, eyes burning, one hand in my pocket, my palm sweating onto the contract.
“Well, this is official,” Maria says. “I have looked in every room. She must be in private collection. It is less like a failure now, knowing that I didn’t miss it last time.” If she notices I’m not okay, she doesn’t let on. Maybe it’s because I’m on the ground, maybe, but she looks tall, her head somehow higher than before, a posture I’ve never known her to have. She seems almost sunny, and I don’t have it in me to tell her the cutting truth: that her dream is so close, just a room away, nothing like what she wants, small enough to stuff into my backpack.
Instead, I tell her I’m sorry, but hey, at least I found a Bather of my own, and I crumple the contract in my pocket before pulling my hand from my jeans to run it along Artemis’ ancient foot.
by Lisa Nikolidakis
Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize