Through the wet season, when the pond is full to the brim, the water claims everything. But during the dry it is empty, a mere bowl of cracked earth. Then and only then does it yield its secrets.
The pond sits to one side, before the fork in the road. To reach this point, the traveller must pass the abandoned quarry on the outskirts of the village. From there on, the country is broad and the sky vast. To the north is a phalanx of hills, rocky and meagre of foliage. Here, in the Aeolian air, goats and shepherds roam and little else. Further out, in the valley flats, civility asserts itself. Sprouting like mushrooms beneath clusters of poplar and mulberry are the summer retreats, scattered here and there, isolated from one another by great swathes of land. Here, too, are the fields, the vineyards and the orchards, tended to by an army of bended backs and working, crab-like arms. In the service of all is the road, meandering, snake-like, unable to settle on a single direction, until uncertainty – or perhaps it is certainty, after all – triumphs at the juncture of the olive grove and the road branches in opposite directions.
The distance between pond and village is not great. If one walks, it will take a half hour to reach the brackish waters. If, on the other hand, a donkey or mule is put to use, the miles are devoured in no time.
I’m speaking of a time before motorised transport. Today, a car would speed from one end of the island to the other, and plummet into the sea, before the variegated landscape had time to impress itself on the retina.
At first glance, the pond seems a mere tub, set back between the road and a stone fence that abuts a field. Should one come closer for an intimate study, hands and feet must conspire to assert their dominance on the tangle of reeds, grasses, burrs and thistles that snag and cling at clothes and scratch the exposed skin. Once off the road, the ground is a sponge, sucking and slurping, and in danger of collapsing beneath the uncompromising truth and weight and sheer obstinacy of flesh and bone. The only solid ground is around a fig tree.
Out of the stinging sun, beneath the aromatic leaves, the traveller sits still and silent on the banks. With the aid of the sensitive skin of the face and the nose and around the eyes, he or she may detect a lid of humidity that presses down on the enchanted spot, a vaporous presence that lulls. Or, perhaps, it is a miasma that rises from the depths. It is difficult to be certain. Insects hover and dart. Tortoises sit stone still and crickets are drowsy with heat. The road is vanished. All that exists is what the eye sees, in the quiet of a side-step world: an oval body of water and, beyond that, the hill’s immensity, blotting out the sky. At some distance to the left of the pond is a farmhouse. With its profusion of medieval chimneys it resembles a miniature fortification or ancient bathhouse, peeking demurely from behind a spread of aloe and almond.
From the parched road the body of water presents a hint of unexpected emerald, an enticement. From up close, it becomes obvious that it is polished ebony, without movement, a crease or trace of depth. On its surface passes neither sky nor cloud. The reflections of birds that fly overhead fall into it, vanish, are immediately swallowed up, only to reappear miraculously as shadows on the opposite bank, dipping and darting, crimpling and creasing, over the exhausted soil.
It’s true that the pond exists for two. The surface reflects a void; that is also true. But leading from the sinister main is a lament that calls, brings one back, nursing a solitary yearning.
The fig is a knotty, misshapen contortion. It can hardly be called a tree at all, yet its roots are persistent and deep. The trunk is smoky grey, an exposed earthworm. At the last minute, when least expected, its sinew breaks into fingers that unfurl and twist, coiling in the air, before bowing violently down, to balance on knuckled toes, almost breaking the spine, to kiss a lotus that sits at the very centre of the pond. It makes for a most unusual picture, should you see it.
There is no point in trying to sum up this unorthodox love. Many have tried and failed to make sense of it. All that can be said is that one must follow the trail of evidence back in time and make of it what one will. Either way, a veil will be pulled over the eyes and the senses will be baffled, mystified.
Echoes speak and insist on dialogue. There now, by the bank, is the bandit, bristling with moustachios and cradling a musket like an infant. A full day and night this has been his sanctuary. When, finally, the Ottoman soldiers come, shots ring, blood gushes, a mad, futile scramble for the hills. He has been the people’s hero for a month, a revolutionary and freedom’s fighter. And then, just as quickly, given over to the mud and silt and worms and darkness at the bottom of the pond. Such are the visions that assault the traveller, or murmur in his ear. Such are the greetings that rise from the depths, which frighten with their intensity, the wish to return, to know more, to fathom what else resides there.
A breeze breaks the surface of the water into slippery shards. The revolutionary’s bones are cradled by the depths. Time has passed. He is long forgotten. Penelope knows nothing of him. She is young and full of life’s zeal. The blood is fleet in her veins. A ship’s horn blasts across the island and someone walks on the road, whistling a happy tune. There now, crunching beneath our feet, are the tell-tale empty almond shells Sefer plucked as he dashed here to steal a minute or two, between checking the rabbit traps, with his Penelope. In the dry mud is the imprint of Penelope’s goat. She brings the beast here, it is said, at day’s end. To drink from the runnels at the base of the hill, or so she tells the curious. It is far but worth the walk, she says. Don’t worry, she assures. The saints, God bless them, will guard me.
Here, once, as the tremor of a kiss brushed her cheek, the golden cross around her throat slipped and fell into the grass. She stole back to reclaim it in the dark, before the light of day found it missing. There it lay, as she imagined it would, beneath the ghost of her body and his, glistening in the moonlight.
Penelope sits on the bank and sighs. Illiterate I may be, she thinks, but nature is an open book to me. Such peace. Such quiet. She thinks at the peak of each breath, as with both hands she secures the burden of her religion to her throat. To be alone, she thinks again, to be far from the influence of society. To love at will a man who stands at the polar end of the scales, beneath the red banner of crescent and star. Where it would lead, how it would end, she could not tell.
Mother, she murmurs, I have seen the enemy’s face and it is beautiful. An inclined plane of moonlight breaks through a cloud to illuminate the pond: black as the earth inside a mountain. Black as sin,
Penelope thinks, twirling her cross between careless fingers.
As Penelope walks past the farmhouse, she checks to see if there is a light burning. All is silent. All is darkness. Only the aloe by the door stirs in a breeze. As if the world were empty of people and she the only one left after a cataclysm. Sefer, merely twenty and turning in his sleep behind the solid walls, is not aware of how near she is to him. And if he were, would he dare fling back the shutters on the window and call to her? Would he say once again, I love you so much, I willingly kiss the infidel’s cross you wear, though I’ll be damned forever to the religion of the prophet Mohammed, blessed be his name? She thinks, perhaps, that might have been when the crucifix slipped and fell, and she had to go back and retrieve it. The thought twirls in the night air and disappears.
And now, let us extend ourselves among the liquid realm. If we draw nearer to the pond and part the reeds so that we can see deeper, all the way to the bottom, which is not so deep after all, but certainly deep enough; past multiform life and the faces rising, we shall see Penelope and her Sefer, undressed bone and tangling phalanges as they lie their skulls on a pillow of ooze and sludge. They were found out, you see, by father and mother. Forbidden, or else. And so the boy and girl formed a pact with a forgiveness of water.
For a while after Penelope and Sefer passed, poets and lyricists remembered their love. Then they, too, were obliterated by the years. When their names were still fresh on people’s lips, however, an air was sung for the lovers. It went something like this: Out of sweet Penelope’s mouth grows the stem that rises to the surface of the pond, there to nurture a white flower with a golden heart; and out of the twenty-six bones that formed towering Sefer’s right foot springs the root of the fig tree, that has an undying thirst for the lips of the lotus.