By Invitation Only
by Noel Carroll
We must go back!
A year has gone by, and it has been filled with such mental agony that it leaves us no choice. There is an explanation that will make folly of what our imaginations persist in shaping and reshaping, and that explanation can only be found in the place where it all began, the Greek island of Santorini.
Our agony stems from the dichotomy of what we believe and what our minds tell us cannot be real. None of it can be real, not the people not the restaurant and not the flames that I at first attributed to a combination of local trickery and more ouzo than Cassie and I were accustomed to. The more reasonable side of me thinks this a weak argument, but deep down, even as we do not say so to one another, it is the only answer that brings with it a semblance of sanity.
If these people are magicians, as we still think is possible, they are good ones. So clever was the magic they used to prey upon us and so spectacular did they make the ending that even now we have no clue how they did it. When we get together with the others, the discussion is limited to what our minds can accept, which is to say we have trouble discussing it at all. Mostly we express wonder at how we could have been so taken, so willing to fall into this cleverly-laid trap, the unpleasant aftermath of which, rather than surrender to time and reason, has swelled like a deadly virus.
It began in innocence, four of us staring at the distant island of Santorini from the cockpit of a chartered sailboat, each lost in the beauty and mystery of the ancient caldera we were about to sail across, a caldera that, before the land covering it vanished with earth-shaking suddenness, was the center of the civilized world. We were on the second leg of a two-week sail through the Greek Isles, eagerly anticipating a few fun-filled days in Santorini before committing to a mad dash back to Athens where our voyage began.
Santorini, or Thira as the Greeks prefer to call it, is what remains of what was once a super volcano. Although less active now than in its violent past, it is still capable of making itself known with the odd earthquake and the occasional puff of escaping sulfur. Mostly this produces smiles, but there are some volcanic hiccups that spawn more fear than humor. Most of what stood here 3,500 years ago is long gone, having been blasted so far into the atmosphere that it affected life all over the globe. What is left, however, is a sight to see: a caldera four miles wide, a few islands either bordering the caldera or popping up in its center, and a semicircle of steep rocky cliffs, some of which, with an elevation of over a thousand feet, are as high as the caldera is deep.
Lured by clusters of well maintained, white and blue buildings lying on top of one another like a litter of sleeping kittens, Cassie and I decided to rent a car and make our way to Oia, to us the most appealing of the island's communities -- our two sailing companions had other plans. There was a restaurant there that an enthusiastic waiter back in Athens had insisted we should see. Originally offended by the intensity of his sales pitch, we came to accept this as pushing business toward a friend or relative. Besides, we were curious.
Even with the crude map drawn by the Athens waiter, the restaurant was not easy to find. At its northern end, the village of Oia narrows to three small structures, then two, then extends to a narrow outcrop of rock that might have been an afterthought to whatever force shaped it. The outcrop is large enough to house only one small building, with no more than a few feet separating it from a thousand-foot drop. This building, according to our map, was our restaurant. Its narrow connection to the rest of the mountain provoked conflicting emotions of fear and invitation, but lured by the promise of what lay ahead, we suppressed the former and accepted the latter.
We tried not to focus too much on the undersized stone fence that kept the clumsy and the incautious from a descent they did not intend as we approached what we hoped was the recommended restaurant, "hoped" because it was not what we expected. Where neighboring structures were curved and open, the more popular architectural choice in Oia, this was square and constrained. Also unlike its neighbors, which made good use of white and blue, this was a dull brown, most likely the natural hue of the heavily-patterned stucco that adorned it. A large wood-framed window open to the elements, and a narrow door that could not have been six feet high gave no indication that the inside would be any more colorful. Like the window, the door was framed in wood, and at the top, and just off to each side was an indentation in the stucco in which sat a small pot of green leafy vegetation.
There was something about this place that made it impossible to turn away, perhaps the odd combination of old and new, old look but new construction. Something else as well: the subtle way it advertised itself. Rather than a formal sign, which would have been Greek to us in any event, it displayed icons of fish and meats on an attractive wooden cart just outside the door, while on the sill of the open window was an oblong, three-legged clay bowl tempting potential patrons with fruits and vegetables. In the event an uncertain tourist needed more convincing, a three-foot stone carving of an apron-draped innkeeper stood just to one side of the wooden cart, his arms beckoning them in. We saw no indication of what credit cards they accepted, but then there was no glass to hold such a display. We checked our Euros and wondered whether they would be enough.
Whatever doubts we had that this was a restaurant were dispelled as we walked haltingly through the door, our pride ready to be assailed by a resentful home owner. Instead we were greeted by a sight that gave us a warm feeling inside. With impeccable allegiance to the "Ancient Thira" theme we immediately picked up on, the restaurant sported only six tables, all made of wood and well kept but very basic in construction. At the center of each was a cherry-colored stone lamp burning some kind of oil or wax. An occasional trickle of dark smoke reached upward from a narrow opening.
Convinced that we had stumbled upon something special, we took our time looking around, noting first a stone barrier to our left beyond which could be seen tables of clay dishes spotted with food in various stages of preparation. A short but handsome woman of about fifty, clad in an apron and some kind of toga, was moving around with a combination of urgency and competence. Beyond her were more of those indentations in the concrete, these filled with large circular urns richly decorated with colorful images we could not identify. Just outside this room and opposite to where we stood was a solid wooden door supported by a crude metal clasp and matching hinges. To its right was another large window, and like the one in front, it was bordered in wood and offered no glass -- insects did not appear to be a problem in Santorini. A mountain rising upward at a steep angle could be seen through the window, although the five wooden posts spread across the window's opening made it difficult to see detail.
Unlike the bare walls of the kitchen, the dining room was replete with rich frescoes, similar in nature to what we saw on the urns. Here, however, the images were larger and more abundant, and unlike the less recognizable images on the urns, these were familiar scenes: men fishing, women gathering, children at play. Some of the frescoes spoke of local activity, but others suggested faraway places, Africa and the Middle East. All portrayed costumes that fit the restaurant's theme: togas, long gowns on both men and women, and in some cases loincloths. None of the frescoes appeared to be that old, which suggested the owner possessed the skills necessary to maintain the wall's artistry.
It was then that we noticed what soon proved to be the owner. He was a short man with a mole just to the right side of his mouth, and he was clothed in a working toga that slid gently into the ambiance of the ancient Thira he was trying to project. He stood just outside the kitchen, his face showing amusement at our reaction -- likely he got this often. Understanding his pride and impressed with what we saw, we returned the smile then raised our eyebrows in what we hoped would provoke instruction from him as to how to proceed from here. After a quick check of the tables, he made way toward us.
Two of the tables were occupied, one by a middle-aged couple, and another by four men, each with white hair and the shadow of a beard. It took a moment for us to realize that they were all dressed in authentic Grecian costume, and yet another to realize that they were staring at us with expressions of curiosity. It was as if they had not expected to see tourists in this place, especially ones not in tune with the dress code -- had we crashed a private costume party? We were inclined to stay, however, not out of stubbornness but in recognition that the presence of locals suggested good food.
By now into the spirit of the moment, we were neither concerned nor inconvenienced with the owner's apparent lack of English -- it seemed in keeping with the appeal of this place. With smiles accompanying every movement, we fell to facial expressions and hand signals, we to convey our desire to stay for lunch and he in what looked at times like an attempt to gently persuade us that his establishment might not be what we were looking for. I thought again of the private party possibility; if true, some notice of this should have been placed outside. My flicker of annoyance at the thought did not go unnoticed by the owner, who quickly retreated to the smile I had seen earlier. At that, whatever real or imagined tension existed, it quickly evaporated. We could see this even in the faces of the restaurant's other patrons, expressions that looked a bit like relief.
We were led to one of the vacant tables, which turned out to be of more recent construction than I had originally thought. More comfortable as well. By then we were returning smiles, even as our eyes showed a level of uncertainty that encouraged a trickle of laughter, not flattering but not unfriendly either.
A wave of the owner's hand toward the food displayed at the door and window let us know that this was the only menu we were going to get. The clutching of his hands in front of him and the expectant look on his face said he expected our decision in this to be imminent. By then inclined to get on with whatever adventure this place had in store for us, we managed to convey that we would leave the choice of food to him -- that we were interested in authentic Greek cuisine and we trusted that he knew how to provide it.
When it came, we were not displeased. The smells pouring from the dishes our host placed on the table made me think of something once cherished but since forgotten, perhaps a dish my mother used to make. Delivered in stone bowls, it was some kind of stew, with chunks of what we soon realized was lamb swimming in grape leaves, feta cheese and a collection of vegetables, all flavored by spices that were both familiar and foreign at the same time. We found ourselves wanting to begin consuming this wonderful dish without delay, and seeing this in us, the owner wasted little time supplying us with the necessary tools to do so. Appropriately, all of them were made of wood. He also supplied a ceramic vessel of what we assumed was ouzo, which, while we had not intended to drink alcohol during lunch, was too appropriate to the scene to pass up.
By the time the meal was over, Cassie and I were swimming in satisfaction, by the food as well as the ouzo. Not wanting to cut the moment short, we sat back in our wooden chairs toasted the Athens waiter who set us on to this place (our glasses had been refilled more than once), and let our eyes roam the room that was filling us with such pleasure.
It was then I realized that the window through which I had tossed a number of casual glances during lunch, offered a mountain scene that should not be there. Perched precariously on the edge of a thousand foot cliff, the only thing separating this building from the caldera far below was trust. I pointed this out to Cassie, which at first provoked a doubting smile (I must admit the same reaction.) Then, curiosity growing, she and I tried to figure out how this was done, a clever mural perhaps. Suddenly making sense were the five wooden posts spread across the window. Imperfections that the eye might otherwise pick up were kept hidden. A quick glance at our host, who was again showing amusement at a guest's reaction, led us to suspect that his talents at creating scenes did not end at frescoes.
We tried to focus on detail: the rocks, the green of vegetation, even what appeared to be a well-used footpath. There was no movement, which suggested a facade of some sort, but all else was impressively realistic. Although it obviously gave his customers a moment of entertainment trying to figure it out, we wondered why our host would bother when the caldera offered a more eye-catching view. Nonetheless, we shot him a nod of approval, receiving as a reward a grateful smile.
That smile faded quickly as I rose from my chair and moved toward the window, my thought, innocent at least to me, to satisfy a growing curiosity. I took no more than three steps before I felt a tug on my arm, gentle but firm. The owner, a frown challenging what was now only a hint of a smile, maintained his grip but at the same time, and in a language I did not understand, launched into what I took to be a presentation of what lay outside. I understood what he was doing, of course, trying to hold my interest while keeping the how of it secret -- the magician protecting his tricks. I did not fight either the hand or the expression of gravity that accompanied it (he was a superb actor), but I was taken back a little as his words became diluted by the distinct vibration of a discontented volcano. Although I suspected that the man was a master at illusion, I could not help thinking that this was not part of the act, that the real volcano, not the mountain the window suggested was there, was reminding us that it was not to be taken for granted. Remembering how little room there was between us and a big fall, my gut squirmed a little. A glance at Cassie told me she was feeling the same.
Testifying to her nervousness, Cassie joined me near the window, the owner not fighting this. Indeed, after a moment of seeing nothing threatening in our obvious interest, he seemed to change his mind, now guiding us closer to where earlier he did not want me to go, where we could peek through the columns to better see what lay beyond. At our table, we had been impressed with what came across as a high-definition mural, but now at the window it was more like a Hollywood side lot, three-dimensional and alive. Rather than the caldera we knew to be there, it had us perched on the side of a steep mountain rising from just outside the window upward hundreds of feet. We saw only a part of the mountain, but so clever was that part laid out that our imaginations were encouraged to add to it. There was even a plume of smoke at the top, the effect suggesting a reawakening of the volcano that had not been seen here since 1650 BC, the time of the disappearance of the Minoans. And, if Plato is to be believed, Atlantis.
Permitting us a closer look turned out to be a mistake. Unable to accept that this small restaurant could sport a theme park that would impress Disney, we pointed to a door just to the left of the window and indicated that we would like to take a quick look outside -- we just had to know what was creating this illusion. With what we were sure was a practiced response, our host indicated through a frown and a few exaggerated shakes of his head how unwise that would be, that there was danger out there for those who did not know their way around. We were disappointed but not surprised; more of the magician protecting his tricks.
A look at Cassie proved we shared the same thought: We were not about to let it go at this. We would return for dinner, this time with our sailing companions, Matt and Kate (I had a moment of mischievous pleasure thinking of the story I would concoct for them). The four of us would somehow divert the owner long enough to uncover the secret of this place.
I pointed to my watch as a way to convey to our host that we must be off, receiving only a shrug that said he did not understand -- watches apparently did not fit his Ancient Thira theme. I smiled then quickly pulled out my wallet and held up a credit card, ignoring the likelihood that it would be received as was the watch. I was wrong. We were guided to a tiny room just off the entrance then awarded a nod of recognition and an assurance in perfect English that, "Visa will be fine."
As our host processed the card in a machine that was decidedly not Minoan, Cassie and I, after a quick stare of surprise, began to laugh, both of us having convinced ourselves that there might indeed be some mystery attached to this place. We had been playing the Ancient Thira game as much as he, and this sudden return to reality was startling, somewhat like the lights being turned on after the end of a particularly grabbing movie. Inspired, we asked about the backdrop and the vibrations, thinking that reasonable at this point, but all we received in answer was a wink and a coy shrug. Resigned to this and no more, I complimented him on his devotion to detail, at which point he, again in perfect English, combined a gracious thanks with an admonition not to reveal too much to others, that much of the delight his establishment offered was the uncertainty guests felt right up to the very end. By now in love with the place, we promised to safeguard his lovely surprise, receiving as a reward another of his friendly smiles.
Leaving the building, it was oddly comforting to see the world we knew still there. It reinforced the feeling that what had bombarded our senses was as much an invention of the proprietor as was his excellent food. Due at least in part to the ouzo, we had fallen hypnotically into the ambiance of a cleverly-constructed theme house and were yet to pull ourselves out of it. Our feelings were ambivalent, part pleasure at having been so pleasantly taken, and part frustration at not knowing how it all worked. We stood there looking back at the isolated, dull-brown building and the caldera that lay inches from where it ended, finally deciding that what we'd seen had to be some kind of hologram. This still suggested more sophistication than a small restaurant would be expected to possess, but a hologram would at least explain why we were able to see moving smoke.
Our simple lunch having become something of an obsession, we stopped at a book store on our way back to the boat to search for information on Ancient Thira. We then spent an hour in our car reading about the Minoans and the terrible explosion that ended the most advanced civilization of that day. Still not ready to let it go, we then toured Akrotiri, a nearby archeological site buried by that eruption, there noting the similarity of the restaurant to these ancient buildings. Not surprising; the owner, clever as he obviously was, would imitate as much of it as he could.
Tired but content, Cassie and I headed back to the boat to gather Matt and Kate for dinner, resolving to tell them just enough to tickle their interest. At the restaurant, we would shoot a wink at the owner to let him know they were not yet in on the game. This day that had started out as an intention to fulfill a reluctant promise to a waiter back in Athens had now become much more than that.
We filled Matt and Kate with anticipation, not only for food whose quality we could barely describe, but for the restaurant's highly unique atmosphere. We hinted that there was something supernatural about the place, something they would have to see to believe. The skepticism we saw in their eyes only added to our pleasure.
There was a slight hesitation in our friends' walk as they saw for the first time the narrow isthmus that led the way to the restaurant's entrance. But doubt was soon replaced by delight as they pushed across then entered the dining room. The evening light, now supplied totally by oil lamps, led us quickly into the ambiance of Ancient Thira, and pleasure became etched in their faces as they explored with their eyes as we had done earlier in the day. The owner was exactly where he had been upon our earlier entrance, and the expression on his face said he was expecting us. Using sign rather than the English I knew he understood, I indicated a table that was closer to the magic window than any other, and without hesitation, he led us right to it. Once seated, we indicated a round of what I continued to think of as ouzo, and our evening began.
I was taken aback a short time later by the expression on Cassie's face, one of confusion mixed with a hint of discomfort. It made me follow where she was looking. Earlier today our fellow diners had included one middle-aged couple and four men with white hair and shadowy beards. Those same people were here now, they and no others. The shrug I tossed Cassie was more to put me at ease than her, but in time we were both back to enjoying our drinks and dinner.
We got the reaction we were looking for when, after another unbelievable meal, I indicated the window that I knew our companions had not given much thought to, and pointed out that we were sitting on the edge of a cliff. They showed first confusion then curiosity, the latter coupled with suspicion as they caught our smiles. I had prepared a bit of humor, claiming I saw only a caldera, but their expressions drained this from me. Just as well since, with the softer lighting now permitting me to see a glow at the top of the mountain, I was as much in awe as they. It was with considerable effort that I pulled away enough to tell the story of our earlier experience, adding what Cassie and I suspected was happening.
The moment was lost when we realized that there was someone moving out there, a man heading down the mountain toward us, a disturbed look on his face and a hint of urgency in his step.
The epitome of bad timing, at that exact moment the rumbling we had felt during our earlier visit began anew. We had expected something along these lines, and even planned to act frightened as we knew Matt and Kate would be, but this rumbling was louder than I remembered. For my own benefit as much as everyone else's, I dismissed this as part of the act, adding that a hologram would explain the moving figure.
My words appeared hollow when the owner, spotting what held our attention, fled to an expression of shock. Surprising us by its suddenness and intensity, he sped to the door by the window, threw it open and ran outside, not bothering to close the door behind him. We watched as he raced toward the descending figure waving his hands and shouting something in what I could only imagine was Greek. Oddly disturbed, I began to look forward to the evening's end when all would be revealed and laughter could replace uncertainty. I also looked forward to a stiff drink back on the boat as the four of us unwound from a ruse delivered in too convincing a manner.
Responding to the owner's words and gestures, the descending man stopped in his tracks and a conversation ensued, punctuated by violent waving of hands. Cassie said it for all of us when she pointed out that our host was talking to a holographic image. Was he timing his reaction to what he knew would appear on the screen, or was it possible that this tiny restaurant was sophisticated enough to project a real-time figure?
We had to know, and this time we would not be deterred. As if operating as one being, the four of us jumped out of our seats and hurried to the open door. Our courage was momentarily defeated at the exit, but we soon pushed through to a scene that offered only more confusion.
In the darkness, there was no way to separate the real from the hologram, which made it easy for our imaginations to fill in the gaps. And here the rumbling was louder, further feeding those imaginations and coaxing them to extremes. It did not help when we picked up the smell of burning sulfur. This was authenticity we did not need! We tried not to consider that a smell resembling rotten eggs would be the last thing a restaurant owner would impose upon his guests.
An even bigger blow to reason came from our host, whose smaller profile said he had to be at least fifty yards up the hill. If so, he was defying gravity, floating above the caldera. We willed our eyes to penetrate the darkness but could see no wires holding him up (not knowing where the cliff ended kept us from moving forward for a closer look). We stood there for a number of minutes searching for the key to this clever puzzle, some flaw in the projection, some fuzziness around its edges.
We were yanked from our thoughts by a frightening display at the top of the mountain. The smoke we had seen earlier suddenly became a torrent of ash and steam pushing skyward with explosive fury. Aware of the history of Santorini, including the long-ago eruption, we looked at each other and managed a reluctant smile of appreciation. Here was entertainment that would make Hollywood envious. But our eyes did not even come close to matching our smiles.
When the owner turned back toward us after presumably convincing his unwelcome visitor to go back up the hill, he took no more than a step before pulling up short. Seeing that we had passed beyond the forbidden door, he did a double-take that looked like a left-over from the silent movie era. I tried not to chuckle, aware of how much effort this man gave to his show. In any case, my tendency toward amusement was squelched by the emphasis with which he gestured for us to go back inside, punctuating this with words of perfect English, the suddenness of which caught our friends off guard -- we had not yet admitted that he spoke English. Also catching us off guard was his enigmatic cry that it was not time, that we had upset everything.
The human mind will do funny things in times of stress, and in spite of a lingering hope that this was all part of the show, stress was what most dominated our systems at that moment. It only deepened as the eruption became a pyroclastic flow, a river of superheated air that, were it real, would be so hot it would kill upon contact. Already running toward us, the owner, seeing our attention diverted, screamed at us to get moving, and so convincing was he that we had to wonder whether there really was danger here, like a fireworks demonstration gone awry. We turned to go, but could not keep from looking back, the flow of death being so realistic. We barely got inside the building when, without joining us there, the owner slammed the door, the loudness of it bringing me to think we really had put his wonderful show in jeopardy.
With the kind of pleasure-pain that lures one back to a scary amusement park ride, we returned to the window, there to watch as the pyroclastic flow continued its rush downhill. We were not pleased to see that it was now accompanied by falling rocks -- one slammed against the building with a bone-chilling crack. The figure we had seen earlier was no longer there, which testified to the likelihood that it had only been a projection, but the flow that now took center stage was restoring our doubts. I could see this in the strained faces of the others.
Through looks and nods, we made the decision to get out of the restaurant as quickly as possible. This thing was going to come right up to the window, and such was the realism it brought with it, we could not be sure it would stop there. We moved toward the outer door, even as our eyes could not totally abandon the nightmarish wall of grey growing larger by the second like a monster in a bad dream. By now the vibration was at the level of an earthquake, and so much did it rattle the tables and dishes that I had to wonder why our host would let it continue.
The flow was only seconds from the building by the time we reached the outer door, and I had a moment of hope that this would signal the end of the show. By then I would have welcomed the laughter of those in the know, which was everyone except the four of us -- the other diners were looking our way, not at all concerned with what was approaching. But it was not to be that easy. A rock came crashing through the window, crushing the table where we had been sitting only moments before. Something had gone drastically wrong.
The rock being the final blow to already-shaky emotions, we were reduced to a four-person mob as we tried to claw our way through an opening too small to accommodate all of us at once. It took an explosive burst of air hot enough to encourage blisters to end the logjam. It popped us through to the street like a champagne cork, our screams and the huge amount of dense smoke pouring out behind us setting passers-by running in panic up the street. We followed as soon as we could scramble to our feet.
We ran as if chased by demons, which to us was close to the truth. Our panic raised panic in others, and soon there was an avalanche of people running up the darkened narrow steps and passageways of Oia, most of them not knowing why. When finally, one by one, they stopped to search for an explanation, they focused on us as if we were the problem. In time, exhausted and no longer hearing either rumbling or the footsteps of fellow alarmists, we paused at a gap in the buildings and looked back.
As if its main purpose had been to rid the restaurant of questionable guests, the giant flow of superheated air had gone, leaving in its place the shell of what used to be a restaurant, a tiny plume of smoke trickling upward from its heavily damaged door. Beyond this, there was only the caldera.
We were reduced to staring in silence. The scene that had been so violent and so real only short minutes before was now just a charred building squeezed onto a small outcrop of rock. There was no mountain, no means of supporting a hologram and no indication of how our host had been able to suspend himself over a thousand-foot drop.
In searching the faces of Cassie and the others, I saw a residue of trauma that, as with me, was preventing reason from regaining control. Whatever happened back there, we were afraid that in some way we had been the cause of it, perhaps our insistence in going outside after being told not to. If so, we were instrumental in destroying, not only a fantastic illusion, but human lives as well, the owner and everyone else in that building when it blew.
Ignoring the confused looks of our fellow tourists, we retraced our steps until just across from the isthmus of rock leading to where it had all begun. There, in spite of what we knew in our hearts, we searched through the darkness for some sign that others had survived, that these smoldering ruins were not the end of the story. At that moment, almost as important as the saving of lives was our need to have someone tell us that this was not our fault. But there was no movement inside, and the residual heat from the explosion said that situation was unlikely to change. Not knowing what else to do, we continued to stare until finally firemen arrived and ordered us back. Even then we could not bear to leave, the thought of what we might have done filling us with a need for redemption.
People began pointing us out to an elderly uniformed officer, the only policeman to respond to the call. What they were saying I had no way of knowing, but the look on the policeman's face as he glanced in our direction told me we were in for a rough time. Anxiety built as, with notebook out and a look of intense distrust on his face, he moved toward us.
He did not think much of our story.
It seemed odd to us that the policeman, who identified himself as Sergeant Manti, after hearing our story a second time and expressing the same doubts as before, ordered us into his car then drove us back to our rental. From there, after making it clear he expected no arguments, he followed us to our boat then invited himself on board, ignoring our looks of confusion as he did so. Dropping down to a cockpit seat and directing us to do the same, he then made us repeat the story a third time, his demeanor now showing more understanding. When we finished, and after a long moment of searching first my face then Cassie's, he sighed as if having come to a reluctant decision. He let us know that he was aware of the special nature of this restaurant, and that it was -- he hesitated at that point before continuing with, "skirting the law" and "occasionally taking risks." We were made to understand that the authorities disapproved officially, but were not inclined to put a stop to what they regarded as a clever and uniquely Greek show. They never thought it would come to this, but since it obviously has, their concern now was the negative publicity that might come of it, publicity that would be damaging to the island's economy.
I wondered how involved Sergeant Manti was in this "skirting the law," whether he was a partner to whatever risky game was being played here, but that was less on my mind than saving ourselves. Now that we understood what this man wanted of us, we pretended to see it his way, nodding in concession whenever we thought this was invited. In time satisfaction appeared on his face, even as he informed us that, under circumstances such as these, it would be better if we left the island immediately. And did not return. So relieved were we at seeing escape rather than prosecution, we jumped to comply, not realizing until well out to sea that he had said nothing about survivors. Or charred bodies.
A year has gone by since then, a year plagued by anxiety and guilt, each haunting us in a different way, the former in what legal trap we might yet fall into, and the latter in the persistent thought that we had inadvertently caused a loss of human lives. We met with Matt and Kate often during this year, at first saying little, but then pouring out mutual feelings as if struck by verbal diarrhea. We tried unloading on other friends as well, but though polite and even concerned for what our faces told them we were going through, no one took us seriously. As we persisted in telling our story, what began as amusement turned to grimaces of annoyance.
Unable to let it go and finding little in the news or on the Internet, Cassie and I vowed to learn what really happened that terrible day in Oia, how many died as a result of it. Although not fully trusting the man, we wrote first to Sergeant Manti, then to the police after receiving no reply from Manti. All the police would tell us was that there was no such officer on their force. A subsequent appeal to the government of Santorini produced the same result: more confusion than information. As if afraid we might be looking to make trouble, they stated with some heat attached to their letter that they had no such restaurant in all of Santorini. Further they said the area we described housed only the remains of a medieval church. Desperate to keep our options going, we interrogated everyone we could find who had visited the island during the last year, our persistence in this bringing on more of the now familiar expressions of annoyance.
We were close to the point of defeat when a casual comment to a storekeeper, who looked remarkably like the waiter we remembered from Athens, produced the statement that there was indeed a restaurant on that spot, that he had visited it only months ago. It was run by a pudgy little man and his wife. As calmly as we could manage under the burden of this unexpected news, we asked him to describe the man. Without hesitation he presented a short man with a mole on the right side of his mouth, adding with an amused smile that the one time he had visited this place, the owner and everyone else were dressed in a toga.
It was then that we knew we had to go back.
Our former traveling companions do not want to go with us. In fact they are adamantly opposed to going. After the year they went through, one that brought the four of us to the point of anxiety breakdowns, they want only to forget. We cannot convince them to change their minds, and they in turn cannot understand why we must go. There is even an accusatory tone in their voices, this in recognition that it was we who introduced them to what they are having so much trouble forgetting. None of this makes a difference to Cassie and me. The need to know has become all consuming.
We are haggard and bristling with nerves as we reach the end of the long trip to Santorini. We are even less in control of our emotions as, after a tense taxi ride to Oia, we approach the end of the street where a year ago a restaurant was consumed by a still-unexplained fire. As we round the last building and see an exact replica of what stood here a year earlier, we become for a long moment catatonic. There is no sign that flames ever touched this place.
My breathing is rapid as we cross the narrow isthmus of rock and approach the door, only to pause there in uncertainty. When finally we bring ourselves to enter, we are assailed by a vision that turns our muscles to jelly, and I have to reach for a table to steady myself -- Cassie just stands there, her eyes wide and her mouth open. Perched where he was when I first met him a year ago, his eyes touching mine and his smile as enigmatic as I'd remembered, is the owner. It is the same man, down to the mole and toga. Inside the kitchen is his wife, moving around a room of plain walls and decorated pottery. Within the eating area are the familiar tables and frescos, none of them slowing signs of trauma. As I stare wide-eyed, the owner, as usual amused at a guest's reaction, punctuates his smile with a wink.
When finally we are able to disengage our eyes from this man who should not be alive, we study the restaurant's other guests, now crowded around one table. My flesh crawls as I see the same couple and the same four old men, none of them showing scars associated with burns. There is one who was not there last year, the policeman who had interrogated us after the fire, Sergeant Manti. He is standing by the forbidden door, as if enforcing who goes through and who does not. There is a smile on his face that was not there when we last met.
As my paralysis begins to weaken, my urge to question any of this does as well. Indeed, from inside comes an understanding, including the expression on the owner's face that I once took for a magician's satisfaction at having fooled his audience. Also finally understood is what took place one year ago. All that we saw and all that we feared never happened. It had all been a test, one we came close to failing. Even while continuing to see promise in us, our rash actions said we needed further conditioning. Sergeant Manti knew this and sent us home.
Cassie and I are not surprised when it becomes apparent to us that we are wearing crude leather sandals above which are togas similar to those covering the restaurant's other patrons. Nor are we surprised when Sergeant Manti, a smile of relief on his face that the last of this group has arrived, opens the once forbidden door then signals the closest of our fellow recruits to pass through. As he steps outside and walks away, another gets up to follow, then another until finally there is no one left in the restaurant except Manti, the owner and his wife and us. The owner makes no comment, but he holds an expression that is oddly reassuring, his arms joined in front of him as if knowing we have figured it out and will now respond. I turn to Cassie and, seeing a tranquility in her face that matches what I feel, we join hands then move toward the door, no longer fearing what lies beyond. Indeed we hold an anticipation in our hearts that must have been seen by that waiter in Athens. Once at the door, we hesitate only briefly before following the others through the doorway and out into Atlantis, a civilization too dynamic to ever die. We barely hear the gate to the 21st century closing behind us.
© 2009 Noel Carroll
Bio: Noel Carroll is a husband and wife writing team. After a successful career in business, followed by a dozen years of sailing, they directed their energies toward co-authoring stories. Their published works (under the pen names NOEL CARROLL, N. C. MUNSON and JOHN BARR) include novels ("The Exclusion Zone", "If You Can Keep It"), short stories, satiric essays and opinion editorials. His (their) last appearance in Aphelion took us Beyond Sapiens, back in July, 2004.
E-mail: Noel Carroll
Website: Noel Carroll Homepage
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