The aroma of basil, which grew in ancient, tall, earthenware pots at the foot of Niko's stone stairs, beside the heavy wooden doors, and at the entrance to his garden, got stronger as the sun baked off the dew. The smell of the sea, mixed with the salt cedars, rosemary, wild oregano, the pine trees, lemon trees, geranium, tomatoes, jasmine and roses, surrounds you, embraces you, gets into your hair, your pores, and becomes part of you. It is a smell like the sound of a joyous occasion.
Your garden, Niko, your island, a joyous occasion. I will never forget how it felt to step through your door into the house you built, your sanctuary for the spirits of that land and its sea. I still feel the jasmine water you poured over our hands before we entered, and sprinkled on our heads, and I see the light in your eyes, your smile, under your mustache, that seemed to say, "Joy is their wavelength; it is how we join them."
We were standing by the small sphinx-like guardian of the house a local artist had carved for you from red, native stone, one of your many sculptures. You had a marble altar carved as well, for the garden beside the house, where you planted marigolds that led up to it like a golden path. You didn't speak about your beliefs, but everything you had made spoke for you, like the garden of healing herbs, and its serpentine path down to the beach, a beach empty of people, seemingly unknown, unchanged since Jason and his Argonauts stopped there to collect fresh water from the famous spring that fed the rushing stream. I remember when you told us that. I realized then it wasn't just a myth for you, but your history, and we were standing in it. My world changed at that moment. I remember feeling an unbuttoning in my heart – the permission to believe – and with it, a feeling of expansion, as if the sky – and the story – had just gotten bigger.
When, years later, you told us they'd built a trashy tourist bar on the beach, and that on the land across the small ravine from your house a compound of concrete cubes housing a restaurant and disco now overlooks your garden, it felt like a big tree came crashing down in my heart, that something sacred had been killed. I hope my denial doesn't sound dismissive of your heartbreak when I say I am certain these things are only temporary blemishes on holy ground, and will disappear one day. For if the spirit of the land lives in the dimension of spirit, it will be watching when that concrete returns to being sand.
Sand. Time. This year makes it thirty, and I am still searching for how to thank you for so many, many things, beginning with the initiation into the island's sacred places. The cave called Agio Gala, for the milk-like liquid that dripped from its ceiling, where prehistoric people had once lived. "Holy Milk" it was called, for the people believed it had healing powers. We believed it, too. Mother Gaia's milk. The canyon lined with oleander, that rose into the mountains, through which a crystal river ran, shaded by trees, rushing over boulders, with a towering phallic rock like a Shiva lingam in India, guarding the gateway to the holy of holies – a rock formation that looked like the birthplace of the world where the stream gushed forth into a granite womb of water so pure it felt like it washed not just your naked skin, but your mind and your soul, and restored your memory of origins.
You saw what others had become blind to. Remnants of an ancient shrine to Asclepius in the rock wall of an almond grove. A neglected altar to Apollo, desecrated with Coke cans and food debris, in the parking lot of a beach full of picnicking families. Prehistoric burial caves near a construction site. The intricately carved headstones in a neglected cemetery. The timeless scene of three women rolling pasta between their fingers under the fig tree that covered all the tables in the taverna, who seemed like goddesses fashioning people under the Tree of Life.
You took us up the winding road above the olive orchards, to the hamlet of Pitios, where there were no cars, just a patient donkey in the shade of a fig tree, and an old black bicycle leaning against a whitewashed wall. At the entrance to the town, past a crumbling stone tower, stood the house of the woman who baked bread for the village. The interior was so cool and dark it took a while for the eyes to adjust after coming in from the glare of the sun. When she appeared from the back, pushing aside the beaded door-curtain with a hand as gnarled as an olive branch, in a black skirt dusty with flour, her hair pulled back in a ragged scarf, her smile and her words poured over us like a stream over the jumbled rocks of her few teeth. She handed us two loaves of bread, and I felt we had been welcomed into the dance of life in that place, of the planting, and reaping, and grinding of the wheat, and the baking of the bread. It was like none other I had ever tasted, though in my teenage years I had kneaded and braided and invented with my girlfriends the most healthsome, hearty loaves we could, as if the bread, if we could get it right, could be a magic potion taking us back to the heart of Mother Earth. The bread she handed us was the colour of the mountain side. It tasted like the sea, the trees, the flowers and the earth were all in it; and it lasted for days without getting stale.
There were springs – and places where springs had been, but that had dried up when the forest above them had been burned, or when the spirits of the spring took refuge deep in the earth – where we imagined the ancient seasonal celebrations, flowers, songs and dances offered to the nyads there. But what were those songs, and those dances? You must have gotten tired of me wondering that out loud, over and over, as if the trees were going to answer me just to stop my whining. I could only summon images from the paintings of dancers on amphorae, that had inspired Isadora. I had learned some of her versions of those dances, but I knew there were so many more. And the music, what would it have sounded like?
That summer, as if in answer to my question, appeared a boxed set of CD's of music reconstructed from the newly interpreted fragments of ancient music notation, brought back to life with the elixir of a master musician's imagination. The melodies made perfect sense to me. They had the sound of listening within them, receptive to the voices of the spirits of nature, unhurried, like the movement of a breeze through a forest. You gave me this music as a gift, and I choreographed a dance to it. You also loved Rebetiko, when it was still scorned as the music of hashish dens on the docks of Piraeus, before it was embraced as the Greek blues. You invited Rebetiko players from Athens, your friends, to your house for weeks at a time, and at night on your fragrant terrace I imagined all the local spirits swaying to their heart-wrenching songs as they shook the stars with their bouzoukis, tsouras and baglamas. And we'd smoke a bit of hashish and end the night singing "The night they drove Old Dixie down, and all the people were singing. . ."
O Niko, these are treasures perpetually washed by the spring in my heart which time cannot touch. I realize now, after all these years, it is hopeless to search for a way to show my gratitude. How does a flower show gratitude to the sun but by blooming? How does a tree show gratitude to the one who brings it water, be it the rain, or a gardener such as yourself, but by growing? And how do the spirits of a place show gratitude for the offerings left by the spring, but by staying? So mine to you must exist in the remembering, in the aroma of basil, in the music on starlit nights, in the taste of the bread of Pitios, in the waters in the granite pool, in the holy cave, and the perfume rising from your garden, a smell like the sound of a joyous occasion. For, as you taught me, joy is the wavelength of the gods; it is how we join them.