The wind and rain pelted Tony mercilessly as he made his way to the captain’s steering room.
“Mr. Plakis! Thank God you came!” shouted Captain Haris, trying to steer the yacht. “We can no longer fight the storm! One of our engines is down.”
“Where are we now?” shouted Tony. He battled with the door, trying to shut it. The yacht heaved itself headlong into the black night, while the howling winds and heavy rain pounded the ship with a vengeance.
“We are close to Lipsi Island. We will be safer if we dock there for the night.”
* * *
It was mid-day and the sky was a lucid blue with no clouds in sight. Ipatia stood in the courtyard, gazing at Lipsi’s sun-splashed rolling hills and deep valleys. The vibrant greens of the cypress trees dotted the landscape, and the white-washed houses, so pure in color, appeared almost saintly. Further ahead, the Aegean Sea seemed calm, deceivingly calm. She had learned a long time ago that the waters beyond Liendou’s bay could easily turn treacherous.
“Come, Kitso. Granfather wants us to go get bread before the bakery closes,” she said, patting the donkey and straightening his red silk tie until it hung gracefully from his neck. “There, you’re the handsomest donkey in town!”
The tie had become a part of him, identifying him from the other donkeys in town. She had mistakenly brought home the wrong donkey years ago and had solved that problem by giving Kitso her father’s tie. At first, her grandfather grimaced at the gesture, but learned to accept it over time.
They ambled down the narrow stone path, down the hill past her grandfather’s vegetable garden and olive orchards, past the open fields with stone boundaries.
Her thoughts turned towards the trip tomorrow. This was the first time she was going back to Piraeus where her aunt lived; to the house she grew up in. There, she planned to study at the university and get her degree. Her growing excitement had been dampened by the fact that she had not received a reply from her aunt. It wasn’t like her aunt not to respond to her letters.
The sound of the donkey’s plodding steps stopped. They were standing in front of the Tsatsikas house. The door appeared shut, indicating they were probably napping or gone. “You’ll have to wait for your meal,” Ipatia said, laughing and nudging him onward with her feet.
Her trips to town often included stopping in and having a chat with her nona, Mrs. Tsatsikas, who always had some juicy bit of gossip to deliver over a cup of coffee and a koulouraki. There were also a few leftover morsels for Kitso, enough to make him smack his lips with satisfaction. But today they were running late.
They reached the bottom of the hill and turned on to the main road. It wasn’t long before the magnificent domed church of The Virgin of Haron appeared. Ipatia reverently made the sign of the cross. Last week, thousands of tourists had come to this tiny island to witness the miracle of the Virgin Mary icon and join in the festivities that lasted several days. Today it was eerily quiet.
A banging sound from the direction of the church interrupted her thoughts. She turned and looked. The door was wide open. She hopped off her donkey and ran up the ramp to the entrance. She peeked inside the church. “Hello?”
There appeared to be no one there. She shut the door firmly. The wind from last night’s storm must have pried it loose.
“Come, Kitso. I’ve got to get to the bakery before it closes,” said Ipatia, guiding the donkey back to the road. Clucking loudly, she sped past the waist high walls made of rocks and stones that guarded the old almond trees with their knobby branches, olive orchards and fig trees. Up ahead was the village water basin. Kitso slowed down considerably.
“We’ll stop by on the way back,” promised Ipatia, patting him reassuringly on the back.
They finally reached the outskirts of the town square. She tied the donkey to a post, and briskly went up the steps of the alley. To her dismay, the door of the bakery was locked shut. Ipatia tapped loudly on the window, hoping someone would be inside. To her surprise, the door opened, smothering her with the scents of warm baked bread. Mrs. Poulos’ wide, friendly face broke out into a grin, as she gestured her inside.
“Ipatia, come in. I was just closing up the shop.”
Ipatia thankfully chose three loaves of warm crusty bread, placing them in the canvas bag. She then took the drachmas out of her skirt pocket and began counting the coins.
“No, no, my good girl! This is my farewell gift to you,” said Mrs. Poulos, brushing off the proffered hand. She warmly hugged Ipatia, enveloping her in a soft cushion of human kindness.
Mrs. Poulos dabbed at the tears that had formed in her reddened eyes. “I remember when you used to play with my daughters. Although you were the youngest, you were the best behaved. When they married and left the island I was sad. Now you are leaving us, and I am sad again.”
“Don’t worry, Mrs. Poulos. I’ll come back and visit you some day.”
On the way back, guilt feelings threatened to overwhelm her. This island isn’t so bad after all. At times, I felt sad because I missed my parents, but the kind people here have helped me in so many ways. And what about Grandfather? He is all I have, and I’ll miss him dearly. Besides, he’s getting on in years. He needs me here. Oh why, why do I want to leave?
Her troubled thoughts continued for a few minutes longer. Then she remembered why she wanted to leave. “There’s no future for me here except marriage,” muttered Ipatia aloud. She sat up straight, her back like a rod, feeling more determined to leave the island than a few minutes ago. For some odd reason, that helped, for she began to feel cheerful. Was it because she would be in Piraeus tomorrow, one step closer to getting her degree?
It wasn’t long before they reached the water basin. The donkey planted his feet firmly and sipped water under the shade of the tree.
“This might take awhile,” said Ipatia aloud. She looked around. There was no one in sight. Impulsively, she hopped on the edge of the basin, then reached for the branch, pulling herself up. She settled against the crook of the tree. This would be the last time she would sit in her favorite, secluded resting-place.
She pulled out the slim English novel from her pocket and began reading it. It had been given to her as a present from her English tutor. Each sentence spoken aloud was followed by moments of complete absorption as she attempted to translate the text into Greek.
How is the heroine going to get out of her predicament this time? Within minutes, she got her answer. Her voice sounded loud and triumphant. The heroine in the novel was finally declaring her true feelings to the man she loved!
Rustling sounds caused Ipatia to glance up from her reading. She froze. Just above her was a large black snake, and it was slowly slithering towards her. She scrambled blindly towards the lower branch, then jumped, expecting to hit the ground. Instead, she found herself floating in air. It took her a moment to realize what had happened. Her long skirt had caught on the branch and was holding her up! She flailed her arms and legs, crying out, “Help! Help! A snake!”
“Don’t move,” said Tony, intent on the snake. It must have sensed him, for it began to glide away in the opposite direction of the girl. Tony’s first reaction had been to laugh at the comical scene before him, but the snake’s presence had prevented him from doing so.
Ipatia peered at the handsome stranger who appeared out of nowhere. Before she could reply, he jumped on the basin, swiftly untangled her skirt and plucked her off the branch. The feel of his strong arms holding him close to her sent shivers down her back.
“You are safe now,” said Tony, gazing down at the girl, admiring her beauty.
How could you let this man hold you so close! The danger signal coursing through Ipatia’s body gave her the strength reserved for emergencies. She pushed herself off the firm chest, toppling ungracefully on to the ground like a sack of potatoes.
“Ow!” sputtered Ipatia, scampering up, dusting the dirt off her face and arms.
Tony lost his balance from the force of her push, landing in the water with a splash. Trying to stand up, he faltered, and slipped back into the water.
Ipatia stammered, “I, I thank you! I have to go!” She backed into the donkey, unable to tear her eyes away from the wet man.
“Wait, wait just a minute!” said Tony, getting up.
Ipatia’s heart started to race. He was coming towards her and he seemed angry. She slapped the donkey in the rear, yelling “Ante!” That did the trick. Kitso broke into a trot, pulling her along with him. She ran until they reached a safe distance. Ipatia slowed to a walk, trying to catch her breath.
She scolded Kitso. “Why did you have to be so thirsty? If we hadn’t stopped at the water basin for you to drink, then I wouldn’t have gotten in this mess!”
The donkey’s large, trusting eyes looked at her sideways. Feeling guilty, she patted him on the head and sighed. “I’m not really mad at you. I am mad at myself. I should have known better than to be climbing trees.”
She went over the events in her mind. She pictured herself hanging from the tree like a bat, flapping her arms in the air. She started to giggle, while her fingers automatically pulled her long hair back into a braid. The stranger had shown up just in time! She was thankful that he rescued her, but he did not have to hold her that close! What would people say if they had seen her in his arms! Then she remembered the time that she had fallen from the same tree and had sprained and cut her ankle. Her grandfather had scolded her and had prohibited her from climbing that tree again. Today her impulsiveness had gotten the better of her, as it had done in the past.
She began daydreaming about being in the young man’s arms. A part of her wanted to remain there, snuggling against him, while another part scolded her for being so bold. Did you push yourself off because of Grandfather’s strict rules about boys, or was it because you didn’t trust your own feelings? Were you afraid that you would fall in love with him?
“Ipatia Kouris, how could you stoop so low into thinking because someone saves you that you will fall in love with him?” Ipatia whispered fiercely, realizing her emotions were betraying her resolve not to engage in any relationship. Yes, but this isn’t just anyone. I’ve never been in a handsome young man’s arms before.
* * *
Tony stood there, silently watching the fleeing girl, as her sun-kissed tresses streamed behind her. She reminded him of a frightened deer. His eyes searched the tree, but there was no evidence of the snake. He climbed slowly out of the basin, holding steadily on the side for support. His white cotton shirt and black cotton pants were drenched. He shook his legs to get rid of the water, then removed his shoes and poured the water out of them. He swore silently. Not only did she run away, she had the audacity to push him in the water.
Let’s be honest. Your ego has been bruised. In all your twenty-nine years, your good looks always had girls flocking to you. Even your nanny adored you. This was the first time a girl ran away from you, and you didn’t have a chance to talk to her.
His glance fell on something brown on the ground. It was a book. He picked it up, mindful of his wet hands. “An English novel,” he said, somewhat surprised by the discovery. Curious, he opened the cover. On the inside it read, “To Ipatia Kouris, May you enjoy this book. I wish success and happiness all your life. Love, Mrs. Rodos.”
He leafed through the pages, noticing scribbling along the sides. A piece of paper fluttered out of the book. The large clumsy handwriting was evidently that of a child’s. It was a poem titled, “To My Father, Captain Manolis Kouris.” Its simple stanzas revealed the admiration and love of a daughter or her father. Tony paused, deep in reflection. Could this man be the Captain Kouris who had once worked for my father?
He remembered being sad when he heard about the captain’s untimely death. He had been even more shocked to find out his family had been with him on the trip. Could this elusive girl, this precocious, tall girl be the surviving daughter of Captain Kouris? The fact that she still wore black clothes even several years after his death was a sign she had not gotten over her mourning. There was an odd feeling in his chest, an unexplained yearning to see her again. Tony tucked the poem back in the book being careful not to get it wet. He checked his watch. He was to meet Michael in front of the yacht at five o’clock. His sightseeing for the day was over.
* * *