At our end of the island, far from any noisy taverna or buzzing scooter, two owls hold a nightly conversation in the treetops by the sea. They start around midnight, hooting back and forth like village gossips while the landscape stands at attention. The only interruption is the slap and sigh of the Aegean, a timeless incantation that seems to whisper of myth and fallen heroes.
I like to imagine the owls are offering a sort of predator hotline, with frequent updates on the whereabouts of targets in the shadows below. After all, they’re the professionals at that sort of business. Maybe that’s why I was listening so closely on the night in question. Break their code and I’d learn which creatures were at risk–Freeman Lockhart, power broker of the local animal kingdom, beneficent warlord of meadow and brook.
Obviously I failed. Because nothing in their tone caused me the slightest alarm, yet shortly after the hooting stopped, three predators in gray tracksuits crept into our bedroom, and later I realized that every creature but me must have detected a warning. Even Mila, shivering at my side until they took me away, bruised and bleeding, had noticed the fellows earlier that day on the ferry from Piraeus.
My only vivid memory of our ocean passage was of Mila herself as she prepared to vomit from the stern. She wasn’t prone to seasickness, but there she stood, hands braced against the rail in a swirl of briny mist while gulls hovered just above, awaiting the spoils. Her face was pale, accentuating the underfed look of her sharp features and high cheekbones. She looked as vulnerable as a stowaway, so I took her gently by the shoulders in hopes of steadying her with a little warmth.
“Must be the excitement,” she gasped, still holding it inside.
“Probably,” I answered, although I suspected trepidation was more to blame. This voyage was our running start to a long-planned leap of faith, our grand exit to a new life. Having given up on the world at large, we had decided to finally get everything right by going it alone. Stakes like those might make anyone queasy.
We had been at sea for several hours, among fifty or so passengers on one of the few remaining smaller boats–or caïques–that still ply these waters. Most people make the crossing to Karos in half the time, on one of the huge hydroplane “fast boats.” But Mila and I share an aversion for their towering hulls, wide-body cabins, and churning speed. They are as coldly efficient as 747s. Being a firm believer in clean getaways, I am also unsettled by their tremendous wakes, mile-long stripes of foam across the sea, pointing a giant arrow at your route of escape.
Besides, when you’re going somewhere for the duration, you want to be attuned to the passing of every mile. So we opted for the smaller, slower sort of boat we had taken on our first trip to Karos, three years earlier. What we hadn’t counted on was the bluster of early autumn, which soon built the Aegean into ten-foot waves as the deck heaved
After a few minutes of unproductive gagging, Mila finally cut loose. The waiting gulls cried sharply in triumph, yellow beaks plucking at her discharge as it streamed toward the foaming water. They fought noisily over the bounty.
“You okay?” I asked, massaging her back.
She barely got the word out. Then she pushed away my hand and thrust her face back toward the water. I made my exit toward the bow, not for lack of empathy but because of the memories she had stirred. The transaction with the gulls reminded me uncomfortably of our recent profession and all its shortcomings. Until a week ago, Mila and I were aid workers for the United Nations, acting as glorified caterers to the world’s wars, famines, and disasters. Most recently we had supervised feeding centers, handing out rations which at times were scarcely more palatable than what Mila had just offered, and usually to an audience every bit as ravenous as the gulls.
Toward the front of the pitching deck, several backpacking young tourists stood with knees flexed and sunburned faces to the wind, riding the rollers like surfers. I grasped the rail, still trying to shake the images that had pursued me from the stern. Closing my eyes, I saw skeletal mobs racing through dust clouds toward air-dropped crates of bottled water. Eager hands tore away plastic before the parachute even had time to settle. In the foamy sizzle of the passing sea I detected the crackle of gunfire, and as I reopened my eyes I imagined the wounded falling by the wayside in the troughs of retreating waves.
The deck bounced as the boat carved another blue swell, and I looked anew at the surroundings, trying to place myself more firmly in the moment. The light was golden, the air mild, and my lips pleasantly salty. The other passengers at the bow seemed to be enjoying themselves, and I should have been, too. Karos was only an hour away.
Just ahead on the horizon lay the isle of Argos. I shielded my eyes for a closer look, but the whitewashed houses seemed to trickle down the island’s crags like droplets of spilled milk, yet another reminder of
Years ago in Sudan, toward the end of one particularly exhausting day, a village chieftain with arms and legs like pipe cleaners strolled into our makeshift headquarters and, without asking a soul, tacked onto a tent post a little gift from his family. It was an embroidered inscription of the famous biblical passage from Ecclesiastes, the one about casting your bread upon the waters. I had of course heard it repeated many times–one always does in the aid racket–but it was the latter, lesserknown portion that snagged in my memory now: “Give a portion to seven, yes, to eight, for you do not know what disaster may come upon the land.”
Indeed you don’t. Especially when, thanks to the well-meaning actions of those you hold dearest, you end up with only enough for six. But that is another story, and only I am privy to its deepest secrets.
A huge thump of the prow slapped away the thought with a blast of spray. Foaming water swabbed the deck in a bracing dose of autumn, and I gasped in exhilarated relief. I barely managed to keep my footing, and the bearded passenger to my left roared with laughter.
“Almost got us, that one!” he shouted above the wind, a Scotsman by the sound of his accent.
I made the mistake of agreeing in English, which only encouraged him.
“Here on holiday?” he yelled.
“No. We live here.” He leaned closer to hear. “As of today, anyway. I’ve just retired.”
“Congratulations! You look too young for it.”
“Maybe I am. I’m fifty-five.”
“No, no. Everyone should be so bloody lucky. Give me a place in these isles and I’d quit in a fuckin’ minute.”
Quit was the word for it, all right. But reborn, too. At least, that was the plan. Time to stand tall in the front lines of self-sufficiency, with a fishing rod in one hand and a shotgun for hunting in the other, while Mila tended to orchard and garden. Henceforth, any bread we tossed upon the waters would be for our own mouths. Let the next disaster proceed without us, because our former selves were finished, dismantled.
Our new hopes were thanks mostly to Mila. She was thirty-seven, a Bosnian whom I met in ’92 during her country’s civil war. We were living and working in besieged Sarajevo then, a time when the fates seemed to be conspiring against her and her country. I was fortunate enough to be able to help her survive the experience in one piece, both physically and emotionally, and when the war ended she was ready to go with me anywhere as long as it got her out of there for good. The UN, far more nimble at accommodating unofficial requests than official ones, obliged our wishes to travel in tandem even though we weren’t yet married, and for several years running we were island hoppers of African famine for the World Food Programme. Mila viewed each stop as yet another chance to remake the planet in a better image, even as she was repairing her own damage. We have always been quick to rise to the defense of ideals. It’s one thing that made us such a good match, although she has always been the more tactful practitioner. Cross a line into dangerous misconduct and we will both draw it to your attention, but her gentler voice will be the one you want to heed. I have given some thought to why my tone is more cynical and strident, and I’ve decided it is due to my higher rank in the aid bureaucracy, which afforded a better view of the way things really work. Lucky her.
“Pretty, isn’t it?” The Scotsman pointed back toward Argos, receding in our wake.
I nodded to be friendly, but I had never liked the look of Argos. Too barren. Too brown and imposing. In the afternoon light the villages protruded from its ridgelines like bones through rotting flesh, and I was unable to suppress a shudder.
“If you think this
water’s cold,” the grinning Scotsman said, “then don’t ever take a dip in the North Sea.”
“Good advice. Excuse me. I should go find my wife.”
It must have been around then that Mila noticed the three men. She told me later that after a second purging she felt well enough to head back inside, where she cleaned up using sterile wipes that I’d pilfered the last day on the job. While doing so she idly surveyed the aisles of passengers.
They were together on the back row. What caught her attention was that none of the three appeared to be either a Greek or a vacationer. Karos wasn’t exactly a business destination, yet their attire of smart slacks and button-down oxford shirts was trademark business casual. Each had a single overnight bag close at hand. It was almost as if they had come straight from Wall Street. She said there was also something odd about the way they were clumped together, like wagons circled for protection. Most of the other passengers paraded to and fro, visiting the snack bar or the wildness of the deck.
No sooner had these thoughts crossed her mind than another wave of nausea sent her running for the stern. A half hour later we were within sight of Karos, and by the time we boarded a taxi for the ride to our house she had rediscovered her smile and forgotten the men on the back row.
Our spirits lifted as the taxi climbed into the hills. The soft island air rushing through the open windows made it easy to focus on renewal and relaxation.
Karos is neither the prettiest nor the ugliest, the barest nor the lushest, the most cosmopolitan nor the most rustic of the Cyclades. Photographers in search of the most stunning expressions of Aegean charm almost never go there, yet it boasts a brooding monastery atop its highest mountain, a walled medieval town that clings to a coastal bluff like a barnacle, and terraced green hillsides where goats wander among olive trees and pine groves. The domes of Orthodox chapels, many long abandoned, sprout in almost every valley like sky-blue mushrooms.
In the past few years the island has been “discovered” by one of the popular guidebooks, and it now draws a fair share of tourists during the high season. One of the better results of this boomlet is some new nightlife in the port town of Emborios, where a string of tavernas and ouzeris
curls along a shingle beach. But the island’s twenty square miles of hill and dale still offer plenty of hiding places, and at night Karos sinks easily into slumber, save for the owls.
Our house is near the southern tip, about a six-mile drive from Emborios. It is fifteen years old–practically brand-new by local standards–and is fairly small, with six whitewashed rooms. Large windows capture the sunlight when the shutters are thrown open, and a cistern in the back collects rain from the roof tiles. Best of all, there is a fieldstone patio with a trellised grape arbor overhead and a commanding view of the sea, which is a mere hundred yards away down a gentle slope of grass and stone. We bought the place two years ago, just before real estate prices went through the roof, and just as we began contemplating how we wanted to spend the balance of our lives.
I hadn’t always craved this sort of getaway. For several years, in fact, I resisted the idea of marrying Mila, mostly because I resisted her idea of what our lives should be like in retirement. She wanted seclusion, a safe harbor where no one could reach her. A castle surrounded by a moat would have been just fine. I favored the idea of heading off to a vibrant city in the thick of the action, some capital of high culture in a healthy land of plenty where I could sample all I had missed during our years amid need.
But year by year, as stresses mounted and the lines of starvation lengthened, Mila gradually won me over to her way of thinking. I also wasn’t blind to one of the other key virtues of seclusion: Surrounding Mila with her cherished moat would seal her away from other men. It is the perennial concern of the older lover, I suppose, even though the eighteen years between us had mattered little up to now. I confess to being relieved when she turned thirty. It was as if she had finally crossed some invisible line of safety, and from then on would be less likely to stray. Not that she had ever shown signs of doing so.
Like many Balkan women, Mila carries herself with more dignity and composure than the region’s menfolk, who by and large seemed either surly or downtrodden throughout the war. This resilience is one of the qualities I treasure most in her. It lends a sturdiness to her delicate beauty, and a pleasing gravity to her wit and intelligence. It is her emotional ballast, and I would do anything to protect it.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Amateur Spy by Dan Fesperman. Copyright © 2008 by Dan Fesperman. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.