I fell asleep upstairs a short while after Mamá left. I jolted awake later to a woman’s high, ringing voice. I sat up and there she was, all lipstick, powder, perfume, and slender curves, an airline ad smiling down at me through the thin veil of a pillbox hat. She stood in the middle of the room in a neon green minidress, leather valise at her feet, with her auburn hair and long limbs, grinning down at me, a shine on her face, and talking, the seams of her voice bursting with aplomb and cheer.
“So you’re Odie’s little Markos! She didn’t tell me you were this handsome! Oh, and I see her in you, around the eyes—yes, you have the same eyes, I think, I’m sure you’ve been told. I’ve been so eager to meet you. Your mother and I—we—oh, no doubt Odie has told you, so you can imagine, you can picture, what a thrill this is for me, to see the two of you, to meet you, Markos. Markos Varvaris! Well, I am Madaline Gianakos, and, may I say, I am delighted.”
She took off a cream-colored, elbow-length satin glove, the kind I’d seen worn only in magazines by elegant ladies out at a soiree, smoking on the wide steps of the opera house or being helped out of a shiny black car, their faces lit up by popping flashbulbs. She had to yank on each fingertip a bunch of times before the glove came off, and then she stooped slightly at the waist and offered me her hand.
“Charmed,” she said. Her hand was soft and cool, despite the glove. “And this is my daughter, Thalia. Darling, say hello to Markos Varvaris.”
She stood at the entrance of the room beside my mother, looking at me blankly, a lanky, pale-skinned girl with limp curls. Other than that, I can’t tell you a single thing. I can’t tell you the color of the dress she wore that day—that is, if she wore a dress—or the style of her shoes, or whether she had socks on, or whether she wore a watch, or a necklace, or a ring, or a pair of earrings. I can’t tell you because if you were at a restaurant and someone suddenly stripped, hopped atop a table, and started juggling dessert spoons, you would not only look, it would be the only thing you could look at. The mask draped over the lower half of the girl’s face was like that. It obliterated the possibility of any other observation.
“Thalia, say hello, darling. Don’t be rude.”
I thought I saw a faint nod of the head.
“Hello,” I replied with a sandpaper tongue. There was a ripple in the air. A current. I felt charged with something that was half thrill, half dread, something that burst upward inside of me and coiled itself up. I was staring and I knew it and I couldn’t stop, couldn’t peel my gaze away from the sky blue cloth of the mask, the two sets of bands tying it to the back of her head, the narrow horizontal slit over the mouth. I knew right then that I couldn’t bear to see it, whatever the mask was hiding. And that I couldn’t wait to see it. Nothing in my life could resume its natural course and rhythm and order until I saw for myself what was so terrible, so dreadful, that I and others had to be protected from it.
The alternate possibility, that the mask was perhaps designed to shield Thalia from us, eluded me. At least it did in the dizzying throes of that first meeting.
Madaline and Thalia stayed upstairs to unpack while Mamá battered up cuts of sole for supper in the kitchen. She asked me to make Madaline a cup of ellinikós kafés, which I did, and she asked me to take it up to her, which I did as well, on a tray, with a little plate of pastelli.
All these decades later and shame still washes over me like some warm, sticky liquid at the memory of what happened next. To this day I can picture the scene like a photograph, frozen. Madaline smoking, standing at the bedroom window, looking at the sea through a set of teashade glasses with yellow lenses, one hand on her hip, ankles crossed. Her pillbox hat sits on the dresser. Above the dresser is a mirror and in the mirror is Thalia, sitting on the edge of the bed, her back to me. She is stooped down, doing something, maybe undoing her shoelaces, and I can see that she has removed her mask. It’s sitting next to her on the bed. A thread of cold marches down my spine and I try to stop it, but my hands tremble, which makes the porcelain cup clink on the saucer, which makes Madaline turn her head from the window to me, which makes Thalia look up. I catch her reflection in the mirror.
The tray slipped from my hands. Porcelain shattered. Hot liquid spilled and the tray went clanking down the steps. It was sudden mayhem, me on all fours, retching all over shards of broken porcelain, Madaline saying, “Oh dear. Oh dear,” and Mamá running upstairs, yelling, “What happened? What did you do, Markos?”
A dog bit her, Mamá had told me by way of a warning. She has a scar. The dog hadn’t bitten Thalia’s face; it had eaten it. And perhaps there were words to describe what I saw in the mirror that day, but scar wasn’t one of them.
I remember Mamá’s hands grabbing my shoulders, her pulling me up and whirling me around, saying, “What is with you? What is wrong with you?” And I remember her gaze lifting over my head. It froze there. The words died in her mouth. She went blank in the face. Her hands dropped from my shoulders. And then I witnessed the most extraordinary thing, something I thought I’d no sooner see than King Constantine himself turning up at our door dressed in a clown suit: a single tear, swelling at the edge of my mother’s right eye.
“So what was she like?” Mamá asks.
“Who? The French woman. Your landlord’s niece, the professor from Paris.”
I switch the receiver to my other ear. It surprises me that she remembers. All my life, I have had the feeling that the words I say to Mamá vanish unheard in space, as if there is static between us, a bad connection. Sometimes when I call her from Kabul, as I have now, I feel as though she has quietly lowered the receiver and stepped away, that I am speaking into a void across the continents—though I can feel my mother’s presence on the line and hear her breathing in my ear. Other times, I am telling her about something I saw at the clinic—some bloodied boy carried by his father, for instance, shrapnel embedded deep in his cheeks, ear torn clean off, another victim of playing on the wrong street at the wrong time of the wrong day—and then, without warning, a loud clunk, and Mamá’s voice suddenly distant and muffled, rising and falling, the echo of footsteps, of something being dragged across the floor, and I clam up, wait until she comes back on, which she does eventually, always a bit out of breath, explaining, I told her I was fine standing up. I said it clearly. I said, “Thalia, I would like to stand at the window and look down on the water as I’m talking to Markos.” But she says, “You’ll tire yourself out, Odie, you need to sit.” Next thing I know, she’s dragging the armchair—this big leather thing she bought me last year—she’s dragging it to the window. My God, she’s strong. You haven’t seen the armchair, of course. Well, of course. She then sighs with mock exasperation and asks that I go on with my story, but by then I am too unbalanced to. The net effect is that she has made me feel vaguely reprimanded and, what’s more, deserving of it, guilty of wrongs unspoken, offenses I’ve never been formally charged with. Even if I do go on with my story, it sounds diminished to my own ears. It does not measure up to Mamá’s armchair drama with Thalia.
“What was her name again?” Mamá says now. “Pari something, no?”
I have told Mamá about Nabi, who was a dear friend to me. She knows the general outline of his life only. She knows that in his will he left the Kabul house to his niece, Pari, who was raised in France. But I have not told Mamá about Nila Wahdati, her escape to Paris after her husband’s stroke, the decades Nabi spent caring for Suleiman. That history. Too many boomeranging parallels. Like reading aloud your own indictment.
“Pari. Yes. She was nice,” I say. “And warm. Especially for an academic.”
“What is she again, a chemist?”
“Mathematician,” I say, closing the lid of the laptop. It has started snowing again, lightly, tiny flakes twisting in the dark, flinging themselves at my window.
I tell Mamá about Pari Wahdati’s visit late this past summer. She really was quite lovely. Gentle, slim, gray hair, long neck with a full blue vein crawling up each side, warm gap-toothed smile. She seemed a bit brittle, older than her age. Bad rheumatoid arthritis. The knobby hands, especially, still functional, but the day is coming and she knew it. It made me think of Mamá and the coming of her day.
Pari Wahdati stayed a week with me at the house in Kabul. I gave her a tour of it when she arrived from Paris. She had last seen the house back in 1955 and seemed quite surprised at the vividness of her own memory of the place, its general layout, the two steps between the living room and dining room, for instance, where she said she would sit in a band of sunlight midmornings and read her books. She was struck by how much smaller the house really was compared to the version of it in her memory. When I took her upstairs, she knew which had been her bedroom, though it’s currently taken up by a German colleague of mine who works for the World Food Program. I remember her breath catching when she spotted the short little armoire in the corner of the bedroom—one of the few surviving relics of her childhood. I remembered it from the note that Nabi had left me prior to his death. She squatted next to it and ran her fingertips over the chipped yellow paint and over the fading giraffes and long-tailed monkeys on its doors. When she looked up at me, I saw that her eyes had teared a little, and she asked, very shyly and apologetically, if it would be possible to have it shipped to Paris. She offered to pay for a replacement. It was the only thing she wanted from the house. I told her it would be my pleasure to do it.
In the end, other than the armoire, which I had shipped a few days after her departure, Pari Wahdati returned to France with nothing but Suleiman Wahdati’s sketch pads, Nabi’s letter, and a few of her mother Nila’s poems, which Nabi had saved. The only other thing she asked of me during her stay was to arrange a ride to take her to Shadbagh so she could see the village where she had been born and where she hoped to find her half brother, Iqbal.
“I assume she’ll sell the house,” Mamá says, “now that it’s hers.”
“She said I could stay on as long as I liked, actually,” I say. “Rent-free.”
I can all but see Mamá’s lips tighten skeptically. She’s an islander. She suspects the motives of all mainlanders, looks askance at their apparent acts of goodwill. This was one of the reasons I knew, when I was a boy, that I would leave Tinos one day when I had the chance. A kind of despair used to get hold of me whenever I heard people talking this way.
“How is the dovecote coming along?” I ask to change the subject.
“I had to give it a rest. It tired me out.”
Mamá was diagnosed in Athens six months ago by a neurologist I had insisted she see after Thalia told me Mamá was twitching and dropping things all the time. It was Thalia who took her. Since the trip to the neurologist, Mamá has been on a tear. I know this through the e-mails Thalia sends me. Repainting the house, fixing water leaks, coaxing Thalia into helping her build a whole new closet upstairs, even replacing cracked shingles on the roof, though thankfully Thalia put an end to that. Now the dovecote. I picture Mamá with her sleeves rolled high, hammer in hand, sweat staining her back, pounding nails and sanding planks of wood. Racing against her own failing neurons. Wringing every last drop of use from them while there is still time.
“When are you coming home?” Mamá says.
“Soon,” I say. Soon was what I said the year before too when she asked the same question. It has been two years since my last visit to Tinos.
A brief pause. “Don’t wait too long. I want to see you before they strap me in the iron lung.” She laughs. This is an old habit, this joke making and clowning in the face of bad luck, this disdain of hers for the slightest show of self-pity. It has the paradoxical—and I know calculated—effect of both shrinking and augmenting the misfortune.