Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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3206 words
SHJ Issue 15
Fall 2016


by J. N. Pratley

No, I was emphatic. I told her I wouldn’t do it. She’d dragged me for two weeks through the Veneto looking at Palladian architecture, and when she started on Scamozzi’s stuff (or whatever his name was), I told her no way. Just because we happened to meet a couple of weeks ago on the train to Paris and had been sharing a bed didn’t give her the right to treat me like her pet on a leash.

And anyhow, just how important is it to see all the sights on your first trip to Europe? I was up to my armpits in Gothic and Renaissance art, and good Lord, here I was faced with the Classic Period. Columns, columns everywhere—what did I care whether they were stuck on the side of buildings, holding up a roof, or just standing in an open field beside a donkey? Doodads on their tops excited me as much as the proverbial you-know-what on a stick. I know all about Doric, Ionian, and Corinthian, and furthermore, I didn’t waste entirely my four years at the university to ogle busted cocks on marble statues.

There were other reasons I told her. A mob of tourists was climbing up to the Acropolis like a football crowd climbing the stairs of the Cotton Bowl. Big deal. I hate crowds, particularly babbling foreign ones—in scorching heat, no less.

So she said we could avoid the crowd by starting a couple of miles away at the Kerameikos and approach from a different direction, the way the ancients did—from outside the city gates, through the Agora, and then up the hill. Through all that desert of broken marble and rubble? No way, I said. She huffed and turned her back on me, hightailing away with her sandals slapping against the road’s stone slabs and her beautiful wiggle defying me. In a parting shot she told me to meet her in three hours at the Tower of the Winds. Crap. I had to look it up in the Michelin. It was on the outskirts of the district at the base of the Acropolis.

Well, at least I had some time to myself. Looking up at the thing on the top of the hill (we’d call it a butte in Texas), the only thing that impressed me was how nicely the blue-and-white Greek flag flapped over the concoction of whitish marble. I was grateful, too, for the breeze and the aloneness.

To one side of the base of the hill was an amphitheater, kind of out of the way of the rest of the spread, and I thought I might explore it, maybe find on the way something cold to drink. I’d have given an arm and a leg for a frosty bottle of Lone Star.

So I trudged on with my backpack and dirty, cut-off Levi’s, passing a few lost tourists and shuttered yellow buildings with tile roofs. Greeks had more sense than to be about in the afternoon heat, but halfway to the amphitheater I came across a small house shaded by a giant tree in its patio. Its gate was open and I figured it to be a taverna or watering hole.

When I wandered in, by gosh, what did I see? The biggest damn fig tree I’ve ever seen. No, maybe the biggest tree, period. Other trees might have trunks as big, but this thing had branches almost as wide. They cantilevered in every direction, and some had iron posts supporting them. Hibiscus and bougainvillea grew around it, making me think that maybe they were concealing other nearby fig trees. No, soon as I traced it all out, I realized I was looking at one single, humongous tree. Wow! It didn’t just spread, it enveloped, encompassed, encircled, entwined, engulfed everything around it like a giant octopus with gargantuan tentacles: the house near it, the walls that tried to enclose it, everything. It, what is the word?—exsuscitated—its whole environment, ominously, surreptitiously. (Four-bit words prove something about my education.)

Then I began to examine the gray-green leaves that hid the figs, figs the same color as the purple, dangling testicles of Brahmin bulls. With a crooked neck and gaped mouth, however, I soon became aware of somebody beside me. It was an old man with a wiry white moustache, wearing a tie and a shirt that looked like it had been dipped in whitewash. He had on crimpled, shiny-black shoes, and his rolled-up sleeves exposed twiggy arms.

“It’s magnificent, is it not?” he said, hissing the s’s, rolling the r’s, and broadening the i’s. (After three weeks in Europe, I was getting accustomed to funny English pronunciations.)

I sputtered, “It certainly is. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’m sorry, sir, busting into your patio, but I saw the gate open and thought—”

“Young man, I leave it open for just that purpose, so people can admire it.” His eyes narrowed and he smiled.

I asked its age.

“Who knows, maybe hundreds of years. I like to think it preceded the Parthenon.”

He pointed up at the Acropolis. Through the leaves it looked awesome, filtered through the green light. I thought of Karen up there. She’d be climbing over hot, slick surfaces and wishing, if she knew the truth, that she was down here with me in the shady coolness and fruity sweet aroma of the figs.

“Is the tree really that old?” I said.

He cackled a little. “Let’s pretend. Certainly it was standing here when the Germans blew up the Turkish magazines stored in the Parthenon in the seventeenth century.”

And who knows, I thought. Maybe the very mortar shells that did the ugly deed were concealed right here among the leaves of this very tree. Look out for mortar shells and falling columns, Karen!

The old man said, “It’s such a warm day. Come, young man, I’ll give you some refreshment,” and he gently pushed me by my elbow across the patio to a wobbly staircase leading upstairs to what seemed to be his living quarters. I figured him to be another one of those friendly Greeks, almost like small-town Texas folk.

It was a strange building, built piecemeal with sloping floors, leaning roofs and awnings, everything off plumb. But neat, not a speck of dust or rotten fig or dead leaf anywhere. Inside a dark room was a small table with a white linen covering and two cane chairs. He sat me down and limped into another room, giving me time to get dark-adapted. I began to see walls lined with glass-encased cabinets.

He returned with a large, white, porcelain platter filled with glistening cold, purple figs on a silver tray and a seven-star Metaxa brandy bottle, two shot glasses, and large, sweating glasses of ice water. Before sitting he took one of the figs in his hand by the stem and toasted me with it before he popped it whole in his mouth. I did the same. Its sweetness melted in my mouth like a Turkish delight, and then a quick gulp of the brandy was like—what can I say—an extra twitch after an orgasm.

“Refreshing, isn’t it, young man? Do you have such fruit in America?”

A meowing white cat brushed up against my tanned and dirty bare legs. I began to feel a slight embarrassment in front of my host, who seemed to be a cultivated gentleman. On top of his drawn-out vowels there was a peculiar British intonation. He had been an academic, a don of Byzantine history, and his family, for generations, had owned the house. Only he and his daughter remained, and she lived on the island of Hydra and despised Athens. (I felt like a hick for asking such personal questions, but that’s the Texas in me.)

“What will happen to the house and the fig tree in the future?” I asked. I was thinking like an American, how it would make a fine tourist pavilion or a site for a small, elegant hotel.

“No one will disturb that fig tree, do not worry. The officials of the Plaka would see to that.”

He had to explain to me what the Plaka was. I had read something in Fodor’s and Hachette about its being the ancient district below the Acropolis, but now I was actually in it, meeting an actual Plakian, or whatever they’re called. I took another shot of the Metaxa and thought how I would tell Karen I’d talked to the closest living thing to an ancient Athenian, a Plakian, a protoplasm of the Classic Age, not a slab of Pentelic marble she was messing with up there on the Acropolis.

He asked what I had studied at the university. I told him I had just graduated, and my graduation present from my family was a one-month trip to Europe. I told him, too, about my degree, a liberal arts degree with emphasis on art, philosophy, history and such, which I chose primarily because I had good high school grades and felt privileged to be invited into that special curriculum. Dad wanted me to get a major in business so I could help him in his big laundry and dry cleaning plant in Deep Springs. The coeds, I figured, would be prettier in liberal arts, I told my host. He laughed at that, but, to my surprise, he knew of the German manuscript collection at the Ransom Center of my university, and he knew about the splendid collection of classical Greek sculpture replicas in its museum.

I wanted to ask him many questions, so impressed was I with his erudition and manners. Strange associations came to mind, like—my reading Plato in my sophomore year, the dialogues with Socrates. Yes, that was what it felt like. I was wanting to have a dialogue with him. I wanted to say things like—Hi, Soc, how’s it going? How grow your figs?

I did find something easier to ask of him—about the contents of the glass cases which I couldn’t make out in the dark. Again I was amazed. They contained 78 and LP classical recordings, hundreds of them, the biggest collection I’d ever seen, as big as the record store in Houston.

“What would you like to hear?” he said.

Naturally, he had every recording made by Mitropoulos, Callas, Stratas, Karajan. Every Mahler symphony, many versions, and all the Puccini operas. I really like Puccini. I requested La Bohème with Albanese. It was on a 78 and played beautifully on an old Grundig machine.

We sat nibbling figs, sipping brandy, listening. I looked out the door to a brilliant sunlight filtering through the arbor of fig leaves and thought of Botticelli, genitals covered by fig leaves, the nudes of the Uffizi, and making it with Karen. But then the gloomy ending in the opera’s last act brought other thoughts of Karen, of how I didn’t react the way she did, at least not sufficiently, to the sights of Paris, Venice, Florence, Sienna. Oh yes, there were pretty things all right, but my Western Civ series of classes at my university were well illustrated and the library was well endowed, so when I saw St. Peter’s, all I could register was, well, it looks just like the pictures. Of course I never told Karen that. I exclaimed, sighed, searched for adjectives (but also, at the same time, copped extra squeezes and caresses of her body).

My old friend rose to lower the volume of the music, and that gave me some relief from the sensual overload of the last few weeks. Karen’s constant gushing had gotten to me, what with everything else. For example, she’d say things like this: “Harry, the sensuality is only the surface, the subliminal aspect of its cerebral interpretation.” Staring at Michelangelo’s Bound Slave, she’d comb back her long, brown hair like Bathsheba and then scribble long notes in her little leather book. She never got around to telling me what the cerebral interpretations were.

I admit that her depth of understanding of the art world was far superior to mine. I was only a liberal arts major, not committed to anything yet, much less Art History, the way she was from her highfalutin’ private girls’ school back East. “Art will center your life,” she told me, “put everything in perspective.” But she had a dickens of a time meeting train schedules or finding her purse. I doubt she ever looked again at all her scribbles in the little leather book. What perspectives?

The music became more somber; my friend closed his eyes. And I’m thinking—what would I do when my grand tour ended? Go to work with my dad in his laundry business in Deep Springs? Cheez—Karen’s effusiveness about art and beauty would fade like bluebonnets in the fall. I’d miss that, I think.

At last Puccini’s Mimi finally expired, the 78 scratched its way to the lift-off conclusion, and the old man said, “So ends youth’s ideals.”

Plunk. I gave the cat another stroke and realized I might be overstaying my visit. I thanked my host for his wonderful hospitality, but said that it was about time for me to head for the Tower of the Winds to meet my girlfriend, perhaps intercept her on her way back. Soon as I said that, I felt like I really didn’t mean it, that I was feeling something else, like the feeling you get at the ending of a really good movie when you reluctantly wait for the house lights to come up.

He must have sensed my reluctance because he told me that he knew a shortcut for me to take to meet her, that there was plenty of time. Then I started asking him questions about the Acropolis. The Erechtheion. The buxom Karyatids. Could I see them from his patio? “Of course,” he said, “I’ll show you.”

What a kick! I climbed up a ladder to the top of the fig tree, and lo and behold—there it was, all of it, from a unique perspective, one that even my professor Dr. Ward, in his own private collection of Acropolis photos, couldn’t match. I took telephoto shots, certain that it would impress Karen and Dr. Ward. They were my perspectives, a little blurred and out of focus from the Metaxa perhaps. Postmodern ones, I’d tell Karen. Ha! But, in all honesty, I registered another impression: they were not visual; there were lots more than the projection slides and the hundreds of pictures I had seen of, for example, the Parthenon. They were some kind of sublime stimulus, something poking at my core. I can’t explain it. But damn. The Parthenon is something else. But I thank you, fig tree, for allowing my perspective.

And I needed to thank my new friend. I asked him how it feels to live so close to all that magnificence. He showed again a thin smile and twinkling eyes. “You cannot find words for it because the meanings of words are interpreted differently by people at different times, and what we call knowledge is in constant flux. Beauty and Truth are absolutes, they are eternal, unchangeable, and it’s why I cannot answer your question. Socrates speaks of such things, and I still find myself trying to find adequate words. There are none. The closest I can come to it is to say that the Parthenon is absorbed, etched if you like, into my soul. I do not even have to view it anymore. It’s been a long time since I’ve climbed up there. There is no need. I know, deeply, its meaning.”

I so appreciated his saying that. It kinda fitted my reaction. This was a new angle on our concepts of Beauty. How refreshing not to get a lecture on the dates and details on friezes, pediments, metopes, cornices, the Elgin Marbles, the Perclean Age, blah, blah. No need to memorize for a test. No need to hyperventilate with Karen every time we see something beautiful. And no need to kowtow to Dr. Ward.

A gust of dry air rustled the fig leaves. Coming from up high on the hill, a soft breeze brushed by my face, fanning all my hopes and desires. I breathed deep draughts of sweet aromas. My lungs took in the essence of the fig tree and with it the Plaka and all the marble piles of the Acropolis. And, finally, a breeze so gentle yet so penetrating rustled my being—for the supreme gratitude of having met the old man beside me.

But then my shoulders shrugged; I realized I had to go, and I had to thank him for taking the time to talk to me. He nodded and, taking my arm, he said solemnly, “Do not think it depressing to see ruins. In all that rubble is what we’ve been talking about. Think of it. Dwell upon its meaning. You are young. You have perhaps the luxury, once in your life, to contemplate these matters. Search deeply, observe, and best you can, absorb Truth.”

I scratched the cat’s head (its name was Gatoula, meaning a little cat, who had nuzzled in my lap). “Yes, sir. I shall. I need to feel it right now, just as you say. I feel it like an aura. That’s what it is. The entire Acropolis has an aura. You can’t point a finger at it. It has no physical matter, no weight, it’s intangible. It’s something you feel, like a fresh breeze caressing your skin. An aura, yes. Is that it? An inexpressible meaning?”

And my friend’s voice screeched, “Yes, yes.” And then his raucous laughter freaked out Gatoula, who went scampering out of the room to the patio. “Yes, my young American friend. Hah, an aura! Put that in your palette of erudition. ‘Aura’ is a Greek word. It means exactly this: it’s a ‘breeze.’ But a very special, indescribable breeze in the case of the Acropolis, just as you say.”

Yes, with fumes of figs and brandy, like a puff of air through a field of bluebonnets and cedar in the hills of Austin, a planetary zephyr fanning all things beautiful and sensuous, and above all the Acropolis in all its splendor, especially with Karen up there.


Trying to clear my head, I sit now at a café across from the Tower of the Winds, waiting for Karen and writing down thoughts of my afternoon. I’m thinking what I shall say to her. Of course I’ll give her a big hug and ask her to tell me what she saw on the butte. When she’s finishes I’ll say something like this: “Wonderful. Your descriptions.”

Then I’ll tell her of my afternoon and my own “cerebral interpretations.” I can imagine her response, something like: “Well, just look at you. Where did you get all those smarts so quickly in one afternoon?”

Then I’ll spring it on her. “I spent the afternoon with a real Plakian. He might well have been a direct descendent of Socrates. And, Karen, I learned that to appreciate beauty, you have to go beyond intellectualizing it.”

She’ll get moony-eyed and kiss me, I hope.

—Previously published in Green Briar Review (Spring 2016, Issue 4.2); appears here by author’s permission

SHJ Issue 15
Fall 2016

J. N. Pratley

earned his bachelor’s degree at Oberlin College and his doctorate in cell physiology at the University of Texas. He has attended the Aegean Center for the Fine Arts in Paros, the Aegean Arts Circle in Andros, and several workshops in Europe and America. His two novels, Leto’s Journey (Vantage Press, 2002) and The Green Helix (CreateSpace, 2011), are set in the Greek Islands. His short fiction appears in Amarillo Bay, Green Briar Review, and Jet Fuel Review.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury