So intense was Natalia’s imagination – imagination and instinct together – that she had accurately envisaged Sibyl’s apartment. She had seen the scented candles and the bottles of wine on the embroidered tablecloth. She had seen the two gifts under the Christmas tree, with Evgenios’s name on one of them, and the old folded sheet of paper on the piano. . . the paper she now knew contained the poem that Sibyl was setting to music. She had even seen Sibyl’s delicate hands holding him tight, and her face, trembling, touching his “I didn’t know such happiness existed. . . I have discovered it with you” she was saying. All those things Natalia saw, she had divined them. Only the scene that followed was one she could not ever have imagined.
When Evgenios reached her house it was almost noon. He had been delayed searching in the attic for that youthful notebook containing the story of his life. Even so, he was in no hurry. All of a sudden he was enjoying his delay, knowing that Sibyl was anxiously waiting for him. I’m becoming perverse, he thought a bit cynically, and had the vague feeling that this was what he needed.
He still remembered the look his wife had given him as he was leaving the house with umbrella, beret, scarf. Her eyes were filled with tears. And he noticed that not only did that not spoil his mood, but to the contrary, it soothed his once wounded ego.
He enjoyed the wintry morning of Athens with its empty streets. He was walking slowly, in order to think.
He looked at the clouded windows of the houses, those human nests of love and martyrdom, and for the first time he thought how pointless and fleeting his life was . . . He was trying to come to term with the fact that those footsteps, this particular body was his, a body that two women suddenly desired. And somehow that reconciled him within himself and he felt a certain superiority, something like a sweet self-affirmation. So that the morning itself seemed to be exquisite and to fill his senses with delight.
Never before did Evgenios remember experiencing such joy, and he wanted to live these moments as fully as possible. He existed – that fact was undubitable and exciting. He loved himself because someone loved him. But beyond that, he loved everything that made that particular morning unique and raised it above earthly sensation to another dimension.
He found her worried and tormented. All night she had waited for him, she said, hadn’t slept “you were so late. . . it seemed like a century” she whispered breathlessly.
He kissed her. On his face the raindrops and his breath smelled sweetly of wheat-fields and mountain air, odors of the soul that he had preserved from childhood.
He rubbed his hands and pretended not to notice her anxiety.
She looked at him, delirious. She believed that he would participate in her obvious anxiety – the signs were so visible – but nothing. And for the first time she asked herself why , why him?, at the same moment that he was smiling with self-satisfaction.
She offered him a drink. Later, she gathered all her forces to calm the intensity of the passion that made her body tremble. She felt ill. Her palm were sweaty. A flame slowly burned inside her and consumed her. Why him?
In the angle where her eye met the profile of his face, she saw her life hanging helpless over a nightmarish void, like a precipice that lay open and enticing, and a shudder ran through her entire body.
“Why didn’t you come with your suitcase? That’s what you said. . . I was waiting.”
She looked at him, calmly sipping his drink and asked herself over and over again, in a frenzy now, why him? Why him? Why him? In those few moments when her passion became wild, she saw her life: a difficult path, rough. Work and pride. Work and principles. Work and loneliness. For years she was principal of a school. The few men that approached her she had rebuffed. Men with a reputation, important men, who along with passion also promised her support.
The first years of her youth she could not imagine a total giving of herself without a promise of marriage, and all her male friendships ended just short of bed. Later, when maturity was matched by a certain self-awareness, it was too late for romance. She had never imagined what great dangers this refusal of passion carried with it. . . She had never, never understood that her proud loneliness was only a transference of her secret desires. And when Evgenios came, he gave herself to him with a blind and sweeping passion. Her body cried out in his hands. And she was frightened and enchanted.
Her voice was shaking as she looked into his eyes.
“You said you were coming tonight. . . coming for good. . . did you?”
He liked it- her desire was both pain and wound and contained something wild, something violent.
He looked at her calmly, relaxed.
“My wife is suffering, he answered. From the day I talked to her about you she has been suffering. I want to hurt her as little as possible, you see. . . . Please be patient. . . It’s a matter of days.”
She felt that nightmarish void now beneath her feet. She was falling somewhere and she did not know the name of the cliff.
She remained silent for a few moments. A powerful shudder made her body shake. And she realized with terror that she was willing to die now, if she could make love to him one more time. . . I am going mad, she thought, losing control of my mind, and she felt her body asking for him, hopelessly, every cell in her body cried out for him. She desired him in a way that was irrational and sick. She who would never give herself to an uncertain and risky adventure, now noted in panic that she would have waited for him all her life, as long as he stayed with her, as long as . . . She felt trapped. And that she realized just now. Together with the panic.
She gathered the last remnants of her womanly dignity and tried to make voice sound calm:
“You said your wedding was dead.”
“Yes, it was.”
“And now? What happened?”
“I don’t know, I don’t know. . . Something has changed.”
“You came as a lover of music. . . a fanatic of travel by train, isn’t that what you said?”
“You came with all the loneliness you carried inside you. With all your sick dreams. . . . And slowly, determinedly, you came into my own loneliness. Speak! Every night, you waited for me, downstairs, at the symphony hall.”
“And you never paid any attention to me.”
“Until, one night, at last I did pay attention to you.”
“I gave you the flowers and you looked at me.”
“I looked at your eyes that were so sad. . . your face was so sad that it came into me and softened the loneliness.”
“The very words. Yes, I remember. It was cold and you asked me if I had a car. No, I don’t, I said to you. I like to walk.”
“And I felt sorry for you.”
“Come, get into the car, you said. And then. . .”
“We stayed up till morning. And then. . .”
“I told you that I was an insignificant functionary. . . a dreamer. I dreamed about the life I couldn’t live.”
“Imaginings. And I felt sorry for you again. And that’s where we started. From pity. And now. . . “
Her body bent like a bow. A little more, and she would fall. Unless he took her in his arms, she would fall, sobbing. And Evgenios, with his clumsy antennas, saw that and generously held her to him.
“You know that I love you. . . he said to her. I told you from the first moment that I was insignificant.”
His touch was sweet to her flesh and she became calm.
“Insignificant. . . in what sense?”
“Being a dreamer is not necessarily an advantage.”
“Is that how she made you feel?”
A silence came between them. A heavy silence. Suddenly she discovered that everything existed in relation to his wife. Invisible, she nevertheless stood between them. And now, only now, did she become a real and dangerous entity. She became the adversary. Until this moment she existed only as a dead shadow of the past, a ghost full of fissures that dissolved in the dark. But as that ghost came to life in her mind, as it grew large, it became a real and adversarial person.
She looked at him terrified, her bottom lip trembling.
“What is her name?”
He was taken aback.
“Come now, what difference does it make?”
“What is her name; I need to know it.”
She bent her head. Never did a name have such power. A name is a living thing and hides a mystery, she thought. And, for the first time, she realized that the unbearable pain she felt was called jealousy and wounded pride, and her blood ran cold with fear.
She concentrated all her woman’s powers, the remnants of her once proud self, and raised her head. I need to send him away before it is too late, before. . . before I grow ill with passion, she thought, not realizing how ill she was already with an inexorable passion. Still, she found the strength to shout:
“Get out. . . get out, I don’t want to see you again, ever. GET OUT.”
He was taken aback. This was the first time he had seen her like that. Of course he would not leave, of course. . . What he was living with her fascinated him, raised him up. . . strengthened his masculinity, in the end made him happy, how was it possible. . .
“No, I won’t leave, he replied softly, you know I can’t.”
She stood before him like a maenad, with eyes of lightning.
“Your strength is your weakness. . . your defeatism. What do you mean you can’t?” she shouted again.
She was shaking; her body was swaying, falling. In a dull mist she saw herself alone and deserted and she felt panic, she felt a great fear that her words would meet no resistance in him and that he would leave.
She saw him get up, crushed, and her heart beat wildly, No, she wanted to shout to him, I love you more than my pride, don’t leave, I beg you. . . . But she did not speak.
He went to the door and turned to look at her.
“I knew that one day you would send me away. . . that you would humiliate me. . . and that’s what you’ve done, he replied, certain, now, that she had capitulated.”
Evgenios did not play theatrical roles, like Natalia, no, he played his life straight, and found it exciting. His voice was full of emotion and he was relishing that. A little more and he would cry. . . knowing how much that made Sibyl’s heart melt with happiness. Underneath it all, he was a man with sweet weaknesses, he knew that now – that was what he most enjoyed lately.
She saw his eyes fill with tears and ran to him, embraced him tenderly “My poor Evgenios. . . no, don’t cry, you mustn’t, she said, the first day I met you you cried. . . and your tears still pain me. . . we’ll struggle together.”
That was what he was waiting for. He pulled her down, where she was, and held her tight, kissed her, smelled her, struggled with her, removed her clothes with forceful and steady movements, until both of them moaned with exhaustion.
Much later, in the moment of tenderness, she whispered to him:
“I spoke with the recording company. . . they are interested in the song. Before you brought it to me, I knew it would be beautiful. . . . I took them the music, it’s already finished. . . they liked it.. We need to get to work, hear? Fortunately tomorrow is a holiday and the day after. . . . You’ll stay, won’t you? You’ll stay. . .”
Her body was warm. Her voice, too. And he liked that. Naked as she was and totally surrendered to him, it gave him the sense of a crystalline reality, ready to break into a thousand pieces at the slightest wrong move. He felt grateful to her and wondered if that was egotistical. . . Some things eluded him, as for example, why didn’t he stay with her? Not out of pity for Natalia. . . He smiled. No, of course not.
She saw him smiling and realized that she was jealous even of his thoughts.
“We need to get to work. . . , she repeated.”
Now he wondered. That was another thing that eluded him. He could not imagine himself as a singer. . . he was a serious man.
“But how can I sing it? Did you think about that?”
“You can, you can! There is a steeliness in your voice. From the day I met you I knew you would sing wonderfully. . . Let’s start.”
All the next day, and the following day, they worked on the song. Over and over. And they tried to match the words and the music, to find the occasional rhyme. The verse was “like the memory that burns on speech,” but Sibyl insisted it become “like the memory that burns on the hill,” to make it rhyme with “I find you for a moment and lose you still.”
Over and over. And his voice became more and more romantic, more erotic, as if he was experiencing those lyric arousals now, at age forty-three. And Sibyl kept trying to find the rhythm.
You’ll come on a cloud of sorrow
Your hair like rain
You’ll stand by my open window
Like a naked morning-star.
He felt like an adolescent. . .an explosion of adolescence that brought tears to his eyes. And she was reveling in her creation. . . .
My empty room floats on the night
Come, join the star that cries, still.
Sibyl liked those lines so much, she made them into a kind of refrain. And in the following verses, the music changed:
I will cover you like the oath of a Saint
Lest you feel cold in the rain
I will bring you into paradise
So that I alone can gaze at you.
She was constantly changing the rhythm of the melody. She never remembered herself being so carried away. She was living the poem – which was not really that good a poem – so passionately, as if it was the justification for her life.
Come, like the star that weeps
To my room
Come, like the memory that burns
On the sea
Come, like the tears that fall
On our hearts
From our old paradise.
There was also a verse about trains, which Sibyl did not like. Nevertheless, she thought the song would be lacking something if it didn’t mention a train. . . since that was what caused Evgenios to dream as a child. And she worked very hard to find the music for the words:
My room takes me on journeys
Like an empty train
I will wait for you
At all the deserted stations.
Evgenios found it romantic. But Sibyl insisted:
“The song needs to be romantic. . . In the end, that’s the only type of song that touches the broad public. . . trust me.”
“But why ‘deserted stations?’ Stations are not deserted. . .” , he said.
“The desert is inside you. It’s in the soul of everyone searching for a lost love. Leave it as it is, I tell you.”
He grew hoarse from singing. They struggled with it for three days until Evgenios was convinced that he was a born singer. And he liked that. He noted that this new turn his life had taken was extremely interesting and he was enjoying this experience with all its unexpected ramifications. He noted also that his own inner resources were unexpended and rich and he was discovering them with a holy awe. But the most important thing he noticed during those three days of holiday was that all these experiences were making him a new person. Of course, he had sensed that some time ago, but during those wonderful days he felt to the core of his being that the only thing that moved him to tears was this new self of his.
He took pleasure in the fact that Natalia was at home, alone, waiting for him, perhaps with a bottle in her hand, and wearing a silk nightgown. . . . He was even taking pleasure in the fact that Sibyl had taken the song so seriously.
“Oh, yes, indeed, I am certain it will be a success. . . you have a superb voice, I knew it, I knew it,” she whispered to him, curled in his arms.
He smiled. They had finished practicing and were sipping their drinks, calm and exhausted. A silence between them, a tender silence, fragile, a fragile happiness, like crystal, ready to crack at the slightest breath, so much so that both of them sensed their unbearable participation in a future that was both unknown and fated.
Evgenios was the first to get up. A sudden discomfort. A need to flee. And he did not know why. He preferred to spend the night at his house or anywhere else. . . and he wondered. He could stay if he wished, he was free to do that, and yet somehow that freedom wounded him.
He took a big sip of his drink and kept it in his mouth a few moments. He felt a pleasurable burning, that was what he wanted. During this sweet hour, after the tears of creation that had been denied him for years, he wanted to feel to the depth of his being the exhaustion and the liberation, which was the same thing. And he was not about to let anything spoil his complacency. At heart, he wondered how he had arrived at this point. . . how could this stable, self-confident, complacent self of his have been hidden behind that unsuccessful, rejected, and frightened self of his? A self that was pleasure-loving and slightly cynical. A showman.
Evgenios wondered and wondered. And he was certain that we all have many selves, an entire chain of faces, fragmented by our passion and at the same time whole.
A showman. He smiled.
He was playing with both of them, that was certain: Sibyl on the one hand, Natalia on the other. It was as if he was playing with the two edges of a razor, a dangerous game that nourished him. Surprisingly, he discovered that, at heart, he loved only his own precious self. He cherished this sweet freedom for the first time, like an expensive gift. A self-validation of his masculine superiority, that made him happy and fulfilled. What Evgenios did not know yet – he learned it much later – was that this “superiority” of his was vulnerable and fragile, full of shifting cracks.
When he left Sibyl it was already past midnight. And it was not because Natalia was waiting for him, as he explained it to himself. It was because, in fact, he did not want to repeat a happiness that was finished. It might have been the total surrender of Sibyl that liberated him. In some dark space, he knew that if she had not surrendered to him so fanatically, so helplessly, he would have stayed close to her, at her feet, like a madman.
Now, no. He needed to think. To understand. Perhaps, even, to analyze all the things that had happened to him so unexpectedly, such as, for example, this strong feeling that he was ephemeral and inconsequential. . . That verse of Pindar, “man is the shadow of a dream,” tormented him now. We are a dream, or the shadow of a dream impossible to catch, fleeting.
He walked the empty night streets of Athens and felt that he was alone at the center of existence. He had the ambiguous feeling that our whole life is only a process of slow martyrdom, that is the same as our need for awareness, for watchfulness of soul, for self-knowledge.
He looked toward the sky, a dark curve, streaked with the invisible breath of angels. And at that precise moment – a unique moment that was pierced by the streaks of invisibility – suddenly, in his thoughts there arose the scent of oak, an exquisite scent of memory, that sent him into raptures.
It was that odor of adolescence concealed in the depth of his being that now arose, bringing with it the lost time
He leaned against a lamp-post, out of breath, and tried to understand. This ecstasy was at once agony and paradise, a brightness that cut like a knife into his life and brought him back to that magical, proustian, lost time.
He tried to isolate that exquisite scent of the past, to save it, but it was impossible. It wafted slowly into the cracks of his being and was lost.
He was dumbfounded for a few moments, blinded still by this strange happening, then quickly he headed for his friend Dimitri’s house.
Dimitri was shocked to see him in the middle of the night. And, just as all solitary people are ready to open their door and their heart, he hugged him, kissed him on both cheeks and settled him in the living room. Then he quickly threw on a robe and rubbed the sleep from his eyes with the back of his hand.
“What. . . what are you doing out at this hour?
“I need to talk. . . hope I’m not disturbing you.”
“No, no, you would never disturb me, you know that. . . you’re my only friend from that time. . . from. . .”
He was going to say from the deprived years of our youth, but he refrained. “Something very serious must have happened. . . ”, he added.
Evgenios looked at him for a few moments, silent. How serious were all these things that were happening to him, he wondered – or have I lost my sense of reality? Somewhere he was terrified.
“The scent of oak. . . that was the cause”, he said.
Dimitri did not understand.
“What. . . what scent? What oak are you talking about?”
“The oak in the village. . . remember? We used to lie in its shade in the afternoons and dream.”
Dimitri shuddered. What strange words! Had he come at this ungodly hour of the night to talk to him about the scent of the oak? He himself had been dreaming about that huge old oak for years now, sometimes laden with their youthful dreams and sometimes dark and unapproachable with night hanging from its branches.
Dimitri shuddered. Trembling, he looked at his friend “go on, please. . . ”
Evgenios sank comfortably into the armchair. Then with slow, ritual motions he poured the gin and tonic into his glass and lit a cigarette. Finally, the anxiety of others has a relaxing effect on our own nervous system or else something was going wrong in his mind.
He started from the point of total exhaustion. Out of a strange reaction to Dimitri’s anxiety, he shifted away from the topic of the oak. He preferred to go straight to the root of his anguish.
“All this intense love story has exhausted me, he said, the anguish of happiness, the late hours, the insomnia, you see, my soul has awakened, it torments me. . . . I feel exhausted and ephemeral, for the first time I am tyrannized by the sense that my life is fleeting and inconsequential, images of a huge dream that is slipping away, unachievable, it disappears dragging me with it into the abyss.”
Dimitri was thoughtful. This was the first time he heard his friend talking like this and somehow he admired him. For years a successful psychiatrist, he understood that Evgenios was experiencing his existential dilemma at its peak. Love opens those vertical fissures in the soul, and turns it toward the search for its splendor. And he was not wrong.
He led Evgenios gently to the dark-red velvet patient’s couch, then turned on the tape recorder, these ravings were valuable to him, he must not lose them.
And Evgenios continued, relaxing:
“On the razor’s edge. . . that’s where I am. I feel that fragile balance, as if I’m walking on tiptoe and the soles of my feet are bare and bleeding – and I like it that they’re bleeding. I am becoming a martyr, do you understand? Soon a halo will sprout on my beard. . . are you laughing? Happiness as well as misfortune can make martyrs of us. We taste that deep pain that happy moments hide, a pain of death, as if we want to resist the time of forgetfulness.”
Dimitri was at a loss. For the first time he envied his friend. As much as he loved Evgenios, somewhere deep inside he himself felt pain. He had never experienced that gift of love, that torment: to exist and at the same time to be afflicted by existence itself.
He poured cognac into the glass and gulped it down.
“Tell me about the scent of the oak,” he said.
From the time they had lived through that traumatic adolescence in the village, with the naked wilderness reflecting their dreams, they had not been so close to one another. Their friendship continued, but as if it was outside themselves, at the edges of the solitude that encircled their lives. And now in the middle of this winter night, Dimitri felt that he was an adolescent again there, in those years that seemed magical, that were marked by a yearning for the impossible.
Later he became a scientist, worked hard to discover the human soul, but he had not discovered his own soul. He only covered it over. Nor did he want to see how empty it had remained, like an unwanted gift. And now, the confession of his friend caused him to confront his own soul. And he found it naked and very sad.
“Continue, please, tell me what you need to tell me”, he almost begged.
Evgenios emptied his glass and smiled. He sensed Dimitri’s emotion and that excited his mind, provoking a strange euphoria. He felt that the moments were magnified as if in a strange mirror, that his entire being was magnified in that invisible mirror, as if its boundaries were expanding.
“I don’t know exactly what I want to tell you. . . Maybe I came out of a need to return to our adolescence”, he said and was quiet for a few moments. “ That scent of oak tormented me for a long time”, he said again. “ I was trying to isolate it within me, do you understand? At precisely that moment I was thinking how pointless and ephemeral my life was. . . a dream that was sinking while I was trying to preserve some images of it, to remember them, to save them. And out of that anguish the scent of oak arose. . . As if it brought me back or as if I was trying, out of the scent, to bring back the lost time, but what’s wrong? Why are you looking at me like that?”
The same relating of the moment to the lost time of adolescence, thought Dimitri, trembling with emotion. Memory is an odor, he had always believed that, a scent of what is lost. And that “lost” thing, they had experienced together during their long-ago adolescence.
“Ah, what you’ve awakened within me. . . what you’ve awakened in my soul”, he said, and began to cry.
Dimitri was sobbing as he, too, now experienced that lucidity of memory, the dawning of a sliver of that lost time, an integral piece of adolescence that was shining.
Evgenios was shocked, in his turn.
“Oh, forgive me, he said, I didn’t mean to make you cry, did I say something wrong?”
They poured cognac into their glasses and drank it with pleasure. Then, they started to sing. They remembered the songs of their village, and they were both crying now, singing and crying and emptying glass after glass.
This release did them good, relaxed them, even if each of them had been crying for different reasons. We each find our lost time by a different path, nostalgia is the place of the soul, it is the archetypal origin of the soul, thought Dimitri, and he was grateful to his friend, or perhaps, on a deeper level, he was grateful to Proust.
When they had cried and could cry no more, Dimitri again turned on the tape recorder.
“Come, keep talking, don’t stop. . . he whispered, tonight is a night of revelation.”
And Evgenios, relaxed and happy, continued his confession:
“Where were we? Ah, yes, well, I am becoming a martyr I told you. I am experiencing strange states, strange emotions, discovering that I carry within me an infinite number of selves. . . Where were they hidden? And now they are revealing themselves one by one and they take me by surprise. Yesterday, for example, I believed that I was a born singer. . . in a few days I’ll bring you the record, don’t laugh. I am at my limits, I tell you, and I am crushed by the weight of the martyrdom. But the next moment, I become expansive. And I am seeking still other experiences. . . and another martyrdom, because, note, even happiness has its martyrdom.”
He was silent. He wanted to think about what he was saying, to put his feelings into some order. And Dimitri understood his confusion and tried to bring him to the center of the reality that was called Sibyl.
“What will you do about her?”
That Evgenios was not able to confront. He was circling around it, afraid.
“There are moments when I think about going away with her. Disappearing. But that is not exactly what I want. Somewhere I am slipping. . . how can I tell you, a strange compassion is liberating me.
Dimitri looked at him with interest.
“She loves me so despairingly, that somewhere I am drowning. . . can you understand that?”
“Yes, I’ve learned something from all those years of study. . . . You know something? All of this is rich material for a book, which you are going to call ‘The Scent of Oak’, he said.”
“I hope you won’t commercialize my story – psychiatrists have that habit. If someone needs to write it, that will be me.”
“You always wanted to make your life a novel. . . Go to it, then, start!”
“No, not like that. I prefer to live it first. One drop of real life is more valuable than all the books in the world. It is your life’s blood. The books come later, out of the blood of your martyrdom.”
“In any case you don’t look much like a. . . martyr.”
He laughed, satisfied.
“On the one hand I am living the paradise, on the other I am redeeming my blood. Somewhere I am going mad. . . I am playing, I say. I am discovering within me an enchantment with both roles. States of indescribable enchantment.”
“The pleasure of personality!”
He liked that.
“That’s it! The pleasure of personality! An exquisite feeling for what you are. For what you are discovering that you are at every moment.”
He was silent again. He felt the intensity straining his nerves. He was living in a state of madness and somehow he was terrified.
“It’s as if I was running downhill. . . . Every so often I hear a clunk and I look to see where I hurt myself.”
Dimitri was now quietly smoking his cigar. He had not experienced such a happy state in years. He heard with pleasure everything his friend was relating. As if the words were awakening his body from a state of forgetfulness. Those shudders and that magic, the lost scents of adolescence were exercising a unique hold on him.
And the only thing he was able to say was:
“Why don’t you go away with her? If you love her, why don’t you do it? Your marriage with Natalia has been dead for years. . . Why not grant yourself all of paradise – along with its martyrdom!”
Evgenios stood up now. He turned off the recorder and looked into his friend’s eyes, as if that was exactly the point that tormented him.
“Maybe I don’t want to, he said. Maybe I’m afraid. Within us, we fear happiness more than pain. And no matter how crazy you find what I’m telling you, that’s how I perceive it, you see. . . When I am with her I feel as if I am dying at the thought of losing her. . . And, somewhere, I know that I will lose her – that I want to. Help me, please. . . That’s why I came here to you tonight. . . Dimitri, my friend, help me.”
Dimitri smiled. He was certain now that his friend had passed through the fire of two women and had come through it fresh and rejuvenated, with the old traumas healed, and that he now loved only himself.
“Act in accordance with your feelings. . . In the end, that is the wisest course, he said.”