Song of the Cicadas
The British cemetery faces Souda Bay with a sandy beach in the foreground, and lemon and olive groves all around. Hills roll up beyond the gate towards the heights of Akrotiri. Within are the graves of known and unknown soldiers. Among their Commonwealth brothers-in-arms lie five Canadian airmen. Under the noonday sun, cicadas sing their praises.
David Montgomery visited this site. His father survived the chaos of war, while many others did not. No chaos now, only order in the ranks among wild flowers that grow between the rows of white stone crosses. All is peaceful and serene.
I stop momentarily to read the headstone of one Arthur Owens: born 1912, London; died 1943, Crete.
The port of Souda lies directly ahead across the silent waters. Behind the grain elevator that rises like a monolith, the Anek Line ferry points to the evening sailing, the map of Crete on its funnel. Far on the horizon, adding darker tones to distant grey, the bulk of Cape Drapano thrusts itself out at the sea. Along the Akrotiri shore, destroyers huddle together as though in deliberation.
Overhead, a single jet fighter banks against the infinite blue of the sky, insinuating itself, if only for seconds, into the song of the ubiquitous cicadas.
Out of my memory, large plumes of smoke pile high into the sky and drift on impassioned winds across the port facilities towards the mountains. Troop ships fill the port. German Stukas fill the sky. The bay bubbles with hundreds of small volcanoes. The din increases.
I hear Montgomery’s voice edged with controlled hysteria from some night out of last winter: “Feature an aircraft carrier of the Mediterranean Fleet, five thousand men, city blocks long, half the size of Chania, equipped to reduce to rubble the same number of city blocks multiplied by one thousand, a city thirty times the size of Chania, five thousand men trained to annihilate millions.” And then that same voice from some other night when war itself was not the principal theme, but something touching on the human psyche: “All the myths contain all the truth; abstract and concrete, everything accounted for, everything human and inhuman, the bestial and the sublime; even the nucleus of the atomic bomb – the formula, etched on the sword of Ares and later refined by philosophers, alchemists, and brilliant bastard sons.” Gods beat up on gods; conquering nations build their monuments on the sites of former temples, mosques, and churches. In Spain and Portugal, all over Europe and Africa, in North and South America, all over the world. Our belief, much greater than yours, our god, mightier – men out of the shadows and out of the skies, secret, rote men who invoke the name of the divine to sanction their terror.
I walk back through the graves, through the gate, into the cool of the groves.
The Fall of Crete intrigues me. I am engrossed in a chapter that describes the aftermath to the massive and miraculous evacuation along the South coast of defeated forces whose intentions had been to defend Crete against Nazi invasion. Place names like Chania and Souda are familiar, others less so.
Pages flutter as warm Meltemi winds picks up.
Over the edge of my book, the water of the old Venetian harbour glisten. Taverna awnings flap rhythmically. Hotel and pension facades shade their eyes. Evident everywhere is the juxtaposition of past and present. Roofs tell the story of progress since the war, the new affluence, where tiles dislodged by bombs and wind slide against the clean and functional. Shutters, dilapidated, askew, wearing the saddened expression of neglect, look enviously at their hotel neighbours. Balconies hang precariously, unattended, unsupported by rusting wrought iron. Near the Hotel King Kydon, itself a relic from former times, an ouzo joint begins to metamorphose into what will be another slick bar. Below, a red scooter with worn tires and bandaged fenders, a mark of advancement in its day over mules and donkeys, competes for space with sleek techno machines that could launch a man at the moon.
And then as if on schedule, two screaming jets slice through the sky above suntanned Old Port faces, only seconds away from the peaks of the Lefka Ori, only a thrust away from their daily dip in the sea. The cat under my table hesitates, retreats. When the quiet settles in again, I hear echoes of David Montgomery, friend and mentor, gone now on his itinerant way, as he begins to lecture me about the amortization of Greece, by which he means the colonization of a have-not nation striving with all its might to have, and how the Pax Americana resembles the Pax Romana. Meltemi winds shut the voice down. The cat reappears and cozies up to my leg.
Kapetano comes by and expresses his delight that tourist traffic increases daily. “Damn close to a full house,” he tells me, waving a hand back towards the entrance to his Pension Ariadne, but he need not, as I have already made that determination by the night sounds and the paucity of hot water. He sits down to coffee and quotes his wife, Merope.
“After all the others, the Venetians came, then the Turks, then the Germans, then the tourists. Forever we are fighting for our identity. And now is television, like the Cyclops, but still she complains while she watches. American stuff she likes best, as sure as hell, but still she complains.”
American programs: he has many captioned cleverly, and theme music, and ads for soap or long grain rice. Then Greek jingoes and jive talk. Kapetano is in a splendid mood.
Beyond his voice, Aphrodite Meirakis sweeps out the entrance to the pension, bent over like a piece of animated angle iron, archetypal crone. In my imagination I see a young Heinrich Trï¿½n black uniform, standing at ease, waiting for orders. Perhaps a cigarette hangs from his lips, perhaps not. He grows scornful of the woman passing before him under a load of faggots.
I tell Kapetano that I plan to visit the German Cemetery at Maleme tomorrow.
“Why you do that?”
“Po, po, po,” he says with gusto. I take it he thinks it a good thing.
“Balance,” I add. “This morning I visited the British Cemetery at Souda Bay.”
He angles his head in agreement, a gesture that fascinates me.
“I tell you another story, not from my wife this one, but old Aphrodite. A German officer, silvered-headed and wrinkle-browed, returns to around Maleme. An old village woman recognizes him. She tells other old women in the village of his return, and they bring to him wine and olives and cheese. Also flowers. When they leave, he hangs himself in his rented apartment.”
“I suppose he found their generosity and forgiveness insufferable.”
“I do not believe this. Pass the salt!”
After a few moments of silence, I ask him about Ramona Rhianakis and her activities with the Cretan underground during the war. Also about the Heinrich Trï¿½onnection.
“Yes, yes, Ramona. No way this is a Greek name. It comes, you see, from her story. A different story, believe you me, this one brings tears to your eyes. Another day I tell you what I think happened between them in those tragic times.”
When I ask about the more recent animosity between Trï¿½nd Montgomery, Kapetano shrugs, but then suggests it has something to do with political philosophies. He does not elaborate. Before he leaves I ask him where the beautiful music comes from these nights, and he waves his right arm over the pavement and up Angelou Street. He could mean the Pension Ariadne, or Erato’s Music Bar next door, or the foothills of the Lefka Ori, or all of Crete.
Reaching the entrance to the German cemetery, I turn and look back down toward the sea: to the west, the stark and massive backbone of Rodopou; to the east beyond the city shape, Akrotiri; in the foreground, the Bay of Chania; the Maleme airstrip down below. The sound of a twin prop circling around over the area: like a ghost plane to me, which at one moment is there and then is not.
A rock walk leads up to the graves. I do not get the impression of a cemetery, for initially I think I am visiting a memorial, where the fallen are simply commemorated collectively, a mass grave so to speak, but upon closer inspection of the head stones, I grow more conscious of the loss of individual lives. The gravestones recognize two soldiers or airmen, some named, some not.
A young family ambles through the rows ahead of me. Two little girls, the youngest barely three, chase a cat, then stop and pick up the flowers that somebody placed on one of the graves, and run back to show their mother. The father intercepts them. He returns their prize to where it lay, offering little in the way of explanation. The little one cries.
In passing that grave, I note only one name chiselled in stone: Lieutenant F.D. Wunderlich. In the surrounding air, the incessant song of the cicadas.
I find my way to a taverna just off the main Chania to Kissamos road, where I talk briefly with two young Germans over a beer. One tells me he has visited Canada; the other says he plans to go. We talk mostly about sports. Eventually they leave, heading west in their rented convertible. Nice guys.
Somewhere in my sight: Golden Eagle plummeting.
I hear Montgomery’s dissenting voice again, and I know that I, too, might have succumbed easily to indoctrination at the age of eighteen or twelve or six. Propaganda, like romantic ideals, has appealing voices. Then what Trï¿½nce said comes back to me: “Montgomery’s anti-American sentiments were just cover, part of his style, a set of put-on attitudes fitted to anti-NATO, anti-missile base, anti-USA opinions rampant in many quarters of the Cretan population. A deception in response to graffiti and demonstrations.” Trï¿½ould have known of such ploys, and the adoption of such attitudes, his own designs and deceptions going back a few decades, going back to when he had been eighteen.
Waiting for the bus to take me back to Chania, I watch a couple of vacationers parasailing over the beaches and the sea, technicolour shoots billowing out behind great power boats. And then in reverie I hear the drone of myriad aircraft in formation coming over the horizon. The sky fills with mushrooms. In the distance, a mushroom cloud rises.
Behind me, the chirring of the cicadas stops, then picks up again more frenzied than before.