The skipper of my boat was a man of few words it seemed for he maintained a taciturn silence as we sailed away from the island. I didn’t mind the lack of communication. I huddled miserably in the stern of the fishing boat, lost in my own thoughts and hardly in a mood to talk. My tear blurred eyes were fixed upon the dwindling view of the island as we left it far astern. Soon it was nothing but a pinprick on the horizon and shortly afterwards I lost it in the afternoon haze. It felt as if something had been torn from my soul.
I blinked away my tears and glanced ahead. A sliver of land had appeared on the approaching horizon and, as the skipper pointed our prow in its direction, it seemed that it was our destination. I tried to shake off my melancholy and take an interest as the land grew closer. Soon I could make out details on the land. I could see buildings, whitewashed and clustered on a headland, and the masts of boats peeking over a harbour wall. I don’t suppose we sailed much more than a dozen miles but we’d crossed a dividing line between two worlds. Behind me was a dream, some eerie echo out of antiquity, primeval and evocative of lost memories. Ahead lay what we termed civilisation.
I was a different person now from that foolish little hippy girl that fell overboard all those months ago. This world ahead of me seemed alien and slightly frightening. I no longer felt I belonged in that odd world represented by those buildings and trappings of human society on the land before me. I wondered detachedly what would become of me there.
The skipper turned to say something to me but started and blushed before averting his gaze hurriedly. I was puzzled for a moment by his reaction. Then I understood. I’d tied my sari loosely in a knot around my breasts but it had slipped open from my waist and fallen away from my hips leaving me naked from the waist down. The poor man must have been horribly embarrassed. I’d grown so used to walking about naked it hadn’t even occurred to me. I wrapped my sari about me more modestly and took stock of my appearance.
I must have been a strange sight. My hair was braided, held by a head band of old rope, and decorated with beads made of polished pebbles and seashells. I had bangles of seashells, urchin shells and sharks teeth on my wrists and ankles. There were odd symbols painted on my cheeks and forehead, a string of pearls threaded on old fishing line and my walrus ivory pendant around my neck. My amber figurine I clutched in my hand. I looked feral, almost savage; some primitive creature from before the dawn of civilisation. No wonder the skipper was reluctant to talk to me. They’re superstitious in the Greek islands. I think he was afraid of me.
The skipper nosed his boat into the little harbour and tied us up alongside a stone jetty. He gestured at the jetty and mumbled something in Greek. I think he felt that he should assist me out of the boat but he was nervous of approaching me so I swung over the rail and stepped ashore unaided. The stone of the jetty was hot under my bare feet. I waited patiently while he secured his vessel and stepped onto the jetty beside me. He gestured hesitantly to bid me follow him and we walked ashore.
There were a pair of little cafes by the harbour side and there was a gathering of locals around the tables in front of them, sipping retsina and picking at bowls of olives. My appearance created something of a sensation. The locals scrambled to their feet and regarded this apparition with astonishment. There was a nervous babbling among them and I even saw a couple make the sign of the cross. I think if I had bared my teeth and hissed at them, in the way she did when she was annoyed, they would have s**ttered in panic. They must have thought that the fisherman Dmitri had pulled a wild mermaid in with his fishing nets!
When it became apparent that I wasn’t going to bite or turn them into stone with a basilisk glare they recovered their composure and crowded around to stare and jabber excitedly among themselves. My rescuing skipper was surrounded and bombarded with questions. Before long people were emerging from houses along the quayside to see what the fuss was about and the crowd grew larger by the minute. In no time at all the whole scene had descended into the sort of richly comic drama that only the Greeks can stage manage. The discussion became more and more animated and it seemed impossible that anybody could hear anybody else over the cacophony. People were gesticulating wildly, calling on their saints to bear witness, arguing among themselves and beating their chests while I, the prize exhibit, stood in bewildered silence in the middle.
Dmitri the fisherman who brought me ashore was clearly somewhat agitated. I think he had instructions to take me elsewhere but the excited crowd around us was preventing him from doing so. He was shouting at people and growing red in the face but to little avail. Then somebody pushed a glass of wine into his hand and he became distracted. The crowd was getting bolder by the minute and one or two people (and I swear this is the truth) even reached out to poke me as if to reassure themselves that I was real. A little boy, he couldn’t have been more than five or six years old, approached me with extreme caution holding out a bowl of olives like an offer of appeasement. I blinked in surprise but took the olives and nodded my thanks at which point he squealed in alarm and ran to hide behind his mother. I saw somebody emerging from the cafe with some more bottles and the crowd grew ever more argumentative and festive. I thought it was a toss up whether the whole affair would degenerate into a fight or a party, which in Greece often amounts to the same thing. Just then, however, authority arrived.
Authority was not a reassuring sight. Authority was represented by a short but stout, florid faced policeman stomping down the cobbled quayside, puffed up with self importance and sweating copiously under his crumpled and ill fitting uniform. His appearance on the scene elevated the drama to even greater heights of farce. He seemed to have taken it into his head to take Dmitri’s extraordinary passenger into custody as possibly a dangerous alien. The crowd seemed outraged by this and, with a single unintelligible voice, began to take issue with him. Dmitri was particularly incensed and, before long, he and the policeman had squared up to each other, bawling at the top of their voices and shaking their fists in each other’s faces while the rest of the crowd stood on the sidelines inflaming the stand off in a quarrelsome babble. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Greek, by the way, is one of the richest tongues on earth to curse in and doubtless there were superbly earthy epithets turning the air blue.
Eventually the policeman’s authority gained the upper hand, assisted by the truncheon he was threatening to brain Dmitri with, and before I knew it a handcuff had been clamped on my wrist and I was being led away into the village. The local crowd however was not prepared to let matters rest at that and we were accompanied by the whole lot of them forming a volubly arguing procession through the village being joined at every house by newcomers. By the time we reached what passed for a police station I think we must have had the entire village in tow. I didn’t know whether it was a revolution or a lynch mob!
I was pushed hastily into the police station and I could hear muffled bangs against the walls. I think the mob outside was throwing stones at the place. I was unceremoniously ushered into a small dingy office which was sweltering and inadequately cooled by an old-fashioned ceiling fan which was turning lazily above and emitting alarming wheezes and groans as if the motor was on its last legs. There were flies buzzing about in the office and there was a gecko clinging to the ceiling. I was bade to plant my rear on a rickety wooden chair facing a cluttered desk and the officious little arresting officer took up station on the far side of the desk and began to interrogate me.
To be honest I think that the policeman, having won custody of me over the protests of the assembled villagers outside, was now at a loss about what to do with me. It helps, of course, when interrogating an American citizen, to have more than a rudimentary command of the English language which my captor sadly did not. I managed to give him my name and nationality and after that we more or less hit an impasse. He kept demanding my passport. Now since all I was wearing was a flimsy little sari which barely covered me with any modesty I can’t imagine where he thought I was concealing my passport. I kept trying to tell him that I’d fallen overboard from a ship but he didn’t seem to grasp the point.
He did take a great interest in the pearls around my neck and the amber figurine I was carrying. Maybe he thought I’d stolen them. He wanted to take them off me but when he tried I snarled at him. I mean I literally snarled at him! I guess I’d been living the feral life for too long and gotten used to expressing myself appropriately. Whatever the reason it scared the hell out of him. I was only a little slip of a thing but I was a wild girl by now and I wasn’t going to let this pompous little jackass piss on me. He didn’t try to touch my possessions again.
I demanded to be allowed to contact the US embassy but he seemed to think that was an insult to Greek pride and he pounded his fist on the table and growled something unflattering about President Nixon. Well I grew up among South Iowa farming country so I knew a bit about how to curse too. After an hour or so of getting nowhere and trading insults we were reduced to glaring at each other across the table while the crowd outside grew more rancorous by the minute. I guess they’d been sending delegations back to the cafe for more wine to fuel the insurrection. I was half expecting them to storm the police station.
The deadlock might have continued indefinitely had salvation not turned up at that point. The crowd outside grew suddenly subdued and a minute or so later a gentleman strode into the police station. This was how I met Doctor Stephano Theodorakis, the second most remarkable person I encountered in my Aegean adventure. It was apparent, from the moment this gentleman marched into that office, that here was the real authority on this island. He was a tall man dressed immaculately in a pale grey suit, impeccably polished black shoes and black necktie. He carried a Homburg hat in one hand and an ivory topped, black cane in the other. He was middle aged and greying but his grey eyes sparkled with good humour and gentleness. He had a meticulously groomed goatee beard and carried himself with quiet dignity and self assurance. He was, I was to learn, that rare species, a true gentleman; always impeccably dressed, immensely charming, kind and invariably courteous. He was the true patrician on that island and the one person to whom everybody locally would defer to in respect. He was also, I was to learn in time, possessed of one of the most brilliant scholarly minds I have ever come across and his self effacing modesty masked an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of whatever subject you cared to engage him in conversation over. This was the man who would come in time to be one of my dearest friends and my most lasting inspiration.
His appearance completely took the wind out of my belligerent little interrogator’s sails. The policeman jumped to his feet and while he didn’t exactly touch his forelock in servility his earlier self importance wilted visibly before the dignified authority of this gentleman. There was a short exchange between my captor and Dr Theodorakis and the policeman wrung his hands nervously as the doctor quizzed him calmly. It seemed that my rescuer had demands of his own and he delivered those demands with quiet assurance. In all the time I knew Dr Theodorakis I never once heard him raise his voice. His requests however were decisive. The policeman was nodding obsequiously in agreement and babbling his submission to this gentleman’s authority. With reserved satisfaction the Doctor turned to me.
“Please excuse my incivility Miss. Am I correct in assuming that I am addressing a Miss Delilah Delmonte of Iowa in the United States of America?” The voice was deep, beautifully modulated and assured; the English flawless and with the barest hint of an accent.
I blinked in surprise. “You know my name?”
“Ah so I am correct! Forgive me Miss Delmonte. I have er... made inquiries in the last few days as to your possible identity. I discovered that a young American lady of that name was reported as missing last May and since the constable here has confirmed that you are indeed American I deduced that you must be that same young lady.”
“Why sure... that’s me.”
The gentleman held out his hand. “Then I am most pleased to meet you Miss Delmonte. I am Dr Stephano Theodorakis at your service.” I took the proffered hand in confusion and he bent over it in a short grave bow. “I do hope you will forgive me for this inconvenience Miss Delmonte.” He continued. “Dmitri, the fisherman, was supposed to deliver you directly to my own residence but he seems to have been a little remiss in the execution of his instructions and allowed himself to surrender custody of you to our local police authority. However I have managed to persuade the constable here that you are not a criminal and that your interests would be better served by releasing you into my care until such time as we can inform the appropriate authorities that you have been found and can deliver you safely back to your loved ones and f****y.”
I stared at the gentleman in astonishment. “Did you send that fisherman to fetch me here then?” I demanded.
“Yes Miss Delmonte. I er... I thought it best under the circumstances. I would like to extend to you the hospitality of my house until we can reunite you with your f****y. I think you will find it far more agreeable than the police station and I’m afraid this is only a small island and we have little in the way of suitable hotel accommodation for a young lady.”
“So how long have you known I was on that island?”
Dr Theodorakis looked uncomfortable. “Only latterly I’m afraid Miss Delmonte. I have suspected for some time that somebody had er... taken up residence on one of the uninhabited islands nearby but I have only of late come to learn that it was a young lady and, as I have mentioned, it is only in the past few days that I have come to any theory as to the identity of that young lady.”
I swallowed as the implications sank in. “Did... did she tell you that I was there?”
Dr Theodorakis looked grave but slightly evasive. “I think, if you’ll forgive me Miss Delmonte, that er... these are matters best discussed privately. Suffice it to say that I have had some contacts with your... er your late companion and that those contacts have been instrumental in determining my course of action. Possibly it was remiss of me not to have accompanied Dmitri in recovering you and I might have saved much inconvenience and embarrassment had I done so. I thought however to be discreet and Dmitri assured me that he would bring you ashore without any due fuss. Sadly my plans seem to have unravelled somewhat. Possibly I should have realised that it is nearly impossible to exercise discretion on such a small island. I’m afraid I was never very good at this cloak and dagger sort of thing.”
“So you... you could talk to her?”
Dr Theodorakis bit his lip thoughtfully. “Again I must say Miss Delmonte that these are matters best dealt with in confidence. If you would afford me the signal honour of accompanying me to my house I will be able to answer your questions at our leisure. I have had a room prepared for you and doubtless you would be grateful for some sustenance following your travails of today. Also I have instructed my housekeeper to acquire some clothing suitable for a young lady. Charming though your present attire is, I’m afraid it may raise eyebrows among our conservative local populace and also the evenings are getting rather cool at this time of year and I’m sure you would be thankful for somewhat warmer clothing.”
Well, when he put it like that, there was really no question of any other course of action. I didn’t take to the idea of spending a few nights in a cell in that dilapidated police station and this calm, dignified gentleman seemed a much better champion of my cause than a fat, sweating and obstreperous policeman. There was something very paternal about Dr Theodorakis; something that made you feel safe and protected. Throwing myself on his mercy was an easy decision and, unlike my previous guardian, he was not the kind of man to take advantage of my reliance on his generosity. He never treated me with anything other than courtesy, deference and scrupulous correctness.
Once we had paid homage to necessary formalities and divested ourselves of my fat policeman, Dr Theodorakis led me out of the police station. There was still a considerable crowd outside but they had fallen into a respectful silence in deference to the Doctor’s presence. Waiting for us on the cobbled street was a little two wheeled pony trap to which was harnessed a phlegmatic and rather shaggy looking pony waiting patiently in the shafts. Mounted on the Dickey box at the front was no other than Dmitri, my erstwhile rescuer from the island, who seemed to perform a multi-functional role in the Doctor’s employ. Whilst the crowd stood around watching respectfully, Doctor Theodorakis solemnly assisted me into the trap. I felt like a rather savage and exotic princess being paraded in front of the locals.
Throughout our drive to the Doctor’s house we remained silent for the most part. I fingered my amber statuette somewhat nervously and it caught the Doctor’s eye. “Forgive me Miss Delmonte,” he said. “I could not help noticing that small figurine you are carrying. Am I right in assuming that it is some token of... of your late companion?”
“Yes... yes she made it and gave it to me.”
“May I be permitted to look at it Miss Delmonte?” Nervously I handed it over. Doctor Theodorakis seemed entranced by it. He examined it minutely and ran his long slender hands over it lovingly. “Remarkable, quite remarkable.” he murmured to himself. He handed it back to me reverently. “You must take great care of that Miss Delmonte.” He told me gravely. “It is an extremely rare and most precious artefact.”
I clutched my statuette to my breast protectively. I fixed my gaze on him intensely. “What do you know of her sir? You do know about her don’t you?”
Doctor Theodorakis sighed and nodded gently. “Yes Miss Delmonte. I know something of her and of her kind. I fear though that my knowledge is very incomplete. I have made something of... of... well a study of her kind but there is a great deal that I don’t know. I shall be most interested to hear your story Miss Delmonte if you would be kind enough to confide it in me. You would do me a great service if you were to help me fill in some gaps in my understanding. Such a close and intimate contact which you appear to have enjoyed with your companion would I think provide remarkable insights into an extraordinary and virtually unknown people. In return I can tell you the little I know of her and her people.”
“What sort of people are they?” I asked.
Doctor Theodorakis glanced uncertainly at the stolid figure of Dmitri driving the trap. “I think perhaps our conversation should wait Miss Delmonte. Would you please be patient a little longer?”
I nodded. “If you wish Doctor but I want some answers. Things happened to me on that island and I’ve seen things that I don’t understand. I want some answers to them.”
Dr Theodorakis nodded in acknowledgement. “I shall endeavour to tell you what I know Miss Delmonte but perhaps it would be better to wait until we have seen to your more immediate requirements. After we have seen to your accommodation and suitable attire perhaps you would do me the honour of dining with me. After we have dined we can talk at greater length. I think matters of importance are best discussed on a full stomach. Tomorrow we must endeavour to make contact with the authorities on the mainland and your embassy to inform them that you are alive and well. I should imagine that your f****y will be extremely happy to hear that you are safe.”
I blinked back my tears, torn by conflicting emotions. I realised that my f****y probably thought that I was dead. I missed them but I missed her too. “Yes,” I whispered quietly. “I guess they will be.”
The Doctor’s house was about half a mile away; a large and beautiful white villa set among cypress trees a little back from the track that passed as a road. It was an old and eccentric house of solid stone and whitewashed plaster, roofed in red tiles in classical style and with curious outbuildings and extensions. It was charming and cosy looking although large enough to be regarded as opulent and it was in fact the largest private dwelling on the island. It was rather like Dr Theodorakis himself in fact; immaculate yet reassuring, dignified yet comforting and modest while at the same time carrying the weight of authority. This was a house where you knew instinctively that the owner was both unostentatious and at the same time the most important person on the island.
I was ushered into the house with great dignity and handed over to the mercies of Isadora, Dr Theodorakis’ energetic and garrulous housekeeper. This little whirlwind bustled me away jabbering away to me, completely oblivious, seemingly, of the fact that she spoke no English and I couldn’t understand a word she said. In spite of the communication difficulties however she took great care of me. Within half an hour of arriving at the house I was enjoying a luxury that had been beyond the dreams of avarice for the entire duration of the summer... a hot bath. I settled blissfully among the suds. Civilisation had its compensations it seemed.
Isadora had a loose interpretation of the meaning of privacy for, as I lay in the bath, she burst into the bathroom, without the formality of announcing her entrance with a knock on the door, and began laying out clothes for me. The clothes were a bit challenging. She laid out a sort of chemise and bloomers in white, long white stockings, a long skirt in dark blue accessorised by a spotless embroidered apron and the traditional Greek ladies’ blouse in white cotton embroidered with blue floral trimmings. There was even a pair of leather buckled shoes that fitted me well enough. I brushed out my hair and tied it in a ribbon and stood in front of the bathroom mirror to admire myself. I quite liked the look now I’d managed to dress myself. Twirling in front of the mirror I looked just like a Greek peasant girl dressed in her Sunday finest!
I was given a room with a window view overlooking the sea for Dr Theodorakis’s house sat in a pleasant situation by a small bay. The room was old fashioned even back then in the seventies, with an enormous brass bedstead covered in brightly coloured quilts, fancy lace curtains over the tiny windows, thick woollen rugs over bare floorboards and simple wooden furniture. There were flowers in a vase on a small table and a couple of oil paintings of the Greek islands hanging on the walls. There was a book on the bedside table. I couldn’t read it for it was in Greek but I recognised it; Homer’s Odyssey.
After I was refreshed and suitably attired I was left to my own devices for a while. I sat on the edge of the big bed and tried to come to terms with my new world. I wasn’t left to brood for too long however. There was a discreet knock on the door and I opened it to be confronted by a small, dark haired but dignified man that turned out to be Milo, Dr Theodorakis’ butler and general manservant, who, in passable English, informed me that the Doctor hoped that I was rested and refreshed and requested, if it was not too onerous an obligation, that I join him for dinner.
I was almost intimidated sitting down for dinner with Dr Theodorakis. It wasn’t the Doctor’s fault for he was exceedingly courteous and deferential. It was just that months of living a feral life on the island had left me ill equipped to deal with the trappings of civilised behaviour. We were sat at opposite ends of a long, polished walnut table elaborately decorated with silver platters, candelabra and floral displays. My place setting held a decorative table mat, an imposing array of high quality silver cutlery and a spotless white linen napkin held in a silver napkin ring. I’d spent most of the last six months eating with my fingers! Even the soups and stews we’d made on the island I’d scooped up with bits of bread or sipped straight from the battered old pan we’d used. I felt sure I was going to disgrace myself.
My misgivings were somewhat ameliorated by the excellence of the food. Dr Theodorakis had a most gifted cook and one who presumably thought that I must be verging on the point of starvation after my ordeals judging by the amount of food that was laid before me. There was a hearty and nourishing fasoulada to begin with, which is a sort of traditional Greek soup made from white beans, vegetables and olive oil. This was followed by a horiatiki salad of cucumbers, tomatoes, green peppers, red onions, feta cheese and kalamata olives all dressed in lemon juice and olive oil and accompanied by crusty rustic bread and a side dish of tsatsiki. Then there was a fish dish of baked sardines seasoned with pepper and origami and drizzled with lemon juice. The main course was a delicious, traditional moussaka; layers of aubergines and minced meat, topped with a white sauce and baked in the oven. Just in case there were any lingering traces of malnutrition we finished off this largesse with something with the horrible name of galaktoboureko, which proved to be a heavenly baked dessert of semolina and egg custard drizzled in melted butter and flavoured with vanilla, a collection of gooey Greek pastries and dark thick Turkish coffee. This feast was laid before us by Milo and a young serving girl with a cheeky twinkle to her eye who was on a mission to get me pie faced judging by the amount of times she insisted on topping up my wine glass.
After this repast I could have pretty much crawled away to hibernate somewhere but Dr Theodorakis courteously invited me to join him for a digestif of Metaxa brandy in his study. The Doctor’s large study was his inner sanctum and the most revealing chamber in the house of the character of this remarkable gentleman. There were huge, comfortable, leather upholstered armchairs, uncompromisingly masculine and solid, in front of a large log fire. The walls were covered in cabinets and an extraordinary collection of bookshelves. This man was a serious scholar. There must have been thousands of books in there, many of them beautifully bound with gilt lettering on the spines glinting in the subdued light of the lamps and fire. There was a huge mahogany desk cluttered with documents, artefacts, an old fashioned brass microscope, mathematical instruments, magnifying glass, a curious looking device which I learned later was a Van der Graaf generator and, of all things, a stuffed weasel.
Those spaces on the walls not covered in bookshelves held a fine collection of art works and there were classical busts set into alcoves. Other tables held glass laboratory equipment, collecting jars, a butterfly net, collections of dried plants, dissecting tools, model ships, samples of minerals, a glass tank containing wall lizards and, curiously enough, a partly stripped down Colt 45 revolver. In one corner stood an easel and artist’s tools and there was a huge brass telescope mounted on a tripod at the big bay window. This man was a polymath in the great nineteenth century tradition; a man who turned his restlessly enquiring mind to almost anything.
We settled down in the big armchairs by the fire and the Doctor filled a well worn briar pipe with tobacco and infused the atmosphere with aromatic fumes. I don’t smoke myself and I generally dislike having to inhale people’s tobacco smoke but the earthy rich scent mingling with the aromas from the fire was entirely appropriate to the masculine comfort of that fascinating room and the paternal presence of the man whose domain this was. Sipping my fiery brandy and toasting in front of the crackling fire I felt warmly secure and oddly comforted. Dr Theodorakis would always be a sort of father figure to me and, even years later when I was a mother myself, I would always feel like a little girl at her father’s feet in his wise and gentle presence.
We talked long into the night. It was the most extraordinary conversation of my life but some of my recollections of it are a bit vague. I was replete with food and, after long abstinence, I was unused to alcohol so I guess I was a bit sl**py to begin with. It was nevertheless an illuminating and thoroughly thought provoking conversation.
We started with my story. Dr Theodorakis wanted to hear everything that had happened to me from the moment that I set foot in Greece to my arrival on his doorstep. I told him everything; every last detail of my time on the island. It was cathartic for me to recount my tale and he listened in rapt interest, interrupting me from time to time to clarify certain details or to ask pertinent questions of my observations. His grey eyes gleamed as I told my story and he nodded in sage satisfaction; as clear a sign as you could have hoped for, given his reserved nature, that he was fascinated and excited by my story. He made me go over parts of my story again and again, expanding on every minute facet; no detail too trivial for his inquiry.
He wanted to know everything about her; every way she fished or hunted, her ornamentation, what I could recall of her songs and vocalisations, how she swam, details of her anatomy, what sort of tools she used, how her boat was constructed, how she made fire or prepared food and any number of other things. Many of the details I furnished him with he seemed already to know and merely nodded as if I was just confirming his own observations. Some things were quite clearly revelations to him however. He became visibly excited when I told him about her shrine in the old quarry and the artefacts and inscriptions she had made there. He made me describe them time and time again, omitting no detail that I could recall, and his eyes sparkled with profound interest. He rubbed his chin ruefully. “My word! I wish now that I’d accompanied Dmitri to the island. This is remarkable! You say that the contents of that quarry are still there?”
“Most of it sure. I guess she loaded most of the most intricate small carvings and valuable things into her boat but a lot of it must still be there and of course the inscriptions on the rock faces must still to be seen.”
He slapped a fist into his palm. “I must venture out there and see for myself. Certainly I must have photographs for posterity. There could be a treasure trove of information in those inscriptions alone. Have you any idea how important they could be? It could represent a breakthrough in our understanding! I have only ever come across tiny fragments of inscribed objects before and I’ve never come close to transliterating them. You say she annotated three dimensional cartographical representations?”
“It seemed so to me sir. I could be wrong of course.”
My God I hope those annotations are still there! If you are right Miss Delmonte they could be the key to deciphering her written language! We may have uncovered the means to trace her very history and that of her people. Tell me. You say that she had her collections ordered in some specific way?”
“Oh sure! It was kind of like she had them arranged in logical order; almost catalogued.”
“Remarkable, remarkable! Please elucidate Miss Delmonte.” And so I did while he sat with his fingertips pressed together as if in prayer, a characteristic pose of his, and nodded encouragingly with his warm grey eyes gleaming keenly with interest.
At long length I ran out of steam and fixed him with an enquiring gaze. “So what do you make of all that sir?”
He didn’t answer immediately. Instead he pushed another log onto the fire and refilled our brandy glasses before settling back in his armchair and closing his eyes in cogitation for a few moments. Finally he sighed and shook his head. “I scarcely know where to begin Miss Delmonte. I must say that that is the most extraordinary story I have ever heard. I must say that I envy you Miss Delmonte. Few people nowadays have such an opportunity to live in such close daily intimate contact with one of your companion’s kind. I believe it happened more often in antiquity but such occurrences are rare indeed now. There were one or two rumoured instances of such cohabitation from before the last war and several I believe in the last century. There have been stories in the islands of people being a*****ed and held by her kind throughout history of course and there are innumerable references to aquatic hominids in mythology.”
I shook my head decisively. “There was nothing mythological about her!” I declared.
“Quite Miss Delmonte! Both you and I know that she and her kind do exist. We are among the few remaining people privileged to have observed her people at close quarters.”
“How do you know of her folk sir?”
Dr Theodorakis took a deep breath. “I first came upon the sea people when I was a young boy Miss Delmonte. I had a boat that my father built for me and I would spend all my summer days out on the sea exploring all the islands within the range of my boat. Among those islands I came into contact with the same people you have described.
I think there were more of them in those days for I encountered at least half a dozen individuals quite regularly among some of the more distant islets from here. I wasn’t alone in that. A number of the older people used to talk about the sea people as they called them although it was never something that was discussed openly for people were frightened of them and considered them to be harbingers of ill fortune. There were one or two remote islands that had a reputation for being frequented by them and the superstitious fishermen would go nowhere near them. The elders here would have been horrified to know that I came into contact with them. They were said to steal young boys and girls. I learned to keep quiet about my trips to see them for I would certainly have been forbidden to do so had anybody known.”
I found I was holding my breath. “So you’ve met them often?”
“Not so much in recent years Miss Delmonte but I certainly encountered them on many occasions when I was young. There was one island where I frequently saw them. The first time I saw them I was drawn to the island by hearing one of them sing, in the way that you’ve described, from the rocks. I was rather frightened I confess but I rowed my boat among some rocks to hide and listened for a long time, peering fearfully at this incredible creature perched on the rocks and serenading the sea with its haunting melodies.”
Dr Theodorakis chuckled to himself. “She knew I was there of course! I don’t think much escapes them in their natural environment. I think they were a little wary of me to begin with but after a while they seemed to tolerate my presence. Gradually I gained their trust and they would come right up to my boat. I used to bring them gifts. I found that they particularly valued things made of metal.; copper, aluminium, tin and, most particularly iron and steel. They greatly prized knives of any description or any steel tools.
I laughed shortly. “I can relate to that! Knife blades were like gold to her!”
Dr Theodorakis nodded sagely. “Yes indeed. Before I’d set off on an excursion to the island I’d load my boat up with all sorts of gifts; old penknives, axe heads, fishing hooks, needles, old pots and pans, harpoon heads such as our fishermen used to catch octopus with, old tin cans and scrap metal. They would take it all. It wasn’t just functional objects they valued either for I sometimes brought them food stuffs and decorative items such as glass beads and marbles, porcelain figures, little metal painted toys or enamelled bits of cheap jewellery... anything bright and pretty. In return they’d fetch me fish they’d caught or lobsters and clams. They even gave me pearls and valuable minerals they’d collected. I kept them to myself but the fish I brought back for the household, I told my parents that I’d caught myself.” Dr Theodorakis paused to chuckle fondly. “I suppose that I ran an interspecies trading business! I was very young of course and it all seemed like a great adventure at the time” He shook his head sadly. “It didn’t last naturally... well not to the same extent anyway.”
“Why? What happened?”
“The war of course. Italy invaded our country in 1940. That was not so bad for our army pushed them back into Albania but the Germans intervened in the spring of 1941 and within two months we were defeated and under Axis occupation. After the fall of Italy in 1943 our whole country came under NAZI occupation. They were hard years in Greece Miss Delmonte. The Germans were cruel and there was much oppression and deprivation. Fishing was banned throughout the Aegean as was most unauthorised marine traffic. I could not go to sea in my little boat for fear that the German patrols would fire on me. I heard rumours that the Germans had fired on small canoes, much like the one you have described, for they feared the infiltration of Allied commando raids and the resistance. Perhaps they drove the remaining survivors of the sea people out of the Aegean for they became even scarcer and more elusive than ever. For many years I heard of no reports of them at all. I began to worry that we had seen the last of them and that no record would remain in human knowledge bar the whisperings of folk tales and ancient myths.”
Dr Theodorakis paused sadly to refill his pipe before continuing. “I was unduly pessimistic Miss Delmonte for, while they became very elusive and wary, some vestiges of their people survived the war years. I came upon them very seldom but it seems there had been some favourable memory of me among them. I suppose I had gained their trust and goodwill for after some years I had some further contacts with them. They would visit this island here in great secrecy to trade with me for certain goods that were precious to them.
I had inherited this house and my parents’ estate by then for my father died during the war, my mother passed away in the fifties while I was attending university in Athens and I was an only c***d. I returned to the island of my birth and took up residence here and, very slowly, I began once more to renew my acquaintance with those strange people who had so fascinated me as a boy and teenager before the war. Their visits to me were always very clandestine and infrequent. Sometimes many months or even years would pass without my seeing any of them and I never came to know more than a handful of them. As the years passed their visits became more and more infrequent until, some seven or eight years ago they ceased altogether. I thought then that I had lost contact with them forever.”
Dr Theodorakis seemed lost in melancholy for several seconds as the memories passed through his mind. Finally he collected his thoughts and continued. “It became my life’s work to study and learn as much as I could about those people. I travelled extensively throughout the Mediterranean searching for evidence of them. I interviewed old peasants, fisherman and sailors, anybody who might have old recollections or might have information. I visited numerous islands where there were reputedly sightings of them. I scoured old mariners’ records for references to mermaids or sea nymphs. Fortunately I could disguise my researches for I was by now a respected authority in mythology. Few among my academic colleagues suspected that my interest in such tales was anything more than a curiosity in the origins of mythology among folk tales.
Everywhere Miss Delmonte I came upon tantalising clues and infuriatingly elusive accounts of contacts with these people. There were mariners’ stories long dismissed as the over excited imagination of sailors that have been at sea too long. There were myths among isolated island dwellers stretching back into antiquity, tiny glimpses of the truth among primitive peoples that lived along the ocean fringes and the banks of great rivers and a wealth of legends and stories from among nearly every society that lived in close harmony with the sea.
Among my own people, of course, there are innumerable myths and legends of fantastic creatures and it would be easy to dismiss the many references to aquatic humanoids in Greek mythology had one not the personal experience that such people really existed. There were the sirens of antiquity that were said to lure sailors to their islands with their fantastic songs and who were said to be the daughters of the God Achelous. Some Roman poets even cited a group of islands called the “Sirenum scopuli” as the dwelling place of the sirens. In Greek folklore the sirens were fully aquatic human creatures and the name for a mermaid in many European languages is interchangeable with the word siren; Sirena in Spanish, Sirene in French, Sirena in Italian and Portugese. Even Polish and Romanian use the word siren for a mermaid. We derive the name for the order of marine mammals known as sea cows and includes the dugong and manatees from the word, for their Latin collective name is Sirenia.
“But they are certainly not the only aquatic human like creatures in Greek mythology.” Dr Theodorakis pointed out as he warmed to his theme. “Of particular interest are the Nereids, the sea nymphs who were thought to be the daughters of Nereus and Doris and frequently accompanied the sea god Poseiden. These were important minor deities among the Aegean islands for they were the patrons and protectors of seaman and fishermen. They were supposed to live in a sea cave in the Aegean with their father and there were said to be fifty of them although over ninety are named in ancient Greek sources. They are usually depicted as beautiful women, frequently riding on the backs of dolphins.”
I gave a snort of laughter at this point. “That figures!”
Dr Theodorakis chuckled in agreement. “Yes indeed Miss Delmonte. Much the same thought occurred to me when you recounted your tale of your companion’s close relationship with the dolphins around your island. Ironically the name given to the order of sea mammals which includes whales and dolphins are Cetaceans.”
I puckered my brow in puzzlement. I was being too bright. “Why ironic sir?”
“Well Cetaceans are named after the sea monster Cetus of course who, you may recall, was the monster to whom the princess Andromeda was chained to the sea cliffs in sacrifice. The reason for Andromeda’s sacrifice of course was to appease the Nereids, for her mother, Queen Cassiopeia had boasted that she was more beautiful then they and they appealed to Poseidon to punish her for her vanity and arrogance by sending Cetus to ravish her country. Thus Andromeda was offered up in sacrifice.” Dr Theodorakis chuckled softly. “It would appear that Nereids are bad people to cross!”
“I’ve heard of other mythical Greek sea creatures sir. Aren’t there also sea nymphs known as Oceanids?”
Dr Theodorakis nodded gravely. “Indeed there are although the Oceanids are not so exclusively associated with the sea as the Nereids. The Oceanids were the three thousand daughters of the god of the great seas, Oceanus, and his s****r Tethys. Poseidon was the god associated with the Mediterranean incidentally and Oceanus, from where we derive the term ocean naturally, was more a god of the realm of the world ocean which, to the ancients was most closely represented by the body of water we now call the Atlantic Ocean. Poseidon of course became the god Neptune in the Roman pantheon and it is a tradition to this day to invite the god Neptune aboard ship when crossing the equator. That however is, strictly speaking, incorrect, since the equatorial regions of the oceans are not within the dominion of Poseidon or Neptune and one should correctly call upon the god Oceanus since that is his territory.”
I cleared my throat loudly. Dr Theodorakis was wont to ramble off along many convoluted side paths unless occasionally brought back to the point. “But the Oceanids sir?” I reminded him.
“Ah yes. Well of course the Oceanids were another manifestation of sea nymphs of course and frequently in the company or close association with sea gods and the Nereids. They were not entirely confined to the seas however for they also inhabited rivers, lakes, pond and even marshes and clouds. Each one would be the patron of a particular body of water; a sea, a bay, a river, stream or lake or some such.”
I bit my lip in uncertainty. “Could their individual association with a particular body of water be interpreted to have originated in sea nymphs’ territorial behaviour?”
Dr Theodorakis stroked his chin thoughtfully. “Well it is purely speculation of course but the idea is a fascinating one. Your companion’s territorial dominion over her island and surrounding sea certainly tallies with my own observations. It seems that small f****y groups have very marked territories and I rather think that unmated individuals, which I believe your companion to be, may well move away from their families to establish their own territories. If our observations are true then it would be logical that individuals would become associated with particular geographical locations and thus, in folklore, deemed to be the patrons of those regions. Then there is the problem of the Naiads who are often considered to be the daughters of Oceanids and more closely associated with fresh water such as springs, streams, brooks and wells. In olden times every spring was considered to be protected by its local Naiad and if she were to abandon it, it was thought that it would dry up.”
I thought of the curious pool of fresh water on the island whose source I had never determined and shivered involuntarily. I shook my head; myth and reality becoming confused within my thoughts. “So the various water nymphs are classified through their association with fresh or salt water then?”
Dr Theodorakis shook his head. “Not entirely. Certainly the Nerieds, Sirens and Oceanids seem more connected to seas than Naiads but there is always considerable overlap. You must remember that to the ancients the water of the world consisted of a single system and that the fresh water on land was merely the sea percolating through the ground into the land. They would not have had such a clear distinction between the salt water of the sea and the fresh water of a river other than whether one was potable or not. My point is that wherever water occurred there are these fabled creatures associated with it. We may be seeing that the origin of all these myths is founded in the actual existence of a truly aquatic hominid species such as we have both observed.
There are powerful anthropological links in ancient Greek mythology to human like sea deities and their offspring. Even the goddess Aphrodite, later to be the Roman goddess Venus, emerged from the sea for she was born when Cronos cut off Uranus’ genitals and cast them into the sea. Legend has it that she emerged from the sea at a rock just off the shore at Pafos in Cyprus called Petra tou Romiou, or the rock of the Greeks and sometimes called Aphrodite’s Rock. It is something of a tourist destination these days!”
I blinked at the new thought. “So the goddess of love was a sea creature.”
“Originally I suppose so, yes. Interestingly one of her c***dren by Hermes was the minor deity Hermaphroditus, a being who became both male and female after a union with the Naiad Salmacis, who tried to **** him! Curious don’t you think?”
My head was starting to spin. How the ancient Greeks ever kept tabs on all the daily doings of all their deities and offspring was a mystery. I tried to clear my head. “So what you are saying is that all these myths and legends had a foundation in truth?”
“Many old legends have a basis in truth Miss Delmonte; even some of the most fantastic ones. Take the legend of the fall of Atlantis for example. For centuries Atlantis has been considered a myth recounted by Plato in the fourth century BC and in all probability of no factual truth. Plato himself asserted that he first heard the story via Egyptian records. Nowadays however many scholars believe that his story is a mythological retelling of an actual event; the destruction of the Minoan civilisation following the volcanic eruption of the island of Thera in the s*******nth century before Christ. I myself am in two minds about it but certainly the Thera eruption was probably the greatest in human history and the resulting destruction and tsunami coincided with the collapse of the Minoan culture and was almost certainly responsible for it. It is by no means unfeasible that the tale persisted in memory and folk lore to metamorphosise into the Atlantis legend.
Myth and history are so closely interwoven it is often very difficult to tell one from another. The ancients were not known for their devotion to verifiable historical fact Miss Delmont. Their myths, poetical interpretations, the squabbling of their gods and their morality bedevil us to this day. How much of the story of the Trojan War is historical fact? We may never know but many scholars believe that such an event really happened although the actual details of the story that have been handed down to us are almost certainly fictitious. These people saw their Gods as continual participants in everyday life and did not have our modern sensibility to distinguish fact from the supernatural. We live with the consequences of that still. Most of the religious faiths extant in the world are after all based in the body of myth, superstition, belief in the supernatural and folklore of our ancestors. Trying to pick out the reality from these myths is an endless and seemingly hopeless task.”
I wiped a hand across my brow. “But nevertheless you are saying that the ancients knew of her people and wove stories about them into their mythology.”
“Such would be my best guess Miss Delmonte. There are just too many parallels between them and the ancient stories. It is not only Greek mythology that is rich in stories about such creatures either. Many cultures with close association with bodies of water have equivalent myths and legends. In fact the prevalence of legends regarding mermaids and such like creatures around the globe is quite striking and the similarities between the legends are rather singular. Mermaids were long coveted in China for instance as a source of pearls but they were considered dangerous for it was feared that their songs could send men into a c*** and drown them. There are many stories regarding the hypnotic power of the mermaid’s song.”
I held up a hand. “Wait a minute. Aren’t mermaids supposed to be half fish, half human.”
“Well in many tales yes, but not necessarily so. Certainly there seems to be no question that the most of the aquatic people of Greek legend are completely human like. As to other versions that describe them as half fish well that could simply be a garbled description to account for their prodigious proficiency in water. We often describe somebody who is exceedingly comfortable in water as saying that they swim like a fish. It is only a short step from there to describe them as half fish. There may be another explanation as well. Allow me to show you something.”
Dr Theodorakis rose from his chair and stepped over to a large cabinet. From its interior he extracted a remarkable object. As I examined it its purpose was evident. It was a large fin like paddle made of some stiff material and apparently designed to fit on a person’s feet like the monofins worn by free divers. “I took that from one of the islands where I often observed these people Miss Delmonte and I occasionally observed them using such aids, especially on deep dives. It seems to be made of sealskin as far as I can tell. If the use of such artefacts were common among them it is easy to imagine how unlearned, superstitious observers of old would interpret such a sighting and believe them to be half fish. Interestingly most depictions of mermaids show them to have their tail fins held horizontally to their bodies and to propel them by means of vertical strokes in the same way as a dolphin. Fish of course carry their caudal fins vertical to their bodies and move through the water by means of lateral strokes. Only mammals show the vertical undulations of the spinal column as opposed to the lateral ones you would see in a fish or reptile.”
“So the accounts of mermaids being half fish could simply be misinterpretation.”
“Quite so although the Assyrian goddess Atargatis, one of our earliest accounts of a mermaid from around 1,000 BC was described as half fish.”
“And these legends are world wide then?”
“Absolutely. Nearly every society with close connections to the sea has such stories. As you can well imagine they are particularly prevalent among people who live among island archipelagos. In the Caribbean for instance the mermaid is known as Aycayia among the Neo-Taino nations and, in more modern culture, as Lwa La Sirene and the goddess or orisha common to both Caribbean and African devotees of the Yuraba religion called Yemaya is depicted as an aquatic sea deity. Sirena are part of the folklore of the Philippines and a beach in southern Java is reputedly the home of the mermaid queen Nyi Roro k**ul, a powerful figure in Javanese mythology.
It is not only the islands of tropical regions or warm seas such as the Mediterranean that harbour such tales either Miss Delmonte. There are fables from much colder climates. In the Norman chapel of Durham Castle in England is an artistic representation of a mermaid dating to 1078. Then the Irish have the mermaid Li Ban who predates Christianity in Ireland and was, in some versions, reputed to be the s****r of the sea goddess Fand. Interestingly another version of the story has Li Ban associated with a large body of fresh water, Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland. Incidentally the name Li Ban may have its etymological roots in the proto-Celtic word leiabannia meaning woman of liquid. Then again Scots have their own mermaid called Ceasg or Maid of the Waves and there are parallels with mermaid traditions in the Japanese ningyo.”
Dr Theodorakis paused for a moment to sip his brandy and collect his thoughts. “I could continue along these lines indefinitely Miss Delmonte. I have made a study for many years of these stories. They are not confined to oceanic environments by any means. Many large lakes and river systems have their own legacy of such tales. We need only think of the Lorelei and Rhine Maidens of the river Rhine which are water nymphs out of Nordic myth and I have recently come upon certain stories out of African and South American river systems. My point however is that all this mythology adds up to a universality of the basic theme common to nearly all human cultures. I conclude therefore that these stories are so prevalent because they do in fact refer to actual, factual evidence; the evidence of human contact with a closely related, but separate, aquatic hominid species with which we have co-inhabited this planet alongside for many thousands of years.
I stared at him in astonishment. “You think they are an entirely different species from us then?”
“Absolutely! I think the anatomical differences alone are sufficient evidence of that.”
“But...but how can that be? I mean how can an entirely separate human species live alongside of us?”
“It is not without precedent Miss Delmonte. Modern humans or Homo sapiens coexisted with Homo neanderthalensis (Neanderthal man) for many thousands of years. We might possibly have been instrumental in the extinction of the Neanderthal man. We might even have interbred with them.”
“But weren’t they just primitive ape men?”
“Not at all! They were highly developed intelligent hominids, technologically and socially on a par with early Homo sapiens and with a larger brain capacity. They were a kindred species to our own. We could have communicated with them. We most probably did.”
“But surely we know of them from the fossil record. Why don’t we have records of this species we’re talking about in the fossils?”
“Many people with little knowledge of anthropology Miss Delmonte grossly overestimate the extent of our fossil records. In fact there are enormous gaps in our understanding of other hominid species. Many species of hominids we only know from small, incomplete fragments of a single fossilised skeleton. You have to remember that it is very difficult to become a fossil. You have to die in exactly the right place under exactly the right conditions for your remains to become preserved as a fossil. Such conditions may occur less than one time in several millions and there may be whole families of a****ls that existed of which we have no knowledge whatsoever of because we have never found any fossilised remains of them.
Hominid remains are particularly scarce because, until the population explosion of our own species, the actual populations of them were so small. At the greatest height of its distribution it is likely that the population of Homo neanderthalensis never exceeded more than one hundred thousand individuals; about the same as a small city and this over a range including all of Europe, the Middle East and extending as far east as the Ural mountains and Afghanistan. We didn’t even find a fossil of them until 1829 in the Neander valley in Germany despite them having inhabited a region that is one of the most densely populated on the planet.
Hominid remains are very rare Miss Delmonte. I have heard it said that you could fit all the fossil remains, from every museum in the world, of hominid species other than our own, into the back of a small lorry. A species such as we’re talking about that lives in tiny populations in the sea.... well the chances of finding fossil remains must be very low indeed. We don’t even know if they bury their dead. For all we know their dead are simply eaten by crabs!”
“But I presume Neanderthal man died out many thousands of years ago...”
“About 25,000 thereabouts Miss Delmonte.”
“But you’re saying that here is another hominid species which has survived into modern times.”
“Yes. It may seem fantastic but again there are precedents. There has been speculation for many years that other hominid species have survived until relatively modern days. There are innumerable stories of cryptid hominids from around the world; the Yeti of the Himalayas, the Almas of the Caucasus and Pamir mountains, the Barmanou of Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Batutut of Vietnam, Laos and Burma, even your own North American Bigfoot Miss Delmonte; the list goes on. Now of course many of them may be simple legend or folk tale or even a hoax yet there are a surprising number of them from around the world. Nevertheless it would be tempting to dismiss them all as pure fantasy; pure fantasy if ....” Dr Theodorakis slapped his fist into his palm for emphasis, “if you and I did not have the evidence of our own eyes to tell us that there is indeed another species of humankind alive in this world at this very time! Make no mistake about it Miss Delmonte. You and I are both privileged to have witnessed something extraordinary... the proof, the undeniable proof that the human race is not alone; that a kindred species lives, walks and swims in the waters of our world even as we speak!”
I remember my mind reeling at the implications and yet everything the Doctor said made complete sense. Still I had difficulty grasping the concepts however. “But sir,” I protested, “We are talking not about a Neanderthal man here but a completely aquatic human species! Is that at all likely?”
“I hardly see why it should be considered unlikely at all Miss Delmonte. After all we have the very close analogy of our own species!”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean Miss Delmonte that our own species is itself partly aquatic. We think of ourselves as terrestrial a****ls but in fact we are almost unique among primates in our affinity to water. Find a body of water on the planet and you’ll find human beings, bathing in it, swimming in it, fishing in it or simply basking by the side of it. We are aquatic creatures Miss Delmonte. Our natural habitat is along the side of water. It is estimated that some eighty percent of the human race lives within two hundred kilometres of the sea. We even seem designed for a semi aquatic lifestyle. Our very hairlessness could be an adaptation to an aquatic existence. No other primate, recognised by science, is at home in water. When did you last see a chimpanzee swimming? You can even drop a human baby into water and it will swim quite happily. Its aquatic nature is built into its genes! The female of our species, curiously enough, is particularly well adapted for swimming. Ladies are generally more buoyant and carry insulating layers of sub-cutaneous fat, allowing them to dive deeper into cold water than men, which is why women are used as pearl divers in many cultures.
What I mean to say Miss Delmonte is that not only is an aquatic hominid completely possible it may be that these people are in fact more closely related to us than other extinct and more terrestrial hominids that we know from the fossil record.”
“Other hominids aren’t hermaphroditic!” I pointed out.
Dr Theodorakis nodded to acknowledge the justice of my observation. “You are right Miss Delmonte... or at least right as far as we know. I must confess that that is something that I have long thought about. Hermaphroditism is common in nature but generally not so among higher invertebrates. There are examples of course. Those sea bream that you caught on your island for example are known to be hermaphroditic. Many live lives as a female and then, for reasons unknown, suddenly change into males. Still I concede that it is pretty much unknown among mammal species . Nevertheless there is no natural law that renders it impossible. Indeed hermaphroditism on an individual basis is well known among mammals including humans even if it isn’t a characteristic of the species. Surprising numbers of humans are born with ambiguous genitalia and among some specialist who have studied the question it appears that the distinction between male and female genders is not anything like as clear cut as once fondly believed.
I have a colleague, with whom I correspond regularly, who is of the opinion that we are on the brink of a revolutionary new field of human study that will call into question all our notions about human sexuality and gender. They believe that such things currently regarded, by medical science and society as a whole, as aberrant behaviour or conditions, such as homosexuality and trans-sexuality, will sometime in the near future be regarded as completely natural circumstances of the human condition. Doubtless there will be opposition to such radical notions from the ingrained moral bigotry of those who resist such challenges to their fervently held beliefs but societies can and must evolve. If it is true that sexuality and gender identity are more fluid in human beings than we currently believe then is it so radical to imagine a closely related species in which the distinctions are even less clear cut? Well we have seen the evidence for ourselves Miss Delmonte.”
By the more enlightened standards of the scientifically literate of our current age, Dr Theodorakis’ statement does not seem at all progressive but this was in 1972 and the notion that being gay or transgendered was a natural human condition was damn close to being subversive back then. Of course it still is to some people but then there are still some people who believe the world was made in 6.000 BC and that Noah managed to collect several million species of a****ls on a wooden boat he built in his back yard because God was so pissed that he decided to flood the entire planet!
I leaned back in my chair to cogitate over the Doctor’s remarks while he replenished our brandy glasses. We seemed to have wandered onto strange paths. I had some more personal questions to ask. “Forgive me sir,” I ventured, “But we seem to have become sidetracked. You were telling me earlier that you had not had contact with these... these mermaid people for some years. I presume that I’m right in assuming that that changed this summer.”
“You are quite right of course Miss Delmonte. I am sorry if I have digressed into a more general analysis of your companion’s people. It is true that I owe you something more by way of explanation.” He leaned back thoughtfully to marshal his thoughts. “Let me see now. I think it was around the beginning of July that I first heard word that one of the sea people was once again close by. I heard a story that two local fishermen had heard an unworldly singing near some island over to the west. Well of course that intelligence galvanised me for it was years since I had last heard of any such report. I interviewed the two fishermen immediately. I’m afraid the experience had badly frightened them and I received only the most garbled and confusing information from them as to the exact whereabouts of the incident. Nevertheless I kept my ear to the ground as it were and I asked Dmitri to take his boat out to the west to see if he could learn anything.
Dmitri’s initial reconnaissance proved to be futile however and, over the next weeks, I began to think it was a false alarm. Then one evening as I was sitting in my garden I heard a brief snatch of song myself. Even after all those years I recognised it immediately. It was a short song, more of a cry, that the sea folk used to use to alert me to their presence when I was a youngster and traded with them. I knew I was being called! The sound seemed to come from the little headland just on the bay here and I set off immediately to investigate it. There, perched on a rock close by the water’s edge, was the person you have spent the summer with.
I cannot begin to explain how ecstatic I was to see one of her kind again for I’d thought them lost to me for good. She was waiting for me but she seemed nervous and unsure. I think she must have learned the call that summonsed me from others of her kind that knew me and trusted me but she had little way of knowing my identity herself. I put her at her ease by vocalising some of the sounds I had learned from her people and she relaxed visibly. It seemed she wanted to trade for she held out some small but beautiful pearls.
It was difficult to know what she wanted in exchange however. Although I had learned tiny fragments of her tongue as a young man, and tried to expand it through my brief contacts over the years, I cannot with any justification say that I speak her language or even begin to understand its structure. Nevertheless, after much gesticulation and hard work it became apparent that she wanted food. This surprised me for I well knew that her kind were more than capable of feeding themselves from the bounty of the sea. I had assumed that she would want manufactured artefacts such as tools and so forth but no, it seemed she wanted food. It wasn’t just any food she required either for she appeared to have specific requirements.
Finally, at an impasse, I led her back to the house. It was nearly dark by then and I dismissed the servants while she concealed herself in the bushes around the back. When all was clear she approached the house. She wouldn’t come indoors for they are most wary in that regard but squatted outside while I brought her some samples of food to choose between. Her choices surprised me for some of them were not types of food I would normally associate with her kind such as fruits, vegetables and even a sack of flour!”
I laughed at this point. “I wondered where she got that from sir! I have to thank you. I used it to bake bread with. You’ve no idea how good plain bread tastes when you haven’t seen any for months on end.”
“It is my pleasure entirely Miss Delmonte. Of course, since listening to your account, I understand that she was foraging for food for you and, even then, I rather suspected that she had ulterior motives for her shopping list as it were. I am still amazed that she knew what flour was for! I didn’t send her away with just foodstuffs however for I was keen to re-establish contact. I let her have a few other trinkets as well including an old but good quality filleting knife and a little hand axe.”
I nodded. “Yes I remember them sir. That little axe was most useful. We used it to chop up driftwood and cut firewood in the olive grove.”
“I’m gratified to hear it Miss Delmonte. Well you can imagine my pleasure at once again having made contact with her kind. I tinkered with the idea of taking a boat out to see if I could locate where she was living but in the end I thought perhaps such an intrusion might scare her away and so I discreetly left her in peace although I did start to leave tokens for her by the rock on the headland where we first met. As you by now will surely have realised she visited me several more times, calling out for me from the headland usually after dark and I furnished her with more supplements to your diet as well as other things.
By this time I was pretty sure that she was obtaining food for somebody else and I rather suspected that the other person was a human. Certainly there are old stories of sea nymphs capturing people and keeping them alive. There were stories told among the older people, when I was a c***d, of young people being k**napped by the sea folk and held captive on remote islands for terrible purposes that were only whispered about.”
I shrugged. “Hey it wasn’t that bad! I kind of got to enjoy it once I got used to it.”
Dr Theodorakis rubbed his chin austerely. “Yes, er quite. Anyway my suspicions were, to some extent, confirmed only rather recently when Dmitri came to me to report that he’d seen a young woman, without any clothes on, on a small remote island over to the west. He was able to view her with his binoculars but I’m afraid he was rather too frightened to investigate too closely or he might have rescued you earlier.”
I grimaced wryly. “It was probably for the best sir. She was pretty protective of me. I hate to think what she might have done if somebody had tried to steal me away. I guess she could be pretty dangerous if anybody invaded her territory like that. She might have even killed him. She was certainly strong enough and aggressive enough.”
Yes those were indeed my own thoughts Miss Delmonte. I am quite aware how dangerous they can be when they or their territory and property are threatened. On the other hand I knew from Dmitri’s report that the young lady on the island did not match the description of the person who was trading with me.”
“I’m surprised that I never saw Dmitri’s boat.”
“He was very discreet he led me to believe, approaching without engines at dusk behind some outlying rocks. He was most nervous I understand.”
“She would have known he was there.”
“Yes I concur. It did leave me with a dilemma however. I considered it likely that the person Dmitri had seen was an ordinary human being, if you’ll pardon my saying so, and most likely the person for whom she had obtained food. I think that more or less confirmed her base of operations as it were. It occurred to me that the person might be in need of er... some assistance but on the other hand I didn’t want to charge in and possibly endanger lives. I instructed Dmitri therefore to keep some distance while I endeavoured to make inquiries about the possible identity of the person being held on the island. That proved to be difficult for I could find no report of anybody reported missing locally.
Then, one day, I chanced to talk with the captain of one of the local ships servicing the island while they were anchored up here and he casually mentioned a colleague of his whose ship had apparently lost a young American tourist overboard, who had vanished without trace, in the spring. I made some discreet inquiries and it seemed that the young person in question was a young lady but it seemed improbable at first that the person could be the same one that Dmitri had reported seeing for her disappearance had occurred a great distance away. Nevertheless I could find no other report of any missing person that matched the description of the young lady Dmitri had reported seeing on the island so I resolved just a few days ago to attempt to positively identify her.
My resolution was forestalled however. Just within the last days your erstwhile companion arrived once more in the dead of night and summoned me to the shore with her cry. She did not want to trade this time however and indeed she seemed most agitated. It took a long time to gather exactly what she wanted and in the end she led me quietly to the harbour and pointed at Dmitri’s boat which she by now obviously associated with me. She conveyed to me that she wanted the boat to follow her to her island and at last I discerned that it was possible that she wanted to surrender her er... companion if you like to us.
I gave Dmitri explicit instructions to follow her although he was most anxious about the business. She paddled ahead in her canoe so as to retain visual contact, Dmitri tells me, but when she put into the island he hesitated long before daring to approach. Possibly it was my fault for not accompanying him but I thought to maintain a discreet distance. At length it seems he summoned the courage to put into the island himself although he tells me he was most keen to get away from there quickly. The rest of course you know.” Dr Theodorakis took a rueful breath. “I must apologise therefore Miss Delmonte that we were so tardy in coming to your assistance after I had discovered your existence. I can only say in my defence that things were not quite so clear and it was difficult to know how to proceed.”
I nodded numbly and stared for long seconds into the glowing embers of the fire. The flickering light of the flames on the walls of the room reminded me of the light of our little cooking fires in the ruins of the old villa on the island. Finally I shook my head with a gnawing feeling of loss within me. “You have nothing to apologise for sir.” I said quietly at last. “I was in no need of rescue. Has she been able to take me with her when she left I would have chosen that rather than return to the life I left behind sir. You may think me crazy sir but, in a strange way, I loved her. I would have stayed with her forever.”
Dr Theodorakis nodded solemnly. “I see.” he said quietly. “I repeat Miss Delmonte....I envy you.” For long seconds we remained silent gazing into the fire. Finally he cleared his throat. “But return you did Miss Delmonte and that leaves me with a problem.”
I blinked in surprise. “A problem?”
“Yes Miss Delmonte. Naturally we must endeavour tomorrow to inform the authorities that you have been found and expedite your reunion with your f****y who must be sorely missing you. It is that which causes me concern. I am going to ask you to do something very hard Miss Delmonte; in fact I am going to beg you. It may seem an onerous thing to ask of you but I assure you that I have only the very best motives for doing so.”
“What is it you require of me sir?”
“I am going to ask you to keep the story you have told me tonight secret. Doubtless when we contact the authorities they will wish you to make a statement to account for your whereabouts over the last month. I want you to give them an edited version of the truth; a version that makes no mention of your companion or her kind. It is important, no it is imperative that you tell nobody what truly occurred during these past months. I do not ask this for my benefit you must understand but rather for the benefit of that person you have told me you love; for her and for all her kind.”
I was puzzled. “But why sir?”
“How many of her kind do you think there still are Miss Delmonte?”
“I...I have no idea.”
“Few Miss Delmonte... very few. I think once they were more numerous especially here in the Aegean and in the Mediterranean at large. I have a theory that these warm seas were once the centre of their distribution. Certainly the prevalence of stories about them in the Mediterranean suggest that this region was particularly important to them. Also the environment with many small islands in a warm, relatively shallow sea with little in the way of tidal currents and with a benign climate would have been eminently suitable habitat for them. Unfortunately the environment also favoured the growth of human civilisations around these waters and that probably contributed to their decline. In our modern world the pressures on their environment must be enormous.
If, as I suspect, there were races of them that occupied fresh water habitats, then those have almost certainly dwindled to vanishing point with the pressure on river systems and inland lakes. Perhaps there are isolated colonies of them along remote rivers in the tropics such as the Amazon or the African rivers. I sincerely hope so. As to their marine environments then there is still perhaps some hope that a few small pockets of them exist. I think the colonies in the Caribbean are probably extinct or verging on extinction and those in the Mediterranean are very nearly so as well. I consider it likely that no more than a handful of them are still extant in the entire Mediterranean. My best hope for some surviving remnants of their kind are among the Pacific islands of Micronesia but even they must be declining alarmingly.
I feel it deep in my bones that we are seeing the very last of a dying species. You and I Miss Delmonte might be among the last people ever to know this remarkable race of creatures. We may have looked for the last time upon a species doomed to extinction. What a terrible loss that would be to the world. How will we face our c***dren’s c***dren knowing that we allowed the one other intelligent creature on this planet who we could truly meet as equals to vanish and leave us alone after all?”
Dr Theodorakis paused for several seconds but I could see the sadness in his face as he contemplated that terrible loss. At last he mustered the composure to continue. “I have made it my life’s work to study these people Miss Delmonte for I have always known that it was possible that whatever I learned of them might be the final legacy I could leave to posterity to let the world know that such people once existed; the final chapter in their long story if you like. I have not been alone in this endeavour I must confess. There are a few of us around the world aided and assisted by a private and very secret foundation who have made it our business to study these people and, if at all possible, to preserve them and ensure that, in a world dominated by our own species, there is still a place left for those kindred people of ours. It would be an honour for me to invite you into our select ranks Miss Delmonte and I think, with the deep sympathy you have so clearly demonstrated for those people, you will find accord with our principles and motives.”
“And you think sir that by publicising the existence of those people; bringing them to public knowledge, I might endanger their chances of survival?”
Dr Theodorakis looked at me keenly. “You are a remarkable young lady if I may say so Miss Delmonte. You see the problem clearly I think. If we were to give the authorities a full, unedited and truthful account of your adventures then, assuming it was believed, there would be a sensation. You can imagine that every last island in these waters would be scoured for them, there would be fear and xenophobia on the one hand, eager scientists and anthropologists keen to make their reputation on the other, thousands upon thousands of merely curious sightseers swarming about their habitat on the chance of seeing them. You might even imagine tour operators running trips, television crews, even people wishing to capture live or dead specimens. They are not a species that could handle such pressure Miss Delmonte. Therefore if you love her, if you truly love her, then keep her secret lest we unleash an avalanche that drives a fragile, endangered species over the brink of extinction and the song of the Siren will be lost to us forever.”
I can still remember sitting horrified in Dr Theodorakis’ study listening to those ominous and sonorous proclamations of doom and I understood. Just a few months ago I had had no idea that any such people as her even existed but now I saw what a great, lonely place this world of ours would be without her. There was never any question that I would accede to Dr Theodorakis’ request. I would keep her a secret between us and hope that somewhere, on a rock beside some beautiful island, she and her kind would sing on into a brighter future for both our peoples.
Later we retired to bed but I had trouble getting to sl**p with all the thoughts in my mind and the unfamiliar comfort of the big bed. I suppose I drifted finally into a fitful slumber punctuated by strange dreams. In those dreams I fancied I heard her song drifting across the waters to me. I awoke with a start but there was no sound other than the ticking of the big old fashioned clock in my bedroom. I rose from my bed and took a chair by the window overlooking the sea. It was cool in the room so I wrapped a blanket about myself. The moon was nearly full and the sea shone in a pearly radiance under its illumination. I sat there for many hours gazing out to sea.
There’s little more to tell in my Aegean story. The next day Dr Theodorakis was true to his word and we endeavoured to get in contact with the authorities. There were no cell phones in those days of course and the islands relied on a rickety network of submarine telephone cables and radio sets to communicate with the mainland. We did succeed at length in contacting higher authority and we sent telegrams to the American embassy in Athens and to my parents home in Iowa. My parents thought I was dead of course and the memorial service for me had been conducted long ago. My mother nearly fainted when they received the telegram and my dad thought at first that it was some kind of sick joke. When they were finally convinced that I was indeed alive and well they determined to fly straight out to Greece to bring me home in person.
This all took some time however and I spent several days at Dr Theodorakis’ home. We spent the time in devising and polishing a heavily edited account of my adventures but I also committed as much of my true story and observations to paper as I could in the time for the Doctor’s records. Other than that we spent much time in deep conversation either in his study or in long walks about the island. I remember for instance one day having a long talk with him whilst walking along the cliffs overlooking the sea. Dr Theodorakis was unconvinced that the organs on her neck and shoulders were gills for that would be unprecedented among mammal species. I argued stringently that that is what they were. I had seen them in action. It was something we were never to quite agree upon.
I was also obliged to write a statement for the police. It was a fictitious document. We invented a tale of pure fantasy that I’d been stranded alone on the island with no means of escape and survived on my own native wits until fortuitously discovered by Dr Theodorakis’ employee. I had to repeat this story both to the police authorities in the islands and again back on the mainland. I think the police thought it too fantastic to be true. If they’d known the real story they might have locked me up in an asylum!
When I finally took a ship back to the mainland, Dr Theodorakis insisted upon accompanying me. Mom and Pa had flown into Athens the day before and we met them at their hotel. Mom threw herself on me and wouldn’t let go of me for the rest of the day. Pa was torn between crying and raging about the incompetence of the Greek authorities that had abandoned his beloved daughter stranded on a barren island to fend for herself. The authorities themselves seemed deeply suspicious of my story but they were under pressure from the American embassy and my father, who was threatening to sue everybody he could think of, and so they were eager to see the back of me. I guess they were pretty embarrassed the obvious incompetent bungling of the investigation into my disappearance. Thus the bureaucratic haggling was kept to a minimum and within two days I was saying goodbye to Dr Theodorakis at Athens airport. I promised to stay in touch. It was a promise I was to keep for I corresponded with him regularly until the day he died and visited him on several occasions in the future.
The flight home was tedious but my arrival back in the states caused something of a stir. The whole town turned out to welcome me home with a big party and I had my name in the newspapers and even on television. They were calling me Delilah Crusoe; the all American girl that vanished in the Aegean Sea and survived all on her own on a desert island. I could have sold the film rights for a small fortune if I’d had the stomach for it. I never told anybody that their “Delilah Crusoe” was more of a girl Friday! By odd coincidence I actually retraced the dates that I disappeared and it turned out that I actually did arrive on my island on a Friday!
When all of the brouhaha had quietened down I took some time out to reevalue my life and the direction it was going in. I’d grown up a lot on that island. I decided to go back to college. I majored in mythology. Pa was horrified. I think he wanted me to go to law school. Law school! God I’d have died of boredom! My correspondence with Dr Theodorakis helped me through college and I came out with first class honours. I studied natural history and anthropology in my spare time. I took my masters shortly after and then, with the authoritative recommendation of Dr Theodorakis and a goodly slice of financial help as well, I travelled to England to study for my PhD at Cambridge. That’s how I became Doctor Delmonte and a lecturer in Greek mythology at Cambridge. Dr Theodorakis was immensely proud of me. He came to my Cambridge graduation. We got d***k together in the Pickerel Inn on Magdalene Street.
I’m still a lecturer at Cambridge and most of my colleagues and nearly all of my students think I’m as mad as a hatter which means I fit in just perfectly in England. I carried on the legacy of Dr Theodorakis’ inspiration however and I’ve dedicated much of my life to the private study of the sea nymphs in both legend and verifiable fact. Dr Theodorakis in fact used me extensively as his research assistant in this field and helped finance many of my trips abroad to conduct field research on his behalf and the private foundation he represented. I never lost my taste for foreign travel and my researches have carried me to some of the most off the map places in the world. I’ve learned a lot since those days in the Aegean and much of it startling; too much in fact to include in this short account. My colleagues at Cambridge just thought I was conducting anthropological research into my specialist subject of the origins of mermaids and other like fabled creatures in primitive societies’ mythology. Well I was, partly, but they’d have found conclusive evidence of my reputed eccentricity had they known why.
I had some real adventures on those field trips. I got chased by bandits in the Amazon, got treed by a bear in Alaska, fell afoul of the authorities in the Philippines, made love to a geisha in Japan, survived a major hurricane on an atoll in the Pacific, froze my butt off by the shore of Lake Baikal in Siberia, had a close encounter with an aggressive shark off the Great Barrier reef in Australia, nearly trod on a stingray in the Parana River in Argentina, damn near got caught up in a war in the South Atlantic and caught a nasty tropical illness in the Congo. Ah well.... it’s been a good life.
The most amazing thing that happened to me on my travels abroad however was on one trip to the Far East when I got beached for a while in Bangkok. I was kicking my heels in town waiting for confirmation of my next destination from the foundation and I drifted down into the Nana Plaza district out of curiosity. I was sat in a bar watching a cabaret when I was approached by the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. Her name was Ngam which was appropriate for it means beautiful in Thai. I bought her drinks and within an hour I was smitten. She worked as a cabaret artist and she’d won several beauty contests. I couldn’t take my eyes off her.
If you’re familiar with the seedier parts of Bangkok you’ll pretty much have figured out where this is going! Ngam wasn’t the name on her birth certificate. She’d been called Nai-thim by her parents and, if you know Thai, well that’s a boy’s name! She was what is called in Thailand a kathoey; a male to female transgendered person. Thailand has probably the highest percentage of transgendered people by population of any country in the world and they are pretty much a feature of Thai society. For all that however they still live on the fringes of society and most of them work in cabaret or the sex industry.
Ngam was the gentlest and kindest person I had ever met. I stayed in Bangkok for nearly six weeks and long before that I was hopelessly in love. That wasn’t the remarkable thing however. The most amazing thing was that she fell in love with me as well. I took her home with me and a few months later I married her. Kind of ironic isn’t it? I suppose we had a lesbian wedding but because she was still officially male on her birth certificate it was a completely legal wedding long before gay marriage was acceptable in a civil ceremony! My friends and colleagues at Cambridge and my f****y all thought I was round the twist. I couldn’t have given a rat’s ass what they thought. I was in love and if it seemed a little unusual well all I can say is that when your first marriage has been to sex crazed mermaid then anything else seems tame in comparison!
It was the best thing I ever did. Ngam has been the joy of my life to this day. We have two k**s; a little orphan Thai boy we adopted and a girl I had myself through a sperm donor, Don’t ask me who the donor was because I’ll lie. Being married to a transgendered person got me more interested in the subject than ever. It may turn out to be completely irrelevant but I discovered that a notable feature among very young male to female transgendered c***dren is an affinity for mermaids! Ngam’s favourite fairy story as a c***d was “The Little Mermaid” by Hans Christian Andersen. For our honeymoon I took her to Copenhagen and we took photos of ourselves by the statue of the mermaid perched on her rock in Copenhagen harbour.
I’ve made many more trips to the Aegean since that summer of ’72; mostly to visit Dr Theodorakis. Dr Theodorakis had maintained a watch on my island in my absence. Although he never met her again he left objects of value to her in her favourite hiding places that I told him about. It seems as if she must have visited the island seasonally for some years because the objects were removed. Occasionally she left small gifts in return. One of these touched me greatly for it was a small but intimate carving of two women in embrace fashioned out of ivory. There was a set of small markings on it which corresponded almost exactly to the markings on the amber figurine she carved for me at our strange wedding and gave to me when we parted. I knew then that that carving was meant for me and Dr Theodorakis agreed and sent it to me to join my few precious memorabilia of her.
After a few years however it seemed as if she stopped coming to the island. We have no idea why. Perhaps she died. In any case there is no evidence that the island has ever been visited by one of her kind since. The words of Dr Theodorakis came back to haunt me. Perhaps with her they were gone for good. The world seemed a poorer place.
I even took a boat out with Dr Theodorakis many years later to the island but it looked finally completely abandoned. There were no fresh carvings in the quarry, no new artefacts anywhere and the whole place had a feeling of desolation. To cap it all the little pool of fresh water had finally dried up. It was truly barren now. I was gripped in an awful melancholy and could not bear to stay.
Dr Theodorakis passed away after a short illness some five years ago. He was a ripe old age by then but still as lucid and as brilliant to the end. It felt with his passing as if a library of irreplaceable books had burned to the ground. He had no f****y and I was deeply touched when he left his house and the bulk of his estate to me in his will. Ngam and I use the old house as our summer retreat now and plan to retire there.
Most importantly of all, he left me much of his accumulated research and papers on the sea nymphs; a gold mine of information and the steady fruits of a lifetime’s dedication. There was something else he left me as well and, in truth, this was the most wondrous gift of all. He had never formally introduced me to the head of the foundation nor divulged the whereabouts of its headquarters although I had met some of his colleagues who conducted the research. Now on his death I was presented with a formal letter of introduction to the astonishing person who guided the foundation from her stately home in Northern England.
The obligations of secrecy prevent me from disclosing the name of this person but I can tell you in all honesty that she is the most incredible human being I have ever met. From her and from the archives of the foundation of which she is the patron I learned astonishing secrets; secrets that gave me hope again; hope that the people of my lady of the island might yet survive and that there were powerful f***es working actively to protect them and prevent their diminishing into the obscurity of myth. I learned that there were more of them than Dr Theodorakis had ever dared hope and I learned too the secrets of their whereabouts.
That is why just a few months ago I found myself on a distant island where, after all these years, I heard the Siren’s song once more. But that, as the saying goes is another tale and I’ll tell you that another time.
This is the final part of this mini series and I hope sincerely that my readers have enjoyed it. I would welcome any comments on the story and, if you would like to hear more about Delilah's adventures, please be sure to let me know.