Swans Commentary » swans.com January 29, 2007  



The Old Man Of Corfu


by Peter Byrne


A Story



"Little sleep: rats, nats, cats, bats; and toward morning a hurricane of wind and pouring rain again!"
--April 16, 1864. Edward Lear's diary in the Houghton Library at Harvard.


(Swans - January 29, 2007)  It was May 21st near Armyro on the Island of Crete. Edward Lear was sleeping off an early lunch under a lavish olive tree. Stringy chicken, twice-baked bread softened with water, ewe's cheese full of salt, red wine the southern sun had made too strong. He woke suddenly, perhaps startled by his servant George, who was moving about near him with a bunch of watercress in his hand.

Lear opened his eyes wide, looking straight upward. The words lay written in his head: Who has loved you more, Holy Olive, or made you into more kissable icons? Fifty-two years old, he thought with a falling feeling, and wanted to laugh. His blurred vision made the silver undersides of the leaves into fish scales. He felt for his glasses.

It was a dream olive tree, too big. The Italians trimmed theirs into bent little old men. Here they were even smaller, meager dwarfs. But this particular tree had been left to find its own height like those of Corfu. Giorgio-George was a little man of Corfu.

Lear spoke aloud, the only English voice this side of Drummond Hay, Her Majesty's Consul in Crete. Mr. Boone, his vice, muffled by a stutter, decidedly did not count. Lear said, or rather chanted,

There was an old man of Corfu
Who with olives had much to do

Lear's life was a race to make things. Drawings, paintings, letters, notes, verses, and songs all kept a little world turning as the big one daily threw him off. Always, epilepsy tripped him up, depression blinded him, a rasping in his nerve ends told him he was in love again with an untouchable young man.

With a stone in each ear
He fought off a tear

And demanded more beer?

His glasses in place, he asked in the shrill tone his voice often took despite his efforts,

"Do you speak of these travels to Tatiane?"

George was a self-contained man, in Greek, Italian, and English. Anything but silence he found exceptional. Only after four years in Lear's employ, a good part in Corfu in close daily contact, had he revealed that he was married and had a family on the island.

His answer came at length, lapidary as ever.

"There would be no point. She thinks the world is all like the two leagues from Kastradhes Village to Corfu Town."

Lear was still staring upward, gripped by the detached lucidity of the disturbed sleeper.

"Is it not a husband's task to explain the world to his family? Cairo, Petra, Rome, Florence, you've seen some sights with me in eight years."

George stopped making room in the basket he was packing. His heavy eyelids went up and down, once, twice. He smiled. It was an inward smile, for himself.

Lear sat up and pulled his shirt straight. The smile enraged him. Should a servant have hidden depths? That mask meant he had to take George seriously. They were equals. The smile thrilled him.

"Your older boy would certainly enjoy hearing about the Cairo bazaar, the skirmish in Petra, St. Peter's basilica, Brunelleschi's dome."

George modulated his impenetrability a shade more inward, away from his master.

O the know-it-all family man, thought Lear. He shuts up the childless bachelor as if he's a minor who can't possibly understand.

"I mean, George, you do miss her? And the boys, of course."

George was being backed into an avowal. He banished the last glimmer of amusement. The Master was being serious and must be repaid in the same coin.

The Master was even playing at being impatient.

"See here, George, a man doesn't get married to be away from home."

George looked at him steadily, as if that was what Lear wished.

"Dash it, a husband, a father."

Drummond Hay had taken a Spanish wife, a foreign article for use abroad, whose existence he was afraid to make known in England. The woman wrapped him with her care like a swaddled infant. Lear depended on George. The servant followed his hesitant master like a confident shadow. In impossible circumstances he always discovered food and managed to cook it. He never failed to find a place to set up Lear's portable bed at nightfall. Then he spread a quilt for himself nearby.

"A father has his duties."

George raised his eyes to heaven and his arms just slightly, like a butterfly taking off and then changing its mind.

Where did the East begin, Lear wondered, or end? People made that gesture in Cairo and in Naples. Had a Suliot like George, or any Greek, totally escaped Allah's tarbrush or tarboosh? Now that he'd started to ask questions, he couldn't stop.

"I know you provide for them and that sort of thing. But do you miss them?"

George was getting miffed. Lear could see that. But he would have to cough up some words, the oaf. Lear would not turn away his inquisitorial gaze. His nerves drove it, and his thick lenses.

"Labor calls us all, Master. You work, I work, my sons, God willing, will work."

Lear looked away. He was being had again. Work for George's boys. That topic came up too often these days. Those gaillards would be on his back if he didn't keep a sharp eye. Bleed the bachelor, as always, that's the fatherly thing. The old fox only admitted to their existence after four years because he wanted a favor. Lear thought back. It wasn't the long-kept secret that shocked him, but the sudden births he felt with a jolt in his bowels. Then Tatiane, a wife out of the blue, had become a presence in his mind, encumbering but also consoling.

Lear got to his feet.

"Well, the muleteer has just been called by labor."

George's face turned gratefully from higher things to disdain at the mention of Konstandis the muleteer.

"Don't pay him," said George.

"That's your universal panacea, George, not to pay. But things aren't that simple. Noblesse and respectability oblige. First the fetid fellow decided to annoy us by being punctual. Now he insists we leave beforehand."

The she-mule stood loaded. The po-faced Konstandis led her off as if turning his back on the present.

The path went through a valley tumbled with low hills. Willful green spurs cut in from the left.

"Let him go ahead," said Lear.

"He and the she-mule," said George.

"They fancy each other's smell," said Lear.

He was paying the mule-driver and the mule-driver was calling the tune. That couldn't be right.

"An Arab," said George curling his lip.

Lear giggled.

When had George begun using "Arab" as the supreme insult, even applying it to the market vendors, probably Etruscans, from the hills around Rome? Was it in Cairo? No, in Petra, when the Bedouins turned out Lear's pockets and lifted their long rifles with both hands as if they'd just risen from bed in the morning and were having a stretch.

"Do you dream of Corfu, George?"

The path was hardly a path, but worn ground, strewn with rocks that Lear had to take care to avoid.

"About your family there?"

He could feel George, who walked beside him, searching the way ahead for some drift, for something not to say.

"Your wife?"

George broke out in a full smile. That was what the Master meant then, covering a woman. George could talk about that.

"A hen, my wife. Her eggs are laid. Now she's only fit for boiling."

Behind his bush of whiskers, Lear blushed. He went as red as his big nose. The music hall clown done up as an Old Testament prophet blushed.

How could the man talk like that about his wife? And George, who was so knowing in matters of social protocol. More mystery. Lear had not intended one of those men-only conversations. He chanted,

There was an old man of Corfu
Who perambulated all in a stew

But George felt he was being encouraged. Maybe he was.

"The hen needs her cockerel, but the cockerel has the run of the yard."

Lear hummed towards the higher mountains, those with snowcaps. He comically cursed a boulder in his path, put an imaginary shotgun to his shoulder and stalked it like a tiger.

"Boom, boom," he worked his thick lips.

George understood and dropped the subject.

"Would you say that he ever washed at all," said Lear, nodding toward the stolid figure of Konstandis ahead of them.

George harrumphed loudly and gave a quick nod with his forehead that didn't mean yes.

"The Arab?" asked George, playing the feed. In eight years he'd learnt what his master liked. They were going to ride for a while on the back of Konstandis. Butts could be found wherever they journeyed in the world. It was this ganging-up Lear had in mind when he told friends that George shared his sense of humor.

Lear gleamed approval through his spectacles.

"The mule is cleaner," said George.

"The mule is queen," said Lear, "a kept woman and well swept."

It happened that Konstandis, for some murky family reason, had replaced his brother as driver and guide at the last moment. Lear had watched both of them carefully brush the mule with a twig broom.

"The mule wouldn't know him if he washed. He'd smell like a live Christian," said George.

"Hurry, we must keep up," said Lear, "or he'll spank us."

Lear was a firm taskmaster and could envisage a trip in the hardest conditions. He'd have stood up to the Bedouins in Petra, but they surely intended to shoot him had he not handed over his money. However, there were days he liked to be taken in hand, even bullied, as by the muleteer now.

George grunted contempt,

"Watercress he won't eat, and it grows on his island like grass."

Lear chanted,

There was an old man of Corfu
Who knew in and out Cretan stew

Then he changed register, solicitous,

"In the summer, George, you do make it up to those boys? You teach them? You take them out?"

George nodded slowly, a judicious prince. He taught them to have bruises. The little one saw him with his fancy woman. George grabbed him by his shirt collar before he even had a chance to be surprised. He tightened his grip till the boy understood about keeping his mouth shut.

"Well," said Lear, sharper, "where exactly do you take them?"

George thought hard.

"To the osteria, Master."

George discovered the taverns of Rome when he kept house for Lear. He marveled at their roofed, cool comfort and proper benches. In the Corfu hinterland you sat with a crony on a log under a grape arbor to drink and spit.

"Are there no fairs? A boy loves a fair."

The happiest moment of Lear's life had been the summer day his father singled him out among his troupe of offspring and took him to a country fair. For the first time, the two of them were alone together for a whole day. The old bankrupt was plunged in black thoughts. But little Edward didn't notice. He had his father all to himself. This revelation of perfect happiness destroyed his equilibrium. Next day illness took over his body. Epilepsy stole his symmetry and asthma hugged him like a bear.

"Fair?" said George. He wasn't sure of the meaning. Piazza Navona at Christmas? He swung on his boys whenever he remembered to. Their hands were always open for his coins. He beat them. Then he gave the old woman bread money and beat her too.

Lear knew that boys needed admiring parents, mother on one side and father on the other, both turned toward the luminous child at the center of the picture. Every utterance of the baby Jesus would be met with delight and approval.

George shook his head sagely yes as always when what the Master said to him had no practical import. And he ceased to listen.

Lear imagined George and his family together in Corfu. He saw George explaining how Uncle Edward was interested in their welfare. His own mother's image flitted through his mind and was gone. He reached out and pulled her back. She wasn't fleeing him as in life nor worn out with childbearing. Ministering, she leaned over him like George. She put a dish gently before him, held his shirt by the shoulders for him to get into, praised his drawing, looked after his paper and brushes, hung on his words, made a cottony presence around him.

"Does Tatiane find it strange that you do and cook for me, housework and all, her job in Corfu?"

George wagged his head no. To Tatiane, of course, he said nothing about his work or anything else. She fetched and carried and that was all. Tatiane find? Find a halfpenny in his pocket, maybe, if she got up early.

"Woman's work, Master, when a woman does it. Man's work when it's his profession."

"I see, I see, George. Yes."

In fact the whole family dreaded George's visits home. They were weeks of drunkenness, inexplicable rages and nightly whoring.

"If I understood you correctly, you and Tatiane have reached the mellow years. Like old and fast friends."

George kept walking. The Master was another sort. He ate and drank and got angry. He drew and wrote in his notebooks. But never did he have a public woman. Syphilis he once went on about. Pox, he would say with his mouth exploding dully. George thought it best at such times to look somber too. For he followed his master's lead. But not in Kastradhes. There he was master.

"Did you hear him before lunch, George, with his long face, the muleteer, 'You ask me why I'm tired, when I've been walking for six hours?'"

"Arab son of a goat," said George.

"He was weary from striking the mule," said Lear.

"From topping her," said George.

Lear ignored that.

"But every time he whacks her, she sheds part of our baggage and he has to reload. Then he whacks her again."

Lear took a deep breath and put away his schoolboy face of constant surprise. He made a sudden sign to George. A general had seen the enemy, a hunter his prey. His glance came back from the distance and circled close at hand. It settled on a boulder. He made a cushion with his coat and sat his great rump down there.

The substance had gone out of his body into the tilt of his chin and his fixed stare. He pushed his spectacles up over his brow. He lifted the spyglass that he'd deftly removed with his pencil before folding his coat. Looking hard made him sweat. Lear had found a scene to draw. There was distant grandeur and a frame of detailed foreground.

George stood ready, an orderly who enjoyed drill. Lear handed him the glass in exchange for his drawing block. He tipped up his pencil.

Mount Ida materialized fairy-faint and distant, high up on the right side of the drawing. Intricate foliage ran darkly across the top of the foreground. Lower, in the far left corner, a tree you could reach out and touch unleashed a channel of stones across the bottom of the page. Thus Ida remained central though off-center. Lear wrote down a word here and there naming the colors. He noted the time of day and the sun's position so as to be able to work out the shadows.

Then cloud closed like a curtain before Ida. He gave the block to George who put it away after turning over the used leaf. Wearing his coat once more, his pencil and spyglass secreted within his voluminous outline, Lear was on his feet again, then walking.

He hummed.

He forgot George who walked behind him. He did not play the fool.

He scoured the skyline and cursed the mountains that refused to be framed. There was too much sprawling space. Everything had been roughcast. It wasn't Sicily where your work was set up for you and you had only to pencil it down. Though it was May, the weather had been mostly gray and the mountains regularly blotted out. He began counting and ended in a groan: So many days and so few views captured. His expenses would be greater than his returns. Should he close the account, cut his losses and strike for home?

A half-dozen Anatolian sheep crossed the path, entrancing Lear who delighted in their sausage tails. He remembered George and sought his eye.

"Behold the mashed-potato man," he bellowed. For Lear could bellow when he wasn't being shrill.

George didn't understand but he did know that he should laugh.

The frightened shepherd averted his eyes and overtook his sheep as if looking to them for protection. His shaggy dog was dumbfounded. Lear felt their animal and human dismay. Then the lot of them were gone as if they had never been, off like a playful wind to cross another path of other wayfarers.

George had begun to hobble and Lear to chant,

There was an old man of Corfu
Sorely annoyed with one shoe
No more would it walk
But sat down to talk

George sat down on the fork of two surface roots stretching like arms from a plane tree. Lear stopped and hallooed to the muleteer ahead. The shout meant not that the mule had to stop, but that the two of them were stopping and shouldn't be left too far behind.

To remove his left boot, George used both hands. He prodded his big toe through his doubled-over stocking, and winced.

Lear gave an impatient flutter with his hand. It wasn't impatience with George's sitting down, but with his not immediately removing his stocking. Lear supposed that his own boots stank too. Their four feet had after all covered the same ground. He knelt down stiffly before George who was running his forefinger nail under his toenail.

"Ingrown," pronounced Lear, reaching under his coat as if for a watch and bringing out a small silver scissors.

He approached the toe myopically with the massive delicacy of the fat and physically inept. As if threading a needle, he sought the hard growth beneath the puffy skin. Biting his lower lip, he worked the scissors.

George bent over and squeezed the flesh of the toe against the remaining nail. He felt no more acute pain, only soreness.

Lear gave an unnecessarily brusque gesture toward George's other foot. No, answered George with a shake of his head. He sat stunned a moment before plunging back into routine.

They were standing again.

George displayed what Lear thought of as his sphinx smile.

The sphinx spoke,

"Jesus Christ washed the feet of twelve followers. You may therefore quite rightly cut the toenail of one."

Lear guffawed and then gave a shout to the muleteer.

"But then," said George, "I have helped my master rise from the dead."

Lear thought and went solemn. The nasty little sphinx. Familiarity had been a mistake. Draw the line, draw the line, he told himself.

Since childhood, when his sisters looked after him, no one had seen Lear in the throes of le mal. He had always kept his epilepsy a solitary matter, his secret vice. The coming of a seizure was invariably announced by sharp light prying at his eyelids. Lear would go off to the room apart he always made sure was near. A sick dog in a dark corner, he would howl only in his own ear.

But George had been let in. The helpmate. And now he was gloating with superiority, and Lear felt humiliated.

In fact George was no longer smiling. He'd sensed the wind change and trudged along behind Lear who increased his pace.

Lear was still solemn.

"Tomorrow Konstandis will have to be counted in for lunch."

"The Arab?" asked George, raising his eyebrows.

"Yes, he the mule-odorous. If you break bread with me, so does he. Is it not fair? Tell me, George, is it not fair? Are you not both paid servants?"

The bellow went shrill.

George understood he had a losing hand.

"I gave him bread and cheese."

"Yes, and he had to eat it off by himself like a beast of the field."

George tried to look blank.

"It's not the gentlemanly thing, George. Take note. I grant you the first day was too soon for familiarity. That's why I didn't interfere. But tomorrow you'll send him to the aqueduct for water and have a place ready for him when he returns."

George looked down, which meant the matter was settled. Lear felt better. What would Drummond Hay think, for all his having a Spanish wife, to see George alone swilling like a brother at his employer's elbow? But he must be careful not to be too hard on old George. The fellow might begin to talk again about Lear being a bad master. That had been such a blow that it stunned Lear and brought his existence to a halt. Till they made it up.

"I suggest, George," his tone softened, "that tomorrow you serve us a big cress salad. Cleans the pong out of the pores, you know. Let him learn. We're missionaries here. None of your tremendous pilafs, George, that would be too good for a first invitation."

He chanted in a peace-at-any-price voice,

There was an old man of Corfu
Whose cat couldn't manage a mew
So he taught it to bark
And to growl at the dark

George gave him a foxy look.

Lear gazed up at Mount Ida that had suddenly shaken clear again and gave a long gleeful halloo to the muleteer.

"The capricious old girl's as clear as glass, George. Go tell him we're stopping here."

Lear went to work with his pencil. On the first sketch he noted: Exquisite contrast of dark full green olives, lilac hills above, and broad pure snow on the high crown.

The muleteer found himself a place to sit. He produced seeds one at a time from his pocket, worked on each with his tongue tip and his teeth, spit out part and swallowed part. But for this activity and the anchor of the mule's presence he would have drifted out of time completely.

George, not needed, went off into the scrub. He prodded at the base of trees and watched the insects at work. He noted the different kinds of birds and relished their songs. He recognized familiar herbs with satisfaction, gathering a bunch. These were practical matters to him, and he would speak of them later to Lear.

On his second sketch Lear wrote: Greenery is the nature of Crete, green and good!!! Gush and sparkle of the running rills below olives and forever olives.

Then he sent George ahead to the khan for wine and water.

His third sketch left him wordless. Mount Ida had erupted in change. The vast pile of pale pink and lilac writhed as the texture of the atmosphere thickened and thinned. Gradations built up like vast flights of stairs, collapsed, and recklessly rose again. The long curve of sand that went from the Rethymnon hills to Armyro strained to frame the sky and stop the destruction.

George was back. He'd found no khan, only a wine shop. He bathed the bread and Lear nodded for him to break into the piece of Stilton cheese that Hay had given them. This was a special occasion. Ida had surrendered herself. The muleteer was called over. They ate on their haunches.

George frowned at the taste of the wine. In the shop he knew it was vinegary, but there was no other. Lear turned it in his mouth with a detached curiosity. He preferred good wine but drank what was available. In gulps. The muleteer cut his with water, out of deference according to Lear, but for George it demonstrated the pathetic frugality of a starveling. George enjoyed the man's surprise as he tasted the Stilton that was alive with maggots, an old story to any servant of the English in Corfu. Not a word came from any of the three about the khan where they intended to sleep and that was now nowhere to be found.

In five minutes, they were moving in a compact group, purposeful --Lear happily humming-- but clearly lost. Ida had draped herself again. Soon they stumbled through a flock of nervous goats and got on to a stony path that looked well traveled.

Lear decried the fact that there was neither near nor middle foreground, that the olives and other trees crowded too close to be seen, that the cottages fell toward him like badly piled boxes. It was all so useless to a topographer of the picturesque.

The way led through a string of rudimentary villages, devoid of khans or caravansaries, consisting of dilapidated buildings except for the sturdy round-shouldered Byzantine churches. The last of these was large and new. Lear stood before it admiring theatrically as if beholding Westminster Abbey or Chartres Cathedral.

Quite simply he was in an approving mood, having finally got some drawings of Crete that could be worked up. He was also still euphoric over the view of Mount Ida. Moreover he knew that gazing at the church would bring forth the locals. Since khan there was none, they would sleep at the house of Manouel Tzoustakis for whom he carried a letter of introduction indited by Consul Hay.

A grandfatherly figure duly appeared, approaching the party like a snail. He praised the demise of the afternoon and kept discreetly at a distance. Lear noted once more the suave good manners and incuriosity of the Cretans. They'd refrained from looking at him while he worked, merely murmuring good-day and good-bye. Even their dogs were considerate, a tall, thin, unpugnacious race that barked little and exclusively at other dogs. Lear's affable reply in Greek brought forth some details on the new church and its saint. The Tzoustakis house wasn't far off and the old man came along to show the way.

His name was Nikolaki, and Tzoustakis invited him in with the party. The householder was a plain man and his house both inside and out an unprepossessing shambles. But his welcome was genuine and he quickly produced hot coffee. Lear dreaded to think of the sleeping accommodations and the night to come. The sun hadn't set and he felt an irrepressible desire to go outside again.

By expressing great interest in the village and vicinity he managed to extract an invitation to be shown around. Tzoustakis stayed behind doubtless to supervise a rearrangement of the squalor that would leave room for the guests. The mule and muleteer had been quartered in a lean-to stable. Nikolaki volunteered as guide. George brought the drawing block.

Lear's joy returned when he saw that not a cloud remained in the sky. He rushed the old man past the new church and looked for high ground. Ida's top was bare but her flanks blurred. Lear squatted on a hillock and drew on his lap with quick sharp strokes. The disappearance of detail on the mountainside emphasized its form against the sky. Ida appeared to have already been drawn with the sharpest of pencils. Lear was frantic to reproduce the outline on paper while the bright sky behind maintained a strong contrast. Shadows gathered around him.

He got up abruptly and hurried back toward the house. Old Nikolaki was stupefied and riveted to where he stood. George had a knowing look and followed his master with a little half skipping step. Lear pushed the courtyard gate. The muleteer, sitting on a woodpile, showed no surprise. He chewed and spit sunflower seeds in his usual rhythm.

Lear went up the rickety outside stair cage. The clatter brought a woman of the house out of a first floor doorway. She dived in again. Some of the step treads were missing and the frail wooden banister swayed under the pressure of Lear's grip. George scuttled up after him. Host Tzoustakis, halfway into a clean shirt, gingerly stuck his head out from the doorway the woman had used.

On the flat roof, Lear turned over a leaf of his drawing block. His beard was damp with sweat that ran from his forehead. He had his spyglass out. In the time taken to reach the rooftop, Ida's summit line against the sky went beyond sharpness and became an exquisite scraping in Lear's nervous system. A pink glow flared up like a flame running along a burning wick that was roughly horizontal but with thrilling rises and falls.

He took a deep breath. This was no time for his mal, petit or grand. But the other prying light would not be gainsaid. He ground his teeth and swallowed hard as against rising vomit. George was behind him in a half crouch, and took the spyglass. Lear rooted about with his pencil in the shadows at the bottom of the mountain, separating the black from the violet.

"Always the problem of framing distance," he grunted and sat down with a thump, shuddering, in the clutter of the rooftop.

George eased him out flat on his back, adjusted his head, and flicked a forefinger in his mouth. He closed the drawing block and gave a sharp look toward the stairway. Someone was climbing the steps slowly. George went over and looked down. It was old Nikolaki. George stopped his ascent with a raised palm.

"My master studies the heavens," he said. "He is a humble man and begs no company."

These words sounded momentous in Greek, and George had used them often before. They were one of his possessions though he was unsure of exactly what they meant. In practice he found that the words reversed the intentions of anyone whose ears were open and who wasn't a complete brute. Nikolaki, a gentle spirit, turned willingly and descended.

Even without his attack Lear would have found supper two hours later an ordeal. As it happened, profuse sweating left him feeling cold and clammy and then feverish. But he regained enough aplomb to stare with mock seriousness at the tiny basin George had been given for his master to wash in.

"My God, George, it's a cheese plate!"

George gave his superior nod. Lear daubed himself and gathered his patience. Evenings were the bane of his travels. He wanted only a quick feed and an early night. But the local luminaries to whom he had introductions always felt they had to entertain him. It was often excruciating. Now he and George were invited with vaulting periphrasis to come from the landing alcove into the house's main room that ran from back to front, from windows to windows.

As always in Crete they sat Turkish fashion on cushions placed along a low platform built against the wall. Lear reflected that everything in Crete was à la turque except the Turks there. They spoke Greek, called themselves Cretans, imbibed wine and spirits, and prayed in mosques that looked like churches.

A light low table spread with food was brought in by two women whose efforts to be invisible were undone by their great girth. George would afterward have the pleasure of their evanescent company in the kitchen on the floor below.

Lear steadied himself by making an inventory. Filthy napkins to start with. There were three partakers, the host having invited Nikolaki. The old man had been to Egypt and Lear drowsily promenaded his halting Greek among the pyramids. The toasts began. Tzoustakis, a good soul and not stupid, kept these to a few mumbled words, and gave his especial attention to seeing that glasses were full. The Queen was mauled and Lord Byron went past in a pronunciation that sounded like the Suliot costume he used to affect. Amazing wine, thought Lear. It mellowed him so much that he found the rice soup good. There was a toast to the Ionian Islands.

"My God," he asked under his breath, "would there be a glass of the memorable vintage for every parcel of that archipelago?"

He stared at the boiled fowl that took on stature as the tide of greasy soup ebbed in the serving bowl. A bird of the air, it certainly was, but too breasty for a crow. Could it be a proud scavenger from the solitary peaks or a distracted jay that had put a claw-foot wrong?

Nikolaki was hazarding a question. Why were the British dismantling the fortifications before handing over Corfu to Greece? It was something Lear often asked himself. The two men awaited his answer now with the patient insistence of the timid.

Lear leaned back and called up strength for a very protracted shrug. It wandered through geography, starting very upright in the north of England and gradually slackening across Europe before going soft at Rome. The Mediterranean revived the spring in his shoulders, and the shrug went island hopping, Sicily, Malta, Corfu. Out of Albania came an exotic rigidity. Greece made it direct, eye-to-eye, and the Middle East lent sleekness, a magic speed without movement.

His two questioners seemed satisfied with his answer. Lear was satisfied with his answer. So much so that he got hugely to his feet with an empty glass. This was grasped at wildly by his host as if it were an escaped pigeon, and forcibly fed. Lear wished to intone a toast to Hellenization. It came out in a thin trail of one-dimensional Greek words. Rapture nevertheless swept his companions' faces.

But Lear's force was spent and he sat down slumping against the wall wanting to stretch out on the cushions. With his knife he prodded the oblongs of vegetable marrow as if encouraging them to crawl off. He put the lifted spoon of anchovies back in his bowl like a dog burying a bone he intended never to unearth.

"Thoroughly nasty," he said in nursery English as if he were dining alone.

George appeared. There was a blur of movement during which the table disappeared and the long room was made ready for sleeping. The suspect couch in the center was proudly assigned to Lear. He looked at George in despair. There would be no setting up the portable bed, which would have given some protection against the fleas that had already reconnoitered him at table.

George nodded another negative, and murmured an explanation. There was no chamber pot to be found and the loo was a damp and dug-over patch in the courtyard corner, roofed like an animal shelter.

Accepting fate, Lear proceeded to spread his coat on the bed with the deliberation of a veteran drinker. George went to lie on the cushions at one end of the room, and the host bedded down on others at the opposite end.

Black night came as relief. Lear could concentrate on his gurgling stomach. He counted not sheep but the bites of fleas. He brazened out the first hours until the wine deserted him. Then his wakefulness was cold and bare. Bedbugs went into action, making the fleas seem trivial. There was no defense and he surrendered his beached hulk to them. As on a bier.

Death crept into the hollow hour. Lear played a game with memories of his sisters and brothers. The quick he saw with the right eye, the dead with the left. The motherly Ann, gone now, he couldn't bear to contemplate more than a blink. Quickly he dispatched the three successive Sarahs and Henrys. Only the third of each name, the survivors, went to the right. MaryEleanorJane with their three husbands followed. HarrietCordeliaFlorence, spinsters, tagged along.

His eyes rebelled when OliverFrederickCharles tried to walk together three abreast. And the two silly Catherines in their wake. But Father had been the foolish one, anticipating the demise of the first child and using the same name twice. Truly it was hard to remember them all. And what faces ought he give the boy and girl who hadn't even lived long enough to acquire a previously inhabited name?

Here, abruptly, deceased John Proby butted into the family reunion. Lear winced, and repeated his defense. It simply wasn't true that he walked the boy to death in Sicily in '47. Heir to the Earl of Carysfoot or not, the young fellow had Roman fever, and the only remedy was to walk it off. He should have walked farther, and it was not doing so, despite Lear's insistence, that had been his ruin. Why hadn't Lear been able to say that to the relatives?

First light. Lear pictured Mount Ida, the perfect mountain. He pictured Mrs. Spanish Hay, the perfect wife and mother. They were distant beauties, inaccessible and framed. He pictured little Madeleine Hay who had taken so gaily to his amusements. How completely her mother folded the child in her arms. How he had loved the children of others.

Perhaps he slept during the night, but he did not think so.

In complete indifference to his household vermin, Tzoustakis, sleeping deeply, snored, farted, and groaned like the open-handed host he was. But not a snort came from George, which meant he slept not. For when he slept he snored. Lear was forever having to wake him and demand a fresh start of silence. Hell was a big family. Hell was being alone.

Like a soft-footed bear, Lear went to George. He found him staring upward, eyes open wide but concentrating on an insect his hands were seeking methodically beneath his back. Lear motioned him to follow. They threw their clothes on loosely and went down the unsteady stairs. In the courtyard, Lear asked,


George pointed. Lear hurried, chanting low.

There was an old man of Corfu
Drawn like a turd to the loo
He never looked round
Nor studied the ground
That crouching old man of Corfu

Lear exited gasping for breath and thumbed George in.

Adjacent was a shed-like room with pans, a tub and barrel of water. Lear went in, stripped, and stood naked. On second thought, he moved his clothes well out of the way. He shook the bugs from his armpits, dug them out of his groin with his finger ends, flicked them from the cracks between his toes. Dipping water into the tub, he washed quickly.

George entered the room and taking a pan of water went through the same motions at the far end. The two men seemed to ignore each other entirely. But Lear did chuckle when he saw George smashing the dislodged insects into the earthen floor with a heavy piece of broken crockery. He would remember to ask afterward,

"Why, George, do you stop village boys from cutting up centipedes and vent such fury on tiny helpless fleas?"

But for now he had a more pressing question, which he put when they left the room together,

"Do you dream of your dead, George?"

Not for the first time, hearing death, George imperfectly understood.

He nodded and grinned. "I've left my wasted corpse back there," hooking his thumb over his shoulder to the loo and, chin cocked toward the gate, "My resurrection is out in the morning."

Lear could only agree and grin too. After all it was the beginning of a southern day of unbounded promise.

Dressed and ready, they were like boys running from school. George had got coffee. Lear swallowed it and mimed silence as they passed the makeshift stable where the muleteer and mule sheltered. He held his diary. George brought his drawing block.

"To the sea," announced Lear, grandiloquent.

"I will buy a big fish for roasting," said George with quiet passion.

They hurried downhill, Lear dazzled by the flaring of white geese against the green foliage. Lower there were lemons, oranges, plane trees, vines, pomegranates. The aloes towered, soft red. Three lepers stood in the white and yellow asphodel. An old woman begged.

"We mustn't forget our quinine," said Lear.

Near the sea, peasants were everywhere, but always shy and civil. There was a fine land breeze redolent of growing things. They entered a green lane full of nightingales. Birds always excited George and he turned his head to marvel. There were bee-eaters, wrens, titmice. The lane led to a concave meadow of green and yellow, grass and buttercups. The sea gleamed below. Lear threw down his coat. He would sit here in this amphitheatre of May and make a fair copy of his Cretan diary. But his conscience nudged him and he stretched his neck first to be sure that Mount Ida was unavailable behind the morning mist.

He pointed out to George the water lying torpid in the low places by the beach,

"Deadly here in summer."

George nodded wisely. They were both expert in death, as in life and beauty.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art13/pbyrne26.html
Published January 29, 2007