A Walk on Crete

by Neal Asher

 

I wake up early in the morning, put on my shorts and T-shirt, and head out into the kitchen living area. A glance out of the small window through the two-feet-thick stone wall reveals the bright lime-wash painted houses of the village, but only because the street lamp up at the top here seems to have a halogen bulb. It’s still dark beyond its reach. I make a cup of tea and sit at my desk. My body aches and I feel slightly nauseated. The former is because of the six-mile kayak run I did along the Cretan south coast through the Libyan Sea. The latter is because, at the best of times, ice cold Mythos beer served in a frozen glass is difficult to resist after such exercise, but I’d also got a nice email while down at the coast. It seems I not only have a story coming out in Asimov’s [“An Alien on Crete,” in our Jan/Feb issue on sale now] but now a novella in Analog. I count up, sip my tea. Is it four or five taken since I started again to write short stories?

With my present physical state I consider forgetting about the walk and making this a rest day—well, until the kayaking—but reject the idea. Finishing my tea, I check out the window again. A hint of division between sky and village now? Maybe. I make a cup of fresh coffee, sit down again, and pull on my walking trainers, puff on my e-cig. After that I pick up my iPad almost by instinct, but again remember I have no internet up here. I really don’t need the distraction, and am getting more done without it. Putting it down again, I look across at my other desk, my work desk. It’s empty of all but pens and stray paper because I hide the laptop away in case someone breaks in. Not that such stuff happens here very much. The danger of burglary is much greater in the UK. My present “short story” is not so short anymore, having just passed ten thousand words. I’ll need to think about what to do with it. I rattle my fingers on this desk—my dead wife’s desk where she used to do her thing—then stand up and check outside again. Maybe it will be light enough by the time I finish my coffee. Stupid to go stumbling about on the rocky tracks through the mountains in the dark. I fear the thought of twisting an ankle and not being able to walk.

I check my supplies: some tissues, and a plaster to go on one blistered toe should the one already on there come off. Even though I’ll be walking for eight plus miles with the temperature heading up to thirty, I don’t take water. Never really felt the need. I went gorge-walking with some people once who said I must carry litres of water. I took about half of what they suggested, and spent much of the gorge walk nipping behind rocks to urinate.

It’s a few minutes before 6:00 a.m. Something like OCD—or perhaps it is OCD—kicks in, and I gulp coffee, pick up my key, and am out of the door on the dot of 6:00. This is supposedly so I will know how long the walk has taken me, but I never check the time when I get back. I schlep up the path from my house, past where my car is parked by a big ugly new house being built, walk up a steep road with olive trees on my left and broom and fig on my right. Even as I reach the top of this, there is enough light for the dense yellow flowers of the broom to be painfully bright. At the top of the road I can see the lights of Sitia and the sea off the North coast. A track from the corner takes me down through olive groves, up past a market garden, then to the track up the hill. I’m warming up and the aches are fading, but still I feel some trepidation about what lies ahead. At the top of the mountain are wind turbines. The track going up has been concreted in places to stop it sliding away because it is so steep. I liken it to climbing about thirty staircases.

I stomp up, slowly, but never stopping. Lungs soon start going like a compressor even though I am walking slowly. Olive trees are everywhere; also the thorny scrub that is the reason for Cretan national dress including thick knee-high boots. By the time I reach halfway, I’m pouring sweat, and take off my shirt. At the top it is cooler below the steady whoomphing of the turbines. Leaning on his stick, a shepherd watches me from a promontory, and I see sheep coming down the track. I change course to take another route because the sheep will run away from me, and then he’ll have a bugger of a job rounding them up.

“Kalimera,” I say.

“Yaa,” he replies after a pause, as if speech is something that has escaped him up here.

After a long walk under turbines, the sun breaking over the mountains in clear blue sky, I come to the turning that will take me down. I remember seeing, in a glance, something bright green here and thinking some idiot had thrown down some rubbish. Closer inspection revealed a bright green lizard over a foot long with a snake wrapped around it. The lizard’s head was in its mouth. I watched for a while and the snake took fright, dropped its catch, and slid away. The lizard looked groggy but still alive. As I walked on I did not suppose he would live long, because surely the snake would be back.

 


Scribed in the white line at the edge of the road, in English, are the words “Never Stop Writing.”


 

I head down again. I can now see the landscape laid out below: the market gardens, vineyards, the clustered white houses of Handras, and the rocky mount with its ruins that is my turn around point. That’s Voila, pronounced “Voyla,” and the ruins are of the Tower of Tzen Ali—some Turkish bigwig of the Ottoman Empire. On the way down to the roads that lead there, I pass a monument: a flat slab of marble with a chain fence around it and a marble monolith at the centre. It is on a rough mountain slope with nothing else around but scrub and sheep. I read the words with my mediocre Greek, but only later hear the story. It’s for a guy who was a school teacher when the German army invaded. He became part of the Cretan resistance and was captured. The Nazis tortured him and buried him alive.

Through a small pine grove, I reach the roads again and start heading round to Voila. As always, at the turning that takes me back there, I pause and look down at the white line beside the road. I believe in nothing supernatural, but sometimes things happen in your life that are weird, to say the least. After my wife died, I walked and walked. One day I felt particularly bad and decided to walk until I felt better or collapsed. The point when I did feel better was right here. I stopped and looked down. Scribed in the white line at the edge of the road, in English, are the words “Never Stop Writing.” I’m pretty sure it relates to white line writing, maybe a stencil in the machine, maybe something the people who paint the lines put down every now and again for whatever reason, maybe something someone else wrote—again for whatever reason. But bloody hell, they were some of the last words my wife said to me before she died.

I walk on, past more olive trees, vineyards, market gardens, past where a spring had been routed through ancient stonework like something straight out of C.S. Lewis, and then on past Voila itself. Ruins are ruins—fallen stone walls—but the tower itself is interesting. Off to one side is a church, the door always open, icons and other paraphernalia inside probably hundreds of years old. A dish scattered with money where people have paid for the candles they’ve lit. Not something I would see in Essex.

Next through Handras. Old Greek houses are here, many of them now stripped of their layer of concrete to expose the stone. Beautified. Narrow streets lead off in every direction. Dogs bark, trees are laden with oranges and lemons, and nearly every small garden or yard is a paradise of perfect plants. Another track beyond takes me past more of the local agriculture, past rusted water pump windmills devoid of their canvas sails, their water cisterns sitting nearby, past quince trees that produce rock hard fruit the size of apples. Along here, later in the year, I will be able to sample five to ten different varieties of grape as I walk. They grow in the edges like blackberries in the UK. Armeni is next, another quaint village. I walk out past a yard I remember. Here I saw a jolly fat woman in a frilly apron cradling a rabbit. It seemed a scene out of Beatrix Potter until she snapped the rabbit’s neck.

Another track, past fig trees that will later produce delicious black figs. The cicadas are screaming now. I once considered writing a book about adventures on Crete and titling it “Cicada Scream.” Double meaning there, because yes, it describes the noise, but it also describes just how crazy things can get here in the hot months. On further tracks I am glad of my sunglasses as cicadas bombard me and there are so many one is sure to hit me in the eye. I feel little splashes of liquid, too, as they piss on me.

Beautiful gorge on the left, winding tracks, careful now because I am tired and the loose rock on the tracks can be treacherous. I pass more gardens, low down. Someone is turning on the water for his olives. Black water pipes strew the ground in every direction. Pear trees on my right, but they are not ready yet. I go up past Agios Yorgos (Saint George’s) and am on the track for home. It is yet another beautiful little building on this island where you can point a camera and click in any direction and have a postcard picture.

Finally I stomp down the road to home, and again forget to check how long this walk took me. A frappe seems in order and I enjoy that while I cool down. Next a shower—sweat-soaked clothing into the washing basket—and in clean clothes, I consider the rest of my day. It will be the same as yesterday and the day before, and it will be the same tomorrow. I stoop down and take my laptop from its hiding place, put it on the desk and turn it on. Writerly procrastination sends me off to make a cup of tea, but then I sit down, open the laptop, and begin.

 


Neal Asher <http://theskinner.blogspot.com> has had numerous short stories and twenty-six books published. His most recent American publications include the first two volumes in his Rise of the Jain series: The Warship (2019) and The Soldier (2018). Both books are from Nightshade. Before becoming a full-time writer, Neal was an engineer, barman, skip lorry driver, coalman, boat window manufacturer, contract grass cutter, and builder. The author tells us, “I’ve been an SF and fantasy junky ever since having my mind distorted at an early age by J.R.R. Tolkien, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and E.C. Tubb.” He lives sometimes in England, sometimes in Crete. Neal’s last tale for Asimov’s, “Memories of Earth,” appeared in our October/November 2013 issue. After too long an absence, he’s back with an unsettling tale.

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