Swallows

By Christie B. Cochrell

Isabel would attribute her undoing to that summer in Crete.  She would recall how she was minding her own business, reproachlessly conducting research on the iconography of 14th-Century frescoes, when she found God — or part of his left ear, and even more unlooked for (and far more persistent), Bryn, the British paleoethnobotanist she would two years later surprise no one more than herself by marrying.

Her friend Fran had always laughed at her, saying Isabel was so cautious and mistrustful that she wouldn’t accept the truth of anything unless it bit her on the nose.

“Or came with a flawless provenance from Sotheby’s,” Isabel corrected her, her mind on art history as usual those days.

She believed with all her being in Aristotle’s “everything in moderation.”

Fran herself believed in serendipity; the least bit of good luck was a sign from the universe.  Fran wrote an on-line newsletter for foodies called Food for the Soul.  She tended to get carried away with ecstatic descriptions of desserts made from fresh figs and unsalted ricotta.

Isabel was cautious.  She’d learned the value of careful consideration from her part-Iroquois grandmother, born in Quebec, who’d given Isabel her no-nonsense approach to life along with her (slightly unsettling) middle name, Grayfeather.  Excess, like Fran’s use of butter, did not come naturally to Isabel.  She believed with all her being in Aristotle’s “everything in moderation.”  And in something her grandmother had said often, after she’d moved to the San Gabriel Mountains and become familiar with the California birds — “One swallow does not a summer make.”  She was likely referring to the swallows’ returning to Capistrano every year on the same day, an augury that promised the return of summer; though Fran, when Isabel used the expression in cautioning her not to jump some gun or another, gleefully seized on swallow in the sense of mouthful and headed her June 1st collection of margarita recipes “One swallow DOES a summer make!”

In dozens of monasteries and village churches high in Crete’s dramatic mountain ranges and on remote beaches Isabel looks for the common elements that define Byzantine frescoes, according to her thesis.  She studies remnants of a host of saints, prophets, and martyrs.  She loves the detachment of the painted figures above all, their eyes focused dispassionately on a fine ascetic middle distance.

On the Libyan Sea she visits the 1302 church of Agios Geórgios Galatás, and copies into her sketchbook what little is left of its frescoes.  It’s useless, really; she has wasted hours in the drive.

“St. George the Milkman,” says a blue-eyed man in the doorway, blocking her exit.

What?”  Isabel is dazzled by the late afternoon sunlight after the dim small church, excessive as the gold-leaf used by icon painters.

“That’s what it means,” he says apologetically.  “The plaster of the church is supposed to have been made with milk instead of water.”

She knows few words in Greek.  But gala is milk, sure enough; and she thinks of galaktoboureko, that heavenly baklava-like Cretan dessert made of orange-flavored milk custard, which Fran would give her firstborn daughter, Thessaly, for.

The blue-eyed man is Bryn, who loves Isabel at first sight — the paintbrush stuck through her hair to hold it up out of her eyes as she works, a dab of chromium yellow on the tip of her nose.  How can he keep her from leaving?  How might he catch her already wavering attention, once and for all?

“Wait,” he says, dumbstruck.

“There’s nothing here,” shrugs Isabel the practical, seeing only the ruin.

He takes her by the hand and leads her back inside the little church, inspired, showing her the neat globular nests that line the ceiling.  Made precisely of ancient mud and grasses.  She sees only then, filled with wonder at all the things outside her ken, that Agios Geórgios is full of swallows.  Though she has always lived by swallows, as it were, she doesn’t think she’s ever seen one.  She’s spent a lot of time indoors much of her life, in libraries and museums (and as a child, doodling with brushes in her famous father’s painting studio).

She sorrows, suddenly, for losses not reckoned.  “My grandmother would have loved to see this.”

It isn’t fair of him at all.  Her grandmother is only five months dead, scattered in the San Gabriel Mountains she came to as a bride.  All Isabel has of her is her name and the momentary wisdom of the saying she has inherited.

While they are looking at the swallows’ nests, their heads upturned, she finds a bit of divine cheekbone of an ochre hue she hadn’t seen before, as if carried in by the birds.  She knows from its placement it is at very least an archangel, and maybe more.

“It’s not enough,” she says, determined.  But she has been shaken.  She has begun to wonder.

“Archaeologists think so,” Bryn twinkles.  “Constructing palaces — entire civilizations — from next to nothing.  But the evidence is there, as scientific as you like, lying dormant in the soil.  Pollens and spores unchanged thousands of years later, making it possible to know.”

He explains that he’s taking samples of prehistoric pollens from the Minoan palace whose gray stone stairs run down the hill beside her church as if in flight from time, long as an evening shadow behind them.  Isabel in turn tells him about itinerant painters and how the dyes for icons even now are made from plants and minerals and metals buried in the earth for years until they’ve decayed to exactly the right color.

And when she turns again to go, again he stops her, pointing out a gentle rubbed-out line of sheep returning home down in the long valley below, the Messará, among the wash of silver olive trees that might be the underpainting of one of her holy icons.  And when she starts to protest he puts an earth-roughened finger up almost to her lips, to keep her from it.  Over the deafening beating of her treacherous heart Isabel hears the distant voices carried on the wind off the far southern sea, the evensong rising heavenward from an unanticipated monastery.

The year passes slowly.  Isabel’s thesis inches along in even-keeled California.  Bryn doesn’t write as he’d told her he would, after the day they spent together waking a whole drowsy swarm of Minoan palaces.  He’s digging in North Wales, Turkey, Delos, hundreds of miles from any mailbox.  She misses him, though she wouldn’t ever admit it.  She’s unhappy, though she tells herself only moderately so.  Fran feeds her milk puddings flavored with orange or cinnamon or Tahitian vanilla beans until she’s quite fed up with milk.

In April Isabel is walking at the Baylands, where she goes late afternoons to clear her head, starting to put names to the shore birds.  Bryn’s unread letter is in her pocket.  She sees a bird fly past her on the fading light, with an unbalanced looping rise, heading out across the bay towards Fremont.  Her heart lifts unreasonably as it flits by, a scrap — ephemera — of paper carried on the wind.

Isabel watches the single swallow out of sight.

She waits for more, but there are none.  Not even one other.  Only a pelican or two, impossibly weighty.  Night comes on, early still this month, before the change to Daylight Savings.

Over the sound of rush-hour traffic on 101 she almost doesn’t hear it.  It’s very faint at first.  She tilts her head.  Yes, there — the unmistakable jangle of sheep bells; and then, stranger, sonorous deep-voiced plainchant.  And though it’s been a chilly day, the wind icy over the marshes, she feels the deep, long, golden-shadowed evening light of Cretan summer moving through her bones, as surely as a thaw, over the long millenia they have between them, as she turns back for home and supper and touches like a blind woman reading Braille the thin foreign envelope in her pocket.

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About Christie B. Cochrell

Named New Mexico Young Poet of the Year just before she left Santa Fe for Mills College and the California coast, Christie Cochrell has been writing lots of everything in spiral notebooks for as long as she can remember. A personal travel essay about her experiences on the St. Bernard Pass, Crossroads of the Alps, was published in The World & I (Sept. 2001). A creative nonfiction piece, Inoa, written in Hawaii just after 9/11, won the Dorothy Cappon Prize for the Essay and was published in New Letters. Another, Oregano, was published in Tin House that winter. She’s recently finished two novels, one set in Crete and the other exploring her longtime love of the artist Pierre Bonnard. She lives in northern California in the amiable company of quails and neighboring alpacas, works for Stanford University Press while pursuing mostly-armchair archaeology, and travels whenever possible to favorite places in the world. More of her work can be seen on the creative writing blog Green Scooter.

One Comment

  1. Denise Youngblood
    Posted January 2012 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    What a lovely story–so evocative of Crete.

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