I was in a small village on the island of Amorgos, in Greece, in the Cyclades. It wasn’t planned. I had landed the evening before on the wrong island and somehow ended up here, don’t ask me how, in a village far out of the way of the main town and harbor. So, there I was the next morning at a taverna’s terrace, near the family beach. There were only two tavernas on the tiny plaza and it must have been 11 am or something.
After yet another night of heavy drinking and dancing and breaking glasses and plates and telling stories with the Greeks, that morning, on this terrace, the sun felt very good though.
It was early spring and the touristic season hadn’t really started yet but, in the tavernas, there were still several tourists already. Hungover, I was having ‘café frappé’, a Greek coffee shake, served on ice. I didn’t recognize anyone and I already knew I was stuck on this island until the next boat, the next day. So I basked in the sun.
There I was doing nothing and thinking nothing when I saw this old lady coming downhill through the village. Somehow she had caught my eyes as I saw her first up there, by the windmills. Then I lost her while she was winding down her way through the village’s tiny streets. She was all dressed in black, a widow I guess, then again, in Greece, maybe not.
All of a sudden, there she was, coming out of the shadow.
Looking straight ahead, in no hurry, she cut right through the two tavernas and the tiny plaza and headed straight to the family beach. Once she got there, she took off her flat shoes and she was barefooted.
She was soon within reach of the water and, after putting down her shoes and her purse on the sandy stones, she took off her head-scarf. She had long white hair and she shook her head to let them loose. Then, in one move off her shoulders, she removed and folded a woolen shawl. Then she unknotted her cloth-belt and down went the skirt, then the undergarments. Her legs were very white and there was some fragility about them.
I could tell the tourists had noticed her as well. I could hear them talk in French, in English, in German, in Danish and I knew what they were saying. Yet I could see that the locals, the Greeks from the island, weren’t paying attention to her. Thus I guessed the locals knew what was happening. Although a bit shy about it in front of the tourists, the local Greeks, for all they knew, indeed didn’t seem to care about the black widow out there on the beach and they kept playing their Tavlis’ games while drinking coffee and hell could freeze over.
The old lady was oblivious of it all. She unbuttoned and took off her black blouse and then removed another layer, a body-shirt of sort, black as well. She was slim and, although her body was that of an old woman, you could tell she always had been slim. It was hard to tell if she bore children or not.
Her movements, somewhat slow, were deliberate. She took off her bra and then, being very careful not to fall because this was no sandy beach, she took off her panties. There she stood, nude, very white, facing the sea, and I could feel that, for a moment, she was basking in the spring sun. I knew.
Then, just as deliberately, this lady walked toward the water, entered the sea without a flinch and dove and took off swimming. All we could see then was the mass of her white hair floating and her arms and feet kicking and her ass popping up through the parting waters and there was no more telling about her age. My God, the sea was parting!
She soon disappeared from my sight because she was swimming toward the sun.
Greeks from the islands are boatpeople and some of them die at sea so I wondered if her husband or a dear one was not buried somewhere under there. But I couldn’t tell.
Tourists were already sharing their pictures of the scene.
“Did you see the old lady strip down on the beach? Ha, ha, ha.” They were laughing and loud.
The taverna’s owner, a man in his fifties, saw me looking at him so he came. He knew from the moment I showed up in his joint this morning for breakfast that I was a foreigner but he was surprised to learn that I was French.
“You’re from Lebanon?” he asked first.
He was more surprised when I spoke in Greek to him and befuddled because I had showed up in his Taverna one morning when there had been no boat.
“Another coffee?” he proposed.
“No, a beer,” I said.
Shit, at this point, forget coffee. He understood.
He came back with the beer and, motioning toward the beach, I asked him: “who is she?”
“Her name is Fotika. She has been doing this for god knows how many years, every day when it’s not too cold,” he said, his eyes drifting at sea for a moment.
“Do you know why?” I asked.
“It’s not like you can hide a lot when you’re naked in a small village like ours, but, really, we don’t know why she does that,” he said. “She started one day and never stopped since; she was a young woman by then, and there were wars.”
“Yeah, wars: WWII, civil war, her own war about women’s rights and stuff I guess. Those were tough times,” he said.
“She’s been married?”
“Nope, not really,” he said.
What the hell did that mean? Was she a spinster? When last was a spinster going about naked in front of everybody in town? Had she been ‘somewhat’ married? She did dress like a widow though.
“Did she ever leave the island?” I asked.
“Never. She never left the village,” he said. Then he added, as if that explained everything: “She likes to read, she must have hundreds of books.”
“She must have been beautiful?” I said.
“Maybe,” he said and left it at that.
That’s why the locals weren’t phased out by this apparition. Whatever the story – maybe that was her way to tell them all to fuck off -, they all had seen her undressing on the beach for many years, every day or so, and had plenty a time to sneak a glance, and more.
Especially, I guess, when she was young, and when they were young too. Goddamn, I’m certain there must have been a time went they waited impatiently for her to appear, other times when they must have been angry. And their wives even more so. Now, out of habits I guess, locals didn’t seem to think much of it; she could swim and be weird all she wanted, it didn’t keep them from playing their games and drinking coffee.
The woman was gone a very, very, long time and, after a few beers, I was starting to think that this was maybe not such a bad day after all and that my boss, on another island, could wait.
I finally saw Fotika swimming back from the sun. She walked out of the sea standing straight up – no fish tail – her head high, just careful not to hurt herself on the stones, the blasting sun just behind her.
Her nude silhouette was sharp against the blazing light reverberating from the sea that you could hardly see her or anything. But she was now walking through the water toward us and every man there was somehow silent. Every one – foreigners and locals – were shyly paying respect to her daring, if somewhat scary, attitude. Even Tavlis’ players were still for a moment. She owned us all.
Yet, she was no alien. Flesh and blood. No question.
Once by her clothes, where we could see her again, she stood there, facing us for a while, basking and drying in the sun, her eyes closed.
The owner brought me another beer and a Greek salad and bread.
“From the house,” he said.
“Thanks,” I said.
Before he went I added: “I think you have been a lucky man all your life.”
“Yes, it’s possible,” he said.
By then this woman was a widow again, dressed in black from head to toe. She got off the beach and started the climb up the hill and soon disappeared from my view in the village’s dark tiny streets. I later saw her disappear by the windmills.
Soon after that, the tourists were gone. I had nothing to do nor a place to go and plenty of time, so I just stayed on the terrace, drinking beer. Soon enough, the locals got curious and, soon enough, I was drinking with them and playing tavlis and speaking Greek with my French accent.
Some guys from last night and new tourists joined us later in the evening and there I went again for another night of drinking and listening to the bouzoukis and dancing and breaking glasses and plates and trying to get lucky with a nice Danish tourist girl all red to have been blistering in the sun all day.
The next day, the boat was early. My new friends I’d never see again took me there and I didn’t miss it this time.
As the ferry was leaving the harbor and went around the island, I went up to the upper deck and looked out. I could see afar the village clanging onto the hill and knew Fotika was somewhere in there, behind the windmills. I believed that within a few hours, she would come down the hill and go take a swim and be a goddess again.
I wished I was that man.
Iconography: Abstract by Ellar Wise