It was a warm, bright morning, Yannis’ clicking hooves and swaying cart conspiring against Orestes, calling him back to a sleep he had barely risen from. It was harder getting up these days, never mind doing what needed to be done, winter mornings enticing him to lie in nestled against the mild chill, summer mornings cocooning him with the promise of warm, idle, lazy days. Thankfully Yannis had no such issues.
They plodded slowly out of Limoni, behind them the Aegean’s blue sky stained dirty brown, Olympus rising before them, the abode of the gods abandoning man to his fate, this man to his. A tiny shower of stones came from the left, halfhearted listless projectiles falling short of Yannis who ignored them, the clip of his hooves keeping their rhythm.
“Oi, Orest, does it smell having your head up your ass old man?” the boys called, lying back against the low stone wall, beer and cigarettes between them. One pulled another handful of gravel, considered tossing it then gave up in favor of another drink, making do with a sullen, bored glance.
Orestes ignored them as he did each morning, not out of hatred but rather habit. Drinking at this hour was not acceptable, but what else is there for them? No work, small town and little to distract they had nothing to think of but the next support payment, beer and sleep. The wonder of it was they weren’t up to worse than annoying an old man.
He pulled Yannis to the right, heading to the Litocharo estate and the new excavations. A few kilometers and a few more minutes to think, to let the sun warm his bones. It was good enough to keep him occupied and fed, to keep Pelagios feeling like he helped his uncle, a few euros letting him scrabble around the rubble before the Antiquities people arrived. Thank the gods for cashed up and ignorant American tourists willing to pay for shards of pottery or tiles, buying the item but more importantly the tale, a pitch of antiquity and permanence they somehow could not find at home.
The site was deserted, the gate unchained as he passed through. He tied Yannis to a nearby shrub then carefully clambered down, one hand against the wall, an empty basket in the other, cheroot between teeth. Already the lines for the footings were faintly marked. It had been a good site so far, hopefully this last day would see more.
It was tiring but fruitful work, Orestes stretching the kinks from his back a few hours later, basket half full of broken pottery, blue and black tiles. Some were in remarkable condition, barely scratched but clearly old, perfect specimens for a museum or local history association, but they didn’t pay and a man can’t live on air. The ground was now completely picked over, sun high and hot, time to go and rest to prepare for tonight’s bartering among the hotels and restaurants along the coast. Basket in hand Orestes turned to leave when a glint caught his eye. Moving closer he could see a small lip of black and gold glazing poking out of the wall, barely above the floor. He took his penknife from his pocket and started to scrape away the dirt.
It took only a short time to free the object, now revealed as a small porcelain jar. He could not see the outside for hardened dirt, but knew it would be worth a tidy sum once cleaned up. Orestes removed his shirt, wrapped the jar inside it, and placed it on top of the basket.
Yannis clopped steadily past the boys, now lying sleeping in the sun, their drunken stupor bringing renewed promises of sunburn and hangovers. He ignored the snoring Orestes behind him, ignored the flowers and sweet grass growing in the school yard and made his way steadily through Limoni to the decrepit brown house and yard that was their home. He nosed through the open gate to the olive tree, stopping in the shade. He was old, the man was old, and if the man could drift off again well so could he. It wasn’t long until Orestes’ and Yannis’ snores cycled together, a synchronized rasp-hasp floating through the air.
* * *
What is this place? Ornate, large, but whose? Orestes couldn’t even imagine this much marble, or the gold and silver inlay, billowing silk curtains and luxurious – if a little old fashioned – classic furniture. Clearly I’m in trouble, this is either the judge’s or magistrate’s home but I can’t recall what it was I did. Crystal placed on stone turned Orestes around. A fresh faced, confident young man reclined on a marble daybed, off-handedly examining him.
“Welcome Orestes. Please, have a seat.”
He tried to place the face. It was familiar in a way, but stubbornly refused to be identified.
“I don’t believe I know you.”
“Oh no, you don’t and I don’t expect you will. Excuse my manners, it’s been a while since I’ve had … company. My name is Epimethus. You’ve heard of me?”
“The Epimethus? Prometheus’ —”
“The one and the same, although I’m starting to despair that anyone remembers.”
“So I must be dead?”
“Oh no, no, nothing like that. You’re just enjoying a little nap at home and I thought I’d drop in, you know, have a chat while your mind was open. Remarkable little donkey you have too, wonderful little beast, I must get one.”
Epimethus sat up, leant forward eagerly.
“When I said ‘a chat’ I really do have something I need you to do for me. So, to business. Your little expedition this morning, you found a small jar, about so high?” He held his hands slightly apart. “A black and gold affair, thick necked?”
“I found something like it, I’ve yet to clean it up.”
“Yes, yes, that’s it, that’s the one.”
“You want to buy it? You have cash?”
“Oh no, no, I simply want you to put it back in the ground, bury it nice and deep for me. Perhaps under all that concrete your nephew will pour tomorrow.”
“Why would I do that? It’ll fetch me a good price.”
“Is that better than getting on my good side?”
Why couldn’t I simply have those simple, uncomplicated dreams I used to have? Why always trouble, problems?
“All I want is a quiet life, a little money, a little drink now and then. The jar’s mine to sell or keep, why should I bury it?”
“You see, it used to belong to my wife, well she ah sort of had a little trouble with it a while ago, you know, pestilence, sorrow, pain and such so we had it buried. Didn’t think anyone would find it, obviously you did, we didn’t have concrete in those days, wonderful stuff, it would’ve done the job nicely. Father is still pretty upset over the whole thing so, if you could, it would help.”
“Well, I’ll have to think about it, especially if it’s valuable.”
“It’s just trouble, it needs to be buried. We’ve still got a little pull down there so if it’s favors you need —”
“It gets harder each year, my knees aren’t what they used to be but if you could see your way, you know, with the tiles and tourists?”
“I can see what I can do but I’m afraid our time’s up.”
“Yes, I think your neighbor’s trying to wake you.”
* * *
Yannis watched Ilias trying to get Orestes’ attention, first by whispers then by a gentle rocking. The young man simply didn’t understand the old man’s capacity or need for sleep, and if he chose to sleep the afternoon away who’s to judge him for that? Unfortunately it was also Yannis’ time to rest, to relax until tomorrow when he would slowly haul his cargo and master round the streets, and the young man was disturbing him. Enough was enough. He shook his head, let out a loud bray, then took two rapid steps forwards then two more backwards.
Orestes woke immediately, sat up to see Ilias regarding him with a wry smile. He retrieved the crushed cheroot, placing it between his teeth, then swung down from the cart.
“I was wondering where you were, been waiting ages for you.”
He held out the basket, tucked the jar and his shirt under his arm.
“Lend a hand could you and carry this for me? We can talk over some tea.”
It was sweet and hot, refreshing outside in the afternoon breeze. Ilias sat legs thrust forwards, staring into space. Orestes leant back having placed the jar carefully in a bucket of water. An hour or so, maybe less, the dirt should fall away and I’ll have it clean, maybe even unscratched. He relit his cheroot, sent a ring of dense grey smoke spinning upwards.
“So, what news?”
“Nothing good as always. It spreads a little slower, a little quieter, but it is still there, still eating her away.”
“How is she today?”
“Today is good, she has the fight back, her toughness. More tests, stronger treatments they say and she pins her heart on them.”
Ilias shrugged, resignedly.
“A little more money, a few years earlier, even a bigger country or different treatments, but as it is …”
Orestes grabbed the younger man’s shoulder, gave him a solid, fatherly shake.
“She needs your strength, calmness, even when there is none she needs to see hope fight in you.”
Five years I watched Damara struggle, fight back and try, five years of playing the rock for her to lean on, to stand with. No time for tears and doubt then, time enough the twenty years after.
“You know I’m right Ilias, you know that.”
“Of course, I know. At times I feel like giving in, but fight on we will, I will.”
“Good. And I am here for you both.”
He reached under the table, bought out a half-full bottle and two small glasses. He filled them quickly, raising one up to Ilias.
“Health and success. May you both live long enough to embarrass your great-grandchildren.”
* * *
Maybe it had been a mistake bringing the bottle out but sometimes it was needed. With Ilias gone and the bottle nearly empty Orestes knew he would not be selling anything that evening. There would be other tourists tomorrow night and a chance to atone for his laziness. A bottle deserved to be either full or empty, not stuck in some strange middle state. He refilled his glass, looked to the bucket of muddied water at his feet.
It was lovely, black gold and, more importantly as he pulled it out and slowly turned it around, the enamel was blemish free and the stopper still in. I will have to find a special friend for this piece, an old sentimental friend with a fat wallet indeed. Perhaps I will even have some spare for poor Ilias’ wife. He placed the jar carefully down out of the way, drained his glass in one swallow. The gentle evening breeze carrying tantalizing hints of dinner and dessert from the neighbors lulled him asleep.
* * *
“So, have you thought it over?”
Epimethus sat opposite him astride Yannis. How he’d managed to get the donkey into the marble house was beyond him but if it was dream why not? If it’s my dream why am I not in control?
“In fact, I might even add a little bit in for Yannis here, I think we have a deep connection.”
“It’s still no to both. He may not be much bit he’s my only transport, and that jar’s going to make me a nice little sum.”
Epimethus was now sitting next to him, Yannis nowhere to be seen.
“You really haven’t been listening. What do they teach you these days?”
He turned, looked Orestes straight in the eye.
“Orestes, the jar isn’t empty. Do you remember who the jar belonged to?”
“You said it was your wife.”
“And she is?”
He gave an exasperated sigh, closed his eyes then took a deep breath.
“Look, I’ll make it easy for you. Seven letters, starts with ‘P’ and ends in ‘andora’. So?”
“Thank you, finally! Your kind can be so frustrating. So it’s her jar, the one with the evils, we put the lid back on but there’s something left, something I want to keep in.”
Orestes could vaguely remember the myths he was told as a child, Pandora’s jar, how she’d left something in and now Epimethus wanted him to bury it? Now what was it again?
“Hope, there’s hope in the jar and you want me to leave it there.”
“Well yes, of course, why would I bother getting in touch?”
“I could have done with more hope when Damara died and Ilias needs as much as he can get now. Why would I leave it bottled up?”
“It’s not good for you and once out you can’t put it back! Don’t you think we tried with death? Well, you know how well that worked.”
“How can you say hope’s bad?”
“It’s not been stored in a jar of goodies has it? No, it was in a jar of evils, you work it out.”
“But we’ve already got hope, how can more be anything but good?”
“Your hope is tainted, tainted by fear and imagination and desire, it keeps you striving, bettering, trying to do whatever it is you do even if you know it’s futile. But this hope’s pure, empty, it’s — You know, you really ought to cut back on the ouzo Orestes!”
“Your bladder’s too old, you’re waking up again and don’t open the jar!”
* * *
The pain was intense, the remnant stones screaming at him as he relieved himself against the olive tree. Should know better at my age, control it more. She’d shout at me if she knew I was drinking again, if she caught me peeing outdoors. Gods how I miss her shouting.
Cotton-mouthed and dopey Orestes made his way back to the jar, picking it up to take it inside safe for the night. It was beautiful even with the slight sludge along one side. He leant forward to pick up his shirt, to polish the jar clean, and even as he did so felt the jar slip slowly, gently but determinedly out of his grasp. He turned his head just in time to see the jar bounce once then shatter into a hundred pieces. The gentle evening breeze paused, changed direction, carrying faint women’s laughter as it changed direction again.
It was a shame, but one jar meant one customer, a hundred pieces a hundred customers. Orestes stepped over the shards into the house. They were there now, they would be there when he needed them. Tomorrow, the next day, whenever. There would always be shards, always be tourists, always be time.
* * *
It was good to be free of the harness, not to drag the old man and the cart around. He was sitting on the chair near the back door, cup of tea in hand smiling and waving at him as he meandered out the gate.
“Enjoy yourself, come back when you want, why waste a beautiful day?”
Yannis was a little confused, but not enough to stop and go back. Why the old man didn’t want to work was none of his business. He passed the young man sitting with his wife outside their door, sharing their morning coffee.
The woman turned to the man, beaming.
“I don’t think I’ll go anymore Ilias, I feel so much better, so healthy and fit, it’s already beaten, I know it is.”
The young man leant across, hugged her tightly.
“Yes, I’m sure of it. There’s no point wasting our time or such a good day when everything will work out anyway.”
Yannis turned the corner, headed away from Limoni towards Olympus. The young boys sat in the morning sun, sharing a cigarette and bottle. Instead of stones they threw waves at him, smiling, laughing.
“Burro, hey burro, today is the first day of the rest of our lives!”
Their voices receded as Yannis clopped away, calling the same greeting to each passerby.
“Now that’s much better isn’t it?”
Yannis didn’t break stride, simply turned his head to the fresh faced, confident young man sitting astride him. He seemed to weigh nothing and lacked the muddy, stale breakfast smell of the old man.
Epimethus lay down along Yannis’ back, his head lying cheek down between the donkey’s ears.
“Oh indeed you are a remarkable little donkey, a wonderful little beast! Just wait until they see you at home. And to think you only cost me one old jar.”