“Come for Christmas if you can,” she says. “Before the fourth of January, at any rate. Thalia says there is going to be a solar eclipse over Greece that day. She read it on the Internet. We could watch it together.”
“I’ll try, Mamá,” I say.
It was like waking up one morning and finding that a wild animal has wandered into your house. No place felt safe to me. She was there at every corner and turn, prowling, stalking, forever dabbing at her cheek with a handkerchief to dry the dribble that constantly flowed from her mouth. The small dimensions of our house rendered escape from her impossible. I especially dreaded mealtime when I had to endure the spectacle of Thalia lifting the bottom of the mask to deliver spoonfuls of food to her mouth. My stomach turned at the sight and at the sound. She ate noisily, bits of half-chewed food always falling with a wet splat onto her plate, or the table, or even the floor. She was forced to take all liquids, even soup, through a straw, of which her mother kept a stash in her purse. She slurped and gurgled when she sucked broth up the straw, and it always stained the mask and dripped down the side of her jaw onto her neck. The first time, I asked to be excused from the table, and Mamá shot me a hard look. And so I trained myself to avert my gaze and not hear, but it wasn’t easy. I would walk into the kitchen and there she would be, sitting still while Madaline rubbed ointment onto her cheek to prevent chafing. I began keeping a calendar, a mental countdown, of the four weeks Mamá had said Madaline and Thalia were staying.
I wished Madaline had come by herself. I liked Madaline just fine. We sat, the four of us, in the small square-shaped courtyard outside our front door, and she sipped coffee and smoked cigarettes one after the other, the angles of her face shaded by our olive tree and a gold straw cloche that should have looked absurd on her, would have on anyone else—like Mamá, for instance. But Madaline was one of those people to whom elegance came effortlessly as though it were a genetic skill, like the ability to curl your tongue into the shape of a tube. With Madaline, there was never a lull in the conversation; stories just trilled out of her. One morning she told us about her travels—to Ankara, for instance, where she had strolled the banks of the Enguri Su and sipped green tea laced with raki, or the time she and Mr. Gianakos had gone to Kenya and ridden the backs of elephants among thorny acacias and even sat down to eat cornmeal mush and coconut rice with the local villagers.
Madaline’s stories stirred up an old restlessness in me, an urge I’d always had to strike out headlong into the world, to be dauntless. By comparison, my own life on Tinos seemed crushingly ordinary. I foresaw my life unfolding as an interminable stretch of nothingness and so I spent most of my childhood years on Tinos floundering, feeling like a stand-in for myself, a proxy, as though my real self resided elsewhere, waiting to unite someday with this dimmer, more hollow self. I felt marooned. An exile in my own home.
Madaline said that in Ankara she had gone to a place called Ku?ulu Park and watched swans gliding in the water. She said the water was dazzling.
“I’m rhapsodizing,” she said, laughing.
“You’re not,” Mamá said.
“It’s an old habit. I talk too much. I always did. You remember how much grief I’d bring us, chattering in class? You were never at fault, Odie. You were so responsible and studious.”
“They’re interesting, your stories. You have an interesting life.”
Madaline rolled her eyes. “Well, you know the Chinese curse.”
“Did you like Africa?” Mamá asked Thalia.
Thalia pressed the handkerchief to her cheek and didn’t answer. I was glad. She had the oddest speech. There was a wet quality to it, a strange mix of lisp and gargle.
“Oh, Thalia doesn’t like to travel,” Madaline said, crushing her cigarette. She said this like it was the unassailable truth. There was no looking to Thalia for confirmation or protest. “She hasn’t got a taste for it.”
“Well, neither do I,” Mamá said, again to Thalia. “I like being home. I guess I’ve just never found a compelling reason to leave Tinos.”
“And I one to stay,” Madaline said. “Other than you, naturally.” She touched Mamá’s wrist. “You know my worst fear when I left? My biggest worry? How am I going to get on without Odie? I swear, I was petrified at the thought.”
“You’ve managed fine, it seems,” Mamá said slowly, dragging her gaze from Thalia.
“You don’t understand,” Madaline said, and I realized I was the one who didn’t understand because she was looking directly at me. “I wouldn’t have kept it together without your mother. She saved me.”
“Now you’re rhapsodizing,” Mamá said.
Thalia upturned her face. She was squinting. A jet, up in the blue, silently marking its trajectory with a long, single vapor trail.
“It was my father,” Madaline said, “that Odie saved me from.” I wasn’t sure if she was still addressing me. “He was one of those people who are born mean. He had bulging eyes, and this thick, short neck with a dark mole on the back of it. And fists. Fists like bricks. He’d come home and he didn’t even have to do a thing, just the sound of his boots in the hallway, the jingle of his keys, his humming, that was enough for me. When he was mad, he always sighed through the nose and pinched his eyes shut, like he was deep in thought, and then he’d rub his face and say, All right, girlie, all right, and you knew it was coming—the storm, it was coming—and it could not be stopped. No one could help you. Sometimes, just him rubbing his face, or the sigh whooshing through his mustache, and I’d see gray.
“I’ve crossed paths since with men like him. I wish I could say differently. But I have. And what I’ve learned is that you dig a little and you find they’re all the same, give or take. Some are more polished, granted. They may come with a bit of charm—or a lot—and that can fool you. But really they’re all unhappy little boys sloshing around in their own rage. They feel wronged. They haven’t been given their due. No one loved them enough. Of course they expect you to love them. They want to be held, rocked, reassured. But it’s a mistake to give it to them. They can’t accept it. They can’t accept the very thing they’re needing. They end up hating you for it. And it never ends because they can’t hate you enough. It never ends—the misery, the apologies, the promises, the reneging, the wretchedness of it all. My first husband was like that.”
I was stunned. No one had ever spoken this plainly in my presence before, certainly not Mamá. No one I knew laid bare their hard luck this way. I felt both embarrassed for Madaline and admiring of her candor.
When she mentioned the first husband, I noticed that, for the first time since I had met her, a shadow had settled on her face, a momentary intimation of something dark and chastening, wounding, at odds with the energetic laughs and the teasing and the loose pumpkin floral dress she was wearing. I remember thinking at the time what a good actress she must be to camouflage disappointment and hurt with a veneer of cheerfulness. Like a mask, I thought, and was privately pleased with myself for the clever connection.
Later, when I was older, it wasn’t as clear to me. Thinking back on it, there was something affected about the way she paused when she mentioned the first husband, the casting down of the gaze, the catch in the throat, the slight quiver of lips, just as there was about the walloping energy and the joking, the lively, heavy-footed charm, the way even her slights landed softly, parachuted by a reassuring wink and laugh. Perhaps they were both trumped-up affectations or perhaps neither was. It became a blur for me what was performance and what real—which at least made me think of her as an infinitely more interesting actress.
“How many times did I come running to this house, Odie?” Madaline said. Now the smiling again, the swell of laughter. “Your poor parents. But this house was my haven. My sanctuary. It was. A little island within the greater one.”
Mamá said, “You were always welcomed here.”
“It was your mother who put an end to the beatings, Markos. Did she ever tell you?”
I said she hadn’t.
“Hardly surprises me. That’s Odelia Varvaris for you.”
Mamá was unfurling the edge of the apron in her lap and flattening it again with a daydreamy look on her face.
“I came here one night, bleeding from the tongue, a patch of hair ripped from the temple, my ear still ringing from a blow. He’d really gotten his hooks into me that time. What a state I was in. What a state!” The way Madaline was telling it, you might have thought she was describing a lavish meal or a good novel. “Your mother doesn’t ask because she knows. Of course she knows. She just looks at me for a long time—at me standing there, trembling—and she says, I still remember it, Odie, she said, Well, that’s about enough of this business. She says, We’re going to pay your father a visit, Maddie. And I start begging. I worried he was going to kill us both. But you know how she can be, your mother.”
I said I did, and Mamá tossed me a sidelong glance.
“She wouldn’t listen. She had this look. I’m sure you know the look. She heads out, but not before she picks up her father’s hunting rifle. The whole time we’re walking to my house, I’m trying to stop her, telling her he hadn’t hurt me that bad. But she won’t hear it. We walk right up to the door and there’s my father, in the doorway, and Odie raises the barrel and shoves it against his chin and says, Do it again and I will come back and shoot you in the face with this rifle.
“My father blinks, and for a moment he’s tongue-tied. He can’t say a word. And you want to know the best part, Markos? I look down and see a little circle, a circle of—well, I think you can guess—a little circle quietly expanding on the floor between his bare feet.”
Madaline brushed back her hair and said, to another flick of the lighter, “And that, my dear, is a true story.”
She didn’t have to say it, I knew it was true. I recognized in it Mamá’s uncomplicated, fierce loyalty, her mountainous resolve. Her impulse, her need, to be the corrector of injustices, warden of the downtrodden flock. And I could tell it was true from the closemouthed groan Mamá gave at the mention of that last detail. She disapproved. She probably found it distasteful, and not only for the obvious reason. In her view, people, even if they had behaved deplorably in life, deserved a modicum of dignity in death. Especially family.
Mamá shifted in her seat and said, “So if you don’t like to travel, Thalia, what do you like to do?”
All our eyes turned to Thalia. Madaline had been speaking for a while, and I recall thinking, as we sat in the courtyard with the sunlight falling in patches all around us, that it was a measure of her capacity to absorb attention, to pull everything into her vortex so thoroughly that Thalia had gone forgotten. I also left room for the possibility that they had adapted to this dynamic out of necessity, the quiet daughter eclipsed by the attention-diverting self-absorbed mother routine, that Madaline’s narcissism was perhaps an act of kindness, of maternal protectiveness.
Thalia mumbled something.
“A little louder, darling,” came the suggestion from Madaline.
Thalia cleared her throat, a rumbling, phlegmy sound. “Science.”
I noticed for the first time the color of her eyes, green like ungrazed pasture, the deep, coarse dark of her hair, and that she had unblemished skin like her mother. I wondered if she’d been pretty once, maybe even beautiful like Madaline.
“Tell them about the sundial, darling,” Madaline said.
“She built a sundial,” Madaline said. “Right in our backyard. Last summer. She had no help. Not from Andreas. And certainly not from me.” She chortled.