by Leslie Ann Budewitz
In honor of Father’s Day enjoy a mystery short story by Leslie Ann Budewitz featuring a father. The End Of The Line was first published in Aflred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine in 2006. This one is a little longer than we usually publish, but was too good to pass up! Enjoy!
Everyone left Kina.
Sooner or later, one way or another, everyone left the village. Its gray stone towers had housed the Maniot people for centuries, its terraced fields had grown their olives and grapes, its steep hillside pastures had fed the goats that gave them meat and milk and cheese. Scores of tourists — Greeks and foreigners — drove fast cars through the Mani’s narrow roads, stopping to gawk at the towers and marvel at the sea, the wild Mediterranean. They came, and they left.
Dmitra had left once. At first, Cyprian counted the months on his fingers. But when the girl had been gone more months than his hands could tell, he’d stopped counting. When the seasons had gone full circle and the olive trees were once again in flower, he realized he did not want to know how long his daughter, his only surviving child, had been gone.
He’d only wanted her to return.
But now, the girl’s wondering – and her wandering – were over. In the truest spirit of the Maniot, the people of the god Aries, he had done what was necessary.
And she would stay.
Life had been hard for Cyprian, but he had known its blessings.
His Sofia – what a blessing she had been. With soft eyes and hair as dark as the shadows of midnight, she was just a teenager herself when Cyprian married her. He was older, not long back from the civil war that had followed the Italian and German invasions. His eyes bore the scars of battle, and so did his heart, and even though the village girls knew they could no longer be choosy about husbands, not one of those starry maidens dreamed of marrying Cyprian.
Cyprian leaned back in his wooden chair, its blue paint chipped and worn but still as bright as the sky over Kina on the day she accepted his proposal. He could see her laughing up at him, a hand trailing through the blood-red poppies, her heart one with his. Only death could take Sofia from him, or from Kina, and it finally had. She lay in her grave a hundred meters above the village, on the same hillside where they’d buried their sons. Nikolaus, the eldest, dead of a fever at two. Then, years later, Pavlo. Cyprian’s heart had nearly broken when the sure-footed youth, raised on the rocks like a goat, fell from a stone wall and tumbled like the pod of a thistle toward the sea.
How long had it been? He could not say. Sofia had taught him long ago to leave the carving of notches in the door frame for happy times. “For the blessed memories,” she’d said. “The ones God gives us to keep us company.”
Their deaths had left Cyprian with his fields, his herd, his stone towers, and his treasure: Dmitra.
Ah, Dmitra, the child of his old age. So much like her mother it made his heart weep to see her among the olive trees, in the garden, or resting against the kitchen doorway.
She was a good girl, who did as she was told. Like the other village girls, she had little schooling, but Pavlo had taught her to read and write in Greek, and she spoke the language better than Cyprian did. He was a Maniot, and preferred the old tongue.
After Sofia’s death, the girl took over her mother’s chores and the house ran almost as well. Better in some ways, he had to admit.
But a few seasons after Sofia died, the summer the fires raged through the Mani, an ugly spirit rose up in the girl. Cyprian blamed the fires. They blazed through the drought-stricken olive groves and scorched the earth that had fed so many Maniot for so long. They destroyed the vines, the fields, the gardens. They blackened the famed stone towers at Vathia almost beyond recognition.
They conquered the Mani in ways no foreign army ever could.
And behind them came the strangers, and Dmitra’s questions. Whenever foreigners stopped in Kina, Dmitra greeted them. Mainland Greeks came to fight the fires, and Dmitra asked questions. Men came from the European Union with talk of money for reforestation, for rebuilding, and Dmitra asked questions. Albanians came to work the stone, with skills only the ablest of the Maniot men still possessed, and Dmitra asked questions.
He, old Cyprian, never ill a day in his life except for the fevers from the war wounds, became sickened by her questions. By her talk of leaving.
He feared he would lose her, despite his insistence that her future belonged in the Mani. Her desire to see the world beyond these hills burned just as strong.
“Papa,” Dmitra said, “why should I stay? There’s nothing here, nothing in all of Mani.”
“Nothing?” he shouted. “You know nothing. Everything is here. The sea, the sky. The goats, burros, olive trees. The village your family built, where we’ve lived for centuries.”
She shook her fist at him and at the gray stone tower that was their home, high above the narrow road that wound through the town. So angry at him that she forgot to close the pine shutter of her bedroom at the top of the tower, letting the sun glint off the glass. A sailor would go blind, he told her.
“There is no future here,” she said. “Nothing to do but what you’ve always done. That’s no life for a girl.”
“It was good enough for your mother.” For Sofia.
Her face softened; she tilted her head, and a wisp of black hair loosened from her scarf.
For a moment, he forgot who she was. “Sofia,” he said softly, his hand reaching toward her.
“Papa,” she said, “life in Kina was enough for Mama because she had you.”
And that had been true. Cyprian and Sofia fit together like stone against stone at the base of a tower. They had been the life and foundation, the joy, of Kina for forty-one years.
No need of notches to remember that.
He feared he would lose his daughter, despite his insistence that her future belonged in the Mani. Her desire to see the world beyond these hills burned just as strong.
Cyprian would not prevent Dmitra from going to another village on the peninsula, to Lagio or even Katronas. How else could she meet an eligible boy? A Mani boy, like his Pavlo, dead too young, or Nikolaus, who had no chance to live. It was up to Dmitra to carry on the family line. Though if she didn’t marry, he would understand. Not many young men were left in the Mani.
Pavlo had left once. He’d made it all the way to Sparta and came back with nothing but a twelve-gauge shotgun and dissatisfaction with everything Mani. Cyprian could not bear such a loss again.
“You belong here,” he told his daughter. “You have no need to be anywhere else.”
“Papa, you have no need. But me,” she pointed at her heart, her cheeks flushed the red of the setting sun,
“I want to see more.”
“No one has ever conquered the Mani,” he replied, as though that were reason enough, and she tossed her dish towel on the table in exasperation.
The spring moon was full. In its pale light, Dmitra placed her feet with care between the crocuses and iris lining the old burro trail, ever mindful of the tragedy that had befallen her family here, when Pavlo stumbled to his death.
Pavlo, elder brother, much loved, much missed. She had never known Nikolaus, dead long before she was born. How different life would be if one of them had lived. Papa would still fiercely maintain that her place was here, among the rocks, the wind, and the sea, but she would have an advocate, a younger voice – a male voice – to plead her case.
She spread her skirt with care and settled on a rock wall overlooking the village and the sea beyond. She loved Kina, no question. She had no desire to leave here forever. Just for a while.
“A little while, Papa,” she’d begged over and over. “A few months, a year. Let me take a job with a family watching children, or in a school.”
Over and over, he tried to make her see that there was no use to such a world; they had everything they needed here in Kina. Here on the Mani, the southern tip of the Peloponnese, the farthest south one could go without crossing to an island. Outsiders thought it harsh and desolate. They were weak; Papa was strong, and so was Dmitra, because they were Mani.
She turned her gaze to the south, where moonlight softened the hard edges of the square towers and turned the stone almost golden. This was her home. Her ancestors had built the tower houses stone by stone. They’d cleared the slopes and built the terraces like the one she sat on. They had planted the trees and nurtured them.
Out on the water, a ship moved slowly across the horizon. Her heart quickened. Her friend Melina had found a job on a tourist ship – Dmitra had saved the postcards sent from ports around the world, names she was not sure how to pronounce: Le Havre, Copenhagen, Bristol, St. Petersburg, Miami. And Istanbul, the name that would send her father into a rage at the vile Turks, even though the only Turk she had ever met had been a road worker, young and handsome. Her father had raged for days after seeing her talk with the Turk at the taverna where she waited tables. The road work must have ended then, because she had seen the Turk no more.
Dmitra knelt beside the terrace and pulled out a loose stone. Behind, in the secret space, lay the olive wood box Pavlo had carved for her tenth birthday. She slid it out, sat once more on the stone wall, and removed the lid. One by one, she looked longingly at the postcards. She did not need Copenhagen or Miami.
Athens would do, or Napflion. Perhaps she could work in Monemvasia, in a taverna or one of the small hotels. She’d heard talk of the village at the head of a causeway and the ancient settlement, now partly restored, where people came from all over Europe and even America to hike and swim and watch the sea. A different sea.
That’s all she wanted – a taste of something different.
She slipped the folded drachma out of her skirt pocket and put them in the box, between Istanbul and Lisbon. Almost enough now, for the plan she and Eleni were making.
When Dmitra looked up, the horizon was empty. The ship had sailed on.
Every now and then, late in the evening, Cyprian took himself to the taverna to sit on the terrace outside, to share a bottle of ouzo and the talk of men.
“A sight,” Petros agreed. “Like your Sofia.”
“Ah, Sofia.” May she rest in peace, they all thought, though no one said the words. To speak them was to acknowledge the pain and that they could not do.
The old men puffed on their cigarettes, drank more ouzo, talked about everything, talked about nothing. Their sons, their grandsons, their women. The olive crop, the health of the goats and cattle, last year’s retsina. The change in the winds as the seasons cycled round. A gray cat missing the tip of one ear wove between their legs, searching for crumbs of dense yellow bread or a dropped bit of cheese.
Finally, Kostas set his glass down hard on the scarred wooden table top and leaned forward, shaking his finger at Cyprian. “You are a selfish old man, refusing to let your daughter live her own life.”
Cyprian’s jaw tightened and above his deeply veined nose, his eyes grew sharp.
“You want to keep her here,” Kostas continued, “baking your bread and herding your goats. I don’t blame you for wanting the company – your wife is dead and so are your sons. But your days will come to an end, sooner than you think, and what will happen to your beautiful young Dmitra then, when she is no longer young or beautiful?”
Under his sun-burnished skin, Cyprian’s sagging cheeks flushed. “And who are you to talk? Your daughter, that Melina. She’ll marry some Frenchman or a Spaniard, if she marries at all, and you’ll never know your grandchildren.”
“She’s a good girl, my Melina. She sends me a postcard every week.”
“And you think that means she’ll come back and be content here?” Cyprian waved his hand. “Never.”
Kostas shook his head once, dismissing Cyprian’s doubts, and pushed back from the table, his chair scraping against the worn stone floor.
“Children are like birds,” Milos said. He was the father of two daughters, each now with growing families. Indeed, when Milos was in his fields or at his stone tower, his children and grandchildren flocked around him eagerly. “You cannot hold them too tightly. They are born to fly.”
Milos’s flowery talk set Cyprian ablaze. “You are fools. You know nothing – .”
”You are as stubborn as my black goat.” Kostas threw himself back into the fray. “I should send that goat over to you – trailing him through the mountains will keep you nimble. You can wait for him at night like you wait for your daughter.”
With those words, the rage that had fueled Mani warriors for generations spilled over. “Old man!” Cyprian shouted, rising from his chair so suddenly that it tipped over behind him, narrowly missing the gray cat. “You have insulted me for the last time.”
White-haired Petros put a gnarled hand on Cyprian’s forearm. “Calm yourself,” he said in the manner of a man who has known another for decades and drunk the fruit of many vines with him. “Sit.”
Breathing heavily, Cyprian glared at the others.
Petros righted the chair with one hand, the other still holding back his friend. “Sit,” Petros repeated. “He means nothing against your name or your honor.”
Cyprian lowered himself into the chair. Grabbed his glass and downed the liquor. Poured another and gripped it tight, his eyes locked with those of the man across the table, always the friend who dared to challenge him, always the friend who was not a friend.
Milos lit a cigarette from the pack that lay between them. “Kostas speaks too bluntly, but he speaks the truth. No, no,” he said and held out a hand as Cyprian made to interrupt. “We all see how your Dmitra walks the hillsides. It’s nothing, we know that. She’s alone – who could a young girl meet anywhere near Kina?”
The men exchanged glances and nods.
“She’s looking at the stars. She’s dreaming. She’s picking wild crocus and orchids by moonlight. She is a gift from the heavens. You are right to cherish her.” Milos took a puff and fell silent. Petros refilled the glasses.
“But Kostas is also right to question you,” Milos continued, his words cutting through the cloud of blue smoke that hovered above the table. The men were alone on the terrace. Only the owner remained, inside washing glasses and ashtrays. “The fates have denied you the chance to watch your sons grow old. Even so, your daughter deserves a future.”
Cyprian stirred and Petros laid a reassuring hand on his arm.
“I have a solution,” Milos said. “A nephew – the nephew of a cousin. His father has more sons than land, and I have been considering hiring him to work with me.” Milos’s daughters had married men with land of their own. And while Milos would be happy to share his land with his sons-in-law, the old men all understood his sympathy with the nephew who had no prospects.
Cyprian stared at the table, at the bottle, at his glass, not wanting to agree to the unspoken proposition. Finally, he reached for his glass. “Does this boy walk upright? Does he have two eyes, two ears, two balls? Will he treat her well?” He drank deeply and the other men all laughed and clapped each other on the back. The nephew could come and Cyprian would take a look.
And life would go on as it should, in Kina, in the land of the Mani.
Dmitra’s father had not told her Georgos was coming, nor said anything about a possible match. Still, all of Kina knew everything about the young man – whether it was true or not – long before he arrived, and how could she not wonder? Would he be like kind, gentle Milos, handsome despite his years and stooped spine? Or would he be completely unsuitable, barely able to talk to a goat, let alone a pretty girl of seventeen?
No, she persuaded herself. How could I possibly be happy with a boy who wants to live here?
And yet, she did love Kina. In the spring, when the olive groves blossomed and the air smelled so sweet, the hillside covered with crocus and anemone, how could any place be more beautiful?
After her shift at the taverna, before it was time to make her father’s evening meal, Dmitra went to collect the goats. And there, on a terrace not far from the spot where she liked to dream, sat a boy – a young man – of maybe nineteen or twenty. His skin was dark, his hair curly, and even from a distance, she could tell his jaw was strong and his eyes swift.
Georgos turned her direction and the quick tilt of his head told her he had seen her. It was the goat’s bell that caught his attention, she thought. Not the touch of my gaze.
He stood, and the gesture told her he knew who she was and liked what he saw.
Georgos and Dmitra fetched the goats together every evening for the next few weeks. As the young people trailed the small herd toward the terrace behind the tower, Cyprian felt a burden ease. He trundled inside and up to the small chamber he had shared with Sofia.
Her lace scarf still lay on the bureau, her icon hanging above it. And in a frame he had carved himself, a photo of his bride on their wedding day, so many years ago.
“You see, I was right,” he told her picture. “We will have a bride again soon. Almost as beautiful as you.” He sat at the foot of the bed, the photo in hand, until darkness fell and the smells of his dinner cooking rose through the tower. Slowly he stood, kissed the photo and replaced it, then kissed the icon.
When he descended into the main room, he saw his daughter standing in front of the stone sink, back to him, head bowed over her hands.
“Dmitra,” he began.
“Papa,” she said, spinning around and shoving something he could not see into her skirt pocket. He could not see, but he could guess.
He held out his arms, a smile crinkling his leathered face. “You don’t need to count your money, girl. You think me a poor man, and I am, but I have been planning for this day. Don’t you worry. Your old father can afford a pretty wedding for his only daughter.”
“A wedd –. Papa, no. No, not a wedding.” Her mouth tightened and she closed her eyes. When they opened a moment later, they were damp. “No, Papa, no.” She turned and ran out the tower door.
Cyprian ate the stew she had left and watered the goats. He sat in front of the tower and waited. The stars rose, the moon rose. He slept in his hard chair and woke and slept again a dozen times.
Dmitra was gone.
She sent a message through a neighbor, one whose own children had gone — to Scutari, to Stoupa and Kalamati — and who did not care enough to complain.
Cyprian complained. He complained to the neighbor, to the walls of the house and the village, to the olive trees and the goats. He complained to Petros and Kostas, and to the keeper of the taverna. He complained to Milos that his nephew was good for nothing, though he had to admit, the young man worked hard, talked easily, and seemed like the right kind of boy.
After Cyprian had complained long enough and loud enough, he tended the garden and tried to forget the girl.
But the Mani had lived here nearly eight hundred years, and he could not forget. He tended his goats, he trimmed his vines and plucked his olives. He watched the sea and the stars and every night he spoke to Sofia with sadness in his heart.
And then, one day, Dmitra returned. He hardly recognized her: her head uncovered, her hair flowing long and loose. She wore a gauzy white blouse like the gown Sofia had worn on their wedding night, and a dark skirt. At least it was a skirt, not trousers, though it came just to her knees and showed her calves and her trim ankles in their leather sandals. Tiny gold loops pierced her ears. She was lovely, this outsider, his daughter.
She approached him shyly at first, then rushed forward, throwing her arms around him. He wanted to brush her away, but he could not. Dmitra had come home.
The young man with her worried him. Andreas, he was called. He spoke only Greek, so Dmitra translated. A fisherman from a village on the island of Hydra, from a family that had always fished. He stared at the stone villages of the Mani as if they were strange.
They were in love, they said, and intended to make their lives on the island. “Papa, be happy for me,” she pleaded. Cyprian could only nod his head and worry.
He watched from the tower yard as Dmitra walked Andreas up the hill to the graves of her mother and her brothers, to the stone terrace where she’d sat so many hours, longing for another world. Though he couldn’t see the goats, he heard their bells tinkling on the afternoon breeze as they rushed to her, and he heard Dmitra and Andreas laughing.
It was good to have her home. And yet, fear gripped Cyprian’s heart.
At last they returned, Andreas cradling a small kid in his arms.
“Papa, the kid has an injured foot,” Dmitra said.
Cyprian grunted. “Goat meat stew tonight.”
“No, sir, please,” Andreas said, in Greek that Dmitra translated. “The leg’s not fully broken. I can bind the bone with a splint and a cloth, and it will heal.”
“What does a fisherman know?”
Cyprian’s displeasure needed no translation, though the young man’s response did. “I’ve cared for animals all my life, sir. I have an ointment in my pack that will speed the healing.”
“Papa, please,” Dmitra said. “Let him try,” and Cyprian could not say no.
Dmitra insisted Cyprian go to the taverna for supper with them. The keeper’s wife made the most tender lamb, the spiciest eggplant, the sweetest tzatziki. The neighbors in the town greeted her, shared wine, smiled and laughed, approving of the beautiful girl and the young man who spoke politely and could scarcely take his eyes off her.
And yet, Cyprian could take no pleasure in the food or in the joy of his daughter’s return.
That night, on the front terrace, Andreas brought out a bottle of ouzo, a gift for the old man. They all drank from Sophia’s tiny glasses, but Cyprian would not drink a second glass. That would mean he accepted the young man, and his intentions.
The moon rose. The young people bid him good night and walked up the hillside to say their own good night. Dmitra climbed to her room in the tower and her young man headed for the goat shed, to bed down in the loft.
On the terrace, in the blue chair with the woven reed seat, Cyprian poured a second glass from the bottle and stared at the sea and the sky.
The moon, and his heart, told him what he must do.
The next morning, the girl sat on the stone threshold, her hair uncombed, her blouse untucked. “Papa,” she sobbed, “Andreas is gone.”
Cyprian’s heart lurched at the sound of her tears, the way it lurched at Sofia’s tears when Pavlo died. “Hush, girl. He was no good for you.”
When Cyprian returned from the hillside that evening, the pine table held the fresh yellow bread he loved and a bowl of country salad. He smelled the tomatoes and eggplant of moussaka baking and knew he had done the right thing.
But the table was set for one, and Dmitra did not eat or drink. She dabbed at her face with a crisp white handkerchief of her mother’s. “He said he loved me. We planned to be married and love each other like you and Mama.”
A brief stab of regret tore into Cyprian’s heart. He tapped a small cask of retsina, his homemade wine, and shoved a glass toward his daughter. “Drink. It will heal your heart.”
But nothing seemed to heal her heart. Georgos came to visit and she sat, silent, showing no interest in his talk of the fields or the animals. After a few visits, he did not return. She spent the days staring at the sea or wandering in the olive grove, watering the trees with tears.
Then one day, Cyprian returned to the tower with the goats to see that the girl had laid two places on the table. She ate with him that night and every night after. She cooked and cleaned and tended the tower, all as her mother had taught her. She began to work in the taverna again, a few hours a week, though her smile was not so sweet as before and her tips not so generous.
Cyprian tossed the dark green twelve-gauge shell out to sea, and traded the young man’s pack and clothing to a neighbor who could be trusted. And at night, while the girl walked the hillside, he sat on his terrace and drank the last of the ouzo, raising his glass to the unconquerable Mani.