Grandpa spent the last day of the Golden Age out on the front porch, rocking
in his old rocking chair. It was a slow day. No mail, no emergency calls from
sphinxes, no medusas to be mended. The only visitor was a shepherd who dropped
by with stale rumors about chimeras lurking in the hills.
“But you haven’t actually laid eyes on one yourself, have you?”
The shepherd was sorry his answer had to be no. Not for himself so much as for
my grandpa, who used to be a famous veterinarian for mythical beasts.
“Fetch us some ouzo, girl.”
By the time I returned with the bottle, grandpa was already spinning the yarn
about the hamadryad choking on a bone stuck in her gullet. My favorites were
the flying horse grounded by a broken wing and the dropsical centaur. The harpy
with shingles, I liked that one, too.
Certain memories always make me melancholy. The lanterns of fishing boats bobbing
on the sea at night. Lemon trees with their heady scent. The gray fire that passes
through the leaves of olive trees when they turn their leaves to the sun. Grandpa’s
“How about the time those hot-shots sailed off to Troy to haul
back a fickle wife and got themselves dragged into a ten-year donnybrook?”
“Messed up a lot of families,” nodded the shepherd.
The more they talked, the worse I felt. Why couldn’t I have been born
in the heart of the Golden Age instead of at the tail end of it? The world
I knew was so predictable. There were no daughters sacrificed to the winds
or husbands stabbed in bathtubs, no sons marrying their mothers by mistake
or seers switching sexes.
“No, things sure aren’t what they used to be,” said the shepherd. “Small
wonder the mythical beasts lit out for greener pastures.”
He rose from the steps where he’d been sitting and asked what my grandpa
planned to do about the bloodsuckers, the stony-faced officers of an Athenian
bank ready to foreclose the mortgage on grandpa’s house and clinic.
His answer was to tell me to fetch some matches.
The sun has a unique manner of setting on the coast back home. It doesn’t
sink slowly into the waves, removing its light veil by veil like a stripper
trying to squeeze as much tease as she can out of her dance. The sun slams
into the sea. A sudden bang and it’s gone, the mountains black, red poppies
locked up for the night, owls already on the wing.
The Golden Age ended the same way. Grandpa torched the place to foil the greedy
leeches from the bank, put a few ashes in his pocket for a keepsake, took me
by the hand and off we went, down the road in the direction of Delphi.
Times being as hard as they were, Delphi was packed with the unemployed and
the homeless, all anxious to shell out a few drachmas for an oracle. We waited
in line for hours before it was finally our turn to consult the priestess.
“Smaller and smaller across the seas. What bane goes with night and mariachis?”
Huh? We walked five days over rocky ground barefoot to hear this? Grandpa was
hoping for an answer, not another riddle. He demanded a refund.
“You pays your money and you gets your prophecy,” shrugged an usher,
high on laurel leaves. “Read the sign, gramps.”
So we took our prophecy and set out to fulfill it, grandpa spluttering all
the while about punks and double-talk, hopheads, weasels, wimpy new-fangled
gods that couldn’t hold a candle to their ancestors. We climbed peaks,
walking among the clouds. We wandered through sorrowful groves of oaks wailing
for the good old days and tramped across hills that squealed ouches at our
every step. On and on, through marsh and meadow, glade and glen, bog and backwater.
At last we arrived at a peninsula with a tavern. While we were cooling our
heels there, grandpa cadging drinks off sailors and fishermen with his tales
and card tricks, we heard about a new world, an unexplored continent where
people scribble letters in the sand and the words they spell turn into the
things they are when the tide comes in.
“Sounds like our kind of place, girl.”
That night we stole a dinghy. He hoisted the mast, I slipped the rope mooring
us to the dock. A fair wind bellied out the sail, the bow leaped forward. I
stood astern, looking back as the first of countless ocean swells washed under
the keel. I saw nothing. Moon and stars were in hiding, the headlands lost
The supplies we’d packed into the dinghy were nearly gone when we sighted
the new world. The men who gathered on the shore to greet us were the color
of cinnabar. Nimble men, their faces painted in weird patterns, feathers in
their hair, they weren’t terribly enthused about our arrival. Grandpa
presented them with a tin of Kalamata olives. He explained to the fellow with
the most feathers, probably the chief, that he was a dab hand at silencing
sirens or stilling whirlpools, that he could turn dangerous rocks into jellyfish
with his spells.
“Hmm,” mused the chief, holding one palm up in the air. “Strong
medicine. You come to party now.”
He did an about-face and led us in the direction of a town shimmering in heat
waves. We followed him and his retinue down the empty streets and into a stadium
jammed with excited people. The party the chief mentioned was really a sacrifice.
The ceremony of the sacred beasts, he called it. We were honored with the choicest
seats in the stadium, right in the chief’s own private box.
Curious beasts they were, a bit larger than buffaloes, with long feelers, six
legs, their flat abdomens encased in brown armor. The chief called attention
to their amazingly keen sense of smell. Leave a bread crumb on a table sixty
miles away and they’d sniff it out.
“Fierce buggers,” he said. “Wipe out everything in path to
Curious and also handy. Every part of the sacred beasts could be made into
something useful. The skulls could be carved into canoes, the legs sawed up
for fence posts. Soak a feeler in salt water, leave it in the sun to dry, and
you’d have yourself a dandy whip.
Bands blared saucy music, the mob buzzed, vendors hawked skewers of hot, juicy
chunks cut from the prime parts of the animal. The chief passed over a few
bites for us. Almost like lamb the meat was, only with the texture of squid.
A gate flew open and a sacred beast specially selected for size and ferocity
stormed into the arena. It snorted and stamped in the dust. Menacing feelers,
honed razor sharp, glinted in the sun. The beast was hopping mad. Two men shadowed
it around the arena, jabbing spears through joints in its armor to make sure
it stayed that way.
“Cuca! Cuca! Cuca!” chanted the crowd, hollering for the beast to
show its stuff.
Then a slender man in a gaudy outfit stepped into the ring. He saluted to the
chief, who explained to us that this was the cucador. The cucador turned to
give his opponent a haughty stare. Apparently the moment everyone was waiting
for had arrived, the moment when man meets beast, face-to-face, alone, no holds
barred. The stadium fell silent. Nobody even seemed to be breathing.
The cuca charged. How could so many tons of succulent meat move so fast? I
figured the cucador was a goner, but at the last possible second, just as he
was about to be slashed into ribbons or tromped into sausage, he whipped the
red cape off his back and dodged. As the beast thundered harmlessly past, he
taunted it by doffing his cap and giving the cuca a polite curtsey.
The crowd roared. Ladies tore roses from their hair and tossed them into
the ring. Great bunches of them were trampled into the dust each time the
sacred beast charged and the cucador danced away.
I can’t say exactly how long the ceremony lasted. It was all downhill
after the first thrilling charge, the same trick over and over again, until
I was yawning with boredom. I heaved a sigh of relief when the cuca finally
quit. By then the beast was no more than a worn-out, wobbly, disconsolate heap.
Slobbery blubber oozed out chinks in its armor. It rolled over on its back,
legs waving helplessly, and the cucador finished it off, jamming roses up its
nostrils to smother it.
“Come on, girl,” hissed grandpa, tugging me by the hand.
The ceremony had given him an idea. If I thought these cucas were something,
wait’ll I saw the ones he was going to raise. Bigger and better cucas,
leaner and meaner, nastier. Ornery cucas. Lickety-split fast rip-snorting fire-breathing
piss and vinegar cucas.
Tomorrow wasn’t soon enough. We had to head out for the mountains and
homestead a place and start breeding cucas that very afternoon.
We thanked the chief for his hospitality and said our good-byes. His
lips curled in a funny smile when grandpa spoke of his splendid plan. Maybe
he knew something about cucas grandpa didn’t. Maybe my grandpa had
simply lost his touch. The first cucas he bred were no larger than horses.
Their offspring were even runtier, tame as the donkeys I used to see swaying
beneath bundles of sticks on the hillsides back home.
It was like swimming in quicksand. No mater how hard grandpa tried, things
went from bad to worse. Pretty soon the sacred beasts were as puny as the average
I felt sorry for the dwarf cucas. They acted as if they understood what had
happened to them and were ashamed of the change. They took to staying out of
the light, preferring to bide their time in nooks and crannies, behind the
stove, under the refrigerator, or in other dark places.
The light. Maybe that’s why grandpa failed. The light here is thick and
surly, drags its heels in the dirt like a spoiled child who doesn’t want
to go any farther, who wants to be carried, wants an ice cream cone, a puppy
dog, a bow and arrow set, a new mommy. I would spank it if I could.
“A cuca?” sneered the chief the last time he came out to our place
for a visit. “Cucaracha is more like it. Cucarachita.”
For the next few days grandpa went
around with a sack, catching all the tiny cucas he could find. I could
sense that he knew his end was nigh when he asked me to help him down
for one last look at the sea we’d crossed
to reach the new world.
It was a windy, overcast morning, noisy breakers tossing foam and sea-wrack
onto the sandy beach.
“I pity you, girl. You’re going to live to see men and myths and
life shrink just like those cucas. You’ll be able to crush what’s
left with a fingernail.”
He coaxed a promise out of me, a cross-my-heart and hope-to-die if ever I break
it promise. Sometimes I’ll be walking through a village and notice a
little girl with scraped knees sucking on her braids to keep from crying and
the promise comes to mind.
“Swear you’ll build a million little rafts,” said my grandpa, “and
set those brown nothings afloat. You hear me, girl? Let them wash up on every
coast and scurry into every cupboard in every nation. Let those cucas be reminders
of the days when all was possible, when magic was afoot and the sun’s rays
were like golden honey on our tongues, when the gods didn’t send us on
infernal wild goose chases.”
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