The night shift at the camp had been quiet enough for sleep and the day broke mild and windless. I borrowed Tariq’s scooter and rode ten minutes down the cliff-side highway before turning inland onto a nameless, unnumbered road. I’d wanted a route that would avoid the larger towns while also taking me past a now-notorious landfill site; online images showed a pyramid of discarded life jackets whose immensity could be gauged only by the trucks parked at its base dumping fresh loads.
I rounded a bend and it loomed ahead, less impressive in reality even with sunrise lighting its thousands of orange and red facets like live coals. It was just a heap of garbage, after all. Many of the life vests were useless fakes, nylon shells that the human traffickers had stuffed with bubble wrap, boxboard, sawdust or rags. The fakes sold for ten euros in the markets of Izmir – six for the children’s vests. I paused on the side of the road. After a minute I held up my phone, turned it for the wider view and fiddled with the zoom. I shoved it back in my parka without pressing the shutter button.
I rode on into mountains that were green with olive trees below the snow line and the bare summits. The road was empty. Looping upward it gave views back toward the Aegean, tropically turquoise this morning and yet, as we all knew by now, cold enough to kill.
The first village I rode through was still shuttered and silent, as I’d hoped. I rode like a novice anyhow, stiffly upright, one hand shadowing the brake. My caution would have tickled any old men sitting out in front of the cafes, had the cafes been open. I’d driven no vehicle of any kind in just under two years.
The second village’s main street – only street – was likewise deserted, though a fragrance of warm bread was wafting from somewhere and, when I stopped to check the map Tariq had drawn for me, I heard the chugging of an olive press.
At first the authorities were burying the drowned in an old cemetery on a hill above the island’s main port. By October they’d run out of room. They chose a new site, exclusively for refugees, near a remote mountain village where no tour bus ever ventured. It was this village I entered next. In the little gorge of the street, the Vespa’s two-stroke engine made a nerve-shredding din. There was a time in my life when that amplified snarling would have excited me, made me open the throttle and delight in the speed-surge dragging me back on the seat.
Most hand-drawn maps are confusing and useless, but not Tariq’s. As indicated, just beyond the village a dirt track veered left off the road. I took the turn, then bumped along through an olive grove, the old trees’ bottom-heavy torsos fantastically burled. Their willowy leaves absorbed and deadened the scooter’s chainsaw howl. The heavy black fruit was still unharvested.
I emerged into a clearing the size of a baseball field. Olive-treed slopes rose amphitheatrically around it. The clearing was studded with gravestones and there were open graves with little dunes of dirt beside them. A small car and an even smaller backhoe were parked on the edge of the clearing. Near them a man, his face and chest visible, stood in a grave.
He was watching me, the blade of his shovel frozen mid-stroke above his shoulder.
I cut the engine. The turned earth was too loose to support the kickstand, so I walked the scooter back and leaned it against a tree. One of the olives hanging in front of my eyes was so ripe that the skin had burst, revealing white pulp streaked with mauve. As I touched the olive, it fell into my hand. I put it in my mouth and tasted the bitterness of fresh-crushed oil and something harsher that seared and furred my palate.
I approached the gravedigger, crossing the morning shadows of a row of headstones. They were thin tablets of white marble, like the stones in war cemeteries – in fact, like the ones just across the straits from here at Gallipoli. Inscriptions in Greek with Arabic below. unknown man, aged 30?, # 791, 19 / 11 / 2015. The care and expense that the bankrupt authorities had put into the stones was a heartening surprise. Only the number signs, like Twitter hashtags, seemed to fall short on decorum.
I stopped in front of the small grave. Maybe the man still needed to enlarge it? He’d put the shovel down so that the shaft bridged the hole. In this mountain air and direct light, things leapt into clarity with surreal resolution. There were tiny nicks in the cutting edge of his otherwise new shovel. His broad-boned face, looking up, was sallow and freckled. Sun-marbled eyes behind steel-rimmed spectacles, the round lenses too small for his head. Trimmed black beard, no moustache. A black keffiyeh around his neck and, over the stubble of a buzz cut, a white skullcap.
I wished him good day and peace, thus all but exhausting my Arabic. When he replied in Greek, ‘Kalimera,’ I automatically answered, ‘Ti yineis’ – How’s it going? – as if I couldn’t see.
‘Mia chara kai dyo tromares,’ he said, the ch sound rasping low and throaty, as in Arabic. For every joy, two troubles – a standard Greek response. He went on in Greek, ‘You’re bringing news about more bodies on the way?’
‘It was calm last night,’ I said. ‘Just five or six boats, maybe three hundred people. They landed wet and cold but all right. Not like last week, thank God.’
‘Sure, why don’t we thank God? He has come to expect it.’
I never said things like ‘thank God’ anymore. I must have been trying to connect with the man; despite his tracksuit top, khakis and construction boots, I’d assumed he was a young Muslim priest or lay cleric. Probably too I’d meant to reassure him that I wasn’t one of those hostile islanders who had lost jobs to the crisis.
I said, ‘I think your Greek is better than mine.’
‘Well, I’ve been here long enough.’ He explained that his name was Ibrahim, he was from Egypt, he had arrived in Greece ten years before on a work permit. He’d stayed on as a labourer in Piraeus and eventually came to Lesvos for a construction job. In September – laid off like everyone else – he approached the authorities and volunteered to wash, shroud and bury the bodies of the Muslims drowning nightly in the seas between Turkey and Lesvos. ‘October was a very busy time, as you probably know,’ he said. ‘You are a foreign volunteer?’
‘Yes, from America. It’s Peter.’
‘Are you ill? You look as if you need to be sick.’
The astringency of the olive was intensifying as it dissolved. I’d been wanting to spit, but I wasn’t about to do it while he stood chest-deep in an unfinished grave, telling me about his life.
I talked around the stone, my mouth puckering: ‘I ate an olive. Off the tree there.’
‘Ah!’ His white incisors shone cleanly, though the eye teeth were yellow. ‘You thought you could eat them right off the tree! Many volunteers make this mistake.’
‘No, no, I knew. I was here as a child, a number of times. We – my Greek cousins and I – we used to pick and chew olives, on a . . .’ On a dare, I wanted to say but couldn’t remember the Greek phrase. ‘It was a game. We’d see who could last longest before spitting.’
‘Please, friend, spit now.’
I took a few steps toward the dusty, dented car, hawked a few times, then toed dirt over the spatter of violet pulp. The car’s hatch was half open. An old Fiat Panda. As I walked back, the man lifted his hands and gazed around us: ‘A fine spot here, isn’t it? As far from the sea as you can get on this island, or so the villagers tell me. For the sake of the people I’m burying, I’m relieved.’
My lapsed Greek, along with his accent, created a kind of satellite delay; I was always a few words behind, and even when I caught up I wasn’t sure I understood.
‘They’re letting me stay in an abandoned house in the village,’ he said.
After a moment I said, ‘Yes, they told me in the camp, but I came straight out here to find you. I figured that after this last week, you’d still be busy.’
Eight nights before, a rubber dinghy crammed with Syrian families had capsized a half-hour off Eftalou Beach. The people whose life jackets were genuine were pulled, alive or dead, out of the sea that night or the next morning. The ones wearing fakes had vanished, and then, after bloating and resurfacing, washed ashore.
But some of their belongings had washed up only yesterday.
‘I did actually bring you something.’
‘Foreigners have never lived here before,’ he said quickly, ‘let alone a Muslim. Not since the time of the Ottomans. Two nights ago, we had snow.’
I unslung my daypack and set it down by my boots. There was a splash of olive pulp on one toe.
‘My little house feels a bit empty in the evenings,’ he pushed on, ‘especially now with the sun setting so early. Still, it’s the first house I’ve ever had. You have a family, children?’
‘Maybe some day,’ I lied. ‘I guess you don’t, yet?’
‘Now more than ever I’d like to. But what woman will have her children with a man whose hands have buried so many . . . ?’
No display of hands to emphasize the point. They hung slack at his sides. I crouched down and unzipped the daypack.
‘I do wish they’d chosen a slope,’ he said. ‘A slope would be better at this time of year. Drier. I hate seeing water in the graves! Of course, trying to operate the digger on a slope . . .’ He kept speeding up. I was straining to follow. ‘I use life vests as pillows for them, between the sheet and the earth. For pillows, it doesn’t matter if the vests are real or not, so long as they’re soft.’
Our faces were closer now that I was hunkered down. Faint acne scars on his cheeks above his beard. Behind his lenses, the eyes were intently fixed: the engulfing gaze of a castaway.
I reached into the pack. The little rosewood box I’d brought here was swaddled in a toque and a hoodie. ‘Last week,’ I said, ‘we actually found a vest stuffed with . . .’ I didn’t know the Greek for bubble wrap. He wasn’t listening anyway.
‘It’s remarkable how efficiently the sea strips them,’ he said. ‘It wastes no time at all – and still it is not satisfied! Given a few extra days it removes extremities. Arms, legs, more.’
From the slopes behind him a voice, probably a goatherd’s, was calling.
‘This one I’m burying, her life vest was filled with ––––’ (a word I didn’t know – possibly bubble wrap?) ‘which of course is useless for anything but a pillow. Still, I won’t be using it. Her body needs no pillow.’
I was holding the box with two hands, watching his lips move above his beard, waiting for the words to resolve into sense. Resisting the sense. Grateful I was no longer fluent.
‘I’m sorry to bring you this,’ I cut in. ‘I don’t even know what you should do with it.’ I snapped open the box. It might once have held earrings. The burgundy felt lining was stained darker where seawater had leaked in. Nestled on the felt, like pearls, lay three baby teeth that someone had kept – maybe the parents of a child who had died back in Syria, maybe a living child who had saved them and carried them aboard the raft.
‘Bury it on its own, maybe?’ I suggested.
‘God, I suppose, is the only one.’
I looked at him.
‘Without a broken heart,’ he said.
I tried to ease the box shut but the hasp caught with a click.
‘I guess this must be a child’s grave,’ I said.
‘Of course, yes, I said so! An unknown child.’
Ena agnosto paidi. I’d missed that whole phrase. I said, ‘And I guess it would be wrong to assume that these – that the box – is this child’s?’
‘Had she been the only one, maybe we could.’ He took the box from me. Held above the grave, it looked even smaller, the sort of thing in which a child might ceremonially inter the husk of a cicada or a dead mouse pup found curled in a field. ‘Still, we should put it somewhere. And it might be hers. Thank you for bringing it all this way.’
‘It’s little enough.’
‘Yes, tiny, it weighs nothing.’
‘No – I meant it wasn’t much to do. Not a long ride. Let me help you finish here. I’ve been digging a lot at the camp.’
‘What – graves at the camp?’
‘No.’ Extra latrines, I’d meant.
‘This one is already bigger than it needs to be,’ he said.
They lay on a north west to south east axis, the graves, bearing toward Mecca and the morning sun, the heads of the deceased oriented as if in prayer.
‘I can help you carry and put the body in,’ I said.
‘Everything is being performed in accordance with the tradition,’ he said. ‘So, “by Muslim hands alone”. I am even reciting the funeral prayer. To me, these things matter little now, but to them, I think . . .’
He put the box in his tracksuit pocket. I got up.
‘I understand,’ I said, relieved.
If I’d meant my little courier run as another crumb of expiation, I’d failed. If I’d meant my service here on the island as a larger penance, that, too, had fallen short. As had ‘community service’ back home, as had my suspended sentence. I told him nothing about the accident, of course, the details no more pressing for being mine. Maybe there is no penance, only time passing. A child’s death is a tragedy back home, but a thousand deaths – if they happen here – are just data for a churning news engine. Even the drowned boy in that famous photo: not a person but a figure surfacing, briefly triaged from the unnumbered and unnamed.
‘Did you know that in certain places they bury people standing up, just as I am now? Of course, this hole’ – he used the Greek for hole, not grave – ‘would need to be deeper.’
The music of December in the islands was drifting down from the slopes: a melody of goat bells, a backbeat of oak switches slapped against branches to bring down the fruit. He was speaking again. As if understanding, I nodded, bent down to shake his cool, dirt-seamed hand and wished him well.
As I gripped the scooter handlebars I glanced back. He was holding the shovel, standing in the grave. I walked the machine out through the grove and by the time I reached the road his last phrases – from the prayer he would soon recite? – had settled into sense. Wash her with water and snow and hail . . . Give her a home better than her home.
Photograph © Rick Senley / Millennium Images UK