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.