Tuesday, June 16th, 2009
I woke abruptly, to a darkness so thick I could breathe it in. My mind was ominously alert, none of that blurry, dream-clogged puzzlement that usually comes with the return of consciousness. It was an alertness I often wished for in daylight—sharp, energetic, skimming through the past hours, the boat trip, the long taxi ride through flat scrubby countryside under a wide white sky, everything that had brought me here. I knew exactly where I was. I remembered the light switch on the bedside lamp even though this was a new place, my first night. I switched it on, but nothing happened. I remembered a row of square plastic buttons on the bed’s headboard and fumbled around until I located them. None of them produced any light.
Now I was baffled, with panic creeping towards me like a little battalion of mice. I got up and groped my way around the room, feeling for the furniture—there wasn’t much of it, as I recalled. It was pitch black and I had no idea what time it was.
Maybe it was no time at all. Maybe time had stopped and I was in the afterlife, or some place in between, a dark place, oddly enough with the same layout and furniture as my final room.
If it was not the afterlife, then it was a room in a hotel in Orkos. Orkos is a town on the Greek island of Naxos, in the Cyclades islands. I was in the middle of the Aegean Sea, on the island where Theseus abandoned Ariadne while she slept, and it was very dark. From my brief exploration shortly after I arrived, I recalled Orkos as a nowhere town, a ghost town. None of the low white buildings dotting the dry landscape had seemed inhabited. No people were on the roads. There was a beach, not quite where the guidebook had promised, in fact a good half-mile away and a trifle mangy looking, but still a beach. The hotel was pretty empty too. At dinner I’d seen four other people sitting on the dark terrace, shadowy shapes raising forks to their mouths and mur-muring. The server was a vague young Norwegian who’d been sleeping when we first arrived in the sultry late afternoon. We had to seek him out in his little nook at the back and wake him.
So I was nowhere, by myself. Well, not quite. My daughter was in the room just upstairs. At least she was when I went to sleep. But if I had died in my sleep and been brought to some pitch-black limbo, I hoped she wasn’t with me. She was too young; she had her life ahead of her. I would rather be dead alone than dead with her, even for company.
But of course I wasn’t dead. How foolish. There had simply been some sort of electrical failure. The thing to do, in a hotel, was call the front desk and report it, ask for a flashlight. I was quite capable of that. But this kind of hotel in this kind of town didn’t have phones in the room. I had a cell phone but not the kind that worked abroad. I wasn’t sure why I’d brought it with me—I rarely used it even at home, but it made me feel assistance was at my fingertips. The functioning cell phone was upstairs with my daughter, along with the guidebooks. She was the organizer. On this trip, she organized and I did the talking. I was good at talking. But there was no one to talk to.
I could try going to the front desk, but that would mean finding my clothes in the dark and climbing down the series of rocky, twisting paths that led to the main building. The architecture of the hotel was unclear, diabolical, really, with the rooms laid out in clumpy outcroppings set in the hills. If there even was a front desk—I hadn’t yet seen one, nor, if it existed, did this seem the kind of hotel where someone would be on duty all night. The drowsy Norwegian had led us straight from his lair to our rooms, and the dinner, lamb stew, which he proudly announced that he had cooked himself, was served on a terrace. Who could say where that terrace might be, in this hilly maze? I could go out and climb the stairs to my daughter’s room in the dark, but I didn’t want to wake her merely to have her share my panic, which had now crept all the way inside my head and was pattering around. Besides disturbing her, it would embarrass me. I was the mother, after all.
I tried the lights again, then sat on the bed in the dark. Where was I, not literally, but in relation to reality as I understood it? And more important, why? Where was the rest of the world with all its people? The darkness closed around me like a fleece coat. Soon it might stifle me. The night could last forever. The night was vast and I was a speck: that was the lesson of great literature and I knew it well. No one would find me in its vastness. No one would think of looking here, in Orkos. Why had I done this, left home to sit in a dark room in an endless night in a deserted town in the middle of the Aegean Sea? Ariadne was discovered and saved by Dionysus, but I had no such expectations.
I remembered a door that opened onto a tiny balcony, just large enough for one person to stand on. I groped around until I found the knob and stepped out. Light! Way up above, the moon. I almost wept with relief. It didn’t light up much—there wasn’t much to light up—but I could make out the silhouettes of a few sagging trees, a few right angles that must have been the rooftops of the other rooms below. There was still the moon. Perhaps there might still be the sun as well. It just might be that morning would come, and with it, light.
Nothing remained to do but lie down and wait for sleep, and for light to return. With luck, the world would not always be so dark. Never again, I vowed. If I outlive this darkness I’ll never leave home again.
Orkos, the endless dark, the unknown, the isolation, the helplessness: the nightmare of travel in its purest form. Now I knew what I had always dreaded.
Excerpted with permission from Not Now, Voyager by Lynne Sharon Schwartz; Counterpoint: Hardcover, 176 pages; List Price: $23.00.
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