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Exercising the craft—July 24, 2017

By Ekta R. Garg

This week’s writing prompt came from our recent travels to Greece and our visit to the island of Santorini. We learned about the Minoan people of the town of Akrotiri, their astounding advanced civilization, and the mystery of their disappearance. A volcano eruption in the mid-1600s changed the landscape of the island of Thera, blowing it apart into several separate islands. One of those later became Santorini.

Centuries later, explorers discovered the preserved remains of Akrotiri and the Minoan way of life. Thanks to the volcano, researchers had at their fingertips firsthand information and primary sources on how the Minoans lived—the Pompeii of Greece, as it were. What they didn’t find: remains of any of the citizens or any valuables, suggesting the people left of their own accord and knew in advance they had to go.

No one has found any evidence of the people of Akrotiri. This story is my version of what might have happened. Any scientific or historical inaccuracies or mistakes are my own.

*****

Dymas watched the sunrise. His father had asked him to wake up early, and although the precocious 11-year-old wanted nothing more than to spend a few more precious hours under his bed coverings, he arose before the sun. After bathing quickly, he stepped outside his home and followed a path to the nearest hill. Making himself comfortable in a soft patch of earth, he waited for the bursting glory of daybreak.

His father wanted him to come to the meeting this morning of the council dedicated to the study of the earth. More than once the council had predicted coming storms and the tremors that shook the ground beneath them. The people of Akrotiri had prepared for each natural occurrence and survived them.

The boy stuck his hand in his pocket, even though the gold ibex sat safely in a small chest in his room. He liked to run his fingers along the back of the ibex, liked to imagine it sending out its aura of protection. The residents of Akrotiri endured whatever challenges came their way; his family escaped them almost unscathed.

His grandmother claimed it was because the ibex protected anyone sharing its dwelling. Her grandmother had given the ibex to her, and she had presented it to Dymas on his seventh naming day. They had enjoyed a sack full of his favorite sweets that day, just the two of them, and she told him the story of when she received the ibex on her own seventh naming day.

“My grandmother said it connects us to the gods,” his grandmother had whispered in dramatic fashion. “She said as long as we used the ibex as a tool of concentration, the gods would always protect us.”

Wonderment filled Dymas that day. Could a small figurine really possess such power? Would he and his family never need to worry about any ill happenings?

His father had scoffed at the entire idea, calling his grandmother a silly old nag full of terrible stories.

“What proof do we have, my son, of such things?”

At the time, at the age of seven, Dymas had no proof. After the gods, he worshipped his father. He had to concede that his father had a point.

But now, at the age of 11, Dymas had begun to wonder. His father, more often than not, believed only what he saw with his own eyes and heard with his own ears. He placed his trust in the work his council did: systematic work they cataloged and used as a reference when the seasons changed or as disease attacked them.

The references had proven invaluable time and again, but they never made mention of the unexplained. They didn’t deal with the questions no one could answer.

The sun crested the horizon and sat as a burning orange globe in the sky. The globe challenged the boy to look. To question.

But how can I look? Dymas thought. Right now the earth’s darkness dominates and holds the sun’s power captive. But the higher the sun rises, the stronger it becomes. I can barely look around me at the earth because of its strength of light; how am I supposed to look straight at it and ask for answers?

His father made him feel the same way.

“Come along, son,” his father called, emerging from the bathing room. “The council won’t wait long.”

Dymas suppressed a sigh. For four months, his father had made him follow to the council meetings. Some of them seemed interesting; council members visited different sites on the island and used mysterious liquids to test soil samples. They would record their findings and sometimes let Dymas carry their bags.

Sometimes, however, the council members would simply meet to discuss their findings. Recently they had begun meeting more to talk, not experiment. Dymas found himself nodding off during these early morning gatherings.

The hour of the day he could understand; it made sense to meet before the sun blistered their feet and turned them into panting dogs. But he didn’t want to think about why his father kept insisting he attend. He didn’t want to join the council one day, didn’t want to become like his father as far as vocation was concerned.

He wanted to continue his apprenticeship with the potter. He wanted to create beautiful vessels for the women and children to use. He wanted to give them something that helped them in their daily lives and also made them happy.

His father revered practicality and saw no need for beauty in household items. His mother said nothing when Dymas voiced his preferences. She simply took the hands of his two younger sisters and returned to the kitchen.

I don’t care, he thought, tripping over a rock as he hurried behind his father. Father must let me pursue my dream. He must!

The glowing red globe in the distance began its ascent.

***

“…clear indication of some coming event! We cannot hope to survive it if we sit here and do nothing…”

“…don’t understand this need to act as skittish as a bird when something even remotely challenging comes our way…”

“…should ask each councilman for his opinion and then make a decision…”

The discussion had long turned into a match for competing voices, and Dymas slumped against the wall of the meeting room. He had tried to spend some of his time thinking about what vessel shape he would attempt with the potter that day after his lessons, but soon enough the men in front of him got so loud it became hard to concentrate. He fingered his pocket again. Did the ibex have the power to protect one from boredom as well? Maybe he should bring it with him next time to conduct his own experiment.

“…cannot deny that something is happening. What say you, head of council?”

That meant his father, Dymas knew. Although the call for the head of council usually induced quiet in the men right away, this morning they found it harder to still their opinions. Sunlight streaked across the ceiling, Dymas noticed. They had long since missed the ideal time to return home to escape the oppression of the heat.

He looked to his father who didn’t respond right away.

“I say it is time to prepare,” his father said after some internal deliberation. “As my colleague has just stated, we cannot ignore the signs. An event is coming. It is time to return to our field work and determine when that event might occur.”

His words came with some hesitation, and Dymas frowned. Why did his father act like a new councilman put on the spot? He had never behaved with such reticence before.

“It is also time to prepare the city for departure.”

The room erupted, angry voices spewing in every direction. Dymas’s heart thudded in his ears. Had his father just suggested they leave the only home they’d all ever known?

His father’s gaze connected with his own, and the head councilman tipped his head toward the door. Dymas understood. His father wanted him to go home.

The one time the meeting gets interesting, Father tells me to go. But why do we have to leave Akrotiri? What is going to happen here? When will we come back?

He trotted through the small side streets, knowing that the route would take him longer to reach home but would offer more shade. It would also give him time to think.

Yia-yia told me the ibex would protect us. So we should be safe. But if I tell Father that, he’ll just get upset.

When Dymas’s grandmother had presented him with the ibex, no one had the courage to argue with the old woman about her claims about its “magic protection.” And because the family only saw the ibex when his mother used it for their monthly rituals and offerings to the gods, it sat in its squat container under his bed. Or so everyone thought.

Dymas had carried it often enough that he missed its weight in his pocket against his hip or in his satchel against the small of his back. His father blustered with anger any time he mentioned his grandmother’s assertions. But Dymas knew better. He had observed the harsh storm that surprised the island inhabitants the previous year, how so many homes had suffered cracks in the walls and even some flooding.

His home—the only one with an ibex—stood strong.

And there was that mysterious illness three years ago, when so many people broke out in those awful red splotches. Ariadna was the only one in the entire family to get the splotches, and hers lasted just a day! But why does Father refuse to acknowledge these things?

Dymas reached home and called out a general greeting in the direction of his mother’s voice coming from the kitchen. He went straight to his room and drank deeply from the small pitcher that sat on the table next to his bed. After drawing a few slow breaths and allowing his body to cool off, he dropped to his knees and reached for the chest under his bedframe.

His fingers trembled as he undid the heavy lock of the clay chest. They slipped against the clasp of the wooden box inside. The minute he touched the ibex, however, his body stopped shaking. The coolness of the gold made his skin pebble.

Nothing could hurt his family as long as he possessed the ibex. Nothing.

***

Despite Dymas’s confidence within himself, the city began preparations. The council members had spoken. They couldn’t pinpoint an exact time, but their studies indicated that Akrotiri would soon suffer a catastrophe greater than any the city had ever seen.

Speaking in hushed whispers in corners and in private conversations in their homes, the residents of Akrotiri speculated about this event. Surely it couldn’t be so bad, they reasoned, if they had time to prepare and to pack up their valuables. Surely the incident would last a short time.

Surely they would be able to come home.

Dymas’s friends talked in boasty terms about visiting other peoples and cultures. As the craftsmen of the city began building a large ship to take everyone and their possessions, Dymas, now 12, listened as some of his friends chatted with excitement about the grand adventures they would have. They would finally have the chance to conquer the world, and their parents, the “old ones” of the city who never let them explore and have fun, would finally understand the draw of moving beyond their borders.

His mother asked his father questions almost every day, but the head councilman refused to share any more information than what the council had distributed weeks earlier at their public hearing.

“But we have spent our lives building this home!” Dymas’s mother said one evening, the volume of her voice increasing in a rare show of defiance. “How can you expect me to leave it behind without any explanation?”

“I expect you to trust me!” his father replied. “Is that too much to ask?”

His parents stood in the main room of their home glaring at one another. Dymas watched from his room, peering around the corner of the doorway. His mother trembled, and the muscles in his father’s jaw twitched.

All around the city, parents and elders had similar reactions. The councilmen, however, kept any additional information to themselves. The head of the council had decided how much to share, and they would follow his lead.

***

After nearly 18 full moons, the ship and all the necessary supplies stood ready in the water to take them. The residents of Akrotiri filed through the streets on that morning without the slightest murmur. Their throats ached with the arguments and the worries they had voiced time and again.

On this day, no one said a word. Even the babies knew to stay quiet. Leather sandals slapped and scraped along the path, filling the lanes with the lonely echoes of goodbye.

Dymas sat in his room stroking the ibex’s back. His mother, her eyes red-rimmed, came in and sat on the bed next to him. She didn’t say anything for several minutes.

“It’s time to leave, my son,” she said finally.

Tightness filled Dymas’s chest. Unlike his friends whose eyes always searched the horizon for the new, Dymas found the greatest contentment behind the potter’s wheel. Like so many other items, they couldn’t take the wheel with them. Its weight prevented it from making the list of approved possessions.

“Yia-yia promised the ibex would protect us,” Dymas said, almost in a whisper. “Why do we have to go?”

His mother put her arm around his shoulders and drew him toward her. After a few moments of resistance, he allowed his frame to lean into hers. Even at the age of 12, it reassured him to know that his mother would support him when he needed it.

“Your father is a learned man,” she said, her voice as soft as his. “We must trust that he and the council want only the best for Akrotiri and its people.”

“But the ibex…”

Her hand covered his, preventing his fingers from rubbing against the animal’s back.

“Maybe the ibex has protected us thus far so we could make our preparations in peace.”

Dymas considered her words. With each passing day, his father had behaved as though the mysterious calamity was racing even closer to them. Perhaps the ibex had, indeed, slowed the progress of the disaster.

“I’ll leave it here then,” Dymas said. “Right here in its chest. That way it will protect our home, and we’ll be able to come back to it one day.”

His mother’s gaze studied him for a few moments. Then she smiled.

“I think that’s a good idea,” she said. “You’re just like your father, always planning for the future. Now, hurry. We must be on our way soon.”

Dymas had never thought of himself as anything like his father, but he turned the words over in his mind as he put the ibex back in its chest and gave it a confident shove under his bed. Within minutes he followed his mother and his younger sisters out the front door of their home. Adriana, squeezing his hand with her own small one, kept turning around to look at the only dwelling they’d ever known but he didn’t follow his sister’s example. He didn’t need to, he knew. The ibex would wait for him.

All the residents of Akrotiri boarded the mammoth sea vessel with their most precious belongings and valuables, and as they set sail conversations began floating among them. Many had traded with the surrounding nations to some capacity or another, and they began sharing the stories they’d told so many times over about the people they’d met who spoke in different languages and whose customs intrigued them. As the sun set on their first day on board the ship, those stories took on new meaning. Before, the stories enchanted the people of Akrotiri as children’s tales; now they offered glimpses into their future.

The ship sailed for weeks, navigating around the islands that came along their journey. On the day the residents of Akrotiri prepared to sail through the straits that many said would take them into the open sea, they received word of a natural explosion that devastated the landscape of an island. The island, other seafarers reported, no longer remained in its original state. It had divided itself, and ash continued to rain from the sky.

Dymas stood in the front of the ship that day as they prepared to enter the limitless body of water before them. Everyone on board knew in their hearts that Thera, as they knew it, no longer existed. But some of the voyagers who brought news of Thera’s devastation had said that some of the island did remain. One or two even claimed to have seen the tops of houses intact.

“Thank you,” Dymas whispered in the wind that had begun to blow with more earnestness. He thought of his ibex still sitting under his bed, biding its time until he would return and hold it once again. The tightness in his chest eased. He would see his home again, he was sure of it.

***

Three days later, a storm unlike anything anyone in Akrotiri had ever seen engulfed the ship. The winds roared in the ears of the residents and thundered across the vessel, raging that the people had dared enter the waters of the ocean. The people of Akrotiri clutched for dear life to the boards of their sturdy ship, but the storm swiped with ferocity across the mast and sails.

Before he lost consciousness forever, Dymas thought of the ibex and offered a last prayer that it would continue to protect his home so that someone in the future would come to know of the majesty and beauty of Akrotiri.

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