The butterflies are spectacular, large, brown and speckled with yellow wing tips, and then there are smaller, yellow ones, purer, so tiny and delicate. They must surely have been together in some other time, some other era, the yellow and brown producing the beautiful dappled effect. They flit about everywhere, barely touching the blossoms. It is as if they have a need to touch every flower in the garden. It is as if they are playing follow
the leader. And now suddenly there is a third one. All white. There is no white in the other two. This one is an intruder . . .
I did not see the butterflies myself. Athena wrote and told me about them. I could imagine her sitting there examining the insects. I’m sure they flitted about her, touching the bright red flower on the brim of her hat. Athena enclosed a photograph. She is laughing in the photograph. What is making her laugh? Hardly the butterflies! Yet, perhaps it is. Athena is easy to impress. At the end she inscribed the usual,
P.S. Wish you were here.
I have no wish to be there. She no longer seems to have any concept of the importance of my work.
Athena came into my life as a visiting student to the Psychology faculty, where I am head of research. She was outstanding. Everyone noticed her. She should only have stayed for a year, but never returned home. Instead she remained with me. She was quite a deal younger, but what matter! People whispered among themselves and behind closed doors. It never bothered me. She had an almost magical, un-spoilt charm about her.
Nymph-like, I heard a colleague describe her once, probably because of her glorious golden hair. I cut all ties with my home and dedicated myself to her.
“My hero,” she would whisper.
She had an incredible ability to ask the right questions, the questions I wanted to answer, questions to which I had answers. How times change. Now I have all the questions, but she will not answer them.
I have plenty of photographs of her. She has a beautiful smile.
“Smile for me, Athena,” I would say and she would always reward me. Now, in that photograph above the hearth, she was in the garden. I watched her playing idly with the cat. She had a twig in hand and the cat was about to pounce when she turned suddenly and saw the camera. She smiled and in that moment the shutter closed, the moment captured. You can see it there – just above the mantle. We have a little picture gallery – nearly all photographs of my Athena. The one at the bottom is a photo of the two of us walking along the pier at Dun Laoghaire. We were both eating ice-cream cones from Teddy’s kiosk. One of those roving photographers with an instamatic took it.
“You have a beautiful wife,” he said as he handed me the still wet copy of the photo.
Yes indeed! Athena is beautiful, but she’s not my wife. At least not yet! She is at present on the Island of Gozo. Her two-week holiday has turned into a seven-week sojourn.
I rang her when she did not arrive home on the expected flight.
“I am taking a break.” She spoke calmly.
“But I was expecting you.” I tried to be patient.
“Expectations lead to disappointments,” she replied, “you taught me that.”
I was speechless.
“Call it an extended vacation,” she purred down the phone three weeks into her holiday.
“An extended vacation!” I roared back.
She fell silent at the other end, but I knew she was listening. My tone startled her. I tried to make her understand.
“You know I cannot holiday in June, Athena,” I tried to explain. “I have exam board meetings.”
“You could come. You can still join me but I know you won’t leave your work. I am thoroughly exhausted,” she said finally. “I have come here for a break. This place is a haven and I intend to stay for some time. It will just be a small parting. I will write.”
At that she ended the call. Almost all communication between us since has been through letters and these photographs.
Of course this is simply a short parting. It’s what I tell myself in the stillness of the evening. Of late I had sensed some boredom with Athena. She ceased to laugh her sensuous laugh. It was I who suggested she take the holiday. She cried at the airport departure gate. Her warm tears soaked the tissue she held close to her eyes. Finally she handed me the wetted tissue as if it were a parting gift, a memento. Athena has a rare presence. She has a chameleon-like quality. Suddenly her anxieties seemed to evaporate into the air. Her tears came to an immediate halt, and her now sparkling eyes held me with a steady gaze. She was like a traveller about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime.
The island on which Athena finds herself is indeed beautiful. Not that I have visited Gozo myself, but I have Athena’s description and photographs of it. She rang every day for the first week. Then the phone calls stopped and the photographs and postcards began to appear.
In her first letter, which arrived towards the end of the second week she wrote,
Gozo is where the Goddess Calypso cast her spell on Ulysses and held him captive. It is called the Island of Calypso. Did you know that? Think of the most beautiful place on earth. From my window I can see the winding valley, leading to the dunes of the bay. The moment I set foot on the boat taking me here, I could sense this island’s magic. Look at the caves. They are huge and mysterious and terrifyingly dark. It is hard to imagine what lies beyond the mouth of these caves. You must come and rescue me for I fear I will never escape their enchantment.
Athena is prone to exaggeration. It is her way of getting my attention. She enclosed a photograph. Her back is arched against the rail of the boat, her arms outstretched as she holds the rail. I cannot see the caves. I only see the figure of Athena, the sun glittering on the water, shimmering on her hair, reflecting in the green of her eyes. She is again laughing. I see her full mouth, her head slightly thrown back.
By return I wrote,
My dear Athena
If you are in need of rescuing it might be best that you return home, after all you are gone almost three weeks now. Who makes you laugh?
Your dearest love.
Athena always answers my letters, but not my questions. I have a torrent of questions but no answers. It is not the way things used to be. Four weeks into the visit I wrote to her again,
Who takes your photographs? Is it some stranger, or a friend? Is it the same person or do you ask different people? I feel it is the same person.
Your dearest love.
No one can deceive a lover. I am Athena’s lover. But she has not answered me.
Towards the end of July she wrote,
There is a lizard that comes each morning. He makes his way to the edge of the pool and drinks in the sun. He is such a friendly fellow. He stays by my sun-bed for hours and only leaves my side when the sun goes down. The heat is intense. It penetrates my body. It is exhilarating.
I tell her it is July and there is heat now at home. There is no need to stay any longer. I have not seen her for five weeks. I receive her reply by return,
There is no heat like the heat of Gozo. What would happen to my lizard if I return home? He would surely miss me. Is he not a very handsome lizard stretched out in the sun?
I scan the picture for a lizard. All I see are bronzed bodies stretched on sun-beds soaking up the sun. But I cannot see a lizard. Athena is not a good photographer. She lacks focus. “Please come home,” I urge during our last conversation. August has come.
“Are you not tired of this island? Is seven weeks not too long for us to be apart? Please say you will come home and stay forever. Please say yes.”
“No! No!” Athena protests, her voice no more than a whisper. “How can I say yes? How can I say yes, and mean it forever and ever.” She cries for the duration of our conversation.
At the end of August she wrote for the last time,
I feel reborn on this island of Calypso. There is timelessness about Gozo that captivates the spirit. I look out over the sandy coastline and I cannot imagine being anywhere else on earth. You taught me all I know and now I know I cannot say yes, but neither can I say no. No, I shall never return. Who was it that wrote that yes and no are such butterfly words that flutter away like straying butterflies and are gone only to be followed by other yeses and nos. Who was it said that?
How can she forget so easily? I have not replied. She will remember D.H. Lawrence in time.
I wait for Athena under the shade of the white Cypress tree at the end of the garden. The rose bushes she planted are in full bloom. I put a fountain in her pond. She hasn’t seen it yet. She feels reborn. I feel extinct. The house is empty and dark. I hardly dare to open the shutters preferring to sit in the cave-like darkness and think about her, except when the letters arrive and then I venture out to the garden. I sit for hours holding her pictures, watching her laugh again, reading her words, so few words saying so much, wondering. The summer is past, seven weeks without Athena. Already the autumn evenings are closing in. Shortly I will leave the garden. I will go inside to the house, warm myself by the hearth, and await her return.