Anne Zouroudi was born in England and has lived in the Greek islands. Her attachment to Greece remains strong, and the country is the inspiration for much of her writing. She now lives in the Derbyshire Peak District with her son.
A SHEPHERD’S TALE
Where the coast path forked between the rocks and the slender lilies, the shepherd halted his mule. Late sun spread bronze on the Aegean’s swell; the breeze off the sea was cold, lifting the hem of the blanket that wrapped the mule’s load.
According to the plan she’d devised, he should go left, to the promontory and its cliffs. Sheltering his lighter under his jacket, he lit a cigarette, and smoked it watching waves break on the rocks below. When the cigarette was burned down to its filter, he flicked away the butt and followed the right-hand path.
The track wound steeply upwards. Stones and dirt slipped beneath his boots. The mule was surer-footed, and the shepherd let it go ahead, encouraging it with kind words until the land levelled at the old chapel of Ayios Yiorgos, where he whistled it to stop. Bats flittered in the dusk. Scanning the hillside, he saw no-one; there was nothing to hear but the wind. He tethered the mule and wedged open the iron gate, and heaved the load from the mule’s back onto his own.
The chapel’s walls were dirty from the rains; on its east side was a tomb, its carvings almost lost to years of weathering.
The shepherd left his burden on the tomb-lid.
When he reached home, she was waiting for him in the doorway. She followed him as he went round to the stable.
“Have you done it?” she demanded. “Did you do what I said?”
“Not exactly.” He unbuckled the mule’s girth, and lifted off its saddle. “I thought better of it. I left him at Ayios Yiorgos. He’ll be found tomorrow morning when they light the chapel lamps, but that still leaves you time to get away.”
“Stupid!” With tight fists she beat her husband’s back. “So stupid!”
“If you think I’m so stupid, Maria, why did you marry me?”
“I hate you!” she screamed. “I hate you!”
She ran inside and slammed the door; moments later, she came out, pulling on her church-going coat as she hurried towards the village.
He gave the mule fresh water and filled its hay-net. A foraging rat rustled the bedding straw. When the mule was settled, the shepherd went into the kitchen, where everything was perfectly clean and seemed as normal, though the stove was cold and she had made him nothing to eat. He lit a gas ring, and found what he needed from the cupboards.
An hour passed, then two. A police-car pulled up under the streetlight; she was in the back, and looked away.
A sergeant and a constable walked up to the open door. The shepherd sat at the kitchen table, smoking. The policemen wished him good evening.
“Is my wife coming in?” asked the shepherd. “I made her dinner.”
There was an omelette, cold on the plate, and an apple, peeled and sliced into rounds, drizzled with honey and sprinkled with cinnamon.
“Maria’s told us everything,” said the sergeant. Uninvited, he took a seat opposite the shepherd, whilst the constable stood spread-legged, blocking the door. “She says you killed Dmitris Gavalas out of jealousy. That you hit him with a shovel and broke his skull.”
The shepherd drew on his cigarette and blew smoke towards the policeman.
“Is there any point in me telling you how it really was?” he asked. “My word against a good-looking girl like her? Fact is, he was going to leave her, and she went mad. When I came home, he was on the floor. Just there.” He pointed to a spot close to the constable’s feet, and the constable took a step back. The shepherd smiled. “Don’t worry, son. She’s cleaned up well.”
“But you took away the corpse,” said the sergeant.
“I did. She wanted me to dump it over the cliffs, but I couldn’t do it. His family’s done no wrong, and should have his body. When she knew he’d be found, she ran to you, I suppose to get her version in first. And here I am, her old fool of a husband. How could I not be guilty?”
“She says she was leaving you for him, and you couldn’t take it,” said the sergeant. “And is it a woman’s nature to be so violent? Fetch your coat if you want it, and let’s go.”
Days later, she saw him on the TV news. He was manacled, wearing prison overalls. As she watched him being led into the courthouse, a trickle ran from her nose; she touched a knuckle to her nostril, and there was blood. Dabbing at the trickle in front of the mirror, she tasted blood in her mouth; it was seeping from the edges of her gums.
By evening, she was too weak to stand. Her mother called the doctor, who came in no great hurry; he had a mistress of his own, and didn’t want to leave her bed. When he arrived, Maria was pale and fainting on the couch. Nothing could be done.
In the morning, as the mourners gathered, the doctor called the sergeant to the house. They stood together in the kitchen. From the salone they heard weeping and laments.
The doctor kept his voice low.
“I think it was poison,” he said.
The doctor shrugged.
“It wasn’t recently ingested. Rat poison takes a long time to do its work, a week, or even two. If it’s true her husband killed Dmitris, maybe he thought he might as well hang for a sheep as for a lamb.”
“But if he’d forced it down her throat, she’d have told me.”
“No forcing needed,” said the doctor. “The poison tastes sweet, and it’s easily dissolved. I’d put my money on him. Unfortunately for you, in one respect at least she was a good wife. I’ll bet she’s cleaned in here every day since he’s been gone.” They glanced around the pristine kitchen. “And won’t he be laughing now, knowing that she’s cleaned away your proof?”
It is summer, and as tourists, drawn by the legend of a priceless missing artifact, disembark on the sun-drenched quay of Mithros, the languid calm of the island is broken by the unorthodox arrival of a stranger who has been thrown overboard in the bay. Lacking money or identification, he is forced for a while to remain on Mithros. But is he truly a stranger? To some, his face seems familiar.
The arrival of the investigator Hermes Diaktoros, intrigued himself by the island’s fabled bull, coincides with a violent and mysterious death. This violence has an echo in Mithros’s recent past: in a brutal unsolved crime committed several years before, which, although apparently forgotten may not yet have been forgiven.
As Hermes sets about solving the complex puzzle of who is guilty and who is innocent, he discovers a web of secrets and unspoken loyalties, and it soon becomes clear that the bull of Mithros may only be the least of the island’s shadowy mysteries.
Available June 2012. £11.99