“Say, have you eaten anything today?”
“I’m fine, all right?” I turned away from my father and took a step down the stairs to the street. Over my shoulder, I added, hopefully more gently, “I’ll meet you back here later.” I left him in the doorway of the pension and headed uphill along the narrow street. To my right was a row of ancient stone houses; to the left, a parapet, then a steep drop into the Aegean Sea.
Actually, I hadn’t eaten a thing in about five days. As it turned out, I didn’t resume eating for another five days more.
It was July 1982. I had just graduated high school and my time in Greece with my dad was winding up. I would be off to college in Chicago in the fall. I had been looking forward to getting back to the States as early as possible, though, to spend some time with my sweetheart. Then I received a letter in which she bluntly stated she was with someone else. There was no explanation, only the plaintive appeal “Please don’t hate me; I already hate myself.” I hadn’t eaten since.
My brother and sister were visiting for the summer. Dad took us on a weekend visit to our favorite island, Syros. We stayed at our favorite inn, a tall skinny stone row house overlooking the sea. It was mid afternoon of a warm, brilliant day when we arrived by ferry, and the others were ready for a nap. I had been doing about as much sleeping as eating those days, so I announced I was going for a walk.
I was feeling miserable, wrecked. After I got the letter, I had called the girl in the States, had gently demanded an explanation which I had not received. It was agony. I was bereft. I headed uphill.
The town was ringed with hills. At the peak of the tallest hill was a church with tall square towers and a pale blue dome. I had never been up there. I supposed the view would be impressive, and the idea of sitting on a bench in front of a church on a Greek island, looking out over the sea and contemplating my misery, sounded appealing; so I headed that way.
The narrow streets were flanked with whitewashed houses with blue shutters, and generally followed the contours around the circumference of the hill. Occasionally I found a narrow stairway between buildings, and climbed it up to the next street. It was siesta time, and the town was very quiet. I passed a couple of burros dozing at their hitch; a cat slipped past me, and I gave it a listless kick in the head. Whenever the church towers came into view, I checked my bearings and adjusted my course.
Eventually I encountered a wide, stepped main road heading straight up the hill to the church. High on my right, the road disappeared into a stand of pine trees at the edge of the church grounds. I headed up.
At the pines the road became a regular stairway twisting up through the trees and into the church plaza. There were a few people in the plaza, and a few cars. Some boys were playing basketball in the parking lot. I looked around.
The whitewashed town, surrounded by sagey hills, spread below me to the harbor and the Aegean Sea beyond. Ferries glided about in the distance. In the harbor, a large freight ship was at dock to the right. Glancing to the left, looking for the spot where we had disembarked a few hours earlier, I saw something that completely astounded me.
In the familiar harbor, invisible from lower down but plainly evident from above, I saw the rusting, ruined hull of a huge sunken ship, stripped bare and dissolving into the sea.
I stared with horror. It looked exactly the way I felt.
Stricken, I turned away from the sight and moved off to my left. I encountered a tiny structure in the plaza, no larger than a gate house, but looking more like a chapel. I stepped through the doorless opening.
In the wall opposite the doorway, an ordinary garden tap dribbled water into a pool formed by a low wall. There were benches built into both side walls. The back wall and the face of the fountain were covered with colorful mosaic tiles. There was an inscription in three languages, glittering in the afternoon light glowing through the doorway. I leaned over the fountain to examine the Greek.
“Πᾶς ὁ πίνων ἐκ τοῦ ὕδατος τούτου διψήσει πάλιν ὃς δ᾽ ἂν πίῃ ἐκ τοῦ ὕδατος οὗ ἐγὼ δώσω αὐτῷ οὐ μὴ διψήσῃ εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα ἀλλὰ τὸ ὕδωρ ὃ δώσω αὐτῷ γενήσεται ἐν αὐτῷ πηγὴ ὕδατος ἁλλομένου εἰς ζωὴν αἰώνιον.”
I was confused. After nearly two years in this country, and despite my prodigious intellect, I could not make one jot of sense from this text. It did not occur to me that it could be other than modern Greek. I glanced at the second text, below the tap but above the pool. It was in German.
“Wer von diesem Wasser trinkt, den wir wieder dürsten; wer aber von dem Wasser trinken wird, das ich ihm gebe, den wird ewiglich nicht dürsten; sondern das Wasser, das ich ihm geben werde, das wird in ihm ein Brunnen des Wassers werden, das in das ewige Leben quillt.”
Something about drinking water. Finally I noticed the English text on the face of the fountain pool, near the floor. I squatted down to read it in the half-light:
“Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again: But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.”
I stared at the vaguely-familiar-sounding words. I muttered to myself, “What does that mean?” Aware that I was starring in my own melodrama, I slowly dipped my trembling hands into that cool water and drew it to my mouth. I slurped up a few drops and choked on a violent sob. I sank down on the bench to the left and hung my head, weeping piteously.
I could not know that in exactly one year I’d be back on another Greek island, still hanging my head; nor that it would be decades before I understood how extravagantly I had overcomitted to that relationship. But that day, drinking from a font on an island in the middle of the sea on the other side of the world, all I knew was that I had absolutely no resources to fall back on. I have seldom felt so utterly alone.
The boys who had been playing ball burst loudly into the tiny space. They instantly settled at the sight of me, quietly refreshed themselves at the fountain and then respectfully withdrew.
I sat there a long time. I read the mysterious words again, rose, shuffled out into the early evening light, and headed downhill to meet my family.