by Sara Stamey
[Editor’s note: Book View Café offers a $2 discount on Sara Stamey ebooks through October 20: The Ariadne Connection, a Cygnus Award winner for speculative fiction, and Islands, a ForeWord Book of the Year finalist. Order Mobi (compatible with Kindle) or epub book files in our online bookstore using the code $2-OFF-STAMEY]
The taverna was only a slanting shed roof tacked onto the side of the owner’s house, propped on metal poles, with a waist-high wall of concrete bricks. At one end, under a rusted Coca-Cola sign, a wooden counter held some bottles and a barrel of olives. They’d dumped cement over the dirt yard to make an uneven, cracking floor.
Peter felt grateful for the night breeze. Every village man over fourteen had crammed into the taverna or yard, and the heat, cigarette smoke, and ripe body stink had reached the suffocation stage. It didn’t help that he and Demetrios had been given the privileged table against the inner wall.
Some of them were singing, eyes closed, squeezing out a tear with the drunken lyrics:
“If the drunkards are condemned, Wrongly they’ll be hanged;
I am no drunkard, but I like a drop, Because of two blue eyes.
Why, oh why do you threaten, That somewhere else you’ll go—
Go on then, go.”
Another crackle of heat lightning strobed outside, thunder rumbling off the mountain. Peter rubbed his ringing ears.
One of the bunch sitting with them, paunchy balding man he thought was the baker but he’d forgotten his name, leaned his elbows on the wobbly table, rattling glasses, sloshing the oil in the lamp as he shouted something at Peter, grinning.
Peter returned an all-purpose shrug and grinned amiably. His island Greek was getting tuned, but a lot of the byplay was too fast and heavily accented to catch. The punchlines didn’t seem to matter, anyway, to the general hilarity. He raised his glass he kept trying to turn upside down, but somebody kept righting and filling.
“I si yia.” Cheers. The local raki burned down his throat like his cousin Zach’s bootlegger white lightning, and the lamplight and smoke swirled dizzily. He caught the side of his chair as he teetered sideways.
Exclamations and curses around him. Glass shattering. He wasn’t quite that falling-down drunk, it was another tremor heaving the floor, shivering the wall behind him. They were getting stronger. A few men furtively crossed themselves. The others roared with laughter, stumbling over the subsiding wobble of the floor with glasses raised, singing and bumping together in a rough dance. Outside, a bolt of lightning split the darkness.
The skinny guy in the patched jacket next to him leaned down to yell at the hound squirming and whining over their feet under the table. He prodded Peter in the ribs with his elbow, spilling more liquor. “So tell me, what do you think of the Med League inviting Crete to join them?”
Peter kept his face noncommittal, shrugging.
“But you have been travelling with Despoinis Demodakis, eh? You have seen these miracles?”
Peter’s glass clattered onto the table. “I don’t know anything about miracles, pal.” Then realizing he’d answered in English, he said curtly, “Ohi.”
The young kid standing behind the skinny guy leaned over eagerly, touching his saint medallion. “But we heard from Spanos in Loutro, that down the coast in—”
“Look, you’re talking to the wrong guy.” Peter climbed to his feet, shaking his head. It was pounding with pressure, his ears still ringing, goading him. “I’m only the hired man.” He pushed away from the table.
“Petro, my friend, don’t run off.” Demetrios rose, catching Peter’s eye. “Leave the guilt go. You could no more save your sister than I could little Kri-Kri, though I flogged myself, too. But that’s what this night is for. We give our sins to Judas!”
He turned to wave an expansive arm over the crowd, shouting above the hubbub, “Time for the straw man to face the flames!”
A roar of approval, glasses raised all around. “To Judas, may he roast in Hell! May the fire burn hot!”
They threw the glasses smashing to the floor, then pushed toward the dark yard, surging around Peter as he swayed, rooted. One of the villagers tugged at his sleeve, urging him outside. “Come, Petro! Cast your sins onto the bonfire with us.”
He trailed along. His ears were really ringing now, deafening, or maybe it was only the crowd roaring as they ran ahead with torches. Flames streamed in the hot wind. The women and children were milling in the street too, singing in shrill voices. The raki burned sickening in his gut.
Another roar of laughter. Cheers. A knot of young men ran past, straw-stuffed Judas with his painted face bouncing on their shoulders, and Peter was pressed among the crowd in the street before the church, blinking bewildered at the huge pile of branches as the boys climbed to the top and impaled the figure on a stake, grinning cartoon face lolling out of the dark. Lightning flared. Thunder crashed. The crackle and dance of sparks answered it. Flames leapt up through the night.
The church bell was clanging, splitting his head, and suddenly he was doubled over in agony, sweating, pressing his head between his palms as the bells crashed through him and his father’s voice hammered out of the dark and the swirling sparks. “And the unfaithful shall be damned to the fires of hell! The day of Judgment shall come upon thee….”
He’s sinned, he’s lusted, he’s a coward and a failure, and the Reverend is coming to get him, God is going to damn him to hell. Earth splitting open right now to claim him, he can feel it heaving beneath his feet, devil reaching up to pull him down, and the flames are leaping, cocks crowing wildly in the night. Saint Ariadne. Three times he’s denied her, and the cocks are crowing, but that’s bullshit, he doesn’t believe any more. But his father’s face looms out of the dark, and beside him there’s Ginnie, eyes blazing with the fire of righteousness, thunder booming, pointed fingers impaling him—
He’s thrown upwards. A giant hand slaps him back down and he smashes into the earth.
Gasping, he sees the bonfire writhing impossibly upwards, flying apart in a shower of sparks, church bell clanging off rhythm as dark figures drop their torches and stagger, falling beside him. His fingers grip handfuls of dirt. The world churns like water under him and a terrible rending roars out of it.
Screams, all around him. A shivering starts in the ground, then it’s shaking faster and faster as the roar builds far below to an agonizing pitch, pressure building like a flood behind a cracking dam, and he can feel the explosion coming. The mountainside’s tearing apart, suspended weight no longer taunting and taunting but flinging free to come smashing down.
Sara Stamey’s journeys include treasure hunting and teaching scuba in the Caribbean; backpacking Greece and New Zealand; operating a nuclear reactor; and owning a farm in Southern Chile. She teaches creative writing at Western Washington University and shares her creekside land with wild creatures and her cats, dog, and very tall husband Thor.
Sara’s SF novels with Berkley/Ace made Locus Best New Novelists. The Statesman Journal calls her Islands “a superior mystery and suspense novel… a stomping, vivid ride.” Her near-future Greek islands thriller The Ariadne Connection has received the Cygnus Award for speculative fiction.