After graduation a visit to Knossos beckoned Fiona—but little did she guess where it would lead!
I noticed him because he was always alone.
And in a country where most people are dark-haired and dark-eyed, he stood out because of his blond ponytail and gray eyes. Only the shape of his eyes belonged to Crete—large, almond-shaped, compelling.
When I completed my master’s degree in botany my parents, Rob and Raina, gave me a choice: I could have a new car or a visit to Europe. My choice was Europe, without question, because my whole life I’d yearned to visit the island of Crete. Specifically Knossos, because there, fifty-six years ago, was where my Great-Uncle Alan disappeared.
So Rob and Raina knew what lay behind my choice; in fact, they came with me, their professional curiosity aroused by my choice of destination. They’re both archaeologists, so after we “did” Athens—climbing up the hill to look at the crumbling ruins of the Parthenon and all that—we went by train to Piraeus, and from that harbor boarded the overnight ferry to Santorini.
Too excited to sleep, I was on deck before dawn as the ferry sailed into the vast caldera. The sun rose, bringing color to the pale blue sky above and the dark blue water below as I feasted my eyes on the dazzling white buildings that clung to the top of the brown island.
The day after we arrived in Fira, one of the little villages on top of the mountain, we discovered that the ruins of Akrotiri, a large town that had thrived in the Bronze Age Minoan civilization, were once again open to tourists. We arranged for a driver to take us there.
“They were closed the last time we were here, a dozen years ago,” Raina said. “They found only one gold object, did you know? Obviously the people had time to prepare and flee before the Great Disaster.”
The Great Disaster she referred to was the one of the largest volcanic eruptions of all time, in 1428 B.C.E. or thereabouts. Crops failed in China, tree rings in what would one day be called North America took note of the fact, and plagues descended on Egypt.
The cone-shaped island once known as Kalliste, the Greek word for “beautiful,” blew its top, creating a caldera ringed by a few remaining islands, of which Santorini is one.
“Look,” Rob said, pointing to the reconstruction of a house. “They had hot and cold running water and flush toilets!”
“Hot water?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Because of the volcanic activity, of course,” my father said, answering the skepticism in my voice.
We explored Santorini with delight for a few days before we took the afternoon ferry to Crete. After we docked we took a bus to Knossos because I was anxious to explore it rather than the port city of Heraklion, and checked into the expensive modern hotel.
“I’m looking forward to the day when you join us on our digs, Fiona,” my mother said, ruffling my hair. My mother’s parents were Scots, and it’s from them I inherited my red hair, green eyes, and fair skin. “Archaeo-botany isn’t a discipline of its own yet, but I’m sure it will be one day.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “Already ancient grains, seeds, and even wine residues in pottery shards are being studied.”
We were breakfasting on yogurt, honey, figs, bread, and coffee on the terrace the sunny morning after our arrival at the hotel in Knossos. In a corner, at a small table sheltered by an umbrella, I noticed the man with the blond ponytail, sitting alone.
We returned to the hotel restaurant for lunch and a siesta and I saw him sitting at the bar, listening to a couple of patrons and the bartender.
It was the same the next day. He seemed to hang around the hotel and he was always alone. I thought he was probably a few years older than I, perhaps thirty to my twenty-five. Intrigued, I began to make up stories about him: he was a spy, waiting for his control to issue instructions, but the control was late arriving.
No, he was an arms dealer expecting a shipment of weapons from Izmir and the boat had run into rough seas, pirates, or perhaps the Greek version of the Coast Guard.
No, he was a twenty-first century version of Rudolf Rassendyll, waiting for the yearly visit from an emissary bearing the gift of a single perfect rose from his true love.
Once or twice I thought I saw him looking at me, but dismissed it. I was here to find out what had happened to Great-Uncle Alan. The family legend had it that Alan had gone to Greece for a holiday and stayed away for six months instead of two weeks. He came back but behaved very strangely, selling nearly all his possessions—his clothes, his furniture and books, even his car. His job, of course, had disappeared. After a month or two he went to Greece again and this time he didn’t come back. The family discovered later that he’d liquidated all his investments, withdrawn all his savings, and in general, left almost nothing behind. They made inquiries at the Greek consulate, but all they found out was that he’d last been seen at Knossos in 1960, when he was thirty years old. After that no trace of him was ever found—no drowned body washing up on the shore, no skeleton discovered in a cave, nothing.
It was possible, of course, that he’d been murdered for his money and camera and his body buried hastily in some stony field, but this explanation did not satisfy me. A feeling persisted that there was more to his disappearance than an unfortunate accident or outright murder, and I was determined to get to the bottom of it.
After three days my parents decided to fly back to Boston. Both were affiliated with a university there, teaching classes and leading students on summer digs in Europe and the Middle East.
“How long will you stay, darling?” my mother asked, hugging me one more time before stepping into the taxi where my father and the driver were waiting.
“Oh, probably another few days,” I said, deliberately cagey. In truth, I wasn’t sure what my plans were: I only knew that something was compelling me to stay in Knossos.
I waved as the taxi prepared to depart, calling out, “I’ll email! Bye!”
My mother waved back, the taxi took off, and I turned back, intending to have a coffee on the terrace while I thought about what to do next.
The man—the spy, the arms dealer, or innocent tourist like myself—gave me a brief glance from his corner table, then lowered his gaze to his newspaper. It was in Greek, of course.
Driven by an odd restlessness, I went back to the temple site—well, some people called it the palace of King Minos—and walked around part of it, wondering about the people who had built it thousands of years ago and why I felt so drawn to it. The place was too large for a casual walk. It must have been a huge complex filled with busy citizens in its heyday.
As the sun set I stood at the North Portico with its red columns and fresco of the charging bull. The air around me was warm and still. There was an odd feeling, as if someone or something were waiting, but although I looked around carefully, I saw no one. Nothing moved except a slight breeze; there were no sounds other than the buzzing of some insect or other.
Vaguely dissatisfied, I climbed down the steps and went back to the hotel to shower and change from my shorts and blouse to a light summer dress and sandals. I ate dinner by myself on the terrace, which was strung with little lanterns arranged in the top branches of potted ficus trees. The sky above me was indigo and the strolling players with their bouzoukis and floyeras, something like American guitars and flutes, made music that I listened to with only half an ear. Somehow I felt that Knossos held the key to Great-Uncle Alan’s disappearance.
The mystery man sat by himself at his usual table, attired in a well-cut gray suit. As I passed him on the way back to my hotel room I thought he must be rather well off, whoever he was. The cut of that suit practically screamed “expensive.”
I read my book for half an hour, turned out the bedside lamp, but couldn’t fall asleep. I’d left the long windows to my balcony open and the night breeze came through, a soft, whispery breeze that seemed to beckon me. Lying back on my pillows I could hear the hotel quieting down for the night; eventually, all was silent.
I could bear it no longer. I had to go back to the North Portico. Hastily, I put my shirt and shorts on, laced up my sneakers, grabbed a flashlight. The hotel key was a thin, flexible plastic card, and this I slipped into the pocket of my shorts.
Having walked to the temple site several times already, I had little difficulty finding it. By the time I reached it and found the steps to the North Portico again I was already wishing I’d brought my sweater: in Europe nights cool down quickly, even in summer. Using my small pencil flashlight to light my way up the steps, I was about to step in front of the charging bull fresco when suddenly a masculine voice rang out.
“Stop! Go no farther!”
“Oh, gods,” I thought. “It must be a security guard and here I am, illegally exploring!”
I heard footsteps on stone, then felt a presence near me, heard the sound of his breathing. I heard a click, then his penlight was playing over my face.
“So it is you,” he said. “I thought it might be.”
He turned the penlight on himself and I saw the speaker was the mystery man. He spoke English with an American accent. It was the first time I’d ever heard him speak.
Still paralyzed with fear, I heard my voice quaver as I asked, “What do you mean? Who are you?”
“My name is Jolyon. And you are?”
“Well, Fiona,” Jolyon said, “I’ve been waiting for you to arrive. I didn’t know whether you’d be young or old, man or woman.” He chuckled. “I’m glad to find you’re a young woman and a very pretty one at that.”
“You haven’t answered my question,” I said, feeling more confident. “Why are you here? Who are you?”
He had a nice voice. I liked listening to it, but when he next spoke, his words transfixed me, turned me to living stone as surely as a glance from the dreadful snake-haired Medusa would have.
“Why, I’m the son of Alan Robertson, and I’ve come to take you to him.”
“Where is he?”
“Here at Knossos. Only…it’s the Knossos of 1450 B.C.E.”
End of Part I. Part II will appear on 1 July.