James Thackara
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The Book of Kings
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Ahab's Daughter

Ahab's Daughter


Here is another local story no one talks about. John Cooper’s favourite sister Isabel married for love a gentle Falmouth man, whose only ambition was to go on travelling the farms of Vermont tasting maple syrup for the Log Cabin company. For three years they lived wrapped up in each other, in a white clapboard house humbler even than the one Isabel had been raised in. Then one trip the unthinkable happened. Snowed in with an upstate widow whose syrup was the most subtly perfumed in all Vermont, Isabel’s husband for one hour forgot his vows. Returning home, he confessed to Isabel on his knees and in a downpour of tears the pair vowed to rebuild their perfect happiness as if nothing had happened. They even went through a second marriage ceremony. But soon the gentle taster began drinking, and turned fat. Isabel grew chattery and dishevelled. Sometimes they did not speak to each other for a month. Then the husband’s language grew coarse. He began to pick fights with neighbours in Falmouth bars. One such night John Cooper received a call at the Neck. His sister had shot herself.

Catching the fleeting look on the girl’s face, almost like an excruciating boredom, the Coopers were aware of an unaffected grace, almost a glamour which had come among them. And yet how? The girl had been raised by Nantucket Sound without society or fashion magazines. She neither smoked, drank or had ever seen a nightclub. How did Kate know how to rope her hair up this pleasantly? Or to sew her dress-waist so it caught the line of her hip? Who had taught her the way her head balanced on her long neck? Where had her face taken on its contradictory look of innocence, wisdom and contained passion, or been tutored in such a range of subtle expressions, each of which melted its image on the hardest memory? Above all, was this a kind of goodness? Or was it evil?

Kate walked to it. She sat with a blissful sigh, leaned the chair back into the cool, and squinted over the shady tables at the sea waiting beyond, mysteriously iridescent as some great blue-green jewel set in sand. Instant coffee appeared on her oilcloth, and a condensed milk can. Sliced bread and butter on a plate of honey the colour of dark amber, so strong it seemed spiced. It was the best cup of coffee Kate had ever had. Presently the Greek sat by the next table and crossed his legs. His faint smile betrayed nothing.

“You are American?”

“Uhuh, from around Boston.” Kate stared frankly back.


“America is interesting...I would like to see America,” he said presently.
  “Well, this is pretty beautiful,” Kate said, keeping down her sharp impatience. “But we do have a lot of wilderness.”

“Maybe there is nothing left to shoot in America - except people.” The air around Kate was suddenly oven hot. “What do you mean?” she asked coldly.

“You know the prison island...that way?”

“No,” Kate felt herself forced to admit. It was not like being ignorant with Mr Wind.

“Your government knows,” the Greek’s incredibly gentle musical voice said.

Seeming to lose interest in the conversation, the man suddenly got up. He walked alertly to the front of his tables and stated out. Fists on hips. Kate thought there had never been anyone she disliked so much. Anyway, he was not going to spoil the morning.

Guessing, Kate put down fifteen drachmas. She took her book and started out from the shady tables. Towards the right, where she had seen a second beach beyond the peninsula. There was a shout behind her.


Kate turned, too angry to let this Greek see her be impolite or the burning of her American feet. Wiping perspiration from her eyes, she saw him trudge towards her carrying something. Again stopping two paces from Kate, the man help out a paper bag and a small bottle of greenish oil.

“For the sun,” he said vaguely. “You know, Elia means Hell.”

For after the first giddiness of physical fear at the word mobilisation, Kate saw from her cousin’s amused grin that everything was all right, and he would keep anything from happening to her. And in none of the politics this Greek had talked afterwards, did Kate understand a word having anything to do with her, any more than hearing the name “Katerina”. Kate did not think about her father’s feeling about Reds, or how the only Communist he had ever seen was off Cape Cod in the cockpit of another warplane.

Mark went springily down to the sea carrying the plastic bag. They stood side by side, cooling their soles in the crystal shallows. Out there somewhere were the Turks. After a very long time, neither cousin looking at the other, Kate hung her head. She watched the little fish tickle her ankles.



“This isn’t going to be our last day,” she said.

“I know.”

His voice was as serious as hers. For the longest minute of her life, Kate could not speak. Her heart beat in her ears. She dug her toes in the cold sand.

“Can I ask you something?”

“What is it?”

“That you’ll never never tell my father/”

“I never will, Kate.”

“Swear it. Swear you never will.”

“I swear it. I swear I never will.”

Hearing his smile, Kate looked up triumphantly. Then she frowned away into the long blank horizon of gray haze.

“Let’s go over to the next beach,” she said proudly. “I’ll show you my place.”
  Later that day as the orange caique  heaved theatrically, running back in through the breakwater, the bereted sailor jumped to the rail shouting and babbling. The big steamer was anchor-chained into the wind outside the harbour walls. And then Kate Cooper heard, in the gale, the silence over the thousands of staring Greek troops. Alone on the fantail, hands on hips, her thick bush of red-blonde hair floating up on the hot wind, the American girl heard shouting break out. Crackling along the decks high above, it became a roar. A roar not of teasing hoots, but a crude insistent bellow of hate, wounded and ignorant as some animal trapped in stone passages. Rows and rows of red male faces and waving arms, thundering down at her. Kate had come up all goose flesh. She was too shocked to jump down.

The amplified voice took on a hysterical note. There was a sullen murmur of voices. Kate’s head snapped right, stomach fluttering. The boy next to Lucas had jumped to his feet. He waved this clenched beret with a series of babbling cries. Across the room, an older man rose. The strident men’s voices had been replaced by a soft cool one, reciting rhythmically. The old gentleman motioned to Kate. He held her head against his lips. Kate did not mind.

“That was the government telling our men,” the gravely voice spat in Kate’s ear, “the Turks are inhuman barbarians...will rape their mothers, make their sons useless. They have promised to burn every Greek crop and house, and pervert Greek youth. Now they are calling up the local regiments,” Lucas’ whisper spat in Kate’s ear. “They are calling the numbers on the cards.”

For ten minutes the girl sat quite still with Lucas in this room of men with only the occasional movement of a cigarette. And though Kate had been scared of so many little things, she was without fear of this brutal incomprehensible thing.

Then again the three were in the hot latticed shade with two cold retsina bottles, and the most classical food in the world.

“Couldn’t the government in Athens fall?” Mark went on.

Iannis hesitated, examining his cooking. After waiting seven years it was no moment to be impulsive. But this American’s enthusiasm and great education excited his trust. And there was the girl, most certainly there was the girl. Iannis ran the knife delicately through the baked flesh of a tomato, spilling meat, raisins and pinolas.

“You know this, pedhimu? When a baby cries, it is to teach the father how to love. And when the people cry, pedhimu...that is to teach those above who have forgotten them. And when the ways of the elite are too old, when they cannot find the new way to love,” Iannis said slowly, intently, “then, pedhimu, the crying of the people is full of hate. And again and again those above will answer with hate,” he said. “But listen, their hate is impotent. It is only the fear of sacrificing their old ways. It is the hatred of fear. But the hatred of the people is the hatred of love. You see the crying of the people is cruel, pedhimu, but it is true. And this is (how do you say?), is the travail of history, this crying of the people until the old ways fail.”

Ahab's Daughter
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