On my third day in Athens I sat at a small square table at the airport cafe watching a sleek Air India jet taxi down the runway, rise abruptly into the air, then break cloud cover and disappear from view. One of the seventy-nine passengers bound for London carried a passport that identified him as Evan Michael Tanner, American.
The passport lied. I am Evan Michael Tanner, American, and it was with mixed emotions that I watched my passport wing its way out of my life.
Across the table from me, Georgios Melas raised his glass in a silent toast to the departing plane. I lifted my own and sipped ouzo. It tasted like licorice whips on the tongue, like fire in the chest.
“You are unhappy,” Georgios said.
“And on such a magnificent day!”
“A cloudy day.”
“A few clouds-”
“It’s getting cold. I think it’s going to rain.”
“Ah, and you worry about Pindaris on the plane. It will land safely in London, do not worry. And Pindaris will be safe in London.”
It would have been unworthy to admit that I was worried about Pindaris chiefly in his capacity as custodian of my passport. Pindaris was an intense young Greek from the island of Andros who had recently revealed his discontent with the Greek government by hurling a canister bomb at a car that then contained the Minister of Defense. The bomb had not gone off. The alarm had, however, and Pindaris was hotter than Death Valley at high noon.
Since Pindaris was a fellow member of the Pan-Hellenic Friendship Society and since his English was good enough to convince an Englishman that he was an American, it had seemed only proper that I turn my passport over to him. He in turn had sworn on his mother’s grave that he would have the passport returned to my apartment in New York.
“It will be home before you are,” he had said more than once. And I could well believe it.
I sipped more ouzo, comforting myself with the thought that the passport would have been of little use to me for the near future. Once I crossed the Yugoslav border, a passport with my name on it would become a distinct liability. It would only serve to identify me to the Yugoslav authorities, who would respond by hanging me. I had once started a revolution in Yugoslavia, and such activity is apt to render one persona non grata almost anywhere.
Georgios motioned for more ouzo. “It is a noble thing you have done, Evan,” he said solemnly. “The Pan-Hellenic Friendship Society will not be quick to forget this.”
“To the Society,” I said, and we drank again. But for the Pan-Hellenic Friendship Society, my passport would not have been en route to London at that very moment. But for the Latvian Army-In-Exile, I would not have been on my way to Latvia. But for the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization, I would not have been preparing to slip across the Yugoslav frontier at the first opportunity.
And yet, I had to admit, all of this was not entirely true. As it happened, I was on my way to Latvia because I did not want to go to Colombia and because Karlis Mielovicius was my friend. Karlis was also a Lett, and Letts are incurable romantics, and Karlis was a Lett with his home in Providence, Rhode Island, and his heart in Riga, Latvia.
That’s why I was going to Latvia.
I was going by way of Macedonia not because it was the shortest way to Latvia or the safest way to Latvia or the most sensible way to Latvia.
I was going to Macedonia to see my son.
In Georgios’ house on the outskirts of Athens he and I drank still more ouzo while his wife stuffed tender vine leaves with rice and pine nuts and minced lamb. After dinner we switched to coffee. It was raining outside, as I had thought it might. We warmed ourselves in front of the wood fire, and I opened my flat leather satchel and took out a small charcoal sketch.
It showed a baby, and the baby looked like a baby. Cameras are scarce in Macedonia, and artists there have not been forced into abstraction by the advance of technology. Their task, as they see it, is to convey as well as possible the exact appearance of whatever it is they are drawing. This particular unknown artist had been drawing a baby, and that’s exactly what the sketch looked like.
“A beautiful baby,” I said aloud.
Georgios and his wife examined the sketch and agreed with my estimation. “He resembles you,” Zoe Melas said. “About the eyes and I think the mouth as well.”
“He’s plump like his mother.”
“He is in New York?”
“He is in Macedonia.”
“Ah,” she said. “And you go to see him?”
“Tonight!” She darted a look of alarm at Georgios, then fastened her gaze upon me. “But it is a long journey,” she said, “and you have been awake since early this morning. You were sitting before the fire when I myself arose. You could not have had much sleep last night.”
I had not had any sleep the past night. Nor, indeed, had I had any sleep in the past seventeen years, ever since a piece of North Korean shrapnel found its way into my skull and destroyed something called the sleep center, all of which was a source of considerable confusion to the army physicians, who wondered why the hell I seemed to be awake twenty-four hours a day, day after blessed day. Since the phenomenon confuses ordinary mortals as well as doctors, I didn’t bother explaining it to Zoe and Georgios. I said only that I was not at all tired and that I wanted to get to Macedonia as soon as possible.
“I might arrange for a car,” Georgios said.
“I would appreciate it.”
“The Society has many friends. One could obtain a car and drive you north toward the border. But as for crossing the border-”
“I can manage that.”
“The frontier is fortified.”
“You have crossed before?”
I nodded. I had crossed from Yugoslavia into Greece a few months before my son was born and on that occasion I was escorting a Slovak Nazi in a cataleptic coma. Tonight’s trip figured to be comparatively simple.
“You will want warm clothes,” Georgios said.
“Perhaps you would be better off wearing the clothing of a peasant.”
“And you will need food,” Zoe said. “I will pack food for you. Meat and cheese and bread.”
“That would be good.”
“And brandy,” Georgios said.
I was on my way well before midnight. I wore thick-soled shoes and heavy overalls and a worn leather jacket with several sweaters beneath it. Between two of these sweaters I had tucked my leather satchel. On my lap I had a small cloth sack that Zoe had packed with food and in my pocket I had a flat pint bottle that Georgios had filled with Metaxa brandy.
My driver was a silent, thick-bodied Greek whose main interest lay in testing the legendary durability of his little Volkswagen. The roads north of Athens were a far cry from turnpikes, but he bounced the car over ruts and spun it around curves with the resolution of one who is convinced of his own immortality. In Thessalia our road wound its way through some fairly impressive mountains, with tortuous curves and sheer drops on either side. I tried not to look out the window. When this proved difficult, I sat back in my seat and numbed myself with little nips from the bottle of brandy.
By the time dawn was breaking, the Volkswagen had gone as far as my driver intended it should go. He stopped at a farmhouse a few miles from Velvendos in the Greek sector of Macedonia. The farmer was a comrade who would give him food and a place to sleep until he was ready for the trip back to Athens. I shared the last of the bottle with him, and we drank deeply to the glory that was and would again be Greece. We shook hands warmly. He hurried off to the shelter of the farmhouse, and I walked through a gray and drizzling dawn toward the Yugoslav frontier.
I spent a few hours walking and slipping into character. For three days I had been speaking and thinking in Greek and now I had to shift mental gears and switch to the strain of Bulgarian spoken in Macedonia. I have been fluent in the language for several years, and it was only a question of making the proper mental adjustment. Languages have always come easily to me, and the more languages a person knows, the easier it is to add another to the string. All it takes is time.
And time is one commodity of which I am rarely in short supply. My endless insomnia has meant rather more to me than the $112 a month partial disability payment the Army graciously pays me. It has meant that I have at my disposal a full twenty-four hours a day, not the usual sixteen or so. Such an abundance of waking hours permits one to learn any number of languages and embrace any number of lost causes.
Here too a mental adjustment was required. I had spent time with Greek members of the Pan-Hellenic Friendship Society and was now heading toward members of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization. The Pan-Hellenists dreamed of a restoration of the old Greek empire, while the IMRO comrades pledged their lives to the vision of a Macedonia free and independent, independent not only of Yugoslavia but of Greece as well. My Pan-Hellenist brothers and my IMRO brothers would have cheerfully slit one another’s throats.
By midmorning the rain had let up entirely. I practiced my Bulgarian on a succession of peasants who carried me a few miles each in donkey carts. I flashed IMRO signs at each of them. One or two seemed to recognize the signs but chose to ignore them, but ultimately a bull-necked goatherd with a thick brown moustache offered the appropriate countersign, and I gave him an abbreviated version of who I was and where I wanted to go.
“Evan Tanner,” he said. “Who made the revolution in Tetovo.”
“Todor Prolov will rejoice in your arrival.”
“Todor died in the revolution. When the Serb troops crushed the revolutionary spirit of the people of Tetovo, Todor was killed.”
“But his sister Mischa lives-”
“His sister is Annalya.”
“Ah. As I have never seen you before, a test was in order. You bear me no resentment?”
“I am not the sort to resent caution.”
He took a wedge of cheese from a sack in the back of his cart and cut sections for each of us. We washed down the cheese with resinous wine. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and asked in a whisper if I planned to start another rebellion.
“It is not time,” I said.
“I agree. We must gather our forces. One may be impatient for open revolution, but in the meantime we put thorns in the side of the Belgrade dictatorship. An act of sabotage, an assassination – it is better to provoke, to sting like a hornet, for the time being. You agree?”
“And you go where? To Tetovo?”
“For a special purpose?”
“To see my son,” I said. I dug out the sketch and unfolded it. “My son,” I said.
He studied it, nodded. “A good likeness.”
“You’ve seen him?”
“Who has not? It is said that one day he will lead Macedonia.” He looked at the sketch, then at me. “A strong resemblance. But Annalya and the boy no longer live in Tetovo. The authorities… it would be unsafe. They are in a village not far from Kavadar. You know where that is?”