Not the Archive, but the Sieve
i asked myself
The house will have been as empty as always, on the night that Aphrodite comes to propose they go on a tour of Europe. No one else to hear or see the minute shift of draft and current that unsettles the air when Aphrodite appears at the balcony window. No one else to feel the tremor rising from the ground when Aphrodite alights upon the edge of Sappho’s bed and begins to tug at her feet, beginning with the smallest toe.
Sappho rolls over, still partially swimming inside her dream. She opens her eyes, rubs the sleep out of them to open them wider, until the room in front of her comes into focus. She is not yet awake.
Realizing: Today I am still alive; today; yes, still.
Having not yet been awake. Then she will see Aphrodite. Aphrodite, looking at her in amusement, pointing to her own chin, saying, “Drool.”
atthis i write this to you not to praise your hair which is i can only presume as silken as ever nor your scent which is i can only presume as knee-buckling as ever nor your voice which is i can only presume as life-ending as ever but to ask for your help for your help in these circumstances in which i find myself and barring that which might serve as your help then at least to send at the very least to send some sign some sign which would itself be help enough in the way that an echo from a voice not my own is help
atthis i am sorry i lied to you i am not writing but you know this
atthis these things happened that is not a lie
Sappho is twenty-six hundred years old. Or more, or less. She no longer knows her birth date, nor her birthplace. Though she has her assumptions. Assumptions make up the bulk of her knowledge. She knows there are books that gesture widely or cautiously towards her origins. She does not read such books. That she is still alive seems to her such an accidental thing that she can just as easily say, I am thirty-four years old, I am seventy years old, or seventeen years old. Indeed, it is possible that she is seventeen years old. How would she know otherwise? She no longer knows very well what a seventeen-year-old girl should look like. Or, what she, at seventeen, should look like. By now she is given to fabrications and assumptions. And assumptions.
And why not. Why not something else, someone else, anything else, anyone else. Than this face, these arms, this body. This damned and persistent body. And who is to say. Who is left to say.
Why should she not be, in fact, a seventeen-year-old girl named Semra. A seventeen-year-old girl named Semra, who likes poetry and bewilders her parents. A seventeen-year-old girl named Semra, every member of her family and three of her unrequited loves killed. A seventeen-year-old girl named Semra, alone, being driven in the back of a van to a meeting point on a coast. A seventeen-year-old girl named Semra, on a raft with a crowd, now being thrown into the sea. Wearing rubber Nike sandals, surrounded by corpses, covered in vomit and urine and seaweed. A seventeen-year-old girl named Semra, now brought unconscious in a police van to a former warehouse, five minutes from a hotel named after a famous poet who is not Sappho. A seventeen-year-old girl named Semra, now waking up to the smell of vomit and urine and shit, flat on her back on a bottom bunk, an exposed mattress spring in her ass. Daydreaming until she passes out again. A seventeen-year-old girl named Semra, having now slept in every article of clothing she owns.
Instead of the poet Sappho. The poet Sappho, still alive. Not drowning, not drowned. Squatting in some German or Dutch family’s abandoned vacation home in Greece. Now on a road trip through Europe with the goddess Aphrodite.
Who is left to say.
There are five daily flights from Lesbos to Athens. Sappho, who is not quite yet totally awake, finds herself with a ticket to the first one without quite knowing how. In the airport Aphrodite tells her to follow her, to do everything just as she does.
Sappho has never seen so many hurrying people. She is startled by the immediacy of their faces. This, perhaps, because of the airport’s fluorescent lighting. Within it, faces are not flattened and edgeless the way they sometimes become in sunlight or candlelight. Here, each feature is revealed in exaggerated relief. Even women wearing heavy make-up cannot hide the nudity of their faces. She can see the gnarled and broken former face—the face of infancy—underneath the powder, the over-drawn eyebrows; or the cigarette, the unattended beard, the loose glasses. Contour, shadow, wrinkle. In this light they are all vulnerable as children caught stealing; held, exposed.
All, except for Aphrodite, whom the light passes through, not upon. Aphrodite, who remains taller than the others, opaque and translucent as marble. She is not illuminated.
Sappho and Aphrodite stand in three different lines, each longer than the first. At each stop, they are asked to show their passports. They show the German passports that Aphrodite has procured. At each stop, Sappho waits to be discovered in their deceit. Instead they are boredly directed to the security checkpoint. They join another line. They are again surrounded by more people than Sappho can count. She has never seen so many sports logos at one time. Men in track suits or oversized leather jackets. Sweet smell of tobacco smoke. Just in front of Aphrodite, a woman with large earrings protests as a guard throws away a pot of face cream. The woman makes a fuss over the cost of the cream. Woman and guard throw their hands up with the same gestures, in flawless choreography.
The future passengers watch, complain, orate, yet they talk at each other more than to each other. They protect their separateness, as it protects them. All exchanges must retain the purity and economy of the coincidental. Even two men who meet each other in this line, who find they come from the same city, speak the same dialect, and make the same casually racist jokes, will discover that, because of their surroundings, they cannot—indeed, do not wish to—turn their insipid banter into friendship. If they had met in a bar they might now be sharing photographs of their grandchildren. But none of that here, now. And when it is one man’s turn to cross the line, to pass through the censor, he does so without looking back at his new acquaintance. Like knights who know they are to fight the ultimate battle alone. He has entered a new and serious realm. Others are being taken away to be more intimately examined. He is watchful, watched. A joke he might have made in light conversation he keeps to himself. Now he must be careful.
Only when he has made it over to the other side does he remember talking to someone, some other man, a man who in a few minutes will not even survive into his memory. Now, only now, he turns back and spares an awkward wave—perhaps a yell of “Alles Gute!”—to the other man, who himself is now most likely completely preoccupied with surrendering to the censor.
Perhaps if it is not quite yet the second man’s turn to empty his own pockets and bags and walk barefoot towards the waiting guards, he, too, will spare a moment to wave back, to yell, “You, too!” across the border that divides them. But they have both already lost the vein of their conversation. Forgetting works swiftly. Now the second man is lifting his arms so the guards can wave a scanner over his body looking for hidden weapons, explosives, criminal possessions. His arms, his belly, his groin, his ass, his anus, the back of his legs. The first man has already disappeared into the crowd.
Then the guard nods, and he is unleashed, at last. He retrieves his bags. He re-ties his shoelaces. Now he begins to walk. He is out of breath. All of his clothes now fit less comfortably than before. The clothes in his bag will wrinkle. He has a craving for something salty, or something very, very sweet. He remembers, or thinks for the first time, that he wants to buy a newspaper, a magazine. There is no more first man, no more second man.
One day every two weeks or so, Sappho buys toiletries, spices, the food she needs for her meals. She buys vegetables and fruit at supermarkets. No one notices the woman with the ageless face; she has outlived every worker at every supermarket, they disappear and are replaced faster than she can realize it herself. She does not like the open market that she sometimes passes on the way to the supermarket: the spectacle of men offering fig slices, shining eggplants, fishing boats, fisherwomen boasting in English the odorlessness—and thus the freshness—of their catch, haggling Germans, local men wearing Yankees caps, eager to brag about their children or grandchildren in New York. People in their places. Sappho is only slightly aware of where New York is.
She prefers the indifference of the supermarket. Though hers is somewhat smaller, not quite a supermarket but larger than a convenience or liquor store. It is a chain of stores, but she knows only this one, has never visited another link in the chain. She is comforted by the wall of repetition she faces there each week. Teas, preserved meats, facial lotions, notebooks, cereals, sanitary pads, honeys, salts, peppers. All of the items blend into one mottled complexion. The row for candies and chocolates is particularly intriguing, though Sappho has tried most of them, and the differences are negligible. Sappho always chooses the cheapest version of everything, except for tea; she finds the cheaper teas too bitter.
Once a month or so, she is frenzied with something quite unlike real hunger and finds herself buying piles of food, which she eats in one seemingly continuous gesture over several days, until she is sick: large refrigerated pizzas in “French” flavor, plastic-wrapped vanilla-rum cakes with persipan centers, frozen packages of “riz à la cantonaise” with a caption promising exotic flavors over an illustration of steaming rice dotted with diced bits of chicken and vegetables, tins of assorted Danish butter cookies not made in Denmark, canned pâté, packets of chewing gum, leftover and marked-down boxes of holiday chocolates.
All of the money she owns is given to her by Aphrodite. Bags, sometimes small suitcases of money. She also has a bank account, into which Aphrodite regularly deposits an allowance. Sappho has been instructed not to actually use this account. It exists only to automatically pay the utilities for her home. The bank, the electricity companies, the water companies; all take what they require, in pious silence, with subtly and sometimes not-so-subtly exponential increases. For everyday purchases, she must pay with cash. Some five or so years ago, Aphrodite sent her a letter, instructing her to bring her drachmas to the bank and exchange them for euros. Sappho, cautiously welcomed by the teller, who calls the supervisor, who looks at her, who accepts her money without saying anything. Anxious Sappho and her pleather crocodile-embossed handbag spilling over with money.
Sometimes she has had to go without money. When Aphrodite is tardy in her visits. In the event of such occasions, Sappho has learned to keep her cabinets well-stocked. Though she has occasionally starved. But, she is, she thinks, still alive.
And so, she has lived on the same mountain, for nearly three thousand years. The only changes have been to the plumbing, the lighting. Her companions on the mountain where she lives: olive and pine trees, grass, poppies, imagined sheep and goats, distant Mercedes buses half-full of tourists. Byzantine ruins, which she pre-dates.
And in the distance, the sea. The silhouette of Lydia. A wrecked ship. Or perhaps she is mixing it all up. Somewhere nearby there is a petrified forest; she has overheard tourists talk about it, but she herself has never visited.
Meanwhile her name has, throughout the centuries, spread over everything on the island. In this town alone there are two hotels, a restaurant and a cinema, all named in reference to her. Those are only the ones she has seen; there may be others. As for the entire island, she cannot guess the number of restaurants, nightclubs, traveling agencies, bookstores that carry her name. All “paying homage.” On her weekly excursion into the city for groceries, she notes female couples, looking for monuments to their beloved poet. Once, she followed a couple to one such monument, and upon arrival was struck dumb, having no particular memory of the place, nor of any tender relationship she supposedly shared with it. This name has proven to be extremely lucrative.
Sappho does not know what to do with any of this. She knows there are multiple versions of herself in the world. The woman with the instruments and songs and poems seems to her a stranger, a ghost from another country whose name and memories she has merely stepped inside, to work and live. More and more she feels she has nothing to do with what has become of that name and those memories. Time and human accident have denatured them. So that when she reaches within herself to grope at what is necessary, original and significant, she finds only: bits of girls, petals, honeybees, trees, worship, purple, rocks, expensive textiles, cloaks, haughtiness, lost wealth, varieties of moon.
Whether these are actual memories or only residues of the things she has read about herself, she no longer knows. How many “poems” are attributed to Sappho. She does not know. Priests and clerks and criminals have guarded, burned, altered, censored or translated her words through the ages, through various tongues. Indeed Sappho can no longer remember the majority of (what are said to be) her own poems. She is like a student who once studied these works with great devotion, only to forget each word following the exam, with the passing of hours, days, weeks, not even years. It seems impossible to her, the idea that she could have once been sure of so much, knowing as she does now that she can be sure of nothing. There is nothing firm and safe and dirt-covered within her. If and when she does remember something, she no longer knows if she is remembering a poem because she remembers the first act of inventing it, or because she has read someone else’s transcription and translation of it. There is now a chorus of voices named Sappho. And she is not convinced that her own voice belongs among them.
What to do with these things. The things that survived. But they have survived beyond her, in defiance of her. They all mean something else now, to people she does not know. She is more a tourist to herself than all the visitors to Lesbos. At best, another version or translation. When she reads a book of “her” poems, it is as though she is reading the work of any other author. She is mute and awestruck as if gazing upon a cave wall. The words gleam up at her in their absolute autonomy. She must give herself up to them, as to anything else. She has no secret doors or insights. She has no idea what the word lépton means. She has to guess.
Sappho and Aphrodite draw closer to the security checkpoint. Aphrodite leans her mouth next to Sappho’s ear, instructs her to remove her shoes, her jacket, her bag. She tells her to place everything in gray plastic bins stacked next to a conveyor belt. All this she says in a voice that sounds like singing.
Sappho obeys, then stands shivering in her thin sweater. She is comforted to see that other passengers around her also shiver, rub themselves, shift from one socked foot to another. Some of their socks have holes at the toes, sometimes a left sock is more faded than a right sock, or they are two entirely different and unmatching socks. They all shuffle alongside their plastic bins, which glide and stammer toward the scanner.
Now it is Aphrodite and Sappho’s turn to be examined. A security guard behind a computer screen asks them in English, “Are you carrying a laptop or any liquids?” Aphrodite says “No,” smiles, tilts her head. A guard on the other side of the metal detector beckons her toward him. The movement of his fingers is coquettish. Aphrodite walks through the metal detector in mock-respectful obedience, smiling.
While Sappho waits for her turn, Aphrodite speaks with the guard patrolling the detector. They joke, giggle. They are speaking in English. Sappho can only see Aphrodite’s backside. Her ponytail, which quivers. Aphrodite pats the guard on the shoulder, walks away to collect her things as they appear on the other side of the scanner. The guard turns back to Sappho at the head of the line still waiting on the other side of the metal detector. Still laughing, he beckons to Sappho without looking directly at her. She walks forward. Like, Aphrodite, she makes no sound. But she does not talk, giggle, pat. She does not know how to flirt her way into favor.
The detector does not make a sound. The guard waves her towards her belongings. Sappho lets out a breath she had been unaware of holding. She has come through. She is now on the other side.
Aphrodite is already walking away. Hurriedly Sappho puts on her shoes, jacket, follows the golden ponytail into the crowd. But then, suddenly, Sappho turns back as if she has remembered, or forgotten, something. But she does not recognize anyone behind her. She has no one to wave to, no one on the other side to whom she can yell “Good luck!” And no one who will wish her the same.
When Sappho finally catches up to her, Aphrodite is saying, “is already boarding, but I kind of want some M&Ms.”
Sappho does not write. No, this is not true. Now she writes; sometimes she writes. Lists of items for grocery shopping. Underlining in books, sometimes heavy underlining. But she has never been a writer, a word she has learned only recently. Though recently for Sappho could mean a thousand years ago.
Sometimes she is struck with fear, and writes down a single word, like with or wenige or tan. To her, all these acts of writing feel like the movements of a mute person pointing wildly to some item of dubious importance. Though when she returns to some of these notes and lines later, they seem like random or foreign symbols, as if someone else has left these lines or notes here for someone else to find and use.
She mistrusts etymology, which seems more like mythology to her now. She does not wish to rely so much on the antique skeletal past of words, not when the immediate present has already left such patina, has already gnarled everything into unrecognizability. She now knows better than to rely on the word. Mortal, after all.
Thus, she is a relative newcomer to words as they exist now, on signs, in books, on labels for sanitary pads, in the mouths of others. Goodbye, should we meet at three then? Dig your own grave. Ich hasse Fisch! She turned and said, “Well, then, I guess this is goodbye, Tommy.” They look good on you, buy them, they’re so cheap anyway. I wouldn’t recognize him if I met him on the street. How long have you been living here. Come with me, I know somebody who lives there, he’ll help you out. Ne pas utilisez si le scellant est brisé. Zur Erhaltung der Funktionalität insbesondere daher bitte nicht biegen, perforieren oder extremen Temperaturen oder extremer Feuchtigkeit ansetzen. But the secret is to use a sweet white wine. What else is new.
Every word enters her, clattering like shoes over a threshold, like the chime hung on a doorframe. They push their own opinions upon her, make outlandish demands of her. Caught as she is in speech like a prawn.
This, also, because the language she now speaks and writes and thinks in is not her own, or is mostly no longer her own. Or, is indeed her own but no one else’s. Though Aphrodite can still understand and speak it. Patched together as it is now with English, French and German. She had only been taught about language after having already lost hers. The first one, the only one—or, rather, losing the world around it.
Nor does she find any solace in chronology. How many times has she read an epigraph in one book, then encountered that very epigraph again in another book, but as a sentence of its own, now in its original, past context. She has no footholds in time. She knows that she is that epigraph, lifted from its text. Standing alone on a blank page. Carrying a trace or prophecy of what will come, which is already in the past. The context is always replaced, never her.
Confused, dissolved in words. For these sand hills of years they have kept her company. She does not romanticize this fact. Nothing in her ancient solitude has enriched her relationship with words. They warp, rot. Sometimes she says certain words over and over in her mind, turning the word tree into a statue of itself. Or she forgets other words altogether. They fall away like eyelashes, new hair shoots forth. Trying to remember the word in a poem, the German or English word Altar comes to her, fast and eager and young. But the first word does not come. She can no longer hear it. She “would not recognize it on the street if they were to pass each other.”
Now she knows, she is certain: she is not that character in the story—but she cannot remember which story it is, or who wrote it, or where she read it—the character who remembers everything, the one who cannot forget, the one driven mad by memories that cannot be erased.
That particular burden is not for her. She is not the museum, not the encyclopedia, not the archive, but the sieve—
after all this
In the plane Sappho is assigned the window seat and Aphrodite the aisle seat. Aphrodite takes the window seat and gives Sappho the aisle seat. Aphrodite pulls out her ponytail, combs her hair over her shoulder. She spreads a map of Europe across their food trays, points at variously colored countries, says she would like to go here and here and here. Each here is a place Sappho has never been. Even this plane is a first here.
Sappho says nothing, only nods in the gaps of silence Aphrodite has left for her nodding. She is thinking of the habits and comforts she has left in Lesbos. Books she has been reading. Certain sweaters she may or may not need. Aphrodite in her bedroom, tapping her fingers against the window, saying, “Don’t forget to bring the passport I gave you. You’ve kept it in a safe place, right?”
Several years ago, Aphrodite took her to have her photograph taken, in the city, and a few weeks later presented her with a German passport, which Sappho had kept in a drawer underneath socks that were not hers, and which she produced again upon Aphrodite’s instructions, on the night they began their trip. “Good,” Aphrodite had said. Then: “Don’t wear those sweatpants, wear the nice dark blue jeans I gave you.”
Now, on the plane, Sappho looks down at her hands in her lap. She sees the gleam of Aphrodite’s gestures flash into her view, then disappear again. Sappho’s hand is darker than Aphrodite’s.
The two of them have always been described in these terms: Aphrodite’s height and goldenness, Sappho’s smallness and darkness. Sappho sometimes finds herself mistakenly thinking of Aphrodite not as golden, but as white; as someone inside whiteness. Mostly because she thinks of herself as dark, as actually inside darkness, or swarthiness, a word she is unsure is actually a word, or one she has made up.
In truth, their complexions are not so drastically different from each other. The colors are in the same family. Though not as dark as Sappho, Aphrodite is not quite a pale woman. Really it is the color of Aphrodite’s hair that gives off this impression of paleness. Sappho would have difficulty telling where she comes from. But that of course is the intended effect.
The plane begins to move. A flight attendant steps forward. A voice on the intercom begins to make a speech. Sappho discerns that they are making precautions, giving directions. What to do in the case of an emergency.
The flight attendant moves in tandem with the disembodied voice. She is constantly smiling. Sappho sees that she has small teeth. Sappho inhales sharply, thinking without thinking.
The flight attendant points to the left and right, to the back of the plane. Her hands move fluidly, gently. The voice echoing through the plane is equally gentle, soothing. Now the flight attendant slips on a yellow vest, buckles it slowly. She turns her head, holds up a plastic tube attached to the vest, blows softly into its opening. Her fingernails have been filed into short ovals, they are painted dark pink.
The disembodied voice continues with its narration. The flight attendant, smiling, pulls an oxygen mask from her pocket, places it superficially over her face. She mimes strapping it into place with the elastic band that hangs from the mouthpiece. But she does not actually attach the thing, Sappho notes. She keeps the contraption hovering several centimeters from her face. She is cautious, she does not want to be touched by it, she does not want it to ruffle her hair. Her stiffly constructed French braid.
Each of the flight attendant’s movements has an oracular conviction about it. Sappho has the feeling she is watching a minor ballet, or a performance in sign language. But Sappho does not understand, she does not know these symbols, these signals, she cannot put it all together.
Next to Sappho, Aphrodite is not watching the pantomime, but squirming in her chair, closing her eyes, slouching down, pulling at the waistband of her jeans, tapping her bared stomach, sliding her feet back and forth underneath the seat in front of her. She is in constant motion. As the feet pass into and out of view, Sappho sees that she is wearing white leather sandals with a low wedge heel and cutouts that reveal slices of her foot: back of the heel, tips of the toes, top of the foot, ankle bone, tendons.
Sappho turns away from these feet. She imagines these sandals were easy to slip off during the security check. She looks down at her own sneakers, which she did not buy for herself.
The flight attendant has finished her presentation. She removes the yellow vest, dangles it from her fingers, walks down the aisle toward the rear of the plane.
As she passes, the yellow vest scratches against Sappho’s hand, poised on the armrest. Sappho yelps in spite of herself; the plastic edge is surprisingly sharp. It has left an ashen white streak on the skin of her forearm. Sappho looks down at the scratch mark in wonder. The woman stops midstride, glances at Sappho and apologizes. Sappho looks up. The woman is smiling, with her small teeth.
Sappho, thinking without thinking, that she has always been turned on by small teeth.
The plane growls and lurches beneath them. The flight attendant continues on her path. Sappho’s arm is beginning to sting. And Aphrodite in the background, sliding her feet back and forth again, now singing to herself, “Lake Ohrid is the deepest lake in the Balkans . . .”
Yes, she lives alone on her island. Her only visitor is Aphrodite. And how often does Aphrodite visit? Once a month, twice? Because Sappho lives alone, she has a tenuous grasp on time. No one to tell her when dinner begins or when to meet for coffee or when to turn on or turn off the machines or when to turn on or off the lights. She knows, dimly, that most of the shops on her island still close around the same time as the sunset, though this varies. According to church events, national holidays.
Aphrodite has given her calendars. Sometimes Sappho follows them; for weeks at a time, she will strictly observe the progression of days. 6 December, 7 December, 8 December. Saturday, Sunday, Monday. But then the pull of her laziness or forgetfulness or numbness will take over, she will start to sink again, she will ignore the calendar, and be lost once more. Until she can re-surface, climb out, drag herself out of the mud. This pattern repeats itself over and over.
Indeed, repetition has been the distinctive feature of her survival. Rhythm of eating and shitting. Rhythm of daydreaming and sleeping. Rhythm of waiting. Waiting for Aphrodite, who comes and leaves when she likes. Daydreaming until she passes out again.
Sappho does not know where Aphrodite has spent the majority of the last thousands of years, where she stays when she is not climbing through Sappho’s window. She cannot predict when Aphrodite will appear, or how long she will stay. But she does come back. That, Sappho can say. She does come back. With a packages of Westphalian ham in her bag. Aphrodite hoarding the fat bits, as usual. Claiming loudly that Munich is the northernmost Italian city. Rhythm of coming back. A distinctive feature of.
Aphrodite once admitted that she came back to Greece only to visit Sappho. Sappho takes great pleasure in this, even if it is a lie. She has said that Lesbos is the only part of Greece that still feels like home to her. Otherwise the country is a house she has been forced to leave and she would rather not speak of it or even look upon most of it. This was one of the few times Aphrodite ever spoke solemnly to her.
Whenever Aphrodite does reappear, she is always as carefree as ever. As if no time had passed between her last visit and the current one. She has a careless, kingly regard for time. Sappho will be walking towards the kitchen, deep in her iterations, carrot in her hand. She will turn her head for seemingly no reason, towards the balcony that juts from her bedroom. No sound in the room. Even a dog would not have looked up. But it is not a balcony. It is a shore covered in seaweed, duct tape and equipment. It is a cavernous room with thirty bunk beds and more mattresses on the floor. For an imaginary life it isn’t bad, but look around you. A coughing infant but no no no no. Sappho closes her eyes, takes it back, opens her eyes again.
Deep in her iterations, carrot in hand. She will turn her head for seemingly no reason, towards the balcony that juts from her bedroom. No sound in the room. Even a dog would not have looked up. And there Aphrodite will be, opening the glass doors, swinging her left foot into Sappho’s bedroom, already making coy and petulant remarks.
day in, day out
Sappho listens to the noise of the plane as they fly towards Athens. She looks around the cabin. In the row next to her, a young man and a young woman, both sleeping. The woman’s head on his shoulder, the man’s head on her head. They are holding hands, both wearing blue jeans with symmetrical rips from the thighs to the calves. In front of them, a woman in a long dress, muttering to the young boy next to her, who chews mindlessly on a sandwich. A flight attendant—a different one—slowly pushes a cart toward them, handing napkins and small plastic bags to passengers. These five people are among the few passengers not sneaking furtive glances at Aphrodite.
Aphrodite, who appears now to be sleeping. Behind Aphrodite’s lowered head, Sappho is startled to see a framed tableau of clouds. She has never seen clouds from this height before. She is used to the enduring blueness that hangs above her on her island. But the nearness of the sky, this she has never dreamed or imagined. She cannot resist the desire to see more, and so she dares to lean forward over Aphrodite’s lap to peer out of the window. Sappho is careful to make no contact with Aphrodite’s sleeping body.
At the sight, her chest constricts. They are above the clouds themselves! How can they be so near to her? She almost begins to laugh in shock and delight. It cannot be real. But they are real; more than that, they are surprisingly substantial. She expects them to fade away, like smoke. But they are not so fragile. They drift solidly. A part of a cloud that has been severed by the plane gathers itself into a new form. There and here, upwards and sidewards. They neither advance nor retreat. They resemble nothing else and seem to exist in their own time. The plane’s wing slices through them; they part, give way, re-locate. But they do not disappear.
Sappho wants to call them ghostly, but she knows that is wrong, they are not ghosts—they are here, they are alive, they surround the plane with their bodies, the plane floats along their skins. Only the window protects her from them, though she is not sure if she needs protection. There is decidedly nothing benevolent about them but nor does she feel any outright menace; there is only their pull and pressure, the certainty of their presence, their ubiquity. Distantly, however, she has the feeling that a rising current hidden within them can throw this plane into convulsions. The breath stops in her throat. But she is not afraid. Thinking, They look like waves—
Then Aphrodite stirs, moves her head, opens her eyes, says in a bewildered voice, “What, what—are we landing?”
Sappho jumps back into her seat. Aphrodite blinks, yawns, looks around her. She meets Sappho’s eyes. Aphrodite does not seem to recognize her. Sappho swallows, tries to think of something to say.
Then Aphrodite groans, closes her eyes, turns her head onto her other shoulder, towards the window. She opens one greenish eye, long enough to gaze upon a view with which, Sappho realizes only now, she must be intimately acquainted. Then Aphrodite grunts, shuts her eye, pulls the opaque plastic screen down with one hand.
The flight attendant has now reached their aisle. “Snack mix?” she says in English.
Sappho does not know what this means. But she accepts the packet and napkin offered to her.
Aphrodite does not acknowledge the woman’s presence. The flight attendant moves on. Sappho realizes the bag is full of something she can eat. She tears her bag open and devours the contents.
tell me something dica you who have always been one of the most imaginative of my friends and lovers what do you think our life would be like there by there i mean beyond i mean on the other side i mean there where we often talked about going but never really thought we would ever go and i never thought i would ever go either until the factory blew up and i had nothing left but these things happen don’t they at least they happen to us now tell me what do you think it would have been like that place where i will never go and where you will never go the place to which i have given my life which sounds terribly dramatic and you know i have a weakness for drama for which don’t blame me dica we all have to be someone don’t we so tell me dica what it will be like tell us if it will be just as we have so often dreamt will there be buildings like palaces will there be trees heavy with apples and peaches to pick for others not eat of course will the men be as delicately-boned as women will the women be as sexually adventurous as film stars will there be more jobs than one could ever hope for will there be enough money to rent an apartment with your own bathroom tell us dica oh tell us all how it will be tell me what it will never be like
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