Anna and Henry Sidell fly to Athens, Greece, a trip they planned several months earlier as their last hurrah before parenthood, from their hometown of Raleigh, NC, where Henry works at a local television station and Anna sells perfume part-time at a department store. They get off the plane, just a month after their baby died in Anna’s womb, and find themselves in a city of modernity and ruin.
Anna carries a backpack, whipping her head around at the airport signs, the slush of people. “Henry, I’m tired. Will you carry this bag too?”
“Sure.” He moves his two bags to his right arm and takes hers. Anna always lets him haul whatever she has extra-grocery bags, boxes-because she knows he derives such pleasure from carrying things for her. He tenses his arms, breathes from the gap in the spread of his lips, and watches her watch him, his eyes beaming.
They follow the signs to the subway, and then wait patiently in the station. Anna is struck by the men and women: their eyes the same brown of pawpaw seeds, skin of mahogany. The hair on their arms, across the ridge of their lips and temples, eyebrows, necks, and backs, the color of bark. The bodies of these men and women seem stolid, well-planted. Even the thin ones have feet like roots. Compacted in a subway car, Anna watches everyone talk feverishly, their hands flicking about their faces like the branches of a myrtle in the wind.
As the subway enters the city, Henry points out the cityscape to her, splashes of a dust-colored hill or an errant field between the rushes of cars and mopeds and people and buildings covered with graffiti. The landscape does little for her.
He pulls out a wood mouse the size of a quarter from his bag and starts sanding it. He took up whittling the week after their baby died. She wonders if he likes the control of creating and shaping something into whatever he wants or if it’s how he can focus and zone out the rest of the world.
When they arrive at their hotel, a dog suns itself on the front steps, its fur the color of crushed cinnamon. It yawns, staring off in the direction of the hills. Anna moves toward it.
“Don’t. Let’s just check in.”
“I’ll just be 15 seconds.”
“No, come on. Let’s get checked in and then you can pet all the mutts you want.”
When they get to their hotel room on the tenth floor, the room is tiny with a single circular window at the far end. The thermostat doesn’t allow them to change the room’s temperature, and it’s just warm enough to make it uncomfortable and sticky. Henry walks around muttering, “Fucking ecofriendly hotels”
They try to take a shower, but can’t figure out what to flip or push; they settle for a bath. Henry regards her as she washes herself. He never hid his gawking when it came to her nakedness. The first time they had sex, his staring unnerved her and she told him to quit. Afterwards, he told her watching her turned him on. She got used to it, even learned to take it as a sign that he still found her attractive. The skin around her belly hangs. She crosses her arms in front of it.
“I’m done. Are you?”
Henry nods and lifts the drain cover. They wipe off and fall into bed naked. They do exactly what they shouldn’t do for jet lag: they pass out. Before Anna fades off, she hears a dog barking in the distance.
They wake up for stretches throughout the day and night. They try to watch television, but most of the shows are in Greek. Sometimes, Anna reads while Henry sands. He sets out five of his wood figurines on his nightstand: a mouse, two dogs, a horse, and, his favorite, a child, the size of his thumb. While she doesn’t understand why he likes whittling so much, she appreciates his figures. They show his meticulous attention to detail-whiskers, a cross-hatch of hair, the whorls of the child’s ears.
When it gets lighter, they order room service and then take the bus into town and walk around ??????? ??????????ς, the city center, stopping to take pictures in front of the guarded Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. They slip into the McDonald’s around lunchtime. Just inside the entrance, two dogs sleep curled into one another. Anna strokes the one closest to her. It sleepily opens its eyes whenshe sets her hand on its head. Henry orders dyoh biftéki kai salÃ¡tes, two burgers and salads.
“Are you going to wash your hands?”
“In a minute.”
“Those dogs are disgusting. I don’t know why they even let them in here. Don’t eat anything until you wash your hands.”
“Henry, I’m okay. Quit worrying.”
Henry looks away, eyes a woman pawing open the flap of her purse. Anna knows he must be thinking about the times he came home after they lost the baby to find her just where he’d left her: on the left side of the bed, her face turned to the wall. How for weeks he’d left dishes marked “breakfast” or “lunch” in the fridge in the hopes that she’d eat them, but most days, she wouldn’t. How the last time they made love, she stared at the ceiling and repeated things the hospital’s therapist had told her, Having sex is a healthy way of connecting with my partner. This is a first step in helping with the grief process. How her skin, even now, is the color of stained teeth. How, while he never said it, she imagines he worried whether he’d come home to find her dead. Anna, sitting next to her husband, feels as if for those weeks they were bumbling separately in the dark. Now that they’ve found one other, they must try to find the light switch.
Anna’s hamburger comes spotted with chopped pieces of green olives. She picks out what she can and leaves the rest on her plate.
“You not going to eat that?”
“They put green olives in it. I don’t like it.”
“What are ya gonna eat then?”
“I don’t know. The salad?”
“That’s not enough.”
“Well, for now, it’ll have to be. This burger is just gross.”
As they leave, she places her tomato next to the snout of one of the sleeping dogs. Henry shakes his head.
The dogs are everywhere around the city as if they are citizens themselves. They stand in the shop doors, the sanctuaries of the orthodox churches. Some are without pity. They stalk the souvlaki stands, small little carts selling pitas stuffed with chicken or pork, lettuce, onion, tomatoes, and plain yogurt, in the hopes they drop something. Some stand in the plaza and bark and bark. Others sleep in recesses in the walls or curled around the bare patch of soil of a single tree. Some seem like someone loves them. Their coats look clean and smooth, and they loll on steps outside the shops, politely accepting pats and scraps.
Even when Anna and Henry hike up to ?????????, the Acropolis, the dogs are on the path the whole way. As they wind through narrow streets hedged by patches of lavender, dogs follow them: a black one that hugs Anna’s side for a few turns, a calico mutt that lumbers after her when it smells her opened bag of paprika potato chips.
“What is with all these dogs? Does no one keep them inside?”
She drops the potato chip bag on the ground. The dog licks it.
“Come on. Pick it up.”
“He wants it. Let him be.”
Next to the Erechtheion with its columns of women, Anna peeks over a rope separating the visitors from a large field of fallen stone and sees the curled body of a beagle, twitching its legs in its sleep. She points it out to Henry. He ignores her and starts reading about the Erechtheion aloud from the guidebook: “On the south side is the famous ‘Porch of the Maidens’, each sculpted in a manner different from the rest and engineered in such a way that their slenderest part, the neck, is capable of supporting the weight of the porch roof while remaining graceful and feminine.”
Anna watches the dog scratch its chin with its paw. She loves all the dogs immediately; even the ones who bark incessantly elicit a strong surge of pity from her, as if she could love them enough to soothe them into silence.
“You have a pretty neck,” Henry tells her as he places his palm at the base of her hairline.
“I do, huh? Did you see the dog?”
“Yeah, I saw it.” He drops his hand back to his side.
Anna was fives months pregnant when the baby died. Just radio silence on the ultrasound monitor. “Placental abruption” is what the doctor told them: it suffocated. Anna wanted a boy, even painted the nursery blue because she tried to believe in envisioning her desires. When she pushed it out, it was a perfect little girl but plum-colored. She held it for three hours straight and kept muttering, “But we didn’t pick a girl’s name, Henry. What will we call her?…We didn’t pick a name for a girl. I never thought we’d have a girl…” Henry never answered. He bored a hole in the floor, and when the nurse asked if he wanted to hold the baby, he flapped his hands like he was batting off a swarm of midges and left the room.
When he went back to work two days later, she found herself not knowing him anymore. He came home and sat down on the edge of the bed and told her about his day back, asked her what she did that day. She responded mostly in small words.
“I think I should start whittling,” he said suddenly.
“You know, carving things out of wood. Larry at work does it. Says it’s meditative.”
A week after the baby died, he brought a block of wood the size of his palm with a dog drawn on it with pencil into bed.
“See? Then you use the knife to whittle everything away that isn’t the dog.” He started at it, holding the block in place with what looked like a goose-bumped nipple on his thumb.
Anna watched him. He was getting shavings all over the bed. Henry was always meticulous about being neat. He always stopped at several points while shaving to brush the little hairs into the waste basket, but here he was, getting wood shavings all over the covers. He held up a shaving next to her head and said, “Look, curled just like your hair.”
Anna thought, Who is this man?
Anna only got out of bed a few days before this trip to Greece to throw some toiletries and clothes into two bags.
The street they are on ends at a thin metal fence, and they look over it to see a great ruin: a building carved with winged figures, a garden of veined rocks. Henry says it’s the Agora and the Tower of the Winds.
“Each winged figure is a deity for that direction of the wind. North, south, east, and west, plus north east, north west, south east, south west.”
She listens to him, thinks about winged beauties filling their mouths with air and whooshing it out, destroying ships, bending trees. They are still high up in the city, and she can smell meat cooking somewhere nearby. A breeze rustles her hair.
“All the deities of the winds are Gods, no Goddesses,” Henry says, looking up from his guidebook.
Anna thinks, All the names we picked were boy names. We never picked a girl name.
Further in the city, they see more and more ruins for Henry to run to and read about from his guidebook: a fallen column, spilled like bottle caps; a statue of a god, the color of an oyster shell, overlooking two old men playing backgammon. Henry points out Hadrian’s Library, the Temple of Zeus. She smiles, tries to listen to him, but she can’t pay attention. She’s searching for the dogs.
She spots the one alone, the one that sleeps on the steps next to a fountain or the one that paces hungrily next to the dumpster behind a taverna. Her insides cry for these lone ones. They seem restless and fierce. They refuse affection, demand food, flee from small children. They are easy not to love, but Anna loves them.
“What do you want to do tomorrow?” She asks.
“I don’t know. Maybe check out one of the museums? There’s one with wood sculptures.”
“Yeah, but much bigger.” Anna wonders if this will ever get easy for them again, will it always be this hard.
Later that night, they make love. On top of him, Anna doesn’t repeat affirmations to herself, but Henry’s eyes are closed the whole time. She watches him, waiting for him to look at her. She even whispers Oh Henry Oh Henry Oh Henry in the hopes that he’ll look at her, as he always has before, but he opens his mouth to moan and squeezes his eyes shut even harder. After, she curls up against him. He picks up the wood figurine of the child and holds it in front of her face.
“I read somewhere that each piece already exists, imprisoned within the wood, that it’s the whittler’s job to let it out. That’s how it was for this one. I already had the idea, and I just kept scraping away what wasn’t that idea.”
She takes it from him and searches its face. Was this the child Henry thought they would have? She wants to ask him, Why did you whittle this? Doesn’t it hurt you to create what was imprisoned inside of me and never made it out alive? She sets the figurine on the night stand.
“You’re really good at that, Henry.”
He smiles and turns on the television. She strokes his thigh and wonders, Where is the man I used to know? She, then, thinks, Am I losing him? Have I lost him?
Next morning, they leave early to walk to the National Archaeological Museum. They are quiet. The museum’s plaza is quiet too, except for a few squalling children. The museum looks like any classically Greek building: the white columns, the spaces for the sculptures of gods, for the bronze winged statues hugging the corners of the faÃ§ade. Henry pulls on a great bronze door handle they assume is for the entrance, but it doesn’t give. He pulls at another one and another one until Anna finally points out the Museum Hours sign in English.
“We walked all this way for nothing.” He snaps.
“We saw some more of the city. We can come back tomorrow. Early.”
He kicks one of the doors, startling her. The bronze plate smacks its ringer. “Won’t matter. I won’t walk all that way again.” He turns and sprints down the steps.
“What is going on?” she yells at him.
Anna has to remember to swallow. She tries to focus on the fact that they are standing outside the National Archaeological Museum, that thousands of years of history is lodged inside of it, that great wooden sculptures other men made are inside of it, that her husband’s little wooden figures are just part of a long legacy of men carving the things known to them. Anna wishes she knew what Henry knew, what drove him to carve the dogs and the mouse and the child. Why they were the figures imprisoned in the wood he had to let out. She feels like she herself has been imprisoned in some block of wood and that Henry helped cut her out, but who cut out Henry? She suddenly feels like crying, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.
She breathes in and crosses to him. Without looking up, he says, “Come on. Let’s go. I’m just tired.”
A dog trails them. Anna feels tired too, tired and tender. She can’t keep her hands off it, and its hairs stick to the sweat on her palms. It follows them all the way to the change machine and then the automatic ticketer.
“It wants to come with us.”
“Anna, no.” Henry’s face blotches. His face all covered with sweat. When did it get so hot? she thinks.
“We aren’t taking it with us.”
She feels hollow with what had been something she couldn’t name but what was now emptiness. “I know.”
He hands her a ticket and walks through the turnstile. Watching him walk away from her, she feels herself dry up. She follows him. Nearly to him, she hears a noise she’s never heard and can’t stop herself from turning around.
The dog is making that noise. It’s trying to get through, its front legs clawing the top of the turnstile. She watches Henry walk past her, as if he is just a stranger whose actions are curious to her. He plants his palm on top of the dog’s head and shoves it down. It snarls. He shoves it again. It falls off the turnstile and then, just as quickly, claws at the top again.
She realizes she is watching her husband, and she speaks from a place inside of her that could only be the place where the emptiness now is: “Henry. Please don’t.”
“This dog needs to go, Anna.” He says it in a way that she recognizes as, I know this, but you may never.
She watches him wrap his hand into a ball and punch the dog once on the head. It blinks several times, skulks off. Henry turns to her, smiling, his hand still in a fist.