The Scent of Olives
By Rob Porteous
Argos was walking very slowly. She could feel his fatigue through the harness. He was an old dog—much younger than she was in years perhaps, but on those baking hot summer days, they both felt very old.
He was hardly leading her anymore; it was more like she was pushing him. In truth, she hardly needed his guidance—they walked that way every day. She knew every uneven flagstone on the path. They passed under the feathery shade of a tree and had a moment’s respite from the sun. Argus didn’t change his pace. He padded on, panting. He was keen to get to the shop and rest. There was the sound of shouting from behind them, further back up the street. Angry voices, drunk perhaps. She walked a little faster too.
They passed an alley to her left. She sensed the void by the sudden absence of reflected noise, the cool of its shadows. It was as clear to her as to anyone with eyes to see. Only a few steps more and they had reached the shade of an awning. The hum of an air conditioner and the smell of spiced meat confirmed that they’d arrived. Stepping into the chill of the air conditioned shop was like wading into a pool of cool water. They both moved to their proper places. Argos sat down in a corner, on the tiles; one of the girls would bring him some water in a moment. She moved forward on her own, pacing out the distance to the counter, stopping with her hand on the cold glass vitrine.
Theo came from the back. She’d never seen actually him but she knew his strong voice. ‘Theia Stheno! Kalimera, what a surprise to see you!’
It was no surprise. She was there, at Theo’s Continental Foods, almost every day.
‘What will you have, Theia?’
Theia Stheno, Auntie Stheno—that’s what Theo’s father, Konstantinos, had called her. They had both ended up in Melbourne in ’49, escaping from the war, from the memory of war. Back then, while the rest of the world was celebrating the peace, Greece had returned to the abyss of civil war. They’d been lucky to get out. He started the shop— it was just a milk bar then, the “Acropolis”—but he’d sold proper food, real cheese and olives, from out the back to the other Greeks. Refugees from an uncivil war, they’d had to look after each other. All the older women were “Theia”; regardless of where in Greece they had come from, in Melbourne they became family.
Stheno, it meant strong. A long time ago, she had lived up to her name, been proud of it even. But she had come to Australia to put the memory of all that behind her. In Melbourne, they all needed to be strong in a different way, to cope with the loss of their loved ones, with the exile they had chosen. She wondered if Theo ever thought of what her name meant. Probably not. To him, it was just a name—she’d always been “Theia Stheno”, from when he was born. With the years, she had become old and frail, but he hadn’t seemed to notice the irony.
‘Some Kafalotyri, just a slice.’ She held up thumb and forefinger to show how thick. She could smell a hint of goat’s milk as he cut the cheese and put it on the scales to weigh it. It was aged, salty, as sharp as tears.
She’d had more in common with Konstantinos than being swept out of Greece on the tide of the exodus. The wars had taken his parents and a brother. She’d lost her youngest sister. Raped. Then killed by a soldier for ‘fraternising’. Her other sister, Euryale, never recovered. She had brought Eury to Australia; she’d thought it would help to get away from the memories of the violence. Eury was the middle one.
‘And some olives.’ She didn’t need to say what kind. Theo knew she wanted them salt cured, black and wrinkled, bathed in oil, like back home. There was a chink as he put a glass jar on the counter.
When they were young, Eury had always been the adventurous sister. But in the end, she had been the one who hadn’t been able to endure leaving their home. Perhaps she’d missed their sister too much, as well. Either way, she just pined away.
Stheno was the oldest; she’d never thought she would end up alone.
‘That’s all,’ she said.
‘Would you like some dolmades? They’re fresh, Chrys made them this morning.’ Chrysanthe, his wife.
For a moment, she was transported back to when they were girls, cooking on an open fire under the olive trees. They boiled goat’s meat in an iron pot until it had almost melted, then threw in handfuls of wheat and fresh herbs. They let it simmer so the grain soaked up the juices. It smelled so good that it was hard to wait until it had cooled enough to let them scoop out steaming handfuls of pungent, aromatic stew, wrapping them in vine leaves. They laughed and ate beneath the olive branches and the Ionian Sea sparkled far below them, out to the wine dark horizon.
She wrinkled her nose. But not these dolmades. Bland rice that tasted of nothing, wrapped in vine leaves as bitter as disappointment. Pah!
Theo sighed and she heard the rustle as he put her things into a plastic bag. She passed him her purse. He’d give her the right money back.
‘I’ve put in some paximadia.’ The twice-baked bread would be too hard for her teeth, but she could dip it in a little water and vinegar to soften it. It would be good with the cheese.
‘Efharistó,’ she thanked him. He wouldn’t have charged for the rusks.
He came round and put the bag in her hands. Argos stood and shook himself with a rattle, then walked over. She bent down and felt for the harness.
‘Yiá sou!’ He opened the door for them and they walked out, turning back the way they’d come.
The heat outside hit them like walking into an oven. As they left the shade of the awning, she felt the force of the sun on her face. It was very quiet. There were no cars. She wondered what day of the week it was. Was it Sunday? No, it couldn’t be—Theo’s was shut on Sundays.
Her black scarf and long black yiayia frock sucked in the sun. Maybe it was too hot even for cars. They should have come earlier, before it got so hot.
They reached the alley and Argos stopped. She shook the harness irritably. Why was he stopping, there in the heat? She wanted to get home, out of the sun!
Then she heard footsteps, scuffing on the pavement. Two people, she thought. They seemed to be right in front of her, blocking her path.
Argos was pushing her back, into the alley. He was trained not to growl, but he was growling now.
‘Hey, lady. Can yah give us five bucks for the bus?’ A young male voice, high pitched, nasal.
She shook her head, no. She took another step back and the rough brickwork rasped at her hand. The sudden pain was like a shock. She tried to back away further but she was jammed up against a rubbish dumpster – there was nowhere to go.
‘Yeah, can yah give us five bucks?’ A second voice. It was so close it startled her. It loudened in a sudden snarl, ‘Give us yah bag or you’ll be sorry!’
The nasal voice whined, ‘Oh Jeez, put the fuckin’ knife away! She can’t see it anyway, yah dumb fuck. Just get the bag!’
“Snarler” didn’t want to give up. He’d just started. She could sense that he was excited by her appearance of helplessness, her frailty. She stood with her back to the wall, holding her handbag to her chest like a shield, the shopping bag hanging down in front.
There was a sudden jerk as something slashed at the plastic shopping bag, slicing it. The jar of olives smashed at her feet. Argos was barking angrily, over to her right.
Snarler hooted with excitement. ‘Give us yer bag, granny—or you’re next. I got a knife, see?’
She didn’t want any trouble. She’d seen too much in her life already. She loosened her hold on the handbag. They were only boys. If she gave them the money, they’d leave.
Argos was barking louder. Surely someone would hear.
‘Shaddup, yah mangy cunt!’ Argos yelped in pain. The Whiner must have kicked him. And again—Argos, high-pitched, pain edged with terror.
No, this had to stop! She pulled at her dark glasses. They were tangled in her scarf and she pulled at them until they both came off.
Whiner screamed, ‘Oh fuck!’
She opened her eyes. Whiner was a couple of steps away, already turning to run out of the alley. His eyes were wide, mouth gaping in terror.
Their eyes met. He was moving in desperate slow motion, like he was swimming in treacle. His face got paler.
Then he stopped.
Stheno straightened from the stoop of long years as his life filled her lungs. She felt a surge of blood through withered legs and arms, painful but exhilarating as the strength returned.
She flexed her fingers, feeling them limber up. There was a crackle of power.
She heard a blubbering moan at her feet. Snarler had fallen onto all fours. He was scrabbling to get away. There was a smell of hot piss.
She stepped towards him. He was crawling through the mess of olives and oil. His hands were torn on the broken shards of glass. He half turned, his arm stretched back, trying to keep her away with a bloodied palm. And staring at her, eyes wide.
He mouthed a scream but the sound was choked as his throat turned to stone. She waited for a moment, watching the colour fade from his eyes, feeling the power in her double. She had not felt so alive for aeons!
She moved to Argos. He was lying at Whiner’s feet, his breath laboured. She pulled on Whiner’s cold white shoulder and toppled him onto the prone figure of Snarler. Both bodies shattered into chalky rubble.
She knelt and stroked her dog—loyal Argos!
‘You’ll be alright.’ She held out her hand. There were spots of blood where she’d grazed it on the wall. He licked them off, then pulled away, shaking himself. He clambered up, bobbing his head from side to side, suddenly almost skittish, and barked, once, loudly. He sounded strong again.
Squatting there, she breathed in the scent of olives and the limey smell of freshly broken stone. She looked up at a pure white cloud framed by the alley, caught in a strip of bright sky.
Galanolefki—white on blue, the Greek flag.
Greece, but not Greece.
She remembered the skies of home, remembered her sisters Euryale… and poor, murdered Medusa.
The serpents in her hair hissed and writhed, stretching for the light. They yearned for the sun. Her heart was throbbing. It too yearned. It yearned for blood, for the old ways of killing.
Argos nuzzled her hand, wanting to go home. Absent-mindedly, she scrabbled her fingers between his ears.
She was exiled, but this land had brought her peace after so many years—maybe she owed it as much in return.
She went back and picked up her glasses, then unknotted her scarf and tied it on, pushing the unruly snakes back into place. She stood, brushing her skirts straight.
‘Come on, Argos. We’re going home.’