The Return

Guest writer Steven Katsineris with a short story. Steven Katsineris is an Australian freelance writer of articles on Palestine, Cyprus and the rest of the Middle East region, political prisoners and human rights, environmental and social issues. He has been actively involved in the Palestine solidarity movement for over forty years. Steven Katsineris lives with his family in Melbourne, Australia.

I first saw her in early spring on a bright sunny morning while I was walking my dogs by the sea near the village of Polis, on the coast of Cyprus. As I came down the hill on a narrow walking track I saw a lone statuesque figure standing by the sheer cliffs looking out to sea. I was to see this woman again on many occasions after that, but for a long time only from a distance. 

One day in the late afternoon I came across her while she sat motionless under a large fig tree at a clear pool of water called the Baths of Aphrodite. An older looking woman, still beautiful, dark, with long black hair, she wore a once fine full-length cotton dress, now a bit torn and worn. She looked worried, preoccupied in deep thought as she stared into the pond. I said good afternoon in Greek, she didn’t speak, but nodded and smiled as I walked on past her.  

A week later I read in a local paper of sightings reported by shepherds and local villagers of a mysterious woman who had been sighted several times on the beach at Aphrodite Rocks. There were similar sightings reported at the Sanctuary of Aphrodite in Kouklia village, at one time in antiquity a shrine. No one it seemed knew who this woman was. I wondered if this could be the same woman that I had seen, but dismissed it as mere coincidence and pushed it from my mind.

The next time I saw her was a few miles from the coast. This time she was not by herself, but with a young man, a boy really. She looked rather frail and he was helping her to walk up the steep hill. The boy looked strong, and handsome with long black hair and brown eyes. He was wearing only a light top, shorts and sandals. As I approached them she sat on a rock under an olive tree, she looked up at me and in soft peculiar sounding Greek spoke. She assured she was fine, but she was concerned with the state of Cyprus and the rest of the world.

I was a little taken aback by her comments. But after a moment I told her that, “while many people cared and shared her sentiments, the struggle to change things was hard and took a toll on those who became actively involved. That many people cared and were doing as much as they could.” I felt somehow she was being critical of me personally, as if I alone was responsible for this tragic situation. I guess I actually did feel guilty that after twenty years of environmental campaigning, tired, I had given up and retired to a somewhat quieter life in Cyprus, but she was not to know this. 

She smiled a broad, cheerful smile and asked me to sit awhile and I felt strangely at ease, as if we knew each other. Again she began to speak and said, “real fundamental change would come when good people come together and seized control of their own affairs and ran their own lives and communities. That participatory democracy is the only hope for the planet and its small places like Cyprus that should show humanity the way forward.” While she spoke the boy sat on the ground listening intently and occasionally raising his head to look at us with those big brown eyes. 

After some silent pondering, I asked her about the sightings of a woman at Aphrodite Rock and other places. She smiled again and said, “ I like to walk a lot, and it helps me think.” Before I could say any more, she said she had to go. Standing up quickly she added in a calm strong voice, “do not despair, I know you are troubled about these things, but we still have time to repair the earth.” I was left speechless and could only look into her sad eyes and the tears that were welling there as she turned and walked away with the boy trailing behind her.  

After that day several days passed and I didn’t see her again.  I was a little worried and also wanted to see her, to ease my troubled mind. I was experiencing a lot of confusing questions and emotions and needed to understand more and know more about her. I resolved to find her.  

The next day I decided to start at the beach to look for her. I strolled for some time a along the deserted coast until I came across a rocky headland with a sheltered sandy beach. There I noticed two sets of footprints and a small opening in the rocks and crawled inside. It opened into a large cave and in the filtered lights dimness I saw her lying on the sand looking quite sick, beside her lay oranges and mandarins and a pile of fruit skins. I rushed over and checked her breathing, which confirmed my fears about her condition. I ran back to my car and drove to an area above the cliff, parked and returned. I guessed her companion had been caring for her and so I wrote a message in the sand for him before leaving, then carried her to the car and took her to hospital. At the hospital they told me that while she was weak and suffering from dehydration, she would recover with rest, care and proper diet. They also contacted the local police who came and interviewed me to ask what I knew about her. The hospital staff told me I could come to visit her tomorrow. 

The next day I walked into the room where she lay sleeping, but when I sat down her eyes opened and this woman who seemed so ill came to life. She sat up, looked me in the eyes and with a strong firm voice said, “Some humans have become so arrogant. Don’t they realise this earth was given to tend as well as to serve their needs, that it is a living, breathing precious thing that is the mother of all creatures on the planet. What they are doing now is killing it and all those who live here will perish too. What other species fouls its own nest and dooms all, including its own children to such a fate by its reckless actions. This plunder and indifference to the destiny of the world must cease. All good people must come together to face this immense challenge to life, because only unity and action will save humanity. Her missive continued, “humans must change their ways, because greenhouse gases and deforestation are rapidly changing the earth’s climate.” 

By this time I was overcome with emotion, tears gushed forth as I cried uncontrollably, crying for my children, all the children and for the state of our world. Despite my outburst she kept talking, it felt like she had to tell me these things while she had time. As she spoke my mind flashed to and fro as I thought of those times in the sixties and seventies when everything seemed possible and we really thought we could change the world. I must spoken out aloud because the next thing she said was; “I too had high hopes of that era. People were on the right path, living their dreams, building a sense of belonging and hope in their communities and questioning what other generations had largely accepted as the truth, but the seeds that were planted then were not fertile enough. Now humanity must learn from the inspiration and example of those times, from indigenous cultures and other small communities and strive to relearn alternative simpler ways to live.” 

She stopped talking and held my hands tight, as if to give me strength and then hugged me like a mother hugs her child. I finally stopped crying and composed myself. She began to speak again, but this time in quieter tone, “ Among all the destruction going on there is also much good, especially in small communities where compassion and empathy still exist. You and thousands of others with good hearts must build on this and renew the earth and it is places like Cyprus that could lead the way. The concept of the importance global growth, of huge cities and big developments is not progress, but is against life and reason. People must begin to know each other again, to communicate, by getting back together and feeling part of a caring community human society can restore the balance. This is the true path to the future.”  

My mind filled with questions I at last asked her, “who are you and where did you come from? ” She stopped talking, smiled and said, “I am just a concerned old woman, but who I am is unimportant anyway. There must be much anguish and weeping in the heavens at the state of the earth. This is a crucial time, we stand at the crossroads of history and humanity will either renew itself and in doing so save the earth or destroy it. I know you campaigned for the ecology and gave up, but you must take heart and get active again.  

Distressed I said, “ I agree with your apt descriptions of the situation and I know the answer to these problems is to stop destroying the forests, to reafforest and have sustainable development, but what can one person do I really tried before, but found politics so hard and frustrating?” In a soft, tender voice she said, “Be calm and think. You should seek new ways to help the planet, like writing that’s the way you can connect with others and urge them to get involved.” She clasped my hand and said, “Strength to you for this sojourn Stelios.” I told her to rest now, that I would see her in the morning and walked from the room.  

As I left the hospital I met the police, who were on their way to interview the old woman, as she had been either unwilling or too weak to speak to them last time. The police told me that they had checked on missing persons, but had found no one listed as missing in Cyprus. They assumed that she had somehow arrived from Europe, but so far had no leads in tracing her.  

Returning the next day I came into the room and was shocked to find her bed empty. My first thought was that she had died, but then I saw her smiling companion standing there and realised she must be alright. He told me she was fine and not to worry about her. And that she had said to tell me to have faith in myself, in the potential of people to change things and in the power of life. He held out his hand, which was full of seeds and said, “Please plant these cedars for her.” He then hugged me and turned and walked away. I wanted to ask him to stay longer, to ask about her, to know more, but there seemed no point in this so I just let him go. I felt that I had to just accept that I would probably never see them again or discover any more about these two strange people. 

Sometimes despite all our best efforts we go through life with many questions left unanswered. While I had met odd and knowledgable people before, I knew this mysterious old lady had had a profound effect on me, helping me learn so much more about myself and in doing so revived the meaning and purpose in my life. I walked from the hospital to the coast in a rather dazed condition and sat there watching the sunset in awe and even imaged that I saw the two of them hand in hand silhouetted against the sky.  

And from that day on when not playing with the children, planting trees or writing, I am organising campaigns with other like-minded people to sustain and replenish the earth, because only the collective action of people will save the world.

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