Years later, we would often debate on who had made such a grave mistake. With the remains of the previous night’s raki still fogging our brains every memory was clouded by nonsense. And so each version of events was as different as the personalities in our party. But I for one, regardless of whose mistake it was, am always reminded of a tenant of life: Never ask a thief to buy something for you.
And so after an expert, hearty breakfast prepared by one of Zeki’s men, we prepared to depart Istanbul bound for our adventure. Stelios met us at the central terminal having bought the tickets that (somebody) had volunteered him to procure. With glee, and a slap upon his packet of papers did Stelios state with a flourish, “Granicus. Let’s go!”
All of us stared at Stelios without comprehension. Until Mut offered, simply, “Granicus is Ottoman.”
“Yes!” Stelios lit a cigarette and dragged with pleasure.
“We’re going to Greece,” said George wearily.
Stelios waved his lit cigarette, “Why would we…”
“Greece is where Alexander started…”, George implored.
“…but to find Alexander,” Stelios clapped his palms together, “we must of course venture to his first great victory against the Persians!”
Mut shook his head, “Greece first.”
“No, Granicus,” Stelios stabbed his cigarette, “We will let you guide us through the oh so many Moslem worlds that await us, but for the moment, this is my part. My part, and to Granicus we go.”
Mut again, deadpan, “Granicus is Moslem.”
Either out of frustration or sheer drive, Alianna stepped forward and ripped the tickets from the packet, and with the slightest of whispers did state into Stelios’ ear, “Idiot.” And she was off toward the ticket office. The rest of us meekly and with resignation followed. She returned shortly afterwards with the steamer tickets for Chalcis.
Alexander was born in Pella, in theory. But at that time he was just a baby, a human, and a reasonable calculation would have termed his political future (and his very life) doomed. We were bound for Chalcis, and then through the dusty background of the Greek countryside we would edge the outskirts of Attica and then cross over the borders into Boeotia. Finally we would stumble upon a little hamlet, the place where Alexander was born. Chaeronea. Granicus would come, but only later.
We bade goodbye to Istanbul, a place we would remain inexplicably linked to throughout our adventures but would not see for a very long time. Zeki had left me with a great deal of letters and contacts for our forthcoming journeys.
The docks were a mass of humanity. Shoulder to shoulder we pushed through the crowds for the steamship piers. All of Istanbul seemed primed to dispense with most of the day’s business before the afternoon, before the heat returned. Yet surrounded by traders, hackers, herders, moneymen, longshoremen, one quickly heats up anyways.
As always I was glad for my loose traveling clothes which equally fit a sun scorched mountain as a busy dockside. George’s apparel quite agreed with my style. I didn’t know how Mut and Stelios did it, with their tailored and pristine suits, saved from a bath only by the handkerchiefs they repeatedly bore. Or Alianna, who wore her styled intoxicating garb with grace, but seemed to carry no handkerchief nor any sweat upon her brow.
We plowed our way to the jetty and our ride in Memnon, a coastal steamship whose material condition seemed perfectly suited to safely take us the seven-hundred yards across the Bosporus without incident, but not much further. I made a note to thank my Uncle for teaching me how to swim the next time I found myself compelled to pray at some point in the forthcoming month.
I observed with pleasure the timetables and that our journey south would likely mirror the routes in which the triremes had sailed these waters. We would hug Ottoman Europe and the Greek coast until we met Chalcis. We would stop for passengers by choice. The Ancient Greeks had to stop most nights and pull their vessels ashore just to remain afloat. Our journey would take two days, theirs took weeks. We would eat comfortably amongst our fellow passengers. They would cook along beaches by the fireside. Despite Memnon’s condition, I felt safe enough to enjoy the forthcoming ride. They praised the gods every time their journey ended without them consigned to the deep.
As we pulled from the shore we left behind the heat that emanated from the city like a bird fleeing a warm desert rock. The cool sea breeze dried the moisture from our faces and we drank it in as energy more powerful than the best of coffee. Though Alianna had already found a mug of that too, and I began to wonder if she would always have some attached to her hand.
Memnon’s captain helmed her with the skill of a man who has done something thousands of times, effortless and with art. The Bosporus certainly had all the charm of history, but could have done without the filth that clouded its historic waters. After five thousand years, civilization had taken its toll on the cliffs, the stark beaches, the fishing settlements, and suburbs of the great Ottoman city.
I found my forearms planted upon the rail until the sun reddened the back of my neck. Mothers dumped buckets of waste across the shore as children played behind them. Fisherman plied their trade in thumb sized boats unchanged in their design since Alexander. Bland villages found their way atop bluffs, astride cliffs, all competing pell-mell for access to the sea.
It was difficult, impossible even, to accurately imagine a time with most of this land as barren countryside between the oasis of villages that dotted the desolate landscape like stars in the night sky. Much to my sickness, I allowed my mind to wander too far, too beyond usefulness. And my thoughts turned to the reality that all our ship passed as it strode south was now in service to the maw of one singular man in The Sultan.
So much history, so much progress, and yet a poor fisherman still conducted his life driven by base needs, equipped with the minimalist of technology, and still bound by fate of the same kind of ruler as had been in charge for longer than it took the wind to smooth jagged rocks.
Were my adventures, my efforts any different? I began to regret ever coming upon this journey. I suddenly found myself wondering what in God’s name I was thinking. I felt the need to escape. My Browning, expertly tucked inside my belt at the small of my back, round chambered, began to feel three times as heavy. I wanted the adventure, but I felt as if I didn’t want to go through the effort to get it.
Only shame kept me from doing anything other than gutting it out. And the hope that once we really got started, things would begin to feel better. Though my companions were all volunteers, and certainly knew the danger, I wondered if they understood just how many of those I’d traveled with in the past were by now but dust and bones.
George seemed much the same, only more so. It seemed Allah’s sight did not progress beyond the brow of the Ottoman ship, and given the large number of Greek passengers, alcohol was served with abandon. It wasn’t long before George was drunk, and stayed drunk.
Mut gambled, and gambled. Then he gambled some more. Cards, dice, dominoes, what bird would get the next fish, what time we’d make our next port, the fate of his daughter (I don’t believe he had one), and whatever else struck his moment.
Stelios seemed glued to the stern, where he had somehow procured the finest of deck chairs. There he planted his liberated bare feet upon the rail, his jacket off and sleeves rolled, leaned back and read almost anything he could find. I did not inquire where he got the chair, one that seemed fit for a king, or perhaps a steamboat captain.
I tried, quite hard, to make myself useful in what became an expedition for Alianna to talk to just about anybody who seemed capable of conversation. It quickly dawned on me that she either relished it or needed it, constantly, it was her alcohol, her gambling, her reading material.
She seemed to select candidates from among the other passengers. Once she found her mark, whoever was the most interesting, they became her focus to the exclusion of all others. The Sultan’s detective from Gallipoli who was on the case but bound for the wrong port, the accountant from Alexandroupoli who had just made his fortune, the graceless Thessalonian grandmother who Mut couldn’t beat at anything, and the Albanian child who wrote poetry in pencil on the margins of discarded newspapers.
I couldn’t keep up with her, much to my disappointment. I didn’t know yet if I wanted her, but any man in the presence of any such woman would be inhuman not to desire at least some attention. As it was never forthcoming, I found myself retiring to my meager cabin more and more. Often with the kicker required to relax and sleep with ease, though not nearly at the levels George seemed to require.
Somewhere along our brief time at sea I once again had that feeling of being watched. But my mood, the drink, or the benign nature of riding a derelict steamship all combined to force my aspect into one of complete disengagement. If we were watched, I didn’t care. It didn’t matter to me. The adventure had just begun, but perhaps had already lost its edge.
It had never been that way for Alexander. His adventure took half a decade to lose its steam. Mine lasted three days.
But as with all things, life can turn at any moment.
And in the dark of my cabin, well into the dead of a silent night, was broken by pounding, a sharply opened door, and a wide-eyed-bare-shirted Stelios who scraped, “George went over the side!”
I was out the door in a blink and darting with Stelios towards the stern. Our bare feet patted the deck in slaps. “Why didn’t you go in after him?” I fiercely shouted.
Between breaths, “I can’t swim, by God.”
As we made it to the stern and Stelios’ deck chair I nearly vaulted over the rail but found it nearly impossible to see anything other than the whitewash of the wake against black water and a cloudy night sky. Within a second I came to the overwhelming calculation that a drunk George was a dead man the second he departed the boat and well before he ever hit the water.
And then my eyes caught up with my nerves, and I realized that Stelios’ deck chair hadn’t been vacant, but very much occupied. I snapped around and behind me, very much seated, was George. I then received the unbridled laughter of them both.
Out of relief, and remembering things I had done in my past, I began to smile and chuckle, but fueled by anger I grabbed for Stelios’ collar, but got his neck instead forgetting he was without a shirt, “In God’s name are you insane!”
“His face,” Stelios spit to George, “His face was the payoff.” More laughter.
George, his eyes barely open but hopeful, “We’re out of fuel, have you got any money?”
I turned about, my palms on my head. Then came about again and rammed a crunch of bills from my pocket into George’s chest. He was on his feet and headed forward far faster than he should have been able in his condition. And I suddenly knew I needed a huge pull of whatever he returned with.
Unconsciously, I began to smile, widely. Then I laughed, and felt alive, so very alive. Stelios, now clearly intoxicated to my calmed eyes, clapped me on the shoulder and leaned in, “Just so you know, I really can’t swim. Not a bit.”