By Morelle Smith
From Prosforou – A Corfu Journal
Early morning – there is surely nothing to compare to that light, just making its appearance, bringing with it all the blurred and shifting memories of the past night's dreams. The sense of hush, the echo to the footfalls on the creamy marble paving stones, funnelled through the narrow streets, that curious inward look people have as if they've not yet formed the face they'll wear to look out on the world.
Sunlight is soft, with a silvery intensity. Shadows are stark, and lie across the brickwork and the walls, forming long angles, like claims to kinship that go back so far that memory itself is stretched, and has not gathered the necessary forces to wrangle with words, preferring this long and sweet and dark complicity. Shadows hide behind tall buildings and thin seams of sunlight escape in gaps between them, full of confidence, as if the sun has cut slim wedges from its hot night bakery and is throwing them out into the streets. Scents of warm oil and pastry, baked bread and hot and salty cheese drift into the open air.
A large yellow dog stands in the open doorway of a bakery. Motionless and totally contained within its skin as if its whole self has been compressed and thickened, such is the quality of his concentration. He is not begging or demanding, he is not expecting, he is not even waiting, he is so completely in the present that nothing else exists for him.
The dog’s yellow colour is only a little darker than the early sunlight. He is not lean or emaciated and I like to think his presence on the threshold will be tolerated and it will not be long before he is successful, for this is Greece, and a clear spring sunlight shines through the slightest haze in the pale blue sky.
I'm up early to get a bus to where – as far as I can gather from the map, for there is no-one at the information desk at the bus station to help out – is the best place to climb Mount Pantokrator. It only strikes me later that I should have consulted with the mountain first instead of falling into the lazy way of thinking that the landscape is passive and I can simply go where I want whenever the mood takes me, or the time is available in my schedule. What about the mountain's feelings, its desires, whether obscured by clouds or held in sunlight?
There's a long bay at Ipsos and a narrow slip of a beach before the promenade and then the road begins to climb and turn inland. I get off the bus at the junction with a sign for Spartilas, and start to walk. The road slopes gently upwards in long looping curves. It's not wild country, there are houses set back from the road and each loop of land has olive trees with the earth covered with fine-mesh nets, to catch the olives.
Sometimes a dog would bark from the grounds of a house. Usually I could see them through the trees, tethered to a long chain. One was particularly loud and aggressive and continued its insistent barking long after I was out of its sight. A thin dog, clearly belonging to no-one, broke cover from one of the olive glades, its eyes fixed on me as if it thought I was seeking it out to chase it away, its tail curling inward between its back legs. I avoided the frightened dog, crossing to the other side of the road so it would know that I was not chasing it – on the contrary, I had all sympathy for outcasts, for those who live on the edges of society, who do not plant the trees and gather the olives, trim the vines of old dead wood at this time of year, collect the grapes and make wine. The orange and lemon trees are heavy with fruit. A few oranges lie on the road. I find two that are good, that have not yet split their skins, and I eat them as I walk along. They are dripping with juice.
As I walk from near Ipsos-am-Meer to the village of Spartilas I think about how some people talk about mountain climbing, as if it was a 'conquest' of this or that mountain. The only things climbers have conquered I feel, is something within them. Their fears or their doubts, possibly their limitations. To climb a mountain – so I think as I walk along the road that slopes gently uphill in wide sweeping hairpin bends – is to come into its presence, to be within its incredible atmosphere. A mountain is like a reservoir – it has collected so much that's come from the sky, so that on its summit one can bathe in this sky-energy. To climb it is to draw close to it and to be grateful for its generosity, that it freely shares this atmosphere with you. For it is a gift, this high-up mountain feeling, that cannot be experienced anywhere else.
After Spartilas I turn off onto an even more minor road, where there are only a few houses, sometimes surrounded by olive groves. Thin plumes of smoke rise on the tree-covered slopes, as the pruned olive branches are burned. I pass an area surrounded by a wire fence, with lots of chickens inside, and just beyond, an ancient rust-covered van reposes, with its two front wheels still attached, but the back resting on blocks. The front window is wound down, and a cat is asleep on the front seat.
By the time I'd walked for over three hours, there were clouds gathering around the mountain peak. It's funny the way clouds do that, how they adore the high places, the mountain tops, how they lace themselves around the peaks in misty adoration.
It was getting chilly with the sun obscured, and the clouds looked as though they could easily turn dark and thunderous. I calculated from the map that it would take me at least another hour and a half to reach the top – and then I would have the long walk back. It was the clouds that decided me. I did not want to be caught out on the mountain in the kind of rain that I know this place is capable of. So I turned around and walked back the way I came. Smoke from the burning olive branches still trailed straight upwards into the sky. The same dogs barked. The cat was no longer sleeping on the front seat of the rusty van.
In Spartilas I stopped for a while, sat on a low wall. A tan-coloured, medium sized dog stood a few meters away from me then moved almost imperceptibly closer. Finally it was right next to me and when I patted her head she closed her eyes in that ecstatic way that dogs do. I was looking in the bus timetable for clues. Sitting on a wall, patting this dog's head. A little later I looked up and she was gone. It did not rain, the clouds stayed close to the mountain top. It was some time before the bus was due so I walked back down the loops of road that emerged near Ipsos and the sea, and caught a bus back from there.
Morelle Smith is based in the south of Scotland, and has previously lived in Germany, France, Albania and Greece. Her poetry and prose has been published in TLS, The New European, New Writing Scotland, Modern Scottish Women Poets, Scottish Review, Northwords Now, New Eastern Europe and Balkan Travellers. She has published several books of poetry, prose fiction and travel memoir, most recently Shaping the Water Path, published by diehard, Callander, 2017. Visit her blog at https://rivertrain.blogspot.co.uk.
Photograph: muffinn CC.20