Marianna Domvrou stepped out of the corner store carrying a red bucket and matching mop. She enjoyed running errands in her new neighborhood, as if she were an ordinary woman in need of ordinary things. When people recognized her and smiled at her—which happened often, almost incessantly—Marianna would return the smile and continue on her way. She knew people felt the need to stop and stare until she disappeared from sight, though she never turned to check. By now she was so well-known that turning around would have made her seem shallow or insecure. She was aware of the situation, and tried to walk the way her mother had taught her to long ago: shoulders back, head high, but not so high that people would think she was stuck-up. She was also aware that while some admired her, others hated her. Just yesterday a man spat on the sidewalk at her feet to show her how much he detested her. Marianna tried to keep in mind that people saw her as a symbol, not a person. And so she had continued to go about her life these past two months, as if it were perfectly natural for people to be paying her all this attention.
It was a hot, muggy day. Turning left at the main square in Psychiko, she walked past a stopped car. The woman in the driver’s seat stuck her head out the window and waved. “Way to go, girl!” she called, then triumphantly honked her horn twice. Marianna shifted the mop to her other hand and wiped her sweaty palm on her jeans. The sky was growing steadily darker. She saw a Filipina pushing a stroller with twins, casting pleading glances at the clouds as if praying for it not to start raining until they were safely home. Marianna couldn’t hurry, it didn’t suit her image. Sometimes people took photographs of her with their cell phones. It wouldn’t be a pretty sight, a picture on the Internet of her running in a panic. Her new apartment behind the square was just five minutes away. She’d make it. And if she didn’t, she could put the mop on her head like a hat. That was the kind of thing they expected of her.
As she passed by the park she heard a girl’s fragile voice:
She peered through the bars of the fence. The playground was deserted.
The voice was coming from the sky. She raised her head and saw a huge, desiccated pine tree—these days on the news they were always talking about pine infestations caused by beekeepers overusing a particular parasite.
“Here, up here!”
The girl was perched like a cat on a high branch. She must have been eight or nine. She had on black leggings and a striped purple shirt.
“What are you doing up there?”
“I climbed up and now I can’t get down.”
Marianna looked around. Not a soul in sight. Sometimes the streets and squares of her posh new neighborhood were deserted for hours on end.
“And no one can hear me.”
Marianna opened the low gate of the playground and set the mop down beside her on the thin grass.
“Where’s your mother?” she asked. With children of that age there was usually a parent around, or a nanny, particularly in an area like Psychiko.
“My mother’s dead,” the girl said faintly.
Marianna swallowed hard. She turned the bucket upside down and used it to give herself a leg up into the tree. What on earth had she been thinking, asking such a personal question of a little girl she didn’t know who just needed her help? she wondered as she scrambled up. She kept reaching her arms up as high as she could, and each time she grabbed hold of a new branch she thought about how out of shape she was. She’d be turning thirty-five in a few weeks. She really needed to start exercising. To stop painting all day.
There was a strange fork in one of the limbs. The lower branch was scrawny, while the other pointed up at a dangerous angle. The girl was perched at its very tip.
“Can you give me your hand from where you are?” Marianna asked, though as she spoke she wondered what would she do with that hand when she got it. The girl shook her head several times and started to cry. Her blonde ponytail shook, too.
The first drops of rain started to fall.
“OK,” said Marianna. “I’ll come to where you are. What’s your name?”
Her lungs burned from the effort of the climb. The sky behind the branches was growing continually darker.
“Aella,” the girl said, and wiped her eyes.
“A what?” Marianna said.
“Aella. She was the fastest of the Amazons.”
Marianna sighed. How far would people go, looking for an original name for their child? And here she was, the fastest of the Amazons, stranded and clinging to a branch. With Marianna trying to help. Do you feel at all like Joan of Arc? one clever journalist had asked. What do you mean? she had responded. Are you trying to help others, to show them something they can believe in?
“I can’t climb any higher,” Marianna said, raising her eyes entreatingly. “Doesn’t anyone ever drive down this damned street?”
Perhaps she should have stayed on the ground. Waved down some passing car. What she felt for strangers was, in the end, a kind of controlled anthropophobia. It didn’t bother her if passersby pointed at her, even spat at her, as long as she could keep on moving unimpeded, detached from them all. When people tried to talk to her she would quicken her pace, pretending she hadn’t heard. She would walk off diagonally, like a spider that’s decided to weave its web elsewhere. She had learned how to shake free quickly and tactfully of obtrusive strangers at art openings and restaurants.
“No one’s going to come,” Aella said. “We’re in trouble.”
Marianna was very close to her now. She could see clearly the girl’s tight little mouth and furrowed brow. She had big eyes and bony wrists. She was a lonely child, Marianna decided, who was trying to get through life by climbing trees. Meanwhile, the rain was getting heavier.
“Give me your hand.”
Aella refused, stubbornly shaking her ponytail.
“Then I’ll come up there, and you’ll climb down over me. I’ll hold you. Does that sound good?”
Aella hugged the branch tighter.
“OK, I’m coming.”
Marianna climbed up onto the branch. Her shirt clung to her back, her hair was dripping. She felt as if she were on a mission to save this girl, just as two months earlier it had been her mission to save Greece. How does it feel to have created such a major scandal with your work? one journalist had asked, holding a metal-meshed microphone up to her mouth. I can’t answer that question, Marianna had said. I know it would make things much easier for you if I did, but I can’t.
The talk show hosts tried harder to draw her out. They complimented her on her portraits as technicians shoved tiny microphones under her blouse. Then someone would say three, two, one, we’re on the air, the studio would fall silent, and the host would introduce her with phrases such as, Today we have with us the woman who toppled the government, or, the artist who painted her own Inquisition, or, an individual who just yesterday was a total unknown, though today all of Greece knows her name.
Then a montage would cover the timeline of events. Her solo exhibition “Greek Dreams” at a gallery in Metaxourgeio. The religious nutcase with a switchblade who slashed a painting of naked priests and parliamentarians kneeling in the Vatopedi Monastery. The incident with the other painting, which a gang of Golden Dawn members smashed over her head because it showed them naked, too, eating a Greek flag, with all their symbols lined up on a table like a still life, illuminated from behind by what critics described as “pure Flemish light.” The montage continued with the events outside Parliament, where hundreds of thousands of people gathered carrying wooden placards on which they had pasted blurry reproductions of her paintings, the favorite being the one of members of Parliament rolling around in the mud.
While the video played, the host would lean forward in his chair and try to engage her in conversation, using words like “astounding,” “unique,” and “impressive,” the kind of adjectives she often heard from people who didn’t know a thing about art. Marianna would smile politely, as if her host were expressing deep truths. Then the montage would end and the questioning would begin.
How did you decide to become an artist?
Before this happened, no one ever asked me anything serious about my paintings.
Why politicians and clerics and not less recognizable figures?
What interested me was the contrast between those lewd faces and the light that streams into Flemish paintings.
Did it ever occur to you that art might endanger to your integrity?
Political life is even more dangerous for my integrity. My mental integrity, that is.
What do you think people saw in your paintings? After all, these scandals were already well-known, and you’d think we’d had enough images of them already.
My paintings have no parapolitical value, nor any trace of humor. I’m interested in the classical values of painting. In the shades of color on the parliamentarians’ skin as they roll in the mud.
Aella crawled on her belly along the branch. Marianna grabbed her, practically lifting her into the air. She was skinny, light as a feather. As Aella tried to find her footing a little further down, Marianna threw a leg over each side of the branch as if astride a horse, balancing her body so as to support the girl’s weight. Aella’s ponytail was drenched, and her green hairband was the last thing Marianna saw from up on her perch as the girl placed one Converse on the lowest branch and the other on the thick trunk of the pine.
“Thanks!” the girl called. “I’d never have made it without you.”
The girl spoke to her for the first time in the singular, the way people do who have lived through a crisis together.
“What are you waiting for? Come down!”
Only then did Marianna realize what was going on with the tree. Her perspective was all off. She wondered if perhaps something similar had happened with the members of Parliament and the priests in Vatopedi. Her elegiac tone had been all wrong. But that fact made people think about the scandals in a different way, one that had nothing to do with the actual events, but with their own point of view. Why were they living as they did if they could live some other way?
The strange perspective of the rising branch made it impossible for Marianna to lower her foot down to where the branches forked. She was afraid she would fall. She stretched out her leg—impossible.
“Come down,” Aella called.
“So what do we do?”
“Go and call someone. Tell them to bring a ladder.”
She was wet to the bone. She imagined herself as the central figure in one of her sought-after paintings. A faint light through the dark clouds. The red bucket upside down on the grass. The abandoned swings in the background. And she, behind the ailing branches. Her title would be as simple as always: Woman in Tree.
© Amanda Michalopoulou. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2012 by Karen Emmerich. All rights reserved.