The Island of Zoe

by Dino Hajiyorgi & Christos Sourligas

The Island of Zoe by Dino Hajiyorgi & Christos Sourligas

Zoe, a Greek American woman in her early thirties, travels to the remote Greek island of Petra, where her late grandmother spent her youth. But as she meets the locals and gets to know her grandmother’s childhood friends, Zoe unravels a shocking secret: time stands still on Petra, and no one on the island has died in 70 years.

As the islanders struggle to conceal the truth, Zoe begins to fall for a local priest, who takes her to the heart of the mystery and helps her break the island’s spell.


Release Date: June 27, 2023
Genre: Contemporary Romance | Magical Realism

A White Satin Romance


Chapter One

“Ekaterini mou!” (My Ekaterini!)

She burst her eyes open and shook off the cobwebs of her jetlag. The echo of her grandmother’s voice—her Yiayia—lingered a little while longer before it turned into cries of seagulls. “Had she dozed off on her feet? That would be embarrassing in front of all these strangers,” she thought. All the same, her only job now was to tightly fasten her hands on her hips and heavily balance her feet on this small but fast-moving boat. It seemed like a dream that just forty-eight hours ago she was frantically hailing a cab on West 29th Street. And here she was, now being greeted by an incredible assortment of blue hues found only in picture postcards. She brushed her windblown locks away from her face to take it all in.

The island of Petra was coming up ahead, and it was beginning to shed its cloak, awash by the most magical sunlight. Framed by sky and sea, it flaunted its prehistoric mounds of mountains with spotted dots of red-tiled rooftops, which made up for the island’s significant lack of flora. Miles away from shore, the faint bell of a church managed to reach her ears, and yet, there was no lamentation in its toll. If anything, it was a welcoming call of celebration.

Zoe drew in a deep breath and felt the fragrant salt air pleasantly sting her senses. She happily shut her eyes this time, but not to catch some sleep. Zoe was living the life of two people now, and in this state of profound absorption, she was finally using the breathing exercises she had learned in yoga class.

After an awkward minute or so, she slowly opened her eyes and looked about the bow, wondering if her freestanding catnaps were being monitored. Two Hellenic Navy Seamen and Mr. Kanakis, the public official, were anxiously gazing at their destination completely oblivious of her concern. Her Mediterranean beauty looked doubly striking in her New York-style fashions. A tad worn out by her journey so far, Zoe felt anything but polished. Her jeans, boots, jersey and leather jacket now laid heavily on her.

Wiping the seawater and sweat from her brow, she hoped there would be a hot shower waiting for her somewhere at the end of all this. It would be the completion of a granddaughter’s duty, as her father had put it.

Her eyes rested on the silver coffin at the feet of the navy guards. She knew it was Grandma’s voice that had stirred her out of her sleep. But who was this “Ekaterini” that Grandma called out for? It had been an arduous trek, with all the hassle of paperwork from the Greek Consulate in New York to the airport in Athens, and more red tape on the main island of Andoriani; this archipelago’s municipality unit.

Zoe felt some of her jetlag being washed away by this miraculous sea breeze. “Are you still talking to me, Yiayia?” she thought. “Here we are... you’re finally back home.”

Zoe looked at the island, its details emerging even clearer now. This was her grandmother Maria’s home, the ancestral island of Petra. Yiayia never talked about her life in Greece. She never shared stories of the island with her granddaughter. Still, Zoe couldn’t shake her gut feeling that she was about to embark on a voyage of discoveries, that she would encounter countless lost secrets along the way. And she knew exactly the kinds. The ones that lay hidden deep inside the family trunk, hoping never to be found.

Yiayia and Zoe had a falling out during the last few years, and Maria was mostly a stranger to Zoe by the time she was summoned to New York Presbyterian a month ago. In palliative care, she met an unrecognizable shrunken old lady, a shadow of the icon that Zoe had fondly remembered. Yiayia Maria barely spoke a word in her dying moments. Then, “Take me home... take me to Petra,” she uttered with her dying breath. And here they were together, the granddaughter honoring her Yiayia’s dying wish.

It took a while to figure out where Petra was. Even Zoe’s mom, who was born in America, had no real stories of Greece to tell. All of it had to be quickly researched and googled. She even swallowed lots of pride and asked her father for money for the trip; a plane ticket for herself, and shipping expenses and all, for the deceased. This one sacred obligation—to be buried in one’s homeland—her dad completely understood, despite his long disconnection from his very own Greek heritage. Zoe never thought of herself as a Greek, as a... romantic. Proof she was thirty years old, and this was the first time in her life that she had stepped on Greek soil. And somehow, this unfolding scenery seemed to be inviting her in like a welcoming nod—a sensation both foreign and familiar—which she could not explain. And somehow it had Yiayia Maria written all over it.

Closer to the island, Zoe noticed an even bigger navy boat patrolling the waters. Zoe had seen a similar vessel docked at the harbor of Andoriani only thirty minutes before.

“The navy seems to be everywhere,” she commented to Mr. Kanakis, drawing his attention.

“Illegal migrants are an issue these days. We have had some troubles, but not anywhere near here,” he answered. For some reason, Mr. Kanakis didn’t sound very convincing. He graciously turned away from Zoe, brushing off her stare.

What Google had spilled out about Petra, apart from the usual tourist information—history, traditions, points of interest—were the claims that it was considered a Blue Zone. Meaning it was one of those magical places where people can easily live for a hundred years and up. And there were only five other Blue Zones on the planet, according to anecdotal evidence that had led to research studies which included Icaria, also in Greece, Sardinia, Okinawa, Nicoya in Costa Rica, and Loma Linda, California.

These places were known for their low cancer rates, barely any heart disease and almost no dementia. The common thread, as several studies had concluded, the populations of Blue Zone regions were family-oriented, highly socially engaged people and semi-vegetarians who practiced daily physical activity.

She also discovered a rather unpleasant footnote in the history of Petra from World War II. It had been a German outpost and the site of a horrible Nazi atrocity. Thirty-three unarmed islanders had been rounded up and executed as a reprisal to the killing of just one Wehrmacht soldier. Other than those two facts, Zoe knew nothing about Petra.

Zoe had been to Europe before, backpacking through Italy and France with her high school besties just after graduation. And once, she travelled through the remote Baja Peninsula in Mexico with an ex-boyfriend. So she had some experience with adventure travel, and in her mind, she was ready for this trip. But all she knew of Greece was from a few movies and series she had watched as a teen while lounging on the sofa and binging-watching AMC, HBO and Showtime classics. And on occasion when Grandma would visit them in Saratoga Springs, New York, Zoe welcomed the out of the blue live commentaries from Yiayia as they viewed together.

One in particular was called “Mediterraneo”, which told the story of a group of young Italian soldiers that got washed up on a Greek island after Allied troops had sunk their ship. Zoe had such fond memories of the film, not so much of its content, but more for her grandmother’s ear-to-ear smile as she gazed at the tube in jaw-dropping awe. And after the movie had ended, Yiayia wiped away her tears and immediately retorted, “Phooey romantic drivel. A typical, romanticized portrayal of Greeks by clueless non-Greek filmmakers.” She then got up, headed straight to the liquor cabinet and helped herself to a stiff drink.

“Small-minded, petty, stubborn hotheads, that’s what they really are,” Yiayia Maria went on to say, pointing her finger to Zoe. “Now you marry a nice American boy who will treat you like a queen, you hear me?” Zoe lovingly burst out laughing. And yet, she was now in a Hollywood movie, herself the protagonist, as her boat began to dock at Petra.

“Yiayia, am I a real Greek?” she had asked back then.

“Fat chance!” her mother shouted from the next room.

The jab was clearly aimed at Yiayia, of course. Zoe had witnessed a fair share of power struggles between the two of them. But Maria’s thick skin didn’t care much for her daughter’s retorts. Maria just thumbed her nose at her daughter and leaned in closer to Zoe’s ear and whispered, “That, of course you are, sweetie. You’ll always be Greek. Your children will be too... I just know it.”

Under a canopy of white, blue and ochre-colored houses, a cast of Greek characters started to fill the island’s harbor. There were hundreds of them, all looking at Zoe; lined up like a tragic chorus on a stage, ready to lament dramatic words for the arrival of one of their own. They were a surprising array of mainly old and wrinkled faces. Women in black, and men in dark suits with the traditional black mourning armbands tightly wrapped around their garbed biceps. She felt rather awkward for being at the center of so much attention. Additional navy personnel stood on the dock anxiously waiting alongside the islanders.

As the boat kissed the dock, the seaman quickly secured the craft by the bollards before climbing aboard to help with the coffin. The islanders gathered closer on the pier in anticipation. Zoe could not help but stare at their faces. Their ages ranged from seventy to ninety, yet there was an eager, youthful sparkle in their eyes and glowing faces. It was as if they were actually greeting Maria instead, the crowd weirdly hoping she would startle everyone and step onto the island alive, descending the boat in her high heels, wearing her Coco Chanel dress, her long pearl necklace, her fox fur hanging from her shoulders, waving her gloved hands at them like a royal. Wouldn’t that be something?

The crowd’s eyes were fixed on the coffin, some gratefully smiled, while others kept a mere grieving disposition. All hands were on deck as everyone labored to hand the coffin over to the island, a precarious moment as the boat bobbed on frisky waves.

Zoe felt a sudden rush of alarm. She outstretched her arms to offer up assistance, but it was too little too late. Just as her instinct had predicted, a navy seaman tripped up, sending the coffin angling sideways and dragging the remaining pallbearers, nearly dropping the whole lot into the sea. A loud gasp rocketed out of the crowd. Was the casket lid securely fastened? Overcome with dread, Zoe let out a scream as she envisioned the indignity of her grandmother’s shriveled up body slipping out and being dumped out like a lifeless crash test dummy.

“Yiayia!” she yelled in terror. The pallbearers wobbled, their knees buckled. It was an imminent disaster; a fall, a crash onto the pier, a tumble to the sea? Oh God, no! Zoe shrilled to herself.

A tall silhouette sprang from the throng of elders and darted toward the boat. His broad shoulders and equally strong-arms grabbed the coffin and lifted it securely back to the pallbearers. Shocked, Zoe turned and looked at this man who had appeared like an angel. Or was he a hero in some romance novel simply helping out a damsel in distress? Her very own Greek Prince William? All she knew was that he seemingly didn’t belong to this crew of golden-aged islanders. Complemented by a hipster beard, distinguished cheekbones and a strong chin, the stranger’s deep blue eyes stared at her reassuringly.

“There, all secured. No harm done,” he stressed, with a hint of a smile.

“Thank you,” she stammered, as she felt hot blood flushing through her cheeks. Was her mouth agape the whole time, she wondered, totally embarrassed?

Once the coffin was safely laid onto the surface of the pier, the young hero then turned his helping hand to Zoe. She noticed he was wearing a gray vestment, like the kind churchy folk wear.

“Thank you,” she repeated, feeling shy like a schoolgirl. As she was aided off the boat, her face kept burning. She just hated losing control and feeling helpless, especially when meeting people for the very first time. Zoe worked in sales back home and she took pride in keeping her shit together. As she glanced over to her grandma’s coffin for assurance, she chuckled. The apple never really falls far from the tree, she concluded. Zoe surely got her firebrand temperament from her Yiayia, and this epiphany made her feel rock solid. Just then, she knew she had to be here. Her grandma and her, now sharing the stage with a chorus of strangers.

The tapestry of islanders edged forward like a dawdling wave and in no time Zoe was surrounded. She barely spoke a word of Greek and tried to think of something to say. Anything, even in English would be preferable to standing tongue-tied as she was now.

This very moment had been an anxious one—one she meditated on it during her flight from New York City. She didn’t sleep a wink, obsessing on what awaited her at the end of her journey. Yiayia Maria had spoken very little of Greece, let alone of Petra. Even despite the fact she had baptized Zoe’s mom with an imitative of that name… Patra. Short for Cleopatra, which Zoe learned later on in life meant “glory of the father”. But she never really understood the real meaning behind it; at least the personal reasoning for Grandma to have named her one and only child that way.

And how could Zoe have imagined, years later, that she would be visiting an isolated Greek island and meeting all its inhabitants who now devoured her with their eyes, expecting her to say something wise in Greek? She thought of saying to Mr. Kanakis, “I have no speech prepared,” hoping he would help out with a quick and easy translation, and in turn, a forgiving response from the elderly crowd. Out of nowhere, an Orthodox priest stepped out of the crowd and approached her with his hand extended. Dressed all in black, he looked to be in his mid-fifties, with a friendly, reassuring face underlined by a thick, gray beard.

“Welcome to Petra,” he said in perfect English, shaking her hand. “I’m Father Michael,” he continued with a warm smile. “On behalf of the entire island, I would like to extend our deepest sympathies for your loss.”

“Thank you, Father. Happy to be here, all things considered,” she quickly replied, letting out a deep breath, finally feeling some relief.

“Your grandmother Maria was a vital part of our community... and of our history,” added the priest.

“Really? I had no idea, Father,” Zoe said, nodding with a polite smile.

“We are all family here, so you’re in good hands. Come, let’s meet the others,” he motioned.

The islanders had closed a tight circle around them, attentively listening to their every word. They extended their hands, touching Zoe reassuringly with soft pats and taps, giving her their condolences with unintelligible Greek whispers. She was at a loss for words and “thank you” was all she could mutter, when without warning, everyone surrounding her was pushed aside like falling trees at the wake of a charging rhino.

A tall woman with the face of a hawk emerged from the crowd and stood before Zoe. She looked to be in her early seventies. Her hawk stare burnt Zoe to the core. Never had an older woman’s eyes weighed so deeply upon Zoe. Not her grandma’s, nor her mom’s. The older woman then cracked a smile and Zoe was uncomfortable once more. It felt as if she was being probed for some unknown reason.

“I am Sophia,” said the woman in a thick Greek accent. She opened her mouth to add something more, but she didn’t get the chance.

Another woman of a similar age, shorter in stature but with a much sunnier disposition, sprang behind Sophia and flung herself onto Zoe. Sophia didn’t take the interruption lightly, as her flat and silky eyebrows joined in a very disapproving frown. She was now full on looking the part of a hawk.

“Koukla mou! (My doll!)” screeched the short woman at Zoe. “Me, Rita!” Her English was elementary at best, but intelligible at heart. “Look, Sophia, she look like Maria!”

“Yes, she is very beautiful,” Sophia admitted, as if the words were being dragged out of her.

“We have so much to talk,” Rita insisted. “You tells us everytin’ about Maria life in America. We three best friends. Maria, Sophia, and me... from little girls, you know,” she gestured by placing her hand waist-height to indicate the size of a toddler.

Zoe felt a hundred questions about her grandmother struggling to come out. She just knew these two women were the guardians of Maria’s secrets. Odd thing, though. She had a momentary flashback of Maria’s last moment at the hospital, a dying ninety-plus old woman. As sick as her grandmother was, she was a woman that looked her age. But Sophia and Rita looked twenty to thirty years younger.

Zoe’s train of thought was interrupted by a brief glimpse of her young hero in the crowd. He was standing next to a horse-drawn carriage that had been backed up to the pier. Six elderly men loaded the coffin on it. The young man turned and looked at Zoe. He examined her long and hard, forgetting his very existence. Just then, the horses trotted away, launching the wheeled buggy forward.

“This way,” commanded Father Michael, as they followed the carriage on the cobblestone road. The islanders silently tailed them in a rather disciplined fashion.

Behind them, now free of the dock, the small navy boat revved its motor and backed away from the pier with all navy personnel onboard. It was soon making distance, carrying them and Mr. Kanakis back to Andoriani. He turned to look at Zoe one last time with a disturbed look in his face. She took notice, humphed a touch, then quickly turned her attention back to the procession.

Zoe found herself immersed in a world that time had forgotten. The picturesque fishing boats, the beauty of the scenic village, and the amphitheater series of row houses, left her genuinely speechless. “Gorgeous,” was her word of choice, murmuring it to herself repeatedly. The two and three-storied neoclassical mansions with whitewashed, blue and ochre-colored fronts, lilac and cherry-painted doors and shutters, featured traditional wooden and iron balconies decorated by vines and flowerpots with the occasional motley crew of local cats. The never-ending rows of colorful houses were interrupted occasionally by tall fig trees that cast shadows on the winding cobblestone alleys. The village was eerily quiet.

The horse carriage wheels raised a racket in the eerie silence that marked the march. The rustle of the fig tree leaves and the villagers’ footsteps echoed louder than their whispers. Zoe felt surprisingly at home in this foreign place. She was being rewarded for her long journey and was able to finally breathe again after the whirlwind of the past two days.

“You don’t have cars here?” she let slip to the priest, who was walking by her side.

“Motor cars are prohibited on the island,” he replied. “Is it not like your grandmother described?”

“As a matter of fact, Yiayia didn’t say much about Petra,” she exhaled.

“Oh,” replied Father Michael without adding a comment.

Zoe wouldn’t know how to explain it even if he asked a thousand questions. She gave the scenery another look, lusciously taking it all in. Her eyes burned brightly from the sun’s reflection, bouncing off the colorful houses and the crystal blue sea. She squinted, looked up and about. There were just a few villagers here and there, staring at the procession from a window or a balcony. It was as if the entire island was out there, marching along.

Zoe turned her head back to look at those who were following from behind. Despite their old age, everyone seemed to keep pace with the galloping carriage. She then remembered all that she had read about the place being a Blue Zone. The people looked healthy indeed, and in top form. Zoe noticed Sophia and Rita walking together, the two women fixing their eyes on her. Rita was beaming like a giddy little girl. It was easy to imagine her with a pink bow in her hair, playing hopscotch on chalk drawn squares. Sophia, on the other hand, held to her predatory look despite her painstaking effort to put on a smile.

Zoe felt a shiver up her spine, not knowing what to make of the woman. As a distraction, she glimpsed over to her tall hero who walked next to the carriage. “Wow. What a tall drink of water”, she mumbled to herself. He too stole glances in her direction, but as soon as their sights crossed, he averted his gaze elsewhere. Zoe turned to Father Michael, trying her best casual voice.

“Is that man a priest?”

“He is a priest-in-training. And he will be ordained soon,” answered the Father, smiling. “He is my son... Paris.”

She masked her disappointment as best she could, but couldn’t avoid biting her lower lip. “Focus Zoe,” she said to herself, looking at Maria’s coffin. You’ve been secretive your whole life, Yiayia, she thought. Suddenly you’re speaking volumes. But what are you trying to tell me? Why have you brought me here?

For no reason, as if she heard an answer, Zoe looked up a hill to her left. An elderly man stood on the highest ground under the shade of a tree, looking down on them. His features were obscured under his white hat that complemented the rest of his sharp, white costume. Zoe could make out a slick, trimmed white beard. But most striking was the red carnation on the man’s jacket breast pocket. His wardrobe selection was quite the antithesis to all the islanders’ black garments. No one else in the procession seemed to notice the man in white.

“We’re almost there,” announced the priest.

Zoe looked at her watch, the only dear present she had received from her Yiayia, and she realized that it had stopped. She tapped it lightly, shook it a little.

* * *

The villa greeted them at the bend of the road, mottled by vines and surrounded by lush fig trees. It carried an aura of abandonment, with sad, wind-beaten shutters that hung lopsided. It was a neo-classical two-story villa just outside of town, the kind of home people with royal character used to build in the past. The architecture respected the lineage of houses that celebrated the Aegean islands. Although this one was a touch more opulent than the facades Zoe had just seen in the village. Patches of plaster were missing from its once white walls.

“This was your grandmother’s home. And it now belongs to you,” declared Father Michael, stepping closer to the door.

“For seventy years, no one step foot here,” added Rita,  in her broken English, penetrating Zoe with her eyes. As if her words carried a special meaning.

Zoe was beyond speechless. Her ownership of this property was surprising news to her. Father Michael clutched the door, pushing it open.

“There are no locks on the island,” he revealed with a grin, then stepped aside from her. “We have nothing to hide.”

Zoe sauntered in not knowing what to think. All she knew was that Yiayia had refused to speak of her past life in Greece, and Zoe desperately wanted to get to the bottom of it. Instead, she was greeted by darkness, gobs of dust, and cobwebs that climbed up to the ceiling covering its ornate chandeliers and decorative crown molding. The once lavish wallpaper was peeling off the walls, revealing discolored patches from missing pictures frames. Drop sheets covered the furniture in the stateroom, and mysterious antiques filled every other nook and cranny.

“The ghosts of Grandma’s secrets...” thought Zoe, marveling and smirking.

The air was stifling. The place tasted like mothballs and the room temperature was unbearably hot. Sensing her discomfort, Sophia and Rita swooped right into the villa and pushed open the shutters, which instantly let the sunshine and fresh air in. The ladies continued their hurried housework by removing drop sheets from the furniture, revealing a well-appointed room. They quickly folded the linens, then stored them away.

Zoe approached the windows and glanced outside. Her view was of the glorious harbor below, seen descending between red-tiled rooftops and verandas overflowing with flowers. Before she could react to any of it, Paris and the pallbearers carried the silver coffin into the salon, gently resting it on a 19th century Victorian dining table in the middle of the room. Zoe looked at Father Michael perplexed.

“I thought we were going to the church?” she asked.

“The funeral is tomorrow,” said the priest. “Tonight we shall keep wake for Maria.”

“It’s tradition,” added Sophia, looking coldly at Zoe.

“All right, then...” was all she had time to say.

The procession of mourners began entering the house to view the coffin, mumbling prayers in Greek. One of them propped a holy icon on the table.

“Saint Peter,” explained Father Michael. “He’s the Patron Saint of the island.”

Rita cut right through the crowd and reached for the coffin’s lid. She grasped its edges and began to pull.

“What are you fixing to do?” yelled Sophia in Greek, rushing to stop her.

“I want to see my friend!” bellowed Rita in Greek, with the innocence of a child.

Zoe was rendered speechless at the spectacle of the two women struggling right over her grandma’s coffin. Some people shouted in Greek, but none dared to physically intervene.

“No!” yelled Sophia. “She’s been dead for days. Her remains have undoubtedly—”

But it was too late to stop Rita’s determination. She popped the lid open to a chorus of shocked reactions.

Zoe cupped her mouth to avoid shrieking. She launched herself toward the coffin in an attempt to shut it just as the whole room behind her held its bated breath. And there she was… her Grandma Maria for all to see. But she was glowing with a hint of a smile, as if she was taking a nap, her hands clasped against her chest in prayer. Rita reached in for a full-body sniff.

“She smells like jasmine, haaa!” she uttered almost triumphantly.

Zoe was shocked. Her grandmother looked much younger than she remembered. This was not the woman who died in her arms just a few days ago! The mourners all made the sign of the cross and sighed. Sophia grabbed Rita by the arm and whisked her away.

“We must take care of our guests. Come now!” she insisted.

“But I want to be with Maria. I’ve missed her,” protested Rita, feeble under Sophia’s spell. The hawkish woman extended her hand to Zoe, too.

“Join us in the kitchen. We must prepare for the wake.”

Zoe had absolutely no idea what to do, no idea what was expected of her. All these funeral customs, were well...all Greek to her.

“Don’t worry. We’ll help you,” added Sophia, tugging her along.

She ushered Zoe into the hall that led to the kitchen, but not before Zoe took one last look into the living room and saw Paris leaning over the coffin, staring solemnly at her grandmother, his eyes welling up.

The kitchen was narrow with tall cupboards, marble countertops, a stove and an equal amount of dust. The older ladies swung open the windows, desperate for some air. The sun’s rays burst like laser beams through the leaves of a big, old fig tree. Elderly ladies flooded into the confined space carrying baked goods, other provisions, and coffee pots. The sink’s faucet raised quite the racket before finally releasing water. It was then left to run, allowing the century aged pipes to self-clean. Dozens of old lady hands went to work, brushing the kitchen clean, lighting kindle wood to warm the stove, filling plates with biscotti, pouring brandy in cups and boiling boundless pots of coffee. Zoe looked out of her element.

“How can I help?” she asked.

Zoe felt awkward, very much like an American tourist than an archetypal Greek woman. Back home—in Queens—she was the queen of her castle, and she sure knew how to entertain and took great pride in it. But here she was out of her league and felt less of a lady. As if reading her mind, Rita approached Zoe and took her hand in a comforting fashion.

“Sooo? How long you stay?” asked the short woman, all smiles.

That was a good question indeed. For just a few minutes ago, Zoe was unaware that she was the owner of a fabulous villa.

“A couple of days,” she answered, as that was her initial plan and the honest-to-god truth. “I have a business back home and I must get back soon,” she added, her mind racing. “But now that Grandma has left me this big old house, well, I may stay a little longer! You know, to try and sell it...?”

Zoe scrutinized the cracked kitchen walls as she talked. But when she lowered her eyes again, she realized all the ladies were staring at her, the sounds of hissing and steaming coffee pots all but ignored. An earthquake could have rumbled through the middle of the kitchen and they would have ignored that too. Zoe looked caught in the headlights. Someone had to break the silence. But none of the elderly ladies dared to speak up, except for Sophia.

“There is no real estate value here,” Sophia remarked in a dry tone, very much in control.

“But we’re in Greece! One of the world’s top destinations... You can’t scroll through Facebook nor Instagram without seeing photos of followers island-hopping from Mykonos to Santorini to—” Zoe shot back, smirking and rolling her eyes. The old ladies shrugged their shoulders at the words “Facebook”, “Instagram” and “followers”, having no clue what any of that meant.

“Petra is difficult to access for tourists. We’re unlike the other, bigger islands.”

Zoe felt a pang of disappointment. But that didn’t stop her brain from working.

“I know! We’ll bring onboard an international realtor—like Sotheby’s or Christie’s—you know, put it on the real market, see what it fetches.”

“You need not agonize, my dear. We shall take care of everything for you. Perhaps find you a local buyer, here, on Petra?”

“That could work, I guess...” Zoe was now physically tired and looking defeated.

The old ladies let out a long, communal breath. Sophia greeted her with a cold smile.

“Good. We will handle all the paperwork, not to worry...” she added. “But today is a celebration. We are returning our best friend to her origins, where she belongs.”

Sophia grabbed a glass, filled it with brandy and handed it to Zoe. She then passed another to Rita and raised one herself.

“To Maria!”

The rest of the women raised their glasses.

“To Yiayia!” added Zoe.

“Ya Mas! (Cheers!)” cheered Rita, as everybody downed the brandy.

Zoe was no stranger to alcohol having been a party girl in her days, but this brew proved a bit too exotic for her throat. She grimaced, eliciting a good-natured laugh at her expense. All the ladies grinned wholeheartedly at Zoe, except for Sophia, who was way too busy in her head.

Zoe made the rounds of the house carrying a silver tray chock-full of steaming coffee cups and glasses of brandy. She offered the drinks to the mourners who gave their condolences in return. Copious baskets of big, juicy figs were placed on the table beside the coffin.

Father Michael informed her that the fig is an important fruit on the island and is commonly offered to the deceased for the afterlife. There was a lot for Zoe to process, and she was simply exhausted. Her jet lag was really taking its toll. Her knees were buckling and her eyelids felt heavy. Every wink was paralyzing. She was seeing double and the serving tray shook wildly in her hands. She watched in slow motion as the remaining cups on the tray started sliding down onto one side and there was nothing she could do about it. Just then, Paris reached in and steadied his hand under hers. They locked eyes and she instantly blushed again.

“I got it,” she said.

“Are you sure?”

He sounded concerned. Zoe was certain he was not flirting.

“Yes. Thank you.”

He let her go and nicked a glass of brandy for himself.

“May you live long and remember her,” he added.

“Thank you,” she repeated, wishing she had something clever to say. She nodded, cracked a tiny smile, and timidly walked away. Rita was waiting for her by the kitchen door.

“Sooo... whaaa you think?” Rita beamed. “He handsome devil, no?”

They looked at each other, Zoe wondering if Rita could actually read her mind. Rita giggled like a conspiring teenager.

“Before he takes his vows, he will marry Eleni. My granddaughter,” interjected Sophia, eyeballing them both. “It has been arranged.”

Rita sprang before Zoe could react.

“Nahhh. You crazy,” she shot back at Sophia with the best English she could muster. “Paris no want fix marriage.”

And as if to add insult to injury, Rita turned to Zoe. “Sooo, you have boyfriend?”

“Haaa! It’s true what they say. You Greeks really work fast,” replied Zoe, laughing.

“When is ‘bout love, yes!” answered Rita, joining her in laughter. “No waste the time, you know... Paris, he must marry before he takes vows, or he no marry after.”

“He sounds complicated,” cracked Zoe. “I don’t know if my schedule permits.”

Rita grasped Zoe’s hands tightly, with a spark of alarm in her voice.

“You must make the time, my dear. Before you know, you will be old hag like me. Bahaha! And me, I give up eternal life to be in love again...”

“Cease this senseless babble and hop to it!” barked Sophia. “We have guests waiting on us.”

Zoe ignored the outburst.

“Did you two really grow up with my grandmother?”

“We were... how you say... in-separable,” shined Rita.

“Yiayia was almost ninety-seven years old when she died. I mean, you both look decades younger...”

Sophia laughed hysterically, but Zoe noticed how ill at ease Rita appeared to be.

“It is our Mediterranean diet, of course,” bragged Sophia. “Petra has the healthiest climate.”

Zoe turned to Rita, waiting for a rebuttal. Instead, Sophia thrust a full tray of biscotti into the short woman’s hands, scolding her with a venomous stare.

“I’m so sorry. I say too much, you know... Is the brandy,” muttered Rita, avoiding Zoe’s eyes.

She then exited the kitchen with the tray of cookies, leaving Sophia and Zoe behind. The two women turned away from each other, busying themselves in their serving duties.

The relentless chatter rumbling from the living room seized abruptly. The sudden silence was so deafening, it was felt all the way into the kitchen. Zoe, shadowed by the rest of the women, filed into the salon to see what the fuss was all about.

She recognized the man with the white suit and hat. He stood at the door, his eyes fixed on the open coffin. All those gathered gawked at him, speechless. They reacted with mixed feelings; from a hint of awe, to utter disdain. Zoe was struck by Sophia’s look, an undisguised hot hatred that radiated from the hawk woman’s eyes. The man in white commanded a distinguishing presence. He did not look like the rest of the islanders. Zoe did not remember ever seeing eyes that blue before in her life. Paris’ eyes came a close second.

The stranger’s bone structure could have been described as Nordic. His skin was pinkish and his silver hair and thick goatee were well-groomed. He removed his hat and respectfully approached the casket. As he hovered over Maria’s remains, the image looked like a Caravaggio painting. He reached in with his free hand and brushed the tips of his fingers over her cheek. Zoe saw him mouth one word; her grandmother’s name. At first, it looked as if he was bowing to Maria, but Zoe’s eyes widened as she saw the mysterious man give her grandma a lingering, sweet kiss on the lips. She looked around the room to make sure she wasn’t the only one seeing this. By this point, most of the mourners had turned their eyes down, studying the cracks on the ceramic floor.

Zoe looked about to burst. She wanted to know who this man was! Just as she was about to say something, she caught a glimpse of Rita looking alarmed. She waved to Zoe with her hand, motioning her not to interfere. Sophia had her eyes fixed on the floor too, with her hands scrunched into fists. The man put on his hat, removed the red carnation from his chest and placed it in Maria’s hands. He then turned to look at Zoe, gave her a nod, pivoted and split, his every step and manner a motion of elegance. The very moment he was out of sight, the incessant chatter in the villa returned. Father Michael came to her side.

“Who was that man?” she asked before the priest could say a word.

“Stefanos, an island character...” he explained awkwardly, unsure how to continue.

“He seemed to know my grandmother well.”

“Well, he did…” Father Michael paused.

Zoe sensed his embarrassment. She suddenly felt unwell, as if she was about to faint.

“I am sorry, Father,” she said. “I’m exhausted. Jet lag, and all...”

“Of course, forgive us. We have overwhelmed you. You need to rest... We will tend to the wake.”

Zoe hadn’t realized that Sophia had approached them until the tall woman spoke.

“There is a bedroom upstairs. Let me take you...”

“Thank you. I’ll find it myself,” she muttered with as much resistance as she could muster. Zoe let out a great breath and turned to face the stairs. She ambled over, grabbing hold of the banister for support and sluggishly took the steps up to the villa’s second floor, brushing the blur of the lively living room away.

She followed a long hallway, lined with more peeling walls and discolored patches from missing picture frames. The master bedroom was behind the first door she tried. The shutters outside the windows were wide open, giving view to a bright red sunset. She pulled the drop sheet from the bed and she laid heavy on its thick mattress. Was any of this real? Maybe she was still asleep in her New York City flat? A villa of her own, what a thought! Innumerable questions laid thick, weighing her head down on the soft pillow. But for now, she badly needed to sleep. She managed just enough energy to kick her boots off, and that was all she could remove. She gazed at a leaky rain mark on the ceiling before her heavy eyelids obscured it. She dreamt Yiayia Maria was here with her and Zoe was once again a little girl. “Am I a real Greek, Grandma?”

Her grandmother was a thing of beauty. The wrinkles of time could not obscure the truth. She was elegant in her fashion sense and in her character. Her visits with Zoe were brief, but she cast a deep impression on her granddaughter. Maria had been the inspiration behind “Zoe’s Blue Jeans Shoppe” in Queens. “I’m trying my best, Grandma,” she said, seeing tears in Maria’s eyes. She had never noticed such sadness in her grandmother’s face before. Maria hugged her infant granddaughter tight, sobbing. “Ekaterini mou (My Ekaterini),” she said. “I’m Zoe,” replied the little girl, all confused.

At that very moment, sleep just overtook Zoe. “Who is Ekaterini...?” was her last conscious thought.


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