Nothing had prepared Nick for the sheer beauty of the village perched above the purpling sea. Atop the steep hill, the last rays of sunset licked Vourvoulos’s lofty castle walls while necklaces of red-tiled roofs clung to the cliffs below. He pulled the small car off the road and grabbed his binoculars.
His socks collected burrs as he trudged through the dried weeds to stand as close to the cliff’s edge as he dared in the gusting wind. Through the binoculars, Nick slowly panned the houses spilling down to the water’s edge. From a mile away, he couldn’t make out much detail, but after too many hours flying economy class, he was just glad to know that somewhere in that tangle of stone buildings was a bed with his name on it.
He heard the putt-putt-putt of a motor and spotted a fishing boat aiming for the village’s small port. Shifting the binoculars, he searched beyond Vourvoulos’s headland for the black speck of an approaching raft silhouetted against Turkey’s distant shore. Nick didn’t expect to see one. The refugees usually arrived at dawn not sunset, and with winter approaching, their numbers had started to drop; though the traffickers would ensure that they didn’t stop altogether. Misery drove their business, and a few refugees drowned in the narrow channel wouldn’t change that.
Nick was still looking for rafts when he smelled the smoke. The wind carried it to him. He panned the village again, looking for its source and saw nothing. Then he scanned the cove-dotted shoreline. At first he mistook the flames for the sunset’s reflection off a limestone outcropping, but with a second look, he saw the wind pushing the fire quickly uphill in the dry brush. A gust sent sparks into the tops of the tall trees overhanging a lone house.
In its yard, a dog, barking frantically, strained at its leash.
Nick sprinted back to his car.
Shirley tootled along the coastal road with her back seat filled with nine dead cats. They weren’t exactly dead, only dead-to-the-world under anesthesia from being fixed, as if removing sensitive body parts could be considered a fix. Shirley didn’t think so. A cat meowed weakly and she sped up, wanting her daughter, who came up with the idea of fixing them, to have the pleasure of uncaging the maligned animals when they came to. A second cat meowed, and Shirley accelerated, her tires complaining as she took a curve too fast.
In the same instant, Nick shot back onto the road, and, slamming on his brakes, barely managed to avoid a collision.
“Look where you’re going, you bloody fool!” Shirley shouted in English, seeing him screech to a halt in her rearview mirror.
Moments later, he was on her tail, trying to pass on curves with no shoulders and a long drop to the sea. When they reached a short stretch of straight road, Shirley edged over. It was also where she habitually caught the first glimpse of her house, and that evening, she couldn’t see it for the billowing smoke. Forgetting Nick, who was already alongside her, she stomped on the accelerator, leaving him in the wrong lane approaching another curve. He hit the brakes hard, and swerved back behind her.
He was still swearing at the stupid woman when she bounced off the road to park alongside a pickup truck with a swirling blue light fixed to its roof. Nick skidded to a stop behind her.
Shirley scrambled from her small car as fast as her generous body would allow. “Apostolis!” she cried. “Dingo is up there!”
The fire chief was busy directing villagers who’d shown up to fight the fire, some carrying shovels, others hauling water in the backs of pickups. “Are you sure only Dingo is there?” Apostolis shouted back.
Nick sprinted past them, unbuttoning his shirt while clutching a water bottle. “Is Ringo the dog?”
“Dingo!” Shirley shouted after him. “His name is Dingo!”
Nick disappeared in the smoke.
Airborne sparks had set the tops of the tall trees ablaze, but the weedy fire on the ground wasn’t especially hot. He moved too quickly for the flames to do more than singe his cuffs. “Dingo!” he shouted. “Dingo! Dingo!”
The dog stirred.
He struggled to stand, shaking feebly.
He barked once and collapsed.
Nick found the unconscious dog and slung him around his neck. He gripped its bony legs while using his foot to slide open the patio door. “Hello! Hello! Is anyone here?” he shouted, and moved quickly through the house, checking all the rooms. He kicked in a locked door. “Einai kanena etho?” The house was remarkably smoke-free, and the dog, bouncing on Nick’s shoulders, soon recovered, but he didn’t let go of him for fear he’d bolt back into danger.
When certain no one was trapped inside, he ran back out. Dingo, unhappy to be in the smoke again, bucked hard as Nick jogged downhill through the burning brush. A glowing ember landed on his forehead, but he couldn’t risk letting go of the dog to brush it off. Once back on the road, he gladly rolled the unhappy animal off his shoulders.
“Dingo!” Shirley cried as he leapt up to kiss her.
Nick, between coughs, told the fire chief, “Kopsete ta megala dendra na pesoun pros to meros mas.” Cut the big trees to fall toward us.
“Not Lukas’s beauties!” Shirley exclaimed.
“If they fall this way,” he continued, “they will suffocate the fire on the ground. Then your men can get above the house and shoot water down on the flames. But you can’t wait.”
Apostolis made a split-second assessment of the situation and agreed. He shouted an order, and trucks carrying water took the scrubby hill on both sides of the endangered house.
Two cars pulled up.
Lydia jumped out of the first one. “Mum! Are you all right?”
“Of course I’m all right,” Shirley replied. “It’s your father I’m worried about.”
That was Lukas, who got out of the second car. The flames played on the old fisherman’s face, bronzed by years at sea. He asked the fire chief, “Can you save the house?”
“Only if we cut your trees.”
Lukas’s beauties. The four red eucalyptus trees he had planted, one for each of their daughters, cutting notches in them as the girls inched up, until they stopped growing taller though the trees never did. Eventually even their tallest notches towered over the house. Lukas clenched his jaw, tears welling in his eyes; and that was all the time he had to grieve for his beauties, or he’d be grieving for his home, too. “Do you have a spare chainsaw?”
“In the back of my truck,” Apostolis told him.
Lukas grabbed it and trudged up the hill.