Eventually, having pacified my little friend, I returned him to ground level and then went and washed my face at the spring and drank some water. By the time I had turned around again Pirat had disappeared. Grateful for this piece of good fortune I grabbed my rucksack and hurried through the pitch-black tunnel of the magnificent stone gatehouse, emerging into the small inner courtyard to find it – with its lovely black-and-white pebble hoklaki paving and pretty red-roofed church – lit up like a prison. Apart from the gushing and gurgling of the spring, the place was eerily quiet; I felt like an intruder as I crept across the yard and climbed to the upper gallery, pausing halfway up the concrete stairs to look out over the valley at the dark, moody sea. Overhead the mountains girdled the head of the valley in an amphitheatre-like formation, the folds and crevices in the limestone etched with shadow and the peaks disappearing into a froth of dirty grey cloud. Everything was exactly as I remembered, right down to the faint aroma of incense that lingered on the air.
Upon gaining the top gallery I soon saw that the keys were no longer kept in the doors of the cells. This wouldn’t have been a problem in any case because I had my mat, but I was nonetheless gratified to find a mattress leaning against the wall towards the end. I placed this flat on the ground and, sitting upon it, removed my boots and socks, then took my sleeping bag from my rucksack, unpacked it and lay down with it slung over me like a quilt. Everything felt very cosy and as I closed my eyes I congratulated myself on the sanguinity of my new bolthole, although I would have given anything to have been able to extinguish the light.
Lulled by the drizzling rain I passed a restless, but not unpleasant night. I woke on several occasions but not fully and never for long. Then, just before dawn, I was roused by the ominous rumble of thunder far off in the distance and vaguely thought, ‘Oh well, here it comes,’ before slipping back into dreamland. Waking some time later I was surprised to find that the rain had stopped and so had the thunder, although the sky remained overcast, with a queer pearly sheen, and I suspected that the reprieve wouldn’t last long. Just then a toilet flushed downstairs and suddenly I heard voices, the gruff familiar tones of Papa Manolis and that of a woman I didn’t know. As I listened to their dialogue I became increasingly self-conscious about my presence, almost as if I felt that I shouldn’t be there (a consequence, perhaps, of sneaking in like a thief late at night), and so rather than go down and say hello I waited until they’d descended to the lower courtyard before hurriedly packing away my gear and making my escape. Along the way I stopped to fill my water bottle at the spring, grateful that there was no sign of Pirat who almost certainly would have given away my presence with his barking.
Once out the gate I turned instinctively towards Eristos, climbing up behind the monastery and following the old path that wound around the stony flank of the valley before ascending towards the craggy grey wall that enfolded it. In many ways it was a beautiful morning; the air smelled fresh and clean after the rain, infused by the giddy aromas of the desiccated plants that lined the path of Venetian red earth and whose brittle leaves – a gorgeous spectrum of burned golds and greens and greys and russets – glittered with a patina of tear-like raindrops. Dark clouds hung over the sea, whose surface of hammered indigo was ruffled in places by imperceptible currents of air, and once again the thunder had resumed, a low and sporadic growling as if a wild beast were lying in wait somewhere over the hills. Clearly a major storm was brewing, which prompted me to reflect, as I came up under the cliffs, that if I possessed an ounce of sense I would turn around now and retrace my steps to the monastery. Of course, I failed to do this – not, I’d like to think, because I didn’t possess any sense, but rather upon consideration of the fact that I had never let anything so insignificant as a thunderstorm stop me in the past and I wasn’t about to let it stop me now. We live and learn, as they say.
So up I went, revelling in the speed of my ascent, my boots clattering as I crossed a patch of scree, then climbed up out of the valley over a low col. In an instant the monastery vanished from sight in my rear; up ahead a chilling view opened of enormous storm clouds, dark as ink, bundled across the sky. Draperies of rain hung suspended over the sea and the thunder was louder and more immediate, each mighty peal, heralded by brief flash of lightning, reverberating overhead like a drumroll. I marched on, in thrall to the drama that was unfolding and awed alike by the black sky and the wind that seemed to come out of nowhere, chilling me in my t-shirt, as well as by the lurid tones of the landscape in the gloaming light. The path looped over a series of gentle depressions, with mountains rising on one side and the land falling steeply into the sea on the other; then, just beyond the headland of Kephala it suddenly plunged downwards, rough and stony, into a momentous valley that was bleak in its emptiness. Even on sunny days this part of the island can be forbidding, the high crags and the rough and treeless ravine – devoid of manmade features apart from the ruined chapel of the Panagia, a scattering of disused animal pens and the spring of Vathia Pigi – inducing a feeling of isolation and solitude that at times can be almost overwhelming. Today, shrouded in an unearthly darkness, the first drops of rain spitting out of an angry sky, it formed a grim picture indeed.
Suddenly the rain came on in earnest, an utter deluge, and within minutes I was soaked to the skin, water cascading from the brim of my hat as I raced downhill, my boots slipping and sliding on the loose rocks strewn over the path. Thunder cracked directly overhead, frightening in its intensity, and when the lightning flashed it was all around me, jagged prongs of electricity unleashing sheets of violet phosphorescence that lifted rocks and shrubs and the pale thread of path out of the gloom in a brutal snapshot. In no time at all, it seemed, I had reached the bottom of the descent and was passing the stone-walled enclosure of Vathia Pigi, ‘Deep Spring’, which I was astonished to see was vigorously running, water gushing in a torrent from the battered marble spout. It was the first time I had ever seen this happen in September and, although perverse under the circumstances, I was so amazed that I briefly considered stopping to take a photograph. Only briefly, mind you.
Beyond the spring the path becomes tricky, winding around and over blades and knobs of limestone – tough enough to negotiate when dry but now, gleaming with rainwater, treacherously slippery. I ploughed on regardless, taking my chances, all thoughts focused now on the lonely chapel at the bottom of the valley. After a last desperate scramble over some inconvenient outcrops of rock, the path turned and suddenly it came into view – a battered little outpost standing in a sea of faded Jerusalem sage, adjacent to a watercourse of smooth white boulders that unwound between low eroded cliffs to the sea at Limenari. At this point, miraculously, the rain eased off and the thunder began to recede into the distance as the clouds thinned out and a pale seeping light returned to the world; with mist swirling like battle-smoke around the mountaintops I paused to take in my surroundings, noting the milky blue colour of the sea off the beach at Limenari and also, curiously, a large expanse of pale, denuded ground high on the opposite ridge beneath the dramatic outcrop of Patela which, like the headland at Luboudi, had obviously been cleared by fire. I knew that refugees had come in at Limenari – I had encountered burnt patches of scrub and food containers with Turkish labels on the surrounding slopes during my last winter on Tilos, in 2013 – but no reports of fires in the area had ever reached me back in Australia.
A violent flash, followed by a mighty peal of thunder, signalled a resumption of hostilities and drove all thoughts from my mind as I raced towards the chapel, approaching it through a mass of Jerusalem sage whose tough, woody branches clawed at my legs. The shrub grew thick around the low doorway, which was further obstructed by rubble – there was no alternative but to go to the rear of the chapel and climbed in through the gaping hole that had been torn in the apse. It was not a moment too soon as the next thing I knew the sky blackened again and rain began to fall in a torrent. It was about that time, standing there among the bones and the goat shit in my wet clothes, gazing out at the cataclysm overtaking the valley, that I thought to myself that perhaps I should have listened to Charlie.