People who have not been to Narnia
sometimes think that a thing cannot
be good and terrible at the same time.
Mal Cozakos shifted nervously in his wooden chair outside a small cafe. Beneath charcoal brows, his thinly slit eyes darted between the small photograph in his left hand and the tourist entrance to the ancient church across the street. A narrow strip of shade protected him from the mid-morning heat. Crags in his olive face had evolved into a permanent squint by eight decades of Mediterranean sun. Although a common man, his full head of tousled white hair, salt and pepper moustache, and trim physique gave him a distinguished appearance. A smoldering cigarette was wedged between two fingers of his left hand. His only contemporary accessory, bright white Reeboks.
The brass bell in the campanile of Ayos Lazaros Church told Mal it was ten o'clock. In two more minutes, his shade would be gone, his cigarette would be out, and there’d be just enough time to drive his shuttle bus to the airport and collect passengers exiting the Cyprus Airways first flight from Athens. Again, he studied the passport-sized photo. Countless times in the past four days, he’d forced his aged eyes to focus on the black and white visage. He was confident the man in the photo would come to Cyprus and when he did, he would surely visit Ayo Lazaros Church. Mal eyed a group of tourists, one man and three women, as they entered the ancient structure. Satisfied the male in the group did not match the faded face in his hand, Mal rose to his feet and with the posture of one carrying an enormous weight on his shoulders, made his way to the red and forest green bus parked around the corner.
The starter motor cranked longer these days--sometimes twenty or thirty seconds before the ’83 Mercedes diesel kicked in. Today, relieved he was still in business, Mal Cozakos offered a thankful prayer. The antiquated German thirty-seater with its gigantic luggage basket covering the entire roof, must continue to survive at least as long as he. To that end, each April, on Greek Orthodox Easter Monday, Mal would drive the vehicle, which he’d named Aphrodite, up the steep, twisting road to the remote, mountain top Stavrovouni Monastery. There, in exchange for a donation of 10 Cypriot pounds, a local priest would pronounce a special blessing upon the rusty machine. Mal was oblivious to the contradiction of religious monks blessing a vehicle named after the pagan goddess of love and sex who, according to legend, was born out of the seafoam just off the nearby coast.
With open windows his only air-conditioning, bus and driver hurried along the road to the airport. As usual, the two-laner was clogged with tiny cars, pickup trucks and European-built minivans loaded with products for local merchants.
Mal usually enjoyed the drive. The avenue to the airport is landscaped with pink and white Oleanders lining both sides of the narrow island separating the opposing vehicles. The traffic thinned as he exited the Larnaca city limits. To his right, the bleached sodium bed of a part-time saltwater lake shimmered with a brilliant white glare. During the winter months, when briny water dissolved the lake's salt-encrusted bed, bright, migrant flamingos and other birds would vacation here. But today, it was just a white-hot reflector of sun and heat.
For nearly a week, life for Mal had been a struggle. Always an introvert, he’d suddenly become reclusive, avoiding all contact with friends and acquaintances.
The trouble began last Thursday morning. As he ate his usual breakfast of cracked barley, figs, goat cheese, and strong tea, he had absently glanced out the window of his tiny apartment into the vacant lot where Aphrodite spent each night. Peering through the gray, pre-dawn air, he saw a man leaning heavily against her right front fender. Mal dropped his tea, thundered down dusty wooden stairs, and with the urgency of one whose lover was being courted by another, rushed to challenge the interloper.
The intruder, sitting on the right running board, was a stocky man in a tan suit. He was slumped facedown against forearms resting on his knees. A khaki pith helmet lay upside down at his feet. Mal slowed his approach then stopped short. Aphrodite’s passenger door was slightly ajar, as if the man had attempted to board the locked bus. After a moment, Mal offered a tentative greeting, "Kali mera.”
The man raised a mussed, snow-capped head exposing an unshaven, wrinkled face atop beefy shoulders. His translucent skin was the color of overcast sky. His labored breathing convinced the bus driver he was not a threat. Still, Mal was alarmed by the man's terrified expression, made worse by red blood vessels that had exploded in each of his yellow eyes. His desperate physical condition was incongruous with the fine workmanship of his tan, unwrinkled suit.
"Po-po-po-po!" Mal said, shaking his head in dismay.
Wheezing, the man looked up and said, "Anglika?"
"Yes. I speak the English,"
A spasm of coughing overtook the man. Then a moment of silence before he barked, "Airport!"
"No flights. Nine o’clock is first flight. We go to hospital."
"No! Airport now. Private jet.”
Mal unlocked the bus, helped his sick passenger up two steps and deposited him in the center of the cracked vinyl bench seat behind the driver's position.
Once on the road, using care to not jostle his fragile cargo, Mal eased the vehicle onto the narrow street and headed southwest toward the airport. His solitary passenger leaned far forward, the sound of his wheezing competing with Aphrodite's engine, rattles, and road noise. Mal turned back and briefly caught his eye. "Airport soon."
Again, the man tried to speak. The words came in an unnaturally high pitch punctuated with coughs. "You are a Christian?"
"Yes, Greek Orthodox. All life Greek Orthodox."
"Do you believe?"
Mal looked back, smiled and shrugged his shoulders.
"Sir," the man squeaked, "I must know...I must know if you are an honest believer."
"You very sick. No talk."
"I must know if I can trust you."
"Why you want trust me? I bus driver."
"I'm dying,” the man groaned. “I know...things...very important…” His words dissolved into severe hacking.
Mal was now sure of one thing, he must ignore this strange man and concentrate on the road ahead.
His passenger persisted, "I am Nicolas...archeologist. Found ancient Christian writings...in mosque. Much trouble. Beaten by Islamic Turks. Four days, no food. Escaped. Never told where…never told…"
Mal stared straight ahead. The man gasped for air.
"Chartered jet. American Express. I can pay."
The bus driver wanted no money. It was as if each desperate word brought Mal closer to some ominous fate. I know this feeling, he thought, recalling his involvement in Ethniki Organosis Kyprion Agoniston (EOKA), the ultimately successful Cypriot struggle to overthrow British rule of the island in the 1950's. As a young man, Mal imagined himself a Cypriot Dighenis, the legendary Greek ‘Robin Hood.’ He’d distributed leaflets, organized groups of Cypriot youth and even helped plant one unfortunate bomb. As a Cypriot of Greek culture and extraction it had been his duty to get involved. Now, Mal could feel duty beginning to loom large once more, this time in the squeaks and coughs of his pathetic passenger.
Sunlight glinted off the distant Mediterranean as Mal carefully guided Aphrodite through the coastal roundabout. Despite Mal’s caution, the turn caused the weak Nicholas to slide toward the center aisle, slip off his seat onto the floor, roll on his back, and lay face up with his head between Mal’s feet and the floor-mounted stick shift. There he stayed, staring upward.
Mal could not resist worried glances at the grotesque face resting at his feet. "Airport, soon!”
With labored breaths the man pressed on. "Must tell. God's will. I tell you."
"No, you rest. No talk."
"God's will. You help."
"God not choose me. I bus driver!”
Unimpressed at Mal's reticence, Nicolas became a breathless soprano, performing a halting, staccato summary of his great and terrible discovery. As he did so, the humble driver's eyes widened, the color drained from his face. Even though he could not decipher each word, he gleaned enough to recognize the troubling religious and geopolitical implications within Nicolas’ tale. As Aphrodite neared the airport, a new and monstrous burden began weighing on Mal’s shoulders.
By the time he helped Nicolas through passport control and up the steps of a chartered Gulfstream jet, a small, gray snapshot had been placed in Mal's wrinkled hand. And a solemn promise had been made--an oath before God--to keep a momentous secret.
Standing on the tarmac, stunned by the news that was at once exciting and troubling, Mal felt as if he’d begun holding his breath. And he knew that until the man in the photo came, no matter what, he must not exhale.