Thursday, November 10, 2011

Excerpt from The Lion and the Nurse


by Patty Apostolides


April 1979

Truth exists, yet often times we don’t see it. Elusive, like a deer in hiding, it waits, revealing itself only when the beholder stands still, ready to accept it unconditionally. Such a moment of truth exposed itself on this spring afternoon to Cassiani, but was she ready for it?

Cassiani stepped out on to the sunlit balcony carrying a bucket of dirty soap water in one hand and a wet mop in the other. Her mind was miles away at the University Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio, where she worked the past five months as a registered nurse. Today she would have been taking blood pressure readings at seven o’clock in the morning or popping thermometers into patients’ mouths. Or she would have been reading charts and administering medications. Instead, she was here on the Greek Island of Kos, mopping Mrs. Lukas’ upstairs apartment.

A week ago, when she and her sister received the telephone call from the doctor at Kos Hospital telling them that her mother experienced a heart attack, it had come as a shock. Athena couldn’t come because she was pregnant with her second child, so it was decided that Cassiani would come. Cassiani rushed to get here, dropping everything she was doing with no other thought but to nurse her mother. When she arrived three days ago, little did she know that today she’d be cleaning and mopping Mrs. Lukas’ house.

Cassiani lifted the bucket and poured the soapy water over the side of the balcony, watching the water disappear down the slope of the lime-green hill below. Further observation revealed flecks of color among the hill; clusters of white cyclamen, bunches of daisies, and bright red poppies that swayed with each caress of the wind. She took a deep breath, enjoying the fresh mountain air.

“This would be a good place to rest,” she said aloud. Two wooden chairs and a small square table sat on the balcony. She sank into one chair, plopping her slender legs up on the other chair, enjoying the sun-drenched panoramic view of Kos Island below. She could see far on this clear day; the whitewashed houses scattered here and there, the sandy beach of Tigaki with its salt lake, and in the horizon, the small island of Pserimos.

Her gaze settled to her left, beyond the row of Cypress trees that marked the property’s boundary, on the winding road leading to the house. She remembered the walk she had with her mother years ago down that very same road. It was dusty and half the width; suited more for pedestrians and donkeys than for cars. This morning her mother said, “You’ll find the road paved now, so don’t miss the way. It was done two years ago when Mrs. Lukas bought a new Mercedes.”

Cassiani glimpsed the dark shade of a lonely automobile driving up the road, but lost track of it just as quickly; probably her imagination at work. Mrs. Lukas was napping downstairs and wasn’t expecting anyone. She yawned, rubbing her eyes, enjoying the feel of the warm sun on her face. Her eyes fluttered shut as she fell into a light sleep.


Cassiani jumped up from her chair, knocking it over, her heart beating wildly. She anxiously peered through the balcony’s glass door into the darkness of the apartment. Could it be that Mrs. Lukas had walked up the stairs looking for her and had slipped on the newly mopped floor? Then she caught sight of the man. His movements were slow and cautious, as if he had sensed another presence…her presence. “A burglar,” she whispered. She quickly made the sign of the cross. “Dear Lord, have mercy on me.”

He was lean and dressed in dark clothes, and was heading purposefully towards her.

* * *

“What are you doing here?” Leo demanded. Just as he was about to reach the balcony he slipped on the wet floor and landed on his back.

At that very same moment Cassiani sprinted past him, then slid on the wet floor, her arms flailing about her until she regained her momentum. In her haste to leave, she blindly ran into the luggage lined up at the door. She lost her balance and grabbed the doorframe managing to keep from falling. She shakily pulled the two large suitcases upright. Were these the cause of the sound she heard from the balcony? She glanced at the nametag. “Dr. Leonidas Regas,” she whispered. Why did the name sound familiar? Her eyes flew open. “Oh, no!”

The burglar was none other than the much-awaited nephew of Soula Lukas. How could it be? He was supposed to arrive tomorrow. Ashamed at her behavior, Cassiani turned around and stared at the fallen man. She inched her way towards him, careful not to slip on the wet floor. Although his eyes were shut, to her relief she could make out the faint movement of his chest rising and falling rhythmically. Yes, he was alive…and undeniably handsome. His tanned face was lean, with a strong chin and a prominent, straight nose. She bent down, ready to check his head for bumps when his eyes fluttered open, staring upwards to gaze at the ceiling.

She caught her breath when his eyes settled on her. Magnificently large in size, their golden hazel color, speckled with emerald and saffron, glowed like a cat’s eyes…no…more like a lion’s eyes…as if there was a fire brewing inside them. It was unnerving, the intent way he studied her.

“Ouch,” he said, touching the back of his head. Apparently satisfied with the result, he raised himself in a sitting position. He studied her once more.

She could feel the warm rush of his breath against her face. Suddenly aware of how physically close he was to her, Cassiani moved back, trembling. A minute ago she was nursing a vulnerable, weak patient. As soon as he spoke, as soon as he was a man again and not a patient, society’s norms, her Christian principles, and her parents’ sound upbringing joined forces, sending warning signals up her spine. You’re alone in this apartment with a man.

“Don’t worry, I won’t bite.” His teasing voice was low and husky. She smiled. He smiled back. “What were you doing here?”

“I, I…was.” she said, very conscious of his stare. For some odd reason, she couldn’t speak. Instead, she stood up and pointed towards the balcony where she had left the bucket and mop. She made the motion of mopping.

In one swift movement he was up on his feet, his agile body moving cautiously to the balcony. “You were mopping the apartment,” he finished her sentence. “That explains the wet floor.”

Cassiani was about to introduce herself when she heard a faint call coming from downstairs. She turned her head to hear better. “It’s Mrs. Lukas. She is calling.” She ran towards the door, knocking the luggage over.

“Wait!” Leo shouted.

Cassiani flew down the steps. This time there was no turning back. She sprinted through the large kitchen with the peppermint tea scent, across the narrow hallway with its paintings, and into the bedroom. She found Soula Lukas sitting upright in her bed, propped up by several large pillows. The pink satin robe covering her thin frame, meant for a much younger woman, captured the eye first before settling on her olive-skinned, wrinkled face. Her fluffy white hair circled her head like a misplaced halo.

Maybe it was the way her brown eyes, clouded and unfocused, looked up at Cassiani, or the dazed look on her face, as if she had just seen a ghost; whatever it was, something had caused her to call out.

Cassiani leaned over and touched her shoulder. “Mrs. Lukas, is everything all right?” she asked, feeling breathless. “I heard you calling.”

“What? Oh, yes,” Soula muttered. Her hand fluttered over her eyes. “I had a dream…yes…a dream. That Leo was here.”

“Actually, Leo did—” Cassiani began, then stopped when she saw Leo.

In a few strides Leo reached his aunt’s bed. “Aunt Soula!” he said. He bent down and kissed his aunt tenderly on the forehead then eased his body on the edge of the bed

Soula’s voice trembled with joy. She gripped his hand as if she were testing the reality of his presence. “So you weren’t really a dream after all! I thought I saw you in a dream…that you had come.”

Captivated by this new development into Mrs. Lukas’ world, Cassiani watched with surprise, witnessing the caring look on Leo’s face and the gentle way he touched his aunt’s arm. There was sensitivity in that gesture, one that conveyed a soul that had experienced love and knew how to show it and this spoke louder than words to Cassiani’s fine-tuned heart. She was mesmerized.

The tender way in which Mrs. Lukas gazed back into her nephew’s eyes revealed no coldness or hardness that Cassiani had glimpsed in the past, but a startling show of affection…resembling the love of a mother towards her child.

“I stopped by earlier, but you were asleep.”

“Ahh, so that was what happened!” Soula said, touching Leo’s face fondly. “Weren’t you supposed to come tomorrow?” She scrunched her face, thinking. “What is today…Thursday or Friday?”

Leo playfully patted her on the hand. “We had arranged for me to come today, Thursday.”

“Oh, my,” Soula replied, appearing apologetic. “For some reason I thought it was tomorrow. You know…I’m becoming rather forgetful.”

Cassiani quietly removed herself, not wanting to interfere with the reunion. As a nurse, she had learned not to pry into people’s affairs. She paused at the door and looked at them. “I must be going,” she said.

Leo stood up. “I’m sorry if I frightened you. I wasn’t expecting to find anyone upstairs in the apartment.”

I wasn’t expecting anyone either. “That’s all right. I’m the one that should be apologizing,” Cassiani replied.

“What happened?” Soula asked Leo, her eyes narrowing.

“I slipped on the floor she had mopped and – ”

“Did you hurt yourself?” Soula interjected, looking concerned.

“I’m fine,” Leo chuckled, gingerly touching the back of his head. “Not even a small bump for a souvenir.”

“I have to go now,” Cassiani said, feeling awkward under Mrs. Lukas’ scrutiny. “My mother hasn’t been feeling well. I need to be with her.”

“Ah, yes. Say hello to her for me,” Soula said, her face softening. “Oh…and don’t forget to take the payment for cleaning the upstairs apartment. The money is on the kitchen table.” She signaled towards the kitchen.

Cassiani blushed at the patronizing manner in which Mrs. Lukas had just spoken. I helped because I wanted to, not because of any payment. Instead of replying, she fled from the room.

* * *

Leo watched with amusement at Cassiani’s flustered exit. His mind had been preoccupied all day with business deals and his aunt’s health. Cassiani’s brief entrance into his life had been a refreshingly beautiful diversion. I wonder whether I’ll see her again. I wonder where she lives. “Who is she?”

“She’s the daughter of my hired companion, Vera Meletis. Vera had a heart attack recently. I needed help, so she sent her in her place.” Soula motioned to Leo. “Come, take my arm so I can get up.”

Leo held on to his aunt as she arose out of bed. “I didn’t see her car outside. Does she need a ride—”

“Don’t go thinking too much about her,” Soula interjected.

“What makes you think that?” Leo asked, shrugging his shoulders.

“Oh, an old woman’s intuition,” was his aunt’s tart reply.

* * *

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