She burned in the fires that consumed Greece like a red-fanged tide. She went there to see Athens and her Acropolis. I always used to call her my Cassandra.
Cassandra was the daughter of King Priam of Troy, she was cursed with the gift of prophecy. Why is that a curse? Because the gods ensured that although her prophecies were always true, no one would believe her.
And my own Cassandra was the most intelligent woman I had ever met. But she was cursed with a character so meek she could never get her thoughts heard.
I heard them. I was the only man alive privileged enough to hear her speak of Ancient Greek poetry and Shakespeare’s gender politics or how the dialectic of history has given us, in equal measure, pure evil and true goodness. She was only twenty-five, my Cassandra, yet she had the wisdom of something ancient.
I got the call from her brother, who had stayed home and didn’t go to Athens, when I was out walking along the waterfront and thinking which bars made the best mojito to quench my summer thirst. I’ll never forget the words he used: “she’s gone, brother, and she isn’t coming back.”
The words isn’t coming back and the fact that she died in fire instantly made me think of the myth of the phoenix.
But myths are just myths. Gods are not gods. Superstition is superstition.
My Cassandra was dead. Black and charred. Her lovely eyes a hollow socket. Her lips that used to kiss mine now nothing more than molten flesh. And no, she wasn’t coming back.
My Cassandra and the rest of her family were cremated. I thought it a cruel joke of nameless fate, but it had always been their wish. How do you cremate what’s already burned to a cinder? As I watched her remains enter the furnace, there in her beloved Greece, I kept feeling my tears rolling down into my lips. They tasted bitterly fresh. How can something so painful taste like a fresh mountain stream, so full of miserable joy?
Maybe we experience feelings differently through each of our senses, I thought then. Her brother and I went for a drink in a rowdy Athenian bar later that night. We were both men consumed by sorrow and ouzo.
Do we feel grief differently through our eyes and ears and lips and hands? A dead body, all dressed up and cleaned, might appear peaceful to our eyes, but our hands would feel something unbearably cold and stiff. And a piece of music, say a Bach violin concerto, might lift us up if we see it performed, but if we only hear it in solitude we would be overwhelmed with grief.
That night, her brother and I got drunk. Everyone around us saw it and felt sorry for us. To see men grieve is at times more difficult to watch. But no one knew that deep down I felt myself to be Pandora’s jar.
When all the evils of the world had escaped Pandora’s jar (and really, what more evil could there be than to have your love, so pure and alive, be burnt to ashes whilst she carried out her dream?) there was something very faint and very powerful remaining: hope.
We stayed another two nights in Athens after the funeral. Her brother agreed to my request that I keep my Cassandra’s jar in my room. My room overlooked the Acropolis. I was staying in the same room where she had stayed. The sight of the Acropolis, glowering like a constellation against the timeless sky, was one of the last things she must have seen.
And it was there, I did the one thing I knew could give me hope. I brought the jar to the window. Opened it, and with my eyes fixed on the Acropolis, devoured all of my Cassandra’s ashes.
Later that night, as I slept in my Cassandra’s bed, I saw her, in my dreams. She didn’t look burned, she didn’t look dead, nor alive. She looked the same as she always did. The veil of understated beauty that always covered her was there.
For the whole of the night, my Cassandra told me all manner of stories, just as she always did. She told me the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, and made the comment that Jesus’ story of resurrection failed to impress the Greeks; she told me about the way Ancient Egyptians had their hearts weighed on the scales of justice, and if found impure they would suffer a ‘second death’ by being devoured by a crocodilian beast. She said to me, “I will never suffer a second death, as long as you dream of me”.
I fell in love with my Cassandra all over again. From that night onward, after eating her ashes, I dreamt about her every night of my life.
It was a relationship that couldn’t be broken, that never aged, withered or burnt. She never grew old in my dreams and I still felt the same youthful love I had always felt for her. And every night, with her ashes swirling inside my veins, she told me everything she knew, and I listened, me, only me.
One night she told me that her death was the best thing that could have happened to her. And I almost agreed with her.
“You shouldn’t be so humble.” She told me as we sat on a verdant hill overlooking the lights of Athens.
“What do you mean humble?”
“You’ve given me something no other human being ever gets.”
I hid my faint smile from her as best I could.