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The Flames of Thera
The world is a shade of rich, vibrant green, radiating life and nature in a labyrinth of stone. My life had unfolded in shades of gray, before her. Afterall, Santorini is a gray city, and I have known nothing but its congested streets and aristocrats. How ironic, I can’t help but see, that the bureaucracy that raised me taught me to look down on a servant like herself. May the gods help me if they are right, but no virtue, no hubris, could save from the grasp of her beauty.
“Are you deaf?” My elder brother yells, pulling me aside, and the noise of the crowd breaks my reverie. Hundreds of bodies, some clothed in rags and other in robes, rush by in a river of panic. We stand in the shadow of a bakery, judging by the smell, nearly flattened against the wall to avoid being trampled. “We must hurry, the boats will not wait forever.”
I glance back across the street at her, standing in the doorway of a dilapidated abode, loose tan peasant rags clinging to her slender shoulders. “You know that they will spare us above the poor, Sama,” I respond placidly. “Mother won’t let the ships leave without us.”
Just as I finish speaking, there is another violent tremor, and my eyes turn upward towards the great mountain, perched high above the city. The monstrous plume of smoke spouting from its peak is closer than I remember, and larger. It looms over us like a portent, ready to claim our city. “Go to the harbor,” I order him, not even taking my eyes off the mountain as I weave through the street, “I left something behind; it must be retrieved.”
“Nashuja!” My brother calls from the doorway, his voice smothered by the cacophony, “I cannot leave you-” Halfway across the street, pushing through the endless torrent of bodies, Sama is no longer audible, though I cannot deny my compulsion to return to him. The mountain, it seems, has caused the ground itself to tremble in fear of its awesome might, its low groaning underlying the cries of fervor and confusion. Tearing my focus from it, I look back to her, seeing those green eyes watching me expectantly from the opposite doorway.
At long last, gasping for breath, I collapse into her arms as she stumbles backward. She holds me, weakly, as I look over my shoulder in search of my brother. He is no longer there, pulled downhill with the crowd. “I never thought a day would come,” she mocks, “that I would be the one to support you.” Before I can muster another word, she embraces me tightly, drawing me behind the arch.
Once inside, I abruptly push myself from her grasp, as tempting as it is to cling to her until the chaos subsides. “I waited for you, Eritha,” I hiss, feigning rage, “you promised me that we would meet at temple, that we would leave together. Where were you?” Dejectedly, she tries to touch me again, and I weakly catch her wrist. “Do not tell me,” I breath, narrowing my eyes, “that this is because of what the oracles said.”
She pauses, concealing the doubt in her countenance as she shakes her head. “Of course not,” she assures, but I know she recalls the day well. How the priests had gathered us under the smoldering Summer sun to forewarn of a great cataclysm. The gods were going to destroy Santorini, prepare to flee, they said. The look in her emerald eyes as she clasped my hands, listening to their closing words, that this wasn’t arbitrary punishment but a consequence for mankind’s immortality. It took months to convince her that it was not us they spoke of, but it was never enough to hinder her implicit trust in the priests. “But you know that this,” she pinches the sleeve of my crimson tunic, then gestures to her own ragged garments, “was always wrong.”
“It will be different in Knossos, I promise,” I beg of her, just as the building violently shudders. Whoever fled it left it derelict, stripped of all but lingering dust, the walls displaying a web of cracks tracing through them. “The Phoenician merchants say that farmland is plentiful on Crete, we will take my inheritance and leave. Nobody will catch us, we will have our own-”
Vibrations shake the room, forcing us to cling to each other as the sound of crumbling follows. Stone pelts us and the smell of burning fills the air, making breathing difficult. Just as I’m sure we’re safe, I notice a portion of the ceiling caving in, cracks weaving around it like a snake entrapping prey. WIth a gasp I push Eritha, both of us falling backward just as the plaster crashes between us, leaving a sizable indentation in the floor as it fragments. “Well,” I sigh, brushing myself off, “maybe the gods aren’t pleased with us afterall.”
She doesn’t return my smile as we rise to our feet. “Than let them do their worst,” she answers defiantly, starting towards the door, and I grin as I hurry to her side. Before I get a view of the street, she grabs my shoulder and spins me to face her. “Let us die together if we must.” I nod, and with her hand in mine we step onto the boulevard.
The streets resemble the aftermath of a great war, rather than an abandoned city; the bakery I spoke with Sama under has collapsed, along with most other buildings. Even the great pillared temples in the distance have fallen. Shattered pottery and rubble litter the streets while a dense, noxious fog pervades the air, making me sputter for breath. When I look up, the mountain’s great plume is no longer visible through the smoke, but I can sense it, like a monster lurking in the dark Without hesitation we take off towards the shore, holding eachother’s hand to ensure we aren’t separated.
As we hurry downhill, catching each other for balance as we hurdle fallen pillars and evade debris, I can’t help but laugh at what a provocative sight we must be. I can envision Sama, his mouth agape in horror, trying to pry her from me once we board our boat. Try as he may, nothing will pull us asunder, be it the aristocracy, the gods, or the island itself.
The familiar structures alert me of our closeness, and the figure of the beach rises like a beacon in the smoke. I exhale in relief, coughing out poison. Finally, we will be free, I think to myself, looking eagerly at my determined love, her eyes fixed ahead. I face forward again, grinning, ready to burst forth onto the beach with her, when a great tremor strikes, carrying greater force than anything I imagined, tearing the world apart by its fragile seams.
The quake stops us in our tracks, roaring with a deafening thunder, the ground in front of us fracturing in the shape of lightning. Outside the ringing I cannot hear anything but the droning of my own screams and Eritha’s as we fall to the ground, huddling against each other for protection. I tremble with her until it passes, and when I look up, I am greeted by a chasm in the road, a ship’s length across, a yawning pit to the depths of Hades, as if the malevolent underworld can wait no longer to claim our doomed souls. When I finally gain footing, the world still inaudible, instinct propels me a few steps backwards, away from the daunting fissure to oblivion.
Even above the pulsing in my ears, a low rumbling pierces the air, the familiar call of a horn, usually to signal the arrival of a trade vessel. Now, it brings with it a portent of imminent fate. Eritha hears it clearly, tugging incessantly at my hand, screaming at me to do something, yet I have no idea what. “We must leave…” her loudest words reach me, and the desperation in her voice impels me to follow, turning down a narrow alley taking us to a passable thoroughfare, albeit clogged by debris. And so we run towards the beach, though I fear the boats already have set sail.
That was when the hail began; at least, I presume it to be hail, yet it’s somehow worse. It isn’t water at all, but pellets of scorching rock that fall sporadically every few seconds. Whenever I’m misfortunate enough to have one fall on exposed skin I gasp, yet Eritha, her extremities unprotected, betrays no pain, just determination. A god’s statue topples in front of us as we run, and in my distraction I graze the top of it as we leap to avoid being crushed by ivory.
We land safely on the other side, the beach in full view, though the fog has grown denser in the last few minutes. My eyes sting from it now, my lungs screaming for a reprieve. The familiar vendors’ and traders’ stalls line the streets, signaling that we are only units away, and soon enough sand replaces the paved stone roadway underfoot. The city opens to the vast expanse of the harbor, it's great docks protruding out into the waters, smoke lingering over its surface, thinner than before. The air remains toxic, the groaning of the earth does not cease, and fire still falls from the sky yet I know we have won, that triumph is ours over fate itself.
In a moment of glee I grab Eritha’s emaciated waist and hoist her up, spinning her around as she laughs, landing nimbly on the ground when my exhausted arms falter. We twirl and spin towards the docks in a euphoric dance, not stopping, not daring to take our eyes off of one another until we stumble onto the wooden struts and press onward, waiting for the figures of ships to emerge.
And yet, we discover the pier abandoned, with no quarreling passengers to interrupt the ravenous growling of the Earth. When we reach the farthest extent, standing far from the waterline, we haven’t passed a single boat. As the empty scene resonates with me, I drop Eritha’s hand, ceasing her giggling. “Nashuja?” she asks, oblivious our predicament. When I don’t respond, she lifts her eyes to the same haunting sight; through the unearthly fog, a fleet of ships is on the horizon, disappearing over Earth’s edge.
Vacantly, I survey the scene, acidic tears running down my face. I had been so sure they would wait, that my family would refuse to leave. Yet, there they go, resigning us to certain death. My own parents deserted me when they need wait mere moments longer. Now, not only have I failed Eritha, but the few people in the world I’d loved had forgotten me.
“I’m sure Sama pleaded with them,” Eritha commiserates, “your parents as well.”
I find some solace in her words, but when I attempt to imagine Sama looking ruefully back on the beach, searching for me in the ashes, the image doesn’t come to mind. I know in my heart that Sama had suspected me of something before we were separated. Having known of my heinous relationship with Eritha would be more than enough to make the aristocracy disregard me. “Do you think,” I ask, the hail coming down relentlessly, the drone of crumbling Earth growing nearer, “that they knew about us? That’s why-”
“No, Nashuja, they wouldn’t dare think of it,” she interjects, and out of the corner of my eyes I see that she, too, is crying, ostensibly concerned about the fate of her family. I know she had a father, and a handful of siblings, I believe. “At least the gods granted our families exoneration. I would rather perish myself than see others die in our stead.”
For moments I stand there, shaking, as the torrent of cinders eats away at my robe. I can’t help but notice that we look alike, her and I, no longer a disparity between the baker’s daughter and the trader’s son. All that remains to define my class is a garnet pendant my father bought me on our first trip to Thebes. I wrap my fingers around it, letting the edges dig into my palm, wishing to tear it off and throw it to the ocean, until a better thought emerges.
Trembling, I undo the clasp as Eritha watches, wearing an expression of befuddlement. “In that case, there is no worse they can do,” I rasp through the ashen air, “and only one thing remains undone.”
She gazes back at me for a while, quizzically, and I can’t help but notice the peculiar, poetic beauty in this scene. Fire falls from clouds of ash, the city of Santorini ruined behind us, it’s surviving pillars towering like mountains out of an ocean of smoke. Despite the immeasurable destitution, I could not have asked for a better setting, even if it will be our shared grave. “Eritha,” I choke out, offering her the pendant in cupped hands, “even if we cannot spend eternity together, I wish to spend the dawn of this life with you. Will you marry me, Eritha?”
I look up at her, our glassy eyes meeting in one final, desperate moment. Another rumble comes from closer than before, forcing her to collect herself and answer me. “Yes, Nashuja,” she laughs, and turns her back to me, looking over the sea at the last of the vessels vanishing into the fog.
As I stride up behind her, I take one last look backwards, and see a massive wave of blackness hurtling down the hillside. I lack time for remorse, knowing that our end is imminent. I tear my eyes from the cataclysm and focus on her, on the magnitude of what I’m doing, regardless of the oracles’ admonishment. Grinning, my eyes transfixed on the ocean, I loop the amulet around her neck, the garnet shimmering in sunlight’s absence. “I shall love you,” I breath, my throat burning, “until the end of time, and if there is anything beyond that, I shall love you then.”
The cataclysm is upon us now, its heat scorching my skin, the fiery rain relentless, and the quaking ground tearing the pier apart. “Hold me, Nashuja,” she begs, her voice resilient in death’s shadow, “and even the gods won’t tear us apart.”
And so I comply, embracing her tightly, lacing my fingers in front of her. I rest my head on her shoulder, letting the fire scorch me, permitting the earth to consume me, so long as it grants me her. That is where we lie still, long since the fires had burned us to rock and the smoke claimed our last breaths. There, on Thera’s coast, you shall find us- the merchant and the servant, the peasant and nobleman, with their arms intertwined and his necklace adorning her. A monument to love that has survived a thousand years and will prevail a million more.