Into the Caves

The bioluminescence was bright that night. It must have been a full moon because I remember the streets glowing and the waves crackling with peaks of green and yellow and cream as they hit the beach. It always felt like the ocean was lit with a cold fire on nights like that and one of my favourite things to do was to go drag my feet through the waves and watch them sparkle with tiny lights before the water sluiced rapidly away and left them in darkness again, but I didn’t have time to do that on that particular night.

The caves had a sort of mythological status and we’ve never been. Markos had agreed to take us and he showed up at the back door around dusk, hoping to join us for dinner. We ate fried fish and lemons in the back garden, cramped around the tiny blue metal table, and drank cold water from the well, ate salty, crumbly goat cheese he’d brought into town from the farm with tiny salt-cured olives ladled out of the crock in the cool corner of the kitchen. There was probably bread because there was always bread, crusty and dragged through the oil on our plates, and then we boiled water for the dishes and watched the ocean frothing with that strange glow off in the distance.

Out of deference to my tender age, we didn’t take the twisting path down the rocks, the sheer face that made some people so dizzy they had to grab at the rusting chain anchored along the trail, hoping that time wouldn’t be the time it ripped away and plunged down to the shallow sand spit below. Instead, we took a boat, skimming over the water and beaching ourselves just below the opening of the caves. Ever prepared, Markos carried food and wine and my father was laden with towels and blankets.

Torches flickered from the opening, a warning that someone else had already arrived, and when we entered we could hear music and laughing ringing through the giant opening. It was one of the most peculiar places I’ve ever been. Half nature, half jagged, crumbling, stern rock slick with algae and slime. And half civilisation, the remains of Roman baths long gone, rows of crooked tiles and columns holding up the roof, but it was the bathing pools everyone came for, hacked into the rock and surrounded with decorative designs; Romans imitating Greeks in umber and red and black, overlaid with Ottoman tile in brilliant shades of blue, a reminder of conquerors come and gone.

The pools were filled with salt water, some cold and some warm. The warm springs still bubbled on after all those years. You could pick whether you wanted to sink into a slightly sulfurous bath with eddies of warm steam, or a warmish one, or a very clear and very hot pool that no one else dared sink even a toe into, or you could cool off in the brisk salt water, tiny organisms turning the water electric green and blue, outlines of bodies emerging as the water swilled around them.

It was steamy and wet and sultry and like a throwback to an era long, long ago, bodies moving in the flickering halflight and people exchanging friendly greetings and commentary, reports on the precise temperature and mineral composition of each pool, advice about which to avoid and which to cosy up to, cheeks and breast and thighs and hair trembling in the heat and horripilating in the sudden shock of cold when they dredged themselves up out of the baths.

The baths, the baths, the baths. They were the secret and hidden ones, not the ones made available to the occasional passing tourist, because this was before drifting through the Greek Isles was quite as trendy as it is now. These were the baths the locals used and they were vibrant and filled with life and smells and sensations and I flowed from pool to pool while my father bobbed in the saline depths and discussed the year’s olive harvest. Even Anna hadn’t been here, I was sure, and it was like my own secret hidden place, bodies gnarled with labor and streaked dark with sun in a primeval place.

Later I heard that those used to be the women’s baths, where men were haram, and the long benches people sat on to dry off and recover from their submersion were covered in women pummeled with oil and salt and other things, body hair stripped away and skin buffed and polished. I don’t know if it’s true. I can’t remember who told me. But I do know that the rocks hadn’t collapsed as far then and there would have been slits to see out to the sea, there would have been a pathway with steps looking out over the Aegean, which would have glittered like a giant mirror on sunny days.

When we went to Istanbul a few months later I remember going to the Turkish baths there and being oddly disappointed by the brightness of the filtered light, the clinical coldness of boring tile pools with nary a rock protruding, the brisk bath attendants and the thin white towels handed out to people who forgot their own, the men and women firmly sequestered in different rooms. I knew that, across the sea, people were gathering in the caves, eating grapes where no bath attendant could scold them and laughing when the torches slowly extinguished themselves one by one in the gathering darkness, forcing people to find their way out by feel, steam rising from their bodies and bouncing back a phosphorescent glow when they finally emerged onto the rocks, promising to meet up again tomorrow.