Jeff Rehnlund


ISSUE 87 | OLD AGE | JUN 2018

Daphne Athas stands in her yard with her mail and looks at me with her good eye. She wants to know what it means when the papers write that the stolen emails weren’t encrypted. The other eye is liquid-opaque and much larger. Among friends, we secretly refer to her as the Crone because she’s the wisest and oldest woman we’ve met. I know just about as much about cyber encryption as the next guy, but I tell her what I know. Before I can make much sense, Daphne Athas shows her teeth and interrupts me. It’s not a smile and the teeth resemble cones of wax in the sun. She said, “Time has been crushed into nothing,” then with a certain energy, she said “‘encryption comes from the Greek kruptos.” A peasant woman, she explained, was born in the cow fields of Kalamata. She married a farflung cousin, a fig farmer who made her a pair of sandals from a grapevine and gave them to her gratis. They had two children. Then, Mussolini’s fascists invaded over land and Hitler’s paratroopers fell from the sky. The Greeks took up arms alongside – who could have imagined – New Zealanders. But the fig husband was killed, whether by an Italian or German, she never discovered. The children were taken in by an aunt or uncle or grandmother. The woman, who was still young, married a psaltis in the church. They created a second family. When the woman and the psaltis went to the market, she encrypted her words, speaking lowly in the argot of peasants, farmers, and market hawkers. This way she was able to obtain extra food buried deep in her bags – enough to feed her family and her secret family. The leather-soled, cultured psaltis, who knew no slang or hayseed patois, and never entered the kitchen, he didn’t bend an ear. The story took place entirely in the fingers of the Peloponnese. Daphne Athas said all that and went inside. I walked across the yard to my home and pondered what she meant by “time has been crushed into nothing.” Maybe because the woman in the Peloponnese market encrypted her words a single time, in the present, while the emails were multiplex and retrievable whenever. Or maybe her sentence was like a title or invocation and functioned only to open the mouth of the story. Or maybe the sentence is beyond sense. She often speaks cryptically and I don’t understand. She doesn’t much understand what I say either – her hearing is shot, but her brain is as keen as an awl. I remember one morning I woke up and saw an ambulance in her driveway. The ninety-four year old was standing on her porch arguing with a trio of paramedics. How I wish I could have heard her words then! I imagined her teaching them a lesson – feigning deaf to their words, arguing plainly with unimpeachable logic and the rhetoric of a sybil. The paramedics gave up after thirty minutes – drove away an empty ambulance. Once, when Daphne Athas slipped and broke her hip, she refused rehab and folded her walker into a trash can. Every day she is crushing time. Later when we were on the bike path behind Cat’s Cradle, I told Elizabeth that Daphne Athas said the bike path begins at either end and history is eaten and digested through it, slowly, because there is a relationship between narrative ideas and speed. The right speed, like a coasting bicyclist, divulges secrets and clues to reality, whereas the wrong speed either blurs everything or nothing happens. Time moves at the speed of life – however long it inches. Elizabeth said she didn’t like that and later that night a lamp fell on her.

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