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Daphne Athas

Daphne Athas

Daphne Athas has published four novels, several nonfiction books and a collection of poetry. Her 1971 novel, Entering Ephesus, was named one of the best books of the year by Time magazine. She taught in the creative writing program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for many years before retiring in 2009. She lives in Carrboro, North Carolina.


Carolyn had a cat named Myshkin. That recommended her to me immediately. I might have been put off by her noble height, blonde beauty, brilliance and arrogance (in my book they're a plus), but I certainly couldn't resist the story of herself at six, which she later published.

There was a snowstorm and she got her friend, the girl next door, to help her build an igloo. The kid was the perfect follower but complained every minute about the cold, so when the igloo was finished Carolyn crawled out, blocked the entrance with snow and ran home to teach her a lesson in character. Unfortunately, she found a book and lying on the floor in front of the fire reading, forgot, so when she rushed to the igloo to save her, the child was almost frozen to death and scared out of her wits. That was the end of a beautiful friendship.

One summer in the 70s I was headed to Greece the exact time Carolyn planned a trip with her daughter Ashley to eastern Europe, one reason for which was to disenchant Ashley of communism.

"Hey," Carolyn cried out to me in somebody's living room: "Why don't you meet us at the Such and Such Hotel in Prague, and we can hitchhike from there down to Lake Ohrid."

I had a reputation as a hitchhiker, having boasted for years of my derring-do in that practice of travel since the 1940s, so I was flattered. "But why do you want to hitchike?" I asked, and was even more flattered when she answered that "every living person had a moral duty to hitchhike once in their lifetime..." though she added, "Besides, it will be fun!"

After three rides from Frankfurt through the Black Forest and another in a beer truck through Pilsen, I got there in the afternoon, right on time, and they were waiting!

Prague, we saw was a melancholy, uncommunicative place with so many Russian troops dotting every street in their perfect boots, so on the third day early we took the tram to the edge of the city.

Carolyn had brought three suitcases of books—new American writing—to strow the latest American culture from Budapest to Bucharest at U.S.I.S. libraries. She planned to meet and connect with famous, isolated, behind-the-Iron-Curtain poets deprived of American voices. We took turns carrying, but who could have imagined such tonnage? Only a fool could not. Neither Ashley nor I needed to point this out to Carolyn, but silently and meaningfully we left the biggest and heaviest to her. Bearing our burdens, we became a 3-ply troop of coolies.

We wobbled to a field with two ancient trees and one stone in the middle, and Ashley stood ahead so she could lure drivers with the youngest sex appeal. I took the rear to be the shepherd dog, and Carolyn, eyeing the stone, sat down on it, arranging her feet seductively next to the backdrop of her biggest, blackest, and heaviest burden.

Ashley and I stuck out our arms when autos, few and far between, sounded in the distance. I said we should use the American thumbs up signal not the European up and down wave of implied emergency. Carolyn merely crossed her legs on the throne, a Lorelei in a tableaux-vivante. She did not condescend to lift any finger, not once. She transformed herself into her cat, Myshkin, pretending to be sleepy and self-satisfied to disguise her embarrassment.

It was cherry picking season, and the first car shrieked to a halt. The man, a cherry trader, took us all the way to Bratislava, where we got on a boat. Carolyn swore the only way to arrive in Budapest was to float in on the Danube and we were glad. It saved us a lot of elbow grease.

From Budapest to Bucharest we hitched many rides in many cars and trucks, in always same the same posture. Not once did we taunt her rejection of thumb in the air and not once did she complain of carrying the heaviest load. We put up at the Astor, an old hotel with potted palms, but without gypsy music which Carolyn hated. She knew the architectural name of every facade on every building as we passed through the streets discoursing on Berlioz, and she knew the names of every opera in the world. I found out she had sung the lead in Der Rosenkavalier in what she called a second string company that had travelled the length and breadth of America, and I exulted in hearing such things, having known always I preferred this way of learning over any college course.

After we left Budapest the luggage became lighter, and we hitched to a monastery where nuns beat sticks instead of bells, and I realized that in Carolyn's poems history does a dance with the desires of contemporary Americans who don't know their own, and that in her poems of the goddesses Semele, Persephone and Hera, you learn to feel the torments of those who feel responsible for other humans and find out why transcendence hurts.