Athens Ambuscade


Ya-Yá’s Dead Cat

I smoothed the wrinkles from my list and scowled at the final mortifying task. Preserving the remains of deceased felines wasn’t exactly my spiritual gift. In fact, the display of animal carcasses goes against all of my training.

What in the world had Ya-Yá been thinking? I took a sip of my frappé, leaned back against the rickety kafeneía chair, and let the brilliant Mediterranean sun warm my face. Sour orange and lemon trees, as well as the occasional acacia, shaded the bustling street where I ate. If I closed my eyes and breathed deep draughts of the salt and citrus wind, would the world make sense
again when I opened them?

I had spent five years saving so I could have one more summer in Athens with Ya-Yá. Greece was my second country, a mother to me. Stepping off the plane in Athens made my heart beat stronger. Walking these streets was like being swept into the hearty embrace of a loved one. Only this time, Athens was without the woman who had made the city live and sing for me. My grandmother’s sudden brain aneurysm left me with an incredibly odd list in her delicate script and no Ya-Yá to tease about it. If she were here, I would raise a questioning brow and point out every outlandish
feature on the jasmine-scented page.

Ya-Yá usually wrote from her old wicker chair in the garden. If she had penned a summer letter I could always tell by simply closing my eyes and breathing in the lingering fragrance.

If she were here, Ya-Yá would shake her head, pick some mint from the window box, and make me a cup of tea to soothe my frazzled nerves. Then she would push the plate of kourabiedes closer and explain why her new tree house absolutely had to be painted orange.

But I’d missed her by a month. When I’d stepped off the plane in Athens, my Grandma, my Ya-Yá, was buried and gone.

Ya-Yá’s lawyer wasn’t certain whether the list was a collection of requirements for the new home owner (that would be me, Jacqueline Mallory Gianakos) or a misplaced to-do list. But it was found with her Will and was now a legally binding document.

I’d sped my way through the first five items.

Sell my porcelain rooster collection and give the  proceeds to Agneta so that she can get that purple awning  she has always wanted for her shop. 

Build a tasteful wooden tree house in the Cypress tree out front and paint it orange. 

Clean the gutters. 

Dust and box up everything in the attic. Personally deliver the boxes to the youth hostel next to uncle Etor’s grave site. 

Bake a watermelon pie and invite the pre-school fútball team over to enjoy it. 

But now Ya-Yá’s sixth and final task loomed before me.

I had a bachelor’s degree in fashion merchandising, a five-year stint as a bridal design intern specializing in silk ribbon embroidery, and was the only employee in the history of Pricilla’s Precious Boutique who had ever received Pricilla’s nod of approval for my attire on one hundred and five consecutive work days. None of these accomplishments had prepared me for the last item on Ya-Yá’s list.

Have Chrysanthemum stuffed. Let the taxidermist know she weighed 32 pounds at the time of her demise. Find and use the coupon from that nice boy on TV. Look in the third drawer of the vanity dresser, or the cookie jar, or maybe behind the kitchen clock, or in my sock drawer all the way at 
the back. If no one can find it, have the neighbor boy check in the attic with all those cat food receipts.

Chrysanthemum was not my favorite feline. She had been an obese white Persian with a palate like the queen of France and all the forbearance of Genghis Kahn. Ya-Yá’s neighbor owned Petunia,
Chrysanthemum’s identical sister. A British professor had taken home the third white female from that litter, so thankfully that particular animal had not lived close enough to torture me.

The problem? Chrysanthemum liked to be petted on the head and between the shoulder blades. Petunia wanted to be stroked down the back from about mid-spine all the way down her enormous fluffy tail. If I petted Petunia on the head or shoulders, she would
hiss and strike out with her claws. Even worse, if I petted Chrysanthemum on the back or tail, she would growl low in her chest, whip around, and sink her fangs into my hand. Instances of mistaken identity gave me a loathing for anything white and fluffy, even
coconut cake and s’mores.

When Chrysanthemum passed on three years ago, I had breathed a private sigh of relief. But apparently, Chrysanthemum was capable of tormenting me even from the grave. The corpulent cat remained safely preserved in Ya-Yá’s frozen storage unit.

With the exception of the local felines, Ya-Yá’s house had been my childhood sanctuary. Despite the
financial burden and the ridiculous nature of her to-do list, I would do whatever it took to keep her home from being claimed by the bank.

But I am not gifted in taxidermy. Pricilla spent a fair amount of sweat and blood (at least she would
have, if she were capable of something as vulgar as sweating) in my training. She had taken a details-conscious college grad and singlehandedly turned her into a details obsessed wedding professional.

From twenty feet away, I can spot the single flower in the ring bearer’s boutonnière that will clash
with the cummerbund of the back-up piano player. I am able to transform a heap of silk ribbon into a garden of roses, ferns, and daisies stitched across twenty-five yards of satin. But turning off my
superpowers is difficult.

Through necessity, I have learned to keep my fingernails long and stylish and never wear hunter
orange, puce, or chartreuse to work. Tackiness is the unforgiveable sin at Pricilla’s Precious Boutique. A stuffed cat was anathema to all that I had strived
to become.

But it was either stuff Chrysanthemum or lose Ya-Yá’s house, and the coupon expired in two days. The dreaded preservation needed to be immediate. A handsome Greek waiter approached with my
lunch. I’d ordered a lamb kabob drenched in yoghurt and served on fresh pitta bread. I looked down at my plate then back up at the waiter.


“Yes, Miss Gianakos.”

“I ordered the lamb kabob drenched in yoghurt.”


I smiled at Evzen, hoping the blush on my cheeks wasn’t as bad as it felt. Why was I the only one who noticed all of these important details? “I believe that my kabob has been drizzled in yoghurt rather than drenched. Look.”

Evzen peered over my shoulder and slipped a folded piece of paper under my plate. “I think you are
right, Miss Gianakos. That is most definitely drizzled.”

Why was he making this so impossible? “I wanted mine drenched…please.”

Evzen grinned. “And so it is. My mother has recently added the drizzle of yoghurt for aesthetic
purposes. The kabob is drenched before and during the cooking process. She just thought it looked pretty. The change was not meant to alarm you.” Evzen swept back to the kitchen.

I attempted to hide my flushed features by opening the slip of paper beneath my plate. Evzen had
been part of every summer I’d spent with Ya-Yá. The son of a neighbor, the one who owned Petunia, we’d spent countless hours playing soccer at the park, hunting for buried treasure in the rocks below the Acropolis, and having tea and baklava with his pet tortoise under Ya-Yá’s juniper bushes. He’d recently moved back to Athens when his father had a stroke. I looked at the sentence scrawled across the paper.

Don’t get lost in the details, Jacqueline. You might miss life.

He’d scribbled his phone number beneath that bit of helpful advice. If only Evzen had been a dental
surgeon, I would have snapped up his offer. But my true love would be a dental surgeon according to an incredibly detailed study I’d completed in my final semester of college. I sighed. Evzen’s non-dental-surgeon-status had reminded me of the least likely occupation possible for my future spouse and the reason I sat at the kafeneía in the first place. I took a bite of my yoghurt drenched and drizzled kabob and zipped a silent prayer heavenward.

Thank You for the food, Lord. It is delicious…but don’t
You think I could have lived my entire life without eating
lunch with a taxidermist? How can I grieve when I’m
worried sick over getting Chrysanthemum stuffed? And my
coupon expires in two days. I could use a little help, Lord.
OK, a lot of help. I spent the last of my savings on flying this
guy over here. Would You please make sure he doesn’t get
lost, or call me Ma’am, or arrive in flannel? As always, I
bow to Your sovereign will, Lord. Amen.

The sound of boots crossing the pavement in front of the kafeneía made me raise my eyes. The footsteps stopped.

A man in faded jeans, a cartoon T-shirt, and a red plaid flannel leaned against the lamppost and grinned at me.

The taxidermist had come.