According to an ancient Chinese legend, one day in the year 2640 B.C., Princess Si Ling-chi was sitting under a mulberry tree when a silkworm cocoon fell into her teacup. When she tried to remove it, she noticed that the cocoon had begun to unravel in the hot liquid. She handed the loose end to her maidservant and told her to walk. The servant went out of the princess¡¯s chamber, and into the palace courtyard , and through the palace gates, and out of the Forbidden City, and into the countryside a half mile away before the cocoon ran out. ( In the West, this legend would slowly mutate over three millennia, until it became the story of a physicist and an apple. Either way, the meanings are the same: great discoveries, whether of silk or of gravity, are always windfalls. They happen to people loafing under trees.)
I feel a little like that Chinese princess, whose discovery gave Desdemona her livelihood. Like her I unravel my story, and the longer the thread, the less there is left to tell. Retrace the filament and you go back to the cocoon¡¯s beginning in a tiny knot, a first tentative loop. And following my story¡¯s thread back to where I left off, I see the Jean Bart dock in Athens. I see my grandparents on land again, making preparations for another voyage. Passports are placed into hands, vaccinations administered to upper arms. Another ship materializes at the dock, the Giulia. A foghorn sounds.
And look: from the deck of the Giulia something else unwinds now. Something multicolored, spinning itself out over the waters of Piraeus.
It was the custom in those days for passengers leaving for America to bring balls of yarn on deck. Relatives on the pier held the loose ends. As the Giulia blew its horn and moved away from the dock, A few hundred strings of yarn stretched across the water. People shouted farewells, waved furiously, held up babies for last looks they wouldn¡¯t remember. Propellers churned; handkerchiefs fluttered, and up on deck, the balls of yarn began to spin. Red, yellow, blue, green, they untangled toward the pier, slowly at first , one revolution every ten seconds, then faster and faster as the boat picked up speed . Passengers held the yarn as long as possible, maintaining the connection to the faces disappearing onshore. But finally, one by one , the balls ran out. The strings of yarn flew free, rising on the breeze.
From two separate locations on the Giulia¡¯s deck, Lefty and Desdemona-and I can say it now, finally, my grandparents-watched the airy blanket float away . Desdemona
was standing between two air manifolds shaped like giant tubas. At midships Lefty slouched in a brace of bachelors. In the last three hours they hadn¡¯t seen each other. That morning, they¡¯d had coffee together in a caf¨¦ near the harbor after which, like professional spies, they¡¯d picked up their suitcases-Desdemona keeping her silkworm
box-and had departed in different directions. My grandmother was carrying falsified documents. Her passport, which the Greek government had granted under the condition that she leave the country immediately , bore her mother¡¯s maiden name, Aristos, instead of Stephanides. She¡¯d presented this passport along with her boarding card at the top of the Giulia¡¯s gangway. Then she¡¯d gone aft, as planned , for the send-off.