(First part here:
“A pelasgian gangster in Chicago”
I couldn’t sleep that night. It wasn’t just the heat which you could feel in your chest, it was like you were drowning, despite the lack of water, in it. Neither were the mosquitoes that performed vertical dives.
Primarily it was this sudden input of knowledge, the revealed truth that I wasn’t exactly the one I thought I was. I got out of bed sweaty and went out in the courtyard to put my thoughts together.
Regarding my resemblance to Thanasis, the gangster Thanasis, the missing Thanasis, there were but two explanations, a metaphysical and a logical one.
The metaphysical had to do with things we do not comprehend; maybe there is something immaterial or something with more dimensions than the four we are aware of, something what we name soul which incarnates, keeping some of its attributes, say, a face, mine or Thanasis’.
But it was sweltering hot for metaphysical thoughts.
One of the cats of the house passed before me clamping a mouse between its teeth, or maybe it was a bat. No cunning spirit could survive in the courtyard.
The other explanation, the rational one, had to do with heredity. Some attributes of the phenotype could make their appearance, present themselves, up to seven generations later.
So, as common sense pointed out, Thanasis was my grand-grandfather. My grand-grandmother, of whom I knew nothing and I never bothered asking to learn as if she never existed, had shared one or more nights with him.
No surprises here. Adultery is a worldwide phenomenon. Since monogamy was established, adultery larked around the corner.
It looks as if the prohibition of extramarital affairs resulted in needing them. It’s not quite right. It was just deemed illegal, morally- and legally-wise, something that was ever present and always will be.
Why my grand-grandmother did that? It was in this moment that I realized that even her name was unknown to me. Could I get a picture of her somewhere? Could I find out who she was, how did she grow up, when did she die?
This accidental revelation of my true grand-grandfather created a new world, a new self for me.
How could I dig deeper into this?
Ignorance. Stillness. The smoke came out from my mouth and stood there, two meters over my head, motionless.
Not a leaf was moving. The only sound was the stridulation of the crickets. Fireflies were flickering on the earth and so did the stars up in the sky. A poor cat lay supine trying to get some oxygen to breathe.
Silence dominated in the village, lying still at the bottom of the sea.
The very next morning I went to old-Vasilis house unaccompanied, no Telemachus-Bob this time.
I wished a good morning to Mary when she finally opened the door. She could tell it was me by my sandals. The shoes, the feet, served as a man’s face for her, being permanently hunched.
-You are Alexis’ son.
The agitation in my voice was palpable and she opened the door wide for me to enter.
-Who was my grand-grandmother? I asked without preamble. Did she have an affair with Thanasis, your uncle, the ‘Merican?
Mary closed hastily, for her standards, the door, letting down the paparazzi that were prowling outside. She gestured for me to follow her. We went in the kitchen and pointed me a white plastic chair, one of these anti-aesthetics sitting instruments that overflowed Greece since the eighties.
She asked me if I would like a coffee but I refused, calculating the fact that it would keep her busy till noon and then she would ask me if I’d like to have lunch with them, followed by halva as a desert, and dinner later, so the day would pretty much go by watching Mary cooking in slow motion.
-What was her name?
-But…you know nothing of her?
-That’s why I’m here; to fill me in.
-You’re a dead man’s grand-grandchild.
-You mean Thanasis’?
-I don’t know this. I speak of what is known among the villagers. That is, your grand-grandmother was knocked up with a dead man’s sperm.
I asked if I could smoke. I could feel it in my bones that I was about to hear of things that nicotine was essential to endure. Mary gave no reply. That kind of consideration was too metamodern for her to pay the slightest attention.
-Mari came from another land, from Smyrna.
-Mari? That was her name?
She nodded, signing the registration. Mari.
-Diamantis brought her to the village before he died.
-Yes. It would be kind of difficult to do it afterwards.
-You think so. He did many things after he was gone.
She raised her head and craned her neck to look me in the face, sternly.
-Why are you talking? Do you want to listen to me or do you want me to listen to you?
I made a gesture for her to calm down and interrupted her no more.
Mari was a refugee when she was a child. She got away from Smyrna on her own, a fourteen year old girl. She found herself in Piraeus with nothing but the clothes on her back and the memories of a bygone life, which included French, piano and a raisin-merchant father’s loud laughter. That’s where she met Diamantis.
He was a performer of Karaghiozis along with Charidimos, the master. He was a trainee and a general dogsbody.
He was a crier for the performances, he was making up the puppets and the sceneries, he set up the parapet – the mperntes- , he was giving the tickets, he was chasing away the deadheads and he was playing the muted puppets during the performance.
Karaghiozis was people’s only entertainment. There were no cinemas and theater was a privilege for the urban. Radio was yet to come, too. If there wasn’t a fest or Karaghiozis, people wouldn’t listen to live music, unless they dared to join the stoners at their dive bars.
Most of rebetes were refugees. Those were the ones who brought the hijaz (Phrygian dominant) scale and blended its sound with the traditional Greek pentatonic ones, as well as the fretless instruments with the guitars, the tambourine with the tupan, the songs from Epirus with eastern sorrow, those were the guys who introduced to the stage female singers, something that no decent woman would ever do.
So a new music was born, right from the ashes of Asia Minor and Kôzôl-Elma (Red Apple).
Mari was spotted begging by Argyro, who was a laundress and she was given some bread to eat at the raisin-merchant’s neoclassical. She pitied her and took her to the place where she was singing, to work as a cleaning lady.
And there, in the dope houses with glazed eyes due to weed, Diamantis saw her. He talked to her, they got to know to each other, he invited her to a performance, they hang out together, they kissed each other, they fell in love with each other.
He asked her to marry him and so he left behind Charidimos and she left behind the pot houses, I order to go together back to his birthplace.
Mari went penniless to the village, no dowry, no valise, no family. Right from the start everybody disliked her, because of her origin and the contempt in her eye, that woman who had lived at the pearl of Aegean Sea, Smyrna.
What topped it all, were the screams that this stranger was letting out every night. Women during copulation were meant to be silent, bite their lips to remain unheard. But Mari was raising the roof with her screams and pants.
To make matters worse, shortly after Diamantis died.
No one could pin down precisely when it happened. He had lupus, the symptoms were evident, but then they were vanished. They were living alone in their shack. He was an only child and his parents died during the Great Disease, which no one knew what it was and where it came from, but it wiped out many souls before it vanished as mysteriously as it came.
Because he didn’t make any more his appearance at the coffeehouse, his fellow villagers concluded that he had gone to the hospital or sanatorium, the deathtorium as they used to name it, where the consumptive were gathered to die, just like the elephants at their secret graveyard.
A month later, when it was a cicada-less midsummer since they were suffering from the heat, a stink wafted in the village. The villagers tried to spot where this stench emanated from and they figured out that it was Diamantis’ and the stranger’s house.
They talked to the village president and the priest, and they, in turn, talked to the police officer of Oleni and since no one lifted a finger, they decided to solve the mystery on their own.
They went to the house and found the doors wide open. It was a small one, just two rooms in all. In the first one there was the kitchen and the table and the other one was the bedroom. When they entered the latter, a couple of them passed out and the others stood rigid.
On the bed lied Mari naked, possessing a body that only devil could create, and her eyes were shining. At her side lay Diamantis, dead and distended, green in colour with flies going in and out of every hole available on his body.
They left the house in a hurry, dragging by the hair those who had collapsed.
They told it to the village president and the priest, and they, in turn, told it to the police officer of Oleni and he reported to the police station in Pyrgos and they send the coroner.
When the police officers entered the room to take the dead body, Mari stayed unruffled, as if the man that was lying next to her wasn’t dead, as if her breasts weren’t naked aiming for the ceiling, as if she wasn’t lying with her legs open and the pubic hair in there was shining red.
It wasn’t a crime. The coroner pronounced that Diamantis was dead due to pneumonia. The lupus had rendered his immune system useless.
But the women, who knew that the eastern women possessed mystical and diabolical powers, said that the stranger had put a spell on him.
They smarten him up as best as they could and buried him on the Dormition of the Mother of God. Mari didn’t cry, neither did she look as a widow, more like a dead man’s daughter, a sixteen years old girl.
When everyone left the cemetery, she stood there tearless, motionless, as if she were the statue designed by a renowned sculptor for Diamantis tomb.
The women said that at nightfall she laid on the ground screaming again like a cat. They even said that she did vanish in the ground. But before the sun rose, she was returning back home secluding herself. That’s what they said.
And she did this for three solid months till the first snow fell.
She wasn’t coming out from the house. She lived on the food that they left her outside her door. They disliked her, they thought she was a witch and a murderess, but they wouldn’t leave her starve to death. No one was hungry, as long as there was food in the village.
Thanasis too, would leave at her door the leftovers of their table, disobeying his mother who was pleading him not to go in there.
Winter passed and so did the spring, and summer came again, like seasons use to do since the world began. The villagers talked rarely about Mari as if she was dead too, forsaken.
Until one night of July, when a red moon was hanging in the sky, words and screams were to be heard from Diamantis’ house. It was Mari who was screaming in Greek, swearing in Turkish and cursing in languages forgotten, prehellenic, unintelligible.
All night long the agony lingered and fear forsook everybody’s sleep that night. Until, at the break of dawn just before Hesperus set, there was a cry out from a neonate’s mouth coming from the murderess’ house.
The midwife went in the house and helped the baby to free itself and live. Mari had given life to a boy but things didn’t fall into place. Eleven months had passed since they had buried Diamantis.
The men were having a good laugh at the café and they said that it was this devil’s child, Thanasis, who did it. The women didn’t hold with this view. They believed that the stranger did the child with the dead, through witchcraft.
Shortly after, strange things began to happen that gave the creeps to men, too.
The first sign was a two-headed goat. Then a Balkan whip snake entered the church’s matroneum, made its nest and gave birth to its babies. Then a new-born died, nameless, out of the blue. It stopped breathing while sleeping for no apparent reason.
All the villagers, including the men who not before long were joking about it, talked to the village president and the priest and asked them to send this devil-woman into exile or make a litany or exorcism, do something anyway.
The priest was all for exiling her, but they should do nothing of the sort for forty days, when she could get out from the house.
When this day finally came, they set out from the church, carrying the image of St. Demetrius to guard them, and they went to Diamantis’ house to drive away mother and child.
They found her naked as the devil made her, breastfeeding her baby. Men’s eyes shone in anger at the sight and hurtled to choke her to death. But they didn’t dare to touch her, to touch her skin which was glossy and marked with letter-like signs. They stood around her, swearing and admiring, because they had never ever set their eyes upon such a naked and devilish body.
Mari , unruffled, waited for her baby to feel full with milk. Then she made her way through the men and put her baby on Eirini’s bosom, the grocer who couldn’t have children of her own.
Then she turned around, walked out from the house and disappeared.
I waited for Mary to say something more, to finish with the story. Instead she got up, made the sign of the cross, went to the kitchen counter and asked me if I wanted a fig.
-Hold on a second. Mari left? Just left? What do you mean she left? Where did she go?
-She vanished. No one saw hide nor hair of her ever again.
-She was naked. A naked woman. People don’t vanish just like that, especially the naked women.
-Who says so?
-Why, common sense.
Mary turned around. She didn’t look at me.
-The day after, Bakanas passed from the cemetery, on the way to his olive trees. Diamantis’ tomb was excavated. And his coffin was empty.
She said these words as a reply to my perception about common sense.
-And what does this mean?
-What do you make of it?
-Then why do you ask me? You’re young and educated. If you make nothing of it, what do you expect from me?
I felt the irony to the bone, as if I was run by a tram while stepping back to sight Sagrada Familia.
-And the baby, the boy, is my grandfather?
-He ran a grocery store, didn’t he? Isn’t Velerofontis your surname?
I didn’t know what this “but” was all about. I thought that I would trace my roots but instead I found myself wandering between legends, superstitions, tales and History.
Thanasis was dead somewhere in Chicago, perhaps with a pair of cement shoes. Mari got away from Smyrna with glazed eyes and was lost naked in the forests of Arcadia. And the dead man’s baby, my grandfather, was raised amidst shelves with sugar, flour and cans, before the communists sent him with a letter in his pocket.
I got up slowly, as if I had aged like Mary.
-And yet…I look like Thanasis.
-You’re his spitting image.
-It’s sort of a proof, isn’t it?
Mary didn’t say a word, she just showed me the door.
-The only certainty is, I started but she cut me in.
-The only certainty is that once I climbed the trees and danced at festivals and now I can’t stand on end. And Vasilis used to work from daybreak to the fields and he could drink a demijohn of wine facilely and now he shits himself.
She opened the door for me to leave, saying nothing else.
I came back home and found Telemachus in Nelli’s lap, his mother’s. I gave them a hug, too.
The only certainty is that nothing lasts for too long.
Translated by Alexandros Mantas
Since we’re not native speakers, feel free to suggest improvements and make corrections
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