My cousin and I entered a dense cornfield that was taller than either of us. It was a large tract behind Aunt Tasia’s house. We were only thirteen. We blended in, so we were invisible. Like being in the jungle. We forged a path among the rows, pushing aside the tall stalks, and they just kept snapping back in our faces. We’d laugh out of sheer delight. It was afternoon, and everyone was asleep. We were oblivious to everyone. We reached the chicken coop. All was quiet.
Afterward we headed back to the house’s front yard. The afternoons always seemed to drag on without end. And the crickets’ torturing sounds accompanied that which welled up inside of us, with nowhere to go. It was that unexplainable something that ultimately leads you to poke around lackadaisically in the dirt, to hurl stones at a runaway hen, to run up to the iron gate to see if perhaps someone’s coming. There was this anticipation of something important, or maybe terrible, that made you believe that was the afternoon’s fault, that it was just the damn passage of time in which nothing’s happening.
On top of the plastic tablecloth lay that flat case, tempting us to smoke that first cigarette. No, let it go, they’ll be getting up any moment now. They’ll get up and start walking around barefoot in the yard, stepping on the squashed berries, watering the garden and rinsing off their feet with the green garden hose.
Afterward the decapitated hen runs all by itself up against the freshly whitewashed walls and stumbles every so often. The head has died under the tree. The smiling face with her gold teeth holds the bloody knife. The children laugh. We’re the children.
Early evening’s upon us. You can feel it in the sounds of the motorcycles on the nearby road increasing in intensity. There’s one young girl who’s never ventured out alone from her yard. The pastor’s daughter doesn’t even go out for a swim. The images of people you never get to know are quite nebulous. There’s a grandfather who had a horse, and he’d throw coins to the needy. There’s a grandmother with a wine cellar who once got into a fierce argument with a German officer. None of these people were very smart. But they all knew how to make a pie. They had smart hands.
The decapitated hen is still running around, leaving behind splotches of blood. The face with the gold teeth is singing. I want to screw the guy with the broken muffler. However, the hand of my father, who a few years from now won’t be around, is still guiding me. The sun’s going down, and I begin to get ready for the early evening’s stroll to the sea. We’ll traverse the usual route, crossing the main road, and then we’ll turn right, then walk straight on to the water’s edge.
We arrive and begin to walk back and forth idly, all the clocks say 8:30, the sea whistles in my head, everyone knows each other, and our promenade every so often is interrupted by people we know, people that also have this urge to touch my head. Their mouths chatter over my head speaking in phrases that I am still embarrassed to utter. “How are you, Tasoula?” “You don’t say . . . she’s your niece?” And they point to me. And naturally my Aunt Tasia with her gold teeth beams with pride, that killer with the knife laughing so innocently. They all look at me in my innocence, and while I’m eating my corn, I learn a thousand things. That the baby of Ritsa’s koubara had an eye infection, that the town cripple went and set fire to his house, that Retzos’ son finally got his diploma in Italy and that’s why Retzos is preparing a big celebration, that Georgis, a forty-year-old, is still living with his mother, and that John Blackman had an auto accident at the intersection.
It’s now really dark outside, the townsfolk in their finery are strolling back and forth near the shore line. My father will be waiting for us at the taverna, it’s almost ten o’clock, and I’m already stuffed from the corn I just ate; my uncle wants to take us out for shish-ka-bob, I’m there with two uncles, two aunts, and my cousin, the one I hide out with every afternoon with among the cornstalks. I’m there in body, all the clocks say a quarter to ten, I’m standing between all of them, but my eyes keep staring out into the distance, to the end of the shoreline, to the last bench, where it’s completely dark and cigarette tips are aglow—that’s where I want to go, where all the motorcycles have stopped.
My aunts smell like chicken in tomato sauce and they’re wearing flowered sundresses. Roula is wearing a strong perfume and has her fingernails painted red. She passes by us in her white high heels, arm in arm with her mother. “Hi, Roula!” When Roula’s a safe distance away, the whispering starts. “She’ll be thirty-two soon, and she’s still not married.” “And she really wants to, poor soul.” “Hmm, that’s why she gets all dolled up.”
My cousin tosses his eaten corn cob into the trashcan. I do the same. “Come on, let’s head back, it’s almost ten o’clock.” The chicken in tomato sauce is calling us. We start walking back toward the village. Retzos passes us with his farm truck and beeps his horn. “I’ll expect you on Monday. I’ll also be roasting some lamb.” My uncle gives an affirmative wave.
We leave the beach behind us and take the poorly lit road that brings us back to the town center. They tell stories about Retzos. When Retzos served in the army, he beat his commanding officer to a pulp, almost killed him in fact. He was court-martialed but he got off because he had witnesses who testified that it wasn’t his fault. A motorcycle goes by doing wheelies, my aunts leap on to the sidewalk clutching their chests. “Bums!” “Whose was that?” John . . . also known as “Lucky Luke,” the comic book character. My cousin and I laugh. We know him. He’s part of that crowd that gathers around the park benches in the evenings. After a while, they all get on their motorcycles, and ride off together. I turn around and look. I want to go. “They oughta be ashamed of themselves!” “Scaring people that way!” The aunts in their sundresses cross themselves. “They’re just good-for-nothing trash!”
Lucky Luke is a close friend of Lefteris, the guy with the broken muffler. And Lefteris himself is a burning cigarette ash in the darkness. Lefteris Dark, they call him. Or just plain Lou.
My cousin and I kick a can of beer and pretend that we’re announcers giving a play-by-play at a football match. We distance ourselves from the others, and I give the can a good kick in the direction of a sewer. Go-o-o-o-o-al! We celebrate on the dark road with our hands raised way up. We laugh. Tomorrow we’ll be going for a dip. And in the evening Paul will be waiting for us at the house under construction next door to him in order to throw stones at the bats. Paul’s our age and lives in America. He just comes for the summer.
The aunts and uncles join up once again at the far end of the road as they head toward us. They’re all lit up like a confectioner’s shop. One of them will knead and roll dough tomorrow, and someone else will make stuffed peppers. “Today I butchered a rooster.” “The figs have ripened.” “I’ve had this itch since this morning.” We wait for them sitting on the curb, short of breath. “You’ll get dirty sitting there.” “Let ’em be, Hon, they’re just kids.”
It was that simple. We look at them from the rear as they walk past us, the aunts with their jackets over their shoulders, their husbands with their cigarettes and two cloudlets of smoke over their heads, walking toward the lights, toward that place where the closer you get, the louder Bobby’s song emanating from the taverna, gets . . . and we thirteen-year-old jerks choose the darkness, running toward the church. I’ve got matches in my pocket, no one can see us behind the little wall, and the fifth match finally works, the previous four being blown out by the wind; I myself have now also metamorphosed into a small red firefly, it’s that simple. I cough . . . damn, what fun!
We set out for the taverna. We pass the pastor’s house. We hear voices behind the drawn curtains. “You whore!” A shadow of a long stick of wood. A shadow of a little girl cowering. “You whore, I’m gonna kill you!” Two shadows of palms latch on to the little curtain, and rip. The girl’s face comes into view behind the window pane and is full of bruises. And anguish. We high-tail it out of there . . . we don’t want the pastor to spot us.
We’re seated at our table in the taverna. They bring us souvlakia and potatoes. What happened to the pastor’s daughter? “Forget it . . . someone says he saw her on a motorcycle at the port. With that guy, the one with the long hair, what’s his name?” Roula passes by arm in arm with her mother. My father pats me. Bobby fills up the pitchers with wine. “Hi there, Roula!” Good grief, Aunty, you kiss the hands of that pastor every day.
The sound of a broken muffler can be heard in the distance. My heart’s thumping. The motorcycle passes by the taverna with a deafening noise. It’s Lou. I look at my cousin. “Ah pa pa pa pa, bums!” Fat Evangelia, from the café across the way, beats on her knees with her hands. “They’re driving us nuts. ‘Vrooom, vrooom’ every night with those damn motorcycles!”
“You know, he almost ran into us, on our way back from the coast!”
“I hope he drops off the earth’s edge!”
“Don’t they have parents?!”
I nudge my cousin under the table. I drink some of my father’s wine. He laughs because I’m just like him. He laughs at Evangelia, who’s pulling her hair out while talking to herself. “Bums! Long-haired good-for-nothings! Pastor Nick knows what he’s talking about, that’s for sure!” My father curses all pastors. His sister crosses herself. “You should be ashamed for talking like that in front of the kids.” “Those fag priests.” We laugh.
We’re going out for a walk. That was me talking. And we’ll go back up to the house afterward.
“At this time of night, you’re going out for a walk?” “Let èem go, hon. They’ll just be bored staying here with us.” My uncle stuffs into our pockets a thousand drachma note each. “Go get yourself some ice cream. You be careful, right? Watch out for traffic. There are a lot of drunks driving this time of night.” “They haven’t eaten anything again. The little one ate two shish-ka-bobs. They’ve had nothing since this morning.”
We’re back out into the darkness again. Our steps quicken. You know them? I know Lucky Luke. And his cousin. How old is Lou? Nineteen. We reach the beach. Not many people are still around at this time of night. Roula arm in arm with her mother. “Good night, Roula.” “Hi, kids, good night.” Some people are sitting on the benches. We pass by in front of them. Hi, Aunty! Hi, Aunty! Everyone’s “Aunty” in this village. And then I hear whispering behind my back. “Say, isn’t that the daughter of the club president?” “Well, it sure is!” “And Ari’s son, right!” “They let that young girl walk around by herself?” Ah, go fuck yourselves, you assholes. Georgis with his pants legs rolled up gets his feet wet in the sea. “You’ll catch a cold, Georgis!” cries out his mother with her arms akimbo in an impatient stance. “Come on out, son, out of the water!” He’s a forty-year-old man, can you believe it?
We approach the last bench. We slacken our pace a bit . . . to look cool. The ashes dangling from the tips of the cigarettes dance in the darkness like flies with red lamps on their backs. Very dark faces, bent low. Beautiful long hair that covers their faces. I’m here too. I need a cigarette, guys. Out comes a hand with a ring. A soft package squashed in the pocket of his jeans. So many hours riding aimlessly up and down on his motorcycle, without wanting to stop anywhere. That’s Lou.
“I haven’t got a light, light yours with mine.” I light mine with his spit-moist cigarette. I’ve never lit a cigarette that way before. I’ll do it like I’ve seen others do it. I hope I don’t gag on it. My heart’s racing. His saliva’s on the filter’s edge. I can feel it on my fingers. One day I’m going to kiss you. I give it back to him. My cousin tries to ride Lucky Luke’s motorcycle. “You’re going to fall off, you asshole!” I drink from a beer can. Other motorcycles start to arrive one by one and stop under the big tree. “Where are you, you jerks!?” John Blackman. Sakis, Bobby’s son. “Your father and the others they’re all having a ball of a time.” he tells me. Blackman tell us about his traffic accident. “I saw the entire thing, jerks. My bike fucked me over. I’ve also brought Little Mary with me.”
Little Mary is an ordinary cigarette, without a filter, rolled and sealed at the front tip. “Here’s to us!” Up to now I knew that we toast our health when we clink glasses. It’s my turn. I cough. Lou laughs. Like I’m smoking mint, or something like that. Little Mary makes the rounds, and we all have a taste of each other’s lips. Lou takes off his shirt. “I’m going in, you assholes.” He pulls back his long hair into a ponytail. He’s got a snake tattoo on his left arm. My stomach churns. Lucky Luke asks me how old I am. Thirteen. “Lefteris, you jackass, you’re going to get us arrested.” “Let èem arrest us.” And the hand with the ring musses up my hair. “You coming in with me?” I go in. “With your clothes on?” With my clothes on. He runs toward the water screaming. Blackman grabs me by the arm. “Don’t get involved with Lefteris, girl. You’re a kid.” Oh, gimme a break. I push him away, and I run into the sea with my clothes on. I scream too. The aunt who was whispering before, when we were passing by her, is now approaching closer to us, and with one hand on her hip, and the other hand over her eyes as if she were shading her eyes from the sun, makes an effort to see us. To have some gossip tomorrow for her neighbor, to be sure. I’ve become dizzy, Lou’s next to me, I feel somewhat strange, that Little Mary has gone to my brain, and as I’m splashing around in the water while this stupid woman is standing in the middle of the beach, I lift my wet blouse, lift up my bra, and show her my tits, and the woman, appearing to have just suffered a minor stroke, makes a hundred-and-eighty-degree turn, and runs away shouting “aren’t you ashamed of yourself . . . naughty girl . . . oh, I can’t take this . . . your father should only see you with these bums.” She leaves tripping on the beach pebbles, not daring to look back at us. Lou laughs. In the darkness I hear applause.
We get out of the water. “Nice going, you really got to the old bag!” I’m cold. I dry myself off with a shirt that Lucky Luke hands me. No sooner do I have it on, than I take off my pants to let them dry out. Lou lights up a cigarette and gives it to me. “Keep it, I’ll light another one.” I put his spit-stained cigarette in my mouth. My cousin is driving Lucky Luke’s motorcycle. Down to the end of the road and back. The beach is emptying of people. Only Georgis is there, in the black sea, with water up to his knees, watching the ships go by. He stands there like a statue, not moving at all. We have a good laugh about Mrs. Koula. We envision that all night she’ll be dreaming of huge tits drowning her. Our eyes well up with tears of laughter. We fall all over each other, becoming one big mass of long hair. We’ve all got hair in our mouths. And suddenly—I don’t remember how—this betting starts. Everyone looks at me. “Are you going to go with him?” Yes, I am. “As if you really would!!” I’m going. “I’m betting you’ll chicken out.” I’m not chickening out, you dumb jackass, I’m going. “Where’re you going to go?” Wherever the hell he wants to go. Lou jumps up and points out a dark alley. “Let’s go to the construction site next door to the American’s house.” The rest of them start placing bets among themselves. Lucky Luke says that if I do it, he’ll make me a gift of his shirt. My cousin takes out the wrinkled 1,000-drachma bill out of his pocket. Bobby’s son Sakis bets his silver bracelet. They’re all drunk. I won’t back out now. Hell, I’m as drunk as they are. I’ve never been kissed. We’re leaving. Lou in front, and me right behind him. I don’t even know what time it is.
We enter the dark construction site. The hand with the ring has his arm around me so I won’t fall. We walk on top of wooden planks and stones, and climb the cement stairs. I can’t see a thing. The hand with the ring pushes me gently onto a wall. I can feel his long hair on my neck. We kiss. I open my mouth. First time in my life. It tastes like cigarettes. I learn what to do with my tongue. I do whatever he does. The hand with the ring is up against my belly. I’m shuddering all over. He’s into my pants, inside my panties, inside me. His ring’s inside me. I take off my blouse and bra. We fall to the ground, to the powdery cement. His long hair is now covering my entire face. I’ve never done this before. “It’s OK, love.” He goes in. I’m hurting everywhere. But I’m going to do it regardless. I think about a girlfriend of mine in Athens. I’ll call her tomorrow and tell her about this. I jolt. I scream. The hand with the ring covers my mouth. I won’t be able to . . . “You will.” I start to bawl and he continues. I want to scream, but he’s got his hand pressing on my mouth. I bang my head on the cement. Just a little bit more. Something inside me opens up and I feel him going in deeper, moving in and out of me. My head’s splitting. He lets out a pent-up scream into my hair. I wonder how people can derive pleasure from such torture. I push him away. I grab my belly and double up in pain. He draws a deep breath. I don’t look at him. I feel something soft stroking me below. He wipes me with his shirt. “You see what happened?” I turn to look. He shows me his bloody shirt. “Come on, get dressed.” I reach over to kiss him, and he pushes me away. Don’t take it so seriously. What’s happened doesn’t mean a thing. “Come on, let’s get going.” I’ve got a knot in my throat. I repress it. I love him. He starts down the steps by himself. And I try to find my way down all by myself in the darkness.
Back at the bench I collect all of my trophies . . . the SCORPION shirt, the thousand-drachma note and the bracelet. I won, and Lefteris doesn’t speak to me all evening. I’ll call my girlfriend tomorrow to let her know that I fucked. And so what . . . what’s the big deal? Blackman comes over to me and shows me a box of matches. He opens it and it’s full of pills. I’ve heard that they all take pills. I take one, too. Lou swears at him. “You dumb jackass, what’re you doing, giving pills to a young kid?!” Leave us alone, I tell him and swallow the small pill with some of Blackman’s beer. I don’t feel a thing. I wait for something to happen, but nothing happens. I want to leave. I want to go find my father. I want to eat the apple out of his glass of wine. My cousin swallows some pills himself. I nudge him . . . can we leave? He pays no attention to me. He and Blackman are chewing the fat about engines. What time could it be? Two. I’ve got to run to catch up with them at the taverna. Otherwise, if they go home and don’t find us there, they’ll have a fit, they’ll think that we’ve been in an accident or something, and they’ll come looking for us.
I run like crazy through the dark streets. I’ve left, without even so much as a “bye” from Lou. I’m running, and my bawling is overwhelming me. I want to die. I’m in pain below, and my pants are still wet from the sea. Why would someone fuck you, and then act as if nothing at all had happened? I don’t understand it at all. I want to die, so he doesn’t see me ever again. I’m disgusted with myself. I’m disgusted that I love the long hair that falls over his face. I’m disgusted that I’m in love with an asshole, and I don’t understand why my stomach’s churning, and why I get goose bumps just thinking about him.
I pass the pastor’s house during my run back to the taverna. All the lights are off. And the curtains are all in place. I enter the village, now dimly lit. I can hear music emanating from the taverna and voices. I hear my father’s voice. He’s singing. Thank God, they’re still here.
I sit down with them all. “Where did you get wet, honey? Where’s your cousin?” “We thought you must have gone to bed.” Uncle George is dancing with a paper napkin in his hand and his knees bent. The gimp is tapping his hands rhythmically on the tabletop. I must stink of cigarettes. My father hugs me and kisses me on the cheek. “Aren’t you sleepy?” Nah, not at all. I try to seize the little apple inside his glass of wine. All of a sudden the apple begins to grow, and grow, and grow, until it becomes a large slice of melon. The little glass of wine becomes a salad bowl. I become terrified. I look at my father who’s smiling without a trace of suspicion, and suddenly he’s become very fat, like a giant, his hand bigger than the table. Everything around me starts to grow. I don’t know what’s happening to me. Uncle George’s paper napkin begins to look more like a tablecloth that’s dragging on the floor, Aunt Tasia’s gold teeth are metamorphosing into golden rods that are blinding me, and the eyes of my other aunt, Aunt Voula (who’s now on her feet singing), looks like a camel the way she’s opening her mouth wide open, her face looks like a camel cleaning its teeth—or yawning—and this gigantic muzzle has come so close to me, that I have to pull back. And now this camel’s muzzle is very close to my eyes, and this super-tall camel speaks with a human voice, and speaks Greek, and enunciates slowly and clearly, with her big, hairy tongue, and her huge, gold teeth, “Did you fuck? Did you fuck? Did you fuck?” She looks right into my eyes with that stupid look of hers, and repeats the words, DID YOU FUCK? I cover my face with my hands. I hear a voice within me saying, It’s the pill. None of this is happening. You’re imagining it. Don’t act scared, because then they’ll figure it all out. My cousin. He’s back. He digs into the kokoretsi. I can’t eat mine. I twirl the thin roasted strips of intestines around with my fork, forming letters on my plate that spell out the name LOU.
The wine barrels become giant cages in front of my eyes, and Bobby who’s filling the wine pitchers is now an orangutan. The entire taverna is one large zoo spinning ’round and ’round. Without even being aware of it, I’m on my feet in a circle dancing the Itia, holding my cousin’s hand and we’re breaking up with laughter, because we both are having identical head trips, seeing the same image, namely us thirteen-year-old idiots, dancing along with a camel, an orangutan, a bear, a crocodile, a giraffe, and a lot of other jungle creatures, joined to each other by hand, or by leg, or by horns, on top of countless rods of gold.
Translation of “Nychterides.” From the collection Nychterides (Kedros, 2008). By attangement with the publisher. Translation copyright 2008 by Sidney J. Kornberg. All rights reserved.