The waves fell on the shore like shipwrecked men, broken-spirited, disheartened and weak, one after the next, with clipped moans, small sighs, one after the next. The squall had begun to die down in mid-afternoon and now the sun was shaping a huge burning hourglass over the calm waters which were full of seaweed and branches and pinecones and tin cans and plastic bags and wood from fishcrates—thin bleached sticks like the bones of fish that had been eaten by bigger fish. But in the distance past the mouth of the bay the clouds had started to turn red again and to sink low over the sea, growing and growing until they once more snuffed out the horizon.
It was past seven but the machines were still at work—a hum rose from deep in the mountain’s guts, disturbing the tranquility of the surrounding land. Eminent domain.
Look at that, he told her, pointing to the hourglass. If I had a boat I would take you to where the water becomes fire and you’d grab them in your hands and hold them, the water and the fire too. Both together. Water and fire. Wouldn’t it be nice?
Niki shooed a fly from her knee and threw her head back and looked upside-down at the cloud of dust rising between the blackened slopes of the mountain.
You don’t have a boat, she said. You don’t even have an oar. You don’t have anything.
He didn’t reply. Eminent domain. He kept his arm stretched out—hand balled, index finger pointing—and let his mind wander to heroic thoughts. He imagined that he was a warrior, leading a troop of other warriors, pointing to the object of some daring mission, an enemy stronghold they had to conquer at all costs.
Sorry, Niki said. She turned to look straight forward again and stirred the ice in her drink with a finger and took a sip. I didn’t mean it. That you don’t have anything. I didn’t mean it. You’ve got words, that’s for sure. And imagination. Go on, I’m listening. What kind of boat would it be? Rowboat or sailboat? Motorboat? Tell me, I’m listening. How long has it been a since you told me a story? Talk to me. Talk.
They were sitting under the old olive tree in the garden drinking martinis out of plastic cups. That morning they had sent off the last of their things by truck. All that was left was a single suitcase and the old mattress for them to sleep on that night, their last in the house. Eminent domain. They had been living in that house for five years. Five whole years. It was the nicest house they’d ever lived in, a real house, the kind they don’t build anymore. There couldn’t be another like it in all of Salamina. Old, sure, but solid as a fort, with stone walls like ramparts, wooden beams, a tile roof, huge rooms—cool in summer, warm in winter—with fireplaces and a cellar and big windows that looked onto the sea. And around the house an enormous garden, an estate, really, with olive and orange trees, pine trees, and eucalyptus trees that on summer afternoons cast their shade over the low stone wall and in the sunny gaps between shade lizards lay motionless gathering sun to warm themselves with, small ones and big ones, all of them green, salamanders and geckos with bulging eyes and long skinny tails.
Eminent domain. They were expropriating the property. The new road to the port on the far side of the island, behind the mountain, would pass through here. The owner of the place hadn’t fought it at all. He didn’t care. It was a lot of money and he lived abroad, he was a foreigner now, had emigrated to Belgium or Germany a long time ago, hadn’t set foot on the island in years.
At night the locals came and took stones from the wall around the property. They came with pickup trucks and brought tools to loosen the stones and casually loaded them onto the beds of their trucks, slow and easy, taking their time. They were beautiful stones, big solid hand-chiseled slabs, they made you happy to look at and touch. The first night the locals came he yelled at them. Get lost, you buzzards, he shouted. You buzzards, you crows, aren’t you ashamed? There are still people living here, get lost. Buzzards. Out, out. He shouted and cursed and at one point it almost came to blows. But eventually he got tired of shouting and cursing and fighting. What was the point? What difference did it make, today or tomorrow. What was the point. A soul that’s ready to leave will leave.
No use wasting our energies, he told Niki. We need to keep something in reserve for the future, for whatever’s in store for us up there. It’s a tactical move, see.
They were leaving for Kyustendil up in Bulgaria. A friend of a friend had opened a hotel up there and was looking for employees, he didn’t trust the locals. He was looking for people he could trust, without obligations, who were willing to work. The money was good. Good for Bulgaria, at any rate. They thought it over pretty hard, discussed it, and in the end said they’d give it a shot. He’d been the one to insist, he thought they should go. It’s an opportunity, he told Niki. You see what’s happening here, he said. There’s no way of getting ahead. It’s over, we’re over. It used to be that you worked your whole life for a bit of bread, now you work for a handful of crumbs. It’s Bulgaria, sure, but I don’t have issues with that. They say it’s nice up there. Countryside mountains rivers forests. There are hot springs. And cherries. People say they grow the best cherries in the world up there. Lord, fresh cherries. And waterfalls, too. Here you can’t even drink water from the tap anymore. We spend fifty euros a month just on bottled water. It’s done, it’s over. Here you can’t get ahead.
I say we go. It can’t be worse than it is here.
Now, in the yard, he didn’t respond. He reached a hand down, tossed some ice cubes in his cup and filled it, then glanced at the hourglass rapidly shrinking and vanishing over the dark murky blue waters. He wasn’t a warrior. A warrior fights to protect things he has and doesn’t want to lose, or fights for things he doesn’t have but wants to obtain. A warrior doesn’t flee the field of action to go and work for someone else. At a hotel. In Kyustendil, Bulgaria. Hot springs. Like Aidipsos, only in Bulgaria.
Niki closed her eyes, threw her arms back and stretched in her chair, then sat there as still as a gecko gathering sun to warm its cold blood. In the sunlight her armpits gleamed white and soft and smooth. He raised his sunglasses to his forehead and stared at her for a long time. He wanted to lick her armpits. Wanted to lick the sweat, which smelled of apples and salt, from her armpits. He wanted to suck the air between them and make it disappear, to demolish the distance between them, to destroy all the things that kept them apart.
In June he had killed a lizard. Sunday afternoon, a heat wave, he’d been sitting in the garden drinking just like now. He’d been picking up pebbles and tossing them at the lizards that had come out to sun themselves on the stone wall. He was throwing little pebbles at the salamanders for no real reason, just to pass the time. He wasn’t thinking about what he was doing. He wasn’t thinking about the pebbles or lizards. He was daydreaming. He dreamed that they’d made lots of money and quit their jobs and bought this house and a brand new motorboat with a pointed prow and strong engine and they spent whole days in the sea—they rode around in the boat and fished and went to neighboring islands and swam and in the evenings as the sky grew dark they lay down in the prow and ate huge cold bowls of fruit salad—watermelon honeydew banana pineapple—and licked the salt tang off one another’s bodies and lay arm in arm watching the red sun fading out in the distance and the little lights flickering on along the shorelines of the islands and on the ships further out in the sea—lay watching the stars appearing in the sky and there were so many of them and they were so far away that when he and she lay silently staring at those stars they felt a kind of pain inside. That was the kind of dream he was dreaming, dreams of a summer afternoon. And then without even realizing what he was doing he picked a bigger pebble up off the ground and threw it at the wall and the rock hit a lizard and killed it on the spot. He jumped to his feet, ran over, looked. A tiny green lizard with a long tail, identical to all the others. Motionless on the thick stone of the wall, a red spot between its eyes where the rock had landed. He poked it with a stick, blew on it, talked to it. Nothing. Just like that, quickly and simply, he had killed a lizard.
He looked around. There was no one there, nothing had changed, everything was the same as before, just as it always was, the trees the low wall the grass the flowers the house and inside the house Niki reading or sleeping and behind the house in the distance the sea the boats the ships the trash in the water the islands the people the world. Nothing had changed.
Quickly and simply.
As quickly and simply as god probably kills people by mistake tossing absentminded pebbles at the world, dreaming his own dreams.
They gave me a card at the bank, he said.
He put his glasses back on and looked at the hourglass over the water. It had shrunk by half and didn’t look anything like an hourglass anymore.
Six thousand with no annual fees. So, I’ll buy you a boat, he said. Nothing fancy but it’ll do the job. We’ll be fine making the payments. I’m not that useless, I can pay off a credit card. How does that sound? I’ll find a place where we can leave it and in the summer when we come back here we’ll have a new boat waiting for us. And I’ll start playing the lotto, too. I’m sure they have stuff like that up there, there’s no place that doesn’t have lotto. You’ll see. I can’t buy back all the years that have passed but I can buy you a piece of tomorrow. You’ll see. It’s enough if we’re together and happy. Love and faith bring luck. You’ll see.
She opened her eyes and looked at him sideways, then looked at his glass and at the bottle sitting by his feet. She laughed.
What did you say?
What’d you say?
But you said something.
At night the locals came and took stones from the wall around the property. They turned off the coast road climbed up the hill of the dirt road and stopped in front of the fence with their headlights trained on the fence so they could see what they were doing. They came with pickup trucks and brought tools to loosen the stones and casually loaded them into the beds of their trucks, slow and easy, taking their time. They were beautiful stones, big solid hand-chiseled slabs, they made you happy to look at and touch. The first night the locals came he yelled at them. Get lost, you buzzards, he shouted. You buzzards, you crows, aren’t you ashamed? There are still people living here, get lost. Buzzards. Out, out. He shouted and cursed and at one point it almost came to blows. But eventually he got tired of shouting and cursing and fighting. What was the point? What difference did it make, today or tomorrow. What was the point. A soul that’s ready to leave will leave.
No use wasting our energies, he said to Niki. It’s a tactical move, see.
An idiot mayor, Niki said. You’re talking like an idiot mayor. That’s what I said. Like a priest and a mayor rolled up in one. Love brings luck, huh? Okay, Father, whatever you say. Pour me another martini.
She held the bottle between her naked thighs opened it tilted her glass and filled it to the rim then looked over his head at the cloud of dust rising on the far side of the mountain. Eminent domain. Night and day the workers and machines kept at it, gutting the mountain, opening a new road toward the port. Lately at night when they sat under the olive tree they thought they could still hear the echo of the hum of the machines thought they could see red dust falling onto the trees, onto the fence, onto their faces and hair. And when they drank or ate they thought they could feel the dust in their food and their drinks thought they felt dust in their mouths and throats. Dust. They ate dust drank dust coughed dust sweated dust.
Lately at night they’d been dreaming. Dreams of Kyustendil—if you could call them dreams. Confused, anxious, unjust dreams. The kind where you keep trying to do something, you struggle for what seems like hours to achieve something important, something beautiful, something that in your dream you know will change your life forever, but in the end you fail. That was the kind of dream they’d been dreaming, unjust dreams. And they woke in terror, bathed in sweat, thinking they could hear the other person’s heart beating even louder than their own.
There were lots of times when he woke up screaming, and Niki would lean over and stroke his forehead his cheeks his chest.
Don’t be scared, she’d say. I’m here. Don’t be scared.
They would lie awake for a long time silently listening to the sounds of the night which was up as late as they were. The crickets and the cicadas. The rustle of the leaves and the sighing sea and all the sounds that frighten a person at night. The creaking of roofbeams, the hum of the fridge, a dripping faucet, something creeping along the floor or wall. Silently they listened to the night speaking around them and their skin crawled.
When day broke, much later, he said to her:
That’s what love is. To have the same dream at the same time on the same night with the person who’s sleeping beside you. Who’d believe it if you told them? The two of us are alone in the world. Even in sleep we’re in love.
She looked at him in the dark, then turned over so as not to see him anymore.
They’re not dreams, they’re nightmares, she wanted to say, but in the end she didn’t say anything.
The ice cubes had melted. He went to get some water from the fridge. Bottled water, a euro and sixty cents per six-pack. Fifty euros a month. Six hundred euros a year. For months now they hadn’t been drinking water from the tap because it came out looking like rust. In the hall the plastic bottle slipped from his hand. His hands were shaking again. He walked past the old mattress leaning against the wall and went out and sat down on the cement.
I say we pull the mattress out here and sleep in the yard tonight, he said. It’s our last night here, we should sleep in the yard. What do you say?
Do whatever you want, she said. I won’t be sleeping at all.
By now the hourglass was gone, the sea was darkening, a breeze had picked up. They sat for a long time under the olive tree listening to its leaves shudder in the wind. The stars trembled between the branches of the tree and he stared at them for a long time silently trying to think of what the stars looked like trying to think up something heroic, something romantic to say about the stars but in the end he gave up because they were only stars—they were only stars and nothing more.
Should I bring you something to throw over your shoulders? he asked.
Bulgarian. It means love brings luck. Jakuala. Isn’t it nice? Say it: jakuala.
He looked at her with his mouth hanging open and Niki laughed and rubbed her forearms which were covered in gooseflesh.
I’ve been trying to remember since morning, she said. I’ve been trying to remember since when we were loading our things onto the truck and now I finally did. Jakuala. Turns out you were right, alcohol is an aid to memory. Or wasn’t it you who told me that? Anyway. Whoever said it was right. I feel like singing. There’s no one to sing for us. No one to sing songs about us, the ones who are leaving. Like the songs they used to sing in the old days. I know, you’ll say a lot has changed since then. And you’d be right, too. Back then a guy could sing at the station in Munich you left me and now what’s he going to sing, at the station in Kyustendil you left me? It just doesn’t sound right. Besides, who knows if there’s even a station up there. Are there trains in Kyustendil? Did you even ask? You didn’t, did you. That’s why no one is going to sing songs about us, the ones who are leaving now. But it’s fine, I’m sure they’ll say something on TV. That’s something, at least. At some point they’ll say something on TV for sure. About all the people who are leaving. I’m sure. Of course they will. That’s something, isn’t it? Better than nothing. Pour us another drink. I want to drink to the health of progress and development and eminent domain. To the health of the European Union and the free movement of people and products. Cheers to that.
He got up from the cement and stood in front of her.
Let’s go inside, he said. Let’s go in and lie down, okay? It’s too windy out here, it’s not a good idea for us to sleep outside. Come on. Get up, let’s go in. Get up. We’ve got a big day ahead of us tomorrow.
Niki didn’t look his way. She was staring at the clouds that were getting bigger and blacker and blocking out every facet of the horizon. A lightning flash carved across the sky. It looked like an enormous uprooted tree.
You don’t remember, Niki said.
What? I don’t remember what?
Jakuala. That documentary we saw. About the lizards. You don’t remember. There are these lizards in Mexico that when they get scared they hide in their nests and puff up their lungs with air so they’re as big as balls and no one can get them out no matter how hard they try. Jakuala is what they’re called and I’m so jealous of them. I wish I could do that. The jakuala of Salamina.
He reached out a hand to touch her shoulder. Niki took a deep breath and puffed out her cheeks and held her breath until her face turned red and her eyes filled with tears and got blurry and she started to see little black flecks flitting before her eyes like tiny insects hovering over something that’s died.
Then she let her breath out in a gust and, panting, let her red face drop to her chest.
Piece by piece they’re taking my world away, she said.
Late at night she saw headlights coming along the coast road. She was curled up in her chair, trembling from the cold, but her jacket was in her suitcase and she didn’t want to go inside to get it, she didn’t want to wake him. She knew he would wake up on his own at some point during the night. Surely she would hear him shouting on this last night, surely he would wake shouting again from some dream. Surely. Eminent domain.
The truck turned left and started up the dirt road, growling up the hill, then stopped in front of the gate. The driver’s side and passenger’s side doors opened at exactly the same moment. The men stepped out and glanced into the yard. She couldn’t tell if they saw her sitting there—but if they did, they showed no sign of it. They took something out of the truck and then came over to the wall and started to loosen the stones and load them onto the bed of the truck.
She curled even tighter in her chair and wrapped her arms around her bare legs and in the darkness saw her skin filling with countless tiny bulges, countless blind eyes. Eminent domain.
She watched as the men walked back and forth through the beams from the truck’s headlights. They would work a stone loose from the wall and carry it to the bed of the truck and then come back for another. They worked calmly, without rushing, without fear. One of them said something and they both laughed and the laugh seemed to echo between the trees and the shadows of trees and Niki saw new eyes, blind eyes, sprouting from her skin.
And then, when they left, when the truck rolled back down the dirt road and went out onto the main road and disappeared, raising a cloud of red dust, Niki raised her head and saw all the stars in the sky without really looking at any one of them—the stars are the sky’s eyes, what a fairytale, the sky has no eyes it’s blind blind blind—and she reached out a hand toward the stars like a beggar and held her arm stretched out like that for a long time and when she got tired she lowered her arm and with it her gaze and stared at the low stone wall, at the awful gap those loosened stones had left in the wall.
Piece by piece they’re taking my world away.
From Something Will Happen, You’ll See, forthcoming from Archipelago Books © Christos Ikonomou. Translation © Karen Emmerich.