Dimitrios hadn’t said a single word for the entire journey. He held the enormous pack between his legs and slept with his eyes open. His wife and two children had remained at home with family, but Dimitrios had been promised that they’d be brought later within a month. Nakis, who was dozing beside him, had no family of his own yet, though he’d gone twenty-five. He’d left his three sisters and his old parents in Kastoria. All together, there were eight of them sitting on the back of the truck, they’d crossed the border in four black trucks, then the trucks lost one another again. There were no children on any of them, they’d said farewell to the little ones two weeks earlier, back at Lake Prespa.
They were dirty, lice-ridden, sweaty, their packs filthy from the long journey. Their food had run out, they had to ration their tobacco. By night they tried to sleep, by day they watched the fields. The land wasn’t bad, the corn grew tall and there was good yield on the grapes.
During the last couple of days the rain had started up, it pattered endlessly on the canvas. The canvas protected them to some extent, but their clothes were soaked through. Nakis turned his coat inside out and picked the lice out of the creases in the fabric. Old Mihalis watched and shook his head as though he were absorbing the rhythm of the Tatra pickup.
After the rain came a fierce stifling heat, the drying clothes and steaming bodies began to reek on the truck bed. They were approaching their unknown destination. The sly sun caught them from one side, they jerked wildly at each bend. Everyone’s head had grown drowsy with hunger, lack of sleep, and exhaust fumes.
It was around midday when they pulled into the main square of a small town. They passed by strange signs in an unfamiliar language. The Greek men looked at the butcher’s, they saw the tall, baroque church and the completely identical-seeming, impassive women. The locals crossing the square stopped in their tracks, sizing up the Czechoslovak truck with suspicion: it was the third that day. Exhausted men blinked from behind the canvas, nobody had given them any sign they ought to get off.
Eventually a man in a green jacket appeared and loudly conferred for some time with the driver. Neither of them spoke Russian well, so the conversation was supplemented with gestures and volume. They came round the side of the steaming truck and waved, Come on, let’s go, everybody off.
The passengers clambered down, stood with their packs, then set off uncertainly after the man in the green coat. They crossed the square, passed the women watching from the shop window, and were herded into a gravel courtyard. A dog at the back barked wildly at the newcomers, until a gangly teenager coming out of the stairwell shouted it down. From then on it just whined in defeat. It was a mystery as to what the mongrel was doing in a schoolyard and where the actual schoolchildren were. And anyone for that matter, the whole town seemed dead, while the dawdling residents seemed so confused it was as though they weren’t even from there.
“What day’s it today?” Joannis asked suddenly.
“Wednesday. Wednesday noon,” answered Marku, who hadn’t opened his mouth for days but had kept watch with knitted brow, ready to leap. He counted the days, counted the border-crossings, then moving his lips he counted the cornfields and the remaining tobacco. In his head he counted how many cousins he had, including those who’d died as children.
“It’s Wednesday noon,” he repeated somberly.
Nakis ran back to the gate, he wanted to see whether the truck had left or not, but the man in the puffer jacket shouted, ordering him to go back to the rest. They left their packs in the yard and filed into a gym hall. There were Greeks lying everywhere on the floor, mostly strangers. Mihalis recognized a man with a gray beard who was from their area and was even older than he was. He was called Zeys, he’d arrived that morning. He said they hadn’t been able to wash yet, but they’d been given water, and he wasn’t sure whether they could stay or if they’d have to keep traveling. Most of them tried to get settled so that they’d be comfortable for the night, but soon a narrow-eyed man came in and started speaking to them in Hungarian. The parka had disappeared.
Nobody could understand what he wanted, they listened to the forty-something, broad-faced fellow completely at a loss. His voice was a shade firm, but the starved travelers couldn’t hear the veiled confusion, all they could hear was the irritation. He spoke at them for a long time in a clipped tone, then pointed for them to stand in a line. They got to their feet from their various spots, thinking to themselves, Good, now the newcomers will get their water, the whole group was standing.
The man led them through to a long concrete hall whose wall was painted with schoolgirls dancing in skirts and happy peasants at work in the fields. In the middle stood long wooden tables pushed together into one long row but with nothing on them.
They sat on the benches and took off their caps.
Then nothing happened. They sat, holding their caps, glancing now and again toward the kitchen. At times an alarmed woman in a white apron peeked out from behind the frosted glass but never came out. When they’d been sitting like that for maybe thirty minutes and there still wasn’t any water, Marku stood up and made for the door. His manner wasn’t threatening, but Dimitrios grabbed his arm and looked him in the eyes. Marku took his seat in silence, everyone gazed at the door.
Soon a short, freckled woman appeared and set out plastic pitchers of some red liquid all along the table. She didn’t return with any glasses. Mihalis dipped the tip of his tongue into it and said something. The murmur ran quietly along the two rows of men:
Then the glasses arrived and they awkwardly sipped on the sugary fruit juice.
It was weak and tasted odd, but it did provide some relief for their thirst. Many added water from the sink on the wall. Another painful fifteen minutes went by, then a woman in a headscarf appeared and slammed down plastic plates and forks along the table. She didn’t look up, she didn’t speak to anyone, if there was no space she set the cutlery in the middle with the napkin. Soon after, the freckled lady appeared again with a kitchen hand, a stout older woman; they shuffled out with an enormous aluminum pot between them. And then another. The two pots were set at opposite ends of the table.
The men began to stir, waiting for their portion. But the two women didn’t serve them, they went back behind the white door and waited to see what the guests would do from there. The guests waited a while, then Nakis got up and looked into the pots.
Two men dished it out at either end. First to the older men, then to the rest, one by one.
They were about to dig in when once again the bony woman in a headscarf who’d brought the plates appeared. In each hand she held a heaped bowl, she banged them down at opposite ends of the table and then clomped out again. She wore clogs and white socks like a nurse. In the bowls were mounds of gray dust, there was no way of telling what for.
A few started eating the pasta, others were waiting for the meat. Nakis examined the bowl. He sprinkled a little dust between his fingers.
“Must have to wash up with that after,” said Marku.
At the other end Dimitrios leaned over the bowl and gave it a whiff.
“Dirt,” he assured them sternly.
Joannis had almost wolfed down all his pasta when the freckled woman and the one in the headscarf came out. The freckled one marked time with a red face, while the taller one raised her voice and started giving orders in a foreign, rapid tongue as though she were cross. She pointed at the bowls and repeated a single incomprehensible word, then made broad gestures with one arm, as though she meant to clear the guests out. The men listened confused, looking to one another, at a loss. The woman shook her head, then moved suddenly and before they could cover their plates with their hands, she began soiling their pasta with the dust. On the other side the freckled one did the same, soon they had done it to them all. They glanced back as though they’d completed their order, then withdrew again. For a few seconds there was silence, then Dimitrios spoke:
“They’ve covered it in dirt!”
“They’ve covered it in dirt, so we can’t eat it,” the word spread along the table.
Marku slammed down his fork, staring ahead furiously, while the others gaped at their food disappointedly.
“They don’t want us here,” declared Joannis. “It’s because we don’t speak their language. That’s why they’re defiling our food.”
Dimitrios was so hungry he would have eaten the pasta, dirt and all, but he restrained himself and waited to see what the others would decide upon.
“We should stand up and leave!” Nakis slapped his cap on the table.
Support for the idea wasn’t unanimous, they hadn’t seen hot food for days.
Eventually the old man Zeys stood up, took his plate, and in a dignified manner, with his head held high, started over to the wall. Everyone thought he was going to pour it all out or simply bring it back to the women.
But no. He stopped at the enamel sink on the wall, and covering the plate with his big, wrinkled hands, he started washing the pasta. The black dirt was rinsed away and soon only the wet pasta was left. With that, the rest of the Greek men stood up and made their way single-file toward the faucet to wash their food. The dinner ladies whispered as they watched, nobody dared step forward.
The Greek men ate, then discussed. As their hunger abated, their bitterness grew. They stood up and filed through to the gym hall in solemn silence. By the time the lad in the green parka had arrived, they were already lined up in the yard, threatening, kitted up. One of the fat dinner ladies dashed out, dragged the lad in the jacket inside, and showed him in alarm the sink in the dining hall.
The sink was full of stray pasta pieces, while the drain, as though it were full of greasy ash, was completely clogged with sweet, ground poppy seed.
“Tizenharmadik fejezet, avagy a nyelv története” © 2016 by Krisztina Tóth. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Owen Good. All rights reserved.