By Birgit Lennertz Sarrimanolis
Sometime before dawn the telephone rang, shrill and startling. The man sat up abruptly, ripped from an exhausted, dreamless sleep. A click in the line, a pause. Rushing with static, his uncle’s voice came haltingly. “Theo Dimitri,” the man stated as though acknowledging a fact, with no exclamation of hearing the familiar voice an ocean away. He listened. “Katalaveno,” but he felt as though he understood nothing. The words, yes; so much the language he did not use much nowadays still allowed him. But beyond that, nothing. “Tha ertho avrio.” He would go tomorrow. The man rubbed two fingers across the grooves that furrowed his forehead in a futile effort to erase them.
A few hours later the man stepped from the foyer of his apartment building onto the street. Even on a Sunday morning, New York did not settle. Buses, pasted with advertisements, rumbled by. Joggers in black running shorts, AirPods in their ears, dodged the pedestrian traffic. Movement rushed before him. It was another muggy, breathless day. Buildings of steel and glass towered, limiting his view of the sky. When the man saw a flash of yellow, he hailed the cab.
At Kennedy Airport the departure hall was stifling. The man stood in queue, a black bag slung over his shoulder, inhaling, exhaling, trying not to think. Smells encroached: the pungent sweat of a man lifting suitcases and stringed parcels onto the conveyer belt; the sticky, flowery perfume of a woman who stood applying lipstick with a handheld mirror, casting her glance sideways after her restless children.
Continuously overhead, a nasal voice called out flight numbers and warnings about unattended cars parked on the curb.
At last the man placed his American passport onto the airline ticket counter. “Mr. Kostanis.” The airline attendant looked impeccable in her turquoise uniform. She had knotted her handkerchief at her throat despite the air that was not circulating. “Do you want to check any luggage to Athens?” The man shook his head. What, possibly, did he have to bring back to the life he abandoned so long ago?
In Athens the air hung heavy, as it had in New York. The taxi driver, sweat rings darkening his armpits, maneuvered his way through the morning traffic. “Where are you going?” he called back over his shoulder.
“Pangrati,” Kostanis replied.
The driver studied him in the mirror. Americanos, he concluded. Was he visiting relatives, given his sparse luggage and unreadable expression? Perhaps he was going to the islands, to which most Athenians fled during the summer months. A bus emitted a cloud of black diesel and came to a screeching halt in front of him. His foot jammed on the brake. His mouth spewed out a string of profanities. Traffic caroused around the turnabouts, horns blaring incessantly. The air smelled of metal and rubber on hot asphalt. On the sidewalk business people in shirtsleeves, toting briefcases, wiped beads from their foreheads and pushed through revolving doors. Tourists, strapped with backpacks, studied maps in the glare. The hill of the Acropolis was almost lost in the haze.
Near the Municipal Hospital, Kostanis got out and paid too much for the fare. He didn’t argue. It was too hot to take issue.
Inside the hospital the smell of lemony polish and disinfectant was penetrating. The nurses’ station was a tumult of white uniforms, stacked-up charts, and ringing telephones. Finally Kostanis was directed to the fourth floor. Theo Dimitri sat in the tiled hallway, looking thinner than Kostanis remembered. His eyes flickered in recognition. The uncle rose unevenly, kissed him on both cheeks, then gestured toward a door. His lower lip quivered.
Inside the dimmed room his mother sat upright, dressed, as she always had, in a long-sleeved, black dress. She rose, tears brimming, and drew Kostanis to the bed. His father lay still, hands neatly folded on his chest. His gray eyes were unfocused beneath halfway lowered lids. His skin was pale, a gray hue lighter than his hair. His mustache, though, was straight and black, spanning his lower face like a thick comb. He had died while the airplane was somewhere over the Atlantic. Did he know his son was coming? Kostanis bent over the small man, kissed the stubbly cheek, and felt empty inside. He drew up a wooden chair and sat down next to his mother. She sniffed into her lace handkerchief from time to time. They silently listened to the noise of the traffic outside.
“We will deliver him this afternoon,” a hospital administrator told Kostanis. A dull ache had settled behind Kostanis’s eyes. They would deliver his father like a paper bag full of groceries. His mind, curiously, was devoid of any thought. He felt wound up, like a child’s toy close to the end of the battery cycle carrying on its action, halting, then sputtering to a start again.
At the airport the preparations for transporting the casket took time. Kostanis mechanically signed forms. His mother sat alongside, muttering. “Baba was coming for the test, as the yiatros on the island said he should,” she sorted out to herself. “Fine man, the yiatros. Studied in Thessaloniki, then came home to the island to take care of his own people.” She sniffed. “It must be as the Theos wants. It’s time for the trigo soon, you know. And no one in the village to help in the fields.”
Kostanis patted her arm and said, comfortingly, “I’ll be there for the trigo,” but she had turned her head, clutching her handbag to her belly. Thoughts about the upcoming grape harvest had already fled her mind again. Around them, in the cargo hall, forklifts lifted crates. His father’s casket looked small next to them.
The airplane propellers whirred in the heat. Passengers fanned themselves with safety brochures. His mother’s gaze focused on nothing in particular beyond the thick windowpane. Kostanis settled himself beside her, leaned his head against the scratchy headrest, and closed his eyes, only to open them abruptly again. His mother whimpered under her breath, grievances for only her own heart to hear. When they descended on the island, her body eased a little, as though she sensed that she was home. Kostanis felt his own nerves tighten.
On the airfield the afternoon sun still burned, but there was the scent of pines on the breeze. The wind played off the forested mountain on one side and the open Aegean Sea on the other. A group of laughing tourists alighted, hauling colorful beach bags and straw hats. They bustled past. Kostanis and his mother waited in a small office adjoining the baggage claim. Through the window Kostanis watched two men in overalls and bulging arms lift the casket onto a luggage trolley. One man shouted to the other over the roar of the airplane engine. The other guffawed.
There was only one taxi left. The driver sat in the shade of a mulberry tree, cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. “We are going to Pendriki,” Kostas said, approaching him. “We’ll need some rope.” Kostanis gestured toward the casket still on the luggage trolley.
The driver looked from the casket to Kostanis. “I’m already booked.”
Kostanis felt his thoughts spin. The heat enveloped him despite the blustery wind. He loosened his collar with one finger and felt sweat trickle down his temple. He walked back to the baggage claim, but the rental car counter had already shut down for the day. The last flight from Athens had brought few passengers. Kostanis returned to where his mother sat, still rocking herself, waiting by the casket. He sat down next to her, defeated. In America this would not have happened. He would have thought to reserve a car, have his secretary call in advance and note the confirmation number into the notes on his cell phone. He glanced at his mother. She had stopped murmuring to herself. They sat in a deflated silence.
Kostanis looked at the rise of the mountain before him. A road zigzagged its way up the face of the incline, then lost itself from view. Whitewashed villages with red roofs clustered on the slope where the pines grew thick. Dark cypresses punctuated the variegated greenness. Further up the distant peak of Mount Alikis lay bare, rock exposed, deep crevasses casting shadows onto the terrain. In ancient times, his father had once told him, fishermen rounding the coastland on especially black nights saw a light blinking in the darkness at the peak of the mountain. It guided them as long as it took them to reach the safety of the port, then mysteriously disappeared. No one could explain why, though the women in the village advised Kostanis not to think of it. A lodestar should be trusted, not sought after. When Kostanis was old enough to go out in Theo Dimitri’s boat with him, he sat at the stern and kept his unblinking eyes on the barely discernible outlines of the peak. Not once did he spot the light.
The taxi driver beckoned Kostanis. “I’ll take you,” he said. “But I will drop you at the plateia.” They struggled to secure the casket onto the luggage rack on the taxi’s roof. The driver squinted as the smoke from his cigarette reached his eyes. Squatting on the metal rails, he pulled taut the rope and knotted it to the side of the rack.
They took the road over the mountain. Terraced grapevines sprawled across the slopes of the hills, and the muted green of the olive trees cast sparse shade across the fields. It was not quite half-past five. Soon the villagers would emerge after having escaped the midday sun for a few hours, pull up wooden chairs with caned seats, and sit, sipping strong black coffee out of miniature cups outside the kafeneia.
Suddenly Kostanis caught sight of the village. Pendriki’s cluster of white-cube houses tiered up against the mountainside. Window shutters were painted bright green, amber, and light blue. The blue-and-white dome of the village church hovered above them. Kostanis thought of the casket strapped to the car roof and of the village ahead. Perhaps he could find Christo to help him carry the casket through the narrow alleys to the house. Or had Christo left the island as well?
A group of villagers had gathered at the central plateia of the village. Kostanis exhaled. News had reached them from Athens, through Dimitri. The men nodded at Kostanis, acknowledging him. Behind their somber expressions, however, their gaze was watchful. A neighbor’s wife helped Kostanis’s mother out of the taxi and huddled her to the broad steps that led down from the road. The men propped the casket onto their shoulders. Kostanis followed. Giorgo, the owner of the kafeneio, fell into step beside Kostanis. He folded his arms, monk-like, and mumbled, “Silipitiria.” Practicalities took precedence over condolences, however. “The priest says you must hurry with the burial. It is too hot to wait.” Kostanis remembered Giorgo as a much younger man, with sweets hidden in his pockets and a low voice that boomed with off-tune renderings of the newest bouzouki songs. Back then, gathered on the plateia amid friends and glasses of ouzo, they quickly forgot the grueling day on the fields. Amid rough jokes, they slurred promises to help each other with the upcoming grape harvest. Gathered in doorways, peering from behind lacy curtains, the villagers lowered their gaze as Kostanis passed. The subdued flurry of a new event sent whispers through the narrow alleys. He had returned, they told each other.
For the night they placed the casket beyond the small, open avli into the living area of the house. The women of the neighborhood had prepared the room, set out candles, cloaked the mirror, and stopped the ticking of the wall clock. Kostanis’s eyes searched for traces of his childhood, not nostalgically, but to convince himself that he was really there. The avli was unchanged. The small, metal table, covered with a wax cloth, still stood against the cracked wall. Plastic containers, an ashtray, and mosquito repellent crowded the windowsill. On the nails in the white stucco hung an apron, a metal pan, and the straw hat his mother wore when milking the goat. The gnarled grapevine grew above, casting its shade. Scarlet fuchsias and pink geraniums vied for space in clay pots. The iron-railed staircase led to the small rooms on the roof, built as an incongruous addition. He could have stood here yesterday, Kostanis thought.
Inside, in the casket’s presence, which the women had opened in order to wash and dress his father in his blue suit, Kostanis felt dislocated. He watched as they placed an icon in his father’s hands and felt how someone slipped a black band around his own upper arm. His mother moaned quietly as she removed his father’s wedding ring and slipped it onto her own finger. She then settled herself on a chair and awaited the encroaching darkness.
All night the villagers pulled back the beaded curtain hanging over the door, shuffled in, and mumbled in muted voices. The casket had been closed so the spirit of the deceased would not wander aimlessly, lonely, through the darkness. Kostanis sat, overcome by exhaustion, and tried to concentrate on the faces that peered at him. At one point he noticed kollyva, sweets of wheat and sugary spices, set out only at vigils. As a child he had run almost gleefully whenever the church bells rang somber and slow from the hilltop, knowing that someone had died and that he might get a taste of his favorite sweet.
In the black hours of the early morning, Kostanis was told to go up to the little room on the roof for some rest. Kostanis went, smelled the mothballs in the pillowcase, and couldn’t sleep. Sometime later he remembered that he had not paid the taxi driver.
In the summer, when the yellow melons hung heavy beneath their broad leaves, the family moved down to the field they called Keramida. The kalivi stood on the edge of a terrace of stacked stones. They lived in the cottage all summer, returning to the village only when merchants from Agios Ioannis came to collect first the melons, then the watermelons, and, finally, the small, white Moscato grapes. With Christo, Kostanis trudged during those long summer days through the pine forest and stabbed for eels between the boulders of the gorge creek. Once Christo fell into the deep pool at the bottom of the crevasse, and Kostanis, with a constricted throat and leaden legs, could bring himself neither to shout nor run for help. He stood, paralyzed, watching his friend sputter and splash in the black water. By chance Petros, who was returning from the port by the Keramida path rather than through the olive grove, heard Christo’s gargled cries and heaved him onto the moss-covered rocks. His father cuffed Kostanis behind the ears that evening, and his mother carried on in a dolorous tirade about the mati, the evil eye, that had surely cast its eye over the boys in this world surrounded by the perils of water. The next day the boys stayed demurely on the field, cutting clusters of grapes with curved knives. They dropped them into wicker baskets, poking carefully for small, black scorpions that sometimes took refuge from the sun beneath the grape leaves.
The red earth of Keramida concealed the ancient ceramic shards for which his father’s fields were named. Kostanis dug out the cracked fragments from time to time and collected them on a pile beneath the walnut tree. When the sun stood high in the sky and his father dozed in the shade of the kalivi, Kostanis sorted the pieces together, aligning the edges. He ran his fingers across the rough texture and fissures, but he could never assemble the pieces into a whole.
In the evenings Theo Dimitri and his father sat by the pulsating embers and recounted the atrocities committed by the Turks in the 1920s. They had ravished the villages on the hillsides, burning and looting, stealing women. Kostanis, dark eyes glistening with fascination and dread, was in agony when the conversation shifted. The men started talking about how the young folk of the village were looking toward the mainland, thick with the promise of a better lifestyle. His father lamented and shook his head slowly. One could hardly place a barrier, built of moral obligations to an aging village, against this natural development in the young people. The wind grew stronger in the night, and Kostanis, from his cot near the fire, listened to the swishing of the trees outside. His father had told him to listen to the wind, to the drawn-out, rushing sound when it got caught in the pines’ spread, to the high-pitched whistle when it stirred the tall, tight cypresses. “The wind is telling you about the trees, agori mou,” he said. “Some hold strong to the ground, hardly moving. Others bend their branches this way and that so the wind can’t topple them.” When the same wind grew brisker and the days shorter, Kostanis and his parents returned to the village.
Kostanis had drifted into a shallow, restless sleep when he felt Giorgo shaking him gently. Downstairs the murmuring had stopped, and the sun trickled through the half-closed shutters. The men had returned. They lifted their eyes to Kostanis when he came down the stairs, then silently heaved the closed casket up onto their shoulders. Kostanis followed, walking next to his mother. Her expression was blank and tearless behind her diaphanous, black veil.
The church was heavy with incense, and the wail of the chanters echoed in the dome. Subdued light filtered in through the stained-glass windows and cast long strips onto the square flagstones. Kostanis thought suddenly about the Monday-morning rush in New York. He stood, straightening himself, and removed the image from his mind. The procession climbed the steep, whitewashed steps up the rocky hillside. The cemetery lay high, the marble crypts cool in the morning sun beneath tall cypresses. Kostanis felt a settling within him, almost like a shift in weight, even though he had not moved. Time collapsed. He breathed deeply and smelled the pine resin on the breeze. In the distance, far below, he made out the fields and the red earth of Keramida.
Copyright Sarrimanolis 2023