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Readings — From the December 2018 issue

Smithereens

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From “I’ll Swallow Your Dreams,” which appears in Good Will Come From the Sea, a collection that will be published in February by Archipelago. Ikonomou’s other collections include The Woman on the Rails and Something Will Happen, You’ll See. Translated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich.

Tasos loaded the chamber and shot, loaded and shot. He kept muttering to himself too. At some point I went over to tell him to watch it, we didn’t need any more trouble, and I heard him talking to himself. Big deal, you’ll say. We all do that. All of us foreigners, all of us Athenians talk to ourselves. For starters, we talk all the time. It’s strange. We talk and talk, we babble, wherever we are, to whomever we’re with. If there isn’t anyone around, we talk to ourselves. I’m no exception. You know how often I catch myself in the fields talking to the toma­toes and cucumbers? Some talk to dogs, or cats, or seagulls, others to God or the dead or people they left back at home, wherever they came from. On winter nights people stand at the window, all bundled up, and talk to the darkness. If you weren’t a per­son, if you were the night, say, or the wind, the fire in the fireplace, the smoke rising from that fireplace or from the woodstove—if you were the warmth and smell that rise from burning wood, that warmth that gives you some small hope that all isn’t yet lost, a hope you pray won’t die out as soon as the wood becomes charcoal, a blackened lump—if you were one of those things, you would hear them talking for hours into the darkness, talking to the lights on the islands across the way, or to the passing ships. And now that the weather is a bit better, they go outside at night and talk to the moon, to the stars or wind. One guy talks to the sirocco, another to the north wind. Just like me, right now.

We can’t stand the silence. It’s too much to bear.

I know what you’ll say. You’ll say a man should be strong and keep his feelings to himself, that true pain is always silent, that the things that really count can’t be expressed in words—I know all that, and I agree. But when you live on an island things are different. Here words are a kind of com­fort, words seem to lessen the fear. Sometimes I think the first humans learned to talk in order to lessen the fear they felt in the caves where they lived. And here on the island, we learned to talk all the time, to ourselves and anything else, in order to lessen the fear we feel in this place where we came to live. The island is our cave.

We swear too. A lot. Even the women and children, we all swear. You wouldn’t believe the kind of shit we talk. Sometimes we joke that we’ve invented a new language, Shitlish. You know, how we say someone speaks En­glish or Swedish—we all speak Shitlish. Sometimes I think that’s the most frightening thing of all. That we curse and swear from morning till night. That we wake up swearing and fall asleep with Shitlish on our tongues. Ever since we came here, we’ve slowly stopped talking the way we think, and now we think the way we talk. Instead of our minds making up the words, now the words make up our minds. What I mean is, if you get used to calling all women whores and all men assholes and all children brats, you slowly begin to believe that’s how it really is—that all women are whores, all men are assholes, all children are brats. And I don’t think it makes any difference if you believe that your own wife isn’t a whore, or your own kids aren’t brats, or you yourself aren’t an asshole. No difference at all. Not one bit.

So, I’d gone over to Tasos to tell him to rein it in, but there was no need, because as soon as I got there, he handed me the pistol and ran off. He’d sent the kid from Larissa to look through the CDs for a particular song he wanted to hear. As soon as the kid found it and waved the CD at him, Tasos headed like a shot for the dance floor.

This one’s mine, he shouted. Out of the way, all of you. This one’s mine.

what endless passion

endless

is mine

Have you ever seen, in November or December, when the sirocco is dying down, how the mist dances over the waves at night? How it rises, whirling, and disappears, then later you see it again and then it disappears again, until you think the sirocco is something your eyes have made up? That’s how Tasos danced that night. As elusive as mist.

and like the quiet rain

like the rain

my tears flow

I stood and watched from a distance, my finger tickling the trigger. I imagined the gun was a flamethrower, imagined pulling the trigger and watching the whole place light up like the Arkadi Monastery during the Cretan revolt. I must have been about ten sheets to the wind at that point. Meanwhile, everyone else had knelt down and was clapping. Magda, Lena, Yiota, Rita, Chryssa. Elvis, Valsamos, Psis, Tremo. Minas had stripped off his shirt and was pounding his chest like Tarzan, the Salamander was rolling around on the ground, as hammered as they come, Zack almost tipped over his wheel­chair—even that nutjob Popeye had taken off his helmet and was bashing his head with it. And the blonde who worked for Theodorakis, pretty drunk herself, barefoot, hair loose. The kid from Larissa was watching her from across the way, full of longing. Ariadne, the constable’s widow, was clapping the baby’s hands as it napped against her chest—remind me to tell you her story one day, the hair on your head will stand up straight to the ceiling. I remember them all. And Tasos was dancing with a cigarette burning his lips, elusive, eyes closed, barely moving his feet, as if he were dancing in a minefield and that half-meter of land where he stood was the only spot that had been cleared, and if he made even one wrong move a mine would explode and shoot us all sky-high. Then Tomis, Zack’s brother, jumps up and fills a glass to the brim and goes over and gives it to him. And Tasos drains it in a single swallow and sets it upside down on the ground. He spins around and bends down, just touches it lightly with his finger, and the glass shatters into pieces. You’ve never seen anything like it. He just touched it, like that. Smithereens.

I saw Lena get to her feet, and she turned and looked at me, standing off to the side with the pistol in my hand. She was wearing a short jean skirt and those red boots, and from where I was standing, and as smashed as I was, she looked as if she were soaked in blood up to the knees. She stared at me as if she didn’t recognize my face. I remember smiling at her, and then I shoved the pistol in my mouth and pretended to pull the trigger, then took it back out and blew on the barrel. Have you ever put a loaded gun in your mouth? All sorts of things run through your mind in that moment.

Then Lena started toward me, but Valsamos headed her off and pulled her over to dance. I stood there and watched her dancing an Epirot dance, and I must have jinxed her by watching—if it’s possible to jinx the woman you’ve been with for ten years—because at some point I saw her suddenly teetering to one side, and she almost fell. The heel of her boot had snapped off. And my knees went weak, too, I thought, Great, she’s probably broken her leg and we’ll be running to the hospital. If you can even find a doctor and they don’t send you across to Naxos or Syros, and if you can find an X-ray machine, and bandages and casts and all the rest—because, as they say, it’s not enough that you have a whole hospital on the island, you want doctors and nurses and machines too? And how is she going to come out to help in the fields with that broken leg? And who’s going to look after the kid? All that passed through my mind in an instant. Fortunately it was only the heel, and she barely noticed. She just flung both boots over to the side and kept dancing, barefoot. She grabbed our kid by the hand and they danced together, she showed him the steps. He picked it up in no time. As smart as a jackal, that one, just like his mom. And I was flooded with shame. Aren’t you ashamed of yourself, I thought, you sorry
excuse for a man? Aren’t you ashamed of thinking only of yourself? And then I saw her boots tossed to the side of the dance floor and it hit me. I mean, my lord. Look how low I’ve sunk, that I can’t even buy her a new pair of boots. And you know how crazy she is about boots. How I used to buy her two or three pairs each winter. Tall boots, short boots, with heels, without. Expensive ones, real leather, not the cheap kind from the Chi­nese stores. Not to mention the other shoes, the clothes, the perfumes and skin creams. Plus a new cell phone every time I turned around, and the trips, the vacations. And I held that pistol in my hand and said to myself, I wish it were a flamethrower, so I could pull the trigger and turn everything to ash. That’s what I kept thinking that whole time. If I could just heap everything into a huge pile and destroy it all. Clothes, shoes, the kid’s toys, everything. Watch it all turn to ash. So I wouldn’t see all those things and remember how we used to be and what we’ve become. You might ask, Great, say you burn it all, what will that get you? What’ll you do after that, go around barefoot, wearing sheepskins? I don’t know. I just don’t want to remember. I don’t want to remember anything.

Sometimes I think, we lost our jobs, our homes, our lives—why can’t we lose our memory too? Why? Why did they take everything else but leave us our memory? Why couldn’t they take that too?

Becoming poor isn’t what breaks you. What breaks you is remembering that you didn’t used to be poor.

Right after that is when Minas collapsed. He was just dancing there, and all of a sudden he fell in a heap as if someone had trimmed off his limbs. Everyone ran over, Yiota grabbed him, shouting for someone to bring water and vinegar and rub his temples. The twins started crying, shaking like poisoned dogs. The women picked them up and took them a little ways off, where they wouldn’t see. A man two meters tall, just lopped off like that. His face as white as a sheet, coated in sweat. As if all his blood had become sweat. Something similar had happened a few other times too. Once we were all there, one evening down at the harbor, at Marika’s place. We did everything we could to bring him to his senses. And now it was just the same. He never liked to take pills, even though we’ve got everything a person could want down here, Xanax, Lexotanil, Zoloft, Ladose, Inderal. Sometimes we joke that when we’re finally completely broke, we’ll just use our pills as currency. Five kilos of potatoes equals a box of Lexotanil. Ten eggs, two boxes of Xanax. A man two meters tall in a heap on the ground. Yiota bent over him, wetting his hair with one hand and stroking his cheeks with the other. It was strange. Have you ever seen fish blasted out of the water with dynamite? How their eyes shine when they float up to the sur­face? Like fake fish, as if they were never alive at all. That’s how our eyes looked as we stood around Yiota and Minas, those were the kinds of eyes we watched them with. And afterward, when he seemed a little better, we carried him to the car and he and Yiota left—we would take the kids down later on.

Tasos came over and took the pistol back and asked if I had anything on me. And I said sure and we went a little ways off, to that shelter with the benches they built over the cliff so you can sit and watch the sun­set. I pulled my gear out of my underwear and rolled us a joint and lit it, and we smoked, standing there together. We stared out at the sea, the sky, the islands darkening in the distance—Milos, Kimolos, Polivos. I remember how the sea glittered, the waves a thousand fragments, but I didn’t say anything, because I didn’t want to jinx the moment. At some point, when we were almost done, he said again that good would come from the sea. Good will come from the sea, he said. I don’t know why that had stuck in his head, but he said it all the time. And always in the same way, kind of singing, and if you asked, he’d tell you it was a line from a song. None of us knew that song, none of us had ever heard it. But it sure got stuck in our heads too, and now we say it all the time. Whenever anything goes wrong, whenever any of us gets bad news—be patient, we say, good will come from the sea.

Good will come from the sea, Tasos said.

Shut up, man, I said. Didn’t you hear?

What?

Good broke down, they took it in for repairs. It’s going to be a while before they can get it up and running. At least a hundred years, they say.

He looked at me for a minute and then started to laugh, one hand over his mouth, as if he could hide from me. Then, I remember, he stretched his hands out in front of him and looked at them and said, If Christ really was a carpenter, I bet his hands were as covered in marks and scars as mine. Just think how strange it must have been for him to perform all those miracles with hands like that. For him to heal the blind, the paralyzed, lepers, touching them with swollen, crooked fingers. I wish I could do that. Even if I’m no Christ. Or even a carpenter.

Then, out of the blue, he grabbed me around the shoulders and hugged me, and I remember thinking, poor Tasos, what kind of Christ would you be with that face, those teeth, but I didn’t say anything, I just let him hug me and then pushed him away and said, What are you feeling me up for, I’m not blind or paralyzed, nothing to heal here.

I know, he said. It’s just the drink. Whenever I drink I can’t keep my mouth shut.

But he wouldn’t let me go. He held my arm and leaned his head on my shoulder and wouldn’t let me go. I looked out the corner of my eye at his face, which shone in the sun, red, bloated, covered in scars, and then I turned away, looked out at the sea.

I know, he said. But if I were Christ, you’d be John, isn’t that right? You’d be my beloved disciple, my John. Because I know you love me more than the others. I love you more than them and you love me more, too. Isn’t that right? It is, I know it is.

I don’t remember what happened after that. I mean, I remember, but I don’t want to talk about it. That’s enough.

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