by Elena Penga, translated from the Greek by Karen Van Dyck
from Tight Belts and Other Skin (Agra, 2011)
Take a look at that. The fish change color. When the male gets excited he turns black. He rises to the surface with the female, and as soon as they have sex, he turns silver again. There are so many and they’re so excited, it looks like lights flickering on and off. See them?
We’re so high up. I can’t see anything.
Can you see the fishermen?
Yes. I hate them.
Because they catch fish. They’re not at all friendly.
That’s the way fishermen are. They’re not friendly. They’re superstitious. If they take you out fishing and catch a lot of fish, they take you out again. Then they want to take you out all the time.
Ever been to America?
No. Is it beautiful?
For me America is Michael Jackson. He wanted to be white but he was born black so he destroyed everything about himself that reminded him of his origins. He became his own creator.
Trans-sexuals do that too.
And then there’s that American woman Wildenstein who wanted to look like a cat and actually succeeded. After 59 surgeries. Ever seen her?
In the tabloids.
No, how does she look?
Scary. Like a cat.
If you were to spread the skin of a human body horizontally it would cover a double bed.
Ever seen it?
In the tabloids.
In the tabloids?
Everything’s in the tabloids.
It’s raining. Here. There. Where you’re singing. Raining very hard. I’m sitting in the house in a deep swivel chair. It’s nighttime. I spin the chair around and listen to the rain. You’re singing. The rain is loud enough to hear. I listen. To the rain. Another person arrives. With a pink lampshade. Brand new. He switches off the light, unscrews the bulb, takes off the black shade, puts on the pink one, then switches the light back on. We sit bathed in pink light and talk about shades. Lampshades. I open the balcony doors. You’re singing. But the rain is louder. It comes into the house. Hits the lampshades. Knocks over the lights. Collides with reality. The cherry trees in the neighbor’s garden haven’t had fruit for years. Four men enter carrying sticks. They enter the neighbor’s garden along with the rain. They’ve come to discipline the trees and chop them down if they don’t blossom. I watch the men hit the trees. I watch the rain hit the men.
The statues, the temples, the houses, everything in Antiquity was colored, painted. Delos was multicolored. Even today, after so many thousands of years, when they find a statue, it is covered in paint. They pull it out of the earth, and the colors stay in the dirt like a sculpture coming out of a glove.
Passages. And archaeology. Passages and routes. And memory. And hotels. Beautiful hotels full of statues and flowers. You walk through the corridors silently. You pass by closed doors. It is hot. Luxurious. Exotic. Gigantic fleshy flowers in gigantic porcelain vases.
You want to find a way to relate to the beautiful sights. You try. As you walk through the corridors. The soul has a way of metabolizing information that comes from the body and the outside world. I have heard that it is possible for a living organism, a baby, an adult, to self-destruct just because it is trying to keep the illusion of continuous pleasure alive. Of absolute ecstasy.
Corridors. You want them to take you further. Outside. So you can escape like the sculpture from the dirt. Out into the light. Like coming out of a glove. Years later. Completely unexpectedly. Are you coming? Out into the light? You who aren’t stone, but flesh? You who aren’t dead, but alive?
And then there are so many other kinds of distance. Passages hundreds of light years away. The roads a stone takes to become a Cycladic figurine, a Picasso woman. The lengths it goes to stay that way. Sculpture that still emits the encounters it had back then, when it was a stone, before it became a sculpture.
I was very young, about ten. We went on vacation to an island. The island was called Kalymnos. Across from us lived a captain. A sponge-diver. He had a little girl named Annoula. I went to her house often. We played with her dolls and other games. One day at a certain point we found ourselves in the backroom of the cellar. It was full of sponges. What I remember is that we had no sense of our bodies. I remember caresses, kisses, touching each other’s hair. We had no sense that anything else existed.
So you were just heads?
Yes, just heads. Hair and faces. Our bodies were buried in puffy sponges. We couldn’t feel them.
Baroque. You are in Turin. You ride around the city on a bicycle, looking at gardens behind wrought-iron gates. Do you remember? Turin is a baroque city. Everywhere you see old buildings, harmonious, like jewelry, like lace. Like the pictures printed on old, yellowed postcards.
Barroco in Portuguese means an irregularly shaped pearl, not perfectly round. For philosophers Baroque means a specious argument. Using curves and a bold, unexpected fusion of opposites to achieve a sense of harmony.
You ride around. You stop, you look, you continue on. You go around and around slowly, very slowly like in a flashback. The film has yellowed. Everything is old. An empty glass. Two. Two people, now, right now, meet up, they bite each other’s lips, they kiss, now, right now. You stop, you look. A sunset, a beautiful sunset in a yellow river. Boats on a yellow river glide silently by, slowly, very slowly, in a flashback. The film has yellowed. Everything is old. Look at all these dresses. Put them on, put them all on. One on top of another. Get on your bicycle. Keep going. You can’t stop. Wear the belt. Tighten it around the dresses. Ride the bicycle around yourself, around the dresses, around the belt. Tighten it. Look at the river. Tightening around the city. Keep going. You can’t stop.
For the Greek Language © by Elena Penga and AGRA publishing, Athens.
Elena Penga was born in Thessaloniki. She studied theater and philosophy at Wesleyan University and screen and theater writing at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Three collections of her short stories have appeared from Agra one of Greece’s best-known literary publishers. Tight Belts and Other Skin is the winner of the Ouranis Prize from the Greek Academy of Letters (2012). Her plays were first staged in New York’s Off-Off Broadway scene in the 1980s. Since Penga returned to Greece in the 90s, her plays have been extensively translated and performed in Greece and elsewhere. She also wrote the screenplay for Lakis Papastathis’s award-winning film, The Only Journey of his Life. She teaches playwriting and lives in Athens.Karen Van Dyck
Karen Van Dyck teaches and directs Modern Greek Studies in the Classics Department at Columbia University. She is the author of Kassandra and the Censors: Greek Poetry since 1967 (Cornell, 1998) and other articles on Greek and Greek Diaspora literature. Her translations of Greek poetry which have appeared in her edited and co-edited collections: The Rehearsal of Misunderstanding: Three Collections by Contemporary Greek Women Poets (Wesleyan, 1998), A Century of Greek Poetry (Cosmos, 2004), The Scattered Papers of Penelope: New and Selected Poems by Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke (Graywolf, 2009), and The Greek Poets: Homer to the Present (Norton, 2010).