from Joke (Nefeli, 2012)
Stavros laid down the screwdriver.
“Done,” he said. “Come look.”
Katerina came out of the kitchen wiping her hands on a towel.
“An elevator sign.”
Katerina looked at the words on the bathroom door:
“CAUTION: Before entering make sure the car is positioned behind the door and has come to a full stop.”
“I found it this morning in the garbage,” Stavros said. “I thought I’d hang it here as a joke.”
Katerina shook her head. They’d been housemates for six months. But not once had she laughed at any of his jokes.
“I made some fries,” she said. “Want to eat?”
Midway through spring semester, at the end of March, Stavros’s father went to the hospital for tests. The results showed cancer of the liver – luckily at an early stage. Stavros went back to his village for a month and a half. His mother spent nights at the hospital while he took care of their newspaper stand. When he returned to Thessaloniki, he found a stranger in his room.
“This is Vicente,” Katerina informed him. “He’s staying with us for a while. Hope that’s alright.”
Vicente was a year older. He was an architecture student from Barcelona on an Erasmus exchange in Greece. He and Katerina had met at a concert at the University three weeks ago. They’d gotten together the next day.
When the Spanish guy went out for groceries, Katerina hugged Stavros. She told him how crazy she was about the architecture student. They had only two more months before he had to go back to Spain. Too bad they met so late. How would she live without him? She took a piggy bank from her bookcase and shook it. “I’m saving up,” she said, “for my airfare in September.”
Stavros unpacked his suitcase.
“How’s your father?”
When Vicente came back, he took his bag into Katerina’s room. He was tactful. The apartment was small, and he felt bad that he was inconveniencing Stavros. When the two of them were at school, he’d cook up hot, colorful dishes – and then make sure the sink was sparkling clean. At night they’d all watch movies or sometimes sing karaoke together, something, he said, everyone did in Catalonia. They never fooled around when Stavros was in the house, or at least if that was happening, Stavros didn’t pick up on it. They were so quiet. The guy even liked the elevator joke on the bathroom door. “Muy bien, Stavros,” he said and slapped him on the back. The weeks passed, and there were moments when Stavros almost liked him, but only briefly, because he too was completely in love Katerina, from the very first day they’d rented the apartment together.
Stavros didn’t talk about relationships or his feelings. On the contrary, he comforted Katerina when she’d say she was scared of losing her new boyfriend. He’d go out with the couple, accompany them for a drink. The last Saturday, two days before the Spaniard had to leave, the three of them went on an outing to Lake Kerkini. Stavros drove, and Vicente was in the back clicking picture after picture of pelicans. They ate at a taverna owned by an uncle of Katerina’s who used to be a volunteer for Doctors Without Borders in Malawi. The waiter brought the bill just when Vicente was telling Stavros how he was going to miss him. Stavros smiled as he looked for his wallet. “No, por favor,” Vicente insisted, “Invito yo. I owe you one.”
Sunday evening they sat in the living room and shared a beer, a Kaiser. At first Katerina seemed calm, but then she began to cry. Vicente cried too. Stavros left them alone and took his beer to sweat it out on the balcony. It was 2AM when the Spaniard gathered up his things, said goodbye to Stavros, and locked himself up with Katerina in her room. Stavros lay down and tried to sleep, but different stuff was going on in the room next door, crying at first, then moans. It was the first time he’d heard them in bed. When they’d finished, the crying started again, but this time it was more muffled. In the dark Stavros thought he smelled them breathing. He imagined them three feet away on the other side of the wall, his hand in her hair, hers on his chest. He wanted to vomit. He got up to pee, but when he went to open the bathroom door, nothing was there.
I’m lying down, but not sleeping. I’m tired. I’m waiting for my mother to wake me up. This time of year we harvest the last peaches. Days are shorter so it’s hard work. We wake at six, we’re back at two, we eat, we sleep an hour, and then at five we’re in the field again to get there before dusk. The bedroom door creaks, steps, “Come on,” “It’s time.” I feel dirty. I have my period. I go to the bathroom to get a pad. My parents drink their coffee outside in the garden. I hear them. Grandmother’s at the doctor’s, and they’re talking about whether they should take the baby. “What about the dogs?” My mother says. “Don’t be silly,” my father cuts her off. Ten minutes later I’m crouching between the crates in the cart. Manolis is up front holding a light blue rattle. That’s the name we’ve chosen for his baptism.
There are a hundred and twenty peach trees. In a rectangle. It’s almost an acre. In the middle stands a huge electric pole, the wires disappearing in the distance behind our wall touching down at the edges of the field. Like a mast. The wires are the sails. The field is the ship. When we’re out late and night falls, I think of us sailing silently across the dark plains. I stare at the lights of the town across the way at the foot of the mountain, as if it was our destination.
Father’s in a hurry. He fills up the boxes quickly and I drag them two by two. In the distance we hear barking. I wonder if it’s Later’s dogs. Later is the nickname for Markos who had a bakery in the square. Everyone called him that because when an hour had passed and still no coffee—well, you know what he said. The year before last he retired and got himself a cabin on the plain. He took along five or six sheep dogs as guards. He was sure he’d get robbed. The truth is, everyone forgot about him. He died in February, from the cold, and ever since then the dogs had gone without food. They were wild dogs skirting the fields to look for something to eat. One day in early July, at noon, they’d bit an old man who was watering his plants. That’s why Mother was worried.
The bench is covered in peaches, but Mother’s got her arms folded.
“Yiorgo,” she says, “we used up the crates.”
“I told you, didn’t I? I said make sure”
“There’s so much fruit. We need two more.”
A last drag on his cig and Father throws the butt into some nettles.
“Get up,” he says, “let’s go look in the store room.”
Before they get into the truck, my mother says:
“Eleni, watch the baby. We’ll be back in quarter of an hour.”
They leave. The sun setting.
Manolis rolls around in his playpen. I lean over him. “What’s it to you, kid?” I ask in a baby voice. I put out my fingers, and he grabs with his fists. I lift him up so he dangles there, his legs swinging in the air. “What’s it to you, kid?” I say again. “Ah goo,” he answers. Night falls. As I put him back on his pillows, I see a red line trickling down my leg. “Don’t go anywhere,” I say tickling him under his chin, “I’ll be right back.” He gurgles.
I get a pad from my jacket and climb up behind the pylon. I duck inside the metal base. I stare at the evening star on the horizon. A cool breeze. Summer’s over. I wipe myself and change while I stare at the sky. I want to go home, put on clean clothes, go out for ice cream. Then I hear the growling, and I turn my head. Three bony dogs run by, then Manolis shrieks, more barking. All I remember is how the dogs’ eyes—I swear, Officer, sir,—reflected the lights of the town across the way.
We call our department the Living Room. Because you can’t let the pig die like that: by the cleaver. When you weigh it, it knows. It gets anxious, squeals. It suffers. As if you were killing a human. But that’s not the reason the vets outlaw knives. It’s because the pig secretes toxins when it’s afraid. You can’t eat the meat afterwards. It’s poison.
The trucks come twice a week. We lower the animals onto the grass and bring them corn and soy feed. We leave them for a day to get used to the place. The next day we take them one by one for walks around the farm. They relax and roll around in the dirt. The next morning, when they lean over the trough to eat, an electric shock and die instantly. Then we gather up the bodies and take them to the building next door. That’s where our co-workers take over. Where they do the skinning and the butchering. I don’t see it. I work in the Living Room. My job is to make the pigs forget until they get the electric shock.
One Monday the driver came with a near empty cart. “Don’t ask,” he said, “the pig farm caught fire.” He lit a cigarette: “Smelled like bacon for miles.” The guys laughed. “This is all I managed to round up. There’s another pig farm three hours away. That’s where we’ll get them from now on.” We started unloading the pigs. About twenty of them. “But first the guys in charge have to agree. I’ll come with another load in ten days.”
He drove off, and we rolled up our sleeves. We herded the pigs into a corner. Among them were some little ones. They stood there sniffling. We put them out to graze by the fence. The boss called us over. He said we should keep the animals til the next lot came. Since that would take awhile, the guys in the next building asked for time off. I looked at the pigs. Lucky bastards: ten extra days.
That same afternoon the foreman got us together. Anyone from the Living Room could leave too if they wanted. Almost everyone took off. I didn’t have anywhere to go. In the end just two of us were left. We’d stay for the ten days and then take our vacation afterwards. The pigs loafed around. After the second day they were completely at home. We didn’t do anything. Just filled the troughs with corn and changed the water. My co-worker watched soccer matches half the day. He’d stocked a small fridge with beers. He drank and channel-surfed. I had found a bench and sat outside. They were beautiful days, sunny with a little breeze and the mountain across the way, green like a giant mint. I looked through a book. My nephew’s. I had found it in my jacket. Khaki-colored. He’d borrow it sometimes. And whenever he returned it, he’d stick a book in the pocket. On the cover it said The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. The sun shone. Over on the side the piglets were playing, rough housing. I’d go in with a tray of slosh and they’d whoosh in like pigeons in the square. By the fourth day I could tell them apart. My co-worker didn’t do a thing. I was the one taking care of the animals. We’d go for walks, me in front, them pushing up from behind. Like a school field trip.
One evening I put them in their pen to sleep. One little pig wouldn’t go in. It was looking at me. Its nostrils all damp. I grabbed it and put it in. The next morning it wouldn’t come out. I fed the rest and left them to run around. I went in and stood in front of it. It was a girl. One black eye and one blue.
“What’s up with you?” I asked “You don’t want a walk?” I stretched out my hand. “Come on.”
It came up to me, put its snout in my palm, and licked. It was small, just a few months old. I patted it. And then I decided to give it a name. It seemed natural. “How about Maria?” I said. It looked at me and oinked. We went out into the sun. I sat on the bench and opened my book. You’d think it was Sunday in the park. We’d given the pigs a ball. It was hollow inside, and we filled it with wheat. It had holes in it, so when the pigs rolled it, the seeds fell out. They’d trundle it from side to side and then go crazy eating the spilled food. They had two more days to live. Next to me Maria was curled up like a big pink cat.
The following evening I tossed and turned in bed. I thought about the animals that had passed through my hands. I’d carried thousands of corpses to the slaughterhouse. It never crossed my mind I could’ve saved any of them. The bottom line, I’d say, is that they died calm. Two days of food and games and then in a flash: the end.
But around three I woke, my heart racing. All around me a yellow light shone, the color of kasseri cheese. I pulled back the curtain. It wasn’t a full moon, but it was so big that it looked like a pumpkin hanging in the window. On the other side my co-worker was out cold, snoring. I threw off the sheet. I took the keys to the gate and filled a rucksack with beers. I went down to the pig hut. They were all asleep. Except one. I opened the latch, and Maria came out. I closed it, and we set off.
The farm had two entrances. One went to the highway where the deliveries came in. The other to the mountain. We climbed for an hour till we found a clearing. In the distance the city glimmered. Peace on earth. My gaze followed the Milky Way. Maria lay down at my feet. Centuries ago, millennia, her wild boar forefathers with their coarse hair would hunt at night and kill hermits and travellers in mountains like these. I patted her head. I opened a beer. I took out my book. I got up and put my foot on a rock. The pumpkin moon lit me up like a spotlight. I read loudly:
With them the Seed of Wisdom did I sow,
And with my own hand labour’d it to grow
Ah, my Beloved, fill the Cup that clears
TO-DAY of past Regrets and future Fears---
I went back and opened another beer. Maria’s eyes were wide open all night, staring at the horizon. When the beers were gone the sun rose from behind the mountain across the way. I got up and began to walk down. Maria followed me.
For the Greek Language © by Giannis Palavos and NEFELI publishing, Athens.