Melville House Publishing
Copyright © 2015 Sophia NikolaidouISBN: 978-1-61219-384-7
All rights reserved.
PEACEFUL, WITHOUT SHAME AND SUFFERING
"Every crook in Greece is in the government," the villager told the CBS correspondent.
At first this declaration sounded extreme, but the man spoke with no emotion at all, a fact that impressed the foreigner. Barefoot, filthy, dressed in rags. Scratches on his ankles, dried blood, bruises everywhere. A man who took life as it came and tried to make the most of it—or so he seemed to the American, who'd been raised on eggs and bacon, had studied at expensive schools, had seen plenty of poor people, though mostly in photographs. It was now his job to write about them, and he did so with compassion.
He hadn't intended to interview the villager, he'd been on his way to meet someone else, a man of power and status, he'd been told; a man with political credentials and strict party discipline; a man of action. Something suddenly compelled him to have the driver stop the car. The villager was watching from across the way. There wasn't a green leaf in sight, though in the outside world spring was bursting into feverish bloom. Here it smelled of ash and scorched earth;days later the odor still filled the visitors' nostrils.
The correspondent scanned the bare mountains. The interpreter feared a trap. Tricky times, an unsuspecting American who never thought of trouble, who trusted that life would treat him well. That trust had become a torment to the interpreter. Now, for instance, the man had decided they should stop here, on the edge of nowhere. My instincts are never wrong, he said—sharply, yet with the courtesy of a man who knows he'll get his way.
Not long after, the correspondent's photograph was published in the newspaper. After days in the water, his corpse had turned white.
The local authorities immediately realized what a mess they were in. An American—a CBS correspondent, no less—had been missing for ten days. A boatman found him in the waters of the Thermaic Gulf, fifty strokes from the White Tower. The boatman had seen dead men during the war, had buried bodies with his own hands, but he'd never seen a drowned man. The corpse floated serenely. The waves a caress, the clothes untouched, no trace of blood. A film of cuttlefish eggs over the dead man's eyes. They eat the eyes first, the boatman had heard older men say at the taverna, deep into drink.
Hands and feet loosely bound with marine rope, clothes that pegged the dead man as a foreigner. You'd never find a jacket like that in Salonica, sturdy fabric, cut and sewn with the attentiveness of a tailor who knew nothing of war, with lighthearted details, wasted fabric on the pockets. And the shirt open at the neck, What a shame, such a strong young man, the boatman thought, because the water had bleached the skin an arresting white. The sea had taken no pity on the man. They call her mother but she's a mean-hearted bitch. Youth means nothing to her.
The boatman threw a rope and towed the corpse to the port police. It seemed wrong to touch the head, so he left it in the waves and dragged the body by its bound feet. Then he grabbed it by the elbows and began to lift, a few boys helping from shore. The body was as heavy as a sack of stones.
The coroner carefully felt the skin around the wound, a bullet hole at the back of the head. The hair around it was scorched but there was no exit wound to be found. The bullet had, it appeared, exited directly through the victim's nose, It can happen, the coroner asserted with confidence, of course it can. The victim had dined on lobster and peas, he added once he had opened the body with a scalpel. Food unchewed, the victim must have been in a hurry. English food, hard to come by in this city, the authorities pronounced, jotting notes in their little books.
—An American, the Chief of Police muttered to himself. An American reporter. Just what we need.
He poured himself some ouzo. In a tin cup, no water, on a desk stacked with papers.
—We're in it pretty deep, he said, setting the cup down on the coroner's report.
Around that time some gypsies had stolen laundry off the Gris family's line. Manolis Gris, eldest son and young head of the household, immediately reported the theft. He wrote down each stolen item, as his mother had advised: his white shirt, missing its third button, which his mother hadn't had a chance to sew back on; two double sheets of white poplinwith tiny blue angels on the hem; another sheet, his favorite, cotton printed with orange flowers; three nightgowns; two slips; and six pairs of panties, pardon the word.
On Saturday, August 14, 1948, the day before the Assumption of the Virgin, Manolis Gris, thirty-eight years of age, reporter at the newspaper Balkans and assistant correspondent at the news agency Abroad, was waiting for the bus to Kalamaria, heading home after work. He was standing on Tsimiski at the Agia Sophia stop. He'd lit a cigarette.
A police officer came up to him, asked him to come down to the station. The officer was in plainclothes. He spoke politely, looked Gris in the eye.
Manolis asked if they had news about the theft of his laundry. The officer nodded.
It was twelve years before Manolis Gris made it home. His eyes were still chestnut brown, but his hair had turned gray.
He was fifty years old.CHAPTER 2
SCHOOL YEAR 2010-2011
YOUR SCHOOLS ILLUMINATE ONLY WHEN THEY BURN
My name is Minas and I don't want to go to university.
I DON'T WANT TO GO TO UNIVERSITY.
I stuck it on the door of my room. So they'd see it and finally stop asking.
I don't want a diploma in a frame.
I don't want memories from lecture halls.
I don't want former classmates.
And I don't have to prove anything to anyone.
All the kids at my school have lost it. They pretend not to care, but they've seriously lost it. Too much school rotted their brains. There's just no way you can memorize all the nationalist uprisings in southeastern Europe in chronological order and the casualty count for each and still have the brain of a normal person, Jesus.
They stuff their heads with useless information. They memorize the kinds of phrases that impress exam graders: in summation, moreover, nevertheless. The handouts and photocopies from their cram school classes have sample essays that all end in exactly the same way: in the critical era in which we live—pure, unadulterated bullshit. They drive themselves nuts just so they can score a fraction of a point higher. In class the other day, Soukiouroglou, who teaches history and language arts, asked us what the phrase "they impaled Athanasios Diakos" from our textbook meant. Not a single one of them had anything to say. Of course not, those kinds of details won't be on the exams. Soukiouroglou waited for a minute of total silence to go by. Then he told us about the practice of impalement. He used Dracula as an example, he played the opening scene from Coppola's movie on the projector. All the girls in the class thought it was gross. The only one who didn't close her eyes was Evelina Dinopoulou, little miss perfect, who's in charge of the attendance book. Soukiouroglou lingered on some truly disgusting details. He's amazing when it comes to things like that. Useless knowledge, sure, but if you ask me when I'm eighty, I bet I'll still remember that class.
Soukiouroglou isn't like the rest. He's in a category all by himself. The first-years hear about Soukiouroglou even before school officially starts, at the benediction ceremony. Until they take his class they're terrified of him. But once they've had him as a teacher they love him. At school he doesn't hang around with the other teachers. He never chaperones field trips, doesn't show up for graduation ceremonies or Carnival parties. He's always free during break. Hekeeps a running tally of how many times he's caught each student unprepared. Scary, but it works. They say the devil himself was his teacher—and one thing he learned well was how to petrify any parent, colleague, or student in seconds flat.
The devil has a name, Dad says, and his name is Asteriou. Dad knows everything that goes on in the city, it's his job. He's a career reporter. He's told me the story about Souk and his dissertation advisor, Asteriou, but of course I can't remember. Too many painful details, like notes from grammar class. An academic dispute, someone betrayed someone else, who took some kind of revenge, until the whole thing was one huge mess. Pretty classic. The important thing is that Soukiouroglou blew his chance at a university career and ended up teaching us at the high school. Or something like that. It's the kind of story that would only interest Dad and his friends.
Two days ago Mom came to school for a parent-teacher conference. Soukiouroglou met with her in the teachers' office. Our Latin teacher needed someone to make photocopies for our class during the break, so I offered. Evelina made some snarky comment about it being the first time I'd ever done something for the "common good." When it comes to the success and well-being of my dearly beloved fellow students, I replied, there's no sacrifice I'm unwilling to make.
The copy machine is right outside the door to the teachers' office, but I still couldn't hear what they were saying. But Soukiouroglou asked me to come see him during the next break. One thing I'll say about Souk, he's got style. He doesn't play good cop. He doesn't even pretend to like us kids. And he doesn't try to turn you into a replica of himself. Which is pretty rare for someone who spends his days at a high school.
—Your mom came to see me. I told her you don't study.
I fixed my eyes on the floor.
—I also told her that your grade in my class is still fairly respectable, thanks to the outside reading you do, even if the knowledge you bring in is often chaotic and disordered. But I don't think you'd do well on the exams. She informed me of your decision not to take them.
—Your mother objects, but right now that's not our concern. Can you tell me why you've given up on trying to get into university?
—I just don't want to go through all that, I answered with as much indifference as I could muster.
—You mean you can't handle it.
—I'd rather jump off a balcony.
—Fine, he said, and turned to leave.
Days passed. Then, on Thursday morning, Soukiouroglou asked to see me again during third break, the long one that lasts a whole fifteen minutes. I felt like I was standing in a circle of snakes. I found him in the schoolyard, by the basketball hoop. He was surveying the passes, the dribbling, the three-pointers. He was bored and it showed. He nodded me over to where the others wouldn't hear.
—Do you like our book? he asked.
I must have been staring at him like an idiot, because he did that thing he does with his eyes when he's trying to keep himself from crushing someone.
—The book for our history class, he clarified.
—Well? Do you like it? he repeated the question.
—Am I supposed to? I asked.
With Souk you never know what the right answer is. It works well for him when he's teaching, but outside of class it's too much.
—Do you understand it? he asked.
—I don't know, I usually can't follow the thread from one sentence to the next. There's no way I could memorize a whole paragraph, much less the entire book, which I'd have to do for the exams.
—It's not the most elegant text, Souk agreed, nodding.
I decided not to tell him about the hand. Every time I open the stupid book, a huge white hand appears and passes in front of my eyes. Within seconds it wipes away whatever I've just read.
—Listen, Georgiou, Souk went on. Since you're not really interested in taking your exams this year, I've gotanother suggestion. Forget the book. Would you like to do some actual historical research?
Only Souk could come out with the craziest idea as if it were perfectly normal.
—There's a case, well, there are lots of cases, but there's one in particular I think might suit your temperament. I propose you research it. I'll give you whatever guidance you need in terms of bibliography. You'll work on it for the rest of the quarter, and then present your findings at the end of February in front of an audience of teachers and fellow students. Your grade in my class will depend entirely on this project. In other countries, students are introduced to basic research methodology during the last two years of high school. They go to libraries, look at primary sources, learn how to cite scholarly works. They cultivate their own views. If we lived in Australia, you wouldn't be staring at me right now as if I were an alien.
The bell rang. Souk told me to think it over. If I kept a diary, this day's entry would read: Thursday, November 5, 2010. There is a god. His name is Souk and he works at our school.
I used to be an excellent student. Used to as in up until last year. Mom was always boasting. Dad teased me about my pansy grades, but he still photocopied my report cards to show to his colleagues at the newspaper. A row of perfect, sparkling twenties, every time.
Their blood froze when I told them about cram school.
—You're wasting your money. You might as well hold onto it and give it to me at the end of the year, when I'll really need it.
—What for? Mom asked, completely baffled.
—Mom, ever since I was born you've been saving up to send me to university. Did it ever occur to you that I might not want to go?
From the look on her face, you'd think I'd just told her I only had two days to live.
—And what are you going to be, Minas? A plumber?
I could see her counting the seconds backwards in her head, the way her shrink taught her to. Her face was bright red.
—You mean I'm only allowed to become a lawyer or a teacher? Those are the only jobs that count?
I won't bore you with the whole conversation. In the end she lost it and called Dad. She said she didn't want to do something she might regret.
That night I heard her crying in the bedroom through the closed door.
At our house education is everything. There are bookshelves in every room with books lined up two rows deep. Both my parents studied literature. They met at university. Dad became a reporter. He's always complaining about the long hours and how he can't ever just turn off his cell phone. But when he's not at the newspaper, he paces like a beast in a cage. His mind is moving twenty-four seven, and always in the same direction. News is his sickness. For him reporting is serious business. To be a reporter means to be out walking the beat all the time, eyes and ears peeled. You have to know who to talk to and what kind of information you're looking for. I mean, sure, he has a pretty high regard for journalists who write features and stuff, too. But for him, they're a different breed. They don't have to deal with the pressure and intensity of the quick turnaround, the day-to-day, they have more time to digest what they're writing. They're not out there in the trenches with the real reporters.
Mom comes from a long line of literature majors and teachers, and she's proud of it. Her uncles and cousins all studied literature, and most of them are teachers. It's in her genes, she says, since her mother studied literature, too.
Grandma Evthalia is an old-school philologist. In her day the School of Philosophy accepted very few students, all of them top-notch. The girls who got in were the cream of the crop—rich or poor, they all knew their stuff. GrandmaEvthalia speaks in proverbs, ancient Greek sayings and phrases from old schoolbooks. She reads Plato in the original, but she's crazy about John le Carré, too. She'll watch any thriller or police drama they're showing on TV. She lovesbeating the detective to the punch. She always calls out the murderer's name as soon as she figures it out, which Dad gets a kick out of, though it infuriates Mom.