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Irini

by Anne Germanacos


Time

That day dawned cool and white, a last brief reprieve. Shaking with nervousness, we weighted the car with suitcases and let my mother drive us to the airport. The plane touched ground when the sun was going down and by the time we got to his boarding school, it was dark and we’d driven through several separate areas of rain. The car was cool with air conditioning, and the heat, when we stepped onto the street, was a surprise. The hotel was stifling. We walked ourselves to the room at the back, the one we’d stayed in a year before to the day, exactly.

In the morning I went out for coffee and let him have some time to himself in the room. At school, even his shower is communal. When the church bell tolled the hour, I returned to the room, aware of the way the moment stretched out toward the same moment the year before, embracing yet distinguishing itself from that one.

“Okay. Time.”

“Already?”

The moment of separation sends a quiver of anxiety through me, even now.

His room at school that year was on the third floor. I let him carry most of the bags because he’s a strong young man and I’m a middle-aged woman. The building was a dump, but the boys were the latest to live there after nearly a century of use by generations of young men, and they were proud to inhabit it. He turned mute, inept, while I whirled around the small room, putting things away, giving him orders. A last call to busyness, to motherliness, before taking a step back. Under my breath I swore at him for his ineptitude: a relief.

When we said goodbye, it was raining hard, so it was just a quick hug and kiss. Then I was in the car, leaning against the black seat and he was walking back to his dorm—slowly, I noticed, not wanting to give up the moment, perhaps, or not wanting to appear perturbed by a little rain. Maybe both.

There were times during our summer together when I’d thought “How long until this is over, I can’t stand anticipating that moment!” The very next second I’d be overtaken with guilt. Before long, I was sitting on a plane, losing more than thirty minutes for every hour as I flew east.

 

You

You want it to be about them, as a kind of account, but also because it is your way of watching what happens in a case like this. And in the beginning, it looks like it is about them, their horrible shock, their inability to eat, their sorrow and the way it takes over their lives. You watch and let your observations form the basis of what you have to say, but at some point when you're not watching carefully enough, the whole procedure slides away to reveal that once again, it's about no one so much as yourself—even if their son was the one who died and their sorrow what you've been keeping an eye on, all these months.

 

Photographs

I think about looking through the drawers, squirrelling through in search of photographs of their older son, to give Aristides and Irini, who lost him less than two weeks ago.

One doesn't want to forget, yet one can't help forgetting in order to survive, to put one foot in front of the other and move into the future. Would they want pictures, if I could find any? And if they're old, two or three years ago, from a birthday party or a day the kids all gathered outside and I decided to take pictures, would they still want them? Would older pictures be more or less painful than recent pictures? I don't have any recent ones.

The boy was brought home in a white hearse—white because he was unmarried, not yet eighteen. I saw it from the porch and started walking quickly in order to arrive with the body, in order, I suppose, both not to miss anything and to provide something for the parents—presence.

His body in its white coffin was placed on the dining room table and it stayed there for six hours. People clutched at it, wailing. Then six or more strong men maneuvered it down the marble stairs, stairs we had passed as Aristides built them a couple of years ago. The rest of us, all in black, followed the coffin to the church and its burial in the graveyard. The parents and grandparents, the boy’s younger brother, returned to an empty house and a blank table. Outside, the street was littered with cigarette butts and the petals of flowers, mostly geraniums and carnations.

Into the emptiness, already too busy sometimes with the need to cook and clean and keep going, would photographs of their lost loved boy be anything good at all?

I talk with them all day long, thoughts I’d never dare speak aloud. I want to make each of them aficionados of something strange and wonderful: for Irini, classical music, the amazing reach of Renee Fleming’s voice singing Mozart. For Aristides, fine Indian tea, black tea that would obsess him and make him turn up his nose at the small cups of boiled Greek coffee.

They’re at the very edge of the living world, crossing daily to spend time with their dead son at his grave. Aristides keeps losing weight, unable to put food in his mouth. A good strong tea, something subtle, wouldn't nourish, but it would be a way of teaching his mouth to re-learn the fact of taste. Irini could lose and find herself in the beauty that would remind her of her handsome lost son.

Daily, my husband and I walk to the village and, in their front yard, sit beside them on wooden chairs.

 

Counting

In situations like this one, I don’t know if a person can count time—hours, days. There was the night of the accident itself, Holy Thursday, when in the liturgy Jesus is nailed to the cross, and as one stands in the church, the sound of hammering comes hard and loud. After we heard about the accident, we waited for the cars to return from town and followed them to the village. That night, without the body, the emptiness was strange, as if mourning couldn't begin without the physical evidence of loss. I could not stop trembling; I felt terribly out of place, aghast that I was unable to do what a friend and neighbor is supposed to do in such situations. I stood mute and dumb, but inside my body, warm.

The next day was different: the whole village was there, and all the relatives, and people from surrounding villages. There might have been three thousand or more. The traffic in our one-lane village was horrendous, but people were calm in their somberness. It was the tourists, driving noisy mopeds and gold cars, magenta cars, colors so out of place we could only stare, who got mixed up in the mourning like strange unwanted threads in a weaving. But they were human, too, and though most of them seemed not to know what was taking place, I saw one or two gaze with a kind of sorrow, the kind one may feel far away from home.

That day the area surrounding the Platsakis’ small, poor house was a sea of people, a dark sea, a muted wash, with its own wave pattern, its own high-pitched groan and the solemn crash afterward. The boys from his school, really no longer boys but young men, as he had been, wore the darkest clothes they could find in their drawers—jeans, for most of them, and jean jackets. They took the stairs solemnly, in a line, without jostling or words. Not one of them smoked. The simple white marble stairs led to the small, dark dining room where, on the wooden table, their former schoolmate was laid out in a casket. Incense penetrated their nostrils. The scent of flowers was faint. The boy, their friend, was covered in flowers, his face yellow and waxy.

When the boy’s uncle first beheld that transformed face, the man screamed and started to faint. He was a big man, tall and wide, more than sixty years old, so the other men had to hold him up, exerting muscle, and carry him out to the small porch where there was more air, almost fresh, and the light of day. The women came with glasses of water and threw them, full, onto his face and across his chest. The strongest smell was that of fear, sweat not just from the armpits but from the palms, the small of the back, behind the ears.

That day one almost floated on the sea of people, yet at the same time one was entirely alone with sadness and shock. At points one offered up tears to the crowd, to the parents of the boy, his brother, his grandparents, and to the air itself. Then the air became almost caressing, smooth, a horrible lullaby.

That was the second day. Then, once he was buried, there were the long days of sitting on plain wooden chairs outside, with the family. This was a fearful place to approach, but something drew me, so the decision to go daily was a compulsion, the only possible way to incorporate each day’s nightmares. For they came all day long, harder than anything at night. I couldn’t help imagining the worst—my own boys, particularly the one who’d been the dead boy’s friend. Such thoughts and images were the most potent stimulus to emotion—I mourned the boy, felt so sorry for his parents that I could hardly look at them, and went into paroxysms of childlike shyness around them; but the essential thing was the loss itself, and I, for the moment, had been spared that. A strange logic of emotion: a shriek that tore through me at the thought of losing my boys, and almost beside it something else, not at all proud: gratitude.

There was a third day, a fourth, a fifth; then the days ran together and it was past Easter, the weather warmed, and we swam for the first time that year, but shyly, knowing it was a form of pleasure Aristides and Irini wouldn’t indulge in. Aristides wouldn’t eat any form of meat or fish, just greens and potatoes, until he’d lost thirty pounds. He aged quickly, many years’ worth of wrinkles marked his skin; as the months went by, his face grew less and less visible, surrounded as it was by a curly beard and uncut hair. But more time passed and we noticed slight changes, a smile here or there; even, occasionally, laughter. That must have been when I stopped counting.

 

Explanation

When our boy first left for school, he called three or four times a week, wanting to be there, at school, but also wanting to be home. He was homesick for us—his parents, his house, his friends in the village. He wanted to know about Kyriakos, and when I told him Aristides had bought his son a motorcycle, our boy said, But I don't want him to die.

I remembered those words much later, having kept them in mind, murkily, and at a certain depth. But they were always there, waiting.

 

Last Encounter

The last time I saw him was on that very dangerous curve, the one that comes just after the monastery and before the long upward drive toward the village. The monks won’t allow the rock to be cut away, so it juts into the road. Two lanes suddenly become one, necessitating a slick and cautious maneuver. For several seconds, feelings of helplessness come together with a crazy fatalistic hope. Some people honk—I do, madly.

The last time I saw Kyriakos was on that turn. I honked, Aristides didn’t. It’s only because he was driving slowly that we didn’t crash. Usually, passing, we’d smile or acknowledge one another in some way, dipping our heads a bit, but that day we didn’t. I was angry to have met them like that, father and son in a big Toyota truck, coming at me without a hint. If he’d been driving a little faster, the only place for me to go would have been straight into them or over the side of the cliff.

It’s a beautiful view from that point, fifty feet above sea level, with craggy orange rocks piled above to the left and the indigo sea to the right. We stared at each other, and I thought, asshole, and a day or so later his son was dead, and I thought I had killed him.

 

Nekrodeipnon

At the nekrodeipnon, the meal for the dead, each person was given a plate holding a single large, flattish fish baked in olive oil, tomato, and okra. Each plate looked as if it had been prepared with great care: the fish waited patiently to be eaten in helpless love for the young man whose life had been cut short so swiftly and violently. There were summer greens in oil and lemon, homemade white cheese, cuttlefish with green olives and dill, and crusty bread. When someone commented on the quality of the wine, Yakovo murmured that it was the wine Aristides had been saving for Kyriakos' wedding.

 

Black Clothes

Even now, almost six months after watching the long train of cars while following the hearse on a parallel road, by foot, wanting to get there in time to see their faces—even now, after countless visits during which we'd sit, sometimes side by side, often in silence, I still can't face her, still can't think of anything to say; everything that comes out of my mouth still seems awkward. Before her son was killed, we rarely spoke. She was the mother of my son’s friend.

At the annual grape harvest that has no date but comes once a year, Irini wore black, as she will always. Her clothes were new, shiny and formal. Aristides’ black shirt had been torn in several places and mended with black thread. He was filling up feta tins with grape must and carrying them to the truck. Everyone in Greece keeps a set of black clothing for formal occasions; now, the family has black clothes that are for working in—casual black—as well as the usual formal ones.

 

Truck

The truck pulled up before sunset and stopped an argument between my sons that wouldn’t have been stopped by anything less forceful and extraordinary than Aristides’ black clothing and black-bearded face. The older son went straight to his room.

It was the first time that Aristides and our younger son had encountered one another since Kyriakos’ death. They embraced one another wordlessly; both of them cried. That trembling overtook me.

We offered apple juice to the black-clad figure, and a large bowl of dark, very succulent cherries. Irini still hadn’t gone farther from the house than the graveyard which is no more than a hundred yards from her front door. Our son Agamemnon was silent, and Aristides kept his gaze toward the sea, which rendered the boy invisible. I don’t know if it was the only way he could stop his tears, or if there was some anger that attached to the boy: Why my boy, why not you?

When they all left, our older boy emerged from his room—a room he hasn't spent much time in when all the stray weeks are added up. He wanted to know if anyone had cried, the amount of tears that had flowed, what had been said between the mourning father and our younger son. His eagerness was palpable.

 

Pork

Aristides forked the pieces of pork from the grill onto a platter, one by one, until there were two big piles. For five months after his son was killed, he ate only greens and rice, lost close to thirty pounds, and started having dizzy spells. By then he was so far in debt—for the marble grave and the priests at the funeral—that he had to take work with his cousin, a builder. His ironmongery wasn’t making enough, but he couldn’t go out under the scorching sun—sometimes a-hundred-and-five in the middle of the day, all summer long—and labor without eating properly. So, of necessity, he started with a little fish, then moved on to chicken, just white meat. Then, after a stubborn pause, he took his first bites of red meat, all the time cursing himself but knowing his body needed the nourishment.

It was the meat that put him back into the world.

Irini was in the little basement kitchen frying potatoes; her mother-in-law, Petroula, was cutting tomatoes and cucumber for the salad. I asked if I could help, but there was nothing to do, so I went outside and stood awkwardly, letting the smoke chase me from place to place. Finally, the table was ready, ten plates, each with a few pieces of pork, and a small mound of fried potatoes. There were salads in the middle, and two bowls of bright green olives.

The tenth plate was supposed to be for Petroula’s brother. They called to him at the cafeneion across the way but he had already eaten for the evening. The whole time we sat there, I couldn’t help thinking the extra plate was Kyriakos’. Eventually Petroula divided its contents among the men.

 

Fruit

In the small garden surrounding the church abutting the cemetery, there are two pomegranate trees, both heavy with ripe fruit. Whenever we pass, my husband says, let’s grab some of those, but we continue on, thinking that the village kids will climb the trees and harvest them. I don't understand why no one collects the fruit; eventually, it falls to the ground and rots.

 

Discus

The day the discus came at him from out of the blue, hitting him in the head, above and below his eye, he told me later he knew for sure, with absolute certainty, that one day he would have a girlfriend. It wasn’t when he put his hand to his forehead and felt bone but later, once they’d transported all hundred and ninety pounds of him in a golf cart to the Emergency Room across the road.

Agamemnon’s coach held his hand. His parents were far away, on the other side of the world, and he let his coach, a woman, hold his hand as they stuck a needle into his head. The cheerful young doctor took tiny stitches, he told him—the absolutely tiniest so that he’d have a scar, yes, to impress the girls, but nothing that would mar his beauty. For once, he told me later, he didn’t think the world was kidding him, about his beauty. He took it seriously, for that moment, and then he was able to believe that a girl would love him. And possibly soon.

 

Today

The nurses are chatty on the phone, not overly so but friendly because they know I’m far away, unimaginably far away, though anything, I suppose, can be imagined if you try hard enough. Yesterday they stuck needles into his eye, the right one, and though I know they numbed the eye first, there must be some kind of reaction, fear, even if it doesn’t actually hurt to feel the needle you see going in.

When they called me from the doctor’s office, I started shaking and didn’t stop until I got in bed next to the warm body of my husband. Even then, after talking to my boy, it took me a long time to get to sleep.

Three days ago I was pulling out of the dirt road onto the main road. This requires coming to a complete standstill, looking both ways, one of which is almost entirely blocked by a very straight line of olive trees and a large carob tree, then taking a chance, putting the car into first and stepping on the gas. Just as I hit the tarmac, a truck came into view on my left, and there was nothing I could do but watch—time did slow down—as the truck braked, then hit the front of my car.

The man driving the truck sells us electrical equipment, the only store of its kind out here. Some of the equipment he sells is faulty. He was on his way to the memorial service that we’d departed from an hour earlier; that’s how badly he was speeding. I was at fault, though, because the driver on the main road always has the right of way. He could have been going sixty on a one-lane road, he could have killed me, but it would have been my fault.

The memorial service was for Kyriakos, who would have turned nineteen today. It was the first perfectly sunny day we’d had all year, absolutely blue sky, not a single cloud, no wind. I think of how he was killed on Holy Thursday, the day of Jesus’ crucifixion. Just before we found out about the boy, we had heard that pounding against wood: the reenactment of the crucifixion that takes place in all the churches, after which rose petals are poured from on high and everyone goes home. Even unbelievers feel sad about that death; the churches make it dramatic, which is why people keep going, year after year, even if they wouldn’t set foot in a church at any other time. Plus, they want to show off their new clothes. Some of the girls wear miniskirts and show their bellies—unthinkable in the old days. Pure drama now, with a touch of religion, like the lemon twist on a decent Scotch.

 

Anne Germanacos completed her MFA in fiction at Bennington College in 2003. She has had work published in Emrys, Folio, and the Paterson Literary Review. She lies in San Francisco and on Crete, where she directs the Ithaka Cultural Studies program. (8/2003).


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