DEAD ALMOND BRANCHES
Kostis had been cutting down dead almond branches for two days. It made me nervous to watch him, lodged high in a tree, calculating which branch to saw off.
The village was in shadow. From where we sat at the café, on blue-painted chairs, we could see how the house on the farthest point was lit by the day's last rays of sun.
The partridges cooed in their cage, a turquoise wood frame hung with wire netting. Claws tapped non-stop on the metal bottom, and it was she who sang that little scale, five notes up, a pause, and then again. He tapped.
The men were discussing a goat whose kid had died inside her. I'd seen the truck racing away from the village early in the morning, and the upright goat with a bloody backside. It took the vet an hour to pull out the dead kid, and they weren't sure if the mother would make it.
Someone left Easter eggs, chocolate ones with hazelnut cream and something that crunched, in different places around the house. Eventually, ants led us to each and every one.
The young man leaned back in his chair, yawned, stretched, then stood up abruptly shouting "dislocated shoulder!" He moved it around a couple of times until it went back into the socket. This happened while they were discussing a story detailing the eruption of pain in a life. Several of them were enunciating that word, "pain," at the exact moment they watched it crest on his face.
The boy popped the pill he said tasted like bubble gum into his mouth and swallowed it down with nothing but his own saliva.
It was a great relief when, over cappucino (hers decaf) and the tiny Illy chocolates wrapped so neatly in silver foil-like paper, she said: I think I know who you are. I've met your father. Isn't he the one who? And I said, yes. You've met him. This sealed something between us.
There's something that happens when, scared stiff, you go up to the person who's mourning and touch her. You feel redeemed, knowing that fondling a million excuses, you almost didn't do it.
Isn't packing a preparation for burial?
She weighed gains, losses. Added columns of figures. Couldn't stop talking about it. Figured the lack of secrecy secured anorectic illegitimacy.
Noisy children who need to hear their own voices in order to know they're having fun. What is it they keep dropping? Dinosaurs? Teeth?
Baby food jars?
Their mothers' breasts?
Boys, what is it you were jealous of? Did you want to be girls, with tidal bodies nothing like your own?
Or were you aching for a man to take you into his heart and let you out again, fully male, with small bows in your hands, a quiver of arrows over your shoulders?
When she's finally in bed with him, his knee prodding her legs apart, she can't not say it: "Once I saw a line of shit in the crease of those khakis you used to wear."
He doesn't know what she's talking about. He can't even think of the possibilities because it's been too many months since his wife left for another continent and though he should be vulnerable or touchy, he's not. He just wants to get inside.
"I must have had diarrhea."
She thinks of the brown line. It had come through the fabric and he'd had no idea.
It was the thing that had stopped her from pursuing him but then she'd forgotten about it. He was tall, lanky, and handsome. Graying hair that used to be in a pony tail; she likes it better now, short. Blue-grey eyes that always show an awareness of irony, in a familiar, cheerful way.
She wonders at herself, having come all this distance in just a year. Once the thought of that line disgusted her; now she can call it up and make it go away at will. And without it, things are dreamy, getting dreamier. She lets him open her legs.
It's only in the afternoon, right after the sun's gone behind the hills, that the lambs leave their mothers and really prance, throwing their legs up. They run in a pack, through the bramble and back again. They're clean because there's been no rain to muddy them these past two weeks; not one frisky lamb is older than fourteen days.
The olives come down into his warm, soft hands. He holds them like gold, doesn't want to let go. Lifts them back to the trees, pushes them a little. Take them back, old trees.
The good teacher is the one who can watch while the student shits in the wrong place, then waits patiently while the student cleans up.
She was the only one who ate their mother's tongue, slobbering it with ketchup. She loved the lick of it, rough on smooth.
Do nuns use their fingers to explore the orifices of their bodies? Do nuns even have fingers?
At first you think it's a flower, gold-embossed on glass. Upon closer examination, you see that the flower's inside the glass. You see it face on but you also see it as if through a mirror.
It's mid-May, the women are sampling each other's creams.
At noon, I said I'd never go back to that beach again, where the sand got in my teeth. But now, in the cool of evening, bird-chirp beyond the open window and the scent of May's roses, nostalgia sets in: I'll go back tomorrow, despite my burnt skin, the grit in my mouth.
The boys talk as they kill each other's men. You take him, I'll die. They martyr themselves. Anything to keep the game from ending.
Here, in the city, we covet the speed of all motor-driven vehicles, the jam-packed sidewalks, the slipperiness of the paving stones, the indifference of the drivers to pedestrians, the depth of the puddles. And there's more: gleaming shop windows.
We're partial to the bakeries where oddly-shaped pies and cookies tug at our hearts, and the clothing stores, especially those displaying dainty, almost fragile-looking underwear in all the best colors.
Yesterday's picnic was among the most successful ever. In the turrets of a castle, we ate five-year-old gruyere, wrinkled fat black olives cured to a salty tang, and crusty bread. For dessert there were palm-sized pies with a dollop of creamy anthotyro in the middle. Almost tart, almost sweet. A sprinkle of cinnamon takes your mind off the need to decide.
They called her in the middle of the afternoon saying that her brother had been hurt, she'd better get to the hospital. On her way, she kept telling herself: No matter how much blood you see, how much open flesh, you can stand it.
His foot was completely out of its socket and angled off to the side in an unnatural way. There was no blood. The room spin around, her skin went cold then hot so quickly she didn't know whether to throw clothes off or keep them on. Her arms flailed as she went down, then drew herself up, only to go down again. Then up. Not quite fainting, not exactly stalwart.
In Peloponnesian Mani, when a man is killed in a vendetta, the murderer is financially responsible for the dead man's wife and children until they come of age. At that time, it's the oldest son's job to kill his father's murderer. In this way, there are always fresh bodies to mourn.
Perhaps this is why the Maniote funeral dirge is particularly famous, at the very apex of cultural production.
How ironic it is that your American friend's husband arrives looking neat and dapper as an Englishman at the same corner cafe (once shaded by a vast plane tree, the proprietor tells you), on the same drizzly Tuesday morning on the first of April, in a provincial town in Europe. He arrives with a vastly fat woman and before they're seated (he doesn't see you, even when you wave) begins to analyze the demise of his marriage to your (absent) American friend.
His bearing is lordly. You try to stare at his eyes behind thick lenses and listen, appalled by the ease of his emotion. You leave five euros under a glass, gather your things (umbrella, newspaper) and walk away briskly, too embarrassed to look back.
They might have known it was the Russian nanny who'd been calling Bellorusse, making the phone bills go exorbitantly high. But while this nanny was stealthy, secretive and now, a cheat, the previous nannies had been worse.
After three months' work, each had pretended that her mother had died, moaning and carrying on into the receiver. When Tatyana received the call, the children ran to their mother with worried faces. Tatyana's crying! They said. And everyone gathered round her, too afraid to speak. By the time Natasha put on her own act, less than six months later, the children's mother knew to act nonchalant. By then, she had a line: We've all got a mother.
The traffic, that afternoon, was heavy.
First the three women with the exact same shade of orange hair. Late afternoons, they walk to digest lunch and make room for the evening meal.
Then, past the bullet-riddled village sign came bow-legged Agapi, walking along with a taller, straighter younger woman. The women almost remembered her, the daughter who'd left for America years before. Coming upon Agapi and her daughter, each of the orange-haired women offered her name.
The daughter tilted her head, trying to remember. A little bit, maybe, she said, to one of them. The others she'd forgotten long before. It ‘d been too many years.
Mother and daughter walked toward their fields, looking for a certain kind of flower. The chickens, already fed, ran toward them. Agapi's husband was there, collecting grape leaves.
By then, the source of light had disappeared but there was an accentuated clarity to the tall green grasses, the poppies, and the chamomile down the center of the dirt road. Passing Kostis' naked almond trees, you could still smell the morning's bonfire.
With real things I am merciless, giving or throwing away stuff that's been mine for months or years, satisfied despite the sting of sadness that can accompany such abandonment. It's the other things I hoard: here's a small sample.