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Words Without Borders "stands as a monument to international collaboration and a shared belief in artistic possibility." — 2018 Whiting Literary Magazine Prize Citation
from the March 2009 issue

From “Suit in the Soil”

The cab driver was in the mood for conversation, but his passenger wasn't. So the tape deck came on and Angela Dimitriou started work at seven-thirty in the morning.

Side by side in a silver twin frame on the dashboard, the singer and the Virgin Mary kept the driver company. He was a thirtyish, scrawny man with a huge mustache and big brown eyes, a frappé in a special holder, and a well-cared-for car with good tires that was now leaving the olive groves behind, climbing the switchbacks up into the mountains.

When they reached the Krapi Plateau the driver asked if he could pull over to take a leak, since, as he soberly confessed, he had made a vow that he would stop here whenever a ride brought him to these parts.

He zipped up his pants, washed his hands in the spring-fed basin, glanced toward the solitary little church of St. John the Baptist, crossed himself and, sprightly and refreshed, walked back to the car.

—Go fuck yourself, he told his cell phone, switching it off. This place demanded quiet.

His passenger had gotten out and was sitting on a rock, talking to himself and wiping sweat from his face and neck with a handkerchief.

The taxi moved forward and the plateau moved backward as they zigzagged up the switchbacks, and the passenger, glued to the open window, one hand shading his eyes, gazed up at an eagle, the only dark thing moving in this endless grayness, mountains without a spot of green, sky without a spot of blue.

* *

It was Friday, July 24, 1998, and Kyriakos Roussias was returning to his village for the first time in twenty-eight years.

Amid the throngs of travelers at Dulles Airport in D.C. he'd heard a man shouting in Greek, Hurry up, fool, and though the man was obviously talking to someone else, Roussias took it to heart, and, almost without a second thought, changed his ticket on the spot—and now here he was in the White Mountains of western Crete with a suitcase and a briefcase full of papers, pamphlets, floppy disks and a list of addresses in Japan.

* *

The first Sfakian he saw—utterly un-Japanese, six feet tall in Cretan boots, old and lean—had scrambled up onto a rock in the middle of nowhere and was pruning it with shears, or so it seemed to Roussias, since there wasn't a bush or shrub in sight.

The cab driver made a stop in Xilodema, though he hadn't vowed to urinate there.

—You should get out and look down at the Askifos plain. You're a foreigner, right?

—That remains to be seen.

—If you're gone long enough, the ties get broken.

—I'm on vacation.

—In that case you'd have rented a place by the sea.

Roussias got out and was almost blown away. The wind here was entirely different, arrogant, untouchable.

Below, surrounded by rocky masses, stretched three square miles of flat land, shorn yellow fields, plowed red fields, and fertilized black ones, dotted with clusters of homes, tiny villages, all exactly the same or completely different—that, too, remained to be seen.

Back in the car, past a series of plateaus and sheer drops to sandy coves, cliffs falling like frilly gray skirts to the shore.

There are some roads that turn this way and that, refusing ever to arrive.

The afternoon heat hit them hard as they reached the small Pagomeno Plateau where two settlements, Haromouri and Gouri, lay nestled together, with Kamena across the way.

The Pagomeno Plateau, elevation three thousand feet, population four hundred and fifty. At ninety-six in the shade, heat rising in trembling waves from the ground, it seemed at first glance like a mirage.

—Stop here, please, Roussias said, but though the car stopped his gaze ran on, scanning the next two hundred yards of road: shops and houses, their doors all painted the same cabbage green. Apart from those scattered spots of color, it was all gray walls and ruins, the buildings blending in with the rocks; almost none of the houses here had been whitewashed.

In the distance, half a mile down the dirt road, he saw a slice of his ancestral home, the rest hidden behind the old, familiar pine.

He told the driver where to go, leaned back into the seat as if trying not to be seen, and closed his eyes. Not everything all at once, he thought.

—Angela, amazing Angela, the young driver sang, turning up the volume just a bit. He was obviously enjoying this drive; there was something mysterious about the guy in the back seat, whom he now watched in the rearview mirror wiping away the tears that ran from his closed eyes, drying his cheeks with his palms.

—By the pine tree.

The driver parked in the shade of the tree, glanced at it, then pulled his passenger's suitcase from the trunk as Roussias burrowed into his wallet.

—Here, he said, handing the young man a wad of dollars.

—Take my card. Nektarios Patsoumadakis. I know Crete like I know my own wife. I could drive those switchbacks with my eyes closed. Whenever you need me, give a call and I'm there.

As he headed for the bend he shouted back through the open window,—As long as you like Angela, the rest is no problem, then waved and shot off.

Roussias stomped his feet hard on the ground, on the dry earth in front of his house. He looked at the three stone steps, then stomped on them, too, several times, and then on the cement in the yard, tramping each step repeatedly to make himself believe:—I'm here, he turned and winked at the pine, I'm really here.

The door was painted that same cabbage green, as it always had been. It was closed, the key in the lock, not a soul in sight.

He felt he had no right to go in. He turned and saw a stone plinth nestled among five old tins of vegetable oil that now served as planters for marigolds. He sat down. Hard work, finding a forgotten place, he thought. Hard work, people known and unknown, places that say one thing but keep others to themselves, little things from the past that bubble to the surface one at a time—and the first was this plinth, hot from the sun, quickly warming the seat of his pants.

When Roussias was a kid, after the afternoon meal his father would go out into the backyard, belch, turn this very same plinth upright, sit down, roll up his pant legs to let the sun hit his knees and lose himself in his thoughts. He paid no heed to the hens pecking at the sesame seeds that fell when Antigoni, Roussias's oldest sister, shook out the tablecloth in the yard.

He remembered silences, not conversations. His parents had never talked much: he didn't want to give her a reason to complain, and she didn't want to feed his wild rage. They didn't trust words, they were afraid of losing control, as if some false note might sound and set their tempers aflame—or his, at any rate; she only ever expressed anger toward others. In her dealings with her husband she was always the firefighter, at least in front of the children.

Roussias was about to come face to face with people who weren't expecting him. He closed his eyes and let his ears take over, absorbing the cawing of birds, the tinkling of bells from unseen flocks, sudden gusts of wind that broke like sea squalls against the mountains. Eyes closed, he listened to that same familiar hum: the sound of the Pagomeno Plateau.

* *

—Jeez, a suitcase that says U.S.A. Arr gou turist?

Beside Roussias stood a young girl who made no effort to brush the Sfakian accent off her English. He pretended to be asleep so as to hear that refreshing voice again: Mister, gouat iz gour neim, mai neim iz Metaxio.

His niece.

He opened his eyes. They had stopped sending him photographs, they knew that instead of framing them he stuffed them into drawers full of promotional pamphlets for laboratory equipment and the medical records of strangers. So what he remembered was an ungainly, tanned little ferret of a girl, bored among the adults in a sweet shop in Aigaleo, an Athens suburb, four or five years ago. Before him now stood an unstoppered thirteen-year-old with silky eyes, thick, curly hair and a neck—what a neck. Her beauty moved him.

—I'm your uncle Kyriakos.

—Oh! So you're the American whore?

The girl had sized him up and immediately understood that this uncle was someone to whom she could say whatever came into her head. The two of them exchanged a look of absolute mutual surrender; she was enormously pleased that this odd relative, half American, with no mustache or Cretan breeches, had come with his womanly yellow suitcase to disrupt boring old August.

—Why didn't they tell me you were coming?

—They don't know.



—But we haven't cooked anything.

—It doesn't matter.

—Should we have a drink? Some tsikoudia?

—Where's your grandmother?

—She's keeping watch over the fields, the other day someone stole her parsley.

—And the others?

—Dad's slaughtering, Mom's skinning.

The girl opened the door, followed him into the house and curled up in a corner. She sensed that the moment was special, even though her uncle tripped over the worn cement, and was seeing nothing but bare walls and dilapidation. Her grandmother always chased them away whenever they threatened to get rid of her old junk and bring in a new mattress; her son was always sending her things from America, pasta makers and machines for Chinese rice, but she gave it all to her three daughters, for her granddaughters' dowries; all she ever kept were the heart-shaped soaps.

A single glance, the coolness emanating from the thick walls, the smell of familiar things sufficed to rouse Roussias from his lethargy. The lacquered sideboard with the mismatched knobs, the vase of blue plastic lilies, his bicycle, the first in the village, a gift from his godmother in America during the summer of 69, when Armstrong walked on the moon, in the Sea of Tranquility.

He sat down on the edge of the sofa and scanned the room for a photograph of his father. The nickel frame was facing the sink: perhaps that way his mother, when she washed the dishes, felt like she was giving him a good cleaning, too.

The girl crept silently to the sink, turned the frame toward her uncle and curled back up in her corner, all eyes, lest anything escape her.

In Frederick, Roussias had almost forgotten what his father looked like. Now, in that dark room, seeing those gray eyes, the thick hair, the tight lips, he remembered his father's habits, too. How he demanded silence if he was smoking a cigarette, silence if he was eating, silence if he was picking his teeth with a toothpick, going to the bathroom, reading the paper in the shade of the pine tree. He had bought three newspapers in the course of his life, a Proclamation in 54, a Crete in 65, and a National Voice in 68; twice a year he would pick them up and reread them. It wasn't that he was too miserly to buy others, he just had no need for more news than that.

Soundlessly, in rubber soles, his mother came in, stepping from sunlight into darkness; she closed her eyes, walked blindly to the sink, and emptied cucumbers and grape leaves from her apron onto the countertop.

She didn't see the visitors. She took off her shoes. She untied her kerchief and wiped the sweat from her forehead and neck. Roussias watched her, speechless.

His mother looked more or less as he had known her to be in recent years, in her visits to Virginia or when they met at the home of family friends in Aigaleo: a tall, stooped woman in her seventies with thinning hair and deeply creased skin. But he had imagined this moment otherwise. He had thought that here, at least, his mother would still be forty-two, in the oil-colored dress she had been wearing on the day when his father, to pry him from his mother's embrace and send him out to catch the bus, in front of his three daughters, roared Let the boy go, and sunk his teeth into her ear.

* *

The eleven slaughtered carcasses hung from the sisters, as they all called the five conjoined mulberry trees with their intertwined branches. Theofanis Melissinos, Roussias's brother-in-law and a first-rate butcher, had finished one job and was on his way to the next. For two days now he had been on the road, from mountain plateaus to seaside villages; it was the season for slaughtering and his steady hand was in great demand.

His wife Antigoni, now in her fifties, whose once-black hair and once-blue eyes had gone gray together, was using all the strength in her lean, muscular arms to skin the carcasses with her latest acquisition, a Kalashnikov bayonet, afterward tossing the skins into the back of the truck. Beside her, splayed in a chair sipping a lemonade, the priest was complaining about how his wife had gone down to Hania to get a new suit for a baptism, which meant another forty thousand drachmas down the drain.

Antigoni and the priest were joking around when her daughter came whirling up to them like a typhoon.

—Mom, come quick, the American whore is at grandma's, she shouted, thrilled at the chance to say the word "whore" in front of the priest. She had to repeat herself twice, which she did with great satisfaction, before Antigoni finally wiped the bayonet on her apron.

—I'll skin you, too, if you're lying, she said.

—It's uncle Kyriakos, mom! Grandma fainted when she saw him. She almost died.

—Watch what you say. Stay here to look after these, she said, nodding toward the carcasses.

—It's about time he remembered us, sure wasn't in any rush, was he, the priest said uncertainly. Antigoni heard but made no reply, just jumped in the truck and sped off. Five minutes later she had parked on the dirt road in front of her mother's house.

In the yard she took off her apron, turned on the hose, washed the spatters of blood from her neck, hands, and calves, ran her fingers through her unruly hair. Then she ran barefoot into the house, rushed at Kyriakos and gathered him in her arms without even stopping to look, letting loose a string of endearments and crying openly, without shame. She was the only one who had never gone to see her brother in America—Kyriakos had invited her, but she would always reply, Only if I can board that plane with three hundred sheep, who else is going to look after my animals? For years now her longing to see her little brother had been like blood spurting from her heart like a fountain, rising up and drowning her, particularly during the long evening hours of February snowstorms.

Their mother, frozen on her stool, was staring with blurred eyes at the unexpected gift that had come to her in her old age: to have her son sleep under her roof again, to shine his shoes, to turn on the water heater for him, to boil water on the stove so he could shave. But something was bothering her, too. She fanned herself with her black kerchief, trying to figure out why her only son had returned so suddenly to the village, without asking her permission, and going against her father's command that he never set foot there again; someone might have put him up to it, but she couldn't think who. Her gaze reflected these thoughts, but the only words that came from her mouth were, I'll fry up some eggplant.

He went up the stone walkway, opened the iron gate, and found himself amid thirty or forty graves. He read the surnames on the crosses; most of them were Roussiases.

One of them was his father's. He searched the worn marble slabs until he found a marigold leaning on its ear beside a stone that read, Here lies Miron Roussias, murdered, May 22, 1972. The portrait, a colorized enlargement, was a copy of the photograph beside the sink.

Even a photograph's expression can change in such company: in the kitchen with his wife, with the salt and pepper shakers, the cheese, the silverware, his father seemed still to be living, but in the cemetery of the Pagomeno Plateau, with its scent of smoking oil from the lamps on the graves, he had given up, and seemed to be counting the wasted lives around him.

—Well, I came, dad, Roussias said, hands crossed over his chest, standing stiffly, as if awaiting permission to sit down for the first time at his father's grave.

He bent and tentatively touched the cross, then instantly pulled his hand away. He didn't light the lamp, didn't look around for spare charcoal, didn't sit. He just stood there, smoking a cigarette. Dawn was alighting on the cemetery, painting the marble and cement a deep purple; birds rose into the air from the two apple trees by the cemetery wall. There used to be a mulberry tree, too, but when the dead grew too numerous and the graves reached its shade, the berries fell onto the marble in summer, and no amount of basil or jasmine made any difference: the dearly departed could smell only the chlorine used to scrub the stains.

He was back home before seven. His mother was waiting for him, and his coffee, too. She wanted to touch him. She stroked his cheek, fixed his collar, kneaded his neck.

They finished their coffee and his mother stood up, explaining that for years now she'd been going to Antigoni's butcher shop early in the morning to put the first coin of the day in the register, to bring them good business; Theofanis always kissed it and made his cross with it.

When she'd left, Kyriakos opened the fridge to get some water and found it nearly empty, his mother's medications, a tupperware of fried peppers and half a melon.

He filled a glass from the tap and picked up the phone.

First he called his secretary, it was night there and he left a message asking her to get in touch with the people in Tokyo and tell them he'd had to cancel his trip due to an illness in the family.—I'm on Crete, you can find me at my mother's number, he concluded.

The second call was to Giorgos from Volos, with instructions for the p53 protein concerning mutations in half of the cancer cells they were studying.

Then he woke up Hatziantoniou and told him what had happened, more or less, in a monologue punctuated by silences.

—Roussias, you did the right thing.

—We'll see. For now I'm something of a visitor, a tourist. Yesterday in the cab we drove past my old school and it was just like seeing the one in Lincoln, Illinois. Nothing.

—You're exaggerating.

—And the old friends who came by last night just made me tired. I don't know what the point is, coming back after so many years.

—There's a point. Did you go for your mother's sake or your father's?

—What do you think?

—I think you went to find yourself a bride, Hatziantoniou laughed. Or to bring back the Texan.

—She doesn't live on Crete.

—You know, that woman never understood what all the mystery was about, with you and your village.

—Well, do you?

—No. Nana doesn't either, or your two Giorgoses in Frederick. The rest of us like to reminisce every so often about our villages, our grandfathers, but it's like pulling teeth to get even a word out of you.

Hatziantoniou was silent for a little while and then, more gently, said,—Well, first things first. The island of Crete. What's it like?

Roussias told him that the landscape remained the biggest plus; the sharp lines of the mountain ranges transported you to another world, perhaps the other world, and the wind, the light and the smells were like nowhere else, but he would only be staying for another two or three days at most, something had gone wrong with protein p53 that Giorgos from Volos couldn't manage on his own.

—I heard differently from him about the p53.

Roussias said goodnight, Hatziantoniou said goodnight, and they hung up somewhat abruptly.

There are some places that people take with them, carrying the landscape, the river, the city, along wherever they go. Then there are places that aren't content to stay behind, but get up and go looking for whoever it is who tried to flee.

Either way, Roussias and Crete were destined to meet again.

* *

Mantakes, Sifakes, Ritzises, Hatzises—they had all scattered to the four winds: their ancestral homes were abandoned, gray ruins everywhere, the Daoukos tower standing roofless on the slope of the hill. Gouri was a village on its last legs.

The sun had almost set and Roussias was headed for the neighboring village. Two hundred and fifty yards separated the last house in Haromouri from the first in Gouri. He scrambled up the crumbling footpath like a goat, eyes and ears taking in everything around him.

In the yard of the Daoukos home, balancing on fallen beams and jumping over piles of fallen stones, he came to a thicket of laurel bushes and paused among its blossoms to look. Before him, seventy yards ahead, was the unplastered house, a small, one-story house with no planters or trees for shade. At one edge was a carport with a sheetrock roof; beside it stood a cubical stack of bricks, a mound of gravel and another of sand. Leaning upright against one wall of the house was a double-basined, chrome-plated sink; a white bidet sat on a windowsill.

A woman came out into the yard, kicked off her shoes, picked up four white plastic chairs, set them on top of the table and started to hose and scrub the patio, and then to hose down the dirt road, too.

Roussias focused on the woman's figure, arid and unfamiliar. He recognized doors and gates, not people.

It was nearly seven when he heard a prolonged honking. A red Punto crested the lip of the plateau and headed back downhill. Roussias saw the woman freeze like a statue on her doorstep.

The car passed the coffee houses and the village of Haromouri. Roussias watched it appearing and disappearing behind the buildings, then turning onto the dirt road to Gouri; a few minutes later it had parked in front of the house.

Two big men with beards in jeans and black shirts got out of the front seats, then a third, short man emerged from the back in khaki bermuda shorts, naked from the waist up, with hair down to his shoulders, slow in his movements. The men grabbed two cartons from the bakery, a case of beer and two cardboard boxes from the back seat and trunk; judging from the size and the way they carried them into the house, the boxes must have contained appliances, a television and something else.

The woman on the doorstep didn't move, not even when the short man stopped and touched her shoulder. The men in black, that sun-faded black, opened the cartons of sweets, helped themselves, then headed for the Punto, while the woman went onto the patio, took the chairs down from the table and sat in one stiffly, back straight, like a guest.

The other man walked to the edge of the deserted dirt road, sat down on a rock and started wiping the sweat from his forehead and neck with a handkerchief, his head bent, his long hair blocking his vision, as if he had grown tired of seeing the same things: wife, house, village.

Two stooped men, seventy yards apart, and behind them the mountain range dressed in the sober colors of the evening that brought thousands of swallows to the Daoukos ruins, where one of these men was hiding. Kyriakos remembered those birds from his childhood. They always came at that hour, blackening the sky like a kerchief, circling the tower where they nested for the night.

From far off he heard a piano, an unexpected sound; some child whose parents were forcing him to learn Tchaikovsky was hammering away at the opening bars of a piece.

So it was that Kyriakos Roussias gave himself over to the swallows' acrobatics, the piano, and the sight of his father's murderer.

Read more from the March 2009 issue
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