A poignant and evocative novel of one Greek woman’s story of her own—and her nation’s—epic struggle in the aftermath of World War II.
Aliki is one of the last of her kind, a lamenter who mourns and celebrates the passing of life. She is part of an evolving Greece, one moving steadily away from its rural traditions. To capture the fading folk art of lamenting, an American researcher asks Aliki to record her laments, but in response, Aliki sings her own story...
It begins in a village in northeast Greece, where Aliki witnesses the occupying Nazi soldiers execute her father for stealing squash. Taken in by her friend Takis’s mother, Aliki is joined by a Jewish refugee and her son, Stelios. When the village is torched and its people massacred, Aliki, Takis and Stelios are able to escape just as the war is ending.
Fleeing across the chaotic landscape of a postwar Greece, the three become a makeshift family. They’re bound by friendship and grief, but torn apart by betrayal, madness and heartbreak.
Through Aliki’s powerful voice, an unforgettable one that blends light and dark with wry humor, My Last Lament delivers a fitting eulogy to a way of life and provides a vivid portrait of a timeless Greek woman, whose story of love and loss is an eternal one.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.20(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.30(d)|
About the Author
James William Brown, author of the critically acclaimed Blood Dance, is a former Wallace Stegner Fellow in Fiction at Stanford and has also been a writing fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. The recipient of two fellowships from National Endowment for the Arts, he has also directed the editorial departments of textbook publishers in New York, Boston, and Athens, Greece. Previously he lived and taught in Greece for ten years.
Read an Excerpt
Time will explain it all. He is a talker and needs no questioning before he speaks.
Now let me see, how do I turn this thing on? Oh. Maybe it is on. There’s a red light, anyway, a little fiery eye in this dark kitchen. I guess I speak into this bit—hello, hello in there. One-two-three-four. I’m just going to rewind and play that back to make sure I’m doing it right, seeing as how all machines are out to humiliate me. Technology means putting a cassette into a recorder and that’s it for me, no comments, please. Okay, everything’s okay, though I would never guess that’s how I must sound to others, old and croaky, like a geriatric frog.
Well, then, where to begin? My name’s Aliki and I’m the last professional lamenter in this village of ours in the northeast of Greece. That’s right, a composer of dirge-poems, called mirologia, chanted at wakes and such. Well, actually, I don’t really compose them. I seem to fall into a kind of state and they really compose themselves and just pour through me like a long sigh. Maybe they’re not even poems, more like chants. It’s an old village custom, one long practiced by crones like me, though, as I say, I’m the last in these parts. And the dead I chant about, well, they seem to linger around me whether I like it or not—you’ll see what I mean. The dead never seem to finish with us, or is it we who never finish with them?
When someone from one of the old families dies around here, the relatives ask me to lament. It’s not exactly grieving they want, just the marking of a life. The lament can be grand or small and not necessarily sad. The family wants to feel they’ve honored the dead in the traditional way before they trundle the body off to the church with that new, young priest, Father Yerasimos. Of course the younger families skip me and go straight to him and I bear them no ill will. I’m here for those who need me and in return they give me whatever they have on hand—a few eggs, olives, cheese, a day-old loaf of bread. Some are more generous than others, but I accept what’s offered and don’t complain. No one has much cash these days, thanks to the blunders and outright thievery of our governments these last years, not to mention those moralistic neighbors to the north. Well, I don’t need much; time has made me small. That’s what the years do—shrink you down by plucking away those you love one by one and eventually even your memories of them. In the end, there’s a lot less of you.
I dress only in black, once the custom for widows and crones. It’s still my custom. My head scarf too is black and when I go out, I draw the corner of it across my nose and mouth to hide my bad teeth. I look like a storybook witch. The girl I was on the day the Germans executed my father wouldn’t recognize the crone I’ve become.
Speaking of my father, I saw him again this morning standing in my back garden. He fished a cigarette out of the shirt pocket next to the blackened bullet holes in his chest and lit up. There wasn’t much point in telling him that smoking is bad for him as he’s been dead for more than fifty years. So there he was, saying again between puffs that things over there were not much different from here. Of course I’m not sure I believe in an over there, but when the dead turn up, you have to give them the benefit of the doubt.
We stand around all the time talking politics, he said. Everyone speaks at once, interrupting and yelling, and nobody agrees on anything. It’s just like life.
It was back in ’43 that the Germans executed him along with two other village men. Made them stand next to the stone wall under the plane tree in the plateia and shot them down, just like that. It’s still there, that wall; I think of him every time I pass it.
There isn’t even a decent kafeneion here for a good cup of coffee. We’re trying to circulate a petition about it, but no one can agree on the wording. And there’s nobody to give it to. Doesn’t seem to be anyone in charge.
“But what about the saints,” I always ask, “or the Holy Family?”
We’ve never seen any of them. But there’s probably a bureaucracy full of incompetents somewhere. He took another drag on his cigarette, leaned back and blew a perfect smoke ring. Also just like life.
That was no surprise. Who can believe in all those sour faces in church icons? When we were wasting away back in the forties, they hadn’t helped us at all. So what were they for?
He paused and then said, Go back to sleep, my child.
“But I’m awake, standing here on the back steps watching you smoke your lungs out.”
Oh, well, he said. Sleeping, waking—what’s the difference? Then he was gone.
There is this about the dead: they’re so light. They slip in and out of our world with no effort whatsoever. By contrast, we seem heavy, dragging our lives along behind us like an old sack of stones.
Oh, now wait, what’s that clicking noise? Maybe if I push this button? Really, I hope we’re not going to be plagued with stops and starts. This recorder and these cassettes were left here by a Greek-American scholar who came to see me a few months ago. An earnest young woman from an American university, doing research on rural lament practices, or so she said.
You see, when you’re the last of a line of just about anything, people will come to study you as if you’re a donkey that can salute the flag. How do you feel about it, they want to know. At my age there’s so much to feel about, one way or another. It’s a mystery to me how one chunk of memory gets stuck to another from years earlier and finally adds up to something different from the last time you remembered it.
Anyway, this scholar, an ethnographer, she called herself, was a pretty little thing, though her blond hair looked as if she’d taken an eggbeater to it and then glued it all in place. She had these tiny glasses that she had to push up her little bit of a nose as she talked about recording all my laments. She asked questions about a lamenter’s otherness and something called the poetics of social commentary. What could I say? I just looked at her while she ran on about high voicing versus low voicing and a lot of other things I’ve never heard of. We were sitting in the kitchen—as I am now—and out the window I could see my neighbor, old Stavros, pitchforking hay into his donkey cart. A breeze blew the hay every which way, but what landed in the cart looked a lot like my visitor’s hair. I could see that my silence was making her uneasy; I was probably not turning out to be the kind of subject she’d been looking for, poor little thing. She kept patting her head as if to make sure it was still perched on her tiny neck, then pushing her glasses up her nose again.
“As we know, death is the passage from the inside to the outside,” she said. Her Greek was good even with that flat American accent, though I had no idea what she was talking about. Seeing my blank expression, she asked, “Wouldn’t you say?”
“I’ve never thought about it,” I said. “Is it something about yourself or your family you’re trying to tell me? Do you need my services? For this you’ve come so far?”
No, no, she said, flustered, it was just her area of study, Mediterranean ethnography. She was trying to get established, publish some original field research. She’d already interviewed some lamenters who mostly wail and weep, as she said, and others who sing or call out the deeds of the dead person. But she hadn’t talked to anyone about dirge-poems.
“Has anyone else interviewed you?” she asked.
“Not unless you count those TV people who came all the way from Athens. And then there was that newspaperman from Thessaloniki. But no one from a university, not ’til now.”
She seemed relieved and said she wanted me to lament into this gadget she had, a thing she held in her hands and worked with her thumbs. It seemed to give her a lot of trouble because, she said, our village was tucked down in this valley on the other side of the mountain. Though she was interested in the fact that isolation has kept our ways mostly unchanged, we seemed to be too remote for her gadget.
We’re not remote here, I told her. Remote is always somewhere else, a place where you’re not. And I don’t know why anyone would carry around something to aggravate them the way that thing did her.
“And I can’t just turn laments on and off,” I said, “like the kitchen tap.”
“Oh, yes, of course. I’m sorry—I did think of that. I was hoping you’d record yourself when you’re in, well, the right frame of mind.”
I didn’t want to go into it, but in fact my neighbor and old childhood friend, Zephyra, was (and still is) moving toward her end in her house just along the road. Poor thing, what a thin little life she’s had. There will be lamenting enough in a while.
Then the scholar reached into her briefcase as she said that she’d thought our remoteness might be a problem so she’d also brought this battery-operated recorder and cassettes that she’d leave with me. I didn’t say I’d use them and I didn’t say I wouldn’t. She’d traveled a long way to find me, after all, so I thanked her for coming and gave her a jar of our good village honey as I sent her on her way, saying she should visit again sometime soon. We may have lost our wits, but we still have our manners. She said she’d be in touch.
And really, that was it. She hasn’t returned and it’s been months, so who knows if she will? Not many people find their way to our village even once, not to mention twice. Her recorder and blank cassettes have been sitting here and sometimes I think they’re whispering to me, Tell me how you feel.
What I feel is that time will only snatch away more of me before long. So finally I think I’m going to do some telling, but not only about lamenting. I’d like to unspool what’s happened in the order it once had and get back to that other time, a time of secrets. But it feels odd now, me sitting here talking about myself to myself. So here’s what I think I’ll do—I’m going to imagine you listening, my American scholar, though I know so little about you. Well, I’m sorry about those comments I made about your hair and such. I’d go back and erase them, but I’m not sure how to do that. So if you’ll forgive me, I’ll just move along, pretending you’re interested in my life and times, not just my laments. Well, you are, aren’t you? And of course you’re young so I don’t know how much you know about the war and what came after. I hear they don’t teach much history in your country, but can that be true? It’s hard to believe that here, where we can never get out from under our glorious past or stop measuring it against our much poorer present. Anyway, I’ll stitch in some facts here and there.
But I should also tell you that we may get interrupted from time to time because of my poor friend Zephyra. She’s held on longer than anyone expected, but she’s into her final days at last.
Oh, now the clicking of this machine has stopped. So, onward.
I was talking about those stolen squash, I think. Oh, no, I hadn’t even got to that. I’d better start further back. Well, it was 1943 and the Germans had been here for a while. The Italians had come through first, but then the Germans took over. My father always said that the fact they were in our village at all was probably some bureaucratic mistake. They were mostly in Athens and the islands but not much on the mainland, which was largely occupied by the Italians. Had a spelling error been made by a clerk who’d confused the village name with that of some more strategic place? The Germans certainly weren’t here for the charcoal our area produces. It’s made from the nearby grove of resinous pines, once owned by my grandfather. His son, my father, was the last charcoal maker in his line. It was difficult work. Being the last of a line seems to be a family trait. From the smoke in the smoldering process, his skin was walnut-dark and his clothes picked up the unmistakable smell of resin. The men in my family have always had that particular mixture of scents—a piney, smoky maleness.
But the charcoal making stopped during the war along with everything else. The Germans had taken our crops, our livestock, our olive oil to feed themselves. They even shot the larks out of the sky and roasted them. As a result, we had little to eat except for the greens we could dig up from the mountainside. So we had almost no energy or will. We moved in slow motion. Nearly four years they’d been here by then and I’d just turned fourteen.
The Italians had invaded first from the north, not so far from here, back in October of ’40. Some of our own village boys died there along the Albanian border, may the earth rest lightly on them, while trying to hold off the macaroni-eaters. And our troops did actually manage that for a few brave months, with the help of British, Australian and New Zealand troops. But by the following April, Hitler had come to Mussolini’s rescue and in the end the two of them divided us up like a pair of wolves devouring the same sheep. Our government and royal family fled to Cairo, leaving us to the wolves. We in areas that went to the Germans envied the other areas because we’d heard that the macaroni-eaters were not so bad. In fact, they were a bit like us, ignoring rules and regulations, always trying to wring a bit of pleasure from life, even in wartime. But the Germans, bah, they didn’t leave us so much as a loaf of bread.
At night we dreamed of food, of Paschal lamb roasted over charcoal, fragrant egg-lemon soup, sheep’s yogurt with thyme-flower honey, delicate little meatballs infused with mint and parsley. I was obsessed with thoughts of sweets; tortured by the vision of almond cookies dusted with powdered sugar.
With little energy, I did everything the way my father told me to, but slowly, slowly, never running or shouting. “Imagine you’re dancing on the last night of Carnival,” he said, “and each step must be just so. Don’t move without pausing first. Then be slow and careful.”
The day he died, I was stepping carefully down our main street on the way to my friend Takis’s house, past some German soldiers standing at attention near the stone wall in the plateia, just there by the old plane tree that was nearly dead from drought. A few villagers stood to one side, being held back by other soldiers, watching something and all talking at once. I threaded my way through them until I could see that my father was standing with two other men at the wall. Stepping as precisely as I could, I tried to walk over to him so he would see that I was doing as he’d asked. But one of the soldiers came over and pushed me back. It was then that I saw my father notice me. He looked aghast.
“Go home, Aliki!” he shouted. “Go now!” And to one of the village women he shouted, “Chrysoula, take my daughter!”
I realized that the woman nearby, who’d pulled her apron up to her face and was weeping into it, was my friend Takis’s mother, Chrysoula. She let go her apron, grabbed my hand and started to lead me away, still weeping. But I looked back just as the German soldiers raised their rifles, which made sounds like toy guns: pop, pop, pop. My father’s cap flew off as he pitched over backward. Puffs of smoke flew up into the tree and its dry leaves rasped against each other.
At first it didn’t occur to me that he’d been killed. There’d been other executions in the village, I learned later, but my father had protected me from that knowledge. Happening upon this one by chance, I didn’t realize at first that my father’s fall was connected to the popping sound.
It had all begun with those squash that I mentioned before, secret squash. The fields had been stripped, but there was a gully below one of them, not quite visible unless you knew just where it was. So my father and the others were picking by night and hoarding the secret produce in a root cellar. From time to time we ate one and, oh, I can’t tell you what the taste of squash cooked golden was like in such times. Just that buttery smell. I can’t eat it at all now because the memory is too piercing. Well, anyway, someone had informed the German officer in charge of the area, Colonel Esterhaus. The life of a secret in the village is not long even today, and back then people were willing to debase themselves for the prospect of food.
Oh, I don’t even cry about it anymore. I’m like an old sponge left out in the sun, dry as cardboard. At the time, I couldn’t cry because I didn’t believe what everyone told me, that the dead, including my father, were truly gone and would never be seen again. I stopped arguing with adults about this and closed my mouth. When you don’t respond, people tend to leave you alone. I couldn’t bring myself to speak for months.
After my father’s burial, I was taken in by Chrysoula, the woman who’d tried to take me away from the execution. There was nowhere else for me. My mother had hated village life, my father told me, and ran off to Athens years earlier. I never knew more than that. He seldom mentioned his runaway wife and I had only faint memories of her. It was one of the mysteries of my childhood. She was my mother, after all—hadn’t she loved me enough to stay? After I lost her and then my father too, Chrysoula and Takis became my second family.
“Such a good man, your father,” Chrysoula would say, her eyes brimming. “We were all so fond of him.” Before the war Chrysoula had been a shapely woman with lively eyes much admired by the village men. But by the time I moved into her house, she’d become a shadow of herself inside her old dresses, which by then were several sizes too large. Her eyes, though, still held their light. “You’ll be here with Takis and me,” she said, “so it will seem that part of your father is here too.”
Takis didn’t care that I wouldn’t open my mouth to speak. He talked enough for both of us. The house was small so he and I had to share a room, even a bed. He was ten and both of us were too young to know much about what grown-ups did in bed. We played cards by candlelight at night on the floor or bed, slapping them down noisily. It was Takis who taught me how to cheat by sliding a card into my sleeve or under my bottom. Then he’d call me cheater or gangster. And we’d throw our cards in each other’s faces. It was the best part of the game. Finally, we’d topple over into bed saying good night to the gecko that lived in a crack in the wall.
Takis had nicknamed his own feet Mr. Shepherd and Mrs. Shepherd. He’d waggle them out of the thin blanket and make up conversations.
“I’ve lost the flock again, Mrs. Shepherd,” Takis would say in a deep voice, wiggling the toes of his right foot.
“Oh, dear, Mr. Shepherd,” he’d answer in a falsetto, wagging his left foot in a frenzy. “Was it the wolves this time?”
“Ate every last one. We’ll have nothing for Easter.”
“We could eat the baby.”
Chrysoula would stick her head in the door and tell us that was enough. She’d tuck us in, saying, “Keep each other warm, my little geese.”
Orion marched across the sky above the house those winter nights as frost etched itself on our window. Lying there with Takis breathing softly beside me, I knew there was this one big thing we shared: the mystery of how our fathers could be there one day and not the next or ever again. I just couldn’t accept death. The old villagers said that souls of the dead hung around after their funerals for about ninety days, reluctant to leave, trying on their old shoes and taking pinches of their favorite meals right out of the pot. Sometimes I heard my father in the wind through the pine trees, in the water splashing in the lion fountain nearby, in the cries of birds passing over the village on their way south to Africa. He’d taken to complaining a lot and he’s done that ever since. Where are my tools? he’d ask. I can’t do anything without tools. I didn’t understand why he needed them.
I thought about telling Takis this, but no words would come and anyway Takis didn’t like to hear anything about fathers. His own wasn’t around and no one ever mentioned him anymore. But I remembered my father saying that there’d been something wrong in the mind of Takis’s father, that he’d imagined things. He’d thought the whole village was set against him and picked fights for no reason. Then he and Chrysoula had gone away for a while and she came back without him.
We woke each morning to the sound of Chrysoula’s voice calling out the window to other women around the lion fountain. Houses had no running water then so women came to the fountain to fill their jugs and pails from the stream that poured out of the lion’s marble mouth. Of course they also stood around and gossiped. Chrysoula’s house was closest to the fountain so she presided.
“Good morning, my beautifully ugly neighbors,” she would call out her kitchen window to the other women. “What’s bothering you today?”
Of course everyone knew everyone else’s troubles because they were mostly the same: hunger and heartache and isolation, endless worry about how to stay alive and keep out of the way of the Germans. This aged everyone; even young women looked almost as old as crones. But they picked up Chrysoula’s cue.
“Ugly we may be, but at least we’re clean,” one said. “We so seldom see you taking water into your house.”
“It’s true,” Chrysoula said. “I only clean with bleach. It’s so much better for washing your husbands’ drool off my front steps after they beg me to open my door to them at night.”
There were shrieks of laughter, which set off spasmodic coughing because many of the women were ill. One called out, “So that’s where they were!”
“And we thought they were doing their business in the outhouse,” yelled another.
“It’s almost the same thing, isn’t it?” a third one asked.
More shrieks and hoots of laughter.
“Too bad your own husband can’t satisfy you, Chrysoula,” someone called out. “You couldn’t even keep him at home, could you? No wonder you try to lure our men.”
Chrysoula always sidestepped any reference to her husband. “No one needs to lure your husbands, my dears. One look at any of you is enough.”
“Oh, we curse our fates not to be born beautiful like Princess Chrysoula,” someone said. In fact, Chrysoula was as scrawny and worn looking as any of them, as all could clearly see.
But they began calling out, “Health to the beautiful Princess Chrysoula!”
“Health and life to the great beauty!”
“If only we looked like her, we could keep our husbands in our beds.”
They could go for an hour or more like this, some of the women finally sitting or lying on the ground, exhausted from laughing and insulting each other. After a while, a pair of German soldiers would arrive to investigate the noise and break up the crowd, pushing the women to their feet with the butts of their rifles. The Germans didn’t know Greek, of course, so the women would talk about them.
“That one has the forehead of a monkey!”
“And look at the other’s low-slung bottom. As pretty as any girl’s.”
“He thinks so too. Look how he walks as if he’s just longing for a pat or a pinch.”
“Or something more.”
Their wheezy laughter would trail off into the village lanes. Well, you can see where I got my early training as a crone. But most of the soldiers were just boys, really. They should have been behind school desks, not out here being hated by everyone. Sometimes they chose teams and played soccer matches, ordering us to come and watch. We’d stand in silence as they whooped around a field, scrambling after a ball. Once they requisitioned a couple of our donkeys and raced the beasts across a field so they could place bets on them. Anything to pass the time in what must have seemed to them a dull place.
I didn’t understand war at all—it meant that foreigners took over your country, stole your food, watched you starve and shot you for the sake of a few squash. But why? It didn’t make any sense. What we didn’t understand at the time was that the real prize for the Germans was our island of Crete with its strategic airfields and harbors sitting right there in the middle of the Mediterranean offering easy access to North Africa and the Middle East. But for us here in the village cut off from the world, finding a moldy potato to eat meant another day’s survival, maybe even a chance to squeeze a grain or two of pleasure out of whatever we could so as not to shrivel up inside. We’re all like that here; we know how to get around anything with a laugh, a wisecrack, a little foolishness. It’s our ancient gift, even when trapped. Of course the soldiers were as trapped as we were. They lacked our gift, but on the other hand, they had the guns. Boys with guns—the old story of war.
Takis liked the way the soldiers marched. He pretended to carry a rifle as he imitated their goose step.
“Stop that!” his mother would say. “I won’t have a German in my house, even a small one.”
Most mornings he was either impossible to wake at all or else he hopped up full of questions that had perched in his sleeping mind like owls. Shaking me awake, he’d ask, “Why don’t the stars fall on our heads?” Or, “When I jump up, why don’t I come down in some other village?”
I had no answers for him; I still couldn’t bring myself to speak.
But there were other days when he sulked around, kicking the furniture and scowling at everyone. I took him to see the charcoal pits where my father had worked, just outside the village. He liked it there because, as he said, the pine trees talked to him.
“They want to teach me to fly so I can drop bombs on the Germans.” He cocked his head near the trunk of a pine and said, “I’m sorry, Aliki, but they don’t want to teach you.”
I shrugged and walked away. Takis lost interest in the pines and followed. There were no piles of dried logs anymore as the Germans had taken those for firewood. But there was a lot of bark on the ground. I pointed to where my father and the other men had stacked logs in conical piles with an airhole down the center. Acting it all out for Takis, I showed how they covered the wood with dirt and then dropped hot coals into the airhole.
“Why the dirt?” he asked. “Weren’t they trying to burn the wood?”
That was just what they didn’t want to happen. But I didn’t know how to make that clear without language. My father always said that if fire broke out, everything was ruined because the wood would burn down to ash. But if it only smoldered, over time it would reduce to charcoal. Sometimes the pile of wood started to catch fire and he’d have to jump on it, throwing on more dirt to put it out. I’d seen him do that once, a kind of crazy dance on top of the pile in all that smoke, flinging fistfuls of dirt at places where little flames were licking out.
I danced around for Takis and threw dirt every which way until he flopped onto the ground and rolled around laughing. When he laughed, there seemed to be nothing in the world except his enjoyment. Here was this half-starved, skinny boy—what did he have to laugh about? For that matter, what did any of us? The women at the fountain, Chrysoula, even the Germans didn’t look too happy to be stuck here while they were losing the war everywhere else—or at least that was what we heard on the shortwave radio late at night.
It was illegal to have an unregistered radio and the punishment for owning one was death. But Chrysoula managed to conceal this one somehow. I don’t think there were many shortwave radios in Greece then. It had been sent to Chrysoula by a cousin who’d emigrated to your America years before the war. We knew so little about that place then—there were no movies, no newsreels in our area and we seldom saw newspapers. What we did know was that your Mr. Roosevelt had sent all those Yanks to help us out in Europe and the radio told us the Yanks and other Allies were winning the war. And of course the radio itself—big and shiny with the word zenith on it—came from there. So I imagined America as a place of such radios, one for every man, woman and child. The Land of Big Radios.
But when I listened to the radio, sometimes I thought I could hear my father speaking just behind the voice of the news announcer, still asking me questions. They were so specific: Had he left the lid off the tin of kerosene in the basement? Had I found the eggs from the hen that had wandered into the woods? Where were the saw and ax he’d used on the pine logs?
The dead leave the earth, old villagers said, but can’t get rid of the dailyness of their lives on it. They worry about dripping taps or debts unpaid or crops left standing in the fields. They’re not interested in the big things like war or poverty or happiness or the loss of it. But if the roof in the stable has a leak, they’ll worry it to death and beyond. If I asked my father something that I thought the dead would know, like what his life had been all about anyway, he always said that my question was too simple and the answer too complicated.
Oh, wait, there’s someone at the door. How do I turn this thing off?
Back again. It was just a neighbor talking about old Zephyra down the road. Remember I said she was dying? Well, she may die at any moment from the many things that ail her and there’s nothing to be done, sadly. We used to walk to school together back before the Germans came, but even then Zephyra was such a beaten-down little thing, bossed around by her busybody mother who was always sniffing out everyone’s secrets. Little Zephyra was as plain and quiet as a turnip. She asked me one day if she could come live with my father and me. “I can clean and cook,” she said. “Oh, please, Aliki, can I?” It was an odd thing for someone my own age to suggest, but I think she was afraid of her mother. Zephyra always looked so sad when the schoolday ended and she had to go home.
After I moved into Chrysoula’s house, Zephyra stopped speaking to me, as if she thought I’d chosen Takis as my friend instead of her. Takis noticed this, asking me about that girl who crossed to the other side of the road when she saw us coming. And to think that Zephyra’s name comes from the ancient god of the west wind, Zephyrus, but there wasn’t even a trace of a breeze in her spirit. And of course she never lived down that business of the goat stealing, but I’m not going to get started on that. Nothing like the nearness of death to dig up the not-quite-buried past.
I’m getting off track here. Better replay a little of this. Oh, I see, all right, my father on the radio, yes, I heard him, or at least I thought I did. It comforted me to know he wasn’t completely gone. He was around somewhere. I’d go over to our old house, perched on the side of the hill at the edge of the village. It had been empty since I’d moved in with Takis and his mother. But I could feel my father’s presence in the house. Once I thought I saw his shirttail disappearing around the corner, but when I went into the next room, there was no one there. Climbing down the ladder beneath the trapdoor in the kitchen floor, I would come into what once had been a stable on the lower level, what we called the basement. There was the kerosene tin just as my father had said, without its lid. And I found the missing saw and ax. But I never found the hen in the woods or her eggs.
Chrysoula said there used to be wild chickens around the area, hens and roosters that escaped and set up housekeeping in the lower branches of the pines. They left their eggs all over the place and they were much better tasting than the usual kind. Over time, the chickens taught themselves to fly and you could see flocks of them in the morning sky. They stopped clucking and developed their own song—“You know what I mean,” Chrysoula said. “Loo, loo, loo, loo, loo, loo.”
Takis and I had never heard anything like that. But Chrysoula would say whatever crossed her mind when asked a question, and she didn’t seem to care if anyone believed her. She had a reputation in the village for giving curious advice to those who came to her with problems. Back before the war, a neighbor woman told her that she’d been unable to decide whether or not to sell her house and move to the nearby town after her husband’s death. Chrysoula had advised, “The carpet slipper of life doesn’t accept or deny what is written on the last hats of the old blood.”
The neighbor pondered this for several days and decided not to sell her house.
But Chrysoula had no comment on the matter of the partisans in our area who were sabotaging Germans, blowing up their tanks, mowing them down in lonely mountain passes, slitting the throats of their sentries at night. There were several groups of partisans and we’d heard some of their names, all important sounding. National Liberation Front, People’s Liberation Party, National Social Liberation, National Republican League. But they broke down mostly into two kinds, communists and royalists. I wasn’t sure what exactly communists were, but I knew that the royalists were supporters of our king in exile in Cairo. The communists and royalists had their own little war going with each other while they were snatching territory back from the Germans. And like the Germans, they demanded food from us.
In a place on the other side of the mountains, villagers had given supplies to one of the partisan groups. What else could they have done? If they hadn’t helped, they would have been accused of collaborating with the Germans and shot as traitors. In this case, a village informer told the Germans. As punishment, German soldiers lined up all the village men in the plateia and shot them. Then they herded the women and children into the village church and set it on fire. When they tried to escape the flames, they too were shot.
But we’d heard that in areas the partisans controlled, they were as ruthless as the Germans they’d driven out. All this made us feel helpless, like flies trapped in a bottle. To fight that sense of helplessness—which can kill you—we had to come up with our own solutions. Chrysoula had decided on one without telling Takis or me.
She’d started going over to my father’s house regularly, saying that she needed to make some repairs. A shutter in the kitchen had come loose and was banging in the wind. Rain had poured down the chimney, bringing soot with it, making a mess on the hearth. On the roof, some tiles had been broken by a fallen branch. The house wasn’t her problem to deal with, but she told me, “Sometime, when all this is over and the Germans have gone home, this house will be your dowry. We must keep it worthy.”
Dowry? I hadn’t thought of such a thing. It seemed that my second family would just go on as it was. I wasn’t able to think far ahead. The few young men in the village had gone off to the Albanian front to fight Mussolini when he invaded from the north. Some had been not much older than I and none had returned. And who needed a husband anyway? Not Chrysoula, it seemed.
I went with her one day and inside the house she made a lot of noise, grabbing a broom and banging around in a big show of cleaning. Then she hammered on the broken shutter and even crawled out onto the roof to examine the cracked tiles. After a while, she sent me back to the fountain for a pail of water so she could scrub down the hearth and the kitchen floor.
But when I got to the fountain, I saw the German officer in charge of our village, Colonel Esterhaus, at the front door of Chrysoula’s house. I froze because this was the man who would have been responsible for the order to execute my father and the other two men. I hadn’t seen him this close before. Thin, with fair hair and rosy complexion, he’d brought along his translator, our old schoolmaster, Petros, who knew some German. Whenever they had something to say to us, the Germans brought him along like a puppy on a leash. It was said that his family was given favors of food for his service. He stood there in the doorway, nearly bald and squinting through spectacles with one cracked lens as he listened to Colonel Esterhaus trying to talk to Takis. Petros noticed me and waved me over.
Crouching down, the colonel looked directly into Takis’s eyes as he spoke. Takis was always impressed with uniforms so he’d drawn himself up and was saluting the colonel. Petros told us that the colonel said he had a son of his own at home outside Hamburg just about Takis’s age. The colonel saluted Takis in return, then laughed and ruffled his hair.
What the colonel had come to see us about was my father’s house, now my own, Petros said. On behalf of the Führer, the Reich was requisitioning it for military use. It was empty, so soldiers were to be housed there, effective immediately. I looked into the face of the colonel. I remember it as an ordinary sort of face, a bit flushed, a bit worried. It was not the face of a monster but just that of a busy man, carrying out duties, a man who missed his son. Yet from the mouth in that ordinary face had come an order for execution. And having killed my father, the colonel was now taking my father’s house.
Suddenly it was as if I’d stuck my finger in a light socket and the jolt, working its way up and out, made me shake my head: no. Fear widened Petros’s eyes. But I couldn’t stop shaking my head. I tried to speak, but nothing came out, so with the toe of my shoe I scratched no in the dust. Petros stepped between the colonel and me, covering the word with his shoes and putting his hands on my shoulders.
“Child, he’s not asking,” he said, voice wavering. “He’s telling.”
The colonel, whose face had remained expressionless, said something more to Petros, who translated that the colonel intended to inspect the house shortly and if everything was suitable, the soldiers would move in later that day. Then he and the colonel left.
I couldn’t move for what seemed a long time but probably wasn’t. Then I went as limp as a noodle and reached for Takis as support.
“Do you know where Mother is?” he said. “I’m hungry.”
I remembered Chrysoula was alone in the house. Fearing that the colonel might find her there before we could warn her, I grabbed Takis’s hand and stumbled along, ordering my legs to run, run. I was half dragging Takis, who cried out that I was hurting his arm. When we got to the house, we couldn’t find her at first. From below, we heard muffled voices. Opening the trapdoor in the floor of the kitchen, I started down the ladder with Takis behind me. I was startled to see Chrysoula with a middle-aged woman and a young man. They certainly hadn’t been there the last time I’d come. And they certainly weren’t from the village. Partisans? There was no time to wonder. I prodded Takis to tell his mother what had just happened. He missed the point, telling her that the colonel said he had a son “. . . just like me.” I was hopping up and down with impatience, shaking my head then shaking Takis and gesturing at the house above and around us until he said, “Oh, that . . .” and finally got it all out.
Chrysoula clapped a hand over her mouth. There was silence as everyone took in the information. Removing her hand, she asked, “When will they come?”
“Maybe now . . . ?” Takis said.
I looked at the two strangers and realized that they were better dressed than village people, though their clothes were rumpled and dirty. A mother and her teenage son, I guessed. There was a resemblance, the same gray eyes and dark hair. He looked older than I was though not much. They couldn’t very well be partisans who lived in caves or ravines in the mountains. A pair of suitcases and some articles of clothing were lying about. So the two of them had been living there awhile. That didn’t seem possible in our occupied village where the Germans knew nearly everything that was going on. But there they were!
Without a word, we flew around grabbing up their belongings and stuffing them back into the suitcases while Chrysoula all but shoved the pair of visitors out a window at ground level. She told them to run down the slope to the field below the village and hide in the gully there, the very one where my father had picked the squash. Just as soon as she’d done so, we heard from upstairs the tread of boots coming in the front door. To this day, I can’t imagine a sound more terrifying.
The first one down the ladder was Colonel Esterhaus. He and another officer stood staring at us, then said something in German, probably asking why we were there. Chrysoula must have assumed the same thing because she said we were cleaning the house. To make them understand, she made circular motions with her hands as if polishing something and then pretended to sweep the floor with an invisible broom. I started to tremble with fear, all electricity gone. Did the Germans shoot girls? I had no doubt of it.
They looked blank at first, then moved forward together and seized Chrysoula by each arm, forcing her up the steps toward the kitchen. She swore at them, telling them to go to the devil and leave a respectable woman alone but she also shouted at Takis, “Run, run get Petros—I don’t know what I’m accused of!”
Takis and I climbed out the window after they’d gone and ran to the schoolmaster’s house. Petros was just about to settle into a nap. “What, they need me again? What sperm of the dog they are!”
Chrysoula was with the Germans most of the day. The poor woman came home that evening, limping and carrying her shoes. Some of the village women gathered at the lion fountain as she leaned against her doorway.
“Well, praise God,” she said. “I straightened them out!”
One of the women said it looked as if it was Chrysoula who’d been straightened out. Her face was bruised and streaked from tears, her hair in tangles, her dress torn. The other women agreed and nodded together, clucking tongues in sympathy. I went to Chrysoula, took her hand and pressed it to my heart.
“Oh, don’t worry, Aliki. They were sure I’d done something,” Chrysoula went on, “but they had no idea what it was, the fools.”
She told how they’d slapped her repeatedly, questioning her about partisans. She insisted she was just a housewife, how was she to know about such things? Petros had vouched for her, saying he’d known her all his life. She was a good woman who’d taken in the orphaned child of the charcoal maker.
“They didn’t care,” Chrysoula said. “They pulled my shoes off and beat my feet and legs with a stick. But I made so much noise, putting a curse on them that their pricks should wither and fall off.”
The women laughed and one, an old wisewoman, the mother of our present one, said she’d burn some herbs in front of the icon of St. Athanassios, he who’d spent so much of life suffering in exile, to make the curse come to pass.
Finally, Colonel Esterhaus had seemed to grow tired of the noise Chrysoula was making and told her that this was just a warning and that they’d be watching her.
“What’s there to watch?” Chrysoula asked the women. They looked at one another but said nothing.
The next day, the mother and son moved into the basement of Chrysoula’s house, which was in the same place in her house as in my father’s, down a trapdoor ladder. But unlike my father’s house, Chrysoula’s was placed in such a way that from the outside it appeared to have just the single above-ground story. Chrysoula had put a thin rug over the trapdoor to conceal it in the kitchen. She pulled the rug back to open the door. But she’d attached a piece of twine to the outer edge of the rug, which she tugged after her when she was the last person to go down the ladder. So the rug was pulled back into place as the trapdoor closed.
When I drew a question mark in the air and pointed downstairs, Chrysoula told me only that they were city people. Refugees, she said. I didn’t know what that meant so I drew another question mark.
“People who have to leave their homes and need to hide for a while,” she said quickly as she turned away from me before she could see me ask again. “Don’t be so curious. Now go play with Takis. I’d like you to make sure he keeps his mouth shut tight. No one must know. No one. Outside the house, these people don’t exist. If only Takis were as silent as you.”
But what did it mean to be a refugee, I wondered. I didn’t want to think what was likely to happen if the Germans found out about them. Why did refugees have to come here anyway? And why was Chrysoula taking them in? There had to be something unusual about our visitors, some secret, and, after thinking about it, I guessed that they must be spies. I’d heard about spies on the shortwave radio and was excited to think that we were living in the same house with two of them. And they had to be important ones, didn’t they, or why else would Chrysoula have taken such a risk?
I wouldn’t let her alone about it. Following her around, I drew question marks on a dusty windowpane, on a bar of soap, in a plate of boiled greens.
“What do you want me to say, Aliki? Stop asking.” But when I’d made a big enough nuisance of myself, she said simply, “Sometimes you have to do something not to feel helpless. I don’t know how else to explain it.”
Once Takis realized there was someone downstairs, there was no stopping him from pushing the rug aside and scooting down to see our visitors. I heard him warning them, “Be careful of the ghost down here. His name is Dimos and he has orange hair and eats dirt.”
I joined him. “She doesn’t talk,” Takis told them about me. “But she’s my friend.”
“We saw you at the other house,” the woman said. Though they’d spent the night in the gully, they still looked more like people out of the magazines we’d seen now and then before the war. “I’m Sophia,” the woman said, “and this is my son, Stelios.” He glanced at me from under thickly fringed eyelashes, then looked quickly away. “He’s shy,” she added.
A shy spy? But I knew nothing about city people and I don’t think anyone in the village had ever been to Athens except my mother and Takis’s father, who’d never returned. It seemed nearly as distant and foreign as the Land of Big Radios, where everyone wanted to go because Chrysoula’s cousin had become rich enough to send the shiny Zenith to Chrysoula. In magazine photographs, city people always looked in a hurry, moving across streets in a mob while traffic waited. Or flowing like rivers in and out of sports stadiums. What did they know about villages like ours where people made charcoal or harvested flax in the fields? There was no bank here, no pharmacy or doctor. The only law enforcement was that of a field policeman, who made sure no boundary stones were moved between fields unless he’d been paid not to notice. It was many miles to the nearest hospital or regional court of law on unpaved roads which were often deep in mud all winter.
But right there, in Chrysoula’s house, were two people from the outside world. Spies, refugees, how could you tell? And how had they managed to find us? And did they play cards?—that was Takis’s main interest. Stelios did. At first Takis seemed wary of the gangly young man with the bashful smile. But Takis covered it by trying to boss him around.
“Sit there,” he told him, pointing to a grubby corner of the basement. “They’re my cards so I get to shuffle and deal.”
Stelios just smiled and sat down cross-legged on the floor.
I thought Sophia was lovely even though she looked tired and uncomfortable in the dirty basement. She had a quick smile and kept thanking me for letting her and her son stay in our house. I tried to act out the fact that this was Chrysoula’s house, not mine. But I only seemed to confuse her. For the first time since my father had died, I wanted to talk. But all I could do was open and close my mouth like a fish. When words began to form in my throat, a great sadness came over me and I wanted to weep.
With two more people to feed, Chrysoula needed help. Wandering the mountainside behind the village, she and I pulled up wild greens, mostly dandelions, which we’d boil and eat with vinegar. Other women were there too, including my little friend Zephyra—the one who’s now so ill—and her mother, all slowly searching the rocky ground for anything that might be edible. I waved to Zephyra, who pretended not to see me.
“Ah, so little today,” her mother said, glancing over to see how Chrysoula and I were doing.
Chrysoula was showing me how to use a spoon to dig up the bulbs of wild hyacinths. “We can pickle them. Along with wild onions and garlic. Look, more over there.”
“Where?” the other women asked, rushing to where Chrysoula had pointed. They shoved one another to get the best spot for digging.
Chrysoula laughed, saying, “Look, Aliki, the old cats are all chasing the same mouse.”
Zephyra’s mother hissed back at her, “Take care of your own mice that they don’t get us all caught!”
Chrysoula took my hand and we walked away from the others. Zephyra’s mother was certainly referring to our visitors downstairs. Already news of their existence must have spread somehow, but how many villagers knew? If Zephyra’s gossipy mother had worked it out, then the others probably also knew. To shelter anyone endangered everyone. I glanced at Chrysoula to see if she felt the fear as I did, but her face showed no emotion.
“I know a ravine where we might find some striped snails,” she told me, marching along. “We can make salingaria vrasta with lots of thyme. Very tasty. I’ll collect the snails; you pick the thyme.”
That night, she put the snails in an earthenware jug with the thyme so they would feed all night and have the flavor of the herb when cooked. From the room where Takis and I slept next door, I could hear them. They’d crawl partway up the jug, trying to get out, lose traction and fall back down. Their shells would make a little click when they hit the bottom of the jug. Just as I’d be about to fall asleep, there’d be another click. And then another. They couldn’t escape and they couldn’t stop trying. My mind clouded over then as Takis’s and my breathing slowed and we slipped together into the dark shell of sleep.
Sophia and Stelios had never eaten country food like boiled snails or pickled bulbs. So the next evening in the basement lit by candles, Chrysoula tried to demonstrate. “You hold it like this,” she said, positioning the opening of a snail in front of her lips. “And then you suck and suck until the tasty creature just pops into your mouth.” She made loud slurping noises and chewed vigorously. “Like that. And then you have one of these little vinegary bulbs, so nice and crunchy.”
Sophia looked dubious but Stelios dipped into the pot and followed Chrysoula’s instructions. “They’re good,” he said. “Thank you for your kindness.”
He was always polite and at first spoke in a more formal way than we were used to. Or maybe it was that he got rather tongue-tied, as when the day before he’d asked me if I liked to read. “Books, I mean, or, well, you know, well, I guess you don’t have a library here, I mean, well, do you? Read, I mean?”
I didn’t. I knew how to read and write a little, but when the village became occupied Petros had closed the school and locked up the textbooks. Who would want to read those old things anyway? There weren’t any other books in the village that I knew of and most villagers couldn’t read at all.
Sophia was having trouble with the snails and bulbs. Although she maintained a pleasant enough expression as she put the shell to her lips, I guessed that sucking a snail out of its shell was not something she’d ever expected to do.
Takis was little help, saying, “No, no, you have to suck really hard, like this.” He slurped at length. Sophia clapped a hand over her mouth and hurried upstairs.
“Stop that, Takis,” Chrysoula said.
“What did I do?”
Stelios explained that his mother had stomach problems. “It’s been worse since my father and uncle . . .”
Chrysoula shook her head for him to stop, but he didn’t seem to see her in the dim light.
“. . . were taken away.”
“Who took them?” Takis asked.
“Let him eat his dinner,” Chrysoula said. “And you tend to yours.”
No one said anything for a minute or so until Takis blurted out, “But where’d they go?”
Stelios spoke haltingly at first, but his shyness seemed to drop away as he went on. Chrysoula looked alarmed, but she didn’t stop him again. What he was saying didn’t make much sense to me then—how there’d been a lot of family discussion about whether his father and uncle should go to the central synagogue in Athens to register because the German-appointed mayor had demanded it. I didn’t know what a synagogue was then. And register for what?
“Most were too afraid. But, uh, my father and uncle thought, well, what if they didn’t? What might happen?” After registering, they and other men were herded into trucks and driven away. When the news reached Stelios and his mother, they threw a few belongings and some gold sovereigns into suitcases and fled the city.
“My father thought we might all have to, you know, get away eventually,” Stelios said. “So he had a plan, I mean a contact in a band of partisans on the mountain.” He and his mother had walked partway up Mt. Hymettus to meet the contact, who’d sheltered them for a few days and relieved them of most of their sovereigns.
“We moved from village to village. So many times we’ve moved—a cave, a stable, a schoolroom. Each time we had to pay someone. There were different groups, but they all charged something and called it a tax to support their work.” His voice caught in his throat. “It’s been hard for Mother.” But there seemed to be a partisan grapevine and because of it, they’d been brought to the empty house of the charcoal maker in this village. “You know the rest.”
Actually, what I didn’t know was vast. I’d had little religious instruction since the school shut down and couldn’t remember what was meant by the word Jew—a word not yet spoken that night. And in places like our village, even grown-ups didn’t fully understand what was happening outside. In time, it would become known that Greek Jews had been rounded up, especially in the city of Thessaloniki, north of here, but also in Athens, stripped of their belongings and sent north to the concentration camps. Some, like Stelios and his mother, fled to the countryside where villagers took them in.
But all I knew then was that Sophia and Stelios were just Greeks like the rest of us, weren’t they? Or were they also spies along with the father and uncle? Was that really why they’d been taken away? I wondered how to ask this without words as I glanced at the plate of discarded shells and thought again of the snails climbing the sides of the jug, forever falling back, click.
“I don’t understand anything,” Takis said.
“It’s not for you to understand,” Chrysoula said. “Just forget it and go get ready for bed.” When he’d gone, she asked Stelios, “Your father and uncle? You’ve heard nothing?”
“No, no. My mother, she recites an old Hebrew prayer for their safe return. It helps her a little, I think.”
“I’m not a believer. I can only hope . . .”
What was the prayer, I wondered, and what did it mean that it was Hebrew? For that matter, what was it that Stelios didn’t believe?
“I’m so sorry,” Sophia said, returning. “Just a bit of indigestion. What were you saying, Stelios?”
“I was telling them about the partisans, Mother. How we gave them some of our sovereigns and they got us here.”
“Oh, yes. We’re so lucky to have found you.”
They still had a few sovereigns and she offered to give one to Chrysoula, saying that if there was any way to use it for provisions, they’d be pleased to help. “You have so little for yourselves, much less for two more.”
Chrysoula refused politely, but not for long. Gold was the only thing that mattered then. Paper currency had become nearly worthless—a pillowcase full of thousand-drachma notes wouldn’t buy so much as a kilo of salt. In the cities, I heard later, people would trade things such as a grand piano or Persian carpets for just a few kilos of rice or olive oil. But our village was not far from the coast and it was known that the small fishing boats called caïques were making illegal runs to some of the islands and even the Turkish coast. People there didn’t have much either, but the fishermen traded for anything they could get and brought it back for sale at exhorbitant prices. It was possible to buy a few things such as flour, rice and olive oil, even the occasional fish or two, if you could pay the inflated prices. Somehow these things were smuggled into the village—perhaps with payoffs to the Germans, who could say?
“I am so embarrassed,” Chrysoula said. “Hospitality is a matter of pride in my family. But what can we do in such times?”
So at last we were able to make bread, which, dipped in olive oil, kept us going. And sometimes there were small fish to be eaten with rice. Now, if only we could keep the other villagers from finding out. There was no question of sharing our small good fortune. If luck had come to a different house, that family would have done the same. And secrecy, we found, added a flavor all its own.
Excerpted from "My Last Lament"
Copyright © 2017 James William Brown.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Reading Group Guide
Questions for Discussion
1. Who do you think Aliki loved more, Stelios or Takis? Do you think the nature of her love for them was different? How? Do you think Takis had a romantic love for her, or something else?
2. Did you think Takis told the Germans about Stelios and his mother, and set off the massacre of the village? Did you change your mind later? Why? Do you think Takis was mentally unbalanced before then or that the massacre led to his mental instability?
3. Why do you think Aliki took Takis with her for so long? Do you think she was right to cut ties with him finally?
4. Why do you think Aliki never married after the death of Stelios? Why do you think she became a lamenter?
5. What is the relationship between laments and shadow theater performances? What do each of them tell us about our lives?
6. What is a lament? How has your understanding of it changed by reading the novel?
7. Does it surprise you that, as an old woman, Aliki has such an irreverent voice? What does that say to you about Greek culture?
8. Near the end of the novel, Aliki says, “A record of a life nearly complete could also be said to be a lament for that life, couldn’t it?” Do you agree with her? Why or why not?
9. Do you think it’s intrinsic to the Greek character to believe that each of our lives is a story being told? Or do you think that’s part of a wider literary tradition?
10. Do you think the old women who go with Aliki to funerals and other gatherings are meant to function like the chorus in a classic Greek play? In what ways do they do that? In what ways are they different?
11. Many details of Greek life in a small village come out in this novel—the food, the idea of living off the land, the village songs, the pragmatic attitude and stubborn humor with which villagers face their lives. Did you see these attributes as typical of Greeks and Greek culture? Or did this representation change your understanding of what Greece is like?
12. Do you think what happened to Greece after World War II is related to its current economic standing in the eurozone? How do you think the struggle between communism and fascism has affected Greece today? Some critics blame a culture of government corruption for being behind Greece’s fiscal problems. Do you think that’s true, and does it have roots in what happened after the war?
13. How is the world of modern Greece as presented in this novel different from the world of ancient Greece as presented in works such as The Odyssey, The Iliad and others? What are the similarities?