The Secret Sister

The Secret Sister

by Fotini Tsalikoglou


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A third-generation Greek American visits his ancestral homeland, and discovers a century of family secrets, in this “hauntingly poignant” novel (World Literature Today).

From the burning quay at Smyrna to present-day Manhattan, the Argyriou family has been pursued by disaster. In the 1922 Greco-Turkish War, little Frosso and her sister Erasmia flee as Turkish soldiers descend on their village. Orphaned and destitute, the two girls have only each other to rely on as they scrape together a life in the immigrant slums around Athens.
Eighteen years later, Europe is stewing and Erasmia is offered a chance for a new life in America by her fiancé. Compelled to leave by the impending war, Erasmia boards the ship New Greece with a heavy heart, but before the ship reaches harbor her grief takes hold and Erasmia throws herself into the ocean—leading her fiancé to marry her surviving sister instead.Now Erasmia’s great-nephew, who has never seen Greece, will journey to the crisis-ridden country in the twenty-first century to uncover the shadowy past of the Argyriou family—in this atmospheric and psychologically complex novel that explores the blurred line between history and memory.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781609452452
Publisher: Europa Editions, Incorporated
Publication date: 01/06/2015
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 128
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.60(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Born in Athens, Greece, Fotini Tsalikoglou studied psychology at the University of Geneva.  She is the author of many celebrated novels published in Greece, including Eros Pharmakopoios , I Dreamed I Was Well , and I, Martha Freud. Tsalikoglou is currently a professor of psychology at Panteion University in Athens and a regular contributor to the Athens daily To Vima. The Secret Sister is her English language debut.

Read an Excerpt


Eight hours and thirty-five minutes. And then? Where will I end up, Amalia? In a place our mother was afraid to love; and yet, that is where Menelaos was born, and that is where Erasmia and the other Frosso grew up. How can I end up alone in a foreign land? And why now, after all these years? An inscrutable and dark journey. At the most difficult moment. I'm afraid, Amalia. Sunday, January 20, 2013, eleven in the morning.

Just before takeoff. New York to Athens. Seat 3A, a window seat. The seat next to me is empty. It's you who's sitting in it, Amalia. No stranger will disturb you. You're strapped in now, just like me. On the screen, our trajectory. The flying beast — a little dot traveling across the sky. I'm sitting in its belly. And so are you. Why make this journey to a land she never sought out? She'd trick me with all kinds of ruses and hide the truth. She'd drag me off to museums. She'd show me pediments, funerary steles, kouroi and korai statues. "Look," she'd say to me, "open your eyes and look, or you'll be lost." I was seven years old. She'd lend me her eyes. But, at a certain point, it became clear — clear as day — that she was revolted by her country. She changed her name. Nothing reminiscent of Greece. Lale Andersen. The mutant mother.

"None of you are to call me Frosso ever again. From this day onwards, my name is Lale."

Every trip is a search for something. Aside from what you say, that which is evident, there's something more. Like a passionate and impossible love. Without it you're incomplete. A piece that's missing and makes you say: "Now is the time to find it." And yet, there couldn't be a more inopportune time for me to find anything in this country. Or not? Could it be that at the very moment this country is giving in to the unthinkable and everything seems to be collapsing — could it be that now is the right time? "Look or you'll be lost." How can I look if I don't take my body, my arms, my eyes, my mind over there? You're with me in my luggage, Amalia, together with a photograph, an empty notebook and a guidebook to Athens. It'll be my first time there. What am I looking for, who will tell me? A poet spent an entire afternoon searching for the other tiger, the one he needed to finish his poem. Otherwise he couldn't write.

"Don't think so much, Jonathan, you lose yourself in your thoughts, and I, I lose you," you used to tell me.

To lose myself and to love you, to lose myself so as to love you, Amalia. You're my soul! In a few moments, JFK will be far away, and the skyscrapers, the park, the quays, the river, the ocean will all become postcards, pictures from a paper amusement park, shimmering in the light of day until the sky swallows them up.

How will I survive being so far away?

* * *

"You're naked, you'll catch cold. Bundle up. Is that how you're coming to the park? It's December. Look at how warmly I'm dressed. Run and get your anorak."

Stop telling me what to do.

"See, now you have a nosebleed, you'll —"

Oh, but so do you, Amalia. Your nose is bleeding — you and me both.

"Damn it, I got it all over my T-shirt! Jeeesus, look at this mess. A handkerchief, Jonathan! Tie it tightly round my arm."

A handkerchief?

"It stops the bleeding. Grandma says so, remember? Anthoula, quickly, get a hankie. Come on, let's get a move on."

Anthoula, Grandma, we're going. If she asks, tell her we're in the park. We won't be long.

"You poor thing, still hoping she'll ask ... She doesn't give a damn ... She's one messed up woman."

She's not a woman, Amalia! She's our mama!

"She's still a woman."

Oh, just shut up!

With a handkerchief tied around each arm, we'd rush out onto 57th Street and arrive breathless at the park, the squirrels were never afraid of us, with blades of grass, roots, seeds and acorns we would win them over. Cheep-cheep, cheep-cheep, they knew the sound of our voices; they'd come out of their hiding places and scurry towards us, with an inexplicable and impermissible sense of trust.

"That's how everything should be," you'd say, taking out the acorns you'd hid in your pocket.

The last flight of Delta Air Lines. The service from New York to Athens is being discontinued. Is Greece not a viable destination? "Fasten your seat belts." In a few minutes, the lights will be dimmed for takeoff. A sudden lull before the explosion of deafening noises.

The lights were dimmed then too for takeoff. I remember the night. The initial darkness. That's where I came from. Like 6.92 billion others. Each one of them another. We all came out of the same darkness. From the nighttime of a womb. It was Sunday, seven o'clock in the morning. She cried out. Two or three loud screams. That was it. They gave her an epidural. She insisted on keeping her eyes open. I was born without anyone asking me. She wanted me to be born at home. Persistently she insisted.

"I want to give birth at home — not at the hospital."

Her parents, Grandpa Menelaos and Grandma Erasmia, were frightened.

"Frosso, that's crazy talk!"

"Let me do as I wish."

"Frosso, for God's sake! What are you thinking? You have a birth ahead of you, not a death. You're about to give birth and you act like a dying woman who insists on leaving her last breath in her home, so that her soul might rest in peace. Is it all the same to you — the first and last breath?"

"I'll do as I please."

"Are you confusing the new life that's struggling to come out into the light with one that's already on its way to darkness?"

Strange and weird Mama. "It's my birth," she'd say, "and it's my child, so I'll do as I please." I felt her vocal cords in my stomach ... I was only two inches long and already I could hear her voice inside me. "I want him here, in my bed, I want the first thing he sees to be the light coming from the river." She didn't want me. She wanted to want. That was all.

It was summer, and the Hudson River poured golden reflections over the houses stretching along its shores. That was where our house was. At first — and for a few days to come — it was her place of residence. Her one and only place. But that didn't last long. There was no father.

I never knew my father. And neither did you, Amalia.

"Was it the same man?"

But we're the same. Look at how alike we are! Look, if you don't believe me, look in the mirror.

"Why, yes, we're the same, Jonathan, we're the same."

So perhaps we share the same father ... what difference does it make? She needed a seed for her son. And another for her daughter. I was her son. Her first child. With you it was different, Amalia. For you maybe she also wanted a great love. Maybe not. You can't order great loves. They come and find you and, if you are not frightened off, they give you unbearable bliss.

"At home nobody ever spoke of these things. It was stifling, all the things they hid from us."

Sealed lips hid secrets. And if someone, Grandma, let's say, or Grandpa, or Anthoula, tried to speak, it would be like robbing a church. It was sacrilege for anyone to try and ask something about "Daddy" or "Amalia and Jonathan's daddy," or to imply something about "Mrs. Efrosyni Argyriou's husband." Who makes the rules? Who enforces them, and at what cost? Each family is fed by its secrets. Like a strangely bulimic climbing vine, the unrevealed secrets embrace the family's flesh a little tighter each day, until in the end they become one with it. You can't tell the vine from the flesh. A couple joined for all time, and if you try to pry it apart, you destroy it. Dust, damp, lichen and bugs erode the leafy, green body. In the summer, when the smell of something rotting won't let you be, you pray to God for a breath of fresh air.

* * *

An oppressive heat is coming out of the air conditioning —"Please, Miss, could you fix the ventilator?" The revolving nozzle above my head is adjusted and the temperature drops at once. I can't wait for takeoff. A couple of rows in front of me an elderly woman makes the sign of the cross. The moment just before becoming airborne is ideal for entreaties. Up there in the sky, in a few moments, our fate will lie in God's hands. If you grow up without a father, you dream of those hands — sometimes gently healing your wounds, and other times mean and merciless, choking the life out of you.

"Heavens above, Frosso, one doesn't play with God!"

Our mother played with him. She borrowed his omnipotence and his arbitrariness. She answered to no one. To give birth to her son in her bedroom, to cut the umbilical cord herself, to wash off the blood, to spend the day with the newborn in her arms, defying the rules of physical and mental health — she would do all these things and more. To reveal to no one who her son's father was. And, two years later, to be pregnant with a daughter, whose father was unknown once again. To give her children names like Jonathan and Amalia for her own indecipherable reasons. I assume she liked the sound of "Jonathan"— there's an extended musicality to it, at "Jo-" the tongue goes up as if it's singing, and then at "nathan" it settles down again, a little sadly. As for "Amalia," maybe it was the first syllable, "Am-," that sounds like the French for soul. I'll never know.

You have to be pretty unhappy to always want to do things your way. Grandma, Grandpa, Anthoula, Stamatis, our Greek friends, Grandpa's colleagues, Peter, Matthew, John — none of them dared contradict her. Were they frightened of her misery? And when she started drinking like a fish, and there'd be no trace of her for hours, even days, again no one said anything. And when her belly began to grow, again no one asked about the whys and the wherefores. What else did they fear besides her misery? God punishes those who stand in the way of the insane desires of insanely miserable people. Who doesn't want God's grace? And if you're guilty, you might want it even more ...

Were all of them guilty? Why? How long did we live in ignorance? And could it be that when the secret is revealed, when the darkness is lifted, then you find yourself in another delusion?

You lean over and whisper something in my ear, the roar of the plane's engine grows louder, I try to make out your words.

"Jonathan," you say, "what you will never know will always be stronger, don't kid yourself, do you want me to tell you what you accomplish every time you think you understand?"

Yes, tell me.

"A meatless bone of truth is what you're holding in your hand, and you're licking it and saying 'this tastes good'."

Don't stop talking to me, Amalia.

The voice is lost, all I catch is the word "crumbs" and the phrase "the bones of truth." The noise drowns out the rest.

The engines sound like something just before an explosion. The elderly woman is still praying. What would she think if I suddenly went up to her and said: "It's no use, my dear lady, however many signs of the cross you make, nothing will change. The sky is self-sufficient; a cloudless flight does not obey entreaties."

Instead of screaming to her face that "fear, Madam, is a prison, and in any case you can't exorcise it," I leave her in peace. My mind goes back again to my fearless mother.

At the last moment, certain complications put an end to her reckless plans. No doctor would take the risk of a home birth. And so I wasn't born at number 380 Riverside Drive, but at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital on 59th Street. Shortly after I left her insides to come out into the light, she wrapped me up in a blanket as dainty as lace and, hardly giving them time to cut the umbilical cord and wash off the blood, she rushed me home. She almost kidnapped me. The chauffeur was waiting in the courtyard. "Hurry, we're late!" she shouted at him. It was Sunday. It took us only twenty minutes to get from Midtown Manhattan to the Upper West Side. Our house anxiously awaited my arrival. The silk sheets on her bed, the soap, the smell of cleanliness, sandalwood and lemon. Outside there was the smell of the river. On the first night of my life I slept without fear, she never left my side, her breast had milk, plenty of milk, it's as if I can still taste its tartness on my tongue. There are times when I despise milk and all dairy, big avenues and long journeys. There are times when I hate orphan boys and their bitches of mothers, their missing fathers and this entire city. There are times when I can't stand a city that never sleeps. The Big Apple. Its incessant hum which, if you let your guard down, will hypnotize you and then good luck finding yourself again, among the crowds moving along the streets like a river, amid the aroma of exotic foods and charred meat in the streets, amid the museums and the cathedrals. And yet, this is my city. This is where I was born. This is where I learned to love you, Amalia, the long river and the ocean. The skyscrapers made me woozy. I'd avoid looking up at them. Is the only way to avoid constant motion sickness to become an ocean yourself?

The sky is strongly reminiscent of the sea. We're flying at thirty-six thousand feet. Why this sudden journey? It only took me a minute to decide on it. I left in a hurry. Like a burglar who disappears when he hears suspicious noise and leaves the loot behind so he won't get arrested. I left to get away. I left in the middle of everything. My whole life. As if that too had been stolen. Like someone who's been guilty for a long time, I dreaded being locked up. Is the Argyriou family to blame for all this, Amalia? Our family? Is that who makes me feel like a thief? Makes me want to save myself? Hush, don't say anything, don't say "all families are like that."

"And yet, Jonathan, it's true. No one can be saved from their family."

In a few hours I had my tickets and my luggage ready. I, who hate moving around; I, who, if I had the straps, would tie myself down to the bed at night, in case, like a sleepwalker, I get up and disappear; I, who, if I could, would keep myself like a heavy statue on solid ground — here I am now strapped in an airplane seat, preparing for the sudden turbulence of a transatlantic flight. I left everything behind and got up and left.

"There was no other way, Jonathan. You know that."

The lights will go out, are going out, have gone out. The engines are growling. The monster is rising up into the sky. In its belly, I sit dreaming. The noise drives me crazy, like a bomb ready to explode inside me, I cover my ears. Unexpectedly, the face of a madman enters my head. Who can control the mind's workings? December 1993. Our respectable Catholic school has organized a Christmas party at the Blue Mountain charity. Do you remember, Amalia? "Sensitization visits" they called them, to the indigent homeless. The foundation had its own history. It was set up with money donated by the Rockefeller family, in memory of one of their sons who had died on a trip to New Guinea, a horrible death though the exact circumstances were unknown.

The airplane has taken off. A smiling young woman with golden tiger eyes is serving fruit juice; I'm in Business Class, I paid a pretty penny for this trip.


Excerpted from "The Secret Sister"
by .
Copyright © 2013 Fotini Tsalikoglou, Kastaniotis.
Excerpted by permission of Europa Editions.
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.

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