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  • Robert L. Giron

Issue 194

This issue features

 

 

Czaraini Sagara

 

Lego

 


© by Czaraini Sagara.

 

Jacqueline Guidry


Talent

from the novel-in-progress, Mark the Division

 

 

They ran into each other at Lowe’s, Susan there for a sale on shelving, Dana looking to replace the flapper valve in the girls’ bathroom. The coincidence of seeing her sister in that unexpected place led Susan to suggest Olive Garden for lunch. But now, sitting across from Dana, she regrets the invitation.

 

“Want to know your problem?” Dana says.


“Not especially.”


“You spend too much time on silly stuff.”


“Silly?” She has her flaws, but silliness is not one of them. Only Dana would dispute that.


“These days, scrapbooking,” she says. “Decoupage before that. Flower crafts, though that didn’t last long. The water coloring craze and…”


“Painting? What’s not legit about painting?”


“If you have talent, fine. If someone wants to pay for your work, hang it in a museum or gallery, then fine.”


“Now you’re saying I don’t have any talent?” Why, why, why did she ask her sister to lunch? “Unlike you and Eddie?”


“If that boy has a talent, it’s reaching for every bad deal that promises a good time,” Dana says. “The army? Who ever heard?”


“He’ll grow up.” Isn’t it time for baby brother to grow up?


“Obama keeps deploying troops and that’s when he decides to enlist. Eddie, Eddie,” Dana says. Then, “Afghanistan.”


“He’ll be fine.” Their brother has always been fine, will be just as fine wearing a uniform. Afghanistan? Not everyone ends up there.


“A sucker born every minute,” Dana says. “Ask any con artist.”


“He’s no sucker. Not our Eddie.” The intensity takes her by surprise.


When he was born, the sisters were united in their adoration. He was their precious baby, nearly 17 years younger than Susan. When they got past the embarrassment of their mother—pregnant at her age—both of them had been eager for a new sibling, someone who hadn’t worn out his welcome. And Eddie didn’t disappoint, though when he hit middle school, he became less the Eddie they worshipped and more the Eddie fitting in with all the other teenyboppers bumbling around like lost Billy goats. In high school, he found a pack, did what the pack did. He picked up cigarettes, dropped them when they slowed him on the soccer field. Weed had the same effect so he only treated himself during the few weeks between soccer, basketball, and baseball. Not so with the beer and whatever else he guzzled, regularly ending up bashed at a sister’s house in the early mornings, some pal unloading him in the driveway. He’d been spending overnights with his sisters for as long as anyone could remember. Why should Sybil and Jack start questioning their darling boy’s weekend routine now?


Their waitress, Melody as she’d introduced herself, sets down the large salad featuring unlimited refills, one reason both sisters favor the place. The promise of more, available in an instant, is irresistible. Fast service is another plus, especially for Dana with her long string of obligations tugging her away from leisurely lunches. The most organized adults fall behind as soon as the third child comes along, their mother the apparent exception proving the rule. But after hashing that over, the sisters concluded Eddie isn’t a true third child, the age difference between him and them turning him into more of an only child. Baby brother runs solo.


They’re still serving themselves when Melody is back to top off water glasses. “What a great day. Isn’t it gorgeous out there? I love, absolutely love summer.”


No reply from either sister.


 “I’ll check on the rest of your order right away.” She’s overdoing it even for a waitress working the table for her tip.


“What talent do you think I have?” Dana asks after Melody skips off.


“Talent?”


“You said I have talent.” She spears a cherry tomato. “I’m just asking.”


“You started this. You tell me.” She’s always suspected Dana of considering herself the superior sister. Dana salutatorian of her high school class despite whipping through most assignments on bus rides to and from school. Dana with the LSU scholarship, which she turned down in favor of marrying Allen, a wise move because he’s still nuts about her. Dana with their mother’s lovely hazel eyes. Okay. Susan also has those, definitely her best feature. But Dana’s come without the thick brows Susan has to groom constantly to hold in check. She cuts a lettuce leaf into bite-sized portions, staring down at her plate. All she has to do is take a quiet step away from where she’s heading, and today’s lunch won’t spin back to childhood grievances the sisters nurse like favorite suckers.


Dana runs a fork through her salad, trolling for olives.


“Everybody is good at something.” A perfectly neutral statement, but she expects Dana to argue otherwise. No matter the subject, her sister usually argues otherwise.


“Not true,” Dana says.


Precisely what Susan predicted. Doesn’t she know her sister?


 “I’ve met a ton of people without a single talent to their name,” Dana says. “Some folks are doing good to get from bed to bathroom without tripping over their own feet.”


Susan also knows people like that, though this isn’t how she wants to view the world, a critical eye aimed at flaws most people can’t help. Some days, she and Dana seem too alike, twins rather than sisters separated by eleven months. Other days, those months when Susan existed alone offer partial explanation for their myriad differences.


Melody arrives with main courses, promises to return in a jiffy with tea refills, and is good on her word. If Melody doesn’t get a generous tip, it won’t be for lack of effort.


“Memory,” Dana says after swallowing her first bite of grilled chicken.


“Pardon?”


“That’s what I’d point to as my talent,” she says. “Remember freshman geography? All those countries and capitols, natural resources, rivers, or mountains or whatever.”


“Don’t forget political systems.”


“I bet I can still name the capitol of every country we studied. Just ask me.”


“I hated that class.” The vehemence is unwarranted, given she finished the course close to two decades ago.


“You and everybody else,” Dana says.


“You aced it.”


“Memory,” Dana says. “My talent.”


If Dana is the Delchamps sister who remembers everything, who is Susan?


“And your talent,” Dana says, their thought waves traveling the same highway, “is never giving up. Persistence.”


“Really?” She does see every undertaking to its conclusion. Start a scrapbook? Finish it. No half-done piles eyeing her accusingly. But is this a talent? She regards Dana suspiciously. Who should know a person’s talents better than her sister?


“When we were kids, I was the one with stuff scattered all over the place. I knew how to lay my hands on every sliver of paper, every popsicle stick. What was it with me and popsicle sticks?”


“Don’t ask me.”


“Important point is I knew where every one of them was.” She taps her temple with a pinky. “But finish every project? Hundreds of my kiddie schemes strewn all over our bedroom.” She wears a bemused smile at the thought.


“I’m not sure persistence is a skill.” How does her sister manage to swing every conversation back to herself?


“Talent,” Dana corrects. “Skill is something you learn. Talent is innate. Nobody can teach you to be persistent, not to the degree you’re persistent.”


Melody is back and about to cross the line from attentive to overbearing. Eavesdropping? This conversation is hardly worth the effort. Then again, maybe Melody yearns to discover something special about herself, a quality setting her apart from all the other Olive Garden servers.


“Driving is a skill and most everyone learns,” Dana says. “You get a permit. You practice. Not with our mother, if you’re lucky.”


“Got that right.” Sybil’s right foot had tapped an invisible brake pedal from the passenger’s seat even after Susan had been driving for nearly a year with no mishaps. Much later, Eddie reported their mother drove him bonkers doing the same.


“Talent is a different deal.” Dana tips the salad bowl and looks disappointed when she uncovers only a half olive buried in lettuce. “I can drive from Point A to Point B. Skill. I can’t drive the Indianapolis 500. Talent.” She sits back, victorious. Another Dana trait—looking as if she’s won whether or not a contest is in play.


“I suppose persistence can be a talent,” she says, not because she is convinced but because if she disagrees, they will have to proceed to the next question. If persistence isn’t her talent, what is?


“How far along are you on the scrapbooks?” She rarely mentions one of Susan’s hobbies unless it’s to criticize. Didn’t she just demonstrate that? But for whatever reason, she is also eager to leave the talent discussion behind.


“Eddie’s coming over this afternoon to see the results.”


“You’re done already?” Is that a glint of admiration?


“Only the first.” She’s creating scrapbooks commemorating Eddie’s enlistment. One each for her son and daughter, one each for her three nieces. “The first is always easiest. To be unique, by number five…” She looks past her sister, takes in the hubbub of the lunch hour crowd, more boisterous than usual. No familiar faces. She turns back to Dana. “I want to do Eddie justice.”


“Justice? What does Eddie know about justice?”


“As much as any kid his age, I suppose.” Eddie, while no longer their fat-cheeked cherub, remains the curious boy dipping fingers into unchartered territory, pulling back before paying any serious price. Justice? Eddie Delchamps knows nothing about justice.


Neither sister accepts Melody’s urging for dessert. They leave a decent, though not extravagant, tip.

 

Susan pulls into her drive later than planned because of the unanticipated lunch. Eddie’s truck is at the curb. With the kids at nature camp and Kalvin slaving to convince another client that a million in life insurance isn’t a penny more than their family deserves, Eddie would’ve let himself in with the spare key kept under a loose brick on the back patio. Blindfolded and blotto to boot, Eddie can put his hands on that key.


She slips her own key into the back door. Are the kids—busy with caterpillars, crawfish, slugs, and who knows what other creepy crawlers—having a better day? Complaints about this camp are louder than usual. They hate it, they say. But they aren’t old enough to know what they hate. A mother has to nurture her children’s fledgling talents even when she isn’t clear what those might be. Neither she nor Kalvin lean in any scientific direction but no telling about their kids.


“My sister, my sister,” Eddie calls from the living room when she steps inside. He’s on the sofa, eating with one hand, playing an x-box game she doesn’t recognize with the other. A half-eaten package of oatmeal-raisin cookies and a can of Pepsi are on the coffee table, now strewn with his crumbs. Her kids know better than to make this kind of mess. But Eddie is Eddie.


“Don’t be shy,” she says. “Make yourself at home.”


He grins, though she isn’t sure whether that’s meant for her or for the red numbers streaming across the screen, stopping to rest at 295,000. 


“You won.” She sits next to him, watches the screen for more action, but nothing moves. The number keeps flashing. Dana and Eddie, the Delchamps winners.


“You wanted to show me something?” Game definitely over.


“You were the one who wanted to see something.” Last Sunday, at Dana’s for a family cookout, Eddie and Monica, his current GF, and Susan were at the kitchen counter, slicing tomatoes and cutting cantaloupe. Somebody mentioned the scrapbooks. Had that been her? The GF? Doesn’t matter because Eddie is most definitely the one who invited himself over to inspect what she was up to. Inspect. A new Eddie word to go along with the rest of the military jargon he’s adopted as if mimicking vocabulary can turn him into a soldier.


“Well, I’m here, reporting.”


Reporting. Yes, sir.


“Show me.”


The 295,000 expands to fill the screen, the pulsing beat steady but slower, the machine still congratulating itself on the victory and indifferent to whether a human joins the celebration.


“Play?” he asks.


Her children have given up attempting to persuade her to try her hand at one of their electronic games. She’ll kick a soccer ball, pitch batting practice, toss a football, even accept a basketball H-O-R-S-E challenge. But when it comes to computer games, she’s strictly a solitaire woman. “I don’t play.”


He punches a control, switching the screen to a Lego-like squat figure, an ultra friendly little guy waving cheerily. Do her kids know the game? “Really, Eddie,” she says. “I’m not a player.” By now, he should know that.


“I’ll do a run through, so you get the hang.”


He presses another button and the screen changes again. An obstacle course. Hurdles. Brick walls. Water barriers ranging from puddles to lakes. “You can play alone, trying to beat your best score, or against someone else.”


“Eddie, listen. I’m not playing.”


 “It’s just what you need. You’ll see.”


“I don’t need to be wasting time on some kid’s game.” Unlike Dana, who’d never let a comment like that pass, Eddie says nothing. He keeps fiddling with controls, doesn’t remind her that, like everybody, she wastes plenty of time. Why would he? Isn’t he her sweetheart of a brother?


“I’ll do the first run. You’ll go next. Only one game for each of us.” He adds that last as if she’s begging for more when they haven’t even started.


The little fellow fast walks down the course and hops the first hurdle. At each barrier, Eddie explains the method for getting past. How to control the height of Lego Boy’s leaps, letting him clear the hurdle but not end up in the trees bordering the path. How to grab a canoe when water is too wide to jump and how to judge when that’s the case. How to burst through a stone wall with an explosive from the backpack. How to climb ladders. How to replenish supplies. How to avoid prowling worms ready to devour your player. That last Eddie demonstrates by sacrificing his tiny warrior to the worm, which savors the tasty treat before slowly spitting out even tinier versions.


“Gross,” she says but can’t turn away from the mini-Lego boys flailing in a pond before sinking one by one. “Where are the life preservers?” Then, “Little children play this?”


“Everybody plays,” he says. “Different levels for different players.”


She imagines the havoc, blood, and gore everywhere, and vows to pay closer attention when her kids are gaming.


The last of the struggling figures sinks, and the screen flashes a frowny face. Sorry in gray letters floats under the frown, followed by an optimistic try again.


“Your turn.” He hands her the controls then pushes a button and the original screen returns, little guy bouncing on the balls of his feet and reminding Susan of her daughter before she runs onto a soccer field. “Watch out for the worms. They can be faster than you think.”


She starts slowly. Lego Boy strolls to the first obstacle, a short hurdle he passes with a single, restrained hop. Five appears in the corner of the screen. The player splashes through a puddle and sneaks past a pink crawler, more maggot than worm. The score creeps up to 15.


“Pick up the tempo. You’re playing against the clock.” He reaches for another cookie, breaks off half in a single bite, surveys the screen.


She speeds up until the player is trotting but slows him again when he arrives at the first wall requiring an explosive. Backpack open. Bomb out. Ka-boom and the score ups to 150.


“Nice,” he says.


“Why do boys love blowing things up?” She knocks a knee against his. “Even big boys about to start blowing up big things.”


He takes another cookie, offers her one, which she declines as she replenishes her backpack. The green worm, more dangerous than the pink, lumbers out of the forest. The enemy is some distance away, but its quickening pace makes her rush and that causes the backpack to overturn, weapons, and special powers scattering. “What now?” A hint of panic despite sitting safely next to her brother, both of them far from danger.


The worm, once a shadow on the horizon, is a growing menace.


“Should I run?”


“You’re dead meat without a filled pack.” He holds out a hand for the controls. “Sorry. I should’ve shown you this.” He manipulates a dustpan from a side pouch, along with a stubby brush, and sweeps supplies into the pack.


“The worm,” she warns. “Almost on you.”


He keeps his little man scrambling for more.


“Hurry.” She leans forward, elbows pressing her knees.


Lego Boy has the pack on his shoulders again, ready to resume the journey, but the worm is right behind him.


“Looks like we’re dead meat anyhow.”


“Not me, sister.” A silver spear emerges from another pouch. “Say your prayers, fat boy.” The worm evaporates and Eddie hands her the controls. She gets back to work and finishes without getting chewed up.


Nice job flashes under her score of 10,750. Then, play again.


“Want to?” Eddie asks.


“Once is plenty.” The game isn’t giving up, though. Play again fills half the screen. Easy to see how a person gets addicted to these things. The screen begging you to play, urging you to take another chance, to up your score. “We don’t let the kids play more than an hour a day.” She doesn’t like the idea of her children held captive by the plaintive demands of a video game. “Maybe even that’s too much.”


He stands suddenly, goes into jumping jack mode, rattling two vases on the mantle. “Hut one, hut two,” he calls out until he reaches fifty.


“You’re in good shape,” she says. “Ready for boot camp.”


Now he stretches on the floor. Push-ups. Same hut one, hut two to fifty. When he finishes, he crawls towards a stuffed chair, rests against it. “No one’s ready for the boot.”


“You, Eddie. You’ll be ready.” She isn’t sure she actually believes this, but being encouraging never hurts. Not that Eddie ever needed much along those lines. This is how her brother’s life has gone. See something you want? Go after it. Get it. When that’s your norm, what do you need with encouragement?


“That’s what I tell Monica.” The GF hangs around more than Sybil would like, but Susan rather enjoys this version of girlfriend. “Except…” He stretches the word until it fills the room. “Can’t be ready,” he says. “That’s what I’m telling you.” He gives the last word special emphasis, stares at her hard.


“Not what you tell Monica,” she says slowly.

 “Not what I tell Monica,” he repeats. “Not what I tell Mama or Daddy or Dana or…” He stops, the list of people he isn’t telling long enough to fill every minute between now and Kalvin walking through the door with the children, all three grumbling about their day. Until that happens, Susan is here with her brother and doing her best to understand what he’s telling her.


“Me,” Susan says. “You’re telling me different.” She pauses. “Only me.” Shouldn’t she be embarrassed by the sharp thrill of being chosen above everyone else, Dana included?


“Got it, big sister.” Beads of sweat line his upper lip. He isn’t in quite as good shape as she originally thought.


She wants to say something truly supportive, only what does a person say to a brother who never needed reassurance? “Talent,” she spurts.


“Say what?” He grabs the last cookie.


“You’ve got talent, and you’ll learn new skills at boot camp.” Talent and skills, not the same. “You’ll do great.”


“Talent?”


“Handling pressure.” His life has been one easy step after another, any pressure more imagined than real. Still, she’s confident he’ll stay calm if a situation demands quick, decisive action. She can’t explain why she needs him to agree with her, but she does.


He says nothing, chews and waits.


Play again flickers insistently on the screen.


“You didn’t panic just now. Not like me. Took your time. Picked up the supplies. Let our little fellow make it to past the worm.”


“The army doesn’t give points for video scores.” He downs the rest of his Pepsi. “Not that the recruiter said.”


What exactly did the recruiter say? Before she can ask, he’s on his feet again, this time crouching into a fighter’s stance, air punching left, right, left and bouncing on the balls of his feet around the open spaces in the living room. He jabs the air in a tight circle around her head, but she doesn’t flinch. If there is one thing she knows about her baby brother, it’s that he’d never hurt her, never hurt anybody. Not intentionally. Might be a problem for a soldier but no reason to say that now.


“You’re a wild boy today.”


He shadow punches faster, pulling away from her to make his way into the dining room, circling back into the living room as she follows his progress from the sofa. After several laps, he stops in front of her again, breathing heavily, and raises his arms in a V of triumph. “King of the goddamn Universe.”


“King of the wild boys,” she says. “Only, promise me you’ll be careful. In boot camp and everywhere.”


“Careful? Me? The wildest of the wild?”


Whatever does that mean? She is about to ask when he notices the time and says he’s late picking up Monica. He’ll be back another day to see the scrapbooks. No fooling. He wants to see what she’s come up with, is flattered she’s doing this for him. “Later,” he says and is gone.


Play again, the screen begs.


Doesn’t she know her brother as well as she knows her sister? So, she’s always thought. But then this. Eddie hoisting a rifle, not the toy model he lugged around for years as a kid. Real. Nothing but real. Ready, aim, fire.


Play again, play again.


Find some other sucker, Lego Boy. No more games for Susan and her baby brother.

 

Copyright © 2024 by Jacqueline Guidry.



About the Author

Jacqueline Guidry was raised in Carencro, LA and now lives in Kansas City. Her short fiction can be found in Nimrod, Ocotillo Review, South Carolina Review, and elsewhere. She is a five-time Pushcart nominee, is slated to appear in the Chaffin Journal and the Valparaiso Fiction Review, has work in the latest issue of Big Muddy, and received descant’s Gary Wilson Short Fiction Award. Her novel, The Year the Colored Sisters Came to Town (Welcome Rain), was selected for the Pen/Faulkner Writers in Schools program and was the community read in Kansas City, Missouri and Windsor, Connecticut. Currently, she is in the muddled middle of drafting both a novel and a hybrid collection centered on Cajun life, past and present. 

 

Maura Reap

Goreme Village

 


© by Maura Reap.

 


Deno Trakas

                                                                        

Only Who Is Left

 

(an excerpt from the novel-in-progress with the same title)

                              War does not determine who is right—only who is left.

                                                                                                     — Bertrand Russell

                         

 A Turkish village west of Manisa, Turkey, September 6, 1922

 

 The war was over, but not the danger, especially for someone like me, a refugee.

 

Even from the linden trees where I hid, I could tell they were trouble, three Greek soldiers in a horse-drawn wagon, identifiable by their tattered, unbuttoned, khaki tunics. The furry, bear-like driver wore a mustache that covered his mouth like thatch and a lopsided cloth cap. The bearded, goat-like passenger beside him looked lunatic under a fancy military hat that seemed to have wings. And the man sprawled in the back wore a metal helmet that made him look German, and hot—his head must've baked like a meatball in the heat of the day—but the sun was setting now. The bear driver shook reins with one hand and lifted a bottle with the other, while the goat passenger bit chunks from a loaf of bread and cradled a rifle. The wagon wobbled on the uneven cobblestones, loaded with an odd assortment of crates, a bag of boots, a shiny samovar, a gramophone—all probably stolen.

 

I'd avoided conscription and now tried to avoid all soldiers, Greek or Turk, deserters too, especially deserters. I stayed well to the west of the retreating wave of defeated Greeks who were probably looting and burning Manisa this very day, practicing their deplorable scorched earth policy as they fled toward Smyrna. When possible, battalions of soldiers moved by train or convoys of trucks, but there was never enough of that transportation, especially now with the collapse of the Greek army, so thousands of soldiers, along with thousands of civilians, were headed for the Aegean coast riding animals, walking, or traveling any way they could. Sometimes they ended up in the less populated areas that I sought—rural lands and small villages. The three in front of me seemed to be stragglers turned bandits, and I followed them because if there was trouble ahead, they'd find it first and I could slip away.

 

Instead, they found two Turkish women, heads covered, one with a two-piece black charshaf, the other with a black shawl over a brown dress that fell to her ankles, walking quickly arm in arm toward the mosque. The drunken men in the wagon shouted at them in Greek to stop, to join them for a drink, but they only snugged their clothes, quickened their steps, and slipped inside the double wooden doors. The mosque was small, square, one story, whitewashed stone with a faded blue dome and a single minaret that made me think, not for the first time, of the difference between a church and a mosque, between a cross, a symbol of the crucifixion, and a minaret, more like a fortress tower, more like a weapon.

 

The village looked as if its people had tried to build a tower of block houses, but a petulant God had knocked it down, leaving a hillside scattered with one- and two-story box structures made of mud, stones, and mortar, some painted in fading pastels, the rest the color of dust. An old man with a brushed white beard, intricately folded turban, and green cloak stepped outside and tracked the wagon after it passed, but when he saw me, he ducked back inside. The wagon stopped at the mosque. The bear soldier got out, holding his bottle, stumbled up the steps to the doors, rattled the handles and cursed, but he couldn't get in. He looked toward the blazing sunset as if it inspired him, then poured his raki on the steps, flicked some on the door, and pulled out a box of matches. As he fumbled with it, the helmet soldier shouted "Don't!" in Greek, hopped out of the wagon and limped toward him, but the goat soldier ordered him to freeze and aimed the rifle at him. Helmet stopped and held up his hands. Bear lit the alcohol, which flared into blue flames on the door.

 

Exhausted from my journey and not thinking clearly, I yelled "Put it out" and jogged toward them in my broken shoes, clutching my shoulder bag and pulling my pistol from my rope belt. Goat swung his weapon at me and said, "Stay back!" but Helmet lunged forward, grabbed the barrel with both hands and yanked it away. He aimed the gun at Bear and said, "You heard him—put it out." Bear just laughed and threw his bottle against the door, where it broke into more flames. When I ran up, he swung at me wildly, but since he was drunk, I was able to dodge and knock him over. After a second, he realized he was on fire, so he bumped down the steps, patting himself and cursing. I took off my coat, slapped it against the burning doors, and yelled what I thought was the Turkish word for fire. Helmet helped me and knocked on the door with the butt of the rifle. The door opened and the people inside scurried out and began to stomp and beat the flames, and the old man from the village brought a boy with a bucket of water that he splashed on the doors. Bear, his coat still smoking, managed to crawl back into the wagon—he and his accomplice lashed the horse and rolled away before the crowd could turn on them.

   

In a few minutes, the fire was put out, and those of us who'd fought it, about twenty in all, mainly women and old men, stood on and around the steps of the mosque, pleased but nervous, uncertain, speaking thanks and greetings in Greek and Turkish. A tiny, withered woman rushed up to me, wailed, and pounded feebly on my chest. The old man gently pulled her away, and the boy, about fourteen, not yet soldier age, bright eyes, curly black hair, and a gap in his front teeth, said in Greek, "Her son was killed by the others."

 

"What others?" I asked.

 

The boy translated my question and several people responded at once. I understood some Turkish, but he was more bilingual than I, so I encouraged him to speak. His name was Erdem, I introduced myself as Costa, and Helmet pointed to himself and said Stavros. Erdem told us that the villagers were upset and confused because an hour earlier an unorganized band of Greek soldiers had swarmed through the village, killed a policeman, chased away other officials, broke into homes, stole food and drink, money and jewelry, clothes, and boots. They tried to set fires, but they didn't have petrol and were in too much of a hurry to be thorough with their atrocities, thanks be to Allah. But who were we?

 

I looked to Stavros to answer. He lifted off his helmet, wiped his grimy face on his coat sleeve, and said in Greek with Erdem translating, "I'm a Greek soldier. I was fighting at the front, at Dumlupinar. Kemal beat us, and now we, the whole Greek army, is in retreat. I was one of the farthest in, so I'm one of the last out. I rode on the top of a train for a day until someone pushed me off. I had to ask those two jackals to give me a ride, but they wouldn't share their food with me."

 

Several of the women began to speak among themselves and consulted the old man, who nodded once. A middle-aged woman pulled her sagging headscarf over her thick brown hair, looked at us with a blunt face, the face of a judge, and spoke for the group. Erdem translated, "You saved our mosque, maybe our lives. We are poor, and the others took almost everything, but we'll find something for you. Where are you going?"

 

Stavros said, "To Foca. I heard there would be a Greek ship to pick us up."

 

She turned to me and asked if I was a soldier too.

 

I was about to lie as usual when asked that question, then considered telling the truth to these decent people, but I lied because I was embarrassed to be a non-soldier in the presence of a man my age who'd fought the bloody final battle. In Greek I said, "Yes, I'm a soldier, but I wasn't at the front, I was stationed near Bursa, and I'm walking to Smyrna. But I'm hungry too." The last part was true. For the last few weeks I'd been walking, stealing food when I could and otherwise trying to sustain myself off the land—purslane, wild asparagus, artichokes, okra, fruits, nuts, and berries—as I'd learned to do in the summers of my childhood on the range with my father and his herds. But I was always hungry.

 

The woman smiled as if pleased by our need and said, "The others will pray for us, but you come to my house. I'm Ozella. You'll have to leave the guns outside." Stavros handed the rifle to the old man, who was surprised, didn't want it, but took it anyway and carried it as if he'd done it before. I dropped my pistol into my bag, and we trudged behind them.

 

The muezzin called to the village from the minaret, and I imagined the others inside, facing Mecca and joining their imam in their sunset prayers.

 

Stavros asked, "Do you have a cigarette?"

 

"No, sorry."

 

"Are you really a soldier?" He could see I wasn't wearing a uniform of any kind. I looked at his face to try to discern his attitude, but he kept his eyes down as if he were too tired to lift them. He said, "I don't care—there isn't an army anymore."

 

I believed him, he wasn't going to turn me in, all he wanted was to eat a meal and get to a ship, so even though he was just the kind of man I'd tried to deceive or avoid, I told the truth. "No. I'm one of the million Greeks who grew up in this country. I was living in Constantinople with fake papers that said I was too young to fight in The War, and when a friend betrayed me to the military police, I sneaked away. I've been walking for weeks, sometimes blending in, usually hiding."

 

I'd left the city at dawn on a steamy August morning, just as the red trams began to run. My employer, Dr. Bayat, a Turk of Persian descent, a skilled dentist by trade, had advised me to flee 300 miles south to Smyrna, a diverse, cultured, cosmopolitan city undisturbed by the war. Most of the citizens were Greek, but his sister, a Turk with a French husband, lived there and could help me. He gave me a gun, a gold lira, and some change, suggested I take the tram down to Yedi Coule, then buy passage on the ferry that crossed the Sea of Marmara to Bursa, but I feared the authorities checking my papers. Pantihi also lay to the south; I’d gone there by train every day during the last year that I lived with Uncle Stamati. The regular passengers and authorities knew me, called me “Doctor” because I wore expensive clothes handed down to me by Dr. Bayat and carried a bag of dental equipment. That day my clothes and bag were casual, but I simply said I was going to the Prince Islands for a few days of vacation, and they nodded with envy. From Pantihi, to avoid both armies, local authorities, bandits, chettahs, and vengeful Turks who earned money or favors by killing Christians, I usually walked at night and stayed off the main roads. I knew enough Turkish to tell simple lies and hid in animal stalls, barns, haystacks, caves, ravines, dry creek beds, underbrush, the canopies of trees, the hollow trunks of trees, cemeteries and ossuaries, storerooms, and attics of churches, and occasionally a spare room of a sympathetic Greek.

 

Stavros didn't regard me with disgust or respect but said, "You must be good at hiding."

 

"Mostly lucky."

 

"Why'd you take the risk today?"

 

"I guess burning a mosque with women inside was too much."

 

"Where'd you get the Mauser?"

 

He recognized the rectangular magazine of my pistol. "From my employer, a good man who helped me get away."

 

"Have you used it?"

 

"Yes." I paused to remember the men I'd killed. "I'm sure it was brutal at the front."

 

"Yeah. We were winning almost all the way to the Sakarya, but at the end the bastard allies abandoned us, and the bastard Turks had more knowledge of the terrain, more incentive, more food and water, more artillery, more everything. I'm lucky to be alive."

 

"Is there really no more Greek army? Nobody falling back to defend Smyrna?"

 

He snorted. "No. I don't know who that bunch was that came through here earlier, probably a rogue detachment of the main column on their way to the coast, but most of us don't have weapons or the will to fight."

 

Stavros, limping, set a nice, slow pace, and Ozella led us through the village that, like all those whose men were away at war, looked dilapidated, with broken shutters, peeling paint, rusted tools, and weeds flourishing where there should be crops—but at least it hadn't been burned. She greeted a few curious neighbors, tried to shoo away the children who ran out of their homes to gawk at the strange creatures—friendly Greek soldiers. Her house was small, one-story, stucco, faded green—outside the front door hung an empty birdcage that looked like it had been beaten with the butt of a rifle. Ozella must've smelled us—she asked if we wanted to use the worn, porcelain wash basin in the kitchen, and we took turns. I let Stavros go first, then splashed the remaining water on my face and neck and wiped off as much of my sweat and grime as I could with the towel he'd used.

 

In the selamlik the old man sat fidgeting in a wine-colored armchair. Stavros and I sat on a low divan with a blue, evil eye amulet hanging behind us and an Anatolian carpet at our feet. One door led to what I assumed would be the bedroom; the other connected to the kitchen where Ozella was preparing food. Beside the window stood wooden shelves with potted herbs, faded photographs, an open Quran, and knickknacks. A basket held rolled up prayer rugs. The pleasant smells of red pepper and coffee filled the room. Erdem sat on a cushion and leaned toward us as if he couldn't wait to hear more about the war, or maybe he just liked to hear our language, so I said, "You speak Greek very well—where did you learn it?"

 

"I have Greek friend, and grandmother."

 

Another woman shouldered through the front door without knocking, bowed to us, and carried a tray of food into the kitchen. The old man, who had said very little but was treated deferentially by the others, asked us in Turkish, "What do you think of Mustapha Kemal?" Erdem translated.

 

Stavros answered in Greek, "He's a good general, tough, smart. Somehow, he talked our allies into turning on us. And as we got close to Angora, he fired up his troops, probably told them the same thing he told his men at Gallipoli: it's not your duty to fight for your country; it's your duty to die for your country."

 

The old man smiled, proud and pleased that an infidel could quote their leader and asked, "Is he coming this way?"

 

Stavros said, "I think so. He wants to make sure we're wiped out or driven into the sea."

 

"If he were here in our village, would you try to kill him?" He pointed to the rifle that he'd leaned by the door.

 

"No, I'm finished."

 

"What about you?" he said to me.

 

"I agree. No more killing. Would you kill us if we hadn't helped to save your mosque?"

 

He smiled again, but as if the smile had been an uncomfortable mask, he ripped it off, revealing a stern mouth and hard eyes. "I, no, I'm too old, but there are others in the village who would do it gladly."

 

"I hope you haven't invited them to eat with us," I said.

 

He didn't smile at that. "Maybe Christians and Muslims will be able to live side by side again some day, Allah willing, but not yet. As you said, Kemal will kill you or drive you into the sea. And the cowards who supposedly run this village, they'll return. So, you need to go." He called Ozella, urging her to hurry.

 

Within five minutes the women brought us two fat, paper-wrapped bundles of pide stuffed with tomatoes, cucumber and yogurt, slices of cheese, and two demitasses of good, strong coffee, brewed for sipping but we gulped it down. They'd also filled our canteens with water. The old man waved his hand to discourage the women from asking questions, so we thanked them, they thanked us, they wished peace upon us, and he and Erdem showed us out. He pointed west and said "Foca," south and said "Smyrna." Then he asked Allah to go with us, bowed and headed home.

 

Stavros turned to me and said, "Do you want to come with me?"

 

 We'd saved the mosque together, and I'd enjoy his company after traveling alone for so many weeks, and it might be safer, but I looked in both directions to see if the roads spoke of trouble, and said, "Are you sure there's a Greek ship there, and it hasn't left already?"

 

"No, not sure, but we heard we should go to any port along the coast to get picked up. Foca is the closest to here. What do you know about Smyrna?"

 

"That it's a beautiful, sophisticated city for one thing, and the harbor is full of ships."

 

"Yes, Smyrna very nice," Erdem said. "Foca, my cousin live there, he say is small but also nice, old Greek city, then Turk, then Greek again three years, but now Turks come again. He like Greeks better."

 

Stavros tousled Erdem's hair and said, "Foca is closer, so I think I'll stick to my plan."

 

In truth I was afraid a Greek ship wouldn't take me since I had no uniform or papers. I said, "I think I'll keep going to Smyrna. I heard that it's more Greek than Turk, and everyone lives in peace."

 

"I doubt it, but who knows. The main thing is to get to a boat, the sooner the better, and I don't think you need to hide any more. We're all deserters now, or refugees."

 

"Thanks, that makes me feel better. And thanks for your help. I wouldn't have this food if not for you, and I'm starving."

 

"Me too," he said.

 

Erdem said, "I go with you part way to Foca?"

 

"If you want to."

 

We shook hands and I waved as they walked backwards a few steps, felt lonely as soon as they turned toward the pink and purple sunset, wondered if I'd made the right decision, then took a big bite of my pide and resumed my journey south toward Smyrna.


Copyright © 2024 by Deno Trakas.

 

About the Author

Deno Trakas is a retired professor of English and former director of the writing center at Wofford College. He's the author of the novel Messenger from Mystery (Story River Books), the memoir Because Memory Isn't Eternal: A Story of Greek Immigrants in South Carolina, two chapbooks of poetry, and dozens of stories and poems published in anthologies and journals. He's working on two new novels, Psychic of a Summer Night, and Only Who Is Left, from which this excerpt was taken.

 

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