Swamped, a novel, by Manolis Aligizakis


             It’s a dark windy night. Eteocles is about three years old, Nicolas five, and their mother as old as the worry about how to feed her children has made her, as old as any mother who lives in the ruins of war, a woman whose husband is on the front line. It’s a windy night, and the gaps around the frame of the door and the lone window make an apocalyptic music, as if the inhabitants of this hovel are walking through the hallways of hell. Eteocles remembers the scene well. They are sitting around the metal bucket their mother has made into a heating element. She burns wood in it, and the heat reaches out perhaps a meter all around it. They are sitting warming themselves, listening to the wrath of the tempest just a few meters away beyond the frames of the single door and the courageous lone window to the north.

       Suddenly from the deadly war of the elements outside a sudden wind floods the room as the door opens. A man stands in the frame gazing inside. It’s their father returning from the war. He stands there for long time, not knowing what to say, how to greet them; he hasn’t seen them for thirty six long months. Their mother lets out a cry, a cry that sounds like the name of the standing man, her husband, the man who had gone to war when Eteocles was just a few months old. Her husband is home at last, and she gets up and calls him inside and walks up to him and hugs him with a fierceness that expresses the emotional volcano boiling inside her. She hugs him for a long time, then she pulls away, and their father kneels and calls his sons to him. Neither of them dares approach this stranger. Eteocles doesn’t know this man at all, while Nicolas, who was two years old when his father left his sons, perhaps has some faint memory of him.  

Neither of the two dare move toward the man in soldier’s clothes who calls them again and again until Eteocles observes his feet making small steps toward the open arms of their father and Nicolas follows soon after. The soldier clings tightly to them, saying words the two brothers only feel, the soothing words of a father who has missed his sons, a man who had gone to war without knowing if he would ever see them again. They feel those words, and they cuddle with the man who has come inside their house and ignore the wind that has entered with him and turned the room into a frozen habitat in which the small metal bucket with the burning wood cannot warm more than a meter in diameter around it.

Their mother walks to one of the corners of the room, takes a few pieces of wood and adds them to the bucket. Slowly flames rise and light up the house a little more than before as their mother gets busy finding food for her husband, a few black olives, a small piece of bread, a glass of water from the water pitcher, and he sits with them around the fire and eats, making strange sounds as he chews his food, as strange as the music of the wind outside their house, a strange music that sounds sweet in their ears, for It’s the sound of their father, a sound they haven’t heard for years, the perilous years of the civil war in Hellas.

           This is Eteocles’ first memory of recognizing his father. He is old enough to grasp the concept of what a father is and that this man who had come in from the cold is that, though only later will he understand that their father has returned from three years of service in a civil war that has devastated their motherland. Years when brothers killed brothers and fathers killed sons only because they were of a different political affiliation, years of endless pain and suffering that most Hellenes have lived through. And only later would be understand how this war had been infiltrated, guided, and supported by external influences from countries that thrived on discontent and flourished through war and destruction. Still, Eteocles learns all these lessons early enough in his life only to carry the scars for ever.

          That same year Eteocles gets his first shoes. His father brings him to the village shoemaker, old Papaderos, who measures his feet and two days later comes to their house with the boy’s first shoes under his arm. It’s a joy but also the first pain of conformity, as his feet, which have never been enclosed in shoes, learn what it means to be bordered, enclosed, protected, conformed. The shoes feel very tight. The shoemaker says they will stretch, his dad says okay, his brother is jealous, and his mom smiles at the sight of her younger son’s feet in the red shoes with the thick leather soles, the nails under them, and one flat metal part at the toe and heel of each shoe. They hurt him a lot at first, something he never forgets over the years, but his feet get used to the shoes after the blisters heal and eventually he feels no more resentment than the village donkeys and horses in their horseshoes.       

One day Eteocles is in front of the house playing with Nicolas in their own little playground while their mom bakes the Easter cookies she bakes every year. The boys are busy at their favourite game of jumping off a big rock at the west end of the small, flat area. The one who jumps farthest will be the winner, though without any trophy except the chance to taste their mother’s cookies first, and that is always Nicolas. He is older and more athletic, a better jumper, yet Eteocles loves the game despite its predictable outcome. Playing with his brother is pleasure enough.

Nicolas ran to the back of the house where they usually go to relieve themselves and Eteocles is left alone with their pig, a good-sized beast that will be their main source of protein in the coming winter. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, the pig runs at Eteocles and knocks him down. Perhaps it too wanted to play, to jump over the rock like the kids, but whatever the reason Eteocles ends up with a sizeable gash in his right leg. Nicolas finds his brother on the ground, crying, and when he sees the wound on his leg he begins to chase the squealing pig all around the tiny yard.

The commotion brings their mother running, and Eteocles’ wound is soon taken care of by her special touch. Nicolas volunteers to let his brother taste the special cookies first. They have just come out of the oven. Cookies sampled, the boys walk outside again and sit on a big rock further from the house, where they can look downward to the water and the big Bay of Chania, visible from the upper side of the village where they live, and further away the city of Chania cuddles in the sunshine like a tired woman who wants to rest from her day’s work.

            The Bay of Chania is often rough and wild like an insubordinate woman, with waves three or even four meters high, but they go swimming even with waves as high as that. They stand and wait for the waves to come close and then they jump as high as they can to try and keep their heads above the crests. It’s a thrill they love although their mom Is always angry and scared when they insist on going swimming on such days and she anxiously waits for them to come back home, especially during those difficult years when their father is exiled and they live with her alone.

It’s not unusual for traitors to betray their comrades to the police those days. The police often come to take their dad to the station and torture him until one fine day he decides they will eventually kill him if he stays in the village. To save his life, he leaves home for a long time. They don’t even know where he is until their mom, two years later, gets word from a friend through another friend that he is hiding in Thessaloniki, the big city in the far north of Hellas. Then the lone woman takes her children and travels for three days and nights until they reach him. Until then the bread they ate is as bitter as their fears and dark thoughts without their father. This is the main reason why the two brothers become so close. They learn to rely on each other during those years without their father.

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