Swamped, a novel by Manolis Aligizakis

(Excerpt)

Eteocles is four years old, standing with his brother Nicolas by the lone window of their room. It’s winter and bands of rain show like clouds against the hilly background as their ecstatic eyes observe the storm with fear and anxiety for their mother who is still out in the fields gathering what she will cook for dinner. Water everywhere, outside and down the gutters and through the gaps of the door and the window. It enters their little domain covers the window frame and the floor close to the door. In the quietness, only the rain’s sound talks of something they don’t understand although they sense it as an omen, a bad omen, which makes them feel alone and afraid. Their rabbits hop about in the same room in and out of their den looking for scraps of food which are scarce even for them, yet the rain doesn’t seem to scare them. Only their stomachs control what they do.

Suddenly their mother comes into the house, her clothes, shoes, hands, and face drenched by the rain. She hugs them both, her arms opening wide to enclose them tightly, and she cries and mumbles something they don’t follow as the rain drips down her face along with the tears, and they only knew she is there with them.

The rain keeps on coming in bands. They can still see it against the backdrop of the hill. And the rabbits roam around the house looking for food and their mom lets them out of her arms and grabs a few leaves of the wild vegetable she has in her bag and throws them to the rabbits, who rush to them and fight for which of them will eat first.

 Their mom changes out of her wet clothes and gets busy with their dinner. It’s the same wild vegetables, a variety of dandelion, which she cleans and boils and puts them on three plates with sprinkled olive oil, salt, and lemon. Next to the food, a slice of homemade bread, tough to chew but the only one in the house, and they both love it even as hard as It’s from being stored on a piece of flat wood hanging from the ceiling, exposed to the air that hardens it more and more as the days go by. A few olives, cured by their mom, are on a separate plate, and they all eat to their hearts’ content.

After their meal, their mom cleans off the table and with the day almost gone, the first darkness has already crept into the corners of the room. She puts their bed together with chairs set backwards against the two sides of the bed and blankets on the chairs, making a shelter of shorts where the two brothers will sleep. Then she walks to the wall, takes the oil lamp, brings it to the table, fills it with olive oil, pulls the wick up with her two fingers, cleaning off the burnt end and straightening it. She lights the lamp and watches it until an even yellow light floods the surface of the table and illuminates her face and the faces of her two children. They also watch the light with eagerness and anticipation. Something good is about to happen. They know it. They sense it.

But their expectation could be wrong. When their mother is happy with the light, she takes the oil lamp by its metal chain and places it back on its hook on the wall. Light floods the area close to that wall, their eastern wall where the oil lamp always hangs from the same hook, creating a circle of golden light a couple of meters in radius, leaving the rest of the house as dark as the dark night outside where the rain still talks of something none of the three understand but all accept as a natural sound no one has any reason to question.   

In the quietness of the room where sounds come only from the gaps around the frames of the door and the lone window, the boys are in their bed and their mother in hers. They will spend the night along with all other living beings, including the nocturnal ones that go from corner to corner and along the walls, animals unseen by human eyes yet alive and hungry like all others inside this house and outside of it. These are the rough days and nights after the Second World War and the civil war that followed which together have ravaged their motherland for almost seven years.

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