Translated by: Karen Emmerich
THEY CAUGHT HIM again today, the fucking idiot, and messed him up real bad. Security guys with ponytails and earrings – two of them held him down while four more pummeled him. By the shipyards in Perama. The workers were having some protest because two guys got killed on a fuel boat so he went down and started shouting slogans and spray-painting shit all over the walls. Who knows what he was shouting and writing. What he thought he was doing down there with the jackhammers and sandblasters. Fucking idiot. I could understand if he were some party hardliner – they stick together and look out for their own, they know the tricks. But no, our little fool marches himself down to every rally and demonstration in town, and I have to run around afterward to hospitals and cops to pick up the pieces. He ditched his job, too, and hasn’t set foot at home in a month. What does he eat, where does he sleep? What does he do for money? Fucking fucking idiot. He’s given us all heart attacks. The bum. The stupid fool.
You stupid jackass, I say to him over the phone. It’s the same shit every time. You never learn. Who do you think you are, you spoiled ass.
Oh brave soldier, he says to me. Oh brave soldier, who can save you from death?
Hans Christian Andersen, he says.
The tin soldier.
So here I am racing down to Perama in the middle of the night to get him out even though last time I swore that was it. I put in a call to the commanding officer and told him who I was. Come and get him, he said, and tell him if he keeps it up he’s going to get what’s coming to him. I told the officer he’d been beaten pretty badly and taken to the hospital. It wasn’t any of ours, sir, he said, those guys are always beating on each other, anarchists commies we can’t keep them straight. What can you say to an asshole like that. I kept my mouth shut, just thank you truly indebted, and then we both hung up.
Kokkinia Keratsini Amfiali I drive with the doors locked and the windows rolled up. I was born and raised in this part of town but when I left I never looked back – even now I’m passing through as fast as I can with my eyes trained on the road – born and raised here but I don’t want to remember, things from the past are old wounds and if you scratch them they start bleeding and get infected and stink. Petros Rallis Street Laodiceia Salamina foot on the gas I run a red light with memories standing like Odysseus’s sirens, one on each corner, winking at me at every light, singing for me to stop. A kiss, a cigarette in the rain, a friend you hugged one drunk late night. My father. He may have worked all his life in Perama on those crummy boats but he knew a thing or two about memories. Memories are like ingrown toenails, he used to say when we were kids. Pain death love everything in life is an ingrown toenail. You can trim them but you can’t pull them out. Not if you want to survive.
My father. Dead at fifty-two from fumes in the hold. My father. Another memory, a nail that grew backwards into the flesh until it was deep and black.
Kokkinia Keratsini Amfiali foot on the gas because I had another bad dream and knew I’d be running around again and the anxiety’s been eating me up. I dreamed that the two of us were in this place separated by a huge pane of glass and he was standing behind the glass and talking to me but I couldn’t hear what he was saying and he pressed his hands to the pane and was trying to tell me something but I couldn’t hear. I could only see him shouting, could see the smudges from his hands on the glass and I tried to find some gap somewhere where I could get across but I couldn’t find anything. Then he pulled out a can of spray paint and started to write on the glass but I couldn’t read the letters and I shouted that I couldn’t read what he was writing but he couldn’t hear me either so he kept covering the glass with black letters that I couldn’t read and afterward we looked at one another through the glass and he stopped writing stopped speaking and just stared at me hands at his sides eyes dripping with a sorrow I can’t even describe and then I took off my shirt and wrapped it around my hand and started to pound on the glass to break it but it was like pounding a wall and then I saw my shirt turning red and I started to shout – and that’s how I woke up, shouting with my hands clenched into fists pounding the mattress and I started and nearly fell out of bed onto the floor.
Who knows what he was shouting and writing.
That kid is a heart attack. In real life and in my sleep, too.
Kokkinia Keratsini Amfiali foot full to the floor eyes on the road, and off near Salamina it must be raining, lightning keeps flashing in the sky like uprooted trees and I think how they must have messed him up real bad this time, for him to go on about Hans Christian Anderson and the tin soldier, I’m sure they’ve split him wide open and probably bashed his head, too, and I start shaking like you wouldn’t believe my foot quaking on the gas and the car jumps forward in little leaps like it’s got the hiccups and I think about pulling over onto the shoulder for a minute to try and calm down but I know I’m already late and I’m afraid of what might happen if it gets any later. And then at a stoplight out the corner of my eye I see a lame dog hopping along on the sidewalk and I remember. I remember the day we buried our father, how when we got home he made our mother and me sit on the couch and then put an arm around each of us and said that if dogs can learn to live with only three legs then we’d learn to live with just us three – a kid eleven or twelve years old, a little half-pint, where did he learn to talk like that – and if my mother’s kisses that night had been tears they would have drowned the whole earth, but in the end he was right. In the end we learned to live like a three-legged dog and ever since my mother has always said – take care, she says to me, take care take care take care you poor thing.
Take care of that boy. A dog can live with three legs but not with two.
He’s waiting for me outside the station. From a distance I know it’s him but from close up he’s unrecognizable. His head like an old soldier’s boot, scratched and lumpy and bruised. His forehead is bandaged and his lips are swollen and the sleeve of his shirt is torn all the way up his arm. He gets into the car and sits there quietly, doesn’t say anything doesn’t look at me. I stare at his swollen lips and remember. All I’m good for these days is remembering. I remember years ago when I took him to the dentist and he came out after his appointment and his lips were swollen just like now and I said what happened were you and she kissing the whole time and he couldn’t speak but he smiled and I felt a sorrow and bitterness so strong at the sight of him smiling with those swollen lips and tonight I feel that same sorrow and bitterness seeing him wrapped in bandages with his clothes all torn and I say to myself if I had any guts I’d blow it all sky high – the station the shipyards all of Perama and then Nikaia and Amfiali too, I’d wipe them off the map forever.
I hand him a cigarette – they took his, he says, looking for dope – and we sit in the car and smoke with the windows cracked and it starts to rain and we watch the rain making little rivulets on the windshield and –
Last time, I tell him. It’s done, game over. You hear? Last time.
Okay, he says. I hear you. Okay.
His voice comes out deep and muffled as if he’s got rags stuffed in his mouth. He rolls down the window and tosses out his cigarette butt and watches the lightning over by Salamina flashing in the sky like uprooted trees. He hasn’t shaven and smells of sweat and his hair is like a thick tangled wig. Look at that, I say to myself. The third leg of the dog. Except families don’t have legs. They’re not dogs. I don’t know what they are. Maybe snakes. But not dogs, that’s for sure.
He looks at his shredded sleeve and tries to roll it into some kind of shape then sees it isn’t working and gives up.
Let’s get out of here, he says. Let’s go. I want to show you something.
I turn the key in the ignition and start driving. The windshield wipers are on high but they don’t stand a chance against this rain, the glass is one big torrent of rain gushing down. We turn onto the avenue and I pull into the right-hand lane and we drive over a pothole full of black water and I curse the hour and the day – take care, my mother says, take care take care of the boy a dog can’t live with only two legs – and suddenly I realize I have no idea where we’re going, there’s no place in this world for the two of us to go and that shaking comes over me again and I don’t know what to do.
Pull over, I hear him say. Here. A little further. Here.
I stop. My foot is trembling on the brake. He rolls down the window and points.
Look, he says. I made that. Look. What do you think?
On a high wall there’s a painting of an old-style soldier in blue pants and a red coat all buttoned up. He’s missing a leg. He has on a yellow belt, a tall black hat and he’s holding a black rifle against his shoulder.
He gets out of the car and goes and stands in front of the wall, looks up at the soldier and points. He’s already drenched, the bandage is loose and hanging from his forehead like a flap of skin.
Okay, Picasso, I shout. It’s great. Now get in the car. We’re leaving.
The tin soldier, he says. Remember how he used to tell us that story when we were kids? It was the only fairytale he knew, and he raised us on it. Remember? Remember how sad his voice used to get? Oh brave soldier, who can save you from death. Remember how his voice used to break at the part about the ballerina standing on one leg? And the soldier thought she was missing a leg just like him and he fell in love with her. That tin soldier loved the ballerina so much. It was terrible. To want something so badly and not be able to have it. Remember? Remember the part where the tin soldier finds the ballerina again and feels like crying tin tears but stops himself because he’s a soldier and soldiers don’t cry? And that’s how he stayed until the very end. Solid and strong and silent looking straight ahead with his gun on his shoulder. Until the end. Until a fire melted him down, everything but his little tin heart. Until then he stayed solid and strong with his gun on his shoulder. Until then. Remember? Remember?
He’s drenched, dripping all over as if every pore in his skin is an eye and every eye is crying. It’s raining harder. Raining with hatred, like a punishment. Lightning keeps flashing across the sky. It’s like there’s a war on up there – light warring with darkness. A war. Light battling to enter the world and someone battling to shut it out, to seal up all the cracks, to sink the world in darkness.
My foot a jackhammer on the brake.
Get inside, man, I shout. I’m leaving. Get in.
He stares at me and his lips form a swollen smile and then he puts his arms at his sides and lifts his left leg and hops to find his balance then stands stock still with his arms glued to his sides stock still staring far off into the darkness.
In a thousand years, I hear him say. In a thousand years if the world still exists maybe the things that are happening now will have become fairytales. And parents will tell their children stories about strange people who once lived and died for a handful of cash and the children will listen with their mouths hanging open and all these things will seem magical and unreal. In a thousand years. Who knows. Maybe the workers and the poor people of today will be the tin soldiers of the next millennium. Or the dragons and witches. If the world still exists. And if people still tell fairytales. Who knows.
Get in the car, I shout – and I pound hard on the horn so it drowns out the thunder and I rev the engine with my foot which is quaking as if it’s not my foot but some stranger’s. Come on, I shout. Get inside. Get in.
But he’s standing there stock still on one leg in front of the one-legged soldier on the wall, looking off into the darkness with his eyes wide open staring into the darkness with the rain pouring down, heavy gray rain like tin, raindrops falling on him like bullets from the war taking place in the sky, the war between darkness and light – and he stands there stock still staring at the dark with his eyes wide open.
My brother a tin soldier.
Unmoving, unspeaking, unarmed.
Magical and unreal, a creature for the fairytales of the next millennium.
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