Alexis Levitin

Photo © Nick Levitin

Alexis Levitin

Alexis Levitin has published forty-seven books in translation, mostly poetry from Portugal, Brazil, and Ecuador. In addition to five books by Salgado Maranhão, his work includes Clarice Lispector’s Soulstorm and Eugénio de Andrade’s Forbidden Words, both from New Directions. He has served as a Fulbright Lecturer at the Universities of Oporto and Coimbra, Portugal, The Catholic University in Guayaquil, Ecuador, and the Federal University of Santa Catarina, in Brazil and has held translation residencies at the Banff Center, Canada, The European Translators Collegium in Straelen, Germany (twice), and the Rockefeller Foundation Study Center in Bellagio, Italy. He has three books coming out in the next year: Eugenio de Andrade’s Furrows of Thirst (Dialogos Books), The Craft of Revision: W.H. Auden at Work (Lexington Books), and The Last Ruy Lopez: Stories from the Royal Game (Russell Enterprises). He loves to travel and regrets that he did not spend his life in the Greek islands.

 
Lipso, Lipsoi, Lipsi

He had worked diligently for forty years, mainly in classification. There was even an obscure beetle named after him: Geotrupes johnsoneae. When on occasion this was alluded to, he would give a shy smile. Linnaeus was his hero, binomial nomenclature the foundation stone of his inner peace. How comforted he felt gazing at order in the universe: Kingdom-Animalia, Phylum-Arthropoda, Class-Insecta, Superorder-Endoptorygota, Order Coleoptera. And in that order of 400,000 species, resided the timid beetle named after him. How quietly satisfying it all was.

And then he retired. He felt as fit as ever, but in his department sixty-five had been the traditional age for departure. And so, without much enthusiasm, he shuffled to the farewell dinner, accepted the obligatory watch, a few pats on the back, a few entomological jokes, and his career was over. “Well done, Christopher. We’re going to miss you up at the lab.” And that was that.

He was a bachelor and had lived in the same Riverside Drive apartment for the last thirty years. It overlooked the Hudson and welcomed the late afternoon sun. A cleaning woman came once a week and that was sufficient to keep things polished, sparkling, and neat. He had nothing to complain about.

But now, for the first time, ces espaces infinis loomed uncertainly before him. His projects were finished, his research had been acknowledged, his classes were over. He had no task to undertake, no goal to pursue. His apartment was spotless, but was that enough? He saw nothing to look forward to. Yes, his obscure scarab would bear his name forever. But what to do now with the remains of the day?

He remembered with wry affection having watched an ordinary dung beetle rolling its ball of turd up the arid, rocky slope of a Greek island a few summers before. He wasn’t a fervid vacationer, but somehow had found himself on a University-sponsored tour of the Aegean. Though he was happiest at home, snug in his apartment on Riverside Drive, he had found something appealing about the dry cleanliness of the rocky islands he was seeing from his cabin window. “Maybe there’s something for me to find out there,” he thought.

So he booked a flight to Athens, stayed at the modest Hotel Byron, then made his way to Piraeus to catch a ferry to the Dodecanese. With no clear plan, after a lifetime of order, he simply disembarked at an island that seemed quietly attractive. He saw some cheap tee-shirts in a tourist stall on the main street of the port. They depicted a sea nymph with a beguiling smile beneath the word Lipso. He bought a map so he would know exactly where he was. The map said Leipsoi. Another map, displayed on an adjacent shelf, said Lipsi. It was a bit confusing, but not unpleasant.

He had brought nothing but a backpack for this little excursion, having left a heavier suitcase at the Hotel Byron, so getting about was easy enough. After a leisurely stop at a tourist café in the harbor, where he sipped at an ouzo, that pleasant cloudiness and sweet sting he had discovered on his previous visit, he shouldered his pack and started walking inland. The land rose and, looking back, he could see the contours of the harbor where he had landed an hour before. The sky was a bright blue, the harbor deep green, his ship had departed, and the sea beyond the peninsula was coated with white caps. The sun was hot, but there was a breeze that dried his sweat. He felt ten years younger.

In an hour he found himself at a white-washed village on the crest of the rise. A road sign said Kimissi, but down in the harbor they had called it Chora. He later discovered that all the islands had their own Choras, similar villages clustered on high points overlooking the sloping fields and the sea. Perhaps to be safe from pirates, once upon a time.

He found a café with a view, took a seat in the shade of the awning, and gazed out at the unhurried tranquility. He could hear, in the stillness of the hot afternoon, the insistent stridulations of cicadas coming from nearby trees. The screeching accentuated the prevailing stillness. Once again he ordered an ouzo and, as he sipped with pleasure at what tasted like licorice, he felt as if there was no need to go anywhere.

He took a spartan room, just down the street, for the night. His door was painted blue, his walls whitewashed clean. There was a large wolf spider on the inside of the bathroom door, but he let it be. The bed creaked, but he stretched out with a sigh and simply stared up at the dark wooden fan in the middle of his bright ceiling. Sleep came swiftly and he only awoke ten hours later, feeling utterly refreshed.

He had never been a linguist, despite his familiarity with the Latin nomenclature attached to the hundreds of thousands of species belonging to his beloved Order Coleoptera. But instead of fretting, he basked in his ignorance, as the unfamiliar Greek language flowed around him in the café, to which he returned on his second day. He finally dared to say Ti kanis to cragged old faces at neighboring tables and felt a small triumph in his shy heart.

Strolling around the village on that second day, he noticed a hand painted sign on a small white-washed cube of a house: For Sail. Beneath were the words Zum Verkaufen. There was a tiled terrace partly shaded by a grape vine on a trellis. There was a view of the rocky dry field, dropping down to the distant port and the sea. He was charmed by the misspelling, and, without further thought, returned to the café. The fat and genial owner smiled, revealing a discolored set of teeth and a prominent shiny, golden one. He was amused that the pale, rather awkward foreigner should be asking after the house. Spiti- pros pólisi, he annunciated for the stranger’s edification. He wiped his square hands on a dirty red rag, came round the counter, threw a hairy arm over the professor’s shoulder, and guided him toward a nearby alley, glaring white under the noonday sun. At the far end a donkey stood in dark silhouette, as if prepared to stand there forever. Yannis, that was his name, swayed his way towards a narrow blue door and rapped sharply three times. After a longish silence, an old woman, swathed in black and with a beak-like nose, creaked open the door. All that Christopher caught was Ti kanis, then a babble of words, back and forth, which to him were charming in their otherness, their lovely barbarity.

After vanishing for another minute or two within the house, the old woman reappeared, and, leaning on a thick walking stick, came out, pushed shut the door, turned a large key in the large lock, and started limping with them in the direction of the house for sail. They mounted the terrace, and there she extracted an even larger key from her black apron and laboriously inserted it into a formidable, rusty old lock. Some chips of blue paint fell to the ground as she swung open the door. Obviously, it had been closed for some time. The three hesitated, as each politely expected the other to go in first. Finally, they managed to squeeze in together, walking stick and all.

It smelled of mildew, of course, but the old woman made her way to the windows, front and back, and cracked open the shutters, again releasing slivers of blue paint, that drifted to the white floor. The view was even better than from the terrace. That is to say, it was the same view, but now framed by the blue window trimmings. Christopher was reminded again how much more beautiful nature was if viewed from inside an abode, looking out upon the world through a frame. When he had first entered college, he had thought of becoming an art major, but somehow scarabs had led him to another life.

There was a simple wooden table, a solid wooden bed frame with a moldy mattress on it, a large white pitcher on a side table. Beside the bed was a nightstand with an old kerosene lamp. From the middle of the ceiling hung a single light bulb. Beyond the bedroom/living room, was a kitchen with a stone counter, an old refrigerator, and a battered stove. Off the kitchen was a simple bathroom with a cold-water shower. Behind the kitchen was a backyard where chickens had formerly lived, laid eggs and perhaps run around without their heads.

The old lady looked at him shrewdly. He was a naïve traveler, but perhaps not stupid. She named a price, the café owner translated, with an encouraging smile and nod of his head. Christopher paused, and, surprising himself, named a price half of hers. After a brief dance of hesitation, they quickly settled in the middle. He had come to the island just for a taste of something else and, suddenly, not knowing how it had happened, he was the owner of a small white house with blue trimmings, perched high above the Aegean Sea. He was astonished.

He walked down the long road to the port, went to the local bank, talked to the manager, arranged for a money transfer from his New York bank, went to a furniture store, and selected a new mattress and a desk lamp. It was as if his life was now on automatic pilot. This was not normal. It had nothing to do with the previous sixty-five years of his existence. He had no idea what was happening. But it felt good.
 

* * *

 
Despite his happiness, practical matters had to be faced. So, one day he shouldered his backpack, locked the blue door, trundled down the winding road to the harbor, boarded the Piraeus ferry, took the bus to Athens, returned to the Hotel Byron, gathered up his heavy suitcase, then flew, the next day, to New York.

Within two weeks, he found a bespectacled young entomologist who had just been granted tenure, who knew of his beetle, and who was interested in his apartment. He was willing to keep all the furniture, which simplified things for Christopher. They closed the deal, shook hands, and parted. Christopher called up a few friends from the department and they agreed to a good-bye dinner at the Symposium on 112th Street. At the last moment, Christopher suddenly remembered the young entomologist, who, after all, had been granted tenure, and invited him, as well. As he entered the restaurant, Christopher was able to say ti kanis to the waiter, with a shy kind of proprietary air. Moussaka, Greek salad with plenty of feta, dolmades, ouzo, retsina, baklava, the usual. A few toasts. Then the chance to say efkharistó poli. His life in America had come to an end.

Back on Lipso (was it really Lipso?) nothing had changed. There was another wolf spider, this one truly his own, and, although it made him nervous, he couldn’t bring himself to smash it with his rubber sandal. Zoe. Life. He had brought back his most cherished entomological study, had placed it prominently on his small writing desk, but found, as time passed, that he never actually opened it. Instead he would read from the novels of Kazantzakis that he had picked up in the airport bookstore upon his return. He was embarrassed by Zorba, yet he admired him. He didn’t know what he thought of the widow. As for his cherished text, it stood against the whitewashed wall, he dusted it once a week, and it remained a leather-bound monument to his past. A silent companion, an ancient spouse, with whom conversation was no longer necessary.

And life went on. He strolled the country road, strangely satisfied by its ordinary dust. He listened to the harsh music of cicadas clinging to the trunks of olive trees. He gazed out at the Aegean, calmly blue beneath a vaster, pale blue sky. Once he descended to the deserted rocky shoreline, gazed furtively about, removed his clothes, and gingerly made his way into the water. It felt like an embrace. However, as he climbed out, he stepped on a sea urchin and had to spend fifteen minutes pulling spines from the soft pad of his foot. The sea was lovely, but he suspected he wouldn’t be venturing in too often, after all.

Back in Chora, he spent hours at the café, watching the old men play dominoes. Finally, after a week or so, he accepted their invitation to join in. He was touched by the vigor with which these black clad village elders slapped down their tiles, as if declaring a major triumph over the inimical forces of the universe. He conversed with the others in smiles and they accepted his meek otherness. Dimitrios, always fumbling at his worry beads, Kosmos, with his furrowed brow, Faustus, who almost always won, Adonis, with two front teeth missing from his grin, Achilles, who did not look like the conqueror of Troy, and, of course, jovial Yannis. To them he was simply O Amerikanos.

Sometimes a woman with scarlet lips and piercing eyes would appear from the shadows, a glass of wine in her hand, and the domino players would all stir nervously. Something unusual would occur in Christopher, as if a slumbering creature were slowly stretching awake within him. But his companions would give her a glance, then turn away. He heard the word kako mumbled by disdainful lips. Considering himself an observer, not an adventurer, he, too, after a short glance, looked away. But her presence in the obscure interior of the bar added a certain edge to his time at the café. She was an unexplained phenomenon, a mysterious shadow, with smoldering eyes. They said her name was Dionisia. They clicked their tongues in disapproval. And each day the sun slowly crossed the sky.

He made no plans. He simply stayed. When the chill of winter gathered in his small house, he went down to the harbor and bought a small kerosene stove. He also bought three heavy wool blankets. And he began to drink endless glasses of hot tea, in addition to the usual strong coffee he would sip, every morning and afternoon, at the local café. He and Yannis had become friends by now, though conversation remained limited. Ti kanis, very good, you good? poso kani, parakaló, you welcome, efkharisto poli, good, good, kalo, yasou, later. He loved the way Yannis and the others would say “no,” with an uplift of the eyebrows and a nod toward the heavens, as if apologizing for the negation. He was amused that “no” in Greek sounded like OK. He was equally amused that “yes” in Greek sounded like an old-fashioned “nay.” A reversal of order, a bit unsettling, but perhaps invigorating, as well.

The days passed and even the years. And Christopher was happy, though he could not have said why. Sometimes on his walks along the arid slopes, he would come across a dung beetle industriously pushing its load. He would watch bemused, as he had years before on his first trip. But no longer was he a man of science, an investigator. He now felt more like a companion to the dung beetle. A privileged companion, for, unlike the beetle, he had no need to push a ball of dung uphill forever. In fact, he had no need to do anything at all.
 

* * *

 
Twelve years passed, calmly, seamlessly, both empty and at the same time filled with unnamable abundance. The cicadas whirred in the afternoon heat. Dionisia still lurked in the shadows of the bar, a strangely reassuring disturbance to his soul. The island never changed, and his contentment never faded. But he himself had begun to slow, his walks became shorter, his breath came with more difficulty, and one day he found himself lying flat and exhausted on his neatly made up bed. The daughter of the woman from whom he had bought the house had been his housekeeper since her husband’s death several years before. She was attending him now, in his emaciated state, as his life force seemed to be gently dissipating through the stillness of the late summer days.

And finally, it was clear that the end had come. O Amerikanos lay there with a cold sweat on his brow and Sophia mopped it away. And then he opened his eyes, took her hand, and in a firm voice uttered his last words: Lipso, Lipsoi, Lipsi. Was it a declaration or a question? He smiled, he shuddered, and he was gone. Beyond all nomenclature, beyond all need for nomenclature, happy to have been, happy now to be no longer, there in his small, adopted home, whose very name he never knew, never understood, never needed to understand, because he loved it so: Lipso, Lipsoi, Lipsi. Amen.

Previously published in Rosebud              

 
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