Alexis Stamatis was born in Athens, where he currently resides. He studied Architecture at the National Technical University of Athens and received graduate degrees in Architecture and Cinematography in London. He is the author of nine novels and six books of poetry; his work has been published in eight countries (US, UK, France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Turkey and Serbia). His novel American Fugue (Kastaniotis, 2006) was awarded an International Literature Award from the US National Endowment for the Arts published this year in the US. His play Dakrygona is been staged in Kefallinia’s street theater. His latest novel is Sunday (Kastaniotis, 2011).
Alexis Stamatis has represented Greece at several international book fairs and literary seminars, including the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, which he attended through a Fulbright Foundation Artists and Art-Scholars Award.
Asking myself how was I led astray
A green sea a-boil with dolphins
Living – room with chandelier, images of saints.
Nature rains eyes moist
creatures of the deep around the table
Courtyard with geometric tiles.
The mother, the water, the dust.
Ôhe father, the water, the dust
The courtyard door somewhat like a breakwater
the waves break, the concrete breaks
huge boats are coming in.
The father, the mother, the dust.
On the oars a speck an animalcule.
Where is the lashing, where the net, where the wave.
Asking myself how was I led astray
© translation by John Leatham
They were at the church at the center of the Venetian castle in Pyrgos, a village in the highlands of Santorini. Epifania had started a family tradition of attending the Epitaphios service at this church each year. It was one of the few instances in which Ilias gave in to her, but then again he didn’t have much interest in religion. The fame of this particular liturgy had gone beyond the limits of the island itself. Hence the TV cameras: the event was being covered by one of the major private channels.
Shortly before the Epitaphios—a portable shrine containing an icon of Christ laid out for burial, covered in flowers—emerged from the church to be processed through the streets, the main reason this particular service in Pyrgos was so famous presented itself in all its glory. On every balcony and rooftop, in every narrow side street, the kids from the village dunked torches in containers of kerosene and lit them on fire. The rows of torches created a unique sight which, for someone observing the event from outside the village, must have looked like a fiery snake twining itself around the village, squeezing it within its burning coil.
When the Epitaphios emerged from the castle, an enormous procession formed behind it and started to wind through the village, while those who had stayed in their homes sprinkled the passing line of worshippers with perfumed waters. The Karamolegos family was somewhere in the middle of the procession. Rinio and her mother were walking side by side, with Minas to the right, Alkis somewhat behind, and Ilias in front of them all, looking around with a vacant gaze. He had taken a long siesta that afternoon and was much calmer. Besides, he knew he needed to reserve all his strength for his rendezvous with Nadia later that night.
They had left Kadio back in Oia with Larissa—it would have been too much trouble to bring her. Epifania, whose candle had gone out, bent over her daughter to light it from hers.
“These flames… They remind me of the fireworks at my wedding,” Epifania said.
“They still throw fireworks at the brides?”
“Don’t you remember? I’m sure I’ve told you before, how one landed on the ground by my feet and my dress caught fire, and we almost didn’t put it out in time.”
“Sounds like your marriage caught fire from the very start,” Minas said sarcastically from beside them.
The procession had stopped in front of a little chapel in the village’s central square, and the girls continued to chant the encomiums. The chanter held one syllable so long on the refrain of “My sweet spring” that he seemed to be tossing out the next syllable. Rinio moved closer to her mother and took her arm, Ilias took out his worry beads—even he understood that it would’ve been unseemly to light a cigarette—while Minas stood behind Alkis and whispered over his shoulder.
“Whatever happens is going to happen tomorrow.”
“What’s going to happen?”
When the procession started moving again, someone from the crowd came up to talk to Minas. Alkis turned to his sister.
“You seem uneasy.”
“Me? I’m just trying to keep that madman under control.”
“And you, are you okay?”
“Fine. And tomorrow I’ll be even better.”
“Can you keep a secret? Though I guess word has already gotten out…”
“I met someone here. When I came last year.”
Rinio told him about Anatoli, and Alkis made the connection to the man he’d seen earlier that day at the dig.
“I’m going to see him tomorrow. That man has something, something I can’t quite put my finger on, and it drives me crazy.”
“If he’s the guy I saw today, he has a kid, right?”
“The girl? She’s his niece.”
A young man stopped them to light his candle, which had gone out. When he’d left, Alkis said, “You saw what happened this afternoon at the taverna, right?”
“Whatever will be will be, Alkis. We came down here, so we deserve whatever we get. What did you think, that we were going to pass our Easter with colored eggs and some friendly family bickering?”
“I’m afraid for them.”
“The two of them are so much alike. We might as well just let them eat one another alive. Look at him, walking there all by himself. I’m going over to talk to him.”
“Don’t do anything—” Alkis started, but Rinio had already increased her pace to catch up to Ilias. The crowd continued its winding course through the narrow village streets, as if it were ritually crossing a river, on the banks of which burned small consecutive sources of fire.
“What are you thinking about?” Rinio asked her father, who was walking with his head bent, his gaze low.
“Don’t tell me you’re thinking about the liturgy.”
“Why, you don’t think I think about things like this? You don’t consider me a philosophical kind of guy, huh? Well listen up, here’s something not many people have thought of. There’s something that makes God one of a kind.”
“God can’t do anything to save a person from death. Only a person can save another person, even from certain death. It’s happened before. It’s been proven. But not God. And that’s what makes Him unique.”
Rinio pointed at the Epitaphios.
“But He saved him, didn’t He?”
“Saved him? Then where is he?”
“They say he’s everywhere.
“Have you ever seen him?”
Rinio didn’t answer.
“At any rate, the only thing I like about this whole religion business is this, the Epitaphios. There’s a truth to it. And for me, Rinio, truth is the most important thing.”
“So that must be why we all learned to tell the truth in this family, huh?” Rinio said sarcastically.
“Don’t start with me again…”
The service had ended and Ilias and Rinio were standing in front of the gate to the church, continuing their conversation. They were interrupted by the shouts of some little kids who had started to play soccer in the street, kicking a half-empty can of kerosene that was still burning. In the tumult, Minas left his mother and brother, snuck up behind his father, and blew over his shoulder, snuffing his candle.
“Sia ammazzato il Signore Padre!” he said, half smiling.
Ilias turned around, surprised.
“What’s that you’re saying?”
Minas gave him a strange look and then started to laugh.
“May you live, father. It’s Italian,” Rinio said, mistranslating on purpose. “It’s what kids say during Carnival in Italy.”
“You think this is Carnival here?” Ilias said to his son severely—then, softening his tone, he added, “Well, I guess it might as well be…”
The crowd had begun to disperse, the technicians had started to take down the lights and cameras, and the Karamolegos family headed for the car. The three children were talking amongst themselves, while the parents walked ahead of them in silence. At some point Ilias turned to his wife and said something to her. She stopped, stood as still as a statue, then covered her eyes with her hands. Behind them the children froze, and Karamolegos made a motion for them to leave. Alkis, Rinio, and Minas scattered in three different directions. From afar, Pyrgos—with hundreds of lighted cans still burning on every rooftop and terrace, and in every narrow road—looked as if it were on fire.
© translation by Karen Emmerich
Published with the permission of Alexis Stamatis