‘The Debt’ was shortlisted for the 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
In this country, our names are dead people’s names. But what of the one who has gone missing? How shall we refer to him — as living or dead? Should we forget him or await his return? None of us creates our own self. We are all created from the holy bones of our ancestors and by God’s grace.
I failed. I let the man slip through my hands. Cowardice drowned my voice; it paralysed my every move.
As soon as I heard that our men — ten of them — had caught him I ran, anticipating the disaster that would follow. I knew all ten ever since they were children. Good souls, but I feared they had gone astray. I used to teach them the musts and do-nots. Ι used to teach them God’s word.
God’s word — I had always believed that it concerned the few: the man who might kill; he who, pushed by necessity, might extend his hand unjustly; the man whom desire might bring to his knees, craving another man’s woman. I believed that ordinary people would go through life without such prohibitions. This, I believed, was also the case for those kids.
And yet I see now, that ordinary people are capable of the greatest evil.
They dragged him through the streets in the rags he wore. The women opened their locked doors and spat on him. They said words you would never believe a human mouth could utter. All our sins fell upon him. The children followed behind him, laughing. A couple of them even pushed him. He fell and they all shrieked hysterically.
I found him outside the village in the vineyards where they had encircled him. His left eye was swollen and purple, almost black. He seemed barely able to see through the other. It must have been over two weeks since he had last shaved. He stank. His military jacket was stained with dried blood in some places and in others, there were white sweat blotches. They had wrapped the nation’s flag around his neck and were mocking him. Someone had placed the muzzle of his loaded gun on the man’s forehead.
I started screaming and ran toward their chief. “For heaven’s sake, what are you doing? Have you no fear of God? Can’t you see what you’ve reduced him to?”
“God is your business, mine is men,” he replied without even a glance in my direction. “This here isn’t your concern, old man. So stop sticking your nose in it. Now go back to the village.”
Still ignoring me, he walked toward the others, turned around for a moment, and, as he walked backwards, he brought his index finger to his mouth and then dragged it across his throat. Be quiet, or be killed.
With his head, he motioned to the pack and they lifted the man up.
I stood there frozen. Where are they taking him? What’s going to happen? I followed them with my eyes until they disappeared behind the cypresses. That night, the flight of the birds was low and agitated. I took it to be a bad omen.
The one he loved
When he kissed me, honey dripped from his fleshy lips. His face was a little rough, his beard scratched me. His laughter was like a waterfall. We both bathed in light. In the evenings, I caressed him tenderly and told him words that I had no idea existed in my soul. His joints relaxed, the furrow in his brow disappeared, and he fell asleep in my arms like a baby.
He talked about what we would do after the troubles were over. That’s what he called the disaster that had befallen us. To him, it was a temporary inconvenience — we had merely found ourselves in the midst of a misunderstanding that would soon be over. But I saw people stocking up on food; I saw men in uniform come looking for volunteers. The volunteers left, as if someone was shoveling them away. First, the oldest ones, then the younger ones, and in the very end, the boys. A few at a time, they were brought back to us, and we buried them promptly, shoveling soil over their bodies.
God only knows how ashamed I am to say this, but every time bad news arrived and his name wasn’t mentioned, something inside me fluttered. All around me, I heard the wailing and the cries. I saw mothers furiously beating their breasts, pulling out their hair — entire tufts left in their hands. And I would sneak into my room.
He said that we should try our luck in the city. He would get a job at his uncle’s office. I would take care of the house. One day, he pulled a small piece of paper from his pocket and read out the names that he had jotted down: Stratis, Angelos, Odysseas, Mihalis. The first two names were the grandfathers’ names, the others were names he liked.
He asked which ones I preferred. I asked him why and he looked at me as if he were talking about the most natural thing in the world.
“To name the children we are going to have.”
I kissed him deeply and I took his shirt off. He remained inside me for a long time and then, as always, he closed his eyes, lost himself deep into the sky for a moment. Then he looked at me, quietly, while caressing my face. When the next day came, he left with a few others.
One day, at dusk, the news arrived. I was standing; I felt my legs melt under me. Flocks of black birds flew around me until darkness shrouded me. I woke up with my mother by my bedside. They had seen him somewhere far away — a prisoner. They weren’t sure, at first, but then they saw the birthmark on his hand.
It’s been three months since that day. We have no news; we know nothing. The relatives come by my house to ask about him every day. Each one creates a story that makes my insides rack with pain. What if this? What if that? What if the other? In the end, they look to the sky and make a wish that he come back alive.
When you are the one waiting, every moment is like a lifetime. The other day, the doctor told me what I already knew. I went home and rewrote the names he had on his list. I chose “Odysseas” because he was also lost but returned to his wife’s bosom. I will wait.
The enemy warrior
Anyone who has held a gun in their hand knows that the trigger is not easy to handle the first time. The more pressure you apply, the more it resists; your index pulls and pulls and pulls, until the resistance disappears, the recoil jerks your shoulder, and your ears ring. After that, all you want to do is reap.
Once, when the battle was over, I could no longer control my right hand –– my index had stiffened into a curve, and my shoulder was bruised. It took me four days to recover. That day, I must have done eight of them in. I hate them for all that they’ve done to us, but I hate them even more for all they would have done, if they were free to do whatever they wanted. But, no, this time we were prepared. The drillmasters had sent us cases full of rifles. We planned ahead for the battles.
We found that guy all alone in a trench on a mound. The first shots he fired took down one of our men but after that he kept shooting in vain. We sheltered behind barricades or in foxholes, under a merciless sun. In the evening, we surrounded him. He was out of ammunition and dying for a drink of water.
First, two of our men attacked him –– he had killed their brother –– but I held them back. We needed to make an example of him. If we had killed him there, he would have been no more than a victim that nobody knew anything about.
On his knees, hands behind his head, he asked for a cigarette. I gestured that he be given one. Our eyes met, we held each other’s gaze. What was he thinking? He must have been the same age as me. The same dark skin and stature. In another time, another place, we might have been neighbours, colleagues, friends. But here, now, he is one of them.
The orders came in from headquarters to take him to the river. That had always been the codeword. I gathered my men and we made our way to the woods. As we walked, I asked him who he was, what he did, how he ended up with a rifle in his hand, and us after him. With no more than a few words between us, we more or less managed a conversation. But when our exchange drifted to women and children, he changed the subject.
The lost one
There comes a moment when all pains merge. An immense pain takes over every cell of your body. Wherever you touch, whoever touches you, it hurts. What comes after is something only those who have been through it can understand. The pain disappears, but you are no longer the master of your own body. Something else takes charge; life comes from an unknown source. It is your last reserve. There will be no return after this.
I know I am walking my very last steps. It’s strange. I have this unprecedented clarity, despite the fact that the harm is irreparable. Even if, by miracle, I were to survive, nobody and nothing could make me look anything like the person I had once been.
My mind is flooded with memories. They pass as if they were on a giant cinema screen before my eyes, but at the same time I can concentrate on the details of each one. I see my childhood friends; Argos, the only dog I’ve ever had; my parents as a young couple. I see snapshots of my life but from the perspective of a hidden observer. The observer and I are the same person, but also different. This confusion creates in me a hedonic bliss, a narcotic stupefaction.
The only thing that brings me back is the thought of her. I miss her upper lip unbearably, I miss watching her from the side, embracing her from behind in bed. You love me; I love you. I know we won’t see each other again, but a certain hope stings me: that we will be ambushed by my brothers; that they will trade me in for one of their own men; that I will grab one of their rifles and shoot down every single one of them; that, in the end, the man of God will persuade them to set me free.
A flock of birds flies over our heads. I wonder if their flight, like the rippling of a bedsheet, hides a secret meaning. My mind makes things up so I won’t see that which is beginning to transpire.
Their commander asks me if I want a cigarette. I know now it is my last few minutes. I take the smoke down as deep as I can. The ridges in the distance are a border I will cross shortly. I turn my attention to the ground and I think about my debt to life, life’s debt to me — one that will remain forever unsettled.
My load is heavy but my soul seems to fly already. This place is blindingly beautiful and my every breath brings me the smell of wet soil and flowers. The birds are perched on the trees in front of me, twittering, as if to exalt the miracle of creation.
Is it possible that I’ve lived this moment before? That I’ve admired this hour, when––
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