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2018 SpringT3BOOKS

Excerpt from Whispering City

By November 8, 2018March 29th, 2024No Comments

The notebooks lay unopened on the marble of the kitchen bench. Melina turned her back on them, and went to check once more that the doors and windows were all secured.

Gabriella’s house was an echoing shell. Only in dark shapes on the walls where a dresser had stood or a portrait had hung did faint shadows of its past life remain. The air was stale, devoid of the scents of food and flowers and beeswax that had moved about the space with them daily. Melina walked from room to room on the upper floor, latching the windows against the hooked shutters, sealing in the motes of dust that rose and circled in response to her passing feet. Finally she had no reason left to linger, and she descended the staircase for the last time.

The notebooks waited. Their mottled brown covers were worn soft and misshapen at the corners; Dragan had carried them about in his pockets or pushed them under the pillow as if they were handkerchiefs. She lifted the first book. A fan of thin scribbled papers scuttered across the tiles of the floor, a faint aroma of sugar and vanilla escaping with them. Here and there on their surface, tiny transparent circles marked the places where butter had touched and stayed. She set the recipes in a neat stack on the bench.

Inside the covers, the pages were covered in crisp waves of blue and black and green, and now and then a soft smudging passage in pencil. No pictures. She turned the leaves carefully, scanning the lines for shapes she recognized. There was Greek here and there, but not much of it, and some long words with sudden clusters of extra hooks and strokes that she guessed were Bulgarian. Most of it was Italian. At the start of the first book, the looping Latin script formed rows and rows of repeated letters, huddled and wavering like clumsy new-born kids. But as the pages went on they stood up straighter, and began to walk and run. In the second book the writing became long rhythmic lines that lay down across the centre of the pages in rippling silhouettes. It was beautiful. And she could barely read a word.

Melina threw the book from her hand as hard and far as she could, but its pages spread and fluttered in flight like a bird. It struck the doorframe and landed flat, trapped as the door swung inward.

‘What are you doing in here?’ Petros was a dark bulk in the doorway. ‘I’m ready to go. That’s the last of it, everything’s loaded.’ He stooped and picked up the notebook, and Melina snatched it from his hands. ‘Alright, don’t panic. I wasn’t going to eat it.’

Melina wedged a notebook into each of her pockets. With every step she took down the hallway and out the door, their weight slapped against her legs. She was carrying him with her, then, some small part of him, and it made it easier to leave. She turned her back on the house and retied the scarf tight on her head; the hot hand of the wind pushed against her.

‘You going home?’ Petros clambered up onto the board at the front of the cart.

‘Not just now,’ Melina said. Titos would be there and she didn’t want to surprise him. She’d told him she wasn’t coming home for lunch.

‘So where do you want to go?’ Petros was waiting, arms on knees.

‘Wherever this stuff is going,’ Melina said. She tapped one of the crates on the cart and managed a smile. ‘You forgot to put me inside.’

‘You’re too fragile,’ Petros said. ‘And too noisy. The sailors would think they’d brought a caseful of canaries to sea.’

Melina recalled Gabriella’s cage of songbirds. She wondered whether they liked their new home, whether they sang differently in a strange house where other languages and songs were ringing in the air.

‘Set me down at the Café Lyra,’ she said. ‘I’ll walk up to Pavlos’ house. It’s the little one’s name day. Come along, come for cake.’

Melina didn’t expect he would, though. Petros loved the ladies but he was not a domestic soul; the continuing fascination people had with their own offspring dumbfounded him. Melina wondered if he would ever marry.

Petros dropped her off at the curb on the seaward end of the square. He was continuing straight on into the harbour. The loading of the Italian freighter had already commenced; it would sail on next morning’s tide, taking all that had remained of Gabriella’s Greek existence and much of Dragan’s along with it. After months and months of intermittent letters, temporary addresses and changing plans, word had come from Gabriella that the three exiles had settled in Rome. She had finally found a house she could bear to live in, and had sent for the remainder of their hastily abandoned possessions. Melina laid her hand once again on the boxes, and sent a silent salutation along with their contents to those who would unpack them at the far end of the voyage. If only objects could talk.

When she jumped down into the road the notebooks nudged her again, and it occurred to her that they, at least, could speak. Dragan’s voice was in their pages, and Titos could set it free for her. She felt a lifting in her heart she had forgotten the sense of in that dark year.

The wind propelled her across the open square and up the steep street that led to Pavlos’ home. The houses were tall and narrow here, bent together across the street like overhanging trees. Windows and doors all stood open, hooked back for the breeze. She heard the sizzle of oil from a kitchen, and smelt the sharp sweetness of green peppers frying. It carried her in one leap back to the village and her mother’s kitchen.

‘Mama!’ The voice of a boy, tired, surly. ‘There’s no bread.’

A moment later a street door banged behind Melina, and she saw a woman scurry down towards the centre, knotting a shawl over her head against the heat. She’d be lucky to find a baker still open, but maybe a neighbour or relative would spare a loaf. Women helped each other out that way, knowing what was needed to keep the peace in a home. A Greek man could not, would not eat a meal without bread.

On the balcony of Pavlos’ house, his little daughter Despina stood with her face pressed to the railings. She squealed and disappeared inside when she saw Melina, and a few seconds later the street door swung open. Melina was drawn up the narrow staircase by two pudgy hands, and found the whole band gathered in the living room for the celebration. Lazaros waved a greeting from the doors by the balcony where he was sitting and smoking with Anestis. The kitchen was alive with women, their voices bubbling like casseroles. Plates of sweets and pastries, and decanters of wine and syrupy dark liquors weighed down the central table. Despina zoomed by dragging a shiny wooden horse on wheels, a string of children in pursuit. Melina grabbed her as she passed.

‘Many years to you, little one!’ Melina kissed her on both cheeks, and handed her the wrapped parcel of the little wooden flute she had bought her. Despina gave her a brief hug and wriggled free to race away again.

‘She’s too excited,’ Pavlos said. He set a chair for Melina. ‘Sit down, sit down. There is a great deal to talk about. We have some news.’

“What happened?’ Melina asked. She took the loaded plate that Katerina, Pavlos’ wife was handing her, and found a place for it beside her on the coffee table. It was too hot to eat. She emptied the glass of water, though, and nodded assent to the offer of another.

‘Great news,’ Pavlos repeated, ‘for all of us.’ He put his arm round his wife as she came back with Melina’s glass. ‘Isn’t it, my love?’

Melina took the water and looked uncertainly from one face to another. Katerina didn’t look like she’d just heard great news.

‘We’re going to Smyrni,’ Pavlos said. ‘Hatzimichalis has offered us a contract. For the whole winter.’ He joggled his wife by the arm. ‘Cheer up. It’s the loveliest little city on earth. So cultured, sophisticated. And warmer, too. You’ll love it once you’re used to it.’

‘Smyrni?’ Melina said. ‘It’s in Turkish hands.’

‘Exactly!’ Katerina pulled her arm free and wiped her hands impatiently on her apron. ‘They’ve finally left us, after four hundred years, mind you, and you want to go chasing after them. And to cart a four year old child willy-nilly across the countryside, with a war going on, just so you can sing in some rich man’s restaurant. No, thank you very much!’ Her voice was rising like a kettle on the boil.

‘Hey, hey, hey.’ Lazaros got to his feet. ‘Let’s take this slowly. There’s no doubt that the offer is a good one. But one should never choose money over love. And everyone must be in agreement here.’

‘It’s not a question of love!’ Pavlos looked annoyed. ‘And of course we’re in agreement. What’s to talk about? We won’t get work like this again in a hundred years, not this steady, not this much money. We’re going. Full stop.’

‘What about you, Anesti?’ Melina asked. Anestis was older than Pavlos. His children were grown up and married, all back in Athens.

‘I’m keen enough,’ he said. ‘Smyrni’s as good a place as anywhere.’

‘Your wife?’ Katerina asked quickly. ‘What does Rena think?’

‘Where I go, Rena goes,’ Anestis said.

‘You hear?’ Pavlos shot Katerina a look, and Melina saw her flush. ‘That’s a wife for you.’ He clapped his hands. ‘It’s settled, then. We leave next Friday.’

‘Really?’ Melina was shocked. Could they just get up and go like that?

‘That’s a man for you.’ Katerina shrugged one shoulder, looking sour. ‘No idea what is actually involved, how much work that will be.’

‘You’ll manage.’ Pavlos pulled Katerina against him and kissed her resoundingly on the cheek. ‘You always do. You women can do anything. You just like to complain about it first.’

Katerina opened her mouth and closed it again, and walked out onto the balcony. She spread her arms wide on the railing and raised her head skyward. Maybe she was searching for patience. Pavlos poured wine and handed it out to all the men.

‘To Smyrni!’ He raised his glass.

‘You’re forgetting something,’ Lazaros pointed out. ‘We haven’t heard from Melina yet.’

Melina looked at the men lined up in front of her, their eyes fixed on her face, their glasses poised at half-mast. She cared about them all. She loved what they made when they were together. With a few words she could raise those glasses in a toast, and launch them into a new life in a small, beautiful city on the other side of the sea. She thought of the Italian ship sailing on the next tide, taking the remnants of her shared life with Dragan to another city, on another sea. Her father’s words came back to her. We can always change things. There’s always a choice.

Melina’s lips parted to speak, but the words never left her mouth. Instead, a scream, livid and awful, ripped out of Katerina, and in a single surge they rushed outside.

The sky was gone. It was as though an eclipse had covered the sun. A malignant brown mass was inflating above them, swallowing the daylight. Not a hundred paces down the street from them, a whole house was in flames. Great forked tongues of fire curled out of the windows, licking at the roofline, suckling, roaring. Melina had never heard such a sound.

The women grabbed their children and ran screaming down the stairs, and Melina followed hard on their heels, the baglamas and the bouzoukia clutched in her arms. The street was in chaos. People were zigzagging between the doorways, screaming for water, exhorting each other to leave, plunging back into homes to drag out whatever they could seize and carry. A snaking chain of buckets formed, but the water that reached the seat of the fire was like spit into a furnace.

The wind drove dust and ash up into Melina’s face, and a sheet of flame leapt directly over her head, riding the draught across the gap between the rooftops. Now the street was alight on either side of them. Melina felt the red heat of its breath, and was afraid.

‘Get out of here,’ Pavlos yelled. He was dragging a trunk over the doorstep into the road. ‘You hear me, Katerina? Get down to the waterfront. And stay together.’

Their arms full of children and bundles, the women set off down the hill. Over her shoulder, Melina saw the yellow fingers feeling their way under the eaves of Pavlos’ roof. She looked across at Katerina, but the woman’s face was buried in the neck of the child she carried, and Melina did not know if she had seen.

Moving up towards them and the fire came a crowd of men and boys, carrying buckets and sacks and spades.

‘Don’t worry, ladies,’ a man called. ‘We’ll have it out in no time!’

‘No crying, love,’ said another as he passed. ‘If the kids are alright, you’re alright.’

They made camp in a section of Liberty Square, with the salvaged possessions piled up in the centre of their circle. The children played among the things, sliding down the bedding, bouncing between bundles, making castles and ships of the trunks and chairs.

Throughout the afternoon, as the belt of the fire expanded, the heap of belongings grew. One by one the homes of the group were ransacked for what could be carried, and what could not be replaced. At dusk the men arrived with Rena, Anestis’ wife. She had hung on until the last moment, running water from their pump to damp down the walls and doors, but in the end her efforts were for nothing. Their house had gone along with all the others on their street. Her arms were angry blisters from the wrists to the elbows; a burning window sash had fallen across them as she reached back in for her spindle.

‘Titos?’ Melina grabbed at Lazaros’ arm. ‘Have you seen him?’

Lazaros shook his head, a grizzled welter of hair and sooty slime. ‘His house still stands,’ he said. ‘So far that quarter is untouched.’ His bony throat jerked as he swallowed the water she held out to him. ‘Come on, men. Let’s go again.’

They had food and drink to see them through the night, at least; Katerina’s sister had scooped the entire contents of the party table into the linen tablecloth. And they had music. An Italian military band had mustered for their Friday night recital, and in spite of the smoke and the cries and the turmoil of the square, they took their places at the appointed time and began to play, as if their music would somehow form a bubble to repel the encroaching flames. The women passed a decanter from hand to hand, swigging wine from the neck like gypsies. No one cared; a bizarre sense of festivity and abandon enclosed the little group. The children marched about on their makeshift ramparts, their grimy fists and knees lifting and falling in time to the rousing tunes. Despina tripped and tumbled, and cried over her scraped knee until she finally she succumbed to sleep in Melina’s arms.

‘Thank you,’ Katerina mouthed. She was knotting coins and chains into a tight wad of cloth in her waistband.

‘She’ll never have a name day to equal this one.’ Melina touched the child’s sticky, tearstained face. ‘May she have many more.’ It was true what the man had said. Little else mattered but their lives, after all.

She looked over the heads of the women into the wider ring of the square that enclosed them. The lit buildings threw strands of light into the crowds, and people’s faces flickered briefly through the pools of brightness as they jostled across the dark space. She stood up with a jerk, clutching Despina against her, and let the child fall in a loose tangle into Katerina’s lap.

‘That was Titos.’ Melina lifted her legs and stepped clumsily out of the circle of women, falling against their shoulders, steadying herself on their heads. ‘I’ll come back if I don’t find him.’ She shook off the hands that grabbed at her, and pushed after the familiar dark head that was already dissolving into the throng.

The side streets were darker, and Melina was twice knocked almost to the ground as she ran up against people in the gloom. She scrambled up and kept going, sticking to the walls, her eyes fixed on the running figure of her brother up ahead. When he turned sharply into a familiar alleyway she realized he was heading for the bookshop. Of course he was; she should have come here hours ago. She didn’t try any longer to keep him in sight, just concentrated on staying on her feet.

The fire had reached the shop ahead of them both. Although the brick façade of the building still stood, flame poured from the upper windows, and the front display window was a blackened glowing screen. The front door was wide open. Inside, the shelves of books were collapsing, and loose burning pages lifted and whirled like leaves in an autumn bonfire. Against the molten mass of orange, Melina saw the vacillating figure of a man.

‘Tito!’ She lunged forward, but the wall of heat slammed into her face. She felt herself dragged back by her shirt.

‘Are you mad?’ It was Titos who had hold of her, alive and solid and stinking like a soused torch. Melina knocked away his hand and burst into tears.

The figure in the doorway solidified and emerged, and crossed the road towards them. It was Stephanos, carrying the cash register in his smoking arms.

‘All those books,’ Melina whispered. ‘All your words, Tito. Gone.’

‘Books we can buy again,’ Titos said. He examined her face, felt the length of her arms and legs as if she was a horse he was buying. ‘Words can always be written. It’s people we can’t replace.’

He wrapped his arms around her and she felt his chest shaking as if he were coughing or crying or both. Behind him, the front window pane of the bookstore buckled and cracked, and the curling gold letters in all the languages of the city were split into fragments of dark glass.

Rachel O'Connor

Rachel O’Connor is a citizen of New Zealand, Ireland, and the United States, holds degrees in Literature, Art History and Creative Writing, and currently lives in Auckland, where she tutors English and Creative Writing and is studying towards a Creative PhD at the University of Auckland. She was awarded a Sir James Wallace Scholarship and First Class Masters Degree for her first novel, Whispering City. Recent publications include articles in Metro, Books Ireland and NZ Author magazines.