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Life in the Tomb

Stratis Myrivilis

Chapter 2. An End Which Is a Beginning

Hurrah! We’ve finally stopped, thank God. We’ve reached the trench. That means an end and at the same time a beginning—an end to that agonized, wretched life of incessant marches, a beginning to trench-life, something we are tasting for the very first time. There were days when I said to myself, “Good God, this walking will never cease. I’ll grow old, always walking, and will stop only when it’s time for me to die.”

Tired of being separated from you, I have decided to send you my impressions of this new life. I shall write every now and then, whenever I have the time (and the heart), as a way of conversing with you. To know that someone dear is nearby—a person who understands and who offers communion—is so very comforting, especially when one is participating in life’s most critical moments. Such a person hears your thoughts, inwardly, even though he may imagine he is not listening to them at all. You must have observed this sometime. A woman is sitting somewhere with her beloved, sitting with this dear person in a cozy little room, only the two of them present, and nothing else except a few good books, one or two paintings on the walls, a lamp awaiting the night with thumping heart, an inkstand (what an important object that is!), and the chairs in a circle, filled with patience. Neither of them speaks. Each is engrossed in his own thoughts or perhaps is not thinking any conscious thoughts at all. That is the golden moment, because their souls, as free now as two swallows, escape, meet the boundless Oversoul of the cosmos, and disappear, fraternally absorbed inside it. Most often, however, each of the souls converses with its own silence. Yet notice how indispensable to this “conversation” is the very special companion who sits close at hand without speaking, or who now and then utters a few words about current events, words which constitute his rationality’s paltry attempt to justify the sweet-voiced silence. As he sits there tacitly, he is an unsuspecting auditor of the other’s unvoiced soliloquy. But as soon as he decides to rise and leave his lady’s side, everything is finished; ended. She finds it beyond the limits of possibility to continue her silent, inward communing with the depths of her being. Sometimes the lady is the first to rise after one of these joint silences. Not a word has been exchanged the entire time, yet when she gets up to leave, smiling at her friend, at that same moment both feel their souls fuller and riper, brimming with strength and freedom—because many many truths have grazed them gently with their wings, like rosy butterflies.

Something similar is happening to me, making me wish to address my thoughts to you. Despite your silence, I assume that you are here, somewhere close to me. At such times I devote myself body and soul to my soliloquy, which your absence fills with presence.

When God sees fit to end this war, some day we shall sit down together, side by side, and leaf through these unworthy pages. The long winter nights will have already begun, and the passers-by will be walking with hurried steps. We shall only hear them tread the cobblestones, but shall know nevertheless that their hands are thrust deep into their overcoat pockets, their hats pulled down ridiculously over their skulls until they reach the eyebrow, and their contracted shoulders raised as high as possible toward their ears. Your green shutters will be firmly latched, the fragrance of ripe fruit will saturate the room’s atmosphere, and I shall be lounging lazily in the armchair in front of that gigantic copper brazier from Constantinople. I’ll fill my pipe and light it; I’ll stir up the coals, poking the bronze tongs into their burning core which resembles dark cherry-colored velvet; and I’ll watch you as you sit at the walnut table beneath the circle of light thrown by the green lampshade, reading from these copybooks in your full, clear voice. I shall hear its boyish timbre and imagine that I am listening to a gurgling vein of water which flows exclusively for me in the depths of the earth. Exclusively for me—and not a soul shall divine my secret bliss. We shall be married then, and shall have a home of our own. We’ll choose our furniture together, making certain that it is simple and sturdy, so that we can love it. (You cannot imagine, dearest, how unpleasant it is to be companioned by the kind of furniture which stands there putting on such airs that you cannot get along with it.) You will love our furniture, and you will also love this notebook, because as I write in it I am thinking of you constantly.

Dearest, during this very unusual time when my life is so near to death and my hands are so far from yours…

Chapter 12. The Ghost Town

It was night when we entered Monastir and night when we left. The streets of this large Serbian town are unlIghted, the houses dark, with no lamps glowing in their windows. The inhabitants—the town is populated by Greeks—walk about furtively, like burglars; they converse in whispers, quiver with fear when they gaze at the sky, and dwell below ground level in their basements, or in holes dug beneath their houses. Such holes are called abris by our French allies; that is, dugouts. (We first learned this word here, but without comprehending the full horror of its meaning. That was to come later.) We used a large public square as a temporary halting-place and went out from there to get our bearings. This city is directly in the battle zone. The French, who acted as our guides, showed us shell-damaged bulldogs which looked as though they had been struck by lightning. They also pointed out some houses that had been burned by incendiaries, a type of projectile which spews forth an inflammatory material that ignites piece by piece, each piece then hopping somewhere else and exploding anew, thereby spreading the conflagration over a large area. This burning rainfall (which cannot be extinguished by water) works incurable havoc wherever it lands.

I saw a once-lovely street overflowing with silence and moonlight. On either side: an endless row of burned-out buildings with smoke-blackened walls uplifted toward the sombre blue sky. The moonlight marched in and out unhindered, passing through the empty window-frames, slipping behind gaping balcony-doors, and filling the houses with the silent barrenness of death. They were just skeletons—bare, flesh less bones of monstrous carcasses—these buildings which once upon a time must have been jubilant dwelling-places. Killed by war.

The population here got wind instantly of the arrival of fellow Greeks. This was remarkable, considering that our uniforms helmets—all our belongings—were French, and that we entered the town on the Q.T. But they darted out of their subterranean holes like mice and swarmed around us—men, women and children (but mostly women and children), all with gasmasks hanging around their necks—they wear these masks night and day as protection against gas. They kissed our hands, caressed our rifles, patted our helmets, buttoned and unbuttoned our greatcoats—and wept calmly, silently, beneath the moonlight.

“Can it be true? Are you really Greeks? Greeks from Greece? Our brothers?” ,

“Naturally! What did you expect?”

They explained that during all the years of slavery they had been waiting for us, dreaming about us, invoking us in their songs and worshipping us, without ever knowing who we were. “And now here you are at last, at our sides. May Christ and the Virgin watch over you! And please, brethren, never let us fall into the hands of the Serbs again. They’ve oppressed us horribly, just because we are Greek.”

One old man told me: “They lash us with whips if they hear the Greek language spoken among us. They don’t even allow us to celebrate mass in Greek. All our churches have been closed, and our wonderful schools as well. Our women, all our women, have been dishonored, the city turned into one huge brothel. The women have to submit; otherwise their bread-ration is suspended. And no one is allowed to save himself by leaving the city. The Serbs have barricaded every way out, and they shoot to kill.”

Good God! Why had we come here, then? Was it to liberate Greeks by fighting Serbs, or to liberate Serbs (our allies; betrayed by the king we had rejected) by fighting Germans and Bulgarians?

Something made us began to crack. Was it our faith in what we had been told in Lesvos? Bewildered, we added our tears to theirs.

They presented us with a thousand and one simple little gifts; in every basement they prepared loukoumadhes and other deep-fried sweets for us, despite their tragically inadequate rations. A swarm of boys approached my platoon and all began to sing the National Anthem in hushed voices, caps in hand, touching our sleeves and weeping. But a French M.P. from the provost marshal’s office came over and commanded them to be silent:

“No noise!”

A woman wearing a black scarf over her head did not neglect to offer us some useful advice concerning gas. “Keep your masks handy at all times, brothers,” she said with tender solicitude. “The other day the Bulgarians bombarded us with gas-shells and killed six of our children as they were squatting close together, telling stories to each other in a little huddle (they were in my neighborhood). The French laid out their bodies on the sidewalk, all in a row, and kept them there for an entire day while they took movies of them and also snapshots, some of which they used for picture post cards!”

A girl stationed herself next to me and remained standing there for considerable time, not saying a word. She had dark hair, excessively large eyes, and was as lithe as a cypress sapling. She just stood there and looked at me, stroking my gun-strap absentmindedly with one finger. I stared back at her, a smile on my lips. I could see the moonlight in her eyes. She did not smile. Suddenly she thrust a package of chocolate bars into my pack.

“Take them,” she said in a whisper. “Take them. When you’re in the trenches let them be a reminder to you that a girl from Monastir, a girl you’ll never see again-—|”

“Why? What makes you so sure?”

She shook her head vigorously. A tress fell between her animated eyebrows and hung there like a black questionmark.

“I know what I know …. Where do you come from? Tell me, my brother.”

“From Lesvos. All of us come from Lesvos.”

“Lesvos?” Smiling at last, she assumed a pose of a schoolgirl delivering a recitation, and then mouthed at breakneck speed, most comically: “Lesvos, home of Sappho, Alcaeus, Arion, Pittacus and Theophrastus, cradle of music and lyric poetry …”

How charming! Everyone of those names, as they emerged in that pedantic way from her lips, went straight to my heart, as did the girl herself, suddenly. She pushed her way in with the same boldness that members of a person’s family display when they barge unannounced into his room. She might have been the ardent soul of Sappho, my sacred Mother; she might have been none other than the soul of Lesvos itself, waiting for me here in Serbia, in order to present me with a package of chocolate.

I grasped her hand in the darkness and raised it to my lips, holding it against them for quite some time. It was cool; and it was submissive.

“Thank you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart …. You’re a beautiful girl, and a kind one too …. Tell me your name. I’ll always remember it with gratitude.”

At that moment my platoon-commander approached in extreme haste and told me to run as quickly as possible to find our sergeant. “Have him assemble the platoon. But take care-no whistles no cigarettes, no talking. We leave in five minutes.”

The platoon sergeant was my brother. I raced to find him. The girl faded into the darkness and disappeared, nameless.

We left.

Our route followed the course of the Dragor as it ran darkly through the town. At every bend in the lovely river the moonlight jiggled silvery scales. The stream flows tranquilly between two endless avenues of acacias, large robust trees whose roots must never lack for water. “How marvelous they must be at blossom time” .. I reflected, “when they radiate whiteness on a moonlit night such as this, and suffuse the dark air with their sweet perfume …. And that girl, the one who gave me the chocolate: her feet must have trod the paving stones of this embankment many many times; her eyes must have seen the liquid moonlight flowing in the Dragor’s waters. How beautiful she was! … And here we are a column of terrified recruits marching noiselessly and without cigarettes, marching for hours behold those enormous frames which have dyed burlap stretched upon them, or wrapping paper covered with painted designs. This camouflage conceals our passage from the eyes, and cannons, of the enemy…. That girl, the one who gave me the chocolate…”

The front.

We were really and truly there now, at that unknown, mysterious place so full of icy terror — a terror which had come to our souls and sounded the alarm in advance for things which, though still undivulged to us, had already impressed us with their flavor, making the heart of every man flap its wings like a bird suddenly overshadowed by a diving hawk.

Truly, we sat “in darkness and in the shadow of death.”