KAZANTZAKIS AT HOME
by Larry Smith
He was so old that some of the kids said he took the very first shit that ever made the olives grow. Many of the people on the block believed that he was over one-hundred, although he himself wasn’t sure. His people may have come from Africa originally, or at least that’s what he remembers his grandmother saying, or perhaps it was a dear friend of his grandmother whose family also transported over that said it. Somewhere in his mind he still saw sand so white that, when the sun struck it, the light bounced back up again, like a burning mirror in the thick hot air. But he could recall no strange animals, only the familiar ones of this country. And while he was the darkest person they’d ever seen, he wasn’t dark like the jet black people who lived over there.
This land had its own deep white gleam every spring when the people repainted their houses. The heavy lacquer mixed sweetly with the orchids and gave April a gummy distinctive smell. For a long time now he’s been sitting on the front stoop watching and not saying too much. He’s a tall man, almost bald, with a wispy grayish beard that falls down straight along his cheeks and chin.
Perhaps the family had to fight for its life when they first came to Crete. Their enemies could have been anyone. He let his mind wander back to those days. If he closed his eyes tight enough, could he hear the world as he had heard it from inside his mother’s womb: musket sounds, cries in the night, whispers of insurrection? He remembers as much as he can. He figures they all probably landed in Heraklion off some rude skiff, beneficiaries of a week’s calm wind on the sea. Maybe the Turks had already subdued the forlorn island, if not the enduring rage of its inhabitants, raped his grandmother as she wandered about, herself darker than the Turks, darting between alcoves in the dusty city. Or, who knows, maybe they chose instead to throw in their lot with the usurpers: themselves grim invaders spying on the townsfolk and peeking out from behind blood-spattered walls when the soldiers cut down the day’s conspirators. But no one had condemned him, and of course the people here, who find out everything, never forgive or forget. Someone would have known about grandmother’s furtive visits to the police had she been a teller of deadly tales.
It wasn’t much of a trek from the city to what would be their home for the next century or so. Due south through the city past the ramparts built by earlier invaders, then past the Turks’ new office buildings, to the lamb and fish shops full of life where crones even more ancient than grandmother bargained for the day’s catch. Then to the magnificent fountain older than all the crones those crones ever knew. Past old walls and ditches still full of goats grazing on scattered patches of grass. Plenty of space, finally, to build a house or rout a beggar from another house abandoned by some other family in flight, maybe, from the Turks and heading for the sea. Later they built the great wall against the invaders and, when he was already old, he watched them bury the famous writer. How sullen the priests who followed him up, how uncomfortable they seemed carrying this strange dead child of theirs. Surrounded by the winding walls, they laid him on top of the Martinengo Bastion and put many beautiful flowers there.
He had never learned to read, and he spoke very little. Only to his sister would he relate those of the day’s events he saw that seemed worth relating. Over the course of his many years he did indeed see a few worth the telling. For example, he’d seen adultery once, which he knew they’d find out about and kill someone for. From the very beginning he watched as John Tzortzis started hating his wife; there was a flicker in Tzortzis’ face one day, and for the next ten years the old man saw it harden and become a shadow growing darker and darker. He mentioned what he saw to his sister, who nodded and kept her silence. Tzortzis finally met a young girl living over by the Church of St. Catherine, and they disappeared together. His wife went screeching along the road and through the big ditch, scattering the goats, who raised their own cacophony. Her brother and the young girl’s father went out after the elopers and when they brought back the girl some weeks later no one asked where Tzortzis was.
As time went by he saw more and more. Many strangers came, most of them fair-skinned and with pleasant manners. They would hike along the ditch, amused by the goats, and head for the Martinengo Bastion. Often the kids followed them up on bicycles. Sometimes as he lay down on his bed against the wall, he’d hear the footsteps heading in that direction. One night he doubted it was a stranger’s walk.
The next day as he sat on the stoop, George, a local policeman, came by to see his niece. George’s heavy eyes were unblinking, their lids held back as if propped by little sticks. They spoke awhile, then his niece’s husband strolled along. The niece and her husband nodded and shrugged as George spoke. He heard all three of them grunt quietly and cluck their tongues.
George walked past him, moving on toward the city. But before he had gone thirty paces the old man spoke up. “It was a light step I heard last night,” he shouted over to the policeman. “A young man’s. But his shoes were heavy, and struck up some dust, and echoed in my ear for a count of ten before it settled.”
The policeman, taciturn child of a race of perfect detectives, nodded thank you and continued his way.
They saw the old man sitting on the stoop just off the road as they skirted the goats on Evans St. By what Connery could read of the map in the old guidebook, Kazantzakis was buried on a kind of high rampart, or perhaps a natural plateau, which was called the Martinengo Bastion. “Somebody here might have heard of this `bastion,'” he said to Thalia.
“I’ll try that,” she said, and approached the old man. He looked up with a blank expression as she spoke to him in Greek. The early sunset was taking the bite out of the day’s heat, and there was a slight breeze. Connery had drunk some Domestica but not even half the bottle. If he felt settled inside himself at that moment, satisfied while not quite serene, oblivious at least to the usual torments, it was apparently some natural gladness. It was perhaps these last few pleasant weeks in Greece that had given him surcease.
He’d been told Kazantzakis’ grave was worth a look, that it would be especially restful after the torturous intellectual-seeming Knossos. This, unlike most of Greece, was a place where history could be recollected in tranquility. Not that Greece agitated him; quite to the contrary, he had driven around Thessalonica like a native and, in Athens, even enjoyed the sooty outdoor cafes. The other tourists hadn’t bothered him. And, when he got off the ferry from Kavalla and saw Thasos’ rugged beauty, he decided to stay a week. For a day or two, he enjoyed being alone; then, when he met Thalia Voutas, he was delighted to stay the extra time with her. They continued traveling on together when the week was over.
“Sit with me, of course,” she said at the tavern. Although he seldom hungered for women, Connery attracted them easily. His pocked and homely face was a gentle one. He was, in fact, a gentle man, when not too drunk, or set upon by the obscure and at times only half-articulated demands of a parent or cousin or brother. Women like Thalia, also of upper class origins, raised in Paris by her mother and a succession of stepfathers, naturally gravitated his way without much effort.
There was no pretense of love, yet he may never have loved a naked body this much, not just the sculptured breasts and butt which were easy to admire along conventionally aesthetic lines, but also the ungainly dash of moist hair winding around from her crotch to the crack in her ass. Of course he couldn’t put his mouth between her legs–he could never do that–but she was kind enough not to ask, which he appreciated.
“You like American men?” he asked her in bed.
“I’ve only got you to go by,” she said, teasing. “It’s funny, though. I don’t think of you as an American. I think of you as an Irishman.”
“And you give allowances to the Irish that you don’t to others?
“Yes, very simpatico–but not because of the poets you’ve made. It’s because of the church…”
“That unmade us?” he interrupted with a wink.
Hers was a sympathy given lightheartedly, without condescension, so he accepted it without shame. Besides which, she seemed to enjoy him so much, even love him a little after a fashion. Next day she put her mouth on him, it happened on the beach, and that he was willing to allow.
Something in all of this he loved. Himself a poet, that evening he wrote
No one ever recovers,
but I will soothe your ancient wound
and lave your sand-encrusted skin,
like death laves its phantoms.
He stopped writing and took a walk over to the little museum, but you couldn’t get into it even during the day unless you found the caretaker. So he went back to the inn, and worked by the window as Thalia was falling asleep:
Wait for me,
wail for me,
finish, read me
you pass as dream
and, lapped in my ear,
I’ll cradle you
like earth’s first tulip
bellied with dew,
peeking toward the sun,
proudly, astonishingly black.
Purge the verbs,
fire each new word to world,
thick as night,
echoing like day–
the truth of you
your endless whispered
My part is old hunger
lined in sawdust,
a rhythm seeking embrace:
O Thasos, Thasos,
yours is the music
all worlds dance to.
The family claims were stupendous. The great-grandfather came from Ireland, though no one knew for sure which part. Somewhere he had stolen a horse and sold it for a pot of porridge then sold two portions of porridge which left him enough to buy more porridge and a few potatoes as well, which, once sold, was enough to book passage to America. When he landed in New York, he began the horse and porridge cycle all over again, except now instead of more porridge he bought a seat on the New York Stock Exchange and, from there, through conspicuous international vistas, diamond mines, canals, and the ear of kings.
His children were feeble. One was kicked off the Exchange, another committed suicide. The grandchildren were only slightly better. One raised horses and subsidized anti-communist paramilitary groups. His brother, Connery’s father, took over one of the world’s largest typewriter companies and within a decade had turned it into one of the smallest. Sometimes he’d forget his son’s first name, which was William. All his affections, such as they were, were tied up in his daughters, while Connery’s mother followed her husband about in a haze of gin and bitters.
The family branched. Some of William’s cousins went back to Ireland and rested there. Nieces and nephews materialized at parties in New York. During visits to the family estate in Westchester, or throughout long summers at the house in Canada, the eyes of others fastened hard upon him. They were as drunk as he was, as feckless, and, for all their pride in pedigree, just as rootless. But, equating impotence with privilege, they utterly despised Connery, who was too honest not to know himself a sad shambles of a man. And he showed them he knew it, if only in the way he’d avert his eyes or lower his head. Although he really loved only poetry, in the last analysis the redoubtable lineage thrilled him too. Poor Connery, he hated himself for not rising to the fabled family aureole even as he saw through it.
Our child is monster;
he has perfumed the once-strong satraps,
and now Persia is sweet meat
strung for the Northern tribes.
Scenes booze helped erase. The worst, of course, was the boarding school his father had picked out for him. Having gone there himself in the 1930s, he’d remained piously loyal, as well as philanthropic. When the seniors, tacitly approved by the winking priests, buggered the freshmen, Connery shivered to see the callous and disembodied face of the father at each window, peering fiercely. No one came to the rescue. Fear soon obscured those memories; they grew so indistinct, he saw upperclassmen, all smirks and puckered jowls, without really remembering if they were ones who laid him or roughly used his face, or only made him watch as they set upon the weakest of the newer boys. Yet he didn’t grow up to hate homosexuality. Just Catholicism.
College, a hotbed of European intellectualism, was a great haven for awhile, and the professors there refugees in their own right. Connery felt the world well lost but for the passion in ideas they’d salvaged from the flames. Even Keats they recast; the clerical hacks who raised him wouldn’t recognize their old world now! At home, though, his own unkempt old world awaited, the gothic tableaux unchanged albeit a little worse for alcoholic wear. One day, after visiting with a Jewish friend from school, his mother slurped, “Watch what he wants from you!”
“I don’t understand,” he said. “We have nothing he could possibly want.”
“William!” barked the old man from the other side of the room, rebuking the perceived insolence.
“But we haven’t,” he said, more confused than defiant.
“If you don’t learn what we have to teach you, then–” at once Connery saw his father was drunk and probably didn’t know what the conversation was about–“then it’s something only long and hard experience will lead to, and a learning experience that you’ll have to learn without the help of experience.”
Connery mumbled in defense of his friend. “His father just acquired the — Corp.”
“But with only the narrowest majority of stockholders approving!” exclaimed mother.
When finally he went out into the world, it was as a clerk in an antiques store. Half the people he waited on also came from great families and the other half were nouveau riche, but, once they found out who he was, everyone sought his acquaintanceship. It was, he wearily realized, the saving grace of his class that, while success, enterprise, all the predatory graces came naturally to some of his own, others like himself were sufficiently picturesque to be exempt from such expectations.
He watched Thalia approach the dark old man as the goats scampered up the side of the ditch. They tore at the small clumps of grass and meandered back down again. He did love her somehow; he did not want to part from her! The waning sun shone through the light green dress against her buttocks. “Martinengo Bastion,” he called out to remind her what to ask for. Thalia, her Greek a flat nasal whine, begged the old man’s pardon and inquired about the locale. But “Martinengo Bastion” didn’t seem to mean much to him, or at least he didn’t respond to the name. She started to walk away.
“Kazantzakis!” he called out abruptly. His long spindly arm pointed up toward the road to their right.
They looked out past his grave across the hill. It was an open structure, the wall against the Turks winding down as far as they could see. And it was beautiful, just as Connery was promised. The grave itself was a simple stone sculpture bedecked with a half-dozen bouquets. One shrub with blue flowers seemed to grow out of the grave itself, Kazantzakis’ flesh feeding the roots. Not like that other flower, he thought, the single daisy plopped mockingly amid the unspeakable ooze. Little Sheehey, was it? A flower, alone and upright and absurd, which someone stuck in him as he lay there after the seniors finished with him…He drove away the image, as he always had. Not like that, these flowers here for blessed remembrance.
“You know I’m a cold bitch,” she whispered to him suddenly, incongruously. “Always been.”
“You?” he said. “Never.”
“It was my upbringing.” She lifted an eyebrow. “Just like you, I was taught to despise everything around me, but we had no illusions about ourselves either. My mother told me that nothing was genuine, everything is for sale. Grace and style and breeding are commodities on a market.” She nodded toward the grave. “My mother would say this too is a commodity. A great writer buried in a beautiful spot, that’s something the Cretans can sell us, and, even more important, it’s something we can sell ourselves. A beautiful experience to sell ourselves, so we’ll believe it was, after all, worthwhile to wake up and live through this day. A dreary way of looking at life, no?”
“Was your mother’s cynicism as eloquent as yours?”
“Perhaps not,” Thalia smiled, “but she made me a democrat in a snide way. We were so full of contempt, it made us respectful. My mother would say, `Don’t look down on the merchants because of their manners or because you despise whatever it is they’re selling. The rest of us aren’t very different. We’re all mercantile under the skin.'”
“Did you always believe her?”
“Once I argued with her when I was very young. It was during my first period and I was very emotional. I was bleeding so heavy, I couldn’t believe then that everything wasn’t real, so real!” Thalia curled her lips and smiled narrowly. “`You’ll get over it,’ my mother said, and she wouldn’t argue with me. She never argued.”
Flowers always made Thalia think of sex. She often imagined orchids between her legs, and when she bent over a bouquet it was her own cunt, or another woman’s, she was savoring. Sometimes the sight of a rose reminded her of the first time, and, if she closed her eyes tight enough, she could hear the soft hissing sound of herself being deflowered. Sex at least seemed real, and she had had many lovers. Her intentions were always indisputably heartfelt. The first dinner with Connery at the tavern, for example, her legs were spread under the table. How that thrilled her, his not knowing she had already opened wide. And she liked his poems so much, after she read them she asked him to recite a few.
O my woman,
purge the verb to love;
score from old thunder
the new moon song.
Sing, I am no wayfarer.
Sing, I am here to die.
The early evening breeze over Kazantzakis’ grave. They’d been holding hands. “At least you’re not pitiful,” he said to her.
“Oh William,” she said, full of compassion. Still arm in arm, they descended the steps on the opposite side of the grave. Walking up toward them was the policeman, George. His jet black eyebrows cast an almost glowering shadow but he smiled at them pleasantly. Thalia said hello and, pausing on a step, he asked her in Greek if they were enjoying their visit.
“It’s a beautiful monument the people gave this man,” she said. He agreed, commenting that Kazantzakis was a great poet. He started up past them but then stopped short and turned back to speak again. He spoke somberly, his voice lowering to a near whisper as he finished.
When they reached the bottom of the stairs, Connery saw that Thalia’s eyes were alive–startled, aroused, yet a little amused as well. “What was that all about?” he asked.
“The policeman said that a few days ago someone smeared shit on Kazantzakis’ grave.”
“No kidding,” said Connery.
“He said they were going to find whoever did it.”
“I don’t doubt they will,” he said.
“And when they find him,” said Thalia, her eyes wide and her voice vibrant with the inescapable reality of the matter, “when they find him, he says they’ll kill him.”
About the Author:
Larry Smith’s novella, Patrick Fitzmike and Mike Fitzpatrick, was published by Outpost 19. His stories have appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Low Rent(nominated for a Pushcart Prize), Exquisite Corpse, The Collagist, Curbside Splendor, Sequestrum, and [PANK], among numerous others. Smith’s poetry has appeared in Descant (Canada) and Elimae, among others; his articles and essays in Modern Fiction Studies, Social Text, The Boston Phoenix, and others. VisitLarrysmithfiction.com.