Swamped, a novel by Manolis Aligizakis

Posted: 22/11/2021 by vequinox in Literature

(excerpt)

Dark clouds come down and seem to blanket the hills. Heavy drops of rain hit the lone window and the single door as if they want to hammer through them and drench the whole house from corner to corner. Eteocles and Nicolas stand by the window, and through the gaps around its frame, they stare at the tempest just outside their hovel. They are both shivering. The fire their mother made in the metal bucket and placed in the middle of the room before she left has gone stale. The wood has been consumed, and the boys don’t know how to feed the bucket with more wood. Alone in the wretched house two lonely souls in a world full of people and yet full of loneliness, cold and scared as the clouds track swiftly across the vast sky as if fleeing from the tempest, as if it wanting to shroud the boys in funereal garments before their time.

Their mom has gone to the fields with her sister Rubie to find something for their dinner. The rain drips around the window frame and runs slowly down on the wall to the floor, which is already soaked for a meter or so under the window. The house is cold. Smoldering ashes are the only remnants of heat from the bucket their mom filled and lighted before she left. Eteocles has eaten the piece of bread she gave him, but Nicolas still holds his half-eaten piece in his hand. The two brothers stand next to each other and watch the bands of rain pouring down, creating watery walls against the hillside opposite their window.

They are cold. They are hungry. The rabbits are hungry too. They hop from one side of the house to the other hunting for any fallen scraps of food, but none are anywhere to be found. As Nicolas and Eteocles absentmindedly look outside, mesmerized by the rain, one rabbit sneaks up close to them and suddenly, with a small hop, grabs the bread from Nicolas’s hand and runs to the corner where the rabbits have dug their den a few feet into the floor. Nicolas starts crying not only because he has lost his bread but also because his finger is bleeding. He is terrified looking at the blood coming from his middle finger where the rabbit’s eager teeth have punctured. Both boys stare at the bleeding finger and Eteocles starts crying too, not knowing why but as if he has to keep up with his older brother or as if they feel better when they both do the same thing.

This is how their mother finds them when she comes back a little later. Quickly she puts her things down and cleans Nicolas’ hand, wrapping the tiny wound with a piece of clean cloth. With the same speed she brings wood from the back of the kitchen and restarts the fire in their bucket. Soon the area around the bucket is warm and the boys sit there, extending their small hands until they are warm and toasty.

Meanwhile their mother dresses the few wild asparagus stalks she has gathered and boils them hurriedly. She manages to put together a meal of boiled asparagus with olive oil and some salt, a good slice of bread and a bunch of olives that they all share. She has even brought two mandarins back with her today and after their supper she gives one to each of the boys.

          “And you, Mom?” asks Eteocles

          “I don’t want any, my boy” she replies. “I had one when I was out. Eat yours and don’t worry about me,” she urges.

The two boys peal their mandarins and squeeze the mandarin peel at each other. The juice gets in their eyes and stings. It makes them rub their eyes and laugh and squeeze a bit more. They enjoy their game, but finally they both cut a piece of their mandarin and give them to their mother. They don’t know why she starts crying then. They only look at her in silence, a heavy silence like a shroud. They eat their mandarins silently. After a while their mother sighs and gets up. She walks to the back corner, takes a few pieces of wood, and feeds the fire in their bucket. All three sit around the makeshift heater while their mother tells them a story about her brother, the famous hunter Nikiforos.

The story is exciting but it’s soon over. It’s their time for bed and mom arranges their bed with the blankets laid on chairs around their bed to shelter them from the cold wind that insists on getting into the house regardless of all their mother’s efforts. It keeps coming in through the gaps around the door frame and the lone window, spreading its cold breath all around the room. 

Next morning the storm has passed and they play outside, but their mother doesn’t go to the fields. She has a surprise for them when she calls them for their noon meal: it is stewed meat, stifado as it’s called in Crete. She has slaughtered a rabbit, perhaps the very one that bit Nicolas and stole his bread the day before, perhaps a different one, but the meat is delicious.

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