The Fortunate Son
By Antonios Maltezos
As a child, Vassilis walked in the processions with his mother, caught up in the tangle of legs marching to the pier. If he walked too quickly, she tightened her grip, hurting his hand. He hated lingering at the back with the old men. He wanted to be up front where the women of the village were wailing and pulling at their hair. Vassilis asked his mother once, why they couldn’t walk ahead. “You see these men around us,” she whispered down at him, “they will never leave the village—just like you, now that your father is dead. Besides,” she hushed, “y ou are too fat, and your lungs are weak. The sea is not for you”.
Vassilis took off his shirt. He held onto it with the tips of his fingers as the whistling sea breeze filled it, making him feel lighter on his feet. He let it go and it flapped away like a heavy, white, sea bird over the rooftops.
“Vassy, you should cover yourself.”
At first, he thought his mother’s ghost had followed him out onto the street.
“Do you hear what I say, Vassy? Cover yourself.”
Amalia was leaning out of her second story window. As their closest neighbor, she was the first to hurry in with food and condolences those final days before Vassilis’s father died. He could still see her dabbing his father’s forehead with a rag. She was entangled in that final image like an old root.
“You bastard-child, what would your mother say?”
What would his mother have said? He could see her sitting on her feet and rocking back and forth, furiously spitting out the words, the prayers that might save her son and keep him from a life on the sea. You’ll bury me next to your father.
Vassilis undid the knot in the rope around his waist. His time had finally come.
He struggled to pull his pants down below his knees just as the sound of people stirring, doorknobs turning, and shutters opening filled the street. Vassilis knew it wouldn’t be long before everyone crowded around demanding to know what all the commotion was about. He fell to the ground, kicking his enormous legs as he tried to free himself of the pants.
Amalia spotted Lazoro approaching. She looked at him sideways for a moment before speaking up.
“Old man, tell him I have no use for his genitals.”
She was astounded when Lazoro flicked his worry beads at her, waving her away without even looking up. Certainly their differences wouldn’t stand in the way of his defending a woman’s honor? But then she snorted at the thought. What did Lazoro know about honor?
She spat her curses directly onto Lazoro’s head. And as if to prove she meant business, she made like she was scooping up the cursed disease from somewhere, tossing it down by the handfuls.
“You can’t dismiss me.” She wanted to jump out of her window, but then she remembered Vassilis. He was naked by now, free of his pants, looking every bit like his father.
She rested her chin on the sill, her eyes comfortably watching Vassilis on the hard-packed road below. He was so tall; she thought she could easily reach down and stroke his black hair. And the shoulders were so broad she was certain he would catch her if her body were to slither out over the edge.
He was a monster of a man, just like his father had been.
She closed her eyes and listened to the sound of the villagers coming together. She decided she wouldn’t care if they witnessed her pain. She tried to cry, imagined herself breaking down, and then shivered as if she were as naked as the young man below her window. They would only laugh at her, and call her a bitch for sleeping with Vassilis’s father. She knew they hadn’t forgotten. They would wait for her funeral, when she couldn’t fight back, and spit on her grave. She knew them well, well enough to know they wouldn’t dare talk about her if she left her shutters open.
Lazoro knew he had to get the naked Vassilis off the street, but some of the old women in the crowd were already clutching at their breasts, as if their over-burdened hearts might burst at any moment.
Lazoro moved closer to Vassilis. “Look at them.” He whispered, pointing with a fist full of worry beads at the villagers. “This is how they behaved when your father died of the cursed disease.”
Lazoro swiped his brow with the back of his hand. He loved to see the women excited. He turned to look where he expected Vassilis to be, but he had already moved on.
Lazoro hurried to catch up with him. “Vassy, where are you going, boy?” His voice was rising and falling with each step.
“Come with me to my house. I’ll find something to cover you with, and then we can eat and talk as much as we like.” He stumbled on a little mound of dirt trying to keep pace. “You’ll hurt your feet on the rocks.”
Lazoro looked back then, at the crowd coming together as a somber procession, at the village beyond, at the dead face sneaking a peek through a black window. He then turned to look ahead where there was nothing but sea, and he realized he had placed himself just at the edge.
On days when the sea was churning, it shared its rage with the sky, which was also churning, textured by storm clouds. Lazoro could always hear the blustering from his house, and although it often frightened him, at least it gave him a reason to be on his island earth where it was safe. But on days like this, with the sun paused over their heads, the sea remained neutral, lifeless. This was when Lazoro believed the sea was most oppressive, when she reminded him of all the time he wasted getting old. It was why he despised her so much. He stared at her, concentrating hard until he was finally convinced that he could excite her placid waters.
When they reached the water’s edge, Lazoro took off his sandals, rolled up his pant legs. He giggled like a child as the salt water licked his toes.
“The brine will burn the inside of your nose and throat.” He remembered how Kiriakos nearly drowned twenty years ago and survived to tell about it. “Once your lungs fill completely, your struggling will come to an end. The water will become your air.” He clapped Vassilis on the back.
As the mourners arrived, Vassilis advanced on the water gasping for air through his open mouth.
The old women threw themselves on what little moisture could reach them on dying waves. They rolled about, covering themselves with wet sand from head to toe, spitting up the silt as they agonized. Their old men ignored their frenzy, pointing instead with crooked fingers and walking sticks at the enormity of it all.
Lazoro turned away so he could hear the rush, rush, of the water Vassilis was pushing with his legs. It was rhythmical, steady, like the click, click, of his beads, and then he heard a big splash. It sounded like an old man clearing his throat, filling his mouth with phlegm, except there was silence afterward instead of a quick pop. As the heavy drops began to fall from high up, Lazoro spun around in the sand, expecting to see foam circles marking the spot where Vassilis had gone under. He was surprised to see Vassilis struggling to stand up in two feet of water.
“Hep!” He started waving his arms wildly at Vassilis. “Deeper!”
Vassilis tried to raise one leg out of the water, and managed to lift it briefly before it crashed back down sending him quickly forward in a futile attempt to catch his balance.
From the shore, it appeared as though Vassilis had thrown himself headfirst into the water. The old women pounded the wet sand and yelled at their husbands in a forgiving way. The old men were mostly silent, though, shamed and unable to look up from their feet. Lazoro was the only one who kept his focus on the water. He didn’t say anything when he saw Vassilis’ head slowly break the surface and then sink again.
Vassilis’s body spent the night floating on the shallow tide waters, anchored to a large rock that had always been on the beach half-buried in the sand.
In the morning, some of the women voiced their concerns about removing Vassilis from the sea that had given him birth, but Lazoro wouldn’t hear of it. He said the sea had nothing to do with it. What would she be, he told them, without the old islanders who feared her?
At first, Lazoro didn’t appreciate the fact that his procession was made up only of women. The only other breathing male, he noticed, was the donkey pulling Vassilis. He ordered the women about loudly while they passed through the village, just in case any of their husbands were lying awake in bed, waiting for the sound of the shuffling feet to fade away. He quieted long enough to whisper his curses up at Amalia’s shuttered window, and then yelled for her to come out.
When he spotted Vassilis’s pants in a crumpled heap, he demanded that someone show the proper respect and retrieve them. Amalia hurried to pick them up. As she presented the soiled material to Lazoro, she moved in close. “Who will bury me when my time comes?”
“You’re time will never come, old woman,” he whispered back as he accepted the pants.
The procession moved slowly because the weight of the body proved a strain for the donkey, especially when the trail began to slowly ascend the only mountain on the island. When the beast stopped walking for the first time, Lazoro swatted him with the pants. He heard several gasps from within the procession and decided thereafter it would be better if he pick up a stick along the way to keep the beast moving.
As they climbed higher, so did Lazoro’s frustration. The old women at his back were forcing him forward without as much as a moments rest. He was the one, after all, carrying the pants. He felt some relief when he noticed that the donkey was finally giving up. The drool running from its mouth had thickened. For the benefit of his followers, Lazoro broke his stick on the beast’s back, and when that didn’t produce results, he pelted him with stones. The donkey’s hind legs gave out first, and with a final show of donkey defiance, he pulled his ears back and brayed loudly before falling over dead.
Lazoro was satisfied, certain the old goats wouldn’t dare attempt to carry the enormous body the rest of the way up.
“Friends, it seems we can go no further,” he told them confidently as he looked out over the horizon.
He was about to begin eulogizing Vassilis, when the old women started cackling amongst themselves. One finally spoke up.
“We can take his pants to the top.”
Grudgingly, Lazoro draped the pants over his shoulder and started walking. The old women quickly fell in line behind him as he secretly wished the cursed disease on them all. He would force them to come back later in the day to bury Vassilis where he lay. And then he remembered the donkey. They would have to bury him as well.
He pulled the pants off his shoulder part way up to examine them. He was hoping the words might come to him, the words that might honor the pants. He marveled at their size. They didn’t even look like pants. They were grotesque, an abomination. Disgusted, he tossed them over the edge of the cliff. He stopped walking so he could watch them fall. At one point, it seemed as if they were going to come back to him because the wind had picked up again, gusting up the sheer rock. But they were enormous pants and he knew no amount of wind could force them to fly. He felt satisfied when he couldn’t see them anymore. He felt as if he could now climb the rest of the way without any problem at all.
That was when the voices came to him again, toothless and spitting. They were passing questions among themselves. He turned, and as he did, he realized what he had done. For a moment, he believed they might toss him over the edge after the pants, those abominable pants. He twirled his beads. Faster, faster still until he realized he was towering over the sea.
“Look.” He pointed upwards at nothing.
Everyone squinted at the sun because it was the only object in the sky.
He implored them, “Can’t you see him?”
Just then a big, white, sea bird appeared, an oversized bird, looking stupid and frightened, probably frightened off his perch by Lazoro’s booming voice.
At first, he didn’t understand what the old women were doing behind his back, and then he heard their orgasmic cries. He turned to look, marvel at their ecstasy as they danced about wildly on the cliff’s edge. Fool women. They were ripping at their clothing, tossing their scraggly dresses over the edge. They looked absolutely ravishing with their flushed cheeks and bouncing bosoms.
He started dancing, slowly at first, and then with fervency as the warm blood loosened his joints.
Antonios Maltezos has stories forthcoming in Night Train and Ink Pot. One day, he says, his novel will feel finished.
The previous story he wrote for VerbSap was The Marker.
Photos courtesy of Freeimages.co.uk.
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