Little Infamies

Stories

Panos Karnezis

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Excerpt from Little Infamies by Panos Karnezis. Copyright © 2003 by Panos Karnezis. To be published in February, 2003 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.


Since dawn the air had the sultriness of fermenting juices and later, just before lunch, the dog started barking for no reason and did not stop until Father Yerasimo chased her away with stones. He could not imagine then that the poor animal was only trying to warn him. Because no sooner had he washed his dish, fed the leftovers to the chickens, and sat on the veranda to drink a glass of wine, than a roar like the beating of an enormous vat echoed across the village. Father Yerasimo watched with fascination as his glass toppled, and the red wine spilled over the table.

`Shit!' he uttered. `It's the Second Coming.'

On the trees the crows suddenly took flight as if a gun had been fired, and a herd of sheep not far away bunched together and started bleating. Father Yerasimo crossed himself. The first tremor was as imperceptible as the dynamite detonations that reached the village from the penitentiary mines; it made the grid cables sway a little, and the canary banged its wings against the wires of its cage. The momentary shadow of a cloud that passed in front of the sun fell on Father Yerasimo's humble house, increasing his terror. And when the door to the veranda creaked on its hinges, he shivered like the time he had heard the hiss of a demon during one of his failed exorcisms. `Kyrie eleison me,' he whined, and touched the cross on his chest, remembering his pastoral failings. `It's not my fault. I have tried my best. But those heathens have the heads of mules.'

He had hardly finished his penance when the concrete veranda started rocking, as if it were floating on water. The pair of rubber galoshes in the corner, which he wore in winter to walk the few yards from home to the church, jumped up and down, and the swinging storm lantern on the wall rained paraffin on his threadbare cassock, but such was his shock that he did not move.

Then, as suddenly as it had started, the earthquake stopped.

For a while there was silence except for the occasional shattering of loose tiles slipping off roofs. The birds returned to the trees, while inside its cage the canary shrunk on its perch. In the square, in front of the church, people started arriving from every direction like a hunted herd. With them they carried the things they had salvaged from their homes: dishes of fake china, a shotgun with its cleaning rod, a wall clock whose cuckoo had fallen off its spring mechanism, the money from under the mattress, a still smoking Russian samovar, a bride-to-be her hired tulle gown, the mayor the cast-iron typewriter he had paid for with municipal funds, and someone else was pushing the bed with his sick grandparents still in it.

`The battle of Armageddon has begun!' Father Yerasimo shouted malevolently from his veranda. `Too late for you to repent now.' They looked at him, shamefaced. `Don't say I didn't warn you,' the priest added.

They were still in the square debating what to do when the terror returned. The earthquake announced its second attack by tolling the church bells, and although the belfry endured the subterranean violence, shaking like a fishing rod, the delicate mechanism of its clock did not, and its iron hands stopped at that hour of misfortune. The villagers could only watch as the ground beneath their feet tippled and the cypresses dropped their cones. The plaster of the murals inside the church broke up, and a moment later the big blue letters above the door of the town hall fell off one by one. Soon after the balcony slipped off its cantilevers too, and landed on the ground in one piece: floor, railing, flagpole and the deckchair in which the mayor used to take his afternoon naps.

The destruction continued among the laments of the villagers. Houses that found themselves in the path of the earthquake surrendered to its force: roofs caved in, chimneys toppled and blocked the streets, and adobe sheds disintegrated to piles of dust and straw. But the villagers had little time to grieve the loss of their property. Suddenly there was a noise of cracking stone and masonry, then a cloud of dust arose and from the cloud emerged the horns of a bolting cattle herd.

The people sought refuge inside the church of St Timotheo. A family of Jehovah's Witnesses, whom Father Yerasimo did not let in, climbed as high as they could on the cypresses in the courtyard, held tight to the dense branches and said their prayers, while underneath the cattle rushed past, heading towards the other end of the village. When the herd had disappeared, Father Yerasimo held his breath and discovered that the earthquake was also gone. He then carefully opened the church doors, looked left and right, and said with a sigh: `This village is drawn to misery like moths to a light.'

They had to count themselves three times to be sure that no one was missing and after that the people began work. The blacksmith assessed the damage to the church clock. He lconcluded that the only thing the mainspring and the wheels needed was straightening and the clock would be ticking again, but the village unanimously voted to leave it as it was, so that it would forever remind them of the disaster. Some men followed the barber to his shop, where they cleared the dust in the air with a pair of bellows from the smithy, stepped over the fallen crossbeams, moved the leather chair out of the way, and lifted the heavy panel with the carved cherubs that had come off the wall, already knowing what they would find underneath: of the exquisite mirror, which the barber had bought cheaply from a fading city beauty with an obsessive habit of counting her wrinkles, there remained only a heap of sharp, reflecting splinters. But nothing saddened the men more than the news they heard next: Sapphire's house on the edge of the village, the one with the whitewashed walls and the carmine shutters, the pots of basil and rosemary, and the half-open door with the horseshoe on, had turned into a pyramid of colourful rubble. Only Father Yerasimo was pleased: `At last,' he said, `the house of sin is cast into Hell.'

It was evening when the wind turned and they finally heard the shrieks of the peacocks that lived at the cemetery. When the crowd got there, lifted the twisted iron gate off its hinges and walked in, they discovered that the passing of the earthquake had not only split the ground into countless pits, broken the tombstones to pieces, and devastated the small glass shrines with the oil candles that had not been filled for years and the vases of dried-up amaranths that had never been watered, but also--and worst of all--had exhumed the coffins of their ancestors.

They tried to push the coffins back in but it was a vain effort, because as soon as they touched them the worm-eaten planks would crumble. So they decided to make new coffins. The men worked all night in the light of lanterns and all through the next day too, while the women were told to take out the bones, and mark them so they would not get mixed up. It was during this time that they chanced upon a coffin filled with books, and Father Yerasimo, embarrassed, hurried to explain that it was a pile of worthless paper filled with the lies of blasphemous and ignorant heretics. But they made other discoveries too: inside another coffin they found a complete telegraph system next to the remains of a man afraid of being buried alive, and in yet another they were puzzled to see a liver in perfect condition under the bleached bones of a notorious drunk; the doctor explained that it was the alcohol that had preserved it.

They had almost finished piling up the unearthed coffins when a particularly small one caught Father Yerasimo's eye. It was not its size that intrigued him, because he knew that death was often tempted by the helplessness of children in the village, but what its flaking coat of paint
up0revealed underneath: it was in fact a box for packing salted fish. But his greatest surprise came when, after using his shovel to break the rusty nails in its lid, and going down on his knees, he saw that rather than a child's remains the cheap wooden box contained eighteen heavy stones, each chiselled and polished to the unmistakable shape of a human heart.

It took two days to make the new coffins, and on the third the villagers, wearing crape made from women's garters, heard mass for the repose of the souls of the dead to the sound of cicadas. No sooner had Father Yerasimo said `Dust to dust' than they were all on the road home, leaving him alone in the cemetery but for the undertaker who started covering the graves. Standing in front of the box of stones the priest felt an overwhelming loneliness. No one could remember the exact location where it had been found--or they would not tell him. Father Yerasimo gave the box a frustrated kick. `A sin has been committed,' he said. `Some time ago I administered the last rites to a pile of stones.'

The cemetery was on top of a hill overlooking the village. The tombstones ruined by the earthquake had been made into a heap, and unadorned wooden crosses had taken their place. Father Yerasimo fed the corn and stale bread he had brought with him to the pair of peacocks before collecting their dropped feathers which he used to decorate the altarpiece. It was a day of clear and pleasant weather. Since the earthquake he had not been able to stop thinking about his mysterious discovery. During the two previous nights he had awoken with tears of mortal fear in his eyes, because he had dreamed of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by a rain of brimstone and an earthquake, while on the morning of the mass he had heard noise coming from the closet where his vestments hung; holding his cross in his trembling hand and whispering a prayer of exorcism he had opened it, only for an enormous rat to jump out.

He had considered these the machinations of the Devil, and soon convinced himself that the very earthquake itself had been sent by God so that he would discover the box. Solving the mystery, therefore, would be the beginning of the long road of the village's penance, he thought. With that in mind, some time later he entered the civil guard station.

`You are wasting your time, Father,' the corporal said as soon as he saw him. `And, more importantly, mine.'

`A sin has been committed,' Father Yerasimo said.

`That is your jurisdiction, Father, not mine.'

`There might be a crime involved, too. It is standard police procedure-'

`I'll look into it after I finish with these,' the civil guardsman said, and pressed his palm on a stack of criminal suits regarding the looting of private property after the earthquake. He added, ironically: `In the meantime keep the stones safe, Father. They're crucial forensic evidence.'

Father Yerasimo blushed with anger. `It was a sin,' he repeated stubbornly.

He was not a man to give up easily: he decided to do the inquiry himself. But he did not know where to start, and instead wandered the streets for hours, deep in thought. Whomever he came across he questioned about the extent of the damage to their property, but with such absent-mindedness that when their paths crossed again some time later he would ask the same thing and offer his sincere condolences anew.

Large parts of the village were in ruins. On his way to the square Father Yerasimo had to climb over the rubble of what was once a two-storey house with a fireplace on each floor and a broken jasmine shrub that used to reach all the way to its roof. Though the plant was now buried under many layers of brick, plaster and masonry, it still emitted the memory of its perfume. Not far away the earthquake had spared a stable. Donkeys and mules were tethered outside, and the owners had taken over their shelter. The priest stopped at the barber's shop, where the barber, on all fours, was piecing together the mirror.

`Don't step on the shards, Father,' the barber said, with a bottle of glue in his hand. `Unless you are so light you can also walk on the sea.'

Father Yerasimo obeyed. He lifted a chair lying upside down on the floor, wiped the seat with the cuff of his cassock and sat down. The little shed was in a bad state. Deep cracks crossed the walls, and there was a big hole in the roof. In a corner the five-bulb chandelier lay on a pile of glass tears and dust. It reminded the priest of a dead swan.

He asked: `Do you know anything about the stones in the box?'

`I have no idea, Father,' the barber replied immediately.

He was still bent over the mirror, but he had slowly turned so that he now had his back to the priest. Father Yerasimo observed him in silence. Out in the street women and children walked by carrying pails full of mortar. The barber started humming.

`Have you ever thought of losing your beard, Father?' he asked after a while. `I'll do you a good price.'

The priest did not respond to the joke. He felt that it was an attempt to evade his questions.

`Strange,' Father Yerasimo persisted, stroking his beard. `Because men tell their barber things they wouldn't even tell their wives.'

`Not me, Father. They say I am worse at keeping a secret than King Midas's barber.'

The priest did not believe him. But he knew that it would be bad tactics to show his suspicion at this early stage of his inquiry.

`Done,' said the barber after a moment. He stood up, and wiped his hands on his trousers. `Will you give me a hand, Father?'

Father Yerasimo helped him hang the heavy mirror back on the wall. When they had finished, the barber asked: `What do you think?'

Father Yerasimo looked at the mirror. It was like a mosaic made by an amateur. There were gaps between the shards and his reflection was so distorted that his face resembled that of a mule.

`This thing is only good for the House of Mirrors,' he said bitterly. And, unable to suppress his feelings any longer, he added: `You're no better at repairing mirrors than telling lies, barber.'

That night his nightmares returned. Father Yerasimo cursed and sighed for a long time before admitting defeat in his efforts to fall asleep. He sat up in bed and looked out of the window. It was still several hours till dawn. His house had only one room: it was a bedroom, a study and a kitchen all in one. He put as much ground chicory--on account of his fragile finances--as coffee in the pot, a bit of sugar, and boiled the mixture over the spirit stove. He then wrapped himself in his cassock and sat in the same chair on the veranda from where he had watched the attack of the earthquake three days earlier. He drank the coffee while it was still burning and contemplated the horizon where the outline of the hills was barely visible.