Dockside II (Coconut Psalms)


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The Singapore Free Press, 23 September 1948

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Water is just water, right? Complex structure… inherent energy… profound memory… the basis for all life. Water is our most sacred substance - but only if harnessed in its most natural state. We were trying to think what to do, to do something. Then suddenly the truck took off, in the direction of Keri.


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Where were they taking them? He stood all day next to the truck, talking to the poor people inside. The water rose around us, bullets tearing the surface for those who took too long to drown. Then the peaceful blue sheen of the Aegean slipped shut again. After a while Ioannis left. I watched as Athos walked with him partway down the hill. When he returned, Athos went to his desk and wrote down what Ioannis had told us. Athos would no longer let me go out on the roof at night. He had been so careful to maintain order. Regular meals, daily lessons.

But now our days were without shape. He still told stories, to try and cheer us, but now they were aimless. How he and Nikos learned about Chinese kites and ew a handmade dragon above Cape Spinari while the children from the village perched on the coast, waiting their turn to feel the tug of the string. How they lost the kite in the waves. The only thing that calmed Athos was to draw. The greater his despair, the more obsessively he drew. Athos collected poppies, lavatera, basil, broom, and spread them on his desk. Then, in watercolours, he made precise renderings. Hagar left Ishmael in a clump of broom, Elijah lay in broom when he asked to die.

Perhaps it was the burning bush; even when the re goes out, its inner branches continue to burn. Important lessons: look carefully; record what you see. Find a way to make beauty necessary; find a way to make necessity beautiful. By the end of summer Athos rallied enough to insist that our lessons resume.

But the dead surrounded us, an aurora over the blue water. Often on Zakynthos and later in Canada, for moments I was lost. Standing next to the fridge in our Toronto kitchen, afternoon light falling in a diagonal across the oor. Perhaps even then the answer had nothing to do with the question. You will have proven to me my love for you is useless. Instead he must save me from the attempt; he must jump to earth. While I hid in the luxury of a room, thousands were stuffed into baking stoves, sewers, garbage bins.

In the crawlspaces of double ceilings, in stables, pigsties, chicken coops. A boy my age hid in a crate; after ten months he was blind and mute, his limbs atrophied. A woman stood in a closet for a year and a half, never sitting down, blood bursting her veins. While I was living with Athos on Zakynthos, learning Greek and English, learning geology, geography, and poetry, Jews were lling the corners and cracks of Europe, every available space.

They buried themselves in strange graves, any space that would t their bodies, absorbing more room than was allotted them in the world. In September , the Germans left Zakynthos. Across the hills, music from town spun through the air frail as a distant radio. A man rode across the island, his high-pitched yelps and the Greek ag snapping above his head. The next morning Athos asked me to sit with him by the front door. He carried two chairs outside. Sunlight blared from every direction. My eyeballs jangled in my skull. I sat with my back against the house and looked down at myself.

My legs did not belong to me; thin as lengths of rope knotted at the knees, skin dripping where muscle used to be, tender in the strong light. After a while Athos led me, dazed, inside. I grew stronger, each day climbing further down and up the hill. Finally I walked with Athos to Zakynthos town, which gleamed as if an egg had been cracked on the sharp Venetian details and dripped shiny over the pale yellow and white plaster.

Athos had described it so often: the hedges of quince and pomegranate, the path of cypresses. The narrow streets with laundry drying from the grillwork balconies, the view of Mount Skopos, with the convent Panayia Skopotissa. Athos presented me to Old Martin. There was now so little to sell that his tiny shop was mostly empty. I remember standing next to a shelf where a few cherries were scattered like rubies on ivory paper. During the occupations, Old Martin tried to satisfy the cravings of his patrons.

This was his private resistance. He bartered secretly with ship captains for a delicacy he knew a customer pined for. Thus, cunningly, he bolstered spirits. He kept track of the larders of the community, e cient as a caterer at a ne hotel. Martin knew who was buying food for Jews in hiding after the ghetto was abandoned, and he tried to save extra fruit and oil for families with young children. The Patron Saint of Groceries. His knobbly arthritic hands trembled as he reached deliberately for a g or a lemon, holding one at a time.

In those days of scarcity his shaking care seemed appropriate, an acknowledgement of the value of a single plum. Athos and I walked through the town. We rested in the platia where the last Jews of the zudeccha had waited to die. A woman was washing the steps of the Zakynthos Hotel. In the harbour, ropes tapped against the masts. For four years I'd imagined Athos and myself sharing secret languages. Now I heard Greek everywhere. In the street, reading signs for the farmakio or the kafenio, I felt profanely exposed. I ached to return to our little house. In India there are butter ies whose folded wings look just like dry leaves.

There are caterpillars that look like branches, moths that look like bark.

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To remain invisible, the plaice changes colour as it moves through sunlit water. What is the colour of a ghost? To survive was to escape fate. But if you escape your fate, whose life do you then step into? Each life saved: genetic features to rise again in another generation. Full- grown forests still and silent, whole cities, under a sky of mud. The realm of the peat men, preserved as statuary. The place where all those who have uttered the bony password and entered the earth wait to emerge.

From underground and underwater, from iron boxes and behind brick walls, from trunks and packing crates…. When Athos sat at his desk, soaking wood samples in polyethylene glycol, replacing missing bres with a waxy ller, I could see—watching his face while he worked— that he was actually traipsing through vanished, impossibly tall Carboniferous forests, with tree bark like intricate brocades: designs more beautiful than any fabric. The forest swayed one hundred feet above his head in a prehistoric autumn.


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  7. Athos was an expert in buried and abandoned places. His cosmology became mine. I grew into it naturally. In this way, our tasks became the same. Athos and I would come to share our secrets of the earth. He described the bog bodies. They had steeped for centuries, their skin tanning to dark leather, umber juices deep in the lines of palms and soles.

    In autumn, with the smell of snow in the dark clouds, men had been led out into the moor as sacri cial o erings. There, they were anchored with birch and stones to drown in the acidic ground. Time stopped. And that is why, Athos explained, the bog men are so serene. Asleep for centuries, they are uncovered perfectly intact; thus they outlast their killers — whose bodies have long dissolved to dust. In turn I told him of the Polish synagogues whose sanctuaries were below ground, like caves.

    The state prohibited synagogues to be built as high as churches, but the Jews refused to have their reverence diminished by building codes. The vaulted ceilings were still built; the congregation simply prayed deeper underground. Someday perhaps they would rise in a herd, as if nothing had occurred, to graze in a Polish field. I fantasized the power of reversal.

    Later, in Canada, looking at photographs of the mountains of personal possessions stored at Kanada in the camps, I imagined that if each owner of each pair of shoes could be named, then they would be brought back to life. A cloning from intimate belongings, a mystical pangram. Athos told me about Biskupin and its discovery by a local teacher out for an evening stroll. The Gasawka River was low and the huge wooden pylons perforated the surface of the lake like massive rushes.

    More than two thousand years before, Biskupin had been a rich community, supremely organized. They harvested grain and bred livestock. Wealth was shared. Their comfortable houses were arranged in neat rows, the island forti cation resembling a modern subdivision. Each gabled home had ample light as well as privacy; a porch, a hearth, a bedroom loft. Biskupin craftsmen traded with Egypt and the Black Sea coast.

    But then there was a change in climate. Farmland turned to heath, then to bog. The water table rose inexorably until it was obvious that Biskupin would have to be abandoned. The city remained underwater until , when the level of the Gasawka River dropped. Athos joined the excavation in His job was to solve the preservation problems of the waterlogged structures.

    Soon after Athos made the decision to take me home with him, Biskupin was overrun by soldiers. We learned this after the war. They burned records and relics. They demolished the ancient forti cations and houses that had withstood millennia. The others were sent to Dachau. And that is one of the reasons Athos believed we saved each other. Wind and currents that stir up underwater creatures, bioluminescent gardens that guide birds to shore. On their brains, the rotating constellations, the imprint of longing and distance. The xed route of bison over prairie, so worn that the railway laid its tracks along it.

    Geography cut by rail. The black seam of that wailing migration from life to death, the lines of steel drawn across the ground, penetrating straight through cities and towns now famous for murder: from Berlin through Breslau; from Rome through Florence, Padua, and Vienna; from Vilna through Grodno and Lodz; from Athens through Salonika and Zagreb. Though they were taken blind, though their senses were confused by stench and prayer and screams, by terror and memories, these passengers found their way home.

    Through the rivers, through the air. When the prisoners were forced to dig up the mass graves, the dead entered them through their pores and were carried through their bloodstreams to their brains and hearts. And through their blood into another generation. And those lost lives made molecular passage into their hands. How can one man take on the memories of even one other man, let alone ve or ten or a thousand or ten thousand; how can they be sancti ed each?

    He stops thinking. He concentrates on the whip, he feels a face in his hand, he grasps hair as if in a passion grasp, its matted thickness between his fingers, pulling, his hands full of names. His holy hands move, autonomous. In the Golleschau quarry, stone-carriers were forced to haul huge blocks of limestone endlessly, from one mound to another and back again. The insane task was not futile only in the sense that faith is not futile.

    This memory of beauty was accompanied by a bizarre stab of gratitude. But later I felt I understood. Sometimes the body experiences a revelation because it has abandoned every other possibility. Like the faint thump from behind the womb wall. It is no metaphor to witness the astonishing delity of minerals magnetized, even after hundreds of millions of years, pointing to the magnetic pole, minerals that have never forgotten magma whose cooling o has left them forever desirous.

    We long for place; but place itself longs. Human memory is encoded in air currents and river sediment.

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    Eskers of ash wait to be scooped up, lives reconstituted. How many centuries before the spirit forgets the body? How long will we feel our phantom skin buckling over rockface, our pulse in magnetic lines of force? How many years pass before the difference between murder and death erodes? Grief requires time. If a chip of stone radiates its self, its breath, so long, how stubborn might be the soul. If sound waves carry on to in nity, where are their screams now?

    I imagine them somewhere in the galaxy, moving forever towards the psalms. Sending their white messages millions of years, only to be crumpled up by the waves. Whenever I came in, no matter how early or how late, he was already there, reading by the window. How to preserve leaf skeletons. The meaning of pole carvings. He had a beautiful watch from his father. Athos, do you still have it? One afternoon she came to pick me up, greeting me with a tug on my ears the way she still likes to do.

    Daphne was only twenty then and always in a good mood. Come to dinner, she said to Athos. Athos asked, Do you like music? There we heard Vito for the rst time. His voice was a river. It was glikos, black and sweet. Athos, do you remember? Vito was also the cook. After preparing the food, he came from the kitchen rubbing the rosemary and oil from his ngers onto his apron, and then he stood among the tables and sang a rembetiko that he made up on the spot.

    A rembetiko, Jakob, always tells a story full of heartache and eros. One night he did not sing rst, but played something so mysterious … a story I seemed to know, to remember. It gave me an ancient, suspenseful feeling, like an orchard when the sun moves in and out of the clouds … and later that night Daphne and I decided to marry. They laughed. Athos rubbed my hair. They laughed again. Daphne had set a pot of owers in the pile. A vegetable and herb garden in the back.

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    Past Kolonaki Square, between Kiphissia and Tatoi, past the foreign embassies, palms and cypresses, past parks, past tall white apartments. It had taken Athos and me close to two weeks to travel the wounded landscape from Zakynthos to Athens. Roads were blocked, bridges out, villages in ruins. Farmland and orchards had been devastated. Those without a scrap of land to work or money for the black market were starving. This would be the case for years. And, of course, peace did not come to Greece at the end of the war. About six months after the ghting ended in Athens between communists and British, with an interim government still in place, Athos and I closed up the house on Zakynthos and crossed the channel to Kyllini on the mainland.

    We both understood that Athos must search so that I could give up. I found his faith unbearable. Looking out at the waves of Porthmos Zakinthou, I thought nothing would ever be familiar again. We took lifts whenever we could, in carts and on the backs of bone-rattling lorries that stirred up the dust climbing hairpin turns and spiralling down again. We travelled long distances me ta podhia—on foot. There are two rules for walking in Greece that Athos taught me as we climbed a hill and left Kyllini behind.

    When we were both worn out, we waited with our satchels by the side of the road, hoping someone might come by to take us to the next village. Often while we were walking, Athos put his arm across my shoulders. His touch felt natural to me, though all else was like a dream. And it was his touch that kept me from falling into myself too far.

    It was on that journey from Zakynthos to Athens, on those crumbling roads and in those dry hills, that I realized what I felt: not that I owed Athos everything but that I loved him. The landscape of the Peloponnesus had been injured and healed so many times, sorrow darkened the sunlit ground. All sorrow feels ancient. Wars, occupations, earthquakes; re and drought. I stood in the valleys and imagined the grief of the hills. It would be almost fty years and in another country before I would again experience this intense empathy with a landscape. At Kyllini, we saw that the great medieval castle had been dynamited by the Germans.

    We passed outdoor schools, children in rags using slabs of rock as desks. A shame hung over the countryside, the misery of women who could not even bury their dead, whose bodies had been burned or drowned, or simply thrown away. We descended the valley to Kalavrita, at the foot of Mount Velia. At Kalavrita, in December , the Germans murdered every man in the village over the age of fteen —fourteen hundred men—then set re to the town. The Germans claimed the townspeople had been harbouring andartes — Greek resistance ghters.

    In the valley, charred ruins, blackened stone, a terrible silence. A place so empty it was not even haunted. At Korinthos, we climbed aboard a lorry that was lled to over owing with other travellers. Finally, on a hot afternoon in late July, we arrived in Athens. A small glass table. Silk cushions. I was afraid that when I stood up my dirty clothes would leave an imprint on the pale sofa.

    A little dish of wrapped candies on the table distracted me, gave me a painful glimmer, as when part of you falls asleep and then blood returns to the place. My elbows rubbed against my sleeves, my legs against my shorts. In a large silver-framed mirror, I saw my head looming above the thin stem of my neck. Kostas led me into his room and he and Athos picked out some clothes for me.

    They took me to a barber for my rst real haircut. Daphne drew me to her, her hands on my shoulders. She was not much taller than me and almost as thin. She was, as I look back, like a very elderly girl. She wore a dress with a pattern of birds. Her hair was fastened in a knot on top of her head, a little grey cloud. She served me a stifhado of beans and garlic. I ate karpouzi outside with Kostas, who showed me how to spit the melon seeds all the way to the bottom of the garden. Their kindnesses were mysterious and welcome to me as the city itself—with its strange trees, its blinding white walls.

    The morning after we arrived, Daphne, Kostas, and Athos began to talk. They talked as if everything must be told in a single day. They talked as if they were at shivah, at a wake, where all the talk cannot ll the absent chair. Once in a while Daphne got up to replenish their glasses, to bring bread, small cold bowls of sh, peppers, onions, olives. When I woke, it was twilight. They were leaning back in their chairs in a silent melancholy, as if the long Greek dusk had nally drawn every memory out of their hearts.

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    Kostas shook his head. We heard it on the radio. All morning the black cars made a trail through the city like a line of gunpowder. We heard sirens, anti-aircraft guns, yet the church bells kept ringing for early Mass. They ew, he said, over the palace, over the chapel on Lykavettos. At the beginning, the waiter still pretended, brought out the menu; it became a ritual joke.

    I imagined skipping stones with Mones on the river. Mones once caught his nger in a door and his nail came o , but he could still make the stones jump more times. They took sun baths without their shirts. And maybe to pick up the Kathemerini, the Proia, any newspaper I could nd. A British soldier in the lobby o ered me a cigarette and we had a long discussion about the di erences between Greek and British and French tobacco. The next day Daphne answered the door and there he was, bringing us meat in tins. She used to rub her hands with lotion to keep them smooth for her work.

    She gave us milk while we were studying and the glass always smelled of lotion, it made the milk taste pretty. When my father came home from work his hands were black, just like he was wearing gloves, and he used to scrub them until they were almost pink, though you could still smell the shoe leather—he was the best bootmaker— and you could still smell the polish, which came in tins and was soft as black butter.

    He stole from us. Every day I saw him take something—knives and forks, needle and thread. He brought home butter, potatoes, meat—for himself. He watched me cook it and I had to serve him, while Kostas and I ate only carrots, boiled without oil, without even salt. He thought it would make me crazy, but truly I was happy to see you have enough for once.

    Leather, cotton, tobacco. Wheat, cattle, olives, oil…. People wrapped blankets around themselves and stood in Omonia Square and just waited there for help. The train exploded as it pulled out of the station. Oranges and lemons ew, raining into the streets. A glorious sweet smell mixed with the smell of gunpowder. Alperstein shake hands and I wondered if they had traded smells and if all the shoes would smell like flowers and all the wigs like shoes.

    The good tastes he remembered chased all other thoughts from his head and he reached into his pocket. He paid a large sum, all he had. The man on the corner rushed o in the opposite direction, straight home. Open it in the kitchen. Inside they found a dead dog. You have known us many years. Who could believe we would ever have such words in our mouths?

    They ate the mother and threw away the child…. Stukas shriek. In moonlight it is bones. When Palamas died, right in the middle of the war, we followed another poet, Sikelianos, in his long black cape through Athens. Even from his grave. Armoured cars, banners, columns of troops a block long. But Greeks were ordered to stay inside. It was forbidden for us to watch. The few who could see anything from home peeked through their shutters while the mad parade marched through empty streets. Mones had a bar of chocolate.

    His mother gave it to us the day we went to the cinema to see the American cowboy Butski Jonas and his white horse. We saved it because we were already planning our next expedition to the river. That day, we got the Alhambra and folded it and tore it in half and pledged our eternal loyalty like we always did, and Mones kept half and I kept the other half so that when we went into business together we could join them up and pin them on the wall, his half of the world and my half, everything shared right down the middle.

    Daphne and I heard a strange sound, not quite a breeze, very faint. I went outside. There was a tremor in the air, like a thousand wings. The street was deserted. Then I looked up. Above my head, from all the roofs and balconies people were leaning, quietly calling to each other across the city, spreading the word. Send the tourists to the burned-out chorios. These are our historic sites now. Let the tourists visit modern ruins. The streetcleaners collected bodies. Everyone was afraid of malaria.

    Pedhi-mou, do you remember where the line is from? Do you remember the rest? Athos crossed his legs and banged the table. The dishes rattled. Kostas ran his hands through his long white hair. He leaned across the low table towards Athos. Then, right in the middle of the celebrations, the communists began to shout slogans.

    I swear to you, Athos, the crowd went silent. Everyone sobered up in a second. Whoever has power for a minute commits a crime. They took away the shoes of democrats and marched them barefoot into the hills until they died. Andartes and Englezakia had fought side by side in the mountains only a few weeks before. Now they were shooting at each other across the city. Our boots were heavy with mud. Each house was connected to heaven by a rope of smoke.

    We would be best friends forever. We would have plumbing in our houses and electricity in every room. My hands were cold and my back was cold because of the rain and because it was far and I was sweating too under my coat. Broken fences, sagging roads with deep wagon ruts. The tops of our socks hardened into casts. We would be pious like our fathers. We would marry the Gotkin sisters and share a summer house at Lasosna. Instead she found Aleko with three others hanging from the acacias at Kyriakon…. Everyone came to the table fully clothed. However, in the days to follow, Kostas appeared less and less dressed, rst without a tie, then wearing slippers, nally in his dressing gown with a belt that had tassels at the end.

    Athos and Kostas sat at the table each with half the newspaper, reading aloud to each other. Daphne prepared eggs with chives and thyme. She was happy to be cooking for two men and a boy, though the food shortages required inventiveness. Daphne showed me the di erence it made if she placed plums in a green bowl or in a yellow bowl before she set them on the table. She took me into her painting room and made a sketch of my face with ne pencil lines. In the afternoons while Athos was attending to our move to Canada, I helped Daphne clean her paint brushes or prepare dinner, or Kostas and I practised my English in the warm garden where sometimes we both nodded off.

    They always tried to include me, rst soliciting my opinion, then debating seriously my ideas until I felt like a pundit, a peer. When I had my nightmares, they all came to me, the three of them, and sat on my bed, Daphne gently scratching my back. They talked to each other until, in the comfort of their low voices, I fell asleep again.

    Then they wandered down to the kitchen. In the morning I saw the plates from their midnight party still on the table. Once, Daphne sent me out to fetch some herbs while she was preparing dinner. I was frightened to go out alone, even just into the garden. As I stood at the back door, Kostas noticed my distress and put down the paper. On the eve of our departure for Canada, I sat on the bed and watched Daphne pack for me, Kostas leaping up to retrieve some extra thing to put into my suitcase, a book or another pair of his socks.

    Daphne patted each item carefully into place. I'm getting really annoyed block their phone number. We are fed up of 'em phoning me! Of course this is the identical day we informed 'em to shut off our ring forwarding, we do not need this anymore. How nice of 'em to start making prank calls. Have no clue who the party is. I havent opened any of those.

    He had all my information.

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    Someone call ed from New York and said her name is Jillian and she wanted me to call back toll free to this other number Don't know anyone from New York. Called at AM! Caller only said hello a couple of times then hung up. Does somebody recognise who these peaople are? I got one and it said on the caller i. Out of curiosity, I picked up and whoever it was hung up.

    They call me a lot and it says about a cruise but it's probably a scam. They could even try to sink us if it was real. I would say its a spammer! Just curious who would be calling me and not leaving a message when I am on the no call list.

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