translated from the Greek by Martin McKinsey
Our own Phryne had none of the pallor of the ancient flute-girl, a pallor that in the bizarre imagination of mankind was grounds for giving the name of the most disgusting creature on earth—the phrynos or toad—to the most divine, the "loveliest courtesan of all ages," who inspired an Apelles and a Praxiteles to fashion their two versions of Aphrodite, the Anadyomene and the Cnidian. At least that's what it said in our Encyclopedia, all three volumes of it, the only ones left in the house. Then these went the way of the others in the terrible events to come. I still remember the page with the naked statue on it, the paper stained the same pallid color by my sweaty hands.
Our Phryne's face was the color of wheat, browned by the sun, with dark, sparkling eyes. And as for her body... Thinking back on it now, in my apartment here on Hippocrates Street, I have to believe I was the luckiest kid alive in that "closed agricultural community," as the experts say when speaking about a time that, according to them, is gone forever. It's things like this that make me feel like a last witness, or—to put it differently—like a man who has been granted a great blessing.
The fact is, our life was so agricultural that it reeked of dung and rutting goats, and so closed in that if you were daring enough to go beyond its boundaries, you'd probably find yourself under the dark gaze of the German machine-gunners guarding the passes, huddled down in their nests. The villagers who'd made it back from Athens ate their bit of bread and were happy. So what if there was no way out, under pain of death. The ones who'd been stranded in the capital were dropping like flies from hunger.
In those days, most of the men from around there shipped out on freighters. You couldn't make a living from the land. Every so often they'd show up and get their wives pregnant, then it was off again. Phryne's father was one of them. Their house was practically next door to ours, but I couldn't remember a thing about him, I may have never laid eyes on him. I doubt even Phryne ever got to know him, though his picture, at least, was always in its place over the hearth, hitched to an asparagus fern. A tall man, with dark skin and almond-shaped eyes. Phryne clearly took after him.
"When the war's over," she'd say, "he's going to take us with him to Athens," meaning herself and her mom, a mindless chatterbox, thin as a rail, who made a racket from five in the morning until she left for the fields. Sometimes she took Phryne with her, but mostly she worked alongside other women and left Phryne at home with the housework. There really wasn't much to do since there was rarely food to cook, just a bit of sweeping.
I must have been fourteen at the time. I'd started high school—five hours on foot—but since the roads were closed, for the time being I was a student only in name. My only books were the incomplete Encyclopedia set mentioned above. We'd inherited it from my uncle, an educated man, so they say. He died in Athens before the war—of consumption, I think. I didn't know much about him; nobody talked much in my house.
There was a deep ravine outside the village, beneath a huge cliff where buzzards nested. Thick vegetation grew on all sides: maples, sycamores, elms draped in wild grape and clematis. Phryne and I would lose ourselves down the damp, sunless paths that wound through them. Then came the vegetable gardens, on small terraces that ran down the slope among cherry and walnut trees, right into the ravine with its maidenhair. There below, the willows drooped over briskly moving water that, seconds before, had come crashing down the falls in a cloud of white spray. We used to water our plots together, then head down into the ravine.
Usually it was just us boys—Kolas, Mahos, Gondos, me—without Phryne, Vito, Marianthi. In the heat of the day, while our goats cooled off in the shade, we'd toss off our clothes and disappear into the cloud of the waterfall, its icy needles stinging our lean bodies. The ravine echoed with our cries.
Sometimes Phryne and I wove baskets down there. Just the two of us. We let the willow branches soak in a rock pool, weighting the small bundles with stones. Sitting under the big elm-tree with its ivy canopy, Phryne showed me how to do designs: five rows of green branches, then three branches stripped of their bark, which left them white. The sun climbed toward the zenith, the heat tightened its grip, even down there. Then Phryne would gather her skirt to her thighs and wade in the ice-cold water until her feet turned purple. War? Hunger? Bombs? Fear? Killing? They never reached us there.
One afternoon, in the heart of summer, with the cicadas simmering all around us, Phryne suddenly let out a groan and threw down her basket. "Ugh, I'm suffocating!" she cried with a toss of her head. Then: "I'm going into the waterfall." Her eyes flashed. Struck dumb, I stood there with my mouth hanging open. She went behind some heather and threw her dress on its branches, which left her wearing only a white shift. Then she scrambled up the sculpted rock, wet and slippery with moss. The white cloud enveloped her, and her shrieks were drowned out by the roar of the falls. Only when I shouted, "Phryne, you're gonna fall," I heard her say, "So come on then!" But I pretended not to hear.
When she crawled back down and came up to me, her wet shift was transparent and clung to her body. She had nothing on underneath. She was laughing and shivering. She went behind the heather and yelled: "Turn around! Don't you dare look." I had been looking the other way, but at some point I turned and saw her as I'd never seen her before, not even in my dreams. She was slowly pulling on her dress. Soon she was standing beside me, laughing. "I'm the one who got wet, but look who's shivering."
I avoided her after that, saying I had to study when she wanted us to go water the vegetables, and I threw myself into the Encyclopedia, where I pored over my fleeting vision of her as embodied in the Anadyomene and Cnidian Aphrodites. I never went back to the ravine—forty years now.
In any case, everything changed a few days later. There was a major act of sabotage out on the highway, and the partisans—reserves from our village —brought the German trucks to the outskirts of town and burned them. Everyone was terrified. We scattered deep into the woods and up the river canyons. But the Germans took their time striking back, three weeks went by without them firing a single round our way. They had something different in store for us this time.
Meantime, we led a strange existence out there in the wilds. Most of the livestock had scattered, and so became public property. If you caught them, you got to milk them. Our houses had become public property too, with whatever was left inside, and the unharvested vines (this was August), the vegetable gardens—all were at the disposal of whoever was brave enough to sneak back to the village, where there was always a danger of meeting up with the Germans. People would bring back sacks filled with whatever they'd managed to grab, and whoever happened to be there at the time would crowd around and take their share. Everybody had at least some flour, and we baked our bread in the caves at night so the Germans wouldn't see the smoke and fires.
After the first few days we managed to restore some order to our lives. Relatives and neighbors congregated in the same hideouts, among their belongings. We combined our few sheep and goats with our neighbors' to make one small flock. We shut them up every night in an old crumbling sheepfold, lost in the dense growth God knows from when. We slept alongside and guarded it. At dawn we let the animals loose to graze until it got hot, then took them down to the riverbed where there was always a trickle of water, even in high summer.
And so we were all together again: Kolas, Mahos, me, Gondos. And of course, Phryne, Vito, Marianthi. In the afternoon, while the animals rested under the great plane-trees, we'd throw ropes made of goat-hair over the thick branches and make swings for the girls. We fought over who got to push them the most, especially when it came to Phryne. I took it for granted that I had a bigger claim, since our houses were practically next door to each other—back when we had houses. Phryne kept finding excuses for Gondos to take my turn, so what if she called him Liambis when she got mad at him—from Limbohovo, the town in Albania his grandfather supposedly came from, many years before. But as we all know, kids don't easily forget. Night or day, Gondos always wore the same sleeveless shirt, black with grime. With his bare arms he would grasp Phryne tightly, pull her up against him, then push her way up, higher than any of the rest of us could. She'd shriek with laughter, tossing her head back and touching the branches with her feet.
It was August, a scorcher, the he-goats were chasing the females, the air was thick with their smell. Gondos had a goat the size of a young bull that he used to ride on, legs dangling, while the goat strutted around like an archbishop, dragging his beard along the ground, yellow with piss. Yellow because when he was in rut, his penis stuck way out, and he'd lick it until his beard was saturated. Then he'd tilt his head skyward and rapturously sniff the air, his upper lip raised. He'd given his stench to Gondos too, you could smell him a mile off.
That goat caused us no end of trouble. He'd chase the she-goats from under the trees and they'd scatter in all directions. On that afternoon, he was after one who wouldn't let him mount, but he kept at it. We knew from the bell it was one of Phryne's. Phryne blew up. "Run and catch him," she yelled at Gondos. "Hurry, or she'll run off and the wolves'll get her." Gondos cackled. "I mean it, run!" she shouted, "Liambis, you dirty creep." His face suddenly clouded over. He sprang up and, cutting across the paths, got in front of the animals and forced them back our way. Then he grabbed the she-goat by her bell and held onto her horns, with her head between his legs. The male, all roused up as he was, jumped on top of her and had her right there in front of us, his tongue hanging out, almost licking Gondos on the face. When he climbed off, the she-goat was a lump of trembling wool. The whole time, Phryne had shouted, "Let her go! Let her go!" When it was all over, she called Gondos a dirty creep again, then burst into tears. The other girls didn't look much happier. No one said a word. Phryne wouldn't raise her eyes to look at us. I was upset too. We had nothing to say to each other until evening, when it was time to round up the animals and close them in the fold. That's when Kolas' dad came down the ridge at a run, shouting that the Germans were burning our villages. Even off in the woods, on the other side of the mountain, it shone bright as day.
Now everyone's forgotten all this except for me, going up and down the stairs of my apartment building here on Hippocrates Street, where there's not a child's voice to be heard, as if life itself had stopped. And Phryne, an Aphrodite fixed in memory, like the ones crafted by Praxiteles and Apelles.