Do ta pres kocidhete (I’ll cut off your braids)
Dimosthenis Papamarkos, Do ta pres kocidhete (I’ll cut off your braids) [short story in the collection Gjak (Blood)]
Παπαμάρκος Δημοσθένης [Dimosthenis Papamarkos], Γκιακ [Blood]. Αθήνα: Αντίποδες. 2014. 128 pages. Softcover [in Greek].
Translated by Petro Alexiou
‘Do ta pres kocidhete (I’ll cut off your braids)’ is the first of eight short stories in the literary work Gjak (Blood), a title that refers to the ancient Albanian code, the Kanun, which among others things, governed the custom of blood revenge. The stories, often confessional in nature, are fictional first-person narratives by different veteran soldiers from the disastrous Greek ‘Asia Minor Campaign’ (1919-1922) some few years afterwards. The Greek-Turkish War was a tumultuous event that led to an exodus of over a million Christian Ottoman subjects from Turkey to Greece. The narratives are both confronting and intimate, addressed to a mostly silent interlocutor. They are expressed in mainland rural idiom, sometimes mixed with elements of the minority Arvanite language (Arvanítika in Modern Greek), an Albanian dialect that has existed in some rural parts of Greece for centuries. The language of the narrator in this story whose title is taken from a famous Arvanite folk song, evokes an epoch fading in social memory, a mainly rural world in which a second oral language co-exists with the national language. The translation attempts to walk the fine line between the suggestion of a bygone vernacular and the immediacy of a contemporary voice.
To help readers in the pronunciation of transliterated names for persons and places, an acute accent mark has been used to indicate the stressed syllable. The Arvanite dialogue is in italics.
Since you’ve asked, Antónis, I’ll tell you. It’s only right, seeing I’ve come to your house to ask of you what I’m about to ask. But give me your word of honor that what I say here won’t go any further. This is between you and me, and no-one else. Not that I’m ashamed of it. It’s just better that no-one else knows. Otherwise it will get out. Be patient and you’ll understand.
You remember my sister Sýrmo, don’t you? No, wait on, that’s not why I’m telling you this. Let me finish first. We were the youngest, she and I. Well, there was Christóforos, but he died when he was one or two, just a toddler, God rest his soul. We never got the chance to think of him as a brother. Sýrmo and I were the closest of all of us. Stamátis and Vassílis were born long before us, you see, and by the time I started growing up they were grown men ready for marriage. We were the babes of the family, me and Sýrmo. She was four years older than me and looked out for me more than anyone. She literally raised me. Our mother and father would go out to work with the older ones, leaving me with her. Our dear-departed gran had started going blind and our mother didn’t trust her any more. As far back as I remember myself as a child, I remember Sýrmo feeding me, washing me, wiping my bum, putting me to sleep. I was a difficult kid. Mean and sulky. Always whining. But she never once told me off. Never once got angry like a normal kid, to say, the devil take you. Always sweetly spoken, always patient. Always calling me little Tákis. Like a mum. You know, one time our mum had grabbed me and was giving me a hiding for something or other, I don’t even remember for what. Sýrmo came between us and said, mother, leave the tyke alone, he’s only a child, he didn’t know any better. Our mum got so mad she grabbed Sýrmo and started beating her, telling her, you’re making him too cocky. Little Sýrmo didn’t say a word. When she lay down next to me that night, she took me in her arms and said, don’t worry, kid. I’m a big girl and it doesn’t hurt me when mum hits me. I promise on the cross, that’s what she said to me. And you know what, she was only a little girl. Twelve or thirteen, if that. She was so kind-hearted and capable, like a grown woman. I even remember my aunt Dína saying to my mum, Pagóna, this girl is so capable, they’ll be offering you a dowry, not asking for one. To cut a long story short, as a little one I was always following her around. I was doing things with one hand while my other hand latched onto Sýrmo’s coat. Even when I started growing up I still hung around my sister. So much so that one day she grabbed me and said, go on, run off and play with the other kids. Are you a girl, always hanging around the loom? What she said hurt me a lot, so much that I didn’t even answer her. Me who, like a dog, never forgave anyone. But you see, I knew she was saying it out of love. In time, she became a woman ready for marriage, and I grew into a young man, but still we remained inseparable. Our dear old mum used to say, if I were to die tonight I’d die peacefully knowing my children are so close and helping each other. It was because of Sýrmo, Antónis, that I grew up and became a man.
Then, one night I returned from Lyúmlia where I had gone to water the animals. I entered the house, and out of habit, before I even opened the door, I called out to Sýrmo to prepare a plate for me to eat. There was no reply, so I called out again. Nothing. I looked around. The house was empty. No sign of Sýrmo, nor mum, not even my father. I went out into the yard and called out again. Nothing. I searched everywhere, inside the barn, the loo, any place I could think of. I said to myself, this is odd, it’s dark and no-one’s home. I went next door to my aunt’s, no-one there. Next door to them, the same. I began to worry. My brain began to spin. I said to myself, with everyone gone something terrible must have happened. Don’t jump to conclusions I told myself, there must be an explanation, they’ll return. It’s getting late, they can’t be out for too much longer. The night grew pitch black and still no-one returned. Just as I was thinking of going to the coffeehouse to find out if something terrible had happened - who knows, maybe they were all in the church - I heard the outside gate opening. My father entered with his siblings, behind him my mother and an uncle, and behind them Vassílis and Stamátis with their wives. In short, more or less the whole clan with their heads bowed like at a funeral. Have you seen Sýrmo? My father asked me, before I could say a word. What do you mean? I replied, Sýrmo left before dawn to fetch water from the spring. I’ve been at Lyúmlia all day. What business did I have to be with Sýrmo? Then he told me Sýrmo hadn’t been seen all day. When they saw that she was late, they had asked around, but no-one had seen her, and up until nightfall they’d been looking for her. They had gone to the spring, to the church of the Virgin Mary, as far even as Hoúni, but Sýrmo was nowhere to be seen. I almost blacked-out when I heard this. I got so mad I started shouting. What are you sitting here for, old man? My sister is missing and you come back home? Light two torches and let’s go. No-one must return until we find her. I was sixteen at the time and counted as a man, but no matter how old I was, and you know this better than me, you don’t talk to your father like that. But he said nothing, nor did anyone else. Normally they would have given me a hiding for talking to our father like that, without respect. You see, I had reason to be angry and they knew how much I loved Sýrmo. They talked to me with soothing words, explaining there was no point in going out into the night again. They had notified my brother Vassílis’s closest buddy who was a hunter with dogs, to start searching again early in the morning. They were going to leave no stone unturned until they found Sýrmo. They all sat down to eat, but no-one felt hungry and no-one spoke, unless to say where he would search in the morning and where he would start. I couldn’t eat or talk. I only kept thinking about what might have happened to Sýrmo and she hadn’t returned. I couldn’t help but imagine the worst. But I refused to believe it, and in the end, I said to myself, she must have hurt her leg, and seen that she couldn’t make it back, so she’s lying low somewhere until we find her. That calmed me down a bit and I fell asleep.
I woke first before dawn broke, and bawled them out to get up and not waste any more time. Vassílis went and fetched his buddy and his hunting dogs, and we all set off, fanning out from the four corners of the village. Before the sun had risen and begun to burn, Stamátis, my uncle Níkos and I had almost reached Limnióna. On the way, we searched every inch of ground. We had agreed that when we reached the sea, we’d follow the beach until Ai Liá, where we’d meet up with my father and his other brother Fánis to see if anyone had found Sýrmo. This is what we did, but when we reached Ai Liá no-one was there. We sat and waited. We talked again about which parts we’d search later, but time passed and by midday there was no sign of anyone. My uncle said, let’s go further up where the others are looking, and we’ll find them on the road.
We quickly set off again on the path behind Ai Liá with our dog running ahead and us searching in every nook and cranny. When we reached the fork in the path that leads either to the village or the monastery, we heard voices coming from behind the ridge. The dog started barking and I began to run towards that spot. When I reached the top, I saw my father with one of my uncles bending over, half-kneeling behind a schinus bush. I ran over to them, and just as I was about to bawl them out for wasting time, I saw Sýrmo. She was lying on her back with blood on her face. My father had taken off his coat and laid it over her body, while my uncle was next to her holding her two plaits of hair which were cut and hanging like two dead whip snakes. Run to the village, my uncle told me, and fetch a horse and blanket, and tell the doctor to come. No sooner had he said it than I ran full pelt down the road. By the time I returned the rest had gathered and from a distance I could hear my mother crying and the howling of the dogs. I jumped off the horse and pushed them aside so the doctor could pass. I knelt with him next to Sýrmo and watched as he examined her. I said to myself, Blessed Mother of God, make her live and let her get better, and I vow I’ll become a monk. Just let Sýrmo live. But this wasn’t to be her fate. The girl is barely breathing, the doctor said. Her head and insides are a mess. She’s in a bad way. She won’t make it, and I can’t do anything to help her. It’s a miracle you found her alive. If you carry her to the village she won’t make it. If you want, I can give her an injection so she won’t feel the pain. She’ll suffer less if we don’t move her.
We sat stroking and embracing her but felt no consolation, even though we held her in our arms. We wept for her as though she were already dead, even though she was still breathing. I couldn’t say a word to her, only wiping her face with my handkerchief. When she began to thrash about from the heat and pain, I kissed her and silently said, mother dearest, don’t fight it any more. Say goodbye and find your peace. Antónis, it was as though she heard me and understood me as I looked into her eyes. I was like a son to her and she knew every bit of me. Then she breathed more easily and was peaceful. They lifted me up along with her. My legs no longer held me up. I don’t remember anything else from our return home, only that I was walking next to the horse, holding her hand and her fingers grew colder as we walked.
There’s no use in my telling you the rest. Every time I remember these things I feel orphaned all over again. You know, they said that Sýrmo hadn’t fallen and hurt herself. Someone had seen her there and did what he did. That was certain. When he saw she was dead, he’d cut off her plaits and thrown them into the schinus bush nearby. That’s where my uncle had found them. When I found this out I vowed to find her murderer. I returned to the spot where he had abandoned my sister and vowed to the very stone her head had rested on that I’d kill him and hide his body so that not even a wild beast would find him. Just as he had done to Sýrmo.
In the two years between my sister’s death and my call-up for Asia Minor, I had no peace of mind. I’d go to the fields, the olive groves, the sheep, the coffeehouse, the church, always on the lookout for some strange quirk, always looking out to hear a whispered conversation, on the chance that I’d find out who the murderer was. My brothers told me that it must have been a stranger, that a fellow villager would never commit such an evil act. That I should forget this torment because it would eat me up in the end. But I knew it was someone from the village. You see, at the spot where we found her, the road goes nowhere. It’s a perfect place for an ambush, not for passers-by. You have to want to go there, to end up there. The person who did it knew this, that’s why he hid her there. But don’t let me tire you, that’s not so important. I couldn’t find an answer then. And afterwards I left.
In Asia Minor, at the beginning I was behind the front lines. But after a while, they sent my unit to the front. Don’t think it was anything terrible. The Turks were on the run. There were only a few shots fired here and there whenever we came across some irregulars who’d been left behind. No real danger. But it was brutal. We had orders to empty Turks from those parts, and this doesn’t happen with polite words. I’ll say it differently, we were sowing death. No-one will tell you what they did there, but you know, Antónis, we stopped being human. Sometimes when I see my soldier pals on the road and I remember what I’ve been through, it’s enough to make me shiver. Then again, it’s not as though I were innocent. The only thing I didn’t do was to harm a woman. Not that I didn’t think about it, but each time my sister would come to mind and I couldn’t.
You saw a lot over there, so much that it made you indifferent. You stopped seeing. Then one day, I and two others had entered a house, supposedly to search for weapons, and the only thing we found were two women. One was old and the other was young. Mother and daughter. We had no idea what they were saying to us. We turned the place upside down looking for weapons. I’m lying to you. We wanted to chase them away and were looking for an excuse. Anyway, I was outside with one of my buddies, and we were in the barn killing the animals, when I heard screaming coming from the house. We didn’t pay it any attention. The screaming kept up. After a while, we finished doing what we had to do and as we returned I saw my second buddy leaving the house. What happened, pal? I said. He smiled and said, the bitch was asking for it, but I fixed her up good. Good on you, I said. But just then I caught sight of his hands. In one he was holding a knife and in the other two plaits of hair chopped off. You know, when these things happened, you’d see all sorts of quirky habits. Some would cut off tits, others would keep a piece of clothing. But I’d never seen this before. I was stung by the sight of it. I’m jumping to conclusions, I said to myself. Sometimes strange things happen.
On our way back to the base I saw him flick the plaits into some bushes. I flinched, as though he’d slapped my face with them. It was then that I decided not to let him out of my sight. It wasn’t that difficult, because in my unit there was him, myself and another nine from my village, and it seemed natural to him that I became his constant companion. In time we even began to eat out of the same billycan, as they say. He’d steal something and we’d share it. And I’d do the same. Wherever we went we were together. Philip and Nathanael. That’s what they called us. Being together in everything, I got to know all his idiot ways, all his quirks. But the biggest of all, the one he couldn’t hide, was women. Seeing there were no whores where we were, it was the local women. Every time he ruined them he’d cut off their plaits. He’d never keep them. He’d always throw them away afterwards.
When I saw this and was certain, Antónis, I said to myself, I have to kill him, here and now. You see, it was war and you never knew what might happen. One day you were here, and the next day gone. I said to myself, I must do it before it’s too late, even if I’m in danger of being caught and executed. I couldn’t betray my pledge. At that moment I thought of lunging at him and cracking his skull open, but I held back. I thought, I need to have a plan first, to be sure of it. In case something goes wrong and the bastard survives. Because if there are others around, they might save him.
It wasn’t long before I had my chance. Two or three days later, they sent us to a village near Alasehir, to burn it down. They told us not to leave a thing standing. Not even a feathered animal. We did our job and, on our way back, I took him aside and told him that a Turk in the village had hidden some gold pounds and he’d said he’d give them to me if I let him go. What did you do? he asked me. I told him I’d let him go if he told me where they were. He told me, then I wasted him. We need to go back and look for them. Yes, he said. When we returned I went to our commander and told him the same thing. I said, let us go back and you’ll get half. He gave me the okay, and I took a thick rope and a few other things, and along with my buddy we set off for the village. He was happy as Larry on the way. He was telling me what he’d do with the gold pounds, how he’d buy that land in the village, which girl he’d marry now that he was a rich man, this sort of stuff. I acted dumb, spurring him on. We’ll be lords, I said pumping him up, we’ll be eating meat every day.
When we arrived he asked me where we had to dig. Hey, I said, we don’t need to. Do you see me carrying a shovel? The old man has hidden them in a dry well. Follow me and you’ll see. I walked on ahead towards a house I’d seen that morning. It’s here, I said to him. See it? You’ll tie the rope around me, I’ll go down, and when I find them, I’ll give a tug on the rope and you’ll pull me up. That’s exactly how we went about it. We put our rifles down and I took off my pack and gear. Then I said, come and tie me round the waist, and make a good knot of it so it doesn’t come loose and I come a cropper. As he came towards me and opened his arms to tie me with the rope, I give him a good head-butt to the nose, breaking it. Before he had a chance to step away, I grabbed him by the shoulders and head-butted him again, and again and again until my forehead was soaked in blood. After he passed out, I grabbed him and tied him hand and foot with his hands behind his back. I laid him down and began to revive him with water. At one point he opened his eyes and tried to speak. Have you forgotten that the women you ruined have husbands and brothers? I said to him. Had you no shame to become my friend after what you did to my sister? He looked at me like a complete idiot. Why are you looking at me like that, I said. Acting like you don’t understand. What are you talking about, Tákis, he said, and other such things. Then he made out he was angry and said when he got free I’d pay dearly for this. I whacked him across the face and said, don’t act like you don’t know, you know what you did to Sýrmo. It took me a long time to find you, but now there’s no way you’ll save your skin. He started saying again that he’d done nothing and that when Sýrmo was killed he was at Megaplátano with his father selling some sheep. When we return to the village I could go and ask his father, then I’d see he was telling the truth. You’ll never leave this place, I said to him, so for once act like a man and confess to what you did. Because either way, you’ll talk before you die. Then he began to cry again, saying he never hurt Sýrmo. He swore on his mother’s bones that he was telling the truth.
I’d been waiting for years, Antónis, for the moment I’d find the man who did this vile thing to my sister. For years I’d carried this heartache like a burning coal on my bare chest. Now that I’d found him he was defiling my sister with his lies. I couldn’t control myself. I threw him on his back and started to break his teeth one by one. After each tooth, I kept asking him, tell me, what did you do to her? The faggot was crying like a girl, and piling on more lies, until he saw that I was bent on killing him, and he said, yes, I killed her. But I didn’t touch her in any other way. Please let me go and when we get back I’ll pay you in full the half-blood money I owe you. Don’t kill me. I swear to you, whatever the Kanun says, you’ll get. Then I said to him, Sýrmo is not worth a half. Nie mum. Nie motr. Nie gjak. (One mother. One sister. One blood.) Spare me, he said, and I swear I’ll pay you the one blood. Money disappears in your hands, a house turns to dirt, I said. Po gjakou, gjakou vetet nie vitra (But the blood, the blood stays forever). The Kanun doesn’t say that, he said. Nie vent tsi yiemi nani, Kanouni nouk zihet (Here where we are, the Kanun doesn’t hold), I replied.Nieter vet, nieter thomi (Different place, different ways). I took out a birch rod from my pack, the ones we used to clean our rifles. I had sharpened it the night before until it was sharp as a bodkin. Sýrmo took two whole days to die. If I could, I’d kill you that slow too, I said to him. I’ll try. I began whipping him with the switch on four or five points across his chest, then I turned him on his side. Bitou nani i gjak (Choke on your blood now), I said to him, kour to gordes, to te hos’ ni kopre (and when you die like a dog, I’ll bury you over there in the dung heap). I sat and watched him thrash about like a fish, opening and closing his mouth for air. It took a long time for him to choke and croak it, but it seemed a short while to me, because for the whole time, all I could think of was my beloved Sýrmo as she lay suffering in my hands under the hot sun. Afterwards, as I’d promised him, I dragged him across to a dung heap and buried him under it. Along with all his gear.
When I returned to my unit, I told my commander that we’d run into irregulars looking for their own survivors and we’d come under heavy fire. I just managed to escape, I told him. My buddy was captured and who knows what’s happened to him. They all knew that he was my buddy and no one suspected anything. There was hardly an investigation because the commander was worried he’d get into trouble, seeing he was in on the deal. What with all that happened later, no one remembered who had been killed or where. One more soldier missing amongst all the missing. A leaf in a forest.
When I returned to the village and people saw that I was happy, they thought it was because I’d survived. It was that too, but it was also that I’d kept my vow to my sister. I even went to her grave and told her what I’d done. Sleep, beloved Sýrmo, I said to her. Rest in peace, mother dearest, I’ve taken care of everything. Don’t toss and turn down there where you are. The next day I took a lamb to Uncle Nídas’s tavern and celebrated with my brothers and parents, even though they thought it was for my return. As we were celebrating, the faggot’s father saw me and approached. He said to me, you were together over there, is he coming back? Do you know where he is? I replied, your son is under a ton of shit. That’s where he is. An almighty fight almost broke out and as they pulled us apart he shouted at me, you’re not a human being. Kien i kieki (You’re a dirty dog). It stuck to me ever since. Taki Kieni (Tákis, the Dog).
Now you know, Antónis, so consider carefully whether you want to give your daughter to me or not. What I’ve said is the truth. I’m neither proud nor ashamed of it. I did what I had to do for my family. You decide for yours.
Dimosthenis Papamarkos is an historian, author and screenwriter. He has published two novels The Brotherhood of Pyrites (1998) and The Fourth Knight (2001), as well as two short story collections MetaPoesis (2012) and Gjak (Blood) (2014), the latter receiving the Short Story Prize from the journal O Anagnostis (The Reader), short listing for the Greek State Literary Awards and the ‘Petros Charis’ Short Story Award from the Academy of Athens in 2015. Gjak has been through fifteen print runs to date and has been adapted for stage. Papamarkos has also co-authored a graphic novel Erotocritos (2016). His poetry has been published in the Penguin anthology Austerity Measures (2016). He has collaborated on the screenplay of Yannis Economides’ film The Ballad of a Pierced Heart and has written the libretto for Nikos Kypourgos’ opera Peace. He writes the Bare Bones comic strip for the Greek Blue Comet magazine. His first theatre play Domestication was staged at the Onassis Stegi arts space in January 2020. An Onassis Foundation scholar, he is a doctoral candidate in Ancient Greek History at Oxford University.
Petro Alexiou is a translator, researcher and writer. He is the English-language translator of the Greek novella A Prisoner of War’s Story by Stratis Doukas. He was the scriptwriter on the short film The Killing of Angelo Tsakos (1989). He has worked as a subtitler on Greek films for the Australian national broadcaster SBS-TV and has published articles on Greek cinema in the electronic journal Senses of Cinema. He has completed a doctorate on the Asia Minor writer Alekos Doukas at Macquarie University, Sydney.