The Watermelon (Το Καρπούζι)

Kyriakos Efthymiou, «Το καρπούζι» [The Watermelon] in Το Κόκκινο Άλογο: Δεκαοχτώ μικρά διηγήματα [The Red Horse: 18 Short Stories]. Thessaloniki: Entefktirio Publications. 2020. Pages 64.

Translation: Vassiliki Rapti & Peter Bottéas, with a reading in English by Peter Bottéas

and a reading in Greek by Vassiliki Rapti.

Because I didn’t quite understand, I wasn't either happy or sad. I was just a little girl and this was all a big deal. I was feeding the chickens and my mother called me over. “England,” she said. All right. But I had no idea what or where England was. OK, it’s a place, I get it. But where is it? The villagers pointed far in the distance. There where the sea and the sky meet, until you can’t see any further. It was way past what you couldn’t see. There. Our teacher would tell us about the mountains and the villages, and some stories about old war heroes. But not a word about the rest, so that we might know where we were going, where we'd end up.

I learned the news on Friday; we'd be leaving on Wednesday. Scrambling to get things done. The last night we lit the oil lamp. In the big room, there was a brown suitcase and a watermelon practically too heavy to lift destined for my uncle. I was told, “That’ll be yours to carry!”

They were on their knees tying up the suitcase with ropes as they chattered. About the things we'd leave behind and what we'd find ahead. But there was something else eating them. Will we actually get there? They knew only a handful of English words and they'd already forgotten half of them. I went to bed but couldn’t sleep. I heard they don’t speak our language at all, and that the cold kills the birds. I was kind of scared.

As we walked into the village square, the church bell started to toll. It was a call for the villagers to gather, to shed some tears. Crossing the sea was like death. At the port, I learned that we're called “passengers.” Shouting and bustle. My mother was nervous and my father bewildered.

The huge steamship was way out in the depths. A dinghy takes us to the ship. The tall ladder seems endless. Our turn comes. My mother cautions, “Be careful! Hold tight!” All I can think of is the watermelon, holding onto it while it crushes me. I make it to the top. As soon as we set sail, I look back. I say to myself, Here one story ends and another begins.

On the boat, there were strange languages. I couldn't understand a thing and felt sheepish. I pretended to look at the sea waiting for the dolphins to surface. Days went by and nights passed. And I watched over the watermelon as the boat stayed its course. And there were those big boxes they called “loudspeakers.” I’m sleeping and I hear the boxes start talking. I open my eyes and I see people grabbing their luggage, waking up their babies and the babies crying. Someone shouts, “We’ve arrived!” I get up and what do I see? Lights! “Marseilles,” some know-it-all says, pointing to the city all lit up. We get off and set foot on a place they call “France.” Total hubbub. And cries of “Taxi! Taxiii!”

There was a man sitting alone in front of a steering wheel. You got in and he’d take you somewhere. My father was muttering to himself. He’d learned only one word and that was what he kept saying: “Landon, Landon!” One of the drivers waves us towards him, so we run. I’m looking all around, taking it all in. The driver stops and holds up his fingers, explaining: “The number seven. Seven.” I’d never been in such a thing before and had never seen anything like it.

My watermelon as my companion, we boarded a train. We’d wake up and then doze off again. When God woke us with the dawn, our faces were plastered to the window. My father says, “No one goes hungry here.” Little did he know that where we were heading, they’d be scrubbing dirty dishes day and night. To make a long story short, we got off at the very edge of France. Someone pointed us to a small ship. We’d be crossing a narrow sea and would arrive in England.

My mother is making the sign of the cross repeatedly. And we’re back on a train, heading into my father’s “Landon.” Cows, houses large and small, people in cars, a child running, his grandma hanging clothes on the line, and further down another woman gathering her laundry to keep it from getting wet. So here we are in London, but London is nowhere in sight. The next day I learn about this thing called “fog.” The train stops and we hear a voice call, “Victoria Station, Victoria Station!”
— “Hurry!” My father shouts. “It’ll leave and we’ll be left on the train!”

The doors open. Crowds flow in and out.
— “There he is, there he is!” My mother shouts, and I see my uncle waving at us with his hands high above his head. As I squeeze through the crowd to get off, the watermelon slips out of my hands. It drops and shatters into a thousand pieces. The station is a mess. And a man in uniform starts running and blowing his whistle. I sit down and burst into tears. “I want to go home, I want to go home!” And I sob and sob, and just can’t stop.

Sixty years and eleven months. Here. Yesterday I ask my daughter, “How’s my English?”
— “You still make mistakes” she tells me. “You say, ‘My village, I never see it no more.’”

Note: you can read the original story in Greek here.

Kyriacos Efthymiou was born in 1954 in Nicosia, Cyprus, where he lives. He started his career as an actor at the Theater Organization of Cyprus (THOK). In 1993 he published his first poetry collection Επιάστηκεν το φεγγάριν (The Moon has been Caught) and in 2015 his collection Κυρτός αλατοπώλης (Bent Salt Seller) won the State Poetry Prize of the Republic of Cyprus). As an actor he is known for 1922 (1978), Evagora’s Vow (2001) and The Rape of Aphrodite (1985). The Red Horse (2020) is his first book of prose. He has also written three plays and the script of a film and has edited five digital audio discs (CDs) in which he reads poems by Cavafy, Pantelis Michanikos, Theodosis Nikolaou, Kyriakos Charalambidis and Costas Montis. He is a member of the collective of scholars and artists Citizen TALES Commons and he is preparing for his U.S. tour in the fall of 2022 during which he will present his work in Boston and other cities. He will conduct creative writing workshops and will interact with various communities of the Greek-Cypriot diaspora in the United States.

Vassiliki Rapti, PhD, was born and grew up in Greece and studied Comparative Literature and Media, in Greece, France and the United States. She holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature with an Emphasis in Drama from Washington University in St. Louis. She is the author of several books, including the monograph Ludics in Surrealist Theatre and Beyond (Ashgate, 2013), the co-edited volume Ludics: Play as Humanistic Inquiry (Palgrave/MacMillan, 2021) and the poetry collectionsTransitorium (Somerset Hall Press, 2015) and Bathed in Moonlight (Červená Barva Press, forthcoming). Her poetry and translations have been published in various international journals including Big Bridge, Taos: Journal of Poetry & Art, Eliot Review, Levure Littéraire, Poeticanet and Poetix . Her poetry is animated by the ludic spirit and surrealist imagery in an attempt to capture the intrusion of the marvelous in everyday life, yet it strives for simplicity in diction. She further explores the ludic element as Chair of the Ludics Seminar of the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard University, where she also founded the Advanced Training in Greek Poetry Translation and Performance Workshop . She currently teaches world literature and digital culture at Emerson College and is the founding director of the collective of scholars and artists Citizen TALES Commons.

A native of Toronto, Canada, Peter Bottéas holds a Master's degree in Translation from the Université de Montréal and worked for many years as a translator, revisor, editor, and educator in French Canada. After a twenty-year detour as a psychotherapist in Boston, he has recently returned to one of his first loves, literary translation, and is currently the primary translator of Greek Boston-based poet Vassiliki Rapti. The author and translator have done several poetry readings together in New York and Boston, as well as in online forums. He is a member of the multidisciplinary think-tank and creative forum Citizen TALES Commons and, along with Vassiliki, is co-host of the podcast series Borders Unbound: Hellenic Poetry of the Diaspora and Beyond. Peter is also an occasional voice-over artist, an infrequent poet, and an aficionado of French and Greek poetry set to music