awarded short stories (and other stories)

STANDING MOUNTAIN (REVERSE CITY)

IN REVERSE CITY the sun rises backwards today (like most days). Water cannot be drunk since the tap is not working. It is one of those drought days when water gets back in the plumbing system instead of reaching a glass. Cars follow the reverse code today, only odd numbers in the streets, moving backwards. Odd and alone. It’s springtime! Actually not. Flowers are dying instead of blooming, leaves are falling, butterflies become worms again, poor things, animals fall to lethargy, people do too…inescapably.

She just sits there, persistently reading the manual, trying to understand this paradoxical change that is about to occur, struggling to get used to the new possible plans, laws and ideas. “How is it possible to fry an egg in an upside down pan? I mean… it’s easier to fry it in a straight one, isn’t it?”, she keeps asking herself with naïve curiosity. He doesn’t answer as usual, sinking in his greenish, upside down armchair and sipping his coffee in the exact same way for years and years. “Why don’t you read the manual too? Things are changing! Things have to change!”, she shouts in attention-wanting despair but he still can’t listen. He can’t take his eyes away from that big, glassy window in the right corner of the living room.

The deep voice of the television presenter is echoed in the room: “Florists are protesting outside the Main Hall this very instant, since their precious flowers are dying one by one. Nine million six thousand eight hundred thirty-three and a half flowers so far…”

They have been dying for years now (the flowers that is). Over thirty. Stopped counting at some point. You see, there is no rain. Its water drops go back where they come from, never reaching the ground. The distant myth is still alive though. The rumor about that everlasting flower – the Undead – existing somewhere out there. The picture of a colorful garden, hidden away from this upside down city with the reversed pieces of furniture, pots and pans. No wonder why she is in pain all the time. “These chairs are killing me”, she keeps repeating. “This window has been killing me for years”, is the only answer she can get from him if she’s lucky enough.

The clock has stopped. The egg is being fried, her almost purple legs are in pain, his insomniac eyes are still fixed on a spot, way beyond their block of flats. His coffee is finished, the egg is half-burnt already, flowers continue to expire, rain remains banned from the city and the tired voice of the television presenter, travels from flat to flat, saying so much, yet saying nothing.

Her voice breaks (as usual). “You don’t love me anymore, do you? I mean, when we were young you were different. Remember? Taking the kids to fly their kites and then secretly kissing under the trees…remember? You used to love me then. You loved our home too…

As usual, this is just a monologue. Of course he remembers. Of course he loved her. Yet, what else is there left to say? Those years can never come back. Even if he tells her he still adores her (which is more than true), they will never go back home, they will never reach their garden, no matter what the television presenter has been stating for decades and decades. Enough with that voice, promising change, keeping hope alive. That voice penetrates his soul so deeply that he just wishes he could crush that TV and smash that guy’s face like a watermelon. It’s all lies! The myth about the undead flower! Come on! How brainless can someone be? What is dead cannot come back to life! What is lost cannot be regained! That’s why he’s like that. That’s why he no longer speaks. To say what? There is nothing left to say!

Words, words, words. Enough! Vowels and consonants scattered and echoed everywhere and nowhere. And this manual….for God’s sake, do they actually expect him to read and understand it? His children maybe, if they are open-minded enough and if they actually care about this upside down city anymore. He can’t. It’s been too long! It’s their fault! They had him waiting for too fucking long! He cannot help it. He cannot see things differently. He hopes his children can though, he wishes that his children can forget and forgive on his behalf. It’s too late for him. Too late for her too. She just can’t realize that no matter what she does, no matter how hard she tries, she will keep burning the egg in the upside down pan cause that upside down pan is not her. It’s not her life. It’s not her thought. It’s not!

He keeps staring out the window. Expressionless, fed up and tired. Too tired. She’s still reading chapter 34 of the manual on how to serve soup in an upside down bowl. She’s tired too but at least she’s trying. That’s what she keeps telling herself, trying to make the derelict self feel useful for a change. Deep inside, she still believes in that myth. She happily wakes up everyday, waiting to see a shiny drop of rain on her dead tulip by the window. She’s not the only one in Reverse City waiting for that sudden and miracle-like drop of water.

Sometimes, she thinks she sees one and becomes ecstatic for a second or two, then she comes to the conclusion that it’s just the spit of her husband who had been cursing again, early in the morning. Yet, that doesn’t stop her from commenting on the television presenter’s voice from time to time, sympathizing with his determined efforts to inform the citizens of the city as accurately as possible, and at the same time being so cute!

She once read a book by an Italian she doesn’t really remember his name. She read it by accident, it was her daughter’s. She was never into reading anyway, that’s why she finds it so difficult to understand the manual – at least, that’s what she keeps repeating to herself for comfort.

 The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what we live every day, what we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you no longer see it…The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space”*. Strange words! She never understood them but she did love the word “inferno”, now repeated by her favorite presenter’s lips! She never realized which group of people she really belonged to, possibly because she never understood that she herself was trapped in that inferno in one way or another.

 He did. He experienced that “inferno” every time he looked out of that window. She could no longer see it but he could see it alright. He never stopped staring at it, especially at night, grinning with its flashy lights straight at him, making fun of his upside down city, his upside down furniture and his self-blinded wife moving back and forth in her kitchen. That permanent and motionless thing with the scars and wounds, visible under the sun, illuminated at night. That straight mountain with that straight flag, in this upside down city with its upside down hopes, standing with pride and staring back at him, commanding him, instructing him…never, never, never to forget!

The sun sets backwards today in Reverse City… “nine million six thousand eight hundred thirty-nine and a quarter dead flowers so far…rain possibility minimal”. Lights on the standing mountain. Lights off in the living room. Harsh sounds of cutlery sneaking in from the kitchen. He is still there. Looking odd like most people. Odd and alone. Yet, sleepless for days now. No butterfly dreams anymore. The television presenter’s voice pauses for a moment, as if absurdly sensing his “inferno” and giving him space.

 For a brief moment there in the dark, by the transparent window, a drop of salty water slowly falls, vertically accidentally, crashing on the tulip’s last bending leaf.

*Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities 

(one of the winner-stories in the «Sea of Words» international writing competition by the Anna Lindh Foundation and the IEmed – 2008)

THE GIGANTIC FALL OF AN EYELASH (excerpt)

A SYNDROME of undefined physical shrinkage and dysfunctional use of the senses, followed by possible psychosomatic side effects!”

That’s more or less what the Freudian gentleman with the sketchy shirt and the pale tie called my illness. The edge of that doctor’s tie struggled to disengage itself from the shower of his saliva and his chronic bronchitis. It reminded me of the death rattle that shouts with antiseptic atrocity that the end is near, so near that just the sight of it will torment me for every second of the rest of my micrographic life.

 Yes. That illness was definitely incurable, no matter how rhythmic its definition sounded. A definition that first surprised me and then warned me that my senses would gradually abandon me, like the lovers of a very distant past.

What about what I’ve been waiting for? The thing that never comes?”, I screamed and then I felt my hands become gigantic, as if they were made of clay, as if they were desperately trying to hold on to that last thread of that doctor’s wet tie. No use. The heat of his look extinguished every possible elasticity in those clay hands, smashing even the slightest sign of hope.

My body would lose its mass, transforming me into a sphere of squeezed organs, ready to be launched into eternity.

tick tock, tick tock

10:11.

The time that the clock’s hand escaped and nailed itself in my heart, distorting its sound with violence.

t…tock…ti…t…t

That moment, I realized that birth and death are divided by an inexistent line. Colorless, odorless, tasteless. Without the need to use a magnifying glass, the room appeared more claustrophobic than ever and I felt like an asthmatic giant, trapped in a microcosm and doomed to follow a descending course. Everything around me echoed with arrogant tension, butchering any possible airy image. Time slowly ignored me, turning its back against me, punching me with no mercy.

10:15.

A lively ant scratched the edge of my heel, asking for mercy from an already defeated Goliath. I felt it like the tiny pinch of a needle. “Naughty!”, I whispered with a temporary smile on my lips. The bare tree of the lifeless painting gave me an intense look, thus breaking every glassy, mortal or immortal obstacle between us. As if that painting knew that we would soon be one. Me and the ant that I had just killed with the sole of my foot. Thus, amputating my own self.

10:21.

Pause. Emptiness. Lethargy. Wordless thought. Black font.

10:22.

An eyelash has just started to fall and I am left to observe its whole course, still waiting for what never comes.

Height of one meter and 65 centimeters.

It springs out with elegance and terror. It looks right and left and right and left again. The sight is clear or so it seems. The boat today is shaky, more than any other time and the black pupil of the eye contracts and dilates like a wave in tempest. The humming coming from the heroic eyelash’s desperate sisters starts to blend with the salty sound of the retina, echoing melancholically: “Mare Insentinum…Mare Insentimum…”*

The sisters’ tall, thin figures move in a magnetizing way, as if they are Circe’s offsprings. No use though, since nothing can keep their beloved sister close to them. The fleshy shore is now blinking like a faded source of light, mourning the loss of the most tempting eyelash. An eyelash ready to fall from a height of many centimeters.

People say that death is as close as life. By living we die. By dying we live. One could consider this free fall pure suicide. Others would simply call it mythological heroism.

sense every movement, every breath, every sigh. There could be one second left before my own ending, before I lose my senses and imprison myself in a numb body like a plant, for some more hours, days even, months, years, adrift by this contemporary illness that sneakily ravages my light receptors, my olfactory bulb, the charisma of speech, the freedom of emotion, the revolution of thought, my whole body. A curse. The plague of a new age that gobbles down its children and simultaneously throws them up.

 A second.

That’s approximately how long an eyelash’s fall lasts from a height of one meter and 65 centimeters, excluding of course external factors of suspension and other, inaccurately measured powers (…)

(chosen to represent Cyprus in the 14th Biennale in Skopje in 2009, after a literary competition)

 

yerali - astronafths

(collage by the artist Marina Yerali)

THE ASTRONAUT

Many people gathered that day. Never before had I seen so many in the area. A disturbing assembly of human heads, moving numbly, right and left. It didn’t take long for multi-coloured helion balloons, hot-dogs and pop-corns to make their appearance. TV cameras and a few suits also kicked in. If you happened to watch the scene from a distance or from an airplane you would think that water was springing out of that sterile watertank – only dark-coloured and viscous.

Most people considered the watertank a bad choice for someone to commit suicide. I mean the city was filled with buildings and skyscrapers, twin towers, triple towers, high-tech structures. Why on earth would he choose a rusty watertank? Of course, the older among them reminisced about the glorious history of this deserted historical landmark, how it once was the only source of water for the community and that the authorities planned – I’m not sure if that was true or just a myth – to turn it into a Cypriot version of the Eiffel Tower, complete with elevator and all.

Yet, not one of them commented on the uniform that the prospective suicide victim had chosen for his final appearance. And if a child holding an iPad hadn’t actually screamed MUM, LOOK! AN ASTRONAUT!, no single head out of those black and eyeless figures would have noticed the man’s white space suit, his helmet and the oxygen equipment that hung unbearably on his back.

MAN DRESSED AS ASTRONAUT THREATENS SUICIDE / UNIDENTIFIED MAN DRESSED AS ASTRONAUT ON LIMASSOL’S FAMOUS WATER TOWER. Of note was the fact that all media programmes used the phrase “dressed as”. What if he was a real astronaut? Why didn’t anyone think of that?

Every step he took forward urged the crowd to screams of agony. EARTH HAS GRAVITY, YOU’LL FALL!”, shouted someone, triggering the others’ hearty laughter, as if they were actually watching King Kong. And, you know, I had so many things to do that day, so many problems to stress over and so many ideas to disregard – but I stayed there; thirsty for tragedy. There was no tangible difference between myself and that crowd that made me want to throw up. Deep inside me I wanted him to fall. All of us down there, deep, very deep inside, we wished he would fall. The thought scandalised me. I admit that at some point I even bought a candy apple to cheer me up.

Time passed and the astronaut refused to fall. The once horrified crowd gradually became ecstatic. More and more sellers gathered below, while fewer and fewer cameras and microphones covered the scene. As I looked at him, enclosed behind his space helmet, hope arose inside me that I could convince him to commit suicide somewhere else. His presence there ruined carefree childhood memories, memories of mine with the historical watertank in the background. His spaceship would’ve been a better option. Weren’t flying red drops a better image than the dandruffed heads of a crowd that never gave a shit about him anyway?

I wanted to tell him all of the above and even more, and I guess he too wanted to share his thoughts. That he was a real astronaut even if nobody believed him, that he had worked for NASA for some time when he was younger but was never allowed to leave on a proper space journey because of a serious health problem, that he had climbed on that tank to impress a girlfriend or a son, that he was definitely tempted to step into the void, that the paranoid strangers assembled below excited him, that he wouldn’t fall in the end anyway, that they were mistaken.

It got darker and despite the tank’s artificial lighting the astronaut was now almost invisible. Ice-cream vans switched on their lights, playgrounds and rollercoasters arrived, and at some point nobody looked up anymore. They all forgot about the long forgotten historical landmark. They even forgot the astronaut who wasn’t really an astronaut (or maybe he was after all).

3 days passed.

People got drunk, argued, fell in love, fucked, ate their guts out, while having fun at the fair below. Some made a living. Others left their problems temporarily behind. Maybe if the astronaut had known how important his presence was in this world he would’ve changed his mind.

Unfortunately, though, on the third day according to the scriptures, he fell. It was a loud crash. And it managed to magnetize all looks.

I was one of the few people gathered there that kept their eyes on him until his very last breath. Myself and a little boy, who didn’t have an iPad, and from time to time visited the scene with his grandfather. The boy neither feared nor wept. And his grandfather, in contrast to most of the bystanders, never once made to cover the boy’s eyes.

(one of the stories of the project «Simio Stixis», which appears in Politis newspaper every two weeks – http://www.simiostixispolitis.wordpress.com)

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