Translated by Karen Emmerich
Paperback, 281 pages
Publisher: Archipelago Books (April 2016)
Languages: English, Greek
Selected by Barbara Epler
“An intense short-story collection about the plight of those worst affected by the Greek economic crisis – laid-off workers, hungry children. This take-no-prisoners storytelling has an oddly quiet way about it, just as the most dangerous things often do. Ikonomou covers an astonishing range and hits harsh realities pitch perfectly, helped by a brilliant translation by Karen Emmerich.” —Barbara Epler
She’s washing lettuce. With €20 to get her through the week and bills piled on the kitchen counter. But it’s Friday night, her favourite night of the week, and Ellie Drakou is at the sink washing lettuce which she likes because it has such a tender white heart. She pulls off each leaf individually and runs water over it and washes it carefully and strokes it and breaks off any rotten edges or pieces with those strange tiny brown holes that lettuce gets, and then gently shakes off the water and lays the leaf in the basin.
She loves washing lettuce. Pulling off those big green leaves and washing each one individually. And as she gets closer to the centre she reaches those tender leaves that are less green, the ones that glisten like they’re untouched by time. It’s as if she’s slowly and carefully and excitedly unwrapping a gift that someone else wrapped in layers of green paper. Then she gets to the heart of the lettuce and her own heart sweetens at the sight of those small tender leaves, those white crispy leaves – the heart of a head of lettuce, a tiny miracle, a well-kept secret, guarded from time and the wear of time. She likes to think that no matter what happened yesterday, no matter how much money she may have lost, no matter what happens tomorrow and for the rest of her days, no matter how many Sotirises pass through her life like conquering soldiers or hunted migrants, the heart of the lettuce, the innermost heart of the lettuce, those tiny leaves now quivering in her wet hands will remain forever white and tender and alive, as if they’re the only things in this world that don’t die, that won’t ever die.
It rained, then stopped. Soon it will rain again. She looks out the window. Everything to the west is red – wind, sky, clouds. Tonight it’ll rain blood, Ellie says and shivers. And her eyes move from the window back to the heart of the lettuce that seems to be throbbing in her hands – but it’s not the lettuce that’s throbbing, only her hands trembling – and what she sees sinks inside of her like the smile of a person who’s out of work, a person who’s just been red.
Lettuce, says Ellie. The whole secret of life hiding in a head of lettuce. Am I right?
She was the only one who fed the pig. For the past 10 months or even a year. Every other day, sometimes every day. A euro or two euros or sometimes five. Occasionally she forgot. She forgot when she’d been working overtime and came home so tired she couldn’t even speak. But Sotiris never forgot. He would bring the pig in from the kitchen – it was big and heavy and pink with a slit in its back for coins and a hole in its snout for bills – and shake it in front of Ellie’s face.
Grrts grrts. The pig is hungry. It’s starving, Ellie. Grrts grrts. Come on Ellie, feed the pig. Don’t you feel sorry for the poor thing? Grrts grrts.
And Ellie would laugh. No matter how exhausted she was she always laughed. And she would open her wallet and take out a euro or two and slip the coin into the hole and on Friday nights she would take a five-euro bill out of her wallet and twist it into a tight roll and push it through the pig’s snout.
There must have been about eight hundred in there. Eight or maybe nine at the very most.
Why don’t you ever feed it, she sometimes asked. Why don’t you feed it every now and then, why do you just wait for me to? Wheatie. That’s what she called him sometimes, wheatie instead of sweetie, because everything about him was the colour of wheat. Wheat or semolina. I want to eat you with a spoon.
Karen Emmerich is a translator of modern Greek poetry and prose. To convey the immediacy and frenzied tone of Ikonomou’s prose in English, Emmerich removed many of the commas.