Devil in Me by Polis Loizou
I thought you’d never come, beloved. Papasimeon tells me it’s a hopeless cause, my troubling the box of sand in his church with another lit candle. He says God is your nursemaid now, that he sent St Nikolas into the sea and pulled you out that night, carried you into the other world. No man returns from the dead, he says. But what does the young priest know from his studies that I haven’t learned from experience?
According to him, I was dreaming when I caught you watching me from behind the shutters last night. I can’t stand to listen to his chatter any longer. He fills my mouth with tar. I am aware of the redness in my eyes, and that he judges me by it. There is an icon on a bier at the altar, and it pumps my throat with bile. He lies in state: our Saviour, Son of God, gold leaf pressed into a halo about his head. Beneath a myriad chrysanthemums and roses, arranged by the tender hands of women, a man is laid to rest. They cross themselves and kiss him.
“Look!” I want to scream at the priest, such is my rage. “Look there in your own church! The worship of a man who defied death!” But Papasimeon is educated, and cunning; I know he’ll use his words to tie me up in knots.
I stand speechless as my lips go thin and my throat quivers. He will not see me beaten, nor will he pity the madwoman who dares to raise her husband to the level of Christ. Yet that’s what you are to me, my love. I storm out of the church, leave its saints beneath their Easter shrouds and the softer women staring after me in horror. Damn them all to Hell.
I watch the ships in the water. They blend with seagulls in the distance, so far are they from me. The wind seduces me forwards, wills my feet to take another step over the rocks. He wants to push me into the water, and I find my body alight with the thought of that sudden freeze; of speeding downwards to the turquoise grave, its surface snapping my bones on impact and them scattering, spiralling, to the black below. An end. The death of Me, for which I have longed. And I think about the sea itself, about the mammals and fish swimming around its stomach; about its constant physical change, a wave starting from one side of the world, a land where they speak a language I don’t understand, only to spread across to this God-forsaken, God-drenched island with me on it.
I watch the shapes shimmer closer to the port. They are not the sombre war machines you worked on. Even from this distance, I know that these are passenger ships. Ferrying Englishmen no doubt, so soon. Bringing more dichotomies to a land already divided. I will St Peter to turn them away. He stands on the beach, through the centuries, finding God in the beauty of our land. He wants it to remain safe, as I do. He listens to my prayers; he will not let the heathens keep it. Not for much longer.
It’s a bitter day, my love. The wind is like your hands, pushing pleasure into pain.
I teach the child to kill a snake. He’s so easy to startle it makes me spit. He lacks your strength and steady hand. I tell him it’s a skill he’ll need to learn, and the quicker he learns it the better. “No-o-o!” he whines, trying to pull his hand free. He needs to grow up. You can’t sit dumb and wait for the killer to stab his poison into you, I tell him, and you defenceless with no antidote. Better to see the threat coming and grab a rock. Better to crush his head before he reaches your feet. But the boy stands there, fingers squirming around each other, and he shakes his head with tears in his eyes. He is still an infant.
I shiver when I show him how it’s done. It’s your hands I feel coming through mine as they hurtle to the ground. Your power matching the poison. No-one ever matched our zeal.
And when it’s done, the serpent is a flower on the ground. An undulating stem with an eruption at the tip, pressed, flattened dead. The child is curious now. His gets on his knees, the gravel leaving little red mouths on them. He stretches his fingers to this other skin.
The chosen men carry Jesus on the cross around the village. The rest of us follow in silence, all of us grieving. I suppress the urge to make a noise, to scare the piety out of them. A part of me still fears for my soul. Though faith is dimming in me, the flames of Hell are a nightmare that has been deeply ingrained. Yet, looking around at the bowed heads, and the women whose husbands still lie next to them in bed, I’m aware of a devil in me. There’s only so much solace I can take in absent men. Come back to my window tonight, my love. I will follow you wherever you choose to take me.
Here, in this funeral procession for a man long-dead, I know I cannot be a rebel, not with our country in tatters as it is. There’s no dignity in selfishness. No pride to be claimed from unnerving the believers. Most importantly, I cannot shame my mother. She is solemn and shares my features, and we must be united in faith if nothing else. We walk along together, her arm around my shoulders, behind the Saviour who proved that death was not the end.
Papasimeon has a message for me. They’ve found a corpse on the beach and they swear it’s you. The sea has eroded its features, as though a ghost has materialised in half-human form. The skin is crusty with salt. But it is you, they say, the departed, may God bless you with His holy benevolence. His words are pebbles at my throat. They won’t even let me see this man, yet they tell me it’s you. They won’t let me see him. I lose my head and scream at them. I demand to see the body. But they refuse. I know it isn’t you. The tears burn my face but I know it isn’t you.
They put the impostor in a box and lower him into the ground. It’s a show, a performance – like a Karakiozis play, made up of paper and shadows. This man that they call you, may he find his wife in spirit, and may she feel his breath along her body. The farewell visit to assuage her loss. It will make her nights less black.
They pour olive oil into the grave along with shards of a broken plate. Its destruction still reverberates in me as they lead me closer to the ditch, as they guide my hand to the ground, as they force me to clench the dirt and unleash it like a curse on the dead man’s casket. It is my mother who hurts me most in this. She believes them, that this is you. I tell her again and again: “They’re wrong. That’s not him. That’s not him.” But they are all under a spell. To them, it seems a wife can’t tell her husband from a corpse. That hapless figure isn’t strength and ardour and pride; it is debris. I was not married to a man as crisp and hollow as a seashell.
The relatives are kind at the wake. My mother thanks them all for coming because my mouth is sewn shut. My unblinking eyes stare under their hoods at the shoes walking towards and past me. I recognise my Aunt Elena, and I long more than anything to be able to speak to her. But it feels suddenly like betrayal, that she has chosen to take their side against me, even if her tiny round body and the words it projects seem at odds with the picture of a conspirator. She truly believes you’re dead. It is not her fault. She is feeble-minded and will swallow Papasimeon’s wine.
My mother offers me vazanaki on a little glass plate. To my surprise I grab it from her and gobble it up, enjoy the comfort of its sweetness. I suck at its syrup so that I may sink it, again and again, in the dark liquid that will bring me sweetness once more. I’ve licked it so dry that it grates my gullet on its way down, and the pain of that makes the tears come, and they crowd my eyes so much that my vision is blurred and my head droops, letting those tellers of sadness fall out to my lap like oil in the grave.
This is where we met, beloved, in my father’s olive grove. Though the bastard dogs have raped our land, wrestled half of it from our teeth as though it were meat, the blood has yet to trickle down to these fields. I doubt it will ever blemish them. This soil has borne the steps of my ancestors for generations before us. It is rich with spirits. Cypriot, for Cypriots only, and it shall remain so. They cannot take this from us.
The night is as black as your eyes. A host of olive trees gathered in the shafts of moonlight watches as I wait. When will you come? When will you lift this rock from my chest? It has ground a hole in me, big as that sham coffin.
You were so young when I first saw you. Your brow so sharp, your forehead wide – the marks of a man blessed with brains. And smart you were, my love. You knew just the words to speak to drive me from my family, just the way to pull my arm behind my back to make me gasp in delight. You pulled the olives ‘til they snapped from their twigs and rolled them along my lips. Their scent pierced me like razors. You pierced me with yours. And when I bit them they released their acid, as did you. Evil once possessed us here.
And then I see you. Behind a tree. Standing, smiling. Camouflaged in your dark clothes. The twigs and pointed leaves make crosses over your eyes, your pupils disguise themselves as olives. But I know it’s you because your presence fills the air like a wolf’s. You’ve smelt my blood and come to taste it again. They are distant smears of the past now, those days when you could hardly wait for the ship to dock. You would rush back home to ensnare me in your arms, to pin me down, to express your rage at being away from me for so long. It was a pain you couldn’t endure; the only pain that made you weak. And my pain, my weakness, was in standing first on the cliff to watch the ship approach, then running to the fig tree from which I could see your figure rising towards me, all the while aching.
So why do you not run towards me tonight in our olive grove? Why do you stand and watch me as I call, doing nothing? Every pace I take makes you smaller. Another of your games, I tell myself. The spurts in which you chased me always shrank to apathy; you made me come to you. You switched between dog and master. Yet even when you played the dog, I never felt the master.
So I chase you.
My girlish fears of ghosts tumble to the earth. I race from tree to tree, catching glimpses of your form. But light is against me, and the darkness helps you hide. My legs shake. I listen for your movement. Cicadas far away. The thump of my heart. The steady snap of twigs underfoot. And then a texture I can’t name. It bites back. Something stings in my ankles. I fall to the ground and you run away.
Come back. Don’t hide in the night. Don’t tease me where we met. Don’t play these games with me.
My feet are heavy with grief. They make a squelching sound so I scrape them against a rock. I’m sure I’ve killed a cockroach. They frighten me, attacking as they do in flight. I look behind to see a grey line undulate towards a rock and slip beneath it. My ankles bear perfect marks, the colour of blood.
I know that God has left me now because you’re nowhere to be found. I sit on the dirt while my eyes search the branches, the length and breadth of the grove. But beyond my thirty metres of vision lies total black. I know now why I wear the tone. I know why it is ours, why every one of us is born imbued with it on this island. It’s in our hair, it’s in our eyes; it is the thing we must grow used to.
I know this is my olive grove, my Heaven, but I can’t see where it ends. In the night, there are no boundaries. No neighbours’ fields or mountains to distinguish, no telling fig trees. I don’t know where the free land merges with the stolen. I don’t know where I am, or where my saviour’s gone. All I feel is this Devil on my left, growing bigger. He climbs inside and makes it black.
© Polis Loizou, 2013
Polis (like "Metropolis" with the "Metro" cut off) is a writer and filmmaker of Greek-Cypriot origin who is now based in Crystal Palace, a part of London that offers lovely views and statues of anatomically-incorrect dinosaurs. He is one third of The Off-Off-Off-Broadway Company, for which he has written and directed three stage shows that have toured around the UK. http://www.offoffoffbroadway.co.uk
Devil in Me was read by Amanda Renee Baker on 4th December 2013