Like a Discus Thrower

Christos Hadjipapas was born 1947. He studied Veterinary Medicine. He published two collections of poems when very young, four collections of short-stories including one in English translation, and three novels. Four of his books, two novels and two collections of short-stories have been awarded the Cyprus State Literary Prize. His short stories have been translated in various countries. His novel In the eye of the snake was published in Bulgaria. He is the President of the Union of Cyprus Writers.

I would never kill a creature of God, a creature of Nature. A human being or any other mammal, an ant or a cockroach. I would, however, wish for the complete annihilation of the latter. By means of one of the modern state-of-the-art insecticides that kills, unsuspected, without human interference; I admit to this. I don’t care much for those detestable sprays that kill instantly. I can’t forget the day when my wife, like Saddam Hussein, used this weapon of mass destruction against the cicadas. I am talking about a time thirty years ago when she suffered from insomnia and her nerves were acting up, which was most likely of my doing. The cicadas would wake her up very early in the morning with their song as they sat, masters and commanders of their universe, chanting on an apricot tree right outside our bedroom.

I have never forgiven her for killing them because since I was a child I have had a special affinity with these insects. We used to catch them cupping our palm over them on the tree trunk, especially the bigger ones. Then we would put a straw in their butt and let them go. One day our teacher caught me doing this in the garden. He beckoned me to his side. “Do you know that this cicada may be Tithonus1?” he asked “the lover of Eos, the Dawn. Don’t do it again.” Hearing the word lover for the first time at the age of twelve, I was spurred into a frenzy from that day as if I had a straw in my own butt, until I discovered in myth collections and other sacred and apocryphal books Tithonus’s beautiful and tragic story. Years later I found an explanation for my teacher’s sensibility. The older and more alert boys amongst us suspected that something was going on between him and the young teacher. During break they were together, her cheeks often guiltily flushed. Above all when he passed through the rows of desks he smelled of rubber condoms, like the ones we found a couple of times in the school yard. He must have imagined himself with a straw in his own butt, which, in proportion, must have been of walking stick dimensions. Impaled lovers, I thought, realizing what might have been happening to my old teacher.

A creature I would gladly kill is one from the crow family. The black ravens, which are insolent and caw repulsively. Huge black droppings. The highest walnuts in the walnut tree are theirs. Let them have them all as long as they don’t make a noise first thing in the morning. They cry sadly, triumphantly, fall in love while stealing. I don’t understand their hideous language. They wake my up in the middle of the night sometimes and always early in the morning, without letting me fulfil some illusory dreams of mine. I was advised to cut the top of the walnut tree, where they congregate up on high. However they soon came to the lower branches after, in my turmoil, I called someone with a chainsaw who cut to the ground our lovely walnut tree. The house lay bare, the veranda unshaded, baked by the sun, the glare burning us to the quick. But we had gotten rid of the macabre cawing of the crows. Fine. That was it. We’ll find a way to survive the savage sun and its ultraviolet rays that have themselves become a nightmare. In a few days, however, we could again hear cawing coming from the sky. From the top of the tall casuarinas which stand like guards along the street outside our plot. They shelter us from the sun and the wild youths of the night that offer themselves sacrifice to the Minotaur of the asphalt. Once, twice these trees prevented frenzied midnight racing cars from entering our garden. Despite this, my first thoughts rushed to the chainsaw. Down with them. I was deep in a rut. Tall trees, black crows, insolent cawing, desperation. There were times in the early morning when I woke up to take a leak and I couldn’t get back to sleep because of their repeated cries. For a moment I thought that we would find peace. Yet in a short while they moved to the peepal trees inside the fence. There was no way I could put up with this.

About that time there was an incident that was much talked about. A father killed his son with a spade because he could no longer put up with his wiles. I had gone to the court to follow the case. Everything and everybody was in favour of the killer: the relatives, the mother of the victim, his sister. Everybody defended him against the “monster”, which grew of its own volition from nature which ought to be eradicated and returned to its lair, where no humans live. Let it live there, fatherless, where its evil doings harm no creatures. Let it wreak havoc in a world where there is nothing to destroy, in a world of oblivion, which can put up with its own self immolation. In a world where the angels would smile with understanding, even if the Unjudged Judge cut off their dicks. Imagine, this “self-sprung” child was not even a drug user. I don’t remember well but there were, I think, extenuating circumstances in the “not guilty” verdict of the father. I am not interested. I chase the crows of my night.

I called the municipal tree surgeons who within seconds cut the peepal trees to the ground. In no time at all we had become deprived of green and shade. My wife appeared a little preoccupied. The only tree left was the araucaria near the entrance. It is said that no bird roosts there. From their own kind of superstition. Unless it is an absolute necessity. Such as, if there are no other trees. When the birds returned again I realized I had reached the end of my tether. I had a bright idea that I could not possibly sacrifice our last tree.

I turned to a friend who used to go shooting “You cannot hold your own against them. They are like cockroaches.” I realized that he did not want to lend me his gun. I put pressure on him. I was prepared to withdraw our longstanding friendship. He gave in.

Early in the morning I let off two volleys and my heart swelled with pleasure. I went back to bed to sleep. There was no longer any cawing. Yet there was a strange sound lingering in the volleys. As if they had hit something fatally. Something stirred my conscience. It was an unimportant and far-fetched suspicion but it stopped me from falling into a serene sleep.

I went outside. The dawn light was still hazy. Under the araucaria, leaning on its trunk, there was a huge human-shaped – I dare say – black crow. He was in pain and breathing heavily. His posture was like that of a discus thrower bending forward under his weight. There was no blood. Under his eyes, his cheekbones and his temples he had marks in black ink, round the melanomas from his treatment. The fatal melanomas as it soon proved. I started awake for reasons of self preservation.

I went out, as if again, without expecting to see Father wounded and barely alive. Above all I did not understand why I had such a dream, even though the diagnosis of his fatal illness was indeed melanoma, exactly thirty two years ago. He had spent a lifetime in the hot sun without any protection.

I got wind of something when I turned it over in my mind. He had come to our house from the village and I would take him to hospital every other day. I had just been appointed as a civil servant and to skive off work wasn’t the easiest thing. And we had a kid, who’d been born while we were still students, didn’t know the language of the place yet and, most importantly, I was afraid of the black marks of ink …

He realized that he was a burden and left before his course of therapy was finished. In less than two years he had died from cancer.

Translated from the Greek by Stephanos Gee

Stephen Gee was born in England in 1975. He studied English Literature and Language at Oxford University (Wadham College). He moved to Cyprus in 2004 where he taught English. His poems were published in the literary journal of PEN Cyprus, In Focus. He has recently translated into English several short stories by Christos Hadjipapas and poems by Vasilka Hadjipapa.