To Catch the Dawn
To my father
Slight, pale and quiet as a spectre, Yorgo lurked among the cherry trees.
It was that vague moment when the blackness of night begins to slowly dissolve into the milky edges of daylight. Many times Yorgo had tried to capture that second, to keep it as a memory and relive it later, in the blazing sunshine of the afternoon, or under the starlit sky he could see out of his window at bedtime. But he couldn't. No matter how hard he focused, in turns glaring and squinting beyond the cherry branches, he could never perceive the moment the transition began. A blink, or even the thought of a blink, would be enough for daybreak to creep up without him realizing. Suddenly tree trunks were brown, not black; suddenly dew on the long blades of grass was visible.
He waited in absolute stillness, caressing his slingshot with his fingers. This was a brand-new one, only made yesterday out of olive wood. Yorgo had tested it on rocks before dinner; it shot far more straight than his old one. He was proud of himself.
But proof is always in the pudding.
There was a fast patter of wings, then leaves fluttered. Twenty yards ahead of him a quail sat down to breakfast. Moving with expert swiftness and stealth, Yorgo took a rock from his pocket and armed his slingshot. Without breathing, he took aim.
"You have to get them in the head, Giorgio," Luigi had said. "If you get them in the chest, it leaves a big dent in the flesh. We can't serve the officers a bird with a big dent in the flesh. Capito?"
The beheaded bird fell on the grass, its chest perfectly shaped, its flesh undented.
Luigi greeted the boy with a beaming smile, as he always did. Yorgo had known him for a while now, but the man's size still overwhelmed him sometimes, and he felt small. Luigi was taller than any other Italian soldier Yorgo had seen, with long, thick arms and hands with massive palms and thick fingers. When Luigi would start gesturing excitedly, his arms looked more scary than the machine gun across his back.
"Why are you not at school, Giorgino? Come here!" The soldier hugged the boy and kissed him on both cheeks. "What have you got in that bag? Birds again?"
"Si, siniore Luigi. Five!" Yorgo smiled, and opened the bag to show off his kills.
"Five! Mama mia! Hey, sergente! Come look at this! Giorgio brought quail again."
The soldier Luigi had addressed briefly took his eyes from his magazine, and mumbled something in Italian with a shrug.
Luigi laughed. "You know why he is not happy, Giorgio? Because he knows I'm going to tell the cook to put these in the oven with oil and herbs, and then smother them in cream, and then throw lots of parmesan over them. And then he's not going to get any. You know why he's not going to get any? You do, don't you?"
"No, siniore Luigi."
The Italian grabbed the boy's arm and pulled him close. He leant over him. Yorgo was lost in the big man's shadow, and felt shielded -- from the sun, from the cool morning breeze, from the very war itself.
"Perche e stupido," Luigi whispered in his hear. Then, much louder, and facing his comrade: "Because he's as stupid as a mule!"
"Eh, vafancullo," said the other soldier, without taking his eyes off his magazine. "Why do you keep giving our supplies to this boy to get his bloody birds, I'll never know. Birds. What do you want birds for? Who's coming to dinner? Mussolini?"
"Nice language, in front of the boy, Maldini. How about I write you up?"
"Yea, how about vafancullo?"
At the repeated sound of bad words, Yorgo giggled. Luigi laughed then, infected with the boy's mirth, exposing yellow teeth and a big tongue. And this made Yorgo giggle even harder. This always happened.
"Come inside. Come inside, my boy. You are the best boy in all of Corfu, that's what you are!"
Yorgo followed Luigi inside Troubeta's Inn. He remembered when old Troubeta was still running the place and renting rooms to tourists from England and America. They all used to walk down the beach as a group, undress as a group and swim around as a group in a small area, as if the sea wasn't big enough. When the occupation started, the Italians took the place from Troubeta and turned it into a barracks, as they did with several buildings in the village. At least, Yorgo thought, the Italian soldiers went to the beach whenever each one of them could, and they swam wherever they fancied. Freely.
"Here, what you want today?"
"Some flour, siniore Luigi."
"Flour again? Flour, flour, flour! Come downstairs. I'll give you some flour."
Yorgo enjoyed being in that cellar. There were so many things to eat down there -- stacks and stacks of cans of ham, beans, pasta in tomato sauce, oblong cans of sardines and tuna and octopus in oil and vinegar, a barrel full of butter, fat bottles of wine, ouzo, olive oil, orange juice, massive sacks of potatoes, and of course, flour. Flour to make bread and pancakes with, so useful for padding out whatever edible his older brother could afford to buy.
"We'll take this," the soldier said, and grabbed a sack of flour. "Put it down. I'll carry it upstairs for you. We'll take these, too. Empty your bag, set the birds over there. That a boy. Here, we'll take these, too." And he stuffed four cans of ham into Yorgo's bag.
"Grazie, siniore Luigi," Yorgo said.
"Best boy in all of Corfu," Luigi smiled, and kissed the boy's forehead with his great big mouth.
Yorgo was thinking about football. He was picturing Niko Youtso dribbling his way through three, four, five defenders, and then firing a magnificent shot past the goalkeeper and into the back of the net. Thousands of people jumped up and cheered. He had read it all in the newspaper which Mario had stolen from Metalino's shop. He had seen the photographs: Youtso ecstatic with his fists up in the air; in the background, team-mates rushing to congratulate him, and the opposition's goalkeeper with his head bowed. The article talked about next week's fixtures being suspended because of the situation north of Athens, were the Greek military was bravely fighting off German invaders. But that was less important. What was important was that magnificent shot, the ball deep inside the goal, the crowd in ruptures.
"Your father's glass is empty." Grigori's voice broke the boy's trance.
"I'm sorry," Yorgo apologized, and served.
"Not too much, now, son," said Vassili.
"Here you are, father. I only poured half a glass."
"You're a good boy."
"Yes, a good boy," mumbled Grigori, still displeased with his younger brother's inattentiveness "but he doesn't go to school." He said this chewing a large piece of ham.
"I go to school. I just didn't go today."
"And why not? Eh? You've got to finish school, then go off to town to go to high school. Isn't that what we agreed? What do you think I'm doing carrying bags of cement all day, so that I become a weight-lifter? I'm saving you money to go to high school."
"I had to hunt for birds."
"You hunt for birds at dawn. School starts at eight. You could have gone. And anyway, enough with the birds business. Who said we need the Italians' charity, anyway? Did I ever let you go hungry? Eh?"
"Grigori," Vassili intervened. "You yell at the boy too much. Do not yell. Yorgo, no more missing school. You listen to what your brother says. He is right." All of this was spoken softly, with a smile. It was the only way Vassili ever spoke, like a wise old man, like someone who has seen everything war brings and now needs to see no more.
"Yes, father," said Yorgo.
He reached out for his wine glass, tentatively. Blinded by a bomb shell two years ago, he could only find things if they were always left exactly in the same place in relation to his place at the table. This time his younger son was paying attention. Noiselessly, he pushed the wine glass a couple of inches to the left, so that his father's hand would meet with it.
Some old socks worked into a ball served as a football, and the village kids played in the main square, outside the church. Autumn leaves were covering the ground, and as evening drew in a cool breeze blew across the village hill. The adult men that would sit around the wooden tables outside Metalino's shop sipping brandy were getting fewer and fewer by the day; most of them sat indoors now. But to the boys, running, jumping, colliding with each other, such changes in temperature were imperceptible.
Yorgo tried to hit the sock-ball towards Mario. Had this pass been successful, his team-mate would have found himself with only Stamati, the opposition's goalkeeper, to beat. But Yorgo kicked hurriedly, clumsily, and the ball flew to a totally different direction to the one he had intended. It landed on one of the wooden tables, where Metalino himself and Father Andreas, the village priest, had been sitting. It knocked their glasses and the bottle of brandy to the ground, smashing it, sending its contents splashing on the stone pavement, but also on Father Andreas' gown.
The game stopped.
"The devil take you lot of no-good brats," shouted Metalino. He was a short, stout man, with thin grey hair parted in the middle, and an almost-white moustache. His narrow brown eyes always looked angry; but then, so did the eyes of many adults in the village.
"Which one of you brats kicked this thing over here? Eh? Haven't I told you a million times not to play here? What if you had broken my window? Who would pay for it then?"
"Metalino, sit down," intervened Father Andreas, while he was still wiping brandy off his beard. "Sit down, now. Let's get another bottle. Little harm done."
"I said, which one of you mongrels kicked this thing over here," repeated Metalino. He was standing among the boys now, who all seemed transfixed, unable to move, aware of a sudden crisis they had no idea how to deal with.
Yorgo was behind the angry man. He wanted to make a run for it, leaving the other boys to deal with the trouble. Hurry home for his dinner. But he knew that if he did that, the boys would call him a coward. Maybe his brother would think that, too. Even his father.
"I did, sir."
Metalino turned. He grabbed Yorgo's chin and made the boy look him in the eyes.
"You did, eh?"
"Metalino, for shame! Leave the boy alone," the priest called out.
"You useless, scrawny thing," continued Metalino, "do you think just because you are a little collaborator scum and the Italians give your family food you can do anything you want and get away with it?"
He raised his hand and brought it on Yorgo's face with all his strength. The sound of the slap bounced against the walls of the buildings surrounding the square and the hillside beyond it. It echoed there, twice, until the next autumn breeze carried it away.
The adults who had been sitting indoors were outside now, looking at the unfolding events muttering words of disapproval. "For shame, Metalino, you no-good bully," shouted the priest, and walked over to assist the boy back to his feet.
Yorgo's nose was bleeding, and his left ear sent strange sounds to his brain, loud, pulsating sounds, screaming sounds, unfair, ugly, cruel sounds. He wished he had his own crowd of fans, like Youtso did. They wouldn't have let this happen. No, they wouldn't have let the war itself happen. They would have stopped the Italians from ever occupying the island; they would have stopped the Germans from advancing on Athens. The league matches would have taken place as scheduled.
"Now the boy goes home to his brother, Metalino," said the priest, holding Yorgo up. "His brother sees him like this, what do you think happens? He'll come find you and beat the life out of you."
"No need for that," shouted a voice from the opposite corner of the square.
Luigi and another soldier had been on patrol, and witnessed it all. They too had stood transfixed at the unexpected violence until now.
The villagers froze. A complete, eerie silence fell. Luigi started walking towards Metalino, the priest and the boy. The other boys and some men disappeared into the narrow streets around the square. Even the sun, it seemed, was in a rush to hide behind the hill and end his watch, let night fall swiftly.
Luigi grabbed Metalino's shirt collar and dragged him across the square; he threw him onto the chair on which he had been sitting and stood above him.
"I'm sorry, sir," muttered Metalino, terrified.
"Saint Spyridon help us all, leave it, young man!" shouted the priest. Yorgo wished Saint Spyridon would listen to the priest's plea and stop Luigi from hurting Metalino. Despite the sounds that were still howling inside his ear, despite the blood he kept running down his throat from his broken nose, he managed to pray. He prayed to Saint Spyridon he wouldn't let Luigi harm one of his fellow villagers. Then, when he saw Luigi pulling his machine gun from his back and smashing its back against Metalino's face, twice, three times, until the small fat man was on the ground, unconscious, drenched in his own blood -- then Yorgo prayed to Saint Spyridon that he would just turn time back.
He prayed for a chance to kick the ball again. He would kick it straight to Mario this time. No mistakes.
The priest walked Yorgo back home. He spoke to his brother and his father in the yard while the boy sat on his bed, a thick, bloody piece of cotton blocking his left nostril, that horrible sound still in his left ear, the swelling in his face burning him. But even more painful to him was the image of Luigi smashing Metalino in the face with all his might. The sudden and extreme violence kept playing itself out in the boy's mind no matter how hard he tried not to remember it. And each time he saw Luigi's weapon landing on his fellow villager's face, he understood that he wouldn't be able to take birds to him any longer.
"Where's my beloved boy?"
His father had come through the door without Yorgo hearing him or seeing him. He stood and took his hand.
"I'm here, father."
"Let's sit down together for a while. How's your nose?"
"It's fine. It hurts a little."
"When I go back inside, I'll tell Grigori to come clean it up some more for you."
Vassili shifted closer to his son, and put his hand on the boy's knee. "We're going to have to keep our heads down for a while. You understand this, don't you?"
Yorgo nodded, trying to suppress a sob that had been welling up for a few seconds. "Yes, father."
"I want to tell you something, son. And I want you to listen very carefully now. I want you to clear your head of all other thoughts, if you can, and hear only what I'm telling you. And understand it."
Yorgo breathed deeply. Tears were now running down his cheeks, and he let them. If he moved his hand to wipe them his father would feel it, and then he would know. He didn't want him to know.
"It wasn't your fault, Yorgo. None of it."
But now the sob could not be controlled any longer. It came out in three successive gasps.
"It wasn't your fault," his father repeated.
The abundant tears dislodged the bloody cotton and it fell on the floor. The boy turned and looked at his father, who had set his dead eyes on the opposite wall, and his mouth set in a gentle, quiet smile, as always.
Later, Yorgo twisted and turned in his bed. When his father had urged him to pay attention to what he had to say, the boy had hoped he would receive an explanation about why Luigi had hurt Metalino so badly. With this lacking, he made several guesses of his own. Perhaps Luigi was drunk. Perhaps he had just got some bad news from home back in Italy. Maybe his girlfriend had written to him to tell him she was leaving him. Or it could be that he had a bone of his own to pick with Metalino, something that had happened between them in the past that Yorgo did not know about.
Whatever the explanation was, however, Yorgo found it hard to understand what his father had said. How can it not be my fault, he thought. I kicked the ball all wrong. If only I hadn't.
When dawn finally approached he tried to catch that moment again, the moment when darkness turns into light, without success.
"Yorgo," said Grigori, "stop sitting there like a fool. Bone a bird for your father."
"Don't yell at the boy so much, Grigori," said Vassili. "He will bone a bird for me. There is no rush."
"I'm sorry father," apologised the elder son. "I just don't know what he sits there thinking about all the time."
Yorgo used his fingers to peel the breasts off the quail's skeleton and set them on his father's plate. As long as he was back home before the morning patrol at seven, he could go hunting as much as he liked these days. The Italians had gone and the Germans had replaced them. The Germans didn't speak to the locals like the Italians used to. They were the occupiers, and Yorgo and his family and all the other Greeks in the village were the occupied. The Germans patrolled the village in groups of four, in impeccable uniforms, in boots you could hear hitting the ground from a long distance. When Yorgo had tried to offer his birds to a German soldier, he kicked him in the arse and shouted at him. Things were clear-cut now. Disciplined.
Some folk in the village said that when the Germans came they took the Italians and they put them on fishing boats and drowned them in the sea. Yorgo thought that was nonsense. Maybe they could have done that to some of the smaller Italian soldiers, but not to all of them. Certainly not to Luigi. They wouldn't even have dared go near Luigi aiming to hurt him. No, Luigi was back in Italy now, and he probably had his girlfriend back. He thought of her as a beautiful long-haired girl who went to bed with him at night and he told her stories about his time in Greece, and about the boy who used to bring him quail. And the girlfriend would say, why don't you write him a letter? And Luigi would write a letter soon, and tell Yorgo all of his news.
"When will the school open again, Grigori?" asked Yorgo.
"Oh, now you miss school? When you could have gone you didn't."
"But when will it open again? Do you know?"
Grigori put his fork down and looked at the boy. He smiled. When Grigori smiled he was the spitting image of Vassili, and Yorgo noticed that. When Grigori smiled, Yorgo sometimes thought he had two fathers, not one.
"Didn't I tell you already? The English ships are in Albania and the Russians have kicked the arse of Hitler's troops. It's a matter of days. Pour some wine for your father."
Yorgo filled his father's glass, and pushed it quietly towards the location where he knew his father would look for it. The English would be here soon. The schools would open again.
"Thank you, my boy," said Vassili. "The worst is past, son. The worst is past."
The worst was past. And as long as Luigi would write soon and tell him his news, everything would be alright, he thought. Especially if Luigi mentioned somewhere that he doesn't blame him for the way their friendship ended, and that he still thought he was the best boy in all of Corfu, and that he was sorry for hitting Metalino so hard but he had been drinking a bit too much that evening. If that happened, Yorgo thought, it would make things clear. It would prove that friendships can survive all sorts of hardships, even war itself.
The sound of German boots stomping on the cobble stone was heard from outside.
"Hear them donkeys, little brother? Now you remember this, this is new-fashioned Third Reich technology. Donkeys in helmets can learn to goose-step all at the same time. It's scientific. Really something."
The boy giggled, and the older men could not help but follow suit. Only Luigi's letter was missing to make everything alright again. And in his heart, Yorgo knew it would come soon.