Forgotten Heroes

The old man raises his hand. His lips are moving as if he wants to smile, but doesn’t know how.

Back then he would have known. Back then when he was young and standing on the quay, his black hair tousled by the wind, his rough fists firmly closed around the thick cables of his fishing boat. In that time his smile was bold and free, reflecting a tempting charm. When he moored his boat, you could see the girls appear from the dusty cottages in the village. In small giggling groups they paraded on the harbor jetty, their heads averted shyly, but their dark eyes stealing glances at the handsome sailor, whose charming laugh invaded their restless dreams during the night.

There, at that small rickety table in the old taverna, he drank his tsipouro, boasting about mountainous waves and masts that snapped like twigs in deafening storms. In the harsh neon lights he lustily sang the songs of his country, accompanied by the music of his ivory inlaid bouzouki. But later, when the night counted only a handful of comrades, he danced between the pieces of the broken plates on the two square meters in front of the table, his eyes lowered to the ground, the images of other handsome sailors haunting his mind; their death screams still ringing in his ears. Sometimes, through the hazy fog that dominates his life now, he sees himself hiding in the mountains behind the village; hears the sounds of droning airplanes; feels the cold that slowly numbed his defenceless body lying in the darkened caves, waiting to hear the merciless bombs fall. He survived. He did…

In the following years he watched the tides that changed his country, propelled by a regime that was not his. At the small table in the taverna songs were still sung. Other songs, other words. He sang along, although not lustily. He had no choice. Too much suspicion, too much whispering in dark corners, too many new graves at the cemetery of the village. At night he sailed, his boat filled with innocent nets, his fists firmly closed around the helm. From the harbor jetty they saw him leave, his smile bold and still charming. But in the pantry, in the small space under the wooden benches, it smelled of human sweat, of fear and sorrow. It was a miracle they never caught him. So many trips, so many desperate people hoping for a better life far away from their country.

How different his life would have been if he himself had left in those days too, leaving behind this shabby and bedraggled village, exchanging it for a life between skyscrapers and subways. Would he have been happier there? Oh, he had seriously thought about it, had pictured himself already in a city he only knew from photographs and stories. But then fate sent Eleni to his village. One look at her and he had stayed, forgetting the skyscrapers, enchanted by the sweet taste of an overpowering love. Ah, Eleni, Eleni! Beautiful Eleni with her raven black hair and fierce dark eyes…

The old man still sees her as she was back then. As he has seen her for the last ten years, since the day she slipped away from him in their narrow handmade marriage bed, her beautiful face destroyed by sickness and age. Hers is the only clear picture in the hazy clouds of his mind. Every night, when he stretches his stiff limbs in his lonely bed, it is she who visits him, she who warms his deformed old bones with her tender and eternal young body. It will not be long now before they will be together again. Of this everyone in the village is convinced. Every afternoon the women in turns bring him a hot meal, which he obediently eats. At night their husbands drink a tsipouro with him at the small rickety table in the taverna. With his eyes closed he listens to the songs they sing, his rigid fingers caressing the strings of an invisible bouzouki.

Sometimes, when the night counts only a few men, he stands from behind his little table and dances an almost forgotten zeibekiko, his head bowed, his mind focused on past times. Then the young men kneel in a circle around him and clap their hands in an encouraging rhythm.

The old man raises his hand. His lips are moving as if he knows he has to smile. He just doesn’t know how.

©W.H. 2012