The Steadfast Tin Soldier

Again, today. They beat the little bastard black and blue. Plainclothes cops in ponytails and earrings they said–two to hold him down, four to beat him up. In Perama, over by the shipyards. They were holding a demo for a couple of the workers who had perished on an oil tanker and so he shows up, starts yelling their slogans and spray-painting the walls. What was he shouting for, what was he writing? What business did he have with shipping hammers and sandblasters? Little bastard. And it’s not like he’s some hard-ass party member or anything–them, they always go around in groups, covering their asses, they know the ropes well. But not ours…he’s a sucker, shows up by himself in rallies and marches and here I am running from hospital to the cops and back every single time, trying to save his sorry ass. They kicked him out of work and it’s been a month since he’s shown his face at home. What does he eat, where does he sleep? Where does he get the money? The little bastard. He’s gonna give us all a heart attack, that idiot, I swear. The little bastard.

You bloody moron, I tell him on the phone. Same old shit again. You never learn. Who the fuck do you think you are.

O, brave soldier, he replies. O, brave soldier, who shall from death preserve you.

Hans Christian Andersen, he says.

The Steadfast Tin Soldier.

Remember?

*

So here I am again, rushing to Perama in the middle of the night to bail him out, even though I’d said last time would be the last. Called up the Chief, said who I was. Come down and get him, he said; but the way he’s playing he’ll get his comeuppance one of these days, you tell him that. I said they beat him up something mean, sent him straight to the hospital. Wasn’t our boys, Mr. So-and-So, he said, it’s them anarchist communists, they kick each other around. What could I say to that wanker after that? I said nothing, I said thank you on top of that, much obliged, we hung up.

Kokinia, Keratsini, Amfiali: I’m driving down the streets, doors locked, windows closed. I was born and raised here but it’s been years since I’ve put these places out of my mind–I’m going flat out, no looks around–I was born and raised here but have no wish to remember a thing, the past is like an old wound, the more you scratch it, the more it flares up, it bleeds and stinks. Petrou Ralli Street, Laodikias, Salaminas: I run the red lights at full speed and the memories jump out at me on every corner, at every traffic light, like Ulysses’ sirens they wink at me, call me to stop. A kiss; a fag under the pouring rain; a friend you hugged once on a drunken night. My dad. He used to work on th╬┐se rotten boats, in Perama; he knew a thing or two about memories. Memories are like an ingrown nail, he used to say to us when we were young. Pain and death and everything in life is this, an ingrown nail in the flesh, you can cut it out but you can’t uproot it. If you want to go on living, that is.

My dad. He was killed at fifty-two in the ship’s hold, from fumes. My dad. He’s but a memory himself now, a nail grown deep into the flesh, turning it black.

*

Kokinia, Keratsini, Amfiali, at full speed. I had a bad dream again last night, knew trouble was brewing, been on the edge ever since. It was the two of us I saw, we were at this place, it had this huge plate glass separating us, and he was talking to me but I couldn’t hear him, he had his palms flat on the glass, was shouting something, but I couldn’t hear. I saw him shout, I saw the fogged imprints of his hands on the glass, I tried to find an opening, to get closer to him, but there was nothing to be found. And then he pulled out this spray can and started writing on the glass but I couldn’t read what it said, I shouted at him that I couldn’t read what it said, but he wasn’t listening and kept on filling up the glass with black letters that I couldn’t make out and then he looked at me through the glass and stopped writing and talking and just stood there, looking at me, his arms by his sides and his eyes filled with such sorrow, like nothing else, and then I saw myself taking my shirt off, wrapping it around my fist and starting to bang on the glass to break it, to get through to the other side, and it was as if I were banging against a brick wall and then I saw my shirt turn red and I started screaming–and that’s how I woke up, screaming, my hands in tights fists, thumping the bed, so startled I almost fell off it and broke my neck.

What was he shouting, what was he writing?

He’s going to give me a heart attack that boy, he is. No matter whether I’m asleep or awake.

*

Kokinia, Keratsini, Amfiali, at full speed, no looking around, just up front, and up ahead over the isle of Salamina it looks like rain, incessant lighting falling from the sky, blazing like uprooted trees and I’m thinking, he must have taken one hell of a beating today. All that crazy talk about Andersen and the tin soldier: he must have had the bashing of his life, on his head too, and I start shivering like nothing else and I feel my leg starting to tremble on the gas pedal and the car responds in fits and starts like it’s got hiccups and I wanna pull over to the right till I’m calmer but I know I’m late and I’m scared of what might happen if I run even later than this. And then, from the corner of my eye I see a three-legged dog bouncing down the pavement at the traffic light and I remember: I remember when we buried my dad and went back home, he made my mom and me sit down on the kitchen couch and came to us, hugged us, and said that we must learn to live like dogs do, on three legs, the three of us–he can’t have been more than twelve, a tiny bean of a child, unschooled in life, where had he learned to talk like that–and had all the kisses my mom rained on him that night been tears, they would have flooded the world, but in the end, he was right after all. We did learn to live like a three-legged dog; and ever since, my mom says keep your eye on the boy, your eye on the boy, don’t you dare not keep your eye on the boy.

Mind the boy.

*

He’s waiting for me outside the police station. I can tell his shadow from afar but up close, he’s unrecognizable. His head is like a soldier’s boot, a worker’s boot, full of bumps and cuts and bruises. He’s got a gauze stuck on his forehead and his lips are swollen; the sleeve of his shirt is torn all the way up his arm. He enters the car, sits still, says nothing. He doesn’t look at me. I look at his swollen lips and I remember. I remember. I remember this one time, so many years ago, when I took him to the dentist and he came out with lips as swollen as now and I said, what ‘appened to you then, did you and the doctor kill yourselves kissing, and though he couldn’t talk he smiled, and I saw that swollen smile and felt sad like nothing else, and so again tonight I get this sadness when I look at him, all battered, gauzes and rags and all, and I’m thinking, if I had the strength, I’d blow everything up to pieces–police station and shipyards and all, the entirety of Perama and Nikaia and Amfiali, I’d wipe them clean off the map.

I hand him a cigarette–he says they took his looking for dope–and we sit in the car and smoke, with the windows half down and it’s started to rain and we look at the rain trickling down the windscreen and

That’s it, I say. It’s over. You hear me? That’s it.

Alright, I hear ya, he says. Alright.

His voice sounds heavy and convoluted, as if his mouth were full of wads. He rolls down the window, throws his cigarette out, and stares at the lightning flashing over Salamis, like lit, uprooted trees. He’s got a stubble and he stinks of sweat and his hair looks like a huge, unkempt wig. Behold, I think. Behold the dog’s third leg. But families have no legs, families are not dogs. I don’t know what they are, snakes maybe, but dogs they ain’t. No way.

He looks at his hanging, torn sleeve, tries to put it together somehow but he sees there’s no use and gives up.

Let’s get out of here, he says. Let’s go. I wanna show you something.

I start the engine and pull off. The wipers are on the maximum but they can’t cope with the rain, the windscreen’s now little more than a turbulent cascade. We turn into the avenue and I keep to the right lane and we run into blackwater potholes and I curse the moment–your eye on the boy, my mom says, keep your eye on the boy, no dog lives on two legs–and I’m suddenly aware that I’ve no idea where we’re going, that there’s no place we can go to and I start again to tremble and I don’t know what to do.

Pull over, I hear him say. Here. Just a bit forward. Here.

I pull up. My leg’s trembling on the brake. He rolls his window down and points at something.

Look, he says. I did that. Look. What do you think?

On a tall brick wall I see a painted soldier, an old-fashioned type of soldier, with his red jacket and his blue pants. He’s got a single leg. He’s got a yellow belt, a tall black hat and a black musket strapped on his shoulder.

He exits the car, goes and stands in front of the wall, looks at the soldier, points at him. He’s already drenched to the bone; the gauze has come off his forehead and is hanging loose, like a torn piece of skin.

Yo, Picasso, ‘s cool, I shout at him. Nice. Come on in now. We’re off.

The tin soldier, he says. You remember he used to tell it to us when we were little? He knew no other fairy tales. He brought us up with it. Do you remember? Do you remember how sad his voice always was? O, brave soldier, who shall from death preserve you. You remember how his voice would break when he talked about the ballerina standing on one leg? And the soldier thought that she too had only one leg and he fell in love with her. And what love that was, the soldier’s for the ballerina! What a terrible thing it is, to long but not to have. Remember? Do you remember the part where the tin soldier finds his ballerina again and he’s on the brink of tin tears but he pulls himself together coz he’s a soldier and soldiers don’t cry? And he stays like that to the end. Commanding and strong and silent, staring forever ahead, with a gun on his shoulder. Till the end. Until he was burnt whole, leaving behind only his tiny, tin heart. Until then, he remained commanding and strong, with his gun on his shoulder. Till then. Do you remember? Do you remember?

He’s drenched, oozing water, as if the pores on his skin are weeping eyes. The rain has doubled in violence now, it’s pouring down with hate, like a punishment. Lightning lights up the sky. There’s a war waging up there tonight, a war between light and darkness. A war: the light is fighting its way into the world and someone’s fighting to drive it back out, to close all the chinks, to leave the world steeped in darkness.

My foot, like a pneumatic drill on the break.

Come in man, I shout. I’m off. Come in.

He looks at me and a swollen smile appears on his lips and then he stretches out his arms to the side, lifts his left leg, hops to find his balance and when he does he stands still, glues his arms to his sides and stands still, looking straight ahead in the dark.

In a thousand years, I hear him say. If the world still stands in a thousand years, what’s happening now may have turned into a fairy tale. Maybe they’ll tell their children about these bizarre human beings who used to live and die for a handful of money and the kids will listen open-mouthed, as if all this sounds incredible, extraordinary. In a thousand years. Who knows. Maybe today’s workers, today’s penniless will turn into the tin solders of the next millennium. Or the dragons and the witches of the next millennium. If the world still stands by then. And if there still are fairy tales. Who knows.

Get in, I shout–and I honk hard, for the sound to be heard over the thunder, and I step on the pedal and the leg trembles as if it weren’t my leg but someone else’s. Come, brother. Come in. Come in.

But he remains standing still, on one leg, in front of the wall and the image of the one-legged soldier, looking straight ahead into the dark with his eyes wide open; he stares at the dark and the rain falls on him, raindrops fall on him like bullets from the war in the skies, the war between light and darkness–and he keeps standing still, staring straight ahead into the darkness with his eyes wide open.

My brother, the steadfast tin soldier.

Unmoving, unspeaking, unarmed.

A incredible, extraordinary creature, a creature built for the fairy tales of the new millennium.

Bios

Christos Ikonomou

Christos Ikonomou was born in Athens in 1970. He has published two collections of short stories: Woman on the Rails (Ellinika Grammata, 2003), and Something Will Happen, You’ll See (Polis, 2010), which won the prestigious Best Short Story Collection State Award and was the most-reviewed Greek book of 2011. A story from his second collection will appear in Issue 23 of Hamish Hamilton’s literary magazine Five Dials.

Krystalli Glyniadakis

Krystalli Glyniadakis (b. 1979) is a writer and poet who hails from Athens, Istanbul, and Oslo and works in Greek, Norwegian, and English. She has studied philosophy, theology, and political theory at the London School of Economics and King's College London, and is currently putting the final touches on her second collection of poetry, entitled Urban Ruins. You can find some of her poetry online at 3:AM Magazine and the Spring 2012 issue of Poetry Review.

Something Will Happen, You'll See. Copyright (c) Christos Ikonomou and Polis Publishers, 2010. English translation copyright (c) Krystalli Glyniadakis, 2012.