The Seagulls

The little island north of Lesbos, between Petra and Molyvos, is bare and deserted. It doesn’t have a name, and the fishermen who work on those seas simply call it ‘the island’. It does not have a single tree, only a few bushes. Three miles out, the mountains of Lesbos comprise a serene harmony of lines, movement, and colour. Next to that extravagance, the bare island with its austere line appears even more remote. As though god forgot it when he made land and seas in the first seven days of the world.

But from this bare strip of land, in summer you can see the sun fall into the endless sea. Then the colours paint the waters and change, every minute, as if melting in the gentle waves. When the evenings are clear, you can make the mountains of Athos rise out of the sea and, gently, fade away with the coming night. That’s when uncle¹ Dimitri, the lone resident of the island, will do the last thing that connects him to humanity, and life: he will light the lamp at the lighthouse. The lamp will flash, fade, again, again, at the same interval, austerely and inevitably, like the dark forces of life, the fate of man, death.

The old lighthouse keeper pulled the boat onto the sand. He secured it, in case the weather turned and the water rose. He gave it a final glance, before heading towards the lighthouse.

“So this trip’s done”, he says quietly.

He says this to himself and keeps silent. This trip, to the shore across, takes place once a month. He goes for his supplies, the flour, the oil, and his chores. In the beginning, he would spend² all day in the village. He would talk with old friends, learn the news about the country, and the world, whether men were at war or had peace.

The customs officer would give him his wages.

“Well then, see you next month, God willing, uncle Dimitri”.

The old man would shake his head and thank him.

“God willing, if we’re alive, lad³” he would say in response.

He would pass the rest of the time before returning to his village by climbing up to pray at Panagia’s little church⁴, on the rock with the hundred steps. He would cross his hands in front of the old picture, lower his head, and pray for his two boys who were lost in the Catastrophe⁵ in the East, for other people, and finally for himself.

“If they are alive, protect them” he would plead for his children. “Guard them from anger and the evil eye. Guard them from the knife…”

He would murmur the Rejoicings⁶, any other prayer he knew, and his aged legs would shake.

“As for me, it’s time I rest….” he would say and his eyes would well up.

He would descend the hundred steps, always with a lighter heart. At the street, he would stop and look at the children playing. They all knew him, and when they saw him, they would start calling at him:

“Uncle Dimitri! Uncle Dimitri!”

He would buy them chestnuts, and they would shout, happily,

“Come back again soon, uncle! Soon!”

That’s how it went, every trip, every time. But as the years went by, he grew unaccustomed to people. The wilderness took hold in him, absorbed him day by day, as if depositing in his existence her terrible power. He started spending as little time as possible in the village. He stopped climbing up to the church.

“Forgive me, because I can’t anymore” he would tell god, as if he were at fault. “I can pray from anywhere, so you can see how weak I am”.

And when he would return to his island after each trip, he would stay up late at night, under the stars, and he would pray.

He stopped asking for news, what was going on in the world. He didn’t know anything. The world grew narrower around the desert island, and would close around the deep sea and the colours as the sun set.

The last few companions with whom he’d trade a word or two were the fishermen, who would occasionally find shelter on his island. They would stay on the beach where the waves broke, and would talk about their troubles and their fate. Often they would spend the entire night there. Then, during the long hours before daybreak, when everything else had been said, the time would come for his two children.

“Who knows” the fishermen would say. “They may be alive, and come back, uncle Dimitri. Just like your seagulls, who came back.”

He wouldn’t respond, wouldn’t move. His kind eyes kept staring at the depth of the night.

“Yes, uncle Dimitri; like your seagulls. Perhaps they will return like them. Do not despair.”

And the fishermen would grasp this opportunity to turn the conversation to the old man’s seagulls.

“Really,” they would say, “how did you manage to tame them, uncle Dimitri? Whoever heard of tame seagulls…”

“That’s how it goes, lads…” he would murmur. “Everything becomes tame here. Only man…”

They would ask to hear again the story of the seagulls, even though they knew it, like everyone who lived on the shore across knew it: he had found two little seagulls, featherless still, in holes in the rocks. It was winter, he took pity on them, and carried them to his hut by the lighthouse. He kept them and raised them, feeding them the little fish he caught in his net. One day he thought to give them names.

“So, we will call you…”

At that serene moment, two faces would float in his memories, in his heart, from when they were little and he would call them.

“So, we will call you Vassilaki,” he told one bird, “and you, we will call Argyri”.

And so since then he started calling them by the names of his children. And the birds slowly-slowly became used to them.

When they grew and spring came, one morning he thought it was a sin to keep the birds in cages. He decided to free them. He opened the large bamboo cage, and grabbed one bird first. He held it in his two hands, petted it. He felt his heart very light.

“Go on then, Vassili!” he told the bird, and opened his hands to let it go.

The bird flew away.

He took out the other one, petted it like the first, and let it go too. Everything was calm that day, and the night that fell was calm also. Only, now he felt even more alone.

That evening he went to bed early, when he heard faint taps on the hut’s small window. He approached it and looked. He couldn’t believe it. He jumped with joy as if it were his children coming home. He opened the door to let in the seagulls.

That’s how it went from then on. The birds left in the morning, flying to the shores of the East, and would return in the evening. They joined a flock⁷ and they would often fly over the island. If they were flying low, the old man could identify them by the ash marks under their wings. And when he took his boat out, they would fly near him and squawk over him. The fishermen around there knew them too, and would shout at them, laughing,

“Hey, Vassili! Hey, Argyri!”

So the days went by on the desert island. Day by day, the one that came, the one to come. An uninterrupted sequence of days and nights that had nothing to wait for other than death.

One summer night, something unusual happened: the seagulls did not return. Nor did they return the next day, nor the next night…

“Perhaps they travelled far,” the old man thought, to subdue his worry.

The next day, as was his habit, he sat on the balcony of the lighthouse. He looked at the sea. At one point, it seemed to him that the sea was splitting, a mile away from the island, as if dolphins were playing. He often saw dolphins swim out at sea. He would watch them move slowly out of the water, then back in.

“It must be dolphins,” he said.

But after a while, he saw clearly it was not dolphins.

“It’s people” he said surprised.

He walked to the beach and waited. After a while, he saw it was a boy and a girl. They swam side by side, with slow, certain moves. The gentle waves closed over the wake they made.

“What could they want?” he wondered. He could not remember people swimming there before. And he couldn’t see a boat from which they could have dived.

After a short time they arrived. Two wet bodies shaking the sea off them. The boy looks at the girl in the eyes and stretches his arms high.

“Ah” he says, taking a deep breath. “That was good!”

The girl makes the same move, slower:

“That was good!”

Then they ran to the lighthouse keeper.

“Are you uncle Dimitri?” the boy says.

He stood with the head low, shy, opposite the naked body of the girl that shone under the red sun.

“It’s me⁷,” he says, shaken. “Did anything happen to you?”

“Oh no,” the boy says quickly. “My friend and I decided to make this trip yesterday, and here we are.”

“From where?” the old man asks, confused.

“But, from across, from Petra.”

Uncle Dimitri does not know what to say, he just mumbles that he cannot remember strangers coming this way before.

They started walking up to the lighthouse.

He walked ahead and the youths⁸ followed after. They couldn’t be over eighteen — nineteen years old. And he walked ahead and the years weighed down his shoulders, as though holding him responsible for not letting them rest.

They sat on the balcony of the lighthouse. In front of them, the Aegean was still and the shun shone on it.

“Where are you from?” asked the old man.

“We are studying in Athens,” the girl said. “I am studying chemistry, and my friend is at the Polytechnic”.

“Ah, really!..” mumbles the old man, without comprehending.

“Have you ever been to Athens, grandpa⁹?” asks the girl.

“No,” he says. “Never!”

“Would you like to?”

His voice is soft, barely audible.

“No, child. It’s too late now.”

“You must be very lonely here grandpa.”

“I’m very lonely, child.”

They fell silent. Some time passed. Up above a flock of seagulls flew by. The old man stands up and goes to his hut to bring them sweets¹⁰. From his small window he can see the two youths lying there. Sea drops are still shaking on their bodies and on their faces. The sun has baked them mercilessly, they are there like two bronze statues washed ashore by the sea — a deity of health and a deity of youth. The black hair of the girl falls on her shoulders, and in her large black eyes a light shines. The boy sits up and bends over that face blessed by the deep light. He looks at it as if drugged, and then reaches out to caress it.

“Chryssoula…” he murmus her name, his lips trembling with emotion.

The large black eyes are raised. They linger for a moment, focused on the boy’s face. And then she twists her arms around his head and kisses him passionately.

Like this, everything is calm and serene on the little island at that sacred hour. Like this, everything is calm and serene in the heart of the old man. He is flooded, this summer morning, he is teary. This unexpected tenderness came to disturb his solitude, the still water…

“Grandpa, should we join you inside?” the girl shouts from outside.

“I’m coming, I’m coming” he says, shaken.

He brought them sweets, almonds, cold water.

“I don’t have anything else…” he mumbles, as if asking for forgiveness.

“Sit, sit grandpa!” the girl grabs his hand, so that he sits next to her.

He sat.

“Come back tomorrow” he says timidly. “I will fish for you tonight.”

“Tomorrow we’re leaving” the girl replies with sadness. “Pity; we’ve been here all these days, and did not come before. Are you always alone like this, grandpa?”

“Always, child.”

“Ah, I understand now what the seagulls were…” the boy mumbles.

“Yes child, that’s it! The wilderness…”

“… You have to forgive them grandpa,” the boy says again after a while. “Had they known, they would never have done it.”

The old man does not understand. He is confused.

“Who are you talking about child?”

“Them, who killed your seagulls I mean, uncle Dimitri. They are friends of ours.”

He feels his knees shaking, his heart beating.

“They killed them?” he asks with a soft voice.

“Oh… you did not know?..”

The boy bites his lips but it’s too late. He tells him how it happened: how the group went hunting; how they went to the beach; two seagulls left the flock and flew low, and their friend fired. And then some fishermen nearby recognised the ash wings.

The old man is listening, listening — it’s nothing, they were two seagulls…

“They didn’t know grandpa…” the girl says with emotion, touched by the silent sadness she sees in the old face. “They didn’t know…”

And he nods his head slowly, assenting:

“Yes, yes, child… they wouldn’t know…”

Some time went by.

“We have to go” the boy says. The girl stands up.

“Let’s go.”

They walk ahead, the old man walks behind them. They reached the beach.

“Goodbye grandpa” the girl says first.

She grabs his hand and bends to kiss it. And he caresses her long hair.

“God bless you” he mumbles with emotion.

They left… He watches for a long time the wake the bodies make on the sea. Until everything fades from his eyes. And the sea is always bare and endless.

It is night. He has sat at the balcony and the hours are passing by. Everything passes by his misty eyes: his childhood, his children that he raised and that were lost, the men who hurt him. Everything passes and everything fades. And the two youths who kissed here at this place, a few hours ago. And a flock of seagulls that are flying high. Two seagulls have ash wings. And they pass by and are lost. Nothing is to return.

He has lowered his head and the tears are dripping on the barren land. Over him the lamp of the lighthouse flashes, fades, again, again, at the same interval, austerely and inevitably, like the dark foces of life, the fate of man, death.

Discussion

A few months ago, I wrote about how I discovered I enjoy translating. I recently bought a collection of Greek short stories, and I plan to translate a few of them into English whenever I have some spare time.

(The collection itself is phenomenal. Both my grandparents and my parents have the same collection, and so I’ve read most of the stories in it before (though to my immense disappointment, I found out that the collection I bought is an updated edition, which lacks some of my favourites stories). As I will have cause to explain in subsequent posts, many of these stories offer fascinating insights into Greek life and values in the late 19th / early 20th centuries. As for the language… a translation cannot do it justice — I encourage my Greek friends to read the originals. They make you fall in love with the Greek language.)

Under each translation, I plan to write a short explanation on why I enjoyed the particular story, and make a few comments on the translation itself.

This story is written by Elias Venezis, and is I think relatively famous in Greece (I’m pretty sure I read it for school when I was younger). I chose to translate it because I love how emotive it is, how well it captures the old man’s feelings of despair, loneliness, and resignation (were this resignation more active, one might call the protagonist’s attitude ‘stoicism’). Reading it now for the first time after having children, I found it even more heartbreaking: the thought of losing one’s children (worse — not knowing what happened to them), and then losing the only thing that provided a measure of solace to that loss, is so incredibly sad and poignant.

I’m ambivalent on the language of the original (whose style, if I do say so myself, I think I’ve managed to transmit, besides the few issues I note in the comments on the translation, below). On one hand, its simplicity (somewhat elaborate similes aside) serves to make the emotions experienced by the old man the focal point of the story: the reader focuses on the old man, not the words on the page. On the other, the text is at times repetitive, and the jumbling of tenses (from past tense, to present, to past again) does not always seem to serve a purpose. Loved the use of ellipsis throughout the text though.

Notes on the translation

  1. The Greek here is ‘μπάρμπας’, which does literally mean ‘uncle’, but is also used as a term of endearment; unfortunately, English doesn’t really have a good equivalent.
  2. Using ‘would’ to suggest frequency is clunky, but it is unfortunately the best way to convey the right meaning. Past simple in English could be used to describe an action that took place once, or one that took place repeatedly, so it doesn’t work.
  3. The word used by the old man is ‘child’, and is the same he uses when talking to the students who visit his island. I’ve chosen to translate it here (and when he talks with the fishermen) as ‘lad’, as it feels more appropriate in English; in Greek, an old person can get away with referring to even adults as ‘children’, but in English that would be odd.
  4. I’ve used ‘Panagia’ instead of ‘Virgin Mary’, because I think using the English name would be incongruous. Similarly, I have chosen to use the declined versions of names (e.g. ‘Dimitri’ instead of ‘Dimitris’) for the same reason.
  5. The Greek name for the Greco-Turkish war of 1919–22 which ended with the population exchange between the two countries.
  6. A Byzantine prayer; somewhat inappropriate for a generic prayer— it was allagedly written to thank the Virgin Mary from saving Constantinople from the Avars.
  7. The correct sentence is ‘it is I’, but that looks too correct in English, few people say that these days. In Greek, the old man’s grammar is right, but people use the right grammar in every day speech, so it doesn’t look odd.
  8. The original is ‘children’, but again, in Greek you can use ‘children’ for young adults. It doesn’t work in English.
  9. The Greek is ‘παππούλη’, a diminutive of ‘grandfather’. It’s an affectionate term, kinda cutesy — English doesn’t have a good equivalent.
  10. ‘Γλυκό’, refers to spoon sweets, i.e. preserved fruits.