“It’s a Girl” by Sozou-Kyrkou Konstantina

I was ten and I remember well that tepid April morning. Mana and I were sitting at an iron bench in the shade of a bitter-orange tree, in the graveled hospital yard, waiting for Pateras to take me back to the village. He’d gone to the shops to buy some stuff for home. Sparrows and a blackbird were fluttering their wings above our heads, pegging their wiry toes to the twigs, chirping garrulously like some kids’ noisy whistles, the blackbird’s insistent song making a loud and clear statement. The air was perfumed with bitter-orange bloom and freshly-cut grass.

Mana had just bought me a packet of my favourite cards with colour pictures of celebrities on them and gum inside, from the kiosk just outside the hospital gate. She gave it to me, sniffing and wiping her tears away. I’d asked her why she was crying but all she did was whisper a ‘nothing’ and swallow hard. I thought she might have still been in pain because of the labour so I tore up the packet and offered her half the stick. The doctor’d said she’d have to stay at hospital for a few more days so that they could be sure everything was alright with the baby. It vomited often and that worried them a bit.

‘No, you can have it all, my girl,’ she said, the last two words sounding fatalistically sad. I mouthed the gum and felt the grainy, sugary saliva fill up my mouth, catch at my throat. Then riffled through the three cards. Bad luck. Rita Hayworth, Brigitte Bardot and Nadia Comaneci. Those three were already a part of my collection. I’d have to exchange them with Stelios. He owned a huge pile of cards the width of the bible. He had taken to counting, fingering and straightening them again and again, placing them in order of preference. Pele in his yellow T-shirt, number 10 glowing against his chest was always and indisputably on top of his list. Because of too much use, the cards were dog-eared and smelt of damp cardboard and cheap paint. We usually bought them from barba Pavlos’s grocery store, a packet a drachma. Roaming the Akarnanika mountains for asparagus in spring and oregano in summer, Stelios brought bunches of them to my house. The skin on his arms and hands was scratched and bloodied from the stubbornly unyielding brambles and the thorny leaves he had to part in order to pluck his find. Pateras gave him some drachmas in exchange and Stelios invested them all in cards. His parents could not spare him any pocket money and it always startled me how he’d never held a grudge about it. He kept the cards out of sight though, when his pateras, barba Kyriakos was at home because he’d said they were for sissies only, not proper boys.

Soon the sweetness of the gum waned and I spat it over a bush of holly, on the left of the bench. Then mana and I walked to the parking area of the hospital on the north side of the building. Pateras was waiting for us in his blue pickup truck. I hopped into the warm cab and mana closed the door, flicking a sad look at him. He avoided eye contact and started the engine right away, the car bouncing off into the highway and out of the city of Preveza before I even had the time to wave her goodbye.

When we arrived at our village an hour later we found yiayia in the kitchen, cooking. The waft of lemony yiouvarlakia misted our faces as soon as we sat at the table and she filled our plates.

‘Is she alright?’ asked yiayia.

‘Who? Yiota?’

‘No, the baby… and Yiota. Are they ok?’

‘Yes, they’re fine,’ he said and clinked his spoon against the plate. Pateras used to chat with us during lunch and often smacked his lips with contentment. When meal was over, he always crossed himself three times and purred in a satisfying way saying: ‘Thank the Lord!’

On that particular day he was different. He crossed himself uneasily and as fast as if he was playing the bouzouki and left the table with a groan. I saw yiayia’s anxious look following him to his bedroom door. Her dark, dense eyebrows met in an upside down, crinkled V. I felt there was something wrong but couldn’t tell what.

When pateras woke up from his siesta yiayia went into his room and closed the door behind her. I stuck my ear to the door.

‘Don’t worry, son. You can try again. Maybe the next one…’

‘Never, never again!’ pateras roared.

‘It was God’s will…’ I didn’t hear more as Stelios suddenly popped out from behind me and said loudly,

‘What are you doing here?’

‘Shh!’ I clamped his lips with my palm and pushed him out into the yard thinking that there was something wrong with the baby. Maybe she was ill or even dead.

Stelios and I sat cross-legged on the woolen cushions in the middle of the concrete yard. I showed him my new cards and we kicked off with the bargain. I soon forgot all about the baby.

When mana and my baby sister came home five days later I thought I was beginning to catch the drift of everybody’s dismay. The tiny creature kept crying day and night and never let anybody have a wink of sleep. Permanently glued onto mana’s lap and impossible to pacify, she drove everyone crazy. And when she finally fell asleep, mana instantly dozed off herself.

Thea Chrysanthi, Stelios’s mana, came home one day and sat with my mana at the wicker chairs in the yard, in the shade of the vine.

‘Why doesn’t God give us one, eh, why?’ mana said through sobs. ‘Where have we gone wrong?’

‘There’s nothing wrong, my Yiota,’ thea Chrysanthi said. ‘So what if they’re girls and not boys? I’ve got boys. Where’s the benefit? Shaking the house to pieces every day, worthless little scum! Your girls will help you out with the house chores, look after you when you’re ill, will be tender and compassionate… ‘ She went on enumerating the advantages of having girls instead of boys.

‘Boys like yours are rare. If I had a son like Stelios…’ mana wagged her head wistfully and started to whine again. So, that was wrong with the baby, I thought… It was a girl.

Pateras always said – and mana agreed- that a boy would have his surname – maintaining thus continuity in the kin, be the heir who’d take over the business of managing the land, the flock of sheep and one day would be in charge of everything pateras was dealing with now. A girl could only have her husband’s – a stranger’s – last name and, of course, would be devoid of the skills or the strength – physical or mental – to stand in for her pateras when he retired.

I was thinking of the baby. As if she knew she had a serious reason for cracking her throat like that. What kind of world had they brought her into? ‘Inferiority’ and ‘misfortune’ were the diseases she and I seemed to have contracted the moment we were born.

One morning we heard pateras’s pickup truck rev while he was pulling up on the road just outside our front garden. He called for me and yiayia to go and help him and we saw Stelios barrel down the road from his house, coming to our aid. The body of the truck smelt fresh like a forest as it was piled with branches of holly oak, olive tree and Greek strawberry trees pateras had cut down in the scrub and the thicket by the river. Mana and yiayia would burn the twigs to light the outdoor oven and bake special bread for Easter with sesame and the sign of the cross stamped on the top crust.

We helped him unload the car while he was throwing the branches onto the side of the road for us to drag into our back garden. They weren’t heavy, just unwieldy. Our hands caught and scraped on the stiff twigs, which stung like needles. We had to get a good grip of the limb, which was smoother, and lessen thus the resistance of the branch against the ground. They charged the air with dust anyway, making us cough.

Stelios, two years my senior, always outran me, unflaggingly energetic and in good shape. He used to whistle the tune of a folk song, which seemed to mesmerize the branches into action, make them glide in his stride; follow him willingly to the garden.

Pateras got all sweaty and out of breath, red patches blotching his face. He leaned against the wall that enclosed our front garden to rest and, wanting to be of use to him, I clambered onto the truck. I was flinging a last branch onto the road when I suddenly tripped over and, without realizing it, I found myself prostrate onto the dirt road, nose bloody, knees torn.

‘What are you doing, stupid girl? Who told you I need your help? Get up!’ pateras pulled me up by the arm and whacked my back. ‘Go home! You should’ve let Stelios do it. You can’t do anything right,’ he scowled. I stumbled home and locked myself in my room. I felt heart-scalded and what hurt the most were his words and not my wounds. According to him I was incompetent, useless while Stelios was the efficient one, capable of everything. But, of course, he was a boy and I a girl. How could I compare favourably against him? After all, as our teacher had told us once, it was Eve who was created out of a piece of Adam’s shoulder and not the other way round. How could I dispute God?

Stelios was always eager to follow pateras’s orders and he was a big help at the fields too. In winter, he picked olives more quickly than everybody else, his adept fingers scrutinizing the frosty grass and dead leaves like a spider attacking its prey, fatally caught in its cobweb. He even clambered up the trees, swinging from limb to limb like a monkey.

But I couldn’t imagine pateras would want him for a son. I’ve always tried to persuade myself that he must have felt pity for him because he was so very poor. Barba Kyriakos’s only patrimony was an acre of arid land which he turned into an olive grove that hardly ever produced any crop. That and a 100-year old stone house comprised his only property. And he had to feed three kids. Being occasionally employed by other farmers – my pateras being one of them – working in the tobacco fields, helping with the cotton and wheat harvest helped him get by and avoid starvation.

Stelios wore the same black trousers for the whole winter, which had turned into a brown, dim colour and a couple of tight sweaters his mana had knitted. He spent his summer in a pair of frayed grey cotton shorts and a few faded T-shirts. And he wasn’t a good student either. He barely passed the school exams, got a disrespectful seven out of ten in his report. I told pateras one day but he shrugged and said,

‘That doesn’t mean he’s not clever. He just doesn’t have the patience or interest to get down to his studies. He’ll find his own path in life; he’s capable of many things. So hard-working and strong! I don’t worry a bit about him.’ While I was good for nothing, I thought to myself. My high marks were anything but a source of delight for pateras. He just glanced at my school reports and then went about his business, muttering a frail ‘good’, hasty to add, ‘Don’t take any airs. Women are meant to bear children and stay at home. Washing dishes is your specialty.’ I was beginning to despise Stelios. My parents loved him the way they’d never love me.

On the Saturday prior to Easter Sunday, in the morning, we were exchanging cards again, Stelios and I, at my home. Sitting at the whitewashed wall by the outdoor oven, I was trying to swap a card with Brigitte Bardot for a card with Pele. Stelios said I’d have to give him two cards in exchange for Pele because he was a superstar, the best footballer of all time, the king of football. I said so what, Brigitte Bardot was much more beautiful and he called me stupid – like all girls and I called him a cheat – like all boys.

‘After all,’ I told him, ‘if it wasn’t for my pateras, you wouldn’t be able to get any of these cards. They’re mine too, in a way.’

‘I’ve worked hard for these cards,’ he said with hurt pride.

‘Right. I forgot. You’re my pateras’s slave.’

‘No, I’m not,’ he gaped.

‘Yes, you are!’

And just when I was about to hurtle all his cards onto the ground, mana called him into the house to help her lift the heavy wooden chest of clothes from the baby’s room into the hall. Stelios secured his pack of cards with a heavy stone on top and scampered into the house. This was the opportunity I’d been looking for. I picked up the stone and foraged for his favourite cards, for the famous footballers. Pele was the first one I came across, Zico second and then Platini, Torres and Beckenbauer. I hid the five cards under my buttocks and told Stelios as soon as he returned that I didn’t want to swap with a crook anymore. I told him to leave. He winced but didn’t retort. Clutched his cards and left, sour-faced.

I went to my room, picked a black colour pen from my desk and drew a twisting moustache, fat-rimmed glasses and a black front tooth on Pele’s face. I did the same to the other footballers. That would give Stelios the lesson he deserved. I just hoped he wouldn’t discover the missing cards by the afternoon when I’d replace them. Of course he would suspect me but he’d have no proof that I’d done it and if I were lucky enough I could get off scot-free.

An hour later Stelios rapped on our main door.

‘I’ve lost five of my cards. Have you seen them?’ he peered at me with suspicion. I glanced at the wall by the oven, eyes round with innocence and said,

‘No idea. Maybe the wind scattered them away.’

‘But… I’ll go and check,’ he darted to the place where we were sitting an hour before and looked into every possible little corner the cards could’ve dropped. He finally gave up and slouched his way out of our gate, head bent.

‘Wait till you find them, you cheat!’ I rubbed my hands mischievously.

In the afternoon barba Kyriakos came to our house to slay the lamb we were going to roast on Easter day because pateras had to be at the orchard in the valley for the whole afternoon and couldn’t do it himself. Stelios arrived with him, a sharp, pointy knife in his right hand, a big black garbage bag pinched under his left armpit. He looked dejected and I thought it was because he’d lost the cards. ‘Well, you had it coming,’ I said to myself.

‘Are you going to knife it, Stelios?’ my mana said in wonderment.

‘Of course, who else?’ barba Kyriakos said proudly and patted his son’s back, making him stagger to his feet. ‘He’ll be in the army in a few years. He has to know.’ Stelios nodded but looked consternated, ashen-faced. His pateras lay the hobbled lamb onto the concrete floor of our barn and it wiggled and jerked in an effort to free itself. He kept it steady and said, ‘Come on Stelios. Hack its throat all the way to the back.’ Stelios cringed, the knife trembling in his hand. ‘Come on, boy! You’re not a crybaby, are you? Come on! You’re a man now.’ Stelios took a deep breath, went nearer and, biting the inner sides of his lips, his eyes crinkled, beheaded the poor animal. The lamb’s legs kept leaping and wriggling for a while until they stopped for good. Thick blood gushing out of the lamb’s throat flooded the floor, rolling towards the garden, like a silk red scarf unfurling. The knife dropped to the ground with a clang making us all start. Barba Kyriakos picked it up and handed it to Stelios.

‘Now make a slit near the hoot of each back foot and pull the skin off a bit there… Good! A bit more. Yes, that’s it. Now blow.’ Stelios was rooted to the spot in terror. ‘What are you waiting for? You won’t get sick now, will you? Well, that’s not the face you’ve got on when you’re guzzling it.’ Stelios looked at him aghast.

‘Let him rest for a while,’ mana implored.

Barba Kyriakos’s face hardened with anger and demand. His orders came out rigid and square like ice cubes onto a wooden table. ‘Put your mouth there and blow hard, as many times as it needs for the skin to stretch. Blow it like a balloon, man.’ Stelios blew as hard as he could and a grimace of disgust distorted his face. ‘Now cut it all the way from this back leg, there from the slash, to the other leg. This way… Peel the skin off and punch it with tight fists off the flesh. I’ll show you. We’ll do it together… Now, punch and skin, punch and skin. Good! See how easy it is? Peels off like an orange.’ Barba Kyriakos fetched the carrier bag and said, ‘Let me help you a bit.’ Grasping the knife, he hacked the lamb from the chest down and wrenched away the intestines like the slithering snakes on Medusa’s head. The stench of steamy excrement as he was cleaning out the rib cavity filled the barn. We then saw Stelios totter towards the garden, squat, make a deep throaty noise and throw up. His forehead misted with sweat, his eyes watery red. He vomited again and again, retching and coughing, trying to catch his breath until there was nothing else but strings of saliva and phlegm drooling down his mouth.

‘I told you it’s too much for the boy,’ mana said in a reproaching tone.

‘Leave him,’ barba Kyriakos said. ‘He’ll learn the hard way,’ he went about his business undeterred.

Mana and I helped Stelios sit on a big stone in the garden and dabbed at his forehead and arms with a wet kitchen towel until he lurched forwards – still wan-faced – and shambled to his pateras to carry on with the task.

As soon as Stelios and his pateras left the house I unlocked my piggy bank and took out five drachmas. I ran to barba Pavlos’s grocery and bought five packets of cards. I wrote SORRY in capital letters on each packet, went over to Stelios’s house, knocked on his main door, slipped the cards under his bedroom door and sauntered back home.

 * * *

Sozou-Kyrkou Konstantina lives in Athens, Greece but writes in English. Sozou-Kyrkou Konstantina holds a BA(Hons) Literature and an MA Creative Writing from Lancaster University UK.  Stories have appeared in the anthology ‘Even Birds are Chained to the Sky’ and in several online literary magazines such as The Wilderness House Literary Review, The Wordsmith Journal Magazine, The Lascaux Review, Bareback magazine and others.


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