Kyra Kyralina

JEALOUSY(excerpt) For an hour, in the copse where they had stopped for their midday meal, Stavro refused to tell the story of his childhood which he had touched upon in the hayloft. He didn't really object; he was in a mood for evoking youthful memories, but he wished to be coaxed before he disturbed the long-closed sluices which held back the waters of the past.The three were lying on the soft moss smoking cigarettes, while the horse nibbled grass, snuffling a good deal and taking little steps around them. Stavro got up and lit a fire with some dry twigs, and when it had burned to embers, he got the coffee things from the cart and boiled the water, throwing the exact amount of coffee and sugar into the copper ibrik*. He knew what good coffee was, and at the right moment poured it, foaming and fragrant, into three cups without saucers, called felidganes. He then served it, sat down Turkish fashion and began:"I remember neither the date nor my exact age, but the event that directly followed my misfortune was the Crimean War. As a tiny child I recall the brutality of my father, who beat my mother continually and for no apparent reason. My mother was often away from the house; he used to beat her before she left and when she returned. I could neither discover whether the former beating was to make her go or stay, nor whether the latter one was given on account of her absence or because she had dared to return."In those dimly remembered days my elder brother was in the house. He was just as much of a brute as my father; but I had a deep affection for my sister Kyra, who led a miserable existence with my mother. She was four years older than I."Little by little the mist of years clears away… I grew up and began to understand and there were some strange things to be understood. I must have been eight or nine at the time I am thinking of, and my sister twelve or thirteen. She was so lovely that I spent my days looking at her. She spent hers in adorning herself, and so did my mother, for she was as beautiful as her daughter. The two of them would stand for hours before a mirror with a make-up outfit contained in an ebony casket, doing their eyelashes with kinorosse dipped in oil, their eyebrows with charred sticks of sweet-basil wood, and their lips, cheeks and nails with kirmiz red. When this lengthy operation was over, they kissed each other, murmuring affectionate phrases, and turned their attention to dressing me. When they had done this, we would all join hands and dance a Turkish or a Greek dance intermingled with much kissing. You see we three were a little family to ourselves."At that time, my father and brother did not come home every evening. They were the cleverest and busiest wheelwrights in the neighborhood and they had a house with a shop attached at the other end of town in the Karakioi quarter. We lived in the Chetatzue district, with the whole town between us and them. The Karakioi house belonged to my father and he had two apprentices, whom he boarded and lodged there, as well as an old woman who did for them all. We never went to my father's house and I can scarcely remember his shop; it always used to frighten me and I kept away from it. My mother's house at Chetatzue was quite different; there, we amused ourselves all day long with nothing to bother us. In winter we drank tea; in summer, syrups; and there were always plenty of cadaifs* and sarailies.* We smoked hookahs and drank coffee, painted our faces and danced. It was a delightful existence."Yes, delightful, except when my father, or my brother, or both of them would burst in upon our revelry to beat my mother and Kyra and break their sticks over my head. I came in for my share, because of my part in the dancing. They called my mother and Kyra patchaouras,** and me kitchouk pezevengh.*** The two wrteched women would throw themselves at the feet of their oppressors and clasp their knees, begging them to spare their faces:" 'Not our faces!' they would scream. 'In the name of Christ and the Holy Virgin, don't strike our faces! Don't touch our eyes! Spare us!' Ah, their faces and their eyes – how could a woman's beauty survive the brutality of those men?"They both had the loveliest imaginable golden hair reaching below the waist, the whitest skin, and their brows, lashes and pupils were as black as ebony, for though they were Romanian, the blood of three different races flowed in their veins: Turkish, Russian and Greek."My mother's first child was born when she was sixteen, and when I first opened my eyes, no one would have believed her the mother of three. She was made for kisses, but got more beating than anything else. However, if my father did not overwhelm her with caresses, her lovers made it up to her brilliantly, and I have never been able to discover whether it was my mother's unfaithfulness that provoked the beatings or my father's ill treatment of her that caused her to deceive him. In any case there was always something going on; shouts of joy alternated with cries of pain, and it was not long after the last blow had fallen that smiles lit up the tear-stained faces."I mounted guard near the window and munched cakes while the lovers, who seemed to have fairly decent manners, sat Turkish fashion on the floor, singing and playing Oriental tunes. There was a guitar, accompanied by castanets and a tambourine. My mother and Kyra adored it all and would often do the handkerchief dance which made them dizzy with its twistings and twirlings. Then with flaming cheeks they would throw themselves upon the cushions and lie there fanning themselves, with their legs drawn up under their long silk skirts. Fragrant herbs were burned and cordials were consumed. The men were young and beautiful and always dark. They were elegantly turned out, with pointed moustaches, carefully trimmed beards and hair that exhaled a strong scent of almond oil and musk. There were Turks, Greeks, and sometimes Romanians. Nationality was of no importance provided they were young, beautiful, refined, discreet, and not too eager."My role was a thankless one. I have never told anyone until now what agonies I suffered. My duty was to keep watch, seated on the window-ledge, and to save the party from sudden interruptions. That pleased me, for I loathed the two men from Karakioi who beat us, but a terrible struggle raged in my breast between duty and jealousy."There was a high walled court in front of the house, which had windows looking into the court and also out at the back, some distance above the high ground surrounding the harbor. The house could only be entered through the door from the court, but people seemed less conventional about leaving it. If that strip of sloping ground at the back could have spoken, what stories of scrambling lovers it would have had to tell!"I crouched in the window-sill at night, watching the door with the lamp over it and listening for the grind of rusty hinges. I tried to keep an eye on the festivities within, too. My mother and Kyra were lovely enough to drive one mad, with their waists almost small enough to go through the rings on their fingers, their breasts as round as two melons, and their marvelous hair falling over their naked shoulders. They wore scarlet bands about their foreheads, and their long eyelashes fluttered wickedly as though to feed the flames of desire that darted from their eyes."The efforts of the guests to please their hostesses often led them to ridiculous extremes. One evening my mother received this doubtful compliment from one of them: 'Good soup is made from old hens.' In a fury, she threw her fan at him and burst into tears, whereupon another admirer leapt up in a rage, hurled tiflas* in the blunderer's face and spat upon him. Then they flew at each other, upsetting tables, glasses and hookahs, until we were sick with laughing. In order to restore peace, my mother gave her accolade. These kisses were given for many reasons. A beautiful voice, a clever speech, an amusing trick, all these earned their reward from her; and she used them to dispel sulkiness, to soften an ill-considered speech, to pacify the jealousy of a too importunate lover."Kyra was, in her way, quite perfect. At the age of fourteen she was so well developed that she passed for sixteen. She was a giddy young thing, but sharp as a steel trap, with her little blunt nose, rather prominent chin and her two dimples symmetrically placed on either cheek. She could not please both her lovers and me with her high spirits and her buffoonery; they wanted more and I thought she gave them too much."We called these lovers who came to the house moussafirs* and these moussafirs kissed her hands and her slippers on the slightest provocation. She pulled their noses and their beards, poured syrup on the burning tobacco in their hookahs, held out her glass and broke it before anyone could drink from it; but a moment afterwards, if any lips had been cut, she would press a strand of her hair against them."I was enraged by all this, for I loved Kyra far more than my mother. I adored her and could not endure it if anyone but myself caressed her. One evening I remember something which put the finishing touch to my misery. The lacing of her sandal had come unfastened during a dance and she put her foot on the knees of one of the moussafirs and asked him to tie it for her. You can imagine what a chance it was for the fellow. He made as much of it as he could, with me watching him like a hawk all the time, but when he began to stroke her ankle and even her leg, without protest, I lost my head and shouted: 'Here comes father! Be quick!'"In the twinkling of an eye the two moussafirs shot through the window into the outer darkness and rolled over the bank. One of them , a Greek, left his fez and his guitar behind, but my mother threw them after him, while Kyra concealed the two extra hookahs. All this amused me so intensely, when the object of my fury had disappeared, that I almost had hysterics. I fell from the window-sill, rolled on the carpet and became quite purple in the face from lack of breath. My mother thought I had gone mad with fear of my father, and the two poor souls rent the air with their screams of terror, forgetting my father in their despair at my plight." 'He's not coming,' I was at last able to say. 'I was angry because Kyra allowed her leg to be stroked. I've had my revenge now.'"They shouted louder than ever, for joy this time, pounding my behind and kissing em rapturously. Then we all began to jump about the room; their troubles were over and I had had only a slight beating and a great deal of petting." Translated from the French by James WHITALL© The Blakiston Company-Philadelphia
* Kettle.* Turkish cakes. ** Harlots.*** Little pimp.* An offensive Oriental gesture, that of thrusting one's hand at a person's face with fingers outstretched.* Guests.

by Panait Istrati (1884-1935)