Uprooted Trees

A chapter from Uprooted Trees, a novel by Dimitrios Alexopoulos-Tsoras



August 19th

The vegetables and veal were boiling slowly on the stove. She removed the lid from the clay pot and stirred the diced onions, tomatoes and laurel leaves floating in the tomato sauce. She opened the middle cupboard on her right, and carefully searched, shifting the small jars until she found a cylindrical one containing a light brown powder. Throwing a quick look at the door, she took the cork off and quickly added a pinch of it in the pot. She stirred three times clockwise and two times anti-clockwise, covered the pot with a kitchen towel and placed the lid on top. Cork back on the jar, she returned it to its place, making sure she arranged them in the order she had found them, hiding the small cylindrical one behind the others.

     She went on to cut the tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers into pieces and threw them into a bowl. She was pouring olive oil and oregano on top when she heard footsteps in the corridor, followed by a harsh voice.

     ‘Ismene, is the stew ready?’

     ‘Almost, Mother. It needs to stew for five more minutes. The mashed eggplant sauce is ready.’

     ‘Your brothers and sister will be home any minute now and I don’t want them to make a fuss if lunch is not ready.’

     A thin, middle-aged woman entered the small kitchen and put down a heavy-looking basket of wet linen. A groan came out, as she bent down. Her long brown hair fell forward, freed from the kerchief, which fell down. She grabbed it and tied it around her head, stood up and pressed her back with both hands to ease the pain.

     ‘I need you to help me hang those after lunch. You will need to rinse them first, of course. I didn’t have the time.’

     ‘Yes, of course, Mother. I’ll do the dishes and then the laundry. If that’s all right?’ She turned the faucet on, rubbing the soap bar hard on her hands.

     ‘Yes, yes you have your own chores to do and your studying.’

     Her mother approached the stove and removed the lid and towel from the pot. Steam rushed towards her face and through her thick eyebrows as she inspected the food. She leaned over and took a large sniff with her flat nose, getting a good whiff of the contents. Without taking her eyes off it, she searched for a spoon on her frayed apron that covered her bleached-out brown dress. She plunged it in the pot and then blew on it before having a sip.

     She hummed. Ismene knew very well what that meant. It was her mother’s way of tasting the density of the sauce as well as if it needed more salt or pepper. She closed her eyes, and sighed.

     ‘You’ve added cumin again. That’s the third time this week, and from the expensive batch no less. You should have added cinnamon for the hünkar beğendi.’

     ‘I know Mother, I’ve added both. I thought it would go well with the meat’s juices. Make it spicier.’

     ‘You should have followed the instructions of your grandmother Kostantza’s recipe. Your grandfather married her for that.’

     ‘I know of how he fell in love with her when she prepared it for a dinner party. I’ve heard that story many times. I thought a small change wouldn’t hurt.’

     ‘This recipe is successful as it is. It needs nothing changed. Luckily you haven’t damaged the taste. Next time you should do as the recipe says. This way you will learn to cook properly for when you get married. I don’t want to worry about you ending up like one of those women on the streets, and neither does your father. He’s already worried enough.’

      ‘Why is Father worried?’

     ‘Those silly rumors about Kemal in the mainland. I’ve told him it’s just that, rumors.’ As her mother was speaking, Ismene was clasping her hands tighter and tighter. ‘In ten years no one has come to Smyrna. It won’t happen now.’

     ‘I’m sorry if I have added to your troubles, Mother. I didn’t intend to upset you.’ She lowered her head.

     ‘You haven’t upset me. I just want you to be more prudent.’

     Children’s voices echoed from outside. The door opened, and two boys and a girl with clothes smudged with dirt and grass burst in the kitchen, filling the room. The twin boys with light brown hair were about the same height. The girl was older, taller and her hair had the color wheat takes on at dusk. Exasperated from playing, they headed for the table, calling out for lunch. The boys sat across from one another aiming at each other with their fingers, while the girl tried to untangle leaves from her hair.

     ‘Now, forget all that and help me set the table,’ said her mother, touching Ismene’s cheek with her strong, rough hand. ‘Your brother and sisters are already at the table, and they won’t stop fussing until they eat.’ She looked at the table where they sat banging their hands rhythmically, shouting at each other.

     Ismene unclasped her red hands, grabbed the plates from the lowest shelf on the left of the stove, walked over to the wooden table, and set them one by one, as her mother was trying to quieten down her siblings. She poured the mashed eggplants first and then the veal on top of it. The kids gulped everything down in a few minutes and wandered off in the neighborhood to resume playing.

     When lunch was over, she cleaned the kitchen, and washed the dishes with her mother before she went to hang the clothes in the backyard. She told her mother to rest and that she wouldn’t mind doing it by herself. She preferred it; the quiet and serenity of the summer afternoon.

     She noticed that the wire clotheslines in the backyard were covered with bird feces. The mirror hadn’t worked, and she would have to find another way to scare off the birds. Hamit, a Turkish neighbor, had once told her that the best thing would be to use another bird. Either make a paper one or buy a real one from the market he had said. Buying was no longer an option these days, and she decided to ask her mother later to help her fashion one, as she was an experienced seamstress.

     After scrubbing the wire with a rag, she hung the clothes first and proceeded with the cotton sheets, which required more attention. She had to smooth them out, to avoid any creases. It was a job more easily done by two people, but she was used to doing it alone by now. Then she laid the sheets on the clotheslines, measuring their distance from the ground, and adding two clothespins on each corner to make sure they wouldn’t be blown away and reel on the ground.

     By the end her face was covered in sweat, having spent over an hour under the warm mid-August sun. She walked to the right corner of the yard where there was a faucet, next to a garden patch, turned the knob and brown water filled with dirt and rust flowed. She waited until clear water ran and splashed some on her face and chest. A cold sensation coursed through her body, soothing her. She repeated it and turned the tap off.

     As she did, she noticed the poppies in the garden patch, looking pale and almost withered by the heat. She filled the watering can and sprinkled water on them. The moment the water touched them their red leaves began moving up and down to the falling water droplets, like chanting members of a tribe, stretching higher each time to receive the blessed gift. The concentrated water on the ground was instantly absorbed by their thirsty roots, and she sprinkled them again. Their vivid color slowly came back. She could almost hear their joyful prayers accompanied by the afternoon sοng of the cicada.

     She stood there as the water slowly evaporated.

     ‘Might I help you?’

   A man’s voice broke through the afternoon silence. Ismene turned and saw the silhouette of a young man behind the wall that separated their yard with their neighbor’s. He was lean and tall with broad shoulders and, as she knew, short dark hair. His face lay hidden against the sun.

     ‘Off from work so early?’ Ismene asked.

     He shifted, and light fell over his face. His emerald green eyes for which people knew him glistened. It was his warm and kind smile that brought a calmness to Ismene.

     ‘Well, he had an extraordinarily good day today. We sold fifteen silk carpets. Mr. Finch was also invited to have tea this afternoon at the English Ambassador’s house. That was it really.’ He jumped over the short wall to her side and sat facing her. ‘For another day most of the customers were captains and admirals, but that is to be expected.’

     ‘Why is that to be expected?’

     ‘How could you know? You haven’t left your house for two weeks.’

     ‘I have a lot to do. Since I finished school and Mother went back to working, I have taken over almost all of her responsibilities at home.’

     ‘I know that. You have to help more. That doesn’t mean you have to confine yourself in the house.’

     ‘I’m not confining myself. I’m the one responsible for everything in the house now and I have to study.’ She picked up the basket and started to the house.

     ‘Don’t go, Ismene. I’m not saying you haven’t got many responsibilities. I’m saying that you can go for a walk once in a while. I’m sure you haven’t stopped since this morning, when I saw you preparing breakfast before I left for the agora.’

     Ismene didn’t respond, just stared at him.

     ‘Exactly. Come sit.’

     She put down the basket and sat next to him.

     ‘As I was saying before, most customers are ship captains. Italians, French, British and even Americans. A lot more foreign ships have anchored at the port than usual. It might be that it’s the end of the summer.’

            ‘Do you think it might have to do with the rumors? Mother says it’s nonsense, but my father is consumed reading the newspapers and each time his face becomes gloomier. Mother always scolds him for wasting his time.’

     ‘I don’t think so. Mr. Finch has connections with the British Embassy and he would know if something happened. He would tell me. I think you shouldn’t worry about it that much.’

     ‘Aren’t you worried?’

     ‘No, I trust that he would tell.’

     Ismene didn’t feel completely reassured but didn’t ask for more. A moment passed in silence when Hamit spoke, ‘Let’s go for a walk at the pier today.’

     ‘I don’t think I can. I have to…’ She ran her hand over a crease on her dress to smooth it out.

     ‘It’s been two weeks. You surely have time for a walk later on.’

     ‘You don’t know if I have the time or…’ She got up from the short wall.

     ‘Hey, don’t get all upset. I’m just worried about you. Please come,’ he said and took her hand inside his.

     He stayed there until Ismene agreed to come. She told him she had to go finish a load of laundry, before stepping back into the house.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        * 

August 21st

     She rose early that cool morning, as she always did when she had to go to the Central Market. It wasn’t far from where she lived, in the Fassoula’s quarter of town. She could leave the house, walk west towards the harbor, and once there, continue south, following the coast line past the Maltese quarter, all in only ten minutes. Most times she did just that. Today instead, she headed north.

     She found her way to St. Catherine’s Church, where her family attended the communal every Sunday morning. During the Holy Week of Easter, people would bring flowers to the church and women would gather to decorate the arches of the windows and the columns. The white building would shine colorfully, merging with the cloudless blue sky for the coming weeks.

     After a few minutes of walking through the narrow streets, which hummed with people waking up, she crossed by St. Rocco’s Catholic Hospital, and into the Greek quarter of Tabakhane, stopping to get a loaf of bread from the bakery. On seeing her, the baker, Mr. Lavriou, removed the long wooden shovel he used to place the loaves into the oven, greeted her with a flour patch under his left eye, and handed her the wrapped order. This time, apart from the usual loaf, he had also included some rusks for her mother to taste, as it was a new batch. She thanked him and left the shop.

     The Armenian quarter was located between the Tabakhane and the Central Market. Upon entering the quarter, she was enveloped by the smell of food already cooking in lit stoves. On windy days the smell travelled all the way across to Bornova, on the far end of town.

     From there she only needed five minutes to reach the market. The Central Market was a large area, connecting the five quarters of town. It bordered the Turkish quarters on the south, the Armenian and Jewish on the east, the Greek quarter of St. George and the Maltese on the north. On the west of the market was the harbor where boats and crafts arrived every day, delivering products from all over the world.

     She arrived at the Central Market street. Counters were placed on each side of the road, one next to the other, overburdened with an array of products. On the one side crates of potatoes, cucumbers and aubergines sat next to those of plums, grapes and melons, on the other potatoes, olives and onions lay interspersed with those of apples, peaches and blue cherries. The smell of unearthed vegetables and fruits and removed ground wandered around the market, where people fluttered from counter to counter, like hummingbirds. Voices of merchants praising the uniqueness of their product rang through the buzzing crowd. One was speaking of his sweet and juicy lemons, another his plump and red-as-blood tomatoes, while another raved about her nectar-like berries.

     She wandered among the slowly thickening crowd, making her way to one counter selling only tomatoes on the left side of the street, Mr. Kosta’s. As their neighbor and a lifelong friend of Ismene’s father, he always greeted her with a kiss on the cheek. She hovered over the counter for a few minutes, carefully selecting tomatoes, gently squishing them first to see how firm they were. Good tomatoes, according to her mother, should not be too firm or too soft. She had already put a dozen into her basket, when she picked up a perfectly round and red one, and turned it in her hands.

     ‘That’s a good one.’ Mr. Kosta’s eyebrows were squeezed together as he smiled.

     ‘Yes, I’m gonna put it in my basket.’

     ‘It’s from a new batch I brought, from the inland. Let me cut a slice for you now, and I’ll give you another to take home.’ He took the knife from the counter and sliced the tomato in half. As he did, dark green seeds spewed from the inside and spilled out, smudging the all-red counter.

     ‘That’s a rotten one,’ he laughed. ‘This happens sometimes. Let me clean that up and bring you another.’

     Ismene stared at the rotten tomato, when someone nudged her basket.

      ‘I knew I would find you here,’ said a young woman’s voice.

    Ismene turned to see her friend Calliope, her always-tired eyes beaming at her, holding the empty basket which had nudged hers.

     ‘Finished?’ asked Calliope.

     ‘Just about to.’ She paid and said goodbye to her neighbor.

     Slowly they filled their baskets and proceeded to the spices section. Paprika, curry and cardamom floated in the air. On small tents, covered with bed lines, colorful jars and vials of every shape and size concealed powders and herbs from all over the world, some of them too expensive to buy.  Ismene crossed to the fish section, while Calliope remained behind as she couldn’t stand the smell.

     As Ismene was standing over some fresh clams, deliberating their freshness with small whiffs, she overheard two women next to her discussing a fisherman who had found a drowned man in the docks. Ismene rested for a moment, hoping to hear more, finding out that the body was discovered as the fisherman was sailing by the pier. It was Gurgen Keshibia, an Armenian merchant from Tabakhane. Ismene’s heart sunk at the uttering of the name. The taller, more obnoxious woman said that she had heard he had problems with drinking. That he probably went out the previous night, drank too much and fell in the sea and drowned, although his friends said that he wasn’t drunk that night. But men, said the other woman, never know how much they drink. She continued to tell her how she had heard from a friend that Gurgen had trouble with other merchants, and how someone else might have pushed him in.

     At that point the two women moved to an adjoining counter, while Ismene held onto a clam, which oozed sea foam. She remembered passing by his coffee shop, returning from school every day. How he stood at the entrance smiling warmly, inviting the passerby in for a taste of his freshly brewed Turkish coffee. How one day when she was rushing to school, she had dropped her notebook. How on her way back he had stopped her to return it, having hidden two ouzo caramels inside. How his two children had become fatherless, how his wife would have managed to feed the three young boys, all of whom would perish in a month. After purchasing some fresh bream, Ismene left the fish section and rejoined Calliope, who had just bought an assortment of spices from China.

     They strolled around the market streets for about an hour, slipping into narrow streets to find hidden shops in crowded alleys, where they had to walk one behind the other to fit. As they were passing a furniture shop, Calliope suddenly stopped in front of a metallic door causing Ismene to bump into her. Completely undisturbed, she turned around swiftly towards Ismene.

     ‘Go ahead, let’s go in.’

     ‘What?’ It took a few seconds for Ismene to register what she was talking about. ‘Is that why you wanted to come this way? No. I’m not going in.’ She turned to leave, her basket between her hands, but Calliope pulled her dress.

     ‘Oh, don’t be silly. Let’s go in and say hello.’

     ‘We shouldn’t. He’s working.’

     ‘He’s your friend and we’ll just be saying hello.’

     ‘We talked three days ago.’

     ‘That was three days ago, and this is now,’ she smirked.

     ‘So, what?’

     ‘It would be a shame if we didn’t go in, since we are already here.’

     ‘I’m not going and that’s final. Let’s leave.’

     ‘If you don’t, I will.’

     ‘No, you won’t,’ Ismene stepped forward.

     ‘You know I will.’

     Ismene knew she would. Everyone who knew her did. Calliope hardly ever gave a second thought about certain things. It was either boldness or foolishness. They had met in primary school. One day Calliope had come to congratulate her on the exquisite blue bow she was wearing, wanting to know where she got it. Two days later they were wearing the exact same bow sitting next to each other in class.

     ‘Fine,’ said Ismene and followed Calliope inside.

     The shop was much bigger than it looked from the outside. There was a large corridor, where every possible space was covered with dozens of rolled-up rags and carpets stacked up against the walls, one next to the other. Between the columns of carpets left and right, a path lead to the next room. It was a spacious room with a large table in the middle where carpets lay open for the customers to see. Hand-woven carpets hung from the four walls, each one more mesmerizing than the next.

     Ismene’s eyes rested on a carpet where a battle was raging. Soldiers wearing golden helmets and armed with spears and round shields were laying siege to a city, while its equally prepared defenders tried to push away the enemies, clashing in the middle where countless dead bodies lay. On the outer wall of the battlements, a woman was looking at the battle, while another was looking at a man placing a golden helmet on a young child. Ismene noticed the intricate detail with which the little figures had been woven.

     ‘Why would someone want to see this every day?’ asked Ismene.

     ‘It’s the fine craftsmanship that you have to appreciate about it, not the scene,’ said Hourig, who had just entered from another door across the room. His hands were interlocked behind him.

     ‘I don’t think I could see anything beyond that.’

     He approached the girls. ‘But you’re correct. Very few people have expressed interest in it.’

     ‘I can see why,’ said Calliope uninterested.

     ‘It’s one of Mr. Finch’s favorites,’ he touched the carpet and added, ‘pure silk.’

     ‘I’m horrified to believe that someone would rejoice in war even if it’s finely woven.’ She turned away from the carpet and looked at another with Smyrna’s pier knitted on it.

     ‘We were shopping and thought we should visit and say hello,’ said Calliope, edging close to Ismene and bumping her leg with her basket.

     ‘That was kind of you.’ He smiled, and his eyes moved between the two girls. ‘Isn’t Lucine with you?’

     ‘No, she couldn’t come to the market today, she’s working at the hospital,’ said Ismene.

     ‘Is it busy today?’ asked Calliope.

     ‘We haven’t had many customers yet. It’s still early. By midday there will be more coming in. Personally, I prefer these slow days. Some days people come in even…’

     ‘Hourig,’ said a mellow voice, ‘who are those beautiful young ladies you’re talking to?’

     A chubby man with an exceptionally sharp suit and a bushy moustache strutted towards them.

     ‘Mr. Finch. This is Calliope Karlatou and Ismene Alexandrou,’ he presented the two girls. ‘They are friends of my sister.’

     ‘Pleasure to make your acquaintance,’ said Mr. Finch and bowed slightly to the girls. His accent easily betrayed his English origins.

     ‘Pleasure to meet you too, sir,’ said both girls, but only Calliope meant it.

     ‘You were admiring, of course, my most beautiful item for sale. I will weep the day it’s gone.’ He removed his hat and kept it in his left hand.

     ‘I wouldn’t say admiring.’ Hourig’s eyes shifted towards Ismene.

     ‘And why is that?’ asked Mr. Finch.

     ‘With all due respect sir,’ she straightened her back, ‘I find the idea of using death as a means of art repulsive.’

     ‘But why my dear? Most poets have done it. Homer has done it.’

     ‘Homer used war as a means for people to remember their past and learn from it. Not to memorialize the idea of war and death.’

     Mr. Finch deliberated Ismene’s words for a few seconds, rubbing his moustache with his finger and then began laughing. He approached Hourig and patted him on the back. ‘You have a very clever friend Hourig. Have you invited these young ladies to the ball?’

     ‘No sir, I haven’t yet.’

     ‘You should have already done that, old chap.’

     ‘What ball?’ asked Calliope, as if waking up.

     ‘I’m hosting a ball at my house this Saturday for the French Ambassador, on the 26th. Surely two lovely young ladies as yourselves will be a fine addition to my guest list.’

     ‘Will you come?’ asked Hourig, alternating between both girls, but resting more on Ismene.

     ‘It will be an honor sir!’ said Calliope and bowed, extending the edges of her dress, while lowering her head.

     ‘Yes, thank you very much, sir,’ added Ismene, unmoving.

     ‘I will see you then. I look forward to resuming our talk Miss Alexandrou.’ Mr. Finch kissed their hands and hopped off into the room Hourig had come from.

     The girls left the shop to a smiling Hourig. On their way home from the market, Calliope couldn’t stop talking about how marvelous the ball would be and what dress would be appropriate for such an occasion, while Ismene could not stop thinking about the now empty coffee shop on Kalilje Djado Street.

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