Returning to Ionia: Short stories


Ο Λόγος in this case was not in the beginning but was dredged up from those “obstinate questionings of sense and outward things, fallings from us, vanishings,” and thus it formed, slowly, fitfully amid the jeers and scorn of the mature man. He should have known better and not written down vague memories hidden in the recesses of the mind disguising them as truth. Nothing dredged up from a distance is a truth. Intervening events change it forever, adding shadings, erasing detail, spreading haze and mist where there was bright sun, but stubbornly preserving the person. That you cannot lose. Nor can you wipe out a mother, a father, cousins, brothers, uncles and aunts, lovers, tramps and other strangers. Neighborhoods too; for their lanes, scratched dirt, smelly sewers, toothless hags sunning themselves sitting on white-washed stones and spinning wool, street cleaners prophesying war, and girls sweeping the yards, their skirts revealing portions of their thighs—these do not vanish. Heavy latrine odor, fumes from asbestos pits, sulfur dust from the grape vine to keep it from blight, a cat pissing at the rooftop, a swallow twittering as it builds a nest at the eaves, and, above all, the brine wafted over the sea lagoon filling the lungs as the breeze starts mid-morning. Paltry beauties. These make up the Word.

The Word is not the truth. It is not in us, it is by us. We create is as we go with feeble tools from half-remembered images, sliding and slipping through what memory has left in us. We fumble through the past, mixing memory and desire, struggling to shape up the unreal in our chase of the real.

Once upon a time two foreign armies came in to occupy our island. That is the portion of life I struggle to hold on to, but it was life as other life is. All life is the same but you want to isolate a portions of it and make it live again, and it is a battle against mortality. It slips through your fingers, it resists, it can’t be unearthed, for it says, to you: “I’m dead, please forget me.”

A growing boy and later an adolescent and kept popping up as small narratives told to my friends, relatives, children and grandchildren. I kept telling them and writing them, first with some literary ambition but soon realizing it would not do. To tell the stories, I felt they must be told as they come to mind, not as pieces to be read by specialized audiences, or to serve the needs of a magazine or other publication. So I decided to write them as they are, modestly, simply, with no strings attached as to literary method, hoping they are worth reading and that they are telling something of the heartbreak of those times, but also of the humor of life itself as lived by boy or youth old enough to remember. Few of these stories go beyond my age of twenty. After that, I felt, it was struggle common to all, not much worth recording. But the early years, the war itself, the forgotten people who lived then—these were the things refusing to go away. I wrote them down time and time again, and piles of manuscripts exist, but never to my entire satisfaction. One of the reasons was the language. Not being a native, I was afraid I did not have the means to express myself as a native. My Greek, useful in many ways, was the main impediment, for I thought I could not reach the same level of fluency in a language that was not my mother tongue. But after having lived for nearly fifty years in the States, I decided it was time I knew enough to write the stories down, and venture to publish them as I am.

I stuck by a few rules, one of which I already mentioned. There was no point in pretending to write “fiction.” But neither is this “history.” What I knew was story enough. Therefore, why not try to remember, in as much detail as possible, the actual event, the real person, and the turn the tale would take on its own—with a slight tweak here and there if the story needed a bit of help to reach its finality. I have invented as little as possible, and I have altered some names. I discovered plain telling, unadorned, to be enough, and, luckily, my memory still helps. Another rule I tried to follow was to avoid hyperbole. Partly this was owed to the fact that some of these stories were told to me by others, either when I was a boy, or later when I visited my native country and relatives were still alive and some were natural story-tellers with a gift for gab and exaggeration. So I chose, when I could, to tone things down—let them speak for themselves. A third rule was not to be afraid of first person narrative, a caution spread through the numerous workshops I attended in order to learn how to write, when an instructor invariably tells you that only “experienced” authors can write in the first person. I don’t wish to ridicule this rule—it is correct. But I felt my own voice could not be discarded in favor of a method. Besides, what would I gain? I wanted to hear myself speak, expressed my thoughts as they came to me. Whatever the form of narrative, it is the voice of the author that is heard, and the more sincere and honest the better. So I decided to write the stories down as I told them to others many times, and as they came—but I did not mean to say that I would do so without the necessary pain needed, the effort one makes when one desires others to hear him. To be sloppy is to be insulting. And so what is written here is written to the best of my ability. Beyond that, I’m not in a position to promise pleasure, instruction or anything else.

All these stories are based on true events, though a few necessitated some patching and stitching, unavoidable for the sake of narrative coherence. I have added here some stories narrated to me by my father, Xenophon Santas, and taped during his visits to America and mine to Greece over two decades, from 1973 to 1987; some are derived from his correspondence and poems. Almost all of these stories are memories of experiences, whether obtained at the time they happened or learned about later. I dedicate them to my family and my closest friends and relatives.

Constantine Santas
St. Augustine, Florida, 2014

Returning to Ionia: A list of short stories