The Piano

“Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:

The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,

Hath elsewhere its setting,

And cometh from afar.”

William Wordsworth

First love … who knows when and where …

Though I had brushes with romance throughout my adolescent years, I didn’t have a violent jolt of emotional turbulence until I was nineteen. By that time I had gone to Athens, learned English to go to America, but had failed to obtain a visa because of new laws in the military prohibited certain ages from traveling abroad as the Civil War (1946-1948) was still going on. So, after a two year stay in Athens, I had returned to the island, waiting until I was drafted. For lack of anything else to do, I started giving lessons in English to those who accepted my young age and younger appearance (I was just nineteen) as sufficient guarantee of my ability to teach a foreign language.

And, what do you know? Some showed up, among them a middle-aged man who was the director of a local bank housed in a stone building near the harbor. He came to my father’s house for the lessons, but I soon discovered that his learning skills were minimal—or non-existent—not to mention that all English vowels proved tongue-twisters to him. But for some reason he admired my teaching, and he soon had an idea. Why not work for him, in the bank, and thus make some kind of income, instead of waiting for stragglers to show up? I went, and soon found out that adding figures all day was as unpalatable to me as pronouncing English vowels was to him. That was my first job, by the way, and it proved a failure—luckily. I say this for several reasons, but one may prove more emphatic: an earthquake struck soon afterwards,[1]  about 2:30, P.M., when everybody had gone home for a lunch and a nap (customary–then—and now), and the desk where I sat a few hours before was crushed by a wall of stones just above me—and, had I still been there, I would have been buried alive.

That put an end to my ambition as a bank clerk, and I returned to seeking students. My family and I camped in a tent for the entire summer, but by fall we had returned to my father’s house, which had withstood the earthquake, with only some cracks in the southern wall. Some friends of mine ventured to think I was a teacher, and gradually I assembled a group or two. My English was limited, but, as they say in Greek, a one-eyed man can lead the blind. Besides, I had brought with me some of the English textbooks from Athens, and one of them combined grammar and English history. It came in four volumes, and I could handle the first and second well enough in making up lessons—while I kept studying the last two for my own improvement.

***

Things sailed along, and I soon had several students, who came to take their lessons in my father’s house. Our town still had the traces of an aristocracy, and those parents didn’t want their sons or daughters to wander off into the streets to visit a carpenter’s house to take a lesson from his son! To give lessons to those I usually went to their homes, where mothers or siblings attended the lessons or simply sat there and watched over.

All other students came to my father’s house, for I couldn’t give lessons in the streets. The mix included mostly high school students, two or three (or four) years younger than me, but I never taught young children, mainly because of school hours. The males came alone, but a female always arrived with a companion, male or female. One of my students was Voulis, a young fellow in the eleven or twelfth grade, lively and clever but having no mind for languages or anything else. He showed up either because he wanted to get away from his parents, or, more likely, just to say that he took English—something fashionable in those days.

After the first week, Voulis asked whether he could bring a girl along with him who wanted to take English lessons, and of course I said yes, and lo and behold, he comes in with the most beautiful girl I had ever seen in my life. Her name was Moira, and she had black eyes, black hair, fair skin, and a complexion that could vie with those of … well, a Greek goddess. That was not all. I learned soon that she was an A+ student, a genius in math, and that she took piano lessons intending to become a concert pianist. My story takes a ridiculous turn here, so I’ve got to tell you this.

I had acquired a grand piano, which my father had been rented to accommodate a wish of mine to learn to play, a wish he had resisted initially, for he thought a young man like me should concentrate his efforts more on learning than on frivolous pursuits like hitting piano keys—though he was a music lover himself. The piano belonged to a coffee-shop owner who had turned his shop into a pool room, which attracted the pool-minded youths of our town to spend their evenings there. The large old piano occupied too much space, and, when Mr. Katopodis looked to get to get rid of it. When I heard the news, I asked my father if I could rent it. It took four or five big men to haul the heavy instrument upstairs, but finally they dragged the monster inside the room where I gave the lessons and placed it in a corner, leaving enough room for me to sit down on the stool.  I soon found out that it was completely out of tune, and some of the ivory covers of its keys were missing. I asked Mr. Steriotis, my music teacher at the Orpheus School, to come and tune it, and he obliged, for a fee, and he spent three quarters of an hour in there but told me as he left, “It’s so bad, it will ruin your ears. Don’t touch it.”

Despite his admonition, of course I did touch it. Playing the piano added to my prestige as an educated young man, and, besides, I was developing a mania for piano playing approaching foolhardiness. When Moira came in with Voulis, she first noticed was the piano. She even ventured to put her fingers on it, and, with a quick look of contempt at the missing ivory covers, she stopped. “It’s a piece of junk,” she remarked, a smile on her face, not to offend me. She never looked at it again, never said anything else about it. She only attended a few weeks, six or eight sessions in all, with Voulis, but not only she outdistanced him, she was about to do so with me. I never saw anybody learning a language so fast; she was already fluent in French and Italian, and Voulis offered an excuse for her, saying she would pick up more English when she went to the University in Athens, next year. She of course paid generously for the lessons she took, for her father had money.

Voulis came back a week later with two other females—one a square-jawed large young woman who proved diligent but only stayed a month or two, and the other a little stumpy girl who only came in every second or third meeting, and I couldn’t make this group jell. Occasionally, Voulis showed up by himself. Since he stumbled badly over tenses of irregular verbs and couldn’t remember anything I taught him, I let him talk non-stop about the girls in his class, the girls in the streets he passed that afternoon, and the girls in the neighborhood, and he could gossip just about everyone I knew, I let him drone on, not minding, since he paid me for my time.

***

Meanwhile, something else came into my life, the result of my piano playing, which I continued to practice on despite Steriotis’s warning and Moira’s disdainful dismissal of my wretched instrument. Flat or not, the notes did come out, and they did attract the attention of some of the girls in the neighborhood—one in particular. My window faced west, and from there I could see a row of houses in the distance that had second floors. Some of the streets in between were lined with one story shacks inhabited by poor fishermen, and these low structures allowed me to see beyond, to the a row of two-story houses that extended all the way to the bay-front, all belonging to fish merchants, who owned large boats and leased the fish-farm that stretched for several square miles.

A female figure started appearing in one of those windows, almost unfailingly after I had played the piano. She practically filled the lower part of the window frame and I could see, even at a distance of sixty or seventy yards, that she was young and beautiful—and that I had already seen her in the streets. I did not know her name, but I knew her for a great beauty, but had paid no attention, nor did dare glance in her direction, for she was always flanked by several muscle-bound brothers and a tall, mustachioed and surly-looking father. I had seen her by herself once or twice but it never occurred to me that such an exquisite creature would take the slightest interest in me. In those days looking at a girl in the street improperly was moral offense, especially if her relatives—brothers, cousins, fathers (and even mothers)—looked menacing and protective.

I was rather astonished to see this girl at the window, but after a while her appearances became unmistakable evidence of interest—even strong interest—in me. There was nobody else around, my father was gone to work, my mother always downstairs, and I don’t think the girl was interested in her or my old grandfather who used to sit on the balcony when his advanced age permitted, to read his Bible.

The piano notes became my mating call. This became a signal exchange, especially after school hours, for she was still in high school, and I had long stretches of time between lessons. I spent a lot of time reading, but I played the piano—actually doing some of the lessons Steriotis had given me when I went to his class, so I had enough to occupy myself. When she appeared after some notes were struck, my heart raced and I rushed to the window. I did not want to make myself too conspicuous and stayed a little behind in the shadow, so the neighbors couldn’t notice my interest, for gossip was rampant and I could ruin my father’s reputation if I flirted with a girl. She used the same caution, and she appeared shaking a rug or something, just to show that her appearance at the window was part of her normal domestic chores. Once in a while she would stand still, though, as if to provoke me, and then I could have a full view of her face and hair. Though coming from the west in those hours, sunrays must have reflected her hair and face, and those were the moments I treasured. She was blond—so rare a thing with Greek women—and her locks fell to the sides of her head and down to her shoulders and even at that distance I noticed how similar their color was to the wheat in the fields ripening in late May or June, when the breeze goes through the stalks creating an undulation—yellow turning to light brown, a color impossible to find elsewhere in nature. She had fair skin and blue eyes, but not the kind of blue that, let’s say, one sees in the sky, but in the azure waters of the sea. In any case, she had the most beautiful eyes that I had ever seen in my short life—and she had an oval face absolutely symmetrical, a straight nose sculpted out from one those … marble chisellers of antiquity, and the mouth was perfect, etc., etc. Don’t make me faint recollecting this.

Naturally, I was madly in love. In fact, I had never even imagined what love meant up to that moment. Routine life’s activities became magic. Sleep interrupted this day-dreaming, but sweet nocturnal dreams of her came to visit me, and in the morning my memory of her would instantaneously kick in to remind me of her face, and I lived enveloped in a vision that could have been with me since the beginning of time. It was an absolute secret of course, for how could I confide what was happening to me to anyone? But I let the dream roll on, and only waited for those moments of the day when she would appear at the window.

Though intensified every day, my passion gradually was wearing me out. Just waiting at what looked now appointed times to see her at the window wasn’t enough. I could not stay in suspense like this for ever. Somehow I had to communicate with her. But how? Talking to her in the streets was completely out of the question, for she was always flanked by brothers or other muscled terrors, and in even in case I saw her coming back home from school, she was with other girls, all guarded by their mothers, aunts, and various middle-aged women whose faces were almost always decorated with a scowl.

So I lost hope that I would ever meet my beloved, whose name was Zoitsa (I finally learned), when unexpected help from all people … Voulis. One day when he came alone because the stumpy girl had a cold he told me had had some news for me. I waited.

“Zoitsa wants to see you.”

I was stunned. How did he know?

He guessed my question. “She told me. She’s my cousin.”

Cousins in the island—that strangest of degrees of a relationship in those parts ranged from first to tenth cousin—and it didn’t matter which, for fathers and mothers allowed male cousins of whatever degree to come to their homes freely and, naturally, talk to their daughters. Those fellows could penetrate the sanctum sanctorum that no one else could. They were considered altogether harmless, though history proved otherwise.

“Did she tell you that?”

“Of course. How else would I know?”

“What exactly did she tell you?”

“Well … that she likes you. And that she wouldn’t mind a meeting. In fact, she gave me a note.”

I read the note. It only had two words: “MEET ME.” Just like that, printed in fairly large letters, which I could see she had written in such a way as to disguise her handwriting, for she wouldn’t want the note to fall in the wrong hands.

“How can I meet her? She’s never alone, and her brothers scare me.”

“You give English lessons, don’t you?”

I grasped his idea instantly. “But does she want to learn English?’

“NO! She’s not a smart girl—barely makes Cs in high school—but I can arrange with her mother to have her come here with me to take lessons, or pretending that she would. Girls come here all the time, don’t they?”

“Then what?”

“Listen.”  Voulis sat just across from me on the table, and his cheeks leaned on his palms, his elbows forming a triangle. He too was blond, but by no means handsome, though his hair flowed nearly to his shoulders, and he had the oily expression of a lackey who had served at the court of Madame de Pompadour. “Next time I come, I bring her with me. I’ll make sure the other girl won’t show up. So I come up with Zoitsa—your mother won’t mind, thinking she’s a new student—pretend that I had forgotten to buy paper (I actually need a new pen), run out and go to the bookstore, and get back. It’s five minutes to get to Tsirimbasis, and five minute to get back here. I’ll take my time, so that will give you fifteen minutes with her.”

“What should I tell her?”

He looked at me as if I had just returned form the jungle: “Me Tarzan … you Jane! Tell her that you love her …you know.”

I still thought the idea new and perilous, and actually crazy. I went along nonetheless. My passion was burning me, and besides, I got curious. Would this plan work? I had read millions of love stories, most of them trashy ones, and knew anything could go in matters of the heart. Besides, what Voulis came up with did actually make sense. I was a teacher, I had a place to give lessons, and girls came up to my room, though infrequently. My father never had the slightest objection to that, for, to him, students were students, and, besides, I was generating some income.

The day came, about a week later. I was in a flurry of anticipation, my heart beat wildly, and I fidgeted for hours before they got to the house, around three thirty, after school hours. I heard them climb the stairs, stepping nearer, and knocking on the door.

I opened. It was them, or rather her, for Voulis after a few seconds of introductions (unneeded), he turned on his heels and disappeared. My mother obviously heard nothing, or assumed that students had come in for their lessons.

Zoitsa came in. I could see she was just as a nervous as I was. It struck me how young she looked—fourteen may be, though I knew she was in the tenth grade. She still had her school uniform on, blue skirt, white blouse buttoned to the neck to the point of suffocation, and her blond hair was plaited into two thick locks hanging on her back. She was just like any other regular school girl I had seen so many times in the streets. She leaned against the piano and remained motionless.

Several minutes passed and neither she nor I said a word. All my fervor was gone. I was hard pressed to say something, so I asked how she liked school. She said it was all right, but boring. It was late spring and in the summer she was going to the west of the island where her folks had a house near a well known beach, and her father used his boats there to fish in the currents formed by the bent in the bay, where the fat mullet came in large schools, and that he would catch tons of them, place them in pools in the sand, and them smoke them in the damp air. He would extract their eggs—the roe—wax it in individual cases, and ship them to the big cities. She told me all that in a casual monotone, while looking with curiosity at my piano. Her initial nervousness seemed to have evaporated. I hadn’t said more than two or three words that had come to my mind, just to make response.

“Your keys are missing”

“Other people have noticed that,” I said.

She hit one of them, and a note came out, flat and hollow.

More silence followed, and I stood there like a deflated balloon. My feelings had rushed out of me, and all I saw was a strange girl, pretty to be sure, but not even remotely close to the vision I had seen in the window—or the one I had formed in my day and night dreams. But by this time she was completely at ease, and I could tell she had no warmth in her for me. In fact, she seemed as cold as one her father’s fish.

She peered at the southern wall, which still had a few cracks from the earthquake.

“Sorry,” I said, “that part of the house hasn’t been fixed yet.”

“They’re all like that,” she observed, in the manner of one who knows about cracked walls.

I heard hurried steps, and Voulis rushed in. He looked in panic.

“We got to go,” he said to me, and he grabbed his cousin’s hand. “Your father’s coming!” He grabbed her by the hand and they were out of the room in a flash, without even a good-bye.

Moments later my father came in. He was covered with of saw-dust—he was always like that when he came from his saw-mill shop, and looked furious.

“Who was that girl?”

I told him, and that she was expecting to become one of my students.

“Never!” he said. “Don’t you dare take her as one.”

“Why not?” He had never meddled in my choice of students, and I knew he was proud of my being a teacher and a respected in the community.

“Her father is a thief.”

I was expecting him to explain what he meant, and he told me that when the fish farm was auctioned—as it happened every four years—he (Zoitsa’s father) had bribed officials to let him bid as low as possible and then close the auction, something that took weeks to conclude, for the bidders came from other nearby towns, and thus he rented it from the government for pennies.

“Her whole family are thieves,” he went on in a calmer tone of voice. “They are manipulators, bribers, stool pigeons when the Italians and Germans were here; and one of their relatives cut me off when I tried to bid for a high school contract.”

I couldn’t argue with him, and didn’t want to.

“And take that piano away. The neighbors are complaining it makes too much noise.”

It went the next day. I was tired of hearing flat notes. A few weeks or so later, Mr. Steriotis told me that Moira had bought it and that he had tuned it for her. “It only needed a few new wires, and of course we had to replace all the keys. It plays like heaven.”

[1] The earthquake of 1948, 6.3 on the Richter scale, flattened the town of Lefkada .