The mule always comes down the same path in my dreams. He’s carrying my reward on his back, and it moves from side to side because of the terrain. I have to lift my head off the ground if I want a better perspective. I try to raise my arm, but it doesn’t move. It’s been shot. And then my head falls back to earth, opening as it hits the rocks.
Inspector Kotsis draped his jacket over the back of the chair, and called out towards the door for some coffee. He would listen to the old man Dmitri’s confession only if someone would bring coffee.
I was told the mule knew the way in and out of the valley. Father Anastasios was very clear about that.
Dmitri, listen to me, boy, don’t try to lead him.
If the mule felt forced in any way, he would stop dead in his tracks. I didn’t want that to happen, because I had never been so far from the village. And I don’t think I could have climbed down from that big black beast by myself. My right leg was numb because the priest’s note was tied so tightly around my thigh—way up here.
I know they’ll want to load the mule with kindling. Don’t forget to say thank you.
I can still see that massive beard of Father Anastasios. He kept it well-groomed, the hairs perfectly fanning out from the mouth. It moved only when he was angry. For a time, I wanted to become a priest just so I could have one.
You make sure you see our friend Christos there. If not, don’t show the note.
I was just a small boy. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t quite understand who was good and who was bad. I was frightened of the Germans, but we fed them whenever they came. Father Anastasios was very clear about that, too. I remember my mother arguing against sharing our food with them, and the way the priest’s beard reared up at the insolence, the way he pounded his fist on my dead father’s table.
You’ll feed them your best cuts of pork, or you’ll burn this village to the ground.
I feared the Germans even more after that, and stepped around their boots carefully.
You’re a good boy.
He tried to explain everything to me as he wrote the note. The Germans were being called away for a short while, and that would put us in danger.
Who will save us, Dmitri, when our homes are burning?
Most of the other villages resented us because we were able to get along with the soldiers. They were all misguided, Father Anastasios proclaimed. We weren’t collaborators, but heroes because we were preserving lives, our way of life.
We’ll settle up with them after the war, boy.
We did have our sympathizers, though, mostly the young men from our village. Father Anastasios had them hiding from the Germans on one of the peaks across the valley. They were his pride and joy, and it wasn’t beyond the priest to say that he had a hand in raising them all. They would come down and patrol the village while the Germans were away.
So there I was, climbing down into the valley atop that beast. Stupid beast. I curse him. I’ve cursed him every day of my life since then. I see him in my dreams from time to time, you know, the kindling piled high on his back. He’s returning from the mountains on the other side. I can tell he’s eaten well because his belly hangs low.
A mule is nothing to fear. Now, if we were talking about a donkey, well, then I would tell you to fear.
He stole my life, that mule did.
Just keep repeating to yourself: he’s a stupid mule. He’s a stupid mule.
All the way down into the valley, I kept on telling the beast that he was nothing more than a stupid mule, and he never complained. It was as if he couldn’t understand me. Still, I spoke in a soft voice because I didn’t want him angry.
I wondered, then, how much kindling the Father’s friend, Christos would give me. If it was too much, I would have to walk by the mule on the way back. What if Christos expected me to ride atop the pile of kindling? Maybe he would hang the bundle between the mule’s legs?
I was lost in thought when that first bullet whizzed by us. The mule reared up and my first reaction was to grab a hold of his mane, those coarse, black hairs. And then I lost my grip.
I picked myself up off the ground and yelled after him to come back. The second shot went through my arm, and still he ran like some kind of devil horse climbing out of the valley, kicking up a storm cloud of dust that gently rolled down the slope. That was when I heard the third and fourth bullet. Two pings—two holes. One through my upper thigh, and one…
It’s not fair that such a young child should know what it feels like to be shot; the sound, the smell, the pain—and then to see your own life’s blood pouring out of your body.
I cried for my dear mother. First for me, and then for her, because I thought she might never see her Dmitri again.
I remember waking for a moment, seeing his huge head, those long lashes. And then I felt the hot spit roll down on the inside of my thigh. He snorted, looked up at me with those beautiful eyes, and then dismissed me outright. He was too busy nibbling at the note tied to my thigh.
Inspector Kotsis smacked the table with an open hand, startling the old man.
“Where’s my fucking coffee?”
The old Dmitri looked to the door as if it might answer the question.
“Wait for me, old man.”
After a short while, the inspector returned holding two coffees.
I remember there was an old woman leaning over me, struggling with the knot. She needed the rope to stop the blood flowing from my arm wound. She kept repeating it was nothing to fret about. It finally came undone, and almost immediately the blood started to flow from the hole in my leg. She hadn’t seen it, I don’t think, but that too was nothing to fret over. She tied the rope tightly around my arm because she had seen that wound first. She looked around, at her own little donkey, at her bundle of kindling he was carrying. There was good rope there, but using it would mean leaving kindling behind, so she jabbed a gnarled finger into the little hole in my thigh instead.
The Germans eventually returned, settled in just as our heroes scrambled away. Father Anastasios made sure my mother kept me in the house while I healed. If the Germans came around to inquire about me, she was to cover my wounds with a heavy blanket and tell them that I was a sickly child, prone to fevers.
When I finally healed, I began to realize that my relationship with the priest had changed, scarred over like my body. He hated my limp, and I tried to conceal it whenever I had to go to him. He would look away, tossing his orders as he did, and I would have to hobble off because there was nothing else there for me.
I never did find out who shot me. Every village had a sniper up in the mountains. It could have been Christos, for all I knew then.
My poor mother tried desperately to keep my spirits up those days, but all I could think about was the look of disgust on Father Anastasios’s face whenever I crossed his path.
And then I came up with a plan.
I sharpened one of my father’s knives on the rocks just outside the village until the edge was as thin as a blade of grass. I rolled it up in an old rag and tucked it away where the soldiers wouldn’t find it.
Because the German commander couldn’t trust us not to poison him, he always sent out two young soldiers for his water.
Nice fellows, those two, with the pink skin and blonde hair, prettier than any of our women were. They set off together, one fine day, their rifles erect on their shoulders, the water canteens clanging between their legs. I had to scramble for my things, my lunch and the knife. I passed Father Anastasios’ mule on the way out of the village, and I just had to show the animal my blade—discreetly, of course.
The Inspector sat up at the mention of a knife.
“Greeks would be coming to line us up.” The old man clenched his fist. “Don’t you see? They were going to make us pay for collaborating with the Germans. They were going to make us pay because we wanted to survive the war. To hell with them. I did what I had to do. Besides, they weren’t from our village.”
As soon as they got out of the commander’s earshot, the two young soldiers started playing, making a game of it. They hung on to their rifles absentmindedly, sometimes dragging them along. I wondered what they would do if they saw me, the armed Greek that was supposed to be so dangerous up in these mountains. It would be an easy kill for me, like catching a goat by the horns while he’s still in the pen, and then slicing his throat. I remember maneuvering myself, my sick leg, into the bushes where they couldn’t see me. I waited for them to fill the canteens, weigh themselves down with the water. But they were in no hurry.
I might have fallen asleep, waiting for those boys to have their fill. I might have been asleep and only dreamt that the devil came out of the woods behind me, hid in the bushes with me, and whispered in my ear. He told me that the water should pool blood red in the village. He chided me that I was too small yet to accomplish such a feat. The soldiers could easily wrestle the knife from my hand. And then they would drag me by the hair back down to the village, make a show of me. They would receive a hero’s welcome and I would have to watch Father Anastasios plead for my life. What shame! What shame!—and then he put his heavy hand on my head and caressed me there.
I remember racing the blood down the mountain, seeing the devil through the trees, and hearing his laughter when I stumbled because of my sick leg.
“Have you gone crazy, old man?” the inspector asked.
Dmitri wasn’t listening. He was just staring down at his hands, as if he were trying to recall another moment from his life.
“Show me your leg.”
The old man looked up then, startled out of his thoughts.
“Come on, old man, stand up.” The inspector rose up out of his own chair. “Come around to my side and pull your trousers down.”
Dmitri stood up and obliged by tugging at the rope that was tied around his waist. The trousers fell around his ankles. But he was still on the wrong side of the table.
Inspector Kotsis motioned with a finger. “Come around to me.”
The old man grimaced, and then began to shuffle and sway, shuffle and wince as if every part of his body was feeling the agony.
“Okay, okay. Stop.”
The inspector pulled the table away, as if drawing one half of a curtain. “Jesus and Mary.” And with that he dropped down into his chair. “What kind of a leg is that?”
The two soldiers were placed in the catch-basin on purpose, so their blood would drain into the water supply. It was all connected, you see. That first tap, way up high in the mountain, drained into the pipe supplying the second tap further down, and so on.
I didn’t really think I would beat him back to the village. I ran because I was scared. He did horrible things to those boys before killing them. You would have run, too, however sick your legs. I stumbled a lot, rolled part way down. And I actually thought I had left him behind when the village came into view.
No one approached when I collapsed in the middle of the square. I think because of the Germans. And then my mother saw me and all the women of the village followed her to me. She cradled my head, feeling my chest with the other hand, searching for bullet holes, I think, wailing all the while.
And then the commander and Father Anastasios pushed their way through the women.
What is it, boy? What’s happened to you?
I read his expression carefully. I listened with my eyes and read something more there. He was hoping beyond all hope that whatever happened to me wouldn’t anger the Germans. He didn’t search me for bullet holes the way my mother did. But that was all right. He needed me at that moment. He was caught completely unaware by the commotion, and I was the only one who could offer an explanation. And then I remembered my plan.
I told them how I met the two soldiers at the edge of the village, and that I went with them to help carry the water back down from the tap. Everyone leaned in as I recounted how we were ambushed as we filled the canteens.
The commander wanted to know how many there were. Five or six, I told him. Were they armed? Just with knives.
I saw Father Anastasios look up at the sky then, mouth some words, and then he eyed me as if the discomfort he was feeling was a far greater inconvenience than the aching pains I would suffer for the rest of my life.
I looked away when he promised the commander that he would give him all the information he needed.
They left me then, with the women. And all I could do was whisper to my mother that she shouldn’t drink the water for a while.
The inspector leaned back on his chair, folding his arms across his chest, a cigarette firmly planted between his lips. He was trying to decide whether to ask the old man to go home. There was too much information here, a lifetime’s worth it seemed. He didn’t know how much longer he would be able to just sit and listen. If he interrupted the old man it might hurt his feelings. He didn’t want that to happen. The old man reminded him of his own grandfather and the way he liked to tell stories. He decided it might be better if he let him continue. He still wasn’t sure where this was going.
The villagers were confused those first days, especially considering that every village was surviving the occupation differently. Who was to say what was right and what was wrong? I figured I had done the village a favor. They should have received me as a hero, once the Germans turned their backs, of course. Instead, they tried to do away with me. They tried to exile me from my village. They removed me from my weeping mother, pried her fingers off me one by one. And then the women threw her to the ground and held her there while the priest took hold of my hair in his massive fist. I didn’t struggle. I simply watched as everything I knew slowly pulled away from me.
Father Anastasios’ black robe shielded me from the underbrush, the jagged rocks. I was so small then. I don’t think he realized I was riding up the mountain on the thick material. He kicked at me with his heels, but it was better than being cut up by the terrain. With his free hand, he swatted at branches and anything else that stood in his way. He cursed me, of course, and I could imagine his massive beard bristling up with each word.
I had never seen him this angry. I begged him for my mother’s sake.
I’ll take good care of her.
I wanted to cry for her then, because she would never see me again. Just think of it, her poor, crippled child lost up in the mountains, feeding on what? And who would rub my aching leg, hold my head when I awoke nightly because of that mule?
I told you, boy, he’s just a stupid mule, a passing thought.
He stopped walking then, because of my whining, and pulled my hair out. He waved that hairy fist in my face, spit as he spoke through his teeth.
I told you, boy. Didn’t I tell you, boy?
He yanked at his robe, sent me tumbling into the underbrush.
I think he was preparing to finish me off then. But there was someone there in the bushes with me, whispering furiously into my ear. I knew Father Anastasios could see him there next to me, because his beard dropped back down onto his chest.
And then he looked at me through pained eyes.
I fully expected him to turn and run, race the devil back down to the village—his precious village. Instead, he yanked the beast right out of the bushes with one of those massive hands of his. He really was a magnificent priest, after all. Truly.
Maybe the old man’s life was coming to an end? The inspector remembered how his grandfather put on his best suit the day he died, how he filled his pockets with what little money he was able hide during his life, how he lay perfectly still when death came to get him. The old Dmitri probably just wanted to confess his life. That could take time. He would have to hurry him along.
But first he wanted to know about the mule.
The mule still comes to me, you know, his head bowed and swinging from side to side as if he were looking for me. I can feel the rocks I’m lying on, and I know I’m back in the valley, all shot up and bloody. And I know why he’s come for me again. He wants what little bit I have left.
The men would group and watch him from afar, nodding their heads in agreement. What man wouldn’t love to own such a mule? They even allowed their women to press their bodies against his, stroke his mane and whisper lovelies in his big ears. Father Anastasios enjoyed this, of course, because it all added to his stature.
We came back down from my short exile with the incredible story of how the priest defeated the devil for my soul. Naturally, I did most of the talking. I was grateful to be back with my mother, after all. I even showed them the bald patch on my head to prove that the devil had had a good grip on me.
Inspector Kotsis looked at his watch. They were out of time.
“You never did get that mule?”
He regretted saying it almost instantly.
He tried to soften the blow. “I mean what with that magnificent priest in the way.”
The old man looked away before replying. “I’ve killed a thousand mules if I’ve killed one this long life. A thousand passing thoughts dissipated with a wave of my hand. Still, I can never be sure if I ever got the right one.” He turned to look Inspector Kotsis in the eyes. “You should consider yourself fortunate there were no mules in your life.”
Now he wanted the old man gone. “I’ve got other business to tend to.”
The old man cleared his throat. “One last piece, then.”
It made no difference to me how old the priest had become. Even in the dark, I could see his cancer. It showed through his skin like a moth black and moist in its cocoon. And he could see mine, spreading, trying desperately to stay alive.
You could have been like a father to me, I told him with my eyes, resting my heavy hand on his shoulder. But he moved away, pulling his robes with him.
You were like my father, I told him and my eyes welled up with tears because I felt his pain.
He looked towards the sound of the wind riding up the mountainside, his arms holding his legs close to his body. He was like a big black rock, as if he had always been a part of that mountain. I could hear the wind as well, and it angered me because it was incessant, like a gossip whispering in my ear.
He could cross the island on foot over the mountains at the center, even when he got old. There wasn’t a man that could keep up with him when he wanted to get to the other side of the island. Not even his mule. To his face, everyone was polite. Reputation will do that, you see. They would ask him how he was doing, mostly in passing, just as a passing thought, but what they really wanted to know was had he indeed collaborated with the enemy during the war?
In the end, he slid down that mountain like a hundred kilo bag of cement.
There’s that one last olive tree in the valley before the earth splits. Not too many people know about it, that split.
That’s where you’ll find him.
His bones are wedged in tight. Had he been a smaller man, he would have traveled all the way down, you know.
In a dream, the inspector was up on that mountainside at night. He was looking for Father Anastasios. He was looking for signs of a struggle, some indication of where that split in the earth is hidden. For the old man’s sake. Because he had been so earnest. Because there must have been some truth to his story. Because he forced him to shuffle away before he had finished his story, his confession.
He owed him that much, at least.
There was no color, hardly any depth. It seemed too easy to misstep on all the loose rock. Still, there was enough of a moon to see the struggle. And then his mind uncovered the split in the earth, and suddenly he had farther to fall.