Wonderful a fistful of snow in the mouths
of men suffering summer heat
Wonderful the spring winds
for mariners who long to set sail
And more wonderful still the single sheet
over two lovers on a bed.
I like quoting ancient verses when the occasion is apt. I remember most of what I hear, and I listen all day but sometimes I do not know how to fit everything together. When this happens I cling to words or phrases which seem to ring true.
In the quartier around Plaka, which a century or so ago was a swamp and is now where the market is held, I'm called Tsobanakos. This means a man who herds sheep. A man from the mountains. I was given this name on account of a song.
Each morning before I go to the market I polish my black shoes and brush the dust off my hat which is a Stetson. There is a lot of dust and pollution in the city and the sun makes them worse. I wear a tie too. My favourite is a flashy blue and white one. A blind man should never neglect his appearance. If he does, there are those who jump to false conclusions. I dress like a jeweller and what I sell in the market are tamata.
Tamata are appropriate objects for a blind man to sell for you can recognise one from another by touch. Some are made of tin, others of silver and some of gold. All of them are as thin as linen and each one is the size of a credit card. The word tama comes from the verb t?zo, to make an oath. In exchange for a promise made, people hope for a blessing or a deliverance. Young men buy a tama of a sword before they do their military service, and this is a way of asking: May I come out of it unhurt.
Or something bad happens to somebody. It may be an illness or an accident. Those who love the person who is in danger make an oath before God that they will perform a good act if the loved one recovers. When you are alone in the world, you can even do it for yourself.
Before my customers go to pray, they buy a tama from me and put a ribbon through its hole, then they tie it to the rail by the ikons in the church. Like this they hope God will not forget their prayer.
Into the soft metal of each tama is pressed an emblem of the part of the body in danger. An arm or a leg, a stomach or a heart, hands, or, as in my case, a pair of eyes. Once I had a tama on which a dog was embossed, but the priest protested and maintained that this was a sacrilege. He understands nothing, this priest. He has lived all his life in Athens, so he doesn't know how in the mountains a dog can be more important, more useful than a hand. He can't imagine that the loss of a mule may be worse than a leg which does not heal. I quoted the Evangelist to him: Consider the ravens: they do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn. Yet God feeds them . . . When I told him this, he pulled at his beard and turned his back as if on the Devil.
Bouzouki players have more to say than priests about what men and women need.
What I did before I went blind, I'm not going to tell you. And if you had three guesses they'd all be wrong.
The story begins last Easter. On the Sunday. It was mid-morning and there was a smell of coffee in the air. The smell of coffee drifts farther when the sun is out. A man asked me whether I had anything for a daughter. He spoke in broken English.
A baby? I enquired.
She's a woman now.
Where is she suffering? I asked.
Everywhere, he said.
Perhaps a heart would be suitable? I eventually suggested, feeling with my fingers to find a tama in the tray and holding it out to him.
Is it made of tin? His accent made me think he was French or Italian. I guess he was my age, perhaps a little older.
I have one in gold if you wish, I said in French.
She can't recover, he replied.
Most important is the oath you make, sometimes there's nothing else to do.
I'm a railwayman, he said, not a voodoo man. Give me the cheapest, the tin one.
I heard his clothes squeaking as he pulled out a wallet from his pocket. He was wearing leather trousers and a leather jacket.
There's no difference between tin and gold for God, is there?
You came here on a motorbike?
With my daughter for four days. Yesterday we drove to see the temple of Poseidon.
You've seen it? You have been there? Excuse me.
I touched my black glasses with a finger and said: I saw the temple before this.
How much does the tin heart cost?
Unlike a Greek, he paid without questioning the price.
What is her name?
N I N O N. He spelt out each letter.
I will think of her, I said, arranging the money. And as I said this, I suddenly heard a voice. His daughter must have been elsewhere in the market. Now she was beside him.
My new sandals-look! Handmade. Nobody would guess I've just bought them. I might have been wearing them for years. Maybe I bought them for my wedding, the one that didn't happen.
The strap between the toes doesn't hurt? the railwayman asked.
Gino would have liked them, she said. He has good taste in sandals.
The way they tie at the ankle is very pretty.
They protect you if you walk on broken glass, she said.
Come here a moment. Yes, the leather's nice and soft.
Remember, Papa, when I was small and you dried me after my shower and I sat on the towel on your knee, and you used to tell me how each little toe was a magpie who stole this and that and this and flew away . . .
She spoke with a cool clipped rhythm. No syllable slurred or unnecessarily prolonged.
Voices, sounds, smells bring gifts to my eyes now. I listen or I inhale and then I watch as in a dream. Listening to her voice I saw slices of melon carefully arranged on a plate, and I knew I would immediately recognise Ninon's voice should I hear it again.
Several weeks went by. Somebody speaking French in the crowd, my selling another tama with a heart on it, the screech of a motorcycle tearing away from the traffic lights-from time to time such things reminded me of the railwayman and his daughter Ninon. The two of them passed by, they never stayed. Then one night, at the beginning of June, something changed.
In the evenings, I walk home from Plaka. One of the effects of blindness is that you can develop an uncanny sense of time. Watches are useless-though sometimes I sell them-yet I know to the minute what time of day it is. On my way home I regularly pass ten people to whom I say a few words. To them I'm a reminder of the hour. Since a year one of the ten has been Kostas-but he and I are another story, as yet untold.
On the bookshelves in my room I keep the tamata, my many pairs of shoes, a tray of glasses with a carafe, my fragments of marble, some pieces of coral, some conch shells, my baglama on the top shelf-I seldom take it down-a jar of pistachio nuts, a number of framed photographs-yes-and my pot plants: hibiscus, begonia, asphodels, roses. I touch them each evening to see how they are doing and how many new flowers have come out.
After a drink and a wash, I like to take the train to Piraeus. I walk along the quayside, asking the occasional question to inform myself which big ships have docked and which ones are going to sail that night, and then I spend the evening with my friend Yanni. Nowadays he runs a small bar.
Sights are ever-present. That's why eyes get tired. But voices-like everything to do with words-they come from far away. I stand at Yanni's bar and I listen to old men talking.
Yanni is the age of my father. He was a rembetis, a bouzouki player, with a considerable following after the war and played with the great Markos Vamvakarious. Nowadays he picks up his six-stringed bouzouki only when old friends ask him. They ask him most nights and he has forgotten nothing. He plays sitting on a cane-seated chair with a cigarette stuck between the fourth and little finger of his left hand, touching the frets. It can happen that if he plays, I dance.
When you dance to a rembetiko song, you step into the circle of the music and the rhythm is like a round cage with bars, and there you dance before the man or woman who once lived the song. You dance a tribute to their sorrow which the music is throwing out.
Drive Death out of the yard
So I don't have to meet him.
And the clock on the wall
Leads the funeral dirge.
Listening night after night to rembetika is like being tattooed.
Ah my friend, Yanni said to me that June evening after we'd drunk two glasses of raki, why don't you live with him?
He's not blind, I said.
You repeat yourself, he said.
I left the bar to buy some souvlaki to eat at the corner. Afterwards, as I often do, I asked Vasilli, the grandson, to carry a chair for me and I installed myself on the pavement a good way down the narrow street opposite some trees where the troughs of silence are deeper. Behind my back was a blind wall facing west and I could feel the warmth it had stored during the day.
Distantly I heard Yanni playing a rembetiko which he knew was one of my favourites:
Your eyes, little sister,
Crack open my heart.
For some reason I didn't return to the bar. I sat on the cane-seated chair with my back to the wall and my stick between my legs and I waited, as you wait before you slowly get to your feet to dance. That rembetiko ended, I guess, without anyone dancing to it.
I sat there. I could hear the cranes loading, they load all night. Then a completely silent voice spoke, and I recognised it as the railwayman's.
Federico, he is saying, come sta? It's good to hear you, Federico. Yes, I'm leaving early tomorrow morning, in a few hours, and I will be with you on Friday. Don't forget, Federico, all the champagne I pay, I pay, so order three, four crates! Whatever you think. Ninon's my only daughter. And she's getting married. S?. Certo.
The railwayman is talking Italian into a telephone and standing in the kitchen of his three-roomed house in the town of Modane on the French side of the Alps. He is a signalman, Grade II, and the name on his letterbox is Jean Ferrero. His parents were emigrants from the rice town of Vercelli in Italy.
The kitchen is not big and seems smaller because of a large motorbike on its stand behind the front door which gives on to the street. The way the saucepans have been left on the stove shows that the cooking is done by a man. In his room, as in mine in Athens, there's no trace of a feminine touch. A room where a man lives without a woman, and man and room are used to it.
The railwayman hangs up the telephone, goes over to the kitchen table where a map is spread out and picks up a list of road numbers and towns: Pinerolo, Lombriasco, Torino, Casale Monferrato, Pavia, Casalmaggiore, Borgoforte, Ferrara. With scotchtape he sticks the list beside the dials of the bike. He checks the brake fluid, the cooling liquid, the oil, the pressure of the tyres. He feels the weight of the chain with his left forefinger to test whether it's tight enough. He turns the ignition on. The dials light up red. He examines the two headlights. His gestures are methodical, careful and-above all-gentle, as if the bike was alive.
Twenty-six years ago Jean lived in this same three-roomed house with his wife, who was called Nicole. One day Nicole left him. She said she had had enough of him working at nights and spending every other minute organising for the CGT and reading pamphlets in bed-she wanted to live. Then she slammed the front door and never came back to Modane. They had no children.
On the train going back to Athens the same night, I heard piano music being played in another city.
A wide staircase which has neither carpet nor wallpaper but a polished wooden handrail. The music comes from an apartment on the fifth floor. The lift seldom works here. It can't be either a record or a compact disc, it's an ordinary cassette. There is a slight dust on all the sounds. A nocturne for piano.
Inside the apartment a woman is seated on an upright chair in front of a tall window which gives on to a balcony. She has just opened the curtains and is gazing over the night roofs of a city. Her hair is drawn back in a bun and her eyes are tired. All day she has worked on detailed engineering drawings for an underground parking lot. She sighs and rubs the fingers of her left hand which ache. Her name is Zdena.
Twenty-five years ago she was a student in Prague. She tried to reason with the Russian soldiers who entered the city in their Red Army tanks on the night of August 20, 1968. The following year, on the anniversary of the night of the tanks, she joined a crowd in Wenceslaus Square. A thousand of them were carted off by the police and five were killed. A few months later several close friends were arrested, and on Christmas Day, 1969, Zdena managed to get across the frontier to Vienna and from there she travelled to Paris.
She met Jean Ferrero at an evening organised for Czech refugees in Grenoble. She noticed him as soon as he came into the room, for he was like an actor she had once seen in a Czech film about railway workers. Later, when she found out he really worked on the railways, she felt sure he was destined to become her friend. He asked her how to say in Czech: Bohemia is my country. And this made her laugh. They became lovers.
Excerpted from To the Wedding by John Berger. Copyright © 1996 by John Berger. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.