Showcasing creative writing by university students around the world.

Illustration by Mariska Wiraatmadja

Published Sunday, July 13th, 2014

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Black Olives Part I

by the time i was seventeen i had eaten my first meal paid for by prostitution - lasagne. i only worked one night: two brothers, one after the other. they’d just returned from a merchant voyage, which killed half the crew. the first brother agreed to pay me more money, as i was a virgin. the second brother was so drunk that he agreed to the same.

“just as flowers turn their heads towards the sun, so too does the past (that which has been) turn, by virtue of a secret kind of heliotropism, towards the sun which is dawning in the sky of history.”
– w. benjamin, ‘theses on the concept of history’, iv
וַאֲכַלְתֶּם יָשָׁן נוֹשָׁן וְיָשָׁן מִפְּנֵי חָדָשׁ תּוֹצִיאוּ
“you will eat very old [produce],
and you will clear out the old from before the new.”
– leviticus, 26:10
by the time i was seventeen i had eaten my first meal paid for by prostitution – lasagne. i only worked one night: two brothers, one after the other. they’d just returned from a merchant voyage, which killed half the crew. the first brother agreed to pay me more money, as i was a virgin. the second brother was so drunk that he agreed to the same.

in may nineteenfortythree i was on the outskirts of volos trying to hitchhike my way into the pelion mountains, looking for work. thessaly was under italian control, and mostly italian military vehicles patrolled the road. they would rarely go much beyond the edge of town//the mountains were a stronghold for the e.a.m.[1] after three hours a vehicle pulled up and offered to take me towards pelion. the driver’s gay disposition gave him away as italian despite his fluent greek. his name was angelos. he was heading to a small olive farm up in the mountains and said that the farmer might have some work to offer me.
the farm consisted of five hundred olive trees, all ancient. apostolos harvested the olives alone, and had done for thirty years. the olives were renowned for their quality//angelos attributed this to “agricultural compassion”. apostolos was renowned for his bizzarity, revered from a rocky distance as a cultural oddity. an italian soldier told angelos he once saw the old man by the side of a road take a chicken by the foot and wave it around his head, crying all the while.[2]
the drive to the farm was a few hours, and the roads grew dustier. angelos told me he came from a farming family in italy and on his transfer to greece had taken a personal interest in the local agricultural community.[3] he was returning glass bottles to apostolos; they rattled paradiddles up the road.
apostolos had a head of grey stubble and a grey moustache. i sat in the car whilst the two men spoke and unloaded the bottles. when the last bottle was unloaded angelos came to the door and leaned through the window, smiling. apostolos invited us to stay for some food. i stepped out and angelos gestured as if presenting a cake. apostolos looked up and down, pulled the sweat from his moustache and said, simply, “good”.
we ate fried fish and drank milk. angelos//eager to impress//discussed the need to restore the regional producers to their former glory – to the tradition which apostolos bore on his shoulders. the italians would ensure thessaly remained strong throughout the war by achieving maximal agricultural output without compromising its historic “agricultural compassion”; not a single olive with a blemish. greek produce was perfection. apostolos drank four glasses of milk. when angelos realised he’d said too much he gave his thanks and left. apostolos had asked me to stay indefinitely to help harvest the crop of nineteenfortythree.

on tuesday week I’ll turn eightynine, that’s february eighteenth; february eighteenth, that’s the last day of aquarius in the zodiac. aquarius runs from january twentieth to february eighteenth; the water bearer represents aquarius; aquarius is the water bearer.

apostolos showed me to a small room at the side of the farmhouse. he made me coffee in the morning, as he would do every morning for the next few months. he walked barefoot with me between the warped trunks, explaining how each olive was coerced, not plucked, stroked, not threshed; how each olive was then left to lie in the shade beneath the tree which bore it; how each olive was hand washed; how some olives were left on the ground longer to arouse the jealousy of others.[4] apostolos repeatedly told me that his olives were free range, and he called his work his engagement. he always laughed at this, although he was completely serious.
apostolos showed me the areas which would be mine to harvest, and he showed me the areas which were his. our work was split equally, and we would bear the same weights. under no circumstances was i to enter his section whilst he was working, and he would not enter mine. this separation would sanctify our respective engagements, he told me. on the far side of the trees stood a wooden structure. this was a storage facility and contained old and broken machinery. under no circumstances was i to enter this building, he said.
when we returned to the farmhouse that afternoon we found angelos outside, leaning on the front of his car. he had brought the farmer a silver flask[5] filled with whiskey to thank him for the meal. apostolos thanked him and went inside. then, when we were alone by the car, angelos asked me if i’d like to come to vollos to a dance two weeks on sunday. i was overcome by the situation, as neither of the two aforementioned brothers had asked me to a dance. i casually said “yes”.

by the time i was sixteen i had left my father’s house. i had a sister four years younger than me. our mother died giving birth to her. i used to wrestle with her for fun.

i was instructed verbally in the preparation of the ground for harvest. we never crossed paths. we moistened the soil and laid meshed fabrics beneath the trees. the ground became a spongy web. observing the progress of the fruit: silence, taut limbs, peeled back eyelids. between breakfast and dinner i would see apostolos only once, just after midday at a brick well on the edge of the grove.
when angelos arrived on the day of the dance i was vomiting in the garden. i can’t remember if this was a good omen or not. we danced three dances. i was shy to the extent that i constantly overstepped, and marched us into the backs of a military couple just as i meant to ask if he was having a good time.
after we had drunk four lemonades he told me he secretly envied my work with apostolos. would i mind if he asked about it? he wanted to know if we produced more than one type of olive. he wanted to know if we really carpeted the ground with meshed nets. but most of all he wanted to know if the meticulous standards of the antediluvian apostolos meant some olives fell short of the mark, so to speak. if some olives were left on that jealous web for so long that the only thing to pick them up was the late autumn winds, and the only teeth to bite them the winter frost. “i don’t know. the harvest hasn’t begun yet,” i reminded him.
his questions made me knowledgeable. i – at his mercy in the dance-hall-company of italian soldiers – took comfort in his helpless sincerity. i savoured my matter-of-fact-ness – a boiled sweet. so in the car i allowed him to expound on the necessity for maximum agricultural output in times of war[6]: nothing could be wasted. if only all farmers maintained the twin peaks of quality without waste, as apostolos did. when we got back to the farm he kissed me.

i like to have a wash of a morning. i carry the water in buckets to my bedroom and pour them into a wooden bowl that sits on a chair in the corner. i continue to do this despite the fact that i now have taps. i’ve been in this habit since i was twelve.

apostolos claimed never to have seen a crop ripen so late. by august fourteenth angelos and i were dancing once a week, and we had eaten five meals under the hospitality of the ever-guarded apostolos. the olives were still not ready.
by august twentyfirst, angelos’ polemics on the maximal output of crops had grown more impassioned and irrational. he dreamt of packed harbours in vollos, fuelling italian-greek mercantile supremacy. all produce must be commercialised, the ports flooded with crates, to convincingly reinstate mediterranean[7] power in global agriculture. his vision was agitated. he was desperate to know about our farm, its output efficiency, how quality was controlled… and the more the currency of my selective replies[8] increased in value//the more i loved him.
every sunday without fail, apostolos loaded four crates of fresh milk, fish, olive oil and matches into a wicker basket and set the basket on his back with a leather harness. he told me he was going to church. he was always in good spirits on sunday evenings. but by august nineteenth the e.a.m had consolidated control of the pelion mountains and they came directly to the farmhouse each sunday at twelve to collect their basket.

i had a sister four years younger than me. our mother died giving birth to her. i used to wrestle with her for fun. when she started getting stronger I had to hit her hard to win. i was so shocked, i would beg her to stop crying. then my father would come in and demand to know what happened, what have you done? what happened? i would silently shake my head in fear and he would remind me, “you don’t know very much, do you?” by the time i was sixteen I had left my father’s house.

september first, apostolos came into my room early. he spilt coffee over the sheets. the olives were ready. he took me to his trees[9] to show me how the olives were harvested. beginning with the last tree and walking backwards so that no olive was stepped on: each olive was coerced not plucked, stroked not threshed; each olive was then left to lie in the shade beneath the tree which bore it. we worked for fourteen hours in complete separation until each olive lay in the ground webs we’d laid.
angelos knew on september fourth that the italians had capitulated to the allies. german forces were to begin the takeover of all regions under italian control on september eighth[10]. italian soldiers could choose to join the axis of their own accord, or face internment. he told me all this on september fifth when he came to the farm to explain why there would be no more dances at the italian barracks. angelos felt that he was viewed favourably by the german officer who was overseeing the italian occupation: he could continue to do administrative work – and perhaps find a place in the agricultural sector. and how could he bear to be locked away or sent back to italy, when he loved me[11] and wanted to see me all the time?
the sixth, the seventh and the eighth were hot. apostolos spoke less and less in the mornings and the evenings. the work of collecting the olives from the ground and mesh kept us apart all day. on the night of the eighth we heard gunfire in the woods. on the ninth i came back to the farmhouse at seven o’clock to find apostolos treating a wounded e.a.m soldier. on the tenth, angelos arrived in his new uniform. we rushed round to the back of the house and kissed. we were going to dance again, only this time to german music.
i didn’t tell apostolos. he knew, but he only ever showed indifference. angelos had been my host to the italian dance; we were both strange women amongst the germans. angelos//eager to impress//was somehow effeminate, and i – shy – played a mute. upon introducing me to officer bergsteiger, angelos engaged the six foot starch-pressed nazi on the future of greece as the agricultural powerhouse of the fuhrer’s europa.[12] angelos was keen to assert greek produce as focal to a functioning nazi army. bergsteiger responded with a story, which was both direct response to and incongruous dismissal of angelos’ naïvety: a greek farmer, in the face of falling crop prices, was burning produce to keep supply low and inflate market prices. within the few days since the germans had taken control of thessaly, three such farmers had been uncovered in a collusive ring of crop burners. needless to say what happened to the wasteful greek. a nazi-complicit athenian was handed the keys to the farm. intelligent greeks – he was sure – would seize the day to secure their nation’s prominence in the reich’s programme for southern europe, especially now the italians had capitulated. angelos[13]//eager to impress//was effeminate, and i – shy – played a mute.
i know what you must think of them, he told me in the car, the way they dismiss italians is vile to me too – and the greek farmer, but… i was smoking a cigarette a german soldier had offered me. we had to be practical, he continued, and tactical. he loved me so much, and that had to be the most important thing(?) if he managed to get an agricultural position under the germans, we could truly have our own life. and yet he hated them. and yet he loved me. and yet he hated them. and yet loved me. i thought he was an idiot. but when – parked outside the farm – he switched off the engine and lent over to kiss me, i pulled him closer. secretly and smugly castigating him for all his flaws allowed me to hold on in that moment.
even the immaturity of his erotic desires gave me a powerful sense of knowledge. yet i was nervous when we crept up to the window and found apostolos reading in the kitchen.[14] and by the time angelos was whispering mi-amors and fumbling around in the dusk with the lock of the old machinery shed[15], i had stopped thinking. the door slid open without a whimper to reveal the most horrific mountain – a mountain of deformed, rotting, desecrated black olives. “waste!” angelos cried, “waste!” i had lied, he screamed. i had misled him. and suddenly i saw his eyes turn that mountain of waste into his mountain of opportunity as he slammed the door shut, ushering in the coming of the bergsteiger. there lay a piece of knowledge utterly destructive and inassimilable. i remember picturing apostolos’ stoicism: noble; now futile.
half an hour of tears gave way to confusion[16] at apostolos, who was wasting all these olives whilst greeks were starving to death, and anger, as angelos’ opportunism could no longer be contained by self-congratulatory secrets. was apostolos part of a collusion to inflate market prices? was angelos part of a nazi plot to take control of greek farms? all the possible answers overlapped each other until i couldn’t see any. first i resented apostolos’ sacred separation, which did nothing but leave me ignorant and impotent; then i resented angelos’ actions, which forced me to feel the conditions of that very ignorance. and then i saw this muffled future with two histories: the expulsion of apostolos; the expiation of angelos.
apostolos made me fish soup. i was consumed by the urge to confront him with those desecrated olives, but confronting him would add more to my burden. suspecting that the morning would only bring a violent revelation, i didn’t know whether to just be resigned either way. the knowledge had done me no good; i doubted it would help apostolos. i poked at the food in silence. apostolos seemed disarmed by my sudden depression.[17] he proceeded to tell me the first and last joke i ever heard him tell. i remember that his sincerity in the telling crushed me//in the early days of the revolution, a circle of young revolutionaries was caught reading forbidden texts by the king’s men. the ringleader was brought to the gallows in a public square before a jeering crowd. the executioner bent down to the young revolutionary, and in a rare act of compassion offered him one last cigarette. the revolutionary turned his head in the noose and calmly replied, “no thank you, i’m trying to quit.”//apostolos took a spoonful of soup and sputtered a chuckle as he brought it to his mouth. my selfish silence in the face of his kindness was an unbearable affront.[18] i murmured my thanks and ran to my room in tears.

[1] * the national liberation front (greek: Εθνικό Απελευθερωτικό Μέτωπο, ethniko apeleftherotiko metopo, e.a.m) was the main movement of the greek resistance during the axis occupation of greece in world war ii. its main driving force was the communist party of greece (k.k.e), but its membership throughout the occupation period included several other leftist and republican groups. the e.a.m became the first true mass social movement in modern greek history, and even established its own government, the political committee of national liberation, in the areas it had liberated in spring nineteenfortyfour.
[2]* כַּפָּרָה – kapara – penance, atonement, forgiveness, absolution; (colloquial) forget it, it’s not important; (reconciliation with misfortune in the hope that it will serve as penance); (slang) my sweet, my darling (literally: my penance (to ward off the evil eye)); כפרות – expiation – jewish folk custom during the days prior to the day of atonement to transfer one’s sins to a chicken or to money given to charity.
[3]*everybody in thessaly is in some way part of the agricultural community. despite (or perhaps because of) my early troubles, i was not then cynical enough to think this.
[4]*believed to encourage secretion of a richer oil. an erotic agriculture, i thought.
[5]*a war trinket, he claimed.
[6]*the occupation brought about terrible hardships for the greek civilian population. over threethousand civilians died in athens alone from starvation, tens of thousands more died because of reprisals by nazis and collaborators, and the country’s economy was ruined. despite my measured games, some of what he said spoke to me, and the difficulty of paying for that lasagne.
[7]*i presume he meant aegean too.
[8]**my tactical endorsements
[9]*breaking the sanctimonious separation so i could replicate his meticulous method.
[10]*the armistice of cassibile was an armistice signed on september  third nineteenfortythree, and made public on september eighth, between the kingdom of italy and the allies (“united nations”) of world war ii.
[11]**he declared here that he loved me.
[12]*champagne toasts punctuated this interaction wherever appropriate.
[13]**angelos managed to wince and smile simultaneously. for some reason i found his duplicity attractive.
[14]*it was only about seven o’clock.
[15]**the forbidden machinery storehouse.
[16]*i can only express these reflections as confusions and/or questions, but the experience was entirely visionary.
[17]*perhaps he hoped i was overwhelmed with the horror of the mere encounter with the nazis.
[18]**all i could think of was my horror at myself, for accepting the cigarette from the german soldier a few hours before.

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