5180 words, short story
The Nightingales in Plátres
“ . . . if one generation rose up after another like the leaves of the forest, if one generation succeeded the other as the songs of birds in the woods, if the human race passed through the world as a ship through the sea or the wind through the desert, a thoughtless and fruitless whim . . . how empty and devoid of comfort would life be!”
[ . . . ]
“Silently they rode for three days; but on the fourth morning Abraham said not a word but lifted up his eyes and beheld Mount Moriah in the distance.”
Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling
Stranded, nomads on a nomad rock. Tied down on this unnamed planet for precious months, without reason, by forces we cannot comprehend. Nomad fathers and nomad sons. Punished, perhaps? By God, by Panayía. For what deviance? It is hard to know His will. Harder yet to know His ways of measuring transgression.
These thoughts keep Captain Yánnis Bostantzóglou awake through the sleeping hours—these, and the incessant song of nightingales echoing through the spaceship’s hull. A line from an antique poem by the ancestral Seféris plays in Yánnis’ mind, about Helen, and Agamemnon, and the futile struggles of Greeks: “The nightingales,” it went, “the nightingales won’t let you sleep in Plátres.” And they don’t, they don’t. As if the entire damn ship was built to fit that one, old verse.
And what have we got but old verses? Yánnis asks himself, as has been his usual manner of late. Because who else can he burden with such questions?
He looks over to the sleeping figure of his young son. His breathing is regular, calm. He is not dreaming, then, and the nightingales don’t bother him.
The nightingales, the nightingales. Is this Plátres? Yánnis wonders. And are these nightingales? Empty imitations of birds frozen in embryonic banks, deep in the ship’s womb, recordings played over and over and over, plucked from a past none of us have known. What is asked of us? All we have to do is believe. And isn’t faith the hardest thing to get when you don’t already possess it, but the easiest thing to keep when you do?
They tried to program the ship to cease the nightingale song during the sleeping hours, or at least dim it, make it less intrusive, softer, a lullaby even. They found it was one of the features that were impossible to access and modify. For some reason, the people who built the ship wanted it to always echo with the song of nightingales. Something about the song’s effect on the population’s health, they guessed. Or maybe they had just been told to do so by God, and they, of course, obeyed.
Will our great-great-grandchildren have forgotten all about the birds of old Earth? Will they think them a myth made up by their senile ancestors, a rumor propagated by those disembodied songs, these ghosts of birds past?
The boy shifts in his berth. His long hair crowns his head, curly and strong, like a halo. His son’s head. His son’s hair. This gift of a son.
Yánnis gives up on trying to sleep—besides, the whole ship will soon come to life for another make-believe morning. Another shift of waiting for the wave that will get them off this rock, another prayer to be allowed to continue on their long, slow journey to the system of Tau Ceti. Another day on Nóstos II.
He sits up on his berth and runs his fingers through his long beard before tying it with an elastic band. All the men wear their beards this way. It would be easier to keep them short and trimmed, but this is not the tradition. Nóstos II is nothing if not traditional.
Yánnis slips out of his compartment as quietly as possible so as not to disturb Panayótis. He makes his way along the jungle that spans the bulk of the ship. The nightingale song is even louder out here. Yánnis lets the vegetation brush against his face and breathes in the warm, moist air. It is a good life, this, despite everything.
He enters the prayer room, his head hung low, his hands clasped in front of him, as is the proper way. There is a single flame burning in the old manouáli candlestand. It smells faintly of beeswax—an artificial scent, of course, as they ran out of natural beeswax candles long before Yánnis was born. The flame has almost consumed the entire stalk of the candle and is lapping at the sand that fills the bottom of the manouáli. There is no other light in the prayer room.
Yánnis approaches slowly and lights another candle. “For Léna,” he whispers. His breath still catches whenever he utters his wife’s name. Léna’s sister Maríka is single. She’s also the best genetic match for Yánnis. Soon, they would have to be wed. But not yet. Not before the widower’s sorrow has turned into a dull ache, no longer the sharp stab of a blade. It’s only been fifteen Earth months. They still measure time in the traditional way.
The flickering flame of the candle casts shadows across the room. Yánnis runs his hand over the tiny boxes that line the walls until he finds the one that holds Léna’s bone, right above his ancestors’. Léna, Léna. She only got to enjoy their son for three short years. “This is the bargain I made,” she told him with her last breath.
He traces her name with his finger, and then he bends over and touches it with his lips. He does not kiss it. He vowed never to kiss again after that day, the day they crashed. Not even his son. Not even Panayía.
He turns to face Her icon, almost indiscernible in the half-dark of the prayer room. Panayía Hagiosorítissa. Madonna Advocate, he prays silently, advocate for us, so we can get off this unholy place.
He contemplates the Virgin Mary, clad in deep purple, head covered, facing him just so, her arms raised in supplication. She is alone in this icon, without her Child. She is pointing towards Her Son, presumably to an icon of Christ that would be standing next to hers. Is this loneliness of the divinity what drove Léna to ask Her? To make the heaviest táma, to bargain her life for a child? And the lonely God provided, She did.
It was Yánnis’ earliest known ancestor who carried the icon with him as he was fleeing genocide in the early 1900s, not even a century before Nóstos began its own journey. All the way from Anatolia to Greece, across the Black Sea, and the icon was all his ancestor took with him. Half his family drowned, but this, this he saved. He, too, had made a táma in exchange for safe passage. What price he’d paid, no one knew, but when the Bostantzoglaíoi stepped onto Greek soil, the icon, they say, wept tears of salt.
Our fleeing so different, Yánnis thinks, and yet so similar. A leap of faith across the black, manifold sea of space. And then, he kneels in front of Her icon, makes the sign of the cross in the traditional way, and begs, his prayer full of questions.
“Panayía, what have we done wrong?” he asks. “Why are we bound on this dead, rogue planet? Why can’t we move? What do I have to do? Help us go. Help us, help us. Panayía.”
He didn’t hear his son coming in, or he wouldn’t have spoken his despair out loud. He dries his eyes quickly and hopes the candlelight is not enough for Panayótis to make out the fear on his father’s face.
“What is wrong, son?” he whispers. “Why aren’t you asleep?” He opens his arms, inviting the child to come near.
“The nightingales,” the sleepy boy whispers, rubbing his eyes. He still lingers near the prayer room’s entrance.
“Ah, yes, the nightingales.” Some people get used to them, eventually. Some don’t. Yánnis pats his knees. “Come here,” he says.
The child approaches and hides inside his father’s arms. Yánnis touches his forehead to his son’s and rests his arms on the boy’s shoulders as gently as he can, as if afraid to touch him, to hug him, so as not to harm him. This is how fragile he thinks him, his son, his only son. The precious, rare son. They named him after Her. How could they not?
“Here,” Yánnis says, lifting the child above his head, “give Panayía a kiss.”
Panayótis crosses himself as his father raises him closer to the icon, and then kisses the Virgin Mary’s forehead. His lips leave behind the faintest of marks on the ancient luster.
“Well done,” Yánnis says, caressing the boy’s hair. “Now off. Go find Aunt Maríka. I have work to do here.”
As soon as he’s alone again, Yánnis kneels before the icon and plunges back into his prayer.
This planet is death. It has no star. No name. No air.
He lifts his arm and touches the bottom of the wooden icon with his fingers.
“Are you punishing us, Panayía?” He closes his eyes and hits his forehead with his fists, again and again. The repairs have been completed for months. They have waited too long for a Dirac wave that their space drive can grip. They have waited and waited and waited. “Tell me what I have to do,” he pleads.
Then, there is the voice. It shakes him, utterly and completely. It obliterates every other thought and fills his mind, his breath, this room, this life, this vast, vast space.
YOUR ANCESTOR SAID, MAY MY SEED DIE OUT, IF ONLY I WOULD GET TO SEE THE SUN OF GREECE.
Is this true?
YOUR WIFE SAID, MAY WE NEVER REACH THIS NEW EARTH, IF ONLY I WOULD GET TO NURSE A SON.
It cannot. This cannot.
THEY WERE SELFISH, YANNI. WILL YOU BE SELFISH TOO?
Tears flood Yánnis’ eyes. The lonely God finally speaks. She speaks to him and he’s on his knees. He’s on his knees and there is terror in his heart.
“What are you asking? I will gladly give You anything.”
The air is knocked out of his lungs. He has no voice, and yet he manages to speak. “What sacrifice?” he asks. “My life? My light? This very ship?”
THE SON WHOM YOU LOVE.
He opens his mouth to speak and closes it again. But I have only one, he wants to say. I have no other than the one whom I love.
Then the awful question blooms in his mind: Has he always known he’d have to give him up, eventually, his son, his only son? And then, the thought: Curse you, my ancestor, my root. Curse you, Léna, my love. How could you? And then: How could you not?
GIVE HIM UP, YANNI, the voice says.
GIVE HIM BACK.
Yánnis stands up, his hands curled into fists. He wants to shout. He wants to cry out: Why would God demand such things?
But then he falls to his knees again. He refrains from mouthing such questions. For the will of Panayía is unknowable and great, and to seek to know it is to seek to extinguish one’s mind. So, instead, he thinks of how Léna, when she was to wean the child, blackened her breasts with soot. And he is reminded again of the philosopher’s unfathomable, insatiable emptiness lying beneath everything, of Abraham’s leap of faith, and of Agamemnon’s—that one more dreadful still; because his leap had been a bargain, not a test.
Did Abraham doubt? Yánnis wonders. Did Agamemnon?
A son for a son. A daughter for a deer, a deer for a wind. Is it a sin to doubt?
Both these fathers were spared the unthinkable pain, Yánnis thinks to himself, so why wouldn’t he too? Why would he be any different, his faith lesser, his leap greater?
“Without you, Panayía,” he says out loud, his words echoing in the darkened prayer room, “what would living be but despair?”
The brightness of the corridor hurts his eyes. He rests his back against the thick layer of ivy that covers the walls on one side of the prayer room door. His head is spinning, his eyelids burn. He brings his trembling hands to his face—to hide it or to block out the light, he’s not sure. It takes him a while to realize his beard has come undone.
“Are you all right, Yánni?”
Maríka has grabbed his shoulder and is squeezing it gently. He didn’t see her coming.
“Did you hear?” he asks.
He takes a good look at Maríka’s face, her dark eyes, her arched nose. No. She has no idea. God chose him. Him and him alone.
“Where is my son?” he asks.
She brings the back of her hand to his forehead, the way mothers do to feel for a child’s temperature. “I’ve sent him to the database to study. What is wrong with you?”
He thinks of Seferis’ poem again, his Plátres inhabited by myths. In that poem, Teukros, the exiled youth, sent to found a new home in Cyprus, ran into Eléni, who revealed to him she never went to Troy. The sacrifice, the war, the dead, the long trip home—it was all for nothing.
Does he remember this right?
A daughter for a deer, a deer for a wind, a wind for a war, the war for naught. Léna, no, Eléni, nothing but a phantom, a cloud. An empty shirt, that Helen.
Let’s call this planet Moriah, he wants to say. Let’s not call it Aulis.
He looks at the monitor across the hall. It’s displaying the ship’s surroundings, the empty, barren planet that has trapped them, that is testing them—because what else can this be but a test, this irrational becalming?
“Isn’t it funny we have been stuck on a nomad planet for so long?” he asks. Little gravity, no atmosphere. This is a place where no one is meant to stay for long. “Nomads on a nomad land. Isn’t it?”
“Funny is not the word I would use.” She studies him, her forehead crinkled, her eyebrows furrowed. Maríka always worries about everyone, but she worries for him and Panayótis most of all.
“I’ve been praying to Her a long time, but this time, Maríka, this time She answered.”
Maríka takes a step back and stares at him. “What are you talking about?” She glances at the prayer room door, then looks at him again, a kind of realization settling on her face.
Maríka is a believer. She will understand. If not now, then later. Eventually, she will. He extends his empty palms towards her, as if to show her the bleeding marks of nails. “Panayía spoke to me,” he says simply. “There will be a wave this time. I know there will.”
“It’s been months. We should have come across a wave a long time ago,” she says.
Grasping for reason, when faith is all that will do.
“It’s not normal for them to be so far apart. Why now?” she asks.
He brushes his beard with his fingers. He spots the elastic band on the floor and picks it up. Then he ties his beard neatly again. His hands are not trembling anymore. “Bring the good news to the others. Tomorrow we are taking off,” he insists. “God wills it.”
She shakes her head slightly, lost for words.
He takes her hand. “Tomorrow, we are leaving this planet,” he says again. “Today, we must celebrate.”
Yánnis always finds the celebrations on Nóstos II somewhat uncanny. Strange, paradoxical. This group of a few hundred souls has never set foot on Greece, on Earth even, and neither had their parents. And yet, they are Greeks. They are from Earth. They grow up with songs and images and words from a world long gone. Their culture, nothing but a pastiche of references, and yet deeply their own. They learn the histories by heart, the dates, the names, the genocides. They carry the bones of their ancestors with them, along with their stories of miracles. They carry the faith. And their faith has carried them far in return. God ordered them to find a new Earth for themselves when the old one was on the brink of destruction. They did as they were told.
Some of them doubt, of course, but this cannot be helped. Is this why they have been imprisoned here on this death of a planet? No, Yánnis knows, it is not, no matter how tempting it might be to entertain that possibility. This is on his family and his ancestors, which means it is on him and him alone. He is the one who should carry it. His shoulders. His hands.
The dining hall is filled with low round tables at which one has to sit cross-legged. Aromatic plants are lining the walls—jasmine, and gardenia, and honeysuckle. The fragrance fills the air sweetly, mixed with the musty scent of damp soil. It might rain later tonight.
Yánnis is sitting under the gravure of the first astronaut to set foot on Mars, planting the Greek flag, back in the 1960s. His name was Anastásios Bostantzóglou, and one of his bones is resting in that little box right beneath Léna’s.
Around Yánnis, in a circle, is his extended family, and then, in larger circles beyond them, sit the families that make up the rest of the ship’s human cargo. And next to him, of course, Panayótis. The son, he thinks of him now, for he can no longer think of him as his own. The son whom I love.
The nightingale song seems louder tonight.
Before the leader of each family, the mothers, the fathers, the grandparents if they are still alive, is a container filled with flatbread made in the old way, just flour and water and salt. It is sour and dense. Familiar. Before each adult in the room rests a cup with a single sip of wine in it.
Yánnis does the sign of the cross and most of the people in the hall do the same. He fights the urge to glance at the son, to etch his posture in his memory, his three fingers touching together, his hand to his forehead, to his belly, to the right shoulder, then to the left.
“Let us eat,” Yánnis says. He picks up the first flatbread. For a moment, he stares at his hands. My hands, he thinks. Can they do what needs to be done? He breaks the bread and passes it around. So do the other leaders. They eat their simple meal, and when they are done and they have all drunk their sip of wine, they know it is time to relax and enjoy a few hours of conversation and storytelling.
Even though tired, people seem cheerful enough. The conversations get louder as time passes. There is laughter, the occasional heated argument. It may sound like a fight, but it is all in good spirit. Let the bloods light up, as the ancestors said.
If there is any doubt among them that they will finally get off this barren planet, it doesn’t reach Yánnis’ ears. Only Maríka regards him with what could be concern. Or perhaps suspicion? Could it be that she knows what is to be done by him? But no, it couldn’t, of course.
As if to reassure him, Maríka hands him his bouzouki. “Play us something, Yánni, will you?”
He hasn’t played the instrument in a long time. It hasn’t felt right since Léna died. How could his hands make music ever again? But tonight, it seems fitting. His father taught him when he was young. He listened for hours to all the great players of old, to Manólis Chiótis, Yórgos Zabétas, Vassílis Tsitsánis, Chrístos Nikolópoulos and so many others, watched videos of them playing over and over and tried to imitate their hands as they trembled over the strings like birds caught in a snare.
It takes him a few moments, but then his hands recognize the instrument, the wood warms to him, and he remembers how to pinch the strings just so. He chooses an old, sorrowful song from 1961. I came back to your doorstep tonight / to sing for a last time. Maríka joins in, her voice deep and viscous, like warm molasses. I am leaving tomorrow, the lyrics go, everything is over. Maybe he should have chosen a different one. Is he giving away too much? Are they going to know? This is my last song / the birds cry along. But no, it is fitting. Yánnis sighs deeply as he riffs over the melody of Maríka’s voice. He remembers her as a child, her and Léna, long braids down their backs, singing doleful songs, even then.
Those sad Greeks with their sad, sad songs.
He turns to her. “Maríka,” he tells her. Maríka. She could have been his mate, in a different life, a different place. “Maríka, you sing like a nightingale.”
When putting the son to sleep that night, the last night, kneeling by the child’s berth, he looks at the boyish mouth and thinks again of Léna’s blackened breast, the mournful undoing of what used to signify nurture and life. He looks at the child’s slender limbs, and his mind conjures up the trembling limbs of fawns.
“Oh God,” he whispers. “Oh God.”
“What is it, papa?” Panayótis mumbles, almost lost to sleep.
Yánnis buries his face in the son’s curls and breathes in deeply. Not yet, please, not yet. Soon, but not yet, he tells himself. As soon as he’s asleep. He thinks of the childless Panayía, of Abraham, of Agamemnon.
The lonely God will provide.
“Shhh, son,” he says. “Listen to the nightingales. Just listen to the nightingales sing.”
Even in the isolation room, the birdsong is there, loud, ever-present, relentlessly looped. Why did they do that, the ancestors, the ones who built this ship?
Why do parents do the things they do?
His body is spent, crumpled on the floor of the isolation room, where his people have stored him while they deliberate about how best to deal with him. Him, Yánnis, the murderer—worse, the filicide.
The ancestors left them no laws—only a handful of old texts with which to rule their lives. Bibles and poems and songs. Perhaps these are all we need.
He brings his hands in front of his eyes, takes a good look at them. They are the same hands they’ve always been—and yet, not the same. Not at all.
These hands of mine. Did I really think He would stay my hand at the last minute? Or that She would replace the son with a fawn, or a lamb, or a golden ram? Yes. I thought this was a test of my faith, I did. Was this my shortcoming? This hope that I could do the unthinkable wholeheartedly and still keep the promised son, my faith entire?
Did I fail the test? No fawn, no lamb. Only murder.
A son for a wave.
He lifts his eyes to the ceiling, wonders what it would be like lifting them to face the sky.
You are not the God I thought You were, he says silently. Nor I the man I thought I was.
His throat is dry and raw, as if he has been screaming for hours, although he hasn’t. He hasn’t made a sound since. Since.
And the nightingales, he wonders, why won’t they cease their singing?
He covers his ears with his palms, his eyes wide open, trying not to blink, because every time he blinks, there it is, the son’s body too terrible to contemplate, impossible to behold.
When Maríka walks in, hours later, she sits on the floor next to him, but she refuses to turn her gaze upon him.
“They are deciding what to do with you,” she says.
He nods, but he doesn’t reply.
“Why did you do it, Yánni?” She almost chokes on his name.
He is silent for a long time. She finally moves to leave, when he says, “God asked me to.”
She faces him. Her eyes are red. “Why? In return for what?”
“They’ve detected a wave, haven’t they?”
She understands now, he knows she does.
“Haven’t they?” he asks again.
This is it, then. The seas are finally rough enough for this Greek ship to sail. He dared to think himself an Abraham, when all he ever was, an Agamemnon.
What a monstrous paradox faith is.
He doesn’t say anything, because there is nothing left to be said.
But she isn’t done. “This was not your decision to make!” she shouts.
“You are right,” he says. “It was God’s.”
A cruel God’s, he wants to say. The will of a God whom I do not know. But he doesn’t say any of this. Because who can live without faith?
Maríka turns around and leaves without a word.
It doesn’t take them long to decide. They need to wash themselves clean of him. Wouldn’t anyone? He does too. Maríka is back with the news. Her face is ashen. Her arms hang limply at her sides.
He stands up in the middle of the isolation room, ready to hear his fate. This time, she walks up to him. She puts her arms around him, startling him, and she hugs him tight and close.
“Do they believe me?” he asks.
She takes his head in her hands and looks him straight in the eyes.
“Some do. They thank you. I do, too.” She looks at him sternly. “We are ready to go.” She pauses. Tears shine in her eyes. Then she lets her words flow out. “Is it worth it, Yánni?” she asks. “Our lives, our survival, the new Earth, if killing children is what we have to do to get there? How can we go on after this?”
Poor, terrible Agamemnon.
He pinches a tuft of her hair between his fingers. “Weren’t we children, once, Maríka?” he asks. “Weren’t we sacrificed too?”
She stares at him, silent. The nightingales sing on, relentless, like an accusation. Is this what they’ve always been?
“We won’t get to see the new Earth,” he continues. “Our children . . . ” He trails off, his knees giving way underneath him. He steadies himself. “The children you will have won’t see this new Earth. They were never going to.”
She shakes her head, covers her eyes with her palms. “Yánni—” she says and stops.
“Tell me the rest of it,” he says. “It’s all right.”
She looks at the floor. “You are staying here,” she says. “We are leaving you here.”
Exile, then. They won’t even dirty their hands with his death. He nods.
“Will you take him with you?” he asks. “Put his bone next to his mother’s, have your children’s children bury him with his ancestors when they get there? Will you make it so?”
She tries to speak, but a sob escapes her instead. “Of course,” she says after a few moments. She’s crying now, doubled, her arm on her belly, as if she was the one who received his stab. “Of course I will, of course, of course.”
He waits until she collects herself and dries her face.
“You saved us,” she says. “I cannot understand the thing you did, how you brought yourself to do it.” She looks him in the eyes now. “And I will never forgive you.” Her voice breaks. “But you saved us all.”
For how long? he wants to ask. Until the next bargain? The next desperate weakness, the next loving sin?
Instead, he speaks the philosopher’s words again: “In one hundred and thirty years, we got no further than faith,” he says. “We’ve come so far, but we’ve really gotten no further than faith, Maríka.”
Few come to see him off. Maríka is there. Most of the others look at him with a mixture of terror and awe. They could have executed him, but what narrative would that be? What stories would their children tell, about how they were delivered from the nameless nomad planet that snared their ship, once upon a time? And about the holy wretch who saved them?
Maríka weeps as he puts on his suit, the material tight against his skin. His helmet feels small around his head, heavy. Once he seals it, it blocks out all sound but his breath.
He is ready to step off the ship and they are about to seal the airlock behind him, when Maríka orders everyone to stop.
People protest weakly. They want this over with.
“Maríka,” he says. “Let me go.”
“Just wait!” she yells, and she disappears into the ship.
She comes back a few minutes later, panting, holding the bouzouki. She hands him the instrument and nods. Doesn’t ask anyone’s permission. Doesn’t say a word.
He puts as much distance as possible between himself and the ship before takeoff. Not that it matters. What could possibly matter anymore?
He sits down and watches as the ship grips the invisible wave and departs, finally free of this place. The son’s body is flying again among the stars. Was it worth it, then? The sin, the pain, the sacrifice? The bargain? Yánnis pictures the icon of Panayía in the prayer room, the soft light of the candles, the silent, ancestral bones. He whispers his wife’s name, again and again, like a prayer. “Léna, Léna, Léna.”
Then he makes the sign of the cross for the last time and bids everything farewell.
Here I am, he thinks. Not Moriah, after all. Not even Aulis.
Yánnis takes in the barren landscape. The surface of the planet is ragged and marked by hundreds of craters, not unlike Earth’s old moon. A place of much violence. A broken place.
Then, he notices it. For the first time in his life, everything is silent. There are no birds here.
Nothing like my Plátres.
“And just what is Plátres?” he recites. “And this island, who knows it?”
Not even the ancestral poet had dared answer that.
He closes his eyes. For a moment, he thinks of praying, but he pushes through the reflex. Instead, he picks up his bouzouki. He wonders if the first Bostantzóglou to have owned it ever thought it would end up on a nomad planet, millions of kilometers from Earth.
Yánnis brings the instrument close to his torso, traces the ribs of its hollow body with his fingers. It feels strange in his arms now, lighter. He places his hands on the neck of the bouzouki and fumbles with the strings, his fingers clumsy in the protective layer of his suit.
He plays a chord. There is no sound, of course. Not here. There is no more music to be made by these hands. These hands, my hands. They’ve already played one more song than he’d expected. It should be enough. He holds his breath and listens, wishing for the song of nightingales.
He tries another silent chord.