Edvard Munch, The Dance of Life, 1899-1900. Oil on canvas. 125 x 191 cm. Scala / Art Resource, NY / Munch, Edvard (1863-1944). © ARS, NY.

The two-hour ceremony would have ended forty minutes earlier, except that Pappas stopped to pray for a herd of untamable kri-kri to bust through the wooden doors and interrupt the exchange of vows. Yannis Fafoutakis, best man, stood jolly at Stavros Stavros’s side. “I’m jealous, Galapoulo,” he whispered, breath buzzing like a wasp. “You’re the first of us to get out of this termite hole.”

That night, the whole village watching, Stavros Stavros finally proved his manhood: on the dance floor. With the pomp of the traditional syrtos that suggested respite before battle, the resting of the soul, he rejected the pappas’s interference, his mother’s control, his father’s weakness. When he felt like showing off, he showed off. During one of the counterclockwise dances, he vaguely felt Dina next to him, linked by nothing more than a white handkerchief. He saw her only through the haze of warm wine and public attention. Him, Stavros Stavros Mavrakis, in front of all of the bachelors, in front of all of his brothers. The way it should be. They had to wait for his every step, his every flourish, before they could move a foot. A toe, even, because any premature moves would trip the next person. Pappas, feigning intoxication, did not lead any dances, but Stavros Stavros did not care if he did not get the priest’s blessing. Pappas refused to lie, even with his feet, but what did that matter when Stavros Stavros was leaving in just a few days?

Stavros Stavros was fat and full at the end of the night. He had ruled the village, his family, and it made him feel virile. All he needed now was to deflower a virgin.

Concerned with shame and self-preservation, these women knew to tuck pouches of sow’s blood inside themselves.

Everyone knew it was a man’s right to unmake a woman. Everyone knew it was their right to see proof of the unmaking. It was customary for the groom’s parents to drape the white sheets of a newly consummated couple against the house, the copper crop visible from way down the road. In the history of the village, few women had ever failed to bleed (a cripple, a slut, a rape victim) and that was because women were pure, women were pious, women were chaste, and, when they weren’t, women were shrewd enough to cover up their bloodlessness. Even their boyfriends, who panted themselves into premarital sex with their soon-to-be brides, were always satisfied when the warm rusty liquid bubbled up on the night of the wedding. Concerned with shame and self-preservation, these women knew to tuck pouches of sow’s blood inside themselves. Dina, who hadn’t been from the island in years, knew nothing and did nothing. She just lay there beneath her grunting, fat, full husband.

Stavros Stavros coached himself to keep going. The first time was always difficult for the woman, especially if the man was more shovel than man. Which he was tonight, especially. Then he realized the problem. He scrambled off the bed.

“There’s no blood.”

Dina pulled her underwear up from her knees. “You said you wanted an American.”

Stavros Stavros yanked his shorts on. “Not this American,” he said. “No, no, no.” He couldn’t believe this was happening. The night had been perfect, everything as it should be. Now, he was facing clean sheets. Stavros Stavros ripped them away. “You aren’t going to sleep. You’re going to help me figure this out.”

Dina spun and pulled the sheets free, too fast for him to anticipate. “There is nothing to figure out. You got what you got, just like I got what I got.”

His chest heaved. He wanted to shout, tell her what a sixameni she was—there had never been a dirtier bitch—but that would send his mother running. Here he was, waiting for their wedding night like it was something special, something needing patience and honor, and meanwhile, Dina, poutana, had taken all those dirty pipes and swallowed all that dick-food. But he couldn’t let that thought overwhelm him right now. Right now he had to resolve this before anyone discovered their shameful secret. Stavros Stavros tore the sheets off Dina. He saw her, as he shut the door, at the bottom of the bed, a crumpled person.

In the dark hallway, he tripped over a potted plant, scattering dirt. He bit his cheek to keep from crying out. If anyone woke now, he would be a joke. Stavros Stavros Mavrakis, shoeless, pantsless, with a broken wife and a broken toe. His big toe complained that he was a fool, alone in his misery, but he was not going to stand here and be ridiculed by his family or his own foot. He limped to the porch, balled up the sheets beneath the stairs leading to the roof. Then he limped out to the chicken coop.

In the moonlight a line of chickens squatted on planks. They perked up when he pulled a sack off the wall, thinking it might be a second feed time, something that happened occasionally to encourage fowlic euphoria and the production of eggs. The chickens clucked, but when no kernels appeared, they bobbed their necks in suspicion. This was not Stavros Constantine, they realized. This was not feed time, when the bright orange bowl fills the sky and signals to their ovaries that it’s time to release egg cells. This was a fox or a dog.

Stavros Stavros stepped over damp, shit-smelling hay, his eyes on the smallest bird. She had her head tucked in a wing but shook awake. “Don’t worry, little kotopoulo,” he whispered. “I only need one leg. Not even one leg, one toe. You will not miss it.”

Stavros Stavros was panting. What he needed was a knife. A big knife. A butcher knife from his mother’s kitchen.

The chicken squawked. He lunged. She flapped her wings, half-flew to a higher beam. He ran after her, sack raised over his head. Loose feathers, old-lady clucks, a frantic instinct to get out of reach. Which they all did. Stavros Stavros was panting. What he needed was a knife. A big knife. A butcher knife from his mother’s kitchen that no chicken had ever said no to.

The porch light was on: it had not been on before. He walked slowly. He debated climbing through a window. But there was no other way to get to the kitchen. He decided to go forward; he had no choice. If it was his father, he was probably passed out at the table. If it was Dina, he would make her come out to the coop with him. It was his mother, sitting with a cup of tea at the table, face and hair ensnared in sleep. On the table was a fork and a bowl of lemon potatoes, his favorite.

“It’s late, mitera. You should be asleep.”

She chuckled. “My son, telling me about my empty bed when he is out of his.” She tossed him a pair of sandals. He did not put them on. “I know your feet must be ice blocks. You hate to go barefoot.”

“Why are you having tea by yourself in the middle of the night?”

“That is a good question. Here is a better one. You have a bride, but you are out molesting my chickens.”

“There was a stray dog. I chased it off.”

“Oh, so you left your first night with Dina to check on the animals. She must have been pleased.”

Stavros Stavros said nothing. Katerina stood, walked around the table, and led him to a chair. She slipped the sandals onto his feet.

Even when she scrubbed the floors, she did not kneel. But here she was kneeling before him on the one night he did not deserve it. She speared a potato with the fork. He took a bite, the potato melting on his tongue. She had warmed them.

“You think your mother does not see what is going on,” she said, “but that is because you have the milk-eyes of a newborn cat.”

Stavros Stavros ate another potato, and another.

Katerina pulled the bundle of sheets from beneath the table. “Tell your mother,” she said. “She will help you fix it.”

He tried to take another bite, couldn’t. The tears were coupling, falling. “It’s not your problem.”

“Oh, no, Stavraki. That is exactly what it is.”

He began to sob. He knew she would label him impotent, cuckolded, just like the rest of the village. “She’s a whore,” he said quietly. “You had me marry a whore.”

Katerina did not ask Stavros Stavros to acknowledge that the arranged marriage had been his idea. She reached across the table. “The best thing to do with rotten meat,” she said, “is send it back. Not cry over it.”

“It’s too late,” he said. “There is nothing you can do.”

“There is a saying,” she said, standing. “It’s the old chicken who has the juice. And I, Stavro, have plenty juice left.”

* * *

Within minutes, six of them were seated in the visiting room to discuss the problem. Dina sat with her chin on her knees. It was not satisfying, because she would not raise her head to receive their judgment. Mihalis Lazaridis was stern-looking in wide, tinted glasses, someone Stavros did not want to come up against but not someone Stavros feared. His dark hair flat against his head, only the strands near his forehead daring to break free. His huge nose, which might have appeared clownish on another man, gave him the look of an animal that lived close to the ground, made to scrounge. Two deep frown lines cutting down his face indicated that smiling was a challenge.

“We’ve had a difficult time with her in the States,” Mihalis apologized, uncharacteristically. “We thought things would get better once she found a husband.”

“Three thousand drachmas,” Katerina answered, “or she goes back alone.”

Stavros Stavros looked up in surprise. What was she doing? She had said nothing about money.

Anna Lazaridis cringed. “You ask too much.”

“What is too much is that you allowed your daughter to spoil, then you give her to my son pretending she is fresh enough for marrying.”

Stavros Stavros saw now that the potatoes, the sandals, the kneeling were just business. His mother cared about his honor only if it mattered to her pocket.

Mihalis raised his hand to Anna. “It is fine,” he said. “We will honor it.”

Dina’s eyes flicked from one person to the next, reminding Stavros Stavros of the crazed chickens in the coop. He suddenly felt like one of those chickens, too. She said, “I’m not going back with him.”

“There is another saying,” Katerina said. “And that is when you bring a chicken to the table, somebody has to pluck the ass.”

“It will cost you the three thousand,” Katerina said, “and you will buy his airfare.”

Anna threw her hands up. “No. That is the line for me.”

“There is another saying,” Katerina said. “And that is when you bring a chicken to the table, somebody has to pluck the ass.”

Mihalis’s mouth became very tight. As a Greek man, it was his prerogative to explode into expletives when being robbed, but he understood that this was a sensitive situation. “Yes,” he said. “We will do it.”

“I won’t,” Dina said. She looked at Stavros Stavros. “You see what’s happening? They want to get rid of you as bad as they want to get rid of me.”

The sixameni, the liar. He should have known not to have faith in her the minute he saw one of her eyes wasn’t trustworthy. But Stavros Stavros looked to his mother. Was it true? Were they trying to get rid of him?

Katerina, in response, came to Dina. “Koukla,” she said. “Do you know what your first mistake was?”

“Marrying your son.”

“Before that.”

Dina, sullen. “Coming back to this goat-fucking country.”

“Before that.”

“Being born.”

“Being born a woman,” Katerina corrected. “A Greek woman.” And she went out. She returned with a chicken. It clucked in alarm, knowing instinctively that being in a house meant danger. This was her big plan all along? His plan? “Yes,” Katerina said. “And it will work.” Everyone present would swear to it.

Stavros Stavros was pulled into the kitchen. They stood at the sink, where Katerina gripped the bird by the neck. Mihalis held the sheet. Stavros Stavros dumbly took the knife from his mother. He looked at Dina, who stood as far away as she could without stepping out of the kitchen. Her feet were inexplicably dirty. She seemed to blend in with the pile of potatoes that had just been dug up. No, he and his wife were not the same. He closed his eyes.

Katerina stopped his elbow. “One leg only. I don’t need a bloodbath. If there is too much, the gossips will know.”

“Am I doing this or you?”

Katerina looked at him for a long time. She stepped back. Stavros Stavros kept his eyes open, ignoring the clucks that sounded too much like his wife in their marital bed. A deep red gash appeared on the bird’s leg, and she cried and flayed her feathers. Much-desired drops darkened the sheet.

Katerina turned to Dina. “Ela etho,” she said, and right there in the kitchen she smeared some of the chicken blood onto her daughter-in-law’s inner thighs. It was as if Dina didn’t feel it happening until it was already done, because she slapped at Katerina’s hand just as she was pulling away. Katerina ignored it. She instructed her not to bathe in the morning. If anyone demanded proof of her virginity, it would be there.

Stavros Stavros wanted to run from the farm, from the red in the sink that was suddenly the price for America. Watching his mother shove her hands between his wife’s legs, he felt sick for them both. He saw Dina’s eyes when his mother handled her and understood she was suffering. Maybe she deserved it, but it was shameful, sad. He turned now to look at his pitiful wife with eyes of ripped cloth. This was real now. He was bound to this marriage. There had been an arrangement and a wedding, yes, but this clandestine act was what joined him to Dina.

It was five, just enough time for the Lazaridises to get home before the herders brought their goats to graze. The village would not be surprised to see Dina at home with her mother. They would understand that she had gone to Stavros as a dutiful, loving, urgent wife and had returned to her parents’ house to prepare for America.

“Try to keep track of her for tonight, if you can,” Katerina called at their backs.

The chicken was released back into the coop, her leg bandaged. She would walk with a limp until she got cooked into a soup.


Annie Liontas

Annie Liontas is a graduate of Syracuse University’s MFA program and writes fiction and poetry. Since 2003 she has been dedicated to urban education, working with teachers and youth in Newark, Philadelphia, and Camden, NJ. Let Me Explain You is her first novel. She lives with her wife in Philadelphia.

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