“You Don’t Pencil” [excerpt] by Jim Nisbet


Greece, 1927

Trocar reached for the chartigeias.

None. None again.

Turned the other way, Trocar peeled off a page of insulation, another, and another. Three doubled make six. Six leaves; moist, damp, porous, unreliable, but leaves. Always three. Three make six. Superior—supreme—to none. No storebought, which is two-ply, ever, and expensive. Default, then, to the always-there insulation, and it’s bien providencia, as they say where the people speak Spanish.

Before the war there were newspapers. All gone now, due to rationing, and everybody misses the paper, but nobody misses the news.

Concerning the insulation, Mamà was both the most and the least practical.

At first, after I, Trocar, and Bibulus, the last of the Demetrios brothers not gone to war, had extracted the big jar from the field of colza and dragged it up to the house, the jar upon which the plowshare had dulled itself, Mamà ignored it. As the days passed she gradually fixated, not upon the jar, despite its great utility, but upon its contents. Long story short, Mamà associated this jar with the war. After all, her father’s family had plowed that field for a millennium of years, no jar had appeared, but now, all of a sudden, here it was. So it must have something to do with the war.

Indeed, the jar was different. Of course we mucked it out of the field, for otherwise, behold, you have allowed into existence yet another untillable rock-like atoll. And this atoll will attract more rocks and sprout un-fruiting trees and brambles and only the crows will find utility in it, and yea much colza will fail to grow there. So up it comes. But behold, unlike countless other jars, it came up in one piece! And behold, after Andreas the donkey had dragged it to the kitchen midden, the jar was still in once piece, like it’s made of iron. And behold, when we broke the mastika seal, old mastika, mastika as hard as olive wood but still that beautiful odor. But then—ach! what a stench!—then came a nasty fluid: not only does it not break, this jar, but it holds water! Not much water, it’s true, Maybe not water at all, but a fluid well and truly foetid.

Mostly, though, it holds a pulp, this jar. Some of this pulp looks like books, some of it looks like mucilage. No matter! Once we realize the jar is water-tight, Trocar and Bibulus empty it of every last bolus of pulp and thicknesses of pages both loose and bound, and scrub and scrub and scrub until, behold, the jar re-assumes its true purpose, which is the storage of wine. We fill it to the brim with water from the well. For half of one hour we winch up water from the well. Bucket after bucket. Not a drop is lost, and the ground beneath the jar is as dry as the widow Samos—hush.

Water returned to the well, it’s onto the cart with the jar, and us boys and Andreas drive it to the village, and there we fill the jar from the cistern beneath the communal winepress. That first jar of wine lasts us two months. The next jar lasts five weeks. After that, one month exactly. Homeostasis. One jar, four weeks! A beautiful thing, this jar. Because it does not leak, yes, but also because it’s deceptive, this jar. It is a beautiful jar, most shapely. But it is also deceptive. And therefore, it’s deceptively beautiful. It fact it’s a marvel. But why? The jar of Trocar and Bibulus looks just like your everyday one-metretes jar, of which one plus-or-minus-exact copy not only is owned by every family on the island, but its brethren are to be found as far away as Ajari, on the eastern rim of the Black Sea. The well-traveled Uncle Antimony told that facsimiles of this jar are painted onto any number of potshards found throughout the archipelago. But the jar of Trocar and Bibulus is different.

Like so much gravel, by the way, these potshards go a long way to explain the excellent drainage for which our fields and vineyards are the envy of all the islands. Some of the intact jars are as old as the families who pass them generation to generation. Others among the more recent of family jars certain old people could still recall arriving on the ferry from the Isle of Kilns, before it was flattened by the bombs. Indeed, we had a family jar too, until it fell off the cart into that gorge we call laryngismós farángi—it’s very deep and it’s very steep and the family jar is not the first nor even the most recent thing to fall into it—and we’d not gotten around to organizing a replacement. But this jar of Trocar and Bibulus! Wise in their ways, the ancients! For the jar of Trocar and Bibulus holds exactly one kous more by volume than the single metretes of a traditional jar—almost ten percent! And yet from any angle this jar looks exactly the same as all the others. A real work of art, this jar! No one has ever heard of one like it, yet everyone thinks they have seen nothing but exact duplicates! One kous more, yet the jar of Trocar and Bibulus looks perfectly normal. Therefore, for the same price, this jar becomes ten percent more full than any other jar on the island. One kous is the equivalent of two nights of drinking, if you are brothers in thirst. Trocar and Bibulus made a study! Given that a jar would slake the family for about one month, excluding feast days, of the which there are many but they average out, this economy amounts to some forty-eight one-person-drinking nights per year of extra wine. Or twenty-four, if you are two brothers in thirst. For a deity’s own poor people, this is a great economy indeed.

Similarly, this jar of Trocar and Bibulus contained an inordinate quantity of books. How many books in a metretes-plus-one-kous, which in fact equals thirteen kouses? Verily, it is not known, but maybe about a quarter of them were little more than mucilage, especially the bottom ones, when the jar was buried on its side, where the moisture collected into a shallow pool. And they must have been in there a long time because the wine dispensed from the jar tasted like books for about two harvests. Not a bad taste, exactly, you get used to it. But a long time. Twenty refills, maybe. But also for this reason, many of the books conform to the shape into which they had been forced by their long confinement. Verily, even unto the Klein Bottle, no shape has been neglected, so various they are. Not unlike, as cousin Trimulus has noted, the mind of their uncle Tobius the shoemaker, father of their cousin Trimulus and brother to their own father, Obelius (no better fabricator of the crepida ever trimmed a last, Hermes, god of cobblers, rest his soul), just like his mind, I say, had conformed to the shape forced upon it by his cruel gaolers during the war. Not quite broken but bent here, warped there, twisted yonder, deformed altogether. Not like some wars ago, as their other uncle, Baleen, Mamà’s brother (a know-it-all whose sissy mannerisms and renowned scholasticism gainsayed him deferment from any and all combat, excepting that administered him by Elpinor the rooster that never liked him and always chased him around the midden whenever he came to visit, to the amusement of his little nephews, so that he had stopped coming to visit them long before he attained adulthood), not that war, some years ago, as this cousin used to assure anybody who would listen, nor the current one. It was some in-between war that cost uncle Trimulus his peace of mind.

But these books, they called out to the mamà of Trocar and Bibulus. Some of them she couldn’t open. Others came to pieces in her hands. (And it was these that made the best insulation, as you might imagine. Add water, mold them among the interstices of the wattles, et voilà, as they say where French is spoken, resistance to thermal conductivity just as you please.) Certain lumps she set aside, as she did the books likely to open one day. Others opened as easily and freely as the big book in the telephone exchange. Their pages flowed one after another like chapters in a story. And, saturated or dry or in between, all had writing on them, on every page and on both sides. A great efficiency. No space wasted. Imagine. Waste not want not. And everybody said some of it was Greek. Imagine that. But not our Greek but ancient Greek. And there were other languages, too. But why do they say these things? It’s not like anybody around here can read. Well, so when the archon made his annual visit, Mamà showed him one. Just the one, mind you. Out in front of the house, well away from the midden. And behold, the archon read from it! Aloud! Or pretended to. Kai o kyrios eipe pros aftous, he said it said. Following the words across the page with his finger he tells us: Is it not the same as he, the archon himself, recites aloud every feast day in the church? There they are, the same words, in this ancient book. Therefore, this ancient book is a holy book. So what if it came from a jar? Mysterious are the ways. A holy book. Sacred. Treat it accordingly. Then the archon carefully scrubbed his paws with a prig of mastika and rinsed them in Andreas’ trough to purge the odor of pulp, sniffing them before and after. And then Mamà gave him some chicken.

Thus, that book was saved. Ever since, if Mamà sees any of the same letters in another book she saves that one too. Thus, gradually she accumulated a little pile of sacred books. And then, often, she could be found kneeling before this pile, telling the beads of her kompoloi.

The next year when the archon came, Mamà showed him another book. The archon looked. What does this one say? It says nothing, came the answer. It says nothing? Nothing. But here it is writing. Writing it may be, but it is not holy writing. Show me the first book. She went away and came back with the first book. Look. The archon touched the page. Kai o kyros eipe pros aftous. Mamà moved her lips with the syllables. That is holy, the archon tells her. Holy, she repeats. This second book? He points without touching. Secular. Not holy? Secular. Okay, says Mamà.

It is said that the archon is the only man in the village who can read, but outside the church, few have ever seen him do it. After that day the ferry sank and he lost his glasses, he never got another pair, it is true. With the rest of us it is not such a problem. We were just approaching the threshold of literacy, it is true, but then, among the very first to be conscripted for the war, they chose the schoolteacher; because he had no family, it was said. It wasn’t long before that didn’t make any difference. But as for the schoolteacher, he did not return. So yet another generation never learned to read. People here are held back from their true potential by not being able to read, or so the schoolteacher said, even as the soldiers used the butts of their rifles to herd him and his fellow conscriptees up the ramp onto the ferry, which did not sink and so carried them off to war. And that was that. People are held back from their true potential by not having children, said others, who watched the ferry diminish until it was beyond the horizon, or by not having enough to eat. What does reading have to do with it? Not even bothering to say them behind the young teacher’s back they had said these things, while he was on the island. After he was gone you didn’t hear these opinions so much any more.

After the archon showed her how to pronounce the letters Mamà pretended to read them. And things began to change. The archon wasn’t really interested in the books, per se. Holy or secular was what he was interested in. The Great Distinction! By thine words do ye survive to insulate, Bibulous would tease the pile, as he emptied the kitchen pail onto the midden. Oh chartigeias! Speak holy, lest ye find alternate employment!

Of course Mamà couldn’t read, may she rest in the bosom of Vesta, goddess of the hearth, for eternity. But consider. There, just there, is where she would kneel. Whenever she had the time, usually in the afternoon, before Bibulus and I would come back from the field, there Mamà would kneel.

But backwards tell I the story. Okay. First, we insulated the walls of the outhouse with the non-holy books, it is true. Winters are harsh here. Down in the town it’s not so bad, but up here it snows. So we insulated the outhouse and, oh yes, Bibulus fixed the door. What a difference! But Mamà . . . As Mamà got older they seemed to bother her, these old books. As insulation, she would say, they will suffice. But as chartigeias? If some of these books are holy, how can we use them as chartigeias? She would pluck one at random. Look how it curves, she would say. Like the neck of a swan! And this one, she cackles wickedly, it opens like an experienced woman. She never used to talk like that! Perhaps the slattern is too old to be saved, she would mutter darkly. Perhaps it is she for whom the Savior died on the cross! she would shout, so suddenly as to startle the shrikes in the orchard, let alone dutiful sons such as ourselves.

So we learned to avoid her time at the midden, and she learned to go it alone, her spiritual practice, as an act of cleansing the earth of sinfulness, which is how she came to look at it. Fine. We had our chores, she had hers. In the middle of cooking the evening meal she would fall to her knees and imprecate, as if interrogating the very thatch overhead: Why am I called? she would wail. I can’t even read!

Other times, Mamà would smile benignly. There is no other so versed in the ways of righteousness, she would assure the thatch, as if there were someone in the outhouse with her who knew what she was talking about!

A few books, and sometimes only one. Hard by the midden, on a short board supported by two bricks, she would light the lamp. So as not to be too far from the cooking, understand. She always cooked by smell, never by time. Always something on the stove, our Mamà! Imagine life without her. Our life without her. It’s years now, without her. We are diminished. So, halfway between the midden and the kitchen door, Mamà and her lamp. Kompoloi clicking she would run her finger along a line, left to right, drop down one line, right to left, drop down one line, left to right . . . And so forth. Just as the archon showed her. Muttering the while. Just like the archon! The odd word here and there, and it didn’t really sound like Greek. It didn’t sound like Turkish. It didn’t sound like Latin. We have a word: asynartisies. It’s kind of a tough word, applied to Mamà, because it means gibberish mixed with raving. Normally, in Mamà’s case, this would have been a slight exaggeration. But one night: asynartisies, I say to my brother. It’s fucking Tibetan, Bibulus retorted. It was raining kates kai skoulus, and it was cold. We had came home from the field early, soaked and shivering, and now we lay drinking with Argos the dog in the straw in the bed of the cart under the shed, and Andreas the donkey dozing against the side. This was before we kept the tractor in there. We didn’t even have a tractor then. Not yet. And I guess now I realize what I’m telling you is the story of how we got the tractor. We were under the shed because the donkey was there, and Argos the dog, and the big amphora, the four of us, gathered together for warmth and libation. Rain pouring down, me and Bibulus with two cups and a ladle and our ancient amphora still half-full from the last trip down the mountain. Half-a-dozen kouses is a comfort. Rain on the thatch, only a few leaks, us below with the dog high and dry on a thickness of straw in the bed of the cart. Andreas dozed against the cart, steam rose off his flank. Under the cart, some chickens—no, all the chickens. Weren’t we living? Or so we thought, simple souls that we were. Glad to be out of the weather and with wine to drink. And there she was, mamá, a shawl over her head, kneeling in the mud with her beads, half-way between the kitchen door and the midden, the steam lifting off the midden and the pages dissolving beneath her fingertips. Tibetan, says Bibulus. Asynartisies, say I. Old people get it. Like Uncle Tob—. Trocar, I’m telling you, interrupts Bibulus, I heard it on Odyssey Radio, in Cafe Agora. There’s this Australian, see, and he’s circumgirdling the world on a motorbike . . .

I wasn’t really listening. The coarse wine, and we never purchased let alone traded for any but the coarsest, the best the village had to offer at the time was the same as the worst it had to offer, for all the commune’s grapes went into the same press, four drachmas per liter, ten for a kous, or was it nine, I can’t remember now, but if you drank enough of it a hole would develop in your duodenum, not a hole really but a pain that felt like a hole, and I was musing that if I nursed my cup longer I wouldn’t have to quit before the pain got to be permanent, at which point, despite my need or perceived need, I’d wind up like uncle Tobius, full of bitterness at the world and unable to drink my cares away because of the great and permanent ulceration in my gut, through which all my nutrition like his bitterness would drain until like him I died just as dulcet and incoherent as the day either one of us was born, and altogether asynarticistic, if that’s a word. The world? I asked aloud. On a motorbike?

In a place called Querétero, in Mexico, this Australian told the radio, where the emperor Maximilian surrendered, which is why he went to visit, some guys saved his engine by pouring hot lead into a nopalitos can the same size as his holed piston so he could make it all the way to Tampico and put himself and his motorbike on a freighter to Marseilles. Really? He’d already been to Tierra del Fuego. Can you imagine. Later he hired some guys to carry his motorcycle through the snowdrifts across the Anatolian Mountains where they speak Tibetan and by the time they got to Lhasa he had learned to speak it too. The Anatolian Mountains? Really? Really. That’s what he said. And he gave some examples of the everyday Tibetan speech for things like motorbike and snow and goat stew and it sounded just like Mamà when she’s reading. Pass the ladle.

Mamà had two heaps, one to either side of the lamp, and when she got through running her finger through a book, muttering the while, chanting almost, she would place it atop one or another of these two heaps. And the heap on the right, which was god’s heap, she would take with her to the kitchen and place near the stove to slowly dry, not too close, not too distant, just like she would do with the mushrooms the shepherd Epicenos used to bring. The heap to the left, which was the devil’s side of the lamp, she would place back in the outhouse for, as she always insisted, especially in the winter, you can never have too much insulation. Nor, as would mutter my wise brother, behind his hand, chartigeias.

The thing I noticed, and I guess Bibulus noticed it too, although sometimes I’m hard put to say what my brother notices, you’ll have to ask him, is that Mamà often went through one or another of the same book or books as she had the last time, and sometimes the results would be the same, the book would wind up again as insulation and chartigeias, and sometimes the result wouldn’t be the same and the book would wind up in the holy pile, warming near the stove. There was no sense in asking Mamà about this process of discernment, that much I knew. Once a passing neighbor did happen to be in the yard while Mamà was at her ritual, for by then it had become a ritual, and a daily one at that. Mother Demetrios, said this neighbor, whom we always called the Widow Samos, her husband had died in the same camp which had detained Uncle Tobius, it was Uncle Tobius who came home and told her that Pateras Samos had died in his arms, just between you and me, Mother Demetrios, said the widow Samos, we both know you can’t read just like I can’t read so what is it with this finger that’s running across the page this way, then dropping down one line and running across the page that way, line after line, page after page, book after book, and you muttering like a penitent going down the drain the whole time? For the widow Samos had nothing if not good sense, an acuity sharpened by a lifetime of grief. She’d been touching the photograph of her deceased husband laminated onto a medallion pinned to the breast of her black weeds for luck and advice for so long the image had been effaced. How can you tell one of these books from another? You can’t! Besides, this one, for example—the widow Samos takes one from the pile of chartegias, and she makes sure to take it from the pile of chartegias and not from the pile of Holies, for she is very respectful—this one is all circles and lines! What’s to read? Well, okay, she corrected herself, here’s some text on the next page. But not much. And here, on the very next page, more circles and lines! Even if you could read, which you can’t, nobody can read circles and lines! Nobody!

Sister Samos, Mamá calmly replies, breaking her trance long enough to switch from Tibetan to Greek, or what passes for Greek in rural Chios, if it beeps to me while I am holding it, it goes here. Mamà laid a hand on the Holy heap. Here, she repeated, and gave the Holy heap two pats. If it doesn’t beep to me, she glared at the reservoir of chartegias on the devil’s side of the lamp, it goes over there. God works in mysterious ways. Now if you’ll excuse me. Taking up a book, Mamà reverted to Tibetan.

The widow Samos replaced the book of circles and lines on the heap of kindling. I see, she said, so quietly you could hardly hear her. Perfectly logical, she muttered, although for the rain clattering in the thatch I can hardly discern her voice, in my memory. And from then on the Widow Samos was careful to visit our farm only in the morning, when Mamà was free to talk to her.

So life went on. Imagine. We harvested the colza and we pressed it and we sold the oil. The deity responsible for such things sent us grapes and olives, we traded them for bread and wine, for goat cheese from the shepherd Epicenos, and he always had for us a lamb in the season, too, and two farms beyond we traded for milk, and yogurt came by way of the widow Samos, who always delivered, always, now, in the morning.

And behold, one day a car pulls into the yard and scatters the chickens. A car. Bibulus had taken Mamà in the cart to town, and it was just me and Argos, who barked at the car because he didn’t see many cars in those days. Not even in the village. There were only six or eight cars on the entire island, and only one of them was for hire, so far as I knew. Imagine. Argos never entirely stopped barking and sniffing at it.

And who steps out of the passenger side of this car? Bibulus! His very first ride in a car, although he would never admit as much. And from the driver’s side comes a man I’ve never seen before. He’s wearing a wrinkled seersucker jacket, a dirty white with thin blue stripes, and khakis held up by suspenders, the cloth once carefully creased but now limp from the heat, and a straw boater with a ribbon around its crown. Imagine. And a wilted bow tie in the collar of a wilted linen shirt. And he frequently mopped his brow with a large yellow handkerchief printed with olive fleurs de lis, as they say where the people speak French. The heat was bothering him, though to me it was somewhat cool, but anyway, everybody is bothered by something.

It takes all kinds, that much we know.

Where’s Mamà? I ask Bibulus. She’s in town with the cart and Andreas, comes the reply. This is Mr. Driscol. My brother introduces us. Mr. Driscol heard about our jar and our insulation, and he’d like to have a look. He says he’s an anthropologist, Bibulus added, speaking aside in dialect, so humour him.

Well a wagging tongue, as we say in our village, generates no harvest. To make a long story short, Mr. Driscol bought every book in the outhouse for 1000 drachmas. Imagine. A thousand drachmas! We bought that tractor and Andreas the donkey got put out to pasture, never to drag the cart behind him again, although he did occasionally have to drag the tractor out of the mud. Until the next war came, that is, when there was no more petrol; shortly after which Andreas expired in his traces, just like his mother, and then we got Andreas, Jr. The tractor didn’t run for five years, as I recall. By the time the petrol came back, the damp mountain air had rusted the engine, and it never ran again.

I forgot to mention. We were so excited about this unexpected manna from the deity’s seersucker messenger, for, indeed, not a person in the village thought otherwise than that Mr. Driscol was a messenger from God in the guise of a crazy rich tourist, for he had made a number of other purchases about which we heard only later, but no sooner than he closed the deal with us than he disappeared as mysteriously as they had appeared. No one saw him arrive on the ferry, and no one saw him leave by it, but Mr. Sonos, who owned the car, found it parked next to the ferry landing, and he found the keys in the dashboard ashtray, wrapped in a hundred drachma note. Very mysterious, if not traditionally miraculous.

So excited, I say, having pocketed this unexpected manna sent by God, we should care if the messenger was wearing a seersucker jacket or a goatskin diaper? Don’t get me wrong, seersucker was a word we didn’t have at that time; as a matter of fact, to this day seersucker is four words in Greek, so if he wasn’t a messenger from the deity he was crazy anyway, although they say all the prophets were crazy, I almost spelled it profit, may the hens peck my freckles for grain. So excited, as I say, were we to help Mr. Driscol load all the chartegias into his car and see its rear bumper disappearing down the mountain that we completely forgot the two heaps of beeping and non-beeping books Mamà kept in the kitchen, drying beside her stove. For that matter, we had forgotten Mamà. Bibulus had to walk all the way into town to retrieve her. Had we remembered the two piles of course we would have thrown them in with the rest and maybe even for free, too, though Mr. Driscol seemed like the type of messenger from the deity to have tipped us for that. A matter for regret I suppose, but no tree gives fruit in all seasons. Sub-holy kindling is handy to be sure. But there will be more. There’s always more kindling. Just last year the Mandröos family found a tomb under the very center of their vineyard, one of their prize pigs fell through the roof, and this tomb was full of kindling. The sow broke her neck, and that whole side of the mountain ate well for a month. A tomb in their vineyard! Seven hundred years the Mandröos family farmed that vineyard—seven hundred!—and what tomb? Imagine. A shrieking pig, and there it was. Packed with chartigeias, too, though much of it was too dry to use right away. Petrified, like. Chafe you without mercy, it would. Best to leave it out in the rain for a season, turning it over occasionally. Belen Mandröos came to us right away to ask for help in finding Mr. Driscol, but none of us ever saw him again.

Excerpted from Jim Nisbet’s forthcoming novel, You Don’t Pencil.

Jim Nisbet is a novelist, poet, and playwright. His many novels include Lethal Injection, The Damned Don’t Die, Snitch World, The Syracuse Codex, and The Price of the Ticket, among many others. He has won the Pangolin Papers Annual Fiction Award twice, and was thrice nominated by that magazine for a Pushcart Prize in short fiction. His novel Dark Companion was shorted-listed for the 2006 Hammett Prize, and the San Francisco Book Festival declared Windward Passage the winner of its 2010 Best Science Fiction Award.

Image courtesy of Pixabay, altered by Cartoonize.

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