Artemio, the rubbish disposal man, encounters a visitor from the underworldby Panos Karnezis / May 20, 2004 / Leave a comment
The pick-up truck was so old that it left a trail of nuts and bolts as it drove down the dirt road. Its bodywork resembled the skin of an ageing animal mottled with scabby wounds. Artemio coughed. Because the driver’s window had no glass, a cloud of dust filled the cabin and he could neither see where he was headed nor make out the potholes. Every time the wheel fell into one of the deep lunar craters his head hit the roof and after a while this had begun to give him a headache. So when he saw the dark mass on the side of the road next to a concrete milepost he drove past it in his dizziness, thinking it was a dead dog. It was not until several minutes later that he wondered why a dog would wear a helmet and carry a spear. Artemio hit the brakes and turned back.
The man lay in the dust, snoring carnivorously and stinking of alcohol. He was dressed only in a short pleated tunic and a pair of leather sandals strapped around his thick hairy legs. The dress had once been white, but now it was soiled and ripped, as well as speckled with blood from the thistle cuts on his legs. The helmet he wore sported a crest. Next to his spear lay a heavy round shield.
Artemio was so intrigued that he did not try to wake the man up. He sat down on a rock and scratched his head for a long time before concluding that the stranger had perhaps been on his way back from a costume party when highwaymen had robbed him, beaten him up and taken his car. But this assumption did not satisfy Artemio, as there had been no sighting of a highwayman for over a century. Also, it was August and he had never heard of a carnival taking place in the summer. Artemio shrugged. There had to be another explanation. While he observed the sleeping man in the vain hope that he would somehow reveal his secret, he could not but admire his unusual attire: the helmet was clearly made of hammered bronze and was shaped so that it covered the neck and most of the face including the nose, while its crest was made of white horsehair. Beautiful copper plumes surmounted its crown. Whoever he was, this man had a predilection for sumptuous clothing. Eventually, Artemio mustered the courage to approach the monumental shield. It was so heavy he had to use both hands to lift it and turn it over. As he did, he let out a cry. The shield landed in the dirt with a dull sound, raising a cloud of dust: its face was decorated with the petrifying head of a Gorgon. Artemio had seen enough. It was time to wake up the man and demand an explanation.
This proved to be impossible. The stranger was so drunk and so stupefied from the infernal heat of August that even after Artemio had poured over him the whole jerrycan of water he always carried to top up the leaking radiator, the man did not open his eyes but continued to emit a powerful snore, like the noise of a motorcycle revving up. Artemio rubbed his chin. What should he do? If he let him lie there, the poor man was liable to die of sunstroke. Artemio raised his head and contemplated the empty horizon: it was broken only by the crests of the hills, like jagged glass in a smashed window. Through the plain, where once there had run a noisy river, there was now a dry channel. Artemio shook his head. As a child he had been told how God was still working on this terrain when the Sabbath had come and He had packed up His chisel, His shovel and His divine pickaxe and headed back home. The Almighty may have been planning a paradise on Earth, but the place now looked like a geological construction site. Still, Artemio liked it. He liked the sun and the moon, which he was convinced he would not be able to see if he lived elsewhere. He liked the peacefulness of his village and the emptiness of the plain, and he liked the fact that he knew everyone who lived all around and he could tell whom to respect and whom to fear. Whenever an aeroplane traced a trail of vapour in the sky he craned his neck and looked at it with bafflement, but it never crossed his mind to follow it. He was happy. True, he had never experienced the excitement of the unknown, but nor had he ever felt disappointment or fear. Until that afternoon, that is, when he came across the stranger who slept by the side of the road dressed in a tunic and carrying a shield.
A hawk flew over Artemio’s head and let out a cry. The young man decided there was only one thing he could do: take the stranger back to the village. He spat in his palms, rolled the shield to his truck and loaded it in the back with an effort that made his back hurt, threw the spear next to it and finally went to fetch the sleeping man. He, at least, was lighter than he appeared to be. Artemio laid him on the metal floor of the back of his pick-up truck. It smelled of rubbish but he hoped the man would not mind, considering the circumstances.
The truck was not his; it was the property of the municipality. Artemio was employed to dispose of the village waste. Until recently, he had simply scattered this at random across the plain. But then he had discovered a narrow chasm that was so deep that he could, if he listened hard, hear in it the spent heartbeat of the Earth. Since then he had cheerfully driven there to dump the rubbish. He was on his way back to the village from just such a mission when he had chanced upon the drunken man.
Artemio shut the tailboard and sat at the wheel. While he drove back to the village, he wondered what Magda would say when he showed her his strange find. Every few minutes he turned his head and had a peek at the back through the rear window, as if he could not believe that the man lying on the floor next to an ancient shield and a deadly spear was really there. But he was, and he was not making the slightest movement, apart from when the truck took a sharp bend or hit one of the countless potholes in the road, which had never been filled despite the endless election promises.
As soon as he entered the village he headed for the coffee shop, blowing the horn of the truck as he went to attract the attention of the people. But it was the hour of afternoon rest and the small village drifted on in paralysing silence. Only a few dogs paid Artemio any attention, and even those did nothing more than lift their muzzles to give him an indifferent look before resuming their sleep. He stopped in front of the coffee shop, killed the engine and pulled the handbrake. While driving he had been excited and cheerful, but now his palms began to sweat and he had to take deep breaths in order not to faint while he looked with as much dread as anticipation at the door of the coffee shop where Magda worked as a waitress. She was the love of his life. Artemio had loved her for six years and eight months, yet she had no idea of his secret. Many times he had come to the coffee shop with the intention of declaring his tormented feelings but the only words that would escape the prison of his mouth were orders for a cup of coffee or a shot of brandy.
He looked over his shoulder. The stranger in the white tunic was sleeping with his hands crossed over his lap. Artemio nodded appreciatively. He looked at himself in the mirror, flattened his hair, buttoned up his shirt and, with a last deep breath, jumped out of the truck and walked into the coffee shop.
Magda was sweeping the floor while her mother, who owned the shop, stood behind the counter. The canary in the cage on the wall was awake but it was not singing; it seemed to be listening to the humming of the large white refrigerator at the back of the shop. It was cool inside the coffee shop. Artemio took a seat and prepared to reveal the unbelievable news.
"Ever since we bought that damned freezer the bird has turned mute," the old woman said. "I think it has fallen in love with the fan of its motor."
Artemio rubbed his clammy hands together but said nothing. Magda bent down and swept the dust into the dustpan. When she stood straight again, she looked at her only client and smiled.
"And how are you today, Artemio?"
Artemio swallowed. He stared at the rusty dustpan and thought he could see his heart in the dirt. Slowly, his courage and determination drained away.
"Can I… have a gaseosa, please?" he asked.
Magda brought him his drink and continued her work. After a long while of neither of them saying a word, they both felt it would be more awkward to start talking. They maintained their silence until slowly Magda forgot Artemio was even there and he, in turn, forgot there was a man in the back of his truck. It was only when the first evening customer walked in and announced that a man was sleeping in the back of the refuse truck that Artemio recovered from the stupor of his love and remembered his extraordinary discovery.
"You won’t believe your eyes," he said.
"I don’t need my eyes," the other customer said. "My nose says he stinks of alcohol."
When the rest of the village began to awaken from its afternoon rest, the word spread that Artemio had found a strange man in a ditch who was dressed in armour and carried a spear. The news travelled with such speed that many villagers were still in bed when the evening breeze blew the rumour to their ears. Some refused to believe it, thinking it was another of their unreasonable dreams. But when they washed, dressed and took the road to the shop for a cup of coffee, a game of backgammon or a shot of brandy before dinner, they came across the pick-up truck and had to admit that they were fools not to believe what their dreams told them. In their excitement they decided that in the future they should trust more to what they saw with their eyes shut than open.
Soon a large crowd had gathered outside the coffee shop and everyone wanted to touch the stranger. Artemio let them do so gladly. His finding had put him in the eye of a storm of admiration he had never in his life experienced before. People normally paid him so little attention that he often looked in the mirror in order to remind himself he was really there. An orderly line was formed and everyone passed in front of the truck. The women covered their faces with their handkerchiefs so that the stale alcohol of the stranger’s breath would not profane their noses and they poked him with their fingers or prodded him with their umbrellas or walking sticks. Once they were satisfied that he was real, the people turned their attention to his dress and armour. They fingered the white tunic and found it good but not exceptional, tested the tip of the spear and thought it needed sharpening if it were properly to penetrate an enemy, and tapped the bronze helmet to decide whether it could withstand the blows of an axe. All in all, they were impressed only by the heavy cast-iron shield with the Gorgon head and agreed that it would take a giant like the sleeping man to make good use of it in the field of battle.
Because a giant is what he truly was. As he lay stretched out in the back of the truck, they determined his height and the circumference of his chest with the tailor’s tape measure and weighed each of his arms and legs with the butcher’s spring balance. Then they ordered their women to shut their eyes so that they could record the details of his dormant virility too. By the time the sun was beginning to set his body held no more secrets and once again they tried to rouse him from his hibernation. But no matter how many times they pinched his thighs, slapped his marble face and tickled his soles with goose feathers, the stranger’s lids did not bat, and the villagers decided that he must have drunk the wine of a whole vineyard to sleep so deeply. They were so keen to wake him that they even listened to Artemio. The men who played in the brass band rushed home to bring their instruments and a short while later a tormenting music sounded across the village.
They did succeed in rousing someone, but that turned out to be the mayor, whose house was across the street from the coffee shop. As the music played, he opened his eyes. He had calculated that in order to recover from the headaches his people were giving him he had to sleep one minute after lunch and five minutes at night per member of his electorate. He abided by this practical rule with religious devotion and any violation of it infuriated him. He immediately jumped out of bed and walked out on to his balcony dressed only in his underwear. Seeing the spectacle of the large crowd and the brass band, he assumed a demonstration was underway.
"For the last time, morons!" he shouted. "I had nothing to do with the appropriation of the funds. But if you have proof, we can reach an understanding."
It took him a while to realise that he was not the target of his people on this occasion; something more sinister was taking place. He went back inside, put on his trousers and top hat and came into the street. Waving his walking stick like a machete, he opened his way through the crowd until he reached the front and there he demanded to know what the commotion was about. Artemio pointed him in the direction of his pick-up truck and told him how he had come across the strange man in the white tunic. When the mayor saw him he raised his eyebrows and pursed his lips. A moment later, he spoke up.
"Silence, cretins! He was found on public land, so he is de jure the property of the state. That is, mine."
He ordered the band to be quiet and instructed Artemio to remove the man’s helmet in order that they could examine his face. The stranger looked nothing like the villagers. In addition to his fair skin, his radiant blond hair and the delicate ears, he had a small straight nose, by comparison with which their own hooked beaks seemed the work of a caricaturist. But the awe of such unfavourable contrasts reached its zenith when they lifted his heavy eyelids and were confronted with the blue sapphires of his eyes. They decided that his face exhibited the perfection of the heroes of the past, and lamented the bastardisation of their race that had taken place since classical times and had made them look like plucked vultures.
They were still reminiscing about a past they had only come across in books when the stranger woke up. He yawned, stretched his arms, and then his colossal hand reached down slowly and scratched his private parts with an unconscious but nevertheless majestic gesture. Only then did he open his eyes and see that he was surrounded by a large crowd. While the people moved back to give him space to breathe, his nose smelled the remains of the rubbish in the back of the pick-up truck, causing his face to contort. His voice was heard then, thunderous and deep, as befits a true hero. He was angry.
It was not only the volcanic roars of his anger that terrified them, together with the desperate attempts of a man trying to stand after drinking too much, but above all it was the fact that he spoke a strange language that did not at all resemble their vernacular.
"He speaks the language of the ancients!"
It was at that moment that Artemio remembered the infinite gorge where he dumped the rubbish. The stranger must have come up from the underworld. There was only one person in the village who could communicate with him: the old teacher. For many years he had taught classics in a school far away before a bureaucratic error led to him being sent to replace the science teacher who had passed away. He might have proven a great tutor of the natural and physical sciences, had it not been for his mulish insistence on teaching science, mathematics and geography from the classical texts. As a result, the general education of the villagers did not differ much from that of ancient Spartan youths. They had never heard of Copernicus, Galileo or Newton.
When the old teacher came, the stranger was vomiting over the side of the truck.
"Ask him to re-enact the labours of Hercules," Artemio said with animation.
"Starting with the cleaning up of the coffee shop," Magda added.
The teacher waited courteously for the man to finish, before he lifted his hat and greeted him in the ancient language he had learned at university. As soon as he heard the reply, he curled his lip and turned to the crowd.
"You fools," he said. "That’s not classical Greek. It’s English."
He was familiar with the language of Shakespeare from his academic years, when he had read the works of the bard in order to prove his suspicion that they were plagiarised from Homer. The villagers listened in embarrassed silence while he interrogated the stranger in his mother tongue. When he had finished the teacher scolded the ignorant villagers for dragging him all the way to the coffee shop in the middle of reading Herodotus, saying that they should have suspected he was an impostor, because it was a well known fact that all foreigners were drunkards. The man was nothing more than an insignificant extra in an international film production being shot nearby with a budget larger than the national debt. His only crime was to go on a bender after a morning’s work.
The truth fell over the crowd like unexpected rain. They no longer thought he was as tall as a giant, merely of average height. His once luminous blond hair now seemed as ordinary as a fistful of hay, while even a pair of glass marbles was more splendid than those blue eyes of his. Then they dispersed faster than they had gathered, led by the mayor in his top hat, his string vest and his formal trousers. The stranger looked on, puzzled.
Magda took pity on him and brought out an aspirin and a glass of water to help calm down the beast of his headache. Then Artemio, who felt a little responsible for the man’s predicament, gave him a lift back to where he had found him earlier that day. There Artemio returned to him his fake helmet, his shield and spear, pointed him in the direction the man had told the teacher he had come from, shut the tailboard and started back, promising himself never again to pick up anyone in his truck, even if he had two heads and six arms. Besides, everything he ever needed was back there in the village, he thought. And so, before long, he had forgotten the little man dressed in the ridiculous tunic and, thinking of Magda instead, he was pressing down on the accelerator.