A poet came to live in Raven Street. The people of that neighbourhood were not in awe of anyone, including poets. The man was a stranger, but they did not find him strange. He was poor like them, his winter clothes were threadbare and of a bygone era.
The poet seemed at home in the local kafeneion. He kept his own counsel, but without being discourteous. He preferred to listen, and observe others’ ways. Everyday details, humble objects fascinated him.
The citizens of Raven Street did not ask questions. They had learned to draw their own conclusions. They had lived through dark days of hunger and betrayal. They sensed that the poet had been similarly scathed.
The poet lived frugally. This was understandable. But the fishmonger took exception to what he perceived as the poet’s indifference to his wares. One day, as the poet passed by the boxes of ice laid out on a rough trestle to one side of the pavement, he noticed all the fish eyes gazing skyward, fixed in glassy stares. It reminded him of something pitiful he’d seen.
‘Why don’t you ever buy my fish?’ demanded the aproned proprietor.
The poet looked at him, startled. Then he said, ‘To eat these creatures would be to eat sadness. Sadness for the lives they could have had…’
The fishmonger could not conceal his contempt.
The residents of Raven Street included Mr Odysseas and his wife Kalliope, known for short as Poppy. Mr Odysseas (a common name in those parts) had been a sailor in his youth. Now he drove a taxi. Kalliope leased the local kiosk, selling newspapers and cigarettes and sundry other items.
Mr Odysseas had had many amours in the ports of call of his sailing days, and had since found it difficult to lead a more settled life.
He was by nature a gambling man as well, a fact which, added to his casual infidelities, gave Kalliope more than her share of secret heartaches. These she bore stoically, while wishing in her heart of hearts that she could have been wedded instead to someone like the poet, with his gentle courtesy, his unassuming refinement. He was her favourite customer. He always had a kind word for her, as if he understood without her having to explain.
One night, Mr Odysseas came home very late, flung himself on the bed fully clothed, and expostulated bitterly to his wife’s side of the bed: ‘You are my only true friend! How fickle a place this world is! What traitors I put my trust in! What vipers I have harboured!’
Hearing no response, he switched on the light. Kalliope’s side of the bed was empty. There was a note on the pillow. It said, ‘I have left.’
The rare visitor to Mr Odysseas’s house thereafter wondered why there were naked dolls nailed to all the walls.
After many years the poet died. His table at the kafeneion was left unoccupied, out of respect. Kalliope, who still leased the corner kiosk selling newspapers and cigarettes, wept. He had been her favourite customer, because of his quiet courtesy. She was used to rougher trade.
Kalliope retained the lease on the kiosk to give her something to do, and for the social contact. She no longer needed the income. Mr Odysseas had died suddenly and violently, in a brawl over unpaid gambling debts. Apparently, he had not thought to change his will. With the assets left to her, Kalliope bought the small, run-down building in Raven Street where the poet had rented the first-floor apartment. She let the basement to a young man from a country farther to the east. The poet’s apartment was left undisturbed.
Only once had there been reports of a visitor, a woman nobody recognised, deathly pale, distraught-looking. It was possible she was visiting the tenant in the basement apartment, although he claimed to have no knowledge of such a person.
When the poet died, the people of Raven Street were bemused by the influx of media representatives asking questions. Yes, the residents of Raven Street had known he was a poet, but he had liked to keep to himself. No, they had no anecdotes. He hadn’t been a raconteur in that way. Sometimes they heard his name on the radio, and they had heard the songs composed to his words. He had written about suffering, and hope, and freedom. He had also written about dead fish, lettuce rotting on a table, crazy women living in boarded-up houses. What was there to explain?
Months later, the municipal authorities arrived to attach a plaque to the building where the poet had been a tenant: Here lived…
It was the only time in living memory that the municipal authorities had shown any interest in the conditions of life in Raven Street.
The front door, with its blackened iron knocker shaped like a woman’s
hand, seemed obliquely familiar. I had been there before, and recognised it also from subsequent glimpses in poems and dreams. Silence and gloom lurked in the empty lobby behind the door, but, drawn by the source of dim light from above, I ascended the stairs to the upper floor.
Enough murky light penetrated the dust-encrusted gauze at the unshuttered window to reveal the room’s contents. In the cage on a stand by the window lay two dead birds, two small swatches of feathers. Sky blue. The only furniture was a small, round table. Two chairs. On the table, a shrivelled pomegranate which appeared mummified. A tarnished key that matched the one in my hand. I laid my key edge to edge with the one he had carried in his breast pocket. The one I had so often heard in the lock at the foot of the stairs.
Descending the stairs, I approached the exit to Raven Street. As I reached for the door-latch, I noticed an envelope at my feet. The postman must have slipped it under the door. I picked it up and took it outside, where I could see to read the handwriting.
It was a letter addressed to the poet at the Raven Street address. I recognised the script. It was my own, from a time before my eyesight had begun to deteriorate, during the years of imprisonment under the dictatorship.
The young man who leased the basement apartment woke to the sound of passing feet on the other side of the wall separating the pavement from his head. He could hear water dripping from the eaves after rain.
He eased himself up from the mattress and adjusted the blind to admit some light. The quality of the light confirmed the greyness of the day.
He knelt on the floor in the corner and venerated the icons he kept there in a shallow wicker basket. This ritual was how he began each day. His features were the kind beloved of Byzantine icon-painters.
He quickly dressed and set off to keep an appointment.
You can read some of Jena’s poetry here.