PodCastle 513, ARTEMIS RISING: We Head for the Horizon and Return with Bloodshot Eyes

Show Notes

Rated PG-13, for war and gore.

We Head for the Horizon and Return with Bloodshot Eyes

by Eleanna Castroianni

August 14th, 1949

Near Kançikon, Pindhos

The heart had already stopped beating — small animal in glistening glory, trapped between rosy lungs. Burgundy liver and sickly gall I passed; bones and marrow hold more secrets. Intoxicated, I shoved my hands into the soldier’s lush entrails — still so warm — and moved them around, making them swish and rustle like mouldy autumn leaves. I sought for patterns; I listened, waiting for echoes of the Next World, waiting for the Voices that Know and Tell.

My breath got caught in my throat and for a few moments I couldn’t find air. As I hastily drew my bloodied hands out of the soldier’s belly, I burst into a cough so strong I thought I’d spit my guts on top of the butchered soldier. Vanghelio, battling her sickness at what I had been doing, turned to face me. She grabbed my wrists and steadied me on the ground.

“Nafsika,” she begged, “what happened? What did you see?”

I won’t write what I saw, not until we are closer to Base. Bones and entrails never lie and I’m not risking the enemy getting hold of this notebook. Before I joined the army I was a butcher’s daughter who saw the future in the remains of dead animals on my father’s table. Every single time I was right, no matter how little the Major wanted to believe me. Now I need to write this story down because I know what I saw in those bones, because our comrades are in danger, because soon the royalist fascists will be here. Because Major didn’t believe me and now I have a chance to save myself, to save Vanghelio.

We’re going back, mission aborted.

August 15th, 1949

We have camped for a few hours out in the mountains, only Vanghelio and I, only the two-person squad the Major sent for the bone reconnaissance. It is the 15th of August, 1949 — the Virgin’s day — and we’re soaked in blood. It would have been a holiday back in our villages, but neither Vanghelio nor I have families any more. I witnessed my home burning down to ashes by the fires of the National Army. I didn’t wish to join the Communists — I didn’t wish to join any faction in this damned civil war — but, really, they left me no choice. The Communists took women in. They trained us at how to carry arms and taught us letters.

Five days ago, the Major sent us to a bone reconnaissance but we never did it. This morning we turned back. That’s when I started keeping this journal — to make a record of what really happened in this mission. Vanghelio is pleading me to reconsider; I won’t. Surely enough, I don’t like the Major, but Vanghelio downright hates her.

“Fucking bourgeois, she is,” she said when we first set camp on this mission. I tried to ignore my aching stomach —  we had nothing to eat and we were used to it. “Did you know her father is a banker in Thessaloniki? A fucking banker, of all things! And now she’s here, trying to teach us how to be good Communists?”

Her words stunned me. I had no idea. Major Kalaitzidou always looked like a model partisan, the only woman to have climbed up so high in the ranks. Suddenly I was able to place her neat accent, her curt responses and lack of patience toward our comrades who were sheep herders before joining the army. I wasn’t the only soldier with an education or a slightly better social standing; yet only the Major seemed to keep herself at a distance, as if she were part of something else entirely.

“Is she secretly a royalist?” I asked, the pain in my stomach sharper at these thoughts.

“No. She’s with us.” We were resting between the aromas of wild herb bushes. Vanghelio chewed on a foraged carob, spitting tiny round seeds everywhere. “We know she’s used her connections for the war effort. What better way to rebel against her rich daddy? Thinks she’s better than us all.”

To us, farmers, labourers, poor people, joining this fight has been a need, a defence of our safety. Some banker’s daughter, surely, has never felt threatened in the ways we have. Never seen her house pillaged, her children on a pile of dead bodies — like I saw mine. If this is all a game to her, could we trust her with our lives?

“Doesn’t matter much now,” I said. My growing despair was in sharp contrast with the bright summer days. While the sun was shining, I was sinking deeper and deeper into my own darkness, into the bleakness my visions showed me. “The territory we’re heading to is full of royalist-fascist bastards. We know she’s sent us to our deaths.”

“Oh, not me, my love. Not me.” She clicked her tongue, gave me a cheeky smile. “I’m the best spy she’s ever seen.” I could never match Vanghelio’s spirit. We were drawn to each other, inevitably. “I won’t let her have this, I’m telling you, I won’t.”

As I write this entry, Vanghelio brings me two crab apples and some raw dandelions she foraged from our path — our only dinner — and I pause to devour them. She was a farmer back home, of Greek and Slavic descent. I was a butcher’s daughter who left her parents’ shop to become a teacher. My name is Nafsika Androyannaki, Sergeant of the 139th Battalion of Thessaly. Since last December I’ve been fighting for the Democratic Army of Greece. I fight for the rights of common people, I fight against the spawns of Nazis and the slaves of America. Against those who showed their real face after the war, the people who once fought against Hitler only because Stalin was winning. They call us robbers and mobsters, anarcho-Bolsheviks and friends of the Slavs, and us — the women — whores and hyenas. Other women soldiers find these insults appalling. I’ve been called worse names in my life; I take all this as a compliment.

When I joined, no one knew of my talent. Then a soldier from my village recognised me.

“She’s a witch, Commander,” she said, and was tempted to cross herself. She was obviously religious, but calling the name of God would raise eyebrows among Communists. I remembered her face, vaguely. I think she had once thrown stones at me when we were children, but this sort of thing had happened so many times in the past that I couldn’t be certain.

For a second, memories of old horrors stirred in me. I held back from flinching, while every nerve inside me prepared for flight. But the soldiers only laughed, and the Commander — a man with kind eyes and a thick, glossy black beard — asked me, “Can you find us water then, Androyannaki?”

I requested the bones of a small bird. When they brought the carcass to me as a joke, I only glanced at it once — at the fragile architecture of its ribcage, some feathers still attached to the decomposing flesh — and said: “Half day’s walk north. There’s a small fountain between two red rocks.” The hundreds of times this bird had drunk from that place, the thousands of times its ancestors had drunk from there too — all were carved on every bit that remained of it, as plain as daylight to me. Death is a map; it lights a trail that extends beyond the horizon.

A squad was sent and it returned a day later, ecstatic, flasks full of water. Since then my odd gift has been a common secret between my comrades, and a weapon to this war as valuable as any. Some are in awe when they see me perform my art, some are in terror, but none is less my friend. “Androyannaki,” they tell me, patting my shoulder, “Can you see any chickens on the horizon? Preferably roasted with lemon and thyme? And some wine, too? Ah, how I’d love some wine right now!” People say that in war one can find a sense of purpose. I’ve never felt so respected and useful, and accepted for who I am.

And then Major Kalaitzidou took over.

“What a woman,” Bourazopoulou said, oblivious of her surroundings, when the Major arrived. Lips parted, her eyelids at half-mast, it was plain as daylight that Lieutenant Bourazopoulou, an ardent Communist, viewed Major Kalaitzidou, a prominent female partisan, as her idol. And who could blame the Lieutenant? The Major walked between us like fire and wind, pace careful as a wildcat’s, eyes shining like a vixen’s. If I knew then what I know now, that the Major comes from a bourgeois family, that first impression would have been much different.

Only Vanghelio wasn’t taken with her. When the Major arrived, she gave a speech addressed to the women only. A speech on how we must be dutiful, like our fathers’ daughters, how we must fight for our children, how we must endure and protect, like only mothers know how. Many of my female comrades nodded and even cried, but Vanghelio barely concealed a frown. Later, when we were alone in the dark, away from the others and tangled between each other’s arms, she said, “The Major talks about our fathers and our children. I give no shit about my drunkard father. And I’ll never have children!”

Her hair smelled of musty leaves and dark earth. “I have a hunch she won’t like what we’re doing here, alone,” I whispered, watching her eyes glimmer in the dimness. “Private Fotiadi was executed because she was sleeping with one of the men.”

Vanghelio didn’t reply. She looked away and her still expression told me exactly what she was thinking.

“Others who do the same are in a hurry to get engaged and promise marriage after the war ends, so they won’t meet Fotiadi’s fate. But we can’t do the same. We have nothing.”

“Most people know about us,” she whispered, annoyance clouding her voice. “They turn a blind eye, don’t they? Surely the Major won’t let go of someone as useful as you. No one will.”

Even if I were protected by my odd gift, she wasn’t. If something happened to me then she’d be alone and exposed.

“Makes me mad how they insist on marriage and morals.” I shared her frustration. “Not just the higher-ups, but the other soldiers have embraced this too. Only the women, of course. No one bothered to give such speeches to the men! Makes me think I’m not really wanted here.” Her voice was cloudy with doubt — such a rare thing for Vanghelio to reveal, even to me. She joined the army to nurture her own dreams and all this time she had been watching them dissipate like early morning mist, impossible to catch.

“I guess it’s all we have against the slander and propaganda of the government.” I knew this wasn’t a satisfying reply. “People won’t believe us if they think we’re about to destroy their homes and their values. We need them on our side.”

“Oh, but we are,” she smiled knowingly and tightened her arms around me. “We two are destroying their homes. Let them fear us.”

August 17th, 1949

Another day on the road has passed and I have an hour’s light to write my tale — an hour’s sleep before we hit the road again. I’ll let Vanghelio sleep and I will write, because the truth is burning inside me and I must let it speak. I want to jump a bit in my story and recount the day when Major lost faith in me and my abilities — because bones never lie and Major is not used to hearing the truth.

We were on a thirty-hour march, enduring heat and thirst with not a single protest. We have no resources and no support; our army is a bit more than a bunch of insurgents. We have to take it all in and endure — and so we did that day. All but one.

Sarpatzidou, a rather sickly, pale girl almost as young as Vanghelio, was marching ahead of me. With escalating horror, I watched her sag, the weight of her Mannlicher dragging her down, and a moment later she collapsed, dead as stone. We halted. A soldier beside me let out a cry. We rushed to help her, only to confirm her breath and heartbeat had fallen silent. For days, she had managed to hide her exhaustion under the uniform — until it killed her.

“Sergeant Androyannaki. Read this soldier and report.”

I was stunned to silence and so were my comrades. Cicadas buzzed and the August heat seethed around us. The Major’s request wasn’t unexpected, of course — I had done this many times by then. But never to one of us. Never to a comrade.

I asked to move the body somewhere private. She denied me.

“Yes, sir,” I said between my teeth. I knelt and sliced the poor girl from pubic bone to the tip of her sternum, while Vanghelio and other soldiers retched behind me. The things they had seen in this damn war were somehow less revolting than what I was doing. As I sawed through the girl’s ribcage to access her heart and lungs, blood gushed at me, dyeing my uniform scarlet, lighting up memories of my father’s table. For a few moments my hands shook; tears filled my eyes. Never before had I flinched while doing this. Sarpatzidou was alive a few minutes ago — still so warm — and slicing her open felt like murder. The Major stepped to my side, looming over me.

“What do you read, Androyannaki?” she demanded, her voice hoarse with disgust — not at the dead body, but at me. She was revolted by my gift yet used it anyway.

All I needed to know was within the girl’s lungs. Fleshy and plump, so ripe and oozing life. Soon they’d be sprouting maggots, they’d be returning to the ground and the Gods Below. I didn’t have to touch them; they were screaming. The Voices that Know and Tell swirled from inside those lungs, forming new patterns in the flesh, images that swam and shifted. The ribcage was melting into the ground: this was not Sarpatzidou’s fresh corpse any more; it was wings and mountains, a flower petal, a river flowing. It was a man’s hat with red insignia on it, it was waves of refugees, rows of barbed wire stretching from one end of the horizon to the other.

“We’ll get trapped here,” I said, words drooling from my lips. “The mountain passages will close. No escape.” Sarpatzidou had never been to those mountains. But everything was connected, in time and in place — her lungs spoke on the behalf of trees and stones, of birds that would be born next summer, of our enemies’ minds and of our future deaths.

It was the best I could do, but the Major still knit her eyebrows, displeased. “Which mountains, Sergeant?” she pressed. “Can you tell?”

“To the north, northeast. A horse’s hoof, with a saint on top. A broken nail, where a prophet rests.” By then I was trembling with cold shivers. I felt Vanghelio’s arm on my back, steadying me in that harsh vision. I couldn’t see it then, but Vanghelio told me afterwards how our comrades took several steps backwards at that moment, distancing themselves from us and the disgusting ritual we were part of.

“A horse’s hoof. Sir, that’s Voras Mountains, at the border,” Lieutenant Bourazopoulou said, eager to please the Major. I knew she hadn’t turned her back like others had, trying to act as cool-blooded as her idol. Nevertheless, her voice was thick and unsteady. “And the prophet on top must be Prophet Elias, at Kajmakcalan. Does this mean Yugoslavia will block us, then?” she ventured, linking my vision to her own knowledge. Bourazopoulou knew the landscape so well she could always weave something useful from the tatters of the future that my trances revealed to me.

“That’s ridiculous,” Major Kalaitzidou dismissed it at once and Bourazopoulou shrank back, defeated. “Belgrade is one of our allies. The vision must imply the place where the royalists will block us. Look again, Sergeant.” She stressed every word. I knew very well that every word meant: say something else, Sergeant.

I clenched my teeth. The Major was caustic and hard to please, but I couldn’t see just then why she wouldn’t listen to what I had to say. Maybe she merely tolerated my link with Vanghelio. Maybe my gift was a threat to her authority.

“I saw what I saw, sir,” I said, ever confident in whatever flesh and bone revealed to me.

“Look again, Sergeant.” Again, she levelled each word at me, slow and steady as a sniper. “Which mountains? Speak.”

She wanted other mountains, other than those at the Yugoslavian border. I pushed myself, tried to see the pattern clearly through the blood-blooming lungs of Sarpatzidou. The shivers grew sharper, cold piercing me from every side. “A tooth-like … a tooth-like peak —” I stammered.

“Siniatsiko, to the south,” the Major said before I could finish my words.

I didn’t know what to tell her. I wasn’t even sure how that mountain looked. I watched her, slightly stunned inside my trance. “Perhaps,” I said.

“The royalists will block us in the south,” she affirmed, as if she was the reader of the entrails, not I. “We head northwest then. Back in line, Sergeant.”

We returned to march, limbs stiff, lips tight; and behind us, left to rot among the pines, was the mutilated body of a comrade, a woman, a friend. Apart from a few words, we were not allowed to give her a prayer or the final mercy of a grave. We were allowed to cry, however. Sobs and tears spread between us in shared, quiet mourning. Our march had turned into a funeral procession.

Then it occurred to me: a few days back I overheard Bourazopoulou talking with another lieutenant. The Major had been leading the faction that advocated passage to the northwest for weeks now, claiming that hiding deeper inside the mountains would help us sustain a siege. The other high-ranking officers deemed it too dangerous, as we’d be cut off from the rest of the army and easily ambushed.

I’d just given her what she needed. A weapon against them: “The 139th Battalion witch said so.”

She was risking everything — she was risking us — because, if she proved to be right, then all the glory would be hers. How she twisted my words, how she used me to get what she wanted, how she dismissed the very real danger of Yugoslavia blocking us and ignoring the preparations we could have made — all this left me in hopeless awe.

Lieutenant Bourazopoulou was correct. Seven days later Tito announced the closure of Yugoslavia’s borders. By then we had entered deep into northwestern territory, locking ourselves between Tito’s closed borders and Verno Mountains, our last fortress. Much of our army was in a similar position. The unrest among the soldiers was extreme, especially since Tito invited fighters of Slavic descent to escape to his Macedonia. Within a month, at least seven of our friends had fled.

Our comrades had distanced themselves since that day I defiled Sarpatzidou’s corpse. With the Major hating me for proving her wrong, Vanghelio and I were both wearing out our welcome. But Vanghelio had Slavic ancestry and she could leave, seek shelter past the borders. I wanted to beg her to go and earn the freedom her surname would give her — but I couldn’t.

She read my thoughts better than I read dead creatures. “Silly you,” she said, “I’m not going anywhere.”

August 19th, 1949

When I sliced open that enemy soldier during our bone reconnaissance mission and told Vanghelio what I saw in his viscera, she begged me not to go back.

I should have listened.

“The Major doesn’t care what you see, just like she didn’t back then,” she cried. “Did you really think she’s depending on you to spy on the enemy? Can’t you see it? She sent us here to get rid of us! You surely must have figured this out by now. Immoral witches — that’s what we are to her!”

She was younger than I was, I thought. Impulsive. Naïve. I had to be the mature one and shoulder the burden of my own visions. I was the one with blood all over my uniform — not the blood of the enemy, but the blood of the dead, the knowledge that had smeared my hands crimson. I trailed my dirty fingers on the khaki uncomfortably, reaching an old stain. Tendrils of that vision stirred at the back of my mind, sinking themselves deeper into my spine, shaking me all the way to the tips of my toes with their urgency. The Voices that Know and Tell entrusted me with this knowledge; saving our comrades was in my hands.

“We cannot run away, Vanghelio. Only we two have this information. We must deliver it and we’re running out of time.”

“You’ll never get there in time!” Nothing would change her mind, as nothing would change mine. “Please, let’s go the other way. Let’s cross the border to Yugoslavia. They’ll let me in, you know they will.”

“Will they let me in, though?” I asked bitterly. “Will you tell them I’m your wife?”

“I’ll tell them you lost your identification, call you by my cousin’s name.” She was such an optimist. “If we stay here, we’ll get captured and tortured. Please, please, I’m begging you. Let’s run away.”

Her words rang in my ears. My own doubts were taking over — the things I’d seen during this war, during this mission, had only gotten darker. But I couldn’t betray my battalion, my comrades, the men and women on whose side I fought. I couldn’t betray the Voices that Know and Tell, and the truths they whispered into my ear. In some twisted way, I see now how I couldn’t betray the Major, whose approval I secretly wanted, who might still find something redeeming in me, accept me, praise me.

“Please, Vanghelio.” My voice broke. “Save yourself. I must go back.”

She smacked my arm. “Idiot. I’m not leaving you,” she said, evidently offended. “It’s either both or none.”

I wiped blood off my hands, full of guilt for what I was doing to her. We’ve marched for days and I’m afraid we’ve marched to nowhere.

A fortnight ago the Major summoned me.

“Sergeant Androyannaki.” She took her maternal tone, tried to sound like one of the older women comrades when they guided and encouraged the younger ones. “Your … talents have done much good to us, but I must inform you that your latest results have been disastrous.”

I steadied my gaze, tried to not betray my nervousness. Was she referring to Sarpatzidou’s reading?

“Not only did you refuse to follow my orders, you also completely misled us and now our escape to Yugoslavia is closed. You have endangered the cause and the lives of your comrades.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. The Major, shamelessly, went on.

“Of course, I took the blame for this, but I must ensure you are not causing any further problems to the battalion.” Pause. I knew what followed. “I have noticed your connection to Private Nikoleva and tolerated it, because you were so useful. But you have failed me. You surely cannot expect me to ignore it any longer.”

“Permission to speak, sir,” I said.

“Permission granted.”

“I would like to know what I can do to remedy this situation, sir, and keep Private Nikoleva safe, sir.”

A faint smile on her lips. Her eyes — the same copper hue as the eyes of a fox — narrowed into slits. That was exactly what she was waiting for. “I am pleased to hear this, Sergeant.”

For a split second, I wondered: what would Major Kalaitzidou’s entrails tell me? I banished the thought. It wasn’t a reading I wished to do.

“After Yugoslavia’s block,” the Major said, “we lost all our connections to our informants up north. It’s likely that there are soldiers’ bones from the battle of Kançikon still up in the mountain.”

Kançikon was a messy, disastrous fight from over a month ago. The territory was captured by the National Army, successfully pushing us back towards our base. Were the bones still there? Was there any point in mentioning this?

“I need reconnaissance on enemy movements or we’re fighting blind down here. You will travel there lightly, read the bones, and come back to report to me.”

She stopped, waiting. I blinked. The suggestion was absurd; it was a fool’s errand. “Sir, that’s suicide,” I muttered, too baffled to hold back.

She did not scoff or show emotion, only watched me quizzically. Like a disappointed parent, she said, “Your failure has cost us so much, yet you have the nerve to object to my decision?”

“I . . . ” Stumbling, I sought words to defend myself. Injustice was choking me. “I merely reported what I saw, sir.”

What I left unsaid, she picked up at once. I watched her eyes narrow again, realised the wrong choice of my words.

“And what you saw was bullshit.” She was breathing into my face by then, a miasma of stale tobacco. “You can fool peasants, but you can’t fool me. You’re not as valuable as you think, Androyannaki. Loyalty to the cause is more important than your necromancy. Are you willing to prove your worth to me or not?”

Without my power, I was nothing. No one needed me, or Vanghelio. “Yes sir,” I agreed stiffly. “I would require a comrade, though, sir.”

“Private Nikoleva will do, surely?” Never once did she raise her voice. She was dispassionate in her cruelty, not even showing a trace of enjoyment in doing this to us. It was all perfunctory to her.

Bullets of sweat trailed down my spine. If I left Vanghelio here, she was at the mercy of the Major. If I took her with me, we were heading towards death. If we left and ran away, we would be deserters to be punished by death. The only way to prove her wrong was to survive. To find out what the bones said, and to return safely, carrying vital information.

I would do it. I swore I would. Maybe that’s why I was so reluctant to let go when Vanghelio begged me. The Major feared me and threatened to ban me from the only place I had found acceptance. If I could make her like me — if she finally approved of me — maybe I would have earned the right to be who I am. What a foolish thought. I was trying to breathe life into something long dead and couldn’t see how it had never really existed.

When it happened we were already two and a half days on our mission, the summer sun burning our backs. I read the bones of a sparrow the first morning: managed to tell there were troops of National Army due south. We changed our course, Vanghelio covering our tracks all the time, but I couldn’t get my hands on another carcass. Amidst the summer-blasted rocks it’s hard to hunt anything and one dead snake I found told me nothing. We travelled by night, but that afternoon Vanghelio woke me up urgently. She only lifted two fingers in front of my eyes: two National Army soldiers nearby. Stealthily, we grabbed our rifles and crouched in the bushes, ready to fight if needed.

Within seconds, we were spotted. “Communist bitches!”

I shot him on the leg — he knelt — then on the arm, so he wouldn’t shoot. One down. Vanghelio tried to get the other one but missed — he was too close. I watched him as he brought his rifle near his face, aiming, ready to shoot: seconds turned to hours. Vanghelio was exposed. No time to strike, no time to disarm him.

As I was crouching, my feet were on a level with our shoulders. I kicked Vanghelio with my foot on her right shoulder, risking my leg. She was already moving out of the bullet’s way and my push helped her. The bullet brushed past something; it didn’t plant anywhere. Whether that was her shoulder or my calf I couldn’t tell yet, but I knew we had earned enough time.

The soldier shot once more at us, then ran to hide. It was the chance I was waiting for. I managed to get his leg again, a moment before Vanghelio threw herself on him like a wild animal. Close body combat with her was fatal — she fought like a rabid wolf. Heedless of my kick and of a bullet that might have injured her shoulder, she jumped on the soldier with a bare blade as he dropped his rifle and tried to defend himself. I ran after them, but by the time I got there Vanghelio was breathing heavily and the soldier was lying on the ground, hands over his head. Both of them were incapacitated but alive.

I pointed my rifle at one, Vanghelio with her knife at the other. “We need no hostages. They’ll tell us nothing. Kill the fascist bastards,” she said, her voice cold as ice. She’s only seventeen, my God, but when she fights she knows no mercy.

A glance at the soldiers surprised me. They were both young, much younger than I expected, almost Vanghelio’s age. While young people are common in the Democratic Army, you don’t see them often in the National. My fingers hesitated; my hands shook at the memory of my own dead children, of my comrades younger than Vanghelio that lay dead on the trail from Thessaly to Epirus. Of Sarpatzidou’s glistening entrails.

Alarmed by my long hesitation, Vanghelio stepped in and finished both soldiers with two clean shots on the head. I stood still, watching life escaping, the Gods Below calling. Why couldn’t I squeeze the trigger just then?

“You all right?” Vanghelio grabbed my arm, grounding me back to reality at once.

“How’s your shoulder?” She had a dark, blooming flower on her side.

“We’ll bandage it later. We need to run. Someone must have heard these shots.”

“Wait,” I said, unable to resist the Voices. “I need to read their bones. They’ll warn us if there are any more coming.”

Vanghelio gaped at me, unable to believe my folly. “But … what will you do? You can’t see their bones now, can you?”

The dead bodies were pretty clean. Only a couple of shots, dribbling blood. But the pull of the closely nested organs underneath the skin was too strong to resist. “You know what I’ll do,” I said. “You’ve seen me doing it before.”

She licked her lips. She was obviously hoping she wouldn’t have to watch this again, but she said nothing to stop me.

“Cover me,” I said firmly.

The woman who a moment ago was a ruthless killer now watched the trees and rocks for intruders — looking anywhere but at me and what I was about to do. I took out my serrated knife and tore away the uniform, revealing pale, underfed flesh. With one sharp motion, I opened the man from pubic bone to his thorax. I inserted one finger inside the cut and followed the knife as it went along, lifting skin and muscle without damaging the entrails—my father’s art. Warm blood coated my hands, staining them ruby red. Entrails spilled like jewels: deep dark liver and long ropes of intestines in a tangled mass. The blood held secrets for me; the more I spilled, the louder it whispered. I shoved my hands in.

Something wrapped fingers around my throat just then, choking me.

“Nafsika,” Vanghelio begged, “what happened? What did you see?”

I was having a seizure, waves of spasms all over my body.

“We’ll die,” I whispered. “We’re all going to die.”

August 21st, 1949

This is my last entry. I need to write everything down, then let go of this notebook. It doesn’t matter any more what I read in those entrails that day. What matters is that bones never lie, that their tale is told.

“Grammos. It’s a diversion,” I told Vanghelio between my tears.

“What do you mean? What did you see?” Her eyes sought mine frantically. As our gazes locked, I found a link to the ground; slowly she pulled me back into this world.

“We’ve sent all our troops to Grammos,” I mumbled, every word after the other a pain to pronounce. “It’s a diversion. They’re heading for Vitsi. And there’s no escape now that Yugoslavian borders have closed. We’ll get slaughtered between those mountains!”

I was still trembling, the vision too strong, too certain. Vanghelio, shocked and hesitant, was stroking me between her arms.

“You should stop reading the dead,” was the only thing she said. “It’s making you worse and worse. Look at you now.”

Despite her injured shoulder, she carried me on her back until we were as far as possible from the place the soldiers found us. When we paused to rest, I found the strength to start this journal.

I didn’t know how much time I had. I rushed through the pine groves, head dizzy by my visions, bloodied and sweaty, through enemy territory, hoping to get there in time to warn Base. Vanghelio followed, lips pressed together, angry at my ignoring of her pleas, yet refusing to abandon me. Somewhere inside me I agreed with her: I knew it was futile. I knew that even if I got there in time, Major hated me so much that she wouldn’t listen. But hope is the last thing to leave Pandora’s Box — hope was all I had. My vision came to me for a reason. It was a chance to save them — to save myself.

Today we got close enough to spy from between the pine trees on Base, stretching on the horizon. As we got closer and closer, heavy smoke pierced our eyes; the stench of burning flesh made us sick.

“Too late,” Vanghelio said.

We trotted down the hill, closer to the trail that was overflowing with corpses — our comrades. Between the smoke and my stinging eyes, I recognized Bourazopoulou and a few others. The Major was nowhere to be seen.

The war still went on, somewhere, but our base was gone. My vision was true — bones never lie — but we were too late.

“I don’t understand … ” I muttered to myself. Death is never haphazard — I knew this very well. “The entrails were right. We ought to have arrived in time. But we didn’t.” My eyes met Vanghelio’s. She was blinking through the debris, unable to stop crying. “What’s the point in reading entrails? Why did I see this future if I couldn’t change it?”

She put an arm on my shoulder. “Maybe you didn’t see this future to change it. Maybe you saw it to save yourself.”

Her voice reached me, softly. Truth was, I thought I was saving myself, but in an entirely different way. Even when Vanghelio was waving another way in front of my eyes, I refused to see it.

“If you wish to go and fight,” she added, “I’ll come with you.” Her hand, her voice, drew me back to the moment. That familiar, tanned face, jaw always determined, was there within my reach. I saw her for the first time, then. Loyal, high-spirited Vanghelio, ready to follow me into all sorts of recklessness.

I owed her a better me.

“We’re already dead to them. We’ve always been. So we must choose life. Today we walk home, Vanghelio.”

Her eyes widened. Then she grabbed my hand, sobbing loudly, streams of tears flowing down her face. My God, she had been holding in so much.

“We really lost, didn’t we? We couldn’t do anything,” she sobbed, wiping her nose on her dirty sleeve. “The Major sent us to our deaths only to save us. What a joke.”

The joke’s on her, I’d like to say, but not when they are fighting. Not when they are dying. “Let’s go. We have miles to walk.”

It is the 21st of August. We are heading for Yugoslavia — our only escape route for now. Tears are streaming down my face, for all the comrades that will die or get tortured; for our cowardice that is really, really, no choice at all. A bird flies above our heads and I thank all the creatures that have died and will die to take us to safety. Death is never haphazard. It always lights a path beyond the horizon.

I leave this notebook in a tree hollow, for the truth will find its way to the eyes of those who care to see it. Reader, please forgive us.


Nafsika Androyannaki

Sergeant of the 139th Battalion of Thessaly of the Democratic Army of Greece

About the Author

Eleanna Castroianni

Eleanna Castroianni is a nomadic subject with roots extending from the depths of Anatolia all the way to its Mediterranean coasts and beyond. Among other things, they are a gender and geography scholar, an oral storyteller under traditional apprenticeship, a teacher of languages, and a refugee rights advocate. Their fiction and poetry have appeared in Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Eye to the Telescope. They live in Athens, Greece.

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About the Narrator

Danielle Imara

Danielle Imara (AKA Daniele Minns) is a transmedia artist currently living in France.

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About the Artist

Geneva Benton

Geneva Benton is a self-taught illustrator from North Carolina, who loves working with colors, big hair, and drawing whimsy with a touch of realism and happiness. Her work has appeared in magazines, novels, editorial and advertising campaigns.

You can find her most often on Instagram, and support her work on Patreon.

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