The feast lights blink in a golden cluster through the vast emptiness of the blue hour. The traveler stands far off, sniffing the warm dusk. Mad music spills out into the dry grass. Here is the smell of fat-clotted ash, of peppery seafood stews, of musky girlish feet freed from their canvas bonds.
The hunger is wider than himself, it stretches blind across the plain. As he approaches the heads turn to look, the dancers slow. A dark figure stands up. Join us, waves the man in the wingtip shoes, his shoulders framed by faces bathed in warm light. Hands pull the traveler in. Pat my big belly, says the wife waving a lace fan, see how it kicks. Tells us a monster story, demand the children with dirty mouths, crowding his legs and poking at his canvas bag. The band frantically churns out tinny songs. Effervescent wine gathers in the empty corners of his insides, and there is a wrinkly mouth close by, listing all the ways he looks like a dead son.
The traveler rests his sore body on a flimsy ribbon-decked chair. The bright dresses swirl around him. The hunger unfolds, taking note of all small things, of the boys licking thick cream off of a lover’s fingers, of the cats pawing at half-dead moths, of the gaping collars exposing the dusky wet hollows of shaven necks. How long have you been walking, you look like death, points out an old man behind a haze of pipe smoke. Here, have the figs, the cheese, the marzipan treats, a feast of your own.
The traveler knows his duty: he must eat, he must drink, he must tell a story. He has paused at many friendly homes, but never at a feast such as this. The powdery smells of dozing babies with sweaty hair are dazzling. Never a feast such as this, never in his bone-fed life. He raises the glass to the happy couple in their soft cotton best. They are drunk, they are in love, there’s not a patch of their whole swarthy length that isn’t pressed against the other. The chilled lemon liqueur, the rising harvest moon, the lazy crickets. He has eaten. He has drunk. Now he must tell a story. So, the children gather.
There is no myth without a great transgressor, the traveler begins. He is surprised to find that the hunger lingers, deeper than to be satisfied with almond cakes, it longs to consume everything.
One’s bad luck is always fed by their desire, he goes on. Once I met a woman whose cousin was turned into a suckling pig. The cousin was a dark-eyed, berry-mouthed girl with sparrow-wing ankles, she could climb every wall in the village like a gecko. She fell in love with a rich man’s son, but the rich man, whose family went all the way back to the gods, didn’t want a poor girl for a bride. So the girl despaired, and one night she climbed the walls of the men’s bathhouse to glimpse her lover. There on the warm stones was the beautiful boy, his honey-dark hair wet. There was the rich man too, and from his broad naked back dangled a long bull’s tail. The rich man saw her, and in his fury he turned her into a suckling pig. The girl went back home but her family didn’t know her, and roasted her for dinner.
The children laugh as if it’s the funniest thing in the world. The voices have died down, the dancers are sprawled on their seats. They have been listening, the traveler realizes, and he shivers—their heavy-lidded gazes are pinning him from all sides. He shifts and the young men shift too, their reflexes responding to the twitch of his muscles. The harvest moon is high, the band is slack. The children scatter. He is aware of the stillness of the silver grass.
A large hand rests heavy on his shoulder.
Time to go, says the man in the wingtip shoes.
Stay, says the envious, ever-present hunger.
The young men in white shirts and gold neck chains are watching, their tanned limbs testing the seams of their clothes. The girls have freshened their lipstick and their mouths are crimson, each with a slim black gap as they are watching too. They have a different hunger about them; theirs trickles like sweat.
The traveler considers the suckling pig. He weighs its hubris against the weight of the hand on his shoulder. The all-encompassing hunger would let him pay the price, it would. He anticipates the taste of his own blood. The young ones are still watching, rubbing their knuckles, wetting their lips. His vacillation excites them. One’s bad luck is always fed by their desire, the traveler remembers.
But the man in the wingtip shoes has lost this taste for blood, the taste his sons and daughters cling to. He has brought the traveler bread wrapped in a cloth and a dark bottle of wine.
Blessings, says the wife who is no longer smiling, and her fan is now sharply closed.
The traveler does not feel blessed. He has the keen aches of every mortal who has been briefly and carelessly loved by a god. He longs to break the bottle, to toss away the bread. But he gathers the gifts and steps out. The path is brightly lit by the pale glow, it goes as far as the eye can see, with thin tufts of grass sprouting along its middle.
It is a warm humid night, of nightingales and frogs. He walks until his feet find the familiar rhythm and his breath grows even, easing his pained chest.
He walks, until the feast disappears. He is a traveler. He knows his duty.
CLIO VELENTZA lives in Athens, Greece. She is a winner of Queen’s Ferry Press’ Best Small Fictions 2016 and was anthologized in Rethinking the Plot (Kingston University Press, 2016). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in several literary journals, including Airgonaut, Bitterzoet, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, and Whiskey Paper. She can be found on Twitter at @clio_v.