KR OnlineFiction

The Mountains Are Black

(Colorado, 1914)

Look, I like to think I know something about men. I like to think what I know has helped me. Our eviction, though unlucky, made me smarter, and as much as I loved Stelios, he was—is—still a man. If he wanted something, he did what he needed to get it. Even if that meant force, even if that meant violence. Even if that meant leaving me, after insisting I cross the ocean with him, to the middle of this lonesome country. The day the guards burned down the tent colony—our Easter, not theirs—he’d already long disappeared. Left one early morning with a bandanna around his neck, a knapsack, and his rifle, into those black Colorado hills, ready, as always, to wage war.

The waiting was torture.

The waiting was always torture. Those days leading up to the strike, not one day passed without fear of accidents, of the miles-long tunnel the men walked to work. Like walking into death, Stelios always said. Like descending into nothing. Like descending into hell. Our own private inferno we left our sun-soaked, war-exhausted home for. We waited each day for what seemed inevitable, yet it didn’t matter how many times we’d hear the alarm sound from the mines. Each time was a new, fresh terror: wondering who, this time, was lost. Coal dust and red earth in the air like flames.

But the things we didn’t see were worse: a group of men found dead, suffocated as they took a break for dinner, their lunch pails at their feet. Captured still as if in a painting, heads lolled over as if napping. That’s when it was the worst: when the hills looked calm and the alarms would wail like sudden mourners, and all you’d see emerging from the mines were stretchers. Even now, a particular kind of alarm clock sends my heart racing, my feet and palms tingling, throwing open windows for a gulp of air, a breath.

And the stretchers appeared only if we were lucky, if the foremen were feeling humane, felt like allowing us some dignity. A man’s dead body might stay slumped in a coal cart all day long, like an animal carcass you might see at the side of the road. From the mines the men often emerged like corpses, like ghouls, and the company town began to feel haunted. Each night Stelios returned I’d touch his sooty skin and say, Where are you, Teli mou. Pou eisai. And he’d say, I’m here, agapi mou. I’m here. After he disappeared, I played these moments in my mind over and over again.

What I’m telling you is true. We had plenty to be angry about. These silent poisonings could have been avoidable, yet each time it was called worker negligence, if you can believe it. The work was terrible, and the conditions even more so, and I was surprised Stelios, who didn’t like to be told what to do by anyone, could handle it: not the difficulty—he was strong, and resilient—but the humiliation. Bodies chipping away.

When we’d arrived, when Stelios was hard at work, I felt, somehow, that my presence alone kept him safe. That if he were coming back to me he wouldn’t push his luck, tempt his fate, for a bit more coal. He knew, I think, the power of the earth, that one could only wrest so much from it. Others tried. Others failed. Stelios—sometimes a little naïve but he, swift-footed Stelios—was good with spaces just like he’d been good with war. In a short time he knew that mine as well as I knew this tent. He, like me, had good instincts.

But I knew he questioned what we had done, questioned why we’d come. We talked of leaving: a cousin in Detroit sent letters of milk and honey; another wrote of sponge-diving in Florida and his life by the ocean, a world so foreign and so familiar I dreamed of it at night. At the time, to stay and work seemed the only choice. I had one good friend there, Hariklia, twenty-two, a few years older than I, who lived three doors down, and each day she talked of going back to Crete. As if it were a matter of a quick train ride, a ferry boat across the way. Her husband was an angry, violent man, and she spent her days sweeping outside their tent. Sweeping, sweeping, a Sisyphean battle to rid their home of dust. In our home of Crete, dust was a nuisance but not the enemy. Even when the sirocco swept in from North Africa and covered everything with a fine, red sand. It could not kill you. I told Stelios we’d find something else before he began to spit up the thick, black mass.

Then came the news of the strike, and the strike, to Stelios, was religion. I’m not sure he ever really understood what was at stake, but he believed in it all the same. I believed in it, too: we went to meetings and we picketed the streets and it was the first time in my young life that I felt important. Back in Crete, Stelios knew what he had to lose, but to go back would be the admission of defeat. Here, I suppose we had nothing to lose, but it wouldn’t be money that would cause him to tempt his fate, no attempt to pick an ounce more of coal out each day, no reckless move at work. But bluster, silly masculine pride. He wasn’t afraid of Turks, he wasn’t afraid of British, and he certainly wouldn’t be afraid of some foreman or mine boss or National Guard yo-yo with a rifle and a smirk.

The mountains here, the bright sunshine, made me think of home. Though it was not exactly the same, every so often I’d turn a corner and the angle of the light, a tip of snow on the mountains, and I’d forget where I was. It almost made it worse. Many of the men were alone. Most of them. It’s no less dangerous here, Stelios said, here meaning Crete, here meaning the home he’d convinced me to leave. We left, after all, during a war, but a war we were pretty sure we’d win. Maybe we were arrogant, but we were right. Pretended we were married, in Athens, and no one questioned us, nobody cared. Times were too chaotic to think about paperwork. “I’ll go where you go,” I said, because I loved him, but also because I was looking for any sort of way out. He needed me, for the little English I knew.

At some point between then and now, we became white, I suppose, but we were not, not then. We were separated from the northern Europeans. We, Italians, Mexicans. I knew the rest had trouble telling us apart. The sound of Italian and Spanish, the rise and fall of the sentences, was comforting. Sorted out by the color of our skin, the darkness of our hair. My eyes, blue as the Colorado sky, as the jail warden would later say to me, confused them. Blue like old Mother Jones.

Now, it seems baffling it took so long, relatively, for the workers to organize, but when you’re in a new place and you don’t have the language, even the smallest tasks—going to the market, or opening a bank account, or a confusing interaction in the street—feel nearly insurmountable to begin with. Add the exhaustion and violence of the work, the degradation, the mountains of debt incurred just by arriving—well, it was all but paralyzing. Yet somehow, we organized. When the strike began, of course, we were evicted, expelled from that stifling corporate town and into that tent village, where we did what we could to feel alive.

• •

As the strike waged on, the Texas militiamen, the National Guardsmen, swarmed around with rifles, to scare us. I did not have to come to hate them: it was instantaneous. Watching us from the baseball diamond, or perched atop the boxcars like crows, or milling around close to the camp, these so-called guards escorted the scabs in. Everyone, of course, hated them, the scabs, but I understood. They needed to make money, too, but didn’t realize soon they’d be in the same position as Stelios and his gang, who had been, when we’d arrived, strikebreakers too. They were not the problem, but our rage was directed more easily at them because we knew exactly where they’d come from. Sometimes, Stelios and his gang waited at the train tracks, convincing their countrymen to honor the strike. Often they succeeded, and the men would return to our camp, joining a struggle against the work they had never known. Yet they had, of course. It was not hard for them to imagine it. Solidarity was not so difficult.

The guards, however, had no imagination. They were mean and hostile—some seemed pulled off the street, just like the scabs—and to them, our men were dirty thugs, barbaric—and we, the women, the few we were, were simply invisible. It’s amazing how little anyone suspected of a woman, particularly an immigrant, if seduction wasn’t involved, and in all these years I’m not sure much has changed. Luck came to me in surprising ways. When I walked down Commercial Street in the daytime I was nothing—though I do not mean I was not sometimes noticed; I was nineteen, after all—but there’s a way if you don’t speak the language, or people don’t think you speak the language, it’s as if you do not exist.

It would take too much imagination for the guards, the militiamen, to consider the places we’d left behind, that we’d come for work, not trouble, but the working conditions were so unbearable, so terrible, it was either die in those mines or fight. But I can’t expect them to have been able to imagine this. The lower the imagination the higher the cruelty, and those guards, they were impossibly cruel.

• •

Nights in the tent village were dark and starry and still, and we’d look up at the black sky and say We could be anywhere. Because unlike our lives in the company town, separated by ethnicity, sectioned off according to language and creed, in the union tent colony we all lived among one another. The strike gave us meaning, and connection.

If I feared Stelios had taken off beyond those hills and just kept going—and some days I admit I felt sure of it—south to the port, back to the ocean and back to our home—there’s one particular night, the night he disappeared, in fact—that allows me to eliminate this possibility. That was the night I knew for certain would be one I wouldn’t forget, a night that would stick in my mind and play itself over and over again, in dreams, in memories, in moments like this when I tell them again. That’s when I knew that whatever small moments of joy or lightness I felt during that time could risk being eclipsed by violence, by death. I didn’t want to obliterate them, too. When you tell a story, after all, you walk right back into that space, have a look around, notice things. You see things that felt important as meaningless and things that felt trivial and momentous. And sometimes you’re faced with something that even then, you knew would stick with you. So you’re stuck with the memory of the moment and the memory of knowing you’d remember it.

Stelios was an excellent musician, and in Colorado he played the mandolin because that is what he had with him. The Italians, no strangers to organizing, were our neighbors, and we learned their songs, too. Those nights we gathered and sang still remain firmly beneath my navel, where I can still feel their particular tug, the feeling we were meso pouthena, yet in the middle of everything, too, the country’s eyes on us. The enormity of what was about to happen both clear to us and completely unknown. Somehow, I couldn’t help but imagine us in two places at once: there beneath the vast Colorado sky and back in Crete, the sound of the sea accompanying us. Sometimes, all these years later, I think I’m still there, too.

There’s one memory that’s lodged in my mind: not the marching, not the deaths, not the fire or anything about the ten-day war but instead part of those days leading up to it, when Stelios disappeared. Memory can be inconvenient, after all, and whimsical at its best, but I find it unashamedly malicious most of the time.

I suppose this is a story of that night. No, not that night, literally, but what it meant. No, not what it meant, but what it began. You see, we did not come wanting to stay. We did not imagine ourselves to be successful in America. We didn’t even know of the American Dream, a phrase I would not learn until much later—long after Stelios was gone, after the beating and long after Ilias died, once I’d settled in Detroit—and wonder if it had been coined as a mocking, cruel joke. Or maybe it was already an idea in the air, one simply not yet snatched by language.

Anyway. This was after the new year, after the snow reached the top of our tents and after it melted away, but before that fateful Easter. We were already several months into the strike. We were no longer green but not quite savvy. What we did know was that we didn’t have to win. We just had to outlast. And we were good at waiting. We were good at being stubborn. We were good at the gamble, in more ways than one.

Often in the evenings the men played cards in the Greek tent, the large tent near the baseball diamond where the men, unaccompanied, stayed. The few, like Stelios, who’d come with women and children had their own tents nearby. We’d dug holes below them to hide from the snipers that sometimes attacked us for no reason at all except to frighten us, the militiamen intent on bringing us down. Me, I never felt safe underground: claustrophobic and panicked and airless, a fear that would later save me. Even now, in small spaces, I lose my mind a little bit. My house now is open and airy and I like it that way. Back then, I’d rather chance it. Again, I was lucky.

But this particular night they’d somehow sneaked in a load of rifles, a man from Denver and his car. I don’t think we were supposed to see this, and they’re lucky the guards did not, thinking it was just the union men bringing supplies: flour and sugar and other dry goods, plus a bit of fruit. Which they did, as cover. A few instruments, too.

They’d gathered around the fire in the baseball diamond, and Stelios came back to the tent for his mandolin and asked me to join him. He was in good spirits, nearly euphoric. Stelios played his mandolin, another a laouto; the Italians and the Slavs sang songs from home and Stelios picked them up easily enough, and we did, too, and though I’d never heard some of these songs before, their melodies, minor-keyed, sank deep into my skin where I can find them still.

Hariklia’s terrible husband had gone into town with some of the other men. Though we could imagine what they did there—drinking, women—she seemed relaxed, happy. She and I went back to my tent to get a few blankets, a jacket, and to stop to use the bathroom. When we stopped at her tent for her coat, she went inside and emerged, not with her coat, but with a bottle of whiskey. She offered me a sip, and we passed it back and forth a few times before heading back to the field. I noticed she didn’t bother taking off her shoes to go inside, didn’t bother sweeping on her way out. Cheeks flushed, humming a song I hadn’t heard in years.

Then she grew quiet. In the distance there was the sound of the music and singing but closer still I could hear the sound of something stirring, and at first I thought it was a jackrabbit, which I knew inexplicably terrified Harikila—had she been scared of them at home?—but I could also hear someone breathing: a man. I remember the momentary weight of fear atop my chest. I took Hariklia’s hand and held up the lantern to guide us, and that’s when we saw the young guard. I don’t know where he’d come from but suddenly he was there, patrolling the corridors of tents as though they were city streets. I would have been embarrassed then to admit I liked him, but I did, and after Stelios was gone I found myself all the more aware of his presence: olive skin, like mine, charcoal eyes, and brown curls that shone like honey in the sun. A jaw like a hunk of steel.

Something about that moment made me see him in a new way. Something about the way the light hit his face unawares I knew, without question, that he was one of ours, as we say, but he would never admit it. In his mind, in his demeanor, he was an American through and through. Though unlike the other American guards, he was never cruel to us. He averted his eyes and turned his back, off to resume his patrolling.

I was stunned and didn’t speak for a moment, but Hariklia, with surprising lucidity, or bravery, with complete nonchalance, mentioned how handsome he was, as if we were back in our home villages off collecting some water, and I, emboldened by the whiskey, voiced my agreement with a vulgar comment that startled even me. Our exchange, of course, was all in Greek, but we could see him pause, his back stiffen.

I realized then you cannot hide an understanding of language: it’s written all over the body. Even if he lost it, on the surface, it remained deep inside, dormant, ready to strike, or retreat.

Then, he continued his walking, up and down those narrow roads, out of the range of our sight. Hariklia and I locked eyes but said nothing until he was well out of earshot. Then, I said a phrase, a private joke between us, the only thing that could ever, for some reason, make her laugh. Silence becomes a woman.

• •

When we returned to the field, the mood had shifted from sweet, melancholy songs to some sort of revelry. The music was loud, and more had taken up instruments. A few more men came with their guitars and a violin. In our short absence everybody seemed to have grown far more drunk, something unhinged and wild in the air, like gods. Stelios gestured to me to come sit by him, and he took a break from playing the mandolin, ran his hand up and down my back, twirling my hair. I had not felt a celebration like this since my cousin’s wedding, two weeks before we left the island. I had not recalled feeling this good.

What happened next was one of those small, seemingly insignificant things I’m talking about, the kind that stays with you a lifetime. Stelios picked up his mandolin again and began the opening tunes of the new strike song, and everyone began to sing. We will win the fight today, boys, we will win the fight today. I turned over a bucket and beat it like a drum. I remember the crackling of the fire and the amber light on our faces. I can’t imagine everyone even understood the words, but they could sing them. And here I particularly remember the two Ukrainian men, their oxen-like backs and their gentle faces, hair and skin as dark as mine. These proud tenors, Grigori and Ivan, twenty-two years old at most, stood so erect and nearly motionless, as if singing for the archbishop. Hariklia’s face, watching Ivan, was brighter and more open than the moon. I get a knot in my chest, thinking of it.

How I remember the singing. That night in particular. Though I doubt it registered then, I can’t help but hear how thick our accents, how clear our voices, Oura! Oura! I will never hear the song in an American accent even though it’s an American song. An American song sung by immigrants. The wild pride in Stelios’s eyes I already knew then was dangerous, how could I not have, a pride not a part of our relationship but at an angle to it. Calm, rational thinkers don’t pick up and travel across the world. I think I knew then that we were never going back, at least not together. I suppose I had known this when we left. Though sometimes I still imagined him slipping onto a ship in Galveston or hopping a boxcar east, to Chicago, to Detroit, to New York. Heading home.

Oura. Oura.

I turned back to watch Stelios, and when I caught his eye he smiled, but I could tell he was both there and somewhere else: not in Rethymno, not at the seaside, or the cold fountain where we’d met as children, when he was already a talented musician with his music and his mantinades, not anywhere in Crete but rather somewhere unknown to me, somewhere beyond, a place I couldn’t access, and I understood the union would end up meaning more to him than I had ever imagined: more than home, more than family, more than I.

And I knew his connections home had somehow been responsible for all those rifles, the ammunition. I was sure of it. Watching him, I felt the strangest sensation: that he was no longer Stelios, that I was no longer I. As though the music had canceled us out and we were nowhere.

I don’t know. It doesn’t make any sense now but then, at the moment, it did. As I tell the story now, I recognize a former self. And I step right into her young body.

• •

What we brought from Crete was not much. Some dirt pinned into our jackets. A trunk of belongings. A mandolin. The memory of my parents at the port, their anger and sadness. This is only temporary, I reassured them. We will be back. But the story of our leaving is no different or similar to any other story of leaving. I looked around the fire that night of the music, all those young faces. Some were merely children. Here they were workers, strikers. Who had they been at home?

We came legally through New York, though others entered illegally, through the port at Galveston. How is not worth talking about. Workers were needed, and it’s no surprise people looked the other way. It is the story of this country. The American Dream is the blindness. Who else would work in such conditions? People with a dream bigger than themselves. Years later, people would ask me if I came for freedom, for America, said how lucky I must have felt to be an immigrant.

How lucky.

What we had was the opposite of freedom, and I’m too superstitious to ever admit to luck, even if I had it, lest it be so quickly taken away. Ftou ftou ftou. Anyone who’s ever gambled knows this too well. No. We came for money. That’s it. I’m not shy to admit it, I’ve made my life here now, in this country, but we did not arrive thinking we’d stay. We did not understand the place, did not quite understand the complicated, bloody history of the American West. Or America in general. We barely knew our own histories, after all. We could have been anywhere.

Before we’d left, in Crete, from the time I was fifteen, I would sit beneath the plane tree in the town square and take dictations for letters abroad, to America, mostly, a detail that now takes on a greater significance, as if I were writing away to my future self. My father taught me to read and write at a young age. I made money doing it. The letters I wrote in Greek, but I was already learning English, too, and might add a line or two, to impress the recipient. A young British archaeologist, a woman, gave me lessons. She could see, even then, I was like her, unlike the rest, refusing to be content with what was expected of me.

I loved writing those letters: I made the language pretty and if anyone thought to teach a girl to read was a waste, they never said so. I, after all, was always the odd one, pursuing things that were meant for men.

At home there was a war, one we were winning, but all the way here, in Colorado, we wondered if, when we returned, our land would belong to someone else. I knew that if we returned, Stelios would belong to someone else. At the time, I thought he’d somehow made it back home, in the end. That maybe it was too much. Stelios, charming and passionate.

A charm some often mistook for brilliance.

• •

For the rest of that night, around the fire, the feeling that I was a part of something large, part of the world of men, was palpable. All the singing, it was inspired by something. And even if I weren’t really ever part of that world of men, I had the clear sense we were all part of something much larger than ourselves, something we didn’t quite understand. It filled me with promise but also unease.

No, I had never fired a gun. I had, up until then, never held a rifle.

When Stelios got up to relieve himself, he picked up his rifle where it lay casually on the ground, handed it to me as if it were a violin. His dark eyes gleaming, his heavy brow raised with wildness. “Try,” he said, standing behind me, showing me where to tuck it beneath my arm, how to steady it, how to aim. I kept trying to turn the barrel away from everyone, out into the darkness, but Stelio, stronger than I, had me pointing right in the direction where he knew, I realize now, those guards lingered. I still smell his alcohol-soaked breath on my neck. “When you fire,” he said, “the gun will kick back into your shoulder. You have to stay still.” Niko, Stelios’s best friend there, snapped at him: “What’s wrong with you, you crazy bastard. Put the gun down.”

Then, I felt Stelios’s body relax, and mine, too, and he took the rifle from me and set it on the ground, pointing away from us. “Relax,” he said to Niko.

Another man whose name I don’t remember began singing, his cheeks shining, playing a bouzouki, and it was a melody I recognized from home, something primal and dark, and I, my heart still pounding from the adrenaline, jumped to my feet to dance, pulling Hariklia along with me. My hair had since fallen down, and it hung down my back, unbraided, unpinned, uncovered, flowing down past my shoulders. I glanced behind me, on the other side of the fire, and caught one of the guards watching me, his expression that mix of desire and disdain and a bit of a condescending smirk that I, that most women, have encountered all our lives.

And the young guard, Jim, though after that moment Hariklia and I began to privately call him Mitsos, looked on, nearly expressionless, as if he, too, had gone somewhere else. Somewhere beyond.

But then it was as if his eyes shifted into focus, and something passed between us not necessarily sexual but something erotic, or at least suggestive. Or maybe it wasn’t even that. But it was an understanding of some sort of invisible line connecting us. Loyalty. Kinship. He never admitted his roots to me, not then, not later, when I was living in town, but the closest he ever got was one afternoon when he saw me walking and offered me a ride. We only spoke in English, once he realized I understood it, though I said very little. Learned a bit of English from all the British. Now it’s better, of course, but memory, for me, is Greek, so all this is a translation, a carrying over. Memory is creation, after all, but it takes historical shape.

In Colorado, though, especially those early days, it was easier to pretend I didn’t understand. If you didn’t speak English, people assumed you were stupid, and to be stupid is not a threat. Nothing worse than a clever woman. But I knew Mitsos could tell I understood English the way I knew he understood Greek. And you know what he said to me once, weeks after Stelios had disappeared? He said for me to have a chance here it was better to forget the old world entirely. A life that never existed. Otherwise, it would haunt me forever.

As if it were so easy.

But that night, all of us gathered around the fire, the music rising into the clear night, we hadn’t spoken a word yet to each other. Mitsos looked away and motioned to his friend. Let them be, something like that, and they walked away. Or at least hid somewhere in the shadows where we could not see them, but they could see us. Being in their gaze and all the attendant feelings of that gaze had exhausted me, too. Had they seen me earlier, the rifle cocked and aimed, the flames behind me? Had it given them ideas?  I felt suddenly dizzy and sat down next to Stelios and let my head rest on his shoulder until all I could think of was drifting off to sleep. Maybe I did fall asleep, a moment. I thought of the olive press. The sunny terrace. The plane tree in the square.

Finally, I stood. Hariklia had, at some point, gone to sleep, and I told Stelios I was leaving, too, but he was laughing loudly with another man, standing with a flask, and barely noticed. I left long after midnight with the music still playing, walking back alone with my lantern. But when I settled in to my tent I was wide awake. When I couldn’t sleep, I went through the things I remembered. Sometimes it was terrifying how little particular events or moments returned to me. A joyful Easter feast when I was eight. Prince George passing through the town when I was five. Walking with Stelios along the sea, past the parading merchants and their well-dressed families. British sailors. The thumping sound of olives at night, falling from the trees.

I must have eventually fallen asleep because I woke to hear Stelios crying. What is it, I asked. I dreamed of my mother, he said. His mother had died when he was young, in childbirth. I was quiet. She asked me why I was grieving. I told her for Ilias. Why for Ilias, I asked, the man from Loutra who’d been leading the picket lines. The man with the coffee shop in Denver and the fine English, the man with the phone in his tent. Why for Ilias?

But I woke again and Stelios was not next to me, and I lay quietly, straining to hear if the music still played. Soon, Stelios came into the tent, letting in the early morning trembly, violet light.

I sat up.

Shht, he said. Go back to sleep.

I rubbed my eyes and told him about the crying, but he looked at me strangely and said he hadn’t come back to the tent at all, until that moment. To be honest as the days passed I remained uncertain as to whether it had been, in fact, my own dream of his mother, and his dreaming of his mother, so many stories within stories within stories I don’t know where to start. You see, Ilias was shot in the back, it’s true. But it was the day after Easter, when Stelios had already been gone and I was alone in my tent. How could I have known he’d become a martyr, a hero? But I did. I knew. In my mind and memory, faulty, nonlinear, Stelios’s leaving had to somehow do with this. Memory jumps back to tell me that Stelios was avenging a death. That what happened later that night was not aggression but retribution.

You were dreaming, agapi mou. He quickly tossed things into his knapsack. Was he drunk then? I couldn’t know for sure: it’s as if he he’d moved past drunk, not sober again but some other higher, heightened state. I asked him what was going on.

What had happened—and I don’t remember what I’d understood then and what I’d pieced together after the fact—Hariklia’s husband and a few other men had come back from the town, from those houses of tolerance, which we said then, or maybe just say now, where the working women were both their friends and who knows what else. I didn’t realize the way those women and our men were aligned, not necessarily in the obvious ways you’d think. As if they were training them to organize, too—or maybe the women were training the men. I don’t know. But apparently our boys had made a lot of noise in that frightening way of drunk, fierce men.

Heroes without wars.

The strikebreakers were visiting the women, and our men had been tipped off by one of their favorites, the older one with the honey-colored hair and sharp green eyes and tiny hips—I’d see her in town much after and she was always kind to me, as if she knew. Those things that go unspoken between women.

Stelios and his gang wanted to go rough those strikebreakers up, to beat them silly as they emerged into the quiet dawn, relaxed and unassuming. To be both warriors and saviors. As if somehow their protection here was noble: even then, I knew our men never wanted to admit they were as terrible as the rest. Every man thinks he is not like the rest. It’s all about territory. It’s always all about territory.

But Stelios mou, I said, we were once scabs, too.

I’ll never forget the way he looked at me then: a look I’d never seen before, a man I did not know. Near hatred. Fury. We, he said, and laughed. And you’re part of this we? Are you sure? But I must have looked terrified because his face softened again, and he kissed my forehead for the last time. I had only meant the we to soften it, to not feel so much like an accusation, a nasty reminder. Don’t worry, he said. I know what I’m doing. And he was gone.

• •

We woke to the news of the man—a strikebreaker, a scab—beaten to death at dawn. Stelios, of course, did not return.

Yet those days and weeks and months after, through the fighting that followed and far beyond, I had the eerie sense he was watching me, from wherever he and the other men holed up, still waiting to fight like tigers. But I’ve got my own rage to sing about.

I left Colorado just before the winter became terrible. But when the snow first arrived, I’d wake to hear the crunch of Stelios’s footsteps back to the tent. His particular way of walking, favoring his left foot. I was sure of it. Some nights I’d be so sure of his presence, I’d sit up and say his name. But inevitably the sound would shift, become feminine: only Hariklia, humming nervously, coughing, pushing dirty snow away from her tent. Still, I felt he was watching me.

It’s been a long time, but I still feel his eyes on me, a shared glance over music, over fire. Remember, he’s saying. These words, this story, happened in a place that wasn’t our own.

Already everything felt like fiction, and telling it feels like myth.

 

Note
I am grateful to the documentaries Ludlow: Greek Americans in the Colorado Coal War (2016) and Palikari—Louis Tikas and the Ludlow Massacre (2014), as well as to Zeese Papanikolas’s Buried Unsung: Louis Tikas and the Ludlow Massacre (1982) and David Mason’s Ludlow (2007).