If he stood without slouching, Nikos’s eyes were level with the average person’s hip bone. He had long arms and large feet, and all his toes were the same size. His right foot was splayed so that if he were walking north it would point northeast. This was useful when he got lost in snow or mud because it enabled his companion, Sylvie, to track him down.
Nikos wore second-hand clothes with frayed elbows and zippers that stuck. His pants, of course, all had to be shortened and his big, black cowboy boots with the scuffed toes constantly resoled. His wild, flaming hair and beard came together like a lion’s mane, but the face in the middle naturally slumped into an open, friendly expression. That expression rarely changed, though Nikos had the ability to move his eyes in opposite directions so that one eye looked here, the other there — a feat that horrified Sylvie but fascinated dogs and children.
Nikos had another unusual feature — his round ball of a nose. This nose had extraordinary powers. It could catch the steamy fragrance of a sweet potato pie baking in another province. It could sense an impending rainstorm or earthquake, and it could even identify the gentle tremors of affection and pain.
On this morning, like most mornings, Nikos was on his way to town. The cool, crisp air made his nostrils flare like tiny bellows. The sun had been up an hour when he crossed the footbridge and suddenly detected a change in the wind. Nikos loped nose-first down a path that led to a cottage behind a grove of trees.
Inside the cottage, an old couple sipped tea and talked. They had just received a letter informing them that a good friend had died. They sat reminiscing, their words punctuated by reverent silences.
He always ate a snack at midnight.
He once loved a girl named Joyce.
He wore the same pants every day.
He fell asleep at church.
He used to say, “Temples are everywhere!”
He would tell the same stories again and again.
He had a sister who didn’t speak to him.
He once built a boat the size of a house.
Never did touch water.
That’s right. Never did.
They nodded respectfully and sipped their tea.
Nikos peered in through a window, one eye on each of them. Their words floated out of their mouths toward him, and he harvested them like apples, putting them in a burlap bag he carried over his shoulder.
Suddenly, angels began arriving. They went about their business with casual vigor, sometimes passing within inches of the two old people, who did not know they were there. Each angel had a different job. One of them, a short, stocky angel with a thick neck and muscular wings whom Nikos knew from long ago, was there only to whisper reminders that hope was never lost no matter how painful life became.
But this was not Nikos’s concern. He made his way back to the main road, following his own tracks, and continued walking toward town, humming a song from the sea though he’d never felt safe around water.
When he got home that evening, he found Sylvie outside tending the garden. Sylvie had a pear-shaped face and glasses and silvery hair she stacked into a three-tiered bun, which tilted to and fro as she walked. The bun made her taller than Nikos, who preferred her hair long and flowing.
She worked in her garden all day long, growing the largest, sweetest vegetables in the province. Whenever someone asked what her secret was, she would say, “My companion’s nose.” But because she was so soft-spoken, everyone thought she had said, “My companion knows.”
Once in a while Sylvie liked to take trips by herself to faraway places. She would return with notebooks full of ideas and observations. She and Nikos would spend weeks reading through them, underlining sections and debating this point or that. They often saw things differently and told each other so. This made for lively discussions in the evening candlelight.
That night, when Nikos came home, the two greeted one another in the garden, then came into dinner. Later, after all the evening chores were done, Nikos brought his burlap bag into the kitchen and dumped its contents on the table. They tumbled out in all shapes and sizes. Some looked like fruit, some like stones, some like patches of fog, some like pieces of wood. Nikos told Sylvie about each one.
This was an old couple’s memory of a departed friend.
This was a moan from a lonely woman who had been walking in a schoolyard.
This was the silence in a house where all the unspoken thoughts hung in the air like rain clouds.
This was a sigh from a man who had lost his sense of purpose and found himself in a life he never intended.
This was the prayer from a boy who lost a girl: “Dear God, I don’t know why she doesn’t love me, but please see that somebody does someday.”
Sylvie put them in the sink and washed them carefully. Then she laid them inside cigar boxes she had collected from flea markets and garage sales, and she tied each box with silvery green twine. Stacking each one on top of another, she carried them to a hut in back of the house, where she blessed them and performed a drum ritual she’d learned from an ancient tribe in a distant place. The beat started slowly, then built to a crescendo that sometimes lasted half an hour.
Nikos, listening from the house as he read the newspaper, would sometimes hear her weep. They never talked about that and didn’t need to.
When she was finished he went out to the hut, and side by side they carried the cigar boxes to a large trunk behind the garden. It was a rickety wooden trunk with rusty hinges and water stains that looked like dark faces. Either Sylvie or Nikos would sometimes get a splinter from it, and they would remind each other to wear gloves but never did. The trunk didn’t close well anymore. Nikos had been talking about fixing it for as long as Sylvie could remember, but she had given up on the idea.
They placed the cigar boxes inside one by one and shut the lid. They checked on their broccoli on the way back to the house.
The next morning before the sun breached the horizon, Sylvie dressed, stacked her hair, tied her apron, and went out to the garden. She took the cigar boxes out of the trunk and untied and opened them.
Each lament had turned into a worm.
She cradled them in her hands, each one pinkish brown and stretching like yawns. She named them after her favorite characters, starting with the twelve Apostles, and released them in her garden. Before she had even returned to the house, the worms had begun tunneling, each one using all its mysterious strength and single-mindedness to return to the cool, giving earth.