The Happiest Man Alive
by Grove Koger
We were sitting in a taverna in Agios Prokopios gazing out across the channel toward Paros when Yiannis told me this story. Or maybe tale is a better word. He may well have made it up on the spot. I had rented an apartment from him, and knew that he loved a good tale. And as it was my last day on the island, I didn’t have a way of confirming any of it.
In any case, here’s what happened and what I pieced together from my landlord’s sketchy remarks that afternoon.
We’d finished lunch and were easing into our second big bottles of Fix while an old man cleared off the tables around us. The cicadas were sizzling in the pines behind us, and the silhouette of Paros, which had been nearly invisible in the midday haze, was growing sharper.
The busser took no notice of us, but what was surprising was that he also took no notice of the bottles that shattered on the cobblestones behind us a moment later. Yiannis and I both jumped and looked around as a plump man stood steadying the table that he’d nearly knocked over.
Yiannis went over to draw the busser’s attention to the mess.
“Deaf,” Yiannis said after he sat back down. He inclined his head toward the old man, who was smiling gently as he got busy with a broom and a dustpan. “Does cooking, cleanup. Sleep in back.” Yiannis was the taverna owner’s cousin, so I assumed he’d know.
“I tell you story,” he continued, automatically assuming that I’d like to hear.
Some forty years before, it seems, a little freighter was making its way one July afternoon up from Crete, which I gather is a harder passage than you might think from looking at the map. The meltemi is blowing in your face if you’re heading north, and it’s a pretty strong wind that time of year. Apparently there have been wrecks off the west coast since Homer’s day, but when the captain reached the lee of the island near sunset, he thought he was home free. Then one of the crew—a young man named Spiro—must have gotten careless, because when a chance wave broke over the freighter’s bow, it washed him away with it.
Naturally the ship reversed course and circled around, but Spiro was nowhere to be found, and the captain had to give up at nightfall for fear of hitting a reef. He put into port in Naxos Town—that’s a few miles north of Agios Prokopios—but he and several dozen other seamen headed back down at first light the next morning in smaller boats hoping to find the unfortunate fellow. And they did. He was clinging to a rock a few hundred feet from shore, nearly unconscious. They took him back to harbor, did whatever it is that you do in such situations, and Spiro was up and about in no time.
“But not shipshape!” Yiannis exclaimed. He seemed delighted with the English word.
No, not shipshape at all. Spiro seemed distracted, and within a few weeks people started noticing that he’d turn suddenly to look behind him, as if he thought he were being followed. There was no question of his shipping out again, so he got a job at the taverna and learned to cook. But there was definitely something wrong by then. Noise distracted him, or rather sound itself. Any sound; he couldn’t bear it. He couldn’t be counted on to get anything done in any reasonable amount of time, so he lost the job and became a bum. And if you think that might be a pleasant way to live out your life on a Greek island, you’ve never spent a winter in the Aegean.
What exactly had happened to Spiro that night? He finally told a few people—and here Yiannis put on a grave face—that he had heard seirēnes swimming among the rocks that that night. Sirens, in other words—those sirens. Seen them in the moonlight, too, and here Yiannis made the familiar gestures that men around the world make in suggesting the attributes of women who are thought to be unusually desirable. But apparently the important thing was that Spiro had heard them—and couldn’t stop hearing them, didn’t want to stop hearing them. Other sounds weren’t just a distraction; they were a curse.
I wondered briefly what kind of song it was that was supposed to have enchanted the poor young man so thoroughly. Did it have a melody? Was it in any particular key?
In any case, things went on from there and Spiro was at his wit’s end. The fellow was going mad from the sounds of our world, our everyday hubbub. He had to be free to listen to his sirens, whose song apparently issued from deep inside his head. So he stole a knitting needle and pierced his eardrums.
Yiannis laughed. Up until then I was on the verge of suggesting another round of Fix, but suddenly I felt a little queasy. “Happiest man alive!” my friend exclaimed as he stood up, slapping me on the shoulder. “Don’t hear nothin’. Don’t hear nobody bitchin’. Good worker now. Plenty to eat. Happiest man alive!” He grinned while I anchored a twenty euro bill under my bottle.
As we walked out, I realized that the old man had taken a perch on a stool by the open doorway and was finishing a cigarette. I looked surreptitiously at his ear, wondering whether I might see some kind of scar or disfiguration. He must have felt my eyes on him, for he looked up at me just then and smiled serenely. Then he turned back to staring out to sea.
Grove Koger's the author of When the Going Was Good: A Guide to the 99 Best Narratives of Travel, Exploration, and Adventure, and Assistant Editor of Laguna Beach Art Patron Magazine, Palm Springs Art Patron Magazine, and Deus Loci: The Lawrence Durrell Journal. I blog at https://worldenoughblog.wordpress.com.