Tasos Leivaditis, The Tortoises

Translated by N. N. Trakakis

Upon deeper reflection, of course, one could excuse him, it was something I had provoked all on my own, I was born with that hideous condition, even though I always tried to hide it. But people are not so easily deceived, they observe you with a thousand eyes, from a thousand angles, until they have discovered your secret. And then you’re finished. Believe me, not even I understood how it happened, it all came about unexpectedly. The tortoise was so big, gentlemen of the jury, that it could not but kill him.

But it’s best I tell it from the beginning. Every peson, gentlemen of the jury, has a flaw which they carry with them from the day they are born, without being aware of it. Afterwards, someday, in their adolescence or later on, in adulthood, the time comes when they find out about it. My apologies, I like to philosophise, one manages in this way to live more calmly. As for my flaw, I wasn’t even aware of it in childhood, things were lovely back then, in the countryside in the summer father would whistle from afar every evening, and we, my sister and I, would come running to help him with the grocery shopping.Mother would set the table under the apricot trees and her white robe would leave behind a scented trail, in the distance dogs would be barking, and when we finished the meal I would lose myself in the large garden, lying down for hours amongst the damp cress. Later, all of a sudden, everything changed, my God! how did everything change? No one knows what’s going to happen the very next minute. Father went bankrupt, mother rapidly grew old, my eldest brother married our maid who had some savings, and I stopped my violin lessons.

That’s how life flowed by. Father would now obtain some fabrics from various merchants, old friends of his, and would sell them in remote neighbourhoods. And so one afternoon I went along with him to the drapery shop, so as to help carry half of the fabrics home. As far as I remember my father was always serious, with an imposing presence, a true gentleman,everyone on the street would tip their hat, removing it all the way down, even when he had fallen into poverty and had become slightly hunched. And suddenly I saw another man inside that shop, no, that man wasn’t my father. He was meekly requesting an increase to his commission, and even at one point when the other man went away, forgetting his cigarette in the ashtray, father grabbed the cigarette, took two puffs and quickly put it back. The shopkeeper, a plump man, with breasts like a woman’s, turned around and caught sight of me.

“Come here, I’ve got something for you,” he said to me with a cunning smile.

I approached unsuspectingly. The shopkeeper opened a drawer, took something out and right away shoved it in my mouth. I began to choke, and then I understood: it was a tortoise. The repulsive animal had tumbled down and lodged itself inside me. Father, apparently unaware of what actually happened, laughed at the prank.

At home in the evening I couldn’t eat a thing.

“Are you sick?” mother worriedly asked, and took my pulse.

How could I explain to her what had happened? I went to bed early, pulled the blanket over my head, and silently wept. I now knew what awaited me.

Ever since that day I’ve been distrustful and kept away from people – horrified, I could see in their eyes that they instantly knew my secret. Naturally I had to work in order to get by, and so I found a job as a clerk in a hotel close to the railway station, nightshift work, so that it wouldn’t be very busy. “From here on it’s best to live in the dark, to go unnoticed,” I thought. And indeed, whenever I wasn’t needed somewhere, I made haste to disappear, I was mindful in particular of speaking, always keeping my mouth shut. One night, past midnight, a couple arrived from the provinces, the man no more than forty years of age, tall and in good shape, the woman much younger and beautiful. I gave them the key to their room and they asked me to bring up their suitcases.I followed them from behind, my eyes ranging upon the woman’s back, her hips swaying, and on each step of the stairs her long shiny hair gently fluttering. We entered the room and I put the suitcases in place. The woman was standing before the mirror, gazing at herself. I tried to resist but in the end I gave in and threw two or three glances in her direction. The man, it seems, must’ve seen me, for his eyes glistened nastily.

“Here, take your tip and go, we don’t need you anymore,” he gestured abruptly.

I bowed, holding the coin tightly in my hand, and left the room, while the man continued: “What a disgusting face he has!”

Indifferent, the woman replied: “I didn’t even notice.”

I clearly overheard the exchange, as did the man in the adjacent room, standing by the open door. He had been at the hotel for ten nights, a short, bald man, gleaming always with revolting sweat.

“Did you hear them?”

As was my habit, I didn’t say a word.

“Take my shoes, I need them polished by the morning.”

And he added, pointing to the couple’s door:

“They’ll have a good time tonight, unlike you!”

“Unlike me?” I wondered, unable to understand.

That revolting character, it seems, had been waiting for me to say something, and with the swiftness of a magician he shoved a tortoise in my mouth.

I mustered all my strength to swallow it as quickly as possible so that I could breathe. The door opposite was now closed, the room’s guest nowhere to be seen. I rushed down the stairs and went out into the empty street, leaving behind my work as well as the fortnight’s pay I was owed. “So that’s why he had stayed ten whole nights, he noticed something strange about me and wanted to verify it. And so he succeeded,” I thought. “But where, after all, do they find these tortoises? If this happens again, I’ll report it to the police, the laws must protect me.” But what would I tell them? Who would believe me? I could, of course, show them my eyes. “Do you know why my eyes bulge like this?At that moment, Officer, you feel like you’re choking on the tortoise.” I was then astonished to recall that that guest had checked out the previous night, I myself  having waved down the taxi for him.I was about to go back to confirm this when I was reassured by a thought: “He left last night, but it’s not out of the question that he returned this morning, when the dayshift clerk was on duty. And what about the shoes he gave me to polish? I probably dropped them when I was rushing down the stairs.” Once I had put the events in order, I calmed down somewhat.

From that day, of course, I would even avoid working. Work, gentlemen of the jury, is the best, and the most lawful, way for others to do with you what they will. My family used to call me a slacker, they couldn’t understand, but of course neither could I offer them any explanation. What had befallen me wasn’t only horrible but also unbelievable. And so I would live in my parents’ house, in the basement, and often my sister or eldest brother would come down to give me advice, that naturally was their intention, even if they would end up telling me off. But I can’t deny that my brother, as soon as his clothes began to look tattered, would send me to a tailor he knew to have them resized for me. As for my sister, she came down at noon that day looking sulky, she had just returned from the shops and was carrying a parcel wrapped in white paper.

“Still in bed? You’ve got it made!”

You could say I was in ‘bed’, but the archaic couch I was sleeping on was hard, its springs protruding into my sides, and as for covers, under my ragged coat I only had an army blanket, that’s all.

“You’ve got to get a job and leave, I want to rent out the basement. You can’t sponge off us all your life.”

I remembered when we were children and slept in the same bed. When it rained and thundered at night, she’d get scared and burrow in my arms. And one night, soon after I had finished telling her a great fairy tale, she bent over and whispered in my ear, with a vague feeling of guilt: “When we grow up we’ll marry one another. I don’t want us to part.” I then took a closer look at the parcel she was holding. Something was stirring inside.“My God, even my sister!” I thought. I seized the parcel, ripped the wrapping, took out the tortoise and shoved it in my mouth with my own hands.“There! So that you may witness your brother’s torment!” She started to scream, she was embarrassed, it seems, and claimed that the parcel contained a toy she had bought for her son.

The next day I moved out of my parents’ house. I rented a room in an outlying neighbourhood. It was then that I began to philosophise, as I mentioned to you. “Every person has their own unhappiness,” I reflected. “You too have yours. Does anyone choose their own self? You are born without anyone asking you, you die without ever wanting to – that’s life. All that’s left you is to live it.” You know, if you work out what you want, everything becomes simple, even your unhappiness. All else is egoism. And egoism, gentlemen of the jury, is our most hidden and monstrous servitude to others. Naturally, given the little money I had, I would eat only once a day, at noon. The evenings I’d pass with wine alone. That’s how things were when one rainy morning I took the bus, for no reason other than I enjoyed travelling by bus and looking at the city, that was my sole superfluous expense, but always sitting in the back seat, in the corner, so no one would notice me. I was waiting at the stop, with two others, when I heard a strange, rasping sound. I pricked up my ears and soon I was seized with terror as I realised that the sound was coming from inside me – it was not so much a sound as a dry, dull clatter… I anxiously glanced at the person next to me, who continued reading his newspaper undisturbed.

Yet that noise was coming from inside me. For on the approach of evening, I was going into my room and heard it again. I immediately understood, there was no doubt: it was those accursed animals, which had multiplied in the meantime, and as they stirred and crashed into each other, they made that rasping, blood curdling sound. As long as I was by myself I didn’t care very much, but when the landlady came in to hand me a subpoena from the police, I began speaking loudly so that the abominable sounds couldn’t be heard, but the sounds intensified so much that, in order to mask them, I had to start screaming. The woman took fright and left. As soon as the noises ceased, I ran out and caught up to her. I apologised, and I was obliged to tell her that I was undergoing a crisis: “my nerves are a bit frayed, but please, for God’s sake, don’t tell the neighbours.” She was a good woman, she was, you see, over sixty years of age and actually forgot all about it. And so, after this incident, whenever I heard any suspicious sounds, I’d make myself scarce. At night, the noises initially drove me to despair, but over time you can get used to anything, and there’d be moments when I was overcome with boundless compassion. “The poor creatures,” I’d think to myself, “they’re not to blame, confined as they are in such a cramped space.”

As for the subpoena from the police, I was returning home late one night, I was fed up with being on my own, I too wanted to have someone to speak with, I wanted to embrace a woman, even if I were to die, and there close by on the same street lived one of those women, you know who I’m talking about, and so I went in, she showed me to the couch and sat opposite me, in such a position as if the other person were blind. I didn’t know how to begin, I always have difficulty talking, especially in such circumstances. In any case I felt good, the scent from the cheap perfume was making me feel faint, and then a thought suddenly occurred to me: “without a doubt she’s hidden the tortoise somewhere.” I looked around, I didn’t at all like the bed pillow, it seemed to bulge at the edge. I approached and pulled it away with force. “She’s hidden it somewhere else,” I thought and began searching everywhere. I opened her drawers and wardrobe, I turned her lingerie inside out, I even looked under the couch. The woman was screaming, and after I tore her robe in case she was hiding the tortoise in her breasts, I set off, almost at a run.

At that time I came to know the victim. My money had run out and I had to do something. He was a smart man, vigorous, handsome and wealthy, a noteworthy individual, in other words, who was in charge of a large group of offices under the name ‘General Enterprises’. I can tell you that it was the happiest time of my life, even if the witnesses say that I hated him because, allegedly, he would force me to dust off his clothes, or to clean the toilets at night, that was my job, that’s why I was hired. Besides, do you think that you would kill someone simply and solely because they had given you degrading tasks to do? We would then have all manner of crimes every day of the year, gentlemen of the jury, and it would be the end of the world. And so one evening, a month later, the director called me to his office. I entered with a premonition that something bad will happen, a feeling I always had when I approached another person.

“You know,” he said, grinning,“as soon as I saw you, I had you figured out…”

He was indeed so smart and self-confident that I would have been baffled if he hadn’t figured me out. I bowed meekly.

“Each of us lives the best way they can in this world,” I said plainly, as though I were telling the story of my entire life.

“I’ll give you an opportunity today, which will be your greatest achievement,” he said with satisfaction. He had been standing, and now walked off and opened the door to the toilet. I heard a lacklustre sliding noise,and there slowly emerged from the open door such a large tortoise that I drew back. It was tall and wide, like those huge heaters you see in expensive country houses –the kind of heater the director also had in his office.

“But it’s impossible,” I stammered, “how can I?”

He told a vulgar joke, which in fact upset me, but after my initial shock I came around. “It really would be a great achievement.” I got so carried away that I even silently said a small prayer: “my God,” I said, “since I was born with such a horrible flaw, ensure at least that I make it to the end.”

I opened my mouth and he began pushing it in, it was painful, but I took courage in the thought that I too will have accomplished something beyond my strength. Suddenly a mirror appeared on the wall. It was a loathsome sight, my eyes popping out, my neck swollen, and turning dark blue all over from asphyxiation, with the tortoise shoved halfway into my mouth, an enormous creature – like two animals tearing each other to shreds.Weirdly and unexpectedly, I was bathed in boundless exultation. “Thank you, my Lord, for showing me my true face,” I whispered. Exactly that moment the accident occurred. He stumbled and fell, just as the tortoise escaped from my mouth and forcefully crashed onto his head. And let the investigator claim that it was I who hit him, allegedly with the lid of the heater – lies! The deceased lay stretched on the carpet, no longer posing a threat,while the creature crawled towards the door and then vanished into the basement of the building.

That’s all I have to say, gentlemen of the jury. I have nothing further to add. I wish only to make a request. Since this dreadful condition of mine might be some unknown illness, I’d like to donate my body to a scientific institute. Perhaps tomorrow’s scientists will understand. And if it will be for the benefit sometime of humankind, then all this horror that I experienced in my life will have been worth it.


(Translator's note: I am grateful to Dr Konstantina Georganta for her feedback on my translation.)

Tasos Leivaditis (1922–1988) was a Greek poet, short story writer and literary critic. The "Tortoises" is taken from his 1966 collection of short stories The Pendulum.

N. N. Trakakis teaches philosophy at the Australian Catholic University, and also writes and translates poetry. He has translated several of Tasos Leivaditis’ works, including The Blind Man with the Lamp (Denise Harvey Publications, 2014), Violets for a Season (Red Dragonfly Press, 2017), Autumn Manuscripts (Smokestack Books, 2020), and most recently Night Visitor (Human Side Press, 2023).

Follow by Email