MEDEA, THE GIRL FROM ALBANIA, THE WALKING
by BARBARA LEFCOWITZ
F. Lefcowitz recently published her 8th collection of poetry,
Photo, Bomb, Red Chair. Her fiction, poetry, and essays
have appeared in over 500 journals; she has won writing fellowships
and prizes from the National Endowment for the Arts, the National
Endowment for the Humanities, and the Rockefeller Foundation,
among others. She lives in Bethesda, Maryland and is also a visual
swear I was not drunk or dreaming of Macbeth. But there on the
road to Roustica was this tree calmly walking out of the woods.
Just like that. It turned left, an arboreal exile forced to drag
its roots over the pitted road, abundant leaves shivering in the
November wind. Branches encircled its back, joined to make arms,
a few parched berries clinging to their hands’ knotted fingers.
I seen something similar back in America – in one of those
digital computer games my young grandsons love to play? A sunflower
becomes a wicked witch who must be zapped from the screen or else
the hero will die. Or was it a tulip? But there I was on a dirt
road near Roustica, Crete, where there were no tulips, and digital
still meant fingers or toes.
* * * * * * * * *
Greek name was Medea. A nasty trick on the part of the teachers.
At least that’s what I thought, even after one of them explained
that the 10-year-old girl was a foreigner, an exile from Albania,
and had evil powers. Couldn’t I see that she looked like
Medea, with her oily mops of black hair and all those black marks
on her skin? To me, a volunteer English teacher, she just looked
unwashed and sad, like the rest of the students at the Special
School in Chania. The school was sponsored by a nearby Greek Orthodox
monastery. Another teacher said I should be careful; Medea was
very clever, even dangerous. She could cast spells that turned
people into savage beasts. . .
let her too close to you."
But she was already clinging to me, her arms around my chest,
feet dug into my back the moment I entered the classroom. .
someone would detach her so I could fulfill the purpose of my
visit: to teach the kids a few words of English. But all the grownups
had quickly fled. So despite Medea’s refusal to get off
my back, I tried to arrange the rest of the kids in a circle.
We would start with basic greetings. "Good morning. Now everyone
repeat after me. Good morning."
"Fuck you, rich American." Medea, of course. The other
kids didn’t laugh. Instead they repeated her words, "Fuck
you, rich American." Scarcely a hint of an accent.
no. Ochi! Those are bad words. I logi kaki!"
Where the hell were the regular teachers? "Good morning.
Everyone say Good Morning. Loud and clear."
want to fuck you." Again Medea, again solemn repetition
by the other kids.
"OK. Very funny joke. Now let’s learn some English.
It will help you get a good job. Don’t you all want to
get good jobs and make lots of money?"
young people, whose disabilities ranged from Down’s syndrome
to schizophrenia to echolalia and whose education would never
extend beyond first or second grade, said in unison, "Yes.
We want to be rich like you."
was hope after all. The previous volunteer teacher must have been
more successful than I, so I decided to build upon her legacy.
after me, ‘I want money.’"
want fucking American money from you," Medea said. So loud
this time that surely someone would come to my rescue? I tried
to pry her hands from my chest but she was much stronger than
I and had dug her heels deeper into my spine. The harder I tried
the more vigorous she got, ripping pins and barrettes from my
hair, lifting my faux crystal bracelet from my wrist so its
string snapped and the beads scattered on the floor; tearing
off my T-shirt with one hand and reaching for my breasts with
the other. At which point the other kids rushed forward, chanting
a chorus of "Fuck you, rich American bitch" in flawless
English until I stood stark naked, Medea still clinging.
woman appeared and offered me a cup of tea brewed from local mountain
herbs. Time for a break. The kids raced off to play other games.
Medea let go of me and grabbed my cup of tea. When the teachers
finally arrived they returned my clothes and thanked me for my
good work. See you tomorrow.
* * * * * * * * *
you, W.W. Skeat, for revealing the etymological link between foreign
and forest, both derived from Middle English forein,
itself an offshoot of the Latin foras: outside. In short,
a foreigner is a person from outside a particular boundary or
border, especially one who lives outside an urban frontier.
who after all would live in the forest? Rough peasants who worked
with their hands, cunning witches, elves and gnomic creatures
who’d never been tutored in the social graces . . . The
path opens to more negative connotations of foreigner as outside
or Other, not merely crude but dangerous and potentially invasive--e.g.,
hordes of marauders on horseback, Huns, Goths, Scythians; kudzu
expanding until it chokes off all the other plants in a field;
foreign bodies like a speck of dust or shred or metal that might
enter the eye, ear, genitalia; any number of lethal microbes,
pollutants, invisible bio-weapons.
my life-long passion for the foreign, despite my awareness of
how the foreign or simply the different can help define oneself,
lexical history reveals that foreigners can infringe upon our
liberties, potentially even obliterate whole civilizations.
2. Yes. A tree was transforming itself into a man. Or perhaps
to a woman. In Greece, of all places, where Daphne was turned
into a laurel tree and Attis to an almond tree, among the many
sentenced to foliage for their alleged sins.
why the reverse; why would a tree become a human? It must be bored
with the settled, civilized life, preferring to wander from village
to village. A nomad. An exile. Or as the Greeks would say, a barbarian--antonym
for the civilized (make that Athenian Greek)--one who would plunder
fruit from the orchards of its former kin. Could life in the forest
really be bad enough to drive its inhabitants into seeking exile?
Or had other trees forced the wanderer into exile because of some
transgression, like insinuating its way into another’s root
system or entwining already intwined branches?
one person's barbarian can be another's hero. Like Attila the
Hun, a despot in the West; a neutral figure in Teutonic countries;
a hero in what is now Hungary. Perhaps the tree was simply trying
to return to its native Budapest?
* * * * * * * * *
of the pages have long ago slipped from their binding and many
contain colored pencil "enhancements" of their photographs,
courtesy of my seven-year-old hands.
book’s title is Johnny Round the World, published in 1942.
Mainly it’s a collection of photographs, each depicting
one of the lucky young Johnny’s new friends as he embarks
on a rapid pre-jet age journey from Hawaii, through Japan, China,
Indonesia, westward to India, Arabia, most of Europe, then south
to Mexico, north to Alaska and Canada, finally arriving back home
point of the book, according to an introductory note, was to orient
young minds "not to look at other lands as queer places,
full of ‘funny’ people, but as communities where children
live, and play, and grow up into a kaleidoscopic but homogeneous
brotherhood of man."
mind World War Two. In Japan, Johnny makes friends with a group
of smiling children dressed in kimonos and posing in front of
an ancient resting place for birds. The kids tell him how proud
they are of their flag, with its red sun shining on a pure white
background. A page later, a Chinese farmer is carrying the children
in straw vegetable baskets slung on a pole. But that’s nothing
compared with the naked young man from the Solomon Islands who
lives high in a tree, gripping the bark with both toes and fingers
(his genitals concealed by the tree trunk), or the Sumatran boys
hauling a large shark on their bicycle. And in Ceylon, Johnny
learns how to take a bath (and likely perform other physical chores)
without a bathroom. Ah, why couldn’t I balance a pitcher
on my head like the Egyptian girl?
girl sorts ears of corn, never soiling her embroidered Romanian
skirt (which for some reason I colored purple and orange). Why
does the French girl look so angry? Is it the weight of the long
loaf of bread she carries or the clumsiness of her wooden sabots?
But Otto, the bald German boy: he was scary. Perhaps that’s
why I gave him a thick red mustache.
I ever travel to any of these lands? Would I ever see a girl run
down a London street waving six flags, each representing one of
England’s "vast colonial lands?" Sit naked on
a turtle? Often I would imagine myself tapping a rubber tree in
Malaysia while my buddy added lemon juice to the sap. Together
we made a sturdy rubber ball. If I got particularly lonely, I’d
even talk with Otto, the bald German, ask him why Germans had
it was still neither wholly tree nor wholly human, with its burl
of a face, gnarled bark for skin, and dragging all those roots,
I wanted to tell the tree to go back to the woods before it was
too late. Tell it if it should die as a person none of its wood
could be carved into coffins, violins, chairs, Popsicle sticks--a
privilege reserved only for trees and the like.
night in the Chania hotel for volunteers I thought about Medea.
A barbarian from a faraway wicked place called Colchis, a woman
who was so upset by her husband’s infidelity she killed
their kids. None of my co-volunteers had any further information.
I had the distinct feeling the topic did not interest them, though
a few expressed shock when I quoted the word "fuck."
* * * * * * * * *
foreign dolls in my collection had probably been made in America,
but I was convinced they had traveled to my bedroom shelf from
such far-flung places as Hawaii, the Belgian Congo, even Anglo-Egyptian
Sudan (it was 1943). The blue china Dutch girl carried two pails
on a string and was one of my favorites until I cracked her head
open to study her brain, where she must have kept all her foreign
words. No brain, no words. But the doll from Samoa wore a real
grass skirt. All I had to do was lift up that skirt to study her
private parts. Nothing, not even a tiny slit between her plastic
thighs. Still, I was determined to learn my dolls’ secrets,
even if it meant ripping off the serapes of a whole family of
Seminole Indians who stood guard under the shelf. Neither the
men nor the women had any breasts.
doll interested me. Not even the new Magic Skin Doll my friend
Judy had received for her birthday, nor an early precursor of
Barbie who came with a velveteen dress my mother was sure would
help me become more interested in fashion, a subject I found grievously
boring. I guess she should have convinced me the dress was Peruvian
or Tunisian, in any case, different. Any Other. A foreigner. Different
from my friend Judy, from my classmates at PS 179, from myself.
tried several times to address the walking tree but realized I
had minimal command of the language of trees. And the hollow that
was beginning to serve as the tree’s mouth showed no sign
of any tongue. So despite its ongoing transformation, we had little
in common. The tree was a tree; I was a woman. After a while the
tree began to outpace me, breaking into a jog and then a sprint
as if it urgently needed to get somewhere before dark.
* * * * * * * * * *
soul that I am, I returned to the Special School the next morning
to be greeted outside the door by a very thin and elderly monk
who wore a gray robe. He summoned me to his office and showed
me several single-spaced pages he had just run off from his new
I-Mac, which he much preferred to his old Gateway 600 XL. My life’s
work, he said in perfect English, "a holy rehabilitation
of Medea." He went on to say that finally scholars were brave
enough to discredit Euripides’ version, wherein Medea had
been framed by the Corinthians, Euripides himself co-opted to
write what was merely a piece of politically correct propaganda.
"Just like in your country."
some home-brewed raki, Greek firewater, from a jug, filled a mug
for each of us. I made a valiant effort not to gag on my first
sip, dribbling most of the raki on the maroon velvet tablecloth
upon which a burnished icon stood guard in a corner of the desk
At which point, the monk, "just call me George," leaned
closer to me and began to read:
"Jason, Medea’s husband, was an effete fool, wed
for convenience to a woman of far superior intellect. And like
most men, once his wife had finagled to obtain for him the Golden
Fleece so he could become the CEO, the head honcho, the top
banana, he deserted her for a younger woman. A cliché
before his time, that Jason. . . ."
George paused to light a Marlboro. "We Greeks are very proud.
Even now we hate to admit that like others of his day Euripides
projected barbarianism onto foreigners or Others, lest the pellicle
of any Greek be tainted by such uncivilized blemishes as savagery,
sadism, fierce passions untamed by Hellenic reason."
myself, explaining I would be late for school.
"Just let me
read this part: Worst of all in the eyes of the Athenians, the
barbarians granted political power to women, a sure sign of
their own effete nature and interference with the natural order.
They glorified sodomy; they rode wild horses, ate raw meat .
. . But Medea had never set foot in faraway Colchis; she was
an echt northern Peloponnesian who in the Iliad
was known as Agamede, granddaughter of the almighty Sun."
me the complete manuscript, said I must read it at once. Badly
he needed advice on where to publish it and America might well
be the best place, since our writers always receive millions of
dollars even before they write a single word. Would I recommend
some publishers? I said I’d have to read it first. Of course.
Before releasing me, he added that the girl from Albania was the
resurrected Medea, the brilliant Medea who had mystical powers
to rejuvenate old men like himself. Long before Viagra. So I must
treat her with respect; she was still "transitioning--like
you Americans say."
saw on your MTV that she’s already a New Age idol in your
country. There’s even a rock song about her. Can’t
think of the name of the group . . . Hot Venom? The Pfish?
* * * * * * * * *
as the monk released me, Medea grabbed me. But gently this time.
I must help her. A lecture tour. TV appearances of course. When
I told her I didn’t have the ability to do anything of that
sort, she promised to transform me into someone who could. Never
say never. Meanwhile, would I edit the press release she had written?
No, not in Albanian. That’s a myth, I never set foot in
Albania. Albanians smell. And they’re all Albinos. And you’re
becoming one hell of an albatross. "No, I’m not. There
are no albatrosses in the Black Sea. That’s where I was
born and rose to the shores of Colchis. Today they call it Georgia,
just like your Georgia. Isn’t that a kick?"
I’d get her press release back to her soon. She slunk off,
her black strings of hair bouncing in the wind. To keep from smiling
or crying or looking behind, I recited to myself as many ALB words
as I could summon: albacore, albeit, albumin, albescent--wasn’t
there a sect called the Albigenses, destroyed by the Crusaders,
or vice versa?
I got home I couldn’t toss out either the monk’s manuscript
or Medea’s press release, though I never read them either.
A few days later I developed a fever. My doctor said it was probably
a foreign body of some sort that had invaded my organs overseas.
Just wait it out. All I could do was watch TV. That’s how
I learned there was a rumor of a wandering tree with terrorist
intentions, but the President said not to worry because intelligence
sources claimed the tree was really a human being with branches
their mother was convinced I was not contagious, she brought my
grandsons over for a visit. They rushed to my computer, inserted
a new DVD, and invited me to come look. The game was called "Zap
the Tree" and featured a very wicked tree that’s really
an ogre in a vast jungle. Click, pfffff, bam, the tree must be
killed so the hero can escape. But it spawns hundreds of other
trees, each a yet more wicked ogre that demands more clicks, pffffs,
bams. . . until finally one of the ogre trees is transformed into
a skinny rock singer wearing a thong.
as they left, I composed a letter to several producers of video
games. I told them the name of the game could simply be "Medea."
that sounds too dark, keep in mind that most kids (and parents)
probably wouldn’t recognize the name anyway. This will
be a good Medea: brave, extremely clever, a direct descendant
of the Sun. Unlike the old Medea, she refuses to become Jason’s
handmaiden, refuses to waste her skills on making her man powerful.
Thus, unlike the man in the previous myth, he can never betray
her. Once Jason and her other enemies, who are really jealous
of her skills, are zapped in all their disguises, Medea becomes
the leader of a splendid land where nobody is foreign because
that land extends throughout the entire planet.
mothers will be a natural market for the game, but I am confident
it will appeal to others as well. The message can, of course,
be toned down to make Medea androgynous. An interesting subplot
can involve Medea’s cousin, Circe, who wants to turn Jason
into a pig (as in that archaic expression ‘male chauvinist
pig’) but Circe can be zapped with a single click and Jason
transformed into a mere lamb, a lamb with a golden fleece.
I look forward to hearing from you soon. . . ."