by Maria Olympiou
She came into my bedroom wearing high heels. She stood over me, blew a gust of stinky breath and flicked me with her tail.
“Are you asleep?”
“Barbara? What do you want at this barbaric hour?”
It was not yet dawn. Whatever did that annoying cow want in the middle of the night?
“I have a question for you. A modern question, suited to our age. Tell me, do skyscrapers snore?”
“I don’t know.”
“Then find out!”
Barbara made a noisy exit. I was left alone with my thoughts. Do skyscrapers, those buildings of glass and steel so tall you think they’re scraping the sky, snore?
“Aaaaa!” I yelled, and found myself on the streets of Jakarta, a great city. Streets full of commotion, chaos, pollution. The sun was invisible. It was hidden from sight, choked by the soot of the city.
I started to cough: cough! cough! A barefoot boy who was selling fried rice from his little cart, with egg, vegetables and chicken, smiled at me. He put the palms of his hands together as if he was going to pray, and made a small bow. He took a handkerchief from his pocket and gave it to me.
“Here, little girl, tie the handkerchief over your mouth and nose. It’ll give you some protection from the pollution.”
Street courtesy. I was touched, and pleased. Before I tied the handkerchief I asked:
“Boy, do skyscrapers snore?”
The boy laughed.
“Tie the handkerchief over your mouth. You have a long way to go before you find the answer you are looking for.”
I tied the handkerchief as the boy had told me, and set off. Hardly anyone in the street was walking. Most people were riding in black motorcycle-taxis.
On the pavement I saw a dirty little monkey, riding up and down on a small, wooden bicycle. The monkeyís master was nearby, asleep with his palm outstretched. As though the palm was shouting: you admire my monkey, I want to eat.
“Psst, little monkey!”
“Psst, little girl, do you want me to take you for a ride in town?”
“No, I want you to tell me if skyscrapers snore.”
The monkey fell off the bicycle. The question had taken it by surprise. Its master woke up. He glared at me. Did he think I wanted to steal his monkey? I dropped the few coins I had in his palm and ran off on trembling legs. On the way I lost the handkerchief. I was very sad. I had wanted it as a keepsake, to remember the kind boy who sold rice on the streets of a great city.
I reached the town’s national museum where the statues are kept. I went inside. My mouth dropped open. Our statues are different. Most of them are eternally dieting. The Indian deities in front of me were smiling, they were plump, they had spare tyres. An enormous God in their midst had a big, bulging, full-up belly. How many wild pigs and deer had he devoured in his youth?
“I’m very happy to be here with you…”
The statues smiled even more. They danced their countryís dances, and I danced with them. We all laughed. The ice was broken.
“You want something. Go on, tell us…”
I didn’t have time to tell them. The museum guard switched off the lights without warning. Any moment he would lock the doors, too. I didn’t want to get locked inside. I canít stand lots of dust and disorder. And the statues hadn’t been washed for years.
“Wait a minute, sir! I’m just leaving…”
I left. Where should I go now? Where were the wise men of the city? A palm tree growing on the pavement took pity on me.
“Little girl, you must go to the Sultan’s palace. They say he has a magic lamp. The genie of the lamp will surely be able to help you.”
I thanked the palm tree and went to the Sultan’s palace. It was hidden in tropical vegetation. I went inside. The floors were covered in modern-day rubbish: plastic cups, plastic bags, chocolate wrappers. The Sultan was nowhere to be seen. Nor was the genie.
“Sultan! Genie! For the sake of all you hold dear, show yourselves! It’s an emergency!”
No one answered. No one appeared.
“Sultan, where are you? Your people have made the palace filthy. Come here! You must shave their heads. Thereís not an ounce of brains in them.”
Outside the palace, a black cat was taking a stroll.
As I passed her she stopped me.
“You’re looking for something. Follow me.”
I followed her. We reached the town’s port. It was full of workmen and cats. The workmen were barefoot, with filthy feet and rolled-up trousers. They were loading the ships with sacks full of cement, flour, sugar and cinnamon. The workers were poor but they were smiling. They were poor but they had work. In the breaks they ate rice, watermelon, fried bananas. The poor workers and the hungry cats were earning their daily bread in the old port.
“They’re all wise here. You’re sure to find what you’re looking for.”
So said the black cat and disappeared into an old shipwreck.
“Excuse me, may I ask something?”
The sweaty dockworker smiled at me.
“I’m listening…”he said.
“Do skyscrapers snore?”
The workman laughed. He laughed so much he cried. There he was, wearing himself out working whilst I was looking for answers to that infuriating Barbara’s question. If she’d been in front of me I would have pulled her tail out. She’d made me look like an idiot in a foreign country.
“What beautiful arms that young man has!”said a familiar voice. A voice that usually woke me up in the middle of the night.
“Barbara, you barbaric cow, are you here?”
As soon as the workman saw her he burst out laughing again. Laughter so loud it would have woken the Komodo dragon. He laughed and he laughed without stopping. He had never before in his life seen a cow wearing high heels.
“Is he making fun of me or what?”
The workman couldn’t stop laughing. Barbara, angry and upset, pulled me away by force. She wanted us to leave the port. Why should I? I was having a good time there. Life was vivid, full of smells, people, movement, life.
As we left the port countless spoonfuls of darkness were falling on the city. The skyscrapers lit up with yellow, red, green and blue lights on top. I looked round. Barbara had vanished. So much the better! I couldn’t stand her, her smell, or those high heels of hers. I looked up into the air.
“How beautiful!” I whispered.
Skyscrapers seem to touch the sky, to scrape against it. They caress the stars, the angels. They remind me of Christmas, with all the little lights. Or a birthday cake in the sky with candles lit. I love skyscrapers! However you look at it, they stand up tall and strong, defying earthquakes. They are closer to heaven than I am.
Wait a minute! What’s that standing on top of the tallest skyscraper? Something with a tail and an udder? Itís Barbara! Barbara, who suddenly shouted in a loud, mooing voice:
“Go home! I’m staying here. Up high, where it suits me. On top of a modern skyscraper. And if it doesn’t snore, then I will. I am the star of the city!”
Translated by Susan Papas
STATE PRIZE FOR LITERATURE FOR SMALL CHILDREN, 2014
AWARDED TO MARIA OLYMPIOU FOR “DO SKYSCRAPERS SNORE?”
GROUNDS FOR THE AWARD (EXTRACT)
The book consists of twelve short, fairytale-like stories which deal in an original, surreal and often poetic manner with anxieties, questions and dreams characteristic of childhood. It moves beyond linear narrative, employing a system of word associations and dreamlike images. As a whole it resembles the narrative of a dream moving through transformations. Humour permeates all the stories and, in combination with the surrealistic elements of reality turned upside down, of corresponding associations and fantasy, not only stimulates the interest of small children in reading, but also contributes to the opening up of the child’s real world. The author uses surreal images derived from the random combination of words, realities, persons and objects, to create stories which embody amazing situations. In this way words acquire freedom and power, contributing to the familiarization of the young reader with emotions, situations and values expressed in a creatively pleasing way, widening the horizons of their expectations (…)