Short Story: Pharmakeia

3 Conversations


He sips his coffee (black, no sugar) and watches her. She’s bent under the weight of long years stretched nearly to breaking point, stretched but not broken, and so, bending, bending, she shuffles along the street. Every day at the same time, black dress billowing, stray strands of long white hair wisping outwards like weeds in an ill-tended garden. Once, when it was raining, she held an umbrella. Another rainy day, and it was forgotten, perhaps, or lost, and still she shuffled slowly, rain in her hair and drenching her dress, but no change in the expression, the face grey, and old. Old and tired, but resolute. Every day, he sits and sips his coffee, and watches her progress up the street.

Today, autumn sunshine and crispness in the air, the kind of day he likes the best. She doesn’t seem to notice, there’s no quickening of her step, indifference in her bent back and grim, tired, face. She reaches the corner and is gone from his line of sight.
He finishes his coffee, sets the cup aside, and re-opens the paper. He hears the waiter approach.
‘Mr Smith, another?’
Looking up from his paper, he gives a wry smile.
‘Every day, George, every day for the last three months, I’ve been coming here. Every day, you ask me if I’d like another – what do I say, George?’ His accent is clipped, English, correct.
‘You say, “why not, George”, you say “yes thanks, George”…’
‘Today’s no different. Thanks, George’. He looks back to his paper, feeling the crispness in the air with pleasure.

George returns to the counter, thinking about the man he knows as Mr Smith. British, ex-police, he thought when he first saw him - then, no, probably ex-army. Too fit to be police, too tanned, too disciplined. Grey hair cut too short. Obviously retired, no family, comes here every day for coffee, sits and reads the paper for an hour. If I’m as fit as that when I retire, thinks George, I’ll be happy. Happier, though, with a family…he feels pity for Mr Smith, who has no family. His own family is typically Greek, brothers and sisters and cousins and aunts and uncles, a big, raucous family. He makes the coffee, and looks again at Mr Smith. Not a man who looks like he needs to be pitied, that Mr Smith, a hard man, George thinks. Still, a man without a family can’t be happy.

Mr Smith, who was born John Reynolds, is indeed ex-army. An officer in the British SAS, discharged, still young. Became involved with a group that once had sold its services in some of the worst hell-holes in Africa, and then moved on to do “security training” in Papua New Guinea. Lots of regrets, there, lots of bad memories and nightmares that still wake him in the night. John Reynolds, his name given to him by proud parents, holds passports from many different countries, and in many names. He likes Australia, the Australians, likes the anonymity of Melbourne, and doesn’t miss the grey stink of London. He’s not hiding, not really hiding. Just careful – years of practice at being careful with his name, with his identity. He likes to think he’s a changed man, that what was done that led to his discharge, and what was done in Bougainville, was done by someone different. He likes his life, quiet, relaxing. It’s his resting time. He has no family, but he’s not one to be pitied. He has no friends, but that sort of solitude he is used to. A hard man, yes. But not unhappy. His life is how he wants it.

He sits erect in his chair, posture perfect out of habit, reading the paper and waiting for his coffee. George brings it over, places it carefully on the table.
‘Your coffee, general.’
‘Yes, I was thinking, you look like that general, the one they called “Storming Norman”. But you are English. An English general, I think’
‘Not a general, George. Never that.’
‘Army, though. An officer, yes?’
‘Yes George, a long time ago. George, tell me – that lady…’
‘Which lady, Mr Smith?’
‘The old Greek lady, the one I see every day. Who is she?’
‘Ah, Mrs Moisakos? She is nobody, Mr Smith. No family, now. Her husband died. Her children left her alone. Very sad, especially for a Greek, to have no family. Like you, hah?’
‘What makes you think I have no family?’
‘You are always here. Even when people should be with their families, even when I am with mine, I know you are here.’
Reynolds looks at him, considering. Have I been getting too comfortable, too predictable?
‘It’s none of your business, George, whether I’ve got a family or not. Thanks for the coffee.’
George stands there, as if he’s going to say something in response. He reconsiders.
‘Yes, Mr Smith.’
Reynolds finishes his coffee alone. He puts aside his newspaper, leaves some money on the table, and walks into the sunshine of an autumn Melbourne day.


It’s early morning now, still dark, and Reynolds is twitching as he dreams. The sheets on his single bed are thrown aside. A fly buzzes around the room, as Reynolds’ fingers twitch.

In his dream, the fly is landing on the sights of his long, German-made rifle. He’s lying in the dirt, covered in thick rainforest leaf-litter and dirt, and sweat. His sights are on his target, but the fly keeps getting in his way. It’s hard to see, the air thick, like looking through water, shimmering in the heat. Shooting under these conditions is hard enough, but the damn fly…distracted, he blows air, hot thick air, even doing that is difficult, and the fly lifts away. He can’t see his target, the man with the home-made rifle.
Then he sees her. She’s walking across his line of fire, between his position and the target. Bent back, black dress billowing even in the thick, still, air, face resolute. She shuffles forward. Move, he urges, too deep in the dream to notice the discrepancy of her being here. Faster, move now. Beyond her, he sees his target again, now moving forward past sinuous green vines. His target is raising the ridiculous rifle, aiming at him. He sees, through the shimmering curtain of air, literally sees the bullet waiting in the depths of the barrel. He shifts to one side, feeling slow, feeling caught by the dirt, lines the sights up and fires. As his finger squeezes the trigger, when it is far too late, he sees that she has stepped forward, her shuffling gait has carried her into the path of his bullet.

His target is gone, the dirt and sun of Bougainville have gone, all he can see is her. She turns toward him, and he sees that the bullet has gone through her, exploded her side and chest outwards, its scored tip splitting the lead inside her body and spreading the destruction. She is turning towards him, still standing, not noticing her gaping wound. Her eyes catch his.
‘Boetheo’ she says, and her whispered voice is loud in his ears, ‘boetheo’.
It’s all Greek to me, he thinks, and suppresses a mad urge to giggle, like he’s nine again and been caught with his hands on the cake…I don’t speak Greek, he tries to say, but his mouth isn’t working, and all he can do is stare at her, into her eyes.


He’s strutting along the street, looking hard at people, noting the downcast eyes of young women, as if they feel the power of his gaze and submit to his inspection. Soon, he knows, it will be time to visit the old lady, see if she’s got it. Got ‘the object’, as the boss calls it, the thing that the old lady’s daughter stole, the boss cursing her in that wog language. And if she hasn’t got it, maybe she knows where her daughter hid it. But that’s in a while. For now, it’s just the pleasure of seeing the spark of fear in the eyes of others, as he strides along the street towards his bus.


Reynolds, aka Smith, unfolds the paper. The headline catches his eye, and underneath it a black-and-white photo of a small house, yard protected from curious onlookers by crime-scene tape.

Execution in Sunshine
The bodies of three people, two males and a female, were discovered in a quiet suburban street in Sunshine, Melbourne, late last night. A police spokesman says that the two men had been stabbed to death, and there was some indication that the female victim had been raped and tortured before being shot at close range. The female has been identified as Maria Moisakos, 27, who rented the property. The two males have not been identified.
The bodies were discovered when police responded to a report of gunfire around one am this morning. A doorknock by police…

He recognises the name at the same instant he realises that George is standing next to him, waiting, with his coffee.


On the bus, no-one sits next to him, even though people are crammed in, standing in the aisle rather than sitting next to him. This amuses and pleases him, a sign of his power. He shifts slightly in his seat, relieving the pressure of the knife hilt against his back.


George is talking to him, words that seem meaningless, about how he, too, has read the paper and seen on the television that Mrs Moisakos’ daughter was raped and tortured and killed, but all he hears is the old woman whispering in his head in the heat of PNG, in his dream.
‘George,’ Reynolds interjects, stopping the flow, ‘George, tell me – what does “boetheo” mean? Is it a real word?’
‘Yes, Mr Smith, it is a Greek word – it means “help”…’
‘Like someone asking for help?’
‘Yes, yes. Where did you hear that?’
‘I don’t know, George…tell me, where does Mrs Moisakos live?’
‘Hmmm, right down the street, around the corner,’ George says, pointing, ‘number 56. Why, Mr Smith, will you visit her?’
‘I don’t know, George. Just curious.’
‘She is a sad old lady, Mr Smith. All alone. Nobody. What a terrible thing…’ and George is thinking it might do you some good, meet a Greek lady...maybe you can comfort her. Maybe she can comfort you. He has a sudden mental image of Mr Smith and Mrs Moisakos locked in passionate embrace, and has to stifle a laugh. And then he remembers the words in the paper and the pictures on the television, and feels ashamed.


She is sitting by the dining table, head bowed, eyes dry, when she hears the front door swing open and the last of them leave. First there were the police, and then the phone calls, and then a flock of black-garbed women bringing food but little comfort. How could they comfort her? They did not stay for long. They would not dare.

She thinks about her daughter growing up, Maria yelling at her in English on her first day at the state high school, not wanting to go. She wishes she had learnt more of her adopted country’s language. But Greek pulls at her tongue, the words spilling out before she can internally, clumsily, translate.
She remembers Maria, days old, clutching her finger. She remembers saying the old words, promising Maria a long, joyous life. She feels immense regret.

Then comes a slow, burning fire, and her heart-rate accelerates, until she can feel it beating within her, her bent body like a cage from which a wild bird is desperate to flee. The old rituals spring to life in her mind, the invocations to Hephaestus, to Artemis, to Athena. Her heartbeat steadies. She feels Circe waiting, in the shadows.
She begins to chant.


Off the bus and there he is. Doofus is leaning against the trunk of the Monaro, arms folded. Doofus doesn’t greet him, just moves around to the driver’s side and slides into the car, gunning the engine. A bit excited, maybe, but he knows better than to draw attention once they’re closer to the old woman’s home.

As he settles into the passenger seat, he feels a strange burning sensation, as if he’s being stung by wasps and electrocuted at the same time. He gives an involuntary yell and jerks in his seat. The sensation fades rapidly, and he realises Doofus is staring at him.
‘What the f*** was that?’ he says, then: ‘Drive, Doofus, you d******d’.

Doofus drives.

They turn into the street where the old lady lives, and he feels the sensation again. This time, the burning is confined to his feet, and he feels his arches spasm and his toes curl.
‘Jesus f*****g Christ!’ he yells.
Doofus swerves into the oncoming lane for a moment in his surprise.
‘What? What the f***?’ Doofus stammers, recovering control of the car.
His feet seem to be swelling and shrinking at the same time, retracting into themselves, threatening to pop the laces on his $20 sneakers. He shudders, and as Doofus pulls up two houses down from Mrs Moisakos’, throws open the Monaro’s door and half-falls out of the car, tearing at his sneakers. Doofus gets out too, looking around anxiously, hoping no-one is paying too much attention to the man writhing on the grass in front of the cemented yard of a suburban house.

The pain stops. His feet feel strangely tender within his sneakers, but he leaves his left sneaker untied and stands up quickly, part of him embarrassed and part of him knowing that it would not matter if anyone saw him. He is powerful, and witnesses will not remember him, their fear of him blinding them to his physical form. He feels the knife in his belt, and is reassured.
‘You right?’ Doofus, uncertain, asks.
‘Cramp,’ he says, ‘c’mon, let’s go.’
They walk between the yellow- and red-leafed trees and the houses, towards Mrs Moisakos’ front door.
As Doofus opens it, they hear the old lady chanting.


She hears the front door open. For an instant, she wonders if one of the women has been foolish enough to return unannounced. Then she sees. Her chant wavers, then becomes stronger.

The two men in her doorway hesitate. They can’t see her from the doorway, won’t see her unless they walk up the hall to the dining room. They step inside, the tall, heavy one, the one with the gun, behind the other, the knife-wielder, the rapist, the torturer of her daughter. She feels the power flowing, and watches as the one in front suddenly cries out and clutches at his feet. The one with the gun grabs at him, is flung off.

The torturer screams in agony, writhing on the floor as the transformation begins again. He raises his head, he looks at her. He can’t really see her, they are separated by brick walls, but his eyes, blurred by tears, changing now, meet hers.
‘Get her...kill her,’ he gasps, then his voice starts to roughen and slur. The one with the gun steps away from him, not believing what he is seeing, hearing the old woman chanting. His hand, clutching the gun, shakes. He moves up the hallway, gun held in front.
She sees him coming. She knows she is too old. She feels the bird that is her heart, feels the slowing flutter of its wings. There is nothing she can do.

And then she sees the Englishman step into the doorway. He too, hesitates, eyebrows raising in surprise, mouth falling open for an instant as he sees the grey and pink boar struggling on the floor, squealing, one untied sneaker slipping off a trotter, another holding fast, clothing shredded around the pig. There’s a belt split in half, and in it a knife.

He takes quick steps forward, as the man with the gun turns towards him, swinging the pistol, raising it at him. Then he’s there, close, and the big man, Doofus, can’t move, can’t understand how this is happening so quickly, as his body is knocked down and he feels his arm clasped and swung and his wrist is breaking and then the gun is gone.
The chanting stops, and Reynolds hears her, the old lady’s voice harsh and cracking.
‘Boetheo’, she calls.
And he moves towards her.

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