issue 35: march - april 2003 

 | author bio

Medea, The Girl from Medea2.Albania, TheWalking Tree
Barbara Lefcowitz

1.    I 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.
       Hadn’t 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.


Her 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...
        "Don’t let her too close to you."
       Agreed. But she was already clinging to me, her arms around my chest, feet dug into my back the moment I entered the classroom...
       Presumably 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, 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."
       "I 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?"
A dozen 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."
       So there was hope after all. The previous volunteer teacher must have been more successful than I, so I decided to build upon her legacy.
      "Repeat after me, ‘I want money.’"
      "I 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.
      An old 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.


Thank 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.
      But 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.
      So despite 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.
      But 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?
      Of course, 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?


Most 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.
      The 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 in America.
      The 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."
      Never 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?
      A plump 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.
      Would 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 no hair.

3.   Noting 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.
      All 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."


The 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.
      No American 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.

4.   I 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.


Stubborn 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."
      He poured 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."
      I excused 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."
      He handed 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."
       "I 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 soon 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 promised 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?

5.   When 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 and leaves.
      When 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 soon 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."
      "If 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.
      Feminist 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. . . ."

© Barbara Lefcowitz 2003

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author bio

Barbara F. Lefcowitz has published seven collections of poetry, a novel, and individual stories, poems, and essays in over 500 journals. Her latest poetry collection, PHOTO, BOMB, RED CHAIR, will be published in 2004, and she hopes to publish a collection of her essays, including several experimental "triads." She has won fellowships and prizes from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Maryland Arts Council, among others. Also a visual artist, she teaches creative writing in the Washington, DC area and travels abroad as often as she can.  BLefcowitz@aol.com


 tbr 35           March - April 2003 

-Short Fiction
      Alexei Sayle: Barcelona Plates
      Laura Hird: The Happening
      Barbara Lefcowitz: Medea, The Girl from Albania, The Walking Tree
  picks from back issues:
      Des Dillon: The Blue Hen
      Pedro Juan Gutiérrez: Buried in Shit
and Stars and Losers

      Gretchen McCullough: March 2003: Letter from Cairo

      Sue Thomas: Spivak

     with Scottish author Laura Hird

     All About Books
      Answers to last issue’s Graham Greene quiz

-Book Reviews
      Adios, Muchachos by Daniel Chavarría
     Strictly Casual: Fiction by Women on Love, edited by Amy Prior

-Special Links
      writers speak out on the issue of war

-Regular Features
      Book Reviews (all issues)
      TBR Archives (authors listed alphabetically)

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