perplexity

The Perplexing Case of Seraphim Karalis

Early 1900s. Seraphim, a man in his early-20s, is living on the island of Pringipos, earning his living as a gravedigger. He is a quiet and simple man. His only friends are the tavern owner's son and the island's doctor.

He leads a rather solitary life, one plagued with a curious illness. The island doctor, Dr. Spiridon, becomes excited at the prospect of curing this young man, especially when the symptoms of his illness start making the islanders angry.

To get away from an unfortunate happening, the doctor sends Seraphim to Constantinople for a couple of days. The events that occur there make Seraphim spiral out of control. Confused and upset, he returns to the island and Dr. Spiridon's care.

Months later, the doctor believes he has stabilised Seraphim's condition, and, indeed, all seems to be flowing well for a while. Seraphim has struck a strange alliance with a famous magician and he finally feels his life has a purpose.

But, all this is about change when he sees, and falls in love, with a beautiful dancer who's visiting the island.

Can a relationship like this ever work out? In what ways will his life be changed? Will his friend, the doctor, be able to cure him once and for all?

A dark and peculiar tale of one very ordinary man who, through his extraordinary disorder and a series of unpleasant events, finds himself behaving in ways he never thought he would.

 

 You can also read the first chapter of the book here:

 

THE PERPLEXING CASE OF SERAPHIM KARALIS

 

CHAPTER ONE

Island of Pringipos, Late Spring, 1904

With his head kept low and his shoulders raised close to his ears to avoid the downpour, Seraphim hurried towards town, trying to avoid puddles on the dirt road, shivering, his hands wedged firmly in his pockets. ‘It’s just a light drizzle,’ Dr Spiridon had said. ‘It’s bound to stop any minute now. Besides, it’s spring. A little water won’t hurt you, my boy!’ Seraphim had noticed the old man’s smile flash beneath his quivering moustache. But the doctor had been wrong. Not only had the rain not stopped, it had intensified. With each step, Seraphim heard the water squelch in his boots. The doctor had been wrong about another thing, as well – it was not winter, to be sure, but it was also not summer and the spring chill slid down Seraphim’s neck, freezing whatever part of him it touched.

     He hardly noticed the houses along the way; other thoughts were preoccupying his mind, namely, the job he had been ordered to perform by the doctor – to go to Kyrios Iosiphidis’ house and prepare the body. At the best of times, Seraphim hated being sent on errands on short notice, but what he was about to do filled him with dread. He knew where the deceased’s house was and he made his way there, a little before the road curved and led to the centre of town – a big, white, pompous house, usually empty throughout the late autumn, winter and early spring months, since the family spent most of their time in Constantinople, in the fashionable Pera district, where the majority of well-to-do Greek families lived. Only now, it wasn’t empty, but was full of relatives coming to mourn and bury old Iosiphidis. Seraphim still wondered why the dead man would want to be laid to rest on the island, but the doctor was right, he probably had his reasons, and no-one would ever know – a benefactor such as Kyrios Iosiphidis had been could decide to be buried anywhere he chose. A sizeable estate surrounded the solid building, full of fecund greenery, a variety of tall trees – pines, mimosas, bitter orange – and different-coloured rose bushes emanating their sweet scent in the rain. Everything that grew there was rich and fertile, vibrant, alive. The large garden was dotted by a number of marble statues, mostly of naked women in graceful yet seductive poses; in the shadowy light they looked too real to Seraphim and he cringed. The black wrought iron curlicues at the top of the imposing gate read 1865, the date the house was built – almost forty years ago, older than Seraphim, probably constructed when his grandfather was still alive. He held onto the cold rough metal, pushed the gate and it opened up with ease, yet he stood staring at the house, unable to take a step in its direction. The rain was driving hard, making him unable to see clearly.

     Seraphim heard a sound from the entrance at the end of a stone pathway, and saw a light – someone had opened the front door.

     ‘Who’s there? Can I help you?’ A man’s voice reached his ears; a middle-aged voice. ‘What is your business here?’

     ‘I...I was sent by Dr Spiridon. I’ve come to...to...er...I’ve come to see Kyrios Iosiphidis. The doctor told you I’d be coming,’ Seraphim said.

     ‘Ah, yes. So, you’re the gravedigger.’

     ‘Yes.’

     ‘You’re late,’ the voice said.

     Seraphim swallowed. ‘I’m sorry.’

     There was silence for a minute. Seraphim wasn’t sure his voice could be heard through the din the rain made. The drops continued falling on him without remorse, stripping him of any warmth he still had. He was now wet even down to his long johns. Seraphim wiped his eyes and stepped into the garden. Had the man gone? He didn’t think he had because he could still see the light spilling out from the open door.

     ‘I’ve come to measure the body,’ Seraphim cried out, raising his voice.

     ‘Yes, very eloquently put,’ the man said, in a clipped voice. The gravedigger thought he cleared his throat but he couldn’t be sure. ‘Come in. No need to delay the process longer.’

     Seraphim nodded and hurried down the rhododendron-flanked pathway to the entrance of the Iosiphidis residence. He reached the marble steps, faltered for a minute. He shook his head to dispose of some dampness and wiped his face on his wet sleeve. The man who had spoken to him was tall, powerfully built, with a groomed dark beard, greying in places, his eyes a stern cerulean blue were made even more commanding by his gushing eyebrows that seemed to bore into Seraphim’s face. A handsome man with a striking figure. He resembled the dead man, even though he made a more commanding impression than his father. Seraphim had seen him in town on numerous occasions and had no trouble recognising him; it was the deceased’s older son, Stephanos Iosiphidis.

     ‘This way,’ the voice that now had a body to go with it announced, then turned round and started walking off into an unknown direction.

     Seraphim was hesitant to go into the house.

     ‘I...’ he started to say, and saw the man stop in his tracks and swivel round.

     ‘Yes?’

     ‘I am wet through and through and I don’t want...to...cover your home in mud.’

     ‘I see. Wait here,’ the man replied, and disappeared to the back of the house. Seraphim was left quite alone in the massive entrance. This gave him time to study his surroundings.

     The entrance was kept clean and well looked after. The white marble floor was so clear and smooth there were hardly any veins in its surface. There was one central staircase rising up then splitting into two staircases, one going towards the left, the other to the right. Seraphim was sure it led to the family’s private quarters and he wondered just how many bedrooms were up there. One grand oval window on the wall directly opposite the front door shed light onto the marble stairs, making their whiteness even more haunting.

     Seraphim looked about him. If he hadn’t known there’d been a death in the family, he would have realised the minute he stepped into the house: an oversized mirror to his left – unlike any he’d seen in other houses – was covered by a black, thick sheet to make sure the dead man’s soul didn’t get trapped there, and all the paintings were also covered by materials in muted colours. Seraphim counted fifteen in total; a great number for an entrance. There were two armchairs on either side of a large table in the centre of the hall with a silver candelabra resting on top, five white candles casting light in the room.

     The deceased’s son entered the hall once more.

     ‘The maid will be here shortly with appropriate footwear. Once you have put them on, follow me to the drawing room. That is where my father’s body is.’ Stephanos Iosiphidis pointed towards the open door on the left. He then turned in the direction of the room, and left Seraphim alone.

     He didn’t have to wait long. Maria, the maid, came hurrying into the hall through a door hidden behind the main body of the staircase, a pair of black men’s shoes dangling from her fingers. Seraphim had seen her in town. He’d even spoken to her once, but she made it obvious she wanted nothing to do with him. Most people didn’t, he was sure it was because he was a gravedigger. Dr Spiridon insisted Seraphim was imagining things, but he was could see it in their eyes which always avoided him. Perhaps he smelt of death.

     ‘These are the shoes Kyrios Stephanos said you should wear,’ Maria said, without glancing at Seraphim. She bent down and deposited them by his grimy wet boots, then went running off back from where she’d appeared. Seraphim wished she’d stayed a little longer. Even if she didn’t like him, her soft curly hair and plump hips pleased him.

     He stood looking down at the shoes; they were smart, lacquered, shiny. They looked small. Black socks were sticking out of them. Seraphim bent down and started unfastening his boots. He took them off, as well as his socks, and stuffed them in his pocket – he didn’t want anyone seeing the holes in them. With his hand, he brushed the soles of his feet, one sole at a time, then put on the socks. They warmed his frozen toes. He placed one foot in the borrowed shoe and squeezed it in. He was right; it was about a size too small. Attempting to tie up the laces was futile, it only constricted his toes more, so he left them undone. He put on the other shoe and stood staring at his feet, which swelled over the top. He took a few steps in the direction of the drawing room, stabbing pains jabbed his toes and his heels. He grimaced. With jerky movements, he found a way of hobbling forwards, resting most of his bodyweight on the outer part of his arches and, slowly, proceeded towards the task he was dreading. Just before entering the drawing room, he swept his hand across his hair, trying to smooth his broom-like fringe down, but didn’t succeed.

     The first thing that Seraphim noticed upon entering was the smell of burning candle wax and too much eau de cologne. His stomach contracted and he was afraid he’d vomit. The room was dark – all windows shuttered, the curtains drawn, and more mirrors and paintings covered up by dark material – and it was hot, stuffy, unaired. Seraphim made out dark figures all around him, men and women, perching on the frail settees or leaning against the walls. Nobody spoke. The body of Kyrios Iosiphidis lay on a table in the middle of the room, the other furniture having been moved to the side. He knew the dead man was large, but what he encountered shocked him and he gasped.

     Kyrios Iosiphidis was not a man. He was a mountain! His belly shot up towards the ceiling and fell about his sides, the way a badly formed halva crumbled when there wasn’t enough butter or semolina in the dessert. The white sheet covering the dead man up to his neck made his shape even more colossal. Two tall candleholders stood either side of his head. His cheeks were puffed-out. Seraphim focused on his moustache, and an image of a strange sea-creature he’d once seen in a book in the doctor’s office came to mind. Yes, that’s what he was – a great white walrus, completely bald, with a waxen, flat complexion that was strangely luminous. The table he was resting on was too narrow to support his girth, and Seraphim was afraid that if anyone so much as touched the deceased, the table legs would collapse under his tremendous weight. The doctor had been right. There was no way this man could fit in the coffin; they would have to build one especially for him. The people in the room were silent and still, shadows lurking all around him. Seraphim heard one of them cough. It was Stephanos Iosiphidis, the dead man’s son.

     ‘Could you proceed with the business?’ he ordered.

     ‘Yes, yes,’ Seraphim said, taking one step closer towards the body. He fumbled in his pocket for the ruler, notebook and pencil. His hands were clammy, his fingers tensed up.

     He approached Kyrios Iosiphidis and stared at his face. It looked even more swollen from above. This made his stomach constrict again, and a lump rise in his throat. Fighting back the impulse to be sick, he wiped his forehead with his palm. Sweat started forming on his temples, and he had no feeling in his top lip – numb, completely numb. Biting it brought some sensation back, but not enough.

     ‘What are you waiting for?’ Stephanos Iosiphidis said, his voice gruff, clearly annoyed. ‘Get on with it and be gone. This is most unpleasant and it’s upsetting the ladies. Hurry up, man!’

     Seraphim nodded, but his body was overcome by weakness, he was one step from plummeting to the floor. His breathing grew faster. He swallowed, once more pushing the bitter taste in his throat down, and looked for a place on the table to rest the notebook and pencil, but there wasn’t one centimetre free, so he held them between his teeth. Seraphim unfolded the ruler and, with shaking hand, held it above the dead man. He blinked, then scrunched his eyes shut. He told himself to stay calm. Being the only gravedigger on the island – no-one else wanting to touch the dead – he’d seen bodies before, too often to count. He’d placed them in coffins and carried them out of their homes, accompanied them on their last journey, lowered them into the ground and covered them with dirt. He was accustomed to death. But this, this was different. The mere size of the deceased and the airless room were pressing down on him, becoming hotter, drowning him in his own sweat. And the dead man’s son, glaring at him, hating his very presence, wishing him gone. Everything silent. Not a cough, a rustle of a skirt, or a clock ticking. A whiff of flowers reached his nose. Overpowering. Something rotting. Settling on his skin, in his throat.

     Sweat dripped down his neck and his wet clothes steamed about him. He wiped his face with his sleeve, tried to focus on the measuring. One metre. Two. The dead man was tall. Seraphim’s breathing was laboured. He had to measure again. Yes, a little under two metres. Very tall. There was nowhere he could place the ruler so he could write it down. He turned to his left, turned to his right. Nothing. No-one offered to hold it for him. That acidic, gelatinous bile began to rise again and he swallowed.

     Hang on, Seraphim, don’t let go! he told himself. Don’t let go! Dr Spiridon trusted you with this job. You can’t let him down.

     Breathing deeply revived him a little. What was he doing? Ah, yes, the ruler. He stuffed it under his armpit and, in the process, hit the dead man’s nose.

     ‘Be careful, you fool!’ Stephanos Iosiphidis didn’t speak, he barked. ‘Show some respect!’

     ‘I’m sorry, I....’ Seraphim said. His hands shook. ‘I didn’t m-mean...I...’

     ‘Well, get on with it!’

     ‘Yes, y-yes...’

     Hurry up, Seraphim, hurry up! Get the job done quickly, or Kyrios Iosiphidis’ son will kick you out, will humiliate and yell at you. Do it now.

     Fumbling with the notebook, he found a page that hadn’t been written on and scribbled Two metres on it. His writing shaky, infantile.

     Only once he’d stuffed the notebook in his pocket did he realise that it was the pocket with his dirty soggy socks. A groan escaped him. He took hold of the ruler once more, being careful not to touch the corpse. The sound of his heartbeat pounded in his ears, pulsated behind his closed eyes. He opened them, held the ruler vertically, measured how high the coffin should be. Sixty centimetres. He double-checked. Seraphim thought it would be best to leave a little extra space, so he wrote down Seventy centimetres, just to be sure.

     Next was the width of the dead man. This proved to be harder than the other two measurements. His fingers twitched. Where could he stand? Ideally, he would need to balance the ruler on Kyrios Iosiphidis’ belly to get a proper measurement. What should he do?

     Seraphim held the metre rule above the corpse, saw it wobble in his grip. Drops of sweat rolled down his cheeks and into his ears. The perfume they had sprayed on the dead man was strong, sugary, heavy, vanilla, laudanum, it made his stomach turn. This was too much. He looked at the dead man’s face and, for a moment, thought that his eyelids shuddered. He gasped. Maybe he screamed. He wasn’t sure.

     ‘What on earth is he doing?’ he heard someone say somewhere around him, he could no longer tell where anything was. It was a woman. That much was clear. Whoever she was, she was not trying to muffle her voice.

     ‘Will you get on with it?’ the corpse’s son cried.

     The ground beneath Seraphim receded, his knees betrayed him and the last thing he remembered was falling, collapsing, rolling onto something soft, bulbous, a mound made of hardened dough.

     Then all was black.