It’s an old story–the child who goes away and the one who stays, the bargain struck and the bond between them and the promises, spoken and unspoken, that must be kept. What does the prodigal one find if she returns? What sacrifices were asked of the one who stayed?
~Bram Shay, Editor
‘Let heaven be our judge,
our witnesses the saints,
if death or illness comes at us, sorrow or joy,
I’ll bring her back.’
Areti switches on the small bedside lamp, lifts up the pink cotton nightgown from the iron double bed and slides it over her head and through both arms, the soft fabric falling over her body like a soothing shower of fine raindrops. October is coming through the open window in cold gusts, a proem to another cold, long winter. She reaches for the metallic latches of the wood shutters and watches the cypress trees outside, lashed by the wind, their tops hissing as they flap from side to side. A frenzied air stream brushes her hair away, making her nightgown ripple, a sweet scent of basil tingling her nostrils. The shutters almost catch her fingers in her effort to lower the latch, the wind still howling between the trills. She closes the window, moves to the stool by the dressing table and picks up the brown wood comb her mana had bought from a street seller at the fair. She fingers the carved lettering at the back: STIN ARETI MOU. Konstandis had used all his skill and one of their sharpest kitchen knives to scrape the small lines and curves into characters and then turn the small ‘a’ into a capital one under their mana’s vigilant eyes.
‘It looks just as fine with this ‘a’,’ he had said, his lips curling at the edges, but their mana had insisted he correct it. He could never come to terms with all these troublesome grammar rules he’d been taught in school.
Areti turns the comb over and fumbles its teeth. Fewer and fewer every day. She keeps the ones that have fallen off in the dark wood box with the relief of the three red roses on top. She also stores some letters from her mana and Konstandi there and a philahto with an embroidered red cross on the front that her mana had given her on her wedding day. It was from the Agio Oros, she had said. It had a chip of the Holy Cross in it to keep her safe.
She starts combing her hair, sensing her mana’s presence in the room. She’s right there, behind her, taking hold of the comb, her gnarled fingers exploring the small fair loops of her curls, patting them into tighter, dangling coils, unraveling the twisted threads. How calm and carefree she felt when she was at home with her. Now every day she wakes up with a feeling of discomfort, unease.
A sudden scratch on the door startles her. The comb falls from her hands and onto the wooden boards. It must be the neighbor’s cat again, she thinks, but then there’s another louder noise, a bang this time. She gets up and puts her ear to the door.
‘Areti! Areti! Open the door!’ a man’s raspy voice booms. The voice sounds familiar but she can’t make out who it is.
‘It’s me, Areti. Your brother, Konstandis,’ the man says. Areti leans against the door frame, her heart fluttering.
‘Konstandi! Is that you?’ She cups her mouth with both palms.
‘Open the door. I’ve come a long way.’
Yes, she is now sure it’s him. She unlocks the door and freezes by what she sees through her hazy eyes. An emaciated Konstandis, hoary, sparse hair in the place of his dense blond hair, his nose and cheekbones frightfully sticking out of his ashen face, black circles around the eyes of a sleepless owl. She can hardly recognize his Sunday black cotton suit, his white shirt and leather shoes beneath this sooty outfit. Her brother just stands there, motionless, a distant look hovering in his jittery eyeballs. Areti hugs him and she feels the jutting shoulder blades under his jacket making his torso look like a crooked hanger with wooden pads. She touches his face only to feel the cold of a discoloured, flaking wall. The only vivid thing about him is a sprig of basil, its leafy green head sprouting out of his buttonhole.
‘What’s happened, Konstandi mou?’ Areti ushers him into the small living room and seats him at a chair by the fireplace.
‘We have to go back,’ he says, tugging the stem of the basil through the buttonhole with his scrawny fingers, securing it in place.
‘Back where?’ She scans his face for the answers she feels so unprepared to face.
‘Back home. Mana needs you.’
‘Mana?’ Areti slumps into a chair, out of breath. ‘What’s wrong with her?’
‘Nothing’s wrong. She’s fine. She just wants to see you.’ He gets up and lumbers to the door. ‘I’ll be waiting for you outside. Hurry.’
Areti stays there, benumbed, as if someone has just slapped her hard on the face, forcing her to turn around and into a web of entangled thoughts. She shuffles her way to the bedroom, takes off her nightgown and puts on the dark blue dress with the two pockets at the skirt that’s hanging in the wardrobe. She takes out her black, long-sleeved dress, folds it into four and puts it in a small brown leather bag together with a pair of charcoal-grey stockings and her black Sunday shoes. Her knees tremble and there’s this weird knot in her stomach, going up and down, scraping her innards. She puts her purse into the bag and her mana’s philahto with the Holy Cross in her skirt pocket. She writes a note to her husband, telling him that she’s gone to her village with her brother and that she’ll write soon, propping it in the middle of the mantelpiece.
They walk in the dark, Konstandis marching ahead, Areti a few steps behind him, the owls and cicadas accompanying their crunchy steps on the asphalt with voices loud and croaky, yowling at them. She feels as if her soul has left her body, the body just transporting her. Her mind is far away in the street that leads to her native village of Itea. The Cyclopean pines and willows that flank the dirt road wave at her with their branches, their tops lowering, brushing her ears, whispering unintelligible words, leaves black as night. ‘Where’s mana?’ she asks, but what she gets back is a demonic ululation of their raging twigs. ‘Oh God! Keep her well!’ she mutters.
Konstandis doesn’t talk. He strides ahead with somnambulant steps, his presence a frosty current rolling down the hill, unaffected by his surroundings. From time to time he puts his basil in position without looking at it.
It takes them over an hour of silent walk to get from Neapoli to Piraeus. The usually busy train station is now thinly populated, only the odd passenger rushing to catch the last train to his hometown, back to his family in Northern Greece, a suitcase or a bundle in his hand. Areti sits at a wood bench under the shed and Konstandis goes to buy their tickets. The big clock by the wall shows eleven and their train soon wiggles its way into the station, a huge angry snake whistling and rattling against the peace of the night. They get onto the passenger coach and sit one across from the other. Konstandis takes his koboloi out of his trouser pocket, the brown tassel looking frayed and the yellowish-brown beads dented. He lets the oval amber beads slide down the string, one after the other, steadily, meticulously, as if counting them—and then the other side up, taking it from the start, the sound of the clinking beads bringing back memories of games of marbles they used to play in their yard as kids.
‘Is this the one Mana gave you?’ Areti says, pointing to the koboloi.
‘Yes.’ Konstandis looks out the window, his lips a pale straight line.
‘What is it, Konstandi? What’s wrong?’
‘Nothing’s wrong.’ He lowers his head and shuts his eyes.
‘When did you last see Mana? How is she?’ She has to know. She grits her teeth in angst, waiting.
‘I’ve told you. She’s fine,’ he says with a grunt, ‘Saw her last night. She just wants to see you.’
‘Yes, but… why all the rush? Why in the middle of the night?’
‘I couldn’t come another time,’ he says and touches his basil again.
‘Did you get the basil from Mana?’
‘Yes. Now let me sleep!’ He lies along his seat, his legs folded to his chest in a newborn’s crouch. How transparent his skin is, sockets swarthy caves hiding bulging eyeballs, nostrils thin and hollow, lips lean slices of a withered quince. What is he going through? Why can’t he tell her? What changed him so much?
Areti looks at the Tartarean shadows outside their window as the train lunges forward, whizzing its way out of the station and into its blind route.
The door slides open and the conductor gets in. He gives Areti a curious, long look and asks for her ticket. He writes something on it, squints at her and leaves, still gazing. He doesn’t bother to ask for Konstandis’s ticket. Doesn’t even look at him.
Konstandis has a fitful sleep. His eyeballs roll and quiver under his eyelids. His breath is heavy and he mumbles something:
‘If death or illness come at us, sorrow or joy, I’ll bring her back.’ What is he saying? She’s heard these words before.
Areti’s mana was sitting at a wood backless bench behind the argalio in the barn, both hands grabbing the huge horizontal toothed bar, sliding it to and fro, geometrical patterns gradually forming under it as she passed the saitas with the yarn between the vertical cotton strings, one colour after the other. She then pressed it all with the bar, both her feet stepping with dexterity on the pedals at her feet. The saitas then followed the same route passing under the vertical threads seconds before the toothed bar pressed them into a tight tapestry. The carpet would be ready soon, part of Areti’s dowry. There had been lots of men asking for her in marriage but she was only fourteen and her mana didn’t want to give her away too soon and certainly not without much thought.
Areti was sitting next to her studying the way her mana was working when Konstandis dashed into the barn, a letter in his right hand.
‘Maroulis says he wants her. What should I tell him, Mana?’
‘Who?’ she stopped working and looked at him. ‘The one who lives in Athens? No, no, no,’ she said, waving her left hand in denial. ‘Too far. I could never see my little daughter.’
‘He’s a good gabbros, Mana. He’s got a big fortune. A merchant he is.’
‘Money isn’t everything, Konstandi.’
‘Areti will have everything she desires. She’ll never be hungry.’
‘There’ll be other gabri who live closer to us. I don’t want to send her away. What if I die or fall ill? Who’ll bring her to me then, eh?’
Konstandis got a serious look, scratched his bushy mustache and said: ‘Let heaven be our judge and the saints our witnesses, if death or illness come at us, sorrow or joy, I’ll bring her back.’ His mother stopped working, gave him a long look of contemplation and pride, then looked at Areti and then back at him. Her shoulders loosened and a slanted smile started to form on her face.
It’s a long journey and Areti can’t keep her eyes open anymore. She leans on the back of her seat, her bag still on her lap, both arms holding the straps. Pants and groans shatter her sleep, and when she raises her head, Konstandis isn’t in the coach. She goes out to the corridor and sees him next to the door. The door is open and Konstandis is holding onto the metal bar attached to the train on his right, his clothes billowing in the wind. Someone is behind him. A black-dressed figure is lurking there, a woman. She suddenly thrusts toward him, both hands rolled into blood-drained fists, and starts hammering his back, cursing him with a strident voice: ‘Anathema se! Anathema se! When are you going to keep your promise?’ Konstandis struggles not to fall, his face scarlet and distorted, but the woman’s tense body seems to be seized by frenzied spasms, her face teratoid, gritted teeth and dense knitted eyebrows. When Areti gets closer, she sees. This woman pushing her brother off the train is their mana.
‘Mana! Don’t do it! Mana! Hold on, Konstandi! I’m coming!’ she screams, and as she plods toward them, their mana turns to her, and with rigid hands grabs her by the shoulders like a pair of malicious pincers, shaking and tossing her.
‘Areti, wake up! You’re having a nightmare.’ She opens her eyes, Konstandis’s scrawny fingers on her shoulders, his face a breath away. She straightens up and sighs.
‘Oh God! It was a dream.’ She cups her eyes with her palms.
‘Yes. Everything is a dream,’ Konstandis says and runs his right hand over the aromatic leaves of his basil.
At last Larissa is in view. The white houses glare in the morning light, their ruby-tiled roofs like magicians’ hats hiding their owners’ secrets. The train skirts the bridge over the Pinio, its waters swirling around the rocks like the thoughts in Areti’s mind, and in a few minutes it reaches the central station. Areti and Konstandis are two of the few passengers that get off at the station. But where is Konstandis? He’d said that he needed to go to the outdoor lavatory but she can’t see him anywhere. The train is leaving and she picks up her bag and sits at a bench facing the rails. ‘He’ll come sooner or later,’ she thinks. ‘I’ll wait for him here.’ The next train leaves in three hours and there are no passengers there with her. She goes to the lavatory and calls his name but nobody answers. She flicks open the door of the smelly room but there’s nobody there.
‘Have you seen a tall, thin man with a mustache?’ she asks the man at the stationmaster’s office.
‘I haven’t seen none, miss,’ he says and gives her a mixed look of curiosity and commiseration.
‘He must’ve gone back to Piraeus,’ Areti mutters, ‘Why didn’t he tell me? He’s changed so much!’ She doesn’t recognize him anymore. She prays to God there’s nothing really serious with him and decides to take the road to Itea by herself. Her heart pounds like heavy boots treading on hollow ground when she sees the ruins of the castle on her right, the huge square rocks one above the other, covered in moss, the cemetery further to the right, where her father lies. She trudges down the small hill, and after ten minutes she sees it. That’s not the house she lived in eight years ago. It is another house. The garden is overgrown with weeds, the almond tree and the pear tree withered and leafless, the walls not whitewashed but grey and flaked, the wooden shutters closed and barred. She opens the screechy gate and wends her way across the yard and up to the two steps that lead to the iron door. She knocks at the door once, holds her breath and then knocks again. She then uses her fists, over and over, against the door, shouting: ‘Mana! Open the door, Mana!’ Nobody answers. ‘She might be in the back garden, hoeing or raking or even planting,’ she thinks. As she rounds the corner of the house, the shadow of a big cross reflected onto the barn wall catches her eye. She gets closer and a grave comes into full view, a rectangular iron frame of vertical black bars and a tall iron cross at the head. ‘Oh God no! Please, no, no!’ she stammers and lets her paralyzed legs lead her there, both hands over her agape mouth. Three rows of gold letters engraved on the vertical cross read:
died: 32 years old
She reads the letters again and again. ‘I must be losing my mind. That can’t be true! That’s another nightmare.’ She makes a faltering round of the garden, going back to the grave and then backwards again, stumbling.
‘Konstandi!’ she screams, ‘Konstandi, where are you?’ Her wails scare away the sparrows that have nested on the willows. ‘Why? Why?’ She kneels beside the grave, crying and pulling at the cold bars.
‘Areti? Areti mou?’ Areti turns her wet face toward the voice and sees a black-dressed woman carrying an armful of firewood. It is her mana. The firewood drops to the ground and the two women lock together in a tight knot, the iron cross towering over them, as they shed tears of sorrow and joy, the old woman caressing her daughter’s back, arms and hair, staring at her in disbelief.
‘How did you come here? Who brought you?’ Areti looks at the grave and then back at the crinkled face in front of her. ‘You now know about our Konstandi. He left us Areti mou, he left us all alone.’ Her sobs scrape their way up her lungs and out of her slanting mouth.
‘No, he hasn’t. He never has.’ Areti pokes her hand into one of her skirt pockets and flicks out her handkerchief. Something heavy slips out of it and falls to the hard soil with a rattle. Konstandis’s koboloi is laid there, next to his grave, gold beads shining like holy talismans. She picks it up, holds it tight in her fist, thinking, ‘You won’t be needing it anymore, brother,’ and puts it in her pocket again, next to the philahto. Her mana stares at her with bewilderment. Areti folds her mana in her arms and they both go to the house, enlaced, two saitas unraveling their threads, having just escaped the huge toothed bar.
While the old woman is unlocking the door, Areti notices a potted plant on the window ledge. A tall, thin basil, its small green leaves rustling in the breeze, a living organism, breathing out its thaumaturgic aroma. A small sprig has been recently plucked, the stub standing out erect, small drops of dew forming on its surface, glistening, sparkling.
Konstantina Sozou-Kyrkou is a Greek writer living in Athens but writing in English. She has studied Literature and holds an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University UK. Her short stories have appeared in print and online in several magazines.