The day on which the stranger appeared in the village was a snapping, spitting day in March; the sort of day on which men were wont to grouse about their arthritis and gout and to bicker with everyone in their household before heading down to the kapheneion, where they could, for a time, forget all their troubles. It was 1935 and only the devil could have masterminded the current state of the economy. This was the one thing everyone seemed to agree on.
Despite the belligerent weather, all the regulars were there when the gypsy turned up: playing cards or backgammon, gossiping over drinks. Philippas Adham, the headmaster, sat discussing Hitler’s denunciation of the Treaty of Locarno with his friend, the doctor. He had just ordered coffee and was about to light a cigarette when the gypsy tramped in, tailed by two scruffy boys with shoes so large they had to be half-dragged across the threshold. The stranger looked slatternly but imperious, closing the door behind her with a decisive toss of wet plaits. She wore a colourful skirt and a faded green sweater; a small crimson scarf was tied around her neck, as beguiling as a poppy in a field of thorns.
‘Good afternoon.’ The gypsy stood peering through the haze of smoke, a bale of tablecloths draped over her arm. ‘Good afternoon, gentlemen!’
The greeting was grudgingly returned by a handful of men; others went on staring at the stranger with mute interest. She was an attractive woman with nutmeg-hued skin and a beauty spot on her left cheekbone. The children had found a vacant table and sat with their bare legs dangling, staring at the rain. It was growing dark.
‘Look here, gentlemen! I’ve got tablecloths – fine tablecloths all the way from Athens.’ The gypsy plucked off the protective oilcloth and cast it aside. ‘I invite your offers!’ She stood surveying the room: the men toying with their worry beads, the blazing pot-bellied stove. The fire crackled and hissed, spitting out an occasional spark. One of the lamps on the wall flickered, running out of oil.
‘Do I hear an offer?’ The question was cast over to the right, where Mimis Lyras, the village wit and football champion, sat bantering at the fishermen’s table. One of the few fair-haired men in the village, Mimis was idly picking his teeth, staring appraisingly as the gypsy danced her way towards his table.
‘How ’bout you, sir? I bet your wife could use a nice tablecloth for thirty drachmas, eh?’
Mimis took a lazy drag on his cigarette, gazing at the stranger. ‘What’s your name?’ he asked, his tongue testing his inner cheek.
‘Amalia. Amalia the fortune-teller’s what they call me.’
‘Well,’ said Mimis, his eyes full upon her. ‘Look here, Amalia. I’d gladly pay thirty drachmas – maybe even sixty – but the God’s truth is I don’t have a woman.’
‘What?! A handsome palikari like you!’ The gypsy cackled. ‘You pay me sixty drachmas, sir, and I’ll find you two wives for your money!’ She winked, flinging back her plaits, while Mimis’s companions guffawed and Hektor the fool hooted in the background. Someone called out, demanding a coffee reading. Only the kapheneion owner appeared impassive, slowly stirring beans in a steaming cauldron.
‘Your own wives couldn’t match this with their nimble fingers!’ the gypsy was saying. Someone – the doctor or the headmaster – had ordered a plate of beans for the rawboned boys. The kapheneion owner’s father-in-law set the plates down with a sour look. The men had all but abandoned their games; the shop, entitled to ten per cent of all winnings, was beginning to lose money.
‘All right: only twenty-three drachmas and your fortune free!’ The gypsy stood warming her hands at the wood stove, scanning the crowded room.
‘I’ll tell you what!’ she cried at last. ‘I’ll read one man’s fortune, one man’s only, then—’ She paused dramatically. ‘If he wants – if he wants – he can buy one of these lovely tablecloths. How’s that?’
The question was aimed at one of the fishermen, who’d recently lost two fingers while fishing with dynamite.
‘Why . . . why don’t you try the Alexiou brothers here?’ The gnome-like man made a flustered gesture, then buried his maimed hand in his lap. ‘They’ve got money to burn, those two. I . . . I’m just a poor fisherman,’ he stammered.
The Alexiou brothers were seated in the corner, lingering over their coffee. The gypsy glanced over her shoulder, then made her way towards them, her teeth flashing.
‘Don’t be afraid . . . there’s nothing to be afraid of.’ She pulled out a chair and sat down, theatrically overturning one of the coffee cups. The cup belonged to Iason Alexiou, the village merchant’s middle son. He was in his mid-twenties, with sparkling blue eyes and the sleek, tender skin of a pampered adolescent.
The fortune-teller studied Iason’s features, waiting for his coffee dregs to settle. The rain was still falling but its fury had gradually been exhausted. At the back of the room, Hektor the fool swatted a fly, snickering to himself.
‘Well!’ exclaimed the gypsy, wagging her head. ‘This is a fine – an excellent – cup. Excellent!’ she repeated, her eyes sweeping the surrounding men, as if every one of them stood to benefit from her pronouncements.
‘You don’t say.’ Iason half-smiled, fumbling for his pack of cigarettes. He seemed about to add something, but his older brother stopped him.
‘We’ve already got us a fortune-teller in this village!’ he tossed out, his pugnacious jaw pulsing. Anyway, I’m sure you’ll do better with the women – much better,’ he reiterated.
‘He’s right,’ said Iason. ‘Our women, they give us nothing but pocket money for a drink or two.’ He paused, eyes round with mock innocence. ‘What? You don’t believe me?’
The gypsy let out a hoarse little laugh. ‘And what would you know about it, my friend? I don’t believe you’re even married yet, are you?’
The merchant’s son smiled, but did not contradict her.
‘He’s looking for a wife, is Iason!’ screeched Hektor. He squinted towards Iason’s table, tittered, then clamped his hand over his mouth, like an irrepressible child during Sunday Mass.
‘Is that so?’ The gypsy shifted her attention to the coffee-smeared cup, tilting it this way and that, intent on its spotty motifs. Iason remained silent, but the village wit muttered something that made the fishermen howl with laughter. One of them rose to leave, slapping Iason’s shoulder in passing. The rain had ceased, but the wind went on gusting in the thickening dark. Soon, the headmaster and the doctor also paid and left, the headmaster trudging uphill, the doctor heading down. Dr Dhaniel was not a regular at the kapheneion, but had darted in after being caught in the downpour.
‘Well,’ the gypsy was saying, ‘every man needs a wife. You don’t need Amalia to tell you that.’ She spoke in a husky, seductive voice, smiling deeply into Iason’s eyes. ‘But you, my friend – you are destined to marry the girl of your dreams!’
‘In the dark, every woman’s a dream,’ Mimis put in.
The men laughed again, but the gypsy remained unfazed. ‘In the dark, maybe. But this man . . . this man shall have a truly beautiful girl! The most beautiful girl any of you have seen!’ she pronounced, glowing with satisfaction.
‘Ca-Cal-liope!’ screamed Hektor the fool. He jumped out of his chair like a jack-in-a-box, scratching at his crotch. ‘She . . . she’s the most . . . the most beau-ti-ful girl in the whole wide world! She’s got di-di-dimples!’
Calliope Adham was the headmaster’s daughter, still unspoken for at the age of twenty.
‘As for that, I can’t say.’ The gypsy shrugged, glancing up as the kapheneion owner came to refill the guttering lamp. The two young boys had finished their beans and were rolling soft, leftover bread into little pellets.
‘So!’ said the gypsy with abrupt resolve. ‘Will any of you gentlemen be buying a new tablecloth for Easter? We’ll make it only twenty drachmas, since the women hold the purse strings here. What d’you say?’ She turned and winked at Iason.
‘Well, let’s see now.’ Iason leaned in to examine the hem on one of the tablecloths. ‘All right, I’ll take three of them,’ he finally said, reaching into his pocket.
‘He…he’s gonna sell them in…in the pantopoleion!’ shrilled Hektor. ‘He—’
‘Ach, shut up, Hektor!’ Iason’s brother swore, but before Hektor could summon a retort, the kapheneion owner told the gypsy it was time to go.
‘It’s stopped raining,’ Rozakis pointed out, gesturing with his chin. He had a heavy chin and a long nose, but his most striking feature was a kidney-shaped birthmark on his left temple. He beckoned the gypsy boys over, offering peppermints. ‘Anyway, this is no place for a woman with young children.’
‘Ach, you’re right there!’ conceded the gypsy, rising. ‘Perfectly right, my friend.’ She stood gazing into Rozakis’s eyes, as if mesmerised by something in their weary depths. Suddenly, she reached out and lightly touched his birthmark. ‘But how ’bout you, sir?’ she said, as tender-voiced as a mother. ‘Might you want to know something ’bout your own future?’
Rozakis just looked at her, stolid and impassive in his smoke-blurred kingdom.
‘Time tells the end of a story, lady.’
Time, people said, was not going to wait for the headmaster’s daughter. They said she was too headstrong for her own good. They said she read too much. They said she might go blind before she found a suitable husband. She was bold and dreamy and much too outspoken. She was oddly indifferent to her own single state – a hen hoping to lay eggs without a rooster in sight! Some said Philippas should have known better than to let his daughter become a schoolmistress, cramming her head with useless knowledge: French, German, poetry! Her poor mother. She’d done her best to teach Calliope to sew and cook and embroider, but her father was the only one the girl seemed to heed. The headmaster was widely respected, but who could fathom what went on between an educated man’s ears?
The Adhams’ windows overlooked one of Molyvos’s public fountains, so the headmaster’s wife had heard the neighbours whisper that very afternoon. She wasted no time repeating what she’d heard, for there was a new suitor she had been pressing her daughter to consider. An Athenian wine merchant.
‘Uncle Kleanthis says he’s still quite young,’ Mirto ventured over supper. ‘He says—’
‘Ach, Mama! I said I’d think about it, didn’t I?’ Calliope glanced at her father, pleading for support. And then she changed the subject.
But she did think about it. In the morning, waiting for her class to copy an exercise, she sauntered over to the window, mulling over the little she knew about her latest suitor. She imagined him as just a younger version of her mother’s brother. Uncle Kleanthis was a banker; a childless, overfastidious man who had about him the slightly perplexed look of someone awakened from deep slumber. The only thing that interested Calliope about her Mytilene relations was their library. Could the wine merchant possibly be a bibliophile?
Two mangy tomcats were roaming the dusty school grounds, stopping now and then to eye the new swallows’ nest under the schoolhouse eaves. The cats appeared restless, as did the schoolchildren. After six consecutive days of wind and rain, the sun had emerged, the choppy sea had grown placid. It was only late March, but the warm weather had blown in a heady reminder of the long, voluptuous days of summer. Every time a dog barked or a sheep bleated, the children would twist around on their scarred benches and gaze at the windows, eyes dilated with longing.
‘Very well, you can close your books. Go out and play for a while.’ Calliope put her book down. She clapped away chalk dust. But the children only gawked at her, blinking in disbelief. ‘Well? What are you waiting for? Go – quietly, please – before I change my mind!’
She threw open the door, flattening her back as her pupils stormed out. Sunlight danced on the classroom walls; children’s laughter wafted in from the schoolyard. One of the youngest boys stopped to pick his nose, dreamily watching the schoolmistress pause to adjust her belt. The belt was handloomed, splitting a paisley dress whose principal col-our conspicuously matched her plaited auburn hair. Another moment was spent pinning a stray tendril, then Calliope Adham padded into the midday glare, breathing in the penetrating scent of rain-soaked earth, of blossoming honeysuckle.
The school had two classes, one of them taught by the headmaster. Soon, Philippas Adham let his own pupils out and went to join his daughter, skimming newspaper headlines with one eye and watching the children play with the other. There had been a recent outbreak of measles, so the groups were unusually small. The girls in their blue smocks played skipping rope; the boys chased each other along the picket fence. Only Pericles Alexiou, the pantopoleion owner’s youngest son, seemed to be alone. When Calliope beckoned to him, the boy shuffled over, a melancholy ten-year-old with the world’s sorrows weighing on his shoulders.
‘I was just talking here to the headmaster and we couldn’t agree on the German capital. Can you perhaps . . .’
‘It’s Berlin, Kyria.’
‘Not Munich, eh?’
The boy was obsessed with world capitals; Germany was on Calliope’s mind because Hitler’s recent decision to expand his army had violated the Treaty of Versailles. It was all in her father’s paper.
‘No, it’s Berlin, Kyria,’ Pericles repeated, smiling down at his own scuffed shoes.
Calliope thought the smile sublime, though the child’s bookishness often left him out of children’s games, as she herself had been. Whenever she thought of her own childhood, what Calliope saw on her mental screen was her young, plain self gazing longingly at a cluster of giggling girls.
‘Book-eater!’ boys would jeer at her, greedy hands snatching whatever she happened to be reading and casting it in the air, ripped pages whirling down like chicken feathers. ‘Book-eater! Book-eater!’
‘How about the capital of Romania?’ the schoolmistress asked her pupil. There was something in the paper about a new Bolshevik movement in Romania.
‘It’s Bucharest, Kyria. Not Budapest . . . Budapest’s in Hungary—’
‘Yes . . . yes, I see. It’s easy to confuse those two, I suppose?’
Pericles shrugged. He never seemed in the least confused.
The headmaster patted the boy’s shoulder. A pale, hulking man, he had ferocious grey eyebrows but the gleeful chuckle of a four-year-old who has just managed to win a game of marbles against an older sibling. His daughter had no formal qualifications. She’d been invited to take over the younger class when the new schoolmaster engaged from the mainland had died of malaria.
‘The boy will go far,’ said the headmaster, smiling to see Pericles Alexiou dodge a flying ball. But soon the smile faded. Philippas Adham sneezed, pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket, and forcefully blew his nose. ‘I hope I haven’t caught the measles from one of the kids,’ he grumbled.
Calliope cast him a sceptical look. ‘Didn’t you have it as a child?’
‘Ach, I don’t know,’ Philippas said and sneezed yet again.
He was still sniffling, still blowing his nose, when the whistle sounded. The children were sent home, scattering in all directions like hens released from a coop. The headmaster and his daughter strolled companionably towards the agora: Philippas to get a haircut, Calliope to buy laundry soap. It was Friday afternoon. Easter would be late this year, but the village houses, with their red roofs and colourful shutters, were being readied for Independence Day. Olive cans had been painted to hold basil and geraniums; courtyards and privies were being swept and whitewashed.
‘So, what about the wine merchant?’ Philippas asked at length. ‘You promised your mother you’d think about it.’
‘I thought about it.’
‘I’m not interested.’
He looked at her for a moment. ‘Just like that? Why?’
‘I prefer goats’ milk to wine!’ Calliope tossed out, letting go of her father’s arm. She had just spotted a fisherman’s cap, which the wind had blown from a balcony onto a roadside bush. She plucked the cap from the oleander branch, arranging it on her own head with a small, theatrical moue. ‘What do you think? Would the Athenian like me in this?’
‘Ach, koritsi mou, koritsi mou!’
The village was perched on a hill, its maze of stepped streets overlooking fields and mountains and sea. The main street led steeply to the wisteria-shaded agora, then gradually sloped down towards the fishing harbour. In the heart of the agora, between the barber’s and the main kiosk, was a small plateia with a mulberry tree and a faded bench that had been there as far back as anyone could remember. The tree, too, was ancient, its leafy canopy offering shelter on hot summer days.
On that clear, spring-perfumed afternoon, two men were idling under the mulberry tree, bantering in loud voices. One was the kiosk-owner, the other a local man who had prospered in Melbourne and had just returned to marry off his two sisters, and possibly find a bride for himself. Johnny the Australian. Calliope had been at school with his younger sister, but the fisherman’s son could now almost pass for a foreigner.
Calliope met Johnny’s curious gaze, smiled vaguely, then stepped aside to let a mule-riding farmer go by. Then she saw the gypsy.
The stranger was standing next to the barber, laughing, as sprightly and colourful as a tropical bird. Calliope’s father had entered the shop, stopping to greet two children waiting to have their hair cut. They were not Molyvos boys. Calliope watched for a moment, cast a final glance towards the green-eyed Johnny, then sauntered towards the pantopoleion.
It was a cluttered general store, selling everything from rice and sugar to bolts of silk and cotton. The shop was owned by Pericles’s father, who had recently fallen ill. It was being run by his two grown sons. Vangelis was married and often wore the churlish air of a man displaced in his wife’s affections by too many children. Iason, more genial, seemed to enjoy teasing Calliope.
‘And what would our little teacher like today?’ he would ask, clasping his hands to his chest like an obsequious Turk at a carpet bazaar. ‘Can I possibly be of service?’
Calliope was almost as tall as Iason: a solidly built young woman with thickish eyebrows and bright, unflinching, amber-hued eyes. Hektor the fool was not the only one who thought her the most beautiful girl in the village, yet she had never been kept under lock and key. And now there was the new teaching post, conferring even more liberties denied other girls. Not even the boldest of them would have been permitted to wander alone through the village the way Calliope was prone to do day and night, accompanied only by Socrates, her beloved dog. As if keeping a dog was not bad enough! The neighbours had long since given up issuing dark warnings to the headmaster’s wife: Mirto was obviously under Philippas’s sway, letting her daughter do exactly as she pleased!
It pleased Calliope to shop at the pantopoleion, which often had something new for sale: toiletries or ribbons, imported caramels or bananas. Crammed with crates and boxes, and jute sacks bulging with legumes and spice, the store had a musty-sweetish smell, slyly evocative of distant lands: foreign ports, mysterious alleys.
Philippas Adham had an older brother, who lived in Paris, and who was in the habit of sending fine chocolates every Christmas. For Calliope, the pleasure of the annual treat was eclipsed only by the collectable photographs enclosed in the box: the Eiffel Tower and the Taj Mahal, the Statue of Liberty, the Egyptian Pyramids. As a young girl, she would often clamber up a giant plane tree and hide for hours among its leafy branches. She was Amelia Earhart, bold and free! She was a young stowaway headed for exotic shores!
She was a twenty-year-old schoolmistress, but the arrival of spring could still stir up the familiar yearning – for what, she could not say. Some obscure but transcendent event. Some sublime revelation.
Nothing of the sort seemed to be in the offing that Friday afternoon. Calliope entered the pantopoleion planning only to buy laundry soap, but soon found herself tempted by a pair of beaded, butterfly-shaped haircombs. She had been paid that day and could afford to indulge the impulse. But then, at the last moment, another item caught her eye, though this one would serve neither domestic necessity nor feminine vanity. She refused to tell Iason what she intended to do with her purchase, but left the store bemused, her eyes flicking towards the plateia.
Johnny the Australian was gone. Some invisible creature was stirring in the leafy tree, strewing tiny, unripe berries onto the empty bench. It was growing warm. In front of the kiosk, two schoolgirls stood blowing soap bubbles, watching them drift up towards the cloudless sky and, one by one, explode into nothing.
The idea of keeping a journal, like so many of Calliope’s ideas, had been inspired by something she had read in a foreign novel. The fat notebook she had just purchased had stiff black covers edged in red, with a medallion holding a single red rose. It was the rose that had first caught her eye at the pantopoleion.
That very afternoon, after a short siesta, Calliope went into the blossoming garden, bearing a small cup of coffee and her brand-new journal. Her father had left for the kapheneion; her mother to visit her sister, Elpida, the new mayor’s wife. No interruptions for at least an hour! There was a stone bench in the grape arbour and that was where she sat, mentally reviewing the day’s events as she sipped her coffee. The setting sun was the colour of a blood orange.
A stray kitten came from behind an oleander bush, meowing plaintively. Mirto had issued countless warnings about ringworm, but Calliope scooped up the kitten and hugged it to her chest. Socrates, snoozing by the doghouse, opened his eyes, blinked a few times, then went back to sleep; the kitten began to purr. Then the mother cat came leaping over the stone fence and the kitten scrambled away and went sidling up to its mother.
It had been an interesting day. Calliope began by writing about the gypsy she had seen at the barber’s, going on to recall a childhood trip to Athens, where she had encountered entire families camped on the sidewalks: mothers with their breasts thrust out to nurse their children, fathers sleeping like dishevelled islands amid urban traffic. Next, she recorded her impressions of Johnny the Australian. It was hard to pinpoint the subtle change that came over a man after a decade spent living abroad, but there was unexpected satisfaction in the attempt; a thrill, almost, in being able to express herself without any need for self-censorship.
The following day, Saturday, Calliope was back in the grape arbour. As there were no exceptional events to record, she wrote about her pupils, going to some length to describe her favourite. Little Eleni Bastia reminded Calliope of herself as a girl, incessantly asking impossible questions.
‘If God made the world, who made God?’ the blacksmith’s daughter had demanded only that morning. Then, ‘If there was nothing before He made it, what was nothing like?’
That she’d had no satisfactory explanation to offer had left Calliope feeling vaguely disgruntled, as she often was when answers eluded her. She felt particularly protective towards Eleni, whose family life was almost as bitter as that of Stendhal’s Julien Sorel. The poor child not only had twin brothers who liked to torment her, but a brutish father given to slapping her around.
‘How fortunate I am to have my doting father,’ Calliope wrote in her journal, ‘even if he can be a bit of a nag sometimes. And a malade imaginaire,’ she added for good measure. She had, a little earlier, seen Philippas take his temperature, fussing over what seemed like a common cold. He had gone down to the agora as usual but, barely an hour later, returned, coming in through the garden gate with a complicated expression on his florid face.
‘I didn’t go to the kapheneion!’ he announced hoarsely. ‘I went to the clinic!’
‘The clinic?’ An afternoon coffee in the agora was one of her father’s daily rituals. Calliope closed her journal. ‘And?’
‘Well, the doctor examined me. My mouth, my ears, everything.’
‘And! And! I was right, of course!’
‘What, you’ve got the measles? Did the doctor say so?’
‘You never believe me!’ Philippas complained, though without much heat. ‘But it’s like I said: I must have caught it from the children!’ With this, the headmaster bent slightly so his daughter could examine his scalp. ‘You see anything? Dhaniel says that’s where the rash usually starts!’
‘I’m sorry, Baba,’ Calliope said.
‘We’ll have to find someone to take over my class on Tuesday,’ he said at length, turning to go indoors. Monday was Independence Day, which gave them an extra day to find a substitute. ‘Ask the mayor to phone Petra if necessary.’ Petra was Molyvos’s sister village, but as yet only the town hall and the police station had telephones.
‘Yes, yes, I’ll go immediately.’
Mirto greeted them in the hallway, wringing her hands on hearing the news. ‘Ach, Panaghia mou! Didn’t you have it as a child?’ she asked.
‘Dhaniel says I couldn’t have,’ Philippas said, overcome by a cough. He then turned back to Calliope, who was putting on her street shoes, slipping the journal into her handloomed satchel. ‘The retired schoolmaster in Petra, what’s his name? Maybe he can come.’
‘Please don’t worry, Baba. I can handle both classes if I have to.’
‘Ach, no. Try to find someone,’ Philippas said. He stationed himself before the hall mirror, with Mirto squinting and craning her neck to look into his mouth. He had opened his mouth wide, stretching it with his fingers in search of more telltale symptoms. ‘I can’t see any spots!’ he said in an aggrieved tone. ‘But Dhaniel ordered immediate bed rest!’ he added, as if to ward off any suspicion that he might be malingering.
‘Go to bed, Baba. Don’t worry about a thing,’ Calliope reiterated.
She kissed her father and watched him plod away, supported by Mirto, who was slightly lame from childhood polio. Her father certainly looked unwell, yet somehow, at the same time, almost – there was no other word for it – triumphant. As if his symptoms were the consequence of some exceptional effort, she said to herself, some stupendous achievement. She remembered one of her young pupils, who had come to her recently, proudly displaying his scraped, iodine-stained knee.
‘How odd men can be sometimes,’ she was to write later in her new journal. ‘I don’t know who created God. I’m not even sure I believe He exists, but I hope He does, because no one else could possibly understand the extraordinary two-legged creature He is said to have created in his own image.’
Excerpted from The Captive Sun by Irena Karafilly. Copyright © 2012 by Irena Karafilly.
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