Excerpt from the novel Chrysallis, Armida Publications, 2011
As published in In Focus, Vol. 9, No 1, March 2012
Maria Christina was in the courtyard, combing Zoitsa’s hair for lice, when she first heard the airplanes. Zoitsa was initially excited by the big birds streaming across the sky and the huge snowflakes they were dropping, but became suddenly afraid when Maria Christina reflexively picked her up and prepared to run inside. When there were no explosions, no smoke or fire, but rather a groundswell of voices and cries of surprise, Maria Christina hesitated, then slowly set Zoitsa down and waited as one of the bombers darkened their garden and the giant snowflakes started to land: three in their little patch, and one that slid down the roof.
The snowflakes appeared to be handkerchiefs. When Maria Christina opened one, she was surprised to see it was filled with chocolates and a note which began:
“Roman brothers for freedom…”
Having researched Metsovo, the Italian high command discovered they had a common ancestry. The town had been settled in the 14th century by a group known as Vlachs, a people believed to be descendents of the progeny of Roman soldiers sent to Greece in the 3rd century to guard the high passes, and who had fraternized with local Greek women before they fled in the wake of the barbarian invasion. The village was inhabited almost entirely by these same people who still spoke a language Latin in structure and, to a great extent, used Latin vocabulary, which the high command decided they could exploit.
Zoitsa was naturally pleased when she saw the chocolates, but Maria Christina quickly gathered up the handkerchiefs and, in spite of the child’s protestations, scooped her up once again and retreated back into the house.
Before dinner, Papa Yiorgos stood with his back to the fire and reported to Matoula what she had already reported to the others before he arrived.
“Most of these gifts from the sky are now in the pockets of a cavalry unit who just arrived. Given to them by the villagers with instructions exactly where the Italians should stuff them!” He laughed and shook his head “God forgive me!” then laughed again and continued. “Their unit is moving forward to protect the pass. All the available infantry have also been sent. They’re moving in small groups with pack artillery, and many guns and firearms. To tell you the truth, Matoula, I’m heartened by their enthusiasm.”
His optimism infected the household and there was a temporary burst of cheerfulness as the family went about its day.
Having received the same response to their chocolates and handkerchiefs that their prime minister had given to their ambassador, the Italians started bombing their Roman brothers and sisters. At the sound of the first explosion, the Triantafyllou family retreated to the blind room where they lit candles and Papa Yiorgos led them in prayer. When it first started, Maria Christina felt a strange sense of relief. No more waiting. It was happening and her heart was thumping and her breathing was short and shallow, and all she could think about was Yiannis, who was on the front line covered only by the canvas of a hospital tent. Zoitsa sat tightly sandwiched between her mother and Maria Christina, and became increasingly frightened as the earth shook with each thunderous explosion. And then it was over. The silence that followed was total. It was equally as frightening, as if it was only a pause before the bomb which was destined to be yours. Then, after a minute or two, a sigh of relief, a prayer of thanks, then up the ladder to the ground floor and they would resume their daily chores, while Papa Yiorgos would rush down to the church to assess any damage. It was never touched. But adding to everyone’s sorrow and fear, Zoitsa’s godmother, Athena Bouba, was killed during the first wave while in her garden storing leeks.
Because Metsovo was critical for their conquest of Greece, the Italian ground invasion was entrusted to the famous Julia Alpine Division of twelve thousand men. Outnumbering the Greeks two to one, and their artillery ten to one, the Italian generals soon became awed by the courage of the Greeks and the accuracy of their artillery. By the time they realized that it was the glare of the sun on their shiny helmets that was signalling the Greeks their exact positions, the fine Julia Division found itself separated on two different mountains, hampered from movement by sudden torrential rains and attacked day and night by small units taking advantage of the element of surprise. In the pass just above Metsovo called Katara, or ‘the curse’, Italy’s proud Alpinists in their smart green-grey uniforms and shiny black plumed helmets were halted for five days by a rag tag army of soldiers wearing mismatched uniforms and shepherd’s cloaks. The Italians were evidently weary and, as the blinding torrential rains became sleet and ice during the long nights, thousands became victims of the white death, frostbite, which turned their legs and feet black and swollen like potatoes. They slept in the yellow mud, urinated on themselves, and cracked open the skulls of near dead donkeys to use the steaming brains for warmth.
News of the war travelled quickly from the field to the telegraph lines to the wireless radios and, after returning home from the village every day, Matoula would deliver the news to Panorea and Maria Christina, who always expected to hear the worst. Yet in only a few days five thousand Italians, surrounded and exhausted, surrendered, and a panicked Rome ordered the few thousand still remaining to retreat with all possible speed.
Neither Maria Christina nor Panorea could believe their ears. Or their eyes the next day, when the bombs stopped dropping and houses in Metsovo suddenly were housing Italian prisoners of war and the women were treating them as recalcitrant adolescents.
“After all, a mother birthed them as well.”
Matoula reported that, throughout the village, heads were held high and chests were puffed. Talk was that they were the first to defeat the Axis, fighting with the same valor and wile as their ancestors who had defeated the Trojans, the Persians, and the Turks, and that this was simply another glorious page in their three thousand year history. Everyone was mad with pride and patriotism, flags were flying everywhere. With each victory the people would emerge from their houses and cheer and dance and sing in the streets. Church bells would ring madly and the village would remain alive late into the night.
“If you want to visit Italy, join the Italian army,” Maria Christina said dryly to Matoula one night during a victory celebration, a joke Matoula spread until it was on the lips of everyone in the village by morning.
Papa Yiorgos held special prayer services both at home and at Agios Demetrius to thank the legendary warrior for his help. His faith had been restored. There was indeed a God. And he was a wise and just God, and simply because the weaver didn’t see the pattern of the tapestry until it was completed and he finally turned it over didn’t mean there was no pattern, or that life was random and there was no power in prayer. And he now went about his duties with a renewed vigor and a special place in his heart for the saint whose stately church he pastored.
Another letter arrived from Yiannis. He was still in Ioannina and was up to his elbows in blood, trying to stitch together wounded Greeks. His leave was, of course, cancelled and he would be moving east with the army to set up a field hospital. God knows when and from where he would be able to write again. But he loved his girls and missed them, and wanted to be remembered by the family and the boys at Stahoulis’.
So life continued normally in Metsovo for the little family with one small exception.
While everyone seemed happier, Matoula seemed to grow dispirited and appeared unusually tired. After much prodding, she confided to her sister that she had missed two periods in a row and her breasts had begun to swell. Maria Christina’s mind immediately raced to the fact that in a few days Matoula was again scheduled to resupply the troops. And because the army was pushing the remaining Italians towards the Albanian border, the equipment center had been moved further away and the women were no longer able to reach it in one night. They needed to lay in the snow without moving during the day, so they had been instructed to wear dark earth colors that would appear like rocks to the Italian Air Force, who were constantly patrolling. Trekking back down from the resupply center to Metsovo in one night was not a problem, since it took half the time.
Maria Christina was relentless in her appeals to Matoula to be her substitute. She argued passionately, first for the safety of the baby.
“The baby will be fine” Matoula shrugged her off.
Then for the health of the mother.
“I’m pregnant. I’m not sick. I feel fine.”
Finally, Maria Christina begged her to give her the chance to finally be respected by the community. She was stronger than anyone imagined. She could do it, she was certain of it. It would mean so much to her. So much. When she finally, tearfully exhausted her arguments, Matoula cleverly told her that she would leave it to someone with the wisdom of Solomon to decide. Matoula was certain Maria Christina could never survive the resupply. It was dangerous even for her. So Matoula agreed if Maria Christina could get their father’s permission, which she knew was impossible, she could take her place. But she wouldn’t allow her sister to use the pregnancy in her argument.
“The first to know should be Yiannis. So for now it has to remain a secret.”
“Of course. I understand” Maria Christina bit her lip, deeply resenting her sister’s utter lack of sympathy and support.
Even though it had begun to snow, the church was filled to overflowing on Sunday morning and Papa Yiorgos, known to have the best singing voice of any priest in the village, had been in excellent form and was now in an exceptionally good mood as the three women served him wine and feta cheese pie, which he ate hungrily. When he had finished, he bowed his head and clasped his hands, after which everyone stopped and did the same. A thank you for the blessed meal, and the priest stood up and stepped to the fireplace. Maria Christina moved close to him and quietly asked him if she could speak to him in his room.
Though there were only four rooms in most houses in Metsovo, the master of every household had one room which was exclusively his, where he would conduct business or just be alone. Papa Yiorgos’ room contained books and mementos which included a photograph of himself with the Archbishop of Epirus, and valued icons handed down from unknown generations. In winter a fire was lit every morning, so the room was still warm when the father and daughter entered. Maria Christina was sorely tempted to tell her father the truth. But she understood that it was not her secret to tell.
Trembling slightly, she held her hands behind her back as she stepped to the fireplace. Papa Yiorgos waited patiently. It was quite unusual to have his younger daughter request a private conversation. Maria Christina started by saying how she felt as though she had been unjustly undervalued by the mayor’s wife.
“It would extinguish any chance of ever finding a husband, Patera. On the other hand, by joining I could prove I was worthy.”
The more she talked the faster the words came, until Papa Yiorgos backed away and with a hand in the air he ordered her to stop.
“You are much too delicate.”
She had been dismissed. And before she could blurt out the truth, her father had turned and left the room.
The night before Matoula was scheduled to leave, the two sisters slept together and held and cradled each other as they sometimes had as children, mother and daughter, taking turns, each closer to the other than anyone else in the world. Just before she drifted off to sleep, Matoula thought she heard her sister whisper in her ear.
“I’m going with you.”