by Despina Pirketti
As published in In Focus Vol. 11, No. 3, September 2014
When I was growing up, our house was a single rectangular room with a small kitchen on the left. To the right of the entrance was a makeshift sofa made of pillows, stuffed with old rugs neatly placed over a wooden frame. It was a humble abode that functioned strictly on the basics, but it was always very clean and you could tell just by entering it that the lady of the house was an adept housekeeper: everything was in its place, nothing redundant lingered on any of its surfaces.
My parents’ bed was the only exception. It stood at the right end of the house, intricately woven silk suspended over its sturdy poles, unfolding all the way down to the floor. Its mattress towered three feet from the ground as if aspiring to ascend into a space heavenly and ecstatic. Only two women had ever slept on that bed. Daphne was the other one.
The first vivid memory I have of my mother was from the time when I was four. She was barely nineteen, eight months pregnant with my brother. It was late afternoon at winter’s edge and the wind raged outside. I could feel the barren expanse of land around our yard taking on a new form, the sparse olive trees bowing to the raw charm of the strong breeze as clouds of dust gathered above, thickened and scurried on. I could hear the oxen mooing for help and I knew my brave father was in their midst, securing every opening in the stable in a frantic effort to appease the beasts lest they break down the doors and chase onward in the gale. Inside the house, she panted, peering through the window to catch a glimpse of him. Until a tin cup forgotten on a stool outside was blown against our front door so violently that she stepped back and almost lost her balance and fell. The thought of hurting the child inside her must have brought her to her senses because then she sat down, took a deep breath and closed her eyes. She stayed there for awhile as I marvelled at how composed and courageous and young my mother looked.
My mother, a teenager scorned by her parents for falling in love with my father, ten years her senior, known around their village for his diligence and pride. She was barely fifteen when they eloped and set out to craft a life of their own in a plot of land my father had inherited from a childless aunt. He loved her with every inch of his sun-hardened body and he yearned to be with her. But his sense of duty was always stronger than his desire. And so he would leave her alone for hours on end, to plough the field, plant seeds and water them; to reap the harvest and separate the wheat from the barley; to place his hopes in forces beyond his grasp. We mostly lived on bread, eggs and home grown vegetables. Once a month we sacrificed a backyard hen and relished broiled chicken with lemon soup. It was always a fine meal and it foreboded better days.
For two or three minutes, the wind sounded as if it had lost the greatest portion of its fury as the noise outside our house subsided to something of a low murmur. I made to touch her, eager to alert her to the likelihood of a storm vanquished, when the breeze erupted into a sudden roar that howled and barked and thundered, conjuring up images of debarked trees, shattered glass, spades, scythes and sickles free flying over our heads with nothing but a row of tied-in rafters to sheath us from nature’s fury. A few seconds later, light spilled inside our house through the window, followed by a growl of thunder, and she bolted from the chair slicing through the air with her open palms as if to take out some invisible incarnation of the gale that had crawled its way within, and then she pressed with both hands against the sides of her head before letting out a cry that introduced me to that suffocating feeling of being consumed by elements unseen: “Aaaaaah!”
In terror I stood there, my knees hurting under the weight of lifelessness. She was walking briskly up and down the elongated room, her steps gradually breaking down into a slower pace, then slower still – this woman child who had no idea how to keep herself or her baby from harm’s way. For everything she relied on him, as she did now, her body frozen with fear, her mind trained to take his biddings to heart. I was mesmerized by the calculated motion in which she finally collapsed on their bed and came around just a few seconds later in my father’s arms. I should have known, then, that her love for him would always be rivalled by her wrath for everything he had taken away from her. A week later she gave birth to my brother through a fast, almost easy labour.
Within the next two decades my parents had five more children. Meanwhile, our farm had grown in both size and yield. The house was no longer a forsaken hut in the middle of nowhere, as people from nearby villages went on to build their own homes and bear their own children closer to us. At some point my father put up a second storey to serve as bedroom for him and my mother, making room downstairs for their growing lot. Later, he dissected the far end of the house with a low wall that separated the girls from the boys.
As my mother gradually reached maturity, she gained enough confidence to take initiatives, the most important of which was to have my siblings enrolled at school, if only until the fourth or fifth grade, the farm needing all the hands it could get to prosper. I never went to school, but I taught myself how to read and write by diligently watching the little ones doing their homework; in fact, some of them took pride in helping me. She knew what I was doing and never tried to stop me. After all, I was her precious helper, a surrogate for her, content and frugal. Then Daphne came along, a few days before I turned 25.
The eldest of my brothers had been working as a chauffeur for the privileged from the time he was eighteen. He didn’t like the farm. He’d disappear for days, then come back and spend a night or two with us, before setting off once more for his modern world. Then one Monday he brought this girl with him and said they were engaged to be married.
She was lean and she spoke softly, and her eyes had the taste of warm bread that sits on your tongue and refuses to go away. Her name was the laurel that wreathed winners; the bay tree growing in our yard; leaves that added flavour to our broth but left my mouth feeling bitter each time I bit into them.
Father agreed to have them live with us for a couple of months just until they’d save enough money to rent. Perhaps he saw in Daphne something of my mother, remnants of the love she had once felt for him. And so he crafted a new bed for himself and his wife, a plain iron double bed, placed it in the small storage room behind the stable and ceded the marital bed to his eldest son and bride to be. Bride to be.
To this day her image still tortures me, the remembrance of how soft and white her body felt sliding over mine, the torrent of her chestnut hair pouring down my bosom, her scented breath lingering over my navel as I shuddered in astonishment. Many a night she would invite me out into the night, each time the absence of my brother brought her close to me.
There were other nights too, when he was away and she was nowhere to be found. I could sense her spirit slithering away from the rest of us during dinner, her eyes stubbornly lowered over her plate, arms tucked safely at the sides, careful not to touch anything or anyone around her. On those nights she vanished, the whole house would vanish with her, the walls, the floor, the furniture, the bedding. I imagined her wandering outside with her laced nightgown billowing out around her, her feet guiding her to a sea that wasn’t there, immersing her into the cold of the night and then having her emerge from the depths, hair dripping and silhouette showing through her gown. In the morning I would find her fully dressed and reinvigorated, warming milk and boiling eggs for the little ones. I never asked, never.
I only kept on living in her surroundings, comforting my eyes with the sight of her, learning to love myself because she deigned talk to me, learning to love my body because she enjoyed it.
Until one day I woke up and she was gone, and the only sign as to what had happened to her was that blank look my brother exchanged with my mother as I asked after her.
At first they blamed it on fear, thought I was distraught at how unexpectedly a person could disappear from our midst without anyone having seen or heard about them. So they began assuring me that decent girls had nothing to be frightened of, that I was absolutely safe in my chastity and propriety, and that, surely, one day a nice respectable man would appreciate my virtues and ask for my hand in marriage. A few days before I dove into apathy, my mother announced to all of us that Daphne had never existed, that whomever we thought we saw moving about the house was just a figment of hallucinations caused by contemplations shrewd and lustful.
The idea of her coming from nothingness just to have me was as consoling as it was disturbing. I couldn’t choose between the two.
We would sit around the table and in the middle of lunch I would stiffen from head to toe, then wake up a few seconds later to their disapproving looks. But in the span of a few weeks, those blackouts became more frequent, my siblings’ gaze mellowing with concern as the episodes lasted longer and longer each time. Within a month I gave up on life altogether and restricted myself to bed at all hours of the day and night. Mother had to wrap squares of cotton flannel around my pelvis and spoon feed me whatever little water and food I could take down. I have no recollection of those eight months.
– “We found her! There she is, we found her!”
My sister, thirteen at the time, releasing a voice tinted with excitement and dread amidst the yelling and the crying of younger siblings. I strove to get up and crawled outside into the light. It was September, harvest season, with a ruptured sky reflected onto my father’s tools, a cloud on his axe, a piece of blue sky on the spade and a patch of ploughed grey on the shovel. Daphne was lying in the ground, eroded and uncovered, with nothing but her hair attesting to how beautiful she once was. Reverently leaning over her worm-eaten body, my broken father was cupping his eyes with the palm of one hand, the holes on her face with the other, convulsing like damaged wheat blown apart by the wind.
Aside, there stood my mother, patiently waiting for the storm to pass, hands neatly crossed over her belly. And she had this air of pride about her, as if only then she realized that seven children she gave her husband but she never, ever let him see her body in the nude.