by Emilios Solomou
As published in In Focus, Vol. 9, No 2, June 2012
It seemed to me strange, absurd. They saw her, or so they claimed, one day roaming the village once more. With that black plereza wrapped around her head and the same staff she was holding thirty years ago, since the time that Hadjiorkena had breathed her last breath.
I didn’t pay much heed to it – moonstruck people had always flourished in my village – until she made an apparition a few days later. And this time she was not seen by just one, but by many. And so, our childhood was revived along with a creature that had lived on the boundary between imagination and reality, gruesome, like Medusa. A creature akin to those archetypical figures of the distant past, the umbilical cord that links today to centuries passed.
Hadjiorkena was what we dreaded the most, bogeyman in the flesh. She must have been around a hundred years old: humped, emaciated. The few teeth she had left in her mouth looked rusty, oxidized, of a mixed green and black colour.
From deep inside her chest, an ongoing noise came out, like a sob, a perpetual murmur akin to pigeons gurgling, on account of her being too weak and helpless to drag her tormented body two steps ahead. For years, decades on end, she suffered from arteriosclerosis that made her incapable of looking after herself. Yet she persevered, totally forgotten by death, as her aged daughter prolonged her life with a plate of food, day after day.
Yes, we were afraid of her. But at the same time, we badgered her. And she would try to beat us with her staff, bulging her eyes whilst whipping the air back and forth, in vain, as agony emerged through the iris, reminiscent of the fatling’s agony at the very moment the knife draws near its neck.
Next to her single-room house, built on plinths, stood the coffee-shop of the young, something like a Centre for Youth. So each time we made fun of her, she didn’t stand a chance. A swarm of children would run inside the coffee-shop, locking the door behind them, while she kept banging on doors and windows with her frail hands. For quite a long time we would listen to that persistent pigeon gurgling, the sob from deep inside her chest, as she stood outside and kept watch, besieging us. And when she finally stopped, we knew she had given up, and gone away defeated.
Sometimes we even betted on it. Who would dare crawl up to her dark house, explore it, stand behind her back and scare her? Of course, it wasn’t that big a deal, considering that Hadjiorkena was as deaf as a post. However, the whole endeavour loomed like a horror film. A couple of us had ventured forth and won the bet. One day I went there too. I almost peed my pants, when she turned around and looked at me with the gaze of a trapped bird that suddenly becomes aggressive, in its effort to save itself from its victimizer. Yet, before I darted out pale with fear, shivering, I managed to notice, inside a wooden heart-shaped case with a glass that was affixed to the wall, her wedding wreaths. After so many years! Who would have imagined. She kept them, looked after them. That woman who, we thought, illness and the long ago interrupted communication with people around her had deprived her of a conscience or of any sensibilities. It was truly unthinkable, bizarre.
And so I began wondering about her past. Could it be that she too was once a normal human being like the rest of us? Had she ever been a child? I racked my brain trying to understand the meaning of her name, but I couldn’t find the thread. Did it stem from orkos as in oath, or the orca? And when, one day, my mother revealed to me her Christian name, I was taken aback. Her name was Hope! I couldn’t believe it, it looked completely unfitting to her appearance.
Hadjiorkena preserved the distant memory of property a bit outside the village, an estate with a few olive trees and a huge sycamore tree on the edge that was sold by her children decades ago. Its long branches looked like trails, and within its foliage, under its thick shade, we used to hide often. One day we saw the old woman wandering on the ground below, picking up the olives that had fallen from the olive trees. We got scared and hushed, lest she should track us and start throwing stones at us.
This is who Hadjiorkena was, the one we had left behind in our childhood. Until those rumours emerged, of her strolling around the alleys thirty years after her death, and that those who saw her listened to that incessant gurgling rising out of her chest. It occurred on the days that a bulldozer had demolished what was left of her plinth-built house, then disposed of the rubble in a wasteland. Perhaps she came back looking for that house she had spent her whole life in; perhaps she was seeking for her old wedding wreaths. And seeing that nothing was left of them, she disappeared from our world once and for all.