by Eleni Artemiou-Photiadou
Once there were gardens. Now the shadow of loss is wandering, the last look of desperation, the last goodbye of an early sunken sun.
I often return by thought, with the memories of a childhood decay. I cannot forget, father. Even if the years tangle the distance from the hours of the bitter longing. Nowadays I find you there more, as I gaze at the life I did not live. I stand next to the sea of the free South and my desire, an uprooted but proud bird, flutters again and again above the lost paradise. But I always start at the end. From the subversion. That’s where the heart stopped.
It was the month of August, bizarre weather. On the one hand the heat of the summer. And on the other hand the frozen breath of the invader wrapping us, the same dry soil of the occupied land. There hasn’t been a month since the first charge. Keryneia, slaughtered, places its sign on the wounded Pentadaktylos. Below, the valley of Messaria, panicky, filled with buds of uprooting, takes deep breaths amid its grief.
Our house in Famagusta, surrounded by oranges, is held by the echo of the last spring. The war let inside the carelessness, the winds of the East and death. Your younger brother, father, a twenty five year old eagle, opened its wings up high to stop the murders, and there he was fatally wounded by enemy mortars. Leaving behind a widow just on her 23 years’ dreams, spread in blood in a war, which was bound to merciless, slashing her future. Do you remember the first time you saw her, a figure dressed in black, with two orphans held by her broken hands? You broke down, you teared up behind your myopic glasses. You didn’t want me to see, but I, a nine year old child, I sensed the sudden tightening of my hand in your palm, the tremor that ran through my flesh and reached my heart. And I think it is still there.
The last days of July were confusing and so were the first days of that cold August. Confusion, wonder, turmoil, anxiety, fear. Behind our house, among the oranges, troubled youth, dressed in a blurry khaki question-mark. You would often go see them, with cold water, fruits and concern.
“What is going to happen kids?”, you’d ask. “ What are the latest news?”
“Truce”, they would answer. “Here, until further notice. Let’s see what will emerge from the talks.”
“Let this be our last misfortune”, you would add and your mind would first run to the widow and the two orphans.”
In the evenings, as you were picking the anxiety of the day in your silence, I would watch you sit in darkness and gaze at the unknown. Mother would then come sit beside you, sharing your thoughts. And the two of you were left alone for a long time, and you were looking at a strange August sky, with stars that put out very slowly like saint candles in the north.
That morning, a day before the celebration of the Blessed Virgin, didn’t come without a warning. Our heart felt it early, but didn’t want to believe it. The talks had failed, the truce had sunk. And the soldiers at the gardens were moving the entire evening, disorganised, spasmodically, like swallows that smelled the attack of autumn. The first light found their souls awake. And the war lifted black sails in the sea of Famagusta, taking us away, to the land of uprooting.
Mother, with uncombed hair, wore in a hurry her robe over her nightgown. You had the red gaze that the last weather wore on you. And me, a small perplexed dot, following your footsteps. The whispers of running away, hugging a doll, a residue of a betrayed summer day. You got in your car to collect the widow and the orphans of your brother. I got in with mother in the other car, carrying all my question marks in my two clenched fists. Your last order was to get away as fast as possible from the city.
I saw you leaving behind my blurry teary eyes. Above us, the wild iron birds, the airplanes of the enemy, were spreading fear and death. Mother, with trembling hands, went out to the central street, that lead to the South. And there we became one with the infinite army of the refugees that was abandoning its dream.
“Will we be back?” I dared to ask at some point.
I assume that time passed until someone answered me.
“Yes, we will be back. It should be this way…and it will be this way!”.
She clenched her hands more tightly on the wheel. I roosted with my doll at the back seat, like a bird that was frightened by the winds and kept searching for its nest. No hunger, no thirst in the heart of summer came to touch our needs. Long hours, silent hours, our heart fought to release itself from death.
Afternoon was getting near, when mother decided to let the car at the side of the road. We were already too far from the city. Ahead of us a village wrapped in the concern of horror. People with panic in their gaze, in their movements, the awkward talks, had found shelter underneath His sky, which the threats of the attacker had not torn off. Words would come at the edge of my mouth, but drown before my mother’s turmoil. And I didn’t ask what we were going to do, where you were father, if we would meet you, if… if… I hid further in the backseat, I closed my eyes and I played my favorite game, the one I’d play each time a sadness shadowed my happiness. I imagined I was at the light blue sea of Famagusta, wading in its shallow waters, greeting the white boats and let go to the coolness and saltiness of its waves.
I felt a slight nudge on the shoulder. Unwillingly I opened my eyes, a wounded seagull, that was landing. In front of me, unexpectedly, was you. You found a way out in the big escape and you came to meet mother, like you had agreed this morning, when you were leaving. Behind you, the black veil of the widow could be seen, leaving two wet eyes to wonder above the orphans with pain, despair, sadness that grew at times and turned into anger.
The night would fall just like time falls in mortal flesh. Mercilessly. We followed a human flock of despair, we fled together in an erected building. There were only some brick walls, discarded waste material, but it was a roof on our indisposition. My mother counted approximately fifty individuals, troubled souls, with the dream behind them, and the nightmare in front of them. Whispers, silence, and once again whispers, that would eventually result in a sign. Someone was holding a small radio, he would at times place it near his ear, the others would turn their gaze towards him, but his gaze was such that it talked in itself. The evil was parading and hope had shrank for hours in its fragments. An old lady stood up in the middle, she raised her hands and this was like an order for prayer because then they all imitated her, and there, silently, a prayer ascended to heaven. Nobody spoke, a lot was said.
A neighbour came with shadows in her eyes, placed a pan of food in the middle, whispered something about the small quantity she could bring. We looked at her the same way one looks at an angel of the Lord in his despair. Then the mothers tried to distribute the bites, first to the children, then to the adults. The few men nodded negatively and went to smoke. It was just a handful of food. You, father, with your problem in one eye, a few elderly, and a young child, Christos, who would drag his right leg a little. He was discharged from the army but, at times like these, he wanted to fight, but he was with his sister Marina, we hadn’t even heard her say a word. She would only sit next to Christos and when he would stand up, she would follow him everywhere with her gaze. He would however feel this gaze of concern and he would quickly go back to her.
That night, the first of the uprooting, you took mother further away, you whispered something in her ear and she shook her head in despair. I was trying hard to understand what was happening, my anxiety wouldn’t suspect anything. At one point I must have fallen asleep, darkness had fallen deep, when I opened my eyes again. Next to me, sleeping on the floor my mother, tired from the long day, having surrendered to the night. Fatigue had won over fear and anxiety. I heard you talk again, I recognised Christos’ voice too. I stood up, walked lightly outside, caught the agitation in your voices. You were trying to go back. You, father, for some food and clothes and Christos for his grandmother, eighty years of obstinacy, who wouldn’t leave for anything from her city. I heard mother sigh, I was in a hurry to lie beside her, to pretend that I was asleep.
It was morning and the night was still threading her web within our souls. You seemed sleepless. I took my doll in my arms, finding with relief in your love. I guess in my sleep I’d heard your plans with Christos. I was calm, and did not say anything to mother.
And two more days of uncertainty passed, all piled in the mayhem, with minimum food, a lot of grief, with our ears to the small transistor. Every now and then the old lady would get up, cross herself, they didn’t get in, she’d say, the enemies are in the city and then again she would sit without talking for several hours.
Saturday came and the uprooting became a wind in midsummer that crushed the small branches of our resistance. The women awoke to collect the temporary beddings, to put a slice of bread in front of our need. And then the scream was heard, the scream of Marina, who was looking for her brother in vain. And then, the old woman was upset, for not finding her husband next to her, last my mother, who grabbed me suddenly in her arms and held on to me as if she was trying to crash me. You left at dawn to go to Varossi, the three of you, father’s car was missing, his protective shadow over our steps missing too.
When the first shock passed, the old lady started praying and crossing herself again. Marina was lost in her silence, mother within her fears, and I found the opportunity to go in front of the house, to curl up on the landing, hugging a sad doll. Why, father? I didn’t want, I should’t have, I didn’t…
Mother found me, a web of thoughts under the hot sun, she picked me up, her embrace seemed stronger, I hid in it without speaking, I didn’t ask anything. I just looked at her straight in the eyes and she looked at me more steadily. She then took me by the hand, had me sit in a shadow, I guess she asked if I was hungry. I nodded negatively, but she came and placed a plate with a few potatoes in front of me. “Eat… he will be back”, she just said and disappeared in her fear again that, by the hours, flowed from her eyes and ran in her trembling hands, her pale lips, the words that were fading until they found their way into speech.
At some point, in the silence of concern, a young child stood up with a small transistor still in his ear, he knew whether to say if the Turks had entered the city, he first looked at the mother, then at Marina, the old lady, and hesitated. The old lady was the first to scream, Marina stabbed him with her gaze and mother, the same tumultuous sea, just asked with a shake of the head. He was about to talk, looked at me, but I grabbed again the only doll I had in my arms and ran outside before mother stopped me again. And I stood there until dusk, looking with my heart at the horizon, father, waiting for your footsteps, your voice, your love.
The old lady was the only one to open her embrace by noon, to accept her partner that came back unexpectedly. A wide embrace, as wide as her crossing for the miracle. Her husband told us with one breath, as he came back on foot, unrecognizable and exhausted, late in the afternoon. Before the gardens, Turkish soldiers appeared in front of them, arrested all three of them, led them to the orange trees. A lot of others were there, who wished to return to the city early in the morning. At some point they were divided into old and young, he was left without his fellow travellers. They put all the elderly in a bus. They would take them just outside and set them free. From the window, as he sat, he saw the Turkish officer lead you father, Christos and two others, in the dense trees. Summer, the windows of the old bus were open, some shots and…
Then mother screamed but remembered that I was listening. Then the old lady ran to stop her husband from talking. At that moment, I grew up abruptly, father, holding the uprooted doll in my arms at all times, with ripped clothes by now, like my heart, that has never stopped looking for you.
I stand up, looking at patience across me. As if time stood still in the buildings and other than ghosts, your eyes don’t meet anything else when gazing. Once there were gardens and lemon blossoms, once spring would lift a song amid its leaves, but now there is no rustling amid abandonment. A hum alone, thick as a sob, for those who can with their love feel the last breath of those who met death there.
Once there were gardens…
Translated by Maria Charilaou