THE THERABEFTIS (THE HEALER)

by  Colette Ni Reamonn Ioannidou

As published in In Focus Vol. 10, No. 3, September 2013

The Chrysanthemums glowed yellow against the ivory of the small table. Evangelia thought wistfully of their perfection and felt tears rise to wash her eyes at the thought of her own imperfections. Yet the blooms exuded tranquil auras that for a time made her feel at ease and lessened the tight grip anxiety had on her heart. The room in which she lay was softened by the rays of a mellow sun. It was seasonally lovely at that time of day. Her mother had placed the flowers so knowing the sunlight would gild their beauty. Evangelia quickly shoved that moment of acknowledgement away. Any thought of Olga, her mother, brought the suffocating sensation back and she had to force herself to breathe slowly

Yellow was Evangelia’s favourite colour. Her dressing table had a frilly skirt of soft lemon with a border of deeper citrus; it matched the frothy feminine pale yellow and white cover of her bed. Three walls were painted white, but the one opposite her bed was the yellow she loved best, the yellow of wild daisies. Her walls were covered with pretty images. Over her ivory chest of drawers she had hung a poster of a face with huge long-lashed blue eyes, a pert nose and full, well shaped lips above a cute chin. It was the face she would have chosen for herself…if she had been given a choice. The one she was born with was plain and now shadowed by pain into looking years older than she was. Her tired skin was a good match for the décor.

The room had been done to Evangelia’s wishes. There was one thing on the wall to her left that Evangelia had not chosen. It was a picture bought on a holiday in France, which her mother had insisted on hanging. The painting stood out against the white of the wall by the door, silently demanding attention. It was a portrait, her mother had told her, by a young Englishman with huge artistic promise. Her mother knew about those things. To Evangelia it was just a faceless blob, but Olga had smiled and said,

“One day you’ll find a face to fit into it.”

At first Evangelia had disliked the picture and its imposition into her space, now she found it gave out comfort much as the Chrysanthemums did. The thought of her mother hanging it made her chest tight; she pushed the image of Olga aside and reached for the small portable oxygen tank.

Evangelia was brilliant at school, but she worked hard to please her doting parents and got solid grades. A taciturn girl, she made no close friends and kept mostly to herself. She had overheard her Aunt Danai remark to her father that his daughter was so plain they should encourage the girl to study hard; she would have trouble landing a husband. At least, her father’s sister went on, if Evangelia had good qualifications she could be independent and perhaps even successful. Her mirror showed her the truth of her aunt’s statement. Her cheekbones were too wide and high, her jaw just that bit too square, her lips ill defined. Her eyes were small and she squinted. Her nose was like her father’s – big and strong only on him it looked like a positive asset. On Evangelia it was just big. Her mother told her often that this plain stage would pass.

“Take a look at my photos from when I was your age. I hated my face and my body. You’ll change as you grow.”

But Evangelia knew she would never outgrow her basic features – Olga had a fine face and a great body. The only physical attribute the girl possessed that outshone her mother’s, was her delicate hands with their pretty nails. Her mother was a sculptress whose hands were big boned, powerful and ugly.

Her parents had a bond that seemed to grow with time, yet their only child never felt left out, she was secure in their love for her. They still held hands when they went for walks. Their mutual devotion used to be a thing of pride for Evangelia. That was before Germany; now it was painful, irritating. At the age when most girls notice the opposite sex, Evangelia wanted a boy to hold hands with, to kiss as she had seen her parents kiss, sweetly, lovingly. Miltiades sometimes winked at her; he was the best looking boy in here class. She was wise enough to know that he did not wink at her because he found her attractive, rather because she blushed bright red and got confused, and this flattered him. A knock on the door startled her; the maid came in with a tray.

“Miss Evangelia, you must eat something. I heard your mother tell your father you are wasting away for want of food.”

‘I have no appetite Stallo; please take it away, the smell of food makes me feel sick.”

The maid left, her face tight because she knew she would have to tell Mrs. Olga that the girl had not eaten again and watch the kind face crumble with anxiety, the big hands clutch the swollen stomach as though in fear that her baby might fall out of it.

Since her self-imposed confinement, Evangelia had began to study the painting on the wall and thought she was beginning to discern shadows in it. She thought she could see vague features and hair. If he had a face, what would she want it to be? She lay with half closed eyes. He had long hair that was sure…was she looking for Jesus? But no, this was a fair man, the nose was narrow and straight and the eyes were like hers, accustomed to pain. She did not yet know what colour the eyes might be. Was she looking at Death; could Death be attractive? The thought made her shiver in confusion. She was well aware that she could die during one of her seizures. She had heard the doctor tell her mother so. But the more she looked, the more she believed that the realm of this man was peace and tranquility. A breeze blew her curtains and made her panic, as though a presence had entered. She almost choked, gasped for breath, then her father’s hands were helping her to sit up. Her mother came in and Evangelia became even more breathy. Olga tried to grasp her hand but she pulled it away. Olga ran from the room crying. Her father yelled for Stallo to come and make sure the oxygen was available to Evangelia. He kissed her hands and said gently,

“I must go to your mother; you’ll be all right now. Just breathe slowly.”

And as he turned to follow Olga, Evangelia hated him for loving his wife more than he loved his very sick child.

Evangelia wondered why this had happened in their perfect lives together. Why couldn’t life be like stories in which people could change things they didn’t like with a wish? This event was unchangeable, she was helpless. If the baby could not leave, then maybe she should. How would she bear to live in the same house as a total stranger, watch her mature parents become drooling idiots when they had no right to be expecting a baby? It was embarrassing that her classmates should know her mother and father were still intimate, they were old. Her mother was closer to fifty than she was to forty. She had heard Olga telling a friend on the phone that she thought she was safe at that age not to use birth control. It was all the fault of stupid Germany. Her mother had been invited to exhibit in Stuttgart. Evangelia was in mid school year, so she could not go with them. Her father said he needed a break and it would be a second honeymoon for them, the first trip alone in God knows how long. Evangelia had resented that, them looking forward to being without her. And Olga came back with a baby starting life inside her. Evangelia’s life was ruined.

In the kitchen, Olga was weeping, holding her stomach in a now familiar grip, sitting on the edge of a chair.

“She hates me.”

“No, she doesn’t. It’ll pass.”

“Maybe, but I also know my mother had a weak heart and died young.”

“Evangelia’s problem is psychosomatic. It’s not the same thing.”

“Yes, but you see how she gasps for air, that could become a real problem; the doctor said so.” Olga clutched Vasos’s hand.

“When I found I was pregnant, I was terrified; I didn’t think I could cope. Now I’m terrified I’ll lose our son.”

“You won’t.” He held her tightly to him and smoothed her thick hair from her tear stained face.

“Excuse me, Mrs. Olga, but have you seen this?” Stallo was holding a newspaper, pointing to a picture. Olga shook her head?

“Who is he?”

“He’s a therabeftis.”

Vassos laughed mirthlessly; he was well used to their superstitious maid’s village ways.

“A faith healer! You have to be joking?”

Stallo shook her head until her curls rattled against her fat face.

“People are queuing up to visit him. He’s a foreigner, said to be very good.”

“He’s probably a charlatan.”

“No sir! He takes no money. He made his money writing books.”

“Excuse me, Stallo, but cucumbers! Do you want to bet his books will be on sale at the door or in the local shops? People will feel obliged to purchase them.” He felt sorry for his outburst. “We have had the advice and treatment of the best doctors and nothing changed. What can a faith healer do?”

“What the best doctors cannot,” Stallo’s mouth was a firm line, “heal by faith.”

The next day Vasos’s mother came to sit with Evangelia, who loved her company. Taking a break, she came down for coffee. Olga found her talking to Stallo.

“I think this therabeftis is a good idea, dear.” She told Olga. “I heard people on the radio in the car on the way over. Many say he looks like Christ.’

“Christ didn’t ask people to buy His books, Maritza.”

“Ah, but Christ lived in different times. And his apostles were fishermen. Do you think the Marys didn’t cook for him? If He lived now, he’d probably have a PR manager.”

Stallo frowned; she was very religious; Maritza, grinning at her own irreverence, was not.

“She won’t go.” Olga was sure.

“Let me ask her.” Maritza said, pushing back her chair.

The crowd in the foyer of the large hall was dense. If Maritza were a less determined woman, she would have given up. But she held Evangelia’s hand and shoved their way through. Evangelia was gasping into her mask. They reached the door where two burly men stood guard.

“We have an appointment for Ladies’ Day.” Maritza barked.

One pulled a sheet of paper from his pocket and asked the name, finding it he let them enter the next room. Maritza’s breath stopped. The conference room was filled with middle-aged and elderly women, some, untypically, in a state of partial, unconcerned undress, floppy bosoms dangling in sensible bras over flabby stomachs. Evangelia drew back.

“I’m not taking off clothes.”

“You don’t have to. That’s just for people with physical problems.”

“I have a bad heart, yiayia*.”

“Yes, a broken, tender heart that can be healed.”

Then Evangelia’s gaze went to the young man feverishly working the lines of hopeful humanity. The Therabeftis was sweating, his white shirt clung to his back, his long hair was wet with perspiration and it ran into his pale red-gold beard, his delicate long-fingered hands worked gently, respectfully on the part of the body each woman showed him.

“He’s exhausted.” Maritza said.

As if he had sensed something, the Therabeftis looked up and his gaze found Evangelia and lingered there. He paused and breathed, deep tired sighs, then he smiled at her and it was as though the whole room was filled with its radiance.

“He’s Christ.” Evangelia whispered as he put his head down again to work. Maritza realized that calmness had come over her grandchild, a settled patience. They were the last on the list, but the wait was not felt; they were too entranced watching.

John looked at the girl, his last patient.

“If you feel too tired, I can come back later.” Evangelia was proud of her good English.

“No, it’s OK.”

“My grandmother says you work too hard and that you’ll kill yourself.” She had asked Maritza to wait outside; she wanted to talk to him alone. He laughed a loud happy sound that made her smile. Then he became serious, his eyes on hers he gently placed his left hand over her heart.

“You are suffering, I know. But those who suffer understand suffering.” He took her hands in a soft grasp.

“These hands will help many who suffer, they will bring healing and comfort. Use them well.”

He turned away, the session was ended. Evangelia murmured her thanks and left. In her mind his image was now firmly impressed on the painting on her wall. She would never forget him.

John ran a bath in his hotel suite. The man who was managing his book sales came in.

“We did extremely well today.”

“Good, now I need a bath. I’m knackered.”

“Don’t you want to know how much?”

“If it’s enough to feed my wife and three kids for a while, that’s all I need to know.”

“You trust me?”

“People who don’t know me trust me, why shouldn’t I trust you? If you are dishonest…that’s your sin.”

A satisfied grin lit the man’s face as he turned to leave. “I’ll have some food sent up.”

“Make it soon; I need to sleep before this evening’s session.”

John thought of the plain girl he’d seen. Once in a rare while something touched him when his hands were laid on a person, something came back, a heat, an aura, the definite sense of the good or bad in that being. She was a force as yet untapped, but it was there, the healing gift.

The week her parents were in Germany had been desolate for Evangelia. She missed Schubert’s Der Tot Und Das Madchen streaming from her mother’s studio, the delight in seeing work take shape. She missed her father’s deep voice calling as he came home, “Where are my beauties?”

She told herself it would soon be back to normal, a week wasn’t a long time. Then the baby, seven months of seeing a strange thing taking over her mother’s stomach and seeing the delight in her father’s face when he talked about ‘our son’. Men always wanted sons; now one was going to vie with Evangelia for his love. Life began to shrivel to unpleasantness and uncertainty. She didn’t know if a boy could ever love her, but she believed her father always would – unconditionally, now she wasn’t so sure. Then the pains began and the shortness of breath. Evangelia was dying in here mind, and her body was trying to follow suit.

She surprised the family after seeing the Therabeftis by joining them at the supper table. Maritza’s eyes lit up to see her. Her mother half rose, tears flowing freely, but Evangelia told her she could help herself and ate like a starving animal, remarking on how delicious her mother’s cooking was. Maritza came to say goodnight before she drove home. Evangelia was sitting looking at the painting she had taken down from the wall.

“Mother was right. She said I’d find the face when it was time. It’s him. Do you think he’s Christ, yiayia?”

“No. I don’t. I think he’s a gifted young man. What did he say to you?”

“I don’t want to talk about it…yet.” She turned to her grandmother.

“Bapoo* Evangelos** was a doctor. Do you think I could be one? I know I’m not very clever…”

“You can be anything you want.” The old woman kissed her head. “Your grandfather worked his way through medical school from a poor background. He became a successful surgeon by sheer will power. You can be anything you want, darling, just work for it if you want it badly enough.” Maritza kissed her and went home happy.

The Therabeftis left the island a day later. Evangelia had spoken to no one of the conversation they had had. It was her special magic to treasure and savour before sharing. He said she was special. She hoped he would come back one day, so she could let him know how much he had lifted the darkness from her physical and mental heart. He would always be close to her in the painting. She told her mother at breakfast one morning how much she loved the painting, and could she help choose the name of her brother. A brother now seemed a very nice prospect.

“I’ll really need your help with him, Eva; I’m not so young…”

“I’ll help, I promise.”

Evangelia never watched the news, never read newspapers, so she did not know what her family did. The young Therabeftis had died on the flight home; a heart attack probably brought on by exhaustion was what the media assumed. They decided not to tell her, for a while at least, she was so calm, so tranquil. One night when her window was left open and the breeze ruffled the curtains and bright moonlight lit the painting on the wall so clearly that Evangelia could see the Therabeftis’s face smile at her, she felt no fear whatsoever, she just smiled saying,

“I knew you’d come back.”

_____________________________________________________________________
* Yiayia – grandmother
**Bapoo – grandfather
***Evangelos – Evangelia – It is the custom in Cyprus to call children after grandparents. It is not uncommon for a girl to be given the feminine of a masculine family name.
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