The following story was translated in German by Ludwig Bürchnerin 1917 with the title Der Kirchenscheue (The Church Shirker) and appeared in the Greek newspaper The News of Görlitz. During World War I, 7,000 Greek soldiers of the IV Army were transported and settled in the small border town of Görlitz in a typical regime of hosting/captivity.
Having walked for some time through the deep forested valley, Aunty Molota, Folio, Perdika’s daughter and Afentra, Stamaterizena’s daughter finally arrived at Daskaleio. The dying rays of the sun were lingering with their golden light on the two mountain ridges on both sides of the valley. Below, in the dense forest a dark shadow was spreading. Tree trunks, covered with ivy and trellised branches formed sunless entanglements where amongst the foliage one could hear interminable love susurrations. Fortunately, the forest was believed to be haunted; otherwise the woodsman’s axe would have destroyed it before long. The three women were treading now on soft moss, now on stones and shingle scattered on the uneven ground. Their hearts and souls were refreshed on arriving at the spring of Daskaleio.
The cool spring water gushes out of a cavern and courses through the hollow of a thousand-year-old tree, at the root of which a deep water-hole is formed. The entire cliff above is saturated with humidity which drips down like pearls, whereas the musical gurgle of the water blends with the loud whimper of the blackbirds. Having lavishly drunk and quenching her thirst, Aunty Molota let out a joyous sigh of relief and sat upon a low boulder to rest. The other two women immersed their urns and jugs, which they had been carrying along, into the pond at the root of the tree in order to fill them. Then they also drank their fill, and one sat next to the old woman while the other opposite her, and they began talking.
– The pliest (priest) is vely late! Said Aunty Molota. She lisped and was also prone to cutting off not only syllables but also articles and various particles.
– Night has fallen, I’d say! Added Folio.
– So, what do you think? Rejoined Afentra.
The three had been so journing at St. John’s monastery, at Aselinos (Moonless), since Saturday of Passion Week. It was a deserted, small, old cloister. It had become known that Papa-Garofalos – the so-called Sosmenos (the Saved) – one of the town priests, was expected at St, John’s chapel, at Aselinos, to perform the Easter mass for the herdsmen dwelling in those wild regions. These three and a few other townsfolk, lovers of the countryside, had preceded the priest for the Easter celebration. However, it was already nightfall and Papa-Garofalos had not yet shown up.
– He’s taking long to spiff up! Added Folio, Perdika’s daughter.
– Yes, indeed; have you noticed how long he takes to dress? Rejoined Afentra, Stamaterizena’s daughter, literally construing Folio’s words. And sometimes he puts on his “change” askew. Thus she called the chasuble. The three women had come from St. John’s cloister, a quarter of an hour journey, to fill their vessels at Daskaleio, as the small spring of the old retreat had almost run dry. They were due to return to St. John, but their chat was delaying them.
Finally, the two of them stood up and bent down to shoulder their jugs, being ready for the return trek.
But at that moment a sharp voice was heard amongst the trees.
– I’ve frightened you, Aunty Molota! Said the voice. Then loud laughter followed and immediately a youth, tall and still beardless, around sixteen years old turned up, holding something wrapped and folded on his chest.
– Ah! Bless your soul! Cried out Folio. It’s you, is it, Stamatis?
It was not yet deeply dark, therefore the women discerned the outline of his face having first heard his voice. It was Stamatis, the “turtledove”, a sapling youth, orphaned since his early childhood, goodhearted, easygoing, who made his living doing odd jobs around the town. However, whenever there was a country festivity some place, he abandoned all his errands and was the first to be among the merrymakers.
– Here, I’m coming from Aselinos, said the young man. I’m carrying wonderful things, look!
He inserted his hand in the folded fabric, which he held, and caught something black and playfully threw it upon Molota’s apron, who was still sitting on the boulder.
– Ah! Fire upon you! She exclaimed, starting up with a jerk and shaking her apron.
What Stamatis had thrown into her apron was a huge, black crab, still alive. The young man had descended to Little Aselinos before two hours. This is the appellation given to the beach on the west, a small gulf, opposite Mount Pelion. It was there that the youth had filled his kerchief, which girdled his waist, with shells, mussels and crabs.
– Hey, have you gone crazy? Afentra remarked sharply. You’ve made the goodwife’s blood curdle!
Again Stamatis burst out laughing.
– I apologize, Aunty Molota, he said. Such a hick as I am, I’ve blundered. I just felt like giving you this crab as a present so that you may have it as a snack tonight. But the way I threw it in your apron I must have frightened you.
– I shouldn’t eat clabs (crabs), lisped Molota. I will leceive(receive) Communion!
– Is that so? Then I’ll give it away to Perdika.
– On such a Holy Saturday should I eat crabs? Said Folio.
– Then, Stamatrizena shall have it, Stamatis suggested.
– May you turn into crab! Replied Afentra.
– What a nice wish for me! Rejoined Stamatis. What an idea! If I were a crab, how could I possibly walk? And saying thus, he fell on all fours and began to stride in a sidelong way among the three women. With his head he struck Molota’s side, with his back he touched Folio’s elbow, and with his heel he stepped on Afentra’s pump.
The three women, simulating anger, laughed.
– You’ve gone completely nuts, I see; you’re out of your mind! Said Afentra. And at that moment she lifted her jug with her left hand and softly struck Stamatis’s head with it. Stamatis seemed to be charmed.
– Oh, how cool is it, Stamatrizena! He said; give me one more!
– Well, we must get going, said Afentra in reply to this. We’ve been overtaken by the night. Whereupon they started out.
Then Stamatis, without saying a word, grabbed the biggest jug, which otherwise would be carried by Afentra, and willingly hurried forward as forefront. On the way, he began telling them:
Fancy who I’d just come across on my way up here before I met you at the fountain!
– Who did you meet? Asked Afentra: the bogeyman or the Black Ogre or the Beelzebub?
– It was the Church Shirker.
– Indeed? Tell us.
No sooner had Aunty Molota heard that name than she unwittingly moved forward and in two strides she changed her course to Stamatis’ left so as to hear better, for she was deaf on her left ear. The young man recounted that at the foot of the mountain, a short distance from the beach, had gone by the dwelling of that odd man, who had not come down to town for thirty years, and lived like a hermit in a hut, rather a cavern, the entrance of which he had closed with a stone wall he built with his own hands. He tended a few goats and associated with no one save Barekos, the biggest goat raiser in the mountain, who owned a herd of one thousand goats. What little milk he could collect, he gave it to Barekos in exchange of a few rusks, some salted fish, and occasionally one or two pieces of sackcloth or a woolen bedcover.
– On seeing me, Stamatis went on, he tried to hide. I ran after him, greeted him, and to provoke him I began, as it were, to cense him with this kerchief, wherein the mussels tinkled, using it as a thurible. Here, like this! And detaching from around his waist the kerchief containing the sea shells, he made believe to cense Aunty Molota, who gave out an inarticulate exclamation of protest.
– Cut it out, you tempter! Cried Afentra furiously.
With the fall ofthe night, there arrived at St. John’s church Yannis Barekos, the big stockman, along with his entire kith and kin – wife children and apprentices, Kostas Piliotis, another goatherd with his family, and Angelis Polychronos with all his dependents. They had built a big fire and sat down in the open by the northern wall of the chapel spinning yarns about the old chronicles of the pastoral life, gazing meanwhile at the constellations and awaiting the Seven Sisters to culminate, marking thus midnight, and then to drift down westwards when it was time for the dawn to break. They were waiting for the priest to come and say the Mass for the Resurrection. It was already midnight and there was no sign of the priest.
– The bookmark and the gourd must have delayed him* … Angelis Polychronos began talking.
– If one knew, he could go to town, said Kostas Piliotis.
– Papa-Garofalos may come with the moonrise, remarked Barekos. There, look!
He pointed high to the mountain where the tree tops began to shine with the silver shimmer of the moon. It was already in its last quarter.
At that moment Stamatis showed up, who had for some time disappeared without being noticed. The youth had climbed up high in the mountain to listen and keep an eye open in case he heard or saw the priest’s arrival.
On descending, he beckoned Barekos and the other men to join him outside the courtyard.
– What’s the matter?
– Come; I can hear voices. I can bet on it!
Barekos and Kostas Piliotis followed up the acclivity about two hundred paces. There they really heard sounds coming up from the stream below towards Daskaleio and Aselinos.
– What is it?
– I bet he’s lost his way, said Stamatis.
– What does he want down there at Aselinos?
– I made out his voice, said Stamatis. He must have come by another way, over the fields, and then through the forest and lost his way.
The two herdsmen and Stamatis, followed by Polychronos, who had run after them, ascended to the brow of the mountain and responded vociferously to the echoes they could hear.
– Ahoy!Come! … We’re here! Stamatis shouted in a stentorian voice.
– How come they can’t see such a roaring fire? Wondered Piliotis.
– They must have stumbled in an impasse, deep in the shadow of the mountain. The moon has not climbed up the sky yet.
– I’ll go and fetch a lantern, exclaimed Stamatis.
Whereupon he hurried down to the courtyard of St. John’s church, whence he returned after a while carrying a lit lantern. Holding this, Stamatis proceeded, followed by the three men through the forest. Some minutes later, the voices could be heard closer, and at last the priest came in sight, accompanied by his nephew, who was also his helper and chanter, hauling by the bridle a small donkey, on which the priest’s holy vessels were loaded. But at the very last there came into view a shadow, which seemed to avoid facing the light of the lantern.
– Well, well! Stamatis laughed. And sotto voce he whispered to Barekos:
– The Church Shirker!
– A real miracle! Replied Barekos.
– How come, your grace, you lost your way? Angelis Polychronos asked the priest.
– Don’t ask me… I intended to come by another path, … through the Clearings … the priest panted; I wanted to see my field … that man, Danakias, promised to have it sown but he left it fallow … and I hadn’t had the slightest inkling for many months now … bless his soul… I had also to perform three house blessings and so night overtook me… I was lucky to come across Uncle Kolias’ hut here (and pointed to the so-called Church Shirker), who helped me find the way! May God always bless him!
Papa-Garofalos kept pointing to him, whom he called Uncle Kolias, who however like a real shadow was slinking behind the trees and bolting away.
Barekos hurried after him and grabbed his arm forcibly.
– Where are you off to, Uncle Kolias? He asked. Now you’re here, we won’t let you go – that’s final! This year we’ll celebrate the Resurrection together!
Stamatis could not help his mirth and began to make motions with his lantern as though he were censing the place where Barekos and Uncle Kolias stood.
The old man had the appearance of a true werewolf. He wore a kind of frock, of indistinct color and a black cap; he had long hair, still black, and grizzled, curly beard. He resented being held by the sturdy hand of Barekos and he was fain to leave.
– Let me go for God’s sake! And may you live long! I can’t be here… what do you need me for the Resurrection? I don’t fit in! You go on to celebrate and be happy! I want to go to my hut!
It was then Papa-Garofalos cut in:
– May you have Jesus Christ’s grace, my child! Come! Let me bless you so your soul is renewed and fragrant! Come to participate in our Lord Jesus Christ’s joy! Don’t be so unjust to yourself! Don’t yield to the Enemy’s will! Resist Temptation! Come, Kolia, come Nicholas, come, blessed Nicholas! May Saint Nicholas shine you the right path!
Uncle Kolias was reluctant because he felt ashamed. On the other hand, he was also confused. He wished force would be exerted on him so that he could stay.
As though he had penetrated into the very sanctum of this poor man’s soul, Barekos hailed two more herdsmen to his aid. These, half in jest, half in earnest, grabbed Kolias’ arms and shoulders. In festive procession they led him on. Poor Kolias, with a downcast look, let himself be carried on with half a mind to yield and have a mind to defect.
On arriving at St. John’s chapel, something odd occurred. When Aunty Molota, who was sitting outside the church, saw Kolias, she was exceedingly perturbed and turned her face to the church wall. Afentra, who was also sitting next to her, saw that something was amiss and asked:
– What’s the matter, Aunty Molota?
The old woman gestured her to be silent. However, as the escort reached the center of the courtyard, Molota took a furtive look at the group of men and pulling down her black headscarf, she covered her eyebrows and temples, and with the forelocks of her hair as well as with the tails of her headscarf she covered her chin and cheeks.
Afentra was looking on nonplussed and with great curiosity.
– What’s come over you, Aunty Molota? She asked again.
– Quiet, I’m telling you! Whispered Molota.
At that moment the priest entered the chapel, which Stamatis on the day before he went to collect shells and crabs he had bedecked with boughs of laurel and myrtle, and now the church sparkled clean and neat.
The priest began the Benedictus and along with his nephew took up chanting He, who with a sea-wave had buried the tyrant pursuer long ago… Afentra and Folio as well as the wives and daughters of the herdsmen entered the church, too, and lit an abundance of candles on the candelabra.
Molota was lagging behind. She wanted to see whether Uncle Kolias, The Church Shirker, would enter the church, or not. At first Kolias insisted on staying outside with the pretext of helping Barekos’ two apprentices with the spitting and roasting of the Easter lambs, for which another big fire was being built. However, Barekos was apprehensive of Kolias’ possible escape, and forced him to go into the church with him saying that “a guest is allowed no work.”
But Molota remained outside half concealed by the church door post glancing furtively inside the church. When the entire congregation came out of the church, candles in hand, to celebrate the Resurrection, she receded to hide herself in the northeastern niche of the church by the window of the Office of Oblation. Standing there she also heard the joyous hymn Christ is Risen.
When the crowd of people reentered the church with the quick chant Day of the Resurrection, Afentra, the daughter of Stamaterizena, fell behind and approached Molota.
– Why don’t you come into the church? She asked. Are you in confinement?**
– Go in, my child, to listen to the good words of the Easter Mass, replied Molota. Let me be.
– But what’s going on with you?
– Tell me, will you? She insisted.
The old woman refused to comply and drew away. Afentra left her alone. After a while, at the moment of the Osculation Custom, the so-called Easter Kiss,Molota approached the church door and beckoned Afentra to come out. She led Afentra to the previous place, to the left of the church.
– Now, how can I take Communion?
– Why not?
– Isn’t now the moment to kiss the gospel and the Resurrection icon?
– How can I go and kiss them?
– How can you go? Just walk, replied Afentra.
– Have you seen that man?
– The Church Shirker? What about him?
Molota came closer, and lowering her voice said:
– When I was a little gal, she lisped, that man wanted to mally (marry) me. Before I got sick and lost my voice, one day at dusk he met me at the well – it was in a nallow (narrow) alley– and he (bending to Afentra’s ear, she said in a faint whisper) kissed me…
– Afentra choked down her deep, silver laughter.
– Fathah (father) didn’t want him fo’ my husband. I mallied (married) anothah (another) man. Then I became a widow. Kolias, they said, was blokenhea’ted, went up into the mountains, tu’ned wild and he had not since set foot in a chu’ch … the sin is mine.
Afentra immediately realized the naïve scrupulousness of the old woman.
– Well, she said, now you’ve found him at the Resurrection. It’s time for the Easter kiss, for Christian love and forgiveness. Confess to the priest and he’ll let you take Communion.
Molota followed literally Afentra’s advice. She walked into the church, kissed the gospel and the icon of the Resurrection, and asked Kolias for forgiveness.
Then, at the moment of Communion, she approached with the womenfolk the northern gate of the sanctum, where the priest, his stole on their heads, read the prayer of forgiveness, while the young chanter in wailing tones hummed Receive ye the Body of Christ.
After the end of the Mass, the men exited the church and Stamatis meeting Kolias, greeted him:
Christ is Risen, Uncle Kolias! It was a favorable moment when I met you yesterday.
And the old hermit replied:
– He is truly Risen, lad! See, I’m not a Church Shirker anymore!
*Reference to the proverb: “According to what the bookmark says and the gourd admits, there was no Resurrection last year and no Easter this year.” In order for the semi-literate priests of olden times to find the Sunday gospel, they went to their bishop who put a scrap of paper as a bookmark in the Book. They also carried with them a gourd which contained so many pumpkin seed as the pages he must turn till the Easter gospel. The rumor has it that some pranksters removed from a priest’s Book some scraps of paper and put more seeds into the gourd. In this way the poor priest could not find the right place in the Book and in his despair said the above proverb.
**A woman who has recently given birth must be in house confinement for forty days at the end of which she is allowed to go to church to be blessed.