Rendered by Vassilis C. Militsis
Was she not also, one would wonder, a lady in her hearth and home? Could one forget her being young and of good upbringing once? She received her education at schools and graduated from Arsakeion School.
She abode by her social duties and carried out her housework better than anyone else. She kept the house and the doorways scrupulously clean, always making a point to whitewash the walls and scrub the floors ungrudgingly and without that ostentation typical of women that like extreme cleanliness. With the advent of the Passion Week, she doubled the whitewashing and the floor scrubbing so much so that she made the floor sparkle and the walls envious of the floor.
On each Maundy Thursday she would make a fire, upon which she placed a kettle and dyed her blood-red Easter eggs. Afterwards, she prepared her kneading trough, knelt down, made the sign of the cross on the dough three times, and kneaded the Easter bannocks cleanly and artfully sticking crosswise a number of red eggs on each bannock.
And in the evening she did not dare to go to church with the other womenfolk to attend the service of The Twelve Gospels of the Passion of Christ. She wished she would hide behind some bulky dame or stand at the end of the women crowd, pasted on the wall, but she was afraid lest they turned and looked at her.
On Good Friday she used to daydream all day long and weep bewailing her youth and all precious moments she had lost; she dreamed in full wakefulness and pondered on going to church in the evening before the beginning of the service, kiss furtively the Epitaph and then leave unobserved, like that woman, subject to a twelve-year bleeding, who robbed her healing from Christ. But at the last moment, when the dusk was falling, her courage failed her and resolved against going. She began to have butterflies in her stomach.
Late at night when the solemn procession of the Epitaph, with crosses, banners and candles, exited the church accompanied with chants and hymns, and the hubbub of the crowd, Yambis, the church warden, hurried to his home in order to don his embroidered silk cap and, his amber rosary in hand, to come out on the balcony vainly hoping, year after year, that the priests would condescend to tarry and pray under his balcony; then poor Christina, the teacher – as she was known in the neighborhood – standing by her window and half-concealed behind the shutter was holding her small candle, cupped in her palm, and copiously filling the clay censer with incense offering thus from afar the myrrh to Him who had once deigned to receive the unction and the tears of the sinful woman, who did not dare approach closer and kiss His immaculate, nail-pierced and blood dripping feet.
On early Sunday morning, too, after the midnight darkness, she stood half-concealed by the window, holding uselessly her unsanctified candle and listened to the joyous voices and the fireworks celebrating the Resurrection of Christ and saw with a biting envy in her heart those women from afar bustling out of church and returning home, bringing their sanctified candles, happy and purposeful to preserve all year round the holy light of the Resurrection. However, she cried and deplored her wasted prime.
Only in the afternoon of Easter Sunday, when the church bells rang to summon the faithful to the Love Mass, or the Second Resurrection, as it was called, only then did she dare to budge out of her house stealthily and scamper on tiptoe from wall to wall, as though being an integral part of it, in such a way as she was to enter the courtyard of a neighbor on an errand. And from wall to wall she would reach the northern part of the church and would find access to it furtively through a small side door.
It is widely known that the First Resurrection in Athens is dedicated to the ladies and the Second to the housemaids. Christina, the teacher, was loath to go to church at Easter night dreading being spied, but during the day little did she care to be looked at. Because the ladies would stare at her with malice, while the house girls would merely look at her. However, she did not think it made a big difference. On the other hand, she could not stand the fact to be demoted to the status of the maidservants when coming into touch with the ladies. That was her ill fate.
The spectacle was beautiful, lively, picturesque and colorful. The chandeliers were brightly lit, the holy icons shone, the choir chanted the Easter hymns, and the priests stood clasping the Book of Gospel along with the Resurrection Icon on their chests for the Osculation (awaiting the faithful to kiss these holy objects).
The house girls, clad in their white pinafores and bedecked with ribbons, took glances left and right and chatted among themselves, not heeding the holy mass. The nurses guided by the hand three or five-year old boys and girls, the latter holding their colored candles and burned the ornamental foils; they played and bawled one another, and sought to singe the hair of the child that stood in front of them. The shine boys exploded fire cracks in diverse random points of the church and terrified the housemaids. The only policeman was after them, but they would escape from a side door, and immediately reentered through another. The church wardens went about with their collection trays and sprinkled the nurses with rosewater.
A couple of young mothers of the lower social classes and seven or eight nurses held babies, only a few months old, in their arms. The little ones opened their soft eyes in astonishment and stared insatiably at the light of the candles, candelabra and chandeliers, the clouds of the spiraling upwards incense smoke and the green and red tints of the window panes; they looked in surprise at the billowing frock of the monk in charge, who bustled around on various errands, at the priests’ beards that shook whenever they moved their heads and lips to announce to all repeatedly the tiding of Christ is Risen; they also looked wonderingly at the shining buttons of the policeman’s uniform, the white headbands of the women, and the crowds of the other children, gathered near and far; they also fidgeted with their nurses’ hair locks and uttered inarticulate angelic notes.
Two eight month-old babes, carried in the arms of their young mothers, who stood shoulder to shoulder next to a column, seeing one another at once grew sociable; one of them extended its tiny, soft hand to the other, pulling the latter towards itself and gurgled unintelligible heavenly sounds.
Then a shrill baby’s voice rang clearly around the congregation. Yambis, the church warden, was loath to noises. During the night services of the Passion Week he often went through the dense gathering of the womenfolk in order to rebuke a certain poor mother because her infant had whimpered. And now he hurried to reprove the poor mother for the innocent splutter of her babe.
Whereupon, Christina, the Teacher, who stood a little further off, behind the last column, tight against the wall in a corner, thought impulsively – not as a teacher but as an ignorant and silly woman, as she was considered – that no one, not even the church warden was entitled to scolding a poor mother for the whining of her babe, nor did he have the right to prevent her from attending the service because she nursed a baby. Besides, do not often wailing babies participate in the Holy Eucharist? Should they therefore be excluded from the Holy Communion? Until when will the severity of all those ‘in charge’ be exhausted upon the poor and the humble?
This small incident reminded Christina of one evening some years ago when she went to attend the celebration of the Elevation of the Holy Cross at the chapel of St Elisha, near the Market Gate. While the lector was reciting from St. Paul’s Epistles the passage God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise (Corinthians 1,27), suddenly from the loft fortuitously a baby began to splutter loudly vying with the lector’s voice. How sweetly did that infant’s warble resonate! How melodious must have been the Hosannah sung by the children of Israel to the Savior’s Advent! Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength because of thine enemies, that thou mightiest still the enemy and the avenger. (Psalm 8:2)
Christina meditated all these and being certain that no mother would be so callous as not to be anxious and not try to hush her babe or not wish for a door to open miraculously on the wall so that she could exit as swiftly as possible. Therefore, the warden’s admonitions were unnecessary; they rather caused additional disturbance, and since the usual persuasive measures to a suckling baby are powerless, only the mother is capable of persuasion, thus it is superfluous that a third person should come and remind her of it. Therefore, it is unjust to claim that men have more sense than women!
That is how Christina thought. But what could she do? She had no say. She was merely Christina, the teacher, as she was called of yore. She had no children and thus she had no fear of the warden’s reproach. She had buried her children before giving birth to them. Moreover, the man she was living with was not her husband. They were an unwed couple.
An unwed couple! Society is rich with such specimens!…
I have no intention to moralize. However, in default of other provision, whether Christian or moral, our politicians, at least to be consistent and reasonable to themselves, ought to pass a civil wedding law.
Since Christina, at the beginning of her career, needed a lobbyist to pull some strings for her appointment at a state school, Panagis Delikanatas, a tavern owner and a lobbyist, had taken advantage of her. When the government changed and he had no influence to have her appointed, he proposed: “Let’s live together for the present and later on I will marry you.” When would that be? Some months later, half a year, a year perhaps?
Many years have gone by since; he still has preserved his dark hair, but hers has gone grey. And he has never married her.
She was childless. He had other mistresses, too, with whom he begot children.
When the miserable woman learned about the children, she used to remonstrate and berate him, but in the end forbore and received in her bosom her man’s out-of-wedlock progeny, developed her maternal instinct, nursed and cared for them. And she strove to bring them up. And no sooner were they two or three years old, and she had loved them as her own, than the Grim Reaper, accompanied by scarlet fever, smallpox, and his various other hideous comrades, came and snatched them from her arms.
In such a manner she had lost three or four children between the ages of seven and eight. She was embittered; she grew old and grey and cried over her man’s illegal children as though they were her own. But they, poor things, hovered in bliss over the flowers of Paradise in company with the angelic dwellers.
As for him, no word about marriage. She did not ask either and endured in silence.
She washed and tidied the house all year round. On Maundy Thursday, according to custom, she dyed the red Easter eggs. But on the other days she was ashamed to go to church. Only in the afternoon of Easter Sunday, did she attend the Love Mass. She would surreptitiously steal into the church to hear the Resurrection hymns along with the maidservants and nurses.
But He who has risen from the dead “Because the poor are plundered and the needy groan,… He will protect them from those who malign them;” (David’s Psalm, 11,6) He who condescended to receive the strayed woman’s unction and the tears of the penitent thief on the Cross, He will also accept the penitence of this poor woman and will prepare for her a place of green pasture in His everlasting kingdom.
(The title of the Greek prototype “Χωρίς Στεφάνι»)