Part Two: THE BONES
“The rain would not stop, I was soaked, shaking,
but did not move. I stood there, unmoving, staring
at the sack with the bones that rattled strangely.
Small torrents on the ground were uprooting
Trees and shrubs and I was thinking about the
oracle “you will find them on the day it rains…”
He appeared for the first time in the garden. At his house. He had not taken the monastic habit yet. It was night and the wind was blowing. His brother, Kosmas, was not at home; no one was at home. They had been working on a building all day, both of them were stonemasons, both in great demand, and Kosmas stayed late to finish a stone ornament.
At first there was only a shadow and the sound of a censer. He opened the window, to see more clearly. The shadow began to take on flesh and bone. It was a very tall monk, holding a censer, and the place was fragrant. He ran out, his hair on end and his brain in shock. The monk was moving away slowly. He followed. He took the road leading to the monastery. He ran to catch up with him, to see him. In the darkness, he kept his eye on the little sparks from the censer. He could hear the rhythmic sound of the metal. And when he lost him, he followed the fragrance. He had been running for over two hours when he realized that he was cold. Then he felt the chill of fear. Here he was in the wilderness, chasing a phantom.
In the morning he related what had happened to Kosmas, who laughed. It’s your imagination, he said, phantoms don’t exist.
The next night, the same thing. He appeared outside his window. And he ran outside to see him up close. But no matter how close to him he came, a distance always separated them. The only thing he was able to discern was that his cassock was old, tattered and blood-stained. In a beam of light from the window he saw the blood. It was fresh. And once more his hair stood on end. Who are you? He dared to ask. There was no reply. It was clear the monk wanted something, but he was not speaking yet.
The next day he went up to the monastery. His name was still Elias then. He took the name Avgoustinos when he put on the monastic habit. He was almost forty, older than his brother and different. After the work-day he would return home and drink raki by himself, read the newspaper, listen to the news. Kosmas, on the contrary, would party all night in the ouzo bars, he was already involved with Demetra—later Persephone’s mother—and was madly in love at that time.
At the monastery Elias found the monk Ioustinos, a saintly old man, who had a passion for things Byzantine. This monastery is a continuation of the Byzantine Empire, he would say, and he believed it. It had been built in 1432 by John Palaiologos—the final flashes of glory of Constantinople. By a chrysobull, the Emperor had also granted to the monastery the once pulsing with life but now abandoned farm of Kleisoura.
There were six other monks and a novice, Iakovos.
It was the first time he had come to a monastery. He had never been too close to church life. In Adonida he would light a candle on Easter and Christmas.
The monk Ioustinos, who was also the abbot of the monastery, led him to the sitting room. He called Iakovos and ordered him to wash Elias’ feet. It was an old custom that they continued. He brought a ceramic basin, and heated water in the embers. Elias, shaken, could not utter a word. He was embarrassed. But bit by bit he felt his body relax, grow calm. And he started to speak. He talked about the monk with the censer who appeared twice outside his window. He described him in detail: tattered cassock, blood.
“He wants something, I am certain he will come again… he wants to tell me something.”
Just as the wind blows on sleeping embers and a flame arises from the ashes, so did the old man’s eyes light up.
“A massacre took place here…men were martyred here…were sanctified… Perhaps the hour has come for the silence to be broken. The time has come, for us to learn about the past history of the monastery. Five hundred years had to pass before the revelation would take place….”
Iakovos is wiping Elias’ feet with a clean cotton cloth. This process, this ritual, relaxed and pleased him. There was a certain sweetness about it. That was how he, too, handled the stone, he would wet it first, wash it, then run his hands over it to get to know it, to discover where he could take hold of it to tame it, to sculpt it. He ate with relish the baked bread they brought him and the piece of cheese, and drank a cup of water.
“He revealed himself to you…you are the chosen one!” the old man went on, his voice breaking with emotion.
They knew nothing, he said, about that dark piece of the monastery’s past. All the manuscripts, the archives, the testimonies of the monks, had been destroyed. The monastery must have been burned at that time, he went on, and showed him the marks of the blaze at the corners of the walls. From stories of older monks they knew that the first monks who lived here had come from Constantinople. They were the ones who had overseen its construction. In a glass case, they had preserved a burned piece of parchment on which the history of the monastery was inscribed along with their names. But no one could make sense of it. The few words that were preserved and the scattered letters were no help. Also, there was a wall with a marble plaque that carried the date and the inscription “Emperor John VIII glory to God.”
Those blackened letters of the parchment greatly concerned the monks. On the list of names, which may have been names of the monastery’s benefactors, there was an R, an A, and an L. In another name there was an N, and a K. Scattered random pieces of a life buried under five and one-half centuries.
Elias could not concentrate on work. He left Kosmas to finish the job, ask me for whatever you need, he said, something has happened to me, I can’t work now.
He was the chief mason and contractor. He was the one who made decisions, set prices, selected the clients. He would not work for just anyone. He felt that in every stone he carved, he left behind a piece of his soul and that had no price, could not be compensated, he said, it was the affliction of his art.
Nothing was more alive for him than the stone he held in his hand before giving it shape. He would touch it lightly, like a child’s cheek, communicate with its memories. He knew from what quarry it came, from what era. Some stones had ferns imprinted on them and he knew that they came directly from the time of the cosmogony. He would imagine them among the soft vertebrae of fluid matter and weep.
Kosmas reacted strongly. Ah, don’t tell me you’re going to stop working and chase ghosts, he said to him. But Elias would not take too many words from his younger brother.
He had looked after him for many years. From the time they lost their father, when they were still almost children: Elias around seventeen, and Kosmas thirteen. But they had both learned the trade. Their father, too, was a stonemason, a famous one, he was called the prince of stone—Daniel Aidoneas. The most beautiful things one saw in Adonida came from his hands, pediments of fountains, sculpted belfries, stone metopes on schools and houses of the wealthy, buildings on which stones lay erotically cheek to cheek, tombs.
The two brothers continued the trade. Their mother kept house. A kindly woman of few words. She wanted to see her sons settled before she died, but did not live long enough. A gentle death found her while she was kneading bread. And she leaned over with her hands in the dough. Her sons found her still alive, she was seeing a vision and reaching out her hand to touch it. Then she said, “You came too soon for me, Daniel…” and died.
He remained at the monastery for three days. And when he returned home he was exhausted. His mind was tired. He had never concerned himself with things supernatural and now he found himself chasing a phantom. Too, the abbot had exhausted him with the stories he recounted. Five hundred years were too many to disrupt his own life. And those words of the abbot “the time has come for silence to be broken…” bothered him. Is what is dead only silent? Does it not cease to exist?
He wanted to have a drink of raki and fall into bed: to lose himself, to calm down; his body felt tense, hard. It was not enough for the mind to accept the supernatural, the body, too, had to be reconciled to it.
As he was tying up the mare, he saw people coming in and out of his house, talk, agitation. It was Demetra and some neighbors, Aunt Anastasia, his mother’s sister, the mayor, who was a friend. They were all waiting outside Kosmas’ room, whose door was closed. He grew agitated. What has happened he asks, pale.
Demetra embraced him.
“A stone fell from up high onto his hands, she said, on his wrists, and he’s in danger of losing them, because he fainted and his hands were constricted for many hours…”
They brought him quickly to the nearest hospital, about an hour away, in the municipal car, and the doctors confirmed that his wounds were infected and that his condition was very serious. Demetra gave Elias some money she had been saving for her wedding, and he looked at it astounded. That moment was the first time that he reflected on his position. For the first time he realized that he was offering his work, the rare art of stone-carving, for next to nothing—so slight was his remuneration. He took pride in his work, passed by it on the street and admired it, was happy to see the joy others felt when they saw it, and that was his reward.
For the first time he saw that he was a romantic, a foolish romantic, who was wrong about life. And now he was forced to take money from Demetra to save his brother.
They immediately brought a surgeon from Athens, the operation would be difficult he said; he might lose one or both of his hands. Gangrene had set in, especially in the right hand. You came too late, the surgeon went on, waited too long. And they were frantic. They had put their faith in the community doctor in Adonida, a mercenary outsider, who had prescribed irrelevant drugs.
Sleepless and weary he stood beside his brother for the second day. Demetra persuaded him to go home for a while to rest, she would stay with Kosmas.
He poured a drink of raki, ate a few olives and a piece of bread. He was starving. He was in despair. As if all his life was crashing down. He had raised him from his thirteenth year, watched him become a man, guided him. And now he saw him wasting away, mutilated. If his hands were destroyed, if he lost them, Kosmas would not live, he would not want to live as a cripple. That pained him so much that he felt pain throughout his body, his mind. Then he realized that his hands were hurting. For a moment he thought it strange, but he saw that it was so.
Both his hands were hurting, at the wrists.
His hands hurt as if he was the injured one. And if Kosmas’ hands were amputated, his own would be as well; he would never again work the stone.
The tears flowed from his eyes; he cried for the first time; in all his life he never remembered crying. He crossed himself. He did not know how to pray; he had never done that either.
He was sitting on his mother’s couch, which stood in front of the window overlooking the courtyard. Her hands had woven the bedclothes, and he touched them with love—clothes her fingers had touched once. Then he said, Mother, help our little one.
The night was dark and through his tears he looked at the outlined mass of the tree branches. It was the first time he felt so alone. And those three days at the monastery gave him pangs of guilt now. If he had been here, he would have looked after him differently. If he had been here, next to him…
His eyelids were closing, the weariness was overwhelming. He was cold.
When he got up to fetch a blanket, so that he could lie down on the couch, in his clothes, he saw him.
He jumped up and opened the window. The fragrance of the censer filled the house. He was approaching among the trees, from the path to the monastery. And he was not wearing the torn, bloody cassock, but priceless vestments, embroidered with gold. And he was coming toward him.
The window-sill was low; he went out and stood before him. He was very tall and there was sadness on his face. He was so close, that he could make out his face clearly. He would be able to recall it in all its detail. A face that was warm and at the same time unapproachable, severe and yet compassionate, with a glow about it like the halo of the saints.
He stood there with bated breath. Today he would speak to him—he felt it. So real was he. He could hear his footsteps on the dry leaves, could feel his breath.
“Tell the doctors not to take a lancet to Kosmas’ hands…” His voice. A clear, deep voice pierced by centuries of the great silence. A voice-echo from the solitude of time.
“Not to take a lancet? But…they told us that he will lose his hands…” he dared to reply.
The imposing form grew taller and taller, or so it seemed to Elias. And the gold vestments made an imperceptible sound as he moved the censer.
“Tomorrow, Kosmas will be cured.”