Xanthoulla’s Secret

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When we forget what love feels like, or perhaps we never knew, then we forget what it is to be human. When we say to our loved ones, “You give my life meaning”, what we are really saying is Love gives our life meaning. Yet pushed on the matter, we find it very difficult to explain what love is. It is at the same time a million different things and one simple thing, the most impossible to describe yet the easiest to fall into. I remember a tale of a woman who lived in Thavma, the little Cypriot village which in the old days was full of wise and good people. They used to say of Xanthoulla, “She has never known love.” When I first heard this it made me very sad, to think that any single individual could be so described, as never having known love. To my mind, that’s the first step toward madness.

Her name was Xanthoulla, the old hag who discovered Artemis Papayiannis, when he was just a lad, in her barn in a compromised state with Eftimia, who was the beautiful adopted daughter of the local priest. Xanthoulla was indeed old by this point, old and ugly, and not only did everyone say about her that she had never known love, but that she had never been beautiful. In fact some even doubted she had ever been young. Nobody recalled ever knowing a young, fresh-faced, bright-eyed Xanthoulla, only the miserable, old, ugly cockroach who tootled around the village poking her nose into everyone’s business.

The incident concerning Artemis was only one among many. At the time the village supported Xanthoulla’s outrage and turned on the young lad. When they heard the old crow’s panic-stricken screams their superstitious fears were roused and they demanded the boy’s expulsion, but in later years they would look back and say Xanthoulla over-reacted, that her hysterical and damning response to finding the young couple in her barn about to kiss was due to jealousy. She was jealous because she had never known love, so she invoked all the curses of her black and demonic spirit on the pair who thereafter had little chance of ever finding lasting happiness.

Long before the cataclysmic event in the barn, Xanthoulla had been known for her sullen and doom-laden nature. Any vulnerable individual who was unfortunate enough to cross her path on that or any other day was an acceptable target for her dire prognostications. If it as a young pregnant bride, Xanthoulla would be there to issue severe warnings over her; if someone had started something new, Xanthoulla would be sure to bring the devil into it and curse the venture; she would sour any happy event with her daily visions of disease and death. People would lose sleep over something Xanthoulla said to them. The old crow dished out sleepless nights like bad medication. She would shriek such horrors that any who heard them, whether in the middle of the day or the dead of night, would immediately cross themselves and begin a series of counteractive measures, such as flinging salt over their shoulder or ensuring their children had on their protective bracelets.

Needless to say, the village feared Xanthoulla. Just passing her in the street was enough to give them chills. People had long ago given up any hope of changing her for nobody had the courage to confront her. Even the bull-like Alexi Antoniou, who feared no man, would not cross her path without nodding his head humbly and bidding her a fond yiasas. What made her all the more formidable was her dismal dress code. She wore no other colour than black, like the old widows in the village, yet she had never been married. She wore the same dress for days on end, till it was covered in dust and dirt and the hem was ripped from endless treks through her fields, and smelt horribly. She rarely washed.

Yet, despite these things, Xanthoulla was never made to feel unwelcome. Quite the opposite. The inhabitants of Thavma in those days were not only wise and God-fearing, but also, like most Greeks, extremely hospitable. They believed that everyone, no matter what their failings, deserved to be treated well and offered a place by their hearth. So it was that Xanthoulla, despite her fearsome reputation for causing mayhem, was never left out of pranyeparations for a wedding, or a christening or a birthday. She would be accepted into the company the way the permanent presence of the devil was accepted, with resigned wariness. At such dos she would sit herself next to the priest, the only person at the party who was safe from her witchery, and assert herself like the honoured guest. She never showed any sensitivity regarding the things people said about her but kept her head high and her eyes wide open, because she was strong in her faith. Xanthoulla would say only nice things to the priest, for her passionate religiosity persuaded her that the priest had been anointed by God. Though she was hard on her fellow humans, she was an angel in the presence of the Lord. Some called her a hypocrite as she scuttled to church every Sunday, or whispered humble imprecations before the icon of the panayia. She was the first to arrive in church so she could arrange the seating and the candles, and the last to leave, quick and beaver-like about the clearing up. In the presence of the local priest, Pater Theodosi Charalambides, she was like a playful kitten, happily looking up at him with doleful eyes and attending to his every whim with sharp, efficient movements. If his sleeve or stole needed adjusting, she would do it, or if he needed a glass of water, she would be the first to fetch it. More than once she was seen on her knees in front of him, not begging, but cleaning his shoes with her own spit.

After church she would accept any invitations for lunch that were offered, and she received a few because the villagers viewed it as a kind of penance in the eyes of God to put up with Xanthoulla. Later she would retire to her little cottage feeling mightily pleased with herself, happy that her responsible status in the village was secure and pleased with the sturdy footing on which her eternal soul rested.

Having Xanthoulla to lunch was a mixed blessing. On the one hand you had to put up with her sharp tongue which issued words like barbed arrows coming straight from Satan’s bow, and on the other you would be humbled by her pious sentiments, which were mostly verses from the Bible. She seemed to have a knack for both, at the same time keeping you in your place in the dirt and raising you to a height of heavenly blessedness. “Didn’t Christ do the same thing?” Petro the shoemaker asked once at the hilltop kafeneion, and was greeted by a circle of quizzical stares.

So when, in the wake of the scandal concerning Artemis and Eftimia, many of the villagers regretted the outcome which separated the young lovers and kept them apart for many years, they blamed Xanthoulla and demanded a petition be signed forcing her also to leave the village. But because of her religious standing she had many supporters who believed it would be an affront to God to deport one of His staunchest allies. Overnight, the village became divided, those on the one hand who were tired of being cursed by the old crone and made to feel guilty for living their lives like normal human beings, and others who feared some kind of retribution if they turned against her. For months only one thing was the subject of discussion in the homes and the coffee-shop, what to do with Xanthoulla?

Whatever Xanthoulla was, she was not stupid. She might have been old and ugly and a little bit smelly, but she knew exactly what went on in every corner of the village. So when the subject of her fate was being discussed, she was not oblivious to it. Of course, she never took part in any of the discussions. Whenever she entered the room conversation abruptly ceased, but she was astute enough to know what the subject of the conversation had been. It did not hurt her feelings, for her feelings were frozen by piety; instead it made her feel even more important, as though her fate was linked with great issues of destiny. For it was not just a question of getting rid of an old lady or letting her stay. Far more serious considerations impinged on these secret discussions, matters which had to do with the most important thoughts men and women had ever had since the beginning of time, philosophical and religious. Whether you believed Xanthoulla was a saint or a demon, whether you believed she should be sent away or kept at home, and there were enough adherents to both sides to keep the matter in a fine balance, reflected on your moral view of the world, and that in turn shone a light on the reputation of the village of Thavma itself which had always been second to none.

How did Xanthoulla respond? She might have been expected to retire to her little cottage and keep her peace. She might have gone out into the streets and tried to win over allies to her side of the argument. But she did neither. She did the only thing Xanthoulla knew how to do, which was to carry on being Xanthoulla. She became even more vocal in her abuse of backsliders, and even more stolid in her religious devotions, thus enflaming both sides of the argument.

In the end divisions were so entrenched that half the village stopped talking to the other half. Arguments broke out at all times of night or day between friends and family. There were talks of a wall being built down the middle of the square to keep Xanthoulla’s allies on one side and her enemies on the other. The situation soon grew out of all proportion and everyone, not least of all Pater Theodosi himself, became thoroughly depressed. What had only recently been a happy and blessed place to live had become a smoking cauldron of slighted sensibilities. Mothers were not talking to sons, brothers frequently drifted into fights with sisters, neighbours raged at each other right through the night! They were not arguing about Xanthoulla anymore, nor even the reputation of the village, but the very salvation of their souls.

Since it had been his decision in the first place to deport Artemis, Pater Theodosi Charalambides took it upon himself to come up with a solution. He prayed and prayed until his knees were worn through and then the miracle happened. He received a letter from his old friend, Pater Costa Pastinaki, happily informing him that he was about to be elected Patriarch of the entire island. At first Theodosi viewed the news with some reserve, gratified to a small degree, but not overly so because he had always been jealous of his friend, Costa. That pious workaholic had always been the one most likely to make it to the top and though he should have been happy for his friend, in all honesty all Theodosi could feel was a sense of bitterness that he had not performed so well in his career, especially since the religious morale in his own little parish was at an all-time low. He had to spend several nights in prayer beseeching the Lord to forgive him his vanity, pride and envy.

It was following one of these prayers that an idea popped into his head, like a divine gift. A plan formed like a perfect Easter cake rising in the oven. Theodosi would invite Costa Pastinaki to Thavma to honour his elevation through the ecclesiastical ranks with a celebration. Without hesitation, Theodosi penned his invitation. In this letter he also mentioned in passing a local woman whom half the villagers thought to be possessed and that he would value Costa’s opinion on the matter. He flattered Costa with some fulsome compliments and knew that Costa’s ego would not allow him to refuse the challenge of dealing with a possessed soul since it would provide him with the perfect opportunity to show off the power of his religious convictions. Theodosi finished the letter by saying that if anyone could cure poor Xanthoulla it was Pater Costa Pastinaki.

Within days the Patriarch in waiting responded positively and soon the news spread to all quarters of the land that Thavma was about to be graced by the presence of a man who was as close to God as it was possible to be. Preparations were immediately set in motion. Thavma had never before been so honoured and excitement reached fever pitch. It was an opportunity for all to show off their devotion to the Church. When the big day arrived the streets were decked with flags and portraits of the Virgin Mother were hung from every building; tables were laid out in a long line each weighed down with food. The pretty village looked like a bride ready for her groom. Only one thing interfered with their good spirits – Xanthoulla!

Xanthoulla had appointed herself chief critic of the proceedings, lambasting everyone with her screams of despair at the sight of any shortcoming. “That’s not how this should be!” she yelled a hundred times at the poor innocents doing their best to arrange the lace on the tables or marinate the pork, or any other of a thousand vital tasks. Everyone worried that Xanthoulla would spoil everything. In order to lift their spirits and at the same time satisfy Xanthoulla, Theodosi announced that she would be given a special duty. Xanthoulla would present the Bishop with a posy of flowers collected from her own fields. The announcement was greeted with approval by the villagers and with a scream of delight by Xanthoulla herself, who rushed off at once to collect the bouquet. It was an excellent way of ensuring she behaved herself.

The Bishop arrived seated on a donkey, like Jesus entering Jerusalem. He had a big mournful face and his eyes were permanently raised heavenward as though in prayer. Behind him was a retinue of servants and administrators on horseback or in carriages. It was a carefully managed exposition both of his power and of his humility and the villagers were suitably impressed. They bowed their heads and made the sign of the cross. Candles were lit and a path was opened up before the cleric leading straight to the church, where the procession finally came to a halt. Theodosi was there waiting, at the head of the welcome party which included the village leader, the school teacher and anyone else who had a title. As Costa dismounted he opened his arms to his friend and the two embraced reverentially. The villagers were silent as the two important men exchanged happy courtesies, but despite the silence, every single heart was loudly pounding with love for this special moment in the history of Thavma. What a great man this Bishop was! What a powerful aura of faith surrounded him! Not one soul that day failed to feel the chill of the Holy Spirit running through them and through all their homes, blessing them and their offspring ever after. The prayers the two priests said together as they approached the church were solemn and meaningful, and those of the crowd who stood closest to them sobbed openly as they were compelled by the Spirit to confess their sins.

Finally the moment everyone dreaded arrived. Xanthoulla stood by the church door with her posy in her hands. It was a beautiful bouquet which only served to highlight her ugliness. She looked wizened and bedraggled in her filthy black clothes. Why had no one thought to persuade her to put on something prettier? When she smiled the black gaps in her teeth showed and there crackled the flames of mania in her eyes. Would she get through this special moment without shaming them all?

Pater Costa saw the old lady with the posy by the door and received a muttered warning from Theodosi that this was the woman they were concerned about. But Pater Costa seemed not to hear him. He seemed to have gone into a trance. Seeing this it was immediately assumed that the demon inside Xanthoulla’s soul had transfixed the Bishop and that a spiritual battle was about to take place. The crowd pressed closer to get a better view of the action. The silence was broken by hushed whispers of concern. The moment seemed to last forever. People waited for the priest to utter some words of absolution, something sacred from the ancient scripts to terrify the devil and send him packing, but Xanthoulla still smiled and the Bishop remained entranced. His first words were not designed to exorcise. His first words were, “Xanthoulla, is it really you?”

He had dropped his regal bearing and slumped forward like a teenager at a loss over conflicting emotions. “Xanthoulla, can it be? I remembered the name and hoped it was you.”

At the same time, Xanthoulla stopped smiling. Her face straightened and her eyes warmed. Witnesses would later swear they saw a light shining around her.

“After all these years, to meet like this!” the priest went on, and the good men and women of Thavma exchanged curious glances, wondering what all this could mean.

“Costaki mou,” Xanthoulla cried. “How can this be?”

“It is so, my sweet. Have faith and it shall be delivered to you. I lost you once, but I will never lose you again.”

At that he lunged forward and pulled Xanthoulla into his arms. A gasp went up around the crowd.

“It’s been so long,” Xanthoulla said. “How can we turn back the years?”

“It is done,” Costa declared, admiring his sweetheart with looks of undying love. Some might even have called it passion. “It is as though we had never parted.”

“But you are a priest!” Xanthoulla complained.

Costa looked down at this robes. “These mean nothing to me,” he said, “compared to the love I feel for you. Seeing you again has made me feel so young. Young and irresponsible. Wait! Is it my robes that bother you? Then I will take them off. Right now. Watch!”

In front of his administrators and servants, in front of his old friend Pater Theodosi and the entire population of Thavma, the old priest started to strip, flinging off his vestments left and right till he had nothing on but a pair of crisp white long johns. Xanthoulla laughed hysterically.

“Do you still have your barn?” he asked her with a mischievous twinkle in his eye.

“Of course!” was her response.

“There was the last time I saw you, and there we shall renew our vows!”

Then he took her by the hand and together they skipped off in the direction of the barn, she in her shabby black dress and he in his crisp white long johns. The good and wise people of Thavma were left to look on in wonderment, content that in their presence a miracle had just occurred of such unequivocal importance that nothing in their lives would ever be the same again.


write by Fidelia

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