Saturday, July 27, 2019



From the sunken pillows of the weathered leather couch, Yiayia’s pinprick black eyes peered intently at the bulky form of the priest looming over her. Slowly, he fumbled with a small metal case, the unintelligible fragments of barely audible words emerging from his mouth as he did so. As the priest raised a spoon, Yiayia, who had been lying prone for weeks, suddenly sat up, ramrod straight and pulled her black headscarf over her hair. As she opened her mouth, her eyes flickered, flecks of anger and distaste flashing across her dilated pupils. The pre-sanctified Body and Blood of Life was about to enter the body of one who was about to taste Death. It was this irony that rested upon Yiayia’s eyebrows and jerked them down into a frown. One hundred and five years of banality, punctuated by moments of indescribable anguish and sublime joy, only to have as a coda, the promise of life everlasting, even as the terrestrial life ebbed away. Yiayia was furious. She swallowed her spoonful of Life mechanically, as if in protest and lay back on the couch, turning her head away from the priest, towards the clock on the wall, which had stopped. She sighed.
«Γιαγιά, είσαι καλά;» I asked.

«Καλά,» she scoffed, shaking her head sideways, the way old ladies from the village do when their bodies seek to negate or invert the meaning of enunciated words. It would be the last word she would ever speak. I did not suspect this at the time, because my olfactory nerves cannot detect death. Even as the room became infused with the heavy, somnolent odour of mortality, causing my grandmother’s daughter to open the sliding door behind the priest and to comment: «Θα πεθάνει τώρα η μαμά,» all I could smell was Life. So too could my aunt, who asked the priest if her grandchildren could take communion as well. “No,” he said, almost wistfully. “If you want them to take communion, you need to bring them to church. This is for the infirm and the d….”

My auditory nerves also cannot sense death, which is why my ears could not decode the requisite resonances so as to enable me to process that which was imminent. Yiayia could though, which is why she lingered for two days longer, just enough time, according to her calculation, for me to reconcile myself to her end. It didn’t work. I held her in my arms for hours, until all the warmth had passed from her body, looking at her still, black eyes staring sightlessly at my tears. I looked at her mouth, her thin lips wincing, in the exact position they had assumed just prior to receiving communion. I reached out a finger to touch them and then held back. It would not do to touch the Holy of Holies. I buried my face in her neck instead, feeling it turn, in discernible stages, from Yiayia, into a cold parody of life.

Yiayia was there for my first communion, I am adamant that this is the case, even though I was barely a year old when I was baptised. I remember walking on my first birthday. I also remember Yiayia’s black eyes boring into me from the church iconostasis, where she was ensconced, even as I struggled to accept the fire that was raging down my throat. Her gaze commanded silence. I stopped crying and was still. My mother argues that I am conflating Yiayia with Saint Paraskevi, but in our church, the black clad Saint Paraskevi is situated at the north end of the iconostasis, whereas Yiayia was right next to the Royal Doors, wearing a red headscarf, holding my uncle Pavlo who died as a baby, in her arms.

My paternal grandmother, a frequent church-goer, always referred to communion as μεταλαβία, that which is passed on to be received, my maternal great grandmother, who rarely went to church, referred to it as κοινωνία. As a child, this word for me meant society, or community, and I could not understand why she asked me when I visited every Sunday, whether I had socialised, or communed. «Κοινώνσες μάνα᾽μ;» Nor could I understand why, when answering in the affirmative, she would invariably respond: «Άι, βοήθειά᾽ς,» my paternal grandmother having imparted that μεταλαβία was perhaps the most powerful of help mankind could ever receive.
Sometimes, I wasn’t sure what to answer. Sure I had taken communion, but I actually hadn’t socialised with any of the ‘aunts’ and ‘uncles’ waiting outside the church to greet my parents. Painfully shy, I would shun their company and walk right past them wordlessly to hide behind the corner, leaving my parents to catch up on the latest news. “No, I didn’t commune, Yiayia,” I would respond. “Sometimes, I get embarrassed.” As Yiayia was the Life-Giver, she needed no third party account of what had transpired, appreciating my predicament instantly for she could read my thoughts much as she allowed me the limited means to read some of her own. As I grow older, the thick black veil that bars entry to her thoughts gradually recedes and becomes transparent. When its completely fades away, I will know that my time on this earth is up. “Ignoring or denying the people around you is to slap the face of God,” she once pronounced. «Να επικοινωνείς». It is a terrible thing to slap the face of the Living God, almost as terrible as being slapped by the Living God oneself.
Yiayia never slapped me with her hands, only with her words. One Sunday afternoon, having been dropped off at her house earlier than usual, after asking me «Κοινών’σες;» and receiving the ritual answer, she asked me to tell her the time. “I don’t know how to tell the time in Greek, only in English,” I told her. That was an outright lie. I did not know how to tell the time at all, except for the hours. The Life-Giver locked my eyes upon her own and drew herself up to her full height of five feet. «Κοινών’σες είπαμαν μάνα᾽μ;» she enquired, flecks of sarcasm flying from her tongue. Then, stretching out her arm, she pronounced: «Να πεις τς μάνα᾽ς από μένα, μπράβο!» I returned home that night , her rebuke stinging my ears, and almost miraculously, began to tell the time.
Yiayia took communion for the last time at 4:35 in the afternoon. All three of my children took communion at exactly 10:35 in the morning. I know this because I glanced at my watch at the moment the spoon entered their mouths, in case Yiayia asked me later. I do not know at what time I took my first communion, because I could not tell the time then and neither could Yiayia. I know that that the last time I took communion, a few weeks ago was at 10:41 in the morning. «Αρτύθηκες πριν να κοινωνήσεις;» my mother asked me, as we emerged from the church later, refusing to kiss me, as I was now the repository of the Holy of Holies. Fasting before communion is mandatory, for how can you be full of Life, if you are full of foodstuffs already? And if you are already full of those things you desire, then how can you receive those things that the act of communication has to offer? Communion presupposes emptiness.
The truth was that I had not eaten in a day and it being the anniversary of my great-grandmother's death, my heart was heavy. I had not heard the Triumphal Hymn, nor had I with one voice and one heart glorified and praised His most honoured and majestic name. Consequently, the Body and Blood of Life burned its way down my oesophagus and into my stomach with such intensity, that I almost called out in alarm. It was then that her eyes pored once more into mine, relentlessly from the iconostasis, next to the Royal Doors. From the glass that covered her image, I saw reflected from the back wall of the church, the clock, stopped at 4:35. I suppressed my cry, and was still.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 27 July 2019