Saturday, October 24, 2020


My grandmother’s prayers usually lasted over two hours. Before the end, listening to the whispered tones of her entreaties from my bedroom across the hall, while being pinned to the mattress by the weight of the heavy hand woven woollen blankets she had brought with her from the village  I would fall asleep. Through the crack of the open door, I would see the reddish flickering glow of the kandili in her bedroom, sending shadows galloping along the walls of the hallway. It was a long, undulating prayer, full of cadences that rose and fall, a constant ebb and flow of sussurated petitions as soothing as the waves of a moonlit sea. Here and there, the invocations were punctuated by my grandfather’s snores. And then…  

“Git, geliyorlar!” my grandfather’s voice would rasp urgently, as he began to thrash about under his bedclothes.  

“Saklan, seni öldürecekler!” my grandfather would cry, his voice quivering in terror. 

“Yere yat, kurşun sana yetişecek!” the rafters shook as my grandfather’s voice steadily crescendoed  into a roar of despair.  

Abruptly, my grandmother’s prayers would come to a stop. 

 “My God, Kosta, have you wet yourself, or something? The bed is dripping with sweat.” My grandmother was up now, removing towels and sheets from the wardrobe in my room. 

“No grandmother, I haven’t.” 

“I’m not talking to you. I’m talking to your grandfather. Listen. After all that, he’s snoring his head off again and I need to change the sheets. You go to sleep.”  

She passed her hand over my hair and stroked my hair for a second before recoiling in shock. “Good God, my boy. You are positively soaking in sweat. Tell me one attribute you didn’t inherit from your grandfather.”  

“Why does pappou always shout in his sleep, grandmother?” I wondered.  

“There is nothing wrong with him,” my grandmother chortled nervously. “He is probably dreaming that he is back home in the village, herding his goats.  Now get up, I need to change your sheets.” 

To say that my grandfather was taciturn was an understatement. You couldn’t even get a word out of him with a meat hook, as his friends used to tease. When not ensconced in his garden, he liked to sit in a corner away from company, listening to the discussions of those around him in silence. On the occasions when he would be asked a question that he did not want to answer, he would cough, mumble something in Turkish and then get up to go back into the garden again. 


“Pappou, were you in the war?” I asked him excitedly one day after Greek school.  

“Which one?” he lifted his eyes from the newspaper and looked at me sardonically.  

“I mean World War II, the OXI,” I informed him. 

“Yes, I was,” my grandfather responded crisply and placing his hand on the text in front of him resumed his slow, syllabic reading.  

“So what did you do? Where did you fight? What heroic deeds did you accomplish? How proud were you that you were fighting for your country?” I peppered pappou with questions.   

“These aren’t appropriate questions for young boys,” my grandfather snapped. 

I froze. My grandfather had never spoken to me in such  stern manner before.  

“But it’s for our homework for school. Our teacher told us to ask our grandfathers…” 

“Öğretmenine sıçayım!” (I shit on your teacher) my grandfather spat and stormed out of the room. That night, grandmother woke both of us up, floating in oceans of our own sweat. 

It would have been about eight years after my grandfather had died, on my day off from university, that I received a telephone call from my grandmother.  

“What are you doing, my boy?” 

“I’m researching. I have to hand in an essay tomorrow.” 

“It’s Spiliani’s today.” 


“Today is the feast of Panayia Spiliani.” 

“Well, long may she reign.”  

“Go to church and light a candle.” 

“Ok, but I really need to finish this now.” 

“I’m telling you to go, because if it wasn’t for her, you would not exist and neither would your father.” 

“What on earth are you talking about?” 


“Listen and I’ll tell you. My pregnancy was a complete torture. As much as your father never gave me any trouble as a boy, he certainly made my life a misery while he was in the womb. As for the birth, it was hell. I was in labour for two days and your father seemed to have no interest in coming into this world. I was screaming in agony, the mid-wife had thrown her hands up in the air and my mother was crying and telling everyone to send for a priest. 

            In the midst of all this, your grandfather rushes into the room, ignoring the mid-wife and his mother in law, and as if it was the most natural thing in the world, stands above my head and says with a grave voice: 


“Wife, there is a burden on my soul and if I do not deliver myself from it, it will drag you down as well.” 


“What are you rambling on about?” I answered through clenched teeth. Is it really the time or the place to be discussing your soul? Get out of here.” 


But your grandfather did not move at all. Unperturbed, he sighed: 


“I made a vow to Panayia Spiliani that has remained unfulfilled all these years. But it is a vow that carries a curse.” 


“What are you raving on about now, you godless peasant?” 


“It was in the war. You already know how most of the story goes. All day marches in the mud to get to the front line, hiding among the forest trees to escape Italian aerial bombardments, and when we got to the mountains, cold like you’ve had never felt before. It would pierce your skin and shatter your bones from the inside. And we were so hungry. My hunger pangs would almost double me over and cigarettes were nowhere to be had. If it wasn’t for Yianni, I would have gone mad.” 

“Who is Yianni,” I interrupted the narrative. 

“Well, do you know theio Christo?” my grandmother explained. “The one who starts crying and hugging you every time he sees you because you have your grandfather’s name? Yianni K was his father. Your grandfather’s best friend. There were inseparable, even closer than brothers, because they had come across the water together during the Catastrophe as children. I have no idea what they saw or experienced, but they were always together, chatting and confiding in each other in Turkish. It used to drive me mad. “Speak Greek, like proper Christians,” I would scold them and they would laugh and continue babbling away….” 

“I was on a mountain,” your grandfather continued. “In Kleisoura, in Cheimarra, “I can’t quite remember where he told me.” “The bullets were falling down upon us like rain, vanishing in the thick snow. We had no idea how to protect ourselves. The only thing we could do is go forward. At some stage, Yianni, another soldier and I became disoriented by the artillery fire, the bullets whining past us, the smoke and the bombardments and were cut off from the rest of our detachment. We had no idea where we were. 

We reached a pass, by a large boulder, behind which there was a small, natural trench. A little further away, we spied two or three men crouching behind some rocks.  

“These must be our guys,” Yianni said brightly and he took a step forward. I pulled him back. The men started shouting “fratello, fratello,” and I realised they were Italians who were trying to surrender, or at least assure us of friendly intentions. I hesitated however. If they knew we were only three, they would shoot us. Therefore, I signalled to Yianni to remain where he was and leaned my head slightly to get a better look. Our inactivity had roused their suspicions and they began firing at us. A hail of bullets assailed us and we could barely move. It seemed as if we were done for. 

“Panayia Spiliani,” I prayed in terror. “Save me and I will light a candle for you as tall as I stand.” 

At that moment, a bullet hit my helmet. All time stood still as I felt it pierce the metal, enter and then exit on the other side. My face became filled with blood. Stumbling, I sprained my ankle and fell down. 

“Kosta, are you hurt? Stay there, I’m coming?” Yianni shouted. 

“Go! There are coming,” I rasped urgently. 

“Can you drag yourself here? I’ll give you some covering fire,” Yianni insisted as the bullets danced around us madly. 

“Take cover, you are going to get yourself killed,” I cried. 

Ignoring me, Yianni began to approach me. 

“Lie down ! You are going to get shot,” my voice steadily crescendoed  into a roar of despair. It was too late. Yianni was lying at my feet dead. A bullet had hit him square in the forehead, whereas in my case, it had only grazed my scalp. He died because when I made my vow, I didn’t ask Panayia to protect him, the boy who had dragged me out of the ruins of my family home in Aydin, who picked me up as I stumbled when the Turks were after us. I only thought of myself. That’s why I say it is a cursed vow. 

“A vow is a vow and you need to fulfil it. Now,” I urged him. Your grandfather sent to the monastery of Panayia Spiliani, near Pythagoreio, the candle was lit and your father came into this world. That’s why I’m telling you: Go to church, light a candle and receive her blessing.” 

The evening before my grandmother passed away, her face was bathed in an otherworldly light. Calm and serene, she grabbed my arm tightly when I leant forward to kiss her and whispered in my ear:  

“I’m going soon. I saw your grandfather in a dream last night. He was holding a broom and when I asked what he was doing, he said: “I’m sweeping a path for you.” Now listen. If for whatever reason the road takes you up those mountains, light a candle for the repose of your grandfather’s friend’s soul. Otherwise, only the Lord knows how am I going to bear your grandfather’s sighs and groans for an eternity…” 

“We buried them here”, old vavo-Agni pointed to a spot in her garden two months later, marked by a misshapen metal cross. “My father, that is. I was young. I merely watched. And he made us memorise their names so we can pray over them in secret. Twenty years in Burrel prison if you got caught doing that. They made the teachers ask us: “Do you have any Greeks buried at home? Do your parents pray at any particular point in the garden?” But I told them nothing. I still remember the names: Spyridon D, Dimitiros M, Yianni K…” 

My heart skipped a beat. 

“Wake up, wake up,” my wife is shaking me. “Did you wet yourself, or something? You are soaking in sweat. You are talking in your sleep again. What are you dreaming about?” 

“I don’t know,” I pant, sharply. 

“Do you know that every time you have a nightmare you cry out in Turkish?” 

I offer no response, for I have already resumed snoring, as the flame from the kandili flickers, before a photograph of my pappou. 


First published in NKEE on Saturday 24 October 2020