by Christine B.
A young girl comes of age in a remote Greek village during World War 2.
| Theodora was happy she beat Petros to the walnut tree. The summer sun was pitching towards sleep behind the western mountains and the light was perfect. She snuggled into her favorite nook at the tree’s base and reclined luxuriously, breathing in the view to the east. The wheat fields on the other side of the path sloped away from her, tinged with youthful green, rippling in the breeze. They reached out like a blanket towards the abrupt rise of the range where Mount Velia and Mount Akio turned purple and blue as the sun made for the opposite horizon. Theodora loved having this moment to herself, when the world would slow and soften, time only intruding through the imperceptible shift of shadows. Leaning against the walnut, she swore she could feel the world turning.|
She did not realize Petros was beside her until he held a cigarette in front of her gaze. Her eyes watered as they shifted focus and she blinked rapidly while the world sped up around her. Theodora took the cigarette and held it out expectantly for a light. Petros had undone the first few buttons of his shirt and his temples were beaded with sweat. He was trying to control his breathing as he fished for his matches. He was a wiry boy, always having his bony frame pinched and clucked at by his mother and sister. His clothes only made it worse, having been made for his sturdier brothers. It was easy to miss that Petros was built for distance and endurance. Theodora was glad he had run to meet her. The flush of exertion made his dark eyes bright.
He lit two cigarettes and they puffed in silence for a few minutes. Theodora smoothed out her dress, which she had altered to suit her developing curves. She hoped Petros would notice but was prepared to deny it all if he dared to comment. She stole a few glances and was pleased to see that he was stealing his own. With a blush, he eased against the tree and self-consciously rested his arm lazily against a bent knee, considering the mountains in the distance.
“Do you ever think about going there?” he asked, pointing with his cigarette towards Mount Velia. Theodora took a long drag and furrowed her brow.
“To do what? We have mountains that are closer.”
“Not the mountains. To Siatista. Or Kozani, we’d be able to see it if the mountain wasn’t in the way.”
“No.” she replied confidently, honestly, and without sorrow. “Why are you asking?”
“Because I want to go and I want you to come with me.” he said, forcefully extinguishing his half-done cigarette in the dirt. “I want to go to all those places, and then Athens, and then America. I have cousins there. My father gets letters and they all have good jobs, nice homes. Here everything is always the same. We could have an exciting life.”
Theodora could hear the strength of his dreaming in his voice, which was more animated and eager than she had ever heard, and it frightened her. She had always assumed that Petros would be in her future, and her future was in their village, where their families had always been and would be. She would crush him if it would make him stay.
“I don’t need to go to those places. We have nice homes, we have work here. Besides, it is selfish. You’ve seen what happens when people leave, everyone struggles. I know they send money, but no one ever comes back.”
She filled her tone with warning. She saw Petros square his jaw and squirm, refusing to meet her eyes. Theodora felt a pang of remorse for her harshness. She crushed her cigarette in the dirt and took his near hand in both of hers, resting her chin on his shoulder and smiled.
“Stay here with me. There is so much bad news. I don’t want to be anywhere near Germans and Italians and British tearing each other apart. I’d much rather have a small world that is beautiful and quiet and mine. How can you argue with this?” she motioned towards her landscape, now in Technicolor at golden hour. “And anyway, to do what you want, we’d have to get married.”
“We’re almost old enough.” he said, softly placing his cheek against her dark curls. “I wouldn’t go without you. Maybe you will change your mind.”
“Maybe so. But, maybe so for you, too.”
Petros squeezed her hands and Theodora accepted delay as a victory. Her smile became triumphant as the forces of the unknown receded. The teenagers watched golden hour turn to a ghostly blue with no further conversation besides the reassuring press of their fingers against the other’s palms.
The rest of the summer passed without incident. Her father and brothers tended their fields and their livestock. She and her mother made pottery to sell in Grevena. She and Petros met under the walnut tree, where they now sat closer and spoke softer than they had before.
As the leaves above them began to turn gold at the tips, news began to trickle into the village. The Italians were marching through Albania, angry that Greece had joined the Allies. Her brother Georgios got his hands on an old atlas and showed her the countries fighting the war, saying the Italians were likely to stay far west and not bother them. Theodora tried to find their village on a map, and could not. Any neighbor returning from Grevena would be accosted for updates. Theodora found the war inconsequential for a village too small to appear on a map. There was comfort, resiliency, and protection in being too small to notice. At Christmas, her parents prayed for the Greek troops mounting the counter-offensive, and Theodora prayed for Petros and the goats. In the spring, when the fields thawed, she woke up early to help with planting. And when Ioannis Parlitis, her father’s best friend, came and told them that Greece had surrendered to Germany on a wet April afternoon, she had asked if he wanted some loukoumi.
The changes were small at first. Summer came and her father and brothers worked their land as they always had. Her mother said that the Italians, Metaxas, the king, they were all the same, and at least none of them were communists. But the force of her grip that pulled Theodora from windows when Ioannis would visit, or led her from the table when her father and brothers sat with their coffee or ouzo, betrayed her casual tone. Under the walnut tree, Theodora tried to keep Petros from speaking about the war, begging to keep her one spot of quiet and beauty and forgetting.
She did not see the soldiers until a fuming August afternoon, when she walked home from Elena Kourides’s house barefoot with her sleeves rolled up. She quickened her pace as the house came into view, making for the water pump before her mother could see her dust-tanned legs. Her goal achieved, she crossed her legs like a stork and scrubbed her feet with her hands under the relief of the water’s underground chill. She closed her eyes to enjoy the sensation.
Theodora’s balance buckled in surprise, sending water over the front of her dress. There were three soldiers on the path towards the barn. Theodora thought they could have been local boys without their khaki uniforms and rifles, dark-haired and olive-skinned, sleeves rolled up to combat the heat. The middle one had stepped forward and was smiling at her behind wisps of cigarette smoke. He was handsome, tall and athletic like the actors in Elena’s magazines. She smiled sheepishly as she tried to arrange her soaked skirt. The soldier flicked his cigarette into the dirt and took another step towards her.
“Vuoi scopare?” he said, thrusting his hips towards her. The other two erupted in laughter as Theodora’s smile vanished. These words were alien, but she still knew them. For the first time, she felt unprotected in her own yard. She snatched up her stockings and held them to her chest, anxiously twisting the fabric.
“Go inside, Theodora.”
Her father stood on the steps to the kitchen. His mouth was a hard line, but his eyes were bright, the way they had been when she found a viper in the meadow when she was a child. Her father had slowly drawn her away, warning her to be quiet and calm. Theodora walked as calmly as she could manage to the threshold while her father circled counter-clockwise, putting his body between her and the soldiers. After she crossed the threshold, she sprinted for her bed, where she watched the sunlight from the window creep across the wall until she fell asleep.
That evening under the walnut tree, Theodora let Petros talk about the war. She let him speak uninterrupted until the sun’s golden glow was almost spent, quietly puffing her cigarettes, knees at her chest, watching the sea of wheat. She heard his voice in half-tones through the echoes of the Italian in her ears.
“Hey, are you okay?”
These words were closer, cutting through the echoes. Theodora turned and the tips of their noses touched. The corners of Petros’s lips were turned down in concern and his dark pupils scanned for the source of her tension. He made no motion towards her, waiting for her reply. Theodora let a sob escape her throat and buried her head in his chest, telling him about the Italians, and how she didn’t know what they said but it was crude and frightening, and how her father caught them, and after all she was still scolded by her mother about the stockings, which were warped and ruined. Petros put his arms around her and let her storm frustration and confusion on his shirt front.
“Why are they here?” she sputtered between sniffles, “What could we have that they want?”
“The farms. There are rumors they’re going to seize the entire harvest to feed the armies.”
“They can’t have it all, we need to eat.”
“So you’ll just march down to Grevena and tell them so?” he replied, and Theodora heard the lightheartedness in his jab.
“I would. Someone should. Fuck the Italians.”
She felt a laugh rise out of Petros’s chest. The shaking of her sobs morphed into shaking laughter to match him. He placed his hands on her shoulders and lifted her off his chest, gazing at her admiringly.
“Yes, fuck the Italians. The Italians, the Germans, the Bulgarians, fuck them all. They think they can do what they want, but they can’t. In a few months, they’ll be wishing they’d stayed home.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just that I’ve heard there are some people talking, trying to figure out what to do. We know how to fight here, too. This won’t last. But in the meantime,” he said, wiping a stray hair out of her face, “if that soldier ever comes back, you tell me, and I’ll kill him.”
Theodora pressed her lips against his and the last rays of sunlight evaporated from the treetops. Petros walked her home in the greying twilight with an arm protectively around her waist. Her mother stood by the front door, arms crossed, radiating her disapproval at her daughter’s late return. As she was herded to her bed, she caught a glimpse of her father in his bedroom. He had moved the dresser and dislodged bricks in the wall, where he was placing sacks of early grain.
At harvest, her father took their grain to the Italians and returned with a third of the sum of its worth. The Italians returned within the week and seized their best goats. Theodora hid in the house while they paced in the yard, looking for the soldier from the summer, but he was not among the group. The grain in the wall remained hidden.
The village withered in the winter cold. Her father carefully rationed their smuggled stores, stretching hunger to the limit to reach the spring. Theodora was irritable and light-headed often in the first few weeks, but as her sturdy body thinned, it accepted and dulled its constant hunger. Ioannis arrived with a newspaper and she caught a glimpse of the front page, a photo of a crowd of bone-thin children with their arms outstretched. At Christmas, she knelt with her mother and prayed for the starving children of Greece and blessed her family’s plundered fields, which had yielded just enough to keep them alive.
Petros’s naturally thin frame seemed to blend in with the dried wheat stalks during this time. They walked the outskirts of the village to keep warm and to keep from thinking about food. As the days grew longer, Petros began saying words she had never heard from him before.
“I can’t make it tomorrow.”
The winter of 1942 cast a strange spell over the village. Neighbors spoke as they trudged and jerked through the streets, but speech was disjointed and nonsensical. Those moving with purpose would suddenly stop, confused as to where or why they were on their path. An outsider would have sworn it was a commune of somnambulists acting out their puzzled dreams. They would have remarked on a seventeen year-old girl with blank black eyes, bundled in a few old coats that hung off her limbs, who could be beautiful if she was not buried under cold and snow and want.
One morning, the first green shoots reached for the sun and a whisper of warmth kissed the sleeping girl awake. Theodora awoke to find a hungry ghost in her rippled mirror, a gangly, grey creature whose lips could not smile. Her clothes, so carefully tailored to hug her new and sturdy womanhood, hung loose from its frame. Theodora took the mirror down from the wall and slid it under the bed. She descended to find her parents and eldest brother in the kitchen, all with the new-waking surprise in their eyes. Markos, the younger boy, could not be found.
The Aslanides ventured outside to see what had become of the farm. Their last goats had died while the family slept. Theodora’s legs turned her away from the house and towards the mending sun, down to the main road and out of the village, where a wiry boy was drowning in a brown coat against the walnut tree. Petros jumped when the ghost approached him, but softened when he recognized the girl trapped in the body.
“Where have you been?” she demanded. She could read the length of his absence in his surprise and his searching eyes. She wanted to scream at him for not waking her. Petros glanced over either shoulder and down the lane before pulling her to his chest and closing his coat around her.
“Remember when I told you that there were people willing to fight? I found them. Your brother Markos, he took me to see them in the mountains.”
“We couldn’t find him. Is he okay?”
“He’s fine. You should be proud, he’s got his own squadron. We will make them pay for what they have done. The Italians do not know how to fight in the mountains, and andartiko is in our blood. We’ll be like the klephts that my papou used to tell me about. We’ll be heroes.”
Petros had the dreaming strength in his voice again, threatening to carry him beyond her reach. Theodora hugged him tighter to anchor him in her world.
“And while you go be a hero, what do I do?”
“They let women join, if you want,” he said hesistantingly. Theodora knew he was searching for a real reply. She was the only farmer’s daughter for miles who could not bear to slaughter a goat.
“Did you think of me at all before you decided to do this?” she sobbed. “Everything is falling apart. What if you and Markos don’t come back? What if the soldiers return? I don’t want to be alone.”
“I think I only thought of you when I decided to join,” he replied, burying his nose in her hair and speaking softly in her ear. “I kept thinking about what you said once, that this is a small place, but it is beautiful and it is ours. You are right. I never thought about it much before, but it’s all I care about now. We can’t let them take it from us.”
He kissed her and Theodora felt him reach into his back trouser pocket. This time, the tethers she had tried to place on him were too weak. Instead of despair, she felt buoyed, and wondered what it would be like to fly away with him.
“If the soldiers come back and try anything, you use this,” he said, and Theodora felt him press a knife wrapped in a scrap of leather into her hand. “Remember, they are not animals. Animals deserve respect. They are demons and deserve to go back to Hell.”
Theodora took the scrap of leather and sewed a makeshift sheath for Petros’s knife, keeping it tucked into her belt of her apron. The feeling of the weapon at her side gave her comfort while her brother and lover stalked the mountains for their prey. As the months grew warmer, news began to spread of the hunters. The village shook off its hungered slumber with stories of ruined Italian outposts and stolen weapon caches. Theodora imagined Petros and Markos at every victory, and every crushed Italian soldier had the face of her aggressor. Theodora and her mother quietly mended clothes and rolled bandages, while her father set aside what rations they could spare, all for Markos to bring back to the guerillas of Greece.
In the summer, one of the resistance groups marched into the village square and the captain gave a speech, promising a free Greece within the year. Theodora entwined her fingers with Petros’s and enjoyed the radiating warmth of the sun and his hope for the future. When Markos was away, she took over his duties to help her father and brother. Her hands blistered and calloused with the increased labor and the pain invigorated her.
At harvest, the Italians who were all the same soldier returned. Theodora saw one meet her eyes as she cut hay with her skirt tied up around her legs. The girl washing her feet at the water pump was not to be found. Theodora’s ghost limbs were strong from work and hunger no longer held her. She slowly reached for the knife at her belt and held her sickle firmly in the opposite hand. She held the soldiers gaze and channeled all her fury towards his pupils. The soldier saw the beautiful girl for the gorgon she was, and falteringly retreated behind his companions before his feet turned to stone.
In November, Petros met her under the walnut tree and told her he was not sure how long he would be gone this time. Theodora fought the hungry winter slumber by imagining that Petros was everywhere. She imagined him detonating explosives at Gorgopotamos. She imagined him celebrating Christmas in a mountain camp, hugging the sweater she had hastily patched for him. When she stood at the walnut tree and watched the distant smoke from Fardykampos hang in the late winter wetness, she imagined him running through the ocean of dormant wheat, victorious.
The ground was warm under her feet again when she found a note from Petros rolled on the kitchen windowsill. Theodora rushed through her chores so she could spend time on her hair. She tried to replicate the dramatic, pinned curls she had seen in a magazine Elena had miraculously obtained last summer. She watched the shadows move around the room as she tried and failed, tried and failed, before abandoning the exercise for her natural waves. Instead, she stole into her mother’s room and quietly dug in the night table for her precious, single lipstick, and ran on her toes to the road before her parents could see the burst of red on her face.
At the tree, she flung her arms around Petros and stained his lips red. He wrapped one arm around her waist and kept her there until her mouth hurt. When she looked at him, his tanned face sported a dark new scar, just shedding its healing pink under his chin. His hair was unevenly shorn and his impossibly thin limbs reached out even more like spindled tree branches. He released her waist and opened the linen sack he held with his other hand, laying out an old blanket, a loaf of bread, some mizithra, cherries, and a bottle of wine. Theodora’s eyes widened at the riches before her. Petros cut her protest short, pressing her finger to his lips.
“It’s a special occasion,” he said.
She sat down with him and accepted a cup of wine, which was not good, but had the sweetness of the world that had been. She looked out towards Mount Velia and Mount Akio as the dying sun flared gold in daily protest, and for the first time in three years, she felt the world moving. Petros handed her a piece of bread and cheese and she smiled as she chewed.
“What’s so special?” she asked. “Except that you are home?”
“People don’t know yet, but the Italians are done,” he said, and took a long drink of wine. “The small units are already gone. The main posts are packing up. In a few days, they will be gone from Grevena. We won.”
Theodora set her cup down and, as carefully as she could, flung herself over him again. Joy seeped into every pore, for her family, for her village, for her small world that could begin to rebuild its peace and quiet. She laughed, freely and loudly, in alien happiness.
Free Greece burned bright and briefly. The andartiko had pushed their ancient cousins out of the mountains and issued an invitation to a deadlier foe. The Germans, stung by the incompetence of their fallen ally, would not let the land heal for long. As the summer waned, news began to spread of the northern men, better trained and more ruthless than the Italians, who were not afraid of fighting in the mountains. The night before Petros returned to the resistance, they did not speak, just wrestled into adulthood in her father’s barn.
The news came in creeping bursts. First it was harassment, then raids, then whispers of whole villages reduced to ashes. Theodora shivered when she heard the tales, shivered from the increasing cold, shivered so often that her body felt a constant vibration. She began to wonder what she would be praying for this Christmas.
It was her brother, Markos, captured by the Germans and strung up on an oak on the road to Siatista. One of his lieutenants arrived on the solstice, bearing his pistol and his cap. While her parents wept in front of the Theotokos, she stared and wondered how the woman and her child could keep their slight smiles in the face of so much pain.
The first months of 1944 were marked by survival. The quiet village became even quieter, with neighbors seeming to dart between doors like harried mice, lest they alert the prowling monsters in the hills. Theodora and Petros stole their hours fighting off the winter cold and reminding each other that their bodies were still whole and present. They did not speak much, but each memorized the others small details, in case they would have no more reminders.
The quietness of the village kept the borders of Theodora’s world intact. The Germans seemed to swirl around them, but the sun gained strength and the frost gave way to spring’s wet greeness, which gave way to summer’s baking, dusty abundance. During the sun’s longest evening journey, Petros met Theodora under the walnut tree. She went to kiss him, but for the first time in months, he wanted to speak and his eyes were shining.
“We have heard that the Americans and the British are in France. They have been panicking for months, but it may really be over soon. Just a little longer, and we can put things back the way they were.”
His hope was infectious and it bored its way into her. The floodgates of Theodora’s imagination opened and she saw her parents healthy and content, her brother happily married, her neighbors parading with palms, her small and beautiful world arranged in harmony. Her home was an enduring thing. The soft girl with fear of the world gave way to a knowing woman, her soft clay skin hardened by the heat of pain and sacrifice. She smiled and look into Petros’s large, black eyes.
“When it is over, and everyone is well, I want to do what you said. I want to go with you and see Kozani, and Athens, and America. I’ve never seen the ocean,” she said.
He picked her up and swung her around, told her to study her atlas, and promised to return soon.
A beautiful summer day dawned weeks later, hot and comforting with perfect light. Petros would return soon. Theodora allowed herself a secret smile as she hung the washing with her mother, wiping the sweat from her brows. Out of the corner of her eye, a plume of grey reached over the trees between the farm and the village. A distant yelp, like angry dogs, began sounding. She tugged at her mother’s sleeve and pointed as the plume grew thick and black. The yelping sounded louder, closer, and swelled to a scream.
“Run,” her mother said. “Run!”
Adrenaline sent Theodora vaulting over the wooden fence of the wheat field. She heard her mother calling for her father and brother. When she turned to look, she saw her father sprinting, grasping her mother with one hand and Markos’s pistol in other.
“Run!Don’t look! Don’t stop!” he ordered.
The black plume was a cloud and the piercing screams were now punctuated with quick pops, like toasting wheat she had forgotten on the stove. Theodora stumbled with her arms in front of her face, blocking the growing grain stalks from her sight. She made for the outskirts, for the walnut tree, where she could climb into its green branches and hide in its safe embrace.
The pops came closer, but she kept her eyes forward as her father commanded. The tree came into view, and behind it the wheat and the pale outlines of Mount Velia and Mount Askio. Theodora knew that if she could make it to the tree, the future would be as she dreamed. She almost thought she saw Petros waiting, calling for her, waving at her to run faster.
Theodora pitched forward and her mouth filled with dirt. A strange warm wetness flowed over her chest and back. Through the blades of broken grass, but she could see the tree and the mountains and the field of wheat between them, rippling in the breeze. As the sun set in her eyes, she thought the wheat melted into a blue sea, cresting gently, as the world turned under her body and Petros called for her.