Karpathian Suite

by Kalliopy Paleos

Cousins’ Summer, 1974

Ours is a village of teeth. We see it from the dimly lit ferry, mountains dark in silver night clouds. Stone hovels clench together in grey-green brush against gnashing wind. Between them, narrow switchbacks too steep for the older mules to climb cut into the earth. Two can't walk abreast, and we plod forward in the morning heat, glossy hair chewed ragged, braided with salt. Empty windmills groan on bare crests of land.

Resurrection Mass, 1919

Marriage is for first-born girls. Not Maroukla, the fourth of five, sickly, brittle-boned. No room for her to sleep on the wooden soufàs with its carved railing and three steps chiseled with flowers and birds and vines. Maroukla keeps below with the one mule, the two sheep and the three goats. We need them more than you, Mother often laughs without smiling. Tend them well.

The first-born wore her vermillion brocade sakofoùstano to Saturday evening mass, hand-stitched by Mother all the dark winter. Her breast sparkled with dozens of gold coins big as Maroukla's dirty little palm. Easter Sunday, the first-born waits in the parlor, upright in her black kavaï and headdress encrusted with stitched flowers and silver baubles. Two or three suitors bring sweets, and the kitchen sister, Mirofóra, her own kavaï tattered, calls Maroukla to help. But no quick step presses the wooden ladder.

At midnight of the Resurrection vigil, the village’s newly decorated Captain had gazed through candles rising and falling, making crosses of light. His silence drifted through chanting to the dark corner of the maidens’ balcony. In one flicker, Maroukla blossomed. The creaking boat lay in the water below, sailors at attention. She needed no moonlight on the footpath, carried nothing.

Her letter arrives just after the New Year. As if among a row of sepia faces smiling onto the old China harbor, Maroukla's house stands tall and spindly. Maroukla, though still frail, no longer coughs. The Captain taught her to clasp a silver chain and pearl vial round their favorite dog's neck; it skitters by itself among the pagodas, scampering back with bundles of herbs in the twinkling of an eye.

Cousins’ Summer, 1978

In Grandmother’s house, we stack suitcases on the wooden table and chairs just inside the one door. Leaning from the wall, the inscrutable black-and-white faces of the dead stare past us. On the shelf by the radio, a china jar. Inside it, a tarnished collar. The soufàs awaits like an open tabernacle. Old mattresses are rolled up on it, each covered by its woolen blanket embroidered with initials we can’t decipher. A plastic doll wearing a pink-and-yellow sakofoùstano half-winks into space, warding off evil spirits.

Shanghai Massacre, 1927

From Admiral’s quarters on ship, Maroukla’s husband commands six officers with a sedan chair and ordinary shipmen for her trunks. They run, swords clanging against buckles.

Inside the northern city wall, the herbalist gulps hard. Fills wax-lined boxes with hardy seedlings and herbs from Xiaokunshan Mountain. Guttural locks snap shut.

Three jostling alleys away, the shriveled footbinder hisses: That dirty foreigner’s kitchen girl - no lotus feet. Jewels tinkle in the white curls climbing to the peak of her head.

Racing from window to window in their narrow latticed casements, Maroukla’s little dog yelps himself hoarse. His silver and pearl collar jingles.

On the topmost floor, Maroukla nestles silks and trinkets in trunks. Takes them out again. Little bells ring strangely in her ears: όμορφος ήλιος σήμερα, all is well, charming sun, όλα καλά . . .

Wild barking echoes from the corridor below. On her slow descent downstairs, Maroukla lingers, caresses her gleaming ebony chairs.

Thugs force the back door, grab the kitchen maid’s short black hair. Quick hiss of a warm knife. Blood splatters the tiles. Boots receding. Coarse hands twitch, still wet from rinsing the plucked chickens.

Arriving at the threshold, the herbalist stumbles in the blood. Leaves his crates and note on the table. Your native mountains will weaken you again. Remember me, and live. His footsteps leave slaps of blood on the cobblestones behind him.

Through the window, the sedan chair appears, bobbing ever closer. Maroukla crouches by her maid. The bell of her heart tolls deeply through her flesh: εκθαμβωτικός ήλιος σήμερα, hold us Lord, dazzling sun today, κράτα μας . . . Θεέ μου.

Cousins’ Summer, 1984

We worship in Grandmother’s little church, fresh painted in its stone courtyard. Candles over the centuries have left their shadowy crosses on the lintel. Within, icons glimmer like gold crowns in an old blackened mouth. Opposite the church, the one kafeneío and the only two grand houses. The first, closed for a hundred years. The other, opened once every summer by a crumbling widow. Shuffling, toothless, in her faded kavaï, she sweeps the dust from the square without a word. Then lowers onto her knees and crawls across the flagstones to the gilded pews where she sits, eyes riveted to the floor, and prays.

May 18, 2024

Kalliopy Paleos studied contemporary American poetry at SUNY Brockport and served as lecturer at King Faisal University in Saudi Arabia. Awarded a Rotary Foundation scholarship, she lived and taught in Montpellier, France also studying at Université Paul Valéry III. She now lives in New Jersey, where she teaches French. She has recently completed her third full-length novel translation from Greek, and her publications include poetry and prose in Mediterranean Poetry and The Ekphrastic Review.