Maria (Chapter 16)
Posted by: Maria Atalanti
Published on: 19/12/2021Back to Blog
(This story is the product of fiction, and all characters are fictional; the historical elements included are real)
Nicosia, spring 1927
They arrived in Nicosia around five o’clock in the afternoon. Mrs. Vassilia was waiting for them with the table set up with all the Cypriot sweets: ladies fingers, bourekia, (small stuffed patties) cookies and small sandwiches with halloumi. While they were taking their luggage in the house, she quickly prepared a teapot with English tea.
They all sat around the table and between a lively discussion to complete their news and first impressions of Cyprus, they also tried Mrs. Vassilia’s sweets. James could not get enough of eating the patties, while Alexandra found the ladies fingers very tasty and delicious the halloumi sandwiches.
Maria felt very happy with this wonderful company that filled her home. She had an exceptional feeling of fullness from the presence of the people she loved. In the background, however, there was an anxiety about the wooden box and its contents. Until now, none of them had talked about it.
After the afternoon tea, her daughter went to their room to breastfeed and put her daughter to sleep. Maria sat down with James in the living room, and the talk about the wooden box, was brought up. He handed it over to Maria, who stayed a few minutes looking at it not knowing how to open it, but deep down terrified about its contents.
James, realizing her awkwardness, took it from her hands, took a sharp object and pulled out the nails. He lifted the cover and showed its contents, overflowing on the floor. It was filled with letters that were never sent, multipage texts and a thick notebook that had written on its cover in Greek:
For Maria – The story of her life as narrated by Mother Ayşe.
James, although he could not read what was written on the cover of the notebook in thick letters, he realized its meaning and gave it to Maria, leaving the room discreetly.
She was left holding it in her hands and reading the black letters again and again, as she was not able to understand their meaning. Then she turned and looked at the rest of the contents of the box: letters yellowed by the age, speeches and articles written by her teacher, scattered on the floor, as if they were claiming the right to exist, after so many years. It was the voice of her teacher coming out of the wooden box.
She was still holding the thick notebook in her hands, without having opened it, when Alexandra entered the living room. She sat next to her and asked her tenderly:
-Do you want us to read it together?
-Thank you very much, but I don’t think so, Maria replied. The Greek you know is very little – what I taught you until the age of ten – and I would like to read it first. I don’t know what’s in it, but it certainly won’t be pleasant. I will wait after dinner and translate the important points to you in the morning. Now I want to enjoy you and your presence in my home.
Saying this, she got up, picked up the contents of the box from the floor and tidy them up. Then she went to the kitchen to help Mrs. Vassilia with the preparation of the dinner.
When they sat down at the table, almost none of them were hungry, after the rich afternoon tea they had taken. So, despite the delicious food that Mrs. Vassilia had prepared, they ate very little. Deep down, all three of them were anxious about the content of the thick notebook.
After dinner, they took their tea and James and Alexandra discreetly withdrew to their bedroom, leaving Maria alone. She did not put it off any more. She took the notebook in her hands and began to read.
As the text was written in first person, the way mother Ayşe had narrated it, Maria thought she was listening to her speaking. She watched her sitting in her armchair and tell the story. It seemed to her like a fairy tale, which did not concern her, and she had difficulty identifying with its content, especially in the first pages.
In the beginning, Mother Ayşe was talking about herself and the fact that while she was born a Christian, the harsh circumstances of the time made her a Muslim. Then she was talking about her son, how much she had spoiled him, and it was obvious that she was trying to justify him for his actions.
She read several pages until she reached the point where she was referring to her mother. She put a mark on the page to start translating for Alexandra:
-My son traded. He collected the carobs from the villages and took them to Skala for export. He was making a lot of money from this job, and he was rich. This made him proud and believe that any woman he wanted would become his. I used to say to him: Son, find a girl from our village and get married. Don’t look in other villages. And don’t look at Christian women. Your father will never let you marry any Christian. He didn’t listen to me. He had become conceited.
-We were living in Vretsia. The inhabitants of the village were both Turks and Greeks. I knew that my husband had agreed with Fatma’s father to get them married. Fatma was rich, and my husband liked riches. I tried to tell my son about it, but he thought he could defy his father. My husband was a tough man. He beat my Suleiman and threatened him that he would take everything he had and leave him with nothing. He was forced to marry Fatma, but he never loved her.
-One day he went to a village in Paphos, called Emba. There he saw a girl he really liked. He fell in love with her immediately. He was told she was a Christian, but he didn’t care.
-This girl, as soon as she noticed the Turk who was looking at her, ran to hide in her house. My son followed her, and then he learned of her origins. She came from a noble family, Frankish. Her father was a descendant of John Denores who was the Vailos (commander) of Emba and the surrounding villages, during the Franks occupation of Cyprus. I do not know how her father’s family stayed in Cyprus when everyone else left. Eleonora, that was her name, was a lady. Very pretty, my son, Maria, looked like her a lot. There was no prettiest girl in the whole of the Paphos region. She could also read and write. A rare thing for the time.
-Her father, when his daughter told him what had happened, as well as other villagers who saw my son following her, got angry but also scared. The Turks, then, had great power, did what they wanted, and no one could find justice. He sold all his property and left Emba.
-When my son went back, they had disappeared. Suleiman became furious, he threatened the villagers to tell him where they went, but no one knew. Meanwhile, Fatma learned the story and began to be unimaginably jealous. My son didn’t want her in the first place, after they didn’t even have children, he almost hated her. I was trying in every way to bring them together, but things were very difficult.
-No man can escape from his fate, my son. A few years had passed, and my son went to another village of Paphos, Statos. He was thirsty, and he passed from the public fountain to drink water. There he saw Eleonora. She was filling her jugs with water from the fountain and loaded them on her donkey. My son hid so as not to see him. On the donkey sat a little girl, beautiful too. She was her daughter, Maria. He went crazy with jealousy.
-He asked and found out what had happened. When they left Emba, they went to Statos and bought the largest house at the highest point of the village. As I have said, they were rich. Her father chose the strongest young man of the village and gave him to her, as a husband. His name was Alexandros. He wasn’t rich, but he was very strong. Thus, he believed, his daughter would be protected.
Maria stopped here in shock. She realized that tears were coming out from her eyes, non-stop. She could hardly see to read. But what riveted her was her father’s name.
-Alexandros, she whispered. My father was called Alexandros.
She remembered her own insistence on naming their daughter Alexandra and the struggle she made to convince her husband. She did not know why, but an inner need pushed her to that name. Her father’s name!
She got up and prepared a cup of tea, trying to calm down. She looked at the clock of the wall. The time was 2.30 in the morning. She was in no mood to sleep. She would read the story up to the end. It was the story of her life and as tragic as it was, she had to know it.
She heard the child in the room crying and realized that Alexandra got up to breastfeed. Not many minutes passed, and Alexandra came out of the room and came to her. It was obvious that she was restless and seemed sleepless.
-How are things going? She asked her. Have you read the notebook that your teacher left for you?
-Your grandfather was called Alexandros, Maria replied with tears in her eyes, as if this was the most important thing she read.
-I haven’t finished reading it yet. Although what I had known so far led in one way or another to a faint outline of the story, it’s shocking to read the details.
-Do you want to talk to me a little about what you have learned? Alexandra begged her.
-No, it’s better until I’m done. I can imagine what had happened, but I want to read it, no matter how painful it may be. It won’t be easy for you, either. Try to sleep, and we will talk in the morning.
Reluctantly, Alexandra returned to her room and Maria took a deep breath and continued reading.
-My son, from that moment, went crazy. He realized that now he could no longer make Eleonora his own, but the worst thing was that she had had a child, while he had been childless. A thousand devils entered his mind.
-My son, love can be a great disease. The greatest that exists if you cannot have the one you love. Suleiman was always used to get what he wanted, and that is my fault. It is very bad to give children everything they crave. They become greedy, greed rules their lives and leads them to dark roads.
-From that moment on, he was constantly missing. He didn’t tell anyone where he was going and was away for days. Fatma was about to go crazy with jealousy. My husband was already dead, and he had no one to fear any more. I threatened him that I would curse him if he did something bad – a curse he was very afraid of – but at that time, he did not listen to me with at all.
-One day he came and told us that he bought a house away, and we would go to live there. Fatma was crying, she didn’t want to leave the village and her family. He gave us no option.
-Tomorrow we leave, he said. Take with you only your clothes. For everything else, I have taken care of myself. I’ll take you to a palace that has it all.
-The next day we left. We took with us only our clothes and Eminé, whom I had as an adopted servant daughter. No one knew where we were going. All our relatives were crying and with them, we were crying too.
-He brought us here, to this house. We didn’t know anyone, and no one knew us either. He ordered us not to hang out with the neighbours. The house was a real palace, but for us, it was a prison. We had both lived in the village, with our relatives and friends, we used to open our door, to say good morning to everyone, to have coffee with the neighbours, we chatted. Here we could not even say good morning.
-After a few days, he left again. We were both in agony what would happen this time. One night he returned and held a bundle in his arms. As soon as he walked in, he opened the bundle and we both saw a little girl around three to four, crying silently. She was terrified. He gave the little girl to Fatma and told her, “This is our daughter.”
-What happened then, my son, is indescribable. Fatma suffered a hysterical crisis and she was screaming. She grabbed the little girl and tried to drown her. We barely saved her from her hands. The little girl, Maria, began to cry in terror, Fatma was shouting hysterically, beating herself, and not even Suleiman’s power could hold her back.
Here Maria stopped reading. She had been drowned by her sobs. The nightmares that have been woken up for years in her sleep were echoes of this scene.
-How cruel, how inhuman, she thought. She had really been stolen! Mrs. Aydan was right. And mother Ayşe, how could she tolerate this?
She was no longer able to control her thoughts. Her brain stopped working. She leaned her head into the armchair, exhausted and almost fainted.
In the morning, when Alexandra got up, she found her mother sleeping in the armchair holding in her hand the notebook with the thick cover. Her chest was shaken by small groans, and it was obvious that she was suffering.
She was wondering if she should wake her up or not when Maria opened her eyes. They were all red. It seemed that she had cried a lot. But as soon as she saw her daughter, her face calmed.
-What’s going on, mother? What is written in this notebook? Alexandra asked her.
-I have read what I have always known deep in my soul. It is written what I had in my nightmares. I thought it was hard for both of us that your father made us live away of each other, at the age of ten. But it is nothing compared to what my own mother lived through!
-Tell me, mother, what is written in this notebook? I’m about to become crazy in agony.
-Sit down and I’ll tell you. I will translate to you the pages that directly concern my own life, because there are many details about the life of the Turkish family. I will translate these things to you later.
Meanwhile, James also woke up and sat down with them. Maria told them the story to the point where she had read it. Alexandra was in a state of shock. As a young mother, in love with her daughter, she could not imagine what her grandmother went through. Her brain was going to explode.
-What had happened next? James asked. Does it say anything about your mother and father?
-I haven’t read more, Maria replied. I will have to continue reading, and I will tell you later. Furthermore, I couldn’t stand it any more.
-Mother, you should lie down for a while, Alexandra urged her. You look exhausted. Nothing will change if we find out later, what had happened. These events took place many years ago and nothing can be corrected now.
-Yes, James agreed. As a doctor, I recommend that you to lie down immediately. We’ll find out later. You should know that we are by your side, and we will support you in whatever comes up.
Maria did not object. She agreed to lie down. Her strength had abandoned her. She just asked them:
-Please name your daughter Eleonora, after my mother.
-We will call our daughter Eleonora – Maria. Be sure of that. It’s the most beautiful name in the world!
Before Maria lay down, she had the tea that Alexandra prepared for her and passed by their room to see little Eleonora – Maria, who was sleeping blissfully.
She had already been lying on her bed when she heard Mrs. Vassilia arriving for the daily care of the house. She would not want her to see her in this miserable state and was glad that she could be locked in her room. Alexandra, with the little Greek she knew, would be able to justify her.
She closed her eyes and while she was in the state between sleep and awake she saw her teacher in front of her, smiling, telling her:
-Do not be afraid, Maria. Everything will be fine. Today you have opened the door to the dark past, to let it go. The bright future that is coming, awaits you.
She felt a calmness and with the smiling face of the teacher, who alternated with that of Kristian, dominating, she fell asleep.
Photo: From the book of John Thomson “Through Cyprus with a Cmera in the Autumn of 1878”