A loaf of bread
Posted by: Maria Atalanti
Published on: 20/06/2021Back to Blog
Dedicated to Aunt Elpiniki who is still alive and in memory of all the others mentioned in the story. A story based on real events.
Stylis was walking as fast as he could, but his limp leg was not helping him. He had set off from his village in deep darkness and feared that the sun would set, and he would still be on the road. But most of all, his heart was heavy. He would go back empty-handed.
His five children and his pregnant wife were waiting for him at home. They were expecting him to bring bread for them to eat. The last piece they had, blue from the mould, he took it with him, along with a few olives to eat on the road. But he was not in the mood to eat. His mouth was bitter, and his body exhausted. He was in utter despair and feared there was no hope of anything changing.
He brought his life to mind. He had been a handsome young man, with green eyes, brownish-blond hair, first in dance and racing. But most of all, he had a nightingale’s voice, and that enchanted women. His successes exceeded the limits of his village and he had to praise it, he had kept in his arms many women, married and single. That is how he got the damage to his leg. One night as he was lying down with a married woman, her husband came back, and he jumped the wall, two meters high, and hurt his leg. He has been laming ever since, and he could not work.
His wife, Maria, was a capable woman. She used to work in the fields and manage to raise her children at the same time. She was taking more care of them than the other women in the village. She used to carry water from the spring on her shoulder and give them a bath once a week. Furthermore, she used to whitewash the house with lime, twice a year, and everything was shining in there. He knew he was not considered a great father because he could not work hard, but he did care about his children. His heart was breaking now that he was going home without the bread, he had promised them.
In years ’27 and ’28 it rained a little. From the few fields, they had gathered enough wheat to have bread to eat all year round. They had also enough to pay the tax to the British. One-tenth of their crop. There was nothing left for sowing for the next year. He went to his friend and godfather of his son and begged him:
– Kubaro Christos (best man and godfather of my child), give me a sack of wheat to sow, and when I harvest, I’ll give you back two sacks.
His Kubaro Christos, the rich man of the village, who had baptized his second son, Christos, had no emotional qualms. His profession was a loan shark, one of many who abounded in the countryside of Cyprus at the time.
-I’ll give you, Kubaro, but if you don’t bring me the two sacks of wheat you have promised, I’ll take your field.
Stylis accepted. He did not have a choice. He prayed to God that there would be enough rain that year. In ’29 – ’31 it rained enough and Stylis kept his word and returned the two sacks of wheat. But this meant that when the time came to sow in the autumn of 1931, the wheat was not enough, so he went back to his Kubaro. The scene was repeated, but in ’31–’32 the drought was one of the worst ever in Cyprus. They hardly got any wheat, and the Kubaro did not hesitate to take away the only field they had to support the family.
Now, in early ’33, there has not been any rain in two years. His wife, Maria, was pregnant with their sixth child and they had nothing to eat. They had to sell to the Kubaro their cow for pennies. He could not buy wheat from anyone in the village, because no one had any stock. In the mountains of Paphos, where was their village, Statos, the land was not thick and fertile as in the plains and the little wheat that they were growing was barely enough for each family to meet its needs for a year. If next year there was not enough rain, they did not have anything to eat. Simple things. If you were poor, you expected the fields to feed you. If the fields were not providing, you became hungry.
In his despair he decided to go on foot to Ktima, the city of Paphos, to buy a loaf of bread or two, if he could find any. With any money left, maybe he could buy some wheat so they would be fed for a longer time. He started in dark from the village and walked for hours. Maybe five, maybe six, who knows. When he arrived at Ktima, he went to the market and looked for bread or even a little wheat. Nothing. The few that existed, were sold. They were taken by the villagers from villages closer to the city. By the time he arrived, it was all gone.
He did not wait for a minute. It did not make any sense. He began to climb the road towards his village. It was the end of March. Normally nature would have been full of life, the fields should be green, the crops would wave in the slightest blast of air, but the landscape was poor, deprived. He was walking for about an hour, and suddenly, he felt tired. He sat under an olive tree. He started thinking about his children.
His Vassilia, the oldest one, was about 11. She was a serious and intelligent girl. When she went to elementary school for a couple of years, the teacher considered her as the best student. But they took her out of school because she had to take care of the little ones and graze the goats with her brother, Christos. What do you need education when you do not have to eat! She grew up, he thought, it is time to start bringing money to the family. They could not go on like this. They would starve to death. He could send her as a maid to Nicosia. In a rich home. Not where; he would investigate it well. In a serious family. His Vassilia, was capable. She would succeed. He found out that she could earn up to five pounds per year. She would send the money to them, and they would not be afraid to go hungry any more. She would not be needing any money because she would eat and sleep in the house where she was going to work. He had no choice. They had to live.
His Christos, now about 10, was also serious and intelligent. They looked like their mother. In a year’s time, he could go and work in a house as an assistant. He was going to send him to Nicosia, too. So, the two of them can be close. They were very much fond of each other. One would take care of the other.
And then there was his Neophytos. His favorite. He looked like him. He was unruly, he fought with the children of the village, he did not submit. He was a smart boy, full of spirit. But he should go to work, too. It would be hard for him to reconcile, but he had to. He was going to send him to Nicosia, too, so the other two could keep an eye on him.
Thinking of his Eleni, made his heart tight. She did not grow up like the other children. She was not eating, she was thin, her belly was swollen and on her face all you could see were two big eyes. She was often seen taking dirt from the walls with her finger and eating it. He did not know if his Eleni was going to live. Then there was his baby, Susanna. She was only two years old; she was very pretty, and she had two brilliant black eyes. If Vassilia manage to get a job in the city, maybe these little ones would have a better life. Maybe they would even take Eleni to the doctor!
Then he remembered once when he went to Ktima and bought three oranges. How delightful were his children when he brought them home! They had never seen oranges before! But his thought remained unfinished. A crackling bird woke him up from his daydreaming. Now he was going home empty-handed. Despair dominated him again. He took a sip of water and got up to start. There was not much time left until dark. He had to hurry.
-Hello, fellow villager, heard a voice behind him.
He turned around and saw someone approaching. He was tall, handsome, and was walking next to his donkey. The donkey was loaded with two sacks of wheat. His clothes were not full of patches like his. He felt a sting in his heart. What a difference between the two of them!
At first, he did not recognize him, but as he approached, he realized he was Andreas Mavriou, from the nearby village, Houlou.
—Hello, fellow villager, answered sadly.
They kept walking together. Andreas was a pleasant and friendly man and was trying to bring the conversation to life. He was talking about the drought, about the lack of goods, about the British. Stylis answers were short, he was not in the mood for much talking. His soul was heavy, and his body was exhausted. His limp leg did not help him develop his step and Andreas, with courtesy, lowered his own speed.
At one point, he could not bear it and asked him:
-What’s wrong with you, fellow villager? You look withered.
Stylis swallowed. To talk or not to talk. He seemed like a good man, but he was rich. Would he understand his own pain, his own tragic position? He raised his eyes and looked at the horizon for the first time. He saw the afternoon light shimmering sweetly over the mountains of his homeland. A feeling of hope filled his soul, as he considered the light being a sign from God. He took courage and spoke slowly:
-We have nothing to eat at home. I have five children and my wife is pregnant. I sold our cow and went to Ktima to buy a loaf of bread and some wheat, but I didn’t find anything. I go home empty-handed, and I don’t know what to say to my children.
Andreas, without answering, opened his sack and took out a loaf of bread and gave it to him:
-Take it, he told him. I had bought two loafs of breads; you take one to feed your children.
Stylis was surprised. He could not talk. His eyes were filled with tears.
-Thank you, thank you! Let me pay you, he whispered.
-I don’t want to be paid; Andreas answered. In these difficult times, we all must live. When we get to my village, come to my house, to unload one sack of wheat and the other one you take it with you. You may return my ass tomorrow. I don’t want any payment. When better times come, you give me back a sack of wheat.
Stylis almost got down on his knees and kissed his feet. Was he a man or an angel from God?
It was dark when Stylis arrived at his house and handed out the bread to his children. Maria looked at him speechless when he told her the incredible story. But one thought tormented the minds of both. How to thank this man? In the absolute poverty they lived in, they had nothing to give him!
On April 17, 1933, Maria gave birth to her sixth child. Stylis was sitting in the village café when he was told he had another daughter. He started right away. Not for his house. He went to the village nearby, Houlou, to Andreas’ house.
-Kubaro, he called him. I have nothing to give you for the kindness. Today my wife gave birth to a daughter. Do you want to be her godfather?
Andreas baptized Stylis’ daughter. They named her Elpiniki (Hope – Victory). Like the hope that rose that day, as the sun set and as the victory of a man’s greatness, against the cruelty and misery of the society of Cyprus of 1933.
Note: The people in the photograph are of the same period, but they are not the persons mentioned in the story.
If you want to read more information about this historical period, follow the link below:
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