Maria (Chapter 18)
Posted by: Maria Atalanti
Published on: 02/01/2022Back to Blog
(This story is the product of fiction, and all characters are fictional; the historical elements included are real)
Nicosia, spring 1927
-How did you understand that it was me, Maria, who was looking for you? She asked her, as politely as she could
-I had heard something when that teacher visited Mother Ayşe and I realized that you were taken by the English lady who came to our house at the time. It was easy to understand who was the English lady looking for me, now. So, what do you want from me? She asked abruptly
-First, I would like to offer you something, Maria suggested. Would you like a cup of tea, a cup of coffee?
-I don’t want anything. Just tell me what you want me about?
Before answering, Maria went to the buffet and took the box of expensive Swiss chocolates that her daughter had brought to her. She treated Eminé, who, for the first time in her life, had seen or tasted chocolate. She liked it so much that she got a second one.
-Take the whole box. It’s yours, Maria told her. I was looking for you, Eminé because I wanted to ask you if you knew anything about my parents. I spent my entire life not knowing who I am and where I was coming from. Now I have been in possession of some documents left to me by my teacher, Antonios Philippou, as recounted to him by Mother Ayşe, and so I know my origins. But if you know something more about my parents, since you live in Paphos, I would like you to tell me.
Eminé, chewing the chocolates, replied, full of bitterness:
-I see you have a daughter too! And you’re still beautiful! And rich! While I am an ugly old woman who never had children and I have lived all my life to serve master Suleiman, his twisted wife Fatma and mother Ayşe. I didn’t get married while I was young, I don’t have children, I have nothing in my life!
-I was stolen from my parents, Maria dared to say.
-So what? Eminé continued. My parents gave me to Mother Ayşe because they didn’t have to feed me, and they never cared about me. You have always been the beautiful, the lucky one. Mother Ayşe loved you, no one loved me.
Maria never expected to find a person who would envy her for the miserable life she made in the Turkish house. And yet this old woman, opposite her, considered her luckier than her!
-This is not possible, Mother Ayşe would love you, Maria said. She was a very good woman.
-Yes, she was so good that she left me her house in Vretsia when she died. But I was old, and I couldn’t have children any more. I then got married to a widowed drunken, who used to beat me for no reason, and fortunately he died in a few years. Now I am alone and waiting to die. Nothing else.
Maria felt depressed by this bitter confession by Eminé. It was difficult to oppose any argument to the blunt words she heard. However, she responded with a positive spirit, trying to encourage this life-disappointed woman.
-And yet Eminé, you live in your village, you have your own house, you are independent. I am sure that you have relatives and friends there. Since you didn’t have children of your own, you could help your family with their own children. I was not the child of the parents who raised me, and yet they loved me with the same strength that natural parents love. When you give love, you will get love, this is how the law of nature works.
Eminé looked at her without answering. Deep down she found justice in Maria’s arguments, but she was used to self-pity, and this was the way she wanted to face her life. She ignored Maria’s last words and continued, answering her original question:
-When you got lost, I often thought of you and envied you. I imagined that you became queen and travelled in a golden carriage. I wanted someone to come and pick me up from that awful house. When everyone died, and I went to Paphos, in my village in Vretsia, I started asking about you. Few remembered your story. Many years had passed, and everyone cared about their own sufferings.
-I knew that master Suleiman had stolen you from Statos village. I had so much curiosity that one day I went to the fairy of Panagia Chrysorogiatissa, with some Christian women from my village. You know, we also go to Christian fairies, it doesn’t matter that we are Muslims. This monastery is close to Statos. Many villagers were there. Some sold their goods; others went to pay their respects to the Virgin Mary.
-We sat, with my friends, in a place to have loukoumades (sweet traditional doughnut). Next to us was a group of women from Statos. We started talking between us, and I was not embarrassed to ask them if they knew the story of Maria, who had been stolen by the Turk Suleiman. The younger ones knew nothing, but an old woman looked at me suspiciously and asked:
-How do you know about Maria?
-I was working for master Suleiman, at his home in Chora, and I knew Maria. But she was lost from our house, and I think she was taken by an English lady, I replied. I’m curious, what happened to her?
-Do you know where Maria is? She asked me again.
-No, I don’t know. And now that I’m talking about this story is because all have died in my master’s house. Otherwise, I wouldn’t speak.
-Maria’s mother, Eleonora, was a Frankish lady from Emba, an only child, the old woman began her narration. Such a beautiful woman had never not been born again. One day the Turk, Suleiman, saw her and craved her. When her father found out, he took his wife and their daughter, and left Emba. They came and settled in our village, to save Eleonora.
-All the lads of our village fell in love with her, so great was her beauty. But her father chose Alexandros and got them married. Alexandros was an orphan and poor man, but the strongest. Not only of our village, but of the whole of Paphos. Every Easter, in the games that took place in the church’s yard, only he could lift the dijimi (a huge boulder that only someone very strong could move). Everyone was afraid of him. But he was a very nice young man and loved Eleonora very much.
-When they had Maria, all people were jealous of their happiness. They named her Maria because it was the name of his mother, who had died young. Maria was beautiful, she looked like Eleonora, but she was not blonde. She had Alexandros’ black hair. There is a proverb that says: human happiness, when it reaches a certain height, pulls on it the thunderbolt. That’s what these people got!
-When the child was lost, everyone understood that the Turk had taken her. Alexandros went to Vretsia to find him – he would have killed him – but he had disappeared. No one knew where he went. His family was also lost with him. Everyone thought they had left Cyprus.
-Eleonora did not live long after that. She died in a few months, because of her languish. Alexandros, desperate, searched for some more time for the Turk, and then he left. He got on a ship and perished forever. Not so long after, Eleonora’s parents also died. Their entire generation has been wiped out.
-When the old lady finished her narration, everyone started asking questions, but she didn’t talk any more. This whole story seemed like a fairy tale to them. They didn’t think it was true. But I knew that all this had happened.
-In the evening they hosted us in their village because it was too far away to go back the same day. In the morning, before we left, the old woman took me to the cemetery and showed me Eleonora’s grave.
The details of Eminé’s narration moved and hurt Maria. It was the only description she had of her parents. How much she would like to hear more! She asked Eminé in a choking voice:
-Does this old woman live?
-I don’t know, I don’t think so. Eminé replied.
Thank you very much for coming to see me, despite the bitterness you feel for your life. You are the only person from my past who lives and no matter how strange it may seem to you, I feel that you are my relative. My only relative. Could I come and visit you in Vretsia?
Eminé was speechless. She never expected to hear such words from Maria, who was now an English lady, especially after what she had told her about her own feelings.
-Why not? Everybody will burst out of jealousy when they see you! My house is big. You may stay if you want to. We can also go to Statos and show you your mother’s grave. And who knows, we might learn something else about your parents.
-Where will you stay tonight? Maria asked her. You can stay here if you want.
-There is no need. I’ll stay with Aydan. After all, she is waiting for me.
-Eminé, before you leave I would like to give you something, a gift to thank you for coming to see me. Ask me whatever you want.
-What can you give me, Maria? Your clothes? Can’t wear them? Your ornaments? People will think I have stolen them. I’ll just take this.
And she showed the box of chocolates. She got up to leave and as she reached the door, she stood and turned back.
-It’s something you can do for me, Maria. Aydan told me that you are writing a book. Write about me in it as well. So that people will know that I was born and that I have lived in this world.
Maria, with tears in her eyes, hugged her and said:
-I will write about you, Eminé. So that everyone knows that you have lived and dedicated your whole life to taking care of others. And that’s great.
After leaving, Eminé felt bursting with a feeling of hope. A feeling she had years to experience. It was as Maria had given her something of her energy, something of her strength in life.
Alexandra impatiently appeared as soon as she heard the door close.
What did she tell you? She asked Maria. I was trying to listen, but you were talking in Turkish, and I couldn’t understand a word.
Maria recounted to her what Eminé had told her and added:
-Eminé’s visit was a revelation to me. All my life I considered myself wronged because I did not have my parents and yet this woman, who had parents, had a more miserable fate than me. This fact has shocked me!
-Perhaps we define our lives, beyond the events we encounter along the way, Alexandra replied. Don’t forget your own inclination for learning that brought you close to the teacher and paved the way for you to freedom. Do you think Eminé would follow the same path if she had met the teacher first?
-I don’t know, Maria, It is very difficult to analyse the facts of life and people’s choices. However, I recognize that I was very lucky after meeting with the teacher. But I had a boundless thirst for learning and an appeal for life that overcame me. Perhaps these were the driving forces that attracted the events in my life. Because whatever happened to me, I was trying to make the most of it. I never stayed crying for my misery. And unfortunately, that’s what Eminé does. That is why she is so miserable.
At that time, James came. They tracked him out for what had happened and for the thoughts they exchanged about the life and fate of people.
-Maria, you’re right, he told her. As a doctor, I can assure you that people who treat their lives and illness with courage and optimism are much more likely to recover. Self-pity is the worst counsellor in the critical hours of our lives.
-However, from the moment the edge for your origins was found, events run, Alexandra observed. Who was expecting for Eminé to come today!
-At the beginning of my research, I was looking for her anxiously, said Maria, but after the evidence I gathered about my teacher and especially after reading mother’s Ayşe narration, I had completely forgotten about her. And yet, surely, she is one of the people who knew the truth. She listened to everything and processed it in her mind. The fact that she knows where my mother’s grave is, it is very important to me.
-We could all go together, James suggested.
-I have never travelled to Paphos and as far as I know it is too far away by Cyprus standards. These villages that they mention, I think, are in the mountains of Paphos, which means that they are even further away. As far as I know the roads are not in good condition in the countryside, and we do not have a car either. We should consider it well before taking such a decision. Don’t forget, we have Eleonora – Maria. It would not be right to trouble her with unknown routes.
-Of course, I could stay here with the child, Alexandra said, and the two of you could go. But mother is right. We should think about it first. Then there are the letters of the teacher. We don’t know what he’s writing.
-I haven’t read his letters yet, said Maria. In the last two days, the information has been overwhelming, and I have not had time to assimilate it.
-Better to eat something casual and lie down to rest, James suggested. Tomorrow is a new day, and always in the morning things look clearer.
They went early to bed because in one way or in the other no one had slept the night before. Maria, despite her emotional exhaustion, was in overstimulation and could not relax. The scenes from the text she had read, Eminé and her narrations, all circulated in her mind, following irregular routes. She understood that in this way it would be impossible to sleep and tried to focus on a single topic. On her mother. On Eleonora.
Her mother’s presence had been pervasive in the last few hours. Those few years that she had rested in her arms and had experienced her love, began to come alive in her memory. They were not so much images as feelings of care and security. As she closed her eyes, she thought she was a child, that she was perching in a hug and all her needs were satisfied. In an instant she whispered: mother, mother. She was surprised to hear these words and opened her eyes. But she closed them immediately and as she was in Eleonora’s arms, she fell asleep.
Monastery of Panagia Chrysorogiatissa