Zenovia’s secret (Chapter 10)
Posted by: Maria Atalanti
Published on: 07/08/2022Back to Blog
This text is the product of fiction. None of the characters described are real. In this chapter, Penelope Delta and Ion Dragoumis are real, historical figures. Their connection with the characters of the novel is fantastic.
Alexandria – Cyprus 1913 – 1916
Zenovia spent her days in their business and her evenings at home. There were no surprises in her daily life. There were only concerns about the frivolity with which Evangelos treated their business. It was not because he was not trying to learn. He tried. The problem was that this was not the priority of his life. And this made Zenovia insecure.
She believed that the marriage would help him to settle down, but Evangelos had no such intentions.
-I’m fine as I am, he told her. I’m still very young. Why committing myself? Besides, I don’t love any girl. When I fall in love, I will get married.
Zenovia was afraid that he would not be able to fall in love easily. He did not look at the girls seriously. He saw them as trophies. And unfortunately, he blew many hearts with his frivolity. Among the girls who saw him erotically was one, whom Zenovia particularly liked. Her name was Antigone. She was young and orphaned by father. She was neither particularly beautiful nor particularly rich. She reminded Zenovia of herself in her village. Antigone, of course, was much more educated and cultured than she was then. She had a purity and a quality that Zenovia was sure she could make her son happy. But she could not convince Evangelos. So, she waited…
In 1913, her friend Penelope Delta returned to Alexandria. It was a relief for Zenovia to share her thoughts with her. Ever since she had lost Demetrios, she had no one with whom she could speak from the heart. Of course, she mentioned to her, her concerns about Evangelos. She was not at all surprised by Penelope’s reaction. She knew this was the right thing to do.
-If you are here and bear the burdens of his life, Evangelos will not mature, she told her.
And she was absolutely right. Zenovia could understand this. But she was not making the decision to go away. She was trying to create the conditions for Evangelos, that would not leave him room to fail, and then to leave.
Demetrios, from the very beginning, when he took over the business on his own, had followed an infallible policy, which made them the most reliable business of exporting cotton, in Alexandria. And Zenovia was following this policy, exactly, in the same way.
Unlike other cotton traders, who tried to exploit Egyptian growers and suppliers, their own business was based on being fair to them and remunerating them according to the quality of the product. As a result, the growers preferred them and so they always had the best cotton for export. In the same way, they had as permanent customers the best factories in England and France. This was a key reason why the business was consistently one of the most lucrative in Alexandria.
To achieve this goal, they had in their work Egyptians who knew the language well and could negotiate with the cultivators. In addition, they were able to identify any cunning locals who wanted to deceive them and sell them cotton of lower quality.
In turn, they paid their Egyptian employees very well and had them as members of their family. This relationship and trust created conditions of loyalty, on the part of these employees, who basically came from the same family. Initially Demetrios had worked with the father and then with his two sons, Mahmud, and Ahmed.
Zenovia, after the death of Demetrios, relied heavily on these two Egyptians, especially Mahmud, who was particularly skilled and serious. She had him as her right hand. She herself knew very little Arabic and it was difficult to negotiate with the cultivators. The fact that she was a woman made the whole situation even more complicated because these peasants could not conceive of how a woman could have such abilities and such power.
Thus, she was trying to create conditions of trust between Evangelos and Mahmud, because she believed that in this way her son would have some serious support when she would leave. Evangelos accepted this relationship with pleasure because he did not like to negotiate with the peasants himself. So, he willingly recognized Mahmud’s supremacy in this area. The two seem to have been doing quite well. This gave a feeling of relief to Zenovia.
At the same time she was trying to educate her son, how to negotiate with the European buyers of their products. Evangelos was educated, he could speak fluently English and French, so he could easily communicate with them. On the other hand, he had the gift of being pleasant and very willing to guide them to Alexandria by night, spending, unfortunately, a lot of money to entertain them. It was here that Zenovia struggled to inspire him with some measure, but in vain. Evangelos had no sense of proportion and had no intention of learning it either.
With Penelope in Alexandria, Zenovia had the right company to share her concerns, and this helped her a lot. Of course, she did not forget her friend’s admonition to move away from the business, but she was still not ready.
Penelope, from her part, informed her about the correspondence she had begun with various personalities of the time, such as the French byzantinologist Gustave-Leon Schlumberger, so that she could be informed about the correct historical details of the books she was preparing. Writing was her most important occupation, along with raising her children. She was even preparing a book on this subject entitled: “Reflections on the upbringing of our children”.
Her unfulfilled love for Ion Dragoumis had not subsided, but he was now a couple with the actress of the theater, Marika Kotopouli and there was no prospect of returning to her. He stayed inside her like a sad thorn that sometimes hurt her and sometimes blossomed like a fragrant rose. It was this that gave a fragrance to her life and let her take a sneak peek at the world, beyond the status quo she knew.
But, although Zenovia was reluctant to make the decisions she had to make, fate does not know how to make favors and detours in the flow of the events. In 1913 she received a telegram from her uncle Onoufrios asking her to return to Cyprus, because her mother was very sick. At the same time, Penelope’s family leaves Alexandria for Athens for permanent settlement. Her father, Emmanuel Benakis, had been elected mayor of Athens.
Without much preparation, Zenovia is forced to leave for Cyprus. Ascending to the boat, she was crying incessantly. Something not so common for her. Maybe she was crying for Demetrios who left forever, maybe she was crying for the insecurity she felt for her son, maybe she was crying because her life in this glorious city was over.
She remembered when, 26 years before, she had also entered a boat to come to Alexandria for the first time. She was crying, back then, too. Out of fear, out of ignorance, out of the dark unknown that surrounded her. Now she was crying for completely different reasons. She was crying because she was leaving behind an important part of her life, perhaps the most creative, and her son, who she feared was not ready for this separation.
Before leaving, she met Mahmud for the last time and begged him to take care of Evangelos. She gave him her address and asked him, if things ever get too bad, to notify her. They had to give space and time, however, to Evangelos to try on his own.
She spent the first months in Cyprus, at the bedside of her mother, Eleni. Her mother’s condition did not allow her to think about many other things as well. She constantly tried to relieve her, to take care of her, to give her the affection that she had been deprived of, during her life.
In December 1913 her mother left, happy. As much as she suffered throughout her life, the love and care of her daughter in these difficult times, filled her with gratitude and vindication.
The funeral took place in her village, Statos. The church of this small village is dedicated to the saints Zenovios and Zenovia. This moved Zenovia and made her feel so at home in this environment. Her mother, Eleni, was buried in the village cemetery, next to her father, Yiannis.
After the funeral, Zenovia stayed a few days in the village, before returning to her home, at Ktima. There she saw once again the poverty and misery of the inhabitants. Almost all of them were indebted to loan sharks and often, when they did not have to pay, they lost the few lands they owned. Little girls, from the age of ten, went to houses in the cities to become maids, just to have something to eat. Their fate, in these cases, was in the hands of their bosses, with all the dangers that this entailed.
Zenovia’s heart bled when she noticed this misery. For the first time she understood that it was not possible to financially support all these girls, simply with the money left to her by Demetrios. Not even with so much more could she. The problem was general and huge. She had to think about something else.
During the days she was in her village, she began to visit the places she grew up in, the Upper Fountain (Pano Vrisi), the Lower Fountain (Kato Vrysi), the monastery of Panagia Chrysorrogiatissa, just outside the village and Euridice, the only relative left there.
Eurydice was a second cousin of hers with whom they grew up together. They were about the same age and when they were young, they grazed their goats together in the mountains that surrounded their village. Eurydice was her best friend and the two shared their childhood secrets.
Now it seemed to be at least ten years apart from each other. Zenovia was still fit at the age of 42, with some gray hair, but fluffy and beautiful. Eurydice’s life has been much tougher. Although they were the same age, she had almost all her hair white and her face was full of wrinkles, from constant exposure to the sun, since she worked daily in the fields. Her back had been bent by the constant bending over and this caused her horrible pains. She had four daughters, of whom three were married and she had nine grandchildren.
-My Euthymia has not get married yet, she said. Men want a dowry and I have nothing to give her. The others took it all. I’m languishing a lot about it.
-Don’t languish, Zenobia told her. If Euthymia loves any young man, tell her to take him. I will endow her myself. I will give her my mother’s house, the goats and all the animals that live in the yard. When I return to Ktima, she comes with me to make the transfer of the property.The other fields I have here, let them to be cultivated by your other daughters. Distribute them to them as you think.
Eurydice was surprised. She had never expected anything like that. She almost knelt to kiss her feet. Zenovia prevented her with tears in her eyes. She remembered very well what poverty is. And if she, herself, was lucky, that’s rare. Most girls, grow up and die in their misery.
The house of Zenovia’s mother, when she left for Alexandria, was one of the poorest in the village. Later, with the money sent to her by her daughter, she took care of it, and now it may have been small, but one of the best in the village. It consisted of two rooms, built with the stones of the mountain, connected in between, with smaller stones (gravel) that filled the gaps and stabilized the construction. The roof was flat, made of tree trunks, reeds, and soil. There they spread out to dry their frumenty and other products that they conserved dry. The walls, inside, were whitewashed with lime and glowed. The floor was paved with slabs of Cypriot marble, yet another luxury that was added later. The floor in most of the houses of the village was plain soil. Next to it, they had a stable built for the goats and the donkey.
Euthymia went crazy with joy. She did not know how to thank Zenovia. She really had an interest in a young man in the village, but his mother would never accept her as a bride, because she had no dowry. Now that things had changed, the way was open.
-The fate of women is hard, Zenovia thought. It is not enough that they work, day and night, to raise the children and cultivate the fields, they also have the obligation to provide the family’s home. I need to think how I could help! How I can add even a gravel to the progress of this place.
By spring, she transferred the ownership of the house in the village to Euthymia and she paid for the wedding of the new couple, herself. The appreciation she received from the newlyweds and the whole family of her friend Eurydice, was incredible. Never in her life had she feel more important. But she knew this was just the beginning. She still had a lot to offer to her home country.
Before she left the village to return to her home in Ktima, Eurydice and she went out for a final walk to the places where they used to graze the goats together, in their childhood. Suddenly, Eurydice said to her:
-I must tell you something from the past. I think you must know.
Zenovia looked at her curiously. What could she tell her?
Eurydice began to speak. While Zenovia was listening, she could not hold back the tears running from her eyes. In the end she fell into the arms of Eurydice, crying with unspeakable tears.
In the evening, when the two friends returned to the village, Zenovia had composed herself, and so no one understood anything. The next day she was accompanied by Eurydice’s husband back to Ktima. The trip was done by horses or donkeys. There were no roads, or cars.
When she arrived at her home, Zenovia was exhausted physically and mentally. In her mind was constantly Demetrios. She had a deep desire to have him by her side, to talk to him. When Eurydice’s husband left, she sat down alone and began to think.
It took some time until she got up to go to bed. The morning she woke up, she stood at her favorite window, facing the sea. She saw the deep blue shimmering on the horizon as the sun’s rays played on the surface of the water. She thought of her friend, Penelope, and said aloud:
-I will do what Penelope does to exorcise her pain. I’ll write!
Photo: Statos village as it looks today