Zenovia’s secret (Chapter 12)
Posted by: Maria Atalanti
Published on: 21/08/2022Back 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.
Cyprus 1916 – 1920
Zenovia’s house in Ktima was outside this small provincial town, on a hillside facing the sea. Around the house, her mother had planted trees and had created an orchard, with olive trees, fig trees and apple trees. There was also a chicken coop with a few chickens, two goats for their milk and the horse for dragging the carriage. A well in the courtyard, with a wooden well- wheel served the needs of the house in water. The house was not large, compared to the house where Zenovia lived in Alexandria, but it was too big for the city of Paphos. It consisted of three bedrooms, an office, a kitchen, a living room, and auxiliary spaces. It was built with stone from the area, up to one point and the rest with mad bricks. The roof was made with wooden trunks, straw, dirt, and clay tiles on the top. The floor was covered with slabs of Cypriot marble.
In the months that followed, Zenovia tried to organize her life and think about how she could help the young girls who were so deep in poverty. She saw them being wasted, getting old before reaching their thirties, being exploited.
A woman from Ktima was coming every day and help her with household chores. She was called, Susana. Mrs. Susana was the “news agency” that informed Zenovia about everything that was happening in Ktima and the surrounding villages. Who died, who got married, which children were orphaned and everything that was done, that the society commented either positively or negatively.
Based on the news, that Mrs. Susana brought her, Zenovia supported financially some girls to get married, but mainly to secure an income. She helped two impoverished sisters, who lost their father at the age of fourteen, to trainee to a seamstress and then to open their own shop, thus having a significant income for that time.
However, she understood that she would not be able to continue at this pace because soon her money would disappear, and she would need financial help herself. On the other hand, it was heard that she was helping anyone in need, and many turned to her to solve their problems. She felt that the situation had gotten out of hand. At the same time, she had been informed of Hakim’s reappearance and his employment by her son. He had not told her anything, but apart from Mahmud, others had informed her about it.
Thus, she had to keep her capital and find another way to support the poor girls. She had noticed that almost all the girls had in their homes a loom with which they weaved their dowry. Woolen sheets, silk sheets, carpets, and everything else they needed. Only the very poor, who did not have a loom. could not prepare their dowry. One day Mrs. Susana brought her a beautiful weaver with vibrant colors and vivid patterns. Zenovia had never seen anything like this.
-Where did you find it? She asked her
-It’s from Fyti, she told her. A village in the mountains of Paphos. These textiles are made there many years now. They are famous.
At that moment an idea illuminated Zenovia’s mind. She would promote a business to export Cypriot weavers to Alexandria and elsewhere. Trade was in her veins. It was a job she knew well. She would initially finance the weavers to make enough quantities and then send them to Alexandria, to merchants she knew herself.
She began with a campaign in the surrounding villages, trying to convince the young girls to take part in this effort. She explained to them that she herself would initially finance the construction of the weavers and they themselves would receive the profits. She met with great disbelief. Only the very poor, those who had nothing in their lives, accepted to participate. She bought five looms and made the following deal:
Two of the looms would go to very poor girls in the village of Fyti, who also had the know how to start making the textiles. Those who took the looms and threads would be obliged to make a certain number of weavers, and in very good quality for each month. Otherwise, Zenovia would take the looms back. Two of the looms would stay in her house, where young women who wanted to learn the technique would come to be trained to produce enough weavers for export. The last loom would be given to a girl from the surrounding villages who would be ready to contribute. Girls who had their own loom could use it.
The operation began at first timidly, with its ups and downs, but slowly began to pave. In the beginning few were interested, when, nevertheless, money began to come back and they were paid for their labor, many more jointed. Of these, only thirty remained, who were now the permanent weavers of the company. Zenovia’s house now looked like a factory. There they weaved, there they stored the goods, there they organized the shipments. This had begun to become very tiring for her, because she had ceased to have a private life anymore.
So, after a time, they rented a warehouse near the port of Kato Paphos, managed by two girls, who were more “educated”, that is, they knew how to write, read, and do arithmetic operations. They received the textiles, recorded them, prepared the missions, and paid the weavers. They used to go to Alexandria themselves. Thus, they got to know the merchants and learned the art of trading.
Zenovia watched the whole operation closely and ensured that there would be no abuses and thefts. She knew that people like Hakim exist everywhere and “whoever guards his clothes has half of them” as a popular proverb says. Although at first, she herself had financed the whole project entirely, with the boom of the business, she began to recoup the amount she gave. Their agreement was that 80% of the profit to go to the weavers and 20% to her to be able to maintain her capital. In this way, the work of supporting the girls would continue. On the other hand, the messages she received from Alexandria about her son’s business were not good at all and she was afraid that there would come a time when she would have to support him financially.
The intersection that had occurred in the society of Paphos with the introduction of the operation “loom”, was significant. Many girls, who until yesterday had nothing and their lives were doomed to misery, saw a hope rise. Most took part in the program to secure their dowry and get married. This dream was their one-way desire.
Others saw a way to help their families who were indebted to loan sharks, in order not to lose their properties. Usury was flourishing at that time. This scourge of the peasants drowned almost every family, and the breath given by the business set up by Zenovia, was invaluable.
There was a third category of girls, those with whom Zenovia was identified, who, with a clearer mind, recognized the power that economic independence gave them. It was on them that she placed her hopes for the continuation of the operation. They constituted a small percentage, but like sourdough they had the ability to inflate the dough.
The whole thing was not an easy task. In addition to the practical problems that arose every now and then, to make a real profit, the girls had to work endless hours. Many stayed up late in the evenings because they spent their days in the fields and in the hard agricultural work. With only light, an oil lamp, bending on the loom, they weaved their hope and dreams. The small income they received was a serious source of fueling their lives, which did not depend on weather conditions. They relied solely on their own labors and perseverance. Everything else in their daily lives was mainly a function of satisfactory rainfall and the avoidance of extreme weather condition.
Many families got back on their feet, many girls got married and some – a few – saw the other side of life, the independent one. The fact that the greatest profit went to them, and they were paid according to the quantity and quality they delivered, significantly outweighed the work of the worker or the maid. They were paid the value of their labor. Something that was rare for the time.
Zenovia had become a kind of heroine, she was held in high esteem, especially among the women of Paphos. However, there were also negative comments and criticisms. For many – mostly men – she disrupted the order of society and the place of women in the family. However, the poverty that prevailed and the daily unsatisfied needs forced them to remain silent or not to be considered. Rarely, however, did girls who were married continue to work. It was basically a profession for young girls.
For three years Zenobia lived daily the fever of the business she had set up and had no time at all to think about herself and her own worries. However, after the three years that everything had taken its course and the heart of the business had moved to the port of Paphos, Zenovia began to have a private time and organize her own daily life.
She would get up in the morning, around 6 o’clock, take out water from the well and water the flowers in her pots. The orchard with the trees that surrounded the house, was taken care by Mr. Christos. Mrs. Susana was engaged in cleaning and cooking, and so Zenovia was locked every day for one to two hours in her office and studied or wrote. This gave her great satisfaction. She answered correspondence with friends or associates from Alexandria, her son and Penelope. This hour was an open window to the world for her.
At other times, however, during her secret hours, she also recorded the story she wanted to leave to her son. The story about which her friend Eurydice had told her in the village, that day. This story was sacred to Zenovia, and her purpose was to impart this sanctity to her son, who, she hoped, would be the only reader of the text she wrote. But with the hustle and bustle that existed in the house most of the time, Zenovia was afraid that it would fall into the hands of one of the girls or even worse someone would throw it away. So, she kept this text in a box of wild olive wood, which had been made for her by a carpenter in Ktima. He had told her that it is the most durable wood and can be preserved for many years. She locked it up and hid it in a secret hiding place that only she knew.
Around 10 every morning, when Mr. Christos finished his work in the orchard, took her with the carriage to the port and visited the girls in the warehouse. Every day, she had to solve minor problems and small misunderstandings. Unfortunately, she had not yet found that girl who with her personality would impose herself and take the initiative. There were some that were more initiative than the others, but none stood out. So, the daily presence of Zenovia was necessary. She stayed there as long as needed to, from two to four hours, sometimes.
When they returned home, she and Mrs. Susana had their lunch and she rested for an hour. In the afternoon she took a long walk to the lighthouse, which stood above the harbor to warn the sailors. It was a small lighthouse that the English had built, at the end of the last century, when they came to Cyprus. It reminded her of Alexandria and Demetrios. She had met the lighthouse keeper and his wife and sat with them and had coffee together.
For a couple of months, this routine gave a pleasant balance to her life. Although she was worried about her son and the turn their business had taken, she had decided to wait for life to solve the problem.
During the fourth year of her settlement in Paphos, two events turned her daily peace upside down. She had been informed by Mahmud, but also by the director of the bank, who was a friend of Demetrios, that their business in Alexandria was on the edge of bankruptcy and Evangelos was in danger of going to prison for debts. Zenovia was not a person who faltered with difficulties. She acted immediately.
She telegraphed to the bank manager that she herself, would pay a large part of the exorbitant amount her son owed. She would arrange with the bank in Cyprus to send him the amount as soon as possible. But she asked him not to report it to Evangelos when he would inform him about the bankruptcy.
At the same time, she telegraphed to Mahmud and begged him to have Evangelos up close, lest in his despair he would commit any madness. She was praying all the time. She knew she had gone to extremes, but she saw no other way to appease her son. Surely Demetrius would not agree. It was a very risky handling. But Zenovia dared.
She was in great agony until Mahmud telegraphed to her:
All good. Evangelos understood the truth. Hakim is gone. He starts all over again. I’ll help.
These few words were enough to make Zenovia cry of joy. In her son’s letters that followed, she learned in detail the facts. Now their correspondence was no longer typical. Her son was writing the whole truth to her. She was now impressed by his strength and determination.
-Now you are your mother’s son, she thought.
The other event that shook Zenovia took place sometime later, on July 31, 1920. It was the execution of Ion Dragoumis by a detachment of the police in Athens, on the charge that he was responsible for the attempted assassination of Eleftherios Venizelos in Paris. Without trial, without an indictment, without an apology, he was executed in cold blood. Eleftherios Venizelos himself, when he found out about it, exclaimed: “Horrible! Horrible! Horrible!”
It was announced by the few newspapers in Cyprus, but her friend also wrote it to her. This inglorious end of the man she loved so much and admired so much for his talents, devastated Penelope.
She wrote to Zenovia:
When a society is controlled not by law and order, but by the power and force of those who hold arms, humanity goes back to prehistory and the concept of civilization is erased from the face of the earth. In Athens, the city that gave birth to philosophy and democracy, people execute one of the brightest minds ever born… There are no phrases and words to express my abhorrence and pain…
Zenovia, that afternoon, on her walk, did not pass by the lighthouse to have coffee with the lighthouse keeper and his wife. She walked to the sea and stayed looking at the water for a long time. Her eyes were full of tears. For the pain, for all the pain of people, but above all for the injustice that man causes to another human being.
She knew that life is not fair, she knew that the world will always be like this, but she would like, she would love to bear a little of the burden of pain that people carry. She wanted to hold it with both hands and throw it to the sea, that vast and bottomless melting pot that wipes everything out. She wanted to, but she could not… Each person, alone, will have to bear his own share of the pain.
If you want to read more about the financial situation of the Cypriot Villagers, follow the link