Spring, 1913 – Parga, Greece
Iphigenia stood by the open window, allowing the fresh sea air to rush into her small cottage. It carried the sweet smell of blossoming Greek flowers mingled up with the sharp salty scent of the Ionian Sea. The stone-paved streets below welcomed hundreds of joyful Greeks as they celebrated their union with the free state of Greece. Greece had emerged victorious from the Balkan War, and Ottoman rule came to an end after centuries of harsh occupation.
Iphigenia could not care less.
She slammed the blue wooden shutters, fastened the rusty lock, and slid down the old, decaying wall. Curled up on the cold floor, she gazed around the dark room. The two empty beds before her pierced her soul. Her handsome twin boys, both dead in the war. She carried them inside her for nine months and proudly raised them for eighteen years, and one letter from the front changed all that.
She was no longer a mother.
Iphigenia did not believe in crying. She cursed God and pushed herself up from the wooden ground. She dragged her feet out of their room and stood in the hallway. From the ajar door creaking in the spring breeze, she witnessed her husband sobbing in his armchair, an empty vessel of the man she once knew. Two months had passed since their boys’ passing to the other world, and her husband had not left the house.
‘You need to go tend to the land,’ she had urged him.
‘Why? Who will inherit us, Effie? Who?’
‘We need to eat, and frankly, we need to move on. Life is for the living...’
‘I’m already dead. I have no reason to be alive.’
Iphigenia closed her eyes and sighed deeply. She quivered her head to shake away the memories of his words. She turned around, picked up her knitted jacket, and rushed out of the house. She wrapped her hazelnut hair inside her purple scarf as she walked by her neglected garden, and with her eyes lowered, she made her way through the ecstatic crowds dancing the evening away. Shorter than most, she moved through them, avoiding eye contact. Iphigenia headed away from the village’s center; her eyes were set on the restless sea opposite. A row of rocky islands stood proudly in the cool waters of Parga. Saint Mary’s chapel stood alone on the largest of the isles that nested in the small bay.
The planks of the dock squeaked as Iphigenia made her way toward her uncle’s fishing boat. Born upon a ship to a family of fishermen, Iphigenia had no trouble untying nautical knots and releasing the boat from its chains. Both were soon free upon the short-lived waves of Parga Bay. With her hands firmly gripped around the paddles, she steered the small boat to the shore of the church-owned island.
Father Gregory stood behind the church’s colored window, admiring the will of the woman with whom he grew up with. His teeth travelled along his thin lips as he scratched his left eyebrow. ‘Well, well. What has the Lord have in store for me on this glorious day?’
He opened the wooden door and rushed down the dirt path leading to the rocks that served as the islet’s dock. He nodded to Iphigenia as he stepped in the shallow waters to help bring her boat nearer to shore. He offered his hand, and Iphigenia’s icy hand grabbed hold of him, and as many times before, she jumped to land.
‘Good evening, Father.’
‘Went looking for me at St. Nicholas?’ he replied and coughed.
Iphigenia wiped her hands on her black dress; the dirt on her hands left behind lines of mud as it blended with the droplets offered by the splashing of the Ionian. ‘I know you well. You’re not one for much commotion. Also, you’re not one to miss a spring sunset from Saint Mary’s island. One look at the clear sky above and I did not even bother to go look for you at your church.’
Father Gregory’s thick beard was lifted by a sincere wide smile.
‘Come in,’ he said and sauntered back up the path. ‘What is on your mind?’ he asked as he stood by the door, waiting for her to enter the high-ceiling church. Iphigenia fought back tears as she did the sign of the cross upon her body and made her way to the first row of wooden stools. ‘Must be hard to find joy in our liberation, but you must rest assure that your boys are by our creator’s side. Jesus once said …’
‘It’s not my boys that I worry about, Father. It’s Giorgo,’ she interrupted him.
Father Gregory sat down by her side. He placed his hand on her trembling fingers. Iphigenia took a deep breath and sighed. ‘I think he is going to do something crazy. I think he is going to take his own life. He will not listen to me. I feel his demons lingering in our house, in his head. You must talk to him!’
The following day, the bright Mediterranean sun found Greece nearly double in size. White smiles glowed on people’s olive-skinned faces. Freedom, that once-elusive dream, was theirs to relish and savor. Tears fell from Father Gregory’s green eyes as he praised Jesus for the euphoria of the people in his town. He ambled uphill through stone cottages and wished a good morning to all that greeted him. Children’s laughter filled the air as they ran by him waving Greek flags. Soon, Father Gregory was leaning on the rusty gate of Iphigenia’s home. He heard her shout out to her husband. ‘Giorgo, I’m off to my aunt’s.’
Iphigenia forced a smile as she nodded to him. ‘Don’t worry,’ he managed to say as she sprinted off down the street. Father Gregory closed the gate behind him and paused to enjoy two merry swallows building their nest in the corner above the front door. He never married. He never truly understood why. Every time his parents mentioned a good Christian girl to him, he would come up with an array of excuses. Now, at thirty-seven, with his parents deceased and Greece a free country, he felt lonelier than ever.
‘Good morning, Giorgo,’ he said in a cheery voice as he popped his head through the open front door.
‘What’s so good about it?’
Father Gregory swallowed the lump forming inside his throat and entered the gloomy living room. The stuffy air housed the smoke from Giorgo’s cigarettes, and the closed shutters blocked out the singing from the spring birds outside. He took out his Bible and sat by the sad man’s side. He opened the Good Book. Nehemiah 8:10.