Authors: Anne Zouroudi
The Whispers of Nemesis
For my mother
His end was recorded somewhere and then lost;
Or perhaps History passed it by,
And with good reason, a thing as trivial
as that she didn't deign to record.
C. P. Cavafy, âOrophernes'
The rite of exhumation . . . is the last important rite that must be performed individually for a particular dead person by his surviving kin. The relationship between the deceased and his relatives is for the most part ended at the exhumation. After this the obligations of the living to the deceased are carried out collectively on occasions that serve to honour all the dead.
Loring M. Danforth,
The Death Rituals of Rural Greece
All uniformed in worn, black coats, all their lined and bitter faces bound in black headscarves, the old women gathered at the graveside. Under the broad-spreading branches of the oak which shaded the plot, the components of the grave's furniture had been dismantled. The headstone's front face leaned against the cemetery wall, hiding the inscription and the glassed-in photograph of the poet as a smiling young man; the candle-lamps (which had not often been lit) and the flower-vase (which had, in the main, held artificial flowers) lay discarded on a neighbouring tomb. In the years following the burial, the once-white marble kerbstones had rarely been scrubbed, and were discoloured with algae and yellow lichens. The old women took in the stone's neglected state, and cast their offended eyes up to the heavens.
The bell of Vrisi's village church began to toll. In these northerly mountains, there was no hope yet of spring, and the wind which flapped the men's trouser-legs and stirred the evergreen branches was raw; the sky was an ashen veil, cast over the day's end.
âThere was a woman over in Loutro they buried too close to a tree,' muttered one crone into the cold-reddened ear of another, inclining her head towards the oak, and to the bare and stony ground where the coffin had been laid, four years before. On that occasion, the earth â freshly dug and mounded up for the interment â was the lively brown of spring sowing; now that same earth, settled and sunk, was cracked and pale. âIts roots were poking through the poor soul's eyes! Bound by that tree, she was, until they cut her free. And this tree will have claimed him, just the same!'
The sexton leaned on his spade, impatient for his cue to break the ground, but the old women were still busy with their preparations, checking the necessities for the ritual: holy basil for blessing, and red wine to wash the bones; white kerchiefs to wrap them, and a metal box to hold them in their final place of rest.
A little apart, in fashionable black jackets and court shoes, two younger women stood, one of an age to be parent to the other. Ready to proceed at last, the old women hustled them closer to the graveside.
, come forward,' they insisted. âIt's the faces of his close kin he'll want to see, as he comes back to us.'
The poet's sister and his daughter complied reluctantly, his sister encouraging her niece with an arm around her shoulder.
,' said Frona. She hugged Leda close, and placed a kiss of comfort on her temple. âCourage, and it'll soon be done.'
Leda wiped her nose on a cotton handkerchief, and turned her miserable face from her father's grave. Behind the eager old women, Attis Danas drew on a slender cigar, and tried in vain to catch Frona's eye. The widow Katerina â whose deceased husband had once been mayor and still bestowed on her some status, even years after his death â gave a signal to the sexton, who raised his spade, and brought down the blade with all his strength to break the grave's hard earth. As he threw aside the first shovelful of stony soil, Katerina raised her voice in a lament, and the old women gathered around her began to wail. They moaned and shrieked to break all hearts, and the widow's tears ran freely as she sang: of their grief at the poet's final sight of daylight, and of their loss of him to the darkness once again; though the weight of the earth would be removed at last from his chest, his time with them was gone, and soon he would be lost to them for ever.
The sexton dug down deeper into the grave, where he was hindered, as anticipated, by roots of oak. The old women nudged each other, and made flamboyant crosses over their breasts. Frona put her hand up to her mouth, and bit a knuckle. Leda looked towards the cemetery gates. Attis wandered away along the paths between the tombs, struggling against the wind to relight the stub of his cigar.
âThat woman in Loutro,' muttered the crone into the ear of the other. âShe was the widow of a jealous man, whose tormented spirit possessed the tree to keep her bones out of the ossuary. Her being in there, with everyone else, was more than he could bear.'
âWhy did he object to that?' asked the other. âIf his own bones were in the ossuary, why didn't he want her in there, with him?'
Her companion tapped her nose, and glanced around as if it mattered who was listening.
âThey said she'd had a lover, in her youth,' she confided. âThe spirit feared she might be put to rest near him, so it had the tree bind her bones, to keep them in the ground.
It took an age to get her out. The roots were tough as rope, and woven all together, like a net. They had to fetch a hacksaw, and they cut for hours and hours. But the bones were white, I remember that. The bones were white, so she was blameless.'
âI doubt his bones'll be white,' replied the other, pointing at the hole where the sexton worked. âWe'll know for certain the man he was, when he comes back to the light.'
A gust of wind blew cold. Under Frona's arm, Leda shivered.
âShe feels her father's spirit,' whispered the women. âHer father knows we're here.'
The sexton dug down, and down; the work was heavy, and sweat beaded his face, until he pulled off his dirty jacket and threw it on to the dismantled kerbstones. Katerina's lamenting rose, fell and died away, rose, fell and died away; the women's tears dried, and flowed.
When Attis returned to the gathering, the earth the sexton was shovelling was showing changes of colour, a vein of black within the paler soil.
The sexton stabbed his spade into the ground, and wiped the last sweat from his face.
âKaterina!' he called out. âKaterina, come down here,
! Come and take your turn!'
Katerina pulled on a pair of rubber gloves; the old women gave her a trowel, and handed her down into the hole as the sexton climbed out. They crowded round the grave, elbowing each other to get closer, their mourning role forgotten in their enthusiasm.
âFind the skull first,
!' called one. âMake sure you bring out the skull first!'
âDon't break it!' called another. âFetch it out in one piece if you can!'
Frona raised her face to the sky, and closed her eyes; Leda covered her mouth, as if she might be sick.
âI can't watch this,' she said, shaking her head. âPlease, aunt. Don't make me.'
âWe must,' said Frona, though her own doubt was clear. âA few minutes of courage, and all will be done. Hold my hand, and be strong.'
The widow squatted in the dirt, and scraped at the loosened earth with the edge of her trowel until the soil gave way to the first fragments of rotting wood.
âI've got him,' she said quietly, and made a cross over her breast. âSantos,
, come home!'
Under her hands, and with the leverage of the trowel, the softened remnants of the coffin lid were soon removed. Beneath, there was no hollow space, but the outline of the casket filled with dirt, which gave off an intense smell of organic matter, natural as the essence of earth distilled, without putridity, but heavy with fungal decay.
As the widow sifted through this darker, richer soil, the old women squabbled over where the head would be â
Higher up, kalÃ©, away from you, up here towards the wall
â until the trowel rang out as it struck the first hard bone. Dropping the trowel, the widow covered her left hand with a white kerchief, and with her gloved right delved down into the pit.
âI've got it!' she said, at last.
âShe's got it, she's got it!' they murmured.
âIt's stuck,' she said, a moment later.
âThe roots have him,' they muttered. âThe roots have him trapped!'
Holding on his priest's hat against the wind, an anorak zipped over his robes, Papa Tomas hurried along the path towards the gathering, limping from his bad hip. As he pushed his way through, he greeted those he passed closest to by name, and marked those of whom he was especially fond with a touch, until â panting from his speedy walk up to the cemetery â he reached Frona and Leda.