Written by Erin Nust
Art by Maria Orlova
Jane didn’t realize that something was terribly wrong with the house until the golden-framed black and white photos of dead people dropped onto the floor in the middle of the night.
I had fallen asleep on the couch. I had thought the right thing to do was to let Jane sleep in the bedroom as the guest. I had all the time in the world to sleep on the double bed. We had spent our evening losing every sense of direction in the maze-like roads and paths of the small Cretan village until we found some sort of shop to have something to eat. The man that served us looked nice and kind, but he didn’t speak a word of English.
The couch framed my body with a rocky touch. I turned and twisted in my blanket for half an hour until I fell asleep from mere exhaustion. After falling asleep, I used to be a heavy sleeper back in New York; I wasn’t sure if I ceased to be one in Greece or if something had the power to get me out of my slumber with such force that I came back to the conscious world with short breath and soaked with sweat.
I woke up two times before the frames on the wall shook and fell. The first time was accompanied with a cacophonous, shredding chorus of blubbering. I snapped the blanket away and pressed my body to a sitting position.
“Jane?” I asked loud enough for my voice to reach behind the closed door and into the bedroom. I heard no answer. I touched my forehead with my clammy palm as if checking if I had a fever. My mind’s distinction between reality and dreams was thin. I was certain I had heard someone’s terrible crying in the room I was sleeping in, or maybe it was just a terrible dream I couldn’t remember.
The temperature of the room fell below zero. I couldn’t know that for sure but, although I was dipped into my sweat, my body shook; the room had transformed into an igloo. I wished I didn’t think of myself as simply mad, and woke Jane up to ask her if she had experienced any strange incidents during the night as well, but I didn’t.
I curled myself into the blanket and forced myself back to sleep.
May 9, 1936
It was Giorgis’s wedding day today. No member of the Florakis family was invited, but Konstantis came. The orchestra played, people danced, I was sitting by my husband’s side wishing the newly-wed every happiness in the world. Konstantis’s step was unsteady. The music stopped when we realized he came to gain the heart of Myrto, the bride.
We held our breath. Things were very close to bloodshed. One wrong word, one wrong move, and the Chalkiadakis family could tear Konstantis apart for daring to come to this wedding.
His eyes were locked to Myrto’s direction. He didn’t utter a word. A sharp dagger came out of his pocket. Giorgis’s father asked for his shotgun and I grabbed my husband’s hand in fear.
Konstantis stuck the dagger in his chest and fell on the ground. Myrto let silent tears fall on her cheek. We gasped at the sight of Konstantis’s death, but nobody dared to move. Giorgis’s father ordered the feast to be continued, the music to be played, and he carried away Konstantis’s body with the help of my husband and his cousins. They brought it back to his mother.
The cuckoo clock on the opposite wall showed time was quarter past three. I had been sleeping for an hour and a half since my previous nightmare. My eyes turned to Jane’s closed bedroom door again. All was quiet. “Jane?” I asked once more, but again received no answer.
At least one of us is having a good night’s sleep.
When my mind came back to reality, I felt a thick bead of sweat slowly rolling down my forehead. I wiped it away with my hand, which was saturated with sweat. The temperatures were low in the village, I recalled. How did I get so hot?
My eyes fell on the woolen blanket which provided so much comfort and I set it aside. I inherited this blanket with the rest of the house from some great aunt from my father’s side; he couldn’t even recall her name or their exact relation. I thought moving into the house was my chance for a new start, not some survival test. “Change brings uncomfort,” I mused out loud, and I covered my mouth with my hand. I didn’t want to wake up Jane and let her catch me talking to myself. I was accustomed to being alone.
When I folded the blanket I noticed that it was decorated with triangular patterns of red and brown. I put it on the end of the couch and I lied down again. To my surprise, I fell asleep almost immediately.
September 26, 1935
There was a family meeting in our house today. Everyone was there, the whole Chalkiadakis family. The spectacle of the night was Giorgis, my husband’s first cousin, who, outraged, declared war against every child, every man and woman who was named Florakis.
Konstantis Florakis set his barn on fire, destroying his property and his livestock–a total of seventy sheep. I stood in the corner of the room, with a couple of other wives, and listened carefully to the conclusion of the meeting.
A feud between the two families was born.
Jane’s screams woke me up the third time. It reached my ears seconds after a loud thud. I opened my eyes and sprung from the couch. On the dusty floor lay the pictures that used to hang on the wall.
“Lena?” Jane shouted and came out of the bedroom wearing her cotton pajamas. “Are you okay?”
I wanted to be honest and say no. I hadn’t felt okay since staying in this house, but I lied to her.
“Yes, yes I’m fine. What is it?”
“Didn’t you hear the bang? The frames fell on the floor. All at once. And… Please don’t think I’m crazy. I thought I saw a woman in the bedroom.”
My throat was dry.
“Yes. An old woman. She was standing above me while I was sleeping. She had a crane, her hair was white and covered with a kerchief. She was there only for a second. I don’t know what to say right now.”
I opened my mouth to say anything to her, to try and calm her down, but the moment my voice was ready to be used, the cuckoo clock chimed so loudly I had to cover both my ears with my trembling hands. Jane followed my example. From an unknown source, a cold breeze swept through the house, bringing dancing particles of dust with it. The carpetless wooden floor started changing color. Blood spread and spoiled the wood until it almost reached Jane’s feet.
She screamed. I still can’t remember if I joined her with the same pitched voice I had in my nightmare. I know what I saw though. In the pool of blood that formed, the image of a man on his knees impaling himself with a dagger, then falling with his face on the floor. I grabbed my suitcase and Jane’s hand and ran out of the cottage.
I don’t know why I’m writing all of this. I don’t even have a proper pen and paper. I am typing it in the notes app on my phone. I called my father that night. He sounded upset. I announced that I was coming back to New York. He said he had to share with me some things about that house.
November 19, 2006
Lenio died today. There are even fewer of us remaining in this village. She died and it wasn’t me, nor someone of my kin who ended her life. We have failed. Our men failed.
I can feel that my time is coming soon for me too, so I’m writing this letter to be considered an old woman’s wish, my testament. It had all started with a fire and I hoped it would end in fire.
I had no other choice but to participate in the upcoming bloodshed. My husband’s family was my family and our honour was spoiled with injustice. Pity and shame to those who fled, to those who betrayed their kin and left the blamers unpunished.
The men of the family kept the feud alive. Children almost got killed, properties were gone. We couldn’t walk on roads that the opposite side took, mediators did their best to prevent any more blood from being shed. But their days and nights were filled with it.
When our men started to die from old age, the younger generations believed it was futile to fight for a cause that didn’t serve their interest. My children and their cousins and their children left the village to get out and seek a different route for their lives. At what cost though? They left us behind, they let injustice grow. I’m certain my husband’s and all our men’s bones are shaking under the cold ground.
And now only me is left walking the empty roads. Now that Lenio is dead and I wasn’t the one who killed her, my life in this place is over. I have failed my dear husband, his father, Konstantis, all the people who died fighting for the right and all is good.
This is my will: I, Eleni Chalkiadakis, wish great misfortune to any of my kin who returns to this place. May my rage and their shame saturate their life in this land. May they and their antecedents suffer a terrible life, like the ones who lived during the great war of the feud.
When my father ended his storytelling, I wanted to laugh. How could I explain to him and to the rest of the people who would soon ask me, why I ran away from that house?
I saw Konstanti’s body on the floor that night; Jane did as well. All this bloodshed for the love of a woman, for another Helen of Troy. Konstantis was in love with Myrto, she was promised for another man, he took his revenge by setting the barn on fire.
I saw it all, but my father’s expression, the tone in his voice suggested he thought it was all just an interesting story. What he didn’t know was that the story haunted the present. I was touched by that woman’s anger, I witnessed my family sins.