Many Greeks prepare follow a fasting regime from 1 to 14 August. The fast is broken on the 15th so we expect to hear much partying around Kritsa with the tempting smells of barbecues.
As you might expect, 15 August is the name day for women named Maria, but only if they’re married. Those called Despoina celebrate too as their name refers to ‘the Lady’. With so many women in Kritsa named Maria, Despoina, Despina, Deppy and Pipina, 15 August is a very festive affair. Don’t feel sorry for the unmarried women and girls called Maria or Despoina as they’ll enjoy their celebrations in November.
The famous Faneromenis Monastery, circa 35 km from Kritsa, is very important to these celebrations. It is traditional for people to make a pilgrimage here and many still make the trek overnight to arrive at the monastery for the morning service. This is where Rodanthe, real life heroine of my first novel set in 1823, Kritsotopoula, Girl of Kritsa attended the secret school in this monastery.
Brother Michalis stood at his favourite vantage point, at the high gatehouse window of the fortified monastery, willing his failing sight to penetrate the dark cloak of night. He anticipated the first pinpricks of light from oil lamps heralding women from villages as far away as Kritsa.
First to appear around midnight were those from the nearby hamlet below the monastery. These hostesses had justifiable pride in the feast they’d prepared to feed pilgrims after the service held that very morning, on the fifteenth of August, to celebrate the Dormition of the Panagia when Mary, Mother of God, fell asleep. The previous two-week fast banning meat, poultry, milk, cheese, eggs, fish, oil and wine produced an abundance of ingredients for their baking and making. Local menfolk never attended this service out of respect for the many women craving an opportunity to kiss the monastery’s miraculous icon of the Panagia, Mother of God. Despite this, cheerful men set prime hogs to roast, in certain knowledge they’d make short work of the leftovers. Brother Michalis sniffed the air. Yes, there was a faint aroma proving the fat porker was above the firepit. His belly rumbled as he remembered the youthful hours he’d spent turning the spit, and he rubbed his arms as if the memory pained him. Sandals slapping on stone steps made him smile. ‘Might have guessed you two would join me. Ever since you realised visitors brought cakes and pastries you’ve been too excited to rest between services.’
As he stepped back from the window, Brother Michalis feigned protests. ‘I’d have thought soon-to-be deacons above hugs and kisses.’
Instead of gaining cheer from the easy familiarity, Mathaios felt tears prickle and moved to peer from the window. He wondered if this was the right time to tell these dear people his news. One stood instead of a papa and the other as his adopted brother. As he swallowed the lump in his throat he decided not to spoil the festival, reminding himself there was time to spare as he’d assured the abbot he’d tell them before September. In a cheery voice, he masked his emotions. ‘Lamplights head this way. Come, Nikolaos, let’s greet them.’
The distance between women of the Kritsa group belied the fact they’d set out as a closely formed unit full of chatter and anticipation. Those unable to face the final steep climb until first light took advantage of hospitality in the nearby hamlet of monastery servants. One spurning rest was Irini, and as she crested the last mound her weariness evaporated at the sight of lamps with dancing flames set along the monastery’s steep steps. With her arms sweeping, she spun. ‘God is so near. Those stars invite us to touch the heavens. Since we passed our village sentries, I’ve felt free as a bird, and enjoyed every step of our trek.’ Giddy, she clutched her friend Katerina by the arm. ‘Our pilgrimage is more enjoyable for having you to walk with.’
‘How could I refuse when you explained about kissing the icon famed for aiding women?’
Sad in an instant, Irini hugged Katerina. ‘Your plea is an easy guess. Two stillborn boys is unbearable.’
‘Place your palm here. Can you feel it? My prayer is for a girl babe.’
‘No wonder you agreed so fast when I suggested we wear our looser white cotton smocks without aprons and take waistcoats for church instead.’
‘Your gift of a long white scarf kept the worst of the sun off me and felt more comfortable than our usual face-binding kerchiefs.’
‘You’ll see more women wear them tomorrow for the service. So many women wear the constant black of mourning, I was surprised the first time I saw Grandma wear a white scarf at the monastery. Of more importance, does my cousin know about the baby?’
‘I’ll tell him when we return.’ As superstitious as most local folk, Katerina made the sign against the evil eye. Frightened by speaking her dream aloud, she changed the subject. ‘Lights head our way.’
‘I expect it’s the lads. It’s two years since our last pilgrimage from Kritsa, and I’ve missed them.’
With an ease forged in childhood, Irini kissed the tubby youth, Nikolaos. Not expecting Mathaios to have grown so tall, Irini blushed, grateful for the cover of darkness as she took his proffered hand. In her confusion Irini forgot to let go and failed to make introductions.
‘Hello, I’m Katerina. I married Irini’s cousin and settled in Kritsa.’
A group of six including Irini’s mama drew near and Nikolaos called out to attract their attention. Puffed from exertion, they flung themselves on the brittle remains of sunburnt grass, clamouring for the water flasks the thoughtful youths carried. When the rested group walked on, none noticed how a young pair lagged, chatting in quiet voices with tinkles of laughter.
Reverend Abbot, twenty monks, five novices and eight pupils of the secret school filed to stand in front of the small church in the cleft of the rock. The congregation took it in turns to enter the church to kiss the revered icon after the monastic population had paid their due respects. On their return to the courtyard, the audience sought shade from the hot sun. Settled under the soothing tones of melodic chanting, Katerina risked a whisper. ‘I made my special prayer when kissing the Panagia.’
Irini delivered a hug. There was no chance to answer as the crowd hushed to see the icon placed on a bier decorated with dried flowers and grasses. Carried aloft by monks, it toured the monastery precincts. When visitors filed behind monks, novices and schoolboys, Irini’s mama realised there’d been a muddle because Mathaios was out of his rightful place, walking with her daughter at the rear of the procession.
Later, as they sat digesting an amazing array of food, Irini’s mama said, ‘Shall we take our leave, Katerina? Distance seems greater on our tired trek home.’
‘Not yet. Irini says schoolboys and novices plan to sing mantinades: rhyming couplets to commemorate brave rebels who plotted against ruling Venetians, long before Ottoman oppressors took control of Crete.’
Irini saw her mama’s eyebrows arch, and nodded. ‘Mathaios told me. A recent earth tremor dislodged stones behind the refectory to reveal pots of hidden verse written on fine goatskin.’
Flushed cheeks and sparkling eyes didn’t escape sharp eyes. ‘Tsk, retire behind the female rest screens. Don’t return until you’ve retied your dishevelled scarf – your hair is showing.’ As Irini rose, those nearby resumed gossiping, pretending they’d not witnessed her chastisement.
Performers bowed low to signal the recitation’s end, and as applause fell away, Irini whispered, ‘Today’s men should heed those words. It’s time to resist the Turks.’
‘You’ve been listening to your papa resenting paying bail to guarantee our return. Did you think it worth it, Katerina?’
‘It was everything promised, and more. How can we thank the monks and the generous folk who’ve treated us so well?’
‘Let’s sing a chorus to repay their kindness.’
Although proud of her daughter’s voice, Irini’s mama was aghast that she’d dared to perform a soft lullaby outside family confines. Desperate to hide the indiscretion, she rose and stretched out her hands to her neighbours. ‘Come, let everyone sing thanks.’
Once the monastery’s great studded gate thudded shut, the women set off, chattering and laughing until caution on the steep path kept them quiet as far as the hamlet. Safe here, they milled to bid a proper farewell to friends and family they might not see again until their next trip. While waiting for a Kritsa grandma to deliver a matchmaking message, Irini noticed her friend hunched over and pacing. A second glance took in the tears. ‘Are you too hot? Shall I fetch water?’
‘Panagia Mou, Mother of God, help me. My prayer passed unnoticed among the many. This babe doesn’t want my love.’
Happy to toil in the hot courtyard Mathaios pushed his broom around in a daze, not noticing busy hands had already completed the task. In an uncharacteristic moment of idleness, he watched a cat crouch, stare fixed on a small bird enjoying his trilling. ‘Ah, cat. Sweet Irini has a voice to put songbirds to shame.’
After speaking her name aloud, it fixed in his head. Such a lively girl, not giggling and silly. He sighed. No doubt she’d make some lucky man a wonderful wife. ‘Ouch, that thought hurt.’
‘Hey, are you talking to yourself?’
‘Sorry, Nikolaos. What shall we do next?’
‘Help me stack planks used as food trestles.’
Midway through the task Mathaios discovered a large basket under bushes. ‘This must be Aunt’s. My bed cushion, a gift from her, has the same embroidered design as this cloth cover.’
‘Is anything important in there?’
‘Ha ha! I should have guessed. There’s enough food here to keep my uncle going for two days. I’ll take it down for them, the walk will do me good. Tell Brother Michalis I’ll stay overnight and be back in time for matins.’
Ahead of him a multihued sea with bands of turquoise, azure, cobalt and cerulean stretched to the grey-lined horizon. Whenever he walked to his aunt’s he stood mesmerised on this jutting rock above the five dome-roofed stone dwellings of the monastery servants and shepherds. From his elevated position he could see the ever-changing scene among the bays created by the headlands known as the Five Fingers. This late afternoon, white foaming waves surged into the bays at differing speeds and angles and, to the far right, slapped the foot of the rounded Thripti Mountains, now caressed by a pink hue of the reflected setting sun. In the stillness he heard a distressed whimper beneath his rock ledge.
‘Irini? Whatever is wrong? Why are you here?’
In her wretchedness she clung to him without realising her scarf lie by her side. Instinct had him caressing her back, his hand under her long tresses, soothing her until her sobs ceased.
‘If it’s true God manages everything, I don’t understand.’ At his gentle squeeze she continued. ‘Katerina wants a baby. Is that too much to ask?’
Lost for words, he didn’t answer; whatever the issue, he wanted to continue holding her.
‘Mama fears for her life. Blood loss was disproportionate for the tiny babe, another boy.’
Not registering Mathaios held her, she accepted his hemmed and pristine white cotton square.
‘Who knows what God plans for us. My mama died in childbirth, leaving Aunt to care for me among her brood until I was old enough to join the monastery boys.’
Despite her words – ‘I shouldn’t sit here with you, someone may see,’ – she moved closer, resting against his arm which embraced her shoulders. ‘Trouble is, there’s nowhere else I want to be.’
Not trusting his emotions, he kept quiet, eyes closed, enjoying her closeness. With a start he realised they needed to move. ‘Night falls and I fear you’ll slip. Let me escort you downhill.’
‘Whatever will people say?’
‘I carry Aunt’s basket of food. No one will comment, if you replace your scarf.’
Whatever you do to celebrate 15 August, have fun. x