Sunday, December 29, 2019

"The Cantankerous Man": A Christmas Story by Alexandros Moraitidis

The Cantankerous Man

By Alexandros Moraitidis


On Christmas Eve Old-Spyraina had excited common curiosity. Indeed, according to the most precise observations of the old gammers – who are the most observant of all living beings everywhere – she had appeared twelve times from dawn till the forenoon upon the Cliff, the highest point in the insular town, from which one could gaze at the expanse of the sea.

“What’s come over that woman there?” The old women repeatedly wondered seeing Old-Spyraina panting up and down the Cliff – she lived at the Threshing Floors, at the extremity of the town.

Sometimes she came upon a workman, who laden with his sturdy ladder, having finished the repairs of some house roof or other, went his way to another house to that effect. This kind of odd jobs are most common at the villages in winter, when downpours and winds, and above all, the thick layer of snow, constantly shifted the roof tiles transforming the poorly-made roofs into sieves.

Some other times again Old-Spyraina, being extremely absent-minded, stepped inadvertently on the newly whitewashed threshold of a house or other incurring, the poor thing, both upon her head and her feet thousands of blasphemies and curses, which in such cases hover around in the village like filthy bottle-flies.

But the old woman was incapable of hearing anything. She could only see. In fact, the poor woman was staring at the sea standing guard at that windmill, against which all the winds smashed in brash fury.

“No boat at sea, no bird in the plain!”, the granny was mumbling on her way back, deep in sorrow, while the gelid north wind was blowing with unrestrained fierceness, turning the foaming waves into sea clouds.

As the day advanced, the wind waxed more furious. It had already been blowing for a week, “driven mad”, according to Old-Spyraina’s description. The snow shone in the mountains, and the wind raged in the sea, which assumed a picture of dancing billows crashing against each other from time to time, especially at the whim of the wind, and spouting a rain of foam, which sublimated in a shrill whistling, causing the cavernous shore to reverberate. No sail could be seen in the bleak sea. Small and big vessels remained wind-bound, shunning the demonic sea ball, which is only content to be accompanied by the rough and dismal cliffs. And the fishermen themselves despairing, put their nets into sacks, dragged their fishing gear high up on the shore, and sitting at the seaside cafes played slapjack dragging in the meantime sensually at their hookahs.


It was already late afternoon. A sufficient number of islanders, hearing the raucous butcher’s bugle, the sound of which could be likened to the shrilling cries of a swine being slaughtered. This butcher, who served as a bugler in the army, kept this instrument in pleasant remembrance of his adventurous military life. On the ‘festive’ days of his shop he used to ‘blow in it’, as it were, in order to summon his customers. It goes without saying that Christmas Eve was one of the most panegyric days for the store of this butcher-cum-bugler, as it was the end of a forty-day fasting period, during which butchers turned of necessity to farmers. And now the bugle sounded like a breaking clay pot amidst the shrieks of pigs being slaughtered, and all this butchering tumult was accompanied by the prevailing violent commotion of rough seas.

“Not even a flying bird!” Old-Spyraina, upon the Cliff, was again heard soliloquizing. “The mad north wind has gone even madder”. She went on staring on the roaring sea, holding fast her black frock and her even blacker shawl, the folds of which was prey to the wind. She was about to leave when she was stopped by a young sailor, who was going to the market, all swathed in his fur coat, his shapka on his head, and his iron-heavy shoes.

“What’s up, auntie Spyraina?” enquired civilly the seaman.

“What do you expect, my son?”

“My eyes have grown weary scanning the sea

And I am tired asking the jack tars after thee.”

The good old woman was fond of responding in couplets, which rejoiced her heart, sweetening thus the memory of her absent son.

“It’s Georgie you’re expecting, auntie Spyraina?”

“Accursed be the carpenters who make a boat

That carries our handsome lads to lands remote”.

The old woman replied again with another couplet, drifting in thought as she regarded the awesome combers breaking viciously at that moment against a rocky islet in the middle of the bay, as though they were trying to uproot it.

“Say, auntie-Spyraina”, asked the sailor, “who is Georgie sailing with?”

“On Captain Konstanti’s vessel. We’re expecting him from Salonica. They’ve sailed with a cargo of salt from Fokies”.

“What? On Captain Konstanti’s boat!” the sailor burst out laughing. He is a crabstick, so cantankerous. Don’t expect them, auntie! He got mad at his men or he was nagged by Georgie himself, such a jester as he is, and so he stranded his old tub into some rocks or other. You know how waspish he can get! Merry Christmas, auntie-Spyraina!” added the sailor descending to the market and leaving the old woman speechless, who was trying to hold back two big tears sparkling like diamonds in her eyes.

The old woman knew something from hearsay about Captain Konstanti, and vague fears nestled deep in her maternal bosom began to well up, always fishy and potentially realizable. Although she had decided to go by the butcher’s to buy some pork, she now grew so concerned and anxious that she returned home empty handed. There she set about carrying to the bakery the Christmas bread, which she had found already “risen”, along with that manikin-like bannock, with a white egg in its middle, a Christmas present for her son whose return she was looking forward to.

At home she found her two little grandchildren expecting her, shivering, their two arms hanging limp at their sides with hands blue with the cold and their fingers like the hooks of a harpoon used to fish sea urchins. They were her widowed daughter’s children, poor orphans, living in their grandma’s poor house, which they filled at times with their chatter and their weeping. Their mother used to work on the villagers’ fields to procure the daily bread.

“Hasn’t papa come yet, grandma?” they both would ask at the same time after their expected uncle, who on his return would always bring them various gifts from his travels.

The old woman did not reply beginning to be busy making two more bannocks for her little grandsons.

“Do they eat meat tomorrow, grandma?” asked one of the little ones, standing on one side of the low table on which the old woman was kneading the bannocks.

“Grandma, has the crow eaten the cheese?” said the other little one, standing on the other side and referring to the jocular lore of the crow that eats all the cheese of the household throughout Lent and brings it again on Easter Day*. Such tales were often told by the old woman bringing up her two little grandsons. But now aunt-Spyraina was silent. The jest made a while ago concerning her son upset her deeply.

“Where’s the goblin, grandma?” asked again one of the little ones.

“Tonight I’ll sing a song when papa Georgie comes,” added the other.

Thus they went on unceasingly asking endless questions which the old woman declined to answer. She was only thinking and her deliberations were always uttered wailfully:

“Why should he sail with that crabstick of a captain? No wonder in his anger, as cantankerous as he is, he might have wrecked his damned barque. ”


Captain Konstanti, whom the playful and ironic islanders often called him the crabstick, or cantankerous, was a dry and strict skipper, sixty-five years of age, who in his youth was distinguished for his hard work and his seamanship as well as for his ‘intelligence’, as they used to say in the island. Starting his career sailing along the coast and improving afterwards his shipping knowledge as far as Pteleos and Stylida, he was the first to venture to display proudly his home brig Annunciation, one hundred and five tons, at faraway ports such as those in the Black Sea and the Danube, and sport his ancient fez in Marseilles, where, incidentally, on disembarking to port to get clearance, he was compelled by the port guards to row back to his vessel on his longboat, three miles off, to smart himself up dressing more decently. However, Captain Konstanti returned to port – the selfsame – only that he turned his valued fez upside down donning it a little way above his ears. He attributed his epithet to this incident trying to ignore the other cause, which made the witty islanders award him this title. And he was very fond of relating the story himself.

“As soon as we got to the port authority,” he used to say, “being dead tired after hard rowing, the port official asks:

“Which is the captain?”

“I am!” I stood up telling them. What, don’t you know me?” And I stood up straight. “I raised my fez a little bit up;” Captain Konstanti was wont to wear it as far down as his ears and eyes.

“Let me give you a piece of my mind, captain” replied the guard. “Your fez might be just right for you, but the port master won’t like it at all, unless you want to appear as a collier.” And Captain Konstanti used to blow his top off laughing, while recounting that incident. At the village he was known otherwise. He was burdened with many ‘ornaments’. His breeches, blue once like a beautiful cranesbill, were bleached by the weather. As you see, clothes grow old, too. And the raiment was afflicted not only with old age, as its owner’s mustache, but also with sea salt, which, as in the case of fishermen, was attached on the fabric and formed between its sparse pleats different brownish spots, like dim stars. Thus sailors grow old, as Captain Konstanti’s breeches do, both by the Time and the sea. The years bend their backs and the brine turns their hair white. Again, his sturdy yellowish capelet, bought once in Salonica, began to blacken deplorably, and his fez, forfeiting its bright color, while its sky-blue tassel at the top degenerating into a nettle, was recognizable only by its surrounding broad black line formed after a thirty-year-old sea-worn career. And, God bless him, he was very fond of his fez. He almost adored it.

“Here, look at this!” he would say to the youngsters who teased him. “This is the fez I was wearing when I sailed to Marseilles. Come on, can you sail there, too?” he added ostentatiously making the thumb down sign.

Indeed, Captain Konstanti from a clever deckhand promoted himself to skipper. Starting with a bulky boat in which he carried prayer beads, seals and flasks from Mount Athos, he so wisely studied the stars, the winds and the climate that he could predict all weather changes. As to the compass reading, he claimed he knew other ‘signs’, far safer, familiar exclusively to him. In addition, being frugal and always with a view of self-advancement, he competed his fellow islanders, as a dolphin races his mates during their course, bearing always in mind one end, that is to have his own brig built, which he succeeded in doing.

What joy washed over him, like a March sunshine, on putting in the island in his new brig from the Danube for the first time. He boarded the longboat rowed by his sailors, while he flaunted like a peacock standing at the stern, shining in the red hues of his fez – he had just bought it – with the sky-blue tassel waving in the breeze, preserving still the white piece of paper put there by the manufacturer to protect the silk threads from being tangled and consequently damaged.

However, Captain Konstanti was possessed by a great singularity of character originating in his extreme self-confidence in his seamanship: he could not tolerate counseling or remarks from his sailors concerning either the handling of sails or the general course of the vessel. Whenever a sailor, unaware of his character, allegedly intended to instruct Captain Konstanti in a certain way, the latter did the opposite, many times even to the detriment of his ship.

Three times he ran aground the Annunciation, because during the voyage he was warned by a sailor to watch out for a shoal, which Captain Konstanti fully knew. He knew every shoal and reef, as he claimed, and he could swing his ship around with closed eyes; but he took it very hard to be coached by his children.

When once someone pointed out a shoal: “Who are you to teach me, ignoramus?” he said in anger, just at the moment, being an able seaman, he was about to give the shoal a wide berth. But for the remark made – the coaching as he was wont to say –, he went straight on his course so as not be seen guided by someone, he who had gulped the sea in handfuls. And then, crash went the Annunciation onto the shoal while at the same time a furious Captain Konstanti was saying: “this fez knows a lot more than your hard heads.”

Fortunately, at all three times he had run aground, no harm was inflicted in the wooden hull of the vessel, to which Captain Konstanti gave vent his queer whim.

At periods of sea calm and fair weather, when both ship and sea heave to, and the sailors are at a loss to know how to beguile their unbearable boredom, or when the vessel is before a light breeze while the waves lap its sides like wisps of cotton with a gentle whimper, and the cool dew falling on the sails makes the sailors so gay that they unobtrusively begin to sing; it is not, at such sweet hours, unusual for them to play with Captain Konstanti’s perilous peculiarity. In such cases, the captain would release his ire either onto the black sides of his ship or onto his fez. However, during wind-swept, ominous heavy seas, the sailors hung around speechless and docile, fearful lest a word uttered randomly would have a pernicious impact upon the beastly instinct of Captain Konstanti, who undoubtedly was liable to sink ship and hands, ‘just for fun.’

Old-Spyraina, either because of her inchoate fear or because of too much hope – you see, too much hope is wearying – she was exhausted and at the hour of vespers did not appear at the Cliff. In addition, it was bitter cold! Nevertheless, harking to the unceasing blowing of the wind, she would often repeatedly say: “Not even a flying bird!...” She must have forgotten the favorite couplets, which she left incomplete.

And again she sat by the fire deliberating: “I’m afraid it isn’t unusual they might have thwarted the Cantankerous One and gone with all hands to the bottom!”

At that moment both her grandchildren, carrying in their arms the still oven-fresh bannocks from the bakery, were heard shouting: “The papa, ganma, the papa,” choked with joy and barely able to breathe.

No sooner had the old woman been roused from her torpor than she sprang up from the fireplace she was sitting by and headed to the door, where she was met by her neighbor.

“My congratulations, Georgie has come!”

“Has he, my daughter?”

She could only give this short answer, and then she ran to the seaside followed up to a certain distance by her two little ones warming themselves with the bannocks.

Captain Konstanti always used to celebrate Christmas in his home island. He always found a way to return home at Yuletide. On that morning a shepherd saw a ship sailing down from Thermaikos Gulf and announced it to the old woman, who had been gazing at the sea since morning. And indeed, around evening a ship in full sail made its appearance, bypassing the rocky islet in front of the harbor, and tacked to secure a berth, as at that time it was blowing hard from northeast. Since the wind was blowing against the vessel, the sails flapped dangerously to the point of being ripped while the waves crashing relentlessly upon the bows tossed and pitched her as though they were going to founder her. It appeared as if a marine demon slapped the blackened face of the prow with hands of steel. The boat, however, was well maintained and was able to stand that awesome commotion; the gentle and playful sea can sometimes change into matter harder than iron.

The less Captain Konstanti neglected himself, the more kept the Annunciation in full trim. His favored color was black, therefore, the Annunciation shone in pitch-black luster. Her sails were always new and snow-white. Pleased as he was with his patched breeches, he hated to see patched up sails, none the less. Furthermore, when he sailed back home – he loved his home town and he was very proud of it; on the 30th of January, the town’s feast day, he even contributed to the church collection with five drachmas – he was in the habit of hoisting not only the flag, which was large with mellow colors, but also those ‘signals’ employed for sea communication; the latter were used by the captain for the exclusive decoration of his brig.

“Hey, I like to announce my coming!” he used to say.

It goes without saying that the Annunciation was soon recognized; therefore a crowd of people had already assembled at the market place, amid the pigs being slaughtered, and it was a nice spectacle for them to watch the small brig heroically defying the fury of the sea. Captain Konstanti was very popular with his townsmen, and whenever they saw his ship sailing in, they always gathered in crowds at the seaside to watch. Besides, they were always expecting some hitch of his or other to amuse themselves. Now due to the festive period the welcoming was growing panegyric. Even the butcher stopped his work and assumed blowing at the bugle, amidst the witticisms of the mirthful throng.

“Luff-a-lee, Captain Konstanti”, someone cried.

“Hey, cut it out! He might do some mischief in this storm”, someone else added.

The weather went on the same, the wind was blowing over the bow, and yet the Annunciation managed to approach the entrance of the port, and with a dexterous tack, she could berth safely. The ship was so close that captain Konstanti himself was made out clearly, standing proudly at the helm.

All had their eyes turned to her, when they found out to their terror that the smart brig had approached the rocky islet so dangerously that there might be no way back.

“There! There!” the crowd was heard crying. Amidst this entire disturbance some people hasted to the islet, which was joined to the town by a bridge, ignoring the flooding, which the northeast wind had completely covered the bridgehead.

“He’s done it again!” cried someone from the crowd.

And then a hideous crackle was heard on both sides of the ship as if the dry bones of a huge prehistoric skeleton splintered.

The butcher dropped his bugle.

The assembled islanders were in the habit of laughing with the vagaries of this hard-headed man, but never to the point so that a sad accident might result.

However, the accident occurred.

The Annunciation had run aground on her beam ends upon the rocky islet.

Awe overcame the islanders, some of which were fully confident that the disaster happened because of the skipper’s familiar peculiarity of character; and in fact, they were absolutely right. For Captain Konstanti’s raucous voice could still be heard after the stranding:

“This fez knows a lot more than your hard heads.”


This is the story how the disaster was brought about.

At the last tacking, Georgie, full of joy with returning to his home town and eager to disembark as soon as possible, seeing that the skipper did not maneuver, forgot momentarily with whom he had to deal and cried:

“Watch out what you’re doing, captain Konstanti!”

Captain Konstanti, in sooth, at that moment was about to give the order to swing her around, but harking to that unaccounted for whim of his, he deemed he would rather crash his brig after this remark than show incapable of seamanship.

As for the rescue of the ship, there was no hope, but, though there was no peril for the five-hand crew save the skipper, an ear-splitting cry rang out in the market as everyone was hurrying to the islet. And amidst these ululations old-Spyraina’s wailing was heard. The old woman having the hem of her dress soaked about two spans in breadth had run through to the islet crying unceasingly: “Why should he have sailed under that hard-headed fellow? Why so?” and then again shouting to her son: “Get out of there, buster! Out son!”

The crew however remained still on board, believing that with the assistance of the inhabitants could rescue the vessel.

Captain Konstanti, as though nothing had happened and not considering himself the cause of the disaster, was busy running along the deck, from stern to prow, uttering incoherent phrases.

But all were in vain. The violent northeaster slapping powerfully on the sides of the ship, pushing her constantly on the rocks, ripped her finally asunder, scattering it in the port. Masts, sails, cables, wooden items and various pieces of ship furniture, became pitiful flotsam, relentlessly smitten by the waves, colliding, sinking and reemerging amidst the foam eventually to crash upon the rocks. The whole scene was an indescribable and horrible picture of a shipwreck. She had been a thirty-year- old brig. The sailors were able to salvage their chests in the nick of time.

Night fell, dark and starless. Heavy grey-black clouds covered the firmament and dense snow- flakes began to fall whitening the house-roofs and the roads. The islanders, deeply aggrieved, dispersed and went to their abodes to rest and get up at midnight to attend the festive Christmas mass. Because it was bitter cold, the children, who usually go around in groups to sing the carols, would not budge outside this year. The only people to stay out were two arrant elderly musicians – one playing the violin and the other the lute – who managed to go around the houses singing the carols “for a happy year.”

After a while the lights in the homes where the people seemingly stayed up longer went out eventually.

However, over at the Threshing Floors, a small cottage was still lit, shedding its faint illumination through the slits of the window shutters. That was Old-Spyraina’s little dwelling, who wearing on her shoulders a new shawl was sitting calm, serene and exultant by the fire and under the dim oil lamp light was shining her son’s shoes. Her son, also, by the fire was fitfully sleeping as if in his slumber reflected that he had been the cause of the disaster. Nearby the old woman’s two grandchildren were fast asleep together on a rug holding their bannocks tightly in their arms, while on either side of the rug there were two pairs of shoes made of green suede, brand new and still joined with a cord, gifts of the newly returned sailor.

Meanwhile, an old man, bareheaded, soaked and snow-covered, was walking through the market place, his noisy heavy shoes leaving their imprints on the thin layer of snow. He was proceeding slowly, bent and wringing his sea-logged fez, which during the doleful shipwreck lost the last vestige of his tassel.

* Apparently, the little boy confused Christmas with Easter (Translator’s note)