Monday, January 6, 2020

"All-Bright Theophany": A Short Story by Alexandros Papadiamantis

All-Bright Theophany

By Alexandros Papadiamantis


Constanti Plantari’s small boat was running the risk of foundering, while plodding among mountains of billowing waves, each of which was enough to capsize, without letting up, many and strong vessels and send them into the sufficiently spacious abysses, which were able to insatiably devour a hundred boats. It was almost about to sink. A savage northerly wind was blowing full blast ploughing deep trenches in the sea, and the captain of the small shallop had struck down its sail as it was lying to windward. So the boat, left only with its mast, was drifting before the wind and was trying to tack. In vain. After a while the sea held the miserable cork of a boat in its sway and the wind blew it hither and thither. Captain Kostanti Plantari immediately forgot every blasphemy he knew and was preparing to say his prayers while his companion, deckhand Tsotsos, a seventeen-year-old adolescent was stripping off his clothes and ready to dive overboard hoping to swim to safety. The only passenger, cattle-dealer Pramatis, was weeping and thinking it was not worth the trouble to sail on the large sea to drown since firma terra was sufficient to bury so many people.

Macho, Konstanti Plantari’s wife, newlywed and in her first birth throes, ran the risk of dying. Plantarou, her mother-in-law, in the evening of the previous day, had summoned Balalina, the midwife, and her neighbor, Susanna. The two women, well versed in their skill, and the laboring woman’s mother-in-law, affectionate like every mother-in-law that in no way wishes her daughter-in-law’s death, when in particular she is expecting her first baby, before she is certain of the infant’s survival in order to secure the dowry inheritance, were trying within their abilities to relieve the parturient of her travail.

A new day already came and the woman was still in labor. The midwife, the neighbor and the mother-in-law felt for her, while the monk of the Saint Spyridon Monastery dependency was assigned to say a long and important prayer for the woman in travail.

The small cottage was at the top of the small island in the south. On Friday morning, Plantari’s boat was seen tottering in the waves and two beach boys – the ones who spent their time under the shipyard, not knowing other pastime on the land from playing on derelict shallops and the sea – came to bring Plantarou the good tides they had heard from the ferrymen, who had descried the boat from afar. And then Plantarou seeing the tempest in the sea and realizing that the boat plunged and soared in the waves and was in danger of foundering, saw through the meaning of what people said about double joy and triple agony. For double would be the joy for her son to arrive safely and her daughter-in-law to deliver easily. Triple would be the agony at the danger her son was in, the danger of her daughter-in-law’s death and the danger of losing the expected baby. And perhaps fourfold would be the added agony in case her daughter-in-law “happily” gave birth to a girl.

On top of the hill, there was the lonely cottage dominating the village, built on the seashore, of around two hundred houses belonging to fishermen, ferrymen and sailors. The distance between the cottage and the village was one mile. There was also a small cove on the beach, but not a proper port, with an exclusive view of the south. So the agony of Plantari’s boat was visible both from the hamlet and the cottage. Plantarou then began to accuse her son of his boldness and temerity. Why was he to sail on such holy days? He never listened to his mother’s words: he was such a hard-headed fellow. Theophany had not yet come. The Holy Cross had not yet been thrown in the sea to sanctify the waters. Why should he be so impatient and restless? Why should her audacious son not have waited until the sanctification of the waters, the fountains and the rivers and the driving away of the goblins? It served him right for not heeding her. The more the sun rose to its zenith, the more Plantarou’s agony increased. Her daughter-in-law, supported by Balalina, the midwife, and hanging upon Susanna’s neck, bellowed like a cow. At the same time the wind down at the sea seemed to drive the small boat farther on instead of helping it reach the coast. The boat was constantly dwindling in sight. Plantarou did not say anything to her daughter-in-law. From time to time she would go out to the balcony, feigning odd jobs, where she lingered and gazed into the sea. She would not return unless Balalina, the midwife, called her back. Midday was drawing near and Plantarou’s agony reached its zenith. There seemed to be no hope. Her son would drown in the merciless sea and bitter earth would cover her daughter-in-law with her embryo. Finally, the old woman wearily gave up all hope. The boat vanished from sight… and her son’s wife gave birth to… a son. Oh, The screeching creature! Oh, the tiny Jonah, that caused his father to perish! Oh, strangle it! Kill it! What on earth are you keeping it? Throw it into the sea to meet with his father! And that sow of its mother, the useless, the unfruitful and unclean woman! Oh, midwife can you throttle her now so she can croak to death in bed and using your paw sprain the brat’s neck, and then we can tell it was stillborn and the mother expired between the stools [at childbirth]. Can you do it?

However, no bitter earth covered the wretched mother with the fruit of her womb and the merciful sea did not drown the father. Captain Plantari had long since finished saying his prayers and young sailor Tsotsos had anew donned his shirt and trousers. Cattle-dealer Pramatis was fully convinced he was a good Christian, who was bound to be buried in sanctified soil. The wind abated around late afternoon and the skipper held sway over the small vessel. He grasped the helm forcefully and managed with continuous luffing to bring the shallop to lee, near the shore, a few miles from the cove. That is the reason why the boat disappeared from Plantarou’s sight, who in vain went on gazing from the height of the balcony. He finally reached the cove at sunset just as the wind let up completely.

Plantarou received fresh, good this time, tidings. Then at nightfall, her son, dripping salt, exhausted and sea-beaten, arrived at the cottage where he received the happy intelligence: his consort granted him a male heir.

The following day was the Feast of Lights. The day after All-bright Theophany. In the evening of the great feast, when the nursing mother was three days in bed, they put on the floor a tub filled with lukewarm water which had previously been boiled with laurel and myrtle leaves. They were to perform the kolymbidia, a widely observed custom of washing the recently born babe. Good midwife Balalina laid the babe gently on her spread legs and began to strip off the swaddling clothes. The night had already fallen. A lamp and two candles were burning on a low table. The infant, plump, moon-faced with an indistinct pink complexion and a bluish, puzzled look, was breathing and relieved as it was freed of his hampering gauzes. He smiled to the light that struck his eye and reached with his little hand to catch the flame. He had put in its mouth his other hand, which he was unceasingly sucking. No one can describe what the babe felt like.

The good midwife took off all the swaddles, removed the babe’s tiny skirt and camisole and then put the infant gently in the tub. She began to bathe him and wash off the salt she had sprinkled him with at the time of his birth as soon as she had cut off the umbilical cord. She also removed the cotton swab she had covered the babe’s cheeks and chin with so that he could grow up and reach old-age with white beard. She also got the tongs from the heath and dipped it in the tub so that the child could become iron-headed, that is, sturdy and robust.

The infant started to whimper but the midwife continued to bathe him gently, and at the same time crooning to him: “Don’t cry, my pet, don’t cry, my white-headed one, there, there, my drake, my big-headed gander!” At the same time, the babe’s father, mother, granny Plantarou, and all kith and kin present were bestowing upon the child silver coins, as it was wont, to silver him. They put on the babe’s sternum and stomach the argentous pieces, which slid and sank to the bottom of the tub. The poor infant did not cease to cry while the midwife went on bathing him. “Swim, my child, swim now in the tub and get rid of your salt in fresh water. There’ll come a time when you’ll be swimming in the salt waves as well, like your father, who swam only yesterday in his own tub.” ‘The voice of the Lord is upon the waters: the God of glory thundereth; the Lord is upon many waters.’ [Psalm 29:3]

The next day was the Synaxis of Saint John the Baptist, the child was to be christened as he happened to be born on the eve of the feast of the Theophany. Therefore, in the evening after Kolympidia (the Babe’s bathing) there was a banquet at home. The granny gathered all the silver pieces, half thalers, twenty-pence pieces and drachmas, tied them into a knot with her kerchief, while all those present voiced their enthusiasm: “May he have a long life! May he keep fit!” and wished the midwife anon “May God always bless you!” Then Balalina wiped the child dry on a large white towel, dressed him with a clean small shirt and apron, lay him on her lap and began swaddling him.

Cattle-dealer Pramatis had come on the occasion of Kolympidia and declared his desire to become the babe’s godfather to commemorate his recent danger and rescue in the sea.

Deckhand Tsotsos had come as far as the door, where he was standing and watching the ceremony from the distance. The neighbor, Dimitri Skiaderos, Konstanti Plantari’s first cousin, had not appeared at the cottage since the day of his wedding [apparently they were not on speaking terms]. But that evening he came escorted by his wife, Delcharo, and his children, two of whom he was holding by the hand in a string – one five and the other four years old – and a third two-year-old child he was carrying under his armpit, while a five-month-old infant suckled in his mother’s bosom, and two more, seven and eight-year- olds were following hanging at her skirts. He made his appearance, rejoicing in the happiness of his cousin and voicing his well-wishing and congratulations.

They all sat down around the table. On the right sat midwife Balalina, on the left neighbor Susanna, in the very midst the newborn’s father took his seat. On Susanna’s right was Plantarou, next to her sat cattle-dealer Pramatis with a couple of others. The remaining seats were occupied by the Skiaderos family. They started eating. Dimitri Skiaderos’ kids did not easily fit. They shouted, grousing and making a din. One wanted tsitsi [baby talk for meat]; the other did not like mam [the food]; the third whimpered asking for vry [water]; the fourth felt like having some sweetmeat, for he hated cheese. The wretched new mother was tormented by this hubbub. Then they all began toasting. The wished a long life to the father, an easy quarantine [a new mother was considered unclean and did not budge from the house for forty days until she received the priest’s blessing] to the new mother. The first to raise the glass was the midwife, the next was the father followed by the neighbor, old Susanna. When it was Plantarou’s turn to drink to her daughter-in-law’s health, she expressed her wishes in three different tones:

"To your health, my daughter, and may the forty days pass by easily and in happiness. And whatever I have said against you, my child, let it be gone with the wind!"