The lark

Tale #5
"Mythology" ("Mithologia")

Twelve tales from a life
by Nikos Bakolas

They didn't hear the lark that next spring, nor had they all the winter before. And they were sorry, or remorseful, because for so many years they had mocked her, or despised her, saying that all she did was sing, that she had no idea how to keep house or anything -although her nest was always spick and span. And Nikolas told those who teased him, or who repeated the malicious gossip, that he «went all the way to Constantinople to find her, because there were no songbirds here»- they were all crows, harsh-voiced and awkward and ugly. That was an exaggeration, of course, and he only said it to annoy them, but he had become accustomed to his delight and her singing mellowed him. He had also become accustomed to the criticism, to all the talk since that long ago day when he had married her, when the neighbourhood told itself «we've lost him» and it suddenly appeared that the humble grocer would have been welcomed as a bridegroom for any number of girls who would only speak to him on weekdays and then only in company, in case they should appear too obvious.

But he had gone to seek his fortune in Constantinople, and to open a new shop there and gain experience in a bigger city, in the metropolis with the Patriarch and all the arts and the hopes and a chance to get on in the world. And as he used to say later, stretched out on the sofa and smiling placidly, his fortune was called Eugenia and the first time they met her hand left a scent of lavender on his which lasted until he washed the next morning. He asked himself if she were pretty, but was unable to say for certain; he just closed his eyes and smelled the lavender.

This was the girl whom he brought back with him, as his bride, when he returned to Salonika two years later, without having learned much of anything except nostalgia for the city which had fostered him in its cellars, in shops from Vardari right across to Kali Meria. It was as if he had gone to Constantinople to seek Eugenia and learn how to win her, to meet her and to marry her. For she was a girl from his own stony province of Epirus, and she had a dowry: the love of her parents and a share of the money they had laboured so patiently to amass (they were bakers), grain by grain like ants, penny by penny and eventually pound by pound, although never by handfuls. But her father hung a garland of gold coins about her neck and kissed her, dry-eyed, when she left. The one who cried was her little brother, cried as if he were being beaten, and her mother, more controlled, who caught her tears in a snowy white handkerchief. And so they left, taking with them the scent of lavender to plant in their new house.

And Nikolas promised himself that he would build her a palace, and he did and it was two storeys tall, with the grocery and its cellar at one end and at the other the bedroom on the second storey; and he set himself to decorate it for her, and he brought two artisans from Veria, paying them well and entertaining them and speaking to them kindly. And they embroidered the whole house on the outside, hanging stone garlands under the windows and sprays of fantastic plants, which twined together and smelled of plaster and made a nest for the lark..And when she opened her window to the sunshine, it seemed that she just had to sing. And up there in her nest sang Eugenia, and her song was without end but stronger and sweeter in the spring and in the summer it cast a spell all around her and over the neighbouring houses. And the neighbours called her «the lark», hinting that she spent all day singing, free of care, this girl from the City, spinning her wiles and her coaxing ways and casting her web of enchantment over him -they were talking about Nikolas, of course.

And he was indeed enchanted, and his house filled with joy and his nest with children, and she sang to them too, sang them to sleep, and the neighbours, young and old alike, all said she would sing the wits right out of their heads. But that didn't happen, they all turned out well (but she wasn't there to see it, as she foresaw) and when the singing ceased they wept and were mute. And Nikolas' father came, with his sarcasms and his laziness and his irritability and his despotism. From Darda too came the old grandmother, a tiny wizened little woman whose voice in her husband's presence was barely heard, but who was fond of the lark. And the brothers and sisters came, and cousins too, all guests with their purse strings fast knotted; they filled the house and threatened to drown out the singing and quench her good humour. But still she sang, and enchanted her husband, and he built additions to the house: it began to look like an inn, with a walled yard and large rooms and small rooms and secret cellars and room for everyone and everything, and he filled it with animals too, for the old man. And Eugenia remained alone in her old room, the first room, a caged and solitary lark, and still she sang, although not all were enchanted by it.

And one evening it all came to an end, as if she couldn't bear it any longer and had to escape. She was expecting a child, their fifth: first there was Christopher, on whom she had lavished such loving care and her most beautiful singing, then came Yannikos, who cried all the time, and delicate little Evdokia, and Costas in his cradle -they used to set him out in the yard under the acacia tree to amuse him since no one had time to play with him. She was expecting another child, and it came: it was evening, and all the lamps were lit, and a small fire in case it should be needed. And all of a sudden they saw Nikolas dash into the street shouting «hitch up the horse!» and he hitched it up himself, shaking as if in a fever. And the word spread that he was going for Doctor Katakalos, who was a famous physician in the city, almost a legendary Egure - «there go Nikolas' savings» whispered the neighbours, and their hearts feared for the lark. And that gentle soul ended her days in puerperal fever, which racked her for two days and two nights, until the dawn. And they all knew that she was dying, for they saw the midwife leave the house, her head bowed, and disappear, and a little later Nikolas came and stood on the doorstep like a lost soul, and his mother came and spoke to him softly and reached up and stroked his hair and they shivered in the chill of the dawn. And now there were five children, and one only hours old, who lived but a few hours more in his bereavement before following his mother to the grave.

And the autumn was drawing to a close, the winter drawing in, and the house was silent, that big house with its corridors and passages full of people filled with remorse, for their mouths had spoken malice and were filled with a bitterness as of the stone of an apricot. And they saluted her coffin without a word spoken, admiring its intricate decoration and the embroidered sheets and pillow. And the whole press of them tried to fit into the photograph that the disconsolate Nikolas wanted taken, her last photograph and one of the very few of her, a large group photograph with Nikolas and the priest at her head and the sombre children all around and then a whole host of people that nobody recognised afterwards, and Christopher and Evdokia used to look at it and wonder and say «look at Mother, look at Father», and they installed them carefully in their fine city houses. And just then it clouded over unexpectedly and began to rain, and the strangers scattered and the family lifted Eugenia and carried her slowly away, the hearse in front and her faithful retinue following behind on foot; the grandmother was there too, in the midst of the procession, but she was hidden by all the backs and the hatted heads.

And that was the end. For they closed the front windows, and the family huddled in the back rooms, as if in the remotest corner of the yard. And the grandmother looked after them all, taking the children in her arms or on her lap and rocking them to sleep. The only thing was, she didn't sing, of course, and everything was silent, Nikolas mute in his sorrow, lost in his thoughts, the decorated window closed and barred. And not only that winter, but all through the spring, when the song of the lark was no longer heard, for she was gone and would never come back.


Ttanslated by Janet Koniordos for Paratiritis Pub.


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