By Michael N. McGregor
On a small island not far from Turkey at the edge of the Aegean Sea, there lived a Greek farmer and his wife. They had no children and few possessions, and the land on their island was bare and rocky except for a fertile strip that stretched like a lush beard along the sea on one side. This strip the farmer plowed with a team of oxen each spring when the winter winds had subsided and the fields had absorbed the rain that vanished quickly from the higher hills but pooled in the richer soil below. He plowed diligently and tended his fields faithfully, mindful that this bit of land, a handful of goats, and the few fish he could pull from the sea were all that kept him and his wife alive. Each spring he worried that the crops would not grow or the places he fished would be empty, but through the years, the land and the sea never failed him. And the farmer came to think of himself as lucky.
The farmer had moved to the island when he was still young, almost a boy, with his bride of three months, a girl from the larger island across the strait where his father had owned a bakery. His father had died and, not caring for yeast or dough or the ovens that blasted like kilns (before which he had sweated each morning at four as a child, shoveling in the pungent rounds his father kneaded in silence), the farmer had sold the business. He had sold it against his mother’s wishes, ignoring her pleas, her appeals to God and the angels, her demands that he honor his father by carrying on the family tradition. He had always felt trapped by the dead bakery air, had dreamed of living as Greek men should: in the open, on the land, by the sea. Despite his mother’s laments and the guilt he felt at disobeying her, at turning his back on his father’s life, he found a buyer. Agreed on a price. Then spent the money on a small fishing boat and the abandoned island off shore.
The first year the farmer and his wife lived on the island, while the first crops were being sown and then harvested, his mother lived with them. She wanted to stay on the larger island where she had friends and ties, but the farmer could not afford to maintain a residence for her there. They had always lived in the back of the bakery, but now the bakery was gone. So the farmer’s wife fixed a room for her at the back of the farmhouse. The room was a second bedroom added a hundred years before by the island’s original owner, a farmer whose children had moved in the opposite direction, into town on the larger island, leaving the house and farm to languish. Instead of accepting the change, the farmer’s mother grumbled about all she had lost, asking what she had gained in its stead but a daughter-in-law who let her son abuse her.
The farmer’s wife tried reasoning with her mother-in-law, offering to buy her things when she went into town. The farmer, too, tried to please her. Two mornings each week he went out to sea in his small fishing boat, which he had painted over in blue and white and named Katerina after his wife. When he had caught several fish, he would cross to the larger island to sell them, keeping back two or three to augment the milk from his goats and the greens from his garden. He usually went straight from the sea to the town, but he offered to stop by the farm to pick up his mother. He offered to wait for her while she visited friends, even if the fish sold quickly, to wait as long as she wanted him to, if only she would be happy.
But the farmer’s mother refused their offers. She could not go to town, she said, not now. Not while she lived like this. What would her friends think of her when they saw how the child she had nurtured chose to pay her back? She wished she had never had a son, she declared, and she hoped that one day the farmer’s children would treat him as shamefully. Then he would know how it felt. Instead of crossing the water, she stayed in her room all day, insisting eventually that even her meals be brought to her and wasting rapidly away until one day in late November, while the rain battered the shutters and the wind rattled the windows, calling out in vain for her husband the baker, she died, her heart stopping just as the farmer was taking her hand, as if her last wish was that he would always feel responsible for her death.
A few strides behind the farmhouse, on a small knoll, there was a whitewashed chapel dedicated to St. Sophia. The ravine beside it was filled with soil that had washed down over the years as if God himself was preparing a place to lay the old woman’s body. A priest came over from town on a fishing boat. Other boats carried the friends and neighbors she had never gone back to see. The service was brief, the priest rushing through the liturgy as if he had a pressing appointment. Once it was over, however, he and the others from town cast off their solemn faces and lingered merrily over a spread of breads, meats and cheeses the farmer’s wife had prepared. None of them knew it would be the only time they would ever gather there.
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