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The Swallow

ISSUE:  Winter 1941

He had been gone more than five hours when the gendarmes came kicking the door open, and by now he must be safe up in the mountains. She was kneading bread dough when they came with their rifles. She had had to find some way to occupy herself that morning and there was flour enough. So her hands were sticky with dough and the air of the room was warm and sweet with yeast smell when they burst in. “Where is he? Where’s your Photis?” the captain shouted. “Photis? Photis?” she said, and slowly wiped her hands on the edge of the wooden bread trough. “Photis? Has something happened? Do you want him for something?”

“Don’t play stupid, woman. Speak up and tell me where he is.”

“Has something happened?” she said, still wiping the dough off her hands. “Has he gone away?”

“You can’t fool me,” the captain shouted. “Where is he? Speak up!” He was tense and shaking, and kept his hand under his jacket on his pistol holster. She looked into his eyes and saw he must be unbearable as a husband.

“Photis works every day,” she said, in an even, quiet voice. “Some mornings he hires out on the farms, spading around the trees and carrying water, and other mornings he goes away fishing in his boat and doesn’t come back here until late at night.” She turned and glanced out of the window towards the sea, her back to the other window and the mountains. “In the morning he eats his bread and leaves without telling me where he’s going. What do you want him for, Captain?”

“Search the house I” he bellowed, as if commanding a regiment. And he thumped into the other room with one of the men following. She could hear them rummaging about, opening drawers and the trunk and dumping clothes on the floor. They wouldn’t find anything worth their trouble; she had seen to that. In a few moments they returned, the captain carrying the enlarged photograph of Photis, the wedding picture that always hung beside her own over the bed. It didn’t resemble him, it made his face look flat and squashed, and it wouldn’t help them any.

“Please be careful of it, won’t you, Captain?” she said, gently. “It’s the only picture I have of my husband and the frame was very expensive.”

He turned and stared at her with his hard, gendarme eyes, and said, “People around here say you’re a witch.”

“I have a few remedies for sore throats and fever and warts,” she admitted.

She didn’t like the way he said, “And that’s all?”

“That’s about all,” she answered.

“I don’t think you’re much of a witch.”

“Maybe I’m not, Captain, but if it’s corns that pain you,” and she glanced down at his black shiny boots, “why then I’d be glad to mix some seaweed salve for you as a gift. I’d be glad to.” She spoke in a kind of schoolteacher’s voice, and several of the men snickered.

“Where’s your husband’s boat?” he snapped.

“The boat, Captain?”

“Yes, witch, the boat.”

“Oh, Photis usually keeps it anchored down in front of the house.” And she pointed out the window to the water. “That is, when he’s not using it.”

“I know his boat, sir, and where he keeps it,” said a fat gendarme who had snickered.

“Trot down then and see if it’s there. Find out where it is.

As they started to leave she said, “Captain, when Photis comes home I’ll tell him you were looking for him.” He turned to see whether she was making sport of him, and she smiled back as pleasantly and stupidly as she could.

They left some of their smell of leather polish and woolen cloth and sweat in the room. She went out on the stoop and watched the fat gendarme climb panting over the rocky sea bank and tell the captain that the boat was gone, They formed in line—there were eight of them—and marched back to town, the last gendarme carrying the picture of Photis under one arm and his rifle under the other. The gilt of the frame glittered in the sun as long as they were in sight.

“Forty times the harm that you plan for my Photis!” she whispered, and thrust her open hand at their backs. “Forty times heavier and blacker! Fall in your own snares, rot in your own jails, die of your own bullets, bleed—”

With the abruptness of fireworks in the air, a shrill, enraged bird-clatter broke overhead—a flock of small starlings chasing a large brown hawk, darting and pecking and crowding him straight down through the olive tree and following him up in the open again, darting, pecking, shrilling. How he blundered, how bravely they battled him! She felt it was a good omen and the hawk meant the gendarme captain. Now they clattered away over the rock bank and disappeared down by the shore. She could still hear the clamor of them. She hoped this battle was a good omen but she didn’t quite know, didn’t feel dead certain. Sometimes she saw clearly the meaning of a thing; it would come to her in a flash, and she’d have no doubt. But now she didn’t quite know. The hawk might even—God forbid—be a sign for Photis running in the mountains and the starlings were the gendarmes after him. But no, the hawk would not have gone to the seashore if it meant Photis. She must not think of the hawk as Photis.

She went indoors, picked up the clothes the captain had dumped on the floor, and then began kneading her bread again. It wouldn’t be palatable, made with the smell of gendarmes in the house. But anyway Photis would not be here to eat it. He would be up in the mountains, eating hares he’d trap and snails and roots and vegetables he’d take from the upper farms at night. Things must work out as Photis and she had planned. The gendarmes would never find the boat, for Photis at her suggestion had smeared the name with black paint yesterday, before selling it, and the buyer had sailed off for the mainland without talking to anyone. The gendarmes would think that Photis had left in the boat and send out motorboats to look for him, and then weeks from now, when they’d given up the search, she’d have her brother’s boat ready for him, stored with food and water to last him until he was safe in another land.

She shaped the dough into loaves, wondering about her months, perhaps years of waiting and the letter he’d send her and her going to him in the foreign place where he’d be. It would be heavy bread with such thoughts mixed into it. She put the loaves with a cloth over them on the bench outdoors in the sun and cleaned the dough trough and swept both rooms again. The bedroom wasn’t right with his picture gone.

She lit a small brown wax candle and put it in a holder before the holy eikons. The room looked less empty that way. She sat on a stool and stared at the candle flame and thought of him unharmed up there in the mountain cave that no one knew about, with all her thoughts on him in the mouth of the cave unharmed and strong, with her eyes tensed on the flame and her thoughts tensed on him until suddenly the flame wrenched apart, tugging at her eyes, and she knew he was indeed safe.

From the curtained corner she took down his good suit and held it in her arms and touched it all over, running her hands over the cloth where his shoulders and arms and thighs and knees had been, and repeating good magic words. Before their wedding, people said she had magicked him, but there had never been any need of her doing that. You don’t waste portions and charms and spells where they aren’t needed. But now. . .

She thought of magic as she collected the loaves, scarcely noticing how little they’d risen. And she thought of magic as she walked to town, carrying the loaves to the oven.

“I’ll come back for my bread tomorrow morning,” she told the baker.

“AH right,” he said. “Er—what news of your Photis?” “Nothing. What have you heard?” “Only that the gendarmes are after him.” “That’s all I know,” she said.

She went on through the streets, saying good evening to everyone who looked at her, in the hope that someone might tell her news. But all she got was good evening back again. And when she turned and headed towards home it was very hard for her to think of magic. She was suddenly tired, and she remembered that she had not stopped to eat all day. Photis had taken a parcel of food with him, but he wouldn’t have eaten much. He would have to make that food last a long time.

Outside the town she walked along on the coast road trying hard to think of magic, but she couldn’t think of anything, didn’t feel anything. She seemed every now and then to be seeing things unusually vividly: the light of the setting sun on the water, footprints in the road dust, two gulls sailing overhead, a torn red cigarette box, the mountains against the evening sky. There was a deep shadow over the mountains; it would be cold up there now. Here the air was still warm from the sun and calm, and sounds seemed to gather around her, a motorboat throbbing, a farm dog barking, a cart creaking slowly on the road ahead of her, a boy somewhere in the dusk shouting a carnival song. This was the hour when Photis usually came home from work.

Past the bend in the road she gasped and stopped at the sight of her house. The lamp shone in the window. But no, no, it was only the last rays of the setting sun reflected in the panes. She was very tired now. Before she reached the house the reflection faded and the place had a dull, uninhabited look.

She trudged slowly to the door, her hand clutching the key in her pocket; and then, unexpectedly, she had to turn to the charcoal basket beside the stoop. There, perched on the basket handle waiting for her, was a small black bird. She knew at once it was from Photis. It stayed very still, looking at her, and she took it in her hand and held it cupped carefully against her breast. It was an omen about Photis, she knew, a sign for her.

Indoors she put the bird on the table and lit the lamp. He blinked small round black eyes at the lamplight and turned and looked at her. He was a swallow with glossy black head and back and wings, and dusty white breast; he stared at her with bright eyes in a queer, flat, pointed head. She had never seen a swallow close before, only in the air darting and swinging and sailing like some of the Cretan music Photis played, and this one was so still, so hunched up and stiff on the board table. Her hand moved out to him and he shied away, lifting his wings awkwardly, hopping and fluttering queerly to the edge of the table and off in the air for a stricken moment and then thudded to the floor.

“Oh don’t, don’t!” she cried.

He stayed there unmoving, hunched up wretchedly on his black-twig legs, and turned his head away from her. She reached down very slowly and now he let her pick him up, and she saw that his right wing was injured. Perhaps the hawk had done it. She put him back on the table and carefully opened the wing and felt of the long sinew-like bones. There was no break in the skin, none of the bones broken apparently—she couldn’t make sure, for fear of hurting the wing more—but here by the shoulder something seemed wrong, a wrench or tear in the socket, perhaps. His heart was straining itself against the palm of her hand. With her finger she stroked his head, glossy smooth like Photis’s hair. And when she took her hand away and he stood stiff and hunched up, complete in his misery and helplessness, he was very much like Photis.

She was different. Whenever things went wrong for her she’d immediately set about with work or intrigue or magic until they came out as she wanted them to; and if one way failed she’d try another and another way, she wouldn’t stop, she’d work harder and harder, determined that things must come out right. But when Photis had a fever or a toothache or a little bad luck or some unexpected trouble, he would give in to his misery so completely that you’d think he had become the misery itself, and you’d know that he would die if you didn’t help him. It would fix itself in his blood and flesh and he’d be stiff with the hurt of it, like this bird, and you’d want to take hold of him and shake it out by force.

She climbed up on a stool and began looking among her bottles on the top cupboard shelf. When the bird started to sidle off again she got down and put him in a deep earthenware pot, safe in the middle of the table. Finally she found the bottle she wanted, a brew she’d made last spring that was good for any bruise or sprain. She uncorked it and sniffed it to make sure. Bah, it was too strong for tender bird-skin. She would have to dilute it with milk—water wouldn’t do.

She glanced out the window and saw a light at the house of Barbara, her nearest neighbor, and went out bareheaded, following the path across the field. Barbara was rocking her baby to sleep.

“Come in, Arist6na, and sit down. How are you? I went over to your house as soon as I heard about your Photis but you weren’t in.”

“Yes, I took some loaves to the oven. What did you hear about Photis?”

“Not much. Only that the gendarmes are trying to find him. They’re looking everywhere. I went over to your house, Aristena, wondering whether I could do something for you because no matter what happens I want to be a good neighbor to you, Aristena.”

“Yes, yes.” She knew that Barbara was a little afraid of her. “Yes, you’ve always been a good neighbor. And you can do something for me now, you can give me half a cup of goat milk if you have it.”

“I’ll give you a whole pitcher of milk.”

“No, half a cup will do.”

“That’s not enough to wet your tongue. You’ll take a whole pitcher because Sosana gives us more than we can use now, even with this greedy baby in the house. Here, you take all of this.”

“No. It’s for some medicine and half a cup will be enough.”

“Medicine? Someone’s ill?”

“No. I want it for a swallow with a hurt wing.” She had intended not to tell Barbara, but no harm would come from it. “I found him near the house and felt sorry for him. I think a hawk wounded him.”

“A swallow? I never do understand you, Aristona, never. There you are—gendarmes after your Photis while you break your heart for a swallow. I don’t understand you. Besides, a bird that’s hurt never gets well; it always dies. You remember my canary. And even chickens seem always to die when they’re hurt much.”

“This bird will live if you give me the milk now.”

“Yes, I know you can do what some others of us can’t. I know that, Aristena, and perhaps you’ll cure this bird. Your mother and grandmother were like that too, I understand. Well, here’s the milk.”

“Thank you, Barbdra, and good night.”

She hurried back across the field as fast as she could without spilling the milk, and found the bird in the pot, just as she had left him, except perhaps he was hunched up more queerly on his black legs and he seemed to be swaying slightly.

She quickly mixed a little of the milk with two drops of brandy, sucked it up into a straw, opened the bird’s mouth and emptied the mixture down his throat. He choked a little and shook his head weakly. No one had ever told her how to treat a wounded bird, but she felt this would be good for him, would strengthen him. He looked very frail and kept his head oddly on one side.

Working very fast, she mixed some of her medicine and milk in a large spoon, soaked a small soft rag in it and placed the rag under the right wing by the hurt shoulder; very deftly she wrapped a rag of bandage around the bird to hold the compress in place, loose enough so as not to interfere with his heart and his breathing, and yet firm and secure.

She felt magic very strong in her hands now and in her arms and throat. The bird in his bandage did not move. The magic burned and throbbed in her blood like a fever, stronger than she had ever known it before, and she felt that her hands could pull up trees or strangle gendarmes or massage an invalid to health, but she didn’t know what to do with her hands and the force in them. It frightened her a little. She ran her finger tips over both cheeks and a queer prickling spread on her face up to her scalp and down the cords of her neck to her shoulders. The bird stayed very still. Barely touching the black feathers she ran a finger over his head again and again until he closed his eyes.

“No doctor has anything as good as the medicine that’s mending your wing,” she told him. “And I’ve helped over a hundred people with it. You’ll sleep while it mends your wing and in the morning I’ll take off the bandage and open the door and you’ll fly away free in the air above the house and I’ll give you fresh bread from the oven. You’ll come back to me, won’t you? Fresh bread and raisins and worms or whatever you like best. And I’ll call you a certain fine name, not now, but when you’re flying again. Among all the swallows I’ll know you by the bright way you’ll fly, and you’ll come back to me, won’t you?” The bird stayed very still and kept his eyes closed tight. “Yes, sleep now. Your wing mends and you gain strength while you sleep.”

She felt the magic strong in her hands while she put a towel in the pot for warmth and placed him on it and covered the pot with the flour sieve and weighed it down with the pressing iron. Rats sometimes got into the house, and she was taking no chances now. She marked sooty crosses on the pot with her finger and sprinkled salt around the table and recited a doggerel charm for health, recited it over and over again, making it stronger each time, urging and exhorting and pleading and commanding with her voice. She added new words to the charm, added sailing ships and floating thistledown and soaring smoke and winking fireflies and whirling confetti and creaking windmills and whizzing bats and flapping flags, added to the charm everything airy and moving she could think of, added flying fish and snowflakes and charcoal sparks and fluttering poplar leaves and white clouds and soft feathers and silent night moths and God’s good angels and comets and singing locusts and balloons and mosquitoes and all the winds, each wind by name, and dance music and echo and round soap bubbles and fog on the mountain tops and skyrockets and St. Elias. The bird stayed very still with his eyes closed. She put winged nereids in the charm and the shimmer of heat waves and jumping dancers and blue butterflies and whirlwinds of dust and church incense and twisting weathervanes and the rising full moon. She remembered Ascension Day and will-o-the-wisp and scarlet windflowers and sea spray and steaming water and chaff and airships. And it was certainly the best charm she had ever made.

With the magic still strong in her hands she lit more candles before the eikons and hung garlic above the door and each window. Then she began to yawn, from sleepiness rather than hunger, although she hadn’t eaten a bite all day. She took one more look at the bandaged, unmoving swallow, whispered a brief incantation over him and went to bed. The candles flared before the eikons. Alone in bed she didn’t miss Photis unbearably because the swallow, the sign from him, was in the next room on the table.

The sun was streaking through cracks in the shutters when she woke. She started to wonder where Photis was, and then remembered the bird and slid out of bed and hurried to the other room.

No sound from the pot on the table. She took off the iron and the sieve. The swallow lay on its side very still. There was no need for her to touch the white breast under the bandage and feel the heart. She picked up the bird in the towel and went outdoors.

Behind the house, out of sight of Barbara’s window and the road, she took a spade and dug a hole about two feet deep, and averting her eyes, shoved the bundle to the bottom. There was no one to see her. She filled the hole level, pressed the earth down firmly and sprinkled pebbles and dry dust and bits of weed over the place so that no one would know she had ever dug there. The morning air held a hint of rain and the mountain tops were touched with heavy-looking clouds.

Indoors again, she washed her hands and face and combed her hair and made herself tidy. She was drinking coffee when Barbara came. “Any news of Photis?” Barbara said, timidly. “No, but I’m sure he’s all right. Nothing can happen to him.”

“Yes, let’s hope that no news is good news. And what of your lame swallow?”

“He’s all right too,” Aristena cried, with unexpected force. “I let him go. His wing mended perfectly. He’s all right. He flew away.”

“Really? That’s a wonder.”

“You don’t believe me?” Aristena shouted, her hands raised as if to strike.

“Yes, certainly, Aristena, yes, yes. Why shouldn’t I believe you? Why should I think you’d lie about a bird? I didn’t mean anything.”

“I don’t like this talk of lies,” Arist6na said, fiercely. “It’s no way for good neighbors to talk—do you understand? Now listen to me. The bird’s wing mended during the night. Understand? Early this morning he woke me with his crying. He had pecked and pulled off the bandage I’d put on him, and wanted to get out of the pot with the flour sieve on top. I took him outdoors and uncovered him and he rose up on his wings and flew away, strong and free in the air. Do you understand? He flew away as if he’d never had a hurt wing. Do you understand me?”

“Yes, of course, Aristena. I’m very pleased with what you say.”

“Listen to me, neighbor. He flew away and then he flew back and circled above the house. I suppose he will visit me often all summer long, and I shall always know him by the bright way he flies. That’s how it is—do you understand? He got well and is flying again. And when I return from the oven I shall give him some fresh bread. I shall put it on the roof for him. That’s how it is.”

“Yes, Aristena. I’m sure he’ll enjoy some fresh bread.”

As soon as Barbara left, Aristena put on her kerchief, took her market basket, and went out, locking the door behind her. The clouds, she noticed, were beginning to melt from the mountain tops, and the day would be clear. She slipped the key into her pocket beside her purse with its little weight of drachmas that would pay the baker and buy some more candles. And she set out with a determined stride. . But she did not follow the road this time. Instead, she went down the rocky bank to the sea, where the morning sun floated in thousands of slow-winking sparkles, and she began walking among the rocks along the shore path to the town. Strong magic often came to her when she went this way and stared intently at the sun on the water. Strong magic would have to come to her. For Photis would be needing something very special that day.


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