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Threnody for Stelios

ISSUE:  Winter 1942

Last May you were married, and now this morning your widow is wailing. At your wedding feast you shouted, “We’ll die, all of us,” and laughed; and now the old women are washing your body with wine. You shouted it drunkenly and laughed, and this morning two carpenters are building your coffin.

You never believed you would die; you had seen death often enough and funerals, and heard wailing; but you’d never thought about death, never felt that you yourself could die. That is only something to shout during drinking and singing, when you’re happiest, on your wedding night, when you feel you’ll live forever. You shout, “We’ll die, all of us,” and you laugh at your new bride and all your good friends, who laugh back at you, and the song sweeps on with a stronger force, endlessly, and you jump up and dance in your joy, in your joy, your strength and aliveness, leaping, turning, clapping your hands and stamping the floor, prancing with your head thrown back and your arms swinging free in the song. What a joke death was then—a great joke to laugh at last May.

Yes, yes, but this morning, this morning, you are dead. All night long your soul struggled, and this morning at dawn you died quietly. Your last breath sighed away, and Matina, watching you, gasped and stopped. She gasped and stood frozen tense, not breathing, not realizing, staring but not seeing you, like something dead herself.

The women there in the bedroom with her screamed your name and shook her and shook her till she came back and gave a low, choking, broken cry and fainted. Again the women brought her back to herself, and slapped her the way they slap new-born babies to make them cry; and they screamed your name over and over again, “Stelio, Stelio, my good one, Stelio I” making a song of it, a whooping, wailing song, over and over again, until she too joined in, crying, “Stelio, my man, Stelio !”

They held her and helped her to sway from side to side in time to their chanting. “Stelio, Stelio, Stelio!” They stretched their arms in the air and swayed and wailed. Someone gave her a large kerchief to twist and snap in her hands as she wailed. Again her voice broke. “Stelio, Stelio!” Her voice broke, she broke and lay broken and still. They could not lift her with their wailing.

“Come, get up, Matina, you must! There are things to do now,” they said. “Get up 1 You must light his lamp. We must cover the pictures. Things to do now.” They dared not let her be still. Had not her own sister, Pagona, been crazy, actually crazy, a whole year after the father died, and just because she wouldn’t wail?

They gave her a match and the lamp; and there was the yellow flame of your unsleeping lamp hung above the bed, flickering palely in the dawn light. Her hands lay slack again and her empty gaze turned to you lying there not moving, and she wondered dumbly were you dead. The women could not distract her with the paper and scissors and paste as they covered the pictures on the wall, but when she heard two of them squabbling about the paper for the big gilt mirror (Do you remember how you and Matina stood before it in your wedding clothes that night?), she brushed the women aside, lifted it from its hook and threw it out the window.

The gramophone—do you remember such things now? You were proud of it once, Stelio. Matina smashed that also, and all the records you used to dance to. And she broke the pots of mint and basil and all the flowers: the roses, geraniums, jasmine, gardenias, and wild cyclamens. She broke and scattered the flower pots while tears ran down her cheeks, and she felt no better afterwards. She burned the wedding garlands too.

Last May you were married, and now this morning your widow is wailing. You shouted, “We’ll die, all of us,” and laughed; and now the old women are washing your body with wine. You shouted it drunkenly and laughed, and this morning two carpenters hurry to finish your coffin.

You called your grandmother an old miser once. Now she slips the gold ring from your finger—”to keep safe for Matina.” And with some trouble, for she’s not as strong as she used to be, she breaks off your two gold teeth, that shone when you smiled, and puts them in her pocket too. She doesn’t believe in tempting grave robbers, she says, with a firm snap of her jaw. Then she helps the other old women with your wedding clothes. (For what strange wedding they dress you now I) And she ties with her own fingers your black tie around your neck. She sees where there’s a button gone, and without taking the jacket off your shoulders, she sews another button in its place, securely, and asks Pagona, who has good teeth, to bite the thread.

The village wakes to the death bell. The slow measured strokes of the bell wake the men who worked and loafed and drank with you, the girls you kissed and the ones you never kissed, the young boys who envied your strength, the old men who told you stories, and the mayor and the school teacher. The solemn tread of the death bell—importantly, monotonously, it goes with a solemn quiver following each dong. The villagers wake and say, “Ach, it’s Stelios, bad-fated one! God forgive himl”

They start to your house. Widow Chrysoula, whose husband Lambros died last month, comes shrieking your name, for although her grief is still new, she is not so ill mannered as to mourn first her own dead. “Stelio, Stelio, how good you were! How can we live without you? Why do you desert your wife, Stelio? With what dark bride are you going now?” She sways before you, her hands raised high; and all in the room sway and chorus with her. “Stelio, Stelio, with what dark bride are you going now?”

She takes some fruit from the pocket of her skirt. “Here, Stelio, is a red pomegranate for you and the first orange from our tree to refresh you on your way. And here is another pomegranate and another orange you’ll please carry to my Lambros.” (At one time it would have amused you to see that the fruits for him are bigger than those for you.)

“Take my message, Stelio, to my husband Lambros, who was your good friend.” She is silent a while, swaying, swaying. “Lambro!” she screams, terribly. “Lambrol Greetings! I greet you, my husband.” And she stands before you and sings:

Where can I hide my bitter pain, where can I put it from me? For if I leave it in the street, my neighbors all would suffer, And if I hang it on a tree, the nightingales would perish. Where can I pour my tears, my tears, where can I hide my weeping?

If on the earth my tears should fall, grasses and flowers would wither;

If on the stream my tears should drop, they would burn up the water;

If on the sea my tears should rain, the fishing boats would founder;

But if I lock them in my heart, then, Lambro, I shall join you.

A chorus of wailing bursts again in the room, a tortured frenzy of whooping and screaming in unison. Chrysoula waits until it subsides and there is only the sound of Matina’s choking sobbing, and then she goes on with her message.

“Listen, Stelio, and tell my husband Lambros all this. Greetings, my husband! I keep the light burning on your grave. And I mourn for you every night. Some nights I don’t close my eyes, but sing my grief till dawn. I sleep only to see you in my dreams—why don’t you come more often, Lambro? I shall read you a mass in the church and give all the village wheat to eat for your soul. Lambro, your mother wants your watch and the knife with the gold band and your gray horse. She chews my ears off, but I won’t give her those things. You wouldn’t want me to, I know. She wants back the blankets she gave me; and she can have them in proper time, for I have plenty of my own; but she shouldn’t nag me now. And Lambro, already women come to me and say I should take another husband; before the forty days are up, they come with their silly talk. You have wed the black earth, Lambro, and the gravestone is your bride’s mother; you lie always with the black earth, Lambro; but I shall remain a widow. You wouldn’t want me to marry again— would you, Lambro? Ach, I am miserable! What can I do? Perhaps you would tell me to marry your good friend Niko. Would you? Should I? I pray to God for your soul, Lambro.”

Someone leads her away from the bier. There are others to mourn you and send messages to the dead. You were always quick to do favors for your friends, Stelio, and now you will certainly deliver all the fruit and flowers and messages if you can. Here is the mayor mourning you rather matter-of-factly and then giving you a large bouquet of pink roses for his daughter, whom he loved. She died six years ago, and he is still sending her roses and greetings.

“Greetings, Nitsa! I miss you,” he says, halting and husky. “You were always one for flowers, and perhaps you’ll like these. They’re not very much, but last winter I gave the church a thousand drachmas for your soul. What more can I do? Your mother and I both miss you and we speak of you often, Nitsa. I sold the olive trees that were your dowry, for old Charon asked for no dowry when he took you away. Well, Nitsa, I sold the trees and bought a flock of sheep, thirty-two, and hired lame Aleko to watch them. All are white except two. Nitsa, your mother surfers from rheumatism, but she’s as well as can be expected at her age, and she also sends her greetings. That’s about all, I guess. Oh yes, Nitsa, your cousin Phoula is engaged to marry a lawyer from Patras. He’s a lawyer but he seems a good man. And your mother has given Phoula some of your things for her dowry, some copper pans and bedding. Charon asked for none of your dowry when he took you away. That’s about all, I guess, Nitsa. We don’t forget you.” Again the shrill chorus of wailing; and now old Elainie the Drunk strides into the room, pushing her way to the bier, elbowing your relatives and respectable villagers aside—disheveled and ragged as ever. A streak of dirt slants from her brow across her cheek and down to her scrawny neck, and her hair is matted and tangled. Her bold, intelligent eyes stare wildly at your face.

“Stelio !” she shouts, in her loud, raucous voice. “Stelio, why is the church bell ringing? I heard of no Christian feast day today. Why does it ring? Why these flowers and ripe fruit around you? What harvest is this, these flowers and fruits and this man? Why don’t you answer me, Stelio?”

(You used to say that no one could wail half as well as Elainie the Drunk, and now she is wailing for you. Sometimes you gave her a few drachmas for wine, and tonight she’ll drink wine at your wake.)

“What harvest is this, these flowers and fruits and this man?” she chants, in her raucous voice. “You have olives to gather and figs and grapes to pick and corn to cut. What harvest is this? The good corn never cuts a man down, the olive and vine roots never gnaw on a heart, and even the fig tree is safe if you don’t sleep in its shade. But what creature is the cypress in the graveyard? And who harvests a man and feeds him to a tree? Who chooses the best man in the village and cuts him down? Ach, this is cruel I Ach, Stelio, Stelio!”

Elainie stands before you, swaying, lost, an utterly lost look on her face, and her black eyes dazed. She sighs deeply, shudders, and regains herself, steps forward very quietly, somehow beautiful in her tatters, and kisses your lips. “That is for you, Stelio.” She kisses your lips again, “And that for my brother.” Then she turns, and with unseeing eyes, leaves the room.

(Did you taste wine and love on her lips, Stelio? She loved you in her curious drunken way. Did you taste wine and strange love on her lips when she kissed you? She tasted death on yours.) There is a different tone in the wailing now. Her lament has brought a new distraction to the chorus of wailing, a new force, a wilder impulse of grief. They are like wolves now, baying their hunger and barking in unison and howling the moon. A mad, animal, night force, yapping and howling around your bier. They are like wolves now, and it’s death they howl, not your death only, death itself they howl. There is a storm in the room, a force like a storm wind, brutal, destructive. A sudden bursting rage of sound, a tornado, so strong that it might magically lift you up and hurl you away.

Your brother Stratis cannot join the wailing in the room. (Do you remember how shy and touchy you were at his age, painfully timid one moment and blustering awkwardly the next?) He cannot mourn for you in this shrill room, he can take no part in this noisy old-woman frenzy. Always he had loved you jealously; and now again he is excluded.

So Stratis leaves. And there is the other sound, the solemn dong-quiver of the bell. He heads blindly for the church, goes blindly through the dreadful rain, the loud metallic pounding of grief, the slow measured bell weeping; goes into the church that is loud with the echo, up to the balcony— you know his headlong way—and up the ladder to the belfry platform, into the very sound itself, the loud pounding heart of his grief.

Old Panayotis, the sexton, stands below the big bell, beneath the mouth, holding the great iron clapper with a short rope in his hand. Stratis touches him on the arm. The old man turns and sees him.

“Go down!” Stratis cries. The old man can’t hear the words through the loud vibration of the bell. “Go down!” Stratis shouts. And he grabs the clapper and strikes the bell a violent blow, a smashing metal-on-metal dong. The sound swirls madly in the hollow bell long after the blow, revolves in Stratis’s ears dully, swims like a pulse in his veins. He strikes the bell again. “Go away! Go down!” he shouts and gestures.

“Enough! Come on,” Panayotis shouts back. “We’ve tolled your brother enough now. He’s not the king. Come on! Enough!”

Again Stratis bangs the bell. “Go away!” he shouts. He pushes the old man rudely towards the trap door. “Go home!” he shouts in his ear, “Hurry! Your wife! Hurry!”

“What is it?” Panayotis cries, alarmed. But Stratis only gives him another shove towards the door. The old man starts down the ladder, stops to make a bewildered fumbling gesture at the bell, and is gone.

When the ladder is clear, Stratis hauls it up into the belfry, and closes and fastens the trap door. Then with all of his might and with all of his love for you, Stelio, he smashes the bell, and stands drenched in the sound. Another shattering blow, and now he can weep, now the tears run.

While Stratis tolls the bell for you—he stays there and gives you a royal knelling—and while the mourners still wail around your bier, half-mad Tomas digs your grave. You fought him once when you were a boy. Remember? It was a savage, cursing, kicking, biting, stone-throwing fight. Remember how you ran away?

Tomas is digging your grave now, Stelio. He works slowly, intently, almost as slow as the big bell tolling. Now and then he lifts a rich spadeful of earth and dumps it just as the bell tolls, and laughs a mirthless laugh with his slack misshapen mouth. And if someone should ask what amused him, he would raise his queer, smoking, yellow eyes, slightly bewildered, and laugh again. But he is alone. They told him where to dig and went away. He has dug graves before and knows what to do.

He works slowly, his fleshy lips drooping apart and his tongue sticking out. Occasionally he stops and examines a handful of the black earth. How soft and rich it is! He sniffs at a black handful and touches a bit with his wet tongue. (The wild cyclamen has fine flowers here, Stelio, and the cypress trees grow tall and strong.) Tomas suddenly starts mumbling a doggerel lullaby, his voice unliu-manly hollow and monotonous.

Now may he sleep and quiet lie, In silver cradle fine. Of silver ‘tis and ‘tis of gold, And brightly does it shine.

Oh, rock the sweet carnation red, And rock the silver shining. Oh, rock my boy in his cradle bed, And stop his weary whining.

His spade strikes through a board, soft as earth; and he scratches with his fingers and collects a little heap of bones.

Now may he sleep and quiet lie. Holy Slumber, do your best! Of silver ‘tis and ‘tis of gold. Master Slumber, give us rest!

He wraps up the bones clumsily in his jacket and carries them into the windowless charnel house and dumps them on the pile in the center. Here are the dry bones of your father and mother, the bones of three of your grandparents, the bones of Nitsa the mayor’s daughter, the bones of many of your ancestors, of some famous men who fought the Turks, of all the old villagers you’ve ever heard about, those you’ve never heard about, all dumped together in this cave darkness. When you were a boy, Stelio, your cousin Loukas dared you to come in here and stay till you had counted to a hundred; and you counted to a hundred and fifty and went out shaken and rather sick.

Tomas shuffles back to his work. “Of silver ‘tis and ‘tis of gold.” They’ll hand him a full day’s pay for this and he’ll eat roast lamb tonight and lentils. “Oh, rock the silver shining.”

Last May you were married, and now this morning Matina is wailing. At your wedding feast you shouted, “We’ll die, all of us,” and laughed, and now your brother is ringing your knell. You shouted it drunkenly and laughed, and now mad Tomas is digging your grave, Stelio.


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