Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Church Things

excerpt from a memoir in progress:  Travels with Persephone: An Archaeologist's Life in the Land of Odysseus

Mystery rain, it should be called, a friend once joked. It’s ninety degrees, sunny, and annoying droplets graze your scalp, threatening your ice cream. You look up, wondering where the water is coming from, and see an Athenian widow swathed in black, sweeping the afternoon’s ablution off a balcony onto the unsuspecting pedestrians below. Her pots of basil are appropriately verdant, and my plain white shirt is newly decorated with a smattering of muddy specks. The ‘rain’ is no mystery, after all.

Young back-packers brush past me sporting matted hair, burnt faces and peeling shoulders from a weekend in the islands. I breathe a mixture of suntan lotion and fish as I exit the open-air market in the Monastiraki section of Athens. Sidewalk vendors bark at me to buy their wares: cold drinks, skewered chunks of roasted lamb, lottery tickets. The windows are filled with the flotsam and jetsam of the tourist market place: chalky replicas of Cycladic idols, pornographic pots and postcards, baskets of milky blue “evil eyes” staring up at me.
Then I stop; I have been looking all over for these tiny religious portraits. I peer into the shop; the walls are lined with icons of all sizes. Before I enter I glance at the name of the store and laugh. The owner has translated it into English, a poor substitute for the Greek. He calls it Church Things. I like the sound of it better in Greek: Ecclesiastica. I circle round a painted blue post in front of the store; a rusted anchor is shored up against it.

He’s a burly guy who greets me warmly. “Sit down, please,” he indicates to a stool next to him. A woman is sorting through some items at the table, and when I see them I take in a sharp breath. Even more than the religious icons, I have been looking for these. “What are they called?” I ask, pointing at the tiny, hammered squares of silver depicting eyes, arms, legs, ears, Volkswagens. “Tamata,” says the man, stressing the first syllable; he introduces himself as Anastasios. “Whatever you want to pray for, there is a tamato for it. I have many, many more,” he says, dispatching a young man to the back room who fetches two more small plastic bags. He spills them onto the table when he returns. “Ahhhh, c’est tres jolie, tres magnifique,” the woman gushes, fanning them out like a deck of cards.
“Whatever you need to ask God for, you can use these,” Anastasios explains. “You want to heal a broken foot, you hang a tamato of a leg on the iconostasis – the screen in front of the altar of a church - and pray for that. He pauses and smiles gently, offering me a sheet of silver with a flaming heart punched into it. You want to find your heart's desire,” he says softly, “you use this.”

He is a happy man, or so he seems. I ask him how he got into this business, this shop selling religious artifacts surrounded by the kitsch of lumpy Aphrodite statuettes, cheap sandals and acres of T-shirts.

“A miracle,” he answers flatly. “Years ago,” he begins, “my wife and I tried to have a child, but were not successful. I began to think we will never be able to. We visited fertility specialists, doctors of all kinds,” he goes on. “My wife was told she could not conceive, so she began to pray to the saints.


“One day she traveled to the island of Tinos,” booms Anastasios, continuing. “She prayed for five days on this very holy island. My wife, you know……” he sweeps back a stiff handful of graying hair,”….she came home. He stops suddenly, then adds in a stage whisper, “My son, he is just turning ten now.” He is beaming, this man who appears to be about sixty years old. In a culture steeped in traditions that are not always politically correct, there are few things more meaningful to a Greek man than being able to produce a son.

“He almost died at birth,” he says, gesturing to his throat. “The doctors had to open his airway to help him breathe….he has a little scar there now, still….” He stopped talking for a moment. “I knew he wouldn’t die, though,” he says finally. “God would not have gone to all this trouble to give me a child just to watch it die…”

After a moment's pause, he continues.

“In the night, sometimes, in the shop I worked at before, I would hear noises,” he murmurs. “My old store, I sold tourist things, you know, vases, post cards, key rings, all that stuff. But at night, I would sleep in the shop because my wife was so unhappy. I would pray before I went to bed. The night my wife returned from Tinos I slept at the store,” he paused, “… and was awakened by noises.” His face contorted suddenly, as if struck by a vision. In an agonized hush, he leaned in to whisper in my ear,

“you know, the heavens, they open up every night between two and three in the morning.”

Crossing the room, he sits down, exhausted. I am enraptured by an image of light hovering above his shop when he speaks again. “The next day, my wife felt funny. Three weeks later, the tests confirmed. She was pregnant.”

Half-listening, I sit and ponder the nature of these peculiar metal squares. Anastasios’ naivete reminds me of how kids play telephone with tin cans and string: here’s a direct connection to God - ask for anything you want, and with this lucky silver card, you’ll get it! I watch a dove land on the blue post outside the shop, shrug, and adjust its feathers. It peers in the window, its pebble eyes drawn to shiny frames catching the late afternoon sun. Startled by a noise, it lifts off into the gauzy Athenian sky.

“It was God himself, standing here and speaking to me,” Anastasios says, oblivious to my wandering attention span. “I felt him near me, like it was a real man,” he goes on. “At that time, at that moment, I knew what I was to do. I opened this store, selling religious items, portraits of saints. Church things, you know?” he smiles.

I feel dizzy; perhaps it’s the heat, and I can’t choose which ones to buy; what part of body do you value most.....ears, necks or eyes? Arms, legs or torsos? After sorting through the pile a final time, I separate out the lopsided heart, rimmed with tiny studs and rootlike flames shooting out the top. Pressing it between the palms of my hands, it feels warm to the touch, and I am reminded of a favorite quote I had read long ago: "the heart is an organ of fire." Pleased with my choice, I slip it into my shirt pocket.

Getting up to pay, I ask him how his miracle is doing in school. “Fine, fine,” he assures me, “he is a good boy. But his mother worries about him all the time,” he adds, looking suddenly older and ashen. “Since he was so sick at birth, she feels something else might happen, so he sleeps in her room every night.”

“In your bed?” I ask, wondering how a man of his size, his wife and a ten-year old child can all fit into a typical Greek double bed.

“Yes, in our bed, but without me there,” he indicates, pointing to the floor. “That is where I sleep now.”

“On the floor!” I echo, incredulously. “How long has that been going on?”

“Since he was born,” he answers flatly. “Most of the time I sleep in the shop,” he continues, “it’s more comfortable here.” He looks up at the ceiling, puzzled. “Sometimes I still hear noises between two and three a.m.”

I thank him for the story and offer my hand; he takes it, clasping and shaking it heartily.

“I wish you luck with your child,” I offer weakly, unsure of what to tell him. “I’m sorry you have to sleep on the floor,” I add.

“Oh----no! No problem with that,” he answers reassuringly, squeezing my hand a moment longer before releasing it. “No trouble, really…. sleeping on the floor is a blessing,” he says as he walks me out onto the street.

“You know the secret about miracles?” he asks softly, as though not to offend the saints who might be listening. He pauses for a moment; a look combining bliss and surrender breaks over his face and takes away the ten years.

“If you ask for a miracle….” he steps back into the store, framed by the door and resembling, just for a moment, a saint himself, “don’t ever question the manner in which God delivers it.”

I stand on the sidewalk, letting my eyes adjust once more to the searing white light. As I start to head down the street, I suddenly feel droplets trickling on my shoulders. There, on the balcony above, broom in hand, is an old woman. Grinning toothlessly at me, her black dress flaps like a helpless crow against the cibachrome sky. While people brush past me I stare at her for a long time, still thinking of Anastasios' story - filled with thoughts of the piercing depths, heights and utter mysteries of life. The old woman is alone, but she has her work, a meaningful rhythm of day, a purpose. Instinctively, I reach for the silver heart against my chest and wonder; maybe I can find mine, too.

Checking my watch, I’m lurched back into the present; children are scrambling over a soccer ball in a nearby alley, a caged canary swings, a blur of butter, in a shop doorway, a train whistle in the distance reminds me I have a plane to catch. Slowly, I get my bearings, adjust my pack and once again join the moving river of people. At the end of the street, I turn back to look; the old woman is no longer on the balcony. Something compels me to wave at her anyway; I lift my hand above my head. It’s a tentative salute, I suspect, to mysteries: both those which can be solved….and those which are not meant to be.


24 comments:

  1. What a wonderful story! It's almost a cautionary tale: "Be careful what you wish for!"

    Lovely writing, I really enjoyed reading this on so many levels: as a travel piece, as a marvelous characterization, but mostly as something so uniquely Greek. (I love Tamata's)

    I am enjoying reading your blog. I'm sorry it's taken me so long to finally start digging in!

    x/jes

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  2. Amanda....this is a beautiful story... a bit sad, but, beautiful nonetheless. I am thrilled to find out that you are an exsquisite writer....I felt as if I was in the shop and under that window with you.

    I, too love Tamatas....and would have chosen a ♥ one. (Though perhaps if I had had an "ear" one, my ear would have healed faster!)

    As for Anastasios, his wife and child, you know, Faith is a huge shield....perhaps Anastasios knows, perhaps not....but....I feel he would not care...his son is everything to him....all he really wanted in life... it is sad, but still beautiful.

    And, at the end of your chapter, when you turned back to look at the old Woman's balcony, I understood you wanting to do so....have felt those emotions before.

    What a wonderful, wonderful chapter......

    Love,

    ♥ Robin ♥

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  3. gorgeous imagery and characters - thanks for bringing them to our lives too! the cibachrome sky and black gown like crows wings; and that shop and wise man shopkeeper . I am rivetted. your blog is fabulous! more more xxx

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  4. thank for your nice comment on my blog, your blog is very interesting and I had a pleasant time to read, and your photos are really beautiful! I like your style, I'll will you follow with pleasure ... Bye Mahon !

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  5. That made wonderful reading. We have the tamatas here too. I am not sure what they are called. People do not sue them anymore though but you will find them in the churhes. A purely Mediterranean tradition I assume.

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  6. Again, another captivating story. I heard once that you should be careful about praying for "patience" as God is not likely to just "poof" make you a patient person but He might give you many challenges through which you "learn" patience. I think the shopkeeper was on this track when he said that one should not question the manner in which God delivers a miracle.

    Thank you for bringing us this story.

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  7. truestarr, you know you're probably right - this is a cautionary tale of sorts.....hadn't thought of it that way!

    glad you enjoyed this and thanks always for reading xoxo

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    robin!! thank you so much dear, for your kind words.

    so you know tamata too!! i have given many away to friends who are good listeners, so next time i'm in greece i will get you an 'ear'

    so you are one to turn around as well.....hmmm - we do have a lot in common don't we?!

    lotsa lotsa hugs xoxo

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    val, back at ya, dear, back at ya - can't get enough of your tales of africa.

    thanks always for reading and for your lovely presence xoxo♡

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    hello mahon and welcome!! so glad you stopped by to comment and follow -

    i look forward to future visits to the red cat xoxo

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    loree - i've seen these in mexico - called miraglos - but not elsewhere, so how cool is that? maltese tamata!! thanks for reading and for your kind words♡

    and by the way - are you back in malta? from your latest blogpost it looked like you were in my neck of the woods?!

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    genie - right! ask for help with patience and you'll likely get a lesson on patience!!

    thanks for reading and for your kind words, mon ami xoxo♡

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  8. WT brought me back some icons from Greece. The tamata are so quirky and lovely. I've never seen anything like them. Wonderful, wonderful story.

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  9. A most amazing story about a most peculiar event. You write movingly, with a keen eye for detail, and a solid way of bringing pieces together.

    But Anastasios himself; what can one say? A strange man with a idiosyncratic understanding. And his tamata, his silvery "charms."

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  10. poof i'm transported back there with you... i always go for the foot tamata but should try another next time.

    which one for a sticky fifth chakra?

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  11. willow - thanks so much♡

    and i agree - tamata are quirky, which just makes them that much more interesting to me....

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  12. R-bear, thanks!!

    and i really like that, Anastasio's silver charms......well said.....

    xo

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  13. sistah --- let's be on the look out for a throat tamato when we go to athens......you've met anastasios before right? he must have one somewhere in that shop of his......xoxo♡

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  14. dear amanda,
    i'm just now catching up, not much time for computering these last couple weeks. I will go back to read your story now (i already know i will love it, your writing is exquisite). But wanted to check in here and give you hug and say hello before i fall asleep!
    lots of love,
    lori

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  15. Thank you for your kind words at my place!

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  16. Beautiful story! I love how you wrote it!
    Following you back :)

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  17. Fantastic story ! i like Mr Anastasios attitude in life...he's great !

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  18. This is an amazing tale - you have a story-writer's heart, that's for sure. Love the way you set this up, used the pictures - it was a nice time out of life to visit that shop with you today. :)

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  19. lori dear -- i know you are so busy right now -- thanks for taking the time to check in and read♡

    i'll be thinking of you in the coming weeks as you move your daughter to college - we're in the same boat here with our son off to school shortly....sniffle sniffle--

    sending lots of love and hugs back your way xoxoxo

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  20. she writes -- you're most welcome - and thanks for dropping by mine!

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    hello frenchy! merci for both the kind comment and for following!♡

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    hi my castle - anastasios has a very laid back attitude - he leaves everything in the hands of a higher power!
    thanks for dropping by ♡

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    jayne - kind comments and much appreciated.....a writer always feels fortunate when a story can transport a reader... xo♡

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  21. I have just finished your story Amanda and i don't know what to say. I wish i had the words you do and then i could properly compliment you. You are an amazing writer, i love reading you.

    This was all so interesting to me, and unlike many of your commenters, i've never heard of tamata. I LOVE them. If i'd been in that shop i don't think i could choose between them.

    I think Anastasios maybe is a saint.

    I love the photo of you two also.

    Thank you for sharing, and good luck with your son (do you know is there a tamata for saftey and wellbeing? we could give them to our children).

    love,
    lori

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  22. lori - you are completely sweet -- i so appreciate your kind, supportive words.

    tamata are cool and truth be told, i have a whole collection of them so like you said, i can't choose either. i want one of each!

    there isn't one for safety and wellbeing per se, but there are images of girl child, boy child, etc. that's what's put on the altar screen and a prayer is made for wellbeing.

    good luck with your hannah and i'm thinking of you this week.

    love and hugs, xoxo

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  23. This is such an amazing story! And I am quite taken with those tamatas. This is the first I've heard of them.

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  24. hey thanks japra! tamata are all over greece, and i've seen them in mexico, but not really elsewhere......
    thanks for reading! xx

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