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.
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, too. “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…”
“In the night, sometimes, in the shop I worked at before, I would hear noises,” he murmurs. “My old shop, 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 shop,” 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 is going on, oblivious to my wandering attention span. “I felt him near me, like it was a real man,” he indicates, shaking my shoulders. “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; arms, legs, torsos.......what part of body do you value most? Even the Volkswagen rates its own tamato. Even in Mexico the same tin sheets of currency, called miraglos, are used to bargain for God’s favor.
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.”
As I step out onto the street, I feel a trickling on my shoulders. Looking up, I shield my eyes against the searing white light. There, on the balcony, 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, filled with thoughts of loss, of the piercing depths and heights of life. She is alone, but she has her work, a meaningful rhythm of day, a purpose. Instinctively, I reach for the heart against my chest and wonder; maybe I can find mine, again, 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.
Photo of Anastasios and Amanda at Ecclesiastica, Athens
For more information about the miraculous icon of Tinos go here