A LOAF OF BREAD
Two days after her tenth birthday, her chores finished for the day, Fotini stood, as she often did, drinking in the beauty of the blood-red sun as it set behind the white snow capped mountains that surrounded her small village. As she approached the house she heard the crying of a baby. Rushing through the door, she saw her mother's face, glowing with pride. She handed Fotini the tiny creature tightly swaddled in a white blanket. "Here Fotini, here is your guiding light. Treat him delicately and love him with power for now you shall never be alone."
As the years passed, they all worked together picking olives and grapes as the seasons dictated. Their small village had been blessed with the black fertile Greek soil that produced piquant grapes for the wine to be sold in the market on Sunday, and, succulent black olives that gave them the deep green olive oil, more precious than gold. Warm bread straight from the oven, dipped into the rich oil was their reward at the end of a laborious day in the fields.
Fotini remained at home with her mother while Sotiris went off to school. She was lame and unable to walk the ten kilometers back and forth. The calf of her left leg was bent, the ankle twisted. In the evenings, Sotiris would try to teach her what he had learned during the day, but by then she was tired and wanted only to sleep.
When the time came for her to marry, she was overlooked. The village people were superstitious, they believed that she had been given the evil eye, and the curse would be passed on to her children. Learning that a girl from the village was to be married, Fotini would hide in her room and cry. Sotiris would put his arm around her, "Please don't cry Fotini, I shall always be here for you, you shall never be alone." She remained silent. Silence helped to lessen her pain. She tried to look only at her good fortune, her "guiding light," but her heart remained heavy.
The war started. And the Germans arrived. The soldiers moved into the main section of their house. The three of them were relegated to one small room at the back of the house. Their father had left with the other men from the village to fight in the resistance.
In the evenings, after the soldiers had eaten, Fotini and her mother were allowed to take the leftovers for themselves. On rare occasions there would be a small amount of meat left on the bones. Usually there would be only a few scraps of bread and some cheese. The same crumbled scraps of bread that had been used to push the food onto the forks and into the mouths of the despised intruders. In the dark they would huddle together in one bed, silently, afraid to talk.
One day, while Fotini was out feeding the animals, one of the soldiers startled her from behind. He pulled her toward him, teasing, but not hurting her. Unsure about what to do with this attention, she laughed. He pushed her to the ground. She started to scream. He kissed her on the mouth. Hard. He fumbled at her blouse. Terrified, yet curious, she lay still. A strange tingling spread through her body when he touched her breast. Suddenly, Sotiris jumped on the back of the soldier, beating him with his fists. Frightened, the soldier jumped up and ran away. Sotiris helped her up gently, trying his best to comfort her. From now on he would go with her to feed the animals. They never mentioned the incident again.
That night Fotini lay in bed thinking about the young soldier. She knew in her heart that it was a terrible thing, but she could not forget the exciting feelings that had raced through her body when he had touched her. She tried to imagine what the young women her age must be feeling as they lay in the arms of their husbands. Long ago she had silently accepted her fate; her special night would never come. That night she dreamt about the young German soldier. He was kissing her and stroking her breast, when she woke she felt weak and ached all over. And, she knew that that would be the closest she would ever come to knowing what it would feel like to be a woman.
When Fotini would see the young German soldier who haunted her dreams night after night, she would lower her eyes, and, then, secretly glance in his direction, wondering what would have happened if Sotiris had not interfered. He kissed me, she thought, he didn't care about my leg. But the young man never noticed her again.
Sotiris was in the square with his friends when one boy told how he had stolen a loaf of bread off the German supply truck and they never knew it was gone. They all laughed, happy that something, as insignificant as it was, had been done against the soldiers.
One evening Sotiris did not arrive home at his usual time. The two women took turns going to the door and peering out into the cold damp night. The Germans were in the kitchen eating, drinking and singing. The Captain came to the door as their mother stepped inside for the umpteenth time and shouted at her in a drunken stupor, "Donít worry old woman, he won't be coming, so go to bed and stop letting the cold air in."
Numb with fear, they went into the bedroom and huddled in a corner next to the wall. They spent a soundless, sleepless night, shivering up against each other. Very early the next morning, moving as quickly as they could, they prepared breakfast and cleaned up in silence. Then they ran to the small church down the road. The priest motioned them inside. The Germans had him. They must wait quietly. Not ask questions. They must pray. Maybe the soldiers would show mercy and let him go. Their hearts began to race, blood rushed to their heads. They knew then that they would never see Sotiris again. The two women began to weep. A suppressed wailing arising from the despair of women long dead, women who, since ancient times, had grieved for the unnecessary death of their loved ones, mourning the tragedy of death, unconscionable death occurring without the rationale of so-called civilized men. Their tears fell, entering the earth, creating another link within the long chain of tears made by generations of grieving hearts.
In desperation, arms linked, they walked from the church toward the square. Soldiers were standing in a line, their rifles raised. A few people from the village stood behind them. Sotiris stood blindfolded in front of the old olive tree, a tree as old as the earth it drank from, older than time itself. The leaves shimmered with a silver light in the silent wind and whispered yet another tragic message. A terrible noise, an explosion resonated through the air, a sound that would echo in their heads for as long as they lived. They watched as the life went out of their sweet Sotiris. A single anguished cry wrenched itself free from his throat rippled through the air and entered their hearts. He fell to the ground, embracing the souls of their ancestors.
Their mother fainted and was carried home by the villagers. "Yesterday morning," someone told, "Sotiris had stolen a loaf of bread from the German supply truck. They caught him. This was a punishment, as well as a warning, to the rest of the village."
Fotini thought about how hungry they had been the night before. The soldiers were eating everything, leaving nothing for them. Pacing the floor of their small room, Sotiris said, "I will fix this problem, from now on we wont need to wait for their garbage." She overlooked his remark. She was too hungry to think about it. Now she understood. But it was too late.
A new burial suit concealed the bullet holes in his young strong body. But, how were they to disguise the damage done to his head? A beautiful head often compared to that of an Adonis. This beautiful head now shattered by German bullets. There was no disguise generous enough to hide the devastation, to make it acceptable enough to be seen at the funeral. Would not one or two bullets have been enough? He was only a youth, not fully matured. Their mother did not wail, did not grieve in the traditional way. This had not been a natural death, a death designed by God.
Her father had been killed in the mountains shortly after he joined the resistance. Her mother died soon after the Germans left. Surviving alone, in a world that she would never understand, Fotini often questioned the severity of her punishment. Was it because she had secretly enjoyed the uninvited attention of the young German soldier, she wondered? She thought and dreamt about him many times over her barren years, and not with shame. She could find no other black mark on her simple, unfulfilled life. And, she remained silent. Again, seeking refuge from her pain in the absence of the spoken word.
Each day of her solitary existence she would hear the words of her guiding light, "Please don't cry, Fotini, I shall always be here for you, you shall never be alone."
Every year, on the anniversary of Sotirisí death, Fotini would place his favourite foods on his grave. She still saw him as a child trying to take care of a widowed mother and a sister during terrible times, being brave, and risking his life.
Today, Fotini walks along the same dirt road to the cemetery as she has done thousands of times before. Except, today is different. Today her hands are empty. She walks slowly, stopping occasionally to look at the twisted trunks of the olive trees. She thinks about her leg, twisted like the trunk of the olive tree. Yet the tree is fertile, and unpunished for its deformity. The fig trees are beginning to blossom. Her eyes caress the stones and dried weeds in such a way that one would think she had never seen them before.
The old woman stands beside the grave of her brother. She bites her lower lip till it bleeds. It is pain she is after, not blood. Before she can stop tearing at her lip, the pain must become greater than the pain in her heart. Each year for the past sixty years, on the anniversary of his death, Fotini has stood next to Sotiris' grave, remembering it as though it all happened just yesterday.
Today, she weeps, and speaks to him for the first time in sixty years. "And, Sotiris, and I am alone, and I loved you with all my power. I had no one else to love. And, I am alone and all because of a loaf of bread. I did something also, Sotiris, yes, I stole something from one of them and I did not get caught, but I have been punished anyway. Yes, Sotiris, I am alone. That is my punishment."
The old woman walks home slowly. She is tired. She is not accustomed to expressing herself. For years she has stoically harboured her bitterness in silence. Upon arriving home she does not light the lamp next to the door. She walks to the chair by the window and sits in the black velvet of the moonless night. Occasionally glancing up at the stars she again tries to imagine what it would be like to eat a piece of bread without thinking about death.
Several days later, the old woman was found by the baker from the village, sitting in her chair by the window, smiling. One old withered hand was clutched tightly around a crumbled, dried piece of bread and in the other, a worn brass button from a German military jacket, its insignia worn down, almost unrecognizable.