The pact of friendship
We have just been on a little journey and already we long to set out on a more extensive one. Where to? To Sparta! to Mycenae! to Delphi! there are hundreds of places at the mention of which the heart quickens with the urge to travel. On horseback, along mountain paths, through shrubs and underwood; the lone traveller arrives like an entire caravan. He himself rides ahead with his Argojat, a pack-horse carries his trunk, tent and provisions, a couple of soldiers follow behind to protect him; no inn with well-made bed awaits him after the tiring long day’s journey, the tent is often his roof in the imposing, wild scenery, the Argojat cooks a pilaf for his evening meal there; thousands of mosquitoes swarm round the small tent, it is a wretched night, and the next day his path takes him across badly swollen rivers – sit tight on your horse so that you are not swept away.
What reward is their for all these hardships? The greatest! the richest! Nature reveals itself here in all its glory, every spot is of historical importance, a veritable feast for both eye and mind. The poet can sing of it, the painter can record it in sumptuous pictures, but the scent of reality that penetrates for ever and remains in the observer’s thoughts they are unable to reproduce.
A lonely shepherd up in the mountains would, perhaps, by the simple narration of one of the events of his life, be better able than someone describing his journey to open the eyes of someone like yourself, who in a few simply moves would wish to see the land of the Hellenes.
So let him speak! of a custom, a beautiful, strange custom – let the shepherd there on the mountain relate: The Pact of Friendship.
‘Our house was of mud and wattle, but the door frame was fluted marble columns, found where the house was built; the roof reached almost down to the ground, it was now blackish brown and hideous, but when it was laid it was of flowering oleander and fresh laurel branches fetched from beyond the mountains. There was little space around our house, the rock faces stood sheer and were bare and black in hue; at their top clouds often hung like white, living creatures; never have I heard a songbird here, never have men danced to the sound of bagpipes, but this was a holy place in ancient times, the name itself reminds one of this – for its name is Delphi! The dark, solemn mountains all lay covered with snow; the highest, which glowed longest in the red evening sun, was Parnassus, the small river close to our house cascaded down from there and was once holy too, now the donkey muddied it with its feet, although the current was swift and it soon was clear once more. How I remember every spot and its sacred, profound solitude! In the middle of the hut the fire was lit, and when the ashes lay piled and glowing, the bread was baked in them; if the snow lay round our hut almost concealing it, my mother seemed happiest, then she would hold my head between her hands, kiss my forehead and sing the songs that she otherwise never sang, for the Turks, our masters, did not like them; and she sang “On Olympus’ top in the low pine forest there sat an old stag, its eyes were heavy with tears, indeed, it shed green and pale-blue tears, and a roebuck came by: “what is wrong that causes you to weep so, to shed red, green, even pale-blue tears?” “The Turks have come to our town, with wild hounds for their hunting, a mighty pack.” “I will chase them over the islands,” said the young roebuck, “I will chase them over the islands into the deep sea.” “But before evening came the roebuck was slain, and before night came the stag had been hunted and lay dead.” And when my mother sang like that, her eyes filled with tears and a tear hung in her long eyelashes, but she hid it and turned our black bread in the ashes. Then I clenched my fist and said: “We will kill the Turk;” but she repeated from the song: “I will chase them over the islands into the deep sea; but before evening came the roebuck was slain, and before night came the stag had been hunted and lay dead.” For several days and nights we had been alone in our hut when my father arrived; I knew that he brought me mussel shells from the Gulf of Lepanto or maybe even a knife, sharp and gleaming. On that occasion he brought us a child, a small, naked girl held beneath his sheepskin coat, she was wrapped in a fur, and all that she had, when she had been taken out and lay in my mother’s lap, was three silver coins in her black hair. And father told us about the Turks that had killed the child’s parents, he told us so much that I dreamt of it all night long; – my father himself was wounded, mother bound his arm, the wound was deep; the thick sheepskin coat was frozen stiff with his blood. The little girl was to be my sister, she was so lovely, so bright and radiant, even my mother’s eyes were not any gentler than hers were; Anastasia, as she was called, was to be my sister, since her father had been united with my father, united according to an old custom that we still upheld; in their youth they had sworn brotherhood to each other, chosen the loveliest and most virtuous girl in the entire region to unite them in a pact of brotherhood – I so often used to hear about the beautiful, rare custom.
Now the little girl was my sister; she used to sit on my lap, i brought her flowers and mountain birds’ feathers, we both drank of the waters of Parnassus, we slept head to head beneath the laurel roof of the hut while many a winter my mother sang of the red, the green and the pale-blue tears; but I did not yet understand that it was my own people whose thousandfold sorrows were reflected in those tears.
One day, three Frankish men appeared, differently dressed from us; they had their beds and tents on horses and more that twenty Turks, armed with scimitars and guns, accompanied them, for they were friends of the Pasha and had letters from him. They only came in order to see our mountains, and to climb Parnassus in snow and clouds and gaze at the strange, black, sheer rock faces around our hut; they could not be housed in it, and they did not like the smoke either which swirled under the ceiling and out at the low doors; they put up their tents on the cramped space by our hut, roasted lamb and birds and poured out sweet, strong wines, but the Turks did not dare drink any of them.
When they left, I followed them part of the way, and my little sister, Anastasia, hung, sewn into a goatskin, on my back. One of the Frankish men placed me up against a cliff and drew a picture of me and her, as true to life as if we stood there, we looked like a single creature; I had never considered that, but Anastasia and I were as if one person, she always lay on my lap or hung on my back, and if I dreamt, she was in my dreams.
Two nights later, other people arrived at our hut, they were armed with knives and guns; they were Albanians, spirited people, as my mother remarked; they only stayed for a short while, my sister Anastasia sat on the lap of one of them, when he had gone, she had two and not three silver coins in her hair; they placed tobacco in strips of paper and smoked them, and the oldest of them talked about the way they were to take, and was unsure about it, “if I spit upwards,” he said, “the spit falls in my face, if I spit downwards, it falls in my beard.” But a way had to be chosen; they left, and my father went with them; shortly afterwards we heard shots, then more; soldiers came into our hut, they took my mother, me and Anastasia; the robbers had stayed with us, they said, my father had gone with them, so we had to leave; I saw the robbers’ bodies, I saw my father’s body, and I wept until I fell asleep. When I awoke, we were in prison, but the room was no more wretched that that in our own hut, and I was given onions and wine with resin, which they poured out of a tarred sack – we had not had things better back home.
I do not know how long we were imprisoned, but many days and nights passed. When we were released, it was our holy feast of Easter, and I carried Anastasia on my back, for my mother was ill, she could only walk slowly, and it was a long way before we reached the sea, the Gulf of Lepanto. We entered a church which gleamed with images on a golden background – they were angels, oh so beautiful, although I thought that our little Anastasia was just as beautiful; on the middle of the floor stood a coffin full of roses, it was the Lord Christ who lay there as lovely flowers, my mother said, and the priest announced: Christ is risen! Everybody kissed each other, everybody held a lit candle in their hand, and I was given one, so was Anastasia, and the bagpipes sounded, the men danced hand in hand from the church, and outside the women were roasting the Easter lamb; we were invited, I sat close to the fire, a boy, older than me, put his arms round my neck, kissed me and said: “Christ is risen!” and that is how the two of us first met, Aphtanides and I.
My mother knew how to make fishing nets, that brought her a good income down by the bay, and we stayed by the sea for a long time – the lovely sea that tasted of tears and reminded me with its colours of the tears of the stag – now it was red, now green, and now blue once more.
Aphtanides knew how to steer a boat, and I used to sit with little Anastasia in the boat as it sailed on the water like a cloud does in the air; when the sun set, the mountains turned a darker shade of blue, the one mountain chain peeped over the other, and farthest off stood Parnassus with its snow, in the evening sun the mountain peak shone like glowing iron, it looked as if the light came from within, for it shone for a long time in the blue, shimmering air, long after the sun had set; the white sea-birds flapped their wings in the surface of the water, otherwise it was as quiet here as at Delphi among the black rock faces; I lay on my back in the boat, Anastasia sat on my chest, and the stars above us twinkled even more brightly than the lamps in our church; it was the same stars, and they stood exactly in the same positions above me as when I sat at Delphi, outside out hut. I finally felt as if I was still there – then there was a splash in the water and the boat rocked violently – I gave a scream, for Anastasia had fallen in the water, but Aphtanides was just as quick, and he soon lifted her up to me; we took off her clothes, wrung them, and put them back on her again, as did Aphtanides with his own clothes, and we stayed out there until our clothes were dry once more, and no one knew of the fright we had had for the little foster-sister, whose life Aphtanides now had a part in.
Summer came! The sun was so scorching that the leaves withered on the trees, I thought of our cool mountains, of the fresh water there; my mother also longed for them, and one evening we made our way back. How quiet and still it was! we walked over the high thyme that still had its scent although the sun had dried out its leaves; we met not a single shepherds, not a hut did we pass; everything was still and lonely, only a shooting star told us that there was life up there in the sky; I do not know if the clear, blue air itself gleamed or whether it was the stars’ rays; we could see clearly the contours of all the mountains; my mother made a fire, roasted the onions she had with her, and I and my little sister slept among the thyme without any fear of the horrible Smidraki that belches flame, let alone the wolf or the jackals; for my mother was sitting there with us, and I thought that was enough.
We reached our former home, but the hut was a heap of ruins, a new one had to be built. A couple of women helped my mother, and within a few days the walls had been raised and a new roof of oleander laid over them. My mother plaited many covers for bottles out of hide and bark, I tended the priests’ small flock; Anastasia and the small tortoises were my playmates.
One day we received a visit from dear Aphtanides; he so longed to see us, he said, and he stayed a whole two days with us.
A month later he came again and told us that he was to go with a ship to Patras and Corfu; he first felt he had to say goodbye to us, he brought a large fish with him for my mother. He had so much to relate, not only about the fishermen down at the Gulf of Lepanto but also about kings and heroes who had once ruled in Greece, like the Turks do now.
I have seen the rosebush bud and in the course of days and weeks come into flower; this took place before I started to think about how large, beautiful and blushing it had become; this was also what I now started to think about Anastasia. She was a lovely, fully grown girl; I a strapping fellow; the wolf-skins on my mother’s and Anastasia’s beds I had flayed off the beasts themselves after I had shot them. Years had passed.
One evening, Aphtanides came, as slender as a reed, strong and brown; he kissed all of us and was able to tell us about the mighty ocean, about the fortifications of Malta and the strange burial places of Egypt; it sounded strange, like one of the priests’ legends; I looked up to him with a kind of awe.
‘You know so much!’ I said, ‘and the stories you are able to tell!’
‘But you have told me the loveliest one!’ he said, ‘You have told me something I have never been able to get out of my thoughts, the beautiful old custom of the pact of friendship! that pact which I have a good mind to follow! Brother, let us two also – like Anastasia’s father did – go to the church; the most beautiful and innocent girl is Anastasia, your sister, she shall unite us! No one has a more beautiful custom than us Greeks!’
Anastasia blushed, like the fresh rose petal, my mother kissed Aphtanides.
An hour’s walk from our hut, there where the mountains have fertile soil and a few scattered trees offer shade, lay the little church; a silver lamp hung in front of the altar.
I was wearing my best clothes, my white fustanella fell in rich pleats over my hips, the red tunic sat tight and snug, there was silver in the tassel of my fez; at my belt were knives and pistols. Aphtanides was wearing the blue costume that Greek sailors wore, a silver disc with the Virgin Mary hung on his chest, his cummerbund was costly, as those only rich men could wear. Everyone could see we were on our way to a solemn ceremony. We entered the small, lonely church, where the evening sun shone in through the door onto the burning lamp and the many-coloured images against a golden background. We knelt on the steps of the altar and Anastasia took up her position in front of us; a long, white robe hung lightly and loosely around her beautiful limbs; her white neck and breast were covered with interlinking old and new coins that formed an entire, large collar; her black hair was drawn up onto the top of her head in a single knot that was held in place by a small cap of silver and gold coins found in the ancient temples; no Greek girl could have more beautiful adornments. Her face shone, her eyes were like two stars.
All three of us silently said our prayers; and she asked us: “Will you be friends in life and death?” We answered: Yes. “Will each of you, whatever may come to pass, remember that my brother is a part of me! my secret is his, my happiness is his! Sacrifice, endurance, everything, as if for my own soul, I will have for him!” And we repeated our Yes and she placed our hands in each other’s, kissed us on the forehead and we once more prayed in silence. Then the priest stepped forward from the door of the altar, blessed all three of us, and a song by the other most holy men behind the altar could be heard. The eternal pact of friendship had been made. When we rose to our feet, I saw my mother at the church door weeping copiously and fervently.
How merry it was in our little hut and at the springs of Delphi! The evening before Aphtanides had to leave, he and I sat lost in thought on the rocky slopes; his arm was around my waist, mine around his neck; we spoke of Greece’s affliction, of the men who could be relied on; each thought in our souls lay clear to us both; then I seized his hand:
“ – One thing more you must know! one thing which until now only God and I know! My entire soul is love! It is a love stronger than that which I have for my mother and you – –!”
“And who do you love?” Aphtanides asked, and his face and neck turned red.
“I love Anastasia!” I said, – and his hand trembled in mine, and he went as white as a corpse; I saw it, I understood it! and I think that my hand trembled too, I bent forward towards him, kissed him on the forehead and whispered: “I have never told her this! perhaps she does not love me! Brother, remember I have seen her every day, she has grown up by my side, grown into my soul!” –
“And she shall be yours!” he said, “Yours! – I cannot lie to you, nor will I! I love her too! – but tomorrow I shall leave! We will see each other again in a year’s time, by that time you will be married, won’t you! – I have some money, it is yours! You must take it, you shall take it!” we walked over the mountain in silence, it was late in the evening when we once more stood outside my mother’s hut.
Anastasia held up the lamp towards us as we entered, my mother was not there. Anastasia looked at Aphtanides with a strange sadness in her face. – “Tomorrow you are leaving us!” she said, “how sad that makes me feel!”
“How sad that makes you feel,” he said, and I sensed there lay a pain in his words, as great as my own; I was unable to speak, but he took her hand and said: “our brother, who loves you, are you in love with him? Precisely in his silence lies his love!” – and Anastasia trembled and burst into tears. Then I saw only her, thought only of her; I put my arm round her waist and said: “Yes, I love you!” Then she pressed her lips to mine, her hands rested round my neck; but the lamp had fallen to the floor, it was dark around us as it was in the heart of dear, poor Aphtanides.
He arose before dawn, kissed all of us goodbye and departed. He had given my mother all his money for us. Anastasia was my betrothed and a few days later she became my wife!”