A short story by Cypriot author Panos ioannides, translated by Christine Georghiades.
One day Maria de Molino, the young wife of Filippo de Molino, the Venetian Proveditor of Cyprus, saw in horror the signs of leprosy on the body of her child. She locked the door, stripped off her clothes and examined herself.
Once she had confirmed she did not have the disease, she slumped down on the edge of the cot and wept, insensible to the cries of the child. Then she dressed and summoned the servant girl.
The monk signed to her to leave him with the child. He sent the servant girl out as well.
“He was well yesterday…” Kypriani said.
Maria de Molino turned her back to her and stood under the arch. The olive groves were rippling on the mountainside and the hills sinking into the sea.
“My lady, Fra Jacomo…”
She felt the constriction, the colours faded and the castle was uprooted from the back of Pentedactylos mountain. “The child…” she heard the monk’s voice. The summit of Buffavento leapt as if its fifty cannons had suddenly awoken. “No, I am sorry… Shall I speak to the Proveditor?” She did not reply. In the dusk, she saw the monk shake his head and leave, without kissing her hand, as he was accustomed to do.
She picked up the child who was gurgling, kissed its chest which the monk had left bare, closed with her palm the lips that were smiling at her and locked herself in the Chapel…
The shouts of the Proveditor and the servant girl, begging her to open up, died away at some point. They mingled with the orders of the guard changing on the walls. Three cannon shots from Kyrenia Castle announced that the galley had come into the harbour; the forty new gowns for the Queen and the new Commander of the Santo Larco Garrison had arrived…
Only yesterday she had been envious of those forty Venetian garments… Only yesterday she had been impatient to hear these cannon shots…
Those forty gowns were forty invitations to the Court, to the Castles, to the forests of Amorosa… They were forty meetings with Livio de Nores, the new Commander of the Santo Larco Garrison, who at this moment was setting foot on Cyprus to bring back to her again the hours in Venice when, as youngsters, they settled down in the gondola with the planks filled with peacock feathers beneath their bare bodies.
Now… those three cannon shots signified the journey of the Proveditor to Kyrenia, her being left behind in the castle, the certainty that she would now never meet her youth again in the eyes of Livio.
She would kill it and then she would kill herself. She would wait for her husband to depart, the servant girl to go absent-minded and she would leave. She would fall with the child into the Buffavento gorge, from the rock where, years ago, when they were newly arrived on the island, the Proveditor had given her their first child. Thus the end would merge with the beginning, the first pain for a woman with the final bitterness of the mother…
The child was no longer crying. Kypriani had given him the breast as she did every morning and had put him to bed. Had she noticed? She must have; he was naked. She would have seen and would not have touched him. But no, if she had left the baby hungry, he would have raised the roof. So she had suckled it! She had dared! Or she didn’t suspect. Yes, only she, she and Fra Jacomo knew! Better that way… Filippo de Molino had left, Kypriani had fed the baby and gone away with the sickness in her nipples. The guard had changed. And Livio de Nores would now be looking in the direction of the tower and hoping…
On tiptoe, she slipped into the child’s bedroom. She did not dare to look at it. Tenderness and anguish were confused with an obstinate hatred. She wrapped it in the first blanket she found. It was the one a blind beggar-woman had given her. She picked up the child and held it firmly against her breast. It burped in its sleep and a trickle of milk ran down her neck. She shuddered. She threw the child onto the bed and cleaned her skin with water and wine. But suddenly realising what she was doing, she knelt beside him, kissed him on the mouth, took him in her arms and went out into the passage and thence into the courtyard.
The Porta Leone creaked behind her but she did not turn round. She heard voices and the barking of her dog. But Maria de Molino quickly passed by the guard and went out into the wood.
She could still feel on her lips the dampness from the baby’s saliva, which she did not dare to swallow or wipe away…
The sun was scorching the island of snakes when she reached the rock. The steps which had once led to the summer palace of the Regina were now overgrown with weeds. What had driven the people from here? What had made them abandon it to decay and the winds?
Perhaps the same disease that had smitten her child. Perhaps the same sins that marked people’s skin, perhaps the transgressions and the cruelty of the Proveditors had turned at sometime on themselves and their stony deeds. Perhaps! But she hadn’t come to find an answer to all this... She had come to let two bodies whistle for a moment in the wind and then surrender themselves to the vertical tranquility of the rocks…
Luckily the child had not yet woken. Protected in the blanket of the old woman who had two scars for eyelids, he was fast asleep…
Angry waves surrounding the Santa Angelica and the wind whistling in the rigging… A dolphin chasing them and Filippo’s hand on the side of her neck… Rippling on the chords of the troubadour who, leaning on the carved wooden saint on the prow, awakened her memories… The Kyrenia harbour with the castle full of cannons and standards… The three cannon-shots and beacons lit in greeting on the nearby castles… The people thronging round them, beggar-women and children diving to retrieve the coins that the foreigners were throwing into the sea… The trumpet calls from the watch-towers… The coach with the horses, black and white, grinding along as they galloped to the mansion built for her… “Two hundred peasants worked to build it… The garrison had the freedom to choose the best materials, and for furniture, the finest there is in the mansions and the churches of the local people …” The earthen houses, perched one next to the other, lower than a man’s height, with doors you had to bend double to go through… Barley, maize and reapers… Madonna mia, what people! Caked with earth. The most misshapen peasant women she had ever seen… Her castle, the reception by the guard and servants… Kypriani with eager eyes… The parade of the Venetian officers, the first evening at Kyrenia Castle and the night that seemed unending as they strolled round the walls, with all that silver on the waves…Nicosia, the King’s Palace; and afterwards… The first night at Buffavento… Buffavento with the half moon lightly touching the muzzles of the cannons and the Regina; and the crystal and the shouts of the knights chasing her and of the starving prisoners in the oubliettes… This rock! And the hands drunkenly ripping off her clothes in the moonlight! And that pain that shot within her the rain of life…
She lifted the blanket. Her last-born was smiling at her. He woke up and stirred to receive her lips on the cheeks that were ready to split and drip out their life…
She hugged him close to her and took another step. Then she heard footsteps and the barking of the dog. It was him, it was Filippo! He suspected or the monk had spoken to him and he was hurrying to take her back, to send her to Venice by the galley which had brought Livio de Nores and the forty gowns, to Venice where an abbot had found the herb that cured leprosy…
The shadow emerged first from the forest. It was the servant girl, Kypriani. Then, the dog.
“Go away, leave…”
“I know, my lady. Fra Jacomo told me…”
“Your master, have you told him?”
“No, my lady, no one knows… I swear. Come with me, my lady. Don’t jump. You mustn’t. God is great. The Virgin will do something for our child…”
“Go, go away. You’re free…”
“Let’s go to the Castle, my lady. I know a peasant who can cure him…”
“Here, in this cell, the King of England imprisoned Comnenos. In your cell. He slept here, under your window. In my cell, Henry locked up his brother, d’ Ibelin. The new Garrison Commander is the latter’s grandson… Did you see your lord when you went down last night?”
“No, my lady, I did not see him.”
“What did you learn?”
“He is well.”
“Does he ask?… Does he know where we are?”
“I don’t know, my lady.”
“You’re lying, bitch. You’ll pay for it… One day I’ll lock you up with him and leave you… The Proveditor used to say that Echive Montpeliar, d’ Ibelin’s wife, whom they were hunting, disguised herself as a monk and sought sanctuary up here. She was saved by hiding in this cell… No one knows the castle better… and loves it… Since it was abandoned by the King’s order, Filippo used to bring me often… Tell me…”
“They say he is well… He is living in the garrison headquarters… He left two servant girls to look after him…”
“He sent them to Venice on the galley!”
“The Queen received us here! She was wearing purple, all diamonds. In the course of one night she changed her dress three times. She loved Buffavento; she wanted to be worthy of its beauty…. The peasant?”
“Not yet. But I’ve sent him a message.”
“Does he really know about herbs?”
“I’ve seen it with my own eyes. There was this village girl from Karmi. She was working at Signor Zagravi’s, on Santo Larco, when she caught the disease… The girl saw the signs on him and tried to run away. They caught her and took her to him. He scratched her breast with a knife, kissed it and rubbed it over his pus until he gave her the disease. Then they sent her away. The old man found her and rubbed her body with his herbs. And she was cured…”
“When will he come?”
“Soon, my lady. Today or tomorrow.”
“Why do you suckle the child?”
“I won’t get it, my lady. I have no scratches.”
“Where are you from? Can you see your village from here?”
“I don’t know. My family were killed when I was only…”
“How were they killed?”
“I don’t know, my lady.”
“You don’t know anything. What do you know? You’re as stupid as… My body is full of it, do you know that? On my arm here, on my belly… You’ll be full too, very soon. The dog has got it! Have you seen? Do you know this? But what do you care? You can’t get it. First wait till your flesh stinks and then you’ll care. Then you’ll go and look for him. Now, you don’t care a damn. You look first to see if you’ve got a scratch and if you haven’t you act like a saint…”
The old man is dead, my lady. Years ago. No one knows his remedy…”
At dawn, cannon fire and disaster woke them. Flames were devouring Kyrenia and the harbour was enveloped in smoke. Out at sea ships and galleys were sinking.
She sent the servant girl to find out. All her concern, for months now, had been concentrated down there, on the Proveditor’s town, on the harbour that received and brought his messages and letters to doctors and astrologers. He was taking a long time to find the remedy, that’s why he didn’t come, she knew how tender-hearted he always was with her, how good… To the whole world he was unsmiling. Even to the Venetians… Only with her… One day he would appear with the foreigner, with some old man, face and hands covered with skin like cactus, that he had cured himself…
Midday passed, it grew dark and the battle subsided, but the servant girl did not return. She dragged herself to d’ Ibelin’s window and set herself to watch the path. She stayed there for a long time. Night fell over the sea. Only the fire could be seen, that kept changing shape and was so bright, had a skin so smooth and so clean that no disease could touch it, a skin that healed every disease…
Late at night the dog returned. It had been missing for days. It came and stood next to her. She left the window and her body fell hard onto the bed. She was stiff and the cold penetrated through the scars of the disease right to her bones. The tears that welled up were like decayed teeth…
She stretched out her hand, took the dog and flung it between her and the child, whom the disease had already deformed into a ball of soggy flesh. She rubbed the dog against the child and then against herself, to warm them up.
Then she suddenly noticed that, under the hair, the skin here and there was no longer oozing. She lit the lamp. The animal’s wounds had closed or were closing. And over them, like a membrane, the new skin was taut… In desperation, she hugged the dog more tenderly than she had ever hugged the child or her husband, and staying awake all night, began to rub it on their wounds.
When Kypriani returned, aged, she looked in vain for her mistress. D’ Ibelin’s cell was empty and the bedclothes cold.
She put away the meat she had stolen from the bag of a slaughtered Venetian and ran to the rock… She wasn’t there. She crawled on her knees to the edge and looked down. No sign anywhere, no clothing, no pus.
She tied the meat in her apron and set off for the town. The Turks had already begun to bring their families and a servant was always welcome, a servant whom no one knew had worked for a leper or that the first spots had begun to redden on her breasts… Until they found out she had time… The milk in her breast was fire… It was pus… It was…
All those who could have betrayed her and sent her far away from people and children were no longer alive… Not her mistress, nor Fra Jacomo, whom she had found impaled in the Square, nor Signor Giorgio whose carcase, naked, without the genitals that had deflowered her, was swinging from an olive tree outside the walls. Not Filippo de Molino, who had escaped with some of the officers from the castle and was sailing away. He was unharmed and fighting when he left the island and only she, the stupid servant! was racking her brains to find some lie to tell her mistress: that her master died with her name on his lips, had been taken prisoner and was being taken to the seraglio, or that he had entrusted his property to a wise muzzein healer and he’s bringing it any moment…
Before the sun had set she was wet nurse at the lodgings of Musellim Hakki Ibn Affan.
Before the sun had set, on the other side of the mountain, naked, with her thin, blemished body, with the child shivering in her arms, completely immersed in the water, Maria de Molino was bathing in the spring that had cured the dog.
Nearby, barking at the flies and still wet, the faithful animal was basking in the sun…