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What Became of Her Sisters?
"I awoke in a miserable place; a run-down nursing home near the docks in Piraeus on the outskirts of Athens."
Issue 4: Saturday, 30 January 2022
This is a story I wrote on commission, but then the anthology fell through. So far as I recall it hasn’t appeared anywhere else. I thought it might deserve an airing.
(Yes, I know I said last issue that I had started writing something quite new, but I got stuck in the middle of it and need to have a rethink, so you won’t be seeing it this issue, sorry).
What Became of Her Sisters?
I awoke in a miserable place; a run-down nursing home near the docks in Piraeus on the outskirts of Athens. Plaster was peeling off the walls, the iron bedframes were rusty, and there was a persistent stink of piss and rancid cooking oil. But I wasn’t aware of any of that until I woke up. Hadn’t been aware of anything for an astonishingly long time. They tell me that I’ve been in a coma for almost twenty-five years. Twenty-five years! I couldn’t fathom it when they told me.
All that time, I lay unmoving, unresponsive, my flesh cold and grey, rigid to the touch. The doctors turned off life support after the first few months, but I didn’t die. They could still detect brain activity, feel a faint respiration, pick up the slow beating of my heart, one beat every thirty seconds. I was a damn nuisance, I’m sure.
My sister did what she could to pay the medical bills in the early years. After they pushed me out of the hospital, she sold my house and car and set up some kind of trust fund which continues to eke out a monthly pittance. Then she broke off contact, and no one knows now where she lives.
My body was shunted from one cheap nursing home to another, as each went out of business in turn—I understand the Greek economy has been in a desperate mess for the last five years. But still I didn’t die.
No one ever expected me to wake up, let alone regain the ability to speak. But a week ago, that’s exactly what I did. My temperature rose, my skin softened, my breathing grew deeper, my heart began to beat faster, and eventually I opened my eyes.
The world has changed a hell of a lot in twenty-five years. I still can’t really comprehend it, but I’m going to have to. They want me out of here, and I’ll have to leave soon, though I have nowhere to go.
I ought to have died. I would have died, if I hadn’t been discovered by Father Yannis, who found me, frozen, standing by the window of the little house on the outskirts of the remote Greek village where I had been working. Yannis is dead now, they tell me. That’s a great pity. I wanted to thank him and ask him a great many questions, particularly about what happened to the inhabitants of that house. But I can’t do that now, and perhaps it’s for the best.
Damn! I’m starting this story back to front. And it’s a story I need to tell. So let’s start again. It all began more than twenty-five years ago, in 1996, to be precise.
My name is Elias Andrews. I had been hiking through the remotest areas of the Peloponnesus in Greece, collecting information for a post-doctoral thesis on the historical development of the Greek language. My mother was Greek, my father a Scot. We spent a lot of time in Greece while I was young, so I’m pretty fluent in the language. Being bi-lingual as a kid made me interested in languages, and that’s how I ended up as a historical linguist.
I had figured out that one way to understand the development of modern Greek was to exhaustively compare dialects as spoken by various regions. I was also, to be honest, having a damn fine time tramping through the beautiful mountainous areas of the country, visiting remote monasteries and tiny villages with my mini-cassette recorder in hand, taking photos and recording hours of dialog and notes. So, a terrific hiking holiday, at least partly paid for by the University. An ideal arrangement, I had thought it. It had been even more ideal before my girlfriend Cresta decided that she had had enough of my obsessions and caught the next available bus back to Athens.
That was three weeks before I came to the tiny village clinging to the side of a mountain overlooking a serpentine river running along through the valley below. I won’t tell you the exact location in case you’re tempted to find it. You don’t want to do that, trust me.
The scenery was spectacular, and the weather hot but not oppressive as I climbed up the dusty road into the village. I was greeted by a weather-beaten old man sitting in the shade of a tree and drinking ouzo. We shook hands and talked for a few minutes. He introduced himself as Andros. He was easy enough to understand, though there were some unusual formations of verbs in his speech. Time enough later to record him, I thought. I asked where I could find the priest, and Andros directed me on to the chapel higher up the road.
The first thing I always did when I came to a new place was to consult with the local priest. Sometimes they were helpful, sometimes not.
The chapel here was modest in size, with white walls blazing in the sun, blue door and blue window surrounds, with a modest white cross at the peak of its gable. The door stood ajar. I knocked and went in, welcoming the cool shade of the interior. A black-clad figure kneeling at the altar stood up and turned to welcome me. A large, burly man with a long black beard and a jovial face. He introduced himself as Father Yannis, and I briefly explained my research project.
It was a Thursday, and he wasn’t busy, he said. In fact, he was eager for some intellectual company. He took me into his little house next to the chapel, and we sat down at the kitchen table. Moments later, his housekeeper Mrs Georgiadou, a rotund, energetic woman, bustled in and brought a bottle of retsina and a large bowl of olives to the table. She must have seen Father Yannis bring me in.
Sipping the retsina—an acquired taste—I found Yannis to be a pleasant companion, and obviously starved for cultured conversation.
I explained that I was looking into the various dialects of the country. Younger people, I explained, were starting to speak a much more standard version of Greek, through the influence of television and radio and increasingly, email. (This of course, was twenty-five years ago, before what I understand has been the phenomenal growth of the Internet and the popularity of something called ‘Facebook’).
Father Yannis had been university-educated before he had entered the priesthood, and his own educated, modern Greek wasn’t worth my time recording, though I didn’t offend him by saying so. It was the older people I was looking for, old people who still spoke in the dialects of their youth. I told Yannis about meeting old Andros on the outskirts of the village.
“Oh yes, you should talk to Andros, and his wife—a bit of a shrew, I’m afraid, but still worth your time. I had a little trouble understanding some of their words when I first came here ten years ago. But the people you really must visit are the sisters Thena and Euraya, a strange pair of women…”
Mrs Georgiodou, bringing in some sweet cakes at that moment and hearing these names, hissed: “Οι μάγισσες!”. Her face was sour. The witches, she’d called them.
Yannis made a disapproving noise. “Now, now, Demetra. You shouldn’t call them that. They are perfectly respectable women, I’m sure. Many of the locals are suspicious of them and call them witches or she-devils, but that’s all nonsense, of course. They are just a little strange and very old, I’m not sure how old. Alas, they don’t come to church, to my regret, but they do allow me to visit them with the message of the Gospel, to which they listen politely. They live about three kilometres away up the track. They grow much of their own food, keep a few goats, and only come into town for the bare necessities they can’t supply themselves. I imagine they are on some kind of pension.”
“And they speak an unusual dialect?” I asked.
“Yes, yes, they should be of great interest to you. They speak in a curious, difficult dialect, which even the locals here find hard to understand. I myself can only work out what they are saying with great difficulty, and they only understand me if I use many circumlocutions and a very basic vocabulary. I’ve never thought about writing down a list of the obscure words they use. Trust me, they are the people you need to visit.”
It was late in the day by then. Although I carried a small tent in my backpack, Father Yannis kindly offered to put me up—“Just a pallet on the floor, I’m afraid”—and promised to introduce me to the sisters in the morning. I accepted gladly.
The next day, we hiked up the steep track together. It led almost straight up the mountain. Father Yannis wasn’t as fit as myself, but nevertheless he led me at a brisk pace, stopping from time to time, his face red, to gasp for breath. We were climbing what seemed to be just a goat track and had to step aside from time to time to avoid their droppings.
To my surprise, Yannis led me not to the little whitewashed cottage I had expected, but to a small outcropping of rock in the side of the mountain. Into the cliff face was cut a door and a small shuttered window. A well-tended vegetable garden lay before it, strongly fenced off on three sides from the goats. As we opened the gate and passed into the garden, a large bell attached to the gate rang out loudly.
Seeing my surprise at the dwelling cut into the rock, Yannis laughed. “It is not so unusual in these mountains to find houses like this. Indeed, there are chapels and even quite a big monastery not far from here which burrow into the mountain-side. It’s very secure, and a good protection against the heat of summer.”
Yannis knocked at the door and called out, though surely anyone inside must have heard the bell ring when we opened the gate. At first there was no response, and I thought that I was going to be disappointed. But at last, the door opened and I found myself looking at an extraordinary figure.
She was very tall, for one thing, and lean. She was dressed entirely in black, with her hair and most of her face covered with thick black cloth, so that only her eyes glared out at us. Large, liquid eyes with violet irises.
Father Yannis began with a cheerful greeting, and introduced me. “Thena, this is my friend Elias. He’s from the University in Athens, and he’s studying languages. Studying the Greek language and its history. He would love to talk to you.”
I have paraphrased and greatly shortened his exact words, which were, of course, in Greek. As he had suggested, he needed to use many circumlocutions, so that “University” came out as “important-study-place”.
The tall woman stood impassive for a moment, but then nodded and opened the door. “Come,” she said, her voice surprisingly deep. She called out, “Euraya! Visitors! Men! The priest-man and another.” The unusual pronunciation of these words was already pricking my interest.
We went into the room, carved from the stone, its only light from the window, whose shutters Thena now opened. The room was small, but well-laid out, not a centimetre of space wasted. In the middle was a well-worn wooden table, its surface spotlessly clean. Indeed, it was almost shallow in the centre, as though it had been scrubbed so often as to wear away a perceptible amount of wood. To one side of the room was a black, cast-iron stove, on which stood a large copper pot with a jutting wooden handle.
“Sit!” Thena commanded, without much grace. I didn’t feel at all welcome, to be honest, but the cheerful Father Yannis seemed to feel at home. We sat down at the small table on chairs made of a hard wood stained dark brown.
“Euraya!” our hostess called again, and a moment later another woman entered from a dark corridor which must lead deeper into the rock, presumably to bedrooms.
This new figure was shorter than the first, and much stockier, but she was clad identically to her sister, with her head and face covered so that only her eyes showed.
“Are they Muslims?” I whispered to the priest.
“No, no. At least, they tell me that they are not. Just very conservative, very orthodox Greek ladies.”
Euraya barely glanced at us, but went straight to a cabinet on which were arranged plain, undecorated plates and cups. She brought across two tiny cups and proceeded to fill them with steaming black liquid from the pot on the stove. Coffee, the strongest and bitterest I had yet tasted in either Greece or Turkey. It was all but undrinkable, but I sipped at it to be polite.
Father Yannis was chatting away about affairs in the village, but it took the two women a long time before they made a contribution. I felt distinctly uncomfortable, and felt sure that they were suspicious of me.
However, after a while they began to respond. To begin with, I asked some simple questions about their life here on the mountain. Were the goats outside their own? How many did they own? How long had they lived here?
“Yes” and “Four” and “A long time” were the brief answers I obtained to these questions. It was discouraging, but I felt that I had to persist. I asked permission to turn on my mini-cassette recorder. They did not reply, gazing at the device as though they had not the slightest comprehension of what it was. However, they did not say “No”, and so I took that as permission and turned it on.
I continued to ask questions, and slowly the two strange ladies began to provide me with slightly longer answers. My persistence proved to be worthwhile: the language they used was highly idiosyncratic, full of obscure words and strange phrasings which I had not previously encountered. Certainly their dialect was a long, long way from modern demotic Greek.
I was fascinated and tried to probe them more about their background and origins, but here they again became very sparing in their answers. “From around here”; “From the other side of the mountain”; “We have lived here a long time”—these were the kind of responses I received. It was frustrating.
“Do you go down to the village very often?” I finally asked, grasping for some conversational topic I hadn’t yet exhausted, and this time Thena answered at length. Her tone was surprisingly bitter.
“We have no choice but to live. We have needs like anyone else. We must eat, drink. We are are forced to deal with men, but we do not like it. We go to the village only when we must. To buy coffee, for example. We have grown to like coffee.” Interestingly, she used the modern word “καφέ” for “coffee”.
“And why don’t you like to deal with men?” I asked in genuine curiosity.
Thena just shook her head. Her eyes were angry. Glancing at Euraya, I saw that the same was true of her look as well. I became even more ill at ease. I had the feeling that the two women were enduring our visit because they must, but would be very happy to see us go.
Nevertheless, I persisted, conscious of my little cassette whirring as it captured their unusual speech. The paper I could write after this! A whole dialect never previously recorded!
“Have either of you ever been married?” I asked, wondering if their black garb was a sign of widowhood. The response was startling. Thena threw back her head and broke into coarse laughter.
“No,” she said. “We have every reason to hate men.”
“Why is that?” I asked. “Were you… Were you mistreated?”
There was a long, uncomfortable silence. I could feel cold anger emanating from the two women, could almost feel on my skin, like a chilly blast of wind when one’s clothes are already soaked with rain.
Euraya answered at last. Her voice was much softer than Thena’s, but grew stronger as her anger gained expression. “We are in mourning,” she said. “We have been in mourning for a very long time. We are mourning our dear sister, who was raped. Raped and then blamed for the rape, for being beautiful. She was cast out, and horribly disfigured. As were we. She and us, her sisters, all of us, all of us were punished for a crime of which our sister was the innocent victim.”
Father Yannis made a startled sound. It was clear that he had not heard this story before, and that he was shocked by Euraya’s vehemence.
“That is terrible,” I said, as sympathetically as I could. “What happened to your sister after that?” I was truly saddened to hear this tale, which has been common to the experience of women for millennia. Raped and then blamed for the rape.
My sympathy was wasted, however. Thena stood and snatched up our cups.
“Cruelly murdered. Beheaded. By a man,” she said. “Now do you see why we hate men? We have spoken enough. Too much,” she said, her eyes fierce above the black cloth which covered her face.
It was clear that our visit was over and that we were no longer welcome. I regretfully turned off the recorder and stood up with Father Yannis, who was trying to revert to his usual chatter to cover his embarrassment. His words fell into a grim silence and we left.
As Father Yannis and I walked down the track towards the village, we discussed the women and what we had heard.
“The shorter woman—Euraya, isn’t that right?—she talked about her sister being disfigured as a punishment. What do you think that means?”
Father Yannis was thoughtful. “She said that all three of them were cast out and disfigured, but that doesn’t make much sense. An acid attack, perhaps, when all three were together somewhere? Some men are full of sinful rage against women. But such attacks have never been very common in Greece, certainly not in these rural areas. This must have been long ago, when Thena and Euraya were young women.”
I thought about that. “Could it have been during the Second World War? Perhaps a war crime? The Germans invaded Greece, didn’t they?”
“Yes, it could be. Such things, alas, are far too common when men go to war. Rapes and murders, at least. Acid attacks, much less so. But then, I was only speculating about that. We don’t know exactly what occurred.”
“Whatever it was, it might explain why they keep their heads and face almost completely covered. Not modesty, but shame at their disfigurement.”
“Yes, yes, you may be right.” He sighed. “Well, let us think of something more cheerful, Elias. We are late for lunch. Mrs Georgiodou will be cross with us if we’re not there soon.”
Back in his house, we ate very heartily, as Father Yannis’ housekeeper fussed about, bringing us more and more food despite our protestations.
“You are honoured,” Yannis whispered to me after she had set down a huge dish of mousakka in the centre of the table. “She never treats me so well!” Glancing at Yannis’ ample girth, I silently doubted that.
After lunch, as we sat trying to digest the meal and were on the verge of napping, the priest said, “You are welcome to stay another night, my friend, if that would help you in your research. I am not sure however that Thena and Euraya will welcome you back. You seem to have offended them.”
“I’m afraid so. It’s a great pity. I find them fascinating. And their dialect—I’ve never encountered anything remotely similar. It’s strange that it’s so different from the local dialect of the villagers.”
“They did say that they were originally from the other side of the mountain,” Yannis said.
“Yes; but I came from that direction and the dialect in that district isn’t the same as that of the sisters. No, their dialect is unique. I really must persuade them to spend some more time talking to me.”
“Well, well. Wait until tomorrow then. A little time will ease their annoyance. We’ll go up again in the morning.”
However, as it turned out, the next day I had to climb the track by myself. Father Yannis was called away to minister to an old man who lay on his death-bed in a cottage further down the mountainside.
I was, admittedly, apprehensive. The two old women had cut off discussion so abruptly on the previous day. I wasn’t sure how I would be received, particularly without Father Yannis as my intermediary. Still, for the sake of my research—and my own curiosity—I felt that I had to try.
When I approached the house cut into the cliff-face, I stopped outside the gate to the vegetable garden. I had seen that the window of the house was open, the shutters swung to either side, and I could hear voices—the two sisters speaking to each other. It was unprofessional of me, but it was an opportunity too good to miss. I stuffed a handkerchief into the mouth of the bell which hung on the gate and carefully held on to it as I opened the gate and then closed it behind me. Not a sound escaped the bell, and I approached the window as stealthily as I could, turning on my recorder as I went.
As, I say, it was unprofessional. But the chance of capturing a free and open discussion in the women’s unique dialect was enticing. I could see the academic honours awaiting me. And, I said to myself, they hadn’t objected to being recorded on the previous day, they could be said to have granted me permission.
Naturally, the sisters were making no effort to modify their speech to make it more intelligible to other hearers. That make it difficult for me to understand what they were saying, but it was all the better for research purposes. Still, I couldn’t help trying to make sense of their words as I stood there, my back pressed against the stone of the cliff-face, my right hand extended so as to bring the recorder as close to the window as I dared.
“They are busy today,” said Euraya. “So busy, so much movement. They are [incomprehensible]. It drives me mad.”
“Be quiet then, and let me work. They will be calm soon. I have plenty of [incomprehensible] here. Hold still and I will satisfy them.”
What on earth was Thena talking about? Did they have pets of some kind? But I hadn’t seen any animals in the room yesterday.
A long silence followed, and I dithered about whether I should turn off the recorder to save the tape and battery. I really ought to knock on the door and behave more professionally. But a moment later, the conversation resumed.
“There, they are quieter now. Now, it is my turn,” said Thena, and I heard the scrape of a chair being pulled back.
I was intrigued. If I could only see what they were talking about, that would give me better reference when I had to annotate the recording. I decided to take a peek in through the window. I could lie and say that I had knocked and they hadn’t heard me.
That was my undoing.
I edged my face towards the window. I saw the iron stove, the side of the table, a black-clad figure standing, a hand reaching out to a bowl, picking up white, wriggling things. What were they? I squinted, trying to see more clearly. Were they…? Yes. Maggots! I recognised them with a shock of disgust.
Euraya was picking up live maggots and feeding them to… Something in the chair. Someone in the chair, long braided hair free from restraint, the thick braids tangled, writhing…
Not braided hair. Snakes. A dense cluster of snakes, their tiny heads weaving back and forth, darting into Euraya’s hand to snatch at the maggots. Snakes which were… It couldn’t be, but it was. The snakes were growing from Thena’s head.
I couldn’t help myself. I gave a gasp of horror and astonishment. Euraya whirled and turned towards me as I stood at the window.
I saw her ghastly face, saw her own writhing mane of snakes. In that instant, I knew the name of their dead sister, knew just how old the sisters were, knew how long they had been disfigured, knew the name of the man who had killed their sister and how. I knew everything.
Staring at the gorgon’s hideous face, as I was overwhelmed with terrible fear, I felt my limbs stiffen and darkness fill my sight.
I was petrified.
© Copyright 2021 David R. Grigg. All rights reserved.
About This Story
I was fascinated by Greek mythology as a child and read all the standard stories, including that of Perseus. Digging a little deeper as an adult I found out about the sad history of the monster he so memorably defeated, and when I was asked to write a story for a collection based on myths and legends, it occurred to me to wonder: What happened to her sisters? It’s these “what ifs” which are often the seed of a good story.
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