On our Olympic Airways flight from Athens to Rethymnon, Crete, I sat on the aisle in a three-seat row, my wife, Diana, in the middle seat beside me. The window seat was occupied by a white-haired, wiry old man with several well-filled K-Mart shopping bags at his knees. He told us he was a widower returning from one of his periodic visits to America with gifts for his grandchildren. We told him we were visiting Crete for the first time to spend Easter with relatives we had never seen before. The old man wiped a tear from his eye and wished us well.
A short while later we began our descent toward the port city of Rethymnon. As the swirling clouds cleared and we glimpsed the ground, a murmur of awe and delight rose from the passengers at the windows. The old man motioned us to his window. I looked down at my first sight of Crete, the birthplace of my father and mother. Clearly visible in the midst of Homer’s wine-dark sea, the island was a dazzling and radiant panorama of flowers.
“The garden of Crete…” the old man whispered and fervently made the sign of the cross.
The garden of Crete…Once, in a memory from my childhood, I heard the island referred to in that way. When spring arrived in Crete, my mother told me, it was as if the island were a spacious garden bursting with flowers.
My mother, Stella Christoulakis, was born in the village of Nipos, in the western part of the island near Chania. My father, the Reverend Mark Petrakis, came from the village of Argyroupolis in the mountains above Rethymnon. In 1916, my parents emigrated from Crete to America, where my father had been assigned as a priest to a parish of young Cretan coal miners in Price, UT. They brought with them four of my brothers and sisters.
I have in my possession a faded, treasured photograph taken of my family in Crete about the time they began their journey to America. My father wears a tall, black stovepipe hat common to Greek Orthodox priests of the period, a long, black cassock mantling him from throat to ankles. My mother, a small comely woman with thick, long hair braided and then tied up into a bun, stands beside him. My two brothers and two sisters, ranging in age from six to twelve, cluster around them.
The family remained in Utah until my father was reassigned to a parish in Savannah, GA. A few years later they moved to St. Louis, MO, where I was born. That same year they made a final move to Chicago, where the last child in our family, another sister, was born.
Now, as our flight descended toward Cretan soil, I recalled how the constellations of my childhood glittered with stories of that tragic and lovely island. The songs, tales, and proverbs of Crete passed from my parents to me. Although I had been born in America, I had always felt a part of me belonged to that faraway land.
Gorgios, the young taxi driver we hired at the airport, drove us through a tangle of cars, bicycles, and motorbikes that clogged the streets of Rethymnon. On the sidewalks, crowds milled about the stalls of peddlers selling vegetables and fruit. In outdoor cafes people sat and sipped coffee and drank small glasses of ouzo and raki.
Along with black headbands, Cretan men wore the vraka or black baggy pants that swirled around their black boots as they walked. In the sash of their waistbands, some carried ivory-handled daggers inlaid with silver.
They stared at us as the taxi passed, realizing we were strangers. Their expressions were wary, sometimes even hostile. The centuries of slavery and war the Cretans have endured and the devastating occupation of the island by German troops after the Battle of Crete in the Second World War have left the islanders resentful and rebellious. Cretans, my father told me, make staunch friends and unrelenting enemies.
We left the city, the road winding up into the majestic mountain ranges that run the length of the island. To the west were the Levka Ori (White Mountains). In the center of the island was Mount Ida. To the east was the Dhikti range where Zeus, ruler of the heavens and father of other gods, was born.
Aside from their stark imposing beauty, the mountains affected the island’s history by isolating regions and villages and by setting up a natural barrier against invaders.
Above the peaks of the highest mountains was the glowing sun, radiating a light that Greek writers from the ancient dramatists to the modern poets sought to describe.
When words could not capture its resplendence, they assigned the sun the attributes of a god and worshiped it. The warrior Ajax, about to perish in battle, cried out to die in the light. When the painter El Greco left Crete for Spain, the skies he painted retained the luminous light above the island he had left behind.
Then there were the flowers. Viewing them from the height of the plane was an enchanting spectacle. But to see them close was to have our senses overwhelmed.
Flowers curled across stone walls, adorned the small whitewashed churches on the slopes of the mountains, trailed along the trellises of houses, bloomed from window boxes, softened the spiked plants and thorny bushes. Their aroma filled the air with a dizzying fragrance of carnations and bougainvillea.
Meanwhile, whatever mountain road we traveled, we were never out of sight of the sea for long. The water would be hidden for a few moments and then as the taxi veered around a precipitous cliff of rock, the sea came stunningly into view, an expanse of turquoise-blue water stretching toward the horizon.
But the tranquil surface of the sea was deceptive. From the time of the ancient Greeks, beneath the placid waters lay the wrecks of sunken ships and the ruins of lost cities.
Twilight had fallen as we drove slowly into Argyroupolis, on the surface resembling so many other villages we already had passed. Chickens clucked and scurried to escape the wheels of the auto. A few dogs barked. People hurried from their houses to herald our arrival. All the villagers had been waiting and they greeted us with buoyant cries of “Kalos Orisate” Welcome! Welcome!”
A small group of children ran to my uncle’s house to let the family know we had arrived. As we emerged from the taxi, our first cousins Antonia and Yannis Couides and their daughters, Eleni and Melpa, came from the house to greet us.
How fulfilling it was to embrace relatives we had never seen before but that we felt instantly we knew. Perhaps it was the cards, letters, and snapshots sent back and forth across the ocean for years. Perhaps it was the resemblances to family members in America. As we hugged, laughing and talking at the same time, the villagers clustered around us, sharing the jubilation of the reunion as though they were related to us as well.
I asked about my uncle. Father Joseph, Antonia’s father. She told us he had been anxiously awaiting our arrival all day and she had finally prevailed upon him to rest. He was asleep in his bed in the kitchen.
As we entered the house, the old priest woke with a start. He scrambled from the bed, his countenance anxious and apprehensive, as if he feared our arrival was a dream that would escape him once he woke. Then he raised his arms to embrace me fervently.
Father Joseph was in his middle eighties with a strong, stocky body. He had snow-white hair and a white beard. In America he would have made an authentic St. Nick.
Although he had been retired from his parish church for almost ten years—another priest serving in his place – in honor of our visit he planned to participate in the liturgy that evening.
Now he tugged at my arm, asking me to accompany him to church so he could prepare for the service. Diana, with Antonia, Yannis, and their daughters, would follow later.
The church was located in the lower village and to get there we had to descend about a hundred stone steps. Although the curve of the sky gleamed with stars, the night was pitch black. Father Joseph told me he had been descending and ascending those steps all his life but I still marveled at how confidently he skipped down, as agile and surefooted as a mountain goat. Uncertain of my own footing, I kept falling behind until Father Joseph returned for me and took my arm and led me carefully and safely down the stairs.
When we entered the small village church, only a few somber old men and old women waited silently before the icons. After Father Joseph introduced me to Father Stavros, a dark-haired, dark-bearded young priest, he led me to an alcove occupied by Barba Leontis, a lean old psalti (cantor), wearing a faded, black cassock that hung loosely on his gaunt frame. Father Joseph introduced me as his nephew from America and asked Barba Leontis to allow me to sit beside him.
The first parishioners began to arrive, strong, sun-darkened men and women, dressed in their best clothing. The lovely girls and handsome boys had well-scrubbed faces and necks. A row of old patriarchs, stiff-necked as roosters, took their places against the wall. A coven of black-garbed old women loomed like tragic figures in an ancient chorus. A black-haired beauty, exquisite as Helen of Troy, entered church with the regal walk of a princess.
Many of their faces reminded me of parishioners from my father’s parish in Chicago. I stared at them, shaken at the resemblances, so precise that I was able to affix names from my past to many of them.
The services began. Father Joseph emerged from the sanctuary to make the sign of the cross over the congregation.
He wore scarlet and gold vestments I remembered had once belonged to my father. As the vestments grew worn, my mother sent them to Father Joseph and he wore them for years. He looked toward me and when he saw that I recognized the vestments, his face flashed an endearing smile.
Beside me, Barba Leontis began to chant one of the old Byzantine hymns, and on the opposite side of the church, two young cantors who had taken up positions across from us intoned a response. The old cantors voice was husky and grating, while the voices of the young cantors were strong and clear.
At an early point in the liturgy, Barba Leontis grasped my arm and pointed to the hymnal. ”Sing,” he said to me in a low, urgent voice.
I stared at him in shock. He must have mistakenly thought that Father Joseph had brought me to sit beside him because I was also a cantor from America. I struggled to explain that I had never been a cantor, only an altar boy.
The old man attributed my stammering explanation to some modesty with which he had scant patience. He once more sternly admonished me to “Sing!” His voice had risen and from below us in the church, a number of parishioners stared up at us.
Throwing prudence to the winds, drawing on memories of my father’s church and its hymns, in a low, nervous voice, I started to chant the music. The young cantors grimaced and sneered. Barba Leontis glared at them and urged me on.
Father Stavros and Father Joseph joined voices in chanting the liturgy, the cantors responding. I moved closer to the hymn book, struggling to decipher words and music, trying to imitate Barba Leontis. No one in the church seemed to understand that I hardly knew what I was doing, so my confidence grew and my voice became stronger. I felt possessed suddenly of an awesome Cretan force and power.
At a moment when my voice resonated robustly across the church, my wife, Diana, Antonia, Yannis, and their daughters entered the church. Diana heard my voice before she saw me and across the distance that separated us, I witnessed her shock. She had never heard me sing in church before and she must have thought it an Easter miracle. She bent her head, and quickly made the sign of the cross. Beside her Yannis beamed at me proudly.
I had experienced many Easters as a child, then as a youth and an adult. But none of them equaled the beauty and emotion of that Easter night in the village in Crete. I felt bound in some irrevocable way to the villagers. The church, candles, incense, the beloved face of my uncle and the stern countenance of the young priest, all fused with my past. I felt, as well, the mystical presence of the night that loomed around us, sky, earth, and water linking the present to the mythic past.
At midnight when the lights were extinguished and the church was hurled into darkness, I waited, trembling with an excitement and anticipation I had not felt since childhood. Father Joseph emerged from the sanctuary holding the first candle, its frail light glinting across his white beard. From that solitary candle other candles were lighted and flared into flame until several hundred candles gleamed like stars on the waves of night.
When it came time to express the salutation, ”Christos Anesti! (Christ is Risen!)” I felt the words bursting from my soul, “Christos Anesti!” I cried to Barba Leontis. “Alithos Anesti! (Truly, He is Risen!)” his hoarse voice cried in response.
When we emerged from the church at the end of the liturgy, the night glittered with numerous fires as villagers in surrounding mountain Villages burned great bonfires engulfing effigies of Judas. The night also cracked and echoed with the thunder of hundreds of guns being fired in celebration.
We ascended the steps toward the upper village, Antonia and the girls holding their flickering candles. In the house we sat down to the festive Easter dinner that concluded the forty days of fasting. I was given the baked lamb’s head as a special delicacy, which I was unable to eat. After several futile attempts to convince me what a treat it was, Father Joseph gave up and attacked it with gusto, grinning at me, savoring every bite while little specks of lamb’s eyes glittered in his beard.
WARM BON VOYAGE
Sated with food, Diana and I were given the principal bed, belonging to Yannis and Antonia. It had been built by my great-grandfather in the previous century. For more than a hundred years it had provided a haven for family births and deaths. My father had been born in the bed and my grandparents died in the bed that symbolized the continuity of the family.
I slept restlessly for a while and woke to a light rain striking the roof. I imagined my father as a boy listening to the rain. I rose then and made my way outside to stand on the porch. The earth around me was silent and shadowed, the first frail light breaking over the monoliths of mountains. In that moment I witnessed the dawn in a way I had never experienced it before, the night not yet relinquishing its power, the day not yet gaining ascendancy. Darkness and light played out an ancient drama of confrontation before my eyes. Finally, wearily, I returned to bed and slept.
In the morning I woke to the pealing of countless bells. They rang in Argyroupolis and resounded from numerous other villages. We ate bread and cheese and drank warm milk to their peelings and echoes.
When the young taxi driver, Gorgios, returned to take us back to the airport in Rethymnon, our family and most of the villagers gathered to bid us farewell. I embraced my cousins and the children, wondering with melancholy, when I would ever see them again. Yet I was grateful at how much intimacy and love had been fostered in the space of a single night.
The last person to whom I said good-bye was Father Joseph. The old man held me at arm’s length for a long time, staring into my face as if to memorize every bone and strip of flesh, because he understood we probably never would see each other again. Then he drew me slowly, breathlessly, into his arms. As he hugged me tight, I smelled the scents of incense and candle wax on his cassock and felt the trembling of his flesh. Finally, he whispered a blessing for our safe journey home and hugged me one last time.
We climbed into the taxi, carrying the parcels of bread, cheese, and the container of olive oil they pressed upon us. When we started to drive slowly away, the villagers began to wave. Father Joseph raised his hand one last time, as if beseeching us to remain. As the taxi started down the road, a small band of children ran alongside. They escorted us through the village, scattering the chickens, agitating the dogs. When the children could no longer keep up, they stopped and waved their hands vigorously and cried their final farewells.
As we drove deeper into the mountains, their shrill young voices carried in melodious cries across the morning. We could still hear their voices and the distant, peeling bells of Crete long after the village was lost to our sight.