“Because the Lord loves fair judgment. He will never abandon those devoted to Him but He will protect them. Thus, under the divine protection they will always be safe…” My godfather reads psalms to me. His voice is loud and clear, coming from deep down in his throat. “They will be the heirs of the Land of Promise and they will permanently settle there throughout the centuries…”
I don’t always understand what he says though he reads everything very slowly. It’s some words I don’t get. Heirs and Land of Promise are some but I don’t want to interrupt him and pester him with questions. The few times I did he used even more difficult words to make it clear and I just nodded, pretending I understood. Once I dared ask him to explain a second time. He looked at me and his eyes became round. I decided never to do it again.
Godfather reminds me of papa Nikolas when he chants at Sunday liturgy. He opens his mouth in a capital O, his black teeth at the back showing. My godfather’s teeth are yellow at the back. Mama says they’re gold. “That’s a precious mouth,” I told her. And then I saw all Mama’s white teeth as she laughed, “It is… it is…” She caught me staring at that dreamy look on her face. “So knowledgeable!” she said. “He knows the Holy Grail by heart, can you believe it?”
Godfather takes off his fat-rimmed glasses and asks: “Do you know what we have to do to enter the Land of Promise, boy?” I move my head left to right, right to left. “Well, we have to be patient, follow God’s orders, go to church, pray. That’s what’s going to give us access to the Land of Promise and all its wealth.” He drags the “all” a bit and makes a big circle in the air with both arms. “Now, go to bed and remember to say your prayers. Repent and you’ll be saved.” That’s another riddle: repent. I don’t ask. Go brush my teeth and tuck myself under my blanket. When I remember I forgot to say my prayers it’s too late. Too cozy to get up.
I hear giggles and murmurs from the living room where Mama and godfather are. Since my pateras left us, my godfather visits almost every evening, after closing his corner shop. He wants me to be raised in a healthy way, he says, like all other kids with a Pateras. He said he would be—another tricky word—a surrogate father. A kind of substitute for the one I lost, he explained when I asked him what that meant. Mama says my real Pateras never loved us. He went to live in Athens with another woman. I barely remember his face.
“Is Barba Elias your real Pateras?” Fotis, my best friend from school asks me one day. We’re sitting on a wood bench in the school yard. He’s shading his eyes with his right hand, watching two boys kick a ball.
“Barba Elias, your godfather,” he says, his eyes following the ball.
“Are you crazy? Don’t you know who my pateras is? My godfather is a surrogate father.”
“A what?” he squints at me.
“A… oh, you’ll never understand.”
“No, tell me! What?”
“A substitute for my pateras,” I say and Fotis goggles at me. “A second Pateras, not the real thing.”
“That’s not what I heard.”
“What did you hear?” I say, watching the ball roll and wedge between the legs of the bench.
“Mama said Barba Elias is your real Pateras.” He kneels and pulls the ball from under the bench.
“Then your mama is stupid.” I stand up, kick the ball from between his hands and dash to the stairs that lead to our classroom. I don’t talk to him for the rest of the day.
First off, my godfather is bald and has a huge belly. He’s got black eyes and mine are green, he’s got a snub nose and mine is small and thin, he’s got three daughters and I’m a boy. Grandma said he’s a thelycopateras, a father of girls only. No boys. Isn’t that enough proof that he’s not my real pateras?
When I tell Mama what Fotis has told me she gets red in the face. “They’re just jealous of you. They envy your good luck. Having a godfather like him! He brings you anything you desire. They’ve got none of the things you have. Fotis’s godfather gave him an orange for his name day. An orange only, nothing else! See what I mean?” She rubs the frying pan hard with a wire. “Elias is better than any of your schoolmates’ fathers. Which of these lazybones reads their kids books at night, eh? Nobody!” she spits the word, her yellow rubber-gloved right hand slashing the air. “You shouldn’t pay attention to malevolent gossip.” There’s another one, malevolent. She must be catching it from him.
When I go to bed I try to picture my pateras’s face. Remember what he looked like. I can’t. Mama has shredded all his pictures into small square pieces and thrown them into the blazing fire. What I know is that he was good for nothing, as Mama always says, and that all he did was eat and sleep. I like doing both so he must be my real pateras.
I feel my stomach bubble all day today. It’s my birthday and godfather will be here in a minute or so. He’s promised to bring me a pair of new leather shoes. “Perfect for Sunday church,” he said. Mama has been tidying the house. She’s even hung new lilac curtains and dusted every little corner, including the spaces above and beneath the fridge. The bathroom tiles shine and smell of soap and the kitchen sink of lemon. She’s wearing a yellow sleeveless dress with a big green belt around her waist and a red tulip just above her right breast. Her hair is long and shiny brown. She looks so beautiful. And she sings a Greek folk song, “Dress up, tart up, lissome girl; dress up, tart up, girl; so that you will appear to the groom like a garden and an orchard.”
When godfather crosses the main door of our house, we both know, Mama and I, that something’s wrong. He forces a tiny smile, not his usual, toothy one, and stretches his cold hand for a handshake, wishing me chronia polla. He’s got a big brown paper bag pinched under his armpit and holds a bottle of wine with his left hand. Hands them both to Mama and goes straight to the couch. Godfather looks serious for the rest of the evening, his eyes often sleepy like Grandma’s were just after the stroke. Mama offers him all kinds of things, chocolate cake, glyko tou koutalio with syrupy bitter orange, vanilia in a glass of cold water, coffee, homemade lemonade, homemade sour cherry juice, but he wants nothing. Only a glass of wine.
“I just came to wish the boy happy birthday. I can’t stay long,” he mutters.
“You can’t leave Christophoro without a psalm today. Not on his birthday.”
“Oh, alright, alright,” he pats my head. We get up and head for my room and I glance at the box with my shoes left unopened on the dining room table. He hasn’t even told me to open my present. I’ll do it as soon as he leaves. Mama says it’s rude to open presents while guests are still in the house.
“See Lord the humiliation and my toil and forgive my sins. See Lord my enemies, because they grow more and they hate me. Save my soul and don’t allow my being shamed by them because I have hopes in you. Save me Lord from sorrows and dangers,” my godfather reads but I can’t see his gold teeth tonight. He looks tired and hardly opens his mouth. When he finishes reading, he tucks me in bed and soon after I hear him talk to mama in the living room, their voices growing louder and louder, like the rumble of thunder. A bit later I hear the main door bang shut. I wonder what humiliation and toil mean.
In the morning Mama tells me to go to godfather’s corner shop and buy some stuff. A kilo of dry beans, four cans of Nestle milk and two packets of MISKO spaghetti, No. 10, the thin ones. She’s got them all written down on a piece of paper in case I forget. Doesn’t give me any money. She never does. “I’ll pay him myself” she says when I ask. “You’ll lose the money.”
The shop smells of detergent and ground coffee. I like the smell. I take a deep breath and give godfather the list. He puts on his glasses and gives it a glance. “Done your homework for tomorrow Christophore?” he says.
“Good boy. Wait here till I fetch you the things,” he licks his index finger and thumb and flicks a grey paper bag from a shelf behind his chair. I take the time to browse the shelves for the colorful lollipops, all shapes of gums and lucky bags with toys; nobody knows what they are until they open the bags. That’s why they’re called lucky bags. I wonder what godfather will treat me today. He drops the spaghetti packets onto the brown desk and rolls the four cans of milk onto it. He then opens a big white sack next to the huge silver fridge and scoops some dry beans into the paper bag.
Gregoris, a classmate of mine, steps in. He’s from the lower part of the village, his house small like a hut for goats. I’ve been there once with Mama. We gave Gregoris’s younger brothers some clothes that didn’t fit me anymore.
“Can I have two tins of milk?” Gregoris wipes his nose.
“Have you got the money?” Godfather tapes the paper bag shut.
“Mama told me to take these on tick.”
“Tell your mama no more tick here. You owe me too much.” He puts my things in a blue plastic bag and smiles at me.
“But…” Gregoris bites the nail of his thumb.
“No buts. Go now, go!” Godfather shoos him out of the shop with both hands, the skin under his jaw fluttering. Gregoris almost falls down the steps and I hurry out too, one foot on the first of the five marble steps when he calls back. “Christophore, wait! Take this lucky bag. It’s yours.” He hands me the red bag with superman and his huge fist. I take it with my right hand and hold the bag with the groceries with my left. Press the lucky bag close to my chest. I watch Gregoris walk to his house, his trousers way above his ankles, while my mind is in the bag. I fumble at it, try to guess what’s hiding behind the glossy paper.
“He beats her, you know,” Fotis tells me on our way to school one Tuesday morning.
“My godfather? He’d never do such a thing. You don’t know him.”
“He does, he does!” He’s stopped walking and looks me in the face. “People heard her scream. Their neighbors, the Kountouris, told mama they hear him swear at her and then some bangs and she crying and yowling…it’s true, I’m telling you,” he spits saliva as he talks.
“I don’t believe you,” I say. “You’re just jealous of me,” I rush to school, leaving him behind.
I tell mama. Have to warn her. What if he beats her too?
“Your godfather’s wife is no good. She’s a paranoid.”
“What’s a paranoid?”
“She sees things that don’t exist. Accuses your godfather of bad things he hasn’t done. He’s a good man. A very good man but she doesn’t know it. She’s the last to appreciate it.” She snaps some green beans and scrapes their threads off with a knife.
“But I repented,” godfather recites that evening. “I confessed to the Lord. I never hid or covered my sin. And then you instantly forgave, Lord, my disrespect and obliterated the guilt of my heart. Because you show mercy on us…” The words sound serious and clang in my head. “You are the joy of my soul. I hear you answer to me, Lord, and say: I will enlighten and lead you to the proper way…all faithful and judicious people rejoice and exult, glorify the name of God, all of you who have an honest heart.” I watch his open mouth, huge and dark like an empty wine barrel, and fear his dark cave will swallow Mama, me and everything. His breath is cold on my cheek and his hand heavy on my head.
As soon as he leaves the room I lift my blanket and get up. I tiptoe to the door and open it slowly. I have to go and see if mama is OK. She might be in danger. I must protect her. I’m the man of the house now that Pateras is gone, Grandma said. I go down the wood stairs, careful not to make any creaky sounds, and listen. My blood freezes when I hear mama crying.
“I’ll get rid of her, I promise. She won’t stand between us, don’t worry. She can have the kids I offered her. I made her a mother. She should be grateful to me for that. I’ll give her the house and come and live here, with you and our son. We’ll be happy together, you’ll see. You’ll have everything you wish.” Mama keeps crying.
I tiptoe up the stairs and shut my bedroom door behind me. I turn on the light. My patent leather lace-ups peek at me from the corner of the room. His present. I pick them up, open the window, unlatch the wood shutters and get ready to fling them into the garden. But something stops my arm. It trembles and can’t move. I let the shoes drop to the floor and close the window. I slide my fingers along the shiny skin. Pull at the laces, tug at the tongue and slip them on. They squelch as they rub each other’s noses, like two busy mice talking. I take them off and hold them close to my chest, like an orphan child. I fall asleep with them in my arms.
Konstantina Sozou-Kyrkou lives in Athens, Greece. She has an MA in creative writing from Lancaster University in the U.K. and has been published in the anthology Even Birds are Chained to the Sky as well as in a variety of online and print journals. She is currently finishing her first collection of short stories set in rural 20th century Greece.