“Your father crapped himself,” croaks her aunt’s ghost. “Go clean him up!”
“Yes, Aunt Katina.” Father craps himself every other hour; Maro needs to finish the bills first. But the numbers won’t add up. Father’s pension isn’t enough anymore.
“Such a worthless daughter,” mutters the ghost. “I envy your mother, who’s not around to watch!”
Of all the ghosts in this damned house, Aunt Katina had to be the talkative one. Maro shoves the bills into a drawer. The chair creaks as she stands, the floor creaks as she walks, and the ever-flowing mist of ethereal forms parts as she crosses the low-roofed, dimly-lit rooms to Father’s room.
If he’s soiled himself, he didn’t notice. Nor has his mother’s ghost, Maro’s grandmother, who sits beside him knitting with ghostly yarn and needles. Every night, all night. Only once did Maro spot Yaya standing over Father’s head. Her ethereal lips moved, forming voiceless words, as she did before the cancer that robbed her of breath robbed her of life too. Was she singing? Praying? Spinning one of her many tales, her own bedtime stories with threads from many eras—the Twelve, the Trinity, before? Many gods have trodden these lands, many faiths merged and mingled, and Yaya knew tales of them all.
Maro misses her tales and her voice. Now Yaya’s form flickers when Maro turns on the bedside lamp, as if startled by the sudden illumination, and fades back into the shadows. Father only mumbles, drowsy after his evening pills. Where has his brilliant mind gone, his deep voice, his laughter? Into his overflowing diaper and his soiled hands?
Maro longs for past times, easier times, when flunked homework was her worst fear. Now, decades later, the dust on every surface in the room mocks her yearning. That same dust seems to sparkle and rise into the air and swirl into the ghostly forms, and she likes to track their languid journeys through her parents’ house. A respite for her tired mind from the daily tasks that involve latex gloves and diapers.
There, a ghostly cat darts after a long-gutted mouse who sprints into a hole. Yaya is back, spinning another tale with the clickety-clack of ghostly needles, a tongue Maro hasn’t yet deciphered. All around, forms with no faces stroll through Father’s bedchamber. Ethereal flies mingle with real ones, their buzz no less annoying.
Father’s eyes flutter when she pulls fresh sheets up to his chin, to keep the April chill away. A heartbeat later, he snores. Maro piles up the trash and the soiled linen.
“Goodnight, Father. Goodnight, Yaya,” she tells the ghost, and almost drops her load.
A new ghost shimmers beside Yaya. It’s a young woman, dressed in a sleeveless floral dress, plump, with a pleasant round face and short, curly hair. Maro had a similar dress when she was around this ghost’s age—most girls did, back in the eighties. But she doesn’t remember this late-hour visitor. Could she be one of Father’s former patients? Her ghost wouldn’t be the first to come and pay their respects to their now-bedridden physician.
Maro’s sigh ripples through the mist of dust and ghosts. Does it matter, who this one is? She’ll be gone shortly—like most of them are. Even Mother’s ghost doesn’t linger—thank the Virgin it doesn’t. Once, Maro caught a glimpse of her mother’s face with her lips sewn shut, like something out of a horror film—like punishment for a sin too terrible to speak of.
Maro shuts her eyes, balls her fists. It wasn’t her. Mother is with God now. Not… elsewhere. When Maro looks up, the new ghost has vanished.
Yaya has stopped her knitting, her empty eyes now staring into thin air.
“Go get a job, you lazy sow,” Aunt Katina croaks overhead.
“Good morning to you,” mumbles Maro over the stove, warming up Father’s tea.
From across the house her father cries that he’s hungry, and hits the wall with his cane. It’s the way the world works in these parts: dutiful daughters look after aging parents, cook for and feed them. And, if, by chance, one extra sedative falls into Father’s handful of pills, no harm done. Better this way, calm and snoring, his hands away from his catheter and his cane away from her back.
Now she needs to find work.
Maro zips her jacket up to the chin. What job can she possibly find in this god-forsaken town? Things were different when she was growing up. When the trade route from Athens and Piraeus to Bulgaria passed through, before the interstate, when the young folk hadn’t left, before austerity. Not anymore. There are no tourist sites to exploit around here; only the desolate ruins of the Nekyomanteion, the Oracle where ancient priests consulted the dead. Just a field of broken white marble now. And the dead still linger, but create no jobs. Especially none for middle-aged florists. Madonna knows she liked her job—a respectable lady’s employment, Aunt Katina used to say. But she couldn’t even keep that job, could she? As if it were her fault the bank foreclosed on the shop and she had to move back home, when the economy took a plunge ten years ago.
Maro stops ten steps out of the garden door. Deep breaths. Wipe your eyes. The neighbors think her weird already, their gossip following her since childhood. She doesn’t want to hear them today, the ignorant, blissful fools. How she’s unkempt, and a spinster, and wind-blown, and light-of-shadow, and bird-brained for consorting with the Unseen—with everything that stretches beyond their simple minds and simple lives: the winks of the nymphs and dryads, the shuffling of undead feet at the crossroads, the many ghosts of her house and every house she visits, and the spirits of soldiers of too many wars—those who died, and those who didn’t and still wished for death, mourning their lost innocence.
Will she too one day join them, seeking some peace for her troubled soul?
Anger swells within her with each determined step downhill, so Maro keeps her eyes on the ground. Enough of the Unseen already. She turns right past the Church of St. Sophia, where once, before the Romans, the Byzantines, and the Ottomans, Athena’s temple stood. The town’s post office isn’t far; the clerk there, Martha, Aunt Katina’s old schoolmate, is Queen Gossip-monger in these parts. If there’s work to be found—under-the-table, discreet work—she’ll know. Especially now, with many expats flocking back into town for Easter.
One deep inhale to let the crisp April breeze cool her flushed face, and Maro pushes the post office’s door open. It’s empty, this early, but for the clerk and one of her friends. They sit at a side table sipping coffee from the shop across the street. They hold their ever-rolling tongues the moment she steps in, and exchange a glance.
Gut-knotting envy robs Maro of breath. She envies all that they are and all that they have: their lacquered nails, the overpriced coffee, their perfectly plucked eyebrows, the hours they can waste. She enters their domain a beggar, famished and practically barefoot in cheap sneakers. And like a proper beggar, Maro swallows her pride and begs. The remnants of her dignity peel off her with every cutting remark of Martha’s honeyed tongue, but she stands her ground.
Ten minutes later, after endless not-really-pleasantries about Father’s health and how things are tough all-around, Maro leaves with an address. One of her old schoolmates—Zoe something, a retired school teacher now—needs domestic help to put her recently deceased uncle’s house in order. Maro doesn’t recognize the name—perhaps she was a year or two older than Maro? But her school years are lifetimes away, and her memories of that time as elusive as the ghosts in her home.
She passes gardens in early bloom, lilacs and daisies and the first buds of roses. The prettiest roses bloomed around St. George’s Feast on April 23rd, Mother used to say. Father’s nameday, and their home flooded with spring’s first roses every year. Not anymore. Not since Mother died, and even before that. When did Spring diminish in their home? She thinks… she thinks that the chill entered shortly before she left for Athens to learn her trade. And with every passing season, the chill claimed more of Mother and Aunt Katina, and now gnaws on Father.
Blessed be the Virgin for having spared Yaya. That remarkable woman, whose every last wrinkle shone with kindness, passed away when Maro was barely a teenager. The first ghost she ever saw—Yaya appeared to her shortly after her passing, one crisp April evening with the lilacs in full bloom. And now, their scent and the sound of Yaya’s needles are like a balm to her troubled soul.
Zoe’s uncle’s home is a two-story building with a small garden filled with lilac bushes. Perhaps it is a divine sign that she’ll be welcomed here, and she’ll find what she needs. Her feet are lighter when she climbs the few steps two at a time, and her knock on the door is steady and brisk.
The woman who answers the door wears the face of the ghost who visited Father last night.
No, Zoe doesn’t have—nor did she have—an older sister. No, she never had a cousin or daughter who died young. From a careful glance at family pictures on the walls, Zoe’s late mother looks nothing like last night’s visitor. And Zoe has never been in any war. Maro bites her tongue so as not to ask Zoe’s uncle; conversing with ghosts won’t make for a good first impression.
Now Zoe, plump and grey-haired, limps around her own dust and ghosts. Her steps are slow, cautious, as if not to disturb the gliding forms around her. She holds herself with a slight hunch, remnant of a youth when puberty bred shame. Maro remembers that time all too well herself. Breasts should be covered either by loose clothes or hunched backs, so to not attract attention. No man cares for middle-aged, saggy breasts now, but shame cemented their backbones in this respectable curve.
“…just some light dusting, and boxing everything that needs to be donated and stored and…”
Maro wants to pay attention to Zoe’s mellow voice, but her eyes keep darting back to her uncle’s ghost, who’s lounging in his worn armchair, scratching a crotch that shouldn’t itch. It’s been years since she last saw him; he was friends with Father once, in another life, when friends and family gathered at their garden on Easter Sunday for skewered lamb and wine and dance and song. Back then, his face shone with the deep, robust color of one bottle of wine too many. His ample belly overflowed from pants worn too low, and he was the first to lend his sonorous voice to every song.
And now, his ghost shines with a sickly yellow tint: his eyes, his skin, his fingertips, and he wears stained clothes three sizes too big. The gold ring with the big red stone hangs loose from his little finger, his nail crooked and claw-like, but picks his ethereal nose with the devotion of his living self. Hatred glints in eyes deeply set on his emaciated face; hatred and disgust at his niece. He keeps mouthing one word, but no sound comes out.
Virgin help them, is he calling her a whore?
“… and some help with the groceries. Would twenty per day be sufficient?” Zoe’s voice quivers when she articulates the number, as if talking money is rude.
“Yes!” Maro doesn’t care whether it’s rude, whether this house too crawls with ghosts. Hell, she wouldn’t care if Zoe’s dead uncle spent eternity calling her a whore. Dignity is overvalued. With Easter Sunday two weeks away, perhaps she’ll manage something resembling a feast.
“Good.” Zoe smiles back, a timid smile on a face that seems more accustomed to grief than mirth. “I don’t suppose you can start today?”
“Ah.” Maro checks her watch; almost two hours since she slipped Father that pill. He should be waking soon. If he doesn’t see her when he wakes, there’s no calming him down afterwards. She rubs her arms; the recent bruises from his cane still ache. And God forbid he try to get up and break his brittle bones. “I need to go check on Father. But that won’t be an issue tomorrow.”
For a second, Zoe’s face darkens. Gliding shadows curtain her face. For a heartbeat, Zoe’s dead face stares back at Maro: opaque ayes, ashen skin, her head bandaged in greying shroud. Zoe’s uncle cackles.
Maro thanks Zoe and flees. Virgin help her, she’ll come back. She must.
And so she does return, with Father tucked in safely and tightly in his bed. Aunt Katina doesn’t like it one bit.
“What kind of a daughter are you? How dare you put your father in restraints?” Perched upon the framed tapestry over Father’s bed, she wags a ghostly finger. “I’m so glad your poor mother isn’t—”
“Oh, shut up!” Mother? A ghost too faint even by ghostly standards glides over the bed. Only the thick threads of lips sewn together are clear.
“Ah, truth hurts, doesn’t it?” Aunt Katina crows.
Hah! Truth! More like rudeness. But dear auntie has a point—ghosts, when they choose to speak, cannot lie. Yaya told her so before she died—some rule of God’s creation none of them are privy to. What other rules she has yet to discover?
Maro tests the restraints. Not too tight, to dig into his flesh, but—hopefully—not too loose either.
“I’ll tell him,” coos the ghost. “Once he wakes up and you’re not here, I’ll tell him what you did.” Her voice quivers with the promise of pain.
“So tell him.” Maro grabs her purse and heads to the door. Fathers aims his cane at her for imaginary slights every day anyway. “If you want me to stay with Father, why don’t you go work? You know, work? The one thing you never did in your life?”
“That’s why I got a husband,” screeches the ghost as Maro opens the door. “You know, the one thing you never had in your life?”
Maro slams the door and heads downhill, her eyes on the ground, her palms balled to fists by her hips. Aunt Katina’s last retort burns her deeper than it should. Snorting like a distressed bull, she heads to the small grocery store to pick up the things in Zoe’s list.
Inside the store, she almost drops her basket when she bumps into Gossip Queen Martha at the turn of an aisle. Today, she has her oldest daughter in tow, Maro’s former classmate, Nina. Nina has her eyes and thumbs glued on her phone, her hair dyed Viking blonde.
Martha measures Maro from greying hair to worn sneakers. “So, you took the job? How magnanimous of you. I assume your father is better now? Will we see him in church? I miss his voice singing Kassiani’s hymn. The best cantor we’ve ever had.”
“We’ll see.” Maro evades an answer. Father did enjoy volunteering as a cantor in Papa-Nikolas’ church. And now his beautiful voice has waned to moans and raspy cries, and she’s stored his dark suit away, to be worn one final time. Yearning almost chokes her. “He did love that hymn.”
The woman befallen in many sins… The hymn’s first line rings clear in her ears. Not in Father’s voice but Zoe’s, soft and riddled with unspeakable shame. It robs Maro of breath.
“Perhaps he’d love to sing it for your friend Zoe.” Martha spits the name as though it were manure on her tongue.
“Mother!” Now does Nina look up. “Enough!” She drags Martha away.
And Maro stands speechless, clutching a roll of paper towels on her chest.
Maro pieces together part of Zoe’s secret over the following days through muffled gossip behind her back at the grocer’s, at the baker’s, at the butcher’s. At home, her dear auntie is unusually tight-lipped.
And now, as Maro stores away tome after tome of Zoe’s uncle’s library, she watches Zoe out of the corner of her eye. Home-wrecker, they call her. Did that gentle woman once have an affair with a married man here in town? If Zoe knows of Maro’s sleuthing, she doesn’t show it. Zoe wears her dignity like the ghosts around them wear their shrouds. Day after day, she offers nothing but quiet kindness over the books with the words of Homer and Pindar and Euripides and Sophocles.
Sometimes they joke, and sometimes they chat, and sometimes they sit sipping coffee in dusty but comfortable silence. During those few, precious moments, Maro dares to wear her own face. Neither the books nor Zoe judge her for the audacity to shed her predestined face of daughter, caregiver, spinster. The prospect of a life afterwards pokes out its head and it does so riddled with guilt. After Father’s death.
Father. The echo of the town’s gossip grapples with her again. Could Father be that married man? But Aunt Katina wouldn’t keep silent about that. Perhaps she got pregnant and Father refused to give her an abortion? Such procedures were not only shameful back then, but illegal too. I’m a scientist, not a butcher, Father used to say. Women stupid enough to get knocked up can go to the quacks in Athens.
And Zoe had left for Athens and never came back. Until now.
Maro’s head hurts. She spends too much energy, too much time, on something that shouldn’t be her concern. And hour by hour, in the house Zoe shares with her dead uncle, the books are packed, the old clothes donated to St. Sophia’s church, the house dusted and cleaned and prepared for a buyer.
Maro will miss their little effortless talks. Chit-chat over books, over flowers, over recipes, with the fleeting illusion of belonging. Even amidst this swarm of ethereal figures, even with Zoe’s uncle’s ever-leering stare, Maro has found a place she loves to return to.
On their last day, Zoe surprises her with a table full of food. There’s hot coffee, and warm bread, and halva, and olives, and those little spicy-sweet breads, Lazarakia. Oh-my-God, is it Lazarus Saturday already? The Holy Week starts on Monday, and Maro hasn’t picked candles, and has nothing to wear for Easter Mass.
But Father won’t be going to church this year. Now Maro plops into the nearest chair, and tries hard—very hard—not to weep. But she does. And does so until she runs out of tears, until she runs out of breath, until a hand holds a tissue under her nose and another strokes her shoulder.
Zoe pours her a hot cup of coffee. “Your father?”
Maro nods and blows her nose.
“Is it bad?” She hands her the cup and one of the Lazarakia.
Her dead uncle scoffs. He’s still lounging on his armchair, a man no more. Just bones now and cracked skin. He lifts a cigarette between thumb and index finger, and inhales with lungs he no longer has.
Maro gulps down the strong brew, and still it’s less bitter than the brine lining her throat. She chews on the soft sweetbread. This time, she manages a whisper.
“Yes. It’s bad.”
“I’m sorry,” Zoe says, her voice low. A steady, honest whisper—the first consolation Maro has received from either the living or the dead.
“The fuck you are, you shriveled whore,” comes her uncle’s retort, who tosses his cigarette at his niece. It dissolves before it reaches her. Jerk in life, jerk in death.
“Thank you.” Maro takes another sip.
What did Yaya used to say about Lazarus Saturday? That Jesus’ command still echoes on this day, awakened from the clergy’s hymns? Not everywhere, though. Acheron used to flow through these parts before the coming of younger deities forced it underground. Here, the thin veil between the worlds lifts on that day. And the dead leave their graves to mingle with the living. Soldiers from the World Wars, old women from the Ottoman occupation, lasses from the Byzantine times walk the streets, seeking to board Charon’s boat. But they have no coin to offer the Ferryman. Perhaps Charon too has retired to wherever discharged deities go.
So the dead loiter around, pestering the living, until the first rooster calls the sun up on Palm Sunday.
More ghosts. Just great.
Come evening, Maro sits by Father’s side. He looks better tonight, his eyes more focused and he squeezes her hand back. He even managed a smile; a real smile, like those he flashed at her many years ago.
Tonight, Yaya sits across the room, knitting a black vest, as she did every Holy Week, to be worn on Good Friday. This time she does so with ethereal yarn and needles, but the clickity-clack is all too familiar, all too real to Maro’s heart. Even Aunt Katina sits quiet at the other side of the bed, her eyes occasionally darting about.
The TV shows through occasional static the evening mass from a nearby cathedral. It comforts Father, who tries to chant along. When he hits the notes right, he squeezes Maro’s hand tighter. And she knows that, in this here and now, and probably for the last time, Father is happy.
She lays her head on Father’s shoulder, comfortable for once in a long time. She has money for a decent Easter supper, she might even afford new shoes for church. And she has a friend out there, someone who knows she thinks and hurts and yearns like normal people do. Then the lights flicker, and her eyelids flutter along. On TV, the preceding priest calls his flock to attendance for the reading of the Gospel: Lazarus’ resurrection.
“Lazarus, come forth,” recites the priest, pompous and bored in equal parts.
Another flicker of the lights. Maro sits up. The stale air around her now sizzles with the anticipation of approaching storm. Lightning lingers at every corner of the room. Static crackles at the edges of framed pictures, through the worn threads of the rug, through every cobweb. The shadows brew thunder, but this thunder has a voice and a name: Charon.
The lights flicker again and go out. In this sudden, absolute darkness that lingers between this world and all others, a figure appears at the foot of Father’s bed. A fleshless arm splinters away from the form that’s shadow and darkness and something else—something Eternal. It stretches out, palm up, requesting the fare.
The TV’s dark, the priests are silenced, the crucifix above the bed lost in the dark. Maro’s heart struggles against the confines of her ribs. She wants out, she wants away. Instead, her fingers rummage through her pockets. She only has a couple of fiver notes and one-euro coins. Charon won’t take that, she knows it in her gut he won’t, he wants old copper drachmas. She’s kept a couple; just in case, she told herself, but now where’s the old chest? There’s nothing but darkness and the luminous palm awaiting. Will he leave Father behind, if there’s no pay? After a few frantic seconds, she digs up a copper penny and reaches out.
Please, she pleads with every galloping heartbeat, for this darkness has robbed her of voice. Please.
The hood tilts sideways, counts the fare and finds it wanting with a shake of his head. Maro’s cry becomes a gasp as the lights flicker back on. The penny clanks on the floor and rolls away. There’s no ghostly ferryman in the room. The TV’s back on, but shows only static. She dares a glance on the wall behind her, and the crucifix is still there. Thank heavens, Father remained quiet through all this–whatever this was. Perhaps she just dozed off and her tired mind played her a nasty prank. She squeezes Father’s hand and he squeezes back. A long sigh leaves her lips but then her breath gets hitched again.
Now the room crawls with ghosts.
They glide all around her, between corners, through the fireplace and the chairs. Long, translucent forms with no faces, they circle the bed. Yaya’s ghost has stopped her knitting and watches them with narrowed eyes of starless night. Aunt Katina is frighteningly quiet, her face more drawn than usual. Then, like the chorus of an ancient tragedy, the luminous forms stop their swirl, and their coryphaeus steps forward, taking Charon’s place at the foot of Father’s bed.
A teenage girl’s ghost, clad in a floral dress, and it wears Zoe’s face.
“I died that day.” It is Zoe’s voice, but neither soft nor shy. It’s steady now—articulate. A ghostly hand holds the torn strap of her dress upwards, as if to cover the bruises on her chest. She raises her other hand but, unlike Charon’s, this one points at Father. “You did this to me.”
“Whore.” Aunt Katina’s whisper holds more hatred than any screech should.
If Zoe heard her, she doesn’t show it. Her eyes, feverish pits in a face of swirling dust, remains fixed on Father. “I was a child.”
“Please.” Father’s voice trembles, but not from age or disease. It’s anger that makes the veins on his bald, spotted head pump. “You got exactly what you wanted.”
Zoe’s hands stretch out the fabric of her dress, exposing all the stains: grass, dirt, blood. “This? You think I wanted this?” Her right hand balls to a fist. “Kindness was all I wanted. Comfort, from someone I thought family!”
“Nonsense.” Father scoffs. When he speaks again, his voice carries the arrogance of his younger self along with the anger of the bedridden husk he’s become. “You wanted what all the other whores wanted. To become a doctor’s mistress and milk me for all my worth. But I didn’t play along, and you cried ‘rape’.”
Who is this man that wears Father’s face? Who is this brute, who speaks with Father’s voice? Maro tries to pull her hand away, but Father grips it harder, now hard enough to hurt. She tries to wriggle it free and fails.
“Shut up, you ungrateful sow! Katina told me you’ve befriended this whore! This wicked woman, who tried to break up your parents!”
Maro puts all her strength in her shoulder and arm. She pulls her hand free and wipes his spittle from her face. There’s a painful gap in her chest. Little pieces of the puzzle slowly fall in place, and every piece that clicks slices away another part of her. The townsfolk’s gossip about Zoe being a home-wrecker. The sudden loss of affection between her parents during that summer long ago. Mother’s drawn ways. Her silence. And her ghost.
Here she comes, gliding forth amidst the ethereal chorus, as silent in death as in life. But now her lips are sewn shut.
But Yaya didn’t. Across the room, she now stands with the other ghosts. Her wrinkled face is unreadable. Her gnarled hands clutch on her chest the thread and needles in a white-knuckled grip. And she measures her son with the eyes of a Fury.
“I died on that day,” Zoe says again. “My trust. My childhood. You left me broken and you left me empty. Fragmented in moments: my then, my now, my never. And now your time draws near.”
“Admission. Apology. Atonement.” Zoe’s voice is softer now, but still steady. Every single ghost leans forward, as if waiting for the reply with bated breaths.
“Hah!” Father grips his cane.
Maro sinks deeper in her chair.
But the cane isn’t aimed at her, for once; he hefts it as a woodsman’s axe and tries to strike down the ghost. His reach is too short. And what good would it do? Ghosts don’t hurt. They don’t bruise. They don’t cry. But Maro does, and she swings to her right just in time to avoid the spiteful blow now aimed at her. She falls on the floor and scurries away, in the shadow between the mantelpiece and the wall.
She wants to cover her ears to Father’s yells. She wants to cover her eyes and forget Mother’s lips. She cannot. She should not. Not with Yaya there, her skinny body wrapped in the same black dress she wore all her life. So Maro focuses on her, tuning everything else out. When Father throws his cane at Maro, she reconsiders.
“Stupid cunts, all of you! Leave me be! No peace, all my life, just your endless nagging. Now you nag me on my deathbed?” He raises his fist at Zoe. “And you, whore. You got what you asked. What you deserved. That’s my admission and my apology.” He falls back down on his pillow, licking the spittle from his lips. “Now go away. All of you.”
There’s a moment of silence heavy with thunder. Zoe just stares at him, still like a Caryatis statue, counting his deeds and his days. No ghost dares move, no speck of dust dares to swirl floor-bound. Maro holds her breath, trying to endure the crushing stillness around her.
Yaya moves forward, her petite frame straight, her needles in her right hand. She glides forward through wooden frame and mattress, through yellow skin and brittle bone and dying flesh. Now the Crone, now the Matriarch, now the Fury.
Father looks up, his eyes wide. “Mana? What are you doing?”
Yaya hefts the needles as a dagger and plunges them in Father’s chest.
Maro doesn’t stop screaming until after the constable finds her in the corner of the room, still clutching Father’s cane. She doesn’t say a word when they lead her to the station and Father’s body gets transferred to a nearby town for autopsy. At least that’s what the constable tells her when he drives her back home two days later. Maro remembers none of it, only the glint of ghostly needles and the killing pierce. A ‘cardiac arrest’, the coroner called it. But Maro knows what happened. And she knows why.
What she doesn’t know is how to live with it.
Will she share Mother’s fate now? Truth is a terrible cross to bear. Mother made her choice, and faced the consequences. When Yaya discovered the truth, she took matters into her own ghostly hands. What is she supposed to do now?
She sniffles and the constable asks her if she’ll be okay. She nods. It’s a lie. He believes her. He leaves.
She trudges uphill on wet ground after the afternoon drizzle. She keeps her eyes on her muddied sneakers and her ears on the slosh her wet socks make at every step. Her heart dreads entering a ghost-filled house. Worse, a house empty of ghosts. Halfway up the hill, she turns left and heads toward the church.
She mouses her way into the shadows of the narthex, then slides into an empty spot by the left wall, at the women’s stacidia. She keeps her gaze on her feet, avoiding a single glance towards the right wall of the church—the men’s half, where the cantors sit by the episcopal throne, and see Father’s seat empty. Murmurs reach her ears: gossip about her unkempt hair, her wrinkled clothes and her muddy shoes. She clenches her fists until her badly-trimmed nails bite into her palms, until the cantor starts a new hymn. Her head snaps up.
Kassiani’s Hymn, written for ‘the woman befallen on many sins’. Her hands grasp the armrests and she bites her tongue. Father’s favorite. Chanting of wicked women. Did he think her one of them, too? Were they all unworthy of affection, pests deserving only his contempt? Of his cane?
Whispers and nudges and muffled voices all around taint the cantor’s voice. She follows the others’ stares.
Zoe stands at the church’s entrance, clad in a simple brown dress, her shoulders straight, her hands clutching her purse a little too tight. But she doesn’t look away, and stares everyone down in turn. She has heard. She knows. She must know he’s dead, as well as how much this evening’s mass meant to him. When her eyes meet with Maro’s, Maro looks away.
But how much does Zoe know? How much do her broken pieces remember from the night Father died? Did her spirit see Maro in the corner, the screaming, slobbering mess cowering away from Father’s cane, keeping her silence and her distance? Has she come demanding another apology and another admission?
It would be easy, keeping her gaze on her feet and pretend she’s a speck of dust beneath the pews. Easier yet, to release the howl that’s choking her, and curse the newcomer for ruining Father’s final hours. But that wouldn’t bring Father back. Father’s not coming back. Neither is his scorn, nor his cane. She is free, at last. Yaya made sure of it.
Now does Maro look up, her eyes misty. Through the mist, her path beckons in the candlelight—a path of tears and thorns and knitting needles, their clickity-clack echoing in the distance. But this Via Dolorosa bends in strange angles within the church, past ghost-infested dwellings, through the nymphs’ woods, and stretches towards that unfathomable dawn when the sum of broken parts becomes whole again. Atop the episcopal throne, between human and divine justice, the Ferryman holds out his skeletal hand, palm up. Is it the fare he requests, to take her to the end of her journey? Or a toll, to let her through to new, uncharted paths?
Her first step is slow, shy, skittish. What if Charon finds her wanting? But she pushes on, the sloshing of soaked shoes echoing disrespectful in the silence.
“She’s going to slap the slut,” Martha whispers a little too loud.
Maro stops. Her vertebrae grind as she straightens her back and meets the hateful woman’s smirking face.
“Just shut up, already.” The words leave her lips sharp as daggers through the chilly air heavy with frankincense. Or, perhaps, as needles.
Martha gasps. Let her gasp and clasp her chest. Let her hate, let her gossip and spew venom. Let her kind keep their silence, until a greater hand sews their lips shut. Maro has carried the sins of her father long enough, and so has Zoe. There’s only one path left now, and her feet leave wet marks on the stone floor as she trudges on.
There’s a collective gasp when she pulls Zoe in her arms for a late-hour embrace. When Zoe returns the hug, Maro’s sobs rob her of voice and her gaze seeks the dark figure upon the throne.
The skeletal palm closes. The hooded head nods. Maro takes Zoe’s hand and they both walk out, into a night pregnant with Spring. Beneath their feet, the Via Dolorosa stretches open past the pain and the suffering, past the Resurrection and back into life.