It was said by those who had known the Markakou family, at the time this story took place, that they likely lived on Durocher Street, between Jarry and Ball Streets, renting a basement apartment whose rent was cheap, which was ideal because the Markakou family had very little money and almost no furniture. With four children, all under the age of ten, Petro and Agathí Markakou seemed to be forever scrambling to put food on the table and warm clothes on their children’s backs. Montreal’s winters are long and merciless, they had discovered, but the fall colours in Jarry Park, where they picnicked as a family, are a glory to behold.
Neighbours sometimes said that Petro and Agathí had too many children, which was none of their business. But the statement was as true to the nature of gossips as barking is to the nature of dogs.
One warm spring day, Agathí Markakou arrived home, tired from a long day cleaning a rich family’s house in Town of Mount Royal, and discovered a letter from her brother in Africa. She had not laid eyes on Trífon in twenty years — not since a blustery fall day at the Port of Piraeus in Greece, when she and her parents had waved their handkerchiefs as the merchant ship had blown its horn and slipped from land, with the waving, pink-faced Trífon receding and then vanishing in the distance.
Trífon’s call from God had come early, descending like a cruel thunderclap. Barely old enough to shave, Trífon announced to his astonished family that he would join the African Orthodox Church to spread the word of God and bring succour to His afflicted children.
Trífon proved immovable against his parents’ entreaties to find a more practical line of work, or to at least remain home and become a priest. There was honour and, perhaps, even a comfortable living in that. But their words fell to the ground like stones. Next, the family enlisted the local pharmacist to speak reason to Trífon, again to no avail. They even considered inviting a celebrated prostitute to change his mind.
Instead, Trífon journeyed to Kenya and eventually to Uganda and Tanzania, joining missions to build schools and give children the rudiments of an Orthodox Christian education.
Agathí and Trífon had exchange letters regularly, about two a year, but this latest letter was different. Along with a few lines about the children who had captured his heart in recent months, Trífon wrote that he would soon be visiting Montreal. His superiors felt that he had served long and devotedly, and that a brief respite to visit family would refresh his mission and renew his stores of energy. For his part, Trífon wrote, his superiors overstated their case. But he had to admit that the mission was presenting more challenges than in the past. And so he looked forward to seeing his sister and meeting her dear husband and children, about whom she had written so warmly over the years.
At the supper table that evening, spooning out plates of stewed okra and potatoes, Agathí announced that they would soon have a visitor — none other than Uncle Trífon, whose letters from Africa always held the family spellbound.
“He’ll be staying with us, I hope,” said Petro. His natural delicacy and family feeling prevented him from stating the obvious: here was another mouth to feed, and where would he sleep, with our own kids already two to a bed, and how long will he stay?
Agathí knew the facts of the matter as well as her husband did, and was grateful for Petro’s tact. “Of course he’ll stay with us, and God protect him on his journey,” she said simply, squeezing her husband’s hand.
When Trífon arrived some weeks later, having travelled by bus, train, merchant ship and bus again, he was just as they had imagined: A gently smiling and loving soul, lost in his threadbare robes, weighed down by his tall hat, and obscured by a heavy black beard. He was quick to laugh, gaping wide-eyed at the many wonders of the world. Chief among these was a drawing of the solar system, executed in crayon by eight-year-old Maria and presented to her uncle when he was barely past the front door. Thunderstruck, the monk dropped to his knees on the spot and pressed his bearded face to Maria’s cheek, his eyes moist with love. In a whisper only she could hear, he promised to treasure the gift forever. Rising, he loudly predicted a great career as a painter or scientist for the gap-toothed Maria, kissed everyone all over again, made the sign of the cross and even wept a little more with happiness.
After their modest dinner, with the children gathered at his feet, quiet and adoring, Trífon blessed his sister’s house. Then, suddenly shy, he pulled tiny, brightly painted toy animals from his bag. These were from the children at his school in Tanzania, he explained. For the instant the village heard about his journey, all the children had begun to carve. How could he possibly greet his sister’s family without presents? African hospitality demanded it! There was an elephant and a wildebeest, a leopard and a chimpanzee, along with several kinds of lizards and birds. Each animal was carved from a nut no bigger than a man’s thumb, he told them.
He described the classrooms in Tanzania, so much smaller and more crowded than in Canada, and explained that the children often lacked books, paper and pencils. If there was a book, it was usually shared by the entire class, and the alphabet and sums went on a blackboard. The classroom windows had no glass, with a plain curtain functioning as a door. But, said Trífon, the children are very happy and so are their families, for they know they are part of God’s design.
My brother-in-law truly is a holy man, thought Petro. Innocent and trusting as a lamb among wolves, may God protect him.
At bedtime that first night, Trífon protested when he was shown to one of the apartment’s two bedrooms. The living room floor would be more than enough for him, he said. He had slept rough for years, and would not hear of putting them out. But under the family’s united assault, he eventually had no choice but to surrender and take the small plain room at the back.
In this way, several happy days passed. Trífon settled into the Markakou household and the neighbours on Durocher Street gradually learned of his presence. Some of them invited Agathí and Trífon for coffee or for a bite to eat. They wanted to see for themselves the holy man from Africa they had heard about for years, and to ask him to bless their homes.
One evening, returning with Agathí from just such a visit, Trífon kissed the children goodnight, as usual, said his prayers and went to bed. During the night he had a terrible dream. In his agitation he rocked the bed and shouted, frightening the Markakou children sleeping on their blankets just outside his door. In the morning, try as he might, Trífon could not remember the cause of his dread, but suspected last night’s custard-and-honey filled galaktobouriko, as he was unused to rich foods. The black cloud remained anchored above his head, and he sensed that something important had shifted within him. He rose from bed and peered into a small mirror nailed above the dresser. The familiar bearded face stared back. He sat on the edge of the bed and gazed at Maria’s crayon drawing of the solar system pinned beside the mirror.
In the kitchen, where she was preparing breakfast, Agathí heard a loud cry from the back of the house. Dropping the hot frying pan into the sink, where it sent up a column of steam, she raced to Trífon’s room, in her panic nearly trampling two of her sleeping children.
“What is it, Trífon?” she said, bursting in. “Why did you cry out like that?”
“I frightened you,” Trífon said, covering his bare legs with part of the blanket, but still trembling with fear. “I’m sorry to have upset you, sister. But something terrible has happened.”
“What?” said Agathí.
“My faith in God,” Trífon whispered, glancing behind him. “It’s…gone. I went to bed with it last night, as I have every night of my life. This morning it’s no longer there.”
“No longer…where? I don’t know what you mean, brother, speak plainly,” said Agathí, suddenly frightened again. “How could it just vanish? Maybe you put it somewhere and forgot. I’m sure it will turn up.”
“No,” said Trífon, face cracked with anguish, hot tears streaming into his beard. “I believe it’s gone for good. What am I to do, sister? My faith in God has been my companion always. My faith has sustained me, sister, followed me like a shadow…and now it’s gone, vanished!”
Like a man informed only minutes ago of the precipice’s existence, who has not had time to fully grasp its meaning, the monk stood alone at edge of yawning emptiness and with fresh eyes comprehended the limitless horror below.
“Anything can happen now, sister, anything! Do you see that?” His right hand, obeying iron habit, rose to make the sign of the cross, but froze midway. “Did you see what just happened? I am a monk without faith, sister. What is that? No, lost, lost, lost! What will become of me now? Where will I go, what will I do?”
Agathí did not give answer to his imploring eyes, for how could she? She crossed herself automatically and thought for a moment: “Go to church,” she said finally. “Enter the house of God and pray for your faith to return. Speak to the priest. Surely he’ll know what to do.”
Trífon looked at her doubtfully. Agathí’s words were pulling him back from the edge. “But that’s the whole point,” he said, suddenly clear eyed. “I have no desire to go to church or to pray. It all seems pointless now, a waste of time. Do you see that? No, sister, leave me. Go to your children and say nothing to them. I must think about this alone.”
When Petro came home from work that evening, Agathí told him about the morning’s events. At dinner, Trífon was his usual self, and afterwards he played games with the children. He asked about school and about their friends, and described in detail each of the children waiting for his return in Tanzania. His memory and love were prodigious, for he pronounced each name carefully, using the correct accent, and followed with a roll call of each child’s extended family. Answering the Markakou children’s clamorous questions, Trífon drew detailed portraits of each Tanzanian child, enumerating their joys and fears, what made them laugh and cry, and which school subjects they excelled at.
Petro and Agathí observed Trífon over the next several days, and saw that he would break off sometimes and gaze at a patch of sky, just visible from their front window, between the overhanging balcony and the top of the building opposite. Or he would sit at the kitchen table and trace with a finger the red roses printed on the plastic tablecloth.
About a week later, Agathí was having coffee with Mrs. Ghikas, a widow who lived on the third floor of the building across the street. Mrs. Ghikas was a pious woman who had landed up rather well, despite her misfortune. As a judge had ruled that employer negligence had caused her husband’s death, the widow received generous compensation. Together with the extra income she earned sewing curtains in her back room, overlooking the laneway, she had more money than she knew what to do with. She was always turned out well, in dresses and fitted suits she made herself, choosing black woollens printed with grey checks or other modest patterns that respected her widowhood. Every two weeks, she took the bus to a hairdresser in another part of town to cut and set her hair.
The widow listened to Agathí’s story and clucked her tongue. A monk, too, after all!
Her own faith in the Greek Orthodox Church was planted deeply and was unshakeable. Every Sunday she attended Holy Mass, bought a two-dollar candle, crossed herself, and kissed the icon of the Holy Virgin. She then lit the candle and placed it in the revolving brass candleholder to the left of the icon. Crossing herself again, she sat in the middle row of pews, halfway to the altar. The widow rarely fell asleep during service, rose to make the sign of the cross at the priest’s signal, and afterwards stood in line for Holy Communion. On the church steps afterward, she greeted some of her acquaintances and then briskly walked home to make a satisfying lunch, usually a fried veal chop with boiled greens and roast potatoes. She allowed herself one or two glasses of wine. This was her favourite meal of the week, as it followed the communion fast.
The widow had never peered with much interest into the dark recesses of her faith, or thought about its origin or constitution — but a monk, after all! For a man like that to lose his faith would seem not just careless, but positively delinquent.
She considered the problem carefully, scraping the last of her homemade quince jam from a saucer and taking a decisive slurp from her Greek coffee.
“I have an idea,” she said finally. “Let me talk to him, Agathí. I’m certain I can talk some sense into him. And, when I put my mind to it I can be quite persuasive. So here is what I propose. The next time the rich family calls you to clean their house, phone me and let me know when you’re leaving. I’ll run over and pretend I’m looking for you. This will give me an excuse to have a friendly chat with Trífon.”
“You would be doing us a great service, Mrs. Ghikas,” cried Agathí. She was uncomfortable with subterfuge, and had no great hope that the plan would succeed. But she was nevertheless grateful for any kindness.
It’s the least I could do, thought Mrs. Ghikas, as she stood by her third-floor window to watch Agathí cross Durocher Street and enter her own building. The poor fools barely have two cents to rub together, yet they insist on bringing more children into the world. And as if that’s not enough, they invite a witless holy beggar into their home. The brother is no less a fool than they are, God bless them all.
The widow had met Trífon several times, on the street and in the Markakou home. Truth be told, she harboured no great hopes in her mission either. She regarded Trífon as a simpleton, so unlike her clever and hardworking Nikita, who had perished all too soon, God forgive him. It’s all or nothing for these saintly ones, she reflected. They know no middle ground, which is why they sign up in the first place. Holiness is all well and good, but it won’t get you a crust of bread or a glass of wine to wash it down.
The very next day, Agathí phoned Mrs. Ghikas and mentioned, as if in passing, that she’d be cleaning the rich family’s house in Town of Mount Royal on Wednesday. Taking the hint, Mrs. Ghikas was at her window early Wednesday morning. Her eyes followed the Markakou children as they trooped off to school, followed shortly after by Agathí, headed the opposite way, and turning left on Jarry Street. As Agathí would be gone most of the day, the widow took her time baking a batch of koulourakia and setting them out to cool. Shortly after noon, she filled a platter with her fresh-baked cookies, covered them with a clean white dishtowel, and crossed the street.
Imagine Mrs. Ghikas’s surprise when, in reply to her sharp knock, a young stranger answered the door. For as soon as Agathí left that morning, Trífon had taken a decisive step into his vertiginous new life of freedom. Fetching the kitchen scissors, he cut off his beard and shaved with Petro’s razor. He then undid the bun at the back of his head and sheared his hair — and had made quite a mess of it, too. Unruly hanks of freshly washed hair hung every which way, and his chin and pink cheeks were covered with tiny cuts. He was wearing one of Petro’s old work shirts and threadbare trousers. With his botched haircut and shave, Trífon appeared freshly scrubbed, rough and simple, like a newly made pine table. Clearly, Trífon was younger than his matted beard and patched hassock first suggested. His shoulders, too, seemed broader. He seemed to stand up straighter, and his black eyes burned with a new intensity.
Mrs. Ghikas took one look at him and made a decision.
“My dear Trífon,” announced the widow, brushing past him and walking directly into the kitchen, “You are changed, I see. And for the better, I might add.” The widow noticed a plate with an apple and a knife on the table. “I was wondering if your sister was home. I wanted a word with her.”
“She is not here at the moment, Mrs. Ghikas. But come back later and you will certainly find her. I would fetch her for you myself, except I don’t know where she’s gone.”
“Gone to earn money to buy food, no doubt,” said the widow, with the brusque manners of well-to-do people who know what’s best for the poor. “Well then, I don’t have much to do right now, so I will sit here and wait for her.”
The widow observed that Trífon’s newly cut hair was curly, and blacker than she remembered. His hands, too, were not those of a priest. Trífon had spent years building schools and helping farmers coax crops from their stony fields, so his hands were strong, rough and tanned. Taking his seat at the table, elbows on his knees, he had resumed peeling an apple, producing a long red ribbon that swung nearly to the floor.
The widow was in her chair barely half a minute, and was up again. “I can’t tolerate seeing a man sit without a woman to serve him. I arrived just in time. Let me make you a coffee to go with the koulourakia I baked.”
Trífon protested. He said he wouldn’t dream of putting her out, and would be happy to share his apple with her, but Mrs. Ghikas was deaf to his objections. Seizing an apron from the back of a chair, she tied it on and began bustling with the kolourakia, putting out saucers and napkins, and filling glasses with water. She lined up the coffee cups on the stove and began to slowly heat the copper coffee pot.
When she finally sat across from him, cups of steaming coffee between them, she began: “I’ve been thinking about your predicament.”
“You trouble yourself too much, Mrs. Ghikas,” said Trífon. “A lady such as yourself…”
“Not at all,” she replied, waving aside his objections. “You’ve lost your faith, Trífon. Your sister told me all about it. If you don’t mind me saying, it shows complete disregard for our Holy Orthodox church. As for your sister, you’ve put her in a difficult spot. I am the most tolerant person on God’s earth, but others are positively intoxicated when there’s an opportunity for gossip. Give them any excuse, and you’re done. The neighbours are already whispering about Agathi. They wonder what she did to bring about this calamity. Couldn’t you have wait to get back on the bus before losing your faith?”
“You are right in everything you say, Mrs. Ghikas,” he said gently. “But no one ever sets about losing something on purpose, and besides…”
“I have a drawer full of mismatched gloves to prove your point,” said the widow. “As a Christian, I feel for you Trífon. And I have been considering your problem from a number of angles ever since your sister told me all. I came here believing I was going to say one thing about it. But here I am, about to say something else.”
Trífon made no sign of registering the widow’s admission that she had lied. She had not come to see Agathí after all. He had been the widow’s object the entire time.
“I apologize for being forward, but I will speak frankly. I always do.”
“Speak your mind, Mrs. Ghikas,” said the monk, taking a nibble from an excellent koulouraki and observing her carefully. “Please do speak your mind.”
“Well, Trífon. Here is what I propose. As you know, I have been a widow for twenty-five years. God chose to take my husband mere months after our marriage, before we had the blessings of children. God’s ways are mysterious, I’ll grant you that,” and she crossed herself, eyeing him the whole time. “I have lived alone all these years, and could easily do so for the rest of my life. Except that I see before me a troubled soul. A lost glove, so to speak. It is no secret to me, Trífon, that you have no resources, no work, no trade. How will you survive and not burden your dear sister and her poor family? Forgive me, Trífon, but this wretched family cannot afford to keep you much longer.”
She paused to gauge her words’ effect, but saw no hint of understanding. “I spoke a moment ago about my indifference to living alone. This is true, but not entirely. Alas, I am still human, still a flawed and weak woman. There are days, I confess, when I miss Nikita terribly. I miss his touch…a man’s touch. As I say, I am not as old as you might think, and I am still a woman.”
The widow paused to take a extravagant slurp of her coffee and for her meaning to become clear. She plunged forward: “Suppose, Trífon, we were to marry and live together as man and wife?”
Her die cast, she waited for Trífon to react, but he only gazed at her with cryptic intensity. She resumed: “I am no longer young, and not as attractive as I once was, but I am healthy. I am older than you, but not by too many years. Granted, my proposal is hardly romantic, but consider my years and my dignity, Trífon. The prospect of appearing ridiculous concerns me more than being turned down by a younger man such as yourself, so let me present this as a business proposition. I have enough money for both of us. As I see it, you could be handy around the house — you must have learned something after all those years in Africa, I suppose. We could watch television together in the evening. When I’m busy sewing, you could read to me from the Greek-Canadian Post. On Sunday mornings you could walk me to church and come in to pray, or return for me later, as you wish. Afternoons, when the weather is fine, we could walk in the park.”
The widow paused, her sketch of their idyllic life together unfinished. She observed Trífon watching her, a light smile on his handsome lips.
“All this is more than you can digest in one serving, my dear Trífon. Perhaps a bit rich for your stomach. I’ll leave it for you to ruminate. Discuss it with your sister and brother-in-law tonight. They have excellent judgment and will see immediately that my plan suits everyone.”
With that, Mrs. Ghikas took her leave.
Agathí could hardly suppress her laughter when she saw Trífon that afternoon. “Brother, you look like a badly plucked chicken,” she said. Holding up the small mirror from his bedroom, the very same mirror he had consulted on the day of his terrible loss, Trífon joined his sister in laughing at the image he presented.
Agathí sat her brother in a chair, placed a towel around his shoulders and, with her dressmaker’s scissors, repaired most of the damage. Agathí was glad to see her brother in good spirits, and wondered what Mrs. Ghikas could have said to bring about this change.
“You seem different, brother,” said Agathí.
“I must tell you all about it,” he said, laughing again. “But let’s wait for Petro to come home from work.”
The news spread rapidly up and down Durocher Street. The widow Ghikas and Trífon, the lapsed monk, were courting like teenagers and would soon be married. Apparently, she had bought him new clothes. From windows on very side, the couple were observed strolling to Jarry Park, fetching groceries, sharing ice cream cones with the Markakou children, taking the bus downtown…and always talking, thick as thieves. What could they possibly be talking about? For at times they appeared like ancient Greek philosophers or Byzantine theologians (even allowing that one was a mere woman), intent on solving one of the three great mysteries.
Look at them, the most malevolent gossips said: they are negotiating with the devil himself. Others speculated that the entire affair was due to the machinations of Agathí. She’s a deep one, they said, masquerading all these years as a simple blameless woman. First chance she gets, she throws her brother in Mrs. Ghikas’s way. Who knows what promises were made! Perhaps she placed the evil eye on the widow. Other neighbours said Agathí and her foolish brother were no match for the crafty Mrs. Ghikas, whose dried up loins thirsted for a young man’s vigor. Lust was behind the match. Lust, too, was behind the monk’s sudden loss of faith. Still others saw Petro lurking in the shadows. He was the prime mover in this surprising turn of events, but these others had a harder time explaining how Petro managed it all, as he worked practically day and night.
Agathí’s children were delighted with the prospect of a wedding, but their mother worried about their clothes. Patched and mended school clothes would hardly do for a wedding, but where would the money come from for suits and dresses? Then there was the not insignificant matter of her own condition, for Agathí had recently discovered that she was pregnant again. Petro would no doubt turn the announcement into a celebration and present her with two whole chickens, which she would cook in the oven with tomatoes and trahana. And once Petro got hold of the news, there would be no keeping it from the neighbours, who would remind Agathí, in a hundred artful ways, that they were foolish to have so many children and with so little money.
One day, lost in these thoughts and walking along Jarry Street, which would take her to L’Acadie and to the chain-link gates of Town of Mount Royal, Agathí ran into the widow coming the other way.
“Ah, sister,” said the widow, kissing Agathí on both cheeks. “I can call you sister now, can’t I?”
“Yes, of course,” replied Agathí, flustered at the sudden deference. “But we don’t see you as much as we used to, Mrs. Ghikas…I mean, sister. The children would be overjoyed with a visit from their new aunt. If there is anything Petro or I have done to keep you from our home…”
“Nonsense,” said the widow. “You’ve done nothing, sister. I’ve just been very busy with this marriage foolishness. It is troublesome. To tell you the truth, Trífon regrets it. Perhaps I do, too. And by the way, let me be the first to congratulate you.”
“For what?” said Agathí.
“For the child you’re carrying. You can fool everyone else but you can’t fool me. I saw it at once. It’s a blessing to have many children, and that’s a fact.”
Agathí did not know what to say. She was struck dumb by the widow’s penetration, and by her blessing. Perhaps the widow was mocking her for being pregnant again. But most of all, Agathí was troubled by the widow’s regret about the wedding. Perhaps she and Trífon were quarreling…
“Thank you for your blessing,” said Agathí, and rushed off to begin her workday, as she was already late.
On her return home in the afternoon, Agathí’s vague fears acquired definite shape. All four children were waiting for her at the door.
“He’s gone,” they chorused. “Uncle Trífon left us.”
Agathí dropped her bag and hurried to the back room. Sure enough, every sign of Trífon had vanished. The bed had been made and the floor swept. His small bag was missing and the dresser drawer was empty. Maria’s crayon drawing was also gone from its place beside the mirror. On the chair were Petro’s old work clothes, washed and neatly folded.
Agathí’s immediate thought was shameful: Trífon had fled rather than marry the widow. He would bring disgrace on her house, along with the undying enmity of Mrs. Ghikas. This would be hard to bear. With her coat still on, Agathí rushed across the street and knocked on the widow’s door, but the widow would not open. Nor did the widow answer the phone when Agathí called.
When Petro arrived, Agathí told him about Trífon’s flight and about the widow’s stony silence. She also told him about their conversation in the morning, and the widow’s calling Agathí sister. This only deepened her shame. The other news, about her pregnancy, Agathí put aside for another day.
Agathí and Petro considered the matter carefully and decided it would be best to leave the widow in peace for now, and try again the following day.
That evening, Agathí let the children sleep on the living room floor another night, in case Trífon had a change of heart. Returning Petro’s old work clothes to his dresser, she discovered an envelope tucked into the shirt pocket. Inside was a letter from the widow, along with a key:
I’m not very good at writing letters, so I’ll get to the point. Trífon and I have taken a bus away from here. Without God, we don’t know where we’re going.
The key opens the door to my apartment. Go to the sewing room and look in the closet for a green shoebox. Take the money that’s in there. It should be enough to feed and clothe your children for a long time. Tell Petro to get a better job and not be such a fool. Also, take anything else you need before the neighbours pick the place clean, those vultures.
Trífon sends his love and will write soon. He has no faith, and I’ve discovered I have no faith either. A wedding is therefore out of the question. So whatever happens happens.
Your sister, Amalía