Kristi Stassinopoulou

Pelagia – English translation
Κρίστη Στασινοπούλου - Επτά φορές στην Αμοργό


from the book

Seven Times in Amorgos

by Kristi Stassinopoulou

translated in english

by Ivet Varvaressou


“Pelagiaaaa! Pelagiaaaa!”

Throughout the night as the wind howled among the few leafless trees, scattered building sites, crumbling stone walls and rusty tractors, it seems to be howling out the name. Gusts blew relentlessly down hidden ravines to the island’s beaches, raising clouds of yellow sand even as far as the port, whipping up discarded cans and plastic water bottles, tossing them about with a raucous clatter.

It was four in the morning, not quite dawn, the end of September. Daylight hours were receding along with the motley crowds of sunburned tourists. As the night lengthened, scudding grey clouds covered the sky and the brown cliffs seemed even more forbidding, like deep wrinkles in an old woman’s face.

The sandy beaches and coastal paths, now deserted and littered, waited for winter. Half-torn awnings, their colours and fringes faded, were no longer needed to shade the now departed blonde visitors, faithless fiancés who had forgotten their vows.

At this early hour, the lights of the last ship of the month were slowly vanishing over the choppy sea. The group of three young men staggering away from the port had made the best of yet another opportunity for farewell drinks with another group of foreign girlfriends weeping their final farewell.

As usual, the ship had been delayed, and although these local youths prided themselves on being able to hold their liquor, having graduated from their grandfathers’ raki and ouzo to Bacardi, tequila and whisky at seaside discotheques, they were now somewhat worse for the weather. They giggled as they made their way from the wharf back to the few white-washed houses of the port.

There wasn’t much that could spoil their permanent state of indolent bliss. From birth they had been accorded the comforts and privileges due to sons who would carry on family names – high school in Piraeus, fathers absent in the merchant marine, a couple of years at a technical college, some fooling around in Europe as the guest of a love-sick German girl (the fares often thrown in), odd summer jobs at one of the island bars or canoe rentals on the beach, a bit more labouring in the family fields. The added spice to these carefree lives was their mutual code of understanding, the teasing and practical jokes that had begun in their early childhood.

It was their most recent game, however, that had given them untold delight on raucous nights, as well as countless adventures; a game that had brought even the most unapproachable girls out of their tents and sleeping bags to seek shelter in the safety of their arms.

“They all fell for it!” laughed Christos, “Not a single one of them doubted the terrible story of Pelagia.” “Pelagiaaa! Pelagiaaa!” shrieked Thanos. “Pelagiaaa! Pelagiaaa!” echoed Panayiotis, as they all doubled up with laughter.

Back in the early 1960s, Pelagia was one of the luckiest, most gifted girls in Langada, the village perched above the port, with wide views over the beautiful bay that French filmmakers later made famous as “The Big Blue”.

The same cobblestone road still winds up from the port, at that time consisting of only a few buildings. Electricity had not yet been brought to the island. Passenger ships had to anchor offshore, their few passengers and goods ferried into port by fishing caiques and rowboats.

Young men dreamed of escape to America or Australia, girls longed for a good marriage and a move to Athens as an escape from the drudgery of scrubbing donkey droppings from their doorsteps, kneading dough and raising their children in the narrow white lanes, and as the only concession to beauty, perhaps a pot of basil or jasmine outside their window.

But Pelagia had been lucky. Her family, one of the richest on the island, had arranged an engagement for her to a boy on whom most of the village girls had set their sights. Now all Pelagia had to do was embroider her dowry and wait for Manolis to finish the final year of his studies, complete his military service and take her away to Athens to the modern apartment that was to house her dream of love and a family.

The engagement was held in spring and Manolis spent the summer on the island so they could become acquainted. The summer months passed like a dream to Pelagia, with trips to Manolis’ fields or boat rides in the harbor . During the evenings he would take her to one of the ouzo bars, where in those days only men and just a few women had the privilege of frequenting.

Down in Yiali there were changes afoot. It was the year in which more and more foreign holidaymakers arrived, dressed in peculiar clothes and with even more peculiar habits, wearing backpacks and long hair, all strange and dangerous fruit to the islanders. Local boys began to frequent the beaches, drawn by the sight of the long lean bodies and the free and easy ways of the blonde girls from the north.

It was neither Manolis’ nor Pelagia’s fault that one of these blonde girls came between them, upsetting their careful plans and driving them apart.  Manolis left the island forever. For years to come, their families never exchanged a word. Dishonoured and abandoned, Pelagia faded away, her shame and melancholy gradually driving her insane.

Wearing only a white silk nightgown against the chill, she wandered the lanes at night talking to herself, her hair matted and windblown. Driven by her demons, in summer she would run wildly down to the shore, cursing foreigners with terrible insults that no one imagined she even knew. Her family tried to restrain her by locking her in, even tying her up, but her screams and curses only intensified. More embarrassed by what the neighbours had to listen to, than fearful for her own safety, her parents let her go out into the streets once more. On the day they found her lying lifeless next to the well below the road, no one knew whether she had jumped or just stumbled. But everyone, apart from her own family, decided that she was now at peace, and prayed for her tortured soul.

That was the sad story of Pelagia, known to every inhabitant of Amorgos. The older folks even remember the girl herself. Yet people are sometimes cruel and cynical, whether out of boredom or hardship; later, some didn’t even baulk at making fun of Pelagia or making jokes at her expense when boasting of conquests with the other sex, particularly with other nationalities…

And that was more or less how the story of our three young friends began. It had become a standing joke between them that summer, one that had given them plenty of mileage with girls (tourists and even Greeks) fascinated by the story itself and even more by the way the three embellished it with lurid details.  They spent countless nights spinning the yarn until dawn at local bars, or around empty tables at Kyra Katina’s taverna, waiting for her to open up for breakfast.

On moonless nights, or when the wind was blowing wildly as it was on this particular night, they would take the girls on walks, leaving flashlights behind, up to the turn in the road above the well where the fearsome willowy white ghost of Pelagia was rumoured to appear, screaming cruel insults at passers-by, particularly girls, terrifying them with shrill curses only heard in one’s worst nightmares.

Many of these girls were only too willing to believe the boys’ story, their minds already fuddled either by the occasional joint, or by stories of the supernatural that were popular that summer in books and magazines. Some even longed for the chance to experience it for themselves, but… not all of them had the gift of being receptive from messages from another world… Instead, after wandering dejectedly round the port, they were content to enjoy the more earthly pleasures provided by these young men who, they decided, either had too vivid an imagination and were therefore “romantic”, or else… were on a higher plane of consciousness…

Not every girl was bold enough to go as far as that turn in the road; but those who had missed the last bus to Langada were forced to borrow a sleeping bag from someone else on the beach, dossing down behind the bar once it closed, or on the roof of the discotheque, usually in the arms of one of our three friends who were only too willing to provide a protective embrace.

So the story of Pelagia served a number of purposes beyond a practical joke, purposes that were soon common knowledge among most of the island’s young men.

“We’ll be talking about this all winter!” laughed Thomas. “Imagine how many winters Nancy will be talking about it,” chuckled Christos, adding: “Hey, Panayioti, open up the shop and give us a beer for the road.” The name Nancy caused even further merriment, as Panayioti unlocked his shop to hand out the last of the beers. “I think you overdid it in her case, appearing in a white sheet!” “What about Thanos howling from behind a tree? She almost lost her mind!” “She won’t be back here!” “Never mind, there’s plenty more where she came from! The north wind will blow us plenty more, and we’ll be waiting for them, with Pelagia!” “Yes, Pelagiaaa, Pelagiaaaaaa, where are you!” cried Christos, staggering about with his beer can.

The others echoed his cries as they laughed and sang their way up the hill to Langada.The last beer can had almost been drained and tossed away after the others rattling down the road, blown about by the wind that had begun to howl in earnest.

A chill was in the air. It was the end of September, but an unnaturally cold draft brought Christos to an abrupt halt. It was a shiver, like an eerie stroking, first over his face and then down his whole body. He stepped backwards in fear, then saw that the others had felt it too. What was happening? They stood frozen in their tracks, listening for a sound. The wind seemed to be howling a name: “Pelagiaaaa, Pelagiaaa!” The unearthly chill enveloping them was coming straight out of the well, right in front of them.

Had they already reached the turn in the road in front of Pelagia’s well?  Was that other-worldly feeling nothing more than the wind announcing her arrival?

They didn’t wait to exchange a single word, not even to get a closer look at the white willowy form rising before them like one of the Furies. Paralysed by terror, the boys managed to stumble down the hill, not knowing whether the terrible sounds echoing behind them were curses in some forgotten language or just the noise made by empty beer cans clattering after them on the weathered cobblestones.