It seemed like it would just stay buried. Then the abbot reached out directly. As she was resting in her room one evening, a messenger brought a summoning to one of the buildings closer to the docks in Vatopedi, a more private setting, where his holiness was waiting for “him”. Just like that. She had never seen this tall, lanky monk, but was somehow expected to follow him without question. Everything about him told her that she could not afford wasting time; a superior was calling, and that was how it worked in Athos.
She rummaged through the papers in her rucksack, so she could bring along her Diamonitron, but as she cursed her hands for stumbling over themselves as they failed to find it, her heart started beating hard, as if about to face a crucial exam. She finally pulled it out with triumphant relief. As she left the room, she glanced at her pale face in the lopsided mirror, and begrudgingly followed the monk escorting her with an oil stained lantern in hand. She couldn’t bring herself to ask him anything, as his severe expression discouraged her from even making a move that might look like disobedience. He gestured for silence with a hand as they slipped past the hostels of the other pilgrims, and to speed up when they reached the slope leading down to the shore, as they spotted a procession of monks walking back up.
Her destination was clearly not one of services and meetings. They definitely did not meet celebrities and important visitors in that small, partially caved in building, with door hinges corroded by salt. Theo wondered whether the roof would hold long enough for her time inside and a shiver crawled up her spine, as if a sudden Antarctic breeze had crept in. Where were Makarios and Kosmas? She inexplicably missed them, right now.
She may not have thought of them as brothers but, in that coastal squalor, she would’ve appreciated seeing two familiar faces. Instead, she was alone in an empty room that looked very much like an old boat shed. The lanky monk, after closing the heavy door behind him, finally gave her instructions.
‘Wait here,’ he said, pointing to a wicker chair, its seat dangerously drooping from the humidity and weight of who knows who else had used it. She sat down, annoyed, bothered by the creaking that every movement of her knees caused.
Minutes went by and they felt like hours in that briny darkness, maybe even whole evenings without ever leading to a new dawn. She had no idea what the two monks might be talking about in the office. She didn’t even know if it was just the two of them, actually, but she was putting considerable effort into believing that the other side of the wall didn’t host an entire court of them, going over her case. What might the two be telling each other that could not have bad consequences for her? She was already playing scenes in her mind.
Maybe Argyrios had reported her.
Maybe he’d betrayed her without ever telling her and she was now being presented with the bill for her stunt, which would cost her an eternal ban from everything quintessentially Greek that she still hadn’t lost. Maybe what was really waiting for her in that shack was indeed a supreme court, a national inquisition gathered where no one else could see. Though anachronistic, she felt it would be the only institution with any jurisdiction over a case like hers.
She started shivering. Her teeth were chattering as if she were sharing that cage with a hungry beast, lurking in the noise-filled shadows: what did she have left to do, other than falling to her knees to beg? Or pray, maybe. But to whom?
If God took sides, He would be necessarily against her, with the prosecution.
She considered checking the door, see if she could open it and run away, hoping to cover her tracks in the approaching night. They wouldn’t have any dogs to sic on her, they weren’t the Stasi and they weren’t at the Bulgarian border. There was just another monastery several miles south, and there were no penance protocols.
Alarms would sound, however. Those damned bells, the phones, the pigeons carrying her misdeeds in their ankle rings. They’d catch her at her first attempt to seek help or shelter. And she was too far from Ouranoupolis to reach the border on foot.
She sat down again, as it looked like rust had sealed the door shut. Unmovable. Impossible for her chewed fingernails to even open a sliver. She needed a screwdriver to provide leverage, but the only long objects around were flimsy wax candles. What if she lit them?
She was trying to control the first signs of delirium, as she attempted to primitively light the candles. She was sweating, in the way that artificial ice lollies do, secreting drops on the surface but keeping the core well frozen. Warmth was only a sweet utopia right now, the protection of a womb, somewhere she could retreat into. She smelled, in her elementary paralysis, and the smell was clear evidence of her being an imposter. She could tell that her glands were secreting unmistakeable, sweet pheromones. She had no control over them, she could not hide them beneath facial hair she lacked anyway, they betrayed her regularly worn clothing.
Timidly confirming the smell in the folds of her top, she found herself staring at the small door where the monk had disappeared, mortified by the idea that someone might walk through with her excommunication papers, without even a feeble chance of a defence. Here came the aphorism.
As she was running through all her possible excuses and justifications, a foot appeared from the growing sliver of light cast onto the floor. Candlelight upon the wall. Theo raised her eyes, ready for the evening cane as a dog with a serial abuser.
‘Good evening, Theodoros,’ said the velvet slipper hinting at the person’s heritage way before they even appeared. He wasn’t just any monk, after all. Beyond the coat of arms on his slipper, the deep tone of his voice revealed the certainty of his power.
The expected deep red stole followed as he stepped out fully into the room. The images of the Apostles in almond frames fell upon his shoulders, holding open parchments. Theodora was shaken. Those were the parchments holding their sacred wisdom.
‘We finally meet,’ the man continued, without waiting for her to reply to his greeting. He was firm, in his words as well as his body language, telling her that there would be nothing left hidden in their conversation.
Theo suddenly understood that her act had reached its final call, despite the old priest still respecting the name with which she had been introduced to him.
She decided to keep playing that strange game of poker with a baiting card, fully knowing that her opponent held a royal flush.
‘You were expecting me,’ she said, her voice low, as if to lure out details about her summons. She kept sweating like a pig.
‘I was wondering when you might reach us and why it has taken you so long to find our monastery. It is the second in order of importance in Athos, after all. People are usually quite curious…’ he said, sly and seemingly harmless, as if probing an old friend’s feelings.
Theodora, in an attempt to avoid any disrespect, gave in to her curiosity.
‘Other pilgrims have mentioned my name to induce you to expect my arrival here?’ She was trying to formulate a similar elegance in her speech, but her attempts felt clumsy compared to his balanced eloquence.
‘Not at all. I am not prone to sharing private affairs with our regular visitors,’ he replied with a touch of severity. As he noticed Theo paling, his courtesy returned just in time to lower his ace.
‘Father Loukanios personally informed me. He is a dear friend, a brother, truly. We have shared many a difficult moment in the past. It is thanks to his invaluable help that I am here, once again.’
There was no other choice but to listen.
The man had widened his arms, showing her his surroundings beyond the cracked walls.
Theodora could see the thin red thread sealing his mouth in front of the clerical world. The same thread that embroidered the logo of a team featuring the three of them. Loukanios had ‘helped him’. It was thanks to that help that everyone’s sins could be glossed over. She wondered what Loukanios might have done for him – looking at the man, probably something shady.
And, Theo knew, her authorisation had been obtained as repayment for the immense favour done between men of God. She had no idea what it might be but, as he seemed to know and trust Loukanios, and the subtle protection of mutual culpability, she was now less afraid to show herself.
‘So I can trust you too, father, as I trust that holy man who allowed me the privilege of being here in your presence today.’
Theo wouldn’t usually lower herself to that level of grovelling. She felt a visceral disgust towards any display of submission and obeisance. Not to mention towards diaplokì, collusion between powers that be. But at this stage, in these circumstances teetering on the edge between desperation and redemption, she saw the only sensible option being substituting her pride with some ingenuity.
‘Please, come in,’ the abbot said, visibly pleased. He had opened the door to the room where he’d been plotting with the lanky monk, and she could see the velvet drapes in the darkness. No sign, however, of the other man: he must have disappeared into a tunnel or secret passage. They were now alone in the damp secrecy of the seaside ruin. Despite the dim light, the features of a wealthy room were obvious, from the velvets to the byzantine portraits covering the walls, immediately erasing the shabby outer appearance.
Theodora sat in a small armchair, soft and worn-down, placed next to the gold-painted wooden chair destined for the abbot’s high end rear end.
‘I would like to reassure you that my intentions are good,’ she said as soon as she felt the back of her seat. She wanted to come clean.
‘Were they otherwise, you would not be here right now, my dear,’ he teased her, ‘thank the heavens that we are able to know everything. Everything…’ He looked lovingly up to an icon of the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus.
‘Alas,’ he hesitated, ‘your situation has become more complicated, as it appears your presence is no longer a secret between men of their word such as you and I.’
His expression had changed to a more serious look. Theodora still saw the positive in his sentence as being included among a circle of high ranking dignitaries. The same which hosted that scoundrel of father Loukanios. Because of their honour, however questionable, she expected no betrayals.
‘It would not do you well to stay here too long, though you have been conferred a study permit which would technically allow you to,’ he said, interlacing his ivory-white, ring-clad fingers.
Theodora nodded, not entirely sure about what her travel options out of this place might be, though clear on how they were the best solution. Would they extract her with one of those helicopters used to douse out wildfires? No, too flashy a stage exit, though Loukanios had undoubtedly done worse. She caught herself imagining her epilogue with some triumph.
She had been able to reach the Vatopedi monastery, and in a way, she had completed her most important mission. Even though she hadn’t physically touched the Virgin Mary’s belt, so dear to her beloved uncle, she could still head home with satisfaction and with very few regrets, especially if her departure could be arranged without complications.
‘However, before we can talk about you returning to Greece, there’s something you must do for me,’ the abbot interrupted her daydreams, lowering his glasses onto his nose. He was staring into her pupils, which had become fire in the light of the yellow candles.
‘Something very important,’ he said when he was sure of having her full attention. It was clear that she was submitting to his orders out of a sense of hierarchy; she lowered her eyes, therefore he could readjust his gold-rimmed glasses.
‘If I can, that would be an honour,’ Theodora murmured on her knees, showing absolute deference. Her head was almost brushing his hands. Kissing his ring-clad right one seemed too much. Maybe even primitive, though he must have been used to it, given how he’d positioned his hands.
‘You need to make a final stop at the Esphigmenou monastery, and deliver this message on my behalf,’ he said, producing a heavy chest with gold and silver inlays out of the shadows. The box alone must be worth several thousand Euros, Theodora thought.
The parchment he took out of it looked equally valuable, clearly ancient and beautifully handwritten, revealing the craft with which many an amanuensis must have had it in their care for months, before presenting it to the Church. The bottom of the document sported an embossed gold seal that perfected the visual composition of the page and dispelled any doubts about its authenticity.
‘I am sure you are wondering what this might be,’ the abbot said, noticing Theo’s jaw had fallen slack, unable to contain her surprise.
‘I will tell you so that you may also realise the importance of your mission,’ he slammed his rings onto the wooden armrest, ‘and the need for you to deliver it as soon as possible into hands worthy of receiving it. This is not for anyone,’ he added, staring at her to underline the trust he was allowing her.
He was clearly trying to intimidate her. While also trying to instil that feeling of complicity which is created through a successful mission.
‘This is a Chrisobulo’, he explained with the solemn tone of a teacher to a student, ‘an ancient property lease referring to some of our lands.’
He didn’t feel the need to mention which ones, and Theodora didn’t ask further; her geographical notions were scarce and her legal ones even more so. As she had found refuge abroad, she hadn’t felt the need to equip herself with them. The one thing she did pause to think about was why she had to be the messenger, and not any other monk at any other moment in time. Though it wasn’t putting her in any uncomfortable situation, she would never have requested something like this from a stranger.
‘As I told you, I require the utmost loyalty,’ was his hurried explanation.
Theodora understood that the abbot considered the implicit threat of revealing her the highest form of bond.
She understood this from his Freemason-like behaviour as they spoke, his almost paternal glances, and most of all, from the fact that – in this strange poker club in which everyone covered another’s card – the impunity of one person was safe in the hands of another cheater, and vice versa.
A young monk devoid of sin, once he had been brought into the plan, may have asked himself too many questions and reported to God, before doing so to a superior. Maybe even self-punished in the pursuit of the right choices, instead of accepting a slow, placid atonement in case of a mistake.
Sometimes innocent souls are the most damaging.
‘Esphigmenou is the monastery where Loukanios spent his early years,’ she said, after considering a number of intelligent responses. She was trying to understand whether the priests’ complicity had been born in the same place where the message was directed. She also wanted to prove to the abbot that she already had access to private information, and so adding more to her knowledge would carry no risk.
‘Were you both novices there?’ she asked when she noticed him react with intrigued curiosity.
‘Not at all, I have always been here,’ he hurried to clarify. ‘Almost always,’ he corrected himself. The question hadn’t landed well with him, and Theo’s inquisitorial silence was landing even worse.
Theodora had cautiously studied his face, taking advantage of the sudden brightness of the candlelight caused by a breeze. That minor reticence, she thought, hinted at new revelations.
‘‘If you really are that curious, though please do remember what happened to the kittycat…’ he hissed. ‘Prison is where we met. Prison and atonement were the grounds for our indissoluble union.’
He was annoyed. And the ‘kitty’ comment felt like too much of another unspoken threat about asking too many questions.
It was late at night, and in the oily dim light, Theodora’s forehead was melting around heavy eyes, their lower edges marked by deep semi-circles of tiredness. The abbot, no less exhausted, retracted his head between his shoulders, raising his palms to the ceiling, as if softening the venom in the words he’d just spat out. That conversation had never taken place.
The abbot was good at this game, even when he tried to blend in.
The time of a leaden pause, during which only the peeling frames creaked, preventing the briny breeze to carry away the scandal which words had just hinted at.
The man dressed in black then reverted back to his sermon, as if the Holy Ghost were once more speaking through him: ‘The laws of men do not always adhere to the laws of God, Theodora – or is it Dora. This is, alas, a true shame.’
That was an epilogue. Their unspoken deal had been sealed by a sacred formula and the discussion had come to a close. Her female nature, barely held back as with a kite’s string, was now free to float in the air and it pulled away all doubts and hesitations.