About Black Wedding
Eight chapters (51-58) from Vangelis Raptopoulos‘ novel Black Wedding
[Translated by Maria Teresa von Hildebrand]
About three weeks after Michalis’ last telephone call, on a Sunday of October, something happened that was to have a decisive influence on the events which were to unfold on the night of Monday December 2nd 1991.
During all that October week the weather had softened amazingly, the sun shone and there was a sweltering heat. The famous Indian Summer was on.
It must have been towards eleven or maybe half past eleven that morning when Joanna reached Monastiraki, Athens famous flea market. She felt like losing herself in the crowd, walking about with no specific aim. And that’s what she set about to do.
As she walked down Ermou Street towards Monastiraki Square, she watched the boisterous crowd stretching far away, as far as Gazi. Like a heaving sea, the mass pushed and shoved, sweating profusely, forming a kind of huge, almost majestic snake with Greeks, Russians, Poles, Albanians, Pakistani, people from the Philippines, and even some belated tourists of all nationalities (including Japanese, Americans and Central Europeans).
Joanna eagerly watched the picture unfolding in front of her eyes, wondering whether this sight was so much different from that of the bazaars in the main cities of the Middle East. No, maybe not, as a matter of fact it could well be those bazaars never gathered such multitudes. And certainly over there, there wasn’t half the stuff there was here where everything you could possibly think of was on sale. On the other hand, the more you thought about it, the likelier it seemed that all this happened on a much greater scale in those faraway bazaars. Joanna had never traveled to the Middle East. But she had seen bazaar scenes in films and on television. Yes, of course. All this here happened over there on a much much greater scale.
She thought of Michalis. When his group ‘The Balkans’ was at its height, he had always made a point of insisting that Greek music should combine the effects of rock music with the local popular and traditional music with its obvious eastern roots. «You see», Michalis would expound with the fervour of a neophyte, «just as there is a Middle East, so the West has its own Middle West, and that is the Balkans and more precisely Greece!»
Joanna had lost herself in the crowd, and was absently gazing at the endless ― to the point of nausea ―, heteroclite objects exhibited all over the place; she had stopped to watch the ceaseless dealings going on around her between clients and all kinds of peddlers. She suddenly felt a dizziness overcoming her, which slowly began turning into a feeling of suffocation. A kind of agoraphobia invaded her and, long before reaching Thiseio, she cut across the crowd pressed in Ermou Street and slipped into the narrow lanes where the secondhand shops piled up their merchandise ― mainly furniture. But here too a smothering mob, laughing, looking, chatting, filled up the place. Finally, Joanna made out the towers of secondhand books at the entrance of a basement and began to go down the steps.
There were piles of old books and newspapers at both ends of the staircase. They rose, dusty and blackened by the city smog, hiding the handrail ― actually giving the impression that the only handrail the stairs had was made of the yellowed printed matter and old books!
Joanna went down the steps and her nostrils filled with the smell of stale paper. The bald owner of the secondhand bookshop squeezed behind a long and narrow bench covered in books, near the stairs. The basement itself (this wasn’t Joanna’s first visit) was quite roomy but with an extremely low ceiling; it was literally covered in all sorts of publications and old books, and very dirty. There were several clients in the shop at that moment. Most of them students, two or three middle-aged women looking at the pages of large encyclopedias, and a couple of tourists: two Japanese of uncertain age, wearing bermudas, with their cameras around their necks. These two were bending over a bench with posters and photographs which in their vast majority represented publicity material for Greek films of the sixties, what is known as «the gold age» ― commercially speaking, at least ― of the Greek cinema. The Japanese couple gazed in wonder at the unknown faces of the protagonists (in a sudden surge of humour, Joanna thought they could well be wondering at all these actors that they had never seen before!).
The young woman went on towards the back of the shop. There, in a kind of recess formed by the bulging humidity of the walls, on top of a pile of large rotten volumes that were falling to pieces and gave off a terrible stench, something like rotting fish (Joanna was the only client in that part of the shop), she discovered a book on the Eleusian Mysteries.
The copy was in very poor condition and it was impossible to make out the name of the writer. The cover pages were missing, as well as many pages from the beginning; maybe half the book. But this Joanna could not possibly know: she was looking at the book for the first time in her life. To judge by the title in the headings, it was a kind of study: The Eleusian Mysteries and the Worship thereof.
Joanna thought of Sakis Georgariou, who had a passion not just for surrealistic stories, but in general for esoteric literature ― and with everything he himself called «the New Age flow». There had been a time when Joanna too had passionately loved novels with similar subjects, but she had always seen it as a kind of literature, whereas Sakis actually believed what he read! Indeed, the young woman could remember how at one time she had almost come to laugh at Sakis for his gullibility, but she had never owned it to herself, not wanting to belittle him further in her eyes.
Yes, Sakis had a very special passion for the Eleusian Mysteries, and thought they were of the greatest significance. He wasn’t the only one. Around this age-old worship, there rose a vast amount of literature, mostly of the worst possible quality. Because of the law of silence enshrouding the Eleusian Mysteries, very little was known about them. This in turn gave rise to all sorts of impostors and swindlers who hid behind the general title of «apocryphal writers». But what if Joanna was being prejudiced? She wondered to what an extent the half-ruined copy she held in her hands was difficult to find, perhaps unique. Was she then wrong to underrate it so much? On the other hand it could also be a totally worthless book.
Turning over the torn damp pages (Joanna found their touch repulsive, and this was made worse by the stench in this particular recess of the bookshop), she had leafed through the photographs of the ancient ruins in the wasteland that is today Eleusis, and had now come to rest her eyes on photographs again, but this time of black clay vessels, urns from Attika, lecythi and marble reliefs.
Her eyes fell on a highly vulgar representation and she had to force her gaze away from a gigantic phallus showing under the short tunic of a man, or was it a god
– who knows?
She came upon handwritten verses after another quick browsing of the book, verses lost in a forest of monstrous and frankly horrid designs and decorations.
Joanna looked at the title of the chapter (above and to the right): «Rituals and Hymns».
So these were hymns. Homeric hymns? Or Orphic hymns? Hm, she wasn’t sure. What were all these hymns called that accompanied the rituals of the Eleusian Mysteries?
She concentrated on the text in front of her and managed to make out some of the stray verses: I fasted, I drank the chaos… Open the door to Eleusis, Hierophant. And you, Torch-Bearer, light the fire. Offer the holy night to me!
But, had the verses been translated into Modern Greek? A word here and there was in Classic Greek; was the translator then using an archaic language or were these untranslated, genuine cries? The original wasn’t mentioned anywhere ― this went to show just how reliable the study was! Possibly this was nothing more than a groundless, superficial piece of thrash.
Something she had learnt when she was a student came to her mind. What exactly did she, a scholar in literature, know about the Eleusian Mysteries? Two mythological goddesses were the core of the Mysteries: Demeter and Persephone. And Woman, the female source of life, was the epicenter of the worship…
Joanna returned to the text in her hands.
The poem was separated into small unities of only a few pages each, reminiscent of
stanzas. And there was a title over each unity.
Joanna read some of the titles before her eyes fell on the word «Metembryosis».
One of the verses went:
The slow flowing rivers of the dark night.
And another one, further down:
Here is the gate.
The young woman read a few more verses at random: The beautiful act will be lost, if nobody talks about it… It is a lost battle to try and hide our inbred ways… What can move eternally is not dead…
And then finally Joanna’s gaze stuck on the inconceivable and mysterious word that brought to mind the word «metempsychosis», and she began to read the unmentionable verses related to it.
At the beginning, it seemed to her that the manuscript was embellished with a profusion of pictures and decorations (most of them in fact monstrous, not to say horrific!), but she then realized she had been wrong. What she was looking at were only the tails and crests of the letters themselves, a fanciful ornamentation of the calligraphy! It was undoubtedly an optical illusion, rendered by the exaggeratedly fine-drawn writing ― the product of a gaudy and affected calligraphy of long ago.
The peculiar and uncanny effect of the appearance of the text on Joanna was nothing compared to the commotion and perturbation that overwhelmed her on reading the content of the verses. In fact, when Joanna began to realize what exactly was the subject of the verses, and even more so when she reached the point where the poem described the barbarous and bloody manner in which «metembryosis» was to be achieved, she felt her stomach rising to her throat and a feeling of nausea overcame her.
The verses talked of a woman who had lost her lover. The heartless man had abandoned her, but the woman couldn’t go on living without him. The poet knew her pain, knew how much the woman wanted to keep her lover forever with her. Eternity for mortals lies in Fame and Glory, read the verses. But for these you need to have Talent, Fate and at the same time to Work Hard. On their own, none of these three attributes were any good; all three had to be combined in harmony to bear fruit. Furthermore, Fame and Glory ― the real and true ones ― were unique gifts, given only to a few selected mortals. For the majority of mortals, the way to eternity was another one, one which in fact was not so eternal, but at least it was feasible, and it consisted in obtaining descendants. And here the poet asked the woman if she wanted to have a child, who would be a kind of reincarnation of her lover. This was the only way she could be sure of keeping him eternally…
…or at least as far as it can be humanly possible, Joanna thought, almost with a smile.
Suddenly she shivered.
The verses she had just read had awakened in her a peculiar impression of dj vu. It was as if the poet (assuming he was an genuine ancient hymn composer, and not a more recent author inventing spurious verses) had set about writing these verses specifically for Joanna.
The confusion turned into fear and the young woman was forced to interrupt her reading for a while and close her eyes.
Physically speaking, Joanna’s most obvious imperfection was her nose. It was long and crooked, and sometimes gave one the feeling that it actually turned over to… gaze at her mouth with great curiosity! At other times, this imperfection of hers gave her a peculiar charm, and became a focus of beauty on her face. Just as at other moments, Joanna, obeying an irresistible impulse, lifted one of her arms and, holding the palm of her hand wide open, pressed it against her nose. She would then start rubbing the tip of her nose in circles, with eyes half closed (this gave her the impression that her eyeballs were also going round in circles behind her closed eyelids, following the movement of her hand on her nose). It was a kind of nervous tic she had found impossible to resist.
Joanna now realized she was giving in once more to that habit: frowning and with her eyes closed, she let her outstretched hand describe circles on the tip of her nose.
From then on, things began to move fast.
Joanna opened her eyes, and taking her hand away from her face, she went on reading the verses, with a terrible feeling of sickness in the pit of her stomach. The process of «metembryosis» was not just savage; it was right down murderous!
Lost in a murky, sluggish torpor, as if she was drunk, drugged and hypnotized, all at the same time, Joanna dropped the tattered book and crossed the low-ceiling basement. She never realized when and how she reached the stairs. The Japanese couple were leaving the bookshop at the same moment. Joanna caught up with them half-way up the steps and blindly fell on them. The man lost his balance and tried to regain it by clutching the low piles of books to his left. But he fell on them, and his wife began to scream something in their language. Joanna overtook them unconcerned, without even seeming to realize what she had done. When she reached the top of the stairs, she came out into the street.
When Joanna was a university student, she had read Medea, the tragedy by Euripides. She’d heard of the play back in high school, and had seen it played in the ancient theater of Epidavros ― and had wondered at the admiration it roused. Yes, of course, there were some wonderful verses, high-flown thoughts and so on, it was undoubtedly a pinnacle in the history of man, one of the most significant ancient tragedies, yet… Joanna thought the whole story too incredible.
The deceived and abandoned wife, to take her revenge on her husband, kills not only her rival but her own two children!
The plot made one think of a garish melodrama, a sensational piece of news of the kind cheap newspapers and television channels rave about.
The central character was a woman driven by blind passion who behaved like a person of low standard.
Joanna had always believed such crimes were carried out only by uneducated women in poor neighbourhoods or in remote villages. A woman of high standards could only reach such extremes if she was psychologically ill.
The behaviour of the principal character in the play was simply unacceptable.
And yet, the verses Joanna had just been reading suggested something equally criminal to the woman who would wish to «have a child that would be her lover». The process of «metembryosis» presumed killing the lover, it implied murder.
According to the poem, ― or hymn or whatever it was ― the woman must get her lover to make love to her one last time. At the precise moment of his ejaculation inside her womb, she had to kill him so as to transfer his soul and spirit to the child.
This was the only way to successfully achieve reincarnation, «metembryosis», as the book called it.
How can that be possible! Joanna thought, stopping in her tracks in the middle of the street.
Earlier, when she had been reading those macabre verses in the basement, for a split second she had thought of putting them into practice.
To kill Michalis? To ac-tua-lly KILL him???
This was so unheard of, so completely crazy, that it was almost funny. But what about the rest? Yes, the part about the child? Just imagine! If she did make love one last time with Michalis? And if Joanna got pregnant? What then?
Her heart was beating like a hammer in her chest, she felt her legs giving way.
Suddenly a surge of boundless shame swept over her and she began to rebuke herself.
She despised herself for reaching that point: had then her jealousy and petty hatred of Michalis driven her to this? Was this the natural consequence, the inevitable outcome of her fall? Had she reached the final depravity, point zero?
What? To force him, in spite of his own feelings, to have a child?!?
No, no. She would never fall that low. She would never let herself fall prey to the worse side of her character, not to such an extent. Wasn’t it lucky she had read those verses, how fortunate! The last drop had been spilt in time and she had been able to quench the repulsion she felt towards herself before… before it was too late.
Joanna started off again, and coming out onto Ermou Street, she began walking up towards Constitution Square. Her eyes wandered absently over the clothes in the shop-windows.
I will change, she promised herself. What happened today will be a lesson to me and I will change from now on; I will become another person. I promise I will. I will never allow myself to harbour such thoughts. And if Michalis loves this other girl, let them live their lives. I will consent to the divorce and will try to forget him. Precisely because I love him and… I want to behave with dignity, like a respectable and superior being, like a person of high principles!
Even so «metembryosis» stuck in her mind.
This funny word not only implies something important, she thought, but something…
Yes, this word contained something inconceivably profound and of fundamental importance to Joanna’s own life.
She walked with a steady step now, almost triumphant. She had already reached Constitution Square when, once more, she froze.
She remembered how, long ago, even before getting married, she had had several discussions on this topic with Michalis; he was adamant: «My children are my songs», he had told her. He feared that, giving himself so completely to his work, he would be no good as a father. Not to mention the fact that they would never be able to count on the financial stability necessary to the bringing up of a family. Joanna, who at the time was head over heels in love with him, had willingly given up on the thought. She had managed to convince herself that she did not want children either, and whenever the topic arose with her friends she always declared that Michalis was her child. All artists have a kind of childishness about them, a sort of immatureness mixed with innocence and a freshness that makes them seem like eternal children. «I don’t need another child», Joanna would say with a smile. «One is enough!»
She now came to realize that if they had had a child, everything would have been different. To begin with, they might not have separated. But even if they had, the presence of a child would have kept her from falling into such black depression.
It was quite unbelievable, but she had never before had had such thoughts. She had most effectively stifled the whole subject inside her, had repressed her own feelings. And if she hadn’t read, quite by chance, these crazy verses today, these feelings of hers might never have surfaced. Or at least, they would have surfaced at a much later period.
It was all Michalis’ fault, that was clear. He was to blame for this as well. During all those years with him, she had learned to ignore her own wishes, her own needs, she had learned never to think of herself. Michalis, nothing else existed for her. He dominated her whole being, leaving no room or freedom for anything else. And how had he thanked her for all this?
Without realizing it, Joanna had started walking once more and was now going down Panepistimiou Avenue.
Something like a landslide was taking place inside her. Huge gaps were being ripped open.
Oh God, she wanted a child so badly! It was only now she fully realized it. She had wanted a child all this time, had wanted it hiding her wish from her own self. And in fact, she wanted a child more than she wanted Michalis. She might be in love with Michalis, but there were some sides to his character
(the harsh indifference of
the irresponsible sonofabitch!)
which were right down ugly and repulsive. Whereas the child would only be good and sweet, it would be a sheer delight
(to see it, to touch it!)
to live with. The child would never disappoint her. It would be all hers and nobody would be able to take it away from her.
Oh, yes, they should have had a child. Their relationship deserved it… justified it.
Yes, even today their former union justified it!
If we were to make love again, and I got pregnant, I would have the child, Joanna thought. Not, of course, to blackmail him. Though, maybe when the child would finally be born, Michalis might come back to me. Events might force him to it ― not me. But even if he was to remain unaffected, it wouldn’t matter. What I want is to have a child, a child by Michalis, OUR child. I would bring him up on my own and… I would call him Michalis!
With her head still floating on a cloud, Joanna returned home that Sunday and fell on the couch feeling exhausted. She lay there for a long moment, without doing anything. Her mind was wandering. Her eyes were riveted on the bursting bookshelves of her sitting-room and her thoughts went round and round without concentrating ― when of a sudden an idea flooded her mind like a flash.
The idea had come to her as she rested her eyes on the back of Kafka’s books, pressed against each other on the first shelf of the bookcase.
The process of «metembryosis», that dark ritual described by the (genuine or not) hymn to the Eleusian Mysteries, was a metaphor. Yes, obviously. This was poetry, the author was using a figure of speech that was not to be taken literally. It was an allegory, a kind of parableΙ just like in Kafka!
The murder of the lover was symbolic, or figurative if you like. Certainly not factual. The abandoned woman was to kill him metaphorically: that is to say, she was to obliterate him, forget him, and from then on live only for his child. That was the meaning of the verses and all the «metembryosis» rubbish was there just to gild the pill. Since you couldn’t have the father, you might as well imagine that he had to die to be reborn ― in spirit and body ― in the child.
That’s just how simple it was. To think that Joanna had taken all the murderous details seriously, believing that the poet was inviting her to follow step by step what he was saying, as if this was the instructions for use of some kind of device. How silly of her!
It now occurred to her that maybe the reading, and even learning by heart, of this ritual could have a meaning after all: it might have a catalytic effect in getting her to conceive a child.
Yes, looking at it carefully, the content of the verses was enough to convince oneself and perchance bring oneself to conceive, even if one was to make love once and only once more… with Michalis.
It seemed reasonable to believe that this had been the use of the text at a time when the people were still uncivilized and uneducated. A kind of magic spell that, it was believed, increased the possibilities of getting pregnant. But even if this was not the case, the idea was a good one and Joanna could perfectly well adopt it.
Besides it could well be that in those years of old, it was believed that with this hymn, through this spell, the woman would most certainly conceive a boy, thereby ensuring the full «metembryosis» of her lover, to the point of having a child of the same sex!
All these thoughts whirled in her mind, until she finally fell asleep there, on the couch.
TO BE CONTINUED