GIORGOS PHILIPPOU PIERIDES
The Orange Grove
This spot of the coast of Cyprus is a blessed place. Obedient sandy soil, good water and the sea breezes which tame the cold of winter. All that is necessary for planting orange trees. A place covered with orchards. A green ribbon surrounding the golden sands which embrace with a semicircle of yellowness the bay and vanish abruptly on the sharp edges of the rocky isthmus. In March when the spring breezes blow from inland, the salty sea wind aquires a tinge of flowery sweetness, the scent of blossoms which spreads about a couple of miles alongside the mouth of the bay.
An orange plantation may be just a word. But how to turn this word into reality is something known only to people like Petri who have dedicated a whole lifetime to the soil and the trees. Indeed it is not possible, with relation to orchards, to separate these three fundamental elements, man, soil and tree, from each other. Thus Petri tended his trees, and an orange grove covered with green and gold, the farthest reach of the verdant ribbon alongside the demarcation line on the sharp edges of the rocky isthmus.
When he had become independent from his father and directed all his energy towards the acquisition of his own field, he had been a bit advanced in years – just turned thirty. He had not been able to go his own way earlier on account of his two sisters whom he was duty bound to look after until a suitable husband was found for each. Both women had married late, and yet Petri had never grumbled. This was not due, on his part, to any goodness or punctiliousness towards those who needed his protection. It was not so. The truth of the matter is that Petri was one of those solid people who simply forge ahead, plodding on along the road ordained by fate, regardless of the difficulties. He was also one of those solitary individuals who lead their own lives, not giving a rap about others and thus earn their respect. So he pursued his own course, mulishly, silently and heavy handedly. He made one concession: he adopted the pattern of life of the community. But this was because he knew no other way of life. He got his two sisters married, divided the family property between them and entrusted them with the care of the two old people. Then, without respite, he made the sign of the cross, spat on his hands and went about having his orchard. He planted those trees, grafted them, fenced them in, built himself a small house and got married. What matters then that he pursued his own course at thirty instead of twenty? It was the same course, even with regard to his inner life. What really mattered was the deep communion between his soul and the soil and the trees, to such an extent that he was unable to discriminate between his toil and the eagerness of a sapling to take root in the soil, or feel any difference between his pain and the suffering of a tree afflicted with one of the many vegetal diseases. Even in sleep he harkened to the vigorous rustling of his trees, joyously, feeling that they had had their fill of water and were growing sturdy.
His belated independence was the cause of a single departure from the familiar way of life. Petri was well past his thirtyfifth year when his wife, who was about thirty herself, gave birth to their first and only child, a boy. The two middle-aged parents doted upon their son Artemi: they set on him affections which were new to them and which had been pent up, unknown and beyond understanding, in the very depths of their hearts. The seeds of a boundless love were sown in the mother’s heart and a number of new ideas got hold of Petri’s mind. Thus the only son, Artemi, was pampered by his mother in a manner unknown to boys of his age, and from Petri he got permission to attend the secondary school in the city, an hour’s walk from the village.
The flow of new ideas did not stop in Petri’s head. He had made up his mind to send the boy away to complete his education after the secondary stage. It was a sort of spontaneous decision which he had not discussed with anyone, even with himself. It was a recognized fact, never to be discussed. “Let him finish secondary school first, then we’ll see”, he would tell himself, his hand hanging in the air, holding the pruning knife, a smile twinkling in his eyes: then he would resume his pruning.
It was a strange world Petri now lived in, a world divided between his dedication to the land and his dreams for Artemi. He was equally dedicated to both causes and never wavered for a minute. Indeed each cause was a life unto itself, and he was leading both with the same stolidity. Petri’s two lives were united in his primitive mind, not because there was anything in common between them, but because there was nothing to set them apart. It was as if his dreams had opened a window through which a new light poured and flooded his heart.
Thus the years passed. The orange trees spread their branches and twined their leaves. Artemi, at eighteen, was a dark-skinned, reticent, grave youth who looked very much like his father. He had obtained his secondary certificate, and the more he grew up and thrived the more Petri’s heart was flooded with the light of hope and confidence, as if the son’s success was a confirmation of the father’s success in his orchard.
But of late a new wind had been blowing, uprooting people and turning their heads. It was as if a thunderous call was issuing from the very depths of time, a harbinger of the hour of doom. No longer was the immemorial framework of daily life spacious enough for the good people of the Island. In the coffee shops, the market place, the houses, even the places of work and the schools there was a hubbub of warnings, expectations and challenges which lifted the souls high above the logic of compromise and routine. The younger men had drawn the sword of enthusiasm and they went seeking opportunities of sacrifice and great deeds. They were on the move, never still for a moment. They would step aside and start whispering among themselves. Then they would jump on their bicycles and pedal away in the direction of the city. Artemi was among them.
Petri had his suspicions concerning this hectic activity from the very beginning, but he kept his mouth shut and, like a wild animal, was sniffing in the air the signs of an oncoming storm. And yet he kept his peace, waiting for his son, following with his mind’s eye wherever he went, but when his wife tried to give tongue to her fears for the safety of their fearless son, he rebuked her. „Let him be, woman“, he said, „he knows what he is doing. Or would you rather that a man like him should turn back and come hide behind your skirts? However, little by little his reticence was tamed by a feeling that this uprising, of which his son had become a part, was erupting from the very roots of his own existence, from the depths, the farthest depths, where the elixir of his being a Greek was brewed.
On an autumn day, somnolent in the warmth of the sun, Petri was sitting on his doorstep mending his ancient pump. As soon as he could find the time for it, he would fumigate his trees with sulphur. The garden gate was pushed open and two panting boys stood in front of him, twirling their school caps in their hands. Fear clawed at his heart, looking at the two scared boyish faces, but he did not show it. He just looked at them, waiting for them to talk. At last they did, or, rather, one of them. The words came tumbling from his lips. He had probably prepared some sort of speech on the way to Petri’s house, but now it was forgotten. Disjointedly he told his tale of woe: the students – a demonstration – the security forces – shots, and Artemi, who was leading the demonstration, holding the flag, had fallen. Two other boys were wounded, but Artemi had fallen! The boy repeated this in a wailing, unbelieving voice.
Petri understood at last. He got up, a steel shaft of cold anger rising within him, a scream tearing dementedly at his throat, but when the mother, who had heard, screamed and tried to rush out of the house, he held her, stopping, embracing, with a tenderness he had never experienced before and led her back into the house where he helped her to sit down.
Everything that followed, on that day and the day after, seemed to Petri to be taking place in a zone cut off from his life, where nothing had an end or a beginning, for the moment, every moment, was charged with tremors that overflowed, possessed and directed everything. In the midst of the great sorrow which crushed his heart he felt as if he were being upheld by a vast and limitless resemblance between his tragedy and the universal pulse of everything about him.
But when Artemi had been buried, night fell, and the people who had come to console, left, one by one, with a slight pressing of the hand or a murmured word that said nothing. After midnight the two old parents were left alone. No one was there to stand by them in their great sorrow. It was then that Petri felt that he had descended to the familiar zone, the zone of everyday life. He turned and looked at the mother who sat silently, numbly, her heart broken and a feeling of utter futility weighing down upon her. His heart went out to her again with that strange tenderness, and in his blood stirred a wistful yearning to caress her. This appeared to him sinful and he curbed it.
Quite soon the mother, crushed by sorrow and fatigue, lay down, trying to sleep, but Petri, for whom the world had become too narrow, opened the door and went out to his orchard. He was overwhelmed by the sight of his trees palpating with life, giving forth their familiar scent in the moonlight. He was carried away, as always, to the world of his trees. This was the sweetest hour of the night, the hour before dawn, heralding the imminent break of day. The crickets went on weaving their sonorous pattern on the shawl of silence. A hen beat its wings in the hencoop. From afar he heard the bellowing of an ox. Then the horizon was tinged with a crystal hue. Petri noticed the stillness. It was dry weather and time for the fumigation of his trees. This, all of a sudden, was the thought uppermost in the mind of the peasant who had awakened in him. Spontaneously he put the thought into action. He went to the shack where he kept his tools, took the fumigation pump and went to work.
The pump filled the silence of that hour with a strange noise, like a monotonous obstinate rattle in the throat of a dying creature, and yet there was an undertone in it which exhorted the sun, when rising and giving his light to the world, to give clear meaning to everything.
From the collection of short stories ”Hard Times”, 1963