Jesus and the apostles had to be saved. Rodoula was determined. The thick drops of rain burst on her scalp, amongst sparse gray hair, and ran down her temples and into the creases of her face. There, concealed behind a curtain of raindrops and vine leaves, with keen eyes and her old mouth crooked with anticipation, she watched and waited.
“Amartoli” hissed Rodoula, when Souzana first moved in the neighborhood, ten years ago. “You will burn in hell! Amartoli!”
She continued to call her a sinner to her face long after she had settled. “Amartoli,” she called upon her when they met face to face in the street; “Amartoli” when she saw her sitting in the semidarkness, under the thick doorframe, in her negligee and high heels, her brown plump thighs exposed to the world; “Amartoli” when she was referring to her during long discussions about ethics, and Jesus, and the church at the cafeneio.
“Remember that Jesus forgave Mary Magdalene,” one would tell her. “Let the one who has not sinned cast the first stone,” another would add, but Rodoula wouldn’t hear any of it.
The new arrivals in the area caught her unprepared. She owned the cafeneio on the corner since 1960 and the passing decades, brushing her drooping shoulders, gave her the right to have a say—or so she thought.
Within the walls there was no homogeneity any more. Nicosia within the walls, had become home to all breeds—Arab workers, Chinese students, Greek-Cypriot refugees, merchants, shop-owners, prostitutes. A new caste of people was being spawned.
Soon, bit-by-bit, Rodoula learnt to cope with the new state of affairs—she didn’t have a choice. She learnt to live next door to Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Indians, Philipinos and Pontians. She got used to their fights during the small hours of the day, their yelling dashing out of open windows at noon, their gatherings outside money exchange services and call centers, their fiestas in the public garden, the penetrating smells of their foods. They came at the cafeneio. They called “Mamma” and waved when they passed by. She liked that.
Prostitutes were a different story. They were nothing but plain filth. Whenever she passed by Souzana’s house, she would walk as fast as she could, as though sin would catch up with her, carrying her weight with difficulty, whizzing like an asthmatic, the fat in her arms and legs quaking to the rhythm of her steps. She walked fast as though the filth would rush behind her and drench her.
Souzana’s high door stood forever agape and the embroidery depicting the last supper hanging on the living room wall, in between the electrical wiring and that spot where plaster had chipped off, always caught her eye. “Blasfemy!” she would hiss and wonder what on earth Jesus and his apostles were doing in a prostitute’s temple of sin. She would cross herself three times and press her palm on the golden crucifix hanging on her bosom, making sure that Jesus was still there with her.
Souzana wasn’t her real name, but she had kept it anyway since “Souzana,” they told her, suited her better.
Her small house, within the walls of the Old City of Nicosia, previously belonged to an elderly woman who had passed on and her children cut her a deal, in their poor English, for 50 pounds a month—the house, with its worn out couch and the rest of its scrawny furniture. Who else wanted to live within the walls but whores and outcasts, they thought. They didn’t care that her skin had the color of night nor that she was making a living on their mother’s deathbed.
Even though she didn’t believe in God much nor in Jesus and the saints, Souzana didn’t find it proper to take down the embroidery of the last supper from the living-room wall. The old woman who put it there, most probably ages ago, had faith and she respected that.
Sometimes when she had time in between her customers, she would gaze upon the calm faces of Jesus and the apostles with scrutiny, wondering if any part of their tale was true at all. She would then light a cigarette and blow the smoke right into Jesus’ face, as though to stir some sort of reaction.
She also left the icons hanging on the bedroom wall—dark-skinned scrawny saints in colorful robes and halos stuck in their heads, stared at her while she worked. She tended to them—the icons that is. She dusted them, straightened them when they were crooked as though they were hers all along. She liked the smell of their waxy surface.
Her customers were young soldiers mostly—both from the National Guard and the United Nations. Cypriot middle-aged men came in once in a while. To some Cypriot friends from the neighborhood, like Pantelis the barber and Andreas the coffin maker she sometimes provided her services for free.
In the beginning, after those minutes of gasping, heaving, and moaning on top of her, they felt they had a responsibility, since she was a foreigner, to teach her Cypriot history. They would tell her about the time the Englezoi were in Cyprus and about the rebellion against them. They would tell her about their heroes, about Afxentiou, and Grivas, and Makarios—whose portraits hang on the walls of their shops next to calendars with pictures of naked women. Then they would ask her about the heroes back in her country but they didn’t pay much attention to what she had to say.
They were good men who loved their wives, but loved their children even more. Andreas was bragging about his daughter who entered the Panepistemio, and talked about how he would take a loan so she could pursue her Masters in England. Pantelis talked about his sons a lot. One of them was a soldier.
“Andreas, what is amartoli?”
“Amartoli kori, you don’t know? A woman who make sin. Who tell you?”
“Nooo Kori!” Andreas’ flabby belly wobbled as he laughed. “You good girl! Who tell you?”
“Ouuu,” he would exclaim. “I told her, you good girl but she don’t believe. She woman of the church. She don’t understand.”
Sometimes, when she was alone with Jesus, and his apostles, and the saints she lit candles—despite the fact she didn’t believe much. Numerous flickering flames reverberated in the darkness, casting their light on the serene faces—hers and the holy ones’. She would sit amongst the shadows and ponder on Rodoula’s revulsion toward her. She would wonder whether under different circumstances she would call her “Mamma” just like the other foreigners in the neighborhood. She wished she could.
From her seat in the semidarkness many times did she study the features of Rodoula’s face when she rushed by. It reminded her that of her mother’s. Time was nestling in its folds and creases, weighing on the corners of her mouth making her look forever sad. Her arms were heavy, under layers of fat, resting on the sides of her sagging breasts.
She would then squeeze her eyes shut until she heard the whispers of the vast ocean back home. She would let the cleansing waves lean softly against her body and infiltrate through her skin, leaving the tingly sensation of their foam on a wished-for self of hers curled somewhere very deep inside her.
It was Sunday afternoon—God’s day—and the narrow alleys within the walls were empty. The gutters spat out murky water on the pavement and the air smelled of woodchips and mud-bricks. The raindrops evaporated as soon as they landed on the hot limestone, creating a thin veil of humidity, which hovered over the surface of the asphalt.
Rodoula squinted as though to get a better view. She could swear that Jesus and the apostles were gaping at her as though in anticipation. She pressed her palm on the golden crucifix nestling in between her breasts.
She watched Souzana as, unaware of her presence, stood barefoot on the threshold, her back leaning against the doorframe. Stray drops of rain fell on her shoulders. She watched her as she slowly, hesitantly, moved to the side and stuck her toe into the filthy water gashing out of the gutter—just a tiny brown toe into the filth.
Her stare wondered through the door and into the dark interior. Candles spread their modest light in the room, on the old furniture, on Jesus’ kind face. The room appeared warm and inviting like a church.
Now was the moment to run and save Jesus and the apostles but Rodoula’s weight suddenly became unbearable. The raindrops felt warm on her skin. “Now was the time!” a voice screamed from inside of her, but her limbs were unwilling to obey. The raindrops drenched her dress, her skin, they entered every pore of her massive existence.
Souzana extended her leg into the rain. She turned her small brown foot right and left letting the rain wash the filth from her toe. Moments later, as though on a second thought, she took a step forward. Raindrops now rolled down her forehead, onto her closed eyelids, into her palms. She opened her mouth and drunk and then sang a song in a language that Rodoula could not recognize. Souzana walked down the alley. Her figure evaporated in the mist. Her song was still heard in the distance.
“Now is the time to save Jesus and the apostles,” screamed the voice inside her.
Rodoula cautiously stepped out from behind the vine tree. Jesus and the apostles gazed upon her from behind the candle’s flickering light. Their faces were peaceful. The voice inside her was no longer heard. All she could hear was a girl’s song in the distance.
She raised her face to the sky, thick drops of rain landed on her eyelids and into her mouth as she smiled. Jesus and the apostles need not be saved. She knew it in her gut.