I was fifteen years old and in love with my teacher. The year was 1945, and it was the beginning of April. My village had been occupied—as had the whole of Greece—by the German army since 1941. The school didn’t function at all during those years. The two teachers had been taken away by the Germans, and no replacements arrived. One of those teachers was my father. We didn’t know if he was alive, or already dead. Mom cried at night and took care of me and our home during the day. It was just the two of us. Mom and me. A retired lawyer sometimes gave lessons in history and Greek. Not in the school; the Germans had turned it into a barracks. We would occasionally gather at his house, but more often at his café in the square in the afternoons, as the lawyer tried to revive himself with several cups of coffee after his siesta. He drank them “heavy, without bubbles,” which means without sugar and well stirred. It’s not easy to say what we learned during those lessons, although we did become particularly adept at card games.
Miss arrived on one such afternoon, on the bus from Athens. The mayor came to meet her. She was a young woman, as thin as a strip of light, even though she was dressed in black from top to toe. I fell in love immediately, however weird that sounds. This was our new teacher, which was a good sign. Life would get back to normal again. But not for everyone. For me it meant that Dad would probably never return, and I prepared myself for even more sleepless nights with Mom sobbing in the room next door.
My only consolation was Miss. I never tired of gazing at her. She was small, dark, with burning eyes and beautiful hands, which she liked to move often. Officially we called her Miss, unofficially the Witch, because she could get the village’s bad-tempered, cowering dogs to stop barking. Otherwise they would even bark at their own shadow.
It was Dimitra, my childhood playmate, who delivered the diagnosis.
“She’s a witch,” she said, and that was that.
The year was 1945, as I said. The Second World War was nearing its end, the German army was retreating on all fronts, but we knew nothing about that, and life in the village continued as normal. The German soldiers were no longer so alien, and there were fewer and fewer of them with each passing day. Some were killed fighting the partisans, while others were sent off to the Eastern Front.
With the permission of the German captain, lessons were now held in the school a short distance outside the village. That was where it all began.
It was a sunny day, the windows were open, we could see the German flag fluttering gently in the playful breeze. Miss was in the middle of explaining that transitive verbs require the genitive case, and gave a popular saying as an example: “Early each morning the happy housewife busies herself with her home. ‘Her home’ must therefore be in the genitive case.”
“Bad example,” muttered Dimitra, who had never seen her mom looking happy in the morning. She also detested all rules, particularly grammatical ones.
“Handcuffs for the imagination,” she called them.
Miss took the opposite view. Her primary duty and pleasure was to teach us our language.
“Being Greek means knowing the Greek language,” she said.
When we heard the roar of planes, we weren’t worried. We assumed they were German. There was a temporary airfield in the village, built by the Germans for their transport needs during the Battle of Crete. Both my grandfather and my uncle had been forced to work there, like most local men. My father would have had to do the same, but he was stuck in some prison, if he was still alive.
We were sitting in the classroom when the first bomb fell, making the windows rattle. We were more curious than afraid, and rushed outside to see where it had landed. The first victim was a donkey laden with wood. Her big belly had been split in two, and she lay there kicking all four legs in the air as she slowly died.
The planes were not German. They were British.
The next bomb hit the school’s primitive outside toilet, sending turds flying all around us along with dead mice and rats. Miss, who had come out with us, shouted that we must run to the cave if we didn’t want to die.
We didn’t want to die. The cave lay around a hundred yards from the school, a little way into a ravine that cut through the village. We all knew where it was. We used to play cops and robbers there, among other things, and we would sometimes spy on the courting couples who sought sanctuary inside.
The class consisted of six boys and just one girl—Dimitra. Seven of us. “A good number,” Miss said. “God created the world in seven days.”
So there were the seven of us plus Miss in the cave. It was cramped, dark, damp, and crawling with all kinds of bugs. We huddled close together. I sat right next to Dimitra. Miss went and stood in front of us in the opening to the cave; the light from outside fell on her, and she looked like one of the stern angels in the village church.
The bombs continued to fall. We heard explosions, the roar of the planes, the German siren, and then the bell ringer decided to take the opportunity to sound the alarm. He had loved sounding the alarm even before the war, when spontaneous fires would break out in the valley in the summer. His life acquired a meaning, so to speak, even if he went deaf as a result.
Miss seemed calm, and waited until our agitated chatter had died down.
“Listen, this might take a while. And that’s fine by me. Ever since I was at university I’ve dreamed of this: having a class all to myself. There’s nothing to do here, nothing to see. There’s just you and me.”
Dimitra was right; she was a witch. Our eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, we could see one another, and above all we could see Miss, standing before us in her black short-sleeved dress, her lovely white arms moving like gulls.
“When I was your age, an old man came to our school one day and read aloud to us from The Iliad, which you might have heard of. It’s about the war between Troy, a city on the other side of the Aegean Sea, and the Greeks, or the Achaeans as they were called in those days. The man who came to us was a professional performer of epic poetry, a rhapsodist. He went around schools talking about Homer, who wrote The Odyssey and The Iliad, and reading extracts aloud. It is said that blind Homer did the same. He would travel from town to town declaiming from his poems, and people would rush out of their houses to listen to him. So I thought I would do that too. I will tell you the story of The Iliad from memory for as long as we’re sitting here. It’s not as if we have anything else to do.”
That was true. We didn’t have anything else to do in the cave, apart from trying to protect ourselves from the assorted bugs.
“So when was this war?” Dimitra asked.
“It was a very long time ago—more than three thousand years,” Miss replied.
Dimitra sighed. “Can’t wait.”
Miss took no notice. I didn’t think it sounded very exciting either, but as I said, we didn’t have much else to do, so Miss began her story.
The sun was shining on the camps of the Achaeans, but their mood was far from sunny. In front of them loomed the high, imposing, and beautiful walls of Troy. They had been attacking those walls for almost ten years; many good men on both sides had perished in fierce conflicts. But the decisive battle remained.
The Trojans were fighting for their lives, the Achaeans for their honor. Perhaps that didn’t weigh quite so heavily. The armies were exhausted, the men were missing their families, their homes, and their fields. Homesickness might not be a real illness, but it has the same debilitating effect on all of us. The men lost weight, their eyes and cheeks became increasingly sunken. Their teeth fell out, their mouths disappeared beneath mustaches, their breath could bring a dead serpent back to life, they suffered from chronic constipation or the reverse, their hair grew thin.
Their conversations were increasingly monotonous and vulgar. If someone scratched his head, someone else always commented that it was a sign of the cuckold’s horns poking through. The wives were all alone back home, and everyone knew what could happen in those circumstances.
The men tried to keep up their spirits, but the songs they sang in the evenings were often mournful. The only thing that had improved over the years was the bond of friendship. They endured everything together, one man’s shield protecting his comrade. One man’s death frequently led to the demise of the other. As I said, almost ten years had passed, and the beautiful walls of Troy had proved impenetrable.
Things were different for the Trojans. They returned to their families after each battle, to their wives and children; their wives were famed for their slender waists, and with good reason. Proud and straight-backed in their long robes, they were waiting by the door when their men came home. The marble bath was filled with water from mountain springs, warmed and soothing. The women washed the dust, the sweat, the stench of blood from their men, who were kissed and caressed and loved. That was how they had survived the siege for almost ten years, and they knew they could survive ten more.
It is one thing to fight on home ground, a different matter entirely to wage war in a foreign land. The question was not how long Troy could withstand the Achaeans’ siege but how long the Achaeans could continue.
In other words, their leader, Agamemnon, knew that something must be done—but he didn’t know what. A suspicion he dared not put into words, not even to himself, weighed heavily upon him. He summoned the other kings and generals to his tent.
They too had their suspicions. Almost all of them had committed one or more shameful deeds during those nine years: They had killed in stealth, robbed poor farmers, stolen away women and children.
Deep down in their souls, doubt was eating away at them. Was this a just war? Should they drown the city in blood simply because Paris, the son of King Priam of Troy, had seduced or abducted Helen?
Admittedly she was the most beautiful woman who had ever lived; she was even thought to be lovelier than Aphrodite herself, the goddess of love. One hundred and nineteen suitors from all over the world had courted her. Helen’s father, Tyndareus, had not dared to choose one, for fear of war breaking out among the rest. Therefore he left the choice to Helen, while at the same time demanding that every suitor swear a solemn oath, promising that whoever Helen married, all the rest would defend that individual, and if anyone stole her away from her home and her husband, they would embark upon a war and lay waste the abductor’s city, no matter whether he was an Achaean or a barbarian.
And so the great day came when Helen chose broad-shouldered Menelaus, King of Sparta. She went up to him and placed a wreath of early-spring flowers upon his fair hair.
It was a good marriage in every respect.
Helen and Menelaus lived a happy life. They had seven children, and she grew more beautiful with each passing day.
It was said that the yellow sunflower and the blue chicory in her garden bowed down before her when she walked by late in the afternoon. The birds stopped singing, and even the great river Eurotas ceased its swirling so that she could admire her reflection in its crystal-clear waters.
It is also said that the devil has many legs, but the Fates have more. One day Menelaus received a visit from Paris, the son of King Priam of Troy. The two kings knew each other,
so it was only natural that Menelaus should welcome Paris, who said that his ship had been badly damaged by a storm off the infamous Cape Maleas, and that he had been forced to abandon it. None of them could have imagined what the consequences of this visit would be.
Miss paused and inhaled deeply, as if she’d been holding her breath while she was telling her story. She went over to the opening of the cave and looked out. “Things seem to have calmed down; you can go home now. We’ll continue tomorrow.”
Dimitra and I walked home together. We’d known each other forever. We’d played “doctors and nurses,” inspected each other’s private parts. She was my oldest friend, and I was hers. We were like brother and sister.
“So what do you think of the Witch?” she asked. I wasn’t sure what to say. “She’s got a nice voice.”
Everything was back to normal in the square. The German captain and the mayor were enjoying a glass of ouzo before dinner. So were all the other men. Young women were strolling along arm in arm, allowing themselves to be admired. It was as if nothing had happened.