The clock on the bar’s wall has four hands, and none of them is moving. The wall opposite it is covered in a smoked mirror reflecting the honey-gold bottles, the low-hanging chandelier, the red carnations on the tables. Things it does not reflect: the long-haired barman, the nun in the white habit smoking on a bar stool, and me.
I collapse on a chair and struggle to get a grip.
I look at my feet: they are here. The last thing I remember is the mortar shells hitting the trench, Yiorgos’s face broken in a thousand pieces of light and blood, the pain in my thighs and my boots cast away, full of flesh, my own flesh.
I look at my boots now and they are where they should be, on my feet, polished to the nines.
I am dead, we are both dead, Yiorgos and I, and this is the waiting room of Hell, and the worst is, I am here alone and he is nowhere to be seen.
I bury my face in my hands, open and close my mouth, and no sound comes out.
“Shall I buy you a drink?”
I lift my eyes and the nun stands above me, one hand already on the chair, the other holding her cigarette. Without waiting for an answer she sits down, lifts her hand leaving a trail of smoke, and signals the barman to get us two drinks.
“Magdalene,” she introduces herself, and thankfully my fingers are too numb for I wouldn’t know if I should shake her hand or kiss it.
“I’m Leandros,” I say, standing still. “I am dead,” I add, and the realization reaches my toenails.
“For the time being, yes.” She blows some smoke through perfectly painted lips and looks at me.
The barman brings over two glasses. Whiskey for her, honeyed raqi for me. My glass looks ancient, made of brass and engraved with bees, but I care not; I just down it. It burns, and I start coughing. When my eyes clear, I see her behind the red carnations drinking slowly, her blue eyes pinned on me, waiting.
“Where am I?” I say, half my throat still burning.
“On the border,” she says, and I needn’t ask what border.
“Yiorgos?” I ask, and my voice dies upon the question. I wonder if they found our bodies side by side, and if there was anything left to take back to our parents.
She looks at me a bit more, now misty-eyed. She turns to the barman. He swallows a sigh and then nods yes before turning back to his glasses.
“Would you like to see him again?”
My heart begins to pound in my chest. My turn to nod. My mouth is full of thorns. She leans towards me, and the adrenaline inside me overflows.
“What would you give up for that?”
“What is your price?”
“Do you see the clock on the wall?”
Of course I do. It’s huge, its heavy frame carved with crow feathers and bees, and I dare not look at it too long for fear the hands will start moving again.
“The barman is an old friend. If I ask him, he will let me turn the hands backwards. Only for a little bit. I can do a minute, but it will be enough for you to roll behind the sacks of sand and save yourself.” She pauses. “It will even be enough to grab Yiorgos, persuade him to leave, and start running.”
“Start running? Why not stay and fight?”
“Because no man from your platoon survives today. The only way to save yourself is to abandon the trench.”
I laugh, and the sound startles me. “You want me to be a deserter? With the enemy at the gates, coming for my home?”
She nods. “If you don’t, you will both end up dead anyway.”
She is right, of course. This particular battle is unwinnable, and the colonels, knowing that, have grouped all the undesirables together and sent us over the top. I should be on my knees, kissing the nun’s hands, even if she is the Devil herself offering me deals. But I think of all the other faces in the trenches, touch the bee-engraved glass, and answer not.
“And what do you want in return?” I ask.
“What I already told you. Get away, and live.”
“Why?” The question flies out of my mouth before I catch it, and hovers between us like a sick black bird.
I wish I hadn’t spoken.
She looks at me and orders two more drinks.
“Why not?” she asks and the question is a breath between her lips.
Because we have been at war for five whole years, and I have forgotten how to live. Because if I get away from the trenches, I will always be branded a deserter. Because Yiorgos is engaged to a girl back in Capital, and when the war is over we will part, and I am not sure I don’t prefer us dying like heroes side by side. We will be buried with medals on our gravestones and be free from the things that await people like us.
I lower my eyes. How is it possible to be offered your life back and still refuse it?
“I know,” I hear her say. “Once war-touched, you can’t turn your back on him, can you? But since we have all the time in the world, let me tell you a story.”
When I was young, I fell in love with two things: a handsome prince and a nunnery. The nunnery was built by a very clever bishop, who knew women well. When the time came to fill it up with nuns, he went from castle to castle and took the younger daughters aside. Do you want a place to be, where you will serve neither father nor husband? Do you want not to die in childbirth? Do you want to spend your days as you yourselves wish, full of art and music, no one telling you what to do?
No man sang promises as sweet in any ballad. My handsome prince was waging war at the borders; fighting against those bearing the flag with the blackbird and the wreath of red carnations. He had to, because they were worshipping the Queen of the Crows instead of our own God, the proper God. From battle to battle and from carnage to march, it had been a whole long year since his last loving letter. So one day I persuaded my father to give me half my dowry, climbed my coach, and took the way to the nunnery, where I put on my white habit.
I had never been happier. The bishop left us alone and made sure no one ever bothered us. We had our own Garden of Eden, enclosed within the forest leaves. We played music, illustrated holy books, made our own wine and then drank all of it under the stars. Some had brought their lovers as maids, some fell in love there, and others imagined the angels to be their lovers. From time to time deserters from the war found their way to the nunnery, and we made sure they had a very, very good time before sending them on their way.
Why are you looking at me like that? Because they didn’t teach you that in church? Much help that has been to you.
One time, we got caught. An archbishop came without warning and caught us sleeping, with the sun at mid-sky. Three soldiers were still half-naked in the garden, trying to sober up before taking the way home. The archbishop threatened to burn us all. I happened to be Mother Superior at that time—my dowry was large, you see—and so he announced loudly I would end up at the river with boulders sewn in my stomach. What a pity he met with an accident, while returning to the capital. They still haven’t found his bones, even today.
You’re looking at me again. As if you would’ve done any different.
Two years after that, my prince came to my door. I saw Death crown his head from afar like a black halo, like the one you have. I didn’t want him. I wanted him. He smelled of the outside world, all smoke and soil. I told him to stay the night. It was dangerous out there—hadn’t he heard of the poor Archbishop who got lost on his way back, and who no one ever found?
He stayed three nights, and not once did we step out of my room. I would have kept him inside me if I could have, buried him between my legs. When he finally left, we wrote to each other every day. We hid the letters inside books, inside empty wine bottles, under the messengers’ saddles. Three months later he came back, and then came back again, and again. He begged me to return with him—he would repay my dowry to the bishop. I begged him to abandon the war—it had gone on and on for thirty years, starting before we were ever born, and it wouldn’t finish even by our grandchildren’s time.
He answered that he was doing it for me. If the devotees of the Queen of Crows reached the nunnery, he said, they would leave none of us alive. They would have their way with us, and then they would sacrifice us all in her sacred crossroads, where at night her blackbirds roam, where they would make beehives out of our skulls.
Won’t you listen to that nonsense.
On the last night that I saw him alive and well, we picked a fight worse than usual, and he left angry. He told me he would marry a foreign lady, to give him children, and I told him I would forget him before the wedding bells faded. We were lying, both of us. I had some very angry talks with God in those days. Not that I ever believed in God, but the two of us would occasionally have a glass of wine together late at night, when all was quiet. I must have angered Him with my nagging because several months after, they carried my prince to my threshold, dying.
Just like you are dying now.
I remember the sight: the cart, the attendants carrying the flag at half-staff. His father the King was heading the march, and he stood before me, his head bare, without a crown or a helm. He knelt before me and told me his son had been wounded, and he was dying. The only thing he had asked for, before the long fever carried him to sleep, was to leave his last breath in our nunnery, and to be buried in our garden.
I asked how he was wounded. They fell over themselves trying to tell me. He was, they said, the first to reach the enemy’s palace, draped as it was with the banner of the Queen of Crows. And once inside, he had drawn his sword and fought the foreign king hand-to-hand. The steps, they told me breathlessly, were painted scarlet with their blood. And in the end he had killed the enemy King, broken his wooden crown adorned with crow feathers, but not before receiving the wound that had now carried him to my door white like a prayer sheet long forgotten in the sun.
I asked them to bring him inside the temple and place him before the Holy of Holies. They left the foreign King’s sword lying beside him. You know, if you spread the right balm on the blade that hurt you, the wound is immediately healed.
How is it my business if in your time it doesn’t happen like that anymore? In my time it did. It’s not my fault you have forgotten half of what we taught you.
So, I spread the balm on the blade, yet nothing happened. His breath remained as shallow as a puddle in the summer. I looked at the wound again; what could I do better than the doctors?
And so I started praying. I apologized to God. I swore to leave my nunnery, to go to another and live on bread and water, to sleep among the ashes. The prince didn’t recover even a hint of color. I told God that if he didn’t want me at all, such as I was, I would abandon nunneries completely. I would get married, have children, keep my mouth shut, perish in childbirth. I would do whatever it was he wanted us women to do, and I would die as he commanded, praising his name.
My prince didn’t open his eyes even then. He breathed heavily, like you do now, and the candlelight on his skin was more alive than he was.
I thought of taking the sword, covered as it was in useless balm, and finishing him off. I thought of falling on the sword myself. I thought of all the foolish things people consider when they want to avoid what they really need to do.
And on the third night I put on my cape, took the foreign King’s sword, picked a few things from the garden, and left the nunnery.
It wasn’t an easy journey. The ghost of the Archbishop I had murdered began following me halfway through the trip. You see, he couldn’t cross the nunnery’s walls, but now he had caught me outside, alone. His head was broken in a strange angle, and his hands were cold as ice as they tugged at my skirts. Thankfully he was scared of the holy symbols even in death, and my habit was enough to keep him at bay. I stopped hearing his curses long before I reached the crossroads.
And when I was there alone, I placed the red carnations in a circle, I called upon the Queen of Crows, and I waited.
She wasn’t what I expected our enemies’ Goddess to be. They depicted her as a Queen crowned in ebony feathers; as a warrior witch, a demon. I saw an old woman clad in a cape of feathers painted black, rough five-jointed fingers, two mongrels at her feet. Only her eyes were blacker than the void between the stars as she looked down at me.
I fell on my knees and began weeping.
She touched her unnatural hand upon my head and didn’t speak a single word. And when I stopped wailing like a baby, she named her price.
I accepted it, kissed her hand, and she offered me a handful of bees and told me what to do, word for word.
I took my horse and rode back into the night. The Archbishop cowered when faced with the angry buzzing of the bees flying like a wreath around my head. And when I reached the nunnery, the King saw them and turned white as death but didn’t ask where I had been. He let me get inside the temple, and I closed the door behind me.
I let the bees fly over my prince’s head, and they spread around the church, as if they were gathering in their wings the light from our candles. And then suddenly they flew like an arrow and burrowed into his mouth, his ears, his nose. I knelt and waited, drowning my breath.
Soon the buzzing was coming from inside him, louder than any mass that had ever sounded within these walls. I wanted to pray, but I didn’t know who I should address, and so I prayed to the two of us, the sainted promises we had exchanged before he left for the war.
And after hours had gone by, honey overflowed from his lips.
I reached a trembling finger, gathered a bit and brought it to my lips. They went numb; I became dazed. I saw myself, taking off the habit for the first time in the garden, smiling at him, inviting him. I saw his hand, older by a few years, unfolding my secret letters out of a green-glass bottle. I saw his mother’s coffin lowered into the ground through his eyes, blurred as they were with tears.
And I lowered myself and kissed his mouth long, until there was no drop of honey left on his lips. So I would see what I needed to see.
I saw him entering the enemy city. I saw him order his men, our men, to go forward. And I saw what they did to the men and women of this foreign place, these men fighting in our name. I saw it all, and the honey turned bitter on my lips; became poison. I saw him falter among his soldiers, as they slaughtered the guilty and the innocent alike, him ordering them to stop and them not obeying. And then I saw the disgust he had held back for years on end finally spread on his face, his black halo that the years had darkened become a noose around his neck. I saw him drop his sword and turn his horse around.
And I saw his father the King ordering him to stop, and when he did not obey, I saw his father draw his sword and bury it between his son’s ribs.
The rest of the memories I saw through half-closed lids, honey burning on my lips. I saw the King weep all the way to my nunnery. I saw my walls come into full view beyond the forest. I saw my face leaning over his, white, drawn. And then nothing.
I sat dazed by his side, holding his hand, making a choice, just like you now. And then I got up, stumbling, and walked out of the temple.
The King was waiting for me outside, his sword hanging from his belt. We stared at each other long enough that my knees were trembling under my habit, but I knew I wouldn’t take a step away from the door. I saw him weigh everything in, the love of his son, my blood, the shame, the entire world, and I heard the scales break in two. He took the belt off, looked at me one last time, left his sword on the ground as if it carried the weight of the world, and then he turned his back on me and left without a word.
And when the dark closed behind him I picked the sword up, entered the temple, and locked the door, and I spread the balm on my beloved’s wound and an equal amount across the King’s blade, the right blade this time, and kept praying to the Queen of the Crows.
Of course it worked. I told you. It was another time.
And when my beloved opened his eyes, and the fever went away, I took him by the hand and we slipped through the cellars, beyond the nunnery, into the valley, away from all our vows, away from the Gods, and away from everything we were supposed to be, until we found the crossroads again.
“And when happened then?” the dead soldier asks.
I leave the glass I was cleaning on the bar. For as long as my Magdalene was telling our story, he was staring at her slack-mouthed, and so the last drinks I had carried to their table were left untouched in front of them. Not that I myself had done any work while she spoke. No matter how many times I have heard this story, I always stay to listen to it once more. Even if I have to sing loudly in my head when I hear her speak about the half-naked soldiers she constantly entertained in her nunnery. Or about the bees that entered my eyes and harvested my memories. I still hear them buzzing in my dreams.
The part about my father, who stabbed his sword through my chest, does not bother me anymore. I have forgiven him after all this time. I would have liked to be there at the end, with him, to tell him that I’m happy now and that I love him, but for years on end Magdalene and I travelled other paths, so far away that neither bird nor letter could reach him, and when we returned they had already turned him into a statue in the city square, motionless and illuminated by gas lamps.
From time to time, I take my cigarettes and a bottle and I sit on his pedestal, hoping that he sees me from someplace else and knows that I understand him now.
Nowadays, of course, the square is not a nice place to visit. We are at war again, and the city is always grey, and in any case we are very busy at the bar with all these lads who, when the mortar shells explode on their head, remember at the last moment that they should have done everything differently and they end up here, at the crossroads. Magdalene tells me not to mumble because it took me a decade to change my own mind, and when I did it I didn’t even have the brains to get away without drawing all kinds of attention to myself, but she’s not the one making drinks non-stop when the clients swarm in.
For the time being of course, we only have this young one here, so I pull up a chair and sit with them. I pick up Magdalene’s cigarettes; I can’t be bothered to look for my own. She gives me the look, but I smile at her and she softens immediately, takes my hand under the table.
“So, what happened afterwards?” the soldier asks again.
“Afterwards, as promised, we had a long life together and then we paid our price to the Queen of the Crows,” my sweetheart says, taking the drink I made for her. The fifth one today, but who’s counting.
“And what price was that?” asks the young man.
“To guard a crossroads as she did once, and offer our help when some supplicant calls upon us,” she says, looking at him. “Only, we decided not to ask anything of them in return. We have everything we need. If you want your life, it’s our gift.”
I see him trying to wrap his mind around that. I push his drink towards him. He doesn’t take it yet. The time for a decision fast approaches. Somewhere far away, mortar shells still fly, the carnations flower at the crossroads, and the bees harvest the memories of the dead. And yet in here, the three of us around the table have stolen and are sharing a cigarette’s worth of time.