They called them "Saint John's fires," but they were of the ancient gods--a summer solstice ritual as close to myth and magic, and as old, as the cult of Demeter. Men, women, and children--little ones in their parents' arms--jumped through the flames, and as they jumped, they chanted, "I'm done with the bad; I'm new with the good." This was done three times. The first jump was one's strength, the second jump was one's courage, and the third jump was the jump that counted, for the third jump was one's luck. And while everyone else jumped, a young girl chosen by lot was sent to fetch spring water. She carried her pitcher to the fountain, then back home, and if perchance she met someone on the road, she kept silent and uttered no greeting or other word. For this was the "Unspoken Water." And when she got home, the girls who had jumped through the fire would be waiting for her, and they would throw their rings in the pitcher, and make a circle around her, and begin to sing. And she, who had been forbidden to jump through the fire--she, now forbidden to sing--would dip her hand in the pitcher and bring out a ring; and the words being sung the moment the ring passed the pitcher's rim would tell the owner's fortune. But for the girl holding the Unspoken Water, fate could not be foretold.
Two Days in June
She had just turned thirteen. Her name was Anna Karystinou and she was the daughter of an army colonel. On the evening this story begins, she was wearing a dress she had long outgrown. It was faded and frayed, fit her tightly at the bodice, squashing her breasts, and rode up her waist, drooping unevenly above her knees. She looked much older than her age, and the childish dress--with its puffed sleeves, round collar, and a belt that tied in a bow at the back--lent her an affronting innocence.
It was Saint John's Eve, June 1959. All day, this day of the solstice, there had been no sun. Now, with nightfall coming on, the sky was low, the color of charred steel. There was no wind. The bonfire in the middle of the street heaved upward with a steady, lapping quiver. A group of neighborhood children stood huddled nearby, waiting for the flames to become low enough to skim.
Anna stood apart at some distance. She had tried to meet the other children's eyes but had been shunned, and now, standing with legs slightly apart, a stiff back and arms straight at the sides like a sentry, she was staring steadfastly at the flames.
It was the moment in twilight when there are no shadows on the ground. For a while, the fire seemed to exist as in a dream, a shadowless light of solitude. But when the darkness became deeper and the light of the fire brighter, it was as if Anna had never seen fire before. She was filled with awe, mesmerized as she watched. She was a good ten yards away and yet, under the clammy coolness of her skin, she felt flushes of heat, gentle, swelling, pulsing to the flames' quivering beat. Like the fire, she thought--burning unburned, she was burning.
The other children, who had ignored her deliberately till then, now began watching her intently. After a while, one of them, a girl her age, broke away from the rest and walked over. She was wearing a pink-on-white polka-dot dress with a low-cut V neck and low-hung tapered waist, and she had her hair in a ponytail tied with a wide pink ribbon. Her features were irregular--wide mouth with a pouting lower lip, snub nose, small recessed eyes--but as the aura of decay makes a fall leaf splendid, an aura of ugliness made her face beguilingly pretty. She was taller and slimmer than Anna, pert in a winsome way, and carried herself with taut grace--a vain, if somewhat shy, awareness of her appeal.
"Not one of the heathen?" she said in a contentious, sarcastic voice.
Anna gave her a startled glance. By the confusion in her eyes, it was clear she had not taken in the meaning.
"Not one of the heathen?" the girl repeated. This time, her voice was flat.
Comparing her own dress with the girl's, Anna was ashamed. Blushing, she lowered her eyes. When she looked up again, she was still red, but no emotion showed on her face. She stared at the girl's chest, the darts that pointed to her breasts, and started to say something, but the girl moved away abruptly, ran to the fire, leapt over its flames, and kept running. When she came to the end of the street, she stopped, turned around, gazed at Anna a moment, then slowly rounded the corner, glancing over her shoulder.
She had jumped over the fire when the flames were highest, when no one else dared, and Anna was amazed at the girl's nerve. Why had she walked up to her, why had she run away, and why had she looked back? It was like being jostled on a lifting swing, someone jerking one of the chains to see if you'd fall.
Unwittingly, deep in thought, Anna took a step back, and as she moved, she realized that the children were suddenly all looking at her again, with leers on their faces. She had had such confrontations before when moving into new territory. But in the small villages near outposts where she had lived year after year, the village children came out in force and besieged her. They may have shown hostile curiosity at first, staring at her silently in challenge, but in the end were quick enough to say the first word. In the week since she had lived on this street, these children had treated her with pointed indifference--the once-over dismissive glance that lingers just long enough to jab.
She began to walk backward with slow steps, her eyes level with theirs. They can have their fire, she thought. They can have their game.
Behind her, the street dead-ended in a churchyard. It was filled with aspen and cypress trees. The ground had been stepped smooth and hard, without a blade of grass, and gleamed in the darkness. The church was to the side, its belfry clearing the treetops, rising solitary, gray-white against the sky.
As she was reaching the churchyard, the wind started up. She could hear the leaves rustling and, distantly, the din of traffic, noises from the nearby streets. The city, unseen around her, seemed frightening, immense. She had the strange, unshakable sense that beyond its limits there was a void, that the world she once knew had ceased to exist. She had never felt this alone, this lonely.
The children were lining up to jump and the wind had started to gust, making the fire rage and slant. Anna watched the first boy take a leap, arms flailing, yelling at the top of his lungs as he straddled the flames. She wanted to join in. The sudden fury, the wild beauty of the flames were a burst of joy in her heart--a joy she was too frightened to let out, that tore like pain. She longed to run and leap. But her body was slack; her body was numb with fear.
Aimilia Karystinou, Anna's mother, was watching Saint John's fire from their living room window. Her frayed silk wrapper hung on her with wan elegance, its sheen dulled, its whiteness now gray. She was a beautiful woman, tall, lean, with a face that had no lines, no expressiveness except for a hint of anger in the eyes.
She thought of Saint John's fires in her own childhood, the girl she had been, the passion of joy pillaged from her. She dreaded dusk, dreaded the sudden stillness before darkness.
Leaning her forehead against the damp pane, she asked her second child, Maritsa, cuddled next to her, "Do you want to go down and jump over the fire?"
Maritsa shook her head no. She was a thin, pale five-year-old, with long legs and slightly hunched shoulders, her body stiff with shyness.
Aimilia picked her up and stood her on the sill. "All right . . . all right," she said, moving to the other pane. "Stay with me."
The jumping had just come to an end, and the children had gathered near the diminishing fire. There was a blunt intensity in their gaze--a heightened, brooding emotion that merged their wills into one. Aimilia, feeling a tremor of foreboding, realized she had not seen her older daughter among the other children. Following their gaze, she saw Anna standing in the churchyard. Pigeons swarmed around her feet. She was standing next to a cypress tree--too close to it, too lax.
It was unlike her to slump.
The church bell rang the vespers, and the pigeons fluttered their wings and flew up, scattering in the sky. Anna, startled, put her hand over her heart. Watching her, the other children laughed. It was a malicious, taunting laugh.
"Come on! Jump!" they shouted.
Anna began walking stiffly, as though in a trance. When she was three yards from the fire, she stopped. Her body started to shake; her knees buckled. She wobbled as if about to fall.
"Come on! Jump!" the children shouted again.
Their taunts became louder and louder.
"Jump! Jump! Jump!"
Aimilia had to hold herself back from shouting, too: Jump, idiot! Jump, fool! Anna was making a spectacle of herself. The fire, crumbling fast, was only two hand spans high. She could straddle it safely, would not even have to jump.
At last, she broke into a run, her body lurching forward as if she were about to tumble.
"Stop!" Aimilia screamed, flinging the window open. "Stop it!" But Anna did not fall. She jolted to a stop just in front of the fire and stood still, her shoes touching the rim of the ashes, her skirt billowing over the flames.
The children had fallen silent while she was running. Now they began heckling her again. Two of the boys ran to the next yard and came back, carrying more junk wood and a cardboard box filled with packing straw. They threw them onto the flames and stepped back. The fire shot up, cinders popping high in the air. Anna did not move away, did not stir as the flames licked toward her face.
"Burn! Burn! Burn!" the children yelled.
Aimilia was too horrified at their cruelty to move, to speak.
"Daddy's come!" Maritsa said. "Look, it's Daddy!"
Stephanos Karystinos had just rounded the corner, his shadow shifting on the ground like a black searchlight. The children stopped yelling, turned to look, and, meeting his eyes, stood frozen. His face alert and stern, he walked on down the street with marching poise and pace. He did not have to look at them again. Slowly, they dispersed.
"It's Daddy!" Maritsa repeated.
"So it is," Aimilia said. Seeing Stephanos, she had felt a sudden cold creep over her. Her hands were like ice.
She went to sit down.
"Turn on the lights," she said to Maritsa.
"All the lights, Ma?"
"All the lights? All the lights?" she said, mimicking
The child's voice. "What do I have to give for everything--detailed instructions?"
Maritsa turned the overhead lights on, then reached for the lamp switch on the end table and knocked down two framed photographs.
"All right! All right! I'll do it myself. God, let me have peace."
Maritsa backed up against the wall.
"Oh, stop looking like someone is about to kill you."
Aimilia straightened the pictures, placing them side by side. They were silver-framed studio portraits, one of herself, the other of Stephanos, taken two months before their wedding. She wore a strapless dress, a pearl choker around her neck. Stephanos was in dress military uniform. Neither of them was smiling.
Mother and daughter sat at opposite ends of the sofa, their legs uncrossed, hands on their laps. They did not look at each other or speak.
The room was high-ceilinged and large. There were no paintings, no ornaments anywhere. A Danish sofa with two end tables and three mismatched stuffed armchairs formed a circle. In the middle was an oblong coffee table with a wrought-iron base and a marble top. Under the blazing lights, against the glare of the empty white walls and bare wood floor, the sparse scuffed furniture, in its unabashed ugliness, evoked a desolate grandeur.
Stephanos came in, followed immediately by Anna. Aimilia stared at them briefly, then looked away. Maritsa ran and tried to wrap her arms around Stephanos's knees, but he pushed her away.
"Anna!" he yelled at his other daughter.
Anna turned around and stood at attention. Her face
was flushed from the heat of the fire, grimy with sweat and soot. She had the same features as Stephanos, the same coloring, the same intensity. They were bound by an instinctual understanding rather than by affection--an intimacy that was respectful but wary.
"Watch this." Stephanos lit a cigarette, put the lit end in his mouth, and then after a few seconds took it out. "It went out. The fire needs oxygen to burn."
He turned to Maritsa.
"Go get me a candle from the kitchen."
Maritsa ran to the kitchen and back. Stephanos took the candle from her, lit it, snuffed it with his fingers, lit it again.
"Snuff it," he said to Anna.
Anna stretched out her arm, held her hand steadily over the flame.
"Do it fast. So." He snapped his fingers.
She lowered her hand around the flame. More frightened of failing in his eyes than of being burned, she squeezed the wick slowly and winced, holding in the pain.
"It was your fear that burned you, not the flame. Understand?"
She turned her hand over and stared at her scorched fingers. "I understand."
"Go put some water on it," Aimilia said.
But Anna went straight into her room and slammed the door. They could hear her sob.
Stephanos turned to Aimilia.
"When are you going to put on a dress?" he said. "Before you go to bed?"
"Before we go out."
"You dress for me!" He took his military cap off. "We aren't going out. The car is in the shop."
Aimilia stared at the indentation, crimson and crinkled like a fresh scar, that the cap had left on his forehead.
"We could go to a taverna nearby," she said. "There's no food in the house."
"Fry some eggs."
"There's that nice place on the quay. . . ."
"I don't want to walk!" he said.
Aimilia looked away from him. It was one of the first things he had told her about himself. He did not like to walk. . . . When the army had disbanded after Greece's surrender to the Germans in 1941, he had walked with his men over mountainous terrain, in hunger, in thirst, in bitter cold, all the way down from the Albanian border. Going any distance on foot recalled that humiliation and defeat.
She had been moved when he first told her. It made her want to cry, how she had been moved then.
It was a house of closed doors. One had to knock before entering a room, even a communal room. As at a barracks, however, no door, no closet, no drawer could be locked.
After hanging his cap in the hall, Stephanos walked to Anna's room and stood by the door, waiting for her to stop crying. When he could no longer hear her sobs, he paused an extra minute, then knocked.
"Who is it?" Her voice was angry.
Stephanos went in without answering.
She was standing in the dark. The only light in the room came through the open window from a lantern at the end of the street. As he closed the door behind him, the darkness deepened and her shadow stretched across the room to his feet like a rift.
"I was not afraid of getting burned," she said.
She turned on the small lamp by her bed, then faced him with her arms crossed, squeezing her right hand into a fist. Her self-possession was daunting but misleading. She was blushing. She blushed easily, deeply. It made him worry--it made him fear for her--that she could not make her heart yield.
"I was not afraid of getting burned," she said again. "I was afraid of jumping."
Stephanos remembered being in the dark fuselage of a British plane with a parachute on his back. With him were other Greek officers who had fled to the Middle East after the Germans overran Greece and, forming the Sacred Band, had joined the Allied forces. They were infantrymen and had no paratrooper training. The man whose turn it was to jump held on to the gaping door frame and screamed, "I won't jump! I can't!" He backed down from the door and took his parachute off. The British CO gave orders to the next man in line. He jumped. And the next man. The next man. Stephanos's turn came. The Palestinian desert was purple-gray in the afterglow of the sunset. The beauty of the lifelessness, the total, flat emptiness below stunned him. He did not believe in God, yet, staring into the shimmering light, his knees shaking, he prayed for life. He was readying to leap when the man who had taken his parachute off thrust him aside. He had not put his parachute back on. It happened too fast--Stephanos had no time to react. When they found him, his body lay intact. There was no blood. For a moment, they thought he was still alive, but when they touched him, the flesh gave in like rubber. There were no solid bones left. It was like picking up a sack of wet sand.
Everyone had thought he had had a change of heart, that in his haste to redeem himself from disgrace he had forgotten that he had taken his parachute off. Perhaps. But there had been no rush of courage in the thrust of his arm. Stephanos had felt it on him, resolute, desperate. He had been afraid to jump, to risk life. He had not been afraid to die. It is the courage of the weak to welcome death, he thought, staring at his daughter. It is the power of the wounded to welcome pain.
He looked away from her.
"You don't believe me," Anna said.
"I believe you--that's what's bothering me."
He leaned against the wall and looked at her, trying to gauge from the tension in her face the severity of the burn.
"Show me your hand."
She loosened her fist but did not turn over her palm.
"My hand is fine," she told him.
He had made her willful, he realized. He had made her strong; he had made her proud. He had taught her diligently, methodically--he had given his all, trying to make her into a "real man." What had he known of her soul? What did he know, now, of the changes beginning in her body? Earlier, by the fire's light, he had seen her naked through her dress--her breasts, the slope of her waist, the cleft between her legs.
In this muted light, as she bent her right leg, raising the heel and resting it against her left ankle, as she slanted her head and stared at him, her beauty, stealthy with innocence, aroused him.
"You're becoming a woman," he said, shaking his head.
Sorrow suffused his face, so profound, it blotted out his features. When he had first held her, her swaddled body like a bundle of rags, her infant face so like his own, the sense of her life merging with his had seemed a bestowal of grace. Now he felt like a man shipwrecked, with nothing to keep him afloat but the dread of drowning.
Excerpted from Fear by Irini Spanidou. Copyright © 2000 by Irini Spanidou. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.