This retelling of the Russian folk tale, Peter and the Wolf, is used to reimagine the plight of Greeks under the threat of having their young boys stolen to be Janissaries during the Ottoman occupation of Greece.
(Apologies to Sergei Prokofiev)
The winter has been heavy. Claustrophobic. Petros is tired. Tired of being confined to the small walled compound of his grandfather’s two-roomed wattle and daub cottage in a small wooded valley half way up the mountains. Tired of the smoke filling the cottage, clinging to the walls, stinging his nose and clagging his breath. Outside, the faint scent of blossom and new grass is in the air, dancing at his nostrils, teasing his brain fogged by the hearth which has burned and smouldered for three months to keep them warm and cook their food. Not that he would call it food. Pappou’s meals are mean and thin and tasteless. Nothing delicious like mama’s cooking. Pappou is past hunting now, he walks with a limp like a boat tossed on a choppy sea and has no sons to bring him a brace of hare or a fat grouse. And because he has no sons, he has no daughters-in-law to curry favour with pork steeped in wine and coriander or sweeten him with thick semolina custards wrapped in paper-thin pastry which crunches with first bite.
Petros ate the last of the apples weeks ago. Pappou had been furious when he found nothing but withered fruit and brown apple cores. When he’d finished cussing the old man said now he understood why Petros had those terrible stomach cramps for three days a while back. Nothing was left of the small, crisp apples they had picked from the small orchard further up the mountain in the autumn once the heat had gone from the air. Petros had climbed the trees to harvest the apples his Pappou couldn’t reach. They had wrapped them in his stockpiled newspapers, kept for that very purpose and packed them in straw-lined boxes. The boxes he stacked on the shelves with the last of the cheeses wrapped in vinegar-soaked cheesecloth and parchment paper and the half-empty barrel of olives, black, wrinkled and salty in the small shed next to the byre where only the donkey is housed since the cow had been sold to pay the Imperial taxes before Christmas.
The only fresh foods left are the goats’ cheeses which taste of dung and the wild greens – purslane and dandelion at the end of summer and now chicory, kafkalida, lapsanes and soon agrelia, the wild asparagus they pick early mornings. And lemons. Pappou calls the lemon tree his abundant and faithful old friend. Every morning, Pappou sends Petros to climb the old, sturdy lemon tree behind the cottage for the bright lemons high in the topmost branches which he squeezes into the olive oil to flavour the endless dried legumes, mean roots and hard bread which are all they have left at the tail end of winter. Petros is sick of the taste of lemons on everything. His grandfather squeezes one every morning in hot water and makes him drink to stay healthy. He didn’t mind it when they had honey to sweeten the brew but that ran out at New Year because half his hives had been ravaged by Kallisto the she-bear at the end of the summer before he could finish harvesting them. Not expecting the raid on his hives, he had sold most of his already gathered honey to buy olive oil, grain and grape pomace to brew his infamous fiery tsipouro. Bad weather and the threat of bandits have prevented Pappou and Petros making the trip down the mountain to exchange flagons of Pappou’s famous hooch for mandarins and oranges from Kostaki’s groves over the winter. Some nights, Petros smells the oily golden skins and in his dreams his chin is sticky with juice.
They slaughtered little Artemis on Christmas Day and much as he loved the goat when she was alive, there was nothing tender or sweet about her meat. Once or twice, he has seen Pappou eye Papaki, their snowy-white duck but each time, even though Petros is sick and tired of eating the grey broth made from boiling up Artemis’s bones night after night, sharp with lemon and thick with horta, the glutinous wild greens Pappou adds to hide the fact there is no flavour left in the old goat’s bones, he begs his grandfather not to chop her head. She and Kyrios Miaow-Miaow the marmalade cat are his only companions left.
Petros’s mother has stowed him safe in the mountains away from the towns for it is the pemptos chronos, the fifth-year cycle and the sultan’s recruiters are cutting a swathe through the Balkans and down into Greece. Recruiters. No, his mother cried. Not recruiters. Abductors. My son will not be a Janissary, lost to his land and people. In the service of that Tyrant in the East. No! She has already lost two sons to the Ottomans; she will not lose her youngest.
But Petros is bored. He is bored of his grumpy Pappou for company and bored of the bitter, bland food. He misses his mother and the magic of her hands in the kitchen and on his skin when she puts him to bed at night. How many more months he asks nobody but himself?
The scent of orange blossom drifts up the valley to taunt him from the citrus groves. The swallows have arrived from Africa, filling the blue skies with swooping joy and building nests for their mates following in the slipstream of their vanguard migratory routes. Petros and his cat, the wily, master rat catcher have watched the birds from his grandfather’s compound. Boy and cat with entirely different desires behind their eyes. No guesses what Master Miaow-Miaow wants. Petros eyes their aerial acrobatics with a deep desire to be as free. He yearns for his friends and Mama.
Mama will come for Holy week before Easter. She will get a ride with the Tinker and Pappou has promised she will bring his favourite treat –braided tsoureki, the Easter bread sweet with masticha and mahlepi, studded with red-dyed eggs. His grandfather has said Vasilli the Voskos will bring one of his lambs to cook in the clay oven in the village square and if the soldiers have left the district, they would all go down to enjoy the feast day. The juices in Petros’s mouth run in anticipation.
But today, the sun is warm, the new grasses in the meadow are spotted with red poppies and earlier he saw Papaki scoot under the gate and head through the newly greened beeches towards the stream. Now Master Miaow-Miaow teases him from atop the stone wall of his grandfather’s compound before disappearing in a leap into the long grasses. Petros climbs on the hay wagon to peer over the wall in time to see the cat’s tail, tall and enticing disappear into the woods.
Pappou is busy behind the stable, tending his still. He will have tsipouro to drink after Holy Week with his friends from the village. Pappou’s brew is a source of pride and money so Petros knows this is the time to slip the latch and run. Perhaps he will find duck eggs along the banks where the wild fowl build their nests among the bullrushes. Fresh eggs would make Pappou very happy. Two of their chickens were taken by a fox at Epiphany and the third has not laid since.
Petros slips the latch and runs following the cat and duck. He catches the faint rumble of cart wheels and the far-off whinny of horses on the breeze but he doesn’t worry, no one can find their way here easily for the roads are poor.
Finding no duck eggs, he darts through the firs and pines and scrambles up the scrubland above the treeline to look out on the far-off plains. Up high, he marvels at the high wide nests of the storks which returned in late February, perched on a rocky outcrop above the start of their valley. Where the escarpment drops away, he watches the eagles spiral on the thermals, lost in their mighty freedom, until he hears the rough call of his grandfather echoing with more force than he thought possible for the old man.
‘Petraki! Petraki! I will kill you, you little devil. Get back here.’
Petros leaps and bounds down the rocks along the stream and back to his grandfather who seeks him among the trees.
He clips the boy’s ear and forbids him to leave the compound again.
‘The Ali Pasha has sent his Anatolian wolves.’ The words spit from his mouth like bitter olives. ‘They are hungry for little boys like you to serve the Sultan, Petraki mou,’ he says in a softer voice. ‘They were seen in the village two days ago; they are searching the hamlets for boys just like you.’
No sooner are they home, than the sound of horses and the clatter of armour approach. Pappou pulls Petros into the stable and shoves him into Mirella’s stall and piles on stinking blankets and the wooden saddle.
‘Shush, now,’ he says. ‘Don’t move, don’t speak, don’t breathe until I come for you.’
The donkey unconcerned, shifts to make space and continues munching the last of her winter feed. There is much noise outside, stamping and battering, boots approach and the boy cowers under his camouflage behind the animal. He hears Pappou’s voice.
‘No Sir, no one here. Only me, a poor old man. Please Sir, it is nothing, I beg you. It is only a brew to warm the cold nights.’
Petros hears the clang of his grandfather’s still being kicked to the ground and smells the pungent tsipouro before he feels the spilt alcohol seeping along the earth, under the walls to pool by his toes.
After the squad move on, Petros is ashamed of his grandfather’s cowardice. Later, Petros fumes as he eats the thin soup of lentils and bitter chard. Pappou worries for nothing. Petros knows if he saw the sultan’s men, he, Petros could outrun them, outfox them. Didn’t Mama say he was as nimble as a goat? Didn’t Pappou call him swifter than a spooked hare? They would never catch him.
After lunch, the old man saddened by the loss of his still, dozes on his bed, worn out from the excitement and anxiety of the morning. Petros knows he has an hour or two. Why shouldn’t he go out to play? The Conscriptors have moved on, haven’t they? There is no danger now.
Petros runs to the stream, Papaki swims happily, quacking and diving. She looks so happy. Petros under the trees is wondering if the water is still too cold for him when a shot rings out and the snowy white duck blooms red and goes limp. There is a crashing of branches and grass. A large man, all boots, beard and braid has come to bag his catch. He spies the boy. A shout goes up. Other men roar into the clearing. Around Petros noise whirls like a tornado. He does the only thing he can, he scurries like Master Miaow-Miaow up, up, up an oak tree high into the branches and moves through the forest back towards his grandfather’s house. Beneath him, he hears but cannot see the scrabble of men and horses trying to spot him. He cannot understand their tongue but recognises cries of Insha’allah and yalla yalla amongst the cacophony.
A sparrow flutters close, flitting and hopping ahead, leading him, he believes through the high trails of the canopy of the chestnuts and plane trees. He is so afraid, he does not think, cannot think whether a branch will take his weight, whether he might poke his eye, fall and break a bone. Trusting, he follows the small brave brown bird.
The moment he glimpses his grandfather’s house and sees the old man stumbling towards his gate, shots ring out. More shots and shouts.
Long Live Hellas! Rise, Rise! Look to your God to save you, Barbarians! Christ gives us strength!
More shots. Words in a familiar tongue laced with laughter and unfamiliar curses wrapped in mumbles rise up from the ground. He dares not move until a face appears through the new foliage beneath him. A Greek face with a bold moustache and a rifle on his back. The man smiles and reaches up his hand.
‘Come mikro agori. You are safe, little man. There will be no child-gathering on our mountains. The Grand Vizier can sing for his jizya. No longer will we pay the Ottoman his taxes.’
Later Pappou tells him the bandits were not thieves and cutthroats but andartes, rebels from Mani. The feared Maniots who ambush the Sultan’s soldiers up and down the land, inflicting small but constant wounds until, they hope and pray, the oppressors are driven from their beloved Hellas.
‘Did they kill the men?’ Petros asks later when his Pappou tucks him into his cot.
‘No, Petraki mou, no. We are Hellenes. We are not barbarians. Our freedom fighters have taken them hostage to use as bargaining chips. For every man lost, the Viziers of the Sultan tax their regional Governors. The Governors prefer to pay for their return, it is cheaper than the tax and ignominy of loss and is a handy income for the patriots who fight for us and who today kept you safe.’
‘Will I be punished for leaving the yard,’ Petros asks.
He feels the rough hand smoothing his hair, a finger rasping down his cheek. ‘I think you have been punished enough. Sleep now.’ The old man smiles, kisses away the frown on his grandson’s forehead. ‘Kalinychta, my small brave boy. Glyka oneira.’
‘Good night. Thank you, Pappou.’ The boy snuggles under and whispers, ‘Sweet dreams to you too.’