Ariadne made her way silently through the twisting maze of stone-cobbled streets. Glimmers of light escaped the shutters of outlying houses as ghosts beckoned from shadowed yards, morphing into laundry hung on lines. Piles of broken roof tiles and storm-ripped branches lined the road. Fresh plaster glowed in white veins on dark walls, tracing earthquake cracks.
As the houses crowded closer, Ariadne recognized sights from that visit years before on Uncle Dmitri’s trading boat. Above the rooftops, pale against the night sky, the church tower loomed. Near it was the smaller sanctuary chapel of the Tiniotissa, the miraculous icon of the healing Virgin, built over the ancient site of a sacred spring.
Her uncle’s comfortable deep rumble: “You know the ancients found these springs first, my little Kri-Kri. Maybe the gods got tired later and gave them over to the Virgin’s care. . . . Remember the stories about Apollo and Artemis? He ruled the sun, and she the moon. But they were twins, man and woman, and only together could they make up a sky complete. When he looked into the sacred pool, there was her reflection looking back at him. . . .”
Ariadne smiled at the memory. Making her way closer to the harbor, she passed an open-air taverna filled with laughter, shouts, the slap of dominoes. Bouzouki music whined and twanged. Glimpsing the Med League insignia on a blue shirt, she moved hastily on, past a kafenion where a cluster of men drank from tiny coffee cups and listened to a scratchy radio.
She stopped short, alarm crackling like the static still breaking up reception.
Peter was right. She was in danger here. Edging back toward the terrace, keeping to the deeper darkness along the wall, she strained to hear more news from the radio.
“Late to be out, Despoina. Are you lost?”
Ariadne spun around, biting back a cry, to see an old man with a laden donkey. She ducked her head in the scarf, passing him quickly. She dodged an electric car, hurrying between apartment buildings over storefronts. Finally she passed through the gateway into the open stone-paved square she remembered.
A whitewashed gallery ran along the far side, broken by dark wood doors and dimly lit by paraffin lamps. Behind its wall, a higher building stretched toward the tower of the big church. Closer, newly-leaved trees rustled in the night, and a carved stone stairway flowed in a frozen wave from the entrance to the sanctuary. Its open doors spilled flickering candlelight and the distant surge of an evening service. Incense wafted through the night.
A murmur rose from the dark courtyard—a ceaseless lament of moans, coughs, sobs, shuffling feet, and muttering voices, punctuated by an occasional sharp cry.
The ebb and flow of suffering was a presence more palpable than sound, washing through the dim figures spread across the square. They lay on blankets and rags and stretchers, lit by the wavering glow of olive-oil lamps. Some lay prostrate, some tossing from side to side, some twisted in motionless postures of pain, some rocking slowly to the rhythm of the common lament. So many supplicants, with the Assumption of the Virgin and Her summer healing pilgrimage still months away. The sick waited through the night for their turn to be carried into the chapel, to make an offering to the miraculous icon.
A baby cried, its healthy wail cutting through the murmurs of suffering.
Ariadne steeled herself to walk through them. Even in the dim lamplight she could see the sores of radiation burns, cancerous lesions, mutation-caused deformities of the younger supplicants among the older victims of arthritis and gout. She had healed radiation-induced illnesses with her ionized water. But there were so many here, and even more, she knew, at the quarantined encampment for the RPH “plague” victims. She ached to help them, but didn’t dare risk revealing herself with so much at stake. As she passed through the stricken, each gaze raised to hers carried a mute accusation. Or worse, dull resignation.
Finally she was through, moans and cries lapping at her back.
She fled along the gallery toward the smaller courtyard at the back of the chapel. She remembered the sacred spring emerging into a stone-lined basin in a little garden there. But now she was accosted by vendors spotting a last customer moving into the light of their paraffin lamps.
A middle-aged man in a fisherman’s cap— “Dried fish, to give you strength in your vigil.” A toothless crone grasping her arm, waving ribbons and thin candles— “Offering for the Virgin, cheap.” Two heavyset young women sitting beside baskets of dried fruit and olives, wrapped chunks of goat cheese, dusty bottles of retsina—“Wine to keep you warm in the night.” Three children running after her with cheap painted figurines of the Virgin— “Souvenir? Pretty like the Tiniotissa!”
As Ariadne stooped to give the ragged children some coins, a young man passed, shooting her a curious look. He stopped by the two women vendors. There was a low murmur of conversation as he helped them pack up their wares.
She froze, the children dancing before her with outstretched hands.
“Poh-poh-poh!” The woman went on in a loud, scornful voice. “I’m already tired of hearing about the kidnapping.”
“Anything new? Who did it?” the other one asked eagerly.
“Who knows? Turks?” The man spat casually. “Fancy foreign boat sighted around Naxos, maybe the Sons on a purge.”
The first woman shook out her skirt. “I say she called it upon herself in her pride. We’ve got the Tiniotissa here, She’s saint enough.”
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