scribblings from THE Empire: The Road to Eternity
The sickness has returned and this time with a vengeance. Gavrail brought in the best doctors from the City, those who had studied in Italy, those who had studied at the famed medical school in Baghdad. Many of our physicians in the City are Jews. Their studies, as well as their experience, know no boundaries. The world is their laboratory. There are many who have served the Emperor, others who continue to serve at the court of the Sultan in Adrianoupolis, once our city, now the Ottoman capital that they have named Edirne. Gavrail has sought expertise from all. But none can save this dying body that is mine. One after another the scholars parade past my bedside, each consultation a useless repetition of the last. The physician arrives with his assistants, usually students, or with colleagues. Questions follow, the same monotony over and over again. A blood-letting ensues followed by discussion. I am asked how I feel and the response is a feeble smile on lips responding automatically but ever so weakly. I am attempting to be the Kyria, the lady I have always been, but my greatest efforts seem to fail me. All that functions is my mind. Not my speech. My vocal cords seem separated from my brain; only emitting from my mouth is sparse foul air. I, who always so prided myself in my comportment, my appearance, the importance of always being pleasing to be around, and the beautiful perfumes surrounding my robes and my being. How can this skeletal being have been that gracious creature ever-present in my mind’s eye?
Yes, my mind is functioning as always. Only it remains intact beneath what I am sure are the fading almost empty eyes that are now mine. I have so much yet to say. If only the doctors could give me medicine to revive me, enough time to say my farewells to my beloveds, my Gavrail, my daughters. I need time to tell the only man I have ever loved how much he has given me during our marriage: that voyage into the unknown; to tell him once more of the trepidations of that young maiden on that lonely journey from over the sea. How I hoped he would be kind and loving as those lovers in novels I read; that he would be Paris waiting to sweep me off my feet and into his protective arms. And how, unlike Paris, he would be courageous, unafraid, firm, and bold, kind and generous, intelligent and well-read. A loving husband and father. My Gavrail is all of these and more. Our Lord saw to it in His generosity to bless me.
Once again I am recalling that journey with my mother and father. The weather was far from ideal for sailing away from Thessaloniki, down the Thermaico Kolpo, through the Aegean and into the Sea of Marmara, what my father continued to call by its ancient name, the Propontis. Yet, as I look back, I realize in the sagesse accorded those about to separate from this world to join the next, that the waves that carried me to Gavrail were omens of the wonders of my future, the turbulence of the City, the uncertainties of our times, and the safe harbor of our heart and soul as we became one, of our hearth and family.
Our beautiful and wondrous daughters Evdokia and Niki. Will they forgive me for leaving them so soon? Evdokia is wise beyond her years, well-read and educated, a beauty in her own right. She lacks for nothing. But love. No man seems worthy of her. No man has captured her interest. She refuses all suitors. Not haughty, but lost in her world of ideas, literature. Sometimes I wonder if she weren’t waiting for one resembling her father whom she loves and respects above and beyond all others. I suspect I am correct in my speculation. Yet, as I stare into those deep compassionate green eyes, as I gaze upon her beautiful face, I have no fear for her future. She will make wise choices. She is an old soul and for this reason her father and I do not think it necessary to arrange her life for her, with the exception of her escape to Galata when the time comes, when the Ottomans finally take over our city, when all we know now will disappear and become waves of memories ascribed to history books. But she herself will relate this chapter of her life when the time comes. For now I entrust her care to her father and his to hers. How often I have looked at them, conversing with one or the other and forgotten who was who. She shares his deep green eyes.
My Niki? My wild, babbling, wonderful daughter? In so many ways she reminds me of my own mother, the mother of my girlhood, not the serious matron of later years. The one who saw war, the defeat of her city, Thessaloniki; the matron who gave over her daughter to the scion of a patrician in the City far away, and who knew that with that marriage, a tome of her own life had come to an end. But before that year? Ah, she was gay, even with the ever-constant Ottoman menace looming over us. It was my mother who taught me to read, to love the romances of the day, to love our Church and Our Lord. It was Mother who taught me Scripture and told me the wonderful stories before I could read. It was she who loved music and passed that love to me. And so my Niki, the daughter who goes on and on about nothing and everything and makes us laugh all the same. The talker, yes, but also the artist, whose great love is also an artist. But this love is not practical, as much as Loukas is a member of our family. No, I am relieved that we have made arrangements for her to escape Constantinople and sail to Venice eventually. The Ottomans are coming too close and Niki, my Niki, will not make wise choices. But this, dear reader, you know already.
Enough! Like my Niki, I ramble. And now I feel myself slipping away. Charon is in the harbor calling to me, ready to guide me across the River Styx and on to heaven, where I shall meet all whom I love and who have passed on. They are waiting for me. Why do I linger? Ah, the Last Rite, Holy Communion and Holy Unction. The ritual of life is complete. Take one last look around at those whom I love. If only I could assuage their grief, comfort them, tell them I am no longer in pain, that the darkness is disappearing as Charon carries me along. Now I see the light, I see our Glykophiloussa and she greets me. Farewell, my loves. Know that I shall watch over you always.
And so she passed, leaving her family in a grief beyond understanding. Gavrail looked upon her body, not seeing the frail and emaciated corpse that lay immobile on their nuptial bed. What he did see in his mind’s eye was the beautiful young bride, her long hair spread out on the pillow and draping over her shoulders, her eyes fixed on his in naïve contemplation and total trust. From where had that trust sprung? They didn’t know each other at all. Yet it seemed that from the moment he first glimpsed her person that evening of her arrival, in the family chapel, when he glanced her soft brown eyes, he knew that he would love her. He recalled her shy glance through the trellis separating him from the world of women. And though he could not see her clearly, he knew that she, too, was watching him, Yes, they had gone through the wedding ceremony the following evening barely looking at each other, they had drunk of the same cup, the same moment of their lips touching the goblet yet not touching their persons, the stephana placed upon their heads, uniting them during their sojourn on earth. And now the ribbon uniting them would be cut, hers placed in the grave with her, his remaining until God saw fit to reunite them in His heavenly kingdom.
And then preparations for the funeral, the painful rite. As the oldest daughter, Evdokia oversaw the ritual bathing and dressing of her mother. With the assistance of servants, she and Niki removed the blankets and sheets under which the emaciated body lay. Gently they placed their beloved mother and Kyria on the sofa. How many times had they walked into this very room to find their mother lounging on it, reading or simply looking out over the garden. During the last months of her illness, she spent most of her time there, endless hours contemplating her roses, her jasmine, lost in thought, oblivious to the upheavals outside the walls of her beloved City. She never talked about the pain that racked her body. Instead, every day she insisted on being bathed and dressed in her finest wear, a bit of rouge on her cheeks, an effort to deny the pallor induced by the illness and that stole the bloom from her face, evidenced in the contrast of the dark red of the roses freshly picked every day by one of her daughters and placed beside her atop the mother of pearl table brought from Damascus especially for her. A gift from Gavrail. Thus, she lay surrounded by beauty. With time the luster dimmed from her large brown eyes as they sank deeper and deeper into her person, leaving huge sockets but not empty of love and occasional amusement as her family would recount the day’s happenings, stories from the City brought by Gavrail, of the market brought by the servants, and of her daughters’ readings and outings to the homes of friends. She enjoyed the gossip and the news as she lay on her sofa. She could envisage every person and place described: thus she lived out her final days. As she lay on the sofa, never once did she reveal remorse. No, she remained the Kyria she had always been, strong in her own weakening way, dignified as her noble head lay propped up by pillows, her daintily slippered feet comforted by the softness of the cushions placed under them. And her hands, her beautiful hands rested gracefully over the soft cover that kept her warm, even though it was not cold outside. Her hands! Ah, the long patrician fingers and her wedding ring placed on her at her wedding, blessed by Bishop Euthemios.
As she lay on that sofa, seldom did she receive visitors. Many family and friends had already fled the City, some to the Ionian Isles now in the hands of the Venetians, some to Italy. Ah, Italy! Niki would be there in the near future as the Ottoman assault became an increasing reality. But she would not live to endure it. Her family would be alone, that she knew. As she lay on her sofa, it was her father confessor, His Grace Bishop Emmanuel, who sat with her. No longer, though, did they debate philosophy. Their conversation was solely on Scripture, the Koine Diathiki, the New Testament, the life of Our Lord, His miracles, His resurrection, her own repose now approaching. Never once in her life, and especially at the hour of her death, did her faith abandon her, or really, she it. She accepted it, embraced it, and was strong in her belief in her own resurrection to come at the day of reckoning. Ah, yes, she and His Grace spent many an afternoon together, often the girls sitting near the alcove of their parents’ room listening and marveling at her strength and moral fiber and losing themselves in the beauty of the hierarch’s voice and pearls of wisdom.
And now she lay once again on that sofa as they gently bathed her body. Gently and with great reverence, she was laid upon her freshly linnened bed, dressed in her wedding robes. Large candles, lambades, were placed around her bed offering light to her soul on its passage to heaven. As their father sat lost in thought, oblivious to any life in the room but of his love that would never die. Yes, she would carry his heart to her grave. Her memory, their shared existence would live on in that bit of heart needed to survive his remaining years of existence. He knew he still had work to do, his daughters needed him, as did many of his fellow Constantinopolitans. Through his grief and never-ending mourning, Gavrail would remain the man of duty to his family, his fellowmen, and his Emperor. And it was the Emperor Constantine who came himself to pay his respects to the Lady Ephrosine. Who knelt in prayer beside his faithful Gavrail, a friend throughout the years of turmoil, a bestower of wise council, a paragon of that was noble in the tiny, shrinking and soon-to-be lost Empire. Together Emperor and patrician, friends, knelt and later embraced in fidelity and love.
The priests led by Bishop Emmanuel chanted the prayers for the departed, the servants wept quietly, knowing that their master would not want the excessive wailings and lamentations known of. the countryside. The daughters knelt in prayer. The scene was traditional and becoming of the noble woman who lay among them, no longer with them. And so, she remained surrounded in vigil. Her stephano was placed upon her folded arms by her husband with whom she shared her life and who had become the father of their children, the familial patriarch.
The next day she was carried in solemn procession to the church, where patricians and others were traditionally eulogized prior to being taken to their final resting place, the Parakkleision and Hagia Maria Pammakaristos, where her body lay in state before the altar, the eulogy delivered by the Bishop, who extolled her virtues and impressed upon her daughters to lead lives in the footprints of their mother’s example. The final hymn of prayer and farewell. May her memory be eternal and last farewells as mourners filed past the Kyria whose mortal body now devoid of life lay in state.
From there to the family mausoleum. Her self was laid in the sarcophagus that had been awaiting her and beside which, one day, Gavrail would be laid to rest. Only then would they be together in eternity, his own stephano on his chest. That is, if he would be allowed a Christian burial by the enemy, should he live to see Mehmet enter the City.