*

 

 

 

thanassis triaridis

 

 

 

PETRO BOL

AND HIS

GENTLE

k n I f e

 

 

 

 

To Dimitri Papadoulis

 

 

 

 

Amongst the armies of drunken adventurers, crazed alchemists, obsessive collectors and mercenaries in search of treasures; amongst the unsettled souls who have seen God face to face and who with every thought yearn after lost chalices, crowns of thorns, fragments of the true cross or blessed amulets and occult medallions, bracelets, necklaces and rings; who seek daemonic icons, forbidden books, forgotten words, divine blooms and burning bushes or any such object that sits uneasily between God and Man; amongst all of these troubled souls, there are a few, no more than the number of fingers of one hand, who seek nothing more dazzling or sort after than a humble knife. They probe the mysteries of other ages and abruptly cut the conversation short if anyone tries to uncover the dark motives of their quest. If you are lucky enough to come across one drinking in a tavern, you must be shrewd to catch them off-guard, lulling them with talk of the world and only then, in a moment of great weakness and lonely melancholy, will they whisper one blood-soaked phrase in a fading voice: a meandering fable of how God gave His Grace and His Fury to Petro Bolés knife. Then, knowing that they have revealed too much, theyll rush from the table in a hurried silence and leave the bewildered listener sitting alone in cruel confusion the foul tale of Petro Bolé and the gentle knife often has that effect

 

***

 

Petros Bolés, as he was known before becoming the legend Petro Bolé under the latin version of his name, wandered the bitter road of purity, a road that nevertheless led him to the very bowels of hell. He was born in a Mediterranean village of Thrace, sometime in the mid nineteenth century and was a shepherd from his early childhood, like his father and his grandfather, and all of his ancestors. In the winter they lived down on the valley pastures and in the summer they grazed their flocks up on the slopes of the cool green mountains. During those summer evenings, when the sheep had quietened down, Petros would rest amongst them and, looking at the starry sky, become filled with the absolute serenity of the night he was happy.

 

When he was ten years old, Petros great-grandfather had been caught in a vicious storm and hit by a thunderbolt. The lightening passed straight through him and left him unharmed and that day he made a vow to St George that bound his family never to eat meat for seven generations. So it was that Petros and his family lived on what they could make from sheeps milk

 

He was twelve years old when the army came and took over the winter pastures. A month later his father came and told him that the officer wanted twenty sheep slaughtered to roast at an army feast. Petros loved his sheep like nothing else in his life: he would talk to them and his world was filled with their serenity. He told his father that since they lived on their flocks milk, destroying the sheep would be like destroying their own flesh. His father replied that the times had changed and whether they would be allowed to graze their sheep on the winter pastures was now in the hands of the army officer. Besides they would not be eating the sheep themselves and breaking the family vow - in the end what was better: twenty slaughtered sheep or the whole flock dead, frozen in the winter snows?

 

That night Petros cried for the first time in his life. As he walked amongst his sleeping flock he felt his mind being torn in two. At one point he threw himself in to the watering hole and tried to drown himself. He didnt succeed. Disgusted with himself, he sat on a rock and as the sun rose swore never to love again.

 

The only thing he asked of his father was to be allowed to kill the sheep himself the following morning. Then he set-off on the road to the mountain where the blue-eyed people lived. He passed three villages and as the sun started to wane, he reached the forge of old-Moumin, the famous iron-monger whose magical hands, it was said, could forge iron softer than the leaves of a poplar. He spoke clearly to the old man and demanded a knife that will finish-off my sheep in the gentlest possible way. The old blue-eyed man hesitated, Ive never been asked for something like that before, he replied, Ill try and make what you want, but I cant promise anything.

 

At once, the old man locked himself in his hut and left Petros sitting on the trunk of a tree, where he waited all night. Just before dawn, old-Moumin opened his door, a black cloth wrapped in his hands. His blue eyes shone strangely in the dark: Take the gentle knife you asked for but Ill tell you this: all evening my workshop smelt of sulphur, which means that the devil was beside me Be warned, dont let a drop of red-wine touch the blade as it spoils the steel. After that, it will kill with the most horrific pain in the world

 

Seven hours later Petros slaughtered his sheep with the blade the famous blue-eyed ironsmith had forged for him. He found the blade still hot from grinding on the moon-stone when he opened the rags and weighed the knife in his hands. It felt like a natural continuation of his arm, as if he was born holding it. On its dull blade he thought he saw a shadow beckon him. When he thrust it into the throat of its first victim, the sheep lay in his arms in absolute calm and serenity, as if death were a gentle breeze; the same with the second, and with the third, and with all the remaining sheep. Once he had finished, he remained silent for some time and then locked himself in a barn while his father loaded the slaughtered sheep to take to the soldiers.

 

That same evening Petros left his village never to return. He took nothing with him except a black cape that had belonged to his dead grandfather (the man who had taught him to milk sheep) and, of course, Moumins knife. He walked without knowing where he was going, and when, the next day he reached a large village, its inhabitants looked at him strangely. The boy drank some water from the well and afterwards spoke to the surprised villagers, If you have any animals for slaughter, leave them to me to kill When they asked him why he wanted to slaughter the animals, he replied that he had a gentle knife and that the animals would not be frightened by the blackness of death but would only feel a gentle breeze.

 

***

 

And with the knife in his belt, Petros began his wanderings, first through Thrace, then through Macedonia, offering his merciful blade to doomed animals as he went. Naturally, the villagers thought he was mad or touched by the Nereids. Nevertheless, a few showed him sheep that were to be slaughtered and let him kill them: some moved by pity, others by fear of the boy who spoke so calmly of death. He refused all those who, out of pity again, wanted to pay him and accepted only a piece of bread or a rusk which he would put in the pocket of his cape as he continued his journey.

 

Time flowed, the seasons came and went, and Petros grew up as a wandering and hunted ghost delivering sweet deaths to animals. Other than sheep and pigs, he was soon asked to kill other animals: rabid dogs, old or wounded horses, sick mules and cattle. His hair grew down to his waist, his face blackened with the hairs of adolescence and his cape began to smell and became covered in patches. As he went from place to place he learnt to speak other dialects, in fact he had a gift of understanding a foreign language so that after just a few days he was able to speak well enough to be able to say what he needed.

 

About five years had passed since Petros left his village, when he found himself on the Green Plateau, north of Macedonia. As he was leaving a riverside village where there had been no animals for slaughter, he was approached by an old man who asked him for a favour: his old wife lay dieing in bed from a horrible illness, her whole body had become an open sore and stank of puss. If his knife could bring her peace, the elder would give him whatever he desired he was well off and owned several horses. Petros followed him to his house without a word. When they arrived he asked the elder to wait outside the room. He went in and saw the woman sobbing. He sat down next to her, took out his knife, and the sweet steel softly stroked her neck. The sobbing ended. The elder had prepared him a purse of gold pieces, but Petros would not accept it. The old man then gave him a horse and saddle: so that you can reach your destination more quickly.

 

***

 

And so it was that Petros became Petro Bolé, in whose hands the gentle knife was used to kill not only animals, but people too. He never asked for payment nor barter anything in exchange for his services and from what he was given kept only what he needed for his horse, giving the rest to the beggars and the drunkards in the wine-shops. He never ate meat or drank wine, nor did he approach women hoping for love. At night he would forget himself looking at the black dome above.

 

As the years passed, Petros wanderings continued: from the Green Plateau he went to Bosnia; from there onto Dalmatia, Lombardy, Piedmont, the Blue Sea and the Valley of the Rivers, across the Pyrenees, through the Basque country, to Castille and Portugal. He became a grown man and his beard turned grey, yet Petros had one peculiarity: his face was never marked by a single wrinkle. It would take a lifetime to write of those who sought and found a sweet death by his knife in those years. He never refused anyone: men, women, rich, poor, freemen and slaves, princes or beggars, lepers, the lame, invalids and the blind, the casualties of war and those starving in peace-time, syphilitics, consumptives, the desperate and the melancholic, madmen or the disillusioned. His name became a myth from one end of Europe to the other and wherever he went he was followed by a colourful crowd of beggars, peddlers, card-sharps, wandering musicians, zealots, madmen and the disinherited. Priests chanted anathemas and excommunicated him, soldiers persecuted him but didnt dare arrest him, Romantic poets wrote odes to his gentle knife, mystics scoured ancient texts for signs of him, but the madmen who followed him went to the wine-houses and the feasts and declared that cut of Petro Bolés knife was the stroke of an archangel and Gods expression of his Love to Mankind.

 

In anthologies of strange tales once popular but now long forgotten, a few chilling incidents were written down and recorded: the story of the fallen soprano who was glorious at her peak and asked Petro Bolé to deliver her to Death as she sang the aria Adio del passato from la Traviata. The knife found her at the highest note without jarring. Then there was the red-bearded old chief, renowned for his lechery, who wanted to die as he joined with an old whore. A choleric woman from Lombardy who asked Petro Bolé to free her from the pain, stood up straight and disappeared into a cloud of icy vapour as Petros cut her throat. The gypsy violinist, abandoned by wife, insisted that Petro Bolé carve his violin in two before finishing him off. Then there was the Armenian chemist from Marseille who saw a sign heralding the end of the world in a fiery red stone that he had made himself. He collected his wife and seven children and prayed with them before having Petros kill his family. The chemist did not think that he was worthy of the gentle knife and deserved a horrible and painful death, so as soon as Petros left, the man stood in front of a concave mirror, smashed it with his ring and then shattered along with it There was also the skinny prince and his pregnant sister who begged to die joined at the lips and in one laceration, rather than endure the outcry born of their forbidden love. And then the woman from a village that perched on rocks above the Atlantic: she simply asked him to use the knife to cut a flower off the cliff where she lived, just to please her soul

 

***

 

When the officials reached the inn around which his rabble were camped, Petro Bolé and his mob had wandered to very edge of Europe where the continent stretches accross and nearly touches Africa. Dressed in the finest and most elaborate uniform the officer in charge demanded to speak to Petro Bolé. With great pomp and distinction, he announced his Kings desire for him to visit the land of the Great Lake. No expense would be spared and, indeed, the King promised to pay in gold. Does your King know that I go to those who seek death? asked Petros with typical frankness. The officer assured him that the King knew: I will go to anyone who asks for me, Petros then declared.

 

The ship was waiting at the port and all the disinherited hangers-on crammed on board with him Petro Bolé had insisted that no one who wanted to follow him be stopped. They travelled for many days before arriving in the capital of the Land of the Great Lake. There, under the citys high towers soaked in spray from both the sea and the heavy grey sky, King Hieronymus welcomed his visitor with great ceremony and lodged him in the finest guest room of his palace.

 

The next day the King invited him to the stateroom and had everyone leave except Petros and his six daughters. Together with their father, Caterina, Maria, Louisa, Beatrice, Anna and Constanza comprised the highest government council in the Kingdom and all were famous for their beauty. Hieronymus five eldest daughters also distinguished themselves with their intelligence, diplomatic skills and ability to govern the land wisely. Only the youngest, Constanza, seemed caught in a net of poisonous melancholy and had never spoken a word in her life. She just stared into the void with a dark and solitary gaze.

 

You, Petro Bolé, have been much on my mind, said King Hieronymus, getting straight to the point, and after deep and thorough thought I decided to invite you to my land. Over the last few years, amongst the honest people of the Kingdom of the Great Lake there have been increasing numbers of miserable and dispossessed subjects: they have no hope in their short lives and die slowly of poverty, hunger and misery: some from ghastly choleras, others infected with malarial fevers or poisoned by polluted waters. No one is capable of offering them the hope of happiness or a brighter tomorrowto relieve these miserable souls of their sorrows and temporarily alleviate the despair crushing their spirits. After much painful thought, I now believe it is my obligation to offer these poor wretches their only remaining chance for happiness: death by your gentle knife

 

If you accept my onerous proposition, then I will appoint you First Lord of the land, and will shower upon you as many riches as you desire. Tomorrow, I will send heralds to all the towns and villages in the Kingdom of the Great Lake announcing the coming of an archangel to stroke the necks of my unfortunate and miserable subjects.

 

Petros remained sceptical for some time. All he could see in his mind was an image of innocence: the eyes of the sheep and the eyes of people and his gentle knife that gave Grace to souls at the moment of death. His years of wandering throughout the world had left him with a loathing for kings, but Hieronymus was only asking him to do what he had always done At some point his eyes came to rest on Constanza, the Kings beautiful mute daughter and in her dark gaze he saw a momentary flash that stirred something unfamiliar within him. I accept, he declared to the King, and I dont want titles or riches. I just want to take an evening walk in the palace gardens with your youngest daughter every time the moon disappears.

 

And so it was: King Hieronymus accepted his terms without further discussion. The following day, heralds began to travel to the ends of the Kingdom offering the people of the towns and villages a stroke of Petro Bolés angelic knife and drawing up long lists of all those who wanted to die by the gentle blade. When he arrived in the first towns to distribute death as gently as a breath, three times the number of people came to be killed as were registered on the lists, queuing in lines two deep in front of the carriage that carried him and his strange companions. There were times when Petros killed for three days without stop as soldiers dug mass graves for his victims and the priests gave them group funerals. So the Kingdom of the Great Lake passed through the wild frenzy of gentle slaughter brought by Petro Bolé. Whatever town or village he arrived in was filled with garlands and covered in flags, welcoming and celebrating their patron saint; black cloth was laid out along the roads for his carriages and people threw him flowers and screamed from their balconies. Indeed, in most of the villages in the poorest district of the kingdom, Valtotopou, every inhabitant, without exception, chose to die. They came without wailing, grief or even tearful faces and bowed heads, but with songs, dances and smiles, as if it were a mad feast celebrating the absurd end of their miseries.

 

Every four weeks Petros returned to the Kings palace from whatever part of the country he was in: those nights, when moon was hidden, he would walk through the maze-like palace gardens with Constanza, the two of them always ending up in the tall wind-swept pavilion. Of course, they never said a word to each other: Constanza had never spoken and Petros only spoke in order to kill - every other conversation was fruitless and therefore unknown to him. They sat in the pavilion all night without talking, touching or looking at each other and just listened to the breeze. Constanza would then undo her hair, letting the wind brush it against Petros cheek. They would then return to their rooms before dawn so Petros could leave the next morning to deliver the gentle death the disinherited of Kingdom yearned for.

 

On their thirteenth meeting (after Petros had been in the land of the Great Lake for a year and visited almost the entire country) the two of them were sitting in the pavilion of the winds when he felt a hand touching his own. To begin with he thought it was just his imagination, but Constanzas hand remained: she took hold of his palm and squeezed it tight with all her strength, but before he had time to react, the girl stood up and ran away. Petros remained in the pavilion for some time and for the first time in his life wondered whether he had felt the tremor of love.

 

Feeling unfamiliarly excited, he returned to his room just before dawn. Hieronymus had given him the grandest guest room of the palace. He fell onto his bed without lighting a candle, when he noticed a folded piece of paper next to his cheek. It was a letter written in a strange hand and left unsigned:

 

Petro Bolé, this letter is written to you by someone who believes that you dont deserve to become one of Satans followers like the King and his daughters: whatever Hieronymus told you, the only thing that he desires is deliverance from his poor and unhappy subjects and he has found in you an innocent to do his dirty-work. As for his alleged obligation to bring the angelic stroke of your knife to his unhappy subjects: it is utterly false. The explanation is that he will be rid of all those who are slowly withering away and who, one day in their unhappiness, may raise their fists against him. You are the perfect instrument. Dont forget Costanza is involved, even if she plays the melancholic and distant one. All you need to do is hide in the Council Chamber one evening when everyone believes you to be far away and to listen to what Heronimos and his daughters say about you.

 

The following morning Petros started off with his retinue of soldiers and hangers-on to bring death to the Town of the Swans in the Northern Provinces, four days ride from the capital. On the first evening he slipped away from his carriage and returned secretly to the palace on horseback. His soldiers did not notice his absence as Petros never left his carriage whilst they were on the move and no one ever dared disturb him. So, his empty carriage and many followers continued travelling towards the Town of the Swans. Petros reached the palace just after sunset and, avoiding the guards, made his way into the Council Chamber, where he hid behind a curtain and waited. An hour later Hieronymus and his daughters came in Costanza was with them.

 

As soon as they sat down, Hieronymus asked for a glass of wine. Katerina, the eldest, brought it to him and said to him with satisfaction My King, let us drink to the health of Petro Bole. I received a message he was continuing on his journey without any problems. The day after tomorrow we will be finished with the Town of the Swans leaving only the other towns of the Northern Provinces: at this rate, in two months he will have cleansed the country of all those whose unhappiness undermines our prosperity. She stopped to fill her glass with wine when her sister Louisa asked, My king and much-loved sisters, are you certain all these unhappy wretches who go to be slaughtered by his gentle knife arent of some use to us? What if theres a war? Who will we send to be killed? Hieronymus reassured her: Your thoughts are not unreasonable, my daughter, but you forget that the times have changed. Once the wretched were indispensable - they had to unthinkingly spill their blood in wars and be slaves in peace time: work, organise and harvest the land and mine stone or iron from the depths of the earth. Now though, weve got machines for war and peace, we even have machines to make machines and soon we will have machines that can command machines. Nowadays, all that the poor do is ask for bread and their suffering blackens our consciences and make us feel guilty, just as the sick fill our hospitals until they die. All these people may be loathsome now, but one day they may become dangerous in their desperation and demand bread or infect us with their diseases or just contaminate us with their poverty and ugliness. Life itself wont accept them, so what business have they got amongst us? Look at the effort that were making to bury them: Im sorry, but Im consoled by the thought that human flesh makes such good fertiliser! With that, Hieronymus finished and all of them burst into laughter.

 

But, my king, had you not found Petro Bolé, what would you have done? asked Beatrice as soon as their laughter had subsided. Taking another gulp of wine the King replied, In truth, I found myself at a dead end: I was at the point negotiating a war with our neighbours to be rid of them all, but a war would mean opening up my palace treasury. I also considered infecting them with a disease to exterminate them all but the palace doctors warned me that the disease would spread to the rest of us. They couldnt even be loaded onto ships supposedly to take them to a new world only to sink them once out in the open ocean. Where would I find so many ships? Then, just as I was despairing, I heard of Petro Bolé and the gentle death he delivers out of compassion to all who are suffering. And as you saw: it was as easy for me to play the compassionate role and persuade him to slaughter the miserable wretches of kingdom, supposedly for their own good It is the ideal solution: hell kill them all without resistance or rebellion. Ive even heard they die honouring my name and thanking me for bringing the angel that caresses them into the next world.

 

Once again they all laughed at Hieronymus joke. Then it was Annas turn to ask a question, So, my King, when hes finished with the Northern Provinces what will you do with him? Each time I see him my stomach churns Her father replied abruptly, I will marry him to Constanza and keep them close to us. Thats why your sister goes out on those night walks with him and now it seems hes really fallen for her. It is true his appearance also shocks me, but in the times ahead, unhappy people will continue to be born and even if weve escaped from the ones we once had, we will always need someone to unburden us of new ones. Who knows, married to Constanza, he might have a child as light-fingered as his father And once again they laughed at the Kings wit, although this time there was a shocking high-pitched cry that rose above the others. It was Constanza.

 

Petros waited behind the curtains until the King and his daughters retired to their bedrooms, and swooning from the confusion in his mind he went to his room to think. On his pillow there lay a bunch of seven keys and a note in the same strange writing: They are not worthy of your gentle knife.

 

Then, holding the bunch of seven keys, Petros went to the palace kitchens, removed the knife from his breast pocket and plunged it into a jug of red wine. He left it there for an hour remembering the words of old-Moumin: the knifes steel would be ruined after soaking in red wine and then kill with the most horrific pains in the world. At one point he looked at the dark blade and a dull shadow waved, just like before

 

With a firm step he went to King Hieronymus room and unlocked it with the first key of the bunch. Petro Bolé bent over the sleeping King and with one movement cut his throat. The fearsome groan of pain he heard was very distant, leaving Petro Bolé indifferent. Next, he went to the rooms of Caterina, Maria, Louisa, Beatrice, Anna and Constanza and slaughtered them all in the same way. Only as he was leaving Constanzas room, did he see the last note on her mirror, written in the same strange handwriting If we were not born to slaughter then maybe we would have found time for love

 

***

 

The foul murderer Petro Bolé was arrested the next morning by the Kings soldiers in the tall pavilion of the palace gardens. As hard as they searched, they never found his knife His death was exemplary: for nine days they hung him in chains in the capitals central square. On the third evening his mob of mad and unhappy followers arrived, camped beneath him and prayed for his soul. Before dawn the heavily armed palace guards came and massacred them all. On the ninth day the people of the capital gathered in the square to watch his execution. He was tied to two wheels that were turned slowly in opposite directions and when his body was stretched, they cut the skin of his stomach with a knife. From that incision his skin started to tear. Petros, who until that moment had been conscious, did not let out a single cry of pain. In a blur he thought he saw Costanza sleeping amongst his sheep, but after that everything went dark. When at last his body split in two, the crowd roared.

 

 

[Translation: Leonidas Liambeys]

 

 

~

 

 

[The short novel Petro Bolé and his gentle knife was written in the summer of 1999. It was published in Greek in Spring 2002 by Patakis Editions and it was republished in the collected edition Tears Stories of Thanassis Triaridis in Autumn 2010 by Digma Editions.]