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thanassis triaridis

 

 

 

THE CUT wHEaT

 

 

 

 

In memory of Thanassis Delidimitriou (1905-1999)

 

 

 

 

Beyond the great mountains of the North - I’m talking about the mountains no traveller has ever returned from crossing - there lies a vast land of fertile valleys, dense forests and imposing rivers: a land that reaches the Crystal Sea. The name of this country is Prosperity and it is governed by the Wise King.

 

Of Scattered amongst rocks in the craggiest ravine of Thunderbolt, the highest and most savage mountain of the Great Kingdom, are the black stone houses of a village. Its name is Windtree, after the magnificent tree that stands eerily on the edge of the precipice - branches open, trying to embrace the wind. They say it must be a seed of the wind - from there it came and there it would return - and called it the wind tree, which in turn gave its name to the village. There, under its roots, people once dug a well and drank its sweet water.

 

For a long time now, the village has been deserted. Only the stone houses remain but long devoid of life: it’s almost as if some otherworldly force and not the hands of men and women built them on the black mountain. The wind tree still stands bare and sinister whilst the well at its roots just waits.

 

No one goes up to Windtree anymore. Its name has been removed from all the maps and apart from a few old men - long deaf and coughing on their phlegm - who throw wild looks at anyone who approaches, no one knows of its existence. It’s an old and dreadful story, an uncomfortable memory, buried in fear and silence…

 

***

 

Thunderbolt is a truly terrifying mountain: a dry black rock ripped in two, in part covered with meagre scrub, its jagged peaks pierce the clouds. They say it was once green and full of forests and rivers, until one day, God was overcome with melancholy and threw a terrible thunderbolt that split it in two. Others say that as God let go, he suddenly regretted the thunderbolt, but too late, it had left his hand and he couldn’t take it back. He hid it in the heart of the mountain where its heat caused the earth to dry up and left it blackened and cracked. And slowly people stopped going up to the mountain with the strange name, fearing the wrath of the thunderbolt sleeping in the bowels of the earth. In any case, what did anyone want from those dry and deserted rocks?

 

Neither the old men nor anyone else could explain when and how Windtree was inhabited. It seemed its people and houses had simply grown out of the rocks. The inhabitants never considered leaving their wounded mountain: the water from the well, the milk from their goats, the scents of the wildflowers amongst the black rocks, the blowing of the wind and the rising and setting sun were, for the people of Windtree, the greatest gifts God could give - what more could they ask for? They had no church and considered one superfluous; as for them the entire heavenly dome - from one horizon to the other - was a church. They communed with the body and blood of Christ through their eyes as he reddened the sky in the evening and showed that He was there too, and everywhere else. At the age of fourteen, they all made an ancient vow - no one knew when and why it was first made - marking their coming of age: they would never raise their fists against another person, even if they threatened their life and the lives of their children - Justice would come if they turned the other cheek without retaliating.

 

One day, King Theodoros the First found himself on the mountain. He was known as the Slayer of Heathens and Eagles by his flatterers, clerks and poets. In the first years of his reign, Theodoros the First, embarked on a great persecution of anyone who believed in a different God to him. He burned as many of them in the central square of the city as he could; all the others left the Great Kingdom fearing the worst. Then, having no heretics left to send to the flames, he put his mind to eagles as, strange to say, one of the court oracles had prophesised that whoever killed the last eagle of the heavens would become immortal. Following this prophecy, Theodoros the First quite lost his mind and set about rabidly hunting all the eagles of the Kingdom in the hope that he would kill them all, in particular the last one and thus become immortal. He didn’t stay in the palace most days of the year but pursued his nasty hobby around the Great Kingdom: his personal guard, arrow and bow makers, flatterers and clowns, and wine tasters all followed him, as did his taxidermists who embalmed as many eagles as he killed so they could be hung outside the palace and be seen for centuries by the people as a sign of the King’s great power.

 

It was hunting an eagle that he came to Thunderbolt. Someone had spoken to him of an ash-tinted bird with eyes the colour of bronze, whose gaze froze your blood. Perhaps this was the last eagle in the heavens? He hunted on the craggy peaks for three weeks but never saw the eagle with eyes the colour of bronze. Slowly, frustration with this fruitless quest grew in him and amongst his flatterers. Later hunting in a steep gorge, they saw a girl herding goats in a pasture. When the soldiers approached her to ask about the eagle, she fled in fright and was lost in the rocks. The soldiers brought the King her embroidered handkerchief and when Theodoros smelt it, his passion flared. He forgot about the eagle with eyes the colour of bronze and ordered them to find the girl’s village and lead him there.

 

The girl, of course, came from Windtree and, not one of the twenty clerks amongst the King’s followers, knew of the village’s existence - indeed, none of them could even imagine anyone foolhardy enough to live on the rocks sheltering the inflamed thunderbolt. King Theodoros and his followers entered the village the next morning and his musicians trumpeted the Royal arrival. The chief flatterer barked an order: the girl with the white handkerchief was to present herself to the King for his pleasure in bed.

 

Half an hour later, the head of each family came out of their houses dressed in their best clothes and walked at a slow pace across Windtree’s square to stand before the King and his flatterers. Standing upright as a tree trunk, the eldest (whose beard was completely white), started to speak: “My name’s Constantinos, King Theodoros, and I’m the eldest of this village… My hair and beard are white and, for as long as I remember, I’ve slept and woken up to the roar of Thunderbolt. The girl you’re looking for is the daughter of Alexis and we all stand by whatever he says.”

 

As soon as the elder quietened down, a blue eyed man with black bushy eyebrows stepped forward and looked the King in the eyes, “I’m Alexis and the girl whose handkerchief you stole is my daughter. Snakes, wolves and falcons have asked me for her and I refused them all… And I certainly wont have you ruin her!”

 

The King went yellow with rage and his slaves became furious. The chief flatterer started shouting about dirty villagers who refused to obey the man God Himself showered with gifts, about the vile brutes that didn’t bow their heads before the glory of the Kingdom, and about ancient revolutionaries that spread anarchy and insubordination. King Theodoros stopped him with a nod and then turned his gaze to the First Councillor of the Kingdom. He was a strange stooped man: no one had ever seen the pupils of his eyes, where they should have been, there was just white. The First Councillor spoke in a hushed voice (perhaps so the King would listen), “These people have learned to live with the roar of the thunderbolt and will never fear the whip of man,” he said.

 

A little later the King Theodoros’s order was announced: all the men (including male children and babies) were to be executed by hanging. Pregnant women would be forced to kneel and kicked in the stomach until they lost their babies. And that’s what happened: for three days the soldiers killed. All the male offspring of Windtree - elders, mature men, youths, adolescents and small children were put to death by hanging. There wasn’t the slightest resistance, as the men of Windtree kept their ancient oath: they wouldn’t raise a fist against anyone, even to save their own lives or those of their children. That’s how all one hundred eleven men and boys of the village perished. After them came the turn of the pregnant women: they were hauled into the square and struck by kicks in the belly until they bled and showed they had miscarried.

 

All the bodies were thrown into the well at the foot of the windtree, so the women of the village would know they were drinking water that rotted the flesh of their men for as long as they lived. All this was watched by the King himself so that he could be sure the inhabitants of the village that had never feared the whip of man were wiped out forever and that never, not even after a century of centuries, would the village that lived with the roar of the thunderbolt and whose spirit wouldn’t bow before the orders of their sovereign flourish again.

 

When the fourth day dawned everything was finished and one hundred and eleven hanged corpses - the entire male population of the village - had been thrown into the well. As soon as the soldiers finished, the musicians played the royal march and the King’s procession left. The tedious interlude crushing insubordinates was over and King Theodoros the First, the Great Slayer of Heathens and Eagles, looked forward to hunting the ash-tinted eagle with eyes the colour of bronze again.

 

As soon as the King and his soldiers left the village, the women gathered around the well - and grave - of their men. Anastasia, the daughter of Alexi, who was unwittingly at the centre of the massacre, heard the laments and emerged stunned from the charcoal cellar where she had hidden with her mother. When she understood what had happened she rushed to the well and, before anyone could stop her, threw herself after the men.

 

The women cried and wept together until late afternoon. As the sun sank, reddening the sky above Thunderbolt, one of them, Dimitra, shouted to the others, “Women, we have nothing to look forward to: neither men to be loved by nor seed to grow in our bellies. We cannot continue our families alone… Let’s fall into the well after our husbands and sons before night falls!” It was then that a screeching voice tore through the air; “Our only way lies in the night…” it was Gabriela, the ugly witch, who the villagers didn’t allow to live in a stone-built house forcing her to sleep in a cave outside the village on Thunderbolt. “What do you mean?” they asked her, “you’ve never had a man to be missing him now!”. “You may have lost a man each,” the witch retorted in a wounded voice, “but I lost them all. Listen to me… our only way now lies in the night - for all of you as well as for me.” From her dress she took out a strange flower, “In every tree there is a hollow hiding a great secret,” she said ambiguously. The eyes of the women were all on the flower. It had petals like a poppy but with one difference, it was completely black. “This is the Blackflower that only grows on the highest rocks of Thunderbolt. Smell it’s scent and drowsiness will wrap you in darkness… And you should know, darkness is never wrong.” 

 

After all that had happened, the women of Windtree took heart in the fickle words of the witch and decided to take the road of the night. They were desperate and alone: trees without roots, stalks without flowers, branches without leaves, and, one after the other, the women smelt the Blackflower that Gabriella offered. They were all wrapped in the sleep of infallible darkness and the night that fell soon afterwards - black and impenetrable - was full of winds that brought the greatest longings, most ancient hopes, terrible loves and most irrational faith. The women looked into the night face to face, walked its road and met its invisible elements; its ghosts, elves, and demons and they kissed the women on the forehead and bit them on the cheeks and got inside their nostrils, their breath, their souls. A little before dawn sparrows flew out of the well: there were one hundred and eleven, exactly as many as were killed. They circled in the air twice and then stopped for a moment on the lip of the well at the foot of the wind tree. And then they flew high, higher than anyone can imagine.

 

When first light from the East broke through the night, the women woke from their sleep. With bitter mouths and hollow eyes they approached the lip of the well. And there, where a little earlier the sparrows had stopped, they found one hundred and eleven grains of wheat, as many as had been killed. As the women hesitantly picked up the grains of wheat in their palms (they had never held grains of wheat in their hands before) they noticed something even more unbelievable: the names of their dead men were cut on each grain, as if by the needle of God.

 

There was no doubt that the wheat had been brought by the sparrows from the distant red valley where everything is counted and justice done. “These grains of wheat are the spirits of our husbands, sons and fathers,” said Dimitra, “through these they will live and our wombs will become fruitful; these will guide us.” And speaking to herself, Gabriella added, “I told you so, the night is the only way…”

 

And so the women of Windtree each took the grain of inscribed wheat with the name of her hanged husband and put it under her pillow. That evening they went to bed and slept on top of them. And the apparently impossible happened: all the women of the village - old and young - became pregnant. And nine months later they gave birth to the sons and daughters of the inscribed wheat. From the grain with Alexi’s name Anastasia was born again. Even ugly Gabriela, the witch, got pregnant: old Constantinos’ sister gave her his grain as he didn’t have any children and hadn’t ever slept with a woman. Constantinos had married sixty years earlier but when he’d laid down with his wife in their bridal bed, she spat blood and green phlegm and died that night. He swore never to touch the flesh of a woman again. So from the grain with Constantinos’ name cut on it, Gabriela became pregnant; when her daughter, Angeliki, was born everyone realised that she was the most beautiful child ever to arrive in Windtree.

 

And so the inscribed wheat the sparrows brought to the lip of the well the night after the massacre became the continuation of life for Windtree.  Mothers of young girls kept the grains of wheat that carried the names of unmarried adolescents or boys next to their candles and when the girls reached the age of marriage they gave them the inscribed wheat to put under their pillows. Straight away the girls became pregnant and gave birth after nine months. This continued for a generation and the next until the first sons of the cut wheat became men, married and in turn had more children. Meanwhile, no one ever threw a bucket into the well under the wind tree - the night after the corpses of the hanged men had been thrown into it, the same night the sparrows brought the inscribed wheat, not one, but seven new wells had gushed water from the dry rocks.

 

Naturally, no one in the Great Kingdom learned that life continued in Windtree. King Theodoros the First, certain of the submission of his people, carried on searching for the last eagle in the heavens. His search didn’t last much longer. One autumn day he began a new hunting expedition on Bear Peak. Before he reached the mountain, and though he was still on the plains, a fearful creature swooped down from the sky and ripped him to pieces. His terrified courtiers raved about an enormous ash-coloured eagle with brazen eyes that filled the whole sky. No one who was near ever got over seeing nightmares of the horrific scene and unworldly cries of fear from the otherwise haughty king. The soldiers couldn’t gather a single piece of his body and returned to the capital with a coffin full of stones. The poets and clerks got straight to work: for the masses and in the history books, King Theodoros the First, The Great Slayer of Heathens and Eagles, developed an inexplicable and sudden fever, confessed his sins and died upright and without fear, looking at Death head-on, as glorious in his death as he was in his life.

 

As for the King’s First Councillor, the all-powerful and awe-inspiring man, whose pupils no one had seen; he too, quickly followed his King. It happened like this: the day after the grand state funeral of Theodoros the First, the First Councillor asked for an expeditionary force of crack soldiers to be prepared as fast as possible. He refused to declare the reason and target of the force to the Great Council of the Kingdom charged with handling the succession, saying, “If what I suspect is true, no one should learn about it.”  But he didn’t even manage to start this mission. The day before its planned departure the force was ready and the First Councillor lay down to sleep. In the morning, his servants found a marble statue that looked just like him, dressed in his night robes, with its hands clenched in fists, and - how strange - the marble right middle finger was even wearing his ring. His eyelids were open and for the first time his empty eyes didn’t strike fear into all who looked at them.

 

Naturally, the Great Councillors were upset by the terrible event. What had happened to the First Councillor? Had he been the victim of an unusually well organised kidnapping? Had he arranged an enigmatic departure from life - but why then the expeditionary force? Or perhaps his body really had turned to marble? And if this last possibility had actually taken place… what terrible force could turn a human body to stone? After many hours of discussion leading nowhere, the Council members decided to bury the event in silence. They had the marble First Councillor broken into hundreds of pieces, loaded on to a ship and dumped into the depths of the sea where no one could find them.

 

Theopemtos, the son of Theodoros, became the new king and immediately appointed a new First Councillor who immediately disbanded the crack expeditionary force his predecessor had so carefully gathered together. And so life in the Great Kingdom continued: the masters remained masters and the slaves, slaves. Theopemtos and his successors didn’t have too much work: they slaughtered unbelievers, massacred the powerless, hanged lunatics and defended the Great Kingdom. And it didn’t cross anyone’s mind to climb Thunderbolt, the mountain with insides that boiled with the rage of God - in any case, what business did anyone have on the deserted and dry rocks?

 

***

 

Ninety-nine years passed from the evening the sparrows left the inscribed wheat on the lip of the well under the windtree. None of the generation of women impregnated by the grains of wheat was still alive: they all died peacefully in old age, surrounded by children and grandchildren to send them off on their great journey. The inscribed grains remained by the candlesticks of every house as the spirits of their massacred ancestors and holy seed of the continuation of life in their village. Children grew up listening to the story of the survival of their village as if it were the most fearful and at the same time most magical fable. In the evenings they would hide amongst the rocks around the well hoping to see the sparrows bring the inscribed wheat once again, even though the old women said again and again, “For the inscribed wheat to come, it isn’t enough to wait for it. You have to ask…”

 

At that time the great great grandson of Theodoros the First, Theodoros the Third, whose name in history remains the ‘Swinelover’, ruled the Great Kingdom. Undoubtedly Theodoros the Third was an exceptional man: more precisely, he lacked all the weaknesses one usually calls human. From very early on he showed rare self-control and icy genius. He could read at three years old, at five he could memorize books by heart and when he was six years old and a poisonous scorpion stung his first teacher during a lesson, instead of calling for help, the young prince (even though he could see his teacher writhing in pain) preferred to continue reciting the tenth book of the Odyssey. His teacher died in agony after not getting any aid. When they asked the young prince why he didn’t call for help, the six-year old replied calmly, “I was bewitched by Circes’ wand.” Before his eighth birthday, his teachers announced to his father, King Theopemtos the Second, that they were incapable of answering all the questions he asked. Now, Theopemtos the Second was a lecherous old drunkard whose main preoccupation was to reach orgasm by the asphyxiation method (they even say that it was this foible that had killed three of his four wives and tens of his lovers - Theodoros’ mother only survived by taking refuge in a monastery!) and was incapable of memorising the imperial oath. He was flattered his son was hailed as such a genius and immediately ordered the wisest teachers from all ends of the earth be brought to his court: philosophers, mathematicians, theologians, physicians, wizards, linguists, poets, gymnasts and botanists arrived; sculptors, painters and musicians took up residence and the prince was instructed in all the arts of peace and war. And all of them, one expert after the other, agreed: Prince Theodoros would become one of the Most Enlightened Minds in the History of Mankind.

 

His adolescence matched his genius: no one ever saw him get angry or lose his cool for as long as a second; the prince didn’t seem to be afraid of anything and didn’t even desire or get passionate about much - not the women of the court or his father’s young slaves, not hunting or the other frenzied amusements of the palace. He had no friends and looked at the palace flatterers and his contemporaries amongst the sons of the King’s Council and generals with the same icy stare. Whenever he wasn’t at a lesson with his teachers you could find him either in the library, lost in a rare volume, or studying forgotten documents in the Great Kingdom’s archives with an air of otherworldly thought.

 

One day Theopemtos the Second died: his life of debauched orgies reached a fitting climax when the King strangled himself with his own hands in an attempt to reach orgasm. Prince Theodoros was crowned King Theodoros the Third and immediately put his plans for making sweeping changes to the Great Kingdom into action. After a summary process he executed all his father’s councillors who, in between orgies, had been entrusted with running the Kingdom. He appointed new members of a Great Council, King’s Governors to every region and quadrupled the number of soldiers in each guard; he made it illegal for people to travel after sunset and for a candle to be lit for more than three minutes in any house. And afterwards he created laws: he didn’t simply replace old ones with new laws, no, for each old law he created twenty in its place. He discovered horrible new crimes, invented revolting new terms and enacted new penalties that terrified the most ruthless criminals. He set up Councils of Surveillance, Denunciation and Censorship for the first time, as well as a High Council for Controlling Fear and, most strangely for someone who had read so much in his life, he banned the private possession of any type of written objects or representative images and ordered all the Great Kingdom’s books and other creations of the human mind - paintings, drawings, sculptures, musical scores, scientific instruments and anything else one can imagine - be gathered together in an enormous Museum in the capital. Under his orders it was specially built without windows and no one was admitted (except very few officials with special permission), whilst well-armed soldiers guarded it around the clock.

 

No, Theodoros the Third, wasn’t unjust: when he ordered all but three uniforms for his citizens be abolished (leaving one for special occasions, one for everyday use and one for studying) he didn’t just implement it himself but announced that any of the royal family who didn’t comply be executed in public, including his own brother, Theophilos. When, once again, he made a law that took away land from the nobles (under pain of death for those who refused) the greatest resistance came from his own family over forests where they’d hunted for generations. When he made the penalty for stealing cutting off the hand at the wrist (with the provision that the thief’s father perform the amputation on his son), he had the first General of the Great Kingdom cut off his only son’s right hand after the boy had stolen an extra helping of food from the cadet college.

 

King Theodoros the Third wasn’t unjust then; he was however, unquestionably paranoid. In the third year of his reign, he ordered a Chimera be painted outside every door of every house in the Great Kingdom - the ancient monster with the head of a lion, body of a goat and tail of a snake and breath of fire was to haunt the nightmares of his subjects. When sixteen villages on the West Coast defied his order, believing the Chimera an idol of the Devil, Theodoros sent his army to burn the villages and slaughter their inhabitants down to the last one. He exempted pregnant women from the killings, ordering them to be brought to the capital and lodged in his palace until they gave birth whilst offering them every comfort. As soon as the babies were born he let them be breast fed until their mother’s milk run out and then he hanged them all, one after the other.

 

In the seventh year of his reign things got really savage when the King ordered thousands of snakes be released in every town of the Great Kingdom. These exotic creatures were a dark blue colour with a yellow stripe on their backs and were brought on his orders by his naturalists from a secret island in the Sea of the East: evidently he had learnt about their existence from one of his teacher’s obscure books that only he could read. The snakes didn’t grow larger than the palm of one hand but lay in wait in the strangest places for a person’s gaze to meet their own and whoever looked them in the eyes was doomed: like lightening they spat clear venom into the eyeballs of their victim and, straight away, the person fell to the ground screaming in horrific pain. A few minutes later they were dead. The pain was so unbearable that in their writhing, the victims would often rip their own eyeballs out with their hands. Theodoros, in his commands called them “humanizing snakes” but people called them “death-snakes” or “devil-snakes” and very soon everyone walked around with their eyes covered and their arms stretched out in front, as if they were blind, just to avoid letting their gaze meet that of a snake and then, God forbid…

 

It was the first occasion the Great Council asked for an audience with the King since Theodoros the Third took to the throne and he accepted immediately. The First Councillor spoke to him on all their behalf. He was an old noble who believed that when the bridle was loose the masses could be driven more easily and, with a trembling voice (knowing that he was risking his head), he told the King that no one on the Great Council understood what purpose the “humanizing snakes” served, that people found themselves in a singular state of panic and that panic was a bad sign, and how, in the end, the snakes didn’t just menace the masses with a horrific death - a minor evil - but the nobles too, the members of the Great Council amongst them, even the King himself. Theodoros listened to him carefully and as soon as the First Councillor finished, asked the others if they had anything to add. No one spoke, so the King, in an absolutely calm voice said, “Have you ever considered the story of Circes? I’ve often wondered what it means to touch people with a wand and transform them into pigs… Have you ever thought how people differ from pigs? A worm! It’s a worm that excites them and makes them yearn, makes people haughty, arrogant and slanderous; it’s a worm that makes them anarchic, reckless and insubordinate; a worm that makes people believe they can master their own lives. I must crush this worm of depraved freedom: it was this worm the Chimera threatened from the doors of all the houses and it was for this worm I brought the snakes from the Sea of the East. The snakes are instruments to humanize people and make them walk with their eyes tied shut and their spirits numb with fear. In other words, the snakes guide people towards the ultimate goal of their existence and make them fear death and tremble before horrific pain; the snakes are what drive them towards humility and keep them from straying from their path, always reminding them of the insignificance and pettiness. The snakes show everyone that values, ideas and theories are stinking lies in front of the brutality of instincts. The snakes prove that humans are a sack of meat and shit ruled by Fear alone; and when we feel that, we will feel the touch of Circes not as punishment, but as Salvation: our Renaissance and our Final Solution.”

 

The Great Council never asked for King Theodoros’ audience again, as there was simply no reason to. Its members locked themselves in their houses and prayed quietly to be saved by whatever God or Devil they believed in. Whenever they went outside, they covered their eyes like everyone else so they wouldn’t see the death snakes and die. King Theodoros continued to make laws to crush the worm of depraved freedom and make people terribly afraid and full of self-hatred. A year later he built a luxurious pigsty in his palace and had twenty-one pigs specially ordered from all the corners of the earth brought to it. Before installing them in his palace, he had them paraded through the whole capital and forced people to come out onto the streets to see them. It all went to plan except that in the Palace Square, one of the pigs shrieked, most probably from hunger. The King asked for a sword from his First Officer, approached it with a slow step and, in a lightening movement, slaughtered it and covered himself in blood. Within a month a boat brought a new pig to replace the slaughtered one in the King’s pigsty.

 

It was in the tenth year of his reign that Theodoros the Third shut himself in the museum for several days. He ordered no one to disturb him; evidently showing that something important was occupying him. As soon as he came out, he gave the order for a special expeditionary force under his command to be prepared to go to Thunderbolt. It was the height of summer and everybody asked themselves what the King could possibly want on those dry rocks?

 

The reader has guessed correctly: King Theodoros the Third was planning to climb to the same village his great-great-grandfather had massacred ninety-nine years earlier. No one had been up to Thunderbolt since: in any case, why would they? Common sense said that the women who remained in Windtree would have aged and died; without men the women’s wombs would remain barren and life would have been extinguished in the village. But King Theodoros the Third didn’t believe in common sense and had evidently found something in the Great Kingdom’s archives, something to arouse his suspicions, and linked it with everything else: with the death of his great-great-grandfather and his First Councillor. What he didn’t know, he connected in an intricate plot. And so he set off for Thunderbolt certain he wouldn’t find an abandoned village on the edge of a ravine. And of course, his suspicions were confirmed.

 

As soon as the people of Windtree learnt that soldiers were climbing their mountain, they had few illusions about what would follow. The time of trials had come once again, the time when they would show whether they were worthy of the old tales. This time there was no need for a girl’s handkerchief to lead the strangers to the village; Theodoros the Third arrived uninvited and his flatterers ordered all the inhabitants to gather in the square. The villagers wore their best clothes and walked out with steady strides: it was a day that had been waiting for them for nearly a century. They felt ready for whatever the King would do to them - the sparrows could always bring the cut wheat once more.

 

Theodoros spoke in an icy, soulless voice, as if someone else was speaking through his mouth, “Ninety-nine years ago my predecessor passed through your land. The archives write that your ancestors rebelled and all your men were hanged to death. Yet from what I see, your village did not die and was not wiped from the face of the earth. Is there anyone here who can give me a convincing explanation for all this?”

 

Emmanuel, the oldest man in the village (just two years short of one hundred years old and the only one born of the inscribed wheat who was still alive) responded - his beard reached his knees, his speech was slow and his words fell like stones, “Your predecessor who passed through this mountain was a murderer and the words of your witnesses are well written: he tried to destroy our lives once and forever. He didn’t succeed, and now you’ve come here looking for a convincing reason for why we’re living. You’re looking for a convincing explanation! You and your like-minded murderers who burn people in flames because it’s all you’ve got to bully people with…Well, light the flames: we’ll live how we’ve always lived, with Justice…”

 

The icy voice of the King started once more: “You will survive as you’ve always survived: you’ll hide like hares in the bushes, just like your ancestors and your women will be the whores of demons like their mothers and grandmothers - they’ll get pregnant by them like their mothers did to give birth to you.”

 

The elder Emanmanuel spoke with his voice breaking with rage, “Faint-hearted cowards and slaughterers of innocents - that’s what you and your forefathers are! Your mother and the mothers of your ancestors were demon’s whores! If I weren’t bound by our ancient oath I’d wash away these curses in your blood! You and your kind must learn that in Windtree, Justice alone continues life. When your ancestor hanged our forefathers, sparrows brought wheat with the men’s names cut on each grain to this well. Those inscribed grains impregnated our mothers and, if you try and lay waste to our village, the sparrows will bring new grains of cut wheat - inscribed by justice - and our lives will continue.”

 

As soon as he’d finished the King stood as still as a statue for a while before doing an about turn and went to his tent: he’d heard all he needed. He ordered his soldiers to post guards around the village so that no one could escape to the mountains and afterwards shut himself in the Royal Tent for twenty-four hours without seeing anyone.

 

The next day at midday his soldiers went into every home and took the grain of inscribed wheat from the women’s candlesticks. One woman, Anastasia, the great granddaughter of Alexis, held the grain with his name on it tightly in her hand and refused to open it for anyone: they put her on the table and cut her hand off at the wrist to take it from her… And when they’d collected all the inscribed wheat, they dragged the people of Windtree into the square so the King could address them. An ominous cloud hung over the village as Theodoros waited before them on his strange wooden thrown. His voice was as icy as the day before but, saying some words, his expression became even more twisted.

 

“I don’t want to slaughter you, villagers, and I don’t hate you. I am King and I am not allowed such passions as Hatred or Love. I am not angered by your elder’s insulting words; in any case I didn’t climb all the way up here to punish rude old men… I came to your rock to crush the worm that animates men and makes people stray from their goals - and only for that.

 

“All the councillors of the Kingdom asked themselves why, when they learned of my expedition to your village and they thought I was mad to come up to the insignificant cliffs of Thunderbolt. Now that I’ve found you alive, in spite of my great-great-grandfather’s efforts, they’ve begun to doubt me again. Why don’t I simply pass a rope around all your necks, hang you all and be done with it. But the doubters too, are idiots: they aren’t worthy of seeing the Vision with their eyes…

 

“Have you ever thought, people of Windtree, why it is blood circulates inside your flesh and keeps it alive?  Have you ever understood that everything contains within it its end; in other words, its perfect form? Have you ever considered what the perfect form of man is? It’s certainly not a two-legged creature that grows up, ages and dies to become two palmfuls of dust and bones - and surely not a being that arrogantly thinks its purpose is to reach the sky, if only for a moment, before being buried in the bowels of the earth. The real purpose of human life - fleeting as it is - is to become eternal pigs: the four-legged, unified creatures that grow fat without elevating themselves and grunting continuously with fear, because only the Age of Fear offers immortality…

 

“Yes, men and women of Windtree, the end of humanity is in becoming eternal, frightened pigs. It is the accursed worm that nestles inside people that makes them stray from the path. I will crush this worm! Someone had to take Circes wand out of its golden case and hold it in his hands once again, to touch the bodies of people and cleanse them of their curse. That’s why I’m here, in front of you all…

 

“It doesn’t matter that you are alive, people of Windtree; it doesn’t bother me that you continue to exist despite my forefather’s will… What upsets me is you don’t fear death or the King’s noose… not the knives of the strong or the power of my soldiers! It bothers me you’ve learned to live on Thunderbolt without trembling lest the mountain burn your flesh, it bothers me you’ve learnt to have faith in the inscribed wheat, and it bothers me that you survive through Justice and not through Fear. A worm nestles in the minds and spirits of each of you and it’s the worm I must crush in order to free you and lead you to your true destinies… Open your eyes and see before you the Vision! Eternity awaits you all…”

 

King Theodoros stopped his icy frenzy and examined the faces in front of him with his eyes. He raised his hands up high brandishing a leather bag: “In this bag there are the grains of inscribed wheat that impregnated the women of your village after your men were hanged. My soldiers will grind them up here before you all and make flour. Then we will mix it with more flour, add water, knead it and make a loaf of bread -in front of you all, we shall light a fire and bake the loaf…”

 

And after saying these words, he gave the leather bag to one of his aides. His soldiers then brought a pestle and dropping one grain in after the other, he threw in all the inscribed wheat and started to grind it slowly. The faces of the villagers blackened with horror and some of the women and the youngest of the men cried silently. Finally the soldiers finished their work and half a plate of flour had been ground; it was mixed with more flour, water was poured in, and they kneaded it and slowly formed a loaf. They lit a fire and started to bake it on top of red stones. Before the baking the King took out his knife and carved upon the dough the following ancient phrase: Go be a pig, as your own fellows are.

 

As soon as the bread was baked the King gave orders to place it on a wooden plate and said to the villagers: “The time has come for the worm inside you to be crushed: anyone who refuses to eat a chunk of this bread will die by hanging and have their body thrown into the well to rot. The same goes for women, children and babies. Those of you who eat a mouthful and swallow it down into your stomachs without chewing… not only will you not die, but I will take you with me, give you wealth and noble titles, I will make you Councillors of the Great Kingdom, I will give you more power than you can imagine - honours the like of which are deserved by people who crush the worm within them! Meanwhile you will stay here, in this square, for the whole night. Tomorrow at dawn, I will return and, by then, you will have decided whether you will live or writhe in the noose…” And that’s what happened: Theodoros the Third left immediately and left his soldiers to guard the people of Windtree .

 

Until the sun started to set, not a word was heard from the square; as soon as it got dark a soft whispering began. Then the thunderous voice of the elder Emmanuel cried out, “Stop your chattering, men and women of Windtree… Don’t you understand that this whispering is exactly what that arch-murderer wants - that’s why he didn’t have us choose straight away, but left us to wait all night, so that fear threatens us and we are tempted to eat the souls of our forefathers. For that reason, stop your whispering and prepare yourselves to feel the noose around your necks. Don’t worry about your descendants, Justice will save us…”

 

A youthful voice was heard from the crowd of villagers: it started hesitantly but soon became more and more clear, “I’d say the same thing as you, old Emmanuel, if I were as near death as you are. But I still haven’t had time to feel the joy of love, the sweetness of getting my woman pregnant, seeing my children born, grow up, fall in love and have their children… I haven’t even seen the marks I left climbing trees changed by time, my scribbles on the wall melt away in the rain or the knife of my childhood go blunt. I haven’t had my fill of dawn and sunsets, the calm of the night, or the singing of the birds, not even the cry of wolves or just the blooming of wildflowers. Is it worth losing all that for the sake of not downing a piece of bread? Is the grain of wheat that our grandmother’s guarded by their candlesticks so important that it’s worth us being wiped off the face the earth? Even if it once saved us, should we be lost because of it now?”

 

A wild tremor of rage filled Emmanuel’s voice, “You are talking about the gifts of life whilst you hide in the dark shadow of the many. Why don’t you say your name so your mother can hear the words of the one that gave her belly so much pain? You talk of the joys of falling in love and impregnating a woman, watching the birth of your children and bringing them up, of seeing the day and hearing the night; do you believe all that follows some law? Learn that there are two laws in life: Power and Justice - and our law is Justice! That’s why we wont eat the inscribed wheat that the Power of a trivial king grinds and kneads before our eyes. We will not become the servants of injustice: the cut wheat gave life to our village! If we swallow one mouthful of this loaf we’ll become unjust and escape the noose - but we’ll be lost forever.”

 

The whispering continued after the old man’s words. Night had fallen for good. Not long afterwards another voice - different from the first - started, “It’s not how you say it is Emmanuel, and your white hair doesn’t mean that you alone are right. If you want to speak, it’s on your own behalf - let us speak for our own lives. You tell us about Justice - that it supposedly saved our ancestors: well, it’s a fine story for the nights when the wind rages. But now when our lives teeter on the cliff-edge, let’s put aside fairy stories. Justice doesn’t exist. The only right we have is people’s yearning to live - we were all born to live - even if I owe my life to the inscribed wheat, I don’t have a problem eating it so I can live. And so that no one can say I’m speaking under the cover of darkness, my name is Vassileos, son of Dionysus, who was killed in his fight with the red-eyed wolf - he killed it too - and saved our animals.”

 

At his words there was silence for half a minute. Then the shrill voice of Alexandra, Vassileos mother, was heard: “Your father was blessed when the wolf ate his heart. I remember it like yesterday, when they brought his ripped up body to my house: everyone honoured him for being killed in battle with the wolf and I cursed them all because I’d lost my man. But tonight, I say he was lucky he didn’t hear you speak this evening. I wont stop you eating the souls of our forefathers but forget that you’re my son - I’d prefer to give birth to the red-eyed wolf a thousand times than give birth to you!”

 

After Alexandra, the elder Emmanuel spoke again, his voice no longer trembled with rage but was full of grief, “In truth, this King isn’t like his predecessors at all: they were murderers, butchers and brutes that fed on blood but he feeds on people’s souls. He came here for that and he’s ripping our souls apart, he knows that with the noose one just dies, but he wants to ruin us completely by making us eat the seeds that gave us life - he wants to make us eat ourselves. Think about the way his wretched scheme has already divided us, how it divides a son from the mother who gave birth to him. I implore you, people of Windtree, stand together until the morning. Let us be silent in the dark and speak again at dawn when we can see each other face to face.”

 

And again they didn’t heed his words; perhaps because it was dead calm that night and even the stars were hidden behind clouds. In the dark many of them were caught in the King’s trap. The whispering did not stop and the voices got louder. It wasn’t so much Theodoros the Third’s threat of immanent death that tried the villager’s consciences: if it were a one-way track to death, they would have all gone to the noose with their heads held high, but now they had a chance of escape. People are made to stray from justice and the story of the cut wheat the sparrows once brought to the mouth of the well, got more and more distant before the possibility of living on, if only by eating a mouthful of a loaf of bread. And slowly the number of people whose souls bowed down before the dilemma rose.

 

A little before dawn the noise became more intense and the whispering had turned in to savage arguments. Shouting, threats, curses and prayers could all be heard. It was clear that the village was split in two; on one side, were those who would not eat the grains that gave them life, the ones who thought reason and instincts couldn’t save them now but Justice would. On the other side were those that didn’t want to die and wanted to enjoy life, fall in love and bring up their children; they didn’t want to be lost forever for the sake of an old fairy tale. One could now hear fights and broken words and phrases, one drowned out by the next: “reason”, “Justice”, “madness”, “injustice”, “life”, “death” and other such words; and you could no longer tell who was speaking and what they were saying that savage night.

 

At sunrise they quietened down and looked each other in the eyes: it was easy to tell from their gaze on what side everyone stood. If their gaze burned straight ahead, they would go the noose, but if their eyelids fluttered as they hid their gaze downwards, then they would eat the mouthful of bread the Slanderer had made to crush the souls of the villagers. And the number who had chosen to eat the bread was ten times greater than the amount people who chose death. Old Emmanuel was shocked to see six of his grandchildren amongst them. Tears came to his eyes and in his wild grief managed the following words in a broken voice, “In one night, we have ruined everything that Thunderbolt carved onto our souls, I hope at least one hundred and eleven of us go to the noose - so we don’t fall short of our one hundred and eleven forefathers, fewer than the one hundred and eleven grains of cut wheat.”

 

The King reached the square at the right time, evidently his soldiers had kept him informed about what was going on all night and, naturally, he had studied everything carefully. He ordered his executioners to build three gallows and started to send over those who absolutely refused to eat the bread with Circes’ phrase carved upon it. In that way they couldn’t use their eyes or words to bully the ones that chose to live. He didn’t even talk to them and so give them another chance to show they weren’t scared of him. The first to be cradled by the noose was old Emmanuel who went arm in arm with his two granddaughters, Faith and Hope. When they put the rope around their necks, the old man uttered the following words “Father, live through my death.” They were hanged all at once and their hands remained entwined - the soldiers couldn’t prise them apart and so they were thrown into the well together. After them, twelve groups of three were led to the noose: they were old men and women, Avgerinos, Manthos, swift-footed Georgakis, Iordannis and his son Telegonos, Michealos and Asymenia, Anastasia and her son Anthony, Evanthos with nine of his ten grandchildren, Alexandra the widow of Dionysus, Chrisodactylus, Petros, Stefanos the younger, Katerina with her triplet sons, the six Alexis from the grain of old Alexis’ (who had refused to let Theodoros the First have his daughter), the two Dhimitris and Aiolia who took her name from the blowing of the wind. And all of them, before writhing in the noose, repeated Emmanuel’s phrase, “Father, live through my death.” And as soon as they were dead the soldiers threw their corpses into the well.

 

When he was done with them, Theodoros the Third asked the villagers that had chosen life to stand in a line in front of the bread made by grinding the inscribed wheat. Holding his two children in his arms, Vasileos, the son of Dionysus and Alexandra - who disowned him the previous night - was first to stand before the loaf. He uttered the phrase “Father, live through my life”, bit a mouthful of bread and spat it into the mouth of his son, then bit another and spat it into the mouth of his daughter, before biting off a third chunk and forcing it down his own throat. Then came Sifas with his children and grandchildren, behind him Yiannis son of Dimitra, the three Nikos’, Petros the kiln-firer, Emmanuel’s six grandsons with all their families and many more - in a seemingly endless line of men, women and children, couples in love - all moving with hesitant steps and eyes lowered towards the ground. They stood in the line of life and, in order to live, ate the souls of their ancestors, repeating the same phrase. Each time one of the villagers ate a mouthful of bread, his or her mouth twisted strangely and expressed something between pain and pleasure and they all muttered the same incomprehensible phrase the King had carved onto the ungodly bread: “Go be a pig, as your own fellows are.

 

In the end over a thousand villagers ate a piece of that terrible loaf. For every fifteen that ate it there was one who refused and went and stood in front of the gallows. When the number choosing death reached three (and after a signal from the King) the executioners hanged them and threw their corpses into the well - Theodoros the Third was sure not to let too many people who didn’t obey Circe’s command gather together. And the others, the ones who’d eaten the bread, walked to the right side of the square with their heads bowed and waited for the others.

 

Everything was finished early that afternoon when the last of the villagers made their decision. There had been eleven waverers who couldn’t make up their minds but who eventually moved forward together and, tentatively, ate their share of bread. They managed to splutter, “Father, live through my life” from between their teeth before joining the group who’d chosen life. All the people of Windtree who remained alive had eaten the inscribed loaf that a century before had saved their village. Whoever refused was hanged and their corpse thrown in the well. One of the courtiers read out the macabre statistics: the dead numbered one hundred and ten; over a thousand had chosen to live. With the announcement of the end of the proceedings, King Theodoros the Third made a triumphant proclamation for the first and only time in his life, repeating once more the ancient phrase “Go be a pig, as your own fellows are.”

 

Then something unexpected happened: a girl stepped out from amongst the many people who had chosen to live and walked towards the last crust of the unholy loaf. It was Angeliki, the beautiful fifteen-year-old descendant of Gabriella and her union with the inscribed grain of Constantinos (who’d never slept with a woman all his life); a union that had born four generations of girls, each called Angeliki and each more beautiful than the last; so exceptionally beautiful were they that everyone waited excitedly to see the next Angeliki be born and witness God’s blessings to Mankind. 

 

They had watched her join the line with the rest of the living and bite the bread - unexpectedly cheering the others who had seen her mother and grandmother go to the noose and expected her to follow. The fifth Angeliki, the daughter of the fourth Angeliki and granddaughter of the third, had suddenly darkened on hearing the courtier’s announcement of the end of the process. She moved to the remnants of the bread like a sleepwalker and stopped. From her mouth she took out the lump of bread she was supposed to have eaten earlier. She had held it under her tongue instead; she spat it onto her hand and then mixed it into the crust of the loaf, loudly echoing the words of old Emmanuel, “We mustn’t fall short of our one hundred and eleven forefathers, fewer than the one hundred and eleven grains of cut wheat.” And she walked up to the gallows and took her place in front of the middle noose. Straight away King Theodoros made a sign to hang her to his executioner, but even the executioner was overcome by her unworldly beauty and hesitated a few seconds before tightening the noose. In those seconds the girl managed to cry out her last words: not the same as the other hanged people, but the following dark and enigmatic phrase, “Lambros, behind me lies the way out.” Her body was thrown into the well.

 

So it was that thanks to fifteen-year-old Angeliki, the hanged people numbered no less than the one hundred and eleven hanged at the previous massacre, ninety-nine years earlier… It certainly cast a shadow over the King’s triumph: the old total had been reached by the villagers who refused the touch of his wand and the executioner’s delay had given her time to say her last enigmatic words. Straight after this final hanging, the King ordered his archers to shoot all three executioners - not just the one who’d hesitated - and no one really understood why. Their corpses were thrown into the well, too.

 

The villagers who’d chosen to eat the loaf of cut wheat also felt the shadow cast by Angeliki’s actions and last words. They all turned towards Lambros, the tenth grandson of Evanthos and the only one not to follow his grandfather to the noose. Angeliki must have been talking to him, as there was no other Lambros in Windtree. The eighteen-year-old young man was as tall as a poplar with black eyes and hair - the most handsome youth in the village. No one suspected anything was going on between him and the last descendant of Gabriella, but it seems whatever there was had been kept well hidden. They had both chosen to eat the cut wheat and live, evidently coming to the decision together the previous night and earlier that day, they had lined up for the bread with Angeliki in front and Lambros immediately behind her. He hadn’t made the slightest attempt to stop her when he saw her going back to the bread and spit out her mouthful before going to stand at the gallows, but his eyes took the colour of dust. And when she called out her last enigmatic words, his eyes held a blank stare; as if his spirit had been crushed within him. He wasn’t to speak for another ninety-nine years.

 

Quickly however Lambros, stopped being the centre of attention; as that day so many things happened. In response to a new signal from the King his soldiers brought twenty-one gold carriages into the square and from inside them twenty-one pigs got out. They were the ones the King had gathered from all the corners of the earth and brought with him on this dreadful expedition. He grabbed what was left of the crust and threw it to the pigs, shouting at the cowering people, “Watch, people of Windtree, as the new world eats the old…” In a few seconds the pigs had eaten the crust of bread and were squealing for more.

 

After that the King crossed his hands and spoke to the villagers who’d eaten the unholy loaf before the pigs. “You will come with me, people of Windtree,” he said in his normal icy and neutral tone once more, “to the capital of the Great Kingdom. I have a whole land to touch with the wand of this terrible goddess. I’ll need anyone who’s eaten the grains that gave birth to him or her; in fact, I’m counting on you for my success - tomorrow we will all leave the mountain forever.”

 

After those words that fearful day came to an end. The villagers spent the night digesting the cut wheat in the same square their grandfathers and grandmothers had smelt Gabriella’s Blackflower and had then waited for the sparrows to bring the inscribed wheat from the depths of the well. This time however, no one dared look to its mouth - after all the night wont bring you anything unless you ask for it.

 

At dawn the next day they set off with the King, his followers and soldiers for the capital of the Great Kingdom. When they arrived twenty days later, the King ordered the villagers to spend a month in a military camp where a detailed register of the families was made. Exactly a month later, the King issued the following command: each of the families from Windtree was to be given a luxurious house in the centre of the capital and the head of each family was appointed to an important position of power in the Great Kingdom - some staffed the army, others were appointed judges, inspectors of trade or teachers and others made Councillors to the King himself. No one from the old Council dared voice their doubts about what people who, until yesterday, had lived amongst black rocks could possibly know about power.

 

Three months later, something happened that changed the Great Kingdom completely. King Theodoros the Third, the man history calls the Swinelover because of his great love of pigs, suddenly and unexpectedly vanished. The palace announced that he had died of a heart attack in his sleep, but naturally, the truth was very different: since the events up in Windtree, the King spent more and more time in the palace pigsty where he spoke to the animals in a language that was a mix of Homeric verse and squeals. No one dared disturb him. One morning, Theodoros went into the pigsty and didn’t come out on the first or second day - at dawn on the third, his aides broke down the door and went inside. And what did they find? There were just pigs and an open, gold-bound copy of the Odyssey: the King had vanished. They searched in vain for some time, until one of the aides had the idea to count the pigs. There were twenty-two, one more than the King was meant to have in his pigsty. They had trouble believing what they saw, but the only conclusion they could come to, was that the King himself had been touched Circes’ wand - his idol in the mirror of truth. King Theodoros the Third had been turned into a pig, which was in any case his highest goal in life. His aides kept the news secret and called a joint meeting of the Great Council to ask for a decision. Once their initial surprise passed, the Council didn’t take more than a few minutes to come to a decision: since they didn’t know which pig the King had become, all twenty-two were to be slaughtered that day and burned on a fire once their hearts had been cut out. The hearts were to be cooked and, every lunch for twenty-two days, served to Theodoros’ aged mother so they could be sure his sick soul would be digested by the body that gave birth to it. The decision was carried out exactly as planned: the twenty-two pigs were slaughtered and, once their hearts had been cut out, burned with their ashes scattered in the wind. The King’s mother was brought from her monastery to the capital and, for twenty-two days, fed pig’s tripe soup without knowing why. The King’s pigsty was locked up forever and not opened again; no one thought to check which verses of the gold-bound Odyssey were the last Theodoros underlined before becoming a pig:

But first numberless bands of the dead came on

  With a tremendous shout, and sallow fear seized me

  Lest noble Persephone send the Gorgon head

  Of the dread monster from the hall of Hades against me.”

 

The whole of the Great Kingdom was relieved by the death of the paranoid king. The Council immediately proclaimed his brother, Theophilos king and, within a week all his dead brother’s laws had been abolished and the old ones brought back into force. Under King’s orders, the Chimeras were rubbed off the doors of the houses in the Great Kingdom and seven shiploads of porcupines with poisoned quills arrived in special cages from the Southwest Ocean and released onto the roads to exterminate the death-snakes. Life in the Great Kingdom found its regular rhythm once again: the rich got richer, the poor more miserable, the sick died in the shadows on the streets and the eccentrics were locked-up in madhouses; as they always had been in all the kingdoms of all ages. The only remnants of King Theodoros the Third’s reign were more than a thousand villagers from Windtree, who, from nowhere found themselves amongst the ruling classes. When the Old Council presented King Theophilos with a request for their expulsion, he absolutely refused, “Whoever eats the souls of their forefathers,” he said, “are ideal slaves and will become the best rulers.”

 

***

 

The years that followed were years of prosperity; at least that’s what you read in history books. The Great Kingdom’s armies became ever stronger, winning all the wars it declared and forcing its neighbours into signing favourable peace treaties. The state became more organised and production increased every year. King Theophilos the First was succeeded by his son Theopemptos the Third, who was followed by his son and, in turn, his son after that.  All of them were capable and righteous and their names are written in gold letters in books. Of course, history books tell lies: Theophilos the First and his successors were as bloodthirsty as all kings. To fill the palace treasury, they didn’t hesitate to drink their people’s blood, steal from the poor, drown invalids and start wars in which men, women and children fell like ears of wheat under the scythe. As for the ‘correct and organised functioning of the state’ written about in history books; it meant that the few shackled the souls of the many, made laws, premeditated fear, warped dreams, snared minds, bridled memory, lauded slavery and built mausoleums for freedom. And the many lived in daily hardship with their few joys tightly controlled by the rulers and their eyes nailed to the soil - never for a moment lifting their heads.

 

Amongst the rulers were the people from Windtree who’d eaten the inscribed wheat -and they were incredibly successful in their new role. The villagers who until recently had lived off the milk of their yews, changed to feeding off the blood of the many with miraculous ease. People who’d never bridled horses began to bridle human souls as naturally as if they’d done so from birth. They married heiresses, had children, became more numerous and richer; they put down roots in the ruling class, wore silk neck ties and talked of advancement, progress and development and meant their own advancement, their own profit and their own development; they spoke about rights and meant interests; of God and worshiped anything that kept them in power; they spoke of freedom and meant the right of others to be their slaves; of doubt and meant the rights of the hungry to doubt their hunger; of ethics and meant the right of the well-fed to believe their food blessed; they discussed health and believed the dreams of the poor a sickness; they spoke of life but meant the death of others. They never spoke of Thunderbolt, Windtree, the cut wheat or their earlier lives.

 

Years passed and the village of Windtree and its dreadful story disappeared from most people’s memories. The villagers who’d eaten the inscribed wheat became the richest and most mighty people in the Great Kingdom, an all-powerful group that tied and loosened the leather noose of the gallows. Everyone else envied them for their riches and power; but most of all, they were envied because none of them had died, aged or even fallen ill since the day they ate the Swinelover’s unholy loaf. Only children and babies grew up and became men and women before, at the age where youth meets maturity, they simply stopped ageing. Of course, everyone called them the “blessed grains” and doctors and magicians came from all over the world to examine them. Any fanatics who called them people who disobeyed the laws of Heaven and Earth had their tongues branded with red-hot iron and silenced. The older people from Windtree began to be persuaded that eating the inscribed wheat and the souls of their forefathers was the will of God, that perhaps they really were the people of a new age, the elect, who had shown their merit by eating the seeds that brought about their births. So they persuaded themselves they were right to eat a mouthful of the loaf and that God was rewarding them for it. What had the villagers who refused (and been hanged) understood? They had died before getting a chance to claim their share; there was no doubt, their stand had been faint-hearted and against the Times, even superficial and insignificant. Real heroism, they thought, was to be able to change: they designed more and more schemes to control dreams and anticipate the future, kneading more and more loaves like the one the Swinelover had made for them, bread made of other people’s souls that they force fed to fasters. Whoever ate it became perpetually guilty and so a better slave and a better boss…

 

***

 

Ninety-nine years had passed from the day the villagers of Windtree ate the inscribed wheat and preserved their lives by digesting the souls of their ancestors. The first symptoms appeared on the hot summers day exactly ninety-nine years after that day: an intense pallor spread across all the people from Windtree and their blood descendants. All of a sudden the immortal generation from Windtree - the same people everyone had called seeds blessed by God - started showing signs of a hitherto unheard of illness: their bodies started to rot even thought they carried on living. Day by day their flesh decayed and was stripped from their bones. There were now more than six thousand of them: the fabulously old (the people who ate the bread in Windtree were now more than one hundred and fifty), their children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and even great great grandchildren some of whom were still children and babies. They all literally became living dead. Day by day, as the summer continued around them, the descendants of the villagers from Windtree rotted whole and became more and more repulsive. They stank unbearably, suffered in horrific pain and their flesh filled with worms and fell off just exposing their bones.

 

It really was something indescribable - as if the hounds of hell risen and eaten the bodies of the living or infernal deities had created a monster from nothing that then fed upon its brothers. Perhaps the souls of their ancestors had woken in their descendants and avenged themselves on the flesh that had once tried to digest them...

 

It was an incredible evil but at the same time a sort of response: for the burnt corpses of the insane and the magicians, for the children who died of pneumonia in the mines, for the poor who died like brutes in the street, for the fragments of battle-killed soldiers and the carcasses of the hanged tenants - killed for stealing a handful of barley or rice. It was a response for the Justice they refused on the day they ate the inscribed wheat.

 

The doctors and physicians of the Great Kingdom shrugged their shoulders and said they had never seen anything like it (and added they hoped they’d never see it again). The alchemists swore that they were dealing with a force stronger than their art, a force that exists beyond all laws. The poets wrote ambiguously about a long-nailed dark angel without eyes that walked amongst them. And the terrified priests responded by saying that God didn’t always block the Devil’s path and frequently must be worshipped in His absence.

 

When the people from Windtree realized what was happening and felt the world collapsing beneath their feet, they tried to kill themselves by all the methods the human mind can devise: they drank poison, fell into the sea with stones around their necks, held dynamite to their chests and set it alight, jumped off cliffs, stabbed themselves with knives through the heart, and shot themselves with all kinds of bullets - lead, silver and even gold. It all came to nothing: the descendants of the villagers couldn’t die, it was almost as if Death himself had turned his back on their existence. When the order from the young King Theopemtos the Sixth announced all the living dead in the Great Kingdom were to give up their positions of power, have their privileges taken away, they all agreed voluntarily and without the slightest resistance. Even flames couldn’t end their lives along with their bodies, going out without burning what was left of their worm-ridden flesh.

 

There was, of course, a special meeting of the Great Council in the Kingdom. They made the following decision: the villagers and their descendants were to be arrested and as they were evidently immortal, banished temporarily in Valtos until a deserted island could be found for their permanent exile. They were to wear masks or black hoods to hide their horrific features from the subjects of the Great Kingdom, who, in horror, might be inflamed to insubordination, revolt and precipitate catastrophe.

 

So the six thousand living dead found themselves in Valtos. Every family arrived in their luxurious carriages stuffed full (more out of habit than need) with as many valuable objects as they could carry. In truth, it was a very strange sight, so many thousands of people - even little children and babies - wearing odd masks. On the first night the eldest people lit a big fire and gathered around it to talk. It wasn’t easy as some of them shouted, others condemned, many prayed whilst more gave in to false hopes. Mothers cried, asking what their children had done to deserve their flesh rotting and filling with worms. And all these sounds came from behind immobile masks that - whether they guffawed or scowled - added to the menacing and absurd air of the gathering. Then they heard a voice, “Don’t cry, women - we chose Injustice and brought children into this world through Injustice. We put the worms that eat our flesh inside us - we chose to rot…” It was Stefanos, the King’s Head Clerk, who spoke.

 

Stefanos was the great grandson of Emmanuel and as a six-year old, he had seen his grandfather killed by the Swinelover’s noose before his parents put him in line to eat the inscribed wheat. He became Head Clerk to the King and the wise old men of the court said there hadn’t been a mind like his since the Swinelover. He spoke twelve languages and, it was said, knew the contents of hundred thaousend parchments in the Great Kingdom’s library by heart. And that evening, everyone’s cries of despair were silenced so they could listen to his words. It was surely no coincidence he was wearing a blood-covered wolf mask.

 

“Understand it all, men and women of Windtree, everything ended the day we ate the spirits of our ancestors. Until then we lived through Justice and that brought us into the world, fed us, held us in life and put us to sleep. Women, it pains me to see your children, just as it hurts me to look at my grandchildren who are rotting away along with yours. But we chose to continue to live through injustice. We ate the Swinelover’s bread and his plan worked: he turned us into what he wanted, guilty people who could infect others with our guilt.

 

“We shouldn’t cry or howl because we chose what happened to us: we didn’t give the masses such a choice when we imposed ourselves upon them. When they called us ‘blessed seeds’ we swaggered happily - we fooled ourselves with the thought we did the right thing: that real justice is about doing evil. Its what we’ve all become since we chose to become executioners and sold our innocence to be the ones that tighten the collar of the noose but don’t feel it on our necks. We slaughtered, killed, insulted and raped; we ate and digested what we owed our lives to and the dog that’s now eating our faces and the worms that feast on our bodies are our payment.”

 

That’s what Stefanos said. Silence fell on the crowd and only the crackle of the burning wood could be heard. At some point Vasileos, the son of Dionysus and Alexandra, spoke, he was wearing a snake’s mask, “Stefanos speaks the truth, the worms inside us and the bodies of our children were put there by us and, first of all, by me, who drove you all to eat the bread and escape the gallows. I served Injustice then and now I can’t find a way for us to die… because even death is sick of us.”

 

No one could find reasons to object to what Stefanos and Vassileos said. The people from Windtree understood their injustice and the only thing they wanted to do was surrender themselves to Justice, to stand trial in its light and die at last. Stefanos spoke again:

 

“Listen, men and women, we shall deliver ourselves to Justice, just as we chose Injustice - we’ll ask for the inscribed wheat. We all know where we can find it and only one journey separates us from our answer: we must go back to Windtree. We’ll find the cut seeds once again and, through them, the Justice that will lead us to death. But the old story (the one we’ve so often pretended to have forgotten) says one thing: for the sparrows to bring us the inscribed wheat we’ve got to ask for it in the night. We must smell Gabriela’s Blackflower again - but we’ve got to find it - and no one knows where it lies hidden on the mountain.”

 

Stefanos’ words were followed by a loud murmur that gradually, as time passed, died out. Finally silence ruled: there was no other way out. Then after some time a voice shouted out two words: the names of Angeliki and Lambros.

 

The majority of the group were too young to remember and shrugged their shoulders in surprise. The names may have meant nothing to them but to the others, the original villagers, the two names (and strangely, not Stefanos’ speech earlier on) sent them into a joyous trance that lasted some time. With absolute clarity they saw before them all the horrific images - one after the other - of that day ninety-nine years earlier when the Swinelover had put the bread of their ancestor’s souls before them. They had long since consigned them definitively to an oblivion they didn’t see even in their darkest dreams. In this strange vision rose Angeliki once again, the last descendant of Gabriela: the fifteen-year-old beauty who abandoned the living and went to her death on the scaffold so that the dead numbered one hundred and eleven, not less than their forbearers whose names were inscribed on the grains of wheat. They heard her enigmatic words once more, uttered whilst the executioner hesitated in awe of her beauty: “Lambros, behind me lies the way out.”

 

Lambros alone, of all the people brought from Windtree by the Swinelover, hadn’t exploited power in the Great Kingdom. From the moment he watched Angeliki die in the noose and stopped speaking, his eyes had darkened as if something had been turned off inside and no one had been able to communicate with him. In the first few years after it happened several of the others tried to persuade him that his silence wouldn’t bring his beloved back and that all he could do was try to forget Angeliki and the mouthful of that terrible loaf; but it was no good. Lambros didn’t utter another word. After a while, they’d seen and had enough and had him sent him to the remotest monastery on the North Coast so they wouldn’t meet him and be reminded of their past. And of course, they saw to it that he was forgotten; so much so that when they were all arrested and sent into exile in Valto, his name didn’t even appear on the lists.

 

In their despair, the living dead at last remembered Lambros and Angeliki - in particular they remembered her last words before death: addressed to Lambros speaking of a ‘way out’ somewhere ‘behind her’. And then their minds turned to the revolting witch, legendary Gabriela, who gave the women of Windtree the Blackflower to smell and had them search for their ‘way out’ in the night. For sure, Gabriela’s secret would be passed from mother to daughter and who else but her last descendant would know where the Blackflower lay hidden? Was it possible Angeliki was talking about that whilst the noose hung around her neck when she called Lambros and said the way out lay behind her?

 

It was decided that Stefanos, Vassileos and Sifas would go to Lambros’ distant monastery and ask him for help. Besides, he too had eaten the inscribed wheat and so his body would be rotting as well… The carriage journey took three days and they spent another day on donkeys before they reached his cell. They found him carving a stick with his knife: the infernal dog had only laid waste to half of Lambros’ face, the rest lay unscathed and adolescent, a contrast that made his appearance even more frightful. When he saw the three masked men approach - despite not having seen anyone for half a century - he remained indifferent. They spoke and told him who they were. They spoke of the curse that had fallen on the people of Windtree and their descendants in the Great Kingdom. They told him that everything was because of the inscribed wheat they had eaten and that he had to help. But he stayed calm and indifferent, as if they didn’t exist. Then Stefanos repeated Angeliki’s last words…

 

A strange glow passed through Lambros’ eyes and he stared at them for the first time. Stefanos, noticing his words had an effect, kept talking and asked about the Blackflower, and telling him how much they needed to pray for the inscribed wheat again: if they were given it once more, they could eat it and be accepted by Justice and at last find death. He talked of Angeliki’s last words and how they must have meant something. He tried to explain the unmentionable horrors the curse of eternal life brought and even reminded him of the Swinelover’s anger when he heard Angeliki’s last words. With a nod Lambros stopped Stefanos and, in sign language, asked for a pen and paper. They must have had a premonition it would be needed and so they gave Lambros something to write with. Very slowly Lambros wrote - well more or less carved - the letters onto the paper with his quill; he hadn’t written for ninety-nine years. He wrote in hieroglyphics that only Stefanos could read:

 

“I was with Angeliki every evening whilst everyone else in the village slept, we used to meet at the Pitchfork spring. We hid ourselves from everyone else, she wanted it that way and never explained it to me. No one found out about us. The evening the Swinelover penned us in the square, we whispered very quietly to each other so no one would discover us. I pressured her into eating the inscribed wheat bread with me - I just couldn’t bear to lose her or her kisses, and the sorrow in her eyes that seemed to embrace me as if I were holding her in my arms. She answered me with an incomprehensible phrase, something about Justice not being stronger than Love. She seemed persuaded. The next day, I sent her to eat the loaf first, just to be sure. Then I went too, the only one of Evanthos’ grandsons who didn’t stand at the gallows. I lived only to be with her; but she kept her mouthful under her tongue…

 

“Don’t ask me about the Blackflower: we never spoke of it and she never told me anything. Anyway, I don’t think I’m worthy of redemption after what we’ve done: we ate the seeds that gave us life speaking of Life and Love, but in reality we thought only of our own lives and loved only ourselves and no one else. Only the just die - we the unjust, may as well live eternity rotting…”

 

When Lambros gave them the paper and they read it, they understood he had nothing more to tell them. One more thought held in Stefanos’ mind, and it was for all the people who ate the cut wheat and their descendants to return to Windtree together. And there, in the square by the ancient tree on the edge of the ravine, ask for the key to the riddle, there, in the square where they were offered the choice between Justice and Injustice and they had chosen Injustice.

 

It was the last thing left to them; they left the monastery on the North Coast taking Lambros with them - strangely, he put up no resistance. Three days later they reached Valto, found the others and, from there, six thousand masked people began a caravan to Thunderbolt. They reached the mountain after five days and it took another two days to climb to the village, crossing ravines and rocks without fear, knowing if they fell, they would simply stand up again and carry on climbing, Death too sickened to touch them.

 

On the day they finally reached Windtree, everything was just as they’d left it ninety-nine years earlier: houses, humble utensils, half-opened windows, the square, well and tree on the edge of the ravine and even the fateful gallows were all still there. From somewhere inside the mountain, a deep rumble was heard: they were back on Thunderbolt. “Men and women of Windtree,” it was Vassileos’ voice they heard, “take off your masks, we’re in Windree now.”

 

The six thousand living dead took their masks off and threw them to the ground, where the wind, in a strong gust, picked them up and scattered them to the four horizons. Then the people of Windtree looked at each other face to face for the first time and all felt they saw themselves in the rotten features of one another, as if there weren’t six thousand people but one, one unjust person searching to be tried, there, on the edge of the world by the thunderbolt of Justice.

 

What Stefanos hoped for happened: the riddle was solved in the square where Justice and Injustice had offered themselves. Suddenly, everyone noticed Lambros walking almost in a trance towards the gallows where once the Swinelover’s executioner carried out the hangings. He stood at the middle one - just like Angeliki, ninety-nine years earlier. Unexpectedly, he turned around completely and looked at the wind tree hanging into the ravine. He reached the edge almost running and disappeared. But he hadn’t jumped into the void and a few people who ran to the chasm saw him climbing up the side of the cliff like an adolescent, holding onto the roots of the wind tree that lay exposed on the rocks. Where the roots fused to form the trunk there was a hollow: Lambros stretched out his hand, picked something up and put it in his coat before climbing back with feline agility. Everyone gathered around him and, in a very slow movement, he took something out of his coat and held it in his horrifically rotten hands like an injured bird. It was, of course, the Blackflower.

 

Angeliki’s last words, “Lambros, behind me lies the way out”, had meant more than they could possibly imagine. Behind her back, behind the scaffold and the executioners, beyond the wind tree, in a hollow on the side of the cliff; where you’d find it only if you asked. Of course, the people who’d grown up in Windtree knew Gabriela’s old words - in each tree there’s a hollow that holds a great secret. Five generations after Gabriella and two years short of two centuries since the sparrows brought the inscribed wheat to the bereaved women, it was Angeliki’s turn (even if she’d been dead for nearly a century) to give the Blackflower to people who’d lost hope.

 

A little later Stefanos spoke, his voice trembling with emotion, “The Blackflower Lambros holds is our only way… Let’s smell it, men and women of Windtree, there might still be room for us in the infallible darkness. We once ate the wheat that gave life to our village to save our own lives; now, we ask it for death, any death, so long as we’re released from seeing our own decay. Let’s pray to the spirits we ate to close our eyes and to Justice to bring us death…”

 

It was getting dark and the villagers who had once eaten the inscribed wheat, now with their faces now mauled by an infernal hound, sat on the ground of their forbearers to pray for what they once refused. And one after another, they sniffed the Blackflower and disappeared into the infallible darkness - the night that was now their only way out.

 

Night fell, a night that covers everything and is always the same; utterly black and impenetrable, and dedicated to the greatest longings, most ancient hopes, terrible moves and most irrational faith. And despairing, the living dead - the same people who’d eaten the seeds that gave them life and from whom now even Death had turned his back - faced the night head on. Like the women one hundred and ninety eight years earlier, they faced ghosts, elves, vampires and demons that circled the living dead and went inside them. And afterwards, from the well, like blue sparks there flew one hundred and eleven sparrows: one hundred and eleven like before, one hundred and eleven, as many as had refused to eat the inscribed wheat. They circled in the sky twice and then stopped for a moment on the lip of the well. Then they flew high, higher than anyone can imagine.

 

The first light of day brought an end to the trials of the living dead. Their hideous faces turned towards the well where, on its lip, lay one hundred and eleven inscribed grains of wheat. They approached the well hesitantly. The men who reached it first told the others: cut onto the grains of wheat were one hundred and eleven names, the names of those who, in front of the Swinelover ninety nine years earlier, had preferred the noose to eating the souls of their forbearers. It was as if God had cut them with his needle just like all those years before.

 

Vasileos, son of Dionysus and Alexandra, and the first person to eat the unholy bread ninety nine years earlier, took out his black handkerchief and wrapped the new cut wheat up inside. The elder Sifus went to the house he’d abandoned that black day and emerged carrying a big cooking pot. Yiannis, the son of Dhimitris, filled it with water from the spring by the rocks whilst Petros the kiln-worker lit a fire. When the water in the pot was boiling, Vassileos, emptied the inscribed wheat from his handkerchief saying “Forgive us, God, we may have lived by unjust means but at least let us die with Justice.”

 

An hour later the strange soup was bubbling and the villagers gathered in a seemingly endless line. A nod from Lambros made it clear he was going to serve the soup to everyone and they all obeyed his wish. Vassileos was the first to drink the soup but this time saying the opposite of what he had said ninety nine years earlier: “Father, live through my death.” Behind him followed Sifas and his unending family, then Stefanos and the others. They all repeated the same phrase - as only through death can others be born.

 

After drinking a spoonful of soup, they went and lay down next to the well alongside the rest of their families, took of their gloves and linked rotten fingers with the rotten fingers of their neighbour. And around the well the rows kept growing. Inside two hours Windtree’s humble square was full of six thousand living dead, stretched out and waiting - peacefully now - for Justice.

 

Once he’d finished serving everyone else, Lambros drank the last spoonful of soup made of cut wheat and went and lay down holding hands with his neighbour. Before he put the spoon between his rotten lips, he spoke again - the first and last time for ninety-nine years. He didn’t say the same thing as the others; no, he owed someone a final farewell: “Only you are the way out, Angeliki.”

 

By midday, their souls had left all their bodies. As the sun started its descent there was a moment of absolute silence once again and suddenly, the horrible corpses in the square transformed into normal bodies, with warm flesh and well formed human faces, each with the deep scars of strangulation around their necks. Then the clouds quickly filled and darkened the sky, and from deep below came the terrible murmur of Thunderbolt…

 

***

 

Since then, many years have passed. The Great Kingdom continues to exist, though perhaps under a slightly different name and the few still bridle the souls of the many with their unholy laws. What’s worse is that the masses are now prepared to eat the souls of their forbearers, so long as they become the bosses in place of their bosses today. Only in madhouses do the wretches still talk of God, demons and angels, and give themselves over to loves of other ages until death and still believe they live by Justice.

 

Naturally, Thunderbolt still exists, though it is now cut off by walls, fences and barbed wire, and guarded by soldiers. They survey it with ever improving machines each of which has the eyes of ten thousand eagles, the strength of ten thousand lions and the venom of ten thousand snakes. And there’s a long-standing order that no subject or foreigner may climb the black mountain: supposedly, inside it burns an evil flame that causes whoever approaches to vanish.

 

If you really want it though, you’ll defy the order and find the break in the walls, the way to penetrate the barbed wire and trick the guards and their machines. And then you’ll climb the dry rock and cross no end of ravines. And sometime, from the depths of the mountain, you’ll hear the roar of old Thunderbolt and a savage fear and an inexplicable yearning will fill you soul.

 

And you’ll continue walking above the roar of sleepless Thunderbolt because you know that in its most remote ravine lies the deserted village of Windtree with its stone houses empty of life. There’s still an ancient tree whose roots burst out in the chasm of the ravine and in a hidden hollow of this tree a Blackflower awaits us. Finally, there is a well and on its mouth, sparrows will forever be ready to once again leave inscribed wheat for those who ask for it in the night: cut wheat for life and death.

 

 

[Translation: Leonidas Liambeys]

 

 

~

 

 

[The short novel The cut wheat was written in the summer of 1998. 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. Translation from Homer are by Albert Cook, (W.W. Norton & Company Inc, NYC, 1993) for Odyssey, Book XI, verses 634.]