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“You shouldn’t have done it,” whispered the willowy brunette standing across from me. She was staring at the book she held in her hands, not even able to look me in the eye.
Guilt washed over me. I had no idea what I’d done, but it must have been something awful for this woman to confront me here, at a charity luncheon in the reception room of a Greek Orthodox church. I was signing copies of North of Ithaka, the travel memoir I’d written about spending a year living in Lia, the Greek mountain village where my father was born, overseeing the rebuilding of my grandparents’ home, which had fallen into ruin after the Greek civil war that followed World War II. The audience was made up members of the church’s ladies’ philanthropic organisation, many of whom dreamed of doing just what I had, moving to Greece and becoming part of daily life in their village, instead of a special guest star who shows up for a few days during the summer festival. But this woman in front of me? She was mad.
“You shouldn’t have done it,” she repeated, shaking her head.
What was this unknown sin I had committed? When I’d left for Greece in 2002, I carried both anxiety and guilt with me. Anxiety, because I was going to spend ten months in the village where my father was born, but I had never lived there before, only passed through on dutiful visits before heading to the beach on some sun-filled island. Each time we spent a night or two in Lia, I couldn’t shake an undercurrent of uncertainty. Fear is too strong a word; this was more along the lines of disquiet. Emotional nausea. After all, this village was where my grandmother and namesake had been killed, executed for the crime of planning her children’s escape from Lia, which was occupied by the Communist army, to join their father in America where he had been working before World War II war broke out. She had learned that, with the Civil War drawing to a close, the occupying forces were planning to take all local children into neighbouring countries that were already Communist. At the last minute, my grandmother couldn’t flee with her family, and was captured and killed, events my father recounted in his 1982 book Eleni, which had been very controversial in Greece and in Lia itself.
The Civil War had torn the village apart, and the older people, who were its only inhabitants now, still remembered that time with sorrow, even anger. Despite their tragic memories of Lia, my father and aunts often spoke of their childhoods there with joy as well as sorrow, telling stories of climbing the mulberry tree in their yard and falling asleep listening to the shepherds in the mountains sing to their sheep. I was determined to live in Lia, to develop my own relationship to the village, and to rebuild the home as symbol of my family’s survival. But I was still nervous about living there. I knew I was being hopelessly American, trying to slap a happy ending on Lia’s tragedy. And selfish too. The villagers avoided the house as a cursed place. My rebuilding it would stir up memories many of them would prefer to keep buried.
Even though my new neighbours were unsettled by my rebuilding the house, they were kind to me. Over the year I lived in Lia, I came to love the place and the people who lived there. We danced at festivals, picked oregano, explored abandoned monasteries, and ate everything from wild boar to shrimp just pulled from the sea at the foot of the mountain. When the home was finished, they all came to the housewarming to wish me well. If they could forgive me my brashness, what was this young woman so upset about? Maybe this was a case of mistaken identity, and I wasn’t responsible for whatever it was that was so horrible. Finally I asked, “Done what?”
“Killed that rooster,” she said. “I’m a vegetarian. I love animals. And you shouldn’t have done it.”
Oh. Right. I did do that. Back in Lia, after the builders had dug out the footprint of my grandparents’ home, carefully removing the fallen rocks of the original house so that they could be used again, they were prepared to lay the foundations. “Where’s the priest?” the architect asked. “We’re ready to go.”
I hadn’t realised I needed to ask the priest to pray over the foundations, but I should have. Over the course of my stay in Lia, I learned that the rhythms of life in this tiny village were intimately tied to the church. And it made sense that everyone was eager to bless this ground, which had been the scene of so much suffering. During the Civil War, the occupying Communists conscripted my grandparents’ house to use as their headquarters. As the senior citizens in the village recalled only too well, the basement, where my family had kept sheep, become a prison where locals were held, including my grandmother. The upstairs functioned as the soldiers’ headquarters, but also as a torture chamber where prisoners were interrogated. And the yard became a burial ground for 37 villagers who were executed and interred in shallow graves. By the time of my grandmother’s murder, her yard was too full, and her body was left in a ravine with the others who were shot that day. If ever a place needed cleansing and consecration, this was it.
Getting the priest to come was easy. But once he arrived, the architect had another demand: “Where’s the rooster?” He explained that traditionally, when the foundations of a house are set, a rooster is killed over the cement, its head buried within, and the body cooked in a feast for the workers. “In the old days, people didn’t eat meat often, so a rooster dinner was a good incentive,” he said. “Plus the sacrifice makes the house stronger.” Like so much in this village — the chapel to the Prophet Elias on the highest peak, where the temple to the sun-god Helios once stood, for example — this custom was a holdover from ancient Greece, when sacrifices were made to appease the gods, who might be angry at the hubris it took to build a massive structure. And it was a tradition I never would have learned on fleeting detours through Lia during my summer vacations. It was only through an extended stay that the complexities of daily life began to reveal themselves to me.
I knew there was an element of hubris in my rebuilding a house that was the scene of so many painful memories, trying to turn it into a place my family could love again, not just a haunted place the villagers feared. I wanted my new friends in Lia to be able to see the place as a home again, not just the ruins of a prison. If that meant a rooster had to die so that the locals would accept the house, so be it.
“Foti, do you have a rooster?” I asked an older gentleman, who was my best friend in this village full of senior citizens.
“Yes, but just the one,” he said. “And I don’t want all my chickens to be widows.” The contractor proposed a solution; he and Foti would secure a rooster by the time the foundations for the second floor were set.
On the appointed day, Foti stepped out of his car into the sunshine holding a feisty old black rooster with his legs tied together. I felt a twinge looking at this animal I had ordered brought to me to be decapitated, as if I were Salomé, hankering after the head of John the Baptist. But everyone had gathered for the ceremony, and the contractor’s wife, Spiridoula, had agreed to turn the rooster into dinner. It seemed too late to back out, even if I’d wanted to. And I didn’t. I wanted to be a part of this place, and this was a place that sacrificed roosters.
Then Foti handed me the axe. I was prepared to have blood on my hands metaphorically, but I’d never actually killed anything larger than a mosquito. I passed the axe to the contractor and asked him to do the honours. Looking back, this is where my real sin lies. If I was determined to kill that rooster, I should have been strong enough to decapitate him myself.
It took the contractor a few chops to split the rooster from his head. But the headless body didn’t run around afterwards, as I’d heard chickens did, so it wasn’t as gruesome as I’d feared. The head was covered by cement, and the builders seemed satisfied, although one, a 16-year-old boy who, like everyone else, was aware of the village’s gruesome history, muttered, “Isn’t there enough blood in this house already?”
I had added more carnage to this ground. But I was also following in the footsteps of the people who died here, transforming the place through a ritual that they would have recognised as a blessing.
That night, we all met on the terrace of Foti’s home, above the scattered lights of the houses set along the slope of the mountainside. The table was set with tomato and cucumber salad, plates bearing slabs of feta drizzled in olive oil, and two-litre plastic water bottles that had been refilled with homemade wine a friend had given Foti. Spiridoula came out onto the terrace and set a dish on the table with a flourish. It was the stewed rooster, cooked with onion, red wine, and tomato sauce, and served over spaghetti. The rooster, like my neighbours, was a tough old bird who had seen a lot of living. But after simmering in Foti’s homemade red wine and chopped tomatoes pulled from Spiridoula’s garden, the meat was tender and hearty. Again, much like neighbours themselves. The meal was so festive, it seemed to convince those sharing it with me that the rebuilding of the house was something worth celebrating. It even called to mind happy meals the original house had seen. Foti and his friends, who were old enough to remember my father’s baptism, told me that the party my grandmother held after church at the house was the first time they had seen white bread. “We put it between two slices of wheat bread, it seemed so rich to us, like butter,” one of the men recalled. The architect sang, I gave a toast to the rooster’s memory, the builders laughed, and Spiridoula sat next to me, sharing her recipe. It was one of the best parties I’ve ever attended.
After I wrote North of Ithaka, I didn’t give the rooster a second thought. Until the reading, and the woman’s accusation. I’m not a vegetarian, but I do think it’s a better way to live. I crave meat occasionally, my husband prefers it, and I’m reluctant to remove protein sources from our children’s diet. But if I were a better person, nobler of spirit, if I could control my appetites and were more creative about feeding my family, I would give up meat. It’s better for the planet and may be better for our health, too.
The beef and chicken and fish I cook in our kitchen come in a package from the grocery store, making it easy to feel removed from the animal who died to become our supper. It’s on the shelf already and someone’s going to buy it, if not me, then another. But the rooster whose head is buried in our house in Lia would have lived longer if it weren’t for me. It would have been braver, fairer, if I had chopped his head off myself, but even without doing so, I was directly responsible for his death.
And yet, I never felt more like I belonged in Lia than I did that night. Foti died of a stroke the year after I left. When I drive by his empty house every summer, I remember him laughing all through dinner. The woman at the reading was right, I shouldn’t have done it. But I would absolutely do it again.