Ms. Katerina sat crouched over the hearth on her tiny stool, stirring the blackened pot perched over the coals, when I knocked on her courtyard door. I heard her quiet, high-pitched voice from within, bidding me entrance. The courtyard was crowded and pretty, with geraniums, jasmine, overgrown rose bushes, towering upwards and spilling over the tiled roof. Rose hips gently bumping the tiles, melodically. The raised well cover was cocked off to one side and the small tin can used to draw the briny water stood on the cover. The miniature wicker chairs arranged around the three-legged metal table, looked to be as old as Ms. Katerina herself.
I pushed open the sun bleached wooden door and peered inside. She turned her head to greet me and tried to stand. I was sure I could hear her creaking bones objecting, feel the knees which betrayed her a little more each day. The same curious feeling returned, as I took in her cluttered kitchen, her miniature furniture, the engaging smell of a hundred different herbs, the aroma from the blackened hearth pot. I desperately wanted to gaze around this Aladin`s cave, scrutinize it`s hidden corners, but decency prevailed and I happily greeted my old acquaintance, shaking her paper-thin skinned, hand, gently.
Despite having pre-arranged this afternoon`s meeting, with the specific purpose of speaking about her unusual ability, I was still embarrassed to dive head-long into the subject, so I waited – I waited for her to complete the rigmarole. To finally decide that the faki (φακί) was ready, pushing it to one side to rest. To offer coffee and biscuits, fruit, allowing her to arrange them delicately on the only available space on her wooden table, piled high with seemingly, a lifetime`s clutter. I briefly wondered what she could possibly need with a builder`s trowel.
Eventually, she moved to her side cabinet and brought to the table a small, nicotine coloured folder, betraying a lifetime of thumbing and usage. “Aha” I thought inwardly, “we begin”. With a tired sigh, she pulled her tiny stool to the edge of the table and opened the folder on her knee.
She seemed to immerse herself amongst the loose papers and the notebooks for a few seconds, before she aligned her thoughts into order and began.
I felt the butterflies in my stomach flutter, lent forward and tried to peer down onto the notes she held. Tiny, regimental characters filled the pages, from edge to edge, with no margins around. Tiny, but neat, and carefully placed, using the “purist” form of the Greek language, the pages were filled with titles and notes. I was, as yet, unable to discern the system employed by her, but she appeared to know where to look.
She began. “You know – it`s a demanding job being a “charmer” – well, it used to be. Nowadays, there aren`t so many of us elders left, youngsters pay no attention to our old ways and customs” I could relate to this of course, I see the change in the Cretan people every day, hankering after every modern gadget, new cars, not to mention each doctor plying you to prescribe some medicine or other.
The villages of her generation, didn`t always have access to doctors, and if they did visit the doctor, it was for something very serious, so they were regarded with what could be described as awe and a reasonable measure of mistrust. To aid them in their every day ailments. they often turned to the “village charmer”. “Charms” are available for such as stomach ache, toothache, sight problems, sleep disturbances, fertility issues (such as conceiving one or either sex), interfering in-laws, ailing livestock, even annoying neighbours or persistent guests!
She continued, ” K. George from down the cambo (κάμπο) came last week complaining his grape vines are ailing from mould. That`s an easy one. Take 16 banana skins, leave them in the sun for a day, then bury them at the roots of all four corners of the grape vine field. Make the sign of the cross, and utter the phrase, Leave mould, Leave mould, I`m uninterested where you go, but preferably not my fold. This phrase is repeated morn` n`night for 7 days, `n those vines `ll be right as rain. I`ll take a few kilos of wine in payment though!” she smiled gently.
“Fleas in your ears? That`s a little more complicated, cause it`s a human ailment. Involves repeating the charm every 6 hours and sleeping in your bed upside down for 6 nights, waking during the night to repeat the charm.
“Your goat`s lame. No problem, say, Ayge, (Αίγε) how dare you shirk your duties, Ayge, how dare you limp, Ayge, how dare you laze – run the mountain now and chase your man (τράγος), then come back to your stable with udder full – be warned, limp again, you`ll see the sharp of my knife and feel the burn of the coals! Repeat morning and night till the ayge (goat) walks fine.”
Mrs. Katerina, spent the best part of the afternoon reading the charms, sometimes, seemingly to herself, perhaps to re-imprint them in her mind, and other times to me, many of which she knew off by heart.
Many words I did not understand, since the purist tongue was used, and also the local accent often changes and shortens the words themselves. But the general jist I took away with me, was that almost any ailment of man or beast, or plant or tree, could be cured with one or more of her charms. This fascinating insight into the true Cretan folklore, only re-enforced my love of these people, and their perpetual ability to survive.
This folklore, which in some instances overlaps into the realm of the church, can be witnessed in the christening service. God parents to the unbaptized child, take part in the church service and are requested to “spit” (iconically) twice on the floor, to prevent the devil from entering the child`s life!
My old acquaintance rose, indicating the end of the “business side” of our meeting. But then began the “social side”. We ate the pleasant faki soup, with a salad of tomatoes from her allotment (Περιβόλι) and the sweetest onions I think I`ve ever tasted, chopped from her onion plait hanging in the courtyard, a glass of red barrel wine and a sample of her own home brined olives. A perfect finish to a perfect afternoon.