Island Tales and other Fables: Alternative Stories from the History of Cyprus
*Greetings from the author: Dear reader, this (very) short story was imagined purely for your entertainment and is loosely based on the author’s recollection of the main facts of historical (and/or folkloric) events from the history and culture of Cyprus. There has been no attempt to accurately depict any event that has ever occurred on the island (or elsewhere). Constructive criticism relating to the literary aspects of the story is of course welcome, via the editor. Enjoy!
‘It looks very dry.’
Helen leaned over the ship’s railing, studying the land extending into the horizon. It was mostly rocky, all the way inland. Even the enormous salt lake in the distance looked almost completely dried up. On the shore below, all she could see was the slimy deposits of seaweed on the muddy, dark sand. No, no. The place certainly did not live up to her expectations.
‘There’s been a drought, mother,’ Constantine said to her dryly. He knew perfectly well what she was implying, but this time she would not get her way. They had already avoided the Nile delta (too many crocodiles) and the coast north of Jerusalem (too much spice in the food). Their journey had already lasted longer than he fancied and he was eager to get his legs on solid ground. ‘Shall we disembark?’
It was not long before they were walking through some yellow fields, followed by a procession of their entire entourage. Constantine tried to keep up with his mother, who charged onwards, hastily chased by her servant who was holding up a makeshift umbrella in an attempt to shield her from the sun. Helen was determined to find something, anything that would prove interesting enough to make an anecdote out of. She would be terribly disappointed, Constantine thought. Nothing would beat their previous adventure in Jerusalem.
‘I wish you would let them keep that thing back on the ship,’ he called out to her, pointing to the large, rotting piece of wood that was being carried by five of their men, trailing behind them.
‘No, no, we went to too much trouble to find it. I am not losing it from my sight. And remember darling, it was I who found it. Not you.’
Constantine fumed, but could not think of anything intelligent to say to her. It was all as well, as they had bigger fish to fry. Or rather, snakes to run away from. Not a moment later, they were both startled by the shrieks of her servant, who dropped the umbrella to the ground and began running frantically back to the ship.
‘Come back, you fool! I’m getting all the sun in my face,’ Helen yelled at him, to no avail. The young boy was already halfway back to the beach.
‘Mother, I suppose we should retreat,’ Constantine said, concerned at the menacing sounds of hissing coming from the bushes around them and the odd tail slithering in and out of the rocks. They had seen enough. Back to sea it was then, he thought, disappointed, for the long journey back home.
‘Well alright,’ Helen said, turning on her heel and marching off back to the ship with a determined look on her face. ‘But only because I have just been struck by divine inspiration. Just like in Jerusalem, before we found what we were looking for. You know what I mean.’
‘You are quite brilliant mother, aren’t you?’
Helen grinned at her son. No one was too old for praise and she was indeed very pleased with herself. They stood side by side at the ship’s railing, more or less where they had been standing when they had first laid their eyes on the crusty shores of the island, looking down at the massacre happening below. To a chorus of sharp noises of growling, wailing and howling, they could see through the bushes the slithery residents of the cape being torn apart and shredded to bits.
‘I knew those cats would come in handy,’ she remarked proudly. ‘Teach you for scolding your mother for bringing a few pets along on our journey.’
‘You brought twenty cats with you,’ Constantine replied, ‘not to mention another fifty on the other ship.’
‘And lo and behold, everything happens for a reason. You can thank me later, shall we disembark again?’
By the time they had left Limassol, Constantine noticed Helen was surprisingly moody. It was quite strange, he thought. Celebrations held in her name usually sat well enough with her. The locals had gone out of their way to thank them for their ingenious idea to rid them of their serpent infestation problem. They had even decided to rename the local monastery Saint Nick of the kitties in their honour, but it had not been enough. Nothing seemed to make this woman happy.
‘I hear Nicosia is lovely this time of year. There’s a river and some orange trees. Perhaps some more snakes to kill too, mummy,’ Constantine told her in his sweetest tone as the carriage progressed up the long road. But Helen did not answer, lost deep in her thoughts. He thought of distracting her by stopping to admire some ancient ruins on the way, but not even the crumbling columns and colourful mosaics hidden in the dust helped improve her mood. It was only when they had left the shores well behind them and found themselves deep in the forest that she finally had enough and broke her silence.
‘What will my legacy be, I wonder,’ she sighed, gazing out into the thick pine trees.
‘How can you ask such a thing? First and foremost, you are the mother of the fiercest and most famous emperor the world has ever seen this side of Rome! Surely that is a great achievement in itself?’
‘Darling, that is doubtful, and we have talked about your ego before. Besides, it is not every woman’s dream to be remembered just as someone’s mother.’
‘Well what about the thing with the cross?’
‘That old relic? It was a good find, I suppose, but it does not excite me. You can have all the glory for that one.’
‘There’s also the cats? That was crafty enough. It will surely result in an exciting tale. We can even make a musical out of it.’
‘Stop the horses! I have it,’ Helen cried, bringing the carriage to a halt. Through the open window, she pointed to a lofty mountain in the distance, in the direction of the sea.
‘It’s just another hill, mother. We’ve seen several of them on the way.’
‘No, but it is perfect! Here we must climb, here we must build. Here I shall finally leave my permanent mark onto the world!’
Constantine walked through the courtyard looking for his mother. He could not help but feel impressed at craftsmanship that had gone into the new place. Granted, it was small compared to their palace back home, but it looked nice and modern, with its lovely pointed archways and charming roof with the red ceramic tiles. The stones in the courtyard were so shiny that he could see his own handsome face staring right back at him. People were still working all around him, adding the finishing touches on the roof, fixing doors, bringing in the furniture. The first monks would arrive soon. Exciting times, all around. Helen’s monastery was complete.
‘There you are.’ He found her on the outer terrace, admiring the view. When she turned to greet him the colourful jewels in her crown sparkled as they caught the sunlight, almost blinding him.
‘Where else would I be, dear?’ She said, giving him a kiss on his bearded cheek as he helped her down from the parapet.
‘Don’t you look fancy,’ Constantine remarked. She was wearing a long, persian blue tunic, with the golden, double-headed eagle embroidered on the breast on each side.
‘I thought it fitting for such a significant event. It’s not so often that one gets to do this, you know,’ she replied.
They walked through the gardens of the monastery, under the hanging bougainvillea that painted a fuschia canopy above their heads. When they passed the wishing well, Helen stopped to look inside. Without warning, she took out a small nugget of wood from her pocket and dropped it in. It landed at the bottom with a splash.
‘Was that what I think it was?’ Constantine asked, almost afraid to know the answer. ‘Of course. Don’t worry dear, there’s enough to go around. What else are we going to do with it anyway?’ She was probably right. He reached for a pink flower from a low hanging branch above them and placed it above his mother’s left ear. She giggled like a girl.
‘I’ve never seen you this happy,’ Constantine told her.
‘I’m not happy darling, I’m relieved. Building a monastery has been harder work than I thought.’
‘You hardly did anything, except boss everyone around.’
‘Well, micro-managing a building sight is as much hard work as manual labour itself. But it was all worth it. And I see our new residents have arrived,’ she said, hearing the sound of horses pulling up at the gates. ‘You will not be shocked to hear that I have prepared to welcome them in style.’
She climbed the short flight of stairs to the balcony of the floor and looked down on the dozen monks that had entered into the courtyard. Constantine smiled awkwardly as they assembled next to him, dreading what she would do next. He gestured at her to come down, but she ignored him. Helen smiled gracefully at her unwilling audience, cleared her throat and began to sing.
You are welcome friends to Cyprus,
Land of snakes and cypress.
Twas here where Constantine the Great arrived,
Returning from the holy lands where he thrived,
An ancient prize carrying away with him,
The precious wood that’s praised in hymns.
From serpents he freed the sun kissed isle,
Then marched its lands victorious, and in style,
Looking for the perfectly inspiring place,
To leave proof behind of ghostly grace.
Upon this hill he marked the spot,
Amongst the trees it’s not that hot,
A sanctuary he built for thee,
Forever to be known as Stavrovouni
But lest you forget, surprise surprise,
This great man alone to the challenge could not arise,
For without a mother who is a visionary,
Even Kings would surely not achieve their victory.
So remember it well, don’t forget it if you can,
A wonderful woman lies behind every decent man.
A few monks clapped awkwardly.
‘You know, women aren’t even allowed in monasteries. Perhaps it’s time you leave,’ said the head monk to Constantine. He reeked of lavender, perhaps to cover the stink coming from underneath his purple robe.
‘Perhaps we shall,’ Constantine said, trying not to gasp at the smell. ‘Come on mother, our ship awaits.’
Helen smiled down at her son. She agreed with him, all that was to be done for this strange island and its inhabitants was done. It was time to sail home. She was about to make her way down the wooden stairs to the courtyard when a ginger ball of fur jumped down from the roof next to her. She picked up the cat to pet it.
‘Well hello there,’ she told it as it purred back at her thankfully. ‘I suppose my son can wait a moment longer before we go. It is a nice view from up here, after all.’ She savoured the moment, thinking she would remember it for a while. It was not so often that she found herself looking down on clueless men. Not so literally, at least.
Written by Saléb Maz*