οὐαὶ δὲ ταῖς ἐν γαστρὶ ἐχούσαις καὶ ταῖς θηλαζούσαις ἐν ἐκείναις ταῖς ἡμέραις. Matt 24:19
Read to me, Kryssa-Zaynab, and neither
forget nor find tiresome the tortuous struggle
we endured for Greek liberty. And do not tediously
question me to know who was your mother.
They whom I call your mothers have truly melded
in my faltering memory as also the creeds avowed
in your double name have melded in you;
or so I ever hoped, my beauty, though I fear
your precocious mind and my books have made you
pagan as your father.
Yes, child, I’ll tell you their story again
(I’ve told you a thousand times in the thirty years
you’ve lived with me), for else you’ll pester me,
as a hungry cat.
I found them, your mothers, in a yellow desert ravine
hard by Mareotis, under Alexandria, toiling
as cobbler’s wenches. Comely and modest they were,
and wise beyond their years, but piteously married
to the cobbler’s sons: one a worthless layabout,
the other an ignorant lout. Their only joy
they found in each other and in their studied piety;
Heloise, the elder, followed the Risen Christ,
Hayaam the Way of the Prophet.
Desperately they clung to each other through shameful days,
and now they clung to me. By predawn starlight
we fled the noisome place, and they became,
that same day, my consummated wives.
I said, “Make haste. We must flee this Africa.
Let’s to ancient Attica, land of my fathers,
for here your priests and imams will deliver you
to raging mobs to flog or stone you to death
(on this one thing they agreed) while railing against
your female concupiscence, your polyandry,
your unequal yoking with a Greco-gallic pagan;
and every other sin that made Alexandria
the Light of the World.
I urged in vain. “Your land is far,” they said,
“too far from the desert ravine where our fathers and mothers
still grind and toil under the Egyptian sun.
But Cyprus lies at hand, a few days’ sail
from Alexandria. We’ll make sturdy shoes
for the Cypriots and you shall make us rich, for the land
is abundant in oil and wine. As Abram and Sara,
sacred ancestors of both our faiths, we’ll say
we are your sisters.”
Thus I became, in Cyprus, a thriving olivier.
The cobbler’s booth prospered also, until
I learned, on the same day, that both my youthful
wives were enceinte, and each one my “sister.”
Gossip and slander portended we’d soon again
be exiles. “Take us now to Attica, your fatherland,”
they said, too late. Greeks had risen everywhere
against the Turks. Desperate, we sought escape
by land and sea, but war and mindless death
had descended on our world.
Hayaam, departing the cobbler’s booth alone
at sunset, encountered a band of Christian smugglers;
they raped, murdered and dismembered her under
the blue and white banner of the Cross. That summer,
Egyptians and Turks descended on Cyprus by sea;
Heloise they similarly raped, murdered and dismembered
under the Green Crescent.
And you survived, Kryssa-Zaynab, a miracle
(though I hate the word), daughter of two
mothers, or of none, and beautiful as either.
I named you by their pieties, even while
you sucked the pallid milk of lowbred, mismatched
maids, imbibing neither mother’s devotion,
nor any law by which to marry.
I love you, Kryssa-Zaynab. Daily, patiently,
you read to me of our heroic War.
So far, we’ve not chanced upon their names,
Heloise and Hayaam, have we? But once, in Paris,
in the Musée du Luxembourg, we pondered arm-in-arm
Le massacre de Scio, and then I told you (remember?),
“Thus also in Cyprus.”
Kiss me, Kryssa-Zaynab, sun and moon
to my dark senility. Your name is sensuous, your touch
delicate as your mothers’ breasts on my aching tongue.
Now bring me ouzu, my musky cigar, perhaps
that crusty bread you bake with a little cheese,
and then you’ll read to me.
Miamisburg, Ohio, 2012