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Wednesday, December 18, 2002


Our Daily Bread

The following is part of a work in progress entitled Freefall.

Ta trone? Vangelio asks, perplexed. Are they eating them?

She doesn’t know whether her chickens are laying eggs. If they are, the eggs are nowhere to be found, which means the hens are devouring them. And once hens cannibalize their eggs, they won’t stop doing so, which means they have to be destroyed and eaten and new chicks bought and raised. Which means no eggs for at least six months.

This was late last fall, a time of year approaching what the villagers of Myloi call the season of mikres meres, small days: winter. It was also, for the first time in living memory – and memory extends back over 70 years for Vangelio, for 80 years and more for others here – a time of severe drought on southern Evia, as it had not snowed and hardly rained for three years, after four previous years of unusually low precipitation. The stream that normally courses year-round through Myloi was bonedry. A month earlier than usual, some 500 black goats with long, spiraled horns were herded through the village from their summer pastures near the sea, which pasturage resembled a dustbowl, to their grazing on the Ohi mountain range above us, which was as parched as the streambed. The critters ate everything in their path as they came through, destroying the potted plants outside the doors and entranceways to our homes. The bells on their necks would have heralded their passage – and caused everyone to run out armed with brooms to shoo them away from temptation – but these could hardly be heard for the wind that was screaming at a gale-force 9 Beaufort, settling a haze of fine grit over all horizons and doing nothing at all to dispel the heat.

Vangelio’s chickens weren’t eating their eggs, as it turned out: they simply weren’t laying. No one else’s chickens were laying either, as though sterilized by some six months of heatwave after unbearable heatwave. Instead, they bellied down and panted in the dust, in their coops, and in the gardens, except for Aristi’s chickens, which were dead. Crazy Chrissoula’s two dogs made the mistake of killing all of them one afternoon, then lolled about the carcasses, quite pleased with themselves until they were poisoned a few hours later. Despite the fact that everyone agreed that crazy Chrissoula and not the dogs were at fault (for she neither tied nor fenced nor trained them), a dog that destroys chickens once, the villagers know, becomes – like a chicken that eats its eggs – a recidivist. Aristi and her family now would not have eggs for half a year while waiting for the new chicks to reach maturity, and no one else wanted to suffer the same fate.

Maggie, Myloi’s transplant from Wales, was ripping out much of her 200-bush rose garden and replacing it with plants needing little water when I told her what had happened to Aristi’s chickens and then to Chrissoula’s dogs. She grimaced at the poisonings: a few years before, her two dogs perished on a beach after eating poison that had been set out for fox and packing strays. The dogs would have killed again, I told her. Ridiculous, Maggie muttered, in this day and age. You’d think the villagers would learn to buy eggs from Karystos, she went on, but – of course – not one of them will eat an egg if they don’t know the name of the chicken that’s laid it.

They won’t. Our eggs are kathara, clean, the villagers say, we know what they eat because they’re fed from our gardens, from our table scraps, and they range freely. In actuality, most of the elderly villagers – many of whom have land and chickens and goats or sheep or a pig – buy little in the way of food from Karystos. They still live as they were raised by their parents, who in turn had lived as their parents and grandparents and the generations before them; they grow their own food, milk their goats and sheep, make their own cheese, slaughter their own animals. No matter that they have pensions, that their houses are now heated by oil, that they have electricity and telephones and a taxi service they can call in Karystos to take them to and from the town to shop. And no matter that their hands are gnarled and there’s a stiffness in their joints, no matter that raising food and caring for animals is a laborious, backbreaking, four-season, never-ending process. They do it because they’ve always done it and, I suspect, because they’d have nothing to do if they didn’t. Idleness here is looked upon by most as something akin to moral depravity, and it’s also a sign that someone has just taken that last turn down the passage toward death. When a person can’t any longer turn over a field by hand, haul and spread manure, harvest olives and prune trees, or sow and reap, that person is pitied for the end that must be near.


My father’s tragically degrading journey toward his own end is, in one sense, near, for Alzheimer’s has notably deprived him of much memory, without which we are nothing, as well as motor coordination and concentration. He hasn’t exactly put down his garden tools, but he can no longer wield them for any length of time, and his significantly diminished attention span renders him relatively incapable of tending the garden after planting it. Plant a garden, though, he did two summers ago; and despite his ensuing neglect of it, it grew in its own celebratory way, with lots of weeds between the uneven rows. And though my father didn’t look at it in this way, he seemed victorious in this small battle without understanding that he’d already lost the war.

He’d kept a garden all his life. It was the place he headed for five days a week, upon returning from work, during New Hampshire’s short growing season. His after-work Monday-Friday routine never varied: he’d walk in the house, put his lunch pail on the counter, down two or three shots of whiskey by the kitchen sink in silence, hardly acknowledge any of us, and go out to the garden. We children were never allowed to go with him; and I don’t remember my mother trespassing those rows of lettuce and scallions, wax beans, green beans, onions, corn, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, eggplant, potatoes, cabbage, zucchini, and summer squash. Not even after the gray summer had given way to crisp fall mornings, not even after the garden was fallow but for the creeping vines of butternut and winter squash, did anyone but my father step foot into what I can only imagine now was his sanctuary. Oddly, and without ever speaking of it, we children skirted that garden as though it were hallowed ground and evaded it even after the snows buried it; it was the one place we did not build snowforts, the one place we did not leave behind snow angels, the one place we erected no snowmen. The garden remained untouched except by the elements: the wind sculpted snowdrifts or left snowripples in snaking patterns in deep winter, and during the raindrenched springs the garden’s untrampled snow was always the last to disappear. When it did, the garden’s dark earth still bore traces of furrows, which humped and cracked in the spring frosts. My father waited out those frosts each May, counting the days between them, believing that 10 days’ passing without a frost meant he could begin planting.

What my father raised fed us summer and winter; my mother canned, and potatoes, onions, and winter squash were stored in the cellar. Like his father before him, my father also fished for hornpout, trout, bass, pike, perch, and freshwater smelt, and he hunted for pheasant and partridge, duck, hare, and deer – each in its season. I don’t know if there was a pecuniary need for him to raise a garden and hunt and fish, but my father was (like my mother) nothing if not economical; he was also antisocial (self-reliant, he would have said), hard-drinking, and given to erratic and explosive rage. It strikes me now, as it struck me then, that he preferred being alone – or with my mother – to being a family man. As being with my mother alone was out of the question except when we children were out of sight and mind, hunting and fishing and the garden gave him an out in the name of our table.

My father will never visit Myloi, for traveling so disorients him now that he barely recognizes my mother when they end up somewhere familiar. It’s a pity, for he would have liked the gardens here, and the cycles of continuous planting and harvesting. It might have made him feel good that the villagers no longer hunt (there’s little game) and never fished (peasants don’t fish, period), now that he no longer has a sense of direction or the ability to handle a gun or the coordination to string a fishing pole. He would like the fact that almost no one his age knows how to drive, for he has forgotten how; he’ll soon forget he ever knew. And he’d like the fact that much of what we eat comes from our labor, for almost nothing on his table anymore comes from his – except what he packs at the grocery store where he now works, two afternoons a week. It is, in his universe of constant reduction, an accomplishment of which he is proud, for he still believes that it’s good when from our own hands comes our daily bread.


There are, roughly, four planting seasons in Myloi, but most planting is done in successive waves, which means that the young plants (or bulbs, or seeds) of the same crop are put into the ground at different times so as to ensure a steady supply of that vegetable or tuber or fruit (say, tomatoes) throughout the entire growing season. In summer there is an overlap of astounding abundance – tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, eggplant, green beans, sweet peas, corn, potatoes, onions, cucumbers, scallions – some of which lasts until the first pumpkins are harvested in late October, just as the first wave of the bumper cabbage and cauliflower begins to ripen. By end-November, cabbage is such a mainstay that it feeds not only everyone, but also fattens the goats and sheep. The planting of koukia, a broad bean, takes place in December and January; the fresh beans, stripped from their shells, are a village staple in late winter and early spring, when the cabbage fields have finally fallen fallow and are turned over for the first plantings of potatoes and onions.

The villagers plant like there’s no tomorrow. By mid-summer, everyone’s storage sheds brim with braids of onion and garlic and sacks of potatoes, enough to last until the first harvest of the same the following spring. Toward the end of summer, the village women make pasta by hand – trahana, fidhes, hilopites – to be dried and stored for the coming months as well. Pulses, especially lentils and white beans, are also dried and stored. The end of summer’s cornucopia means fewer vegetables and no tomatoes, but it also means gathering and storing chestnuts – boiled, these are eaten for breakfast – and, after the autumn and winter rains, gathering snails and wild greens, the latter to stuff into homemade pita, which is rolled into something resembling a long, fat sausage and coiled into a frying pan, then cooked over an open flame.

The drought that persisted into the autumn, however, meant there were no wild greens and no snails to gather. When the rains finally arrived, in late November, they came with a vengeance: 25 inches fell in 10 days, and this was only the beginning of the most severe winter Greece had seen in 40 years. Myloi’s stream filled and roared like a river, and the cabbage fields turned to mud. Birds flew into the cypress stands and stables and sheds, and those finding no berth threw themselves at shuttered windows and attempted to perch beneath eaves, trying not to drown. At the isolated church of Aghia Triada, a half hour by foot from Myloi, a mudslide gashed a gorge in the mountainside for 500 feet and more; tons of rock and mud buried the church’s myriad squares in almost 30 feet of muck and debris, as well as destroying its centuries-old plane trees, footbridge, and stream course. I had the impression that our house was sinking. The village men grew morose, the women subdued: they knew what their fields looked like, for they watched the furrows they’d mule-plowed or hand-hoed fill with water.

The villagers had prayed for rain, attending special liturgies to end the drought throughout the autumn, even after the Mufti and Muslim brethren in Algeria had their prayers for rain answered with torrential downpours that flooded Algiers, killing more than 300 people. A catastrophe, the villagers clucked as they went off to yet other rain liturgies until the rains began. When the deluge didn’t cease, they began to pray for the rain to end. It was about then that the hens began laying again, which means that I was greeted by everyone but Aristi with Elena, avga (eggs)!, as though I had two names, and given more eggs than any one person could ever possibly consume. That was just before the slaughter of the pigs.

Stars fell from the sky and pigs ate them, the Greek American historian and writer Helen Papanikolas once recounted in a lecture on the stories she was told about her faraway homeland. She grew up in Utah, but her family’s context was Cretan, and they planted the seeds of their lost patrida into Papanikolas’s heart with a linguistic magical realism created of displaced longing, knowing nothing of South American writers who created a literary genre of such out of another, more internal, and hence – perhaps – more profound displacement. The line has stayed with me for many years, for it is an image of enchantment, as well as of a peculiar violence concerning the fate of falling stars, which rake across the winter night sky here that is already bruised by the rugged mountains that claw at it season in, season out. I also have a vision of penned pigs waiting solitary and patient, their eyes raised to the dark, starstrewn heavens for those morsels of light to fall as the villagers sleep.

Pigs are, as everyone knows, extraordinarily intelligent creatures. Which is why just before winter solstice – the time of their slaughter – they scream when they’re led from their yards and pens where they’ve grown fat, where they’ve ruled and birthed young, with ropes about their necks and ears, about their noses. Their protests are humanlike, and they show the whites of their long-lashed eyes, they buck and try to drag away from the ropes, wailing all the while. Their fate is to be knifed – expertly, in the aorta – and felled at the edges of Myloi’s roads and yards or near large trees, where they’re hung for disemboweling and carving, always before Christmas. Their fate is traditional, for the villagers break their fast on Christmas morning with steaming plates of baked chops and potatoes: a substantial breakfast. By that time, the sausage – spiced with orange and wild thyme – that will last throughout the year is being smoked.

We take care of our animals, old Mitsos said to me with something akin to a touch of sadness, and then we eat them. Ti na kanoume? (What can we do?) From Mahi, to whom I’d delivered a bagful of juicy lemons from the trees in my yard and a bouquet of fresh oregano from my garden, I’d received, quite unexpectedly, some plump chops from the pigs she and her husband had slaughtered. Mitsos looked approvingly at the cuts. The meat was frozen, but even in this state it looked tender. Small crystal stars lay everywhere upon it.


  This year, in mid-September, the hens weren’t laying again. The drought was not the cause, and they weren’t cannibalizing their eggs. For the first time in living memory, a hard rain arrived on August 31, and the downpours had continued, disturbing – or so the villagers assumed – the hens’ reproductive cycles. The grape harvest for local wine and homemade tsipouro was hurriedly begun and finished, for the rain began to rot the fruit. And then tomatoes lengthened to look like miniature footballs and burst, zucchini fattened beyond edibility, young pumpkins rotted, the eggplants turned a sickly yellow as their new blossoms fell to the earth, and green beans rusted; only the peppers seemed to flourish. This year’s olives had borne the brunt of 21 days of constant high wind in June, which ripped the budding flowers from their branches; then the September rains so swelled the fruit that it began to drop from the trees before harvest time. What olives were left had remarkably little oil for their size; the fruit was bloated with water. The villagers had no choice but to harvest anyway, for it was the year for it (olive trees bear the most fruit every second year).

Halasame to perivalon, we’ve ruined the environment, the old people tell me. Their personal culpability is minimal, the West’s great, but they know where they are – hence the we. No matter that most of them do not own cars, that some of the men still ride their mules to Karystos, that only in the last decade have many of them put in oil-burning furnaces (before that, many homes had only one fireplace that was stoked for cooking, or a small woodburning stove), that their fields are fertilized by hand with goat scat and manure from mules and horses, that their chickens and pigs and goats eat what the villagers raise or cull – from their gardens, from their pruning, from their tables. What matters is that these aberrant weather patterns make their lives harder, for Myloi is not the Garden of Eden, and hardly anyone here is young. Ta halasame ola, we’ve ruined everything, the villagers said as they tore the ruined eggplants and zucchinis and tomatoes and green beans from their drowned gardens, as they harvested their olives, as they planted the first of the winter cabbage to root in the mud.

No one will starve here, should their gardens fail. Almost everyone has a pension, small as it might be (and the smallest in Myloi is less than $150 monthly), and some villagers who had land to sell have reluctantly sold it. (What are we without land? they ask rhetorically.) But everyone here who was born before 1930 fears hunger, for they remember tin peina – the hunger – during 1941-1943, during the German occupation. Indeed, the villagers date things by tin peina, for it is one of their temporal landmarks, and perhaps the most traumatic experience in their collective memory; and they speak of the hunger the way they do not speak of the Greek Civil War that erupted toward the end of the Second World War – with shame, and with pity. For, in Myloi, in the countryside, in an agrarian village, some people died from starvation even as others ate.

Thessaloniki and Athens were especially hard hit by tin peina – tens of thousands of people starved to death in those two years – but it seemed peculiar that anyone could have perished of hunger here. How, I asked Vangelio and Sofia and Baolina, Panayis and Mitsos and Leftheris, how could this have happened in Myloi? The answers were always the same: those families who had land managed, but those families without did not. Commerce came to a halt, which meant there was no work for shopkeepers, traders, millers (all of Myloi’s mills closed at that time), itinerant laborers, muleteers, teamsters. As there was no place left to grind grain, there was no flour. Anyone who had money – and a few peasants did – found it worthless, for inflation spiraled as Greece was bankrupted. The people of Karystos were reduced to eating acorns they stripped from oaks on the outskirts of town, and villagers without land scoured the mountainsides for roots, edible bulbs, greens. Those who had livestock that wasn’t requisitioned, slaughtered it to feed themselves. Leftheris told me that people ate dogs to survive. Did you? I asked. Not me, came his reply.

Those who had anything to eat had precious little for themselves. Children, I was told, sometimes fought among themselves over scraps, and adult children sometimes took food from their parents’ mouths. Families next door to one another ignored each other’s plight. I’ve no way of knowing whether there were other things involved: certainly there must have been quarrels over grazing and water rights, surely there were unpaid debts, land and inheritance disputes, perhaps blood feuds. But no one speaks of these things; no one says ah, there was more than meets the eye. If memory distorts in its selectivity, the distortion itself becomes real.

It’s difficult to envisage doors slammed shut and people hoarding what they had, difficult to think that neighbors steeled their hearts against neighbors, difficult to imagine what the voice of a starving man on his deathbed, crying out Peinao, peinao – I’m hungry, I’m hungry – sounded like, difficult to comprehend the times. A stranger here, today, in any household would be treated to spoonsweets and coffee, or mezedes – any combination of olives, bread, sliced onion, boiled eggs, sausage, tomatoes, cheese, and pita – and homemade wine or ouzo or tsipouro. The villagers today regale one another with produce: bags full of zucchini blossoms are brought to those who have no zucchinis, bags of plums come to us who have no plum trees, bags of corn and eggplants and peppers and cabbage and onions and broad beans and dozens of eggs are given freely and with joy.

We have everything, old man Stamatis said to me that first year I’d come to stay in Myloi, working his mouth around his speech defect and few teeth. He’d heard I was leaving the village to return to New York, and he wanted to know why. I have to make a living, I told him.

You don’t need money to live here. I tell you, we have everything. We’ll give you tomatoes and vegetables and fruit, and we have cheese and milk and lemons and olive oil. What more do you need?

These are times of plenty, for those who are left: Stamatis well remembers tin peina: his father was among those who starved to death – it is his voice, crying out from his deathbed, that Vangelio says she will never forget – and Stamatis almost died as well. His bones are more than 80 years old, and he knows what he knows: that the vegetables are planted and harvested, that the fruit and olive trees bear, that there is fodder and grazing for the sheep and goats, that the chickens thrive even when not laying and that they will lay again. That if they eat their own eggs they will be eaten in turn. That the pigs will be fed and in turn be slaughtered. That even in times of plenty, it is never a small thing to be generous.

Melanie Wallace is a novelist and frequent contributor to Her latest novel, The Housekeeper, was published by MacAdam/Cage in April.
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