My father sat near the fire to warm up. He had just arrived from town, wet and exhausted, and out of sorts. My mother brought him a bowl of soup and a slice or toasted bread and some leftovers from our dinner. The rest of us had eaten earlier.
“So you didn’t get Grigoris,” my mother said.
“No, he’s gone over to Acarnania to see some of his patients, and he’s not expected until tomorrow.”
“Have you told them?”
“Yes, on my way here.”
“And how’s the boy?”
“Worse,” my father replied. “He has high fever, and they fear he won’t make it through night.”
My mother sighed. “We’d better get over there ourselves.”
My father didn’t argue. He finished his dinner hastily, placed his overcoat on and my mother put a shawl over her head, and I followed them. My grandparents remained behind, being too old and frail to go out at night, and my mother put to bed my younger brother, not letting him go out on a wet and cold night.
We trotted along a wet and muddy narrow path, as the drizzle that was falling all afternoon hadn’t stopped and in the semi-darkness I thought I saw a few flakes drifting here and there. It was mid-winter, and night fell early, but there was enough light for us to reach my grandfather’s house after about a ten minute walk. It was a white house, fenced and gated, at the entrance to the village.
We saw Uncle Nikos in the yard, talking to a neighbor who lived just above grandfather’s house. We recognized Uncle Philip, our grandmother’s first cousin. My father and I stopped to talk to them while my mother greeted her uncle and went upstairs, quickly climbing the white washed exterior staircase.
“How is he now?” my father asked.
“Not any better,” Uncle Nikos said briefly. “His temperature climbed up to 40 degrees.” I did not know Uncle Nikos to talk much, nor to show much emotion. But this time he was troubled. His face was weathered, and the wrinkle in his forehead showed that, though he stayed calm in a crisis, this time his dark eyes, sunk in their sockets, held back tears.
“Let me know if you will need the donkey,” Uncle Philip said and hasted home.
The three of us climbed upstairs and went into the kitchen. Grandmother was there, kindling the fire, and Grandfather was sitting in his corner, bleary-eyed and mumbling to himself. My father and Uncle Nikos sat near the fire, unspeaking, as my grandmother served us tin plates of chick-pea soup, a dish I always relished. It was cold outside, and as we walked over to grandpa’s I felt my stomach gurgling, as our meal had been spare. My father, too, ate quickly in large spoonfuls, as the poor meal at our home hadn’t done much to quell his hunger. Uncle Nikos ate little, and I saw drops of sweat coming off his forehead.
Aunt Phrosyni, the boy’s mother, rushed into the kitchen, looking frantic.
“His temperature has gone up to 42!” she cried, holding her cheeks, looking as if she were going to collapse to the floor. My mother came after her and took her back inside.
“We must do something!” said Uncle Nikos said, “but what? You said that Grigoris can’t come tonight?”
“No,” my father responded. “He’s gone across on a boat to see a patient, and the Italians won’t allow boats to go anywhere at night hours because a lot of smuggling is going on.”
At that moment, Grandfather jumped up, suddenly waking from his lethargy, and shaking all over, shouted: “This is all talk, talk …We must save the boy! No stone must be left unturned!”
The two men were silenced for a minute or two. Grandmother got up and helped the old man, still shaking, to sit down in his corner seat and bundled him up. She gave him some wine in cup, and soon the old man dozed off.
“We can get Katsenos,” Uncle Nikos suggested. “I think he’s up in his village these days.”
“He’s second rate,” Grandmother murmured. “I don’t trust him.”
“Second rate or not, we have nobody else,” my father said. “The questions is, is he available?”
Katsenos, the doctor in question, lived in these parts, and during the war he divided his time between town and his village Kavallos, about a mile and a half from where we were.
“I‘ll go and get him,” my father said. “I know the path.”
“No, no,” Uncle Nikos said. “You just came from town on foot, and all the paths are muddy and in the dark you can get lost. Besides, I have the horse…”
“And you can borrow Philip’s donkey to let the doctor ride. He can’t come here on foot!” Grandmother added. She always took command at critical moments.
Once this was decided, they moved quickly. Uncle Nikos brought the horse from the stable, a small white animal that whinnied as soon as they got it out, knowing it was off to a tough job. I knew that horse well. It was small but had a foul disposition, for when occasionally I took it to pasture across the valley and tried to ride it, it twisted and kicked until I was off its back. But when Uncle Nikos or other adult rode it, it became the image of compliance.
My father ran over to Uncle Philip’s and soon they appeared. Uncle Philip was pulling his donkey, an obedient animal, its long ears, flat as the wings of a plane, indicating it was resigned to doing hard chores with the patience of saint. Uncle Nikos climbed on the horse, the donkey tied to a rope coming behind him. They soon disappeared in the darkness.
The rest of us went upstairs, and on our stools near the fire. My mother came in and said she had prepared some mountain tea for Aunt Phrosyni and managed to get her to a sofa in the big room and let her rest there. She let us know there had been no change in the boy’s condition. Grandmother went inside with her, each taking turns watching the boy.
This was little Spyros, not quite two years old yet, and I knew him since he was a baby in his swaddles. When the war had forced us to move to the village about a year ago, I had stretches of time when school was out—and that was frequently—and spent those at the village, where we were safe from the bombardments, and food, though spare, was obtainable. My father stayed in town, where he worked at his business and came to the village about once a week, bringing provisions, and some fish for grandfather, who was a diabetic and would not eat meat. I was about twelve at the time and in the idle days of last summer, I was assigned or volunteered to watch little Spyros while his mother was busy with her chores. That was a fascinating experience for me, to watch the young kid crawl around the floor in all fours, babbling little things as he went. Spyros was Aunt Phrosyni’s second child, after young Barbara, now four and a lively child herself. I saw Spyros rise on his feet one day and took his first steps, then started mumbling sounds, trying to put vowels and consonants together, forming combinations, going from “..aaah,” to “maa..” until the two became “máma,” or “mamá,’ words coined after the void of infant speechlessness, or something like that. I loved my little cousin, despite the fact that one day, while I was sitting on the stairs outside, he grabbed a small hammer and, coming from behind, he hit me on the top of my head with all his might. Lights out, but I escaped without serious injury, just a bump that grew to the size of a walnut before it gradually subsided.
Time was passing slowly and no news. There was a clock on my grandmother’s chest of drawers, but it was so unreliable that no one bothered to look at it. I figured it was around midnight, more than an hour after Uncle Nikos had left. Grandfather was snoring, lying back on soft pillows Grandmother had placed behind his back, and my father had his eyes closed, leaning against the wall, sleeping quietly. I was about to pull my stool next to him when the sounds of horseshoes on the stone pavement came from outside. My father heard them too and jumped to his feet. We both rushed outside and there was Uncle Nikos and behind him another rider on a horse. It was the doctor, who dismounted and walked upstairs with the rest of us. The donkey, still tied behind Uncle Nikos’s horse, began to bray perhaps protesting that he had made a useless trip.
The doctor was a middle-aged man, sporting a thin mustache, and, as soon as he removed his hat I saw a streak or two of grey hair at his temples. His cheeks were rosy, and his demeanor indicated that he was not a man who suffered from hunger, as the rest of the population in the island was. But he was also a man of action, and as soon as he took his overcoat off, he asked to be taken to the boy’s room. My mother and grandmother went in with him, all the rest of us waiting outside. Grandfather too had heard the commotion, and came out, suddenly looking vital and animated. Sometimes I thought he had two natures—one of apathy and lethargy, the other of a man who had defeated time and had jumped back to his youth. He stayed there with us, not uttering a word, and we all waited in silence.
Five, ten minutes passed. I looked up at the clock on the chest of drawers ticking away the seconds, even though showing the wrong time. Finally, the doctor emerged. He looked somber, even a bit unsure of himself.
“May I speak to Fondas (my father), along with the boy’s father?”
They retreated to a corner and started whispering, and I drew near them. The doctor sounded alarmed. “How long has he had this high temperature? It is 42 now.”
“Since this evening,” Uncle Nikos said. “What is it, doctor?”
“He has double pneumonia of an acute nature,” said the doctor. “I don’t think he will make it through the night, I am sorry to say.”
The two men were stunned. “Isn’t there anything we can do?” asked my father, a phrase soon repeated by Uncle Nikos. Grandfather also approached, and he was informed of what the doctor said. He seemed shaken, but his energy did not leave him. “The boy can’t die,” he spoke forcefully. “You are three men there. Do something!”
“Can’t you think of anything at all?” my father asked. The doctor looked thoughtful for a moment.
“Just a home remedy, if you will,” said the doctor. “My mother practiced it when I was young. Do you have bottled vinegar?” He asked Grandfather.
“There are four or five bottles down at the basement. Vinegar with rose leaves in it.”
“Just bring one,” the doctor said.
“Get it,” Grandfather said to Uncles Nikos. “Make sure you get one with the most knots in the string.”
Uncle Nikos rushed downstairs at once. I knew that Grandfather bottled some of his best wines, and every New Year’s Day he would go down to his basement and tie a knot on a string that was attached to every bottle. The string was tied to the cork, and all you had to do to open the bottle was to pull the string.
Uncle Nikos came back after a minute or two, holding two bottles. “They both had five knots,” he explained.
The doctor did not lose time. “Bring some table napkins,” he said to the women, “or any kind of cloth like that.” Then he grabbed one of the bottles Uncle Nikos had brought. Grandmother and my mother rushed into one of the bedrooms and in moments came back with several white napkins of woven cloth. Meanwhile, the doctor had pulled the string of the bottle he held, the cork came off, and a rich aroma spread out into the room. It was so powerful, for a moment I thought I would pass out.
“Come with me,” said the doctor pointing to my mother and grandmother. The two women went in with him. Aunt Phrosyni was still lying down on the sofa, almost comatose from exhaustion and despair.
The three men sat down at the big table and waited. I went near the door, which was open by a crack, and watched. I saw the women draw down the covers and bared the chest of the little creature. The doctor wetted one of the towels with the contents of the bottle, until it was soaked, then started rubbing softly the chest and sides of young Spyros, who shivered and moaned weakly.
“Hold this over his forehead,” the doctor said to my mother, wetting a small napkin and handing it to her. She did so.
They repeated that treatment for a few minutes, then put dry towels under his body, and covered him with a new sheet, which my grandmother took out of a chest.
The doctor came out and joined us, the two women staying in the room to watch Spyros.
“How did it go?” my father asked.
“We’ll see. We have to wait a bit.” He sat down seeming a bit exhausted himself. Uncle Nikos went into the kitchen and, assisted by my mother who came out to help him, made some cups of mountain tea, and brought them and put them on the table himself. Grandfather took nothing, suddenly looking gaunt and feeble.
Even if the clock was inaccurate, I could tell that about twenty minutes passed before the doctor came out. Grandmother was still there, a tower of strength, alertly watching the boy, who seemed to rest quietly under the cover.
The doctor put the back of his palm on the boy’s forehead. I saw a gleam brightening his eyes. He waited a minute or so, and then repeated his motion.
He came out immediately and in a low voice whispered to the anxiously waiting men. “His temperature is falling.”
“Is he going to be all right?” both my father and Uncles Nikos asked in one voice.
“Too early to tell,” the doctor replied. “We have to wait through the night. He sleeps quietly. So we’ll have to let him rest until morning.”
There were several sofas in the large room, and one single bed in in the back room. My mother and grandmother, tired but still up to the occasion, prepared that bed for the doctor, and we found some place of other to lie down ourselves.
When I opened my eyes, the sun’s rays flooded the house. The murkiness of last night seemed to have given way to a bright sunny day, rare during the winter. The household was already up and bustling and I was told the doctor had gone into the boy’s room. I didn’t ask questions, but I felt hungry and asked my mother for some toasted bread. I started munching it, when the doctor came out. He seemed pleased.
“His temperature is almost normal, but we’re not out of the woods yet. I’ll be back in the afternoon. Meanwhile, give him some liquids; some warm tea, and after a couple of hours some light food, like a few spoons of rice pudding, but wait until he asks for something to eat.”
Grandfather, alert and happy, asked the doctor what he owed him. In war time money was practically useless, so people were used bartering—“kind for kind,”’ as many said. The doctor refused any payment. “I didn’t do anything,” he claimed. “It was your vinegar that did it.”
“Doctor, you saved my grandchild’s life,” Grandfather said. “Is that doing nothing? Please, let me give you something. I insist.”
“Then I will take the other bottle of vinegar,” the doctor replied, “if you can spare it.”
“Anything, anything,” said Grandfather, nodding to Uncle Nikos, who hasted downstairs, and came back with two bottles, the vinegar with the five knots, and a bottle of wine with so many knots in it I didn’t have time to count them.”
The doctor thanked them, greeted the rest of us, climbed on his horse and he was gone in a few moments.
Uncle Nikos turned to me. “It’s nice sunshine today,” he said. “Why don’t you take the horse across the hill to pasture? It had a rough time last night and he will enjoy feeding on the grass there.”
I knew what lay ahead, with a horse that disliked me. But my father came to my rescue. “I forgot to tell you with all this, school has started. You better come with me. Go and get your things. I’ll wait for you here.”
I trotted home, unable to tell which alternative was worse.