The very few times when Spasoula did talk to us about her son, she said that it was the salt’s fault. She didn’t talk much about him, unless it was summer, unless the heat split the stones, unless there was such terrible heat it made you want to die. It had to be that hot. Only then, in the afternoons, did Spasoula sit in her yard and talk to us about her son. Come in the yard, Spasoula, come sit with us. Tell us the story about the salt, Spasoula. Tell us about when your son was salted. And Spasoula would tell the story about the salt. She would tell us about when her son was salted. In the villages, when a pregnant woman went into labor, when the pain started and the time came for her to give birth, another village woman would go to the village grocer and get some salt to bring home. She had to get unground, coarse, clean, unweighted salt, pay, and not utter a word at her return. Why should the grocer not weigh the salt, Spasoula? Why should the woman not utter a word upon her return? Because the salt had to be ground at home. The women had to grind it with a heavy stone on the threshold of the house, silently, without a word. The heavier the stone, the smarter the baby. They had to grind it to thin dust. The thinner the salt, the kinder the baby. They had to put the salt in water. To make a thick brine. The thicker the brine the better. And they had to give the newborn a bath in the brine? They had to bathe the newborn in the brine. Then they had to dry it up and smear the salt all over it. A kind, silent woman had to get the salt and rub it all over the baby. Had to salt its legs and feet, its arms and hands, its head, its privates. The kinder the woman, the kinder the baby. Oh, woe. And what did you do, Spasoula? Did you not have enough salt for the baby? We did nothing. We didn’t have much salt for the baby. The baby was too eager, he wanted to come to the world too early. No time to go to the grocer, no time to grind unground salt. He was born on his own, in a hurry. No kind woman in the house to salt the baby. I got up all by myself, right after birth, to salt the baby. Can the baby’s mother salt the baby, Spasoula? Does the baby grow well, does the baby become good and kind when the mother salts it? Tell us, Spasoula. Spasoula!
Why did you salt the baby yourself? Oh, woe, Spasoula would say, there was no other woman in sight to rub the baby with salt. I got up myself, right after birth. Not much salt around the house. I used whatever I found in the jar. I put salt on his legs and feet, his arms and hands, his privates. The kinder the woman, the kinder the baby, Spasoula would say and look at me from down below. I didn’t have much salt for the baby. I smeared salt on his legs and feet, his arms and hands, his head, his privates. I forgot the chest. You forgot the chest. I forgot the chest, Spasoula would say, no salt left to smear on the baby’s chest. Here, Spasoula would say, and start beating her own chest with her right hand. I remember clearly, the salt finished when I reached the baby’s chest. You forgot the chest, I would say. Yes, Spasoula would nod, silently. The salt finished at the baby’s chest.
– The woman who put the salt had to be the best.
– The smartest.
– The most kind-hearted.
– So the baby would take after her.
– They would salt the baby so it would be good and kind.
– With unground, unweighted salt.
– Clean salt.
– You had to smear the salt all over.
– The part left unsalted, evil would get hold of.
– Either three or five or seven times, an odd number.
– So many women, so many.
– Only then would the baby grow well.
– With white, unground, unweighted, clean salt.
– And the mother should not put the salt on the baby.
– If the mother puts the salt on the baby, this will turn against her.
– Better to not salt the baby at all rather than salt it badly.
Whenever Spasoula remembers her son, she fries bread. She puts peanut oil in the frying pan until it burns, she cuts stale bread in tiny strips, she fries it until it absorbs the oil and softens, and then she sprinkles it with fine sugar. Sometimes she fries it in the evening, just for the two of us to eat, other times she fries it on her own, she sits in her yard alone and eats it. Why do you fry bread when you remember your son, Spasoula? Why do you eat the bread all alone in your yard? Because I used to fry bread for my son when he was little. When my son was little, I would heat the oil and cut tiny strips. I would fry the bread and sprinkle it with lots of sugar. That’s what I did for my son when he was little. That’s what Spasoula did for her son when he was little. But she doesn’t want to talk to me about it, she just sits alone in her yard and sprinkles sugar over the bread and cries. I think it’s because she likes to remember her son as a little boy. Spasoula won’t talk, no matter how many times I ask her, but she sometimes wants to remember her son as a little boy. That’s why she fries the bread. That’s why she sprinkles sugar on it. Brown sugar. It’s because she wants to be reminded of her son as a little boy.
– When a child was born, you had to put a quarter of a bread loaf next to it.
– Bread, bread.
– Bread, so it would be blessed forever.
– Forever, forever!
– Bread until the baby grows up.
– Bread so the Kales Yenejes wouldn’t take it.
– The Kales Yenejes would take the baby and switch it.
– Put a koulouri on the baby’s hand.
– Put a pair of scissors under its pillow, iron to keep it safe.
– Put unground salt on it, get a smart woman to salt it.
– Of all these, what didn’t you do to the baby, Spasoula?
– Oh, woe, looks like the Kales Yenejes came.
– Give birth to it.
– Breastfeed it.
– Caress it.
– Kiss it.
– Swaddle it.
– Sing lullabies to it
– And hope.
– You be kind.
– You be rightful.
– You be a man.
– Give birth.
– That he be kind.
– That he be rightful.
– That he be a man.
– Now that you still can.
– Now, when it’s still possible.
– Don’t be late, Spasoula, make your wishes now that the fates are listening.
– Make your wishes now that he is little, now that he’s a baby.
– Make your wishes now, far away from the Kales Yenejes.
Translator’s Note: ‘Kales Yenejes’ literally means ‘Good Women’. According to Greek and Cypriot folklore (and according to popular belief in older times), these are the female versions of ‘kallikantzaroi,’ malicious and mischievous demons similar to goblins who wreak havoc among humans. Kallikantzaroi usually live in Hades, the land of the dead, but leave the underworld and rise to the surface of the earth every year during the ‘Dodecameron’ – the twelve days between Christmas Day and the Epiphany (6 January) – to taunt, scare and tease humans. ‘Kales Yenejes’, however, operated throughout the year. In Cyprus, in older times, women who had recently given birth were particularly terrified of the ‘Good Women’, who, they believed, could come at night and ‘switch’ newborns, that is, they would switch them with a baby that looked just like their own but was sick or moribund. Thus, many apotropaic rituals were practiced by women in order to keep the ‘Good Women’ away. ‘Good Women’, in fact, is a euphemistic name used in order to appease these female demons and to placate their ire.
Translator’s Note: ‘Koulouri’: a bread in the form of a circle, usually with sesame and black cumin on top. Bread, salt, scissors, metals and circles were all apotropaic devices against the demons.