Catacombs of Thessaloniki

Although this is a true story, I wrote it in third person about an event that happened some time ago.

catacombsEager to show her children the catacombs beneath the church of Aghia Sophia, the American woman led her four children through the dark maze to point out the different icons of saints. The three girls were about 13, 9, and 2, the boy about 7. They all wore shorts and sandals and followed their mother. The mother carried the youngest on her hip as she leaned over to see better. “See? This one is Panagia Zoodohos Pigi. Virgin Mary of the Life Giving Fountain. See the fountain? And this one must be Aghia Paraskevi, the saint who protects our eyes.” They each added an “ooh” and “aah” when they looked more closely at each icon. The little boy ran his finger over a votive candle’s flame flickering in front of Aghios Yiorgos, who was riding a horse fighting a draon, and quickly jerked his hand back. “Stand back, Niko, you don’t want to burn yourself.”

The quiet and darkness was womb-like with the faint buzz of traffic noises above their heads as if a lone bee had entered the catacomb. They wandered throughout the maze walking carefully and unsure about the next turn. Their voices were soft, almost whispers, in awe of the icons and candles and darkness. “Mama, why don’t any of the icons smile? Why are they so unhappy?” one asked. The children continued to follow their mother occasionally putting their hands or their cheeks against the cold rock walls. Tired of her mother’s hip, the toddler decided to walk and began to run down a hallway, promptly tripping over the uneven path. Her cries echoed throughout the catacomb but quickly drew quiet when the second-oldest girl Antigone picked her up and propped the wriggling child on her hip. “Be still, Alexia. See the little bug climbing the wall? Here, wave at your shadow.” Still unhappy and uninterested in the bug or her shadow, she reached out for the oldest girl. “Ve-wah! Ve-wah!” hoping to find more sympathy. As the little family wound their way back to the entrance, a woman’s wailing in the distance pierced the quiet.

Christos kai Panageia mou. Sose me, theouli. Voithiseme. Christe! Jesus and Mother Mary! Save me, God. Help me, Jesus.”

The mother stopped abruptly in the larger room near the entrance and spread her arms behind her blocking the children from going any further. The children stepped closer to their mother, their eyes wide and their mouths open. In front of them, they saw three middle-aged women dressed in black. As two of the women consoled the one, the crying woman began to wail again and began feverishly crossing herself with her right arm while clutching a large black purse with her left. One of the consolers told the other, “Run, get Father Tomás. He’ll know how to help poor Despina.”

The woman left in a hurry to get help. The mother took Alexia in her arms and said, “Vera, as soon as that woman moves away from the door, grab Antigone’s hand and run—as fast as you can. Niko, hold my hand tight.” In her broken Greek, the mother asked the remaining woman why the wailer was screaming. “Despina lost her husband last year and hasn’t been the same since then. We thought we would bring her down here to light a candle and cool off. It’s really hot today.” “I need to get my children out of here and away from this woman, madam. Can you move her away from the door? Tora. Now.” The Greek woman looked at her almost offended as if surprised that anyone should be afraid, as if Despina’s outburst were common. By this time, Despina was howling, but her companion was able to guide her by the elbow towards a font of burning candles in front of a large silver encrusted *Panageia Dexiá. Virgin Mary was holding the Christ child in her right arm.

The light bounced around the silver as if signaling the path was clear. Vera and Antigone ran through the door. As the mother quickly followed with the other two children, her toddler on her right hip and her son’s hand in her left, they almost collided with the third woman and a worried young priest, his black cassock flying behind him. “**Exorkiste tin!” she called back to him. The mother and her four children ran up the stone steps into the heat of the city streets.

* Panageia Dexiá = most icons of the Virgin Mary show her holding Christ in her left arm.
** Exorkiste tin = Exorcise her

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