Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Churches of Skopelos

Waking suddenly in the island room,
the balcony curtain blowing aside
and flaring as if ablaze in the sun,
I heard a woman singing unaccompanied,
her voice so clear, the melody so strange,
so familiar, it was painful to me,
in her voice notes of sorrow, notes of joy,
were being gathered up in flowing flame,
and I concluded it must be a dream,
as I felt the singing in my body,
each part singing to every other part --
yet here I was wide awake. And I knew
what I was hearing was emanating
from some not far off church. And so I woke
the woman who lay asleep beside me,
and we dressed and went outside, where I heard
other church singing, and rhythmic praying,
all crisscrossing in the crystalline air --
but it was not what had awakened me.
We were at the base of a small steep hill,
the church nearest us was at the hill’s crest,
we walked to it and listened at its door --
but here I could detect no sound at all, 
so now we began following a path
of our own making from church to filled church
in slow, wandering search of her. We spent
the day in the lit hillside labyrinth
of winding streets, trying to find as many
of the two hundred churches in the town
of Skopelos as we could, some of them
in side streets like crannies, places only
the island’s cats visited, some of them
anonymous in the hushed midst
of the blue and red house doors in cul-de-sacs,
some of them, cliff outcrops, radiant white
in the sun, like calm white birds in their nests.
At the last church we would come to, dozens
of people crowded around the entrance,
and they were all smiling softly; it was
as if we had found a celebration.
It was afternoon now, the sun pouring
down marble light, the shadows on the ground
black as black construction paper. We went
in where it was cool and evening-dark,
lit only by long thin hand-held candles,
and stood there in the small rough-hewn stone church
among those praying for the soul of a man
who had died a year earlier. The priest
was intoning from an aged large prayer book
open before him in its dark oak stand,
framed icons coated with gold, depictions
carved subtly in wood, and fathomless saints’
presences painted in primary colours
looked out at us from the whitewashed walls --
and no one sang here. Even so, I thought, 
she must have sung her mysterious song
in the morning in a church like this one.
At the bright entrance they were handing out
pieces of honey cake, and they gave some
to the woman who had brought me to this place;
she touched my arm, gave me the cake in turn,
and I tasted its sweetness, happy, at home
in the gathering, among the mourners.