written by Konstantina Sozou-Kyrkou
edited by Tanjida Hossain
‘Humble yourself in front of God, Xenia. You’re too arrogant. God can’t listen to you. He can’t protect people like you,’ my sister, Elena says, dining on the black Kalamon olives I keep in a blue plastic bowl. She wipes the extra olive oil off each one carefully with a paper napkin, then nibbles at them, her thin lips wincing into a frog’s pout as the vinegary taste fills her mouth. She abstains from meat, fish, dairies, even oil during Lent and every Wednesday and Friday (today is Wednesday). I’m not sure if this includes all kinds of oil or just olive oil.
‘So, He’s a discriminatory God. He doesn’t love all his creations equally. He doesn’t allow for divergences. Is this His idea of freedom?’ I cast an accusing squint at her. ‘And what do you mean arrogant? What have I done wrong?’ I slice through the pork steak I’ve just taken out of the steamy oven.
‘You’re too self-centered.’ She picks an olive stone clean, like a busy rodent. ‘You don’t care enough about other people…’
‘But I do…’
‘And it’s not that He doesn’t love people like you. He just wants you to repent, to follow the right path in life.’ A flake of olive peel is stuck in between her two front teeth, cracking her grin in two.
‘And what’s this right path? Going to church every day, fasting to starvation, getting stoned on too much incense?’
‘You’re exaggerating, as usual. If you can’t follow the church’s route, just ask for forgiveness. Pray more, confess your sins to God, confess to a priest…’
‘For God’s sake! What sins? I haven’t committed any, as far as I know.’ I start picking my teeth, meat wedged between my incisors. ‘Well, I do gossip sometimes.’
‘See? You envy other people. That’s why Theodora…’
‘Theodora what?’ I wish she had choked on a stone before saying this. ‘So, God is punishing me through my daughter’s suffering?’ She’s hinted at this before, me being responsible for my daughter’s heart condition, but I turned the other cheek, like a good Christian. I avoided confrontation, like a coward. But now she hurls it at my face. ‘She’s just a kid. An innocent kid, damn it! This God of yours is vindictive and cruel and…’ My sister’s stiff palm is raised against my gaping mouth, like a bar at a toll road.
‘He does this out of love. To make you identify your mistakes and repent. To turn you into a better person. Then, He will help you out of this.’ The olive stones are arrayed on a white paper napkin, like black sheep in a snowy field.
‘So, he needs to be bribed. He wants a token. And then everyone will be happy, I guess. For evermore.’ A bitter chuckle escapes my mouth.
‘Uh huh.’ Elena nods in eagerness. ‘God is merciful. Trust me, I know.’ She cups the back of my hand – the one that’s still holding the steak knife, with her fingers of skin and bone, the condescending and forbearing grin of the Pope promising absolution to his flock on her face. I wonder how long this steely glint in her eyes has been there.
I pull the plastic bowl my way, make to cap it, when I see all these olives swimming in the oil like sleek seals. Elena used to be such a free spirit before becoming so engrossed in the practices of this religious community of the local church. Her existence flowed along the river of her life, the occasional bumps against the pebbles explained by cause and effect laws, not by some ruthless, divine intervention. The olives have now turned into earless dogs with gnarling gnashers when out of the oil, barking their way in herds across unsuspecting sands.