Authors: Leta Serafim
PO Box 70515
Seattle, WA 98127
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.
Cover design by Sabrina Sun
The Devil Takes Half
Copyright Â© 2014 by Leta Serafim
ISBN: 978-1-60381-965-7 (Trade Paper)
ISBN: 978-1-60381-966-4 (eBook)
Library of Congress Control Number:Â
Produced in the United States of America
he following people contributed to the writing of
The Devil Takes Half:
first and foremost, my husband, Philip Evangelos Serafim, and my children, Amalia Serafim, David Hartnagel and Annie and Yiannis Baltopoulos. Also my parents, John and Ethel Naugle. Without their encouragement and tireless support, this book never could have been written.
Thanks also to my first readers: Artemis Gyftopoulos, Nancy-Nickles Dawson, Flora Kondylis, Linda Rosenberg Brown.
My thanks to my agent, Jeannie Loiacono, and my wonderful friends at Coffeetown Press: Emily Hollingsworth, Jennifer McCord, and Catherine Treadgold.
Under every stone, a scorpion sleeps.
he day was hot and the mules were stubborn. The trail ahead rose in a series of sharp curves up the scarred face of the hill. Sitting sidesaddle on the wooden frame, the American shifted his weight and looked down. He could see the village of Campos receding in the distance and beyond it, the narrow strait that separated the island of Chios from Turkey. The mule slipped on the gravel and the American grabbed the edge of the saddle and hung on. The saddle appeared to be built of orange crates and had proven to be a tortuous ride. A swallow dipped and soared over the empty expanse of rock. The sky was pale blue, slowly whitening as the sun rose higher. The American wiped his brow with his sleeve.
How much farther?” he asked Vassilis, the Greek in the lead. The man shrugged. “Half a kilometer. Maybe more.”
As they neared the crest of the hill, the ground underneath shifted, the gravel littered with pieces of broken clay that crunched under the hooves of the mules. The American studied the ground as closely as he dared without losing his mount. “Shards,” he said. “She was right.”
Though not about the mules,
he thought ruefully.
No, the mules had been a mistake.
You have to arrive on horseback,” she'd told him. “To get a sense of the site. How protected it is. The view's amazing, you'll see.” But there'd been no horses, only mules. Weary, irritable mules that drew clouds of flies that bit. He saw now that he could have driven most of the way and walked the rest. But driving was not Eleni's way. She believed in total immersion. Live as the ancients had. She'd probably frolic with the Minotaur if a Minotaur was to be had.
He and Vassilis climbed steadily upward. A few moments later, the Greek shouted at the mules and drove them hard across the silent terrain and up the far side of the hill. The path rose steeply here, traversing a narrow ridge that served as a bridge to another, more isolated crag. It was dominated by the massive walls of an old monastery. As they neared the entrance to the citadel, his mule whinnied and pawed the ground. The shards were heavier here, forming a thick layer that shifted uncertainly as they made their way forward. Towering above them, the gray basalt walls cast a long shadow over the landscape. “A fortress fast,” the American muttered, turning in his saddle to get a better look. The base of the monastery was made up of blocks of chiseled stone, two to three meters in length, of finer quality and workmanship than the upper reaches. It appeared to be built on a shaft of lava, part of the eroded crest of the mountain. The builders of the monastery had incorporated the lava into the construction of their citadel, outlining the jagged edges of the stone in white and dotting them with crosses. Another blackened wave of lava formed the ramp up to the entrance. The door was originalâbronze, from the look of itâstudded with intricate carvings and disintegrating metalwork made of copper. A round porthole was cut high in the metal near the top of the door.
Holding the reins while the American slid off, the Greek climbed down from his mule and led the animals into a grove of eucalyptus trees, where he tethered them. Dusting himself off and quickly making his way to the door, the American ducked his head in the wind. It wasn't locked, and they entered a stone passageway about four meters long.
Beyond it was a vast courtyard, paved with black and white pebbles. The pebbles were arranged in crude patterns: dolphins and fish, boats and anchors. A small chapel stood at the center of the courtyard next to an ornate marble well. The frieze above the door of the church was unlike any the American had ever seen. Instead of Byzantine saints in postures of piety and devotion, this one was painted with crude images of demons setting humans aflame with burning torches. The well, too, was unusual. A low marble pool, it had a row of columns chiseled around the base. Each of these columns was surrounded with images of writhing snakes, their carved heads emerging from the rock, poised with their fangs bared as if to strike. Interspersed between the columns were hammered metal plates, etched with what looked like waves. On closer inspection, the American realized it wasn't water he was seeing, but flamesâflames consuming masses of naked men and women.
The Greek removed the cover of the well and splashed some water on his face. Snakes and flames.
Odd motifs for a monastery
, the American told himself. Suffering without redemption. Hieronymus Bosch.
What's the name of this place?” he asked.
Profitis Ilias. In Greece, they always build for him on the highest place.”
Profitis Ilias,” he repeated, remembering a conversation he'd had with Eleni Argentis. “Elias. Helios. The Greek word for sun.” Chances were good this place had once been a shrine to Apollo. In fact, Eleni had told him some of the older churches still had icons of the prophet driving a blazing chariot across the sky. It was her theory that what had been sacred ground in ancient times remained so, well into the Christian era. He'd argued with her, saying she had no proof.
It says in the Bible that Elijah rose to heaven in a flaming chariot. Perhaps the early Christians just copied that,” he'd said.
You don't understand,” she'd replied. “They always built for him on mountaintops, exactly as they did for Apollo. It's a continuation, a living link with the past. They exist all over Greece. Villages in the eastern islands have carnival celebrations that echo pagan Dionysian reveries. The funeral dirges the old women sing in Mani, the
, predate Homer. They still hang blue stones on infants to ward off the
, the evil eye, a custom that's one of the oldest on the planet. It's like your writer William Faulkner says: âThe past is always with us. In fact, it isn't even past'. Nowhere is this more true than in Greece.”
The American smiled at the memory. “That's what you think,” he'd answered. “You've never been in Mississippi.” But she had been right. In fact, they'd recently sent teams out to interview villagers in Crete to record their stories and legends in hopes of gaining new insight into the world of Theseus and the Minotaur.
There was no sound.
He looked around. “Where is she?”
Down in the fields,” the Greek said. “Beyond the walls.”
Show me,” the American said.
Vassilis shook his head. “First, we see the priest, Papa Michalis.”
A group of buildings were constructed around the perimeter of the courtyard. The one behind the chapel had a cross carved on the stone lintel above the door. The Greek knocked twice there. “Papa Michalis?” he called.
After the brightness of day, it took the American a few minutes to adjust to the darkness. A long stone table dominated the space, surrounded by benches hewn from the same pale limestone. Frescoes illustrating the life of Christ, the miracles of the loaves and the fishes, the raising of Lazarus, were painted on the walls. “An old refectory,” the American said to himself. “The monks' dining hall.” The pale blue ceiling was very high and had gold stars painted across it. The walls were crumbling from age and water damage, and the air in the room smelled of mildew. An elderly priest was sitting at the far end of the table.
He rose to greet them. “Vassilis,” he said, clasping the Greek on the shoulder. “How is your family?”
Praise God, we are well.”
Your journey was uneventful?”
Vassilis gave a rueful laugh. “A mule is a mule, Father.”
The priest motioned for them to join him at the table. “Well, you're here now. Sit. Sit.” He was a small man, birdlike in his motions, neat and self-contained. His hair was white and looked to have been recently trimmed, his beard clipped to a point, like a Spaniard's in the time of Goya. He was wearing a blue cassock and heavy orthopedic shoes. A ring of keys dangled from a ring on his leather belt and jangled as he moved. His watch was modern as was the Palm Pilot he'd been consulting when they came in. He shook hands with the American, his brown eyes watchful, wary even, and he gave the impression of total alertness, like a gazelle that had caught the scent of a predator.
How do you do,” he said in careful English. “Welcome to Profitis Ilias.”
Thank you, Father,” the American replied.
I believe you are our first American.”
I'm not surprised. This place is pretty well hidden.” He guessed the monk was well over 75 and foreign-educated. Strange to find such a man here, on a mountaintop within a stone's throw of Turkey.
The priest in turn studied his companion. The American was deeply tanned with a loud, avuncular manner. Athletic probably, judging by the muscles in his calves and forearms. American, yes, the perfection of his teeth and the faintly condescending manner were unmistakable. One of those who fancied himself an explorer, who'd climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and visited Patagonia.
If they're so worried about terrorists, these people
, the priest thought,
they need to lower their voices and lose this habit of theirs of taking everything they need with them and thinking they need so many things
. Yes, only an American would think he needed mirrored wraparound sunglasses and khaki shorts with pockets inside pockets and a cellphone attached at the waist. Or a hat like an Australian soldier's, pinned up on one side, a hat this man had yet to remove. The priest shook his head.
An old man who thinks he's boy
Profitis Ilias is well disguised,” he said. “The mountains hide its secrets well.” He bowed slightly. “I am Papa Michalis, Professor Alcott. I am pleased to finally make your acquaintance.”