by Paula Gail Benson
The seafront of Thessaloniki, as it was in 1917
In November of 1940, Fascist Italy bombarded Thessaloniki, Greece, leaving more than two hundred dead and almost nine hundred wounded. Nearly a thousand buildings were damaged or destroyed. The Italians failed to invade Greece and the remaining residents of Thessaloniki -- named for a Macedonian princess to honor her father’s decisive victory at the Battle of Crocus Field in 353 B.C. -- struggled to prepare for holiday celebrations.
Zayle and his younger brother Marios set out in their small caique on the Aegean in late December seeking a magnificent fish for their January first Saint Basil’s Day celebration. Zayle hoped for a golden bream, while Marios sulked.
“Fish is no feast food,” he grumbled, leaning upon the edge of the skiff as Zayle steered. “We eat fish every Friday.”
“And are lucky to have it in these hard times,” Zayle told him. “How many people are starving? With businesses gone and supply lines cut, how many do you see begging for food and shelter?”
Marios sighed. “I know. But I still can’t help dreaming of a table filled with sliced pork or lamb, rice pilaf, stuffed yiaprakia leaves, olives, and lovely fried lalaggia pastries sprinkled with honey.” He sighed again, just imagining the flavors of those delicacies.
“Ah, you’ve forgotten the Vasilopita.”
“No,” Marios assured him. “I would not forget that treat. If only we could have one filled with gold coins.”
“Did you know the Vasilopita initially was served to honor the goddess Demeter, to ensure a successful harvest?”
Zayle had been the family’s scholar before Papa was injured and could no longer work. Zayle did not complain about assuming the responsibilities, but he often inflicted his learning upon his younger brothers.
“No,” Marios said. “I like the Saint Basil story better.”
“But do you know why Saint Basil placed the treasure in a cake?”
This lesson was getting a bit tedious. Mario endured. “So, it would be like opening a present?”
Zayle paused before answering. “In a way. The king had taxed the people, taking all their money and jewelry. After hearing Saint Basil’s plea, the king reconsidered and returned the items to Saint Basil. Not knowing how to distribute them, the Saint baked them into a cake. He prayed and called the people together to serve them. When he cut the cake, each family miraculously received their own valuables in their slices.”
“Wonderful,” Marios said, his eyes still upon the choppy waters surrounding them.
Marios turned to see Zayle pointing out in the distance. Following the direction, Marios saw a gleaming scaled body jumping from the water. Was that a golden streak along its back?
The fish’s massive tail brushed spray into Marios’ face. “It’s huge. Maybe eighteen kilograms.”
“Golden bream usually aren’t so large,” Zayle said.
“Whatever it is will be massive on the table.” Already, Marios could imagine a hefty serving decorated with dried fruits and feta cheese. “I still wish it had swallowed a sunken treasure chest.”
Zayle laughed. “Then it might not be so tasty. First, we’ll have to catch it before we can feast upon it.”
“Hurry up,” Marios urged. “It’s swimming into the cove.”
For a few moments they lost sight of the mighty fish as they turned the caique to follow it. Then, as they rounded the bend, they saw an enormous rock in the center of the cove’s waters. A young woman appeared to be sitting on the rock’s crest with her back turned to them, her dark hair flowing down in ringlets. Slowly, she turned to face them. A golden and jeweled crown nestled upon her head. From the waist up, she was nude and instead of legs, she swished the glittering fish tail they had followed against the water at the rock’s base.
Her huge brown eyes filled with tears. “I must know,” she said. “Does King Alexander live?”
Marios knew a bit about government but found her question confusing. “Does she mean the young king who died of a monkey bite before King George returned from exile?” he asked.
“No,” Zayle shouted. “That is not our answer.”
His words came too late. Already the mermaid had grown in stature with wings sprouting from her shoulders. Her face became mottled with festering blisters and strands of hair rose up as hissing snakes.
“For you, there is doom,” the deep voiced words came from her gaping mouth and a long tongue lolled between the lips.
A mighty wave crashed into the caique, breaking it in two and tossing the brothers into the writhing waters. The mast fell upon Zayle’s head, knocking him senseless. Marios grabbed onto his brother’s shirt, somehow managing to drag him to land.
When they were found, hours later, Zayle remained unconscious, breathing shallowly, while Marios spoke wildly about a sea monster that capsized their boat. After local fishermen identified them, they were taken to their family home, another tragedy visited on the Thessalonikians.
A few days later, on December thirty-first, the eve of Saint Basil’s Day, Thanasis watched as a family approached the ship upon which he had been recently employed. The parents huddled close to their children, a young boy and girl, both looking as if they might be around twelve years old. The children seemed apprehensive. He could empathize with them. This was his first voyage. Many would have considered him too young to hire as a sailor, but with so many dead or injured after the bombing, workers were needed. After his two older brothers suffered their accident and loss of their caique, Thanasis had to find a job to provide financial support.
When the family reached the gangway, the boy turned to his parents. “We’ve never been away from you on our name day,” he said.
His mama put her arm around his shoulders. “We will only be parted physically. In spirit, we will be together.”
The papa sought to embrace his entire family. “Those born on New Year’s Day are graced with strength and fortitude so they may fight for themselves and others. The time is coming when those talents will be needed. We are sending you where you will be safe.”
“Where you may be able to help us in the future,” the mama added.
The captain called out for them to board. After tearful goodbyes, the children embarked, clinging to their meager baggage while keeping their hands clasped firmly together.
Shaking his head, the captain said, “Not much money to book your passage, but I suppose we should be grateful for any travelers these days. Thanasis, show them where they will be bunking.”
“Yes, sir.” Thanasis turned to the boy and girl. “Follow me.”
Quietly, they descended to the lower level. The compartment seemed very confining to Thanasis, who intended to spend as much time as possible on deck. The children appeared to find comfort in a small space to call their own.
“May we set out our Saint Basil’s Day feast?” the girl asked.
Thanasis noticed she wore a Star of David on a chain around her neck. “I don’t know of any reason not to, but you might get pressure to share. I think some of the crew has gone days without proper rations.”
“We always have enough for guests,” the girl said solemnly. “And we leave a plate for Saint Basil.”
Thanasis frowned. “You celebrate for Saint Basil even though you are of a different faith?”
Shrugging, the boy said, “Our parents always indulged us, since it was our name day. I’m Billy and this is my sister Vicky.”
Of course, Thanasis thought. Two Saint Basil’s Day names.
“We’re twins,” Vicky added.
“I’m Thanasis,” he told them. “Let me know if I can help you.”
Back on deck, Thanasis saw the captain taking on a last-minute passenger, a cloaked man carrying a staff and small sack.
“Monk returning to his order,” the captain explained. “You can show him below.”
Thanasis did as he was told. The monk remained silent as he sat on the berth that Thanasis indicated. Thanasis wondered if he served an order where the monks did not speak.
A short time later, the ship was underway. Thanasis stood on deck with his arm around a mast. Mists of sea spray dampened his face. Had Zayle and Marios encountered harsh conditions on their last voyage? No one knew what to make of their accident with Zayle lingering in a coma and Marios continuing to babble incoherently about the experience. Thanasis hoped they might return to normal, but he had begun to have doubts.
“What do you make of that?” the captain asked, taking a spy glass from his eye and handing it to Thanasis.
Taking the glass and looking in the direction the captain had been observing, Thanasis noted what appeared to be the largest fish he had ever seen jumping from the waves. “It must be a tuna,” he suggested, although he had never seen one that big.
“No,” the captain disagreed. “The scales aren’t right. I’ve heard tell that a mermaid inhabits these waters. Brings sailors good luck, if only they answer her question correctly.” The captain steered to follow the fish as it disappeared into a cove.
Thanasis feared seeing the change in course and hearing the captain’s speculative belief. He had listened to enough of Marios’ ramblings to know that visions on the water could lead to disaster.
“Can we afford to lose time on our journey to investigate an illusion?” he asked, hoping the captain would not find his question mutinous.
“We both saw something like a giant fish leaping from the sea,” the captain replied. “That is no illusion. When you’ve been a sailor as long as I have, you’ll know not to ignore any sign, whether it be fair or foul warning.”
As they rounded the bend, they saw a rock jutting up from the center of the cove. On it, a young dark-haired female sat watching their approach. She wore a golden and jeweled crown. Below her waist, she had a fish body and tail instead of legs.
Her huge brown eyes filled with tears. “I must know,” she said. “Does King Alexander live?”
From behind them, Thanasis and the captain heard an unfamiliar voice. The monk, his hood draped to his back, strode forward to stand between them and the mermaid.
“My dear,” the monk called to her. “He lives, rules, and conquers still. You just need to know where to find him.”
Beginning with her sparkling diadem, the mermaid’s body slowly transformed into a glittering sphere of lights. It rose and traveled through the air to land on the deck of the ship. Then it became the figure of a beautiful woman, outfitted like a queen.
“Good sir,” she spoke, her voice like a summer wind murmuring through the trees. “Show me where I might find him. We have been parted too long.”
“I rejoice to reunite you, Princess. Let us go below where a feast awaits.”
The monk held out his arm so that she might lay her hand upon it. As they moved to the lower level, the monk’s rustic robe changed into a glowing garment, and a shining mitre covered his head.
“Billy, look,” Vicky cried, as she saw them descending. “Saint Basil has come indeed and brought with him a beautiful lady.”
The Saint smiled as he approached their humble table. “You have prepared a sumptuous banquet,” he said.
Placing his hand on the rough-hewed table, the Saint turned it into a lavishly appointed surface, covered with a gleaming cloth. In the center, a round Vasilopita decorated with almonds and cinnamon waited to be sliced. Before the Saint sat an empty plate and beside it a knife.
“Will you serve our Vasilopita?” Billy asked.
“I take great pleasure in cutting each portion.” The Saint took up the knife. As he made the first sliver, a golden light illuminated the center of the treat.
“Look, Billy,” his sister said as the slice was placed on her plate. “It’s as if you can see the future inside the Vasilopita. We are older.”
“Yes,” her brother agreed. “Walking on the streets of New York with our parents.”
“Remember this image well and work diligently to achieve it quickly,” the Saint advised. “You have heard that people have been disappearing in Germany. In less than five years, Thessaloniki will be under German occupation and the Jewish population will be deported. Only a few will survive.”
“Thank you, dear Saint Basil,” Vicky said.
“We will remember,” Billy promised.
Saint Basil turned to Thanasis. “The next slice will be yours.”
Thanasis had no time to speak before receiving a portion of the Vasilopita. He gazed in its center and saw his brothers, Zayle and Marios, walking along the seashore.
“Good Princess,” Saint Basil explained. “Your question took this boy’s brothers by surprise. The elder knew the proper response – that Alexander lives, rules, and conquers still -- but the younger based his answer on another royal family. For the love you bear your brother, will you not remove the Gorgon’s curse on this family, so they may fish these waters in peace?”
The Princess inclined her head with dignity.
Looking down at the Vasilopita, Thanasis saw his brothers waving to him, as if saying all is well, return home to be with us.
“Is it respectful to know the Princess’s name so I may express my gratitude?” Thanasis asked.
“Already you know it well,” Saint Basil told him. “You live in the city that honors her.”
“Of course,” the captain said, bowing low to both the Princess and Saint Basil. “The daughter of Philip of Macedon and the step-sister of Alexander the Great.”
The Princess looked at Saint Basil. “You have told me that my brother Alexander lives, rules, and conquers still. Will you take me to him?”
Saint Basil bent his head toward her. “Alexander has conquered new worlds where this ship cannot travel. If you bless these good people on their journeys, I will take you to him.”
Holding out her hands, the Princess said, “May this voyage and all future travel be in safety and with great reward.”
“Your graciousness matches your brother’s courage,” Saint Basil told her. “Look. He awaits you now.”
Droplets of light brightened the compartment, lifting the Princess and Saint Basil. They could hear her calling to Alexander as the two figures disappeared from sight.
“Come, Thanasis,” the captain called. “To your post. Let us make this journey swiftly so I may return you to your family.”
“Yes, sir,” Thanasis answered, following the captain to the deck. Just before ascending, he took one glance back. Billy and Vicky embraced.
“We shall see our parents again,” Vicky said.
And my brothers will be restored to my family, Thanasis thought. There could be no finer gifts than what he had witnessed on this very special Saint Basil’s Day.
Mentis Bostantzoglou (Bost), Alexander the Great with his sister, 1984. Credit: Parallaxi, source: Daily Art MagazineFrom: https://classicalwisdom.com/mythology/alexander-the-great-and-his-mermaid-sister/