Dianna Vagianos Miller

Gates and Roses

There are gates and there are roses. Roses leading up to the gates and roses inside the gates. The woman’s fingers that touch the roses are small. She always wanted to lick the petals, but she couldn’t. What would people think? The dirt is like ash in her village, and water is so expensive she can never quench the thirst of her roses. As a child, Sophia put her hands in the earth when no one looked. Silt stained the crevices in her palms, the skin underneath her short nails. The ruffles in her white dress. Since she was a young girl, Sophia knew the softness of the petal.

When she first finished college she looked for work, but there is little work to be found in Greece. College or no college, people cannot pay their bills without struggle. And struggle is Greek. As Greek as surviving the Turkish regime, the Italian occupation, the Germans, the civil war. It has been over five years since her mother and their neighbor tried to marry Sophia to a young man, Yianni. It isn’t that Sophia didn’t want to marry ever, and Yianni was kind, but it felt too soon to take on her mother’s life with no hope of stepping away. And where would Sophia go? Her mountain village is surrounded by mountains, and everywhere she looks she sees land. Sometimes she dreams of an island home where her garden would be framed by sea and waves.

Nearly thirty rosebushes next to orange trees. A lemon tree. The colors of the flowers do not matter as much as how they are rooted. How could they grow here? she often thinks. How do they survive the rainless summers? Staring at the tightly woven buds, watching them open, made Sophia wonder what is really inside trying to get out. There has to be a spirit within each rose that couldn’t bear the tightness any longer until it burst.

Sophia does not speak about her roses except when someone compliments her, walking by the black gates. Once two Americanides were walking by on the dirt road and they paused to peer in. Sophia pretended not to see them as she watched squatting behind an orange tree feeling for weeds in her garden. They stood by the gates each taking turns, snapping pictures of her gates, her roses. Sophia wanted to snatch the camera away. She wanted the tall Americans with the long legs to walk out of her village. Why should these xenes be allowed to walk around alone? Why do they come here when they can go anywhere?

She didn’t want her roses to see them. She didn’t want the roses to see anyone but her. Sometimes Sophia remembers those Americanides when she touches the dryness of her ground and thinks of ash. No one but the villagers walk by all summer as she spends most of her day tending, weeding, drizzling her garden with water as her parents look for a husband and a job for their only daughter, speaking to their friends and family on the phone and in person, believing that they are arranging her future.

When the sun is hottest and her parents nap inside, Sophia lets the sun beat on the rim of her straw hat. Her skin cracks from the dry climate as does the Aegean earth. She gathers soil into her palms and feels it dropping down to the ground through her fingers. The dirt cascades slowly on her thighs as she kneels in her garden like a statue worshiping in solitude.

As Sophia approaches her thirties, and does not run around with men like the other younger women in the village, her father tolerates her persistent gardening. Her mother never understood why her daughter allowed herself to get dirty when she was little. Never mind now. Sophia should be married. Sophia should cook and clean all day like her mother. Sophia, muddy Sophia and her gardens.

Sophia remembers her mother beckoning her into the kitchen, offering her a whisk and fresh eggs, flour and sugar. But she always hated baking and cleaning, being indoors all day working on endless chores. Dirty linens and soiled underclothes, towels and sheets to hang outside on the line, meals to prepare and pots to scrub, dust accumulating on picture frames and furniture. And after the afternoon nap, her mother serves the customary coffee every evening. Demitasse cups and the Greek coffee, silt on the bottom of the dirty cups. Crumbs of koulouria and pastries made with filo on the small dishes. The remaining sugar syrup attracting flies.

Sophia made it her habit years ago to stay awake while others slept, then take her nap when the familiar people, old ladies in black clothes, middle-aged mothers with their daughters and sons, and occasionally their men stepped through the gate, past the gardens to the veranda, seating themselves waiting to be served. Although she helps her mother clean up, she waits until the people are gone to emerge from her small bedroom.

Before Sophia goes to bed each night she walks outside in her white nightgown and robe to count her roses. When she says good night, Kalenehta, she lies on her twin bed and imagines how the flowers will change by morning. The small pink one on the bottom of one bush will surely open tomorrow, a small peek at the world outside. She will cut back the stems of roses that already bloomed, now wilting, the faded petals falling away.

Each morning, Sophia wakes up to her mother’s noisy housework, the hand mixer beating butter, the sharp blade chopping onions and garlic, tomatoes and fresh oregano, the heavy smoking, each cigarette held in her imitation ancient Greek ashtray. Gold gods dancing or casting spells along the rim. A cigarette always lit. Each cigarette burning into ash as more cookies are baked and pastitsio sits on the counter ready to be cooked later for the main lunchtime meal.

Kalemera, Sophia.” Her mother speaks to her one morning while she washes a cup, but Sophia does not answer. Instead she walks past the coffee table and the discarded doily, blue crochet hook sticking out, past her mother and the already prepared dinner into the sun.

Kalemera triantafela” she says as she picks a rosebud off a bush and puts it in her mouth chewing it, sucking the soft petals, trying to eat the spirit inside that makes the bud open. She swallows the moist petals and opens the gate. For the first time Sophia doesn’t think about what the neighbors will say if they see her barefoot, bare under her white nightgown, her long, brown hair a nest on her head, the taste of rose on her tongue. It is the dirt that roots her eyes to the far away mountains. It is her mother’s voice calling her back into the house. The black, iron gate ajar.

Dianna Vagianos Miller is a certified poetry therapist and teacher who lives in Shelton, Connecticut. She graduated from Manhattanville College with a Master's degree in writing, and has been published in several literary journals, including The Dos Passos Review, Sensations Magazine, Inkwell, and The Vermont Literary Review, as well as two anthologies. She is currently writing a novel that takes place in Greece.