SATURDAY, OCTOBER 26 –
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 27, 1957
“So? Have you finally found your God?” Helen asked her
husband in the playful manner they loved to talk to one another,
sparking a conversation that would surely help him forget the
pain, even momentarily. But mostly, so that she might assess his
“So you won’t find Him?” she insisted, even more playfully
than before, as if his dry reply – a reply that hopefully could mean
he felt he had ample time ahead to continue his quest – had not
“Others will,” Nikos replied, exhausted, and went quiet.
Helen fell quiet with him, hoping this silence was only temporary.
Her wish came true, but not in the way she hoped.
“Water!” her husband suddenly cried out. “Water!”
She gave him drink immediately, stroking his hair ever so
gently, as if afraid the slightest human touch might hurt him.
Silence led to stillness. The deathly calm that dominated the pallid
room gave way to an outburst of deep cries and ragged breaths as
she beseeched him to stir. She leaned over him, her forehead
pressed against the edge of the mattress in her last bow to her God.
Her left hand firmly on her tearful eyes, slowly and carefully,
almost ceremoniously, she placed her right hand on his face and
gently shut his eyes. Helen sat on the wooden chair next to the
white iron bed, where the white sheets covered the lifeless body of
her beloved husband. She hadn’t realized how tightly she was
holding his hand, her own hand dripping with sweat, so unlike
his. She lost track of the time, leaning on him, her head laying on
his chest, mirroring his body’s rigidity in tender solidarity.
Everything seemed to freeze in that glacial white, death laden
room at the University Clinic in Freiburg – even Time. Her mind
wandered across the seasons of their every shared moment, joyous
or wretched, small or mundane, blissful or agonizing. In that
modestly furnished ice-box of a room, she saw their life together
flash before her eyes. Just ten days before, in that very room, her
husband had smiled elatedly reading the telegram he had just
received from Peking.
“The Peace Committee of China was apprised of my illness
and sent funds to cover my medical care and hospital fees,” he had
announced to her exuberantly. A feeling of relief had washed over
her then: the same relief she had experienced countless times
throughout their life – as many as the moments they had been
penniless and unable to cover the basic needs. Her joy was short-lived,
however, for Nikos had reserved the sour news for the end,
telling her that they would not take away a single morsel of food
from the Chinese people. He had resolved to return the money,
and had even asked her to take extra care so that not even a penny
should be lost in the banking process. She still remembered that
peculiar feeling of pride she had felt then, walking to the bank to
fulfill his wish; it was the same overwhelming emotion she had felt
just nine days before, when they had found out that the Swedish
Academy was going to give the Nobel Prize to the young French
author, Albert Camus.
“Lenotchka!” he had bellowed, but his cry had not been one
of protest, but oddly, of enthusiasm. In his selflessness he had
called to her for a pen and paper, to dictate to her a congratulatory
telegram for Camus, as though he didn’t feel, deep within him,
that this had been his final chance to win the prestigious prize, for
his contribution to world literature and thought to be recognized
on the global stage.
This had been the last of the few thousand letters he had
penned in his lifetime. For the ninth time, the Nobel Prize would
end up in the hands of another, not because her husband was
undeserving, but because his own countrymen stubbornly refused
to accept that a “godless communist” could bestow upon his
country a distinction of that caliber. With that congratulatory
letter, Nikos had bade a selfless, noble, and gracious farewell to
the heartless world in which he had lived. Then again, was it
coincidental that the last person to have visited him – only two
days before – was his good friend and Nobel Prize Laureate,
That was to be the last time Nikos would open his arms wide
to greet someone wholeheartedly, the final, and, joyful at least,
surprise visit of his life. Struggling hard to sit up on his bed, he
had suffered in silence through his pain and frailty, so he could
take in all the stories his euphoric visitor had to share. Nikos had
listened to his friend – the philosopher, doctor and humanist – and
his eyes had glowed with interest at every critical instance, his
spirit rallying against his own body’s infirmity.
These images receded into the white of the surrounding walls
when the nurses burst frantically into the room, upsetting the
emotional continuum. Helen averted her eyes from the busy
nurses, and transfixed them on the origami boat flimsily standing
on the nightstand, a fragile gift from the political prisoners
condemned to death at Corfu Prison. How many hours had he
spent observing it, and how many seas had he traveled upon it!
She wondered if he knew he would soon meet the ones who had
She felt the urge to tell the nurses to lock the door, to leave
them there forever in that room, together in the frost, but her
dignity and the thought that her husband might have had different
plans for her, gave her pause. She forced back a gut-wrenching
wail as it tried to tear through her and turned to face the window.
She saw three or four stars staring down at her; unashamedly, she
allowed her tears to course their way down her cheeks.
Air! She needed air; but that would mean leaving him behind.
She abruptly stormed out of the room, making her way towards
the hospital exit in hurried, unsteady steps. This was the first time
she had actually been physically apart from him in years, but she
needed oxygen and that room had none. She tried to slow down,
yet sensed somehow that the exit was farther still and quickened
her step. She pushed open the main door with her entire body and
was out. She breathed in deeply as she crumbled on to the front
steps, letting out a long, repressed scream.
“She is not the first,” a passerby might have thought at the
sight of the woman weeping alone; “she won’t be the last,”
another might have concluded as they crossed paths under the
glow of the hospital lights. The last thing on Helen’s mind at that
moment was what random pedestrians might think of her; her
mind was flooded by a torrent of words, images, and
conversations, so recent and so intense that she had not yet had
time to process them.
Just like that time in Denmark, when she had confided in her
husband, not long after the doctors had mentioned the possibility
they might have to amputate his right arm. A wide gushing wound
caused by the vaccine they had forcibly injected him with so he
could travel to China was not healing, and gangrene had begun to
set in. Yet the gangrene had left as insidiously as it had crept in,
and after, she had felt relieved enough to reveal to him her
innermost thoughts. She had confessed to him her determination
to kill him, and then herself, for the thought of an author unable
to write had simply been inconceivable to her. She had defended
her position to her bemused husband, reminding him that he was
also unable to dictate; still, that talk had ended with the unyielding
Kazantzakis, at age 73, trying to teach himself to write with his
A warm touch on her shoulders startled her.
He’s alive! The thought bolted through her mind, but it was
instantly dispelled by the gentle eyes of Tapita Swetzer, the nun-nurse
that had been caring for Nikos and who hardly ever left his
side. Helen hung her head down and pressed her forehead to her
knees. At his side she had experienced so many miracles; why
couldn’t there be just one more, she pleaded. The sole certainty of
life is death, she thought. She had been preparing for this final
parting for so long, even if she had never openly admitted it to
him. They both had been preparing: in silence, protecting one
another from the inevitability of his mortality.
The nurse led her back to speak to the doctor, and Helen felt
herself transform, for by the time she had entered his office, her
body stood erect, her head held up high. She was not just another
woman who had lost her husband… no. She was the widow of a
great man, and now, his earthly representative. Doctor Heilmayer
welcomed her, crestfallen. He had become attached to this patient
more than was allowed. At the sight of her he took her hands in
his and held them tightly. What a role hands play in a moment
like this! It is never quite appreciated, as if souls communicate
through the entwined hands. He stood there, dejected, while she
held strong – such a paradox. He was utterly distressed, speaking
to her first, in English, then breaking into German, but she wasn’t
listening to him. Through his office window she watched the
darkness descend to the ground and realized that after thirty-three
years, this was The Dawn of the First Day without Him.
Was it the dawn of a new life? How could she start anything
new when every time she closed her eyes, she saw him? No;
nothing was starting because nothing was ending. This time the
stairs leading up to the room seemed fewer than before, yet the
muscles in her thighs burned; she tried to steady herself, to stand
tall to the responsibilities galloping towards her. She had stood in
the shadow of the willowy Cretan man for so long, and now she
would have to emerge into the light, alone, and yet, it was to this
very shadow he had cast upon her that she owed every second of
her exhilarating life.
It had been late at night, the first time they had met on May
17, 1924. Helen had heard some awful rumors about him,
courtesy of his ex-wife – a well-known author herself – who had
been slandering him in the circles of the Athenian intelligentsia.
How commonplace for an ex-wife, even for an accomplished
author, yet Helen had trekked up Mount Penteli with her circle of
friends nonetheless, to watch the sun rise from the beach in
Rafina. The moon had almost reached mid-sky when she spotted
him, tall and slender, standing among a crowd of people. As much
as Helen tried, she was now unable to recall any of his ex-wife’s
vile words against him. Instead, she could recall ever so vividly the
great impression those two deep lines in his face had left upon her.
They had ridden on the same wagon, and he had stared at her the
entire time. His approach had been almost methodical, easing
toward her, inch by inch, until at last they were sitting side by side
when he smiled at her and in his deep, earnest manner asked her
to tell him her favorite author, color, and greatest joy in life.
When they had arrived at the beach, Helen had sat on the sand,
fully clothed, having forgotten to bring along a swimming suit.
And he, as much as he loved the sea, had turned his back to the
big wondrous blue and had stood before Helen, facing her. He
had asked her about all that she loved, told her stories from the
places he had visited, made her laugh, and all the while he had
stood there, lest she be bothered by the sun and decide to leave
him. That entire day he had only moved just so, following ever so
slightly the sun’s rotation, while she enjoyed the safety of his
shadow. He had assured her he loved the sun, but would take care
to protect her, his fragile Athenian lady, and so he had, for thirty-three years.
That longstanding care had ended tonight. She would now
enter into the harsh light without a defender, without shade.
Everything and everyone would zoom in on her now – eyes,
cameras, and she would be alone in responding to each attack by
his powerful enemies.
But would they continue to persecute a dead man? She glanced
at the empty bed for a second, feeling the same wrenching sob tear
through her once again. She ran to the window, opened it
forcefully and expelled a bitter shriek into the damp chill, tears
rolling down her eyes, crashing furiously on the white hospital
floor. It was by this window that he had stood, waiting for her to
bring him newspapers and books, and each time she returned from
the library, she would see him standing there, seeking her out
anxiously. She would now have to tend to the most tedious
arrangements in her life; she would have to relay the news of his
death to their friends in Crete and in Athens. She took a few more
deep breaths and raised her gaze, but could not discern anything
brighter than gray clouds.
She had never fathomed the possibility of such a somber return
home. She had envisioned it quite differently: him, standing tall
and smiling, with the Nobel Prize tucked proudly in his luggage,
his gift to the Greek people. But that was not their reality; they
had been persecuted relentlessly by the Church, the Palace, and
the para-state organizations of Greece long after they had left,
eleven years before. The attacks had been fierce, even from Nikos’
Would the news soften their hatred somehow? she wondered
as she began to construct a convenient reasoning filled with
rational arguments, as if hatred is mitigated or softened by logic.
He is now dead; he did not incite any form of violence, he never
forced anyone to read his books; this warfare raging against him
will surely begin to wane. Helen’s calming thoughts alleviated her
discomfort, somewhat, and with that, she leaned slightly inward
and shut the window.
A few moments later, Helen walked through the clinic’s front
gate and headed to the Post Office. She dispatched telegrams
announcing her husband’s death to Athens, Herakleion and
Thessaloniki, to family and friends. She thought telegraphing the
news was hard enough; vocalizing the chilling words is harder,
still, Helen thought, as she placed a call to Agnes Roussopoulou,
her trusted friend and lawyer, an ardent feminist and trade
Helen had not even considered which words to use in that
phone call, and the voice of her friend on the other end startled
her. It would be the first time she would acknowledge it, that she
would utter the words.
“Agnes… we lost him…” she burst into tears into the
telephone, as if hearing it herself for the first time. For a few
seconds, neither could speak; when their sobbing subsided, Helen
begged her to get there as soon as she possibly could, to be by her
“Of course, my dear,” Agnes answered. “Please don’t worry.”
Her painful duty done, Helen set out aimlessly, walking about
without a destination like a queen deposed through the medieval
cobblestone alleys of Freiburg – the most sunlit town of Germany
– with its austere geometrical colorful homes, the large windows
and the impressive rooftops. Here and there, small water canals
intersected her aimless stroll; the legend in those parts said that
one would marry a local if one touched the waters, but Helen
walked on indifferently, crossing the picturesque bridges,
unmoved by the water’s monotonously harmonious rhythm. She
couldn’t enjoy anything during this perfunctory Sunday walk. She
tried to organize her thoughts and priorities, to foresee any
troubles or issues that might arise, a process she had mastered by
being constantly at his side.
To him she had been everything: lover, wife, his right and his
left hand, manager, secretary, typist and nurse. It was she who had
typed his Odyssey, the titanic opus of 33,333 verses – of which
her husband had been so proud – seven times, on a small ribbon
typewriter. It was she who had taken care of the tedious
procedural matters: exchanged letters with publishers, arranged
all legal issues, cooked, washed, cleaned house, and ensured that
Nikos got his medicine when he was sick. It was she who would
read all that he’d write and encourage him or dissuade him
respectively, and she who had urged him to turn the stories he
would tell her each night, so she could go to sleep, into written
novels – those incredible stories about his old community, his
town, the Crete he had known and was nostalgic for.
He would always tell others how he felt for her in countless
variations of the same theme: “I am the factory and she is the
electrical current. Should the power be cut, even for a moment, I
would be lost,” he would write to his friends about their
Yet now she stood before the unknown, unable to fathom how
the Church and State – those institutions responsible for Nikos’
self-exile and his longstanding enemies – might react to the news
of his death. Still, it was Nikos’ wish to be buried in the blessed
soil of his homeland, Crete, so she would have to make
arrangements with Agnes, who had helped him with his last will
She thought of Nikos with his natural innocence and child-like
kindness, who had been hurt many times by people he had cared
for and had loved, people who had indulged, over the years, in the
guilty pleasure of the character assassination campaign mounted
against him. Those people, often seduced by a disingenuous
friendship with pseudo-intellectuals and “world-educated” critics,
loved to spread rumors about him, yet each time the discussion
turned to this topic, Nikos would only smile; he would rationalize
their bitter envy against him, even justify it. From his perspective,
he had felt it was all too reasonable: their own works were not
read, not even by Greek readers, who might have not even known
they existed, and the very thought of international recognition was
out of the question for them. They were only famous in their own
backyards, and all that remained for them was to gossip and
ridicule the works and choices of others. Among those in these
“intelligentsia” cliques, sadly, was Galatea, his ex-wife and one of
the main sources of those rumors.
Would she be at the funeral? Helen wondered, but just the
thought caused her distress. Helen was not jealous of Galatea –
perhaps, in those first years when Nikos and Helen’s relationship
was still young, but, as time passed, whatever jealousy she might
have felt for her in the beginning had long subsided, despite the
fact that Galatea had continued to use Nikos’ surname. She had
even received full credit for the grammar school textbooks that
Nikos had authored, and had become rather famous, not just in
Greece, but throughout the Greek diaspora as well, and all of it
with his permission, his approval, his suggestion, even. While
Helen, still unmarried, had struggled to save him from starvation
and impoverishment, Galatea had been using his name as her own,
all the while leading a faction of intellectuals at Dexameni district
in spreading rumors about him.
Perhaps Galatea had been reflecting about all that she could
have experienced at his side but was never able to, Helen thought,
mirroring her husband’s compromising and forgiving spirit.
Perhaps his rejection of her as a wife and a lover had hurt her so
profoundly, so entirely, that it had given birth to an overpowering
Suddenly, Helen felt awfully weak. She couldn’t remember
how many hours before – or was it days – she had last eaten. The
mere thought of eating repulsed her, but self-preservation
prevailed. She tried to orient herself, spying a sign about fifty
meters away; guided by a black arrow, she reached a massive
wooden door with over-sized hinges, and pushed it with her last
remaining strength. Inside, the heavy baroque design, with brown
and verdant green dominating the space, evoked a feeling of
stability and safety inside her. Only a young couple were there,
cooing under the mezzanine, looking as though they were in a cave
all by themselves in the entire world.
Helen sat at a table by the window, anxiously avoiding the
dark corners of the room. Convincing herself she would get
something to eat a little later, she ordered tea. She let her eyes drift
around the room and soon found herself unconsciously staring at
the young couple; they were leaning toward one another,
exchanging whispers, swift touches and smiles. She wasn’t jealous,
not at all; she felt happy for them. She had lived it all, wholly and
completely with a man she admired, a man she was passionately
and unreservedly in love with, who had gifted her with more than
one lifetime, who had cared for her, elevated her and loved her.
Her mind gradually calmed, simmering down from its racing
thoughts after the third sip of tea. She felt her eyelids becoming
heavier, shutting themselves, and for a few moments she gave in
to the temptation of keeping them closed, when a thought shook
I have to speak to Agnes again, as well as with Nikos’
publisher in Greece, John Goudelis…I need his help with all the
necessary procedures. How will we transport his body to Greece?
What will it cost? Will I even have enough time to return to
Antibes, to get some clothes?
There was a whole tedious process that had to be completed,
and she realized she had to move quickly, she needed to have all
the information by that afternoon, to organize her hectic schedule
for the days ahead. The only thing she felt with certainty in that
moment was that she needed to sleep as soon as possible.
She left in a hurry without finishing her tea, leaving behind
some coins on the table. From the corner of her eye, she stole a
glance at the couple once more; they were seated just as she had
spotted them about twenty minutes earlier – huddled over one
another, still exchanging smiles and caresses.
They have all the time in the world ahead of them, she thought
with a sad smile, as she let the enormous wooden door with the
large hinges close behind her. Her step had regained its usual
determined rhythm. She would return to the hospital to await
Agnes’s phone call, and would see to it that all the procedures in
this – the toughest week of her life – were underway.
After a fifteen minute walk, she returned to the Clinic. Passing
through the hospital gate, Helen was met by a blond nurse with a
closely shorn hair and a noticeably masculine body and manner to
match, who informed her that a relative of Nikos’ was going to
call again, apparently to learn the details of his passing and
matters relating to his funeral. Helen ascended the stairs to the
room. The sterilized environment made her want to flee, but this
feeling subsided when she opened the window and let her gaze
trail through the Black Forest. She leaned her elbows on the
window ledge, recalling all the lighthearted strolls she had shared
with her Nikos, all the teasing and laughter.
For long periods of their life, their world was never larger than
the dimensions of the bench they shared, and it had been the
dreamiest world she could have ever lived in. He would be reading
his ever favorite Inferno by Dante Alighieri, and she would just
gaze at him, devoid of concerns, wants, fears or guilt.
The same nurse came to inform her that she had a phone call,
and by the time Helen descended the stairs and reached the ground
floor, she was once again the iron lady, the dynamic woman
behind the eminent man. On the phone with Nikos’ nephew,
Helen answered all of his questions: his uncle would be interred
in Herakleion – it had been his final wish, after all; she did not
know in how many days that would be, though she estimated that
the funeral would take place by the middle of the following week.
It was fortunate that only a few seconds after she lowered the
receiver, another call came through for her, one where she could
speak more freely. It was Agnes.
“Helen, I don’t have a passport. Today is Sunday and, since
tomorrow is October 28, a national holiday, I would have to wait
until Tuesday, when the public services will be open…”
Helen was almost overcome with despair, until she heard the
“but” which quickly followed. “…But, finally, I located a friend
who works at the Ministry of Interior. I am on my way there now
to be issued an identity certification so I can travel.”
Helen felt warm tears rolling down her face.
“Thank you so much my friend,” she said, trying her best, for
the third time that day, to smother the swelling gratitude she felt
for her friend’s immeasurable generosity.