Walking on Fire
Guest Post by: Kathryn Crawley
A faint smell of smoke in the air reminded Kate of homecoming bonfires before high school football games in Texas. Despite the recent uncertainties, his hand gave her strength as it pulled her into another new experience. With him by her side, Kate didn’t care she was probably the only non-Greek in Langathas that day.
Ahead, a group of people milled about in a yard while others lined up to enter a small house. Kate and Thanasis took their places with the crowd and waited. He puffed on a cigarette, and she studied those in line. Mixed in with villagers in their Sunday best were city people, women with stylish outfits and prominently displayed gold crosses around their necks. They were markedly different in appearance from Thanasis’s friends.
Finally, it was their turn. Bending slightly to fit through the tiny doorframe, Kate immediately sensed an electricity. The crowded room had low ceilings, and rugs covered the uneven surface of a packed dirt floor. Sweet-smelling smoke drifted from an incense burner. Red scarves intertwined with an assortment of icons on a mantel over an empty fireplace. Onlookers ringed an open space for some kind of ritual already underway. A group of half a dozen men and women danced from one end of the room to the other, back and forth and back and forth. Some held icons, the sacred paintings she knew to be Constantine and Helen, while another carried an oversized Bible.
In one corner, three older men sat on stools, singing and accompanying themselves with a drum and small stringed instruments played with a bow. The snatches of words she caught from the songs told stories of kidnappings, wolves, and a young Constantine going to war. Minor key tones and nasal voices melded together.
A few of the dancers twirled red scarves to the beat of music that snaked around the room. “Red scarves?” Kate whispered to Thanasis. “Does that mean they’re communists?” In Kate’s mind, the color had become associated with that political party.
Thanasis clicked his tongue tch and raised his head, the familiar gesture indicating negation. “They are the opposite of communists. That red is for the blood of Christ.” Kate remembered Kokkino Pempti or “Red Thursday,” the day during Holy Week of Easter to dye eggs red and to hang red tablecloths or rugs from balconies to honor the blood and sacrifice of Christ. The transition from the previous night at the Suez nightclub with his political friends to this was jolting, but she was captivated by the scene.
The dancers were like typical Greeks she would see on the street, middle-aged with plain clothing. The facial expressions, however, made them unusual. Making eye contact with no one, the dancers stared ahead while gliding past one another, as if in a trance. One woman caught her attention. She twirled her red scarf with intensity, snapping it in time to the music.
The musical background and the motion of the dancers captured Kate. It was as if she were being transported into a magic fable. Something released inside her. She swayed from side to side. The warmth of the room, the incense, and the mesmerizing cadence took her further away from consciousness. Kate was aware only of being deeply lost in colors and fractured images.
Abruptly, someone bumped her. The spell had broken, and she was jostled out of her reverie. Thanasis’s eyes were fixed on the door. Kate watched as a man in a leather jacket left the room. Although she only saw his back, there was something familiar about the figure. Thanasis’s focus was held by something.
“Who is that?” she whispered.
“We must go.” His voice was jagged.
Once outside the house, Kate reached for his hand. “What was that about? Are you okay?”
From Thanasis’s eyes came the familiar connection, but there was also something else. A glimmer of uncertainty. “Please. Do not worry.” His gaze stayed with her for a moment, like he weighed something in his mind. Before she could form another question, he pulled her forward. “Come. We do not want to miss it.”
A sliver of fear pricked her chest. She grabbed his hand tightly as they followed others to a field. A sizeable crowd had already gathered in a semicircle around a smoldering bonfire. Two men began to break up the burning wood with long poles and rake it into a large circle of glowing red-and-orange embers. The group quieted.
Steady drumbeats, like a message from an oversized heart, sounded from the direction of the small house. Day had melted into dusk. Embers from the fire glowed intensely. Kate’s curiosity overtook her uncertainty.
Letting go of Thanasis’s hand, she moved in front of him to get a better view. A procession of the men and women dancers from the house appeared out of the darkness. They carried white candles, shadows of flames playing across their faces. Barefooted, they approached with determined steps, wearing the same trance on their faces as when they had danced. Those accompanying them carried the icons and the large Bible.
The Fire Walkers strode through an opening in the crowd and approached the outer edge of the circle. The drum abruptly changed to a rapid, feverish beat. Handing off the candles to their escorts, they skipped and danced over the glowing coals, kicking up sparks from the embers with their bare feet.
Riveted, she watched their movements as they ran over hot cinders. Once across the diameter of the circle, they ground their feet in the dirt and raced back again to their starting place. One part of Kate searched for any tricks used of stepping so lightly on the coals to avoid getting burned. Another part was transfixed, almost believing a miracle was happening. Kate again found the woman who had twirled her scarf. She wore an expression of fearlessness.
After three complete trips, the drum stopped, ending in one loud, sudden bang. The group’s leader shouted a phrase Kate didn’t understand. She sought a translation from Thanasis.
He was not there.
Instead, she was face to face with an elderly Greek woman, clad in black, making the sign of the cross repeatedly upon her chest. The old woman gazed beyond Kate with milky eyes, moving her head rhythmically and chanting. Startled, Kate stepped back and scanned the crowd for Thanasis. She didn’t see him.
Standing on her tiptoes, she searched for his familiar figure. “Where is he?” She choked the words out in a whisper, barely able to breathe from a rising fear. The spectators were leaving. The Fire Walkers, standing in a group, were enveloped by a swarm of people.
About Kathryn Crawley
Kathryn Crawley was born of pioneer stock and raised in the small West Texas cotton town of Lamesa. Her paternal great-grandparents came to the area in 1907, and her paternal grandmother’s family was part of the Reynolds-Matthews clan of the famed Lambshead Ranch. Her grandmother rode horses, shot rattlesnakes, wrote poetry, and had an outsized influence on the lives of her family. She nurtured Kathryn’s interest in writing from an early age.
An experience one summer at the Texas Lions Camp, a camp for disabled children, persuaded Kathryn to study speech pathology at the undergraduate and graduate levels at Baylor University. Unforeseen events and an adventurous spirit led her to Casper, Wyoming, where she worked in elementary schools, including Poison Spider Elementary, where antelopes ran alongside her car. She then moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado, for a position at the Rocky Mountain Rehabilitation Center and trained to work with cerebral palsied children. An advertisement in a professional journal from a center for Greek cerebral palsied children in Thessaloniki caught her eye—“Greek language preferred but not necessary.” Kathryn bought an album “Learning Modern Greek in Record Time,” packed her suitcase and landed in Thessaloniki in September 1974, in the midst of rampant anti-Americanism related to the downfall of the Greek junta.
Kathryn’s two years in Greece were life-changing. She devised a system to apply principles of speech therapy to the Greek language, created lasting friendships, became immersed in a new culture, and learned hard lessons about American foreign policy in the second half of the twentieth century.
Upon returning to the US, Kathryn settled in the Boston area and worked in varied settings as a speech pathologist. She began writing stories set in her beloved Greece. In the decades until her retirement in 2016, Kathryn sought out writing classes and writing groups in Boston as well as in Taos, New Mexico.
Despite retirement status, her life is full with friends, writing, leadership roles in her local Unitarian church, Tai Chi practice, and two dogs. Kathryn enjoys time with her partner Tom and daughter Emilia.
Photo Credit: Paula Passi McCue