In 1973, when I was 5 years old, my parents decided to leave Darwin and resettle with five children back to their island home. This move was to have profound and lasting impact on my development, as I was old enough then to be marked by experiences which have buried deep inside the furthest recesses of my psyche affecting how I discern meaning in the world.
In this photo, I am six years old. I’m posing with my mother and four other siblings and two of our three lambs which my father had some 40 days earlier gifted to us before he took the return journey back to Darwin, which in the three years that we spent on the island, he did regularly to work.
I remember the day the little lambs were acquired. We took them, following my father’s great strides, steering them with ropes over dirt paths to a ramshackle house, once a mansion, now abandoned with collapsed walls and wild trees jutting through the shutters.
It is there where we kept our little lambs in the field surrounding the old ruin.
My grandmother showed us how to make pom-poms by tying dyed yarn around a circular cardboard disk, cutting around the tightly banded threads with scissors. We tied these colorful ruffled balls around their little necks.
Every day, after school, and after our midday lunch and noon siesta, we would take the winding path up over a cliff edge with my siblings, passing the mouth of a cave we were warned never to enter, whispering under our breaths the horror stories adults told us of the children who had been swallowed up or buried, who had vanished inside, holding on to my little brother Emmanouel’s hand tightly, until we reached the field. We untied the ropes, patted and combed their fleece, adorned their necks with fresh ruffled pom-poms, and fed them food scraps and grass our toddler hands tore from the ground.
The vermilion petals of the poppy flowers, the yellow buds of the dandelion weeds, the soft multi colored hues of all the spring flowers, anemones and lilies, filtered the afternoon sun speckling the moss stained earth gold and green.
We mimicked their bleating calls, our little arms around their necks over time tamed their jolting limbs, until familiarity calmed their writhing for long enough to mount and ride, holding on to the horns that overtime emerged.
Emmanouel, or as he came to be called Manoli, developed a strong bond with his pet lamb. We made sure our baby brother got to ride, balancing his body so he wouldn’t slip.
I remember once, getting out of bed after a short siesta, an instinct moving me outside the bedroom, out of the kitchen as if still in a dream, pushing me out into the back yard, a force arching my neck to look up towards the narrow path that wound up the cliff face towards the cave, when jolted by a frightening realization, I saw Manoli crawling to the top. I made the dash up to that narrow strip pass the spot we buried our pet birds, coming close enough to grab onto his clothing, just as he was about to slip off the edge.
These daily visits to the field lasted the forty-day lent period, during which we got to witness our baby lambs grow bigger and fatter.
This photo was taken on Easter Saturday in 1974. We had a local roving photographer who lived with his impoverished large family in our neighborhood. He was profoundly deaf with little slits for eyes. He earned a small living, providing for his family, by roaming the island with his camera strapped around his neck. A constant presence, uncle Nikos captured for posterity the births, baptisms, weddings, religious events, festivities, directing groups to pose for a small fee.
On the island, Easter Saturday mornings are spent preparing the Easter Sunday feast. My grandmother had a traditional dome shaped wood fired oven gleaming white with a fresh coat of paint mixed with lime and chalk.
After the morning church service, all my aunts and uncles and cousins gathered, each family bringing the ingredients to assemble and bake in my grandmother’s oven our communal Easter Sunday feast.
On the other side of my grandmother’s house, in another large field, where she kept her chicken pen, there were a number of established almond and fig trees.
A few months earlier, before my father left for Darwin, I was with a group of cousins, toddlers and young teenagers, playing around under these trees. In our play, we captured a stray cat. I was directed to get a box of matches from my grandmother’s kitchen.
On my return, I witnessed them tying the cat with a rope around its neck, hanging it off the tree branch, dousing it with petrol, and as they yelled for the matches, I obliged. We stood there mesmerised and, in the stillness, watched the creature burst in flames.
My father’s younger brother Antonis, a young carpenter by trade, who, during the periods when my father was in Darwin took over the paternal role over us seriously. His fury was the one my mother would invoke commanding over us complete obedience.
On this day he commanded us to fetch our lambs from the field.
This was our first Greek Easter on Kalymnos. Whilst we were Darwin kids, from a large migrant community comprising mostly of other Kalymnian expats, with a church and community hall on Cavenagh street where all our religious and cultural occasions were celebrated with aplomb, we were transported to an island with a church on every corner, where daily rituals were lived through a culture blending modernity with archaic time.
Bands of visiting gypsies set their caravans laden with carpets, plastic chairs, toys, trinkets, all sorts of bric-a-brac in open fields. Mobile grocers shouted their offerings on motorized tri-cycles, hooting, calling out fresh this, fresh that, from crackling megaphones, parking for long enough for the housewives to emerge to haggle over gossip, as church bells, docking ships, and the echoing calls of backyard roosters sounded the passing minutes and hours of each day.
Simple rustic whitewashed houses stood side by side with imposing mansions and with the concrete bungalows imported designs from the new post-modern world.
Old crones, in scarfs, draped in layers upon layers of cloaks, and aprons roamed the narrow streets, bearing the loads of kindling across their crooked backs up the narrow goat paths towards huts built around the crevices of mountain slopes.
Youths steeped in seventies music, younger professionals, teachers and doctors sporting miniskirts, sideburns and flares, riding scooters or driving Volkswagen bugs, returning from the far flung cities from universities scarred by the upheavals of the Junta years, injected our daily rituals with fresh mores.
One of our neighbors stemmed from a long lineage of sponge merchants with wear-houses in Bordeaux. Another, a camp teacher, who we called “Manolitsa”, an effeminate version of his male name, was the first openly queer person I met, strode through the streets in flowing silk shirts and scarfs.
Another neighbor made his fortune in New York singing at Jewish weddings. He built a concrete tower over his mother’s hovel. Yet, his mother and simple spinster sisters, Nectaria who dressed completely in black religious gowns, who wanted to be a nun, but found herself kicked out of every nunnery on the island, and the other, Sevasti, who on a promise of a drachma would sing the only song she knew out of tune in French, “Frere Jacques”, her spittle flying through the putrid two front teeth, lived with their mother, who never emerged, in the wedding singer’s basement.
When my father found out about the cat, and whose admonition was stern, directing all responsibility for this wanton cruelty upon me, and demanding as penance that I dispose its charred remains still dangling from the tree, I dragged the carcass behind me to the nearest tip.
It was there that I saw Sevasti in the distance scavenging through the rubbish, rats scurrying, and it was then that as I followed her up the slope back to our neighbourhood, rummaging through my pocket trying to find a drachma, observing her skirt scraping the earth, that her sister Nectaria emerged from out of the basement inviting me in for a treat.
Though reluctant, my politeness gave way, as did my curiosity and inclination to observe with clinical detachment. I went inside the darkness and stayed for long enough to discern the mother’s ancient face emerge, as she sat stoking the fire pit in the middle of the room on a dirt floor. She called me closer to her and ran her claw like fingers over my face as I stared into her cavernous sockets for eyes.
It did not take long to forget Darwin’s orderliness, it’s neat suburban streets, rows after rows of tropical houses on stilts, the latest in consumer appliances, schools, supermarkets, suburban shopping strips, everything clean, sanitised, disinfected, a fluorescent life, administered by men in knee high socks according to the logic of grids and graphs.
My childhood memories may not be precise, or in chronological order. But the island made its impressions so vivid, I have no difficulty in recollecting now, more than four decades later where I find myself in isolation in a suburban home in a sprawling metropolis across the other side of the world, unable due to the corona virus pandemic lock-downs to return home to my family in Darwin as has been my annual routine every Easter.
I return to these events to contextualise this photograph. I am holding a lamb by its horn. My mother is holding my brother Manoli. His sobbing and in the background the island was rocking with the homemade explosives, dynamites the islanders were so fond of lighting during the lent period. Manoli is looking in the distance towards where a large fig tree continues to this day to be.
Men are gathered under its branches. The rooster’s midday call signalled Christ’s emergence from the tomb. Manoli has just witnessed my uncle Antoni take his lamb, remove the pom-pom from its neck, and with the same rope bound its hind legs together. He hung the distressed beast from the sturdiest branch, and with two swooping moves, sliced open its neck and stomach. The entrails slipped out and splattered on the earth releasing a steamy fog around the men’s legs drenching their trousers in blood.
Manoli screamed and was catatonic, unable to breath his face went purple. My mother in a panic slapped his back until he took a deep breath before wailing inconsolably.
In this photo uncle Nikos emerged from the shadows, directing my mum to round us all up for a pose. I’m holding and pointing to the lamb whose turn was next for the slaughter