(Short version of story to appear in forthcoming collection ‘Displaced and Other Etudes’)
“Are there any questions?”
The two-day seminar on Greek history and culture was winding down in the large conference room of the Syntagma Square hotel where it had been conducted over the course of the weekend. It was three o’clock in the afternoon on Sunday and the hundred attendees – in the main foreign students from English-speaking nations based in steamy Athens for the duration of special summer courses – had listened avidly to Doctor Papaderos’ closing address, one in which he summarised all he had delved into earlier that day and the previous one.
Papaderos’ lauded reputation preceded him by an incalculable distance. He was both a doctor of philosophy and an Eastern Orthodox priest. Now seventy-five he had been born four years before the conflagration that became the Second World War first rent Europe. He had never forgotten how the ramifications of that disaster were felt as much on his island home of Crete as elsewhere in the nation and continent.
But the future doctor overcame the extraordinary circumstances of his upbringing and in his early twenties responded to the ills witnessed by establishing an institute for healing and forgiveness on his rocky island. For years he divided his time between Crete and Athens as well as other European capitals. His thirst for knowledge of the world, his desire to penetrate men’s unpredictable hearts, was insatiable. It lasted for decades.
Beginning around the age of sixty he set himself the goal of sharing as what he had learnt on his life journey. He elected to do so via the agency of seminars, for which he received token payment. Nominally they were pertained to his speciality, Greek culture and history. But that was an elephantine topic. What could one so broad not embrace in the fields of knowledge and learning?
The doctor had a penchant for digressing and the vast majority of the young and not so young students who journeyed from far and wide to hear him speak relished his off the topic asides and mini-discourses; they were never less than interesting. He encouraged them to interrupt him with questions and at the close of every seminar made a point of inviting them to question him anew.
This time one hand shot up, that of a young American. “Doctor?”
“What is the meaning of life?”
When they heard this not a few in the audience guffawed. Was this young jock from Vermont – Jonathan was his name – serious? But Doctor Papaderos reacted differently. From his place at the podium at the front of the room, he eyed the young man for what seemed a long time. Concluding that the spirit of inquiry inherent in the question and the one asking it was genuine, he raised a hand to silence those among the audience still tittering, and spoke.
“I’ll answer the question.” Watched by all present Doctor Papaderos reached into the pocket of his shirt and withdrew a billfold. From one of the folds he extracted a tiny round mirror. To those looking on it appeared no bigger than a United States quarter dollar. He held it high so that all in the audience could see the piece of mirror.
“Growing up poor in Crete,” he began, “during the Second World War, I was walking by the side of the main road in our village one day when I felt something crunch beneath the soles of my shoes. I bent down and saw several pieces of a broken motorcycle mirror. I looked everywhere for the different pieces but couldn’t find them all.” He again indicated what he was holding in his hand. “This was the largest piece I could locate in the dust and gravel. It wasn’t perfectly round but I made it so by scratching it on a stone.”
The members of the audience sat silent and transfixed as the doctor continued.
“I soon made a fascinating discovery. Holding the mirror to the light in a certain way, I could reflect light in the darkest places. I kept the mirror and entering adulthood it became a metaphor. Light, I understood, could shine in dark places if I reflected it. I realised I was a fragment of a mirror whose whole design and shape I didn’t know. But with the fragment that I was I could shine light. I could shine it in dark places and dark hearts. Therein lay, therein lies, my life’s meaning.”
Doctor Papaderos swivelled the mirror toward the afternoon light then streaming in the wall to ceiling windows to his right, caught the bright rays and aimed them at Jonathan. The reflected light danced around the student’s head and frame, answering the subtle movements of the doctor’s right index finger and thumb.
“Are there any further questions?”