Xenia sits on the bed. Every morning at half past five, just before she goes out to milk the cow, feed the horses and water the garden, she sits on the fine down-filled cover which is wrapped in crisp, white linen. It is luxurious; fit for a goddess. In ancient Greece, extending one’s hospitality to anyone and everyone without exception —in case a god was among one’s visitors —is the principle of xenia. Her parents were both fond of all things that looked and sounded Greek. Although she was pretty sure they named her after one of the James Bond girls — Xenia, a fighter pilot and assassin in Golden Eye. Her dad had the complete Bond collection.
She never was a bond girl and never wanted to be one. She wants to be hospitable, welcoming instead; after all that was what the true meaning of her name was. When will someone come and stay with her? She sits there for exactly seven minutes, then she’s smoothing out the wrinkles that her body made in the fine linen. Ready again, for her guest. Ready for a goddess.
When she gets up, she sighs. At this time of the day, she feels the loneliest. How she wishes that someone would come and knock on her door: a traveller or a girl who ran away from home, asking for a bed to sleep in for the night. She would feed them, of course, before she’d lead them into this room, the quietest room in the entire house — her guest room.
There is a mirror on the white wall over the wash table. There is a wishbone chair but no table. She wants the visitor to join her at the kitchen table, not have their meals on their own. The bed is made from sturdy eucalyptus wood and made to last. She imagines a stream of visitors, once word gets out how comfortable it was to stay with her. And why wouldn’t they? The guest room is welcoming. She even hung a picture of a landscape over the bed. Being in the cellar, the room has no window, of course. She doesn't want money, no. The company of a few hours is all she wants as pay. And their body.
Finding the right body, the right shape isn’t easy. She cherishes those seven minutes in morning, contemplating. Like candy, slowly dissolving in her mouth, like the warm feeling of anticipation in the stomach before a kiss, like snow on cherry flowers — the anticipation of the possibility that one day someone will come and stay the night makes her giddy. She only wants – needs one night, to fill herself, wash herself with the luxurious gift a visit would grant her! She imagines the night in detail, how she would watch them sleep for a while, how she would let her eyes feast on their shape underneath the sheets; let her gaze pull the covers and undress the body, slowly starting with the socks, the pants; then the top. Leaving the underwear for last.
Once she’d familiarised herself with the shape and curves that are unique, she’d take out her tools to start the nightly operation. She would have to be swift and complete her work before dawn. She needs darkness for her inner light to shine. Darkness is her special light. She needs it to do her work.
Then, one day, there’s a knock on the door. Her hands tremble as she grips the door handle. A middle-aged, gaunt and dull woman stands before her, her clothes in tatters.
“Will you let me in?” the woman asks, her hands coloured as if bruised. Or coloured by paint. Maybe she is an artist.
Xenia gestures the visitor, who is not what she had in mind at all, to enter. No goddess but a scrawny, plucked old chicken with the marks of life scratched into the lines of her skin. Underweight she is, unbeautiful. What could she possibly do with that?
The ancient idea of xenia —hospitality— demands respect from hosts to guest. Xenia offers to run a bath before dinner. She puts a white rose in a vase next to the bathtub. They share a meal but neither of them feels like talking, so the food is the only matter that passes their tongues. Xenia considers it rude to ask guests questions, or even to ask who they are, before they have finished the meal provided to them.
The stranger smiles her thanks. Guests must be courteous to their hosts and not be a threat or burden. Guests are expected to provide stories and news from the outside world, but this haggard woman looks worn and tired. Xenia doesn’t care for her stories; she’s only interested in one thing.
When night falls, she shows the visitor the empty guest room. It feels wrong to offer the crisp sheets; even the immaculate floors are too good for the dirty feet of that woman. But she shows her into the guest room and leaves the door ajar. The door has no handle to close it with, no locks to shut it off with, but the woman seems unfazed by it and climbs into bed. Sleep befalls her as soon as her head hits the pillow.
Xenia watches the woman breathing in deep, slow rhythms – six inhales per minute then five. She prepares her brushes and paint and gets to work. The skinny shape under the cover is uninspiring at first but when her eyes follow the contour of its curves, she knows what to do: she teases and tucks and her brush flits over the blank canvas in bold, long strokes before changing into detailed dabs and lines. Just before dawn, the final stroke.
Exhausted from the exertion, Xenia retreats into her own bed as the first sun rays dart through the window. When she gets up a few hours later, the visitor is gone. Instead of the landscape painting there hangs a painting of a woman – majestic, grand and overwhelmingly present —a goddess, no doubt. She enters the room to have a closer look. The room is bigger, brighter than the day before. She catches a glimpse in the mirror —and sees the woman from the painting staring back at her.
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