From Chapter 1 of Tasso's Journey.......
With each step forward, Tasso saw Mandini’s face, smiling. In his memory, he saw her smirk the first time he’d called her by that nickname. Diamanto Laskari was her full name, as he had learned the blessed day they met. But she would always be Mandini to him. Agreeing to marriage without sight of the bride was a risk for any man, but the name Laskari had been long respected for generations. Tasso, one of three brothers and a sister, had avoided the selection of a wife as long as possible. Unusually tall, with generous locks of jet-black hair, Anastasios Stamatopoulos—or Tasso, as his friends called him—stood like a giant. He could have had his pick of any young girl from neighboring villages. But when an older cousin visited Tasso in Magoula on the way to Sparta one afternoon years ago, he became interested in the little woman named Diamanto.
“You’ll like her. I promise!” the cousin pleaded as Tasso’s mother stood nearby, eavesdropping.
“She’s a bit older,” he confessed. “Yet beautiful nonetheless.”
“How old?” Tasso’s mother barked, ready to quickly dispel any bad deal bestowed upon him. “He wants children, you know! Why isn’t she married already? What’s wrong with her?”
Tasso was embarrassed of her unending questions.
“Just meet her!” The eager cousin put a hand on his arm, a gentle gesture Tasso knew was meant to block out his mother’s objections.
Tasso agreed, and the next day, the older cousin arranged for a secret meeting between Tasso and Diamanto. Even the girl’s relatives were unaware of the rendezvous. Typically, the entire Greek family was present at such pivotal moments in a young couple’s life, but Tasso was glad the old man put one over on both families, letting the two of them meet one another without the watchful eyes of others. In a grove outside Mistras, the old man said he needed Diamanto to help him pick figs in his field. Tasso was instructed to come at noon. He had been in the process of building a chicken coop for the older cousin and was coming to finish the roof.
The cousin expressed empathy for the girl whose failed previous engagement now left her unmarried well into her twenties, an unfortunate status for any young woman. Recognizing the matchmaker’s attempt, Tasso saw no harm in getting a sneak preview before the negotiations between their families went any farther.
Tasso approached the field right as the sun peaked overhead, its intense heat putting the area in a blinding haze. There was a girl standing beside a fig tree with a basket on the ground next to her feet. She was pretty and very petite. He half-laughed to himself at their immense difference in stature. When he got closer, the girl put her eyes to the ground, and Tasso guessed she was waiting for a formal introduction. The older cousin must have forgotten his manners because he immediately began to boast about Tasso’s skills as a builder and craftsman, blatantly selling Tasso’s attributes to the innocent, prospective bride without the expected formality.
“I’ll be happy to see the project finished only if it meets your standards,” Tasso said, attempting to stop the old man’s rant. When he said this, the girl lifted her head. She looked at him with kind eyes and smiled, obviously taking note of the old man’s poor attempt to make this encounter look accidental.
Tasso climbed a ladder and began inspecting the roof, uneasily waiting for an introduction.
The girl stayed by the tree, busily picking figs, until finally the old man called out, “Oh my! Forgive me, sweetheart—I’ve been so improper! Come meet Tasso, my younger cousin from Magoula. His father was my mother’s second cousin from Astros. We spent summers together in Sparta years ago.”
Tasso climbed down from the ladder and wiped his hands on a rag from his back pocket.
“Tasso, may I introduce you to Diamanto Laskari of Vassara, daughter of Kotso and Georgia.” The old man turned to the girl. “Diamanto, this is Anastasios Stamatopoulos of Magoula, Sparta.”
“Pleased to meet you. Please call me Tasso.” He smiled as Diamanto returned his look and nodded, stretching a wide grin. He liked her instantly.
Their exchanges were few but polite for the next hour or so, until the old man stepped away to water his donkey, another matchmaker’s trick to give them privacy. When the old man didn’t return after a few minutes, Tasso became worried and left Diamanto alone to look for him. Returning to her laughing, he informed Diamanto that her chaperone for the afternoon had fallen asleep in the shade. He suggested they too move out of the sun and share the lunch the cousin prepared for them that was tied up in satchels inside the old man’s cart. He was eager to have time alone with the pretty girl from Vassara.
They stretched out a cloth under an olive tree nearby, in a spot that was shaded but close enough to the cart and the old man. Diamanto spread out the kasseri and feta cheeses, bread, tomatoes, and melon.
“Would you care for something?” Diamanto held out a piece of bread to Tasso.
“After you,” Tasso insisted.
She smiled and looked downward, obviously trying to hide her grin.
Tasso could sense the girl was nervous, so he tried to put her at ease. “I’m told you are also from Vassara. Is the village as beautiful as people say?”
“Vassara is the most beautiful. Perhaps not as exciting as a city like Sparta but breathtaking in its views of Parnonas.” When she talked about her birthplace, Diamanto seemed to relax. Tasso let her continue describing her hometown in great detail. He could only stare at her beauty. Diamanto’s demeanor was that of a blissful yet humble girl. When she smiled, the shine in her eyes made him calm and happy.
“Vassara sounds incredible. Perhaps I can visit someday,” he suggested.
“That would be nice.” She blushed and then laughed.
Regardless of her petite frame, she seemed to be a giant in warmth and honesty. He didn’t care about her age. In fact, twenty-three quite suited him for a bride because she was still younger than his twenty-eight. The broken arrangement from her past betrothal was his gain now.
Then she surprised him by saying, “You know, I’m not the youngest of girls from Vassara. There are others much more suited in age for marriage.”
Pleased by her openness, he replied, “Suited in age perhaps but not for me. Your uncle told me of your broken betrothal. I regret your misfortune.” There was a momentary silence. “You were fond of him?” he continued, looking directly into her eyes.
“I didn’t know him,” she said. “He was the son of my uncle’s friend.”
Tasso exhaled, relieved to know she wasn’t harboring old feelings for another man.
Surprisingly, Diamanto offered more. “When the dowry failed to arrive in time from my older sister in America, his parents broke the engagement.” She paused again. “I was told the boy asked for the marriage to proceed even without the money, but his parents refused.”
Tasso, imagining his own mother’s strict expectations, related to the boy’s predicament. “God has a way of bestowing many blessings on us throughout our lives. I believe great things await you.” He placed his large hand over hers.
When the old man woke up, he joined the pair as they finished the homemade wine. Tasso’s cousin appeared content with his successful scheme. Likewise, Tasso felt a warm glow of happiness running through his body. The rest would be easy, he thought as he put his arm around his cousin, giving a tight squeeze of appreciation as they prepared to part ways.
“Thank you for working on the roof, Tasso. I knew your talents would not disappoint me.”
“I thank you,” said Tasso. “This is sure to be the highlight of my day.” He looked straight at Diamanto as he spoke. She beamed at him.
“It would be my pleasure to see you again, Miss Laskari.” He tried to memorize the details of her face. When their cart trotted away, there was a pull at his heart, one that would return every time he and his Mandini parted thereafter
From Chapter 16 of Seasonsn of Sun
"Vassara is burning." He solemnly looked at me with sad eyes.
Those words will haunt me for a lifetime. More than twenty years later, I still get chills remembering how Ari greeted me upon arrival with such horrible news. This was our third summer together, and I was so excited to see him. Mom and I had just landed in Athens, and there he stood, holding a bouquet of pink roses. Ari's otherwise cheerful expression held concern.
What?" I asked, breaking apart from our embrace. A sense of fear and disappointment enveloped me like a thick blanket. My intention for our romantic reunion shattered instantly.
"It's on fire," he repeated. "It has been for days."
"What are you talking about?" I asked anxiously.
Ari explained how wildfires developed in the region surrounding our village due to record-breaking heat. His parents' nearby village of Tsintzina was vulnerable, as well. The fires came about suddenly, he said, without warning. Ari described how damaging flames raged through olive groves in the Taygetos Mountains, burning the orchards of the local villagers. He said the devastation was unreal, and that at any moment, the fires could gain momentum and burn homes. Mom and I stood in disbelief. We knew Greece's hot, dry climate made the country vulnerable to such disasters. However, in all the years we traveled to Mom's birthplace, we never experienced a wildfire firsthand.
"What do we do now?" I turned to Mom.
"We'll just have to wait and see after we get to Sparta," Mom replied.
Ari put his arm around me. "Don't worry. Stay in Magoula for now. You're safe there. I'm sorry to burden you with unhappy news." He paused and then said, "It's good to see you, sweetheart." He kissed my forehead, showing discretion in front of my mother. I held his hand as we walked through the airport.
"When are you coming to Peloponnese from Athens? You said in your last letter that you weren't sure."
Ari shook his head. "I still don't know. I was there briefly to see the damage, but I had to return to Eurobank right away. I'll be back to see you as soon as I can."
"Will you take long? You know I'm only here five weeks this year."
"Don't worry, koukla, we'll have time together. You look great, by the way—more beautiful each year."
I laid my hand on his cheek. "Thanks, old man." I had to tease him, reminding him that he was ten years my senior.
He held my wrist and rubbed his finger across the gold bracelet he had given me a year earlier. "You wear it all the time?" he asked me.
"I never take it off," I answered, smiling at him. He returned my grin with a concentrated look that made me uneasy.
The threat of fires only added to my apprehension for the trip. Although I was ecstatic to be in Greece again, Ari's recent letters had me uneasy about seeing him, as he was intently more serious about our relationship. I could tell by his expression that keeping our relationship at a comfortable pace for me was going to be a challenge. I knew the discussion regarding his green card was coming, but it would have to be put off for a while. The last thing I was ready for was to plan our future together. "There will be time for that a few years from now," I thought innocently.
We stepped away briefly at baggage claim and kissed before he went back to work. I smiled into his eyes, which seemed a little older, his hair showing the first signs of gray. Even the lines around his smile were deeper than last year. I didn't mind. He was still as handsome and sweet as ever. Ari escorted me to customs, where Mom and I met up with Spiro, our ever-faithful cab driver. The look on his face was ominous, as well.
"Peloponnese is on fire," Spiro warned, waving his arms in the air.
"Here we go again," I thought, irritated with his dramatics. The news was bad enough coming from someone I adored, let alone Spiro, who was over the top about everything. I told this to Mom in English so that he wouldn't understand. Spiro's English was terrible. Mom agreed, and we both laughed.
But as Spiro's cab made its way down to Sparta, we saw smoke in the distance and discerned for ourselves that the fires were no dramatic exaggeration. They were real. The exact proximity to the village was hard to tell, but the faint smell of burning brushwood put me on edge.