Golden morning on the Mediterranean. The sapphire-quartz water spreads to the horizon. My family is halfway through a tour of Italy and Greece. I’m restless, standing on the deck of the superfast ferry. Waiting for my first glimpse of a fabled land. Layers of meaning, history, and fiction mix together in my expectations. And then, like the shadow of a Titan, out of the heat haze and morning mist appears the mythic island of Corfu. I stare as we pass it for at least a half-hour. Then we glide past Ithaca, Ulysses’ kingdom. The guide informs us that Hercules’ island is on our right.
Here in Greece, gods and heroes walked among us. And one from my pantheon, Henry Miller, came to this extraordinary country in the first years of World War II. He stayed on Corfu with his friend, the writer Lawrence Durrell. Their visits to monuments and ruins were empty and silent. No tourists during a war. I’m sure I won’t be so lucky. On the ferry I have begun The Colossus of Maroussi, Miller’s famous travel book about his experiences here. I have read it every summer for the last five years, with the self-imposed rule that I must read only in the hot sunlight. I have the thin volume with me today, holding on to it like a lifeline to the past.
I first read Henry Miller ten years ago. I waded through Tropic of Cancer, finding the prose difficult and dense. But alive! Bristling with energy and hope. So, over the next few years I read everything by him I could get my hands on. I became what passes these days for an expert. I modeled my life and writing on his. I composed a poor Masters thesis on “The Inhuman in Tropic of Cancer.” As I got older, more authors crowded my consciousness, more books attached themselves to my psyche. But Henry always held on somehow, laughing and singing.
Reaching the mainland, we disembark and get on the bus to Olympia. A few quick hours pass as I stare out the window, making occasional comments to my parents. But as soon as we reach the hotel, I grab my things and head into the hills alone. The yellow afternoon light burns on my smiling face. Next to the hotel I get sidetracked and poke around in a small grove of oranges and lemons. But I continue, finding a trail over a small wooden bridge that heads in the forest. Where does it go? Who cares! Henry wouldn’t. A fence bars my way, but I crawl underneath and then head up a steep grade to the right. Someone has cut the bark away on the sides of the many pines at the top and placed plastic bags underneath them to collect sap. I push along the ridge, the open Mediterranean vegetation giving me plenty of room to maneuver. Then, the knoll drops off at a near cliff and I clamber down to a dirt track that heads back up into hills of olive groves.
Twisted trees are carefully spaced along the slopes, separated by yellow meadow. Small paths wind from the main road at intervals. I take one of them, eventually leaving it, pushing uphill, and reaching a small crest, where I have a spectacular view. Proud upright cypresses overlook a primitive valley. A stone spire rises to the west along the hazy horizon. A range of green and rocky hills stretches in the distance to the north. About a mile away, one lone village perches on the side of a pine-covered hill. Abandoned huts crouch in the groves below. This is the place. I flop down in the dust under spreading olive branches near the top of the hill.
Dragonflies flash from leaf to leaf. Ants crawl in the shade of the young tree, through dirt and fungus, over patches of sun. I read a few chapters of Colossus. A rooster crows in the valley. This is one of the most peaceful moments of my life. This is the fruit of solitude, the true travel. An hour passes like a breath. I look up from the book at the landscape periodically, in disbelief that I am finally in Greece, a magical place I have dreamed of my whole life. Yet I turn back to the beautiful prose, using the descriptions to give adjectives to the surroundings, even though I know that Henry was never on this spot.
Jackals bark on the far side of the hill, coming closer. Time to head back to the hotel, to my family, to tourism. I take a long way back, through fields of wildflowers and tomato plants. I stumble across the skeleton of a building hiding among tall green clumps, long since fallen into disuse. Then, heading towards the setting sun, I follow a wide swath that has been made by cows across a hill of orange grass, messy with tracks and dung. I find the fence and slip back into the olive grove behind the hotel.
The next day we visit the ruins at Olympia in the morning. Then, we ride north back to Patras, ferry across the Gulf of Corinth, and ride east to Delphi, high on the side of Mount Parnassus. That afternoon I read on the terrace of the hotel, far above the Gulf of Corinth and the largest olive grove in the world, which spreads like a green delta thousands of feet below. I read slowly until nightfall, savoring words and phrases with the patience of someone sipping fine wine.
At the ruins of Delphi I can feel the pale presence of gods. The static gods of statues, of crumbling time, of patient, faded perfection. I stare at the cliffs, wanting to climb the stony heights of Parnassus, the playground of muses. The muses! How many times have I invoked them, trying to find inspiration? How many times have I looked outside myself for strength? But I am weak. Myth and literature invade the pure panorama, as I try to see through other, greater eyes. I climb the winding path, passing other visitors, all on their own pilgrimages. I wonder what superstructures they have laid on their journeys, what preconceptions and pictures have altered their experiences, as I have allowed Miller’s to shape mine.
I stare up at the massive Rock of the Sibyl, asking the vanished oracle. No answer. But I can hear my old friend Henry laughing at my useless and juvenile ponderings, dancing in the sunlight, invisible and joyous. Telling me to see things as they are. Telling me to make my own conclusions.
We travel south and spend that night in Athens. The next morning we hike up the ancient temple of the Acropolis with the usual hordes of tourists. I try to ignore them and think of all the kings and writers who had trekked up those steps to the Parthenon, wanting to feel like I am walking in the footsteps of giants.
That afternoon I finish Colossus on the rooftop of the Zafolia hotel, the city honking and steaming all around. At night we watch the sun set over the Acropolis, which would have been an appropriate conclusion to our tour. But instead of ending there, the next day we visit Aegina, Poros, and Hydra. I reread a particularly good chapter at a café along the water at Poros, while my parents shop. And as we pull into the harbor at Hydra, I can see Spetsai in the distance, and know that some day I’ll be back, to visit another godshome, John Fowles’ semi-fictional island of Phraxos, where The Magus takes place. Another day, another Olympus.
Back at the hotel, the rest of the tour group prepares to leave. But I am not done yet. Before we started this trip, I convinced my family to book an extra day in Athens after the tour was officially over, so that we could drive to the ancient ruin of Mycenae. This had always been my favorite place in Henry’s book, a place where he had both an epiphany and a failure. He had come here twice, once with Katsimbalis, the Colossus of Maroussi himself, and once with Lawrence Durrell. Both times he had tried to conquer his fears and had not.
The excursion from Athens is not as bad as we feared. My father drives west and onto the Peloponese, across the Corinth canal, a deep gap of rock. My mother and grandmother comment on the native driving habits. I point out the place between Salamis and the mainland where the Athenians trapped the Persian fleet at one of the turning points in the Persian Wars. My grandfather munches on some of Aegina’s famous pistachios. As we turn inland, the Acrocorinth, a huge sprawling fortress on top of a brown peak, looms to the right. My father pulls off the road and I snap some photos. A short while later, we leave the highway and wind through the empty semi-arid countryside. Somehow this is different, far better than riding in the bus, but I can’t wait to get out and walk. We pass through a small town, heading east up into the hills. Getting out of the car, we make our way to the entrance, paying the fee and climbing the conical hill to the Lion’s Gate. I snap photos of the oldest carved relief in Europe. A billion cicadas hum and chatter. My family is worn out from weeks of travel and decides that they have come far enough. They sit down in the morning heat. I can’t stop. I have a mission to complete.
Leaving my family at the Lion’s Gate, I scramble up the height of Mycenae, a camera, Colossus, and a bottle of water in my backpack. Twisted trees and crumbled rock walls waver in the heat. Occasional tourists stare off across the Argive plain. I must find the cistern, the dark place where Henry Miller could not go. The slippery staircase into Hades. I wander down the backside of the fortress, through the palace ruins and to the point where the mountains push up against the protective gorge. A few groups loiter at this final wall of the fortress. I check my map, search to my left. There it is. A gaping doorway, a hole black as night in the morning brilliance.
A few steps inside at the first turn to the left, a Greek family waits for something. They make small forays into the dark, but don’t go far. I curse myself for not bringing a flashlight. I wait, possibly for the Greeks to just blindly push down into the abyss, steeling my courage to do it.
Just then, light and sound emanate. The faint flicker of candles and muttering voices. Spirits of the underworld? No, a small group is climbing out of the depths. As they reach us they hand off their dripping, waxy candles. The ghost of Henry Miller, disguised as an elderly British woman, hands me hers.
I descend the slippery staircase, behind two young boys and a girl. The light bobs and flickers. My knees shake. The ancient steps, probably the oldest on the continent, are worn and wet. I remind myself that I need to do this, to go where my hero could not. The walls are slick, marbled slime. At the third turn, the three teens balk, echoing at each other in Greek. I take the lead, stepping down, down, down. The meager light from our three candles makes the cistern seem small and tight. Finally, the bottom appears in the dimness, wavering and watery, muddy and flat. I step into the muck and touch the final cold wall with my right hand, invoking a blessing for my gods and heroes. For poor, claustrophobic Henry.
I don’t linger. Some victories are not meant to be savored. The ascent is easier, and again I lead the family up the smooth stairs. Back at the top, in the dayshine and breezes, my eyes adjust slowly. The brisk wind whistling though a hole in the wall nearly blows out the flame, but I protect it with a cupped hand. I realize people are nearby, waiting. I hand the light to a young girl, who thanks me sweetly, shyly hiding her eyes with her hair.
In the sunlight, the humid ruins spread out above me to the hazy sky. On the steep surrounding hills sheep bay over the roar of the cicadas. I watch a shepherd slowly lead his flock across the empty, trackless mountains. Faint bells jingle on the great green-gray slopes. And something stirs in me, telling me that I have left my own shepherd behind.
Copyright © 2005 Eric D. Lehman