I float inside a cave, deep beneath the white volcanic beach of Sarakiniko. With each surge of the waves, my head rises unnervingly close to the rock ceiling. I dive beneath the water’s surface, kick deeper, allow myself to be pulled out through the cave’s mouth. The sharp green sea grass waves 30 feet below, the surface a roiling mirror overhead.
And then that mirror is shot through, yellow and red torpedoes around me, bubbles everywhere. I surface, and hear laughter, and slowly realize that it’s two women in bikinis; they’ve jumped off the outcropping above, a pale line against the darker sky. Beyond Sarakiniko is the Kastro, miles away, the broken castle atop the town of Plaka.
Days before, I’d stood high in the ruins of the Kastro, gazed over the church’s rooftop, the clustered white houses with their blue shutters and doors, over the pale green olive and tamarisk to the swooping coastline of Milos, the blue Aegean everywhere. For a long time, I’d been telling people I would swim around this island, every coast, covering about 20 miles over six days, with detours to some smaller surrounding islands. I had promised. Suddenly, I felt overwhelmed; the prospect felt foolhardy, untenable, the world outstripping my words.
Colourful boathouses on the shore of Klima, on the eastern side of Milos’s harbour.
An island is defined by the water that surrounds it. The liquid pressure, circling the land, holding it together, changing its shape. Words also surround a thing or experience or feeling to try to describe it, to give it shape, to suggest what is held by and beneath the letters. I seek to apprehend Milos while thrashing around these shores, to let these waters press on my body, mind and emotions. I want them to test my shape as I pressure the similar fluidity of words.
From the Kastro, I had looked down over the craterlike shoreline of Adamas Bay; the white buildings of Embourios three miles across to the west; and closer, over the village of Klima, with its beguiling syrmata, two-story fishermen’s huts dug into the cliffs, waves lapping at their bright red and blue doors.
Between the first and fifth centuries, catacombs were dug along the coastline just north of Klima, and the waves have clawed away at the cliffs, exposing the graves’ arched, shadowy openings. Perhaps the bodies were dragged out to sea, their arms and leg bones coming loose as they drifted beyond the bay, around the cape, right through the waters where I float, treading water, a thousand years later. The bodies might have continued on past the pillars of Sarakiniko, over the rusted wreck of the Sicily, a decades-old, English-built tanker that crashed and sank in 2003, bumping into each other, spinning and gaining momentum in the current as they drifted toward the island of Kimolos, three miles to the northeast.
The salt thick in my mouth, a glimpse of a dark eel below, a toothed ribbon, and then the stone fences stretching up the barren hillside, and suddenly a cormorant accelerates through the water ahead of me, scattering a cloud of sardines. The sea’s surface shimmers, iridescent; a cloud slips across the sun, and all becomes dark violet, blind depths.
I swim along the coast of Kimolos, north of Milos, keeping the cliff-top white church in view when I breathe, then checking below me as a ray slips smoothly along the white sand. To swim is to be in two places at once, a surfacing of the eyes into the world of air, then down into the world of water. Air, water, air, water. My vision is alternating, discontinuous, the mind holding the image (a man with a grey beard, dragging a thick rope along the shore) I left above the surface, shifting its attention to the spiny black sea urchins, the twisted volcanic rock formations below; I breathe again, to be reassured of the land, not so far away, and the bearded man is gone, replaced by the silhouette of shaggy donkeys with their inquisitive ears, watching me pass. Down again, a swarm of black fish all around me. One world, then the other, somehow travelling simultaneously with the one not attended. They blend and blur.
Donkeys at the bottom of the sea, munching sea grass. A flock of fish in the sky, battling birds.
Air, water. It’s like sleeping and being awake; the two states alternate, connected, aware of each other, the line between them a demarcating horizon, the surface of the water, a line taut and then broken by my hands, the crown of my head — breathing to one side, then the other. I am balanced on this line, bisected. Sometimes I’m surprised to find myself still swimming.
WHEN I LEARNED to read, back in Mrs. Sullivan’s first-grade class in Salt Lake City, the early lessons revolved around Greek mythology. These gods and their people and landscapes have always felt inextricable from the revelation of worlds in words, images and feelings blooming inside me as I read. (And this pantheon felt older, more exciting than the Mormon theology of my peers.) All these years later, if I have a primary religion, a spiritual practice, it’s reading.
I would claim swimming as a second such practice, and I’ve found bodies of water to be a rich way to come to know a place. Offered the chance to investigate an island, I thought of Greece, a place I’d never been, yet I felt I’d known so long. Friends recommended Milos, 150 miles from Athens, the farthest south of the Cyclades; it’s quieter, with a smaller population (about 5,000 residents spread over 60 square miles) and less tourism than its sisters Santorini and Mykonos. Built up by successive volcanic eruptions, its coastline marked by caves and coloured cliffs, Milos is perfect for aquatic exploring.
I was also curious about the people, the history. The Melians are known for their cuisine (seafood, baked eggplant, tzatziki, baklava), their history of mining (obsidian, perlite and sulfur, among other materials) and their resistance to the Athenian empire in 416 B.C. Thucydides recounts how the Melians, in the face of certain destruction, showed the temerity to use this astounding phrase: “Meanwhile we invite you to allow us to be friends.”
The shore of Kleftiko, on the southern coast of the island, where there are numerous caves to explore in the coves formed of volcanic rock.
In early October, when I visit Milos, the waters of the Aegean hover around 70 degrees; it’s still possible to swim without a wet suit. Some days, the weather turns stormy and the waves dark, opaque. Others, the sun shines into bright blue depths. My swims are longer in the mornings than afternoons, the itinerary determined by the weather. For a week, I propel myself into incessant, unfolding beauty.
The first day, I approach two stone arches, half a mile from the shore of Kimolos; as I pursue them, they seem to recede, slide away — they remind me of the Drifters that Homer recounts in the “Odyssey,” those prowling rocks that claimed ship after ship. Finally, I pass under them, rolling onto my back to squint up at their rough eroded curves, the bright blue of the sky. The water seethes through the gap, beneath the arch, pushes my body through.
Further to the east, I spy uninhabited Polyaigos, a mile away, and soon I swim along that island, following the undulations of the volcanic shoreline, in and out of caverns. I pause in the echo and splash, peering up at the vaulted ceiling, the reflecting light spinning along the rock. Suddenly I feel I’m being watched, eyes on me. A bearded, shadowy shape, looming on a perch above.
I hold still; my eyes adjust. It’s a goat, an actual goat, as bemused as I am startled, standing there on the narrow ledge, eyes glinting eerily as if he’s been expecting me all along. So still, only his eyes move. One leg tenses, the hoof shifting. Should I speak to him? What would I say? I have to keep moving in order to stay warm, and I swim back out into the sunshine, the water clear blue again around me, the image of the goat still caught in my mind.
I’m thinking of how Odysseus and his men clung to the bellies of the rams to escape the Cyclops’ cave, how they first took the fire-hot handspike and drove it deep into that crater eye, a blinding that the Cyclops’ father, Poseidon, never forgave. “I think I shall give him his fill of evil,” the god says of Odysseus, and so he does.
Bathers rest under the sun on the beach of Tsigrado on the southern shore, where there are numerous caves.
Land — in Homer, it’s the land of the Phaeacians, sometimes called Scheria; some scholars think it is Corfu — is never easy for Odysseus to reach once he’s seen it. The sharp crags and belching caves, the foam, the lack of harbour, the possibility of “some great monster out of the sea, like those that glorious Amphitrite breeds in such numbers.” Some believe that the statue “Venus de Milo,” Milos’s most famous export, is actually a depiction of Amphitrite, Poseidon’s wife. That statue, carved from marble in the second century A.D., was pulled from a hole by a farmer in the 19th century, not far from the catacombs; while now her body is far away in Paris, on display in the Louvre, her arms may still be on Milos, or at the bottom of the Aegean, or some other place, waiting to be discovered, to reach out and take hold of someone.
My arms keep pulling, through the heavy water, through the air. I breathe to one side, then the other, a kind of meditation. Setting out on this journey, I wanted to improve my ability to move in a straight line, not to wander, and yet there are currents, tendencies, distractions. The greatest danger in the open water is not misdirection, or exhaustion, but panic.
I travel toward the red pillars, arches and caves of Kleftiko, the famous, remote cove at the island’s southwest corner — past the laddered beach of Tsigrado, the high white cliffs of Kalamos. Kleftes means “thieves,” and Kleftiko was the haunt of pirates in the 17th and 18th centuries, a place where every harbour’s sightlines are broken, where the ways in and out aren’t easy to find. The caves here are often linked by channels and passageways; I swim between them, through their dark waters. I hold still as a sailboat passes by the mouth of my cave.
This space feels like a worthy home for Scylla, the monster whom Homer describes with 12 legs “like giant tentacles, unjointed,” her “six heads like nightmares of ferocity.” Sinking down in the darkness, I see a bright blue light, shining through the water, beckoning me. A tunnel. I pull myself forward, and in that tight space, my body wants to rise; the rough walls scrape and the saltwater burns my shoulder, my fingers. My lungs empty, the depths tighten on my rib cage.
It is all so beautiful, this life, so dislocating I feel like a thief, that I have more than I deserve.
The top of a classically white-painted building in Embourios, on the western side of the island’s bay.
I think of the old man in Plaka, smoking a pipe as he handed me a plate of sardines, saying, “Portland, Oregon? I was there, during the longshoremen’s strike. I love you!” when I tell him that’s where I’m from. The bartender who told me I could pay “next time you come visit our island.” Especially the old woman who lives across the alley from where I am staying in the town of Pollonia, her grey hair in a bun, her face full of wrinkles; she wears her apron and her slippers each morning, waving to say kalimera and, making vague swimming gestures with her arms, kai páli símera?
Yes I swim, again. I will make it through, I have a home that is far away from these waters, I will return. Odysseus wandered the sea for 10 years trying to get home. He swims only when all else has failed him: “When the waves shall have shattered the raft to pieces, I will swim, seeing that there is nothing better to devise.” I love to imagine him astride a plank of that raft “as though he were riding a horse,” and “for two days and nights driven about over swollen waves.” Yet what is most moving to me is Homer’s description of his hero, raised up by a great wave, finally catching sight of the shore: “And in the same way as when most welcome to his children appears the life of a father who lies in sickness, bearing strong pains, long wasting away and some cruel god assails him, but then to their joy the gods free him from his woes, so to Odysseus did the land and wood seem welcome; and he swam on, eager to set food on land.”
When I recently encountered this passage, I read “the gods free him from his woes” to mean that the father has died. I read it this way, no doubt, because my own father died, last summer, after years of wasting away, bearing the strong pains of dementia. The feeling of his death as welcome, as a release, as relief — that is an emotion with many currents.
And yet this is clearly a personal misreading. In Homer’s text, the father is akin to the coastline, a place of rest and security, viewed from sea. Nearly taken away, then recovered, sighted and joined again. I am swimming, but no matter how great the wave that raises me up, I cannot catch sight of my father. I do not feel reassured of a shore.
In a clear turquoise bay, one stone pillar rises 30 feet above the water, 40 feet straight down. Blue fish circle, spiral around it. Another pillar does not quite break the surface; when I stretch my feet to stand on it, I find the rock still 20 feet below. I have been deceived by clarity.
Unfinished structures blend into the rocky cliffs of Thiorichio beach, on the south shore of the island.
In these months since my father has been gone, I’ve been able to do very little except swim — first in Wisconsin, where he died, then in the rivers around Portland and now here in Greece, where my arms are out in front of me, slicing through the surface, my hands catching the thickness of the cold blue water and pulling through, disturbing it with new shivers, subaquatic winds that might be heard by the fish and other monsters of the sea, the ones that I search for with my goggled eyes: the seal, the sea turtle, the dolphin and especially the octopus, so difficult to see, who can change colour and pattern almost 200 times in an hour, whom I feel watching me even while it stays out of sight, arms gesturing toward me as I struggle across the surface.
The arms of the octopus have been called separate creatures, able to communicate directly with one other, processing information that never reaches the central brain. A severed arm might seek out and grasp food, then try to return it to the body.
As I swim, I imagine my tired arms falling off — one, then the other — and sinking to the bottom, slipping in the currents and tumbling across the sea’s volcanic floor, back to Milos; they climb up onto the shore and past deserted mines, across sharp fields of obsidian, and finally find their way into the narrow streets of Pollonia. Here, my arms battle the skinny feral cats beneath the restaurants’ tables, snatch me a bottle of Mythos beer, a plate of wild goat and grilled calamari, a bowl of puréed fava beans. They roll and undulate, travelling through the narrow streets, searching for me.
One arm’s hand holds my plate of food while the other slaps at the trailing cats — a black tom; a kitten missing an eye; another, half a tail — and then both arms lurch forward; they bend at the elbow, straighten themselves, propelled like snakes.
Then, sensing my return, they leap to rejoin my body, intercepting me as I walk up from the shore, as I return from these days and miles of water.
Stumbling, I am hardly a land mammal now; my feet ungainly beneath me, my skin ghostly pale, smeared with zinc, slippery with Vaseline. I turn the last corner and encounter the old woman who lives across the alley from my room. She looks up and smiles as she ties her apron.
Telos? she asks.
Telos, I say.
Yes, I have reached the end.
My fingers, used primarily as paddles, struggle with the key to my room; finally, I get the door open, then collapse onto the bed. Salt in my hair, tiny cuts on my feet and elbows. The room swoops and shifts as, eyes closed, my body seems to ride a crest, down into a trough. It will be a week before any bed, room, house or landscape feels solid beneath me.
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