Nonfiction Writing Contest XII, First Place (2001)
NEW MILLENNIUM AWARD FOR NONFICTION
“Tilos” by Trent Moorman of Seattle, Washington
Don’t write about something interesting, write about something odd, like nose hair, or the guy who tried to pogo-stick across Czechoslovakia while playing ‘Freebird’ on a viola the whole time. No other songs, just ‘Freebird’. — Trent Moorman
Moorman will receive $1,000, a certificate to mark the success, and publication both online and in print.
By Trent Moorman
The place is called Tilos. It is an island of the Dodecanese that lies in a southeastern corner of the Mediterranean Sea. It is the kind of place no one knows about. It is the kind of place one would think of as desolate. It is the kind of place where one’s process can open up. Wide. Really, Tilos is more unaffected than anything else. Not much happens there but the setting of suns and the passing of temperate seasons. A footprint stays in the sand for weeks. People spear octopi. Olives are farmed. If it weren’t for an island bully named Nectarious and his mufferless scooter, Tilos could be the underworld. Maybe it still is. On my map, the tiny dot of this island beckoned, pulling me in. It was so obscure, I had to go there. Turned out the place turned my travels into pilgrimage, stretching what I knew, or thought I knew. Somehow, I was supposed to have been there, out in that unknown.
On my way to the sun, On my way to make the run, Away
I went to Greece to run the course of the original marathon. It was instinct, maybe. A need to individuate. A meaningless job left me possessed by a longing to go to this country and do this run. I had run a few marathons before, but the origin, the origin of the distance always held my interest. I had become a zombie in the coffin-sized cubicle where I worked. It was all nine to five, small talk, quotas, computer screen cathodes, customer service, carpal tunnel coffee stains, and fluorescent lights. The incessant hum of fluorescent lights. I could taste the Freon coming out of the air conditioning ducts. Not good. Daydreams of the Greek beach postcard tacked to my wall were not enough anymore. I had to get out. I had to run.
Two months, that’s how long I would be in the Mediterranean. I would dot some islands, acclimate to the weather, and finish training for the marathon. I found Tilos on my fifth day there. Soaking in hills, heat, and the shy ways of the peculiar Tilotions, I readied myself and my faculties. Being away from the fluorescent lights and the computer screens was a release beyond measure. Sunset was my favorite time to train. An old dusty road up the two mountains, Profitis Ilias and Amali, housed many a preparatory step. Dusk brought those runs into a nether world. Between scattered billy goats and vehicle, shape shifting clouds, my climbing strides carried me outside consciousness. A live dream. During these moments, I came to know Pheidippides, the runner of the first marathon. Some say he is myth. Others believe.
His story originates from the Greco-Persian Wars of 490 BC. According to legend, Pheidippides was sent as a messenger from the plain of Marathon to the city of Athens to bring news of Athenian victory over the Persians. It was a monumental upset, as the Athenians should have been crushed. Pheidippides ran a distance of approximately twenty-six miles. Exhausted from battle and the grueling trip, he arrived in Athens only to die uttering the words, “We were victorious.” To commemorate the heroic feat, a long distance footrace of twenty-six miles was held at the revival of the Olympic Games in 1896. The race was called a marathon. I would trace the path. I would enter the myth.
The voice of Pheidippides ran with me many times on that old dusty road in Tilos. He would slip from his myth into my shadow. As my shadow, he ran by my side. An ally he was. As my shadow he showed me other lives and possibilities. He showed me myself. With contemplation consumed in this mobile trance, I heard his footsteps, not mine. Looking off those mountains as I ascended into the waning colors of the Mediterranean sky, his face resided ghostly in the reddish gray haze of the horizon. I still see it there.
Between night and day, there is a crack in the worlds – exposing
Some Greeks call Tilos the island of the almond tree, and some call it Elephant Island. Tilos is one of two places on the planet where bones of pigmy mastodons have been found. At the end of the ice age, when sea levels rose, these creatures were trapped. No natural predators hunted them. Within the confines of the sixty square kilometer island, Tilos mastodons, which were once enormous, evolved into pigmy versions. Odd, isn’t it? A miniature prehistoric elephant. Their fossilized remains were unearthed in a cave.
The cave was the heart of the island and a well of souls. Within its hallowed core, stacks of dusty prayer coins had been carefully placed throughout. Nothing stirred inside but the wisdom of animals that had been there long ago. Remnants of a mother were discovered next to her baby. The two died alongside one another. Parts of their vertebrae could plainly be seen in a roped off portion of soil. An intimacy surrounded those bones. I did not mean to intrude.
I was still in a daze from the mastodon cave when the scorpion stung me. He was sleeping in my bathing suit and was none too pleased when I put it on. The stinger hit multiple times on my left thigh and once on my left index finger as I swiped it away. My pointer finger. The poison spread quickly. An archaic electricity made its way through my veins. A pained heat camped in my armpit and my knee. I was frozen. Thoughts displaced themselves into a tranquil languid memory of the tree I climbed as a child when overcome with fear. I would sit in that tree for hours.
Finding the scorpion, I brought a rock down onto its rigid body, and it was gone. The poison was rolling into different muscles. A throbbing pulse swayed my essence into a state of soothing abstraction. As the scene shifted to twilight, a local man named Nico turned up and invited me to sit by his campfire. There, actuality and place took on mythical form. Four stern faced local fishermen were seated in council around a ring of fire. The embers before us danced and sang. As an injured outsider, I listened to their broken English with respect, heeding the words as though they were scripture. The council pointed out scorpion’s constellation, which was perfectly centered over the bay. After the shape connected itself in my eyes, I could then see the stars no other way.
Plain, simple, complex, and Earth sized, time grew slow
The fishermen taught me how to channel and harness the poison as a potion. They said the earth had spoken to me that day. They said the scorpion had communicated. I could do nothing but take it all in. My cure was arranged, the ‘sound elixir.’ After combining a set of meditation, Ouzo, ibuprofen, and local secrets, I began to gain some objectivity. My hand and leg had turned cold to the touch. As body parts, they felt detached. The pain held fast, though somewhat dulled by the elixir. When it came time to leave, I thanked the council and bid them farewell. Parting with five heavy-handed slaps to my back, I took a sleeping bag and made off for a secluded spot on the beach. Under a pocket of wind, I was caged from insects, separated from intervention, and calm in a fabled chamber of the stars.
Realizing then that my birth sign is Scorpio, I saw things differently. The events leading to that instant seemed obvious, like they were meant to have happened. I, a Scorpio, had been stung by a scorpion, and was now looking at the scorpion’s constellation – on some island in the middle of a blue sea nowhere called Tilos. Now I don’t claim to know much about astrological signs, but how strange. That day, the day of the scorpion, had proceeded in a ceremonial fashion, following some ordained order. Was it prescribed? Was it meant to happen? What’s the difference? It did.
My hand and leg still permeated cold heat. The poison still communicated. And I sat, digesting the will of the island. Beyond the periphery of the atmosphere, what I saw made me aware of my smallness in the world. Words from the communal fisherman council formed meaning as I witnessed the scorpion’s constellation accept the spirit of my bantam attacker into the baptismal serenade of the sky known as the Tilos night.
There were silver potions, moonbeam oceans,
And prisms of primrose in violet
The soreness of the stings ebbed its way into nothing over the next couple of days as I continued my routine. The lulling pace of the place and the friends I had made turned those days into weeks. In the mornings, I would stroll down to a family’s farm and pick out a fresh melon or ‘papone.’ For 300 drachmas, my stomach could be filled with fruit. I would sit under the ivy-covered porch, sift the breeze into my head, and listen to the family argue. Somewhere else out there workdays started, deadlines were due, math tests were taken, asphalt was laid, and tension rose off the hoods of cars in traffic jam cages.
I lived under a tamarisk tree on the beach of Eristos Bay. A row of these trees lined the shore which stretched about a kilometer across. Mountains crashed down into the water on either side and an underwater stream delivered constantly frigid water beneath the waves. The Octopus and sea horse were residents of the bay as well. There was a hint of eucalyptus if the wind blew from the right direction, and on a clear day, Turkey could be seen to the naked eye. I had no tent or need to lock any of my belongings up. The fire pit I made had a makeshift stove of rocks for boiling water. Though I did enjoy the occasional souvlaki, mousaka, or plate of dolmades from the town restaurant, my diet mainly consisted of pasta and potatoes boiled over a home cooked fire.
Hands in the sand felt the spin of the earth
Specs in the incessant measureless beating
A monastery sat atop the tallest mountain. One morning run, a Tuesday morning, I made it my destination. Up and up and up, I clambered. There were no clouds, there was no wind, and the steepness never ended. I timed it wrong, meaning to finish the run before the sun reached full strength. But the day spun too quickly for me, and there I was, revealed for the melting. The sun actually seemed closer than the ground I moved across – and it was laughing. It was the oven of the Gods. In my head, music of the procession droned in slow and solemn.
The run became a metaphor in atonement. Going over an hour, straight up, in heat like that, you feel God, but it is not a merciful God. You are confronted with every sin you have ever committed in a way that makes the languor beg for forgiveness. When a heart beats that hard, there is no fear, or risk, or sacrifice, there is only will– a will not to stop. There is no contemplation or revelation, there is only a primal want to reach closure. Nearing the end of the climb, thoughts became a frenzied volley of arduous monotony that pleaded to give in to disbelief. “Is this how it felt, Pheidippides? Was there any salvation in your finish line? How much further do I have to go to know?”
I finally arrived at the monastery gate. Dizzied and gasping. The grumpy old caretaker was waiting. “Yasou,” he said, and gave me a glass of well water, which reeled me weightless. I sat in the shade recovering, and he decided to lecture me about Greece. As if it were what I needed. He explained how Tuesday is bad luck day in their country. On a Tuesday, the Byzantine Empire fell to the Ottomans. A Tuesday. Then he told me about the evil eye. The evil eye is associated with envy, and can be cast, unintentionally, upon someone or something which is praised or admired.
The caretaker also talked a good bit of Socrates. He said Socrates’ motto was, “Know thyself.” I listened intently and drank the crisp magical water. He liked how Socrates wore no shoes and how he devoted his life to teaching in the streets. While making regular pulls off a bottle of Ouzo, the caretaker spoke of Socrates as if he had actually known him. He told me about the perfect order of nature, the universality of people’s belief in the divine, and the things that can be revealed from dreams. He followed my questions with questions, and more Ouzo. I think Mr. Caretaker knew thyself a little too well. He said knowledge was inside everyone, and that it had to be prodded to consciousness at times. The last thing he said was that the soul had to be immortal for universals to exist. Then he made me have a swig of the Ouzo. A bolt. Not exactly what you want to drink after a hard run. As I ran down the mountain, my mind poured over notions of immortality and consciousness. Look out below.
I left Tilos knowing I would miss it greatly some day. A picture was painted in that Tilos air. Under a piece of shade, the long, cool molecules had a sweet smell of simplicity. The lizards there looked on with watchful eyes, noting my progress. The engine behind my lungs was ready. I was tuned.
The next stop was the island of Patmos. Patmos is where St. John had his revelation. He heard a voice, and it told him of angels and churches and the future. There was a museum of ancient artifacts. I was able to see an original copy of the book of Job. I wondered too if I would have a vision, and what it would be if I did. Does one conjure a vision, or does it just come? The four days on Patmos passed quickly. Gin Rummy, a rusty rented bicycle, eroded fort walls, and beaches of colored rocks played only bit parts during the stay. My thoughts and energies were centered on a myth and a distance.
• • •
The boat back to the Athenian port city of Piraeus was crowded. I cowered beneath the railing on the rear deck of the ship and tried to sleep. Huge ocean swells, crying babies, diesel fumes, and loaf of oat bread rationed time across the uneasy passage. Once in Athens, I stored my bag and began looking for a way to get to Marathon. After conflicting directions from six people and an ice cream cone, I made it on the correct bus at last. Quickly, I was asleep. It seemed I had barely closed my eyes when the driver turned to me and said through the sound of lurching breaks, “You are here, Marathon.”
That night I managed to come down with a temperature, causing sleep to elude me completely. The travel had turned my body ragged. I wanted to begin the run at daybreak, while the sun was still low, so as to avoid being cooked in the oven of the Gods again. The hours waiting lingered, laboriously. My only companion was an aching sweat. As anticipation faded into the fever, the little room of the inn where I stayed became a holding cell. Nothing was going to stop me from making the run. Besides, I didn’t have enough money to stay there another night. I contemplated how Pheidippides might have passed the night before his run. Did he wonder about home? Did he get any rest? Was he ready to die? Finally, light hinted its way through the window. Accompanied by Micah, the inn owner’s nine year old son, I stretched and ate fruit. We laughed because I couldn’t touch my toes. Micah proudly wrote his name on a piece of paper for me. I folded it up and slid it into my right sock.
Detain me, hold me over – Make me ancient
Hold me over the way that was – Proclaim the dust and the parallel
Now I run to reach the median
Now I enter the void
An hour into the run, pain from the fever subsided. The sun rose and my pace was driven into a blur. I saw a sign indicating the tenth kilometer and that is one of the last things I clearly recollect. This was not a sanctioned event, I was doing it alone. The course markers that had once shown the way were “collector’s” items now and nowhere for me to see. Twice, I actually had to ask people which way Athens was. Interesting scenes, those conversations were, I’m sure.
Back on course, my thoughts drifted to Tilos and the ancient runner, taking me through the distance. I imagined Pheidippides plodding along the same route thousands of years before. He had no signs to follow. There were no paved roads for him to trod upon. He had no air pockets in the soles of his shoes. I had it easy in comparison.
Close to the halfway point, there was a fork in the road with a large green street sign pointing the way to Athens. An elderly woman stood underneath the sign at a bus stop. She clapped her hands as I went by and I got the chills. Something took hold of me. The grin of her wrinkled apparition revealed, and the gap between her teeth was the only thing I could see. I looked closer and closer. She tilted her head back and the gap swelled to an oval of sharp blackness. I was pulled in. Overwhelmed. The teeth she had on either side of the gap made a gate. In I went.
I moved through the gate of her mouth into her lungs, into her alveoli, into her capillaries, where oxygen and carbon dioxide were exchanged. I could see every little switch of air. I could see meaning to the movement of time. The face of Pheidippides flashed. Afterlife. Looking back over my shoulder to wave good-bye, she was not there. It was 9:16 a.m.
I rode my legs as a memory maker that day. The Greek landscape rolled by me as if it were on a giant conveyer belt. There were cars which made no noise and people with no countenance. There were moments I wished I had never started, and moments where I never wanted to stop. I knew nothing and everything at the same time. Like the eye of a storm, the distance was a looking glass through the ages.
As I approached the finish, Pheidippides and the scorpion enveloped my fatigue with a consummate protection. I came back through the gate of the old woman’s teeth into this side and I heard her clap again. The spent breath from my lungs dangled out. Culmination had arrived. My senses divided themselves between here and there, and now and then. I had finished the run, my life was just beginning. For Pheidippides, the end of the run was the end of his life. I found a park and laid in the grass.
Air breathed deeply to my insides. I wanted to save some, for when breath might not be so strong. All the cubicles and quotas and the cathodes from my life only a few months before were lifetimes away now. I thought about bosses and their desks, and their snooze bars, and they seemed so alien. Every cell in my body stirred and whirled around in a dichotomy of tenses. In a suspension, I savored my tasting of the void, careful not to snap back too quickly. Gradually, I settled inside my own bones again. Taking out Micah’s tiny piece of paper from my sock, I looked at his name. “We were victorious.”
Hear me now, Pheidippides, you are not alone
Mark the mile and spit on the beach
Thinking back to the marathon and my time in Greece, I feel the stings of that scorpion. Impressions arise. The poison-potion is part of me now, flowing hints through my arteries. I see those mountains on Tilos, draped with my steps, my blood, and my homage. I see Pheidippides inside my shadow. He is there, I am here. I am there, he is here. I will always run for the ancient one. I will always run for the ancient one.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Trent Moorman—music columnist and Line Out blogger for the Stranger—has also written for Vice, Rolling Stone, Salon, Tape Op, Portland Mercury, The Jung Society Quarterly, and Thresholds Quarterly (School of Metaphysics). You may have seen or heard Trent play drums for Fresh Espresso, Lusine, Don’t Talk to the Cops!, Katie Kate, OCnotes, Metal Chocolates, Mad Rad, Vox Mod, Head Like a Kite, and the Saturday Knights. He also provides the bumper music for CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 Show.
Trent is heavily influenced by dream psychology, and he can often be found late at night scouring the edge of Elliott Bay by the aquarium looking for a mystic who plays him boombox prophecies.
“Tilos” © 2001 Trent Moorman