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The Arrows of Apollo

by Byron Petrakis

The climb to the Delian Sanctuary of Apollo on the Cycladic island of Paros wound up a steep hill with a 360-degree view of the blue and green Aegean Sea. Smokestacks from tourist-laden Blue Star ferries spewed diesel fumes into the air. As I got closer to the top of the hill, the early morning stillness was shattered by a cacophony of cement mixers, rumbling trucks, and the high-pitched whine of power saws.

Vacation villas were rapidly replacing hillside grazing land once the domain of sheep and goats. The character of the island was changing almost overnight, as wealthy Greeks and foreigners bought into the promise of paradise touted by real estate companies located throughout the country. Yet, two hundred meters above the din and busyness below, the Delian Sanctuary of Apollo rose majestically, seemingly untouched by the modern world.

I was breathing heavily and sweating in the already warm early morning May sun. The rocks and scrubby vegetation did not offer any sense of the god’s divine mystery around me. Only the sweet aroma of yellow flowers on the shrubs, the fragrances of wild oregano and thyme, and the pink and white oleanders indicated the aura of Apollo.

It was quiet at the top. An iron fence surrounded the Sanctuary’s stone walls, protecting what looked like the ruins of an ancient altar in the middle. The gate was locked and the site eerily empty. I thought of Apollo’s dual nature, as both patron of the arts and Homer’s distant, destructive Archer, whose deadly arrows signaled the onset of a plague.

Mighty Agamemnon, commander-in-chief of the Greek troops in the Trojan War, was forced to swallow his pride and placate the deadly Archer at the beginning of the Iliad because he had arrogantly insulted Apollo’s priest Chryses by refusing to return the priest’s daughter Chryseis after claiming her as a war prize. The god had cursed the Greek troops with a plague, which he lifted only after Agamemnon reluctantly returned Chryseis to her grieving father.

Remembering Homer’s account of Apollo’s wrath, I hesitated before trying to enter the Sanctuary, searching the sky for a sign. A sudden cry of a bird made me look up. There, against the brilliant blue sky, a raven, sacred to Apollo, soared before veering to the left.

Respecting the ominous sign, I hoisted myself down from the gate I had intended to climb over and vowed to return the next day, when I might find a more encouraging welcome. As I walked slowly down the dirt path from the gate, my back to the Sanctuary, I heard a rustling from above.

Turning slowly I saw a white plastic bag, then another, slung over the Sanctuary wall. Then I saw an old man, dressed in a dark knit hat, sweater, long pants and boots, with a rolled-up sleeping bag slung over his neck like a long necklace, vault over the fence. A sprig of green, perhaps laurel, was fastened behind his ear in the fashion of Greek peasant men.

He started down the dirt path, 30-40 meters behind me. When I got to the end of the path and back onto the road, I stopped to look out at the sea and waited to see where he would go.

As he passed by, in front of me, I greeted him with Kalimera, literally “good day.” “Ya,” he replied, using the islanders’ less formal greeting. He continued a few more meters down the paved road and stopped by a dust-covered blue and cream colored Honda motorbike that I had seen parked by the side of the road on my way up to the Sanctuary.

Placing the plastic bags into a blue milk crate on the back of the bike and securing his bed roll around his neck, he started the bike and rode down the hill. As I jogged back down the hill, I detected the smell of cigarette smoke from the Bulgarian and Albanian workers hired at low wages in order to maximize the building company’s profits.

Later, I learned from the proprietor of the pensione where I was staying while on a writing project that no one knew much about the old man’s past except his name, Theodoros, and that he seemed to spend most of his time at Apollo’s Sanctuary.

* * *

That night, in a dream sent by Apollo, Theodoros appeared to me as a humble farmer who had tilled the rocky soil on the hillside below the Sanctuary, long before builders began snatching up as much of the available land as they could. A bachelor with no heirs, he had become too old to eke out a living from tending his goats, so in time he reluctantly sold his parcel of land — the last remaining one in the vicinity of Apollo’s Sanctuary — to a development group from the mainland.

A simple man, he did not question the low price that the buyers offered him, thinking that even a low sum would sustain him for the rest of his days. He did not count on inflation and longevity to reduce his retirement nest egg to virtually nothing within several years. Nor did he foresee the buyers reneging on their promise to leave a 50-meter swath of his land as a buffer between the last vacation home and the final approach to Apollo’s Sanctuary.

Destitute, and no longer able to afford even the simple room that he rented in the harbor town from an old widow, he began sleeping at the Sanctuary, where no one bothered him. Too proud to accept charity, he refused the widow’s offer to pay what he could for rent. He would pick some wild greens during the day and sell plastic bags of them to the tavernas in the harbor in exchange for Greek coffee and simple meals.

The few remaining old friends and acquaintances that lived in town would see him and offer to treat him to coffee and sweets. But soon, most of them died from old age or became too infirm to frequent the coffeehouses that provide a social network for old men in every Greek village.

The old farmer would now avoid these tavernas, which in the summer were overrun by foreign tourists, or xeni, who were loud and gaudy in dress and manner. Instead, he spent his time in and around the Sanctuary, picking up litter and harvesting wild greens in season, the horta so prized by diners in the seaside restaurants of the harbor town.

On cold nights in the fall and winter, he would find refuge at the caretaker’s hut at Agii Anargiri monastery, located on another hilltop facing the ancient Sanctuary, high above the harbor town. Benefitting from the ancient Greek custom of philoxenia, hospitality to strangers, he felt embraced by both the Olympian and Christian gods.

Meanwhile, the vacation homes on hillside properties mushroomed throughout the spring, as builders raced to complete their projects before summer. Ignoring laws designed to protect the environment from overbuilding, they constructed villas, swimming pools, and terraced plots of land that they would label “Greekscapes” and other marketing gimmicks to satisfy the distorted image that foreign buyers had of Greece.

One morning in early summer, the old farmer rose at dawn, left the Sanctuary and began walking down the hill toward the now completed villas, most of which had been sold. He had wanted to stand on a piece of his land and look out over the sea, as he had done so many times, before the new occupants moved in.

Before he could get very far, though, a surly guard dog growled a warning. Soon, the owner of Aegean Dream Properties, an imposing figure named Agamemnon, emerged from inside the house he was inspecting.

“Don’t let me catch sight of you on the company’s property again,” he threatened.

“I just wanted to look out at the sea from this spot before the new owners move in,” Theodoros protested. “Besides, you promised me that you would leave a little land free of any building in front of the Sanctuary, out of respect for the shrine.”

“You must be imagining things, old man. If I see you here anymore, I will notify the authorities and have you arrested for trespassing! Do you think that your Apollo will help you then?”

As if to punctuate his master’s threat, the dog growled and began advancing on the farmer. Terrified of the animal and humiliated by Agamemnon, Theodoros turned away, retreating to a safe distance closer up the hill to the Sanctuary. There, he pleaded for justice to the god whose Sanctuary he had maintained. He had never sought such help before.

High on Olympus, Apollo heard the cry of Theodoros and vowed revenge for the theft and rape of his land. Rather than respond immediately, however, the god waited for more favorable conditions before coming down to the island to wreak his vengeance upon those who would violate his Sanctuary and insult his servant.

The winter had uncharacteristically not produced much rain, and the dry spring and early summer were raising concerns about a severe drought. With the memory of last summer’s lethal wildfires fresh in the minds of the people, there was great fear that history would be repeated.

Some in the press urged the passage of new legislation to protect the remaining forest land from overdevelopment, while other voices warned that no legislation could protect Greece from the greed that had transformed the country in the past 40-50 years.

In their arrogance, government officials did nothing to prepare for the possibility of another season of lethal fires. Meanwhile, Apollo patiently waited, secure in the knowledge that his arrows were immune to the changing whims of men.

The god’s opportunity came just days before the completion of the vacation villas, when anxious buyers planned to take possession of their dream homes. On the dawn of yet another dry day, Apollo let fly his deadly flaming arrows, scorching the hillsides near the Sanctuary.

The ash fell on the sea, and it fell on the marble-lined swimming pools of deep blue water. And the ash fell in the offices of the marketing firms hired to promote the properties with spectacular sea views. Soot penetrated the windows and doors of the building company’s sales office, casting a film over the monitors and laptops of salesmen who had been anticipating hefty sales bonuses. And the ash even darkened the blue and white Greek flags that proudly flew from poles in front of municipal buildings housing the offices of corrupt officials.

For nine days, no one on the island saw the sun. The soot fell on the ancient quarry of translucent Parian marble that was prized by artisans from the 5th century B.C. down to Renaissance masters like Michelangelo. The plague of ash stained the worn marble steps of the Byzantine Trail, a 15-kilometer path that traversed the island from the hill town of Lefkes to the seaside village of Prodromos. Goats failed to produce milk, and hens did not lay eggs while the siege of grey ash blanketed the land. Ferry boat schedules to the island were suspended, as visibility was reduced to nearly zero on the Aegean Sea.

On the tenth day, the dry winds from the Balkans, known as the Meltemi, swept down to the Greek mainland and the Cycladic islands to the south. When the clouds of soot were blown away, the clear air revealed the destruction of the vacation villas on the hillsides below the Sanctuary. Distraught buyers converged upon the real estate companies’ offices to file insurance claims. Only then did they learn that their policies were almost worthless, since the insurance company claimed no responsibility for losses incurred from “acts of God.” Furious, these new landowners hired lawyers at exorbitant fees to take the developers to court, a process that would take years, if ever, to resolve.

That evening, after the air had cleared, Theodoros rode his motorbike past the charred ruins of the abandoned villas and parked by the wall facing the sea. The air was fragrant with the mellifluous aroma of wild oregano, thyme, and sage.

He climbed the path to Apollo’s Sanctuary and hoisted himself over the wall to the corner nearest the altar. There, he picked some wild greens and placed them in his bag and put it under a stone where it would be safe from the wind. Then, after unrolling his bedding, he looked out at the wind-whipped sea and lay down to sleep.

Copyright © 2009 by Byron Petrakis

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