The black mountain goat.
The black mountain goat with white-trimmed ears.
The black mountain goat with white-trimmed ears rose vertically.
An absurdly efficient elevator, its hooves move smoothly, precisely. The lift in Adam’s steel-and-glass London office building. The American will be impressed. The slim American. The slim American with the come-hither-stare. The American that has caused Adam’s wife to massage her elbow in one slow stroke. The jocular American father. The all-American dad. The jocular American dad in the kiddie pool, playing with his two small children. The confident American dad, pretending with his two small children that the empty lifeguard chair beside the kiddie pool transforms into the Eiffel Tower. The playful American. The imaginative American. The American laughing hysterically—with his children—as the youngest, just under two, repeatedly chants “Champ de Mars” while splashing across the flat of foot-high water she sees as the dusty Parisian mall.
Yes, this American. He will be impressed.
Not only because Adam, at the end of his second week, finally accepts the American’s silent challenge to leave the comfortable Lemnos Village Resort—convincing his elbow-rubbing wife Angela to watch their two young children at the too-warm kiddie-pool—but also because these black mountain goats, their eyes dark and deep, suggest to Adam a secret language of scribbles, asemic dancing men, cut within the hardscrabble of ancient walls. Yes, the American would be impressed. Adam watches the goats pass willy-nilly through the lower remains of the Venetian Castle towering about the rocky streets of the capital. The capital of Lemnos. He takes a picture with his cell phone. No bars.
The ascending path consists of billions of blistered rocks warmed by a punishing sun. Adam’s feet burn. Of course for the American, heat of all kinds proves merely hypothetical. Even with his two small children, the American seems wildly impervious to the effects of the throbbing orb permeating the island like butter pressed through the cheesecloth of the sky, then smeared, in purified form, like jelly over a suffocating tick. His brood is always mucking about the hotel pool, the smallest one chanting “Champ de Mars” over and over as if her three short days in Paris, before coming to Lemnos, makes her a miniature Baron Hausmann. The American, smiling at her, sweats less than a cactus.
The American’s stamina remains absurdly bullish. Perhaps affected by the pagan legends of the island, he seems also possessed of abnormal protean abilities. He can be in many places at once, as he never tires of proclaiming. Eternally at the resort pool during the heat of the post-lunch buffet afternoon, but also traveling: at Kotsina, gazing up at the statue of the martyr Maroula, his two children curled under his arms while the seaspray pumps their family with its foamy blessings; he takes deep swishes of muddy coffee in the village of Portianou, gazing carefully at Winston Churchill’s WWI residence; he thinks nothing of waiting over an hour under the blistering heat for one of the island’s small number of cabs to return to the resort; he descends hundreds of feet, alone along the steep stone staircase at Kavirio, the green-blue water rolling into the cave in which he sits, a bronze-age idol, watching the sunrays pass like spears into the portal between worlds.
The American lifts a forkful of Greek spaghetti at the Thanos beach restaurant, and tells again of the sand like silk nothingness between the toes of his children who move, crablike, over its wondrous threads. He wanders the main tourist street in Myrina, the capital, and presses his naked toes into the grooved stones amid this mercantile artery glazed with trinkets of the Aegean world—smooth opals, paintings of cats and small churches in stark blue and white, jars of thick nutty tahini, vacuum-packed olives cured in rusty salt, bracelets of tiny eyeballs to ward off evil charms, and terrapins, thick-flippered and bright, bringing love and wealth and contentment.
And then he is above it all: among the deer and wild goats of the Venetian Castle.
Inside the ruins.
Under the punishing sun.
The first several-hundred feet are nothing for the casual climber, for Adam who lives atop a world of glass-and-steel, for the businessman who works hard to provide a life for his two children and wife Angela. He succeeds and they are happy. They take a vacation to Greece. They fly directly to Lemnos. Unspoiled, says the travel agent. Unhurried, says a co-worker. Adam drops his children at school when he can. He picks them up when he must. Adam does everything asked of him. And more. He takes out the trash. He empties the cat litter. He is happy. They are happy.
And now, he takes a sort of bet, an unspoken wager, from this American always laughing some sort of secret laugh with his two children. The wager argues that Adam cannot leave the resort on his own and make his way, hand-over-fist if need be, the top of the castle at the top of the bluff at the top of all Myrina and beyond which so goes the entire island of Lemnos, the land of the god Hephaestus, tossed to earth millennia ago in furious afterflash by his angry father Zeus.
The crumbling path zigzags for a quarter of a mile and Adam delights in the pebbles that tickle his feet. At first. And then they are ball bearings beneath his shoes, which then become thin leather sheaths tanning in the endless sun. A collapsing archway just ahead signals, as the American suggests, the end of the so-called modern area. A green garbage can with a smiley-face sticker hums with thick flies and Adam sees lollipop wrappers, a soda can, Greek candy bar slivers at the bottom of this almost-empty drum. Far from the Athenian Acropolis. No guards. No entrance fee of so many Euros. No wrinkled women laying out cloth mats strewn with St. George candles. No well-appointed-yet-dirty museum.
Once Adam passes under the arch, he follows the path as it reveals an exposed corridor partially shaded by stringy ivy, following the suggestion of a wall rising almost ten feet high immediately to his right. The loose stones in the wall shake lightly, shingles in the wind, when Adam props his arm against any point of the edifice. His legs tense atop another set of loose stones, tiny agates spinning noisily down the steep incline.
A second archway emerges along a steep path sloping west, 300 feet or so beyond Adam. This terminates in a plateau above which, to its left, begins a further series of steep ascents toward a towering Greek flag that waves dully on a distant summit. Small, and far from glorious, with white stripes dancing in the wind. Adam imagines a brief moment each afternoon, late in perpetual heat, when the sun and the flag press together in perfect syzygy with his body as if it were a third heavenly object subject to its own laws of revolution and rotation. To Adam’s right, alternately, the plateau passes through a set of partially excavated anteroom. The lower end of the fortress, the American relates, where most people stop or give up or maybe wonder about what’s inside—inside what?—the caves.
The American take long sip of his plastic-cup beer and details his smallest daughter’s scurry up a slope thick with dusty plant scrub, as they move into the first dark opening. The air is choked and brittle. The American follows his daughter into the cave, and the first thing, he says, with legs entangled in kiddie-pool noodles, must be the smell. Rotting meat. The putrefying character of old coffee. And then, the flies. Yes honey, the Champs de Mars. The Champ de Mars at night. The American carries his youngest daughter back down to his wife, waiting by the rental car hundreds of feet below. Unaffected by the loose stones, the heat, the stoic gaze of the mountain goats, the American scurries back to the same spot where Adam now stands. Smelling the same heat that Adam now smells.
This is the exact view, the exact smell, the American explains, which serves as an entry point into things that are real. Things that are real, that’s what the American says. Not like the things in the Lemnos Village Resort. The American learns what is real and so many other things from the Greek. The Greek, says the American, knows many secrets about Lemnos. The Greek, Theophiles, zips to Plati beach on his tiny motorbike to hold the hand of the American’s children and order cabs for them and take them wandering through the beige valleys of Lemnos. The Greek, says the American, knows a secret café in Moudros where young boys drink wine in the middle of the day and pull slow donkeys down a crumbling alley. This Greek, who has traveled to London and whose grandmother was mayor of Myrina many years ago, knows many things about the Venetian Castle set high above his hometown.
From this starting point, this special place, Adam feels the transition between the unbroken sun and the penumbra of the cave’s entrance. He stands between the zones—the skin of his left leg, framed by a dusty sandal, marked by peeling points, tiny bite marks where the Aegean sun has nipped at his legs; these small mountains of baked skin curve sunward like whittled strips of balsa wood. Adam counts three still-unexploded blisters, their heads white like the inside of a juicy Saturn peach, threatening to explode with volcanic pus. Adam can imagine the lemon-peel feeling of the enflamed red skin beneath the blisters, waiting to harden in this unforgiving climate.
His right leg, enrobed in the shadow of the cave, is not so much cooler—but soothed by comparison. She’ll rub lotion on these spots. Adam’s wife Angela and her eyes: dull marshmallows dunked in soft brown pools of melted chocolate. Like the eyes of the American’s wife. The women stare at each other while they sunbathe, beneath oversized sunglasses, under the brim of soft summer hats. When Adam stands up from the kiddie pool, he finds, in the tiny aperture between hat and glasses, that the American’s wife is no different that his. Given different circumstances, different geopolitical realities, different accidents of birth and upbringing and education and station, they might as well be each other. Adam pictures the American’s wife in her swimsuit, rubbing sunscreen on the American’s back so as to prevent the blisters on Adam’s left leg. Adam feels the American’s wife’s tongue probing her husband’s lips. Tiny droplets of water set like tiny islands across her neckline.
Up the path. Another mountain goat. Black, like charcoal drizzled with a thin skein of dull gray ash, dusted by the distant-fingers of ancient Venetian guards wasting hours in the castle, flexing their bare-chests and feeling, sternums at the sun, the seared flesh smell of breasts pressed to the solar grill. The goat’s white beard scatters like burned hairs turned upward as the ends of a sooted paintbrush. Its hooves are blasted obsidian rocks, volcanic stones transported here from the far end of Lemnos, from a quarry on the other side of the island, and so carried in the body of this animal to this spot high above the city of Myrina.
Of course, the Greek Theophiles says to Adam, everything is lazy here except the goats, and except for us on the nights we go to the Kinky Club just outside of Myrina. We ride our motorbikes and we pay small cover charge and we do things that our mothers never do because they are older and no longer go out and these are also things you tourists never do in America or Britain because—here the American pulls back his eyes wide in the blare of the afternoon sun so that he looks more what Adam imagines Theophiles might look like—these things we do are beyond what the tourists on Plati beach could never even dream. The American says these things, casually, splashing, his daughter who is shouting, Daddy, Champ De Mars, and the American then smiles closely at Adam’s wife in her lounge chair.
The goat bleats three times. Adam remembers the American describing the way the goats will bleat, this goat maybe, when Adam will reach the second entry point, the second way to understand the things that are real. Adam wipes the sweat from his brow with an exposed arm, splattering droplets onto the lower ridge of his nose. He bunches his t-shirt, pulls it awkwardly over his face to his forehead as a damp sponge wipes a puddle. Yes, this goat. This goat with the eyes like grey cuts in a stone vagina. This goat whose bleats cover Adam in a enveloping pulse—visible in the air as ripples in a pond thick with skimming spiders paralyzed by the sun—and so on beyond Adam, over the roofs of Myrina’s houses and shops and groceries so many meters below. Adam calls down now, for his wife, picturing the American’s wife and the American’s two children waiting at the bottom for Adam to finish his climb before they take the rental car back to Plati beach, before they relax with a drink at the kiddie pool. They pass through a transparent Adam, and the goat, this goat—which the American describes as a doorway, an entrance—this goat rises alongside the rickety path, races to the distant Greek flag now in phase with the sun pasted high above the sparkling soup of Myrina’s boiling, aquamarine bay.
And so Adam climbs after the goat. After the American. After the American’s wife. After the American’s children with the youngest shouting Champ de Mars and maybe Adam’s wife and children can be set inside the jowls of this goat. The American’s goat that is now Adam’s goat. And then they may come out differently than they began. Isn’t the purpose of a holiday to change you for the better? To rest, yes of course to rest, the American would say, but also to transform the mundane world you came from, Adam, the world of glass-and-steel and commuting and loneliness and alienation into a series of impossible sandy islands rising like glorious vertebrae from the primordial back of the ocean. The London Eye, Adam, can grant you a sort of vision, but it is only the vision of steel, the prophecy of the great Ferris wheel, of everything you already know.
The path grows strangely stiff once Adam’s toes knock a cover of loose stones toward the plateau now below him. The great wheel of everything that ever was—for you and your wife and your job and your world. To pass through, Adam, to open a door, even for a week, well, is that what you’ll accomplish in the Lemnos Village resort when the check for the dinner buffet comes and you write your room number and sign your name and gaze up at the lights of the Castle before sleep?
The American describes his dinner with the Greek, Theophiles, in the seaside restaurant over the Turkish beach in Myrina. They shared a bowl of thick kalamata olives. Briny. Maroon. A plate of ripe tomatoes red like the sun in the evening against the distant monolith of Mt. Athos. The Aegean waves tickling the flat stones of the sea wall’s shadowy face. The lights from the Castle above the Turkish beach gleam like a chain of electrified paper clips draped over the rocks. No, the Greek says in answer to the American’s question. No, we don’t go at night because of the homeless, the drug pushers as you call them, and how do you say, yes, the Satanists.
Now, here, this goat moves with impossible lightness; it senses Adam, following, climbing if not precisely in the same direction—because the goat seems to fly twenty feet to Adam’s right, walking vertically up the cliff face—while the ground slopes suddenly, undulating in the rhythm of a sandy wave, and Adam learns the best way to move upward is to use his hands, with arched back and dust on his chin. Adam sees the American pushing off the crevices in the rock wall, the dusty powder of grainy dirt steadying into definite handholds as he climbs ever higher.
The American describes this moment to Adam, this particular moment which serves as another entry point, where you can stop being you and start being goat or rock or castle or hill, and if you move quick enough to the top of the Venetian castle, before that a Byzantine fortification taken over later by Ottoman Turks, where the goats play sentry over a pack of 200 dear that flail in underground cisterns and submerged rooms under shackles of scrubby moss, then, Adam, you’ll finally get where you know that I’ve been.
I’m here, Adam. The goat stops suddenly near the height of its ascent, just below the high wall of the remaining embankment containing the Greek flag thick with dark spots and tiny pinhole tears. And I’m down below, Adam, too, at the bottom of the world, under Myrina town at the two beaches that flank the castle bluff when there is nothing but the periscopic late-afternoon silence of intense heat so familiar to the inhabitants of Lemnos that they wilt into their cots and collapse behind closed shutters and grow comatose and catatonic in the stifling afternoon.
The trick is not to move when the goat stares you down, Adam, and it will, wondering in the final moments of your climb whether you are of goat or of man and what you’ll be once you reach the summit, finally, and where you’ll move your feet and your hands once you stand again vertically, a biped once more, high above the city, the island, the distant green water steaming in the wink of the setting sun.
Adam pulls himself over the last lip of the pathway before the buttress. Adam feels as the American feels. That certain places can be doorways, entry points to something else altogether. To things that are real. The ground is hot to the touch. Adam has no water. He is covered in sweat. He stands atop the embankment and moves over to the center of the clearing, deep inside the crumbling stone walls.
Adam, the goat says, the American says, splayed in a circle of stones, among a cask of discarded bones thick with maggots, it’s time for you to do what the American does, it’s time to dream yourself away.