Last Easter I made this strange discovery: That running in Greece, in the land of Atlanta the fleet-footed and Pheidippides the Marathon man, can be something of an anachronism, like driving a chariot through Times Square.
Everywhere I ran, it startled man and beast. Shepherds stopped to stare, leaving their flock crisscrossing the road in confusion. Goatwomen in rural black stood frozen like question marks. The goats cast wary sidelong looks, ready to bolt. Chickens shrieked in a flutter or panic. Small children fled as if from an oncoming train.
It was Easter Sunday. The sun was melting into the mountains as I started on my five-mile run.The setting was Homeric: an island in the Ionian Sea with a view of Ithaca.
There were no olive garlands or laurel leaves, no poems of praise or tax exemptions. But what an audience. Village worthies emerged from the gloom of dusty taverns to shake their heads and touch them with corkscrew fingers denoting lunacy. Tongues clinked, heads nodded (negatively, Greek style), arms spread, shoulders rose inquiringly.
"Why are you running?"
All over the island, smoke rose out of the roasting pits where lambs and goats turned in a sweat and gave off a body odor of garlic, oregano and fat. Churchbound villagers nodded sternly and gave me the Easter greeting: "Christ is rise. Why are running?" From hillside olive groves shepherds hollered back and forth across the valley. "The girl, the girl!" (In Greece, you apparently a girl until you graduate to a walking stick.)
I reached a stone terrace, a stage on which the silhouette of a woman, backlit by the setting sun, hacked away at the ground in a drama of monotonous and wordless labor.
"Christ is risen," I greeted the shadow, and it froze in its toil.
"Risen indeed! Why are you running?"
Speeding cars screeched to a halt; windows were rolled down, engines cut-the better to gawk at my bootless exercise. Buses careered past, registering surpirse with blasts of the horn that would lift an elephant off the road. Near a small icon-cluttered shrine, two bored city youths aimed small pebbles at me.
Atlanta had golden apples thrown in her path by a smitten suitor, in an age when running was celebrated. Oh, changing times! To be stoned in Greece on Easter Sunday for the sin of running!
Then I was racing downhill, guided by flashes of the setting sun that danced in a goblin beam through the mulberry trees, the wind brushing the stiff hair of the olives and snatching at the cyclamen and poppy that tapestried the roadsides.
I ran past desolate fields watched over by sentries of gaunt cypresses. Past slouching olive trees with touches of dull silver in their hair. Past lonely vineyard with an air of premature fermentation, under a sky that had liquefied into a winey red.
Freed from the wounding light of day, the bruise-colored mountains turned into wave upon wave of transparent blue. From somewhere out of their depths, with ghostly accusation, the word icheretic! But I felt like a heretic, an importer of outlandish custom. Wasn't I violating the accepted belief that a woman should not through the hills without calamitous cause?
Suddenly . . . Epiphany! A donkey bearing an old woman was clip-clopping slowly toward me. Both were in a trance. The old woman was perched sidesaddle, a bundle of grass behind her, a cluster of empty plastic bottles hung on the other side as if for ballast.
Her black wimple framed a face furrowed and grooved with the markings of misery. Above her, the rocks looked harsh and immovable, balancing on her frail head and recalling the imagery of an early Ionian poet: "Old age is a load that lies more heavily on the head than the rocks of Etna."
The old woman woke from her trance. "Why are you running girl?"
It came to me then: For her and others like her-old women half dead but hard at work, bent over almost double by careers of unbroken toil-my exertions were a spectacle of pure luxury: the luxury of voluntary phsical effort. Ah, that life could leave enough to spare for a sweaty run through the hills.
Storm clouds were tossing and curdling in the sky. As I ran past, the road dropped off on one side to the shallow lick of a river, and the feeble voice of the woman echoed off the bare rocky wall: "Christ is risen! Cherete!"
This time I heard no censure in the greeting-only the blessing it really is: Be Happy!