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June 17, 1998
"Have a drink!"
I certainly was thirsty, and it was hot even here in the shade, but I could think of a good reason not to stick my head in a stream. Goats' bells tinkled somewhere in the brambles nearby. "I don't think I should," I said.
My host Kostas would not be put off. "Malaka." He let the word fall casually, bemused and disdainful in the same breath. My command of modern Greek is shaky, but this particular epithet I know quite well -- largely because the word is so crude. Besides, I had already heard Kos use it many times to describe me: because I couldn't find the ripest fig on a tree, because I made a mess when I peeled one with my teeth and fingers, because I didn't believe bees had left honey behind in the sweetest figs, because I hadn't ever eaten fruit grown without the benefit of pesticides. An apple from an orchard in Arcadia looks awful; mottled and pitted, its skin is as forbidding as the Arcadian mountains, burnt a dusty brown by the August sun. But the flavor ... The apple doesn't taste sweeter, really; it just tastes more. And Kos had made fun of me because I wouldn't know how to survive in these mountains. "Someday, malaka, all the cities will be destroyed," he had assured me, his eyes twinkling. "Then those apples will save your life."
Even so, I had looked askance at the apples, just as I now worried about the stream, which flowed quickly, bounding over some stones, sliding between others. Here and there bugs skimmed across the surface where the water had collected in pools; according to Kos, who had been coming to the stream ever since he was a boy, crabs were hiding in the mud. Oaks lined either bank, forming a canopy that arced overhead. An idyllic spot, I granted, and when Kos put his lips up to a miniature waterfall and took a long, deep draught, all at once my resistance gave way. The water was cold and tasted very fresh.
What water didn't pour down my gullet continued through the valley until it reached the Alpheios, the river of Olympia, which flows by the site of the ancient games on its way to the sea. In antiquity that water might have refreshed athletes or victorious teams of horses, thus passing into Pindaric song. In more recent history, during the Greek War of Independence, Theodoros Kolokotronis's guerrillas might have found refuge from the sun at the very spot where I now kneeled. Karitaina, the hilltop stronghold from which they raided the Turks, is only a few miles away.
The stream's source on the slopes of Mt. Lycaeos is a wellspring of myth. The ancient Arcadians who lived beneath the mountain believed it was the birthplace of Zeus. It is told that soon after his birth the future king of the gods was hidden from his father and given to three nymphs to raise. One of these was called Theisoa, and she gave her name to what is now Kostas's village -- and to the source of the stream. The nymphs bathed the young god in those headwaters, for which the Theisoans called the stream Lusios, the bathing river.
So I learned while reading Pausanias's Periegesis months later in a library a world away, and once more I was immersed in those waters. Pausanias traveled throughout Greece in the time of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius and related, in minute detail, what he saw and heard. Pausanias considered Lusios -- known as Gortynios by the Arcadians who lived farther downstream -- to be the coldest river in the world. He was familiar with the Danube and the Rhine, but he had a peculiar set of criteria according to which Gortynios won the laurels.
I call the water cold of those rivers which flow through a land with a warm climate and in summer have water refreshing to drink and to bathe in, without being painful in winter.... The Gortynios surpasses all rivers in coldness, especially in summer.The important thing, I thought, my mind drifting back to my own experience of Arcadia, is contrast. I thought of the lovely apples with their ugly skins. I thought of the rugged, dry mountains providing the sweets of life -- mountains capable of providing for humans as Mt. Lycaeos once did for the greatest of the gods. I thought of the present-day Arcadians, autochthonous, sprung from the very earth on which they live, who with every draught from a stream drink up millennia of history and legend.
Zachary Taylor, a former Atlantic Unbound intern, is a freelance writer who lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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