I dip the rock into the sea to refresh its colors. A few letters leap out, unmistakable: alpha, theta, but the rest are illegible. On the lowest band is a row of white triangles resembling a highly stylized delta, all identical and evenly spaced, as if punched in the rock with the same carving tool. I am standing only a few feet from the crumbling Venetian bastions of the last leper’s colony in Europe, shut down over a half century ago. Could this have been scratched by an inmate on those dilapidated walls? Or has it been washed up from some far more ancient, sunken ruin of Byzantium?
Excitedly, I show it to my husband who stares at it amused and says I am imagining things. He sees nothing but the scribbling of sediment and sea worms on metamorphic rock. The inscription I see is merely an illusion, not archaeological artifice, he claims, and points out the rough edge where this piece has clearly broken off from a larger slab. The squiggles I call writing also appear on the part which would have been inside the slab. If you break this piece in half, he suggests, you’ll find the same squiggles and triangles inside, too.
I consider this argument and gradually yield to his logic. The shapes of the letters are transformed beneath our scrutiny, becoming less regular and defined, indeed less like writing. What I imagined as an inscription is not a text to be read by human eyes.
Not willing to give it up completely, I drop the rock, weighing about ten pounds, into my beach bag and drag it back to the car where I toss it in the backseat, along with piles of salt-stiffened beach towels, bricks of olive oil soap, bags of pungent oregano and mountain tea. As we drive around the Crete, I take out the rock whenever we stop, douse it with water and examine it anew. Sometimes the signs align themselves into script, but mostly they elude recognition. When the water dries, the markings fade.
We are on our way to walk a labyrinth. This being Crete, what better place? This is the home of the labyrinth, the maze built by King Minos’ architect, Dedalus, to imprison the Minotaur, his monstrous stepson, who demanded a sacrifice of Athenian youth every nine years. To put an end to all that, Theseus slayed the Minotaur and escaped the labyrinth, thanks to Mino’s daughter, Ariadne, who had taught him how to find his way out using a ball of thread. Abandoned by Theseus, Ariadne was courted and wed by the god Dionysus. Dedalus emigrated to Sardinia, where he imparted the art of spiral architecture to the native people there. The labyrinth remained bereft of its celebrated resident, but continued to resurface in art, dance and narrative in every continent.
Mythologists, archaeologists, philosophers, and mathematicians have debated the meaning of the labyrinth for centuries. The myth arose, claim some, from the thick mesh of passageways and cubbyholes beneath the palace of Knossos, laid bare in the last century by the excavations of Sir Arthur Evans. No claim others, it is a model of an anthropomorphized universe, a map of how nourishment moves in our entrails or of how synapses fire in our brain. By no means, claim the symbolists, the labyrinth is a universal symbol of gestation, death, rebirth, or a depiction of the underworld. Above all, it must be experienced in movement. Its meanders were designed to guide dancers along a ritual path, poised between sky and earth, beginning and ending in the same spot. Lastly, the labyrinth is associated with the Mother Goddess, she with the naked breasts and conical skirt, gripping two writhing serpents in her upraised fists, icon of Minoan culture.
For years, I came to Crete nearly every summer, to traipse through the mazelike rooms of Knossos and pay my homage to a small ceramic sculpture of the goddess on display in the Heraklion museum. From there I took a bus to the same village which over twenty years grew from a cluster of stone houses unwired for electricity to a sprawling town of air-conditioned supermarkets. A hiatus of ten years followed, during which I sought shores closer to home – Sardinia, Etruria, then one day woke with the obsession that I had to go back. In the meantime, I had heard, a group of German women had built a labyrinth there, assembled out of stones gathered from those sun-scorched hills laid out in the pattern of the Chartres cathedral labyrinth. I knew I had to walk it. So we packed the car, bought ferry tickets, and set off from the Italian port of Ancona.
A friend has told us where to find the labyrinth: not far from a threshing floor on the barren hillside on the outskirts of the village. There were several circular threshing floors in this village once, slabs of concrete edged with paving stones, last used perhaps thirty years ago at harvest time. On summer nights I often sat within that magic space stargazing at the frothy spirals of the milky way and in the day time, sometimes, I danced. No other landscape had ever inspired me to dance with joy as Crete did when I was twenty-five. Observed by no one but the rocks and a friendly donkey tethered nearby, I whirled in a purple granny dress and flung my arms out towards the cobalt sea in gestures of longing, benediction, and pure delight. I did not know then that dance was a form of worship in ancient times, but something in the landscape spoke directly to my body and my feet.
Today, we scour the hillside in search of the rocky spiral, and at last find it, though heavy winter rains washing down the mountain and grazing goats have wreaked havoc of its pathways. Goat droppings sully the sacred center. Under the blazing sun, we set about reconstructing the trails, brushing away rubble and debris with fragrant twigs of thyme, lining up the scattered rocks to mark the turnings. When it is complete, we begin our walk.
The first few steps draw me near the center, creating the expectation of easy arrival, but then I must rotate on my axis , as I am propelled to the outermost edge and spun a hundred and eighty degrees to the far side, like a drunken planet wobbling in and out of an uncertain orbit before being drawn swiftly back towards the sun. You cannot really see the pattern when you are inside it. What feels like a deflection, a wrong direction is only one folding of the weft.
As I walk the loops, I try to bear in mind the three phases of the labyrinth prayer. Concentrate on a question or need as you wind towards the center, open yourself to higher forces when you reach the heart, release your desire or need to the cosmos as you exit the boundary back to ordinary space where answers shall be forthcoming. I am uninspired it seems, I have come thousands of miles to thread this labyrinth yet no illuminations rush in. But when I step across the line back into linear time, I know that I must leave the strange rock I found in Spinalonga here inside in the labyrinth. I return to the car to fetch the rock, reenter the loops and seek a place to put it, noting as I do that in the strong sunlight, the inscription seems to have disappeared.
Poets and philosophers have often remarked on the sublime solitude of the Greek landscape, where, despite desolation, you feel you are not alone – you are watched, sometimes scrutinized, protected, recorded even, as if you were a piece of narrative unfolding in its terrain being read by a greater eye. This sensation of being observed comes to me as I set my rock in place and slip a newly minted EU coin underneath, wondering when, if ever I will be back to look for it. Perhaps it is then that the illumination comes. I have added a small sign to the overall design, participated with those women who first assembled it years ago, who have moved on to other things in their lives, as I will, too when I leave this island. We are part of a story although we can’t see the design, intended for a reader whose consciousness infuses these rocks, hills, stones, the crows circling overhead. Although I move more slowly now than I did thirty years ago, now I see the meanders linking far flung places and people in my life to this one spot, and although it seems I have traveled far from the center, the next turning will surely bring me back to the core of pure delight.