Images from the Karneia

Look at how the young boys run! Chests heaving, fists pumping, thighs tensing, naked feet slapping the pavement as they hurtle towards the prize. The grape-laden man runs, not naked like them, but draped with fillets of wool in the hot summer sun. He is sweating and his cheeks puffing – but he is fast – far faster than the boys expected! They thought it’d be easy to catch the old man. Slap his back and smile as he proclaimed the blessing for the city. Then there would be feasting and beautiful hymns, and the great circle dances with the pretty young girls and their loose brown hair and slender ankles.

But the grape-man is so far ahead – what if he reaches the altar before they can touch him? Will Apollo Karneios really turn his face from them? And what would that mean? The failure of the crops, certainly – and war. Perhaps even plague, like that which befell the Greeks when they unknowingly cut down Apollo’s sacred cherry-grove on Mount Ida to build the Trojan Horse. Raging, the God afflicted them with disease – and only the institution of the Karneia was able to appease his wrath. But what if they should fail in the race?

Unbidden, the images fly into Alexis’ brain. He sees the grapes rotting on the vine in his uncle’s vineyard, black and poisonous looking things. And he sees his cousin take a dagger in the side and collapse under the press of bodies as the black smoke rises from the charred hulls of his city’s buildings. And worse yet is the image of his sisters and mother puking black blood into their hands, their once red cheeks white like bone. All this, because he failed to obtain the grape-laden man’s blessing for his city.

Alexis digs deep. His legs burn, and his chest is tight so that even the shallow runner’s breaths are hard to draw. But he drives away these concerns like an old woman chasing away a stray dog with a stick. Even if his legs splintered, he would run. Even if his heart burst in his chest, he would run. The other boys, winded, start to fall off, but Alexis won’t let himself give in, won’t let the bad things happen. He has to touch the back of the old fat man – everyone depends on him.

He is five, now four strides behind. He might just make it! But no – he can see the altar of the God at the end of the track. If the grape-laden man reaches it, it’s all over. His arm burns as he reaches out, his muscles straining. His vision is blurred by sweat and tears, and his heart feels like it’s going to pound right out of his chest. Closer, closer they draw to the altar of Apollo, harder, harder he pushes himself, trying desperately to close the distance between them. His fingers shake, longing to touch something solid, to feel the sweaty wollen fellets, and the soft flesh of the man’s back. “Apollo,” the boy prays, “make me worthy to save my city.”

And then there are no more thoughts, no more fears and longing. He is just sinew and flesh, muscle and sweat. A body, working perfectly, pure instinct. He feels his steps grow lighter, the distance shrinking, and he reaches out again, and slaps the back of the grape-laden man!

The touch startles the old man, and he tumbles to the ground in a flury of limbs and wollen fillets, and Alexis trips over him and crashes to the ground himself, bloodying his knees. But he is elated! Joy washes over him, and his spirit leaps into the sky like a giant eagle. He did it, he saved his city! Even as his legs are gripped with cramps, and his chest pounds so hard that he’s sure his heart is going to burst any minute, and his vision goes black from the pounding in his ears that sounds like the Bacchic drums at night, he is happier than he has ever been in his short life. The other boys arrive and lift him up, and carry his limp body to the altar, cheering and patting his back to await the blessing of the grape-laden man. Alexis smiles, and continues to sweat and bleed for Apollo.