Last week Antonios and Medas signed the contract to investigate the Athens sinkhole. This week, as they await their transportation into the subterranean depths they consider the idea of divinity, the lack of it in the human world, and the finitude of human civilisations, all while they stare into the gaping abyss.
The intervening weeks were spent preparing for the dive. I received my contract, signed and returned it quickly. So there it was. I was to play a role in this ghastly charade, though at this stage I was not to know how large that role would be. We received precious little in the way of information from Alexis, though Medas seemed to welcome each meagre item of correspondence like they were manna from Heaven. The emails contained details about the structure, procedure and logistics but practically nothing in the way of useful academic content, leaving us like Metope, blinded, and having to work an almost impossible task to regain a path to sight. I began to suspect that the whole thing was little more than a joke, a circus to distract everybody involved from the sheer monstrosity of the reality of the recent events. My Stoical resolve was tested, I must confess, as I considered with no little consternation my own contractually enforceable role to play in all of this. Yet it was too late to air grievances against myself. The die was cast, my role assigned, the players bound for the stage. So I re-familiarised myself with the intricacies of Medas’s research project, as it seemed that this area would be the principal one of interest to us, at least to begin with.
Postulations over the burial ground of the Gigantes, the giants who waged war with the Olympians, remained the preserve of my frenzied colleague, who allowed the most seemingly minute detail from scraps of papyrus from the poet Ibycus to assume cosmic significance. I satisfied myself with the more mundane possibilities of societal ruins and everyday artefacts that may have been lost beneath the Athenian streets. The rest of the Faculty staff and I had reconciled some of our differences of opinion over my perceived indifference towards mourning the lost and deceased, only for them to be re-aired once they learned of our peculiar concordat with the anonymous benefactor (or perhaps malefactor? came some of the whispers) that had more than a whiff of the Faustian about it. I laughed off the implication that our souls were in peril, though I confess my heart suffered more than the occasional flutter over the health of my academic credibility.
“To hell with them,” said Medas when I alerted her to such healthy scepticism. “Pure jealousy.”
Numerous times I almost asked her of what she supposed they were jealous; the most likely outcome, so far as I could see, would be that the hole was too deep to be of any archaeological use, and if there were any artefacts that did lie that deep beneath the city, perhaps deposited by various ground shifts and tremors over the years, they would almost certainly be reduced to dust and rubble after such violent intrusions. Nevertheless, her recently-bolstered quasi-religious beliefs seemed to have partially obscured the light of her critical faculties. She really did seem to believe that there would be evidence of the burial ground of Giants beneath us. I found myself clutching at the Cross around my neck as I thought of Medas, and for a moment amused myself with the ironies of the apparent hypocrisy. After all, how many churches, cathedrals, museums and other holy places across Christendom claimed to display scraps of the Turin Shroud, or pieces of wood from the Cross, or shards of flotsam from the Ark within their very walls, as testament to the power of the Lord? There is a potency in Earthen idolatry when the divine is in question. Mundane pieces of material become proofs of a conduit between our mortal coil and the idyllic abstractions elsewhere, be they in the Name of the Heavenly Father, or beyond the clouds of Olympus, where the subjects of Zeus resided. Yet each time I thought to challenge Medas on her beliefs, I held my tongue.
That is, until the day the helicopter came to collect us from the park known as the Altar of Freedom, where a section of greenery had been cordoned off for transportation purposes. By that time, it was too late for either of us to back down, and perversely it felt safe to question her faith.
“What do you mean?” she asked in her most disgruntled tone. “What does the Turin Shroud have to do with this work?”
I took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “My dear, please forgive my unbecoming behaviour…”
“I always do.”
“Ahem, quite. I merely mean to raise the point that you are searching for proofs of things you believe you believe. Just like the Shroud, do you think perhaps you are searching for something that is superficially titillating to the spirit and intellect, but ultimately holds nothing.”
“Now who is the cynical one?” she said, turning her gaze away from me as though she’d lost interest. But, after a couple of seconds, she spoke again, putting on her most irritated tone to inform me she was above the conversation, but that there was little else to do as we waited for the helicopter. “Isn’t it heretical or something for you Catholics to call the Turin Shroud empty like that?”
“Not at all. After all, it is empty. It’s symbolic of absent divinity, which is in turn symbolic of our own humanity, or lack of divinity. All that remained in that holiest of sepulchres was a shell. There is a difference between my literal orthodoxy, within which there remains a solid core of reason – doubt, even – that acts as the healthy counterbalance to my faith, and your own. I suspect that your unorthodoxy does not contain such a core – indeed, it is axiomatic that something unmoored from the orthodoxy becomes apt to drift.”
“Do not patronise me, Antonios. So what if the Ethnikoi Hellenes require me to believe in the Twelve? It is no different than you believing in the Christian God.”
I waved a hand. “Well, that very much depends upon what you mean by believe, and what you mean by God. If you are assuming the Christian God to play the part of a sky-fairy, then it is a very unsophisticated premise. Whereas the Twelve do in fact, adopt the position of beings in the clouds. God is a higher level of abstraction pulled from the various idealistic states of man and forged into one gestalt representation of such facets. God is the future, which is why God judges us all. We will be judged by our own futures.”
“There is no difference. If your God is an abstraction that plays out above the heads of the entire human race, then the Twelve are the warring personalities within each of us. The stories of the Gods are the stories of all of us.” She looked at me with almost a look of disgust. “But your God is corrupt. The time of the Twelve will come again. You will see!”
I grunted. “Generational coincidence,” I said, irritably. “The Government’s recognition of the Ethnikoi Hellenes is little more than a trendy gesture of inclusion. Hipster politics.”
“Then let us simply say that our generational coincidences have unmoored us from each another. Look at the state of Greece – no, of the world. A laughing stock, hollowed out by commerce and finance, obsessed by celebrity. Governments who are a combination of the corrupt and the inept. Vast swathes of inequality abound as the poor scratch out a living while the rich may as well live on another planet. Freedoms of speech are being eroded, while people die every day in the name of the Abrahamic superstitions… I could go on.” She looked me straight in the eye, but no longer with irritation, but sincerity. “If this is your orthodoxy, you can keep it.” She looked away to the west, where the irrevocably altered skyline bit up towards the clouds with broken concrete teeth. “It’s apt that you used the Turin Shroud for your doomed dialectic. Perhaps we’ll find that it’s the orthodoxy that contains nothing.”
This kind of talk was making me uncomfortable now. “How do you mean? Medas, what do you really hope to find down there?”
She continued not to meet my gaze, and shook her head once more. I had not seen her this agitated, for all her usual zeal. “I hope to change everything.”
There was a beat between us, which I suspected was felt more awkwardly on my part than hers. “Listen,” I said, softly. “I am as proud as any other Greek of our unique heritage, Medas,” I said. “But the Ancient Hellenists had their time. The ecosystem of philosophies is also subject to the same natural laws as the corporeal; ideas die out if they are not fit to survive.”
“That much we can at least agree on.”
I said nothing more as we waited. Soon enough, a helicopter hove into view and landed on the temporary landing pad that had been erected to support rotary craft being used by Government, aid workers, military security and the like. Today it was being used to whisk away a couple of dishevelled academics that had had a quarrel over orthodoxies of faith.
Our chopper, a small six-seater, was piloted by a lady named Sofia, who greeted us with a surly handshake and barked instructions at us not to dawdle.
It was two or three kilometres to the epicentre of the sinkhole, itself more than a kilometre square, a vast thing that, when seen from the sky, did invoke premonitions of doom which I had to swallow down. I told myself it was merely (merely!) a tragedy. With our ear defenders on there was no point in my continuing to offend Medas, so I made do with staring at the city from our bird’s eye view. I, like everybody, had seen news reports on the TV featuring videos shot from helicopters, but witnessing that sorry desolation with one’s own eyes brought a new perspective to the vast wickedness of that wound. The southernmost edge of the hole ripped along Adrianou at the foot of the Acropolis, which had been spared by some eerie providence, and lurched westward to Palamidou. At its northern precipice it touched the train station at Loulianou, now a broken, iron hydra, where distended train-track snakenecks of metal and concrete thrust out agonisingly over the edge, hissing silently into the abyss. The hole’s eastern edge had bitten a tremendous gouge out of the hitherto-green feet of Lofos Likavitou, leaving the Church of St Isidore perching precariously upon the top of that now ruined hillside, its spire poking sheepishly through the dust and dirt and throngs of crowds hovering dangerously close to the useless safety barriers and cordons erected around the edge of the hole by the authorities.
Ah, the crowds. Here they reached their zenith, or perhaps their nadir. Among them were the apocalyptic preachers, the more exuberant of whom had taken the hole to be a literal sign of the End of Days: while Christian seers heralded the sounding of the seven trumpets and the foretelling of John’s visions coming true, the Islamics cried of Masih al-Dajjal, who had used his infernal keys to open the gates to Hell, and Ya’jooj and Ma’jooj, who would break free of their subterranean incarceration through this great rend in the Earth and spool forwards into the streets, ready to cause great mischief. The nuttier elements of the Jewish fringe had to work harder than the Christians and Muslims to make the abyss fit their own narrative, given that Athens is some seven hundred and eighty miles from Jerusalem. Still, the more excitable ones made it work, bastardising passages from Ezekiel relating to ruined cities, and some from Isaiah relating to death and peace. Meanwhile, the spiritual leaders of these religions tried to distance themselves from the non-compos mentis traits of their ersatz representatives at Ground Zero, preferring to urge people to help the survivors and the families of the deceased. Medas seemed terribly amused by it all, and she almost looked happy watching the debacle from above.
“Cities and monsters,” I muttered as we flew away from the edge, above the centre of the hole, and began the descent. From directly above it, the bottom of the hole was not clearly visible. I thought this rather odd, as estimates had the depth at somewhere around five hundred metres. Bits of mangled ironwork and concrete spilled out from the guts of the city, creating a sort of wounded fringe over the edge. The puzzle of why – and how – there could be so much empty space beneath Athens entered my mind. It had always struck me as obvious that Athens was built upon solid ground. But then, how often do we fool ourselves that the things we believe in are built on solid ground, only to finally have that ground ripped away from under us, presenting us with the abyss? A shiver ran unbidden down my back as I imagined what might lurk beneath, and as I pulled my coat closer around my shoulders and neck, I told myself not to be such a foolish old man.