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The Return of Miltiades

Vasiliki Gardiakos


Times have come and times have gone, and Tarpon Springs has gone through  many changes but old man Miltiades has never been know to give up his mustache. Since he began growing it when he was a young man, it has always been number one in the order of personal cleanliness and grooming. He brushes it and shapes it with his fingers every day and never rushes out of the house if he’s hot satisfied with the results.

On Sundays and holidays in addition to the usual routine which he takes longer with, he also trims it very carefully as he stands in front of the mirror. Upon leaving the house he’ll invariably come down Dodecanese Boulevard, taking tall majestic strides, occasionally stopping temporarily by one of the shops when he hears an old Greek melody playing. When the tune is especially pleasing to him, he’ll take a few steps in time with the song while humming under his breath and twisting and turning his mustache up in the ends.

Dodecanese Boulevard which is now lined tourist shops, runs parallel and is right across from the sponge Dock where Calimnos II, Militates’ boat, it docked. He has owned Calimnos II, and no other boat as the name might imply, since 1910. That’s when he got enough money together to have the boat made so he wouldn’t have to work for anyone else.

Like many other immigrants, Miltiades too had brought over with him plans for a sponge boat with the hope of someday owing his own. It was from these original plans down to the smallest detail that Calimnos II was build from. He had also brought along his own diving suit which had been formerly used by his now deceased father. Calimnos, the island where in effect the majority of the sponge divers came from, is in the Aegean Sea and one in a group of twelve islands tailed the Dodecanese Islands. Dodecanese Boulevard was named thus in honor of the sponge divers who came from that group of islands. The men of Calimnos have been sponge divers since ancient times and the island has been know to be left long mouths every year with just women and children on it, while the men went diving into far off seas for sponges. Miltiades named his boat, Calimnos II, in honor of his beloved island and birthplace, but he couldn’t bring his heart to name it just Calimnos or Calimnos I for the island has always been number one in his heart, so he named it Calimnos II.

“There is but one Calimnos”. Miltiades oftentimes still likes to repeat as he did when he first came to Tarpon Springs. He does very little talking now, but he has certain favorite phrases that he likes to repeat over and over again. On the day he left Calimnos he vowed to his mother. “I will return to Calimnos”

And ever since then neither the idea nor the words have left his heart. The figure of his mother is still vivid in his mind. He can still see her biting her lips trying to hold back the tears that were already rolling down her cheek. She was standing on the dock dressed completely in black for she had experienced death twice next to her heart with the loss of her husband and young son, Miltiades older brother, to the sea. Now another son was leaving for a far away place. A place too far to imagine, perhaps a place of no return. Such a separation was called a “Living death” for would they ever see each other alive again. A mother always had a revered place in a son’s heart, but even more so when she had experienced the loss of dear ones.

“I will return to Calimnos”. Miltiades repeated several times before and while boarding the big ship that was to take him to America.

As the ship was leaving the port Miltiades noticed high upon a rocky cliff extending out into the sea, the figure of a young girl. It was Annoula, just barely fourteen. The full skirt of her bright yellow dress waved back and forth in the breeze as she stood motionless. Everyone else on the dock was waving their hands to friends and relatives that were leaving. But Annoula just stood there holding a bouquet of red poppies and small wild daisies to shy to wave her hands. Her usually sparkling eyes appeared dim even in the sunlight. Miltiades began waving his hand more frantically than he had before he had seen her.

“I will return to Calimnos”. He whispered without anyone hearing him. As the ship moved further into the sea, Annoula became one with the sun and the flowers, while Calimnos got smaller and finally disappered.

“ When I return to Calimnos…,” is a phrase Miltiades has repeated countless times since his arrival to Tarpon Springs. He would say it during any conversation, at any time, to friends and strangers. He thought about it while he ate, and while he slept and while he walked the streets of Tarpon Springs.

“Hey Miltiades, have you been to Calimnos yet?” Sometimes someone might ask. “No, but I will go”. Miltiades answers emphatically to this day. Years and years ago, Miltiades used to walk barefoot, night and day, not from lack of funds for but because he liked to feel his feet unbound. Now he wars sandals, refusing to put any other kind of shoes on his feet and feeling unhappy even with the open toe and heel sandals but saying that old age and arthritis had forced it upon him. Whenever something ails him and he feels fed up with old age, he’ll mumble to himself an old verse from an old demotic Greek song which runs something like this:

“Ah! If only youth came twice, and old age never”.

But alas, he tells himself, it were so then would have never understood the happiness of being young and having a healthy youthful body. He wouldn’t have grown in wisdom either, which he values highly, even at the expense of growing old. Actually he hasn’t been in very bad health, but not having experienced or gone Through any severe illness in his life and always feeling strong and healthy and in total command of his body, he feels uncomfortable at the slightest hint of illness or old age.

In the beginning due to his young age and maybe the possibility of scarcety of funds, a problem many immigrants faced, not much notice was taken of Miltiades shoeless feet. But later as he got older and the immigrants richer including Miltiades, his bare feet could not be understood by the townspeople. They stood out like an eyesore in the eyes of those who tried to become so Americanized that their denial of certain cultural traits made them deeply unhappy, though they had no understanding of the root their inner stress.

Sometimes a bitter mocking was heard as Miltiades walked through town or on the docks. “Hey, Miltiades, where do you think you are, in your village?”

“I can think to be where I like to be.” Miltiades always answered defiantly, without being disturbed by the remark or its content bringing about a change in his behavior. Now that he’s an old man with sandals on his feet such remarks have ceased and no longer reach his ears. Miltiades has never spoken of his age outright, which some say is well over ninety. However they are probably over estimating it, trying to show that they know a lot about him when in reality very little is know about him by the younger generations. Very few of the old timers are still left around now. When they are at the coffee shop, sometimes they become very talkative and reminisce about the past. Of all the old timers only two still remember Miltiades arrival to Tarpon Springs for the others came years after he did. The ones who have known him from the beginning recall that Miltiades was one of the first to arrive, perhaps he was even on the first shipload in 1906.

“Ah! I was fifteen, a mere boy, when I left Calimnos”. Miltiades still exhales much pain along with the moisture of his breath, whenever these world leave his mouth. He has never been heard once to say, I was fifteen, a mere boy, when I arrived in Tarpon Springs. The most important event of the two has always been his departure from Calimnos not his arrival in Tarpon Springs.

Florida. Miltiades still believes what he has said so many times through very many long years.

“A boat is not for docking but for sailing, and sponge diving, and fishing and returning home. A boat is for being free”.

But he hasn’t taken the boat out to sea as of lately. The last couple of times that he went out, without having the lungs to dive any longer, or the desire for fishing, he felt he didn’t want to return home. There was no one return to. The boat continued floating out into the blue vastness of the sea while Miltiades did nothing to change its direction. He got frightened at this passive behavior of not steering the back into the direction he had come from the boat did not have the proper equipment and neither was it rigged for a long trip nor did it have storage of food. He had to work hard himself to break the spell of going on, of not returning to the familiar surroundings of the sponge Docks. After each such similar experience, Miltiades wouldn’t visit the boat for a couple of days, an unusual occurrence, Miltiades wouldn’t visit the boat for a couple of days, an unusual occurrence, for he had seldom missed a day even after he had retired. In time though, when his fears had settled back and gotten lost with all forgotten thoughts, he got the urging heed to go out to sea again and again. But each time he went, it became harder and harder for him to return, to steer his boat around and head for Tarpon Springs. Since that very last time though a few mouths ago, when he almost didn’t return, he hasn’t Calimnos II out once.

Except for rare occasions, Miltiades visits Calimnos II with steady regularity. Each and every time he is near, he grows radiantly young as he holds his shoulders back, straighter than usual, and uplifts his head, like a young rooster. He doesn’t get too near at first, but stands back a while, motionless just staring at the boat. A tiny twinkling flame begins to glow slowly in his eyes and an inner smile escapes from the secret compartments of his mind and appears like a shadow on his face. Upon getting closer, as close as he can get without boarding it, he extends his arm toward it moves his hand back and forth lightly on the boat’s rail. He let’s his hand linger on as if he is touching a woman he has loved but hasn’t seen for a long time.

When Miltiades finally does board Calimnos II he walks around a couple of times as if he were boarding for the first time and was curious to see what kind of boat it was. The whole surface of the boat, which runs about 46 feet long, is completely covered with pieces of burlap and kept moist almost constantly so that the hot sun doesn’t dry up the wood. One of the first thing that Miltiades does is to replace any piece of burlap in its proper place if a part of the deck has been exposed to the sun. He then fills a bucket with water a hose that is on the dock and gently waters the pieces of burlap.

Another thing that Miltiades does quite often is to start the engine and let it run for an hour, wihtout taking the boat out sea. And all the while keeping himself busy, always giving the impression of doing work or repairs of great importance. He than shuts the engine off with the boat not having moved a foot from its docking space. He places a large lock on the cabin door and finally after taking a last look debarks from the boat. Miltiades has followed this routine with constant regularity for years, although never on Sunday.

His Sunday routine though stays the same. Every Sunday after having attended the St. Nickolas morning church service, donned in a white shirt and a well pressed pair of pants, Miltiades goes directly and without fail to the Sponge Docks for his formal dressed up visit to Calimnos II. When he boards the boat, he walks around a couple of times and then leaves without having done any work that might mess up his Sunday clothes. St. Nickolas, the saint after which this Byzantine church was named, is the patron saint of all sea-men and is almost more than God to Miltiades. He feels he has a down to earth buddy - buddy relationship with the saint. Miltiades is not alone in this respect for many other sea-men feel as he does. It is firmly believed that St. Nickolas feels and suffers along with them, and always helps whenever he is approached. Miltiades personal communication with St. Nickolas is what keeps him a regular church goer.

On week days, or what he usually likes to call, the working days, and except for his mustache which he never stops attending to, Miltiades doesn’t pay much attention to his appearance. He wars an old gray baggy pair of pants and a faded out checked with its sleeves rolled up to the elbows. His gray hair, which seems somewhat neater on Sundays, is very curly and full and still growing abundantly as the first day he arrived in Tarpon Springs. Only his eyebrows seem to have changed with age. They’re much more now extending outwardly and forming a natural sun shade for his eyes.

Then one Sunday Miltiades didn’t go directly to the Sponge Docks after church, but went home first to change into his working every day clothes. He came down Dodecanese Boulevard taking quick excited steps and boarded Calimnos II in one leap. He walked around the deck and went down into cabin examining and inspecting all the parts of the boat from the smallest to the largest and making mental notes as to which will need to be replaced and which can be repaired. All the while that he walked back and forth his body swayed rhythmi cally like a child that is happily skipping on the sidewalk. He hadn’t done such a thorough job even in his younger days when the boat had to be in perfect condition when he went sponge diving. He picked up his head and looked at the mast that had been without sails for years now, since he had the engine installed. He imagined the white sails wide open on Calimnos II like the winds of a dove in the open sea. From the top the mast, where he imagined himself sitting, he could see far in the distance the tops of the mountains of Calimnos.

“Calimnos, my Ithaca, I’m coming home”.  Miltiades whispered with a gladdening tone in his voice. The very next day, which was Monday, Miltiades made arrangements and had Calimnos II dry docked and its bottom scraped clean and painted. Then the rest of the boat was painted in and out and the name of the boat re-written in black letters on the side. All the lines were replaced by completely brand new ones of the best quality. The engine was also worked on and rusted parts replaced. All necessary instruments were repaired or replaced.

Finally the white sails that Miltiades had thought so much about all along that the boat was being worked on were put on the mast. He looked like a little boy watching an exciting newly discovered game as the sails were being put on the mast. And when the sails were opened his soul began fluttering like the wings of a young bird. The boat had a lot storage room on the floor of the cabin and he stocked it completely with food supplies.

Meanwhile all the townspeople, especially the shopkeepers on Dodecanese Boulevard and Athens Street, thought it strange that Miltiades was preparing his boat for a long voyage. It was a certainty to them that Miltiades was losing his mind in his old age, but then had always been peculiar in their own estimation. After their first observation, some said that Miltiades was bored and didn’t know what to do, for God had left him without children and as a result without grandchildren to worry about, so he had left him without and as a resoult without grandchildren to worry about, so he spent all his time and money on Calimnos II. One fat short shopkeeper who specialized in selling very large sponges to the tourists, insisted that Miltiades will never leave, that he will never return, that he is afraid to return to Calimnos. He could have gone time and time again, he insisted, like so many others who have been going back forth for years now. But Miltiades never even once inquired about air travel even when it had become so convenient and inexpensive. And yet he has never stopped saying “When I return to Calimnos”.

“He will never go, he’s just a stubborn old man that has never learned to adjust to his environment”. A second generation college educated young man, the son of a shopkeeper broke in. There was a coldness in his voice that his listeners interpreted as pure undisputed logic and shook their head in agreement to Miltiades futile efforts.

“Maybe he will make it. Maybe he will go”. A young woman was heard saying in an all male get – together on the corner of Dodecanese and Athens. Her voice was confident but soft, trying to state her opinion without wanting to snake down the undisputed statement of the college educated young man.

“Woman are always so illigical and too romantic when they’re young. How’s an old man going to go sailing in the middle of the ocean when his arms have rusted?”

An old man interrupted as if she had no right to her frivolous opinion. The young women didn’t speak, knowing that their minds were already made up and judgement had already passed on Miltiades. She felt content in her own thoughts though that somehow she might be able to remind them of her words when Calimnos II with Miltiades aboard did leave the Sponge Docks, its sails bound for Calimnos.

Miltiades keeps checking and re-checking everything that is being repaired and replaced on the boat keeping a sharp eye out on the hired help, watching that everything is done properly. His preparations are manyfold.  He even surprised himself by buying some books to read during the long hours when the sea is calm.

He had never been much of a reader, for he had never had the opportunity nor the time to learn either written language too well. Of all the books he bought, he cherishes Homer’s Odyssey most, which he bought in a modern Greek translation so it would be easier for him to read. He knew the story like every Greek does, but he had never read it. It had always been on the back of his mind among all the things he had wanted to do, like returning to Calimnos.

Among his many hidden desires, large or small Miltiades had one which he had considered to be the last one of his life. He had made up his mind long ago that he didn’t want to die in Tarpon Springs. Not that he has a death wish now that he’s preparing to leave, far from it, he wants to live as long as possible and as long as his legs can carry him around. Neither is he afraid of dying, he has come face to face with death to many times in the bottom of the sea. Fear or death means nothing to him. But he feels he has the right to choose the place of his death and his eternal home. The earth of Calimnos will be lighter on him, and the Spring air will make death less tragic. But he must leave now, there’s time for delay. Miltiades is beginning to admit to himself that he has aged. Perhaps it is his overpowering yearning to return to Calimnos that has kept him from dying for so long, as if he cannot die before his return journey is made.

But Miltiades isn’t thinking about death while he’s making his preparations. He’s looking forward to the long trip just as much as to the sighting of the first dot of land in the horizon. He can feel his heart beating with excitement even now as he imagines approaching land or an island, any island, for each and everyone of them will remind him and bring him closer to Calimnos. He is beginning to understand, only beginning to understand, what Odysseus must, have felt upon his return to Ithaca. Whenever Miltiades dreams of sighting Calimnos from his boat he always has the picture of his departure on his mind. His mother is on the dock waving good – by with a white handkerchief and Annoula is still motionless high on a cliff while the sun rays bounce off her flaxen hair. He knows in his heart that his arrival will not be as his departure. His heart is saddened and his stomach feels like a bottomless empty pit. He wishes he could go back to the precise moment and say, here I am, I’ m back already. But he knows truly it can never happen. He stays up nights wondering if he had made the right decision. Sometimes he sleeps on Calimnos II, thinking that his doubts will be more easily dispelled there. His mother had died years ago with a heavy heart for not having seen Miltiades again. But nevertheless her letters were always filled with love up to the last one in which she send him her blessings.

He has never asked about Annoula. He always wanted to remember her as she was then, when they were both somewhere between childhood and the emerging new strange marvelous things that were stirring inside their bodies. They had made so many promises, so many plans in earnest. She might be a grandmother, or maybe she’s dead, or maybe she’s just alone and lonely, still waiting for him in silence. Oh! How differently he had meant his life to be. He had wanted Annoula to be the mother of his children. He had made secret plans and secret dreams of their eventual getting together. Either she would have come to Tarpon Springs or he would have gone back to Calimnos, but somehow somewhere they would have gotten married. Now he feels he needs her more than ever. But he deserves this loneliness, he tells himself.

For while Annoula was still in his heart he went and married old man Thanasy’s daughter, Angie. When he had first seen her, she was emerging out of the sea like a sea – nymph and came and stood on her father’s boat wet as she was with her hair all in ringlets. Tiny droplets of sea still clung to her eyelashes and sparkled as the hot sun-rays came to quench their thirst. Her eyes were moist and wet and green transparent sea weed seemed to be growing out of them. When their eyes met and he saw that she was carrying all the vastness of the in one glance he knew he could wait no longer. Annoula got further and further and further away and on the day of the wedding she seemed to have vanished from his mind. Angie had been a good wife. She had given him much love and adoration, but she had been childless. He did not love her less for that, but it had left a painful lonely part in his heart which grew bigger upon her death when they were both considerably young. There had been other women in his life, but he never re – married or really cared for anyone of them. He sometimes likes to think that he really has two hearts, one for Annoula and one for Angie. He loved each of them dearly and completely and cannot think of dividing his devotion between them.

Annoula is coming more to his mind and drawing him back to his childhood and back to Calimnos.

“I must return, I must go back to Calimnos, even supposing that no one is awaiting my return, even if no one is left who remembers me. Calimnos, my Calimnos, is still there”. Miltiades finally tells himself. He wants to do more thinking. Now he wants to leave as soon as possible.

Although Miltiades had not made public the day of his departure, somehow the word got around and the shopkeepers on Dodecanese Boulevard and Athens Street all agreed and closed their shops. Shortly before departure time a crowd began appearing at the Sponge Docks. It grew larger and larger and flooded not only the docks but many of the side streets as well. Young and old were there, all wishing Miltiades a speedy safe voyage. Kalo Taxithy!  Have a good voyage, some were calling out heartily. Many were waving small Greek blue and white flags, while others held small American flags in their hands.

Miltiades was astounded. He stood still on the boat holding on to one of the ropes that came down from the mast and just stared, speechless. He had never expected anything like this to happen. Then he could not help but smile. The movement of his muscles felt strange and foreign as they pulled at his cheeks. He could not remember when he had smiled last.

But suddenly with all the happy wishing a familiar face came close to his ear and informed him of a impending storm that was to break shortly in the direction he was heading.

“Postpone your departure”. The voice had said.

“No, I can’t. I must go today”. Miltiades replied in agitation.

“But the storm is dangerous”. The voice insisted.

“All storms are dangerous”. Miltiades said emphatically.

“But let this one pass, and leave tomorrow, or the next day”. Another voice cut in who seemed to have been listening to the conversation.

“To let one storm pass will not stop all the other storms I’ll come face to face with. St. Nickolas will be with me, and I know how to talk to the sea, I have learned her language better than any man, I will do well. But I cannot wait, I must go now. I have waited to long as it is. And I could not return any other way, this was the only true way to return, not through the air or on another boat, it had to be my own special way”. Miltiades seemed to be pouring his heart out. The crowd hushed and everyone strained their ears to hear what Miltiades was saying. He wasn’t aware of the stillness that had taken over this noisy crowd. He was too busy searching inwardly in his soul to find the answers to so many questions that still lied unanswered deep inside of him.

After a few minutes of contemplation, Miltiades raised his hand and hand and swept over the crowd with his eyes. He then motioned someone to throw him the line from where the boat had been tied up on the dock. Then began floating slowly away as he steered it gently out in the direction of the open sea. The crowd cheered as the sails opened and began to flutter in the gentle breeze. Miltiades had promised Calimnos II, as if it were a person, that he would use the sails most of the time and the engine only in emergencies. He knew that Calimnos II would rather have her wings spread than be driven by an engine.

First he would plot a course for the pillars of Hercules then a course for his Ithaca. But before he reaches any one of these points his heart will be sitting on the very most part of the mast looking and searching and dreaming. And while Calimnos II flies upon the sea like a swallow hastening home, who knows where or when Ithaca might appear, or if some wind might have blown the Argonauts off – course and by the sheer luck might chance to meet up with Calimnos II and Captain Miltiades at the stern.


Copyright 2007 Vasiliki Gardiakos

My Sister Vasiliki  Yiannis and the Nereids  Archondesa and the Silver Loom


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