In Search of Cell Zero: A Speculation

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Hegiras, genetic insults, Kalambaka, helium atoms, turtles, Artemisa absinthium, rugged muscles, Chernobyl, salt-white walls, asceticism, virologists, sunlit honey, meteora, goatherds, remunerative respectability & radioactive boar.

Because the Greeks and the Turks hated one another, we had to wait on a railroad siding at the border under the sun. They allowed passengers out of the carriages, but no one ventured very far because part of the reciprocal punishment for travelers to Istanbul or Thessaloniki was that you could never know what hour would bring the clearance that permitted the train to lurch on. There was so much you couldn’t know and nothing to do at the frontier except sit on the stifling train or stroll between the graveled railbed and the tall weeds at the edge of the pine forests whispering close on both sides. The sun lit up the rails of the way you’d come and burnished the cars curving the other way toward the invisible engine while the heat mounted with the sun. The distances in both directions, back toward Istanbul and forward toward Greece, just yards up the track, shimmered into oblivion.

So we all waited toward the end of April while the guards appeared in their uniforms too long and too hot and searched the cars and any passengers they chose to harass. Forewarned by a fellow traveler, I’d brought water in my canteen and my usual meal of dried figs from a street vendor outside the spice market in Istanbul. Mercifully it was still spring, so the heat of 600 million metric tons of hydrogen atoms being fused each second into 596 million metric tons of helium atoms ninety-three million miles away was bearable most of the afternoon. A trip of only 350 miles took a full twenty-four hours under this bombardment.

At the frontier I drank from my canteen among the Greek weeds until someone decided we’d waited long enough and waved us toward Turkish weeds.

By the time the train pulled into the station at Thessaloniki the bipolar heavens had fallen into their depressive stage, gray and weeping. When you’re duffel-bagging your way across a continent, you don’t take an umbrella, so walking down the flooded sidewalk I hid under the hood of my army surplus field jacket and pondered where the hostel district might be. I remember I stopped at a newspaper box to peer through the pane at the headlines because more than a month in Turkey, where English papers were scarce, had left me ignorant as a stone. My Greek was poor enough, but one glance told me the world was easily capable of chaos whether I looked on or not.

The black type and its black map hinted that some catastrophe had occurred to my north, in the Soviet Union. The concentric circles laid over longitude and latitude indicated blast rings and so an explosion. For a solitary moment I pictured an actual strike, but in the pedestrians who passed I detected neither hurry nor concern. They were even wise enough to sport black umbrellas. The traffic splashing up the gutter bilge was that of any city’s raucous streets, trucks and cars and taxis and buses, and I went on my way too. A single launch made no sense, so I divined an accident far away, a missile somehow gone hot in its silo or a bomb clumsily unlatched on some remote runway.

I hurried on because I wasn’t staying in Thessaloniki. I was bound for Mount Athos, a site famous for its monasteries clustered along one of three stony peninsulas that jut like arthritic fingers from Thrace into the blue Aegean. A borrowed guidebook had told me of it: the monks took you in, sheltered you for a week in a cell of your own, in return asked only for your silence. A vow of silence had never been a hardship for me, nor at that moment did the other stricture trouble me: Athos was an entirely male enclave; even the animals imported for slaughter were males only. Since I couldn’t conclude who was sicker, me of love or love of me, I could happily avoid the fairer sex for a while. A serial failure at romance, the unfailing recipient of standoffish letters, I decided a brief retreat from the world would equally ease my spirit and my wallet.

In Thessaloniki then I had a single errand to run. At the American consulate on a marble boulevard I pressed the buzzing button, passed through the security doors by the guard with his holstered pistol, and filed an application for a stay at Mount Athos. I was given an appointed time, a month off, when I was to show up at the gates to the peninsula. I had hoped it would be sooner. Now I had to find somewhere else to pass the interim. Somehow it turned out to be Kalambaka.

My Greek was poor enough, but one glance told me the world was easily capable of chaos whether I looked on or not.

Just why Kalambaka I don’t now recall. I was in the middle of a European hegira, after college, mostly self-sufficient, entirely on my own unless someone was going my way or I his, and Kalambaka was in the middle of rough country I’d never seen, Thessaly, the rugged muscles at the heart of Greece. I must have read of the town or overheard a backpacker describe the place. So I went, was going. I had time to kill, as the young and uncertain do. I had no schedule, no agenda beyond seeing what I could see as cheaply as I could see it. Perhaps the draw was retreat again, for Kalambaka too is known for its perilous cliffs capped with ancient monasteries, its own cohort of monks withdrawn from the world.

During the ride south, the rain drummed on along the narrow coastal plain and continued for some time after the bus heaved to the curb, but on the day the sun finally came out, the salt-white walls of Kalambaka were blinding. I found it pleasant enough, certainly solitary, and in any case I had no money to set out for anywhere else. Tourists arrived by the coachload to see the monasteries, to congregate at the crags and take photographs out over the burnt sienna tiles of the village, but they didn’t stay. The natives preferred their own company and so I was left with mine. The room I rented was cheap and dark and along the way I had bartered for books completely new to me. Every morning the limestone cliffs rose almost perpendicular out of the valley and one day I paid the creaky fare for the winding trip up the heights to see the monasteries for myself. The Greeks called them meteora, phenomena in the sky, and hanging from the precipices that’s what they appeared to be.

My silent memories are of gold in the darkness, interior spaces holy as night lit only by the yellow stars of candles. The priests in their beards and robes long and black had little more to say than the word of God read out of illuminated Bibles. When they lifted their faces toward the divine eyes of the ceiling the veil of their beards drew back and revealed heavy crosses larger than my palm. Afterward the local bus wound its way back into the valley that I often walked purely out of distraction, the grass cropped close among the stones by goats, one of which I saw spitted and hissing over a fire pit in my landlord’s yard at Orthodox Easter in May. At the base of one cliff I often passed the cell of some goatherd, a door knocked up of boards and wire sealing his hermitage. A population of turtles inhabited the shade of bushes, clamping themselves shut if I approached, and in the distance goats sounded their bells and clacked over toppled boulders to the next green patch. Mornings before the heat built, the farmers carted in their produce to the triangular plaza at the town center and the wives of Kalambaka did their marketing with baskets on their arms, head scarves tilted to the gossip. Every shop shuttered up against midday’s solar brutality while I went on reading across the narrow bed of my rented room. Evenings, breathing easier in fancier clothes, the townsfolk took their promenade up and down the main avenue past the plaza while I watched from the sidewalk, and as I trudged home after the review I often passed a group of children jumping rope, their leader a little girl about ten with flouncing hair the color of sunlit honey in a jar, hair that reminded me of a classmate I was writing to often and desperately and who replied but never closed with Love. One dusk I remember a car slowed beside me and the driver leaned through the window to ask for a particular shop. I directed him, pointed the way as he thanked me and drove on, and only when the car was out of sight did I realize how isolation and immersion in this little vale had helped my Greek along.

When they lifted their faces toward the divine eyes of the ceiling the veil of their beards drew back and revealed heavy crosses larger than my palm.

By then I had long since read the International Herald Tribune and learned with the rest of the world how to say the name Chernobyl, seen maps of fallout patterns tracked by satellite and earthbound monitors, gained a better understanding of why the little market in the plaza was evaporating. Product by product it simply disappeared: first the milk, the vegetables, then the eggs and meats until what had been a bustle of haggling and chatter became utterly deserted in a few weeks. They turned off the central fountain and the little pools left behind rusted green. I ate canned Spam for lunch and dinner and bread with honey for breakfast.

In the end I did not retreat to Mount Athos. Time ran out. I had summer work in England, an appointment with remunerative respectability I couldn’t afford to miss. While the radioactive plumes ticked through their half-life circling the planet and hung over the hemisphere, I took the slow train back to Istanbul because a bus from there was the cheapest transcontinental travel available. It was called the Magic Bus. At the frontier I drank from my canteen among the Greek weeds until someone decided we’d waited long enough and waved us toward Turkish weeds. From there I went on to points west, eventually as far as America and home again. The event to my mind ended there. I was almost twenty-four and had another life to take up and live.

When the anniversaries of the catastrophe passed at the end of each April I watched the usual fleeting news coverage, noticed the magazine covers of the reactor encased in its sarcophagus of concrete, even borrowed from the library a couple of outdated books on the subject and read them as someone at a tangent to the disaster.

I was reminded that the word chernobyl means “wormwood,” the Artemisia absinthium that grows so plentifully in those Ukrainian forests, a plant so proverbial for its bitter and even poisonous taste that it’s become metaphorical for any experience grievous to the soul. I learned about clouds, phenomena in the sky, that turned the rains strange with strontium and cesium, laced streams, lodged particles in lungs, seeped into clothes and irradiated skin. I learned how the cataclysm dragged like a harrow over the plain of years, latent carcinomas in Poland and Sweden, radioactive boar browsing the roots of Germany, the city of Chernobyl solitary in its exclusion zone grown over with trees that split ceilings and playgrounds, cracked sidewalks leading to the reactor that had tried so desperately to imitate our sun. In these latter days some singsong lines returned to me from T. S. Eliot’s “Hollow Men”: “This is the way the world ends / This is the way the world ends / This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper.” But recalling the vanished market at the heart of Kalambaka I thought how the choice between whimper and bang is finally a false one. We can easily have both. The detonation may be so distant we don’t hear it and yet in that absent silence our whimpers can still begin.

I had time to kill, as the young and uncertain do.

Then, a few years on, I had occasion to do further research because I had a more profound motive, because the mind not only delights in but craves connection, the satisfying click of the circuit closing in the brain, the spark and jolt of recognition at a mystery solved. At no time before was I ever sensible either somewhere south of the intuition or north of the unconscious, in any fiber or nerve or joint, that something had happened during my retreat more than a marking of time, the passage of days spent in quiet reading, in silent and muddled thoughts, in loneliness along the way to other lonely places where other thoughts waited, other days, mostly mundane, a few exceptional, none that I had anticipated like the one approaching that would so forcefully divert the course of my life.

In their hunt back through the nodes of an epidemic, virologists refer to “Patient Zero,” the incipient human being who begins the plague, the carrier responsible for all the others infected. I began my search for a similar origin, for Cell Zero, the day my new oncologist sat down in his white coat and folded his glasses and diagnosed me with an incurable cancer in my marrow, a curse inscrutably scrawled inside the tunnels of my bones. He recommended the hospital library for more information. There I discovered much about my disease: grim statistics of survival rates, variable treatments and their side effects, suggestions for coping with the stress of such news. I found a little booklet small enough to hide in my pocket that I carried home to read.

On an early page I found a list of possible causes. Mine is not one of those haunting visitations appointed to recur down through the generations. It arises from one’s surroundings, from the toxicity of the paths we stroll through the world, from nuclear damage, genetic insult inflicted by the envenomed spears our environment thrusts across our way. In the core of just one cell, along a strand of chromosomes cradling its genes, a spontaneous mutation began to replicate itself beyond control. Healthy cells accept that they must die but in its madness Cell Zero took on pride and strove for immortality. One by one its sick progeny multiplied and one by one I could dismiss the items listed on the calamitous page until I came to that beside the number four: proximity to an atomic explosion.

Thomas McConnell’s work has appeared in the Greensboro Review, the Southeast Review, the Connecticut Review, the Cortland Review, Shenandoah, Story|Houston, Watershed, Birmingham Arts Journal, Calabash, Yemassee, the Emrys Journal, the Charleston Post & Courier, Crossroads: A Southern Annual, Writing Macao and Ars Medica, among other publications. His awards and prizes include an artist’s grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation; the South Carolina Academy of Authors Fiction Fellowship; the World’s Best Short-Short Story; the Hackney National Literary Award for the Short Story; Porter Fleming Awards for Fiction, Essay and Drama; the South Carolina Fiction Project; the H. E. Francis Award; and the Hardagree Award for Fiction. His lectures and readings have taken him to Istanbul, Berlin and the Sorbonne in Paris. His novel of the Czechlands in World War II will be published by Hub City Press in 2018.

Lead image: Ed Uthman, MD

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