by Elous Telma
On a secluded Greek island in the 1950s, an enormous abandoned mine is filled with sea water for a major international experiment in marine biology. It is intended to study natural selection and, perhaps, evolution in a new aquatic ecosystem. However, the experiment and the island are eventually abandoned.
Decades later, a sailor’s photograph of the corpse of a large shark prompts a team of biologists to visit the island. The team discovers unique environments, including an underwater brine lake. The life forms act in ways that affect the fauna on the island as well as themselves.
The new ecosystem is dangerous. How to cope with it? The biologists will need some form of interspecies communication with the sea life and even with a cat that has been stranded on the island. It’s simple in theory...
Chapter 1: Nannion, the Unlikely Athenian Cat
Nannion started her life as a typical, modern cat in downtown Athens about six months before she was given her ancient Greek name. As is common with Athenian kittens, her father was unknown to her. She did quite well in fending for herself, having learnt all necessary skills from her mother, who was grey and white. Nannion was almost all white. More accurately, she was of a somewhat dirty-looking whitish-creamy hue. Some of it was actual dirt.
Within months from birth, she was able to handle the busy streets of the Monastiraki prefecture at the center of Athens, safely crossing streets, hunting prey, avoiding dogs, using parked cars as cover, and begging locals and tourists for scraps of food. A certain large, dominant male may have been her father, as they shared the rather unusual light-colored coat. She followed him once out of curiosity for a few blocks to a fish restaurant he had found, one with a particularly cat-friendly staff.
She never forgot the first time she tasted fish and octopus. She had walked behind him at a distance of a few parked cars when the smell hit her. She sprinted to the food, blowing her cover, and ate straight from the male’s tin container. He let her enjoy her meal, only scolding her with his paws on the top of her head if he deemed her too distracting, a gesture she didn’t even register. There was enough seafood to share.
Nannion would regularly return to that little fish tavern. She eventually discovered other sea food restaurants and expanded her repertoire accordingly. She figured out how to entice customers to give her morsels of food — no bread! — without annoying them or the waiters too much. She would then hop into the archaeological site of the ancient Agora to digest and sleep, with the Parthenon on top of the Acropolis hill as the backdrop.
The Parthenon, especially when lit up at night, was a treat to her eyes as much as it was to the tourists and the locals, who never got bored of it. It was, in fact, appreciated by most cats in the area. In the safety of the enclosed gardens around the Parthenon, they almost never sit facing away from it. Outside the fence they may prefer to face towards pedestrian traffic.
The day she was christened was the day her love of fish and her goodhearted nature landed her into an enormous heap of trouble. Too young for her procreation urges to kick in, she was driven by her other instinct, manifested as an uncontrollable urge for fish.
A freshly oven-baked swordfish dish brought her to one of the taverns she frequented. The dish was particularly enticing — no sauces, no over-spiced creations. Just a beautiful fillet of swordfish, olive oil, oregano, and lemon, which she had no use for. It had been ordered by an apparently mild-mannered grey-haired lady.
With two meows and a gentle slap at the ankles of the mature woman and she had a chunky morsel under the table. Then another, and one more. She was so content that she even gave the ankles a little head rub. Then she climbed on the chair next to the lady, who was now not eating alone anymore.
That is when Nannion got her name on a sunny January day. The lady dipped two fingers into her glass of water and passed them onto the kitten’s head; she streaked the water down to her nose. “You are now called ‘Nannion’,” she said.
Nannion licked her fingers to help wash down the fish, and she received a small plate with water in it next to where she was sitting. Nannion was fed, watered, and baptized, all within a few minutes of meeting the gentle human. She purred.
The older lady knew Greek history. No one is called Nannion in modern-day Greece, and few were called that back in ancient times. She loved that name and she had just found an opportunity to give it.
The ancient Nannion was a prostitute. Her story was known to archaeologists but was not taught in schools. Nannion was a loaded name. It was gender-neutral, and, therefore, diminutive, suggesting a degree of affection.
This socio-grammatical habit has persisted in modern-day Greece: A common way of generating the diminutive form of a female name involves neutralizing it, as in Maria — Maraki. Such was the affection shown for the position of Nannion and all concubines in ancient Athens.
During the 2004 Olympic Games preparations, digs in Marathon unearthed her working quarters. Clients would easily find her house, because her name was inscribed on the outer wall. They would then enter a small courtyard where they could sit and wait their turn. There was a single tree in it and a watering can which survived to 2004 and is now a museum piece. It is interpreted that clients were considerate enough to tend to Nannion’s tree, while waiting for her services.
The lady finished her meal, paid, and got up. She picked up Nannion, who was a bit startled, and she spoke to her. She actually asked Nannion something. Nannion didn’t really react or understand what she said, but she wasn’t too afraid and didn’t try to run away.
Nannion found herself inside a car parked on a small side street in Athens, and half an hour later she was on a large passenger boat. This alarmed her. In the morning they got off on an island. They were at a small port, and all sorts of cats had gathered to wait for the fishermen and their early morning catch. They had lined up at the edge of the pier waiting for the small wooden fishing boats. Daily treats were coming their way. This did look like a cat paradise.
But Nannion hadn’t quite grasped what was going on, nor had the fishermen arrived yet for her to see raw fish up close. She stood still next to the old lady who was the only familiar being in sight. She was picked up by the lady and they were now into a small boat, just the two of them, travelling on the sea. Some time later, they reached a deserted island, a place equally strange to cats and humans.
The seclusion of this place did not escape Nannion, who had been born and raised in the remarkably busy center of Athens. Here, there were no other cats or humans. There was sea all over. There was water on one side of the land and water on the other. There were some buildings all grouped in one location, and she thought maybe she should run inside one of them. But they looked ominous, and she knew you shouldn’t go inside an enclosed space without first having figured out an exit strategy.
The old lady wasn’t paying much attention to Nannion. Instead, she was busy bringing her boat from the ocean side to the waters within the island using a wheeled carrier. This wasn’t an easy task for an old lady, and the inflatable boat hit the ground more than once, scratching on the rough pavement of dirt and rocks.
Nannion was a bit overwhelmed and felt exposed. The sky started feeling way too heavy. She sat down feeling its weight on her back. She was unable to move and a little distressed.
This island was shaped like a hollow ring. The center was another sea, and the old lady had moved the boat into those inner waters. She picked Nannion up and, within a few moments, they were clear of the shore. From her low vantage point, Nannion could see a vast sea and some radial structures on the water surface converging far from where they were.
The old lady had not brought a motor; she was rowing the boat instead. She had brought along a glass box to help her see underwater without the need to wear a mask and dip her head into the water.
Nannion watched her, and she watched the waters and the waves that moved the frail little boat. She was well outside her comfort zone, and visceral fear was creeping into her. Suddenly, the old lady turned around and in panic moved to the back of the boat.
Bubbles were coming out from under the boat; they were sinking. Nannion recognized the fear in the old lady and knew she was in enormous trouble. She wanted to get to dry land, but that meant she would have to swim a vast distance. She had never been in the water before. The woman did her best to paddle the boat towards the shore. Nannion could tell her intention was to get closer to dry land, but progress was slow.
Then the lady curled down, grabbed her chest and died. Nannion looked at her in shock. Her body, clearly lifeless, was crouched over the side of the boat. A look of agony remained on her face.
No help would be coming Nannion’s way. It took a little time for the boat to take water and sink, along with the old lady’s remains, and Nannion stayed on it until there was only a tip of the inflatable boat sticking out of the water. It was just enough to give herself a push and throw herself into the waters.
She had no idea how to deal with water. She went under the surface and assumed that was it; she thought she would just keep going further down. But she also started running — that was the only technique she knew — towards the shore. She found herself sort of swimming. She kept her nose above the water, and it really seemed she was getting closer to the shore.
Panic neutralized exhaustion to a good degree, but this was a demanding exercise for her. The waters were dark, probably very deep, and she couldn’t tell what else was in these waters. She didn’t know that delicious fish lived in the water. She was a downtown cat. She thought fish came from the seafood restaurant.
Island cats know where fish come from, because they see them swimming in the shallow waters in the port. Some try catching them, too. But Nannion knew more about cars than nature. From inside the waters, Nannion must have been a sweet and pitiful sight: A little six-months old white kitten with poor swimming technique displacing an enormous amount of water desperately trying to reach the land.
Although she couldn’t see anything under the surface because the waters were deep and disturbed, these were crisp clear Greek waters, and the sun was bright and warm even though it was only a few days after Christmas. She must have been easy to spot from within.
Nannion had already worked out a swimming technique that, although inefficient, kept bringing her closer to the shore. Big frantic movements of all her limbs, lowered ears, careful breathing through the nose, mouth tightly shut, eyes wide open.
Without quite understanding how it happened, she suddenly found herself in the air, easily a meter and a half high. She must have hit something solid, and her frenzied pace and strength had propelled her towards the skies.
Again, she found herself splashing into the water and went under. Now she was sure she wasn’t alone, and she realized she could experience even more fear than she already had. Her pace became more frantic, then faster still, and she splashed a very impressive amount of water for a little Athenian cat.
Most of Nannion’s senses were blocked off; fear was numbed and all her energy was consumed in getting out of the water. Unable to observe her progress properly, she suddenly found herself facing a vertical wall of dry land. Thankfully for her, it was only a foot high; she climbed it on her first attempt. She was out!
Nannion kept going for a few meters and she turned around to make sure she was nowhere near the water. After a couple of frantic turns, she lay down, exhausted and wet, facing the waters that had given her such horror. The sun was gorgeous and a blessing. This was a warm day, around 20 degrees Celsius, not unusual in the islands of the Greek south, but the waters were cold, and she was a soaking-wet kitten.
After a little while, she got up and started looking around for water, food, and shelter. She had seen the buildings but, unlike those in Monastiraki, these didn’t have restaurants in them. She could tell her ordeal was not over yet.
Copyright © 2015 by Elous Telma