Meeting at the Zero Point (Gray)
By mid-morning, the heat of another Mediterranean day beats down in full force, and even the keenest of the spectators–leaning against a tree or sun-warmed rock– can find their attention wandering. But then, pulling themselves back into the moment, they might be quite surprised to see how much progress the tortoise has made, as if the ground covered has been achieved by some unwitnessed burst of speed.
At midday, there is still no sign of Achilles. It might be supposed that people would have returned home long before this, but instead they keep coming, as latecomers hitch their horses to olive boughs, or swim in through the surf from boats moored further out. Even those who have broken into their wine bags early, some of whom are now unabashedly asleep, entertain no thought of moving on. Along the edges of the route, a swelling stream of people cycles in both directions, their interest in the progress of the one contestant never quite eclipsing their lively anticipation for the arrival of the other.
At last, a commotion can be heard at the water’s edge, gradually rising to a roar as more and more people catch sight of Achilles striding up the beach. Bright and shining he is: Achilles, most comely and fleet of all the Achaeans. He moves calmly, radiating the quiet grace with which a master archer strings his bow. He does not loiter nor enter into any kind of conversation. When he reaches the line of flour that was poured out onto the ground to mark the start, he stands for a moment. Then he crouches, taut, his eyes not seeing any nearby thing. All who see him fall silent, and this silence gradually envelopes all living beings within the sphere of hearing.
A gasp arises out of the crowd. Without warning, Achilles has catapulted out of his crouch, and with long, powerful strides is flying over the stony path.
Meanwhile an edge of shadow, cast by an olive tree growing beside the path, glides slowly over the sun-baked back of the tortoise. From far below, the roar of the crowd rises up, dim but ominous. Surely she must feel a pang of misgiving, as a rabbit might upon hearing a pack of dogs yelping in the distance; but the heart of the tortoise does not waver. Presently, she passes out of the shadow of the olive tree, and the midday sun once again beats down on her heavy shell. Perhaps her movements are slower now, in this hour of siestas, but not for an instant does she pause to rest. Just ahead, ever nearer, is the top of the hill up which she has been lumbering since dawn; and not far beyond, still out of view, the appointed finish line.
Achilles runs with a look of bliss on his face. His entire body moves with such grace and physical mastery of the world that no one looking on can suppress a surge of delight and amazement in themselves. He soars up the path, his feet seeming scarcely to touch the uneven terrain. Children running behind soon lose sight of him, and are left gasping in the hot dusty air. The sun is directly overhead when Achilles, breathing deeply and rhythmically like one lost in passion, slips into the dappled shade of an olive tree. It is the very olive tree under whose branches the tortoise was passing, at the moment Achilles launched across the starting line, far below. With two strides, Achilles passes out of the olive’s shade and sweeps into the sunlight again.
In that same instant, the tortoise crests the hill and catches her first glimpse of the gaily bedecked columns, between which the victorious contestant must pass. An hour might suffice for such a journey. But even now Achilles can be felt close behind as he soars up the hill, like an eagle borne aloft on a rising wind: felt in the faces of the crowd, now all aligned in a single direction; felt in the rising volume of the crowd’s roar, a gigantic wave racing into shore.
Achilles reaches the top of the hill, and catches his first glimpse of the pillars in the distance. Even closer, perhaps less than ten paces away, he sees the broad back of his worthy opponent. His gaze touches the tortoise just as she is stepping over a gnarled root that grows exposed in the beaten path. Achilles feels a subtle sense of deepening, as if the sunlit air through which he runs quenches some great thirst of his being. His senses drink in the roaring, gesturing tumult, while he moves through a world that has become touched with depth and stillness. As they look on from the sides of the path, the spectators appear like strands of kelp swaying gently above an ocean floor. Achilles sails between them and reaches the same exposed root, over which the tortoise lumbered a mere moment before.
In the meantime, the tortoise has been pressing forward. Now she is a full two or three tortoise steps ahead of Achilles, her rear left foot causing a small pebble to gouge out a tiny furrow in the packed earth. The quality of her intention is unshakable. Achilles is pulled towards her, like a meteor caught in the gravity of a vast planet. Now he also reaches this small pebble. But the tortoise’s foot is no longer touching the stone. It has moved forward, ineluctably forward and beyond.
Just as Achilles seems to soar over the broad golden-green back of the tortoise, time slips its traces. The leaves of the olive branches, rustling merrily in the Mediterranean sea breeze, fall silent, like finely crafted metal foliage. The faces of the spectators hover at the edge of great insight.
For Achilles and the tortoise, the seed of time bursts open. With no where to go, and no one to go there, future and past fling open their doors and run into one another’s arms.