Chionis of Barry’s Corner
by Matt Gillick
Early this morning—three a.m., to be exact—the bronze statue of Chionis of Sparta that overlooks Barry’s Corner in Allston, Massachusetts steps down from his pedestal. The legendary ancient Olympian doesn’t remember the last time he woke up. He has a fading recollection of his past because the memories of his sculptor, Gerard L’Eglise, bleed into his mind. On any other day, he can be seen leaping from a rusty, horizontal pole, his contoured, hairless body of exaggerated musculature twisting in mid-air, his right arm reaching for the sun and, sometimes on a cloudy day, he’s picking away at a cumulonimbus.
But today, under the predawn charcoal sky, he shakes off this ambered form. He emerges to sentience, quickly followed by despair but cannot register expressions because of his green and blue-streaked material. This is not Sparta. And certainly, this place is neither Elysium nor Hades. He has no memory of a journey with the boatman across the Styx. He’s been left behind. Left here, an afterlife away from his friends: Charmis the runner, Daippos the boxer from Crotone. He wants to cry, but cannot, so he resorts to squeezing his metal bust.
The story of how this six-foot-nine sculpture came to reside in a Boston suburb begins in the early 1990s. Gerard L’Eglise, a natural French contrarian, remained steadfast in working with classic mediums of bronze, iron, marble, and wood while the rest of the art world fawned at skillful juvenilia, street art. Basquiat and his imitators. The Renaissance was truly over. Frustrated in his ways, he drunkenly chipped away his obsession with the Greek form, trying to achieve that perfect body so many strived to replicate. A bad fall brought his life to a sudden end. He became famous years later, as many artists are one to do. The statue came out of obscurity when Chionis was found under a tarp in a studio and sold at auction. A Cambridge elite donated it to the city in 2007. And, until now, he remained frozen, reaching for the sky, ready to bound toward the heavens, though sadly plastered to the ground.
Barry’s Corner at this hour is frozen in neon lights wrapped around tree trunks shining on bus shelters with overflowing adjacent waste bins. Shadow hangs over a deli boarded up long ago. Any remaining vendors keep their lights on, bringing attention to their empty shelves. A laundromat with one machine working spins a load of whites no one will claim. Streetlamps flicker on and off. This new earth of Chionis’s awakening is awash in garish festival light that counters the pitch black above. He has never seen darkness so irrelevant. How different from the little fires seen miles away to indicate a neighboring village. Sparkles at midnight. Wind and buzzing light fill the air.
Not even the homeless lurk in this area anymore. No night patrolmen either with their hulking SUVs funneling through these narrow streets. No is one around to alert authorities of a naked six-foot-nine bronze gentleman making divots in the soccer field, snapping ramps in the skate park. The bottoms of Chionis’s feet are ashen. He holds onto the faint hope that Allston is what became of the Athenian Agora, or this could be some neighborhood tucked away on the outskirts of Paris. He tries to open his mouth to call out, see if anyone is there, but it’s sculpted shut. He stretches his body. Curved joints and tendons realign.
He cannot begin to imagine how he ended up here. He has no time to reassess because a relentless montage of horse carriages, screaming crowds in a stadium, long, meditative walks in Jardin du Luxembourg pull at him like each memory wants supremacy over his mind. He then sees himself—a reflection—and moves closer.
At first, he abhors the representation. Who is this? What had been done to him? Silently examining himself in the window of a Starbucks, he gathers how he looks so much like a Celtic Gaul. A people so blanched and translucent. But no one in Sparta was that pale—what with working long hours in the fields during the summer harvest, or the fact he had relatives from Anatolia. His face has such a delicate mold. And where did this aquiline nose come from? What happened to his beard, his blocky jawline? The more he looks at himself, the more he feels disconnected from his village, his mother. That said, he does appreciate the generous physique. His biceps are much bigger now than they were in 660 B.C. He turns and admires his deltoids, his trapezius. Narcissus would be proud, or jealous. A flapping pigeon perches itself alongside a row of its kin sleeping on a powerline. Floating birds on a wire connected to a pole that’s connected to another wire. Chionis follows the powerlines as far as his dilated eyes can go. He’s never seen anything like it and stares for what seems like an hour.
Are these what people call homes? Chionis thinks to himself. These are not the clay and mud and stone homes of his village. Barry’s Corner is surrounded by brick buildings lined with weed trees and moss—decades of annual tenant turnover and lackadaisical property managers. A place of constant migration. First, he thinks of golden-brown fields, hills silting into the Aegean Sea. Visions of people running to Temple at dawn for the Spring Festival, him as a boy with quicker feet, pulling ahead, flying through knee-high meadows. But then come foreign images: a rainy city, wet boots, cobbled streets, a mother pulling a sobbing boy, horns honking, blurs of passing bistros, the mother letting go. Chionis walks away from the Starbucks window, shaking his head, trying to unclasp the implanted memory. Bronze dust flakes off him like dander.
The Trader Joe’s next door is empty, shelves bare. Of Chionis’s few original memories, the dusty, desolate grocer reminds him of a fever outbreak from when he was a boy. No food, grain silos empty, markets all shut down. Those left walking the streets were prostitutes and lepers scrounging for food in their own ways. He came down with it eventually. The pain was so intense, the only thing the doctors could suggest was that he sweat it out or flush it from his body with leeches from the creek. If not, best to take the boy up to the mountains, push him off. The disease will likely cripple him, he remembers them saying, and Sparta doesn’t tolerate cripples. His mother put him in the sun for hours-on-end, even placed him in an underground sweatbox behind their villa. But nothing worked until one day when he was about to be locked in that box again, he ran and kept running and felt a hard, cold sweat break throughout his body when he reached the summit of Mount Taygetus. He was so elated that he jumped down the side and bounded through the air, from cloud to cloud, brushing wings with Nike. Later, he became the greatest triple jumper in all of Greece, as well as a three-time winner of the stadion race. But now, no one is around to tell him why everything is so dark and bright at the same time, so cold and abandoned. No cheers from the adoring crowd. What had come to devastate this place? And what is this blinking light above him, hanging in the dark, red, green, and now yellow?
These memories aren’t even his but echoes of traditions passed down to be distilled. Important details forgotten for the sake of telling a story their way. Gone were the moments when he offered Lyra the spinster’s daughter a cup of wine at the festival of Artemis; replaced by a murky vision of an artist’s studio with high ceilings, a bare mattress on the wooden floor, a man and woman shouting at each other, tipping over wine bottles.
Looking at the concrete, the potholes, then up at the absence of stars in the sky, Chionis knows this isn’t anywhere he wants to be. His long sleep was preferable. He moves on from Barry’s Corner and down a dark street with thundering, hefty feet. He searches for a place to hide from the light.
Chionis ambles through the dark, cloaked in it. These homes, apartment buildings, so simply made, so on top of each other. No distinction, merely repetitious. Trees grow out of the asphalt. A neighborhood on the verge of overgrowth. He bends down to feel a river birch tree, but the weight of his finger snaps the branch in half. A Boston terrier growls from behind a screen door. He keeps walking. Every few buildings, he stops to look up at a lit window, sees flashes of light coming from an unknown source. What magic were they conjuring up there? He moves on, hearing distant barks of dogs picking up a new scent. The wind cuts around his face. The detailed curvature erodes.
Trash hops from one blind street corner to another. A child cries through the veiled night. A mother coos it back to sleep and whimpers. He sees her through the window. A gust swings open the door to a deserted apartment, causing him to whip his head around. He envisions a ladder breaking, Gerard falling and trying to grab onto Chionis’s newly finished arm, but misses, and then careens to the floor. Regaining his composure, he sees nothing but piles of knocked-over garbage cans smelling of excrement and indistinguishable liquid.
If there is anything similar about Allston and Sparta, it’s the rats. He sees two of them dancing under a streetlight, fighting over a plastic sausage wrapper. They pull on each other, back and forth, then let go, become still. Chionis watches them stare at each other as if waiting for—and out from an alley comes a three-legged black cat. The lucky rat squeals away, but not without the wrapper.
He steps forward. The cat’s yellow eyes tell him to back away. He keeps coming and the cat refuses to move, claiming its prey. After a few moments pass—the light above illuminating the pigeon droppings strewn across Chionis’s shoulders—he sits on a curb. The cat proceeds to tear into the mangy carcass unbothered.
His powerful rump cracks the sidewalk. Arms hanging over his knees, he looks up at the early morning sky. He finally sees stars peeking through the light pollution. He thinks back to his first Olympiad at the base of Mount Olympus. How he wanted to climb it on a stormy day, stand face-to-face with Zeus himself, thunderbolt in hand. But now, looking at faded freckles of constellations, he understands the gods were among the stars. Too far to reach with his heavy legs grounded to this dark-bright world.
A ribbon of sun wedges through the street, and he feels compelled to go back to where he must. But he lingers a little while longer. He wants to feel warmth on his wind-worn body. A warmth denied him for millennia. He wonders if the sun has changed or if Helios’s chariot still dragged it through the morning.
Matt Gillick is from Northern Virginia. He writes mainly fiction. Check out other published work through mattgillick.com. He is also a co-founding editor of Cult, a new mag.