The Cerastes

25 Feb

Dr. Zethos Egion knew the difficulty of the task he had set himself.

Returning to Athens late in 1931 after several years of study in Zurich his plan was to begin a private practice based on analytic depth psychology. He realized how hard that would be, since his methods were so unfamiliar in Greek psychiatry.

His resources being limited ones, Zethos located his office and living quarters in the low rent Plaka district, to the north of the Acropolis.

This area of the Greek capital remained in the past. Narrow, winding streets, climbing paths of stone, old stucco houses with upper stories of painted wood, tiny Byzantine chapels, cellar taverns with gigantic wine vats, and small walled gardens in which magnolia trees and hibiscus bushes grew: all of these gave to old Plaka a unique atmosphere of what had once been.

The psychoanalyst found a small office and upper apartment on crowded Kekrops Street. Although he hung out a sign in December, it was not until the first months of 1932 that someone inquired about his new system of treatment.

A large, stocky figure in black derby hat and heavy wool topcoat entered the front chamber that served as his reception area.

Zethos, sitting at a small pine desk, put down the book he was reading and rose to meet the stranger who towered over him. “Can I be of help to you, sir?” said the  analyst.

The red-faced man with bushy gray moustache introduced himself.

“I am Andreas Limin, a furrier here in Athens. My purpose here today is to make an inquiry about the extent of your experience in treating sleep disorders. That is why I came here to speak with you, sir.”

“Yes, I have dealt with that sort of malady during my years of apprenticeship in Switzerland. You are the one suffering a sleep problem, sir?”

The merchant frowned darkly. “No, it is my daughter who has nightly nightmares and bad dreams. The poor girl wakes up in pain, in misery. It occurs night after night. My Anna has no peace, none at all.”

Zethos asked him to take a chair and moved to one opposite the visitor.

Limin removed his hat and took off his overcoat, laying them on a pine desk. He wore a dark blue serge paletot and tight-fitting trousers. An old-fashioned wide yellow cravat showed under his thick neck.

The psychoanalyst was surprised by the free, rapid flow of words from the furrier describing the plight of his only child.

“My first wife, the mother of my Anna, died a day after giving birth to her. I hired several nurses in turn for the baby. The situation became quite difficult, for she suffered severe colic and had little sleep. Finally, I decided that I had to find a new wife who would take responsibility for the girl.

“My business partner at the time had a daughter named Melaina whom I chose to become my mate and the step-mother of Anna.

“The two of them took to each other from the beginning.

“I do not know what I would have done without my angelic Melaina. But as my child grew and matured, a dark shadow came to afflict her sleep. She keeps silent about the details of what horrid visions she sees. They awaken her in the middle of the night. Melaina has greater knowledge of that than I do, for the two of them confide in each other.

“Here is all that Anna will reveal to me: the sights that attack her mind are terrifying and frightful. She clams up whenever I ask further.”

Zethos asked a question he believed important.

“Has she been examined by any doctor? A family physician, perhaps?”

The merchant pursed his thick red lips. “Yes, and I have taken her to medical specialists here in Athens. Beyond aspirin and sleeping drops, nothing is prescribed or recommended. That kind of treatment has proven futile, Dr. Egion.”

The latter furrowed his wide brow. “When can you bring Anna to my office for interview and examination, sir?”

An inner glow came into the face of Andreas Limin.

“As soon as possible. Will tomorrow morning be convenient, Doctor?”

“All my hours are free,” smiled the gratified analyst. “You can come with her at any hour that you please.”

He failed to tell the father that, at present, his practice had no other patients.

Anna had very little resemblance to her father.

She was short, small, with a delicate frailness to her childlike body. Large milky blue eyes peered from her round, tan-colored face.

Andreas hung his fur-collared black wool coat on a chair, then introduced the doctor to his daughter.

Zethos sensed deep fear of him as an unknown entity that might hold unforeseeable peril for her.

Attempting to put the young woman at ease, he told himself to beam a wide smile at her.

“Do not be afraid in the slightest, Anna,” he calmly told his new patient. “We shall talk as friend to friend. I will come to know you, just as you will come to know me as a close acquaintance. I do not intend to prescribe any pills or powders. That is not how I deal with those who seek help and relief. I shall try to aid you as if I were a neighbor or a relative.”

He invited Andreas to wait in the reception chamber, then led Anna to an inside room that had been prepared for private consultation.

Once he and his patient were in the room with shelves heavy with books, Zethos invited the frightened, disoriented Anna to sit down in a sofa chair of velvet mohair cloth. He himself sat down behind an old mahogany desk and began to reassure the nearly trembling daughter of the furrier.

“There is nothing for you to fear, my dear. Nothing is going to happen to you. There is no pain or danger involved in anything that we do. All that I intend to accomplish is to converse with you in such a way that the two of us uncover the source of your trouble. Yes, I use that word rather than anything like illness or disease. For what I do is completely unlike the work of medical physicians. I am like an advisor, a kind of teacher or mentor. You will not see me using medicine or surgery. That is not how I carry out my alleviation of what I call the troubles and conflicts of life.”

The therapist paused for a short time, as if waiting for some word from his patient. But she remained passive and silent, uncomfortable with the situation she was in.

“I am interested in the content of the disturbing dreams you are said to be suffering from, Anna. Can you draw up for me a verbal picture of what enters your mind? What you tell me will remain with me, never to be related beyond the two of us. Nothing said here will ever be heard beyond these walls.”

The analyst waited for a period until she began to move her lips and mumble.

“Everything around me changes into a yellow-colored world. The sky, the streets and houses, the rocks and stones of the Acropolis are all now of one single shade. It is not a pure yellow, but a slightly brownish-yellow like quince. That is what I see in my sleep. All the marble on the high hill turns into a scene of quince yellow. It shakes my mind until I feel lost in an unfamiliar surrounding. There is a strange, unnatural aspect to every object, on every side. It is as if I recognize that something awful is about to befall me, something that is impossible to avoid or escape.”

“You are anticipating that a negative event or experience is about to occur?” asked Zethos, intervening at that point.

She answered him in a different tone of voice from before, almost someone else’s.

“A woman unlike anyone I have seen before appears. She walks forth out of the Propylaea. This entrance, the gateway to the summit of the Acropolis, is blocked by the figure of an unhuman person who resembles a female. She has great height, taller than anyone I have ever seen before.

“The womanly shape is not yellow, but the right side of her is white as a bone, while on the left she has the blackness of the night. She towers over me, stretching out her hand and taking hold of my left arm.

“Her face is a mask that is not of this world at all. It is half white and half black, just like what her dress and body are.

“I am terrified to my soul, completely drowned in fear and horror.

“The monstrous woman reaches out her bony white arm toward me.

“I immediately understood what the ghost was signaling to me.

“She wanted me to follow her into the high plane of the Acropolis, to where the temple stood. I deciphered a gesture of invitation to accompany her toward the monuments, to enter them with her. But I was so overwhelmed that it was impossible.

“I drew back my arm. I stepped back and turned away from her.”

Zethos was unable to conceal his excited curiosity. “What happened then?” he said.

All at once, tears appeared in the milky eyes of Anna.

“She extended her black left hand, so that in a second I was held by her two hands. I felt the strong grip of her arms, as firm as iron.”

“The figure grabbed hold of you, that I understand. What did she do then?”

The young woman turned away, gazing at a shelf full of huge books.

“I awoke,” she whispered. “I somehow made myself leap out of the nightmare.”

“It was you yourself who put an end to the dream?”

“Yes,” she replied. “That is how it came to a close. I did not enter the summit with her, the way that the monstrous being wished.”

Zethos considered swiftly the situation he and his patient faced.

“You have experienced this same nightmare more than once?”

“That is right, Doctor.”

“You have never gone with the woman into the area beyond the Proylaea?”

“No. I dreaded going forth with the horrible black and white being. But the dream and the unnatural woman returns to my mind again and again, night after night. I am unable to prevent the vision. It is as if my mind is being haunted.”

Neither patient nor therapist spoke for a time, each of them traversing a circle of thoughts.

Zethos stared at Anna, though his blue eyes seemed to study the line of volumes along one wall.

At last, the depth psychologist made a firm, solid statement to her.

“I am going to give you my advice, Anna. I cannot compel you to follow what I say, but my hope is that you take and use my guidance.

“You must go into the Acropolis summit even though this woman is so horrid and dreadful. Bravery will be required, for it alone holds the promise of transcending all dangers.

“Will you agree to try the pattern I recommend?”

Anna hesitated for several moments before responding.

“I do not know for sure whether I am strong enough to go onward with the woman, but I can certainly try to continue with the dream. Yes, I promise to attempt that.”

“Good,” said the doctor with a sudden, beaming smile. “As soon as you succeed in that, return here for another session with me. We shall then deal with what you see and experience on the Acropolis. There has to be some reason why the woman wants you to proceed with her.”

Zethos rose from his chair, signaling the end of their first meeting.

A slowly falling soft snow began to descend upon Athens in the evening.

Dr. Egion finished reading a psychoanalytic journal, going up to his bedroom at a late hour. His last thoughts before falling asleep concerned the meaning of the repeated dream of Anna Limin. What factor in her subconscious mind was hidden behind the symbol of the black and white woman? he asked himself as he lost control of his awakened mind.

It was almost dawn the following morning that Zethos was aroused by the buzzing of his loud front door electric bell.

Who could it be? he wondered as he climbed out of bed, found his shirt and pants, then put them on and raced down the narrow stairway to the front door.

Unlocking and opening the door, he found Andreas standing there with a fringe of snow on his black derby.

“I had to come at once, Doctor,” panted the merchant. “My daughter has fallen into a feverish swoon in the middle of the night. She cannot go back to sleep, but rolls and shakes in bed. My wife is at her side, attempting to care for her. It is like a fit of distemper in an animal. She wails about what she saw in a nightmare that horrified her.

“Can you come with me and help her?” He pointed to a dark French sedan parked by the nearby street corner. “I have the taxi cab I used waiting for us.”

Zethos asked for a minute to fetch his clothes and shoes. The troubled father entered the house to wait. In a short while, the two of them were on their way to the Limin residence. Up and down the slippery cobblestone streets, the vehicle slowly proceeded. Passing the buildings of Athens University, they rode into the wealthy Kolonaki section. Among the homes of the economic elite, the cab stopped in front of a townhouse of dark stone.

Andreas paid the driver and the pair hurried into the opulent home of the furrier. Through an oaken door they ran into a chandeliered vestibule, then up a wide stairway to the bed room of the daughter. A tall, willowy woman with hazel eyes standing by the bed had to be the stepmother, instantly concluded Zethos.

“This is my wife, Melaina,” whispered Andreas to his companion. He then asked her the question burning in him. “How is Anna now? Is she any better?”

She raised her right index finger so that it touched her thin lips, signaling that quiet was necessary. “Sleep returned only a minute or so ago.”

Zethos turned to the father and whispered in a muffled voice. “If you wish, I can examine her as she is at present. I will be careful not to wake her.”

Andreas agreed by shaking his head in the Greek style. It took the doctor only seconds to step beside the bed where the slumbering young woman quietly lay. She breathed calmly, almost silently. Zethos gently touched her brow, then carefully took her pulse at one wrist.

The analyst returned to where the married couple stood by the door and whispered to them. “She appeared to be recuperating in sleep. I can stay here in your house as long as needed. My aim is to speak with her as soon as she awakens.”

Mrs. Limin then made a practical proposal. “Our cook arrived a short while ago and is preparing breakfast. Why don’t we go down and have some food? I can order the cook to stay up here and watch Anna while we are gone.”

This plan was accepted and the trio left the sleeper for a time.

Over omelette and coffee, Zethos listened to the married pair set their plans for the coming day.

“I must go to my shop and see to a fur shipment arriving from Kastoria,” said Andreas. “Melaina will be present to help you in whatever you decide must be done for Anna.”

Shortly after saying that, the head of the family took his leave and departed for his place of business.

Zethos, finishing his meal, now had the opportunity for a private talk with the wife who had become the stepmother of his patient.

She began to speak to him in an open, intimate tone.

“As is evident to all, Andreas and I are far apart in age. All my life I looked up to him. For many years, he was a business partner of my father. We knew each other a long time before the death of his first wife. He asked for my hand in large part because Anna needed a woman to provide her a mother’s care and supervision.

“I have learned to see Anna as if she were the child of my own womb. We have a close relationship of love and understanding. I believe that I have truly acted in a maternal manner with her. As a result, this illness of hers has caused me severe pain.”

“Your husband told me that these sleep attacks started very recently,” noted Zethos. “Do you have any notion of an incident or experience that may have set these events going?” He gazed straight into her hazel eyes, noticing how unusually dilated her pupils were.

“My parents moved to Athens from Samothrace. As islanders, they believed many of the old folk traditions, including that of the evil, malevolent eye. Does such power actually exist, Doctor?”

The latter suddenly felt enormous discomfort, as if his science had been attacked.

“What can I say, Mrs. Limin? Although many experts may disagree, I myself think that what a person has belief in can be a large influence upon the mind. So, those who believe in the evil eye can sense that kind of influence upon themselves. Their thoughts are affected by what power they think others have to cast negative spells on them. Do you see what I mean?”

The eyes of the woman grew gigantic. “Yes, what you say is in accord with ancient Greek wisdom. Perhaps our Anna has convinced herself that something like the evil eye has been cast upon her. The source of her trouble may lie in what she imagines has been done to her by another.”

“I am eager to continue my conversations with Anna. My aim is to find out if she has some hidden motive for creating this crisis in her mind.”

At that moment, the cook appeared at the door to the kitchen.

Zethos rose, excused himself, and headed for his patient in the upper room.

Through the narrow window of the bedroom, the silently falling snow continued to be visible.

Anna said nothing when she saw the analyst enter. Only when he stood adjacent to the bed did she begin to describe her night to him.

“I had a painful dream that I was unable to end or overcome,” she muttered in a heavy, burdened voice. “It was much worse than those that came to me earlier.”

“You were once more up at the summit of the Acropolis?”

“That is correct, and everything was in the single color of yellow, the quince color that I saw in the previous visions. I recognized my surroundings from what I had seen before.”

“Did the woman with the white and black sides reappear before you?”

“Sadly, that is what happened. That demonic being took hold of my hand and led me forward to the steps of the entrance.”

“The entrance?” he asked with nervous energy in his voice.

“To the Parthenon. That was the destination she directed me to.”

“Did the two of you go into the building itself?” he breathlessly asked his patient.

“We climbed the stairs slowly, very slowly,” she declared with obvious difficulty. “It took a considerable length of time to reach the floor of the temple.”

Zethos leaned forward until he was nearly above the young woman in the bed. He noticed two small marks resembling punctures on the side of her neck.

“So, what was the purpose of entering the Parthenon? What did the unidentified woman do once the two of you were under the roof?”

“It is not at all clear to me why we were entering the ruins of the ancient temple. The woman never spoke. The dream was wrapped in a yellow cloud of mystery.”

“Is there anything else you remember, Anna? Any detail or specific fact?”

She wrinkled her brow in thought a moment.

“No. I am sorry but I recall nothing more.”

At that point, the cook opened the door and came in with a tray of food for Anna.

The doctor excused himself and left the bedroom.

Soon after her breakfast, the patient again fell asleep.

Through the morning, she slept several hours. A brief awakening, then she once more fell asleep.

Zethos was left alone in the kitchen when Melaina ascended to the bedroom to stay with her stepdaughter, keeping an eye on her from a nearby chair.

With time to think, the psychologist tried to organize what he knew into a coherent picture of what had happened to Anna.

What in her early years may have disharmonized her vulnerable personality?

The death of the birth mother? The trauma of a stepmother?

What was the key that would unlock this enigma? Could he discover a solution?

It was midday when Andreas Limin returned home.

“I have closed early and dismissed my staff,” he told Zethos. “This snow storm is the worst to strike Athens in over a century. The life of the city has been halted.”

Zethos made a decision at once. “Is it possible for me to stay here? I can keep an eye on Anna the rest of today. There are no appointments waiting for me. My time is free, so I can devote all of it to the therapy of your daughter.”

“Yes,” agreed the furrier. “That is an excellent arrangement. Travel in the streets is becoming impossible. You are more than welcome within these walls. I appreciate anything you can do to benefit my precious child.”

“Thank you,” said Zethos with deep feeling. “I shall devote the day to exploring the tragic sickness of Anna, Mr. Limin.”

The doctor sat in a chair beside the bed, his almond eyes on he patient’s face.

“I think that you should try to rest this afternoon,” he gently told her. “If a dream should strike you while you are asleep, I will be able to observe how you react to it. That may provide me some clue as to how to interpret what you say to me later about the vision seen by you.”

Surprisingly, she gave him a warm smile. “Yes, I need more peace and rest.”

In less than a minute, she was asleep with a barely audible snoring.

For almost a quarter of an hour, Zethos watched her face, on the lookout for any sign of a nightmare.

When will it come? he asked himself countless times.

Imperceptibly, his mind wandered far away, until it fell into the coma of sleep itself. His eyelids fell, his brain waves went into frequencies of unconsciousness. He was in the same realm now as his patient. It was not long before his inner eye of sleep began to perceive what he would never have expected to happen in his life.

He was present in the nightmare of Anna, sharing it. He was in the ancient Acropolis of Athens, he recognized its interior at once.

Yellow marble gleamed against a yellow sky, shining with brilliant solar rays of the same color.

I am in the dream of Anna Limin! a voice of his mind said to him.

He looked down the steps at the entrance to the structure. Two figures faced each other there. The smaller one was Anna. The second seemed a ghost in uncanny light and shade.

With the speed of dreaming, Zethos rushed down the marble steps out of fear of what the unknown woman might be about to do to his patient.

He sensed something about the tall, imposing wraith he had suspected before. But there was no time to dwell on the answer to the riddle.

His feet moved him closer, till he was standing beside Anna. She appeared not to be aware of his presence in the nightmare.

Only the black-white woman gave him a stark stare.

Zethos reached out with both hands, stretching his arms out and up.

He touched her brow and violently tore away what proved to be a mask of the unknown figure. The eyes that peered at him in anger and hatred were hazel in color. They were the only objects not yellow and belonged to a person he could identify.

“What are you doing to your stepdaughter?” he demanded of Melaina. “Why are you assaulting the girl with evil signs and visions?”

“What are you doing here?” the weird image shot back at him. “This is not a dream meant for you. There is nothing here that involves anyone beyond Anna and myself.”

All at once, the analyst comprehended what the situation was. “You are the source that projects these awful dreams into her sleep,” he told Melaina.

No response came from the latter.

“Your name is Melaina and you are the ancient Melinoe known on Samothrace, a chtonian semigoddess born of Hades and Perserpine, the creator of dark thoughts in the minds of humans when they sleep.

“I should have recognized you from your dual colors. Many nightmares originate in the visions that you send into the minds of sleepers you concentrate on.”

A sardonic expression crossed the thin mouth of the ghostly woman.

Saying nothing, she took a step up the steps, at the same time placing her hands upon the shoulders of the man in front of her.

Out of the mouth of the unholy, evil woman emerged the head of a greenish yellow snake. The sight was a terrifying one. Above each hazel eye now hung a thick spine of horn. From the serpent’s open mouth protruded an orange-red forked tongue.

Zethos realized what it was he was seeing: the ancient cerastes of Samothrace. An infamous monster with poisoness viper within it. He had read of it long ago, in childhood, but forgotten what it was.

The analyst recalled how the horned snake was able to attack, poison, and possess humans under its control. There was an uncanny power in the demonic creature that no one was able to resist.

That was what happened to Melaina and was fated to befall Anna as well.

The cerastes, once it exhausted one human residence, sought to conquer and enchant some other victim.

From the stepmother, the snake was moving over to the stepdaughter.

Is my patient doomed to that fate? Zethos asked himself.

At that moment he felt the folding of his throat muscles as the cerastes rose out of the mouth of Melaina and encircled his own neck.

Anna let out a loud scream as she awoke. The body of her doctor was slumped on the floor of her bedroom.

The comatose psychiatrist was taken to Athens Hospital, where he died in three weeks. His patient recovered and never again suffered a yellow nightmare.

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