The Ochian Man

10 Jul

The great fire of 1917 destroyed most of the old city of Thessaloniki, sparing only the high ground on the north, where stood and stands today the old city. This ancient quarter was once the Turkish and Jewish quarter, and before that a stronghold of Byzantine power and authority. By the 21st century, its main interest was in stimulating foreign tourism.

This sector of ancient stone houses and narrow pedestrian streets and alleys offered those who climbed up to its heights a beautiful panoramic view of the metropolis, its harbor, and the Aegean Sea. Fortress castle walls and medieval monasteries were available for the curious to examine. But most of the residents of the port city were too involved with everyday concerns to think much about the strange, fascinating past of this Old Town, the Ano Poli.

One who loved and lived in this historic oasis of Thessaloniki was a psychiatrist, Dr. Thanos Maras. His office was downtown in the busy university section, but he was gradually restoring and modernizing an old brick cottage over two hundred years old. Although he was well into middle age, he foresaw himself raising a family once he found a suitable woman willing to marry him. His bushy black hair was starting to show traces of silver, but he sensed not the slightest degree of urgency in the matter of his locating a wife.

Saturday had become a day away from patients, devoted to leisurely house work. It was a bright, cloudless weekend morning when Thanos heard his front door buzzer sound. He discovered a small, wiry figure in disheveled clothes standing outside, a look of alarm and desperation written on his pale white face.

“Dr. Maras?” said the strange-looking man. “Is that you?”

“Yes,” replied the curious therapist. Who could this person with signs of being disturbed be? he wondered.

“My name is Gaion Ananis and I have a need to speak with someone with your professional background.” He gave a look of internal excitement and fearful emotion.

“Please come in,” murmured Thanos, aware of the enormous risk he was taking with an unknown individual. But his mind was burning to learn what was propelling the little man to come to his door.

The psychiatrist led his surprise visitor to the rear of the cottage, inviting him to sit down at the kitchen table. Then he took the small wooden chair across from the man who called himself Gaion Ananis.

“What might you be involved in as employment?” suddenly inquired Dr. Maras, studying the haggard, troubled face of the other.

The latter spoke as if from somewhere far away, but not physically present.

“I have found out that you practice psychiatry on disturbed persons with mental problems. Is that so?”

“Indeed, it is,” smiled Thanos. “I have two decades of experience in the field and deal primarily with young adults who suffer emotional conflicts that plague and hinder their lives. My aim is always to help them understand why they feel the way they do, and to assist them in becoming more mature and better at coping with life’s problems.”

Gaion seemed to be trembling a little. “My trouble is different, because it is not imagined by me. The thing that has invaded my body and occupied my interior is real, not a dream.” His dark eyes grew larger. “It is a reptile that is deep within me, a genuine eppon. This snake has taken command of my thinking and emotions. It was a hard struggle for me to gather the strength to dare come to you for help, sir. This ochia fought and obstructed me, but I was able to overcome its resistance with forceful determination and willpower.”

The doctor grew excited, for he had never heard anyone talk like this before.

“You believe that there is a snake, an ochia or viper inside yourself?”

“That is the truth, I swear to you. It came inside myself about a year ago. At first, it produced sleeplessness and insomnia. You see, I am a painter who creates in the impressionist manner. My work has been praised by several important art critics here in Salonika. Several of my pieces have been sold at impressive prices. But for the past year, I have found it impossible to finish any painting that I start. Everything in my studio apartment down in the Ladadika district is incomplete. I have had to abandon a dozen beginnings due to my obsession with the ochia that has taken residence inside of me.”

“Have you talked with anyone about this situation you are in?”

“No. You are the first person, Dr. Maras. I am a very private person with few friends. I live by myself and my art has always been my main concern, until this snake happened to invade and take control of me.”

The pair stared at each other for a time, each of them looking to find something invisible to the eye.

“You say that you live down in Ladadika?” ventured Thanos. “There are many creative artists and writers there. It is a highly intellectual part of our city. I am curious to see some of your paintings, whether finished or not. Tomorrow is Sunday. If you give me your address, I would be happy to make a visit, a kind of tour of your art work. Would you have any objections to that at all?”

Gaion seemed to squint. “No, not at all. You would, in fact, be most welcome, sir.”

The psychiatrist offered to get him a pencil and paper, but the painter took a small card from his jacket pocket and wrote his address with a ball-point pen he carried on him. That done, the visitor rose, excused himself, and started to make an exit.

Thanos saw him to the front door, his mind awhirl in a maelstrom of different thoughts. Am I being foolish in humoring this potentially risky personality? he asked himself. But I am curious to learn more about the ochia obsession of this unusual individual.

Ladadika, on the western side of Thessaloniki, was the bohemian quarter of narrow streets known for its nightlife. Gaion Ananis had a small apartment on Diamanti Street, from where he could look up at the Ano Poli where Dr. Maras lived. The artist was surprised and gratified that the older man kept his word and came to see him the next day.

Thanos followed the man he was visiting into a large, disorganized working room full of canvasses. It was at once evident that most of them were uncompleted, with empty cloth taking up great proportions of unpainted space.

The new viewer went from canvass to canvass, at once aware of the single element common to all of them.

He turned to Gaion with a friendly grin on his face. “I can see from all that you are painting that there is one thread in all of this work of yours. All of the paintings contain snakelike forms, in different configurations and colors. It seems to me that you are somewhat uncertain about the visual particulars of what you are attempting to portray with your paint.

“Tell me this: have you seen this ochia that entered within you? Do you have any memory of what it may have looked like before the serpent disappeared into your body?”

The painter looked off to one side. “You do not understand. It does not stay perpetually hidden within myself. I can see it if I awaken at night from a sound sleep and look out away from my bed. The ochia decides at once that it has to return to its home in my body, and it rushes with speed toward my opened mouth.”

“Could you not refuse to readmit it inside, Gaion?”

The latter turned and stared directly at the round face of Thanos.

“I do not have the ability to do so, sir. My fear of the snake is too great. I dare not take such a risk.”

Thanos paused, then went on with a question. “What is the ochia up to when you sleep and it leaves you? I would think that you might have an idea why it is outside your body, what it could be seeking out on its own.”

“No, I have no direct, accurate knowledge of that,” said Gaion. “But my opinion has to be that the creature is up to something of a horrible, harmful nature. From what I have seen and experienced, that is the only logical conclusion.”

“I take it that you fear the serpent and what it might do to others, because of your own sufferings from contact with this evil erpon,” slowly stated the psychiatrist. “I have considered your situation ever since you knocked on my door up at Ano Poli. What could I do to help you, and alleviate the profound pain that you feel?

“One possibility suggested itself. What if I could observe what happened to the ochia at night, while you were asleep and the snake was outside in the wider world? That would provide hard data that might explain a lot about what happens when you and it become separated. What do you think?”

Gaion furrowed his brow in strenuous thought. “Do you believe that we could succeed in any such enterprise? I do not in any way wish to place you in any sort of danger, Doctor.” He looked at Thanos with hope in his eyes.

“I have no fear of any harmful consequences if I watch you and trail the ochia in order to learn what it might be up to while you are asleep and unconscious. I will try to be cautious and careful so as not to alarm whatever it is that emerges out of you when you rest in slumber. There will be no unnecessary risks taken on my part.”

The painter fell silent a short while, then gave his decision.

“I will pack myself a small bag, then accompany you back up to your residence on Alo Poli,” he announced.

The Old Town had an unearthly quiet to it that Sunday evening, the first one that Gaion spent at the cottage of the man who had become his psychological therapist and life advisor.

Thanos was of several different minds about the artist. Had he become a genuine patient of his? Was he acting in a professionally ethical manner toward him and his unusual obsession with an internalized ochia? He was not certain that he could make a true diagnosis of so strange an illusion. There was nothing in the literature he had ever come across that resembled this fixation upon an all but invisible snake.

But what if there was an atom of truth of some kind in the cockeyed ideas of the obsessive painter?

The psychiatrist put Gaion in his own bed and stood guard at the open door into the room. He sat down in the dark kitchen and waited to see what was going to happen to his new acquaintance with a very weird fixation.

Time passed imperceptibly as if in an infinite state of dreaming. Nothing moved or made any sound. It was possible for Thanos to forget where he was and what he was supposed to be doing, He could no longer tell himself why he was present there in the kitchen long past midnight.

All of a sudden, a flash of yellowish color attracted his conscious attention.

It moved over the linoleum floor, indicating the presence of some mobile form. Was it alive? Was it a yellow ochia, the one that inhabited the body of Gaion?

The back door of the cottage was closed and locked, but the slinking shape squeezed itself beneath the frame and made its way into the open night air with its shadows and darkness. It was gone in a second or so.

Thanos felt electrified. He had witnessed what the painter had warned him of. Through his own eyes, confirmation of a sort had come. There was a yellow-colored serpentine entity escaping out of the building he lived in.

I have to find out what it is up to and where this ochia is headed.

The psychiatrist jumped out of his chair and hurried to the door, opening it and stepping out into the night.

An unending blanket of lights in the night sky hovered over Thessaloniki. A distant ship’s horn down in the harbor gave off some kind of warning. Thanos gazed about the back alleyway, seeing nothing unusual. There was no sign of where the unnatural viper might have gone.

Sensing that things had moved beyond his power to understand them, he returned to the kitchen, sat down at the table, and soon fell into the refuge of deep sleep.

The psychiatrist faced a workday that necessitated his going down to his office in central Thessaloniki. He had patients with appointments he could not ignore. Since Gaion was still soundly asleep the following morning, he left a short note on the kitchen table apologizing for leaving his house guest alone while he took care of professional tasks and responsibilities. They would talk about the previous night as soon as his work at the office was ended. He promised to hurry back, informing the artist that he had left him a pot of cooked barley in the stove.

Thanos arrived back in the early afternoon, breathless and excited. He had to inform Gaion what he had seen. But what would he hear from the painter about the ochia? Had it returned to its physical shelter, was it again out of sight?

His visitor sat at the kitchen table, reading one of the doctor’s books on psychoanalysis.

“How do you feel today?” began Thanos, forcing himself to smile. “Has anything happened to you?”

He sat down across from the younger man and stared at him, looking for any hint about his condition.

“I think that the ochia slipped out of my mouth last night,” mumbled Gaion in a hushed tone. “But when I awoke late this morning, I could tell that it was back inside my body. That is the way it always happens: something drives it to come back to me, because I am now its home.”

All at once, the realization came upon Thanos that it was best that he not mention what he had seen crawl out of the cottage the prior night. “Will you be tired enough to go to sleep early tonight?” he asked. “I will once again stand guard here and attempt to learn the nature of what is going on.”

Gaion once again slumbered soundly in the bedroom, while the owner of the cottage waited outside, hoping to be able to follow the ochia out into the nighttime Ano Poli. A sudden idea occurred to him: it would be easier to follow the snake if he positioned himself outdoors, right on the narrow back alley. Soft night sounds came and went as Thanos sat down on the aluminum yard chair he kept for daytime resting and fresh air outside. Faraway noises rose from the otherwise sleeping metropolis below. He felt his mind and nerves grow loose.

Suddenly, Thanos noticed a fat, round shape making its way upward along the cobbled walkway. It came close and stopped in front of him, a man in a summer business suit, a straw shathaki on the head.

“Please, I have to talk with you,” said a low, gentle voice.

Confused but excited, the hearer of this leaped up and quickly moved to where the stranger had halted. Who could this man walking in the night be? What might he be involved in?

Thanos decided to speak first. “Do you know who I am and what I do?” he demanded.

“You happen to be Dr. Matas, and you call yourself a healer of troubled minds,” calmly said the other. “Let me introduce myself. I am Detective Inspector Ilias Lagos of the Thessaloniki Police Department.” He looked into the round face of the psychiatrist, trying to learn the reaction to his statement of identity. “I am fully aware of who it is you have as guest in your residence. There is much I know about that individual and his personal condition.”

“What do you mean? Are you acquainted with Gaion? What is your connection to him? How can an unknown painter be of any interest to the police?” Thanos felt his blood pressure rising higher.

Lagos smiled in the light from the sky. “Let us take a short walk together, Dr. Maras. There are matters that I wish to discuss with you. They concern the man in your home.”

The pair slowly made their way to the open area around the 14th century Vlatados Monastery. The detective stopped and faced Thanos, speaking to him in a near whisper.

“This is hard for me to say, and it will surely be difficult for you to comprehend. I am well acquainted with your house guest, Gaion Ananis. You see, I am the person who first injected him with the egg from which his body developed its ochia. It was something I had to do in order to make him a possessor and holder of the erpon that dwells within him. I admit to you that I did it for the sake of the one that I myself contain, the mother of his. It was done in order to allow this line of vipers to continue and survive. When an ochia or its possessor dies, there must be a new generation of snake and snake-holder. That has been the law of the creature for eons of time.

“The ochia, by inborn instinct, must meet and unite with others of the same family at frequent intervals. That is what occurred last evening. Gaion’s resident left your cottage and made its way with great difficulty to my apartment down on Hiou Street, at the far end of Ladadika. I was worried because the ochia did not reach its mother snake until it was almost dawn. It took enormous effort, but I succeeded in tracing the creature back up here into Ano Poli and your cottage.

“The time has come to inform Gaion about his ochia’s nightly trips back to it’s parent. That will make it easier for the two snakes to contact each other. He shall have to return to his Ladadika address of course. Your place is too difficult and risky for travel at night on the ground. So, it will be your task to convince him that he must go back, for the sake of his ochia. I have had to reveal the relationship that exists with my ochia in order that you comprehend the situation.”

He stopped and stared through the shadows at the psychiatrist. “My hope is that you will cooperate with this plan of mine and help educate Gaion about the ties among the ochias of all of Thessaloniki. They are one reptile tribe and depend upon protectors like myself and this artist. I beg you to join and work with us, sir.”

A single question suddenly grasped hold of Thanos. “Do you intend to make me another ochian man like you and our friend, Gaion?”

Lagos answered in a solemn tone. “I would think that has become your destiny since you began to deal with someone who was carrying a serpent of his own.”

The two headed back to the cottage where the painter was sleeping soundly.

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