6.4.07

Dream-catcher





How can you reach a man inside his dreams?

My mother started me down that road when I was young. She was a whore, as I said, but not always a comfort to her men. If they beat her or mistreated her she took revenge.

Every man fears the dark, and with good reason – the forms that come to us in dreams are beyond our control. When my mother charmed a man those night-fears started to spill over into bright day.

The trouble was, she couldn’t stop what she had started. Those forces, once unleashed, would have their way. She could direct them where to go, but couldn't turn them back.

And so it was, when I was seven, and she came home one day to find me being pawed by her latest lover, she showed me how – with herbs slipped in his food, with incense and with ready words – to haunt a man's head till he ran mad.

That fat pig cut his veins within the month.

As the years went by I passed beyond her skill – learned how to compound love potions, to implant good thoughts as well as bad. The danger, always, is that you can’t stop once you’ve started. The forces will come back on you if you don’t make haste to send them on.

The Tomites knew my powers, and respected them. My Roman guest resented woman’s magic – that was the feeling I got from him. He liked the sun-bright world of rapist gods and cruel heroes: all he could see in me was dark blood and misty superstition.

He was eating again by now, so it was little trouble to slip the herbs into his food. He was used to my fires of invocation, too, so that didn’t rouse his suspicions.

I chose to enter him at his most vulnerable moment. I lay down next to him naked and tempted him to take me. As he spent inside me I fixed him with my eyes, as a hawk does its timid prey, and he was mine …

Oh, but his dreams were confused and formless! At first the darks and lights were so extreme I could hardly see my way. His life, the myths he’d studied, the books he’d read all jumbled in a mad cacophony.

*

I stood in a bright field at midday. There were reapers nearby, women and children stacking the wheat they’d cut, the mice and small vermin of the ground boiling out ahead of them as their steady line advanced. Looking up from the tree I was sitting under, I saw a wolf. Fearless, it sprang at me, and I wanted to run. But couldn’t. The beast’s teeth met in my flesh as it sprang on me. It tore at my face, darkening my eyes forever …

*

I was at sea, cowering below decks in an overloaded merchantman. A storm had broken out, and the sailors were afraid. I heard them muttering that there was bad luck on board, and I had brought it. I felt their sinewy hands taking hold of me, as they dragged me, weeping and begging, up on deck – the great mountainous swells threatening to engulf us all. They tied my hands to stop me struggling, then threw me overboard. The last thing I felt as I went down was a pressure on my lungs, a darkness in front of my eyes …

*

I was walking through a snowy landscape all alone. The drifts were deep and soft and slowed me almost to a standstill. My clothing was thin, and I shivered at each step, my feet turning to ice inside my boots. I saw something dark in front of me. I thought it was a man ahead, and started to call out. My tongue was frozen too. I started to hurry with feet of lead, as the dark shape flickered and undulated in front of my eyes. It seemed to be receding. I yelled and hurried on, stumbling and picking myself up. Finally the figure turned …


*


Hello hell
the weight of matter
tells us
better
stop


The loops of his dreams went from city to city, from blindness to fear to cold and back again. His guards had all deserted him. He lay alone, in the dark, with himself.

I offered him my hand.

He wouldn’t take it, flinching from me as if from his worst enemy.

I offered it again, baiting it with all the things I knew to offer – the taste of honey and berries in spring, the fresh fish of the streams, the sun on meadows, the touch of a lover on a winter’s night, a draught of barley wine.

He stood in his winter darkness, swaddled in ice and sadness.

At last he reached out, and put his hand in mine.

5.4.07

Scene-stealing





… He was huddling by the breakwater. That’s where I saw him first. I suppose it was his clothes that attracted my attention. No furs – no cloak – just a thin tunic and a blanket wrapped round his shoulders (someone must have taken some pity on him already).

A slight little man – quite unimpressive in my eyes. I could see he was shivering, but when I was called over to speak to him – I don’t fear anyone, that’s my badge of honour in this town – he hardly seemed to notice me at all. He was talking, or reciting, in his own tongue: I presume the language of the Imperium. I’d seen it written a few times: deep dark lines splayed across the surface of marble blocks.

I tried him in the Greek I spoke in childhood, then in one or two of the tribal tongues. Nothing. He was a sad bedraggled creature, wet through from his night outside.

One of the sailors from the ship riding at anchor out at sea came over then and slipped me a few coins. “Look after him,” he said, in rough but serviceable Getic. Most of these Greek sailors pick up enough of the language to negotiate with the onshore girls. “He was a great man once – a magician in his way.”

That intrigued me a little, I must admit. I could have taken the coins and left him there to die, of course. Perhaps that’s what I would have done ten years ago. But … well, he made me curious. And I haven’t felt that way for such a long time – since I came to this godforsaken town, learned that the only way to keep their pricks out of me was to build upon their fears, live apart in my own dank hut as the local witch.

A civilised man! Was there such a thing left in the world? News travels so slowly all the way up north. This man might have the latest tidings from Athens, Rome, or even further afield! The coins would pay for his keep – what could I spend them on save medicines and food, in any case?

To tell the truth, it was touch and go. For weeks, it seemed, he roamed through dark dreams and nightmares, sweating and freezing by turns, crying out that I was poisoning him by feeding him blood (which was true, I must confess – the tribesmen swear by it for fevered cattle, and use it also at their high feasts. If only he’d known the privilege I was extending him …), clinging to me and recoiling from me in turns.

In his lucid moments he spoke good Greek – far better than mine, in fact. I’ve hardly spoken it since I was ten and went on the road for the first time. My mother was little better than a whore, my father …well, who knows? The best thing that she taught me was some slight knowledge of herbs and charms, the worst a habit of compliance with men’s whims.

Some nights I slept with him, too, I must confess. There was nothing strange about it. He was as limp as a rag at first, clinging to me like a small boy with his mother. He needed comfort. It seemed a small thing to lend him.

My dogs frightened him most. No woman who lives alone in these wilds, whatever her reputation for sorcery, can be without a fierce dog or two. My bitch had just pupped, and the little bundles of black fur were underfoot everywhere.

He seemed to have a horror of them, and sat there petrified whenever they crawled onto his lap. I know now that he thought they were mine – so little difference could he make in his mind between dreams and reality. He thought me some great witch who could transform herself into an animal!

Turn him onto that subject, though, and he could talk all day. So many tales he knew – of gods, of giants, men – transformations, love affairs between men and beasts, and trees and birds – that you could waste your whole life just listening to him. He had a gift, I’ll give him that. The sailor was right. This was the ruins of what had once been a great man.

As time went by he grew to rely on me less. He would go walking through the town, talking to any travellers or soldiers who could bring him news of the outside world. A few would give him coins for his stories, and he spent it all on paper to write upon. He cut pens out of reeds, and used the local oak’s-gall stain for ink.

I asked him once what he was writing: letters home, he said. That wasn’t all, though. He had an insatiable appetite for stories. Anything the locals could tell him he would note down. When his sight grew dim he taught me the Roman letters and dictated to me instead. I humoured him – who knew when such knowledge might not come in handy – but could write down little of what he so carefully spelt out to me. The names meant nothing, the thoughts, the forms of speech were too strange.

He spoke sometimes of his wife – always in loving terms. He didn’t blame her at all for not accompanying him. He’d ordered her not to come, in fact, he said. But his voice was always sad at such times. I could tell he missed her. More than her, though, he missed his city – the agora, the dinners with his friends. What do I know of such things? The back-alleys of Thrace are where I grew up.

I only saw him really excited once – when the news reached us at last that the emperor was dead. Old Augustus, sent down to the shades to languish with the souls of those he’d slaughtered. Do the dead hold grudges still, I wonder? The tribesmen think so – always on at me to expel some angry spirit or demon. Augustus would never get the chance to find out: the Romans declared him a god as soon as they could to keep him from the hungry teeth of the dead.

Or so he said, so little Ovid said. He got quite drunk that night, raving on and on about the old man and his ways – then turned to praise of the new ruler Germanicus, that golden boy who would bring back the Spring again.

It was Tiberius, the Emperor’s brooding hulk of an adoptive son, who took over the reins of power, though. When the next news came, a few months later, and he heard that his high spirits were dashed. I think he knew right then there’d be no recall. His bones would whiten here, not in the land of his fathers.

For a week he didn’t speak at all – to me or anyone else. He lay all day indoors in his little room. I brought him food he wouldn’t touch, tried to tempt him with broth and little delicacies – the small indulgences he took such childish delight in at other times.
Nothing worked. He wouldn’t write, even (and I took care to leave out his paper and ink, with well-sharpened pens nearby). He lay there on his bunk with his face to the wall.

I think that’s when his spirit died. When he took up his pen again it was to write curses only. All the tender entreaties had died – he poured out his vexations on some false friend, a shadow figure who stood for all who’d left him here, took delight in praising him when he was bright and famous, and shunned him and foreclosed on him the moment he fell.

That’s when I decided to walk into his dreams.

4.4.07

Face-saving




I know.

[ ... ]

I tell you I know. I shouldn’t have sprung all that stuff on him so quickly. Up to then it was going quite well, he was listening, responding.

[ ... ]

Yes, except when I tried to become the witch – Eva, he calls her.

[ ... ]

But how could I do that?

[ ... ]

You’ll have to explain that a bit more clearly.

[ ... ]

Yes, I know about self-hypnosis, but …

[ ... ]

But how could I tell myself where to go, who to be? I’d already be hypnotised!

[ ... ]

You mean on a kind of conference call?

[ ... ]

But how could I get out of it afterwards?

[ ... ]

No, I’m not saying I’ll do it – that would be utterly insane!

[ ... ]

But what if you got cut off somehow? What if I didn’t respond to your voice? If I were still under, I wouldn’t be able to bring him out either. It’s the craziest thing I ever heard!

[ ... ]

Well, yes, I suppose I could. It’d still be pretty risky, though.

[ ... ]

I just don’t think you get how scary these things can be for us. I mean, you may be programmed to be empathetic and all, but that doesn’t mean you really understand.

[ ... ]

Well, I suppose that’s true. Are you, though? Human, I mean.

[ ... ]

Okay, so I wouldn’t be able to tell either way, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t make a difference.

[ ... ]

No, I’m not agreeing to anything right now. I’m not even agreeing to think about it. Or to talk about it again. Maybe we will, maybe we won’t.

[ ... ]

No! I meant talk about it. For God’s sake! I’m certainly not doing it without a lot more reassurances from you – and that’s just the beginning ...

3.4.07

Poetry-reading




… Where are you now?

In the agora.

What are you doing?

Speaking to the people. I’m reading them a poem – one about them. It’s also about Cadmus, sewing the dragon’s teeth to make new men.

Do they understand you?

Well, I think so. I’ve worked quite hard on the translation with Eva. She had to learn the language when she first came here, so she understands my difficulties.

What else do you talk about with her?

Stories.

What kinds of stories?

Oh, all kinds. I tell her stories about my youth, about the big city; she tells me stories she's heard from the people around here.

Are you falling in love with her?

No. I don’t think so. She scares me too much.

Why do I scare you so much?

[ … ]

Why does she scare you so much?

I can’t say.

Do you think she’s a witch?

Yes.

Why?

I can’t say. Yes, of course she’s a witch, a wise woman. She treats the men of the village by night and the women by day. She could never live like this – outside the tribal hearth – if they didn’t fear her, too.

Do they fear you as well?

No.

Why not?

They think I’m her slave.

And are you?

No, but I drink her blood, and she drinks mine. So when she dies then I’ll be hers. For the moment I’m still my own man. I don’t think I can escape her, though.

Are you happy?

No.

Do you want to escape?

Yes, I want to go home.

To Rome?

Home

I can help you escape, if you’ll just trust me.

[ … ]

You need to trust me.

How?

I can show you the way out.

There’s no way out.

It’s all a dream. You’re trapped inside your own head!

[ … ]

You were in an accident. You were badly burned. Your eyes were affected. Ever since then you’ve been imagining you were somewhere else.

[ … ]

Can you hear me?

[ … ]

Answer me!

[ … ]

2.4.07

Title-story




… You’re kidding! You want me to be her?

[ ... ]

Yes, I know I already am her, but that doesn’t mean that I feel comfortable about impersonating a kind of combination witch / vampire / ghoul with a long row of teats down my body …

[ ... ]

But what could I say to him? You mean under hypnosis again?

[ ... ]

Man, I think you’re losing it. When I think how reluctant you were to get into this whole train of thought, how much you insisted you didn’t’ have any advice to give …

[ ... ]

Yes, but that’s pretty dangerous thinking. If I learned anything at all from last time, it’s that whenever you feel you’ve gone too far to pull out, that that’s a really good time to stand back and think about what you’re actually doing.

[ ... ]

Well, that’s a good question. I don’t have any other suggestions. It’s still possible to do nothing at all, though. I mean, he won’t be any worse off than he was before.

[ ... ]

No, I suppose that would be pretty difficult to live with, longterm.

[ ... ]

Okay, but if I do this thing at all I’m going to do it my way. I don’t want you reporting afterwards that you advised one thing and I did another and that’s why the whole crazy business failed. I don’t want anybody to ever know what we are doing, for that matter. Is there any way I can put on a kind of security protocol so that nobody can ever get access to these files afterwards?

[ ... ]

Okay, do that then.

[ ... ]

Well, I’ll just have to take that risk. If it goes that far up the chain then I guess I’m screwed anyway. I suppose there are other jobs I could do – you’ll probably end up counting rivets in a nut-and-bolt factory.

[ ... ]

It was a joke.

[ ... ]

Okay then, it’s a deal. Into the unknown …

1.4.07

Head-hunter




… On some level, yes, of course. It must be me.

[ ... ]

Well, I found some references to things called ghouls online. Apparently they like to live near cemeteries and eat dead bodies.

[ ... ]

Oh yes, nothing if not thorough, me. I did have another go. I jumped him forward a bit, though, hoping to get him away from the witchy-woman’s hut and more into the life of the place.

*


my eyes have cleared up more than I’ve revealed to her, the striga woman, Eva.

I don’t want her to get suspicious of me. That might well be fatal, and life, even in this strange antechamber to hell, still has its moments of sweetness – few and far between though they’ve become. At any rate I’m unwilling to cross that threshold just yet.

Some nights I hear her treating her clients (patients? customers? what shall I call them?) behind the skin partition which marks the other room. She doesn’t make much noise, as a general rule, but it keeps me awake even so, that low mutter of voices, the smoke of incense.

Yesterday it got particularly loud. A strange voice started to shriek out in some unknown language behind the curtain. Curiosity was, I suppose, always my predominant vice. A lot of the time, back in Rome, I’d pursue some girl for the idlest of motives – because I was curious to see more of the mole on her upper arm, because I’d heard she dyed her hair below as well as above …
That part of my nature, at least, appears to be intact up here.

And so I did it. I crept over to the curtain and peeped behind it, crouching on all fours so that I could feign an attack of illness if I was discovered. She’s never said anything, but I’ve known instinctively from the first that this woman’s secrets are to be guarded on pain of death.

Well, at first (of course) I could make out nothing. The atmosphere was so smoky and dark that I could hardly tell how many people were crammed into that small space. There seemed to be a lot of movement, a lot of screaming and thrashing going on over by the low-lying couch she uses for her consultations.

And then the fire flared up and I saw.

I saw, and yet it was hard for me to interpret what I saw. The components of the scene seemed impossible to reconcile with one another, even for
me, the poet of transformation, the laureate of man-beast-god-plant combinations.

There was a man in the room with the witch, and she was cutting at him with a blade. At first her back shielded what she was doing a little, so it was possible to think she was excising a tumour or some kind of growth. Certainly there was enough blood and screaming for that.

But then she shifted slightly, and I thought she was cutting off his head. There was a head there, gesticulating and mouthing, screaming even, and she was sawing at its windpipe. Yet it seemed to be growing from the middle of his chest!

I saw then that there were other marks, scars, all over the man’s body – as if this operation had been performed many times. Some were old and hardened over with scar-tissue, others puffy and raw, still others strange swellings, as if there were more things growing under his skin, ready to erupt.

The witch was carving grimly away, extracting the writhing homunculus from his flesh. The man’s head was thrown back, as if in stupor. Funnily enough, he didn’t seem to be in any pain. Perhaps she’d drugged him. In any case, the little devil she was cutting out was making noise enough for two.

I may have cried out. In any case, I remember nothing after that. Next morning I woke up in my accustomed place, my little bed by the fire.

Does she know I’ve been spying on her? Will she put a curse on me, like those Milesian witches, the ones who can animate wineskins and turn people into animals? Will she wrack my flesh with cancer and my bones with liquid fire?

Nothing seems changed in her demeanour. I’m still not allowed solid food, though I truly crave respite from these endless cups of red. Her treatments are undoubtedly efficacious, though. I’m feeling as if I’ll soon be able to walk – walk as far as the nearest fort, perhaps, to claim protection from its garrison

31.3.07

Fever-dreams




… okay, that should just about do it. Can you state your name for the record, please?

[mumble]

Publius Ovidius Naso, is that what you said?

[mumble]

I can’t quite hear you. You’ll have to speak up.

… when I lived in the wood
I was watered with blood …


Is that a poem, is that one of your poems?

... It was quite late when the ship reached port. There was nobody there to greet us. I discovered afterwards that it’s considered very dangerous to go out after dark. Under normal circumstances the arrival of news from the outside world would have brought the whole population down to the shore, all eager to see and hear the strangers from the Great Sea.

The captain ordered me ashore, nevertheless. He had strict instructions to do so, of course – not to harbour this criminal a moment longer than he had to – but I could tell that he rather enjoyed getting the chance to enforce them. He’d resented having to delay his departure from Byzantium, that little town in the straits, for a mere political prisoner.

For my part, I was quite glad to go. He hadn’t actually made me sleep on deck, but quartered me with his junior officers who (for their part) had been nothing but charming throughout. The first shy request to write a letter for a distant girlfriend came a couple of days into the voyage. And after that they shared many a confidence with me.

My particular friend, Rufus, the youngest and least inhibited of them, slipped me a small package before I was hoisted into the little rowboat to be taken ashore (no treadwheel cranes for unloading cargo in the upper Black Sea!)

Depositing me on a small pebbly beach, they gestured vaguely towards the huts a short way further up the strand. “The inn, try the inn,” one of the sailors barked gruffly, trying to conceal his emotions from me.

Rufus's package, when they were far enough away for me to unwrap it safely, turned out to contain a dagger, a couple of crusty bread rolls, a few coins, and a note.

God help You. Beware of Witches

was all it said.

There was, of course, no inn.

I spent the rest of that night huddled in my boat cloak under the shelter of a rock (it came on to rain a few minutes after they landed me). The biting cold kept me awake, which is probably the only reason I survived my first exposure to the hospitality of the natives of Tomis.

Not one of them would open a door to me, despite my cries and entreaties.

By morning I was beginning to shake with fever. (At least, I know now that’s what it must have been. At the time I seriously wondered if one of those night-spirits they'd warned me about hadn’t taken possession of my limbs). I was unable to stand up, and I fear that anyone who came wandering over out of curiosity would have heard me babbling in Latin, a language completely unknown to them.

And, to do myself justice, they
did look a good deal like demons to my untutored eye: short, dark, swarthy men with feather cloaks and bright tattooed designs all over their faces and bodies.

I heard later that the first sailors coming ashore with trade goods from the ship took pity on me and arranged for me to be taken indoors. They may even have paid for my housing, for the next thing I was really aware of was lying in a rough cot in the corner of a hut, with a basin of water beside me and a cool hand wiping my forehead.

Everything else around me seemed blurry and uncertain, and I realised that the fever was affecting my sight. I couldn’t see my nurse’s face, only the dark fur coat she was wrapped in, and the perfect soft rondure of her hands.

Luckily she spoke a little Greek. She was, in fact, a stranger there herself, she told me. But the closest thing to a doctor the town contained – a trade she’d taken up when her merchant husband had been ambushed by savage tribesmen nearby, leaving her abandoned here with their litter of small children.

“And where are
they?” I asked.

She shrugged. Here and there, in and out. They came for their dinner, she gave me to understand, but otherwise were a law unto themselves. The locals had little truck with strangers, even those who’d grown up among them.

I could keep nothing solid down those first few days in Cimmeria (a little further up the coast, but still, as accurate a name as could be found for this harsh stony land of ice and snow, with its tattooed tribesmen and small enclaves of Greek civilisation). She fed me on strong warm draughts of cattle blood.

I gagged when I first learned what I had been drinking, but she told me it was a common thing to bleed the cattle here. Without such expedients one would hardly survive the winter. It was high summer when I had arrived, but already the year was declining into Autumn, the nights were drawing in, and the patches of ice were beginning to appear on the pools and rivers.

Two images remain with me from that time lying, weak with fever, in the woman’s hut. The first was looking over, in the firelight, and seeing her cut a long gash in her arm, letting the dark blood drip down into a bowl beside her feet. It looked like the bowl she’d been feeding me from, but perhaps it was some rite she was performing. Savage gods perforce make savage demands.

The second, and you must remember that my eyes were still weak from the fever, and untrustworthy at the best of times, was a few days later.

I woke to find her children, furry and dark as she, gathered around her as she fed them, their little heads pressed tightly against her belly, sucking at the perfect double row of teats that ran all the way down her body from her shoulders to her hips

30.3.07

Hypno-slave




… Yeah, I noticed the Roma-Romania coincidence, too. Is it important, d’you think?

[ ... ]

Oh. So if Roma is Amor spelt backwards, how about Romania: mania in Rome? He’s a maniac who thinks he’s in Ancient Rome?

[ ... ]

Sorry. Yes, I know it’s serious. It’s just when you start on all this ponderous psychological bullshit ...

[ ... ]

Yeah it’s your job. It’s not mine, though. So far you haven’t been a whole lot of help, I must say. Your advice seems to veer 180° from day to day.

[ ... ]

No, I don’t want another analyst. I’m just beginning to break you in – I sure as hell don’t have time to train a new one.

[ ... ]

Just joking. Haven’t you ever heard of jokes? Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious?

[ ... ]

Yes I am in an odd mood. You would be too if you’d just been listening to the stuff I have.

[ ... ]

Well, I remembered that I took a course in hypnotism when I was studying for my degree.

[ ... ]

Yes, I know it’s dangerous. I know it should only be used by trained professionals. Blah blah blah. I heard all that when I was doing the course. Anyway, the main people who use it nowadays are stage magicians who use it to turn people into chickens. That’s not exactly a sage use of their mighty powers.

[ ... ]

To be honest, I thought I couldn’t really do much more harm than I was doing already – visiting him and drawing his blood every few days; contributing to his delusions.

[ ... ]

No, I’m not sure that I was right. You may well be correct. I may have done more harm than good. It was curiosity more than anything else, I suppose. I wanted to see if I could get it to work. It was just a general interest thing when I did study it, and we only got to practice on each other.

[ ... ]

Oh, the guys tried to get the girls in their power to make them into sex-slaves, or whatever goes on in their pitiful little heads, but we just laughed at them really. There was one quite funny incident when one of the other girls gave this guy a post-hypnotic command to pull down his pants in the middle of a crowded pub and announce that he was a big fat dick.

[ ... ]

Yes, it did, actually. I wasn’t there, but some of my friends were, and they said it was hilarious. I think after that they revised the list of elective courses so none of the nursing students could take that one anymore. I’m sure the only reason it had survived so long was that no-one had really noticed it was there.

[ ... ]

I suppose I am. I have to say, it was a little frightening. I mean, it’s all very well to know in the abstract what’s going on in his mind, but it’s another thing to actually get a glimpse inside …

[ ... ]

Well, I didn’t think there was much point in doing it unless I controlled the conditions a bit. I had to choose my moment, when no-one else was likely to come in and surprise us, and of course I recorded the whole session.

[ ... ]

Oh, sound only. I was a bit worried that if there were images from the session that someone might get hold of them.

[ ... ]

Fair enough, but pictures always seem more damning, somehow.

[ ... ]

Of course I knew I was doing something illegal. Talking about him like this to you is illegal, if you want to be pedantic about it. You knew that, right? I want to help him, that’s the point. You want to help me, which is why you’re listening to all this gobbledegook even though you know that strictly speaking you shouldn’t.

[ ... ]

Would you like to listen to the tape? That might be easier.

[ ... ]

Yeah, I can just plug it in and download it to you directly.

[ ... ]

Oh. I suppose that’s true. Now that you know that it exists, though, I guess technically that you’re obliged to report it to someone in any case.

[ ... ]

Perhaps you should listen to it yourself. After all, how can you know what’s really going on with him or me if you ignore this evidence?

[ ... ]

No, I’m not trying to be funny now. I’m more worried than anything else, to tell you the truth. “First do no harm,” as they kept on quoting to us in all those uni courses.

[ ... ]

Yes, nurses too. We treat patients as well, you know.

[ ... ]

I may very well have done harm. I don’t think so, though. Or if I have the harm is more to me than it is to him. I just wasn’t taking this thing seriously; it wasn’t actually real to me until I put him under.

29.3.07

Witch-finding




… He thinks that I’m a Strigoi.

[ ... ]

I don’t know. That’s what he said. I guess he must have read about it somewhere. A kind of witch, I suppose. In any case, I’ve got two hearts and I’ve come back from the dead to feast on the living.

[ ... ]

He’s afraid he’s turning into a Moroii.

[ ... ]

That’s someone who’s still alive, but is gradually melting into one of the undead. At the moment he’s my slave, since I’m the one preying on him, and unless he can get away from my influence before he actually dies, that’s the way it’ll stay throughout eternity (or until my devilish powers are defeated).

[ ... ]

I don’t know if he has any plans for defeating me. He’s certainly biding his time at present. What seems to interest him most is trying to get me to talk about my experiences in this world and the next world. You see, it’s only Strigoi who can pass easily from one to the other. We’re also closely related to Pricolici, which is the locals’ name for werewolves.

[ ... ]

Well, that’s quite an interesting thing, actually. There are two types of werewolves in local folklore, apparently: pricolici and varcolaci. It makes a lot of difference which one you are. The varcolaci are definitely hell-bound, bad to the bone, demonic and bloodthirsty. Pricolici, on the other hand, are more like nature spirits. People who became possessed by the spirit of the wild can become more and more taciturn and reclusive until they finally transform into wolf-spirits.

[ ... ]

Oh, there’s a whole pantheon. What he told me didn’t quite match the information I looked up myself, but it was pretty close. It’s just that he’s obviously been putting his own spin on the subject.

[ ... ]

Oh yeah, he’s attracted by it all right. That business about the pricolici being nature spirits doesn’t really match the reference books at all, but the way he talked about it made it clear that he liked the idea of gradually going wild and running with the wolves under a full moon.

[ ... ]

Not so’s you’d notice, no. Quite happy being a human being, thanks very much.

[ ... ]

I guess my spin, if you can call it that, is that he veers from one side of his delusion to the other.

In the Roman version, he’s a citizen, at home in the city, but caught up in internal exile and disgrace. He’s being eaten alive by remorse and self-reproach, which takes the form of an evil spirit haunting him, a Lamia or one of the Lemures.

[ ... ]

Well, I gather he thinks it’s because he hasn’t been able to perform the correct rites to keep his house safe from harm – lying here in the dark, he’s easy prey for the evil dead and spirits like me.

[ ... ]

I suppose he thinks she’s abandoned him.

[ ... ]

Well, that’s kind of constant in both sides of the story. He writes the most imploring letters to her -- not reproachful, just full of longing. It’s pretty sad, actually.

[ ... ]

No idea. I guess I could look it up in his records. I don’t think so, though. I’m sure if there were any relatives or dependents we’d have heard from them by now.

[ ... ]

Well, he should be able to get up and around eventually. For the moment he’s still fairly incapacitated by the accident – a lot of healing to do. He’s not really bedridden, though. I mean, he can go to the bathroom by himself, and all that sort of thing.

[ ... ]

I suppose it is a bit of a danger. I hadn’t really thought about it. Okay, I’ll certainly be on the lookout for sharpened stakes and silver bullets. Blind people aren’t all that good at setting up ambushes, though, for the most part – not ones who haven’t really got used to being blind yet, anyway. Maybe in time …

[ ... ]

Well, that’s a good point. I do need a fair amount of light. His apartment’s quite high up, though – there’s a lot of ambient illumination.

[ ... ]

Oh, it’s quite natural to me, talking that way. My Dad was an English teacher, and he used to insist on correct articulation … caused me a lot of grief at school, you can imagine. Until I learned to speak their language instead.

[ ... ]

Oh, right. So that’s his Roman side: blind, in the dark, plagued by guilt and evil spirits.

[ ... ]

Well, the exile self is a bit harder to pin down. I gather he thinks that he really did go into exile, sailed all the way up into the Black Sea, and got deposited on the shore right here in Pontus.

After that I think he fell ill, and the lack of proper treatment meant that he’s gone blind from the fever or something like that.

[ ... ]

He’s in some kind of delirium, I think. You understand that this is all theory, based on a few notes I’ve been taking while he's actually talking to me. It’s really not consistent, you see.

[ ... ]

From what I can gather, no. I’m the only one.

[ ... ]

I guess he knows the tone of my voice. Though come to think of it he often starts talking to me as soon as I come into the room, even before I’ve spoken to him at all. It’s a good point. I hadn’t thought of that before.

[ ... ]

Sometimes he thinks I’m a nurse – a local woman who’s looking after him out of the kindness of her heart, or maybe because she’s the one who’s renting out her hut to him: his landlady / housekeeper – something like that.

The first couple of times he started on that idea I thought he’d actually snapped out of it and was back with us, in our reality. But then it gradually became obvious that even though I’m a nurse in both scenarios, the only reality he’s aware of then is a hut in ancient Romania.

[ ... ]

Well, he also takes me for a vampire – striga or strigoi, rather – who’s impersonating a woman and relying on his blindness and weakness to further my own ends.

[ ... ]

I don’t know. Living forever by sucking out other people’s life-force, I guess. Why does Count Dracula do what he does? I guess you do what you’re programmed to do. Or rather, you keep on doing what your life prepared you for – even when it’s over and you’re dead. If your will is strong enough, that is.

[ ... ]

Oh. A striga is a kind of witch. A strigoi is a bloodsucking ghost. The two words are apparently related. Sometimes the strigoi is under the power of a witch and acts as a kind of zombie slave for her. Other times it acts of its own volition and tries to enslave others.

[ ... ]

Yes, I know. A charming world these simple country folk inhabit. It makes you realise that bombs and terrorists aren’t as bad as they’re cracked up to be. I’d rather be kidnapped by humans than by one of these demon-things any day of the week.

[ ... ]

There you go with the sex again. No, he hasn’t made any passes at me. He’s pretty deep in the nightmare, you know. I mean, it’s all very well to laugh, but I don’t know which is worse: blind in Rome or fever-bound on the Black Sea.

[ ... ]

Or hallucinating in Auckland.

28.3.07

Truth-telling




… Well, I did what you suggested. I told him the truth.

[ ... ]

Oh, he clammed up for a bit. Then started talking again as if he hadn’t even heard me.

[ ... ]

Repeated it, of course. I kept on repeating it every time he started off down that pathway.

[ ... ]

Again and again and again. It was like talking to a concussion victim. his mind would simply not change track. If there’s any way of shocking him out of it, it’s going to take a bit more than a few words from me.

[ ... ]

No, I’m not suggesting that. In any case, it’s not for me to suggest new approaches. My job is just to enforce the treatment the specialists have prescribed for him.

[ ... ]

Of course I’ve tried to tell them! And it wasn’t easy, either. They’re really not into listening to anything a nurse might tell them – let alone something that implies they haven’t been observing a patient properly.

[ ... ]

Oh, he’s nice as pie when they’re around – for those few seconds. He does what they say and lets them poke and prod. He’s the same with the meals-on-wheels and home help – polite and unobtrusive, the model patient. They won’t hear a word against him. Not that I want to say anything against him. Just let some of them know what’s going on inside his head.

But if they haven’t seen it or heard it, who’s to say it really exists? I’d be just the same if someone told me a long rigmarole like this! Especially if it was someone who was on probation to start with. I could lose my job over this, you know - just like that.

[ ... ]

And even if he does have a few delusions, so what? Does it affect his healing? I don’t know if it’s helping him or not, but I’d be pretty strongly inclined to argue not. Like you said last time, the better he gets the more danger he’s in. Augustus’s successor Tiberius never pardoned him, and it’s pretty obvious that any official figure who took up his case would be leaned on pretty strongly to shut up about it.

It’s one thing to bring someone back from the Black Sea, but it’s quite another to parade an old blind man in public and admit that he’s been in town the whole time and that the whole story cooked up by the Emperor and his secret police was a cynical lie.

[ ... ]

No, it doesn’t stop him hoping and scheming. At one point he mentioned having tried to contact a friend of his who knew Augustus’s widow Livia. But he reckoned she was almost certainly against him. He seems to have hopes of Tiberius’s nephew Germanicus, but of course you and I know that nothing much is going to come of that either.

[ ... ]

Well, I don’t quite know. I guess the blinding must be fairly fresh in his memory. He seems to flit in and out of different times, if you want the truth. It’s this thing of having to keep up a fantasy within a fantasy that makes it so complicated for him. And in any case, I can’t really ask without doping precisely what you advised me not to do – encourage him in his delusions.

[ ... ]

I suppose I could try and shape them a bit, but do you really think … ?

[ ... ]

Fair enough. One level of fantasy is more than enough. But he knows he’s blind, he knows he’s bedridden – the fact that he thinks he’s in Ancient Rome, under house-arrest, rather than in his pokey little bed-sit apartment doesn’t make all that much difference that I can see.

[ ... ]

You really are beginning to get into this, aren’t you? I don’t know anything about Romania, ancient or modern – I’ve never been there, never known anyone from there …

[ ... ]

No, I realise that he hasn’t either, and I suppose I could read up on it and cook up some hogwash, but what’s the point? What possible good could it do?

[ ... ]

I’m not sure that action is always better than inaction in cases like this. What if he has a complete meltdown and withdraws totally? I’m in pretty deep waters here already. What if it comes out that I’ve been talking to you about it? I’m not sure, but I think they could sequester your records if it came down to a professional malpractice suit. I just couldn’t survive any more of that shit … You don’t know what it’s like, having everything you’ve ever done or said gone over and used against you in front of a bunch of strangers.

[ ... ]

Yes, you say that, but you can’t really know.

[ ... ]

Fine, I’ll think about it, anyway. I guess I take your point. There’s more than one way of facilitating. I’m just afraid that this is the same train of thought that got me in trouble last time.

[ ... ]

How could it be passion? They needed what I had to give, that was all there was to it. If they could have shown I’d done anyone any actual harm, there’s no way I’d still be in the job. The fact that they basically understood what I was saying is why I was only sentenced to have to talk to you. It was actually the minimum penalty they could impose.

[ ... ]

I’ll think about it. I really can’t promise anything.

27.3.07

Drip-feed




… Yes, that Ovid. The Art of Love. The Metamorphoses. I’ve been reading up on him, too.

[ ... ]

Yep, I guess I am enabling his fantasy by researching it for him. He doesn’t need much help, though. He’s got the whole thing pat right down to his fingertips.

[ ... ]

No, I know Ovid wasn’t blind. Homer was, though. He’s got a whole theory about that which he’s been explaining to me …

[ ... ]

Well, if you won’t listen to it, what good are you to me?

[ ... ]

Yes, I understand all that. I understand the theory of it, but what good does that do me if that’s what’s on my mind?

[ ... ]

Thank you. Well, anyway, I think it must have begun in the hospital. He was under for quite some time, an induced coma …

[ ... ]

Yes, I’ll be very careful. For God’s sake! He had a neck drip, that’s the thing. It was open permanently so that they could draw blood on a regular basis. There must have been some discomfort from it … so, voilĂ ! Vampires …

[ ... ]

He wouldn’t talk to me at first. I had to visit every day to start with, but now it’s down to two or three times a week.

[ ... ]

About the second or third visit. He started rambling on about the place he was living – some frontier settlement it sounded like. I thought it was memories from his past. He was still a bit groggy at that stage. But after a while I realised there was a certain form to it. I realise now that he was quoting poetry …

[ ... ]

No, not in Latin. In English. I guess they’re translations, or something like that.

[ ... ]

Oh, fairly conversational. That’s why it took me a while to realise what he was doing. Why? Is it significant.

[ ... ]

Okay, anything that I remember must be significant to me. Nice turnaround you’ve got going there. Fuck, I must be insane doing this! I wouldn’t waste my time if I didn’t absolutely have to, you know.

[ ... ]

Fair enough. It’s true. It is quite helpful to talk about him. And I do want to improve my clinical practice. You’re right there. Sleeping with patients really isn’t the best way to make them better. I know that now. I’ve had to hear quite a few people telling me that already …

[ ... ]

Whatever. Anyway, getting back to the matter in hand, I didn’t realise what he thought was going on for quite some time. I’ve been visiting him for six weeks or so, you’ve got to realise! I wasn’t taking notes. I’m not even sure in what order he said the various things, or when it all started to click and make sense to me.

[ ... ]

No, it’s not much use from the point of view of understanding the onset of his delusions – if they are delusions, that is …

[ ... ]

No, of course I don’t mean that I think he actually is the Roman poet Ovid, magically transported into modern times in order to bring us news from Pontus …

[ ... ]

Pontus. It’s where he was exiled. The Black Sea. Come on, call up your memory banks or whatever it is you do – or maybe you don’t have access to more general datafiles?

A small town called Tomi (or Tomis – they seem to use both spellings in the reference books), in what is now Romania, situated in the border province of Pontus. It’s where he was sent by the Emperor Augustus for some unspecified offence, probably to do with the morals of certain members of the Imperial family. Got it?

[ ... ]

Fine.

[ ... ]

No, actually it hadn’t struck me. You’re saying that I’m interested in this man’s fantasies because they concern offences against morality, and that that equates with my own misconduct against nursing professional ethics …

[ ... ]

I’m not quite sure why, but that theory really irritates me for some reason.

[ ... ]

No, I’m not saying it’s wrong. It’s actually pretty smart and insightful. It just irritates me.

[ ... ]

That’s what I’m trying to work out. I guess, to start with, because it makes me into such a specimen – an example of how everything that interests us is really linked with some petty set of personal concerns. That there’s absolutely no objectivity, no outside reality to attach yourself to.

[ ... ]

Yes, and I guess it is because it’s a bit of an accusation, too.

[ ... ]

I think the main thing about it, though, is that it’s just another example of you refusing to fucking listen to what I’m trying to tell you, but instead trying to get me stuck in some snakes-and-ladders game of random associations and pat bullshit explanations from you …

[ ... ]

Fucking right it’s aggressive! Try telling yourself a story sometime and see how calm you feel at the end of it.

[ ... ]

Okay. I’m calm.

[ ... ]

Anyway, can I go back to the blindness? From what I can tell, he has this idea that he was offered a choice. Either he could get on a ship and be sent off to this frozen hellhole up north, a place that practically no-one ever comes back from, or else he could stay right where he was in Rome, in his own house, in his own study – but blind.

[ ... ]

Oh, I think staring at a redhot poker, or something like that. There’s some really nasty details of how they used to blind people in Ancient times if you want to look them up.

[ ... ]

Yes, of course, that’s my point. That’s how he’s accommodated what happened to him with what happened to this poet in the past.

[ ... ]

That’s what I don’t know. Maybe he was obsessed with the guy already. Maybe he wrote a book about him, translated his poems – it makes sense. It’s a pretty bookish apartment he lives in.

[ ... ]

Oh, talking books. Detective stories mostly. Thrillers. Nothing too intellectual. But he must have been keen on that sort of thing. You can tell by the way he talks – the mere fact that he has these poems memorised, knows all these details about Imperial Rome.

[ ... ]

And about vampires. That’s a whole other subject.

[ ... ]

Yes, well, that’s the problem really. He thinks he’s this poet – he’s been blinded and is still in his study in Rome, unable to read or write with any facility, completely dependent on his nurses but unable to communicate with anyone he knows.

[ ... ]

Those were the conditions. He has to live here, blind, as if he were there – send letters, give descriptions, the whole nine yards. If it ever gets out that he wasn't exiled up there he’ll be executed straight away. This way the emperor saves the price of a ship passage and salves his own conscience a little bit, too.

[ ... ]

Because he didn't execute him right away, I guess.

[ ... ]

I suppose he’s dictating to me. Some of the time, anyway. He feels this need to keep up the dispatches from exile. They’re his lifeline, because if they stop coming then everyone will assume he’s dead, and of course he thinks that that means he actually will be dead.

[ ... ]

Oh, that the moment he stops writing someone’ll drop by and smother him with a pillow and there’ll be one less uppity poet in town. It’s got to happen sometime. Either he dies of natural causes right where he is, or someone gets the bright idea of helping the process along.

[ ... ]

Yes, I guess it is a kind of hell. But it’s what he chose. He didn’t want to leave home, didn’t want to see all that stuff with his own eyes. He prefers just lying there imagining it and writing long descriptions of the local customs and scenery in his letters.

[ ... ]

I don’t think he would have told me about it if he thought I was just another nurse. It’s the vampire thing, the fact that he thinks I’m some sort of ghost who’s haunting him that makes him confide in me. He’s shit-scared of me, to be perfectly honest.

[ ... ]

Not because I draw his blood. Because he thinks I’m feeding him mine.

26.3.07

Blood-drive




… I suppose it is a bit funny, when you think about it. I mean, there I am sticking him with needles, drawing blood from his arms – even from his neck sometimes, actually. I mean, he was quite badly scarred by …

[ ... ]

Sorry. I’ll try and be more careful. Tone down the details. Cool. Got it. Can I go on now?

[ ... ]

I’ll take that more as an observation than a question.

[ ... ]

No, I don’t dislike him. The weird thing is that I don’t mind the fact that he thinks I’m one of the undead. What does that say about me, I wonder?

[ ... ]

Yes, I’ve heard of a succubus, but isn’t that kind of a demon who has sex with guys while they're dreaming? I suppose it’s a kind of image for nocturnal emissions, or something like that. That’s the way you’d see it, anyway, isn’t it?

[ ... ]

Florence Nightingale was not a succubus! What a load of …

[ ... ]

The lady with the lamp. Fine, have it your own way. Anyway, going back to my story, he sort of … fears me and reveres me. I can tell he’s trying to snare me in conversation in order to postpone the moment when I have to stick him with the needle.

And of course there is a little bit of magic associated with the act. I mean, we’re not living in the dark ages when they just stuck a hypodermic right into your arm.

[ ... ]

No, it’s not the first time I’ve heard it. But I’ve never met anyone who actually believed it before.

[ ... ]

I suppose he could be fooling. Just making conversation. I don’t think so, though. I know fear when I see it. You see, from this guy’s point of view, he’s caught in Castle Dracula and I’m the Countess Bathory.

[ ... ]

Yes, of course I’ve been reading up on it. Wouldn’t you? How else am I going to make sense of all the stuff he’s babbling to me about? I mean, would it be so bad if he did think he was in his own house, in his own city, with a sexy young vampire coming to haunt him every night and draw blood from his neck.

[ ... ]

Okay, so there is a sexual element in the fantasy. Big whoops. It’s not significant, though. Or I don’t think so.

[ ... ]

Don’t you want to know where he thinks he is? Who he is?

[ ... ]

I’m a little worried that I’m settling into his fantasy world and beginning to enjoy my role in it, too. Why do you think I’m telling you all this? It’s pretty embarrassing, I can tell you. I was never an emo or a goth – I've never had two-toned hair and a pin through my nose …

I’m really worried about this guy. That’s why I’m asking your advice. Not because it's so amusing and makes such good dinnertime conversation -- because I don’t know if I’ll send him over the edge if I play along with his ideas.

On the other hand, if I keep on contradicting him and trying to wake him up to reality, maybe I’ll be doing more harm than good. What do you think? You’re the shrink, even if you are only virtual …

[ ... ]

Sorry. I didn’t mean to be insulting. Honestly. It’s just that I’m at my wits end. I have to visit him every day. Every day there’s a new bunch of stuff to deal with – stories, poems, folktales. He must have been one weird guy even before the fire …

[ ... ]

Oops. Scrub that last bit.

[ ... ]

Of course you’d have to talk to him yourself to make a proper diagnosis. but that isn’t possible, is it? Not with the rules you guys have to follow.

[ ... ]

No. I didn’t think so. Can’t you give me anything, though? Any kind of advice at all.

[ ... ]

Yes of course I’ve tried to get myself reassigned. There’s no fun in feeling out of your depth the whole time you’re working with someone. The trouble is that I’m only there on sufferance in the first place. They’re not exactly overjoyed to have a notorious slut like me working for them.

[ ... ]

No, I don’t think of myself as a slut. But they do, and it’d be stupid to pretend otherwise. If I fuck up this case I can pretty much kiss my career goodbye.

That’s not really the point, though. I want to help this man, not hurt him. What’s the good of waking him up to where he actually is, what’s happened to him? The fantasy may be a godsend, it might be a healing thing for all I know.

It’s not as if he’s going to get better anytime soon – or ever, for that matter. Where’s the harm in thinking he's Van Helsing or Jonathan Harker?

[ ... ]

Huh? No, no, those were just examples. I told you I’ve been reading up on the subject. That’s the odd thing, really. His fantasy is so precise, but it doesn’t tie in with any of the obvious vampire books or movies.

You see, he thinks he’s the poet Ovid.

25.3.07

Video-consult




… I know, I know. I’m not supposed to mention cases. I’m not giving any real details away, though.

[ … ]

I suppose you could if you really tried, but why should you bother? Anyway, it’s what’s on my mind today. Isn’t that important? That’s what you always say, anyway.

[ … ]

Okay, I’ll try to be careful, but ... Can we get on with it now? I am paying for at least part of this session, you know. The insurance doesn’t cover all of it.

[ ... ]

Yeah, I suppose there could be an element of resentment in there. I mean, I didn’t ask for this, you know. At first it was okay, but I had no idea it would go on and on and on like this. Isn’t there any way of knowing …

[ ... ]

Okay, yes, you make your point. You can’t know until you know. You can’t recommend termination of the therapy until you’ve seen a real improvement. Actually, that’s kind of what I wanted to talk about – why I brought up the new patient ...

[ ... ]

Okay, begin at the beginning. Good advice. I’m not really used to this, you know – telling stories. It wasn’t really in our training – more like summaries and case notes. So stop me if I’m going too fast.

I’ve been assigned this new patient. He’s blind, but reasonably mobile. He just needs to be checked up on every couple of days, have blood taken for tests and his medication checked.

[ ... ]

Well, no, he’s not really used to his condition. That’s the problem. He’s just been discharged from hospital. He wasn’t always blind, you see – it’s a consequence of an accident. Can I tell you what that was?

[ ... ]

No? How about that there are cardio-vascular complications as well? Is that too much?

[ ... ]

Okay? Well, the cat’s out of the bag now anyway.

He’s a middle-aged man, average build …

[ ... ]

Oh? Sorry. I told you I wasn’t very good at telling stories. And it’s really difficult when you have to think the whole time about what’s safe to tell you and what isn’t.

Anyway, the important thing about him, the reason why I’m talking about him in the first place, is this delusion he’s developed …

[ ... ]

About me, about himself, about his whole environment …

[ ... ]

Well, I really want to ask some advice, that’s the thing. I don’t know whether to encourage him in it or not.

[ ... ]

I did ask them. My supervisor just laughed and said, “Whatever gets them through the day, honey …”

[ ... ]

I suppose I took it to mean that I should just go with the flow and kind of play along with the gag. But I don’t know. It’s not really in my training to keep on lying to him, encouraging him to believe that I really am

[ ... ]

No, I don’t think there’s a sexual element in it. It’s hard to say. I suppose there could be. It'd seem an odd way to go about it.

Certainly not on my part, I can assure you. I don’t find him in the least bit attractive, and even if I did …

[ ... ]

Yes I know that’s how I got in trouble before, but – you know – it could have happened to anyone. Life just isn’t as predictable as they make it out to be in all those codes and manuals.

[ ... ]

No, I’m not trying to condone it or explain it away … God, this would be so much easier if we were only in the same room and I could see your face! I find this really difficult, you know, doing the whole thing online. I’d feel like I could read you better, and I’m sure it’d make what I’m trying to tell you a whole lot easier.

[ ... ]

Yes, I know, I know. There’s no point talking about it really. I can’t afford a live therapist, so I’ll have to make do with a virtual one.

[ ... ]

Point taken. I guess I am putting myself down as the kind of person who can’t afford the best and has to make do with something inferior that they don’t really want – but what if that’s the truth anyway? What if my “subconscious aggression” coincides with what’s actually happening to me?

[ ... ]

Oh, didn’t I mention that already? I’m sorry, I must have got confused. I thought I’d told you.

He thinks that I’m a vampire.

17.12.06

Sleep Threshold - Hypnagogia




man boldly goes where most courageous not step

– Chandra


Leap in the dark
or fall back
into fire

Pick up your pen
& scribble
round & round & round

Hot stony
& exclusive
vacant of all holy

“Hypnagogia –
most common features
vividness

& fear”
until you’re sure
that floating hand

the spider
rabbits
nest of rutting cats

have your best interests
at heart
bat them away

into tomorrow

Blinding





This punishment goes back at least as far as Ancient Greece, where it was commonly inflicted on watchmen who fell asleep at their posts: their oversight being punished by this damage to their sight. In Roman law, it was a common penalty for theft, adultery (covetous sins of the eye) and perjury – even, in some cases, treason. Ambition was associated with vision.

Various methods were employed at different times: hot vinegar and/or lime could be poured into the eyes, or a rope could be twisted around the head until the eyes came out of their sockets. Sometimes it was considered sufficient to force the malefactor to stare at a white-hot dagger or a red-hot iron dish until their sight was permanently clouded. Gouging or burning the eyes out physically was generally reserved for the battlefield.

In the story of Oedipus, it is notable that he first blinds himself with two pins in response to the discovery of his (unwitting) incest, and is then sent into exile. The two penalties often go together as alternatives or (as in his case), complements.

For the assocation between BLINDNESS and poetic vision or prophesy (cultivating the inner eye of imagination), cf. HOMER, OVID.

[Phliip Gentile & Josephine Medved, eds. The Student’s Dictionary of Ancient History. Cambridge: Adaspe, 1993. 45.]

The Undead


Philip Burne-Jones: The Vampyre (1865)


The phenomenon of corpses leaving their graves to plague the living has been reported in all ages and cultures. In the Marshall Islands in the Pacific, Sir James Frazer reports in The Golden Bough, it is customary to take a different route home from the cemetery after an interment; the islanders have even been known to reorient their dwellings in order to make them less familiar to the deceased. This is because it is usually close relatives or associates of the visitant who are the main recipients of its attentions.

The vampire of folklore is, of course, the best known of these revenants. It differs greatly from the suave and seductive vampire of fiction, made famous by Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. In Southern and Eastern Europe, the dead body generally climbs into bed with its spouse or children, and then attempts to smother them, or asphyxiate them with foul, plague-ridden breath. Biting is mostly reported not on the neck but on the stomach or back.

Various responses to these incursions have been reported over time. The most usual one is to dig the suspect from his or her grave (the body is usually reported as swollen, with a ruddy face and fresh blood leaking from it — all, incidentally, normal effects of the natural process of decomposition, which also explains the fact that the body may have moved since it was buried). Stakes, decapitation, and quartering have all been variously described, but the most common remedy, employed in most cultures, is fire.

The best-known account of this phenomenon is probably in the Icelandic Grettir’s Saga, where the dead shepherd Glam rides the rooftrees of the narrow upland steadings until he is wrestled into submission by Grettir. The victory costs him dearly, however, as it leaves him with an abiding fear of the dark and a foreshadowing of the doom which will overtake him later in the Saga.

[G. Eden, ed. The Ecumenical Encyclopaedia. London: Denham, 1921. 636-37].

Lost Books of the Fasti


Nicolas Poussin: The Death of Germanicus (1627)


… the last six books of the Fasti [Feasts] have disappeared without leaving a trace; for no ancient writer cites or refers to them, and the four doggerel verses which a few manuscripts insert at the end of the sixth book, … are clearly the interpolation of a clumsy scribe. ... We can only apparently conclude, either that the last six books … were lost, possibly in the post, which can hardly have been very regular or secure at Tomi, or that the poet left them in so rough and unfinished a state that his literary executors, in justice to the author’s reputation, deemed it prudent to suppress them.

Of the two alternative suppositions the latter is perhaps the more probable, since Ovid’s own words seem to imply that his exile interrupted his work on the poem and prevented him from putting the final touches to it. The same conclusion is reinforced by another consideration. In the poem addressed to Augustus, as we have just seen, our author expressly affirms that he had dedicated the Fasti to Augustus, but in that work, as we have it, the dedication is not to Augustus but to Germanicus. ...

Whatever the motive, the change of dedication suffices to prove that during the later years of his exile Ovid was engaged in the revision of the Fasti; but, so far as the substitution of Germanicus for Augustus in the place of honour is concerned, the revision appears not to have extended beyond the first book, for in the remaining five books it is the dead emperor and not the living prince at whom the poet aims the shafts of his flattery and praise. But other traces of revision may be seen in the veiled allusions to his exile which Ovid has let fall in some of the later books of the Fasti.

The poet was thus filing and polishing the Fasti down to the end of his life ...

[Sir James G. Frazer, ‘Introduction.’ Ovid’s Fasti, with an English Translation. Loeb Classical Library, 253. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP / London: Heinemann, 1931. xviii-xix.]

Fasti V: 421-44





ritus erit veteris, nocturna Lemuria, sacri:
inferias tacitis manibus illa dabunt


May
Ghost feast
Lemuria

make offerings
to all the ghosts
at midnight

when dogs
& cocks
are fast asleep

walk barefoot
thumb
pressed through

your fingers
warding off
the hungry dead

wash your hands
in pure spring water
turn

& throw
black beans
away

9 x
face averted
say

I cleanse my house
the shade
walking behind you

wash your hands
again
& ring

a bell
9 x
ask all souls

to leave your house
go away
ghost elders

go


Six Memos for the Next Millennium


Italo Calvino


After a long period in which Ovid seemed to have little to say to Western readers, his text is once again coming to be seen as a source. It is perhaps too early to say what it will be a source of, but in his Six Memos for the New Millennium, Italo Calvino describes what he calls “the manifold text, which replaces the oneness of the thinking ‘I’ with a multiplicity of subjects, voices and views of the world.” Calvino goes on to describe the possibilities it opens: “Think what it would be like to have a work conceived from outside the self, a work that would let us escape the limited perspective of the individual ego, not only to enter into selves like our own but to give speech to that which has no language, to the bird perching on the edge of the gutter, to the tree in spring and the tree in fall, to cement, to plastic.” One ancient source of the manifold text in Western literature is of course Ovid’s Metamorphoses, as Calvino clearly recognizes when he asks, “Was this not perhaps what Ovid was aiming at when he wrote about the continuity of forms?”

[Charles Martin, ‘A Note on this Translation.’ Ovid's Metamorphoses. New York: Norton, 2004. 11.]

Ovid in the Third Reich
















non peccat, quaecumque potest peccasse negare,
solaque famosam culpa professa facit
.
– Amores, III, xiv

The epigraph to Geoffrey Hill's famous poem -- from King Log (1968) -- translates as: "It's not a sin if you can deny it; only confession brings shame on you."

Too near the ancient troughs of blood
Innocence is no earthly weapon.

Interestingly, thirty years before the poet John Masefield published a book called A Letter from Pontus & Other Verse (1936) which included a reconstruction of Ovid's famous "fault" in a letter to a Roman acquaintance, a young legate who passed the winter with him by the Euxine:

He was unlike the Ovid in my mind,
(All graceful, wanton, charming, credulous,)
Being an old, bleak, broken-hearted man
Dressed in wool trowsers and a sheepskin coat,
Living in dire poverty on biscuit,
Salt mullet and the country vinegar.
The details in Masefield's poem come mainly from Tristia and the Epistulae ex Ponto:

Later, the snow fell, and the frost set in,
A silent, intense cold, night after night,
With starved birds dead upon the snow next day.
Mad savages, half starved, on starving ponies,
Came raiding down and shot their poisoned arrows
Over our crazy walls at us, and screamed.
The letter, though, entrusted to Ovid's young friend as he leaves on the first boat to Athens, contains an original explanation for his exile. It had, he says, "Two roots:—a book of verses about Love, / Which made me the delight of gallant Rome; / And Julia, the Caesar’s grand-daughter ...".

Julia was bright damnation to the young.
Greedy, as one consumptive, lovely, reckless,
Fevered, clutching at youth now swiftly fading,
Hating her grandfather, the Caesar’s self,
Hating (and mocking, too,) the Caesar’s wife.
But she was beautiful unthinkably.
The disaster itself stemmed from an accidental decision:

One midnight, when our company dispersed,
I recollected, as I hurried home,
That (for the first time since our party formed)
I had not timed the meeting for next day.
I thought, “I’ll hurry back, and catch them there,
(They will not all have gone) and name a time.”
...
I turned beside the fountain to my death.

The servant at the postern let me in,
With word that some of my companions lingered.
Though all the palace household seemed asleep,
I stumbled down deserted corridors
Until I saw our meeting-room ahead
Peopled, it seemed, well-lit, the door ajar.
Then, as I hurried to the lighted space,
I heard the clear voice of our Julia’s lover,
Saying, “So friends, we are agreed together?
We shall attempt no cutting short of Caesar
By one least minute; but when Caesar dies,
The Empress and Tiberius shall fall,
We’ll have Agrippa Postumus as Caesar.”
“We will,” the voices cried. Then my foot tripped
They had a cord across the corridor.
“Who’s there?”one called. There was no drawing back.
...

“Ah, gentlemen,” I cried, “You must not fear me.
“I’ll not betray you; follow your device.
What I have overheard is safe from me …
We are old friends.”

I saw the killers’ eyes
Turn towards Julia for confirmation.
She, who was watching me, laughed quietly.
“Of course,” she said, “we are old, proven friends.”
“Of course,” the younger of the killers echoed,
“We have no fear.”
“No,” said the elder killer,
“That goes without our saying: none at all.”
“Truly,” I said, “Here is my hand upon it.”

We all shook hands upon my trustiness.

There's really nothing else he can do. But it doesn't sound nearly so plausible after Julia and Silanus have been arrested, and the poet is summoned to the palace for an interview:

And what of all the godhead did I see
There in the whiteness of that sunny room?
I saw a little purple and some gold
A chair of bronze, a white robe, a white head
Which swayed the world a thousand miles away,
Turn where you would; a little cold white voice
Spoke to me without passion, finally.

“I have been looking at your Book of Love.
I need not tell the danger of such books
To all the many thoughtless of the young.
Nor need I warn you that its teaching runs
Counter to recent policies and acts
Not lightly framed and all too necessary.
It is no little matter to the State
When genius is linked with the disruptive.”
After that there's not much left to tell:

I wrote Medea in the savage tongue
And taught the savages to play the piece
With choral odes. I used to hope at first.
My miseries compelled me to beseech,
Beg, supplicate, with abject flatteries,
Whining for mercy. That is over now;
For I shall perish and be buried here.
After the summer season comes the winter.
I had the sunny city in my youth,
More happiness, more charming friends, more fame,
Than fell to any poet of the time.
Albert Speer? No, surely Virgil fulfils that role more accurately -- forced to hymn the divine antecedents of Roman imperium. Perhaps more like Furtwangler or the other great musicians who, in their own "sphere", tried to "celebrate the love-choir."

His exile, in retrospect, becomes his opportunity -- one final chance for exculpation before history.

16.12.06

Ovid Misunderstood





The conduct which Ovid recommends [in Ars Amatoria] is felt to be shameful and absurd, and that is precisely why he recommends it—partly as a comic confession of the depths to which this ridiculous appetite may bring a man, and partly as a lesson in the art of fooling to the top of her bent the last baggage who has caught your fancy. The whole passage should be taken in conjunction with his other piece of advice—‘Don’t visit her on her birthday: it costs too much.’ But it will also be noticed—and this is a pretty instance of the vast change which occurred during the Middle Ages—that the very same conduct which Ovid ironically recommends could be recommended seriously by the courtly tradition. To leap up on errands, to go through heat or cold, at the bidding of one’s lady, or even of any lady, would seem but honourable and natural to a gentleman of the thirteenth or even of the seventeenth century; and most of us have gone shopping ... with ladies who showed no sign of regarding the tradition as a dead letter. The contrast inevitably raises in our minds a question as to how far the whole tone of medieval love poetry can be explained by the formula, ‘Ovid misunderstood’; and though we see at once that this is no solution – for it it were granted, we should still have to ask why the Middle Ages misunderstood him so consistently – yet the thought is a good one to keep in mind as we proceed.


[C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition. London: Oxford University Press, 1936. 7-8.]

Ovids 3


1/ 1970s


[cover illustration by Mark Edwards]


David Malouf’s intense, evocative, prose-poetic novel An Imaginary Life (London: Chatto & Windus, 1978) is narrated from exile, in the first person, by Ovid himself. In it he tells of his meeting with a wild boy, brought up by wolves:

The encounter with the Child, which makes up the main part of this book, has no basis in fact, but I have verified my description from the best account we have of such a phenomenon, J. M. G. Itard’s painstaking observations of Victor, the wild boy of Aveyron … [“Afterword: A Note on Sources,” 153-54.]

François Truffaut’s film L’Enfant sauvage, also based on the story of the wild boy of Aveyron, was released in 1970.


2/ 1980s


[cover photograph by Howard Bartrop]


Christoph Ransmayr’s Die letzte Welt [The Last World] was published in 1988. An English translation by John Woods appeared in 1990 (London: Chatto & Windus). In it the young Roman Cotta visits Tomi in search of the poet “Naso,” only to find a disintegrating world filled with parodic versions of Ovidian mythology. The book concludes with “An Ovidian Repertory,” a glossary of identifications between the characters Cotta meets and their originals in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Time, too, has a habit of morphing between the ancient world and the twentieth-century present in Ransmayr’s brooding, apocalyptic work:
Banned from Rome, from the realm of necessity and reason, the poet had finished telling his Metamorphoses beside the Black Sea, transforming this barren craggy coast, where he froze and ached with homesickness, into his coast, transforming these barbarians, who harassed and drove him not the forsaken world of Trachila, into his characters. And in telling every story to its conclusion, Naso had freed his word of human beings, of their rules and regulations. And then no doubt he had himself entered his landscape devoid of humans – an indestructible pebble rolling down the slopes, a cormorant sweeping above the foam-crested breakers, a swatch of triumphal purple moss perched atop the last crumbling wall of a town.

Ransmayr’s work enjoyed a huge success (the cover of my paperback copy includes the comment: “The most extraordinary novel since The Name of the Rose.”)

This enthusiasm did not long survive his next work to appear in English, The Terrors of Ice and Darkness -- which I personally prefer. The fickle reading public deserted him, thinking him a one-trick pony, rather than the Eco-esque enchanter they were looking for.

Terrors (which actually appeared in German in 1984, four years before The Last World) tells the story of a young contemporary man’s obsession with a turn-of-the-century Austrian polar expedition to Novaya Zemlya.

“Reality, once discovered, no longer needed recording.”

3/ 1990s

[cover picture by Sally Taylor]


David Wishart’s Ovid (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1995) is set just after the poet’s death. His stepdaughter, Rufia Perilla, wishes to bring his ashes back to Rome for burial, and enlists the help of the narrator, dissolute aristocrat Marcus Corvinus, grandson of one of Ovid’s principal patrons, in doing so.

The rest of the book is a hard-boiled, Chandleresque riot through the mean streets of Rome, as Corvinus tries every trick he knows to find the true reason for the poet’s banishment. (It turns out that he accidentally discovered the identity of one of Augustus’s granddaughter Julia’s co-conspirators in her – alleged – plot against the emperor. He unwisely reported this to the Emperor’s evil scheming wife Livia rather than to Augustus himself, and thus become implicated in a fiasco which resulted in the Teutoburger forest massacre of three legions by renegade German noble Arminius).

Hero and heroine succeed against all odds, however (though the validity of Wishart’s theory about the true reason for Ovid’s exile is somewhat impaired by his own frank admission in his “Author’s Note” that “the real Valerius Corvinus was much older than I have made him;” that the real Perilla was “happily married with children;” and that her husband Suillius Rufus “could not possibly have been, as I imply, the ‘false friend’ who attempted to deprive Ovid’s wife of his estate and whom he calls Ibis in his poems.” [367]

One sample of Wishart’s prose will suffice:

I’d been at a party on the Caelian the night before. My tongue tasted like a gladiator’s jockstrap, my head was pounding like Vulcan’s smithy, and if you’d held up a hand and asked me how many fingers you’d got I’d’ve been hard put to give a definite answer without using an abacus ...

There's now a whole series of "Corvinus" novels.