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Yiannis and the Nereids

Vasiliki Gardiakos


Great-grandfather had said, “Don’t go to the spring at midnight, especially when the moon is full, for that’s when the nereids come out to bathe and make merry. For if a man is unlucky enough to see them disrobed while bathing. He will be torn apart from limb to limb by the nereids themselves, the minute they’re aware of his presence. And even if a man is somehow from this tragic death he most certainly will be driven into insanity by simply gazing upon them, so great is their beauty”.

But Yiannis hadn’t listened, or took great-grandfather’s words lightly, or, simply made a mistake by pure coincidence as he sometimes tells the villager’s when his senses come back temporarily.

Three or four generations ago, when Yiannis was still a boy, and even though the Olympian gods had long departed from Greece, the nereids still roamed the mountains and springs and refused to depart as long as even a single person believed in them. And who is to say whether their presence was due to the villager’s belief or whether the villager’s belief was due to their refusal to abandon their favorite sports in the mountains and disappear forever into the sea.

And so it was that the nereids still inhabited Yiannis village. It was a village situated high atop the mountains of southern Peloponnesus and which even mortals would abandon only after much hesitation since the yield of the earth was rich and there were numerous natural springs that brought forth plenty of water, even in the summer. In those days of old, few villagers if any possessed a clock. And even when someone did, he would not get out of the habit of checking and re – checking time by the stars at night, and the sun during day. Thus, as is the habit of all who make their living by toiling the soil, all the villagers, excepting the very old and the very young, would get up very early, long before a single ray had shown itself in the eastern sky, to tend to their chores. By checking the position of the stars or the moon, if and when there was a moon, and depending on the season, the villagers knew whether it was time to rise or not.

Yiannis was then only seventeen, tall and skinny and a bit light – headed, as the villagers called anyone who wasn’t sharp witted. He was always addressed as Yiannis the light – headed. One hight in the early part of summer or late spring, Yiannis woke up, rose from his bed, and walked over to his window to take a look at the sky, to judge both the weather and the time. Half asleep as he was though, and still feeling tired as if he hadn’t slept the usual hours and blinking all the while, he was surprised to see so much light in the sky. He wondered how he could have overslept for he had been getting up early, about the time before dawn, since the age of thirteen. And since then he had certain chores which increased as he got older, and which had been delegated to him as had other chores to other members of the family. In his half conscious mind Yiannis mistook the silvery light of the full moon against the clear sky as the colorless light of early dawn.

Yiannis the light – headed got dressed in a hurry and hurry and rushed to get his team of oxen and his donkey on which when saddled he placed some food, a bag of seeds, and tools for cultivating the earth. He then began moving in the direction of the field that was to be seeded that day. He took some back paths and cut across a ravine to save time, walking at a fast pace but avoiding stumbling on the rocks that were in his way, by some fancy maneuvering of his body.

A strange kind of silence had been buzzing in Yiannis ears all the while he had been walking. Upon approaching the bottom of the ravine, how – ever, the silence was soon and abruptly broken by the soft murmur of running water. The water was coming forth from a spring that had been “ancient even in my great-grandfather’s time”, great-grandfather had said once. A large plane tree stood like a sentinel on one side of the spring while wild berry bushes grew abundantly on the other side. An artistic design of light and dark patches which carpeted the ground around the spring, was made by the patches which carpeted the ground around the spring, was made by the moonlight down through the openings between the leaves and branches of the plane tree. A light southern breeze that began to blow caused the leaves to dance in joy and give off little tinkling musical sounds while at the same time shifting and altering the patchwork design constantly.

Yiannis was in a hurry and had no intention of stopping at the spring, as he usually did at other times for a cool refreshing drink. The sight of the wild berry bushes with their branches heavy laden with ripe ripe berries, however, changed his mind. He took down a small basket that was hanging from the donkey’s saddle, walked a few steps toward the bushes, and began picking berries. While he put most of the berries in the basket he occasionally ate a handful, enjoying the sweet juices going down his throat. Being left near the spring, the donkey walked over and bent down to have a drink. As soon as Yiannis was finished, he went and hung the basket from the donkey’s saddle where it had been previously.

The donkey was still bending down, so Yiannis bent down himself to get a hold of the rope in order to pull the donkey away from the spring and start it on its way again. As he was bending down facing the spring with his animals behind him, he thought he heard someone whispering. He got up and turned around suddenly, looking all around him. He saw nothing and no one, except his oxen looking at him very innocently. While making the sudden movement the donkey’s rope had slipped off Yiannis hand, so he had to bend down once more. But as his back was turned and while half way bending down he heard soft footsteps approaching him. He was afraid to move, and stood in that position for what seemed to him like hours, but in reality was only a few seconds. When he had heard nothing else, he tried to encourage himself that perhaps it had been his imagination playing tricks on him, or just simply another villager passing by, and nothing else. Not being able to stand in that awkward position any longer he took the courage from his own logical thinking and got up, turning around at the same time, in full view of what had previously been directly behind him.

Fearful and expecting to see some sort of monster, he was almost relieved to see a beautiful young woman standing silently in front of him. He was almost, but not completely relieved because he knew right off that she was no ordinary woman or at least no ordinary village woman that he had seen. He also stood silently and motionless, afraid to even blink his eyelids, and waiting for her to make the first move while feasting his eyes on her beauty. She was standing slightly away from the tree’s shade and in full view of the moon. The moonlight was drenching her blond hair which hung from her head and down her shoulders all the way down to her waist like fine silk tresses as it glistened in the moonlight and the wind blew gently through it.

All at once the light breeze became a mad furious wind, and her long white gown and hair looked as wings of a bird when it’s ready to fly off. Then she uplifted one of her arms and began beckoning at him. He didn’t know what to do, so he just stood there as if he had no existence of his own but was only a piece of the scenery. Inside of him though his blood was rushing in and out of his heart at such a fast rate that he thought at any moment any number of his veins or arteries or arteries burst wide open and he’d be drenched in red blood all over. Her eyes had such an intense luminous sparkle to them that he couldn’t keep from looking at them constantly and although he felt he should break away from her spell, he couldn’t.

He didn’t know how it had happened, whether he had moved or she had, but he was much closer to her now, so that if they both stretched their arms they could touch at the tips of their fingers. She gave a hint of a seductive smile and began to hum something very softly that sounded like a soothing lullaby. Still motionless and speechless, Yiannis felt his fears give way to a light hearted careless pleasure. He felt his body getting lighter and his tense muscles relaxing. He tensed up slightly again though as the young woman got a little closer and got a hold of his hand. But her touch had had such a soothing effect on him that it made all his little nerve ends relax and his whole being serene.

Suddenly and out of nowhere other young women appeared, or rather nereids appeared, for that’s what they all were there’s no doubt about it. They all formed a circle, pulling the first nereid and Yiannis in with them, and began dancing. At first their movements were slow and graceful while all of them began singing a haunting  melodic tune. After a while of this, their movements began getting faster and faster and more rhythmic while their soft voices became siren like and alluring. Yiannis just stumbled along, back and forth in the circle, for he didn’t know to do. He tried to imitate their movements by carefully observing sometimes the nereid next to him and at other times the one across from him. However, his movements were clumsy and out of step. Even though he didn’t understand all the words to their song, he tried singing along, his song becoming more incomprehensible than that of the nereids. He was awe aspired with their half meaningful little verses and became even more upon hearing his own voice. Their wild song and dance became wilder and wilder till they were all in a frenzy. Their movements were now haphazard and their long drawn out excited laughter. Yiannis too began laughing, sometimes stopping for a few seconds, uttering a half meaningful word or two and then laughing again as loud as he could.

This went on till all the individual bodies became one total mass and the circle seemed to be directed by one brain as it moved to the right, then to the left, then to the right again, back and forth like a wave. Then everyone, with hands out stretched horizontally, moved toward the center of the circle, and upon reaching the center all the arms went up towards the sky, then down again to their side while holding on to each other moved again to the outer circle. Upon reaching the outer circle they let go of each others hand and made a complete turn till they were all facing each other again. Then they again took a hold of each others hands and reached for the sky. And so they continued dancing in this manner for a while, Yiannis doing likewise and quite well, for the movements were slow and easy to follow.

Slowly, however, as they continued dancing, the rhythm of their movements began to pick up speed as they became more sudden and excited. During one of those movements, as one of the nereids moved her hand downwards, part of her garment slipped and bared her left shoulder. Then as she moved her hand suddenly upwards again, and unaware of what had happened, her garment slipped to her waist, baring her left breast. Yiannis was in the circle right across from her and could not help but notice what had happened. He marveled at it as it bounced up down with the rest of her body, while always keeping its shape, firm and round as it was, the size of a well grown ripe orange. It seemed to Yiannis that all the moon beams had rushed upon it and were caressing it. Oh, if only he too were a moon beam! And what milky white velvet skin she had, he could almost feel it at his fingertips. The dark nipple in the center of the breast stood erect and kept sending erotic suggestions to Yiannis. He was at a loss, he didn’t know what to do, he didn’t understand his feelings rushing out at him without warning. What did it all mean? Could the sight of a single breast cause so much commotion in his body? The first, the last, and the only other time that Yiannis had seen a woman’s breast was when his mother breast fed him up to the age of five as a natural means of preventing another pregnancy. Poor boy, in those days in a small village, only marriage allowed a man the pleasure of touching of touching or even seeing a woman’s breast.

If you should chance to see nereids, speak to them eloquently of their beauty and grace. Be careful to be innocent in your expressions, and grace. Be careful to be innocent in your expressions, and manner of addressing or looking at them. And if you are unlucky enough to see them while bathing, without any clothing on, pretend that you did not see them. But if they happen to see you, tell them of their beauty and comment on the graceful folds their gown is making on their bodies and on how fine and exquisite the material seems to be. Great – grandfather’s words rang and banged against Yiannis ears like giant church bells ringing in the dead silence of midnight. If those words had been softly whispered in his ears, he wouldn’t have heard them in his aroused state but might have even given himself away of having seen the Nereid half bare. And if that had happened he wouldn’t have lived to tell about it, for no mortal has. Overflowing with erotic stimulation and bewilderment and with great grandfather’s words still ringing in his ears, Yiannis lowered his eyes to the ground in order to shut out the forbidden sight and find some security at the solidity of the ground. But alas! The ground was beginning to spin right under his feet like a moving disk. The more he lowered his eyes, the heavier his body felt, but he could find no other recourse. He was fearful that if he glanced up again and his eyes fell on the partly disrobed nereid and she or any of the other nereids suspected he had seen it all, it would mean certain death for him. In all the confusion of his thoughts, his uncertain future and the circular and up and down movements of the dance, Yiannis grew very weary and dizzy. His legs felt weak and his body began sloching downward. When he could hold on no longer he just let go and his whole body feel to the ground.

He was half conscious sprawled out on the ground when he heard the pitter patter of feet gathering around him, as if in some far away dream. Then for a while he heard nothing else, as if he were in a void. The nereids stood silently all around him, motionless, staring at him, wondering what had happened. They had wished him harm, for they too grew lonely for human company in the endless flow of time. And he had the heart and soul of a child. They can tell. They have a way of knowing. And yet, his body was that of a man. A man in innocence, how great! He would be theirs forever.

Yiannis then heard whispering voices all around him. He strained his ears to listen, but no sooner had it began and it ceased abruptly. After a few minutes of dead silence, he felt something tickling his face and neck. He reached out to feel what it was and was surprised to feel a strand of silken hair in his hand. He opened his eyes and saw the face of the very first nereid he had seen, Leaning over him. She bent down further and he felt the warmth of her breath as she began whispering in his ear. The delightful sound of her voice sent little bubbles of happiness through his blood stream, but it didn’t last long for she soon stood up. And as she did, they began laughing merrily and started walking away in groups of twos and threes.

Yiannis was found the next day, asleep near the spring, by a distant uncle who was passing by on his way to tend to his fields.

For weeks Yiannis was in a world between reality and fantasy, half crazy with visions, going through periods of silence and periods of nonsensical chatter. He had to be looked after constantly for in the beginning when he was left alone, he would run off and go to the spring. When he was asked why he went there, he answered, “to see the beautiful girls.” After a couple of weeks of this and after exhausting every member of his family, he began to settle down and make more sense. But his family knew, alas, that their boy would never recover his senses completely, for he had seen the nereids. He was lucky to be alive, some said. But what good is a body without a mind, especially if that mind has been taken over by the nereids. When he got on his feet and began walking about, the villagers no longer called him Yiannis the light – headed, but Yiannis the nereidoparmenos, the one whose mind has been taken over by the nereids. On holidays or when the villagers had some idle time on their hands, many hours were spent socializing in the village square. Whether they sat in the kafenion, the little coffee shop, or around the grounds or marble steps of the church, under a tree, or in the scattered balconies around the square, conversation never ceased. Some would discuss serious matters such as business, politics, national or world wide affairs, others personal matters of marriage, marriage matchmaking, child rearing, illness etc., and still others would just chitter chatter with no end.

But if Yiannis the nereidoparmenos happened to be passing by, some one would invariably stop whatever he was saying or doing and would ask.

“Tell us Yiannis, how were the nereids?”

“They were beautiful, beautiful”. Yiannis answered in a speedy way stressing the first syllable of beautiful but gulping the rest of the words down his throat, while his eyes widened and bulged out till the eye balls gave the impression of being too for their sockets. This happened without fail every time he was asked this particular question. For every question that he was asked and consequently for each of his answers, Yiannis had developed a particular mannerism and expression down to a fine art. If one were far and could not hear him, but could see him clearly, one would know right away to which question he was answering.

“And what did the nereid whisper in your ear?” Practically all the villagers had asked this question at sometime or other.

“She told me to go back to dance with them whenever I wanted to.” Yiannis always answered willingly, as a sly smile spread across his face, while he fidgeted and looked down at his hands.

“And have you seen them again?” A villager might sometimes ask mockingly.

“Oh yes! Yes! Yes! Yiannis answered and his body bounced up and down to the rhythm of the words.

And so it has been with Yiannis the nereidoparmenos for years on end, the same utterances, the same questions, and except for a few wrinkles on his face, very few considering his age now, he has remained the same.

Now this might sound like the natural end of the story, but it isn’t. Great-grandfather would have made it appear thus too, although he probably would have done a much better job with the telling of the story, no doubt, owing to his natural abilities of unfolding a story. After a short break, while anxious ears and silent mouths were still waiting, he would have attached a little story, a little twist, to the main body of the story which would have given it a different flavor and would have unsettled all his listeners with their comfortable notions on life by making them question their inner selves. But alas, he has long parted from this would and only a guess can be made on how he would have ended this story. Hopefully it might have run as follows.

It is strange to hear of village women who have gone up the mountains surrounding the village to gather tilion, a medicinal herb, and have come back empty handed time and again. And this not because of lack or scarcity of tilion but because as soon as they stoop down to cut it, rocks are hurled at them out of nowhere and much injury can come to them unless they stand up and stop the cutting and gathering of tilion. Tilion is a sacred herb to the nereids and they do not wish anyone to have it unless they choose to do so.

On many occasions however when the villagers are in great need of the soothing effects of tilion for the infants and young children, special request are made to Yiannis to fetch them some. For it is a known fact that if one has seen the nereids once and lived, he will not be harmed on any other encounter with them. Yiannis never says no, for he himself loves children and does not like to see them suffer. He goes up the mountains and upon his return he has a glowing smiling face, and basketfuls of tilion, without any harm having come to him.

Even the ones who mocked Yiannis can not deny the existence of the baskets full of tilion. Does that mean that one must also accept the existence of nereids? Many villagers are skeptical. And yet many old timers have said it is thus, not only about nereids but also about many other things. And they have been proven right in many instances.

But then what is reality? What is fantasy? Everyone must find his own answers, his own inner voice, and maybe happiness. Perhaps Yiannis found his.


Copyright 2007 Vasiliki Gardiakos

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