Holy Viper of the Old Greek Diner

~ Marilee Dahlman

Stupid and nasty, his enemies called him. Nico tried to ignore the sting of such insults. After all, at the crumbling Demeter Diner in downtown Chicago, who was in charge? Him. The remarkable Nico, newly elected leader of a great society. The beauty of it! Dark serpents hissing and snapping as they writhe over peeling linoleum, twisting through the rhythms of daily life, cycles of hunt and sleep, attack and dormancy. Violent creatures, but also civilized, still following ancient Greek traditions—gymnastics and track races, leisurely steam baths, and seasonal festivals honoring the goddess of rebirth, Demeter. She hadn’t appeared in six thousand years and blight had ravaged the world for the last five hundred. On the diner’s eastern wall, a fresco of the goddess stood faded but watchful. She wore black robes and held a basket of wilting poppies, the bright red a symbol of resurrection, as all molting serpents well-knew.

Nico turned his attention away from the goddess and back to the assembly. He slid his tongue across his fangs and cleared his throat. Ah, democracy. It was a splendid thing. “We must restore the values of past generations,” he said, emphasizing every s with a long hiss. He’d assumed his favorite perch atop the host stand. The assembly packed the diner’s floor, broad heads arched high and tails vibrating.

Zander, his old nemesis, reclined on the cracked table of the corner booth. Gray-scaled and well-oiled members of the old guard surrounded him, all comfortable on the plush leather seats. Zander slowly coiled and uncoiled his long, heavy body, waiting for silence. Nico’s venom glands contracted. These old males with their soft bellies and milky pupils. They lived in luxury, nothing but fancy degrees and lineage justifying their power. And Nico remembered well his first day serving in assembly when Zander had called him a “small-snouted distraction,” and the rest of the old guard snickered.

Today, they wouldn’t laugh.

Zander raised his head to speak. “We are overcrowded. Food is scarce and you—”

“Treasonous elites!” Nico’s hissed mutter provoked the thud of tails against the floor. Wind shook the diner’s roof. The day darkened and earth groaned with another eruption of the new volcano on Lake Shore Drive. “Rumors of apocalypse are greatly exaggerated,” Nico went on. “I will tell you the true threat! Do you know what it is? Barbarians! They approach from all sides! The solution?”

The assembly began chanting. They all knew the answer.

“Gates!” Nico roared. “We shall build gates of gold. Beautiful gates. Gates like you’ve never seen before.”

Maria, his chief ally and serpent-in-charge of stores, met his gaze. Red scales circled her throat like a ruby necklace. Colonels stood at attention, medals from the wolf-war gleaming. The assembly screamed chants. Nico nodded, and Maria and the colonels slithered toward Zander. The ruling old guard unceremoniously slunk away, leaving Zander alone to face the mob. Over his forked tongue, even at this distance, Nico could smell the old snake’s fear. 

“Gates won’t stop the permanent setting of the sun.” Zander’s words were soft. Maria and the colonels, trailed by the assembly, crawled closer. The chanting stopped. 

“This elite has failed us. Now—prove your heroic virtues!” Nico’s final word ended in a screaming hiss.

The assembly followed his order. Fresh meat was indeed scarce these days, but that night they feasted well on Zander-fleshed gyros.

The next few months unraveled in glorious fashion. The weather worsened but that was nothing new. With Zander finished, Nico wielded extraordinary power, aided by allies who believed in strength above all else. The old diner seethed, a boiling pit of carnivorous back-biting and treachery among his own supporters and subversion by Zander loyalists and gray-scaled philosophers. But Nico reigned popular. He dispatched soldiers to canvas the city, find prey and fetch it back to the diner, usually mice or rats and once a small deer. He ordered it hung bloody on stakes and organized savage wrestling competitions awarding prey as the prize. Citizens needed entertainment to fill the dim days of existence, and the violence helped solve the chronic over-population issues.

“The solution is to be tough,” Nico raged triumphantly from his pedestal. As a young serpent, he’d been a strong contender in track contests and once placed first in the all-age high-jump. As an adult, he couldn’t count the number of times he’d smashed the head of an adversary, sunk his fangs deep into prey, and ingested still-throbbing red flesh all for himself. Others could get tough, or they could eat worms.

Then, one day, he lost.

A young soldier named Albert was toying with a wiggling lizard just outside the diner’s kitchen. Nico smelled the morsel and his head darted toward it, saliva already filling his mouth. Albert, instinctively and quite stupidly, whipped his tail and struck Nico with a stunning blow. “Waste him,” Nico hissed, head swimming. A colonel promptly complied, and seconds later Albert’s body was being dragged to the kitchen. Nico trailed after and began to consume Albert whole.

The next day, another warning sign.

Nico lay on the kitchen tile, blood cool, mind drifting, still digesting large hunks of Albert. Reeling from his loss, his head and ego bruised, Nico had gorged and retreated to the crawlspace under the ovens for a long day of digestion. He didn’t especially love the diner’s kitchen, and rarely hung out there, a windowless place of utter darkness. He preferred to lounge on the cold asphalt of the cracked parking lot and gaze up at the stars, wonder what it would be like to fly, serve as a winged serpent pulling Demeter’s chariot, starlight reflecting from his orange-flecked scales for all to see.

His numb mind barely registered Maria’s voice. It oozed low, somewhere near the back pantry with its empty bottles of olive oil and crackling parchment paper.

“He’s lost it.”

Nico tensed. He swallowed and forced down a juicy burp.

Voices murmured low.

Maria’s voice again: “He says he saw ghosts.”

Nico’s jaw tightened. He’d mentioned that in confidence during an ouzo-drenched evening last week. He had simply mentioned that now and then, in his moments of glory on the host stand, he’d experienced some spiritual moments. Flashes, of a sort. He had witnessed ghosts of humans at the tables, servers striding down the aisles with moussaka, the aroma of spiced lamb filling the air. Ephemeral traces of the past, perhaps. Or maybe—in this world of endless molt and rebirth, existence at the mercy of the goddess of food and famine—some hint of the future.

“The assembly will support me.” Maria’s voice again. Not argumentative. Authoritative. The conniving reptile!

Snatches of words: Poison. Slice. Smother.

Albert’s clogging remains sent darts of heartburn up Nico’s throat. Smothering. Of all the ways to die, it would be the worst. The ignominy of it. To die smashed to the ground, night sky hidden by crawling, angry bodies above him. A plot! His own allies! The rest of the night he couldn’t sleep. He stayed alert, frozen in his hiding place, listening to the plotters crunch and suck on the rest of Albert’s remains. By morning, Nico had a plan.

He summoned the assembly.

In the main corridor unfurling from the entrance, booths to one side and counter on the other, the serpentine governing class spread before him: traitorous Maria, hard-scaled colonels, stretching and sanguine athletes, smirking poets and philosophers, a few silent and glaring Zander loyalists in the cheap seats near the back patio, and—his real source of power—all the rank-and-file who represented the common snake. True believers, who understood that viper society needed to be strong and secure, above all else.   

From atop the host stand, Nico reared back and bellowed. “The golden gates—”

Gates, gates, gates! The answering chant erupted before he could finish. The enthusiasm! Back-stabbing Maria, the smug colonels—he’d show them. He eyed the philosophers, wondered what sort of false and twisted stories they would spin about him next. There was Bertrand, black-tailed and weathered, Cinder with a red triangular scale below his eye like a bloody teardrop. Devious creatures, these philosophers and their writings. At least they had the sense to wince and cower, silver-edged backs pressed against the Demeter fresco. 

The chanting finally quieted enough for Nico to speak again.

“I have an important announcement.” He paused for effect. “I shall embark on an odyssey.” 

Heads cocked all over the restaurant. His words weren’t part of the usual script.

“A brief journey, but important.”

He caught Maria’s gaze. Her vertical pupils darkened and painted red lips twitched.

“I shall find the strategically correct location to construct the first gate. A shining golden gate, which shall strike fear and wonder in the hearts of all. I shall mark that place with my commanding scent, and loyal workers will begin to build.” Nico drew a long breath. “And I shall brave the primitive barbarians to do it!”

Nico bared his fangs. The crowd screamed and drummed tails in support of their leader.

Nico set forth on his odyssey after an appropriate amount of scale-to-scale tail contact and speeches. He selected several bodyguards and a poet to accompany him, all of them young and hungry. The poet Pieter would compose an epic and recite it upon their return. This would add incomparably to Nico’s overall mystique. Maria and the colonels would stay at the diner. In his absence, they could take the heat for limited fresh food. Nico departed in glory, with chants and applause following in his wake long after the diner fell out of sight.

“We’ll return with fresh kills, while we’re at it,” Nico said. “A promotion to captain to whoever spots a deer!” The three young guards flicked their tails in pleasure. They fanned out in protection formation.

“May Demeter protect the lives of this brave five,” said Pieter.

Nico grunted. Not the best poet, but it was impossible to find a decent poet or philosopher who wasn’t a secret Zander loyalist. Why didn’t the elites understand that the gates were a symbol? Golden gates represented superiority, virtue, the prowess of their society compared to all others.

They slithered through a city smashed by wind and earthquake. Caved in, crumbling buildings, streets steepled by tectonic grinds, glass everywhere. Nico didn’t mind the journey. The cool air, days short and dim, the stars always shining. Snakes hadn’t caused this destruction. It was the humans, of course, and they hadn’t been spotted in years. Deadly carnivorous cousins, but unlike serpents, humans were not gifted with the ability to regenerate.

“You’d better write something good,” Nico said to Pieter. “I want a glorious vibe. Lots of action.”

Pieter would have to get creative. They’d encountered nothing living yet, aside from a few insects, and who cared about those? The desolation disturbed Nico but didn’t surprise him. He’d been a young serpent once, out scrounging for all he could find. Life was supposed to be a cycle, but the whole world seemed in permanent decline. All the more reason to grab what power he could, however he could. His mind wandered to next steps, once he’d deposed of Maria and a few colonels and squeezed the entire ruling class into gasping prey under his complete control.

When he returned to the diner, he would phase in new rites of violence. That’s why their serpentine ecosystem was so successful. Resources were limited, and would only become more so. Fierce competition—fangs snapping, tails lashing, beautiful snake-on-snake blood games—they weeded the population down to size. Survival of the fittest. And, at the moment, he—Nico—was fittest of all. Maybe they could wage another pointless war against wolves. He’d carve society down so that the best cuts of meat went straight to him on a silver platter.

Their little band kept slithering.

“Ah, darkness upon darkness . . .” said Pieter. “Has our wrathful goddess provided grain for these creatures?”

Nico twisted his upper body to look up. There—perched on the roof of church—a thousand crows watched their progress. Some flapped wings and paced, others sat still as rain-battered gargoyles. Ugly creatures, but under the feathers beat blood and warm flesh. A thousand meals, tantalizingly within sight and out of striking distance. Nico’s belly grumbled. Oh, but to have a god’s strength! His cursed form bound always to earth. He had only his cruel wits and fangs to serve his needs.

“We are growing near,” Nico said. He could sense the impatience and fatigue of the young guards. The poet trailed behind, always short-of-breath. “All of this territory belongs to us, conquered long ago by our heroic ancestors who came from the old world, Greece.” It was true. They all knew it. “It is up to us to secure it for future generations.”

Even Nico felt tired now. It was far enough. They should stop here, near this human church. One of the guards claimed he spotted pigs to the east, another said he’d spotted a patch of living cornstalks. Red-tinged vapors oozed up from cracks in the earth, providing a dramatic effect. Nico clicked his tongue against his fangs, considering. It didn’t matter what site he selected for the first golden gate. They did not actually have any gold, for one thing. But still, Nico’s body kept contracting and stretching, skirting over gravel, every instinct demanding that he keep going.

Soon those instincts proved correct. He sensed something in the distance. They all heard it: a relentless roaring. Like thunder, but softer, more controlled, shouts of a crowd at the last moment of a hundred-yard dash. But if these were united voices, they didn’t stop.

“Danger ahead,” Nico hissed. “Barbarians.”

It could not be actual barbarians. There weren’t any. A few prowling coyotes, perhaps, or unauthorized frog colonies squatting in concrete lagoons.

“Work it in,” said Nico, with a look back towards Pieter, who’d fallen out-of-sight behind broken rubble. “The sound.”

“Yes, composing in my mind,” gasped Pieter. “I have lyrics, meter, meaning. Ah—”

A scream from the poet, suddenly cut off. Nico and the guards stopped and stared at each other.

Maria? The colonels? “Close in,” Nico ordered.

They did, but too late. As they slithered toward Pieter, tall and hairy creatures grasping spears lunged toward them. Not monkeys, not gods . . .

“Humans,” said a guard in a low whisper.

Nico barely heard it. For he was already escaping, every muscle flexing, his head, belly and tail grasping for traction on earth and propelling himself forward, every survival instinct in his body raging—find darkness! Now! Metal clanged on stone inches from his head. Pain burst along his spine before he managed to reach safety of a narrow pipe. The steel compressed his bleeding body, but he was safe for the moment. He winced at the hissing cries and moans behind him.

He slithered on. When the pipe ended, he chose routes offering the most darkness, always moving closer to that roaring sound. It was unfortunate about the others but he’d eventually work his way back to the diner. Lone survivor—he could build a true hero persona. And humans returned! The assembly would feed on that news for a long time.

A strong fishy smell mixed with mud-slick metal slid over Nico’s tongue. Without warning, he came upon it, and he drew up short. An ocean lay before him—a place that, he was certain, had once been part of the city. Now, it was towering cliffs battered by swirling black waters, buildings and streets perched along a precipice. Howling winds and smashing earthquakes would send more concrete and glass sliding to a watery burial. To the north, a river spewed water into the ocean, creating a misty, deafening waterfall.

This was a gate. Towering cliffs and endless dark waters. A divine, living gate. Nico sighed—even if they could build golden gates, it would pale in comparison to this. He lifted his gaze to the stars and the lone moon struggling to control the waves. Huge black birds with scaled wings spun in lazy circles above the water. Nico dropped his head to the mud and shut his eyes. How he envied them, the ability to soar, their commanding gaze for miles!

He sensed a close and familiar scent. He whipped around, poised to strike. Serpents surrounded him in a half-circle, cornering him with the cliff to his back.

“Your reign is over, Nico.”

Nico stared in dismay. It wasn’t Maria or the colonels. The scales of these snakes were weathered, their dark eyes cloudy from years of squinting at texts. Black-tailed Bertrand, Cinder with the bloody teardrop, and three of their weak-spined philosopher pals.

“Elites.” Nico snapped his tail and glared. “Zander loyalists! Lying and lazy philosophers! Molt your weak scales and reveal the traitor beneath!” Words that the supporters liked to hear. But these five philosophers just nodded as if expecting the tirade.

The wind strengthened. Nico hugged his body close to the ground and raised his head. “This is assassination.” He kept his tone firm and grave.

They answered him with a sharp, unified hiss. Nico backed closer to the cliff’s edge.

“I’ll enjoy watching you plunge to your death,” Bertrand said. “A fatal end to your power-hungry rule. You shall fall!”

Fall, fall, fall, they chanted.

Fear chilled Nico’s cold heart to ice. This was indeed a bad way to perish. A long slide into oblivion, drowning by water and pure darkness. Could he fight? His stomach turned. These were creakingly old snakes but he was outnumbered, exhausted from the journey, and his spear wounds still seeped blood. He looked again at the stars. Perhaps there would be an odyssey beyond this one, another life, privilege and power beyond anything he had experienced on lowly earth. He shivered, feeling his scales harden. By the goddess, he was molting from fear.

He hissed with all his strength. “Oh lady of the great cycle of life and death, my queen Demeter—”

The assassins writhed closer, eyes wide, eager for the kill. “You use the name of the holy mother in vain! Across your deceitful lips and putrid fangs!”

Nico spat. Venom harmless without a bite, but the splatter across Bertrand’s face felt gratifying. He had the right to invoke the divine. “Goddess of famine—”

“Goddess of fertility!”

Nico could scream louder. “Goddess of hunger—vengeance—RAGE!

The assassins replied in joined scream that drowned the roar of wind and waves. “The law-bringer! Our lady of civilized existence!”

“Matron of decay,” Nico muttered. He hunched his spine and prepared for stinging blows that would send him hurling over the edge. He breathed in, sensing the reptile scent of his assassins, the fishy waters below . . . and the sweet aroma of poppies in bloom. Nico frowned.

The serpents crawled closer. “Fall, fall—”

The chant was cut off with a collective gasp. The snakes froze, their unblinking eyes targeting something behind Nico. Near his tail, he sensed heat. A beautiful heat of melting gold, the dark heat of a heart burned black over fire. His inner ear vibrated with the sound of a scrape of stone and wretched moan.

He slowly turned.

A female in human form, dripping and wild, wrenched herself over the cliff’s edge to safe ground. With dignified speed, she hauled herself upright. Clouds freed the moon to cast its light upon the woman. She wore a rotting black gown and cloak. Her hair hung in thick braids, her skin gleamed as if swept with oil, and the veins in her wrists and hands were dark, like snakes squirmed within her flesh instead of blood. She wielded a goat’s horn spilling plump seeds.

Nico stared, cool air sliding over his fangs as he gasped for breath. All this time, living even deeper than he, in some dark cave beneath a cliff, above a sea?

“Demeter,” the other snakes murmured, bowing low.

She ignored them and flung seeds that arched high. Nico followed their flight and saw that humans had advanced close to attack again. Now they cowered. The seeds sprung to life as living plants and an instant later dropped their fruit and grains. The humans shrieked with pleasure and gathered them.

Demeter raised her hands to the stars and clapped them in summons. At this, Nico screamed in delight. Streaking down from the heavens was a golden chariot pulled by a team of glowing, winged serpents.

“Take me, take me, take me!” Nico and the elites screamed. This was their queen. She brought destruction—ashes, rising water, darkness. But also, growth and life. The grand cycle. Nico imagined wings sprouting from his scales. He could see it—feel it—gliding through the night sky with the deity on divine missions. “Take me,” he whispered. “I will serve you. I will serve you best.

Demeter heard him, she heard them all, the hissing cries of the serpents desperate for attention. Fear ravaged Nico’s soul—not of her, not of death, but of being ignored, forgotten, forced to accept the same fate as the lowly others. Demeter gazed down, her braids curling as if each was alive, her flesh glowing. Nico coiled his body, and with all his might, he sprung toward her, the longest, highest jump his body had ever achieved.

Demeter caught Nico and held him like she wanted to hold him. She raised him, far higher above the ground than he’d ever been before.

At her warm touch, Nico shuddered with a vision. An all-consuming sense of his future death and rebirth. Not wings. His cold blood would someday become warm ash. The ash would become sprout and stalk and bloom handsome scarlet, that striking color, that symbol of death and resurrection.

And then it was over.

Demeter gently placed him back into the mud and stepped onto her chariot. The gold flashed as she rose higher and disappeared. The only sign of where she’d gone was the eastern sky, where, for the first time in many years, a sunrise radiated bright yellow. 

Nico set off for the diner, the sun warm on his back. The goddess’s touch had healed his wounds, and he soon crawled out of his old skin. His new scales, a whole new self, shone bright and black. Nico and the philosophers were quiet on the return journey, reflecting. Tears crept down Nico’s face, but he also found that his raw feelings soon faded and the practicalities of life reasserted themselves. Glares from the philosophers disturbed him and he moved quickly, staying out of reach of any strike.

They reached the diner during quiet twilight, snakes waking from afternoon naps on quake-battered asphalt, stretching in preparation for nocturnal hunts. “Nico!” the snakes cried. “Sunlight! New life!”

Indeed, Nico could see green weeds stabbing through concrete cracks, clover reaching over the rim of pots that stood sentry at the diner door. Inside, taking up his speaking position atop the host stand, he spied new spider in a corner and a beetle scurrying across the linoleum.

“The gates?” the assembly inquired. “Barbarians?”

“Forget the gates!” Nico hissed. “And never mind the barbarians.” The philosophers slithered in and took up seats near the back patio. Maria and the colonels sat close by. Nico’s mind squeezed and churned. His gaze lifted to the faded fresco of the goddess. In front of everyone, more scales shriveled off his body and he heaved with silent tears. The assembly fell silent. Nico gathered himself enough to choke out words.

“We have been chosen. You have been chosen.” Hundreds of snakes stared back at him. “Our whole community will be remade. We are all woven together, loyal to the divine lady of the cycle of life and death.” Nico eyed the philosophers, who slowly nodded agreement. “Our fate is clear. We shall rebuild her altar, and renew the ancient practices of worship. We thank her, she who has given us dry scales, cool blood, the ability to regenerate, to remake ourselves and our lives.” Nico paused and cried out: “Oh goddess of fertility and famine, I am your lowly servant, the viper. Hear my hissing prayer for a freshly reborn regime! A righteous regime!”

Assembly tails began to pound. He counted quickly. Close to three hundred snakes. Far too many, even if the new light on earth brought many mice and rats. He composed his face to a stern expression and stared down the assembly. “Those who don’t shed their old skins and comply with the ideals of the new order will meet the consequences. They shall—”

“Burn!” a philosopher shouted from the back.

Burn, burn, burn, the assembly chanted. The heads of the assembly bobbed up and down. Even Maria and the colonels followed suit. Someone lit incense. 

“As your leader,” Nico said, “I shall decide who must burn!”

The assembly roared its assent and continued its chant.

Nico demanded garments reflecting his elevated spiritual status, and young snakes quickly fetched him a veiled headdress and beaded vestments, crafted in some past generation that had first settled the diner. They found icons of the goddess and set up the chipped vases and plates and dusty paintings at the wall fresco to create an impressive altar.

Appropriately adorned, Nico kept hissing, fueling the crowd into religious fervor, enjoying his dominance, his brain growing dizzy with power and the sweet scent of myrrh. Night fell. He could no longer see the twisting and snapping assembly. But Nico was the most cold-blooded snake of all, and as the citizens of Demeter Diner writhed in righteous excitement, he could feel their heat. 

King of Swords

 

Marilee lives in Washington, DC, where she writes fiction first thing in the morning and works as a lawyer for the rest of the day. Her other stories have appeared in Apparition Lit, The Bitter Oleander, Cleaver, Metaphorosis, Orca Lit, and elsewhere.

She can be found on Twitter @marilee_dahlman.

 [ issue 5 : winter 2022 ]