Forward: When I was eighteen, my sister and I visited the famous Byzantine castle in the Taygetos Mountains in Sparta (my parents hometown). Along the way, we passed through a monastery and met a nun who offered us a disgusting mix of water and orange powder. What I found peculiar about the nun was that she had three bolt locks securing her door. I figured that, being a woman of faith, she should have relied more in God. Being afflicted, as I was, by the writers’ disease, I couldn’t help but invent the nun’s entire life story, up to the point where she felt a three bolt lock system was as necessary as the icons in her cell. The result was Anna, a story about a woman living in fear. In college, Anna was a favorite of two of my professors, except for the one with the PhD in religious studies. At the time, I never regarded my non-sword & sorcery fiction as having any worth, so I never bothered to back any of it up, which resulted in my losing everything from my creative writing days, including Anna, to a computer virus. I later realized, during my first attempts at publication, that showing an aptitude in a diversity of genres is an asset. Though I could remember most of it, I knew I could never truly get the story back, since thirty-seven year old Nick Alimonos is very different than twenty-something Nick Alimonos. But I could rewrite it with a more mature perspective, which became Anna and the Devil. What I like about this new version is how much more of it is drawn from life. The the three girls weeping on the hill is a story my mother used to tell me. I have also taken inspiration from the Orthodox faith into which I was born and the Greek/Spartan culture with which I am intimately familiar. For this and other reasons, I dedicate Anna and the Devil to my mother, Angeliky Alimonos (who, by the way, lives and has lived a full and active life).
Anna and the Devil
In 1933, plumbing was for the wealthy few living in the city—in Sparta—so Anna’s father sent for water from the hills of the Taygetos Mountains. Anna was nine, so she got to play hopscotch as her two older sisters threw their weights onto the winch, which was green and brittle and loosened only after much effort.
From the ridge overlooking the village of Mystras, houses sprouted like mushroom from the canopy of olive trees. Across the valley, the ruins of a Byzantine castle stretched across the mountain peak. Some tiers below it, the monastery clung precariously to the cliff face. Anna was familiar with the tiny churches built into the rock there, the twisted yellow forms of Jesus and Mary, the elaborate woodwork depicting the suffering of the Saints. Every Easter Sunday, the holiest day of the year, Anna gathered up the hill with the neighboring villagers, joining in the chant of, “Christ is Risen!” God was in those mountains, watching over them, protecting her family.
Anna was hopping from rock to rock, trying to pick out her home from the cluster of rooftops, when the groan of the winch stopped with a sudden squeak. Rocks were tumbling beneath Anna’s feet as Georgia, frozen at the winch, burst out, “Oh, God!” But Tassia was quick, catching her nine year old sister by the hair. The three girls crossed themselves at once, praising God for the intervention.
Georgia stood over her younger sister, hands on her hips, taking Mother’s role. “What were you thinking, Anna? You could have killed yourself!”
“I was just playing,” she offered timidly.
Her eldest sister’s face was flush with shock, as if Anna was already lying dead at the base of the cliff. “Oh, my heart . . .,” she exclaimed, “did you ever stop to think what might happen to me, if something were to happen to you? Always acting the way you do! You’re just a stupid girl, stupid, stupid, stupid. If something was to happen—knock on wood—Mother couldn’t bear it. You’ll send her to an early grave.”
Anna lifted her eyes and waved her hand in a gesture of mockery. There was always a bit of melodrama whenever Georgia opened her mouth. “Nothing happened, sis, and nothing will. Remember, there is a God.”
“Yes, but this cliff is steep!” she said. “God doesn’t bother with those not watching where they’re going. Plenty of people have gotten killed from here . . . in fact, I fear for my kids just looking down there.”
“Your kids?” Anna wanted to slap her own face. “You don’t have kids, Georgia.”
“But I will,” Georgia replied. “Just think about it: someday we might need to send our kids up here for water, and one of them might be playing too close to the edge, and then . . . well? How will you live with yourself?”
“It is pretty high,” Tassia admitted, who was already beginning to sob. “Our poor kids! Our poor babies!”
Georgia was turning fifteen in May and was bound to be thinking of her future as a mother, but Tassia was still a child. To Anna’s mind, the situation was moronic. Even if their children did climb to the top of the Taygetos, there was a God. But seeing Tassia shedding tears, and Georgia joining in the act, as though their children’s fate had already been decided, Anna couldn’t help herself. Before long, the three sisters were squatting in the tangled grass, weeping uncontrollably as girls and boys skipped, one-by-one, off the cliff to their deaths.
Anna’s father was a stout, barrel-chested man. Tufts of black sprouted from his half-buttoned shirt where the gold of a cross sometimes glinted. His mustache was like a small animal flecked with gray that twitched whenever he was angry. His hands were slabs of meat that fell hard.
“What’s the meaning of this?” he barked as he smacked his face. “What are you girls crying about?”
Georgia tried to explain it to him, but there was nothing she could say that didn’t sound absurd.
“That’s why you’re crying, is it?” he screamed. “My God! And I thought something had actually happened!”
Father’s belt was as thick as four of Anna’s fingers, brown tanned leather, hard and inflexible. He had worn it for as long as she could remember. It was almost comical the way he reached for it now. He was so furious, he could scarcely control his movements, and the buckle snagged on his pants. Anna and her sisters screamed in terror, running in circles like hens. They were swift with youth, and he was tired from a day in the field and a life of hardships. But it was their respect, and a fearful reverence, that kept them from escaping his belt.
Anna always feared her father. But she couldn’t wait to watch him come tiredly into the house, crash into the wicker chair beside Mother and complain of life’s injustices as he squashed one cigarette after another. She loved the rough assuredness in the way he spoke. God must have such a voice. Sometimes he’d gather her up like a bushel of olives onto his lap, which was the safest place in the world. Anna loved his pungent breath, the mix of tobacco and ouzo and sweat. When he was in a good mood, he’d chase her around the kitchen threatening to eat her, toss her up like a plaything and tickle her neck with his mustache rendering her helpless with giggles.
When Anna was twelve, Father didn’t come home. It was December, days before Christmas, and snow had fallen on Mystras. He went out for ouzo with old friends from the war, stumbled drunk out of the taverna, and on the way home, decided to take a nap in the cold night air.
From then on, as was the custom, Mother would tie her hair in a bun and wear black. After grieving for a year, Georgia and Tassia went about in the drab earth tones of their school uniform, but Anna, against Mother’s wishes, continued to wear the same clothes of mourning. The history students from America, who came to study the ancient Spartans, did not understand the custom. Why not remarry, they asked Mother? Why carry on grieving forever? But they didn’t love their fathers the way the Greeks loved theirs.
When Anna went up for water again, she found herself weeping on the spot where her tears had fallen before. Why didn’t God save him? Father was still young. Now they would go hungry—eating only what the neighbors were willing to share. Perhaps he failed to knock on wood, or was given the evil-eye after speaking ill of someone. Or maybe it was the Devil. Anna knew of the Devil from what Mother told her—the Devil was the cause of every misfortune. And the more she thought on it, the more Anna was convinced. The Devil planted the idea in Father’s mind, to go drinking that night, to sleep out in the snow which caused his pneumonia and death. The Devil, not God, took Father from her.
Again, her future children were disappearing from the ledge, but the notion did not seem so absurd. Even if she were to forbid them to go near the mountains, there was hunger and sickness and weather. During the Easter holidays, when Mother met settlers or visiting relatives, she would often ask them, “How many children did you have? And how many survived?” Why? Why ask such questions if God protects all children? Why was it customary to say, at every baptism and wedding, “May you live,” as if life was not assured? Perhaps those unfortunate people lacked faith in God. Or perhaps they sinned and lost favor with Him.
There is a God, Anna reminded herself, but there is also a Devil.
As Anna came down from the mountain, her arms strained with sloshing water, she knew she would never have children. As there was no more money after Father’s passing, Mother was quick to find suitors for each of her daughters. Georgia’s husband moved in with them, providing income for both wife and mother-in-law. Tassia married a man twice her age who owned a small taverna in Sparta. But Anna refused to take a husband. She could not explain to Mother when or how she came to the decision, but Anna knew she was to become a bride of God. It was a fitting choice, as she’d already chosen to wear black for the remainder of her life. After a short liturgical apprenticeship, Anna would go to live in the Taygetos Mountains where God would protect her. Even the Devil could not enter a house of God.
In 1940, the year that Anna donned the habit and entered the convent, the Great War came to Greece. The Nazis decreed that for every German killed, ten Greeks would follow. Anna knew the rebels hiding in the mountains. Sometimes they came to the monastery seeking food or a place to hide. If turned away, they forced entry, stealing the wine and bread set aside for Communion. At the insistence of the city locksmith from Sparta, three bolts were fitted to her rickety door. For added spiritual protection, Anna chanted over the lock with her fingers joined in the sign of the holy cross. Despite his poverty, the locksmith refused payment, so Anna blessed him and his family.
In 1944, months before the Nazis retreated from Greece, the rebels succeeded in murdering a number of Germans and Georgia’s and Tassia’s husbands were rounded up for execution. Believing that God was closer to Anna, her sisters sought her favor. Overcome with worry, Anna trembled as she recited the Divine Liturgy, her icons pressed against her heart, her tears flowing across the dour faces of Jesus and Mary. She asked that God watch over each husband, from sunup to sundown, till sleep left half-recited prayers on her lips.
By October, both men returned home. Anna wept with joy and praised God. And when her sisters each brought sons into the world, she was quick to arrange their baptisms, ushering silent prayers that the Devil not take them. Never once did Anna not feel justified in the choice of her vocation, nor did envy for her sisters’ lives creep into her heart. To envy was to sin and lose favor with God, which was to invite the Devil into her home.
When Georgia moved to Athens, Anna prayed for the success of their new restaurant. And when Tassia left for America, she prayed God keep the plane from crashing into the Atlantic.
As an East Orthodox monastic, Anna was formally “dead to the world.” But she enjoyed correspondence with her family through the miracle of the postal service. In a Florida photo, to Anna’s horror and shame, Georgia was smiling in a two-piece bathing suit. In a letter from Colorado, Anna was equally horrified by Tassia’s husband teaching the kids to ski. Over the years, fewer and fewer letters reached her door, till none came at all. Despite a pang of longing, Anna was thankful. Without news, she trusted in God that all was well.
Mother died peacefully in a chair in the summertime, and Georgia came with the kids. Anna hardly recognized the old woman. Her daughter looked more like the girl she remembered straining at the winch all those years ago. The visit was short and awkward. There was little to be said beyond old reminiscences, and the American that looked like her sister treated her with cold indifference. After the funeral, Georgia went to the islands with the other tourists, and Anna never saw any of her sisters again.
One day, Anna looked in the mirror seeing a short, round woman, her hair gray with flecks of white, her skin pale with patches of brown. Anna was alone but for the other nuns and Father Michael, who, she believed, was a wise and righteous man. As she went about her bedtime ritual, chanting over the grim visages of Saints, Anna heard—or thought she heard—a voice. Rushing to the door, she unlocked each bolt, only to stare blankly into the starry night.
“It must have been a bird,” she murmured, sanctifying each bolt as she moved them back into place.
In the midst of her prayers, she heard it again. And it was not a bird, but very clearly a man’s voice. It was not threatening or deep, or exceptional in any way.
The sound of her name fluttered about the room and Anna shuddered. “Wh-Who is it that disturbs me at this late hour?”
“You know me, Anna,” the voice said.
Anna pressed her face against the rough surface of the door, peering into the light between the cracks. Something terrible was behind it, unnerving her. “Forgive me, but I have nothing to offer you. The monastery is closed. Return tomorrow.”
“Truly now, is that the Christian way to greet a visitor? Open the door, Anna. Please.”
“No,” she answered, her shriveled, spotty knuckles pressing firmly against the triple-bolt lock. “I am old and tired, and will be going to bed soon.”
“But I know you, Anna—I have known you since you were a child, since the day you and your sisters wept at the well.”
“Be gone!” she cried, her body quivering, but already the bolts were rattling in their fittings, being moved one by one from beyond the door. She knelt, her bones aching, to recite the Nicene Creed. “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen . . .” The door flew wide as from a sudden gust of wind. Anna peeked through the empty space, but could see nothing but darkness. “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ . . .” Wood splintered. Glass chimed. Saint Peter stared accusingly beneath the shattered pieces of his gilded frame. Before she could bend to pick up the pieces, the shutters blew apart and a fierce wind swirled about the room, turning every candle to wisps of smoke. “. . . the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father,” crosses tipped over, “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made . . .,” icons shattered, “. . . of one Being with the Father . . .” Her eyes closed tightly, as if by not seeing, she could dispel it. And she prayed with all the strength of her soul, as though God was distant and straining to hear her. “. . . And through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation.”
Only the moon gave light to her tiny cell. The silhouette of a man stood beside her window. As he stepped into the moonlight, she could see him, dressed like a priest, his beard as black and silky as his flowing robes. But they were not the garments of the Orthodox Priesthood, but of something perverse, something archaic and forgotten.
“I know you!” she cried accusingly, the crucifix that hung from her neck deep in her palm, “you’re the Devil!”
“Am I?” His voice was firm and authoritative, like a disapproving teacher, but his eyes were wrong, glinting dully like from the open slats of a furnace. “After four thousand years, I have lost count of the names I have been given. But to you, I suppose, I am the Devil, or Satan, or Archfiend of the Fifth Hell.” He rubbed his oily beard, which sprouted like a hook from his chin. “But none of those are my true name.”
“Lucifer!” she exclaimed with triumph. By knowing his name, she hoped to have power over him. “Your name is Lucifer!”
He laughed, not wickedly, but like her father after too many ouzos. “Lucifer, God no! What ridiculous, made-up nonsense. No, my true name is Baal. Alas, how short man’s memory is—how fleeting man’s life! You wave your flags and symbols; you die for faith and country. How silly it all is. How pointless. In another four thousand years, no one will remember this land but a few obscure scholars. But I remember! I remember Canaan, where I was loved! I gave my blessings to man’s indulgences, to joy and laughter. They had orgies in my temple. Orgies!
“But then he showed up, the god of the desert wanderers—of Hebrews—the jealous god. He will have no other gods before him, so what does he do? He demonizes us! Asherah’s followers, the women priests of his Temple, were put to the torch, just as the fertility priests who offered alms to me. But what do you remember of such things? Those massacres are not recorded in your liturgies.
“This god you worship, this YHWH, is a cruel, vain, pompous, egomaniac! Would a truly benevolent god ask that you kiss these symbols of misery?” He caressed the foot of Jesus that hung from the crucifix, “No decent god in my time would identify with suffering and . . . death.”
“Lies!” Anna wailed. “You are the Father of Lies! Behind me, Oh Satan, I am saved by the Lord Jesus Christ and you cannot touch me!”
“Oh?” he replied, “then how is it that I can do . . .” and she felt his finger, like ice against her temple, “this?”
“I have committed no sin!” she wailed, clasping her eyes.
“But that is untrue, sister, you are not without sin.”
Anna dared to look at him for the first time. There was infinite knowledge in those eyes, threatening to engulf her like a dark well, and the longer she looked into them, the more she felt her assumptions teetering out of control.
The dark figure moved closer, the edges of his body trailing like smoke. He knelt down to whisper, but shouted instead.
“Does the term carpe diem mean nothing to you, Anna? You have been given such wonderful gifts—such faculties of the senses! And you’ve squandered them! Is that not blasphemy? Is that not sinful?”
“Speak no more!” Anna cried, covering her ears. “If I am to be judged, tell me now and torment me no further!”
“Judged? That is not my job. I have been tasked with taking the souls from this world to the next, like your Charon from Ancient times.”
Anna stood in his presense with an unexpected sense of calm. Death was greatly preferable to damnation. “So you have come here to kill me, then? To take me as you did my father?”
“No,” he replied, “not yet. You see, Anna, whenever I appear, people beg me for one thing and one thing only: more time. But I am not inclined to offer it. I must then suffer their lamentations, their regrets—how they wish they’d known that death was imminent. If only I knew, they say, I would have done this or that differently.
“Your father was the exception. He came not willingly, but peacefully, for not a day of his life was wasted. With every breath, he loved, and was loved. As for you, Anna, what have you done with yourself? You’ve spent your life hiding in this place, and praying, all for the fear of me. Of all the creatures on this Earth, I find you the most pathetic, Anna. But it is not too late.
“Your father so impressed me, that for his sake I shall do something unprecedented—I come early, to give you the gift of foresight. Hark these words carefully, Sister Anna: before the dawn comes thrice more, I will come for you. That is the time you have in which to live. Do not waste it in prayer.”
The man dissolved in the ribbons of smoke rising from the candles, into the windowpane, into the stars becoming one with the moon, and when Anna could see him no longer, she could feel the blood trickling from her fist from where she held her crucifix.
Sleep did not take Anna that night. She listened for that small voice that spoke within her, the voice she believed was God’s, but in place of His voice, she heard only the love ballad of crickets. In place of the Saints hanging from her walls, she saw swirls of dim pigments, wrinkled by time. When Anna opened her eyes from reciting the liturgy, the dawn was at her window, and everything that had fallen—the icons, the crosses, the candles, even the three bolts at the door—were returned to their places. Whether it had been a dream, or not, did not matter. The Devil spoke to Anna, and she could not muster enough faith to keep from quaking at the thought of him. Anna’s mind was numb with revelation—she was like Eve, naked with sudden awareness before the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, like Moses before the Burning Bush, like Saint John of Patmos who witnessed and wrote of the end times in the Book of Revelations. The Devil’s ideas were knocking at the threshold of her consciousness, but she dared not entertain them. And then Anna picked up her Bible, turning at once to Romans 3:23: For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Was it a sign? Yes, she was a sinner, and a fool to think she was safe from the Devil. She was weak, she knew that now, and would need guidance.
Father Michael’s desk was littered with books and papers. Some of these she recognized as hymns and liturgies. Others she did not. There was a book by Frederick Nietzsche and another by Sigmund Freud.
Father Michael was silent for an uncomfortable length of time, staring at the mural opposite her. Hundreds of years ago, the Ottoman Turks had taken their daggers to the image of Jesus, leaving pits for the eyes.
“You do realize,” Father Michael started, slowly and carefully, as if consoling a child, “there are many in the Church who do not accept a literal interpretation of the Devil.”
Anna looked up. Even now, in his office, she was praying. “Forgive me, Father, but I don’t understand.”
He folded his arms in his robes, looking regal in his heavy gold chains and flowing beard—like God himself. “For many theologians, and I count myself among them, the Devil is a projection of our sins. He is our guilt, our fears. Do you understand?”
“What are . . . what are you saying?” She poked at the corners of her eyes with a handkerchief. Tears were forming randomly throughout the day. “Are you saying that I did not witness this? Because I did, Father—the Devil visited me! He stood in my cell, and I saw him with my own eyes, as clearly as doubting Thomas witnessed the resurrected Christ! Oh, Lord Jesus, have mercy upon me,” she added, crossing herself for the fifth time in his office.
Father Michael sat down. “Please understand, Sister Anna, I wish for nothing but to help you.”
“But what should I do?” She was pleading now. “I have prayed; I have fasted; I have enacted all the rites. This morning I took Communion. I keep a rosary about me and holy water from Mount Athos.” She produced a vial to show him, as if he might not believe it. “But my faith is slipping away . . . and I am so awfully afraid, Father . . .”
“There is nothing to fear, Sister,” he said with conviction. “You are saved. We are all redeemed through the blood of Christ. If there is some sin in your heart, you may confess it to me. Repent, and the Lord forgives.”
“V-Vanity . . .,” she started. “I believed I was without sin, that I’d lived a good and pious life, that the Devil could not touch me. But I have fallen short . . . I invited the Devil into my home through vanity.” She was trembling uncontrollably now, burying her face in the folds of her hands.
“Are you certain there is . . . nothing else?”
“I do not . . . I do not . . .”
Father Michael glanced down the hall, slowly shutting the door to his office. He sat on his desk, close enough to touch her, which seemed unorthodox, and said, in almost a whisper, “Sister, these feelings you have been having,” and for a moment he eyed the book by Sigmund Freud, “could it be you have been . . . curious?”
“Curious?” Anna murmured.
“Yes—you know,” he added, placing a tender hand upon hers, “about yourself, about your body?”
Anna shot up and backed against the door, fumbling for the handle. “Pardon me, Father, but I must leave.”
On the dawning of the second day, Anna knew she was completely alone. If Father Michael did not believe her, no one would. She wandered through the monastery, up and down the hills of the Taygetos, lighting the candles in the small churches built into the rock, chanting at the altar of the Saints. But the more she prayed, the more she felt that no one was listening. By nightfall, Anna was convinced of a greater sin—she had lost faith, and God was rebuking her for it. She was a disheveled woman now, her hair unkempt, her clothing wet with perspiration and tears. No food or drink touched her lips, for she hungered only for the soul. But the God she knew was absent.
On the third day, Anna made a prison of her cell, allowing the agony and the emptiness to fill her. She imagined Christ as he was tortured, raised to the cross, iron nails filling her palms, spilling her blood. She suffered as he did. Only through suffering could she find redemption. Prostrate on the floor, she mingled tears with prayer. Memories drifted into her mind like clouds. Father was there, smiling as he came through the door, tossing her up in his great powerful arms. Georgia and Tassia sat by the well, the houses of the village tiny beneath their feet, their bodies supple and strong. Their husbands were as handsome as they had been during the war, and children and grandchildren ran along the periphery of the cliff without an inkling of fear. There were no tears, only love and laughter. And she did not envy, for the day was young. From the top of the hill, the world was vast and full of colors and utterly beautiful, and it filled Anna’s soul with joy.
Two young boys, dressed in the black vestments of the priesthood, stood back as the door splintered and came softly ajar. The locksmith had set them at the beginning of the war; now aged, they came apart with a single blow. Sunlight from a lone window streamed to the floor, casting the faces of the Saints in shadow. Father Michael stood in turmoil at the doorway, unmoving.
There was an angelic quality about her face, a halo of illumination, though she was pale and sickly. He knelt beside the body, recoiling with the sign of the cross. His acolytes were quick to follow his example.
Father Michael opened his mouth to speak, a great, deep sigh shaking him with grief. “Poor woman,” he said finally and with defeat, “she died alone.”