Yashim walked slowly across the Hippodrome, towards the obelisk that the emperor Constantine had brought from Egypt 1500 years ago. He wondered what they meant, those perfect birds, those unwinking eyes, the hands and feet incised with unearthly precision on the gleaming stone.
He stopped for a moment in the pencil of the obelisk’s shade, and touched its base. Trajan’s column stood fifty yards beyond, a slender bole of rugged stone, weathered and clamped with great bronze staples, its base carved with a Roman emperor’s Balkan triumphs, helmeted legionaries crammed together with their short swords drawn; the stamp of horses, the abasement of chieftains and kings, the flinging of bridges across rivers, and the lament of women. The scenes were hard to decipher, too; the stone had been softer.
Beneath it, Arab traders had pitched a wide green tent on poles. A string of mules went by, and as Yashim lowered his gaze to watch them pass his eye was caught by the twining stalk of the Serpent Column, hollow and broken like a reed: a twist of ancient verdigris no bigger than a withered palm-tree, set in a triumphal axis between the obelisk and the column.
It had been made over two thousand years before, a miracle of craftsmanship to celebrate the miracle of Greek victory over the Persians at Plataia, with three fearsome snake’s heads supporting a great bronze cauldron. It had stood for centuries at the oracle of Delphi, until Constantine seized it and dragged it here to beautify his new capital. The centuries since had been unkind to it. The cauldron was long gone; the heads, more recently, had disappeared.
Yashim had known the Serpent Column for years before he first saw the bronze heads in Palewski’s wardrobe. He had imagined them to look like real snakes, with broad jaws and small, reptilian eyes, so he had been shocked by the monsters whose cruel masks he had explored by candlelight that evening. They were creatures of myth and nightmare, fanged, blank-eyed, seeking to terrorise and devour their prey. Malevolence seeped from them like blood.
Yashim leaned over the railing, to peer down into the pit from which the Serpent Column sprang. The other columns stood on level ground. Was it because the snakes emerged from somewhere deeper, some dark, submerged region in the mind? He shuddered, with an instinctive horror of everything cultish and pagan. From above, the coiling snakes looked like a drill, a screw digging deeper and deeper into the fabric of the city, penetrating its layers one by one.
If you turned it so that the coils bit deeper into the ground, if you traced the sinuous curves of the serpents’ bodies from the tail up, you would bring the fanged monsters closer. And eventually you would find yourself staring into those pitiless hollow eyes and the gaping mouth, into the dark side of myths and dreams: terrorised, and then devoured.
Yashim glanced back at the Egyptian obelisk. It seemed cold and reserved, careless of its fate. The Roman column was nothing but a platitude: empires decay.
But between them, the green-black coils of the brazen serpents referred to a dark enigma, like a blemish in the human soul.
From The Snake Stone
Jeremy Seal has made a useful assessment of the current travel situation here.