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Haunted by terrifying dreams of snakes, Dusa goes to a clinic in Greece where two mysterious doctors, the Gordon sisters, promise to cure her of her nightmares.
"So, how do you feel?"
"Tired," said Dusa, "but okay so far. Tonight will be the test, won't it, the first test." She was serious now. "Nobody will be coming around at the crack of dawn to take my blood. Mom, it's good to be home. I hope I don't wake you up, and I sure hope I don't beat you up, me and my snakes. Seriously, I think you'd better lock my door."
"No," said Pearl. "Let's think positive. You're going to be okay." And if you're not okay, and I need to help you, you wouldn't believe how careful I'll be, she added to herself.
Dusa dumped the pasta into a colander in the sink, then used tongs to lift big portions onto two white china plates, topping both servings with lots of sauce. Her mother added lettuce and ranch dressing. They both moved quickly, with glances at the clock. Tonight there was no question of eating at the table. They picked up their trays and headed through the swing door into the tiny living room. Setting their trays down on side tables at opposite ends of an overstuffed chesterfield covered in a faded floral print, Dusa and her mom sank down comfortably side by side.
For the moment, it was just as if the snakes, the nightmares, the seizures, the attacks and the hospital stay had never happened at all.
Pearl sighed and reached for the remote. Sometimes she felt guilty about eating dinner here, but Dusa was right, it was easier. She was never up to much dinnertime chat, always wiped out after her day in the law office of Sanderson and Jaffey. Later, her energy typically revived, but by then Dusa would be deep in homework or gabbing on the phone with her friends. "Discovery Channel, right?" she asked.
"Right," said Dusa, forking a mouthful of spaghetti. "I'm not getting my hopes up," she said defiantly. In spite of herself, however, she felt the adrenaline surge.
It was an interview show. Onscreen, a man introduced two women, Dr. Teno Gordon, a medical doctor, and Dr. Yali Gordon, a psychologist. Dr. Teno looked squat and dumpy, older than her sister, dark and slightly mustached. In a no-nonsense navy suit, she sat square to the camera. Someone had used a brilliant crimson lipstick on her lips. Dr. Yali, tall, slim and gorgeous in a jungle-print designer pant-suit, looked more like a model than a psychologist. Dusa goggled for a minute before turning her eyes to the middle-aged host. What was his name? She frowned. She didn't like the way he treated people, Mr. Nasty and Nice. Usually she didn't watch him.
"We invited three different neurologists and two well-respected psychologists to join you on the program tonight," Mr. Nasty began. "I have to tell you, ladies, all five of them turned us down flat. 'They may be sincere practitioners,' one of the good doctors told me, 'but I doubt it. I think they've made up the disease they pretend to cure, and I won't be seen with them on your show or in any other public forum.' Strong words, aren't they? Does everybody in the medical establishment think you are charlatans? Are you charlatans?"
"We are not charlatans." Dr. Teno's voice was coldly indignant. "When something is different, out front, little people try to knock it down. It is the nature of an establishment to be suspicious of anything that is outside the common experience. We are outside the common experience. Naturally, the medical establishment frowns on our work and puts obstacles in our way. It is to be expected. You have seen our credentials. We can spend our time arguing about them if you insist."
The interviewer leaned forward. "Snake dreamers," he snarled. "You cure snake dreamers! I've heard of some very strange diseases, but I've never heard of this one, nor have the doctors who head up the Medical Association."
Dusa stopped chewing. Her fork slipped out of her hand and clattered on her plate. She did not notice. Her eyes were fixed on the television screen.
The younger sister laughed, a musical, charming sound. What was her name? Yali, Dr. Yali Gordon; Dusa remembered it easily. Dr. Yali tapped the interviewer's sleeve. Gold bangles jingled on her slim bronzed arm. "Come now," she said lightly, "are you telling me that you--in this business--you believe everything the doctors' office tells you?"
The interviewer grinned at her. "It does sound preposterous, all the same," he repeated, "but preposterous can be fascinating. So, tell me, tell our viewers all about your snake dreamers." Enter Mr. Nice, thought Dusa in disgust.
The camera, which had framed the three people around the table, now zoomed in on the fair woman's face. It was a rather angular face, with high cheekbones, a sharp chin and a beaky nose somehow composing a very attractive whole.
Dusa's foot began a rhythmic tapping on the floor. Pearl gave her a startled glance. Her right hand caught Dusa's tray as it began to slide off the girl's lap. Pearl fielded her own tray onto her side table and put Dusa's dinner on the floor; her daughter's eyes never wavered from the woman on the screen.
"The condition is extremely rare," said Dr. Yali, jingling her bangles at the unseen audience, "but not so rare as we first imagined. Now that my sister and I have identified it, patients come, in desperate need of help, so many that we have restricted our practice to treating them."
"In fact, you are good angels," bantered the interviewer.
"Our patients think we are."
"They are all young people, didn't you tell me?" said the interviewer.
"Young women," dumpy Dr. Teno cut in abruptly. The camera swiveled. Dusa grimaced. Both sisters spoke excellent English, but Dusa was sure the language was not native to them. What, then? She could not even guess.
The interviewer waited, expecting Dr. Teno to continue, but the heavy crimson mouth stayed shut. "How did you get started?" prompted the man. "Have you been treating snake dreamers for a long time?"
The two women looked at each other. A twisted half smile passed between them. "A long time?" echoed dark Dr. Teno. "Oh yes, sometimes it seems like centuries." She gave a deprecating shrug.
"Once there were three of us. We had a younger sister," said Dr. Yali. "We first encountered this condition in relation to her. For longer than you would credit, our dearest wish was to make our sister whole."
"You couldn't help her?"
Both sisters shook their heads, apparently unable to speak. There were tears in Dr. Yali's golden eyes. "Because of what we learned, we have been able to help many others," Dr. Teno said. "We have always dealt with adolescent sleep disorders," she added firmly. "Now we are more specialized, that's all." She locked eyes with the TV host.
"How does the illness begin?" he asked. "Or should I say, the condition?"
"It begins at menarche," replied Dr. Teno. "Overnight, as you might say." Again she closed her mouth.
Dr. Yali added softly, "Call it an illness, call it a condition, what matter? Night after night, their sleep is restless and their dreams are full of serpents. Like the snakes, the sufferers writhe and twist."
Dusa retched, fighting off nausea. Her mother moved close, so that their bodies touched. She put an arm around her daughter's rigid shoulder.
"As bad as that? Why hasn't anybody heard about it, if it's as bad as that?" Mr. Nice sounded shocked.
"Often the young people suffer for many years but do not tell their parents," soft-voiced Dr. Yali replied. "In the early stages, they may try to tell, but no one takes them seriously. In early days, they themselves keep hoping that it will go away as suddenly as it arrived. For a long time they may seem quite normal, but it's all pretense. They learn to fight off sleep, because they are afraid of it, and rightly so. For them, sleep gives no rest, only the snakes."
Pearl's arm tightened.
"After a few years, the victims are thin and harried. Sometimes they are wrongly diagnosed as epileptic, but medication for this condition makes them much worse. When at last they come to us, our patients blame themselves. They are horrified, because now others know their shameful secret." The slim woman shook her head in pity.
The trembling began in Dusa's hands and arms, but in no time her whole body was shaking. Her face was chalk white. Pearl's free hand moved to cover her daughter's fingers. How cold they felt!
"You see, the snake dreamers are convinced that they are different from everybody else. Like all young people, their greatest need is to be accepted and to be part of the crowd. In a vain parody of normalcy, they hide their nightmares and long for them to disappear. Perhaps only the bravest of the sufferers, or the most desperate, convince a parent, or, once in a long while, a much-loved friend."
"Omigod," breathed Dusa. Was it an exclamation or a prayer?
"Oh, Dusa," said Pearl.
Dusa shivered and sobbed and kept her eyes on the screen.
"Hush, darling," said her mother, her voice almost breaking. "Hush then, hush."
In front of them but wholly unaware, the television voices talked about snake dreamers, how other people, doctors and psychologists included, did not understand the violence of their nightmares, the exhausted desperation of their waking hours. Slowly Dusa's trembling subsided and her mother's grip relaxed.
"That's what it's like for you," said Pearl at last, flatly. She felt Dusa nod. "Oh, darling, I wish I'd been able to understand."
"You tried," mumbled Dusa. "You did better than Dr. Andrews."
"Does it still sound preposterous?" asked the slim woman on the screen. "Are we angels or charlatans? What do you think?"
The interviewer shook his head. "What happens when they don't get help?" he asked.
"We are convinced that they often die in early stages. Friends and relatives have come to us, sometimes years later, when they have heard of our work. It's not always suicide, or not obviously so. The snake dreamers are so tired, it must be easy to put a foot wrong and fall, or to drive a car off the road. An illness that might otherwise be minor could carry them off. If they survive, catatonia. It does not come quickly, but it almost always comes. Stupor and extreme rigidity of the limbs are the major physical manifestations.
"We have talked to two women who survived into their twenties without help. Their catatonic phase had been atypical and brief. As they grew older, the nightmares had finally faded, though they had not totally disappeared. Even without our help, those two might have created some semblance of a normal life."
"And with your treatment, Dr. Gordon?"
"Our recovery rate is better than ninety percent with a maximum of three years' treatment," said the older sister. "We define recovery as being free of the mental symptoms, snake dreams and other hallucinations, and the physical ones, uncontrolled muscular spasm, followed by rigidity, for at least a year. We monitor our patients into their twenties. However, in our experience, the condition, once successfully treated, does not recur."
"That means treatment at your clinic in Greece?"
"Correct." The woman continued, "A patient need not live year-round at the clinic, however. She may come for a month or two at a time."
"Sounds expensive," commented the interviewer, his tone halfway between Mr. Nasty and Mr. Nice. Dusa's mother nodded; that was exactly what she had been thinking.
"We can cope," she said to Dusa. "If you need treatmeet, love, then treatment you shall have." Dusa managed a shaky laugh.
"You are here for a conference," said the interviewer. "Some people must have some confidence, or at least some interest, in your work."
"A conference of psychologists," Dr. Teno pointed out. "My sister's co