Ancient Athens, 3rd century BC.
"If you don't go to bed immediately, the Lamiai will come and get you," Melantho said.
The girl gasped and dropped the rag doll she was about to throw at the nurse.
"Oh, they will come," the older woman grumbled. "The Lamiai have black snake-like hair and long fingers with claws – all the better to grab naughty children!"
With this, she lifted her four-year-old ward and hoisted her into the crib.
"I don't want to go to bed!" The girl made a face and waved her arms at Melantho.
"Don't be so difficult." Melantho unwrapped the child's thin chiton. "Close your little bright eyes. If you don't, Empousa will come. She is the Lamiai's leader and the most vicious of them. She snatches little children who refuse to sleep at night, carries them into the wild hills and sucks out their sweet blood.
The girl shut her eyes tightly and pulled the woolen coverlet up to her ears. If her mother was there, Melantho would have had to resort to long-winded blandishment, promises and lullabies: lady Timeia disapproved of horror stories, but Melantho had been a midwife, wet-nurse and nanny longer than Timeia a mother; she knew that fear was the most efficient tool for calming uncontrollable children.
Melantho adjusted the coverlet so that the girl wouldn't suffocate. She walked around the gynaikeon strewn with rag-dolls, laying with their embroidered faces up or down like city-dwellers after the plague, which, thank gods, passed this household by. Melantho picked them up and placed them into a big basket. Then she straightened her back with a grunt, perched on the edge of her own cot and trimmed the wick of an oil-lamp which had been smoking quietly on the night-stand by the headboard.
"Nani, nani, mikro nani..." she chanted to the girl who remained immobile under a weight of fear. Soon enough the child let out a sigh of relief and went limp, very much like a rag-doll with flaxen hair herself.
Pre-sunset glow seeped through a tiny window closed with a stretched sheep's gut; on its way to the windowless women's bedroom it waned and wore out. Darkness fell swiftly; soon lady Timeia and her sister-in-law would come back from the inner courtyard, where they had been enjoying the last of the fair weather, looms and spindles in hand.
Once the girl had been settled, the nurse had every right to go to bed herself, but it seemed a shame to waste the residual light and warmth of the dying day. With a glance she made sure her ward was sleeping and went into the women's chamber. The gloomy corridor in front of her was empty, but the room behind her suddenly held its breath. Melantho froze in her tracks. Someone sighed, adjusted a rustling garment. Melantho crossed her fingers against the evil eye and looked back. The girl was quiet. The nurse recovered her wind and scurried to the exit as fast as her grating joints would allow.
Anna Avdeeva is a poetess and fiction-writer. Her main interests are linguistics and ancient history - things that connect people through time and space. She recently graduated with a BA in Greek and Roman studies and currently works and resides in Ottawa, Canada.