by Bill Bowler
Chapter 7: The Count
part 2 of 4
Two maids were dusting the curtains that were drawn shut across a window in the hallway outside the Count’s bedroom.
“Why can’t we open them and let some light in?” the younger maid asked the older one.
“But it’s dark in here all the time, day and night.”
“The Count prefers darkness. They say his skin and eyes are more sensitive than yours or mine. Daylight pains him. He’s more comfortable, poor thing, at night than during the day.”
“But the curtains have been drawn for three years now. We’re like mice hiding in our burrow.”
“It’s always night in this castle. And keep your voice down. He’s sleeping now.” The older maid nodded towards the bedroom door. “It’s best you not disturb him.”
With that, the subject was closed and the older maid walked off down the hall, touching her feather duster to the sills and surfaces as she went. When she turned the corner and was out of sight, the younger one parted the thick curtains and looked out through the glazed glass.
The sun was shining brightly. People were moving about in the courtyard below. There was noise and motion, life, in contrast to the sepulchral gloom and perpetual twilight of the castle interior. The young maid drew the curtains shut and continued her chores, wishing she were a farmer’s wife, working outside in the cheerful sun and not sealed in this tomb.
Night had fallen when Vladimir awoke. He threw off his sheets, swung his legs to the floor, and sat on the side of his bed. In the darkness, he saw perfectly the patterns on the Persian carpet, the fine lines between the stones set in the wall, the wood grain in the window sill. The hall outside his door was empty. The courtyard beneath his window was quiet. Silence reigned, almost. Vladimir’s acutely sensitive hearing picked up the clatter of dishes and cutlery in the kitchen two floors below and the sound of wing beats in the air as an owl flew past his shuttered bedroom window.
He had not been abroad, not been out of the castle, for weeks. He had wanted to, had needed and been tempted to take the form of wolf or bat and roam through the countryside, down to the village. The sense of freedom when wandering beneath the night sky was exhilarating and the irresistible opportunity to quench his thirst might present itself.
Vladimir rose from his bed, walked to the window, and drew open the shutters. Moonlight filled the room, refreshing the soul. Only one month had passed since Vladimir’s last “visit” to the village. He should wait. It was still too soon. He knew the unwritten bargain, the delicate balance between himself and the villagers. Their patience and tolerance had their limits.
Vladimir’s mouth was dry. His lips were cracked. His head throbbed with a dull, persistent ache. His want was a need, an irresistible urge. He hungered to feel the release, the loss of care and worry, the surge of power and knowledge, of joy, that feeding brought. He removed his nightclothes, dressed in black, and drew about his shoulders his black cloak with its peaked collar and red silk lining.
At sunset, a coach pulled up to the inn with travelers en route from Vlasca north through the mountains to Bistrica. The moon was rising in the east as the travelers, sore and weary, climbed out of the coach, stretched their legs, and walked into the inn for a hot meal and a good night’s rest.
Among the travelers was a Hungarian merchant and his plump and handsome wife. Both wore long coats of fox fur. Both wore jeweled rings. The wife wore a thick gold chain that hung around her neck and reached her chest. As they entered the main room of the inn, warm and inviting, the smell of garlic and wolf bane filled their nostrils.
The merchant’s wife climbed the stairs to their room and, when she entered, the same stink greeted her. She saw clumps of the pungent herbs tied on the door and strung in the window latches. She saw, as well, the room was decorated with a large silver cross on each wall.
It was close and stuffy beyond endurance. She pulled the string of herbs from the window latch, opened the shutters, and tossed the garlic and wolf bane out the window. The cool, refreshing night air poured into the room and she breathed deeply, gazing out at the moonrise in the east.
Hours later, after a good meal, the merchant and his wife were sound asleep in bed. Vladimir flew into the room, took human form, and stood for a moment naked in the darkness, listening to the merchant snore. As he approached the bed, the woman opened her eyes and sat up, waking her husband. Before she could scream, Vladimir took command of her will and bade her be silent.
The husband cowered under the sheets. His thoughts and impulses were received by Vladimir’s mind. Vladimir felt the man’s fear, his selfish cowardice, his wish and hope that the intruder was after his wife, after anybody else, but not him or his money.
The next morning, the merchant awoke from troubled dreams to find the bed beside him empty and his wife gone. He raised the alarm and they searched for her frantically, but she had disappeared without a trace. Under questioning from the constable, the merchant recounted that, weary from the long ride in the coach, they had both collapsed in bed and he had slept deep sleep through the night. He had not awoken until morning and recalled only fragments of an odd dream of a great flying bat.
The innkeeper saw the open window and shutters. He touched the crucifix he wore always about his neck and whispered a prayer as he looked out the window and saw the sheaf of garlic and wolf bane on the ground below. He looked up at the cliffs and saw the infernal castle gazing down on them with black, empty eyes.
* * *
Time, the great illusion, man’s invention, held sway. Years, then decades passed, taking what was theirs until, one day at sunset, old Nikko the Faithful shuffled into the great dining hall of Poenari Castle, Count Dracul’s residence. The shades were drawn, as always, across the windows. Nikko leaned unsteadily on his wolf’s head cane and looked about the room with failing eyes, straining to see in the poor light.
Grandpa Mihai, once known as the Strong, was slumped in a chair at the long dining table. His hair and beard had long since gone completely white. His hand trembled and spilled wine down his front as he sipped from a goblet.
Across from Mihai sat Vladimir, erect and commanding, full of strength and vigor. His lustrous, jet black hair fell in long locks to his shoulders. His dark, thick moustache concealed his upper lip. His skin, smooth and soft as a newborn’s cheek, was pale and colorless. His almond eyes, piercing, knowing, flashed with impatience.
Old Nikko walked slowly to the table and sat beside his master.
“My bones are aching today.” Nikko rubbed his knees.
“Stop complaining, you old scarecrow.” Mihai laughed, revealing toothless gums, but began to choke on the wine.
“If only the Devil had visited me, too,” said Nikko, running his bony fingers through his thin, white hair. “I would have gladly made the pact. It’s too late now.”
Mihai, recovering from his choking fit, was wheezing and gasping for air. “I would have, as well. I still would.”
Vladimir stood from the table and gazed at what was left of his former bodyguards.
“Don’t be so sure, old friend. It’s not the bargain you might think.” Vladimir smiled ruefully and Mihai caught sight of the sharp tips of his master’s incisors.
Nikko, the Faithful, whose love for the Count had never weakened, looked sadly in the mirror that hung beside a tapestry on the wall behind Vladimir. In the glass, Nikko saw his own sunken eyes and wrinkled face, and Mihai’s thin white hair and frail, stooped figure. Vladimir, dark and vigorous, cast no reflection.
* * *
A busload of tourists pulled up to the ochre walled building at No. 5, Cositorarilor St. in the medieval walled city of Sighisoara. The tourists had already viewed the Dominican Monastery, the Citadel, the history museum and the torture chamber inside the Watch Tower. They had already wandered the narrow, winding cobblestone streets of “lower town” and now, tired and hungry, were piling noisily into the Casa Vlad Dracul Restaurant to sit at wooden tables and drink liter tankards of Romanian ale.
Slightly drunk, two members of the group, college kids on summer break checking out “creepy castles” in Europe, climbed the staircase to the museum on the second floor to view the weapon collection.
They wandered from case to case, admiring the crossbows and arquebuses on display, and came to a 15th-century fresco that hung on one wall. A small plaque identified the fresco as a portrait of Vlad Tepes, the infamous monarch who had ruled Romania over five hundred years ago.
“Yo, Jason, look at that, will you?”
“That’s him, Adam, the real Dracula.”
“Check out the mug on that guy.”
“He doesn’t look so tough.”
“They say he was one nasty dude.”
“No different than you or I,” said a hoarse, cracking voice with a thick Romanian accent.
Jason and Adam looked up to see who had spoken. A decrepit old man with thin white hair that hung to his shoulders, a wrinkled face, a drooping moustache, and sunken, piercing, almond shaped eyes, who had been pushing a broom in the hallway, had come into the room and stood near the tourists.
The old man’s face was a wreck, in ruins. His cheeks were covered with pockmarks, the skin was peeling, the tip of his nose was worn away and his ears, poking through the thin strands of long white hair, were shredded and raw. Jason dropped his eyes. Adam stared.
“What do you know about Dracula, gramps?”
“Was he a friend of yours? Ha ha,” Jason snickered, feeling more confident.
Adam laughed, too, but the old janitor replied.
“The Count was born in this very house and lived here as a child. His father was Prince of Wallachia, murdered on orders of the Regent of Hungary! Count Dracul regained his father’s throne and ruled as best he could. Mehmed the Conqueror coveted our lands and invaded without provocation. We had to defend ourselves and responded in kind. Much blood was shed and the myth arose.”
“Was he really a vampire?”
“If you believe what ignorant and foolish people say, and what you read in books and see in the cinema. The truth is even stranger than these fictions. A witch had given him a powerful potion that allowed him to change into the form of a wolf or bat. It made him invincible in battle. When blood was added to the potion, it prolonged his life. Through the years, he remained young while everyone around him aged and died. So long as he drank blood, his body lived.
“But as time passed, the House of Dracul fell on hard times. The Thirty Years War decimated our lands. Our war against the Hapsburgs failed miserably. The nobility was ruined. The merchants took control.
“Penniless, with his castle in ruins, he travelled to London to begin life anew but had to flee from vampire hunters and thrill seekers and was forced to return home to Romania.
“Eventually, the great wars came, one after the other. Though poor now, he thrived in the bloodbath. Then the Communists came and, with them, more bloodshed.”
“What finally happened to him?”
The old man replied, slowly and sadly, with downcast eyes. “He gave up. He lost the will to live and was ready, at last, to die in peace. After centuries of so-called ‘immortality,’ his flesh wore out. But more than that, his spirit withered and he grew disgusted with mankind. He gave up blood and began to age again, to waste away. And he waited, patiently, for the end to come, for death, which is great and glorious.”
The old man went on, after a pause. “The one person who ever mattered to him, who ever meant anything to him, his son Josef, died of the black plague in 1460. But a witch had cast a spell on the boy. By means of a powerful potion, the boy’s living spirit survived the death of the body and was reincarnated through the generations. The Count was always dimly aware of his son’s lingering existence. He could sense the boy’s spirit, though where it was he couldn’t say exactly. When the time came, when all hope was lost and the Count was ready to die, he determined to follow the call of his son’s spirit, to heed the summons and see his son, or the body that now held his son’s spirit, one last time.”
“That’s quite a fairy tale, grandpa.”
“He made the whole thing up, if you ask me.”
“You know,” said Adam, “you look a little bit like the guy in the fresco.”
“Yeah, you do,” said Jason, looking back and forth at the portrait and the old janitor. “You have the same pointed bug eyes, the same high cheekbones, the same moustache. Are you related to Dracula, Gramps?”
“Distantly,” the old man muttered and shuffled off, away from the two boys gaping at his decrepitude and comparing him to the old painting. Jason saw the old man wore black leather gloves. Adam noticed patches of white hair were falling out of the poor guy’s scalp.
* * *
So long as Vladimir drank blood when the thirst was upon him, his body had lived on.
But as the decades and generations, and then centuries passed, his spirit was overcome by the endless spectacle of greed and vanity that played out repeatedly before his eyes. He grew horrified at the utter meaninglessness of life without end.
The endless debacle of mankind’s violent fear, hate and contempt for itself gradually wore down the Count. As Tamara had foreseen, endless life of the body was not the bounty it first seemed. Vladimir became weary, his spirit grew exhausted, and he sought respite in death.
He had not tasted blood for one hundred years. He still yearned for it, was still tempted when he recalled the warm, salty taste and the thrilling burst of strength and insight that came when he drank it. But he resisted the urge and his reflection slowly returned to the looking glass. His flesh no longer bubbled beneath the rays of the sun. He was free again to live in daylight among mankind.
But as the effects of the blood-laced potion slowly wore off and death approached like a curious stranger, Vladimir’s body began rapidly to decay from long use. In the first years of abstinence, his fingers and toes had become shredded so that he took to wearing fine black leather gloves at all times. Within a few decades, the thin tissue of his nose and ears wore through and developed holes. His eyes and hearing were failing. He felt weak and empty, and always in pain. His body ached with each movement. And still, Death had not yet come.
Vladimir longed for the grave but first, before he yielded, before he succumbed, he wished to see his son, or the vessel of his son’s spirit, one last time. The sense of his son’s spirit, always with Vladimir, had grown in strength and now summoned him irresistibly. It drew him westward and he followed it like a faint signal.
He spent his last pennies to travel by coach through Western Europe to France. In the port of Marseilles, he stowed away aboard a freighter. After the ship finally docked in Brooklyn, the Count snuck from his storeroom hiding place at midnight. He skulked furtively to the rail, jumped overboard, and swam ashore with his last ounce of strength.
The signal from his son Josef’s spirit had grown clearer with each mile closer to New York. As the old Count, dripping wet and exhausted, crawled up onto a dock in Red Hook, the sense of Josef’s nearby aura was screaming in Vladimir’s mind like a siren. His journey and life were nearing their end. He would encounter his son’s spirit one last time, in whatever form it might have taken, and then Vladimir would die, at last, and find peace.
* * *
To be continued...
Copyright © 2009 by Bill Bowler