(For the first part of this story, “The Dirty Pot,” click here.)
A sense of imminent danger drew her from the depths of sleep. She opened her eyes wide and tried to sit up, but could not. She tried to lift an arm, but could not. She tried to turn her head and cry out for her father, but could not. Panic squeezed her heart.
(Image from Livescience.com)
Light was draining from the room, but her awareness sharpened. With startling clarity, she could trace the grain in every wooden beam. She could hear the rattling snore of her father catch in his throat, the creaking of individual boards in the frame of the cottage, the whistling of the wind through specific chinks in the mud and woven sticks.
She also heard a furtive rustling at the foot of her bed. Something was moving around down there. They were not alone. She knew it with dreadful certainty. Something was in the room with them, squirming on the packed dirt floor. They were not alone! Something was writhing like an insect on its back. A dark and angry presence, a hateful and malicious being. She knew it with absolute certainty. Oh God, if only she could move!
Abruptly, the rustling stopped. Then, after long moments of held breath, she felt a tug on her blanket. It slid down her throat. She wanted to grab the warm blanket and hold it to her, her only protection, but her hands would not obey.
Another sharp pull and the blanket slipped over her breasts. A shadow arched high into the room and settled onto the mattress between her tingling feet, reminding her of something bad she had done. Oh God, it was climbing into bed with her! She tried to scream as it moved upwards with a slithering movement. If only she could scream!
Her heart fluttered like a bird caught in a trap, banging its head against her ribs, trying to break out. And still the malevolent shadow slid up her body, pressing her deep into the straw mattress. She heard the leather straps squeak under the weight as it settled on her chest.
It grew heavier and heavier, restricting her breath to rapid, panicked gasps. It was trying to kill her! It was pressing the air from her lungs and soon she would die. Purple splotches morphed before her eyes, cut with knives of yellow light.
Unless she moved, she was going to die. She strained to lift a finger. Oh God, if she could only move a finger!
Her struggles drew it to her. It leaned over her, a curving darkness. It was breathing heavily, as she could not, as she desperately needed to do; its spoiled breath like the gangrene that killed her mother. She felt its malice pour from its stinking mouth.
And then it pressed its icy lips against her own and began to suck inward, a deep suction from an infinite emptiness, drawing the last air from her lungs, which were about to close forever like a book.
This is the moment of my death! she thought. Oh God, forgive me! Forgive me!
With one last effort, she broke her paralysis and clawed the space above her. The motion released her. She sat up and gasped, looking around wildly, drawing in pained breath after pained breath. The purple splotches dissipated. Nothing was there.
“Papa! Papa, help me!” she screamed, the loudest scream she had ever made. “Stana is trying to kill me!”
* * *
Her father held her in his arms on the kitchen floor as she sobbed. Her whole body shook. He stroked her long black hair and said, “I’m sorry, Nada.”
When she was finally calm enough to tell him what had happened, he did not act surprised. “Vampir,” he whispered. “It is vampir, a spirit that cannot rest. It steals the life of others to maintain its existence. It is vampir. It cannot rest.”
“Papa,” she asked, searching his face, “have something like this happened to you?”
He was quiet for a long time, scratching the mole on his chin, then said at last, “Yes, every night the vampir comes for me, every night since Stana died.”
“But Papa, I did everything right. I opened the windows. I covered the mirror. I emptied the cups and basins. I checked twice, Papa. I even–“
She reached behind the wood pile and found the wilted flowers that Joachim had brought for Stana, a few drops of acrid water at the bottom of the cup. She poured it out the window and threw the cup and wilted crocuses into the bushes.
* * *
Nada told everyone who would listen about the visitation but was unable to communicate the sense of danger, the malice.
After describing the experience to the pregnant wife of the standard bearer, Milosava replied, “It is what happened with Arnold Paole. Remember? He fell off the hay wagon six or seven years ago, then began visiting the villagers at night. He would try to strangle them or–“
Nada stopped listening. Joachim was hurrying through the center of the town, carrying a basket of eggs and glancing surreptitiously in her direction. She walked up to him and hit him on the head. “You!” she yelled so that everyone could hear. “You did this to my family! You ruined my sister. You killed her and her child. You brought the vampir on our heads.”
He took a step back, and this infuriated her. She rained down blows on his head and shoulders as fast and hard as she was able until she backed him against the wall of the church, until she knocked the eggs from his hands, until blood ran from his nose and brow. He did not raise a hand to defend himself, and this convinced her of his guilt.
His mother came running and placed herself in front of her son. “Nada, you wrong my son! The boy is innocent. He did not even know how babies came into the world until a few nights ago when my husband asked him about your foul accusations. He had to explain to Joachim. He did not know. He was disgusted. I swear to you on Saint Sava’s grave. He could not have done it. He is innocent.” She took her son by the hand and picked up the basket, bleeding yellow. “Leave him alone, Nada. He is unhappy enough, the poor boy.”
His mother began to lead him away. “I loved Stana,” Joachim said over his shoulder. “I have loved her since I was a boy, yes, but I did not do this thing.”
She hit him again, and his mother pulled him away. Nada looked around at the villagers gathered around her. They looked angry, dangerous.
“Then it was the priest! Father Zoric did it. You have seen how he favored her, how he treated her. She was his pet.She was always praying, the little saint! There was plenty of time for it to happen right here in our own church! He even visited her a few days before she died and acted strangely. Yes, he had a guilty look. The child was his!”
The shocked villagers crossed themselves, hurrying away, and still she yelled, hoping the priest could hear her in the church. “It was Father Zoric! The priest has brought this curse upon our heads!”
* * *
A few nights later, the widow Miliza died. Her daughter-in-law told the villagers that she had complained about a pain in her side and difficulty breathing. Someone, she said, was trying to throttle her. And on the next day an eight-year-old boy, a strong boy, a healthy child, died after only a three day illness.
The widow and the boy were laid in the church on the same day with crosses in their hands and wreaths on their heads. Bowls of koliva were set by their heads with a candle stuck in the boiled wheat and honey to symbolize the sweetness of heaven. The deacon swung the censer, fragrant incense rising to the roof of the little church, as the priest chanted prayers to release the souls of the departed and comfort the grieving.
At the end of the service, the mourners kissed the crosses in the dead ones’ hands and extinguished their own candles, a reminder that they too would surrender their souls one day. The Trisagion, the triple invocation of God, was sung as they carried the bodies from the church, and it was sung again by the graveside, as the yellow leaves of the mulberries rattled above them.
(Image from Serbian Heritage Tours)
Nada was not invited to the mercy meals of either family. As the villagers walked away, Nada heard them whispering, “It is happening again, like the time before with Arnold Paole. It is happening again.”
Nada did not remember the story well; she had been a young lady at the time, interested only in dancing the Kolo and meeting young men. Her head had been so full of love songs that she did not have room for such fearful stories. She had stopped her ears when anyone spoke of it. She hurried home. Her father would know about Arnold Paole.
* * *
The chickens followed her to the door of the cottage, looking at her hungrily, as if they wanted to eat her. They were so skinny, but there was so little to give them. I will find something after I speak to Papa, Nada thought. I won’t forget.
Her father was sleeping, snoring raggedly, and she realized he had not left his bed since Stana died. Thankfully, he had not tasted alcohol since then, but he had not eaten much either. He had been a hefty man but was wasting away. She got some dried meat and sheep’s milk.
As she looked down at him, something caught in his throat, and he stopped breathing for several long moments. At last, the blockage cleared noisily.
Disgusted, she shook him and offered him the meat and milk, but he waved them away and turned to the wall. “I am still fasting, Stana. For the Nativity. And I am doing penance. I will not eat today.”
She tore off a piece of the meat for herself and took a deep drink of the milk, despite the restrictions of the Nativity fast. “Tell me about Arnold Paole, Papa,” she said, as she chewed the hard beef.
He looked at her, then sat up slowly. Again he refused the milk and meat. “Soon after the Austrians expelled the Turks from these parts, Arnold moved to our village of Medveđa. He was a mercenary soldier, a haiduk, stationed in the Ottoman regions of Serbia, in a place called Kossovo, and when he was there, he converted to Islam, God forbid, but returned to the Orthodox faith when he came to our village.
“He told us that he had been plagued by a vampir in Kossovo, but he saved himself by eating the soil from the vampir’s grave and smearing himself with its blood. Then one day he fell from a wagon and broke his neck. I think he was drunk. About a month later, four people complained that he was tormenting them. They died soon after. All of them.
“When we dug up Arnold’s grave, he looked the same as the day we laid him in the ground. Fresh blood flowed from his eyes, nose, mouth, and ears. His shirt, the covering, and the coffin were completely bloody. The old nails on his hands and feet, along with the skin, had fallen off, and new ones had grown.
“He was vampir, so we drove a stake through his heart and fresh blood came from his body. Although I did not hear it, some say he groaned. We burned him and scattered his ashes, then we uncovered his victims and did the same to them to prevent them from coming back. Nada, Arnold killed two of our sheep as well, but we ate of the meat. I am sorry, we were too poor to throw the meat away.
“Now you will have to stake and burn Stana’s body.” He looked at her sadly. “And after I die, you will do the same to me. Don’t let the priest bury me, or he will not allow you to dig me up, and I will find no rest. You must be strong, Nada. You are the last of our family. You must find a husband, have children, and go on.”
She hushed him angrily and forced some milk on him. He drank a little to appease her, then smiled at her lovingly. “I have not been a good father to you, Nada. I let your mother die because I did not know how to clean her wound, how to exorcise the infection. Nor did I know how to take care of you girls. I was a bad enough father, but I could not be your mother. I have done wrong. I will regret my mistakes forever in hell. But you, Nada, you must be strong. You must be the one who lives, the one who joins your mother in heaven. Please, Nada, when you see her, tell her that I love her still.”
“Papa! Do not speak this way. Hush. I will not listen.” She stood up. “I will find someone who will help me kill Stana. Eat! Eat!”
* * *
In the end, after much discussion, she convinced a few villagers to help her, including Stevan Gorschiz,the hadnack, the military administrator, who was afraid that the events involving Arnold Paole would recur. They were accompanied by two soldiers from the local militia, the hadnack’s servant Rade, and an old man called Staniko. Although other villagers believed Stana, no one else would join them.
Except the priest. Someone had alerted him, and he followed them through the thin rain, falling like needles, and tried to dissuade them. “Let the girl rest. She is dead. I assure you she is dead. Only God can bring the dead back to life. The devil has no such power. Do not fall prey to superstition. We have God’s truth; we do not need such fairy tales.”
Stana pretended she could not hear him. Stevan, the military administrator, however, argued to the group that, since she was buried in unconsecrated ground, she was outside the priest’s jurisdiction. As the leader of the town, he thought it was their duty to do whatever necessary to protect the village.
“The holy scriptures condemn the desecration of a grave,” Father Zoric responded, “even an unhallowed one. God punished Moab for burning the bones of the king of Edom, his rival. Leave her body alone. Do not add more tragedy to her story.”
“Since the girl is already dead and damned,” Stevan insisted, “we can do her no harm.”
“This is the 18th century, not the dark ages. We live in a time of enlightenment, not superstition. The learned can read the works of great men and understand the motion of the planets. Reason tells us that vampires are impossible, and God confirms it. It is your own consciences that are haunted. Forgive your sister, Nada. Let her go. Let her body rest. Let God judge her soul.”
The priest almost dissuaded the small, wet group, but Stevan said again that they had to be sure, or else the terrible events that took place six years ago would repeat themselves, and the rest agreed, so they pulled the mud from her grave with hoes and shovels. Father Zoric watched, shaking his head.
They dug until a terrible smell arose from the grave, the stench of rotted meat, sickness, and honey. Nada covered her mouth to prevent disease.
“Look,” the old man Staniko said. “Her hair and nails have grown, and there is a touch of blood on her lips.”
Those details were enough for the hadnack, so he ordered Rade to drive a stake into her heart and then he began to saw off her head, a messy business that increased the stench. Nada looked at her sister’s muddy face as Stevan struggled to remove her head and guilt crept up her spine. When the head finally rolled free of the body, Stevan, Rade, the two soldiers, and Staniko anointed their foreheads with some of the black blood and ate some of the dirt from her grave. Nada, however, refused.
As they reburied her–it was too wet to burn the girl–the priest grabbed Nada’s sleeve. “Nada, I fought the Turk before I became God’s servant, so I have seen enough of death to know that this girl’s body is decomposing. The hair and nails look longer because her skin has shrunk. That is all. Your sister was already dead. There are no such things as vampires.”
Nada turned on him. “You raped my sister, you devil! I will never listen to you again, and I will never enter your church until you are dead.” She then climbed over the fence, hurried through the mud to her home, and latched the door.
Father Zoric is right, she said, as she tried to wash the stink from her hands. My sister is dead. She is not vampir.
* * *
Stana awoke once again with the weight on her chest, terror outlining every detail of the room in frightful clarity. She smelt its rotted breath, like the decomposing body of her sister, as it pressed its cold lips against her own. Tiny frozen fingers scurried up her breast to her neck, where they stretched and stretched all the way around. The grip tightened, and the thing began to squeeze with impossible strength. She felt her neck would snap.
How? How is it possible? Nada wondered as her vision dimmed to darkness. Stana is dead!
With a dizzy rush of horror, Nada realized who the vampir was. And with that realization, she managed to shake herself free and sit up, coughing and crying.
“Papa! Papa!” she shouted, stumbling over to his bed. “Papa! It isn’t Stana! Oh, Papa! It is her baby, her unbaptized baby! Oh God, it is the drowned–” She shook his arm, but it was cold and limp. His hand fell to the dirt.