No Such Things as Vampires, Part 4: The Epidemic

(For the first part of this story, “The Dirty Pot,” click here.)

The same morning before the weak autumn sun had burned through the clouds, Joachim also died without confession or holy communion. Some villagers whispered that he had eaten jimson weed to kill himself, but his mother denied it vehemently.

Autumn, Leaves, Scars--Beyond Dark Clouds, Deep into the Burning Sun, pt. 2; maxresdefault

(Autumn, Leaves, Scars – Beyond Dark Clouds, Deep Into the Burning Sun Pt. 2, by LightFox177)

“It was the vampir,” she insisted. “The vampir choked the life from his body. Every night since Stana and her child died, he has grown weaker. It was the vampir.

“And the evil eye! You heard the terrible curses Nada laid on his head, that bitter woman. You heard the terrible lies she told about my son. You saw how she beat my boy in the town center until she shattered his nose and broke his brow. She cursed him, that wicked woman! She sent the vampir to kill my son! She sent her own nephew to suck the life from his body. It was Nada. Do not say that he killed himself. Do not tell such lies about my boy.”

The priest was in a difficult position. He denied the vampir, but he did not want to declare Joachim a suicide either, at least not without evidence, so he agreed to bury Joachim in the churchyard.

“We do not know the cause of death. We will let God be the judge,” he told the villagers, but some turned their backs to him. His authority was eroding like a muddy bank on the Morava. Some thought he had fathered Stana’s child, as Nada claimed. More damaging to his reputation, he refused to accept the vampir, so he could not help them fight it.

“We do not need his big city education here,” Stevan Gorchiz grumbled. “Let him go back to Belgrade and rejoin his enlightened philosophers. We need a priest, not a scientist. My wife is ill, and something must be done.”

Nada washed and dressed her father’s loose body herself, a process which disgusted her. The priest came to give the First Panikhida, the first prayer service for the dead, but then she sat alone by her father for three endless days and nights, staring at his body with hatred, until at last the priest came at last with a large cross to say the Trisagion. When the prayers were finished, the priest took up the cross and his son, his two daughters, and Nada picked up her father’s body and carried him to the church.

* * *

Nada was able to convince more villagers this time to come to the graves by the fence. They brought tools to dig up the unbaptized babe and stake its heart and cut off its head and burn its body, but when they arrived, they found an open hole. Nada stared into the shallow pit and shivered.

“It has crawled from its grave,” whispered Stevan. “It has crawled from its grave and escaped to live in the woods. Now we may never find it. Help me search. It is killing my wife.”

The priest, who had followed them once again, pointed to some dog tracks in the hardening mud, but the villagers crossed themselves and looked fearfully towards the woods.

“Please,” Father Zoric said, “Be reasonable. We do not need monsters to explain the darkness of the world. There is evil, true, but it is sickness, slavery, rape, murder, and war. Evil exists in plain sight. It stands around us in ordinary clothes. It does not come like a ghost in the night.”

* * *

The next morning Nada found one of her sheep dead in its pen without apparent cause. A nine-year old boy passed away after only a short illness. A neighbor’s cow died.

When Milosava was in premature labor, she screamed that Stana’s child was crawling all over her. It was trying to climb inside her to eat her babe and take its place. Neither she nor her child survived the birth.

Stevan’s servant Rade fell ill with the same symptoms as his wife: fever and difficulty breathing. The hadnack’s wife saw a baby with vulture’s wings and long fingernails swooping around her head, so Stevan ordered the militia to scour the woods again, covered now with a wet pall of snow, but they found no trace.

Some villagers worried about the plague, but most feared the growing band of vampires. Nada heard that Miliza’s son was inviting family and friends to spend the lengthening nights in their sleeping room, so they could set watches to protect themselves. She baked some fresh bread, gathered apples, and hurried over, but Miliza’s son, who had once followed her with dog-like devotion, refused: “Your family is marked by the vampir, Nada. We dare not let you in. My mother is dead because of Stana and the boy and you. Because of you, my own mother comes at night to kill me. You will not cross our threshold.”

Villagers gathered in two other houses as well, including Stevan Gorschiz’s two-story house, the largest in the village, but Nada dare not approach for fear they would turn her away. She lay alone, afraid to sleep, listening to the wind whispering through the chinks.

After confessing and receiving holy communion, the hadnack’s servant and wife died within days of one another. Stevan tried to cut off his wife’s head with his sword, but, before he could make a second cut, his younger brother grabbed his wrist. Since Stevan was weak with grief, his brother managed to pry the sword from his fingers. He held Stevan against the wall until he swore that he would not harm her body.

“I am the leader of this village. I am trying to save Medveđa,” Stevan said helplessly. “Each person killed by the vampir will come back as vampires themselves. We must prevent it. We must burn the bodies of my wife and servant. We must dig up those who have already died, Miliza, Milloje, Joachim, Milosava, and the boy, and stake their hearts, or else we shall also die and come back as revenants. It is my responsibility. I am the leader of this village.”

Ruža, a 40-year old woman, died after a ten-day illness. She said that Milloje, Nada’s father, had climbed on top of her and tried to strangle her. The accusation made Nada furious. Ruža died without confessing.

Stevan marched to the church with a group of soldiers and demanded the priest allow them to dig up those killed by the vampires, but Father Zoric refused, reminding him that it was against the laws of God and man, so the hadnack told the frightened villagers that he would go to the commander of the imperial army in Jagodina to get permission from theLieutenant Colonel to execute the vampires. He galloped away with his soldiers, and everyone prayed for deliverance.

* * *

They returned on December 11th, not with permission but with the Contagions-Medicus of the Austrian government, a specialist in infectious diseases. The administration feared an outbreak of the plague. This was not the result Stevan had hoped for, but he saw it as the first step in getting permission to exhume the vampires, so he was cooperative and insisted that every villager visited by vampires submit to Dr. Glaser’s examination.

Nada was one of the last they called. She dressed in her newest embroidered blouse and tied her whitest scarf around her hair, then walked quickly to Stevan’s house. Maybe this Dr. Glaser is handsome, she thought, and will take me from this cursed town, but when she knocked on the hadnack’s door, she had a sinking feeling that she was being summoned to her trial.

The little Austrian doctor, with a funny, white wig and somber clothing, carried out the examination in the hall. He peered down her throat and pressed cold instruments against her chest and grunted. He smelled of lilac and bad breath; he smelled foreign. He touched the glands in her neck with pasty fingers and asked her slowly in Serbian if she had experienced something strange.

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(Image from AustrianTribune.com)

She told him about the visitations. He listened impatiently, so she began exaggerating to impress on him how truly frightening it was, the most frightening thing she had ever experienced. She described a naked, withered baby with the face of an old man, climbing up her body and sucking blood from her teats. He was not impressed.

“This is nothing,” he said, interrupting her as she began the story of the second visitation. “You are sleeping. Or your mind is perhaps awake, but your body is sleeping. Yes, you cannot move your body, so your mind is frightened. Then you see things because you feel–how do you say it–you feel helpless, so you see things, but they are not real. They are waking dreams. They are hallucination.

“How many in our village have died, Doctor? Ten? The vampir sucked the life from my own father. Can dreams kill?”

“There is another explanation, a scientific explanation, for all these things.”

“Do you think we have the plague, doctor?” Nada asked with a smile.

“No sign of plague,” he said, “but many are hungry. Yes, hungry. Malnourished. You are malnourished. Do you fast? Please no fasting. You must eat.”

Nada was silent for a moment, as if he were accusing her, then shook her head. “I am not fasting.”

He shrugged his shoulders and wrote something in his black book. “The region is poor, very poor. You have not food enough. What is your name again? You go home and eat big tonight: meat and cheese and bread. You are skinny. You must eat. Eat!”

She laughed. “Yes, I and the vampires in my family will feast tonight because the silly Austrian doctor told us to eat. The villagers will feast on each other because we have so little else. And what about you, doctor? You are fat enough to feed the countryside. What will you say when we come to feast on your fat belly?” She spoke quickly, and the doctor looked at her with a puzzled expression. Nada smiled coquettishly at him and retied her blouse.

* * *

The following morning, Dr. Glaser met the villagers outside the church and told them his findings: no plague, no vampires, just ordinary illnesses and malnutrition. His prescription: everyone must eat!

The priest nodded and told them that he was suspending the Nativity Fast, something unheard of, but the villagers responded with a chorus of stories about shadows standing by the bedroom door, white faces leaning over the bed, vampires kneeling on their chests, and babies drinking their blood.

“Yes, yes, I listened to the stories. I know the stories,” the doctor said, waving his plump hands. “I know many are afraid, but this is hysteria. You frighten each other, so you see terrible things. You see these things in the night–you think you see these things–but they are here, in the head. They are not real.” The villagers protested, and the little doctor looked around nervously.

“Our village is plagued by vampires,” Stevan shouted. “The vampir killed my wife, my beloved wife, and my servant Rade. Ten people have died and several cattle and sheep. How many more will the vampir take before this new government, this Holy Roman Empire, gives us leave to protect ourselves? You are no better than the Turk!”

The priest moved to the doctor’s side, but this action only made the doctor more uneasy, as if the situation were growing dangerous.

“If you do not grant us permission, then we will leave the homes of our fathers. We will abandon Medveđa forever and then the filthy Hapsburgs will lose a piece of their defenses against the Turk. Isn’t that why the Austrians wanted this territory, as a buffer against the Ottoman army? I am a military man, so you cannot hide your strategies from me. Well, we will leave. We will take the militia and abandon our post.”

After a moment’s hesitation, the doctor said, “You speak treason, but I feared you will respond this way, so I examine the bodies of those who died and show you with evidence from science that no vampires exist. Take your tools, and we go to the back of the church.”

The priest held up his hands. “Do not do this thing, but if you must, first clear your minds of superstition. Otherwise, you will only see what you want to see! If you must desecrate these graves, do it to lay the stories of vampires to rest. Put these folk tales in the grave. Your brothers and sisters are dead. Only God can bring them back.”

The graveyard was soon crowded with the living. Everyone was digging. Tombstones got knocked over. Dust filled the air. All were working side by side. Even Nada felt included. The conversation was light. Occasionally someone laughed. At last there would be an end to the nightmare.

The first uncovered was Miliza. “Look how fat she is!” her son said, backing away from the grave. “My mother was a skinny woman all her life, and now she is fat. Look how her belly has grown! It is full of blood. It is full of my blood. Oh mama, please don’t haunt me.”

“No, no,” the doctor said. “Her belly has gas. Decomposition makes gas. She is dead. Can’t you smell? Smell!”

“Perhaps she is pregnant with another demon child,” said Stevan and crossed himself.

Next they freed Nada’s father from the frozen soil. His old wrinkled skin was slipping off his face and a new skin, a ruddy skin, fresh and young-looking, appeared underneath.

“The skin has layers,” the priest explained, “like an onion. One is falling off because the body is putrefying. You see the layer underneath for the first time. That is all. Nada, your father is dead.”

They dug up Joachim. His hair and nails had grown and fresh blood stained his lips. Nada commented that he was still handsome, and the young girls crossed themselves.

“It is winter,” said the doctor. “The cold preserves bodies. It keeps them fresh like meat in an ice box.”

Fresh blood flowed from the eyes, ears, nose and mouth of the boy and girl when they were moved. Ruža was soaked in uncoagulated blood, but Stevan’s wife, his servant, and Milosava were clearly decayed, their stomachs caved in and their eyes full of maggots.

“You see?” the doctor proudly proclaimed. “They are dead!”

“But his wife and servant and Milosava died more recently than the others did,” said Nada, trying to understand, “and look at them! Although they were buried later, they are rotting, but these others, they look the same as when we placed them in their graves. Or healthier! Compare them to Stevan Gorchiz’s once beautiful wife. Look at poor Rade and Milosava. Isn’t that how they all should look?”

“This difference proves that some have been preserved by vampirism,” Stevan said, turning to his brother. “But not my wife. Thank you for holding my hand so that I did not desecrate the body of my beloved wife. She is not a vampire, thank God, neither is Rade nor Milosava. Cover them up! Cover them back up again with God’s good earth. The others we will kill.”

The priest and doctor objected. “These signs are normal,” the doctor said. “They are normal, just slowed by winter. That is all.”

“I saw death when I fought the Turk,” the priest said, “as did you, Stevan Gorchiz. Look at our friends lying by the sides of their graves. That is the face of death, Stevan. And if you are too blind to see it, it is because you are deliberately closing your eyes. Why?”

They turned their backs to him. He laid a hand on Nada’s arm. “My child, can’t you smell it?”

“I smell death,” yelled Stevan, “but I see the vampir all around me! We must execute them now or we leave Medveđa forever!”

The doctor shook his head. “I cannot agree. I am a doctor. I have not the authority, but I will send to the commandant. Maybe he can convince you, you stupid people. I wash my hands. Yes, I wash my hands of this stupid village! Give me soap and water, and I will wash the stink of this stupid village off my hands. Get me my horse!”

“Nada,” the priest said again, “can’t you smell it?”

(Part 5, “The Investigation”)

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