(For the first part of this story, “The Dirty Pot,” click here.)
She did smell it. She smelled the rot even after she had broken the ice on the basin and washed her hands twice. She smelled it in her hair, and she smelled it on her bedclothes when she hid under the covers.
It was the smell that awakened her, the stench of rancid feet and honey. She tried to cover her nose but could not raise a hand.
And someone was slumped by the door, a small shadow straightening its back. She could see its yellow eyes as it rose slowly to its feet and stretched its arms toward the ceiling, the shadow of a tiny, old man stretching to the ceiling. She tried to cry out, but she was alone in an empty house in a dying village in a godless world. No one could hear her and she could not scream.
Its dark fingers spread across the ceiling like the branches of a tree, filling the room with a poisonous stench of sour underclothing and shit. Shadows slipped down the walls, thickening until they formed a forest of darkness around her.
The shadows of trees resolved into figures until the room was full of people, old men and young mothers, children and soldiers, their faces gaunt with hunger. They crowded around her, their arms waving over their heads.
She could see their yellowish faces as they climbed onto the bed: first the wrinkled baby, grinning like a lecherous old man, then Stana, shining like the mother of God, then her father, grown fat, and Joachim, pale and naked. All the dead were climbing onto her chest, pressing her down into the mattress, the bed squeaking under their weight.
One by one, they leaned over her, their shadows merging into a single blue mouth which closed on her lips and began to pull with all the force of the bottomless pit.
I am the next, she thought as her vision turned to blackness. I am the next vampir. Tomorrow I will haunt my neighbors.
* * *
Surprised to be alive (and maybe a bit disappointed), Nada awoke to the news that the old man Staniko had stopped breathing after a difficult night, his limbs jerking strangely.
A week and a half later, a soldier with the same name as Nada’s father died. In his fever, Milloje suffered visions of women drinking blood from his fingertips. “They are cold,” he whispered just before his death. That same evening, Ruža’s baby, whom she had left behind when she died, passed away.
On the morning of the Nativity, Stevan, already mad with grief, lost his young son, the last member of his family. Before anyone could stop him, he chopped off the child’s head and threw its body on the fire. For hours, the village smelled maddeningly of roasting meat.
The villagers broke their fasts, but the feasts were spare and somber, the festivities grim. That night, Stevan sat in the snowy graveyard to keep watch on the vampires. In the morning, he had a fever.
Just after the new year, a young woman named Stanoika awoke in terrible fear and cried out that Milloje was choking her. They didn’t know which Milloje she meant: Nada’s father or the soldier. Whoever it was, he left her dead.
Feverish, Stevan stormed the cemetery, waving a shovel over his head and shouting that he would kill the vampires. His militia pulled him away and shut him in his bedroom and set a guard. Stevan ranted day and night about ghosts and serpents.
* * *
At last, in early January, when Nada was once again scrubbing the old pot, she heard horses on the road. Someone had come at last! She quickly rinsed the blackened bronzin, tied a scarf around her head, and followed the tracks through the filthy snow.
The villagers gathered. Stevan also emerged from his house, leaning on a soldier. He looked pale but coherent. The fever had broken. The priest stood silently by the door of the church.
There were five important-looking Austrians in white wigs, two officers and three men with a Serbian interpreter, standing awkwardly beside them. One of the educated men, a tall Austrian with a strong jaw and icy-blue eyes, held up his hands and declaimed loudly in German, more loudly than was necessary, then inclined his head slightly towards the interpreter, who referred to a card in his hand.
“I, Johannes Fluchinger, Regiment Medical Officer of the Foot Regiment of the Honorable B. Fürstenbusch, along with J. H. Sigel, Medical Officer of the Honorable–“
“They sent us doctors again!” Nada hissed. “Damn doctors!” She spit on the ground.
“–under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Büttener of the Honorable Alexandrian Regiment, have been sent to this village of Medvegia to investigate allegations by the inhabitants of vampires.” The interpreter looked up at Dr. Fluchinger.
“Medvegia? What is that?” Nada laughed. “They do not even know the name of our village!”
Dr. Fluchinger held up his hands again and spoke in a rich and manly voice, which echoed against the walls of the church. In spite of herself, Nada took a step towards him and adjusted her scarf. Maybe he would take her away from this miserable village.
“I was greatly astonished,” the interpreter said, trying to mimic the grand style of Dr. Fluchinger, “to read the report of Dr. Glaser. Although he claims vampires cannot exist, the evidence he presented suggests that some bodies are undecayed, lending credence to the stories of vampires, a creature which, if it exists, undoubtedly comes from the decadent Ottoman Empire, a creature unheard of in the more civilized parts of Europe until recently, when we learned of a similar occurrence in Kisilova, involving a Peter Plogojowitz.”
Again, the doctor spoke, and, as he spoke, he caught Nada’s eye. Her face grew warm.
“We will perform–” the interpreter hesitated, unsure of the wording, “–postmortem examinations on all those who have died in this three month period to ascertain whether or not these allegations are true. Please bring the bodies of the recently deceased to the house of the hadnack for immediate dissection.” When he heard this last piece, Stevan looked worried but did not protest. The villagers spoke in hushed but excited tones as they left the town center. At last something would be done.
* * *
Unfortunately, Dr. Fluchinger was not interested in examining the living who had been visited by vampires. He was interested only in those who had died. They even dug up Stana and sent soldiers to search the woods for her baby. Nada followed her sister’s stinking body, wrapped in a fresh sheet, and caught a glimpse of the doctor through the wavy glass of Stevan’s house.
On the third day, the Lieutenant Colonel ordered the villagers to come and hear Dr. Fluchinger’s report. Once again, they gathered between the hadnack’s house and the church. Stevan was the last to come; he was sleeping at his brother’s house outside the village. All who had been sleeping in his home had been displaced by the commission.
The interpreter read, “Visum et Repertum. After it had been reported that in the village of Medvegia, the so-called vampires had killed some people by sucking their blood, I was, by the high decree of a local Honorable Supreme Command, sent there to investigate the matter thoroughly–“
A cold hand touched Nada elbow, making her jump. It was the priest. “Nada,” he said, “you were such a smart girl, the smartest in the village. I had the highest hopes for you. Be reasonable. Don’t listen to these pompous fools. They do not know what they are saying. Idiots, the lot of them. Listen to the holy ghost. He speaks truth. You only need to set aside superstition to hear him clearly.” Nada pulled away from the priest and set her back to him.
The interpreter continued: “–who unanimously recount that about five years ago a local mercenary by the name of Arnod Paole broke his neck in a fall from a hay wagon. This man had, during his lifetime, often revealed, that, near Gossowa in Turkish Serbia, he had been troubled by a vampire, wherefore he had eaten from the earth of the vampire’s grave and had smeared himself–“
“Nada, listen to me. I know that you can see the truth. Think about your sister, Stana. She was dead. You smelled the decay, didn’t you? I saw your face that night when we uncovered her body. I saw the certainty in your eyes. She could not have been vampir.”
Nada spit at his feet. “You monster, you raped my sister. You fathered her child. You brought on her destruction. You brought the curse of the vampires on our heads. It was you! Do not touch me or come near me again.”
The Lieutenant Colonel demanded silence and the reading continued: “And since the people used the flesh of such cattle, it appears that some vampires are again present here, insasmuch as, in a period of three months, seventeen young and old people died, among them some who, with no previous illness, died in two or at the most three days. In addition, the mercenary Jowiza reports that his stepdaughter, by the name of Stanoika, lay dow to sleep fifteen days ago, fresh and healthy, but at midnight she started up out of her sleep with a terrible cry, fearful and trembling, and complained that she had been throttled–“
“Nada,” the priest whispered in her ear. She pretended not to hear him. “I am not as pure as I should be; it is true. I have fallen. I am an imperfect man, subject to the corruptions of the flesh, but I did not father Stana’s child. I sin greatly in telling you this, but the father of the child was closer to home. Nada, your father was the father of Stana’s child. Do you remember, Nada, that you once came to me as a child and told me he had tried to–“
Nada turned to him and slapped his face, knocking his black hat to the ground. “That was a lie! I lied because I was a stupid girl! I did not know better. I was angry at my father because he made me work. My father never did such things. You wrong my family greatly, Father Zoric. May God curse you for it! May he fill your mouth with maggots.”
Again, the Lieutenant Colonel hushed the crowd. Nada moved away from the priest. “–in order to cause the suspicious graves to be opened and to examine the bodies in them, whereby, after all of them had been dissected, there was found: 1. A woman by the name of Stana, twenty years old, who had died in childbirth two months ago, after a three-day illness, and who had herself said, before her death, that she had painted herself with the blood of a vampire, wherefore both she and her child must also become vampires.”
What was he saying? Nada wondered and felt dizzy. Everything seemed blurry and indistinct. Stana had never smeared herself with the blood of a vampire, and her baby did not die in childbirth. They were mixing several stories together, confusing Stana with Arnold Paole and Milosava. Many details were wrong, even the name of the village.
“She was quite complete and undecayed. After the opening of the body, there was found, in the cavitate pectoris a quantity of fresh extravascular blood. The vessels of the artery and veins, like the ventriculis cordis, were not, as is usual, filled with coagulated blood, and the whole viscera, that is the lung, liver, stomach, spleen and intestines were quite fresh as they would be in a healthy person. The uterus was however quite enlarged and very inflamed externally–“
The priest was at her side again. “You see how these fools invent stories to explain what happened? They lie to themselves and to us and to the Hapsburg government. Because of their foolishness, the word ‘vampir’ will pass to the west and will be our shame for years to come.” He shook his head.
“They distort the truth, Nada, because they want to believe, like those in this village want to believe, as you want to believe.” He faced her directly. She did not turn away. “The frightening thing is not that there are monsters, but that there are none. If there are monsters, then we can excuse the evil of the world; we can lay the blame elsewhere. Look around you, Stana. Look at those fools, the villagers, me and you. We are the monsters. There are no such things as vampires.”
She looked up at the Austrians, standing pompously before the village, as if they had the answers. But they didn’t. She knew they didn’t.
“But there is redemption, Nada,” the priest said, squeezing her hand, “if you acknowledge the wrong you have done. Your name means ‘hope.’ Do not lose that, Nada. If you do, you lose yourself.”
She shook him loose.
* * *
Home. She wanted to get home. The village, the countryside, everything seemed so foreign, so far away, as if the world were dissolving into snow. Although the path was hidden, she took the short cut through the woods.
Her feet stung, but it didn’t matter. Her head rose like a cloud above her body, and her feet sank away. Miles below, she watched her curved shoes break through the snow, scattering its purity. How strange they seemed to her, her feet. They had the life, the purpose, that she lacked.
Around her head swarmed words and phrases:
Medvegia. The earth of the vampire’s grave. The father of the child was closer to home. Undecayed. No such thing. Hope.
They did not bother her. They did not seem related to her. All she wanted was home. Someplace familiar. She didn’t know where she was going exactly, but she stumbled on.
Familiar, yes, but home was the place of danger. The place where the vampiri, her family, would find her. No matter. She was ready. Ready to join them.
Hours, days, a month and a half later it seemed, she saw the corner of her house through the trees. Home, she thought vaguely. Something familiar.
She leaned into the wind but her feet moved slowly, so slowly, so slowly, until with a crunch she stepped on something and slid into the snow.
Half buried, she lay staring up at the sky, the empty sky. The crow-like phrases had flown. She was alone. Her head was empty, blessedly empty. I am ready, she thought.
But she was not. The longing for home, the longing for something familiar, squoze her heart until she cried out and tried to squirm out of the snow.
She could not get free. Something held foot, something under the snow. Sobbing through the night, she struggled until her shoe broke free. She tumbled backwards, then, as she scrambled to her feet, saw a bit of lace around the horn of her shoe.
What had she stepped on? She reached under the snow and dislodged it from the ice. Like a broken puppet, a frozen baby swung from her hand by a single leg, its lace torn, its bones gnawed, its face chewed.
It didn’t matter. She recognized the lace. This was her nephew, her unnamed nephew, dragged from its grave by dogs. Dead.
She let the body drop into the snow.
* * *
She pulled open the door of her cottage, her thoughts in chaos. Stana was dead. The baby was dead. Her father was dead. Everyone who had passed away was dead. Of course they were dead.
She sat on the edge of the bed, looking at her blurry reflection in the unpolished brass mirror. There are no such things as vampires, she thought. There are no such things as vampires.
And she could not stop shivering.