TRANSYLVANIAN SKY (a short story)
Posted March 16, 2016on:
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“What do you want to see her for? The old witch should be forgotten”.
“Look, you promised me. You said you’d show me up to her room”.
“Yes, but you can’t go in it Dorottya, it’s all sealed off. No one can go in”.
“But I can go up close to it …”
“I could get into serious trouble for taking you up there”, the guard replied “We’re not supposed to let anyone near her”.
“You make her sound like a wild animal. The tigress of Cachtice!”
“It was ordered that she was to be forgotten. The business of the castle goes on around her, and everyone pretends she’s not there”.
“Oh that’s just silly”, Dorottya pouted “If she’s locked away, she can’t hurt anyone”.
“I don’t understand you!” said Joszef, in exasperation “You heard what she did to all those girls, and you want to see her! It makes no sense to me”.
“Does she ever speak to you, through the wall?” asked Dorottya.
“Very rarely”, said Joszef “We’ve been ordered to reply as briefly as possible”.
“Do you ever see her?”
“No, just a brief glimpse if she comes to the hatch, but not very often. Why do you want to know all this?”
“I’m just interested that’s all”, Dorottya shrugged “My Mother always says I’ve got an over-active imagination, and that it will bring me nothing but trouble”.
“And she’s right!”
“As I said, I don’t see how I can come into any trouble by standing outside her rooms”, said Dorottya “Not when she’s bricked up inside. She has no power any more”.
“If I take you up there”, Joszef sighed “You must promise me, on your Mother’s life, that you won’t make any attempt to speak to the old witch. None at all”.
“She will never know I was there”, said Dorottya “I will swear on the Holy Bible if you want me to”.
“No need for that”, said Joszef, feeling uncomfortable at mentioning the holy book at the same time as they were preparing to commit a grave sin “Meet me here at 10 o’clock tonight, and you must promise not to make any noise, and do everything you’re told”.
BATHORY: I dreamt last night, which is unusual, because I very rarely dream. I’m sure my jailers are convinced I lie here in my darkened room, haunted by my past misdeeds, being visited at my bedside by the pale ghosts of the young virgins out to plague my sinful conscience. But no, it’s not true. I very rarely dream. Last night though was different. It was so vivid. I dreamt that the bricks covering the window crumbled to dust in my hands, and I was able to climb out. I stepped out onto a balcony, and stood facing the forests and the hills surrounding my castle. I could feel the wind in my hair, and feel the sun on my face. I swear I could actually FEEL it. And then I looked down, and saw my wrists bound with chains. I was being pulled back inside.
I do miss being outside. People probably think I was like a vampire of folklore, hiding away from the sunlight all the time, but it’s not true. I miss riding through the forest, galloping along, gazing intently at the path ahead. And now the only bit of light I ever see is a glimmer through a tiny gap in the bricks at the top of my window. Through it I watch the sky as it changes from day to night, from sunshine to rain to snow. These days the only connection I have with the changing of the seasons is whether I shiver in my rooms, or feel stifled by the heat. Occasionally I hear the wind whistling around the corners of the castle, or hear the wolves howling out in the countryside. Of human voices I hear very little. The occasional murmur of the guards outside my door. I have spoken to them sometimes, but they must be under orders to have as little contact with me as possible. The fools. What harm can I do them? An old woman hidden out of sight behind a bricked-up door.
Old woman. That’s what drove me all along. The fear of being old. I was told to embrace getting old, that Age would bring it’s own compensations. More fools. Spoken by women who had never been beautiful themselves. Age is a great leveller, so I was told. All women become equal in the end. But I didn’t want to be equal. I was never on the same level as them. Ever”.
“What does she look like now?”
“I don’t know, I’ve never seen her!”
“You must have done”, said Dorottya “When you pass her her food”.
“I’ve told you before, no I haven’t”, said Joszef “I shove it under the door, I’ve not even seen her hands. Anyway, why are you so keen to know what she looks like?”
“She murdered all those girls to preserve her beauty didn’t she?” Dorottya smirked “I bet she’s all withered and wrinkled now, with long straggly grey hair. That would be God’s true punishment for her”.
“Yes, and I bet she has big fangs and long talons!” said Joszef, teasingly “You women! Now come on, follow me. You’re trouble. Nothing but trouble. And don’t speak, don’t say anything, don’t make a single sound”.
“Alright, I understand!” said Dorottya “You’ve told me all that before. I won’t get you into trouble, I promise”.
Joszef looked at her as if he didn’t believe her, but Dorottya had a spell over him. She wasn’t just pretty, she was feisty too. So many of the girls in this area (the few that were left) were like thin, pale shadows, terrified to draw attention to themselves. Even though the old witch was now safely locked up, all her power removed, they still seemed afraid that she would notice them. He supposed this was only to be expected. It would take a very long time for her dark spell to be removed. Even when she died, they would probably be afraid that her spectre would roam the countryside, looking for victims to satisfy her depraved cruelty. He wondered what she would have made of pretty, perky Dorottya, and he shivered.
“Follow me”, he said, opening the door at the bottom of the turret stairs.
BATHORY: I pick up a handful of black pearls from the casket on my desk, and cradle them in my hands. I was allowed very few of my possessions when they walled me up in here. All I asked for were writing paper, so that I could make out my Will and write to my children, and my black pearls. I don’t know why I keep them with me, some remnant of comfort from past times perhaps. I can barely see them in this light. Occasionally a shaft of dazzling sunlight comes through the cracks in the bricks, and makes the dust-motes dance, but that is all.
I can hear a faint scrabbling sound. It must be the rats in the walls again. I hear them more than anything else. Such an existence as this must be enough to drive anyone insane, and yet I don’t feel any different at all, not even after … how many years have I been like this? Three? Four? Perhaps I was already insane. People said I was. I feel no different to as I did before. “Reflect on your guilt, Countess”, the priest told me, as the artisans were busy cementing the bricks into place “Your conscience is the only company you will have from now on”.
My conscience! God will not judge ME. Why should I be singled out for His fury? I have spent my whole life hearing of torture and killing and depravities. Sometimes I wonder what my voice sounds like these days. Has it grown rusty from lack of use? In days gone by I would only have to open my lips and the entire castle would tremble with fear and anxiety. Now if I opened them to speak, my jailers would probably take it as confirmation of my madness. The witch is talking to herself. I will not give them that pleasure. I will stay silent and dignified. They cannot take my pride away from me. I am a Bathory. I look down at the pearls in my hands. In the ray of sunlight I can see that my hands are old. They are wrinkled, the veins stand out on them. My old, cold hands.
It had been a warm day, and yet very little of the heat seemed to have penetrated the castle’s stone walls. Dorottya pulled her shawl closely around her shoulders, and followed Joszef up the twisting steps.
They emerged into a small room at the top, lit by a tiny window. Outside was the deep Summer twilight. The stone room was empty apart from a table and a stool. It was lit by a burning torch fixed to a sconce in the wall. There was no one else there.
“Isn’t she guarded all the time then?” whispered Dorottya.
“No”, said Joszef “Who’s going to try and rescue HER?? And even if they wanted to, they’d have to break down all the brickwork. No one wants her out. All those noblemen want to make sure she’s kept locked away … oh look, ssh! You’ll get me into trouble with all your questions. We take it in turns to come and check on the area that’s all, and pass her food through to her”.
Dorottya shuddered, pulling her shawl even tighter.
“What must it be like in there”, she said, softly “Locked in a dark room all the time, never going outside, never seeing anyone. It must be worse than being dead”.
“Don’t you start feeling sorry for her”, said Joszef “Think of all those girls she tortured and killed. Death was too good for her. Beheading or burning would have been quick and over with in no time. This way she gets to think about what she’s done”.
BATHORY: They took all my mirrors away, in fact anything that would show me my reflection. I’ve tried to see it in a cup of water, but it’s hard to get much idea. Fools again. If they really wanted to torture me, they should have left me with my largest mirror, so I could watch myself getting older and more decayed. I could tell them about the most effective ways to torture. Perhaps they thought that with no reflection, I would cease to exist. I pinch my withered hand. No I am still here. I can feel that pinch. I am still alive.
What do I think about here? Surprisingly little. I rarely reflect on the past. It is over. Done. When I do think I wonder what is going on in the castle around me. In my mind’s eye I travel down through it’s walls, roaming the rooms, listening in on conversations. I know, I feel it in my bones, that they only refer to me in whispers. Even now, walled up here, I still rule by Fear. They may like to pretend that I do not exist any more, but the life of the castle still revolves around me, whatever silence they may keep. And it always will.
Punished for my vanity. Pshaw. I heard that the old Queen of England was bald and withered towards the end. That she dressed herself up in silly red wigs, plastered with cosmetics, and rich laces and jewels. A hag in finery. And yet she was revered. Gloriana. People see what they want to see. She was an aged hag, yet they saw a goddess. I was trying to preserve my beauty, and I was called a murderess and a witch.
Sometimes I imagine going outside, particularly when I hear the birds and the wolves. But that requires much more energy. I can envisage the forest, and the mountains, but no amount of imagining can conjure up the feel of the cool air on my face, or the breeze ruffling my hair. Sometimes I think about my children, but they are gone from me now. I worry they will be punished because of me, but it is as if we inhabit two different worlds. The gulf between us is too great. They are like people I knew centuries ago. I think of them fondly, but with no great sense of recollection.
My servants were tortured and executed after my trial. I can barely remember them at all now. Why should I? They are gone from here, gone to a better place, they are in God’s care now. Their pain was fleeting.
I hear a movement outside my door. I wait for the hatch to be thrown up and a bowl of some disgusting pottage, peasant’s food, to be thrust through … but nothing happens. Someone is creeping about out there.
Did I hear a woman’s voice? I haven’t heard a female voice since my arrest. But this was soft and breathy … and YOUNG. I can picture her in my mind’s eye. Soft, unmarked flesh. Clear eyes. Thick, lustrous hair. Firm breasts. Rich, young, untainted blood pumping freely through her veins. Everything about her pure, unspoilt, uncontaminated. Virginal. I am instantly alert. My heart thumping in my chest. In all these years of my shadow life there has been no woman near my room, and now I feel all my senses racing at once.
Dorottya looked silently at the brickwork in front of her. She could just make out where the doorway was hidden behind it. There were two gaps in it. A hatch at the bottom, which could be pulled up to slide food through, and a narrow slit at eye-level, which could be uncovered so that the guard could look through at the prisoner. Behind there was the witch who had ruled her village with total fear. Scores of young women had gone missing, from near and far. They had been found drained of blood, mutilated, trapped inside instruments of torture, with spikes piercing their flesh, some were found tied naked to the trees in the depths of Winter, encased in ice.
“Come on”, whispered Joszef, unsettled by Dorottya’s petrified silence “I was a fool to bring you up here. Let’s go”.
There was a scratching noise on the other side of the door.
“What was that?” Dorottya’s voice came out as a half-squeak “Was that her, scratching on the door?”
“Rats more like”, said Joszef “The castle’s over-run with them”.
“You there”, came a croaky voice.
Dorottya held her hands up to her mouth to try and stifle a scream.
“Guard!” said the voice again “I know you’re there. Help me”.
“What is it?” said Joszef, pushing Dorottya to one side, and stepping up to the door. In all this time he had never known the Countess to speak. Had she heard him? He must settle the old witch down, in case she made a hullabaloo and roused the whole castle.
“My hands”, said the Countess “My hands are icy cold, in spite of the heat. I need help”.
“It’s nothing Mistress”, said Joszef, refusing to look through the eye-hole “Go to bed. You’ll feel better after some sleep”.
He then grabbed Dorottya and bundled her towards the stairs.
BATHORY: Please God. I flung myself at the door, but I am weakened by years of incarceration and lack of food. I have no strength left. I get down on my hands and knees, and scrabble at the hatchway at the bottom, but it is kept bolted shut when not in use. I am no longer in control of myself. My pride has slipped away. I am back as I used to be when the frenzy came on me. At such times I could feel my hunger to be strong enough to break down walls. The thought of that young blood completely overwhelmed me.
“Let me out!” I screamed, but my voice seemed to be weak, unable to be heard “Where is she?”
The blood pulses in my head. I feel myself throbbing, going weak. I fall back onto the bare floor. I feel as if I am turning to stone. My body seizing up. I lay on my back, and stare at the small slit of sky, which is turning from indigo blue to black. I imagine myself flying through the clouds, like an owl. Perhaps at last, I will have total freedom.
The village was silent, but it was a restful silence at last. It quivered in the heat haze of an August afternoon. A dog sat in the doorway of one of the cottages and sniffed the air. Dorottya patted his head as she walked past. She had spent a sleepless night, terrified by her trip to the castle. And then in the morning, her parents had been whispering in the downstairs room. They had stopped when any of the children appeared. Dorottya knew better than to ask. They would refuse to tell her anything, and she may even be punished for impertinence. But something was different, of that she had no doubt. The very air had changed.
She met up with Joszef at the edge of the village. He looked exhausted, but at the same time as if a load had been lifted from his shoulders.
“The witch died last night”, he said, bluntly.
“Finally?” said Dorottya “Was it while we were there?”
“No no”, he hastened to reassure her “She must have died in her sleep in the night. I told them that she had spoken to me about her hands, and that I’d told her to go to bed, but they’re not bothered. I don’t think anyone’s going to be doing any official investigations. They’ll just be relieved she’s gone”.
Dorottya crossed herself instinctively.
“When will the funeral be?” she said.
“I doubt there’ll be one”, said Joszef “They’ll shove her into a hole in the ground somewhere, or her family will spirit her away some place else. How are you, Dorottya? I should never have taken you up there”.
“I’m ..” suddenly she began to weep “I was so scared whilst we were there. Oh please don’t tell anyone. I thought she was going to claw her way out!”
“Of course I won’t tell anyone”, said Joszef “How can I, without getting myself into trouble as well? You had a right to be scared. If she’d ever managed to get her hands on you …. Anyway, it doesn’t matter now. The curse has been lifted. Let’s go for a walk in the forest”.
Dorottya smiled, and they slipped their arms round each other’s waists.