Jeanne Kalogridis

COVENANT WITH THE VAMPIRE


The devil is an angel, too.
-- Miguel de Unamuno

The Diary of Arkady Tsepesh
(undated, on the inside cover in jagged scrawl)
God, in Whom I put no faith, help me! I do not believe in You - did not, but if I am to accept such infinite Evil as I have become, then I pray infinite Good exists as well, and that it has mercy on what remains of my soul.
I am the wolf. I am Dracul. The blood of innocents stains my hands, and now I wait to kill him…

The Diary of Arkady Tsepesh

5 April 1845. Father is dead.
Mary has been asleep for hours now, in the old trundle bed my brother Stefan and I shared as children. Poor thing; she is so exhausted that the glow from the taper does not disturb her. How incongruous to see her there beside Stefan's small ghost, surrounded by the artifacts of my childhood inside these crumbling, high-ceilinged stone walls, their corridors awhisper with the shades of my ancestors. It is as if my present and past had suddenly collided.

Meanwhile, I sit at the old oaken desk where I learned my letters, occasionally running my hand over the pitted surface scarred by successive generations of fidgety Tsepesh young. Dawn nears. Through the north window, I can see against the lightening grey sky the majestic battlements of the family castle where Uncle still dwells. I ponder my proud heritage, and I weep - softly, so as not to wake Mary, but tears bring no release of sorrow; writing alone eases the grief. I shall begin a journal, to record these painful days and to aid me, in future years, to better remember Father. I must keep his memory ever green in my heart, so that one day I can paint for my yet-unborn child a verbal portrait of his grandfather.

I had so hoped he would live long enough to see -

No. No more tears. Write! You will grieve Mary if she wakes to see you carrying on like this. She has suffered enough on your behalf.

The past several days have seen us in ceaseless motion, borne across Europe in boats, carriages, trains. I felt I was not so much retracing my journey across a continent as traveling back in time, as though I had left my present behind in England and now moved swiftly and irrevocably back into a dark ancestral past. In the rocking wagon-lit from Vienna, as I lay beside my wife and stared at the play of light and shadow against drawn blinds, I was riven by the sudden fearful conviction that the happy life we led in London could never be reclaimed. There was nothing to tie me to that present, nothing but the child and Mary. Mary, my anchor, who slept soundly, untroubled and unshakable in her loyalty, her contentment, her beliefs. She lay on her side, the only position now comfortable in this seventh month of her confinement, her gold-fringed alabaster lids veiling the blue ocean of her eyes. I gazed through the thin white linen of her nightgown at her taut belly, at the unguessable future there, and touched a hand to it, gently, so as not to waken her - moved to sudden tears of gratitude. She is so sturdy, so clam; as placid as a motionless sea. I try to hide my wellings of emotion for fear their intensity will overwhelm her. I always told myself I had left that aspect of my self in Transylvania - that part given to dark moods and despair, that part which had never known real happiness until I deserted my native land. I wrote volumes of black, brooding poetry in my native language, before going to England; once there, I gave up writing poems altogether. I have never attempted any literature other than prose in my acquired tongue.
That was a different life, after all: ah, but my past has now become my future.
On the rumbling train bound from Vienna, I lay beside my wife and unborn child and wept - out of joy that they were with me, out of fear that the future might see that joy dimmed. Out of uncertainty at the news that awaited me at the manor high in the Carpathians.

At home.

But in all honesty, I cannot say that news of Father's death was a shock. I had a strong premonition of it on the way from Bistritsa (Bistritz, I mean to say. I shall keep this journal entirely in English, lest I forget it too quickly). A strange feeling of dread of dread overcame me the instant I set foot inside the coach. My mind was already uneasy - we had received Zsuzsanna's telegram over a week before, with no way of knowing whether his condition had worsened or improved - and it was not soothed by the reaction of the coachman when I told him our destination. A hunchbacked elderly man, he peered into my face and exclaimed, as he crossed himself:

"By Heaven! You are of the Dracul!"

The sound of that hated name made me flush with anger. "The name is Tsepesh," I corrected him coldly, though I knew it would do no good.

"Whatever you say, good sir; only remember me kindly to the prince!" And the old man crossed himself again, this time with trembling hand. When I told him in fact my great-uncle, the prince, had arranged for a driver to meet us, he grew tearful and begged us to wait until morning.
I had forgotten about the superstition and prejudice rampant among my uneducated native countrymen; indeed, I had forgotten what it was like to be feared and secretly despised for being boier, a member of the aristocracy. I had often Father for the intense disdain he showed toward the peasants in his letters; now I was ashamed to find that same attitude aroused in myself.

"Do not be ridiculous," I curtly told the driver, aware that Mary, who did not speak the language, nonetheless heard the fear in the old peasant's tone and was watching us both with anxious curiosity.

"No harm will come to you."

"Or to my family. Only swear it, good sir…!"

"Or to your family. I swear it," I said shortly, and turned to help Mary into the coach. While the old man backed towards the driver's seat, bowing and proclaiming, "God bless you, sir! And the lady, too," I tried to allay my wife's curiosity and concern by saying that local superstition forbade night travel into the forest. It was at least the partial truth.

And so we headed into the Carpathians. It was late afternoon, and we were already exhausted from a full day's travel, but the urgency of Zsuzsanna's telegram and Mary's determination that we should meet the prearranged carriage propelled us onward.

As we rumbled past a foreground of verdant forested slopes dotted with farmhouses and the occasional rustic village, Mary remarked with sincere pleasure on the countryside's charm - cheering me, for I feel no small amount of guilt at bringing her to a country where she is a stranger. I confess I had forgotten the beauty of my native land after years of living in a crowded, dirty city. The air is clean and sweet, free from urban stench. It is early spring, and the grass has already greened, and the fruit trees are just beginning to bloom. Some few hours into our journey, the sun began to set, casting a pale rosy glow on the looming backdrop of spiraling, snow-covered Carpathian peaks, and even I drew in a breath at their awesome splendor. I must admit that, mingled with the growing sense of dread, I felt a fierce pride, and a longing for home I had forgotten I possessed.

Home. A week ago, that word would have denoted London…

As dusk encroached, a lugubrious gloom permeated the landscape and my thoughts. I fell to ruminating on the fearful gleam in our driver's eye, on the hostility and superstition implied by his actions and words.
The change in the countryside mirrored my state of mind. The farther into the mountains we ventured, the more stunted and gnarled the roadside growth became, until ascending a steep slope I spied nearby an orchard of deformed, dead plum trees, rising black against the evanescent purple twilight. The trunks were stooped by wind and weather like the ancient peasant women carrying on their backs a too-heavy burden; the twisted limbs thrust up towards heaven in a mute plea for pity. The land seemed to grow increasingly misshapen as its people, I thought, who were more crippled by superstition than any infirmity of body.

Can we truly be happy among them?

Shortly thereafter, night fell, and the orchards gave way to straight, tall forests of pein. The passing blur of dark trees against darker mountains and the rocking of the carriage lulled me into an uneasy sleep.
I fell at once into a dream:

Through a child's eyes, I gazed up at towering evergreens in the forest overshadowed by Great-uncle's castle. Treetops impaled rising mists, and the cool, damp air beneath smelled of recent rain and pine. A warm breeze lifted my hair, stirred leaves and grass that gleamed, bejeweled with sunlit drops of moisture.

A boyish shout cleft the silence. I turned, and in the dappled light beheld my elder brother Stefan, a gleeful six-year-old, his dark, upslanting eyes ashine with mischief, his flushed, heart-shaped face wearing its wide imp's smile above a narrow chin. Beside him stood huge grey Shepherd, half-mastiff, half-wolf, who had grown from a pup alongside us boys.

Stefan motioned for me to follow, then turned and ran, Shepherd bounding joyously beside him, towards the heart of the forest.

I hesitated, suddenly afraid, but reassured myself we were safe so long as Shepherd accompanied us, for there was never a more fiercely loyal companion or protector; and somehow I knew, with a dreamer's certainty, that our father was nearby, and would let no harm come to us.

So I chased my brother, half-laughing, half-shouting in outrage at the injustice because his legs were longer and, being a year my senior, he could run faster than I. He paused to glance over his shoulder with satisfaction to see me outpaced before disappearing from view into the dark, glistening woods.
I ran, ducking as low branches reached out to scrape my cheeks and shoulders and sprinkle me with captured raindrops. The further into the forest I ventured, the darker it became, and the more my face was slapped by low-hanging boughs, until my eyes filled with tears and my giggles turned to gasps. I ran faster, faster, flailing at the limbs that now seemed ghouls intent on clutching me, but I quite lost sight of my brother and the dog. Stefan's laughter grew ever more distant.

I continued, crashing through the woods in a dark panic for a dreamy eternity. And then my brother's laughter broke off with a thud and a short, sharp shriek. There came a heartbeat of silence, then a low, ugly snarl. The snarl became a roar, and my brother screamed in pain. I ran, shouting Stefan's name, in the direction of the commotion.

And froze in horror as I reached a clearing and in the sunlit mists that filtered through the trees beheld a ghastly spectacle: Shepherd, hunched over Stefan's still body, his muscular jaws clamped on my brother's neck. At my footfall, the animal lifted his head, rending tender flesh with sharp teeth as he did so. Blood dripped from his silvered muzzle.

I stared into his eyes. They were pale, colourless; before, they had always been the gentle eyes of a dog, but now I saw only the white eyes of a wolf, a predator.

At the sight of me, Shepherd bared his teeth and released a low, deadly growl. Slowly, slowly, he crouched - then sprang, sailing effortlessly through the air despite his bulk. Terrified, I stood rooted to the spot and released a wail.

There came an explosion behind me and a shrill yelp before me as the dog fell dead to the ground. I turned and saw my father. Swiftly he lowered his hunting rifle and hurried to Stefan's side, but all was lost: my brother's throat had been ripped out by the heretofore-gentle Shepherd. I walked forward to find the tree trunk over which Stefan had stumbled, and the rock on which he had struck his head.
And then, with the exquisite clarity that marks the most vivid, terrifying nightmares, I saw my dying brother.

The small gash on his forehead had bled profusely, but it was nothing compared to his throat, which had been so severely mauled that the skin had been torn away and hung from his neck in a bloody flap, revealing bone, cartilage, and glistening red muscle.

Worst of all, he was still alive and dying, struggling to expel a final scream, a final breath; his horrified eyes were open, and they focused on mine in a silent plea for help. Tiny bright red bubbles roiled up from his exposed larynx, each prismatically ashimmer with filtered sunlight, a hundred miniature rainbows dipped in blood. Nearby blades of grass bowed, laden with shining crimson droplets.

I woke from this terrible vision with a start as the driver reined the horses to a stop. J must have dozed for quite some time, for we had already made it through the Borgo Pass to the rendezvous point. Mary had apparently been sleeping as well; she seemed as disoriented as I for an instant, but we came to ourselves and gathered up our things as we waited for Uncle's caleche to arrive.

We sat no more than a few minutes before we heard the rumble of wheels and the thunder of hooves. Out of the forest mists the caleche appeared, drawn by four high-strung of and magnificent coal-black stallions, who quivered, eyes and nostrils wide, as Uncle's driver climbed down to greet us. Old Sandu had died two years ago, and this was a new man, one I had never met, dark blond and bland-faced, of cold, disagreeable disposition. I did not inquire after Father, nor did the driver volunteer information; better to learn any bad news from family rather than this silent, unpleasant stranger. Soon our trunks were situated, and we were tucked with blankets into the caleche, for the night had quickly grown chill, and Mary and I rode in sleepy silence towards home. This time I did not doze, but used the time to reflect on the nightmare.

Would that it had been but a dream.

In fact, it was a somnolent memory, triggered perhaps by the familiar scent of pine. The terrible event had actually transpired in my fifth year, though in reality, I had not ventured close enough to examine my poor, bleeding brother. In reality, I had fainted the instant my father sank to his knees beside his dying son and released an agonized scream.

Years later, when Father had recovered somewhat from the tragedy of Stefan's death (and from the guilt - oh, how he blamed himself for trusting the animal!), he spoke to me of what might have caused Shepherd's sudden viciousness. Stefan had stumbled, Father said, and struck his head, which had bled profusely. Shepherd had always been a good and loyal dog, but the smell of blood had caused him to revert to his predatory instincts, those of the wolf. The dog was not to blame, Father insisted; rather he himself was responsible, for trusting the animal to overcome its dual nature.