by Amanda Borenstadt
read by T.C. Parmelee
Play in this window
In a memory as clear as yesterday, I was a girl of eight, kneeling on the flagstone floor of our cottage watching over my father’s body, waiting for him to awaken. Until Ivan, my father’s friend and employee, put a blanket around my shoulders, I didn’t notice I was shivering. An autumn draft whisked about the old house and ruffled my black hair. It got colder in the little vale in the Carpathian Mountains than in California where we used to live, but I think my trembling was do to the horror earlier in the night rather than the chill.
Some called my father “eccentric” while others, such as his sister, muttered “insanity” behind his back. I thought then, as I do now, that he was a genius. Mother thought so too. Before she died, they conducted research together. I remember old leather bound books, bits of parchment, photocopied pages littering the table so that we had to eat dinner picnic style on the living room carpet. Talk was always about ancient legends and old newspaper stories of unexplained deaths and disappearances. While other children were read to sleep on storybook princesses and talking rabbits, I was told tales of vampires, werewolves, and other creatures that lurk in the shadows of human society.
While my mother was dying, the only change in their routine was the location of their discussions. The nurses grew accustom to the documents strewn across Mother’s hospital bed. She demanded that Daddy not halt his studies for her sake. He quit his position at the University without telling her, but I have a hunch she knew.
Daddy kept writing, but years later I discovered his only published works during that period were short stories in fantasy and horror magazines and the odd blurb in a tabloid beside articles about actresses giving birth to mutants. It seemed any credible journal had abandoned him. No wonder Mother’s last words to me were, “Stand by your daddy, Letty. Never believe he’s crazy no matter what anyone says.”
Just days after the funeral we packed up and moved to Romania. My father bought a stone cottage that had been vacant for decades. Locals claimed it was built by a mysterious foreigner known for his reclusive habits and nocturnal wanderings in the forest.
Ivan accompanied us on our move. Perhaps my father knew the old man would one day need to take guardianship of me. I don’t know what legal arrangement they had, but my aunt didn’t send for me until after Ivan’s death, a year after that strange and terrible night. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
There I knelt by my father. His face was ashen and his brown eyes were wide as if still staring at his terrifying assailant. It lay nearby in a pool of dark blood with three sharp wooden spikes protruding from its chest. The face contorted in pain and anger already showed signs of decay, though it was killed only hours before. I remembered what my father had told me, that this being, this Mr. Radul was centuries old.
“Only kill him if absolutely necessary, Ivan,” he had told our friend in a wistful voice. “Only if Letty’s in danger. This man is a living antique more precious than the oldest Mesopotamian vase.” This was weeks before Ivan and I saw the creature. It’s all well and good to speak so blasé when danger is nothing but theory.
I believe Daddy had been tracking Mr. Radul’s whereabouts for months. He may have actually lured him to us, though I never asked. My father was fascinated with the undead; spirits, poltergeists, Haitian zombies, but especially vampires. But Mr. Radul had no intention of being a topic of a dissertation, a test subject, nor interviewee.
We were gathered around the thick wooden table taking an evening meal of eggs and bread, when the door swung open, letting in a frigid wind. Like death, it extinguished our candles and hearth fire. Silhouetted against the night, a tall figure stood in the doorway. I heard Daddy’s chair scrape the flagstone floor and then his voice, choked with awe.
“Bună seara, prieten ,” my father said in Romanian, by way of a greeting.
“You are no friend of mine.” The stranger’s voice was jagged ice to my ears. His thick accent was impossible to identify. It rang of languages long dead. The emerald eyes glinted in the darkness as it moved into the room.
The door slammed, making me jump. I was enveloped in inky blackness until the candle flames and hearth fire sprang back to life. The figure strode toward my father, who stood with hand outstretched in welcome. I knew he’d been eager for this moment. “I can taste it, Letty,” Daddy told me earlier in the evening. “He will come.” I didn’t doubt him, though I wasn’t privy to the source of his conviction. It must have had something to do with his frequent excursions. He’d be gone days, sometimes weeks, while Ivan and I kept to the old house and amused ourselves with games and books.
Now the object of my father’s life-long obsession stood glaring over him. I tried not to move, not to breath. Mr. Radul’s focus was on my father, as if Ivan and I were nothing but a couple of house cats, mute and ineffectual witnesses.
“Sir,” breathed my father, “you are most welcome in this house.”
“Velcome? I need no velcome from you. Dis is my house and you are trespassers of my property and my business.”
“I assure you, Mr. Radul –”
My father’s words were cut off as the creature’s fingers grasped his throat. My father made a strangled choking cry and his eyes rolled back.
“No!” I shrieked, leaping from my chair. Ivan’s arm flew out in front of me, halting me from lunging at the murderous creature. The vampire bit deeply into my father’s throat. I heard the gurgling swallows as it drank Daddy’s blood while I watched in horrified silence. Something like a sated drunken smile curled the creature’s lips as it let my father’s body crumple to the flagstone floor. It turned to me.
I shuttered and realized Ivan was no longer beside me. I gasped as the vampire took a step forward, my father’s blood smeared across its gaunt face. Suddenly its body convulsed and it let out a scream I can hardly explain except to say that it was something like a hundred Tasmanian devils. Then I noticed the source of its vexation. The point of a wooden stake jutted out from its chest. Ivan had speared it from behind.
The creature collapsed. Ivan pounded two more stakes through its back. Thick dark blood oozed from the wounds and the body arched and then went rigid. Mr. Radul finally joined his ancestors in eternal sleep and Ivan and I were safe.
I knelt beside my father’s body, but I did not grieve because I knew deep inside my being he would reawaken as an undead. The faith of children isn’t easily daunted.
Hours passed and still no change. I began to nod off. The scrape of the vampire’s now putrid body being dragged out the door by Ivan jarred me awake.
“The smell is unbearable. Didn’t you notice?” said Ivan.
I didn’t answer, but studied Daddy’s face for any change. He looked like carved stone, cold and still.
When Ivan returned, he knelt beside me. “Letty, if he is… that is… has become one,” stuttered Ivan, avoiding the word, “we should put him below ground before dawn.”
Relieved to have something to do besides wait, I scrambled to my feet and grabbed a candle before hurrying to the kitchen, where I threw open the cellar door. I lit the way as Ivan struggled to drag Daddy down the steps into the dark abyss of the cellar. I insisted on making my comatose father comfortable and tucked wool blankets around him.
“He’ll be cold when he awakens,” I said in my innocence.
Ivan put a consoling hand on my shoulder. The tender gesture relaxed my vigilance and my frustration poured forth in tears. “Why isn’t he awake?”
Ivan crouched down and pulled me into an embrace. “He will awaken, Letty. You see, decay has not touched his body. It’s only a matter of time.”
“But I want him awake now.”
“Shh,” he soothed into my hair. “Your father was never sure of the exact process. Sources about the timetable for the return are contradictory. It may be hours, months, years. We just don’t know.”
At the first rays of dawn, the body of Mr. Radul spontaneously combusted. Within moments he was nothing but ash blowing away in the autumn wind. The ground was scorched where he had lain and nothing grew properly in that spot ever after.
For a year Ivan would allow me to fall asleep beside my father in the cellar and then carry me upstairs. For a year we waited. Then, one October morning, I awoke, still on the little pallet in the cellar, and I knew Ivan was dead. I found him slumped in a tapestry chair before the fire, his favorite book of poetry sprawled face down upon the floor. Robert Southwell. I picked it and glanced at the page to which it was open and read, “Remember, man, that thou art dust.”
Not a fool, even at the age of nine, I resolved to hide my father’s still perfectly preserved body before going for help. There was a low narrow recess in the back of the cellar where the walls were still bare earth. The bricks meant to finish the job were stacked nearby. I tied our goat to the blanket on which my father lay and together we dragged him into the recess. Then I spent the better part of the day bricking him in. To an outsider it would appear the cellar ended at that wall, or so I hoped. Only then did I walk down to the village to throw myself on their mercy.
Ivan was buried just outside our home. The villagers were so suspicious of that house that they didn’t want Ivan’s body lying among their own. The women descended on me. They took turns caring for me, having felt I’d been neglected without a mother’s care. I was groomed, dressed, and over fed before I was sent across the Atlantic to my aunt’s house in New England. I was educated in the best private school, doted on by various well meaning but persnickety relatives, but I never lost my resolve to return to my father’s crypt.
At twenty-one I went back to Romania accompanied by my dear friend, Harry. Our cottage was still unoccupied. The villagers were even more spooked by it after Ivan’s death and Daddy’s mysterious disappearance.
I went to the house, leaving Harry in the village. He was a darling, but I wanted to be alone. As I walked through the door, I felt as if I were stepping back in time. The furniture, books, even my rocking horse, stood covered in cobwebs. I passed through the kitchen, past dusty jars of preserves, and a kettle on the stove for tea never made.
I stopped at the cellar door and pressed my palm against it, as if I could feel what lay on the other side. So eager all those years and now petrified, I felt my heart pounding. As I opened the door, the hinges groaned in protest. I drew my flashlight from my purse and shone it down the stairs.
Dark places never bothered me as a child. It wasn’t until my teen years that I began to fear them. It’s my father, I reminded myself. I crept down the steps not knowing what I’d find, a skeletal corpse, an uncorrupted body, a sleeping vampire?
As best I could, I’d been gathering information on the subject- writing to friends of my parents, reading any scrap I could get hold of. I put together that the discrepancy between the undead/rebirth time spans of various fabled vampires was due to the fact that some victims drank the blood of their predators after being drained and some didn’t. My father never drank his attacker’s blood. Mr. Radul hadn’t intended to create a protégé of my father and therefore he went into a thirteen-year dormancy after the attack.
I didn’t presume that it would be thirteen years to the day, but I suspected it would be this month. Had it happened yet? Had Daddy awoken? Maybe it was just a fantasy, that year of sleeping by his side. Children will invent what they wish were so.
I shone my flashlight onto the brick wall I had built. Still intact. I walked to it, the dust of thirteen years in my nose, rats scurrying into the corners of the cellar. My fingers caressed the rough red bricks. I marveled at the job I’d done as a child. The wall went straight to the ceiling.
I breathed a breath of resolve and dropped my purse, stood the flashlight near it, and dragged an old wooden ladder over. I climbed up and began pulling out bricks and tossing them behind me. I tore at that wall until my nails were ragged and my knuckles bled.
Finally, when I’d opened a hole as large as two doorways, I picked up my flashlight, which was beginning to dim, and shone it inside. My father lay just as I remembered. No rat had ravaged him. No spider dared spin a web from him. There was a sprinkling of dust over his cold pallid face and the wool blanket I’d lovingly draped over him thirteen years before. I smiled in relief and felt warm tears on my cheeks. “Daddy,” I whispered.
I approached in solemn steps, then knelt beside him and reached out to touch his marble-like cheek. Would he recognize me after so long?
Planning for a wait, I went back to the village to buy groceries and collect my luggage. Harry drove me back that night. “You sure you don’t want me to stay?” he asked, after parking the little rental car in front of the old stone house.
“We’ve been through this. I’ll call you as soon as he awakens. I promise. Go back to the inn and rest easy. It won’t be tonight anyway.” I didn’t tell him that I worried Daddy would be confused and it might not be safe for him to meet Harry immediately upon awakening.
Before I climbed from the car, Harry thrust a crucifix and a UV flashlight into my hands. “Just in case, Letty.”
I boiled a pot of tea and went down to set up camp in the cellar so I could spend every possible moment beside Daddy. I was concerned he’d be disoriented when he awoke and would need me.
All evening I watched and waited by the light of my oil lamp. My mind began to play tricks on me. I’d stared at my father so long, I imagined his eyes moving behind their lids and the very faintest of smiles on his cold thin lips.
I must have dozed off at last because I was thrust awake by a long low groan. I fumbled for the knob on my gas lamp and turned it up. My father’s body was twisting and arching. His mouth gaped and let out another groan. I saw two long fangs like thorns, tapered to needle thin points. My breath caught in my throat and I felt a rush through my limbs and heart. I’d have my daddy back after all these years.
He rolled onto his stomach, rose to all fours, and stretched catlike. Still on hands and knees his head swiveled to face me and his eyes flipped open. Pale gray, they were. Nothing like the dark mahogany brown they were in life. They beheld me without recognition.
“Daddy,” I said, “it’s me, your Leticia.”
He made a sound like a gasp or else a hiss. I trembled as I scooted backwards away from him.
“You’ve been asleep thirteen years. You’re disoriented. It’s me, Letty.” I crouched, ready to spring up and run.
His nostrils flared and his eyes widened. “Hunger,” his voice rasped.
“I have…” My voice faded. He wasn’t hungry for food. He crawled toward me with a voracious leer. I grabbed my bag and scrambled to my feet. Ignoring the tears welling in my eyes and my doubts about Harry’s theories concerning ultraviolet light, I pulled out the UV flashlight and switched it on. To my relief and horror, when I shone it on his face, he yelped in pain and I heard the sizzling of flesh.
I shut it off. “I’m sorry. Please — ”
He sprang at me, but was halted in midair by a shot that rang in the enclosed space of the cellar. He fell hard. I turned around and saw Harry at the bottom of the steps with a revolver in one hand and a wooden stake in the other.
I gasped as he hefted the stake, then I spun to face my father with my protective arms spread wide. “Daddy!” I cried, as the stake streaked past and impaled him through the chest. I reached him before his life fled. He fell into my arms and I stumbled to my knees.
I cradled him in my lap. His eyes flickered and I saw something familiar in them, before they closed forever. His lips moved and his voice was wistful as it had been in life when he thought something especially precious.