Thurzó stood at the bottom of a set of steps as two grizzled peasant men pulled the wall down with smithy hammers, exposing the woman’s sable-dark cloister behind. His hands were gloved in dark leather. It was only August, but a slaten cloud had hidden the sun from view, and the wilderness around seemed to have become unseasonably chilled and gray in anxious awaital of its reappearance. He rubbed his covered palms together.
A ragged, breathless peasant boy from Csejte had come to Nagybiccse early yesterday morning with news of the demon’s death. According to him, a guard stationed outside the room had become suspicious of the silence from within, and the meals served through the room’s iron slot had remained uneaten for a number of days. He sent for the Palatine directly. No lesser servant could handle a matter as uniquely delicate. Thurzo set off on horseback immediately. He needed to see her dead with his own eyes.
As bricks continued to tumble down the small, stone steps, a metallic scent of blood, tainted with grounded mold and earthy soil began to creep from the ruined doorway. Thurzó flicked his boot toe with the sole of the other to knock off a small mound of crumbled mortar and clumsily scaled the carelessly tossed rubble, handhold by handhold. There were only a few bricks left to clear before the hole they had carved out would be sizable enough to enter through, but what Thurzó could see inside was already enough to terminate his visit to Csejte. In the midst of the knocked-in bricks lay the lady’s corpse, bloated and yellowed, limbs at rest, in the middle of the room. The floor was littered with rubble from the deconstruction, but also fecal-stained blankets and rags, bottles and bowls carelessly tossed on the stone tiles.
The witch had choked on the very thing she had craved in life: blood. The foamy substance had pooled from her mouth around her head in some perverted scarlet halo, radiated out from her corpse towards the back of the room where an empty hearth’s soot trailed out across the floor to receive it.
“Death would be too good for you,” the surly guard had mumbled as he threw me by the forearms into the room, my new jail cell, as the light left my eyes for the final time, and my falling head smashed against the flagstones. I woke after the door had been bricked over. That sentence, death would be too good for you, echoed in my mind in the in-between times ever since, times when I wasn’t sure if it was night or day. The only track I’d had since then was the counted breath between those words in my mind, the flickerings of a single burned-down candle flame on the lone table, and the timid beating of my own heart. All these conglomerated together into a continuous symphony of noises and sensations, measuring each second of my imprisonment and counting down the moments until what would surely be death. This was my clock.
I sat in the measly bed I had made in the corner, a pile of blankets and thin mattresses scrapped together to form a kind of animalic nest, a cocoon to shelter me from drafts that somehow made it through the cracks in the bricked-up windows and across the measly threshold of the empty fireplace. My eyes registered the room around me, if barely: a table, a chair, the hearth, bowls and knives passed through the ironclad slot in the wall where the door had used to stand, all crudely fashioned from the poorest wood. My world. The feeling that hung over me now was one I hadn’t felt since childhood; a searing guilt and hopelessness that cut my heart into meaty ribbons.
I leaned over to peer at the young pin of light I had lit some time ago, and ended its life with a swift puff, falling head-first into darkness.
Here, there is light. Or has my vision adjusted to see through the thick velvet of shadows? The not-darkness coats the room like dust, how I remember fresh snow powdering the tops of village roofs. I am not alone, I know. Something else is here; something I can feel against my skin, though it does not touch me. Like swimming in a summer lake when your arms and torso float in the sun-browned water, but feet touch the gray cold of a dying current; the sensation of something that doesn’t belong. I turn around, somehow lighter, floating, almost as if I were in that water. The rubble is gone, the sheets and table and chair and clothes and bowls littering the floor. A shelf, dark wood, taller than me, but only by a little, maybe half an arsin. And on it, a pasty yellow figure. I know who it is before I can make them out. A waxen Jesus. His hand is outstretched, reaching towards me with two fingers extended, a sign of peace. I can feel myself in the room around me as I reach for His hand between my finger and thumb. It feels soft, like skin, warm, welcoming. A grin sprouts across His face, and he pulls my fingertips towards his chest. As the tips of my finger brush against his robes, his nose flattens against his face, his eyes dull, now. His fingers are melting against mine, his features gradually puddling in rheumy bits at disappearing toes. I look on as his grip slips away. I don’t think I know what’s happening. It doesn’t register in my mind. I stare as if the scene here were as common as the sound of mice inside a hovel wall. I am not frightened, but I know I should be. My nonchalance terrifies me the most and makes my eyes widen in disgust.
From his face, the only legible part of his body left in swirling wax on the shelf, a single word: “Look.” I turn to an upright mirror where one wasn’t before, and I can see I am naked, aged. My stomach is wrinkled from expanding and contracting with the exuberance of pregnancy. My hands are wiry, but clean, and a browned fruit, stained with green mold and soft fur hangs from one like I was its mother tree. Then the reflection shifts. Another hand comes into view. The nails are short and grimy, thin fingers, knuckles coarse and cracked and bruised like a misshapen ground of the driest desert. From the corner of the mirror-image comes a needle with the seeming lethargy predators exhibit moments before they pounce. Beneath the finger bed, into the screaming tissue with a wet, quiet “crunch.” Flesh forced into separation against the metallic intruder; blood vessels stretching, stretching, snapping, bleeding, pouring. Another. Another. All ten needle-nails flare out, snapping against an invisible foe as the hand writhes in golden agony. I did this, didn’t I? Don’t you remember? I did this. I did this. I did this. I did this. I did this.
“You dreamt again last night, György.” His wife Erzsebet looked up at him from across a breakfast of simple herring and bread. Her blue eyes would have hid her suspicion from any man but Thurzó.
“… Did you hear my voice in the night again?” He speared a morsel of the white fish on his knife and forked it into his mouth.
“You uttered strange things about an ‘Eve’ or an ‘Eva’ Several times. And more. But the name was all I could make sense of. Perhaps you’ve spent too long in Genesis?”
“Hmm. Perhaps I should make a habit of retiring sooner than I have lately.” He thrust a quick smile across the table. Erzsébet parried with another just like it.
Thurzó’s wife had suspected him of adultery before. Every discomfort, every missed glance used as a snare to entrap Thurzó and keep him closer to her. He couldn’t help it. Despite his assured fidelity, conversations like these would always be a part of their life together. But this time was different. Ever since the matter of Erzsebét, not his wife, but that devil’s siren Báthory had been entrusted to his care by King Matthias, he had been haunted by her. The pulse of the slender wrists he held against her, protests the night she was captured. The pink nail beds and mousy ears, her vicious lips always seemingly so kept in a devilish grin; any other man would call it lecherous, but it was a beast of a different nature to Thurzó. Not love. Not even lust. Violent, deep-cutting, dangerously red, a cut from a dagger that wouldn’t stop bleeding once made. And now he was dreaming of her again.
In my room, I struck the flint against a rough barlette of steel, sending sparks skittering across stone flagstones and illuminating the tinderbox cloth, which smoldered in response. I covered the new almost-flame with cupped hands and brought it to a virgin candle wick on the table. With the new light I could see a loaf of bread beneath the metal slot. I traded it for last night’s stinking chamber pot.
It must have been summer now. The floor had warmed from the acidic sun’s rays to a honeyed feeling against my bare feet. Walking across the room was almost like feeling the sun-drenched earth between my toes again, dancing in the long grasses around Ecsed, which must have been…40 years ago? There was a time when the only concern we had was coming up with clever enough ways to escape István’s tutor. I couldn’t remember his name, only the sourness of his expression when things happened in a way he disapproved of. He was a university student from Pest, that much I remembered, and the man held it over the student couple like the steel sword of Damocles. I remembered the time we managed to lock the bitter teacher in an armoire Papa had bought from a traveling French man years before. We snuck out through the kitchen then, past unsuspecting peasant laundresses and footmen, to a quiet spot near the village where a few nimble trees created a flat and grassy enclosure and the village children played. István’s quiet eyes were abandoned for a bright grin that sparked something deep in my feet, and we took off like the foxes we were, tumbling and rolling in honeyed sunlit grass, chasing each other through drafts of linen and trees of white smock. But even then I could smell change’s bitter scent looming on the horizon, casting its shadow on those summer days. Only three years later István had gone off to Pest with the bright streak of excitement youth taints the future with, and lost his quiet eyes to the haughtiness of the city. The clank of mottled gold and the power’s sugary promise turned the boy I used to know into another one of the men we both used to hate. There was no more escaping after that, and I grew unmoored, drifting back into the place set for me, another grayed thread in the precious tapestry of Báthory glory.
But it seemed like there could be nothing further away in the world than that memory now; I pressed my fuzzied teeth against my arm for István and those long gone days, until I could just taste the coppery flavor of blood. As I drifted into sleep, I thought I saw for a moment, a soot-covered Jesus smiling.
“Mama?” Anna’s lips spoke through the iron slot.
“I’m here.” I croaked, my voice desert pebbles splitting against each other.
“I feared death had paid your cell a call.”
I freed myself and crawled from my cocoon across the flagstones, back still stiff from my time sleeping.
“No, child… No force as great as Death would grant a woman of my plight the untimely pleasure.”
“The Lord has preordained our lives like the farmer plans his crops. Is it not wrong for us to wish it any other way?”
I said nothing.
“Let us not speak of Death. Or prison for that matter. Only light.” A slender set of fingers slipped through the opening and pushed through two small tapers. “To add to your collection,” she added, almost an afterthought.
I paused, gingerly taking the candles. No other child had visited. Anna was the only one who believed.
“Many blessings on you, child,” I paused, wondering if I should ask her about one of my dreams. Maybe they meant something more.
“I dreamt the other night of another candle like this, only it stood in the shape of Christ. What would you make of that?”
“Perhaps it is a divine symbol of redemption.” I heard the quivering in Anna’s voice. The girl had heard the stories; mangled corpses sprawled across dungeon flagstones, drained of blood; needled eyes and sewn lips; she knew her mother could never be redeemed in God’s eyes. I was wrong about Anna believing.
“Perhaps…” I whispered.
“Perhaps,” Anna echoed. “Pray for God’s forgiveness and it shall be so.”
“No. It was foolish of me to hope otherwise… I think you should stop visiting me.” Anna had already suffered enough degradation at her mother’s hands. It hurt, but I had to push her away. Anna said nothing.
We sat silently then, mother and daughter, until the sunlight was no longer strong enough to make it through the iron slot.
“The will of Death comes too late to save me from misery. But that is in his nature. Everyone must suffer through the wanting of Death.” I whispered this later to myself in the silence after Anna’s departure. “But it must come.”
Father had always yearned for greatness. I saw his ambition for years in the crests above each doorway; carved in eternal stone like the tablets of Moses. His need for fashion and beauty had expressed itself in his provincial imitation of high courts across Europe, each ripped off in the parroted French Jerkins and Viennese tapestries crowding the walls of Ecsed castle. But it was Death who had the final succès triomphal: The only remnants of the Great Count was a pile of dust and bones in a box in the earth now. If only he could see me; the final legacy to his import. It tickled me thinking about it, and I giggled aloud; a quiet chuckle alone in the night.
As the invisible stars moved over the world, I lit one of Anna’s gifted candles. Images from my dream, the words of whispered rumors and the feel of intrepid glares swirled across my limited vision. They said I was a monster. Daemon. Witch. The peasantry near Csejte had all abandoned their fields when rumors started sprouting, afraid of the looming stone crypt on the hill. The wild had gradually crept in and brambles had crawled up to the gate of the castle, further fueling our demonic reputation, signaling to everyone but the divine to keep away. If everyone thinks something is true, who’s to say it didn’t happen? My own daughter no longer believed in my innocence. It was then I realized I could no longer tell the difference between what was real to me and what was real to everyone else. It had crept up on me like the wild brambles up Csejte hill, and now it was impossible to tell what was thorn and what was soil. I pulled the small chair over to the table, brought an inked quill to paper.
Sinner. Murderess. Devil. Daemon. This is my confession. This was what happened, wasn’t it? I did it! Me!
I poured the crimes from behind my eyes; the ones I knew I’d committed and the ones aimed at me.
Liar. Thief. Glutton. Coveter. Destroyer.
The black ink of my darkest sins blotted out any blank space left on the page. Another bramble. Another thorn. Another. Another. Between each word, each letter, another life passed in front of me. Another needle. Another drop of blood. Another bruise. How could my soul be any more mottled than it already was accused of being?
As my hands shook with a nervous exhaustion, the sorry quill dropped from my fingers. I leaned back, numb, burnt and crawled from the chair into my palette with closed eyes and a soft thud. When I woke again, the burnt Jesus stood over me.
Its skin shines ebony in the timid candlelight; the creature smells dank and heavy and grounded; skin reeks of burning wood and wet laundry left in the tub. Or is it the smell of my sweat? It reaches towards me slowly, but I’m not afraid; something about his face reminds me too much of the space behind my eyelids for that. I take his hand, come to my feet, if unsteadily, braced by his form, and smile. Gently. We stand with each other for a moment, breathing in each others’ scents, then he gestures towards the table, where the cracked vellum of my wretched confession stares at me.
“Look,” he says, and hands suddenly reveal to me a golden dagger, the kind the Italians favored Outside. It is suddenly an Olympian bolt, the way the candlelight dances across the polished stiletto’s surface. I know enough to push the knife against my skin, his gentle smile encouraging, beneath the second line on my palm. “It says six children,” mama voices now in my head. Poor Anna. Gregory. Orsolya. Katalin. András. Pál. No István. Not for a long time. Their sorry faces flash through my head; a kaleidoscope of eyes and lips and teeth. I dip the white feather in the scarlet drops clamoring for release on my skin, sign beneath “Amen” and the million blank accusations of candles I’ve extinguished. I am no longer gray, but a blood scarlet flame.
Báthory Erzsébet de Ecsed…