Past Hungers, Past Mistakes

Part 8 of Night's Longing

Carmen spoils me. She treats me like a princess, taking me out to eat at fine restaurants, lavishing gifts of beautiful clothes and shoes and bags and jewelry on me. It’s almost too much. Too fancy, too elegant, too high femme.

There’s no stopping her, so I just try to redirect her energy in the direction of something more my style: some chunky goth boots, cool leather jackets, these asymmetrical tops with the bat print, and oh, studded belts go great with everything. I tell her I’m much more interested in this kind of “vampire-bait fit,” but the term means much less to her than showing her all these specific examples of what I like.

She doesn’t quite stop buying me the elegant dresses, but I feel better in them when I can accessorize my outfit to suit my vibe. Also, yes, the ruby blood-drop pendant looks sick as hell, and maybe I don’t mind jewelry after all.

Living with her, I can’t help but notice how Carmen’s habits are unusual by the standards of vampires. She routinely wakes up in the early afternoon, before I typically do, and on those occasions I notice her absence from bed, I catch her drifting with a languid, relaxed pace through the condo, not apparently inclined to use her time for much more than quiet contemplation and thoughtful repose.

She often enjoys a cup of coffee—another wildly unusual habit—to which she adds only a spoonful of chocolate, not syrup or cocoa, but grated from a bar of the extremely rich, dark stuff. “It may no longer be in fashion to drink chocolate this way,” she tells me, “but it remains as much a pleasure of mine as your coffee, and in combination, the two are lovely together.”

“Ooh, Vampire Mocha.” I mentally make a note of it in case I ever have cause to return to the glamorous life of a barista.

The nights pass by much more quickly in her company. Carmen is reticent to share details of her early life, telling me “some truths are reserved for those I have known somewhat longer than a few weeks,” and I have to concede that’s a fair response.

Still, not all details of her life are off-limits, and as we lounge on her expansive patio together, she puffs on an old-fashioned pipe and happily tells me tales of her exploits during what she calls her “wandering era.”

“Did you ever have ‘one that got away,’ Carmen?”

“You say that with the air of one who doubts such a thing is possible, but yes, darling, there have been a few.”

It’s true, I find it hard to imagine, but that’s what makes the question interesting. “I guess everyone falls for a straight girl or two at some point, huh?”

She laughs to herself. “Would you believe that the answer remains the same even excluding the so-called ‘straight’ women?”

“Inconceivable!” I throw my hands in the air for dramatic effect.

“Alas, it is so! Shall I recount the tale for you?”

I prop my chin on my hands in a great show of interest. Nothing pleases me more than the opportunity to learn more about my dear Carmen.

The precise year escapes recollection, but this story takes place during my great melancholic fugue after discarding my title and abandoning my lands. I made my way from village to village, heedless of my course, not bound to any particular destination. At that time I had no clear notion of what I was looking for, only a restless need to seek out some ineffable cure for this malady of the soul I suffered.

I traveled by carriage, hiring a driver to carry me and my mortal attendant—a stout and devoted woman named Mechthild—while I lay safely sheltered from the sun within a coffin. Gauche as people see it these days, at that time the coffin was the ideal means of transporting a vampire. It provided secure shelter and padded comfort while being precisely as compact as it can be and easily carried by hired servants. Moreover, societal taboos were an effective deterrent for unwelcome snoops.

Now, the driver was a disreputable fellow, strongly bound by superstition, which made him an ideal thrall. He asked no unwelcome questions however many people died wheresoever we stayed, he pocketed my payments regardless of any lingering blood on the coin, and most importantly he was deathly terrified of me and of touching my coffin.

We were traveling through the countryside of—well, you would know it as part of modern day Austria—when we stopped for the evening at a wholesome little burg. A cold mist followed my steps in a perfect match for my mood.

The moon waxed gibbous overhead in a portent of significant events to come, and by the gentle glow of its light I beheld a lady of such striking beauty that I was at once overcome with fascination for her. She was dark of complexion, in possession of features both firm and fair, with a bearing befitting a queen or goddess, though her dress was of far more humble design, ill-suited to her, I felt.

From shadows, and while wearing the form of a beast, as was my wont in those days, I stalked the girl. She walked alone, save for an escort whose presence I bitterly cursed. They spoke little, but I found myself captivated by what snippets I caught of the sound of her voice and the well-educated High German with which she spoke.

The two of them traveled up the hill together to a stately chateau that seemed to me of recent construction. I prowled and circled the building, keeping an eye on each visible window, until at last I saw the light of a candle illuminate her room.

Carefully, quietly, I crept toward the house. I ascended to the second story floor to peer through her window and watch with lustful eyes as she knelt for her evening prayers and readied herself for bed.

Such a reproachful look you give me! I was quite a different person back then, in appearance as much as in character. I wore my hair longer and darker, I fed on blood more often and more greedily, and, yes, I held somewhat less regard for the boundaries and dignity of those I desired. I was covetous and capricious and cruel, and perhaps you will understand better the importance of this story if I say that it was this woman who would convince me I might be better served to master those impulses rather than indulge them at every opportunity.

This story would naturally have ended quite differently if her home had not been thoroughly warded against intrusion. I could not pass through her window to take her in her sleep, nor even to touch her dreams with visions of me. Again I cursed her ability to protect herself. How had the people of this place contrived to possess the lore to bar me from my goal?

It was then that the sensation of familiarity dawned on me. I had, without realizing, returned very close to the land where once my castle stood. Vampires would have been known in this region from my own prior indulgences and the network effects thereof.

I withdrew for the night. Such wards could only be breached through great personal sacrifice or by soliciting the invitation of the house’s master.

And so I plotted with Mechthild and my hireling to arrange one of my favorite schemes. Our carriage would experience a sudden, unexpected disaster at sunset near the gates to the chateau. I would faint, being of sickly constitution, while Mechthild frets over me in plain view of the master of the estate. She, graying of hair from her decades of faithful service, would claim to be my mother, traveling with a secretive task of great urgency.

In those days, good Christian men in possession of such impressive estates would, without fail, offer to shelter a maiden in need. Would it surprise you to see me in a dress? Ha! I daresay you would not recognize me at all playing the role of delicate young noblewoman who tugged at the sympathies of men, coquettish yet demure of manner, skin far less stained by ink and needle—not altogether untouched, I admit, though I concealed such markings for the sake of maintaining appearances.

The young lord took the bait, of course. He insisted that it would be his pleasure to offer me a room in which to recover, since I was obviously in no condition for the difficult journey ahead, and that his wife would be delighted to make my acquaintance. My “mother” offered her gratitude and vowed to return for me with all haste once her task was complete.

With his welcome, I passed through the wards and into the home of Baron Ernst Bolzmann.

If you will forgive me another aside, I must acknowledge how that surname bears a striking resemblance to yours. Perhaps there is some distant kinship between you two—names and their spellings being at one time more fluid than they are now—however, even if so, I am quite sure that young Ernst was not of your branch which concerned itself with affairs of the night.

As I entered, his wife, the Baroness, introduced herself as Jane Anne Bolzmann. I tell you now that she was no less radiant in the ruddy last gasp of daylight than she was by the cold light of the moon. She captivated me, arrested my attention with eyes so warm and brown and lively, and it took every ounce of self-control to conceal the greed in my own, to play the part of a frail and trembling thing too rattled for travel.

Jane was all too eager to offer me her companionship in the days to come. She was a lonely thing, bereft of friends and of good company beyond her husband and a father whose infrequent visits offer a welcome change of pace. In little time at all we drew quite close, sharing the same irresistible, magnetic pull toward one another.

“My dear Carmen, I feel as though we have known each other our whole lives and have simply been biding our days until this very reunion,” she said to me as we lay under the stars in her lovely garden.

I replied to her with the softest kiss, a gentle brush of my lips on hers, a test of sorts which she passed by returning the gesture with a touch more haste and force than strictly appropriate. The way she looked at me then, breathless and keen, bound my heart to hers indelibly.

“I’m pleased to share that sentiment and more with you, dearest Jane.”

Now let me pause again to clarify that I am taking some liberties with this story. I used another name then, and we were both speaking German, which I choose to translate into English that best fits the flavor of how we spoke to one another. Otherwise, I endeavor to relate these scenes to the best of my memory.

She looked past my habit of sleeping till the afternoon, occupied as she was with daily prayers and rituals and private study, keeping her own secrets as surely as I kept mine. I had my suspicions about her, as I am sure she had about me, but neither of us wished to offend the other. Therefore we both withheld all prying questions lest we both be tempted to bare such scandalous secrets as put our budding relationship at risk.

Nightly, after the others had retired for the evening, I slipped out the window—as much to feed as to escape the dreadful sounds of Jane’s husband attempting fruitlessly to produce an heir with her. I had begun to suspect that she possessed the lore to prevent such a conception, though I wondered how long the Baron’s patience might last.

Every moment of the day we had together, we made the most of it. We slipped away into quiet nooks where we would not be disturbed. We giggled and gossiped. I squeezed her hand tightly as she confided in me that she was not ready to be a mother, that she did not think she ever would be ready for motherhood, and that she feared her life was stuck on a path that led with dreadful certainty over the edge of a cliff.

I confessed to her the deep melancholy that followed all my days. How I had won everything I ever strove for, only for the taste of it all to turn sour in my mouth and leave me feeling empty and without purpose. No matter how much I took, I felt as though I had nothing.

We soothed each other’s worries with soft, chaste kisses, with a good friend’s gentle caress, with hugs that lingered no more than slightly too long. Jane never resisted my advances, indeed she seemed to welcome them as the days went by and our kisses carried more heat, the caresses becoming less chaste.

Still the more intimate these trysts became, the more guilt I saw etched in the lines of her face afterward. I was afraid, then. I feared this soft time of ours was already approaching its inevitable end, in one way or another, and I hated that end profoundly. I had decided that she was mine, absolutely and eternally mine, to take and keep and bind to myself forever more, and I saw that guilt as a threat I needed to destroy.

“Don’t look at me so!” I cried one night, when that look tore at me deeper than ever before. I pounced on Jane, seeking to scour the guilt from her face and her conscience with a deluge of kisses. Her forehead, her cheeks, her mouth, her bewitching mouth, her deliciously intoxicating mouth, lips as voluptuous as the swell of her hips and bosom that my hands sought with their own desperate yearning. She turned her head to the side as if to flee my affection, but my kisses fell upon her neck, and her hands found my waist, and her resistance weakened under the heat of my ardent need.

“Please stop,” she bade me as my hands began their exploration under her dress, her traitorous words belying a desire I knew she felt as fervidly as I. To my own surprise, I stopped, finding that the tears running down her cheeks pained my heart, and in that moment I felt truly wretched.

I removed myself from her and permitted a moment of space to collect herself. She wiped her eyes, and somehow the look she gave me was not reproachful in the slightest. It was filled with more guilt than ever before, like a great dam imminently threatening to burst.

“You cannot. You mustn’t.” Her eyes pleaded with me while her mouth sought the words. “You don’t understand what you are doing!”

“Do I not?” I replied. “I know I’ve been selfish with you, darling, but I ache with such love as words cannot express. Only actions suffice, and even then they pale next to the intensity of my ardor. Jane, you simply must be mine.”

She shook her head. “You don’t know what you desire, and if I should tell you, then I fear our companionship will be broken. Yet I must tell you, for if I fail to, then I will have betrayed the relationship closest to my heart.”

“There is naught you can say that will dissuade me from you,” I said, and although it was as much a threat as a promise, Jane seemed to accept my statement as a kind of reassurance.

“I’m a witch. That’s what they call me, for in my studies I have learned all manner of occult knowledge of the natural and unnatural world. Furthermore,” she grimaced as though her words must sound profane to me, “I put such lore into active practice for the benefit of this house as well as for my own selfish benefit in defiance of my Christian role as wife to Ernst. Through witchcraft I remain barren to him, despite his need for an heir.”

“Damn the Christians and their roles,” I told her, and I intended for my words to be soft and gentle, but perhaps something of my true nature surfaced for a moment, as Jane gave me a peculiar and unexplained look. Yet even that was shortly washed away with shocked relief tempered still by doubt.

“You cannot mean that. Who would choose a witch over their God?”

I pulled her toward me in an embrace and pressed my cheek to hers, my lips at her ear, to whisper, “Perhaps another witch, beloved. One long ago forsaken by heaven.”

“Not forsaken, surely. I must believe that there is hope of salvation for both of us.”

“Utterly,” I insisted. “And I tell you this: don’t let yourself be torn between a ruthless god and your own true nature. Such religion serves to bind our souls and make slaves of mankind, each one made piously miserable by what sinful secrets they keep, ashamed of their own impurity. Yet I assure you, suffering is not redemptive; it is empty.”

She recognized the truth of my words, though she hated to believe them, and her tears soaked through my clothes. With one more loving kiss, I felt her faith break entirely. With greedy hands and encouraging words, I worked to grind what pieces remained into dust.

I felt no prayer pass Jane’s lips again after that, which I took as an invitation to invade her bedroom at long last. She was ripe now. Ready.

Ernst was a sound sleeper, and I was always quiet and gentle when I wished to be. For the first time, my fangs pierced her chest—softly, gently, with a numbing touch—and I drank away that first touch of her mortal essence.

We received word that Jane’s father would be arriving soon. I thought little of the news as I had no reason to believe his coming would bring about the premature end of my time with her.

Each day that passed, Jane became a touch more languid, her movements slower, her strength waning. This was the chrysalis phase, the decline that leads to ascension, and the process is delicate if one wishes to do it properly. Her husband fretted over her, but she reassured him that she did not feel ill, that she was simply taken by a lazy mood that would surely pass eventually.

It was by my influence that she felt no distress, only the comfort of the cocoon. In private I bade her lap my own blood from my breast, which would act as the sweetest opiate upon her mind and thereby draw her closer to me with each passing day.

Ernst implored me to keep her company, grateful that I was there for his wife while he attended to his own responsibilities. He saw no significance in the way she put her arm around my waist and leaned on my shoulder with half-lidded, dreamy eyes. He did not know that in her heart she belonged to me, not him.

What I did not know was that Jane’s father was a member of the Vordenburg clan of vampire hunters. When he arrived, he heard the rumors of townsfolk dying, victims of mysterious symptoms that he must have recognized. At the chateau, he immediately understood the signs of vampiric influence on his daughter.

Now, surely she had been taught as you were, Hanna, and she would have recognized the same signs in herself, but the comfort I gave to her clouded her mind as it clouded her senses, leaving her disinclined toward thought.

Not being a complete fool, her father identified me as the source of it all. He was prepared for me, but I did not live so long without the cunning to evade a hunter’s traps. I kidnapped Jane that very night, right from under his nose, and spirited her away to safety in order to finish her metamorphosis.

I was rushed, unable to prepare her properly, without enough opportunity to ready her mind to accept undeath, but before long, I was traveling once again by carriage, with a second coffin beside mine.

Would you believe that Jane did not thank me for turning her? I know, to you that must be unthinkable, but that first night she emerged from her coffin, hungry in the way the newly turned are, she killed half a dozen men with my gleeful help.

Afterward she called herself a monster who deserved to burn in hell.

The next night we did it again, taking rapturous delight in excessive bloodshed, or so I thought, and again afterward she wept. I thought it would get easier for her as time went on. I tried to show her that there could be nothing wrong with such murder as long as it was so easy, so fun, and without consequences for us.

What genuine surprise I felt when she reacted to my words in horror! Despite my hopes, her horror turned to bitter self-loathing which grew each time she gave in to the temptations I offered.

It was somewhat less of a surprise when she eventually fled my company. Our love had turned rotten. I had taught her that vampires were precisely as monstrous as her family always said we were, and in the process damned her to an existence she loathed.

She left me a letter, though. I will not recount it in full, both because it hurts and because she damned me with such profound intimacy that I was forced to recognize the truth of her every word. She told me why my melancholy followed me. No matter how much I took, no matter who I claimed or how I indulged myself, it felt empty to me because I had made my world too small to contain anything more than myself, and that even my love was hollow because I defined it in terms of my desire alone.

Jane wrote that she would not tell me I needed God. She knew that I would reject that, and the truth is that I—and maybe she as well—did not need God per se so much as that which God provided for others, an expansion of the self beyond merely the self, the practice of self-abnegation as an exploration of love.

She concluded with the hope that someone in her family cut out the infection I represent because she doubted I would ever understand the value of life so long as I never loved in truth, and that I would never love another as she had loved me.

“I wish to say that after I read her letter, I learned the error of my ways and solved my melancholy and lived happily ever after.” Carmen’s mouth twists in rueful grimace. “But as is tradition for someone being ‘read for filth’ I spent a great deal of time wallowing in self-pity first. Then, when the seeds planted by her letter took root, I acted upon my newfound wisdom by changing course to a different pattern of self-centered behavior. I think it took more than a century of embarrassing flailing to internalize the wisdom she left for me and become a better person for it.”

My head reels. It feels like there’s supposed to be a moral of this story or something, but I’m not sure what it is. “So, what… you don’t kill people anymore? You try to be morally upstanding and all that? Is that why you never drink from me?”

“My darling, no. I do not claim to be a woman of virtue. That would be preposterous.” Carmen laughs. “What is the best way to summarize? I realized that over the years I had debased myself into a creature of pure id, the whole of my being in service to feeding my various hungers. I have since regained my dignity and integrated the whole of my consciousness—id included—into a richer holistic understanding of self.”

I nod blankly.

“You might recall a time a beautiful woman propositioned me, and I found it in me to decline her advances in order to pursue a higher agenda?”

“Oh yeah! When you put it that way, I’m not sure I agree with that lesson at all.” I laugh too, hoping she takes no offense at making light of her personal growth. “But really, I’m happy if you’re happy, even if that did sound like a rough breakup.”

Carmen takes my joke with good humor, at least. “I am, and it certainly was.”

In any case, there’s one nugget in that story I need to know more about.

“Can I ask how you turned someone from a hunter family? That should be impossible!” The Vordenburg clan is, after all, every bit as old and prestigious as my own. I can’t make sense of it.

“Ah, I am sorry. It is through no special technique of mine.” I don’t like the pitying look Carmen gives me. “Your families differ somewhat in both gifts and traditions. Jane had not been tattooed with the markings that would awaken the effects of her hunter-clan blood. Why? I do not know. Perhaps she was offered a choice you were not, or perhaps her father weighed her heart and found her wanting.”

Just like that, my newfound hope is crushed, but I am nothing if not persistent in the face of lost causes. That the tattoo triggers my bloodline curse is new information to me.

“Laser tattoo removal is a thing these days. Do you think that might erase the cage preventing me from turning?”

Carmen runs a hand through her hair, exhaling thoughtfully. “Doubtful, at least by itself, but I have been pondering a similar line of thought. You need more than to remove the tattoo; you need to put additional energy toward reversing its effects. Only in part, however. Your enhanced ability to survive is a useful power in particular, and I suspect your body has grown to rely on it, such that stripping that ability from you could kill you permanently.”

Hope surges within me again, and I hardly notice how I’ve leapt to my feet in excitement. “You’re saying there is hope for making me a true vampire!”

“Yes.” Carmen nods. “However complex the route, I believe there to be one. I just need more time to study the shape and meaning of your tattoos to find it.”

“So what I’m hearing is that I should spend much more of my time with you topless.”

“Precisely so,” she agrees with playful smile, “and as an interesting bit of trivia, I do my best problem solving when I am feeling relaxed.”

Well, in that case, I’ve got important tension-relief work to do!