I, Dracula


Tuesday, seven nights to the day

 
The year is 1531. My understanding of the world had changed for some time although the disappointment with it has not. I am in the entrails of my castle where my measuring glasses, scales and lutes throw shadow upon shadow of wasted time. My failure is cloistered in every jar laughing at my naivety. 
The three baby girls I brought back from the village are here too; they are sucking their thumbs unaware in a basket under this table where I write. The gipsies are outside, waiting for me. 
It is not for them I write, Mihnea, it is for you. I don’t know if life is still on your side, my son or maybe you too are on the side of death. Maybe you became like me soon after your birth when I gave you away. It’s been a long time since then, day after day trapped in the agony of not knowing. Now, suddenly, I am running out of time. Only seven nights left. 
I have been of this world for a long time, Mihnea, wise and flawed as the world itself, contained in lives and deaths but never able to succumb to them. I have been the hunter and the hunted, taking my pleasure from both and resenting them both. My life is no different from eternal death, just a sentence to never forget or forgive. I cannot forget the crippling hours of darkness, hatred and longing that forever haunt me. And I can never forgive myself for giving you away, my son, for letting her have you. 
Do you know of my betrayal? Would you be willing to accept and forgive what I have done? Forgiveness doesn’t come easy to me; it is not a gift or a given but has to be won. My father never won it from me. I might never win it from you; but I want to try. 
Will the quill be loyal or betray me, work for me or against me as I come undone in front of you, naked and truthful so you can understand? Will I remember the small things I did that changed lives and the big things I did that changed history? All the things that changed me? I am remembering and I will lay them bare in front of you for you to understand and judge. 
And maybe forgive. 
This is my story, my son…
 
I remember my birth with the same raw vigour I remember every other instant of my timeless life and I want you to hear it out for there was no choice in it for me. My mother’s gripping pain as she cast me from her innards still clings to me. Her final push squeezing my fragile body to give my lungs their lease on life is still urging my senses to unfold and erupt. I remember landing on the hard bed between her legs and the air enveloping me that first time, dry and choking. And the space, so much of it, too much to fill. 
My muffled sanctuary, the darkness of before, was lost. This was an uncertain place – cold and crude – permeated by sharp whispers and unfamiliar smells. The first shaft of light that crept into my eyes was still murky and sat heavy around my mother’s face. 
I felt strange hands laying hold of me, grabbing at me, dragging, lifting my body and crushing my bones.
“It’s a boy!” – lifted…
“Vlad Dracul has an heir!” – crushed…
“God Bless Him and The Kingdom of Valahia in the prosperous year 1431!” – shaken, suspended in the air for a small eternity above subservient heads in long garments.
Those strange hands deposited me on my mother’s lap and fiddled with her clothes. The smell of her breast unearthed in me knowledge from the beginning of the world and my mouth latched onto her nipple with confidence and ease, setting in motion the most primitive of feelings – a longing for her love and acceptance. That feeling blossomed from deep inside me and I sucked with greed, grabbing at my mother’s attention, exploiting her sense of duty and indubitable love. The fluid erupted in my mouth and I welcomed it. It was warm and sweet. It was thick, filling my mouth with delight and flowing then smoothly down my throat, drop after drop. But before I had any time to settle into it, my pleasure was gone. Her nipple was snatched away. 
“Look at his mouth! Singe, there is blood on his lips!” somebody screamed in horror. 
My mother was just lying there prostrate, with her nipple blooming into a redbud, her acceptance of me replaced by unease and fear. The women around her were screaming, their dark long dresses flapping about, suddenly able and resolute, a murder of crows with a purpose. 
“We have to bring in the witch,” one said, crossing herself.
“A witch is no use, she wouldn’t know! She wouldn’t be able to say,” spoke a woman with authority. “I was born on a Saturday. I know. Show that baby to me! Show it to my green eyes.” 
The noise in the stony room died down and she made her way towards the bed – among fearful and humble faces – with a shuffle on the clay floor dum–shhh, dum–shhh. This is how Tinca came into my life, Mihnea, into our life. This woman has been clinging to me ever since, insatiable in her desire to destroy me and the people around me. Has she destroyed you, my son? 
Although this woman was small, she seemed to fill up the room. Clad in black from her head down, she loomed over me and, reassuring my mother with a nod and a mumble, grabbed me from her lap and wrapped me in some coarse fabric. Her shadow, even darker than the dusky air in the room, seemed to weigh me down, pressing me hard against the mattress on the bed when she finally put me there. Her face was crumpled and dried out. 
“Come to Tinca, little baby,” her voice cracked in my ears. “The rest of you, go, go, leave us alone.”
So, the women left the room one by one, relieved to leave us behind. Tinca drilled her green eyes into mine and a sudden silence occurred, maybe not a silence in itself, more like an overwhelming absence of noise. My body was tense and colder still. She blew over me three times and every time my lungs were struggling to free from her rotten stench.
“The child has the evil eye, my lady, e deochiat,” she said moving over to my mother, shaking her shoulders gently but firm just like her whisper. “I will take him away and untie him of his curse.” She attempted a smile but my mother didn’t smile back.
“I am not giving you my baby. Do it here. Show me how it’s done. I need to see the evil go away.”
The old woman hesitated: “I will say my chant and when I yawn he will be rid of the bad wishes… But I should take him away…” 
“No,” said my mother and I was grateful for it, for the woman’s touch was repulsive to me.
Tinca started to move surprisingly easily for someone who seemed to be the age of the stones in the walls. My mother and I watched her from the bed, the hard mattress offering no comfort, the four thick posters of the bed failing to guard or protect. Even the flicker of the candles seemed suddenly weak and apologetic, ready to give in to the poisonous air that this woman spread around her. 
She went to the dying fire and counted nine coals. She took them out one by one with tongs and dumped them in a bucket with clear water. The sizzling sound of the coals seemed to please her. She washed her hands in the bucket and then splashed some water over her crumpled face. She put her hand on my forehead and her rough fingers ravaged my skin.
“You poor little thing. Be good now,” she said. “Sa–ti zica baba un descintec de deochi, I will chant and yawn and the evil will be gone…
She spat on the floor and stepped over it three times. She spat on her thumb and put it on my forehead, between my eyes. I felt a burn, like one of her coals had landed on my face. An acrid taste filled my mouth. Her thumb started a circular movement on my forehead that sent my head in a nauseating spin.
The woman started an incantation, a descintec, while her thumb crawled on my skin. The rhythm was agonizing. 

Asa sa se stinga
Deochiul de la el.

I screamed my protest. My mother started to cry and moved away from me on the bed. The old woman wouldn’t stop.

The curse of the wilted field,
The curse of the eerie wind,

Her voice raised and the rhythm picked up. I screamed again in hate and fear of this woman. My little limbs were struggling to rid her hands of me. 
My mother shouted: “You’re not yawning! Yawn, woman, yawn, take the deochi, the curse away!”
Tinca delved with her fingers even harder on my face, scraping the life out of me and chanting.
 

 Let this boy jump out
 Clean and lean
 From the evil eye
 Let this boy come out,
 Bright into my dark
 On the evil path.

“What are you saying, woman, this can’t be the descintec, it sounds like a curse. What are you doing?” My mother’s eyes were looking for Tinca’s.
But Tinca was undeterred and my mother helpless. The scraping, the spinning, the chanting acquired a new dimension, they suddenly seemed as if they were never going to end. She kept bringing her face lower and lower, closer to mine, her malefic green eyes huge, opened wide as if to suck me into them. And then her coarse cheek touched mine and her leechy lips touched my ear and her teeth sunk into my neck. 
My mother, unaware, with her eyes closed, was rocking back and forth, a cavernous hum coming from her throat, a kind of lullaby. I felt a deep rage building up in me, the kind I felt many times since then, the kind that drills into my brain and governs my actions. I caught the woman’s thumb in my little fist and I bit into it with a force I didn’t know I had. My toothless gums exploded in pain. The woman jumped high in surprise, her green eyes darkened with hate. 
“This child didn’t get the evil eye, he is Evil himself!” she screamed at my mother but her words were smothered by other screams from outside the door.
“Kill that baby, omoriti–l!” the noise suddenly invaded the room as the door flew open. Something stirred in my mother then for she stood up, smashing her fists across her chest, commanding them to kill her too. The people who came in stopped abruptly at the sight of us. A hand went up pointing at my mouth.
“Blood! Singe! He is sucking blood!”
“He is a vampir,” said Tinca, her bitten finger – an undeniable proof.
At the sound of that word – vampir –  a heavy silence choked the room, sucking the air out of the people’s chests. As the eyes filled with terror, the shoulders fell down swamped under the weight of that discernment.
First I heard the hiss of the metal blade in the air and then the rasping when it came down to me, just a palm away from my chest. But then, suddenly, the scythe was deterred with a strong blow and landed close, somewhere between my mother and I.  
“Hands down, you fools! You are nothing but a bunch of slow–witted imbeciles who believe in fairies and moroi! Get out of here!” 
The audience seemed struck by that commanding voice. The knives, the rocks, the scythe were coming down in shame and the intruders stepped back sheepishly one by one, leaving the room. Not Tinca. Her eyes turned towards the man who stopped the blow. 
“This boy, your son, is a monster! You made a monster,” she said, her face contorted with rage.
The man she called my father planted himself firmly in front of her. 
“He is my son,” he bellowed at her, but she didn’t back away. 
“This boy is going to bring a lot of death and sorrow on this land, you have to let me take him! He will suck the blood of this country and of your people!” 
Tinca came one step closer, her eyes pinning my father to the wall. “I am the only one who can put away his evil spirit… I can’t kill him, not anymore but I can put him away…”
“I dare you if you want to die trying,” said my father, pulling his dagger with one sharp move and lifting it ready to strike.
“What a fool to think you can kill me,” she snarled at my father. “You will meet your miserable death by his hand but there is no death for me, I cannot die and neither will your son!” 
My mother gasped and, without looking at me resumed her humming, her cadent movements marking the passing of useless time – the beginning of my end.

XXX


I have very little to say about my mother, Mihnea, except that I seemed to always fail to be liked by her. I don’t know if she disliked me from that very beginning, if she became fearful of me when I bit her breast, or her unease around me came after Tinca uttered her foreboding or maybe even later, after my brother’s birth. Such a waste of a childhood, always trying to reconnect with this woman, to get her to marvel at me, to bring her back to that single moment at my birth when she wasn’t yet afraid of me, when I tasted her blood and it tasted good. 
Your mother wasn’t like that, Mihnea, she was desperate to have and to hold you as if she knew she was going to lose you so soon. Anastasia was your mother’s name and she was beautiful and so unlucky to have met me. I liked her because she was fiery and I took her because I could and I didn’t want anybody else to have her. Your mother was consumed with love for you but Cneaja, my mother, well, she was a true princess, a proud descendant of the Musatin Dynasty of Moldova and I have this memory of her always surrounded by her ladies–in–waiting, a rustling shield against any intimacy with me. 
She was always floating about the house with her dark, long hair which made her skin look even paler and the almond eyes strangely intent on people. I could feel her gaze pausing sometimes, but she didn’t really seem to see me. If she did, it must have been a joyless encounter, for I was not a pretty boy and I carried little glee about me, unlike my younger brother. I think she might have even been the one to start calling him Radu cel Frumos, the Handsome. 
He was three years younger than me but that wasn’t what set us so far apart. I remember my mother’s belly growing slowly, bit by bit under her dress and every time she was touching it, she would avert her eyes from me and wipe a tear with the back of her hand. She was crying a lot and lying on the bed in her room in a state of profound sadness, so removed from me and everything around her as if, having had me, she had deemed herself not worthy of carrying another life, not even her own.
So I spent most of the time sleeping during the day, woken up sometimes by one of her ladies-in-waiting for one reason or another, mostly to feed me food I didn’t like. The night was different, it was mine and mine alone. They always came to lock me up in the nursery for my sleep but, after their steps died down and their snores took over, I used to sneak out of my prison just to look at the moon, climb the tower or scare the rats. I was free at night. I liked the night the most.
The little grain inside her was growing though and sometimes, when I was close, I could hear it crying too. Little sobs, small and helpless, reminding me of the puppies I kicked sometimes when I rummaged free. I don’t know why he was crying inside there, it was a good place to be, much better than out. But he wouldn’t know. Every time my mother started to weep, the little limbs inside her would flutter like a bird caught in a thorn and the sobs would start like a trill, a sad accompaniment to her relentless distress.
I could hear you too, Mihnea, when you were in your mother’s womb but you never cried in there. You were humming in tune with Anastasia, a lullaby, a doina, songs calling for battle, songs about lost love and about death. 
There were no more cries after my brother was born. I was in the other part of the house when I heard my mother’s scream. I was alone in the nursery (all her ladies meticulously busy around her) and I remember the very light breeze that invaded the whole house after her scream, as if all the butterflies in the world came through our front door to caress the air, to make it more delicate and thinner. Its ripple touched my face and stopped me in my tracks and I wondered was it the newborn who brought about the diaphanous breeze or the air recreated itself softer to welcome the new arrival.
It didn’t matter. The cries of joy from my mother’s bedroom were also filling the space, carried around on the unseen wings of the butterflies, out the keyholes and hinges and further up into the square settling in like petals of cherry blossoms. Upon feeling it, people started to kneel and look at our house in wonder. A booming voice shouted from a window upstairs:
“It’s a boy! Vlad Dracul has another heir! God bless Him and The Kingdom of Valahia!” and all the people in the piata started to cheer at the sight of the golden coins that were thrown down from the window. Scrambling about, squirming in the dust like chickens fighting over a worm, my father’s people were taking proud ownership of another voievod.  
I stayed there looking out for a while, watching the shadows of the buildings crawl in the dust, taking over new territory bit by bit, getting longer and longer and darker still. By the time the moon climbed in the sky, the butterflies were gone. That’s when I heard a sound I hadn’t heard before, to the likeness of a tambourine lightly touched in error. It was my mother’s laughter. Just a small one, a timid dive into a cherished memory. I don’t remember your mother’s laugh, Mihnea. Maybe I never heard it because she saw no reason for it.
Nobody came looking for me that night to bring me to my mother or to show me the new baby. I could feel I was outside of something and its inside was never going to include me. When I finally fell asleep in the nursery, I knew I was on my own.
The next morning they moved me out of there into a smaller room up a flight of stairs in the attic. There was no window to it. The walls were washed in white and there wasn’t much space left around the little bed. Underneath it, a small chamberpot. There were no toys or drawings or clothes. Nobody would come up there but a little mouse in and out of the floorboards. It was a dwarf’s dwelling and that’s what I was back then: small and insignificant.
My mother would spend all her time with Radu. The nursery was now swarming with life, the new baby cradled from lap to nipple, from arm to bosom, cooed at and sung to. 
Nobody called on me but nobody stopped me either so, a couple of days after he was born, I went in to bring him a present. My mother saw me coming, gasped in surprise as if she had forgotten I still existed and held Radu closer to her. The ladies–in–waiting watched her and made an attempt to grab me but she nodded instead and I was allowed to take another step in. She loosened her grip on the baby as I kept coming towards them. When I reached the chair she was sitting in, she had the baby down on her lap, watching my every move.
“Small,” I smiled pointing at the baby.
My mother looked at the baby and back at me and repeated: “Yes, he is small, only a baby…”
“I have small,” I said, still smiling and I put the little dead mouse I had caught that morning on Radu’s chest. “Present… Small present to play… for small baby…”
Everything else happened then at once: my mother’s scream ‘You, monster,’ as she grabbed the dead mouse and threw it in my face, the hand that gripped my arm and dragged me across the floor and the door of the nursery that was shut in my face. As I said, Mihnea, I knew I was on the outside.

XXX


      
Radu was everything that I wasn’t. With his blond curls, his sheepish smile, his delicate hands and especially his coy and dreamy eyes, he was like a carefully painted porcelain statue. There was an idleness about him and a careless manner that made him easy to look at and behold. I was cut from a different material, stone maybe, or rather marble, for I was cold and pale, my long face even paler in contrast with my ebony hair. Where he was mirthful and gay, I was quiet and purposeful.
I didn’t dislike him, or maybe I did, maybe being ruthless at the games we played, intolerant towards his weak handling of the sword, unsparing with his clumsy archery skills, callous when it came to his incompetence on a horse, maybe there was dislike on my part, or just a natural understanding of the necessary hierarchy for survival. After all, I am still alive… 
Our mother, of course, was hovering over him, covering his uselessness and protecting his pretty looks which were of inestimable value to her. That is why, maybe, the day I cut his face in a fair fight with the daggers she cried and cursed so much cleaning the wound of her beloved. It was a long cut that I made with a iatagan across his left cheek, catching onto his perfectly proportioned nose and making his dreamy eye fall oddly asymmetrical.
When she finished with that pathetic, whining child, she stormed out of the big armour hall where we were practising our fighting routines and came back in a hurry, holding a small mirror which she stuck in my face.
“Look at you!” she was screaming while thrusting the piece of glass into my eyes. “Why don’t you cut your face, with those blood–curdling eyes and that long nose and those pointy ears of yours!” She kept pressing the mirror against my face and my ears and glimpses of a reflection were paraded in front of my eyes. But it wasn’t my reflection in there, it was my mother’s vision of me, a dark and menacing face, like that of a hairless werewolf or a bat. She took another step and turned, came closer to me (closer than she’d been in a long time), bent down, our shoulders levelled, and looked in the mirror too, greedy for more evidence of my ugliness, of my un–endearing presence, for any excuse to justify her revulsion of me. Then she stopped suddenly and screamed in fear: “Where are you? Where is your face?… There’s nothing in there… in the mirror…” and she quickly crossed herself, three times, taking big steps away from me.
I grabbed the mirror from her hand and sent it flying. It landed in tiny pieces which still seemed too big. Werewolf eyes were following me with eerie curiosity. I grabbed my mother’s arm and started to shake her body hard, rattling her head along, wanting to rearrange the thoughts inside her head, give them the right precedence, help her see me. As she started to cry, I could see her loathing of me mixing up with fear.
“Leave me alone!” she pleaded. “You shouldn’t have hurt him, you know!” I think she was trying to make peace with me when her precious Radu, your uncle, with his useless handsome body, crawled even further in his corner and whined again. Her eyes moved from me to him and then back to me and they were now strained with resentment. 
“I wish he let her take you away that day… your father… the day you were born…” she whispered to herself.
I could feel the deep rage surfacing. I was still very young at the time, only discovering the strength that my body could muster, still not knowing where it came from or what way it could be yielded. Back then I could feel it grow in me at every unkind word, with every unnecessary injustice or ungodly smell and yes, the light of the day and the heat of the sun would spark in me a fit of fury and would trigger my extraordinary power. I picked up one of the shards and went to her.
“But he didn’t! And she didn’t! I’m here! I am here right now! This is me!” I slashed her arm with the piece of broken mirror. A long and deep cut, just like my anger. We both watched the slit filling up with fresh blood. On the white of Cneaja’s skin it looked a beautifully rich scarlet. The sight of it whipped up a frenzy in me.
“You shouldn’t wish it, mother, you shouldn’t wish for me to be gone,” and I slashed again. Her other arm fell immobile on the side of her body and rested there, a clean canvas, ready for the strokes of a master artist. 
She just laid there on the floor crying quietly, the shock preventing her from feeling the bulk of the pain. Little pools of blood were blending now into each other forming shimmering streams that ran down her body and into her crumpled dress. What a waste! The taste of her warm blood came back as a treasured memory, ready to soothe and dissipate my rage. My tongue, suddenly rough and coarse in my mouth, was sore with yearning so I put it down on her skin and started to follow the stream and absorb the precious liquid. 
Cneaja opened her eyes and I searched into them for something to echo my recollections from just after my birth, but there was nothing in there. 
I never looked in a mirror again, Mihnea but the feeling of that day, the acknowledgement of her aversion and being unwanted and unliked couldn’t be undone. She said she wanted my father to have given me away. She said she wished Tinca had taken me. She didn’t want me. Her words stuck inside, hidden deep in the pit of my mind. I didn’t think she was right back then. Life was only starting and was going to be good. I didn’t know I was different, I thought I was going to be just like my father. I was going to have a son just like me sometime and I was going to show him love. 

XXX


I know now I wasn’t loved growing up but back then love wasn’t offered unconditionally, it was more like an abstinence from hostility or contempt. I think it was tolerance that was mostly bestowed on me by my father. Tinca’s truth and threats at my birth – hollow in his ears – were buried under his indifference towards me. In his eyes, I was just his son, the boy that may or may not follow him to the throne of Valahia someday, one who might betray him or not. 
As he didn’t linger for long, I don’t remember him much, but there is an image that I sometimes muse on, that of a rotund man with a long, well–waxed moustache and arched eyebrows, teaching me how to count with the golden coins he had minted in the dungeons of our house. I remember his thunderous voice, fitted more for a battlefield than the nursery. The coins looked beautiful and meaningful to me back then with the sign of the Order of the Dragon on one side and the eagle of Valahia on the other. He was, after all, Vlad Dracul of the Order of the Dragon and his father was Mircea the Great. 
You and I, my son, we come from a long line of many lords and voivodes like that, people of inestimable bravery and outrageous recklessness, some of whom died honourable deaths at the hands of Valahia’s enemies while others had been shamelessly stabbed in the back. Many a time Valahia’s throne was sold for nothing at foreign courts and many a time it was bought for a pittance on the whim of a promise and on the back of foolish faith. 
My father had authority over all the small German townships surrounding Sighisoara. He built alliances with the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund of Luxembourg and broke them by becoming a Turkish vassal when he realised where the power lay. He even came back to his own country as an enemy (the traitor obeying the Turkish orders) and murdered his own people, burned his own land and looted its riches. 
A smart politician though, your grandfather, one who knew whom to take orders from and who to fight to survive. He had a vicious temper, punished easily and randomly and looked for repose from his tumultuous life with many women. But I didn’t know all that then, I was just a child with no right or wrong on my side and no scale for discerning morality. 
In any case, I was given my father’s name, Vlad, but few remember that (even fewer remember yours, Mihnea). Later on I earned for myself my own name, the one that lasted me through centuries: Dracula.
I know I was proud of him then, of his status, of his bravery and manliness, I thought he was a true voievod who looked after his country well and just. I thought I could be just like him.
One day, I could have been about seven, I had sneaked out of the house in the crisp hours before dawn to climb up to the tower. This tower was the eye of a web of dark alleys, coiling streets cropping up from under low stone arches and innumerable stairways that connected every limb of the town to it.   
That morning I left my shoes at home and I felt the cold cobblestones of the Bastion passage sending pleasing chills through my whole body. It was still dark outside and damp in the passage and I was sliding along the musty walls, silent, unnoticed by the beggars and unheard by the drunks. In between their fitful moans I could hear the spiders spinning their webs and the cockroaches climbing the slabs of meat left out to dry. At that time as a child, I thought anyone could hear them or distinguish between a myriad of smells or see in the night. I didn’t think of these as special gifts. Sometimes (hearing my mother in the other part of the house crying inconsolably) I didn’t think of them as gifts at all. 
After climbing the hundred and seventy–five steps, I reached the top of the tower and the breathtaking view rolled out in front of my eyes, shadowy at dawn. I took it all in, from the collosal hunches of the hills laden with elm trees, to the small badgers digging at their roots and all of the three thousand feet long wall and all of the fourteen battlement–capped towers adorning the fortress of Sighisoara. I rested my eyes on the dark silhouettes of the Carpati peaks and I felt the rush of blood through my veins blending with the turbid waters of the Tirnava River. I let the cool air envelop every inch of my skin and I took it in too, deep inside my lungs and all my senses sharpened and an acute sense of satisfaction overwhelmed me. 
It wasn’t Sighisoara that I loved, Mihnea, (the small burg of Sighisoara felt to me like a trap) but the vastness of my small country, Valahia – near the heart of Transilvania – is rooted deeply in me. I wonder sometimes if you are alive and feel the tumult of the country’s rivers and the rustle of its ancient trees echoing in you wherever you are. I wonder if she killed you, did she bury you under an elm tree at the foot of the Carpati or under the stones of a small and quiet monastery or did she leave your small body to the wolves and the vultures… They are onerous things for a father to wonder but then, my life has never been simple or straightforward… 
My joy that day was a short-lived one until the first rays of sun started to pry through the night sky, combing the top of the trees and glistening like arrows of fire in the river. I stalled a little, unwilling to trade the marvelous sensation I had on the top of the tower for the foul smells of the passages below but I knew I couldn’t afford a moment more. 
So, I reluctantly hurried my descent back to the house, down the darkest tunnels where the hard work of the prosperous guilds was done, where grimy apprentices were carrying the pigs for the slaughterhouse, the bloody skins for the tanneries, the coals for the goldsmiths, the hemp for the ropemakers, where the stench of half–dried blood was folding into the eye–stinging sulphur coming from the chimneys and the tart odour of animal and human urine.
The dawn was about to break that morning and I rushed down, taking a few steps at a time, steering away from people and grabbing at my cape to hide my ostentatious princely clothes. The light was coming in now, invading from all nooks and crannies, prodding for some beauty and revealing the rot. My eyes were growing prickly and dry and so was my skin just like any other time when I was in the sun. I had nobody to tell me that I shouldn’t show myself into its light but my body had always known its damage. 
I was so close, almost back home. I took the last turn left but I missed the step and I felt my leg giving in. I stumbled and fell and lingered a moment too long trying to drag my foot away, to repossess it and order some movement into it. Before I could do any of that I felt a clammy hand sliding along my leg and then I saw its filthy nails digging into my calf, catching it in a vice.
“Come here, you little snake! Show me what you got!”
The man who had spoken came out of the shadow and laughed in my face from a toothless mouth, deep from his belly and all over me.
“What are you hiding under that cape? Mhhh? A pork pie? Ha…ha… Or a pork chop? Show me, you little piglet,” and he took hold of a corner of my cape and dragged it down. I pulled it back but he didn’t budge, he lifted his other arm, snatched another few inches of my cape and pulled himself up, uncloaking the red silk of my shirt underneath.
“Look at you, stealing nice clothes off decent folk, you little lizard!” His tongue came out sharp and he rolled it in and out a couple of times, a rotten smell of garlic and tuica coming from his mouth.
“Where did you get them? Stole them from the tailor’s shop or from the washing line?” another roll of the tongue… “Did you think you were getting away with it, were you… you nearly did, but you didn’t…” His belly was doing the laughing, up and down and deep from his gut.
I opened my mouth to talk but he covered it with his hand and the stench made me gag, my body fractured in two and I felt weak and powerless under the pressure of his enormous body. He started to take off my shirt, methodically, arm by arm, as if I were a wooden puppet, careful not to damage or dirty the material but leaving deep scratches on my skin with his dirty paws.
What I felt looking at those scratches, wasn’t on the outside and it wasn’t pain; it was a turmoil from inside, a rage growing roots, sprawling shoots and taking over and my body was neither small nor weak anymore but strong and alert, ready to use the only means of attack I knew. I fastened my arms around his, I brought my lips to his caked arm and I bit somewhere under his elbow, inside his arm, through the layer of dirt and right through his skin. He was an old man and his skin was leathery and salty with sweat and it smelled of rats and the blood came out slow, without any thrust, only cloudy and lazy.  
His arm was still in my grip and I was looking at the blood surfacing drop by drop, a little viscous pool spilling over its banks, when he recovered from his stupor and threw himself at my feet.
“You are Him! I’ve heard about you, you were sucking your mother’s blood from tita, from her nipple!” His mouth started to babble in a frenzy and the words came rolling out… vampir… blood… and with every word he would drag his knees backwards even more and bend even lower. “She wanted to take you! The woman born on a Saturday wanted you but he wouldn’t let her!”
His face was so near to the ground and he wouldn’t lift it and he wouldn’t look at me. “Your father… he had to let you die but he wouldn’t and now we will all die… God help us!” Then, suddenly, he picked himself up and (still avoiding my eyes) crumpled my shirt in a bundle, threw it at me and ran, dragging a foot behind as he climbed through one of the passages up the stairs and vanished from my sight.
I couldn’t give in to my first impulse. I couldn’t follow him, not with the sun ablaze, joyously trumpeting its importance like a turkey in a deserted courtyard. I had to go home and take cover but first I had to cross over the little piata, that bare and dry space of dust and dirt at the core of the burg, where people and things alike were weighed and priced, where life and death were thrown out in the open and dictated on a whim. I was hoping to go unnoticed, quickly out of the sun, when I heard my name.
“Vlad!” My father’s scream crashed down in the middle of the square and cut through movement and thought. Then heads started to turn towards me. I could feel a drop of blood dribbling down my chin. He took a measure of me with such inquisitive eyes that my story came tumbling out of my mouth and, when his soldiers flooded the narrow alleys, the beggar didn’t stand a chance.
Even now, in the cool crepuscule of my laboratory, I can still remember the scorching sun on me that day sitting in the piata, waiting for the pain to shut the thief’s mouth. It was such torture and such torment, Mihnea but I couldn’t disobey my father – not then, not there, not yet. I was sat by him on an adorned chair (his status desperately dependent on the embellishment of things) in the middle of the square to watch the lurcher’s punishment. With me, two guards and a few wastrels on their way to or from nowhere they’d be missed. 
I was in the shade of a market stall when he was brought in front of my father and mounted on a wooden horse with heavy weights hanging from his feet. He kept begging for forgiveness and water and for his hands to be untied. He was getting none. He wouldn’t shut up though (or at least give up and die) and each time he went quiet for a moment, it was only to blow over the bite I inflicted on his arm where flies were feasting on the congealed blood. Alongside every moan, the sun crept up in the sand a little more and the shade walked away from me a little further.
I had enough. I had no interest in his suffering. Very few people did, judging by the unbothered faces of the ones who stopped to watch. I just wanted to get away from the searing sun, but my father’s instructions were clear: 
“Watch his agony,” he said, “and don’t ever let anybody take away something of yours. If they do, make them pay! And make them die!”
The silky garments were drawing in the sun and under them I could feel my skin drying out, shrinking, burning, squeezing and squashing every bit of my insides. I needed this agony to finish.
I got up and lifted the cat o’ nine tails that was lying on the ground near one of the guards. I started my flogging with all the power of a seven–year–old and then some other one, new, unforeseen yet implacable. He wouldn’t stop howling and whimpering at my every lash and that infuriated me and my movements quickened, and the blows fell relentlessly. His skin was splitting now, bunches of nine crimson flowers sprouting everywhere, coming to life.
“Take this, you thief,” and I would whip his back once “and this…” one more whack to his chest…
“You wanted to take my clothes,” one hard flog on his back “but you’re taking this…” another on his chest… on the back… and then on the chest… again… and again…
Although I felt my skin dying and trapping me inside its mortality, I also enjoyed that first burst of rage because it made me feel different, part of something bigger than me which I could draw on and identify with. The satisfaction of revenge, creeping up on me, was empowering.
I put the whip down and crossed the piata with my head held high, propped up by pride and fuelled by retribution. I was my father’s son.
I am going to stop now, Mihnea, the quill is worn out and the three baby girls are restless in their basket. Maybe I can find some food for them, consolation of sorts for the lack of their mothers. There is a letter I want you to see, a letter Sultan Murad sent to my father in the spring of 1442. 
My father was not a stupid man and he was well versed in the diplomacy of the Turkish court but this letter beguiled him somehow. Did he let his guard down or did he do what he had to do to survive? Either way, it was Radu and I who paid for this fatuous credulity or sagacious sense of self preservation.
Here is the Sultan’s letter. 
Come soon. Come now. Don’t let me have to come to you.
Sultan Murad II  

I am writing to you today, friend Vlad, to help you remember our triumphant and profitable  excursions of last year in the heart of Transilvania when we, alas together as one, taught the traitors a lesson they will not easily forget: when one sins in the eyes of Allah, one is punished. You were happy to go back to your country to teach them this lesson. And you were happy to come back with your share of the loot that was rightly yours. And you were happy to go there again and teach them another lesson in my name as we agreed would be fair. But this time, friend Vlad, what happened in the town of Sebes? What lesson did you teach them there? The mayor and the burghers surrendered to you and gave you your payment and you took it too but it was for the wrong reason. You promised them that their lives would be spared and they would not end up in my prisons. And why did you do such a thing? Because surely you were misled and confused and now I want you to come to me to discuss this matter and straighten our friendship and our alliance. And, friend Vlad, bring your boys to me so I can see them and tell them about all the good that comes from being my friend.

Come soon. Come now. Don’t let me have to come to you.


Sultan Murad II