Copyright 2016 Mari Biella
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All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
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“Here too,” the man said, “there is darkness.”
I gazed out of the clouded window and into the twilit square beyond, and did not doubt it. A raw winter night had begun to descend, and the streetlights were flickering on one by one. People hurried past, wrapped up against the freezing air, and a church clock struck the hour. This was a side of Venice that very few visitors ever saw, and I supposed I should feel privileged.
“I know,” I said, and stirred my tea idly. There weren’t many other customers in the bar at this hour. A middle-aged man sat at a corner table reading a newspaper, and a harried-looking woman was chatting to someone on her cell phone. The owner, a plump little woman with dyed black hair, was standing behind the bar watching TV, paying us no attention at all.
My companion glanced at me, and smiled. He had ordered some coffee when he arrived, but I noticed that he hadn’t touched it.
“You think you know, perhaps,” he said. “I think it’s a little like sex, or death. You have to experience it to truly understand it. You say you haven’t been in Venice for very long, so I doubt you’ve had the chance to become acquainted with all its secrets.”
Our common nationality had brought us together, providing an instant link between two strangers. This often happens when compatriots meet abroad, I’ve found. Divorced from your usual environment and feeling yourself a stranger, you form friendships with people you wouldn’t have a word to say to at home. This man, for instance: if we’d been in Birmingham or Cambridge instead of Venice, I doubted we’d have been sharing drinks and small talk. The only thing that bound us together was an accident of birth.
Or so I thought, at least. It was hard to tell what kind of person he was, and his appearance betrayed few clues. He was dressed rather elegantly, with an immaculate white shirt and dark blue tie visible above the collar of his woollen coat. His hair was cut with almost military precision. His accent suggested public schools and quiet villages in the Home Counties. And yet, curiously, his rugged face and strong body made me think of a physical labourer or farmhand. He was neither, of course; but then I couldn’t for the life of me imagine who he might actually be.
“How long have you been here?” I asked.
The man gave a melancholy smile.
“A long time. Years. I haven’t been a permanent resident – I’ve gone away for months at a time, a whole year once – but something keeps drawing me back here. I don’t know why. Even Venice loses its charms after a while. When you’ve lived for a certain number of years, everything begins to seem dull.”
“You don’t look very old.”
“I’m older than you think.” He said it very definitely, as if he had no doubt what I thought. “Ah, well – I suppose that, ultimately, I simply love this city. It was where my life changed; where my life truly began, perhaps. Everything before that was like a shadow – and even that shadow, it seemed, was destined to fade out before its time.
“Let me explain. I was ill when I arrived here – deathly ill, in the most literal sense of the term. I had a year, according to the doctors, eighteen months if I was lucky – or unlucky. It wasn’t to be a peaceful end, you see. No gentle fade to black. Instead, I faced months of watching my body degenerate, of becoming a prisoner in my own flesh. I had already begun to notice the decline: I was clumsy, uncoordinated, not fully in control of my own movements. The disease was still in its early stages, though, and I was well enough to travel and make the most of the little time that was left to me. I set out from home one morning with very little idea of where I meant to go, trekked around aimlessly for several weeks, and then found myself in Venice.
“I found a room in a small pensione, not far from St Mark’s Square. It was a basic little place, I suppose, but it suited me well enough; I didn’t want to go to one of the big hotels, where I might meet someone I knew. I didn’t want pity, and I certainly didn’t want to be the object of people’s curiosity. I wanted to be left alone, and my little boarding house allowed me that luxury. It was November when I arrived, and most of the summer’s visitors had already retreated back across the Alps. The pensione, then, was practically deserted, and I preferred it that way.
“I soon grew comfortable there, and even came to like it. I should tell you what it was like, that place, since it’s important in terms of what happened next. It was an old building, tall and narrow, which was accessed via a small courtyard. My room was at the back of the house, and overlooked a tangled garden. When I gazed out of my window I could just make out, through the branches of the trees, an old palazzo.
“I found myself becoming fascinated by that palazzo – indeed, it’s surprising how interesting such things can seem, when you’ve little else to do. It had a lonely, melancholy air that was not altogether unpleasant. The shutters were warped, the windows were cracked, the paint was peeling, and another tile seemed to slip off the roof every time the wind blew. The garden too had been neglected, and had grown wild, with waist-high grass and ivy that crept over the statues and fountains. It must have been a beautiful place once, but now – now, like so much else in Venice, it was on the brink of decay.
“I searched for the palazzo’s front entrance in the nearby streets, and eventually found it in a narrow lane next to a canal. Stone steps led up from a small landing stage, and the front door was just across the street from them. I imagined noblemen and ladies stepping out of gondolas there, and walking the few steps to their home. How saddened they would be now, to see what it had been reduced to! – for the front of the building was in no better condition than the back. Rickety shutters covered the windows, and cracks ran through the masonry. A snake had been engraved above the front door, as if it were keeping guard; its cruel eyes glared out at the city, and its mouth was open in a snarl that revealed its fangs. It must have been a striking sight once, but now it looked only faded and decrepit, a being that could do nothing and harm no one.
“An elderly couple ran the boarding house where I was staying, and I asked them one day who the owner of the palazzo was. The old man shrugged in that casual way that Italians have, and said that it was the property of a family named Caresini. This proud and ancient line had withered in recent years, he said, and now boasted just one living member: a woman, a countess.
“ ‘She is hardly ever there, signore,’ he told me, almost apologetically. ‘That ruined old building is no place for a woman – no place for anyone. The countess spends most of her time abroad, I believe.’
“His wife, who had been listening to this exchange, made a strange hissing sound. ‘The best place for her,’ she said. ‘Vucodlàca. Striga.’ She spoke with a venom that shocked me, and then turned and left the room, slamming the door behind her.
“ ‘What does she mean?’ I asked, and the old man looked embarrassed, and shrugged again.
“ ‘There are rumours,’ he said. ‘Folk beliefs, superstitions. I pay no attention to them, but my wife – well, she listens. And she believes what she hears.’
“ ‘What are these rumours?’
“ ‘Idle gossip. Witchcraft, haunted houses – all the things that foolish people have always enjoyed scaring themselves with.’
“Idle gossip indeed, and a man who stands as close to death as I did need have no fear of such empty threats. I stood by my window many nights, heedless of the cold air, looking out at the palazzo. For the absent, maligned countess and her family I felt a vague yet instinctive sympathy. They had become my unseen companions, my comrades in misfortune. They were the dying remnants of the past, in a world that was racing toward a future that they would never know. I understood their plight – or believed I did, at least.”
The man paused, and glanced down at the untouched cup of coffee before him. The line between his eyes deepened. I felt that he was almost reluctant to remember or tell his story, but that something caused his mind and tongue to run on regardless. I waited, saying nothing.
“I was a contemplative man,” he said at last. “That has much to do with what happened, I think. Had I been otherwise, things might perhaps have turned out differently. I didn’t suspect it at the time, but it later became apparent that my habit of standing by my window and staring across at that rotting palazzo had not gone unobserved. It never occurred to me that, during those evenings, I was being watched in turn. There was no reason why I should have suspected such a thing, for the place certainly seemed empty: there was never a light at the window, never a movement or a sound to indicate that anyone lived there. I never thought, never imagined, that someone was indeed in those rooms, someone as fierce as a wolf and as stealthy as a cat. Someone who was every bit as observant as I was, and prepared to wait, but who – unlike me – was not afraid to act.”
“They were strange months, that November and December. Venice was in something of a feverish mood. There had been a rash of disappearances: an old man, a young mother, a child from one of the poorer districts of the city. These people had, seemingly, vanished – quite as if they had walked out of this world and into another. There were several possible explanations put about. They had simply left of their own accord, some said, while others insisted that they had fallen into one of the city’s canals and drowned, or that they had killed themselves. But no bodies ever surfaced, and no evidence or indications as to what had happened to them were ever forthcoming.
“Nor was that all. A visiting Russian noblewoman was found dead in her bed one day, having apparently lost a great deal of blood – but there was no obvious wound or injury to account for her state. A man was found one morning in a doorway, in much the same condition. There were tales of still more deaths, and those tales spread in breathless whispers until the city was in a frenzy. There was talk of murderers, of mobs and secret societies, and more fanciful stories of witchcraft and the Evil Eye. People huddled indoors after dark, and those who had to go out kept to the busiest and most well-lit streets. Such official investigations as took place revealed nothing, which did not surprise me much. Few cities in the world conceal quite as many secrets as Venice.
“In a city ruled by terror, I was one of the few who felt no fear at all. I felt a little like Cain in those days, as if I was marked out from my fellow men, a being separate and invulnerable. I was going to die, come what may. A few months more or less, whether I died in my bed or in the street … such things made little difference to me. I continued to walk the streets after dark, just as I always had, despite my landlady’s warnings. I continued to stare out of my window into the darkness, and never feared what the night might bring.
“One evening I went out for a walk, and made my way along the narrow street that ran between the palazzo and the canal. The moon was full that night, and the water reflected and splintered its silvery light. The beauty and tranquillity of the scene pleased me, and I stopped to appreciate it better.
“I thought myself alone – but no sooner had this thought crossed my mind than a gondola came into sight, rising and falling upon the water in a rhythm that was almost hypnotic. I watched as it drew closer, and as the gondolier stopped by the landing stage just in front of the palazzo. He helped his passenger to disembark, and I saw that she was a woman – a woman who wore a long cloak against the winter chill, and whose features were hidden by a hood. As she climbed the steps she turned her head slightly to look at me, and the moonlight fell over her face.
“Hers was a curious countenance. It was beautiful, and yet so distinctive and individual that ‘beauty’ seems too pale and lifeless a word to describe what she possessed. As I looked at her I was reminded that Venice had once been one of the crossroads of the world, for she seemed to have been born of several different lineages. There was something of Asia in her almond-shaped eyes, though the pupils were that peculiar shade of pale blue often seen in Italy. The pallor of her skin reminded me of the cold North, yet her hair was as dark as ebony. I saw all of these things in an instant – a wonderful yet bitter instant, in which I was reminded that, before long, I would not even be able to gaze upon such beauty.
“The woman inclined her head slightly, very slightly, as if to acknowledge my presence, and smiled. It was the polite, restrained and ultimately cold smile of a stranger, and lasted barely a second before it was gone. She turned her head, and walked to the door beneath the carved, decaying serpent. I heard a key turn in a lock, and then she appeared to be swallowed by the shadows. The door closed behind her, and I was left alone with the night.
“No, not entirely alone. I remembered the gondolier, and turned to look at him. He was still standing below, gazing after his passenger, his fair hair burnished by the lamplight.
“ ‘La contessa?’ I asked gently.
“He turned to me, almost reluctantly, as if I had awoken him from a dream. ‘Sì,’ he murmured. ‘L’ultima della famiglia Caresini. Si chiama Pietra, credo. Che bellezza!’
“Pietra, the last of the Caresini line. I had imagined the countess as being elderly and frail, a human embodiment of the city’s decline, and that she was young and lovely surprised me. Not that it made much difference, of course. Very soon, my appreciation of beauty would die with the rest of me. I bade the gondolier good night, and made my way back to the boarding house.
“I did not sleep well that night. I lay awake for many hours before I finally drifted into a sleep so thin that it seemed almost indistinguishable from wakefulness. I remained partially aware of my environment, even through the fabric of my dreams, and was dimly conscious of my simple room, of the wardrobe and chair and the dusty mirror that reflected the light of the moon. And yet, along with these undeniable realities, there were things that were not real – or not real, at least, in the accepted sense of the word. I felt that someone was with me, in that room; I felt that person touch me, run soft fingers along the length of my jaw. I felt the bed creak and the mattress sink, as if someone lay down beside me. Soft breath tickled the skin of my neck, and long hair brushed against my chest. Sweet lips met mine, yet there was something bitter and offensive in their kiss. It seemed as cold as the grave, that kiss, as black as midnight. It spoke of tombs and decay, and years that had unravelled into centuries.
“I tried to open my eyes, but my eyelids seemed leaden; and just then I felt a sudden, piercing pain in my throat, and cried out. I struggled to sit up, but my attacker was lying on top of me, holding me down. The pain intensified and then, gradually, began to diminish. I felt the world receding, my senses growing dim, as if I had been drugged. Then I sank down into the blackness of true sleep or unconsciousness, and knew no more until morning.
“The face that looked back at me from the mirror the next day was ashen, with great dark shadows under the eyes. I attributed these things to the restless night I had spent, or to the advancement of my sickness. My curious dreams I dismissed as the erotic yet troubled imaginings that might so readily affect a man in my state. I washed and dressed hurriedly, not wishing to remain in my stale room, and went for a walk to clear my head.
“As I turned into the street that ran alongside the palazzo, I saw a small knot of people standing near the edge of the canal. They were talking excitedly, gesturing at the water beneath. One, an elderly woman, crossed herself and looked around fearfully, as if she dreaded what the surrounding streets might hold.
“ ‘What has happened here?’ I asked, but nobody heard or paid any attention. I pushed through the crowd and looked down into the murky water – and for a moment I was so horrified that I could barely understand what I was looking upon. A body drifted there just beneath the surface, and I caught a swift, nightmarish glimpse of a bloodless face and fair hair. It was the gondolier I had talked to the night before.”
“The hours that followed were like a dream. I submitted to an interview with the police, during which I told them all that had happened the previous evening. When I mentioned the lady I had seen, I think they imagined that the gondolier and I had been love rivals, fighting for the affections of the woman we both desired. Worse followed when I said that the woman in question had been Pietra, the Countess Caresini.
“ ‘Nonsense!’ the inspector said. He was a burly, aggressive man who went by the surname of Barbarigo, and who looked at me as if I were some new and fascinating species of insect. ‘The Caresinis are all dead. Nobody lives in that palazzo these days.’
“In vain did I insist that I had seen the lady enter the palazzo, and that the gondolier himself had been adamant that she was the countess. The inspector at first simply laughed, and then became angry.
“ ‘If you saw anyone at all,’ he said at last, ‘it must have been a ghost. If you wish to look upon the Caresinis you must go to the Cemetery of San Michele, for that is where they all reside now. That is, of course, if this lady was not some invention of yours, created to distract us from the truth.’
“It began to occur to me that, if Barbarigo wished to pin the blame for the gondolier’s or anyone else’s death on someone, I would make an excellent scapegoat. I was a foreigner, without power or influence, and with an imperfect understanding of the language. Given my physical condition, he might have thought me a desperate man, ready to carry out almost any act. I was released only after my landlady confirmed that I had arrived back at the boarding house when I said I had, and had certainly not looked like a man who had just been involved in a life-or-death struggle. Barbarigo stood looking after me as I left the police station, though, and I felt that his suspicions had not been entirely quelled.
“Later, when I remembered the incident, I wondered why the inspector had insisted that the Caresinis were all dead, when both my landlord and the gondolier had told me of the countess’s existence. At first, I was inclined to blame Barbarigo’s ignorance – had I not, after all, seen the lady with my own eyes? For days thereafter I haunted the street outside the palazzo, and I looked for Pietra as I walked through the city, hoping that I might meet her and satisfy myself that she was real, exchange a few words with her perhaps … but I never saw her, never. Once, though, before going to bed, I looked out and saw a dim, flickering light in one of the windows in the palazzo – the light, I thought, of a solitary candle. The sight confirmed to me that the building was indeed inhabited – and who could its occupier be, if not Pietra? How strange it was, though, that a woman blessed with so many gifts – youth, beauty, nobility – should spend her evenings in solitude and silence, as I did!
“But I craved solitude and silence in those days. In the aftermath of the gondolier’s death, I felt tired and ill-at-ease. My sickness advanced, inch by inch, and my body began to feel less my own, less the vehicle that could be steered and controlled according to my will. I regarded my own flesh with distrust, almost hatred: that it should betray me, in such a slow and painful manner, seemed almost impossible to accept. I hoped that death, when it came, would be swift and painless, and I invited it in my prayers. Those prayers were answered, perhaps – but not by God.
“One night I awoke into a vague and blurred state of consciousness, feeling hot and uncomfortable, and tried to move. But my body was pinned back against the bed, held fast by someone else – someone who lay, I realised, on top of me. I could feel the weight of a body, the warmth of somebody’s breath against my skin. I moaned faintly, and not altogether in distress. Soft lips kissed mine, and then travelled across my jaw and down, down, towards my throat. I opened my eyes, and saw that someone was indeed there. I caught a glimpse of long hair, the outline of a cheek, the curve of an arm – but the light was too dim for me to make out any more detail. I waited, half in fear and half in delight, and felt my breath catch in my throat.
“This time, when the pain came, it was anticipated. It felt as though a pin had been driven into my neck, followed by a sucking sensation, the feeling of my blood being drawn slowly from my veins. I imagined that I was sinking into warm, calm water, drowning in pleasure and pain, forgetting everything apart from this, this sensation … I lost all sense of time and space, and all knowledge of myself. My fear, my sorrow, the prospect of my own death – all these things suddenly seemed immaterial, the pitiful preoccupations of a pitiful being. I lay still, waiting for the darkness to overwhelm me.
“And then I remembered what lay on the other side of that darkness: the cold tomb, the worm, and decay. Not that, not yet … I struggled, tried to push my attacker away, and cried out into the night. The being that was feeding on me resisted at first, and I lashed out with all my might. I felt soft skin, tangled hair; I heard a hiss, a sound of pure rage. The creature slid off the bed, and I caught sight of a shape moving swiftly, silently towards the bedroom door. Then – I could hardly believe the evidence of my own eyes – it seemed that the shape simply faded into the wood of the door, and disappeared.
“I sat up, and reached for the lamp by the side of the bed. Its soft light confirmed that I was alone; and yet I did not believe that the experience had been a dream. It had been too real, it was too real. I lifted my hand and touched the side of my neck. My fingers touched something warm and wet, and when I looked down at them I saw that they were smeared with fresh blood. And then horror overcame me, and I sank down into unconsciousness, and knew no more.
“When I opened my eyes, it was morning. Grey daylight slanted through the windows, and all was quiet and still; not even the sound of birdsong intruded upon the silence. I sat up, wondering for a moment why I felt so weak, and why a persistent sense of dread was nagging at me. Then I remembered, and reached for my neck. I felt the wound there, covered now with dried blood, and looked down at my pillow. A few drops of blood stained the linen there, and seeing them brought home the veracity of the night’s experiences. It had been no dream; it had been real, as real as the world now revealed to me by the light of morning.
“I had no sooner reached this conclusion than a shrill scream rang through the building. It was a sound of utter despair and terror, a sound that might have come from Hell itself. I got out of bed, a little unsteadily, and pulled on my dressing gown.
“The boarding house was, by the time I opened the door, in chaos. The few other people who were staying there were peering fearfully from behind their doors, or slowly venturing out into the hallway. I hurried down the staircase, and as I did so I heard a dreadful wailing or keening noise, a sound of heartbreak and desolation. Yet only when I reached the hallway below did I see what had happened.
“The landlady knelt on the cold floor, weeping and moaning; and in front of her, at the foot of the stairs, lay the body of her husband, the landlord.”
A sudden burst of green and gold lit up the sky, and was followed a second later by a loud explosion. The man paused, looked out of the window, and then glanced at me.
“A celebration,” he said. “The Feast of the Immaculate Conception, perhaps. Are you a religious person?”
“Neither was I. I had been brought up in a moderate, almost casual Christianity, as had most people of my time and place; I was raised in a church made timid by science and suffering. However weak my faith, though, I was more of a Christian than I thought. I believed in God, and I feared Him; I feared damnation. And in those days I felt damnation falling over me like the night.” He paused again and then, to my surprise, smiled. “You don’t believe me, do you? You think I’m making all of this up.”
I didn’t reply.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “Had some stranger told me such a story when I first arrived here, I doubt I would have believed a word of it either. We live in a sceptical Age.
“Certainly very few people could have imagined what was happening back then. The authorities – not unreasonably, perhaps – seemed inclined to suspect me. I, after all, was now the common factor in two sudden and violent deaths. Distrust followed me like a shadow. People turned and stared as I walked down the street, and I heard whispering behind my back. Often I saw Barbarigo or one of his men apparently following me, watching my every move. Only the lack of proof saved me from being arrested. The cause of the landlord’s death could not be determined, and it was thought possible that he might have fallen on the stairs during the night and broken his neck.
“Such innocent explanations did little to lift the weight of suspicion from my shoulders, however. Unsurprisingly, when my landlady looked at me now, it was with misgiving – no, with fear. She was afraid of me, who had never knowingly harmed another being in his life, who was as perplexed as anyone by the shadow of death that seemed to be descending around him. As soon as she had composed herself enough to speak, she timidly asked me to leave, giving me only a few days in which to make alternative arrangements.
“To leave the place where I had once been almost happy no longer seemed a sacrifice. I remembered the being that had attacked me – on two occasions now – and feared that it might return, and finish its work. It was this threat, perhaps, that led to my decision to leave Venice without delay. I began to organise my journey home, opting for the most direct and least troublesome route. This was necessary, as my health was now suffering badly. I felt myself weakening by the day – weakening so much that I sometimes thought that, if I did not go home soon, I might not be able to get back there at all. My body often seemed beyond my control: I shook, I dropped things, I stumbled and fell. I increasingly saw myself as a condemned man, teetering on the very brink of the grave – but no, that was not a sound comparison. Even a criminal, bound for the gallows, may hope for a reprieve. There would be none for me.
“Perhaps it was my desperation which had attracted her in the first place. She was a killer, of course; her entire existence was but the background against which the kill took place. But she was not a devil, not quite. She had a conscience, you see: a weak, flickering conscience, but it was there, and it informed her actions to an extent. Some she killed suddenly, quickly. The very speed with which she brought death might have seemed merciful.
“Others, like me, she seduced. I think she must have smelled the desperation in me, the fear and the isolation. Perhaps she thought that it was kinder to kill me softly, gently, bringing as much pleasure as pain. And the worst thing is that she was entirely correct in thinking so.”
“I spent my final days in Venice as quietly as I could. I walked, read a little, and slept a great deal. I stared out of my window at the palazzo, and thought that I would probably never see Pietra again. I wondered why this woman, whom I had seen only once and briefly, should affect me so, especially now. Even if we were to meet again, a dying man surely had nothing to offer her. Still, I thought, if I could see her one more time – just once – and have that small light to carry with me into the oncoming darkness…
“Sometimes our desires carry within them the seeds of our own destruction. I believe that she felt the longing in me, the loneliness. It attracted her, drew her like a moth. Oh, if ever a man invited his own downfall, it was I!
“One evening, when I felt a little stronger, I ventured out for a walk. It was a raw night, and a cold fog crept across the lagoon and wreathed through the streets. The city seemed muted and still; even the constant lap of the water seemed quieter than usual. I walked without paying much attention to where I was going, and eventually found myself in one of those labyrinths for which Venice is famous. I walked along several narrow streets, none of which seemed to lead anywhere in particular, and many of which came to sudden dead ends.
“At last I found myself in a small piazza, surrounded by quiet, shuttered houses. Everything was silent and still at this hour, and there was no one to give me directions. I stopped at the corner and looked around, trying to get my bearings – a hopeless task, in such thick fog. I was standing thus, considering my options, when I heard a soft footfall behind me. I turned, feeling my heart stutter beneath my ribs, and saw a dark, hooded figure emerging from the fog.
“ ‘Mi scusi,’ I called. ‘Mi sono perso. Potrebbe darmi un’informazione, per favore?’
“The figure came closer, and a pale hand drew back the hood; and I found myself looking into the eyes of Pietra. She did not appear surprised to see me, but gave the same polite, secretive smile as before. I felt my heart constrict in the chasm of my chest – not with apprehension now, but with longing.
“ ‘Good evening,’ she said. Her voice was low, slightly hoarse.
“ ‘Good evening, Countess,’ I murmured.
“ ‘You know who I am?’ she asked, sounding slightly taken aback.
“ ‘I learned of your identity from the – forgive me – from the gondolier who was found dead in the canal near your house, some time ago.’
“ ‘Did you and he speak about me?’ she asked, and I felt slightly ashamed.
“ ‘I asked him who you were.’ I hesitated, wondering how much to say. ‘I have been staying in a pensione very close to your home, and I was curious as to who lived there. I was told that it belonged to a countess, but I imagined—’
“ ‘That I was old and ugly?’ She sounded amused.
“ ‘I imagined that you were abroad, Countess,’ I said uncomfortably.
“ ‘Do you know what became of that poor man? The gondolier?’
“ ‘No. I exchanged a few words with him, and then I went back to my room. I have no idea why or how he died; I don’t think anyone does.’
“ ‘Venice is a dangerous place in these days,’ she murmured. Her blue eyes strayed over me, their expression questioning. ‘Perhaps you should not be walking the streets after dark.’
“For a moment, I felt the urge to tell her everything: that for a man who stood on the brink of the grave, danger was only ever relative, and that the assassin’s blade might prove a mercy to one such as me. I could not understand this desire, for I rarely spoke to anyone about my condition.
“But instead of this, I simply said, ‘Forgive me, Countess, but perhaps you should not be out alone either.’
“She smiled. ‘You are right, no doubt. If I lead you away from this place, perhaps you will escort me to my home.’
“ ‘If you will permit me.’
“She nodded, laid her hand on my arm, and began to lead me away from the square. Now that I saw her so close and so clearly, she was even more beautiful than I remembered; and yet her hand, when it brushed against mine, was cold – a cold that made me think of the depths of winter, of dead trees and grey skies. A curious scent clung to her. It was not offensive, quite, but odd. It reminded me of dry leaves and old stone, and had a strange metallic undertone that I could not quite place. I imagined that it was simply the scent of the palazzo, a building so old that the very walls had soaked up the passing centuries.
“ ‘You are not of this city,’ she said as we walked.
“ ‘I am from England.’
“ ‘And why are you visiting Venice on your own? Shouldn’t you be accompanied by a bride?’
“ ‘I am not married, Countess.’
“ ‘Neither am I.’ She turned her head and smiled, a little sadly. ‘I am one of those people who seem to carry solitude within. I think perhaps you are the same.’
“I could not think of anything to say to that, so I remained silent.
“ ‘It is all right,’ she said, turning away. ‘Perhaps only two such lonely people can ever truly understand each other.’
“It was not long before we arrived at the palazzo, and I prepared to bid her goodnight. To my surprise, though, she did not let go of my arm, but instead led me to the door, where she drew a large brass key from her pocket.
“ ‘Won’t you come inside for some wine?’ she asked. ‘It is the least I can offer you, after your kindness to me.’
“Part of me, I found, was reluctant to step over the threshold. Now that I stood so close to the palazzo, I sensed something leprous and eerie in its very structure. The walls were cracked, the paint peeling; cobwebs covered the windows, and a beetle scurried out of the stonework as I looked on. How could a countess live in such conditions? I felt that something was moving within, something sly and furtive; and then I cursed myself for my overactive imagination. I nodded, and followed her inside.
“We came into a great, grand entrance hall, and Pietra lit a candle. Even in this dim light I could see how old everything was; the marble floor had been worn to a slippery sheen by the passage of thousands of feet, and the paintings and tarnished silver looked as if they had not been disturbed for years. Cobwebs hung from the ceiling and a film of dust coated every surface. I shivered; yet when I glanced at my companion, I saw that she appeared unashamed, as if she saw nothing unusual in these surroundings and felt no need to make excuses for them. She led me slowly along the hallway, through a room that was bare of furniture, and then into a smaller chamber, which seemed to serve as a sitting-room. Here, at least, there were some concessions to comfort. Two sofas stood facing each other before a cold hearth, and a small table held a candlestick, a carafe of crimson wine, and some books. Pietra lit a lamp, but showed no desire to summon a servant to light the fire. I wondered why no one had done so anyway; the night was cold, and a deeper chill seemed to linger within these ancient walls.
“ ‘I apologise for my poor hospitality,’ she said as she poured some wine, as if she had read my thoughts. ‘I have only recently returned from abroad, and have just one servant as yet – and she is probably asleep at this hour. I would not wake her to perform tasks that I can perform myself. We who have outlived our times must live as best we can.’
“I took the wine that she offered me. It was rich and spicy, with an odd trace of bitterness. Pietra, I noticed, did not pour any for herself. She gestured to me to sit, and then sank down on the other sofa, facing me.
“ ‘May I ask where you went while you were abroad?’ I asked.
“She smiled. ‘I am a wanderer in my heart, as I suspect you are. Venice is my home, but even the most treasured homes must be left behind sometimes. I have been to the eastern part of Europe, far away from cities and industry, to a remote land beyond a great forest. I have a friend there – an old friend, a dear friend. A rather eccentric nobleman from a distinguished, decaying family. A living remnant of history, you might say, like myself.’
“I imagined that she spoke of a lover, and wondered why the thought brought me as much relief as pain. I could, of course, hardly quiz her on such a personal matter, and so I asked her instead about her family’s history.
“ ‘A dead race,’ she said, a little sadly. ‘My family lie in their tombs, forgotten by everyone. I sometimes wish that I could join them.’
“ ‘But you are young, Countess, and healthy,’ I protested.
“ ‘I am a sick woman. I suffer from a very rare disease – the worst disease, I believe, that can afflict a living being. Death, when it comes, will be something of a relief to me. But,’ she added, looking into my eyes, ‘I believe that you know this species of suffering. I believe you drink from the same cup.’
“For a moment I was bewildered, hardly knowing what to think. How could she know of my disease, when I had avoided talking of it to anyone? Then I thought: Perhaps she sees it in me. Perhaps it is clearer than I think. And if she is sick too, as she says she is, then perhaps she has learned to discern these things in others.
“I wondered whether I should ask her how she could know, or guess, so much; and then I thought, quite suddenly, that the time for asking questions had come to an end. I had reached a point where questions and answers alike dissolved into the darkness and became as nothing. The thought, curiously, did not distress me. A strange, warm, forgetful feeling had come over me, and allowed me to forget the rules I had placed upon my own behaviour.
“I began to speak – hesitantly at first, wondering what right I had to taint another being with my own misery. Yet the words, now unlocked, would not be stopped. I told her of my past, of my illness, and of the grave that awaited me. She listened quietly, making no comment, betraying no reaction.
“When I had finished, we sat together in silence for a long moment; and then she rose from the sofa, and began to pace slowly about the room.
“ ‘We are similar, you and I,’ she said at last. ‘We both live on the margins of our own small worlds. We are outcasts amongst our own species. Not many people understand this; only those who have experienced it can truly know what it means. When you look at me, you see beauty and youth and health; but there is in my soul only age and decay. I am Death’s handmaid; and it is this, perhaps, that brought you to me tonight.’
“I wanted to ask her what she meant: but part of me, I found, already knew. Maybe, in truth, I had always known, and it was this that had drawn me to her. I had seen my own destruction when I looked at her, and had desired it. When I stepped over her threshold, I had become entangled in her web. For a moment, some of the old fear shot through me; but it was weak now, and fading by the instant. If death came at this hour, would it not also bring release?
“A curious languor was spreading over me, over both mind and body. I glanced down at the glass of wine in my hand, and felt its strange, spicy aftertaste on my tongue. A suspicion glimmered in my mind, and quickly solidified into plain certainty. The wine was drugged. She had poisoned me, as perhaps she poisoned all her victims.
“This realisation should have given rise to horror, but it did not. I felt only a quiet resignation, almost a sense of relief. My prayers had been answered, in a sense. Death would come swiftly after all, it seemed.
“My eyelids were heavy now, so much so that I could barely keep them open. I felt the glass slip from my hands, and heard it smash on the stone floor; but the sound seemed to come from miles away, from another world. I sank back against the sofa, with my head spinning and my vision growing dim; and the last thing I saw was Pietra, standing over me and looking down at me with an expression almost of sorrow.”
“The first thing I was aware of was a thought: that I had died, that this was death. I believed that she had killed me, and that the impressions that were slowly returning to me were those of the Heaven I still yearned for. I was aware of lying back against a soft surface, and of the sweet, heavy lethargy of my limbs. I felt a hand rest gently against my cheek, just for a moment, and moaned. Then I opened my eyes.
“Pietra was sitting near me, leaning over me, and there were tears in her eyes.
“ ‘Forgive me,’ she said. ‘I hunted you because I saw the desperation in you. To kill one such as you would be much less of a crime than to murder one who was full of life and hope. Do you realise what I am?’
“And, I found, I did – all at once, and despite the fog that lingered in my brain, I understood it perfectly. The nights that she had come to me and drunk from my veins, the deaths and the disappearances … she was a being that my reason told me could not exist, a creature that rose from the tomb and gorged on the blood of the living. I had heard such tales, and had laughed at them – but they were true. I had proof of it here, now.
“ ‘It was your bad luck to be in that pensione,’ she continued. ‘When I saw you, I saw that you were facing death. What crime is it, to kill a man who is dying in any case? Still I held back, until my hunger became stronger than my conscience – and then I fed on you, and fed again, and would have killed you.’
“ ‘Why don’t you kill me now?’ I asked.
“She placed her hand over her heart, as if it pained her, and a small tear spilled from her eye. ‘I have no desire to kill you. Why don’t you run? The door is open, and nobody will stop you.’
“I glanced over at the door, and dimly imagined tearing away from this place, stumbling back to the pensione, and never seeing Pietra again. But suddenly that seemed worse, far worse, than dying swiftly at her hands. I turned back to her.
“ ‘Kill me now,’ I pleaded. ‘Do it, and set me free from this suffering.’
“She came closer then, and lay down next to me. Her eyes were huge, luminous with tears, and her beauty was more astonishing than ever. She leaned towards me and kissed me gently on the lips, and her kiss awoke memories of those other occasions, those nights when she had come to me and tasted my blood. It should have aroused disgust in me; instead, it aroused only a sweet languor, a dreaminess that I recognised as the prelude to death. Her lips moved along my jaw and down to my throat, and I lay back against the sofa, waiting, waiting … and then I moaned as I felt her hesitate. In the next instant she tore herself away from me and shrank to the other side of the sofa, turning away so that I could not see her face.
“ ‘I cannot do it,’ she murmured. ‘I have killed again and again, without mercy, but I cannot kill you. I have felt your suffering, and I have lived it. I cannot destroy you now.’
“ ‘It would be an act of mercy. Do it!’
“ ‘I cannot!’
“For a moment we were both silent. I lay still, listening to her harsh breathing. Then she turned to me again, and her blue eyes met mine.
“ ‘There is another way,’ she murmured.
“ ‘You could become like me,’ she said. ‘I could make you into a being that will never die. But everlasting life comes at a price. You must walk always in the shadow of death, as I do. You must kill or die. You must be a stranger to all men, one who – if his fellow beings knew what he was – would arouse only fear and disgust. If there is a God, then you must surely be damned.’
“And in that moment I saw what her life had been since the sickness had claimed her. She was a being who had existed for years, for centuries perhaps. She had watched as time slipped away, as mortality took those she loved, and as the world evolved and became ever more strange and alien to her. She had become a relic of the past, and in order to prolong her existence she had been forced to shed the blood of the innocent. I saw the pain of her existence, the suffering and the loneliness of it.
“But I saw too the endless darkness of non-existence, the absolute blotting out of self – and, I found, I feared that far more.
“ ‘Do it,’ I whispered.
“I believe she hesitated even then – but only for a second. Then she moved slowly towards me, and I closed my eyes as her lips brushed against the sensitive skin of my throat. A moment passed, a moment that seemed an eternity. Then she bit, and the now-familiar pain coursed through my body; and in that moment I experienced one final moment of doubt. What was happening to me? What would I become?
“And then the heavy, dreamy lethargy I had felt before returned, and I closed my eyes. All doubts and questions dissolved, past and future dwindled to nothing, and I felt at peace.”
For a long time after he had stopped speaking we sat in silence, watching as the fireworks burst in the night sky. I could think of nothing to say. The man was either a prankster or a madman, I thought; and what words could be offered to such?
Another part of my mind, though, whispered: What if it’s the truth? What then?
Eventually, the silence became oppressive. I glanced down at my watch, and realised that it was later than I had thought. I suddenly yearned for my dank little room, for the door that I could lock on the world; but still some lingering curiosity kept me at the table.
“What happened after that?” I asked at last.
The man started very slightly, and sighed, as if I had roused him from a reverie. “I awoke the next morning to find myself alone in the palazzo. Of Pietra, there was not a trace. I searched for her, of course. I looked in every room, and saw nothing but empty spaces, cobwebs, dissolution and decay. I wondered if I had imagined the entire thing – but no, my body knew with certainty that this had been no fantasy or dream. I had, simply, changed. Just hours before, I had been a man contemplating his own death. Now, I was a being that might never die. I stumbled out of that cursed place into a dull winter morning, and made my way back to the boarding house, shielding my eyes from the daylight. When I arrived in my room I closed the shutters against the light and fell onto my bed. I slept for several hours; and then, after nightfall, I went back to the palazzo.
“When I arrived, however, I found that the front door was bolted fast, and the shutters secured. I stood knocking at the door for a long time, willing Pietra to hear and answer me. All in vain, of course – I think I already knew, in my heart, that she had gone. I could feel her absence, much more strongly than I had ever felt her presence. Eventually I gave up, and slunk back to the pensione with a heavy heart.
“I had to know, of course, had to be sure. Barbarigo’s words – about how the Caresinis now resided in San Michele – came back to me, and one evening I took a gondola out to the island. I wandered there for several hours, gazing at the gravestones, reading only the names of strangers. Then, at last, I found her resting place. It stood in one of the oldest and most neglected parts of the island, where the memorials were cracked with age and decay, and where the grass grew high. It was a crumbling rectangular tomb, obscured by cypress trees, and two snarling stone wolves lay around its base, as if guarding its occupant – or, perhaps, as a warning to the innocent. I saw the family name CARESINI engraved in large letters, followed by PIETRA, and the legend Α 1775 Ω 1810. There was another inscription beneath, so faded and worn that it took me a few moments to decipher it. La Morte non è la Fine, it said: Death is not the End.
“I stood looking at the tomb for a long time, while the night deepened around me and a thin rain began to fall. I knew she was not there, of course; she might have been almost anywhere in the world by then. The terror that had haunted Venice for months had come to an end. But of course,” he added, and laughed softly, “another terror had come to take its place.”
“Why would Pietra have left so suddenly?” I asked.
“Because I was a burden on her conscience, perhaps. Or because predators do not allow other predators to share their territory. I don’t know. I have my ideas.” He shrugged. “I waited for her to return, but she did not come – or, if she did, she came silently and stealthily, and left quickly. And in her absence the simple need to survive became paramount. I had become something that I had, until a few months earlier, not even believed in. There was no one to guide me, no reliable source of knowledge. I had to rely on my wits, and on the savagery that comes with hunger. But – and this was the most damnable thing – I found that my human conscience had not left me. I did not relish bringing death. I had become like Pietra – a demon that stalked the city after dark and fed on the blood of the innocent. I was an abomination to God and Man alike.
“I left Venice at last, and spent a long time travelling. I had little idea where I would go from one day to the next; I simple wandered from place to place as the mood took me. I had a vague notion, perhaps, that I would find Pietra, that my very yearning might lead me to her. It did not, of course, and in the end I simply returned to Venice. I went to the palazzo one more time, and found it as still as the grave. Even today, I still go back there sometimes. There are some hopes that are stubborn in their refusal to die.”
The bar was quiet. The owner had gone into the kitchen, leaving the TV to its idiot babble. The middle-aged man and chattering woman had left some time before, and no new customers had come to replace them. The square outside was deserted. I felt very alone.
“Why are you telling me these things?” I asked, and my voice sounded like a whisper: a small, frightened sound.
“For the same reasons that anyone tells anyone anything. Because sometimes our words breach the dam of our silence whether we wish them to or not.” He gave me a strange, cold smile. “Don’t be afraid. I won’t hurt you. I have neither the desire nor the need to do so.”
“It’s late,” I said. I began to gather my things together, and made a show of glancing down at my watch.
“Not very, but I can quite understand if you wish to leave.” He watched me as I stood up. “Good night. Think me a madman, if you wish. But be careful: the world is more dangerous than you think.”
I left the bar and hurried across the square. To my relief, he made no move to follow me. I glanced back and saw his dark, lonely figure sitting quietly at the table, gazing out of the window; and then I turned away, and looked back no more.
The cold cut through me like a blade as I turned into the dim little street that led home. The fireworks had come to an end, and now there was nothing but another quiet, cold, Venetian night. Then I thought of the shadow of decay that fell over this city, of the bones that lay beneath my feet, and I knew that there would never again be just another night. I was living in a world of monsters, and the darkness brought death on its wings.
I decided that I would put the man’s story to the test. I would go to San Michele the next day.
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"I was living in a world of monsters, and the darkness brought death on its wings." When a mortally-ill traveller arrives in Venice, he finds the city in the grip of terror. A string of inexplicable deaths and disappearances have caused a wave of panic, and the authorities have no idea who â€“ or what â€“ is responsible. These events pale into insignificance, though, when he encounters a mysterious woman one night. Pietra is beautiful, intriguing and secretive, and he longs to know more about her. He soon becomes aware, however, that a malign being has singled him out for attention â€“ and that Pietra might not be all that she seems. PIETRA is a vampire novelette of approximately 9,500 words.