The Annals of Draceas: An Entry
I first came to the village of Draceas on October 5, 1901.
To reach it, one must conduct a steep ascent of some 1,000 feet along the Turnu Rosu (Red Tower) Pass, a perilous highway through the Carpathian Mountains connecting Wallachia with Transylvania. It is said that in the middle 1400s Vlad Tepes himself, on a retreat from a campaign against the Turks, used the very same Pass to cross into Transylvania.
The scene would have changed but little since those times. The same mountains rose majestic and changeless on either side of us, and the dark waters of the Olt River burbled as it had for time out of mind.
As we made our ascent, I reflected on recent events in my life. I had taken sabbatical from the University of New South Wales, and had come to Europe three months before. I wished to observe the rituals of the Transylvanian gypsies and the Seven Slavic Tribes. By studying their lore and legend, I hoped to further Jung’s assertion that ritual raises us from the human to the divine.
I must admit to another, less cerebral, reason. I had once loved a woman, the daughter of a wealthy and respected donor to the university. While my star as a psychoanalyst rose, we became engaged, and set the wedding date for October of this year.
It was not to be. My growing interest in the darker realms of the psyche – human sacrifice, blood rites and ancient rituals – alienated me from my peers. They preferred not to be reminded of, say, the Great Death Pit at the ancient city of Ur, Incan child mummies, or the blood rituals of the Dahomey kingdom in West Africa. Nor did they like my revelations of the bloody practices of the Romans, Celts and ancient Greeks. I maintain now, as I did then, that I used the bodies in accordance with strict medical procedure. I did examine their brains; I do not deny it. How else could I show that the minds of those who practiced ancient rituals, no matter how bloody or primitive, were of a higher order than modern man’s, who rejected them?
When word of my arcane studies leaked out, Catherine – there, I have written her name for the first time in more than a year – broke off our engagement. No man suffered more bitterly: if I could not possess her, then no man would. After what occurred, I needed to escape, to lose myself in my work. The wilds of Eastern Europe, to say nothing of its rituals, appealed. I vowed that I would find there something that would restore my academic standing. Only then could I return to Australia and reclaim my honour.
So, I was most keen to press on. I had hoped to cross into Bulgaria before nightfall, but soon it became clear that our draft horses – two strong Hanoverians – would need rest and food before climbing the Pass.
The over-taxed beasts pulled round a long curve. Slowly, a church bell-tower hove into view. Spread out in a wide circle around the church were perhaps four hundred shack-like homes: my first sighting of Draceas. We had passed many a village of its kind. Though I did not relish the idea of stopping, we decided it would be best for the struggling beasts. We started our descent from the Pass.
My eyes were immediately drawn to something beyond the village. The mountainside was dark green, intensely so – in fact, I did not expect to see such a beautiful and melancholic sight here. The gentle dying rays of the westering sun seemed to caress each tree and leaf of the forest into brilliant life, and the line of the slope into a sensuous, even ponderous, curve. The view struck me immediately, powerfully, as if this was a long sought-after destination at last reached, though, of course, this could not be.
At the foothills of the mountain lay a contrasting sight: a riotous tangle of overgrown shrub and knotty vine. This thicket-like patch was very large, stretching for perhaps half the size of a football field. And amongst the dull, weed-like green of this lesser shrubbery ran veins of grey, rotting wood: the remains of some large structure, or structures, now almost entirely hidden by the wild overgrowth.
Another curious thing: as we descended from the Pass, I turned away from the mountainside to notice that on the eastern side, almost directly opposite the strange overgrown structure, the village was dominated by the presence of a lofty tower. Its pointed shadow thrust like a stake through the heart of the village. If we had continued along the Pass, it would have taken us right under its watch. But instead we veered from it onto a track that cut a winding, bumpy descent to the village.
I kept my head outside the cab. The autumnal air felt fresh and biting on my cheeks. The tower had a peculiar coloration, a kind of dullish red ring, near its base. And perhaps three quarters of the way up its shaft was a large round window that, despite its size, seemed dark and impenetrable, more like an embrasure in a castle wall than a true window. An odd longing to gaze through it stirred within me. Would it not command an excellent view, not only of the village, but also of the overgrown structure and lovely deep green mountainside?
The tower receded as we approached the town. Yet I continued to study it. There was something at the window, lying on its sill. I could not see it clearly, and with the drafts’ every step it became more distant. It was very pale, almost white, yet parts gleamed and glinted like jewels. A stone decoration?
I retired back inside the cab. I must admit to having felt very strange indeed. Uncomfortable, even.
For my last impression – an impression I could not shake – was that I had seen on the windowsill a very pale bejewelled hand.
We stopped at the village square. I ordered the coachman to see to the horses and return within the hour. Before I turned away, I saw that he had grown somewhat sullen and distracted. His gaunt cheeks and long, pinched face made his eyes appear somewhat bulbous. He kept them downcast as I spoke to him, his face marred by some private trouble, I guessed. I counted myself lucky to find him; no other coachman in Sibiu’s drinking halls would go over the Pass.
At last he climbed into the driver’s seat. With a snap of the reins, the horses were off at a weary trot down the rough, narrow lane. But as the pattern of their echoing hoof-falls began to fade from my hearing, the man turned to gaze dejectedly at me. His baleful eyes peered at me over the upturned collar of his jacket. They swelled with what looked to be profound misgiving.
I stood alone now in the village square. There was the old, bell-towered church, a few desultory inns, but otherwise Draceas was little more than a sprawl of peaked split-pine houses modelled after the Russian izba, but cruder. It was strangely quiet. The few people I did manage to glimpse – burly, hunched-over figures in shaggy woollen capes (similar to the suba worn by Hungarian shepherds) – avoided looking at me. When I tried hailing a couple who were approaching, they quickly bundled themselves off around a corner.
Though I could see no one, I myself was hardly unseen. Or, should I say, unfelt? The villagers knew of me. I could not of course provide any evidence for this, other than my own feelings. Every drawn window, closed door and empty laneway confirmed my suspicion: their absence was not mere chance. It was directed at me.
Another thing I knew: I had no desire to linger here.
I turned, and there it was, high up on the Pass: the lofty tower. I thought again of the window, and the strange hand – if hand it was – on its sill. Could it still be there? And what of its owner?
There was a path, I noticed – different from the one that we had used before – cutting down from the tower to the town. Consulting my watch, I calculated that I could perhaps get up it and back within the hour.
Glad of the exercise, I set off, my boots pounding the well-trodden path. Soon I was cresting the hill outside the village. The path climbed steeply at the end, bringing me at last to a lush, grassy plateau spread about the tower’s base. Beyond it the brown dirt road of the Pass rose to a perilous height.
I rested for a time on a small hillock. The village lay below, but I took no interest in its jumble of peasant shacks. Nor did I take any in the Olt, which wound like a giant black viper through the distant rolling hills.
No, it was that intoxicating curve of mountainside that captivated me. The forest green was perhaps an even a richer, darker hue than before. The deeply westering sun’s rays must have added to its depth and intensity, for each tree and leaf seemed to blaze with an inner light.
There are many tales of travellers losing themselves to the wild beauty of the Carpathians. But this was no mere postcard view. I gazed instead upon a mystery, a sacred trust. The wild inner heart of these majestic formations had been revealed to me, and me alone. I vowed, then, to keep this revelation as jealously as I would the love and honour of a beautiful woman. I would suffer no other man to possess it.
After some time, I rose. As in a trance I walked the forty of so feet to the tower. Its grey drystone walling created about it a desolate melancholy, similar to a Scots broch or dun. Indeed, it would not have been out of place in a remote Hebridean weir. Whether by design or accident, the spire did not point perfectly upwards. It appeared crooked, or twisted, as if made by drunken builders.
But it was the red ring about its base that most drew my attention. In the dying light it seemed to change from a pale, ghostly strip, faint yet perceptible, to a deeper, more luminous swathe of burgundy. Crude as the tower itself, the red substance seemed carelessly applied, as if slapped or smeared on. The increasing luminosity revealed what appeared to be handprints, or certainly fingerprints, in the ring.
I walked slowly around the base. The only interruption of its stony greyness was a door of weathered oak on the Pass side. I tried to turn its iron ring but found it steadfastly locked. High above the door were more and more handprints. Perhaps hundreds of years’ worth of them.
I reached up to feel the cold red-hued stone. And then – I do not know why – I began to slap my hand against the red ring. An uncanny sense of union with villagers past resonated within me. Now my slapping turned from mindless ritual to near outright worship. How worthy this enduring monument was – much worthier than I – of the view it commanded!
At last I drew myself away from the tower.
The Red Ring now swelled and grew into a fervid crimson. Before my stunned eyes thick red droplets began to streak like bloody tears down the tower’s shaft, only to disappear when they reached the ground.
I stood back. What had I done?
The window was a black gulf of emptiness. Something fell within me, as though a promise had been broken. I desperately wanted to see the Hand, if hand it was; in fact it had been the sole purpose of my coming to the tower, I realised.
Back I went, until more of the window hove into view.
Suddenly I saw it, a slender-fingered hand, pale as candlewax, its fine-trimmed nails lacquered with black sheen.
But something had changed.
It no longer rested on the sill. Instead, it hovered inches above it, framed by the gaping sleeve of a crimson robe. Its owner lurked in the shadows. But the Hand, and its bloodless pallor, I clearly saw.
And its long, elegant index finger pointed directly at me.
I had been Chosen.
By the time I stumbled back down the path to the village, the sun had been halved by the horizon’s rim, and the clouds in the sky glowed like hot coals.
The cobblestone lanes of the town appeared even more deserted and silent than before. The dwellings, which I had first thought humble, now seemed to grow in stature, their izba-like peaks rising up and looming over me – a trick of the light, but unnerving nonetheless. Again that sense of being felt was undeniable: all of the unseen villagers’ thoughts seemed bent upon me, lying in wait, but for what purpose I could not imagine.
My coachman was nowhere to be seen. I had no desire to wander through the darkening village in search of him. All I wanted was to find a quiet place to sit and contemplate what had occurred at the tower.
My weary footsteps led me to the domed and bell-towered church – as good a place as any, I thought, for contemplation.
I pushed its heavy doors open and stepped into the vestibule. Strong aromas of candlewax and incense struck me as I entered the tranquil sanctuary. I stumbled down the nave’s red tongue of a carpet and sank to my knees before the high wall of the templon. I looked up to the elegant doors dedicated to Christ and the Virgin Mary. Above them was a vast panoply of icons rendered in glittering gold leaf.
There was one icon, however, that I did not recognise. It was a painting – hundreds of years old, it must have been – of an extraordinary man dressed in a crimson robe. His penetrating, even mesmerising, eyes were a deep sea-green, set high above vulpine cheekbones and a strong aquiline nose. His skin was a bloodless alabaster, his lips full and as crimson as his robe. Oddly, the painting lay to the left of the Virgin Mary, a truly eminent position, normally reserved in Eastern churches for the icon of the patron saint. But this rapacious-looking man was clearly no saint.
My extraordinary experience at the tower came rushing back to me.
I stood at its base, the dying light of the swiftly westering sun falling weakly upon it. The dusk air had grown chill.
From within me came unbidden these words:
‘Master, what is thy command?’
For a time, there was no sound. Only the distant burbling of the Olt, and the forlorn soughing of trees.
Then this word I heard:
So cold and bloodless a voice could not belong to a man; it was as if the tower itself had spoken.
It came again:
‘Show thy worthiness. Only then can it be thine, and thine alone.’
A frigid cold gripped my heart, and then my hand…my hand…
‘You must leave.’
This new, unexpected voice startled me out of my contemplation.
A bony, skeletal man stood in the nave behind me.
‘You must leave,’ he repeated, ‘or you will die.’
His bright crimson rags sagged from his thin frame. And his face – how hideously disfigured it was. In the shadowy candlelight it seemed as though he had undergone the most awful torture, or perhaps even death itself, and his ordeal was still written on his twisted face. What could such a horror want with me?
‘Who are you?’ I asked.
I watched him, uncertain of what he might do. As the shadows flickered in the candlelit nave, he seemed like an apparition returned from the grave.
Slowly he reached up a bony hand to his disfigured face. He pushed away what I now saw was a carved wooden mask. Underneath it were the gaunt features and bulbous eyes of my coachman.
‘They will kill you,’ he said. ‘A sacrifice.’
He proceeded then to tell me, in halting English, the history of this place and its blood-soaked rituals.
For centuries each October, at the sign of the Master’s Hand at the window, a procession of villagers would climb the Pass to stand in a ring around the tower’s base. Hands drenched in the sacrificial blood of newborns, they raised their quivering palms and slapped them against the cruel stone until the Master, at last appeased, removed his Hand from the window. The harvest, they knew then, would be blessed, and protection from the Turks assured. The Red Ritual, as it was known, gradually faded from history, and, he said, the Master’s Hand had not been seen for perhaps a century. It will only return, it is said, when a worthy successor appears.
‘Who…’ I began to say, but he ignored me.
‘The need for sacrifice is deep,’ he continued, his voice now murmuring like a priestly incantation. ‘By the mountainside, they find a place. They build gallows, one for each villager. All will go and place the nooses about their necks. But only one is set to drop, only one villager is sacrificed in this new ritual, the Grey Ritual. Who will it be this time, they wonder?’
I thought of that patch of knotty vine, with something grey and rotting beneath it. I nodded my head in understanding.
‘These masks,’ he said, tossing his to the floor with a clatter, ‘they are from the faces of sacrificed villagers. Maybe there are hundreds, even thousands of them. Copies carved from the original plaster death-masks. But now,’ he pleaded, his voice growing earnest, ‘they change ritual. Now, it is not villager they sacrifice. It is traveller.’
He pointed a finger down at me – somehow it seemed as starved and gaunt as the rest of him. And I understood. He had found me and brought me to this village. He would set the gallows for all in the morning, but only mine would work.
‘But I am true Christian,’ he declared. His voice broke in drunken remorse, and he swayed on his feet. The pungency of strong liquor seeped from his every pore. He proudly thumped his sunken chest with his fist.
‘I come back to warn.’
Like a true penitent, he looked down at me, desperate to be absolved of sin. In that moment I saw him anew: the deep wrinkles lining his starved, pinched cheeks, the streams of perspiration coursing down them, glinting in the candlelight.
‘Leave,’ he begged me. ‘I tell you, leave this place. Or there will be a new mask made, with your death-face. They fear him, the Lord of Draceas, and his return. If they do not sacrifice, they fear that he will come, in the night. He means death!’
He thrust the same starved finger at the mysterious icon. The picture stared stonily back, those sea-green eyes cold and unmoved, but mesmerising.
Rising slowly to my feet, I revealed my own truth to him.
Blood dripped in small, quick droplets from my fingertips. When the droplets struck the boards of the church floor, they disappeared.
For I had the Red Hand of the Chosen.
The coachman stared, dumbstruck. His warning had come too late.
Realising his fatal error, he began to back away from me. But he had drunk too much. His face turned the colour of boiled cabbage, and his grey shrivelling lips quivered in futile prayer.
I raised my traveller’s knife and brought it plunging swiftly down into his chest.
A great peal then sounded from the church bell. The deep-throated gong shattered the village’s silence and rippled through the ancient winding cobblestone roads. I stood in the church, looking down at what I had done. The coachman lay on the floor in a thickening pool of blood. I could not look into those eyes, eyes that would forever testify to the full horror of my betrayal.
I ran down the church’s red gullet and heaved open its doors.
Outside, the villagers spilled from their homes. Carrying torches and dressed in crimson rags like the coachman’s, they swelled the laneways, until it seemed as though the entire village was awash in tides of blood.
They cavorted down a nearby lane, each of them young or old, man or woman, wearing one of the death masks. In the shifting shadows of the torchlight, they seemed near-demonic, the facial features monstrously contorted. And each was uniquely grotesque, carved as they were from the plaster death-masks of the sacrificed.
I turned and ran back into the church. I changed out of my clothes, and put on those of the coachman. The blood I had spilled was not so noticeable on those crimson rags. I took up his mask from the floor and slipped it on, and then ran back down the red carpet and out the door.
One after another the gruesome parades pressed down the lanes. Some stopped to point at one another and ask the question: ‘tu seu eu?’ I had learned enough Romanian to know that this meant ‘you or I’. In response, the other party loosed a strangled throaty eruption, like a cry violently choked off. They would then perform an elaborate embrace and re-join the throngs.
This bacchanalia both repulsed and enticed me. I could not deny that I envied the villagers’ primal abandon. So I – a modern university-educated scholar – stomped and drank alongside these masked revellers still steeped in the ancient ways. I too asked the question ‘tu seu eu?’, and broke into the strange croaking reply.
But I soon wearied of it. Had I not been Chosen for a different Fate? In the pitch and biting chill of the night, I ventured back inside the church. Under the gaze of those sea-green eyes, I retrieved my burden, and returned to the street, discarding my mask. I drifted away from the tumult, but no matter how far I wandered, I could not be free of the images my mind relentlessly fed me: the swelling and weeping of the red ring, the parade of death-masked villagers, the staring eyes of my coachman slowly emptying of life. If I wondered whether any of it were real, I had only to look at my hand, and the warm blood that dripped from it, to show me the truth. I had passed into a twilit realm.
When at last I had stopped wandering, the moonlight revealed my location: that knotty patch of vine by the mountainside.
Surrounding me were rows upon rows of sturdy grey gallows. How brilliant they were: the neat thirteen step staircases leading to the stands; the rope-notches set into the crossbeams; and, most brilliant of all, the ingenious levers, fitted so closely to the victims, that they could kick them with their feet.
One gallows was most beautiful of all. It was larger and newer than its brethren, and formed its own row at the patch’s edge, its beams garlanded with rotting vine.
This was the crowning gallows. The words ‘Calator Binecuvantat’ had been carved into its stand, in ornate Cyrillic script:
Have you ever seen a village dead?
How the bodies swing in the gently gusting breeze of an autumn morning? How the rising sun’s yellow rays break softly over them, like streaks of egg yolk? How even the very air about them can feel both full and empty of life? Like bodies of the newly dead themselves?
It had been an easy thing to set the gallows. One needed only to crawl under the drop and flick the catch that held the ratchet. And at the first light of dawn, young and old, ill, healthy or lame, came streaming across the fields. In their crimson rags they were like smears of blood on the verdant landscape. Still affected by the previous eve’s revelry, many whooped and caterwauled as they headed to the foothills of the mountainside, where the Grey Ritual awaited them.
At last each villager had assumed a place at a gallows. No doubt they thought of those who had gone before, who had once stood where they now stood. And in this way, they honoured the sacrifices of villagers past.
And perhaps they also honoured my coachman, whose body swung from the Traveller’s Gallows, and who wore the clothes of my old life.
Seeing him, they placed the nooses about their necks and stepped onto their drops. And in union with villagers past, blindly, unwittingly, they reached out with their feet to work the levers – so expertly located – those levers that should not work but…
A fortunate few I spared, some children and their parents. Enough to serve their new Master. And those not so fortunate will serve Science. I shall examine their bodies, their brains, and prove my theories to the world.
Here, inside the Tower, at the desk by the Window, I have added these revelations to the Annals of Draceas, the twenty full volumes that line the shelves on the wall, immaculate records of village history and ritual.
Above them, leering down at me from the crooked spire, are the plaster death-masks of sacrificed villagers and travellers. My coachman’s appears there; curiously, his features are more flushed in death than in life.
One mask takes pride of place. Often I look at her sweet, tortured face, and marvel at my skill. And where once in those eyes I saw horror at my vengeance, with the passage of time, I have begun to see hints of peace and tranquillity beneath the terror. It is only a matter of how one chooses to look at it.
Catherine, my dear, we were to be married on this day, 6 October, 1901. But I forgive you. Without your betrayal, never would I have found such a place as Draceas, and become what I now am.
Outside the Window lies that captivating view, its melancholic hues as bewitching as a new lover’s coy glance. And as I sit, its passion grows and deepens. The jet blackness of night mingles with deep forest green, until the light dies, and we are like two lovers, alone at long last.
Though the centuries may pass, and new villagers shall come, only one will have the Red Hand. If he shows himself worthy, as I have done, I shall Embrace him, as I myself was Embraced. And he shall wear the Crimson Robe, as do I now, and become the new Lord of Draceas.
Herr Jung was nearly correct. Ritual may indeed raise us to the divine.
But it can also raise us to a state of being even more truly blessed.
Though originally from Canada, Erol Engin lives and writes in Newcastle, NSW, Australia. His previous publications include stories in Midnight Echo, Australia’s leading horror publication, and Aurealis. He has also been published in the Year’s Best Australian Fantasy and Horror.