December 09, 2019

 

The Dead Shall Walk With Me Tonight

 
 
 

It would seem, if you forgive the witticism, that death runs in my family. My paternal grandmother was reputed to be a vampire. She grew up near the Austrian village of Wagram, five years after the Napoleonic bloodbath. She went to a convent school there, and was expelled, after a harsh beating from the pastor, when a nun went through her things and discovered she'd fashioned an "infernal plaything" from the femur of a French Cavalryman she found while strolling through the battlefield, hunting for skulls to sell to the curious and the morbid.

Disgraced and disinherited, she drifted from village to village. Learning apothecary skills from an old gypsy woman, she found making potions to cure the sick and mend the injured was good for blending into the population of any village -- at least temporarily. For the skill she most favored creating were those potions which robbed men of sexual desire. Her painful experiences taught her that men, be they priests or soldiers, have an overabundance of reproductive energy that should be curbed.

When townsmen discovered the potion she'd mixed into their drink left them unable to become erect, they felt it must be the work of a vampire. She'd hear the complaints and know it was time to move on.

She traveled to the eastern end of Austria and met my grandfather, Otto Baron Weiselburg, a lesser nobleman who was intent on refurbishing the ruin he'd inherited of his family's old schloss, near the Hungarian border. He was a wealthy but somewhat shy young man. In his gentle nature, she felt she'd found a suitable spouse. She knew another potion, one that worked quite the opposite of that she'd gained such a vile reputation for. She slipped that into my grandfather's drink and my father was born in 1846.

The Hungarian uprising of 1848 frightened and outraged my grandmother. She urged my grandfather to join the army and help suppress the rebellion. He was killed before the year's end.

The Vampire resurfaced with renewed anger. This led to carelessness. in 1853, a crowd of men she'd left sterile -- more emotionally than physically -- tracked her down and subjected her to the "traditional remedy" of burning her at the stake.

My father grew up comfortably but of the lesser nobility, a caste that would steadily lose prestige as the young, vital Emperor became the old, beloved but feared autocrat. As was the custom, he married a woman of equally unremarkable status; educated but superstitious, practical but unimaginative.

I was born posthumously -- that is, after my father's death. An Austrian count, he was killed at Koniggsgratz in 1866. Austrian muskets proved no match for Prussian rifles. Had he survived the Prussian bullet, he would have been mortified to learn his wife gave birth to a daughter, a son being the only suitable eldest child.

My name is Katherina Wieselburg born in Schloss Wieselburg, the third of September, 1866, two months to the day after my mother's widowhood. The schloss was a comfortable enough abode -- if one was close to a fireplace. Otherwise it was damp, drafty, and dark. The sort of place writers of Gothic romances find so appealing.

My mother provided my education. I learned to read, to write, to work the four basic arithmetic operations, and to speak the proper High German spoken in Berlin -- my mother had no delusions of an Austrian renaissance.

"The Prussians defeated us in seven weeks," she'd complain. "We are not the Austria of Maria-Theresa or Prince Metternich. We have been eclipsed by Bismark."

She continued my education in other areas. We'd spend hours in the family crypt beneath the schloss studying my dark lineage. She enjoyed walking down this long hallway with hinged bronze plaques commemorating the cadaver on the other side. The row goes unbroken from 1525 to 1683, when the schloss fell into disuse. But it was restored by my grandparents. My father was entombed there and my still-alive mother's plaque was already lettered, save for the final date. A blank plaque was there for me. I once looked inside to see the chamber on the other side; room enough for a nice, if modest, coffin.

At age thirteen, I was betrothed to Nikolaus Schlatter, a nineteen-year-old cadet in the Crown Prince's Guard. Nikolaus was a charming eccentric who viewed the grim Crown Prince Rudolf as the ideal of Austrian masculinity. He would mimic his idol by having a fiancée (me) and one or two mistresses -- unsaid but unmistakable in the scented envelopes he received with great frequency.

We were married on my sixteenth birthday. Nikolaus may have disliked the depressing schloss as much as I did, but it was more comfortable than the barracks. And given his father's drunken rages, his home in Salzburg was not a good place for starting a family.

Our first child was born in 1883 and named Rudolf in the Crown Prince's honor. A daughter, Elisabeth, followed three years later. Surprisingly enough, both survived childbirth. The crypt has plenty of smaller plaques showing the occupants had failed to survive one year, so I considered our marriage blessed.

Then came the thirtieth of January, 1889. Crown Prince Rudolf, heir to the Hapsburg Dynasty committed suicide at his hunting lodge in Mayerling. Hearing the news, Nikolaus openly wept at the dinner table for just a moment. Then, regaining his military composure, he stood up, and walked to his study, leaving his dinner untouched. He stayed there for nearly a week. Not eating, hardly speaking to anybody. He took residence in another bedroom keeping the door locked at all times.

He did make one short pilgrimage to Vienna, traveling to the Jewish section and talking to Crown Prince's coachman who heard the fatal shot and openly defied the Emperor's orders by talking at length about that tragic night: Rudolf, his young mistress, and the gunshot.

It would seem Nikolaus also made secret arrangements.

My mother could only shake her head, "His Captain is dead," she said, as if she'd seen it all before. "What is a good soldier to do?"

His gunshot reverberated through the the halls and high ceilings like the great bell of a cathedral. I had not known that like Rudolf, Nikolaus had also entered into a suicide pact with a mistress -- a tall Jewish woman a few years younger than me. But he did not wait long enough between feeding her the poisoned candies and taking his own life. I tried to see him, but my mother had servants block my way.

A doctor was sent for. He looked at Nikolaus and knew all anyone could do was to clean the gore off the headboard. Turning to the girl, he checked her pulse and breathing. He gave her a strong emetic, saving her life. My mother and I were charged with nursing her back to health.

"No court would convict you if you killed her," my mother said, feeding her broth, the girl still too weak to so anything but lay there, sipping the soup. "It would be easy."

I shook my head. "Poor, pathetic creature," I said, wondering how easy it was for Nikolaus to find her. "As if there something romantic in following down a doomed path."

"Perhaps you're right," my mother conceded. "You knew Nikolaus was unfaithful. I suspected he was suicidal. This girl was just a pawn, a bit part in a sad play written by the Crown Prince, God rest his soul."

We never discussed the matter again. My mother found the coachman, a Herr Brattfisch, who passed the information on to the girl's family.

"Why?" I asked, once the girl was strong enough to speak.

"I am a Jew," she replied, "But one who might adopt the crucifix to explore the untold secrets of the nunnery. Brattfisch introduced me to Nikolaus, this dashing soldier who offered me a glorious death, suggesting we take that final voyage into Hell together."

Her father sent a courier to fetch her and hand me an envelope containing a thousand guilden, and a letter thanking me for saving his daughter's life and begging me to keep the matter hushed up; Vienna was becoming an increasingly dangerous place to be Jewish.

But the sixteen hours of vomiting and any residual effects of the poison left her too weak to travel. Oddly enough, Leah and I became close. I was neither attracted to nor repulsed by her hints of inversion -- she is a Jew, I am a Christian; she looks in one direction and I look in the other. We respected each other as women and as human beings.

And widowed and with two small children, I needed a friend; religious and other differences did not matter.

I did come to enjoy her sly sense of humor. It was never cruel and more often than not, self-effacing. "Yes," she once joked, "you could have gotten away with killing me. But if your servants are away, thanks to me, you know how to clean out a chamber pot."

"A necessary skill given how badly you used that vessel," I said, grimacing, remembering the foul, malodorous mixture she'd left purging the poison from her system. We both laughed.

My mother slowly warmed to her, once joking that Leah was the son she never had.

Leah was the first to see it. One night, she saw Nikolaus, or some semblance of him, half his brain blown away, walking through the schloss as if on some urgent business.

"The dead often give clues of the afterlife," she said. "Even the Imperial Palace is said to have the White Lady. A harbinger of tragedy."

Servants started seeing it -- most leaving that same morning. Then I saw it. Nikolaus, his face showing the agony of his wound He seemed to want to speak to me. He'd look at me and raise his hand. He would try to speak, only capable of a low, hollow moan, and then the image would vanish.

"I've seen it," my mother stated. "But I try not to believe it. If suicides are eternally damned, why have anything to do with it?"

"He was my husband," I said. "I cannot forgive his infidelities. But at least I owe him enough to hear him out. He did love our children."

"Named his son after his suicidal mentor," she scoffed. "And his daughter either after Rudolf's Bavarian mother ... or his Belgian daughter. How are you going to raise them with that taint on their birthright?"

"He has one last thing to say," I replied. "I need to hear it."

Unknown to us, Leah wrote to her father, saying she'd be well enough to travel soon, but also mentioning the ghost. A few days later there was someone at the door.

"Why, Rabbi Bechmann," Leah said, surprised. She brought him inside to introduce him to us. "Rabbi Bechmann is a friend of my father's and well studied in the mystical arts."

"To be well-studied in the mystical arts," the Rabbi said, a twinkle in his eye, "one needs to be already dead. As I am alive, I am still the perpetual student." He turned to Leah. "Now you, I read your letter. I am surprised but not greatly disappointed. Death pacts are all the rage. But to do mistress things?"

"He was charming," Leah said. "And it was not that bad."

"Perhaps," he began to say but then looked at Leah and shook his head. "No, a panther cannot grow a tiger's stripes."

"Thank you," Leah said, bowing her head.

He turned to me. "So you want to talk to the dead."

"Yes," I replied.

"Oh, it can be done. I've read a few methods. Your people have an elaborate procedure involving serving at a Christmas Eve vigil. As the host is consecrated, shouting, 'The dead shall walk with me tonight!' Rushing out to the graveyard and digging up some bones. Kneeling in prayer until sunrise. Walking a long distance and then collapsing when the dead will come to you."

I shook my head wondering if people actually did that.

"But," the Rabbi continued, "it isn't exactly like any church will let a woman act as server. Oh you may try to pass yourself off as male, but who would you fool? Besides, I doubt if the ritual is worthwhile for anything but sending a demented man to the lunatic asylum."

"What can I do?"

"There is a ritual, ascribed by some to the celebrated Rabbi Lowe of Prague."

"He of the Golem legend," Leah said.

He smiled and nodded his head. "Now, Katherina, you are to prepare a coffin. Set it in the crypt beside where your tomb is planned for. Wait for midnight. Then, as you enter the crypt, remove all your clothing, walk toward that coffin, looking at all the other tombs, considering what these people's lives were like. Visualize these people -- what they looked like, what they wore, what tales they'd tell. Hear their words. When you get to the coffin, lie down in it, saying 'Nikolaus, what do you want of me?'"

"Naked?" I asked, addressing my most obvious worry.

"You were married," he replied. "You bore two of his children. Yes, naked -- as naked as your two children when they left your womb."

"But there is more," Leah said, worried.

"For you, yes. A man and his mistress often see things a husband and wife do not. Now Katherina might wrap herself in all sorts of unmentionables -- even while performing the conjugal act. But a mistress?"

Leah lowered her head. "That night," she said, blushing, "I ran from my bath to the bedroom, stark naked. We sat there in bed, drinking wine, eating pheasant, all without either of us dressing. The wine made him amorous and me ... well ... agreeable. Then he showed me the revolver and the candies." She was silent for a moment. "I ate them. A slight hint the taste was not right. I began to drift off but was startled into by the gunshot. Shaken from the hand of death to a comatose numbness. The doctor dressed me once he saw his cure was working."

"Then you need to accompany her. You need to read those names and consider their lives. You can discuss it among yourselves. But you both need to lie down in your coffin and say the incantation."

"Also naked."

He nodded. "And with a plain pine coffin, as yours would have been, placed near hers."

"I get mahogany," I boasted, immediately feeling unsure about making a joke.

"Be glad it's October," the Rabbi replied, unperturbed. "Late December, like in the Christmas Eve ritual, would make lying naked among the dead even more uncomfortable, goose flesh of both kinds."

The next day a carpenter was called to the schloss. "Two coffins," he said, measuring out heights and writing down the work order. "One mahogany, upholstered. One pine, plain. I can have them here by the end of the month."

"All Hallows," I said, nervously, as he left.

"What better night to walk through a crypt naked?" Leah joked.

I shook my head. "Christianity has an entire mythos centered on that day. My mother used to tell me those stories to make me want to be safely under the covers, sound asleep, when the clock chimed midnight. All that night, I'd be terrified of looking out the window or peering into any mirror. Afraid of what ghoulish spectre was lurking, waiting to scare me to death."

"I use to love looking out on a moonlit night," Leah said. "And mirrors for a child? Despite what the Vienna propagandists say, not all Jews can afford such luxuries."

True to the carpenter's word, the coffins arrived mid-day on the thirty-first. Two servants, our last two servants, took them down to the crypt and set them up according to my directions, installing new candles in the brackets inside and lighting them later that evening.

My mother knew what was happening and pretended not to. She had a priest come to bless the meal and then the crypt, asking for additional prayers for the dead. She went to bed early that night, I'm sure not looking at any window or mirror.

It was a long evening. Leah and I sat there, barefoot, only wearing long woolen robes, watching the clock, the minute hand seeming not to move in what felt like a quarter hour. We shared a bottle of wine after debating which was better -- keeping a clear head or resting ones head in the lap of Bacchus? We decided to stop at one bottle.

Finally, it was almost midnight. "Shall we?" Leah asked.

"I am not accustomed to so little clothing as is," I said, already feeling naked. I stood up. "Yes, let's go."

We walked out a side door to a circular stone staircase. The stone felt cold on my bare feet but it was not too bad, maybe the wine was the right decision. At the bottom was the doorway to the crypt. I loosened my robe. Leah took my cues and we were standing there naked.

I remembered being six and going down to a creek with a few of my neighbors' daughters, removing our clothes and having a great time splashing and laughing. Can innocence last after puberty? My twenty-eight-year-old body was now celibate but hardly virginal. Two slightly sagging globes and a birds nest of light brown hair. And Leah, hers were less globes than saucers, her sparse black strands suggested her family was now wealthy enough to afford both mirrors and scissors.

A few moments of such silliness, contrasts and speculations were calming. I was ready. We entered the crypt. The candles cast flickering shadows on the wall. A calm came over me, a determined sense that this was something I had to see through.

"Karl 1488-1525," I read. "I remember the story. Soldier, wealthy enough to build this structure. Fought in many wars."

Leah touched the plaque. "French cannons," she said, able to hear the man's dying words. "Is this to die?"

"Philip," I read, nervously touching the plaque, "1504-1549. 'Good stew. More! Wait! What is that sharp pain?' I've seen his portrait. Gluttony was his vice. Too much rich stew after a long day of sipping tea and eating pastries." We both laughed.

"Bonilla," Leah read, "1540-1541. Impressions, nothing more." She shook her head, tears in her eyes. "A simple cold. Too sad. Let's not read these small ones."

"Agreed," I said, considering my own good luck in bearing two healthy children. "Juan (Johann), 1545-1588, preferred Spain to Austria. Took to the sea. 'No you fools! You're too close to the coast! Helmsman! The ship is breaking up!' The Irish coast was as deadly as the English galleons," I said, remembering my mother's lesson about the Spanish Armada.

"Adelbert, 1575-1631," Leah said, "Rabid Imperialist. 'Protect the left flank! Damned Swedes.' Latin words?" she said. "A dying man's confessional prayer?"

"Probable," I replied. "His memoirs mentioned the glee he felt killing dozens of Protestants during the Bohemian and Danish phases of the war."

"And, finally, Ludwig 1630-1683," I said as we came to the last of the old tombs. "Vienna. 'The Poles are coming! We've won! We've ...' silence. It would seem that for every Jan Sobieski, there are hundreds of forgotten dead like Ludwig."

"And their widows and orphans," Leah said. "Not to mention farmers and townspeople killed for nothing more than bad luck."

These were the easy ones, people who died over two hundred years ago. Yes, I could feel their fear, their defiance, their confusion. But I never knew any of them.

Then came my grandparents,. "Something I need to know," I said touching the 'Vampire's' plaque. "'Let me breathe in the suffocating smoke! God, why did you create men with such worthless, dangling appendages? I curse all men. I curse their pride for their cruelty. I curse their cocks and the misery they bring.'"

"Long-winded for someone dying of suffocation," Leah remarked. "But it was the smoke, not the fire, you know, that killed one being burnt at the stake. Oddly merciful."

I knew the story. Perhaps the beating she received from the pastor did start her hatred of men. She convinced my grandfather to join fight against the Hungarians rebels, somehow knowing he'd die there. Perhaps if she'd seen the other options life offers.

I looked at Leah. Tall but slight, without the fat of two pregnancies. She should have been born in England a place more tolerant of Jews and where women of breeding were expected to have some physical skill, be it on a tennis court, a golf course, or even a shooting range. Not stagnant, self-satisfied Austria where decorum mattered more than common sense.

A frightened chill came over me. Why was I thinking about all this? Perhaps a sepulcher is a conduit between the past and the future. Images flashed in my mind as if in a psychic vision. Did I see that just as the Crown Prince was being interred, a child was born in Braunau who would cause so much harm? Did I see the terror he would inflict on Leah and her people?

Then I saw the tombs of my father and my husband. Leah touched my father's plaque. "Wound not fatal but gangrenous. 'Let me return home. Let me build windows ... more light!'"

I did not want to look on. I did not want to see the two empty coffins. Would this be my final resting place? What an absurd euphemism, I thought -- not a place to rest but to decompose, to allow all that made you a living being to vanish into bare bones.

"Trade?" Leah asked, feeling cold pine floor of her coffin. It was not the time for jokes, I thought and looked at her, a scowl on my face.

I closed my eyes and shook my head. I was cold, scared, wondering what Leah was thinking, wondering what I was thinking. Why did I have to walk naked with this woman, exposing ourselves to the dead? Could they find any amusement or carnal enjoyment at seeing us so? I could not separate my mother's stern morality from what I was feeling. I felt debased.

Leah calmly climbed into her coffin. After a long, deep breath of musty air, I climbed into mine, shaking in fear.

"Nikolaus," I called out, "What do you want of me?"

"Nikloaus," Leah repeated, "What do you want of me?"

Then Nikolaus' hinged, plaque swung open and the candles blew out. A light shone out of the tomb and I could hear the long wood screws turning enough to raise the lid a bit.

"Katherina," the all-too-familiar voice said. "I've expected you. Leah, not an unpleasant surprise." Rather than the hollow voice of the tomb I'd heard as he wandered through the schloss, Nikolaus' voice was still that of the grave, but softer, more like that of the man I'd married.

"Why?" I began but stopped, unsure if I wanted his answer. "Why are you haunting me?"

"So much I should have said," his spirit replied, almost weeping. "So much I needed to say. Only realizing that as my brain was leaving my skull. Too late," he wept, "too late."

And so much I should have said. I should have opened those scented letters at the dinner table and read them aloud. I should have criticized the Crown Prince and the Emperor. I should have burst into his bedroom, finding him and Leah there, spoiling his plans.

"So say them," I said, angry, realizing I was no longer afraid of his ghost. Of my nakedness. Of anything. "Say them!"

"I was a fool," Nikolaus said, deep remorse in his voice, "in my hero-worship of Rudolf. He was a fool, doomed by being the son of two fools; a man bound to a rigid daily schedule and a child hardened by the expectations put on an Empress. Mary Vetsera was a fool, blinded by believing her social status would be somehow enhanced by dying in bed with the Crown Prince."

"So you found a mistress," I said. "One you knew could only see the sense of hopelessness that has spread through Vienna as swiftly and as fatally as a typhoid epidemic."

"Too many fools poisoning my thoughts," he replied. "You and Leah were the only two intelligent people in my life. Perhaps if the three of us visited Parisx..." he chuckled. "But no."

"I was a fool," Leah said, "for eating those candies, knowing they had poison. But I now know death is no solution to the challenges I face. And I will face them, alone, perhaps in secret. But I will face them."

"Would having a friend help?" I asked, knowing I would re-marry and she would find a lover. "We can walk two parallel paths, never merging but never too far apart."

She smiled and wept. "I would like that."

"My time on this plane is fleeting," Nikolaus said. "A favor, though? Perhaps the two of you might kiss? A soothing image for me to take to the hereafter?"

"Oh you old rogue," I said, feigning offense, but quickly laughing.

Leah nodded her head. "He spoke of it that night," she said. "I wasn't sure if it was a joke or not. It is up to you."

I took her into my arms, her breasts pressed against mine. We complied with my dead husband's final request.

I could only wonder which my mother would find most offensive, that I stood there naked and kissed a Sapphist or I stood there naked and kissed a Jewess. As I saw it, I stood there naked and kissed a friend, perhaps feeling a bit of the excitement that supposedly comes with defying convention, but it was only that.

The plaque closed and we were left with only the faint light from the doorway.

I often think back to that night, especially as All Hallows nears. Leah moved to England and the London stage, well, after a long stretch of sweeping floors, hemming costumes, and learning the language. Me? I have remarried, Oswald, a Swiss watchmaker who has never served in the military. Rudolf and Elisabeth, my children with Nikolaus, are doing well at university.

However, with another dead Crown Prince, this one killed by a Serb, himself dying of consumption, I fear another war draws near. The old Emperor seemed to accept the assassination as God's will. However, the Minister of War, feeling it an insult to Austrian pride is pushing for vengeance. I am glad my son is studying medicine and unlikely to be conscripted as a soldier. I only hope he's prepared for the horrors being a wartime surgeon.

My daughter married a Hungarian chef and moved to America, both to my mother's consternation.

I've often wondered if that was Nikolaus' unspoken lesson to me. To be able to see beyond our prejudices. To be able to face our fears, not of ghosts or vampires but of our fellow human beings somehow different from ourselves. Not to follow well-born idiots with their medals and their fortunes, realizing that path will only lead to desolation.

Poor dead Nikolaus. Sometimes I think about his fantasy of Paris, me and Leah. If it would have prevented his suicide, would I have agreed? Would I have gone through with those acts it entails? What would anyone do in that situation?

Perhaps we walk with the dead every day. We do so in the memories of all who have passed on but who've changed us as people. A kind teacher. A wise relative. A romantic, adventurous spouse. As those memories live in us and will always be there to guide us, maybe the essence of those mentors do live on.






Article © Dan Mulhollen. All rights reserved.
Published on 2019-10-28
Image(s) are public domain.


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By Dan Mulhollen:

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