To celebrate the centenary of Bram Stoker’s death, lots of fun stuff of the gothic variety has been happening in Dublin over this weekend…walking tours, literary workshops, street theatre and much more, all dedicated to the greatness of his life and work…and none of which I could attend, due to an untimely flu bug.
To make myself feel better, I am posting a short story of mine, The Birthday Gift, which incidentally, took Third Prize in the Bram Stoker Literary Festival in 2010. The story, written many years before, languished in the virtual bottom drawer for many years before inspiring me to write my first attempt at a novel and feature script, ARKYNE…
So, as a personal ode to the great man himself, there ya go...
The Birthday Gift
Midsummer’s Night, 1649
Heavy oak dulled the sounds of the revelry below stairs as Ursula quietly closed her bedroom door. Her hips swayed gracefully as she sashayed across the room to lift her wash jug and pour out her bath water. And as the trickle swirled into the small ceramic basin, tickling sensuously between her elegant fingers, the birthday girl just could not help but smile at the reflection in her looking-glass.
With a sense of rippling excitement, she loosened the bodice of her pretty dress, untying the delicate ribbons that held her full linen sleeves in soft billows. How lucky she was. Blessed, as her mama always said, with a tiny waist, Ursula did not have to resort to the torturous wooden busks that some of the local girls bound into their under garments. She shuddered now at the thought of their corsets pulled so tightly around their torsos, their squashed rib cages leaving the foolish girls so open to all sorts of maladies.
Yes, she was the lucky one. Sweet sixteen…and she did so like the manner in which her new corset swelled her breasts, and how the sensation caused her to feel so alluring when HIS gaze had lingered there.
Standing naked now, in the half-light of dusk and candle, she lifted her head to listen to some soft and muted bird sound from outside her closed window. A cuckoo; it was very bad luck to hear one on this, the longest day…or so her mama always told her.
Ursula shrugged the thought away and finished her cleansing ritual, then carefully concealed beneath her pillow the silk-wrapped love-philtre of purple-flowered mandrake that her mama had mixed for her last Friday, the sacred day of Venus. Bad luck indeed, she thought dismissively.
‘To Venus, the goddess of love and the queen of the earth, of heaven and of hell, and hail to the wind, the earth, the fire and the water,’ she whispered, ‘I call for HIM to come to me of his own free will and to share with me this joyous love.’
Throwing open her window, she leaned out to inhale deep cleansing breaths. The scent of roses and moistened twigs hung sweetly in the air, and the house had gone completely quiet, the soft sounds of the oboe and the laughing, dancing girls from the party earlier now quelled for the night as she moved to lie down on her bed.
She was counting the minutes, lying there, and waiting. Unable to contain her excitement, her fingers traced tiny curlicues up and down her body, and she felt no shame or guilt for the anticipated pleasure she was feeling. Or, for what she was so willing to do now, for this was what she wanted most in the world…and it soothed her conscience to know that Ursula had her mama’s blessing.
* * *
The nobleman Monsieur Jordan was the perfect suitor for Ursula; her mama repeated this often. Lord of the Castle, built high above their little village, he was a powerful man in this province, wealthy, handsome, and most importantly, quite obviously obsessed with her.
Life had been such a struggle since the unexpected death of her Papa two years previously, a change of fortune was needed now, and Ursula’s mama had assured her that this was the best way to hasten the Monsieur’s proposal. A beautiful young girl like herself would surely be an asset to him. Much more mature than the other girls her age, whom Ursula knew, at any opportunity, would fall over themselves to vie for HIS attentions.
The Monsieur had chosen her though, with her delicate features, her plump, pink cheeks and luscious dark ringlets, falling against her shiny smooth forehead to shield her ultimate weapon of seduction; the violet blue eyes that had every man and boy in the village falling at her feet.
Ever conscious of the potency of her own beauty, she did not care that the others called her unkind names, said that she was vain. A sorceress, they accused, using her body and her dark gifts to secure her future. They were just envious of course, jealous of her magnetism, and her power of bewitchment.
Her love-philtre clutched to her breast, she watched the moonlight from the open window beam across her bed, and a small gasp escaped her as a dark silhouette of a bird appeared to form on her bedroom wall.
A shadow fell across the silhouette, and HE appeared in the doorway, his presence charging the atmosphere, and her waiting body, with hot fire. She could smell him, the earthy leather of his riding boots, a heady mix of night air, tobacco, and that tantalizing odour that wafted from the silk shirt he cast aside to bend and kiss her burning forehead.
She tasted the rich, fruity Cabernet from the earlier revelry as his tongue moved fleetingly across hers. Ursula could hardly contain herself, her legs longing to be wrapped around his strong body, her hands ready to pull at his unruly, coal-black hair. He held her back though, stifling her passion. ‘Why are you filled with such haste?’ He whispered, ‘Should not a lady possess the virtue of patience? Should the gift that you offer to me now not be so rushed or so impatiently unwrapped?’
Ursula’s heart fluttered like urgent gossamer wings that opened and closed with his touch. He wanted her, and so, he must love her. Why else would he ingratiate himself into their lives and home? Beguiling her widowed mother with his handsome stature and breathtaking charm, so that he might, at first hand, watch as she transformed from the skinny boy-like creature of two years ago, when he’d first set eyes on her.
And when he had suggested this party in honour of her birthday, her mama had taken it as a sign that he was making ready his proposal. Why else would he go to such lengths to secure the finest musician in the town, invite the noblest guests and provide the best food and most expensive wine? The latter of which she had longed to drink, playfully clasping her hands over his to bring the cup to her lips. He would have none of it and had reprimanded her, the protective gesture causing her to want him even more.
‘My lady must remain as pure on the inside as she deigns to be on the outside’, he told her softly, his lips teasing at her earlobe, sending a rush of warm air across the nape of her neck and down her spine. And when he swept her up to dance, her forehead barely touched his chin as they twirled and swayed, their bodies moving in unison and so close, she thought she might pass out with the sheer pain of want and pleasure.
She could hear the jealous sighs and clicks of tongues as the eyes of the other girls bored into her, and Ursula found herself enjoying every minute of their displeasure. And how she had loved the feeling as he let those ravenous eyes travel across her brow, her neck, her glistening lips, her décolletage…and when the party finally ended, she knew for sure what she had to do.
* * *
The magic hath spoken. She sat up suddenly to speak, her breathing heavy as he put his finger to her lips in quiescence and bent to kiss her forehead, his fingers running along her neck to rest on her breast. The sound of wings, flapping furiously outside, could be heard.
‘Listen. Can you hear that?’ she asked.
‘Your beating heart?’ He answered, and she almost sobbed with joy at his touch.
‘It is the cuckoo!’ she cried.
‘A cuckoo you say? Perhaps it is your mama, should I leave now?’
‘No!’ Ursula pleaded, ‘Oh, but you are mocking me–‘. He silenced her then with a kiss, a beautiful, long and tender kiss to which she responded only too eagerly.
‘You are so hungry to please me. Whatever would the cuckoo say?’ he teased.
Ursula could not contain her childish giggles as he quietened her again, covering her body with his own. ‘What an intoxicating creature you are, what if I–‘
‘What if — kind Sir?’ She asked with childish coquettishness.
‘What if I were to make you mine forever?’ The words she had so longed to hear melted over her like sweetened syrup.
‘I give myself to you willingly.’ Ursula pulled him closer. ‘For all that I desire is to be yours.’
He slowly raised her arms above her head and secured her wrists with one hand. ‘And so you will have what you desire!’ His strong back arched as he entered her, the sudden violent thrusts making her body stiffen with pain while he carried on, oblivious to her cries for him to stop. Cruel eyes, no longer dark with passion, but filled with a pleasure of another kind, now met her startled expression as he stifled her screams. At the end, he shuddered violently, transformed, his pallor turned yellow, his skin cracked, his eyes sunken in his head. ‘And you will serve your purpose in the hell of this earth that I am bound to for eternity!’ He roughly withdrew from her, parting his lips to reveal sharp, broken yellow fangs, the foulest of odours emanating from deep inside him. Ursula’s body had grown slack now, shocked and petrified beneath him as he slithered low to place his mouth on her quivering belly and sink his teeth into her soft flesh.
The pain of his stabbing, saliva-drenched teeth and tongue on her skin caused her to retch violently as he sucked at her until he drew her virgin blood…and drank it. With his appetite sated, he ran his sharp blackened fingernail across her lips and stained them with her own blood as she sobbed pitifully and tried to bury her face in her pillow. He forced her to look at him, to look inside those dead, cruel eyes, mocking her.
‘But you were so willing my sweet.’ He pulled her up towards him and greedily licked the tears from her face, ‘and all is not lost my lovely, for you will serve me well, a hearty vessel for the son that I crave.’ He pushed her roughly back onto her bed and stepped away, his appearance returning to normal as he blew her a heartless kiss before leaping from the window with the agility of an animal.
As she vomited from the pain and the hideous stench that lingered there, after him, Ursula turned her head, towards the silhouette of the bird, still perched outside on her window ledge, its wings flapping…and she listened to HIS low derisive laughter, fading from the silent house as he disappeared into the grey static of the night.
Confused and enduring unspeakable pain, she heard the hooves of his black steed as he galloped away, and then, was consumed by the silence and the stench that lingered in his wake. Too frightened to move or cry out, she plunged between dreams and reality and heard it again, that sweet sorrowful melody of the cuckoo, playing over and over, a tune that left her trance-like…until, inside her head, she began to hear a child’s sob.
A sob so terrifying, it convulsed her body and grew so loud that she thought the screams would burst forth from her throbbing skull.
It was only when the light of the new sun began to flood across her room that Ursula dared to heave her aching body from the bed. With fire in her womb, and the brutally jagged and dark crimson stain on her sheet a reminder of the savagery he had inflicted as he tore at her so cruelly, she touched her belly and felt the growing welt of the mark he had left there on her skin. The shape of HIS beast-like fangs, the diabolical mark, branding her forever more, and she realised the ominous truth. She was forsaken. She was damned, and so too, was the rotten fruit of her womb…
The Birthday Gift © 2010 Caroline Farrell. All Rights Reserved