COCO De Rais strode purposefully through the grounds of her home, a seventeenth century château overlooking the French village of Tiffauges. It was late in the evening, the end of summer, and the château, perched high and austere amidst the borderlands of the Vendee, was bathed in the golden hue of sand stone.
Breathing through her irritation, and with a flashlight shining low and discreet on the path before her, her pace quickened, and she didn’t even stop to admire, as was her habit, the magical blanket of moon dust now reflecting off the ivy-leaved façade of the sumptuous building. Her papa, Henri, had upset her again and she was frowning, her wild black hair falling across her face to flap in unison with her furious footsteps, gravel crunching beneath her thick-soled black boots. In contrast, with its soothing liquid timbre snaking a path through the grounds, melodious ripples emerged from the Qui Donne La Vie, a tributary of the nearby Crúme River. She had once overheard her papa tell her aunt Anna how insignificant the little river had been, remaining untitled for centuries. Until he had brought Coco’s mother, Sophia, here, and she had instantly christened it The Giver of Live. Appropriate, she had heard him add wistfully, for that was exactly what Sophia had been. Not just in the physical sense of bringing Coco into the world, but also in the bringing of life to the château; and to him.
She clenched her teeth now, as similarly to a song she thought she ought to remember, but couldn’t quite, the water’s melody transported her to a moment lost, a vague remembrance that refused to clarify itself, no matter how hard she concentrated. She had finally succumbed to her acceptance of the notions that had been crowding her thoughts for some time. Like the fact that even when on her own, she never really felt that way. That another walked with her, unseen yet sensed in her bones, and was here now, with her on this path that she had walked so often. Once, and only once, had she mentioned this to her papa, immediately regretting it as he dismissed such silliness; if she were to be feeling such a presence, he told her, it must surely be her late mother, watching over her. Coco was not convinced. What she was experiencing lately was different, and she had always believed that her mother’s spirit was with her anyway. It would be impossible not to feel the essence of Sophia De Rais in this place, where the legacy of her mother’s short and tragic life lived on. Through the broken man her papa had become, and through Coco’s own image; a constant reminder to Henri De Rais of what he had lost.
No, this presence had nothing to do with her mother. At times, it felt masculine, and at others, she could sense that it was profoundly feminine. Perhaps it was more than a single entity, which might explain the strength of it, so vivid that sometimes, as she lay in her bed, she could hardly bear to breathe or move her limbs as something she didn’t understand, and could never describe, brought a great fear to descend upon her. And yet, there were also times, like tonight, when she welcomed the feeling, longing to prove that it was more than just her imagination. If only she could touch, taste or smell this thing that moved around her, breathing through her, close and almost tangible, yet still, so far from her physical and emotional grasp. An inexplicable thing that Coco, with her fierce secrecy, let harbour there, with her in whatever space she happened to fill, and at any given time.
As the intensity of her anger fell away, she moved on, heartbeat going down. Warm sweat turned cold on her skin as she reached a rusty gate that led down a stairway cut from the natural stone, and into a disused cellar. Not just the decrepit, slightly dangerous place that her papa had forbidden her to enter; this cellar was the gateway to something else. She was sure of it, her dreams were telling her so, growing less abstract over these last few months of school vacation, until she had all but convinced herself that whatever the presence was, it must certainly reside here. It was real, it was beckoning to her, and now, she needed to prove it.
Pausing to look all around before pulling back the gate and carefully descending, Coco walked towards the pitch black interior, the air, cold and heavy. She was not afraid. Eighteen and brazen with it, she was not only a striking sight to behold, she was tough too. The epitome of health and vitality, her body, as usual, sheathed in layers of dark silk. And even if she were to feel the fear, Coco would never own up to the fact. Grown from a tomboy child, to touch her body, was to touch solid, lithe muscle, the result of endless summers here, with only her papa for a playmate, filled with physical activities like playing football and tennis and golf and wrestling matches that Henri wouldn’t always let her win.
Tilting the flashlight high to shine in front of her now as she minded her footing on the steep steps, Coco descended into the darkness that moved around and behind her, the halo of light extending from her raised arm to frame her affecting features in soft sepia. When she reached the bottom, she set the flashlight on the floor, and tying her long black hair into a knot at the nape of her neck, adjusted her eyes to see in front of her; to identify this exact scene as it had appeared in her dreams; to put an end to the hide and seek games of a recurring image. That black, hooded bird, the trickster, ensnaring her curiosity with the same bewitching tease, and as tangible as the stagnant air of this cellar that made her breathing shallow and her heart beat speed up again.
Coco had also come here this evening to view the crypt of her ancestors, and in so doing, to shame her stubborn papa in his relentless lie that no such thing existed. That it was just an old wine store, long ago spoiled, nothing of interest, and not very safe. ‘You could get hurt. Stay out of there. I insist upon it.’ And of course, the more he forbade her, the more urgent her need to defy him became.
Once, she would have believed Henri of anything he would tell her; unconditionally. But on this, and other things, Coco was no longer sure. Her papa had lied to her about the cellar. He was changing in her eyes; as she was surely changing in his.
Inside the château, amid sumptuous though somewhat decaying antique splendour, Henri De Rais sat by an open fireplace, engrossed in the pages of a small, dense volume on his lap, an ancient French Grimoire, bound in calf-leather and gold-leaf. Coco’s father was a beautiful man, far more youthful looking than his forty-three years. And yet, to look into his dark eyes was to see the wisdom of a very old soul, and heartache so profound that the beholder might shudder with sadness. With unruly hair that fell across his veritable, serious expression, he carried on reading now, his attentive eye drawn to an incantation…
And thrice I hear thee, dark-winged harvester
Eater of souls, with thine hollow caw of malaise
And so caught up between the words, his brow furrowed, that even as his pretty sister-in-law, Anna, entered the room carrying a tray laden with coffee and biscuits, Henri did not tear his gaze away from the page before him.
‘To keep you going until dinner,’ she told him quietly, and with such tenderness, setting the tray down carefully beside him, ‘It is cold in here, Henri, you’ve let the fire go down.’
With a slight smile, his dark eyes swept momentarily in her direction, and sad for the pain of it, her heart lifted to a flutter despite herself, beating faster as it always did in his presence. Her hope was fleeting, as usual, for Anna knew from deep down in her bones that despite the gratitude for the help she had given to him since the death of his wife, her older and only sister, Sophia, Henri’s deep set, soft brown eyes would never really see her in the way that she willed him to. ‘I hadn’t noticed. And where is Coco?’ he asked, his gaze already returned to the open page of his book, ‘Shouldn’t she be packing now?’
Anna teased at the smouldering cinders with a long brass poker from the hearth before stepping back to straighten her rose silk blouse and tuck her short blonde hair neatly behind her ears. His sadness tormented her, the broken heart that he had so silently endured for all these years, never healing. This day was like every other, and it was all she could do to restrain herself from rushing to his side and flinging her arms around him.
‘She is in the garden, Henri, and it is done already, the packing. I helped her myself.’
As she hovered there, Henri paid scant attention as she watched him pour his coffee. Even that simple action filled her with compassion for him. Such a man should never be alone, should never have to eat, to drink, to sleep alone. And yet, he could never have it any other way. ‘Will you fetch her, Anna?’ he asked her quietly, ‘I would like to spend the evening with my daughter before she returns to school.’
For a moment, Anna brimmed to say something, a practiced, intimate declaration that she had longed to share with him for quite some time. But the moment passed, as her confidence did, and instead, she merely nodded her head and left the room, her leather pumps making no sound on the flagstoned floor as she went.
Below in the cellar, Coco was now covered in dust as she dragged heavy, filthy crates of old, spoiled wine to the side and overcome with excitement, tugged at the latch of a small door she uncovered. A rush of adrenalin was fizzling beneath her skin; she had been right all along, or rather, the messenger in her dreams had been.
There was a crypt here, a burial chamber, and leading to it, the crypt door now gave way to her persistent kicking at it. She crawled inside the small hollowed-out cavity, awkwardly moving more debris out of her way until she found what she was looking for, her flashlight shining on a coffin-sized concrete slab set into the floor.
Coco knelt down and leaned in closer, and using her sleeve to wipe thick grime from a brass plate that was set into the centre of the slab, she read the inscription with a breathless whisper:
Lonan De Rais, 1653 – 1743
While here entombed beneath his namesake, the dark winged harvester forever is bound, a lineage ad libitum, the dark days endeth
Intrigued and fired up in equal measures, she touched the cold metal, feeling each letter until the plate moved slightly and she dug her fingers underneath it. Using the torch to hammer away at it until the plate finally dislodged, Coco pulled it away to reveal a padlocked metal box set into the ground beneath it. Her breath quickened; she was reliving this moment for sure. Even the box seemed recognizable from her dreams. Grasping it tightly in the crook of her arm, she shuffled her body backwards and out of the claustrophobic chamber, fumbling around on the gravelled, dirt floor until she located a loose stone to break the small, rusty corroded lock. Striking it over and over until the box crumpled beneath the blows, and the lid fell open, she could feel the hairs on the back of her neck stand up; something was inside it. Tucking the flashlight under her chin again, she carefully lifted a lumpy wad of folded fabric from the box, and Coco could hardly contain her excitement at the sight of what unfurled in her hands. Gently shaking it out into what looked like a very old blanket or shawl, she delicately held each top corner with her arms outstretched and marvelled at the images that she could just about make out, despite the dim light. So engrossed in her find, she did not see the black bird feathers that fell from the folds of the fabric as she shook it gently, nor did she notice them floating in slow motion to the dirt floor beneath her feet…
In that same, instantaneous moment, Henri, still seated in his study, suddenly sat forward, the grimoire falling to the floor, his dark eyes widening at first to then crease up, almost shut, as if he had just been engulfed by horrendous pain. Beads of sweat formed on his furrowed brow, his mouth opened wide as if to shout out a warning, though no sound escaped him. An image flashed before his eyes, a flickering profile of a man he had never met, yet had surely known; eyes, as black as Henri’s own, seared into his soul, burned into his soul as his mirror image smiled back at him. It was a wicked smile, filled with the promise of dread, and Henri began to shake, his body overtaken by an uncontrollable tremor that hurt from the inside out, and the coffee cup fell from his hand, the fine porcelain shattering into pieces at his feet…
Extract from Arkyne, Story of a Vampire Caroline Farrell (c) 2016