My husband’s name was Ferenc. I say this first of all, because the place of a woman is to live tethered to a man, determined by his name and his bloodline. I belonged to my father, and when he found a man rich enough, I belonged to Ferenc Nádasdy.
Let it not be said that I am a dilettante. I work. This was not something I considered in my early days, but I find now that I enjoy it. I work as a night auditor for a cheap motel, checking over their books. Through the years, however, I have done many things. Time has been gracious, and my most gracious time has always been night.
Ferenc’s wedding gift to me was his castle, built below the Carpathian Mountains. At night, I sat on the roof of the highest tower with my atlas and my charts, and I looked at the stars.
I was beautiful, by both nature and artifice, and Ferenc admired me. He was no mean specimen himself—the revered warrior, the black hero—bound to defend our land against the Ottomans. War was his first mistress and my only jealousy. He paid court to her, returning to me on occasion. I feared that his repeated absence would underscore the manner in which time alters one’s face. I feared that without my charms, he would cease to love me.
It is slanderous to say that my mother was a witch, taken with chalked circles and burning sage. But yes, I learned the trick from her. The power of youth is panacea for so many things and I selected only the most beautiful girls. At first, I simply anointed my brow, and when this proved inadequate, I bled them in a copper tub, languishing in the slaughter. In their blood, I bathed my face and hands, and when that ceased to hold ravages of time at bay, I drank it.
I keep count of my numerous vocations, smiling to recall my days in the projection booth. The film rustled and whirred on its reels. The celluloid smelled like vinegar and wax. I have waited tables, danced in burlesque halls, managed filling stations and convenience stores, and in the small hours, undisturbed by watchers, I like to cut up girls and splash around in their blood. It is a half-life, a dark-life. It is my life. I have owned many things, but none so joyously or so completely as this.
The change was gradual. Every earthly sensation became louder, fiercer, brighter. I found the daylight tiring. When Ferenc died, an inevitable result of his long contest with the Ottomans, my reason to pursue perfect youth died with him. Yet, the hunger persisted. I lost my taste for any sustenance but blood.
It is only natural that someone should eventually object. My death toll was said to be 600 strong by then. My countenance was lovely. At the behest of the ruling king (in my debt to an unpayable degree) a sham court decreed that I should be put to the death. In a way, the prospect pleased me. I was curious to discover what would come of their efforts, now that I no longer bled, no longer felt pain. Now that my heart no longer beat. But the reluctant executioners feared the wrath of my family, and more, they feared my devilish power. I lived on because none could bring themselves to touch me.
In consternation, they bricked my door and left me in my tower. It made no matter. I slept each day until sunset, and at night, the stars burned cold in a colder sky. Creeping down the pitted stone, I came and went with the grace of a spider. In the forests and the outlying farms, I hunted girls and drank their blood from a tin cup. With a tin cup and an iron will, one can live forever.
The girl pushes into the lobby, bell jangling above her. She is young, of course. A lithe, coltish thing, unaware of her own tremulous beauty. Perhaps she is waiting for someone. She stands with the mirror behind her, peering at me through meticulously tousled hair. Trying not to look as though she is looking.
I smile with eyes downcast as she approaches the counter. There is a glass vase of orange blossoms at my elbow, their pallor and fragrance playing neatly against my bright mouth and sooty lashes.
She is such a pretty thing, awkward as a gazelle, smacking her chewing gum. The reek comes at me in sweet, synthetic waves. “I have to know your secret,” she says in a high, gushing voice.
I look up, pen in hand, and smile expectantly.
“Your skin,” she says. “My God, I mean, it’s perfect.”
I wave her away with a guileless hand. “Oh, my regimen is simple. Almost disappointingly so, I’m afraid.”
“Is it alpha-hydroxy?” She pauses then, holding up a ringed hand. “No, wait, I bet can guess.”
Her blood is lush and hot. I can smell it, beating close below the surface, and I have, for many years, favored the same pearl-handled razor.
“Tell me, then,” I say, my smile calibrated to bring her close. “Tell me my secret.”