August 17th 1998
The report of gunfire echoes in the valleys near the estate, smoke billows from Krivaca to the south and flames light the plumes as they drift into the night. A clear night, with the moon yet to rise. A night like this should be a good one: all the children would be in their beds in the valley below, the night is warm and the harvest soon. But, no, for weeks, months, the fighting has spread. The Serbs have gotten tired of spending their short, pitiful lives with their neighbors, for whom they have never had great regard, and now they would expel all the undesirables from the country. Pah.
Idiot youths whose necks would have been wrung by their mothers, had they any sense at all, have started moving from village to village, finding every Bosniak or Albanci or Muslimani they can grab and unleashing the horrors of man upon them. The screams of women twenty miles away have come up the mountain, even during the day. One can almost not sleep. Every velvet drape upon the cold stone walls of the villa cannot mask what the finest tuned ears can hear. And now, tonight the fighting has reached the foothills around the mountain. For five hundred years this villa has stood upon this great mount, overlooking fields and villages. Wars have come and gone, German artillery has failed to shake a shingle from the Italian roof, but this time the fighting is personal. This time it is close.
Would Stefan stay in this night? The gunfire has not stopped getting closer. When the first shot rang across the mountains from Golubac, or perhaps Baric, it seemed random. Unrelated to the news on the wireless. But with each passing night, the rat-tat-tat came closer. For the past two clear nights, when no moon lights the mountain's south-side, he has waited for it to go away. Stayed and fumed in his home, his hunger growing. The heat does not usually affect him, on the hottest summer night he would wait for full darkness with a roaring fire, drinking a glass of red wine before dining. But now his skin is clammy with sweat as he sits in his comfortable leather chair, daring not even to light the electric lamp he keeps in the den. The hunger has grown.
For two weeks he has not gone out, preferring by habit only to prowl the night when the moon is darkest, when it rises with the hateful sun. A few young women and men, out late on a dark night, hearing nothing more than the breath of wind upon their backs. In the morning they awake, barely conscious, sorely feeling the nick in their arm. A slowly building crescendo for two weeks, until the last night, when the moon sets with the sun, a hunt. First a meeting in the early evening, a night of dining, romancing and when the last light in the village winks out in the village, the glint of a toothy grin. A chase, through wood and field, through town and farm, every door shut and secure this night. The fear, the sweat, the bravado and cowardice, the last drop of sweet life, the last silent scream. Nothing ever seen or heard. A rumor. Ran off to Belgrade, summering with friends, wintering in Italy. Tramp. Wastrel. The terror that shivers through the valley. No, Stefan could not stay in this night.
This was by no means the first time Stefan had hunted in wartime. Fifty and Seventy years ago, such hunts were commonplace, he had even made a point of draining the life out of those bastard Germans, but this was civil war. Those idiot boys might as well have been village children as marauding jackals. They had brought their own terror to the valley below. He dressed himself in tight blacks and an old black mask from his decade in Paris. Silent as a drifting snowflake he left the estate, southward on the dark slopes of his mountain to the hushed valley below. He saw the trails shrouded in darkness but bright to his inhuman eyes and followed an old hunting trail. Taking care to mind the brambles, Stefan raced down the mountain at an almost reckless speed. None of his nominal grace, no fluid movements, no poetic stride. No, his hunger had gripped him and now flung him down to sup. The trail let out onto the road, the dirt had been packed down by generation after generation of farmer and now the occasional truck and every now and again a tank. Reading the track, he saw that a few heavier cars or trucks had come through but none of the conspicuous caterpillar treads marred the road. Skirting the road, he made his way toward the village, few lights blazed this night, none on the minaret of the small mosque.
The nearly invisible figure stooped now, in the grasses outside the first buildings. He smelled the air and listened for the heartbeats of his prey. And he heard...one! Only one?! This village was home to five hundred Muslimani and nearly a hundred Croats, it has been for almost a millennium. He smelled it now, the lingering mixture of sweat and gasoline in the air, the village had evacuated. Only a few dogs and cats remained and one lone human heartbeat. Weak. An old woman. Food. He ran toward the sound, caution thrown to the wind, fear of retribution or recognition erased by hunger and the emptiness of the village. The house stood on the edge of town, in the direction of the estate. He can see a light in the window, a candle flickers beside a bed. He opens the door and audaciously steps inside, he has not been this forceful or impolite in years.
The superstitions about his ilk had always seemed a little outlandish. Cannot enter a house without invitation, cannot be seen in a mirror, cannot cross a river, can only die with a wooden stake through the heart. What silliness, born of ignorance. Why wouldn't we be able to walk into a house? Mirrors cannot show our reflections? Ha, if only they did not. What wouldn't they show; everything we are holding or does it show an empty suit with glass of wine? And who wouldn't die with a wooden stake through the heart? They get the fangs right, but Stefan has been careful to leave no mark or nothing at all. Entering the house though it seemed this old woman was equally credulous. She was sitting up in a bed at the far end of the one room. On her bedside table a gun sits gleaming in the candlelight. Otherwise a spare little cottage, a stove, cold-chest, cabinets and table on one end and her bed at the other, as far from the door as possible. A small, unlit chimney in between the bed and kitchen.
"Hello, creature of the night," she began, pausing to breathe, "you have finally come to take me then?"
"I suppose I have, old woman" Stefan replied but stopped dead before her, "what has happened here, where has this village gone?"
"You do not listen to the reports. Ha, I suppose you do not hear much on the grapevine so far from the farm. I shall tell you. The Srbi are running everyone out. We have heard of entire villages murdered," another pause. "Some of the women in the village are worried that Krivaca and the surrounding towns will be another Srebrenica. So they convinced the men to evacuate. They have all gone north to Rumania, crossing the Dunav from Sumica."
The entire village! Never in its history. War after war. Armies had passed through this valley, but the villages of his home had remained. His home. The affront of it.
"Tell me, dear woman, what have you to drink here?"
"The far *cough* cabinet, at the top," she indicated with her finger. Stefan retrieved a bottle of Greek grappa and a couple of little glasses from the cabinet and, upon the table in the corner, poured a measure into each. With the grappa, he sat down on the end of the bed.
"Tell me old woman, what other gossip has been traded of late?" he said as he handed the old woman the glass.
Stefan had not had a long conversation in a while and the shock of what had happened had set his hunger aside. He sat beside the old woman as they spoke of the past five decades. Under the covers of the bed the woman sweated in the heat as Stefan sat comfortably, skin cool as night. But in the entire time they sat talking not an ounce of fear wafted from her.
"Oh. I have not had this long a conversation in such an age," she said, "I am exhausted Stefan. I am afraid I must sleep now."
The old man gave a grin, toothsome but warm. "Alright, Baba. Here, I will douse your light and sit here for a time." And he reached over to the table, where sat the light, and pinched the low candle-flame from existence. "Tell me," he said, "have you been waiting long?"
She breathed in, taking her time. "Only the past sixty years, since you took my sister to Belgrade. The old women, they spoke her name not twice after that night. Every night I thought that you might be sitting at the end of my bed, watching *cough* and waiting. Listening to my heartbeat." She paused again, longer, her voice softer, "I did not sleep well until I married and have not since my husband died. I have kept his gun, in case the Srbi reached me first, but I knew you would come." Her voice had almost died to nothing, but her words were clear to Stefan's ears. She said nothing more.
He looked over to the woman, her eyes closed, and he listened and waited. And her breathing slowed and her silent companion watched her fall into sleep. She did not even feel her life ebb away. The old woman was not in the best health, she did not even slake his thirst. He sat a short vigil and drank what was left of her grappa.
Drink, alcohol, always dulled his senses, and so he was surprised when the sound of a pair of trucks interrupted his rumination. Voices soon followed. Serbian troops, thirty of them, come to do violence to the little village of Muslimani. Huns come to burn villages to the ground. Stefan left the little house, shutting the door with care. As he made his way in the grasses between the house and the village proper, he heard shots ring out. He winced when he heard them ricochet from the minaret. Stefan could not be said to have any particular love of mosques or churches or houses of worship in general. Being a fell creature of darkness, the light of faith tended make his skin itch. It was no surprise that the holiest symbol of all would sear his flesh from his bones should he even step into its light. The attack of a house of worship by those who would otherwise flee to one at the sight of a creature such as himself was perverse, bitter irony.
Slipping through the shadows, a whisper in the breeze, Stefan approached the soldiers arrayed for the moment in the square. The floodlights of the trucks shine into the buildings as a few of the soldiers make a cursory search of the village. Their commander sat on a crate, a pile of which was being assembled by the other locusts from the stores left by the absent villagers. Stefan slipped into a house, bright as day to his eyes but black as pitch to the soldiers. The kitchen was in shambles, the house had already been ransacked. As he walked through he noticed a carving fork, the sort used once a year by the farmers here to eat a luxurious dinner of goose or duck. Two tines, sharp and long on a slim metal shaft ending in a straight handle. A malicious smile played about his face as he grabbed the implement.
From the shadows he stalks and falls in step behind a group of patrolling soldiers. One by one they start feeling weaker. Finally the last one, walking point ahead of the others, hears four light thunks behind him. When the soldier turns he sees his squad fallen to the ground. The moment he kneels to check the pulse of one of his squad-mates an almost inaudible breath of cool wind touches his neck and from the corner of his eye he sees little glint of steel. Everything goes black.
Pushing the mesmerized and slightly exsanguinated soldier through the shadows to the square, Stefan almost grunts from the weight of the man and his gear. At the edge of the shadows, he removes the fork and kicks the soldier into the light. Shouts issue. Blood spurts forth onto the lit cobbles. Before they breathe twice half of the remaining soldiers have gathered about the cooling body of their comrade, still bleeding from two holes in his neck. Stefan smells the fear, the heady currents of terror waft on the wind, it is enough to make him feel a little drunk. He watches the soldiers as he makes his way around the square, a few have the presence of mind to look away from the body, but they do not see him slide through the shadows, and into one of the trucks.
The soldiers have started to fan out, in search of their attacker. A shout announces the discovery of the other four soldiers of the squad. The grenade that he lobs back at the trucks goes unnoticed.
Two great wars had gone by but never had Stefan ever heard anything quite as loud as two trucks full of munitions exploding from fifty meters away. Neither, it seems, had most of the soldiers. They had scattered to the shadows themselves, a few had taken out crosses, begun praying. He could feel their faith, he felt his skin itch with its proximity. The scattering of soldiers see nothing but shadows flickering through the village from the flaming debris of the truck. They do not hear the shouts of their comrades above the flames and the ringing in their ears. They miss the last shadow, the cool breath, the colder steel. One is yelling into a radio. A few have fled the village altogether. The officer lies lifeless, struck by exploding truck parts or the debris from the crates full of stolen food. A few soldiers remain in the square as he walks from the village back to his estate. A few have gone mad, shooting randomly into the burning trucks or into the shadows.
By morning a cluster of soldiers would remain, shell-shocked, they would run back to whatever base they had come from with tales to tell and questions to answer. If they survived the questioning they would not sleep at night again, not after seeing a comrade bleeding his life out of two gaping holes in his neck. They would not sleep with a shadow sitting at the end of their beds, watching and waiting. Listening to their heartbeat. Stefan climbed his mountain slowly, he had feasted this night and was tired. The moon would soon rise and the sun not long after. This day he would sleep well, in the darkness of his bedroom. The flames light a plume of smoke as it edges its way into the sky. Gunfire reports echo across the valley.