Rats, more than anything. They remind me of rats. Skulking through the night, their noses twitching, their teeth sharp and yellow...
I was hoping for better when I started this ... this 'project.' Otherwise I would never have bothered. I knew it would be difficult, but even so: just how difficult was a surprise. It's obvious in hindsight: I was expecting some kind of pride, I thought they would hide out of caution, not shame. But only the mad ones are proud, and their pride makes them more dangerous than the others.
The first one I found was not mad. That disappointment still poisons my dreams. I had lain in wait every night for a month, I had taken every possible precaution to make sure that he would see me neither as prey nor as threat. And then: he saw me, looked away, and was gone. The reward for seven years and seven months and seven days of tireless work and sleepless nights: a pair of downcast eyes that vanish into the twilight. I did not know then that I would not see another for a year, but even if I had, I would not have given up. The search had already cost me too much. But perhaps I should explain things in order:
I had always had an interest in the legend. It spoke somehow to the dark places in me, as it does to all of us, I imagine. But it only became what my wife (before she left me) called 'my obsession' after the so-called entertainment industry got a hold of it, ripped out its guts, coated it in sugar, and sold it at great profit to the maudlin pink-ribboned clean-shaven semi-nubile high-school girls of America, across the aisle from My Little Pony and propped up from both sides by the crotch-wetting trash churned out by menopausal hacks under the name of young-adult fiction. It seemed to me that something true was being betrayed, and I wanted to find the literal truth behind the legend, to fight against that betrayal.
To start with, I collected books and did my research in my spare time. But after a few months it became clear that I would need to travel and to dedicate more time to the search than I had. So I stopped buying anything but food and books, saving my money for later and for my freedom. After the first year I was alone, which meant fewer distractions. And after a little over five years I had enough saved up to keep me for the next three, if I sold my house and lived carefully.
After two more years of travel and careful sifting through legends and lies in archives great and small in the forgotten corners of the darker valleys of Central Europe I thought I knew enough to find the hidden signs in the newspaper stories and local gossip and bring about a meeting in safety. But it still took me six long months to find that one place where I knew he must pass. And then he simply turned away. And never came that way again.
The next time I was less considerate, and laid a kind of trap. Nothing that she could not have got out of if she was determined, but there were thick brambles on two sides, a lighted road on another, and the only safe way out was past me. I was worried that she might choose to try to run past me, or through me, or attack me somehow, but she lowered her eyes as the first one had done, her shoulders hunched together to make herself small, and she started to cry. I felt almost as ashamed as she looked. And that was my greatest stroke of luck: I apologised to her hesitantly in her own language, and she believed my shame and accepted me, and spoke to me.
Through her I met others. They meet each other seldom, but at times the loneliness overcomes their shame and they seek out the dark places where they can hide together and talk. I learned to make myself small as they do and to speak hesitantly with my eyes to the ground. They have better night vision and a better sense of smell than we do, and they could smell that I was not one of them, but they believed her when she said that I was not there to judge them, and tolerated me as long as I did not look them in the face.
And from them I learned to fear the mad ones.
In some ways it is surprising that not more of them are insane. To be reduced to a skulking starving thing, running from the light, dressed in rags, no home and no money, sleeping in whatever stinking hole you can find where neither man nor sun will find you, and desperately sucking on the blood of wild animals – because that too is one of the lies, that they only feed on us – you would think it enough to drive anyone insane who remembers what it was like to be truly human. And how much more attractive it must be to see yourself as a Lord of the night, immortal and carefree, wielding the power of life and death over poor vulnerable sleeping humanity. Some of the insane ones must have talked before dying, and that will be where the legends came from. I met one of the mad ones once, his threadbare 'cape' (a stinking old blanket) blowing in the wind, as he regaled the others with his impossible tales of seduction and escape, and the rich taste of human blood. The others kept silent, and I wondered why he did not see through me and attack, but I think being downwind must have saved me: he could not smell my difference.
The others hate the mad ones, and fear them. They attack humans when they can, which may bring down vengeance on the others, and they are the ones that spread the infection, of course. But I think they are envied as well as feared, and that is why they are not killed more often.
And they can be killed, and it is easier than the legend will have it: a stake through the heart will do it, yes, or cutting off their head. Or you can just shoot them or stab them, or strangle them, or club them to death, or throw them off a cliff, like anyone else. They do not age, and they are immune to disease, but anything else that will kill you will kill them. And you might think that it would be a mercy, since they know what they are. But they fear death more than anything, because life is all they have left.
They are pathetic creatures, and as I say, they remind me of rats more than anything else. Had I known then what I know now, I would have laughed at their legend and left them to their shame, and I would still be back home, with a car in the garage and my wife in my bed. But they aren't the worst of company when you are alone in the night and need someone gentle to talk to. And lately I find that I have learned to love the night more than the day: there is more to see in the starlit woods than I could ever have imagined, and the forest is full of the smells and the sounds of the creatures it gives life to. Since my money ran out I have been sleeping in a fine cool cave by day and walking through the woods by night. I expect I'll find work and earn some money to go home soon, but for now the night air is all I need.