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Introduction:

Death and the maiden.
"The end of the enchantment was come and the Princess awoke, and she said: 'Is it you, my Prince? You have waited a long while...'"

-Charles Perrault, "The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood"

***

She was born on the banks of the Vltava, in the days when there were no bridges, in the shadow of old Castle Prague. She was the first child of her father's house, and they called her Ruza.

This lovely newborn so enchanted the good spirits of the city (Prague has always been a haven for invisible creatures) that they made a pilgrimage to her cradle with gifts: wit, grace, virtue, joy, and the promise that her beauty would never fade. Ruza was meant for a charmed life.

But even the good spirits couldn’t foresee everything in Ruza's future.

Years passed. The city grew and so did the girl. She became a young woman with all the spirit‘s graces, her 20th birthday come and gone. Her family became as rich as the city. But, ineffably, times changed, and the city perhaps grew darker. One night, as Ruza was spinning at her distaff, something strange happened. In a corner of the room there was an extra shadow, cast by no person at all. But the girl never noticed it.

It was a strzyga--the discarded extra spirit of a woman born with two souls. With no body of its own, it preyed on the living. It, too, had hovered over baby Ruza’s cradle on her birthday, and ever since it had nursed a loathsome craving for her life. The blessings of the good spirits warded it off for a while, but it was a patient creature.

Now, as sleep came over Ruza, the dark shape slid over the floor, closer and closer She didn’t even wake when the wicked spirit bit her on the tip of the finger and began to feed. The next day, neither her frantic parents nor the doctors could imagine how a girl in the fullest bloom of life could lose so much blood from such a tiny wound…

Her parents said she pricked her finger on flax died of poisoning, but neighbors knew that such a strange death had the mark of a curse. So rather than take her to the Christian cemetery, they laid her to rest in the shunned pagan boneyard outside the city, reserved for the victims of witchcraft and evil spirits, who might become such spirits themselves.

But her father was able to persuade them not to mangle her with the usual precautions: no silver nail in the skull, no paving stone forced into her mouth, no leather thongs tying her hands together, and no severing her feet or head and driving a wooden stake through her chest or stomach. Ruza was the only body in the shunned cemetery not to have these rituals performed on her. As always, she was special.

***

Years passed. The city built a new bridge, and many villages became one. Ruza's parents died and were buried far away from their daughter.

Times changed more: A certain priest defied the Pope and died, burning, at the stake. His disciples, defiant in return, cast the Papal loyalists from the windows of the town hall and declared their independence. Then war came: The new queen regent sent an army to drive the heretics out of the city.

All this time Ruza lay in her grave, and nowhere in the world was there anyone who still remembered the beautiful spinning girl. But the people on the Vlatava did remember to stay away from the shunned cemetery. Some things never change.

The men sent to lay siege to Prague were soldiers of fortune, hastily rallied with royal gold. The commanders ordered them not to loot the nearby villages, but their sense of duty only went so far. One night, an Austrian soldier snuck away from the encampment, armed with a spade and bad intentions. He'd heard of a boneyard long neglected by the locals, where surely some poor soul had been buried with certain trinkets he could help himself to?

A nest of thorny brambles surrounded the graveyard (planted not to deter grave robbers from coming in, but to discourage the graveyard's tenants from coming out, although the Austirna didn’t realize this.) he had to cut his way through with a knife. When he was finally inside, a dark, unmoving figure stood by the fence gate, but the Austrian saw it was only a statue, standing eternal guard at its post.

There were statues: men with swords, men with lanterns, hunting hounds standing and horses rearing on their hind legs. In the dark, he could almost imagine they weren’t stone at all, but living men and beasts frozen by some enchantment.

He was disappointed to find only a handful of graves inside. The air grew colder, and the Austrian imagined he heard things moving in the shadows. He remembered the stories he'd heard about the old, haunted city on the Vlatava: About the Headless Templar who rides by night, and the cursed gravedigger who gambled with the spirits of the dead and lost, and the rich man who burned to death with his bags of gold and even now tries to escape the city with his riches in tow...

But he shook these thoughts away. All nonsense, of course. He wasn’t afraid of the dead. It’s the living you had to watch out for.

One grave was different from the others. Carved on the tomb was the likeness of a sleeping girl, crafted in such detail that it almost looked like sleeping flesh rather than dead stone. Someone spent a lot of money on this monument, and that boded well for what he might find beneath it. The Austrian planted his spade in the ground.

It was dark work, moiling in the depths of a grave, turning over shovels of dirt to unhouse something meant to lie eternally. Once uncovered, he threw his arms around the coffin like a lover and pulled it free. He held a rag to his face and prepared for the sight (and smell) of the body inside as he cracked the lid open. The moon's shining eye peered over his shoulder, and when the lid came off he gasped: The girl in the coffin was alive!

She looked alive, anyway. Her hair was soft gold, and her cheeks were carnations, and her lips coral, and her marble skin was whole and uncorrupted. It seemed she was asleep, and that even this invasion of her resting place hadn’t woken her. The Austrian fell down, stunned. This was impossible: this grave must be a hundred years old. But here she was, as good as the day she died.

He put his face next to hers. Was she breathing? The warmth of his living breath tickled the sweet rosebud of her mouth. He found himself staring at that mouth, so tender and inviting. He couldn’t look away. Seized by a horrible impulse he didn’t understand, the Austrian kissed the buried girl's unmoving lips…

She was as cold as the stones she lay on. She had to be dead. How she'd escaped decay so long he couldn‘t imagine, but it didn’t matter. There was gold on her finger and around her neck, and he was eager to be done with this ghoul's work. He could wonder about mysteries another time.

The ring wouldn't come off. He twisted and tugged as hard as he could, but it wouldn‘t slip from the girl‘s dead finger. Trying not to think about the uncanny pliability of her limbs, he took her wrist in one hand and pulled as hard as he could. So invested was he in these efforts that it was some time before he detected the telltale rustling of the burial shroud…

The dead girl was sitting up.

She sat up in her coffin with her eyes open. They were glassy and unfocused, like the eyes of every dead person the soldier had ever seen, but they were open. And they were looking straight at him. He dropped her hand.

Suddenly, the Austrian found that a pair of cold arms wrapped around him, trapping him in the grave. Now he was face-to-face with the dead girl. She appeared for all the world to be leaning in for another kiss...

The soldier, perhaps, went mad then. Certainly there is always a kind of madness in the heat of the moment. There, in the bottom of an open grave, in the velvet bed of a coffin, acts of ghastly passion were enacted.

The girl, after all, was beautiful in a way far beyond the scope of ordinary women, and a hundred years in the ground had done nothing to mar her porcelain perfection. As the Austrian pulled her dress down and tested the feeling of her small, unsucked breasts, he wondered if this meant he was bound for Hell. And then he wondered if he wasn't there already.

There was no foulness about her body, but there was something disquieting about the iciness of her flesh, and soon it drove him to stop kissing her. She was a rather passive paramour, never speaking and only ever moving to wrap herself around him like a strangling vine while he lay on top. He was anxious and confused and afraid, but the weakness of men was dire in him, and his body responded to the nearness of hers in the usual way.

Dark work, moiling in the depths of the grave, grunting and sweating over a silent but all-licensing lover, one who voiced neither complaint nor encouragement but whose passivity contained, perhaps, a shadow of approval.

The Austrian tried not to think about the moist scent of grave dirt all around him as he pushed against the foot of the casket with the flats of his boots for leverage and held onto the lid with both hands. The girl’s exposed breasts jiggled with the force of his awkward thrusting, the nipples appearing strangely dark and engorged against her white flesh. He became distracted looking at her mouth, tiny pink rosebud that it was, and imagining the things a living woman could do with such a mouth...

That triggered a sensation deep in his loins, and he quivered and spasmed in a moment of helpless, embarrassed ejaculation, thrashing and then releasing and then staying very still as the reality of what he'd done came crashing in on him. He remembered what the Frenchmen in the camp told him about their word for the finish: It meant "little death."

And then, distinctly, the corpse pursed her lips in a gesture he could not fail to recognize: She had blown him a kiss.

The Austrian rolled out of the coffin. His hands were smeared with mud and he tried, impotently, to wipe them. It started to rain, but the water didn’t feel clean. If anything, it polluted him more.

He considered running away, but felt a desire to cover up the evidence of his acts. In haste he shut the coffin, maneuvered it back into place, and started pushing the wet earth into the vacant hole. When it was done, the grave plot looked obviously marred, but maybe no one would notice. With luck, no one would ever come to this forsaken place again anyway.

He fled, and the thorn bushes clawed his arms and legs as he forced his way out.

***

For months there was fighting and burning and bleeding in Prague as the mercenary interlopers tried to push their way through the city walls. But Prague eventually won out, repelling the Papal invaders (though this was by no means the end of war in the city).

The Austrian (who did not live long after his night in the graveyard, though he didn’t die in the warring either) was right to believe that no one would notice his despoiling of Ruza's grave. There were more important matters. But even though there was no one around to see it, something HAD changed in the cursed cemetery.

For a while it was a secret only the earth knew. But finally, one particular night, the time came. There was a sound like a falling tree and a great breaking and crumbling of earth and then, under the blank, horrified stares of the sentry statues, the shape of a woman slithered out of the ground, tearing herself from the womb of the earth, reborn but not alive. Once liberated she made a path toward the city, dragging a winding sheet behind her and leaving tracks of raw earth.

The city Ruza came to was quite different from the one she had lived in: still a city of steeples and towers and crooked alleys and beautiful arches, but no longer a city where certain prayers were said, or where certain saints were invoked, or where anyone displayed certain icons and images. It was now a city where a thing from the grave found no true obstacle for entry.

What poor madwoman did those people take her for when they found her wandering the streets that night, lost and apparently out of her wits? One family took her under their roof and promised to help her (never realizing the doom they were inviting inside). They tried to feed the poor lost girl, but she refused any offers. She didn’t speak, and seemed barely aware of them at all. She only ever looked at what she carried in her arms.

To wake the dead is no small task, even in Prague. It takes a peculiar summons. But such was the impetus Ruza felt when she woke up in her coffin after the touch of a tiny mouth drawing at her naked breast. So she arrived in the city, fresh from the grave, carrying with her not one but two babes in arms, newborn twins, the legacy of blasphemous acts and an unholy night. The children of the grave.

They were strange little things: pale, with dark eyes. They were clearly hungry, but they didn’t cry like babies a few hours old should. They clung to their mother's breasts, never raising their heads, only satisfying their dark newborn cravings with furtive and intense suckling…

But it was not milk they were drinking.

***

"Death gives us sleep, eternal youth, and immortality."

-Jean Paul Richter

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