Death and the maiden.

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

-Jean Paul Richter

"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 only child of her father's house, and they named her Ruza. All new parents think their child is the most beautiful in the world, but in Ruza's case they happened to be right. This lovely newborn so enchanted the good spirits of the city (for even in those days Prague was as much a haven for creatures supernatural as natural) that on her birthday they made a pilgrimage to her cradle and gave their blessings.

Now these were the old times, when spirits were more powerful than mortals, and they brought profound gifts: wit, grace, virtue, song, joy, and the promise that her beauty would never fade. Ruza was meant for a charmed life. But even the good spirits could not foresee everything in Ruza's future.

Years passed. The city grew and so did the girl. She became a young woman, with all the graces the spirits could give her. Her parents had good fortune and became as rich as the city around them. 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, though the girl did not perceive it. The nighttime visitor was a strzyga--the discarded extra spirit of a woman born with two souls. With no body of its own, it preyed on mortal vitality. It, too, had hovered over the cradle of baby Ruza on her birthday, a bitter and resentful outcast, and ever since it had nursed a loathsome craving for her sweet life, though the blessings of the good spirits had warded it off for a time.

As sleep crept over Ruza the dark shape slid across the walls and over the floor and finally fell onto the sleeping girl, who did not wake at its cold but subtle touch, nor did she wake when the wicked spirit bit her on the tip of the finger. The next day neither her frantic parents nor the doctors they summoned could imagine how a girl in the fullest bloom of life could lose so much blood from such a tiny wound...

She was not buried in the Christian cemetery. Though her parents said she had pricked her finger on flax and been poisoned, neighbors knew that such a strange death had the mark of a curse, so they laid her to rest in the shunned pagan cemetery outside the city, reserved for those believed to be the victims of dark spirits and who might become such spirits themselves. But her father was able to persuade them not to mangle her poor body with the usual precautionary wards: no silver nail driven through her skull, and no paving stone forced into her mouth, no leather thongs tying her hands together, no severing of her feet or of her head or wooden stake driven through her chest or stomach. These things they did not do, though all 13 other inhabitants of that ill-omened resting place had seen a few such treatment visited on them before burial. As always, Ruza was special.

Years went by. The city grew more. A new bridge was built, and many villages became one, and so did many people. Ruza's parents became old and died and were buried far away from their daughter. Time changed more: A certain priest in the city dared defy the Pope and was burned for his defiance, so his disciples, defiant in return, cast the Papal loyalists from the windows of the town hall and declared their independence. War came: The new queen regent sent an army wrest the city away from the heretics through the long, bloody art of the siege. 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. That much, at least, did not change.

The men sent to make war on Prague were soldiers of fortune, hastily rallied with the promise of royal gold. The commanders ordered them not to loot the nearby villages, but their sense of duty went only so far. One night, an Austrian soldier snuck away from the encampment, armed with a spade and ill intentions. He'd heard of a boneyard long neglected by the locals, where surely some poor soul had been buried with certain trinkets they'd no longer require. The needs of the living (particularly himself) took precedent over those of the dead, he reasoned, and surely the commanders wouldn't care about such an out-of-the-way place where none of the residents were in a position to miss anything anyway.

A nest of thorny brambles surrounded the graveyard, planted not to deter grave robbers from coming in but, in fact, to discourage the graveyard's tenants from coming out--but the Austrian did not know this. He had to cut his way through with a knife. A dark, unmoving figure rose up by the fence gate, but the Austrian realized it was only a statue, standing eternal guard at its post. There were others: men with swords, men with lanterns, hunting hounds standing at the ready and horses rearing on their hind legs surrounded the little gate. In the dark he could almost fancy that they were not stone at all but living men and beasts frozen by some enchantment. Had he known that the local set them there in the belief that they'd serve as sentries against an incursion from the graves themselves, would he have turned away? Perhaps...

He was disappointed to find only a handful of pauper's graves inside. Why so few? The air grew colder. 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 about the cursed gravedigger who gambled with the spirits of the dead and lost, and about the rich man burned to death with his bags of gold and who even now tries to escape the city with his riches in tow...but he shook these thoughts away. All nonsense, of course.

One grave was different from the others. Whoever was buried here must have been rich indeed. Carved on the tomb was the likeness of a girl napping on a cushion, crafted in such intimate detail that it almost seemed to draw breath, as if the figure were 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.

Dark work, moiling in the depths of a grave, turning over shovels of dirt to unhouse that which was meant to lie eternally. The ever-watching eyes of the stone sentinels saw all his grisly toil. Once uncovered he threw his arms around the coffin as if it were a lover, and he pulled it free. Trembling with excitement he cracked open the lid, holding a rag to his face and preparing for the sight (and smell) of what he was sure to find inside. The moon's shining eye peered over his shoulder as the ancient seals gave away, and when the lid came off he gasped: The girl in the coffin was alive!

She appeared so, 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 had not wakened her. The Austrian fell down, stunned. This was impossible: this grave must be a hundred years old. Wasn't it?

He dared lean in close to the buried girl. Was she really alive? Was she breathing? He put his face next to hers. The warmth of his living breath tickled the sweet rosebud of her mouth. Seized by a horrible impulse he did not understand, the Austrian kissed the girl's unmoving lips; she was as cold as the stones she lay on. She had to be dead, there was no question about it. How she'd escaped the ravages of decay he could not imagine, but 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.

But the ring wouldn't come off. He twisted and tugged as hard as he could but it refused to slip off the dead finger. Trying not to think about the uncanny pliability of her limbs he took the dead girl's 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. Turning his head one inch at a time, the soldier felt a sliver of ice touch his heart:

The dead girl was sitting up.

She was sitting in her coffin, and her eyes were open. They were glassy and unfocused, like the eyes of every dead person he'd ever seen, but they were open, and they were looking straight at him.

The soldier dropped the dead girl's hand.

He tried to turn away from the horror but he found that a pair of cold arms wrapped around him trapping him. He was face-to-face with the girl from the grave, close enough to fully admire her fair complexion and rosy lips. She was not just awake and sitting but holding the Austrian in her arms and, in fact, did not seem to want to let him go. If anything, she appeared for all the world to be leaning in for another kiss...

The soldier, perhaps, went mad in that moment. Certainly there is always a kind of madness in the heat of the moment, but this was a cold act. 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 in his hands, he wondered if this meant he was bound for Hell, and then he wondered if perhaps he wasn't there already.

There was no foulness about her body but there was something disquieting about the iciness of her flesh, and eventually 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 and exerting oneself over a silent but all-licensing lover, one who voiced neither complaint nor encouragement but in 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. Her exposed breasts jiggled with the force of his awkward thrusting, the nipples appearing strangely dark and engorged against the naked, pale flesh. He became distracted for a moment with the sight of her mouth, tiny pink rosebud that it was, and imagining the things a woman could do with such a mouth were she alive...

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 had begun to rain, but the water from the sky did not feel clean. If anything it polluted him more.

He looked at the dead girl and received a new shock: She lay stark-still in her coffin again, with her eyes once more closed, looking for all the world as if she'd never moved at all. The Austrian felt sick. 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 thorns clawed his arms and legs as he forced his way out.

The months that followed were marked by fighting and burning and the shedding of blood in Prague as the mercenary interlopers tried to push their way through the city walls and the civil defenders girded to expel them. Those within eventually won out, repelling the invaders and their Papal ways, though this was by no means the end of bloodshed in Prague over this matter. The Austrian (who did not live long after his night in the graveyard, though he did not 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. For a while it was a secret only for the earth to know but finally, on 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, a figure fighting to break free, tearing itself from the womb of the earth, a woman 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 could be invoked, or where anyone displayed certain icons and images anymore. 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? Who could not feel a tremendous swelling of pity (beneath the horror) at the sight of such a hapless, helpless figure, 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 did not speak, and seemed barely aware of them at all. The entirety of her attention was fixed on what she carried in her arms.

To wake the dead is no small task, even in Prague. To raise anyone out of a sound grave takes a peculiar summons. But such was the impetus Ruza felt when she awoke in her coffin to 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, twins as newly born as the coming day, the legacy of blasphemous acts and unholy nights and spirits and ghosts and madness. The children of the grave.

They were strange little things: pale and smooth with dark eyes, and though they were clearly hungry they did not wail or squall, as babies only a few hours old should. They clung to their mother's breasts, never raising their heads but constantly drawing precious vitality to satisfy their single-minded, newborn hunger.

But it was not milk they were drinking...


Note: If you liked this story, read its sister story, "The Vampire of Venice":

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