Nadja saw the Strigoi when she went outside to fetch snow to cool Stanoska’s brow. It was riding her one remaining cow, drumming its heels into the mooing, stumbling animal’s heaving sides and bending low to snap and nuzzle at her straining neck. The full moon shone on the snow, providing more than enough light to make out the revenant’s darkly discolored face, its bloated naked body. She thought it was Stavra the Miller, one of the first to die from the plague, but she wasn’t sure. Stavra had been a thin man, and the Strigoi, like all its kind, was swollen with the blood it had taken from the living. She knew better than to call out for it to leave the cow alone, for that would surely bring it to her doorstep after her. Instead, she quickly turned around and went back inside, not forgetting to scoop some snow into her bucket.
Inside the cottage, she knelt beside Stanoska, where she lay in her blankets by the fire. “My feet are so cold,” said Stanoska in a weak voice, “but my head is burning up. I fear for my child.” Nadja said nothing, just brushed a strand of the girl’s dark hair aside, and rubbed snow gently onto her forehead. This fever would have been bad at any time, and with the baby so close, it was very bad indeed. God and Saint Michael, prayed to Nadja silently, granting that she lives long enough to bring forth a healthy child. Give me a grandson.
She made herself think about more immediate concerns. The monster must be warded off; it would not amuse itself with the cow forever. Once Stanoska was asleep again, Nadja took spoonfuls of her own excrement and Stanoska’s urine from the bucket that served as a chamber pot and mixed the filth in a pestle with ashes from the fire and the charred remnants of seven cloves of garlic. It was not as sure protection as the blood of a disinterred Strigoi but would have to do. Wrapping her shawl around her, she went to the door, unbarred it, and eased it gently open.
She’d been afraid the Strigoi would be waiting for her on the threshold, but no, it was not yet done with the cow. Too exhausted to continue plowing through the snowdrifts, the poor beast had stumbled to her knees, so that she appeared to be praying, the way the animals were said to do at Christmas, which was only a couple of weeks away. Apparently having had its fill of blood, the Strigoi was satisfying other appetites, for it crouched against the cow’s haunches, gnawing idly on her raised tail while thrusting its hips against her rump. Nadja did not realize what it was doing at first, and when she did, she barely suppressed an outraged shout. Ah well, she told herself, better her cow than some village maiden. There was a certain irony here, for had not the Miller’s half-witted son, dead now these six years, attempted to do the same thing one drunken night? Her late husband Gorsha had caught him in the act and thrashed him so badly he had to crawl home. She felt pain at the thought of Gorsha, with his long arms and easy smile. Damn him for getting drunk, then lost in a blizzard. Damn her son Latos, too, for leaving her as well, becoming one of the first victims of the plague winter. She liked Stanoska, but the girl was not really family. No, all that she had left was someone who did not yet exist, Stanoska’s unborn child. But enough such thoughts. She mustn’t become a silly old woman, letting her mind wander when there were crucial things to be done.
Forcing herself to look at the monster, she was sure it was Stavra the Miller, despite the moonlight and the distance, and the changes that had occurred after his death. It served him right to end up this way, considering the fee he used to charge to grind the village grain. The problem was, he could draw others into the grave after him, and cause them to rise up, too. Her house would need protection.
Taking the mixture from her pestle, she smeared it on her door in the shape of a crude cross, which steamed in the cold air. That would have to do until tomorrow, when she could get the sexton to dig up Stavra and deal with him. There were likely to be others, of course, but then she and the rest of the villagers would have Stavra’s blood to drink and spread on their doors, and nothing deters a Strigoi like the blood of its own kind. Her house had seen many deaths in the fifty-two years she’d lived in it. Both her mother and father died shortly after she’d given birth to Latos, Stanoska’s husband, and none of Nadja’s nine siblings still survived. Nor had she been blessed with an abundance of children. Latos’s two sisters were born dead, the last one nearly taking Nadja with her, and after that, her womb was barren. She’d recently lost Latos, and before that, poor Gorsha. No one else must die here, at least not for a while. Stanoska and her unborn child must be kept safe. Especially the child, as it was the only hope now of continuing the family line. She knew it would be a boy, for she had seen the way snow had melted in the shadow of Stanoska’s pregnant belly.
She rose at first light, saw to Stanoska’s needs, then wrapped herself in her shawl and hooded cloak, with fresh rags bound around her boots, and trudged out into the snow. Her poor old cow was a crumbled dark shape, frozen and dead, a piteous look on its frost-covered face. The corpse was not even good for stew meat now that the Strigoi had been at it. Everything else was white but the sky, which was a dirty grey, and the hills to the east, where the forest was a black line on the horizon. Wolves lived there, which was some small comfort. If wolves chanced upon a wandering Strigoi, they would eat it like any other carrion.
It was a long, cold walk to the ruins of the church. The steeple had been struck by lightning early in the winter, and the entire structure had burned down with the priest inside, a bad sign if there ever was one, but Millo the sexton still lived in his little stone house beside the burial ground, with his son Petko. She knocked for a long time before anyone stirred within. It was bitterly cold, of course, and standing there on the frozen stoop, she wondered if she was going to lose another toe.
Millo finally opened the door, a big red-nosed man with an uneven mustache and a face like a boiled ham. Behind stood Petko, small and moonfaced, with a ridiculous sparse beard. The young man’s complexion was usually pale, but today he was as red-faced as his father, and she smelled strong drink on their breath. Well, she thought to herself, she should not be too harsh in judgment. Like so many in the village, they’d lost most of their family to the plague winter. Standing before their meager fire, she told them what had occurred. Millo cursed under his breath as the story unfolded, while Petko mumbled imprecations to Jesus Christ and Saint Michael.
“I will need to fetch help from the tavern,” said Millo at length. “Digging up a corpse that lies beneath snow and frozen ground will not be easy. At least Stavra has no family to worry about dealing with. I would not wish to face charges of desecration in the Archbishop’s court.”
“How fares Stanoska?” asked Petko in a hesitant voice. He had been fond of the girl before she married Latos.
“Better, I think,” said Nadja. “It troubles me not being at her side right now.”
Petko looked thoughtful. “I could return to your cottage, Good Mother, and care for her until you return. I have some skill at tending the sick.”
And designs on marrying Stanoska, should she survive, thought Nadja. If that happened, the child would no longer be her son. She would have liked to refuse his offer, but she knew that if she was not present when the miller was disinterred and destroyed, she would not be able to sop up any of the precious blood, so useful in warding off not just the attacks of other Strigoi, but plague and other sicknesses as well. “Very well,” she said. “If she seems worse, return to the graveyard and fetch me.”
Millo looked displeased. “I would say that your help was needed with this work,” he said to his son in a surly tone, “but in truth, you have never been much use at a man’s chores. Go tend the sick girl, then, and leave me and the other men to do what must be done.”
Without looking his father in the eye, Petko hurried from the house. Muttering to himself and shaking his head, Millo bade Nadja remain and warm herself by the fire, while he gathered the help he needed from the tavern. She was grateful for the chance to sit in his good chair and attempt to thaw her icy feet. After he was gone, she drowsed for several hours in the strange house, remembering past and better times, when her son and husband were both alive.
Sometime later, Millo returned with his sexton’s shovel and a small crowd of villagers, including the butcher, who was carrying his big, sharp knife. It was the afternoon by the time they trudged out to the churchyard, and they would never have had the grave open before nightfall if the Strigoi itself had not loosened the earth in its struggle out of the ground. It was indeed Stavra the Miller. His corpse was so full of stolen blood that it had swollen to almost twice its normal size. The face and belly were a blackish purple, and the pale outer skin on the legs had peeled back in strips, gathering about its ankles like fallen stockings and revealing the new red skin of the Undead growing beneath. Foamy blood ran from his nose and bubbled out its mouth. Nadja and the two other women present averted their eyes at the sight of the distended purple scrotum and grotesquely exaggerated erection. The restless dead were known to be as lusty as they were thirsty, and it was lucky that Stavra did not have a wife. If he had, he would doubtless have come to her, and fatally exhausted her without even necessarily taking her blood. Such things had happened before.
Someone said that all they had to do was drive a stake into him, that a Strigoi is really nothing more than an empty skin that the Devil has inflated with his breath, and is harmless once punctured. Millo said this was idle superstition, and Nadja agreed with him. However, the body was lanced as a precaution, and when the sharpened rake handle was driven into it, it gave a deep, wet groan. Foul, spurting blood would have drenched everyone if they had not already draped it in a cloth brought along for just that purpose. Later, the soaked cloth would be divided up among those present, so the blood could be wrung out and drunk, or painted on doors or the sides of animals.
The head was struck off with the Sexton’s shovel, an action which took several stout blows. The abdomen and chest were then cut open by Olav the Butcher, revealing a body cavity swimming in more blood, with a liver as white as an onion and a heart as black as a lump of coal. The latter was taken out, to be boiled in wine, then nailed to a tree in the forest. There was some debate as to whether the body should be burned, but this was hardly practical. A blood-filled, half-frozen corpse would take over a hundred pounds of wood or coal to burn properly, as well as a correctly constructed bier, and no one had the fuel to spare. Nor was throwing it in running water any good, for the river was frozen deep. Instead, it was agreed that the body should be cut up and left at the crossroads, for wolves or dogs to eat.
It was nearly dark by the time Nadja limped home. Stanoska appeared to be asleep in her cocoon of blankets, and Petko drowsed as well, stretched out on the warm hearthstones beside her. At least he had brought in new wood for her fire. and she could smell soup in a large iron pot. The boy had a good heart, she had to grant him that. Still, that did not mean he would be allowed to take her grandson away from her.
Petko sat up and yawned. His eyes grew wide as he watched Nadja squeeze blood out of her torn piece of cloth, and with it draw a cross on Stanoska’s forehead, which felt cooler. “The Strigoi, is it destroyed?”
“Yes,” said Nadja, stirring the broth he’d apparently made with her wooded spoon. “I doubt though, that it will be the only one. Not in a plague winter. How is Stanoska?”
“She sleeps,” he said, yawning again. “I made soup.”
“I see, and it smells good. Where did you get the meat?”
“From the dead cow outside.”
Nadja dropped the spoon into the fire, where the wet wood sputtered. No, she could not have heard him rightly. “What is that you say?”
He looked frightened by the expression on her face, as well as he should be. “From the cow out in the snow. Was this wrong?”
Nadja suppressed an urge to scream, to howl like a wolf or a sick dog, to throw something at Petko or fly at him with all her remaining strength. Damn his foolishness and her foolishness in leaving him to tend Stanoska. The skein of all her hopes had come undone, and there would be no knitting it up again. “By the Virgin and Saint Michael, I fear you have slain her. Get out of my house, you accursed wretch.”
He stepped backward in confusion, nearly tripping over the straw pallet that was her bed. “I do not understand…”
She snatched the spoon out of the fire and advanced on him, shaking it like it was a weapon. If it had been a knife, she might have stabbed him. “The meat of an animal slain by a Strigoi is accursed, especially if the beast has been defiled in this manner. Now Stanoska will likely die, and become a Strigoi herself. The Devil takes you for what you have done!”
Crossing himself, stumbling over his own feet, he fled from the house, doubtless to tell his father that measures against a new Strigoi would soon be necessary. Feeling very old, a tear trailing down her face, Nadja knelt painfully beside Stanoska. It did not surprise her that the girl’s brow felt cold, and there was no pulse in her wrist. Nadja put her head on the dead girl’s swollen belly, and wept in earnest, not so much for her son’s poor wife, as for the new life that now lay quiescent inside her, cooling with her corpse. If she had not been a devout woman, she would have cursed God Himself.
The next day, of course, Millo and the others came and took Stanoska’s body away. Nadja knew what they would do. A nail would be driven into her head, which would then be cut off, and laid in the grave at her feet. Since she had not actually arisen as a Strigoi, she would be allowed a grave, at least for as long as she lay quiet in it. Thorns would be driven into her thighs and feet, and the tendons of her ankles would be cut. That should be enough to keep her from walking. She would not be deeply buried, lest it becomes necessary to dig her up again and take more thorough measures.
Nadja stayed in bed for a day and a night, and for an unmeasured time, she shook with fever. She would have welcomed death, but it did not come, just greater weariness. Millo brought her food, which she did not touch, and water, and wood for her fire, so she did not freeze. She was too weary and worn out to even lose herself in thoughts of the happy past, much less think about the hopeless future. Instead, she lay in her straw, and alternately woke and slept, dreamed nothing while asleep, and thought nothing while awake.
On the third night after Stanoska’s burial, she awoke shortly after sunset, hearing something she had not expected to ever hear again. It was the sound of a baby crying, so distant it might have been the wind in the eaves. Rising unsteadily, she realized it was not coming from within the cottage, but from outside it.
Pulling her shawl about her, she unlatched the door. Something crawled on the icy hearth, something small and red, with bits of frozen black earth sticking to it. Not having all her wits anymore, nor the cares and cautions she had once possessed, she picked it up and carried it gingerly inside, to examine it more closely by the light of her fire. It looked vaguely like a newborn infant, but even more livid in color, and greatly swollen, like a great blood sausage with scrambling little arms and legs, and a wrinkled little face as purple as a bruise. This must be Stanoska’s child, born in the grave and risen as a Strigoi. Precautions had been taken to keep Stanoska in the ground, but nothing had been done about the child inside her.
Acting on a nameless impulse, she cradled the mewling thing in her arms. It was horrible, surely, but really not much more horrible than a mortal child looks at birth. Latos himself had been born with a bloody caul covering his head, a sight which had nearly killed her. She was older now, and not so easily shocked. It seemed very weak, no doubt from its long crawl through the snow; she couldn’t imagine how it actually got out of the grave unless dogs or other scavengers had helped. When she held it to her breast, it turned its head as if to suckle, and a black tongue snaked out of its open wound of a mouth, tipped with the barb that a Strigoi uses to prick through human flesh. The rough wool of her shawl was too thick for it, however, and it began to bawl more fiercely.
Poor little thing, she thought. It was a pity that it did not have a soul, that it could never grow up as a human child. Or could it? She thought of the tale she’d heard from a Serbian merchant of the Soldier and the Archduke’s Daughter. The daughter had died and arisen from her crypt in the grand cathedral as a Strigoi, or in the merchant’s tongue, a vampïr. Every night a young nobleman was sent into the church to contend with her, and each morning the churchwardens had swept away the poor man’s gnawed bones, for so insatiable was the demon that she had torn each young lord asunder and eaten his flesh after draining him of blood. Finally, a common soldier had agreed to spend the night in the cathedral. With his wits, he had eluded the revenant until dawn, then barred her from her coffin and refused to allow her back inside until she had submitted to his mastery. When she did, he commanded her to kneel with him at the altar, and the icon of Saint Michael came alive and baptized her. When this happened, she was given back her soul and truly came to life again, a human girl once more.
It was not wise to believe everything told by Serbs, but the tale could be true. If it was, then it meant that her hopes were not yet dead. If the Undead form of her grandson were baptized, might an infant soul be incorporated into his body, driving out the evil spirit that animated his flesh? Surely in this season of Our Lord’s birth, it was possible to ask for such a miracle. God owed her something, for all that she’d endured. Perhaps it was not devout to think in such terms, but she no longer cared.
A problem presented itself. The village priest was dead, and the church was in charred ruins. No doubt this was one of the reasons the village had become infested with Strigoi in the first place. Where then could she go? Who could perform the sacrament of Baptism?
The nearest place Baptism could be performed would be the Church of Saint Rochus in Ürosevac, which was a half dozen leagues away. She was not sure she could make the journey, but she would have to try. Gathering her cloak about her, and pulling on her boots, she carried her small burden out into the stable, where she managed with some difficulty to get her poor swaybacked horse hitched to Latos’s rickety sleigh. There was a rug in the back of the sleigh, tied up with frozen cords, and her stiff fingers were numb and bloody by the time she got it unrolled. Climbing up into the sleigh was very painful, but she managed and took the reins in her bleeding hands.
She should not be taking the journey at night, but she could not bear to wait; indeed, she was not sure she would survive until dawn. And with the daylight, the Strigoi child might become dead and still again, and she would never be able to convince the priest at Ürosevac to baptize a corpse. Wrapped in her cloak and the icy rug, her small burden writhing against her bony chest and stabbing weakly at her clothing with its tongue, she urged the horse out into the night.
On their way to the high road, they passed the ruins of her village’s church. The headstones were rough grey slabs peeking above the snow, and wild dogs rooted among the graves, scattering dark earth and bits of corpses over the white blanket. No doubt that was how Stanoska’s grave had been opened. It was lucky for the poor infant Strigoi that such a tempting morsel had somehow escaped the hungry scavengers.
It was bawling more loudly now, a horrible keening sound, as bad as a starving living child, and it had become so cold it seemed to suck the warmth out of her. Stopping the horse for a moment, she awkwardly fumbled with the buttons beneath the rug and her shawl and cloak, and then slid the little Strigoi inside her garments, next to her withered chest. After a while, she felt the sharp stab of its tongue over her heart and knew that it suckled there. There was something comforting in the feeling, for she thought that she would never be able to suckle a child again. It might kill her in time, but not for a while yet; it was too small to draw as much blood from her as an adult Strigoi would.
She lashed her poor horse with her whip. He panted and heaved his way over the icy track, his breath like a cloud around his dappled, frosty-maned head, and the land raced by, white slopes, bare black trees, the stars above like diamonds on a dark wet cloth. She could barely hold the reins now, and her legs were completely numb. More than once, she found herself slipping into the unconscious, and she dreamed it was Latos who drew nourishment at her breast.
When she reached Ürosevac she was so weak she felt like she was floating above her own body, looking down on the seat of the sleigh. The church was small and squat, but all of stone, unlike her own village’s poor wooden one. Stumbling out of the sleigh, wallowing through the snow, half-crawling to the door, she knocked with what she was sure was her last strength, pounding on the oak panels with the big brass knocker. Then she slumped on the doorstep, her thin arms tight around the creature that nuzzled beneath her clothing, and lost consciousness.
She revived, after a fashion, in the chancel, where candles flickered and a painted icon of the Saint peered down from the wall. The priest stood over in his red robe, his sexton beside him in homespun grey. The priest had bushy red hair, peppery at the temples, and a kindly enough face. He and the sexton gasped when she drew the Strigoi child from inside her clothing. “This is my grandson,” she said in a wheezing voice. “You must baptize him.”
“Woman, you are mad,” said the priest, his voice more gentle than his words. “I cannot do this thing. You need a doctor, and perhaps my rites.”
“I do indeed need your rites,” she said, “but not just yet. First, you must baptize my grandson. If you do not, I will curse you, for all that you are a priest, you and your sexton both. The curse of dying widow is a serious thing.”
The priest said nothing to that, but the sexton looked alarmed. “Father,” he said, “please do as she asks. There can be no harm in it.”
The priest pursed his mouth, wiped his brow with his sleeve, muttered under his breath, and looked to the Icon of Saint Rochus as if for guidance. At length, speaking slowly, he said, “Very well. I will do as you ask, may God forgive me.”
Nadja was too weak to move, so the priest bade the sexton hold the child, which the latter was not eager to do, but there was no help for it. Touching it as gingerly he might touch a piece of carrion, the priest anointed it on the forehead, chest, back, ears, hand, and feet. Then he plunged it into the Baptismal Font, calling on the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. On the first immersion, all the candles guttered, though none went out, and on the second, the water of the font turned red and began to boil. When he held the Undead child above the water, it seemed to drip all over with blood, although it was also smaller than before. “See,” said the sexton, “it sweats out the blood on which it has supped.” Indeed, the child seemed to be perspiring blood from all its pores, and the font looked like the bowl a barber uses in a bloodletting. Closing his eyes against the sight of this possible defilement, the priest plunged the child into the water for the third and last time. Then, reciting the Thirty-First Psalm, he carried it back to Nadja.
She opened her eyes and cradled the baby to her sunken breast. “See,” she said in the voice like the wind in a hollow reed, “he is a living child now.” Indeed, it appeared to be the case. The infant’s chest rose and fell as it breathed, his face and body were of normal color, and he was no longer bloated. Nadja heaved one last shuddering breath of her own and then no more. The priest said the rites but knew he was too late.
After a time, the sexton spoke. “It is a miracle, Father,” he said hoarsely.
“Yes,” said the priest, taking the child clumsily from Nadja’s dead arms. The baby began to bawl, the first sound he had made as a living being. “After it dies, we shall build a shrine to it besides the altar. Pilgrims will come here, I expect, to see its tiny sarcophagus. They will bring offerings. Maybe in the summer, we’ll be able to buy a new bell.” His face wore a beatified expression, not unlike that on the carved and painted icon of Saint Rochus.
“After it dies?” asked the sexton. “Why shall it die?”
The priest set the child on the altar and stared down at it. It grasped feebly at his stole. “We are in the middle of winter, in a time of plague and famine. There is no woman in our village who can suckle this child. All of the cows are dry. How can it survive? God has granted us one miracle. Would you be so greedy as to demand another one?”
The sexton tickled the baby under its chin. “But he will live for a time?”
“Yes,” said the priest. “Long enough for our flock to see him, and hear our tale.”
The sexton tickled the baby again. “God’s ways are mysterious,” he said.
“True,” said the priest, “but miraculous for all of that.”
Ian is the author of the novels Mordred’s Curse and Merlin’s Gift. His fiction has appeared in the anthologies Love in Vein, October Dreams 2, and the Science Fiction Book Club’s Best Short Novels 2005. In 2020, his Alphabestiary: 26 Poems and Drawings for Easily Alarmed Children and the Adults Who Like to Alarm Them], was published by AM INK press. That same year, he won a North Carolina Press Association Award for his coverage of the case of Marcus Smith, a Black man fatally hogtied by eight white Greensboro officers during the 2018 NC Folk Festival. I Ain’t Resisting, his book about that police homicide and its coverup will be published in the Spring of 2023.