Irina

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23rd January, 1863

I was a shell, prised open. Couldn’t breathe. His face so still above mine; his nails sharp on my waist. Afterward, I sobbed as he licked blood from between my legs.

He held me then. Gently he lifted the sweat-curled hair from my neck and gazed at it – my throat – for such a long time, with such fixed intent, that his gaze heated my skin. My breath slowed. His tickled me, ear to neck’s crook. I was not crying anymore. He ran his thumb softly along the side of my neck, and I felt myself expand and warm beneath his touch. This went on and on. Finally, I said, “Please. Please.” My voice strange. I did not know for what I was asking.

His rough lips were on my throat, and then the most exquisite pain as his teeth sank into me. I arched my neck and moaned. My limbs shook; my bones hummed. I clutched at the quilt with one sweating hand. He began to nurse at the wound. I heard his suckling sounds and felt him drinking eagerly from me. My head dropped backward and I sighed. I seemed to float. One of my arms curled lazily around him, my hand stroking his thick hair as he continued to feed.

Just before dawn he bade me stand. I had lost all shyness; still, seeing my naked white body was strange. The swell of my bosom, the curve of my hip are new. I do not know how to feel about them yet. Mother forbids me to talk about them.

He pushed back the bedclothes to reveal the sheet – white, with two small patches of drying blood. One at the centre, one near the top. He unlatched the window and spread the stained sheet so it hung outside, snapping in the wind. Then he left me. I curled on the bare mattress, exhausted. In the first light of morning I heard cheering from the courtyard. Gypsies gathered outside the castle were laughing and applauding our bed sheet; flag of our union.

 

24th January, 1863

I can’t quite remember how I got here.

I am wearing an expensive, pale blue dress. Satin. A column of tiny buttons down the back. The dress rustles, whispers to me when I walk. Mother would call this a show-offy dress, to be kept carefully in tissue paper. Brought out for special occasions.

Who did up my buttons?

My hair is down, a mess of yellow kinks and curls, and I don’t have sugar water to tame it nor pins to put it up.

On my feet are silk slippers of a deeper blue. Dainty things. Not much use for keeping one warm. The floors here are cold, the aching damp cold of winter. It seeps upwards into me through the soles of my feet.

I have looked all over the room for shoes. There are none in the great, hulking wardrobe. That is full of more dresses like this. No outdoor clothing. I peered under the bed, taking care as Mother has taught me to keep my skirt and my hair from picking up dust. A long ways under, nearly out of reach, was one ladies’ boot. I just managed to fish it out. It’s an ankle boot made of supple, pale pink leather. Side buttons, a low, square heel. I think it is mine. When I look at it, I feel a restless unhappiness stirring and I don’t know what to do.

In any case, a single boot will not do me much good.

He brought me down to dinner himself. It is embarrassing to admit, but I felt childishly glad to see him, glad of his arm as we descended the great staircase. All the time I feel as if I am forgetting something, something I am meant to do or ask. But this matters less when he is near.

Once in the dining room, he pulled my chair out for me. It shuddered and squeaked against the stone floor. It reminded me of a train. Shuddering, brakes squealing. The groan of machinery. The sound of metal being torn. Screams… I opened my eyes and the Count was looking at me, tilting his head quizzically. I shook my head, smiled at him politely and took my seat.

I cannot say he is handsome. Rather, familiar. I know every forehead crease, every eyelash, every shape he makes with that stern mouth. I feel as if I have known him forever. Yet I can’t remember how we met.

As he busied himself with carving the meat, I gazed into my wine – red over black over red over black, sliding like syrup as I tilted the glass. At home I am not allowed wine. My mother does not think me old enough. It would not be proper, she says.

My mother shouts, “Irina? Irina!” As though she looks for me. Dark wings enfold me and I am lifted away. Cold. The train lies on its side. Its headlights illuminate snow falling. The snow and I are the only things moving. Without effort, I am swimming through air.

“Child, you tremble.”

How to describe his voice? It rumbles; you feel as much as hear it. Like the cry of an owl in the night, it is startling and lonely and almost beautiful.

The Count put his hand over mine. “Should I light a fire?”

“It is your hand that is cold!” I took his between my two and rubbed it briskly.

He nodded. “I have difficulty with my circulation.”

“You should see someone about that!”

His face came as close to a smile as I’ve yet seen. It was a smile of the eyes more than of the mouth. With his mouth he kissed my hands, first one, then the other. I had amused him. I was not sure how, and did not much care. I only cared about the spark of warmth I had seen in that face. So completely happy was I that I forgot to ask the Count about my mother. And the train.

It was a lovely dinner.

 

26th January, 1863

Yesterday I left my room by myself to wander the passageways of his castle. I became quite lost, turning corner after corner, in and out of the pale light that stole through the high, thin windows. I started to feel frantic, pounding on every door I came to – for every one of them was locked. Faster and faster I went, afraid for daylight to abandon me before I found my way to safety.

The Count came up behind me, grabbed me roughly by the arm and spun me around to face him. The sky framed by the windows was red, and so were his eyes. They glowed. “What do you think you’re doing?” he spat. “How dare you go where you haven’t been invited?”

I was frightened, so frightened. He was changed. “Why do you speak to me this way?”

“You thought to leave me? To find a way out? I’ll show you what happens –“

“No!” His face became blurred and I knew my eyes had filled with tears. “I did not…I would not…”

He let go of me. “Did not, would not, what?”

“I did not…I was not looking for a way out.” Dared I to touch his cheek? I did. “I was looking for you.”

The lines above his eyes deepened. But the eyes themselves softened. He lowered his head, let the weight of it rest in my hand. “Irina,” he murmured. And it was as delicate as rain, and I drank the sound like parched earth drinks water.

He wrapped his arms around me. “Patience,” he crooned into my ear. “You must have patience, child. If you wait, I will always come to you. Always, my Irina.”

The next thing I knew he was carrying me back to my room. He did so easily, cradling me, the edge of his cape brushing my ankle as we moved. Swimming in air. The train lies on its side. Dark wings enfold me and I am lifted away.

“You were there,” I muttered as he placed me on the bed. “The train came suddenly off its tracks. Rolled onto its side as if a great hand had pushed it. And you were there.”

“Hush.”

“Where is my mother?” I felt very sleepy.

In the dimness he was shapes, continually rearranging themselves. Black wings, a panting snout, pointed ears. Then himself, kissing my forehead. “The moon is your mother. Your father, the soil. And you are my darling, darling child.”

I slept deeply.

 

29th January, 1863

I keep dreaming of the boot. In the dream there are two and they are on my feet. I am staring down at them (the blush of them, peeking out from under my dull travel clothes!) and feeling heat behind my eyes.

I say, “Daddy, I don’t want to go.”

My father says, “You must do what your mother thinks is best.”

My mother says, “Irina, we will miss the train!”

I say, “Daddy, I don’t want to leave you.”

I have hidden the boot in the wardrobe, out of my sight.

 

1st February, 1863

Last night he only wanted his special pleasure. He sucked at my neck until I was delirious, nothing left to me but his lips, teeth, tongue, his need. It hurt, but hurt like a jagged splinter slowly drawn free. It hurt but the pain was purifying me.

We lay together for a long time, his tousled head against my breast, his long body curved to fit mine. There was no moon, the room was dark as death, yet I could see perfectly the cathedral curves of the windows and door – the blue-black thicket of his hair. My eyes, of late, seem quite at home in gloom. Nothing escapes me.

After a time he rolled away from me, onto his back. He said, “I need to give you something. Something that closes the circle between us.”

Trembling, I opened my legs, but he did not move toward me. Instead he put his index finger in his mouth and wetted it, knuckle to sharp, tapering nail. He then drew the nail across his own chest, gasping as he did so. Beads of blood rose to the surface of the cut. I was watching his eyes, which shone like two torches. I saw pain cloud them and cried out, feeling this within my own breast.

He smiled weakly. “Come here, child.” His hand on the back of my neck guided my head to his chest. “Now you know my pain,” the Count said quietly. “Drink it. Drink it all in.” I licked the cut and tasted the salt of his blood. He sighed and closed his eyes. “Drink.”

I fitted my lips to his wound and gently sucked until his blood flowed freely into my mouth. My tongue lapped at it. I heard his breath quicken and knew I was pleasing him.

As his blood filled my mouth I saw, with my closed eyes, all manner of horror. I saw men with their throats torn out; women screaming, their hands beating at empty air. I saw the flashing fangs of a wolf. The eyes of children, rounded by terror. But what I saw was nothing to what I felt. The most profound isolation. The loneliness of an unmarked grave. I felt this and knew this loneliness was his. And now it was mine too.

 

3rd February, 1863

I sleep most days now, waking as the shadows lengthen across the stone floors. When I wake it is from sleep so deep, I feel as if I’m struggling to break the surface of water – chill, green water – and take a clean breath. I curl on the window seat in my room and watch the snow fall through the darkening sky, the trees becoming a silhouetted army of great, armless men; the gypsies’ campfires springing to life, one by one, stars in this earthbound sky.

 

I wonder, will I ever go outside again? If I had two boots, and a great fur coat, would I venture into the cold? Air sharp as pins in my chest. Crunching through the snow’s surface, feeling its weight dragging on my legs.

I have a memory of walking in snow with my father. He held my mittened hand. It was a long time ago. He was a giant; he filled my eyes.

In the dressing table mirror, I look strange. My blue eyes two gas flames in a pale, shining face. My lips oddly plump and dark. My teeth seem to crowd my mouth. Even my tongue looks slender and serpent-like. I turned fifteen in December; is this my adult face?

I do not want it.

 

5th February, 1863

When will he come? Why does he make me wait?

Sometimes I feel his need through the walls. A noiseless howl. I spread myself for him, in an agony of want. My need, his need running together until I can’t tell them apart.

 

10th February, 1863

Everything is different.

Now, if I close my eyes and breathe quite slowly, I can see whatever the Count sees. He is the castle; I am locked inside.

The first thing I saw this way was me. I was in bed beside him, and began to drift into sleep. When my eyes closed I saw myself, dozing. My hair was silver and gold on the moonlit pillow and my mouth was smeared with his blood. I opened my eyes and he was leaning over me, studying me. I asked him what was the matter.

“You are changing,” he said.

“I do not wish to.”

“Nevertheless, you are. It is the blood.”

“Yes. I’m frightened.”

“I will always care for you.”

“Why do you not hold me?”

He did. I could tell that his mind was elsewhere, though. I hid my face in his shoulder.

Then I heard the music. I couldn’t understand the words, but it was a fast song, shouted as much as sung, with much laughter between each verse. Gypsies were in the courtyard, singing and dancing around a bonfire. I had watched them at this before, from my perch upon the window seat, and my mind supplied the scene. The hands clapping and feet stamping. The drunken dancing. The many muscles working, the great lungs pumping. The sweating, flushed faces. All that magnificent flesh and blood.

I lifted my head and looked at the Count’s profile – he was awake. He was always awake. He was waiting for me to speak.

“I’m hungry,” I said.

 

Photo By: Vin on the move

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About Author

Susan Millar DuMars published a book of short stories, Lights in the Distance, with Doire Press in 2010 and a chapbook, American Girls, with Lapwing Press in 2007. She has been the recipient of an Irish Arts Council Bursary for her fiction and has also published three poetry collections with Salmon Poetry, the most recent of which, The God Thing, appeared in March 2013. Her work has appeared in publications in the U.S. and Europe and in several anthologies, including The Best of Irish Poetry 2010. Born in Philadelphia, Susan lives in Galway, Ireland, where she and her husband Kevin Higgins have coordinated the Over the Edge readings series since 2003. She is the editor of the 2013 anthology Over the Edge: The First Ten Years.

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