by Allen Stroud
I raise my camera and click.
The girl looks up from where she crouches. Her face is dirty, she is dressed in the black and white of a maid. “Why are you doing that?” she asks in hesitant English.
I lower the camera and look at her, squatting amidst the ruins, glaring at me. “Because you’re beautiful,” I say. “Beauty, surrounded by the ruined beauty of someone’s work.”
“You’re a thief,” she says. “You’ve stolen part of my soul into your magic box.”
“It’s just a photograph.”
She frowns. “Not if you think I’m beautiful, as you said.”
I blush and try to change the subject. “I’m not from round here. Who built all this?”
“The Master’s ancestor. They call her the Matriarch. She came from the sea.”
“From another country? Like me?”
“No,” the girl points at the ring of stones behind her. “Underwater, from the deep.”
I frown and take a step towards her. She stands up. “This is no place for tourists,” she says. “You should not be here.”
I smile and laugh. “I don’t want to break anything. I just want to look down there.”
“Down the tunnel, the well.”
The girl sighs. Her shoulders slump. “The Master won’t like that,” she says.
“Because you might see something. The Matriarch doesn’t like to be seen.”
I take another step. “Surely it won’t hurt? How will they know?”
“They’ll know,” she says. “They always know.”
For a moment, we stare at each other. Then, she turns away and disappears up the steps. “You were warned, soul stealer,” she says.
I’m alone, but I don’t feel alone. The light is fading. I step forwards towards the stones and peer over the lip. Was this once a well, or some sort of passageway? Shadows cling to the rocks. They are an endless swirl into the void. I raise my camera and look through the lens.
The darkness moves and something looks back.
I stare into the depths, holding the gaze of whatever lurks there. I can make out nothing of it, only that it is aware of me, curious at my curiosity. The moment lingers, extends, becomes uncomfortable.
A shiver runs through me. I blink and the creature is gone.
I put away my camera and lean over the edge. I can’t make out the bottom, but whatever I saw, isn’t there now. Perhaps I’ll see something in the pictures instead?
I walk away from the ruin and back up the steps, the way the girl went. I’m on holiday here in Balchik by the sea. These ancient ruins lie in within the grounds of a twentieth century palace, famous for its flower garden. According to the guide, who I was half listening to, before I wandered off, this place was the home of Queen Marie of Romania. Back then it was called ‘the quiet nest’.
I assume the name applied to her.
I pass through an archway and find myself back on the gravel path. The world brightens as the afternoon sun finds a way through dark brooding clouds. The warmth banishes my lingering chill. I bet I was seeing things – faces in the fire and all that, projecting what we want to find on something altogether innocuous.
I glance up at the buildings above me along the cliffs. Balchik Palace is a strange collection of villas and other residences. The royal family homes in London are much larger and more impressive, but Balchik has something watchful about it. The single minaret on the side of the sea front house is particularly attractive.
I consider wandering a little more and catching up with tour party, but my heart isn’t in it. Instead, I make my way back to the hotel and my room.
I’ve been here four days. My agent, Thomas recommended this place as a writer’s retreat and so far, it’s been brilliant. I’m thirty-five thousand words better off in my new novel and I’ve been able to sit on the terrace and relax with some lovely wine and a wonderful view, letting the story evolve in my mind.
I’m ahead of schedule, and today, I decided to venture out and soak up some culture.
I’m not sure if that’s what I got.
The laptop is open on the table. Instinctively, I’m doing what everyone does these days – an internet search. My topic is the history of the Balchik Palace gardens. There’s a whole host of pretty pictures and tourist information, some of which I read before I came here, but I’m looking for something specific, something related to what the girl said.
She came from under the sea...
The residency was constructed between 1926 and 1937, but there’s nothing about the older stone walls and the ruined well. The tour guide didn’t mention them and led the group the other way. I took a left turn when everyone else went right.
I take out my camera and plug it into the laptop. The picture folder appears. I start copying the files over. I didn’t take many today, fourteen images, all in gorgeous digital detail. All the better to zoom in and enhance if I need to.
I reach the pictures I took of the ruin. The young girl stares resentfully at me out of the photograph. The beauty I saw in her is still there, that moment of surprise and unguarded emotion. She isn’t a model, posing for the camera, she’s a person unexpectedly caught in a moment.
There's something about her eyes...
What was she doing there?
I zoom in, moving the image to her hands. She is holding something in her fingers, something I didn’t notice. She must have concealed it from me. Her fingers are stained red. I never noticed that before either.
She’s holding a human heart.
Three years ago, as part of some book research, I was allowed to ‘sit in’ a hospital ward and watch three doctors perform surgery on a man who needed a transplant. Their professional manner and the skill with which they managed such a difficult job made me rethink my opinion of humanity.
I still remember what I saw; that live squirming organ between ribs and flesh. The stained metal of the rib spreader. The bright red blood slurping out of a living chest cavity. At the time, I felt ashamed that I couldn’t look away. I justified my paralysis with the reason I was there. I needed to see so I could write from experience.
Again, now, I can’t move. I’m staring at the screen, staring at her hands and recognising their bloody burden. I don’t know what to—
My phone rings. I blink, stand up and fish for it in my pocket. It’s my sister. “Hi, Natalie,” I say.
“Hey Jim, everything okay?”
“Yeah fine, going well actually.”
“Oh. You sounded a bit rattled.”
“No, I’m all right. What’s up with you?”
Natalie laughs. I can hear the sound of a busy office in the background. My sister is teacher and an army lieutenant in the Territorials. “I’ve been called up again,” she says. “Another outbreak, This time its Liverpool and Chester.”
“Christ, that’s the third time this month. Are they paying you overtime?”
“No, just the usual rate.”
“You’re too good for them.”
The line goes quiet. Mum died last year. She was the bridge between us all. Nat still hurts, I can tell. She’s thrown herself into work so she doesn’t have to think. Lord knows why she rings me. I guess because Dad won’t take her calls.
“It’s good to hear from you,” I say and mean it. “Things get a bit lonely out here.”
“Isn’t that the point?” she says and there’s that laugh again. “Otherwise you’ll miss your deadline.”
I laugh too. “They’ll wait,” I say.
“Better if you give them no option and hand in on time,” Natalie chides.
There’s a pause. I know she wants to say something else. She lowers her voice. “People are worried up here, Jim. They say there’s no cure.”
“The vaccine not working?”
“No, it is, but… well… we’re seeing cases after inoculation too. They’re rare but…”
“Christ Nat, you make sure you look after yourself, won’t you?”
“Yeah… will do.” Natalie sighs. “I was going to suggest something?”
“Maybe you should stay where you are? Book an extra couple of weeks? Or a month? You got anything you need to be back for?”
“Is it that bad?”
“It might be.”
I run a hand through my hair. Natalie doesn’t overreact. If she’s worried, there’s something to worry about. My eyes stray to the computer screen again. I blink and turn away.
“I’ll think about it,” I say. “Thanks for the heads up.”
“Least I could do. Will you tell Dad?”
“Sure. I’ll text him.”
I hear noises in the background and the line goes dead. That isn’t unusual when Natalie calls, something will have needed her attention.
I look at the laptop screen again and the girl’s bloody hands. Somehow I manage to reach forward and press the button that moves the preview onto the next image.
The picture down the well.
The photograph doesn’t show anything. Whatever I saw through the lens isn’t in the shot. There’s just black and shadow at the bottom of that hole. Something about that comforts me. I’m breathing freely, easily, as if a weight has lifted from my body.
I shutdown the laptop.
One thirty in the morning local time. I’ve showered and I’m ready to go to sleep.
These hotel beds are big. There’s no duvet, instead we have blankets and sheets. The lamps have old style filament bulbs, not LEDs or energy saving ones. I’ve settled in, the heavy curtains are shut and I turn out the lights.
We’re two hours ahead of UK time and I’m still struggling to adjust. Still, my social calendar is intentionally empty and I write better when I’m tired. Somehow, my thoughts align and coalesce into images and scenes, I stop editing before I’m typing and just let the words flow.
I’ve left the terrace window open to keep air circulating in the room. I can hear the waves outside. It’s a wonderful sound, unfamiliar, but so relaxing and therapeutic. Water will have lapped upon those sands day after day for years, decades, centuries.
I wonder what Queen Marie saw? Is she the Matriarch the girl spoke of? The name doesn’t seem to fit. The ruins were old, far older than the palace. The stone had been piled and bound together, not shaped as later stonework might be. Whoever lived around here back then, lived long ago.
I’m thinking about the book I’m writing. It’s a crime novel, with multiple murders and an alcoholic detective. Can I squeeze in a trip to Eastern Europe and a strange old well, complete with…
The floorboards creak and I’m sat bolt upright in bed, breathing hard, heart pounding. “Is someone there?” I call out.
There’s no answer.
“Hello?” I call again.
A breeze stirs the curtains, leaking the outside into my room. The sea air stirs the hairs on my arms. I glance towards the terrace. A sliver of moonlight cuts through the darkness like a knife then disappears as something obscures it. The curtain creaks as it is drawn back and I see a shadowy inhuman figure in front of the window. I know who it is.
I know what it is.
“You’re the Matriarch,” I breathe. “You were down there, staring at me.”
The figure doesn’t reply, but takes a step forward into the room. In the moonlight, I can see eyes and a humanlike face, definitely female, but the body, impossibly tall and powerful, with no rise and fall of movement. She glides towards me, mouth open, filled with fangs. “You stole something from me,” she says in a slow, sibilant growl.
Instinctively, I recoil, shuffling back in in the blankets, as if they will be a defence. “I didn’t… I didn’t mean to—”
“Nevertheless.” The Matriarch is close now, leaning over the bed. A limb snaps out and claws press into my chest. I feel strength, strength that I struggle against, but cannot match. “Lie down, shut your eyes and dream your ignorant stories. This flesh is not for you. It must be remade for another purpose.”
“I don’t understand, I—”
“The body understands, but the mind has obscured it. The first of your kind were given a commandment. You remember the word, but your ancestors corrupted it and now you rebel.”
I am pressed against the mattress. The claws make shallow cuts in my skin and then lie flat against my ribs. My heart is thumping, willing me to escape, but I cannot move. I can feel something wormlike in the Matriarch’s palm, squirming against me. It’s wet with my blood, writhing between us.
“You will be remade,” the Matriarch says. “But first, we will feed.”
The worm enters me, biting into my flesh. I scream as it burrows into the centre of my chest. I cough and struggle to breathe as it severs connections, feasting on what it finds. I taste my own blood and bile
But I do not die. Instead, I am linked and remade. Through our bloody connection, I become part of the Matriarch and I start to understand.
You were given autonomy, but you have wasted that gift, so it is withdrawn.
I hear the words, but they are not spoken aloud. I feel other minds next to mine, names and faces through the ages, crowded together, seething and crawling within the Matriarch. Their memories and voices are part of her, bonded and subjugated as they were consumed.
Is this what will happen to me?
In time. But first you will become a host to our new flesh. Your memories will be added to our knowledge of your kind.
In this moment, I realise my mistake. The Matriarch does not consume hearts, it consumes lives! The very essence of humanity, our experience!
I embrace despair. A writer never wants to forget, or be forgotten, that is our narcissism, our hubris and flaw. We write to remember, to be remembered.
I can feel my thoughts being sifted and examined, flowing like blood into the collective whole of a living ancient, forgotten in our history and religion. In becoming part of it, I too will be lost, scraped and diluted into a sea of insignificance.
Your sense of self-importance is a corruption. It must be purged. Your obsession with your own individuality is a flaw.
I glimpse moments of my past as they depart. I see myself running down a hill after my parents, my legs are short and I am small. I fall and cut my knee. I’m crying, great heaving sobs that seize my entire body.
Now I’m crying, staring into the face of the Matriarch as I am unmade, remade, restored as a herald of her will. I understand her purpose now – my purpose. I am a herald, a harbinger of the harrowing. Those who accept us will survive, those who cling to their wasteful selfish society will die…
I am falling, hurtling towards I know what I am supposed to—
A shrill scream cuts through everything and suddenly I’m…
I blink and darkness has enveloped me. There is no weight upon my chest, no presence in my room. Was it a dream? Some strange nightmare vomited up from the depths of my soul?
Where is this place?
What is my name?
An alarm clock shrieks at me from the bedside table I turn on the lamp and get up. The blankets and sheet are a twisted mess, as I’ve been at war with them. I walk into the bathroom and stand in front of the mirror.
I flick on the light.
My face and chest are a mess of wounds. Where my heart once lived, there is a bloody gaping hole. I can see white rib bones and torn flesh.
I should not be alive, but I am.
Something quivers in that space, pulsing, twitching amidst the remains of my humanity. We are bound together, living as one, until the time comes when…
No! I don’t want to think about that!
There’s a shirt hanging on a rail over the bath. I reach for it, take it down and put it on. In a moment, the horror of my flesh is concealed. I can forget this, just as I have forgotten everything else.
Who am I? Damn it!
Some memories return. They are recent. A girl squatting in the ruins of a castle, captured in my photography. She was beautiful, is beautiful. There was something about her eyes, a shining presence captured there in my camera lens.
There’s something about her stare...
I can see the image in my mind. There’s something else looking out of those eyes, as if they are two windows to two souls. I glimpsed them in the lens, stealing the knowledge of what she was, what she is, a host to young alien flesh. The heart in her hands was her own heart, removed in the same way.
She and I are the same.
I stare into my own eyes and I see another presence staring back.
I look down. In the sink is a bloody mass of flesh. My own heart, removed to accommodate my new companion. Space has been made in my mind and body.
I feel a voice in my mind. It is quiet now, but it will grow, feeding on my flesh, my knowledge, my life.
When it is done, it will transform. Abandoning me to finally die.