Saturday, October 31, 2009

Have a Scary Story, and a Happy Halloween

As you read this, I'll be relaxing on the Oregon Coast with wife and dog. But Horrorpalooza must go on; hence, the inclusion of this for your Halloween.

Rather than break out another review, I thought I'd actually present a scary story. Five years ago, Rita and I vacationed in Romania, and one of the most eerily-inspiring places we visited was Snagov Monastery, an isolated house of worship reputedly housing the actual remains of Vlad the Impaler--the real Dracula.

The entire week we visited, the weather was in the mid-seventies and sunny (at the tail end of October, no less)...Except for the day we visited Snagov. Fog enshrouded everything, and a palpable chill cut through the air as we sat in a rowboat and traversed the lake route to the Monastery's location. It was sublimely, fabulously spooky.

I've been keeping the fiction writing muscles limber-ish via writing exercises in a Yahoo chat group. The conceit: A sentence is posted, and you have 15 minutes to write a story around it. Below is the result. Poe won't likely rise from his grave shouting hosanna's, but I thought this was sufficiently creepy to present as a Halloween gift to all twelve of you (and there ARE at least twelve of you, my Sitemeter told me so!) who've stuck it out with me lo these last couple of weeks. It's been fun.

Thanks, all, for reading. And Happy Halloween!

The Island was Surrounded by Fog

The whole rest of Sam's sojourn to Romania had been amidst mild, sunny skies and 70-some degree temperatures; except for Friday. The ghosts came out on Friday, and he went to Snagov Monastery to see them.

He'd been personally invited by Janos Czerny, one of the Monastery's acolytes, to explore the grounds on his last day. Czerny had been in correspondence with Sam extensively for the last four months, knew Sam's background in Eastern European Folklore. And Czerny knew that Sam wouldn't scare or sway easily. That was important.

They met at the bank of the lake, in front of an unspectacular row of newly-constructed houses that looked to Sam exactly like any bland suburban neighborhood in America, until he glanced down one cul-de-sac and observed two old women swathed in peasant dresses and dull blue scarves, carrying large bundles of sticks--kindling--on their stooped shoulders. He noticed one of them staring at him with brown eyes that were as cold as gravesite soil, but thought nothing of it.

"I've hired someone to take us there," Czerny said as he led Sam to a small rowboat moored at a small dock just off the main drag. An olive-skinned local--just a boy of fourteen, Sam figured--smiled and held his hand out. Czerny quickly handed the boy a handful of Romanian lei, and the metal-coated plastic coins clattered emptily. They could see no more than twenty feet beyond the boat. Snagov Island lay hidden evocatively beyond a dense layer of morning mist: The Island was surrounded by fog.

Sam's eyes shot alertly all 'round the boat as the boy rowed deliberately. Czerny sat at the front of the rowboat, holding a bible in his hand and sedately chanting in Romanian as his black eyes regarded Sam with respectful scrutiny. Sam stared back at him for a few seconds, then turned to look back at the dock as the off-white mouth of vapor lapped up at and swallowed the last vestige of the homogenized neighborhood they'd left.

It was like being snow-blind in a way, being in a boat on a fog-enshrouded body of water with nary a sound of bird, fish, vehicle, or human to stir the placid splashing of the oars against the lake's surface. After what seemed like one long, languid now, the turrets of Snagov pierced the white mist, and the boat crunched into the rocky shoreline of The Island.

Only one other American had been led by Czerny to this side of Snagov Island, a Princeton grad student named Theo Marstedt who shared Sam's fascination with (and major in) Eastern European Folklore. They'd had coffee just nine weeks ago, and Theo's shock of red hair was standing on end as he raved about an exclusive in to the only area of Snagov unsullied by tourist traffic. He told Sam about underground catacombs carved 'neath the Monastery by Vlad the Impaler himself to hide the Romanian ruler from the Turks who thirsted for his throne and life. "I'm gonna be the first American to see it," Theo told Sam in a conspiratory whisper as though the disinterested students glutting the coffee shop gave a damn.

Sam hadn't heard from Theo since the latter would've returned from this strange land where Porsches gave right-of-way to oxcarts likely passed from generation to generation for a century or more. And now Sam stood up shakily in the rowboat, setting foot on the softly-muddy earth of Snagov Island.

Czerny had strode ahead, gesturing for Sam to follow. The monk looked like a spectre as he pierced the mist that danced around him. Autumnal trees poked out of the pale green earth like gnarled, arthritic hands. Sam shuddered a little as he complied.

The Monastery loomed large and dark against the white fog, still undistinguished in its details because of the fog's thickness. Sam had never, in all his studies of the Monastery, ever seen a photograph or sketch of the building from this angle. The chill of the unknown insinuated itself against the back of his neck.

Just ahead of them was a small farmhouse, a simple structure of weathered and weary boards threaded up top by a branch-and-pitch roof. Outside, tethered to a fencepost by thick ropes, were three dogs--Two sulky hunting hounds, and what looked like some sort of Irish setter mix. The setter regarded Sam with interest, then began barking loudly.

Czerny, who'd moved silent and graceful ahead of Sam up until this point, stopped mid-stride awkwardly and turned towards the dog. The monk raised one bony hand and gestured at the dog with a few nuanced motions. Its loud caterwauling segued into a soft whimper. Something about the dog stuck with Sam, and he stared long at the canine. The dog looked back at him with a strange sense of familiarity, still whimpering what almost sounded like a warning.

It took just a few seconds for Sam to see what lay in the setter's eyes, peering worried and warning from beneath a shock of red hair. Surprise--and then dumb fear--rose in him.

"Theo..." Sam muttered as he felt Czerny's cold hand against the back of his neck.

The monk caressed the spot for several seconds, and Sam felt himself relax involuntarily. "Easy, boy...You'll be fine here," Czerny purred in broken English.

Sam barked softly in muted, futile protest.

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