Storm On The Red Lake

“Do you believe in vampires,” he asked.

She snapped Dracula closed and pushed it under the tapestry bag containing her cutwork.  “Mr. Stoker writes amusingly,” she said.  “I believe I don’t know you. Sir.”

“What a shame,” he said, putting his hand on the chair across from her.  She looked up–and up; he was tall, blond; his uniform blazed crimson, a splash of blood against the green trees and decent brick of Market Square.  The uniform was European; his rank she did not know, but clearly he was an officer.

“You should be better acquainted with vampires.”  he clicked his heels and bowed.  “Count Ferenc Zohary.”  Without invitation he sat down, smiling at her.

In this August, when she was spending the summer before her debutante year, negotiations were being held that might finish the long war.  The President had hosted the first meeting between the adversaries at the White House.   Now the opponents met officially at a nearby retreat and schemed between times at the Andrews Hotel.  Her Aunt Mildred did not encourage newspaper reading for unmarried women, so she was out-of-date, but knew the negotiations were supposed to be going badly.  The town was crowded with foreign men; there was storminess in the air, a feel of heavy male energy, of history and importance.  Danger, blood, cruelty, like Mr. Stoker’s book; it made her heart beat more strongly than, she felt, any woman’s should.  Don’t talk to them, Aunt Mildred had said.  But for once her aunt was out of sight.

“You are part of the negotiations?  Pray tell me how they proceed.”

“I am an observer only.”

“Will they make peace?”

“I hope not fro my country’s sake.”  he looked amused at her surprise.  “If they continue the war, the two countries will bleed, Russia will lose, turn west; they will make a little war and probably lose.  But if they sign their treaty, Russia will fight us five years from now, when they are stronger; and then the Germans will come in, and the French to fight the Germans, and the English with the French.  Very amusing.  My country will not survive.”

“Is it not wearying, to have such things decided and to be able to do nothing?”

“I am never wearied.”  Her companion stretched out his hand, gathered together her half-finished cutwork linen, and waved it in the air for a moment like a handkerchief before dropping it unceremoniously on the ground.  “Your mother makes you do this,” he said, “but you prefer diplomacy.  Or vampires.  Which?”

She flushed.  “My aunt controls my sewing,” she said.  Cutwork had been her task for the summer, sitting hour after hour on Aunt Mildred’s veranda, sewing hundreds of tiny stitches on the edges of yards of lace, then cutting out patterns with her sharp-pointed scissors.  Linen for her trousseau, said Aunt Mildred, who would not say the words “sheets.”  in the fall she would go to New York, planning her strategies for marriage like a powerless general.  The battle was already hopeless; without greater wealth than she commanded, she could not hope to be in the center of events.  She would become what she was fit for by looks not by station, the showy, useless wife of some businessman, whose interest in war extended only to the army’s need for boots or toothbrushes.

But now she had her taste of war, however faraway and tantalizing; she was sitting with a soldier, here in the hot thick sunlight and green leaves of Market Square.

“Do you like war,” her companion asked, “or simply blood?”

An interesting question.  “I think they both concern power.”

“Precisely.”  he leafed through the book while she watched him secretly.  In the exquisitely tailored crimson uniform, he had a look of coarseness combined with power.  Above the stiff old-braided collar, his neck was thick with muscle.  His hands were short and broad-nailed, his fingertips square against the yellow-and-red binding of Dracula.  Perhaps feeling her eyes on him, he looked up and smiled at her.  He had assurance, a way of looking at her as though she were already attracted to him, though he was not handsome; a thick-lipped mouth, a scar on his jaw, and a nick out of his ear.  And he had thrown her cutwork on the ground.  “My name is Sara Andrews,” she said.

“Andrews, like the hotel.  That is easy to remember.”  no sweet words about her face being too beautiful for her name to be forgotten.  “Do you stay at the hotel?” he asked.

A gentleman never asked directly where a lady lived, to save her the embarrassment of appearing to desire his company.

“My aunt has a cottage at The Point.”

“That is not far.  Do you come to the tea dances at the hotel?”

“Seldom, Count Zohary.  My aunt thinks the diplomatic guests are not suitable company.”

“Very true.  But exciting, no?  do you find soldiers exciting, Miss Andrews?”

“Soldiering, yes, and diplomacy; I admit that I do.”

“A certain amount of blood . . . that is nice with the tea dances.”  with his thumbnail he marked a passage in the book and showed it to her.  As she arched her neck she actually licked her lips like an animal, she read.  “Do you find that exciting?”

“I am not a vampire, Count Zohary,”  she said, uneasily amused.

“I know that.”  her companion smiled at her, showing regular even teeth.  “I, for instance, I am a vampire,  and I can assure you that you are not one yet.”

“You, Count Zohary?”

“Of course, not as this man Stoker describes.  I walk in the sun, I see my face in a mirror; I assure you I sleep in sheets, not in dirt.”  He reached out and touched the thin gold cross she wore around her neck.  “A pretty thing.  It does not repel me.”  his fingers hovered very close to her neck and bosom.  “The vampire is very sensual, Miss Andrews, especially when he is also a soldier.  Very attractive.  You should try.”

She had let him go too far.  “I think you dare overmuch, Count Zohary.”

“Ah, why I dare, that is the vampire in me.  But you don’t hold up your cross and say, ‘Be gone, necturatul!’ “ he said.  “And that is the vampire in you.  Do you like what you read, Miss Sara Andrews?  You look as though you would like it very much.  Are you curious?  If you will come to the tea dance at the hotel, I will show you the handsome hotel sheets, and show you that vampires are–almost–as civilized as diplomats.”

He looked at her, gauging her response: and for a moment, horrified, she felt she would respond.  She wanted the brute crude power of the man.  “Count Zohary, you have mistaken me, I am respectable.”  she snatched the book away from him and stuffed it deep into her tapestry bag.  “I have–certainly no desire to see your–”  she would not give him the satisfaction of finishing the sentence.  “You’re making me talk nonsense.”

He brushed his moustache with his finger, then lifted one corner of his lip.  “What will convince you, dear respectable Miss Andrews?  My fangs?  Shall I turn into a wolf for you?  Come into your chamber like a red mist, or charge in like the cavalry?”  over their heads the leaves rattled and the wind soughed through the square.  Count Zohary looked up.  “Shall I tell you the future in your blood?  Shall I control the lake for you, or call a storm?  That is my best parlor trick.  Let us have a thunderstorm, you and I.

The wind controlled the lake, and Lake Sauver called thunderstorms once or twice a week in August, without help from foreign counts.  “If you can tell the future, Count Zohary, you know that everything you say is useless.”

“It is not my most reliable gift, Miss Andrews,” he said.  “Unfortunately, or I would not be here watching these fools negotiating, but back in New York drinking better beer at the embassy.  It works better after I have had a woman, or drunk blood.  Shall we find out together what those fools at the hotel will do?  No?  You do not wish to know?”  On the table there was a ring of condensation from her glass of ice water.  With mock solemnity he shook salt from the table shaker over it and stared at the water as if into a crystal ball, making passes like a fortune-teller.  “Seawater is better to look into; blood best.  Ice water–ach.  Miss Andrews, you make me work.  But I see you will come to the tea dance.  Today, Wednesday, or Thursday, you will come.”

“I will not,” she said.  “Of course, I will not.”

“Tomorrow?”

“Certainly not.”

“Thursday, then.”  From the direction of the lake, thunder muttered above the white tower of the church.  Count Zohary made a gesture upward and smiled at her.  She began to gather up her things, and he bent down, stretching out his long arm to pick up her fallen linen.  “This is almost done, you must come Thursday.”

“Why Thursday?” she asked, unwillingly.

“Because I have a bet with myself.  Before you have finished this Quatsch,” he said, “I will give you what you want.  I will have turned you into a vampire.”

A moist wave of a breeze rolled over the square, hissing: the leaves were tossed pale side up like dead fish.  She stared at him, the smell of the lake in her mouth, an acrid freshness.  He smiled at her, slightly pursing his lips.  Flushing, she pushed her chair away.  Count Zohary rose, clicked his heels, raised her hand to his lips; and through the first drops of rain she saw him stride away, his uniform the color of fresh blood against the brick and white of the surrounding buildings, darkening in the rain.  A soldier, his aide-de-camp, came forward with a black cape for him.  Unwillingly she thought of vampires.

 

That night the rain shook the little-paned windows of her white bedroom.  This monster has done much harm already,  she read.  Moisture in the air made the book’s binding sticky, so that both her palms were printed with fragments of the red name backward.  The howling of wolves.  There no wolves around the city, nor vampires either.  She could tell her own future without him: this fall in New York would decide it, what ever her strategies.  Women of her sort had all the same future.

How much less alive could she be if she were a vampire’s prey?

She pictured herself approaching men of her acquaintance and sinking her teeth into their throats.  This was fancy; she had no access to the ordinary powers of men such as the count.

But he had told her quite specific thing: and it intrigued her: he was with the embassy in New York.

The next day, though she was tired, she diligently sewed at her cutwork and pricked at it with her scissors, and finishing this respectable task, she felt as though she were again in control of herself, triumphant over Count Zohary, and ready to face him.

At her instigation, Mrs. Lathrop, her aunt’s friend, proposed that they visit the Hotel Andrews, and Aunt Mildred was persuaded to agree.

On Thursday, Elizabeth Lathrop and her Daughter, Lucilla, Aunt Mildred and she all fit themselves into the Lathrop carriage, and at a gentle pace, they were driven through the curving streets.  It was a perfect day, the breeze from the lake just enough to refresh them, late day lilies and heliotropes blooming behind old-fashioned trellis fences; a day for a pleasant, thoughtless excursion; yet as they passed through Market Square, she looked for his glittering red figure, and as they pulled into the handsome gravel driveway of the Andrews, she found herself excited; as if she were going to a meeting of some consequence.

Aunt Mildred and Mrs. Lathrop found them a table by the dance floor, which was not large but modern and well appointed.  An orchestra was playing waltzes; a few couples practiced their steps on the floor, and many soldiers sat at tables under the potted palms, flirting with young women.  There was no sight of Count Zohary.  At one table, surrounded by a retinue of men, the notorious Mme. J. held court, a laughing, pretty woman who was rumored to have brought down three governments.  While the orchestra played, Mrs. Lathrop and Aunt Mildred gossiped about her.  Lucilla Lathrop and Sara discovered nothing in common.  From under her eyelashes Sara watched clever mme. J.

Three women from the Japanese legation entered the room, causing a sensation with their kimonos, wigs, and plastered faces.  She wondered if these were Japanese vampires, and if the painted Japanese ladies felt the same male energy from all these.  Were those Japanese women’s lives as constrained as hers?

“The heat is making me uneasy, Aunt Mildred,” she suddenly said.  “I do believe I will go and stroll on the terrace.”  under her parasol, she let the lake wind cool her cheeks; she stared over the sandy lawn, over the lake.

“Miss Andrews.  Have you come to see my sheets?”

“By no means, Count Zohary.”  he was sitting at one of the little tables on the terrace.  Today he was in undress uniform, a brownish-gray.  In the bright light his blond hair had a foxy tint.  Standing, he bowed elaborately, drawing out a chair.  “I would not give you the satisfaction of refusing.”  she inclined her head and sat down.

“Then you will satisfy bt accepting?”

“Indeed not.  What satisfaction is that?”  she looked out over the lake, the calm harbor.  While yachts swayed at anchor, the ferry headed out toward the island, sun glistening off its windows and rail.  She had seen this view for years from Aunt Mildred’s house; there was nothing new in it.

“Come now, turn your head, Miss Andrews.  You don’t know what I offer.  Look at me.”  On his table was a plate of peaches, ripe and soft; she smelled them on the warm air, looked at them but not at him.  A fly buzzed over them; he waved it away, picked up a fruit, and took a bite of it.  She watched his heavy muscular hand.  “You think you are weary of your life, but you have` never tasted it.  What is not tasted has no flavor.  I offer everything that you are missing–ah, now you look at me.”  his eyes were reddish-brown with flecks of light.  He sucked at the juice, then offered the peach to her, the same he had tasted; he held it close to her lips.  “Eat.”

“I will have another but not this.”

“Eat with me; then you will have as many as you want.”  she took a tiny nip from the fruit’s pink flesh.  Soft, hairy skin; sweet flesh.  He handed the plate of fruit to her; she took one and bit.  Her mouth was full of pulp and juice.

“I could have your body,” he said in a soft voice.  “By itself, like that peach; that is no trouble.  But you can be one of us, I saw it in a square.  I want to help you, to make you what you are.”

“One of us?  What do you mean?”

“One who wants power,” he said with the same astonishing softness.  “Who can have it.  A vampire.  Eat your peach, Miss Andrews, and I will tell you about your Dracula.  Vlad Draculesti, son of Vlad the Dragon.  On Timpa Hill by Brasov, above the chapel of St. Jacob, he had his enemies hands and feet lopped off, their eyes and tongues gouged and cut out and their bodies impaled;  and as they thrashed in agony, he ate his meal beside them, dipping his bread into the blood of his victims, because the taste of human blood is the taste of power.  The essence of the vampire is power.”  he reached out his booted foot and, under the table, touched hers.  “Power is not money, or good looks, or rape or seduction.  It is simple, life or death; to kill; to drink the blood of the dying; but oneself to survive, to beget, to make one’s kind, to flourish.  The negotiators here have such power, they are making a red storm, with many victims.  I too have power, and I will have blood on my bread.  Will you eat and drink with me?”

“Blood–?”

He looked at her with his light-flecked eyes.  “Does blood frighten you, do you faint at the sight of blood, like a good little girl?  I think not.”  he took a quick bite from his peach.  “Have you ever seen someone die?  Did they bleed?  Did you look away?  No, I see you did not; you were fascinated, more than a woman should be.  You like the uniforms, the danger, the soldiers, but what you truly like, Miss Andrews, is red.  When you read about this war in the newspapers, will you pretend you are shocked and say Oh, how dreadful, while you look twice and then again at the pictures of blood, and hope you do not know why your heart beats so strong?  Will you say, I can never be so alive as to drink blood?  Or will you know yourself, and be glad when the red storm comes?”  he tapped her plate of peaches with his finger.  “To become what you are is simpler than eating one of these, Miss Andrews, and much more pleasant.”

“I wish some degree of power–who does not–but to do this–.  This is ridiculous, you must wish to make me laugh or to disgust me.  You are making terrible fun of me.”

“Drink my blood,” he said.  “Let me drink yours.  I will not kill you.  Have just a little courage, a little curiosity.  Sleep with me; that last is not necessary, but is very amusing. Then–a wide field, and great power, Miss Andrews.”

She swallowed.  “You simply mean to make me your victim.”

“If it seems to you so, then you will be my victim.  I want to give you life, because you might take it and amuse me.  But you undervalue yourself.  Are you my victim?”  For a moment, across a wide oval in front of the hotel, wind flattened the water, and through some illusion of light and wave, it gleamed red.  “See, Miss Andrews.  My parlor trick again.”

“No–I often see such light on the water.”

“Not everyone does.”

“Then I see nothing.”

By his plate he had a small sharp fruit knife.  He picked it up and drew a cut across his palm; as the blood began to well, he cupped his hand and offered it to her.  “The blood is a little lake, a little red lake, the water I like best to control.  I stir it up, Miss Andrews; I drink it; I live.”  With one finger of his right hand he touched his blood, then the vein on her wrist.  “I understand its taste; I can make it flow like a river, Miss Andrews.  I can make your heart beat, Miss Andrews, until you would scream at me to stop.  Do you want to understand blood, do you want to taste blood, do you want your mouth full of it, salty, sweet, foul blood?  Do you want the power of blood?  Of course you do not, the respectable American girl.  Of course you do, you do.”

He took her hand and pulled her close to him.  He looked at her with his insistant animal eyes, waiting, his blood cupped in his hand.

She knew that at that moment she could break away from his grip and return to Aunt Mildred and the Lathrops.  They had not so much as noticed that she had been gone or know what monstrous things had been said to her.  She could sit down beside them, drink tea, and listen to the orchestra for the rest of her life.  For her there would be no vampires.

The blood, crusted at the base of his fingers, still welled from the slit he had made in his palm.  It was bright, bright red.  She bent down and touched her tongue to the wound.  The blood was salty, intimate, strong, the taste of her own desire.

 

The white yacht was luxuriously appointed, with several staterooms.  They sailed far out on the lake.  Count Zohary had invited the Lathrops and her aunt to chaperone her.  On deck, Mr. Lathrop, a freckled man in a white suit, fished and talked with Count Zohary.  Aunt Mildred and Mrs. Lathrop talked and played whist, while Lucilla Lathrop’s knitting needles flashed through yards of cream-white tatting.  Sara began another piece of cutwork, but abandoned it and stood in the bow of the boat, feeling waves in her body, long and slow.  In part she was convinced Count Zohary merely would seduce her, she did not care.  She had swallowed his blood and now he would drink hers.

Under an awning, servants served luncheon from the hotel.  Oysters Rockefeller, cream of mushroom soup with Parker House rolls, salmon steaks, mousse of hare, pepper dumplings, match-sticked sugared carrots, corn on the cob, a salad of cucumbers and Boston lettuce, and summer squash.  For dessert, almond biscuits, a praline and mocha-butter ream glazed cake, and ice cream in several flavors.  With the food came wine, brandy with dessert, and a black bottle of champagne.  She picked at the spinach on her oysters, but drank the wine thirstily.  In the post-luncheon quiet, the boat idled on calm water; the servants went below.

Mr. Lathrop went to sleep first, a handkerchief spread over his face.  Then Lucilla began snoring gently in a deck chair under the awning, her tatting tangled in her lap;  Mr. Lathrop’s fishing rod trailed from his nerveless hand;  Sara reeled it in and laid it on the deck, and in a silent noon the thrum of the fishing line was as loud as the engine had been.  Aunt Mildred’s cards sank into her lap.  She did not close her eyes, but when Sara stood in front of her, her aunt did not seem to see her.  Alone, Mrs. Lathrop continued to play her cards, slowly, one by one, onto the little baize-colored table between her and Aunt Mildred, as if she were telling fortunes.

“Mrs. Lathrop?”  she looked up briefly, her eyes as dull as raisins in her white face, nodded, and went back to her cards.

“They have eaten and drunk,” Count Zohary said,  “and they are tired.”  a wave passed under the boat; Aunt Mildred’s head jerked sideways and she fell across the arm of her chair limply, rolling like a dead person.  Sara almost cried out, almost fell; Count Zohary caught her and put his hand across her mouth.

“If you scream you will wake them.”

Grasping her hand, he led her down the stairs, below decks, through a narrow passageway.  On one side was the galley, and there, his head on his hands, sat the cook, asleep; near him a handsome servant had fallen on the deck, sleeping too; she saw no others.

The principal stateroom was at the bow of the ship, white in the afternoon.  The bed was opened, the sheets drawn back; the cabin had an odor of lemeon oil, a faint musk of the lake.  “Sheets,” he said.  “You see?”  She sank down on the bed, her knees would not hold her.  She had not known, at the last, how her body would fight her; she wanted to not be here, to know the future that was about to happen, to have had it happen, to have it happening now.  She heard the snick of the bolt, and then he was beside her, unbuttoning the tiny buttons at her neck.  So quiet, it was so quiet.  She could not breathe.  He bent down and touched the base of her neck with his tongue, and then she felt the tiny prick of his teeth, the lapping of his tongue and the sucking as he began to feed.

It was at first, a horror to feel the blood drain, to sense her will struggle and fail; and then the pleasure rose, shudders and trembling so exquisite she could not bear them; the hot cabin turned to shadows and cold and she fell across the bed.  I am in my coffin, she thought, in my grave.  He laid her back against the pillows, bent over her, pushed up her skirts and loosened the strings of her petticoats; she felt his hand on her skin.  This is what she had feared, but now there was no retreat.  She welcomed what was to come.  She guided him forward; he lay full on her, his body heavy, pressed against her, his uniform braid bruising her breasts.  Their clothes were keeping them from each other.  She slid the stiff fastenings open, fumbled out of her many-buttoned dress, struggled free of everything that kept her from him.  Now, she whispered.  You must.

They were skin to skin, and then, in one long agonizing push, he invaded her, he was in her, in her very body.  Oh, the death pangs as she became a vampire, the convulsions of all her limbs!  She gasped, bit his shoulder, made faces to keep from screaming.  Yet still she moved with him, felt him moving inside her, and his power flowed into her.  She laughed at the pain and pleasure unimaginable, as the lake waves pulsed through the cabin and pounded in her blood.

:Are you a vampire now, little respectable girl?”

“Oh, yes, I have power, yes, I am a vampire.”

He laughed.

When she dressed, she found blood on her bruised neck; her privates were bloody and sticky with juice, the signs of her change.  She welcomed them.  In the mirror, she had fine color in her cheeks, and her white linen dress was certainly no more creased than might be justified by spending an afternoon on the water.  Her heart beat heavy and proud, a conquering drum.

She went on deck and ate a peach to still her thirst, but found it watery and insipid.  It was late, toward sunset, the light failing, the water red.  In the shadows of the waves she saw men silently screaming.  She desired to drink the lake.

Mr. Lathrop opened his eyes and asked her, “Did you have a pleasant afternoon, Miss Andrews?”  His eyes were fixed, his color faded next to hers.  Lucilla’s face, as she blinked and yawned, was like yellow wax under her blonde hair.  Flies were buzzing around Mrs. Lathrop’s cards, and Mrs. Lathrop gave off a scent of spoiled meat, feces, and blood.  

“Good afternoon, Aunt Mildred,” Sara asked.  “How did you nap?”

Aunt Mildred did not answer.  Oh, they are weary, Sara thought, weary and dead.

Count Zohary came up the stairs, buttoning his uniform collar gingerly, as if his neck were bruised too.  To amuse him, she pressed her sharp cutwork scissors against the vein of Aunt Mildred’s neck, and held a Parker House roll underneath it; but he and she had no taste for such as Aunt Mildred.  She threw her scissors into the blood-tinged lake: they fell, swallowed, corroded, gone.

Under a red and swollen sky, their ship sailed back to the white hotel.  Count Zohary and Sara were the first to be rowed ashore.  Across the red lawn, lights blazed, and outside the hotel a great crowd had assemble.  “In a moment we will see the future,” he said.

“I saw men dying in the lake,” she answered.

They walked across the lawn together, her arm in his; under her feet beach sand hissed.

“Count Zohary, perhaps you have friends who share those interests that you have taught me to value?  I would be delighted to be introduced to them.  Though I know not what I can do, I wish for wide horizons.”

“I have friends who will appreciate you.  You will find a place in the world.”

As they entered the even more crowded foyer, the negotiators revealed, shaking hands.  From a thousand throats a shout went up.  “Peace!  It is peace!”

“It is the great storm,” said Count Zohary.  For a moment he looked pensive, as though vampires could regret.

They gained the vantage point of the stairs, and she looked down upon the crowd as though she were their general.  Many of the young men were dead, the Americans as well as the foreign obserers.  Sara looked at the victims with interest.  Some had been shot in the eye, the forehead, cheekbones; some were torn apart by bombs.  Their blood gleamed fresh and red.  The flesh of some was gray and dirt-abraded, the features crushed, as if great weights had fallen on them.  Next to her stood a woman in a nurse’s uniform: as she cheered, she coughed gouts of blood and blinked blind eyes.  Outside, Roam candles began to stutter, and yellow-green light fell over the yellow and gray faces of the dead.

But among them, bright as stars above a storm, she saw the vampires, the living.  How they had gathered for this!  Soldiers and civilians; many on the negotiating staffs, and not a few of the observers; the eminent Mm. J., who bowed to Sara distantly but cordially across the room; by the window a nameless young man, still as obscure as she; and her bright, her blazing Count Zohary.  The hotel staff moved among them, gray-faced, passing them glasses of champagne; but her glass was hot and salty, filled with all the blood to come.  For the first time, drinking deep, she was a living person with a future.

That autumn she was in New York, but soon traveled to Europe, and wherever she went, she helped to call up the storm.

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