The door opened again, this time two women entered, the police detective whose name I could not pronounce if I were paid, and a younger lady, tall with mouse-brown hair and skin the same color as freshly bleached hospital sheets.
“Alex, this is Petu’s Daughter, Catina.” She said as my translator and I both stood.
I took her outstretched hand, “it’s nice to meet you, thank you for coming.” Catina shook her head, I was not sure what it meant. She took the hand of Tommy, my translator and she smiled.
We all retook our seats, and Catina sighed lightly.
“Catina, can you tell me a little about what lead up to this?”
“Of course. What would you like to know?”
“Let’s start with when you left for college. What was that like? What was life in the village like by then?”
She laughed, “I’d hardly call it a “village” By that point exactly three people were living there. My Father, and an elderly lady who pretty much kept to herself and grew a lot of garlic, and myself.”
"Is it fair to say it was isolated then?”
“Yes, I think that’s a good way to say it. Though, it used to be bigger, more people, nicer in a lot of ways than the big cities where most people live today.
The day I left, I remember it so well. I did not want to leave him up there in the mountains all alone. I can recall the conversation as clearly today as if I had had it with him an hour ago.
“Da, come with me. I had insisted when I was accepted into the university in Sofia. But he refused. He said, “This is my home. I will not abandon everything to move to a strange place with strange people who have even stranger ideas.”
“Da, there is nothing left here, look around,” She waved her hand as if showing me the desolate landscape. “We are the only ones left here once she dies. I pointed out a small pile of rubble with a chimney that slowly curled smoke into the clear noon sky. Who will look after you?” I asked him.
I recall his sad smile, “I’m an old man, there’s no reason to worry. I have been keeping myself for a long time. Go, learn, get a job, but remember always who you are. We are descendants of Dracul. There are things in this world to fear more than being alone.”
The next day, with my small bag, packed he walked down the mountain trail with me, he hugged me tightly before leaving me at the bus stop. “You write to me every day.” his voice seemed small and pleading.
The look in his eyes nearly broke my heart. “I don’t want to go. Let’s go home.” I was fighting back tears by this point.
“You must go. It’s the only way for you. As you pointed out,” he said, “There is no one left to look after you should something happen. Soon, I too will pass. That is the way life works, we come and go like the seasons. You are supposed to get married, have kids, and grow old one day yourself.”
“I told him I was scared, it was the first time I’d heard him laugh in a long time.”
“That I shall never see you again. That something will happen to you here or me down there, or that I will fail and everything you worked for will be for nothing...” her voice trailed off. I did not wish to interrupt her thoughts.
She took a drink of water and passed me a picture. Old, faded, the edges worn and ragged. The man held the hand of a small girl, maybe two or three years old. A woman sat in a chair the child in her lap. The man was tall, slender, with dark hair and a bushy mustache. The woman was fair and seemed to be ready to take command of the situation if needed.
She started speaking again, “He said to me, “Child, you will not fail, and I will be fine. You will come to see me on your breaks. You will see, it will all work out.”’
I could not speak again until the bus arrived. We sat in silence, the fog pressing against us like wet wool.
I handed the picture back to her. “These were your parents?”
She smiled weakly as she took the photo and put it back in a little plastic sleeve.
“I loved them so much. It was hard, first losing her then, having to leave him alone up there. I was worried, and it seems I had the right idea if I had stayed…”
“I don’t think it would have changed anything. He still would have died, and you still would have had to move. I don’t think you had anything to do with the original outcome.” The detective patted Catina’s hand that rested on the wooden tabletop.
“Maybe, Ilsa, but life is full of small things that we decide that lead to outcomes we can’t begin to calculate.
And those people, the lot of them are backward, superstitious. Maybe had I brought his body here this would not have happened?”
“I think it would have anyway. The one-man I spoke with said when your father was born he was biting his umbilical cord. Now, I don’t know if that’s true, or if they are making things up as time passes, but you know, tradition… It dies hard.” Detective Ilsa handed Catina a glass of cool water. “Drink. Shall we take a break?”
Catina shook her head, “No, let us get this over with. Maybe it will prevent other such atrocities in the future.” She looked at me, “Alex, you are writing this to help people understand that these legends are dangerous. That they do not need to do these things. Right?”
“In part,” I replied, “But I am also trying to understand what caused them to do this. What drove the villagers to head to the grave, dig up the deceased, remove his heart from his chest as well as his liver with the tip of a scythe, in the middle of the night, then walk a mile to light a fire at a crossroad, where they burned the organs, and then drank the ash mixed with water vervain. It’s just so strange, and people want to know what drove them to it. Legend, history, a touch of madness perhaps?”
“Madness yes. History, maybe. And some might say that perhaps that was in part my father’s fault. He was always fascinated with Tepes. He had strange ideas, but the village was a strange place… Strange ideas were rather normal, to be honest. “
“So you don’t blame them? You’re not upset?”
“I was very angry. No one wants to see something like that happen to someone they loved. I was upset enough to call the police and report it, unlike everyone who simply allowed it to happen. I’m still mad, I’m mad at the people, the police, and the courts. I do not think they did enough to dissuade others from repeating this in the future.”
“Yes, the police arrested the leader of the group, and his nephew, a few others stepped forward to say they took part as if it was something to be proud of, they were too taken to jail. However, they were released in less than a week and the courts… well, they are a joke. A sick joke.”
“What happened?” I directed the question to the detective.
“The men were sentenced to six months, but the sentence was suspended so they spent no additional time in jail. I too was very disappointed with the outcome. I thought they were too light on them. This crime was unnatural in its vileness.” She wiped a tear away with the back of her hand.
“You did all you could do,” Catina whispered. “It was out of your hands, the men who decided their fate were wrong. I don’t understand why they got off so lightly, the courts here are not always obligated to explain themselves. Would you like to go to visit my father tomorrow?” She looked at me.
“If you’re sure you are up to it.”
Catina spoke to the detective, her rapid-fire Romanian flowing far too fast for me to catch but a few words. “She will take us,” she said after a back and forth between them.
She stood then and extended her hand. “It was nice to meet you Alex. I hope telling our story will help shape the future.”
“Thank you for agreeing to meet with me, I know you have your reservations.” Tommy smiled as he translated.
As I packed up my equipment in the now silent room, it occurred to me that these women had been through a lot the last few years. From the discovery of the crime to the ensuing trail, and ending with the backlash from the general population, they had earned my respect.
Tommy had said that he had heard about this case when I contacted him about acting as a translator. He was not interested at first, but being a student who needed to log hours on various aspects of his research for his thesis, I had managed to convince him that it tied nicely into his work on folk medicine in the middle ages.
He told me over the phone that he had no desire to go traipsing about, poking our collective noses into business people, the various governmental departments included, very much wanted to keep quiet about, with the strange foreign-born cop who people referred to in less than savory terms.
Had I imagined a spark between him and Petu’s daughter? I recalled that he leaned in a little further when she spoke. “Maybe,” I said aloud to the hard-shell camera case as I hefted it up and headed towards my hotel.