By Kevin Urban
Sitting in my motor wagon in front of the Alexandra Orphanage, at Haverstock Hill, London. It’s 1905, and I wait, wondering where these decades have gone.
With adoption papers, folded in my hand, I watch the many destitute faces that peer from the windows of what is a children’s prison, a reminder of my boyhood. It has been so long now, since those days, that my youth seems like a dream, a happy dream.
Now, my mind, filled with so many memories, it is difficult to distinguish between the real and the imaginary. My actions, and those of my master are interwoven in such a way that I often wake feeling that I am him. And, like all dreams, no matter how horrific, or magnificent, once awake, the feeling of now soon takes over, and what I must do to live steps to the forefront of my mind.
I live, or should I say, exist in a troubling way. An existence that is to serve the Baron. In doing so, I have become a vessel of his thoughts, wisdom and desires. My place is one of necessity. My vocation, something of a caretaker, and undertaker. I have learned to cope with his impending needs. And though every instance fills me with an impulse to run away, the desires that fill him seize my mind, spellbound by the power that he has and which envelopes me; a strength I feed from and that feeds from me. Yet this servitude to his existence, that has garnered me great status, is also a curse.
Looking back to those happy dreams, I wonder if there was any path other than the one chosen for me. The circumstances, no matter how unfortunate, were not uncommon for a child of my age. In those days, that now seem story-bookish, an opportunity arose for me and my siblings that would have been impossible to decline. In that way, I have conceded that perhaps I chose this life.
The fantasm of my existence is still something of a mystery to me, however, I have totally accepted this. In this ambiguity, I live out a life that has repeated many times over. How much of it my direct involvement and how much fed to me by my strange bond with the Baron makes me pause to consider. This torture alone drives me to ignore those thoughts. My sanity has become the product of accepting my fate, of not questioning what I have done, or what he has done. And though my siblings have since passed away from old age, perhaps the primary strangle-hold the Baron had upon me, has been broken. Yet, this is now my life.
My face, etched with the scars of having lived as long as I have is only a mask I wear. It inspires fear. This, combined with my abnormal strength is monstrous, but serves me with the needs of the Baron, which have become more frequent since my predecessor expired. Burkhardt, who I feared more than any man, I now have empathy. It is only in these latter years that I feel I knew him, and maybe how he possibly felt toward me.
My journey started when Burkhardt transported me, my sister, and my brother from an orphanage many years ago in a horse-drawn carriage down a wicked road.
Leafless winter trees arched over the path, lifeless yet alive, as my siblings and I approached the Baron’s estate. My sister Gretchen’s thirteen-year-old face looked cheerful as she tested the bow in her hair. Peter, eleven, played with a curtain’s tassel that swung from the carriage window.
Miss Ostrom, the orphanage housemother, slapped Peter’s hand with a ruler. “Don’t force me to take you back,” she said and then skewered us all with her eyes. “Behave!” Her thin lips tightened, showing her teeth.
My fear of her shook me like the trot of the horses over the ruts of the road. I was older than the others, but still a boy, and looked forward with hope toward the secluded mansion that drew nearer.
We turned into a deep circular driveway. The wheels grinding as the horses galloped through the gravel, their hooves crunched as we came to a halt. The ponderous coachman’s exit rocked the carriage. His steps threshed through the small stones with the stride of a tall and heavy man. We climbed out and he stood before us. His cheekbones stabbed outward like the hips of an old horse, under deep-set irritated eyes. He turned his slouching, powerful shoulders and walked toward the mansion. His bodily proportions demonstrated great strength.
“Children? Prepare to greet your new master.” Miss Ostrom nodded. Her pointed chin guided us. The ruler she held in her grip was a menacing promise, which had struck my knuckles many times over.
I tilted my head back and viewed the magnitude of the gothic fortress. Dark lichen-splotched sandstone blocks rose skyward. At its highest, the walls seemed to lean over me against the passing clouds. The windows mirrored the blackened stone like the many eyes of a waiting spider.
Three Doberman Pinschers appeared from the right side of the mansion. They whined with excitement, stopping near the Coachman at the bottom of the stone steps leading to a platform before the door. The largest of the dogs took sight of me. Its elation faded with a low baritone growl.
“Good, Petra.” The driver patted the beast.
The Coachman ascended the stairs with sculptured lions on either side. He pounded an iron ring suspended on a reinforced door; the reverberation quieted the animals.
The entrance opened wide, revealing a stout, apron-clad woman. Near her, a frail elderly man rested in a wicker wheelchair that reclined like a chaise lounge. Behind him, a magnificent staircase spiraled upward. The Coachman walked inside and stepped behind the chair. He took it by its rear handles. His slightly bent posture fit perfectly with the chair as if formed into it. He pushed it forward. The large spoked tires squeaked with a pitch from which the dogs retreated.
Miss Ostrom ushered us to the doorway. The smell of sour cabbage soup drifted out.
She extended a hand. “This is Baron Roskavarni. You are fortunate to have such a wealthy master to take you in.”
A thin-skinned hand emerged from under a blanket stretched over the Baron’s knees. His crooked finger motioned us in. “Come close, let me look at my gifts,” his voice crackled.
We stepped through the door as the aproned woman stretched out a muscular arm toward Miss Ostrom. For once, since the death of our parents, I felt free from her grip.
“Have the stable groom take her back,” the old man commanded. He glanced up and back at the Coachman. “You’ve performed well, Burkhart.”
The burly woman pushed Miss Ostrom out. She pulled the door shut, the light faded, and the bolts latched.
The Baron clasped his palms as if sitting before a feast. “Take the two young ones for supper, Magdalena.”
The stoic aproned woman nodded in agreement.
The Baron pursed his lips with discernment, reading me through cloudy cataracts. “What is your age, young man?”
“Fourteen, the April last,” I answered as the woman drew my siblings away to the left wing of the house. I watched them vanish through a great sitting room decorated with portraits and heraldic shields.
The Baron inhaled as if sniffing a blossom. “Ah, to be fourteen again.” His milky marbles rolled in their sockets, calculating as he wrung his hands. He lifted a pointed finger. “Der Transfusium!“
“Jawhol, Herr,” Burkardt answered, and bore into me with a hawkish gaze. “This way, Erik.” Burkhart ordered. Then, turned the wheelchair to the right heading down a hall, poorly lit and cold. We stopped before two large wooden doors that swung wide as the chair pushed through them.
We entered a dimly lit room. Mahogany bookcases filled the walls, but which could not accommodate the hundreds of other books that stood in dust-covered pillars. Sculptures and leather furniture surrounded me. A strange musty odor filled my nostrils, something ancient and decayed.
A single wide band of sunlight entered at a sharp angle from a partly opened curtain. It lit the room and held captive infinite specks of dust. Our movements hurled invisible whirlwinds, sending this nebula into chaos. I realized no person had been in the room for quite some time. My eyes focused beyond into the darkness. At the rear of the room, an apparatus of chaotic design stood like a contradiction to the elegance.
Burkhart turned the Baron around and wheeled him back, setting him next to a system of glass cylindrical chambers on polished brass pedestals. Tubes hung from a suspension above them, and over an armchair on the other side. Burkhart stepped past me. He closed the doors, locking them. I stood, pondering his intentions.
“Schnell! Schnell!” the Baron demanded like a spoiled child as Burkhart marched toward me with the fortitude of an angry schoolmaster. From under my arm, he lifted me like I was a coat to be hung up.
He seated me with a harsh thrust into a chair, then secured me with a belt across my chest. He bound my wrists to the arms of the chair, leaning over me. A putrid odor emanated from his body. A sinking dread filled me.
“What did I do wrong?” I cried, but received no answer.
Burkhart stepped away and pulled down a lever on the strange apparatus. A mechanical winding sound intensified, as armatures with bizarre lights flashed from behind. It cast our twisted shadows against the wall in front of us, like spirits escaping our bodies. Burkhart’s ghostly apparition rose upward and back across the ceiling. Its phantom arms flailed like tentacles as he operated the strange contraption.
The Baron writhed with pain when Burkhart slid long needles connected to tubes into the old man’s arms. Burkhart then turned to me with needles in hand. I wrenched against the straps with all of my strength, knowing his intentions.
“Good,” Burkhart sighed. “Show me your veins.”
I could only look away as he punctured each of my arms.
In between us and under the glass cylinders, an accordion-like bladder rose and fell with respiration. A suction tugged at me with each gulp of air it commanded.
The chamber next to me filled with bright red blood in spurts that matched the throb of the breathing machine. The Baron’s was a vile brown that oozed like gravy. A tube extending from it led to my right arm. My mind swirled, and all went black.
I awoke shrieking from a nightmare, looking about the room, unsure where I was. The glow of a candle now replaced the swatch of natural light. The Baron stood. No longer a sickly man, he rubbed his arm above a clenched fist. “You are a rhapsody of vitality, Eric.”
“What did you do to me?” I demanded with the little strength I had.
He rolled a shirt sleeve down and gave a knowing nod to Burkhart, who exited.
A horrid image flashed before my eyes; a boy, boney and limp. His body tossed into a shallow pit, like a rag doll. His limbs twisted like the strands of a wet mop. Facedown, he flopped before shovels of dirt splashed over him.
“Agh!” I exhaled. My eyes searched the room for an explanation. A trickle of sweat bled from my scalp.
“Shush.” The Baron placed a finger to his lips. “I see you are already experiencing my memories. Oh, Erik, the things I have accomplished, and you will live them over again as Burkhart has.”
The sound of a chamber orchestra played in my head. A vision of an elegant woman wearing a gown flashed before me. She smiled with a promise of love. Then the music stopped, and she lay across a bed. A scream filled my ears. Bare bosom, and with bulging eyes, veiny hands clutched her neck.
“Stop choking her!” I cried, as my eyes must have stared somewhere beyond.
“Ah, the Viscountess Von Schlägl, perhaps?” The Baron said as he frowned with pity. “I am not proud of everything I have done.” Then he shrugged. “Some of which I have forgotten… It has been so many millennia.” His sadness faded. “But, I feel your youth and optimism coursing through me now.” He raised a fist. “Fantastisch!”
The Baron paced. “I understand Petra has taken a dislike to you. I doubt you could reach the gate before she had you by the throat… But, if you made it… Boys are clever that way, you would end up in the hands of Miss Ostrom once again, which would lead you back to me.”
“Please, don’t hurt my sister and brother.” I sobbed, looking downward.
The Baron paused. “Yes, little Peter,”—He glanced to his side—”He would have to take your place if you vanished.” The Baron blinked with satisfaction. “And, sweet Gretchen, she’s almost a woman, you know.” He leaned toward me with crystal clear eyes. “Don’t give me a reason to use them!”
I bobbed my head in agreement, fighting down the sickness of his rotten blood that flowed through me.
“That’s better,” the Baron answered. “You need your strength, or should I say… I need it.”
My jaw gaped and my innocence flew from my throat with a prolonged, howling shriek that echoed through the mansion.
The child in me died. I slumped in the chair. My limbs, like those of the trees, hung lifeless yet alive as the Baron removed my straps.
“This is only the beginning.” He took a deep breath. “Ah, cabbage soup, it purifies the blood.” The Baron placed a gentle hand upon my shoulder. “You will come to accept it as they all have. Now, you must eat, for we will be together for many years, and one day… You will take Burkhart’s place.”