The Library

They were surprised to find a library in the castle. They had almost not come in; the entry fee of 40RON (about £8) for the two of them would usually have put them off but it had begun to rain heavily and the car was quite a walk away so they made an exception even though it was near to closing time.

There did not seem to be the usual supervisor in each room and when Smaranda saw a lot of books on shelves in a distant darkened room she hurried towards them. Libraries, particularly old libraries, had a special fascination for her as a history teacher.

I don’t think you should go in there,” Michael, her English boyfriend, cautioned. “That red rope across the doorway obviously means we’re not supposed to go in there. Anyway, it’s too dark to see much.”

I’ve got that little torch on my keyring so I just want to see what books they’ve got. They all look super old. I’m going in.”

Michael reluctantly followed.

It doesn’t look as though any of the books have been moved for years,” said Smaranda. “I can hardly see any of the titles,” she added, wiping a finger along one row of volumes.

Hey, there’s one here called Wallachia,” she called. “Oh, another has the word Vrăjitoariei on the spine, and here’s one titled Strigoi.”

I don’t know any of those words,” answered Michael.

Oh, it’s really exciting. Wallachia is the southern region which joined with Transylvania and Moldavia to become Romania. Vrăjitoariei is witchcraft and strigoi are spirits which can transform themselves into horrible animals. I’ve never seen a Romanian book on witchcraft or strigoi before, though of course we studied the history of Wallachia at university so I’ve seen plenty of books on that.”

I’m surprised you haven’t heard of vrăjitoariei before; you’re always complaining about how superstitious we Romanians are. As for strigoi, I thought you knew Latin pretty well: striga – evil spirit. Pretty much the same in Romanian, strigă. Strigoi is plural though sometimes used as singular too.”

Smaranda pulled out the volume titled Vrăjitoariei and was enveloped in a cloud of dust. When she was able to catch her breath she opened the book at a random page and called out excitedly, “This chapter seems to be full of vrăji – spells – mostly to cure all manner of ailments.”

She continued to leaf through the pages. “Good heavens, there’s a spell here to stop Jews killing new-born babies! What’s that about?”

“I think you should put that book back right now and we should leave. We’re not supposed to be in here anyway.” Michael sounded worried.

Smaranda ignored him and continued to turn the pages. ”Oh, there’s a spell here to summon a strigă. It says it’s only to be used on the eve of St. Andrew’s day or the eve of St. George’s day. Isn’t that odd? It’s St. Andrew’s day tomorrow I think, thirtieth of the November, isn’t it?”

I don’t know, St. George’s day is in April but I can’t remember the day.”

Shame on you, he’s your patron saint! Anyway, I’m going to try this one, the spell I mean.”

I think you should just put the book back; anyway, you shouldn’t mess about with such things, though of course I don’t believe a word of it.”

Oh, it says the spell needs a fire so that’s no good.” Smaranda sounded crestfallen, then suddenly shouted excitedly, “You’ve got a lighter, maybe that will do. Let me have it please.” Michael reluctantly  handed it over.

I don’t know whether I can get this right. It’s very old Romanian language: it reminds me of trying to read Ion Creangă’s ‘Childhood Memories’ but it seems even older.

I gave up with that having not understood a thing,” Michael said sullenly; he was proud that he’d mastered reading and speaking modern Romanian, though he still had difficulty writing it.

Smaranda clicked the lighter and with the flame in front of her began to chant some words, reading from the book.

Michael understood not a word.

§

He saw it first.

A pale light behind Smaranda which began to swirl around, as though stirred by an invisible spoon, until it began to take on a recognisable form, vaguely human but as it became more recognisable, hideously distorted, limbs sticking out in unnatural directions and a face like a foam latex mask pulled in all directions around a mouth open in what seemed to be a scream, though inside just black, as though it had no end.

A wild eerie shriek behind her made Smaranda turn around, just in time to see the horrible form solidify into an owl. She had time to recognise a barn owl, often wrongly known as a screech owl because of its call, before the bird flew onto her shoulder.

No sooner had it landed than Smaranda shrieked loudly herself as she felt a sharp pain in her neck. The owl spread its wings and flew around and around her head, shrieking continuously till the shriek turned into a scream, familiar to many Romanians as the cry of the fattened pig as its throat is cut to kill it for winter meat.

At the same time the owl began to take the form of a much distorted pig then alternate between pig and owl, each transformation being more horrendous than the previous one.

Finally it was the owl which settled on Smaranda’s shoulder again, sunk its beak in the bloody gash it had made previously, its breast pulsating like a fast beating heart. Smaranda became ever more pale before dissolving into a vague distorted form resembling the strigă which Michael had first seen.

Michael tried to grab Smaranda’s hand to pull her from the room but there was nothing of substance to hold on to.

One of the strigoi began to fly faster and faster around Michael’s head, alternating between the vague distorted form of the strigă and a pig, which soon settled into the form of a boar which sank its fangs into Michael’s chest.

§

The police forensics team, called in the next morning, were baffled. The male, with two deep incisions near to the heart, had clearly died from them almost instantly but there was no weapon.

Even more baffling was the body of the young female. She had obviously died from exsanguination but there was not a sign of blood on the library floor.

A lighter lay near her right hand and a book near her left.

The policeman examining the body called out “This book is open, she seems to have been reading it. It’s open at a chapter titled Vrăji. Anyone know what that means?”

No one did.


This is the first time I’ve tried this. Usually in the writers’ club we each read our own contribution. So here is me reading the above story. I’ll get better!


I don’t usually pick up on the theme often given as a writing prompt at our writers’ club, Writing on the Wharfe, preferring to write about whatever comes into my head. This time the given theme of ‘libraries’ appealed. It gave me an opportunity to explore Romanian legends less well known than Dracula and vampires, which are more modern anyway.

You can blame another blogger and a writers’ club member for the above story. Ailish, whose first novel I sort of reviewed here and here, planted witches in my head; Jo – whose stories I always enjoy when read in the club, surprisingly even the horror stories as it’s not a genre I usually enjoy – has somehow got me trying to write ‘horror’.

Notes:

In the past there have been trials of ‘witches’ in Romania, similar to those in Aberdeen described by Ailish Sinclair in her novel The Mermaid and the Bear. Gypsies and Jews seem to have been particularly targetted in Romania.

True screech owls are confined to the Americas. Barn owls, plentiful in Europe, make a screeching sound rather than the ‘tewit tewoo’ usually associated with owls.

I really like the ancient Romanian female names so chose one for this story. The founder and ‘leader’ of our writers’ club has another, Ruxandra, so I never shorten it to ‘Ruxi’ as most club members do. Another I like a lot is Ilinca.

With Paula, my pupil a quarter of a century ago, in her home in the beautiful Bistrița valley

With Paula, my pupil a quarter of a century ago, in her home in the beautiful Bistrița valley

After a seven and a quarter hours drive, including a couple of stops, I’m back in the city, Romania’s second largest city (after the capital) in terms of population – Iași. I’m not happy.

Iași is not a bad city as cities go, but I would not choose to stay in it, nor any other, for any length of time in the summer. The things which would attract me, the theatre which is also the opera house and the philharmonic hall with its superb resident orchestra and choir, have no programme in the summer.

Bucovina

The summer is a time to spend in the beautiful countryside of northern Romania, for me the area known as ‘the Bucovina’ – basically the ‘county’ (județ) of Suceava – and the neighbouring ‘county’ of Neamț, where we have just spent a few days. The motivation to visit there was two-fold: to take Petronela’s parents to visit three monasteries in Neamț ‘county’ – Neamț, Agapia and Varatec (my favourite) – and to visit another former pupil from 24 years ago, Paula (see post, post and post).

Highlight of the trip

Paula lives in the beautiful valley of the river Bistrița, so after visiting the three monasteries, staying two nights near Agapia, we continued south to the large lake of Bicaz, then turned up the Bistrița valley to Vatra Dornei, staying a couple of nights in Broșteni and visiting Paula and her family in Borcă. Needless to say, the highlight of the trip for me was the visit to my former pupil, now a teacher of English in Broșteni.

Varatec monastery – my favourite

Petronela and me at the Varatec monaster

Petronela and me at the Varatec monastery

The Varatec monastery is not one of the famous painted monasteries of the Bucovina; apart from it being a particularly beautiful monastery tended by its resident nuns, not monks, it has fond memories of taking Petronela’s grandmother there for Easter (whatever your faith, or none, the night before Easter Sunday at a monastery is an experience not to be missed if possible).

If you are just having a holiday in Romania there is little reason to stay in a city. None of them other than Bucharest is so large you cannot stay in a bed and breakfast outside the city and go in to visit places of interest, eg the open air museums with their collections of traditional houses or those castles which are within the cities, eg the ‘cetatea’ in Suceava, Bucovina, or the old city within Sighișoara in Transylvania. Even Sibiu has lost its charm for me, the craftsmen and women with their wares around the large central square in the 1990s being completely replaced by bars and restaurants.

Transylvania and the Dracula nonsense

Don’t be misled by the concentration on Transylvania; parts of Transylvania are certainly beautiful but what drags so many tourists there is the myth of Dracula but, for example, Bran castle near Brașov has little if anything to do with the real ‘Dracula’, Vlad Țepeș, who in turn has nothing to do with vampires, and the Dracula hotel at the top of the Tehuța pass between Bistrița and Vatra Dornei is even more of a nonsense.

The decorated monasteries

Of course if you visit Romania I would say ‘a must’ is a visit to the decorated monasteries of the Bucovina but be careful; everything around them and within them is unjustifiably expensive. The most renowned, Voroneț, is not for me the most attractive – I prefer Moldovița or secondly, Sucevița.

Humor monastery

An attempted visit to one of the less renowned, Humor, on our way ‘home’ was abandoned when we saw the entrance price and the levy to take a photograph (I visited it more than once many years ago when there were no charges). Having said that, Humor is one where the external images are best preserved despite being one of the earliest to be decorated. It is also perhaps one of the most interesting (just Google ‘monasteria Humor’ for more details why), but in my opinion that does not justify being ‘ripped off’ (the craft items on the stalls around are also overpriced and the genuine items mixed with a lot of rubbish from maybe China and India). There are no entrance charges or fees to take photographs in the Neamț monasteries.

Bureaucracy – Romanian + EU

Apart from visiting Petronela’s parents in Iași city, we unfortunately need to spend a time here to attempt to complete various ‘administrative’ tasks which can only be completed in a city, in our case only in Iași. Despite Romania being one of the best internet connected countries in Europe, there is little you can do to tackle the formidable bureaucracy on line, made all the worse by Romania now being in the European Union.