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.

Cover of The Mermaid and the BearIn my previous post I commented on the first half of Ailish Sinclair’s first novel, describing it as “having all the charm and magic of a good children’s story, wrapped up in an adult fairy tale.”

I do like a novel which surprises. The Mermaid and the Bear had plenty of surprises for me.

Sexy

Not far into the second half it became pretty sexy! I didn’t expect that, not from the first half of the story nor from Ailish’s blog posts. She slipped easily into an insight into an eighteen years old young woman’s discovery of the urgency of physical love when prompted by ‘true love’. I suspect few eighteen year olds experience that now.

The role of women deftly interwoven

Another surprise was how the author managed to get so much modern thinking about the role of women in a story set over 400 years ago, without it jarring. It will be no surprise to anyone who has read my posts for some years that this was a pleasant surprise for me; it’s been a regular theme for me (how little far we’ve come in 400 years!).

Stone circles

The stone circles of Aberdeenshire, of which I’ve learned a lot from Ailish’s posts, feature. I’m not sure whether Ailish really believes they are magical but she’s pretty much convinced me.

Witches’ from fact

I liked the way Ailish wove the Aberdeen witch trials of the 1590s in to the story without it becoming a ‘historical’ text book, fictionalising real people and events, mixing them up with invented characters (as I am wont to do).

Enjoyable

I really enjoyed this novel on multiple levels. It’s not the kind of story I’d usually read, detective thrillers are what usually tempt me – my Kindle library has a few of those and my physical bookcase contains only the complete works of Dickens.

The historical notes at the end of Ailish’s book are really helpful but I’d urge you not to read them until after you’ve read the story.

The Mermaid and the Bear is published by GWL Publishing and available on Amazon and in some book shops.

 

 

I finished the Costa first novel award book. Not an easy read.

In my previous post I said that the writing seemed to have become better and I was beginning to enjoy it. Then, suddenly, it was back to forcing myself to read. The similes began to jump out at me again.

(One of the advantages of reading a Kindle version – despite my love of real books – apart from taking no space in our small flat, is that some analysis is easy. The word ‘like’, the majority as part of a simile, occurs no fewer that 600 times. I’m surprised that none of the editors picked that up.)

The author seems to have had difficulty writing some chapters. Apart from the early chapters, the most obvious is when she introduces S&M. At the time I couldn’t see why it had been introduced but that becomes clear as you approach the end, though I’m still not convinced it was necessary.

Slavery

What I did like is that I learned quite a bit about slavery and that the ending was hidden well, at least from me. However, parts of the story were not believable for me, eg the court scenes.

Maybe my first novella/novel will not sound believable (if I ever finish it); though it’s fictional, most of it did happen, though not quite in the way I relate it.

Mermaid and bear

It was a relief to escape into my current reading, also a first novel, by a blogger I’ve followed for quite a while: Ailish Sinclair. I’ve got only about half way into it but already I can say that it has all the charm and magic of a good children’s story, wrapped up (so far) in an adult fairy tale.

I’ve always enjoyed her posts having learned a lot from them, which I why I bought her novel. Also the promise of some real history of witches, which I’ve yet to get to. Another draw was that she is/was a ballet dancer. I’ve been a lover of ballet since I was seven years old and some time ago I wrote a short story around a visit to Covent Garden and another visit there plays an important part in my unfinished novella/novel.

Ailish’s blog posts, especially about stone circles and castles, determined me to spend some of last summer in Aberdeenshire. It has been no surprise to find stone circles occurring in the book, momentous events happening within them (I don’t want to give too much away). Unfortunately, ill health prevented my visit. Maybe next summer.

A big surprise is that, halfway through the story I’ve been confronted with how I thought it would end. So I’m intrigued by where it will go now.

So, if you want a relaxing read, with all the ups and downs of a Catherine Cookson tale, this might be a book for you. But I’m only half way through so who knows what is in store.

Ailish’s novel is called The Mermaid and the Bear, published by GWL Publishing and available on Amazon and in some book shops.