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The Blood Countess: A Novel

The Blood Countess: A Novel

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The Blood Countess: A Novel

ratings:
4/5 (6 ratings)
Length:
505 pages
8 hours
Publisher:
Released:
Jul 21, 2015
ISBN:
9781504015264
Format:
Book

Description

A “brilliant” novel of Elizabeth Bathory, the notorious sixteenth-century Hungarian aristocrat who bathed in the blood of virgins (St. Petersburg Times).

Turmoil reigns in post-Soviet Hungary when journalist Drake Bathory-Kereshtur returns from America to grapple with his family history. He’s haunted by the legacy of his ancestor, the notorious sixteenth-century Countess Elizabeth Bathory, who is said to have murdered more than 650 young virgins and bathed in their blood to preserve her youth. Interweaving past and present, The Blood Countess tells the stories of Elizabeth’s debauched and murderous reign and Drake’s fascination with the eternal clashes of faith and power, violence and beauty. Codrescu traces the captivating origins of the countess’s obsessions in tandem with the emerging political fervor of the reporter, building the narratives into an unforgettable, bloody crescendo.
 
Taut and intense, The Blood Countess is a riveting novel that deftly straddles the genres of historical fiction, thriller, horror, and family drama.
Publisher:
Released:
Jul 21, 2015
ISBN:
9781504015264
Format:
Book

About the author

ANDREI CODRESCU (www.codrescu.com) is the editor of Exquisite Corpse: A Journal of Books & Ideas (www.corpse.org). Born in Romania, Codrescu immigrated to the United States in 1966. His first collection of poetry, License to Carry a Gun (1970), won the Big Table Younger Poets Award, and his latest, So Recently Rent a World: New and Selected Poems: 1968–2012 (2012), was a National Book Award finalist. He is the author of the novels The Blood Countess, Messi@, Casanova in Bohemia, and Wakefield. His other titles include Zombification: Essays from NPR; The Disappearance of the Outside: A Manifesto for Escape; New Orleans, Mon Amour; The Hole in the Flag: A Romanian Exile’s Story of Return and Revolution; Ay, Cuba!: A Socio-Erotic Journey; The Posthuman Dada Guide: Tzara and Lenin Play Chess; Whatever Gets You through the Night: A Story of Sheherezade and the Arabian Entertainments; The Poetry Lesson; and Bibliodeath: My Archives (With Life in Footnotes).  


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The Blood Countess - Andrei Codrescu

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On the last day of the sixteenth century, Countess Elizabeth Bathory of Hungary, despondent over the irremediable passage of time, angered at the betrayal of her flesh, and sorrowed beyond measure at the passing of her youth, ordered her maids to break all the mirrors in her hilltop mansion at Budapest.

The frightened girls lowered the heavy frames from the walls and carried them out into the cold. Some of them cried without knowing why, suspecting that their mistress’s whims had taken an even darker turn. When they reached the center of the courtyard, they laid the mirrors tenderly on the snow. The leaden sky reflected gloomily in them, but then it seemed that even the sky fled, leaving the polished surfaces dark.

From her perch at the window, Elizabeth signaled to them to begin. Watching her swarm of black-clad women smashing glass with shovels under the still-falling snow, Elizabeth felt a cold flame rise within her. They looked like crows, her women, laboring to bury the vanity of her flesh. When all the shards succumbed to a fresh blanket of snow, she vowed to erect a monument over the site, something powerful and cold that would commemorate the end of her temporal beauty.

She had supervised the shattering of her expensive collection of looking glasses hoping that what they had seen was being shattered as well. They had seen her transformation from a young girl to a woman, the blossoming of her flesh. They had seen the care she had taken with the vessel of her body, her intimate attention to its contours, her studious delight in the expanse of her skin, which she had studied as an explorer studies a map. They had seen also her abandon and the frenzy of her love sports, of which she was as proud as any artist. They had seen her try on faces and strike poses for official functions and clandestine assignations. Her mirrors held the discarded forms of her whims, her rejected poses, her failed selves. They had seen also her despondency, her defeated womanly being, her tear-drenched weakness. They had seen her humiliation at the hands of demons when she was alone with horned and winged creatures and no one could help her. She had allowed no human creature to see her defeated, but the mirrors had seen it all. And now they too, though made only of glass, had to be destroyed, because they had seen.

Elizabeth was not going to allow them to watch her grow old.

She had tried to put a stop to the passage of time, but her mirrors and her skills had failed. Time itself was her enemy, its very passing the darkness that cursed all with corruption and death. She had been gripped, as her friend Andrei once told her, by the pride of Lucifer. She despised nature in her star-bound course, in her slowness, her indifference. She had made contra naturam her credo, had emblazoned it on her stationery. What those mirrors had seen was a struggle no less fierce than the clash of armies all about her. Her victories had been brief and fraught with danger, and the hostility unending. But while her husband and his troops knew what they were fighting, her enemy had always been as elusive as it was ubiquitous.

But Elizabeth Bathory was not without hope. Andrei de Kereshtur, the friend of her childhood, had become a great magician. He had promised her shyly but firmly that he would use his magical arts to defeat time on her behalf. He had not yet completely mastered the formula, but he was nearing success. Should she die before he completed his work, he had promised her resurrection, in a beautiful body, at a future time. It might be a time far in the future, a different century even, but his promise would come to pass. Elizabeth believed him. Her time had been nothing but sorrow. She looked forward to being beautiful in a different century.

The heavy snow that fell throughout the afternoon and evening did little to lighten her spirits. She saw the whiteness as a shroud laid over her youth. From the ogival window of her bedroom she watched the fat flakes dancing over the cupolas and spires of the royal capital. One by one they buried her century, the century when she had been young and alive. The weightless crystals that she had welcomed with shouts of joy in her childhood were like nails now. She stared fixedly at the snow and thought she discerned a grinning shape in it, a skeletal woman holding a broken hand mirror. Elizabeth did not shrink from the apparition. When the gaunt form came close enough, she saw that it was none other than herself, mocked in the playful dance of the snow.

She would have turned for reassurance to her floor-to-ceiling Venetian glass, but it was no more. She continued to stare instead at the figure of her death, which she knew to be true. Looking glasses had outlived their capacity for flattery.

That evening, she chose her black garments for midnight Mass with the greatest care.

In the Church of Holy Mary in Budapest, Ilona Harszy, who had just turned fifteen years old, sang so beautifully that the Augustinian monks wept.

The Hungarian aristocrats attending the service showered the pale girl with praise. Some of them stripped their arms and necks of jewels and offered them to the church in gratitude.

Ilona stood modestly amid this storm of affection with her head bowed, inwardly thanking the holy Virgin for the inspiration that had caused her voice to soar to angelic heights. In her white shift she looked made out of nothing, a wispy white cloud in an otherwise empty sky. Her voice had been made of the purest and barest substance; the grit of this earth had not yet adhered to it. She shut her eyes tightly even as two tears made their way down the tender skin of her cheeks.

Watching closely from the front row, Palatine Thurzo of Hungary and his niece Countess Elizabeth Bathory seemed equally entranced.

The palatine fought the urge to rise from his seat, walk to the girl, lift her face in his hands, and drink those crystalline tears. They were doubtlessly ambrosial, a sort of holy water that would heal the weariness in his bones and lift from his shoulders, ever so briefly, the heavy mantle of state and his worries about his wild niece Elizabeth. The century that was about to end had been full of strife and sorrow. He had risen to the highest position in the land through cunning and ruthlessness, but there seemed to be no end to war and religious quarrels, and he was tired.

For her part, Countess Bathory was equally compelled to touch the divine instrument of the angels who stood in virginal shame before the worshiping crowd. But, unlike her uncle the palatine, the countess had no need to suppress her urges. The girl’s purity was like spring water to her thirst.

That day the countess had buried her vanity, and freedom welled within her.

Her uncle had mildly reproached her for wearing widow’s cloth, and she had laughed in his face. Her husband, the renowned warrior Franz Nadazdy, was on his deathbed in Castle Kereshtur. While not yet a widow, Elizabeth had been wearing the color of mourning for many years now. Franz had died for her more than a decade ago. The mere presence of his rotting body on a bed was no impediment to her widowhood.

And anyway, dear Uncle, she whispered to the palatine, today I mourn my own passing. I am my own widow.

She could see by the narrowing of his eyes under the bushy brows feared by so many that he did not understand. And this made her glad.

The ground in front of the church was strewn with the silk of noble overcoats, shed so that Ilona would not have to walk on the snow.

Her performance caused Baron Eszterhazy to write to her parents: Her pure voice was one of the best in Europe, better than I have heard in the opera houses of Italy.

By then, of course, his words came too late, and they brought no consolation to her parents.

The Augustinian monks who lived across the street from the Church of Holy Mary sewed a robe for Ilona. Their abbot, Teronius, admonished them to sew the robe purely, with thoughts of gratitude for the angel Ilona Harszy whose voice was sent from heaven.

And whose voice was now, doubtlessly, in heaven, though her body lay in its grave covered by the beautiful robe.

Barely two hours after Ilona’s astounding performance, an elegant carriage bearing the Bathorys’ coat of arms had arrived at the girl’s house, and a messenger had delivered a perfumed note and a gift of a gold locket set in precious stones. The note requested Ilona Harszy’s presence that same night at the house of Countess Bathory, who desired a private performance. The messenger waited for the answer.

Ilona’s father and mother, Gepy and Olyra Harszy, were modest landholders and petty nobles from the area of Kereshtur, which belonged to Countess Bathory. They too belonged to the powerful Bathory estate; no matter that they had gained some roundly disregarded and fleeting liberties from the Hungarian Parliament.

They could not refuse. Fearful to the bottom of their hearts, they bade farewell to their daughter. They had heard dreadful things about the countess and they feared for the health of their frail child, whose miraculous voice was a triumph over a weak constitution prone to fevers and fatigue.

Ilona stepped into the carriage, still wearing her white shift, her shoulders covered by an ermine fur that had been a gift from a noble.

It had stopped snowing and was dreadfully cold, the kind of cold said to spawn wolf stars. The peasants believed that on such cold nights the stars came down from the heavens to mate with wolves. Their offspring terrorized the world on the dark nights of winter.

During the short ride to the Bathory palace, Ilona prayed to the Virgin. She begged her luminous protectress, who had given her voice such strength at Mass, to help her to enter the good graces of the powerful countess. She saw her plea leave on the cloud of her breath and dissipate into the icy night. She watched the black horses breathe clouds of steam. She looked back on her life but found little to give her strength. Her happiest memories were the moments when her voice had soared in praise of God. She had had but little joy in her childhood, when she had been sick most of the time and unable to play with other children. Love she had not known. She had glimpsed a young man’s burning eyes upon her in church, but she had felt such shame that she had given all her heart to her singing.

Elizabeth Bathory received the singer in the rose salon, a room paneled in rosewood and covered in rich Oriental carpets. A fire roared in the marble fireplace, making the room unbearably hot near the fire and cold just a few feet away from it.

The countess lounged close to the flames on a Turkish divan, clad only in a black silk robe. In her hand she held the gold mouthpiece of a Turkish hookah, on which burned a ball of golden hashish.

She rose slightly from her pillows, which were quickly readjusted for her by two maids who stood behind their mistress. The maids’ faces were lit by the red tongues of the flames, which accentuated the circles under their eyes and their air of fatigue.

The countess motioned Ilona to come close. The girl had begun to tremble when she saw the famed Elizabeth Bathory. She could not take her eyes off the white hand with long black fingernails grasping the gold mouthpiece.

The curtsy she attempted was clumsy.

Sing, my child, Elizabeth ordered. She lay back on her pillows, allowing her robe to fall open. She stroked the inside of her white thigh with her free hand without taking her eyes off the girl. She then drew smoke from her hookah.

Ilona opened her mouth but no sound came out.

Don’t be afraid, the countess encouraged her. Sing to me like the angel who sang before us tonight.

Once more the girl tried to sing, but fear had paralyzed her vocal cords, and she made no sound. All she could see were the countess’s black fingernails moving slowly and hypnotically on the white flesh of her inner thigh.

The countess rose from the divan, her face no longer composed. Fury twisted her features. She stood before the girl and first slapped her across the face, then scratched her cheek with her nails. Blood streamed through the skin. She then tore the white shift from the girl’s body.

Her maids, who had quietly come to stand behind the singer, tore off the rest of the girl’s meager garments. She now stood naked before Elizabeth, her head bowed, her hair streaming over her thin shoulders, tears falling from her eyes. The pale opals of her nipples rose from her small breasts, wet with tears. Her thin hips were boyish but her pubis was pronounced, covered in luxuriant soft dark curls.

The countess pulled fiercely at her own robe until she too stood naked. Her full breasts, fleshy hips, and loose abdominal skin faced defiantly the insubstantial form before her.

Thrusting her hand under the girl’s chin, she brought her head up sharply.

Behold womanhood! she cried.

The countess bit the girl’s nipples, first one, then the other, drawing blood. She caressed the length of Ilona’s neck, then pressed softly, looking for the pure notes that had moved everyone to tears. Where were those notes? She squeezed harder, expecting those angelic sounds to rise unbidden from the depths of the girl’s soul. But nothing came out, not even a cry of fear.

The girl had fainted. Elizabeth had been thwarted again by that nameless thing which had always taken from her what she truly wanted. She recognized it with familiar bitterness. Throwing the singer’s ermine over her own nakedness, Elizabeth dragged the unconscious girl outside, followed by her maids.

The snow had given way to a brilliant, star-studded sky. A quarter moon shed its feeble light over the courtyard. The temperature had fallen greatly. It was fiercely cold. Shivering, the women helped pull the singer to the top of the slight mound where Elizabeth’s mirrors lay buried.

The countess held the still-unconscious girl close, feeling the heat leave her body and seep into her own. The harsh cold pierced by the faraway stars made a music of its own, a desolate, high-pitched sound that Elizabeth remembered from her own childhood. As a young girl she had stood often at a window of her castle listening to the cold wind slice the endless night of the Hungarian puszta. Despite the castle’s blazing fires, she had felt no warmth, though she could imagine in fine detail, as in a woodcut, the savage mating of stars in human form with she-wolves. She had heard their cries and had called on the stars to come to her. They had ignored her, perhaps because she had not been hot-blooded enough for the icy stars.

Elizabeth felt the girl’s meager heat now, but it was too late to enjoy it, and there was too little of it to augment the small flame of memory that had flared within her.

Her best maid, Darvulia, brought a pail of water from the house. The maids held Ilona upright while Elizabeth poured water over the pale form. The water iced quickly and the girl froze on the spot.

The women stood gazing for a moment at the living statue. A blade of ice, sharp as a sliver of Venetian glass, curved forward from between the girl’s legs. Above this blade her pubis glistened with crystals. Her navel had filled with crystals as well, a sparkling cluster of small jewels.

Beauty, said Elizabeth coldly, how easily you cling to the docile!

The wind picked up just then, but if anyone heard her words they gave no sign of it.

The ice formed evenly around Ilona’s girlish hips. Her waist became a smooth sheet of glass. Her breasts were encased by two bells of ice, the coppery nipples visible beneath the glass like clappers. Under her chin, the dripping water had constructed closely knit icicles that looked like a scraggly beard.

Only Ilona’s blue eyes remained innocently open under their transparent sheet. They looked through Elizabeth at something she could not see, but she resisted the temptation to turn around. That’s where her mirror had always been.

She shivered and headed back to the house.

Gratefully her women followed her in, out of the terrible cold.

From the window of her bedroom Elizabeth watched the ice statue standing over her broken mirrors. Her thoughts came to her in splintered shards, reflecting the hundreds of faces of people, mostly girls, whom she had known, loved, and been disappointed by. Like the moonlit ice outside, they had all begun bathed in angelic grace, only to shed it when she needed it most.

When the first light of the sun rose over the snowbound capital of the kingdom, Elizabeth ordered her servants to wake everyone and to pack for the long trip to Kereshtur.

By nine in the morning, the Bathory house in Budapest was deserted.

Weeping before the closed gates, Gepy and Olyra Harszy, Ilona’s parents, soon attracted a crowd.

The suspicions that had now gathered around the feared Countess Bathory like a black cloud of rumor and fear gave the crowd courage to break down the gates.

Inside, a gasp went up from the enraged crowd as they beheld the statue of their beloved singer eternally frozen atop the snow.

Gepy and Olyra fainted, but such a clamor arose from the people that there was little doubt that this time the niece of the palatine would finally be brought to justice.

All the rest of that week, the Augustinian monks beat their bowls on the street in front of the Parliament, where the palatine Thurzo resided, making a dreadful noise, calling for the choir singer’s vindication, as reported in the Chronicles of Andrei de Kereshtur. The monks, according to Abbot Teronius, had been kept awake many nights by screams of anguish from Bathory’s house, but never had God been so blasphemed before.

The outraged Augustinians did not let up their demands for justice. They accompanied Ilona’s parents from royal office to courts of justice and from noble house to noble house, demanding an inquest.

But bringing to justice the most powerful noble in Hungary was no easy matter, as the palatine Thurzo, King Matthias, and Emperor Rudolf all knew. Castle Kereshtur, where Elizabeth now resided, had withstood the armies of two empires.

Standing before a New York judge, in the absence of a jury, without a lawyer or witnesses, a mustachioed man in his early fifties accused himself of a heinous crime. He had already been remanded to the custody of the district attorney’s office and was residing in a private cell at 100 Centre Street. This hearing was for the purpose of establishing a motive and providing the court with enough evidence to corroborate his testimony.

He said that his name was Drake Bathory-Kereshtur and that he had killed a young girl in Hungary. He begged the court to find him guilty and to sentence him to death. He would provide details beyond what was required and implicate the person who had caused him to commit the crime.

Up to a point, the judge did not find his confession extraordinary, but then the man claimed that his accomplice and instigator had lived over four hundred years ago. The man claimed to have been driven to his action by one of his ancestors, Countess Elizabeth Bathory, who had been born in the sixteenth century.

I killed her with my hands but not with my mind, Your Honor. I am incapable of murder. Elizabeth Bathory killed her, as she has done many times in the past.

"And what might her reasons have been?" the judge asked, aware that in certain mentally disturbed people, excessive logic tends to create a dramatic result.

But the self-accuser was not flustered.

She felt mortal at a time when there was no need to, Your Honor, because at the time nearly everyone believed that they were immortal. She had everything. She had angels, Your Honor. In a sense she resembled us more than she resembled her contemporaries.

However, the judge said, this hearing is not about her.

If only this were so. But there was a conspiracy. Its nature is only partially known to me. Its scope is beyond all of us. I have been set up by an alchemist and by a woman. His name is Andrei de Kereshtur. Her name is Elizabeth Bathory.

To the judge’s next brief questions, Drake Bathory-Kereshtur answered in the following manner:

Of course I am going to explain. Whether you will understand or not is another matter.

I am an American.

I am also a Hungarian.

Call me Drake. This is America. I used to be Bathory-Kereshtur. Still am.

I am going to make a lengthy statement, Your Excellency.

I will talk. Your scribe can take it down. I mean your stenographer, Your Highness.

OK, I will call you Your Honor, because this is America. You can call me Your Highness.

I know it’s not a joke.

I will start at the beginning. Bathory-Kereshtur. B-A-T-H-O-R-Y. Like bath. Rhymes with laboratory. Hortatory. It suggests bath and whoredom in English. In Hungarian it does not. In Hungarian it is a sigh. This name is key to what follows. And the reason I stand before this court accusing myself of a murder that was not my doing.

I have spent forty years trying to escape my name, Your Honor. I have enjoyed the blessed anonymity of America since the day I came here, a refugee, in 1956. I have thanked this country every day for affording me the opportunity to be but one citizen among many. I submerged myself in the day-to-day life of America, my country right or wrong, because here it doesn’t matter what your name used to be, as long as you’re not wanted by the police.

I would have been content to remain anonymous, but events had decreed otherwise. Even if I hadn’t turned myself in to your justice, I would have been pursued nonetheless by the faceless shadows of authorities as old as time.

I am now telling my story in the hope that I shall be nameless by the end of it, free of the curse of identity. To be perfectly honest, I want to be no one, a nameless something, gone in the light, spent by wind, a sliver of shadow passing over a rock. I don’t even want a name on a tombstone. I don’t want a tombstone. When I’m gone I want to be turned into fine ash and poured into a hole at a construction site. An American-style death, Your Excellency, a comical and informal death. I hope you find me guilty. I am. Guilty of murder. But also of innocence. And of forgetfulness.

It has been said that we Hungarians are passionate people. This may be true for others, but as for myself my only passion now is for my disappearance. I want it to be total.

I petition the universe for cancellation through the agency of this court, Your Honor.

The judge leaned forward and admonished the witness to refrain from overly dramatic demonstrations.

I am sorry, Your Honor. If anything, I am greatly more subdued than my compatriots. I wish I’d had a greater appetite for living, but the vitality that might have been mine has been sucked from my family tree by the woman whose name I bear. She lived more than four centuries ago, which is a long time for the dried limbs of an exhausted line to drag on all the way into our century.

Drake Bathory-Kereshtur paused to drink from the water glass in front of him. He drank down to the bottom swiftly. He did not appear to the judge to be suffering from a lack of vitality. On the contrary, his movements and speech suggested the actions of a much younger man. After putting down his glass firmly, he said:

These are the facts. I am a Hungarian-American, born during World War II in the city of Budapest. I emigrated to the United States after the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, following the street fighting that left my country bloodied and many of us homeless.

My last glimpse of Budapest was from under the tarp of a truck. There were dead bodies on the street, and buildings were burning. I left behind my mother and father, the friends of my childhood, and the sounds of my native language.

But in New York, Hungary reconstituted itself around me.

My classmate from first grade, Ficzko, owns the Golden Paprikash, an émigrés’ hangout filled every evening with people far from home. We hatched plots as thick as the cigarette smoke before closing time. We spent our ingenuity and our youth dreaming of ways to overthrow the Communists. But in our heart of hearts we knew that we would never go back. Over plates of homemade nostalgia and glasses of Tokay wine that brought a lump to the throat, we bemoaned our fate and rhapsodized over our lost country, which had grown without blemish in our minds.

Sitting among my fellow exiles, I often had the feeling that we had grown more fond of the melancholy country of our longing than of the real place. Given a chance, most of us would have chosen our sorrow over the uncertainties of return.

And in the end, that is exactly what happened.

When Communism collapsed and there were no longer any impediments to return, many of us preferred to stay, citing mundane and practical reasons that in no wise matched the grandeur of our laments.

That was not my fate. I did return.

From the outset of the events that toppled the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, I felt great apprehension. The faces of people who had been shut away from public exposure for forty years began to appear on television. I watched the nightly news with nervous anticipation. I expected at any moment to see old friends or relatives or the faces of my schoolteachers.

Western reporters combed the streets of Budapest interviewing people. New political parties appeared. Their spokesmen looked both younger and more spirited than the dour bureaucrats who had run the country in my day.

Then something strange happened, Your Honor.

The more I watched the faces of common Hungarian people and those of their new leaders, the more anxious I became. I couldn’t explain the dread that seized me in seeing my liberated countrymen. It was something in their eyes.

Then one day while watching television I saw someone I actually knew. It was an old friend and classmate of mine, a once thin boy named Klaus Megyery. He had become a rather portly man. He appeared on a program about the political future of Hungary. What he said was bizarre, but it is not what he said that filled me with dread. It was his eyes. They emanated twin beams of cold blue light that pierced me. The impression that I was addressed directly grew so strong I tried to get up and turn off the television. I couldn’t.

I thought I heard him call my name.

He can’t be calling my name, I told myself. But that’s what I heard. Klaus was my oldest friend, by which I mean earliest. We had lived on the same street since we could barely speak. We had stayed friends throughout our schooling. Klaus was always preaching to me on behalf of the nationalist cause, which caused me great distress, for reasons I will explain shortly. I suffered his tirades silently, and he never suspected the emotions he aroused in me. I was afraid of him, so I cultivated his friendship as a form of self-protection. I had not given him a thought since 1956. And now, here he was inside my television, affecting me so forcefully it was as if no time at all had passed.

In elementary school, we had nicknamed him Shaky Stringbean because of his long bony body that never stopped trembling. Others called him Puppet for the same reason. In our sophomore year he had appointed himself my bodyguard and followed me everywhere. He never tired of reciting forbidden patriotic poetry, particularly after a few glasses of Tokay. After I escaped from Hungary, I heard that Megyery had led a group of drunken patriots to the houses of Communist Jews and set them on fire. I was not surprised. But if the story had been true, Klaus would have doubtlessly been executed by the Soviets after the revolt. But here he was now, decades later, unexecuted and beaming evil rays out of my TV.

After the program, I had two water glasses full of whiskey. I was shaking.

By morning I had convinced myself that I’d been hallucinating. Only, it wasn’t that easy. In the mail that day was a letter from my old friend Klaus Megyery.

Klaus wrote to me that God, after an absence of nearly half a century, was smiling on the Hungarian people again. The coming days provided a unique opportunity to the keepers of the faith to unite the Hungarian people under the banner of a monarch. This was the time, Klaus wrote, to create a true Hungarian kingdom under the rule of a native-born prince.

The purpose of Megyery’s letter was to summon me, a descendant of the noble Bathorys, back to Hungary. Hungarian aristocrats, he said, were being summoned from all over the world by members of Megyery’s monarchist organization, Saint Stephen’s Knights. Saint Stephen’s Knights was not solely a promonarchist organization but also a political party, duly registered to participate in the first free elections of the post-Communist era. Klaus enclosed a murky pamphlet entitled Proposal for a New Constitution for Royal Hungary. This document envisioned a constitutional monarchy with a House of Lords drawn from among the Hungarian diaspora.

I would have liked this to be a nightmare, Your Honor.

I tried to laugh at the solemn naïveté of the whole idea.

Bringing back monarchs was as loony to me as returning to the Middle Ages. If, after its failed utopian experiment, Europe was ready to go back to the Middle Ages, that was its business. I wanted no part of it. I was an American now.

Next morning, when I checked into my office at the Chronicle, where I had a humble and perfectly satisfactory job as a reporter covering the Board of Education, I was summoned by my editor. She was brief: Events in your native country are becoming very interesting. We are sending you to Budapest immediately.

I protested. It was no use. Travel arrangements had already been made. I had the paranoid thought that Klaus Megyery, beaming from the depths of our TV sets, had influenced everyone, including my editor. Her abruptness was unusual. We often exchanged banter, and once upon a time we had been intimate. But now, behind her indifferent gaze, I thought I saw the steely glint of my old chum’s eyes.

Of course, I could have quit my job. I had quit plenty of jobs before and survived just fine. This is one of the best things about America: you can walk proudly out and begin again. This is the theory, anyway. But at that moment I forgot the theory. I told myself that this was an opportunity, not a punishment. After all, how many times had I sworn, along with my exiled friends, that I would return as soon as it became possible? I accepted because it was in keeping with the conventional lie I had been telling myself for years. I did the conventional thing, Your Honor.

Drake Bathory-Kereshtur stopped abruptly.

The judge asked him what the trouble was.

I have a request, Your Honor.

The mirror. I respectfully ask that the mirror bolted to the wall in my cell be removed. I have tried covering it with the blanket. It keeps slipping. That mirror is always there.

The judge considered for a moment the man standing before her. Broad shoulders, fierce black eyes, thick black hair, rich mustache, determined jaw, high cheekbones, sensual lower lip. There would be little to be ashamed of when he looked into the metal mirror bolted to his cell wall. He projected determination and dignity, but there was something else too, something vulnerable and immense.

She granted his request.

In 1569, when Elizabeth was nine years old, a band of peasant rebels came into Ecsed Castle, where she was spending the summer with her two older sisters, Anichka and Shandra. The rebels set fire to the granary and killed the soldiers guarding the outer court where the stables and the garrison were.

Elizabeth and her sisters were hastily bundled up in blankets by their nurses and carried through a secret passageway under the castle into the forest.

From their hiding place they watched Ecsed go up in flames.

The four women and three children shivered in their shelter under a big rock, wondering what to do next. As night fell, they watched the peasants drag women out of the castle and rape them on the edge of the forest. Men were hacked to death with axes or had their skulls crushed with spiked clubs.

The cries of anguish that filled the night washed over Elizabeth, a frightful music of such raw force she was unwittingly drawn to it. On her belly, propelled by terror and curiosity, she crawled to better see the flames and the shadows of men and horses in the fields around the castle. She found herself at quite a distance from her sisters and the nurses.

She felt the rough bark of a large tree under her hands, and she nestled between its roots. At that moment there was a clatter of crude weapons, and she saw men enter the woods and head directly for the rock sheltering the others.

Her heart beating wildly, Elizabeth remained where she was. She stood still as a stone, fearing to let out her breath. She heard her sister Shandra cry out. Her companions had been discovered.

Elizabeth scrambled up the trunk of the oak sheltering her. She was a good climber. Lying on her stomach on a thick branch, she watched from above as the dark shades of men, whose blood-soaked lambskin tunics she could smell, dragged her sisters and their guardians from behind the rock.

She heard the nurses plead for their lives in high-pitched, frightened voices. She heard what she thought was the hiss of snakes and then the sound of bubbling water, but did not realize until morning that it had been the sound of curved knives slitting the women’s throats. The blood sounded like a gurgling brook.

She heard her sister Anichka say haughtily, Do you know who we are? We are Bathorys! You will pay for this!

She heard the men laugh and imitate the young girl: We are Bathorys! We are Bathorys!

Then a voice deeper than the other men’s spoke clearly, chilling her to the bone: Do you know who I am? I am Dozsa, the death of nobles! I have come to avenge the blood of my father and brother!

She heard Shandra cry softly like a hurt kitten. Then there was a sound of ripped silk, and Elizabeth saw the heavy shades of the men swarm over the bodies of her sisters.

She heard and saw nothing else until the morning.

She woke still stretched on the branch of the oak that had saved her life. When she looked down she saw her sister Anichka’s blue eyes staring straight up at her. But the eyes did not see her. Hanging upside down from a lower branch beneath her, her sister’s naked and bruised body swayed slightly in the breeze.

Hanging from another tree was Shandra.

On the ground below lay the grotesquely sprawled bodies of her nurses, their throats slashed. Their blood had drained into the moss at the foot of the oak, turning it rusty red.

Tatters of her sisters’ clothes had caught on ferns here and there, waving like small flags.

Elizabeth remained on her branch.

Ecsed was still burning, but there was no sign of life anywhere. The rebels had gone on to attack another castle, and no one was left alive at Ecsed.

She lost and regained consciousness several times but was too frightened to climb down.

Near noon, when the sun was high, she heard the sound of someone walking softly. To her relief, it was a white horse that had somehow survived the slaughter. Its color reminded Elizabeth of a white moon.

She called to the animal with a timid whistle, but the white horse did not heed her. Then she called it by the Latin name of the moon. Luna. At this, the mare lifted her head and looked up with warm brown eyes, the most beautiful and kindest eyes Elizabeth had ever seen.

She dropped down from her tree and approached Luna, who did not mind the girl mounting her. Horse and girl became one body as they headed for the dark depths of the forest.

Elizabeth didn’t dare go into the open countryside. The forest had sheltered her so far. Only in the depths of the forest would she find safety.

The darkness enveloped her in a soothing embrace.

The forest smelled like mushrooms and rot and bitter green things. The girl and her horse leapt over a fallen tree and followed a faint path. The noises of the wood were different from the noises of the field. The sound of crickets and frogs was replaced here by a more mysterious, deeper, lower music. Elizabeth thought she heard moans and wails rising up from deep under the moss, and there was a sweet, calling sound, as of a woman crying to herself, but it was only her dying sisters’ voices echoing within her own mind.

They came to a creek and followed it. It climbed to a place where she could no longer see it, but after riding for a while, she found it again. It was pouring down the side of a big boulder in a narrow but strong waterfall. At the bottom was a deep pool.

Elizabeth dismounted and told Luna to wait for her. The horse looked placidly into her eyes and she felt safe.

She stripped and dove into the clear water. It was wonderfully bracing. When she looked about her, she saw nothing but clear water moved slightly by the mighty splash of the waterfall a few feet away. She swam toward the splash and let herself be pounded by the stream until a delicious numbness spread through all her limbs.

She dove all the way down to the sandy bottom and walked on it on her hands. She felt very much at home in the water. It was transparent and penetrable, and it embraced her completely. It was the only element she trusted. Water was utterly unlike people, those compact, dense, impenetrable, murderous creatures that belonged to the night.

Elizabeth wanted to see through everything in the world the way she saw through this water. Of all the people she knew, her sisters had been most like water. The rest were like moss drenched in blood or gnarled like the roots of a tree. Dust to dust, Preacher Hebler had once said. There was no dust, no blood, no moss, no rough wood in her clean bright green water.

Elizabeth floated for some time in the pool at the foot of the waterfall. She didn’t know how long she had been there, but it was already dark. The last rays of the setting sun were sinking somewhere beyond the trees, and the last warmth of the day had begun to evaporate, causing little wisps of fog to chase one another across the mossy forest floor.

She called Luna, but Luna didn’t answer.

Elizabeth clambered out of the water and looked about her. There was nothing but the unbroken silence of the forest. The first stars of the evening had appeared in the sky.

Her surprise turned to dismay when she looked for her clothes and could not find them. She remembered laying them on a stump. The stump was there, but her garments were not on it. She shivered slightly, not so much from the cold as from the thought that she might have to spend the night naked in the woods, like her sisters swaying alone from the ends of their ropes. Nights this time of the year were cold.

And then she saw her petticoat. A large lion was lying on it, staring at her with burning round eyes.

Elizabeth had never seen a lion before, except in books.

She sat down on the ground and stared back. The lion moved his head lazily from side to side and flicked his tail. Elizabeth was not frightened. Something in her caused her to become very calm. She did not want to scream, but she did when she felt a damp furry hand on her shoulder.

Standing behind her was a creature perhaps four feet tall with human eyes looking out of a matted mass of curly white hair. The creature

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What people think about The Blood Countess

3.8
6 ratings / 5 Reviews
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  • (1/5)
    Supposedly a historical novel about Elizabeth Bathory.
    The book is framed in the context of a courtroom confession of a man (Bathory's descendant) who is explaining to a judge why he turned himself in for supposedly killing a woman - but why it was justified. (Possession by the spirit of the evil murdering Bathory, but things went wrong).
    But it doesn't work, because not even with the furthest stretch of the imagination can one imagine a judge sitting there listening to all this crap.
    The book is divided between this courtroom-story, and the "story" of Bathory herself, which makes not even the slightest attempt to be historical. Instead, it's an incredibly trashy S&M fantasy kinda thing. Which would be all fine and well, except it simultaneously manages to be boring, slow-moving, and not-at-all-hot.
    Oh well. Not recommended.
  • (5/5)
    This is one of my favourite books. I have read it at least three times over the years. I enjoy it every time I read it.
  • (5/5)
    I adored this book. The Bathory of this novel is more human than any interpretation that I have seen or read. Her crimes are still moral and physically disgusting but there is a psychology around it it that no other author has been able to explain reasonably. This book made me feel for Elizabeth as a woman, rather than a monster. The book explores more of her earlier life rather than later years. It was simply fascinating and very well written.
  • (4/5)
    I thought this was a very interesting story. The notion of a woman being so cruel to other women intrigued me. I "found out" about the Countess from a History Channel show about vampires. I did a little research and came across this book. I found the story a lot less dramatic in the book than it was in the TV show! It was richly written but the flashforwards to the court hearing were a little *off*. I thought the end was pretty cheesey too. All in all I liked the book and would probably read it again.
  • (5/5)
    If I get a bit rambly in this review, I'm sorry, I'm going to try not to. But I loved this book SOOOO much that I just can't say enough about it! First, let me say that I DO know that there is a very good chance that most of the "facts" in this book are completely untrue, and maybe Elizabeth Bathory didn't kill anyone at all. That mystery will most likely never be solved. Everyone, even the so-called experts, disagree on what really happened. However, simply as a fiction book, this is awesome! At first the back-and-forth between Elizabeth's time and present time really confused me, but once I got used to it I liked it. I seriously have not felt this excited, been this interested, in a book for a loooong time... even after I finished reading it, I couldn't stop thinking about it! This book chronicals Elizabeth's life from when she was a little girl, straight on through to the trial, so it shows how she grew up and what things she was exposed to when she was young, which very well could've spurred her insanity and murderous desires. The author mentions the blood fascination and her belief that blood made her look younger, but thankfully does not focus on that too much, instead focusing on bits and pieces of Elizabeth's life that really shaped who she was. There were some very graphic scenes, some sexual-torture scenes, and I have to admit I was a little squirmy reading those (although only because I was reading the book in public). Whether or not this book protrays the real Countess in any way, I definitely think it is a WONDERFUL book! Definitely not for the faint of heart though.