READ THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
Approaching from the sea, you witness traces of history in the fragments of carved stone and columns in 14th-century sandstone. Double lancet windows hint at a renaissance style, and other decorations adorn the crumbling portals of palaces once belonging to ruling families and princes.
It is a land of ancient city-states, morto e sepolto… the dead and gone. Remnants of forgotten and abandoned houses and estates sprinkle the countryside. Once thriving and vital, now no one lives in them, and the keening of the winds through the ruins is their only sound. Even in towns and cities that live, in almost all, there is a legend sometimes distorted far from its origin of a casa stregata… a haunted house. Some are deathly still, lonely cenotaphs, mere empty markers of a tragic past. Others contain souls that sleep awhile and awake… hungry.
Anime maledette bruciano…
ancora capannone senza luce.
Una canzone di fiamme danzanti…
ascoltate la musica gemere nel vento.
Sentire le grida delle donne dei dolori.
Le signore del dolore…
Cursed souls burn…
yet shed no light.
A song of dancing flames…
their music moans on the wind.
Listen to the cries
from the women of the sorrows.
The ladies of the pain…
~ ~ ~
The ship cleared Portovenere, entered the gulf’s head, and approached Spèza, a small city on the Ligurian coast. Within two hours, its sailors invaded the town in clusters of two, three, or more. But one man went alone; it was his way. He didn’t need companions and was used to being on his own; he had been for most of his life.
* * *
“They follow the ships.” The voice came from farther back in the shadows at the leaf-laden trees’ fringe where light ended and pitch-dark began.
“You know,” the voice paused as the clouds in the night sky scudded to the north, disclosing a brilliant moon riding high above. In its light, a woman’s pale arm extended a long-fingered hand that pointed behind me. I turned toward several young men, my shipmates, who were surrounded and outnumbered by women at the outdoor bar under the street lights. “Those women,” the voice paused again, continued, “follow the ships.” The hand made a dismissive gesture and drew back into the dark of the moon’s shadow.
“Is that bad?” I asked, wondering how she’d sat so near without me noticing. A face came out of the darkness, like clouds parting to reveal a half-moon in a starless sky. Lovely. An almond-shaped eye under a sculpted brow, long lashes, and sharp lines of cheek and nose down to what must be a set of sweet lips.
“They’re not local.” The lips were a dark plum color in the dim light. Behind them, the pearl-glint edge of teeth. “They are not local,” she repeated as if an unpardonable sin, “they go from port to port.”
As she leaned forward, shifting in the chair, her face came into the light from the streetlamp. For that moment, she seemed plain, not unpleasant, but not beautiful. She sat back, and again only the moonlight graced her. That quick change in posture had revealed more. A blouse cut square and low in front. The fullness of breasts caught moonbeams and trapped them in the cleft between. They drew my eyes like the headlights of an oncoming car you knew had come over into your lane. My heart trip-hammered a double thump. Blinking away that second of fear and uncertainty, I thought she was exquisite. The woman you dream of or read about in stories and legends… who caused men to fight and die. Her eyes pored over me as she sat in the pale wash of a now clear full-moon-bright night. Stirred, my gaze moved to her lips and lingered. I wanted them on mine more than I needed my next breath. “You speak English well. Where did you learn?”
“During the war… we all did.”
I wasn’t clear on what that meant. What war… and what did she mean by we? Basics first, though. “What’s your name?”
“Nerezza.” I expected her to ask mine, but she said, “The night is sublime.” She gazed up at a moon that reflected in her eyes. “This,” and she flicked her hand toward the people at the bar and widened the gesture to encompass the streetlights, “is not the place to enjoy it.” She leaned forward, and her deep breath brought the arc of heavy breasts and crevice of cleavage into view. Her tongue swept those lips—eyes closed, she shivered—and their sheen beckoned. She sighed, “Will you come with me?” She stood, and the breeze strengthened, flattening her long, thin skirt against muscular calves and thighs; the swell of hips and curve of her ass distinct as she turned.
“A place,” she motioned toward the foothills to the north and east. Too dark to view now, but I’d seen them earlier on my ride. “About thirty kilometers from here.”
“Do you have a car?”
The glimmer again behind those lips. “No,” Nerezza smiled, “I travel differently.” She stepped away from the table and the lights. “You have this… yes?” she pointed to the Vespa P100 parked under a tree near us, which I’d rented after leaving my ship. At my nod, she walked over, pulled up her skirt with a flash of white thighs, and straddled it. Her legs extended, thigh muscles taut, to balance off its kickstand. I followed their lines from the ground to where they were palest under the moonlight. My eyes went to her chest—offered respects—and passed over those lips to her eyes. She locked on mine as she ran a hand over what I’d reviewed, following the same path my eyes had traveled. “Shall we go?”
I mounted in front, and her thighs clenched my hips. Her arms were around me, her breasts flattened on my back, and her hands splayed across my chest. The points of her fingernails dug through my shirt, and a primal scent came from her as I kicked the Vespa to life. Intended for city driving, the scooter would only do about 45kph, maybe less carrying two. We had a ride ahead of us, but I had time.
* * *
Nerezza’s directions brought us to where the hills grew into mountains. The Vespa’s feeble headlight shone through a gate onto a three-story structure several decades, if not a hundred years old. Cracks and creepers—thick twists of vines—ran up the sides of crumbling walls and overgrew the balconies. I shifted to ask her, “Is this it?” I doubted. She reached around me and turned the motor off, the headlight with it. My eyes adjusted to the dark. Different in the moon’s light, the old estate still seemed poorly maintained but wasn’t the ruin it had appeared at first. At the entry to the courtyard, she took a key from her pocket. She reached through the bars and turned the largest padlock I had ever seen around to face her. With a twist and click, she swung the rusted wrought-iron gate open.
“Here,” she signaled me to wheel the Vespa into the courtyard, holding the key, planning to lock up again once we were inside.
I eyed the wall and knew I could get over it. “I’ll leave it outside,” and pulled a coiled steel cable with two eye connectors and lock from one of the side pouches to secure the Vespa to the tree closest to the gate. “I don’t like having my ride where I can’t get going when I need to.”
Something flashed in her eyes: anger, derision, I wasn’t sure which. It vanished like that first glimpse of the house. So fast, I wasn’t sure it had happened. I walked through the gate and scanned the area and the enormous house. “What is this place?” I asked her as she locked it again.
“It’s been in my family for generations.” There was pride in her voice and something else, something unsaid. “My sisters, we… and others work and live here. Inside,” she nodded at the house, “it will be darker than you are used to. We use candles and oil lamps. It’s so much more… enchanting.” We walked on broken flagstones past beds of withered stalks and weeds. At a large circular fountain, she stopped and sat.
“Sit for a moment,” she patted the stone rim that encircled a basin with a surprising amount of water still within. Though the surface was covered with scum moss and bits of floating wood, the clear areas reflected the full moon. She turned her delicate face up. “I have something for you,” she said. Empty, long-nailed hands rested in her lap, then stroked her inner thighs.
I didn’t ask what; didn’t speak as I watched, and wanted to replace her fingers with mine. Something was going to happen; I knew it from that moment at the outdoor café. My skin burned and then chilled as she reached up and placed her hand high on my leg.
As I did, the moon brightened. I could tell by her face alight with its beams. It drank in the rays as she smiled into them. The lips I’d seen as crisp red under streetlight were dark-rimmed now. Fangs grew in the moonlight, and her grip tightened on my thigh. She leaned to nuzzle at my neck, her voice muffled, “We have so much pleasure to bring you… once the pain is done.” Teeth sank into my neck, and the quickening of an orgasm began and soured in exquisite agony, and then… came darkness.
* * *
I shuddered and raised my watch; thirty minutes had passed. Still seated on the edge of the fountain, I touched my neck and felt the stickiness of drying blood. That did not bother me, but the piercing ache did. She had drawn something vital from me. I couldn’t hold my thoughts, couldn’t concentrate.
Nerezza took my bloody hand and said, “Come with me.” I followed. We entered the house. Just as she’d described, light danced from lanterns hung from the ceiling. As she took me through the foyer, circles of light-to-dark-to-light were everywhere. Music played, some classical piece, and there were voices. Entering a large room to the right, eight women lounged in a sitting room or parlor. Each, but one, was radiant and voluptuous, with long lustrous hair that ran from blonde to dark red to a thick ebony mass of hair on three, including Nerezza, next to me. A pale lady in a maroon gown off to one side also had dark hair but was a slighter build. Leaner with smaller breasts; apples compared to melons. But the stems, like the other ladies, were erect and prominent beneath thin, gauze-like dresses that covered them from shoulder to ankle.
“My sisters, Malvola,” she pointed to the largest of them, as big as me, with an intense, feral look about her. “And Chiara,” the smallest and seemingly youngest, nothing like her sisters except for the dark hair. And in bearing, nothing like the others in the room.
I sensed hunger emanate from them with their smiles of sharp teeth and red-tinged eyes full of rage or sorrow, tears unshed or that had cried too many. Chiara’s look was of abject loneliness. The kind I recognized buried deep inside even when you’re surrounded by others.
“In my room,” Nerezza pulled me toward the stairs, “we can be alone.” Her dark-wine lips twitched, showing that thin line of sharp teeth gleaming with a light of their own. “Away from the others.”
The stairs moaned with each step higher. A tall, clear window rose to the third floor at the turn and landing to go further up. The moon poured through, washing us with its pale beams. Smiling at me, Nerezza paused on the landing and pirouetted as if showering under the watery rays. She was the most alluring woman I had ever seen. I shivered.
Upstairs, the hallway was open to the floors below on one side but bound by a balustrade. I stared down at what appeared to be a small ballroom. At an even level, hanging from the high ceiling, there were three huge lanterns surrounded by six smaller ones. Each glowed with a golden lambent light of reddish tint. Six doors lined the side opposite the railing. At the end was a broad set of closed doors. Nerezza led me there and swung them open.
Inside the room was a central sitting area, lighted by clusters of candles on tables and sideboards, leather chairs, and a sofa facing a bank of windows. A set of French doors led onto a balcony that spanned the room. Stepping further in, the balcony overlooked a walled garden grown wild that had broken out and crept up the slope of the looming mountainside. Its thickets of tangled brambles resembled balls of barbed wire and concertina. A large bedroom was to the right of the sitting area; on the left were two smaller bedrooms. The room on the left, the inside one away from the outer balcony, had a massive dark wood door with thick metal hinges and a curious bar and lock arrangement on the outside. Walking over, I noticed it was ajar. Opening inside, I found gouges and rips in the wood. Stepping in, I ran my hands over them, feeling how ragged and deep they were, though they were still far from penetrating such a thick door. The metal bands that ran throughout the wood to strengthen it were also scratched and scored. Down at the bottom of the door were many smaller, shallower marks. Long scratches in the terrazzo floor and parallel grooves led from the door’s base to the massive bed in the corner.
Nerezza touched my neck, stroking it as she would a pet. “Malvola’s,” she said, leading me out and shutting the door. She passed the next door, the room closest to the balcony, without comment.
“Whose room is this?”
Her voice had the same disdain she’d used at the café. “Chiara’s.” On a table against the wall was an array of dusty bottles. “Cognac?” she asked me. My head was spinning; I should get out… run, but looking at her, I had no will to run away. She handed me a snifter with three fingers of amber liquid. With an odd compulsion, I made a gesture to offer the lady a drink first. Her smile broadened and showed the length and points of the teeth I’d felt earlier. “I do not drink… spirits.”
Without drinking, I set the glass on the table as Nerezza did something at her waist, and the skirt fell away. The moonlight from the window and the flickering candles played on alabaster skin. It defined the cords of muscle in her thighs and calves as she moved toward me. Slowly she unbuttoned her blouse, a curtain withdrawing from an elusive treasure. Recondite… then revealed before you. The sheer bra strained—straps dug into the flesh of her shoulders—and dark nipples stiffened. She moved closer and brushed against me. My hands twitched, left wanting, as she stepped away. In lace and flickering shadows, she crossed to the largest bedroom. I followed.
In the room, there were fewer candles. Her face shrouded by the fall of raven hair that draped her shoulders, the smooth expanse of her chest a field to plant kisses. Two prominent dusky-tea-rose crested hills, and from the valley between—a teasing fragrance when she had been so close—a subtle perfume that wafted on the gentle wind from an open window that caressed our skin. Her hands cupped and offered soft round flesh to taste as she removed the last bits of cloth covering what I ached to bury myself in. Something drew me to look through the window at the sky. The scent of the moon’s beams, splendid in radiance, she, too, was exquisite in the night. Moonglow poured into the room, lapped, and flowed over the edges of the bed. The rustling of sheets, the most pleasant night sounds, was an inviting sigh of anticipation.
“Come,” she said, and her body beckoned. As I lay next to her, the tide of moonlight rose higher, and its ebb and flow ran through me as we rode satin-sheeted waves from there to eternity.
* * *
I awoke near sundown. I had been unconscious most of the day; what I’d experienced could not be called sleep. Nerezza had left me in the early hours of the falling moon, yet someone was in the room. The petite woman I’d seen the evening before stood in the shadow of the now-shuttered window.
“You must leave now!”
Groggily, I sat up and wished I hadn’t. The room reeled, and the emptiness inside me grew. I tried to stand and staggered. She caught me, her touch a static discharge that straightened me. Her eyes were not like the other ladies; they were as desolate in her pallid face but not threaded with skeins of scarlet or red-rimmed.
“You’re Chiara, right?”
“Yes. Hurry, Malvola is coming!” She gathered the length of her crimson gown in her arms.
“What?” I found my pants and pulled them on.
“She slept with Arianna last night. Nerezza was first with you… she is always first.” She bent, picked up something from the floor, and handed me my shirt. “It’s Malvola’s turn.”
I pulled my shirt on and searched for my boots. “Turn?”
“With you,” she kicked the shoes over, “hurry.”
“I can go over the balcony and get out that way,” I went over to the window.
Chiara glanced at me and away. “A long time ago, I climbed down to smell the roses that bloomed below my window at night.” She shook her head, and her eyes locked on mine, “No longer. There’s no way to make your way through. Others have tried. I must take you back the way you came in.” Her eyes filled with profound regret. “If I can.”
“What if you can’t?”
“You die,” she glanced through the door across to Malvola’s room, “in pieces.”
I followed her into the sitting room. The sunlight had faded, and the stirring of sounds and voices grew louder. A crazed cackle of laughter as lights came on and music played. The sound of steps on the stair announced someone as heavy as me coming back up. I heard their approach.
“We won’t make it,” Chiara warned me, “she’s here.”
Weak with bitter exhaustion, I didn’t reply, and she left my side to run to her room as a shadow filled the doorway.
“Have you the strength to play with me?” Malvola leered.
A splintering sound came from Chiara’s room, and I turned from Malvola to rush past her toward the balcony. Chiara came out holding an old double-barreled shotgun, 10- or 12-gauge, and a box of shells. The gun and box were ancient. The carton had gotten wet at some point; the cardboard still damp, smeared with old dirt and new dust. “Years ago, I kept this from a man they took,” she seemed contrite, “and hid inside a wall.” She handed me the gun and shells.
Malvola had entered the room but stopped in the center. “Half-sister or not, little bitch, I’ll settle with you afterward.”
I had broken the shotgun open over my knee and loaded two shells. It was stiff but loosened as I snapped it shut. “Can I kill her with this?” I leveled the gun at Malvola, who had taken a step closer.
“No, but you can slow her down, and maybe we can get by her.”
The blast rocked me back one step, but it blew Malvola three times that toward the door. For some crazy reason, that Lynyrd Skynyrd song, ‘give me three steps,’ played in my head. I braced and fired… boom again… and hit her square in center body mass again, obliterating her broad chest. As she staggered back through the doorway, the mangled flesh reformed but without cloth to cover it. I broke the gun open, reloaded, and followed. With both barrels this time. BOOM! I blew Malvola over the railing to crash two floors below.
Chiara grabbed my arm, pointing at the nine lanterns hanging from the ceiling. “There are eight you must hit.”
“Shoot, destroy them, and it is a real death!”
I stepped closer to the balustrade and took aim, “Why only eight?”
“If you shoot that one,” she pointed at the closest large one. “I die!”
Click. Dammit… reload. Shit, only eight shells left! I shot the smaller lanterns first to clear them from shielding the three largest. A shriek from below accompanied each one. Glancing over the railing, Malvola was already moving, and Nerezza had joined her. Both headed for the stairs. I fired at the farthest big lantern—shattered it—and a scream raked my spine.
“That’s Malvola’s,” Chiara said behind me, “she’s gone.”
I lined up on the lantern that must be Nerezza’s. So focused I didn’t realize she was rushing toward us, a storm front about to break. She hit and drove me into the wall. Large chunks of plaster fell, but I held on to the shotgun and kept my feet. No time to aim, I whipped the gun up and fired. Missed, and no more shells. She grabbed me by the neck and pounded me into the wall like her hammer for a dozen nails. Twisting backward and lifting, she threw me over the banister.
Far enough for me to grab one of the remaining lanterns. Chiara’s. As I dangled, trying to get a better grip, another shriek—its bite, razor blade cuts in my ears—undulated. Chiara had jumped on Nerezza’s back, who ripped at her arms, legs, and face. She tore away ribbons of flesh from Chiara; that anguish showed in her bloody grimace. I brought my legs up and kicked at Nerezza’s lantern. It loosened. Kick. Kick and kick again. Chiara’s wobbled. One more kick would bring either one or both down. I darted a glance at Chiara.
“Do it,” she screamed, and with more strength in her slight frame than I could comprehend, she lifted Nerezza and threw her over the railing. I kicked again, and the second large lantern dropped free. Nerezza was rising as it crashed down, driving her to the floor. Her lamp—its glass shattered, housing bent, and the light extinguished—lay beside a now still body. A second later, Chiara’s came loose, and I fell. Cradling it and turning, I hit hard but on something other than the floor. Still, the ribs on my right side flexed, and one, maybe, two, broke with a stabbing pain. With a gasp, I got to my feet with Chiara’s lantern intact in my arms, and something semi-soft moved under me. I had landed on Nerezza… across her chest. A hug from behind made my ribs spasm.
“Chiara!” She held me tight as I turned and studied her, wincing at the sight of the flayed skin of her face. “Are you okay?”
“I will be. I’m not like my sisters. I don’t feed like them—never like them—and don’t heal as fast.”
“The local men are old; the young move away,” On my face, she must have seen the question remained. “You can feed on the young ones longer,” she said in a quiet voice and let go of me to step away.
“No… why did you help me?”
“It’s been too long,” her face tilted up to mine. “The pain… the suffering… we had no right to take ours and inflict it on others just to live,” she spat. “As if this curse… was any kind of life.” She came closer again and touched my face, a soft brush of fingers. And though I hadn’t realized, there were tears she wiped away.
“What happens now?”
“You will go.”
“I mean with you.”
“I’ll die,” she pointed at Nerezza, whose body was crumbling, “like them.”
“I’ll stay with you as long as I can.” She smiled at me as if I had given her a great gift, and I realized what natural beauty was.
* * *
It was time, and she walked me through the courtyard. At the gate, she stopped and handed me the key taken from Nerezza’s body. I unlocked the padlock, threw it and the key as far as possible into the nearby tangled field, and grabbed her hand. But she wouldn’t move.
“Out there, the hunger will be stronger—and I can’t—won’t become what my sisters were.”
“Yes,” and there was no sadness in her eyes, “that’s as it should be.”
“I can’t leave. There must be something. There–”
“Is nothing out there for me,” she cried. “Go!”
I wanted to touch and hold her. I reached for her.
“Go,” she screamed again and ran toward the house and was quickly hidden from sight in the darkness of its decaying walls.
The moon was low in the sky, but I climbed the wall and unchained my Vespa. I had to be back onboard my ship in two hours and barely had time.
* * *
The sputtering sound returned with the dawn. It entered the courtyard, and the engine cut off. Moments later, she heard his steps on the stair. Chiara met him at the door.
“Why did you come back?”
Her wounds had healed, and she’d dressed. “How long can you live with just me?” he asked.
“What… what do you mean?”
“If I give you… me, my soul. How long can you live?”
“You can’t do tha–”
“You said I was young and strong. I am. So yes… I can. How long?”
“Months, maybe a year. I don’t know.”
“Then we’ll have that.”
“What about after?”
* * *
Onboard the long gray ship, the executive officer approached the captain with a clipboard in his hand. “Muster complete, Captain, one man missing.”
“Who. What division?”
“OI,” he tapped a line on the sheet marked Operations Intelligence.
The captain studied the man’s name with regret. “Never would’ve thought he’d go UA. Any police report?”
“Well, advise the embassy we have a man missing. An Unauthorized Absence. Send details from his personnel file and have the Master at Arms secure his personal possessions.”
“I recall he doesn’t have any family, right?”
“Correct, sir. No family.”
The captain shook his head. “Set the sea and anchor detail; we sail on time.”
* * *
He checked his watch; his ship must be leaving now. That sense of duty—the obligation—driving a vestige of need to return to his past faded as Chiara took his hand. With her, he knew he would never be alone again. The sky had passed from ashen with purple tints, shading to crimson, then saffron to birth-of-morning cerulean. It was daybreak, and soon they would sleep. And so it would be, day in and day out—they would go on—until he was spent. And then they would rest together forever.
* * *
The house had stood empty for decades—alone and untouched—decaying as things built by Man are wont to do when uninhabited. No one knew who owned it nor cared. The voices and rumors of missing men had kept even the brave away. Then that stopped, and stone by stone, the ruins were cleared, taken by locals no longer afraid, and used for building materials. The site became as overgrown as the surrounding land except in one spot. A small square of land at the base of the sloping mountain with a patch of perfect grass and a single rose bush at its center. Each year, in season, two roses bloomed to die and flourish again.
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