While living in Romania, Marius falls head over heels in love with Sebastien’s fiancée, but there are secrets and terrifying surprises in store; by Mihai Stet.
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I only agreed to join Isabelle and Sebastien on their trip because I had a crush on her. Since that very first evening when I met them in a bar in Cluj, I couldn’t stop thinking of her.
It all started when she came to me. I stood on the second-floor terrace overlooking the inner court of one of those old central buildings, my back propped against the railing. She asked me for a light. I smiled. For a few naïve seconds, I assumed she had chosen me to be more than the flame bearer of her freshly rolled cigarette. She’s hot, I told myself as I elbowed some of the guys around for a lighter.
“Are you from around here?” she asked me in English as I lit her cigarette. I immediately picked up the French accent, but I delayed the answer. I was lost in her voice, the perfect shape of her green eyes… her lips… her cheeks… her skin… her messy, long, dark-ash blonde hair. Her skinny but voluptuous body made me think of a mermaid, one who seemed ready to bite me and drag me into her deep, murky waters.
“Oh. I’m just being nosy,” she said.
My heart melted. But she looked away as if she was about to fly. So then, desperate and hoping it could bring me some advantage, I told her that, yes, I was from around.
“Cool,” she said, blew some smoke out and turned at the curly-haired, hairy-chested male who had just walked out from the bar and put one of his arms around her. They kissed. It was such a long kiss that anyone watching me could see my face turning deadly pale. I made a gargantuan effort to hold my knees from caving.
The guy detached himself from her and smiled at me. He was a few good inches shorter than me (I’m six feet three), wore a baggy outfit, and had a pair of intellectually threatening glasses that made me coil. The man had swagger, control, and arrogance. Compared to him, my tidy corporate-guy-who-hasn’t-even-graduated-from-uni-yet outfit and cowlicked glossy hair felt like a spit against a hurricane.
“Who’s this,” he asked in French.
“The guy who lit my cigarette,” she said, giving me a few furtive glances while I was preparing to bugger off through the blabbering crowd or throw myself from that second-floor terrace.
“And do you like him?”
I took an awkward step away from them. One more, and maybe they’d start talking about something else.
“Is that a yes or a no?” he asked.
She said nothing. I walked off.
“Hey, wait,” he called.
“She wants you to have a drink with us.”
“Bastien, you idiot,” she said and pinched him on the arm.
“But who says I want that,” I asked, swallowing my insolence.
He grinned with his perfect teeth at me.
“And don’t you?”
“Right,” I said, jumping off the few stairs right in front of me, ready to leave the terrace and never look back.
“Hey, mon ami. Hey! Hey,” he shouted and ran after me. “I’m sorry. Now, why are you getting so worked up? Come on, man. Have a drink with us. Please.”
I could not follow what was going on. Finally, overtaken by my attraction to her, I gave in to his pleading. I went back and extended a friendly hand to the girl.
“I’m Marius,” I said, expecting a friendly handshake.
She stared at me from under her angry brow and wiggled the cigarette between her fingers, but that was about it.
“I’m Sebastien,” the guy said as he took my hand.
“And she is Isabelle, my fiancée….”
“Shut up, Bastien,” she cut in, spun on her heels, flicked the cigarette, and walked in. A few seconds later, we followed.
During our first hour spent at the table, it appeared to me that Sebastien was going out of his way to prove to Isabelle that even if he was almost eight years our senior (Isabelle and I were both in our early twenties), he was just as open-minded as anyone from our generation. That was the dominant theme of his rhetoric. He had adopted the whole spectrum of ideas about love, politics, and life typical for our age group. As for Isabelle, she was special. She had a degree of personal freedom, a wilderness he would never seem capable of understanding or controlling. It was evident in how she stared at me, her gestures… even how she breathed.
As the night went by, and the three of us got drunk on lagers, she kept her penetrating gaze on me while he constantly interfered in our conversation or did something to draw attention.
“Let him say something. Can’t you see you’re monopolising the whole discussion,” she said while he was pushing on with a dreadful monologue on neo-socialism (I think that was what he was talking about).
“And how am I stopping him?”
“What do you mean how? Just stop it!”
“Why,” he repeated, brushing his face against her left cheek.
“Because I say so… No, I don’t want to kiss you…”
“You know I love you, don’t you, Isabelle,” he said and nestled his face in the curve of her neck.
“Yes, now go away,” she said and smiled.
“Not until you tell me you love me too.”
“That was never on the table, was it?”
“What else then? Money? Why do you torment me? Love me.”
“Ok, Ok. I love you. Now stop.”
He leaned back into his chair, grabbed the empty beer bottle by the neck, and spun it. I was trying to determine what was happening between them, but I soon gave up and said something about Sebastien’s topic. I regarded politics like a bad movie, where each party keeps marching with the same narrative. I wasn’t the one to formulate any valuable opinions, but politicians aimed only at the public’s vote. As soon they got to power, they all did the same thing, raised some taxes, and passed the blame on some extraneous cause beyond their control. Isabelle laughed. Sebastien, in turn, accused me of political ignorance and recommended I read more. I said I would, given the opportunity to find any book worth reading.
“What do you see in this idiot,” he said in French, got up and continued in English, “I’m getting myself another beer. Does any of you want one?”
“I’m fine for now,” I replied, also in French.
He was far from bothered that I had understood his insult. She laughed even more. She was so beautiful; it drove me insane.
“Do you speak French,” she said after Sebastien left.
“A little. But listen, what’s the idea with the two of you?”
“Didn’t you hear him? He loves me.”
“And what? That’s it.”
“Why don’t you leave him? Apologies, I’m too nosy.”
“After two years, I find it hard. Life is…”
She stopped and looked away. And then, it hit me. Isabelle’s soul went deep. And yes, she was unhappy with that guy, but she loved him too. I suspected she was afraid of loneliness or that maybe she had some trauma from the past. But I would soon find out that she had a happy life. She grew up in Paris. Her father was a banker, and her mother was a surgeon with aristocratic roots. She had finished top of her class at the Sorbonne, had two loving sisters and a brother, and a large castle somewhere in central France. Not bad at all, mate, I told myself, secretly envying Sebastien.
“But I think everyone suffers from this,” she said, cutting her biography short as if she had a splinter she could not eliminate.
“From what,” I asked.
“Maybe. I guess we’ve run out of nice stories,” I said and tried to look smart.
Her eyes got wet.
“I’m sorry… I…”
“No, no. I’m all right. I just drank too much.”
“I’ll get you some water,” I said, stood up, and went to the bar. When I arrived, Sebastien had long bought his drink and was flirting with a girl. On seeing me, he straightened his back a bit but ignored me. What a weird couple, I whispered.
When I got to my tiny flat, I had the strangest taste in my mouth. I washed my face and drank lots of water to prevent a hangover. After that, I threw myself in bed, clothes and all. I dreamt of her lying beside me, embracing me. She felt so real. I shivered.
I woke up naked, with a dry mouth. As I scratched my chest I dreaded my life, which involved working from nine to six with one hour break in a company where I didn’t even know what I was doing, yet everyone expected me to do it with utmost enthusiasm. I spent all day stooped over a computer. At lunch break, I held up a happy face while my co-workers gave me repetitive accounts about their holidays, mortgages, cars, organic foods, cocktails, and new exciting gadgets. But the sad truth was that nothing mattered. We didn’t matter…
I got up, jumped into the shower, washed off the anxiety, wrapped a towel around my nakedness, had a coffee, and waited for the caffeine to kick in. An hour later, I left my apartment, full mental armour on and ready to pretend everything was great. But since I got out too soon (in my stupor, it did not occur to me to check the time), I decided to walk to work.
Cities are at their best in the early hours. If you are a lone wolf like me, you enjoy the quiet boulevards, the few cars driving by, the cold fresh air, and the milky-blue sky where a few stars stubbornly hang on. These crisp dawns belong to the free, the special, the travellers, the drunkards, the outcasts, and the homeless. I met some of the most exciting people when coming from a club or travelling somewhere during this time of the day.
I got to work half an hour early, entered that big square building with large silvery windows, and sat in my cubicle thinking about her. Somehow, the day went on, with me immersed in my job and making the usual jokes with my colleagues.
I left at 6:30. At about seven, I stopped at a bar, where I had a few drinks and smiled at the girls. After that, I went home.
On my way, I realised that spring was finally beginning to show. The air was getting warmer. There was much more life in the trees behind the theatre. It had been such a long, gloomy winter. But now it was finally over.
When I arrived at my flat, I felt drowsy. Sad or maybe glad to have wasted yet another day of my life, I slipped out of my clothes and hit the sack. I fell asleep in a heartbeat, tired from my previous night’s carousal.
“I want you to meet this girl. She’s great,” said one of my colleagues from work.
We were at a party, and I had just sniffed some unidentified chemical.
“Hm, OK,” I said and let him carry me through the hallway of an early 20th-century house, where most of the people were in a worse state than me. Located in a residential area where the average age was probably sixty, the house was a perfect spot for such blowouts, and the guys who rented it were in no rush to hide their debauched lifestyle. They seemed keen on sharing their addictions with others, hence the insane number of people congregating there. I was envious of these men in their thirties and forties, who had nothing on their minds but how to spend their fat IT wages on narcotics and alcohol.
But as we walked by one of the rooms, I stopped. My stomach warped. She was right there, in the midst of people, a glass in her hand, talking to this uninteresting guy, a blander version of myself, or so I thought. The warm light from a nearby lamp haloed her perfect profile. I used a stupid excuse to get rid of my mate and walked in.
“Is that a good wine,” I asked in French and stared at the glass she’d just placed on the vintage wooden desk next to the lamp. She looked at me.
“Hi, do I know… Oh, yeah. It’s you. Haven’t seen you in a while.”
“Two weeks and six days,” I replied.
“You counted,” she said as the other guy slowly stepped back, frightened by my assertiveness. I was in love, so in love, I probably looked ready to pack some punches if needed. I’m not sure when he vanished for good. Isabelle and I were already too engrossed in discussing us, the weather, the city… my job.
“What is it that you do, exactly,” she asked.
“I take calls from people who don’t know how to reboot a router. But technically, I’m still an art history student. I should have graduated last year, but this drudge of a job stood in my way. Or maybe I was just lazy. Yeah, I think I was lazy. Even a fish can get a bachelor’s degree nowadays. So where is your boyfriend?”
“He’s here, somewhere,” she said and looked around.
“I had no idea your French is so good.”
“Neither did I,” I humblebragged.
We moved on to my studies. I told her it had all started with a documentary on the Renaissance I watched as a child. Even in my drug-induced euphoria, I realised I was overrating myself, and Isabelle knew that too. But she listened, nevertheless. It was the first time someone listened to me. Sensitised as I was, I spoke to her about Hugo and his cultural depth. She had yet to read Hugo. I moved on to Proust. She shook her head and laughed. I gave up and admired her beauty.
“Ah, look who’s here,” someone said, throwing their arms around my neck. “How are you, young man?”
I just nodded. Still holding onto me, Sebastien stretched to Isabelle and kissed her neck. She blushed but let him do it. Did they seem… better? My first impulse was to take Sebastien’s arm and push him away, preferably into a different universe.
“Hey, Marcel,” he said and pointed at me, with a calm smugness etched on his face.
“It’s Marius,” she said.
“Why don’t you join us for a few days in the countryside next weekend? We have this friend of a friend who’s letting us stay at her cabin. It’s not too far from here. What is it called, babe?”
Isabelle did not answer. Instead, she fiddled with her mobile phone and showed me a map I had no problems recognising.
“The Apuseni Mountains,” I said.
“There,” replied Sebastien.
“How about it, handsome? Look at this guy. He’s so handsome, isn’t he,” he told Isabelle.
It was my turn to blush.
I said nothing in response to his invitation and waited for her approval. But she avoided me. Sebastien got frustrated by my silence.
“What do you say, Mm…”
I took the burden of Sebastien having to mess up my name again and spat out a quick “Yes.”
“Great,” he replied and shook me with his muscly arm.
“We’re going to have so much fun. You’ll see.”
I asked them for a mobile number, which I got. And (to my great joy) it was hers. My hand shook as I memorised it and pocketed my phone. I never imagined happiness could be so straining.
We left Cluj on the sixth of May in the morning. It was one of the few occasions I drove my SUV Skoda, one of the few excesses of my petty existence, that and a ridiculous mortgage I’d have to pay forever. But my parents had insisted I’d buy a flat and a car and get in line with people. I listened like a good boy, gobbled up all their savings, and ended up nailed to a job I hated and a life that wasn’t mine. But being part of the herd comes with its benefits. Look at me. I got to drive the girl I was in love with and her boyfriend to a mountain cabin. If that wasn’t worth it, then what was?
“There’s no signal,” I said, sweeping over my iPhone with a perfectly manicured thumb.
Sebastien mooed and laughed. He was all over the place. His top had such a wide cut around the sides that I could see his torso in all its glory. He was good-looking, and I would have picked him over her in a not-too-different world. But the amount of jealousy I felt was a clear indicator of whom my love went to.
Unlike Sebastien, I was just as prim as a 21st-century Dorian Grey. A tight-fitted blue jumper, a grey outdoor west, thick denim trousers, heavy, brand-new mountain boots and sunglasses, and a sports watch that my middle-class father had insisted I should have on my 23rd birthday. I had also poured half a bottle of Aqua di Parma on myself. I did anything that would impress her, according to my simplistic imagination. It was working like a charm….
“I’ve heard this valley is cursed,” said Sebastien while leaning over to me.
“Who says that,” I asked.
The fresh green forest and the winding mountain river we drove by looked serene and paradisiac.
“If you ask me, the only cursed thing is this bloody road,” I resumed.
Nobody answered. They were too happy with themselves.
Later that night, at a campfire just outside the cabin, Sebastien told us that the cabin’s owner had told him about some people being killed in the surrounding forests a few hundred years ago. I didn’t make much of that, apart from the fact that it was unusual for these places to yield such nonsense. Those things might still circulate in small, remote communities, but most people have long forgotten all about them. Upon finishing my lecture about a subject I had little to no knowledge of, I got up from the fire and went inside the cabin to grab another bottle of wine. Whoever they were, the owners had a generous pantry next to the kitchen. And even better, they had given us the green light to help ourselves with as much wine as we wanted. The cabin itself was small and cosy. It had a large living room, a kitchen, and a porch on the ground floor. A wooden staircase led to the upper floor, with its two bedrooms, a bathroom, and a game room with a pool table, a large TV set, and a bar.
The walls were wood-panelled, and the lighting was decent, a tad too atmospheric for my taste, but then again, so was everything in my apartment. Hence, I had no issues adjusting to the new environment. Four bottles of wine later, I got up and went to bed. And even though I was drunk as a skunk, I had enough will to live and stuff my ears with my AirPods. The slow beats of some electro-music tracks helped me slide into the most peaceful sleep.
On the second day, we woke up early and went hiking. The forest floor was damp, the air fresh, and the sky cloudy. We spotted deer and foxes on our way up and crossed a clear mountain stream, where I almost fell into the water. We went on the most appealing trail at a fork in the road. The path led us through a forest up to the alpine grasslands, where we found a few abandoned cottages and stables. Finally, we got to a grey ridge jotting out of the pastures. We went around its cliffs and took a good view of the surroundings – dome-shaped peaks spanning far and wide like a petrified stormy ocean.
The trip was cut short by rain. We nearly lost our way in the forest on our way back. We arrived at the cabin soaking wet. Only then I realised that, for a few hours, our city-dwelling personas had been cancelled out. We were just three people having a wonderful time. All the teasing, rivalry, and jealousy were gone. Sebastien had become acceptant of me using French. Isabelle had walked almost always next to me, sometimes even holding my hand, as if I were her lover and not Sebastien. We had a great cookout on the patio at the back of the cabin and spoke, and mostly agreed, about everyone and everything.
The rain stopped only an hour before sunset, enough for us to glance at the gold and purple sky. After that, Sebastien showed me some of his writings. They proved to be a great surprise. He was good with dialogue and characters, and his descriptions and storylines weren’t too bad. But his work had a breath of novelty I had rarely encountered, at least as far as my literary knowledge went. I read with some envy a couple of well-written short stories. He also showed me some books of Transylvanian folktales I had never heard of and explained that they mainly moved to Cluj for him to explore more of this culture. And during all these discussions, she had her arms around… well… him. We opened a bottle of wine and fuzzily finished two more in the next two hours. The wine went to my head, and at some point, I just got up and went into the forest to urinate. It was already night, and I relied on the light from the patio to guide me. But as soon as I finished, everything around me turned pitch black.
“Hey guys, what happened to the light?”
No reply. I pivoted on my heels. The cabin was gone. And then, just as suddenly, there was a crack from within the forest. I looked back and distinguished the vague contour of a very tall man. My heart froze, and my hands went numb. The man started walking towards me. How his body moved up and down was unusual for a human being. Suddenly, all the trees around me began to shake. As he came closer, I noticed that he had something on his head. It looked like… horns… The man said something and pointed at me. I wanted to run, but my feet were glued to the ground. Finally, something touched my right shoulder.
“Hey. It’s me. Relax, man?”
Sebastien was standing right next to me, smiling. Behind him sprung the bright light coming from the patio.
“You’re all sweaty. What happened?”
“I don’t know.”
“We’ve waited for you for almost ten minutes. You didn’t return, so I decided to come looking for you. I found you here. You were saying something in Romanian. But it didn’t sound quite right, not the Romanian I’m used to hearing.”
“W… What was I saying?”
“How should I know? Hey, are you sure you’re all right?”
I shook my head, then nodded.
“I must have drunk too much,” I said.
“Sure. Let’s go make you a coffee.”
Sebastien threw his hand around my neck, and we returned to the cabin.
“I’m so cold.”
“You’ll be fine,” he said. “This way. Where are you going?”
“Ah yeah. Sorry…”
“It’s all right. We’re almost there.”
We pushed through the leaves and returned to the patio; Isabelle prepared me a coffee. A quarter of an hour later, I was sober. I insisted on reading one of Sebastien’s stories. As I read it aloud, I felt something different inside me.
I insisted we open another bottle of wine, and when they refused, I went in and got one myself. On my way back from the kitchen, I passed by a mirror. I glanced at myself, and I became aware that not only was I handsome (I knew that), but that I could do whatever I wanted, that I had this power I didn’t quite understand.
“Please don’t think about that incident anymore,” I said, trying to take Isabelle and Sebastien’s minds off whatever it was that had happened to me in the forest. I filled three glasses with wine and told them about my childhood and paternal grandmother. I had long forgotten about her. She died when I was fifteen. But while she lived, she’d been deemed an odd person by the people in her village; what a remote village that was! Her neighbours called her a conjurer, and she was known for being able to heal people of the worst kind of diseases. It wasn’t a surprise that my parents had always been reluctant to take me to her place. But one summer, for a reason I had trouble remembering, they had no choice, and I had to spend a few weeks at her small farm.
The time spent there was great, but one night I had a dream. I was sleeping in my room when my grandmother came in. Her eyes were glowing against the profound darkness of the room. She was dragging a sack on the floor. Whatever she was carrying in it was moving and making a shrill sound, like a frightened dog. Grandmother looked at me, said something incomprehensible, and then rolled the sack under my bed. Whatever that thing was, it started to scream and writhe and hit the wooden floor and the planks of my bed. And with every second, its screams became more human until it had a voice.
“My voice,” I said.
“As I broke free from the dream, I found grandmother beside me. She told me I had been calling for her. She assured me I was okay. I asked her to check under my bed. She told me there was nothing there… Yeah… That was the last time I saw her,” I said, emptying my wine glass.
“What a creepy dream,” said Isabelle.
“I know,” I replied and poured myself some more wine.
“But I haven’t told you about when I was truant from school, and my mother caught me,” I said in an attempt to chase that horrible dream away.
Gradually the mood changed, and we got cheery again. Then, finally, I got hungry and asked Sebastien to prepare some meat. He was great at cooking.
“Yes. But make it rare this time.”
“OK! You got it, boss!”
Another two bottles of wine later, we moved inside the house, where we played pool and trounced one bottle after another. I’m unsure which one I kissed first, but not much after we were naked in the same bed.
The following day found myself in the strangest embrace. Their smells and textures were so different but so evenly arousing. I was surprised at myself for being open to such experiences.
I slipped out of bed, put on my clothes, and went to the kitchen. Once in there, I was swept by a welter of needs. I prepared breakfast, coffee, tea… the whole gamut, only to realise that I hadn’t brushed my teeth, showered, or shaved. I put the food on the cooker, covered it, and went to the bathroom, where I spent almost thirty minutes toileting. When I got out, they were already up. While they groomed themselves, I prepared the table. We had a quick, silent breakfast and behaved as if the previous night had never happened. But I preferred that, even if my physical desires were firing up. Was it me who started the whole thing, or them? I wasn’t sure, but I could barely keep myself from kissing Isabelle.
After breakfast, Sebastien dashed upstairs, leaving Isabelle and me to clear the table and do the dishes. It was the perfect occasion to ask her if we were ok. She said nothing, came to me and kissed me.
“We are if you are ok with us.”
My heart shrunk. Her “us” meant Sebastien.
Defeated, I nodded.
“All right, what are we going to do today?” asked Sebastien, who walked in with a book in his hand.
“Ahm. How about we take a different route today,” I said.
“How about we stay in,” suggested Isabelle. I would have agreed, but the idea proved unpopular with Sebastien. So, we headed for a new day in the mountains.
It is hard to explain what took us so long – nearly two hours passed between finishing breakfast and leaving the cabin. But as soon as we were out, we headed the same way as the other day, only this time we took the other path at the fork in the road.
“The trees seem different here,” said Isabelle.
She was right. They were smaller and more crooked. Also, the path was bumpier and overgrown with weeds. Isabelle had taken the lead. I was in the middle.
“Why are you holding on to that book? You aren’t planning on reading it,” I asked Sebastien.
He smiled, walked to me, and whispered in my ear.
“No, handsome. But it’s good to carry a book just in case things get a bit boring.”
His black beard brushed against my cheek.
“Is that my fragrance on you?” I asked.
But Sebastien said nothing. He just passed by me, closing in on Isabelle. His white top contrasted with his sunburned skin. I found myself admiring his back muscles and the way he kissed Isabelle. And it excited me. He excited me. For a moment, I felt confused. But I reassured myself that things were going the right way. If not, they would surely broaden my horizon.
The path took us straight into the forest. We found a sunny clearing, where we made love and fell asleep with Isabelle between Sebastien and me.
I woke up about an hour later. My right hand was on one of her breasts. She opened her eyes about the same time, took my hand and bit it gently. Sebastien was already up, reading aloud and walking naked in the grass with a cigarette in his mouth.
Isabelle rolled over me. A wasp buzzed over our heads, and the air was charged with the smell of wildflowers and the chirps of grasshoppers. She felt so light as she brushed her long hair over my face. Her soft lips melted into mine. I was aroused, but Sebastien’s constant ups and downs distracted me.
“Don’t mind him. It’s just us now.”
“Are you sure,” I asked.
My heart grew. Her “us” meant me.
It was all the confirmation I needed. I had never felt so free in my life.
A minute later, he added his lips to our play. His body hairs were curly yet soft. They kissed me on the neck and held my hands. They were doing just what I wanted, nothing too much, nothing too little. I had never expected the trip to turn into this. Unburdened by any thought, I lost myself in their embrace. The world was worlds away, and we were forever lost to it.
It was two p.m., and we were advancing through an almost silent forest when I slipped on the muddy road. I hit something.
“What is it,” said Isabelle.
“I don’t know,” I replied, looking at what lay under my unlaced boot. “Weird. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
I was standing on a rectangular wooden slate. It was old and putrid and had another in front of it and another in front of that.
“Well, what are you waiting for?” said Sebastien.
We went on that footpath for a few minutes until it sank and vanished.
“Let’s just walk ahead,” said Sebastien.
“Maybe we should head back,” I replied.
“Are you serious? Why?”
I gazed at the silent forest, and a chill went down my spine.
Sebastien came around me and pushed me from the rear. We entered a thicker, darker area in the forest, dragging our feet through sticky heaps of dead and dying leaves. I slipped, he slipped, she slipped. And then we stopped.
“What is it? Oh, wow. What happened there?” said Sebastien.
Farther ahead, all the trees looked as if they had burned. Their long trunks were nothing but long, charry spikes. The earth around them was clear of leaves. I felt Isabelle’s hands grabbing my right arm while Sebastien marched ahead and reached a promontory. He walked up and whistled in amazement.
“What is it?” shouted Isabelle.
“Shit! Come! You must see this,” he replied, pointing at something beyond our field of vision.
We moved fast to keep track of Sebastien, who started running. And then, we saw it slowly rising in front of us. We made a halt about twenty meters from it. Holding his phone up, Sebastian was already taking snapshots of it…
It was a wooden church, or rather the burned-down husk of a wooden church. It stood on a stone foundation in the middle of the forest, all sooty and with its belfry half crumbled. And there was this strange gush of water coming from under its porch. The water was mixed with thick, tarry mud and accumulated in a large puddle in front of the church, only to roll downhill in a slow-moving stream.
“Why is that water like that?” asked Isabelle. She dug her fingers into my skin. I twitched at the pain.
“Don’t go in,” I told Sebastien, who went round the puddle and jumped onto the right side of the porch. From there, he walked to the door and pushed it. It was such a small door that he had to bend as he stepped inside.
“Wait here,” I told Isabelle.
“You’re not leaving me alone,” she said as we sensed each other’s panic.
I grabbed her hand and went on what I thought was the safest way in, the one already set by Sebastien. But just as I was about to step inside, the strange dirty face with porcelain white eyes came at me from the darkness.
“Fuck,” I shouted and jumped back.
“Why are you so frightened?” said Sebastien from the doorway.
“Bastien. This place is creeping us out. Let’s leave,” said Isabelle. But Sebastien took my other hand and pulled us in.
Isabelle wanted out, but I convinced her to stay for Sebastien’s sake. As only two small windows let the light in, we had to light our mobile phones’ torches. The interior was about four meters wide and six meters long. Considering its state, the wooden structure seemed to hold quite well. The church had an iconostasis at the other end of the small space, but its surface was so charred we couldn’t see the paintings.
“Look at that,” said Sebastien as his torch beamed on one of the pillars holding the iconostasis and walked to it.
“I don’t think you should touch it. For all we know, this whole thing could crumble any minute,” I said.
At that moment, Isabelle puffed, detached from me, and walked out. She’d had enough. I stayed with Sebastien.
“What is this?” he asked. “It’s a face of sorts, but…”
Confused about what he was showing me, I went closer to him and bent over.
“Am I seeing right? It looks like a goat,” he added, touching the small figurine hewn in the pillar. He moved the torch up and down the iconostasis.
“And look, there are more.”
He then moved his hand over one of the panels on the iconostasis and brushed it. A fine layer of ash came off. We removed enough of the sooty layer for us to see what was underneath. As the earth-coloured paintwork became more recognisable, I started to shiver. There was a creak behind me. I looked behind, but there was nothing. It must have been one of the rotten floor planks. Sebastien let out a wow. I turned back at him. The panel depicted a saint. Only that this saint had a devil on his back, and the devil was disembowelling its victim with its long-curved talons. Sebastien moved to another panel where, once we removed the ash, we discovered an enthroned devil with twisted horns sitting on a pile of human skulls – outside, Isabelle shouted that she was returning to the cabin.
“Sebastien, come on. We got to run,” I said, tapping him on the shoulder. But Sebastien shook me off.
“Fuck off! We’re not going anywhere,” he said, nudging the iconostasis’ doors, which fell with a dull sound on the dirty floor.
“What are you doing?”
“There’s something I must see,” he replied while stepping inside the church’s sanctuary and vanishing into impenetrable darkness. Suddenly, he stopped. I beamed my torch onto him. He seemed to be shaking. It took me a few seconds to realise that it wasn’t him. It was the whole church, or rather my vision.
“Can you see?” he said, as I struggled to understand what was happening to me.
“There are three dead bodies inside,” he whispered, his voice falling into a low grumble. I touched my ears.
As I stared inside the quivering sanctuary, I spotted the three skeletons on the floor.
“Sebastien. We must go now… My head….”
“No,” he shouted.
There was no point in me trying to talk him out. I finally got it. He hadn’t been himself since we found the footpath. And then, there was a muffled sound, and deep inside the sanctuary, something rose. We directed our torches onto it. It looked like a man’s back, a huge man. But then the lights on our mobile phones went off. I grabbed my forehead and took a step back. I was getting nauseous.
“Sebastien, come with me,” I said.
“I can’t go.”
“I can’t move.”
I walked through to him and tried to pull him to me, but his body was stiff.
“What is happening?” I asked, overcome by a strange spell.
Isabelle shouted again. I wanted to run, but soon I was just as paralysed as Sebastien. Meanwhile, the thing walked towards us, clasped its massive hand around Sebastien’s neck and lifted him in the air. Although the sanctuary was completely dark, I could somehow see it. Its whole body was covered with hair, and its legs were like the hind limbs of a horse. The head, much like a goat’s but with a much longer snout, was crowned by three massive horns. There were no eyes in its sockets. Suddenly, I was short of breath. A tremendous force pushed me away from them. Sebastien grunted. There was a crackle like that of crashing bones followed by and fleshy, sucking sound. But I had no time to think. My instincts had kicked in. Finally able to move, I ran out, jumped over the puddle, grabbed Isabelle’s hand, and pulled her after me.
“What’s going on?” she shouted. “Where is he? Answer me!”
But I said nothing. All I could do was run.
And then, the church made a crashing sound, and a strange shade fell on the forest. There was a swooshing sound to our right and Sebastien’s voice begging us to take him with us. Isabelle started screaming. When an incredible force tore her from me and threw her up in the air, I turned and saw her flying into a tree and then fall to the ground with a heavy blow. I wanted to go to her, but that thing appeared out of nowhere and stood in my way. I charged at it. A single blow from its heavy hand was enough to send me to the ground. As I lost consciousness, there were the same mangling sounds as when it had devoured Sebastien.
I opened my eyes for a moment. I was still alive, face to the ground. Then, as I tried to push myself up, I felt something behind me. A hooved foot stomped against my back and pinned me to the forest floor. The foot pressed. I had a few fractions of a second to issue a painful “no” before my spine snapped. I blacked out.
I awoke with a low groan. My head was swinging from left to right. When I opened my eyes, it took me some while to assess what was happening. As I looked below, the hooved feet were walking. I slowly lifted my head, and there was that groan again. I turned to the left and found Isabelle’s head coming out of a massive torso.
“What did we do? What did we do?”
That was Sebastien who spoke. His head was to the left of Isabelle. Under a clear state of shock, they were both struggling to wring themselves free from the body that had absorbed them. But all their efforts only led to a series of ineffective moans. Their faces were so pale, as if their life had been sucked out of them completely. Yes, we were both dead and alive. And all around us, an indifferent, silent forest, so green and lush, was stretching far and wide under a distant summer sun, its rays that broke in through the canopy, the hot damp air, the furrows left behind by the hooves as they walked through the leaves. Suddenly, Isabelle started to scream. This prompted Sebastien to shout a desperate, “Let us go.” He shook his head so hard he hit it against the devil’s ribcage. But the devil thrust one of his hands into Sebastien’s mouth, grabbing his jaw. A long, painful grunt gurgled up from Sebastien’s throat. The massive hand made a brisk move. Something crackled through Sebastien’s screams of pain and Isabelle’s cries of horror. Next came a tearing sound, and Sebastien’s bloody bearded jaw came off, leaving a mess of blood, saliva, and loose flesh on Sebastien’s face. The devil threw away the jaw. Isabelle closed her eyes and screamed even louder.
I tried to calm her down. But I had no strength in me.
The devil then sunk two fingers into Sebastien’s sockets and gouged out his eyes. The eyes dropped to the ground, where they disappeared under the leaves. Whatever remained of Sebastien fainted, and then, two bone-crushing blows silenced Isabelle as well.
I don’t know how long the devil carried us like that. But it was enough for Sebastien’s and Isabelle’s wounds to fester and smell. That drew flies unto them. The flies deposited their eggs into those wounds. Soon enough, larvae emerged. Some fell before the devil’s feet, wiggling in anguish for the rotting meat that fed them. Then, one night Isabelle made one last attempt to tear herself out of the devil’s body. Angered, the devil pressed his hand against her face and started pushing her inside it. Within seconds, her face was writhing under the devil’s skin, struggling to breathe, the devil’s skin pressing tightly against her face. But it was too late. Her head sunk deeper until it was gone. The jawless, blinded Sebastien made a hollow, gurgling sound. When morning came, only my head remained out.
A few more days passed, until one afternoon when the devil put one hand into my hair, lifted my head and scratched my face. It must have done so only to humour itself, but the pain was excruciating. And once he was finished with me, my eyes stung and itched unbearably. Dazed, I understood my eyelids were gone. The sunlight and the hot air brought a dryness that blinded me within hours. Flies started to sting me.
My decaying, itchy, scabby face tormented me for days and days. And when he finally got bored of me, it did the same as it had done to the other two and pushed me into its entrails. As soon as the skin covered my face, I began to asphyxiate. What I thought would be a quick death dragged for minutes. I retched until I felt cold and shaky, until my heart and lungs, webbed into the devil’s body, died out.
I slipped through flesh and darkness. And the more I sunk, the hotter it became. There was a deep murmur, which gradually became an unbearable clamour. And then I reached a void. It was hotter than fire. As I dropped through it, way down below, there was a wide ravine where an ocean of magma was flowing. In there were thousands, no, millions upon millions of people. Despite my confusion, I knew it straight away. They were the souls of the damned, those who had been sent to suffer until the end of time in the bowels of that massive cavern, bigger than the Earth itself. As I came closer to the flowing lava, I could see the skinless, boiling people sinking, resurfacing, and pushing those near them into the red-glowing river, only to stay a few more seconds at the surface. But they drowned anyway; they all did.
A scream came from behind, and what seemed to be a heavier soul passed by. The soul plunged into the lava, issuing a bright yellow flame. I was next. But, with one sharp shrill that burst from inside me, my fall stopped. A blue aura surrounded me, and a powerful jot heaved me towards the rugged, fumigated vault that spanned over Hell. I had no idea what was happening.
Everything went in reverse, me falling through that tunnel of flesh, me sinking inside the devil’s chest, its claws scratching my face, Isabelle and Sebastien’s heads, the red, dark forest, the blow in my back, Isabelle shouting at me, the inside and outside of the charred church, the walk through the sunny woods, the clearing, Isabelle and Sebastien biting my lips, the trees, the grass, a wasp… the sun. I took a deep breath and opened my eyes!
Sebastien and Isabelle were not too far from me in the grass. I touched one of Isabelle’s feet and crawled closer to her. Our bodies were riddled with fresh wounds, but we were okay. We were alive.
“What was this? How did we get out?” asked Isabelle.
“I think it was my grandmother,” I whispered hoarsely.
“What do you mean?” asked Isabelle as she felt me with her hand. Her fear had deformed her face.
“She planted something in me.”
“I don’t know. But it saved us,” I said and fell onto my back, powerless.
Isabelle took my hand and went quiet. I closed my eyes for a few good seconds and asked Sebastien if he was okay. There was no answer. There was a cold drop on my face. I opened my eyes. The sky was draped with clouds. It started raining. I was the first to get up and help the other two to their feet. Sebastien was a mess. I asked him if he could walk. He nodded and looked away. We rushed downhill as fast as we could. When we got to the cabin, all our wounds were gone. It took us less than ten minutes to pack our stuff, jump into the car, and drive back to Cluj.
“Here, can you translate it,” he asked, and gave me the book. “I found it in the old books shop by the university.”
I was lying on the sofa, toying with my tablet. The three of us had just moved in together in this big apartment in the city centre, and some of our stuff was still boxed in. I took the book. It had greasy black covers, and the pages were yellow from age.
“What is it about?” I asked.
But as I went over the text, I got it. Nervous, I sat up.
“What?” he asked. He was all sweaty. It was mid-July, and the city was boiling. And by the way he was panting, he must have been running.
“I need time with this,” I said, standing up. I went to his writing room, sat at the desk, and thumbed through the book. My hands were freezing. Meanwhile, Sebastien rushed to the fridge and got himself some water.
“Is Isa home?”
That was Isabelle’s new pet name.
“No. She’s out. She said she has this artist whose work she wants to curate. You know her; she’s made connections all over the place.”
Sebastien said nothing, but I heard him throwing himself on the sofa in my place.
A few weeks later, I came with the revelation. The book had everything.
There was information about a devil’s cult that used to exist in Transylvania. It survived as late as the 18th century, when the Austrian authorities, who controlled the region at that time, wiped it out. Its worshippers built most of their satanic churches deep within the woods. However, the purge was so thorough that nothing or almost nothing remained of this cult and its followers.
But that was not all. For centuries the region was home to some powerful witches. They were called streghe. The book even accounted for some of their skills. Among them was the power to control both the forces of good and evil, foresight, and even the ability to transfer some of their power to others they had chosen as their next in line.
Isabelle and Sebastien seemed overwhelmed. They had just recovered from what had happened one year before. We never spoke about it to anyone. I told them we shouldn’t. There were far worse things to come if that church was to become public knowledge. And we hoped nobody would stumble upon it, for they would not share our luck.
“So, you are a witch now,” asked Sebastien.
“Stop it, Bastien,” said Isabelle.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “But…”
They stared breathlessly at me as I stopped.
“Since then, I can sense things. I feel when something is about to happen. I even dreamt of this conversation we are having right now. I think I’ve dreamt everything, our entire lives.”
“Yeah. I know. Let’s not think about it. Who wants some nachos,” I said as I stood up.
They were silent, but I still went and prepared some.
That was all I could tell them. They never found out that far away, in those woods, the devil was still looking for us, and that sometimes, at night, it was talking to me, trying to make me break the protection spell I had unwillingly cast around us.