The Ancients: New Blood (vignette)

I am one of the last remaining Ancients. My skin grows thinner and ever more pale with each passing year, the blue rivers of veins only more visible, as if proclaiming the fact that they have not felt warm blood in a thousand years. My eyes, which were always pale, seem so light these days that they are almost transparent.

I feel as though I am starting to fade.

Marisa assures me that I still look natural, if a little pallid. She advises me to lie in the sun to gain color, but these days I find I cannot endure the feel of direct sunlight on my skin.

So I sit in my room and play my violin and I write poetry which nobody will ever read. And I think of my life, how endless it has been. How full of strife and beauty and rapture. It is almost too much to bear sometimes. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I often wonder why I was blessed with this unwanted gift. I worry I am not living up to it. Marisa has come to view her immortality as an affliction, but I view it as an open road with no end in sight.

I first met Marisa in Agrigento in the 13th century. She was the youngest daughter of Count Simon del Vasto and a beauty, with cascading red hair and vivid emerald eyes. After two hundred years of solitude I craved nothing but her presence.

I knew what I was – I bore no false delusions about my predilections, my unnatural habits. So I had to approach her with caution, and above all, with delicacy.

As luck would have it Marisa played right into my hands. I was quite wealthy by that time, always having been prudent with my money, even before the change. Her father approached me in the hopes of arranging a marriage with Marisa. It was no secret that Count del Vasto had lost much of his assets after a fire destroyed five of his vineyards, and I was well aware that he sought to restore his original status. He needed a rich son-in-law for that and I fit the bill.

I was overjoyed of course. But one thing concerned me: at the time Marisa was only twelve. I insisted that the marriage be delayed for four years.

During those four years I got to know Marisa little by little. She was young but endlessly fascinating to me. She could speak about anything and was the rare girl who was not only literate but well versed in Latin and Greek. She wanted to learn Arabic but her father thought it was a waste of time.

She had lost her mother when she was still an infant, barely out of swaddling clothes. And so her three older sisters had raised her. Her father was never around much, but he made sure that each of his daughters receive tutoring in letters and arithmetic. Of the four girls, Marisa showed the most promise, being not only intelligent but resourceful. Having lacked a mother’s touch and watchful eye, there was a domineering, almost masculine quality to Marisa that I found intriguing.

I was enraptured with this woman-child, impatient for the four years to be over and done with. I often regretted my stipulation. Especially when I thought Marisa was starting to suspect that there was something not quite right about me.

The first time I realized that Marisa might have an inkling of what I was occurred at a banquet her father held to honor a visiting senator.

I was seated next to Marisa, as always, and when the servants brought out the many different courses for the guests, I endeavored to snare Marisa in conversation. This was how I was able to distract others from the fact that I did not eat, that I never ate.

In fact, after the change, I never needed food or drink again.

As I prattled on about this or that, commenting on what the senator’s wife was wearing, how abominable the heat was this summer, Marisa suddenly turned her vivid green eyes onto my face and said, “You are not eating.”

It was not a question – it was a statement.

I hesitated before saying, “No, I am not. I don’t feel very well today.”

She continued as if she didn’t hear me or didn’t regard what I had said: “You never eat.”

The question was there, written upon her face. But what scared me was that there was no confusion, no fear in her eyes.

I was pulled by the magnet of her eyes, unable to look away. Unable to answer her. The wall that I had carefully constructed for centuries, hoping that it would hold in everything that I was, everything that made me so different, was beginning to crumble. I could feel my defenses falling in pieces around me.

For the first time, I felt a thrill run through me. I realized I didn’t care if she found out what I was now, in this room full of fragile humans. I was tired of waiting, tired of the unsufferable loneliness. I wanted her to know me for what I truly was. If my heart had been working, I swear it would have beat faster in that moment.

Then the spell was broken as the person seated on the other side of Marisa called her attention to something. She looked away, dragging her eyes reluctantly from my face. The firm set of her lips seemed to suggest that she would not forget, and that I would have to satisfy her curiosity later on.

But Marisa was not to learn of my condition until our wedding night.

The day of the wedding dawned clear. I had stayed up all night wrestling with my inner demons, wondering if I was about to commit the most ungodly of sins, in taking this innocent to be my immortal bride.

Then I laughed when I realized that by my being immortal, I was literally laughing in the face of God. I was already damned.

Though I had been fully conscious during my change, I had never performed the change myself. I had some idea of how to go about it, but no practice whatsoever. I worried something might go wrong, that I might irrevocably hurt Marisa or worse.

For the first time, I regretted distancing myself from the others like me. But the truth was that I was too used to being an outcast, even when I was an ordinary human. We cannot change our stripes that easily, whether mortal or immortal.

So I watched the sun rise over the mountain, lighting the sky on fire. My skin, which grew colder and colder with each passing decade, greedily drank up the sun’s warmth. And I did what I did best – I waited.

The ceremony was held in a cathedral nearly as old as me. Despite the fact that others of my kind did not like frequenting churches or any other type of religious edifice, I thought this was nothing more than superstition. I happened to like churches quite a bit, as they offered quiet places of sanctuary and meditation, and this cathedral was one that I often frequented.

I had never been married before, so I didn’t know what to expect today. I had been changed when I was barely a man, only 19 years of age. I wondered if this sudden nervousness, this tightening of the throat, was normal. I adjusted my tunic and ran an unsteady hand through my hair.

One of Marisa’s sisters, Elisabetta, I think, came up to me and laid a reassuring hand on my arm.

She immediately drew back her hand, as if she’d been burned. “Goodness, you are so cold! There’s no need to be so nervous. Marisa will be a worthy wife for you. Her sisters have taught her well.” And then she flashed me a suggestive smile and walked back to her pew.

Before I could even contemplate the hidden message in Elisabetta’s words there was a sudden hush, an expectant rustling of feet and heads, all turning to face the entrance.

The priest entered first, his attendants each holding a heavy iron cross on either side of him. Then Marisa and her father, Count del Vasto beaming a smile that fairly reeked of self-pride.

You worthless fool, I thought to myself. All the vineyards in the world, including yours, are worth nothing compared to the treasure at your side. My hands balled into fists at my side and I felt my lips curling back to reveal my preternatural grimace. I quickly regained my composure, however, when I realized that it would not do to slaughter my bride’s father on her wedding day.

And then Marisa’s eyes locked with mine and all logical thought fled from my brain. I had never seen her looking so utterly beautiful. Youth fairly bloomed on her – she was like a perfect rose. I knew then my life, whatever those words meant, was no longer mine alone.

The actual ceremony was a blur. I remember the priest intoning the vows, our hesitant voices repeating after him. Marisa’s eyes never left my face. There was an otherwordly glow in them that made my insides ache. In the area where my heart used to beat I felt a burning sensation, as if a fire had set up residence there.

I tried smiling at Marisa, hoping to ease the ache, but careful not to reveal too much. Careful not to give everything away too soon. There would be time enough for that later tonight.

(I was always nervous in front of Marisa, before her change, because I always suspected that she knew something about me, about the real me. She assures me now that this wasn’t the case, that she was completely in the dark about me. But I was nevertheless prudent during those early days, knowing that to reveal myself too soon would be to risk losing her.)

Finally, the interminable ceremony ended and the wedding banquet began in earnest. In a few short hours, Marisa and I would be alone. Forever alone.

Marisa was the first to leave the banquet. After bidding adieu to the guests, she came up and stood on tip-toe and whispered in my ear: “I am going to our bed chamber, husband. I will be waiting for you there.”

I thrilled at that word, husband. I nodded at her and inhaled sharply, knowing that soon I would be alone with this beauteous woman.

I hoped that she would be able to handle the truth. When I chose her, I was banking on her intelligence, on her resourcefulness. I knew that I was not offering her a gift. This wasn’t a prize, immortality – it was a burden, but one that I longed to share with another. I had a feeling that Marisa would prove to be a worthy companion.

But she was so young, only 16. Did I wait long enough? What if she refused me? Perhaps in a few more years… I could surely keep up the pretense until then.

But she was shrewd, she would surely guess my true nature within time…

These were my thoughts as I bid farewell to my guests and climbed the winding stair to our bed chamber.

There were two servant girls waiting in the hallway in front of our bed chamber. They helped me off with my tunic and boots, and then I asked them to leave me. They both smiled and winked at me before departing.

I stood in my underclothes, shivering not from cold (I no longer suffered from the elements) but from a sensation I hadn’t felt in centuries – fear.

I knocked at the door. A musical voice answered, “Who is it?”

“It is I, Lucas. Your husband.”

Then I heard the sound of rushing footsteps and the door was suddenly flung open. Marisa stood there in an ivory night-shirt, her long red curls hanging down to her waist. Her cheeks were flushed as though with fever and her eyes glittered with an inner light. I noticed that she was barefoot and that her feet were utterly perfect, the little half-moons of toe nails gleaming in the near darkness.

“Are you frightened, Lucas? Here’s a secret – I am, too.” Marisa tipped up my chin so that I looked at her. Then I stepped inside and she closed the door behind us.

Marisa kept up a steady stream of chatter, whether to soothe her own nerves or what she imagined were mine, I was not sure.

“My sisters have all told me what to expect for tonight, so you mustn’t worry on my account. I am perfectly prepared.”

I sat down on the bed and watched her. She blushed very prettily and then continued, “It’s to be my first time, of course, so I haven’t got any experience. I did kiss one of the servants’ sons when I was younger, but that doesn’t count, does it?”

“No, I suppose that doesn’t count.” I reached out a hand, beckoning her to me. She was still standing by the door, nervously twining a strand of her hair on her finger.

After a moment of painful deliberation, she took one step forward then stopped. “Is it your first time, too, Lucas?” She whispered, lowering her head so that I could not read her eyes.

I stood up then, but very gently so as to not scare her. I was at her side in a moment, stroking her hair. “Would you believe me if I told you that this is my first time?”

Marisa tilted her head up to look into my eyes and I felt her shudder. I gingerly placed my arms around her waist.

I knew my own strength – I knew how fragile she was. Being what I was, I could not be with her in the way that she meant. Not yet. Not until she was like me, too. I could crush her so very easily now. I could not risk losing her so soon.

I also knew my own temptation, I knew too well the lust I had forsaken for centuries. I had not given in to my temptation since the change, though I had felt stirrings of it from time to time, normally when I was unusually close to human beings.

Just as I was close to Marisa now.

I buried my head in her glorious hair and breathed deeply in the faint fragrance she exuded. I decided that if I took small steps it would be fine. I could control myself. It was safest this way.

I slowly pushed my face through the thick mass of her curls until my nose was resting at the side of her neck. Until I could hear the pulse of her blood.

That was my first mistake.

Suddenly, her scent was all around me. It was in the air, it was in my nose. It was in my head, taunting me, daring me to have a taste, to see if she tasted as good as she smelled.

No. Not her. Not now.

I pushed her away from me with a groan. Too late, I realized I had used too much of my strength. She crumpled against the wall like a rag. Her eyes first wide and scared, then blank and unseeing. A trickle of blood fell from her mouth as her head slumped forward on her chest.

I was at her side in a second, feeling for the tell-tale pulse at her wrist. Her hand hung limply in my own.

“Marisa, wake up, darling, wake up.”

There was the faintest of pulses threading weakly through her veins. She didn’t have much time.

I knew I had two choices then: one – to let Marisa die to her mortal life and rest in eternal peace; or two – to let Marisa die to her mortal life and awaken to an immortal life, with me.

This wasn’t the way I wanted it to be. But it was too late for regrets. It was time to make a choice.

I pulled my lips back and held my wrist against my teeth so that I could feel the incisors pricking the thin skin. Then I pushed my teeth into the flesh until they broke through, until my blood was pouring out in a cold stream. I tilted Marisa’s head back on my arm and let the blood pour into her half-open mouth.

At first she didn’t respond. I worried it was too late. Frantically, I put my wrist right up to her mouth, silently willing her to drink, to awaken, to live.

And then Marisa’s eyes flashed open with such fierce intensity that I was shocked despite myself. She yanked my wrist to her mouth hard, drinking me in. I felt the sharp pull of her thirst, the intense thirst that all fledgling drinkers are born with. The thirst that I was somehow able to resist for so long.

“Drink, my beloved, drink.” I urged her with my soft voice, with my eyes. Then the pull of her thirst suddenly became a pain, racking my body and threatening to tear me apart.

“Let go, Marisa!”

But she didn’t or wouldn’t listen.

The whole world started to turn red. I could feel my veins becoming dessicated, drying out. For the first time since I’d been changed, I thirsted uncontrollably for blood.

Unthinking, beyond any shred of humanity I had left, I pulled Marisa off of me. She felt stronger now, somehow more resistant.

I slammed her hard against my chest and drew her neck level with my mouth. Then I sank my teeth into her fragrant skin.

This was the first time I’d ever fed on blood, human or otherwise. I was not prepared for the glut of sensations, for the flash of memories this awakened. I don’t mean my memories, I mean Marisa’s. Her blood fairly sang of her human life.

I saw Marisa at age five, running wild through a field of sunflowers. Her crimson hair flapping behind her like a flag.

I saw Marisa at age eight, taking her first communion, wearing a demure white veil and kneeling before a cross.

I saw Marisa at age sixteen, walking down an aisle wearing a similar veil, only this time I was there, too.

It was the sight of me in her memories, the sight of my watchful predator’s eyes staring back at me that severed the need. I pushed her gently away with a broken sob and sat down in front of the bed. She fell onto my lap and lay there as if sleeping.

After a long time had passed I raked a hesitant hand through her hair, uncovering her face. Her eyes were looking up at me, unblinking, full of questions.

“Marisa,” I breathed.

“Yes, husband?”

“How can you still call me that, after what I have done to you. After what you know me to be.” I groaned and put my head into my hands, reliving the last painful hours. “I could have killed you,” I muttered.

I felt a soft hand on my shoulder. “But you didn’t. I’m still here. Only better than before. I can feel the strength flowing in my veins, your strength.”

I felt Marisa pull away from me. I looked up and saw her standing over me like a beautiful statue, pale and strong. I’d never seen her emerald eyes sparkle so brightly.

“I am yours forever,” she said simply.

That was our first night as husband and wife. It was a painful night, in many ways. I had never performed the change before, and I had forgotten much about my own change. So many centuries had passed since then.

I had forgotten, for instance, how painful it is for fledgling drinkers to expel the remains of human waste from their newly perfected bodies, how uncomfortable the sensation of one’s new blood mixing with the old, as it takes over the capillaries and infuses the brain with different chemicals.

I am no doctor so I cannot pretend to say I know the inner workings of our kind. In the thousand years that I have roamed the earth, I have come across very few of our own kind, and have learned little about our condition. But I have a feeling that the large amount of blood Marisa drank from me, plus the fact that my blood was unchanged from my second awakening, since I’d never, ever drank blood until that night, helped her through the change.

By morning, she was herself again. Well, her new self.

When the sun came up, she was full of questions, mostly about my change.

“How was it for you? Did you have the same horrible thirst that burned right through you? Who changed you? When?”

And then she asked the question that I had been preparing myself for all of this time: “How old are you?”

I looked right into her vivid emerald eyes and answered directly, “I am a thousand years old.”

But that only stopped the flow of questions for a moment before she blinked and continued.

“Where were you born? Whom else have you changed? Where do you feed? On whom or what do you feed? Will I live forever, too?”

I held up a hand to stem the unceasing flow of her questions. She was insatiable for answers. “I will explain, wife. But first, we must destroy the evidence. It won’t do for the servants to find you all bloody and bedraggled, would it?”

“It could just mean we had a wild wedding night, husband,” she said with a wicked smile. But she let me bathe her, change her. In an hour we were both respectable again.

After I helped her into a fresh night-shirt and passed a comb through her gnarled tresses, removing the knots, we lay back down on the bed to rest for a while. The servants would not be bothering us until at least noon, as was custom on the morning after the wedding. We had plenty of time to talk.

Marisa lay curled up at my side like a child. I was unaccustomed to the feel of another body next to me in bed. For so long I’d lived a monk’s life, ascetic, celibate. Undrinking. Not partaking in any temptations, human or otherwise.

“Are you going to answer any of the questions I asked you before, Lucas?”

“In due time, my insatiable little wife. You must let me tell you my story. I have been waiting a very long time for you.”

“Yes, I know, four years.”

“No, my beloved, for centuries.”

This was sufficient to silence her. After a beat I continued, “I have wandered this earth for so long alone that I forgot what it was to yearn for company. When I first laid eyes upon your face, I knew that you were to be mine.”

“I knew then, looking into your pure eyes, that my life until that point had been meaningless. Worthless. You were the reason I’d kept myself alive, though I didn’t know it until then. I finally had a reason to continue. I even began to hope that I might change you, too.”

I saw another question flash in Marisa’s eyes and I stopped her with a quick kiss on her mouth before continuing.

“You asked who changed me. In truth, I do not know. I will tell you what I do know, but for that I must go back to the beginning.

“I was born in Greece to a fisherman and his family. I was one of five children, all boys. I was neither the youngest nor the oldest, but rather somewhere in between. I lived in the sea, always swimming or fishing in it. My name then was Luka.

“I had a happy childhood. My parents did not push me into marriage, allowing their sons to make that decision on their own. So I was still living at home when I turned nineteen, although now I helped provide for my family by selling fish to the villagers.”

“At night, I often liked to swim in the ocean, alongside dolphins and sometimes even sharks. But I was never afraid. I felt more at home in the water than on land.

“One night when I came back to shore, I saw a dark figure waiting for me near where I’d left my clothes next to a sand dune. I couldn’t see the person’s face but I felt their eyes watching me. It was an unnerving feeling. I approached the figure warily, hoping he or she wasn’t looking to steal my money as I wasn’t carrying any with me. As I got closer the figure inexplicably moved farther away. I quickly gathered my clothes and dressed, not even shoving the sandals on my feet in my haste to get away.

“I ran all the way home, wondering if I’d imagined what I’d seen.

“The next night I went swimming with two of my brothers. I didn’t tell them why I wanted them to come, hoping they wouldn’t ask. In the light of day my fears from the night before seemed silly but I wasn’t about to take any risks.

“But the figure didn’t appear that night. Not there.”

“That night I had fitful dreams. In my dreams the dark figure kept moving closer and closer but my feet were somehow glued to the ground, not letting me move. I could only wait and watch as the dark figure moved ever closer to me.”

“I woke up in the middle of the night and decided I would take a walk outside to clear my head. Once outside, I came face to face with the dark figure. This time, he was close enough for me to see him. He was small of build and preternaturally pale, with horrible black eyes that stared right through me. Before I could even scream for help, he pulled me over his shoulder and ran away with me slung over his back like I was weightless, despite the fact that I was much taller than him.

“I blacked out, reawakening in a cave. When I opened my eyes, the man was leaning over me, speaking to me. But I couldn’t understand his language. Then I felt his teeth everywhere, piercing me, killing me.

“Only I didn’t die. Not completely. When I awoke again he was gone and I was already changed.”

“I know, somehow, that I didn’t drink from him. The change could not have happened that way. When I awoke, the cave floor and walls were splattered with a copious amount of blood, too much to be mine alone. I had thin scars all over my body from where he had punctured my skin with his sharp teeth but even as I watched, the scars began to heal until they disappeared completely.

“That was the first clue that there was something really wrong with me.

“And then my body was suddenly racked with intense pains, pains I had never experienced before in my life. I know now that this was just part of the change, my new blood mixing with my old blood, my body becoming what it is today. But at the time I truly thought that I was dying.

“To my great and utter surprise, I did not die. But looking down at my suddenly pale skin, which was once so tan from the sun, I knew that I had changed. In a very real way, my way of living had died. I could not return to the old ways.

“That was the day I learned to say good-bye.”

I sat quiet for a moment, collecting my thoughts. Marisa didn’t stir – she was so still I wondered if she was awake. Then she raised her head up to look at me, an almost tangible sadness in her wondrous eyes.

“Did you ever get to see your family again?”

I smiled mirthlessly, dipping back into the black well of memory.

“Only from afar. What they must have thought about me, I cannot imagine…”

Marisa placed a firm but gentle hand on my arm. “Surely they would never think that you abandoned them.”

I shrugged, looking out the window at the sun. It was almost in the exact center of the sky; soon the servants would be coming in to wake us.

“I don’t know what my family thought. Probably that I’d been murdered by a street robber and thrown over a cliff. They wore black for an entire month and my mother never left the house again. I stayed for a year, living in the same cave where I’d been changed, coming as close to my family as I dared. I left after my mother’s death. I never returned to Greece again.”

“Did you never feed?”

I’d been waiting for that question. I pulled Marisa back so that she was at arm’s length and addressed her directly.

“As I told you before, I’ve never fed on blood before tonight. Even right after the change, when I was being torn asunder by horrible pains and thought I was dying, I did not feel thirst. I have never known thirst until tonight.” I couldn’t erase the trace of remorse lingering in my words. I’d always taken pride in the fact that I wasn’t like the others, that I didn’t feed on innocent humans.

“But I don’t understand. How have you survived? Did you truly never feel this unbearable thirst? It’s almost maddening!” Marisa loosened the ties at her throat that held up her nightshirt, a restless glow in her green eyes.

“I don’t know how I have survived, my love. I suppose I was half-hoping I would starve. And in my blackest hour, after my mother’s death, I tried to kill myself, by jumping off a cliff. But it appears our kind is not meant to die.”

Marisa sat upright on the bed and played with my hands, turning them over as she studied the striking pallor of my skin, the raised veins at the wrist.

“I saw things, when I was drinking from you,” she said softly, still looking down at my hands.

I tipped her chin up with a finger. “What did you see, Marisa?”

“I saw you as a child – how dark you were then, Lucas! You were swimming in incredibly blue waters with your brothers at your side, as swift as fish, darting in and out of the waves … I saw a beautiful woman that had your same eyes, and I saw the love that burned in those eyes …”

“That was my mother you saw.”

“I had an idea it might be her. But Lucas, I didn’t see anything after that. Everything went black, and then you were pushing me away.”

I pulled her close to me now. “I hope I did not hurt you in doing so, little one. But I was afraid you were going to drain me dry.”

She spoke against my chest, her words muffled. “It is I who should be apologizing. But Lucas, why am I still so hungry?”

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