It is my four hundred and fortieth year upon this Earth, and I can no longer recognize my own face. I know it in essence, have seen the portraits done in heavy oils: a slanted brow, a nose, curving ever so slightly like a scimitar to lend my countenance the air of an osprey. No matter. The paintings of the regal man I once could have recognized are the barest spectre of a memory. The creatures gnawing away at the crumbling flakes of weathered paint are but unwilling participants in a grotesque parody of the worms that heaved their serpentine, maggoty coils across my undead flesh.
Perhaps the fourth turn of a century has changed me in ways that the bubbling venom of the leech’s curse could never have. I sit sometimes, amid gossamer threads of cobwebs strewn like frost, coating these stone walls. I dream, with fantastical, wild notions about what I may look like. Perhaps I am hideously transfigured into a cracked and wrinkled nightmare, with glittering feline eyes peeking out from puckered flesh streaked with the yellow brushstrokes of bile. Maybe my features have been warped into a lupine mask, flesh tight against my skull, eyes burning lamplights from Hellish chasms. Or perhaps there is no change, and the haughty gaze of that man, buried in the past in a coffin whose very lid bears the marks of claws rending the spongy rotten wood from the inside, has not moved at all.
Immutable. Alabaster flesh turning aside the scythe of Father Time as a suit of mail would a dagger. I would not know.
All I can do is search the expanse of my pearlescent skin, run my fingers clumsily to feel the bridge of a nose, the curve of an eye-socket, the moist, quivering softness of lips, awkwardly trying to construct one whole image like a blind man clutching at the walls of a cave, his palms scrabbling fruitlessly along shards of stone. The mirror that sits above my bedroom table is as much a prop as the mattress itself, its contents naught but a frightful void reflected at me. I see an empty room, a man erased, blotted out from reality, left to skulk in the shadows screaming to be heard, and answered only by that deafening, echoing emptiness.
In the beginning I welcomed it.
After years of glutting myself on the living, it finally struck me. So much time to learn, better myself, hone my already prodigious capabilities to new lengths so that I would be unrivalled among men in both body and mind. Think, what lengths the immortal could rise to, when unshackled from the limitations of finite life! Why, he could soar to the heights of da Vinci and Botticelli, compose symphonies and master instruments to shame Handel and Vivaldi, trample on the works of Shakespeare and Marlowe, achieve feats of science and medicine that would consign Galileo to utter mediocrity! Yet only once I strove for the limits of perfection, did I truly realise what it meant to surrender one’s soul.
The paintings I produced were the scratches and scribbles of a child, ghastly, nauseating smears of colour devoid of rhyme or reason. In an agony of confusion, I fought to breathe life into the canvas, a ludicrous task for one undead. Howling, raging, frothing at the mouth, tearing at my flesh I thrashed back and forth, racking my mind to produce something, anything, but these slender fingers could only clutch the paintbrush in the fist of an ape. The gift of creation had been spirited away under my nose even as I gloated, all the while unaware that I would never reach the true immortality of men who still could feel. Heaps of parchment filled the castle halls in a blizzard, torn and ripped by savage paws that could only throttle a quill in impotent frustration, choking it and spotting the paper with tears of ink. I procured a violin and set it on the rack to screech and whine, until I left its smashed and gutted carcass in a corner to collect dust, and the creatures of the night made no music. No music at all.
No passion could fill this void. My brushes with love were reduced to the palest of imitations, as similar to true romance as the efforts of an artist, gone decades without practising his craft, would be to the masterworks of his youth.
A sweet young thing would catch my eye, my fingers running over her smooth skin, but to grip and pierce rather than caress. My hunger would be of an uglier, brutish kind than any spark of lust, teeth finding the neck not to nibble but to bite, clasping the body close to feel the heart pumping, quickening in fear, not in excitement, the flesh draining where once it would have flushed with the self-same blood gushing in arterial streams to slake my throat. The quivering gasps of pleasure were now replaced only with the jerky, floundering frenzy of a body seized by the throes of death. As for a wife, I only ever took one, forgetting, in an instant of desperation, the nature of my curse, how brief her existence was compared to mine.
She stood before me. I closed my eyes, and when I opened them again, she was gone. Dust and powdered bone, left to be swept by the wind and carried away.
Four hundred years and more I count, though why I bother I could not truly say. It keeps the mind fresh, staves away the rot blossoming within cancerous petals like the mould that has so surely snuck its way between the cobbles of my abode. The sour fragrance of mildew is adequate perfume for the dull days that eke their way resolutely forward with arthritic grace. The tapestries hang heavy with coats of dust, and the grime spreads in a fungal crawl to cake the stained-glass windows now reduced to tawdry trinkets deprived of the sunlight that once made them gems.
My God I miss the sunlight!
The torments I would endure to see my halls dappled in jade and ruby, the blood I would spill, If I had any to give, for an evening watching the surface of a lake in the summertime, strewn with winking diamonds, a kingdom, my kingdom for the warmth of a June morning on my face!
The urge — macabre, insane — often springs on me, seizes me with such force I begin to shake and grow weak at the knees. The prospect of finality, once incomprehensibly daunting, is now one I envy with all the still and flaccid wreck that once I called a heart. I yearn to pluck away at the thick curtains that shield my windows and let the burning tide flood inside these necrotic walls in a stream of molten gold.
Oh, flay me alive with your fiery whips, I care not, the tongues of Hell cannot be worse than an eternity clothed in the greys and blacks of the midnight hour!
I would cling to memory for salvation but can only grasp and pounce at the wisps of half-remembered lives, too many for one man, a dozen faces to go with a hundred names. Sometimes I am rooted to the spot as if speared by lightning: the sound of horse’s hooves and the bellowing of Boyars flourishing banners wet and heavy with gore, the pungent cacophony of the streets of London and the stench of a river-turned cesspit. The tang of ocean spray and the groaning of a ship’s rudder, the strangled scream of a dull-eyed peasant ripped open in a forest clearing, a madman with zealot’s eyes lapping blood from a stone-floor...... Can I really call these fragments my own? I doubt I even trust myself to claim that I lived them. Instead it is as if I waded through the murky waters of a dream, yet to be disturbed. Here I sit, and time has passed me by like a carriage overtaking a poor man by the side of the road, leaving him with paltry snatches of laughter and good cheer. The glimpse of a true life he will vainly chase in the fashion of a man dancing with his own shadow, always one step behind.
What existence for a man is this, after all? Yes, the power, the elegance, the predatory beauty of gliding through the night, the shadows chased away by crimson eyes that see every quiver of a leaf, every twitch of fur on a rabbit’s hide, it is intoxicating at first. Well do I remember the deranged glee of freedom from the mortal coil, the joy, terrifying but then electric, of jeering in the face of God, my very existence the ultimate affront to His will, yet agonising by His design. Like a fool I capered and mugged outside gates barred to my entrance, unaware it was I destined to be the ultimate butt of a joke, too sour for any creature to stomach.
So, the sneer fading at my lips I scamper from the oncoming dawn, night after night, to curl in a cellar with no company save the tearing of a hunger that can never be abated roiling in my stomach. The fine silks, the lace and velvet and furs that swaddled me have long-since rotted away. The candles sit cold in puddles of hardened wax, for what use is light for eyes that see in darkness? My court is one of shadows, and when I dine my banquets become masques for the rats and the spiders.
The clusters of hovels scattered below the keep have grown into towns. Hovering in the empty sky, the moonlight casts me in silver, and the dotted pinpricks of lamp-light from a hundred houses is the glare of the spluttering torches wielded by the mob.
I am not welcome here. I can hear the sounds, a thousand lungs drawing breath, the laughter, the whispers, the sobs and the tears. If I close my eyes, for an instant, long enough, I can pretend that giggles burble from my lips, that it is my salted tears that stain dried and barren cheeks, that the throb of life comes from within my breast and not theirs. Once, such delusions would not have troubled me. Once, I held men in my thrall, but the sands of time slip ever onwards, and the monster that hides in the castle becomes just that: a monster, banished to the realm of the storybook and the tall tale. Not a defined man but the memory of a thing, all bared fangs and dark cloaks, a terror for children. Dispelled and forgotten with the drawing of a blanket over a sleeping head.
Pure cowardice keeps me as I am. Even centuries later, for all my protestations the thud of the gravedigger’s soil on my casket still terrifies me. Consigned to a Hell of my own devising, I flee from the Hell I know awaits if I were to stride into the daytime. White flesh, a man made of candle wax… Would I melt, or simply crumble? Perhaps it would be better to face the lakes of Inferno than remain a thing of nothingness, on my hands and knees with blood as a bib and with every step shedding the last remaining vestiges of the human.
I twitch the curtain aside ever so slightly. Across the pine-strewn hills, the orange glow of the morning begins to creep forward. Touched momentarily, the grass becomes emerald.
I had forgotten grass.
I let my hand fall, and the curtain being drawn is the sound of a coffin slamming shut. It is my four hundred and fortieth year on this earth.
Pablo Lacalle Castillo (he/him) is a twenty year old, third-year student of English Literature (MA HONS) at the University of Edinburgh. He is from Madrid, Spain.