Writing a story about vampires? I think editors today sigh when they see the word. Vampires have been done. Wizards have been done. I think the only ‘thing’ that hasn’t been done is the romance or porn novel, and since I don’t write or read them I have no idea how important originality is in either genre (I might have just lied a little, sorry de Sade, Masoch, Harris, Roquelaire etc, etc).
I do not love vampires, but I do love the idea of another species produced by nature that preys on humans whilst being hidden amongst them. We all love the conspiracy theories about Illuminati, the financial gnomes of Switzerland, Men in Black and so on. Vampires fill the same need but with an added touch of sheer horror.
So, in search of an original take on vampires I began to imagine the very origin of the species. I decided to begin at the dawn of Egypt, when the Nile was known as the Iteru. Now, history is fun for some, but the horror in history is no fun unless it can reach forward into the present. So I began with my protagonist…
Goddess of the Moon
“If you are to be useful to me, you must learn.”
I wanted to smile but the expression on her face warned me otherwise. “Myth and legend. I’ve read the books, both fact and fiction. I am not persuaded they ever actually existed.”
The low lights glinted in her black eyes. The deep red lips flashed a brief sardonic smile. She drew a cloth aside from the tabletop. Parchment sheets bound in ancient pigskin lay beneath it. She opened them and turned over the first illuminated page.
“Your knowledge of early Coptic will serve you well. Some passages are in the original hieroglyphic.”
I leaned forward and read the first sentence.
‘It is said that she came from the unknown and forbidden places beyond the southernmost regions of the curved lands of the Nubians…’
Beneath this sentence were hieroglyphic characters copied from some earlier document in the same hand. It read: ‘The scroll of Ptahotep. Translated by the Brothers of the Church of Saint Pachomuis the Cenobite.’
At this point, the origin of our story is revealed…
The Caravan From The Forbidden Lands
Amun Khenemet stared into the southwest as Ra descended into the underworld. There was blood in the sky and he prayed that Ra would soon return reborn. In the far distance he saw the first signs of the caravan. The red light of dying Ra glinted against metal in the distance.
He had pushed his expedition as far as the fifth cataract of the Iteru and camped to make maps for the Pharaoh. He had sent scouts ahead. The boldest of them returned with news of the caravan. He reported a parade of camels, strange animals never before seen, a personage of great importance adorned with fabulous gems, gold and cloth that seemed lighter than air. There was a small army of slaves, many of them carrying bundles and chests and skins of the sacred leopard. Four women, clad in armor of gold and purple vestments carried a large wrought iron box on four poles. It was clear the box and its contents were treated with great deference.
Khenemet looked again at the sky. It seemed as if Ra had bled his life force across the horizon before descending into the earth. It was not a good omen. Lights began to flicker in the blackness of the horizon. They were torches were lit by carriers in the caravan. He could now see the black mass of the retinue as it neared.
He ordered torches to be lit and had his guards stand by as he returned to his tent. He dressed in a manner suitable to greet a person of importance.
The caravan stopped a short distance from Khenemet’s encampment. Men began to set up tents and a small coral for the slaves. Two camels separated from the group and made their way toward the Egyptian encampment. They entered the circle of torches where Khenemet waited, surrounded by his guards armed with bows and spears. Khenemet wore his best copper breastplate and cotton tunic.
The back of the lead camel carried a square wooden frame covered with the fabulous lighter than air cloth mentioned by his scout. A wizened servant came up to assist the occupant to dismount.
Khenemet drew in his breath sharply. It was a woman. She was tall, her body lissome and muscled, her black skin glistening in the torchlight. She was dressed in a tunic of leopard skin over an undergarment of light cotton. Her neck was adorned with a golden collar studded with clear and colored gems. In the center of her forehead was a raised crescent moon-shaped scar.
He was familiar with the peoples of Nubia and had seen slaves from the southern lands whose skin was black. Her skin was blacker than the charcoal of the coppersmiths. Her face was startling, reddish purple lips that smiled as she looked at him. Her eyes were almost fearful to look at, great white orbs with large pupils as black as her skin. The smile widened as she approached him. Her gait was smooth and regal like the leopard whose skin she wore. The smiled widened revealing teeth as white as the finest ivory. Her eye teeth had been filed to sharp points.
She stopped a few feet away from Khenemet, the smile fading and the eyes narrowing, an eyebrow so slightly raised. The Vizier of the Pharaoh, the great explorer of the forbidden lands, the general of the army of the lands of the Iteru, felt his knees trembling. His own retinue murmured and gasped in astonishment as Khenemet sank to his knees and bowed his head.
“Welcome! How can the vizier of the Pharaoh of the upper Iteru be of service to you, my Queen?” As Khenemet spoke he rose again, struggling to understand the power that emanated from the beautiful black woman.
She smiled approvingly and snapped her fingers. The small man, her personal servant, stepped forward. She spoke. A deep, soft, sonorous voice. The language was beyond Khenemet but the servant immediately translated it into his own tongue.
“My Mistress, The Goddess of the Moon, thanks you for your welcome. You will be of service enough in the days to come, for she intends to visit your Pharaoh. In the meantime my Mistress asks that her retinue be allowed to encamp close by and enjoy your protection.”
“Of course, we would be honored to protect you. In the meantime, although our resources are meager, we would be honored if you would dine with us.”
The man interpreted the offer and she answered before he had finished. “My resources are ample so tomorrow I will instead have a feast prepared for you. Please allow me have the honor of having you and your men for a meal. In the meantime, please accept a small gift from my homeland, flavored honey for you and all of your men.”
Two slaves brought forward a chest made of aromatic wood. Inside were small containers, each with a wooden lid fastened with cord. The Queen took one of the containers and handed it to Khenemet. As he held it she reached to the collar beneath her chin and pulled on a carved projection of gold. It was a knife with a tiny blade of black obsidian. She cut the string and lifted the lid.
The servant handed her a small ivory spoon and she dipped it into the dark honey. She raised the spoon to Khenemet’s mouth. He had no choice but to open his mouth and taste. She smiled as she allowed him to suck the honey from the spoon.
“A taste, Khenemet, Vizier of the Pharaoh, of the delights to come, “ she said to him in his own tongue.
“How do you know my name? Who are you? Where are you from?”
“All will be revealed in time. I am from an ancient land we know as the Cradle. We call it so as it is the place of the first Gods, and of the first of womankind and I leave it only to enter into the greater world in search of sustenance.”
The honey pots were distributed amongst Khenemet’s men. The Queen mounted her camel and rode away. Her men were already digging a pit for a large fire.
Khenemet and his men soon consumed the small pots of honey. Such a delicacy was seldom reserved for soldiers of their station. The Queen’s camp seemed to show no signs of sleeping for the night. They made busy preparing for the large feast the following day. Khenemet’s camp made do with what food they had on hand and then went to sleep.
It was late in the night when she came to him. When the moon was high she slipped into his tent and disrobed. He watched, unable to move, feeling strangely separated from his body. Even so he responded to her naked body, trying his best to roll over and mount her. She would have none of it, forcing him down upon his back, mounting him. The sex was passionate and aggressive, several hours that left Khenemet exhausted and covered with a myriad bites and scratches. Finally, when she was done with him, she arose. He tried to move but his limbs were paralyzed. Two of the guards tied him, naked, arms and legs spread wide, to a light wooden frame. As the Queen walked regally back to her camp they dragged him on the frame behind her.
It was now the dead of night but the camp was a hive of activity with men around five fire pits tending to what looked like long bodied pigs on spits. Khenemet was raised on the frame against a tree limb, head and shoulders above the scene. He could see that the slaves that had been kept in the corral of thorn bushes earlier in the night were now fully armed and working around the camp. The ground in the corral was covered with the bodies of his men, some trying to move, others still, all paralyzed by the same drug that had been used to spice the honey. Except, that is, for those men slowly turning on the spits.
Khenemet tried to focus his eyes. He was confused, unable to process what he was seeing. To his side, hanging upside down from another tree limb, was his own manservant. He was whimpering as a slave was opening an artery on his neck, bleeding him into a golden bowl.
In the center of the gathering stood the wrought iron cage. Atop it was a large scorpion of solid gold. The door was open. Inside was a large wooden figure with wide staring eyes and savage teeth. The figure was adorned with beads, cowrie shells and pointed fragments of bronze and gold hammered into its surface.
The bowl of blood was given to the Goddess of the Moon who offered it to the figure in the cage. Feasting and celebration followed the ritual. It lasted the entire night, ending only as the first signs of sunrise began to streak across the sky.
As the sun began to rise the Queen retired to her tent. Her followers buried the remains of the feast in a pit. They tended to the prisoners in the corral and swung Khenemet down from his perch to feed him warm water mixed with the same spiced honey he had eaten the night before. By full sunrise all were sleeping.
It took three days to eat the rest of Khenemet’s men. Each night the caravan packed everything, buried the remains, and continued to move to the north.
Khenemet had been fed, cleansed and cared for, all the while drugged by the honeyed potion. On the fourth night the Queen began to eat Khenemet. Since he was reserved for the Queen alone he was not drained of blood and spitted. Instead, one man with a white beard and hair, came to him with a small pot and a sharp sliver of bone. He smiled as he dipped the bone into the pot. “I am Harambe, you might say that I am your cook.”
He began to prick the skin around Khenemet’s thigh just above the right knee. Working his way from the front to back, puncturing the skin every few inches. “This is the only pain you will feel,” he said, a wide grin exposing his sharply filed teeth.
A few minutes later he began to cut the flesh below the knee. Khenemet watched, nauseated and filled with fear and horror. He felt no pain as the old man carefully removed the lower leg and cauterized the wound.
After five more days only his head and torso were left. That was the night that the Queen kissed him and caressed his head as he was hung and bled. She told him that his life force would live on through her and that, as a result of the blood ritual with the fetish in the cage, he would not have another reincarnation.
“You will live on in me for all eternity instead,” She said.
Now we return to our central character – and our next pinch point, as screen writers call it. A tale of horror at the dawn of Egypt is of little consequence unless it can reach out and touch us, shake our sense of security, make shadows and dark places the abode of something real enough to raise the hair on the back of our necks…
I had been transfixed for hours. I looked around the darkened room. Her voice drifted towards me from a large winged armchair near the fireplace, her form dimly illuminated by the glowing embers in the grate.
“According to the scroll of Ptahotep, the Goddess of the Moon settled in Upper Egypt. Khenemet’s son became Pharaoh, taking the symbol of the Selk, or the Scorpion, as his own. Once the Pharaoh had achieved his majority, she moved on, settling again in the delta of the Iteru, the Nile.”
She paused and a cigarette glowed in the darkness. I caught the distinctive smell of Gitane and wished I could smoke one.
“According to Ptahotep, she never died, and centuries later she was known as Sequet-Hetu. We have records of Sequet dating from hundreds of years later. She disappeared when the Hittites conquered Egypt.”
I swiveled my chair and rubbed my eyes. “A cannibal, and a myth, surely?”
The smile again. A hint of teeth in the gloom. “Mother Nature is nothing if not inventive. Homo sapiens were not the first humans to walk the earth, nor, I suspect, the last. Some experiments failed, Neanderthals for example. The Goddess of the Moon was the first of her kind. Her descendants live among you even now. They feed upon you.”
“Myth! I am not convinced. And in any event, surely we killed them all off centuries ago, if not with stakes then definitely with sunlight.”
“Yes, of course. Those susceptible to daylight are surely dead, but like all living things, the species learned to adapt.”
I stood. It was time to leave. “And the Goddess of the Moon…alive and well and running a McDonald’s franchise in Vermont today? And I suppose you want me to find her?”
She stood and walked back into the low light of the lamp on the table and pointed. A stack of wood and leather bound books, a copper scroll, a small marble tablet, several large silver daguerreotypes and newly printed black and white photographs.
She pointed to the copper scroll. “Palestine after the revolt of 70 AD. She was there.” Next the marble tablet. “Hidden in the catacombs of Rome, a warning from a centurion in 395 AD. She was there.” Her finger wavered over the books one by one. “Italy, the Borgia Popes, The Spanish Inquisition, Vlad the Impaler, The French Revolution, The Third Reich…it is all there.”
“And the photographs?” I was now convinced that I had wasted my time by responding to this woman’s summons in the middle of the night.
She pushed some photographs aside, handing me one of the large daguerreotypes. “New Orleans, turn of the nineteenth century, the madam of a Storyville brothel.”
The silver image showed a woman sitting in a high-backed wicker chair. Six women stood behind her, some black, some white. The woman in the chair was extraordinarily beautiful, her skin blacker than any other object in the image.
I looked up at my would-be employer. “She is stunning, but what does this prove?”
She reached for several photographs. “The emulsion of the daguerreotype is known for its ability to capture the finest detail. Something not matched until highly secret satellite photography. Look.”
She pointed to one of the photos, an enlargement of the head of the woman in the chair. The full mouth was slightly open revealing what appeared to be filed teeth. The eyes were large white orbs with dense black pupils. And there, in the center of her forehead, was a raised scar in the shape of a crescent moon.
“An accident perhaps. Then again, people of African descent often decorated themselves with tribal scars. Daguerreotypes date to before the Civil War. The woman is long dead. Again – what does it prove?”
“E. J. Belloq took the daguerreotype in 1917. Photographers experiment with them to this day. Even so I agree with you. Our black Madam would be some 125 years old today.”
She leaned down toward me. My nostrils flared as the scent of her body triggered a myriad emotions. She laid another photograph before me. The image was every bit as horrific as Harambe’s sliver of bone.
A caption along the top of the photograph read, ‘Ballagio. Still frame. Hi Res. Camera 42. Table nine. 10/11/2016.’ It showed a man sitting at a blackjack table intent upon the cards being dealt to him. He was winning and a crowd stood behind him, engrossed in the cards. Except for two women immediately behind the player. One was a white woman from the 1917 daguerreotype. The other was the black Madam. There was no mistaking her identity. The same twenty five year old face, the same scar, the same hint of filed teeth. There was no doubt. Even so this was not what filled me with horror.
The man in the picture. I was the man in the picture!
I tried to grasp for meaning, for some reason to deny what was plain before me. The woman placed an Ipad on top of the picture. It was playing a video clip from the same camera. My stomach turned as watched the two women sidle through the crowed toward my back. The dealer flipped over the cards in front of me. The crowd gasped, then cheered. I had just won $100,000. The video paused and reversed, then played the winning sequence again.
“Watch her hands, not the cards.”
The winning card was turned over. Hands hovered above my head. My attention was transfixed on the cards.
The clip played again. “What just happened? What was she doing?”
The arm slid off my shoulder. She walked away toward the glowing embers of the fireplace. “Jack, she cut off a lock of your hair.”
“I don’t understand.”
“We do not know why…but she has an interest in you. You asked earlier if we wanted you to find her. The answer is no. We think she is going to find you.”