Fiction

Once Bitten


I was killed fighting the Goths in the north of Italy, defending the empire in which I had lived. I knew that I would spend time in purgatory for my sins before ascending to live with God, but did not realise that the each man’s purgatory is his own.

I was asked, as all of us who died that day were asked, ‘Where do you wish to wander the earth until you are ready?’

So many proud Romans chose their homelands. In life, I saw people sent all over the empire, as the empire had bound us together under the standard and citizenship of Rome, but in death, so many souls went to their native lands, whether still under Roman control or not. They wanted to wander again the hills or flatlands of their childhood, to feel the soft rain, harsh cold or baking heat of their growing up; I knew they would not. They would feel no drops of water upon their skin, no ice would penetrate their bones, no sweat would cool their brow under the unrelenting sun. They would feel nothing, for they are ghosts, as I am a ghost. That would be their purgatory.

I could have gone back to my own land, to the northern edge of that vast continent which lies across the Mediterranean Sea from Rome. I could have sat unnoticed where the sand meets the sea, and watched fishermen hauling their catches and seen traders dealing in precious stones, metals, wild animals, timber, oils, spices and slaves. I would have seen shimmering heat hazes and long, glorious sunsets. Before me would have been life-giving water as far as the eye could see, yet at my back a land dying of thirst. To my right, the old order and vast lands as yet uncharted; to my left, the New World as yet unrisen.

I would have been there as civilizations rose and fell, as powers and fortunes were built and destroyed. I would have witnessed, time and gain, emperors and noblemen calling, exhorting and conscripting armies into existence, and being undone by greed, betrayal and circumstance. I would have seen my own countrymen glorified and vilified in equal measure, and beheld the burning of ignorance and the immolation of knowledge.

And all that time I would have been longing for somewhere else. Somewhere that would undergo turmoils of its own. A city of flood and fortress, the death of emperors and the seat of power.  A place of decline and rebirth; a stronghold of religion, revolution and commerce. A powerhouse in a pleasure garden. Somewhere where the seasons of the year can fall all in one day.  Somewhere I would have yearned for had I gone anywhere else on earth. Somewhere I left unwillingly in life, and gladly returned to after death. I have seen it ravaged and rebuilt, and watched as it changed from Eboracum to Eoforwic to Jorvik to York. This is my unresting place.

I know its streets, alleyways, market places and shrines – those that are gone, and those that remain. I have walked its walls and sailed its rivers, wandered its meadows and crossed its bridges for over a thousand years, and I never grow tired of it, and I will never leave it.

I will not leave it, because every day I walk the city, I see my children. I have watched them for countless generations: babies, children, youths, strong men and women, elders. By now they are numberless, and most are strangers to each other, but I see them and I know they are mine. What need have I of heaven, when my heaven is constantly reborn on earth?

My sadness is that my wife has been unable to join me in this future.  She was born under Roman rule, but she was not truly of Roman culture, because she was a Briton who clung to her own beliefs. It did not matter to me that she was not of Roman culture; it is only an accident of birth that we arrive in any one society, and we either accept it or make our way into a different one. Had I been born seven hundred years earlier, I would have been Carthaginian; five hundred years later, a member of the Vandal kingdom; another two hundred years, Islamic. So it did not matter to me what she called herself, because I loved her.  I cannot say that my commanding officers cared about my choice of woman; they had more things to occupy their minds than who their soldiers were bedding. They knew the empire could not stand as it was and they would take us away, so why worry about what we did while we were here? And if we left a few more little Romans behind, what did that matter to them?

It mattered not to them, but it mattered to me. How I loved our family and how that love has been repaid. This city grows and changes, but carries its past with it in concrete and stone and blood. York is replenished and nourished by our blood – mine and that of my wife. It still flows through this place, and each day brings remembrances of her. I see her joy in someone’s smile, and hear her echoes in their laughter, remember her compassion in their tears. I will never touch her face again, but her soul is all around me in this city I call home.

Since my death, I have been a man out of time, but with time to spare. At first, I could not be seen until all those who knew me in life were gone; now, I can be seen if I choose to be. I can never speak with mortals, only with other supernaturals, and I am by no means the only one in this teeming city.

Our appearances can create legends of haunted places, so I choose my times and locations carefully. When the city is full, and the babble of voices reveals visitors from many lands, I am seen almost every day, for people think I am one of those entertainments who stands still until money is put down for them to move. So, some days I play along to their mistake and stand unmoving until I hear the chink of coin on the ground and then I act out part of my military training. I brandish my dagger and shield, and I crouch and lunge, pretending I am fighting Lucius, my comrade. It’s how we trained, fighting each other.  Lucius was a good friend to me. He came from the other side of the empire, from another land and another skin, but the same comradeship, purpose, competition and fun. We bonded like brothers, and we died as them, each trying to save the other.

The coins people give are of no use to me, so I leave them for the ones who have no home but the doorways and thresholds of the city. It buys them some small comfort when the cold night air comes upon them, and I have even seen those of our own blood sheltering there. It brings me sorrow that so many years have passed since my death, yet there are still homeless, hungry, thirsty, dispossessed.

It grieves me that despite all the advances I have seen, despite the miracles and wonders that the generations have wrought, despite the ingenuity that those who live on the earth have – to improve it and build better lives for all – there are still those who choose to build their empires and slaughter the different, heedless of others’ misery and driven by greed for power, resources and self-glory. There are still those who teach their children hate, mistrust and anger, instead of friendship, acceptance and love.

Yet there is hope. There are also still those who fight against prejudice, enslavement, poverty, ignorance and disease. People who tear down unnecessary barriers, give safety to others, share what they have and battle every day to make things better for all. Those people I salute, and I am proud that our children are amongst them.

I have seen so much change, disastrous and magnificent. It is documented in histories, written by the victors in the early days but now more full of evidence, fact and discovery, available to all to be learnt from. I watch our children, and they know so much more than it was even possible for me to know had I been the sagest man in the empire. I would supplement their knowledge with my experience, but I am merely a phantom and cannot pass on the wisdom I have gained over the centuries. That is my purgatory.

I saw her across the brightly coloured market stalls. I saw her slinking through the forest of folk who were buying and selling, moving, trading and being replaced like numberless generations before them.  I saw her blonde hair swaying gently as she slowly stepped through the crowds who seemed to part before her. I saw her across the centuries.

I saw her; she did not see me. She stopped walking, lifted her head and subtly twitched her nose in the air. Her eyes narrowed then widened as she realised whose scent she had stumbled upon. Her tongue slid across her top lip as she searched around. I could not be seen, but she knew I was not far away.

I know people believe that ghosts are just tricks of the light, the play of shadows on a receptive imagination; but those people never explain how they smell summer flowers in midwinter or catch the scent from their childhood in a far-distant town. Or how, out of nowhere, will drift the echoes of the perfume of a long-forgotten lover.

Everything leaves its trace, whether that trace be visible or invisible, knowledge, memory or scar. Everything leaves its trace.

The question is: who is sensitive enough to recognise that trace?

Gretchen was. And I knew she would not leave until she had found me. She would wait until the last buyer had left, until the traders had packed and gone, until the rubbish carts had been filled and taken away. She would wait until the food shops had closed, their ovens cold and their aromas melted away into the evening air, and her keenest of senses would find me as quickly as if I lay bleeding at her feet.

She looked no more than twenty; how was that possible? After all these years, across all the miles? I knew I would talk to her; that was inevitable, but not yet. Not until I was ready.

By that time, I might know what to say to her.

I withdrew into the food market. The smells from the frying fish, roasting chickens and steaming curries would cover my scent for a while, but I needed more. I made my way to the place where the spirits of the butchers gather; these were the men who plied their trade in this one street for over a thousand years. In support of life, they dealt out so much death with their hatchets and knives, and blood flowed in rivers down these cobbled gullies, seeping into the stones. Generations of spirits are here, united by ancient familial bonds, continuous centuries of slaughter and the pull of the blood-steeped earth they have claimed as their own since time immemorial. Their collective history and tradition makes them far stronger than I am and they have powers beyond my capabilities. Today, the stench of their trade would buy me time.

Gretchen sat on a bench and waited for me to come to her as we both knew I would because, having got my scent, she would track me to the ends of the earth.

The market closed, the street emptied. I walked towards her.

‘Antonius,’ she smiled. ‘I’ve waited such a long time for you.’

‘Gretchen.’ I sat on a market stall opposite her, three strides distance between us. Three strides and sixteen hundred years. We gazed at each other in a long, tense silence.

She spoke first, in the silky tones I knew so well. ‘Oh, Antonius. You haven’t changed a bit. You’re exactly the same. Just as I’ve pictured you every day since we parted.’ Her eyes gleamed and she licked her lips. ‘Oh, how I’ve longed for you.’

‘How else should I look? You see me as I was on the day I died. On the day you and your kinfolk killed me and my men.’

She shuddered. ‘And how many of them had you slaughtered?’ she said sharply.

‘Had I slaughtered one more, I should not have died that day.’

The silence fell again, this time to be broken by me. ‘Come – walk with me.’

We left the market place and started towards the Minster as the day’s light dulled and flattened. Our pace was easy, something our conversation was never going to be.

‘Very clever, Antonius, hiding among all those other smells. You were so faint and they were so strong – especially the blood. Took me all my time to keep a hold of your scent. Quite tiring. But I wasn’t going to let you go this time.’

‘That much I suspected, Gretchen. But how is it that you are here?’

‘I travel the world, Antonius. Sooner or later I’m bound to meet someone I know. Call it a happy coincidence.’

‘You misunderstand me. Your clothes are different, but your face and your movements are the same as when I knew you. How can that be possible? How is it that you are alive after all this time?’

Her laughter echoed around the empty street. ‘Don’t you know?’

She sniffed. ‘You don’t know, do you? I can smell the truth of your ignorance.’

I sighed. If she could detect my ignorance, I could hide nothing from her.

She ran ahead and stopped in front of me, grinning. ‘I’m immortal, Antonius. Just like you.’

I shook my head. ‘Not immortal. You above all should know I am post-mortal.’

She rolled her eyes and tutted. ‘Immortal, post-mortal, what’s the difference?’

‘Oh, Gretchen, there are many worlds of difference between you and me. I am a spirit, born of light and air, thinner and less substantial than the breeze that moves your hair. Hold out your hands.’

She smiled slyly and opened her arms, preparing for an embrace. I walked towards her. She closed her eyes in anticipation and so was oblivious as I walked through the space where she stood, and she, having solid form, passed through my ghostliness.

‘Do you see?’ I said, and she spun round, eyes open, disappointment fleeting across her face. ‘I am a phantom. Try to touch me, and you might as well try to hold in your hands a glance, or the echo of your name. But you, you have substance. You can feel the ground beneath your feet; you can speak to those around you. You can participate; I can only watch. I have no influence.’ I turned and carried on walking. She ran and caught up with me.

‘But people can see you – you can scare them. Isn’t that “influence”?’

‘They only see me if I want them to. And why would I scare them? What purpose would that serve?’

‘Then you could have power over them.’

‘To what end?’

‘Make them do what you want.’

‘Can they bring me back from the dead?’

‘No…’

‘So what—’

‘You shouldn’t have died in the first place!’

That, I had not expected to hear. I stopped walking. ‘Oh? How so?’

She frowned at me as if I were deliberately misunderstanding the rules of some game.

‘You were supposed to turn into a werewolf,’ she scolded, sounding like the child that, in some ways, she still was.

I thought about her words, and then I laughed.

‘Oh, so that was the plan – for your bite to make me a werewolf. Now I see. But Gretchen, I never believed in werewolves. How could I become something that I did not believe in? A wolf tore my throat out; I thought it was an ordinary wolf. You left it too late. By the time I heard you whisper my name, I was too close to death for your poison to work on me and my own faith was too strong.’

I could glimpse the architecture of the Minster behind the rooftops of the shops and restaurants as we drew nearer. Its detail was beginning to blur with the fading light. I started walking again and she kept pace with me.

‘But now you believe in us?’ she asked.

‘I have to believe in you,’ I said, ‘because I heard you call my name. Because you are here. Seemingly immortal.’

‘Not “seemingly”,’ she said petulantly, ‘… actually.’

‘But I thought that werewolves could be killed. Is that not so?’

She tutted loudly. ‘Not you as well.’

‘Meaning?’

As she spoke, Gretchen flopped her head from side to side with every point she made, as if she had explained this a thousand times over the centuries. ‘I know all the stories. Werewolves only change at the full moon when they all go out and howl. They have uncontrollable rage and bloodlust. They don’t remember a thing the morning after – oh, how many times have I heard that one?’ She put her hands up to her face in mock horror. ‘Oh, what did I do last night?’ She dropped her hands and spat out a sound before gathering breath and continuing. ‘Where was I? Oh, yes, werewolves can be killed by having their head chopped off or their heart ripped out or by mercury or a silver bullet. Oh, no – wait – they can only be killed by a silver bullet. You have to be bitten to become a werewolf. It’s all…’ – she struggled for the word – ‘…legend.’

‘So tell me what is fact.’

The street lights were flickering into life as we approached High Petergate. Gretchen cast a shadow; I did not.  She looked at her watch.

‘Do you have to be somewhere else?’ I asked. ‘Because I have all the time in the world. Or do you fear the approach of the moon?’

‘Of course not!’ she snapped, then she took a deep breath and sighed heavily. ‘Listen. Werewolves are people – all different shapes and sizes. You’d be surprised how we hide in plain sight; the jobs we have, the lives we lead, the societies we join.’

‘You hiding in plain sight is one thing that would not surprise me. I have seen it for myself.’

‘Exactly. You know that to be true, unlike all this “full moon” business. And the fact is: we can change into a wolf at will; we don’t wait until a full moon, and some of us don’t change even then.  We don’t have uncontrollable rage; our rage is very much controlled, thank you, and only used for defence or for grieving when we get very bad news. It’s just that you don’t understand it. But you would understand it if it were your people – your family – who were constantly under attack. You’d rage then, Antonius. Oh, you’d rage then. And you’d howl.  As for not being able to remember what you’d done… that’s heavy drinking, that is. And yes – sometimes you need a drink to cope with this life.’

‘And you can’t be killed by silver or mercury?’

She snorted her derision. ‘What? The old silver bullet? What a load of rubbish! How did people kill werewolves before bullets were invented? They didn’t!’

‘I heard that decapitation was a favoured method,’ I said. ‘Or having your heart torn out.’

‘Nobody’d ever get close enough to a raging werewolf for that. You should know, you got closer than most when you stabbed me.’

It was true. My blade had pierced the wolf that came at me, fangs bared, claws like razors. ‘I was trying to kill you,’ I reminded her. ‘Not you – the wolf. How was I to know it was you? And why did you not die?’

She sighed bad-temperedly. ‘Because werewolves are immortal, Antonius. We self-heal. We don’t age. When we change, we renew our whole bodies. Wounds and disease are blasted away in favour of fresh muscle, blood and skin. I’m renewed – reborn almost. And when I change back, I keep that newness in my body, as you see.’

‘And that is your immortality.’

‘It is.’

‘But surely you could not renew yourself if your head or your heart were not with your body. Only God has that kind of healing power.’

She laughed. ‘I told you before – nobody gets close enough to hurt us that much. You couldn’t have been closer and you couldn’t do it.’

As we drew near to the Minster I threw a salute to the statue of Emperor Constantine which sits outside and we walked on into the greenery of Dean’s Park. I did not want Gretchen to be near any people, and they tended to stay away from the massive shadow of the Minster as night crept on.

We sat on benches opposite each other and she leaned forward.

‘Must you sit so far away? I’m not going to bite this time.’

‘It would avail you nothing, for your jaws would close on fresh air, not flesh. But, as you wish.’

I sat next to her. Her nose twitched as she filtered out the various scents of the city –  plants, animals, food, chemicals, alcohol, sweat, blood – to get her fill of me. She closed in on me, inhaled deeply and savoured me.

‘Why did you kill me, Gretchen?’

‘How many more times? I wasn’t trying to kill you, I was trying to save you. You were supposed to become like me and we could have been immortal together. But anyway, that doesn’t matter because now I’ve found you, we can be together forever.’

‘What makes you think that that is something I would ever have wanted?’

She bridled. There was just enough light for me to see her hair shimmer.

‘Why would you not want to stay with the mother of your children?’

For the third time that day, she surprised me. ‘Children? What children?’

She looked at her fingernails. ‘The children I was carrying the day you died. The children we made when you came to my bed.’

I laughed. ‘Your bed was available for hire, as I recall, so any… offspring you may have had could choose from fifty fathers.’

‘But you told me you liked me!’

‘And so I did. I liked you for what you were – or what I thought you were. You were beautiful, healthy, supple, friendly, funny, lively – as were your sisters – but you were the best of them.’

‘So why—’

‘You and your beautiful sisters led us all into a beautiful trap. In the peace of the empire we had grown lazy, complacent, ripe for the picking, and you picked. We did not believe the legends of wolf-men and wolf-women, so when you came to us in the half-light of the dusk, we had no reason to suspect you. How wrong we were, and how dearly we paid for it.’

‘But I tried to save you! I wanted you to stay with me! I loved you! I do love you!’

‘But you killed me. I would have stayed with you longer if your tribe had not attacked, if I had never found out what you truly are.’

She began to bite her bottom lip. I could see her nostrils flaring. She could smell I was telling the truth. And as she had been the one to deprive me of life, leaving my wife a widow and my children fatherless, I felt she should hear the whole truth, even if it was – to use her words – very bad news. I stood up and turned to face her.

‘I did not love you. Nor would I ever have done.’

Her breathing became ragged, her face indistinct. Wisps of cloud scudded across the sky, clearing the face of the full moon.

‘Farewell, Gretchen. You may have had my body, and my God will have my soul when I am ready, but my wife and true children had my heart.’

The butchery ghosts stepped from the shadows.

‘And my friends will have yours.’

Picture source: Rabax63