Thursday, October 31, 2019

“The Poplar Grove” a story for Halloween by Sally Basmajian

You may have heard the tale.
Long, long ago on every Halloween night a dark figure haunted this poplar grove. The people in the nearby town would catch glimpses of a mysterious man, clad all in black, as they peered through the cracks in their boarded up windows.
He moved smoothly through the trees, as if gliding on the wind, always hesitating at the edge of the woods, rarely approaching the town. The hiding townspeople trembled with fear as they clutched their wooden crosses, praying for salvation. 
In those days, even babies wore tiny crosses around their necks on Halloween, for the people knew that on this night of the year a vampire roved the woods. If a child perished – and more than one infant had been choked in their cradles by the rustic necklaces – better it be in the arms of their Saviour than by the bite of the devil’s creature.
Nowadays in our town, nobody brandishes garlic or a homemade cross on Halloween. We laugh at the old tale and let the kids go trick or treating – well supervised by their parents, of course. All the same, nobody ever goes near the woods at night.  It’s sort of an unwritten rule, and I’ve never even heard anyone say that it might be interesting, just as a stunt or on a dare, to hang out there and see what happens.  Our fear is powerful and it endures, all these generations later.
So it might surprise you that tonight is Halloween and I’m standing in the middle of the poplar grove, surrounded by hundreds of shadowy, silvery trunks.  The dry, remaining leaves shake and chatter in the wind, creating cascades of sound, as if a ghostly presence were applauding my daring escapade. 
The trees crowd around me, making me feel that they are creeping closer and closer to me. I know this is only my imagination. Still, I shiver with anxiety as I wait for something, anything, to happen.
I wear no garlic. I carry no cross.
Aside from the gentle clapping of the leaves, there’s no sound or movement in the poplar grove.  I’m spooked by the darkness, and look to the moon, hoping that its light will comfort me, but it is remote and uncaring. What I am experiencing is true loneliness. I feel sad and uneasy – and ridiculous – as I continue to stand, deep in the woods, waiting for my miracle from hell.
And then it happens.
“Very interesting,” a baritone voice drawls. “And what have we here?”
I turn quickly and trip on a jutting root. Recovering my balance, I look around.  I see nothing but trees and their shadows, shifting in the dappled moonlight. 
“Who’s there?” I say. I am annoyed with myself when I hear the wobbliness of my words.
“Hmmm. Let me guess. Hardly a maiden, are you?”
That makes me mad. Since when do supernatural creatures get to be so fussy?
“Show yourself, whoever you are,” I say. That’s better. My voice sounds firmer, more authoritative. 
“Certainly, madam, if that is your wish.”
A tall, slender figure apparates before me. His face is in shadow, but I can see how elegant his form is, swathed in a cloak of pure blackness.
I am way too angry to be rattled by his ability to pop, fully fledged, into being like a horrifying genie or a magician’s ratty bunny.
Madam?  Like, are you kidding me? I’m only twenty-five years old! How do you get off calling me madam?”
He chuckles, a rich, cultured sound. That makes me even madder.
“I don’t know who you think you are, you piece of recycled Halloween garbage, you excuse for something that is actually capable of scaring anyone, but I’m no madam. As a matter of fact, I’ve been told I look young for my age and that I’m pretty darn hot! So, get over here and bite my frickin’ neck and deliver me into the next dimension or whatever it is that you do. Time’s a-ticking. Move it!”
The man comes closer, appearing to float inches above the ground. He is illuminated by the moonlight and is easily the most handsome male I have ever seen, in spite of his SPF-100 complexion. I swan my neck in his direction, hoping he will notice that I have washed it especially well for this occasion, and have even been thoughtful enough to pre-scratch it so that it emits an enticing smell of fresh blood.  His nostrils quiver.
“Well, my dear, I usually go in for maidens. It’s kind of my thing. But, it has been a century or so. And you do have a certain spunky charm about you.”
His eyes become black slits and he swoops toward me with intent.
“Welcome to eternity,” he says.
My neck is stretched to its fullest extent, my eyes are closed. I feel no fear. This is it  my ticket to a glamorous afterlife, and I am ready. My whole body quivers with anticipation as I await the vampire’s puncture and then his extracting kiss.
Nothing happens. 
I crack open a baby blue. There he is, my supposed hero of darkness, my canine-tooth-enhanced Count, lounging against a nearby poplar, shaking his head in a judgmental, tsk-tsk way, and eying me with distaste.
Oh, no. No, no, no. This can’t be happening.
“What’s wrong?” I ask. I know what’s coming and I can’t bear it.
“Your blood. It is tainted with disease. I will not touch you.”
“What? How can you reject me? What I have isn’t catching; I swear to you. And I need your help here, buddy.  One little bite?”
“’Fraid not, my dear. You have my sympathy, of course, on your illness. Besides, I’m doing you a favour. The vampire’s life is long and tedious. All that waiting around in the woods, hoping for unblemished youths to appear. It isn’t getting easier, either, as the years go on – maidens being almost impossible to find and parents being all over-protective and that. Consider yourself lucky.”
As he drones on, I’m edging closer. “Listen here, you bat-winged bully, I absolutely need you to impale me with those beautiful, sharp teeth of yours. You can’t leave me hanging like this!”
I launch myself at him, hands outstretched to grab his narrow shoulders.  My plan is to drive my long fingernails into his flesh and take a bite out of him if he won’t chomp me first.  Maybe I’ll get some sort of medical benefit if I succeed, and I have nothing whatsoever to lose. I open my mouth and prepare to make contact of a deliciously macabre kind.
But, with a crackling, electric sound, he vanishes.  I sprawl on the ground, rubbing my head where it has collided with a sapling and look wildly around me.  My vampire is nowhere in sight. He’s gone, taking all my hope with him.
A small, winged creature flutters high in the sky, over the trees. A vampire bat? I can’t be sure. All I know is that when it disappears from sight I’m left alone, in the woods.
It’s a death sentence.
Years ago, I watched my mother die from this disease in a way that was much too fast for me but agonizingly slow for her.
But you can bet that I’ll never give up. Other options exist. There are medical procedures I can try. There are therapies these days that weren’t available to my mother when our illness killed her. The doctors will help me, and my fellow townspeople will be there to support me every inch of the way. I intend to fight for my health and for my life, and fight hard.
And, hey, you never know. I’ve heard tales of a strange wolf pack menacing a town not too many miles from here. To my knowledge, nobody has said the w-word aloud, but to me the animals sound a lot like werewolves. A werewolf mauling would be an awfully messy way to meet my goal, but I’ll do some research first and then, if the situation looks promising, maybe I’ll go on a solo field trip there one night.
A single bite from one of them should do the trick.

Sally Basmajian is an executive escapee from the corporate world of broadcasting. She lives in idyllic Niagara-on-the-Lake with her understanding husband and demanding sheltie and spends her free time writing. She has won recognition for her stories in the 2014 and 2015 Rising Spirits Awards and in creative non-fiction 2015 contests sponsored by ScreaminMamas and Canadian Stories.

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