House of BathoryBy: Linda Lafferty
HOUSE OF THE NADASDY HORSEMASTER
OCTOBER 31, 1589
In the first minutes, the midwife Agota did not notice anything strange. Her purple-veined hands cradled his head, the baby slick and silent. She smiled at the infant as his eyes opened, blinking at the dim candlelight.
“He is a Magyar, sure enough,” she said, admiring his eyes.
The mother groaned, her pelvic muscles still contracting.
“His eyes will be green as his grandfather’s,” the old midwife said, nodding in admiration.
Sarvar Castle would rejoice tonight, for at last a son was born to the Master of the Horse.
But as she prepared to sever the umbilical cord, the old midwife gasped. Her hands, still stained in warm blood, flew to her face.
The mother pulled herself up, sweat dripping into her eyes.
“What is wrong?” she groaned. “Speak, Agota!”
The old woman shook her head. A second later the babe bawled, a hearty bellow from his tiny lungs.
The mother held out her arms, begging for her baby.
The midwife swaddled the baby in a clean linen sheet, stopping once to drag her withered fingertips over her body in the sign of the cross. Then she thrust the baby into his mother’s arms. He quieted immediately, staring silently into his mother’s eyes.
“Look, Mistress!” Agota dug her wrinkled pinkie finger under the baby’s tiny lips. He mewed in protest.
The mother saw what had so disturbed the midwife. Under the lips was a full set of tiny white teeth, fully formed. “He is a Taltos,” hissed the old woman. “One of the Ancients!”
Agota pried open the tightly balled fist of the infant’s right hand. Her breathing resonated in the small room, still heavy with the scent of sweat and birth.
“Only five fingers, blessed mercy!” she said.
It was the baby’s mother who tenderly loosened his left fist. It was she who discovered the sixth finger.
“It is the sign!” she cried. “What shall I do? What will become of him?”
The candle guttered, a draft crawling under the door. Rain pelted the thick leaded glass.
“Show no one your babe,” said Agota. “If the Habsburgs learn, they will dash his brains out.”
There was a knock on the door. The midwife and her patient exchanged looks.
“Send him away!” the mother whispered. “Let no one enter this chamber.”
The midwife nodded. She opened the door only a crack. One of the stable boys stood outside.
He doffed his cap, revealing dark hair studded with bits of straw and oat chaff.
“The Horsemaster would like to meet his new—excuse me, is it a son or a daughter?”
Agota hesitated, her old tongue licking her cracked lips before she spoke.
“Tell the Master he is the proud father of a healthy baby boy. But the Mistress is still weak and begs he visit her later, when she is fit to receive him.”
The door shut quietly. The midwife waited, listening to his retreating steps. Then she slid the bolt.
The mother clutched the baby close to her breast.
“No one shall learn this secret but my husband,” she said. “Swear to me you will tell no one and carry this secret to the grave!”
“Mistress, I swear by all that is Holy,” murmured the woman. “A Taltos is a divine power. I would be cursed should I bring any harm to this babe, for they are of powerful blessed magic.”
The young mother swept back her sweaty hair, her eyes unfocused as she thought.
“I shall feign sickness and the baby’s as well. I shall allow no one to visit.”
“Still there will be talk. You must go away, far from this kingdom,” said the midwife. “And I will cut off the sixth finger, this very day.”
“Hear me, mistress. Either the Church or the King will seek him out. Even the Bathorys themselves might fear him. The mistress Erzsebet who has married Master Ferenc is—strange.”
“What do you mean?”
The old woman’s face twitched.
“She has cruel ways—” Agota looked over her shoulder, whispering these last words. “There is more of Transylvania in her than Hungary. The Ecsed Bathorys would put this baby to death, for they fear the power of a true Hungarian Taltos.”
“But he is innocent!”
The baby nestled against his mother’s breast now, nursing gently. She felt only the gentle pull of the newborn’s lips, like the sweep of a brook’s current, sensing his tiny teeth only as the rocky bottom in a wave of sweet kisses.
“You must leave Sarvar until the babe is five. That is when the baby teeth are set in the jaw of a normal child.”
“But the finger! The wound that is left?”
“Say the child tangled his hand in a well rope. Or the slip of a kitchen knife as he reached for a carrot piece.”
“So much deception!”
“You must protect your son.”
The mother nodded, her face etched in misery.
“And watch for the signs,” said the midwife. “He will see things we mortals cannot. The Taltos are possessed in a waking dream, going between the human and spirit worlds. And they communicate with animals, especially horses.”
The young mother closed her eyes. “At least his father will be thankful for that.”
OCTOBER 31, 2010
Alone in her office, Dr. Elizabeth Path murmured the name of her patient, her chin propped in her cupped hand. Her mother hated it when she did that. “Sit up straight,” she’d snap.
The oak office chair the psychologist had inherited from her father creaked as she hooked her ankles around the base. She gazed out her office window at the light dusting of snow on Mount Sopris.
The fingers of her left hand absently twirled her wavy brown hair into a thick rope stretching below her collarbone. Her mother hated that, too. “Fidgeting,” she called it. Bad enough for a woman nearing forty to have hair past her shoulders, but then to play with it like a child! And such pretty blue eyes—wear some makeup. What are you saving yourself for?
Mom, thought Betsy. What a piece of work.
The digital clock transformed into a new minute, a ghostly parade of time dissolving into the black background. Betsy had exactly thirty-three minutes until her patient arrived. She had no answers for Daisy. No answers for Daisy’s desperate mother, either.
Damn it. An image of her father crossed her mind, a look of disappointment in his sky-blue eyes. “Listen, Betsy. Hear what lingers in the air unspoken.”
Unspoken, yes, Papa. I can hear “unspoken.” But what can anyone hear in utter silence?
Betsy needed to find something, anything to break through the silence of Daisy Hart. The sullen girl refused to offer anything more than listless sighs and shrugs, her black fingernails rending larger and larger holes in her dark fishnet stockings.
She would cough occasionally, closing her kohl-rimmed eyes so tightly she smeared her cheekbones black. Betsy would see a flash of that one canine tooth that hadn’t been corrected with braces, incongruous amid an otherwise perfect row of straight, white teeth.
Session after session, Daisy’s strangled cough echoed in the little Victorian parlor Betsy’s father had converted into an office for his own psychiatric practice years ago. The Viennese clock would chime the hour and her Goth patient would rise without saying a word and leave.
Silent as a ghost.
Daisy was an enigma, all wrapped up in a black crepe bow. And her psychologist had not managed to untie the convoluted ribbon.