Photo by Jon Butterworth on Unsplash
Romania sounded like the name of a distant planet located on the event horizon. Dr. Peter ‘Elegant-English-Name’ Worthington explained that to me once. All about how the Anglo-Saxons had a history of going around making everyone else miserable with words strung together to make longer ones instead of inventing new ones, including names, when they waded over to the island off the coast of France for a feast ̶ a black-tie event at sunset. Okay, I didn’t remember the details, but I did remember Dr. Pete.
“Don’t ask me why, but Dr. Pete thinks you’re the guy who ought to investigate one of his long-lost relative who traveled south instead of west, and stumbled into Abrud, Romania about nine-hundred A.D. He asked for you by name. He’s willing to foot the bill, so you’re going, Coulter. Pack a suitcase,” Vincenzo ordered.
As senior manager of the Independent News Service, “Vinny” could order a stringer like me to travel off the beaten path for half the funding, and pocket a few bills for himself. “What am I looking for, Chief?”
“Something interesting about Dumitru Codrin. Snoop. There’s an old stationhouse on the rail-line to Cimpeni that was allegedly built on his grave. Take a few photos. And try not to irritate the Romanian cops. If they have cops. Here’s your ticket and five-hundred bucks. Scram.”
At least it was a round-trip ticket. How dangerous could it be? Gail let me know.
“Are you nuts? Ceaușescu is a Communist. Step out of line there, and …” Gail pretended to be hanging from an invisible rope.
“I’m not going to give anyone a reason to stretch my neck. Besides, I need the money in case I want to buy a ring or something.” That got her off my back, pronto! Women hear the word ring and they hear wedding bells.
I headed over to see Dr. Pete before I headed to the airport. “Who was this guy Codrin, anyway?”
Like most eggheads, Dr. Pete smoked a pipe and wore a tweed jacket with leather patches on the elbows. “I’m a cultural anthropologist. Legends and old wives’ tales are my bailiwick, and legend has it that Codrin was an ancient chieftain who’d kill people with a magic axe. Not for any good reason either. Allegedly, somebody painted a picture of him that hangs in the stationhouse. The picture’s called the Scourge of the Steppes, and it’s said he looks like Rasputin.”
“What do you want me to do, steal it?” If that was the case, it would cost him more than he’d want to pay.
Dr. Pete laughed. “I want you to photograph it. I guess that’s a form of theft. And I want you to get some information about it … who the artist was, that sort of thing. I’ll be on sabbatical at the University of Prague, where I can compare it to the pictures of Rasputin the university has. I’d go to Romania myself only…I’m too famous.”
“I’ve never heard of you.” I was rude, but truthful.
“I…ah…helped some dissidents escape about a year ago. Politically, I’m persona non grata. You’re a political nobody even if you’re a well-known pain in the ass around here.”
For an ivory tower resident, he was he was a down-to-earth kinda guy. After talking to him, I was ready to make a reservation on the next plane to Europe.
“What do you mean there’s no train to Abrud? There’s a rail stationhouse half-way to Crimpeni that’s still on the map.” I unfolded a worn paper map and put in front of a woman as sturdy as the oaken desk that hid her girth. She brought it within two inches of her thick eye glasses, and looked up at me after an eternity of study.
“This map is pre-war. The government closed it and the train no longer takes this route. What do you mean you don’t understand?”
I bit my tongue. “Is there a way for me to get to the stationhouse? I’m on assignment.”
All I got was a stare as she was sizing me up. “You’re not from the government?”
“No. I’m from Los Angeles. USA. I’m supposed to get picture.” I hoisted my camera case on to her desk and opened it to show her my Kodak. “You know, National Geographic? I work on spec.” I know that Vinny and Dr. Pete wanted no publicity.
She niffed and refolded the map. “There’s a man. Giorgi. He has a cart.”
“He has a cart pulled by a horse?” I half expected her to tell me I’d have to pull it myself.
“He has a horse. Rudolph.”
Giorgi could sling a suitcase like a shotput. My camera case I carried on my shoulder. I scrambled into the cart bed and held my suitcase tight. “You want to go to stationhouse, I take you. I follow the tracks, not the road.”
“Is there a hotel nearby?”
“Is there anywhere I can stay the night?”
“Miheala put you up for the night. She my woman. Her house, my house. You should not be at the stationhouse at night. Go in the morning.”
At least I got a look at the historical site as Rudolph plodded past the Victorian-style doll house. Built between two sets of railroad tracks ̶ no doubt designed to provide guests all the expensive comforts of home as they waited to make connections, or sell tickets to civilization ̶ it was surrounded by a thick forest. The front yard, maybe eight square feet, was enclosed with a wrought iron fence and filled with tares and weeds. The steps, divided into two staircases, suggested the place had once been a church. What a great place for an Arkoff movie I thought. Places like this were treasure troves of old-world artifacts and stories of weird locals. Or is it weird artifacts and old-world locals?
It was dusk before Giorgi reached the home of his woman. We fought over the suitcase for a few seconds. Finally I said, “Careful, okay? I’ve got lenses in there,” and Giorgi nodded before he yanked it off the wagon. It landed with a thud! on the gravel driveway in front of a white-washed cottage where a raven-haired slender woman waited at the door.
“Overnight visitor,” Giorgi said to her. “I take his bag upstairs.” To me he said, “Twenty leu. In advance. Twenty-five if you want to eat.”
“The name’s Coulter. Ace reporter.” I handed him the twenty and three American dollars. “Which do you prefer?” I said. He took both. I got a clean room, a ham and cheese sandwich on cardboard-like bread, and warm vodka.
Miheala brought me a towel and soap, and advice: “Get to sleep, Ameriki. Giorgi gets up early.”
Easier said than done with a dog howling a mile off. I wrote notes detailing my ordeal and impressions. I wanted Dr. Pete to know I had suffered in his name. One word notably absent was “fun” in the impressions category. Yet, fall asleep I did and was awakened by Miheal’s incessant hammering on my door. “Yeah, I’m up!” I yelled.
She must have heard ‘come in’ because she charged the bed and was peering down at me with tear-flooded eyes. “Giorgi’s dead. Stone cold dead.” She was sobbing like a wife.
“Let me get dressed. Where is he?”
“In my bed.” She put her arms around my neck, pressing her ample bosom to my chest.
I pried myself loose. “I’ll be down in a minute.”
She wiped her eyes with her apron. “I’ve made breakfast. There’s hot chocolate,” she said as she walked to the door. “The doctor’s coming.”
I checked in on Giorgi before I went to the kitchen. She needed an undertaker not a doctor. “You can take Rudolph to the stationhouse. You’re no use here,” she said. “Just follow the tracks.”
That’s how I came to play the Lone Stranger in a Romanian forest. Rudolph, I learned, had one gait: slow. Still, it was better than walking. I took shots of the surrounding countryside, and frontal shots of the overgrown garden and Drac’s Castle Jr.. Inside, however, was evidence of a former glory. Though there was rotting near the ceiling, the wood paneling was spectacular. I came closer to photograph the intricate carving that made a mural out of one wall. I pulled my camera back quickly. Was I seeing what I thought I was seeing?
Yes, the mural depicted scenes of torture and execution. Severed heads atop trees shorn of the branches, severed limbs strewn around bubbling cauldrons. People on stretching racks, tongs grasping testicles, people pinned to wheels, drownings, quartering, burnings, even a body halved by a plow. I hunted for a signature, not really expecting to find the creator admitting to the horror. Bayeux may have its tapestry, with its depiction of war and mayhem of the Norman invasion, but Abrud had carved historical record of medieval atrocities that would put Hollywood to shame.
I moved on to the ticket counter, separated from the stationmaster’s office by an iron grating turned green with age. It reminded me of a cage and I shuddered remembering all the time I had been inside a jail cell. That weekend in Georgia was especially harrowing … I took photos of the station’s wall, the counter, and a calendar on the wall with the date: 1945. Yeah, I stole the calendar. It fit perfectly in my shoulder bag.
I continued my photographic journey in the stationmaster’s office as the cage’s door was missing its hinges. Piled high in a seven foot rack were valises, suitcases, boxes, and packages. Why all the abandoned luggage? I took a photo. Does leather outlast wood? Because the luggage was looked to be newer. I wasn’t going to steal from anyone, but curiosity got the better of me. I opened an unlocked one and found ladies clothing, a hairbrush, and a silver mirror. A little voice inside me said, “Where she went, she didn’t need a change of clothes.” A travel pass laying on top of a silk dressing gown read: issued in 1942..
I returned to the wall mural. Maybe it was a monument to a local legend … or a cenotaph to a local reality. That’s when I heard a dull thumping beneath the floorboards. I took a step back. “Anyone here?” I put my ear to the floor. “Anybody down there?” The stationhouse was at least six feet above the ground, so I knew there was a basement. I pounded back. “I hear you. I have to look for a door.” I wasn’t frantic, yet. I thought I heard a groan.
I hunted for a cellar door, then checked for a pull-up door in the floor. There had to be one. Maybe the door was outside hidden among the overgrowth. I went outside. No door. No window. Unless one or the other was sealed with bricks. I went inside. “Stop pounding and start talking,” I yelled. It could be a trapped animal. I’d have to pull up the floorboards.
Maybe the abandoned train car contained some tools. Nope. But the seat upholstery was weak from age. I pulled off some material and exposed the metal frame with loose bolts. I managed to pry off the frozen metal bar at the top of the seat ̶ about three feet ̶ that would work as a crowbar.
I had a mission now. No matter what was under the floor, I was going to free it. I started with the boards nearest as metal grate I guessed was a drain. Maybe a heating vent. Wood rot made it easy to dislodge the slats and in twenty minutes I had a made a four by five foot hole. “Hell-ooo?” I leaned into the blackness. It was sealed alright. Not a ray of light illuminated the space. I leaned against the wall, facing the mural. Whatever the pounding was, it didn’t come from anything alive.
I rubbed my eyes. The mural seemed to be moving. Some figures shrinking, others growing, coming alive, congealing into the figure of a man struggling to emerge from the wall. All six foot of him! dressed in green leggings and a leather tunic, and heavy black boots, an animal skin draped over one shoulder, and a silver-bladed axe. He raised the axe as he stared down at me. “Dumitru Codrin?” I said.
His mouth formed a smile, but his eyes narrowed with hate. If I didn’t move quickly, his axe would find its target. I grabbed my crowbar, and rolled into the dark hole. If he tried to follow me in, I’d crack his skull.
I heard his boots pounding above me, but the sound grew faint. I popped up and took a quick look around. He’d gone. I pulled myself up and beat feet outside. Pete never said Codrin might still be alive. He’d be at least twelve-hundred years old, but he didn’t look a day over fifty and fit enough to swing that axe. The only explanation was that he lived in the wall; it made no sense, but I’d seen enough weird stuff in my life to know things don’t have to make sense to be real.
I found Rudolph half a mile down the tracks. Codrin probably needed a faster mount if he was in a hurry. When I got back to the inn, I tried calling Pete. The overseas operator had a hard time understanding me. I talked to a Dr. Ameris in St. Petersburg, Florida and St. Peter’s Church in Trenton, New Jersey, and finally agreed to wait for the operator to call me back when she reached Doctor Peterson in Seattle. That was alright. It gave me time to reconsider recounting my story to Miheala who had returned in the meantime from a meeting with the undertaker.
She fed me goose liver pate and butter crackers, and promised me she would cook a full dinner. Somebody had slaughtered a boar. After my encounter with Codrin, I didn’t want more details.
I know what you’re thinking. What about Giorgi? Am I a heartless bastard? Didn’t I want details about how he died? Well, I’ll tell you. I heard the words heart, bed and Miheala and my imagination filled in the blanks. But it was her morning visit that motivated me to get myself in gear. Female entanglements, especially with someone who’s boyfriend was as rustic as Giorgi dead or alive, were more trouble than they were worth. But now I had a problem that could only be solved with information. I needed her.
“Tell me about the stationhouse. Is it haunted?” Miheala’s eyes were red and swollen from weeping, poor woman. “Who owns it?”
“The government. After the war, they stopped the trains and the mail stopped coming. People around here believed the government thought everyone was dead.”
Her expression changed from grief to fear. “We all knew the government didn’t want to do anything about the ghosts. No one would work there because of them.”
“Who is them? The ghosts or the government?”
“But you’ve been inside.”
“Once. Never again.” I knew she’d seen the mural. “Especially at night.”
“Who’s ghost lives there, Miheala?” Did she realize I believed her?
“There’s more than one. Hundreds, I’d say. But there’s only one station master: the demon, Dumitru Codrin.”
Now I was getting real information. “I saw him this morning.”
Her face flushed. “Oh, my Lord, he’s coming for Giorgi! He’s coming to take his soul to hell!”
I didn’t want to deal with a hysterical woman, but I knew she had cause for alarm. I reached for my emotional wallet … did I have any emotional resources? “Miheala, stop. I saw him hours after Giorgi died. His soul is just fine and I know he died happy.”
Her wailing went from overwhelming to simmer in a matter of seconds. “You saw Codrin?”
“Axe and all.”
“Did you see the treasure, too?”
Dr. Pete’s motives was suddenly as clear as Codrin’s destination. “No. It’s not in the stationhouse. Where does he keep it?”
“In the forest. He captures the souls of the dead, and stores them in pieces of silver. Nobody has lived to tell where he keeps them. That’s how he got his name. Dumitru Codrin. The Silversmith of the Forest.” She stared at me with menacing eyes. “No one’s alive who’s seen him, except you.”
“I told you, I didn’t see a treasure. But…” I purposely kept my pause pregnant.
“We could find it,” she said.
“Where does the legend say he keeps it?”
Miheala stood guard armed with a WWII Nagant pistol and a crucifix while I inspected the mural. I wasn’t trained in hieroglyphics, but I knew enough about them to know the gruesome tortures carved in the wall were the demon’s way of meting out justice. In the center of the wall was a throne, now empty, surrounded by human skulls, chests of coins, and chunks of rocks. Gold nuggets no doubt. And around a pentagram were headstones with printed names and dates.
“Is there a cemetery around here?” I asked Miheala.
Greed covers a multitude of misgivings. “Half a mile east are the graves of the Old Ones. There you’ll find the markers.”
So, Codrin did have a grave. He just couldn’t stay there. Or didn’t want to. An eternal demon had plenty of time to lay in wait for an unsuspecting and uninformed Los Angeleno reporter. “Can you take me there?”
Miheala was smiling now. “I’ll show you the way.”
We crossed the railroad tracks and it was as though we were walking on the surface of another planet. The many trees split the sunlight into shards that dimmed each step. “It’s only as little ways, now,” Miheala said. Her voice had turned raspy and low as though suppressing an inner excitement.
We came to a clearing, a mist arising from a ring of headstones surrounding a huge chunk of granite with a table-top as smooth as a mirror. Miheala climbed up the six-foot crag, and gazed at me crouched like a beast, her face contorted in a triumphal smirk.
“It’s here,” she said. “This is his tomb. Come closer.” She was posing, seductively, but experience had taught me never to enter a circle of evil. Codrin had captured Giorgi. And he’d sent his servant to capture me. “Don’t you want to see his treasure?” she hissed. She reached into the stone and pulled out a long bone that turned from pale white to a golden yellow. “There’s more where this came from,” she sang.
I hated to think of it, but I knew she was lost and in the demon’s grasp. Somewhere on the path we’d trod, I’d find the cross she’d dropped I was sure, for on her forehead was an open wound that oozed blood. “Come to me,” she ordered, her purring now a desperate cry as flames appeared at her feet and traveled up her legs, slowly consuming her until the stone sucked her inside as she burned, screaming in agony. It’s the same for all dictators. Minions who fail were punished with pain.
For me, it was fight or flight ̶ I chose both. I ran though the trees, and found the tracks that I followed to the inn. In the kitchen, I searched for anything I could use as an accelerant. Lighter fluid. Turpentine. A bottle of brandy. If fire was the demon’s destruction of choice, then I would oblige.
The wall undulated when I doused it, the floor, and the ticket counter with every drop of liquid bane. A hand protruded from the wall, and I could see Codrin’s arm forming from the wood, saw the gleam of his emerging silver axe. He’d soon be able to wield it. I struck a match, lit the matchbook, and threw it towards the wall. Instantly, it was ablaze, it’s unfortunate captives in the throes of panic, screaming and begging for mercy. Codrin’s burning body fell out of the wall and rolled on the flaming floor. I rushed to the door...he followed me down the steps and into the yard. I tripped once and he grabbed my ankle, then my shoe as I scrambled away to the fretting Rudolph pacing to and fro as the stationhouse became engulfed. Somehow, I got astride, and turned just as Codrin, his flesh hanging from his bones, explode into green ash.
I was no longer afraid. I reined in Rudolph and the two of us watched the stationhouse crumble from the fire and the weight of its own foul deeds. Who would believe the story? Dr. Pete, probably. But the American consulate? Vinny? The Romanian government? They’d be happy to charge me with arson and murder. I’d like to think I rescued the tormented spirits of Codrin’s stationhouse torture chamber, but I’ll never know if they were his disciples or his dupes.
I still had the calendar, my photographs of the stationhouse, the wall, Giorgi and the inn, but I couldn’t show them to anyone except Dr. Pete without incriminating myself. Vinny would never publish them. I suppose it’s just as well. Even I doubt the camera’s lens as much as I doubt my eyes really saw the ancient Silversmith of the Forest. Only the silver coins I carried in a small leather bag proved the truth of my hallucinations - a leather bag I found in Miheala’s pantry next to a jar of arsenic.
Jenean McBrearty is a graduate of San Diego State University, who taught Political Science and Sociology, and received her MFA from Eastern Kentucky University. Her fiction, poetry, and photographs have been published in over two-hundred-sixty print and on-line journals. Her how-to book, Writing Beyond the Self; How to Write Creative Non-fiction that Gets Published was published by Vine Leaves Press in 2018. She won the Eastern Kentucky English Department Award for Graduate Creative Non-fiction in 2011, and a Silver Pen Award in 2015 for her noir short story: Red’s Not Your Color.
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