The Strigoi

22 Sep

Everyone in Moskopolis knew what a strigoi was. But the only people who had ever confronted one were the victims killed by that creature and those who hunted and killed them. Petre Poglin arrived at the town in eastern Albania in the early summer of 1781 from his home at Nikolitsa on Mount Gramos. He had been summoned by the troubled town officials.

Moskopolis, with a population of 80,000, was gripped by terror. A dozen carcasses of ravaged shepherds and small children were an indication of something unnatural in the region. The town needed the help of Poglin, whose reputation as a hunter of the strigoi was known throughout the Balkans.

Tall and extremely thin, the traveler dressed in mountaineer white announced who he was at a large downtown hostel where he stabled his horse and rented a room. Within only minutes, the city archon appeared to welcome and consult with him.

Stefo Kokal was the opposite of Petre, short and fat, dressed in a modern French suit and a black cylinder hat. He invited the newly-arrived young man to join him at the adjacent tavern for a meal together.

The pair spoke the Romance Arumanian tongue of the highland Vlachs. As they ate chicken stew, Kokal explained the situation in Moskopolis.

“We have already lost six children of tender age,” he said in a whisper. “They were captured and devoured at night, so that parents are now keeping the young indoors after the sun goes down. It is horrible to see the skeletons that the monster leaves behind. There has never been anything so horrid in this land.”

The green eyes of Petre flamed with passion and curiosity.

“Were there any marks or signs left behind?” he asked.

“One could see something resembling paw imprints on the earth,” said the archon. “These had a canine character to them, or even a lupine one, as if a wild wolf was the culprit. In time, we had to conclude that a strigoi was involved. The shepherds of our mountain are familiar with the unnatural being and have suffered its depredations for many centuries.”

The two men stared at each other, till Petre announced a decision.

“I would like to make my own examination of each site of death. There may be something left that will point to what direction I am to take.”

“That makes sense. I have the afternoon free and can guide you about to where the attacks occurred.”

As soon as they were finished eating, the two set out to investigate the scenes of killing.

Neither in the residence of a wealthy merchant nor a master stonecutter was there anything to draw the attention of the expert huntsman. The strigoi had savagely assaulted a child near the back door of each house in the evening.

The third visit was to an inn where the owner had lost a daughter. In the rear were the living quarters of the innkeeper’s family. The grieving father showed Petre to the tiny chamber where the girl had slept. Kneeling down on his knees, the strigoi-hunter swept his hands along the planks beneath the child’s bed.

“What are you looking for?” inquired the archon accompanying him. Petre suddenly sprang up on his feet and moved to the single window of the room. Raising his right hand to the sill, he picked up nearly invisible hairs there. He turned to Kokal and answered his question.

“The intruder had reddish-brown hair. That may mean that the strigoi came in through the window in its human shape, then transformed itself into the beastly form within the chamber. It is growing bolder.”

“We have few people with such hair in Moskopolis,” said the other.

“That may lessen the difficulty of my search,” muttered Petre with a sly grin on his face.

“What are you going to do next, then?”

“Come to know as much of the town as I can, from one end to the other. There are more murder sites for me to examine.”

“I shall help you,” volunteered the archon. “But first, you must speak with our Bishop. He is a man of learning and quiet of mind. He can inform you of many things concerning Moskopolis.”

The two exited back through the inn, Petre returning alone to the hostel.

Beside the white stone cathedral church stood the magnificent wooden palace where the spiritual head of the provincial diocese resided.

Why should it not be large and luxurious? speculated Petre. The Bishop was the ruler of a powerful, wealthy Greek Orthodox episcopacy. The most famous Greek school of the eighteenth century was the one here, founded by Moskopolis prelates. In 1750, the first printing press on the Balkan Peninsula began working in this city. The upper class of society was bilingual, with Greek the ecclesiastic tongue and Arumanian the basis of the everyday vernacular.

Clothed completely in black with a square miter in his large hand, Bishop Andres sat on a high, throne-like seat, looking down on Petre and the archon.

After the latter introduced the bishop, the church official took command, speaking perfect Arumanian.

“You have been called here to capture the perpetrator of the outrages. My priests and I have prayed incessantly to the Almighty. May you be the one sent from above. May you succeed in ridding Moskopolis of the horrible scourge, once and for all. That is our primary need.

“But tell me this: what drives the demonic being to such unspeakable acts? Is the fiend both human and animal? What makes it so satanic?”

Petre thought a moment before replying to him.

“As Holy Scripture teaches, the fallen angels who turned against God came down to mate with human women. Out of their union came monstrous creatures like the strigois that plague the land. These things are the result of evil deeds done ages ago by the rebels who descended out of heaven. They are murdering and devouring children in vengeance against God. That is how I explain to myself the horror. Strigois are the eternal enemies of the Almighty and all humans. That is what we face.”

“But what can you accomplish today, against such a powerful enemy?” asked the Bishop, his alarmed eyes aflame with pious fury.

“I doubt that the strigoi is here in the town in daylight. My task will be to visit the nearby pastures where shepherds keep flocks of sheep. It is among these wandering herders that its trail may be located, I hope.”

“All of us pray for a successful outcome,” smiled the cleric, giving a nod that signaled to the pair that they were now to leave.

Petre decided to make his own way into the countryside, unaccompanied by the town archon. That would be an easier way to ask questions and learn things, he told himself. Kokal advised him to be careful and never let his guard down.

Who could tell how the strigoi disguised himself during the day? In the early hours of morning, as the sun came up, the hunter left Moskopolis, making for the elevation where fleecy herds took water along mountain streams.

The clear, shining vista inspired in him a joyous confidence in the final success of what he aimed to do. He was sure the Vlakh chobani would be willing to assist him in his hunt for the strigoi.

As he neared a group of fur-clothed shepherds with long wool leggings congregated on the banks of a stream, Petre noticed the special, distinguished bright red coat of one person at the center. It had to be the kekhaia, the supervising owner of the large flock being watered. The others were his subordinates. This is the individual to go to, the hunter said to himself.

Talking stopped and all eyes turned on the stranger as he walked up to them.

He halted a few paces away and addressed them, his eyes focused on the lanky man who appeared to be the employer and leader of the other.

“Pardon me, but I am not a native of these uplands and am in need of direction, if any of you are willing to be of help to me.”

The one who replied was the man wearing the red coat.

“We who herd sheep in the mountain never refuses aid to honest strangers, my good follower. Tell me, then, where are you headed?”

Petre had to think fast to answer the question.

“I am exploring the pastures where grazing is going on, because my aim is a serious one. My task is to carry out what I call a daytime hunt for a certain night creature that stalks about when the sun is down.”

The herder in the red coat stepped closer, a look of fascination in his eyes.

“Is it a strigoi that you are after?” he asked with uncanny prescience.

“That is it. There have been several children killed at night in the city with unmistakable signs of the bodies being devoured by an unholy monster. I have been sent from a distant place because I am experienced in destroying these evil beings.”

“You know how to get rid of them?”

“Their final destruction is by fire,” muttered Petre. “My craft can be quite a gruesome one.”

“We who live in the mountains and care for sheep have intimate knowledge of what are called strigois. You see, they have a special craving for the flesh, especially the livers, of animals. Our dogs are big and strong, but unable to overpower these demons. They have unnatural power and ferocity.

“We must forever protect our lambs and ewes from such predators of the night.”

Petre decided to speak candidly to the kekhaia.

“We Vlachs have always feared the unseen, unknown inhabitants of darkness. Fear of them is bred into us by parents and grandparents. I heard as a boy tales of how the strigois are found at crossroads, graveyards, wells, and springs waiting for victims. Legend says that they can appear as drunken wedding guests who have lost their way. They ask some innocent Vlakh shepherd to guide them home. Later, dropping their disguises in a mountain forest, they would ply their victims with wine and dance in a circle about them. A strigoi knows how to beat drums and even play bagpipes. By dawn, a shepherd could be thoroughly devoured. That is a terrible fate to undergo.”

All at once, the head of the shepherds moved close and took Poglin by the hand.

“My name is Gurchin. I own thousands of sheep in these mountains. My pledge is to aid you in the destruction of the killer in the city. All of my shepherds shall join in the hunt to punish the culprit. We will stand vigil at all entrances to Moskopolis, starting tonight. There can be no rest for any of us till the task is completed.”

For a short time, Petre was breathless.

He now had allies he could depend on. Taking leave of them, the hunter made a speedy return to town. His first responsibility now was to inform the archon of the assistance he had from the man called Gurchin.

Moskopolis lay still and dark, as if awaiting the advent of an overpowering presence not there yet, but fated to make an appearance.

This was a town without official night guards during the hours of sleep. No one but the shepherds out in the pasture fields were outdoors. Children had been put to bed. After hours of impatient waiting in his hostel room, Petre decided to go out into the dark and have a look around.

He made his way toward the western entrance of Moskopolis, walking slowly and as silently as possible.

All of a sudden a movement before him made the hunter stop. What was it? Could it be what had brought him here? Gradually, the form in the shadows took definitive shapes. It was something low, but large and long. An animal that was on all fours, anyone would think. Was it a dog, a creature hated by the Ottoman Muslims who ruled the Balkans? One of these unclean canines?

Petre took no step toward the suspicious being. Instead, that form appeared to be slowly approaching him.

Will it leap in attack? he wondered with dread.

Will the strigoi assault me, despite my size advantage?

Two iridescent, unblinking red eyes peered at him with eerie force. Even in the darkness, reddish brown fur was distinguishable on the night creature.

There was an unnatural smell about that Petre had experienced before.

Yes, this had to be the devourer of shepherd and juvenile flesh.

It was approaching the town with a feast of food in mind.

Ever closer moved the horrid shape, its hair beginning to stand up straight as if with a strange inner power.

Petre realized that the evil beast had come within jumping distance of him.

I have brought no useable weapon with me, he realized with regret.

But what could overpower a strigoi: a cane, a stock, a shepherd’s staff, a pistol? They might halt it temporarily. A crook of some sort, even the Bishop’s crozier might have value at a moment of danger. But for how long?

As this train of ideas flowed on, something unforeseeable began to happen.

His ears caught the sound of two objects colliding.

All at once, the strigoi fell on its side with a vicious growling.

A long, wooden stave pummeled it again and again, again and again.

The attacker, standing upright, wore a red wooden coat.

Poglin recognized in an instant who his rescuer was. It was no one else but the kekhaia, the shepherd chieftain named Gurchin.

No let-up in the battering of the predator occurred. On and on it continued, until there was a sudden cessation, coming in a single moment. Gurchin turned to Petre and commanded him. “Come here and see what it is.”

The strigoi, in dying, had transformed into its daytime, human form.

Bishop Andres, naked and bleeding, lay inert on the sharp cobbles of the street.

Petre accompanied the kekhaia to the western gate of Moskopolis after the two of them had buried the body of the strigoi in the ground behind the cathedral.

Gurchin spoke in a whisper to the hunter.

“As I stood out in the open land, waiting for the strigoi to appear, the idea formed in my mind that perhaps the killer was not from the mountains and forests, but an inhabitant of the town. I came into the Moskopolis and you witnessed what happened.

“At the end, the two of us recognized the human form as that of the Greek Orthodox master priest, the Bishop himself.”

Poglin put a hand on the shoulder of the other.

“What you say is true. No one could have dreamed of such a situation. But that is what we discovered once the strigoi was killed. I must thank you in the name of the town’s population, without you, Gurchin, I would be dead, and all my flesh consumed.”

“Do not tell anyone what you saw tonight,” warned the shepherd. “It will not be believed and place you in trouble with all the authorities. No one needs to know how Moskopolis was liberated from the killer. You will announce in the morning that the danger has passed and you plan to leave for home.”

“Yes, I intend to depart as soon as I can,” sighed the strigoi-hunter, realizing that there was now one less semi-human fiend in the world.

Next year, 1788, the Albanian chieftain Ali Pasha of Yannina began his rebellion against the Sultan. He attacked and destroyed glorious Moskopolis, driving tens of thousands of refugees into flight. The tale of the killer strigoi became an obscure legend, the identity of the demoniac bishop never uncovered by anyone.

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