Metamorphosis

18 Oct

Where else but in Klausenberg should such a conference be held? grinned Ion Mircea as he rode the train to the capital of the province of Transylvania.

He had left his home in Bucharest, crossing the border into the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

As a Rumanian, Ion resented the fact that in 1901 this mountainous region was still under Habsburg rule. Its population was not homogeneous, but a mixture of Rumanian, Hungarian, German, and Szekely ethnic strands.

Transylvania, though, was rich in the folklore of unnatural beings that was the subject of this conference where Ion was scheduled to present a paper on sburators, the flying vampires.

Yes, he told himself, this was the perfect site for discussing popular tradition concerning monstrous creatures of the night. What other place would be better? The subject of discussion would match the local surroundings perfectly.

The train came to a halt at the large brick station of Klausenberg, called Kolozsvar by Magyars and Cluj by Rumanians. As a native of Wallachia, Ion preferred to use the latter term, of course.

Climbing down from the train wagon, he looked about for the conference organizer who had written that he would meet him here. This person was to take him to his own house to stay for the length of the conference. Ion looked about in all directions. Where was the one assigned to taking care of him?

The lanky, loose-jointed man in black suit and top hat who approached him possessed dark pop-eyes behind thick pince-nez. “Dr. Mircea?” he asked in a deep baritone.

Squat, thick-set Ion shook hands with the folklorist. He smiled through his dark, bushy beard at the leader of the conference, Dr. Radu Nagoda.

“Come along with me,” said the latter in a wooden tone. “My residence is close enough to walk to. We can talk as we go along.”

Through narrow streets of low red brick structures the pair slowly advanced. Ion noted that his host had a slight limp on the left side. That made his walking difficult.

“I am so glad that you are going to cover the sburator,” declared Nagoda. “It would have been a big absence if that topic were omitted.”

“Is the program set, then?” asked Ion with curiosity.

“That is correct. We shall have scholarly coverage of the moroi, the strigoi, the vespertilion, and the zmeu. My own contribution is to be an analysis of the translations of the names of the unnatural beings.”

“I will be interested in hearing all the lectures and discussion,” said Ion. “There has never before been such a gathering of students of monster folklore, I believe. This will be a unique event.”

“That is the truth,” muttered the other in an expressionless tone.

Brilliant light of yellowish white lit the sky over Klausenberg as the host and his guest rode a hired hansom cab to the university hall where the conference was to take place.

Participants and auditors had come from Hungary proper as well as Transylvania. Ion Mircea happened to be the only scholar present from Rumanian Wallachia to the south.

The gathering will have a distinctly Magyar and Szekely majority to it, he sensed.

Radu Nagoda opened the meeting that had an audience of about sixteen with introductory remarks welcoming the scholars who had traveled to the event. He ended saying:

“I believe that our efforts today and in the future will clearly establish both the shared folklore elements among our nations as well as the
particularities unique to each culture.”

That morning, two papers were read to the group.

A geographer from Hermannstadt in Transylvania explained what he had collected from peasents in his district concerning the undead beings called moroi and moroaica. He traced the origin of these creatures to the burial of unbaptized children and adults and their supposed quest for a final ending to their eternal torture in the grave.

“The belief is that they crave the decay and dissolution that will never come to them. The criminal acts that the moroi commit are in the revenge for their fate stuck permanently between life and death.”

Only a short discussion followed the presentation.

The second paper given that morning ignited more interest and debate.

The title of the paper was “Transition and Metamorphosis of Unnaturals.”

It was read by its author, Radu Nagoda himself.

His thesis was that vampires and werewolves could readily turn into each other. He described examples of the process in Transylvanian folklore. Pricolici and strigoi, though vampire form, easily evolved into the virolac werewolves. That was a common phenomenon in the folklore of Rumanians, Hungarians, and Szekelys held Nagoda. The varied forms could be transformed into each other. That was a widespread idea.

He gave examples from several different, separated locations in Wallachia and Transylvania.

Ion Mircea sensed a boiling force within himself, one that overwhelmed him.

This was all wrong. His host was misinterpreting ethnographic facts, twisting the objective truth in order to construct an artificial framework that did not have any existence in reality.

When the paper was finished and discussion of it was opened, the man from Bucharest sprang to his feet and expressed his opposition to what he had heard.

“I am sorry to say that what was just argued is totally wrong. The unnaturals do not change their essential nature, but only disguise their outer form, most often for evil purposes. I myself have studied sburators for several years. My conclusion is that this vampire can only pretend to be changed into a virolec werewolves. In truth, it is only putting on a physical mask for the sake of deception. At its core, the sburator remains was it was before taking a disguise. It does not truly change into another.”

Nagoda’s face turned increasingly redder.

“What you say is contradicted by all the collected evidence. I do not have time to go deeply into all the details, but I can show my own private archival material to anyone interested in seeing for themselves the refutation of such unwarranted criticism.” He pause a moment for thought. “The time is passing swiftly and we have papers set for this afternoon. I propose that the conference adjourn for now, meeting here again after we have a quick repast.”

The chamber emptied out, the last to leave being Ion Mircea, who sensed that all the others attending were on the side of the organizer, Radu Nagoda. He himself stood alone.

At the university dining hall, the recent critic felt a cold zone of isolation about him. No one spoke or had any social exchange with him. He sat by himself, at a table in one corner.

Radu Nagoda, surrounded by young admirers, continued defending his viewpoint on monsters.

“I realize that everyone tends to see the subject that he studies for a longtime as fixed and very stable. But our minds must be open to flexible perception and understanding. That is the way of all science, and we practitioners of folklore research must adhere to proven methods of gauging what is true and what is not. Our studies must be rigorously scientific, not based on private opinions.”

He continued to speak while digesting food slowly. A team of admirers and supporters accompanied him when he left the hall to return to the meeting chamber for the afternoon session.

Ion was once more the last one to leave the room, as if the victim of ostracism.

First on the agenda that afternoon was the paper of Ion on the nature of the sburator.

He gave examples from many varied occasions of the flying, bat-like vampire.

“It is said to travel through the air, from place to place, in the darkness of moonless nights. The sburator is known to disguise itself as a handsome, beautiful figure. As a male, it can entice and seduce innocent women who sleep alone. As a female, the monster does the same to human men. It exploits its charmlike attraction to seduce the innocent and unwary.

“Once satisfied, the sburator returns to its daylight lair, often a cave. It has satiated itself with the blood of its victim of the night and can now rest in peace for a time.

“This creature acts as a parasite that depends upon human beings for provision of its vital means, red blood. This is what provides it the source of substance and allow it to continue its endless, deathless form of existence.”

Ion finished and asked for questions or comments.

A Szekely from Bistrita in northeastern Transylvania asked a question connected to his own tribal identity.

“When our Hun ancestors came here from Asia, they brought with them their myths concerning the monster bats called ludveres and liderus that continue down to today. Was that concept of the flying night attacker the foundation of the sburator of Transylvania, sir?”

Ion foresaw possible ethnic conflict if he answered carelessly or undiplomatically. He proceeded to speak with caution and care.

“That is difficult to be specific or determined about, my friend. I can see what the possible implication may be: that much of our own monster folklores and mythology originated far away and were brought to our lands by migration.

“I do not have any particular objection to such interpretations, none at all.”

The speaker turned his head away, ignoring the Szekely questioner, a descendant of the nomadic horseman who once invaded Transylvania and settled the land centuries before.

Two more papers were read that afternoon, the first on  caderelors and mortilors that feasted on dead bodies, the second about flying denevers that attacked its victims out of the night sky.

It was during the discussion following the latter that Ion Mircea made a sullen decision that surprised even himself.

I will pack my travel bag and take the next train out of Klausenberg. That will save me from any further arguments with my host. I do not wish to say good-bye to Dr. Nagoda, or to see him again. My departure will be entirely unnoticed. I will simply slip away from here.

The two of us have nothing in common, that is plain to see.

Ion left the residence and walked alone to the railroad terminal, discovering that the only train for the south left after dark. He would have to sit in the waiting hall until its arrival.

A series of thoughts about the day’s events flowed over and over in his mind.

It was clear that he had been right and his host wrong.

Forms are permanent and do not really change into each other. Radu Nagoda is under an illusion. That was the conclusion he was compelled by reason to make. A sburator is a sburator, a virolac is a virolac, and neither can metamorphose into each other. That is an impossibility. It has never happened anywhere.

Ion decided, as the time of the train arrival arrived neared, to go out onto the access platform for a breath of fresh, evening air. He discovered himself alone there, under a cloudless sky of bright stars. The air was growing cooler.
The night was growing shadowy.

A sudden footstep drew his attention and eyes to one side, to the edge of the cement surface.

The sight there was that of a dark shape of solid black. It wore a long cloak with wing-like extensions on each side. The first idea that occurred to Ion was that of a giant bag of some sort.

As the spectre moved forward, its identity grew clear to the mesmerized observer.

At last the arcane secret is revealed, the stunned scholar realized.

This is Dr. Radu Nagoda, and he is true sburator. That is the kernel of mystery that has always adhered to his personal aura. That is the reason for his limp, his disjointed bones. It all fell into place. The picture became clear and understandable.

The shock of the revelation made it impossible to flee or withdraw, as if the night form had enchanted him with its unnatural force and attraction, preventing any possibility of escape.

When his host was less than a meter away, he spoke in a strangely hollow voice.

“You see what I can make myself in the night. Now watch me as I prove that it is possible for unnaturals to transition at will into something totally different.”

In a moment, the cloak covering the sburator came off and naked body appeared.

But before his eyes Ion witnessed the growth of a fur-like coat of hair. In seconds, a thick, dark hirsute blanket clothed the body of what had just been a sburator vampire.

It was true, then.

Monster forms were capable of changing from one to another. They were not permanently fixed, but could transform themselves like a butterfly.

Before he could say or do anything, Ion Mircea fainted in a swoon from which he never returned to ordinary, normal life ever again in all his remaining years.

It was a train conductor who found him on the floor of the platform and summoned the police.

A medical doctor arrived within half an hour and took command. He transported the unconscious body to his own dispensary and placed the dead-like Ion on a cot.

When the patient awoke late the next morning, it was clear that he was in a condition of total insanity.

His identity was learned from the paper that he had presented at the scholar’s conference and that he carried in his travel bag. Dr. Nagoda was called to confirm the identification.

An institution for lunatics became the new home of Ion Mircea, on the outskirts of Klausenberg. The patient never returned to Bucharest.

In all the remaining years till death came to Ion in 1910, Radu Nagoda never visited his institutionalized colleague one time.

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