Dhampirs Do Not Retire

22 Apr

Yakim Sotirov was unusual, a Bulgarian from the countryside who moved to Sofia in his retirement years.

He found an inexpensive tiny apartment in a Krasno Selo neighborhood close to the center of the capital, telling anyone who was curious enough to ask him that he was interested in pursuing his personal hobby of regional folklore. He never mentioned that he focused upon vampire traditions and the vampire-hunters called dhampirs.

Yakim spent a lot of time at the National Ethnographic Museum, a building which had once been a portion of the royal palace of Bulgaria. This was where he happened to meet Dr. Boyan Dukov, the folklorist in charge of the many Nestiya festivals held every winter in the various districts of Sofia.

“You would be interested in the work done by our kukeri groups of young and old amateurs,” said the bearded giant. “They are very enthusiastic about dressing up and dancing about like the traditional village mummers of old.”

“Yes,” replied Yakim with a smile. “It sounds highly intriguing to me. When can I get together with one of the local groups?”

“I’ll take you with me to our general conference for the Sofia region and you can enroll as a kuker. Then I can help you obtain an authentic-looking folk costume and mask for you to wear for a practice session.”

Yakim studied with fascination the masks on display on the museum walls.

He saw childlike, dreamlike representations of goats, bulls, rams, and even chickens. Threads, ribbons, and laces of different colors decorated the primal images represented. There was a double-faced masks, humorous and snub-nosed on the left side, frightening with a hooked nose on the right.

A voice from behind him caused Yakim to turn around.

“You seemed to be hypnotized and entranced with the kuker masks,” smiled a short middle-aged man in a black suit. “Let me introduce myself. I am Stoyan Chanev, and I teach Bulgarian literature in Razlog. It is quite evident that you have a great and deep interest in our kuker folklore.”

Yakim proceeded to introduce himself. “I was also in the teaching profession,” he revealed. “I am now retired, but I had posts in various towns and villages in several regions of Bulgaria. That exposed me to a variety of local folklores and I became interested in learning as much as I could about the general patterns and our regional individualities as well.”

“We find the kuker customs and patterns everywhere,” noted Stoyan. “In fact, they extend into both Serbia and Macedonia as well. They go back many centuries in time, to pre-Slavic civilization.

“The kuker celebrations have been traced back to the Thracians and their worship of Dionysus. There is an amazing resemblance to what is known of ancient pagan rituals tied to that god and his power to turn winter into spring. Have you read of that theory?”

“Yes, I know of it,” said Yakim. “I hope to learn more by participating in a kuker group from Sofia at the New Year’s festival at Pernik, southwest of here.”

Stoyan grinned. “We will be seeing each other there, for I plan to be taking part also.”

The pair agreed to look for each other at the national celebration, then shook hands and parted.

Yakim did not feel satisfaction upon thinking later about having met Stoyan Chanev. He had an uncanny sense that there was something terrible hidden behind the peasant façade. There seemed to be a warning to his inherited dhamphir character.

For the first time since he had become an adult, Yakim may have come across a man who had the inner nature of a vampire concealed within him.

“Your father died a dhamphir who hunted vampires,” his paternal grandmother had whispered to him when he was six years old. Yakim had never forgotten that notable event of his childhood.

Was he also fated to be a vampire-hunter with a mind able to identify and combat those demonic entities?

Such a question was reborn in the fearful thoughts of the retired secondary-school teacher.

But first there came preparatory exercises with the kuker group in Sofia under the leadership and guidance of Boyan Dukov. In the days after New Year, Yakim put on his mask and costume several times for public performances at scattered sites about the capital. He grew adept at the inherited dance steps and ritualistic gestures expected of a kuker. His guise was that of a primeval beast that resembled a great ram.

Then came the national festival in late January held in Pernik, 19 miles southwest of Sofia.

Yakim, traveling with Boyan by train, was worried by knowledge that he would be seeing the questionable character named Stoyan Chanev during the annual celebration.

Pernik, on the Struma River, looked up on its four sides at Golo Bardo, Vitosha, Lyukin, and Viskyar Mountains.

The team of kukeri led by Boyan settled into their reserved rooms at a tourist hostelry, then went out to enjoy themselves in the pre-festival evening.

As they entered a modest restaurant Yakim caught sight of the short individual who had alarmed and frightened him so seriously when they had met by chance at the Ethnographic Museum in Sofia.

He attempted to act as if he had not sighted or recognized the man with the personal aura of a semi-dead vampire.

But, as he feared, Stoyan Chanev noticed him in the entering group and came over to their table within a minute of their seating themselves in the rear of the eatery.

The little kuker, dressed in a formal business suit, greeted Boyan first, before speaking to anyone else.

“Are you ready for the competition for best mummers, my friend?” he said, looking down the table and fastening his chestnut eyes upon Yakim. “I see an acquaintance of mine, one I met at the museum when I was in Sofia,” smiled the one with the demonic aura.

“Yakim is our newest member,” explained Boyan, “yet I am amazed at how much he knows about the history of our cult-like activity. Yakim is dedicated with all his heart and soul to preservation of the ancient masks and rituals that are so important and valuable for us.”

What Stoyan did next was an unwelcome surprise to the man who had the character nature of a dhampir. He stepped down the table and took possession of the empty chair immediately next to Yakim.

“How are you this evening?” asked the middle-aged enthusiast. “You must be greatly excited at being part of a kuker team at this highest of our folklore activities. If Boyan is lucky this year, you may be returning to Sofia with the top mummers’ prize this time.”

Stoyan smiled in a manner that Yakim judged to be sardonic and satanic.

“Where are you staying, Stoyan?” all at once inquired Boyan from the head of the table. “We have rooms at the Vitosha hostel.”

“That is very near where I am located, at the hotel directly across from your place,” answered the small man, his eyes watching the face of Yakim as if searching to catch any reaction. “You should come and visit me and my colleagues from Razlog when you have the time.”

“Or you should walk across the road and come see us, Stoyan,” said Boyan with a pleasant laugh.

A waiter appeared to take orders from the kukeri team, while Stoyan excused himself and walked off.

How can a dhampir exist in safety when there is a vampire nearby who appears to be conscious of the proximity of someone whose nature is to pursue and destroy him?

Yakim knew it would be impossible for him to fall asleep that night. His room was lightless and the hostel seemed without a sound. But he was unable to feel any sense of safety. His mind was consumed with the problem of how he was to deal with the potential dangers for him in the present situation.

The temptation was for him, as a vampire-hunter, to take direct, offensive action against the evil being there with him in Pernik. That appeared to be his moral duty under the circumstances.

But aware of the wily cleverness of the undead condemned to endless existence in this world, he hesitated to take the risk of precipitate, careless attack upon a vampiric human being.

Yakim remained in profound uncertainty as the hours of night slipped slowly by.

What if the one called Stoyan should decide to get ride of the dhampir who had discovered his true identity and essence?

The new kuker felt a sudden coldness penetrating his nerves and bones.

Would he be safer from this menace when he put on his kuker mask and costume for the pagan festival set to begin the following day?

Yakim was the first team member to finish putting on his ram outfit early the next morning.

He studied himself in a small mirror in his hostel room. The horns on the mask had a strange bent to them, the nose and the ears were those of an unworldly monster no longer in natural existence.

Yakim recognized that a kuker such as he now represented combined aspects of the real and the imaginary, the rational and the animalistic. He began to hope that the atavistic outer surface over him might give him protection from the evil demon he now was certain to have to confront.

In the light of the winter dawn, kuker groups from many places lined up for their morning parade.

Their local names varied: survakali, chaushi, babugeri, stanichari. Masks could be gigantic and monstrous or the size of a normal head. Some held small mirrors to protect the wearer from evil spirits.

Gaping jaws, horns and tails, and snapping beaks were visible on certain men.

Yakim emerged from the hostel in full costume, his ram mask one of the largest and fiercest in his group led by Boyan. His outer costume, made of goat hair, had figures of eagles on it. The ram mask was attached to his head by straps. Tassels hung from both sides. A scarlet kerchief covered his shoulders. Small mirrors were meant to give him intangible protection.

Across the street, the team that included Stoyan Chanev came out onto the street with its masks on.

Yakim knew at once who the shortest of their kukers was. He looked away as soon as he identified the disguised vampire whom he dreaded, in the mask of a primeval beast.

The team of Boyan, as they had practiced many times, lined up in an irregular line and began to gyrate about, ringing their belts of small bells. Out of their mouths came ancient chants they had memorized back in Sofia.

The group to which Stoyan belonged lined up immediately behind Boyan’s. They were soon dancing about and singing their own incantations, joining a general cacophony on the street.

The point in time arrived when the team led by Boyan entered one of the neighborhood squares of Pernik and started to spread out and scatter among the crowd of ordinary on-lookers who were observing the coming and going of different groups of kukeri.

Without looking back, Yakim had a sense that the man who called himself Stoyan was close behind him.

In desperation, he made a decision to take the risky step of breaking away for the purpose of confronting the one he had identified as undead.

Yakim rushed away from his comrades, entering a narrow lane on one side of the square.

Would Stoyan follow him? Certainly, a vampire was sure to do so.

I will have to grab hold of him with my bare hands, the hunter said to himself.

The solution will be to take him by the neck and choke him into submission.

Can a vampire be defeated by physical force? I shall have to find out whether my strength is sufficient to accomplish such a victory.

A dhamphir must marshal the force and courage for direct combat with an evil menace like this.

Yakim stopped and turned around, catching sight of the short kuker he knew would be following him.

Stoyan stopped in his tracks. He peered through the eye holes of his mask at the one in the ram mask. For several seconds, the pair stared at each other.

“You vampire, I curse at you!” came a yell, out of the mouth of Stoyan, through the lower face hole of the shorter kuker.

The latter reached under his costume and drew out a small dagger that had been in his inner belt.

Stoyan rushed forward, surprising the mesmerized Yakim with his speed and courage.

As the knife’s blade went through the other’s mask and struck the neck artery, the man who had believed himself a dhamphir realized what the truth was.

He was a vampire who mistook himself for a vampire-hunter.

The little man he had taken for a vampire was in reality a dhamphir on the hunt for those like him.

Knowledge did not and could not save Yakim from defeat at the hands of a genuine vampire-hunter like Stoyan.

Only later, after the end of the kuker parade and rituals, did someone notice the dead body lying in a Pernik lane.

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