Rita Oakes






















Poison in the Darkness
By Rita Oakes
(Originally published in The Many Faces of Van Helsing. Edited by Jeanne Cavelos. Ace, 2004. Also available for the Kindle.)


     The room was small, the furnishings spare: a dressing table with mirror, a straight-backed chair, a narrow, rumpled bed devoid of bedcurtains, a faded rug that might have been pretty once. The single window was shuttered, closed against the damp night air. The oil lamps, shaded with beaded glass, gave off a pink-gold light that should have lent an air of mystery to the chamber, but instead only depressed him.
     The young Abraham Van Helsing studied the light to avoid looking at the woman.
     “You’re shy,” she said. “That’s all right. I like shy young men.”
     She was paid to like men, shy or not.
     “And handsome,” she said. “The young sir is very handsome.”
     This was not true. He was too gangly, for one thing. Recently his knees and elbows had developed a life of their own, leaving him graceless and a hazard to his mother’s Dresden porcelain. A ridiculous fuzz had begun to sprout upon his cheeks. His skin, flawless a mere six months ago, had erupted with acne. No, he was anything but handsome. And he dearly wished he could be elsewhere. Standing a round of beer for his friends, perhaps. Or back home with his nose in a book.
     “My--my father sent me,” he said, wincing at the stammer and the naked fear in his voice.
     She nodded, brushed his cheek with one finger. “Many are nervous the first time,” she said, “but I can tell that you and I are going to be great friends.”
     She was clad in corset and petticoat. The corset pushed her breasts high. The tops peeked in grapefruit-sized mounds above a sheer bodice.
     She took his hand, studied the ragged fingernails a moment, the narrow sliver of dried blood upon his thumb where, under the falsely genial gaze of his father in the coach, he had worried at a cuticle. “A gentleman of quality should take better care of his hands,” she said.
     “I know.” His face grew warm. “I can’t help it.”
     “Never mind.” She placed his hand upon her breast. Soft. Smooth. Like perfectly kneaded bread dough. Warm, too. Pleasant. Perhaps he would get through this without embarrassing himself too badly. Then he could go home. Back to his studies.
     She pulled away, and he let his hand fall to his side. She drew the chair back from her dressing table, placed a foot upon it, jutting out bosom and one hip. “Will you help me with my stockings?”
     She lifted her petticoat slowly, past ankle and knee. Van Helsing swallowed, forced himself forward.
     Her stockings were wrinkled, spotted a little with mud. Under her guidance, he reached his hand under the petticoat, began to roll down the coarsely-knit stocking. She shifted position, and he removed that one as well. She had dimpled knees. The lamplight showed a sprinkling of dark hair upon her calves. Van Helsing caught an odor from under her clothing, something heavier and less sweet than the cloying perfume she wore, something of sweat and brine and musk and mystery. He wasn’t sure he liked it. Yet he felt a stirring within his breeches, a quickening of his breath. She smiled at him.
     “Thank you,” she said. She unfastened his coat, helped him shrug out of it. She passed her hand over his groin lightly, teasingly, before she unbuttoned and dropped the front of his breeches, fishing the blind snake within free with practiced fingers. She spat upon her palm and coaxed his member to reluctant life.
     She drew him to the bed and hoisted her petticoats.
     He stared. He’d never seen a woman’s privates before. There was hair between her thighs. The Greek and Roman statues he’d seen in museums did not have hair. Not there. Perhaps this woman was aberrant. His erection wilted.
     She sighed softly, reached for him again. “Come, my young sir, I’ll not bite.”
     He closed his eyes.
     She stroked him back to stiffness, guided him inside the coarse thatch between her legs. She pressed his face to her breast.
     He spent himself quickly. She released him. He dressed as swiftly as trembling hands would permit. He wanted to be rid of her, be rid of the sour, vaguely animal odor that rose from her skin, be rid of the stickiness that had come from her, or from himself, or from their commingling, be rid of the lingering sense of suffocation and shame. This was what it meant to be a man? If so, he found little to recommend it. Upon her dressing table he left the coin his father had given him.


     Van Helsing entered the vast study, which looked out on the botanical gardens of the University of Leyden. Lined on three sides with bookshelves from floor to ceiling, the room housed ancient herbals, early studies of anatomy, treatises on fungi, pharmacology, bee-keeping. Van Helsing had a particular love for this room, its vaguely musty odor of old parchment, oiled leather, centuries of accumulated knowledge. He’d always been bookish, and there were tomes enough here, ancient and modern, to keep him in contented study for centuries.
     But it was not the room alone he loved.
     Miss Marieke Boerhaave sat at a long, dark table near the window, where dust motes danced in a slant of late afternoon light. He admired the graceful curve of her neck as she bent, a little near-sightedly, over her task, delicately pinning a butterfly to a mounting board.
     Like her distinguished ancestor, Hermann Boerhaave, Marieke possessed a keen mind. Unlike him, she devoted her studies not to medicine or botany, but to entomology. Lepidoptera. Butterflies.
     People said Marieke had the mind of a man. Van Helsing imagined her as a gravely solemn child, curious but always apart, as he had so often felt apart.
     As a young woman, she remained grave, but not humorless. Van Helsing had managed to coax a smile from her more than once, and that smile warmed better than the aged and potent jenever he sometimes sipped when the evenings grew damp and chill.
     Something inside his stomach fluttered, as if her butterflies had magically materialized inside him. Or perhaps the eels he had dined on earlier disagreed with him.
     He studied her a moment longer in silence, his throat tight. He had no wish to disturb her until she finished her task. The stark white of her pinafore contrasted pleasantly with her gown of sober gray silk. She took up a pen, dipped it into the inkwell, wrote a label for the specimen in a neat hand.
     “The purple emperor,” he said. More blue than purple, the butterfly possessed a startling iridescence when illumined by a shaft of sunlight from the window. Splotches of white like careless drips of paint countered dusky brown at the edges of the wings. “Beautiful,” he said.
     She glanced at him, nodded. “Apatura iris. A fine specimen of Nymphalidae.”
     “Some say the butterfly carries messages from Heaven. Others that it represents the soul in flight after death.”
     “You are the repository of a great deal of fanciful
information, Doctor Van Helsing,” she said.
     So much was true. He was indiscriminate in his tastes, devouring myth as much as mathematics, literature as much as law, religion as much as science. He filed all away in his voracious mind, great truths and trivia, until such time as he might need them. “Is that a condemnation?” he asked. The fluttering in his stomach grew worse. He could not bear it if she should think him a fool.
     She considered a long moment before she answered. “No.”
     “Will you take a turn with me through the gardens?”
     He expected her to refuse. And then his carefully rehearsed speech would go unsaid, his hopes no more to fly than the dead butterfly mounted upon the table before her.
     “Yes,” she said. “I should enjoy a walk.”
     Spring in the Low Countries, and tulips--red, yellow, pink, white splashed with red, red flamed with yellow--nodded their heads in a breeze scented with distant rain. Hyacinth and narcissus held somewhat lesser stature. The grass, deeply green, looked as if it had been trimmed with scissors, and met the stone path neatly.
     They walked side by side in silence. The wind brought a pleasing flush to Marieke’s cheek, toyed with the gray silk ribbon of her bonnet. She paused a moment, observing a small orange, black, and cream-colored butterfly at rest upon a hyacinth. “Aglais uriticae,” she said. The tortoise-shell butterfly flitted away. Van Helsing thought it more pleasant to watch the insects in flight than to see them killed, dried, and pinned, but would not risk her scorn by saying so.
     “I have been offered a position in Amsterdam,” he said. “I will be able to continue my research there.”
     “The salary will not make me rich, but with sufficient
frugality, will permit the maintenance of a comfortable
     “Then you are indeed fortunate.”
     Fortunate? Yes. Or rather, he might be. He studied the spiked petals of the brilliant red and yellow Duc van Tol tulip. A very ancient hybrid. Nearby nodded a patch of Rembrandts in white and red. Like blood splashed on snow, he thought. What if she should refuse him? What then? The news of his leaving certainly seemed to cause her no distress. But then, it wouldn’t. She was not the sort to succumb to a fit of vapors. He would not find himself so drawn to her if she were.
     “Miss Boerhaave--?”
     “I should esteem it a very great honor if you were to
consent to become my wife.”
     She fixed him with a look as sharp as the pins she used to transfix her specimens. He held his breath. His fingers twitched a little, the old longing to gnaw upon his fingernails very strong, though he had broken himself of the habit long ago. After all, who would trust a physician with ragged nails and torn cuticles?
     “Very well,” she said.


     I did love him once. Alone of all men, he did not treat me as a brainless ninny whose only concern should be a new frock or a filled dance card. He did not look at me as if I’d sprouted two heads when I spoke of matters scientific. He was a good man, a kindly man, though given sometimes to flights of fanciful thinking, despite the rigors of both medicine and law. Brilliant, in his way, but as fascinated by superstition as by science. Sometimes his logic abandoned him altogether.
     When he asked me to marry him, I said yes. My suitors had been few enough, and I neared that age when I began to fear I should be a spinster forever.
     It was not so much I desired a home and family of my own, but I had grown weary of the pitying glances and shaking heads of my relatives, which constrained me as fully as the stays of my corset.
     He did not mind my somewhat cool nature, my readings of Linnaeus or Darwin, my long hours observing the minute world of insects. My speciality was Lepidoptera, and I suppose that a genteel enough hobby, even for the fair sex.
     We were happy. For a time. I came to the marriage bed with more curiosity than fear. He was awkward, unpracticed I think, and touchingly apologetic for making me submit to embraces he thought I must find distasteful.
     I did not find them so, though I will confess disappointment that so momentous an experience proved dull and somewhat silly. Surely, I thought, there was more to the union of flesh and soul than this? What of the breathless passion of the poets?
     Poets lie, I decided. No matter. I still had Lepidoptera.
     Had I been a man, I should have traveled to Sumatra or Madagascar to collect the largest, most colorful specimens of Saturniidae. As it was, I contented myself with journals and correspondence. I collected the exotics captured by others’ nets.
     The years passed. I conceived a son and brought him to term without undue difficulty. Jeröen was a joy to us both, sunny-natured and affectionate. Tender of heart, perhaps excessively so, for he always wept when I put my butterflies into the killing jar, or when I later pinned them through the thorax upon the mounting board for display.
     I had many specimens--large, iridescent reds and greens shipped to me from the tropics, as well as the smaller species more commonly seen in our Dutch gardens. Framed, they made a beautiful display lining the stairwell, and in the room where I studied. Van had one upon the desk in his downstairs study, the common apatura iris, the purple emperor, which I had been mounting the day he proposed to me.
     We were happy, as I said. Van proved a generous husband, liberal to me with gifts of flowers, books, and chocolates. He was an attentive, loving father and missed Jeröen terribly when the boy went away to school. Truthfully, he missed the boy more than I, for Jeröen had a horror of the things I found most fascinating. Never think I did not love my son, for I did. But I rarely knew what to say to him.
     One Thursday afternoon, returning from errands, a sudden rain shower forced me into a bookshop. The sun had long set before the rain slowed to the merest drizzle and I turned my steps homeward.
     She stood beneath the gaslight, pale, utterly drenched, quite wretched-looking. Her clothes were of good quality, or I would not have paused. I asked if she was ill. She looked faint, and I took her hand. Quite chill, it was.
     “Come,” I said, “my husband is a physician. You shall have a glass of sherry and a warm fire, and he shall put you to rights.”
     “You are very kind,” she said. Her Dutch had a charming accent. Italian, I thought. My heart swelled with pity for one so far from home and alone.
     The servants were away. I always gave them Thursday evenings free. I quite liked the quiet of an empty house. Jeröen was at school until the next holiday. Van had not yet returned from his rounds at the hospital.
     “You must get out of those wet things,” I said, and brought her towels and a dressing gown. I poured sherry for her, but she left the glass untouched.
     She was beautiful, full of form, pale as marble. Aphrodite, I fancied, and dismissed the notion as something Van would have thought. But in truth, my husband was far from my mind. I felt a sudden weakness in the knees and a rush of pleasure such as sometimes had happened when Jeröen was an infant and suckled at my breast.
     She took the dressing gown, but draped it over a chair. She toweled her hair dry. Blonde, though dark with dampness. Dark honey shining with points of firelight. My throat felt tight.
“Will you not dress?” I said, “my husband--”
     “Does not please you.”
     Stung, I said, “Of course, he pleases me. He is a brilliant man. He--”
     Lips brushed mine, light as a butterfly wing. I stepped back, startled, though not as appalled as I might have been.
     “He lacks passion,” she said, and kissed me again, more firmly. My heart drummed beneath the prison of my corset. So loud, I thought surely she must hear. My head felt light, as if I’d taken too much wine. I broke away from her, my face hot with shame.
     No. Not shame. Desire.
     I thought myself long immune to passion. I had science, after all. Study. My insects, coldly gassed, pinned, displayed. I had never been prone to frivolity, hysteria. I liked things measured, labeled, analyzed. I--
     I wanted her. I abandoned sweet reason for this utterly new sensation of melting delight. I trembled, for my flesh could not contain this wanting. I sank to the floor, hid my face. I did not know what to do or say.
     She held me, pressed my face to her bosom, stroked the nape of my neck with fingers still chilled from the storm. I had heat for us both. I kissed her, shyly, and then more boldly when she did not pull away. She loosed my hair from its severe chignon, unlaced my gown, my corset.
     I felt an ache in my lower back. It had annoyed me all day, presaging the onset of my menses. My insides seemed to dissolve and I felt the curse of Eve between my thighs. Too early. I thought I would die of shame.
     I pushed her away. “I am unclean,” I said.
     Her nostrils flared, and she smiled. “Not to me. There is no shame in blood.” She kissed me again, and caressed me with great tenderness. The ache vanished. Pleasure only remained.
     She left before Van returned home, pledging to return to me on Thursday next. I drew on the dressing gown, drank the untouched sherry.
     Van was worried at my preoccupation that evening, my
disordered hair, my flushed skin. Doctor that he was, he bled me, far more painfully than she had done, and put me to bed. It was only when he climbed carefully into the bed beside me that the thought came to me I was an adulteress. I began to weep, I who never wept, and alarmed him further. He held me, and stroked my hair, and asked if I had pain. He had laudanum below, in his apothecary cabinet, but I shook my head and clung to him, clung to this good man, whom I had betrayed.

     I abandoned Lepidoptera. Caterina was far more exotic. I felt shattered by my passions, and yet curiously freed by them. Caterina visited me weekly, when servants and husband were away. How precious our time together, how tender.
     She was more than a woman--I had forgotten to mention that, I think. Centuries older than I, but forever young, and unfettered by convention. There is, I am sure, a scientific explanation for creatures such as she, but Caterina refused to submit to microscopic analysis. “I am not one of your specimens,” she would say and then kiss me.
     Yes, she drank blood. She killed sometimes. That is the nature of a predator. But to me, she remained unfailingly tender, taught me to take as much pleasure in the flesh as I had always taken in the mind. I realized I had been only half alive before she came to me.
     My only regret was my continued deception of that good man, my husband. It was almost a relief to me when he returned home earlier than expected, and discovered us in flagrante delicto.
     Such a cry of grief he made, I feared for his reason.
     Caterina sprang upon him. He struggled, but could not free himself of her unnatural strength. Her eyes had gone that strange red that told of hunger or rage. She could break him like a dry stick.
     “You must not hurt him,” I said, drawing on a dressing gown in haste. I, his wife, had hurt him deeply enough.    “Why ever not?” As I said, she could be cruel.
     “Because I ask it.”
     She called me a fool. She drank from him, deeply until he swooned, but for my sake, she let him live. And a little blood-letting is good for you, is it not? She carried him to his study, and deposited him in a chair by the fire. She kissed me then, and I could taste his blood lingering upon her tongue.
     “I must leave here,” she said. “It will not be safe for me with him alive, fool though he is. Come with me.”
     I wanted to go. The enormity of life without her--I scarce could imagine going back to my dull, passionless existence. But I could not abandon a husband of fourteen years so abruptly. And there was Jeröen to consider. Twelve years old, he was. How could I leave before I saw him grow to manhood? “I cannot.”
     Her eyes flashed red again. Hurt, as much as anger, I think. But she did not try to persuade me further. “When he wakes,” she said, “ask your so saintly husband what special ingredient laces those chocolates he brings you so regularly.”
     “What do you mean?”
     “Ask him.”
     No final embrace. She passed out of my life as swiftly as she had entered.
     Van was rousing, so I put aside my grief, placed my hand over his broad one, with its dusting of freckles and hair like fine copper wires. For the first time, I noticed the strands of gray in his reddish hair, the lines deepening about his eyes. So vulnerable he looked, and I felt a terrible fondness for him.
     He pulled his hand from mine. His shoulders shook with the violence of his weeping.
     Never had I seen a man so broken. I had done this to him, with my hedonist ways. So Adam must have wept when Eve gave him the forbidden fruit. Oh, but I was a weak, vile, creature.
     Yet I pretended sternness. “Van,” I said, “it is not the end of the world.”
     “It is the end of my world.” He fumbled for his handkerchief. “How could you submit to the embrace of that--that--creature?” He looked at me with sudden, pitiable hope. “She coerced you, did she not? You were powerless against her. She is not human. She--”
     “I love her.” Better perhaps if I had lied, gave him a sop to his pride, but I could not. “The chocolates, Van,” I said, “what is their special ingredient?”
     He blinked through his tears. “Chocolates?”
     “Yes, the ones you so kindly bring me every week. They are different from other confections, yes? I’d like to know how.”
     A simple question, to focus his scattered wits, but why did he look so startled, so guilty? Had he not felt so undone, I’m sure he would never have told me the truth. “Mercury,” he said.
     “Mercury?” I knew enough of his work to know mercury came from cinnabar, and that it was commonly used for disorders of the skin, and for centuries had been the preferred treatment for--for--
     Though never prone to megrims, vapors, or any other form of weakness commonly experienced by my sex, I confess I sat down rather abruptly.
     Mercury was the preferred treatment for pox.
     I should not know such things, but Van had never denied me his books, and I read voraciously on matters medical as well as insectile. Pox. Morbus Gallicus. The French Disease. Or, if you were in France, the English Complaint. Also blamed upon the Spanish, Italians, Germans, and the New World. Syphilis.
     Dear God.
     If I were tainted--would not my son be also, the disease carried through my milk to his innocent lips? The blood left my face. “Jeröen.”
     “Jeröen is healthy.”
     I closed my eyes. “Thank God.”
     “Yes. Thank God.”
     I might have railed, screamed, wept, but to what avail? I allowed Reason to reassert itself. Quite calmly I said, “So you have been visiting whores while I thought you were working?”
     He turned red to the roots of his hair. “I have not,” he said, mustering indignation from the depths of his shock and grief.
     “Then you knew you were ill when you married me?” This seemed the greater crime, and my voice trembled with the enormity of it, in spite of my resolve.
     He reached out his hand to me, thought better of it. “No. You must not think that. I would never--Marieke, I was ill, yes, but I knew not the cause. The disease mimics many other lesser illnesses. Symptoms can remain hidden for years, decades. When I knew the truth, it was too late.”
     “You might have told me.”
     “It is not a subject one speaks of to one’s wife.”
     I pitied him, for the burden he had carried so long alone. He was as much a prisoner of circumstance as I. Yet his deception was years in duration, and has killed me. Has killed us both. Not so swiftly as a knife, but with all the tenderness of the conjugal bed.


     Jeröen came home from school on spring holiday. Van Helsing loved his son, a round-faced, laughter-filled, child of twelve. He had inherited his mother’s fine intellect, but none of her seriousness. Indeed, Van Helsing frequently wondered where this happy stranger had come from. He had a generous, affectionate nature totally at odds with Marieke’s cool reserve and his father’s own awkward amiability.
     “Papa!” Jeröen burst into the study without knocking.
     The boy, three inches taller than when last Van Helsing had seen him, gave him a tight hug and kiss on both cheeks. Van Helsing returned the embrace firmly, then put both hands upon the boy’s shoulders and studied him as intently as he would study a book. Too thin, Van Helsing thought. The boy was growing too fast. Indeed, he needed new clothes, for bony wrists jutted from his sleeves. One cuff bore a splatter of ink. “How is school?” Van Helsing asked.
     “I’m doing well in Latin,” Jeröen said, rearranging the items on the desk restlessly. “But Papa, don’t you think Julius Caesar was a pompous bore? I told my professor I thought so, and he went all purple. I thought he would have an apoplexy right there and then. I told him he must come to Amsterdam and see you, since you are the finest doctor in all the city, the finest doctor in all the Low Countries.”
     Van Helsing laughed. He could not remember the last time he had felt like laughing. He ruffled Jeröen’s blond hair. “How many guilders do you think to cozen out of me for that piece of flattery?”
     Jeröen looked puzzled. “Not flattery, Papa. It’s true. Everyone says so. Do you mind if I don’t become a doctor, Papa? I’ll never be as good as you, and to see people suffer--it quite makes me want to weep.”
     “A doctor’s duty is to lessen suffering,” Van Helsing said. “Still, you needn’t study medicine. There’s always law.”
     Jeröen’s face fell. Van Helsing laughed again. Compared to law, Caesar’s Commentaries must seem the height of drama. Van Helsing squeezed his son’s shoulder. “Relax, my boy. You need not choose a suitable career this very instant. Go greet your mother and let me return to my work.”
     “But I have chosen a career, Papa. I should like to be an actor. We saw a production of Hamlet last month. It was terribly exciting.”
     Van Helsing concealed a smile. No father would permit his son to choose so disreputable a career, but within the month or week, he knew Jeröen would light on some other passion, as Marieke’s butterflies flitted from blossom to blossom. Art might be next, or astronomy, or soldiering. “Hamlet, eh?” he said. “And the sufferings of the wretches in that sad play did not make you weep?”
     “Oh, I wept bitterly at the end. But it was only pretend. Will you come and see me in a play when I am an actor?”
     “I should be honored,” Van Helsing said. “Now, go say hello to your mother. I think she’s in the garden.”
     “One more question, Papa?”
     “Just one?”
     “How do you know when you are in love?” Jeröen’s fair face had flushed a deep red, but his eyes, blue, wide-set, earnest, held a rare seriousness.
     Van Helsing felt his own face stiffen into a blankly
pleasant mask. “We can talk about that later,” he said.
     Jeröen quit the study with a quick grin. His son, Van Helsing reflected, had the effect of the sun bursting through a pall of clouds. And when the great orb disappeared into cloud again, all seemed darker and colder than before. “Love,” Van Helsing said softly to himself.

     Jeröen found me in my garden, trying to recapture the pleasures I had once known with my studies of Lepidoptera. My thoughts turned ever toward Caterina. I should have gone with her when she asked. Jeröen was old enough to get by without me. Van would always have his work.
     Jeröen sought out his father, first. He always did. This pained me now, when it never had before. Had I not toiled in agony for hours to bring Jeröen into this world? And he goes first to the Great Deceiver?
     “Papa says I may become an actor,” he said, kissing my cheek.
     I was sure Van had said nothing of the sort. “We are all of us actors,” I said. “Only the stage is lacking.” I tapped his wrist, frowning. “You’ve stained your cuff.”
     “Yes, Mama. I’m sorry. I was careless.”
     He shifted from foot to foot. The boy could never keep from fidgeting, no matter how much he tried. I always forgot how exhausting he could be. “Be still,” I said, more sharply than I intended. “You will startle the butterflies.”
     He tried. But soon his fingers plucked at his jacket, or drummed against my chair. “Why do you kill them?” he asked. “Aren’t they prettier out here in the sun?”
     “You sound like your father.”
     “Is he well? Papa seemed--I don’t know--sad, somehow.”
     I admit to a total, irrational feeling of rage at this. Jeröen had no concern for my sadness. Weeks ago, I had a woman I loved, and a husband I respected. Now I lacked both. Van and I existed in cold silence, each outcast from the other’s affection and trust.
     The bees droned, sucking nectar from the trailing vines of wisteria and honeysuckle. They did not worry me. I’d always found that if you remained still and did not annoy them, the bees would reciprocate.
     One bee buzzed close by, and Jeröen batted at it nervously.
     “Will you not be still?” I shouted.
     The bee darted at Jeröen, stung him where pale throat met starched collar. Jeröen slapped at his neck, frantic, and gave a howl of pain. Uncharitably, I wished my son were made of sterner stuff. I did not realize the seriousness of the matter.
     Jeröen collapsed, still clawing at his throat. The sting had made a great welt, and his face was swelling horribly. He gasped, seemed unable to catch his breath. I screamed to the servants to send my husband to me at once, knelt to loosen Jeröen’s collar. I scraped the stinger away with my fingernail, held my boy’s head upon my lap. His eyes were wide and terrified. “Shhh,” I told him, brushing the hair back from his brow. “Your father is coming.”
     Van arrived quickly. The color left his face as he saw Jeröen’s state. He swept the boy into his arms and carried him to his study. I hurried after.
     He lay Jeröen upon the settee, took his pulse. Jeröen fought for every breath. His skin grew clammy beneath my anxious fingers. “Do something,” I said. Why was the oh so famous Doctor Van Helsing dithering while his son lay dying? The great hands trembled. The brilliant eyes held uncertainty and panic. He did not know what to do.
     Months have passed, and I believe now there is nothing he could have done. God took our boy to punish us both. But I hated my husband then, a hate that solidified with every tortured gasp Jeröen took.
     Those gasps ceased. Five minutes only had lapsed between the sting and my son’s death. Some form of shock, it was. A rare intolerance to the bee’s venom. And I saw in Van’s eyes that he blamed me as much as I blamed him. My garden, my insects, after all.
     Van grieved as much as I. He threw himself into his work, closeted himself in his study. We had become living ghosts and neither of us sought to comfort the other.
     I thought Caterina would return and take me away from this hell of grief and guilt, but she did not. So I brooded, and imagined the syphilis biting into my bones, my heart, my brain, like a caterpillar devouring a cabbage leaf. The flesh fell from my bones like water. My eyes hated the light. My hands, claws now, trembled with weakness. My handwriting, once fine, firm, became nearly illegible.
     When Van finally noticed how spectral I had become, he ordered me forcibly fed. The servants bound me, and ran a tube down my throat, poured broth into me through a funnel. I struggled and gagged and wept, but the disgusting violation was repeated daily. I grew convinced that Van meant to poison me in this fashion. After all, how far a stretch is it from mercury in sweets to arsenic in broth? Of course, I realize now that if he really wanted to murder me, he need have done nothing but leave me to my slow starvation.


     A damp, drizzly day. A busy day, weather notwithstanding. Van Helsing had spent the morning seeing patients at the almshouse, the afternoon performing a dissection for the medical students, revealing for their edification advanced disease of the aorta, undoubtedly the result of tertiary syphilis. He had a touch of catarrh, which the weather did not improve. The lecture left him hoarse.
     He could have hired a cab to take him home from the
operating theater, but the gloom suited him and he decided to walk. He moved slowly, for rain made the cobblestones slippery. He bowed his head against the cold drizzle and against a grief that continued undiminished since Jeröen’s death a year ago this day.
     The boy would have been thirteen now. At least Jeröen had gone to God an innocent, uncorrupted by carnality.
     A bee sting. God, the irony. That such a small, beneficent creature, pollinator of flowers, maker of healthful honey and beeswax, a creature whose very name had become synonymous with useful industry, that such an insect should be the instrument of death to his only son--it was almost too much to be borne. And he, Van Helsing, physician of some note, though not as renowned as Jeröen had believed, had been as helpless as any other father to ease the swelling of the tortured throat, the wheezing of the labored lungs.
     Nor could he forget Marieke’s expression, no matter how much he tried. Without words she seemed to say, “Well, I knew you were not much of a man, but I thought you were at least a great doctor. Now I know you are neither.”
     Van Helsing lifted the latch of the iron gate, stepped into the cemetery. The grass squelched beneath his feet. He had no difficulty finding the grave. He visited often.
     He traced his fingers over the carved letters, the cold of the stone penetrating deep in spite of his gloves. Jeröen Ambrosius Van Helsing, 1857-1869, Beloved Son.
     Van Helsing took off his hat, the excess water cascading from the brim. “Hello, Jeröen,” he said. “Your mother would visit, if she could. She--she--” He drew a ragged breath, fighting tears. He plucked a handkerchief from within his coat. He coughed into the square of fabric, studied the mucus with a critical eye, wiped his nose, wadded the handkerchief and stuffed it into his pocket. Water dripped inside his collar. He shivered. “She is getting better.” That was not quite a lie. She had seemed better. Pliant blankness was an improvement over naked hate, was it not? And they took very good care of her at the asylum.
     “I’ve been invited to London. To teach at the Royal Academy of Surgeons. A great honor, but I’ve not yet accepted. I--I don’t like the thought of leaving Amsterdam, leaving you, leaving your mother.
     “I never answered your question that last day, did I? I thought we would have so much time, you see. I’m sorry. How do you know when you love someone? For me, it came like a sickness. When I would be near your mother, I felt as though dozens of her damned butterflies had flown into my stomach. I never knew if I was going to laugh or retch. And then one day the butterflies stopped. It hurts, my boy. It hurts so very much.”
     He put his sodden hat upon his head. “It grows late. We will talk again.” Van Helsing turned away, tears blinding him as much as the worsening rain. He felt a sensation in his right hand, as if someone had placed a hand in his and squeezed it once. Ah, he was tired and unwell. The mind played tricks.
     He arrived home thoroughly soaked and chilled. He took no supper, in spite of his housekeeper’s remonstrance. The servants knew what day it was, and had grown accustomed to his eccentricities. He did accept a towel and dry dressing gown from his valet. In spite of the generous blaze of the fire, more jenever than was perhaps good for him, and an extra shawl draped about his shoulders as he bent over his desk, he could not seem to banish the chill. He stared at the notes for the monograph he was writing on the evolution of brain matter. He was in no mood for it tonight.
     A pain had begun behind his eyes. His chest felt tight. His throat, uncomfortably raw all day, now felt constricted, inflamed.
     He should just seek his bed. Rest was a better medicine than any tonic, bolus, or salve in his cabinet. His eye fell upon the letter from the Royal Academy. He should write, decline their kind offer. After all, what use could he be to them, he who could not even cure himself of the catarrh? He thrust the letter into the pocket of his dressing gown.
He rose, fought a momentary dizziness, no doubt the result of too much jenever on an empty stomach. He banked the fire, turned down the lamps, all but one. This he carried into the tiny adjoining room that still served him for bedchamber.
     He’d reduced the household to three servants. He had no need of so large a dwelling. For one man--it was extravagant. He should sell, move to more modest quarters near the hospital.
Or take that post in England. Fly from this house with its attendant memories and grief. Longingly, he fingered the letter in his pocket. Let England ease the weight of a mad wife, a dead child, the bitterness of all his failures.
     Yet how could he leave the house where he and Marieke had been so happy, even if that happiness had proven illusion only? How could he abandon the walls that had witnessed the birth and death of his son?
     For the rooms rang with Jeröen’s absent footfalls, fragments of remembered chatter, echoes of laughter. The boy seemed as much a part of the house as brick, tile, or plaster. 
     Van Helsing put the lamp upon a narrow table, removed his spectacles, climbed beneath the cool, crisp sheets with a sigh.
     He woke sometime past midnight. He had heard a strange noise. He lay quite still, holding the wheeze of his breath a moment, the better to tell if the noise came again.
     So slight a sound, he might have dreamed it. A sort of scrape or hollow knock. He rose, fumbled for his spectacles.
     His pillow was soaked with sweat, and his nightclothes clung damply to him. He shivered as the night air, so great a contrast from his overheated bed, plucked at him. The smell of his sweat reminded him of fried potatoes. He was thirsty, but his throat felt so hot and painful, he did not think he would be able to swallow. Indeed, his own spittle conspired to choke him.
     A warm salt water gargle would help, perhaps. Once he had investigated the mysterious sound.
     He lit the wick of the lamp, turned the flame high in spite of the stabbing pain the brightness brought his eyes. He placed the globe back over the wick, lifted the lamp, and crossed to his study.
     A thud of something falling to the rug, and a softer sound, a wordless rhythmic whispering, unlike anything he had ever heard before. Hallucination, he thought. A product of fever.
     For no one was in the room. All looked mostly as he had left it. Oh, the framed purple emperor butterfly Marieke had given him as a wedding gift had tumbled inexplicably from the corner of his desk, but that was all.
     He stooped, curled his fingers around the dark wooden frame, the cool oval of convex glass. He was dismayed to note the glass had cracked. The specimen itself remained undamaged, very secure upon its pin.
     The wings moved.
     Van Helsing nearly dropped the frame in startlement. Wings fluttered slowly and then with increased agitation, brushing against the glass. Whispering.
     Impossible. The thing was dead. Had been dead for at least fifteen years, for this was the same apatura iris Marieke had been mounting the day he proposed to her. Dead things did not live again.
     Seizing a letter opener from his desk drawer, he pried the back from the frame, lifted off the ruined glass. The wings fluttered even more madly now. Van Helsing seized the pin, pulled it free of the board, free of the thorax of the impossibly reanimated butterfly. The purple emperor lifted in flight, circled the glow of the lamp, disappeared into the shadows of dark beams overhead.
     Van Helsing seized the lamp, opened the door of his study, climbed the narrow, curving stairs, his hand damp upon the polished balustrade. More frames, more brightly painted wings in airless struggle. The frames, ornate as any housing a Rembrandt or Hals, banged against floral wallpaper, tilted on their hooks. Wings. Small, large, bright, dull, European native or tropical exotic shipped from Brazil, Sumatra, the Congo. Azure, green, gold, spotted, streaked, splotched, delicately veined swallowtail, muddy-colored wood nymph. Wings battered against glass and screamed. Screamed.
     Van Helsing broke the glass, plucked the pins away, felt blood ooze in sticky red from his fingers, but did not care. He barely registered the glass slicing into fingertips, palms, the backs of his hands. He grasped each pin, pulled it free. Wings lifted, fluttered about him, lit upon his nightshirt, his hair, walked upon exposed skin with a strange, light suction, like a hundred kisses.
     He raced up the stairs in the dark, lamp forgotten. He knew the way, knew he must free them all, the thousands of souls Marieke had collected for so long. He smashed the cases in her study. A cloud of butterflies surrounded him. Wings cooled his fevered flesh, whispered, whispered.
     He spun about the room, heedless of the glass beneath his bare feet. Dark. Dark. He could not see. He fumbled for the window catch, swung the mullioned glass inward, threw open the wooden shutters. The rain had stopped. A cold moonlight spilled on him.
     He danced with Marieke’s butterflies, felt their soft caress against his swollen throat, his lips, his eyelids, the thinly fleshed bones of his ankles. He whirled with them, laughed in euphoric delight. He could fly with them. Fly.
     Dizzy, fighting now for breath, he stumbled. Prisoned by his bulk him once more, he sank to his knees. Alas, to remain earthbound, trapped in coarse clay. The butterflies streamed over him before winging away into the cool night. So many. Death had undone so many. More things in heaven and earth. Marieke would be angry.
     He rolled onto his back, watched the butterflies flutter out the open window. A last one, the purple emperor, paused, flitted about his head, as it had earlier circled the lamp’s light. “Jeröen,” Van Helsing said, his voice little more than a whisper from his sore throat. Nonsense. The butterfly was older than Jeröen had been at death. Yet it pleased him to imagine his son’s soul a tangible thing, and free; pleased him, too, that this one above all others seemed reluctant to leave him, kept hovering protectively, as if it forgave him all his follies. “Go,” he said. “You mustn’t worry about me.”


     It’s a year now since Jeröen’s death. I think. It is difficult to keep time in an asylum.
     It’s not so dreadful here, except they won’t let me have any books. The learned doctors believe it was books drove me mad. The feminine mind should not be over-stimulated. Rubbish. I will ask Van to make them reconsider.
     He visits me every Sunday after Church. After Mass, I should say. Van converted recently. The Church gives him comfort. He even wears a cross about his neck. The idolatry of it offends me. But Dutch Reformed or Papist, it matters not. I have no use for a God that will murder a child to punish the parent.
     There is a certain liberation in madness. One can say what one thinks. I have even learned to swear.
     But I have been good of late. Quiet. They believe I am
vastly improved.
     Not that they would say so to me. Learned men do not
converse with madwomen. Learned men do not converse with women, mad or not. At least Van was different in that regard.
     On his last visit, he told me my butterflies were gone. He said he wanted to prepare me, so I would not be unduly upset when I came home. It was the first time he had spoken of my coming home.
     “Gone?” I asked.
     “I set them free.” He spoke very softly and took my hand. Scabs marred his palms and the backs of his hands, felt rough upon my skin. How they must have bled.
     “It was wrong to imprison them,” he said. “You do see that?”
     I frowned, puzzled. “Are you talking about the butterflies in the garden?”
     “No, Marieke. The ones upon the wall. They’ve all flown away.”
     “Husband,” I said, “those butterflies are dead. The dead do not fly.” How is it, I wondered, that I am in an asylum and my husband is not?
     “It was a miracle,” he said. “I think perhaps Jeröen’s
spirit had something to do with it.”
     I pulled my hand away. The syphilis had begun to eat his brain, I decided. It hurt to hear my son’s name upon his lips.
     I remembered Caterina’s final kiss, remembered the taste of blood. I imagined Van’s blood flowing into my mouth, filling me, all heat and salt and copper. The thought made me smile.
     Van smiled back and I had to suppress a laugh. Poor fool.
     “I will not be able to visit you for a little while, but I will write you from London.” He kissed me, very sweetly, upon my brow.
     I knew what I must do. I had been foolish to think Caterina would return for me. I must prove myself worthy, free myself from my prison. I will drink the blood of evil men.
     Van I will spare, for Jeröen’s memory, for remembrance of love. In spite of his deception, his disease, his ineptitude, his chocolates, he is a kindly man. But there are others. Like the new orderly who forces himself upon the charity cases. He is a brute. I will have no difficulty seducing him. He will not live long enough to know the gnawing of the syphilitic caterpillar. I will take his seed into my womb, and his blood into my mouth. My skin will run with blue flame. I will burst from the constricting chrysalis of this despised female form a fearsome avenger. I will glut myself on the red nectar. True, I have not Caterina’s fangs, not yet. After I drink, perhaps. Or after I die. And then they will fear me.