Nonfiction 2016

Be Afraid of Beautiful Women

By: Victoria Pan

             In the rural hills where Austria, Hungary, and the Slovak Republic come together, life is relatively simple, especially in the sixteenth century. Sheep graze peacefully in verdant pastures under shepherds’ watchful gazes. Women weave tapestries, their hands fluttering like birds over their looms.

             But in the night, those same women lock themselves in their cottages as fog rolls over the countryside and obscures everything.

             Her servants scatter across the fields like ashes, looking for young women to bring home to a castle that sprawls across the crown of a hill. They leave their victims in the belly of this castle to shiver in the dark because these girls know at whose hands they will die.

         They say her lips are crimson, fixed in a charming and horrible smile. They say her arms are white, glowing, supple as a girl’s – though the source of that youthful beauty comes at a fearful cost. The blood of virgins makes a gruesome bath.

         They call her the Blood Countess. A werewolf, a “true” vampire, the Real Dracula. The most prolific serial killer in history.

         They hardly ever call her by her name.

         She was born Erzsébet, a Báthory, a daughter of the wealthiest noble family in the kingdom of Hungary. This was in an era where women were more chess pieces than human beings, and she was engaged at eleven and married at fourteen to the man who would soon become the leader of the Hungarian army, Ferenc Nádadsy. In a few years he would leave for the wars against the Ottoman Turks, leaving his teenage wife in charge of a castle and several villages across the countryside, as well as the hordes of peasants living there.  

           Her cousin was the Prince of Transylvania and the King of Poland, her relative was a cardinal, her husband was the commander of the Hungarian army, and she was left behind.

             People since the dawn of time have attempted to leave some sort of indelible mark on the world, even if it is a scar. The fear of being forgotten is as strong or perhaps even stronger than the fear of death. Her husband was a warrior. As a woman, she could not fight. She could not lead armies to glory and victory.

             But she could be beautiful.   

             So perhaps she did lash out at a servant one day for a pin in her scalp, a hair in her stew, a linen unwashed. Perhaps she slapped the cowering girl, or flogged her. Her arms, or a hand, or a finger, smeared with blood. Maybe afterwards, washing it off, she saw that her skin looked younger than before. And then she knew.

             Vanity alone, though, falls eventually flat. One does not kill 650 people over dewy skin. Love, however, is a more mercurial and terrible motivator.

             There was a reason that Ferenc Nádasdy was chosen to be chief commander against the Ottoman Turks. He was a cruel man, a vicious man, a tempestuous man. There were ugly rumors of castrated servants thrown to dogs, of women stripped, covered in honey, and left to be eaten alive by bugs in the forests, of a young, eager-to-please wife instructed in the art of torture.

             Do you think she thought of her husband, as she slit the throat of young girls? Do you think she sank into her bloody baths, soaking in the scarlet, and looked to the window to see if he was coming home? Do you think that every time an envoy came to Cesjte on the way to Vienna and complimented her over dinner, saying that he would tell Commander Nádasdy that he could be proud of the fact he had the most beautiful wife in Hungary, she narrowed her eyes, smiled, and said, “I hope you do”?  

           But I believe there was another reason. Selfish as vanity, and vicious as love.

             I believe that once her husband rode away to war, once his figure on horseback dwindled away to a speck in the distance, she looked over the vast lands around Cesjte Castle and treasured the sight of it, all underneath her window. All hers. Manipulated into a political alliance of a marriage, raped at thirteen, dominated by her militant husband, Erzsébet had been tightly controlled all her life. The woman was a Protestant in the age of Catholicism, highly educated in German, Latin, and Greek when mastering one language was mostly enough for a lifetime, and even more noble than her husband, so much so that he took on her surname at marriage, not the other way around.  And when she was given an opportunity, Erzsébet Báthory de Ecsed took it.

             Perhaps she had been born a gentle child. But left to her own devices to maintain a castle and its grounds, dozens of villages and its people? There was no room left for gentleness, not after a stifled childhood and a harsh marriage. Only ruthlessness and a thirst for power and freedom.  

             So whenever she flogged a servant for insolence, taxed a farmer for his lands, stole his daughter in the night to become her latest victim, was it a cry for death to keep away from her soft skin and lustrous hair?  

             Were those screams of the tortured supposed to echo off the hills and down to Vienna, where her husband was?  

             Or were they the cry of a woman who stood over her helpless victims, with a grin like a wolf and a whip in her hand, who painted her face with blood like warpaint, defiant and shrieking to the sky that she will have her power and she will not be denied?

             Either way, her husband died owing a great deal to the king, and terrified reports were beginning to crop up while the nobility eyed her land and drooled. And so, an official investigation was conducted, a mockery of a trial given, and she was locked in a room with some slits for air and light for the last three years of her life.

             Not the Blood Countess. Not the Real Dracula. Not a werewolf, or a vampire.

             Just Erzsébet Báthory, a woman who had once been free and powerful and terrifying, trapped in a cage.