by Ramón García Sánchez
– I –
The old chronicles recount that back in the tenth century there lived in a certain village a feudal knight of immense fortune, the owner of an ancient castle, once the patrimony of an illustrious family that glorified their fatherland with their heroic deeds. Somehow, that castle, the living memorial of so many traditions, ended up in the hands of a stranger.
The people of the neighboring towns rarely saw the new Croesus who inhabited the castle; and even in the very village where the venerable towers of his majestic dwelling rose up above the humble huts, no one knew the man’s origin, or his family, or even his name. He appeared only rarely, and even then he never exchanged a single word with anyone. So old that he was bent nearly double by the weight of his years, always austere and somber, his countenance seemed unpleasant at first sight; and this, together with his somewhat strange and mysterious habits, made everyone view him with a respect that degenerated into exaggerated fear.
But the strangest thing of all was that, outside of its singular owner and a few servants, no one else was known to live in the castle; and yet, from time to time, but always at the midnight hour, the interior of the vast dwelling would suddenly come alight, and from it would emerge confused shouts and voices of merriment: the noise of glasses and bottles crashing against each other, at times a sweet and gentle melody like that of an improvised concert, lilting sighs, the laughter and voices of women in joyous orgy. A cacophony, in short, that shattered the tranquility and disturbed the sleep of the peaceful inhabitants of the village, who could not figure out how to explain such a ruckus.
It would have been useless to try to find out the cause of such festivities; no one had any contact with the ancient proprietor, and besides, the doors of the castle were kept constantly closed. As for asking the servants—the only avenue that could be attempted—everyone understood that it would be futile to approach them. They would only say that they never answered the slightest question that was put to them, in blind obedience to their master’s orders.
The repetition of such scenes began to alarm the villagers, all the more so as these nocturnal festivities generally coincided with the disappearance of some young man from the place, or from the nearby towns.
“If at least,” the people said, “this were happening with unmarried girls, one would almost understand the situation, and blame it on the lewd passions of those high and mighty noblemen with their droit de seigneur. But for men, especially the youngest and healthiest ones, to disappear as if by magic, like the earth had swallowed them up? For that there is absolutely no explanation, unless the old lord is the Devil himself.”
But this was as far as the comments dared go. Everyone was careful not to let their suspicions and misgivings show, lest it reach the ears of the feudal lord, whom they feared more than any fiend or demon.
Things went on this way for some time, during which the pattern of a raucous scene while darkness ruled, followed by the disappearance of some gallant youth, was repeated more than once.
“Look at this mess!” said the young women to each other. “If this goes on another year we will all be left old maids… It’s a real disgrace, to rob us this way of our boyfriends and sacrifice us to live as spinsters!”
As we have already said, these exclamations, and others of the same kind, failed to arouse the desire for vengeance, not even in those poor parents that overnight found themselves without their beloved sons. They wept, yes, and cursed their misfortune. At the most, they managed to make their neighbors share in their suffering; but that was all.
It’s well-known that at that time, feudal lords ruled as they pleased over the life, property, peace and honor of their poor vassals, whom they tyrannized cruelly, treating them worse than they did their hunting dogs. Ah, the good old days when people would humbly submit to mandates from above, even those of a shameful despot! The same doesn’t happen today; but instead it’s said that we’ve progressed, and left the one for the other.
– II –
Now as I was saying, the mysterious ritual reoccurred again and again, which worried the young unmarried women most of all, since it affected them more than everyone else. They watched the flower of their youth and beauty wilt away little by little; with not a kind and handsome lad to be found for love or money, at any cost. And no one could say they weren’t looking hard enough.
Their consternation grew to such a degree that they started to meet secretly, two at a time at first, to share their confidences. Eventually, by the time a sufficient number of young women in this league of lovelies had gathered, they resolved to seriously join forces against the executioner of their future happiness, and of their vocation to matrimony, as mandated by the Holy, Roman, Catholic, and apostolic Church.
We already know what conspiracies are like, always fearsome and ever prone to dire consequences, even in the case of men who are capable of joining the virtues of upright judgement and healthy discernment: men who are often guided by noble, generous, dignified, and patriotic sentiments. How, then, would a feminine conspiracy be, one dominated by the common instinct and desire for vengeance?
Surely there will already be more than one reader who will pity the situation of that feudal lord, so great and powerful, against whom all the young women of the village and its environs were about to revolt.
They met, then, as I said, several times, and swore a mutual oath, in case the weakness of one put the others in a serious predicament. But women are not usually prone to that kind of defection, and indeed there was none; all of them were equally invested in the cause.
After serious and judicious deliberations, in which the women demonstrated the most excellent oratorical gifts and uncommon abilities, to the point that their meetings, by their calmness, common sense, and remarkable accord, could have put to shame more than one of our modern Congresses, they resolved that one of them, designated by fate, would immediately become a man from that day forward. That is to say, and as a clarification for some alarmed spirit, that she would have to take on the habits, mannerisms, and customs of a man; to dress like a man, to live their life and therefore fraternize with men. The ordeal would be rather difficult and more than a little risky; but the cause of fair humanity was on the line.
The lots were cast and the misfortune fell to a pretty blond young woman of some twenty years of age. Her name was Maria, but her friends called her Azucena (Lily) because of the extreme whiteness of her complexion; and since this name is more poetic, and after all what I’m telling you is pure fairy tale, I will call her Azucena, if my readers don’t mind.
Azucena made the sacrifice, no small one for a woman, of cutting her hair in full view of her companions, whether as a display of her bravery, or because the salons reserved for ladies were unknown to the hairdressing establishments of that time, I don’t know. She also stripped off her lovely scarlet skirts, or whatever color they were, and very soon her natural charming appearance disappeared beneath a pair of coarse, ugly, loose, dun-colored wool breeches, and a sheepskin cloak draped over her shoulders. Her pretty silk slippers gave way to wooden clogs, and she covered her shorn head with a fur cap.
The transformation was perfect; she looked like a bear-hunter from the Alps. To all appearances Azucena had always been a fine-looking young man, and if one noticed a certain roughness in his handsome countenance, it was the effect of the clothes that he wore.
The young woman who was acting as the president of the group (and without doubt she’d been elected to such a high post because she was as talkative as a parrot) stood up with a certain air of superiority, assumed a conspicuously professorial pose, embraced Azucena effusively, and presenting her with all due ceremony to that feminine crowd, said with a grave voice and solemn accents:
“My sisters,” (back then women still didn’t dare to address each other as ‘citizens’) “the hour that we have all longed for has arrived: if there are truly critical moments in the life of the people,” (I imagine this is how she would begin her speech) “it’s also true that there are much more solemn ones in the lives of women; this is one of those moments. This handsome lad you see here, previously the best and most beautiful flower of the Hesperides,” (the president was waxing metaphorical) “is the one chosen by Providence to avenge us and our sex for the outrage committed against us by that filthy-rich aristocrat.”
“From today she will attempt to catch the eye and excite the curiosity of the servants of that tyrant; she will loiter frequently around the castle and allow herself to be caught in the ambush that they will lay for her. Once inside the fortress, after finding out everything that happens there, she will seek the means to get rid of that murderer and gain us our vengeance. Meanwhile, we will await her return in complete inaction for fifteen days; but after this time, and assuming that she has fallen victim to her daring, this scene shall be repeated again, and another of us will be tasked to replace her. This will go on until we have succeeded at our sacred venture, or none of us are left alive.”
These words gathered unanimous applause; courage against all trials was manifest on all their faces. It’s true that no one manifested it more than Azucena; she looked truly heroic. The president demanded silence and secrecy about all they had discussed with the same solemnity as at a Masonic lodge. The session concluded, the women’s assembly dissolving on its own without the need of public force, and Azucena put her first tasks into action.
The men of the place suspected nothing, because they hadn’t been enlisted; they didn’t know, then, that a secret society could exist so near to them, and they couldn’t give themselves the pleasure of repeating to one another every day that all hell was going to break loose. And as it seems improbable, if not absurd, to assert anything else concerning Azucena’s family, who would necessarily notice the change, I should say that the brave young woman was an orphan and had no family in the world. Her companions, taking this into account, used to say that there could be no guile in her face, and of course one sees in this the hand of Providence.
– III –
Consequently, and as the conspirators had foreseen, a few days after that mysterious meeting, the lovely Azucena was captured; but as that enchanting Amazon was already prepared for such a sudden attack, this caused her no surprise, and she let herself be conducted easily away, to the great satisfaction of her kidnappers, who were none other than the servants of the castle’s master. The servants kept saying under their breath: “At least this one didn’t faint or beat us about our heads,” which is to say that sometimes those very things had happened in similar situations.
They came to a sort of moat that had formed naturally around the castle, passed over a drawbridge, then crossed a wide, grass-covered field, in which two beautiful chargers gamboled freely. Finally, they arrived at a kind of vestibule, at whose door waited a feeble old man, simply dressed, who looked like a moneylender from the good old days.
Azucena looked at him with a certain curiosity, mixed with a vague fear, which increased when she heard him say:
“Magnificent prey; the lad pleases me. Come now, take him up to his room and prepare him for his wedding night.”
Upon hearing such mysterious words Azucena shuddered, and a slight pallor washed over her face; but recovering quickly from her fright, she followed her guides without hesitation. After ascending some stairways and traversing several corridors, they left her in a luxurious and fancifully adorned dressing room, better suited to a prince of royal blood or a fabulously wealthy bride on her wedding night.
“We’ll bring you your clothes,” one of the surly servants told “him” in a somber, cavernous voice. “So take off the ones you are wearing, because you obviously won’t please your bride looking like that; we’ll be back in an instant to help you dress.”
My readers can imagine how serious the situation was for poor Azucena on hearing these words. Her modesty would be revealed by such an examination, and there was no choice but to obey; they would soon discover her deception, and the Law of the castle must severely punish an offence of such nature. However, I have to say to the credit of the young woman, that in spite of weeping copiously and suffering horrible distress for a few moments, she didn’t regret having undertaken such a great and risky venture; perhaps because there was nothing she could do.
The servants returned with her new clothing, of fine silk and precious lace, and Azucena skillfully kept them from watching her as she changed. How she managed this, which for her was so crucial, I haven’t figured out; I only know that women know a lot and get what they want from men when they have the urge to. Azucena looked at herself in the mirror, for in that room was a beautiful Venetian looking glass: she was enchanting. I’ve not seen the cut of her suit, because the fashion magazines of that era haven’t reached me, and so I can’t go into details; but my imagination assures me that it was the most beautiful thing that one could devise, and that some time later it was copied by the famous pageboys of the cruel and tyrannical Louis XI.
Azucena spent the rest of the day alone, lunching in that same dressing room. She did not see again the old man who had received her, and who had made such a bad impression on her; this surprised her quite a bit. But when night arrived and she was deeply absorbed in her meditations, the door opened and there appeared in the doorway the graceful and arrogant figure of a young woman whose beauty would have dazzled the sun, if the sun had been able to stop in its tracks to look at her. Without saying a word, but with the utmost attention, she took Azucena by the hand and led her through magnificent halls and brilliant galleries to a marvelous drawing room that lacked nothing that one would see in the sumptuous palaces spun out of air by the brilliant imagination of Scheherezade.
On arriving at that enchanting paradise, the mysterious young woman withdrew, after making a graceful curtsy, and when Azucena was about to ask herself what such a sudden disappearance meant, she saw another young woman, much lovelier than the first, carelessly reclining on a luxurious divan of white satin and contemplating Azucena with extraordinary curiosity. Signaling that Azucena should sit by her side, she said, with a voice as sweet and melancholy as the harmonies of the prophet King:
“Good heavens, such a gracious and handsome gentleman has never set foot in this drawing room.”
Azucena, with a free and easy air, responded admirably to such agreeable flattery; she began to comprehend her situation and played her role to perfection. The mysterious young woman, a veritable Siren of that oasis, lavished on Azucena anew the most flattering words, and concluded by telling her, with all the fire of an ardent passion that couldn’t be feigned:
“Oh, noble young man, I love you!… Vow the same love to me… and we shall be completely happy.”
“Has she always said the same thing,” the brave Azucena said under her breath, “to all the ones who have trodden this carpet before me?”
The mysterious woman, interpreting Azucena’s silence favorably, poured endless questions upon her, which the ersatz youth answered with charming simplicity, undermining the impressionable lady’s judgement. She had the two of them served an exquisite dinner, which included all the delicacies and wines one would expect at the finest banquet at Lhardy. At the end of the meal, with the utmost coyness, she offered Azucena a glass of exquisite Bohemian crystal, filled with a golden liquid, saying to her with enchanting sweetness:
“Let us drink to our coming happiness.”
“Here is is!” our heroine said to herself. “This liquor is the poison that will put me to sleep for eternity, to finally fall victim to the whims of this girl or of that cunning old man.”
And she raised the liquid to her lips; but in the same instant she felt the burning hands of the beautiful young woman, who tore the glass violently away, and with a great effort, said to her:
“No… don’t drink it. I want you for myself alone, because I love you… come, come, I will explain this mystery to you, and we will surrender ourselves to the joys of our pure love.”
The situation, it seems, was going to be a bit delicate for Azucena.
– IV –
They passed into a little nearby sitting room, perfumed with fragrant aromas. The half-light from an opaque lamp lent it an indescribable enchantment. Once there, the mysterious young woman declared to Azucena that she had fallen hopelessly in love with her, because she was not used to seeing anything but boorish men and coarse peasants.
“Don’t believe,” she added, “that I have ever loved another man. All the others who have come here only briefly heard words that drove them mad, but which my lips only uttered to lull them into a sense of safety, until they drank the same liquor that I offered you, subjugated by the harsh commands of my father. But now the love that you have inspired in me has freed you. Yes, because you must know that my father has determined to live on forever; he has consulted ancient scrolls, and they have told him that only human blood can renew the life that age snatches irrevocably away. For this, he has kidnapped many young men, and once he has them asleep, thanks to my caresses and the cursed potion that I offer them, he sucks their blood, making a tiny incision in some part of their body, and leaving them after a few days nearly lifeless and drained.
“However, I assure you that they are all alive, thanks to my care and that of my maidservant, whom you have already met. My father knows nothing of this. The idea of the crime committed against these men horrifies me, and this is why, without the power to disobey him who has given me life, I have tried to obtain God’s pardon by saving them.”
Upon hearing these revelations, Azucena realized that her mission was nearly accomplished, and only a little cunning was required to achieve it. So she made the greatest protestations of love to the young woman, and promised to marry her and free her from her father’s yoke, if she would only tell Azucena where she had hidden away all those victims of the horrible vampire.
The young woman readily believed Azucena’s words, and put at her disposal a veritable army of men. Inspired by Azucena’s example, they surprised the tyrant with all his servants, destroying the fortress that until then had seemed impregnable. In doing so, they restored tranquility to many families who had mourned their dead sons, and happiness to the young women who had believed themselves condemned to live eternally unwed.
The old vampire did not survive this incident. And although his daughter, as my readers might suppose, did not marry Azucena, she nevertheless lived by her side as a beloved sister.
Droit de seigneur… In the Spanish original, the peasants refer to Horca y cuchillo (literally, ‘gallows and knife’), the right of feudal lords to punish their serfs even to the point of capital punishment. Droit de seigneur (literally, ‘the lord’s right’) refers to the supposed right of feudal lords to have sex with any of their female serfs, in particular on the woman’s wedding night. The two aren’t quite the same thing, but droit de seigneur seems more common in English, and feels more appropriate in this context, anyway.↩
finest banquet at Lhardy … Lhardy, established in 1839 by Emilio Huguenin Lhardy, is one of the oldest restaurants in Madrid. It is said to have introduced French haute cuisine to that city, and is still operating to this day. I’ve been there; it was delicious.↩
First published in El Periódico para Todos, July 17, 1875 (Año IV, Num. 29).
Text sourced from Ganso y Pulpo.
Translated by Nina Zumel
This tale is a literary variation of folktale motif ATU 514: “A Shift of Sex“