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THE MIDNIGHT CHARIOT 

by Daniela Albu

Somewhere in Transylvania – small town haunted by an apparition



What a wonderful person my grandmother was! In no way could age hamper her beauty. It seemed untouchable. It would not alter under any circumstances. Not even when she was angry. My parents were young and lively and they would dance for the whole night spending the New Years' Eve in the mountains with noisy grown ups. There was no place for me amongst them. So there I was, by the fire, listening to my grandmother's stories together with my two other cousins. My grumpy grandfather pretended not to notice us, but I always felt that he loved us with all his heart. I never knew, at that time, why he would give us such strange and inquisitive looks. Now I know that he saw his past childhood and lost youth in us. 

I was the greatest fan of my grandmother's stories. I would listen to her words, all ears, with eyes wide opened, till late in the night. I loved her looks and her voice. She had eyes like blackberries, so deep, like a dark, mysterious lake. The softness of her voice, I will never forget it. Now I know the secret of my grandmother's beauty. It was her good heart and wonderful soul that made it continuously flourish in spite of age. 

She used to tell us lots of fairy tales combined with true stories from her own life, or from the lives of other people that she knew. She would rarely leave the house. She loved the beauty of the world, even though her entire universe had always been her house and garden. We, the grandchildren, were the apples of her eyes and for us she would always create a world of perfection to compete with the tough one outside. For us she planted the most precious seeds of all, the love for nature and its creatures. 

Of all her stories, there was a special one, which I would always remember with a shiver on my spine. On evenings when the kids would not drink their milk, or would not eat their dinner, my grandmother used to promise a terrifying story, if they would. A story like no one ever heard. Whenever I think about this story, I see my grandparents' house, all white and the warm living room. I can see the windows with the white lace curtains, where all the red geraniums brought from the outside terrace, are crowded for the winter. It smells of baked cake and nuts. The wood is cracking in the fireplace. The blizzard howls outside and I caress the purring black cat comfortably dozing in my lap, listening to the soft voice of my grandmother:

“I am going to tell you a true story which I heard from my great grandfather, a very long time ago. There was a small town in the North. Rarely would the dwellers of the small town go to bed before midnight. Every night, they waited for the midnight chariot to pass by and it was only afterwards that they would go to sleep. It became a kind of ritual. Not even visiting strangers in town would go to sleep until the passing of the chariot. That great grand father, of whom I was telling you about, was just a little boy at that time and he would often peep from behind the curtains of his bedroom. His curiosity fought with his fear. He would never see clearly enough the beautiful black horses in their gallop, and the chariot itself because fear drew him back from the window. One evening, an uncle of his came to town and the uncle was curious to know about the midnight chariot. Although his parents urged him to go to bed, the little boy hid himself upstairs, behind a pillar and thus he could finally listen to the story of the chariot. 

Long ago, a young doctor came in town. He was a handsome and friendly man. The community soon adopted him. One evening the judge called him desperately at his house. Anna, his daughter had pneumonia. Peter treated her and then passed by every evening to watch her recovery. She was beautiful, with a delicate white skin and curly dark hair. He fell deeply in love with Anna. He was shy and afraid of the judge, whom he knew he worshiped his daughter more than anything in the world. But things went well for Peter. Anna also liked him and the judge, offered him a magnificent present, a gorgeous chariot, to thank him for saving his daughter. Peter would now visit his patients in his chariot. He had a kind word for every soul in town. On Sundays, he would take Anna for long walks in the surrounding woods. People often saw them radiant and glamorous happily holding their hands. One day, Peter came to the judge's house and asked for his daughter's hand in marriage. It was the most fabulous wedding one had ever seen. The whole town cheered the young couple and partied for many days. They were the happiest couple on earth... 

It was a rough winter outside when the baby was due. The town was plagued with diphtheria and Peter was blocked by the blizzard somewhere in the outskirts whilst treating a young boy.  With the chariot caught in the snow, he could not go one step farther. Meanwhile Anna went through a terrible ordeal. Helped by the midwife, she gave birth to a charming girl with white skin and dark hair exactly like hers. When Peter finally got home he found his newborn baby. He kissed Anna's frail white hand. But she could not speak. She was extremely weak. The following day she was even weaker and the day after, Peter found her like a statue with frozen eyes and no pulse. He would not admit Anna's death. He could not even cry. He kept looking at her with empty eyes. 
He wanted to bury her in a coffin with a sealed glass lid, so that he could look at her whenever he wished. So they buried her in this coffin. Three days after the burial, Peter had a horrible nightmare. He jumped into the chariot and went to the cemetery. When he got there, he noticed that the glass lid was scratched and that Anna's fingers had blood on them, her face being also scratched. He carefully examined the body and to his despair, came to the conclusion that she had been hopelessly fighting to get out of the coffin, hurting herself in the process. Every single detail led to the clear proof that she had undergone a clinical death and the irony of fate was that he, a doctor, had been unaware of what had actually been the apparent death of his wife. He left the cemetery in total despair almost killing the horses, in what was a madman's race to nowhere, deeper and deeper into the woods. Suddenly he heard Anna's voice into his ear: “Take care of our baby, my love!" This brought him back home before sunrise. He woke up the young stable man to take care of the horses ravaged by fatigue and sweat soaked. People only noticed that he ordered a coffin like all others for his wife and he destroyed the glass lid.

He became a different man. He would often go to his wife's tomb, to tell her about the child and his everyday life. No one dared to speak anymore to the gloomy and frowned man, so different from the Peter they used to know. Rarely could one see him smiling at his daughter but even then the smile would quickly disappear, as if it had been only the feeble reflection of a real smile. She grew into a beautiful woman. The time came for her to marry and in her most hidden thoughts she was happy to leave the gloomy house. After the wedding, about midnight, those in town who were still awake had a strange vision. They thought they had seen the doctor's chariot galloping and there they were, Peter and Anna, happy and radiant, both looking younger and more beautiful than ever, the shining black horses also happily strutting, like for a special celebration. The chariot disappeared into the night. The following day, there was no trace of Peter and his chariot. 

Since then, the midnight chariot with the strange couple, keeps galloping on the dark streets of the small town, taking with it every night, the dreams, illusions and anxieties of its inhabitants. In that glimpse of a moment when it passes, they recall of past hopes, forgotten loves and fervent passions. Children stare with curiosity, young people wish for them an everlasting love as that of Peter and Ana, but happier than theirs. Old people nod. They seem to know everything, but the passing of the midnight chariot is an event for them too. It is a part of them and of the beating heart of their small town where usually nothing ever happens.

A gothic story from the” Grandmother’s Stories” series
Copyright Daniela Albu