When Ana’s grandmother arrived in New York after World War II, she, like many other immigrants, was trying to escape the turmoil of her home country. But Ana’s grandmother wasn’t just fleeing from the wreckage of endless war; she was also fleeing from an ancient curse, a curse that she hoped she could outrun, a curse that would cross the oceans to claim her.
Ana writes to tell me about the wonderful life her grandmother lived and what happened after her death. Ana’s grandmother fled Yugoslavia because of the destruction of World War II and the chaos of the political upheaval that followed. But she also left her home for other reasons. “My grandmother was her own woman,” Ana writes. “She did what she thought was right for herself and her family and she was ostracized for it.”
So Ana’s grandmother left Yugoslavia and made her way to America, to New York City. She led a wild, tenuous existence for a time, but she eventually settled in Brooklyn and raised a family. By the time Ana was born, her grandmother was a proud matriarch.
In late 2000, Ana’s grandmother’s health began to suddenly fade. She went from doctor to doctor, but there was little they could do for her. She was sent home to be with her family and wait for the end.
Ana arrived at her grandmother’s tiny apartment on a rain-soaked afternoon. She was met at the door by a bevy of aunts and cousins. “It seemed like the entire female side of the family was there,” Ana recalls.
In the cramped kitchen, Ana heard the latest news on grandmother’s condition: she not expected to last the night. Ana sunk into a chair and an aunt thrust a cup of tea into her hands.
The aunts and cousins and granddaughters drank and ate, cooked and talked into the evening. They spoke of Ana’s grandmother and the stories she had told them about raising a family in the small apartment, stories about living in New York City as a young woman, stories about her journey across Europe and on to America.
Strangely, however, none of the women knew anything about Ana’s grandmother’s life back in Yugoslavia, before she fled to America. “I thought it was weird that there seemed to be this gap in her history,” Ana tells me. “But then Mr. Paole showed up.”
Mr. Paole was a friend of Ana’s grandmother, a fellow widower who appreciated the companionship of someone who came from the same part of Yugoslavia as him. Mr. Paole calmly greeted the family, expressing his condolences, and Ana could see the sorrow in his face. “I was beginning to think that maybe they were more than friends,” Ana writes.
Talk returned to the early life of Ana’s grandmother and Mr. Paole was asked what he could tell them. “It was weird because he seemed to know a lot, more than we did,” Ana tells me. “But I felt like he wasn’t telling us everything.”
Mr. Paole told a few stories about Ana’s grandmother as a little girl in the old country before excusing himself. As he was leaving, he asked that Ana walk him out. The worsening rain forced the pair to stand together on the stoop under the eaves where Mr. Paole spoke quietly in Ana’s ear.
“First he told me I looked just like my grandmother when she was my age,” Ana recalls, “and I knew that he must have known her for a long time, maybe all the way back to Yugoslavia.” Ana was understandably flustered by the remark, but what Mr. Paole had to say next made her forget her dismay.
“He told me there were stories about my grandmother and what she did back in Europe, back in the old country,” Ana writes. “He never gave details, but he said that my grandmother owed a great debt and that she could not get out of paying, that she could not escape the one who would come to collect.”
But Mr. Paole went on to tell Ana that there were ways she could help, that there were ways to protect her grandmother’s soul, if not her life. “Promise me,” Mr. Paole said, “that you will never leave her side tonight.”
Without hesitation, Ana agreed to the request. “It was weird and I didn’t know what to say but it was like I knew what he meant, even if I didn’t understand what he was saying,” Ana tells me.
Leaving Ana alone on the stoop, Mr. Paole left her with these strange words: “Remember, little Ana, what is superstition to some people is a way of life for others. The dragon will come this night.” And with that, he was gone.
Ana returned to the tiny apartment’s warmth and began making preparations for what was going to be a long night. Her aunts welcomed her decision to stay and everyone settled down to wait out the night.
Ana entered her grandmother’s room and took the little chair beside the bed. A cousin and an aunt stepped out of the room for some refreshment, leaving Ana alone with her grandmother.
Her grandmother’s wizened body was almost lost amid the heaps of blankets and pillows. Ana could barely discern the gentle rising of her grandmother’s chest as she struggled to breathe. When Ana looked up from her chest, she realized that her grandmother was awake and she was staring at Ana through limpid eyes. “She looked better than she had in a long time,” Ana recalls. “Like she knew exactly what was happening.”
With a noisy wheeze, Ana’s grandmother closed her eyes and died. Ana sat in the little chair, stunned at the swiftness of death and unaware of the clawing sound behind her.
Over her muffled sobs, Ana soon felt the strange sensation of being watched. She slowly turned toward the wall behind her and watched as a bizarre figure stepped out from a shadow on the wall. “It’s like the shadow was just a door or something,” Ana recalls, “because this thing just stepped right through it, through the wall and into the room.”
It was tall and gaunt and its skin was bloodless and white. The head was bald and misshapen, with ears that came to a feral point. Over its shoulders, it wore a thick dark cloak encrusted with dirt and brown stains. With gaping eyes of sickly yellow, it leered at Ana’s grandmother. Its mouth opened and a pair of hideous fangs dripped green spittle. The room filled with the smell of dirt and dust, the stench of old bones and open graves.
“I thought, who the hell is this guy coming into my grandmother’s room,” Ana writes. The grotesque face turned to Ana and great clawed hands rose from the cloak. “Screw this guy, I thought,” Ana tells me. “I grabbed whatever was on the bedside table and I threw it at him.”
It was a branch of some kind with leaves and blossoms still attached. Ana hadn’t noticed it before and had no idea where it had come from. She threw it and, to her astonishment, the hideous creature howled in pain and its entire form burst into an inky black shadow that quickly dissolved and vanished.
It was gone and Ana was alone with grandmother again. She wasn’t sure if she should leave the room to tell her family that her grandmother was gone, but her aunts and cousins came crowding into the room, alerted by the screams they thought were Ana’s.
Ana would later learn that Mr. Paole had been seen with a flowering branch of some sort, but no one had seen him enter Ana’s grandmother’s room. “They thought it was flowers, but it was a hawthorn branch, which I guess is bad for things like vampires,” Ana tells me. “It’s old Slavic stuff.”
Was it a vampire that came to Ana’s grandmother as she died, and was it there, as some traditions hold, to collect her soul in the vulnerable moment when it departed the body? Had it crossed the vast ocean and waited many decades to claim her? And what had Ana’s grandmother done to deserve such a terrible curse?
Ana tried to find out, but old Mr. Paole passed away before Ana could find him and question him. His words still resonate with Ana, but their meaning has changed. “I used to think he meant that the monster was the dragon,” Ana writes. “But I wonder now if he meant that the dragon was meant to defend my grandmother’s soul, that it was born that night, you know, that the dragon is me.”