Snow is falling outside, and I am thinking about the Samodiva. It seems strange now, but there was once a time when I had never even heard the word. Since then, the Samodiva has infected the course of my life in many ways.
The story was told to me in 1935. War was still a few years off but England was in the grip of a fierce winter. My fiancée Ruby Soames (as she was then) had invited me out to stay with her family over the Christmas period. It was a comparatively small house, set in a wide expanse of snow-dappled land. As we drove up the gravel drive, I saw Ruby’s mother and father waiting for us, framed in the glowing doorway like a couple of phantoms.
Ruby’s mother was a quiet and insipid woman. She was stout and dignified, with a sweet little voice. She always wore black, and today favoured us with a funereal dress that reached her ankles and culminated at her neck in a rippling ruff. With her white skin and sunken eyes, she looked like nothing so much as one of those Victorian memento mori photographs. Mrs Soames gave us a faint smile as Ruby and I climbed from the car, our breath snatched from us by a biting wind.
Ruby’s father was more garrulous in his greeting. He stepped forward and gripped my hand in a tight shake: ‘How are you, my boy?’
‘Well, thank you Colonel.’
He wore a fabulous silk smoking jacket embroidered with an oriental dragon. His breath smelt of hot brandy. They each hugged Ruby tight then ushered us into the house, where the rooms were well-lit and fires blazed in comfort and warmth. We settled in the parlour and enjoyed a brandy as we told them tales of London and made plans for our festive visit.
We had not been there long when the front door was flung open and a young man tumbled into the house. This was Bill, Ruby’s cousin. He beamed when he saw us and snatched us both to him in a great enveloping hug.
Though he was handsome and clean-shaven, with black brylcreemed hair, Bill was bundled up in a furry overcoat at least two sizes too large, and resembled some Appalachian bear trapper.
He joined us in a brandy and told us of his latest exploits. Bill fancied himself an adventurer and had just got back from the Australian outback. This, Ruby told me, was the influence of his uncle.
While these days Colonel Soames’s life was largely sedentary, I knew that he had been quite the daredevil in his time. Recently, the memoirs of his time in Europe during the Balkans Campaign had been published. I made sure to compliment him on the volume’s success as we ambled through to the dining room.
‘Tip of the iceberg, you know,’ said the colonel, ‘there are things I saw that are so horrible and fantastic they could never see print.’
We sat down to dine and as the soup dishes were placed in front of us by two housemaids, Colonel Soames began to tell us the story of the Samodiva. He looked from Bill to Ruby to myself, but never once did he lock eyes with his wife as he spoke.
‘We were stationed in Albania in the winter of 1915. Like yourself, Michael, I am a medical man, and I was operating a field hospital out of an abandoned church. You’ve never fought in a war, Michael, nor you, Bill, and I pray that you never do. But it can do funny things to a soldier’s mind. The Slavs have their own ghoulish folklore just like any other region, but it began to exert an insidious effect on the soldiers. It seemed to infect them like a sickness.
‘We had established a sort of “common room” at the rear of the church, in the vestry, and there the healing soldiers would congregate. I would go in there to talk with them sometimes, and to drink with them.
‘One of the soldiers I encountered was a chap called Anderson. He was missing his right hand. We’d bandaged him up and doped him, but for a while I was afraid infection had set in. He was starting to get delirious. It was touch and go. By November of 1916 we’d been there for close to a year. It felt like the end of the world. Anderson’s recovery was long and there was no chance of us getting out anytime soon.
‘There was a civilian settlement nearby. Anderson used to socialise with them. They took him in as one of their own. And once, we were drinking together in the vestry and he started to tell me a story about the Samodiva.
‘I’d never heard the word, but Anderson was full of it.
‘“They told me about it in the village,” he said. “At first I didn’t believe them. I thought it was just silly talk. But last night I saw it.”