It is said that a human is conscious for twenty more seconds when his heart stops beating.
It all began on the evening of October 31st 1765, somewhere along the outskirts of Hamburg in Germany. Not a lot of strange things ever happened in the place where this story is set. Of course, there were certain beliefs harboured among farmers and the commoners but nothing of significance. Tales about witches, monsters or werewolves, but no one ever really believed in those stories. This story though is about something much more delicate. There was a small village and one of its inhabitants was Stephan Grundelbauer. It was the evening of All Hallow’s Eve, a festivity celebrated both among the Catholics and the Protestants. Today simply known as Halloween. Stephan Grundelbauer was staring into his empty cup, moments before it had been filled with beer. He was a farmer but this year’s harvest had turned out to be very poor. A lot of rain and clouds made it difficult for the plants to grow. October was not any better. Fog lay thick over the fields and the woods surrounding the village. The pub and the assembly hall were the only lively places at this time of the year. Everything was covered by a shadow of the clouds and the fog lay like a cloak over the grey fields and the quiet village. Stephan had to take an additional job this autumn. He was transporting firewood from the village to the orphanage which was an half an hour journey by horse. Stephan had already been doing this for about five weeks every night. Nothing special had happened on his journeys so far. Stephan looked up and spotted Patrick the barman.
”I wanna pay!” He said and waved for Patrick.
”Are you sure you wanna go to the orphanage tonight? Strange things happen on All Hallow’s Eve. Especially around cemeteries.”
Stephan threw the coins for the beer on the counter and shakily stood up. He had five pints of beer.
”I know the stories but I don’t believe in magic.”
Stephan headed for the door, slightly afraid. That’s why he had all the beer. After all it was All Hallow’s Eve and there is or should be a certain respect for the dead as a Protestant.
”But do you also know the story about the lady of the hearts?” Patrick asked him.
Stephan turned around again ”No! What about her?”
Patrick looked amused, enjoying Stephan’s nervousness. ”Sit down again and have another beer. ”
Stephan did not move and looked at Patrick annoyed ” You just want me to buy another one! ”
He headed for the door and Patrick shouted ”Okay, okay! Wait! This one’s on the house!”
Stephan sat back down again and Patrick began to tell. ”She was murdered about a hundred years ago. Her name was Katharina Hanen, a protestant killed in the counterreformation. Back then the Catholics wanted to burn her entire family. But she didn’t want them to suffer that terrible death so she stabbed her three children in the heart with a knife and then did the same to her husband. However she could not find the courage to kill herself. Of course she was found guilty and burned at the stake. It is said, before she died, she swore to avenge her family. She would find four fresh human hearts, no matter what religion they were beating for, and bring these hearts to her family. ”
”So what about the orphanage then?” Stephan asked, hardly impressed.
” Well, it is said that her family was buried at the cemetery between the village and the orphanage. The cemetery that you pass by every night.”
”Right… I don’t believe in ghost stories. I see you tomorrow.”
Stephan left the warm glow of the pub and stepped outside into the foggy cold. No one was around. He got the firewood, put it on the back of the horse and began his journey up the hill. The fog grew thicker and thicker and surrounded him from all sides. But that did not put him off. By now, he knew the way by heart. It was not long before he came upon the cemetery. For some unknown reason the fog cleared up and Stephan looked around. There was no wind that could have moved the fog. He looked up at the stars, billions of shining constellations flickered in the night sky. It was quite a romantic picture, Stephan thought and started to continue his journey when he heard someone approach. It was the sound of a heavy dress moving over wet grass, but he could not make anyone out in the darkness.
”Who is there?!” He shouted and looked over to the cemetery. No one answered. He heard a noise from the other side, coming from the woods. The figure of a woman slowly approached. Stephan’s heartbeat quickened. When the woman stepped out of the forest’s shadow into the light of the stars he could see her clearly. She was wearing a red velvet dress embroidered with black pearls, appearing to drip down like tears. Her hair was dark brown and smooth as silk. One of her fingers rested on her lips, implying to the stranger to make no sound. Stephan admired her beauty as she stopped right in front of him. She smiled. Stephan’s breath quickened. He could not believe how beautiful she was. The colour of her eyes were of a deepest green, like the woods in daylight. Surely, she could not be a ghost. She must be an angel.
”Men are so easily seduced. ” She whispered and kissed Stephan.
He could not believe what was happening to him, for this was the sweetest kiss he had ever received. She put one of her cold hands onto his chest, and with the other one, she moved passionately through his hair. Suddenly, something about the kiss changed. The lips that had just been so smooth blistered and Stephan could taste blood in his mouth. Then there was something else. A disgusting taste. He let go of the woman and spat out a rotten tooth. He looked up at the once fair woman but she was gone. Instead, a burnt and rotten corpse stood in front of him. Her bony fingers reached for his chest again. Stephan could not move. The corpse unbuttoned his jacket and with one rotten cold finger she moved over his bare chest. Then, Stephan could feel warm blood trickling down his body. The finger was as sharp as a knife. Violently, the corpse reached for his chest again. Stephan screamed out in pain as the corpse’s hand was inside his chest reaching for his heart. Never had his heart beat so fast. Stephan could feel how a cold hand grabbed his heart, pulled and ripped it out. In the cold air the heart was steaming and hot blood, joining the pearls like tears, trickled down the red velvet dress. Triumphantly, she held the still uncontrollably throbbing heart in her bony fingers. The stars were reflected in its black blood making it look grotesquely beautiful. The rotten muscles of the woman’s face formed a distorted smile.
It is said that a human is conscious for twenty more seconds when his heart stops beating inside his chest. Stephan looked at the woman again. Twenty, nineteen, eighteen. She turned and headed for the cemetery, his heart in her hands. Seventeen, sixteen, fifteen. Stephan fell down onto the grass. He could make out a black trail of the disappearing figure. Fourteen, thirteen. It was his blood. Twelve, eleven, ten. He could hear the horse trot away. Nine eight. Stephan wanted to say something but his muscles were out of his control. Seven, six, five. He twitched. Four, three. It was all true. Two, one, zero.