"Don't touch that, you goose," cried the old lady, and I dropped the necklace back on the counter. My fingers stung as if I'd grabbed a hot saucepan off the stove. "It's an antique, not for sale. I don't include it in the inventory." Scowling she looked like a mean old witch dressed up in a tailored suit of tweed, her grey hair styled in careful waves.
"I'm sorry," I mumbled, "I didn't know." Hired days before, and new to Vienna, I was helping Frau Golding take stock of her dusty second-hand shop crammed into a side street near the Danube Canal. Tenderly she tucked the golden necklace back into a wooden case, where the clusters of red gems smoldered like fire. A few stones were missing, I noticed. Lost, or pried out over the years?
"Please don't put it away," I begged. "I've never seen anything so beautiful."
She laughed with scorn. "Of course you haven't, Livia-from-the-Burgenland -- and you never will again." She waved the open case in front of me, as if teasing a dog with meat.
"Are those rubies?" I asked innocently, and she shut the case with a clack. Teetering up a stepladder, she laid the case on top of a heap of old books on the highest shelf. You'd never notice it if you weren't looking for it. I guess she thought it was safe up there.
"Don't get any ideas in your young head." (I'd told her I was l7). "Those are just cheap garnets we Viennese call 'Bohemian rubies.'"
My cheeks burned. She thought herself superior because I come from Austria's poorest corner, in the Burgenland. Yes, I felt grateful for the job, though it didn't pay much. It came with a room at the top of the stairs (Frau Golding lived above the store), and a skimpy breakfast too.
"That's enough for today." She pushed away the leather-bound book of accounts on the counter. "And remember to take a candle with you when you go upstairs. The wiring in this house has been acting up. I keep candles and matches here." She pointed them out, underneath the counter.
I did what I was told. Sitting on my bed upstairs, I ate a dinner of stale bread and cheese. My cell -- drafty as an old barn -- had no chair or mirror; just a few hooks where I hung my things. The one window peeked down into the yards behind the crumbling townhouses. You can't be fussy when you're young and broke.
I hoped to save some money from this job, and work my way south, to Italy. I'd never seen the sea.
As I lay in my lumpy bed, making plans, I thought I heard Frau Golding talking with a man downstairs. I heard them laughing together, but couldn't make out a word. Strange she'd invite a gentleman over, on a Saturday night. Despite her stylish clothing, nobody could call her attractive anymore; wrinkled as a prune, she walked with a limp. Like her store -- crammed with racks of dusty clothes, and heaps of rotten books and piles of trash, so you could hardly burrow inside -- Frau Golding had seen better days.
Weirdly, the man's voice sounded familiar; warm and deep, like a weatherman's on TV. Had I heard his voice before? None of my business, really, I thought; so long as Frau Golding paid me my wages in cash, as we'd agreed when I answered her newspaper ad.
The hard rain of October battered the roof, rattling my lonely window. I pulled the blanket up to my chin, turned on my side and fell asleep.
* * *
In the morning, when we met in her kitchenette, Frau Golding looked pale and gaunt, as if she'd fallen ill. She'd knotted an expensive, floral pattern scarf around her skinny neck.
"Good morning, Livia." She handed me a plate with two dry rolls. "There's some tea in the pot, but we're out of milk."
"Good morning." I sat down at her tippy table, hungry as a horse. The butter tasted thin and sour, as if she'd mixed it with margarine. I know that trick.
"I'm going to leave you in charge of the store this morning," she said then, like a queen granting me my heart's desire. "I have a doctor's appointment. Frau Horst should drop by, to pick up a box of dishes in blue onion pattern. Otherwise I'm not expecting much."
Frau Golding's blue eyes bored into mine, and I felt myself blushing like a small girl. "Don't worry," I said quietly. "I'm sure I can handle the store." It's not like she had crowds of customers beating down the door. She nodded at me and went limping downstairs, clutching an oversize handbag.
How did she manage to survive? Vienna is expensive. She never mentioned having children. Did she collect fat pension checks?
Around noon Frau Horst turned up, grumbling about the rainy weather, and I packed up her dishes in the pages of old newspapers. After that, nothing happened. Dark rain drummed on the store windows, and dripped into a pot in the corner missing its handles: ping, ping, ping.
After doing a couple of crossword puzzles ripped from the newspapers, I felt bored out of my skin. I thought about running away from Frau Golding and trying to find a better job. I thought about the golden necklace; I couldn't get it out of my mind. Just like Pandora and her box, I guess.
Finally I worked up my nerve and unfolded the aluminum stepladder. Climbing up, I fetched the wooden case from the highest shelf. How strange: the wood felt warm in my hands, almost like a living thing.
When I opened the case, I caught my breath. How the rich, red stones glittered and gleamed, as if glad to be seen again. They put on a show of tiny fireworks, just for me.
Carefully I pulled out the heavy necklace. How would it look around my neck? An oval mirror hung near the counter, framed in faded gilt. Though nobody would call me pretty, my hair is long and thick and blond. The girls at school used to say that I had hair like a horse.
Lifting the necklace to my neck, I felt for the clasp. And then I saw a man in the mirror, with black hair curling to his shoulders and deep-set eyes glowing dark. He raised a pale hand, as if to greet me. I blinked, he was gone.
I shook my head; I couldn't believe it. How could I be imagining things? My mum said I had no imagination. I tugged at my braids; no, I wasn't dreaming. What thoughts was this strange old necklace putting into my head?
Should I put it away? No, I pursued the experiment.
The necklace felt warm and heavy on my skin, almost like a pair of hands. I struggled with the complicated clasp I couldn't see ...
I heard dragging footsteps -- Frau Golding, back? Stuffing the necklace back in the case I pricked my thumb on the sharp clasp. Blood welled and dripped onto the glass-topped counter.
"What are you doing, Livia?" Frau Golding slapped her purse down next to my blood. "I told you not to touch that necklace."
"I thought it was going to slip off the shelf," I lied, blushing to the roots of my hair. "And you wouldn't want to lose it in this clutter."
She laughed in my face, she snatched the case and went limping towards the stairs.
"Where are you going to hide it?" I cried.
"Wouldn't you like to know?" she hissed.
"You can trust me."
"Sure I can," she said with heavy irony, and I thought I heard the distant laughter of a man. A shudder crawled down my spine.
Like many in the countryside I'm a bit superstitious. Now I felt something awful might happen if I didn't run away.
* * *
That stormy night I couldn't sleep; I'd close my eyes and they'd pop open. At least I'd get the day off on Sunday. I promised myself to go see the Prater, and ride on the famous Ferris Wheel. That should get my mind off the nasty old lady, her mysterious friend and her store of junk. Not to mention her golden necklace -- which must be worth a lot of money. More than I would ever earn.
Vienna can be depressing, when you don't know anybody your age. Now I missed the friendly faces and green fields of my hardscrabble farming town.
Had I made a mistake, leaving home? Maybe I should phone my mum? Although we have never seen eye to eye, she had to be worried about me.
I tossed and turned, and at last dozed off, and dreamed of the necklace of Bohemian rubies. I dreamed I was wearing it like a queen, and everybody in Vienna was bowing down and serving me.
Suddenly I woke up with a shudder. The alarm read 2:46, and wind was banging the window open and shut. The rain was raining in.
I started to sit up, to close the window, and there, in the thin moonlight, I made out the figure of a man! Dressed all in dark and formal clothes, as if coming from a funeral, he stood at the end of the bed, staring at me. Then he leaned towards me -- as if to pounce.
I opened my mouth like a hooked fish; I tried to scream, and made choking noises. Calmly he put a finger to his lips, and nodded at me in a friendly way, as if we'd known each other all our lives.
"Who are you?" I managed to whisper.
"Call me Andras."
"Do I know you?"
He grinned like a wolf. "I think every woman on Earth knows who I am."
"Go get the necklace, Livia. I want you to have it now. You are so young and fresh."
"Where is it?" I cried, astonished by my fierce desire to see it again. Now I wanted to lock it around my neck, and never give it up. Yes, I wanted to steal it from Frau Golding. Whose were these evil thoughts? Not mine.
"Go, and look under the old witch's pillow." He smiled with even teeth that gleamed like silver. And he was gone.
What was happening? What was wrong with me? Was I falling sick with a fever?
I hesitated, shivering in the bed. But I wanted to obey.
Barefoot I crept downstairs in the darkness, feeling my way down the rickety staircase, whose crooked boards creaked and moaned.
The old lady's bedroom lay off the landing. I waited for a minute, and heard nothing, nothing but the rain still falling. The dark house seemed to be holding its breath, waiting to see what I would do.
Carefully I turned the marble doorknob, slowly pushing open the door, which squeaked as if trying to warn her. I waited for my eyes to grow accustomed to the faint light of a streetlight, filtering through the heavy curtains.
There, in a carved bed long and large, under an old-fashioned canopy, Frau Golding lay curled on her side, as still as a corpse. Shocked, I saw her bald as a melon. Her fancy coiffure must be a wig.
Stepping towards her then, I brushed against something gauzy, and my heart skipped a beat. I bit my lips, to keep from screaming. Spider webs hung from the canopy, as if she'd been lying dead and rotten in that bed for a hundred years.
Cold sweat dripped down my back. I could hardly breathe. When she muttered, "Come to me, my prince," I almost jumped out of my skin. In her dreams she still was talking to the man or ghost who called himself Andras.
Wishing I'd never hitchhiked to Vienna, wishing I'd never left my home, I felt underneath her velvet pillow, felt the smooth wood of the necklace case. Slowly, slowly, I slid it out; and she cursed in her sleep, but didn't wake. Strange how even now she wore her silk scarf knotted around her neck.
Suddenly I felt the mad urge to wind it tight as a noose -- and strangle her. The fragile old creature couldn't resist. My mum always said I'm strong as a pony ("Too bad you're not as smart," she teased me).
Again I thought I heard the distant laughter of a man, of Andras. Was he some demon, tempting me? I couldn't understand. What did he really want from me?
Well, I'd do no harm to the poor old lady. She did not look long for this world. I may be a dropout, and a nobody. I still had my youth and strength, which nobody could steal.
Turning away, I rushed downstairs with my prize, to the mirror in the shop. The lights weren't working, so I lit a candle. There I donned the Bohemian necklace ... What a surprise.
You don't have to believe me, but I'm telling you it made even me look beautiful, and sexy, like some gorgeous movie star in an Italian film. Unbraiding my hair, I spread it over my shoulders like a golden cape, and the necklace shimmered and glittered and glowed, like a constellation on my breast.
Lighting up more and more, from within, the necklace soon outshone my candle. Ruddy glints of the Bohemian rubies flickered over my skin like fire, making my eyes sparkle like jewels, my loose hair like a golden fleece.
Then all of a sudden in the mirror Andras stood behind me again, like a prince from the olden times, and I saw he was admiring me. He nodded at me, a sly smile curling in his long, pale face.
"Yes, my Livia," he said softly, "that ruby necklace does wonders for you, but the clasp is old and hard to lock. Shall I help you now, my treasure?"
Why was he calling me that? "Yes, please," I murmured, my blood pumping like a racing horse's. I could hardly breathe.
He locked the clasp with a click, and then his warm hands encircled me. Before I knew what was happening, they cupped my aching breasts and I felt his hot lips graze my neck. His hands were pulling my flannel nightie down from my shoulders.
A warm wind wafted through the cluttered store, and my hair floated up around my face. I thought I heard music from below us, violins and flutes together. I thought I smelled a summer garden, filled fence to fence with fruit and flowers ...
"You little fool, what are you doing?" the old lady shrieked, her bald face twisting in agony like a witch's on the pyre. "Give me that necklace; it is mine. I will never let you have my darling."
As we grappled, like fighting cats, I grabbed her by the scarf and pulled it off. Her wrinkled neck skin looked all burned--as if the necklace had singed her. Dark drops came oozing like poison from all around the hideous wound.
Andras laughed and patted my behind. "Poor Olga, pay attention. Young Livia is already mine; she wants me, and you cannot change it."
Frau Golding slapped me across the face. "Get out of here, you country goose! Pack up your things, or I'll call the police and tell them you're a thief and liar. I checked with them already, and you're only l5 -- and a runaway."
Still wearing the necklace in my confusion, I went running up the stairs. In my room I tried to pull the heavy thing off, but could not open the clasp.
I heard the old lady panting up the stairs. "Give it back," she howled, and peering down I saw a candle in her hand.
"Be careful," I warned, but she lost her footing and grabbed for the banister. A chunk of wood broke out of it, and down she tumbled like a sack of potatoes, dropping the candle on the stairs. Andras, unseen, whooped with glee.
Frau Golding's neck lay wrenched, like a poor, broken dolly's. Red flames engulfed the wooden stairs.
No way down. I retreated to my room. Would I burn alive, or choke in the smoke?
"Wait, I will help you," Andras called teasingly. "Only I can save you."
"I don't believe you," I shot back, and shoved open the window. Scrambling up, onto the sill, I climbed out onto the slippery roof.
"Fire!" yelled voices from the neighbor houses. "Call the police!"
I found a drainpipe, and shimmied down it, tearing my gown and skinning my hands and knees. Then I found myself in an overgrown garden. A woolly stray barked at me and chased me. Pulling up a trellis of wilted roses I bopped him on the nose.
Scrambling over an iron fence, I landed in the street. I started running towards the Danube Canal.
How heavy and hot the necklace felt, squeezing my neck like an instrument of torture. It was choking me, burning me; soon I'd have a filthy wound, like Frau Golding.
I thought I heard many women weeping. I thought I heard her voice complaining. She was dead, though; I'd seen her body tumbled on the stairs.
Stopping at a shop front, under a streetlight, I stared into a big, square mirror -- and there, on my neck, the necklace burned with a fiery, new stone.
"No, you can't have me," I shouted. "I'm stronger than her. I'm young--God help me!"
With both hands I ripped the cursed thing from my neck, and ran with it towards the dark canal. And there I threw it out like a brick, and it hit the black water with a loud hiss.
In the grey light of dawn then, I thought I saw a dozen thin phantoms curling off the water, like a mist. Away they flew, scattering like a flock of birds from the hunter's gun.
Shivering, I stood gaping after them. No sign of Andras anymore. At least the rain was done.
A police car slowed beside me and stopped. I looked down into the square-jawed face of an officer. He frowned at me like my grandfather the farmer, till his eyes almost disappeared.
"Miss, are you hurt?" he asked me gruffly. "What are you doing out here alone? Are you one of those performance artists?"
"I am a runaway," I told him, straightening my filthy nightgown. "Can you help me, Herr Offizier? I think I'd like to be heading home -- back to what I understand."