It came in through the keyhole.
Adrijan hadn’t plugged it up before going to bed despite the guesthouse host’s warning. Leave the key inside or stuff it with paper, the host had told him in the same voice he’d used to say no overnight guests and no smoking inside. There’s a mora who’s been stalking these shores at night. Feeding on men’s dreams, turning them into nightmares. They can turn into flies, you know, fly right in. The host demonstrated, weaving his arm through the air in sharp, jagged motions.
But Adrijan didn’t care; every day had felt like a nightmare since Sanja died.
He had come here to forget. The tourists with their glowing tans and laughing children had left the island months ago. Now the beaches were empty, visited only by the harsh jugo wind, which pounded and pounded against the rocky shores, bringing salt and sickness and fatigue. Adrijan wandered the washed-out streets alone, hugging his threadbare coat tight. The one Sanja had mended for him the winter before. Sanja. Her name meant “dream”. That’s all she was now. A dream.
Pour one shot of rakija. Swallow. Move a chess piece. Pour another shot, swallow. Adrijan followed the same ritual every night, playing by himself at the table beneath the window. He eventually drifted to bed in a drunken daze, praying to Marija, to God, to whomever would listen, to let him drown in his grief. When sleep finally took him, he dreamed of waves that chopped like knives in the dark. Salty seafoam that sprayed and stung. His wife’s honey-colored eyes widening in fear before the ink-black water swallowed her whole. His empty hands, frail and worthless since the day they failed to save her.
Adrijan woke with a gasp, sucking in a rattling breath. A weight pressed on his chest, and for a moment, he thought he too was sinking below the water. Finally, he thought. Then I’ll be with her.
But when his vision cleared, he saw shadows curling above him in the moonlight. The figure of a woman straddled his body, with long hair hanging over her shoulders.
Sanja, he thought for a desperate moment. But then he blinked, and the woman came into focus.
Eyes like black holes with glowing beams at their center. Full lips tinted blue, as if bruised by the cold. And her hair, long and black as midnight, as death. A chill rippled over his skin as a tendril of it skidded across his chest. Her whole body was wet, as if she'd come from the sea, from his dream.
This was not his Sanja.
Adrijan tried to move, to sit up, but he couldn’t. He lay frozen, heart pounding, as the woman took a deep breath, inhaling his fear. She swung a leg over his body, stepping down onto the floor. As she walked away, her soaked gray dress dragged behind her, leaving an eel of darkness slithering on the wooden floor.
“Who are you?” Adrijan asked just as she reached the door.
The woman turned, her dark lips twisting into a smile. “Your nightmare,” she said, shrinking into a black speck and flying through the keyhole.
The rakija bottle was nearly empty on the table. Adrijan lay with one foot hanging over the bed, exhausted after an argument with the host. He had come to do the laundry and complained about the wet stain on the floor, trailing from the door to the bed. Adrijan had assumed the stain would dry up on its own—it had been several days since his nightmare, since he woke to the woman sitting on his chest. He hadn’t realized it was still there until the host was berating him.
What do you think you’re doing? It’s dangerous to go swimming at this time of year, he told Adrijan, eyebrows raised with concern—or fear. And for god's sake, close up that keyhole or else that mora will suck you dry. That’s what they do, you know. Take your life to live theirs.
Adrijan studied the hole in the door, but he couldn’t bring himself to do anything about it. What life was there to take?
He downed the last of the liquor.
Again Adrijan dreamed of the waves, the biting cold, his wife’s pale face sinking into the depths. Again he reached for her, called her name, clawed at the water. He was so close to saving her—
Again he woke, gasping for breath, the weight pressing on his chest.
Adrijan watched with a distant gaze as the mora took a deep breath then stepped off him. Before she walked toward the door, however, she bent over the table beneath the window. With two long pale fingers, she moved a piece on the chessboard then disappeared through the keyhole.
Adrijan hadn’t taken his eyes off the chessboard for the last hour. Memories of playing with Sanja swam through his mind. In their living room, a fire blazing in the hearth, at a cafe along the sea sipping Turkish coffee, on a train, the green landscape whizzing by. The sweet sound of glee in her voice when she'd win. Checkmate.
It was late. He should sleep. He should plug up the keyhole, like the host said.
But he didn’t.
This time, when Adrijan dreamed of his wife’s death and woke to the mora, he wasn’t surprised.
She gazed down at him with her black eyes. No, not black, brown. He wasn’t sure if it was a trick of the moonlight streaming in through the window, but something was different about her. Her eyes were lighter, warmer, her lips less blue. Her hair wasn’t drenched in water, hanging limply down her shoulders, but was dry and pinned to the back of her head. Just like Sanja used to wear hers. This was what the host had meant when he said mora fed off nightmares; his terror had given her life.
“You look—” He faltered as she swung her leg off the bed.
“Different?” she offered, a sly smile playing on her lips.
Like her, he wanted to say, but he kept his mouth shut.
She sauntered toward the door. Desperation shot up his chest. He didn’t want her to leave so quickly. To be alone again with his thoughts and memories.
The mora paused, one hand stretched toward the keyhole. “What did you say?” Her voice wasn’t cruel or garbled this time, only confused.
Instead of repeating himself, his eyes darted to the chessboard. “Do you want to play?”
The corner of her mouth drooped. “You know what I am.”
Adrijan swallowed, his resolve growing. “I don’t care.”
The mora settled into the chair opposite Adrijan. “No one’s ever asked me to stay.” She reached for the pack of cigarettes and lighter Adrijan had left on the windowsill.
“The host said not to smoke inside,” he murmured as the flame flickered to life.
“He also said to plug up the keyhole,” she said, arching a brow, taking a drag.
Adrijan cast his face down. She was right.
They played in silence, Adrijan pondering every possible outcome before moving a piece. The mora took less time. Before long, she’d checkmated him.
“How did you learn to play?” he asked.
“I haunted a professional chess player before," she said simply, lighting a second cigarette.
Adrijan thought of the host’s words. That mora will suck you dry. “What happened? To him?”
She didn’t answer.
“Were you always a mora?” he asked.
“No. Once I was an ordinary woman.” Her voice was cold, devoid of emotion.
“What was your name?”
Anger flashed across her face; for a moment, she was the demon from the first night, with black holes for eyes. “I don’t remember. Not yet. Play again?”
Adrijan hesitated. “Sure.”
And so Adrijan learned a new nighttime ritual. He found he was willing to pay the price of one nightmare, a few minutes of his heart racing, lungs collapsing, reliving the worst moment of his life, if it meant waking up to her company. If it meant he wasn’t alone.
When chess began to lose its appeal, they walked along the shore, the moonlight shining like broken glass on the water. They went to the bar down the street and ordered mulled wine. They danced the polka, poorly, to the tune of a local band. The other patrons' glances seemed to linger on him, probably wondering what a guy like him, tall and lanky was doing with such a beautiful woman. For the mora had only gotten more lovely each time they met. The host was wrong. She hadn't taken his life; she'd given it back.
As time passed, he stopped drinking during the day, looking forward to the night. The nightmares troubled him less and less—he felt like an actor in a play he was in a hurry to finish; he almost found himself wishing the Sanja in his dreams would sink down sooner into the water so that he could spend more time with the mora.
And then one night, the mora didn’t come. He didn’t dream of Sanja, or crashing waves, or lashing rain. He didn’t dream of anything at all.
He woke just before dawn. His body ached all over. When he stepped out of bed, he nearly collapsed. He stumbled toward the bathroom, examined himself in the mirror. Had his eyes always looked so sunken, his cheeks so hollow?
Had he always looked like a monster?
He pushed the thought away. Sea air. That’s what he needed. He threw on his coat, the one Sanja had mended, and walked out toward the water.
As he picked his way among the rocks, a figure solidified against the horizon. She was there, the mora silhouetted in the morning light. Like an angel, a dream.
He tried to make his way to her, but he could hardly keep his body straight. He fumbled over the rocks, falling, picking himself up. His breath came out in rasps. He crumpled at her feet, too weak to stand.
“I remembered my name,” she said, calmly, as if she’d been waiting for him to come. Her eyes gleamed like honey as she bent down to whisper in his ear. But Adrijan already knew what she’d say.
© 2023 Natalie Kikić