Peering out his apartment window at the happy young couples walking hand-in-hand on the cobblestone streets below, Hansel Sumter had never felt so alone in his life.
In his small, cramped flat that reeked of boiled cabbage and sat atop a busy pub in the tiny Romanian village of Fernași, Hansel was 8,000 miles away from his birthplace of Onondaga, NY.
The bleak winter cold only magnified his sense of isolation. He’d moved here three years ago to pursue a literary dream. He was also fleeing some nasty rumors that had begun circulating about him back home. He was not wanted back in the USA and it was probably dangerous to go back, at least for now. It was no great loss, though. Why go back home when the USA was on the verge of an imminent economic and cultural collapse? Besides, he had never felt welcome at home, anyway.
But neither did he feel welcome here.
Hansel was an odd, egg-shaped 31-year-old man with very few acquaintances and no true friends. He was severely overweight and also prematurely bald due to a nutritional deficiency. Most members of his family—including his mother—suffered from male pattern baldness that Hansel had inherited from mom’s side. His dad, on the other hand, had a full, lush, thick mane of hair until his life was tragically cut short in an electrical mishap while wiring the house with Christmas lights.
Hansel was not an attractive man, and he was painfully aware of it. Because of his unfortunate physiognomy, he was bullied mercilessly throughout his childhood.
But in all of his social media posts, he portrayed himself as quite the ladies’ man and an expert on female psychology. And if you’d never seen a picture of him, you might even be inclined to believe him. He tried to stay in shape, but the crushing loneliness had him seeking refuge in food and alcohol, which made him even fatter and more haggard-looking.
None of the local girls paid any positive attention to Hansel. In fact, only yesterday when he accidentally brushed against a young girl in the hallway of the pub downstairs en route to the bathroom, she smacked him in the face and told the barkeep that he’d groped her.
Hansel reassured himself that he was lucky not to be entangled with such a histrionic slut, anyway. He was fine if the village girls preferred stupid local male peasants to him. Clearly, these girls lacked Hansel’s taste for the exotic. No wonder they were stuck in such a tiny hick town.
It didn’t occur to him that he was stuck in that tiny hick town, too. There were several ironies about his life about which he seemed entirely unconscious.
Hansel had spent much of his teens alone and immersed in sundry nerdy obsessions. He had a college degree in English, which allowed him to maintain a string of low-paying editorial gigs for websites back in the States.
But his latest obsession—the one that brought him here to Romania three years ago in the hopes of striking it big—was Eastern European folklore. The thing that brought him specifically to Fernași was the legend of “The Luch.”
Pronounced “Looch,” The Luch was the village’s mythological bête noire. The creature’s name was based on an archaic Romanian word that meant “unloved.”
The fable had emerged in the mid-1400s. As the legend had it, he was originally a young male villager who’d been run out of town for taking some highly indecent liberties with an underage maiden.
As the story is told, when locals heard the rumors that this young man had defiled an underage girl, they set upon his home late at night bearing torches and chased him into the local woods, but he was able to escape—mainly because he was the only one not bearing a torch and was therefore hard to see.
But The Luch never died. Instead, he lurked deep in the forests, nursing a sick sort of energy from his resentment that kept him alive. In the form of an immortal monster, he’d come out of the woods and enter the village every century or so to seek vengeance against his tormentors.
Since the 1400s, every major catastrophe that occurred in Fernași—natural disasters, famine, war, bacterial epidemics—was blamed on The Luch. From birth, children were taught to be terrified of The Luch.
The last time he’d “appeared” in town was in the late 1800s when an epidemic of scarlet fever killed off a third of the inhabitants.
Residents were on edge, fearful of when he’d appear next. He was well overdue.
Hansel found the legend fascinating. And he hoped to capitalize on it. He had dreams of repackaging the myth as a Hollywood screenplay. He envisioned franchises in movies, animation, and merchandise. Maybe he’d make the screenplay into a novel first. He didn’t care if it wasn’t his idea; but he WAS the first who had the idea to sell this idea to Hollywood. And he wanted to be in Fernași when The Luch returned, so he could maximize his profits based on the new publicity.
Until the 1970s, the only access to the village from the outside world was via a narrow stone bridge—far too narrow for any car—that crossed the river. A two-way paved bridge that enabled auto traffic was finally built by the Soviets in 1973.
Hansel could see that historic narrow stone bridge from his window. And as snowflakes softly fell amid the wintry dusk, he could suddenly see a mob of villagers crossing it.
They were carrying torches—maybe 100 of them. And it was still partially light outside.
Within a few seconds, it became clear that they were headed straight for the pub.
And they were pointing toward his window.
And chanting “Luch trebuie să moară!” (“The Luch must die!”)
The girl who slapped him in the face yesterday must have told everyone that he raped her.
The chants rapidly grew louder. And then he could hear the boots pounding on the narrow wooden stairs leading up to his flat.
It was at that moment when Hansel Sumter realized he would never escape the monster within himself.