People said that the van der Luyden mansion was haunted. The house sat on forty acres of beach front land that could have been divided into forty separate properties, each of which would have been worth a small fortune, but the owners didn't seem to know or care what it was worth. Every day, the post office delivered several hundred letters from hopeful real estate agents and new multi-millionaires, but none of them ever received a response to their inquiries. Music never drifted over the van der Luyden lawns in the summer and colored lights never twinkled in the tree during the winter. The only signs of life occurred every morning at eight, when the wrought iron gates swung open to admit ten employees onto the property, and every evening at five they opened again to allow them to leave. None of them ever had a word to say about their employer, if such a person existed but the local children did. When asked who lived on the van der Luyden estate, the little moppets confidently answered that it was "a ghost."
The children knew it was a ghost because it had a white face and it only came out a night. That was the textbook definition for a ghost. While the adults respectfully stayed away from the van der Luyden property, the children considered it their inalienable, ethical right to sneak onto the van der Luyden beach at every possible opportunity. The gardeners would shoo them off, if they caught them, but that was hardly a punishment to worry about. The owners, whoever they were, never so much as set foot on the sand to enjoy the sunny California days, so there was nothing to be concerned about as long as the sun was up.
After dark, most of the children had to be inside and in bed anyway, so there was no cause to fear the ghost. Of the brave few who braved parental displeasure, none were quite brave enough to face the ghost. If they saw it coming, they ran and hid in the rocks on the south side of the property, cautiously peeping out from time to time, to watch it wandering solemnly by the water's edge. They didn't dare get closer, because legend had it that the ghost drank blood. Once, they said, the ghost had yelled at a retreating pre-pubescent trespasser and they'd seen the stains of blood in his mouth. If you drank human blood, you could never get rid of the stains. Everyone knew that.
Lately, the ghost didn't yell, it only walked around for a while but it was better to be safe than sorry. The children never strayed too far from the safety of the rocks when the sun began to set. As for the adults, they said to stay off the property and leave that poor family in peace, which was funny because how can someone who has a mansion and servants and their very own beach be poor?
Had anyone ever dared to speak with the ghost, it could have told them all about the van der Luyden's, so that they could decide for themselves whether or not to pity them. It was a story that had been handed down through the family, usually told at bedtime, followed by a kiss on the forehead and a prayer. Supposedly, it had really and truly happened, but so long ago that it was easier to leave it in the nebulous days of once upon a time. It was the story of their ancestor, Jan, who was the very first van der Luyden and founded the family fortune and misfortune and in so doing, was the originator of every van der Luyden story thereafter.
Once upon a time, the kind of time when people still saw fairies in the woods, and little household gods still peeped in from time to time to see that hearth was being properly cared for, Jan was born into a poor family somewhere in Holland. He was blessed with piercing blue eyes and a ready smile, but cursed with bad luck that haunted every task he attempted. If he went into the forest to hunt, the game would be frightened away. If he plowed a field, the soil yielded no crops. If he milked a cow, that milk would be sour. Still, when he walked through the village, his eyes flashed and his smile melted every woman's heart, even if none would consider marrying a man so doomed to failure upon failure.
Jan lived with his mother and younger sisters in a hut made from twigs and mud. In the winter, they shivered and in the summer, they sweltered, sleeping on piles of straw with one blanket to be shared between them. Despite Jan's misfortunes, however, they had just enough to get by, until one spring when the months passed and the ground didn't thaw.
The other villagers said that the faerie queen was angry, and that it was she who blocked the sunlight and kept the plants from blooming. Some of them even cast hard glances at Jan, because he certainly seemed like the most likely person to anger the spirits, but he was more worried about watching his family starve and paid the villagers no mind.
At last, on the May night when it was said that the faeries held their midnight revels, Jan made up his mind. He would go into the woods in search of game, and he wouldn't return until he found it. If that meant that he never returned at all, then so be it. He would be one less mouth to feed at home, and his family would be spared his ill fortune. Despite their suspicions, the villagers tried to dissuade him but he was adamant. His mother wept as he gathered his bow and quiver, but knew that he was not to be dissuaded. He kissed his mother and sisters goodbye, then threw a green cloak over his shoulders and walked away into the forest.
The night was unusually cold and unusually quiet. As the sun began to set, Jan could barely see the leaves on the trees through the mist and shadows. As he wandered vainly through the woods, he wondered if it wouldn't be better to lay down someplace to quietly die, but his family was starving, and he couldn't give up until he had no more strength left to move. He kept his bow at the ready and wandered deeper and deeper into the silent forest.
At long last, Jan caught sight of something shimmering white in the distance, moving between the dark trees. It was only a few minutes before midnight and the moon cast its glow on the misty forest floor. At first, he thought that it was only another trail of mist in the moonlight, but as he crept closer, the white figure resolved itself in the form of a white doe. It seemed a shame to kill something so pretty as that, but it couldn't be helped. Jan raised his bow, but just as he let his arrow fly, there was a great clattering behind him, and the doe disappeared into the mist.
For a moment, Jan stood transfixed, gazing into the distance where his arrow was stuck harmlessly into a tree in the exact spot where the doe had once stood. Behind him, the Unseelie court was closing in. He could hear the sounds of their horses, the cries of the hunters and the howling of their black dogs, but when he looked, there was nothing but menacing shadows on the trees. The voices grew closer, so close that he could feel the heat of their breath and the swish of air across his cheeks as they rushed by, but still he saw nothing but shadows upon shadows, rushing between the trees. Then she appeared.
The Faerie Queen was as pale and cold and beautiful as death. Her eyes glimmered black as coals in the moonlight and her dress was sewn from darkness itself. Her lips were ruddy and parted, revealing perfect white teeth with an oddly predatory gleam. Silver-gilt hair rippled over her white shoulders and she gently brushed it away with long, slender fingers. She gazed at Jan's lovely blue eyes and his gentle mouth and at last she smiled and said, "You have ruined our sport for the night and so must pay the price."
Jan thought that the Faerie Queen meant to kill him, but instead she took his face in her icy hands and pressed her burning red mouth to his. He trembled in her embrace, but succumbed none the less, parting his lips and allowing her to draw him down onto a bed of grass and leaves on the forest floor. His skin ached with the coldness of her, and yet he could not bear to resist her embrace. She pushed him onto his back and took her pleasure like an animal, crying out in triumph as he groaned under her. When her passion was spent, she once again laid her hands against his cheeks and looked into his wondering eyes.
"Once every generation, my kind must pay our debt to Hell in blood. I had meant that blood to be yours, but I have loved you and am loathe to give you up. Nevertheless, if you remain here with me, you will only sicken and die for our food is not mortal nourishment. Instead, I'll offer you a bargain. I will remove the curse that has haunted you, moreover, I will grant prosperity, and every possible gift and accomplishment both to you and your descendants. I only ask that one son of each generation be given to me, so that I might keep a part of you throughout the years."
Jan had little choice but to agree, before he slipped into a deep sleep that lasted the rest of the night. In the morning, when he awoke, the forest was full of game and every arrow that he let fly, struck its target. He returned home laden with more food than his family could eat, much to their great astonishment and joy. From that day on, Jan's bad luck was turned on its head. Everything he touched thrived. His sisters made good marriages and he gave them generous dowries. When a wealthy merchant passed through town, his daughter's eye lit on Jan and within a twinkling they were married and living in a great city. When the city was attacked by raiders, Jan proved himself so valiant that he was given a title and so he moved from a simple hut to a house to a castle.
There was only one blight on Jan's happiness and that was his third son. The child had been born just as the others, with his father's perfect blue eyes, but something was terribly wrong. The child was the cleverest of them and made the most wonderful and cunning things with his hands, but it was hardly compensation for his flesh that blistered and burned until it seemed to be rotting off of his bones even as he still lived. Sometimes, he fell into periods of melancholy and wept for no reason, while at others he would sit very still, listening intently to voices no one else could hear. Jan's wife could think of no reason for it, nor could the doctor, but Jan knew what the explanation had to be. He had promised one of his sons to the Faerie Queen and she had chosen the best of them for her own. The boy died, writhing on the floor and screaming as though he was being stabbed by a hundred unseen daggers, as Jan watched the shadows flickering on the wall and remembered the unseen riders on that long ago May night.
Time passed, and Jan's remaining children thrived, prospered, married and had children of their own. They built on the family fortune, as if everything they touched was blessed, and indeed it was until Jan's eldest son had a child who sang with the voice of an angel, even as the scarring pulled his skin so tight that his face became a grinning skull without a nose to speak of. That boy, too, died in agony, clutching his abdomen and crying that he could feel knives cutting him up from the inside.
At long last, touched by his children's grief, Jan shared the story of his night in the forest and his children in turn passed the tale along to their children. They consulted wise woman and clergymen and prayed to gods both large and small, but to no avail. No one knew how to break the curse. Years passed, and they turned to doctors, who swore they had never seen anything quite like the van der Luyden illness but searched for a cure nonetheless. In time, they learned how the curse could be managed, if never lifted.
Being a cursed family, the van der Luydens kept out of the public eye. They retreated to their cold palaces and silent estates. Their names were never listed among the most wealthy and influential people, even if they technically were. Their daughters never dated movie stars or danced naked on the bar at clubs. Their sons didn't drive drunk or attack pretty coeds at parties. There were people who knew of the van der Luydens, who had seen them moving unobtrusively amongst the placid idle rich, or accepted their generous donations to the arts and sciences, but no one really saw much of them and as time passed, they seemed to fade away. They had fewer sons and their daughters married away until at long last, the entire fortune was left in the hands of the present Mr. Erik van der Luyden who may or may not have been in the habit of taking moonlight walks on the beach.