Allen Woods' stories have been published in Lost Worlds, Pablo Lennis, Of Unicorns and Space
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by Allen Woods
Jan. 21, 1898
With unparalleled abashment and hesitation, I humbly admit that you were correct. Certainly you recall that I scoffed at your suggestion to relocate, but now that I have arrived in Tennessee, I concede to your wisdom. Fiery Fork is a quaint village in the foothills of a small mountain range we call the Smokies. Have you ever heard of them? I must opine, they do not seem very impressive when compared to our western ranges. Still, the clean air and warmer weather of the South suits me well. I shall begin work on a new guide soon, but first I must settle into my new estate. Yes, Edward, an estate.
Edward, if you ever muster the courage to cross the pond, you must see this house. It is beyond my wildest expectations. Perhaps I would have moved to the South long ago had I known such inexpensive, yet luxurious, accommodations were available. Here, I can live as a noble lord, quite the change from my stature and status in the city. Local residents dub my estate antebellum, which I can only assume refers to the great war. As you know, I am too young to remember the conflict between the states, despite your contention that I behave like an old man sometimes, but people in the South have not forgotten it at all. They still remember the war and speak of it every day, despite the current preoccupation with Spain. Any talk of war, past or present, raises piebald splotches on my cerise face. To my great pleasure, this estate is somewhat removed from Fiery Fork. It stands in the middle of the dense forest some twenty minutes by horseback from the town. Hopefully, discussions of conflict will not pass the town limits.
The exterior is remarkable. The finest wood, sturdy despite years of inclement weather, lines the walls. Hand carved shingles form sloping gables along the roof and a balcony stretches from end to end across the second story. The interior is no less impressive. It has nineteen rooms and a vestibule much like you are accustomed to in London. Grime coats every floor, a consequence of age, but I see the fine craftsmanship of the marble tiles and my voice echoes off the high ceiling. My tallest armoire will dwarf in comparison to the estate's smallest walls. If I can garner the funds, I will hire women from the village to scour this entrance hall. Already, I imagine its cleaned effulgence.
A svelte red carpet lines the broad staircase beyond the vestibule and you can only imagine my joy when I examined the thick banisters. English Oak! The finest wood I could fathom. I am quite pleased and will painstakingly clean every smudge and cobweb from this beautiful home, with or without assistance.
The second floor is far from as luxurious as the vestibule, but I could not expect it to match such quality. There is a small den, however, with a plate glass window facing the forest to the north. It will serve well as a reading room and, eventually, as a place to write. I know where I will put my desk and the fine chair you sent me last year. They will go nicely before the den fireplace even though, much to my surprise, I discovered a wall of bricks sealing the hearth.
I cannot conceive why the previous owner, a man of some ill repute I have gleaned, sealed the fireplace. It's lacquered, cheery-wood mantle is quite beautiful. When I touched the brown bricks, however, I heard a slight scratching behind them. Pressing my ear against the cold brick, I heard the din very distinctly. Light scratching, like something trying to scrape its way out. I believe my hair stood on end, prickled needles dancing across my neck. I fear the worst. You know my opinion of vermin. I shudder to think an infestation of rats has invaded my abode, but I should have expected some difficulties with a house of remarkably advanced age. I will venture into the town soon (these Southerners call it a village) and find someone to deal with the vermin if the scratching persists. This task will arrive soon, I worry. The scraping grows louder as I pen this letter. Long, drawn out screeches that forced my hands over my sensitive ears. Shuddering, I shall resolve to ignore the vermin as best I can.
I received the Arthur Conan Doyle books before I left Baltimore. As always, I thank you dearly. Fine books, especially mystery, are so difficult to find on this side of the pond. And you know how I adore mysteries. I will go now, Edward, and give you your rest. Of course, all the talk in America is about the hostilities with Spain. You know my opinion of fruitless violence and I pray every night that it will not come to war. I pray long and hard, Edward, but if war does come, I take solace in the knowledge that its fervor may not reach the secluded town, or village if you prefer, of Fiery Fork. Again, thank you for your wisdom.
Feb. 1, 1898
As my initial supplies dwindled, I forced myself to venture to Fiery Fork in hope of restocking my shelves. Undoubtedly, the people of the village know that I reside in the old house. I have heard footsteps outside my windows during most nights, people passing through the forest I would assume, and they must see the candles I burn at all hours.
As I rode my horse into town, I nodded and acknowledged the people I passed. They are a motley lot, some men wearing poorly tailored suits and others draped in rags. Destitution plagues this community like a summer fever. I see it everywhere, but try not to stare.
Most of the locals smiled at me and went on their way, but one charming woman cowered as I rode past, bustling away with an infant child swaddled in her arms. You might have thought she'd seen one of the ghosts these Southerners are so fond of inventing tales about. I, as my father and his father before him instructed, remained pleasant and wished the skittish woman good day as she fled. Her tattered, chambray robe flapped wildly in the wind as she sprinted. How odd. I do not believe I have done anything to engender such a curt reaction. Nevertheless, I am resolved to ignore the eccentricities of others.
When I arrived at the general store nearest the center of town, I encountered a much more pleasant fellow. His name is Malley and I quickly gathered that he is of Irish descent. I never knew many Irish in Baltimore, but it appears as though the Irish entirely populate Fiery Fork. There is another town a half day's journey west of here, called Hazard I believe, and I have expeditiously learned that the Irish population of Fiery Fork dares not step a foot closer to Hazard than need be. As I sauntered between the musty shelves of seeds and farm tools, stealthily taking mental notations ala my mentor 'Holmes', I overheard Mr. Malley referring to Hazard as 'that damn village.' The gentleman he was speaking with did not laugh. I can only assume that whatever rivalry exists between the two towns is genuine.
Edward, being British, I am confident you can enlighten me to the manners and customs of these people. The Irish seem genial, but why would they harbor such animosities for another town?
As the other patron departed, Malley welcomed me into his shop and I pray that I did not gawk at him for terribly long. Malley is unlike any person I have ever seen, almost as comical as the caricatures in the London Times. Nary a hair adorns his head, but broad red muttonchops line his bulging cheeks. His face is round like the moon, as is his stomach, but his girth is understandable. I gather that Malley does not engage in any activities besides siting in his shop all day.
"You're new to Fiery Fork," he ventured.
I extended my hand and he shook it haughtily. "Correct. I am Thomas Callahan of Baltimore. I purchased the estate north of town."
"The old Carpenter place."
"Yes, I believe so," I replied and a consternated expression descended on Malley's features. I have never witnessed such sullen gloom. His gaze lowered and he appeared timid to look into my eyes.
"Fine place," he mumbled and I wondered if he withheld something, a vital shard of knowledge that might interest me. As always, Edward, I am a detective!
"Is there something you would like to tell me? About my land perhaps?"
"Not yuir land," Malley corrected me. Such a fantastic accent! "The Lord's land. We're only tenants."
Not wishing to dispute my new acquaintance, I smiled and conceded, "I suppose so." Still, I ponder what he meant by Lord's land. In Fiery Fork there is only one Lord and He is God. "Is there anything I should know about His land under my estate?"
Pressing his bulging, chaffed lips together and breathing audibly, Malley dropped his eyes. Folds of flesh bundled beneath his chin as Malley exhaled shakily, almost rapidly. "No, sir. I guess not. No, sir. Nothing worth mentioning."
Something's afoot, Edward. I'm certain of it.
I purchased my supplies, thanked Malley, and he invited me to call on him should the need arise. I thanked him with an extra coin from my meager pittance and departed. Overall, he's a fine, working gentleman, a true blooded American carving his niche in the world. I like Malley, despite his lack of forthrightness, but my encounter with another local resident proved far less satisfying.
A woman, not the hysterical one I mentioned previously, waited for me outside Malley's store. She stood in the middle of the road, orange and brown dirt swelling into plumes around her ankles. Her gray hair swayed in the breeze like a silken cobweb and she had the most unusual eyes. I do not believe she blinked once, reminding me of a featureless Greek statue. After packing my supplies onto my steed, I finally asked her, "May I assist you, madame?"
She said nothing, the canyon wrinkles of her face growing together, and for a moment I thought she had not heard me. The clack of trotting horses and ambient conversation created a strident din. Then she raised her shriveled hand and, restrain your chuckles Edward, her fingers crackled as she extended them. They were as frail as a hand from the grave. I know you think I embellish far too often, but if you only could have seen her. The resonance of her ghastly fingers throbbed in my ears, pounding against my brain, and I felt meek, shrunken by her eldritch presence. I do not hesitate to call her a hag. It is the most apt description.
"You live in the old house now," she croaked, her voice deep, foreboding.
"Yes. You may call on me at anytime, madame." I always attempt politeness, especially when beginning work on a new guide. I wish to remain friendly with my new neighbors.
Her lips spread apart and a saw that she had only three yellowing teeth in her mouth. They clung to her gums like bucked rat teeth, two on top and one crooked incisor along the bottom. My sympathy went out to this wretched woman, but she did not to want it. Even though we have never met previously, I contend she held a tacit grudge against me. Heat braided from her eyes to mire and I sensed the animosity. She spoke, "A curse be on that house and you shall never find trace of me near it. Or anyone else with any sense."
Being a gentleman, I did not refute her, but instead wished her good day. I cannot fathom what she meant and I tried to ignore her. The only curse on my home is age and accompanying thick layers of dust. The hag soon departed, probably to return to her witch's cauldron, and Malley told me to ignore Ms. Rourke. By all estimations, she has lived longer in Fiery Fork longer than anyone else and she harbors a few outlandish ideas from the old country. I assured Malley that I held no grudge against Ms. Rourke in spite of her malicious words. My journey home was cold, an icy breeze blowing in my face, numbing my lips.
I have finished the second Doyle book. Holmes is amazing! Perhaps, one day, if I bore with writing these travel guides, I will write a mystery. Meanwhile, I must unseal this fireplace. The house becomes very cold at night and I miss a warm fire.
Feb. 13, 1898
Malley has finally located a mason willing to examine the barrier erected before my fireplace and I cannot thank him enough. Many times in the past week I have sought to contract a mason, but they remained reticent about traveling to my estate. I informed them that it is a very short journey and I could provide them the use of my horse. Nevertheless, every mason I located refused to venture to my house no matter what price I offered. It was a discouraging experience and I began to wonder if I had offended the fine people of this town. Malley is well natured and I do not believe I have impugned him. Sincerely, I believe that a pig rolling in filth could not wipe the ever-present smile from that man's face. Thus, I am left with only one explanation. Ever more I believe some of the tales I have heard concerning the previous owner and assume that many people in Fiery Fork associate me with him. Until now, I had assumed most of the stories about Mr. Carpenter were embellishments.
Have I told you about the enigmatic Jonathan Carpenter? I do not believe so. He disappeared many months before his heirs sold me this estate. Many of the locals attribute his mysterious vanishing to the work of a banshee or some other creature from the dark depths. I scoff at such suggestions. Truly Edward, the efforts these people go to to ward off noxious spirits would astound you. Even my good friend Malley paints his porch ceiling blue. He claims it keeps the demons out of his house. Really, they are quite superstitious.
I fear that Carpenter, though, may have had dealings with characters more unsavory than any malefic spirits. I have gleaned that men visited his house late at night and that he often walked through town with mussed hair and his face unshaven for days. Until a few months ago, Carpenter had comported himself as a gentleman should and I thus conclude that his sanity must have suffered from a malady. I am not a doctor and cannot guess at the cause, but by all accounts, Mr. Carpenter behaved erratically.
The locals have told me that he ambled through the forest late at night, supposedly searching for a stranger that had harassed him at his estate. My opnion Edward, and perhaps I have read too many of the books you send me, is that Carpenter became involved in underhanded business dealings and perhaps his partners stole him away on a tenebrous night. Or, possibly, they frightened poor Carpenter until he could no longer withstand their torturous needling and during one of his evening romps, he never returned home. He simply walked into the forest and kept going. Well, those are my thoughts on the subject. Feel free to critique my logic, as I'm certain you will. Whatever the cause of his disappearance, I sense that my neighbors still fear his memory and his estate.
The mason Malley sent was but a boy, an apprentice. He examined the barrier, far too briefly in my lay opinion, and declared that he could not remove the bricks without damaging the jambs lining the fireplace. "What do you mean?" I asked him with blatant contempt.
"Won't come out sir," the boy answered, shaking his head and dribbling perspiration on my floor. Strangely, I considered the chamber cool, a light breeze wafting through the window. Yet he sweated like a mongrel during the height of summer, shaking himself dry and showering my home with filth.
"That's not an answer," I reprimanded him.
"Can't be done, sir. Both jambs and part of the wall would come out with it."
"Nonsense," I scoffed. "Chisel through the layers. I don't care how much of a mess it creates, but certainly you can break the bricks into pieces and remove them." The boy paused at that point, ineffectually scouring his mind for a response. He didn't have one because I was correct. I believe the taciturn lad might have sweated his way through the floor if the scratching hadn't started again.
I've heard the rats many times in the last few days, but never as loudly as they scratched on this afternoon. I cannot fault the boy for jumping in fright because even I gasped for a breath once the eerie clawing penetrated the wall. The resonance permeated the brick like sand scraping the hull of a clipper. Long grinding sounds traveled up and down the length of the fireplace and I heard small chunks of the brick breaking apart on the rat's side of the wall. Needless to say, the possibility of the rats chewing through my fireplace sent shivers down my spine. You know how I detest vermin, but the boy suffered a more adverse reaction.
Before the scratching could cease, he bolted into the hallway and fumbled down the staircase to the vestibule. A panicked scream crept out of his lips as he stumbled down each riser and twice he clutched at the banister for balance. "Where are you going?" I called to him. "They're only rats." But he didn't answer. The frightened child sprinted through my door, nearly pulling it off its brass hinges, without ever looking back. I doubt I will ever see him again and I must admit, the whole experience left me utterly nonplused.
A thought, Edward. Did Carpenter seal this fireplace? The unscathed bricks appear new, but why would he do such a thing? What is he hiding?
I intend to journey to Hazard to see if I can locate a more experienced mason. And in response to your glib quip from your previous correspondence, no I do not think the Irish people of Fiery Fork avoid the town of Hazard because protestant Brits populate it. Though I can refute you with more certainty after I have journeyed there. I plan to make the trip as soon as possible because I have discovered a new motivation to unearth this hearth.
Normally, I would not give the scratching rats a second thought, but, and I write this passage with some hesitation, I admit that the troublesome vermin have adversely affected my senses. Though what I am writing will certainly support your opinion that I am a tired old man, please bear with me.
The evening after the young mason left, I fell asleep in my den with a book in my lap. My spectacles had slid off my nose and dangled on my chest. I doze like this quite frequently, the chair you gave me is far more plush and comfortable than my bed. I cannot say what time it was, but in the middle of that evening the scratching din awakened me. I looked up, my copy of Doyle falling to the floor and my spectacles landing in my lap. Startled, the orange glow from my lantern reflected eerily off the spectacles. Warped light flashed across my field of vision and I gasped.
The sound from the fireplace was unlike anything I have ever heard. The rats clawed with their customary tenacity, but I heard something else behind that barrier. Something unnatural. A groaning like an ululant bear or some other beast of the wilderness. It mewled through the brick and grew louder. Soon, the moan dwarfed the scratching and I apprehensively retreated to the other side of the den. I felt the sound penetrate my body, my heart throbbing in unison with its rhythmic growl. Pressing my shoulder blades against the wall next to my desk, I covered my chest, clawing at my ribs. I thought the heart might explode and my shoulders tightened into rocky knots. Whatever sound emanated through those bricks, it must be similar to the sound a man makes with his dying breath, an air deep inside the soul that festers and boils as its escapes the lips. I know you will think I've become one of these eccentric locals, but I assure you with all my sanity that I heard this sound. Then it was gone. It and the scratching silenced as quickly as they had risen. I breathed more easily, pulse slowing, but the eldritch moment had yet to play out.
Tolerating such a harrowing experience, I pushed open the small window next to the plate glass in my den. The night air was crisp and I leaned beyond the pane to fill my lungs. I felt better already, breathing deep, when I observed a strange light from the trees behind my home. Dull orbs that hovered in the air, larger than fireflies and wan like dying stars. The two yellow dots glowed through the darkness. They radiated silently and an ominous feeling inundated me. They were watching me. Those lambent dots were eyes. I stared more intently, rubbing the sleepy crust from my eyelashes and then they vanished. The circular glowing bobbed twice, retreating into the forest, and I heard a rustling among the trees. Only a breeze, I told myself as I shut the window. Nevertheless, I was quite shaken.
By the following morning, I felt more at ease and logical as Holmes would. I concluded that my odd experiences from the night before were a dream. Or perhaps I awoke from a dream and my sleepy eyes and ears conspired to deceive me. Whatever the explanation, I decided not to let it trouble me and I walked outside. I'm still not sure why I chose this particular morning to stroll behind my estate, but in the grassy clearing below my den window I made a startling discovery. A set of footprints led away from my house and into the depths of the forest. And by footprints, Edward, I do not mean shoes. I detected the distinct shape of five toes and a heel pressed into the muddy patches of grass. Someone with bare feet appears to have sauntered past.
I feel ridiculous for saying so, but I fear that some of Mr. Carpenter's associates may have returned. However, I take comfort in the belief that as soon as they know Mr. Carpenter is gone, they will leave. What other reason would they have to spy on the house in the middle of the night?
I will keep you abreast of any developments, dear friend, though I feel safe that nothing more will come of my suspicions. Still, I must open the fireplace. I have no desire to be awakened during the night again.
Feb. 17, 1898
Undoubtedly you are expecting to read my opinion of the Maine disaster and the grave doom it spells for this country, but certainly others have inundated you with accounts of that regrettable incident. I have a much more fascinating, and perhaps disturbing, tale to tell. And please Edward, reserve your judgement until I have finished, despite how fantastic some this letter may appear.
Twice since my last correspondence the scratching behind the fireplace has awakened me, drawing me from my sleep, filling my nose with fantasized stony shrapnel and vaporous dust that I taste on the roof of my mouth. My heart throbs with every lacerating scrape. The cacophony grows louder each evening and the moaning persists. My skin crawls with each falsetto shriek, recoiling in a slither, and I find myself imagining forms in the shadows about this drafty house. There is still so much of it I rarely enter and some nights I see dark shapes move across the tenebrous backdrop of empty rooms. Drafts seep out of empty chambers, rooms without windows, chilling my bones. When I inspect the chambers, my radiant candelabrum reveals nothing. Surely it is my imagination, but I feel uneasy, weakened bowels and knees. Mercurial strength abandons me when I require it the most.
Sleep eludes me too often. On the nights I do not hear the fireplace scratching I often see the lambent eyes again. Yes, I am now certain they are eyes. They do not blink, but they stare constantly, slitted lids narrowing threateningly, watching me from the forest. I recall one of the tales about Mr. Carpenter. Why would he venture into the woods at night knowing his enemies waited for him? I cannot reconcile fact with fiction and my sleep suffers because of it. Cold sweats break out all over my body whenever I see the eyes, leaving my skin clammy and wan. My complexion is that of fresh milk and I cannot tolerate this dilemma any longer. Two days ago, I resolved to address this harrowing enigma.
I visited Malley at his store. It was a slow afternoon and he was kind enough to speak with me. After enduring a comment about the dark, sleepless circles under my eyes, I asked, "Mr. Malley, what do you know of the forest around Fiery Fork?" I hoped I might intuit from where these intruders originate.
"It is very large, sir."
"I've gathered as much. Please tell me, are there any other towns besides Fiery Fork and Hazard?"
Malley pondered this query fastidiously, scratching his balding head and rubbing his blubbery neck. His pupils narrowed to pinpoints and I hope my request did not strain him too terribly. "Not that I know of, sir, but I don't travel often. If another village were out there, I probably would have heard of it."
"Yes, I suppose you would," I replied. Then another possibility sprung to mind. The hunting expedition we led last year in the Scottish highlands reminded me of it. Remember the unexpected rainstorm and how we scrambled across the hills until we discovered that old cottage? "Mr. Malley, are there any abandoned cabins or structures in the woods surrounding Fiery Fork? Any shelter at all where a gamin or rogue might hide?"
Again, the perplexed wrinkles furrowed across his brow, but Malley ultimately obliged, "Nothing I know of, sir. The closest place might be the old church."
"What old church?" I asked.
His face darkened, eyes glaring reproachfully, and he carefully measured his answer. "I do not know it's name, sir. The congregation abandoned it before I was born. Perhaps before there was a Fiery Fork. Surely it has fallen apart by now. I would think so, yes. Not much to that place, nothing to see. Last I heard, there wasn't much left except for . . . for the cemetery plots behind the steeple."
"Where is this church?"
His gaze leveled on my face and Malley must have recognized my determination. I could not endure more evasions and cautious replies. "North of here. About an hour's ride from your estate, sir."
Finally, I had some information to act upon and a great weight of confusion lifted from my haggard shoulders. The relief, however, was merely temporary.
I thanked Malley for his time and purchased a ham for his trouble. He insisted that my gesture was unnecessary, but I still made the purchase. I do not know what to make of this new information, but if the cryptic intruders continue to stalk my estate, perhaps I will investigate the abandoned church. It seems the most likely hiding place for an unsavory type.
As I departed Malley's, my fortunes took a turn for the worse. Again, I encountered Ms. Rourke. She waited beside the store, hidden beneath the shadow of the east wall. Snickering popped in my ears as I passed and though I should have ignored her, I approached with a scolding expression. My nerves frayed like cheap twine and I could not suffer a surreptitious encroacher during the day as well as the night. I decided to put an end to her snickering and spying.
"Can I help you, Ms. Rourke?" I asked and I must admit, I did not query her with my customary gentleman's tone. I sounded very much like a father castigating a bad son.
"You won't listen to help when it stares you in the face," she replied and I detected a wry smile on her lips. I knew then that she was holding something back the same as Malley, except she reveled in the delight of hiding knowledge from me while Malley grappled with it. I had no tolerance to engage Ms. Rourke in any of her games. Thus, I resolved to depart.
"Good day to you, madame."
"You'll disappear, same as Carpenter," she shouted and I could not stop myself from approaching her. Her taunt was irresistible, drawing me nearer as an oasis calls out to a man dying of thirst.
I joined her in the shadows, furtively glancing at the street to ensure that nobody saw me comporting with this vagabond. "What do you know of Mr. Carpenter?"
"He didn't heed the warnings. Neither will you. The foolish never take heed and you'll suffer for your arrogance."
I grasped her by the shoulders, her spindly arms feeling like nothing more than a bag of bones and sagging flesh, and I shook her. "Save your riddles for someone else! Tell me what you know!"
Whimpering a desperate cry, she begged me to cease and I did. I do not know what came over me, Edward. I have never manhandled a lady, even one as despicable as Ms. Rourke. Admittedly, I felt abashed at my actions and regret them terribly. Still, it was effective. She revealed, "Carpenter didn't heed the bodach. It warned him, but he refused to listen." Her threatening bark had mellowed to a murmur. The frightened timbre of her voice told me it was true or at least she believed it.
"Who is bodach?" I asked. I'd never heard of such an unusual name, but I swiftly learned that bodach is not a gentleman.
"Bodach is the little old man that hides in the fireplace. He teases you at night, but also delivers warnings."
Obviously, news of my difficulty locating a mason has spread through Fiery Fork and Ms. Rourke's attempt to play on my troubles appalled me. I felt like a fool. Turning my back, I muttered curtly, "Good day," as I left. I considered spitting at the wretched woman, but decided she was not worthy of my attention. She shouted obscenities I care not to repeat, but rest assured Edward, I will take every necessary legal precaution if Ms. Rourke continues to harass me with her stories.
Still, I confess to a certain degree of reticence as I write this letter. It is late and I hear the wailing. It pierces the bricks as if they were svelte drapes, muffling but not stifling. What kind of vermin makes such a noise? I must find out soon, Edward. As I am certain you have observed by the sloppiness of my penmanship, this ordeal has shaken me. The moaning is growing more strident now. It sounds like a woman again, screaming from a precipice while vultures peck at her eyes. I do not intend to frighten you, Edward, but I can think of no other way to convey this torturous sound. Inexplicably, I now find my thoughts turning to Ms. Rourke.
Why did she mention this bodach creature? Is it some kind of ghost she believes might terrify me? Certainly, bodach is of Irish origin. Please Edward, I know you will find my request frivolous, but tell me everything you know of bodachs. I am sure nothing will come of it, but perhaps if I learn why Ms. Rourke selected that legend I might discern more about the odd events affecting me. This entire debacle seems related to Carpenter. I believe he is the key to this mystery. Perhaps someone frightened him with similar stories of bodachs. Pardon me Edward, I am rambling.
I must go now. I see the eyes outside my window. There are three pairs tonight. I am very apprehensive.
Feb. 25, 1898
Something very disturbing has happened. Yesterday, I journeyed to Hazard to locate a mason to remove the bricks from my fireplace. I rented an inauspicious carriage with two young steeds and led the team myself. Both beasts were fine horses with youthful vigor, but Hazard itself was something of a disappointment. It wasn't at all the eldritch spook town the residents of Fiery Fork made it out to be. I found a mason with relative ease and he agreed to travel to my estate this morning and examine the fireplace. We settled on reasonable compensation for his time and I quickly returned to the road. Fiery Fork is many hours away and I wanted to embark with daylight on my back.
The return journey was promising until the sun set. As murky darkness overtook the thickly wooded countryside, I sensed the unease of my two beasts. The forest grew quiet, the owls ceased hooting, and the fireflies grew more sparse until I felt very alone, trapped in a vast abyss of secluded danger. Invasive night wrapped around my body, cold, twisting my arms into knots. The air seemed to breathe, pressing against me with increasing intensity. It was hungry, yearning to consume the living. My horses must have felt something similar. They nayed and bucked on more than one occasion, apparently without provocation. I listened intently, but did not hear any other predatory animals, nor even the meekest cricket. Nevertheless, my horses reacted as though a bloodthirsty grizzly bear had crossed our path. Then I discovered what unsettled them.
A fetid effluvium wafted under my nose and I will not disgust you with my reaction. Needless to say, I became very sick and whipped the reins harder and faster. I wanted to pass beyond this fulsome cloud before it soiled my clothes. The horses trotted more swiftly, but refused to sprint across the uneven terrain. Then, suddenly, they broke into a panicked gallop. I nearly spilled from the narrow bench atop the carriage when I saw the eyes. There were twelve of them, Edward.
Pale yellow eyes glowed from the brush surrounding the path like spectral druids guarding their trees, their never blinking gaze trained on me. They watched in silence as I galloped past. Suddenly, branches rustled and I observed dark limbs, thin like craggy serpents, stretching out from the blackness. They reached for me. I'm sure of it. Myself or the horses, whichever they could grasp first. I screamed and crouched on my knees, feeling my throat tighten, egging the beasts onward. Fortune shined brightly on me last evening, Edward. The horses galloped faster and I felt the exhilarating rush of wind whip past my graying locks.
As soon as the horses became winded, we had cleared the rows of taciturn onlookers. I peered over my shoulder as we bounded down the lane. They continued to watch without moving, eerie yellow eyes studying me from a distance. They knew me. I was sure of it. Most unsettled, I rushed into the house upon my arrival. The urge to hide or flee rushed into my frantic mind. Locking every door, I cowered in my den like a child afraid of a thunderstorm. I pulled my knees to my chest and cool perspiration drenched my body with a slimy film. Then came the scratching. It was very faint last evening, but it was there, the quiet buzz of claws ripping at the bricks in my fireplace.
Four hours passed before I dared sleep. My rest was not peaceful, plagued by nightmares of glistening sable claws and coruscating eyes coming for me. Their jaws spread apart, revealing rows of needle sharpened tusks, barbed at the tips. Somehow, these demonic tormentors have invaded my sleeping thoughts. But that's all they were: dreams. We both know monsters aren't real.
This morning I awakened relieved, resigning the entire experience to exhaustion. I haven't slept often since the scratching and moaning worsened. I was tired, misled by weary eyes. That rationalization, however, shattered like fine crystal under a jagged stone the moment I walked outside.
One of the two horses still attached to the carriage has fallen dead. Its fine amber mane has turned white and its skin has shriveled like a prune. I covered my mouth with a kerchief as I examined it. White and purple pox have erupted across its body and a creamy foam dribbled out of its mouth in the middle of the night. Small flies buzzed around its mouth and nostrils. It hurt my ears to listen to them. It was a dead buzzing, the din of decay.
I have read of a disease called hoof and mouth, but I believe some other ailment felled this steed. It appeared hearty and spirited last evening. What kind of disease strikes so quickly?
I am very afraid. I do hope the mason arrives soon. Wish me well, please.
Feb. 27, 1898
I cannot wait for one of your prompt replies. I must tell you what has happened. It is incredible! The mason arrived as scheduled two days ago. He's a portly man with forearms like tree trunks. I never feared that he would prove unable to raze the parapet lining my hearth. To my satisfaction, he declared that he could remove the bricks, but the effort would require most of the day. I asked him to begin immediately.
As he worked, I queried, "Sir, I fear an infestation of vermin has taken residence in my fireplace. Tell me, how can I know what vermin to expect behind this wall?"
"Dunno," he mumbled gruffly. "No way to tell without looking."
"What if I described a sound they have made?" I wasn't sure if my request was unusual, but I realized my toes had curled under my feet and my hands had clenched into taut fists. I needed explanations!
"What kinda sound?" he asked.
"Scratching. Late at night."
"All vermin scratch. They prob'ly want out."
"Yes, but this scratching is unique," I informed him. "Along with the scratching, I sometimes hear a wail. I do not wish to seem facetious, but the wail reminds me very much of a man groaning."
He studied me with contemptuous eyes, but I no longer care about countenance. Until I learn what is plaguing this house I have no time for pretense. He never answered, but returned to his work and remained true to his word. The chore did require most of the day, but he eventually unearthed my fireplace.
With the task completed, I peered into the musky black void of beige hearthstones and dried embers. I do not know what I expected to see, but the truth mesmerized me more than anything I could imagine. It was empty. Not a single hair or dropping. I partly anticipated a nest of scrawny rats or starved carcasses on the inside, but there was nothing. The mason showed me long scratches torn against the inside of the wall and suggested that perhaps the rats had discovered an alternative exit. His account did not sit well with me and following his departure, I conducted my own examination.
The dank odor of ancient wood drifted out of the fireplace, the formerly gray ashes had turned completely black with age. I retrieved a handful of dead embers and they melted in my hand, becoming a fine dust that clung to the lines of my skin. Among the dust I found a charred scrap of paper. Someone had attempted to burn it, but I would venture that this scrap broke free of the parchment and clung to the wall.
I flattened the stale brown ephemera across my desk and my chest clenched upon recognizing a signature at the bottom. Mr. Carpenter had signed it. Other than his nearly illegible scrawl, I discerned one other word: Cemetery.
I am tired now, Edward, but I will keep you informed. I know the request is difficult, but if you can find any information on the bodach, I again ask you to enlighten me. I realize you scoffed at this request previously, but I am sincere. I cannot resist the temptation to believe that these mysteries are intertwined.
Mar. 4, 1898
I have grown very ill, in the brain and the body. My troubles began the night the mason removed the bricks from my fireplace. Though the scratching has ceased, I awaken many times every night, often covered with cerise sores where my skin is serrated or inflamed. At first, I searched for the rats, believing they had bitten me in my sleep. I have yet to find any, though I did discover a web of three black spiders in one of the chambers I have yet to furnish or clean.
Last evening I learned the true cause of my suffering and it is much worse than any vermin or affliction. I awoke from a slumber in the den when I felt a pinching on my left arm. Pinched fingers had squeezed my flesh until it bled and I awakened with a raspy gasp. The embers from my fire were low and the lighting in the chamber was turbid at best, but I am certain of what I saw.
An old man, barely as tall as a yardstick and covered in furrowed wrinkles, bowed over me. He groped at the skin along my shoulder and I recoiled in fright. A shriek emanated from my lips and our eyes met. Two stormy seas of blue stared back at me and I saw something else, a deeper hue to his irises. They were dark, a baleful energy hiding behind his eyes and reaching for my mind with invisible, pulsating tendrils. He realized I no longer slept and a furtive grin spread across his pallid lips. "The cemetery," he wheezed with a lisp. In retrospect, I imagine his voice was like that of a viper, if a viper could speak. The words hissed from his mouth and I kicked in disgust. Legs flailing wildly, I shielded my face with both forearms as I lunged at him. I threw myself forward with all of the dreary strength I could muster, but landed on the floor unimpeded, my arms throbbing in pain. When I looked up, the old man was gone, as though he had never existed. An odor lingered in the air, sour as spoiled and cloying apples, but the fire quickly swallowed it. My body shivered as I felt something pass through me.
I still have not concluded if the old man was a real intruder or something else. At first, I believed he was a product of my sickly mind, but then I stepped to the window for a breath of soothing air, hoping the erratic shivers would vacate my body. As soon as my hands touched the clear pane, I saw the eyes. Four of them stared at me from the woods behind my estate. Quickly, I fell to the floor and did not move from that spot until now. Rampant thoughts raged through my mind incoherently and I saw my heart throb in my eyes. Vision pulsated with each frantic heartbeat and I felt the coils of something evil spreading around me. Was this Carpenter's fate? I pray not. I could not sleep and no longer trust my reason.
What am I to think, Edward? Reason dictates that I discount these strange events, but I cannot. I have seen the eyes and felt the pinch of that old man. Something is afoot in this house and I cannot remain here alone for much longer. A new moaning echoes through my empty chambers. I tell myself it is the wind gusting beneath the estate's overhanging eaves, but I do not believe that. This house has never seemed more enormous. The open spaces I once admired now cast a fey aura about me. Every darkened chamber is an endless pit of doom and I cannot peer into those rooms as I walk down the halls. The periphery of my vision glimpses streaks of movement and I fear what awaits inside. Though my neighbors have abandoned me, this estate is not a solitary prison. I fear I am not alone.
Most of the town, save for Malley, fears me because I selected to live here. I am destitute of friendly companions and need your company very badly. Please hurry, Edward. I know how you hate the states, but I am desperate. I fear a fever may have settled on my brain. Am I insane? Please say no. Please God, say no.
Hurry Edward. Until I receive your response, I will do the only thing I can. I cannot withstand the fear bred of my imagination any longer. Reason dictates that I must disprove these strange doubts festering in my mind. If I can explain these events, perhaps then I can prove to myself that I am sane. I feel like Holmes chasing Moriarty and all of the clues in this mystery point to one place. I must go to the cemetery. I believe Carpenter knew something of it. It is time I learned what is leading me there.
Mar. 12, 1898
Oh dear God, Edward, you will not believe the sights I have witnessed. It is too much, so much to reveal
(Line blotted out with black ink)
I have pushed my writing desk against the wall of the den so one eye can remain on the forest. It is dark now, very late. I may never sleep again.
Earlier in the week I spoke with Malley and he provided me with directions to the old church and cemetery beyond my estate. I left this morning, the first clear sky in four days, and made the journey unhindered. I never realized how dense the firs become in the areas surrounding Fiery Fork. I imagine how travelers could become lost in this labyrinth of trees. A man could walk into the woods and never emerge. The tall conifers form a canopy and elongated shadows stretch across the fallow earth in morbid lattices. My eyes cannot avoid peering into those dark depths and amongst the shadows, something scintillates, like a sliver of moonlight cutting through the night. Darkness more sable than the shadow creeps very slowly. I hope it is my mind playing tricks on me, but after what I have seen, I sincerely doubt it.
I arrived at the cemetery by midday. The thick groves widened and gave way to a small meadow of desolate grass and dead trees. Nothing grows there. Oddly, I am reminded of something Malley once said. He called the forest the Lord's land. If the earth does belong to the Almighty, he has forsaken this place, yielded it to more sinister forces. This is no place for a man of God, or for any creature of lightness.
The sight of the dilapidated church first caught my eye. Malley's assumption was correct. The building is abandoned and rickety. Three walls have collapsed into wooded rubble. The far wall, with the craggy steeple still rising abut to it, sways against the light breeze of the woods. My gaze scanned upward and I noted that the cross atop the steeple is gone. A splintered point remains in its place, as though a monstrous bird flew across the zenith and ripped away God's holy symbol with its greedy talons.
I bound my steed to a tree and crept closer to the church. I felt nothing holy about that cold earth. The ground was rich, black with a full texture. Sifting a handful through my fingers, I wondered why nothing had grown in such fine soil. This clearing was barren.
My heart beat slightly harder and I heard it thumping in my ears, a drum thumping softly. That's when I realized that I heard nothing else. I rose to my feet slowly, struggling to exude an air of confidence, but the silence unsettled me. Where were the insects and the birds? Even the breeze flowing beneath the dead limbs did not make a rustling sound.
My gaze turned to the small cemetery plot behind the church and I approached it with trepidation. Even from a distance, I noticed irregularities. The grass was as dead on this ground as it was around the church, but worse afflictions plagued this ossuary. Though I saw no signs of life, scattered footprints covered the lot. I saw the impressions in the dirt, small and large bare feet. Many trails led in multifarious directions across the cemetery. I followed one. I don't know why, but my cautious gait came to a halt after only a few feet.
One of the headstones was ajar. It was upturned, a rectangular slab lying on the ground, covered with oozing russet worms and flecks of green and silver that radiated from the feculent earth caking it. A few beetles still clung to the upturned base, hiding from the sun in the slab's protective shadow. I should have departed immediately. I should have realized something was afoot and returned to my horse, but I didn't. Dear God, Edward, why didn't I simply turn around?
Instead, I continued through the graveyard, finding more upturned headstones, broken crosses torn from small spires, and fresh dirt. Someone had dug up the plots. Grave robbers I assumed, but they hadn't completed their diabolic work. Some of the plots were only half dug out and others had been filled in again with fresh earth.
I'm such a fool, Edward! I convinced myself someone had recently been laid to rest and thus the fresh earth. But nobody laid in rest in this cemetery! The congregation had abandoned it years ago! There was nothing to steal! Dammit, now I realize my folly!
I walked on, toward the center of the lot, and observed more unholy desecration. The minute cherubs atop some of the more elaborate headstones were defaced. Long white scratches on the granite and sandstone slabs had ripped away their eyes. The angels were blind. If only I had been, too.
Finally, I neared the center of the graveyard and halted before a squat mausoleum. I had searched for this edifice. I realized as much as soon as I set eyes on its stout, gray columns. It isn't very large, certainly not more than ten feet in height, and sculpted to resemble the Parthenon of ancient Greece. I felt a magnetic energy braid outward from the blemished stone. It had pulled me to the center of this odious place, but the loadstone would not stop there. I walked inside the mausoleum and beheld two coffins. Massive stone sarcophagi that reached as high as my waist. I approached the one on my left, noting the untouched layer of dust on the lid.
How does a cemetery collect dust?
Part of my fervent imagination had expected a creature from a Stoker novel, but I was relieved to find the coffins undisturbed. My relief was momentary. Cold slivers raced across my back, pattering against my sensitive skin like tiny mice feet. My teeth chattered and I breathed stale air deeply. The urge to flee gripped my soul. Turning to depart, I felt a draft of strong air brush past my leg. Looking down, I noticed that the other sarcophagus was ajar. Not the lid, Edward, but the entire box. It had been moved, slid across the floor, revealing a dark subchamber. Another gust of wind billowed the hair of my legs and I felt drawn to the opening.
Crouching low to the ground, I inhaled deeply. The air was fetid. It reeked of a freshly gutted sow. Pinching my nose, I recoiled, but my eyes never diverted from the perpetual blackness underneath that tomb. I thought of Carpenter and the old man that pinches me while I sleep. Did Carpenter find this place? Maybe he moved the coffin. Why had he burned a letter mentioning this cemetery? I had to know. I could not stop myself, Edward.
Reaching into my pocket, I retrieved a match and struck it on the ground. The orange and yellow glow was quite sparse, but still enough. I held the match close to the narrow opening and peered inside. I saw ground, a short drop below. I was aware that I have lost a good deal of weight during the past harrowing weeks, but I had not realized just how much until I slid through that crevice. My scrawny body passed through it unimpeded, dropping a few feet.
The crunch of sodden earth greeted my feet and I yelped softly from the surprise. The gelatinous mush squished stridently and my throat tightened. Air seeped through my esophagus, straining to burst forth into my fetor-tainted lungs, but I refused to allow the spoiled air to invade me. Holding my hand aloft, I saw the entrance I had slipped through. It hung a few feet above me, allowing few precious rays of light to seep inside. The fetor was overwhelming, but I ignored it as a fey sensation crept into my bones. It was meek, burrowing creepily, and driving one resounding thought into my brain: I wasn't alone.
My eyes focused on the tenebrous pit, but the match did not penetrate the darkness. Still, I felt another presence, just beyond the light, watching me. I tasted its acrid breath, felt its cold flesh, and imagined its glowering eyes. It waited for me and I could not move. My mind screamed run, but my legs did not follow. Standing there, my knees locked together, I waited as the match burned down.
The illumination darkened as the last flames of the match glowed smaller and darker. As the complete darkness descended around me, I saw it. Hardly any light flickered inside the pit, but it was enough. I glimpsed it for an instant.
It crouched low to the ground like a predator, except it was erect, squatting on its hind legs. It was man, but not a man. As the flame died, it's face appeared for a brief instant. Jaundice skin covered its bald, smooth head and lambent eyes burned yellow like wan stars under a crescent moon. It stretched its long neck, wrinkles folding across its hairless nape, as crooked, broken teeth glistened behind curling lips. In that second of illumination our eyes met, my harried face gazed upon its silent snarl and I knew it was not of the living. Whatever that creature may be, it does not belong to the light.
As the match finally burned out, I jumped to the opening and pulled myself through it in one motion. My muscles strained, contracting tautly, but I hardly noticed. I don't remember much after that. I ran without looking back. Oh dear God, Edward, I imagined it was right behind me, that jaundice face and corroded teeth reaching for my ankles! I untied my horse and galloped all the way back to my estate. I do not know how long the journey lasted, but it is dark now and soon it will come with its yellow eyes and watch me from the forest. It and the others like it, these demons of the night!
How strange. This estate that I feared so recently is now my only salvation, the only place I feel safe from it. As I sit here, my eyes flashing between the page and the window, I think again of Mr. Carpenter. Did it steal him away in the night? Is that how he disappeared? I do not know, but I have no intention of leaving this chair, let alone this house. I cannot let it come for me. If I go outside, surely it will be waiting behind every tree and shrub.
The damn old man, the thing Ms. Rourke calls the bodach! Now, I know it is real, too. She did not lie to me. I should have heeded it. It told me of the cemetery, but I could not help my curious nature
(Line written illegibly)
(Line written illegibly)
(Line written illegibly)
They're coming now. I feel them. Slinking out of that hole and creeping through the dark forest, leaving entrails and jaundice stained blood in their wake. Maybe the bodach will come to help me, but I doubt it. Still, as I look at my fireplace, I fathom an alternative solution. The tip of the poker is quite sharp and if need be . . . no, I do not want to think of that. But if my choice is confronting those things or the poker. . . .
Please Lord, don't let it come to that.
Mar. 16, 1898
Four days have passed since my last correspondence and my supplies have dwindled. I nibbled at my last scrap of bread, but my throat is parched. This morning, I ventured to the water pump behind the house and quickly filled two buckets, but I soon realized that I could not hide in my estate forever. Perhaps a degree of my rationality is returning. If it has not, I hope that it soon will. I resolved not to sit idly by, perhaps as Carpenter did or did not, and wait for these foul creatures. Hunger and pride drove me from the house and I traveled into the village this afternoon.
Gamin gawked at me as though I were one of their own. My haggard and disheveled appearance notwithstanding, I spoke with my good friend, and perhaps only in this abysmal town, Malley. Without revealing the nature of my dilemma, he has shown the grace to guide me to an individual who has agreed to assist me. This individual is Father Lars Malone, the priest of the local Irish church. He is a young man, barely old enough to shave properly, but he has a determined brow and a wiry confidence about him. He speaks directly, a trait I very much appreciate, and I have evoked the strength of my sporadically eidetic memory to record the conversation he and I shared this afternoon. To the best of my recollection, this is what we said:
"Good day, sir," he greeted me as I sat in the front pew of his church. His dialect was twangy, like most Southerners, abandoning the harsh Irish accent of his homeland.
"Good day. Mr. Malley informs me that you are an understanding man."
"I try to be," he replied and I felt his eyes scanning my body. I appeared to be common street rabble and I believe Father Malone expected me to beg for a few coins.
"I have something to ask you. Something incredible."
"Father, is there such a thing as a bodach?"
"Bodach," he repeated and turned his gaze upon the cross of our savior as though he required divine guidance to reach an answer. His eyes are so stern for such a young man. "I do not believe I have heard of it."
"A local woman, Ms. Rourke, mentioned it to me."
His interest piqued at the mentioning of her name. "And what did Ms. Rourke say?"
"That an old man called a bodach, something of a mystical creature I have gathered, would give me a warning and it did. I unsealed my hearth and he delivered a warning. If only I'd heeded it!"
"Slower," Father Malone urged. I had begun to ramble like a madman. I am certain I made a less than favorable first impression, but Father Malone treated me with respect nonetheless. "You shouldn't listen to Ms. Rourke. She is lonely and enjoys drawing attention to herself. This bodach is probably a story from the home island. Another one of Ms. Rourke's fables that she tells to disturb little children."
"But I saw it!" I insisted rather vigorously. Rolling up a tattered sleeve, I revealed red and brown welts on my arm. The oldest bruises had deepened, becoming yellowish. "It pinched me and warned me not to go to the cemetery in the forest, but I could not resist. I wanted answers and the cemetery provided them."
"Answers to what?" he asked.
"Answers to my fears. I yearned to disprove them all, eliminate the ridiculous doubts in my overactive mind, but I found something real. A thing. A horrible thing!"
"What are you speaking of Mr. Callahan?"
I described the creature lurking beneath the mausoleum at the cemetery and told Father Malone of all the other strange occurrences I have witnessed since I arrived in this dreadful town. When I finished, the youthful exuberance drained from his face. Suddenly, he appeared aged and feckless. Sullen was too pleasant a description. "Father, are you all right? I had no intention of frightening you."
"You didn't frighten me," he replied dolefully. I sensed that he reserved some doubt about my claims, but I had struck a chord. My description of the creature roused a memory from the recesses of his mind. "Please wait here," he beckoned and I did as he disappeared into one of the smaller chambers behind the immaculate pulpit. When Father Malone returned, a thick tome with black bindings rested under his arm. He set the dusty volume on the pew beside me and my eyes widened at the sight of the title embroidered onto the leather binding in gild thread. It was Necronomicon. I have never heard of this tome, but I cannot imagine a more foul or defiling name.
"Like Ms. Rourke's tales, this book is from the old lands," Father Malone said with a timbre in his voice I can only describe as uneasy.
"What is it?" I asked.
"A book of great evil." I recoiled slightly and detected the odor of dried fish scales emanating from the pages. "In riddles and incantations it speaks of the creature you described."
"Then I am sane. I did not imagine this creature?"
"In all honesty, Mr. Callahan, I sincerely hope that you are not sane. Because if you are, then the beast is real and it must be destroyed."
I did not fault his reasoning. The logic is sound, but I could not deny my senses. "I saw it. I smelled it. The creature is real."
"We must be certain."
"And if we are certain?" I asked.
Father Malone lowered his head, his sternness fading with solemnity. "Then we must vanquish this miasma with the purifying flames of the Lord."
"Yes, we can gather a party of the town's strongest men and go to the cemetery," I suggested, probably too enthusiastically. The joy I experienced upon finding a sympathetic ear had overwhelmed me. In retrospect, I am certain I sounded like a giddy child bristling to open a present. The sober expression in Father Malone's eyes, however, quickly abated my ardor.
"No one will join us," he explained bleakly. "If they are aware of the legends, they will not approach this foul beast, apostate of the undead, minion of the lower depths. I cannot ask you to go, either."
"Of course I will go," I insisted. My eyes met his and then I realized Father Malone's dread. He was frightened and did not want to venture this risk himself, but he would if he must. Looking at the holy relics surrounding us in his church and glancing at the pages of that accursed book, I understood that he did not have a choice in the matter. Expelling this, what did he call it, miasma was his responsibility. Father Malone is so young and until that moment I did not comprehend the burden he carries.
The faith and well being of an entire community. Fiery Fork is his flock and he was determined to lead them through any storm despite the threat to himself. Regrettably, I am ashamed. My arrival brought this unfortunate task to bear and now its resolution falls to the immaculate hands of God's one servant in this dark land. I have agreed to help him. I cannot say no, nor do I want to. Exposing or destroying this creature may be his duty, but it is my responsibility.
We leave at first light. I have eaten a large supper of ham and bread and I am beginning to feel more myself once again. I will inform you of our success, Edward. Though you will not receive this letter until after Father Malone and I have embarked, I hope that you pray for us now. I know I will.
Mar. 17, 1898
I must write quickly! Darkness has fallen across the forest and I do not have long. Peering through the window, I do not see them yet, but they will arrive soon. I feel their presence like insects crawling across my scalp. They are close and before they come for me, someone must know. With God's kind grace, this letter will somehow reach you and please tell people what has happened in Fiery Fork. People must know so they will not repeat my mistakes.
Father Malone and I set out this morning. We spoke very little during the long journey. It felt very much like a funeral procession, our steeds the cortege, but I purged that image from my mind. When we arrived at the cemetery, I showed him the tracks laden in the mud. He stared at them furtively and I noticed his lips mumbling. I believe he may have been counting the number of toes left by each impression. Now I understand why.
Directing him to the mausoleum, I constantly peered over my shoulders for any sign of the creature. There were so many headstones, so many rotting trees. It could have hidden anywhere. As we entered the mausoleum, I noted that the sarcophagi appeared undisturbed since my last encounter. A small crevice still emerged underneath one of them, but it had not widened. My heart beat more slowly and I felt surer that the thing awaiting us dwelled in the depths. It hadn't chased me through the forest during my escape nor followed me. It was content to wait, knowing that I would return.
Father Malone set ablaze two torches and handed me one. It glowed brightly like the copper-molten sun rising and reflecting from the Atlantic. Father Malone gripped his torch with both fists like a ballplayer. He was ready to swing at anything near him. "You first," he uttered with a nervous quaver and I did not argue. It was no time for dissension, though my knees wobbled horribly.
Approaching the opening, I dropped my torch inside. It plummeted to the ground and landed softly on the earth. I saw the creature's tracks, shuffling prints of bare feet, but nothing more. It was hiding somewhere amongst the blackness. The stench began to irritate my nose and I held my breath as I slipped through. I landed in a crouched position, prepared to spring upon the creature, but I did not see it. Before, I had not grasped the vastness of this subchamber. Even with this bright torch, I could not see the far wall. It stretched outward for many yards, covering a quarter of the cemetery by my estimation.
"Come down," I urged Father Malone. He dropped through the opening and before he could take a full breath, he regurgitated on his shoes. He had not anticipated such a virulent fetor.
"I'm okay," he insisted as he wiped his mouth and held his torch aloft. But we were not okay. As soon as the light of his torch joined with mine, we saw them. Yellow eyes radiating from the walls and decrepit hands reaching out from the darkness. My God, Edward, there were dozens of them. They stepped into the orange glow of the torches and their pale flesh scintillated wanly. Some of them still had tufts of curly hair. Others were bald. Some had jagged teeth. Some had none at all. They were all squeamish, skin retreated and sagging like old leather.
"Now!" Father Malone shouted and he thrust his torch at them. Mildewed flesh caught fire very quickly and the creatures hissed as Father Malone attacked them, lunging with a fencer's precision. I hesitantly joined him. The creatures were stronger than I imagined. They groped at the torch, tugging at my meek arm even as I set them ablaze. One of the haired creatures stepped closer, grasping at my arm, scraping away long streamers of flesh with each claw and I winced with every lunge. Still, we held them at bay. I followed Father Malone across the earthen chamber, watching the fire spread from one beast to another, until the torches illuminated the earthen far wall.
Upon the feculent wall hung a charred body. I dare not call it human, but I know that it possessed two arms and two legs because the creatures had pinned it there, an unholy crucifixion. Its skin had blackened long ago and the ruptured remains of old blisters and sores covered its nude body. But that, Edward, was not the worst of it. Small knobs, resembling horns, sprouted from its battered head and its corroded teeth had fallen to the ground. It no longer had lips to hold them in its mouth. It's face had shrunken into a contorted snarl, anger and venom radiating from its putrid form.
Lord's land, I thought. The land, the earth. They're evil, Edward. I'm certain of it. The purest form of unholy evil. This is their land, not God's.
Another of the haired creatures grasped me, striking near my neck, and I saw a baleful glint in its eyes. These beasts are unthinking, without conscious, and I observed the purple and white buboes and pox dotting its arms. A disease had infected it. Again I gazed upon the blackened corpse and compared the remnants of its sores. A disease had once infected it as well. And my horse! I thought of my horse that expired after my fateful trip to Hazard weeks ago. Purple and white buboes and pox covered its body!
They are a disease, Edward, a shambling infestation.
I couldn't stand it anymore. Panic seized my soul. The thought of corroding germs penetrating my flesh sickened me. I slapped at my skin, wiping away any threat of infection as my fractured mind reverted to primal instincts. I pulled my torch from their grasp and waved it high sweeping arcs above my head. "What are you doing?" I believe father Malone asked me. I did not know. Ardent fear of the creatures and their damming disease overwhelmed me. I had to destroy that wretched crucifixion, that source of this fey evil!
I hurled my torch through the air, end over end, and it struck the affixed arm at the left wrist. The crumpled body shattered, fell to the ground, and the earth opened wide. It swallowed the corpse whole, eating it like quicksand, and the tomb quivered with energy. The creatures immediately surrounded my fallen weapon, cutting me off from the torch. I looked into Malone's horrified eyes and he did not have to say anything. The ghastly hiss of these undead demons was warning enough.
They reached out for him and I stumbled backward. Four arms wrapped around his chest and throat as his torch fell to the ground. "Help me!" he shouted, but I couldn't. Damn it all, I couldn't! They pulled him into the depths, surrounding him with a sea of subhuman flesh.
I was aghast and scurried to the opening. I dashed up the wall like a rat abandoning a sinking freighter as Malone's cries for help lingered in my ears. I felt no guilt, as I do now. I was too frightened and had never been more relieved to see sunlight. It did not last, however.
As soon as I emerged from the mausoleum, dark anvil clouds rumbled overhead and cast a gray shadow over the cemetery. Howling wind bent the trees in the distance and I felt the power. Something was being unleashed. I sprinted for my horse, passing the graves as I ran. Except they wouldn't remain graves for long. The earth trembled and clumps of sodden dirt exploded into the air, exposing the ancient pits. The dead were rising. I had awakened them. That damn disease! Now I understand the severity of my actions. That malevolent crucifixion contained the disease that sired those unthinking monsters. Now it is spreading, the land has swallowed it, and I fear every corpse from that graveyard has risen.
They'll be here soon, Edward. Already I look outside my window and see their glowing yellow eyes. There are more of them than I can count, emerging from the forest on all sides. Oh God, I hear them now. They are beating on the walls and doors. Glass is breaking. Dear Lord, they are in the house. I smell them, that rotten fetor that hangs over their bodies like thunderstorms. They're coming up the stairs. I feel their shambling. I only hope they don't continue to the village. Maybe they will stop here or maybe the bodach will intervene, but I doubt
(Letter Discovered Incomplete)
B>Excerpt from the Dissertation Proposal Southern Folklore and its Influence on Regional History by Garland Rogers:
The discovery of these correspondence of a little known gentleman, Thomas Callahan, provides an excellent example of how European folklore and mythology immigrated with the families to the new world. He never mailed the final three letters to his associate in London and it required a herculean research effort to obtain them, but I consider the endeavor laudable. These letters provide primary source evidence of the influence of folklore on turn of the century southern culture and more specifically, the drastic repercussions it had on this mentally unstable individual. It warrants further investigation. While the town of Fiery Fork does not exist (accounts indicate that it its inhabitants abandoned it in the autumn of 1898), the town of Hazard still thrives in east Tennessee. As I investigate the history and folklore in Hazard first hand, I believe, from the evidence available, I can locate the former Callahan estate and, with any luck, the cemetery spoken of in his letters. Hopefully it still exists. If it does, I intend to investigate it for evidence that might reveal some insight to Thomas Callahan's madness. What kind of a place engenders this kind of mental breakdown and causes a man to believe mythological tales as fact?
With any luck, I'll find the answers.