THE LAST TRAIN OUT
By Julie Carpenter
The train station was on the very outskirts of Hell. There was only one train coming in, Old Number 13, always coming in, never leaving. It was pulled by an ancient steam engine, and it was no match for most of the Hellscape, so it heaved and dragged itself to the outer edges of Hell and belched out its payload of souls onto the dilapidated platform. The train tracks ran into Hell Station through two steep, red, rocky banks, bubbling with blood red lava that seemed to come from nowhere and go nowhere, upon which small swarms of crimson demons clambered and scurried, switching their forked tails and brandishing pitchforks. They spat out small clouds of green poison, though it was mostly for show. It was their razor sharp teeth that kept the hillsides littered with bones. Their job was to keep the tracks clear to make sure the train could bring its payload of souls in from the Upper World and to make sure that no soul ever escaped back through the banks and tunnels that led back. None ever did.
The train station was located in Metaphorical Hell, Expected Hell, the one marketed in the Upper World. True Hell, the Indescribable Hell, was further in and deeper down. True Hell is hard to describe because, in the end, there’s not much to it.
If you looked at all of Hell from the top, the very center was a sink hole, a huge black cavity with diameter enough for millions and millions of souls to fling themselves from the edges at once. Eventually, so we were told, the huge hole became smaller and smaller like a funnel. It was supposed that if you could make it to the very, very bottom you would find…nothing. Perhaps become nothing.
A soul standing on the edge would see rocks shaped like teeth and sharp edges and carved out pools of sliding acid that eventually caved in and rushed to the bottom. From one side a gushing crimson Lava Fall from the Lake of Fire tumbled down into the gaping hole until it could no longer be seen and on the other side the invisible, chill waters of the River Nepenthe rushed to their doom. As a soul traveled to the bottom it was chewed up and burned and then doused with the waters of forgetfulness. Even the nastiest of the demons avoided True Hell. No one knew what, if anything, was left of a soul after it had made it to the bottom or if that was even possible. Perversely, trying to reach the bottom of Hell was an act of Faith. Sometimes at the edge of this gaping hole, soul fragments drifted past, moaning and carrying on. These were the remains of souls that had been torn apart on their way down and spit back out by the whirlwinds that emanated from the center. These fragments of souls managed to convey only gibberish.
There were a few souls whose goal had always been the annihilation of True Hell. Their need to become nothing was pressing. They got off the train, felt the magnetic pull of the center and flung themselves off the cliff edge with no hesitation. Most of the newcomers didn’t get very far from the train station at first. When they eventually did move on, it was to some form of torture they found attractive. People wanted something familiar, even in Hell (or maybe especially in Hell). Those who were loners in the Upper World found themselves in the Craggy Mountains of the west battling for food and territory with only demonic rams for company and the great birds of prey that picked over the limbs and bones of lost souls. The type of people who always got into fights in bars or the kind of people who always demanded to see a manager jumped into the Lake of Fire and were tormented by great red demons who constantly pushed their heads under the flaming waves. Those who were cynical and hopeless in the Upper World ended up in the Pits of Despair, fighting for eternity to avoid being sucked down into the tar or giving up and being sucked down only to bubble back to the top of the pits to start the process again.
Close to the station, the least onerous part of Hell to my way of thinking, were a few dank, ragged trees and aging and dilapidated apartment buildings, sulfurous, smoky, and unpleasantly appointed. (The apartment I ended up in had a hideous green couch covered with large orange flowers and it was inhabited by a small cat-like demon that barfed everywhere constantly. The cat demon, named Dennis, came with the place. I assume it was part of the punishment. Most apartments were inhabited by small animal demons of some sort.) The gray buildings were sooty and edged in black because smoke storms rolled in from the Lake of Fire quite frequently. Tattered, smoke-ruined curtains fluttered like bats from the windows.
Hell was managed by a guy named Brian, who always wore a cardigan with patches on the elbows and a matching bow tie. One of his jobs was to supervise the influx of souls. He occasionally walked around the station, introducing himself and greeting the newcomers, making sure they understood the nature of True Hell, giving directions to those who preferred annihilation, and explaining the dangers to those of us who were uncertain. (There were demons that ordinarily did this job, but, of course, being demons they required extraordinary amounts of supervision. Brian liked to show up at the station for surprise inspections.)
I have to say, for the record, that I never understood exactly how I ended up in Hell in the first place. According to Brian, you have to buy a ticket to get on the train and everyone who goes there goes because they want to. He says you’d be surprised, but most people prefer Hell to Heaven because of how familiar it seems. Not all that the soul does is conscious, even down to buying the ticket for that final destination. I guess I’m not the first person to think it was a screw up though. The biggest group in the complaint lines was religious people who just knew it had been a mistake. (There was even a small group of them living in the garbage dump behind the city who insisted that this was Heaven and we were all mistaken.) But Brian could always pull up the paperwork and it was always there in black and white.
“No mistakes in Hell, that’s our goal,” he always said. Then he always laughed his dry sad little laugh and added, “Only satisfied customers. The best service.”
When I first got there, I was pretty confused, like I said. Everybody’s getting off the train. No one knows what to do, there’s really no one there to tell you anything. The demons that are supposed to be doing this job are usually busy harassing people and stealing luggage when Brian isn’t looking. You have luggage, of course. Everybody brings loads of crap to Hell. The joke is there’s no use for it and no place for it. But everybody’s there on the first day, lugging things off the train, howling because someone stole their useless crap or because they don’t think they belong there in the first place. Fights break out on the platform. It’s just insane. As luck would have it, my stuff was stolen immediately, but I could see that there was no use trying to get it back. A large poisonous looking blue demon and a guy in a suit (who looked like a banker to me) were fighting over it when I turned around, and it had already been pulled open. A pair of my underpants was fluttering down the track and the demon had one of my shoes in its mouth. The banker seemed to be fighting him for a floral skirt and a Michael Kors evening bag.
Fortunately, I happened to arrive while Brian was there on a surprise inspection. He was standing on the platform, shaking hands with the newcomers, assuring people that there was nothing wrong with just hanging out close to the station until they’d decided on their ultimate destination. Plenty of misery right here, he assured everyone. He also told us to pay attention to the entrance questionnaires the ghoul conductors had given us on the train.
In a friendly and efficient tone Brian reminded everyone that, “These forms have to be turned in today or,” here he cleared his throat and pushed up his tortoiseshell glasses, “a demon will be by to…errrr….help you out. True Hell will seem like nothing compared to these blue guys here.”
He pointed at the demon who’d been fighting with the banker over my suitcase. The demon, now with a suited arm hanging from his teeth, took a moment to give a little nod of acknowledgement and a small wave. The banker was loudly wailing that he could no longer hold the clipboard and the pen to fill out his form because his arm was missing. Brian sighed and shook his head.
I followed him along the platform holding the form, since he seemed to be the only person who knew what we were supposed to do. I’ve always been a rules follower and even Hell wasn’t going to change that.
“Uh, please, sir?” I said, “Could you help me? Do we have to declare anything that’s already been eaten by a demon?”
Brian waved me along behind him. “Follow me,” he said. “I have to get back to the office. I’ll explain when I get there. Try and keep up. There are very few signs. The demons who are supposed to be responsible for making them tend to burn them or eat them in the process.” He sighed. “It’s so hard to get good help in this place.”
I trailed along behind him. It was hard to keep up. Throngs of incoming souls pushed against variously colored demons, fallen angels, small dragons and creatures I only later identified as incubi and succubae. I narrowly escaped a demon bite by darting behind an overflowing garbage can filled with human bones and several dead bats and a steaming acidic liquid (demon vomit, I later discovered, they tended to spend the Hellish nights partying) that was burning a hole through the thick, black metal. By the time I reached the office, I’d been spit on by three ghouls, had a burn hole in my skirt and I was missing a shoe. A tiny monkey with a skull head had darted out from under a dilapidated bench and snatched it just as we reached the huge concrete box of a building with the words Administrative Offices, Main Division, Hell in black block letters on the top. But I kept sight of Brian’s gray sweater with the navy elbow patches and somehow managed to stay in the high speed revolving doors for some time until they spit me out in the reception area, all my limbs miraculously (if one can use that word in relation to Hell) intact.
I was so intent on following Brian that I didn’t really notice that I was bypassing the long lines of souls waiting to make complaints. Ignoring the catcalls and globs of spit as something to be expected in Hell, I somehow managed to follow him straight into his gray cube-like office past the window.
“Oh dear!” he said. “There’s a line.” He gave me a nervous smile. He raised a dirty and broken plastic shade and flipped over an OPEN sign.
There, next to the door I had followed him through, was the office window. As far back as the eye could see there were souls. There were souls with missing limbs. One man had his ears and eyes in the wrong spots. There was a woman from whom a fine green smoke was rising. She was weeping. Further from the office there were couples fighting. There was a man in the back swinging an ax in an attempt to move up in line. It stretched back through the huge lobby and out into the street.
“Oh Brian,” I said, for one instant more full of pity for him than myself. I looked around and saw that no one else seemed to be manning the window. “Do you handle this line by yourself? Can’t they get you any help?”
He turned and looked at me, mouth opened in surprise. “I…well…no one’s ever asked me that before.” He looked stunned.
The man in front of the line was holding his head in his hands and his empty neck was spewing blood toward the ceiling. His head now realized that he was being delayed.
“Throw her out here!” his head hissed. Blood leaked from the corners of its lips. “She’s cut line! I’ve been here for three years!”
The sentiment spread quickly throughout the line. There was a shriek and souls pushed against the glass. Howls of despair and anger reached me. Brian and I looked at each other. I had realized what a grave mistake I had made. I would have to return to the back of the line with my paperwork and I would surely be torn into bits before I could make it back to the front to ask questions.
“I’m sorry,” I mumbled. I moved back towards the door. This day was not improving. But before I could get out of the door, Brian grabbed my arm.
“How would you like a job?” he whispered. He turned to look at the souls pressed against the window. “I have to make all the decisions concerning the complaints, but you could help I think by just making sure the forms are filled out properly in the first place. Most of them haven’t got a clue how to fill out the form and goodness do they get angry when they have to go back to the end of the line. Just make sure that all the sections are filled out in ink. Make sure they check here, here and here, and initial here. Stand here.” He pushed me to one side of the window.
“She’s here to help,” he said to the angry decapitated man in his friendly and efficient tone. “And you’re in no shape to fill out that form yourself sir. Unless you would like to risk putting your head down. The last gentleman who tried that found his head quite famously used as the flaming ball in the Demon’s Cup Fire Ball Tournament. And you will go to the back of the line, I can assure you.”
The man saw the sense in this. “Whatever,” his head said, frowning. His hand tossed the form onto the counter and then wiped blood from the head’s chin. I handed him a Kleenex from the box beside the window and took his form.
Brian turned to me. “There’s a stack of forms on the top of the file cabinet. Most of them will need a new one; they’ve already screwed up the old ones beyond repair.”
And that’s how I managed to get a job at the complaint window in Hell.
It was…Hell really. But at least I knew it was Hell and from the moment I stepped off the train, I’d found that it was best to keep expectations low. So I dealt with it. To be honest, it wasn’t quite as far removed from my former life as I would have thought Hell would be. Perhaps I’d found the punishment that I felt comfortable with.
All day long Brian and I lugged boxes of files and forms around. I filled out form after form, I was cursed and spit on and otherwise abused. There were never enough of the cheap ball point pens. They were stolen, broken, and even eaten. Every two weeks there was a new database to be learned, each worse than the last. Hell’s corporate system was designed more for affliction than efficiency. Even though Brian had been promoted to manager because he was Satan’s cousin, he wasn’t immune from the labyrinthine and torturous corporate rules.
“It’s just the way he works,” he told me. “He sort of can’t help making things worse all the time. We just have to work with what we have.”
Of course, that didn’t keep us from trying to make things more efficient. Brian once attempted to requisition some iPads so that the information the souls were required to provide would be automatically entered into the system. But, of course, the request was denied. Reasonably so, really. The demons would have made short work of them and the souls couldn’t be depended on to be responsible for their own limbs, much less something as fragile as a tablet. Still, Brian was depressed.
At the end of every day, he would glance back at the mountainous stacks of paperwork and say, “Well, it’s a good thing we have eternity to process that stuff.” Then he would wipe his glasses and sigh.
I always patted him on the shoulder. “You’re right Brian. We have eternity. And it will all still be here tomorrow.”
I continually tried to convince him to lock up and come have a cup of cold, lousy coffee at the coffee shop by the station with me before I went home, but I always left him hunched over the keyboard entering data. And I always ended up just going home to feed Dennis, the demon cat, and then clean up after he barfed. And I always drank a warm, lousy beer and then tried to sleep with Dennis curled up on my head and slapping my nose at random times or suddenly running to the end of the bed and biting my feet.
Every morning, if you could call it that, I rose to the howls of Dennis fifteen minutes before I’d set the alarm (no matter what time I had set it.)
“Feed me, oh feed me, oh I am hungry, woe is me! I’m dying! Help me!” he shrieked and howled. This was accompanied by slaps to my head and face. And normally after his meal, he made every effort to barf on my shoe before I headed back to the office in the gloomy morning.
The scarlet darkness of Hell’s night simply morphed into a dense gray day that was almost worse than the nightmare that preceded it. The lurking horrors that hid in the darkness simply became visible, banal and commonplace in the flabby daylight of Hell. The night brought on a primal fear that resulted in a feeling of terrified existential awareness; the morning revelation simply bred a suffocating repulsion. More souls flung themselves into the center pit of Hell in this dreary morning unveiling than at any other time.
Of course, there was a certain dull rhythm to the whole thing. I got up every day with the weight of eternal misery hanging over me, fed the demon cat and trudged down the stairs (the elevator was always broken). I trudged into work, avoiding the vampire bats, the holes full of bubbling mud that had opened up on the streets at night, and the demons sleeping off last night’s revelry in the alleys and on the sidewalks. After a while, it started to feel familiar. The stress of never being able to finish, the constantly angry “customers” at the desk, the perpetually unhappy (though mostly not with me) boss. Sometimes I thought about the pit in the center of Hell, but there was something about the soul that demanded to be kept intact. Sure the job chipped at it around the edges and maybe after an eternity I would slowly become nothing. But in spite of the heavy weight of carrying my soul through this eternity, I could never consider the pit seriously, even though the thought of dissolution sometimes presented itself unbidden in the dull gray morning walk through Hell.
When I got to work, Brian was always there sitting at his desk, efficient and friendly, sorting papers, supervising the demons to the best of his ability and somehow coaxing the nasty tempered database to tell us what we needed to know. I could always predict when he was going to push up his glasses and ruffle his hair because a soul was being particularly unreasonable and I became used to the sighs of despair whenever he was working with new software. His anxiety became mine and I stressed with him over the eternal mountain of work, often staying late and coming in early.
One day, when I came into work, it could have been 10 years or 100 since I’d arrived in Hell, it was hard to tell, Brian was sitting on the old orange vinyl couch in the corner of the office, arms folded across his chest, staring into space. He was holding an envelope in one hand. The linen of the envelope was a beautiful ivory color and it had a broken red seal on it. The lettering on the envelope was in gold. The thing actually smelled like lilies. I could smell it before I even reached him. It looked completely out of place in the drab, musty office.
“Brian?” I asked. “Are you okay? What’s that?”
Brian pointed at the complaint window which had not been opened yet. A woman was standing outside of it, frantically banging a hand against it, a very large hand with a man’s watch. The arm was covered in hair. It was not hers.
“Want me to open up?” I asked.
“Guess you’d better,” he said. “Can we talk about this at lunch?”
“Sure,” I said. “I brought us some sandwiches.”
“We’ll go to the café by the station,” he said. “I guess I can close up for a few.”
I was completely stunned now and curious. “Okay.”
He said nothing else. He carefully checked the envelope to make sure the contents were inside and folded down the seal again and placed it in the office safe. For the first time ever, I caught him occasionally staring into the middle distance instead of typing in data and every time I brought him a complaint, he simply stamped it and said, “Fine.”
He took two phone calls on the red phone in the back office and came out staring into space, mussing his hair with his fingers, and wiping his glasses after each one.
The crowd went wild when he pulled down the shade at lunchtime. The souls were never pleased to see the window closed and Brian hadn’t closed up since I had started working for him. We walked past the line outside and the lost souls began to howl with indignation. Someone threw a dismembered foot at us and someone else belched out a cloud of nasty smelling smoke in our direction. In her frustration, a rather nicely dressed middle aged woman stabbed the man behind her in the eye with a ballpoint pen. One man was busily trying to remove the head of another, presumably to use it as a weapon, and one soul was actually so angry it caught fire. Brian had called in some demons to deal with the inevitable crowd control and they started giving the crowd back what it was giving us.
“Well, at least the line will be a little shorter when we get back,” Brian said with a wry smile as we watched a demon launch a screaming woman through a tall window two stories above us in the open lobby.
At the café, we sat at a table in the corner and he ordered omelets and fries for both of us – these were typically the least noxious thing on the menu, the eggs usually dry, rubbery and burnt and the fries cold and clammy. Really not bad for Hell.
“Hold the ants this time,” he joked to the waiter, a mirthless gray fellow with a long face and a missing right thumb. Of course, there were inevitably a few insects in the food.
“I’ll do what I can,” sniffed the waiter. He removed himself with a long drawn out sigh.
We sat for a moment, the cracked vinyl of the booth cutting into our skin. Brian stared down and picked at food that had been stuck on the table for eternity.
Finally, I reached across the table and touched his hand.
“Brian,” I asked. “What is going on?”
“We got a letter from the higher ups. Things are going to change,” he said quietly. “They’re going to change a lot.”
He looked out the window into the congealed gray of the day. Sulfurous steam simmered out of the man holes in the street and a flabby, greasy rain was falling.
“You mean from…him? You know, your cousin?” I asked. Brian was the only one who said his name.
“Satan?” he said. “No. From higher up.” He pointed at the ceiling.
“You mean…you can’t mean…Heaven?” I asked in a whisper. “Do they have jurisdiction here?”
“Of course,” said Brian. “What they say goes. Everywhere and all the time.”
“So what’s up?” I asked. “More punishments?”
This was disturbing. I mean, after all, no one in Hell could quite believe that we’d chosen to come here and clean up demon cat barf and fight with ghouls and eat clammy fries for eternity. After being in Hell for a while, you have to start believing that you would never have made this decision on your own. Somehow, some way you had to have been tricked into it, or someone changed the rules on you, or you never understood them in the first place. It’s the last rationalization that holds your soul together. Heaven becomes…quite frankly…hard to trust. You begin to ask uncomfortable questions about those people “up there.”
“No,” said Brian. He was very quiet. “The truth is I’m not sure exactly, but it looks like they may be closing us down.”
“Closing us down,” I choked on my coffee. “How can they? Why would they? That doesn’t even make sense. This is supposed to be eternity here.”
“Shhh…” Brian said. “Look, I don’t know the details and I don’t want to cause a panic. We won’t know the details for a couple of weeks at the very least. It may be longer than that.”
“Are they moving us?” I asked. “What’s going to happen to all of the souls?”
“Haven’t been told yet,” Brian said. “We’re waiting on orders.”
We finished in silence and returned to the office, wading through the melee in front of the complaint window, crunching over lost limbs, and sloshing through pools of blood and demon slobber and we quietly finished out the day.
The white envelope in the safe burned a hole in the back of my brain with its existential implications. The only thing I could think of was that we would all be dissolved along with Hell. Obviously we had been rejected for Heaven in the first place so…what else could it be? The thought formed a permanent undercurrent of anxiety.
Fortunately, the complaint window was a constant source of diversion. Helping souls fill out forms, trying to keep the lines moving and typing information into the database took up most of my brain. I only had time to think about things in the evenings, which Dennis and I spent watching the bad reality television shows that were blaring through the tiny apartment. (One of the most insidious punishments of Hell was the terrible cable programming that could not be turned off.) Dennis always chose the most obnoxious program he could find and guarded the remote carefully with his claws. Still, all in all, I started to think that things were simply going back to normal. Eternity ground on with no visible change. Sometimes, when I was feeling reflective, I thought that ceasing to exist was the best option. Mostly though, I was afraid.
Then one evening after work, while one of the eternal reruns of “The Apprentice” was blasting through the apartment, brawling it out with the howls of Dennis, who’d barfed up all his dinner and was angrily demanding more, I heard a knock at the door. I was terrified. Sometimes demons showed up the apartment doors and demanded entry and then robbed, tortured, raped or otherwise terrorized the inhabitants. I had been somewhat safer than the other inhabitants of my building up until now, probably because I worked for Brian. I grabbed Dennis and prepared to throw him at intruder.
“Hey! Ow!” shrieked Dennis. “I’m watching TV! Help! Help me! You’re fired!”
A few seconds more and he would have had my hand off but then I heard a familiar voice outside the door. I dropped Dennis.
“Open up would you, c’mon,” the voice said. “It’s me, Brian.”
I put down the demon cat with only minor damage taken to my arms and legs and opened the door. He flung himself on the couch and I handed him a flat, warm beer.
“Tomorrow,” he said. “He was out of breath from puffing up the stairs. “It starts tomorrow.”
“What does?” I asked him.
“The end,” he puffed, “of Hell.”
I sat down.
He took a huge gulp of beer. “We have to start processing people out of here.”
“Processing them out?” I asked. “What does that mean?”
“The train is heading only outbound now and we’ve got to start putting souls on it. And demons. And collect all the soul fragments and demon cats,” he pointed at Dennis, “and the monkeys with skulls for heads and every last washed up piece of existential scum we can find in this place.”
“What if they don’t want to go?” I asked.
“Doesn’t matter. Everyone that we can find goes on the train. They’ll have to work hard to get left behind. Of course, some of them will manage. I suppose there will be no way to prevent them from fading out with Hell if they want to. But our orders are to do the absolute best we can.”
“How?” I asked. “Is it even possible?”
Brian shrugged, “I don’t write policy. I implement it.”
“What about your cousin?” I asked.
“What about him?” Brian said. “Haven’t even heard from him in a while now. He’s probably hiding. Who knows?”
“Where are we going?” I asked. “What’s going to happen to all of us?”
He snorted. “I was told something about how it will be better for all of us…blah, blah, blah. And you wouldn’t understand the technicalities… blah, blah, blah.”
We were both silent. “Do you think annihilation will better than this?” I asked. I had suspected for some time that would be Heaven’s “answer” for this place. From my own vantage point, there wasn’t much worth saving here, including myself. I could only imagine how the place looked from Heaven.
“Don’t know that it is annihilation,” Brian said. “I don’t have any idea where we’re sending everyone. Or why they would put everyone on the train if they just want to get rid of us. But if you want even a chance to continue existing, there’s only one choice. Because I do know that when it’s over this place will disappear. It’s to be destroyed. Everything. The Lake of Fire, The Craggy Mountains, the office. The database. The files. The forms. My whole…eternity. Gone.”
“It is Hell Brian,” I said as I considered the implications of his words. “Do you think there’s a possibility that we could be going somewhere better?”
“I don’t know. I guess, for me, it’s not even about better or worse,” he said. He paced to the window and looked out into the dark night of Hell. A scream pierced the night and then raucous laughter. “It’s just about who I am. And who am I supposed to be when I leave here? I’m not like you. I haven’t had a life before this. Not that I can remember.”
“You’ll be you,” I said. “No matter where you are. C’mon. The demons are in the same boat as you and they’re going. Maybe it won’t be so bad.” I was worried too. The whole thing smelled suspicious, but someone had to look on the bright side of Hell closing. There really was no other side to look on.
“Maybe,” he said. He shrugged his shoulders. He turned and gave me a sad smile.
“Come in early tomorrow?” Brian asked.
“Of course,” I said.
And that was it. The database allowed us to organize the exodus, at least to a certain extent. We began to evacuate Hell neighborhood by neighborhood and things went in somewhat a more orderly fashion than I would have thought possible. Of course, that’s because I expected complete pandemonium and almost 100% noncompliance. My bar was pretty low. But apparently some souls wanted to take the chance to get out of Hell. The demons collected souls and returned them to us and within the first few weeks we sent out train car after train car stuffed with souls. We had no idea where they were going or what was going to happen to them. We just put them on the train and hoped for the best. I felt somewhat ill at ease because there was no sign of the destruction we’d been promised. What if it was all some sort of horrible trick?
Of course, it wasn’t easy. The orders we received had said that the inhabitants of Hell were to bring absolutely nothing with them. They wouldn’t need anything. Before putting them on the train, the demons shook souls whose pockets were filled with Hell Coin or some takeout from the diner. Some souls tried carrying on suitcases full of shoes and clothing, bags of dirty laundry. One strange little man with bug eyes had a collection of bone and limbs he’d picked up on the street. He sobbed when the demons found the last small detached and gangrenous toe in his pocket, but they stuffed him on the train anyway, toeless. Souls tried to take books and desk lamps, rolled up string, used tape or old stained rugs. Loading up each car left a huge pile of garbage on the platform which the demons then had to move before we could load another.
And we didn’t know how long we had. The bubble of eternity which had encased Hell seemed to be wearing thin, and we all felt the pressure. As eternity grew thinner, all of us began to feel incredible exhaustion. I was so tired that the thought eternal nonexistence started to sound like a vacation.
We had started with the neighborhoods closest to the train station as a matter of practicality, although we sent demons out to the farthest reaches of Hell to begin to collect souls and bring them closer for the transfer. One day, the band of demons that had been sent to one of the border areas returned with a huge group of souls and some bad news. Hell was crumbling. The outer edges were simply falling apart. The rocky, mountainous area where they had been was nothing but rolling rock and avalanche. There were already mountains that had crumbled into dust and the dust? They had seen it fading into nothing. The nothing was rolling inwards. Heaven’s invitation was to board a train to “something better.” The alternative to leaving Hell was literally nothing. The souls who showed up for the ride became more and more resigned and less difficult to put on the train.
We didn’t have much time, and eternity was no longer on our side, if it ever had been. We worked as far into the night as possible. Demons had no time to torment the souls or to argue with them; they were actually working with Brian for once instead of against him. There was a strange camaraderie in Hell. Souls began wandering in from every edge of Hell on their own, wondering what was going on and telling stories of the ground crumbling under them, of lava pits going cold, and then an encroaching nothing. It was impossible to know how many of the souls were accounted for or how many of them had been sucked into the nothing. But there wasn’t much we could do. We worked on. Every soul or fragment, every demon or winged rat that we could find was put on the train.
We began to tick off souls from the database, more with every movement of the great clock of bone that hung over the station house. But one day, just when we thought we might be making headway, Alister, formerly chief tormentor of souls in the Lake of Fire, now leading the brigade to pluck burning souls out of it and bring them to the train, came back with a load of souls and an extraordinary announcement.
“The lake of fire went out,” he said matter of factly. He dumped out some souls whose charred skin was not even smoking. “Feel this guy.” He thumbed at a large man with the remains of a charred suit standing near Brian.
Brian reached out and touched the man’s sleeve. “Cold,” he said.
At about that time, Arabask, the fallen angel whose job it was to collect soul fragments from the edge of the pit of True Hell returned as well.
“There is no more Lava Fall into the pit,” she said. “The River Nepenthe has dried up. The inside of the pit is crumbling sand and the pit has ceased releasing soul fragments.”
She held in her long thin fingers a squirming black bag. “This seems to be the last of them.”
Brian checked his list. “We’ve still got a lot of souls to get on the train,” he said. “But who knows…maybe we can do it. I’d like to at least accomplish my last task.”
We worked even harder. Brian whirred with energy. I stood by the doors of the train cars and checked people off the list. Brian sent out demon after demon to gather souls and report. He personally put souls on the train. He made phone calls and checked the data base. He ran back and forth to the office and even checked the bathrooms in Hell station to make sure no fearful souls had tried to take refuge there. The nothing was moving in, but we were moving souls out.
The demons reported that the far side of the pit had crumbled. We kept stuffing souls onto train cars. The demons reported that the forest of dead trees on this side of the pit was nothing but dust. We kept loading train cars.
Finally, we could hear the noise of destruction from the train station. A roaring, rumbling sound filled the distance in the morning, and by lunchtime the ground beneath the platform had begun to quiver just a little. I looked up and saw a black swirling cloud gathering behind the city.
I kept loading train cars. All souls who had come or been brought to the station had at last been loaded. Now we were down to workers. We started to load the last of the demons, incubi and succubae, vampire bats, small rat shaped demons, and the monkey with the skull head who at last had to be deprived of my shoe.
One train left and we started to load another. A huge black bird of prey swooped in and landed on a broken light post.
“It has reached the city,” he intoned wearily. “If there are any other souls, I cannot find them. They have surely become one with the nothing.”
The platform beneath my feet shivered and the bird flew up to the train and hopped in the car. A groaning creaking sound came from the station and we looked up to see a window cracking.
The last of Hell’s citizens now stood on the platform.
“This is it. The last train out of Hell,” Brian said. We looked up and across the great city and we watched as a tall black tower fell with a great crash. The ground shook again.
“Do you think we have everyone?” I asked.
“Everyone that wanted to take the chance, surely,” said Brian.
The train sat trembling on the tracks, puffing steam and the last of Hell’s citizens began to clamber aboard.
“It’s time to go Brian,” I said. There was nothing left for us now but faith in the slim possibility of Heaven’s largesse.
“Time to get on the train,” he agreed.
“You too,” he pointed at Alistair, and Arabask, and a couple of the blue demons who were left standing on the tracks. “Let’s go people! Get on this train!”
He called to the clusters of demons huddled on the red banks that led the train tracks out of Hell. The hillside was beginning to tremble. “Get on top of the train!” he called out. “Ride this one out! It’s time!”
In some confusion, they began to cluster on the top of the overstuffed train cars and cling to the windows on the side.
A red rock rolled from the top of one of the banks and landed next to the train. I scurried up the steps of the caboose. Brian climbed up on the back of the caboose next to me and handed me the carrier with Dennis inside. He held my hand for just a brief second and to my eternal surprise, he leaned forward and gave me a little kiss.
“Thanks!” he whispered.
The ground quivered under the train and I heard the whistle start to blow. I put my hand on Brian’s and he smiled, but then to my surprise he pulled it away and stepped off the edge of the caboose and back onto the platform.
“Brian get on the train! Brian, take my hand!” I reached out for him and he leaned forward and touched my hand. He shook his head.
“There’s nothing for me out there. I don’t like this but I can’t want anything else. You go and I’ll be…” his words were drowned out by the train whistle and the reverberating sound of falling buildings on the far side of the city.
The train started to huff and tremble forward and I reached back again. Rocks rained down on the top and bounced up to the caboose platform.
I heard Dennis wailing, “Ow! Go inside the train you idiot! Ow! Help! Why didn’t they let you bring any food! Help I’m being pelted with rocks! Help! I’m starving!”
I ignored him and called out. “Brian, give me your hand.” I managed lean forward far enough to catch his fingers in mine, only to feel them slip away as Arabask looped her strong claw around my waist. The train began to move in earnest.
“Brian!” I screamed but my voice fell flat into the swirling dust and was drowned out by the noise of Hell’s destruction.
I saw Brian moving away from me, standing alone on the swaying platform. I watched as the main office swayed back and forth, almost gracefully for something so squat and ugly, and then collapse in on itself. Brian still stood there waving while Hell collapsed around him, looking calm and efficient in his bow tie. I saw him wipe his glasses on his button down shirt and then the thick dust of Hell’s collapse obscured him from my view.
Somewhere a small train is puffing along the tracks on just this side of eternity. No one knows for certain exactly where it’s going. Now it moves through a dark tunnel and the riders sleep. Now it stops in a sleepy village and the passengers disembark and eat at one of the inns on the way... Most of them get back on the train at the stops, some stay... Sometimes new passengers join the train.
Now the train stops in a sleepy golden meadow. A tall ebony woman with hair the color of moonbeams and a beautiful giant of a man with dark red skin get off the train. Between them they carry a basket. A young woman follows them with a black and white cat. Together they make their way to the center of the field. The man and woman bend down and open the lid of the basket together. Small, dark, bat like creatures flutter out of the basket and into the air. At first, it seems that the heavy golden air pushes them to the ground and they flail and jerk, but after a few moments in the sun the tattered creatures rise and the sky is filled with colored butterflies and birds. The young woman laughs as the cat chases a beautiful gold and green bird until it settles on his head and gently pecks at his nose. The girl picks up the cat and they watch the birds and butterflies rise and fly until the last one is a speck in the distance. After a moment of silence, they hear the whistle blow and they return to the train. It moves off into the distance. Toward a mountain town, so they’ve heard.
Whistlestop October 1929
The Honorable Clayton Silver was sitting on his porch, smoking his pipe one autumn evening, watching the Moonbeams press down wraiths of fog rising from the creek bed in a heavy handed yet amiable way. The ghosts drifted lazily – the weight of the moonlight prevented them rising too high off the ground. They lit up silver, realized the moon was watching them, then slunk back down to the bank and swam away before trying again.
Judge Silver’s wife had died five years ago and he didn’t know why he still felt compelled to come outside to smoke, no matter the weather. There was no one but himself to please now and he didn’t mind the smell of stale smoke. Habit he supposed. He did like a routine. Tonight his warm jacket and the moonlight had nearly made him think he was content for a moment. He alternately whistled a tune and smoked his pipe. And then he heard it.
At first it was just a low murmur from behind the copse of scrub trees by the road. His house was set back off the way a little, and the driveway curved so he couldn’t quite see the lane. The low rumble seemed friendly, like the sound of a farm truck from a distance or waves on a beach. There was a little ebb and swell to it. A rippling sort of rhythm. But as it approached he started to feel the drumbeat under it, a throbbing and pounding. The roar contained sharper sounds…voices. The friendly rumble of the distance became prickly with detail.
Judge Silver stood up and moved to the edge of the porch still holding his pipe in one hand, puzzled and waiting. In a few more moments he saw the crowd, a blur moving toward him through the drifting fog. A few piercing beams of light stabbed out of the amorphous shape and then bounced back off the lazy fog. The ever expanding and pulsating mass came toward him rapidly.
“What in the bloody hell?” he asked the chilly autumn night. The autumn night didn’t answer, being busy as it was making ghosts out of moonlight and fog. He squinted. It was no use. His glasses were sitting inside on his desk.
The dream of fog was finally torn apart by a single figure sprinting in front of the crowd. Judge Silver was normally a man of action but then again he normally had some idea what in the hell was going on. So he stood there, immobile, as he tried to comprehend the scene in front of him and find some precedent for such a thing buried in his memory. Before his brain could react the swarm was upon him and the lone figure in front had made a desperate leap. His pipe fell to the porch, tobacco scattering in the light wind and he found his arms full of…Ida Fox May. The poor woman was trembling against him, breathing hard. She buried her face in his woolen shoulder. He caught her up against him and felt her sink, melting with exhaustion.
For a few moments, the mob seemed sporting. Their prey had been cornered and they could bide their time. The murmur settled a bit while Ida struggled to catch her breath. The judge faced them still holding Ida up from the waist. It looked like half the town was here. He forced his eyes to cut into the darkness and he took a deep breath of the chilly air. They were beginning to stir, pulsing forward a little again. Ida drew as far up against him as she could. Her raven black hair curled wildly around her head and her black eyes were as wide as saucers in her face.
“Lord help us all,” he said firmly and loudly so the crowd could hear him. “What on God’s green earth are you people up to?” He spoke slowly and solemnly, using his most judicial voice, not because he had any idea how to drive this train nor where it was going…he was just buying time.
Right out front he could see Bill Cuthbert, that pasty faced ass, and his wife Myrna. Both were puffing hard. It was no surprise to see Bill there. If there was a lawsuit, Bill was involved. If someone called to notify the constable that some teenagers were petting behind the cemetery, nine times out of ten it was Bill. It was Bill that had caused that ruckus at the church over the new pews in the sanctuary. Whenever there was someone making accusations or getting upset over something that made not a speck of difference to anyone…there was Bill. And here was Bill.
The warm porch light fell close to the house and the moonlight backlit the crowd so he couldn’t make out many faces. The dark knot melted into anonymity back toward the bird bath. The villagers murmured amongst themselves. The judge stood up straight, still holding Ida.
“I don’t know what this about,” he said sternly, “But Bill, how about if you and Myrna start by stepping back off my damn chrysanthemums. Annie planted those the year before she died. Back right up off ‘em.” He didn’t like to swear before ladies, but Good Lord if Bill Cuthbert didn’t make a man lose his head.
Bill looked confused and angry and he gasped out, “There’s something more important goin’ on here than Annie’s mums.” He hesitated, sucking in a big breath, and added, petulantly “Your honor.”
“Bill,” said the judge evenly, “There is nothing in heaven and earth that you could say to me right now that couldn’t be said from off top of Annie’s mums. And so help me I will not hear another word until you move your big feet two steps back.”
Bill looked around at the crowd but no one seemed to disagree with the judge on this point. Hunting down a slight, middle aged woman in the darkness of the night was one thing, but crushing Annie’s mums was a step too far. Bill took Myrna’s elbow and they moved back. He stood up straight and threw his shoulders back, trying to regain his dignity. His belly popped out over his belt a little.
The judge strained his eyes toward the back of the shadowy crowd. “You back there by the bird bath,” he said loudly. “There had better be no one standing on the pansies either.” He could feel rather than see the people in the back shuffling off the pansies, or in all likelihood onto them since most of the damn fools had come running out for this nonsense with no flashlights or lanterns. Despite the poor visibility he could count at least three of the attendees in house slippers and pajama pants.
He noticed that Ida was still trembling and he patted her shoulder. He looked into the crowd. “You there,” he said firmly to a silhouette he thought belonged to Janice Hopkins, the Mayor’s wife, “Go right inside and get that old green afghan off the armchair and bring it here. And get my glasses off my desk. Scoot!”
He frowned and the shadow scooted and indeed resolved into Janice Hopkins as she came into the circle of light on the porch. The judge was used to telling people what to do and they were used to doing it. That, he figured, was the only advantage he had as he tried to sort this mess.
When Janice had returned with the afghan, he put it around Ida’s shoulders, plopped her in a chair and slid his glasses up over his ears and looked into the crowd. He thought he might have seen old Allie McCall hobbling her way to the front; her malevolent curiosity always gave her a strange energy. And was that Charlie Johnson looking like a fox in the henhouse, long nose almost meeting pointy chin in his smirk, arms folded over his chest? A few ladies – he thought they were from the Home Circle at the church - were standing close to the front of the crowd with their husbands, whispering to each other and shaking their heads.
“Where’s the young Reverend Dingle?” asked the judge, “What about Constable Patrick?” His eyes strained the crowd for a friend or two.
Janice Hopkins raised her hand, as if she were in second grade. “Janice?” asked the judge.
“They’ve gone on a fishing trip together,” she chirped.
“I see,” said Judge Silver.
He turned to look at Ida. She had the afghan wrapped tight around herself. No coat and wearing a nightgown and a pair of flat black leather slippers. She was still shivering a little from the chill night air. The sudden impulse of the mob had apparently taken her by surprise, he supposed, just as it had him.
The judge faced Bill and Myrna. Myrna was clinging to Bill’s arm still breathing loudly. “What’s the problem Bill?” he asked.
Bill Cuthbert removed himself from Myrna’s grasp and cleared his throat.
“That woman right there…” he paused and turned in a full circle (nearly crushing Myrna) to give the crowd the benefit of seeing him swing around and stop with his pale stubby finger pointed at Ida. “…is a witch!”
Ida sat mute in her chair, as the crowd began to clamor. The judge saw a sudden darting black shadow streak up the side of the porch and land in her lap. It was her old black cat. Ida rubbed his scruffy head, fondling the torn left ear and the cat looked out into the crowd through his sharp yellow eyes. Calmly, he started to clean his paws.
Ida hugged him close to her, “Mister Wilkerson,” she said weakly to the cat. “You shouldn’t be here.” She put her face in the back of his big furry head and the judge heard her whisper, “But I sure am glad to see you.” Then she sat there. Quiet.
“Alright Bill,” said the judge, loud enough to suppress the noise of the crowd somewhat. “I’ll tell you what. Let me fill my pipe and then we’ll hash this out.” He picked up the pipe from the porch floor and felt around his coat pockets for his tobacco and a match. He assessed the crowd. The majority were probably there to be entertained by the rabble-rousers. Neither group was any help to him. Of course, anyone with the sense God gave a potted geranium was at home right now in front of the fire. Lord he hated his job sometimes. It was always the idiots. He took his time lighting his pipe.
After the smoke was rolling comfortably out of the bowl, he said, “Let’s have it then Bill.” He leaned against one of the porch columns. He didn’t want to give the weight of formality to this bedlam.
“Now then Bill, what makes you think Ida is a witch?” He blew out a puff of smoke and let it settle on the chrysanthemums.
"That woman that you see before you, Ida Fox May…at 3:55 this afternoon…turned Howard William Campbell into a mouse,” Bill panted. “I saw it happen.”
The crowd sucked in the night air and expelled it in one great gasp.
The judge was a little taken aback as he had expected something somewhat less specific. He looked at Ida. “That woman right there…turned Howard, the grocery delivery boy, into a mouse?” He blew out a puff of smoke. He didn’t know how to respond, “Today? At exactly 3:55?”
“That is exactly what happened, your honor. Although, my watch may be just a minute or two slow.” Bill said and patted his watch pocket and folded his arms across his chest.
The crowd clucked and murmured in response. Judge Silver thought he heard a few people laughing.
Bill cleared his throat, preparing to go on when someone yelled, “Wait! Wait! Here he is!”
People were turning around and shuffling, forming a path, and then he saw Howard and Ronnie Smith, the owner of the Barton and Smith Market, making their way through the crowd.
“Here I am! Here I am!” gasped Howard.
The judge sighed. “Bill…here’s Howard.” he said. “Can we drop this now?”
“I see him!” huffed Bill. “I never said he didn’t get better. Doesn’t mean he wasn’t a mouse. I was getting to that part.”
Exasperated, the judge turned from Bill back to Howard.
“Lord Bill, you’re a sap!” someone called out.
“Ask him! Ask him!” Bill called out, pointing at Howard. “He can tell you better than I can.”
“All right!” said the judge. “Howard can we just clear this up? Did Ida turn you into…I can’t believe I’m asking this…into a mouse?”
Howard looked nervous. He looked down at his shoes and shuffled his feet. Howard was notoriously shy.
“It’s okay Howard,” Ronnie patted him on the back. “Tell the judge what happened.”
“Well,” Howard said, after clearing his throat a few times and pushing his glasses back up his nose, “Ida May,” here he stopped and smiled at Ida, she smiled back encouragingly, “Ida had ordered some milk and flour and I think maybe some vinegar and oh…cat food…I can’t remember if she ordered coffee or not….”
“Howard,” said the judge, “Can you skip ahead to the part where Ida did or did not turn you into a mouse?”
“Okay,” said Howard. “I got to her house and knocked at the door. She didn’t answer so I figure she’s in the garden like usual. So I set the delivery on the porch and Mr. Wilkerson there,” he stopped to point at the cat and wave, “Hello Mr. Wilkerson, hello, ol" buddy! The cat walks back to the garden gate to show me Ida’s there. He’s really smart.”
“The cat is probably her familiar!” Bill said loudly.
“Yes,” said Myrna, she turned to the crowd. “That means her little helper from the Devil. Bill looked it up.” She patted Bill’s arm in pride.
There were a number of “Good Lords!” and “Oh dears” from the church ladies and some guffaws from the back.
“Now, now!” the judge said. “For goodness sakes!”
Something suddenly occurred to him. He looked quizzically at Howard. “Howard, you’re not stuttering.”
Ronnie held up his hand, “He’s getting to that your Honor.” He patted Howard on the back to get him going again. A good hard thump or two and Howard sputtered back to a start.
“So, anyway, I follow Mr. Wilkerson to the back yard,” said Howard, “And Ida is standing there and she says ‘Howard, you remember how you told me that the boys make fun of you for that stutter?’ and I say yes…because I did remember it. And she says, ‘Howard I think I can help you. I really feel like I can. Do you trust me?” And I say yes. Because I do,” Howard smiled at Ida again.
“And?” said the judge. “Then what?”
“Well,” said Howard, “She just puts some powder on my tongue and puts out her hand like this.” Howard curved his hand toward himself and then flung it out dramatically ending with his fingers splayed. He held it this way for a moment until Ronnie helped him ease it down.
“After that,” Howard said, “I felt myself pulling inside and shutting up small. I really did. Smaller and smaller, my skin was shrinking and wrapping up the rest of me really tight. It was kind of uncomfortable.”
There were gasps from the Home Circle.
Howard waited for them to die down and he went on, “And then I was falling down and I remember looking up with Ida over me and she looked like a giant and I was so small and then she took me in her hand and kissed me…and then it was over. I unfolded right back out into myself. No stuttering after that! I was a little scared and tired, but it was all just to make me better. That’s what I think. I think it was just to make me better.”
Howard paused for breath, “She said, ‘It’s never happened like that before. But it never happens the same.’ Then she gave me some tea and I went back to the store.”
This crowd drew in another breath and exhaled loudly. And then he could hear the chorus of “Oh lords!” and “Lord Help”s coming from close to the porch. From the crowd of wags toward the back he heard more laughter.
“Awww…for goodness sakes!” someone called out. “C’mon Bill! Did you put Howard up to this?”
Bill was yelling, “I told you I saw it! I didn’t tell Howard what to say!”
“Bill, you’re an ass!” said a tall man from the back.
“He’s a pompous fool!” came a woman’s voice.
“He’s got a point!” yelled old Charlie Jenkins, “I’ve seen her out late in the moonlight a’pickin’ herbs!”
“I’ve seen her with a raven on her shoulder, feeding it bread,” warbled out Allie McCall.
“She gave that Edelson girl a love charm,” someone else called out.
“She healed Emily Jo Baker’s back with one word!” someone else yelled.
The judge was silent for a moment. He bit his upper lip with his bottom teeth, the way he did when he was thinking. He wiped his glasses.
“Howard,” he finally asked, waving the crowd quiet. “Are you really telling me that Ida Fox May, this woman here, turned you into,” here the judge hesitated with distaste at his own question, “this woman turned you into a mouse?”
“Maybe,” said Howard earnestly. “Honestly it was so quick and I was so small and all…it could have been a newt or a bird or something too…but I think I felt furry. I’d say a mouse.” He squinted and attempted to look thoughtful as he pushed his glasses back up his nose. “Yes, if I had to guess, I would say it was a mouse.”
“Did anyone ask you to say this Howard?” the judge asked.
“No!” Howard said. “No!”
“Did she charge you anything for curing your stutter Howard?” asked the judge kindly.
Howard became flustered. “No. No. Of course not. Ida is my friend. She even still gave me a tip afterwards.”
There was a ripple throughout the crowd and they moved back ever so slightly from the porch where Ida was sitting calmly stroking the cat.
“Ha!” said Bill. “I told you what I saw. She turned him into a mouse. I saw the whole thing from the knot hole in my back yard fence.”
“That’s creepy Bill!” someone yelled.
“Better watch out, she’ll turn you into a newt!” someone else laughed.
Bill stood sputtering, unable to formulate a response.
The judge stared at the scene before him. The moonlight glinted off Howard’s bent wire glasses, and fell mildly on Charlie Johnson’s tattered old dressing gown, lit up the bit of white apron that Janet Hopkins still had on as it peeked out from under her coat, and it shone off the top of Bill Cuthbert’s balding head, making his comb over look like spiderwebs. Judge Silver felt like he was waking into some sort of strange nightmare where dream logic was required. He turned to Ida. The porch light behind her formed a sort of halo on her wild hair and her deep golden skin glowed. The shadow cat, visible only because he lay across her white gown like an ink stain, lay perfectly still on her thighs.
“Bill,” he said, “I don’t know how I can help you. Even if Ida did turn Howard into a mouse, which for the record, I can’t find it in myself to believe, there’s no law against it. Howard seems fine. And his stutter is cured to boot. She’s not committing fraud or taking anyone’s money. Constable Patrick couldn’t find anything to charge Ida with if he wanted to.”
He turned to Allie and Charlie, “And there’s certainly no law against being out in the moonlight or feeding birds.”
“She’s a witch!” Bill insisted. “That ought to be enough! Nobody can do that sort of thing if they aren’t paired up with the Devil! It ought to be enough that she’s a witch.” He crossed his arms on his chest with an air of finality.
“Well, it isn’t,” said the judge. “There’s no law against being a witch…or, as far as I know, turning someone into a mouse and back again. Or finding a cure for stuttering. These are modern times Bill. We don’t hound women over witchcraft anymore. Not that I believe any of this mess anyway. I’m half inclined to think you’re all drunk. Or I’m dreaming. Maybe Howard thought he was turned into a mouse. I don’t know. But there is absolutely no crime involved that I can think of.”
“Now,” he said, “Since no one has been hurt and everyone is accounted for…why don’t we all just go home.”
The crowd was uncertain for a moment whether the entertainment was over. Even the church people had to admit that Howard was certainly accounted for. A few people in the back started to drift away.
“Ask her,” said Bill. “Ask Ida May and see what she says! You at least have to ask her.”
The judge was having none of it. “Now,” he said loudly, “This is getting ridiculous. And I won’t have it. Go home. Everyone.”
But Ida Fox May had stood up. Mr. Wilkerson slid to her feet, vanishing into the darkness at the edges of her gown.
“It’s all right, Clayton,” she said; she laid her hand softly on the judge’s arm and he felt a tingle shoot from where her fingers touched him right up to the back of his neck. For just a split second he believed Ida could do anything. Even turn someone into a mouse. He shook his head to clear it.
She looked at the judge and said quietly, calmly, “Clayton, I did turn Howard into a mouse. I know you can’t believe me but I did it.”
“Tell them. Tell all of them.” Bill demanded. “Tell them what you did.”
She was a slight woman but in her white gown, hair blossoming around her head, cloaked in the green afghan with the glow of the warm light falling from behind her on her golden skin, the judge thought she looked like a queen. The crowd had to quiet down to hear her spare, light voice as she spoke to the judge.
“I just wanted to help him,” she said. “All the boys made fun of him. I didn’t know exactly how the magic would work. I never do. I’ve never known it to transform someone before. It just happened.” She shook her head. “It was an accident Clayton, you have to believe me.”
"I can't believe you Ida," said the judge, "But whatever happened, I believe you believe it. And you meant no harm."
“She admits it!” Bill pointed at her. “She’s a witch!”
“It didn’t last!” Howard protested. “I’m okay.”
“For goodness sakes, shut up Bill! He’s fine now,” said Ronnie Smith. “Whatever happened - Howard is fine. Better even. I don’t care whether it was some sort of hypnosis or even if she is a witch, which for the record I can’t swallow any more than the judge. What are you going to do burn her? Nonsense! Let’s go home.”
There was a moment of quiet. Ronnie took Howard by the arm and started to lead him away. The judge took a long, calm draw on his pipe. The villagers were beginning to realize the fun was coming to an end. The old people and the ladies from the Home Circle hovered nervously – surely an outright admission of witchcraft ought to provoke some sort of response. But the rest of the assembly began to melt away at the edges.
“She’s a witch! She’s dangerous! You have to believe me!” Bill was calling out to the retreating villagers. “I saw it! She has to be stopped.”
But the judge was telling Ida that she could bring back his afghan in the morning and that maybe it would be safer to wait until the crowd had cleared to go home.
“Somebody has to do something!” Bill shrieked. He heaved himself up to the low porch. He pushed the judge backwards, away from Ida May. Clayton Silver felt Bill’s pudgy fist bounce off his chest and in his surprise he fell to the porch floor, losing both his glasses and his pipe.
The judge was scrambling to his feet, trying to prevent Bill from reaching Ida when her slender golden arm shot out and she said something…a word the judge couldn’t ever remember.
Bill stopped as if something invisible had struck him in the stomach. His mouth opened into a round ‘O.’ Then he was pushed backwards, knocked off his feet by an invisible hand. Bill became darker and smaller, the ends of his arms and legs flattening and stretching out and then coiling themselves around his body. It was as if a snake were eating him, but that snake was himself. His eyes were wide and frightened until they shrunk suddenly into little glittering beads. At the very last moment there was a small pop and he dropped, stunned, onto the floor of the porch. The judge blinked. There was nothing there except a small, black snake, blinking and flicking its tongue.
Ida looked shocked. Her hands flew to her mouth. She leaned over the little snake, apparently trying to steel herself to take him in her hands…to set him free from the enchantment.
But just as she was going to close her fingers on the tiny snake, Mr. Wilkerson darted out like a shadow from the silken sweep of her gown. One paw caught the tail and the shining fangs sank into the middle of the coils. One shake, two shakes, three. The snake went limp. Mr. Wilkerson did not release it.
There was silence, except for Myrna’s moaning, which wafted around the night like the fog. “Oh Bill! Oh Bill! Oh Laws she’s killed Bill! She and that devil cat have killed my Bill!””
Ida picked up the afghan from the porch floor and wrapped it around herself. She picked up the cat, snake still dangling limp from its mouth and held him to her chest, protectively. A drop of blood had fallen on her clean, white gown.
“Oh Mr. Wilkerson,” the judge heard her say softly, “Oh, naughty, naughty, Mr. Wilkerson.”
Then…where Ida and Mr. Wilkerson and the snake had been, there was nothing. A wisp of moonlit fog swept through on the wind and left a few curling ghosts dissolving in the night air. Neither Bill nor Ida was ever seen again.
Ever after the villagers swore that high, high up on the ridge, under the ancient and twisted oak that looks down on the village of Whistlestop, where the ruins of an ancient settlement linger, there is sometimes a light and sometimes smoke curling, as if from a chimney. And sometimes they say, if you walk up the path that leads to the old oak for a good piece, you’ll think you see big black cat hunting in the shadows before it disappears like a ghost. Some of the townsfolk say that until he died, Judge Silver sometimes walked up that path in the moonlight, though no one knows how far he followed it, as there was no one in the village brave enough to tag on behind him. The judge died at the ripe old age of eighty, but on occasion the villagers still smell the fragrance of pipe smoke and hear the thin sound of whistling drifting down from the ridge.
Mr. Wilkerson sat on the porch. Biding his time. A tangle of cobweb hung from one ear, but he did not raise his paw to remove it. His ear quivered. He was within three minutes of the time she normally came out for coffee and now the fine threads of spider silk were drifting into his eye on the breeze. He’d left the burrs where they were and his back quivered with an anxious need to remove them. But he needed to inspire sympathy. Not the emotion he preferred to inspire...but...he did what he had to do. He moved the dead mouse forward, between his paws, so she would see it and understand it was a gift. He’d cleaned most of the blood off it. It was whole, more presentable than his normal offerings, which usually consisted of the head thinly connected to whatever entrails did not appeal to his mood. But he had discovered that many humans had an objection to small piles of intestines. He was a bit hungry but he could wait.. He wasn’t nervous. It would work. He felt the vibrations. This was the place.
Whistlestop sits close to the top of a mountain, a little aloof from the rest of civilization. The winds of the world bend strangely around that mountainside and the people of Whistlestop don’t feel and see things quite like the rest of us. The residents of Whistlestop are part of that strange atmosphere from the day they are born; they breathe it in every day with every lungful of air; they take in the heady atmosphere like the Sherpas take the altitudes. If there’s one thing a person could say about Whistlestop, it’s that reality doesn’t do it justice (or maybe vice versa). Most of the tales that Whistlestoppers tell about themselves sound a lot like fairy tales and legends to outsiders. But what about an outsider’s perspective? You might expect such a story to come up against some sort of rift in reality and get pretty weird. Your expectations would be met. This story has a crack in it….a crack through which the light, what little there is, seeps in fitfully.
Now, I didn’t come by this story in the usual way. As a rule, the narratives of Whistlestop bubble up from the underground springs of the whispered gossip that is the main course of church potlucks and the “prayer requests” that are meant more to relay information to the other church goers than to the Lord Almighty. The tales grow up from dinner party conversations that start with “bless her heart” and the little talks at the grocery store when someone asks “did you hear about?” They start with a shake of the head by the all knowing bar maids at the Pop-A-Top on the wrong side of town, or from Edna Harrison Brooks, the seemingly telepathic former third grade teacher who somehow knows someone who knows someone who knows something about everyone. In this case though, I got the story right from the proverbial horse’s mouth. Or actually, from a friend of mine, a history professor named Mark. Mark called me up one stormy summer evening demanding to see me. He wanted to discuss an “incident.”
“An incident?” I asked. I was busy, deep in the middle of writing a story that had just started to move in the right direction. I didn’t need the distraction.
“An incident that occurred in Whistlestop,” he spat out the name of the town like a bad taste. “Didn’t you used to live there? I have to talk about it. To someone.” His voice was intense. He spoke quickly.
“What were you doing in Whistlestop?” I asked. Whistlestop is not exactly on most people’s must see list.
“Part of the story,” he said testily.
There was silence for a moment as the thunder splintered the darkness of the afternoon and the rain pelted the wavy panes of my office windows. I was intrigued but uneasy. The storm lashed the outside of my window like the furies torturing the damned.
“Sure,” I said. “I guess. You want to come over here?”
“I can’t,” he said. “I have a night class. You’re going to have to come my way.”
“Ummm…,” I looked out at the pounding rain.
“Seriously,” he said. “I need you to hear this.” Had his voice cracked a little?
I sighed. “How about the coffee shop by your office?”
“How about the bar on Fourth?” he said. “I’m going to need a drink.”
Mark was a reasonable person and a good teacher. I couldn’t imagine him drinking before class. After all, he taught history not English. Now I was interested. Seriously interested. Maybe I could get to the car without drowning or being torn asunder by a lightning bolt.
“I’ll be there when I get there,” I said. “In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a monsoon going on out there.”
“Ha!” he shouted into the phone. “Compared to what I’ve just been through? A monsoon is child’s play. Just meet me at four.” He hung up abruptly.
I met Mark at the bar. He already had a table and a whiskey. One storm had melted into another and my hair was plastered to my forehead in spite of my umbrella. I sloshed my way to a booth in the back and slid across a cracked leather seat opposite Mark.
“Really?” I asked, as I sat down. “You don’t drink whiskey.”
“I do now,” he took a long swallow and coughed and sputtered out the word, “Whistlestop.” He shook his head. He took another swallow and I noticed his eyes looked a little wild.
“How many does that make?” I said, indicating the whiskey.
He shrugged, “Just two…so far. I’ll probably need more.”
“I’ll drive you back to campus,” I said. Should be a happening class tonight, I thought.
“I’ll walk,” he looked absently into his whiskey.
I pointed toward the furious storm outside. He shrugged again. We sat in the strange noisy silence fashioned of other people’s conversations, the clinking of glasses, and the clamor of the storm outside while he struggled through a few sips of his drink. You have to be patient with Mark. He can’t or won’t just spit anything out no matter how you press him. So I ordered a beer and peered out through the slithering liquid, watching trees wave desperately in the parking lot until I heard him clear his throat.
He finally leaned back in his chair and began, “It…it was such an ordinary day. I was just going over to Middleton to read a paper, you know?”
I nodded. “And…”
“And…Jerry convinced me to take the scenic route up the mountain. Said there was this little village up at the top I could probably make by lunch time.”
“Whistlestop.” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. “Whistlestop.”
Mark said the first thing he saw as he drove into town was The Laughing Pink Elephant. It’s an antique/junk/oddities store located in a sprawling pink and yellow Victorian at the western edge of town, just a block or two from the town square. He noticed it largely because of the gigantic, aging wooden sign displaying a large pink elephant sitting in a claw foot tub and holding what appears to be a champagne glass. (Most people feel the expression on its face is more pensive than hilarious, but the owners of the place quite stubbornly cling to the idea that the elephant is laughing. The sign has been a target of the town beautification committee - whose members have refused to weigh in on the emotional condition of the elephant but have focused more on the fact that the sign doesn’t appropriately represent the aesthetics of the village as a whole. Or as Mary Edelson Brooks, the head of the village beautification committee told her friend Janet, it’s just plain tacky. Harold and Angel are the owners and they’ll never change it. Harold’s dad, who considered himself something of an artist, painted it.)
Anyway, as Mark tells it, the soft summer breezes had woken him early that morning and seduced him into following Jerry’s lunatic plan. He was somewhat frazzled by the time he reached the village due to having traveled behind a tractor at the speed of 5 mph for fifteen miles during which time his air conditioner had quit working. The open windows had triggered some sneezing and a stuffy nose. But the beauty of the postcard perfect village worked its magic on him and he relaxed as his car came through the last of the hairpin turns and drifted down the lane, through a series of beautiful houses, from turn of the century cottages to large Gothic mansions. He was impressed by the leafy green trees spreading their arms above the shrubs and flowering trees and roses. He noticed some drifting pink petals wafting through the windows. He even said the word wafting. He said he felt like he’d driven into a picture.
I broke in, “Whistlestop does that to people.”
“Don’t interrupt,” he frowned. “This is hard enough.”
I clammed up and watched him swirl some whiskey around on the table with his finger for a minute while I waited for him to continue. He finally looked up and began again.
He said as he drove up to The Laughing Pink Elephant, it occurred to him that he had forgotten to pick up a birthday gift for his mother. He thought he might stop, find a restroom, buy a gift and inquire as to the best place for lunch. As he made his way through the parking lot he took a moment (as most people do) to contemplate the emotionally ambiguous animal on the sign and decided that the elephant - which he thought was more of a salmon color than a true pink - appeared to be somewhat drunk but did not seem to be laughing about it.
When he got out of the car, he realized finding a restroom had become somewhat more mission critical than his other goals. So he walked into the foyer and politely asked the old hippie lady with big gray hair and glasses for directions.
“That’s Angel,” I said. “She’s actually not a hippie. She’s very religious. She just doesn’t like to put her hair up.” Mark gave me a look that made shut up.
Mark noted that Angel was looking at the account book and barely seemed to notice him. She just muttered the word “left” and pointed vaguely toward the hallway that opened perpendicular to the foyer.
As he walked away, Mark heard her say, “Make sure it’s that door in the little room before you get to the antique meat grinder, not the room after. That’s a closet.” Mark was mystified but thought he could probably figure it out as he went.
“You know,” he said looking pleadingly at me. “I figured it would have a sign with one of those annoying little proverbs about sprinkling and tinkling or maybe an elephant with its legs crossed looking desperate or something.” I didn’t quite comprehend the urgency with which he needed me understand and approve of the reasoning in his quest to find a toilet…but I nodded and let him press on.
Mark said he passed several rooms on the side until he came to an antique machine with a turn handle that looked as though it must be a grinder of some sort, so he brought himself up short and turned into the room just before it. The room was packed with oddities. He told me that he’d seen an old gnome sitting on a brass elephant planter, some eyeless wooden masks and an old ventriloquist’s dummy hanging from the walls, a few shelves with ancient and rusted metal objects and some old tin advertising signs. There was a stuffed raccoon with its tail broken so that it stuck out at a right angle halfway up. I sensed that he needed to stop here for a moment to linger on the details before he could bring himself to relate the dark heart of his story – whatever that was - so I let him describe the room in all its particulars.
He finally finished his list and looked at me, “I guess it was a store room. Didn’t look like anything was for sale.” He paused at the memory of the room and shuddered. I ordered him another whiskey. He only continued after he’d taken a sip.
He remembered that the only light in the room came from one large open window with an ancient and torn screen through which a small stream of flies were buzzing. In the back of the room to the left, there was a large Moose head with one antler at a slight list, under it there was a door. It was unmarked.
“The moose had a strange smell,” Mark said. His hands trembled as he brought the whiskey to his lips. “I should have known. I just…it felt like fate. I thought I was being silly. Just open the door, I said to myself.”
I leaned forward and patted his hand. I used my napkin to quietly soak up the amber liquid that threatened the cuff of his dress shirt.
He said that, although he had to push past the strange smell and a feeling of dread, he reached out and pulled on the door handle. A broom fell out and hit him on the head.
“I was like, crap, it’s the closet,” he pursed his lips and blew through them in an effort to relieve the remembered tension.
He caught the broom and attempted to simply stuff it back into the tightly packed closet, but in the next second he could feel the entire contents of the closet pressing heavily on the door. A mop flopped out of the gap and the broom fell back out after it. He braced the door with his left shoulder, pushing in the mop and broom with his right hand. Something heavy fell against the door and he reached in further to push it back into place too. He tried to shut the door on the avalanche. He heard the pinging and rattling of small things falling onto the closet floor. He started to sweat a little.
“I figured I would feel pretty stupid if someone found me there.” He looked into my eyes, imploring my sympathy again. I patted his hand.
Still pressing the door with his left shoulder he opened it a little further so he could reach in and push the mess into place, close the door and quietly leave the room. He would just have to find the restroom on his own. He craned his head around the edge of the door into the darkness and quickly pushed his right hand through the opening to hold back the wave of junk. The dusty light trickled through the dust and flies over his shoulder and fell on the objects inside.
He peered in to see what he was up against, and just under the heel of his hand he could see an oval of dewy, velvety white. On either side of his hand was a dark black marble like sphere.
“I couldn’t see it at first,” he said. “I just…it took a few minutes…you know?”
I didn’t know, but I tried to look wise and kept quiet. He stared intensely at the liquor bottles above the bar, as if he was staring through the past few days and into the closet.
The shapes resolved themselves slowly, he said, by degrees. They resolved into a face. It was a heart shaped face, pale, pointed and most absolutely…dead. Cold and dead. It was a dead woman. A corpse.
“I knew once I could process…you know…that I could see it was a woman…I knew she was dead. Of course…you feel it…I can’t say what it feels like. But you feel it all the way through.” He shivered and stared into space.
I gave an involuntary start. He took another sip.
“So I’m propping up this body and do you know what starts going through my head?” he stared at me, then gave a dry laugh. “Dead as a doornail. I mean the phrase ‘dead as a doornail.’ It just ran through my mind in a circle. Doornail? Doornail? Why doornail?” He laughed a hard laugh again. “My brain just shut the hell down.”
Whistlestop, I thought. You have outdone yourself this time.
Mark said he spent some amount of time searching his mental file cabinet for the provenance of the phrase. He couldn’t say how long he pondered why doornails had come to represent death. Then with a clang, the mental file slammed shut. His brain turned its attention back to the shocking fact that he was propping up a corpse with his hand. His brain wanted to know what he intended to do about it. He thought about this question. He wanted to pull back his hand but was unable to make his body do anything. He gazed into the glassy eyes. They gazed back, serene. The corpse was pinned against the mountain of junk in the closet with his hand. The moment settled uncomfortably into eternity. Not moving meant he was in contact with a dead body. Moving meant that it would fall forward and any animation seemed worse than the stillness. He asked his brain if it had an answer for that. It did not. He said he was wondering if there was a resolution or whether he himself might stay there until he was also a corpse, when a fly settled on his thumb. With a start, he jerked his hand backwards. The corpse toppled forward, caught in an avalanche of ancient cleaning supplies and oddities.
The sudden landslide flung itself on him and the whole mess hit him square on the chest. His feet, spinning in place in a pointless attempt at escape, slid out from under him. The thick solid weight fell on his chest while various wooden handles bonked him in the head.
He said he thought he screamed but didn’t feel any sound coming out, and then he pushed out from under the body and scrambled up and against the wall. Then he looked down. The brief skirmish had left the body rolled onto its back and her yellow flowered dress was stuck to her belly where there was a mass of blood that made a large stain that swallowed up the little blue flowers like the night coming on. One flat black shoe still clung to her right foot. He wondered if someone had taken the time to put it back on. The other foot was bare and he could see that her toes had been painted in bright pink nail polish. The eyes were open and staring and the mouth was agape as well. The stringy brown hair lay in tangled streamers around several mops and brooms. The head rested on a feather duster which flirtatiously stuck out from behind her ear.
Mark shook his head and swallowed a lot of whiskey at once. “A show girl for the damned,” he said quietly.
I said nothing. I wasn’t sure what to say.
“At first, I just looked at her. I thought about it all rather calmly. There was blood on her hands. I thought that she must have tried to press the wound or fought with her killer as she was dying. There was blood spattered a little on her face too. But not as much as I would have thought,” he bent his head over his drink. “I thought someone must have cleaned her up a little and put shoes on her before moving her there. They couldn’t have killed her there. There would have been blood everywhere. I could see…at least I thought I saw…that her stomach was slashed nearly open. It was hard to tell because some old towels had fallen on her. It was her belly that was cut. And then I thought she must not have been dead very long or she would smell even worse. And I wondered why? Why would someone put her in the janitor’s closet?”
He took his head out of his hands and shook himself out of the memory and continued. He said he had finally realized that he had to do something. The contents of hell and a janitor’s closet had burst forth on top of him and his mind rooted for some appropriate reaction. The right thing to do.
He wanted, he said, to walk calmly out to the foyer and alert someone. He would have to step over the corpse to do it. His body failed him as some primitive awe for the dead overtook him. He decided then that he could at least call to someone. He opened his mouth and was surprised to hear an eerie and trembling sound force its way out of the depths of the his body. There seemed to be nothing more he could do.
Shortly after that, he saw some people come running into the room and stop short on the other side of the corpse in the pile of junk. The gray haired hippy woman…
“Angel,” I said.
He waved off my help, “A guy with a beard and big glasses, and some guy with wavy black and gray hair in a plaid shirt. I think they called him Dan.”
“Harold,” I said. “And Dan runs the garage. He’s never there I don’t know how he keeps it open.”
Mark glared at me, so I shut up again.
Mark said that by this point he was nearly insensible, panting and moaning and holding a dust mop between himself and the corpse.
“I don’t know, maybe I was trying to ward it off,” he said.
When he saw the other human beings enter the room, he leapt toward the comforting sight of the living, jumping nimbly over the body and landing with his left foot in the mop bucket. He slid gracelessly across the room and bounced off the far wall and fell flat on his back. His head hit the floor with a solid thunk.
He looked at me dead in the eye. “You might think that this worst part of this story is over,” he said. “But it’s not. It actually sort of got worse. In a way…it got weirder.”
I winced. I didn’t know where this was going. However, I knew where it was coming from – Whistlestop. I might be shocked but I wasn’t going to be surprised. I nodded my encouragement.
“So they’re all standing there staring at me, right?” he said. “So I’m thinking, okay Mark ol’ buddy keep your cool. You’ve already been through the shock of this. There’s going to be a little mass hysteria now.”
The three of them, Harold, Angel and Dan, stood over him for a minute Mark said, staring. Then Harold helped him up and plopped him on a stool in the corner.
He said Harold stared at him for a minute and looked at the pile of junk and said, “I thought I heard a commotion in here.”
Angel said, “I thought it was you, Harold. Dropping things again.”
Mark was uncertain for a moment if any of them even knew there was a body in all the junk that had fallen from the closet. He shakily pointed it out.
Mark said, “Dan – that’s the plaid shirt guy right?” I nodded. “He turned and looked down and shook his head and said “Damn…sure enough. It’s a dead woman.”
“What did Angel do,” I asked.
“She told Dan not to cuss. And then she and Harold looked at the body. Really casual. Harold had his hands in his pants pockets like he was talking about the weather at in front of the diner or something.” Mark said. “They all stand there looking and Harold starts shaking his head. And Angel says something about the Lord Almighty. They just stand there looking down.”
I nodded again.
“So, I’m waiting for the light bulb to go off, right?” said Mark. “Police to be called - maybe a little crying – a little scream from Angel. Something. And Dan turns and looks at me and says, ‘Why in the Hell would you come in here opening doors like that? What on God’s green earth were you thinking son?’”
“I bet Angel didn’t like that,” I said. “After she told Dan to quit cussing.”
Mark glared at me. “How did you…?” he said. Then he sighed, “Yeah..She told him that she had already said she didn’t want hear any cussing. Because, you know if there’s one thing that can make a murder worse than it already is, it would be saying a swear word.”
He went on, “So then they all look at me and Angel says, ‘Didn’t you say you had to use the restroom? This is a broom closet. Why were you opening up the broom closet?’
He paused dramatically, “Do you get it? They were upset because I had opened the door. Not that there was a corpse in the closet. There was a dead woman. And they wanted to know why I had opened the door.” I sincerely wished I could express more surprise.
“So what happened next?” I asked. “Did they call Constable Henry?”
“So first,” Mark said, “That Dan guy makes a joke that maybe I opened the closet because I wanted to help sweep up. Then...uh…Harold…he starts asking me how I got lost trying to find the bathroom. He was like ‘didn’t Angel tell you it was in the room right before the antique meat grinder’? And I said yes. I saw it right out in the hall, the meat grinder I mean. He’s asking me about a meat grinder and we’re still in this storage room with a dead lady. And I’m explaining how I got lost going to find a toilet. And all the while she’s still dead. Just laying there. And I’m talking about not being able to find my way to the toilet.”
He took a rather large swig of his whiskey. He paused dramatically. “So guess what?”
He waited for me to respond, frowning.
“Um what?” I played along.
He ran his fingers through his hair and then he suddenly giggled. I resolved to have the bartender cut him off.
“What I saw was a coffee grinder. It wasn’t a meat grinder at all.” He laughed helplessly. “They sold the meat grinder the day before. Angel forgot. So her directions were wrong.”
“I bet Harold explained the difference to you,” I said.
Mark nodded. “At length. He said he didn’t want me to get confused and get into this kind of a situation again.” Mark giggled again and a slight hiccup bubbled up and caught him by surprise. “A situation. With a corpse. Because I didn’t know the difference between a coffee grinder and a meat grinder.” He swallowed the last of his alcohol at once.
Then he frowned, “You don’t think I will do you?” he asked. “Get into another situation like this one?”
“I’m pretty sure that’s not the sort of thing that happens twice,” I said, trying to comfort him. “Especially if you stay out of Whistlestop.”
“I can promise you that!” he said, thumping his fist on the table.
“So…?” I asked, gently reaching across the table and moving his arms out of danger of the spilled liquid. “What happened?”
Mark said someone must have finally called the constable. At the same time, the “situation” at The Laughing Pink Elephant somehow telegraphed itself through the clairvoyant atmosphere that envelops every small village. So by the time the constable showed up there was already a crowd out front. Constable Henry questioned Mark briefly without telling him whether or not he was free to go, leaving him standing in the hall outside the storage room so that he could go to the foyer to phone Mrs. Henry to tell her the bad news about dinner.
As soon as the constable had finished speaking with him, a reporter (actually the reporter) from the Whistlestop Gazette pushed through the crowd to ask if he knew the victim, what brought him to town and what made him open the wrong door. Mark ended up in the hall by the foyer where he was blocked from leaving by a knot of villagers who were eagerly discussing the case. He wanted to make his way over to Constable Henry to find out if he was free to go.
“I could still smell the body,” said Mark. “I don’t know if it was my imagination or if the smell had soaked into my clothes. I just needed to get out of there.” He shivered and wrinkled his nose. “I think I can still smell it. Sometimes I still smell it. Took four showers when I got home. I still smell it.” He inspected his empty glass and looked at me. I sighed and ordered him another.
“So,” Mark said, “I’m just standing there listening to them. Angel is complaining because they may have to close the store and someone has to clean up the mess and, of course, that someone is going to be her. She glared at me every time she made that point. And Harold is trying to explain the difference between a coffee grinder and a meat grinder to three other people, and this fancy looking blonde woman with perfect hair and expensive shoes…”
“Mary Brooks,” I say.
He shrugs, “Anyway, she’s going on about how embarrassing it is and wondering what it’s going to do to tourism. And some smelly guy with this weird hair that sticks up is patting my arm and telling me that the same thing happened to his old Dad. I think he smelled worse than the corpse.”
“Homeless Tom,” I say.
“And some priest is talking to some old ladies and they’re all cackling about what’s the world coming to and once upon a time things were safe,” he sighed.
I shook my head, “Not in Whistlestop they weren't…” I muttered to myself.
“And Dan keeps saying, ‘It’s a Hell of a thing’ and Angel is interrupting herself to tell him not to cuss and the constable is on the phone to his wife telling her that he’s going to be late to dinner and that he can’t help it she has popovers…” He trailed off and stared into space.
I could tell he was drifting away. The whiskey was getting to him.
“So what did you do?” I asked.
“At that point,” Mark yawned, “I realized that the dead woman was probably the most sensible person in town, even if it was damned hard to get over the way she smelled. So I walked back into the room where she was. There was no cop to stop me or anything.”
“There’s only Constable Henry,” I said. “If he was on the phone to his wife, I guess not.”
“Anyway,” said Mark, “I stared down at her, with her little feather duster next to her head, no one caring that she’d been murdered or anything and I said, ‘I’m sorry. I’m really, really sorry. I hope you weren’t from here.’”
I didn’t know what to say to that.
Mark tried to explain. “I wasn’t being flippant. I just didn’t know what else to say to her. It seemed like someone owed her an apology. I mean, the murderer sure, but an apology for all of them…us.”
He sighed. “I popped out the old screen, crawled out the back window and went to my car in the parking lot and left. That was it. I don’t know what happened.”
We sat quietly for a moment. Then Mark said, “So do you think they’ll come after me or something? Nobody told me I was free to go or anything.”
I thought about it for a minute. “No,” I said. They’ve probably already forgotten you. You’ll just end up being some stranger in town in one of the stories they tell themselves. You might be the villain or you might be the pawn in their story. But the real, actual you doesn’t matter a fig to them by now.”
He nodded. “Good,” he said.
I called the school and cancelled class and took him home and left him on his couch. As far as I know, no one from Whistlestop ever contacted him about the case and he never went back.
The story of the dead lady in the closet is another story for another time.
One of the strangest stories in the history of Whistlestop was the story of Mrs. Mary Edelson Brooks, a woman whose main claim to fame in the village was her ability to throw stylish dinner parties; she was also known for her ability to always wear exactly the right shoes with exactly the right purse without being too “matchy,” the fact that her hair always looked “done,” and the fact that her hybrid teas almost always took a prize at the flower show. In addition, she was on three church committees and the town beautification team. Although the difficulty of these achievements was impossible to disregard, Mary was otherwise not the most fascinating person in the village. In fact, if you had asked her husband Bob, he would have called her stable and meant it as a compliment. Her seventeen year old daughter Virginia would have called her boring and not meant it as a compliment at all. But, as the villagers noted afterwards, you don’t have to be a fascinating person to have something interesting happen to you.
The story recounted here is a strange one and it’s hard to say exactly what did happen to Mary that hot and humid summer. Accounts vary. The story that was told by the few people closest to Mary is the one that most thoroughly explains the situation. Unfortunately, it’s also the most difficult to believe. But strange things were wont to happen in Whistlestop in those days. Besides, the truth of a story isn’t dependent on its believability. So here is the story of Mary Edelson Brooks, a fairy story more than an exact history, I guess you could say.
Of all the things that Mary loved, her hybrid tea roses were secretly at the top of the list. In her back yard, by the picket fence, she had a long bed full of them. Each rose was labeled and stood proud and alone in its spot. A bright green lawn stretched in front of the rose bed, neat and expansive. Each rose plant was pinched back so that just a few pointed buds were left to mature into fat, fragrant blossoms. She carefully sprayed them to keep them free of insects and diseases. When Mary was in her yard with her perfect roses, it seemed that life itself was perfect. A certain busyness ruled Mary’s life but on rare occasions she would find herself lost in the fragrance or form of a rose. Her pursuit of perfection seemed possible in her rose garden.
However, there were two things that seriously thwarted Mary’s pursuit of perfection, and everyone knew it. And since it was a small town, the fact that Mary’s life was not as perfect as it seemed made her much more bearable. First, there was her neighbor Isabelle’s garden. It backed up to Mary’s rose garden like a stripper doing a lap dance for a man wearing an expensive watch. Isabelle’s garden was almost the exact opposite of Mary’s, lush, dense and sensual, dominated by the whims of nature, not the firm hand of the gardener; Mary was constantly fighting stray tendrils of sweet peas that pushed through the fence slats, or peppermint or blackberries that simply bypassed the fence and thrust themselves up through the yard right between the knees of one of the grand hybrid teas. The tawdry scent of gardenia or lilac or tuberose often overwhelmed Mary while she was trying to tend to her roses. Mary often found herself hurriedly bending down to pluck a bit of naughty lemon balm or catmint from beneath the hybrid teas. The absolute bane of Mary’s gardening existence was a giant butterfly bush that sprawled its scraggly arms across the fence and shaded out the raspberry colored Auguste Renoir in the corner. The old butterfly bush sometimes nudged off Mary’s wide brimmed garden hat with a long twiggy finger. Mary wasn’t much given to nonsense, but the shrub seemed almost sentient in its attempts to annoy her.
Mary’s other nemesis was her daughter Virginia. Virginia’s roots were constantly slipping beyond fences and into the wilds; her untamed tendrils seemed determined both to invade and escape Mary’s soft, small and comfortable world. Some sort of spraying or pruning was definitely in order, but as anyone could see, Mary had never quite determined how such a thing might be accomplished. As with the butterfly bush, every effort to restrain Virginia seemed to result in even more vigorous and spiraling disorder. Virginia’s dyed black hair, books of dark poetry, strange dissonant music and habit of crawling out her window at night to paint pictures of the moon were frightening to Mary and amusing to the villagers. As an added insult, Virginia had since childhood preferred Isabelle’s garden and now that she was a teenager often went there to paint, even in the middle of the night. Once, when asked why by her perplexed mother, she had responded that the moon was happier there.
Mary found that the easiest thing was just to concentrate on the things she could control, and she happily went on pruning and deadheading and spraying her roses, a seemingly safe and fairly boring activity. During the summer in question, she was forced to spray even more than usual due to the humidity.
One fine summer afternoon, she had just started spraying her Blue Girl when she noticed something - something quick and silvery flitting at the back of the rose. A glint of sunshine touched an opalescent sliver of brightness which flung light back at her face like rain drops on a breeze. She gently pulled a branch toward herself and stared at the back of the bush. As she bent over, she felt a whirring above her head and something brushed the back of her neck. With a little shriek, she leapt up and swatted at her collar. She felt a tendril of hair escape her careful bun. She followed the drone of wings to the back corner of the garden right next to the dense, ancient butterfly bush. It loomed huge and dark, reaching its intricate, leafy arms over the fence, a giant hairy old man; it certainly could be a breeding ground for giant insects. She stared warily at it.
Mary pulled back one of Auguste Renoir’s branches to see if she could find the intruder. Perhaps it was just a large dragonfly. The iridescent light rippled onto the leaves in front of her. At first there was nothing, and then a sort of buzzing sound and then…whack! Something hit her in the face and then buzzed away hovering about 6 to 8 inches in front of her crossing eyes. When she uncrossed them, she had to look twice.
It was a fairy. It was just a bit bigger than her hand and brown as an acorn with leafy green hair and sharp green eyes. His nearly translucent wings were catching and flinging the sunlight in all directions. He was fluttering right in front of her. Her mouth dropped open briefly, and the soap bubble that surrounded her well established world quivered. It couldn’t actually be a fairy, nevertheless it appeared to be a fairy. Mary tried to make sense of the illusion.
The apparition seemed to be glaring at her. He was wearing a loin cloth made out of what appeared to be a fresh petal from her Mr. Lincoln rose, which immediately annoyed her, illusion or not. He stared at her, continuing to hover about a foot in front of her nose, causing her to back up to see him properly. His silvery wings made a whispery sound in the warm sunshine. The smell of cut grass and roses and Isabelle’s mint and gardenia hovered thickly in the air. He gazed intently at her, looking her up and down with a sour look on his little pointed face.
Finally, he spoke, “Look. Would you quit spraying poison on these roses?” He frowned and pointed his little finger toward her nose, poking it lightly with a sharp little finger nail. “It’s drifting into the butterfly bush where we live. It’s gross.”
Mary realized that her mouth was hanging open. With an effort, she closed it. She continued to stare at the tiny creature. “I don’t believe in fairies,” she finally managed in a whisper.
The fairy sighed. He flew right up the bridge of Mary’s nose and nearly made her go cross eyed again. He pulled out an eyebrow hair.
“Ouch!” yelled Mary.
Mary covered her eye with one hand and waved the other around the fairy, who nimbly buzzed away from her, sniggering.
“Okay lady,” he said. “Do you believe in me now? Are you going to stop spraying that crap on the roses?” He narrowed his eyes, “Or not?”
She put her hands down and looked carefully at the hallucination. The dream before her had all the sharpness of reality and the strange taste of truth, although one could not rationally assent to it. She grasped for a way forward. If there were fairies…if there were fairies….well things couldn’t go on as they were…she would have to spend her days blowing soap bubbles and playing in mud puddles and …and walking barefoot. She shook her head…what nonsense was filling it…why would she be forced to do any of those things? Fairies weren’t real and why would they require her to remove her shoes? Her mind was filling with gibberish. Was she in a dream? Maybe she was dehydrated. Or a in a fever. Perhaps she was in a hospital room in her former reality, unconscious. There were no fairies in that reality…but if there were…or if she were stuck in the wrong reality…then she would have to crawl out the window in the night to see the moon…just as Virginia did…she would be forced to go down to the river and let her hair down and put her feet in…and then she wouldn’t have time for the things that she had to do…things like…like….oh…she couldn’t remember them now.
The comfortable blanket of her life was slipping from around her thin, soft shoulders. She felt naked. Her life…she had one…. Or had it always been about lying in a field looking at stars and smelling the dirt after the rain and feeling cat whiskers on her cheek? All that was left in her brain of her former life were a few odds and ends, strange memories that she didn’t even know she had, memories that felt like they must have belonged to someone else once. The sweet, sharp taste of grass blades, a wobbly rainbow of oil in a puddle, the feeling of water under a boat, the full moon across frost, the smell of a leaf fire, a puppy licking her foot. That was all she could remember. Fragments and sensations. She looked up to see the fairy grinning like a devil at her. And suddenly she was angry. It wasn’t fair. She was in the wrong world. She thought hard…what was it…where had she come from? She wanted her own world back; she didn’t like being naked in her thoughts in this other place. She took a deep breath, puffed out her cheeks and blew the thoughts of moon and river, cat whiskers and mud puddles right out of her mind and…Ah…there it was: a meeting at church; the flower show; a dinner party on Friday; her carefully mismatched china and the antique silver service. The ground that had been rocking and swelling under her like the water under a boat suddenly came to a trembling halt.
“I am not going to lose first place at the flower show due to an illusion,” she said with her voice shaking. “Nor am I going to miss my meeting. I am fine and this is not real.” She leaned down to pick up the bottle of fungicide, really meaning to put it back in her willow garden basket and then go inside and take an aspirin, although that might not have been clear to the fairy.
“Have it your way,” said the fairy with a shrug. He shot up suddenly into the bright blue of the sky. Mary followed him with her eye until he disappeared into the hot, white light at the edge of the sun. She felt a moment of relief. It had been a hallucination and she had banished it by simply acting in a sensible manner. Things started to fall back in place. Remaining thoughts of soap bubbles, free flowing hair, puppies and bare feet fell away from her, absorbed by the thick green lawn. Meetings and menus and hair appointments found room again.
And then she saw it, a tiny shape moving back out of the circle of the sun. It was small and dark and dart-like, diving toward her like a kamikaze, shooting out of the sky like a spear.
Mary automatically put up a hand to ward him off, but he slammed into her thumb, wrapped himself around it and bit her…hard. She felt the needlelike teeth pierce deep into her skin, all the way to the bone. His saliva flowed into her blood. It started at the tiny holes he had ripped in her flesh. It felt flamingly hot at first; it penetrated her blood stream like an arrow with a scorching head of fire trailing the icy tail of a comet so that first her blood boiled where it met the toxin then turned bitter cold behind it. The fire raced around her hand and up her arm. Then her arms and hands became too cold to move and the flame raced into her head. The fairy’s venom slowly searched out every part of her from the inside. When the venom hit her chest it was incapacitating. Her heart burst into a white hot flame and then congealed. She fell backwards into the Double Delight, scratching her arms and bloodying her crisp white shirt, and then she simply lay there as the poison finished winding its way through; it first burned and then froze her stomach and then her hips and legs. She had never felt herself inside but now every organ, every muscle was outlined in pain one fraction of an inch at a time. It was a revelation in anguish. The fairy venom searched out every last bit of her body, every molecule, every cell, until she felt its heat tracing the inside of her toes and then leaving her frozen and unmoving on the soft green grass with the sun above and the flowers shaking gently in the June breeze.
She was so cold that she could not even shiver. She could not move at all. She thought briefly about death but found it uninteresting and then for the first time in her life that she could remember she thought nothing. A flower petal fell gently on her face as though she did not exist. June and warmth and flowers and birds and bees dwelt in the earth around her but she was nothing…a cold hole in the universe.
Mary was found on her lawn by Reverend Digby who had come looking for her when she missed a church committee meeting for the first time in her life. She then spent four days completely insensible in the village hospital with a bizarre ailment that mystified her doctors. Anyone who has lived in a small town will understand the strange mix of sympathy, curiosity, and secret gratification involved in such a serious and alarming occurrence. While the excitement lasted, Mary’s family was knee deep in casseroles and gossip. However, just as the hearsay was reaching its pinnacle and the organist was wondering whether to cancel her trip out of town for the funeral of the year, Mary sat up and asked the nurse for tea and toast. With a sigh of relief (and truth be told, a bit of disappointment) the village collected itself and went back to business.
Mary recovered her health rapidly and for a few weeks all was quiet. She told Bob and Virginia about her experience in the garden, although she couldn’t be certain if it had really happened. She briefly seemed to be growing more lucid and healthy. Then the “incidents” began. About two weeks after her release, Mary was found in the park in a thin silk nightgown halfway up the giant oak at 6:00 AM, apparently talking to a squirrel. Bob was there along with the fire department. Everyone was trying to talk her down but to no avail. Mary refused to leave the tree until noon and was quite bellicose with both Bob and the firemen.
The next week a pair of kayakers found her with unkempt hair in only her underwear singing an aria from Ophelia’s mad scene while sitting on a log overhanging the river. By the time the Bob and the constable had arrived, she had drifted away. Ultimately, she was found in a deep sleep on her back porch swing still clad in her underwear.
Within two days of the river incident, Mary Jo Baker called Bob from the diner on the square to tell him that Mary was riding a bike around town in the hot sun in one of Virginia’s costume cloaks with all her jewelry wrapped around her neck and head and telling people that she was a Berber and she had just returned from the desert. Bob managed to talk her into going home with a promise to look into purchasing a camel; although this went against his plain and practical way of dealing with things, it seemed preferable to the continued humiliation of his wife’s very public decline.
The constable called Bob only a few days later to ask him if he knew that Mary and Homeless Tom were having “wine tastings” in the park with some bottles from Bob’s wine collection and some of Mary’s antique wine glasses. Bob did not. He was also rather surprised on pulling up to retrieve his wife and his wine to discover Mary in one of her best evening gowns, complete with opera gloves. Homeless Tom was wearing one of Bob's best silk ties.
Bob was beginning to think that he would soon be as unhinged as Mary with all the worry she was causing him. The villagers were beginning to think that Mary was more entertaining than she had ever been, dinner parties be damned. Virginia was beginning to think she had underestimated Mary on some level, somehow. And Elwin McGee, the fairy who had bitten her in the first place, was beginning to think he had gone too far. The rapid progression of symptoms disturbed him.
As the incidents increased in volume and sheer weirdness, it became apparent that Mary needed supervision. That task fell to Virginia. Surprisingly much of her time with her mother that summer was unexpectedly pleasant. Virginia had never particularly enjoyed unstructured time with her mother before.
Virginia took her mother to Isabelle’s garden and they fed the fish in the shallow koi pond and told them mermaid stories. They went to the lake together and Virginia listened to her mother sing snatches of opera, for which she had trained as a young girl, while she rowed the flat bottomed boat toward a grassy little island for picnics. They had tea parties and pretended to hunt unicorns. Virginia taught her to paint. They threw rocks at trains. They stayed out all night and watched the stars or made poems for the moon. Mary was sometimes convinced that a colony of feral cats behind an abandoned house worshipped her as their goddess; when this feeling overtook her she brought them cat food and while they ate she made grand pronouncements with one of Virginia’s old princess crowns on her head. They picked flowers, danced in the rain, and made old fashioned lemonade.
But things did not remain this pleasant. As Mary’s mind tilted wildly out of orbit, she seemed to be more and more likely to slide out of control and through some dark door in the universe. Virginia tried to explain the situation to Bob but to no avail. If Mary wasn’t in trouble, he wasn’t interested. It was the only way he could stay sane.
Virginia didn’t have this luxury. Mary seemed to be moving further and further away from her memories and toward some dark mystery that only she could see. Once, on one of their wild moonlit nights, Virginia had to pull Mary from the river.
“I’m going with the river,” Mary said. “I want to feel it licking at my skin.” She lay on the water as though she were going to bed and began to sink. Virginia saw her, white in the moonlight, smiling as the water tugged at her clothes and hair, soothingly sucking her into its liquid darkness.
“You’ll drown,” said Virginia. But Mary didn’t hear or didn’t care. Virginia waded into the water and dragged her mother back to shore.
Another time, Mary found the sharp edge of a broken bottle glinting in the grass and before Virginia could take if from her, she had cut her finger. She was staring at it, watching the blood fall in droplets to the ground.
“It bit me,” said Mary simply. She seemed enchanted by the blood droplets that fell from her hand and she swirled them onto her other hand and made patterns on her shirt.
Virginia had no reply. She buried the shard in the dirt and took her mother home to clean her up.
Even in the grip of her newfound affection for her mother, Virginia found it to be a difficult summer. Eventually, roVirginia could no longer take her out in the boat as she was drawn like a magnet to depths of the lake and she had tried to climb out of the boat to be swallowed by the deep, dark belly of water. Once, Virginia narrowly managed to pull her mother from the edge of a cliff on a hike. Mary became more enamored with the motion and rush of the trains, and Virginia had to pull her back from the mighty rush of the wheels more than once.
Virginia was at a loss, Bob couldn’t afford to think about it, the villagers began to shake their heads and say quietly, with a shake of the head that things couldn’t go on like this anymore. Elwin McGee was sitting in the butterfly bush thinking and thinking. It didn't usually go this far. A romantic fling, running naked through the park, eating a little dirt or otherwise committing embarrassing acts when the wildness flowed into your blood were all symptoms certainly, but they eventually wore off. Those things happened. This was different; he had never seen someone so affected by the bite. He could only imagine how stifled a human would have to be to have no immunity at all.
Virginia had taken to tucking her mother into bed in the guest room across the hall so that she could keep an eye on her. One night as the late summer drifted toward autumn, she checked on her mother at around ten and was surprised to see that she already seemed to be in a deep slumber. But Virginia could not sleep; too accustomed to late hours and wild nights, she felt bone tired but somehow too restless to sleep. After about half an hour of hopeless tossing and turning, she looked out to see the moon rising. She threw on an old, soft jacket and headed out. She crossed the picket fence and sat in the shadows of Isabelle’s garden, letting the moonlight pour down on her face.
She was attempting to let the moon soothe her into sleepiness when she heard something on the other side of the bush. She crept close to a knothole and peered through. It was Mary; she was standing in the corner of the yard next to the August Renoire in her thin silk nightgown. It was a chilly night but she was not shivering she merely stood there calmly as though she were waiting on someone. Virginia strained closer. She was crouched under the butterfly bush on Isabelle’s side of the fence. She felt the bush shudder and she heard the fluttering of leaves. She looked up, startled. There were hundreds of tiny lights above her, glimmering and moving through the leaves.
Mary simply stood there. The lights gathered themselves into a glittering sphere and moved from the bush and hovered over Mary’s head. One light separated itself and hovered in front of Mary’s face. Virginia squinted. The light was emanating from a tiny person. A person with wings.
“Mary?” the tiny person asked.
“I am glad you bit me,” said Mary. “But I don't think I can stay here anymore."
"I expect not," said Elwin. "You had no immunity. I didn’t know.”
“Would you like to lie down?,” asked the tiny man. “I expect it would be more comfortable…as such things go.”
“Okay,” said Mary. She lay gently on the ground on her side. She arranged her gown.
“Elwin?” said Mary softly.
“Yes?” he asked.
“I’m sorry. About the roses, I mean.” A single tear slid from her eye.
“It’s okay Mary. I’m sorry too. About the bite,” he said.
She said. “I’m ready.” Mary smiled and wiped away the one tear that had been turned into a diamond by the moon.
Elwin darted up and rejoined the ball of light. It hovered and hummed a moment and then swelled. The giant light moved up in the air, like a zeppelin taking flight and then sharpened itself into a point and dove. The light swallowed Mary. Virginia heard a cry of joy and pain and then saw nothing but the humming of the light. At first, Virginia could see the outline of her mother’s body in the swarm of light. Then the light became even lighter, whiter, transparent. Mary was gone. Virginia gasped and then sat perfectly still with her back against the fence just breathing. The moon poured its cold sympathy down on her, shining, shining on the living and the dead - as it always does.
Virginia looked up. Elwin hovered in front of her.
“Hey kid,” he said.
Virginia stared at his chin. She pointed to her own chin and made a tiny wiping motion. Elwin flicked out his tongue and licked off the tiny speck of blood.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“Yeah,” Virginia said. She couldn’t think of anything else to say.
Elwin scratched his head. “I’m not sure what I can do for you to make up for things but I can give you this,” he said. He darted forward and kissed her forehead. She felt a terrible, beautiful warmth filling her. She opened her mouth to say something, anything, and tasted the moonlight as it fell on her tongue. She heard the murmur of the trees as they talked together and she was certain she could hear the fish singing water songs from the pond. She felt the movement of the ground beneath her as the earth spun its orbit around the sun and she felt the universe expanding until it slid aimlessly into other universes and she split into more than one Virginia and then reformed herself. Elwin was smiling at her.
“You’ll be fine I think,” said Elwin. “Moonlight gets in your blood. It will protect you from the worst of it.”
She sat quietly in the garden staring at Elwin for a second and then tried her feet. The earth was still moving but she took to it like a natural born sailor takes to walking on a boat in the swelling, flowing ocean.
“Thanks then,” she said.
"No problem,” said Elwin.
Virginia went upstairs and packed her knapsack. She was gone by morning. Bob did not see her again for many years, when she resettled in the village, a famous and well traveled artist. Most of the villagers assumed that she had taken Mary away to keep Bob from putting her in an institution. A few of them suspected Bob of foul play, but he doggedly went about his business, refusing to respond to any of the rumors. Eventually, he married one of the bank tellers. She was young and pretty and she threw magnificent dinner parties.
Once upon a time, there was a mountain village far, far away from every place else. It was a lovely little village; the town square boasted a large white Victorian bandstand where crowds often gathered late into warm evenings to hear barbershop quartets or the high school band. There was a beautiful park with picnic tables centered on an ancient, spreading oak and twisting maple lined roads that slid smoothly past rows of beautiful homes from neat brick cottages to frilly Victorians. When the snows came and the rosy cheeked children flocked to the hillsides with their sleds and bright colored hats and mittens, the village looked like it had been plucked from a Christmas card and brought to life.
There was a downside to life in the village though. In the winter, the snow and ice on the mountains surrounding the tiny town blocked the roads so inhabitants who chose not to leave before the snows began were stuck there for most of the winter. In the summer mudslides on the mountain had a similar effect. The villagers had to carefully consider their needs for the year and order far more food and other goods than they really needed just to be on the safe side. This made them a very practical people. The very rare newcomer to the village noticed a certain lack of imagination and a great deal of concern with working to buy goods, having them delivered, and storing them. Anyone might be forgiven for thinking the whole town was a sort of open air asylum for hoarders. For instance, old Dr. Benjamin H. Johnston had suffered brain damage when he was hit by a pallet of canned beans that he had unwisely stacked atop several pallets of paper towels and toilet paper. The whole mountain of canned goods and paper goods had finally become weak and one winter morning when he went into his basement to look for another can of tuna for his cats, the paper towels gave way and the tower of canned beans toppled over on his head. After that, he became very confused and tried numerous times to feed the beans to the cats. Eventually, they ate him. However, that’s neither here nor there for our story.
No…this particular tale revolves around someone entirely different, a villager named Geoffrey. Geoffrey was an attorney in the village, actually the attorney in the village. As you might expect, he had quite a roaring business. After all, though the village was small and of a bucolic and peaceful appearance, these people were completely stuck with each other for at least nine months of the year. As such, they got into the most terrible legal disputes, partly out of boredom. Of course, this was good for Geoffrey. He was quite the richest man in town. His stack of groceries and other goods was three times higher than anyone else’s. One late winter morning he was working very hard to make it four times higher; in the interest of this goal, he was preparing a spreadsheet to predict which of his neighbors’ petty disputes might be fanned into legal flame when, according to his friends and neighbors (well mostly neighbors, as the town’s only attorney he didn’t have many friends) his brain must have broken. He was right in the middle of thinking of ways he could encourage the Smiths to enter a long and acrimonious divorce when he suddenly lost his taste for the law. He got up from his office chair and never returned.
At first, this brain brokenness revealed itself in mere agitation. He could barely sit for a few moments before he had to stand. He could stand for only a few seconds before he needed to move into another room. He could barely stay in that room for a few seconds before he needed to move to another room. He could barely stay focused long enough to remember to go to the toilet. (And sometimes he couldn’t).
His neighbors noticed him muttering as he wandered aimlessly around the village, sitting on benches, then standing, then running, occasionally asking directions to the nearest public toilets. As his troubles grew deeper and more apparent, the villagers often pointed out the public restrooms before he could even ask. He was saying things like, “Four is not as much as five. Is five enough? Could it be more? What is the last number? Why infinity? Then I can never have enough.”
The concept of infinity was a constant in his muttering, a taunting goal, an abstraction Geoffrey seemed to think existed only to make him feel small and inadequate. Sometimes he would ask directions to infinity, which brought him nothing but troubled looks and explanations that infinity wasn’t a place. One day he made it a point to ask every person in town to tell him the last number of all. The one that made infinity a moot point. That was the number he was after. He did not like feeling small. Feeling small made him feel afraid. Feeling afraid made him feel angry, although he did not know why.
When asked for the last number, most of the townspeople merely answered contemptuously that there was no such thing. Only May Anna Clark, a sturdy three year old in pink overalls, made the attempt.
“Eighty-ten,” she said decisively, as that was the only number that came to mind and it seemed large enough to be impressive.
After this he wandered around town muttering “Eighty-ten” to himself for some time, shaking his head.
Finally he came to a conclusion. “It can’t be stopped,” he would say. “Infinity can’t be stopped.”
After that his question to the villagers was, “Aren’t you afraid of infinity? It can’t be stopped and no one can achieve it.”
He received various answers. May Anna Clark simply stared at him and continued to lick her red swirled sucker as it dripped down her chin; she rightly guessed that a number wouldn’t answer this question.
Dr. Benjamin Johnston (while he was still extant), replied, “No. I’m afraid of cats.”
Ellen Smith, who was very much in love with her husband and who did not want an acrimonious divorce, said, “No. But I’m afraid that Charles might leave me someday.”
Martin Elliot said, “I’m afraid we’re never going to have another attorney and I would really like to sue the Marcotts because their dog keeps pooping in my yard.”
All in all, none of the answers were satisfactory. But he kept doggedly going from house to house and to the park and to the market to ask everyone he could find. He walked through the white picket fence with the red roses at the Anderson’s historic home with the broad porches and frightened the maid with the question. He found the Carpenters behind their red brick cottage on the patio, enjoying drinks, but they were about halfway to infinity themselves and found his question immoderately hilarious. He accosted Mr. Jones at the old fashioned two pump gas station where you still had to walk in to pay, but Mr. Jones just laughed and told him he was crazy. He was even less successful questioning two young couples entwined under the giant oak at the park, and when he interrupted a pick up soccer game, the teenagers actually threw the ball at his head.
He didn’t get an answer that helped him at all until he came to question the last person in town. It was the English instructor Ms. Schmidt. She was an outsider, young and opinionated, who had recently graduated the university and she was perhaps used to looking at questions more academically than the rest of the villagers, especially since she had gone through two years of graduate school and was now working on her thesis. Emily Schmidt had begun to suspect that living in this village probably would make a person crazy eventually, and she really couldn’t blame Geoffrey for finally going round the twist. In fact, in a way it seemed the most logical response to this place. She liked him better as a lunatic in fact, except for the occasional strong smell of urine; otherwise she might have begun to find him quite attractive with his strange questions and deep brown eyes. (As for Geoffrey, he was probably predisposed to listen to Ms. Emily Schmidt. He had been quite attracted to her pale freckled skin and her rather serious tortoise shell glasses that hid bright green eyes. He had only avoided asking her out by reminding himself how expensive a divorce could be. Then he had had a nightmare that involved her coming with a dump truck to take half of his stack of stored goods.)
What Emily Schmidt said was this, “Infinity is a silly thing to be worried about Geoffrey. It’s too big and you can’t get your mind wrapped around it. You can’t do anything about it. You need to find something more concrete to worry about.”
And suddenly he realized….she was right. Infinity was far too large and heavy. Infinity was an elephant and his worry was ant-sized in comparison. He suddenly pictured himself as an ant with a tiny spear desperately poking at the toe of the behemoth. No matter how crushingly heavy the weight of his fear and anger felt to him, it would never affect infinity. No, Emily was right. It would never do. He needed something to embody his fears. Something to blame. Something concrete and REAL and relatively small, a skin to wrap around his dreadful angst and anger and fear of inadequacy.
So from that day forth, Geoffrey was afraid of…giraffes. No one knew exactly how it happened. As a matter of fact, some of the villagers who had spent their whole lives there weren’t too sure what a giraffe was until Geoffrey started going on about them. Of course, they had seen them in school books and library books, but giraffes had never really registered in their minds. They were a practical and incurious people and honestly didn’t have any need to know about such exotic and unlikely creatures. Almost all of the villagers were of pretty much the same mind. Teach the practical. Teach what you know will be encountered. Giraffes were an unnecessary bit of fluff and fantasy. No real point to them.
When Geoffrey transferred his fear from Infinity to Giraffes it was spring in the village. The Sun was beginning to peek out from behind the mountains earlier and earlier. The air had quit slapping the villagers in the cheeks every time they walked out the door and caressed and cajoled them instead, like a psychotic and changeable lover. Every moment of warmth and light needed to be used, gardens dug, possessions aired out, streets and roofs mended. So when Geoffrey began his speeches in the public square, there were almost always people available to hear him.
He spoke about the great and terrible size of the giraffe. He preached about the aggression of the male giraffe during mating season. He had large poster displays of giraffes. On some of them he had obviously painted devil horns and mustaches. He had pictures, which he had obviously drawn himself, depicting giraffes committing bank robberies and picking pockets. He once gave a long speech on the terrible music taste of giraffes – he referenced heavy metal and had three very under-ripe tomatoes thrown at him by several of the soccer players he had previously inconvenienced. He returned the next day with his black eye and this time he had some very graphic although badly drawn pictures of a gang of giraffes murdering a chimpanzee. His pleas were very heartfelt, though obviously insane. Emily felt more and more sorry for him every day. And then a funny thing happened.
A few people in the village began to display a slight prejudice against giraffes. The town librarian was taken to task for displaying a children’s book that pictured a giraffe for the letter “G.” Actually, this always rather annoyed Emily too, but only because she felt it was too confusing to represent the soft “g” sound instead of the hard “g” of goat. Emily had been sitting at the library preparing for an upcoming class simply because she loved the smell of the old building and the way the light poured in through the tall leaded windows onto her book when a frazzled looking woman came in dragging her four year old child by the hand. The child was gripping a book with The Animal ABCs printed in a bright cartoony font on the front cover.
“But I like it, Mommy,” the child was saying.
The woman looked a little disconcerted and handed the book to the librarian. She looked around to see if anyone was listening and then said, in an almost apologetic tone, “You see, it has a giraffe in it. So if we could just swap it out. Please.”
The librarian looked confused. “A giraffe? But I don’t exactly see the problem?”
The mother looked around again and bit her lip. “Well, of course, I read this book when I was young, but that man keeps talking about them doesn’t he? And he,” she paused to jerk her head at the child, “Well, he had a nightmare about a giraffe just the other day, didn’t he?”
“I wouldn’t know,” said the librarian, perhaps feeling somewhat accused. “I mean, you can bring back a book and get another one any time. You don’t actually have to ask, you know.”
“Well,” said the harassed mother, “I’m telling you this because…well, because, you know he might not be the only one. I’m just not sure that children should be reading this book. You know….maybe not right now.” She clung fiercely to the little boy’s hand as though she were protecting him, though he was squirming so that Emily wondered how his arm remained in its socket.
“I would think,” said the librarian – he was looking increasingly exasperated, “that he might benefit from seeing a friendly and happy giraffe. That seems like the best cure for his nightmares.”
“Oh no,” said the offended mother. “I really just don’t think…He’s four, you know. Please just take it back.”
“Doesn’t he want to choose another?” asked the librarian.
“I just…” she stopped as the child nearly twisted out of her arm. “I just don’t know. Maybe later.” And she scurried out.
The only good that came out of the encounter was that Emily made friends with Eddie, the village librarian. Because from that day on, things slowly started to deteriorate and they needed each other.
Several mothers complained. They knew, of course they knew, that giraffes weren’t so bad, it was just that right now the kids were afraid of them. Some of their little ones had been having nightmares. They knew that giraffes didn’t commit bank robberies or murder chimpanzees. Of course not. But the aggression was real. When the internet was working they had looked up “male giraffe aggression.” Maybe giraffes were more dangerous than they thought. Some of the mothers took it upon themselves to remove any book from the library that had any information on giraffes. Just to prevent nightmares of course. And, of course, Geoffrey was an educated man. He had a law degree for goodness sakes. There had to be some truth to whatever he might say.
And some of the villagers, particularly those who had been the most prone to suing their neighbors after a long boring winter, began to agitate against giraffes as well. It seemed to be a sort of outlet for some of the simmering unrest created by the feeling of entrapment, the same sort of outlet that suing each other had been. And, of course, Geoffrey was really no longer capable of aiding them with their former pastime. The idea that giraffes were evil caught some sort of swirling current in this village of oddly practical people. It began to spread like a disease. The preacher at the old village church used the giraffe as a metaphor for wickedness. When confronted by Emily about this, he replied that he didn’t believe all of that nonsense himself, but it was a handy tool since his parishioners did believe it. School teachers began to tell their students to behave like humans and not giraffes.
In vain, Emily and Eddie protested that giraffes were grazing animals. They were actually quite peaceful. And they were not a threat to the village at all. No giraffes lived anywhere near the village. Emily tried to teach a lesson on giraffes but was reported to the principal who told her in no uncertain terms that his job depended on the parents trust and buy-in. (Emily almost punched him in the nose when he said buy-in. She felt ethically compelled to punch people who said buy-in and synergy and used acronyms on a regular basis. She felt this punching compulsion around the principal recurrently.) He noted that, of course, he didn’t believe any of that nonsense at all, but who was he to question the parents of his students. And what was the harm? There were no giraffes here in the village.
The whole thing came to a head one day when she was jogging in the park with Eddie. One of her students came running up to them and said simply, “You’ve got to see this.” They followed her to the town square, dread weighing so deeply on Emily that she was silent until she saw the terrible sight. Almost half the population of the town had turned out for an anti-giraffe protest. Speaker after speaker took the stage to spout terrible and egregiously false facts about giraffes. Oddly, they didn’t all agree with one another, but most seemed to agree that giraffes were an awful and growing problem. One speaker claimed that they were an alien race who had come and waited a hundred thousand years grazing but that soon they would throw off their disguises and take over the earth. Most people disagreed with this premise, but Emily could hear them grunting things like, “Well, of course, the fact that he’s crazy doesn’t prove that giraffes are not disagreeable.”
One man claimed that it had been proven that giraffes consumed so much vegetation including gardens and fields of crops that children who lived in countries where giraffes were found suffered and died from starvation. This was less outrageous than the previous claim and no one had proof to the contrary so the majority of the crowd seemed to agree that it was probably true. Someone else spoke about a rumor she had heard that the government would be releasing wild giraffes into the mountains around the village. When one man was heard to question the ability of giraffes to live in the mountains, the woman told him that she had heard the government had bred certain giraffes for this special purpose.
After about an hour of this madness, Emily felt a tug on her sweater. It was Eddie. He made a brief gesture toward some of the crowd at the back of the square close to where he and Emily were standing. Three older men stood staring at them, arms crossed, legs squarely apart, frowning. Apparently Emily and Eddie had made their status as doubters too well known. “Time to go,” Eddie whispered.
Emily and Eddie made the rounds and talked to the half of the townspeople who had chosen not to attend the protest. The Carpenters were three sheets to the wind as always and they found the whole situation funny. The Smiths said quite frankly that they were afraid to say anything and they couldn’t see why they should risk angering their neighbors over something that wasn’t a problem in the first place. The whole thing was a fantasy and it wouldn’t affect the town in the long run. Emily tried to note that since this particular fantasy was creating an atmosphere of fear and anger perhaps it was important, but the Smiths assured her that they figured the whole thing would blow over by fall. And so it went. The people who did not attend the anti-giraffe protest refused to consider it a problem, or they were afraid to consider it a problem, or they simply didn’t care because it didn’t really affect anyone.
As a last resort, they tried talking to Geoffrey. They found him sitting alone on a park bench, smiling and singing to himself. Oddly, he seemed far less agitated by the situation than the rest of the townspeople.
Emily tried first, “Geoffrey, please tell me you know all this stuff about giraffes is not true.”
Geoffrey simply smiled at her. “What is truth Emily? The people have fears. They have anger. They need somewhere to place it. Why not a creature that lives far from here, a creature they need never deal with at all. Why not take that angst and burn it up in public anger and then send it far away from us. We will all be better for it.”
Eddie recoiled and then said, “No one has ever been better for believing a lie, Geoffrey.”
Geoffrey smiled peacefully, “It isn’t a lie as such, you see. It’s an allegory of sorts. I am calmer now because I have taken all the badness and sadness and anger out of myself and given it to a creature far, far away where I will never have to deal with it again. Don’t you see what peace I have? Why can’t they all have that same peace? Why will you deny them peace?”
“That’s not peace!” said Emily. “Geoffrey they are not at peace. They are angry and they are becoming angrier at each other. You can’t gain peace by believing something that’s…that isn’t true because it will only lead to endless arguments. They are starting to fight with each other and to split into factions. You have to tell them that you made all of that stuff up.”
“No,” Geoffrey said quietly. “That will never do. They will burn through the anger. They will let out their badness and the giraffes will gallop away with it, using it to fuel their own aggressions which evolution has given them as a tool for survival. We will all be better for it. Let the anger burn. It will burn away as mine did.”
Eddie spoke up, “Your anger didn’t burn away dude; your brain did.”
Geoffrey replied, “Infinity is frightening. We can’t do anything about it. Infinity is real and engulfs us at every turn. It’s best to be frightened of smaller things. You told me so yourself Emily.” Here he reached for Emily’s hand and patted it.
“That’s not what I meant Geoffrey. It’s best to be frightened of things you can confront. Things you can do something about. Like stopping this really scary lie.” said Emily. And for one second Geoffrey’s eyes opened and he seemed to see her. But it faded almost immediately and his eyes drooped again, back into beatific complacency.
Emily started to speak up again, but Eddie tugged her arm. “It’s no use Em. He’s gone.” And they left. They packed their bags and Eddie’s cat Gordon and left the village that night. Emily’s small car was stuffed to the brim and they drove out at midnight to the soft yowls of Gordon, who was not a happy traveler.
On the way out of town, Emily noted, “Well, I guess they are just not a metaphorical people. They take things way too literally.”
“No, Em,” said Eddie, “They are an extremely metaphorical bunch. If they knew that they would be okay. It’s the fact they think they’re being practical that’s killing them.”
By the next spring, the village was in a shambles. There were posters of giraffes in nefarious poses pasted all around the village, but there were also posters of hippos in suggestive poses shooting guns or hippos shooting heroin or hippos committing violent crimes. The warm wind blew pieces of torn posters and banners playfully through the streets, as if to convince the residents to lighten up already, but the mood was not light. There were weekly protests in the town square, but sometimes the protestors were protesting other protestors. The village was now split because Mrs. Harriet Gunderson, who ran the village post office, had come to the conclusion that hippopotami were the real problem and were far more evil than giraffes. While reading an article about giraffes she happened to notice that more people were killed by hippos than any of the large predators in Africa and had immediately realized that hippos were the real killers.
People lost jobs because they believed in the evils of giraffes or because they were hippo people, or vice versa. There was a spaced out looking hippo painted in thick, dripping black paint on the side of Mr. Walter’s pristine white Victorian house. Some graffiti artist had painted a giraffe with devil horns on the courthouse wall. There were posters and poorly painted animals all over town. There were houses with broken windows. The poor town constable had finally given up on trying to discipline people for such actions. The town jail only held twelve people at a time.
The people who really didn’t believe any of the stories at all tried to go quietly about their jobs without saying much of anything with varying levels of success. Even the Carpenters had to sober up a little to avoid saying the wrong things to the wrong people and thus losing their jobs or their ability to barter. It had been a rough winter with no ingress of supplies at all for months on end and people were starting to eye the basements and attics of their neighbors, especially those on the opposite side of the giraffe question. Only Geoffrey seemed calm and he would occasionally pop up at a neighbor’s house bearing a gift from his stash. Even the hippo people saw him as a sort of prophet and everyone had great respect for his wide eyed sayings and air of preternatural calm. He had now taken to wearing a sheet around his shoulders, almost as a cape, and it fluttered around his threadbare suits as he walked the town.
Things might have gone on this way forever, but one day there was a change in the wind. It was a bright and balmy day and there was a strange scent hanging in the air, hot, bright, and pungent. It was an exotic smell. And from deep in the mountains there was a sort of rumbling. At first, many people believed it was the roaring of the streams from the melting snow. This added a certain nervous tension to the atmosphere since flash floods often delayed the shipment of goods. The rumbling grew louder. Geoffrey went from door to door, quietly asking everyone to meet in the town square for an important assembly. Though his demeanor was quiet, his eyes were large and wild. It was a potent combination and most of the townspeople obliged him. The hippo people gathered to the right side of the gazebo and the giraffe people to the left. As the people gathered, Geoffrey stood in the middle of the gazebo smiling like a happy child and waving them closer. The crowd, which had been muttering and buzzing to itself, stood silent and watched him with wonder. Geoffrey began to remind them of all of the things they had believed about giraffes and all of the evils of giraffes. As the hippo people began to murmur against him, he turned to them with compassion and told them lovingly that all they believed might be true and that one thing did not necessarily cancel out the other. They might all be right to hate and fear both hippos and giraffes. And then he paused, hand held sharply over his eyes, looking into the glaring sun. The rumbling became louder. Though no one noticed it but Geoffrey, a small car pulled up in the public parking lot across Main Street under a large and sturdy oak tree.
Geoffrey smiled and raised his hands to the skies. He shouted above the rumbling din, “A wise woman once told me that the only way to defeat fear is to face it. I did not believe her then, but I have been humbled. You have humbled me with your inability to find peace. Behold your fear! Face it!” Geoffrey then leapt from the gazebo and walked through the crowd toward the growing clamor. He waved at two small figures that had left the car and had climbed up the massive old oak.
“Emily! Eddie! I’m glad you could come!” he called out.
One of the figures put something to its lips. The people could barely hear the voice, “Run! Run for your lives!”
This strange warning did not move the villagers. Perhaps they were confused by the thundering of hooves and the odd hot smell in the air. Perhaps they didn’t know what to believe any more. At any rate, they were totally unprepared when the stampede of giraffes exploded into the square. Many of them hardly had time to think at all. One survivor remembered a great golden knot whirring and pushing in the direction of the square, brushing past the oak tree, swaying the two small people hidden in its branches but not dislodging them. He remembered thinking that the oak tree would have been a good place to be. And then the herd was upon them, a tangle of limbs and dust, screams and the sounds of cracking bone. He remembered the smell of blood and then a thick force pushed his head into a well of blackness. That was all.
After it was over, while the survivors tended to the wounded, Emily leaned over Geoffrey’s battered form. He was twisted almost beyond recognition, the sheet wound around his neck. He was struggling for breath and one arm was pinned beneath him.
“You were right Emily,” he reached for her with his good hand. “They could not release their fears as I could.” He coughed for a bit, spitting out blood. “They had to face them.”
“Oh Geoffrey, you moron,” said Emily, “You are always misinterpreting me. Giraffes only stampede if you frighten them. You should have shown them that they were peaceful grazing animals. That would have been the way to confront their fears.”
But it was too late. Geoffrey was dead. The wind blew in a great gust over the field of death and wreckage and a small white card fluttered by in the wind. Emily picked it up and read, “Stampedes ‘R’ Us – Exotic Animal Rentals.” She noticed May Anna standing at the side of the square, open-mouthed, staring at the carnage. She took the little girl’s hand and walked to Eddie and said, “After we get this cleaned up, let’s call the auto club and then go hang out at the library until they get here.”