"Death is not the King
of TerrorsThat title should be reserved to life itself."
It was my second morning in Canada, and I found myself standing in front of the Cobston Telegraph-Dispatch office, aware that no place I had ever visited seemed less likely to be the possessor of dark secrets than this quiet Canadian town. If there was anything at all wrong, it was that my father was dead, and I never knew him. My life had been patched together and edited in the same way that my father's strange diary had been fixed before my aunt had deemed it fit to hand over to me.
Having reached my late 20s in 1970, I had reached the age of discovery. I knew that mysteries were meant to be experienced, not solved, and I believed that love is the greatest of all mysteries. I had still to learn that true horror was beyond explanation or description.The uncomfortable November chill made me go quickly through the metal-framed door to the hot dry air of the newspaper office-that newspaper that had belonged to my father. The newsroom had been remodeled, but the banks of fluorescent lights illuminated a room with oak desks piled with page proofs and ivory-painted walls hung with framed press photographs. One closest to the receptionist's desk showed a robust Prime Minister John Diefenbaker posing with my father in front of the newspaper office, probably in the 1950s. The news staff comprised three people, an editor and two reporters. I ignored the two men to look fixedly at the dark, shoulder-length hair of a girl whose fingers flew feverishly on a new IBM Selectric typewriter. Her back was to me, so my eyes went automatically to the dominant feature of the office-a massive wood-carved pine plaque on the rear wall, whose walnut-stained and raised Bodoni letters proclaimed:
All that Should be made known
"Am I wearing a name tag?" I was surprised at my quick response. Usually I crafted snappy comebacks a half hour after the conversation. I couldn't help but notice the mid-thigh skirt that could make me forget my name if I wasn't careful.
"No, but you dress like an American, and Mr. Girard told me to watch for Mr. Stoneham's son to arrive this morning." She arched her eyebrows slightly. "I'm Teri Ottoway, and I've been assigned to be your tour guide today-unless you'd prefer Mr. Girard."
It was my turn to smile. "Nice to meet you. You can call me Frank-same as my father. I guess you're the first person I've really talked to except for the real estate agent who opened up the house for me yesterday."
"Yes, it's one of Cobston's older homes. Pretty nice, eh?" As she made small talk, I was paying attention to the unusual Canadian inflections that I had heard about but never heard.
"You know, I didn't think Canada would be different, but I ordered french fries at a restaurant last night and the waitress asked if I wanted vinegar." I didn't want to tell her that I was startled awake last night in the house when a loud thunk echoed from the cellar. It was the first time I had ever been in a house with an oil-fired furnace.
"Now, I have been ordered to give you the grand tour of Cobston, but I also have to stop in at the OPP and pick up their occurrence reports for tomorrow's edition. Meanwhile, I think I'd rather call you Stoneham. That name really carried a lot of weight in this town." She casually flipped her long brown hair off her shoulder and went to her desk to get a notepad, a black handbag, and a coat. She wore those clunky heels that were in fashion, but they didn't keep me from noticing her legs.
When we got outside, I could see my breath. Teri said, "You'll have to buy a coat if you're going to hang around up here. That Levi's jacket won't do it." She was treating me like an immigrant. "We'll take my car since you are bound to be clueless right now."
"Thanks for the confidence, " I realized that I had exhausted my store of comebacks. In a parking lot behind the building was a dark green 1966 Chevrolet that looked 20 years old, its fender wells and rocker panels bubbling with rust. Where I came from in New Mexico, cars seldom rusted.
The interior of the car was musty and damp smelling. Teri buckled a seat belt and motioned for me to do the same. "New Ontario law, Stoneham. Everybody's supposed to use them." I buckled up.
For the next hour we drove up the Main Street where cars were diagonally parked in clusters along the modest business district, down King Street, up James Street, across Church Street, and onto Kingston Avenue, but my attention wavered between watching Teri's legs and thinking about my father's journal. Reared by my aunt and uncle in New Mexico, I felt very fortunate to have had a stable family and a decent education but, as with others like myself, I had a strong curiosity about my biological roots. Until recently, I knew only that my father had been a newspaper publisher, had married late, and that my mother had died when I was very young. I also had a sister whom I remembered but dimly, and she also died young. My aunt always hinted that my father had been plagued with professional success and personal misfortune, haunted by something that affected his whole life. In my childhood fantasies, I had cast my absent father as a haunted war hero whose first world war experience he shouldered like an invisible rucksack whose contents nobody was allowed to examine. On his instructions, he had been cremated. I resented the fact that his life had been closed out for weeks before I learned about his death.
A car pulled out from a stop sign, causing Teri to jam on the brakes. "F--ing small town drivers!" She shouted at the windshield, then she caught the shocked look on my face. "Well, Ali McGraw in "Love Story" had to be based on how real women talk, eh?"
My brief embarrassment seemed to amuse her, but I was now looking at the cobbled brick street we were traversing, the wheels drumming faintly. A large stone Anglican church loomed to our left. "I wonder if this is the place " I caught Teri looking at me with arched eyebrows again. "Sorry. All I know about my father is a diary or journal that he left me, and he talked a lot about the church in Cobston."
"Yeah, in those days there was just St. Mark's and the Catholics. I guess life was simpler then."
I knew the heater was on in the car, but I felt chilled. The leafless trees along the street seemed to be surrounded by leaden gray. Here I was in Canada, having inherited a house and a monthly sum that was generated by my father's lien on the Cobston newspaper. It was all very strange, but the journal was the strangest part. Why had my Aunt Helen, whom I'd known as a mother, decided to expurgate a simple diary? "I guess you don't know much about this, but I've got so many questions about my father and something that happened in Cobston."
"Of course your father is still remembered for his coverage of the awful cholera epidemic after the first war. Mr. Girard told me that the Stoneham name was taken off the masthead when your father sold the paper in 1963, but, because your father carried the note on the paper, he often came to the newsroom , probably to advise the new publisher on ways to brown nose advertisers." Seeing my interest in the church, Teri pulled over to the curb and we got out. The damp breeze was raw and chafing to the skin. I would never admit it to her, but I wished I had a warmer coat.
"Where's the cemetery?" I was thinking about references remaining in the edited journal about some "work" my father had done at the cemetery.
Teri strode purposefully along a paved pathway skirting the imposing stone structure of the church and its rectory, the sound of her shoes echoing in the morning gray. To the right along the path was a grim windowless stone building that must have been the vault. We walked along in this surreal stone garden that had sprouted white, gray and black monuments surrounded by lush green grass, and I could see some of the stones bore weathered dates from the early 1800s. "The vault hasn't been used since the second war, but I've wondered about this place. Let me show you something."
The path veered to the left, sloping downward. I saw instantly what Teri was talking about. At the edge of the grass was an area approximately 50 yards wide and half again as broad that was almost barren. The soil was brownish, sickly looking, and I detected a faint sour smell rising from the bare surface. In two or three spots, a stand of common mullein had sprouted and their woolly leaves had long since wilted with the November chill. I walked forward from the end of the paved walkway and almost tripped on a partially buried flat stone whose chiseled inscription had worn down near to the surface: "Here lie victims of the epidemic...1919" Rusting on the ground was a metal frame that must once have enclosed some kind of document listing the buried, but this sector of the graveyard was obviously untended, and any roster was long since decayed.
Another slight shiver went through me, and I was thinking about the wild tale written in the document from the Toronto detective-a story of praeternatural horror and death long after this epidemic was forgotten. "Hey, Teri, if somebody says they saw a ghost, and the person there with them doesn't see the ghost, does that mean that one of them is wrong?"
"Goddam, Stoneham, I don't do philosophy before lunch. Besides I'm an objectivist. Things exist or they don't exist. If they do exist, their existence can be proved. I had a prof in college who tried to lay down this subjective existence stuff, but he just wanted to sleep with me. He was a bastard." Her mouth tightened slightly, but her stance was relaxed.
So, I told her about the document that came with the Stoneham house from the private investigator who had known my father and also had known my older sister whom I scarcely remembered. The detective report was dated 1965 and addressed to me, care of my father. Five years ago, my father was preparing to tell me this story. I felt uncomfortable about mentioning the report, with its Toronto letterhead and the coffee stain on the covering letter. I had not read it fully, but the letter carried the description of his work as being "Investigations and Private Enquiries." His name was John Delaney.
Teri laughed suddenly. "Yeah, I remember the old guy-everybody in town remembers that character. He was a regular fixture around Cobston back in the 40s. They say he kept coming back here from T-O right into the early 60s. I hear he was a piece of crap-a drunk, a lecher -- chasing women in every pub in the area "
"Did he catch any?"
"Hell, how fast do you have to be to catch the clap?"
I suspected the detective was inclined to exaggeration, describing my father's house as a mansion. Even if I dismissed most of the Delaney claims, there still must have been something at the core of the mystery.
Teri pulled at my sleeve and shivered ostentatiously, so we began walking briskly back toward the car. "I've only been working at the paper a couple of years, but I remember your father as being a pretty level-headed guy. I think he was willing to put up with that looney Delaney because they were both war veterans. Your father told me once that when your sister Lucy died in 1953, Delaney really went around the bend. You say you don't remember much about your sister?"
"My mother died a year after I was born, and Lucy was in high school when the war came along. My father had more than he could handle, so he sent me to the States to be raised by my aunt and uncle. We had virtually no contact before he died."
Back in the car, with the engine turning and the heater blowing welcome warm air, we sat and I stared at the remarkable stonework of St. Mark's church and was convinced that the building was much the same today as it had been in 1919.
"Funny thing about that Delaney guy," Teri was remembering something she had found in her research. "He had all kinds of problems with the clergy at St. Mark's. The current guy, Rev. Jerry, has only been here a couple of years, 'bout as long as I've been working this town, but in the '40s and '50s, Delaney had run-ins with the rector, and there ended up being real bad blood between Delaney and Rev. Jerry's predecessor. Don't know if it's true or not, but some say that they had a shouting match right outside the front door there, with Delaney, drunk as a lord, waving a pistol at the Rev. Peeler. They say it happened only five or six years ago."
"What did you say happened to him?" It was my firm conviction that every community should have its lunatic fringe characters.
"Nobody knows for sure, except he just stopped coming back to Cobston sometime a few years ago. From what I gathered, by then he was in his late 50s and the booze had really got to him. One person I interviewed said the Toronto police had lifted his driver's licence for multiple DUI-that's driving under the influence for you foreigners-but he'd take the bus up here and end up poking around the church, getting into altercations with Rev. Peeler. I think losing the love of his life, your sister, probably destroyed him. I guess that's a woman's main mission in life, eh?" Teri smiled brightly and put the Chevy automatic transmission into Drive.
While I found myself drawn to this energetic and attractive girl, her comment reminded me of something the shunned author and occultist Aleister Crowley had written: "In India when they want to destroy a man, they bury him in an ant hill. In England, they introduce him to a woman." I wondered idly how similar Canada was to Britain.
Teri and I went
to lunch at a place called Farmer's Table in downtown Cobston. As we ate
the Tuesday special of steaming beef stew and fresh-baked bread, Teri
railed against Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, whom she
called the Emperor. "Canada will spiral into a welfare hell with
him at the helm."
She began to talk about free markets, capitalism, and how nobody would recognize Canada in 20 years time. "Every entitlement the government sets up as a safety net will slow the natural incentive to work and the economy will gradually grind to a halt. But, ignorant slut that I am, what do I know?"
I tried to ignore her sarcasm. "All I know is that I think at least I like the girls here, and the only thing that seems strange so far is the funny-colored money. At least the exchange rate is almost on a par with the U.S. dollar."
"I wouldn't bet on it staying that way. By the way, what kind of woman would you look for in Canada, Stoneham?"
"Probably somebody with a vocabulary," I said, with my own smirk.
Teri ignored the comment. "Besides, I'm the ONLY girl you've met in Canada. You probably just want to..."
" read your article on the history of the Telegraph-Dispatch." I finished her sentence and she sneered into her coffee cup. I tried to explain my growing certainty to explain Delaney's mad, impossible story, and the strange tales told of the plague year in Cobston. Teri rolled her eyes and arched her eyebrows. She crossed her legs to ruin my concentration and shook her head now and then.
"Try to imagine seeing or experiencing something unprecedented-something you never experienced in life, or saw in books or movies, or were told about in oral tradition. Can you imagine, for example, Kenneth Arnold seeing the first flying saucers in 1947, or a seafaring man in the 18th century finding his ship under attack from a giant squid. When we are faced with the inexplicable, our minds have to create an explanation-a new mental file folder, since we cannot bear to have something left unknown. The saucer fanatics created benevolent space brothers or concocted a science fiction rationale, but there may be events that are actually beyond explanation."
"That's all bulls---."
I tried ignoring her intransigent nature and asked her to tell me about the stories about Cobston and the father whose name I inherited. Teri had chronicled the devastating 1919 plague that had claimed 93 souls, including Cobston's mortician and my father's first fiancé.
"It was a horrible time when influenza was assaulting all of North America and part of Europe. The cholera epidemic just hit Cobston, and the system was overwhelmed. Cholera spreads like wildfire and apparently kills just as quickly. Far as I can tell, they had to bury most of the victims in that mass grave, then to avoid further disease, they treated the soil with something to assist decomposition. Then it was over." Teri had obviously done her homework on Cobston history.
Two tables away, two businessmen in suit pants, white shirts and subdued narrow ties sat talking about coming heating costs for the winter. It was all too normal. "Okay, Teri, then why did my father write in his journal-in the pages my aunt didn't rip out before I got it-why did he write, 'I shall also never question the ways of the mortician. He has proved wise beyond his own knowledge'?"
"How the hell should I know, Stoneham?" She said it very pleasantly. "Let's finish lunch so I can go get the cop reports for tomorrow's edition. I'll give you this much: Cobston does have a strange mood about it, but I can't tell you what makes it peculiar. Now, let's go."
Since I was just along for the ride, I was happy to acquiesce, trying to absorb as much atmosphere of this Canadian town sitting quiet and gray with its late autumn secrets. It seemed to me that the dim light of afternoon faded all too quickly, and I felt relieved that I was able to talk Teri into coming to the Stoneham house to share a pizza after she had filed her stories for the day. Her curiosity was about my father's house, not about me, and she was vocal on that issue.
While I waited for Teri to arrive later in the evening, I sat with all the room lights and lamps full on, thinking about my father's puzzling statement and wondering why I found myself reading a volume of Poe in my father's bookshelf, and Poe's question in "The Premature Burial," that asked, "The silver cord was not for ever loosed, nor the golden bowl irreparably broken. But where, meantime, was the soul?" It seemed that I had spent much of my youth pondering such questions, and I had found what I thought might be an answer.
Teri arrived at 8:30, and she called me out to the car where a large pizza box filled the front seat and she had brought some beer from her place. Her eyes were animated, and she had already been drinking before she came over. "No pre-judgments, please. I just like scotch a little better than I like most people. Haven't made my mind up about where you fit on that scale."
As we ate, I thought about my father and the personal agonies he had endured in this house, all overshadowed by something beyond the WWI trenches that had seared his soul. Now I had to tell a very attractive skeptic what I had learned about the shells of the dead.
"I know you don't believe this stuff, but the idea that the universe is an accidental chemical creation, and that all living things are merely organic conveniences that have no previous existence and will have no existence beyond what we call death. This modern conceit goes counter to all concepts prior to the 20th century."
"Jesus, Stoneham, wake up and smell the dead people. When it's over, it's over."
"I don't think it was over in Cobston, and I want you to help me prove it." She could tell that I was sincere.
Teri arched her eyebrows and toyed with her hair, smiling less now. "I know that Americans are crazy, but I thought you looked almost normal. Why should I go along with you on this, other than the fact that there's probably nothing else to do in this town?"
I reached across the sofa and tentatively touched Teri on the shoulder, as much because I really wanted to touch her as to reassure her. "Let me tell you about my friend's grandmother back in New Mexico. She was a wonderful woman, and she made me feel like a member of her family, but when her husband was injured in a fall from his horse, she went into a deep depression. Her husband and daughters decided she needed some kind of treatment, and the doctors recommended electric shock therapy. Before she went to the hospital, she used to take us kids to town to go to the movies, out to the Dairy Queen all the time then she came home from the treatments."
Teri opened a third Molson's while I was only halfway down on my first. "If you think this is going to get me to go to bed with you-" She appeared to be impatient.
"Okay, a week after she was brought home from the hospital, I came to visit, and when I went home I was really scared. I was there for an hour with the family, and Gramma Reilly sat in her easy chair, gray hair drawn back into a bun. She just sat there and her husband kept lighting cigarettes for her. She smoked them down mechanically, while the conversation went on around her. We'd talk to her, and she'd kind of answer, but the answers were always stilted and irrelevant. Her eyes had always danced, but there was something cold in her eyes that day, something vacant. Her voice was hollow, and everybody said she was 'in recovery,' but I felt a cold terror like she wasn't there any more and that something else was inside of her. I never went back to that house, and she died after a couple of months. I can't tell you how scary that experience was, but it did one thing for me. It made me determined to learn what life and death were really about."
"Stoneham, your late father wouldn't happen to have a bottle of real scotch-anything not distilled by Seagram's-I don't think I can follow your story without help."
Because I didn't know my father's habits, I had no idea whether there was any liquor in the Stoneham house, but I was hoping that I could dissuade Teri from drinking further. "I've had a lot of time to read and, like most college students, I was astounded to discover that somebody prior to our generation knew anything at all. Freud didn't discover psychology-he just turned it into a commercial proposition. The Greeks had it all figured 2000 years ago. Same thing with unexplained events. I think we're arrogant if we think that, prior to modern empirical science, people were as dumb as rocks. There was a time, for example, when research into astrology was as methodical as modern experiments in physics and chemistry."
"This has something to do with the plague in Cobston? You'd better get to the point before the beer runs out. The pizza's already gone." Teri squinted at me skeptically.
"I wanted to know where my friend's grandmother went, and I found the answer in philosophy, not in psychology. The Hebrew Qabalah is a traditional doctrine that recognizes the spiritual nature of humanity. It holds that pure consciousness descends into existence, accumulating density of reason, emotion, and imagination until, through desire, that imagination congeals into an earthly incarnation.
"When the physical vehicle can no longer support the life force, it withdraws again into a subjective state. This reflects the pre-20th century idea of life and its ebb and flow. This same esoteric doctrine also speaks of a sphere of quasi-existence beneath material existence that was labeled the qlippoth-the shells of the dead. The cast-off personas of all existence "
"I think that's person-ae, Stoneham, but I'm trying to listen. You're almost as much fun as a Monkees rerun, and you make about as much sense."
"Okay, now you say you respected my father, so why would he write in his journal 'Death is not the King of Terrors-That title should be reserved to life itself.' He was a rational man, a newspaper editor, but something happened to him in Cobston that he never got over."
"Stoneham, I wrote a series of articles about the newspaper and your father's life, and I admit that your father made reference to things he said shouldn't be made public, but I thought he was just Edwardian in his attitudes. One thing for sure, if something horrible happened, it must have happened in that cemetery back after the first war."
For a moment I was aware of the wash of the table lamps on the yellowed walls of the living room, the patterned upholstery of the sofa, and the utter silence of the cold world outside the front door. Suddenly I felt the realization that Cobston might be one of those strange places where impossible events protruded through the skin of the normal world . The attractive woman sharing a pizza with me was my only key to discovering what might have been in the missing pages of my father's journal. "How do we explore the cemetery?"
"I'm not so sure 'we' are going to do anything, but I will say that the new rector of St. Mark's is pretty damn friendly. I think he probably wants to sleep with me." Teri was showing the effects of the beer and whatever she had been drinking before she arrived.
"I'm sure everybody does; now, what do we do?" Teri appeared to miss my own attempt at sarcasm, but I felt as though she would help me find what I needed to know about the missing pages of my father's journal.
"Sunday and Monday are my days off. Monday is a good day to visit St. Mark's. That's if I feel so inclined by then." Teri stood up, and very much aware of my eagerness about the search. I should have offered to drive her home, but I could tell that Cobston was a typical small town and the streets were probably empty after dark. I also knew that Teri Ottoway had a stubborn streak that would not brook argument.
The next few days were spent in reading Delaney's description of drinking and pursuing the woman he loved, my long-dead sister, and of guns and shooting in the woods south of town. I drove back to the church and went to the place where the grass no longer grew and where the soil seemed poisoned. When I walked across that shunned ground, it seemed spongy and soft. I retreated back to the paved walkway.
I ate in the town restaurant, bought incidentals at the Becker's Milk store, and generally introduced myself to the residents. They were a pleasant lot, but when I asked about the plague year, they shrugged or shook their heads as though they had never heard of it. At the town library, the librarian on duty said she remembered her mother saying that there had been ghosts in Cobston created by the plague. She planned to write a book about them someday.
The words "shells of the dead" echoed in my mind in the early evenings, when I tried to tune in the two television channels that reached Cobston. I came to think, in those dark hours, that such a concept was a good definition of evil-the interruption of the natural order. It would explain the very credible accounts of true vampires in eastern Europe, and it just might be the explanation for Cobston.
Monday dawned as gray and chilly as the past five days had been, and I realized I had never seen a climate where the sun did not come out and temper the chill, even in late fall and winter. Teri drove us to St. Mark's Anglican church at 9 a.m. where we were to meet Rev. Gerald Holt whom Teri kept referring to as "Jerry" in an almost pejorative sense. He met us at the door to the rectory and waved us inside eagerly. He was wearing traditional clerical garb, but I thought the collar seemed to fit him poorly.
We sat in old armchairs crafted of polished oak, and I was staring at the procession of rector portraits around the office wall. One of them, a sepia-toned photograph of Rev. Arthur Gresham indicated the last year of his tenure to be 1919. His name was the only one I recognized because it was mentioned in my father's journal.
Rev. Jerry, as I now thought of him, caught me staring. "Oh yes-Rev. Gresham. He was the only rector to die at the church. There was a terrible accident in the cemetery vault when something collapsed and crushed him."
"That was when they stopped using the vault?" I was just guessing.
"I believe that is correct." Rev. Jerry put his hands together and made a steeple out of his fingers. "But that vault wasn't the original." He was talking to me, but his eyes kept darting toward Teri who seemed to smile brightly while crossing her legs, looking at nothing in particular. The young rector was obviously fond of Teri, and he explained that the burial vault in the cemetery was built in the late 19th Century. Before that time, and before there was a modern mortuary in Cobston, there was an underground vault in the church cellar that dated from the early days of St. Mark's. "It was boarded up, by coincidence, by the same Rev. Gresham, back in 1919, just before he died."
"The question is whether we could explore down there." Teri asked suddenly.
Rev. Jerry was set to automatically respond negatively. His whole body tensed, but Teri was smiling at him. To my amusement, he said, "I guess we could arrange that " even though it was obvious that he was completely opposed to the idea. "I don't think anybody's been in there for at least 20 years, maybe since Rev. Gresham's death. We'd have to take down some boards and see if the old doors can be opened."
"It could make an interesting article, if there's anything there." She closed the deal, and it was agreed that the following Monday we would investigate the original vault under St. Mark's church.
Before we left, I stopped at the final photo portrait in the procession of St. Mark's rectors. A broad-shouldered cleric with iron-gray bushy hair grinned at the camera, and I asked Rev. Jerry about him.
"Yeah, well I never met Rev. Peeler. He retired at the same time the diocese gave me the opportunity to come here. He just went off without a card or a letter. One of our parishioners said he wanted to retire to Florida or the Caribbean. Once you've been here for a winter, you'll sympathize. Peeler was apparently a very determined and authoritative figure. He didn't suffer fools gladly."
I used the next few days to shop in Cobston. I bought a down-filled jacket, two powerful flashlights, and a flash unit for my Nikon F camera. Teri and I shared lunch and arguments twice during the week. She did not accept that there could be experiences the mind could not assimilate and understand.
The following Monday dawned blustery and cold, with the late November drizzle turning to a trace of snow that blew wraithlike along the streets of Cobston. When Teri arrived, we loaded the gear and headed directly for St. Mark's. Along the way, I pointed out a Cobston resident watering his driveway in the cold.
Teri laughed at me for not understanding that driveways became hockey rinks for kids in Canada, and I realized I had never seen ice strong enough to safely stand on when I lived in rural New Mexico.
Rev. Jerry met us at the front steps of St. Mark's. We entered the church whose high-ceilinged interior seemed even larger and more majestic than it appeared from the outside. We followed the rector along the burgundy-carpeted middle aisle toward the altar rail. The dim day of Cobston illuminated the several stained glass Windows on either side of the church nave, each containing a donation panel for the family that subscribed to the window's construction.
Our footsteps were muffled by the carpet and, out of Episcopalian habit, I followed the example of the rector and my companion by bowing my head before the altar and then turning right and following the communion rail around behind the pulpit and through a door at the extreme right of the altar. A small room lined with dark oak-stained wardrobes stood open with choir and acolyte vestments either suspended from hangers or piled on a small table in readiness for the Cobston Cleaners.
The door to the cellar was at the south end of the room and led down behind the altar of the church. Rev. Jerry turned on the cellar lights and we descended the heavy wooden stairs to the basement. The smell of the furnace and the dim yellowness of the two overhead light bulbs made the place seem confining and isolated.
On the east wall of the basement, a pile of wood and boxes were carelessly heaped. Rev. Jerry pointed. "That's where the old vault was. As I said, it hasn't been disturbed since Rev. Gresham's time. Rev. Peeler, who preceded me, left a few notes, and this was one thing he did clearly state in his notes. I guess he knew, since he had been here for so many years." Rev. Jerry gave me an old padlock key and pointed behind the clutter to a scarcely visible metal bar that held bare wood double doors tightly shut. "Much of that wood pile was supposed to be a part of the old coal chute that came from this south wall." He pointed to a place on the cellar wall where mortared rock was interrupted by a dark concrete rectangle.
"Are you sure we can get through the door?" Teri zipped up her coat and tried the switch on the big lantern-style flashlight I had given her.
"Of course I don't know," Rev. Jerry rubbed his soft, white hands together; "all I ask is that you put things in some kind of order when you are done." He backed toward the basement stairs. "Oh, and by the bye, Rev. Peeler did write in the notes to his successor that it would be inadvisable and could be dangerous to open up the old vault."
Through the heavy furnace glass on the boiler, the oil fired burner spewed flickering fingers of flame that accented the shadows cast by the overhead bulbs. Rev. Jerry ascended three steps, trying to decide whether to leave us alone.
Teri gesticulated with her right hand, "Get on with it, Stoneham. I'll supervise. Lifting heavy objects is one of those few things men are good for."
The basement was dank, but it was passably warm, and I began sweating inside the quilted jacket as I moved 4x4 supports and planking whose wood grain was indeed imbedded with coal dust. My hands were immediately dirty, and I cursed my failure to buy a pair of work gloves. By the time I had moved the heavy framework that remained of the coal bin and chute, only a few boxes separated us from the vault doors.
The first wooden box was full of damaged hymnals and a few copies of "The Book of Common Prayer" absent their jackets. I looked at the flyleaves and they were all, as expected, imprinted with dates prior to 1910. Soon, only one large and dirty cardboard carton was keeping us from opening the doors. I wrestled the heavy box to one side, and its side seam split in a puff of dust, causing the contents to cascade onto the concrete floor. When I looked up, I noticed that Rev. Jerry was no longer in the basement with us.
Teri was at my side, smiling, as we picked up strewn stacks of newspapers and stacks of Canadian Churchman and The Anglican.
"Teri, this is no time to read newspapers. We've got work to do."
"Shutup, Stoneham." She was looking at one paper, then another while I was moving the quantities of these old publications out of our path.
"Frank, take a look at this." Her use of my first name stopped me cold. She repeated herself and shoved the newspaper at me. It was the Toronto Globe and Mail, slightly yellowed, but very well preserved. "Look at it!" She was more forceful the third time.
Suddenly I got it. The war news was not from WWI or even WWII. The article below the fold on page one was about United States involvement in Viet Nam, the country name divided into two words. The newspaper was dated October 17, 1964. How could this box have been jammed against these doors since the time of Rev. Gresham? A shared glance between us confirmed the realization. I picked up an issue of the Canadian Churchman that carried a 1962 date.
The hinged metal bar across the old doors was three inches wide and a quarter inch thick. It was held in place by an old padlock whose key slot was in the face of the lock. I fully expected it to be rusted shut, but with a little tweaking, the key turned and the lock snapped open. The heavy hinged bar swung back with a hollow clang. In lieu of door knobs, the doors had no latches, only thick metal handles such as those some people installed on cellar trap doors. The doors were old and rough, splintered in places, and I noticed in passing several imperfections that were similar to small diameter drill holes that had pushed crudely outward from the inside.
Teri was still looking at the newspapers when I pulled on the door handles and felt the sudden twinge across my trapezius muscle as the doors resisted. My curiosity was a pleasant nudge, and I did not know what kind of deep closet I would find behind the heavy partition. When the doors yielded to my third yank, all that changed.
The heavy doors lurched open, and a haze of dust clouded the basement air. I was looking into a blackness whose icy chill was almost material. I had expected a recess in the wall, but we were presented with a deep room that was not illuminated from the basement.
I turned the flashlight to the walls inside, and they reflected remarkable craftsmanship of fitted stones remaining firm even though the mortar had crumbled and dropped to the dirt floor in many places. The extent of the enclosure went beyond the initial stab of our flashlights, but the width of the vault was approximately 12 feet, with an arched ceiling groined at the apex a little higher than 7 feet above the hardpan floor.
While I had lost my orientation in our walk through the church and down the stairs, it appeared that the vault was an unpopulated catacomb extending in a southwesterly direction under the graveyard. In a harsh northern land, it was not easy to dig in the frozen ground through the winter, and bodies had to be stored until the spring thaw. In the days before embalming was common and affordable, storage was even more critical.
Teri and I stepped tentatively into the opening and were assailed by a nascent sour odor seeping into our clothes. My nostrils wrinkled, and my eyes burned as readily as if I were standing in the center of mid-day pollution at Sunset and Vine in Hollywood, California. Teri coughed involuntarily and muttered several one-syllable words.
The area near the doors was clean, and the floor solid and hard, dark with residual moisture and small crevices were spongy with a sickly moss. A few chunks of mortar and several random pieces of dark metal were scattered on the smooth surface. I felt a hand squeezing my arm through the coat. My bare hands were already feeling numb from the frigid air.
We took smaller, shorter steps into the blackness while part of me marveled at how absolute darkness could be. The dim light of the basement receded as we trod carefully one foot at a time into this unexpected marvel of pioneer Cobston architecture. Our flashlights examined the walls, and the ceiling. We discovered no artifacts or suggestions of the macabre purpose for building this vault that most certainly ran beneath the burying ground.
My eyes and throat burned with an icy fire. The vault, which I thought should have ended in the 50 or 60 feet we had walked, seemed to make an abrupt turn to the left.
Teri gasped. The corridor became a chamber in the blackness, and I estimated that room to be approximately 21 feet wide, and 11 feet deep. The ceiling was structurally amazing, comprised of granite slabs held up by ingenious keystones that would probably withstand an earthquake.
"Oh, Jesus Christ!" Teri jumped and almost pulled my right arm from its socket. Her flashlight wavered, and the beam from mine joined hers. The air was hazy with some kind of particles that had to be causing the burning sensation, but there was something piled against the wall at the left of the chamber, and it had been human.
This was no corpse wrapped for burial-no leftover from the early days of the church. My light played on two discolored wingtip shoes whose soles were curling in the darkness. The shoes had not left the feet that wore them. The remains of a suit of clothes seemed to have corroded into noxious piles of fiber under the remnants of a beige all-weather coat that was permeated with the stains of bodily serums that had soaked through as the corpse had settled into the ground. I was no expert and could not tell how long this body had been in the vault. A crumpled fedora with an eaten-through crown lay beside a collapsing human skull whose teeth had dropped into a tiny grouping on the nitrous floor. A yellowing femur protruded through the remains of a pant leg, and my stomach lurched. A white, crystalline crust was growing on the exposed bone.
Now I recognized the noxious odor as acidic, and it burned the nostrils the way glacial acetic acid seared my nose in the photo darkroom. I shook my head slowly and started to back away, but when I looked at Teri's widened eyes, I felt we would never be here again, so I forced myself to get closer to the mound that had once been a human being. Gingerly, I lifted the rotting hem of the coat.
In the beam of the flash, a cloud of dusty crystals rose into the freezing air, making the haze even more dense. Under the coat, the corpse's torso still maintained its shape from a rib cage that had not yet collapsed. There was more. Two or three blackened silver coins lay on the crystal-encrusted floor, and a heavily tarnished flat container was partially exposed by the torso.
"That's a damn hip flask," Teri whispered.
"And it's not all." I tried to swallow my revulsion, but my mouth was dry and filled with a rancid taste. I held my breath and reached into the discolored, fragmenting coat. My hand went naturally around the grip of a pistol I knew to be a Browning Hi-power 9mm semi-automatic pistol, its gray finish sheathed with a thin uniform reddish oxidation. The 14-round magazine was still seated, and the hammer was rusted in the cocked position.
When I removed the pistol from the body, I could see that the bones of the arms and hands had fallen to pieces while in a position as though the person had died while holding his body to keep warm.
Teri's flashlight pointed to a corner of the chamber a few feet from what had once been the human being. The corroding remains of a two-cell flashlight lay smashed on the floor against the base of the rock wall. "God, what it must be like-to die in the dark. I know who this is." She was whispering.
I felt the cold, rusting steel of the pistol. Suddenly I realized that I recognized those splinter-edged holes in the vault door, the imperfect exit holes of copperclad bullets that had been fired through those massive locked doors-from the inside. Now I too knew who this poor wretch had been, and I was suddenly seized with an uncharacteristic panic. "The door. He was shut up in here by accident or "
Teri stopped me before I started a dash for the entrance, her hand like a clamp on my arm. She put down the flashlight and fished something out of her pocket. It was the padlock from the vault door. I stood, panting, but flooded with relief. She managed a smile.
My imagination was constructing the last hours of private enquiry agent John Delaney's fretful life, entombed in, as Poe had described, "the intense and raylessness of the Night that endureth for evermore." Helpless and drunk, he had been sentenced to death, not by a court, but by the click of a padlock and rustling black vestments. His cries for help would have been heard only by the tenants of the graves above him.
I pushed the Browning into my coat pocket, though I doubted that I would be able to restore it to its previous function. Our flashbeams lingered on the remains of John Delaney as we wondered how to report what we had found. Then I traversed the back wall of the chamber and over to the murky darkness on the right.
Here the chamber was unfinished or had suffered some natural catastrophe, for piles of rocks littered the darkness, revealing a gaping maw. Could Delaney have been trying to dig his way out? A thick brownish tongue of mud had lapped into the chamber and solidified, whitish with the rime of acid crystals. My irritated eyes were running with tears and my throat burned as I pointed my flashlight into the opening-into a black hole that had to lead in the direction of that shunned area of the graveyard where my father had found something frightening beyond what he had known in the trenches of the first world war.
The mud was dry, clumping in places. Here in this blackness, the flashlight was little comfort as I saw the fragments of human remains poking through the miniature glacier of soil. The isolation of the vault, the horror of John Delaney, and the poisonous air of that frigid enclosure pushed me beyond revulsion.
But here is where Teri and I no longer agree as to what we experienced. In comparing notes, we both saw bone fragments, and a partial mummified cadaver embedded in the mud, and we both saw the residue of the hundreds of gallons of caustic solution that had, for some reason, saturated the earth, causing a river of mud so long ago. We agree that we had reached the limit of breathing those fumes and feeling the dust crystals flicking pinpoint burns on our face and hands. We did suddenly bolt from that chamber, and up the black corridor to the dim yellow opening that looked so distant. I know, too, that we were both wide-eyed and panting as we pushed those heavy doors closed over the vault opening, sealing it with a booming thud. The metal bar was replaced and the lock snapped shut. The timbers and boxes were replaced as they were found. All those things are part of our common memory.
We never returned to St. Mark's, even to attend church. Teri did not write the story about finding Delaney's body or about the renegade Rev. Peeler who had locked the detective into the vault. My father's edict from an uncertain past stared down from the newspaper office wall about "All that Should be made known." Teri, of course, knew more about what I really wanted than I did, and that turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me; yet, we have never agreed as to what we last saw in that chamber beneath Cobston. But, perhaps we react differently when presented with the inexplicable. Teri says that she saw nothing but relics of life, for natural law can never be abrogated.
I, however, will be forever convinced that there are shells of the dead, the evil residue of consciousness that can be contacted by seance, and which can seep into the unwary bodies of the living who have been weakened by drugs or dementia. Perhaps at certain times, and in certain places, even greater horrors are possible.
For that day in the subterranean vault, when our flashlight beams probed the breached chamber wall, I could see a further blackness beyond where the cascade of congealed mud had emerged onto the vault floor.
Despite the stinging in my eyes and wherever my skin was exposed, I felt compelled to investigate and so I got down to my knees and crawled into the opening, my nose beginning to drain from the onslaught of the foetid air. From behind, the beam from Teri's flashlight sent my shadow scrabbling to the hidden corners of the natural cave.
There indeed were scattered remains of what had been human beings, some bones almost whole, others reduced to crumbled fragments from the combination of the noxious chemicals and the natural assaults of the decades.
I crawled perhaps five feet into the maw of the congealed mud spill feeling the softness of the pile sink slightly as my weight bore down upon it. I tried not to think of what was hidden beneath its surface. The soil gave under my weight, and I fell on my side, inadvertently hitting the "off" switch on the flashlight. It was then that I was suddenly aware of a foulness, the emanation of frightening, living evil.
I flicked the light switch and swung the beam to my right as I scrambled back up on my knees. The mummified torso was close to the dirt bank, and I felt a lightning bolt of fright course through my entire frame. It was the suddenness of this ghastly appearance that unnerved me. This rotted relic was but inches from my face in the mottled play of light and shadow from the two flashbeams, and I tumbled, flailing down the dirt floe with a rattle in my throat. I tumbled onto the vault floor and jumped to my feet. That was when Teri and I almost ran through the silent vault back to the world.
For that brief
instant, in the acid-encrusted pile of dirt and human detritus, I had
looked into the empty face of the dead whose desiccated ligaments and
muscles had somehow remained as a mockery of human form. In that dark,
freezing moment, I felt a waft of rotting air and that rotted skull with
its patches of hair, that torso of exposed ribs, slowly, deliberately
moved, and the still-appended jaw seemed to lean toward my face, slowly
opening and closing as if to bite at me with its crumbling teeth-a thing
not truly alive since 1919.
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