The Trapdoor by Meade Frierson III

If you can fall through one, what else may?

I asked them to bring me this tape-recorder. The pneumonia had so ravaged my body by the time I reached any aid near those damned woods that I perceive no glimmer of hope in the faces of the doctor and nurses who attend me. I will set out this "delusion" as they will call it and swear to it by all that is holy . . . although what can be holy and what blasphemy after what I have seen and vaguely understood . . .

It is a matter of record and capable of substantiation that I left the Marengo County Courthouse at closing time on Friday, September 22. Miss Hastings, guardian of the probate records as was her aunt and her great-aunt before her, will recall my remarks that the day's research had afforded me some substantial clues to the Vrinny Legend.

Further, if my briefcase can be found, and if the rain has not reduced its contents to unreadable pulp, I can hope to receive support from tangible evidence, at least enough to spur an investigation.

I was engaged in research for the Southern Antiquities Association, since the brokerage business was of a mind to manage itself, and my late mother had pressed the task upon me to further her position in the society. Once started, I viewed her death not as a reason to stop but to continue the work as she would have wished. In view of my weakened condition, I will digress no more than to say that my current investigations were in the French enclave originated in Demopolis, Alabama in 1817. While I was making inquiries regarding some lineages, local gossips had suggested (flippantly, I had supposed) that I consult with ol' Laura, an ancient black woman with a "bodacious mem'ry" for people and events of the past.

The week before my courthouse visit and the nightmare that ensued, I had located this Laura in a run-down shack remote from any town, where she was well tended by young blacks claiming to be more remote descendants of her than I could credit. The wizened old woman was rocking on the stoop in the cool fall air and registered no surprise at my introduction.

Under close questioning anent some peculiar wills I had encountered while tracing family histories, she developed an air of hushed and confidential revelation, which was distinctly different from her manner of joyfully pronouncing upon lineages like the beasts of the Bible. The notes I made that afternoon contained the core of the Vrinny Legend.

I pursued this legend among some elderly whites during the week and by Friday was armed with enough hints and suggestions to undertake a check of courthouse records. Much of what I had been told was simply incredible and beyond doubt the product of a good slug of moonshine or of senile fantasying, if not in the current generation of informants, then on the part of some past purveyors of these oral traditions.

I sought one thing in particular and found it confirmed in the records to my delight. To explain: it appeared from the earliest records that there were some strange incongruities with regard to lands claimed and passed to rightful heirs. Further, with respect to certain slaves the references would indicate they were young and fit but omitted in the wills of deceased family who had obtained them only a year or so before. From available records I had surmised that in the space of a few years perhaps a hundred acres and half that number of slaves had been wiped from the records, not only records of the owners, but of the county as well! Certain surveys were skillfully forged, certain descriptions left sufficiently vague, and the net result was that lands simply disappeared. Adjacent landowners had paid taxes on overlapping properties to which they never otherwise made claim, so no official had a stake in trying to reconcile records and the overlap was invisible, a blind spot. This blind spot, however, by my researches, was narrowed to a remote region of the county where roads were sparse.

As to the Vrinny Legend, it tied into these missing acres and slaves. The portion which might be given credence may be summarized. "Vrinny" was one Auverigne, a Frenchman who came to the region with his fellow countrymen shortly before the founding of Demopolis. The legend described various unbelievable abilities to this man, asserting that he was a witch or wizard with the dark powers to transmute elements such that he never wanted for gold, that he created zombies to serve him and built a palace in the depths of the woods where he trafficked with demons and so on and so forth.

Of course, the reasonable interpretation would be that he was a miserly and eccentric expatriate who preferred absolute secrecy (for whatever reason) and quietly acquired his holdings from the nearby landowners (with unusual stipulations for the overassessments). It might be possible that he was a mesmerist, a hypnotist. If so, he would be able to make the whites forget about the lands and slaves he wanted and to make the blacks serve him in a trance.

From the courthouse, I went to a local restaurant and then before I slept I obtained some items I would need in exploring the blind spot: machete, rainwear, a large new flashlight with a dozen batteries. I awoke in the afternoon as was my custom, although what I took to reduce the symptoms of my head cold probably contributed to the length of my sleep. As I dressed for hiking through rugged country, the radio informed me of the storm activity in the Gulf which was expected to have an adverse effect on the weather in our county. I loaded my car and consulted the maps I had, seeking the minor roadways which appeared to skirt closest to the mysterious region.

The storm broke with its full force well after I had entered the last of the secondary roads. So sparse was the population served by this road that the county officials had not bothered to maintain it. I was severely jolted by hidden ruts and the motor stalled twice even before the torrents began in ernest. It was by then near sunset.

The rain drove down with such fury that I resolved to abandon the search. But as I tried to turn around, my car became trapped in mud. I consulted the map and my memory, trying to determine the route to civilization if I abandoned my car. It appeared that the straightest course to a more trafficked route would take me through a part of the "forgotten region." After some time futilely waiting for any abatement in the deluge, I resolved to trust in future dosages of miracle drugs to prevent my already severe cold from developing into something worse and carried my possessions from the car into the rain-drenched wilderness which crowded the roadside.

The stumbling, sliding passage through the thick, almost impenetrable woods was increasingly difficult, and my irritation at my stupidity in setting out on this course was becoming unbearable, when I thought I spied to my left a huge dark shape. I turned and hacked my way in the direction of a slight rise on which I now more clearly beheld a long low building. My heart raced as I dared to hope that the answer to the Vrinny mystery was at hand and that my suffering was for a good cause. My exultation was not uninfluenced by the prospect of finding myself once more under shelter.

The structure was indeed a house, overgrown by vines. It appeared at first to be typical of the period. Hand-hewn logs, square cut from the hearts of those colossal pines which made up the virgin forests of this land in the early 19th century, fifty feet or more in length, were stacked to a height of fifteen feet where they were met by an intact and peculiar red roof. A one-story structure of expert craftsmanship was quite unusual for the period, but the door was where it should have been, in the center and doubtless opening on a central corridor or "dogtrot" through to the back with other rooms opening onto it. Only one large window was located on each side of the door but far from it, as though only the far front rooms could be so illuminated. The windows were shuttered with almost metallic-looking shutters which fit snugly into the sills. They were edged, however, with gobs of a substance resembling red wax, as though sealed like a letter of that period. The chinking between the logs appeared to be smeared with the same substance, and as I neared, it seemed possible that the roof was so coated. These observations, prolonged in the telling, were accomplished in a few seconds for the driving rain was merciless and I longed for the dryness which the intact roof promised.

The door had been battered from without at some time but apparently the undertaking had been abandoned before ingress was achieved. The hinges seemed to have been weakened, as I lunged against the plain, single slab serving as the door. Turning, I noticed a curiously carved bench of solidly pegged pine parts against the front wall. It took considerable effort to rip it clear of vegetation and virtually with my last burst of energy, I battered the door. It was the sill which splintered with a liquid, almost disgusting sound and I toppled into the gloom within.

My first sensation, after minutes of lying there recuperating, was that when I stood the webs of spiders coupled with an unusual number of vine tendrils conspired to cloak my every movement with a sticky clinging resistance. I flailed at them and made passage from the vicinity of the doorway with its thundering waterfall. I rummaged in my pack and retrieved the flashlight. I turned it on.

How can I convey the nauseous impression made on my senses by the scene then revealed? It is only appropriate, I suppose, to reconstruct each detail, one on the other as they piled up toward the final horror.

Where I stood, the floor of broad pine planks was of a disagreeable, pulpy softness, detectable even though my boots were filled with water. It seemed as if the steel-like cells of the interior of this hard wood had been burst. I had been in numerous neglected houses but the chemical processes which had produced the strange deterioration in this place was without parallel in my experience. Quickly moving my light about, I found that the interior design was greatly different than I had imagined. I was in a central room of perhaps thirty feet on each side, off of which I supposed smaller cubicles were located. More than half of the house was this single room. The room had been left fully furnished when deserted. But what the blistering summers and winters of drenching rain -- or something else -- had done to the trappings!

From the decor and my knowledge of the styles of the period I presumed that certain . . . things had been rugs but over the years of neglect these had been transformed, by no process I had encountered, into pools of liquescent slime. From several of these around the room arose the mold covered decaying sticks of furniture of diverse periods and styles -- rustic hand-hewn pine tables alternated with crumbling relics of the days of King Louis XIV, their every surface festering in a loathsome fashion reminiscent of the frying flesh of living creatures. All bore the signs of the gnawing of vermin about the legs and a most peculiar process of dissolution about the tops, much like the condition of the rugs. Against the walls were collapsed highboys and a divan, all suffering from the strangest discolorations; bulges and boils spotted the surfaces and some delicate carving had unaccountably crumbled into coarse white dust but only in patches. A most impressive set of pine shelving occupied the bulk of one wall and I approached it.

Several of the shelves had crumbled onto those below and volumes once lodged there were heaped in fetid rotting piles on the floor, deteriorated beyond separation into distinct books. Avoiding those piles, I drew closer to the intact shelves and perused the lettering on the spines that had not succumbed to the decay. As it was in French for the most part, I translated automatically, guessing at the archaic forms and certain proper names: The Cults of the Ghouls, The Pleasures of Death and The Dying, Formulas of Possession, Ancient Mysteries, The Nameless Order, Of Mngthyl's Powers, The Theory of . . . some noun, unintelligible although frankish in appearance. There were others of astounding suggestion and frightening intimation; the words "death," "secrets," "gods" (always plural) and others too hideous to recall danced before my tired eyes as the whispered fragments of the Vrinny Legend throbbed in my ears, louder than the interminable rain.

I shuddered and swept my light around. Near a shuttered central window at the rear of the room, red-sealed as all others, a half-collapsed secretary stood littered with some loose sheets and several volumes with alien figures and characters. I approached and looked closely at the loose brown-inked pages miraculously intact and unyellowed as if their composition was of something wholly different from the wood and plant derivatives of which almost every other decaying object in the room was made. The handwritten pages were partially unintelligible to me, being apparently written in code or some other abbreviated form that none of my extensive language expertise could crack. But what was readable, coupled with the superstitions I had heard in the recent past, almost sent me screaming from the building with the portents of cataclysmic consequence of having entered there!

As it was, I remained numb and frozen to the spot and with a trembling hand shifted the papers so that all that was written on them became visible. I will not permit myself to think of what might have been written in the weird volumes nearby, for fear that I could not finish my message in my weakened condition. I must restrain myself to recite detail by detail what I read, what I saw, and resist the urge to blurt out the horrors . . .

What I read appeared to be part of a journal of M. Auverigne, the infamous Vrinny himself, penned over a century ago even if he had lived to be quite elderly. Where the remainder of the pages rested was not readily apparent, but a look at these loose pages was enough to bring to a shuddering halt any desire for deeper insight into the Vrinny Legend. He wrote, in snatches, of a project. These words might have been the ravings of the most unfortunate inmate of Bryce Mental Hospital up in Tuscaloosa. "Masters of Time," it said in one place, "are observed through my portal. It behooves me to prepare a sealant against their possible accidental intrusion into my own . . ." On another page, after indecipherable signs, I read, "One of my blacks fell through some that was spilled and I am certain that he crossed." Further on, "The _____ has been prepared and tested. I have applied it liberally below to create a trapdoor." At the very bottom of the page which had lain uppermost I read, "According to my calculations, the next Passer will be mine and at my bidding he shall give keys to the darker knowledge. I have dispatched the remaining black men and am prepared."

I had the uncomfortable but wholly unconfirmed impression that this last entry meant the poor wretches who were forced to serve this man were not free to return with tales to their masters. I turned from the paper with my head spinning at the conceptions of what these notes might mean, if this Vrinny were not totally insane. But the aspect of this house, so eerily different from any other old house, seemed to me to confirm in unbelievable fashion that something more than a sinister madman had lived here. I came to my senses from a fugue state staring at a wall near the secretary. There was a clear globe in a metal holder fixed to it. I studied it closer. It appeared to be made of glass with a bird's-nest of bright silver wires inside. When I returned it to its holder, there appeared to be a transformation -- yes, a reddish glow dully lit the globe. Perhaps I had not noted this before, my flashlight being many times brighter.

Just then, another impression . . . or rather the lack of one . . . struck me. The odors, which I would normally have anticipated to be quite foul in a place in such condition, were wholly absent. It is true that I suffered from a head cold and a diminished olfactory sense even in the best of health. But my eyes told me that a hellish pungency created by all I beheld should have pierced my defenses and driven me to nausea. I experimented with deep inhalations and on swallowing was alarmed to realize I had lost all sensations in my lips, tongue, nose -- all was as if anesthetized. Then I panicked at the thought of what noxious vapors were now abroad in this place so carefully sealed over the years until my unwelcome intrusion.

The feeling abated quickly, replaced by numb wonder and an itch to explore. Entering the chamber which lay to my left as I faced the rear exit, I found that it served the house as kitchen and dining area. The stone fireplace was centered on the outside wall and upon closer inspection I saw that it too had been sealed with a metal plate, the original nature of which lay hidden beneath a disgusting mold which appeared to pulse in the light emitted by the flashlight in my quivering hand. Red wax, avoided by the mold, held the plate to the stone. I was ready to quit that place for another as soon as I saw that the vessels and implements lying about were better suited to an alchemist of ancient days than to a cook preparing meals there.

I crossed the central room to the opposite door from that kitchen-laboratory, with every intention of quitting the house for the cleansing reality of the storm outside after a quick look through that door. A glance inside revealed the predicted crumbling armoire of a bedroom and a collapsed bedstead but at its end I saw an opened trapdoor directly below the wax-sealed front window shutters.

I hesitated in my flight from the eerie manse at that point and have regretted it more than any act or omission in my life. I may have lost my life all the same if I had tried to make my way out to find aid at that time, but my passing which I feel so close would not be as tortured as it now will be. The trapdoor was some four feet square and clearly had been built from the inception as it was extremely intricate in the manner in which it fitted into the flooring. There was much evidence of the repeated treatments with the red wax so as to preclude an atom of seepage through the closed trapdoor. The floor seemed much firmer than in the central room and the only squashing was the normal one from my waterlogged boots.

I was seized by fear and a strong sense of curiosity at the same time, convincing myself after a minute of dithering that I could have no self respect if at this point in my explorations I ran. The long sturdy-looking stairway which my light revealed could admit me to a chamber beneath, the black floor of which was perhaps twenty feet below. I wondered at so mammoth an undertaking as the excavation in the sandstone bedrock at the ridge's top and the contrast of that effort with the labor of construction of the remainder of the house.

Warily testing each step and focusing my light directly beneath my feet as I descended, I reached the last step and extended my left foot toward the jet black floor. As my weight shifted to that foot, I sprawled instantly and my flashlight darted from my hand toward the near wall and, striking it, clicked off. I lay squirming atop the glossy black floor and, even in my panic, wondered at the nature of the substance. I tried to press a finger firmly against the coating but as it neared it seemed to meet some force above the surface and like two strong opposing magnets, the floor and my finger would not meet. I lay somewhere near the foot of the stairway and calculated that I probably could regain it with some squirming but without my flashlight the woods were impenetrable for certain.

I proceeded to "swim" slowly toward the presumed resting place of the light, wriggling and flopping about like a catfish on a muddy river bank. It takes great effort for me to reconstruct my thinking during the time until I retrieved the light. I was painfully aware of the dark allusion to a trapdoor in the apparently final writings on the desk in the room above. But I was certain that the portal through which I had passed was not what was meant. Something, this entire black room perhaps, was intended by Vrinny to "trap" some "master of time" -- whatever that meant. The word "passer" had been used as well.

I turned on the light. As to the details of what I saw, the fever has burned them into the back of my eyelids. As to their meaning, no one is likely to believe me. For this reason, the conclusions derived from my investigations of the Vrinny legend must be stated, for my last experience in that house before seizing the stairway with superhuman strength and propelling myself into the night may in the retelling be my last experience in this life.

The Frenchman Auverigne came to this place with secrets of the ages. He was most likely a hypnotist and used the power to secure the help he needed in building and staffing a secret abode. He was an alchemist; I have no doubt that this can be proven by the lighted globe and certain substances used in the house the deterioration of which is beyond human experience, the paper, the red sealing compound, but most important of all, you who hear this must investigate the miraculous, untouchable black surface. Perhaps when these wonders are investigated, the most devastating of his mysteries will come to the fore.

If his writings are to be interpreted in light of the facts determined only by such investigation, he was engaged in cosmic tampering. This man, I think it is not the fever speaking, this man created within the atoms of everyday objects, such as the tars, waxes and saps apparently obtainable in France and rural Alabama of old ago, new -- what, fields? -- foreign to even the most sophisticated theories of modern physics. Somehow, he developed a portal, a window or a door, upon the ultradimensional routes of travellers in time, those inconceivable ancient entities about which certain other legends of necromancers have hinted and whose presences have been visited by some in "dreams" or in the psychic plane. Somehow, he developed a substance which would open to his world a trapdoor, really a trap, along such a route. A trap consisting of a chamber from which, by virtue of the sealants used, the being -- his victim -- might not escape from this spatial-temporal reference.

The recorder is now on again. I have practically wrenched all the remaining life from my body by laughing at the supreme irony of finding a trapdoor in this house, a trapdoor leading to a trapdoor. But it is not laughter but fear which will impel my final words to your ears.

Listen, blast the house and cellar with whatever 21st century man can devise for the total transference of matter into randomly disbursed energy. I don't see how it can be done properly. But do it. When I turned on that light, I saw a great conical mound lying on its side in the center of the cellar directly under the central room above. It was covered in scales, some viridian, some white. On the floor were a few which had fallen off since its death . . . eons ago, yesterday, or in the far, far future? The top of the cone curved grotesquely into a grey gelatinous neck and bulbous head, still intact, with a staring three-lobed eye. From the base of this head, a yellow powder snaked out on the floor (penetrating that field that I could not!) as if tendrils had dried up and left it. But most horrible of all, the cone was translucent and quavering and my light picked up an image under it or in it, I do not know, of a human skeleton. It could only be that fool Vrinny crushed beneath his captive or mingled into it. He did not know not to stand underneath a trapdoor when his victim of unpredictable size fell through. May the world never learn what else may fall through, now that the seals have been broken!

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© 1997, 1998 Edward P. Berglund
"The Trapdoor" by Meade Frierson III: © 1997, 1998 Meade Frierson III. All rights reserved.
Graphics © 1997 Old Arkham Graphics Design. All rights reserved. Email to: Corey T. Whitworth.

Created: October 21, 1997; Current Update: August 9, 2004