|April 4, 1923|
I hope this letter finds you well. Today was the first day of my journey and it was interesting, to say the least.
Initially, there was decent weather. The last few miles between Dean's Corners and Dunwich was tolerable driving, despite the bumps and ruts. Gave the Model T a good shaking.
One would think the county would take better care of the road, but little seems well minded in these parts. I'm no stranger to the indifference of rural habits, having taught school in places nearly as remote. But here -- in this empty land of fallow brown fields and curiously stunted trees, where spring has not quite yet arrived and the only green is the moss that clings to crumbling stone borders -- there is a level of desertion and decay I have not encountered before.
A graveyard should be as empty of life. I saw hardly a living thing and no one upon the road.
So as not to bore you, I will not linger long on details. Of the few farms I came upon, perhaps half were abandoned. Rank overgrowth had reclaimed the ruins. Of some, no more than a blackened chimney remained, perhaps a gatepost or two, as enigmatic as the standing stones of the long-gone Druids.
The inhabited farms were scarcely distinguishable from their rotting cousins -- that they stood at all was remarkable. Is it either luck, the ingeniousness of Yankee carpentry or defiance of gravity?
I digress. Anyway, my ill ease was somewhat dispelled by the kindly, mild April afternoon. The sky was burnished with sunlight, of a blue so pale as to be nearly white and scudded with clouds.
Unfortunately, this didn't last. As the day drew on, it grew dark and a wind rose. A shelf of clouds, purple in the dim light and crested like sea-waves, came from the northwest where rise row upon row of decidedly ominous-looking, dark green mountains.
Lightning flashed brilliantly among the peaks, and my apprehensions were confirmed. A New England spring thunderstorm. Is there anything more heartless or vengeful?
It began to rain. Fat drops tapped on the hood and roof of the Model T, popping and crackling. I hoped that the rain might simply pass through, that this was a storm with business elsewhere. No such luck. The hesitant drum tattoo on metal became a dull, pelting roar. The dirt track absorbed the deluge at first, but became saturated and then turned into mud soup. The somber countryside disappeared behind a blurred curtain of water. Proceeding at an already slow pace, the Model T was forced to crawl along, splashing through puddles like small lakes. That is, until it became stuck.
I tried to break free. It was no use, the tires spun helplessly in the mire. A fine start. I cursed the weather and my luck, the remoteness of Dunwich and its abysmal roads.
I stepped out and tried to push the car out of the mud, but merely succeeded in rocking it back and forth. Useless. Wet, cold, and thoroughly disgruntled, I sat inside and waited for the storm to abate, trying to comfort myself with memories of worse situations I had endured.
The rain slackened only slightly. The thunder, meanwhile, drew closer, a sullen, continuous reverberation from the ground as well as the sky. Lightning left shifting, queasy spots before my eyes. The peaks were etched starkly against the horizon, like great sleeping beasts -- Whippoorwill Mountain, Wizard's Hill, Sentinel Hill, others of equally poetic titles, no doubt.
They say that, on occasion, one can see the strange rings of stone reared up long ago upon the summits. Probably the work of Indians.
I strained to see the stones, but saw nothing. Another attempt to move the Model T proved fruitless. It was still several miles to the town proper. Walking in this weather was out of the question. There was no other dwelling in sight. So, I resigned myself to the interminable siege of water and mud.
Some time later -- it could have been an hour or more, I'd said -- I heard the thump and clop of hooves and the squeal of wooden wheels coming from behind. It was a black buggy of the kind popular in the last century, pulled by a single, sorry specimen of horse. The day was dark and the rain still heavy enough that I could make out little of what was under the hood. Two figures, it appeared to be -- I caught a glimpse of muddy boots and what might have been a faded gingham dress, but little else.
And that's all I would have ever seen, Everidge, if I had not got out and hailed the buggy down. It simply passed the Model T and continued on its way, clattering and splashing up the road. I don't doubt that it would have ignored me entirely, otherwise.
"Hello!" I called. "Hello, there!"
The buggy came to a reluctant halt. After a long moment, a head peered from its side. It was an unfriendly, heavyset face, lined and brown as a walnut and accented by an unseemly shadow of beard, surmounted by an archetypal straw hat and strangely delicate, antique spectacles. A dyed-in-the-wool Yankee. Behind those curious lenses, however, were eyes over-bright and unblinking, like those of a raptor.
"I'm stuck," I said. "I need a ride into town. Could you give me one, please?"
His silence and the rain began to tell upon me. This would probably require money.
"Listen, I can offer you two dollars for your time. Is two dollars enough?"
"Oh . . . I reckon," he said at last, his voice strangely high and parsimonious, for a man his size. "Might be a bit crowded, ayuh. Not much room in here. You bringin' anyone 'r anythin' with you?"
I replied that all I had was a valise, my books and some other particulars.
"Books, then?" he asked. "Go on and git 'em, then. You can put 'em under th' bench. I s'pose Sarah and I can slide on over."
I thanked the man profusely, and returned with my belongings. He was right, it was close quarters, close enough that I could smell him -- a curious and not entirely disagreeable odor of sweat and soil. I sat to his right. He was a large enough man that I couldn't see much of this Sarah, who sat to his left, but for a tattered hem of dress. And small, bare, muddy feet.
The farmer flicked his whip and the buggy resumed its interminable funeral-march crawl. I noted the size of his hands and fingers, thickened by labor. The elderly horse stumbled along, ears twitching in the rain.
We went along like this for some time without so much as a word, until I became uncomfortable. I am well aware of Yankee reticence, Everidge, but this man's silence was uncanny. Nor did this Sarah make a sound, or even look at me.
I decided to speak. I was rather nervous, and sounded like the human equivalent of a telegraphed message. I'm much more self-assured around children.
"I'm Aaron Paul," I said, "the new schoolteacher. From the city. Arkham. The county sent me. Aylesbury. They couldn't find anyone, locally. You're familiar with Arkham, then? Am I correct?"
The farmer was slow to reply. "Th' county, you say? Seems they like pokin' their nose into other folks' business, don't it?"
I was a bit taken aback. "It's in everyone's best interests --"
"Brown," the farmer said, "Carter Brown." He did not offer his hand.
It was sometime before he spoke again. My mind began to wander. The somber, rain-soaked, dun-and-ochre landscape rolled past. I was about to ask him what might become of my Model T, when I became aware of something strange and curious. It was soft singing, Everidge, of the hushed, wordless sort children are given to when unaware of themselves or others. It was Sarah Brown. I could scarcely hear her croon over the susurration of spring rain: this faint, lovely but strange phantom exhalation.
It is difficult to describe. I was at once taken and yet vaguely repelled by that wordless voice. I half-expected cloud and sky to part and reveal something but dimly perceived, or the sere ground to break and bring forth pale, dream-things, the blossoms of an unknown world.
Carter Brown, as if sensing my thoughts, intruded upon my reverie.
"Takin' over for Missus Orne, then, ayuh?" he asked.
I replied that yes, I was. He nodded.
"Took you a while t' get here."
I explained that I had been held up by the usual: red tape, bureaucracy. His brow furrowed, briefly. I don't think he quite understood what I meant by either.
"We ain't got what you'd call a proper schoolhouse, then, you know," he said. "We were usin' the Meeting House for a time, 'til there was a fire in it."
"Oh, I'm sorry. It didn't burn down, did it?"
"Nope. It was a small one, but it did enough damage. You'll have t' make do with what we got left. Osborn might give you an outbuilding or a room in back of his store, you ask him right . . . just make sure you don't bother the boys playin' checkers, if you know what I mean.
"You knock off with that, Sarah."
The crooning ceased. What followed was a half-suppressed, female laugh. Sarah leaned forward to look at me.
She was perhaps fifteen or sixteen years of age, that much I could tell. Her hands, folded about her knees, were reddish, made rough by work, in need of a good scrubbing. It was when Sarah brushed her dark hair away from her face that my misgivings rose, for I realized then the rumors of the locals' degeneracy and madness were not all exaggeration.
The face that met my own was whole and relatively unmarred, and that is the best I can say about it. Understand, though, that but for her hair and the queerly mischievous set of the eyes and mouth, there was nothing intrinsically wrong with Sarah Brown's face. There were no arresting deformities. Nor was there any of the dull, expressionless vapidity that is a sign of hard living and scant education -- or inbreeding. Admittedly, it was somewhat too wan, like a sliver of autumn moon, yes; and the lips were a shade too purple, too sensual, perhaps; and the hair did seem to drift gently rather than fall about it, as if in a current only she and no others experienced. But again, I reiterate there was nothing truly unique or unsettling about it. In fact, if she had been elsewhere or her circumstances more fortunate, Sarah Brown might have been fetching, if not pretty. Here, however, her features were simply strange, alight with some weird inner restlessness -- the face of a girl drowned within dark dead waters, come suddenly alive and aware.
She put a finger to her lips, and then indicated the lowering, sullen sky above from which the rain poured without cease. Shhh . . .
I smiled awkwardly. Carter Brown paid her no mind. The buggy splashed and clattered through the mire. The shadowed mountains loomed closer now, it seemed, and I thought of them, suddenly and without explanation, as ancient gods, as little less strange and secret than the face before me.
"Th' rain," Sarah said, pointing to the sky.
"Yes," I said. "The rain. Rather nasty today, isn't it?"
"It comes from them."
"Yes," I replied, certain now that the mind behind that face was as empty as the surrounding land. Clearly, she was an idiot. "Yes, from them. The clouds."
She shook her head. The unsettling playfulness of her earlier expression, which I could not entirely connect with anything wholly sane, disappeared. "No," she said. "Not from th' clouds. From them."
"Sarah . . .," Carter said.
"Angels?" I asked, rather helplessly, trying to humor her.
Again, she shook her head. "No. It ain't angels. Them."
"Sarah Brown . . ."
"Do you mean Him, dear? As in God?" I asked, growing nervous. The tone of the farmer had put me on guard.
"No," the girl replied, exasperated. "Not him. It's --"
Carter Brown slapped her in the mouth.
Sarah's hands flew to her face. Her eyes, wide with shock at first, slowly squeezed shut, and she began to silently weep. I was shocked. The farmer's equanimity, by contrast, was scarcely disturbed.
"I tell you t' shut your mouth, girl, you do it. Understand?" he said.
Sarah nodded through her tears.
Carter muttered something under his breath. I caught the words "more trouble than you're worth," but nothing else.
"Sir," I said, when I finally found my voice, "that was hardly necessary."
Carter chewed on his lower lip. "I don't cotton t' other people tellin' me how t' handle my affairs, thank you."
"But you --"
"I said, I don't cotton t' other people tellin' me how t' handle my affairs," he said, with a look at me.
Presently, we entered the mountains. I was told that I could return for my Model T when the road dried. The girl wept in fits and starts. The rain fell as if in sympathy.
And that, Everidge, was my introduction to Dunwich.
|April 6, 1923|
Things are actually worse here than I had imagined. As was noted by Brown in my earlier letter, there is no proper schoolhouse in Dunwich, or if there ever was one, it is long gone. No matter, initially. I have made do with less. But, there is almost no other structure in this forsaken, decaying, fantastically old little town suitable for the task.
An antiquarian would be in his element here; at least if the crumbling covered bridge he need cross didn't collapse under him first. I held my breath as the buggy went over that thing, partly out of anxiety, partly because of the odor -- wood rot, mold, the stale green stink of the river below.
I left the company of the Browns when we reached the village common . . . or what passes for it, anyway. A strange pair, to be certain. I can scarcely imagine what their lives must be like. Brutish and bound to be short, no doubt.
A rough guess on my part would place none of Dunwich's structures outside of the 18th Century, though at least half are abandoned. The buildings that are still inhabited are in utter disrepair -- shipwrecks of architecture. Yards brim with last season's dead weeds. Old trees are blighted and skeletal, their slender descendants run riot among the brush and bramble. Doors are shut, windows are bleared and broken -- rarely did I see anything within them. Nor could I imagine anything beyond those doors or windows but a universe of dust, of dead memories and the slow creep of the seasons. It all calls to mind the face of that strange girl.
There is, to my relief, a commercial establishment here or what passes for one, a general store set up within the decaying walls of a former congregational church. Not a favorable comment on local morality.
The fellow who runs it -- Joe Osborn -- is decent enough, polite, but could stand to effect some repairs on his dilapidated store. Heading up the steps to the door, I stumbled upon a loose board and nearly fell.
Inside was little more of promise, though the homely glow of a potbellied stove did mitigate the spring chill. I purchased a few dusty necessities -- mostly canned goods, oatmeal, coffee. A few slovenly loungers were present near the stove, intent upon a game of checkers and deadly silent. One would think they were casting stones or reading runes. A rough looking lot, probably veering between fever-ridden in summer and whiskey-addled in winter. Though I needed to inquire after lodgings, and if and when my Model T might be recovered, I was strangely reluctant to disturb them. Instead I went to the counter to pay for my purchases.
"Came in with the Browns, I see," said one of the loungers. I didn't especially like his looks -- older man, his temples and hands speckled as a robin's egg with liver spots, his gray hair and beard tangled as bramble. There was a bit of the satyr about him, a decadence in the way a few strands of his hair strayed over his high forehead, a decay in the angle and planes of his knowing face. He tapped tobacco into a slender clay pipe.
"Yes, I did, as a matter of fact," I replied.
The checkers game continued, pieces tapping out an intermittent code as the game progressed. "Not common for Carter Brown t' offer a ride t' anyone, ayuh," the old man said. "Looked like he was aout with Sarah, too. Quite a handful, that one. Troublesome."
The old man struck a match against the side of the stove, puffed on the pipe. "Ain't seen her aout quite some time, not least since winter or thereabouts . . . ye th' new schoolmaster, then?"
"Yes," I replied. "Aaron Paul. Arkham."
"Mmm," he said. He did not offer his own name. Osborn gave me my change. The game of checkers was finished without word or comment, a new game was resumed.
"Where might ye be stayin', then?" the old man asked. Slightly exasperated, I was about to reply I wasn't yet certain, when Osborn said, "God's sake, Zebulon, let th' man get his bearin's, why don't you?"
"Oh, hell, I was just askin'," the old man replied, and leaned his chair back against the wall.
I did ask Osborn about my lodgings. Dunwich, as I feared, has no proper boarding house or hostelry. There were a few folks willing to put up boarders in town, Osborn told me, as well as further up north. I replied that it would be best for me to be near the school, if possible. One of the other loungers said, with an annoying air of faint amusement, that there weren't no school, jes' the room they'd been usin' at the Meetin' Hall, and that was closed on account of a fire caused by the stove. I told him that I already knew about that.
It is strange, Everidge, to think that a few singed furnishings might be of such consequence to a people content to live among their own ruins, but I said nothing. Instead I asked after Mrs. Orne, and where I might contact her in order to take up where she had left off.
No one answered, at first. Red and black waged war on the checkerboard. Zebulon drew upon his pipe, staring at some indefinable point. Rain drummed faintly on the ceiling, ran in snaking rivulets down the windows.
"Missus Orne's gone," Osborn finally said. "Ain't well. She's back with her kin. You really won't be able t' meet her none. But, I'm certain a smart feller like y'self 'll do jest fine in her place."
Sensing this was all that would be said on the subject, I turned to other matters. Osborn said he could find some "good fellers" to help retrieve my Model T. We'd just have to wait for a break in the weather, was all. And, to his credit, he offered me a back room at his store at only a nominal fee. As for the matter of a schoolroom, that was something I'd have to take up with Squire Whateley and the school committee. Offhandedly, I suggested I might be able to effect a few repairs on the Meeting House and save them the trouble of relocation. My offer seemed to mildly surprise Osborn and the loungers -- apparently no one ever expects a scholar to be good with his hands. Osborn assured me it was too much work. One of the loungers added that it would take more than a hammer and a few nails to put that place right, to which Zebulon nodded absently.
Puzzled and slightly discouraged, I asked for a newspaper. All that was on hand was a week-old copy of the Aylesbury Transcript.
|April 10, 1923|
Apologies for this late letter. I've been rather busy, lately, getting used to my new surroundings and situation. The rains of the past few days have finally ceased, but the wind remains, and swift bleak clouds course through the sky. There is no word yet on my Model T. I'm of half a mind to retrieve it myself.
My room, anyway, is tolerable, if small, dusty and having only one window which looks out over a cemetery -- a decidedly unfortunate view. The cemetery, like everything else in Dunwich, is very old and quite unkempt, dominated by a single willow tree of immense girth that spreads its long trailing branches over the rank grass, the granite tombs, the illegible marble slabs with their stylized bas-reliefs of winged skulls and wilting ferns. The dates of the markers, meanwhile, are singularly old: 1763, 1786, 1814, 1833. I'm tempted to take some charcoal rubbings of the more readable ones.
(The way the trails of the willow sway in the wind -- it reminds me of the Brown girl's hair. I cannot clear her entirely from my mind, or the strangeness of this isolated place.)
I am largely occupied with preparing lessons. Primers, basic arithmetic, simple grammar exercises, those sorts of things. Friends and colleagues warned me not to expect overmuch of the local students, or to expect many students, for that matter. The intelligence of the children is said to be, on average, dismally low. Whatever intellectual curiosity they might possess is soon broken by their harsh conditions. Most simply never leave their farms. Others, it was darkly hinted, are so mentally, morally or physically stunted they are kept from view by their shamed elders.
Ultimately, Everidge, there is no real way of knowing how many students I might have. I've been told the town records are in a dismal state and the school records are even worse. I expect, at most, a dozen students when a schoolroom is provided. That is if they even show up -- they haven't been in school since "Missus Orne" left. She was apparently injured during the fire. How seriously, I don't know. No one knows any details.
I would press for summer classes, if I didn't run risk of fomenting revolt among the local farmers.
Not that I think they could stir themselves to such an effort. Never have I seen less industry than here in Dunwich. No meaningful work is ever done. Nothing is cut, cleaned, painted, swept, fixed, or repaired. Little wonder the Meeting House stands empty. Little wonder why Dunwich is shunned.
|April 13, 1923|
More trouble and delay. It seems as if the county neglected to inform the locals of my arrival. Either that, or they were informed and promptly forgot. Or perhaps a bear ate the postman bearing the relevant letter of notice. Who knows, out here in this wilderness?
I was to meet with the "school committee," or whatever passes for it. For various reasons I will not waste your time with here, they were unavailable. Instead, I met with the honorable Squire Whateley today to discuss my situation.
We sat beside his fireplace. The Squire's mansion is ancient, yet without the decay evident elsewhere in Dunwich, and infused with that rare, quiet dignity very old buildings possess.
Squire Whateley is little different from his home. He is an old fellow and a widower, but still rather tall, solemn and imposing, who walks with a heavy cane and appears to favor the formal, Edwardian dress of the last century. He supposedly has quite extensive holdings here in Dunwich and elsewhere in the Miskatonic Valley, and his willow-shaded mansion is impressive proof as such -- but why would such an eminently respectable man choose to remain here?
I had blurted out my clumsy question before I realized it. To his credit, the Squire was not offended.
He replied that he had been born here, that he had always lived here and that he would die here, far from the fever and riot of the great cities, which he neither understood nor liked.
He had been to Arkham once, as a young soldier during the War Between The States and he had not cared for the city. The smoke, the smells, the walls, the thronging streets, the strange faces, the profane, shouting Army sergeant -- it had all made him deeply uneasy, nearly afraid. He had soon longed again for the brooding silences of the forest floor, the chuckle of hidden streams and the wind upon the stone-crowned hilltops. It was a desire, a need, he said, that outsiders would never understand.
Oh, he was not blind to what they might see -- the dissolution, the demoralization, the decay of the village itself. That, sadly, could not be helped. Dunwich was alone, isolated by tale and rumor as well as region. There had been a gristmill here once, but it had failed long ago, as had a glasshouse and a sawmill. Meanwhile, the men of the cities, the great industrialists, had seen no reason to come here. "And if I went to them now to plead my case, they would take one look at me and say, 'Return to your hills and woods, old man! We have no use for you!'"
I asked, somewhat cautiously, that were there not other reasons outsiders shunned Dunwich, for it had more than its share of strange rumors and morbid tales, legends even the men of the city had heard. At this, Squire Whateley smiled both gently and sadly, and asked what I had heard of his village.
I only hinted at what I had heard from others, but I am sure you know some of the tales as well, Everidge -- stories of murder, of strange disappearances, of rites in conjunction with certain unhallowed times of the year upon the hilltops north of the village. I had heard many of them in my youth and though I can not necessarily recall names and particulars, they still make me shudder.
Squire Whateley, however, seemed quite unmoved and only said, "Yes, we have our share of legends here. Most are merely that -- legends, passed on from grandfather to father to son so that what was once innocuous becomes dark and terrible in the telling."
"But what of standing stones, for example? Or old Wizard Whateley?" I asked. "We've heard of him even in Arkham. Is he not some practitioner of black magic, as I understand?"
Squire Whateley rose and tended to the fire. I wondered if I might have touched a nerve with my question, but he replied at length, "Wizard Whateley is no practitioner of black magic, Mr. Paul. He's not even a wizard. He's a crazy old man who lives up in the hills on a farm with his daughter. People think he's a sorcerer because he mumbles nonsense and makes signs. I have yet to see him make it so much as rain."
"What of Carter Brown's daughter, this Sarah?"
"What of her?" he asked.
Perhaps it is the amateur investigator in me, Everidge, but I pressed forward. "She -- she seems singularly marked, in some way. I can't quite put my finger on it, but I sensed it when I rode with her and her father into town. She pointed to the sky, and spoke of Them, and she meant neither the clouds, nor the angels, nor God, but Them."
Squire Whateley, I noticed, was listening intently.
"And when she tried to explain who They were, her father struck her. Hard." My host sighed, and returned to his seat.
"Carter Brown," he said. "Always was too quick with his fists. Was she hurt?"
"Not badly, I don't think," I replied. "But what does --"
"She means nothing," Squire Whateley said. "Actually, what I mean, Mr. Paul, is that what she says is nonsense. She isn't right. Never was. Her world is full of spirits and things only she sees -- in her mind, of course -- but she's convinced they exist, and if you ask after them, she sometimes talks. But for her sake don't encourage her -- it just makes Carter angry, is all, and causes trouble for her."
"What, precisely, is wrong with Sarah Brown, Mr. Whateley?"
Squire Whateley stroked his beard thoughtfully. Again, his reply was slow in coming. "I don't know the answer to that, Mr. Paul. No one does. Perhaps only Carter Brown knows. If he does, he's never told us, and I doubt he ever will.
"As for what I've heard and seen, she has . . . spells, on occasion."
He nodded. "Visions. Hallucinations. Folks say she sometimes speaks in tongues, to people and things that aren't there. Or you won't get a word out of her, sometimes for days on end. It all varies. I've even heard talk that it's influenced by the moon and the seasons. She wanders then, and old Carter has a devil of a time finding her. When she gets like that . . . she seems drawn to the unlikeliest spots -- Wizard's Hill. Devil's Hop Yard. Cold Spring Glen, especially. Seems to go where it's unlikely folks will try to follow her. Secret places, if you understand me . . .
"At her worst . . . she gets very strange."
He shifted in his seat. "It's hard to describe. She can't walk right. Or straight, at least. She moves . . . in circles. It's almost like dancing, but then it isn't. Sometimes, it's on her hands and knees. And sometimes, it isn't. Whispers and croons to herself when she does it. Makes signs. Or she doesn't say anything, and just stares through her hair at you with those strange eyes of hers. Scares superstitious sorts, I imagine. But, hell . . . I don't know what's wrong with her anymore than you do, Mr. Paul. Maybe she's the oracle of Delphi. Maybe a mule kicked her in the head when she was a little girl.
"All I know for certain is that she's from the hills north of here, and there's a lot that goes on there folks don't know about."
I nodded, and glanced out one of the tall windows of the sitting room. Across the way was the village common -- which has aspirations of becoming a swamp, apparently -- to the locked and shuttered gloom of the Meeting House further beyond. Squire Whateley must have noticed my distraction, because he mentioned the township's efforts to find a suitable schoolroom for me, as well as tracking down students. Well, not all of them, perhaps -- it would be a cold day in Hell before anyone got the Sawyer boy back to his lessons --
"Is she ever violent?" I asked Squire Whateley. He had risen to tend to the guttering fire again.
"Sarah Brown," I said. "Has she ever hurt anyone?"
"No," he replied. "At least, not to my knowledge."
In the silence I followed I asked if it might be possible to use the Meeting House again for my classes. Oh, no, was the squire's reply. There was still work to be done. The fire and all, you understand. And that was if a handyman could be found. Upkeep of the Meeting House was normally left to the local gravedigger . . . but the spring rains had made him especially busy this year, as the lower parts of the graveyard were prone to flooding, with all the attendant problems. More than once a coffin had surfaced through the mud, back in March.
I nodded, thinking of the view from my room, and shuddered inwardly. It was time to leave and I thanked Squire Whateley for his hospitality, though he is little less strange than this brooding village.
More than ever, good Everidge, I feel like poor Ichabod Crane -- far away from home, lost among legends and superstitious hill-folk. Old Ichabod, however, had good food and the charms of Katrina Van Tassel to comfort him. I have only oatmeal, rising coffins, and strange stories.
|April 14, 1923|
So far, I have been unable to procure a suitable substitute for a classroom. The few empty homes I examined are completely useless, with collapsed roofs, collapsed floors, cellars half-flooded with scum-covered water or rubbish, sometimes both. One was nothing but old, charred timbers. In another, I disturbed a small gang of dirty children engaged in tormenting a mouse, holding it up by its tail and singing its whiskers with a lit match. I drove them off and rescued the mouse. One of the children actually called me a "bastard" as he ran away. God . . . if these are the sort of miscreants I'm going to dealing with . . .
The likeliest candidate for a classroom is one of Osborn's outbuildings -- an old, paint-peeling, fairly long structure that might have been a chicken coop or storage shed at one time.
Osborn showed me through the place. I noted that it was very dirty inside, and the ceiling was thick with webs. Osborn said he would clean it, and that the roof was sound and the floor solid (if creaky). What about all the debris, the old farm equipment and such? He said that he would haul the junk out. I commented on the cold. Osborn said there were no drafts, as far as he could tell, and that enough bodies would "warm the place right up and good." I replied that this would probably be necessary, because I had no other idea how to heat the interior. He seemed rather annoyed with me.
This is all preamble, however, to real events. Curiosity and exasperation having got the better of me, I paid a visit to the defunct Meeting House the following day.
An odd morning, to say the least, damp and cold and preceded by a fog so damnably thick that the buildings across the street were nearly lost to view. Dew beaded the long grass and every branch was black and dripping. No one was awake or about when I left my tiny room at Osborn's. Even the air was still. All that was to be heard was the creak and scrape of spring peepers in the village common, the rhythmic piping of distant whippoorwills.
Imagine my puzzlement, Everidge, to find the building securely locked. Somewhat hesitantly, I knocked. No answer. I knocked again. Still, no answer. I tried to peer into the small windows, but all the curtains were drawn. I was nearly defeated at this point until I noticed something -- a broken pane in one of the ground floor windows.
Suddenly curious, I searched the ground near me, and found a small stone. Very carefully, I tapped the remaining glass out of the pane. The shards fell into the wet grass without a sound. The whippoorwills called to one another. The fog was fading, like a ghost at cock's crow, taking its night-noises with it.
Despite the chill, I had begun to sweat. I looked about. No one. From the ground I retrieved a dead branch and poked it through the missing pane. The curtain was light and I easily pushed a portion of it aside.
I didn't see much, Everidge, but what I did see still disturbs me.
The room, you should understand, was quite dark. What little light the curtains permitted served only to touch upon the outlines of the unidentifiable objects within, so that they seemed both mysterious and monstrous -- hunched beasts or a jumble of bones, perhaps. Nothing of the sort, actually. As my vision adjusted to the dimness, I saw it was only a clutter of the utterly ordinary: small, cramped, old-fashioned benches, a coat rack, the culprit-stove, the rural rudiments of a schoolroom. A fine coat of soot lay over everything, as did a faint, musty stink.
I found it odd that while the room appeared disturbed, there was no evidence of fire damage. Several of the benches were tipped over, a few primers lay upon the floor. Soot lay everywhere. Puzzled, I pushed the curtain further aside for a better look.
Vandals. Perhaps that is why the Meeting House is locked up. If the little monsters I had encountered earlier were any guide, then why is it so fantastic to assume they wouldn't have broken in at some point after Mrs. Orne's departure to wreck the place? Still, why had no one straightened it up or at least removed the furniture? There was talk of a fire, of course . . . but, again, I saw no evidence of burning.
Intrigued, I attempted to push more of the curtain aside. Try as I might I could not see the ceiling. My efforts and the growing light, however, did reveal something on the far wall that I had formerly missed.
It was a crude scrawl, dark against the plaster, written as with a finger. Now, I know what you are probably thinking, Everidge -- that it was one of the four-letter words some children are unfortunately fluent in. Five letters were involved here, however, and it was nothing I expected: THOTH.
Now, I'm no Egyptologist, mind you, and society's current obsession with all things Egyptian, from King Tut's tomb to silent movie-vamp Theda Bara, is lost on me. I know enough, however, to recognize the name of the ancient, Ibis-headed god of knowledge and wisdom. THOTH. How is it possible that anyone in this ill-educated backwater know anything of such mysteries? Is something at work here, greater and older than the witch-legends, or has this place finally begun to work upon my mind? Perhaps it is both. In any event, I was unable to pursue the matter any further. The fog was nearly lifted, the shadows departed, the chant of the frogs and whippoorwills began to subside. A far off farm-dog barked, someone called to someone else. Signs of belated life in this weary little village. I abandoned my explorations and behaved as if I, too, had just awakened to set about the day's tasks, and made my way back to Osborn's, before he stumbled back inside.
The store was empty at this hour. Breakfast was coffee and oatmeal, again. If only I had decent food, a radio, and a regular publication to read. But for your letters, Everidge, I would lose all contact with the outside world and reality, much in the manner of Squire Whateley, or Dunwich itself.
Take care, and give my best to your wife.
Created: August 14, 2001; Updated: August 9, 2004