Christmas Roof

(a shortstory) by Dan Patterson

“Hey.  Hey, you awake?”  Gerald Conner called to me from the hall.  It was before 5 o’clock on Monday and no, I was not.  Me and the blanket had a good thing going on and I was not about to ruin it. 

“Hey.  The heat’s off again.  Get up and help me bleed the line.  Hurry up, man.” 

I made a noise to get him to be quiet and opened my eyes in the dark bedroom.  A little light filtered in under the curtains and I could feel the cold sharp on my nose that my friend the blanket had kept off the rest of me.  Me and Gerald had shared the little house outside of town for nearly three years, rented from his uncle in Richmond.  We’d take care of all the maintenance, yard work, and so on for the old place and his uncle gave us a break on the rent.  It had all the comforts of home for two bachelors in their twenties, two bedrooms and one bathroom upstairs and we had put in another bath in the unfinished basement, but we hadn’t gotten around to getting heat down there yet.  Now there was no heat anywhere. 

“I’m gettin’ up” I said.  “How long has it been off?” I shouted.  I pulled on yesterday’s damp clothes from the chair and immediately wished I had better options. 

“Most of the night I guess.  I don’t know” he said and he sounded none too pleased.  That made two of us.  Gerald has a streak of high-and-mighty in him and he’s a finicky sort but we got along good anyway; I try my best to get along with everybody unless they push too hard.  He sings in the choir at his church and was always trying to get me to go.  I get it, I really do.  But everything isn’t for everybody, I told him, so we just left it at that. 

 
“Well let’s go see what we got” I said as I stepped into the hall.  Gerald was standing in the kitchen with the oven door open, element glowing orange in the dark room like some sort of a monster’s mouth. 
“I’m about to dang freeze” he chattered.  “I am about ready to build a fire in the middle of the bedroom.  Dang!” 

“Alright.  Come on and let’s see what’s going on” I said.  The thermostat read 50 degrees and that’s as low as it went; it had been cold all week, in the 20s at night.  “Grab us a flashlight and I’ll get some tools.” 

 
He went one way and I went the other, turned on the lights and went down to the furnace in the basement, Gerald a few steps behind. 
“Well we know it ain’t out of fuel, we just put 50 gallons in it week before last” he said.  And we had, and that had taken my stash of fun money for the next little bit, not that I had a whole bunch fun or money lately.   We fooled around and found the line plugged with some trash again, drained all that out, bled the line, put it back together and fired the furnace up.  After some gagging and coughing the old thing lit off and was running like a sewing machine in no time. 
“We’re gonna have to do something about that tank, probably drain it and blow the lines.  I don’t want to have to do this no more” I said with my nose dripping.  Gerald agreed.   
“But not this morning, we got to get to work” he said.  It was past 6 and now we’d have to hustle.  I worked as a technician for a cable company and Gerald was at a trucking terminal as a mechanic helper; we’d met in tech school a few years before and both got decent jobs right away, then shared this old house to save on expenses. 

 
I went in to get ready and heard Gerald already in the shower and decided it was too cold to chance using the basement bathroom, so I put some things together for lunch until he got out.  I guess he was too chilled to be in a hurry because he used enough hot water to scald a hog.  By the time I could get in the shower there was no more hot water and it was getting late, so I went on in to work after a quick cold water shave and sink wash up, and my hands still smelling like fuel oil.  And no breakfast. 

Monday started on the wrong foot and never recovered, so by quitting time I was past ready for an attitude adjustment, preferably served by a baby doll that would at least pretend to be glad to see me.   I pulled into the parking lot of “Cue Tease” in a misting December rain and stepped across the puddles to the door.  “No Cover Before 6!” the sign said and that was fine with me.  Some times this place would be a cool spot to hang out but other times, depending on who was working and who was in the place, it was a giant depressing crap hole that just made things worse.  I stepped inside and saw I was in luck; a friendly blonde I knew, Stacie, was bartending and there were only a few regulars inside. 
“Hey Charlie!  Long time.  You doin’ good, baby?”  I felt better already.  Stacie had waitressed at a diner across town where a bunch of us went when we were in tech school, so when I saw her again in here last year it was like seeing an old classmate.  She’d had a kid but they didn’t marry and for all I could tell they weren’t together, but she didn’t let on much either way.  After the baby she’d started working out and she didn’t mind showing off the results, so my dreary Monday got much brighter all of a sudden. 
“Hey.  Yeah it has been a while; how you been doin’ girl?”  And I stuck my hand out. 
“Oh come here” she said, and came around the side of the bar.  A warm hug from a pretty girl does more than anything to cheer a man’s spirits and I was now very well cheered.  She pulled away quickly and dashed back, elbows on the bar and she had to know I was not looking at her eyes. 
“What will you have?” 
“It is half past beer-thirty so something on tap and on special if you have it” I said. 
She took a chilled mug and put it under a tap “Special on Handyman’s Brew, I think you’ll like it” and filled the mug before I could say anything. 

“How come I don’t see you in here much any more?” she asked with a pouty face.  A real cute pouty face. 
“Oh.  Yeah, well.  Uh, I spent way too much time and money on myself having too much fun a little while back and it kind of caught up with me.  You know” I said and threw a look at a slender brunette practicing her pole moves in the mirrored wall on the stage. “So I try to stay out of trouble as much as I can now”.  The details weren’t pretty so I just let that one hang but I could feel my face get hot. 

 
I took a healthy swig of the beer and said “That hits the spot”, and took down about half of the rest without breathing.  Four guys were playing cutthroat on the table behind me and one of them caught her eye and held up an empty bottle.  She got some drinks for them then came over next to me and leaned one arm on the bar, and her already tight blouse got tighter.  The buttons held, but I was hoping.  We chatted a minute and I finished the beer.  There was a big glass jar on the bar with a few bills in it and a handwritten sign “Help a girl out.  Family in need!” so I asked about it. 
“That’s for my family, momma’s sister, my aunt Elaine.  She’s staying with momma while her house is getting painted but the people she got to do the work stole a bunch of stuff from her and never showed back up.  Then when we went in to check on it the roof had started leaking, so that has to be fixed before we can finish the painting.  So, you know, lots to do and one thing leads to another and it’s all just a big ol’ mess”.  She sounded stressed about it. 
“Well what does a good roofer tell you it will take to fix it?”  Me and Gerald had done some side jobs in the past and had been on a roof or two. 
“They all say not fix, but replace” and when she said that she wrinkled her face.  “And we don’t have the money to pay what they’re asking.  Before he died my Uncle Jack got the stuff together to put a new roof on, but he had started having heart trouble and couldn’t do it.  And that’s been ages ago.” 

She picked up the empty mug and filled it without me saying anything.  I looked at her and she said “Oh don’t worry about it, it’s on special anyway so I’ll do a two for one for an old friend”.  Mischievous smile with the tip of her tongue touching her upper lip.  I was further cheered. 

“So.” She said, drawing it out. “If you know someone who can do some work like that and maybe help us out?”  She looked at me like a kid waiting on her allowance. 

“Well yeah.  I’ll ask around, but me and my roommate could maybe take a look at it after work one day, see what it needs, you know…”  I meant maybe we could maybe look at it and see if it was maybe something we could maybe do on the side.  Maybe.  But that’s not how she took it.  Not at all.  She came back around the bar and hooked her arm around my neck and said into my ear “Oh thank you thank you thank you.  Thank you SO MUCH!  That would be GREAT!” 

I was returning the hug and caught one of the pool players in the mirror looking at us with a hard stare.  We released each other and she was kissing close, but the pool player was still staring so I stepped back and said “Glad to help if we can.  Of course I need to talk to Gerald and see if he’ll go with me to look at it.  Jobs like that’ll take two or more you know, and I can’t swear we can even do it.” 

“Oh I know, but you’re so good with things like that.  I bet you could do it with your eyes closed.  It’s a really small place and she’s just not been able to keep up with it like she wanted.  This will mean so much to her.  And to my mom.”  She drew out ‘so much’ again for emphasis. 

“Well ok”, I thought.  Before I could say anything else she said “Give me your phone and I’ll put the address in under my name and number”.  Another killer smile and now I had the address and her number.  Sweet. 
“Don’t call though.  I don’t use the phone much, so text instead ok?” 
“Oh ok, sure” I said and looked at the address.  “Where is this?” 
She gave me the general directions.  It was in an old neighborhood once working class and family, now some vacant houses, lots of rentals, and high crime.  Things had gone the wrong direction for that part of town and this old lady probably had lived there all her grown-up life and the neighborhood just changed around her. 

 
“I’ll go by there on my way home.  Ok to look around?  Nobody will call the cops on me, right?”, and I was only half-kidding. 

“That’s the last thing anybody’ll want to happen around there” and she laughed.  “Good neighbors though, really sweet, and they won’t be any trouble.”  The DJ was making introductions and the entertainers were parading around the stage, all dressed up.  More smiles.  Me and my credit card knew way too much about smiles like that. 

“Oh gosh!  I’ve got to get the VIP room ready for the football game” she said and hurried away.  “Let me know what you think, ok?  As soon as you can.  And thanks again!”  She made a telephone with her fingers and a kissy face as she turned.  More cheer. 

Some Poindexter in a suit coat that didn’t fit, probably the manager-of-the-month, came over with the tab, thrashing his gum with his mouth open.  It was two beers full price.  It was time for me to go and I didn’t want to start anything, but I didn’t leave much tip either. 

It was a good twenty minutes across town to her aunt’s house and I parked by the curb in the dark.  Houses on either side were lived-in but tired with some cars parked in the yards and makeshift fences in the back.  One had an old couch on the front porch, and another had a pile of kitchen appliances in the back yard.  But the place across the street was all lit up with decorations and Christmas lights, a big cartoon snowman held a sign that read “Good Boys and Girls Live Here”.  It was a small mildewed brick house on a small lot just a little higher than the street, a short driveway to a clapboard garage, and some neglected rose bushes all along the side, all of it lit by a street light mounted on the garage gable.  There were a few shingles missing and there was a sag in the middle on the left side.  I got out and walked around the house for a quick look and stepped off the dimensions; flat yard and the eaves were an easy reach with a short extension ladder; we could get a truck right next to the house.  Cake job, really. 

The old garage door was stuck shut but I could squeeze through the side door.  My little flashlight was getting dim but some mice, or rats, or something squeaked and scattered out of sight.  Too cold for snakes, I hoped. 
Stacie’s Uncle Jack had four pallets of shingles in the back of the garage and they had been there for who knows how long.  But they were off the dirt floor and covered with a canvas tarp.  And if I was a snake I know right where I’d put up during in this weather, so I left the tarp alone and played the light along the bottoms of the pallets.  The bottom layers of the first rows were all bent from sitting so long, and some of the paper had been chewed off but nothing real bad.  I tried counting the bundles best I could then saw some rolls of tarpaper sitting on their ends.  Several buckets of roof tar were neatly placed beside them but I picked one up and shook it and it was solid as a rock. 

I went to the car and punched in Stacie’s number and it rang once before I remembered to text, so I disconnected and sent her a short message.  “Hey.  Looks like a simple job.  Found the old shingles. Will talk about it and let you know.  How much?” 

My phone pinged just as I sent the text, her number calling. 
“Hey” 
“Why did you call this number?”  A guy’s voice, aggravated. 
“What?  I was calling for Stacie about a doing a job.  Maybe I got a wrong number.  Sorry to bother you.”  But he didn’t hear that because he ended the call.  Some people, I guess. 
I put the car in gear and thought about going back to see if Stacie put her own number in my phone wrong, but the phone rang again from a number I didn’t recognize. 
“This is Charlie.” 
“Hey sweetie it’s Stacie.  Did you just call my phone?” 
“Yeah, by mistake.  But I just sent a text about the house.  Some dude called back all pissed and asked why I called.  I didn’t know you were seeing somebody.” 
“Oh no no no.  He’s not my boyfriend that’s just a guy that works here.  They make us put our phones up while we’re working and he must’ve heard it”.  The DJ was announcing drink specials for the game in the background.  “I’ve got to go, but let me know what you find out, ok?” 
I started to answer but she hung up. 

I talked about it with Gerald that night, gave him the little I knew about Stacie’s aunt, the house and whatnot.   

“Would be a good way, well might be a good way, to make a few extra bucks” I said not wanting to get over my head. 
“Yeah, but how many bucks and how much trouble?” 
“We need to go look at the place in the daylight, get on the roof, see exactly what we’re dealing with before we get into it”, I said.  “Besides, you’re always talking about doing good works and here at Christmas this might have been put here in front of me for a reason.  Right?” 
“Well.  Could be.  Could be.  In John it says ‘Those who have done good will rise to experience eternal life, and those who have continued in evil will rise to experience judgment’.  He was quiet for a minute or two with his eyes closed.  “We all ought to do more good.  Everybody.  We don’t none of us do enough of it, Christmas or not.  Let’s go look at it tomorrow; I’ll meet you there after work and we can see what we can do.  Alright?’  And got up and went to his bedroom. 

So we did that.  I borrowed a ladder from work and we got on the roof with flashlights, made measurements, looked it over real good, talked about what it would take, and came up with a few ideas.  We made a sketch of the roof and put the measurements on it, calculated all the materials and made a list.  From what we could tell Uncle Jack had bought enough of most everything.  I sent a text to Stacie with what we came up with and got back a “will talk to momma”.  Later she sent “grate thanks momma says thank” so we had a project in front of us. 
At work the next morning I talked to the boss and he said use the ladder as long as I needed it.  A buddy at work, Raymond, a lot older than me, overheard me and asked about it.   

“Doing some side work?” he said.   

“Well kinda I guess.  Got a little job to do for some family of a friend” I told him. 
“Good for you” he said and nodded.  “What sort of work?” 
“Putting a roof on a lady’s house.  She’s older and needs it done so they can get the inside painted.” 
“Is it leaking?” 
“Yeah, they say it is.  So we’ll get her a roof on at least”. 
“Good, good” he said.  “Whereabouts is it?” 

“French Hills on the East side.  Older neighborhood off Centennial Parkway.” 
“Oh yeah.  Yeah.  Cassion and Verdun and Liberty streets are in there. I know about right where that is.  Well, let me know if you need any tools or anything”, and we went on about our day. 

 
I got to the house just after work and started spreading two big tarps next to the house and used a roofer’s shovel to pry some shingles loose and give us a place to start the tear off.  The old house had three layers of roofing from where it had been replaced over the years.  The old stuff was so brittle it just broke apart when I scooped the tool underneath and I made real good progress.  Gerald came by and not much later we had one of the tarps piled with old junk off the roof.  About an hour into it our muscles were complaining and it was supper time so we tacked the other tarp over the bare place and left the tools in the old garage. 

   
All the next day I had second thoughts about getting us into this.  All it would take is one screw up and this thing could get out of hand fast.  I had talked Gerald into helping and he seemed good with it now, but if he decided to bail out I was on my own.  The power and water to the old place had been turned off so we would have to work without and I had not counted on that problem.  And the weather, and the materials, and I hadn’t even called about a truck yet, and who knows what else could trip us up.  Busy all day at work but I left a service call that took just a minute and instead of going back to the shop went by the house on Marne. 

   
“What in the hell?” I thought.  “Just what in the hell!” I said.  The tarp on the roof was there but the one that had all the scrap we took off was missing.  The tools were still there, all the materials were too but I couldn’t make sense out of it.  I had to call Gerald to let him know what I found, and I told him.  I was probably too excited. 
“Calm down man!  If somebody took the tarp but they also took the trash.  They can have the blame tarp if they got rid of that junk for us.  Dumb butt.” 
I had to admit he was right.  “Well.  Yeah, but still.  Ok.  I’m going to go ahead and get started.” 
“I can be there in a little while.” 

I put the tarp from the roof on the ground next to the house and it wasn’t thirty minutes later that a diesel pickup with a trailer hooked to it squeaked to a stop.  Two boys about 10 and 12 got out of the back and then Raymond stepped out. 
“Hey man.  What are you doing out here?” 
The he got the tarp out of the bed and I saw what had happened. 
“I took a half-day off and thought me and my boys’d come see how you were getting along.” 
“Hey boys.”  They did head nods.  “Well I guess we’re getting a decent start on it but it looks like some kind hearted soul made off with the old junk we took off yesterday.” 
“Yeah well I was sorta out this way taking care of some other stuff and we picked it up for you.” 
“Aw man you didn’t have to do that.  Thank you!” 
“Yeah.  Yeah, no problem at all.  Glad to help.  You boys get them rakes out and clean up this old yard.  Rake it in a pile and put it on the trailer.” 
“Yes sir.”  They said and went right at it.  Raymond pulled the truck around and backed the trailer next to the house, then spread the tarp on the bed.  He got an old mattock out of the truck and climbed on the roof without saying anything else. 

 
I worked one side and he worked the other, but he went back where I had been and yanked the old nails up.  Gerald pulled up, all smiles, and said hello to everybody like he’d known them a long time.  I introduced Raymond and Gerald started piling the old shingles on the trailer, the boys started quarrelling, the younger one not wanting to be bossed around. 
“Hey!  You boys get to work, now, and I mean it” Raymond said.   And they did. 

We had about a quarter of one side of the roof off, nails and all then Raymond got down and unhitched the trailer.  “We got to get back.  I’ll leave the trailer and you let me know when it’s full and I’ll run it over to the landfill.” 
I was on the ground by then.  “Here, let me get you some cash for that and all your trouble.  That was a big help, man.  How much was it?”  I had my wallet out and he was waving it away. 
“Naw, naw now you don’t owe me nothin’, we’re glad to help ain’t we boys?” 
“Yes sir” they said.  “I’ll see you at the shop in the mornin’” and he drove off. 

I didn’t get to see Raymond at the shop, the boss sent me on calls before I left the house and I was all over the place all day.  In the back of my mind I was really looking forward to getting back on that old house.  By the time I got off work Gerald was already there with two other guys and they had more of the old roof off.   One of the guys Gerald brought had made a simple rack to work from and that made the going much easier.  There wasn’t room for me and the yard was picked clean; the rose bushes had been trimmed down by somebody and there was a new layer of clean mulch in the beds.  About then a trio of loud-piped Harleys blasts into the yard, and it maybe 40 degrees outside, right up to where I was standing.  The bike in back had an American flag about the size of a bedsheet and they all shut down at once.  MIA POW patches on their jackets, red sweatshirts underneath.  Big dude with a grey pony tail gets off the lead bike wearing club colors and a do-rag, looked pissed, black semi-auto on his left hip cross-draw. He steps up to me and sticks his hand out, big smile, “Hey I’m CL, you must be Charlie.  Some of us heard about all this and we come out to help” and before I could say anything he yelled at the guys on the roof.  “Hey!  Y’all come on down and get a break, we got you.”  The other two strode over and scooted up the ladder while CL looked the job over, and I just stood there in my shoes. 

 
“Gerald.  Man.  I mean.  Dang man.  What’s going on?” 
“I don’t really know.  I only know the one guy from work and that’s a dude from his neighborhood” gesturing at the two sitting on the trailer.  They looked beat. 
“Where in the world are we going to get the cash to pay these guys?  I mean, look, there’s Raymond and his two boys yesterday, and these two guys, and then these bikers show up!  And I haven’t heard the first word back from the chick that is supposed to be paying us in the first place.  Dadblame it!” 

Gerald didn’t say anything but he had the same thought, I could tell.  I went on working and worrying. 

 
It got too dark to work so we all started moving toward getting things straightened up.  The three bikers were in a huddle, one on his phone.  I stood next to them and called to the two guys Gerald knew. 
“Hey I really appreciate all the help from everybody.  Really.  But look, I can’t pay anybody anything, boys, and I’m sorry as I can be.” 

“No man, no.  No worries.  You’re helping somebody and we’re just helping you.  No worries.”  CL and his biker friends smiled, everybody nodded and I felt like a turd on a birthday cake. 
Gerald was walking to his car and I stopped him. 
“Man this has me feeling bad.” 

“What do you mean?” 

“All these guys pitching in, everybody coming by like this.  I don’t know, man, I just don’t know.  It ain’t right.  It just ain’t.” 
“Aw quit worrying about it” he said.  “It’ll be alright.”  That didn’t help.  It wouldn’t be alright. 
I sat in my car and stewed about it.  No, there was no other option.  Only one way out of this. 
I thumb-typed to Stacie, “We will get the roof on.  You buy supplies if need.  No pay to me” and sent it.  I felt like a fever had broke. 

I called Gerald to talk it over. 
“Hey man, I just don’t feel right taking money for that roof job if all those boys are helping for nothing.  I messaged Stacie and told her not to pay me but I didn’t say anything about you.” 

“If you talk to her or whatever tell her I said the same thing.  It don’t change anything.  I bought my guys lunch today and they were happy with that.  Shoot man, if we keep up this pace we’ll be through in a day or two anyway.”  He didn’t seem as let down as I was about the money, but he was more that way than I was.  I could’ve used the extra money, but the deal was done.  Another message to tell Stacie Gerald agreed, too and she sent back “!!?? r you sure?  thanksyou.” 

It was a while before I got out there the next day, and two of the three bikers were there and the trailer was piled with the old junk.  One of the guys was looking at something on the roof and frowning.  “This ain’t good and I was afraid we’d find it” he told me from on the roof.  “Water has run down in a crack and gathered ‘till it rotted this whole section out”, waving at a big area.  While I thought it over CL said “I got one of mine coming.”  Gerald and his two came in so we all worked on the other side and about a half-hour later the third biker came in leading a one ton truck that had seen better days.  It had a big generator mounted in the bed and when the old guy limped out of the cab CL said “That’s his dad” pointing to the biker.  The two of them laid out a set of cables hooked to several outdoor power outlets and a stand with some work lights.  They talked to the others about running the generator and then got it started.  The biker got back on the Harley and the old guy limped over and hiked a leg over the seat, whacked the biker’s helmet, and off they roared. 

An old lady from next door had been watching us the whole time, I’d bet we were probably more interesting than TV.  Well, she came over walking very slowly taking small careful steps, rocking back and forth, with two big grocery bags one on each arm and all bundled up in her good coat.  When Gerald saw her coming he jogged over and met her.  He took the bags on one arm and her on the other and they came over to the driveway where we all were. 
“I come to bring y’all some food” she said.  “I seen all y’all out here working on my friend Ellie’s house and I wanted to do what I could do for you.”  Her glasses were down on the end of her nose and she would look through them if she was talking to you and over them if not.  We put a piece of plywood on two sawhorses from the truck and set the bags down.  Sandwiches neatly wrapped in paper towels, pimento cheese and baloney, and they looked better than a roasted turkey this far past lunchtime.  Everybody came over and the second biker, I never did get his name, hushed everybody while he talked to the neighbor for a minute.  One of the guys said he was starving and went for a sandwich but he was stopped short. 

 
“Hold it here, now.  First we want to all thank Miz Horton for her kindness, making this fine food for us.”  He put his arm around her as he spoke and she leaned into him like he was her grandson.  He kept his arm tight around her, tall skinny white boy biker and a short black women easily his grandmother’s age.  “And she tells me Miz Ellie is one of her closest friends and looks forward to having her back close by.”   “Honey”, he said looking at her, “we’ll do our part to get her back as soon as we can.”  She strained up and kissed him on the cheek and tried to hug him back. 

 
“We’re going to give thanks, now.  Bow your heads.”  And he made the sort of prayer a biker would, straight talk and to the point, no frills and no nonsense.  Miz Horton raised her arms and swayed back and forth, speaking quietly all the time he said the blessing.  We all made a point to speak to Miz Horton and thank her personally, and tell her how good those sandwiches were.  She talked with us a few minutes then she said she was “’bout wore out”, so Gerald and the biker walked Miz Horton back to her house and got her inside and settled. 

Somebody came up with two power saws and we went to work on the rotten wood.  A sheet of plywood and three 2 x 4s appeared and me and CL cut everything and got all that ready to put in, but before we finished someone from up the street brought over an air compressor and a nail gun, he said his dad used to work with Jake at the plant.  Man, we fired that compressor up and went to town.  While we tore the rest of the old roof off and fixed a few more rotten places they turned on the work lights and it was bright enough to play football.  We didn’t find a stopping place ‘til way late and we had new roofing on about half of the house. 

That went on for another few days, after work and into the night.  Raymond took two more loads to the landfill that week and would leave his boys to help.  One of the bikers and the nail-gun neighbor took the garage doors down and put them back in operation; we moved all the shingles out next to the house and that neighbor, J’Malle I learned, cleaned the garage out and swept the dirt floor clean.  We’d work along, people coming and going as they could, generator going, lights bright on the yard.  Miz Horton next door made some more visits and we got some lawn chairs for everybody to sit in. 

 
We were finished by Friday afternoon.  I felt like I’d graduated from high school again.  Everybody from around the house came by and gathered around and talked in the cold air while we got all our tools and things out of the way, there was a pot of Russian Tea, the biker’s dad saw Miz Horton and found out “they went to different schools together” and knew some of the same people, and they talked about the old times late into that darkening afternoon.  J’Malle wore a Santa cap and brought his two little kids over wearing elf pajamas under their coats, and one of the string of blinking lights from across the street found their way over to decorate Raymond’s trailer. 

 
After a while things settled down and everybody went back to what they’d been doing. Stacie and her mom got her Aunt Ellie got moved back in and I went by to see them while they were all there a month or so later.  The gum chewing dude, ‘he’s not my boyfriend’, was there and Stacie was draped all over him.  He had a toothpick stuck in his mouth and didn’t say the first word to anybody.  That’s the last I saw of any of them. 

 
In the spring, when daffodils were blooming, breezes were warm and after a hard wet winter it seemed like every day was soft, easy, and hopeful, I drove back to have a look at all we had done at Christmas; I had the windows down thinking about it on the drive over and it all seemed like it had been in a different life. 

 
The sign in the yard read For Sale and a layer of straw was spread over where the garage had been.  Every single stick of the roof we’d put on was in the back of a big dump truck in the driveway, it’s ten tires making deep channels in the spot where we all ate pimento cheese and baloney.  And four or five guys were bustling around in and out of the house.  Something had happened but I wasn’t sure what.  Maybe somebody had bought it to renovate and resell, who knows?  I didn’t hang around to ask questions.  Besides, it didn’t change anything. 

Taffy

by Dan Patterson

 
“Well.  Hell.”

The 23 year-old driveshaft decided it was finally time to quit. U-joint just gave up and it sounded like a pistol shot when it broke. “And here I sit with a bed full of split white oak,” he thought, and was a little surprised at his self-pity. It rattled in low range the other day when you let off the power, but pulled good in second and high. “But I shouldn’t ‘ve put so much strain on it with it knocking like that, and I knew better,” he thought. “Shoot. I just got what I deserved, I guess. That’s what you get for letting a little thing grow into a big thing, now what’re you gonna do, smarty, stuck down here by yourself?”

It was first week in October but you couldn’t tell it by the temperature. Like an oven and in the stagnant part of the evening with not a breath of air stirring, about two hours before dark, the heat wrapped on your face and head like a towel and it seems like no matter which way you look, that old sun is right in your eyes. It had been cool last month, and nice working and sleeping weather, but then it turned hot and dry for the past three weeks without a drop of rain anywhere. Leaves usually are near their peak color by now but they just turned yellow or brown and dropped straight to the dry ground where they lay and faded away. It was like they just gave up.

“Whoo boy, is it hot! Too hot for me to be out here cutting firewood by myself,” he half thought and half mumbled. Lately he’d been trying to keep from talking to himself so much, keeping his conversations to himself in his head. No one wants to hear an old man chatter on anyway; when he was younger he might listen to one of the old-timers for a few minutes just to be polite, but anything they said went in one ear and out the other.  That’s the last thing he wanted, to be nuisance or a bore. 

“Stay busy doing something”, he thought then said aloud “Yep.  Better to be busy.  Sure is.”

Staying busy had been the thing that helped the most since Teresa died nearly, what, six years ago now? That’s what got him down here in the first place, cutting a lightning-struck oak up into firewood. Staying busy. He didn’t need the wood but it sold well at the flea market on the weekends, and getting it gathered gave him a project and it got him out of the house, too. Kids were grown and gone, the three of them had left home within two years of each other and made the old brick house more of a waiting room than the home they used to know. The field here is half-mile away and used to be a tobacco farm, but there hasn’t been a crop made here for years and years. Fields all grown up, saplings, blackberry, and scrub pines mostly, but a tall line of cedar showed where a long fence used to be. Gives the rabbits a place to run and hawks something to hunt, I guess, but it’s a shame how it’s gone to waste. The family that owned the place gave it to their kids after they died, but they didn’t want anything to do with growing tobacco and started selling lots off of it, leaving the back few acres, too sloped for good building lots, to grow wild. Kids come down through here on their dirt bikes and use it for whatever kids do these days, but there hadn’t been a soul around all day and that suited him fine.  People had been getting on his nerves, another sign of getting older he guessed, and it just gets worse as the seasons pass.

At Teresa’s funeral home visitation the place was full of people, packed with everybody from church and the community, friends of the kids’, pretty much everybody in the area because she had been so good to everybody and all the people loved her. Or said they did. After a few somber minutes most of them started chatting about one thing and another, nothing to do with their dead friend or the sad family standing around like they were lost and everybody just a-havin’ a good old time. “Yeah, I got my beans in this weekend and you know I put in some pole beans with the half-runners this year,” somebody was saying to the preacher. He nodded in agreement and went on about his garden, and how he declared it to have the prettiest sweet potato vines he’d ever seen. Everybody talking up a storm, all happy, like it was a party. With my dead wife and the mother of three children, them there as well, lying open for the whole world to see. Another couple about our age walked up in a hurry and looked at Teresa in her final pose, the woman said, “I would have picked a different outfit for her. And something about her hair don’t look right, does it?” Katherine, the oldest, bit her lip and tears welled in her eyes. “I was with her when she bought that outfit and she was so proud. I think she looks so good, don’t you?” I put my arm around her and she cried into my shoulder like she did when she was little. “You know I never got my cake plate back from her after that Christmas reception at the church over two years ago,” I overheard. That was Beth Bodford, they went to school together and sang in the choir. A few days later I went to the store and bought four different cake plates and a box of chocolate covered cherries, put them in a nice gift bag with a bow and a card that read “I know she wanted you to have these back, but she was so sick. And we were all busy taking care of her that it just got away from all of us. I’m not sure which one is yours but you can have them all and thank you so much.” Damn biddy.

The truck was sitting a little nose-low with the rear wheels on the up heaved roots of the white oak he’d been cutting. The tree had fallen beside a dry creek bed and the truck hung up in some ruts on the way out. Even though he knew what he’d see, his curiosity got the best of him and he took the long step down from the cab, got on his knees and looked into the shadow under the truck at the busted driveshaft. And right there a big black snake was looking straight at him, maybe a foot away, its tongue flicking out and its shiny body contracting like a hose emptying. Surprised that he wasn’t even slightly startled he said, “Well hey Mister Snake. You looking for some cool shade, too buddy?” The snake stared for a heartbeat, then warily moved a few feet away, still under the shade of the old truck.  “Well I won’t bother you sir, you go on about your rat killin’ and don’t mind me even a little bit.”

“Whoo boy; raised up too fast,” and grabbed the outside mirror on the truck as he stood, but it took both hands. Standing uneasily waiting for the light-headed feeling to pass his hands and arms started tingling, all the way up to the elbows; felt like they were asleep. He held to the mirror and leaned against the door to get steady, huffing the hot air trying to catch his breath. “Breathing that ol’ exhaust from the chain saw didn’t do me much good,” he thought, and he could smell it on his shirt, mixing with the sweat and old man scent. Suddenly thirsty he took a deep slow breath to try and clear his head and said, “Got to keep upright, now. Don’t go falling down on top of Mister Snake down there.” And that was the funniest thing he’d ever said, the best joke he’d ever told and it just tickled him to no end, and he laughed so hard he was crying after a minute. “Mister Snake looking at me like ‘Who are you old man and what’er you doin’ down here?’”, he said between laughing to Marshal Thomas, his old friend from work standing straight as a board by the tailgate. A quiet man, a little older, Marshal had retired right before they closed the plant, and got out with some of his retirement; one of the lucky ones. Holding on to the mirror there beside the truck he had tears on his cheeks and his stomach muscles hurt from laughing so hard. He coughed and tried to catch his breath; a good laugh like that had been a long time coming, boy, a long time. He reached to his right back pocket where he always kept a handkerchief to wipe his face – Teresa had always ironed them but he never bothered with that any more.

His arms were feeling heavy and the tingling was worse, stinging now, and his hands were almost numb so he couldn’t feel the handkerchief in his pocket. Still leaning on the truck, he was so tired, he patted his pockets and thought he found it in the left one. He couldn’t get it out though so he took his ball cap off to wipe his forehead with his arm, but dropped the cap and felt that hot sun broiling down on his head making him sweat even more; his breathing quick and shallow now and felt like it was just moving the air around; his arms were throbbing all the way to his armpits.

“Oh Lord it’s so blessed hot!” The cap must’ve gotten kicked under the truck but that was too much work to get down and find it. “Why don’t you just let ol’ Mister Snake wear it?” he heard Marshal say after a minute, talking through his nose like he did, and that started another little laughing spell in spite of him feeling woozy and hurting so. “You think it’d fit him?”, he laughed some more and looked at Marshal but couldn’t see him, but he probably stepped over behind the brush to pee. Sweat was down in his eyes and they stung so he couldn’t make out much of anything, everything was moving and he felt like he was on a boat. “Hey Marshal. Hey! Where’d you go? Marshal! We got to get going, come on out now.” Still holding on to the mirror he moved over to the open door and put his rear against the edge of the seat. “I’m just going to sit here a minute and rest,” he thought, and pushed clumsily up on to the seat. It was about this time of year when the kids were still in school that Teresa went to the Doctor for a checkup and came home with the bad news about “needing to run more tests.” Thinking of that made him feel dark so he pushed it aside and leaned back closing his eyes, resting his head on the rear window of the truck; the door swung shut but he was too weak to push it back open and rested his throbbing arm on the ledge. His shirt was stuck to the back of the truck seat and he could feel the sweat drying and cooling and for just a moment he was still.  Quiet, and resting. Then quick as you could sneeze a sheet of sickness covered him from his crotch to his chin and his ears started ringing, low at first but quickly growing to a loud shrill squeal. Reaching too quickly for the door handle he fumbled it so the baloney sandwich he’d had for lunch went between the door and the seat, the stink making him sick again and he gagged and heaved as he finally got the door open.

His feet didn’t move like they were supposed to and he tumbled onto the dry grass and dirt beside the truck, landing on his side. Gnats had started gathering around where he’d gotten sick and they danced all around his face but his arms just would not move enough to swat them away. The split oak in the truck bed was suddenly a very fragrant wet perfume mixed with the dry dusty smell of the grass, strong in his nose; things got dim and the ringing in his ears stopped. He spit the bile and cleared his throat, still smelling the oak and grass and trying hard to breathe. Then he was pulling on his coat and walking down the kitchen steps to the wood pile to help dad. They were splitting and stacking wood under the shed – with a hard winter coming they were getting ready early, but here it was just before Thanksgiving and a dust of snow and hoarfrost already on the ground and it was low clouds and cold. So cold his nose and ears were numb and when he breathed it stung his lips and lungs. But breathing came really easy now and he was relaxed like when you’re sleeping under a warm blanket.

“If you twist the handle and give it a little jerk the same time you can flip the pieces off the block,” dad was saying.  “Let me show you,” and he took a smooth swing and expertly smacked a log with his sharp axe, the two pieces neatly falling on either side of the chopping block, as he did his left hand came off the handle like a batter swinging for the fence.

“I’ll put this up and you can split us some more,” he said, motioning to the stack of logs. His ten year-old arms were skinny and his hands were too small, but he rocked the red-handled double-bit axe out of the smaller block they used for making kindling and struggled a log up on the block.

“No, boy. Don’t use a double-bit for splitting a big log like that, it’s too light…”

“… light, follow the light, can you follow the light with just your eyes?” a pretty young voice said. But he could not understand her. He could see she was disappointed and she said some more things to him, pointing with the small bright flashlight and her other hand holding his head still. He could make out what she wanted and did it. She wore a white jacket and talked to some other people in white jackets, then they left the room. Some other people were in the room with him, one woman and two young men. The women kept putting her arm around his neck and hugging and that made him very uncomfortable; he never liked strange people touching him. The other two looked at him with somber worry and talked; he guessed they were talking to him but he couldn’t understand any of them. Finally they decided it was time to leave; he was weary of their worry and fret and was glad to be left alone. His shoulder hurt and it was in a tight sling that itched, he couldn’t make a fist with either hand and he had no idea of where he was or how he got there, and he was wearing thin pajamas with a robe over them. And he was hungry enough to eat a rag mop.

Steven, Randall, and Katherine walked down the hall of the Valley Rehabilitation Facility on their way out, Katherine walking in front a few steps with her head down.

“How’s your daddy doing today, honey?” Startled a little, Katherine looked up to see the nurse supervisor; she had given them all a summary of her father’s status when the call came; Katherine was the first to get here and led her brothers in supervising her father’s care. But all that was a temporary measure with no good plan for a next step.

“Oh, hey. His face is healing some, he’s alert but he doesn’t talk and I don’t think he knows us,” she said while the others caught up.

“Well it takes time, honey. It’s in the Lord’s hands and these doctors are all real good. I’ll pray for your daddy,” she said, “And for all y’all, too. We’ll take real good care of him for you.”

“Thank you,” they all said automatically. She went on her way leaving the three of them adrift and wondering what to do next.

An older lady came in the room next while he was fumbling with the slippers he was wearing and said something in a cheerful voice. He just looked at her waiting for her to speak English. “These people seem to know me, but who are they and where am I?” he thought. “And how did I get here,” but he had no answer and no one to ask. Every time he tried to talk some gibberish came out that only he could understand, so he quit trying. “Let’s get you to the dining room so you can have supper before your therapy!” she said to his unhearing ears, and took him dumbly by his elbow, the one that didn’t hurt, and walked very slowly to a room with several people sitting around round tables. She put him in a chair next to two fellows that looked like they’d been dug up out of a grave and a thin wrinkled old woman with long gray hair talking and laughing, and she kept on clapping her hands. A big cart came around and two smiling young men put plates down for everybody and they all ate what was on the plate, like kids in a school cafeteria. Whatever it was had no taste at all but he was glad to have it and finished every bite. After a while someone came for him and they went to a room where he sat on a bench and tried to squeeze a rubber ball, then walked in place on a treadmill for a long while.

All that went on for some days, he could not count how many and those same worried people came and went often, always worrying and fretful. Then after they all ate one day instead of squeezing rubber balls a lady stood in the center of the room and spoke loudly, and she was very pleased about it because she smiled and clapped her hands and the other people did too. Right soon three other people came in to the room, two women and a man and they had guitars, a small keyboard looking thing like a long suitcase and a yellow dog that looked almost like a collie but with shorter legs and shorter hair.  The woman spoke and everyone laughed while the dog sat up and waved its paws. The woman spoke to the dog and it would do something and everyone would laugh and clap; the dog seemed to be enjoying itself too. After a few minutes the two men started strumming the guitar and playing chords on the keyboard while the woman brought three or four people to the middle of the circle, they all sat around and started leading them in a song. The dog sat beside the man playing the keyboard and soon curled up and closed its eyes.

Some of that started to make some sense after a while, not the words but the tones and chords were familiar and he could make those sounds in his head. After a minute he mimicked the keyboard sound very low without opening his mouth, sort of a humming, matching the sounds when they were played long enough to hear well.
 
“He’s got the whole world in his hands” the three sang, “He’s got the whole world in his hands.” There were two long notes he could hum and some shorter ones that he could not quite make out. He went on trying like that, trying to make that shorter, higher sounds but it wasn’t right. The next time he heard it he made his sound louder, with his mouth open just a little but it still wasn’t the same sound.

But the dog heard him this time and broke awake with its ears perked, looking around the room, its front legs now stiff and its hind legs quivering ready to spring. The three went on from those sounds to another one, slower and with the sounds not changing as much. The dog had relaxed a little but was still wide awake and looking around the room. 
 
“You are my sun shine, my only sun shine,” went the singers slowly in a language foreign to him but most everyone else was singing too. And badly.  But the sounds were coming more easily and something was familiar about them now. And when the sounds were longer like this he could match them pretty well. “..ha-ppeeee when skies are graaaay…” and when the long sound was made he opened his mouth and made that sound too, hoarse and a little trembly, “…eeee”, then “aaaaay” he sounded. And the dog sprinted from its seat and made a bee-line for where he was sitting. It sat right in front of him at attention and looked at his mouth as he made his sounds.

“Please don’t taaaake my sunnn shine awaaaaaay,” they sang. And he sounded “aaaake” and when he made the “aaaaay” sound the dog did too. “WOOOoooo…RrrrooooOOOO,” it sang and pawed at his knee with its tongue out. That seemed to make everybody happy and faces were turned to him and the yellow dog, some smiling and making sounds. He started to recognize the laughing sounds people were making, like a picture coming in to focus.

“Good girl, good girl! Let’s sing together girl!” Those were just noises to him, but the dog was looking at the young man slowly strumming his guitar.  “You are my…” and he waited for the dog. “Suunnn shiiine,” he sang and strummed, the dog’s mouth trembled. The keyboard made a chord. “Myyyy onnnly… suunn shiiine,” he sang and this time the dog joined with another “ooohhhwwww” and everyone laughed and they all stopped playing. 

“Sing with us Dale. Come on now don’t be bashful, you have a good voice,” his mother said as she scooted on to the piano bench. “No I do not, either,” he thought to himself. Dad has a smooth dark brown baritone, mom a higher women’s sound, more yellow. And older sisters Brenda and Karen could carry a tune without thinking about it in their clear green middle-pitched voices. I had a hard time finding where I fit and it made me feel right much out of place not to be able to sing like they could. I wanted to just go on outside and not be a bother, but they all made me stay. “Here Dale, this is your note” and she played a single, unadorned piano key, bright as a full moon. “Now that is an ‘E’, sing that note while I play it,” and I did, matching the piano sound after two or three tries with my kid voice; sisters behind me both giving me encouragement saying I was a natural and wishing they could sing like that, just to make me feel good. Dad was quiet, but smiling. “This is my note, it’s a ‘G’ and she sang it while she played her note. “Put them together,” she sang her note and played mine while I matched it, “and we get harmony. See how easy that is? Doesn’t it make you feel good?” Then everybody stood close together as mom played our notes one at a time and we all matched it with our voices, I was last and filled in the empty place just like the piece of a jigsaw puzzle coming together. Mom said it felt good and she was right.

“You make me ha-ppeeee,” he sort-of sang and the dog jumped in his lap. Numb hands could not feel it, but with his face against it’s muzzle he breathed in the dog aroma and dog breath; it licked at his face and they were soon friends, its tail whacking him in the ribs.  “You make me ha-peee,” he sang again as best as he could, trying to make the notes sound right. The woman was trying to tell him something but it didn’t make sense. He looked at her with his face against the dog’s muzzle and she kept making sounds that he could not understand. She kept motioning to dog and saying something, and now she was crying for heaven’s sake. Such a pretty thing to cry like that. The dog stayed on his lap and pawed at her and she stopped crying and laughed a little; he could tell those sounds.

The man playing the keyboard and the woman helped move his instrument to where him and the dog were sitting, the other man brought over his guitar. The woman made some sounds and the man on the keyboard played two notes, alone with no chords, while she made her sounds.

“Taaa-Feee” she sang high to lower. “Taaa-Feee” and petted the dog in his lap. “Taa-Fee” he sang but weakly. “Taaa-Feee”, and the keyboard played the two notes and the man sang with him. The two did that several times, changing the two notes until he got them right, high to low, finally G to E. “Taaa-Feee” they sang several times.

“Taffy” he said hoarsely to his dogbuddy.  “Taffy,” and laughed a little to himself.


Dan Patterson is a Southern gentleman with a good sense of humor and a bad temper. A doer of good deeds, rescuer of dogs, decent cook, and occassional writer. He appreciates old bourbon and young women, and lives in the Piedmont region of NC with his wife and eight dogs.

Stand Up, Hook Up

by Dan Patterson

The Charles Cannon Memorial Hospital in Banner Elk was hosting its usual troop of visitors on a pretty late spring morning in 1974. A small hospital serving an Appalachian population largely older and wary of doctors, less prone to complain than the people of more affluent economies and flatter terrains further east. In those days the waiting rooms were sparse: molded plastic chairs in rows, a few out of date magazines neglected on a coffee table, ashtrays, and a pay phone on the entry wall. The doctors and staff were well acquainted with their patients and greeted them with, “How you gettin’ along?”, “I hear you got a new grandbaby!”, and the like, while the group chatted quietly among themselves, waiting their turn. You might hear a discussion of who “got saved” at church and concerns about their gardens or the weather, but nothing very personal and not above a quiet talk.

Except for this old boy sitting next to me. He was silent and rarely moved, but for an occasional adjustment to his stance in the chair every little bit. I made him for a long-time local given his leathery skin and tan; he was gaunt, missing some teeth, and a several day beard sprouted on his weathered face. White shirt and overalls, and if you were to get very close you’d smell Mail Pouch Chew on his breath and his remaining teeth bore that proof. He looked not a speck out of place for that small mountain town but that was about to change.

“Well,” he said to anyone listening, and that was me and an old lady to his left occupied with knitting something out of green yarn. “I know right whir I was right about now, thirty years ago.” I looked at him and he stared straight ahead, then checked his watch; it was just after 9 am. His arms were untouched by the sun above his rolled shirt cuff and starkly contrasted with his hands and face. My granddad was like that.

A few beats went by awkwardly, him not saying anything else and me looking at him with my poor manners.

“Since about suppertime yesterday I been feeling like I was supposed to be somewhir else; hit’uz like that all night an’ I just caint git shed of it,” he half-laughed, directing that at the old women knitting next to him. “Feels worse today, kindly creepy like,” he was prodding her and the knitting lady looked up briefly. “Well,” she said with feigned sympathy. Her mouth changed shape and she went back to her project like we weren’t there. He straightened back in his chair and fidgeted some, then some more and rubbed the back of his neck.

“Where were you, thirty years ago?” I asked after a short pause.

My seatmate turned toward me. “I’uz in a ditch in France with six or eight other men fightin’ the Germans and lookin’ for the rest of my outfit was whir I was.” He said it flatly and quietly, and with no small measure of righteous pride. Looking down at his lap he said, “Yessir. I don’t see how any a’them 82nd boys made it out of there at all,” and looked back up at me as he finished. And with that, he and I were now intimates, the space between us, and the age, bridged by his wanting to talk and my willingness to listen. Spinning the clock back in my head put the date in perspective, and explained this man’s unease in his chair: D-Day and the invasion of Fortress Europe had branded him and the mark had not healed from that day thirty years back. 

There was nothing for me to do but listen, nothing I could say would make a difference anyway and I knew better than to try. The importance of the date had dawned on me just as he had turned toward me, and I suspected his role from the thin hint about the plight of the 82nd, but there was much more to learn: He had been a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne that jumped into occupied France just after midnight, hours before the seaborne invasion; the “Screaming Eagles” of the 101st and the 82nd “All American” divisions were the first to engage the enemy and their roles were vital to the mission. Born in 1922, he had enlisted in 1942 after travelling to South Carolina for work since finishing high school in Caldwell County three years before.

(The invasion of Europe had been planned for years, and meticulously so, with divisions of soldiers dedicated to the inevitable task. As is always the case with battle plans, this version, overseen by the politician/bureaucrat Eisenhower rather than by a combat-experienced leader, was on track to fail from the time of its birth. Notable pieces of the plan were successful, the Mulberry Harbor comes to mind, but survival and eventual success in those early days of the invasion was solely due to the bravery, ingenuity, and resourcefulness of small-unit riflemen and had nothing whatever to do with the supercilious oversight and planning from the upper echelon. None of the intricately-timed maneuvering, none of the layered interdependent actions expected by Eisenhower’s war-gaming chess-board whiz kids was effective; the men were hindered by the plan and its failings from the outset and the assault quickly morphed into a disorganized and gory bloodbath. The first to encounter the enemy on his own territory were the parachute troops from the 101st and the 82nd Airborne Divisions, both elements were flown behind enemy lines hours before the landing craft made their way to the beaches with orders and training to disrupt, eliminate, and occupy. Planners expected to surprise the enemy with both the timing of the invasion and its location, but the enemy had put strong defensive works in place long before, and likely drops zones were defended by German troops expecting their arrival. Some men of the 82nd landed generally close to their intended drop zones near the strategically important town of St. Mere-Eglise — the first to land were killed or captured quickly — while the 101st were meant to be dropped a little further east and south, nearer Utah Beach, but both were scattered across the Contenin peninsula, and few were placed where planned. Both divisions faced intense enemy opposition; the unintended dispersal greatly burdened the men and truncated the missions’ success. But the confusion also gave an unintentional assist to the invading troops, the initial chaos offering no massed troops and no unified direction for the enemy to counter-attack.)

“We was moved over to England an’ stayed there for a while training; hit’uz all secret an’ we didn’t know what was going on except that we was gettin’ ready for some big to-do over there,” he continued, now less urgently and more conversational. “We’d got to England in the fall, after travellin’ on a ship all that way and all we wasn’t in as good a shape as we was when we left, so they put us through our paces for quite a while,” he smiled as he talked, a little more relaxed now. I just nodded and made a few noises, and listened.

“Some parts of England reminded me of back home, you know, but we spent all our time in tents out in the wet and rain, on exercises, and on them Gooney Birds.”

(Originally configured as a sleeper coach, the civilian Douglas DC-3 was in use since the mid-30s as an improvement over the earlier, smaller DC-2. At the war’s onset, remaining production transferred to government use, where the twin-engined machines were designated “C-47 Skytrain,” but known to all of that era as the “Gooney Bird.” Among its many uses was troop transport; 15–18 Airborne soldiers, depending on what they had to carry, were on each ship and were referred to as a “stick” of paratroops.)

“We’d gather around the airplanes after orders, sometimes in the morning and sometimes of a’evenin’, checking our gear and getting ready to take a ride and do our jump. We’d joke around some and talk, you know, but we didn’t see no danger in it, it’uz more like a job or a game than anything to us at the time. Well, that didn’t last, let me tell you.” 

“No, I guess it didn’t,” I offered. “Had you ever been on an airplane before you went into the Army?”

“Why no. Up in these hills you didn’t see nothin’ like that, ever. Didn’t hardly ever see a car even. Aw they might’a been one pass overhead once in a while, but that’uz about all. I got into the Airborne ’cause I heard hit’uz a tough outfit and I wasn’t about to go around with no bunch that wasn’t as tough as I was.”

(That reputation was well advertised but yet untested on the 101st, but by spring of 1944 all the pieces were moving around to secure that unit’s place in history. After delays for logistics, delays for indecision, delays for equipment, and delays for weather, the finely tuned and exquisitely timed war room plans were given the go-ahead and Operation Neptune, the code name for the 101st’s part in Overlord or the invasion of Europe, was confirmed with D-Day set as June 6th, 1944. The 101st was to be dropped in three landing zones; A, C, and D. Aircraft from multiple airbases in England would coordinate flights known as “serials” of between 24 and 54 transport aircraft flying in groups of three — 821 ships flew paratroopers from both divisions. Serials of aircraft were planned to arrive at six-minute intervals, the ships slowing to 110 mph over the jump zone to allow safe exit by the paratroopers. In practice jumps the aircraft flew at 90 mph during parachuting operations, but the heavily loaded Gooney Birds required a higher airspeed or they would stall and crash. From 700 feet there is no recovery possible from a stalled C-47 and the 20 mph difference was another very significant hurdle for the troops as they exited the airplane.)

“We got the word to assemble and went out to our airplane around 10 o’clock, 16 of us. They was a big moon in the sky peekin’ through the clouds and it was a cool night. We wasn’t in the same spirits as when we was training ’cause we knowed this here was the real McCoy. We sat there a little bit while the engines was runnin’. Just waitin’, you know. Before long the engines was run up and off we went, and at first it was like sittin’ on your porch, quiet and easy as it was,” he was using his hands as he re-lived the time and talking to me like a neighbor. Or son of a neighbor, and I said as little as possible while he talked.

“We was all pretty nervous, thinkin’ about our orders and what we’uz about to get into, if we’d ever make it back home and all, you know,” he got quiet again, looking at his hands. I tried to imagine sitting in a loud, cramped transport plane in the 1940s preparing to parachute with fifteen other men into the waiting, aimed rifles and cannons of the enemy, but my imagination was not equal to the task.

(The C-47s were assembled in formations near the runway as they would be deployed, doors opened, stepladders against the entry. The troopers would march to the ships in loose discipline and gather around their assigned plane, its number by hand in chalk on the side, and wait to board. Laden with as much as 150 lbs. of equipment, the men required help to board the plane; each man took as much additional ammunition as he deemed necessary, anti-tank mines and mortar rounds were shared among all troops, to be distributed to the crew-served weapons once on the ground. Additional stores were housed in packets beneath the wings to be dropped along with the troops, glider-borne reinforcements and supplies were to follow some hours later. 2,400 horsepower pulled each C-47 to flying speed — 432 “Skytrains” were assembled to move the Screaming Eagles (Mission Albany) and the sound and smell of those radial engines is a stirring iconic symbol of the era. The aircraft departure, routes, and altitudes were carefully scripted, and to avoid German radar, all aircraft descended to 500 feet when over the channel; aircraft were planned to ascend to 700 feet for the drop, then return along a carefully prescribed path to base. Navigation for the trip was dependent on rudimentary radio beacons placed along the English side of the path, blue marking lights fixed to the aircraft to allow following ships to see them, the deductive reasoning (dead reckoning) visual navigation method, and radio and light systems heroically placed by the Pathfinder elements of both battalions who jumped some minutes before.)

“We flew along like that for a pretty good while, the planes was circling around, you know, gathering in formation like a bunch of geese. Some boys wrote notes back home or tried to talk a little, but hit was so noisy in them ol’ things you ‘bout had to shout. But they wasn’t much to do except sit and think, so that’s what we did.” I had a thousand questions but was not primed to ask, so I sat quietly and so did he for a while. The outside doors opened with people coming and going, and the advancing morning was marked by singing birds and a bright warming.

“We was always a’goin’, and in a hurry too, brother, ever whir we went,” he added speaking slowly and carefully. “Hit’uz like they was a fire and we had to get right on to it, you see. Sittin’ on that dadblamed ship goin’ across the ocean, then sittin’ around waitin’ for some somebody to tell you to do something or other. Waitin’ for this and waitin’ for that. Shoot. Sittin’ just makes a man a better target’s what I always told my buddies. Yessir. And they found that out too, just like I said. They’s a lot of ’em still over there in France because of it.” He squeezed his mouth with the palm of his hand and sighed. I looked away. 

(After assembling into diamond formations of three-on-three the aircraft flew in close formation along their prescribed paths, separation between following aircraft was maintained at 1000 feet. Maximum Takeoff Weight (MTO) for a C-47 is 27,900 lbs. but on D-Day the Gooney Birds were 3 tons over that limit approaching 34,000 lbs. and were flying with dangerously amended stall and stability characteristics which further altered the drop-zone performance. 56 miles from the coast of England, at navigation point “Hoboken,” the flights made an abrupt turn southeastward between the Channel Islands of Alderney and Jersey. Anti-aircraft batteries on the Islands, alerted by the Pathfinders several minutes earlier, responded with strong defensive fire. At almost the same time the serials encountered a thick fog bank along the coast of France, creating additional disruption to the formation; flight crews were blind and could no longer rely on visual cues for separation and navigation, and the flight paths and timing of the drops were badly distorted. After emerging from the fog, the aircraft were about 4 minutes from their planned drop zones, but often badly off course and with little time to correct and nearly nothing to navigate to. Multiple unexpected factors were at work against the men, it was as if the fates were conspiring against them; the careful plans of the D-Day invasion were beginning to unravel.)

“I waited for that red light to come on and boy I loved to hear that Jumpmaster start his orders ’cause that meant we was about to get movin’,” and with that his eyes brightened. His voice got noticeably stronger, louder than our quiet conversation, and his Appalachian accent and cadence dropped away. Some of the others waiting looked our way. “‘Stand Up!’ he’d say. ‘Hook Up! Equipment Check! Sound Off!’ and then brother out the door we went and in a hurry too, let me tell you.” The remembered orders were spoken sharply, as single words with a pause between, and with each command he mimicked the hand signals made by the Jumpmaster; he tensed, his legs and feet moving as he talked, still in a disembodied voice. “Stand Up!, Hook Up!, Equipment Check! Sound Off! Boy I can still hear it, too. I hear him in my sleep sometimes.” The excitement of those days was evident and he was reliving his D-Day jump directly in front of me. 

(Two lights at the exit door were red to indicate 5 minutes to jump, and green to show the aircraft was over the designated jump area. The time between lights was used to prepare for the jump; the troops in practice jumps waited for the Jumpmaster to order “Go!” but in combat that formality might have been omitted. Because of the now-tangled formations the speed, altitude, and position of the aircraft had varied, meaning the men were often far out of the expected landing zones, some by 20 miles or more. Some flight crews made multiple passes under fire and with other aircraft maneuvering in the same space at night to locate the drop area. Although several training drops had been made at night, none were in poor weather, none accounted for the dangerous overloading, navigation was unhampered, and the effects of defensive fire were not anticipated by the planners.)

“It was the middle of the night when we got there, but it was so bright you could of read your Bible. All them tracer bullets and shells going off and all, why they ever one looked like they was coming right at me, right between my legs,” he laughed and made a move with both hands between his knees. “I’uz so glad to get on the ground, but they didn’t none of us know where we was, the maps we’d studied weren’t nothin’ like where we landed and when you’uz on the ground you couldn’t tell if the man next to you was a German or not. It’uz ever man for hisself ’til we found one another and got gathered to make a team and all, you know.”

(The men studied carefully scaled papier mache models of the landing zones and surrounding areas. Detailed maps could be referenced, but only after an initial base could be established and a location defined, so the first matter at hand was finding friendly troops and assembling into a small unit, then moving toward an objective. Many units fought the enemy as they discovered them, often by accident, and frequently did so without gunfire to avoid revealing their positions — hand-to-hand combat in the dark against a force of unknown strength.)

A few people passed by on their way to or from the doctor, with one ancient palsied fellow being helped by two others younger by only maybe a handful of years. His head was bowed and he was bent at the waist, thin as a scarecrow with a full head of bright white hair. Each man beside him holding his belt with one hand, with the other on an elbow; we both watched him struggle along and just as the older fellow was alongside, I could hear him, hardly above a whisper, “Oh Lord, oh Lord.” He strained as best he could against his helpers, trying to free himself, and one man of them spoke quietly, “Easy there Robert, let’s get you on in to the doctor, ok? Come on now.”

I stood and told the man nearest me, “Sit him down here and I’ll go get him a chair,” and took a step to find one. “No, now that’s all right young man we got one at home and he won’t use it; we’ll get along alright, but thank you a bushel. Let’s go on now Robert,” and they went along slowly toward the office. I sat back down, feeling empty, useless, and every second of my 18 easy years on this earth.

The knitting lady beside us put her work away as her name was called by a nurse. “Miz Baird, why don’t you come on back and see us honey?” She rose quickly, but then moved with short, shuffling steps, swaying side to side, speaking to the nurse as she approached, “I just caint hardly get along good no more.” She was wearing a pair of thick green knitted socks and bedroom slippers, and was breathing heavily when she made it to the office door.

We both sat in silence for a bit. “Well now,” he said pleasantly, “I believe they’s people here need to see the doctor a whole lot worser’n I do.” And he sprang to his feet and took a long stride toward the hospital entrance, then turned and stuck out his hand. I took it and it felt like the bottom of an old boot. 

“Hart’s my name. It’uz good talkin’ to you young man,” he waved quickly and went off in a hurry.

Airborne All The Way. 


Dan Patterson is a Southern gentleman with a good sense of humor and a bad temper. A doer of good deeds, rescuer of dogs, decent cook, and occassional writer. He appreciates old bourbon and young women, and lives in the Piedmont region of NC with his wife and eight dogs.

Fiction Circular 8/1/20

A weekly dissemination of fiction writing from around the web by Kaiter Enless.


From Caliath: Notes on the Creative Corpse by Joao-Maria (a poem concerning the creative process).

To dispetal the cosmos and the cosmos, place those steatic specs upon the unreeling…

J.M., Notes on the Creative Corpse

From Cyberwave: Coloring For Karen (a scifi short story).

With a wave of his hand the boy produced magnificent shapes and formed islands out of the empty ocean while standing on the cliff. His eyes were closed but he knew he didn’t need them. He used his imagination without bounds, and without the influence of external stimuli.

– Cyberwave, Coloring For Karen

From Jan Christensen: Sad Victory (a mystery short story).

“Of course I’m okay.” Her mouth twisted around the slang word disagreeably.

– J. Christensen, Sad Victory

From Horror Tree: Pale Horse by Lynn Love (a tale concerning a man who may or may not be crazy hears a voice that may or may not be there).

‘That ain’t no wind,’ he says. ‘There’s a voice. Can’t you hear it?’

– L. Love, Pale Horse

From The Chronicles of History: Beyond The Trees by Samantha James (a short story of the fantastique).

A young orphaned girl flees her home one afternoon and finds herself lost in a big scary forest. The child becomes injured but is assisted by an unlikely companion that claims to know the way to the girl’s home at the abbey. Not all is as it seems …

– S. James, synopsis

Fiction Circular 7/18/20

A weekly dissemination of fiction writing from around the web.


From Bill Chance: The Sorcerer’s Intern. A spoof of Goethe’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

“I left some fishing weights on the table, could you turn them into gold, please. I’m a little short with the grocery money this weekend.”

B. Chance, The Sorcerer’s Intern

From Boondock Ramblings: The Farmer’s Daughter (Chapter 1; A Serialized Novel) by Lisa R. Howeler.

She’d been used to one annoying older brother her entire life, but five years ago Jason had invited his college roommate Alex to come work on the family farm and now it was like she had two annoying older brothers

L. R. Howeler, The Farmer’s Daughter

From Close 2 The Bone: Billy’s Grave by Lisa Short. Two young women discover criminals desecrating their late brother’s tombstone and decide to defend their land.

They had kicked over Billy’s gravestone; Faith could tell when Kayla spotted it lying all askew by the stiffening of her shoulders. They might not have known they were even on a gravesite—she and Kayla had buried Billy themselves, and the only marker they’d been able to place had been a river-worn slab of rock

L. Short, Billy’s Grave

From Literally Story: Crimson Coloured Raindrops by David Darvasi. A curious, charming tale of mysterious entities venturing below a dreamlike-city of steam and fume. Best of the week.

he started cutting the darkness – quite literally. Not for any romantic reason, other than he wouldn’t do anything metaphorically. 

D. Darvasi, Crimson Coloured Raindrops

From Literary Yard: The Last Time Rublev Saw The Sea by Tom Z. Spencer. Strongly influenced by recent events, Spencer’s story follows a young man navigating the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.

We were told it can’t transmit human to human, and then that masks don’t work, and then to wear masks, and eventually to go home, and lock the door.

T. Z. Spencer, The Last Time Rublev Saw The Sea

From Momus News: Critical Equipment by E.A. Wicklund (EagleAye). A short, humorous piece.

“At last! The very thing I need to combat this pandemic,” said Blumquist.

E. Wicklund, Critical Equipment

From Neel Writes: Memories Unspooled by Neel A. Panicker. A charming flash fiction.

“You children are so unlucky for unlike us you hear your music strapped on headphones, and watch your favourite film and music stars gyrate on your palm tops”

N. Panicker, Memories Unspooled

From Nicholas C. Rossis: Common Fiction Writing Mistakes. The advice is basic, but can prove useful to new fiction writers (for more experienced writer’s, I would recommend the T. Bailey Saunders’ translation of Arthur Schopenhauer’s The Art of Literature).

It doesn’t matter how well-constructed your world is if you’re incapable of dishing it out in smaller portions that are relevant to what’s happening in that particular sequence. If there’s a city that’s important to the story, give the reader the necessary info when the characters actually go there, instead of dumping 500 years of detailed history and politics from three different provinces in a prologue.

N.C. Rossis, on info dumps in fiction

From Curiomancy: Samizdat by Rick Wayne. A excerpt from the author’s scifi novel Zero Signal.

the human cognitive capacity was more or less fixed, artificial minds could adjust their filters on the fly. A wider net meant slower thinking, and vice versa, but they could scale their attention to their needs.

R. Wayne, Samizdat

Compiled by Kaiter Enless.

Circular 3/27/20

From Caliath, (Droplet) Jupiter, The Loneliest Planet by Joao-Maria.

“I see now a Europe leeched dry of its fortitude.”


From Forward Base B, Trolly Problems on the Island of Sodor by Giovanni Dannato.

“Well, I tried to revive Percy and Henry and the rest, but no one in Sodor makes the parts for them anymore. I’m afraid we’ve lost them, Thomas.”


From Little Tales For Busy Folk, Chasing Memories by Vic Smith.

“When the last of these memories has slipped away from me, what is there left?”


From Meredith Schumann, 2050 by Meredith Schumann.

“She took a deep breath and delved into her pocket. How she longed to know what it had been like in her dad’s day, when every person, near enough, was connected with the world via a small rectangular device they’d keep in their pocket”


From New Pop Lit, Townies by Philip Charter.

“you probably think the Ministry of Sound is a governmental department”


From Shreya Vikram, There Is A Certain Distancing Necessary by Shreya Vikram.

“We know our catastrophe and sing.”


From Spelk, Junk Dumps by Phebe Jewell.

“Like all vigilantes, he has routines and rituals.”


From The Drabble, You Hear A Noise by John L. Malone.

“Those bloody mice, you say, though you’ve seen no evidence of any. It’s nothing, you decide, nothing. House noises. You head back to the bedroom, turn off the lights. Someone taps you on the shoulder.”


The Logos Fiction Circular features work by independent authors of prose fiction. If you have a recommendation of a particular author to cover, feel free to leave a comment and let us know.

Circular 2/15/20

PROSE

From Fictive Dream: Pickers by D.S. Levy. A garage sale brings back old memories for a woman unusually devoid of sentimentality.

Right, Colleen thought, just like the cow would match the purple moon hanging over their house.

§

From Jokes Review: …In Space! A new issue of the satirical magazine.

Will there be milk on your spacecraft? I hope so. I’m bringing some Ring Dings for a snack because I figure the tin foil wrapping will protect them from any cosmic rays we may encounter. (Message to Zargofarse The Third…)

§

From Okay Donkey: Ladybird, Ladybird by DeMisty Bellinger. A surreal story about a woman contemplating her life while eating a talking bird (maybe).

I imaging taking one of my chopsticks and turning it away from the deep-fried tofu and towards him. I see myself forcing its dull tip into his chest, breaking beyond errant bones and stringent skin, plunging through to his heart.

§

From The Drabble: Perfect Match by Amanda Quinn. The (very) short tale of a romance too good to be true.

Things moved fast, but never at yours.

§

From Write Ahead / The Future Looms: Handiwork by V.F. Thompson. Of hypercode constructs and domestic tensions.

Barley went quiet, staring at the galaxy that whirled beneath the missing tile.

§

VERSE

From The Cheesesellers Wife: The Letter. A tribute to the author’s Great Grandfather, husband and soldier in the Boer War.

tells of the fury and terror of local thunderstorms
talks of photos and chocolate received

§

ESSAYS

From Momus News: Technobabble Versus Technical Description by E. A. Wicklund. An insightful article for novice fiction writers.

Any topic, from rockets to magic to basket-weaving can have their technical aspects, using terms and concepts most people have never heard of. That doesn’t mean describing them is therefore technobabbling.

 

Circular 2/8/20

PROSE

From Concentric Magazine: Infinity by David Landrum. Though the story could use another proofreading, the narrative—concerning two young lovers who endeavour to navigate their families’ divergent faiths—is thoroughly arresting.

The meal would be an examination. Like in school, I was being graded. (Landrum, Infinity)

§

From Fictive Dream: To The Maxx by Thaddeus Rutkowski. On longing and moral squander. Unlike a lot of other flash stories, its abrupt and unsatisfying ending is a benefit to its general effect, rather than a check against it.

… she was more than a friend, so it was more than good to hear from her. (Rutkowski, To The Maxx)

§

From Literally Stories: Wishbone by Jennie Boyes. A wonderful fable. Odd and engrossing and splendidly written. My favorite of the week.

Wind, sea-salt, and even War had not defeated it, and as Famine traced the silouhette against the sky, he could have believed the castle would withstand time itself, if such a thing were possible. (Boyes, Wishbone)

§

From Mystery Tribune: The Same Gym by Emily Livingstone. The tale of a series of eerie disappearances at a small gym. The story builds considerable suspense in the beginning, but might have benefited from a slightly longer denouement. One thing I found quite distracting, which had nothing to do with the story itself, was the inclusion of intrusive quote blocks between paragraphs. I’ve seen other literary journals use similiar formatting, but I’ve never understood the purpose of repeating the text, enlarged and out of sequence, which, for whatever its worth, I would contend, is something better left to study guides and new articles.

I wanted to be a detective or someone in a choose-your-own-adventure. (Livingstone, The Same Gym)

§

From New Pop Lit: The Perfect Candidate by Karl Wenclas. A fast-paced political satire.

Tall and lean, with the sober face of what passed as an intellectual. What used to be called a hipster, before hipsters became not an unusual species of animal, but the norm. (Wenclas, The Perfect Candidate)

§

From Spelk: Creel by Steven John. The story of a terminally ill lobster-catcher. The story got me to thinking that “fishing” and “fisherman” are common terms, yet, “lobstering” and “lobsterman” are not. I wonder why.

Lobstering is a pastime now. Anything more than that and there’s online paperwork. Haven’t got a computer. Wouldn’t know where to start. (John, Creel)

§

From Skyhorse Publishing: Lake of Darkness (forthcoming 5/5/20) by Scott Kenemore (currently available for preorder).

 It’s a page-turning thriller that shows, once again, that more people should be paying attention to Kenemore’s work.” (J. Parypinski, author of Dark Carnival)

§

From The Alembic: Gravitas by Paddytheduke. A comedy about dogs and weekdays.

… dogs don’t like Monday mornings any more than humans do (Paddytheduke, Gravitas)

§

From The Dark Netizen: Treasures by The Dark Netizen. A flashfiction.

“You said grandma kept her treasures here before going to heaven.”
Grandpa smiled looking at the mess on his bed.

“I never lied. They’re here.” (Netizen, Treasures)

§


VERSE

From Sgehlert: Monopoly Empires by Søren Gehlert.

the truth hides in disarray
and dour shells
on phrenetic beach (Gehlert, Monopoly Empires)

§

From Short Prose: Passion by Gabriela M.

I see you
the face of the lost stranger
dissimulating grief in autumn shadows (G. M., Passion)

§

From The Drabble: The Code of Life by Tanzelle.

A, C, G, T
what will the next one in the sequence be? (Tanzelle, The Code of Life)

 


Archivum Arcanum

By Dan Klefstad

(Being a Glimpse into the History of Mors Strigae, the Death-Dealing Order of the Roman Catholic Church, Presented in the Epistolary Style)


Diary of Cardinal Massimo de Luca

 

Dec. 21, 2021

The Vatican

Such a strange occurrence on this first day of Winter, one perhaps more in keeping with the Solstice traditions of our pagan ancestors than the supposedly enlightened proceedings of the Church. Today, Holy Father finally allowed me to join the College of Cardinals, though my appointment isn’t the one for which I’d hoped. For years, I’ve been petitioning His Holiness, or rather his vicar, to elevate me to Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – the body that promotes and defends the Church’s core values. I should note that Cardinal Ratzinger held that title before becoming Benedict XVI, so anyone securing this commission is viewed as next in line to the papacy. It’s tempting to use the word “Mephistophelian” to describe the backroom dealing – even backstabbing – employed by those striving for this hallowed prefecture. My elimination as a candidate was so swift and bruising, I considered leaving the Church to help my brother run his winery in Tuscany. This potential future acquired even greater urgency when I pondered the position Holy Father did grant me: I am now Prefect of an obscure and rather arcane institute called The Sacred Congregation for the Inquiry into All Things Preternatural. As the name suggests, this body is charged with investigating occult phenomena, a responsibility that includes paranormal investigations and demonic possession. His Holiness – that is, his vicar — said the time had come to re-establish accountability for this jurisdiction, which lacked cardinal supervision for more decades than he could count. But not too much accountability, it seems. I was instructed that no one under my authority should ever be quoted, cited anonymously, or even hinted about in official communications or the news media. “For the sake of completeness,” he added, handing me a key, “His Holiness must never, ever, be asked to confirm or deny anyone or anything pertaining to your Sacred Congregation – and this especially applies to the order known as Mors Strigae.”

You read that first half correctly, “Mors” meaning “death.” I now supervise the only lethal branch remaining in the Catholic Church. As for the second part… we’ll get to that in a moment.

Still thinking wine country would be more hospitable than Rome, I unlocked the archives. I was curious as to why His Holiness – his vicar — presumed I would be an ideal match for a death-dealing monastic order. So, I grabbed random scrolls and started reading. And here’s where a warning is in order: If you’re Catholic, worship with another denomination, or do not acknowledge God, be prepared to accept on faith that He allows a host of unholy entities to wander among us. I’m speaking beyond those things which desire to haunt and possess us. It includes creatures that look like us, and behave like us – in fact, they used to be us – but now prey on their former cohorts. Which brings us to the second part of the name Mors Strigae.

Strigae (singular: striga) is difficult to translate today because early Latin speakers didn’t have a noun for the thing to be killed, a heretofore unknown monster that hunted humans at night, feeding on their blood. The closest word they had, striga, meant “evil spirit” or “witch,” so they used this identifier for the new threat. Later, we in the west adopted the eastern word “nosferatu” – meaning “not dead” – to refer to these creatures, and “striga” was soon forgotten. Meanwhile, Mors Strigae kept its name, allowing its mission to fade from memory — and leaders in Rome to deny the existence of “i vampiri” even as our monks hunted them.

Vampire hunters.

My head keeps shaking at this discovery which makes the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith look like a quilter’s group. Suddenly, my ambition is piqued: Who needs doctrinal authority when I have the tools to assemble my own private army? True, the soldiers are long gone, but the papal charter remains. And now, for the first time in decades, there’s a budget. Still, I remain suspicious. Who wants this order revived, and why now? Perhaps this bound stack of letters to and from my predecessor will offer some direction. They date from the last time Mors Strigae engaged in armed conflict, more than a century ago…

 

***

 

March 20, 1900

To Cardinal Gianluca Soriano, Rome

From the Abbot Adolpho Martinez

 

Your Eminence,

Greetings on this first day of Spring in the new century. I hope this letter properly conveys my excitement at receiving news of great importance to our order. Without further ceremony, I’ll get right to it: I’ve just received intelligence that, if true, could lead to the realization of our goal of eliminating that elusive scourge to all that is holy, the bloodsucking strigae.

According to my second in command, Brother Matteo, several of these, our Lord’s enemies, have retreated to the village of Campoleone, about a day’s journey south of our blessed city founded by St. Peter. During interviews with local peasants, Matteo learned that about ten “i vampiri” (as they call them) have, during the past month, visited their nightly depredations upon the villagers, before, at dawn, taking shelter in a catacomb previously unknown to us. Your Eminence might well remember my reports from late last year estimating a similar number of strigae plaguing Rome and the surrounding area. I can’t yet prove these are the same foul creatures, and I am without explanation as to why they may have moved, but it appears the Lord has given us an opportunity to destroy all his enemies in one location. To this end, I am preparing to join 100 of our brothers already in the field who are setting up camp near this Den of Devils. However, one important item begs for your consideration before any operation can proceed. And here I must temper my passion by grappling with the comparatively prosaic matter of infrastructure.

A scouting mission has revealed only one entrance to the catacomb, with a tunnel that appears limited to single-file passage. One entrance presents both a challenge and an opportunity. A single cave-in could be enough to cut off any team we send below ground — possibly long enough for them to perish. On the other hand, the lack of a second opening makes it easier to trap our enemy. It goes without saying that any incursion would be conducted during daylight hours when the strigae are asleep.

After much prayer, I’ve come to believe the Lord has given us a rare (and possibly brief) opportunity to finish this near thousand-year war on His behalf. I humbly request that upon reading this news (and after what will no doubt be a profound moment of prayer) Your Eminence will grant approval for my proposed incursion. Such a mission would be made even easier with the arrival of 200 more fully armed brothers to Campoleone, plus engineering tools. You have my most heartfelt gratitude for devoting whatever time and resources you can spare to this rather urgent petition. Viva Mors Strigae!

Your faithful servant in Christ’s mission,

Abbot Adolpho Martinez

 

***

 

March 22, 1900

To the Abbot Martinez

From Cardinal Soriano, Rome

 

Abbot Martinez,

Viva Mors Strigae indeed! After years of struggle and limited victories, it seems Heavenly Father desires our order to finally live up to its name. Your report of this hidden harbor for Satan’s children has renewed my faith that we will prevail in this centuries-old struggle. However, after spending the last hour seeking our Lord’s guidance (the “profound moment of prayer” you predicted), I’ve concluded that we should balance our renewed spiritual fervor with a measure of caution. Two concerns now settle heavily on my mind. First, we should confirm the reports from Brother Matteo’s peasant sources that possibly ten strigae are indeed hunting in the area around Campoleone. Second, we must be absolutely certain that these alleged blood drinkers are, in fact, residing in this newly discovered catacomb.

I have no doubt about the godliness and good intentions of our local informers. Still, I’ve had occasion to learn that rural folk benefit greatly when large groups of hungry strangers arrive, bearing coins. I also worry that some of our less experienced brothers may fall victim to the charms of fortune tellers or women of questionable virtue.

With all this in mind, I must ask that you provide confirmed contact with a striga or strigae before I send additional brothers and equipment. It would also be greatly helpful if you would search for other places where our enemies might retire during the day, thereby proving beyond all doubt that the catacomb is to be our battleground.

I’m releasing two horses for your journey, plus an extra steed for your courier. Safe travels, brother. And please address my twin concerns as soon as you are able.

Yours in Christ,
Cardinal Soriano

 

***

 

March 24, 1900

To Cardinal Soriano, Rome

From the Abbot Martinez, the Lord’s Blessed Battlefield

 

Your Eminence,

Thank you for your quick reply and wise counsel. Such qualities are the sign of a right and true leader, and our order is clearly blessed to be placed under your stewardship. Another characteristic of a great leader is forgiveness, or at least forbearance, which brings me to the following confession: Immediately upon my arrival in Campoleone, and alarmed at the gaunt faces and growling stomachs of my brothers who greeted me, I unlocked our order’s treasure to purchase milk, bread, and eggs from our local hosts. Seeing now your desire to discourage excess entrepreneurship among these rustics, I shall therewith halt this outflow of coinage by ordering a fast. Such discipline should be made easier during the current period of mourning felt by many of those under my command, which leads me to my report:

It is my sad duty to inform Your Eminence that last night, shortly after midnight, at least ten strigae assaulted our encampment. Our losses amounted to the deaths by exsanguination of Brother Matteo, plus nine more from our order. Their bodies were found scattered across the countryside. After collecting the corpses, we followed the protocol for those felled during this holiest of wars — staking their hearts, separating heads from torsos, and burning the remains while reciting prayers for the souls’ quick ascension to Heaven. Having witnessed these measures myself, I am confident that none of our dear brethren will return as cursed creatures of the night.

I should note that my 90 surviving brothers found the ceremony beautiful and filled with meaning, and I assure you that each of us continues to be moved by the Holy Spirit and a desire to finish this mission. I also appointed Brother Francesco as my new second-in-command. Nevertheless, the sun is getting low again, and I fear our numbers may decline from further predations. In order to stem our losses from attrition, I must now reiterate my request that you send 200 more brothers, armed with wooden stakes, holy water, and crucifixes. If granting such a request is not convenient at this time, I beg you to allow us to retreat to Rome so we can regroup for a return mission to this village.

I remain your faithful servant in Christ’s mission,

Abbot Adolpho Martinez.

 

***

 

March 26, 1900

To the Abbot Martinez, the Lord’s Blessed Battlefield

From Cardinal Soriano, Rome

 

Abbot Martinez,

It is with great sadness that I read of the demise of Brother Matteo and the nine other members of our blessed order. Matteo, in particular, will be missed since I have fond memories of his service as an altar boy in our beloved Basilica. Please accept my condolences. I have no doubt that each of the fallen has assumed his rightful place in Heaven. Please also extend my salutations to Brother Francesco as he assumes his new post as your second.

Despite my disconsolation at our losses, the Good Lord has seen fit to provide me with half the proof I requested in my letter of March 22: You have confirmed that approximately ten strigae are hunting in the area around Campoleone. That’s one box we can check. Unfortunately, your most recent letter didn’t provide me with a list of alternatives as to where these evil creatures might be sleeping. I make no reproach since your letter clearly conveyed the distress which has arrested your attention. I look forward to learning in your next letter whether the catacomb is our main target or one of several possibilities.

Yours in Christ,

Cardinal Soriano

 

***

 

March 30, 1900

To Cardinal Soriano, Rome

From the Abbot Martinez, the Lord’s Blessed Battlefield

 

Your Eminence,

Please excuse my delay in replying. The reason for my tardiness will become clear later in this message. First, allow me to provide the answer you sought in your letter dated March 22, which I neglected to include.

After conducting a wide search of the area, and failing to find any other shelter that could possibly be useful for a striga to take its ill-earned rest, I’ve concluded that the catacomb must be the only location where these bloodthirsty monsters hide when the sun rises. My suspicions were confirmed the night of March 27-28 during a visit to the crypt’s entrance, which we’ve been guarding since our arrival. While chatting with the sentries, my own eyes witnessed, for the first time, a striga. It flew out of the tunnel, naked and borne by some wicked force that allowed it to arrange its arms and legs as if it were posing for a prurient artist’s paintbrush rather than propelling itself through open air. Such a frightful thing to behold – a female with hair the color of glowing embers, piercing green eyes, milk-white skin, and a most fiendish smile, punctuated by those long canines so often mentioned in folklore. Since it was my first time witnessing such a creature, I stood transfixed as she swooped down upon the sentries, undeterred by the crucifixes they employed to keep her at bay. Grabbing my hapless brothers by their collars, she lifted them up and smashed their heads against each other. Then, God as my witness, I heard her utter a lascivious moan of pleasure as their lifeless bodies crumpled to earth and were quickly set upon by her unholy kin. As I ran toward our camp, the unclad female descended light as a feather in front of me. When she approached, my feet were paralyzed by a debate raging in my mind. Should I avoid looking into her eyes, which, according to our instruction, could hypnotize in seconds? Or do I risk my eyes being diverted to her pale breasts, hips, and thighs, which were so sinfully curved and well-proportioned that I now understand it to be a sinister trick to keep me from attacking her with the holy water I carried. I hope you and Heavenly Father will forgive me for being duped by such a simple yet diabolical ruse.

It is with some hesitation that I provide further details of this encounter, because doing so will reveal how profoundly my soul has been corrupted, and how unfit I am to continue service in our sacred order. Nevertheless, share I must because it may provide information about what to expect when future warriors of God confront these terrible yet astonishing creatures.

“My name is Agripina,” she said without any solicitation from me. “I want you to convey a message to your cardinal.” I agreed, hoping she would spare my life. My reprieve was merely temporary but that is far less important than the information she offered which, if true, could save hundreds of our brothers.

“The catacomb is rigged to collapse,” she warned. “Should you monks enter, you will all perish.”

“Why do you tell me this?” I asked, uncertain as to whether I should speak to this evil creature. She answered, “Nature requires a balance between predators and prey. Nothing upsets that balance more than a massacre.” Then, taking my hand, she turned and led me toward the woods, adding, “Still, the laws of nature say nothing about playing with your food.”

I don’t remember being bitten, but one of my brothers found me early next morning with twin punctures on my neck. I was laying amongst the leaves in a state of nature, barely conscious and shivering from exposure. I can only conclude that this wicked monster fed off me, leaving just enough blood to allow me to relay her message to you, however suspicious it may seem to both of us. I still have doubts while writing this, wondering if the Devil might profit from our hesitation to enter the crypt. Nonetheless, I will probably hand this letter to the courier and leave this matter to be decided by your wisdom. And now I have one more confession for you to hear:

Added to my bodily injury is a spiritual unmooring which results from my shame at having to admit that, with the help of this concupiscent demon, I have broken my vow of celibacy. I am left with little faith that even Heavenly Father, for all his power and goodness, will find my decrepit spirit worth salvaging.

As I write this, the sun is about to set and I fear that venereal vixen will return to finish me off. Even if she spares me such a visit, my weakened state makes me doubt I’ll witness another sunrise. With every cough, with each labored breath, I can feel life slipping away from me. I have already written a note to my brothers instructing them to dispose of my remains according to our doctrine, and informing them that Brother Francesco has command until you decide on my replacement. I can only hope that my soul will be allowed to enter Purgatory, so I may have a chance to expiate my sins, as I am too unclean to enter Heaven.

Despite the gravity of my circumstances, I continue to find comfort in prayer – plus the thought that our holy war will continue under your steadfast leadership. Thank you, Your Eminence, for allowing me to serve you in His mission. And may the good Lord bless you and keep you from harm.

Viva Mors Strigae!

Abbot Martinez

 

***

 

April 1, 1900

To the Abbot Martinez, the Lord’s Blessed Battlefield

From Cardinal Soriano, Rome

 

Dear Abbot Martinez,

My shock over your injuries and concern for your spiritual well-being continue to haunt my thoughts after a most difficult night. Following much prayer and reflection, I’ve become certain that your unblemished record of service, plus the kindness and generosity you exhibited to each member of our order, will bless you with enough indulgences that Heavenly Father will speed your redemption and grant you the everlasting salvation you so richly deserve.

I hope this letter finds you at peace and surrounded by angels ready to sing their praises for your exculpation. For my part, I will pray every night, asking that the Good Lord embrace you in the hereafter.

God speed, faithful friend. And Viva Mors Strigae.

Cardinal Soriano

***

 

April 1, 1900

To interim commander Reynaldo Francesco, the Lord’s Blessed Battlefield

From Cardinal Soriano, Rome

 

Brother Francesco,

It is possible that your esteemed abbot, Adolpho Martinez, will have expired by the time you read this. It is with great sadness that I read his letter of March 30th, in which he described the assault upon his honorable person by a striga, and his subsequent failing health. If he passes, I charge you with the disposal of his remains according to our rules.

Responding to one of the abbot’s final requests, that for reinforcements, I am dispatching 200 brothers who should arrive at your encampment no more than two days from now. They will be led by your new abbot, René Jean-Baptiste, who will assume command. Please be ready to receive him and provide updates regarding the strength, both numerical and spiritual, of your team, and report your latest intelligence about the dreaded strigae.

There is another item in Martinez’s most recent letter which requires your awareness, but not immediate action. Martinez said he received a warning from the striga who attacked him the night of March 27-28. This succubus named Agripina informed Martinez that the catacomb had been rigged to collapse after we enter. To verify this claim, I ordered your new abbot to bring a team of engineers who will inspect the tunnels. I’d like you and eleven volunteers to provide security for this team while they do their examinations underground.

On a more disturbing note, Martinez also informed me that our holiest symbol, the crucifix, did not deter Agripina during her attack on two of our sentries on March 27-28. If Martinez was not mistaken, we’d need to rethink how we engage these creatures in future combat. I hardly need to tell you that it is essential for you confirm the potency of our sacred symbol during your next encounter with these foul demons. Additionally, I’d like to confirm the efficacy of our other weapons including silver and holy water. There’s no need to confirm wooden stakes; this long ago proved a most devastating implement.

I realize this is a highly detailed communiqué for a temporary command, and I thank you for your attention to my concerns. Thanks also for your continued service and loyalty to the cause.

Viva Mors Strigae!

Cardinal Soriano

 

***

 

April 3, 1900

To Cardinal Soriano, Rome

From the Abbot René Jean-Baptiste, the Lord’s Blessed Battlefield

 

Your Eminence,

It thrills me to deliver this, my first report as leader of the divinely inspired band of brothers you assembled to exterminate our Lord’s enemies. And while the latter may have gotten the better of us last night, I have every confidence that, God willing, we shall prevail. No doubt, you’d prefer to read more details about our latest clash (this being a report, after all), so here are the main points:

  1. We lost 15 brothers last night during an attack just before midnight by about ten strigae. All our brothers’ corpses have been recovered and disposed of in the prescribed manner.
  2. Silver works! Brother Himmelman, a Master Metalworker, created a 6’ x 6’ blanket made of silver rings, all tightly linked, and for a brief time we captured a striga. During the attack, Brother Himmelman courageously positioned himself as bait next to the blanket which lay on the ground under a bed of leaves. When the striga, a raven-haired female of exceptional beauty, landed on it, she immediately collapsed like a rag doll. Himmelman wrapped her in the blanket and was in the process of dragging this captured devil when a loud shriek assaulted our ears. An anguished call for “Fiona” echoed off the trees, quickly identified as coming from a red-haired female my brothers call Agripina. This banshee grabbed another of our German brothers, Bauman, and held him with nails like eagle’s talons poised to pierce his neck. Despite Bauman’s offer to sacrifice himself, Himmelman unwrapped our prisoner. A third demon – male, name unknown — flew down and picked up Fiona and all three flew off, to our dismay, with the doomed Bauman. He was discovered the following morning, bloodless, with multiple bite marks the length of his body. All of us are furious at the treachery the strigae displayed during their feigned hostage negotiation. Nevertheless, our feelings at Bauman’s loss must be tempered by our newly gained knowledge about the power of argentum.
  3. Crucifixes don’t work. I am still waiting for a report on the efficaciousness of holy water.

Tomorrow morning, my engineers will return to the catacomb to continue searching for evidence of the alleged trap set for us. I should mention the majority of brothers killed during this latest attack – nine — were engineers. With this development, I can only conclude that the strigae are targeting them.

I hope my second report from the field brings better news. In the meantime, I remain your loyal partner in service to Heavenly Father.

Viva Mors Strigae!

Abbot Jean-Baptiste

 

***

 

April 5, 1900

To the Abbot Jean-Baptiste, the Lord’s Blessed Battlefield

From Cardinal Soriano, Rome

 

Abbot,

Please assign additional protection for your remaining engineers in the form of extra guards and, if possible, clothing or ornaments made of silver. This was the most interesting and useful revelation of your April 3rd letter, which otherwise I found objectionable for the breeziness of its tone and content. For example, your first item describes in the briefest possible manner the slaughter of 15 of our brethren – but no context. Were they ambushed as previous reports suggest? Could they have survived if they were better prepared? I am becoming increasingly concerned that the deaths on our side result from poor leadership that allows our brothers to be caught unawares. You are hereby ordered to establish new protocols for night watches and assemble a fully armed team in reserve that can quickly respond to sudden attacks.

Let me remind you that the loss of any member of our sacred order carries great significance because they died while serving Heavenly Father. There is also the more worldly consideration of recruiting and training new brothers, which takes time, effort, and treasure. So remember: You are your brothers’ keeper – take better care of them!

In the meantime, I’ll order a team here in Rome to add silver rings or threads to our standard battle garments. I’ll advise you when these are ready to be distributed among your men.

Cardinal Soriano

***

 

April 7, 1900

To Cardinal Soriano, Rome

From the Abbot Jean-Baptiste, the Lord’s Blessed Battlefield

 

Your Eminence,

Please accept my humble and heartfelt apologies for the perfunctory manner with which I related the deaths of our 15 brothers the night of April 2nd. I will make sure that future notitia mori properly convey my own feelings of loss, plus awareness of the Church’s investments – material and spiritual – to prepare each soldier for the Lord’s service. Now to my report:

  1. Your Eminence surmised correctly that ambush is the leading cause of expiry for our brothers serving near the catacomb. I have adopted your advice about increasing the number of sentries, and establishing a team armed and ready for a rapid counterattack between dusk and dawn.
  2. I have ordered our hallowed silversmith, Brother Himmelman, to add rings of argentum to our cloaks, and already he issued one to the head of our engineering team. I am pleased to report this cloak repelled the much-feared Agripina during a raid last night. Unfortunately, two more rank-and-file engineers were slain, one each by Agripina and the raven-haired Fiona. Hopefully, the garments and weapons you promised will arrive soon. Brother Himmelman has enough material for two additional cloaks, and I plan to issue the next one to myself.
  3. Holy water is not a deterrent. I myself attempted to douse the blessed drops onto a male striga who promptly ignored me and flew away with another of our precious engineers. I am ordering our brothers to reserve their vials for worship, along with our crucifixes.
  4. The claim of a rigged tunnel or tunnels has yet to be proved during inspections. The engineering team spent two full days in the catacomb, advancing 50 meters each day. The eight surviving members hope to advance another 50 today. All they’ve discovered so far are the skeletons of Capuchin monks from long ago, supine and intact. I can assure you the remains have not been disturbed during our work.

I hope to have more tangible progress to report during my next dispatch.

Viva Mors Strigae,

Abbot René Jean-Baptiste

 

***

 

April 9, 1900

To the Abbot Jean-Baptiste, the Lord’s Blessed Battlefield

From Cardinal Soriano, Rome

 

Abbot,

The next cloak of silver produced by Brother Himmelman should go to an engineer. If Himmelman produces a third, and my promised shipment has not yet arrived, you may have that.

 

Cardinal Soriano

 

***

 

April 9, 1900

 

To Cardinal Stefano Mancini, Vicar to His Holiness

From Cardinal Gianluca Soriano

 

Your Eminence,

 

Happy belated birthday. I do hope Heavenly Father continues to grace your worthy person with good health, good spirits, and the steadfast determination for which you’ve become legendary in service to His Holiness.

It is with sincere hope that a humble request from yours truly will in no way spoil your celebrations, but an emergent state of affairs compels me to prevail upon you, my brother, for the distribution of certain assets. I’ll avow it is not currency I seek, rather a quantity of silver that could be melted down quickly for a purpose which, I am obligated to remind, cannot be disclosed under the terms of my Congregation’s rather esoteric charter. Nevertheless, you have my utmost assurances that the material I seek would forthwith be employed in direct service to our Lord.

No doubt, Heavenly Father has blessed you with an exceptional memory, which I truly envy at my age, but I seem to recall hearing about a vault somewhere in the Holy See containing hundreds of bars of precious metals, including many of pure silver. I assume that such a collection, were it to exist, would fall under the supervision of His Holiness. Would your Eminence be so charitable as to inquire on my behalf to Holy Father? I will admit the unorthodox nature of this request causes me to blush more than a little.

I remain respectfully yours in Christ’s service,

Cardinal Soriano

 

***

 

April 10, 1900

To Cardinal Gianluca Soriano

From Cardinal Vicar Stefano Mancini

 

Your Eminence,

 

Unorthodox, indeed! Of course, most requests from the Prefect for The Sacred Congregation for the Inquiry into All Things Preternatural are bound to raise an eyebrow. Still, I must admit the earnestness of your query nearly convinced me to melt down all the silver goblets and flatware I keep in my household! Fortunately for my discriminating dinner companions, I am happy to report that, verily, the Holy See maintains a collection of .999 silver in the form of 100-ounce bars. And while it remains under the authority of Holy Father, I see no need to interrupt his sojourn in Capri with this matter. How much argentum do you require?

I remain your fellow servant in Christ’s holy mission,

Cardinal Vicar Stefano Mancini

 

***

 

April 11, 1900

To Cardinal Vicar Stefano Mancini,

From Cardinal Gianluca Soriano

 

Your Eminence,

 

Blessed news! Many thanks for your assistance which, I assure you, will greatly further our combined mission in service to our Lord in Heaven. I think 100 bars should be enough to meet our current need. I shall immediately alert the metal workers under my authority to prepare for this shipment.

I am at once humbled and inspired by your generous and expeditious offer of help.

Your dear friend in Christ’s service,

Cardinal Soriano

 

***

 

April 15, 1900

To Abbot René Jean-Baptiste

From Cardinal Soriano

 

Abbot Jean-Baptiste,

A shipment of 100 cloaks fitted with silver rings left this morning for your encampment. I hope to send another 100 in a few days. What news from you?

 

Cardinal Soriano

 

***

 

April 17, 1900

To Cardinal Gianluca Soriano, Rome

From the Abbot Jean-Baptiste, the Lord’s Blessed Battlefield

 

Your Eminence,

Many thanks for the silvered cloaks which arrived around Noon today. Since there are approximately two monks for every cloak, I asked during our morning muster which brothers would forgo a cloak so another could benefit from its protection. My heart became full and my eyes watered when, to a man, they all declined. Still, proper leadership demanded that I distribute these garments, so I asked my brothers to count off, and then asked Brother Francesco to choose odd or even. The odds won the cloaks which were promptly issued. Among the evens, I noticed more than a few faces trying to conceal their relief when I announced that more of these cloaks were on the way. I include this anecdote merely to underscore how brave these men are despite the terror they feel. And now for the difficult news:

Nearly all of our blessed engineers, who worked tirelessly to inspect the catacomb’s main tunnel, have succumbed to the predations of the evil strigae. I am deeply saddened at the loss of such dedicated and pious men. Only one survives, Brother Paolo, who lately has been displaying symptoms of the dreaded dysentery and joined a growing number of men in our makeshift infirmary. I’ve lately been reading a scientific journal which warns about how diarrheal diseases spread and I’ve concluded that our training could benefit from a course on personal hygiene, with particular attention to the burying of excrement. Much fouling of the landscape has occurred since our first group of men arrived more than a fortnight ago, and I fear the flies that swarm during our mid-day meal are polluting the food. I humbly suggest that we could prevent future outbreaks by adding a small shovel to each brother’s standard kit. In the meantime, I must prevail upon your Eminence to send whatever shovels you can spare during the next supply shipment.

With the emergence of a second opponent, disease, I must also ask that we quickly agree on a course of action. Each day we remain encamped costs dearly in lives, plus valuable resources needed to sustain us. And for what? So the strigae may continue to gorge themselves? So the flies can carry our own feces back to our meals? I believe the time may be right for us to return to Rome, regroup with proper equipment, and then return here for a decisive battle. Your thoughts, Eminence?

Yours in Christ’s service,

Abbot Jean-Baptiste

 

***

 

April 19, 1900

To the Abbot Jean-Baptiste, the Lord’s Blessed Battlefield

From Cardinal Soriano, Rome

 

Abbot,

I do hope for the sake of your eternal salvation that your hours spent perusing the latest science don’t outnumber those praying or reading scripture. It seems your study of the worldly literature has enervated your attacking spirit and engendered a wandering state of mind, as evinced by your sudden interest in human waste and shovels. Really, brother – is this what preoccupies you?

For too long, I have refrained from running this operation from afar, but now I see your lack of initiative has further enfeebled a once proud fighting force. As you’ve no doubt ascertained, my patience has run its course over your inaction which has imposed a drain on capital – both financial and political – for our sacred order. With this in mind, my next directive is a metaphor in keeping with your sudden fascination with all things scatological: Evacuate your bowels or else remove your posterior from the latrine. And expect no shovels from Rome.

Cardinal Soriano

 

***

 

April 22, 1900

To the Abbot Jean-Baptiste, the Lord’s Blessed Battlefield

From Cardinal Soriano, Rome

 

Abbot,

 

What news?

 

Cardinal

 

***

 

April 24, 1900

 

To Cardinal Gianluca Soriano, Rome

From Brother Reynaldo Francesco, the Lord’s Blessed Battlefield.

 

Your Eminence,

It has fallen upon me to inform you that the Abbot Jean-Baptiste has, like so many of our brave brothers, fallen in battle. During an attack the night of April 17-18, I personally witnessed the abbot succumb to bewitchment by the malevolent enchantress Fiona. Myself engaged in combat, I was unable to prevent him from removing his silvered cloak and following her alone into the catacomb. The next morning, I entered the crypt to begin a search which required me to venture twice more until, on the third day, I finally recovered the abbot’s exsanguinated corpse about 1000 meters into the main tunnel. And here, if your Eminence permits, I’d like to add to our growing body of knowledge about strigae and those unfortunates who become their prey.

Upon my discovery of our late abbot, I’d noticed the normal process of putrefaction had begun to take hold. After his removal to our camp, and an overnight vigil with brothers holding sharpened stakes at the ready, I have concluded that merely being drained by a striga does not lead to one’s reanimation as a similar foul creature of the night. Once again, it seems our order has been fooled by the gross simplification of the common folklore. After burying the abbot, and saying prayers for his speedy ascension to Heaven, I now feel I can safely recommend the cessation of our current method of disposing victims, as this consumes not only time but valuable resources like firewood.

And now, I must humbly seek your Eminence’s forgiveness for resuming, without your order, the interim command I briefly held from April 1st to 3rd. I have today deferred to a special appointment by my brothers who unanimously affirmed their wish for me to finally lead them in an attack, which shall begin as soon as I hand this letter to our courier. Before I sign off, you will no doubt require assurance that during my three days underground, I encountered no evidence that our enemies plan to welcome us with a cave-in. I found none. Furthermore, I’m certain that the infamous warning issued by that harpy Agripina was a ruse designed to keep us in the open, exposed to repeated nocturnal hunts. As I write this, my blood boils at the realization that we’ve become handmaidens to our recurrent slaughter. Now at last, with Heavenly Father’s grace and assistance, we will catch these evil creatures while they slumber, at last employing our disposal methods on their cursed bodies instead of ours.

Upon returning victorious to Rome, I will gladly accept any punishment you deem fit for exceeding my authority. However, I must humbly ask that you spare my brothers from blame as their unanimous support for my command was inspired, not by mutinous feelings against your person or our order, but a sincere desire to complete our sacred mission.

I look forward to personally sharing with you the details of our blessed victory after so much struggle and loss. The thought that we may deliver such a devastating blow against evil fills my entire being with the light of the Holy Spirit. May God be pleased to witness such a triumph achieved by those fighting on His behalf. Viva Mors Strigae!

Interim Abbot Reynaldo Francesco

 

***

 

Diary of Cardinal Massimo de Luca

 

Dec. 22, 2021

 

I can’t stop shivering after reading these “Catacomb Letters.” Only after a second cognac was I able to calm my nerves and feverish brain. Then I got on my knees and prayed, thankful for the unwavering faith and bravery exhibited by these brothers while facing terrible odds. Their story is at once heartbreaking and inspiring, and I am privileged to be their witness. How awful not to be able to share this! The Abbot Martinez, in particular, arrested me with the sheer desolation of his prose. The interim abbot, Francesco, made me so terribly worried about his inexperience, but I had every confidence in his faith and the spiritual readiness of those who placed themselves under his command. Even the Abbot Jean-Baptiste, for all his brusqueness, astonished me with his certainty. As for the strigae Agripina and Fiona – I can only say they represent the most profane confluence of savagery and cunning. I doubt I could survive for two seconds after encountering either of them, which makes the absence of a victory message from Francesco weigh more heavily on my mind. I’ve searched everywhere in this archive for a hint of the outcome, but to no avail. Other than a notebook about strigae and the weapons employed against them, the only item I found is Cardinal Soriano’s diary which I dutifully read. It’s a long and often boring chronicle of his career, a story I nearly gave up on several times, but the ending wrenched me awake and caused me to jump out of my chair. Soriano’s final entry comes two years after the Campoleone letters end, and contains a startling revelation – no, confession – about a most unholy wager.

***

 

Diary of Cardinal Gianluca Soriano, Rome

 

March 20, 1902

 

When a cardinal seeks confession, where can he go? Normally, I could obtain absolution from a brother cardinal or even Holy Father if the sin is not too bad. But when a transgression is so great it threatens the authority of the Church, then it – like a disease – must be contained. I must not infect my colleagues’ spirits with the colossal military failure that weighs solely on my shoulders. Nor should I burden any person other than the one who reads this entry with the knowledge that I am also a traitor to God, having consorted with, and been duped by, an emissary of Satan.

One night a little more than two years ago, I received an unexpected visit from an ancient striga dressed like a Caesar in white robes and a crown of gold leaves. He did not attack me. Instead, Caius Drusus introduced himself and offered something:

“Have you noticed a sudden decline in the population? No doubt, you’ve heard from certain armed monks that ten of my… associates… have been hunting around Rome.”

Before I could finish uttering the word “strigae,” five of the coldest fingers I’ve ever known clamped shut my mouth. “Imagine the scandal when your worshippers learn that their Sunday offerings are paying for a secret army that fails to protect them.” Then his tone brightened a bit. “Are you a sporting man, Cardinal?”

I nodded once.

“Let’s test the strength of your order. I’ll send my army of ten south to Campoleone, where they and your monks will meet in battle.”

I backed away from his fingers. “And if my men win?”

“Then you, sir, shall become Pope.”

Here I sought to correct my visitor. “The College of Cardinals elects the Holy Father.”

“Yes, and His Holiness appoints the cardinals – it’s all very incestuous, like my own system of governance.” Then he leaned closer, his voice like whispers from a crypt. “All that’s needed is for the papal vicar to instruct the College to approve his successor.”

“You left out an important step. His Holiness would have to die.”

“Look who’s connecting the dots.” Caius’s lips curled into a smile, revealing two long canines. “I would handle that bit, of course.”

Only the most Machiavellian ambition could temper my horror at the thought of such an assassination, and I am here admitting my most baneful weakness. “And if my men lose the battle?”

“Surely the Cardinal doesn’t admit that possibility.”

“The Cardinal must be prepared for every possibility.”

Caius chuckled at my resoluteness, but then turned serious. “If your men lose, you will be my agent for as long as you live.”

“Agent for what? Your agenda is unknown to me.”

“And so it shall remain.”

I never thought that an all-powerful and merciful God would allow His army to fail. But fail we did, and now I’m reminded of our Savior’s last words while dying on the cross: “My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” I hope you, Dear Reader, will not consider my quoting these words a blasphemy.

My orders from Caius were few and far between, at the start. Befriend Vicar Cardinal Mancini, buy him gifts, gain his confidence. Listen to his concerns, offer suggestions, and stroke his ego. Then one day my tormentor announced “an escalation in intimacy” was required so that I may gain access to the most sensitive information about papal offices and appointments.

I am too ashamed to write more. After violating nearly every proscription in the Bible, I shall debase myself no more. My soul beyond salvation, I have decided that only my absence can stem this pernicious corruption. I have procured poison which I will ingest immediately after composing this warning for whoever succeeds me.

Beware: The visitor who won my eternal damnation is certain to know of your appointment and will soon approach you. I pray that you’ll resign immediately and halt the evil that I helped promulgate. To continue your appointment would only further prove that this city is not a place for men of God, only men of power – the very kind our Savior warned us about. I hope your moral compass is truer, and your faith in God greater, than mine ever was.

Yours in disgrace,

Gianluca Soriano.

 

 

 

Cale Canis

When Frederick Francis Cale was a babe, he observed his father’s dog barking at a cat which had stepped across the street and swiftly dropped to his hands and knees and keened at the top of his lungs, to the surprise and amusement of his parents and the grand terror of the tabby, which, wide-eyed, sped off to the distant alley from whence it had come.

From that moment on, whenever young Frederick would chance upon a cat, he would fall to all fours and bark until exhaustion overtook him.

At first, his parents were greatly amused, but after several months the boy’s behavior remained unchanged. Mr. Cale feared some dark aberration had taken root in the lad’s mind, but could find no example, in the excavation of his memories, of any queer turning in the child’s development; his upbringing had, until recently, been completely normal, which made the boy’s strange behavior appear, in retrospect, all the stranger.

“Surely we should speak to him.”

“Oh, darling,” Mrs. Cale cooed, “Its just a phase. He’ll grow out of it.”

“Perhaps you’re right.”

The next month, the Cale’s neighbors, The Cumberlands, bought a young feline from the local shelter and gave it to their daughter Esmeralda, as a present for her birthday, who decided to take her new ward for a turn around the culdesac. When Esmeralda passed the Cale House, young Frederick, upon spying the cat, rushed to the window, howling and yelping and slobbering upon the glass, giving the girl a terrible fright and causing her cat to tug against its leash, tail flickering, hair standing on end. Mr. Cale shut the window, shot his son a withering glare, shook his head and bounded quickly from the house to greet the woman upon the green and grey.

“I’m sorry. We’ve no idea why he does that.”

To his great surprise the woman only smiled and laughed.

“Its alright. I’m sure its just a phase. Worse to be too strict than too lenient, right?”

A year passed and Frederick’s peculiar behavior remained unchanged—indeed, had compounded. The matter came to a head when, in the month of January of that year, Frederick, in one of his canine fits, tried to bite Esmeralda’s cat. Despite his wife’s protestations and the fact that the Cumberlands were nonplussed about the affair, Mr. Cale sent the child off to the local shrink.

One day, scarcely a month into Frederick’s new regime, the Cale’s phone rang. Mr. Cale answered and was greeted by a frantic female voice.

“This is the Cale Residence?”

“Yes ma’am. This is Arthur Cale. I assume this is about my boy?”

“It is. Please, come as soon as you’re able.”

“What happened? Is he all right?”

“There’s no time to explain. You must see for yourself.”

“Very well, I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

He hung up the phone and, with a thrumming heart, dashed to his car, and spun out of the short, white gravel drive.

When Arthur arrived at the shrink’s office, he found the psychologist snarling at a tree.

A cat upon its gnarled branches.

The Dauntless Rook (§.16)

Continued from §.15

 

When Sprill realized his tenants were either sleeping, hiding, or vacant, he gave a soft grunt of irritation, produced a keyring and turned the lock. Adair followed the landlord and moved through the small, sparse room to the window and peered out into the cluttered lane below, spying only a grim, gray-clad man, conversing with two mailed sentries of the paramount, who stood before a swelling crowd, barely visible in the great thoroughfare beyond the alley. Though Adair could not make out the conversation, it was clear from their body-language that an argument was underway, in which the ashen man was rebuffed. He subsequently turned and left off from the ramshackle lane, shaking his head and muttering and vanished back from whence he’d come.

Adair turned from the window to behold Hoston starring at his pocket-watch.

“Apologies, my comitem. I’ve no idea where they’ve gotten off to.”

“No trouble at all. Perhaps I’ll stop by another time. Wherefore all the commotion?”

“Outside?”

“Aye.”

“Thou art surprisingly unprimed of thy classes own affairs.”

“Sir?”

“The Lord Paramount has organized a parade in honor of Baron Avarr’s triumphal return.”

“The Torian noble?”

“Aye. I mean no offense, my comitem, but should thee not know of this? Surely thou wert invited?”

“If I was, I remember not, but thou speaketh rightly – unfortunately, I’ve been swamped of late. I am to be married and-”

“Why, that is wonderful! I had not heard.”

“Of that I am pleased. I should not wish for my life to become a staple of the gossip columns.”

“Nor I!”

“The business has been most taxing. I’ve had little time for anything else.”

“I suspect that blackguard what came after ye, has somewhat disturbed the tranquil waters of thy recreation.”

“Thou hath heard of my adventure?”

“Heard of it! I should be a queerly isolated soul were I to have not. Why near the whole of town is jawin’ of it. It were said that thee dodged the brigand’s pitch. Is it true?”

“A man may accomplish the extraordinary when by it, he is beset.”

Shortly after the words had left his mouth, he froze, eyes fixating upon a small, black thing at the periphery of his vision. He turned to the left and beheld a feather, laying upon the ground beneath a chair. He bent to a knee and plucked it from the ground, turning it in the ambered light.

It was a crow quill, familiar in constitution.

“I’d no idea they’d a bird,” declared Hoston, briefly observing the feather, “Hmph! How dare they sneak such a creature in here! I’ll have them on the street for this!”

“Its not from a living bird. Note the glue upon the shaft.”

Hoston bent to the feather and peered at the quill.

“Ay. Must have come from a costume… Well, I must be off, my comitem. I take it the path out lays fresh in thy mind?”

“It does. I thank thee for thy time.”

Sprill bowed and left whereupon Adair unfurled himself from the hardwood floor, placed the plume in his inner-jacket pocket and gave Dren’s curiously unfurnished room one last cursory glance before shutting the door and hailing a hansom.

He twirled the feather between his fingertips as the vehicle clattered down the cobblestone streets, wondering why the absent renter had stolen his coat.

Old Man Centipede

Old Man Centipede was a quiet sort, given to reverie within the multi-chambered dampness of The Hollow Mount, a path up from which afforded him clear observation of the hatchlings, hunting spiders in The Wasteland beyond the great burrow of the old log which had served as his home for six years. He’d heard rumblings of late that the Formican Horde had conquered all the eastern lands of the Outer Wild and now sought dominion over the Inner Reach. He was concerned, but confident the horde would never make ingress to the mount when so many proud centipedes yet lingered.

One day, as he strode atop the rotting log, as was his custom, Old Man Centipede chanced across a centipede of but a single season, known as Spider-Carver, picking feverishly at his mandibles with his forelegs, as if to pry them from his face.

“What are you doing?”

“Blasted forcipules! Mirages! Fakes! I know it. I know it! We did not have them… in the sea… in the long before when electric-eyed and many-gilled, we sucked the bloodied muck of the great, wet dark…”

The Old Man was sure the youth had gone quite mad and attempted to dissuade him from the venture. Yet, time and time again, Old Man Centipede was rebuffed. He might as well, he decided, teach the art of burrowing to a moth, or spider-hunting to a fly, and so left the youngling to its freakish exercise and headed off to tell his kin what he had witnessed.

The next day, as he made his languid rounds upon the top of The Hollow Mount, he noticed Spider-Carver once more, surrounded by a gaggle of young centipedes and the Old Matriarch. Much to Old Man Centipede’s horror, Spider-Carver had hewn his forcipules clear of his face, leaving only coagulated stumps, which he had painfully stuffed with two short, pronged twigs. He scuttled to and fro, wriggling his prosthetic claws as if in a trance.

“To be one with the essential form – the ur-ancestor – one must return to the sea!”

“What madness is this?”

“He does not believe he is a centipede,” replied the matriarch, “But that we have erred in our development, have forgotten from whence we’ve come, and, succumbed to an unnatural turning.”

“One’s mandibles are a sorry price to pay for the comfort of such a delusion.”

“There was nothing any of us could have done, for he had removed them before we arrived. I will ensure that he is seen to. Besides, he seems happy.”

“I can think of several things more important than the heady delirium of transient happiness.”

As the time-worn duo conversed, a throng of chilopods steadily built up around the mad arthropod, who seemed to simultaneously fascinate and repel them.

In the days that followed the incident, Spider-Carver’s crowd grew considerably in size and, by the end of the week had even attracted the attention of some symphylans, who gazed on from their chthonic burrows, perplexed, by the twig-faced and twirling creature. During this time, Old Man Centipede sensed ants in the close distance, betrayed by their pheromones, just beyond the Inner Reach. In time he knew they would come for the nest and so swiftly returned to his fellows to spread the news. When he arrived at the burrow he was horrified to see that the centipedes had all removed their mandibles and replaced them with sticks. Some had died in the process and lay, coiled about themselves upon the sodden floor. Insides slick-spilling from rent faces. Spider-Carver presided over the gathering, giving a strange speech about the sea, and moving side to side, across the mulchy walls.

When Old Man Centipede protested and sought to warn them, the matriarch intervened. She too had removed her jaws.

“You must not get so heated, old one.”

“But they have ruined themselves, just as you have, and at the moment in which the ants advance upon us!”

“Your concern is a relic.”

At that moment a large red ant entered the cool dwelling, bearing in its mouth, a twig.

“See there! The formicans have arrived! We must prepare!”

“No,” replied the ant, “I am no formican, but sea-like as thee.”

“This is not so. I am no sea-thing. I am a centipede.”

“Who are you to say, old one?”

The matriarch waved her feelers and turned her aged eyes to the ant, dimly observing the tiny branch in its maw.

“He is no ant, old one. He is like us.”

“He is a spy and you are insane. We must not let him escape to tell the hive the lay of the log.”

With that, Old Man Centipede made for the ant and would have easily overtaken it, were it not for the intervention of the matriarch, who stabbed her twigs into his side.

“The centipedes attack us!” She screamed, “Help!”

Swiftly Carver’s acolytes came, jawless and wrathful, and crashed upon the great old chilopod until his chitin cracked and his legs were torn and his feelers rent.

As Old Man Centipede lay at his last, the ant dropped its twig and sped off into the darkness to rouse the hive.