This Week’s Prompt: 56. Book or MS. too horrible to read—warned against reading it—someone reads and is found dead. Haverhill incident.
The Prior Research: Forbidden Texts And Wild Men
“It is a well known but rarely discussed fact that a good number of local traditions practiced by in nomine Christian men and women are in fact of older and more pagan origin.”
The first draft of my good friend Charles’s paper began with that somewhat uncertain line. He had begun conducting research, detailed to a good degree in the paper proper, on an unusual example of such a “survival”. A small, local icon of a Saint Silvanus, nestled where it had been “found” years prior. The research was not terribly interesting to me. But I was not a native as Charles was, and thus perhaps lacked his fascination with this small miraculous icon and it’s pre-Christian or at the least pre-Niceaen potency.
All this was secondary, however. I was on a train bound for the nearest road to that old hill village for entirely personal reasons. Charles had sent me his drafts of his paper, and I’d done my best to edit the work into something respectable. I’d sent my revisions to him, expecting to hear back in a month.
The response never came.
At first I reasoned that Charles may be stewing, my red ink having perhaps drawn some genuine blood. Then worry that Charles might not have received my edits began to sink in. After my letter of reassurance received no reply, I began to suspect that either the postman was guilty of some strange academic sabotage, or that Charles had encountered a great deal of difficulty. I decided then to visit him personally, or at the least to begin the process of tracking him down.
The post office had confirmed my edits had been delivered to the last residence of Charles. Charles’s land lady there had explained that last she heard, he was headed back into the field, perhaps re-invigorated with questions, or searching for the semi-mythic shrine he had detailed in his notes. Where exactly the field was took even more work. But at last, I was on this train to the crumbling remains of an old town.
The town was, per Charles’s notes, about two hours walk from the train station. I, personally, would not have described it as “mushrooms rising from the corpse of a dying industrial town”, but I suppose Charles wasn’t wrong per se. It was his home to decry as he wished.Trunk in hand, I looked for the house that Charles had said he’d resided in during his research.
I found Charles’s informants house. It took a bit of seraching, but the two story house was recognizable with it’s white bark trees growing around it. After a few knocks, I had given up and was about to try the neighbors when a man shouted at me from the road.
“Wait, wait! At least let me here what your selling!” He had a beard down to his waist, and looked like someone had draped skin and muscle over a carefully arranged set of barrels. Smiling, he walked to the house and held out an expectant hand. We shook lightly.
“Well, I’m not selling any—”
“No? Well, your not from around here. And I don’t think the Jacobs are selling yet. Census already?” He said, suddenly less amused.
“No, no, not with the Census. Um, I’m actually looking for someone.” I said, rummaging in my jacket pocket and producing a picture of Charles. “He said he was staying here about six months ago. Haven’t heard from him sense, and I’ve been sending mail his way for a while now. Have you seen him?”
The man leaned down to look at the picture for a moment. An owl that landed on the branch of a nearby tree, rustling the leaves loudly. Normally nothing of note, but the sounds of the town were muted by the snow.
“Hm, yeah, Charlie. Thought he went back already. Or away I guess. That’s Charlie, always going where winds are taking him.” the man said, frowning and scratching his beard. “Well, its getting dark out. Why don’t you come inside for a bit, it’ll be cold out soon.”
The wind was getting stronger, and the sky seemed read to disgorge more snow. I decieded to take the risk, and see if Charles had left anything behind from his stay. Letters, notes, hints at habitation.
The inside was toasty, a fireplace in the front room. Off to the side was a kitchen and table, with some stairs leading up to where I presumed the bedroom was. At least two, judging by the windows outside. My host, who it slowly dawned on me was still nameless, lay down his tool set and sat down on the couch by the fire place to warm up.
“So, you know Charlie? Where from?” He asked, glancing over.
“Met him at university. Never talked about home much, and uh, for ethical reason’s his paper doesn’t say who he was staying with.”
“Ethics, huh? Nice of him I guess. Names Morcant Mael. Parent’s wanted a Celt name.” He said, waving off my look of confusion. “Get a lot of them around here. Hell, Charlie’s birth name was Cartacos, then he started going be Carl, then Carly, then Charlie. Guess he got around to changing his name properly.”
“You knew him for a long time then?” I asked, sitting down near the fire.
“It’s a small town. Everyone at least knows everyone. Sometimes more. So, you read the stuff Charles was writing?” He said, clapping his hands together and rising, “And would you like anything? Coffee, tea, beer?”
“Ah, a warm tea would be wonderful. Winters are cold up here.”
“Well, the winds come right over the coast. So how is his writing?”
“Lucky it has an editor. The man rambles in some parts, and leaves out whole sections in others it seems.”
“Like folks names?” Morcant called from the kitchen.
“Again, thats becoming a bit standard. More like, he just alludes to the story he was studying as ‘famous and well documented’, but never prints it.” I said back. Morcant emerged with a pot of tea and placed it on the coffee table between us.
“Oh? Strange. I guess he forgot about it. He was looking into the statue of St. Silvanus, way out in the woods right?”
“Yeah, that’s the one.” I said, sipping the tea. After a moment’s pause, I continued the thought. “Can you tell me what it’s story is ? For context?”
“I suppose so. It’s no big secret really. Back when the town first got going, it was one of the few to stay with the old church, back with Rome. And the times were not good to be part of the old faith. People didn’t trust Cathloics more than almost anyone. Couldn’t have Mass, couldn’t settle, couldn’t vote, everyone thinking you were a spy for the pope. Most of them fled to Pennsylvania, I hear. But anyway, rumor happened that a bunch of rowdy Puritans, out of Indians to shoot and witches to burn, were going come and sack the town. Everyone figured now was the time to pack up and leave.
“But this one woman goes out in the forest, trying to get to gripes with it all, and suddenly heres a crashing sound. Looking towards it, she sees something falling from the empty sky onto the ground. A statue!One of those old Italian ones, with horns coming off the old man’s head.” Marcont mimed two horms curling out of his head. “She thought it was Moses, but when she prayed at the shrine, the statue told her he was Silvanus. The statue asked why she was weeping in the woods, and she told him everything. The statue told her, go and have the town promise me one priest and one feast day, and God will deliver you from the English dogs.
“So she goes, and the town’s desperate enough to have faith again. So they pray to the saint, and send off some lad to be a priest and clean up the statue. And then, just as they can see the mob coming, there’s this roaring sound. Some beast emerges from the woods, looking like a bear with the head of a mountain lion, horns of a ram, and the arms of an ape. The whole mob runs off as this huge thing chases them back. Some stories say it killed a few of them even, and ate them then and there. Story says it was a holy thing, an angel made to terrify and protect the town. Statue’s still there, though I’ve not seen it in a while, and folks around here claim to see the creature every now and then. Local bigfoot, you know.”
“And Charles was looking into it?” I said, thinking back to the manuscript. “Yeah, that makes sense. No reason not to mention the whole story though.”
“Well, Charles wanted to find it I guess. Its out in the woods, somewhere.”
“And he stayed here?”
“Sure did. Charles knew the place pretty well, and the rent was free. His room’s still free if you need somewhere to spend the night.”
The rattling wind outside filled the air with tinge of cold over the firelight. I had planned on making the stop and then immediately heading back to the train. But the darkness had washed over the town faster than I expected. The dirt paths and paved roads from here to the trains station would only be lit by moonlight or the stars, and clouds could cloak those at any time.
“Yeah, if that’s alright, just for the night.” I said. Morcant nodded understandingly, and showed me Charles’s room upstairs. It’d been Morcant’s son’s room before that but the boy was off with his mother for the next few weeks anyway.
Honestly, it didn’t look that childish. The waxing moon illuminated the barren room, the dust flowing up into a little bit of mist or frost amongst the trees. With the flick of the switch, the illusion was gone. The bed was big enough for a grown man, maybe two next to each other. The woodwork was hand made, with carvings on each post of bears. Probably the boy’s favorite animal. I could imagine them, like Silvanus, coming at night to protect him from the sorts of things that lurk down in the nightmares of children.
Inspecting the drawers as Morcant closed the door, I found what honestly was to be expected at a place of Charles’s habitation. Well kept coffee grounds and a few packs of cigarets stored between clothes. A hidden habit everyone knew about. But what was more intreasting was on the bottom drawer, beneath a large coat. My manuscript notes had made it, it seemed, covered in red ink as they were. More pressing were the pages written in Charles’s tight and squished hand writing.
I carefully removed them and laid them on the desk, away from the window to read. An owl had landed there, and something unnerved me about the birds of this place. They were watching me. I just didn’t know for who yet.
The notes Charles had left behind, apparently undiscovered, included a detailed recounting of the story of Saint Silvanus, with a notable change. Charles refereed to the thing that came from the woods not as an angel, but as a “beast of god”. Given his theorizing in the margins, that this Silvanus icon was really an image of the god Pan that had only recently been rechristened in his Roman name, that wasn’t too surprising. What was more suprising was his reference to a “Green Bible”.
As I read through the notes in earnest, the citations of this text made it clear that Charles thought he had found the primary source, some great ur-text in the woods that if read would reveal everything. His sources on the book itself included mainly a few town elders who talked about a Bible belonging Diana—his name for the woman who first found the statue—that she had hidden away holy power in and left for the priest attending the church. The Bible supposedly held all sorts of secrets meant only for the priest.
I admit my first response to this nonsense was to shake my head at Charles’s overabundant conspiratorial mindset. While a secret Bible with unearthly powers wasn’t uncommon in the wide scheme of the world, presuming that because some older townspeople mentioned it exists was woefully naive. However, it was fairly apparent that Charles had gone out searching for this Green Bible. And hadn’t returned.
The room seemed to shrink with that realization, the gaurdians of the bed now grimacing at me as I flipped through the pages to find the map of the area. He had marked a spot with some scribblings I couldn’t make out. No doubt that was where he intended to go. As I considered whether to rest or pursue him into the cold immediately, a thought began to dawn on me.
Morcant must have known Charles was heading into the woods. Or had, at the least. Given all that had been left behind, he was no doubt still somewhere in that woods. Looking out the window, I figured I could make it across to the tree outside. Even with the wind. Morcant certainly didn’t know about Charles’s notes, and couldn’t have suspected that I’d find anything giving away what might have happened.
So I flicked off the light, and climbed on the window ledge. I wrapped myself in a jacket with a scarf hiding most of my face as I opened the window and exposed myself to the cutting winds again. As quietly as I could manage, I slipped out of the house, onto the tree branch. The branches were difficult, but there was something familiar about setting my feet down on the soft grass. I turned and slipped into the moonlit and snow crusted forest.
Continue to Part 2 here.
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