HONORABLE MENTION, Fall 2015
The Ghost Story Supernatural Fiction Award
BY RIDGE CARPENTER
“That’s all well and good,” Weathers said, “but what I’m after is a solid, American-spirited type of story. The pipe-smokers in the Old World have made enough of the bedsheets and terraces, and weeks away in cottages by the sea—those tales don’t touch me anymore; they’re stale, motionless, no bite to ’em. There’s a substantial difference between those fine pipes and paneled drawing rooms where all the action takes place for the pipe-smokers, and the wood smoke and sawdust of the American wild, where one can still get lost and come to grips with the vital energies of the world.”
He gesticulated as he spoke, gripping at the vital energies of the air with one hand and his glass of vital spirits (Black Maple Hill, no less) with the other. J.C. Weathers was in fine fettle tonight, working himself into a frenzy on the handling of the American supernatural. His own handling of the spirits tonight, we thought, seemed in good proportion; but we were happy to keep pace. The fire was blazing beautifully, the shooting had been fine that day, and nothing remained for the evening but dinner and whatever exotic tales we’d collected since our last outing.
“Surely one of us has savored such a story lately,” he continued, warming to his topic with his free hand now upraised as if measuring grain. “There is still a lively and active spiritual life to this continent; they’ve not killed it off or sobered it into harmlessness. Not a hundred yards outside this cabin lie the feet of the Allegheny Mountains, beyond which are the vast plains of our young country’s interior. We’ve had only a few tales from this wilderness, but each of them was as fresh and potent a draught as southern whiskey newly barreled. Stories of men carried off by the Wendigo in the icy wastes, of mines caved in by the vengeful souls of slain Indians—nowhere else can one find such savory and unique fare, but in the ample larder of the American territory.” The measuring hand began bobbing up and down violently, weighing—and at the same time casting violently upon us—whatever substance he imagined to be in it.
“As it turns out, Weathers, I’ve just the story for you,” Sullivan interjected, quelling the diatribe before it could rise to its loftiest linguistic altitude. He’d been listening with a more speculative and less jovial air than the rest of us, and he continued speaking after a long sip and a motion as if to ease his neck and shoulders. “It’s one I heard from an uncle of mine, who used to ferret out moonshiners in the backwoods of these very mountains. It had better wait, though—your dissertation is starting to resound with your appetite, dinner approaches, and it’s too long a yarn to be sipped off with an aperitif, as it were.”
When the plates were finally cleared, and the decanters and siphon had begun once more to make their rounds, Sullivan began his tale.
“The uncle I mentioned—Henry was his name—was one of those officers whose duty it was, not more than a decade ago in the days of Prohibition, to shut down any homemade stills that he could find among the trees. His was a decidedly rural ‘beat,’ and as such his work was usually along the lines of extended rambles through the woods, in different places every few weeks, including more social calls to get to know the locals—who weren’t such a bad lot at heart, he told me. This last part was truly vital, as he learned much from these roughened individuals of the nature of their lives and, more importantly, of their own idiosyncratic spirits—homemade and otherwise. It was really on information from a neighbor or competitor that he usually exposed illicit doings; and so it was best, Henry found, to keep an ear to the ground and a smile on his face during those walks through the backwoods. Of course, often there were obvious signs, as well—spilled barley, the smell of malt in the woods, or even outright intoxication on the part of a careless local toper.
“The problem with the moonshine trade, Henry said, was that one could never resist becoming one’s own primary customer. Whatever implications this may have for our native spirits, Weathers, is a question for another evening; but for his part, and unlike some of his associates in the regulation of the trade, my uncle abstained entirely from its products. Even in days that followed our long national dry spell, he remained abstemious to a degree that might have seemed irrational to many of us. When pressed on the matter, he would make an illustrative example of the incendiary test of moonshine—a yellow flame indicating frequent contaminations in batches, and sometimes a red flame, which signified lead from a poorly constructed apparatus. But these he called insignificant in comparison to the flames that were ignited in the head—those of recklessness and violence. He correlated the heady effects of the bottle with some of the other provincial foibles prevalent in the area—superstitions, wives’ tales, magic charms. These things did no good for anyone, he said, and could lead only to harm when they became a habit, as they always did. Those habits and that of imbibing inevitably abetted one another; and to keep a ‘level head’ in a literal and figurative sense, he thought it best to avoid dousing his in irrational spirits—manmade ones, in particular. In practice, this meant listening politely to, but declining to partake in, the locals’ fears of the forest—of going too far from the settled areas, say, or of being caught in the forest after twilight. The worst that the region had to offer came in the shape of wild animals, he thought, and these avoided humans as assiduously as he himself avoided intoxication.
“He spent comparatively little time in such ruminations, however. During the majority of his hours my uncle enjoyed that sensation so native to Americans of losing himself in the virgin forest—diluting the individual in a vast lake of the unknown and untamed, until the mingling of the modern man and the atavistic animal brought about by a catalyst of leaves and earth produced the headiest elixir in which men of his sort are given to partake. Often, the trees would stand far enough apart that the sun broke through to the forest’s carpet of leaves and mast that, palette-like, hosted the calm colors of autumn emerging from late summer’s robust shades, illuminating and stirring among them as if to bring out more elusive hues. Amid such lively lassitude, the real and serious reason for my uncle’s presence in those deep woods sometimes began to seem almost trivial. But it was during a reverie of this kind, late one afternoon on the last day of October, that Henry spied a plume of smoke about four miles distant.
“The column of gray and black that spilled through the finely filtered tones of the landscape certainly didn’t correspond to any home that he was aware of—in fact, it was far deeper into the forest than most illegal brewers cared to go, an area so remote that many thought it was populated only by the soul of the wild itself. But he knew he could reach it before the light failed, so he bent his steps toward it and quickened his pace.
“Almost as soon as he altered direction, he became conscious of a change in the woods around him. The music of the birds was suddenly lost, as was the chorus of small insects and the occasional stirrings of passing deer and rabbits. The only sounds remaining after a few minutes were an intrusive buzzing or humming, as of cicadas or the locusts he remembered from years before, and the exclamations of the occasional toad, sheltering amid muddy cairns nearby. Even these few noises faded, however, after another mile or so. By then the sky was streaked with deepening crimson, and he was engulfed in silence.
“The ground was even and easily traveled, and the black cloud remained in view against the darkening sky. Night was descending quickly, and the surrounding verdure lost its colors as the sun disappeared. The leaves, robbed of their vibrant vestments by the encroaching dusk, rattled underfoot like the hulls of insects, and the disrobed and shivering branches became black webs over the colorless vault of the sky.
“As the final, fragmented red of the sunset retreated below the hilltops, leaving only a deepening slate and making silhouettes of the forest, the silence became difficult to bear. The plume’s fire could be seen clearly now—a low blaze that glowed at the base of the smoky black pillar, and it did not seem to flare or dance as would a welcoming flame on a hearth. This fire had the color and constancy of embers, of a hot brick-kiln, or of the dark red, poisonous flames from tainted whiskey. It burned in a small clearing below a still unlike any Henry had seen before or was to see again in the years to follow. This strange apparatus towered and twisted like a lightning-struck tree, and on it were visible none of the usual bright copper fittings or implements; rather all of it was black as pitch, and from its black and horn-like extremities it continually exhaled the dark smoke Henry had first spied from afar. As he gaped in astonishment, not a breath of wind stirred the trees surrounding the clearing.
“The thick smoke lacked any scent of wood or charcoal fuel, carrying instead a slippery, dense stench as of tar. It bore no heat, even so close to its source; in fact it seemed to carry a chill deeper than that of the surrounding twilight. After a few moments, the fumes began to crowd the oxygen from Henry’s lungs, and he backed away from the fire, gasping for air.
“In the midst of this reaction, he became aware of a watcher nearby. His observer leaned against a nearby birch tree, outlined against its silvery bark in the deepening gloom. This, my uncle knew immediately, was not one of the locals. The man was tall and gaunt, with wide shoulders like a ship’s rigging stripped of sails, and hands as long and white as the desiccated branches of the tree behind him. He wore a dark, old-fashioned suit and a long coat—almost like the coat of a Quaker, Henry thought. At his neck was the stark white of a high collar, which was anchored in that expanse of black by the sharply angled face that rose above it. The man himself, however, in his gesture or circumstance, was nothing like a Quaker. His thin, pallid face tilted knowingly, as if about to chide and ridicule a careless child. His mouth appeared as a sardonically canted slash; and seemed about to speak, or perhaps to have just finished speaking. His eyes seemed deeper in his head than was possible, and reflected none of the light that entered them.
“Aside from my uncle’s ongoing gasps in reaction to the still’s foul emissions, no sound disturbed the sepulchral stillness of the clearing. The tall man seemed not to move at all, and even the fire glowed steadily without flickering. My uncle managed to croak something vaguely in the form of a question regarding the ownership of the apparatus and its manufacturers; whereupon, in response, the tall man walked over to the still and placed his hand on it, directly on the pot above the fire. He leaned over it, into the intolerable film of smoke, and the hellish, steady glow of the fire colored his face as he tilted his head and looked at Henry. The indication, it seemed, was that he was the owner. He then raised his hand, gesturing to my uncle with an outstretched tree-limb palm. He indicated the monstrous convolutions of metal beneath him, and then made a sweeping gesture as if to share the blackened structure. My uncle looked on incredulously, his speech suppressed by the dreadful gravity of the man’s intimations. He felt dizzy, possibly from the smoke, as well as completely lost among the towering trees and almost tangible stillness. He realized after a moment that he was being offered something—a bottle made of glass black and shiny as obsidian, that came toward him wrapped in the long fingers of the white hand. It was unstopped, and its vapors seemed to reach out to him, wreathing his nostrils in a scent at once intoxicating and terrifying; it smelled floral and promising, he later said, like a fine perfume on the wrist of an impossibly beautiful woman, and it seemed to expand in the air with a garden of unearthly savors and spices that were followed with a vague scent of moss, of ancient stones, and of rotting bark mingled, at the end, with the harsh coppery tint of blood. The smell both sickened him and filled him with yearning, and he knew that a draft of it would be his undoing—that if he drank, he must drink forever. The tall man continued watching him—watching him intently now, prying at him with his gaze as with an instrument, as if attempting to remove a precious stone from its setting. After a moment he insistently pushed the bottle forward.
“Then the bottle was in my uncle’s hands—though he had no memory of having accepted it from the stranger. The siren-song of scents that wafted from its uncorked opening stroked his nose with seductive fingers—fluttering touches of ripe fruits, ambergris, and sweet, perfumed flesh—but always, on the tail end, so to speak, there were those hints of damp, unfathomed depths, of decay, and of blood. The weight of the smoke pressed upon him, and he felt the bottle growing warm—or his hand growing cold. The tall man once more was leaning against the birch tree, his gaze fixed on my uncle, seemingly willing him to lift that bottle to his mouth. And Henry felt himself weakening, as if he’d carried a heavy weight for many miles. His hand, however, was light; it began to rise as if of its own will. Henry found himself parting his lips to receive the kiss of that black vessel—but then he caught sight of the stranger’s eyes beginning to widen in triumph, and with a sudden, despairing shudder, he threw the bottle from him.
“The glass shattered against the still, spilling the bottle’s contents into the fire. The scent of beauty vanished at once; only foulness remained. The fire hissed and steamed, throwing off its vile fossil smell mingled with the stench of corruption and frustrated evil. Henry glanced toward the tall man, and for a brief moment saw that angular face twisted with anger. Then the stranger vanished in smoke and darkness and my uncle lost first his view of the dark clearing and then his senses.
“Henry awoke the next morning in the clearing, cold and alone. The still and fire had vanished, and the music of birds in the trees greeted him. No sign remained of any of the previous night’s events—not of the fire, the bottle, or the man. The birch tree, however, was split from root to crown, and splinters of it were flung far into the forest.
“Of course,” Sullivan said in conclusion, “my uncle was always eager (but not quite able) to write off this strange event as a dream of some kind, the product of weariness or overwork. Clearly, though, he hadn’t been feeling any stress or fatigue that day; and knowing him, it couldn’t have had anything to do with any kind of bottled spirits—against which, of course, he became even more dead-set, the older he got. He may have indulged in a bit of credulous superstition, though, later in life. That late October day, he once told me, was the best day of temperance work he ever put in.”