Oliver Hollis Howich, archaeologist
Trevin Moore Auster, crank preacher
Janet Hampton (Howich), student
Olive Jane Howich, illustrator, artist
Howich squatted between the door jambs picking at the rotten wood saddle, on the threshold. How many people had trodden on that piece of wood? Scraped mud off their boots? Was it stubborn as a result? Did it resent his prodding, his prying, his efforts to excavate it?
He wanted to get a crowbar and pry the thing free. Whether he smashed it or not, time was running out. Every aspect of this project had to be done in a hurry, yet the old oak plank, fibrous and stubborn, was taking too long to detach from its interlocking mortis-and-tenon joints.
He intended to slip one end out from under the door jamb, to see if his theory held true. It refused to let him do it with the care and patience even urban archaeology under time constraints demanded. Worse, the back of his neck and scalp kept tingling. He felt watched. Rushed. Pressured.
Around him students from three local colleges performed the tasks he’d assigned them to varying degrees of care and skill. A couple of their professors were pitching in, too, perhaps sniffing out a chance for co-authorship on a paper, should one result. Their assistance was appreciated. They kept the students in line. Howich had no time for grad-school hijinx, let alone academic rivalries or scholarly sparring.
This project was do it now or not at all.
Two weeks from that moment, the tilted old house, thought but not proven to have been the abode of a woman accused of witchery, who had vanished mysteriously only to haunt local legends, would be torn down. Land for several hundred meters in all directions, including a root cellar that had been there since Pilgrim times, would be graded flat. Trees would be cut, chopped, chipped, and burned. Zoning and boundaries would be readjusted. Destruction of environment and negation of history would wreak havoc so some self-important corporate concern, having bribed the city council for permits, could erect another lucrative strip mall to help blight the suburban landscape. That root cellar alone might yield textbook-changing artifacts were its floor to be excavated professionally. Imagine how many small items or broken pottery jars of preserves had been dropped there over decades.
He’d argued strongly for an archaeological dig on the whole area but had been granted only limited permissions, and very limited time. “Gotta get things going before the first hard frost,” one downeaster had proclaimed, sounding like Walter Brennan at his most officious.
Howich’s rational explanations, followed by impassioned speeches, had not dissuaded the council members, most a lot of well-off business types from the same cul-de-sac. They called the old cabin the Shack, ignoring local lore that had always referred to the place as the Witch’s Cabin. Contempt for any chance at an interesting history won the day and the vote. “This ain’t about tourism, they got that up t’Salem.”
Not that the rickety structure did much for aesthetics, unless Samhain dominated one’s general mood. Howich had retreated from the fight with just a few weeks in Autumn to perform a quick-and-dirty inventory dig, tossing most of the tenets of archaeology over his grimy shoulder. It felt like reverting to the old days of tomb robbers and outright looting by thieves. “At least you got us that much, Icy,” one of his colleagues had told him, reaching up to deliver a manly-if-tentative pat to his shoulder.
Icy was a nickname used carefully on Howich. It meant I.C. and stood for Ichabod Crane, Washington Irving’s gangly school teacher character from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Most figured the referent used more often among Howich’s colleagues was the Walt Disney animation, not the literary reference, but either served. In that bumptious cartoon depiction, the satire, which Irving had aimed as much at vanity and intellectual pride as ectomorphism, came through vibrantly.
It was a cruel nickname.
Now he decided to be icy in fact. He would become cold-blooded, heartless, and unemotional in order to ramrod this truncated project so it gained as much information as feasible. Embrace and transform the insult.
A tall, slender, Saturnine man, lantern-jawed, with a heavy brow, deep-set eyes, and large, competent hands, Oliver Hollis Howich still winced when he caught the stray name Ichabod Crane mentioned by a gaggle of passing students. “Ichabod Crane over there said we should,” was all he tended to hear but he knew they referred to him; he’d gotten it all his life, after all.
He lived the dark side of Disney cartoons, he often joked. Washington Irving might have been amused at the staying power of his caricature, along with the sting of his observations, but Howich was not. It reminded him how often he’d been left in the lurch by girls he’d liked, who found more human-looking male things to be with. It reminded him he did not fit in anywhere. If he entered a tavern, all heads swiveled, all mouths twitched. “They’ll even need to dig a special grave for you,” one uncle had brayed. “So you fit.”
That uncle he left in the past, a suicide by shotgun who’d blown his own head off in a shallow grave he’d dug one rainy night, in his own back yard, having squabbled with his wife. He’s shown her.
With such pyrrhic victories many lives ended, he knew. History had taught him that. Grand gestures history found petty, sweeping actions viewed later through a lens of character belittlement brought it all to human scale.
Digging into the past suited Howich, though. Decoding the safely dead fascinated him. He became an archaeologist who specialized in what were called urban digs but which actually focused more on small town New England and other East Coast villages. Not urban, not suburban, so much as the edge of pastoral; terminology wrestled him to a draw in most of his monographs. He knew labels did not change contents.
Feeling cursed to such a life had not drained joy from it.
This door saddle, just a piece of wood to mark the threshold between outside and inside, proved sullen. Worse, it was delaying him. He imagined hands under it, clinging with a woman’s desperation to save her child.
He decided to put aside his nut-pick and brush, abandon gentle archaeological training, and give it a tug. This devolved into a long pull with a few yanks tossed in. He wondered if the term Yankees referred to them always pulling at things, always trying to seize things.
Howich grunted, wiggling the old wood, trying to tilt it so the tenon would slip free of the mortis. As he did so he kept looking behind himself, or into the cabin, sure someone disapproving was looming over him.
No one stood or squatted or worked nearer to him than a dozen meters.
Coming loose unexpectedly, the door jamb flew out of his grasp while Howich rolled backwards, sprawling onto his back with a cry of surprise. The plank clunked and slid away from him, almost as if kicked.
He ignored the laughter and catcalls. While on the ground, he rolled to perch on his left shoulder, examining the rectangular hole left by the jamb’s absence. It went down deeper than he’d expected. It looked bigger, as if the jamb had served as a lid for a hidey-hole.
“Ah.” He reached into a shirt pocket and took out an LED flashlight in the form of a pen. Holding it into the hole, he found a cavity big enough for a footlocker. “Treasure chest.” He whispered this like a spell, a mantra of hope. Squinting revealed a book in one corner, a shoe in the opposite corner, and in the center of the space’s floor a large wooden spatula or spoon. The kind of thing you’d call a spirtle to stir a cauldron with, he thought, gooseflesh erupting. Treasure indeed, from an antiquarian’s view.
Leaning down, he held his iPhone at awkward angles, almost dropping it a few times, in order to take a series of quick-and-dirty in situ shots for documentation. He made a mental note to back his telescoping selfie-stick among his equipage. “Oh, Gela,” he whispered into the hole, before pushing himself to his feet and waving some students over to share his find and to begin excavating it immediately. “Thank you.”
Gela, the woman who’d lived in the shack, had been Angela Woodstone, widow of John Woodstone. She’d been beautiful, young, and happy for only three years before her lumberman husband was killed in a logging accident. Another logger’s tree had fallen at the wrong angle and John Woodstone had be crushed. From that point on Gela eked a living selling her services as seamstress, occasionally as a midwife, and generally doing anything she could to make an honest, if hardscrabble, living even as she continued to plant, tend, and harvest crops and livestock, tote water, gather firewood from deadfall, and other of the endless chores necessary to sustain life in a damp, cold, unforgiving environment.
Being part of a small settlement in New England did little good for her, and arguably did her harm in the long run.
Gradually the townsfolk, most likely envious competitors for the scant business to be had by women in those days, along with sexually-frustrated men and jealous wives, all lusting for more land so they could grow more, started rumors that Gela, as she was called, was a witch. Must be, to stay so young-looking, so pretty, and so vibrant when all around her struggled to make any kind of life for themselves.
That she struggled right along with them, and alone, seemed never to cross their dark, narrow minds.
That Gela was a redhead did not help. That her pale skin glowed in moonlight as she was glimpsed attending errands late into the night did not help. “Oh, look, the ghost lady, out stealing baby breath from unattended cradles.” Men watched, responding more silently to her slender figure and cascade of coppery locks.
Most of all, what did not help was her heritage as a hearth witch, which her mother and grandmothers had taught her back in what ever home-country she claimed. Most likely Scotland or Ireland had been her place of origin; the colony’s records for that time had been destroyed in a flood and not even her maiden name was known.
Gela disappeared one stormy night, never to be seen again, and villagers whispered that she’d been called to Hell by the Devil Himself; turned into a raven to fly off for a witch’s gathering; blasted by lightning as she danced naked under the storm-riven Moon; carried off by God’s vengeful angels, who had grown weary of her witchy ways.
Blood found on her bed, in droplets leading to the door, and smeared on the door jamb, were taken as proof of her witchery, as obvious signs of dark conjuring and the random hurling of curses. Gossip took over, further blurring fact into the shape of legend.
Further obscuring and excusing rape and murder.
Had she cursed them? Had she planted one last seed in their ignorance and superstition? Howich hoped so as he read the scant account of her life.
In the box-shaped hole under the doorway they found Gela’s Book of Shadows, a hand-written compendium of recipes, spells, observations, schedules, calculations, confessional poetry, diary entries, and other writings presented in an educated hand, with concise word choice, in sepia ink on low-acid linen paper that had survived remarkably well. Foxing from molds and lichens had marred some of the edges and corners of pages but most were intact, with only a few worm holes. It was surprisingly supple, and could be leafed-through, had anyone dared.
The bookmark was a raven’s feather quill, ink still staining its sharpened tip. The ink was rust-colored and Howich imagined it blood, a bubble of romanticism he burst instantly, remembering his promise to be icy cold on this dig. Efficiency brooked no wool-gathering.
Also from the threshold compartment came a wooden spatulate spoon, a spirtle used to stir porridge and anything else cooked in a cast-iron cauldron, the common way to warm food back then, other than a griddle or frying pan. Howich remembered his own grandmother using a cast-iron skillet and a spatulate spoon of similar design to make him scrambled eggs or oat cakes. He wondered if Gela had been able to afford a skillet.
In the corner opposite the Book of Shadows they found a shoe, a simple slipper design, made of now-shriveled leather. In its toe they found half a coin, broken so its center was jagged. Howich wondered how it had been broken so cleanly without leaving either a clamp mark or a hammer smear.
Howich knew old shoes were often placed in walls or under thresholds in houses built around Gela’s time as charms to ward off bad luck or to attract good luck. Often they were children’s shoes, thought to be a charm for fertility. Having lots of kids was a necessity back then, or the family would not survive long. Smickling, when a barren woman tried on a mother’s shoes to attract a pregnancy, also accounted for some of the hidden shoes.
Spiritual caches or middens, his profession called them, or in plain talk concealed footwear. Most scholars, being dour types, figured shoes in walls or under floors or above ceilings to be wards against witchcraft or demons. It was thought the evil spirits would fly in and be caught, drawn by the scent of a good worn shoe. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of concealed shoes had been discovered over the years, usually during refurbishment of dilapidated historic structures.
Few had been found with anything in them, so this was a significant find for Howich’s dig. He suppressed a thrill of excitement and pride, feeling validated in his arguments for digging there.
By the time they’d carefully extracted and examined the items, Howich discovered he’d been working 19 hours straight. Yawning, he declared victory and headed for his bunk in his tiny trailer, pulled by his wheezy but reliable 17-year-old Volvo station wagon. The war wagon, most called it, with his trailer given the sobriquet of Coffin Hotel. Watching a man as gangly as he climbing in and out of it amused those lucky enough to observe it. Others merely imagined, and laughed the louder.
As others had done with Gela, they looked past his poverty any way they could, as if to guard against inadvertent compassion.
Howich woke, startled by a nightmare. Something about him as a child, unable to keep up with his family as they hurried through a crowded airport in a country he did not understand. A sad-eyed, beautiful woman with amber hair had taken his hand in her icy grip, leading him to an edge…
Anxiety dreams preyed on his sleep at least three nights a week so he tried to roll over and go back to the realm of Morpheus but realized a trickle of dawn shivered him, despite it being still dark outside. He could sense birds stirring, leaves fluffing in a morning breeze as the land inhaled fresh scents from the sea. He decided to get up.
Time corroded accomplishment with every second his project sat unattended. It demanded to be finished as best he could.
He did not count the skeleton crew on night shift as much more than guards, to keep local kids from pilfering or vandalizing the site. This made him eager to get back, kick in some genuine effort, even if only his own.
“Gela?” The reporter, a hefty young guy with a beard, wearing shorts and a tee shirt emblazoned with Black Sabbath’s 13, pronounced it “hee-lah” as in Gila Monster. Others used a hard g, as in garbage.
“JELL-uh,” the patient intern said. Pert but falling short of perky, blonde in a natural way, with calm brown eyes and compact curves, the intern, one of the college student volunteers, added, “Short for Angela.”
“Oh, of course. Angela Woodbine. Duh.”
Howich thought about the scant media coverage his dig had received. Usually, urban digs got some TV cameras. Local stations needed filler. Local egos needed reassurance that it wouldn’t take long, wouldn’t impede things, wouldn’t in short affect them in any way beyond annoyance. Local gawkers needed to see, to trample, to pilfer.
This time ‘round, one local newspaper reporter had shown up. One single reporter, and from print no less. He’d watched the intern give her interview without identifying himself and she’d been sharp enough not to point him out. The reporter went away half smitten and perhaps three-quarters informed. An hour after filing a column inch, he’d forgotten all about it. How many eyes would spot the filler item did not concern him.
Now, walking from his 1960s vintage aqua-and-white Scotty trailer, parked at the periphery of the dig in a beach visitor’s lot, a gravel oblong grudgingly conceded by the township from otherwise precious (undeveloped) scrubland at the edge of a drainage ditch, from the culvert of which dire smells wafted when the wind changed. Great place to camp, he thought.
Howich approached the shack, the Witch’s Cabin, a leaning parallelogram looming in pre-dawn dark. A student, probably male, slumped with his back against one of the door jambs, forehead on knees, snoring heartily. Howich smiled and nicknamed him Private Slovik, a referent most wouldn’t get. He was about to whisper something spooky into the kid’s ear as a prank when a gleam of light caught his peripheral vision. It looked to be up the hill by the root cellar, or maybe further.
Was someone prowling around?
Suspecting locals, if not a pair of his volunteers doing a little New England sparking before work, he left Slovik asleep and hiked at a stroll toward the glimmer. Muted, it glowed faintly green or sky blue, like one of those glow-sticks kids used at Hallowe’en.
As he walked he kept hearing voices in the surf muttering just beneath comprehension. This susurrus plucked at his nerves, a warning unheard.∂
He reached the root cellar and found no one there. He poked his head in, using his iPhone’s Flashlight feature to scan the cramped interior. It was empty so he went dark again before exiting.
As his eyes re-adjusted, he caught another glimpse of the glow, this time near the tree-line. Had an intruder retreated into the woods? He decided to push his pursuit a little further, walking farther up-slope, his gaze on the trees. They stood still in pre-dawn hush as wind held its breath and birds and insects ceased making noise, as if to avoid disturbing the sunrise, or scaring it away. It would remain dark where Howich walked because, although he faced east, he had a series of hills casting shadows over him. This made it a good place to hide, were one wont to do so.
A gleam caught his attention again, beside a tree that stood alone seven meters beyond the forest’s edge. Called the Hanging Tree by locals, it was a twisted Chestnut Oak, black and green with age, a blanket of moss carpeting where its shade fell, gnarled roots in a death grip. The roots reminded Howich of arthritic fingers clasped in dire worry. The ground was littered with spiny green and brown chestnut husks, like sea urchins rolled from the sea to worship a Druidic deity. Most were split in half, their nut gone to squirrel or chipmunk stashes or bellies.
As he approached this place, Howich saw a slender woman leaning against the tree trunk. She was nude and her pale skin reflected the last of the stars as they unhurriedly winked off at the advent of dawn.
“Are you okay? Can I help you?” Howich was not sure if he’d interrupted a tryst and stayed well back, so no companion would leap out to attack him. He peered at her face, trying to see if she might be stoned.
She had long auburn hair and ethereal green eyes. Ethereal because they held a glint despite the dark, because they held his attention so that the rest of her, although lovely, remained undefiled in his mind by detail.
Dryad? he thought.
She smiled at him.
He wavered, dizzy.
She pointed down between two particularly arthritic gnarls of root. Her gaze never left his.
He blinked and she was not there anymore.
A sound of loud surf was the first noise to return, followed by leaves and branches trembling in breezes, birds, the distant sound of traffic and occasional snippets of people’s voices.
Thinking she’d ducked behind the trunk, Howich ran around the tree three full times, his left shoulder scraping mossy bark when he tripped repeatedly on roots. He glanced toward the woods; she could not have reached them that quickly, he would have seen her running. He fell once, sprawling onto soft moss, and thought to roll onto his back, to gaze up into the branches, to see if she’d perhaps climbed up. No sign of her showed and the lowest branch was twice his height from the ground.
Getting up, he brushed himself off and frowned. She’d pointed to a specific spot. Now that she was gone he wondered why.
He marked the spot with a quarter from his pocket. It gleamed like molten silver. He strolled down the hill to the cabin, where his sentry now stood smoking a cigarette, in direct defiance of the rules. At least he’d stopped snoring. “Put it out and pocket the butt,” he told the kid, striding toward a van-load of students just arriving with their teacher to start a crack-of-dawn stint. He greeted the teacher and discussed briefly an offer to borrow battery lanterns to make the dig 24/7, then assigned everyone to various grids. He tried to keep comfortable couples apart, to cut down on distractions, conversation, and potential squabbles.
Two of the students, a pair of girls with fashionable plastic glasses and serious demeanors, he held back. “You two get a special project. Grab your stuff.” Without explanation, he crooked a finger and led them up the hill past the root cellar to the tree. He showed them the coin, gleaming frozen now in the fresh sunlight of another day. “Excavate that and let me know if you find anything. Let me know right away.”
He knew digging where a dream remnant had led him — he’d been sleepy and had projected a dream image, he’d decided — was anything but scientific, but he knew, too, how many of his colleagues, in search of buried shards and scraps of civilization past, had used dowsing, divining, and pendulums. Any edge they could get was worth trying, they figured. Failure was commonplace but the rewards for success could be tremendous, so a gamble on mumbo-jumbo, or a quiet inner conviction of one’s ESP, was worth a chance. Some spent budget money on Remote Viewers; all he’d done is see a naked woman by a tree.
One of the girls in glasses came running up to him a few hours later, breathless and excited. He’d kept an eye on them, gazing up the hill every few seconds it seemed, even as he supervised the main dig around and under the floor of the cabin, which actually had a floor, unlike most from that time frame. No dirt floors for lumbermen.
As for the tree dig, as he thought of it, the two unauthorized students, he’d watched both stand, do a small dance, and part as one of them bolted toward him down the slope, stumbling and nearly going ass-over-teakettle in her haste. She was obviously elated at having found something.
His heart started hammering, his mouth got dry. Glancing up at the other girl standing guard, he blinked. Two figures stood there, or so he’d initially thought. As he looked closer, there was only the student.
The runner came straight at him full-tilt and smashed into him, grabbing his arms to hold them both up. She was out of breath and smiling.
They’d found, she announced, a skull. “And something else,” she squealed, delight overwhelming her for a moment as the other diggers gathered to see what the thrill might be.
It was not just a human skull, it was female, she was sure of it, she’d studied osteology, and inside its mouth, half a coin.
It matched the half from the shoe perfectly. She was sure of it.
Had Gela been hanged from the oak? Had she slid her identifying half-coin into her mouth just before the noose slipped over her head, to tighten around her throat and prevent her from swallowing ever again?
Or had she fled the village’s cruelty, only to find a hardscrabble existence in the wilderness until she succumbed. Had someone found her bones in the forest and buried them under the ostracized oak, which stood beyond the forest itself, forever isolated?
Howich tried theory after theory, always returning to the beautiful green eyes and slender, glowing body leaning against the tree, smiling at him, pointing to the skull’s hiding place. “We might never have found you, Gela.” He wished DNA tests could prove a link with surviving descendants but she had died without issue. Nor did they know her maiden surname. No family members could be located without that connection.
Too bad, he thought. It would have sealed the likelihood that the skull was Gela herself, even as the coin linked skull to cabin.
He kept coming back to murder, though. Social justice or privately administered, her death and burial under the oak had not been her own doing. Despised as a witch, she had been a target.
Susurration from the surf seemed to affirm his thoughts.
Then there was the coin, cut or broken in half. Who had worn or owned the other half? Why had it been buried in the shoe? Had she perhaps lost a love child, for whom the half-coin in the shoe stood? Were there in fact descendants after all?
Or was it a lover’s token, or a link to another like herself, an outcast and witch. Had she used it the way teenaged BFFs wear halves of broken lockets that, when joined, form a heart charm?
That seemed far too shallow for the Gela of his imagination.
Archaeology was less the study of the past as an attempt to conjure lives lost to our collective memory. The more vividly such lives could be reacquired, the more complex and sound our culture became. Or so Howich kept telling himself, frustrated by the lack of story in the scant details.
“You have opened the lock and joined the coin.
“You have disturbed the sleep of the witch.
“You are to blame for the foetid curse
“That shall fall upon us all.”
That was the message Howich received from the small protest group that showed up just after news of his finds made the rounds. Local, eccentric, and scruffy, the dozen or so people, instantly dubbed The Coven by the students, had a self-educated bumpkin arrogance as they stood silently glaring from a strictly-legal perch at the edge of the gravel parking lot.
They reminded Howich of those Bible-smitten protestors who’d gather to stare and pray down abortion clinics or pagan shops. If looks could set fires, he thought, there’d be a town-threatening bonfire.
The message had been hand delivered to Howich in hand-written letter form, in an envelope handed over by a child of eight or so who had an unsettlingly mature gaze. Howich had at first hoped it was a small contribution to their dig fund; perhaps an invitation to speak at a local elementary school assembly.
Not hardly, he saw at once, reading the spiky works.
They’d been written in a reddish-brown ink no doubt intended to bring blood to mind. It recalled the ink dried on the raven quill tip he’d found in Gela’s Book of Shadows. It had been scrawled in barely-contained anger on a greasy-feeling fake vellum that must have cost them a few meals to purchase. He almost felt sorry for them.
So hungry for something, he thought, but what do they pine for? Power? An imagined link to some made-up deity? The significance of being right in a world their hate and fear found so wrong? Not even the Amish went this far as they grimly pretended to refuse to participate in modern life despite being integrally a part of it, one of several billion facets.
Howich felt a cosmic chill ripple through space-time, like the laugh of a madden beast of chaos at the core of it all.
Their leader was The Reverend Trevin Moore Auster, as the signature on the letter made clear with a flourish of swoops and whirls. The wavering lines shrieked both self-importance and insecurity poised on the point of collapse.
Tall and ramrod straight, eyes fiercely black in iris, as black as his scowl, with big farmer hands, a frown that could wreck a semi, and a full if patchy salt-and-pepper beard, Auster put central casting to shame in looks. It was wardrobe that failed him. He wore torn jeans and a Hawaiian shirt in tones of fuchsia, magenta, and lime green. He wore white socks and sandals. With unblinking stark staring contrast, his hair was cut like a TV news anchor’s, a coif under which to deliver doom in dulcet tones. The medallion he wore resembled the Sherwin-Williams Paint logo, a globe with something dripping over or from it. Puking World, one of the students called it.
Howich figured Auster for a house painter gone mad from fumes and did not send a reply. Ignoring such fringe rebukes served science best.
Another envelope was delivered to Howich as he walked among the dig sites during change to a night shift. It was handed to him by a student, a shy red-head with big glasses, as so many seemed to sport at the time. Fashion, he mused, was a cruel, unimaginative echo; she’d be cute if not for the windshields she wore. Nice green eyes, transformative smile, saddled with birth-control glasses. Self-sabotage.
“This was on one of the sifting screens.”
Thanking her, he slipped the envelope into the cover of his iPad and continued on his survey of the grid sites, making sure transitions were smooth between crews, ensuring all knew what to do, and answering any questions that arose. We left off here, continue there. Watch out for this shard of pottery, it’s flaking.
Howich had quite a few scattered digs, none much bigger than a bathtub, covering spots where rumor, legend, or old survey maps marked spots Gela’s life might have touched. He had also used a ground-penetrating radar unit on loan from a local university to scan for clusters of artifacts.
At the well, no longer there, no sign of water remaining, they’d found a semi-circle of stones. “Must’ve been filled in.” That had been the initial assessment; wells were sometimes filled in when moved. Now it looked as if part of the stone lining had collapsed. “Wonder if the earth shifted,” someone mused, prompting another student to sneer, “No earthquakes around here.” Howich paused to explain subsidence, the motion of seams underground, and other possible causes other than an earthquake for ground to move.
Standing on solid ground was a delusion, like most of life. He thought about the excellent historical, genealogical mystery novel, The Search For Joseph Tully by William H. Hallahan; the classics exploring memory such as Proust or James Joyce; even the eerie stories of H. P. Lovecraft with their appreciation of the past’s present pressure. Literary seismology understood what many of these students found so difficult to grasp.
Hiking to the root cellar, set into the side of the low hill, he flipped open his iPad cover to check his dig site map. He wanted to make sure he hadn’t forgotten anyone. He caught the second envelope when it slipped free. Mildly impatient, he slid the envelope into the back pocket of his jeans and began poking and stroking the iPad screen as he walked, nearly tripping on a stone once. He was reminded of the Pokémon hunting craze and smiled.
At the root cellar he was informed they’d found an intact clay pot or jar. He examined it, holding it in cupped hands. Nestled on a cheap white cotton handkerchief one of the colleges had handed out to each student, to be used to wrap any delicate artifacts, the small pot-bellied jar had a faint pattern on it. Of white clay, the pottery seemed both delicate and significant.
“Is that lettering?”
One of the students activated the flashlight feature of his cell phone and held it over the jar for Howich. “We wondered that too.” A perky boy with a swoop haircut, the light-holder was almost bouncing with excitement, a regular Prometheus before the chains.
Both squinted, then concluded lab analysis would be needed before they decided on the motif.
Howich congratulated that team, making Mr. Prometheus Swoop whoop with enthusiasm. Chatter erupted, and it took several minutes to get them back to work sifting and searching in the dirt.
Before walking back downslope to the main dig sites, Howich glanced up at the oak. He remembered what he now thought of as the dryad’s ghost of Gela luring him, pointing. He found himself walking up, touching the tree. “Toi, toi, toi,” he muttered, German for “touch, touch, touch,” their equivalent of Knock Wood in America or Touch Wood in Britain.
Howich closed his eyes. He imagined feeling luck ripple through him, a cthonic static flow of electrons pulsing from deep underground, through the roots and branches, made dynamic by his human contact. He turned to look down at the dig, entering its final days now as the inevitable hammer of so-called progress, really a mask for greed, swung closer to smashing it all flat.
He thought of the wrecking ball in The Search for Joseph Tully, eradicating a past no longer appreciated by anyone considered important.
He turned to look down on the night workers, his back touching the oak’s trunk. He thought of Pickman’s Model by Lovecraft, the ghouls painted from life.
Soft arms seemed to draw him closer. He lowered himself to the moss, sitting not wearily but like a bird-of-prey perching, searching.
Spread below him in gathering dusk, with lanterns flickering on and the inevitable glow of cell phones flashing like rectangular fire-flies, the site took on a primitive look, like a village before electricity.
A mood of peace came over Howich.
As he shifted on soft moss, he felt the envelope in his back pocket. With a sigh, he pulled it out, opened it, and, squinting in day’s final glow, caught by the hill’s top, read: Professor Howich,
You may not remember me, I’m Janet. I’m the one who ran the news of the skull find down to you. Anyway, I’ve really liked working with you, for the good of the project. I’m graduating this year and wondered if you could use an intern. I’d really like to work with you more, or again, where ever it may take us. Anyway, I’d like to talk about this and maybe other things, and I’ll be eager to hear from you. If you don’t remember which student was me, don’t worry. After my shift you can always find me at Menton Cove, not at the café, though. I’m the ginger reading Lovecraft at the beach.
Sincerely, Janet Hampton.
He frowned, trying to recall the face of the girl who’d handed him the envelope, which he’d taken for another burning-coal screed from the crazy protestors. He remembered auburn hair and big glasses. A dazzling smile. Shy green eyes.
He shook his head at such fancies of concordance. A sappy Hallmark Channel romance movie wouldn’t even dare such a stretched link. Janet Hampton was no ghost-imbued stand-in for a long dead outcast, witch or not.
As he stood, he looked around one last time and thought he glimpsed motion at the tree-line. Although it was still light, barely, where he stood, the trees made a solid wall of darkness. Along it, for just an instant, drifted the hint of a wispy shape, seeming to glow, slender and vertical. A deer, he figured, ignoring the gooseflesh that erupted all over his body.
Because it might well have been a faint reflection of his thoughts, ne nodded and said, “Thank you, Gela. We will remember you well.”
He hiked to the shore, negotiated a clump of rocks locals called The Drowned Sisters, then hiked up the curved pebble beach of Menton Cove from the south. This let him avoid the main road, the light and raucous relaxation going on at the café, and meeting any clumps of tipsy dig-workers eager to pick his brains or, more likely, cop a few drinks off the older man. He did not want to run into any of his colleagues, either. They’d want to go over the finds of the day, endlessly rotating the ramifications like jewelers seeking flaws in a hot diamond, like clockmakers trying to puzzle together a single working pocket watch from a thousand smashed wrist watches.
The crunch of his tread made her look up as he approached her. She had one of those swan-necked reading lights that clamp onto the book cover. In its glow, a large tome, an annotated edition of the fiction of near-local H. P. Lovecraft, born just up the coast a bit. “Never read much of him,” Howich said, sitting beside her when she patted the blanket.
Janet Hampton shrugged, dowsing the reading light. “No reason you should have, unless you wanted to figure out modern horror fiction.”
“Is that what you’re doing?”
She ducked her head, still not looking directly at him, as if embarrassed to have been caught at so juvenile an activity by such a serious man. “My minor was English Lit with a focus on Modern Genre Fiction. Thought it might be fun to write eerie stories during the down times at the digs.”
“Ah.” He smiled. “That’s not a bad idea, really.”
Ghosts everywhere, he thought.
She set aside the book but he examined it, turning to a frontispiece portrait of Lovecraft, Edwardian collar stiff, visage somber.
“You resemble him.” Her voice was hesitant.
She looked at Howich. “I think so.”
They sat comfortably in silence for awhile, listening to the surf, watching occasional traces of star and moon light on the water. The sky offered mottled clouds and patches of clear sky that seemed to move.
“Did you see her, too?”
She looked at him in the dark for the first time. “Who?”
“Angela Woodstone. Gela.”
Neither said anything for a long while.
Janet broke the silence by laughing. “You’re not married or anything, are you?”
More silence, still comfortable.
“Always wanted to see you folded up inside that tiny trailer of yours.”
He chuckled until she added: “Naked.”
She leaned over and kissed him.
“I’d give you an internship anyway.”
She hit him and laughed. “I’d kiss you either way.”
They walked holding hands back along the dark pebble beach.
The self-styled reverend Trevin Moore Auster, fists trembling at his sides in fury, stood riven in outrage. He’d waited for hours by the rogue interloper’s car-and-trailor camp, intending to confront him, to convince the moronic professor of his grievous error in digging up an evil past to feast again on the innocent souls of the living. Now there came the tall, gangly academic cretin, finally, and he had one of the whore co-eds with him.
Well, Auster told himself, that’s why they let young women into the schools, so they have skirts to chase, although this one seemed to be wearing jeans, as they all did these days, the better to show their wares to potential customers, whores all. He shuddered, gagging at how the tight denim showed off her curves so luridly, so shamelessly.
In shadows just past the egregious man’s Volvo, Auster clutched his book and glared. He cleared his throat, tasting the universal corruption.
As they reached the trailer, Howich paused, glanced over, and stood straighter, letting the girl’s hand drop. “What do you want?”
No fake charm here, Auster noted. No melodious greeting, no harmonious pretension of manners, oh no. No use of honorifics. Just a challenge, and challenge he would have. “Do you know what you’ve done?”
“I’m not really in the mood for this discussion. Let’s take it up tomorrow, okay? Or maybe just let it drop?”
“How dare you sweep in like a storm of ignorance and dig up a past evil once put to rest and kept down all these many years? How dare you unleash on us this kind of predatory witchcraft? Is she one of your rewards?” Auster pointed, as he so often did from the pulpit in his group’s chapel in the abandoned strip-mall’s last remaining store front, melodramatically at the cowering little girl this defiant sinner had dragged here to ravish, the disgusting pedophile, the vile academic Classicist. Auster shivered to contemplate the wild pagan orgies those kinds of people got up to. His minds’s eye filled with writhing flesh twisting and straining to merge into one gelatinous mess of lustful sin.
“You don’t have to get insulting.ß Go away or I’m calling the police.”
“Police? You think their authority extends to the unseen? You think their bully tactics mean anything to the spiritual malaise and demonic ire of witchcraft roused to rampage?”
“You’re going to have to leave. Now.” Howich stood even taller and took a step toward Auster as Janet, behind him, gave a soft whimper and whispered, “He’s wearing a Cthulhu medallion.”
Auster heard her and one side of his mouth snaked upward into a smile squeezed by torture from a lifetime’s suffering. “So your slut understands,” he hissed, charging the professor, head lowered, fists swinging as his holy book fell forgotten to the ground.
Howich caught Auster as if the loon had been hurled at him in some mockery of an otherwise-dignified drunken dwarf-tossing contest. Both tumbled to the ground, the minister pummeling, the professor writhing to evade blows and get away from the frenzied assault.
Auster rolled off Howich when Janet kicked the attacker in the side of his head. He howled more in anger than in pain and turned to lunge at her, hands in claws.
On his feet, Howich tackled Auster, having played football exactly once in a pick-up game at age 11, when he discovered, under a dog-pile, he was claustrophobic. Fortunately, he’d played high school and some college basketball, until competition got too serious; the physicality came back to him sufficiently to let him thwart the lunatic’s attack on Janet.
“Call nine-one-one,” Howich grunted.
“Already on it.”
The two men rolled around and kicked, spat, and maybe bit, their punches ineffectual, their struggle ludicrous, until two town cops pulled them apart with the bored efficiency born of expert experience with drunks.
They were both charged under a Mutual Affray statute put in place to quell the many blustery battles tipsy college students tended to get into on weekends, the town and its beach being a hub for several small colleges. Janet posted Howich’s bail and he was surprised to find she’d unhitched the Volvo to drive it for fetching purposes. “Where’d you get the keys?”
“Timmy and Freddy both drive old Volvos. For years they only made five keys. I figured it was a good chance one of them would work. Tim’s won, and here I am.”
“No, she’s not,” a male voice said from the back seat.
Howich turned to find another of his dig volunteers sprawled on the back seat, a seat belt casually across him even though it was not tightened, holding a glowing laptop. “Hi, professor.”
“Hi.” Turning back to Janet, who was driving, he frowned. “Why didn’t you just use his car?”
“No gas. No money.”
College student logic.
“Besides, I knew about trailer hitches from my dad.” Janet looked proud. “He always took us camping when I was little. I’d help him hook up the lights and everything.”
“Huh.” Howich heard a voice in his head say She’s a keeper, and smiled. His mother, long dead, always came to him in such circumstances, not that there had been many.
Howich repaid Janet for the bail, gave Tim a twenty so he could gas up, and finally got to show Janet how he managed to fold himself clown-car-like into the trailer. She pronounced it, “Cozy.”
Trevin Moore Auster, last seen with a bruise on the left side of his face, retreated to the shade of what ever rock he’d crawled out from under and did not pester the rest of the dig. Perhaps his elder gods were displeased.
Janet and Howich became an item, prompting much envy, gossip, and good-natured teasing. What Janet knew even then but what Howich found out only a few months later, in a town near their latest dig site on the outlying farm-fields around the Cahokia Mound complex in Illinois, was that they would become engaged, then married, within a year of meeting. In her family it was the tradition that the women always knew, the men rarely.
When asked about it in later years, they referred to their marriage as the Blessed Curse of Gela, rarely explaining further, the reference being their own special sweet joke.
The Angela Woodstone dig produced artifacts and observations that deepened local appreciation for their story of a persecuted woman. It was generally thought by then that waspish gossip and sniping by envious wives, probably prompted by their over-attentive husbands “helping” the pretty young widow get through her first winter, eventually boiled over into outright violence, or a serious threat of it. It was considered that Angela had fled into the woods from a mob. She had either been caught, killed, and buried in the forest or had evaded them, only to succumb from exposure. Her remains had later been found or, for some reason, moved to be buried under the oak, probably because of folk superstition, some thought.
Others said no, she’d been taken by a mob and hanged at the tree, then buried under it in an profane grave. The town had kept this shameful lynching a secret, hence Auster’s strange cult, mixing Lovecraft’s fiction with ancestral guilt. An academic debate continued about such details but DNA analysis on descendants of Angela Woodstone relatives could not be done; the skull and bones found under the tree were those of Angela Woodstone, woodcutter’s widow and accused witch, in tradition only, although it certainly made sense to identify them as such.
It was considered too much of a coincidence to ascribe the bones to anyone else, that close to the Woodstone property.
This confirmation tended to strengthen the hanging theory.
The so-called Reverend Auster, of no accredited or acknowledged denomination, and his followers, in numbers unknown but certainly fewer than one hundred, vanished from all histories. Locals talked of the storm that had taken them one night as they’d cavorted and raved on a beach around a bonfire, while others whispered of darker, slimier things taking them one-by-one in shadowy alleys and cold, dark rooms.
“What evuh, they got the HPL treatment, those bastids,” was the downeaster version, pithy and to the point.
Although he never achieved much fame, Oliver Hollis Howich made many solid discoveries and advanced archaeology’s understanding of many mysteries. When asked how he managed to find so many artifacts others could not locate — the implication being that he planted them — he never angered, but would say only, “You have to use the right kind of light.”
He never explained what he meant but there are hints in the fiction of Janet Hampton Howich’s short stories, which tended to be published in low-paying, small-circulation horror magazines, remnants and dregs and faint echoes of the type called pulps in Lovecraft’s era. She used the pen name J. H. Howich to write of mysterious glowing female figures, wraiths, fetches, kelpies, selkies, ghosts, revenants, specters, and apparitions that manifested to intercede into human affairs, drifting from an unseen realm to point to things, to uncover things, or to bring things, or people, together.
Art imitates life, as those who knew her explained.
One of her best-regarded stories, a minor classic among horror aficionados and fans, is entitled, “The Lady of the Oak,” and features a dryad’s ghost that guards a talisman that can bring both doom and love, even as it wards off ichorous eldritch horrors from beyond the infinite. It is dedicated to Howard Philips Lovecraft, Caitlin Rebekah Kiernan, and Angela Woodstone. No explanation has been offered.
Janet and Oliver Howich had a daughter, Olive Jane, who currently attends a school in New England studying antiquities and art, intending to become an archaeological illustrator. For spending money she draws pictures for her mother’s books and for weird pulp publications.
She favors her father in looks, her mother in outlook, and is over two meters tall, with auburn hair, piercing icy blue eyes, and a look of pure wonder, as if she’s able to see the unseen.
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