Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Unseen (part 29)

[Author's note: I know my Unseen updates have gotten unbearably irregular when even Captain Midnight starts bugging me to finish. I wasn't even sure he was reading this. OK, time to kick it out.]


I don't remember fleeing the Townleys' house, or how long I ran, but it must have been some distance -- through the town square, past the old abandoned houses, and right through the boundary separating Corey from the outside world without stopping. Finally, when a stitch in my side forced me to stop, I found myself deep in the state forest. I stumbled and leaned against a tree, taking ragged breaths. My face was wet and stinging from the new growth of branches that had whipped against my face; I wiped at my cheek and my hand came away bloody.

One of the most frightening histories I ever read was about the Black Death. Back then, no one really knew how it was spread, though everyone seemed to have a theory. Some thought it was breathed in, along with the pollution of cities and the foul odors of their streets, and they carried sachets of herbs to sniff, trying to fend off the corruption. Others believed it was divine punishment for secret sin, and would whip themselves to shreds to show God their penitence. The wisest ones took to the countryside, far from human contact. Worst off were the wretched people who caught the plague and were then set upon by healthy relatives who, knowing the signs of illness and the certainty of death, would sometimes bury plague victims alive. As I read, I wondered how people could have been so cruel.

But, bleeding and trembling against the rough bark of the tree, I thought I understood for the first time the cold calculations of the uninfected. The plague, once released, had no antidote; it could only be contained. New knowledge had always felt like a gift, not this dark infection spreading through my brain like ink through water. But working with Mrs. Townley had introduced me to the needful pressures of secrecy, and now it seemed my duty to keep this other secret of hers from spreading any further.

And yet even as I leaned against the trunk, taking strange sobbing breaths, my mind was still trying to make sense of what I'd seen. What were those books doing in the basement? Did anyone else in the Conscient know about them? Were they -- could they possibly be -- part of Mrs. Townley's service? How? And if so, why hadn't she said anything about them? Was she even aware of them, long rows of the dead of Corey locked away in that airless stone room downstairs? Who had owned those commonplace-books; who had scribed their lives into them?

And what was written inside them?

I recoiled at the thought. Those books were sacrosanct, filled with other people's lives and meant to be buried with their owners. I'd be digging up corpses next. And yet the thought persisted: what was in all those commonplace-books that someone had chosen not to bury? There were so many; they couldn't be there by accident.

I was in desperate need of some good counsel. But there was no one -- not a soul in or out of Corey -- that I could confide in.

Straightening up, I began to walk back toward the boundary. My earlier adrenaline-fueled speed and strength were gone, and I wobbled a few times and had to sit down, knees trembling. When I reached the invisible boundary line, I walked straight through it without calling to Corey to let me in. I'd done it before, but only with other townsfolk on Moreweight Day -- never alone or out of season.

Most of the bodies of the Salem "witches" had disappeared shortly after their sentences were carried out, given a secret mass burial on some plot of unhallowed ground. But Goody Conant somehow managed to spirit away the mangled remains of her old neighbor, Giles Corey, so that he could be properly laid to rest. The Conscient chose to bury him in a spot that had once been located in the center of town before Corey was sealed away from the outside world -- and now he rested outside his namesake town, an outsider whose memory and sacrifice were nonetheless dear to us.

The boulder as a gravestone was probably Goody Conant's idea. I wondered, not for the first time, whether Giles Corey himself would have been amused or incensed at the idea of being buried under a rock. A simple glamour spell hid the worn inscription:

19th OF SEPTEMBER 1692

And then, a little below the rest:


At my first Moreweight Day, I didn't think to ask about the final words on the boulder. I'd just assumed they were there because it was Moreweight Day. When I was a little older, my mum explained that Giles Corey had refused to plead guilty or innocent to the crime of witchcraft, so the people of Salem had piled heavy stones on his body in an attempt to get him to confess. He never did; his final words, before he died from the pressure of the stones, were "More weight." I used to think it was Goodman Corey's final sign of defiance against his accusers. But now, with another kind of weight pressing on me, I wondered whether he hadn't actually been pleading for an end to the torture. Who could live with the knowledge that your friends, neighbors and relatives feared and hated you?

I knelt beside the boulder, my knees still shaking, and stretched my palms out against the ground. Under the surface soil heated by the sun, the earth was still winter-cold. Dad's words echoed in my memory -- every work carries a trace of its maker -- and I did my best to still my own thoughts, to reach out for the trace, if there were even a trace left, of Goodman Corey.

For a long time there was nothing more than the song of the world, the deep bass notes of earth and rock vibrating in my bones. I could not sense anything human, or even anything that had once been human. I waited, trying to be patient, wondering how much of Giles Corey's "bodye" remained after nearly 300 years of interment. And then, just as I was about to give in, a tendril of something cold and tenuous seemed to rise up from below and curl itself around my left wrist.

It was nothing like the trace left by a living person. It wasn't just the coldness, the faintness or the sensation of distance. It was flat, emotionless and logical, like a mathematical equation. What dost thou want?

I tried to maintain calm, to think clearly -- and politely. Goodman Corey?

So they called me in life.

I took a deep breath. I need your wisdom, sir.

Why comest thou to me? I sleep in Christ. I have no wisdom to give.

But -- but sir, you have experience I lack… and besides, I have no one else to turn to.

A long, stony silence. Finally: Speak thy peace, then.

Haltingly, I tried to give a simplified version of my dilemma -- the task I had taken on, the secrecy it required, and the ghoulish library I'd found. And now I don't know what I should do about it, I added. I fear what I may find there.

The cold trace of Goodman Corey's shade -- if that was what it was -- did not hesitate. I remember little now of life, it stated. But I well know that life gave me burthens to bear, and bear them I did, to the best of my ability. I did not hide from them as thou hast done.

This was not the comforting wisdom I had hoped to receive. My eyes prickled and began to water.

The goodfolk of Salem, it continued, did not seek truth, for all the words they spoke contrary. All they sought were human vessels to contain their own fears and sins -- vessels that could be broken and buried. The trace was stronger now. But thou -- thou hast in thy power the means to discern truth from error. And wilt thou now flee from it?

The intent was perfectly clear. Goodman Corey had suffered a painful, ignominious death because the people around him were too afraid to look past their fears. If there were any truth to be had in this situation, it would be waiting for me in that basement room. All that remained for me to do was to summon the courage to look. My face burned. I thank you, Goodman Corey.

See thou to thine own, was the only reply before the trace broke and faded.

I sat there for some time after, listening to the early-morning sounds of the forest, the creatures rousing and calling to one another near the gravesite. The state forest had been preserved largely intact, thanks to Massachusetts state law -- and probably some string-pulling behind the scenes by some of my ancestors. It was probably similar to what the area looked like when the first members of the Conscient decided to build their refuge here.

Had they been as afraid then as I was now?

Did they know what they were doing?

These were unwelcome thoughts. I straightened up, dusting dirt and twigs off my knees. Well, Goodman Corey was wise, even if his wisdom was no comfort. The only way to make sense of what I'd found in Mrs. Townley's basement was to take a closer look.

The Townleys' front door was still hanging open after my flight from the place; I might have been imagining it, but it seemed as though the damp smell of that basement room wafted out the open door toward me. Peck was messing with his nest again. He cawed at me in alarm, and I realized I must look a fright with my scratched face and arms.

"I'm all right, Peck," I said, not entirely sure if I was telling the truth. It seemed to be sufficient for him, though, as he turned back to his work without giving me another glance.

The basement waited. I took a couple of deep breaths, summoned a light and went down.

I think some part of me had been hoping that the vision which had so frightened me would have faded away and that the Townley basement, on my return, would be like any other basement I'd ever seen -- filled with preserves and jams and dried herbs hanging from the ceiling. But no -- there were the rows of commonplace-books, stacked against each other like an ossuary in paper and leather. I stood still in the cold room, afraid to touch them. Solid silence.

"Oh, this is stupid," I finally said aloud, and I reached out to pluck a random book from the shelf. Almost immediately I recoiled from the touch -- the leather cover seemed to give off the warmth of human skin. I set my teeth and tried again. It was only the difference between the coldness of the room and the softness of the leather. Gingerly I pulled it from the shelf and sat down on the stone floor, the book resting in my lap.

I'd picked up my mum's commonplace-book and tried to read it when I was little. As far as I could remember, it was the first time she'd spanked me.

The cover was crisscrossed with scars and gouges. Whoever had owned this commonplace-book had been careless with it. Almost anticipating a smack, I opened the cover.

PORPETRY OF ISSAC INGRSOLL 1919 was scrawled in a child's hand on the title page. Underneath it, in a tidy copperplate hand, were the words I. Ingersoll -- f. f. C. -- 1/1931.

The next page was a child’s stick-figure drawing of a family, with each figure labeled: "Pappa," "Mum," "me," "Rachel," and what looked to be a dog, "Shepard." There followed some basic spells and charms, a list of the Public Niceties, pasted images of toys from an old Sears catalog, some fragile leaves and a rather goopy-looking pressed insect, and, in a slightly older hand, a version of a certain spell I knew by heart:

"Hark ye the gate of Correy I am Isacc Ingersoll a son of Correy ope now to me & let me pass"

I smiled a little at Isaac's spelling troubles with his own name; it had taken me a while to learn how to spell mine properly, too. Mum kept getting after me about it: "If you can't bother to spell it right, who else will?" she'd chided me. I turned the page.

"I AM TOO old enough to go outside. Pappa don't know what he is talking about. He says I'm not ready for outside yet. But I snuck out to the village with Grandy and Shep, and nothing bad happened. Pappa says I'd be scared of outside. I HATE PAPPA. I bet he is more scared than me."

The petulance and anger practically leapt off the page. This Ingersoll kid had been a lot like the other boys of Corey, but his attitude -- openly defiant, rebellious, sneaking out without permission -- was not like a child of the Conscient at all. He seemed more like the boy characters I'd read in outsider books, determined to get their way even when they were clearly too young to make wise decisions.

I skipped ahead several pages and read: "Why's it so blasted important to keep Corey secret from outsiders, anyway? It's already protected by all these fiddly spells. Outsiders couldn't come in even if they knew it was here. So what's the point of being all sneaky about it? Pappa keeps saying I'm a foolish boy, and Mum says I'll understand it better when I'm older, but to me it all sounds like 'Because I said so, that's why.'"

Isaac had a point. Corey was already invisible to the outside world, and only members of the Conscient could enter.

On the very next page: "Does the boundary magic even work on animals? I have to call to the gate to let me pass, but ol' Shep doesn't need to -- the gate lets him trot right in as long as he's with me or Grandy or anybody else from Corey. I wonder what other animals can get through the boundary?" This was a topic I'd never even considered before. Mum didn't like having pets in the house, so I'd never seen an animal cross the boundary into Corey. But it had to be happening. Local wildlife looked pretty much the same, whether inside Corey or out of it, and birds and other flying things probably crossed the boundary all the time. Huh.

Next, after a page half-covered with odd symbols I couldn't decipher, there were several yellowed, crumbling newspaper clippings tucked into the book. One read, "JAZZ: Pearly Breed and His Orchestra, The Chestnut Brothers, The Boston Brownies Orchestra -- this Friday only, 8 p.m." and an address in Boston. The other clippings were similar -- all advertisements for jazz bands in Cambridge, Quincy, Somerville and other towns around Boston. It seemed as though Isaac had a thing for jazz. He'd also pasted advertisements for some early sound movies into the book; he'd been interested in The Jazz Singer (well, naturally), The Cocoanuts with the Marx Brothers, and Broadway Melody of 1929. After these came yet another set of squiggly symbols, some of them crossed out, and then the comment, "Stayed too late at the flicks with Ruby tonight. Pa caught me sneaking in. Don't think he knows abt. Ruby but he doesn't like me 'fraternizing with outsiders,' as though they had the plague. I said maybe if we had our own movie house in Corey I wouldn't have to go out for entertainment. Saucing Pa turned out not to be the best choice. He was livid. Now forbidden to leave Corey for a fortnight. But this burg can't hold me."

The next words were oddly penitent for Isaac: "In my heart I know Pappa and Mum are right. They want the best for me, and I shouldn't give them so much grief. I should be a better role model to Rachel, too. Truth is, the Conscient needs me and I've been turning my back on it for too long."

Odd. This didn't sound much like the defiant, questioning, saucy Isaac I'd been reading. It seemed as though the words weren't his own, almost like... almost like...

Almost like the way "7 times 8" had been altered in Renee Flint's head.

Had someone gotten to Isaac?

I went on, flipping through pages of additional spells and charms -- some of which I'd never seen before -- and sketches of Corey; I recognized most of the locations. There was a deteriorating long, black crow feather; I recognized it from my recent time with Peck. And then there was another page of writing.

"Have tried to put Ruby from my mind but can't do it. I love her. Thoughts of her are constantly stirring in my head. Last night I checked our rock for messages and found a letter from her. She's in a family way, but her own family has thrown her out and she has nowhere else to go. The only thing left is to bring her into Corey, and I think I've figured out how to do it. Pappa and Mum might not like it, but they'll be forced to give her a place here when I tell them she's bearing my child."

Well. Obviously Isaac had been doing more than watching movies with Ruby, but the real shock was his assertion that an outsider could be brought into Corey. I'd always understood that it was impossible for outsiders to cross the boundary. Of all the things we did to keep safe, the boundary was the most powerful. How on earth had he intended to breach it?

The next few pages were covered with the odd symbols from earlier in the book, some crossed out, some transposed, some overwritten. Whatever it was he'd been trying to do, it had occupied most of his time and thoughts.

And then it dawned on me: this was an incantation. I clapped my hand over my mouth, staring at Isaac's handiwork.

The thing about spells and charms is that they work in harmony with the laws of nature. A twist spell opens or closes a lock because locks were designed to open and close; a light-summoning charm gathers up sunlight or moonlight into a ball, which dissipates after several hours or when it's no longer needed. But an incantation is different. It is a complex, powerful form of magic designed to wrest the laws of nature to an individual's will. If a spell or a charm can be compared to gentle persuasion, an incantation is best described as brute force. And it always, always has consequences.

What had Isaac done? I traced the line of symbols with a finger, wishing I had access to some kind of Rosetta stone, but nothing stood out to help me figure out what the incantation was meant to do. I was quite sure that Isaac intended to use it, whatever it did, to get his Ruby past the boundary. Maybe there was more information further on --

Three blank pages, and the book came to a sudden end. There was no clue to indicate what had happened to Isaac, Ruby or their unborn child. It all just seemed to evaporate before my eyes.

I was no closer to determining why the book had been separated from its owner in the first place. Was it because of the incantation? But then, who else would have known Isaac had been working on such a project?

The light flickered and began to dim. I looked up, startled. My little summoned light was fading; I must have been reading for hours in the sunless basement, unaware of the passage of time. Impulsively I turned back to the page with the incantation and ripped it out of the book, folding the thick paper and tucking it into my shirt pocket.

I was going to need another brain to decipher this puzzle.



MarieC said...

Yay!!! I'm so glad you are back to writing Unseen! I need to go back and read from the beginning.

Soozcat said...

It's been so long, even I probably need to go back and read from the beginning. :)

BumbleVee said...

Oh, yeh....... I did go back the whole thing over again... still love cheeky Peck..hahaha ... crazy crow...