Thursday, 23 May 2013
New England, Old Shadows
Parson Francis Moore, to the Bishop of London, Greetings.
In the year of our Lord, sixteen hundred and twenty nine, I took ship with a captain of the Massachusetts Bay Company, as your grace had bid me and crossed the Atlantic to embark upon my commission, viz. to establish the cause of the deaths of fully one quarter of the passengers aboard the ship Mayflower, nine years previous.
The crossing was unpleasant, given the turbid state of the seas, the driving rain, the winds that howled as if Satan himself were scourging them with serpents and the uncouth nature and demeanour of the seamen who plied their trade in a seemingly unending fug of rum and tobacco, against all sense and the preference of good King James, only four years in his grave. Mayhap they think the king’s writ does not apply to the Kingdom of Ocean.
We made landfall at Plymouth and there I found that the Massachusetts Bay Company, though nominally charged with the good administration of the Colony, makes free and easy with his Majesty’s authority. Though this was without my remit, I made careful notes of the liberties taken by those who ought to know better and enclose them with this packet, hoping that your Grace might convey them to the appropriate authorities.
Remembering your adjunct to be both thorough and speedy, I sought out the Colony’s doctor, Jacob Sawfield, and related to him my commission. He, though a busy man, for there seemed much to occupy a physician such as he, furnished me with all the information at his disposal concerning that first tragic winter, wherein so many poor souls perished.
I studied these names long. Though there seemed pattern enough to conclude that whatsoever sickness or pestilence had laid them low spread quickly and virulently, claiming husbands and wives, children and servants, discriminating little between saints and strangers, and making perhaps some cruel mockery of the hopes and dreams that had brought them so far to this unknown land, what did not seem apparent was the origin of that contagion. Armed with your warrant, your Grace, I bethought it fitting to have the graves themselves examined, lest any clue be left therein as to the nature of the sickness. I hired men and brought Jacob Sawfield with me to that sorry plot wherein the bones of they who perished are laid, whereat we commenced to dig, masking our mouths with clothes soaked in vinegar, a noisome odour and experience, to have no doubt, yet in far preferential to the fate that might have awaited us had we neglected this most important of measures.
After we had laid open the graves of some six or seven, and had gathered to ourselves a crowd, comprising the curious, the hostile, the intoxicated and the bored, Sawfield pronounced himself satisfied that nothing unnatural had laid these poor folk low, and declaimed that, in his opinion, it was due to the strange proximity of the pilgrims in the confinement of their settlement, owing to the unexpected cold that they had encountered that winter. ‘We might conclude,’ he said to me that evening, after we had striven to drive the smell of vinegar from our clothes and noses, ‘that whatsoever agent of contagion brought the sickness from person to person found it plainly easy to convey the harbingers of death, more so than if they had been sensible of their danger and secluded the sick from the healthy.’
This seemed, in truth, most logical an explanation, and so I prepared myself and my belongings for the voyage back across the ocean. Yet I was to find that my sojourn there was not to be so swiftly truncated. For, a week before I was to take ship again for London, a letter came to me which spake briefly thus
If thou wouldst know the truth behind the unseemlie end of those poore wretches who, though hoping for a better life here in the New Worlde, found instede merely dethe and by most terrible means, then I wouldst meet thee tomorrow night hence, on the townland west of the first milepost. Yours in haste, Ezekiel Crowe
Thus intrigued, and mindful of your admonition to spare no effort to uncover the truth, I made to keep this appointment and thus was introduced to the dubious company of this Ezekiel Crowe. He was of appearance filthy, of manner dissolute and of speech and bearing so unlike anyone that I have ever encountered in church or genteel society that I scarce deigned walk with him one hundred yards, let along the distances that he bade me do if I were interested in the truth. Yet thanks be to God that I did. For he, from a mouth clouded by drink and tobacco, possessed of few clean teeth and the breath of a hundred rotting corpses, told me a tale that chilled my bones and made me shiver as if the very hand of winter laid upon my shoulder and tightened its grip in some confederate’s embrace.
“They say as how ye seek news of what befell they who landed here nine years since,” he spake to me. “I am in a goodlie position to furnish ye with said details, but I am loth to do so, since ye, being a gentleman and of the Church, what is more, will surely judge me mad or possessed or both.”
“If you are so certain of my reaction,” said I, “then why sought you me out? Surely you must have thought me at least half-minded to hear you or you would not have sent me that letter.”
“Ye speak with good sense, Parson. I hope that your mind is similarly prepared for what we shall discover.”
And with that, he bade me meet him there the following dawn, with horse and food for one week, and – if I should deem it necessary, weaponry. I asked him what manner of situation might make it so that we might need such, at which he merely laughed in a way that I found most unsettling.
The following dawn, I met Crowe as I had been bid, and on horseback we set off, I mindful of the nature of the man. Once away from the influence of Plymouth, we found the habitation of man a scarcity in the wilderness. Here and there, a solitary farmstead might emerge, as though it had been lost and was now pleased to see us. The roads became tracks and they in turn meandered into the grass of meadows and the thickets of weeds and brambles and were lost. For all as has been made of our settlement in the New World, we have made but a scratch upon it and that scratch seems at times almost hasty to be healed of us. Each evening, as sun set, the darkness between the trees thickened and reached out its fingers as if to entwine us, and only our fire, a solitary isle of light sat between us and the great unknown. The hills ahead rose up as if the very land recoiled before us and sought to crush us neath its wild majesty. I sought comfort in Scripture but Crowe found his solace in the bottle and the pipe. He offered me both often and laughed when I refused.
Four days’ ride into the wilds, near a shining mere that rippled like some sinuous beast trapped between its wooded banks, we came to a place where our horses refused to go. At the head of a wooded valley, steep-sided and covered in old, old trees, they shied and whinnied and would not go on, even for the fear of the whip. Crowe did laugh here, and said
“This is surelie the place, for even dumb beastes knowe theyre peril. Mayhap we had more sense than they, we would not pass and leave this unseemlie place be.”
“I have faith in the Lord,” said I. “And I have not come this far, to be turned back by shadow and shaking. Let us strengthen ourselves with prayer, then shall I see that which you deem so terrible and yet so necessary.”
I knelt and prayed, and Crowe made semblance but his lips moved not, and if he swayed and trembled, it was under the influence of another spirit than that of our Lord. Then, armed with the consolation of God, I proceeded on foot into that accursed valley.
In truth, your Grace, though I was possessed of fortitude and faith, yet as I made my way further on, I began to feel real fear, of a kind that was previously unknown to me. As there are places in Judaea and Israel where the influence of the Baals is strong, so here I found myself of the conviction that I was being watched by some unearthly presence, which lurked amongst the dark spaces between the trees. Their trunks were shrouded in moss and the ground between them was heavy with old leaf mould and thick grass that so deadened the sound of our feet that we seemed to be wading through a mire. Several times did I turn suddenly, expecting to find the very Devil himself behind us, but there was nothing there; nothing visible, at any rate.
We neared the head of the valley, at which point, Crowe stopped and turned to me. He smiled again, and then pointed through the trees.
“It is yonder. Though I have been here before, I find that I have acquired some sort of ague and like it not. I will wait here for thee if thou hast the courage to proceed.”
I found that I had to dig deep within myself to find said courage, but be assured, your Grace, that I found it and more, and strode on to find that which the reprobate had indicated. A few yards further on, I saw it.
Your Grace, it was as if the earth had grown a tooth. A towering shard of rock rose up from the ground, fully eight feet high and five in width. It was black as night, so black that it seemed to drink in the light and make this place darker still, and yet upon its surface, I discerned patterns of some obscene and blasphemous design. And all around it, in the undergrowth, entwined and ensnared by the grass which dared to grow at the foot of this monstrosity were objects, rusted and rotten and corrupt, but each, as I could see, some poor wretch’s possession. I bent to pick up what appeared to be an ivory comb, and beheld upon the handle, the legend
Alys Mullynes, 1615, Dorkynge
And in similar vein, each of the artefacts which had survived to tell their tale did pronounce the names of those poor souls who had tasted only death as their reward for the brave pilgrimage on which they had embarked.
It was at this point, your Grace, with the trees crowded in around me, and the silence – even unto the absence of birdsong – so powerfully noted, that the sense of overpowering evil overcame me, as I realised that the only way in which these artefacts might have come to be at this place was by the agency of one who had dwelt with and shared the lives of the poor souls to whom they had belonged. I am sorry to say that I fled that place as fast as my feet would carry me. Crowe joined me in flight, for as he claimed, he had made the journey to that hideous thing more than once, and the strain of said journey had shown upon his face and upon his soul. In his weakness, he had turned to drink and tobacco for solace, and who, having made the journey that I made and seen that which I had seen, might blame him?
The fear has not left me, though I returned to Plymouth a trembling and nervous wretch. I write these words to you, your Grace and shall hopefully convey them to your own hand, that you might know what manner of creature lurks in the forests and the hills of the New World and lend your voice to those who say that they are the servitors of Satan, and must be destroyed. Crowe has long since vanished into the mire of humanity, those wretches who drown themselves in their own sin.
Yet how might it be explained that as Crowe and I rode into Plymouth, those who saw us glanced first at us and then behind us, and turned away in unease, though when we glanced over our shoulders, there was naught to be seen? Who was that dark figure who watched from the end of the street the night before I set sail for London? When I went to see, there was no-one there. And on the crossing, was there another ship, several leagues distant, as some sailors maintained, though none was seen to leave Plymouth matching that description, with sails of deepest black? And did the harbour master err, in counting the passengers who disembarked at London, and make our complement one greater than it had been when we set sail?
I cannot say. I have returned to my parsonage in the Suffolk flatlands and seek solace in reading and prayer, and attempt to put from my mind that sight in that valley in the wild lands of Massachusetts. Yet I find that I am unable to walk the short distance down the wooded lane to the church alone on winter evenings, and send a lad first into the building to light the candles. I cast glances across fields and meadows to the woods beyond. I look over my shoulder far more often than once I did. And thought it ill-befits a man of God to do so, I have taken to carrying a firearm with me, and although I find comfort in the solidity of its stock and barrel, I still hear the unsettling laughter of Ezekiel Crowe and shudder.