Thursday, October 31, 2013

A Ghost Story for Halloween - The Night Death Came to Stumptown

The Night Death Came to Stumptown 
Written July 3, 2013 – the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg

Death paused at the crossroads and read the sign ahead: Stumptown Ferry: 1 mile.  He pushed his hat back on his head, raised his nose, and inhaled deeply, drawing in the night wind.  On the breeze he could smell it - the sweet sweat that comes with fear and panic.  A lot of men were massed, getting ready to die.  These men were not far away and even at a leisurely pace, Death would join them by daybreak.  He spurred his horse in the direction of Stumptown and the odor of terrified humanity. 
            As he rode on, the path closed in around him, becoming a hollow way, the trail steepening downward.  The air became cool, but heavier.  He was approaching a body of water.  Shortly, Death halted his horse at the edge of a sluggishly moving stream.  The moon, showing over head, cast its light upon the clearing the water provided.  On the opposite shore Death could see the outline of a small, rugged looking cabin, with a single orange light flickering in the glassless window.    A few yards ahead of the cabin, resting before a primitive dock, was a sturdy looking flat-bottomed barge, constructed of lashed logs and planking.  This barge was connected to a sagging metal cable which spanned the little water course. 
Looking about Death saw a bell hanging on the skeleton of a dead tree, just to the right of the path.  He urged his horse over and rang the bell, its clanging cutting through the quiet night and causing sleeping crows to flutter out of the trees overhead.  Shadows moved in the cabin across the river and the door opened slowly.  An ancient man, his skin tight across his skull, and black as ebony, emerged, probing the ground with a twisted wooden staff.  He was dressed in course clothing and wore no shoes.   He stared straight ahead, his eyes white with blindness.
            “I hears ya, I hears ya,” hollered the man, making his way to the ferry.  “This boat ain’t free.” 
            “It’s alright,” Death yelled back, “I have coin in pocket.” 
            The old man shook his head in acknowledgement and, feeling his way, unhooked the little ferry from its moorings.  Stumbling over to a heavy wooden crank he began laboriously turning it, the mechanism inching the ferry across the water, gliding on its cable.  The ferry creaked and sloshed in the water and, after what seemed an eternity, came to a rest on the opposite shore.  Death waited patiently. 
            “Alright, mister,” yelled the old man, “get on.  I’ll bring you over.  Have them coins ready.” 
            Death clicked his tongue and urged his horse onto the barge.  It was steady, for its primitive condition, and he saw no reason to dismount.  He yelled: “ready!”
            The old man returned to his cranking, this time struggling under the weight of horse and rider.  But the gears were true and the barge slowly slipped the bank and settled into an easy motion.  Death considered the inky water, a mirror of the night sky, catching the light of a clear moon.  Suddenly, as the ferry reached the center of the river, it stopped. 
            “Is anything the matter?”  Death saw that the old man was no longer turning the big crank and was now resting on his staff. 
            “Not now, sir,” said the old man.  He seemed to be smiling, but Death could not be certain. 
            “You must be tired, but after your rest could you please finish your task and bring me ashore?” 
            The man stood stock still, his expression unchanged.  
            “Do you hear me?”
            “Yes, I hears you, sir.” 
            Death fidgeted in his saddle.  He was not the type of entity accustomed to being played a fool.  “Then what is the meaning of this?  I have important business to attend to shortly, and I must get across this river before dawn!”
The man straightened himself and his smile fell into a deep and serious grimace.  “Oh, I knows about your ‘business’ sir.  I been waitin’ on you three nights now and I knew you’d come along directly.  You’re that old Death.  I ‘spect you don’t remember but we knowed each other before. 
Lordy, must be nigh on 80 year ago, back down South.  My old Grand Momma – she was Africky born – she told me about you.  I was borned blind, you know.  But I can hear and I can smell, sir, better’n anybody.  And I remember that night old Grand Momma died.  She said you’d be commin’ and as I lay there on the floor next to her cot, I heard you come in and I smelled you, sir.  You got a mighty particular smell, you do.
I knowed you’d be coming soon, so I kept a look out.  I could smell you riding down that path.  And now I got you.  A normal man, he could swim for it.  But not old Death – Grand Momma told me death couldn’t cross running water without help.  So you can stay put a little while.” 
Death frowned.  He looked down at the water and shivered.  The old man was right, though how mortals came by this knowledge he never could understand.  He had gotten himself stuck in similar situations before – it usually ended in the soon-to-be dead trying to bargain with him for a few more years of precious life.  Typical mortals, he thought, begging for more life after wasting what little they had. 
            “May I have your name, sir?”
            The old man answered:  “It’s Caleb.  How about you?”
            “Very good, Caleb.  In fact you have identified me correctly.  I have many names, but Death is good enough.  Let me ask you something Caleb, how old are you?  Ninety?  Surely you can’t fear me by now, nor can you expect to live very much longer.  Why keep me trapped here when I have business elsewhere?”
            “Oh, I ain’t afraid of you, Mr. Death, not on my account.  I lived a long life and a good ‘un.  I ain’t sorry for how I lived and my soul is in good order.  It’s not for me I got you trapped here, it’s for the boy.” 
            “Boy?”  Death lifted his head, flaring his nostrils, and taking in the smell of the night air once again.  There was a fresh scent upon it – the odor of youth in mortal peril. 
“Yes, sir,” said the old man, “my boy.  He’s in the cabin.  He ain’t mine exactly but he came here a couple of years back, alone.  Starved and near naked.  I don’t know how he got away and made it across the Line, but he came here, just like you, banging the bell one night.  Maybe it’s the war – maybe his master and mistress got killed and everyone turned loose.  I ran away myself, long time ago and been here ever since.  Sometimes I helps others.  I knows this boy’ll be the last one I help before I go. 
            Three days ago he was fetching wood for the cook stove and turned over a log.  A rattler got him, right on the hand.  I did what I could do.  He’s healing, but it’s slow – gonna take time.  I imagine if he makes it through the night he’ll be alright and out of your grasp for a little while longer.  It’s always at night when they go.” 
Suddenly, out of nowhere, the quiet calm of early morning was broken apart by what sounded like the booming of a ferocious thunder storm.  But there were no clouds in the sky.  Caleb, frail against his staff, collapsed to the ground with the shock. 
“No,” yelled Death, “it’s starting!  It’s starting!  You’ve got to let me go!” 
Caleb got to his feet, screaming over the powerful sound.  “What in hell is that?  What is it?  Old Death, old Death, what are you doing to me?” 
“It’s not me,” Death yelled back from his perch in the water, “it is cannon fire!  There’s a great battle beginning, Caleb, and I must be there.  I swear, I can do nothing for your boy!” 
Death looked overhead and saw that the dark sky was filled with the shimmering glow of tiny lights, like fireflies.  They rose briefly above the trees in an ecstasy of flight and then settled lower, flitting aimlessly about.  Some moved into the water, others dived into holes in trees, while still others flitted around confusedly, to no purpose.  Death rocked in his saddle, clearly in anguish at this occurrence. 
Over the madness of the noise, Caleb roared with a giddy, half-insane laughter.  “I gots you!  I got old Mr. Death on my ferry!  The war done come to Pennsylvaney and I got Death stuck on my boat!  Ain’t no young boys gonna die tonight!  Ha! Ha!” 
Caleb continued to laugh and dance around his staff, while Death tried to get his attention, shouting through the thunder.  The woods filled with gunpowder smoke, drifting in from the battlefield and the men could no longer see each other.  Finally, as suddenly as it began, the noise ceased and the cloud of sulfurous smoke began to dissipate. 
Death sat in his saddle forlorn, his head slumped on his breast.  The tiny flickering lights continued to swarm through the trees but, began to fade to invisibility as dawn rose.  Exhausted from his ecstatic fit, Caleb flopped to the ground, his staff across his legs, panting.  The river was again silent. 
Death spoke, his voice artificially calm:  “You don’t understand, old man, it’s not me that ends life.  That happens on its own.  Man’s time is not dictated by the Fates.  It is my task to collect what remains of him after he dies in order to make sure it passes on…correctly.  Otherwise the little candle of humanity that remains will burn here on this earth until it has no more fuel left and dissipates into nothingness.  Many men have already died this morning, Caleb I can see them – their little firelights moving through the trees.  They’re beyond my reach now and will have to remain, a soul that cannot go elsewhere.  You have a word for them – gast, geist.” 
“No, no sir.  They say that old Death is the devil.  He’s a trickster.  I don’t believe it.” 
“The devil?”  Death furrowed his brow at the word.  “That name has no meaning to me, though I hear it often.  I am telling you the truth.  I can neither end your life nor save it.  Many before you have begged me to do one or the other, and that is not within my power.” 
The sun was beginning to break through the trees and Caleb turned his face toward the warmth, smiling.  A last gloom hung around his cabin door and in that trailing darkness a soft flitting light emerged, bobbing and diving like a firefly.  Death saw it and breathed in sharply.  It drifted forward and passed around Caleb’s head.  He seemed to notice it, reaching a hand out.  It passed through his hand and his smile faded.
“What was that?” 
“I told you,” said Death, “I have no power over life.  I only collect what remains when it is done.  Go to your cabin and find out for yourself.” 
The old man pulled himself to his feet, leaning heavily upon his staff, and trudged toward his home.  He paused briefly before stepping inside.  After a few moments he emerged, a hard, distant look on his face.  He pulled the door closed, firmly, and without speaking made his way to the giant crank.  He began to turn it, this time more rapidly than before.  Death heaved a heavy sigh.  When the old barge made landfall, he dismounted and approached the old man, whose head was hanging low. 
Caleb sensed Death’s approach and faced him.  “Can’t you do nothin’ for my boy now he’s gone? Can’t you take him to that other place?”
Death again sighed.  “No, I am afraid I cannot, though it pains me to say so.  There was not enough time.  He will stay here until the little bit left of him fades, though one can never know how long that will be.” 
Caleb’s stern expression never changed, but he was fighting back tears which welled at the edge of his eyes.   Finally he nodded his head. 
“Mr. Death,” he began, “I’m sorry for what I did.  But I didn’t know better.  I wanted to…” 
“Hush,” said Death, and he put his arms around the man and embraced him tightly, warmly, a feeling that felt to Caleb like his Grand Momma’s old cotton quilt.  “I understand.” 
After Death released his embrace, Caleb once again stood erect, worn, but proud.  “Will you promise me something, sir?  I knows I ain’t got much time left before you’ll be back here for me.  Promise me this – don’t you come back.  You keep away and let me go.  Let me be here with the boy so he doesn’t have to stay alone.” 
Death put his hand on Caleb’s shoulder, a silent assent.  Then he turned and mounted his horse, raising his hand in a salute the old man could not see.  Spurring his mount, Death galloped off in the direction of smoke and flame.         

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