Warnings to the Curious II
Seven witnesses encountered the woman—if indeed she could still be called as such—before she disappeared the night of the Great Tragedy. Amidst the wails and shouts of the wounded, as firemen hauled the water truck up and down the riverfront extinguishing fires, as medics maneuvered the coroner’s cart back and forth from the shore to the hospital, the woman who should not have been walking at all, walked away from this chaos into the shadows. But not before she was seen and remembered.
Three police deputies saw her emerge from the doorway of the old undertaker’s house on the river and out into the street. She stopped at the sight of a man fallen on the ground, stood over him and the other dead scattered on the street, then turned when she heard the three deputies and ran away down the dark alley.
“Thought she was a ghost,” admitted the youngest deputy, a boy really. “She glowed all over. Her hair, her whole body...even her eyes.” Two days later, he’d quit the law and boarded a train on the Chicago line. A stranger wrote to his mother when he was found dead in a hotel room some months later.
“She weren’t no ghost,” said the oldest of the deputies, a gray-whiskered man who had no family, only a small rented room in a Main Street boarding house, and no other purpose at all with which to occupy his surplus of time. But he was a smart one, had seen enough in his decades of law enforcement to hold strong in his right perspective. “She was that thing he made. That man, Faraday. He’s been in town all summer, shipping in equipment, fires up all night long in the windows in the old mortuary. I watched him close since he moved in that place. Knew he was messing with the dead. Why else would a man need to live in such a place? Need so much equipment?”
The last deputy was silent. He did not say with surety what he had seen, because he still struggled to convince his sanity to remain whole within his mind. What he thought he saw was a woman who looked like one of those zoetrope machines. He’d seen one in St. Louis that very summer when he took his wife and children on a train trip to visit his sister and family. The zoetrope was a spinning contraption like a wide-mouth bucket, cut through with vertical slits lined up around the circumference. When you spun the whole contraption and watched through the spinning slits, the pictures on the inside looked like they were moving.
That’s what this woman looked like, a trick of the light and eyes, a picture that wasn’t supposed to be moving, but did through a strange occurrence of the natural world. He couldn’t quite believe what he was seeing. She also glowed with a soft, white light. He had to keep blinking to make sure he was seeing correctly. A living zoetrope.
The three deputies put aside the question of the woman in order to tend to the only living man they found near the Mississippi shore that night. Michael Faraday. They carried him to the police wagon and drove him straight to the hospital.
The fifth and sixth witnesses were the woman’s first victims. The couple, a man and woman in port only twelve hours and strangers in Fort Charles, missed the Great Tragedy on the river and most likely never learned of it. When they stumbled out of the tavern and into the pouring rain, they saw only a moment’s glimpse of an empty street and a haggard, half-clothed woman with wet hair. The pelting rain, the deep street mud, and their own drunkenness gave them little to no chance for escape. Deputies at the scene the next morning deduced a pitifully short struggle. The man perished first. He fell at the corner under the extinguished street lamp. What remained of his clothing was fused to his charred skin. His face was covered in dried blood, sunken black pits remaining where it seemed his eyeballs had burst. His companion had lasted a few moments longer. She lay sprawled in the street, naked, her hair incinerated, her blackened flesh cooled and turned gray by the constant rain.
The final witness on the night the woman disappeared was a merchant and brewer by the name of Niklaus Werner.
Werner ran a small and unnecessary general store one block upshore and only a few doors down from the Black Horse Tavern on shabby, manure-coated Black Street surrounded by a predominance of the town’s smithies. The more popular general store, Cartwright’s Mercantile on the riverfront, did all the serious business and would have been all the general store the town of Fort Charles needed if not for the one item of inventory missing from its shelves: Werner’s Golden Lager. The beer was popular enough to draw travelers from the river and into the taverns on Black Street. Werner kept those taverns stocked with lager and kept himself in business.
A flash of light without thunder woke Werner that night, and for a few minutes he lay in bed listening to sheets of rain rattle the tin roof. Sarah, awake for nearly three days prior nursing their fever-stricken son, slept soundly as she had since around midnight when the fever had finally broken. Little Nicky, bundled up on the cot next to his parents, also slept, slightly pale but in peace.
Werner carried a single candle down from his family’s sleeping loft into the store. His wares were piled onto the wooden shelves, tables, and barrells crowded in the little one-room building. Coffee, flour, and meal, none of it filled with sawdust or any impurities he could proudly say, lined the counter by the scales. The dry goods covered the back wall, some crockery and pots and pans, one shelf of cloth, thread, pins and needles. A pitiful apothecary section consisted of two shelves of soap powder, razors, and bottles of laudanum. Indeed, the entire store was a bit pitiful. So hopeful and eager. So clean and shiny from lack of traffic. Werner did not know as he moved through the shadows of his little store that night, lit only from the occasional lightning flash from the storm, that he was soon to become a rich man, having the single general store left standing in Fort Charles as at that moment Cartwright’s began to burn along with everything else on the riverfront.
He knelt behind the counter and threw back the hooked rug, opening the hatch beneath and inhaling the earthy scent that rose from the depths below. Here was the reason he bought the building on Black Street. No smart man would place a general store so far from traffic on the river. But here, beneath the store, he had carved direct access to the limestone caves so prevalent in this part of the country. Here was the place he kept his most precious inventory.
A labyrinth existed beneath the town of Fort Charles, constructed of miles of tunnels that cut through the limestone beneath the Mississippi River Valley. Werner had as much space as he needed to keep beer cool during the weeks of fermentation, creating a light and golden lager preferred over the other Germans’ bitter ales. Business was growing, and his inventory below ground was of immeasurable value.
He lowered himself down the ladder. Temperatures dropped as he descended. The caves beneath maintained a constant cool temperature, even in the humid summer months. Niklaus walked down the line of barrels, holding his lamp to each one, checking for cracks in the wood or rot at the hoops.
Checking his barrells had become a frequent habit, a calming one, especially when he couldn’t sleep. Werner was born to a family of country brewers in the village of Olm, Germany near the Black Forest. Before he was allowed to bed at the end of a day of working in the brewery, his final task was to check the barrels in storage below ground, and it was a habit so early adopted and so deeply ingrained, he could not rest without completing the task still, though he had been grown and an American for almost two decades now.
He had shed childhood as soon as he could, and with relief. His childhood had been dark, cold, and terrifying. Niklaus Werner had been the unwanted child of a tavern wench mother whose only act of kindness had been to bring her son as far as America before abandoning him. For this, Niklaus chose to love her. She had been far more oppressed and for far longer than he. She could have left him there in the brewery with her horrid family, but instead she had risked much to bring him with her, to give him the only gifts she had to give, escape and a fighting spirit, and it was enough.
No, he did not hate his mother, nor did he fear her much after the early years of his childhood. She was rough and inattentive, but she did not take joy in his youthful fear. Not like Tante Britta, who chose him from all the other children in their old and extended family of brewers as her special helper. Each night, Niklaus was made to assist in her tasks to check the barrels below ground. Each night, Niklaus followed her below ground, in the dark. Britta die Hexe, Britta the Witch.
The Werner men were brewers as long as they were Werners. They brewed the beer and their women served it, and if those women held any thoughts outside that service, they were quickly and irreversibly corrected. Such a correction had happened to Tante Britta, who had once thought outside her place so far that her correction had scarred her face down one side in a rough, red, and scaly patch that seethed from temple to chin and left her unfit to serve in the tavern. She was assigned to barrel-keeper and spent most of her time below ground.
She was also made to tend the small children while the other women worked.
At age three, little Niklaus began to accompany her to the storage caves. She chose him especially, and it was only later in his adult years that Niklaus realized it must have been because of some cross between Tante Britta and his mother. Just as he realized, at a later age, the only payment his mother could have made to a man for the months’ journey to America for the both of them, did he also come to understand that some grudge against his mother, perhaps insignificant, led Tante Britta to choose him for her play thing and to change him irreversibly and forever.
Tante Britta told him of die Hexe that very first night. After the women left for tavern, she rounded up the children too small to work in the brewery, fed them their supper, and put them to bed.
“You,” she said, pointed a slim, long-nailed finger at him, “you come below with me.”
She led him out of the smoky longhouse where the women and children slept and across the yard to the tavern. They stopped at the back wall by the blackened stone chimney. Niklaus could hear the men inside, their shouting sometimes unified in harmony to form a sort of chanting or song. Other times, it was just shouting mixed with the rumble and stomp of boots on planks, steins on tables. Tante Britta opened the cellar hatch and descended.
“Stay with the light,” she said, not waiting or turning to see if he followed. “Below ground, without light, you might as well be in your grave.”
Below, the barrels were stacked high to form aisles. The cellar beneath the tavern opened into a cave of unseeable depth. Tanta Britta walked down the first aisle, running those long, pale fingers over the barrels, until she disappeared in the dark. Niklaus hurried after her. He followed her, careful to stay within the circle of lamplight. She was silent for too long. Niklaus began to shiver in the cold air of the cave.
“Do you know why you are here?” she said finally.
When he didn’t answer, she turned and glared at him. Unable to speak, he shook his head.
“No one goes alone underground. It is not safe to be alone in this cave. A bad woman comes here often. A witch.”
Niklaus had heard of many witches that claimed the Black Forest: the Blind Waif, the Soul-Snatcher, the Woman of the Hollow. All children of the village heard these fairy tales. Even at such a young age, little Niklaus knew these stories were meant to teach, even if he did not quite yet grasp the lesson. He understood, though, that he was meant to fear them and in that fear obey. It was a good thing, a wise thing, to be scared of these stories, and he was.
“Die hexe of the caves feeds on little children,” said Tante Britta. “She eats their innocence and grows strong.”
The story of the Child-Eater was new to Niklaus. He listened to every word Tante breathed as she walked each aisle. When finally they reached the back wall, deep in shadow so thick he could not see back from where they had come, Tante knelt down to him. Her scarred face in the shadows just beyond the lamp’s glow.
“That is why you are here. To keep me safe. Because if we meet die hexe, she will want you and not me. She will feed on you, and I will have time to run.”
Night after night, year after year, Niklaus followed Tanta Britta into the caves and heard the tales, offered himself as bait so that she might walk safely to guard their most precious commodity, the beer that was their family’s livelihood. When he was old enough to begin working in the brewery, cleaning barrels, swabbing the floors, occasionally even stirring the great mixing kettles, he would fall onto his little cot after supper, exhausted, but still Tanta Britta came for him every night to go below and check the barrels.
Every night, as the stories evolved, as they grew in length and deepened in rich, horrifying detail, he watched Tante Britta transform. Over the years, she lost what little curve she had to her figure. Her skin collapsed against her bones. Her eyes darkened to black, shiny orbs and sunk into their sockets. The slim fingers that reached out to check the barrels shrunk until they were skeletal, spider-like. The reddish-brown color drained from her hair, and it turned course and gray, then brittle and pure white. She stopped plaiting it into coils at the base of her skull and instead let it fall loose down her back.
Much too late Niklaus realized that Tante Britta was not telling him a fairy tale, a story to teach or even to thrill him or entertain him as they spent long hours in the dark at their monotonous task. She was casting a spell. She was willing the story into being, creating die hexe before his very eyes, becoming this demon she described. And he was trapped into watching it happen. Slowly, every day for six years, he watched her transform into that which she described in such detail. She was feeding on his innocence and growing strong, and he began to fear what would happen when the transformation was complete.
Then his mother, when Niklaus was ten years old, met the man who snuck them out of Germany beneath the pile of rancid, dirty straw in his horse cart. Niklaus lived beneath straw for what seemed like a lifetime. Then, for another lifetime, he lived in the damp, mildewed closet of a ship cabin. And by the time he was able to breathe fresh air again and stand out in the open without hiding, he was no longer a child and could not remember a fear for any intolerable situations.
The last time he saw his mother was on the crowded dock an hour after they arrived.
“Das is Amerika, Nicky,” she said. She squeezed his hand, and he had pulled away. “Amerika,” she repeated, “go ... schauen sie an.”
He obeyed her and turned to look up at the buildings that lined the harbor, and when he turned back, she was gone. He had the clothes on his back, wooden shoes on his feet, and in his head, the family’s secret recipe for brewing beer. And with those meager belongings, he became a shopkeeper, a brewer, and if not a wealthy man, at least a self-sufficient one.
Werner had looked for the caves all across the eastern country as he traveled as a child from New York with the other pioneers. The wagon train he traveled with stopped in St. Louis, where Werner found a brewer by the name of Pabst who hired him and brought him back to Fort Charles. The store was once the storefront of a hatmaker who hid slaves in the cave beneath his property. Before the war broke out, that information got out, and the hatmaker fled. Werner bought the building for cheap and started his store. In those early days and all through the war, the southern officers raided the place, looking for escaped slaves, but he showed them the storage place gladly, even handed out a few barrels, and after the war was over, he was left alone. No one thought much about the caves.
When he went below ground to check his barrels, as he could not help himself from doing each night before he could sleep, he heard the voice of Tante Britta. Britta die Hexe. He sometimes thought he saw her in the caves, caught a glimpse of her in the shadows just outside the lamp’s glow. And he would have to stop and measure his breathing, take control of his thoughts, remind himself that he was a grown man and would not cower at such illusions. He was a man successful in the tangible world, and that is exactly where he would remain.
Still, when he emerged from the cave that humid, stormy July night, closed the hatch soundlessly, replaced the rug, and rose from behind the counter to see a woman’s figure in silhouette against the display window, his throat closed in terror. And his first thought was:
He stumbled and fell against the counter. How had she found him? The white, tangled hair, the hollow eyes...had she somehow followed the caves beneath the seas, over the decades, all the way to America, to find him, to finish him? But no, this woman was different. She was not skeletal but strong, and her skin glowed with a pale light.
Die hexe feeds on little children. She eats their innocence and grows strong.
She wore the clothes of an American woman, but the clothes looked wrong. The skirts were limp without a crinoline beneath. And the bodice fit too tightly to have been measured and made for her.
The woman stepped toward him. When she did, her movements were convulsive and disconnected. Niklaus felt his knees buckle and hit the packed-dirt floor. From the loft came a soft cry. Die hexe looked up to where his wife and son slept. Niklaus spotted behind the counter, below the register, the hilt of his rifle.
“Nick?” Sarah called from the loft. Die hexe took a step toward the ladder.
I am no longer a child. I have not been a child for a long, long time.
Reaching out for the rifle, he took it in his hands, righted himself, and willed the strength to gather in his legs.
That is why you are here. She will feed on you, and I will have time to run.
“Niklaus?” Sarah called again.
Niklaus gripped the rifle, brought it to his shoulder and with a loud click, cocked it. Die hexe spun around, then jerked forward with those forced movements, coming toward him, coming closer.
He pulled the trigger.
Die hexe fell back on the floor, but she was already twitching, righting herself. The light beneath her skin faded, then intensified. She glowed like a phantom. With trembling hands, Niklaus reloaded the rifle as the creature pushed herself to stand up again. He heard the scuffle in the loft of what he hoped was Sarah waking little Nicky and preparing to flee.
She rose again. Lightning flashed in the window followed immediately by a crash of thunder. The woman stood and turned slowly to face him, her eyes glowing pale gray-blue, the color of a storm-ridden sky. Her skin glowed with a light that made her skin seem translucent, and it grew more translucent until he could see the delicate blue veins, then the red meat of muscle. He lifted his rifle.
But she did not approach him again. Instead, she turned and stepped toward the ladder.
“No!” Niklaus threw himself between her and the ladder. He swung the rifle like a club, smashing it to her skull. She screeched, mouth wide, and brought her hands like claws to the sides of her face. In that moment, Niklaus lunged for his lamp and smashed the glass. He thrust a nearby bolt of cloth into the open flame and swung it in a wide arc between them. It flared with heat and light.
She shrank from the fire. She stumbled back, then turned and ran out of the store. He chased her into the pelting rain and thunder outside, rifle in one hand, makeshift torch in the other.
He chased her across Black Street and came out on the riverfront. Groups of men ran from one fallen body to another. That’s when he first realized the noise he heard beyond the roar of rain, the crashing of thunder, was screaming. Flames fought against the downpour as the riverfront burned. He smelled the scent of ash and death. In the chaos, the woman disappeared into the night.
The screams grew louder and gathered into a chorus. Another lightning flash, another crash of thunder. Niklaus Werner the merchant and brewer dropped the burnt-up bolt of cloth into a muddy puddle. And Niklaus Werner the witness to unspeakable acts of abomination shook with a newfound surety in the persistence of pure evil.
Foremost were two thoughts: From what level of hell had this demon escaped? And by what method would he send her back?