Aphelion Issue 245, Volume 23
November 2019
 
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The Light From Below

by Rick Grehan




Millsford, New Hampshire

July, 1922

"You are the first lawyer man to show up," the sheriff told me. "I'm a bit surprised. As important as some of the folks involved were, I expected more of you fellows up here by now."

Sheriff Blood was tall man who barely fit behind his desk. I sat in the single, uncomfortable wooden chair opposite him, and though I was not nearly the sheriff's size, his office was so cramped that I and the chair barely fit in the remaining space.

"More -- ah -- 'lawyer men' may yet come here," I said. "But for now, my firm is trying to determine exactly what happened."

While the sheriff's complexion was uncommonly pale, his hair, handle-bar mustache, and eyebrows were jet black. Now, one of those eyebrows cocked upward as he asked, "And what do your people think happened … exactly?"

"A series of tragic events," I answered. "A wind and lightning storm blew in suddenly. Its effects were amplified by the topology of the hills surrounding the site of the celebration. Many guests were caught unprepared and unprotected outside. Others were in the hotel, but its structure was incomplete, and much of it collapsed. That was followed by the failure of the dam on the Cheshire River later that same evening. And, the next day, the mishandling of dynamite, which resulted in the deaths of Mr. Stratton and several others."

"Mishandlin'?" he asked.

"I prefer that word," I answered carefully. "Though there are rumors that Mr. Stratton and members of his staff were so distraught over the deaths from the night before that ... " I trailed off.

"They killed themselves?"

I looked away from him.

"By blowin' themselves up down in the gorge?" His voice was almost jeering.

"As I say, these are rumors only," I replied, looking back at him. "And I am not here for rumors. My task is to gather facts for the pending cases whose litigants my firm represents."

The sheriff's eyebrow lifted higher. "Facts are whatcha want? Well, I ain't gonna guarantee they'll be easy to come by, Mr Stimson. Doubt you'll like the ones you find, neither."

I frowned. "I recall reading in one of the early dispatches that you arrived shortly after the events occurred. What, then, did happen?"

The sheriff shifted uneasily in his seat, stroking his mustache. "It weren't 'til the next mornin' I made it here. When the dam went, it took out the North Road bridge. Had to take the long way 'round. So, I weren't here t' see …" he paused noticeably "... what happened."

"Well," I said, "you were the first officer on the scene, correct? You must have seen first-hand the aftermath of the storm."

The expression on the sheriff's face had become glazed, as though he were seeing far-off things. "First officer on the scene..." he muttered.

Then, the sheriff leaned forward, glazed look gone, his eyes fixed on me with an intense mixture of anger and fear. I had seen that look before. In the courtroom, in the eyes of criminals who had resolved themselves to punishment that they were convinced was both inevitable and undeserved. I did not expect it here.

"Look here, Mister Stimson," he growled, "this is what I am goin' to do. I am goin' to hand over to you all the papers, notes, and letters I have on this ... this incident. Take 'em back to the boardin' house where your stayin' and read 'em. You'll see all facts I could get. If you come back tomorrow -- and I won't think you any less a man if you don't -- I will take you to the hotel site … what's left of it. And then we'll go visit an eye-witness … what's left of him. Then maybe you'll have all the facts your lawyer-people need."

He opened a desk drawer, withdrew a thick bundle of papers bound with twine, and shoved it toward me.

"It's all there," he announced. "I've wrote down what I saw after the ... after it happened. Some of the survivors were willin' to talk. Not many, but I wrote down what I could get from 'em. I even got some bits from Mister Stratton's diary in there. Now, you read all that first, then ..." The sheriff sat back, swept his hand through his hair. "Well, let's see if you come back tomorrow," he concluded.

"Sheriff Blood, I --"

The man shook his head quickly, as though chasing thoughts away. He stood.

"And now, Mister Stimson", he announced, "you will excuse me." He stepped to the room's single door, taking his hat from its peg in the process. "I have business up in Wellington waitin' on me."

I rose, opening my satchel and depositing the bundle of papers within. The sheriff had opened the door, and held it for me in a clear indication that it was time to leave. All I could do was thank him, bid him a good day, and depart.


* * *

Earlier that same day, a passenger train had taken me from New York City to Brattleboro, Vermont, on a long but pleasant ride along the Connecticut River. In Brattleboro, I changed to an east-bound train that crossed the river and meandered through New Hampshire's southern hills. It brought me to Elmwood Junction, just below Wellington. From there, yet another train carried me south, and ultimately deposited me at the depot in the rural village of Millsford.

The boarding house, at which my accommodations had been secured, was an easy walk from the station; particularly easy as I always traveled with a single, lightly-packed suitcase. Arriving at my destination, I was greeted in the parlor by the proprietress, Mrs. Nutting. Like everything else in the village, she was small; her petite, round face creased by time, work, and New England winters.

She seated herself at a roll top desk tucked into one of the room's corners, withdrew from a cubbyhole a telegram, and unfolded it.

"Mr Stimson," she said as she read. "From New York, I see."

"With the law firm of Tutwiler and Clark," I confirmed. "Here on business. I estimated four days at most."

"Of course," she said, folding the telegram and returning it to its spot. "You're a lawyer come about Paradise Lake."

"Not a lawyer, madam," I corrected. "At least, not yet. I am merely a law clerk, if you please."

Apparently ignoring my last remark, she stood up and said, "You are my only boarder -- most likely my last -- so you'll find the place quiet, in case you need to do any readin' or writin'."

"Last? You are giving up your boarding house?" I looked about the parlor. It had obviously seen better days. The wall stenciling had faded. Nevertheless the condition of the furniture and the shine on a set of candlesticks arrayed along the mantel suggested the premises were well cared for.

"Ayuh," she replied. "Was doin' fine when they were buildin' the hotel. Rooms full up, and many of the men came here for meals. Now, though, after the … storm … " she paused, and her eyes darted to one of the nearby windows "... you're my first boarder in weeks. Can't keep it up no more. Got a sister down in Springfield says I can move in. So …" At this, she pointed down a short hallway at the back of the parlor and continued, "So your room is directly at the top of the stairs. Washroom's just past it. Follow me."

We climbed a narrow stairway that led to an equally narrow second-floor hall. Mrs. Nutting opened the first door on the left, stepped away and waited with her hands folded. I entered the room and looked about. It was in keeping with the rest of the house. A narrow bed; on one side a narrow door opened into a closet that I suspected would barely accommodate even the meager contents of my suitcase; on the other side stood a chair and writing table. I was actually surprised to find that, on the wall adjacent to the chair, enough space was available to allow a window.

I deposited my suitcase on the bed and thanked Mrs. Nutting. Her acknowledgement was a silent nod; she began to descend the stairs.

I called after her. "I wonder, Mrs. Nutting, if you could direct me to the sheriff's office?"

She stopped at the bottom of the stairs and, without turning, called back, "Millsford's got no sheriff, never did. Had a chief, Ken Blood was his name, but he was killed in the … " There was that pause again. "... storm."

"But, I was told to contact a Sheriff Blood when I arrived," I said, confused.

"Ayuh. He's the county sheriff, down here from Wellington. In charge 'til they find a replacement chief."

"But … they have the same surname?"

Mrs. Nutting turned her head slightly. "The sheriff's name's Amos Blood. Ken was his brother." She disappeared into the downstairs.


* * *

It was mid-afternoon when I left the sheriff's office to return to the boarding house, carrying the materials Sheriff Blood had given me. Though it was the late July, the air was unusually cool, so I was obliged to hold the front of my suit coat closed against the intermittent wind. I looked up. The sky was clear and blue, but the sunlight seemed somehow sapped of its energy, losing to a palpable degree its ability to impart warmth. Nevertheless, the chill weather did nothing to deter the mixture of mosquitoes and biting flies that swarmed my face. As I carried my satchel in one hand, I was forced to use the other to alternately wave away the insects and keep my coat from being blown open.

Millsford had but a single thoroughfare, which ran from the town hall building where the Sheriff's office was, to the boarding house at the village's opposite end. So, I expected that, in spite of the town's scant population, I should have encountered one or two of its citizens. It was the main street, after all, modest though it might be.

Not a soul was out. Nor even an animal. Not a dog trailing the roadside, not a cat on any of the several front porches I passed. The houses seemed abandoned, lifeless. I walked past what I assumed was the village's mill building. Its red brick walls were faded to the color of dust-covered blood, its windows dark and coated with the grime of disuse. Clusters of brown, unhealthy-looking weeds grew through the cracks in the stone walkway that led to its the single doorway. Everything indicated a business long shuttered.

I paused, and noticed for the first time that the air was empty of the sounds of birds. I thought I spied a flock for sheep on one of the distant hills, arrayed in the weak sunlight. They, and the annoying bugs, were the only signs of life.

I arrived at the boarding house, and ascended the steps to its entrance. Passing through the parlor, I found my way to the creaking stairway and climbed it to my room. I let myself in, hung my coat on the back of the door, pulled the papers out of my satchel, placed them on the small writing table that stood against the room's back wall, and sat down before them. I lit the table's lamp, drew it near, and untied the bundle.

Though I had arrived only that morning, I had already decided that I wanted to be away from Millsford as quickly as possible. A spirit of melancholy seemed to hover over the place. I told myself that the way to accomplish an early departure was to complete my work. So, I withdrew the top paper from the bundle, and began to read …


* * *

I already knew something of Leonard Stratton's past. A self-made multi-millionaire, he owned -- or, rather, had owned -- one of the largest shipping companies on the east coast. He was born near Portsmouth, New Hampshire, but at some point in his late teens, he had moved to Boston, where -- over a period of a couple of decades or so -- he had worked his way up from his beginnings as a longshoreman, risen through a series of management positions in several shipping companies, until finally he founded Stratton Shipping, which he proceeded to fashion into the largest corporation of its kind on the Atlantic coast.

A few years back, during a summer vacation to his home state of New Hampshire, he hatched the plan of building a lakeside resort in the southern part of the state where he and other well-to-do businessmen and their families could escape the summertime heat of the big cities like New York and Boston.

The southwestern portion of New Hampshire -- his chosen area -- had few lakes that, in his opinion, possessed scenic worthiness for his planned resort. So, with his already-famous single-mindedness, Statton concluded that he would build his own lake. It did not take him long to locate the Cheshire Gorge, barely a mile north of the village of Millsford. The gorge was a half-mile or so stretch of exposed bedrock into which the Cheshire River had carved a deep and narrow trench on its way to joining the Contoocook River. The Cheshire Gorge did not approach the extent or depth of the canyons of the western United States, being no more than fifty feet down at its deepest. But Stratton's hired engineers confirmed his belief that a dam, constructed at the gorge's exit, would form a lake. The land around the gorge was a natural valley, so the lake would create a pleasantly scenic shoreline, adjacent to which Stratton could build his resort. No part of the village of Millsford itself was in the floodplain, so there would be no need for the expensive relocation of buildings or the re-routing of roads.

Millsford had been a modestly prosperous, though small, mill town. It was on one of the main railroad lines north from Massachusetts, though trains rarely stopped at Millsford after the mill had closed down -- driven out of business by a larger, more productive mill in the town of Peterborough, to the north. Since the closure of the mill, Millsford had sunk into obscurity. Consequently, Stratton's project was welcomed by the citizens as a means of revitalizing their village, owing to the wealthy clientele that would necessarily pass through the town en route to the resort.

Just over two years ago, Stratton had concluded his purchases of the necessary land deeds, had hired the workmen, materials, and equipment, and commenced construction of what he hoped would become Paradise Lake, as he so named his project.


* * *

The materials that the Sheriff had provided were arranged in chronological order. Most of the first papers included work progress reports. Worker accommodations -- initially tents, followed by hastily built temporary buildings -- were erected near the chosen site. Construction on the resort's buildings and the dam were to proceed simultaneously, and began in the early spring of last year.

The plan was to complete the dam before the winter, allowing the subsequent spring's runoff to create the lake. By the time the following summer arrived, there would be enough of a lake, and enough of a resort building, to warrant opening Paradise Lake to its first guests.

The project's lead foreman was Liam Ware, and his reports predominated. As I read, I began to notice repeated references to what appeared at first to be acts of simple vandalism on the project sites, but evolved into what could only have been out-and-out sabotage. Workers' tents were damaged, drinking water reservoir tanks found punctured, bags of concrete mix torn open and soaked with water, and in one instance some of the lumber that was to be used in the resort's construction was set afire in the middle of the night. In the margin next to more than one entry, Ware had written in large and apparently angry letters: "Heggstrum!"

Following was a note from Stratton to Ware, apparently sent in response to an appeal from Ware, authorizing the foreman to hire and post guards. In the note, Stratton agreed to the hiring, and promised to travel to the site and address directly what he referred to as "the Heggstrum problem."

Men were engaged and armed at Ware's direction. A subsequent log entry described a shooting at about two in the morning near one of the storage sheds at the dam's construction site. One of the guards had seen someone skulking near the shed. Who it had been was never discovered. The shot found no target, but scared the lurker away.

At this point in the chronology, excerpts from Stratton's diary appeared. As he promised, he had traveled to the construction site to address "the Heggstrum problem."

"Heggstrum", I learned as I continued to read, was the name of a man who lived in the hills on the side of the gorge opposite Millsford. Stratton and his foreman had determined that Heggstrum -- or, more accurately, Heggstrum with the assistance of one or more of his several sons -- was responsible for the instances of vandalism.

So, "addressing the Heggstrum problem" turned out to be Stratton's sending a small squad of armed workmen to Heggstrum's farmhouse, whereupon they fetched the fellow and his two older sons to one of the buildings on the worksite. There, Stratton confronted the man face-to-face.

As I read these diary excerpts, I formed the opinion that Stratton was doing his best to make a truce with Heggstrum, not threaten him. This was not from virtuousness on Stratton's part; he simply wanted the matter resolved as quickly as possible. He wanted to bring a close to the incidences of vandalism -- without creating an enemy in the process -- so that his work on Paradise Lake could proceed.

I will not try to paraphrase what Stratton wrote of the interview. His transcript of it follows:

Heggstrum's accent was not of the New Hampshire hill folk, an accent I had heard often in and around Millsford. It was unlike any I had heard before, and I have tried to capture its essence in these notes.

Heggstrum: Yeh cannat flood the gorge. Yeh'll be covern' the door.

I asked what door he was speaking of. We had surveyed the land to be flooded. There were no buildings anywhere in that area.

Heggstrum: Nay, not a door to a house. It's to a diff'ernt place. But it must stay closed. And if yeh flood the gorge, I cannat keep it closed.

I told the man in no uncertain terms that he wasn't making any sense. He snorted and chuckled.

Heggstrum: I told the Christian preacher about it last fall. Even showed him the door and let him see a bit o' what was behind it. Did he not tell yeh?

I said that, if he was referring to Pastor Chambers, then, no, the pastor had not spoken of any door in the gorge that I knew of. "In fact," I said to Mr. Heggstrum, "I understand that, immediately after meeting with you, the pastor departed the town of Millsford, with no explanation why, and having given no indication that he would ever return. I should tell you, that event has caused considerable concern amongst the townspeople."

Heggstrum made that snorting chuckle again. Then he said that he had misjudged the pastor, and that the man had more sense than he'd given him credit for.

I said, "See here, Mr. Heggstrum. What is this door that you say will be opened by the flooding of the gorge area? If there is a building that our surveys missed, perhaps we can arrange to have it moved. Or erect a new one outside of the flood area. Will that satisfy you?"

Heggstrum: Yeh don't understand. Like I say, it's not a door to a house.

Then, he sat up straight in his chair, and began to talk in a fashion that was at once animated, excited, and yet chilling. He spoke like a child might speak when describing a phantasm glimpsed through the nursery window. Heggstrum said that at the lowest part of the gorge was a door in the canyon's wall. A door made of solid granite. He did not know how long the door had been there, nor by whose hand it had be wrought. But he was the only one who knew how to keep it closed, and that was his duty. It has been the duty of his father, his grandfather, great-grandfather, and as far back as his family's memory stretched. And it would be his son's duty one day. He didn't know how the duty had come to fall upon his family, any more than he knew the door's origins. But one thing he did know: the door must be kept closed. If it were ever to open, then: "things will be loosed upon this world. Things which simply should not ... BE."

I confess that I found myself somewhat hypnotized by Mr. Heggstrum's exposition. When I finally spoke, I should have reiterated that he was speaking nonsense; instead I asked what it was that kept this door closed.

Heggstrum answered in a low whisper: "Magic and blood, Mr. Stratton. And nothing else. Nothing else can. Magic and blood."

Those words brought me back to my senses. I think Heggstrum saw my growing revulsion. He said: "Not human blood, if that is what yer thinkin'. Though long ago it was human blood, and the magic was stronger and lasted longer for that. Not now. And because it's animal blood, the spells must be applied more often. Certain nights, certain times. T'would take too long to explain to yeh. But … it's what must be done!"

This did not relieve my growing abhorrence. Up to this point, I had tried to convince myself that Mr. Heggstrum was simply backward, poorly educated, misguided -- but not malicious. Now I saw him as something dark and malevolent. A loathsome magician, carrying out bloody, pagan rituals in the night at some imagined, fantastical doorway in a rock wall.

I motioned for Mr. Ware, who stepped forward from behind me. I said, "Liam, please have your men escort Mr. Heggstrum and his sons outside, and see to it they leave this property. Mr. Heggstrum, I am giving you fair warning this evening that if you or any member of your family is found on my property, that man will be shot on sight. Our guns had been loaded with salt; I will instruct my men to now employ lead ammunition. Furthermore, if any additional instances of vandalism occur, you will be the primary suspect. I will see to it that you and all your family members are brought in for questioning, and that the questioning be comprehensive and prolonged."

I did not wait for his reply. I motioned again to Mr. Ware. Two other men appeared to accompany him, and the group led Heggstrum and his sons from the room. The man said nothing as he left. Though I kept my eyes averted from his, so loathe was I to look him in the face, I could see him shaking his head on his way through the door.

Here Stratton's transcript ended, and by happenstance, my reading was disturbed by a knock on my door.

"Enter!" I called, and Mrs. Nutting eased the door open enough for her to extend her head into my room and announce that she had corn chowder ready for supper. She asked if I would like a bowl brought up to my room so that I could continue working. I thanked the woman, and said it would be agreeable. She disappeared, and while she was gone I rearranged the papers I had scattered around the table so that there would be room for my food as I continued reading.

She returned, holding a tray that carried a steaming bowl. Beside it was a drinking glass and a pitcher. Mrs. Nutting indicated that the pitcher held buttermilk that she had provided as drink.

I thanked her again. She nodded her response without outward expression, and left my room.

The sun was close to setting, and the shadows of the nearby hills were beginning to slide into the town. Because the boarding house was at the end of the main street, only one cottage was visible from my window. Beyond that small house, the road disappeared behind a stand of fir trees and oaks. A light was on in that house, a pale yellow flickering that seemed to have barely enough energy to pass through the cottage window and traverse the growing darkness to where I sat.

I turned back to the table, recited the meal's blessing, took a spoonful of soup, and resumed reading.

The material following the interview transcript covered the events of the terrible day itself. From what I gathered, the notes I read were reconstructions from hastily written entries in Stratton's diary, as well as subsequent interviews with various survivors.

The grand opening of the Paradise Hotel was the evening of the twenty-first of June, barely one month ago. Though work was still ongoing in parts of the hotel building; kitchens, dining areas, and a ballroom were complete, and at least a dozen of the best suites were ready for occupation. All these were to be made available to Stratton's first guests: families from the cream of the east coast's upper crust. And Stratton had planned to celebrate the hotel's opening with a lavish outdoor party on the shore of his newly-created Paradise Lake.

Pavilions were erected, a small army of cooks and servants was employed, and a musical ensemble was engaged and transported from Boston.

Before dawn, the procession of trucks began to arrive. Most unloaded food, some unloaded lawn furniture, others unloaded cabling, electric lanterns, and dynamos. The grounds of the hotel, the pavilions, as well as the newly-completed shoreline promenade and boat docks, were to be decorated and illuminated with strings of lights, Stratton intending the festivities to extend well into the night.

At this point in the notes, someone had written into the margins an entry stating that the weather had been impeccable all day; the blue sky cloudless, the temperatures mild, the humidity absent. "Odd," I remarked to myself. "I would have thought that, given what I've heard of the destructiveness of the storm, the weather of that day would have shown some sign of what was to come that night."

The guests begin arriving in mid-afternoon, filling the parking area with Auburn convertibles and Cadillacs. The porch and promenade were soon peopled with gentlemen and ladies, all a-stroll and -- presumably -- happily chattering about whatever topics the wealthy chatter about at such gatherings. I imagined that the air must have soon filled with the aromas of expensive perfumes and expensive cigars.

The afternoon advanced into early twilight. The musicians assembled in one of the pavilions and began their performance. In another pavilion, lace-bedecked tables, hovered over by servants, overflowed with food and drink. In still another pavilion, tables, chairs, and lounges had been arranged for the guests' relaxation.

Because work was still taking place in the hotel, as well as at the site of a large gazebo that was to be erected adjacent to the dock, and because it was Stratton's work style to involve himself at all levels of his projects, the man roamed the grounds, accompanied at times by his secretary and his foreman, Ware. He would mingle with his guests, then excuse himself to receive a piece of news or status of a project from one attendant, then rattle out a command to another attendant -- who, upon scurrying off to fulfill the command would be replaced by still another attendant -- then return attention to his guests.

The notes proceeded in this fashion, including mundane information such as guest arrivals, the comings and goings of workers, and difficulties in starting the dynamos. Possibly the most interesting entry was a concern that an inquisitive guest might tamper with a dynamo, so someone was stationed to guard the machines. This kind of information continued to a point that I estimated to be about 9 o'clock that evening.

Then, news was brought to Stratton of something sighted on the lake. He went to the shore to investigate, and saw what appeared to be a rowboat out on the water. No such boats had been made available to the guests, and Stratton had earlier ordered that none of his employees were to be on the lake while the festivities were underway. Stratton called for a spotlight to be brought, and while waiting for its arrival, he and those with him on the shore heard what sounded like chanting. The sound seemed to originate from the unknown boat.

The spotlight arrived, but was not powerful enough to identify who was in the boat. Mr. Ware announced that a dinghy was moored at one of the docks, and agreed to fetch it and investigate. Stratton ordered two workmen to accompany the foreman and, as a precaution, saw to it that one was armed.

The workmen assembled at the shore, and the boat was brought from the dock. The men climbed in, and rowed away toward the sounds. Those onshore could only watch.

Little in the notes told of what the men in the boat actually saw. What was recorded was that the boat carrying Stratton's men encountered another rowboat on the lake. In this latter boat were Mr. Heggstrum and one of his sons. This information was conveyed to Stratton on the shore by shouts from the foreman in the dinghy. It seemed that Heggstrum was attempting to enact the ritual he had described in the interview.

Those onshore guessed that the foreman ordered Heggstrum to stop and row off the lake. Heggstrum ignored the order. The foreman called to Stratton, requesting what action he should take. Stratton considered the situation. It was likely that some of the guests would become aware of the commotion at the shoreline, and may come down to investigate. Stratton was uncertain what might happen if they learned of Heggstrum and what he was doing. Concerned that confronting Heggstrum in view of his guests would dampen the levity of the celebration, he ordered his men to row back. Stratton would deal with Heggstrum in the morning.

The foreman and his crew began their return. Stratton writes that, at that moment, he and the others at the shore became aware of a peculiar glow developing and brightening beneath the lake waters in the vicinity of the two boats. It was described as a suffuse, green light, rising from below, that quickly spread and brightened. Exclamations were heard from the men in the boats. Someone called out that he could see movement below the water's surface. The movement was described as "vast, waving shadows."

Rushing and splashing was heard on the lake, louder than would be made by the men rowing, sounding more like large objects breaching and falling back onto the surface. The glow from below grew brighter, so that the whole surface of the lake became a confusion of sickly green light and writhing shadows. The exclamations of the men in the boats rose to screams, abruptly broken off by a loud splash and the noise of timbers splitting. The sounds of roiling waters out in the darkness on the lake escalated to a frenzy. Those on shore swept the lake's surface with their lanterns, hoping to catch a glimpse of their fellows in the boat. They saw churning green water and what appeared to be a mass of whipping and coiling snakes and what Stratton described as "an elephant's trunk the diameter of a full-grown oak and so long I could not see either end of it."

Here, the reconstruction of the evening's events abruptly ended. The next pages among the papers were penned by Sheriff Blood, and described what he found when he arrived the following morning.

The hotel building was completely destroyed; pieces of the structure were strewn along what remained of the shoreline. Portions of the building's framework were found in the woods, hurled into the trees by some incredible force. Guests' automobiles were likewise smashed, some found at great distances from where they had been parked. The sheriff wrote that the only phenomenon he could conceive of able to wreak such widespread damage was a whirlwind tornado.

The shoreline was now a shoreline to a wide field of mud, littered with wet, broken branches and tree-trunks, all covered in damp, odorous muck. Paradise Lake was gone. The dam had been destroyed, and the waters had emptied in a matter of hours. The sheriff's notes did not detail the damage that must have been wrought downstream by that torrent.

I turned a page and, in growing horror, read the descriptions of the dead, and the various states and circumstances of their bodies. The windstorm -- if such had been the cause -- must have been singularly malevolent. Bodies were not merely battered, as one would imagine would happen were a gale responsible. Bodies were shredded. They were torn into pieces, as might be done by a wild animal -- though, in this case, a wild animal of prodigious size. Some bodies had become projectiles. One woman's corpse was found so high in a tree, the tree had to be cut down to retrieve the remains.

Following these grisly passages came excerpts from the sheriff's brief interviews with the few survivors. The interviews were abridged because all those he was able to interrogate were in varying degrees of mental shock. And most were injured, some severely. Many simply could not be interviewed, much less conversed with. One man was found curled under a clump of bushes near what had been the parking area, rocking rhythmically and babbling about a "light from below."

Those who could talk reported that they had first felt a violent trembling of the earth, followed by a distant, thunderous sound. It was not long afterward that the lake waters began to recede. The Paradise Lake dam had given way, although -- to a man -- the witnesses were convinced that the thing that subsequently appeared was responsible. The dam had not failed, it had been destroyed.

Something had risen out of the lake. Something large, though no one could be accurate about its size. One woman said it dwarfed the hotel building. A man swore that it was the size "...of a bull elephant..." and claimed that he should know, because he had been on a safari in Africa just last year. Similarly, none could adequately describe its shape, though all asserted that it possessed massive tentacles, by which most of the death and destruction had been wrought.

It was accompanied by an eerie and frightful form of lightning. Eerie in that it had that same, green pallor as was seen emanating from beneath the lake's surface. Frightful in that it did not strike from above, but from below. If formed horrifying arcs that terminated in and around the hotel site. Several people were struck and instantly killed. Automobiles were set afire. But its primary effect was to heighten the insanity of an already insane scene.

Through tears and near babblings, witnesses told of whole trees being pulled out of the ground, their trunks used as clubs to batter buildings, automobiles, and people. Pavilions were shredded like paper models, the tables and servants flung into the darkness, hotel walls peeled open, struggling people pulled out, and …

I could not read the remainder of the paragraph. Instead, I moved on to the next section. It was was a formal report written by Sheriff Blood, describing an event from the next morning -- while he was at the site interviewing witnesses. Shortly after 10a.m., an explosion somewhere down in the gorge hurled rocks, mud, and debris skyward, and sent people on the hotel grounds ducking for cover. Afterward, upon asking some of the survivors if they knew its cause, the sheriff learned that Mr. Stratton and four or five other men had descended into the gorge with dynamite. No one had been told their purpose, but those the sheriff questioned stated they were certain the aim of Stratton and his companions was to destroy the monster. The sheriff organized a search party to make the trek out to the site of the explosion and search for survivors.

At this point, a clock chimed somewhere in the boarding house's downstairs. I looked up from my reading, counting the distant gongs. Eleven o'clock. I opened my pocket watch and verified the time.

I rubbed my eyes. The realization of the hour's lateness made me realize also the extent of my fatigue. As much as I wanted to learn what the search party had discovered, I recalled that I was to meet the sheriff in the morning to visit and examine what remained of the Paradise Lake resort. Being unsure of what exertions the next day might bring, I thought it best to put myself to bed and conclude my reading later.

It should come as no surprise that, owing to the content of the transcriptions I had been reading all evening, my sleep was not a restful one.


* * *

The next morning, after a quick breakfast provided by Mrs. Nutting, I left the boarding house and retraced my steps to the town hall building. I found Sheriff Blood waiting just outside the door to his office, leaning against a rather battered-looking Ford two-door hard-top, smoking a pipe. He turned at the sound of my approach and, upon seeing me, one of those black eyebrows of his arched upward.

He withdrew the pipe and rapped it against the side of the automobile to empty it. "Well, Mr. Stimson," he said, "I am a tad impressed. You read my notes and reports?"

"I did," I replied. "My reading was rather hurried, though. And some parts I could not bring myself to read completely."

"Oh?"

"They were disturbing -- disturbing to the point of being unbelievable."

Again, his eyebrow arched. "Unbelievable? You doubt what I wrote of the damage? The dead?"

I shook my head quickly. "No, sheriff, it is not your descriptions I doubt. The statements of the survivors, however …"

The sheriff looked away from me. He began scratching his chin.

I pressed on. "You wrote that only something akin to a tornado could cause destruction on that scale. I believe you hit upon the very answer, what I have suspected all along. I have read that -- at a distance -- that which is called a tornadic funnel cloud has the appearance of an elephant's trunk; which, in the dark, one could easily mistake for a large tentacle. Also, one witness compared the size of the apparition to an elephant. Perhaps the windstorm's trunk-like shape conjured that image in his mind."

Now the sheriff was eying me, still scratching his chin.

"And consider the accounts of the green lightning," I continued. "I have read that it is frequently reported that the sky will turn a peculiar shade of green prior to the appearance of a tornado. I know of no explanation for that phenomenon, but could it be that whatever meteorological effect causes it was also the reason for the lightning's color?"

I spread my hands. "I recognize that this is all speculation on my part. But the evidence is compelling. Surely, a sudden lightning storm that spawned a tornado is a more reasonable explanation than some enormous, tentacled creature rising from a New England lake. Don't you agree?"

The sheriff remained leaning against the automobile, eyes fixed on me, silent for what felt like a full minute. His face was unreadable.

Finally, he motioned over his shoulder with his pipe -- which he still held. "Hop in, Mr. Stimson, and I'll drive us down to the site of the hotel. You can have a look at what your tor-na-do" -- he emphasized each syllable -- "has done."

Pocketing his pipe, the sheriff opened the driver's side door of the Ford and climbed in. I walked to the opposite side and did likewise.

We drove away from the town hall and past the main street's remaining two buildings: a modest home and what at one time was probably a hardware store. Both appeared to be abandoned.

The countryside just outside the town was an unremarkable series of open fields, each bordered by granite stone walls. We bumped along the dirt and gravel road in silence, the ground sloping down and away from the town, until we passed into a small grove of mainly birch and maple. Here, Sheriff Blood turned off onto a smaller, all-gravel road that was flanked by two large oaks. On one was attached a broad, wooden sign on which had been painted "Paradise Lake" in ornate letters.

The road wound among the trees a short distance, before bringing us to a wide clearing whose backdrop was a sunlit line of rolling, green hills stretching the full length of the horizon. The road widened into an area of pea stone. I noticed that it was deeply rutted, as though heavy equipment had passed over it. Otherwise, it formed a large, circular car park adjacent to the entrance of the Paradise Lake Hotel.

Or, what had once been the Paradise Lake Hotel.

The Sheriff stopped the car, and I climbed slowly out.

"My God!" I whispered.

I had seen many photographs of the hotel, taken at different stages in its construction. The final pictures showed a rambling, three-story mansion bedecked with tall windows and crowned by a row of dormers too numerous to count. A wrap-around deck girded the bottom story. At one corner, the deck connected to a covered promenade that led to the lakeshore. One could easily imagine gentlemen and ladies reclining in Adirondack chairs on the porch, strolling the promenade, or leaning from upper-story balconies to regard the New England hill-country reflected on the lake's surface.

What I saw as I stood beside the sheriff's automobile was a chaotic jumble of broken lumber, planks, empty window frames, and shattered foundation bricks. Not a wall was standing. All was so thoroughly destroyed that nothing remained to suggest that the pieces in the rubble at one time formed a structure.

The sheriff had climbed out of his car, but stood with the door still open. His head turned rapidly, his eyes darting this way and that as though he were watching for something.

My eye was drawn to the promenade. Remarkably, a few sections were still standing. Those that were not had not so much collapsed as crushed, as though some heavy weight had fallen upon them. I stepped away from the car, walking in the direction of the promenade, and what had been the shore of Paradise Lake.

As reported, when the dam had broken, the waters of the lake were emptied. The Cheshire River now ran along its age-old channel in the gorge, but the gorge was not visible from our vantage. What was visible was a valley of stumps, leafless tree branches, black dirt, and mud. A desolate and repulsive landscape.

I stopped, and tried to imagine the lake as Stratton had wanted it to look: a wide shield of steel blue, reflecting the hills beyond. I nodded slowly in appreciation. Stratton's eye for the area had been sound. A lake here would have made a picturesque panorama. But now ...

At that moment, I became aware of strange indentations in the exposed lake-bottom. Long, sinuous tracks where the dirt and mud had either been compressed or scooped away. They stretched as far as I could see, disappearing into a distant, barely-visible cleft that I assumed must be the edge of the gorge. I followed one up to the shore and onto the grounds of the hotel. Here on more solid soil, it was faint, but it led unmistakably to one of the collapsed sections of the promenade.

The sheriff apparently noticed. "What d'you supposed caused a rut like that, Mr. Stimson?" he called. "Your tor-na-do?"

Ignoring his taunt, I pointed up the shoreline past the hotel's rubble. "I see several sizable trunks just up the shore here," I answered. "A tornado could have uprooted a tree, dragged it along the lake-bed, and ultimately atop the promenade, collapsing its roof. Did not some of the survivors report trees being pulled into the air by the so-called tentacles? It could be they were simply witnessing the work of the storm's winds."

I thought I heard him snort. He shook his head, and looked away.

Examining the grounds more closely, I saw scattered bits and pieces of debris that called to mind events described in the reports I had last evening. Here, a length of electrical cable that had probably led between a dynamo and a string of lights; there a scrap of shredded canvas -- visibly burnt -- from a pavilion's roof; a smashed, wooden, folding chair half buried in the mud.

I turned around, searching. The sheriff saw me.

"Whatcha lookin' for, Mr. Stimson?" he called.

"I read last night that the guests had arrived in a fair number of automobiles. And yet …"

The sheriff had pulled off his hat and was fanning his face, apparently to shoo away the black flies that even I had noticed were beginning to swarm around our heads. "All we could find were hauled away," he said. "Many had bodies or parts of bodies in 'em." He pointed back toward the woods we had driven through. "Found two or three in pieces in the trees back there. Was the devil gettin' 'em out."

I followed his pointing finger and -- for the first time -- noticed the broken and dangling branches in many of the trees. Two treetops appeared to be completely shorn off. I recalled the entry in the notes of the woman whose corpse could only be rescued by felling the tree it was in. I shivered.

I turned back to face the valley of stumps and mud that had been Paradise Lake and called over my shoulder. "And what of the explosion in the gorge? I have not read, yet, the section of your report detailing the findings of the search party. All I know is that Stratton and the others are thought to have died in the blast. Is the place where it happened visible from here?"

"Nope," Sheriff Blood called back. "Even if it were, anything that got thrown out by the blast just mixed in with all the dirt and mud and sticks out there. You can't tell one thing from another."

"Can we get to a spot where it can be viewed?"

The sheriff didn't answer. I turned. He was still waving his hat beside his face. He said, his voice lowered, "You'd have to walk out to the gorge, Mr. Stimson. And trust me -- you don't want to do that."

A black fly buzzed my ear. I swatted at it.

The sheriff chuckled. Returning his hat to his head he called, "They're wicked fierce down here, eh? Get on back here, Mr. Stimson, there ain't much else to see. 'Sides, we are going to visit someone who can tell you everything there is to know about that explosion." He began to climb back into his automobile, but he stopped and -- looking past me -- said, "And what you might see if you were fool enough to go down into that gorge."


* * *

Our three-hour drive from Millsford to the village of Greystone took us on a route that followed the Cheshire river – the very watercourse that Stratton had dammed to create Paradise Lake, and whose waters were subsequently released on that tumultuous night. It led us winding through ridges and hills whose lower slopes were largely cleared for grazing, but at whose summits clustered dense woods of oak, maple, and pine.

The Bolivar psychiatric hospital was situated on one of those hills, overlooking Greystone. I marveled at the remoteness of the place. The sheriff explained that the hospital was funded by a wealthy Bostonian benefactor whose aging mother had required the sort of facilities Bolivar provided. Its remoteness, he said, was intentional.

The building's appearance was precisely what one imagines of such institutions: an elaborate, Victorian facade formed of a series of gables bookended by turrets at the two visible corners; high, narrow windows; its masonry all dark, gray brick. The sheriff parked the car, and we passed through the gated entrance door, where a white-uniformed attendant escorted us to the office of the alienist we were scheduled to meet.

The walls of the doctor's high-ceilinged room were lined with amply filled bookshelves, except for two spaces occupied by windows. Several tables were in the room, each surrounded by chairs, so that we had to navigate to the alienist's desk as though steering through a maze.

The doctor shook the sheriff's hand first. Apparently, the two had met already. I heard the doctor say softly, "Once again, Sheriff, may I say how sorry I was to hear of your brother." The sheriff made no reply.

Then, he turned and greeted me. "And you must be Mr. Stimson. Doctor Hansen, at your service. I understand you have come to listen to the recording of one of Mr. Pierson's sessions."

"I believe that is correct," I replied, gripping his hand. "However, I am unfamiliar with recording devices, though I have heard of them. My law firm is considering acquiring one."

"Oh, it's a marvelous invention," he replied brightly, rounding his desk and moving into the sea of tables. We followed. "We received ours about six months ago. It allows us to capture the actual dialogs of patient interviews, so that a secretary can transcribe them to paper at leisure."

He stopped at a table, atop which sat a contrivance composed of silver handles, delicate gears, a mysterious-looking ebony cylinder, and a brass funnel shaped like a horn. The doctor motioned to chairs, and we sat down around the table.

"As people speak," he continued, "their voices create vibrations in the air. These vibrations are captured and amplified by this reception funnel, and inscribed into the surface of this spinning cylinder. To, as we say, 'play back' the conversation, the process is simply reversed. The vibrations of the inscription pen are conveyed to the funnel, which amplifies the sound by confining the waves in the same way that a bullhorn operates."

The man seemed very pleased with the machine, but the sheriff noisily shifted the position of his chair. Doctor Hansen looked up. "Of course, Sheriff Blood, I apologize for my lengthy explanation." He looked at me. "Mr. Stimson, you will want to move your chair forward, and place yourself as close to the funnel as is comfortable. The quality of the reproduction is good, but not remarkable, and unfortunately degrades with each playing."

I pulled my chair closer to the table and leaned forward. Dr. Hansen pressed a lever on the device, and the sounds of the interview crackled through the horn.

I could distinguish two voices. One, clear and pleasantly firm, was the doctor's. The other was softer, a bit slurred, and sounded fatigued. I took it to be Mr. Pierson's.

During a lull in the speaking, Dr. Hansen leaned forward and whispered to me that Mr. Pierson had been given a mild sedative, and other "relaxation techniques" had been applied prior to the interview to "protect the patient's obviously assaulted mental state." I was about to pose a question, but Mr. Pierson's voice had resumed.

Pierson: "I heard the sound of the dam going. Sounded like a big gun. I left the workshed, and went outside. I heard the water, thunderin' off a ways. A workman – Dan, I think it was – went runnin' by and screamed 'it busted the dam!'. And that the whole lake was emptyin'. He ran into the woods and I never saw him again.

"I fetched a lantern from the shed and went out to the lake shore ... I mean, where the lake shore had been. It had already gone out about a foot. Walt was with me. I heard him groan. He said, 'Gawd, I hope there ain't nobody nearby that river down from the dam. It'll flood for miles!' We watched. We could see the water goin' away."

Doctor: "And what happened next?"

Pierson: "We were about to head to the hotel buildin', to see what all the noise had been we'd heard earlier. That's when the lightnin' started."

Doctor: "Lightning? So, that's when the storm blew in?"

Pierson: "Storm ... weren't no storm. Night sky was clear. Lightnin'. Green lightnin'! Didn't come from the sky. Come from out of the lake. Only the lake was goin' away. The lightnin' shot up, and then bent back down, strikin' the hills and the trees. Walt yelled, 'It's comin' out the gorge!' Then, one went up and over our heads and hit the woods behind us. Walt whooped and ran back to the shed. After the next one, I went and crouched by the shed with him. We didn't dare move ... it looked to be hittin' everywhere..

"Don't know how long we hunkered there. The lightnin' and roarin' of the water got worse. A coupla times we thought we'd be hit for sure. And sometimes we felt the ground shakin'. Walt did a lot of prayin', and I ain't shamed to say that I joined in. Then, it all began to die down. The roarin' stopped, and the lightnin' quit. Me and Walt come out from where we were.

"We went to the shore, only there weren't no shore. I held up my lantern, and all we could see was mud. Walt's lantern was electric, and he waved its beam out over what should have been the lake. 'Damnation,' he whispered. 'It ain't there no more!' That's when I noticed everythin' stank, too. I could smell mud, but there was somethin' else. Somethin' cold and dead, like deep holes in the ground, or old dug-out cellars. The air was gettin' cold, too.

"Me and Walt figured we ought to go down to the hotel like we was goin' to before the lightnin' started. That's when we saw some men comin' up the path toward us. It was Mr. Stratton and Josh and Glen and a few men I didn't know. They headed for the shed and went inside, so we followed 'em.

"Inside, we all gathered around the big work table in the center. Someone hung a lantern over it, and I saw that Mr. Stratton looked to have been in a fight. His clothes were all splashed with mud and torn in spots, and his lip was swollen and bleedin'. The other men looked tore up, too.

"Then, someone asked: 'What in God's name was that? It lifted cars and trees and people! The hotel building's gone ... dear God! It broke through the dam!' I heard another fellow back of the crowd whisper that it didn't smash people -- it tore 'em apart. A couple of men started sobbin'.

"Then Mr. Stratton sorta pulled himself up. He took off his jacket and threw it in a corner. He said: 'Damned if that crazy old Heggstrum wasn't so crazy. And damn me for not believin' him. That was him out there on the lake, tryin' to undo what I'd done!'

"He looked around the table. 'Men, there's something down at the bottom of the gorge. Some kind of door. I've caused it to come open. And we got to close it!'

"We was all quiet. Even the sobbin' stopped. I spoke up and asked what did he mean 'a door'? And so he told us what that old Heggstrum man had told him. Mr. Stratton figured it was like a cave to down deep. A cave that had been shut up long ago to keep down things that oughtn't be up and out on the earth. And what Heggstrum had done all them years had kept whatever was inside from bustin' through. But now it had.

"Then someone asked if it had busted out, how could we put it back inside, much less kill it. Mr. Stratton said he thought it had already gone back below; the lightnin' had stopped and there hadn't been any sign of it for hours. He didn't know why, maybe it went down to feed on the people it had caught. Someone in the group ran outside and got sick after Mr. Stratton said that.

"Mr. Stratton went on to say he felt sure it'd be back inside during' the daylight. That's when we'd have to go down in the gorge and close it up. And then he told us how.

"There was dynamite stored up at another worksite. He doubted it had been damaged by the thing or the flood, as it was upriver from where we was. He needed some men -- four or five -- to go with him to that worksite, get the dynamite, climb down into the gorge, and blow the rock around the entrance to cave it in.

"He looked around the room. Lots of the men turned their faces down. Then the fellow who'd gone outside to be sick came back in and said he'd go. That gave others the courage to speak up and volunteer. And I figured since I knew about dynamite I ought to be along, so I said I'd go, too."

At this point, the sound from the device stopped. The doctor apologized, explaining that each recording was of limited time. He removed the cylinder, and placed it carefully in a small box. Opening another box of the same size, he withdrew an identical cylinder and positioned it in the machine where the first cylinder had been.

"I'm afraid there will be a break in the gentleman's narration. He continued talking while my assistant changed cylinders."

He restarted the device, and Mr. Pierson's voice resumed in mid-sentence.

"-- had recovered enough supplies from the storehouse to make our attempt. We put the dynamite in two backpacks, and Mr. Stratton himself insisted on carrying one. Josh took the other. I took the pack with the cables, blasting pack, and electrical exploder mechanism. The other three men carried ropes and lanterns. Mr. Stratton insisted we all be armed with pistols. He'd have preferred rifles, but feared that what he called the 'uncertainty of the terrain' would make 'em tough to use.

"We set out as soon as the sky was light. Mr. Stratton and one of the engineers who'd discussed the plan with him had decided the best way down would be to go around to the upstream end of the gorge, as the slope was gradual there. That meant we had to walk about a quarter mile across what had been the lake bed, and what was now a field of broken trees, stumps, branches, and mud. The mud was something terrible. It made our walkin' slow and dangerous. The bugs were fierce, too. And though we all feared the lightnin' and the thing would return, Mr. Stratton appeared to be right about it not bein' out in daylight.

"Each of us fell more than once, and we were all certain that -- sooner or later -- one of the men carryin' the dynamite packs would blow us all to eternity. But, we made it to the entrance of the gorge in one piece. There, we roped ourselves to one another. Stratton made sure I was on the shortest rope, as I carried the only detonator, and if it got wet, we would be lost. Fortunately, there was a ledge down in the gorge that we could walk along. The water had scoured most of the mud off the rock, but it was still slick. I slipped many times, but my companions saved me from falling into the water.

"As I struggled along, that stench I smelled last night got stronger. It nauseated us all, as I could tell by the looks on the others' faces. One of the men said it reminded him of the sewers in New York, where he had worked for some years.

"Then ahead of us, we saw that the trunk of a large tree had fallen into the gorge, and it was wedged so that we feared we'd be blocked. But Mr. Stratton was in the lead, and said there was room enough for us to pass beneath it, one man at a time, on hands and knees. This we did, and found on the other side that the gorge widened into a kind of hollow, with a pool at its center. Against one wall of this hollow leaned a large, round stone, about twenty feet across. Opposite it, on the other wall, was the openin' of the cave. It was easy to see that the stone and the cave's mouth were a match. I recall thinkin' 'God almighty, if that stone was blockin' that cave mouth … somethin' had to pop it off!'

"And the smell … I can't understand why I didn't get sick right there.

"Mr. Stratton turned to us and said, 'This is the place, gentlemen. Pierson, give the blasting caps and one end of the cable to me, then take yourself to the other side of the tree back there and find a safe place to set up your exploder. The rest of you, go with him.' Then, he turned to Josh, who was carrying the other pack of dynamite and said, 'Give me your pack. I'll climb down and set the charges. This was my doing, I can't ask another man to follow me down that hole.'

"But Josh shook his head. 'No sir, Mr. Stratton. If it's just the same to you, I'll come along. I know a bit more about blastin' than you, I'm sure of it. 'Sides, if something should happen to you in there, someone'll need to be along to fetch you out.'

"The other men, one by one, demanded they accompany Mr. Stratton and Josh, or at least be allowed to stand guard at the cave's entrance. Two of the other fellows said they would man the ropes, keepin' the lines secure, and standin' ready either to pull the men to safety, or descend into the cave after them, should that become necessary.

"Mr. Stratton agreed to their demands with much thanks, and in the end it was only I who returned to safety beyond the fallen tree." At this point, despite the poor fidelity of the equipment, the emotion in Mr. Pierson's voice became apparent.

"I located a mostly dry ledge well away from the water. I set up the exploder, fastening one lead of the cable to its connector, but leaving the other unattached for the men's safety. I secured the exploder by pilin' around it several large rocks, and returned to the passage beneath the fallen tree. I laid down and was able to watch my companions' progress.

"Mr. Stratton and Josh had by now connected the blasting caps and ignition wire, and had put all the dynamite into a single pack. It was a foolhardy thing to do, but they had no choice. They had fastened ropes to themselves, and, as I watched, climbed down into the cave. Glen and Ed held the ropes, carefully payin' 'em out as needed. Walt did the same with the ignition wire, to keep it from snaggin'. A fellow whose name I never got stood a bit back from the cave, just at the water's edge, a pistol in each hand.

"As Mr. Stratton and Josh descended, the fellows at the cave entrance kept callin' to 'em. I guess they were askin' about how they were gettin' along, though I couldn't be sure. The sound of the water on the rocks nearby made it impossible for me to understand 'em. I could only watch as the ropes and ignition wires were reeled out.

"I had not expected 'em to go very far into the cave. And, sure enough, after only a minute or so, the movement of the ropes stopped. I thought they'd reached a good spot to place the dynamite, but --"

The narration stopped. Though it was hard to tell, it sounded as though Mr. Pierson were sobbing, or perhaps have difficulty breathing. Shortly, he resumed, though now the pitch of his voice was raised, and he spoke almost frantically.

"But, that was not so, for the men at the cave's entrance became agitated. One started yellin'. Ed began pullin' mightily on his rope, but the line wouldn't move, like it had snagged. Suddenly, it was jerked forward, yankin' Ed off his feet! He fell into the cave mouth, and lost his grip on the rope, which was whippin' past him into the cave at such a speed that surely whoever was on its other end must've been fallin'!

"Ed got to his feet and tried to grab the rope. The other fellow dropped his pistols and jumped to help. But the rope had stopped movin'. It just lay there in their hands.

"My companions began shoutin' into the cave! Now I could hear their cries -- they called the names of Mr. Stratton and Josh! I don't know if they heard any replies. Glen began pullin' on his rope, but now it wouldn't move. The men's cries increased. Walt dropped the cable, and and began to back away from the cave.

"And then ... and then .... dear God! .... Walt disappeared! Somethin' came of the cave and snatched him inside! So quick that I didn't know what I'd seen until after I'd seen it! A snake, a giant, eyeless snake! Brown and green and bigger around than my arm! Its mouth opened four ways, like the petals of a big flower, lined with teeth! It closed over Walt's head, yanked him off his feet! He disappeared! The others screamed and turned and -- "

Here, Mr. Pierson began choking and gagging. I hear another's voice, too far away from the apparatus to understand, speaking gentle words. After a moment, Mr. Pierson resumed speaking, though now between sobs, in short sentences; often no more than two or three words at a time.

"The light ... poured out of the cave ... green ... green and dead! And it had that awful smell! Snakes ... big as elephant trunks, poured out with the light and the smell ... and a kind of hissin' and buzzin' like a swarm of bugs! The men were screaming ... running toward where I lay ... they were snatched down into the cave! Glen made it to the tree ... dropped to all fours ... scrambled for the opening ... I saw his eyes -- and he saw me! Then he shrieked ... and was dragged back! The look in his eyes! He clawed at the ground ... I reached under the trunk for his hand ... but it yanked him away! He screamed my name ... he was gone ... they were all gone ... but the buzzin' grew ...

"One of the snake-things struck the tree ... it shook ... I felt the whole canyon shakin' ... I scrambled back to where the exploder was ... the buzzin' was louder ... the ground vibrated as though somethin' big … real big … was pulling itself along ... or up a shaft ... I tried to attach the final wire ... I dropped the terminal screw the ground was shakin' so bad ... and the smell! ... the noise! ... everything was green ... even the sky ... I wound the bare end of the wire ... the terminal ... oh, God! were they still alive in there? .. I pushed the plunger ... then, the lightnin'! green lightnin'! ... burst overhead ... and the explosion ... threw me into the air ... the green air ... were they still ... were they ... oh, God! ..."

Sobbing and retching issued from the speaker. The doctor reached forward and switched off the device. I turned to the two other men in the room; I realized I had not looked at them for some time. The sheriff's face was grim and set. The doctor's face, however, appeared quizzical, as though he had found the recording more curious than disturbing.

I could think of nothing to say but: "Obviously, Mr. Pierson survived the ordeal."

"Obviously," the doctor agreed with a smile.

"And, I suppose, is still a patient here? Is it possible to speak to him directly?"

Dr. Hansen shook his head. "I could not allow that. I am sorry to say that Mr. Pierson has grown considerably worse."

"He was found," Sheriff Blood said slowly, "nearly a day later, covered in mud and blood, crawling on all fours, in the woods almost two miles from where we think the explosion was."

"And I take it none of the other men were found." I didn't ask this, I said it. Because somehow I already knew the answer.

"No trace at all," affirmed the sheriff.

I paused, examining the recording device as I thought. After a moment, I said, "A remarkable story. Has any evidence been found of those snakes he speaks of?"

The sheriff looked away from me. I turned my attention to the doctor. "What is your analysis, Dr. Hansen?"

Clearly pleased at my question, Dr. Hansen leaned back in his chair. "There is every reason to believe that Mr. Pierson feels he is responsible for killing those men. He was to operate the exploder -- it was his hand that would have triggered the detonation. Certainly, something went wrong with the dynamite. Precisely what, we will probably never know. At the very least, we can conclude that Mr. Hansen was not at a safe distance from the explosion. As the sheriff has said, he had numerous contusions. And he sustained a moderate concussion. When found, he was dehydrated and delirious ..." The doctor let his words trail off as if to say "you see?"

All the time the doctor was speaking, the sheriff was looking away, out one of the tall windows.

"So, doctor, are you saying that the fantastical elements of his story are his way of dealing with his responsibility for their deaths?"

The doctor shook his head again. "No. I am saying they are his way of dealing with his guilt. I do not know if some mistake on his part did cause their deaths, but I believe he believes it. The truth is buried under tons of rock out in Chesterfield Gorge."

The sheriff stood suddenly, muttering "Don't explain why they went down there in the first place." Then, he turned to me and said briskly, "Mr. Stimson, I have business to attend to, and I believe you've heard all you need to hear. We must be leaving." He gave a brief nod to the doctor, then turned and began stalking toward the door.

This took me by surprise, but as the sheriff was my conveyance, I had no choice but to rise quickly and follow him. I gave the doctor a swift thanks, passed him my card, and informed him that my office would be in touch with him in the event he might be asked to provide expert testimony.

I followed the sheriff outside.

* * *

The sheriff returned me to the boarding house. As I exited his automobile, I told him that I planned to finish collecting my notes from the materials he had given me, and would return his papers in the morning.

"Leavin' tomorrow?" he asked.

"The circumstances are beyond -- " I started, then rethought what I had been about to say. I began again. "I am convinced that it would be better if someone with greater experience and credentials than mine be sent to investigate."

The sheriff sat looking at me a long while, his auto idling. Finally, he said, "Don't know if I'll be around in the morning. Leave the papers with Mrs. Nutting and I'll collect 'em later. Good evening, Mr. Stimson." He touched the brim of his hat, turned away from me, and drove off.

All was quiet in the boarding house. Mrs. Nutting was not in the parlor and, in fact, nowhere to be found downstairs. I climbed the stairs to my room, and discovered on the table a glass of warm cider and, beneath an inverted bowl, a plate of bread, cheese, and chilled meat. Beside these was a handwritten note from Mrs. Nutting, informing me that she had been called away to a cousin's home in a nearby town, and would be absent until much later that evening.

I found it odd that she should leave her own premises with a stranger as its only occupant. I supposed the summons could have been some emergency, though the letter offered no clues in that regard. In any case, I thought it best to record my observations of the day's events while they were still fresh in my mind. So, I sat down at the table with pen and paper to do just that.

The act of writing caused me to finally confront the thoughts that had paraded through my mind the whole drive back from Bolivar. Specifically, that -- out there at the bottom of the gorge -- a doorway in the rock wall led to some subterranean world, inhabited by a creature beyond comprehension. Unbelievable, and yet, how else to explain the reports of the witnesses? Mr. Pierson's narrative? The destruction and slaughter at the hotel site? Could a wind and lightning storm explain all these things?

I ate as I wrote, and after a time I discovered that I had consumed the entire meal Mrs. Nutting had provided. I looked up. It was now late in the afternoon, the sun rapidly approaching the distant hills.

An unwanted chill had entered the room. I leaned forward to examine the window; perhaps it had not been closed completely, allowing a cold air to seep in. This afforded me the opportunity to look out at the nearby cottage whose windows had been so dimly lit last evening, I saw now that they were completely dark.

I tested the window. It was tightly closed. Fortunately, I had brought my coat up to the room with me. Donning this, I sat back down at the table, brightened the lamp, and returned to my writing.

Several pages later, I felt my energies failing. Attributing this to the extreme sights and sounds of the past two days. I put my pen aside, and laid my head down on the desk, meaning to take one of the short naps I found often reconstituted me during late nights at the office.

My mind was filled with a combination of the real sights of Millsford, of the destroyed hotel, and imagined sights conjured by Mr. Pierson's insane tale. I watched as tentacles sprouted through the muddy lakebed, and whipped about like colossal snakes. Smashing through the windows of the boarding-house, they withdrew struggling people whose bodies were clenched in the toothed flower-petal digits at the tentacles' tips. These people were ripped to pieces by other tentacles. Arms and legs were pinched off as a child might pinch apart a daisy's bloom. Body-parts fell into the mud below, blood mixing with the muck. The air was filled with screams. And green lightning flashed overhead. And thunder.

I awoke, the thunder dying in my ears. The room vibrated noticeably; I could hear the rattling of loose furniture and a sort of musical thrumming of my pen against the side of the empty cider-glass. My room's lamp was extinguished, but I could dimly see the room's interior ...

... because all was bathed in a pale, green light. I looked quickly out the window. The full moon was above the trees, its face radiating a sickly silver-green, like color of lichens grown thick over the black bark of rotting tree-stumps in deep woods. The vibrations stopped, and I rose to my feet, still staring through the window.

It wasn't just the moon, it was the entire sky. The stars, now preternaturally bright, glowed that same color. It bathed the dark shapes of the hills, rows of distant trees, and the empty cottage nearby.

A flash lit the landscape; so blinding that I nearly fell backward over the chair. It was followed almost instantly by a sizzling peal of thunder, and the room shook again, continuing to vibrate even as the thunder subsided.

"Dear God!" I whispered, reaching for the chair and bed to regain my balance. I felt my way to the door. "Dear God!" I called aloud.

I opened my door and picked my way down the darkened stairway. I shouted for Mrs. Nutting as I descended, but received no reply. The house shook repeatedly, as though something struck its foundations again and again.

At the bottom of the stairs, another lightning-flash filled the empty rooms with other-worldly green. Thunder cracked. Something in the sitting room was jostled off a table, and clattered on the floor. I called for Mrs. Nutting again, and again received no reply. Even after the lightning had died away, the light coming in through the windows was enough to illuminate the boarding-house's interior. I realized with horror that the radiance was intensifying.

I headed for the front door, and hesitated. Heaven knew what waited outside. But the images in my dream jumped before my eyes, and I feared that at any instant a tentacle would burst through one of the windows to pull me outside. If there were any chance of escape ...

... I threw the door open, and staggered out to the top of the steps.

The air was chilly and damp. Though there was no wind, the atmosphere vibrated, and I heard a strange, melodious chirruping in the distance, as might be made by throngs of nighttime insects. Behind the roof-line of the mill-building, a chartreuse phosphorescence rose into the sky, undulating like lights shone on faraway curtains. Shadows waved and squirmed in the glow, shadows that might be cast by hosts of writhing snakes, illuminated by some unseen source from below. My mind screamed at me to run, and I bounded down the steps.

Another violent tremor stuck, so that at the bottom step I tripped and sprawled into the street.

Tires rasped on gravel. A tiny cascade of pebbles danced across the road next to me, and I was bathed in an automobile's headlamps.

I climbed to my feet before the front grill of a now-idling automobile. I shielded my eyes from the lamps, and was about to call to the person driving the vehicle.

"Looks like you waited a bit too long to head home, Mr. Stimson!" the sheriff barked from behind the wheel.

I stumbled to the driver's window. "Sheriff Blood! Thank God! We should leave this place! It … it has returned!"

The sheriff leaned out of the car window. "What has returned, Mr. Stimson?! Your tor-na-do?!" He laughed angrily, showing his teeth in the green twilight.

I recoiled at the man's face; the flaming hatred and madness I saw now in his eyes.

"You can leave if you want, Mr. Stimson. Fact is, I'd recommend it! I suppose most folks are long gone already." I saw him lift something from his side, and place it on the seat next to himself. "Not MY option, though!"

In the green gloom, on the front seat beside him, I recognized the gleaming metal of a rifle barrel. I saw another beside the first.

I suddenly realized his intention. I stepped away from the automobile.

"Sheriff, this is madness!" I cried. "If dynamite could not stop it ... what can you possibly do with those rifles?!"

He repositioned one of the rifles on the passenger's seat. "I'll do what I hafta, Mr. Stimson. That's all I can do."

"But, Sheriff --!"

"It took my brother!" he suddenly shrieked at me. "I saw how it took him! I saw how it took him apart, Mr. Stimson!" His hands wrung the wheel as he gritted his teeth, apparently stifling a scream. He inhaled, then continued, "I never did find my brother's legs, Mr. Stimson! Barely found enough or him to bury!" He drew himself up, then shifted the automobile into gear. "So now … I hafta do what I can as a sheriff, Mr. Stimson. And if I was you -- which I AIN'T!! -- I'd get the hell out of here!"

The automobile jumped away, tires rasping on the gravel again, and he drove off past the mill building.

I stood in the middle of the street, stunned into immobility. I watched the car pass into the green gloom. Another lightning flash brought me to my senses.

I turned and ran.

My way was illuminated by the moon, the unholy light pouring from the sky, and occasional bursts of lightning. The few houses I passed were dark, deserted. In fact, the whole world now seemed empty of human life.

I arrived, panting, at the train depot. It's door was closed and locked, the interior black. The light over the platform was unlit. I stood next to the tracks, looking around myself. Alone. Gasping and mind racing.

Behind me, the strange chirruping call seemed to grow in intensity. I thought I heard the faraway sound of cracking and splintering, as if something were moving through the woods, snapping branches as it progressed. Lightning flashed, and this time I saw its brilliant green bolt arc overhead, forming a twisted, inverted "U" shape that rose and fell behind the treetops. The subsequent noise was more like an explosion than the boom of thunder.

I had to run, but where? I knew nothing of the area roads, and in this crazy semi-darkness I could easily lose my way on them and be captured by whatever was now on the move somewhere out there. I looked to my left. I knew the tracks that way led north, deeper into the New Hampshire fields, woods and hills. I looked right. Those tracks, then, must lead south to the Massachusetts border, and must surely take me away from Millsford and the gorge.

I began running south along the tracks.

I cannot express the misery and horror that accompanied me on that nighttime flight. Running along railroad tracks is difficult enough during the day; the ballast rocks and the ties' spacing make it impossible to move at any speed without tripping. At night, it is infinitely worse. I fell countless times.

And all around me, just beyond the railway, lay dark wilderness, shadows under trees only deepened by the unearthly light. I knew little of what inhabited the woods, but had read occasional stories of bear and wolf attacks in such areas. These fears alternated with the belief that whatever had emerged from the gorge had somehow become aware of me, of my escape, and was in pursuit. For I imagined that the chirruping sound only grew louder as I scrambled along, as did the sounds of cracking and snapping branches. I also thought I heard distant detonations apart from the thunderclaps that accompanied the lightning strikes. And screams. I thought I heard screams. But, I could not be certain, as the sounds of my labored breathing and the clattering of rocks beneath my feet filled my ears. I tried to convince myself that my embattled mind was misinterpreting ordinary distant noises heard in nighttime woods. I did not look back; I only stumbled forward.

After what must have been hours, the tracks climbed to a ridge, and I stopped to regather my energy. For the first time, I hazarded a look back, and was partly relieved to discover that the green glow was now a good distance behind me, visible over the black lines of distant treetops. And I realized I could no longer hear the chittering sound. The lightning had stopped as well, and the moon, now settling close to the western hills, had lost much of its green pallor. But I shuddered when I saw that the glow stretched across the valley, and shadows waved in its luminescence.

I turned and looked ahead, to the south. Beyond a succession of treelines faintly outlined in the light of the setting moon, I could see the brighter lights of a distant town. I hoped that following the railway would bring me to that town; I knew that it ultimately must bring me to some community, to a depot, and to conveyance far away from this place.

I stumbled over the crest of the ridge, heading toward the welcome lights. First to a small Massachusetts town, then to Boston, then to New York. To leave Millsford and the gorge, to erase from my mind all thoughts of the place, of the sights I'd seen and the sounds I heard, even the people I'd met.


Epilog

A disheveled Mr. Stimson appeared the law offices of Tutwiler and Clark two days later. Immediately and without explanation, he tendered his resignation. In spite of the protests and appeals of his superiors and co-workers, he removed his personal effects from his desk, and exited the building. Later that same day, he was at his landlady's doorway, where he handed her his final rent payment. The following morning, his apartment was empty.

Among the small number of friends he had, it was rumored that he had more or less fled New York City, and went west -- as far west as was possible and remain on the continent -- to San Francisco, where he ultimately found work with a small law firm. They could never confirm the rumors, as Mr. Stimson failed to respond to any telegrams or letters sent to what was thought to be his new address.

Mr. Stimson had made good his decision. He never returned to the eastern states, steadfastly avoided any news of events having to do with New England -- especially New Hampshire -- and never spoke nor thought of the cursed village of Millsford again.

THE END


2013 Rick Grehan

Bio: Rick Grehan is a software engineer at Dell/EqualLogic in Nashua, NH. He is also a contributing editor for InfoWorld Magazine. (You can find a bibliography of his InfoWorld work here: Infoworld articles by Rick Grehan.) He has written for computer magazines for many years, having started as a technical editor for BYTE Magazine back in the 80's.
Mr. Grehan's most recent appearances in Aphelion were A Stormy Night at Wellington Depot, in the December 2012 / January 2013 edition and Good Night, Timmy, in the April, May, and June 2013 editions.

E-mail: Rick Grehan

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