The Cottage on Arnold Street
We learn too late that everything is written on the land, and in houses, too. Under their sharp roofs, they are like elders with wrinkled hands, and wise old eyes, and whispering, toothless mouths. Houses would tell us all their secrets, but we do not yet know how to listen to them; to what they say in the silences between the movements of the night winds.
My friend Hal bought a house at 37 Arnold Street, in the oldest part of Providence, Rhode Island. Nestled on a sloped, narrow street, it is the first and most modest of a row of Federal-era homes, ranking from cottage-size all the way up to merchants’ manors at the top of College hill. The street is lined with beautiful overarching linden and sycamore trees, and is graced with patches of original or restored cobblestone. My friend’s house, whose windows from basement to attic each open on a particular angle of old New England, is unassuming, its true age veiled under dun-brown asbestos shingles.
Though a skeptic, he is an Englishman, and like all his kindred he has a suspicion that spirits cling to places. He half expected the tiny cottage—with its original clapboards still intact under hideous siding—would be full of creaks and groans and phantom footsteps on the attic floors.
He was not disappointed. There are curious groans as the building contracts at night, despite the newly installed steel beaming that shores up the sagging floor. And he tells me he has slept only once in the attic bedroom. There, a mirror whose rippled mercurous surface faced the bed and cast distorted beams on the walls, disturbed his sleep. was discarded at once. Although he has replaced the mirror, something about the angles in that attic room still seems not conducive to blissful rest.
Hal jokes about the sense of unhappiness in the attic. Sooner or later he or his guests will possess the above-stairs, where slumber will become a commonplace, the past unease no more than a gnat buzzing in the back of his consciousness.
But I do not think my friend will ever laugh about the 18th- century stone walls the contractors have exposed in the cellar. He wanted stone, craved stone, and when the first hand-laid, wide slate and granite foundation wall came to light, he instructed the diligent Portuguese workmen to lay bare what might become a quaint, castle-like room.
Now that he has seen two walls of stone exposed, he knows the house is older than the realtor guessed, older than the previous owner admitted to. The date was pushed back from 1860 to 1822; now he suspects that another, more primitive dwelling preceded the “new house” at 37 Arnold, and he is well onto the perilous road of too much knowledge.
He had been happy about the small, green park below his house. He paid little mind to the post-1940s cottages on the other side of the street—virtually the only modern buildings in a Colonial and Federal-era neighborhood once nocturnally stalked by H. P. Lovecraft in search of fanlight doorways and secluded courtyards.
What he had only come to realize gradually was that his property abutted what had once been an even larger swath of decayed and abandoned buildings—in fact the only grouping of residential buildings in the neighborhood that had ever been intentionally demolished. All this happened sometime before nearby Benefit Street was swept into a wave of historic restoration beginning in the 1960s.
Hal has done some research at the Providence Historical Society, and, as I too am an adoptee of the neighborhood, I have done some more. Euphemisms abound in the neighborhood histories, describing the stretch of Brook Street between John and Arnold as “neglected” and “abandoned.”
It was worse. Neighbors had come to call the place “The Blighted Corners.” It is a natural hollow, a dip between two hills in the oldest part of Providence, close to the ever-present damp of the bay. Here the parallel Arnold and John Streets slope down to Brook Street, then up again on the western side, while Brook Street itself slants inexorably down toward India Point and the harbor. The green park on one of the corners is backed with a massive weeping willow whose effulgence suggests either a continuous flow of some underground stream, or that rain-water cascading down the three slopes sinks into an underground well or cavern.
Two and three-story tenements had once lined both blocks of Brook Street, but ever since the mid-19th century, tenants had never lingered long in any of the buildings. Owners fled town; absentee landlords who acquired the buildings at auction then let them slide into decay.
“Blighted Corners” was an omen of what the whole part of town might have become. The neighborhood, for many decades tough Irish, Portuguese, Cape Verdean, and Black, might all have tumbled to the same decrepitude had not the historic preservation troops retaken nearby Benefit Street. The restoration fever spread over the entire east side of Providence and attracted legions of young professionals to buy and renew the historic houses.
College professors and bankers pushing their double baby carriages down nearby Wickenden Street today know little about the whiskey and brass knuckle days of the old waterfront, when India Point at night was like New York City’s old Bowery. They little suspect that fashionable Benefit Street was once a run-down lane of sagging boarding houses and even brothels.
Where my friend’s windows today look down upon a park, and the shops on the far side of Brook Street, the view was once the brooding backside of “Blighted Corners:” a row of double-deck back porches, boarded-over window panes, and yards full of kitchen middens. According to hand-written local histories, some dozen houses, long boarded-up and abandoned, were torn down in the years immediately after World War II. The demolition included all the tenements along Brook Street and several houses up the south side of Arnold, which had, curiously, acquired the same blighted reputation as the Brook Street houses. A few shabby homes, of the sort constructed quickly for newly-married veterans and dubbed “love shacks,” lined one of the blocks and filled the vacant spots on Arnold Street. The other lots lay empty, under the shade of its ancient willows, until the park was constructed in the 1970s.
Few there were who questioned why, in the oldest part of the city continuously inhabited since the mid-1600s, these low-lying properties should have fallen into such disrepair and abandonment where not a single lot nearby was otherwise unoccupied.
A Providence Journal reporter, Joshua Ridley, in the mid-1920s, had caught wind of the “Blighted Corners” nickname for the place and made efforts to determine whether some supernatural agency might have been involved. (Skeptics note: the assignment had been made half in jest for a Halloween week feature.) Although the story was not published, the reporter’s notebooks wound up in the John Hay Library at Brown University as part of a bequest.
In June 1925, Ridley interviewed three African-American and Portuguese residents of the block, who, although reluctant to talk, were finally cajoled into repeating half-remembered stories about what had driven out many of the dwellers of the tenements.
“They was horrible places,” said one elderly lady of the corner buildings. “The men, they was in and out o’ jail. No one knew what the women did, and no one asked. Sailors was there—at all hours. They sold gin in the basement.”
The cellars flooded often, neighbors said, and the one “gin mill” had a rank and moldy smell that the Portuguese bootlegger could never get rid of. A few sailors passed out and died in there, and an alarming number of others wound up in Butler Hospital, with the screaming heebie-jeebies. The basements were finally boarded up, and abandonment of the upper floors commenced.
Later that week, the Providence Journal reporter encountered an old gentleman, Abel de Souza, at an Irish tavern on Wickenden Street. In between watching live boxing matches from the bar, the old-timer rambled about the “bad air” that lingered around “Blighted Corners.” “You could a’ grown mushrooms in those cellars,” the old man recalled. “You lit a match down in there, an’ the flame had a funny color in it. The walls was old stone, an’ you could see crickets and spiders and tree roots in the cracks. Anybody who fell asleep there, god help ’im he’d wake up chokin’ for air, tip the table over, an’ run up the stairs to the sidewalk. We had a couple o’ drunks that passed out and then sleep-walked round and round the room, touchin’ that clammy wall the whole time.
“I think the owners was doping up the gin,” de Souza speculated. “A lot of fellers woke up down on the Point with their watches and wallets gone. It was a bad place, and most of us learned to steer clear.” He said the gin mill had been closed for several years past, and the police on the beat kept an eye out against its reopening. (In other words, the reporter noted in pencil, some other nearby establishment was now under “protection.”)
Ridley talked to several neighborhood boys who boasted they had been in the cellars. They said the basements were intermittently flooded and they had gone in once, wading up to their waists, looking for liquor bottles. Two boys had come out screaming, saying that something was moaning or talking “under the water.” (“Halloween tall tales,” the reporter noted.)
According to the reporter’s sources, the upstairs tenants at Number 156 Brook Street, of whom there were still a few despite the boarded-up windows on the ground floor, were the common run of workmen, migrants and floozies. Other old-timers said “Blighted Corners” had its bad reputation as early as the 1880s. For many decades, the boarding house ladies on Benefit Street had directed all the undesirable traffic to the corner of Brook and Arnold.
The reporter found a faded “Rooms to Let” sign around the side of Number 158, the largest and most ramshackle of the buildings, and, after knocking repeatedly, managed to rouse a middle-aged lady in a gray housecoat, sporting an eye-patch and a corn-cob pipe. She answered to the name of “Mrs. McGuire” and said she was “the manager of the house.” There were just a few rooms, she said, cold water only, rented to folks that “was down on their luck” or to “students and travelers referred by the Fathers” at St. Joseph’s church. She declined to show a room to the reporter, saying, “They’re not for you, young gentleman. The likes of us don’t mind the peelin’ wallpaper and the centipedes and the moldy air. This is not a place to linger, if you take my meanin’.” Mrs. McGuire was called away by the sound of shouting and banging on pipes, so the interview ended abruptly.
At this point the reporter’s notes broke off, and this becomes — in the annals of journalism, anyway — one of a thousand broken threads—anecdotes suggestive of malignancy of place, but lacking any definite object of suspicion—effect without causality. It remains for other investigators to transcend time and place, and even the localizations of myth — to connect these and other strands into a fabric, the fabric into a pattern.
The Old Jerusalem Believers
Back in the 1840s, stone churches began to appear in Providence. In 1836, St. Joseph’s opened its impressive stone church at the corner of Arnold and Hope Streets — the first Catholic church in Providence. The Baptists remained well-ensconced in their classic wood church on Main Street, the Unitarians in their palatial wood church on Benefit. The Quakers had a wooden church on lower Hope Street, and another church on Sheldon was an early Baptist offshoot. A lesser-known group was “The Old Jerusalem Believers,” a Quaker splinter group that was founded in Providence and which flourished from 1840 until the death of its founder, Obadiah Kirkman, in 1890.
Little is known about the group, except that they built a few houses with their collective labor, excelling in stone masonry for foundations and walls. Although they preferred brick for the main construction of houses, their members were mostly workmen, so that modest wood clapboard single-story homes were their usual product, usually with a sharply pointed roof and an attic.
With the completion of each new home, the group would meet collectively for months on end, hosted and fed by the homeowner. One of their tenets was that a house was not inhabitable until the entire Bible, Old Testament and New, had been read aloud within its walls.
The Believers adopted as their logo the Mason’s compass, the Cross, and a five-pointed star, so they were falsely suspected of Masonic associations and witchcraft. From all first-hand accounts, their activities seem to have been limited to Bible readings and recitations, with many of their children committing entire books of the Bible to memory (not that unusual in the 19th century). Once their community included “reciters” for all 39 books of the Old Testament and 26 books of the New Testament, the blessing of houses could be accomplished in less than two weeks.
There was only one exception to their reading mania: the Believers had a positive dread of the 27th part of the New Testament, the Book of Revelations. It was said that only Obadiah Kirkman was permitted to read from it, and he did so only in a faint whisper. Other Believers were prohibited altogether from reciting from the doomsday book.
Kirkman’s wife, Hannah, was the church’s secretary, and she often transcribed the random collisions of phrases she heard during the recitations. The seven Elders of the church would sit in candle-lit meetings every Sunday night, debating the possible interpretations of these jumblings of Hebrew and Greek scriptures. Kirkman’s guiding intellect, however, always seemed to keep these revelations from becoming fractious or blasphemous. In fact, the Believers were never known to have given offense to their fellow Christians on any count except the eccentricity of their obstinate faith.
Although the Believers often attended the Hope Street Quaker church, where the lack of formal prayer appealed to their simplistic piety, the Quakers were uncomfortable with the seemingly random way in which the Believers recited and applied scriptural passages. They nicknamed their brethren “The Babblers” when it was discovered that they had taken to simultaneous recitation of different books of the Bible during their house blessing ceremonies.
The sect began to crumble around the time of the crash of 1873. The Reverend Kirkman had purchased a plot of land along the Seekonk River for the construction of a “temple,” and had made complex arrangements for the importation of stones from Egypt and the Holy Land (put onto ships as ballast in Mediterranean ports and then delivered at great cost to Kirkman at his warehouse at India Point). Kirkman had over-speculated, and then found himself in possession of tons of building stone and a safe full of worthless bank stocks. The sect lingered for another dozen years, but Kirkman’s bankruptcy, combined with the childlessness of virtually all the sect members, doomed the group to extinction.
As late as 1892, Obadiah Kirkman was still often seen at the Athenaeum Reading Room, and in the burgeoning Egyptology and Biblical studies collections at the Brown University Library. His long white beard, forked in the middle, his thick wire-rim glasses, and his old-fashioned ecclesiastical coat made him a singular character on College Hill. He also consulted with many of Providence’s spiritualists, who found his ideas about the nature of the afterlife, and about supernatural entities said to share “the ether” with the spirits of the dead, to be bracing even if mostly beyond their comprehension.
A few years later, the Reverend Kirkman apparently died, though his passing was only noted when his bequest of books to the Brown University Library was acknowledged. Many of the remaining Believers appear to have sold their houses and moved on, for there are no further traces of their presence on the religious scene. Mrs. Kirkman retained ownership of several houses in what was already becoming the “Blighted Corners.” She ran a dry goods shop on Brook Street and rented rooms in two of the houses to boarders — a hodgepodge of Irish, Chinese, emancipated Africans and Cape Verdeans. Nothing is known of her death.
It has long been known that Providence, even by New England standards, has a shockingly high rate of mental aberration among its inhabitants. In the 19th century, this frequently led to lifelong confinement of the mentally ill in attic rooms, or, for those who could afford it, accommodation at bucolic Butler Hospital on the banks of the swan-haunted Seekonk River. It has long been an open secret in the psychiatric profession that Rhode Island’s mental patients have yielded the most unique literature of delusions, manias, phobias and cults.
Thanks to the persistence of a visiting professor of psychiatry at Brown University in the 1980s, a massive collection of transcriptions of psychiatric records, dating back to 1890, have been privately published, in the privately-printed volume, Plantation of Nightmares: Delusions, Dreams and Mania in Providence, Rhode Island. Attributed only to “Dr. M. E. M.,” this study collates psychiatric interviews of hundreds of patients, along with diaries and dream diaries kept by the patients at the insistence of their doctors. Dr. M. carefully deleted all identifying information from the diaries, compiling and publishing the patients’ dreams and delusions.
Dr. M. found that Providence has several unique and almost pantheistic narratives that some patients have shared in common — narratives which the psychiatrist implies could not have been absorbed from popular literature or the Bible. Some of the common delusions involve non-human and non-earthly entities, yet the beliefs predate any literature that could be called “science fiction.”
“Schizophrenics are generally rather predictable, if not boring, to mental health professionals,” writes Dr. M. “In their delusions they are all either God, Jesus or the Devil. This reflects the limitations of their reading, and of their imagination. But in Providence, the dreams of mental patients often involve extraterrestrial beings, travel through space and time and dimensions, or memories of life in places and times scarcely known to archaeologists. Since our epistemology does not admit telepathy, we must surmise that madness has some other way to overlay the facts of reality and history.”
Dr. M.’s 800-page collation of dreams, organized by thematic similarity, has rifted the psychiatric profession, but it has also galvanized anthropologists and Jungian analysts, who are intrigued by the idea of an inherent mythology, in which the familiar “gods” of the wood clapboard churches are but a few of many, waiting to communicate from the depths of unconscious to the listening believer.
I introduce this psychiatric digression here because the last thread of this story has been found in Dr. M.’s Butler Hospital compendium. Two patients admitted simultaneously to Butler Hospital — one in shock and the other in a state of catalepsy — described similar, impossible events during their convalescence. Since the patients were acquainted with one another, influence was assumed, not corroboration. One of the two led the other into a horrifying moment of joint hallucination — and since these were the psychedelic 1970s, the likelihood of LSD as an agent was also noted by the psychiatrist who treated both patients.
One of the patients, I am hazarding, was Elsie Jefferson, the owner of 37 Arnold Street during the decade of the 1970s. She was released from the hospital after a stay of less than one month, and she was never re-admitted. The other was a young man, a student at Rhode Island School of Design, who remained at Butler for six months, and whose return to school was noted by the physician.
Mrs. Jefferson, a widow, had lived alone at 37 Arnold for many years. She had been a member of the nearby Baptist church until the death of her husband, but she had drifted away. She read a little of the Bible daily, in her bedroom under the eaves of the attic, but that was the extent of her devotions.
According to her recollections, a tall, angular stranger, in an old-fashioned minister’s coat, appeared at her door in August of 1978. He told her that his parents had lived in the house many years before. She thought she recognized the family name. The visitor asked her if she would consent if he and a friend could visit the cellar, where their family had been accustomed to praying. As both visitors looked inoffensive and peaceable, she invited them in, and cleared a little space in the cellar, where she watched as they read from the Bible, quietly but intensely. She sensed that the atmosphere of the basement, which she had never liked, seemed to be changed by the presence of the worshippers. When they asked if they could come back, and asked her to join in the Bible reading, she agreed.
Over the next few months, the “New Believers,” as they called themselves, appeared courteously every Sunday afternoon. They brought the widow Jefferson some welcome baking supplies and kitchen items, and she made cookies and tea for them. She found their prayer style curious, as they all read or recited simultaneously from the Bible, but she found that she enjoyed listening to the way the words moved in and out, making new and unexpected connections.
On one particular Sunday afternoon, the worshippers, including Mrs. Jefferson, found themselves agitated because they all shared a distinct feeling that someone or something else was in the room with them. The leader of the group assured the widow that all was well. “We have made contact,” he told her. “There is something in these old stones, and we have awakened it.”
“Lord, no! What does it want?” Mrs. Jefferson asked. She did not want a haunted house. “Is it going to bother me?”
“It cannot rise above the level of these stones,” the sect leader assured her. “And what it wants is to hear us recite. It wants to hear the words of the Scripture. To tell it what it is, and what it must do.”
Despite her alarm, Mrs. Jefferson permitted the prayer meetings to continue all through the winter. The sect grew to a dozen members; men and women. None would talk much about their everyday lives, but they were kind and peaceable. She came to regard them as “family.”
It was through a bizarre coincidence that the young art student came into their company. One Sunday in midwinter, a youth in a threadbare cloth coat and a lime green scarf came to the door.
“I’m here for the reading,” he said. “I hope this is the right address.”
She let the young man in, and he introduced himself. His actual name is blacked out in the hospital records, so we will call him Jeremy. After supplying him with cookies and tea, she led him to the cellar, where the circle of chairs had been assembled. She added a thirteenth chair and adjusted a pole lamp which provided most of the light needed for reading. (Most of the sect members now had memorized one of the books of the Bible, from which they recited, often with eyes closed, but some of the younger members still used a text.)
When the Believers arrived, Mrs. Jefferson introduced Jeremy as “our new friend.” The members expressed brief surprise, but out of consideration for their hostess, did not object to the newcomer, who looked prepared to join in as he had book in hand.
As for Mr. Jeremy, we turn now to his recollections. The young man was astonished, and not a little appalled, when the phrases of the Old Testament started filling the close chamber of the semi-dark cellar. He was an art student and a poet, and not in the least religious. He had been in search of a poetry reading at another house on Arnold Street. This was a hilarious mistake, and here he was, embarrassed and trapped among religious fanatics. He decided it would be safer to listen in silence, and then make his escape at the first break in the reading. No one seemed to notice that he had not joined the weird, simultaneous Bible reading.
He turned his attention to the stone walls, exposed in a few places under ripped-out paneling. The old granite and fieldstone glistened, and bits of tree roots and spider webs filled the cracks between the well-fitted stones. His eye took in the detail—perhaps he could do a charcoal drawing of the stones.
It was then that he noticed that some of the thinnest tendrils of tree and plant roots seemed to be moving. Then one of the readers shifted the lamp, and Jeremy was able to make out a thin kind of webbing — thinner than spiderweb but thicker than dust webs — that seem to have drifted out from the stones onto the shoulders of two of the readers. He was certain that some of the dust-mouse tendrils had even come from above and were touching Mrs. Jefferson’s hair. He attributed all of this to terrible housekeeping, and was surprised that none of them were wheezing or sneezing.
As the reading went on for what seemed like a half-hour, it approached a kind of verbal climax as the passages they were reading overlapped. He noticed that they were leaning on later books of the prophets, and he got a distinct sense that the smiting God of the Hebrews was decidedly more popular with the Believers than the all-forgiving Man of Sorrows. Now he became afraid to leave. Faking interest might be the safer bet.
As the reading wound down, Jeremy shared the group’s sense of a presence.
“He is here! HE has never been closer!” the leader pronounced. These were the first words from him all afternoon that were not recitation. “He has come from Outside, among the ones who were and are and can be gods, and he wants to learn from us.”
“To BECOME,” a woman’s voice pealed out.
“Yes, to BECOME,” the leader agreed. “When he has heard all the words, he will make himself known. He will come through the stones.”
Jeremy sat astonished at what he was seeing and hearing. These people, aside from Mrs. Jefferson, all seemed intoxicated with a sublime experience, which he felt only as an overflow of their emotions, and as a palpable coldness and dampness emanating from the stone walls. And although he could not share in their beliefs, he found a kind of intellectual thrill as a poet, hearing the surge and merge of lines and phrases. It suggested to him a whole new way of writing, by using overlapping lines of heard speech, something that might give him a unique new style. When invited, he asked to be included in the weekly readings, but claimed shyness as an excuse not to read aloud. Perhaps later, he told them, he could muster a few psalms or one of the shorter books of the Bible that did not intimidate him.
In the weeks that followed, he also began to make notes about the appearance and personalities of the worshippers. Mrs. Jefferson was innocence itself, and was no case-study, but the others (Philips and Fleming and Rodman) were an odd mix of old Rhode Island, curiously inbred and lacking in both chin and pigmentation. One of them had a large, membranous right ear that was nearly a third larger than its opposite. There was also a Captain Estevez, retired from the merchant marine, and an unnamed sailor who always accompanied him. These two he also spotted in a dive bar on Wickenden Street, where they occasionally approached students with whispered propositions of an unsavory nature, which were nearly always rebuffed. The only other notable woman among the set was a Mrs. Wilberson, who worked as a librarian at nearby Brown University. His attempts to interact with the spindly lady during the cookies-and-tea hour were not successful. When he offered that he was a student at the Rhode Island School of Design, she looked down her spectacles at him and said, “Oh, the training school. You could do better.” Another time, when he asked her about a certain painting in one of the Brown libraries, she said, “I do not pay any attention to paintings. They are all idolatry, you know.” Her only known passion was for cats.
All these details he recorded in the same journal where he kept drafts of all his new poems. Among the pages were jumbled phrases he wrote down during the readings, when lines of scripture interrupted one another in bizarre and sometimes alarming ways. Occasionally, a sentence would be uttered that was not Scripture at all, words that seemed to burst out of nowhere and which had no apparent context. Some of these were admonitions, some calls for help, some a suggestion of things to come.
From these journals, which Dr. M. took to be a dream-journal and accepted as evidence only of Jeremy’s deteriorating mental health, the psychiatrist found a coherent narrative of the young poet’s last visit to 37 Arnold Street. Jeremy also attempted to draw what he had seen in the accompanying sketch book, but these drawings were judged too horrible to print. This, in his own words, is what Jeremy saw:
In the Basement
I arrived late for the Sunday reading. The front door was ajar, and I let myself in. Cookies had emerged from the oven, and the teapot and cups were on the dining room table. The sound of reciting voices was already filling the basement, and seemed to be reaching some kind of crescendo.
I went to the doorway into the cellar, and collided with Mrs. Jefferson, who was hurtling upward. “Don’t go down there!” she howled. “Don’t look at it! Don’t look at it!”
Her eyes were wide, black with terror, but she leaned back towards the stairs rather than forwards toward me. I caught her, thinking that she had lost her balance. And then I realized that she was being pulled back toward the cellar. I felt it, too. My hands grabbed hers and I pulled. Back she went again, but nothing visible had her by the arm, the waist, the legs. Nothing. It was like a magnetic pull, or a vacuum.
Finally, she took hold of the door frame, and whatever it was, stopped. The overlapped voices of the readers now assumed a kind of unison, almost a chant.
Then Mrs. Jefferson changed her mind. “Go look!” she stammered. “But do not let go of the banister. Only you can prove I am not insane. I need to know that someone else has seen. Go look, before it has taken them all!”
It! I thought. What did she mean by “It?” Those who were below, were not reading in ecstasy: their collective moan now turned to screaming.
It had gone almost dark down there, but by now my feet knew the strange winding way, the irregular steps. I saw the place where the stone wall gleamed wetly, the place where the circle of chairs had stood –
The chairs were now scattered everywhere, the wooden ones splintered into many pieces, the folding metal chairs bent out of shape. The pole lamp that had cast its awkward light on the readers’ Bibles was bent in half, the bulb and its socket swinging to and fro in a slow arc. The light, and the dim bars of white sunlight from Arnold Street outside, showed what was happening with just enough light —
And what I saw—what I thought I saw— was at first like a Surrealist painting. There was, at the center, a green cylinder, suggestive of rotting vegetation, a viscid, dark green body like an upright okra. It pulsed and oozed and seemed somehow to be connected to the stone wall with a million writhing tendrils, each as thin as a spider’s web. The top of it opened and closed, hissing and groaning, and tumbling out of it—or rather, into it, was a tangle of human arms and legs, some clothed, some with the garments and outer skin torn right off. They turned at impossible angles as though the bones had been sucked out from inside them, and they were now doll-arms and doll-legs, calves and thighs and elbows and shoulders, pulled and tugged by an inexorable grip.
I have watched animals feed, and even sat coolly once during a savage film depicting a man being eaten by a crocodile, and I could have watched this, too, with a cool biologist’s fascination, except that this creature, whatever it was, was not merely compacting its victims for slow, later digestion. The twisted limbs were churning and turning, and I could distinctly hear men’s and women’s voices screaming from within the vegetative body.
Then the limbs vanished, sucked in like so much spaghetti, and the entity’s mouth showed itself in its entirety. Bright orange, triangular teeth, a foot or more on a side, opened and closed so that, when the mouth was open, the circular orifice looked like a great sunflower, then like the maw of a moray eel. The creature was silent, and the screams subsided. With a slurrying, fumbling noise, those inside were being re-arranged.
Finally, the mouth opened to a seemingly impossible width, so that the creature now resembled an upright funnel. It tilted, and I could see the Believers’ heads now, still firmly connected to armless torsos — heads that turned to me and fixed their still-conscious eyes on my own. I made out the faces of Rodman and Fleming, of Mrs. Wilberson, of Estevez and the nameless sailor.
Gone – eaten. Eating, I could understand. Something had come through and it had to eat. Everything has to eat. I forgive the spider, the shark, the ravening panther. But this, this …this incorporation inside another being, whose purpose and intent was beyond knowing, to become part of even more unspeakable processes yet to come … this was unthinkable.
Then the heads began to speak, all at once, not to one another, and not to me, but to the thing that now possessed them. The phrases I heard were these:
And the wood devoured more people that day than the sword devoured … “
Is the young man Absalom safe?
And they took Absalom and cast him into a great pit in the wood, and laid a very great heap of stones upon him
And they transgressed against the God of their fathers …
… and went a-whoring after the gods of the people of the land …
Then Hezekiah commanded to prepare chambers in the house of the Lord, and they prepared them and brought in the offerings and the tithes, and the dedicated things faithfully…
Offered burnt offerings unto the God of Israel, twelve bullocks for all Israel, ninety and six rams, seventy and seven lambs, twelve he-goats for a sin offering …
And for the wood-offering, at times appointed, and for the first fruits, Remember me, O my God, for good.
At these last words — recitations all from the Scriptures these uncomprehendingBelievers had repeated endlessly until their brains were riddled with them—I reeled away. They were with their God now, amid the walls their ancestors had built with a mix of native rock along with ballast stones carried from the Old World on the unknowing Pilgrims’ ships—at one with the unevolving, vegetative god self-hypnotized with the Words they used to praise him.
The narcissism of the monster is to become a god and to be worshipped.
They Were Not Missed
As Dr. M. reminds us, Jeremy’s journal, and the unspeakable sketch book, were the ravings of a sensitive young art student and poet who underwent a complete mental collapse. But until now, the full context of the horror at 37 Arnold Street was unfathomable.
Jeremy was found raving in an alley off Wickenden Street, and it was assumed he had suffered his breakdown in some tavern whose perplexed owner had tossed him into the gutter. No one connected his admission with that of Mrs. Jefferson several days later.
How long the chanting and reciting went on in the basement— how long Mrs. Jefferson remained until she checked herself into Butler Hospital—and how long the basement remained unvisited—these things no one knows. In later years, the plastered-over cellar walls gave no hint of the stones behind.
I have tried to interview the old gentleman I assume to be “Jeremy.” The hermit artist dwells in Providence, living on a small inheritance. He does not receive visitors other than his social worker. He raises ferns, has a positive dread of all rocks, minerals and crystals, and scribbles day and night in large artist’s sketchbooks. No one has ever seen his work. My letters to him have gone unanswered.
The “New Jerusalem Believers” were not missed, except individually, more loose threads in a non-history because no one knew of their association. They left no church, no Scripture, no minister, no legacy, except the laboriously-fitted stones in half a hundred other cellars in Providence.
Lucky for us, stones do not talk. They merely listen.