As it happens, It was my intention to post the following story yesterday, November 1st aka Samhain. Unfortunately, all of my energies were sapped by having to go to the opera, a dreadful opera as it turns out without sets, costumes that must have come from the thrift store, abysmal acting, mediocre singing. In short: it was if I had paid Macy’s prices at Goodwill. The upshot is that now I’ll have to ask your indulgence as I fall back not just 1 hour but an entire day and pretend that this is indeed Samhain.
If you drive south from Eugene and then head southeast on the Cascades Causeway, the first town you will encounter is Corrie Hill. Since its establishment in 1846, not a year has passed even including war years that the residents have not celebrated Samhain. Before jumping to conclusions, let me explain that this is not the Samhain upon which Halloween was based, no indeed, for the founders of Corrie Hill were not the sort to be interested in perpetuating pagan practices; however, they felt a need to: “celebrate life against a backdrop of death, so every year on November 1st when winter comes a knocking, we try to hold it off for one more day,” as the sheriff is fond of describing it.
In the early days, the celebration took place under the spreading branches of an old oak, a gnarled oak of massive proportions, an anomaly surely in a land ruled by Douglas firs and cedars; what’s more, that ancient oak grew out of a depression in the side of a hill—a corrie. The residents built benches into the sides of the corrie and stayed up all night telling stories, playing music, and eating of course. In the modern era, the celebration takes place at the Stoneseriff Cafe. It will be the first thing you see as you enter Corrie Hill: looking like a fortress, it was built from the native basalt (volcanic rock) and with good reason as you will soon hear. Although Samhain officially begins at midnight on the first of November, residents begin arriving as soon as dark descends on the 31st, arriving with goodies, and very soon the horseshoe shaped bar—you’ll see it right away as you enter: it’s huge—is filled with every kind of marvelous delectable except for the sheriff’s chicken casserole which: Looks like a crime was committed in that dish. Also essential are the many personal versions of golden ginger cake, not gingerbread; gingerbread is dark with dark spices and dark sugar, golden ginger cake is supposed to be a gorgeous, golden yellow hue, and it’s supposed to be so hot on impact that it makes your eyes water. At the strike of midnight, Dave the postman enters after which the heavy oaken door of the Stoneseriff is bolted against whatever elements the three Eldritch sisters might choose to hurl down from atop the corrie hill on which their rambling edifice forms a sinister headpiece. The children take up positions on the floor around Storyteller Dave perched atop his Samhain stool, and the celebration begins invariably with the same tale:
“Does anyone know how it all began,” Dave asks, and right on cue several voices respond: ‘The Corrie Oak!’”
“Yes, it all began with the Corrie Oak, for under those protective branches; the town took root and was born. The first Samhain in the whole of Elayne County, nay in the whole of Oregon, was held under those ancient boughs. People were brought together and shared their stories, their ideas, and their lives. Today we continue this tradition in spite of the Weird Sisters and their attempts to bring an end to our congregation. It is said that the Oak was struck by lightning and burned all those years ago, but we who gather behind these stone walls cast aside this illegitimate history. As surely as I sit here, it was the Sisters behind that piece of wickedness, for you see they did not appreciate those gatherings; they did not appreciate the melodies that wafted over the hill into their home, for the Sisters came from the time before music; they came from the era before time.
“One morning in 1854 young Albert, the schoolmaster, came upon an old woman, craggy and croaking, a veritable heap of rags in the middle of his path.
“‘Young man, please help me. I am in great distress.’
“Her voice was deep and rough as though her vocal chords scraped against one another, and she looked at him through milky white irises. Oh, you can be sure, very sure indeed that Albert wanted to run away, but he was betrayed, not by his instincts, but by his conscience. Timorously he approached.
“‘What can I do for you,’ he asked in a tremulous voice.
“‘My legs, my legs have given out. Please help me back to my home.’
“As he drew near he began to notice the warts that had boiled up here and there on her face. She was monstrous! He was loathe even to touch her: ‘Where do you live,’ he inquired.
“‘On yonder hill.’
“‘You mean the Corrie Oak hill?’
“‘Yes, that’s the one, the very one. There is the path, the very path. Can you not see it?’
“Albert surveyed the hill. It was covered with fir trees and undergrowth. Many a day, he had passed the hill without noticing a path, but now, staring hard, it seemed as though a trail had suddenly formed. Young Albert helped the old woman to her feet. Her sulfurous breath scalded him with the odor of rotting eggs. Repeatedly he gulped down burning vomit as they made their way up the hill under a misty death shroud. It was a painstaking process over ground soft and shifting. There was an acute absence of sound. Birds neither sang nor took to the air. Squirrels, deer, mice did not play here; trees did not creak; leaves did not flutter. Even the shuffling of their feet was deadened.
At long last the house took shape before them. Sitting just below the summit, it was a massive stone and wood edifice covered in moss and psychotic vines of wisteria. Their wanton growth was such that Albert could not see where the front door might be. ‘Just nudge those vines out of the way, young man. They will not harm you.’
“As Albert grappled through the vines, they brushed across his face and caressed the back of his neck sending chills down his spine. Now he was presented with an ancient door, an iron knob. The old woman removed a large matching key from her belt and handed it to him: ‘This is the one, the very one.’
“Slowly, slowly he turned the key in the lock; slowly, slowly, slowly, he pressed down on the knob, but the door did not budge. It took all of his might and main to convince the complaining, arthritic joints to yield, and as if it had been holding its breath for centuries, the deed was no sooner accomplished, the door was no sooner open than the house exhaled a stale, frigid wind, sucking away his life’s energy. Stiff and decrepit were the legs that dragged him and his burden into the sparsely furnished room: three chairs only, set before a great hearth within which a cauldron hung over smoldering coals. ‘Let me just sit here in this chair, and you can serve me some of that nice warm mead. Be quick. I am sorely in need of refreshment.’
“As soon as she was seated, the hag was racked by a croaking spell. Her breast heaved hideously as she bent over unfastening her garment sufficient to expel a slimy, amorphous mass. Settling down catlike upon warm hearth stones, the thing suddenly turned its head—oh yes there was a head in the froggy mass—and captured the teacher with a single, staring, red eye. Horrified by the specter, Albert was paralyzed.
“‘Never mind Polyphemus,’ the woman commanded. ‘My pet will not harm you.’
“Albert, glad to have relieved himself of his burden, approached the bubbling cauldron and removed a ladleful of the noxious substance. As he looked on, the hag sipped noisily upon the ladle and smacking her lips with satisfaction, handed it back to him: ‘Have some yourself. Twill warm you up.’ She nodded her head as she spoke.
“‘No, I must be going now.’
“‘Oh, but I will reward you, such a good, kind, young man that you are. What would you wish of me?’
“‘Nothing, no nothing at all. It is not necessary,’ Albert replied backing away.
“‘No!’ she raised her voice peremptorily, ‘Tarry but a moment longer whilst I think on the gift I will give you. Most want riches, or love, or fame. What would be your desire?’
“‘Could you really grant such a wish?’ he queried in spite of an educated disbelief in magic.
“‘Take a chance, and you will see what I can do.’ The witch slowly closed one eye and then opened it again.
“‘Yes, yes! I do wish it! Please, let it be love, for I am ever so lonely.’ The words rushed from his mouth beyond control.
“Suddenly spry, the old woman hopped up performing an odd jig while the keys kept the arrhythmia: ‘With a rhyme I’ll stir the brine, a groom to conjure from the brume. And compass roses round your door, unlucky in love never more. Go now, you will know my sister by her beauty, and if she should ask a small task of you, do not deny her.’
“Albert departed in haste. Unable to locate the path, he scrambled through groping thorns; slipping and sliding as the ground gave way; tripping over rocks, over his own feet; ever faster in a state of panic until at last he emerged into the welcoming sun. Soon, the adventure but smoldered in the back room of his mind. Like a dream, it began to fade away.
“But! In the afternoon of the following day he saw her, smooth golden tresses glinting in the sunlight and at her side an Afghan hound in matching shades. Cautiously he approached.”
In keeping with tradition, his own tradition, this is about where Dave pauses to ask: “What should he do I ask all of you? What would you do?” And when there is no response, off the stool and through the crowd he goes, searching, searching for someone to torture: “Come, is not one amongst you in possession of an opinion on the subject? What say you, Jack?”
“To discover whether it’s possible for these women to grant a wish is far more interesting than the wish itself.”
“Indeed? You would choose to perform an experiment?”
“That is what I’m saying.”
“The wish will not be granted.”
“None. It all comes down to a yes or a no.”
“There’s no opportunity for a control.”
“How will you know when the wish is fulfilled?”
“As in all cases where love is the objective one must rely on oneself to decide that point.”
“Then in fact you experiment on yourself. Is this wise or even useful? If you end up in a box, what truth have you derived?”
“Each fork we encounter in life constitutes an experiment that may end in death.”
“What has happened to science instruction in this country! You invoke the scientific method only to abandon it with sloppy procedure: no isolation of variables, no control, no data. In choosing to allow the Sisters to determine your future, you have become the test subject. You have entered the box at the first moment of choice. Take it from an old magician, they hold all the cards.”
“I don’t see that at all.”
“The eye of creation, like the eye of a hurricane, is calm. Out here in the storm, the rules are otherwise. Danger lurks everywhere. By the time you do learn that, Jack Robustelli, it may be too late both for you and those you love.”
“‘Fear not young man. But for the completion of a minor exertion your dreams are fulfilled.’
“‘What is your will?’
“‘The treasure I seek lies within a cavern of this very hill.’
“‘I’ve never heard of a cave around here. How am I to find it?’
“‘Walk around to the north staying within the woods always keeping your eyes to the left. Soon you will come upon an outcrop. A careful examination will reveal the entrance. You will find a number of crude wooden boxes within the cave. Bring me one of these and do not endeavor to open it. Take my hound. Let her remain outside. When you are ready to leave, call out Gwendolyn; she will guide you with her voice.’
“Even as the golden sister had described, there was a cave housing numerous wooden boxes. Albert grabbed one of these, and was guided by Gwendolyn’s howling. Upon rejoining the woman, she ordered him to carry the box to the Corrie Oak and once there to remove the lid.”
“I ask you all now to hazard a guess as to the contents of the box.”
Several of the children speak up. “Oil paints!” “Salt water taffy!” “Games!”
“So strange was the treasure that even Albert, standing right there as he was, could not comprehend.
‘Candles?’ he queried.
“‘These are very special candles. To complete the task, you must hang them all over the Corrie Oak and light them with haste that the splendor of the Oak may be displayed for all to witness.’
“As Albert entered the corrie, he glanced over his shoulder. By now the sun had already set, the light was fading, and the woman seemed to shimmer into the distance. He decorated the oak as bidden. This consumed the remaining daylight leaving him in darkness when the first candle was lit. In succession he lit them, climbing out onto limbs to carry out his mission. The resulting explosion ignited an incredible inferno sending burning fragments and ash miles and miles away.”
At the conclusion of the story, Dave always pauses expectantly, and pretty soon, someone pipes up with: “Exploding candles? What’s that about?”
“Those weren’t candles,” another audience member replies; “Dynamite, that’s what they were alright.”
“But wait dynamite wasn’t invented until 1866; how did he get his hands on dynamite?”
“Must be time travel going on in that cave. Maybe we should check it out.” Laughter ensues spreading throughout the cafe, but Dave, remaining sober, says: “You may laugh, but there’s a lesson to be learned from this history: You must never, ever approach the Eldritch Sisters, for their objectives are their own objectives, not ours. Their truths are lies, and time means nothing to them.”
Many and varied are the tales with which years of storytelling have imbued the atmosphere of the Stoneseriff: strange, frightening tales detailing the exploits of the Eldritch sisters in their attempts to destroy humanity one man at a time. Is it any wonder that someone saw fit to bring an end to their reign of terror?