Part 3: Sassafras
Fritz spoke not. Conrad rushed to the front, much more hurriedly than I had previously seen him.
“Greetings officer,” Conrad said, tipping his hat. “The name’s James Connolly, Reverend James Connolly.”
“I see…What’s your business, here?”
“You see, officer, I’m but a humble traveling preacher-man, desperately trying to steer these wayward souls from their wicked ways, from all the drink and all the carousing.”
The officer looked as if his disgust had outweighed his suspicion. One more look at the giant and his bodily etchings and he was quite through.
“Alright, on with you. But don’t go parading these ragamuffins around town. Wouldn’t be prudent. Good day.”
Conrad smiled and bid the officer farewell. The lawman and his horse continued on and out of site.
Conrad addressed us.
“My apologies. But we cannot afford to have our quest squandered by the local badge-boys.” He looked down the plain and pointed to an old brown barn that stood connected to an empty dock at the bank of a vast lake. Conrad narrowed his eyes and pointed confidently. “There, my fellow Ahabs. There’s our castle.”
And so we continued on and eventually off the gravel road. We stepped through the slanted wheat towards the barn. The ground was oozing with more moisture at every step. We finally reached the old, lifeless shelter, waiting for Conrad or Fritz to open the door beneath the soft sloshes of the lake.
Oddly, the door did not bare a lock, only a triple-knotted strand of thick rope. Fritz took two red-handled daggers from his side and began to make his incisions, two-bladed, like a downtown butcher upon a fresh slab of pork.
“Rope? You kidding?” said Bill skeptically.
“Rope, yes, and kidding you, most certainly not,” said Conrad while Fritz flexed inked arms and tore thickets of threads. “But, what you fail to see is that this here is not your poor man’s noose, oh no. Tis a special strand, of the Rhodesian sort. Only able to be cut by particular metal alloys, and even then…” He widened his eyes towards the sawing Fritz, but quickly smiled.
The giant severed the loop of rope with a final tug of sheer ferocity. Conrad gripped the wooden handle while the rope still swayed and said, “Please, do come in.”
The room was vast and dark, exuding several odors, some expected, such as tobacco, rotten wood, hay and must, and others a bit more peculiar, such as gunpowder, maybe curry, cinnamon, sweet candies, and a whole slew of others to which I could not fathom. Rows of trinkets and apparatuses were veiled in darkness.
“Welcome,” said Conrad. His face was more shadow than skin in that dim chamber. “Do watch your step. Looks like a storm’s brewing and these torches most certainly have their limits.”
While the others slowly stepped around the room, I looked up at the dark support beams that hung several feet above. And I saw them shake when thunder thudded against their unseen counterparts outside.
“A drink!” said Conrad when he led as across the room to a long, wide table. We stepped through straw that could not be seen, but only felt. As we walked, I glanced at the countless posters that hung from the cracked walls we passed. The colors were vivid, though vintage, and because of the dimness, I could only make out certain portions of them. They were shaded with yellows and reds and autumn leaf browns and boysenberry blues. There was a skeleton-man here, a one-legged tightrope walker there…I even saw one unrolled bill of the very man before us, his illustrated whip keeping a lion, tiger, and bear at bay all at once.
I reached the corner of the room and rounded it to approach the table, and as I did so, I felt some sort of fabric graze my hand. I looked down at what appeared to be some strange old doll sitting in a beat-up rocking chair. But the shadows and Conrad’s call both prevented me from further glares.
“Sonny, this one’s for you,” said Conrad, standing by the table with the others.
I obliged and grabbed the glass, which was three-fingers full, and tipped it to him in gratitude. The others raised theirs and Conrad toasted.
“To old legends and new fellowships.”
“Here, here,” we said.
We all drank, though I caught the silhouette of Fritz in the background. He was as stiff as the doll behind me.
“Let’s get right on to it, shall we?” said Conrad. “This creature…this demon, as some have called it, is expected to make its appearance at some time on this very eve.”
“How do you know it’ll be tonight?” said Bill Prescott.
“Because, my sharp-tongued friend, a wise old sage me so.”
“Which one?” asked John Gray as he kept fidgeting in the uncomfortable duskiness of the room.
“Familiar with many wise old sages?” asked Conrad mockingly. “Well, I’ll have you know it was a spry, little old thing called Lady Evangeline.”
Conrad looked around, almost annoyed, waiting for any more objections to deflect.
“What’s our course?” I said, trying to spend as little time in that ancient smelling chamber as we must. “What do you expect from us?”
“Ah…yes, the course of action, hmm, Sonny? Well, you see, the plan is a simple one. Soon, a man called Finnegan will knock on that door. And when he does, we shall all go out and follow him to his boat and board it. From there, we’ll cast our nets and ropes and apparatuses into that lake, and, when the time comes, that serpent will rear its ugly head and we’ll strike.”
“Don’t sound so easy,” said Richard Bledsoe, “er…sir.”
“But, you see, simple and easy are often worlds apart, no?” said Conrad.
“Got any bait?” said Bill.
“Bait. Any bait…something to draw it to the surface.”
“The chap speaks the truth, eh my fair Fritz?” said Conrad, resting his white hands on the dusty table. The stiff, towering silhouette only exhaled, unimpressed. “And the answer is yes.” A closer gathering of thunderclaps thudded against the barn. “And so, we’ll coerce the demon, the Monster of Lake Van Buren with…” He sucked in air. “Sassafras.”
“Huh?” said we.
“Tis true,” said a low, gritty voice behind me. I jolted away when the doll stood from the rocking chair and walked past me.
“Gentlemen, meet Lady Evangeline, the Matron of the Marshlands.”
Conrad helped the tiny woman to the table. She appeared virtually indistinguishable from an old colonial doll, both in size and fashion. She riffled through some sort of satchel slung over her tiny shoulder.
I nearly pinched myself when I glanced around the room and thought about how damn strange the whole thing felt. The posters, the smells, the hanging torches that flickered from the thunder…it all seemed rather off, like an old grandfather clock that was more than a couple of minutes behind. But when I nervously stuck my hand in my pocket and felt those crisp bills, I sighed. I could endure most anything for a night for that sort of cash, not to mention the other twenty-nine-hundred-and-ninety-seven waiting for us on the other side of this excursion.
“Come to me,” the Matron said mistily. “Come all who dare to dance with the demon tonight.”
Conrad motioned for us all to line up and face her. Fritz stood with Conrad at the end.
I could see Bill Prescott’s puzzled shadow.
“What in the…”
“Silence!” she screamed, a wiry arm outstretched. “Silence. On this, the night foretold that the devil of the deep emerges…once but every decade…you all must be properly equipped.” She held some bits of leaves and dark, chunky sand. The shadows made it difficult to see anything else. “May your efforts prove victorious upon the rowdy gales. Now close your eyes…now. All of you!” Thunder clapped and lightning flashed through the cracks in the wood just before I shut my eyes, or, eye, I should say. I simply had to see how it would unfold. The Lady stepped to the edge of the table, starting at the end where Richard stood. “By the sweet seductions of the sassafras’ ancient scent, and the potent power of the pursuer’s powder…” She reared back. “Be covered!!!”
She slung the leafy powder straight into the face of Richard Bledsoe. I peeped over and saw him stagger and start to protest when she yelled even louder.
“Silence! Not a muscle! All of you!!!”
And we obeyed, spine-chilled. She grabbed another handful from the satchel, and, one by one, hurled the clumps at each of man. Then her sights fell upon me, and my baptism smacked me square in the nose. My nostrils bled a bit and my eyes watered, but I took in the stinging sweetness mixed with foreign flavor. I stood firm.
When she reached Fritz, her demeanor shifted to that of an awe-stricken zookeeper. She held out the powder and snapped the boney fingers of her free hand above it. A spark fluttered from the friction and ignited the pile into a soft, green flame.
“Inhale the kindle of ancient powers, oh fire-breather,” she said softly.
Fritz nodded and breathed in the flame. When I saw this, my forehead began to perspire. I gripped my pockets rather tight. The pitter-patter of the ladies tiny boots reached Conrad, who was at attention with his hands behind his coat tails.
“And you,” she said in a special inflection. “The master of these wranglers, the guider of these huntsmen…you…oh yes, it is you who shall surely illuminate those dark waters.” I could see Conrad’s pearly whites peaking through his grin as she ranted on. “Yes, by the power of the swamp, both here and abroad, I enchant thee with a potent handful of immortality.” We of the common men bit our lips to keep from scoffing at such speech. “It is you, oh confounder of conundrums, that shall finally tame the wretched serpent and display it to the masses. For hope…for amusement…for…intrigue…for survival.”
The lady did not throw her handful at Conrad, who stood shut-eyed and smiling. But instead, she leaned in atop the table, mere inches from his face. She held her handful to her mouth and blew, hypnotically. She swayed her head and kept breathing the powder over Conrad, who coughed and winced but remained upright, as if he were being electrocuted. I rolled my eyes behind an open lid and a closed one.
“Now,” she said, her tiny hands lifted. “Go, and tame the monster.”
“There you have it,” said Conrad, panting. “The time has come, comrades. The knock approaches.” Less than five minutes and a knock came from the door. “Come all! Fritz, our exit music, pronto!”
I waited behind the rest of the men who followed Conrad’s lead out the door. As we made our exit, I heard the sound of what was most certainly the eerie, playful chiming of a calliope in far corner of the room. I clenched my pockets when I made my way to the door. It felt like I couldn’t get there fast enough. How incredibly strange, I thought when I stepped over the threshold. How strange, indeed.
***To be continued…***